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UK: Data on children referred to Prevent could be held for their entire lives

Digital rights group warns of 'disproportionate targeting of Muslims' since start of Gaza war and says children could be 'marked for life'
Officers on duty at a pro-Palestine march in London in November 2023. Police chiefs say Prevent referrals have jumped since the start of the war in Gaza (Henry Nicholls/AFP)
Officers on duty at a pro-Palestine march in London in November 2023. Police chiefs say Prevent referrals have jumped since the start of the war in Gaza (Henry Nicholls/AFP)

Information about children referred to the UK’s Prevent counter-terrorism programme could be held on databases for decades and potentially for the rest of their lives, digital rights campaigners have warned.

In a report published on Thursday, Open Rights Group warned that thousands of children referred to Prevent over the past decade are at risk of being “marked for life” even in the vast majority of cases in which no action or intervention is deemed necessary.

Sophia Akram, programme manager at ORG, told Middle East Eye: “The prospect that people’s data could be held from when they were a child for the duration of their lifetime is disproportionate considering no offence would have been committed and the behaviour in question is often so negligible that it might not even warrant an intervention.

“The implication is that we could hold a generation of children in permanent suspicion with no means of redress. Worse than criminalisation, all of these children could be impacted through potentially various facets of their lives because of one ill-thought through Prevent referral."

The report highlighted concerns about opaque data management processes in which details about Prevent referrals were being recorded not only in a national Prevent database but also in other police databases and others managed by local authorities and public bodies.

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ORG called for an immediate moratorium on Prevent referrals and for the Prevent Duty, which since 2015 has required public sector institutions including schools to report people considered at risk of becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism, to be abolished.

It said Prevent was causing particular harm to children, citing cases in which young people had been denied education opportunities as a consequence of referrals.

It warned that a reported rise in referrals since the Hamas attacks on Israel and Israel’s attack on Gaza and William Shawcross’s contentious review of Prevent, which last year called for an increased focus on Islamist extremism, “could lead to the disproportionate targeting of Muslims and further surveillance of this already marginalised community”.

What is the Prevent Strategy?

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Prevent is a programme within 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 2019 the government bowed to pressure and announced that it would commission an independent review of Prevent. This was supposed to be completed by August 2020. After being forced to drop its first appointed reviewer, Lord Carlile, over his past advocacy for Prevent, it conceded that the review would be delayed.

In January 2021 it named William Shawcross as reviewer. Shawcross's appointment was also contentious and prompted many organisations to boycott the review. Further delays followed. Shawcross's review, calling for a renewed focus within Prevent on "the Islamist threat", was finally published in February 2023 - and immediately denounced by critics. 

Government ministers this week said the Prevent programme had been "strengthened" in the past year in response to the Shawcross review. Home Secretary James Cleverly said the conflict between Israel and Hamas had "brought the imp0rtance of Prevent into sharp focus".

But in an interview with the BBC on Wednesday, Shawcross said the government's implementation of many of his recommendations was "not enough" and called for Prevent to pay more attention to what he described as the "Hamas support network" in the UK. 

Akram told MEE: “The government has accepted Shawcross’s recommendations, indicating that Prevent training could over-emphasise vigilance around Muslim communities due to a perception that this group is mostly responsible for terrorism - a dangerous and racist assumption.

“Prevent is one policy that mandates systems of surveillance on marginalised communities and we are seeing an increase in pre-crime policies that seek to monitor thought and expression online and offline through social media and through public participation in protest among other non-criminal actions. This has been brought into sharp focus by the reported increase in Prevent referrals since 7 October.”

National Prevent database

Details about the retention of Prevent data, most of it relating to children who make up the majority of referrals, were exposed following freedom of information requests by the civil liberties campaign group Liberty in 2019 which revealed the existence of a national Prevent database managed by Counter Terrorism Policing.

In cases in which no further action is taken, this data is supposed to be deleted after six years. But ORG said guidance used by police allowing them to retain data about “potentially dangerous people” could be used to justify keeping data about Prevent cases for up to 100 years.

ORG said these cases amounted to an unlawful infringement of information rights because many people whose data is being retained are often not even aware they have been referred to Prevent.

In a progress report on its implementation of the Shawcross review published this week, the Home Office said Counter Terrorism Policing had conducted a full review of Prevent data retention policy and had rejected reducing the time such data is held in the national database in cases requiring no further action from six years to three years.

"We jointly concluded that the risks associated with reducing data retention periods outweighed the benefts," the Home Office said.

"Counter Terrorism Policing continues to work with internal experts to ensure that the retention and management of Prevent referral data remains in line with legislation."

But ORG said the involvement in Prevent referrals of local authorities, social services, schools and health institutions meant that information about referrals would likely remain on other databases, including others managed by police, even after data had been removed from the national database.

It said that records of Prevent referrals involving local authorities’ children’s services would usually be held for 25 years after the 18th birthday of the person referred.

This raised the prospect, the report said, that the information could still be on the system when that person had children of their own - and potentially impact any future assessment or intervention concerning their own children.

The report also highlighted the obstacles faced by families trying to have data relating to Prevent referrals removed from databases.

It said that a lack of transparency about data sharing made it difficult to find out all the places where data was being held and criticised "a lack of oversight and parliamentary scrutiny" over data sharing, processing and storage of Prevent referrals.

“Prevent processes are opaque and organisations are liberally invoking national security and law enforcement exemptions to avoid disclosing information,” the report said.

While court cases had demonstrated that the lawful basis for retention of Prevent data could be easily challenged, it said this required “legal action at personal expense”.

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At least 13,845 children aged under 14 have been referred to Prevent since 2015, according to statistics published by the Home Office. According to the latest figures published in December, 256 children aged 10 or under and 2,628 aged 11 to 15 were referred between April 2022 and March 2023.

In November, 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.

ORG is among a number of rights organisations that have raised concerns about an increase in Palestine-related Prevent referrals in recent months.

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".

Layla Aitlhadj, director of Prevent Watch, which advocates for people affected by the programme, told MEE: “We have seen evidence of this in the casework and as Prevent Watch we only see the tip of the iceberg.

“The first case we saw was only a few days after October 7th of an autistic eight-year-old who was referred and even though the referral was admitted by all to be disproportionate. We have more than a dozen other cases directly related to Prevent referrals or threats of Prevent referrals in relation to pro-Palestinian activism.”

The Home Office referred MEE to Counter Terrorism Policing for comment on ORG's report.

A spokesperson for Counter Terrorism Policing said: "Just like all other types of safeguarding work carried out by policing, we need to record people's data to effectively manage Prevent casework, and help protect those referred to us from radicalisation. It allows for management oversight, accountability, and means we act consistently and proportionately.

“We routinely review this data for deletion after six years, in line with Management of Police Information policies, but we can also remove data sooner than that upon request, if appropriate to do so.

"We also take great care in how we share our data, doing so on a case-by-case basis where the law permits, and only with the agencies we believe necessary to protect the vulnerable children and adults who are referred to us.

“A Prevent referral is not a ‘mark for life’; it will not show up on criminal records checks, and will not affect a person’s education or career prospects."

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