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Prevent review: Shawcross reforms risk 'slide into authoritarianism', critics warn

Coalition of civil society organisations, community leaders and rights groups urge the British government to withdraw Shawcross report
Home Secretary Suella Braverman has vowed to implement the Prevent review’s recommendations in full (AFP)
Britain's Home Secretary Suella Braverman waits for the arrival of South Africa's president to the Houses of Parliament in London, 22 November 2022 (AFP)

The UK is facing a "slide into dangerous authoritarianism" if the government proceeds with the recommendations of a contentious review of Prevent, critics of the counter-terrorism strategy have warned.

In a joint letter issued on Tuesday, a coalition of civil society organisations including Amnesty International, Liberty, and a wide range of Muslim community groups called for the withdrawal of the review, which Suella Braverman, the home secretary, has already pledged to implement in full.

William Shawcross’s review, published last month after years of delays, called for Prevent to prioritise the threat from Islamist extremism over far-right extremism, and said that confronting Islamist narratives should be a “principal component of Prevent activity”.

'Despite raising legitimate evidence-based concerns, critics of Prevent have been ignored and smeared'

- joint letter

Shawcross accused some critics of Prevent of themselves being “radicalising influences”, and suggested there was a “concerted campaign... to undermine and delegitimise" the programme.

Shawcross’s appointment as reviewer was controversial because of past comments he had made that were widely criticised as Islamophobic, prompting many civil society and Muslim community advocacy organisations to boycott the review and question its independence from government.

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In the letter, the coalition said their concerns had been justified, and warned that implementing Shawcross’s recommendations would “enable further discrimination towards Muslims and seek to silence legitimate criticism about Prevent”.

They said: “Despite raising legitimate evidence-based concerns, critics of Prevent have been ignored and smeared. One of the recommendations from the Shawcross review, which the Home Office has said it would endorse, is the creation of a designated group to further silence critical views. This is an affront to civil society and free speech."

The Home Office did not respond to Middle East Eye's request for comment.

'Dangerous political project'

The letter was issued alongside the publication of a response on Tuesday by the People's Review of Prevent which questioned the evidence base for Shawcross's review, accused it of being ideologically driven, and called on parliament to reject its conclusions and call for a moratorium on the implementation of its recommendations.

The People's Review of Prevent, published last year, was an alternative to the Shawcross review launched as a consequence of the boycott of that process by civil society groups which described itself as giving a voice to people impacted by the programme.

Its response said the review was "explicitly discriminatory" in its focus on Islamist extremism, and, if implemented, would make British Muslims "second-class citizens".

It said Shawcross had presented no evidence to suggest that the Prevent Duty, which requires public sector workers, including teachers and doctors, to "have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism", was effective, and described Prevent as “a placebo for a wider public anxiety about security”.

'Prevent is inherently Islamophobic. We are not looking at bad apples. We are looking at a very diseased tree'

- Layla Aitlhadj, Prevent Watch

It described the reforms to the programme recommended by Shawcross as having "the hallmarks of a dangerous political project".

"Mr Shawcross does not present any evidence of a Prevent duty that is effective in its intended aim to stop terrorism. Notwithstanding, he makes recommendations that would further curtail civil liberties and human rights and exacerbate the documented harms of Prevent," the report said.

Speaking at an event to launch the People’s Review response on Tuesday, John Holmwood, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham and a co-author of the report, said parliament should ask for the withdrawal of the Shawcross review on the grounds of its “methodological and intellectual poverty”.

"This is a subversion of democratic processes and a slide into authoritarianism; as such, we call for the Shawcross Report to be withdrawn," he said.

Layla Aitlhadj, co-author of the report and the director of Prevent Watch, an advocacy organisation supporting people affected by the programme, said Shawcross’s criticism of the framing of the Prevent Duty as safeguarding, which he said had led many who did not pose any security threat to be referred to the programme, should have led him to conclude that the duty should be withdrawn from schools.

She said his failure to do so would mean that children would continue to be disproportionately affected by the programme, citing Home Office statistics indicating that at least six children are referred to Prevent each school day.

“It leads us to the conclusion that this was an ideologically driven rather than [an] evidence driven report,” she said.

The report also questioned Shawcross’s call for an enhanced role for counter-terrorism policing and the security services in Prevent, given failings of both highlighted this month by the public inquiry into the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing.

Aitlhadj told Middle East Eye that the release, also on Tuesday, of a review which found “widespread bullying, discrimination, institutional homophobia, misogyny and racism” in the Metropolitan Police - and cited an example of a Muslim police officer who reported having bacon put in his boots - was further cause for concern about the police force’s involvement in implementing Prevent.

“Prevent is inherently Islamophobic,” she said. “We are not looking at bad apples. We are looking at a very diseased tree, the roots of which are infected.”

'Commissar' for Prevent

The report said that Shawcross’s recommendation that Prevent should be overseen by the Commissioner for Countering Extremism, a non-statutory post created and appointed by the Home Office, would amount to the creation of a “political commissar” for Prevent who would be “directly answerable to the Home Secretary”.

“This is a dangerous and authoritarian development,” it said.

It described the role of the commissioner, as set out by Shawcross, as including monitoring and certifying civil society groups with which public bodies could engage, or which could seek public funding.

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 It said this meant Muslim organisations would be "subject to state scrutiny and their political activities and forms of self-organisation...  subject to certification and validation by a state body."

Tuesday’s report was endorsed in the open letter signed by representatives of more than 200 civil society organisations, also including Rights and Security International, the Open Rights Group, the Runnymede Trust, and Muslim advocacy organisations including the Muslim Association of Britain, Mend and Cage.

The report is the latest to warn about an erosion of civil liberties and human rights in the UK.

Last week, a global monitor described the UK as a “country of concern” and warned of a “rapid decline in civic freedoms” in an assessment of the state of civil liberties around the world.

In its annual report, Civicus Monitor downgraded the UK from being a country in which civil liberties had narrowed - a status already lower than countries deemed to be “open” - to one in which they are being obstructed.

Earlier this month, a number of prominent charities, unions and campaign groups warned of an “assault on rights standards” in the UK in a letter to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The government has also been criticised by the UN refugee agency over policies criminalising migrants and asylum seekers arriving in the UK by irregular routes, as well as its plan to deport people seeking asylum to Rwanda.

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