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UK Home Office accused of dodging accountability over Prevent complaints

A new body investigating complaints about the Prevent programme is housed within the Home Office itself
Robin Simcox, Britain's commissioner for countering extremism (Commission for Countering Extremism on X)
Robin Simcox, Britain's commissioner for countering extremism (Commission for Countering Extremism on X)

Critics are accusing the British government of attempting to shield its controversial Prevent strategy from accountability following the launch on Wednesday of a new Standards and Compliance Unit to handle complaints about the counter-terrorism programme.

The new unit, known as StaCU, has been created within the Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE), a body set up by the Home Office in 2018 to advise government on tackling extremism.

According to Robin Simcox, the CCE's lead commissioner, the role of the new unit is to "fulfil a crucial oversight function of Prevent, analysing complaints data and informing ministers", as well as to work "closely with statutory bodies" when complaints require investigation.

But rights groups critical of Prevent say the creation the new unit within the CCE raises further questions about the commission's role in relation to the programme, and its own independence from the Home Office.

The CCE says it both "works with the Home Office" and "operates independently and at arm's length from government".

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Its growing involvement in Prevent follows last year's contentious review of the programme by William Shawcross, following which the Home Office said it would look to the commission for "independent scrutiny and expertise" in delivering Shawcross’s recommendations.

Layla Aitlhadj, director of Prevent Watch, which advocates for people affected by the programme, told Middle East Eye that there had been "long-standing opacity around Prevent across all levels, in terms of referrals, data retention and sharing".

She said the launch of StaCU would only heighten concerns that the programme remained "fundamentally unaccountable".

Charter withdrawn

The CCE was originally launched as an advisory body to the government providing "impartial, expert advice and scrutiny on the tools, policies and approaches needed to tackle extremism".

According to its own founding charter, the commission did not have any remit on counter-terrorism policies, including Prevent. However, this charter was quietly withdrawn in July 2023. Since then, the CCE appears to have been operating without one.

In October 2023, Simcox, who was appointed by Suella Braverman in July 2022 when she was home secretary, said that the CCE was "working tirelessly with government to ensure the Independent Review of Prevent is implemented both in letter and in spirit", and to "determine if Prevent is being delivered properly within a direction already set by ministers".

MEE asked the CCE whether Simcox had been acting beyond the charter's remit before it was withdrawn but received no response. MEE also asked why the charter was withdrawn and when the CCE would publish a new one - but did not get a response.

John Holmwood, an emeritus professor of sociology and co-author along with Aitlhadj of The People’s Review of Prevent, said Simcox "clearly has the role of overseeing Prevent policy implementation across government departments and administrative levels".

The appointment of Simcox as commissioner has drawn significant criticism because of his links to organisations that have been accused of promoting Islamophobia.

From 2008 to 2011, Simcox worked at the Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC), which was described by one of its founders, Matthew Jamison, as a "monstrous animal" and a "deeply anti-Muslim racist organisation".

In 2016, Simcox took up a new role as Margaret Thatcher Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, considered so important to the Trump administration that the New York Times described it in 2018 as "stocking Trump’s government" with its staff.

In a 2019 article for the Heritage Foundation, Simcox described Islamophobia as a "slippery concept".

In October 2023, Simcox wrote in The Times that Britain is paying the price for a "three-decade-long failed policy mix of mass migration and multiculturalism".

He also urged the government to challenge non-violent Islamism, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, who, he said, "use democratic means to subvert democratic concepts. They embed themselves on local councils, in charities, in schools and elsewhere".

The creation of the new Prevent unit within Simcox’s CCE means that complaints about the programme will now be handled by the same body that is overseeing its delivery.

Amnesty International’s racial justice director, Ilyas Nagdee, told MEE that StaCU "should not sit behind closed doors at the Commission of Countering Extremism. It’s imperative that any compliance unit deals with complaints rigorously and impartially and contend with the real harms caused by Prevent.

"The current parameters described by the Standards and Compliance Unit do not appear to meet these important criteria."

Amnesty called for a "truly independent unit for complaints, which includes as a possible outcome, removal of [Prevent] referrals from any and all databases".

Police officers at a protest in London. (AFP)
Police officers at a protest in London. (AFP)

That sentiment was echoed by Rights and Security International, which said the perception that the Home Office "is handling complaints against its own processes raises serious doubts about the impartiality and independence of the oversight mechanisms put in place".

The rights group warned that the "absence of public disclosure regarding the composition and workings of the CCE undermines its accountability to the communities it serves and fosters suspicion regarding its decision-making processes".

Aside from not having a charter, the CCE does not publish details of its membership or the minutes of its meetings. MEE asked the CCE why but has not received a response.

Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group, called for "a clear appeal mechanism and notification of people whose data has been held and is due to be deleted because it is no longer believed to be relevant".

'Crossing the lines'

Open Rights Group warned in a report last week that thousands of children referred to Prevent are at risk of being "marked for life" with their information held on databases for decades - even in the vast majority of cases in which no action or intervention is deemed necessary.

"Internal decision-making and supposed oversight are just managerial processes," Killock said, referring to the StaCU, adding that they "cannot be expected to provide public confidence in a programme which is crossing the lines between safeguarding and security surveillance with little ability to rectify the consequences for individuals wrongly caught up in the net."

In November 2023, Dominic Murphy, the commander of the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command, said there had been a "substantial jump" in Prevent referrals since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas in October.

In December, Amnesty International said it had "serious concerns" that a government crackdown on freedom of expression "including encouraging schools to make Prevent referrals in reference to the current crisis, will contribute to more and more innocent people being dragged into the Prevent system".

Aitlhadj told MEE last week: "We have seen evidence of this in the casework and as Prevent Watch we only see the tip of the iceberg."

At least 13,845 children aged under 14 have been referred to Prevent since 2015, according to statistics published by the Home Office.

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