‘Prevent’ and the attack on free speech

A review of the government’s controversial Prevent duty has been a long time coming. It’s been dogged with concerns over bias, its findings have been continuously delayed and it’s unclear of when exactly they will come to light. Instead, we’ve been teased with leaks that there’ll be a renewed focus on Islamist extremism and a hit piece on a range of Muslim-run organisations in the civil society space, courtesy of the Policy Exchange.

Failing a right of reply provided to the organisations profiled in the report, Open Rights Group supports those mentioned as they approach the Charity Commission with a complaint that the right-leaning institution has not abided by the standards required of it as a charity.

What is the Prevent duty?

Prevent is one part of the government’s four-pronged counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST, designed to prevent people from getting involved in or supporting terrorist activities. The other strands – Protect, Prepare and Pursue – target better protection against a terrorist attack, mitigating an actual attack and introducing measures to stop them.

Prevent has drawn particular controversy because of its operation in the pre-crime space, in which no offence has taken place but rather people are surveilled and viewed as suspicious, on the basis of the opinion of teachers, employers and church leaders, for example, all non-expert in diagnosing the nuanced signs of pre-radicalisation.

By nature, the deduction is speculative, yet the impact is a significant invasion into peoples’ lives. In particular, the policy profoundly permeates the Muslim community across different facets of life, including but not limited to educational environments, health services and social care. Those considered “suspicious” are referred to and interviewed by officials and could be referred on to Channel the “safeguarding programme that supports people who are vulnerable to radicalisation.”

The controversy around Prevent

There’s much to say about this policy, from a human rights perspective, including a data protection standpoint, and a practical view – of referrals, only 5% were referred on to Channel; the overwhelming number of false positives potentially hampering the detection of real terrorist acts.

In short, scrutiny of the Prevent policy is not only reasonable but necessary, which is why the Policy Exchange report titled “Delegitimising Counter-Terrorism” is bias and discriminatory.

Reducing criticism of Prevent to “enabling terrorism” is a poorly executed attempt to deny democratic discussion and ‘exchange’ of ideas. And as ‘policy’ it is farcically bad. 

Open Rights Group

It purposefully draws out organisations run by and for the Muslim community, critical of Prevent, that it misleadingly labels “Islamists” and attacks their leadership and legacy of calling government actions to account.

The report starts that Prevent is “perhaps the most controversial government policy most people have never heard of” because public recognition of it is generally low, but “opposition from Britain’s raucous Islamist scene, near total.” But it is not only Muslim-run organisations that vehemently oppose it. Various NGOs, including Open Rights Group, have contributed to an alternative review of Prevent, lacking confidence that William Shawcross’s report would provide an objective assessment. The longer the report takes to come out, the greater this doubt.

Discrimination by any other name

That’s why Policy Exchange’s demand that groups which criticise Prevent as well as other damaging counter-terrorism policies, should not be engaged with nor receive public funding, largely on the basis of their identity, is discriminatory. It also sets the stage for any civil society group to be excluded from this space, therefore removing any scope for proper debate. The conservative and influential think tank openly says that its proposal for a Centre for the Study of Extremism could be used to push back against campaigners. The proposal is essentially a call for propaganda in place of debate.

In addition, no right of reply to the groups profiled was offered by the report’s authors or David Cameron who penned its Forward and a prominent opinion piece in The Times.

Cameron’s assertion that “delegitimising counter terrorism is, in essence, enabling terrorism” is an attempt to close down much-needed criticism. This claim, made against the People’s Review of Prevent, applies to ORG and other groups notably falling outside the direct ire of Policy Exchange’s report, including Amnesty International, Medact, Child Rights International and others, who have spoken out against the programme’s failures. Reducing criticism of Prevent to “enabling terrorism” is a poorly executed attempt to deny democratic discussion and ‘exchange’ of ideas. And as ‘policy’ it is farcically bad. 

Right to privacy and data protection

Policy Exchange admits that the public recognition of the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy is generally low. Consider this, however: perhaps if people understood it more, there’d be more questions, deeper outrage and plenty of resistance beyond the so-called Islamists and revolutionary left.

Our concerns about Prevent are substantial and not easily dismissed. We are deeply concerned about the opaque nature through which personal data is collected, retained and shared between databases accessible by the police and social services and that could ultimately impact people’s life experiences. Furthermore, consent under which data is collected is precarious and various case studies have demonstrated can occur under duress. 

As outlined in the People’s Review of Prevent, the Prevent policy is an abuse of UK citizens’ rights to privacy and the protection of their data. This is not to be hidden, denied or placed beyond acceptable debate. That way lies even greater disasters.