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UK government under legal pressure over delays to Prevent review

Campaign group expresses frustration over time taken to hire an independent reviewer, following Lord Carlile's stepdown
Police stand guard outside the Home Office in London following an incident in August 2019 (AFP)

The British government has launched a new search for a reviewer of its Prevent counter-terrorism strategy after coming under renewed legal pressure over the long-delayed appointment.

The government last year committed to an independent review of Prevent amid widespread criticism of the controversial Home Office-run strategy among rights groups and Muslim advocacy organisations.

UK government drops Lord Carlile as Prevent reviewer after legal challenge
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But it has now conceded that it will fail to meet a statutory deadline of August this year for the completion of the review, with a reviewer not due now to be appointed until July.

The search for a new reviewer comes after the government was forced in December to drop its initial appointee to the role, Lord Carlile, following a court challenge over his past advocacy for Prevent.

Rights Watch (UK), the campaign group which successfully challenged the Home Office over Lord Carlile's appointment, last week wrote again to government lawyers to express concerns about further delays to the review.

"The significant delay in the appointment of the Independent Reviewer risks making it impossible for any kind of effective review to be concluded," the letter warned, acknowledging that government activities had also been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Yasmine Ahmed, executive director of Rights Watch (UK), told Middle East Eye that the government needed to act in order to “salvage any remnants of trust” in the review by ensuring sufficient time for those affected by Prevent to be consulted.

“Firstly, it must table an amendment to the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 to amend the statutory timeframe, crystallising its obligations in law and allowing civil society to hold it to account,” said Ahmed.

“Secondly, it must publish a timetable for the conduct of the new Independent Review by a newly appointed Independent Reviewer, providing sufficient time for consultation of affected individuals and communities, and civil society groups.”

Home Office 'taking steps'

A Home Office spokesperson told Middle East Eye that the government was taking steps to extend the timeframe for the review, and emphasised that the new appointment would be made through a full and open competition.

The spokesperson said: “This review presents a valuable opportunity and it is important that the new reviewer has sufficient time to complete it. We are aware that this is likely to have implications for the existing timescale and are taking steps to address this. More details will be provided to Parliament at the earliest opportunity.”

What is the Prevent Strategy?

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Prevent is a strand of the British government's counter-terrorism strategy that aims to “safeguard and support those vulnerable to radicalisation, to stop them from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism”.

It was publicly launched in the aftermath of the 2005 London bombings and was initially targeted squarely at Muslim communities, prompting continuing complaints of discrimination and concerns that the programme was being used to collect intelligence.

In 2011, Prevent's remit was expanded to cover all forms of extremism, defined by the government as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”

In 2015, the government introduced the Prevent Duty which requires public sector workers including doctors, teachers and even nursery staff to have “due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism”.

A key element of Prevent is Channel, a programme that offers mentoring and support to people assessed to be at risk of becoming terrorists. Prevent referrals of some young children have proved contentious. 114 children under the age of 15 received Channel support in 2017/18.

Criticism of the Prevent Duty includes that it has had a “chilling effect” on free speech in classrooms and universities, and that it has turned public sector workers into informers who are expected to monitor pupils and patients for “signs of radicalisation”. Some critics have said that it may even be counter-productive.

Advocates argue that it is a form of safeguarding that has been effective in identifying and helping troubled individuals. They point to a growing number of far-right referrals as evidence that it is not discriminatory against Muslims.

In January 2018 the government bowed to pressure and announced that it would commission an independent review of Prevent. In the 2019 Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act it committed to completing the review by August 2020. After being forced to drop its first appointed reviewer over his past advocacy for Prevent, it conceded that the review would be delayed. 

The job advertisement posted by the government for the role on Monday describes the post as a six- to 12-month position, with final interviews set to take place in July, potentially extending the review process until the middle of 2021.

Guidance for applicants suggests that they should have “senior experience... either in the field of counter-terrorism, or related policy areas” and be someone “independent of Government” who can “operate fairly and impartially in a political environment”.

In a foreword for applicants, Security Minister James Brokenshire wrote: “This role will demand a highly talented individual of unquestionable independence, integrity and credibility, who can demonstrate his or her ability to exercise sound judgment and analysis at pace and under pressure, with close public and ministerial scrutiny.”

In an accompanying statement announcing the recruitment search, Brokenshire also defended the work of Prevent as giving “vulnerable people the support they need to protect them from terrorist recruiters”.

“We are always looking at how we can make the programme more effective, which is why we are committed to this Independent Review,” he said.

Human rights impact

But Ahmed, of Rights Watch (UK), said that the review needed to consider the human rights impact of Prevent as well as its effectiveness.

“Having a goal of increased efficacy reflects a failure to recognise that it is not only a question of whether the strategy is effective but also the impact of the strategy on communities and individuals that must be front and centre of any Review.

“The government must urgently publish a fresh Terms of Reference which explicitly mandate assessment of the human rights impact of Prevent, and do not take continuation of Prevent as a foregone conclusion.”

MEE understands that the appointed reviewer will determine the scope and terms of reference themselves.

The Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella group representing hundreds of Muslim organisations, also criticised delays in delivering the review, and said that Prevent had caused “untold damage, not least to Muslim communities”.

“The UK government must learn from its past mistakes and ensure that the upcoming review is effective, wide-ranging and transparent, and that the reviewer is an individual who is truly independent,” said Harun Khan, secretary general of the MCB.

“This extension request must not be a case of the review being kicked into the long grass to avoid scrutiny.”

Rosalind Comyn, a policy and campaigns officer at civil liberties campaign group Liberty, said: “The delay and failings surrounding the review have shattered any trust communities had in this process and the government’s commitment to listening to their concerns.

"It’s time for ministers to stop dragging their heels and give the Prevent strategy the robust, independent scrutiny it so desperately needs.”