Written by: Steven Greer, Professor of Human Rights, University of Bristol
Of the four “Ps” which frame the UK’s counter terrorism strategy – Pursue, Prepare, Protect and Prevent – the latter is by far the most controversial. It is the Prevent scheme which aims to stop people from becoming terrorists, or from supporting those who already are.
It is also linked to the counter-extremism strategy which seeks to contest, though not necessarily ban or restrict, “extreme” views similar to those held by terrorists. Over 2,500 British institutions – including schools, universities, mosques and other faith groups – currently engage with Prevent, and over 1m people have received relevant training.
Prevent’s de-radicalisation aspect, steering vulnerable individuals away from terrorism, is coordinated by Channel, a multi-agency initiative which offers tailor-made support plans. These are based on counselling and encouragement of approved activities, which include, in the case of potential jihadis, a deeper understanding of Islam.
But a highly vocal anti-Prevent movement would like to see the scheme scrapped. They claim it is just a thinly disguised exercise in spying and intelligence gathering, driven by official Islamophobia and racism. They say Prevent systematically criminalises, victimises and stigmatises harmless, law-abiding Muslims, turning them into a “securitised community” which is blamed for jihadi terrorism.
Prevent has also been attacked for allegedly legitimising Islamophobia in society and for violating rights to privacy, freedom of expression and non-discrimination. Critics say both Prevent and the counter-extremism strategy are having a chilling effect on public debate, that they threaten community cohesion, and are likely to be counterproductive in preventing terrorism.
In universities, it is often said that academic freedom is threatened, campus activism stifled and that staff are required to engage in racial profiling. The University and College Union (the academics’ trade union) and the National Union of Students advocate a boycott of Prevent until it is abolished.
However, on March 8 2019, the Court of Appeal upheld a decision of the High Court, which rejected a complaint against Prevent and the counter-extremism strategy by Dr Salman Butt, a Muslim activist and occasional speaker at university student society events. Butt claimed that being named by the government as an “extremist” and aspects of the Prevent programme violated his human rights.
The court held that the official collection of information which led to Butt being designated an extremist did not breach his right to respect for his private life. Nor was there any surveillance. And, even if there had been, it could have been justified.
The court also affirmed that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to statements made in public in any case. A single paragraph in the relevant Prevent duty guidance was, however, ruled unlawful because it failed to express a well-established legal requirement with sufficient clarity.
This is that the statutory obligation upon universities to consider denying particular “extremist” speakers a platform because of the risk that others might be drawn into terrorism, has to be balanced against other statutory duties including having “particular regard” for the importance of freedom of expression and academic freedom. Minor redrafting is all that is required to rectify the anomaly.
Figures published by the Home Office for 2015/16 and 2017/18 also cast considerable doubt on the campaign against Prevent. For instance, the claim that it is Islamophobic and racist does not square with the fact that over a third of cases discussed at Channel panels do not concern jihadi terrorism (unlikely to involve any non-Muslim) at all – a fact also true of just under 44% of those receiving Channel support.
And since only 8% of Muslims in Britain are white, it is simply a matter of statistics, not racism, that the majority of those referred for concerns about jihadi terrorism will also be from non-white backgrounds.
As the European Court of Human Rights has held, if a terrorist threat emanates from a particular minority, the fact that counter-terrorist initiatives impact disproportionately upon it does not, for this reason alone, mean that its members have suffered discrimination.
In fact, age and gender are much more potent factors in the Prevent process than race or religion. In cases discussed at Channel panels, those aged 30 and under are over-represented (79%) as are males (83%). These figures are mirrored for those actually receiving Channel support. Yet no one accuses Prevent of ageism and anti-male sexism, because this simply does not fit anyone’s political agenda.
The figures also demonstrate that the purpose of Prevent is to safeguard those referred to it. For example, while 38% of the 7,000 or so cases every year required no further action, the remaining 62% did. While 17% were considered suitable for discussion at a Channel panel, 45% were signposted to other services, and only 5% of those originally referred underwent de-radicalisation.
A tarnished reputation
As many as 74% of those receiving Channel support left the process presenting no further terrorism related concerns or with their vulnerability to terrorism deemed successfully reduced. 16% withdrew, but in some of these, support from other services continued and any enduring risk was monitored by the police. The remainder continue to cooperate with the assistance offered.
In January 2019, the security minister Ben Wallace, announced that Prevent would be independently reviewed. This is unlikely to recommend the abolition of the programme not least because it would be inconsistent with the judgement in the Butt case and because there are no other credible grounds for doing so.
The review is more likely to propose much needed reforms such as greater transparency about operating criteria, performance indicators and outcomes. There will also probably be recommendations regarding enhanced legal clarity and accountability, more information about how Prevent operates in practice, more effective communication with minority communities, and regular independent reviews.
These are not only desirable in themselves. If implemented, they would strengthen delivery and help repair the damage to the tarnished reputation Prevent has undeservedly acquired. Things are less clear with respect to the subtle, though slippery, distinction between non-violent extremism which risks drawing people into terrorism, and that which doesn’t. The courts may yet be required to shed further light upon it as time goes on.
Steven Greer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.