The People’s Review of Prevent: Key Findings

The People’s Review of Prevent, published on the February 15th 2022, is run by Prevent Watch, an independent funded organisation about the negative impact of Prevent1.

Prevent is one of the four components of the UK government’s counter-terrorism policy – with the aim of preventing people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism2. The other strands are: Pursue, directed at stopping terrorist attacks; Protect, which is concerned with strengthening the UK’s protection against a terrorist attack; and Prepare, which aims to mitigate the impact of a terrorist incident3.

The review is co-chaired by Professor John Holmwood (University of Nottingham) and Dr Layla Aitlhadj (Director and Senior Caseworker at Prevent Watch) and funded by Prevent Watch. It was conducted as an alternative to the UK government’s independent Review of Prevent led by William Shawcross (the former head of the charity “Watchdog”). The appointment of Shawcross received much criticism from Amnesty International and a coalition of 17 human rights and community groups, given his previous Islamophobic statements4. In a joint letter, the coalition wrote that his appointment made clear that “the UK government has no interest in conducting an objective and impartial review of the strategy, nor in engaging meaningfully with the communities affected by it”5. They further urged the UK government to reconsider its flawed counter-terrorism strategy and condemned its “lack of political will to carry out this crucial task – the price of which continues to be disproportionately paid by Muslims across the UK”6. The People’s Review of Prevent provides a voice to those most impacted by Prevent and evidences the harms it causes to individuals and communities7.

Background and Purpose of the Report

The report evaluates the way that state-organised surveillance impinges on everyday life and public services (Holmwood and Aitlhadj, 2022: 1)8. These services include, but are not limited to: schooling, child-care, higher education, prisons, health services and probationary services, where practitioners are tasked with identifying “vulnerable” young people and adults at risk of radicalisation9. According to the report, the policies and practices of Prevent are applied disproportionately to children and young people, and in a discriminatory fashion towards Muslim children (Holmwood and Aitlhadj, 2022: 2)10.

For the purpose of the People’s Review, 596 cases were collated between October 2014 and December 2021, as well as further cases that were submitted directly to the people’s Review of Prevent call for submissions11. All cases presented were anonymised and consent was provided from those concerned12.

Review Findings

Holmwood and Aitlhadj present ten key findings in their review:

  1. Prevent is Islamophobic.
    The authors argue that there is “no problem of integration of British Muslim communities and no basis for regarding them and their families with suspicion”13.

    The current Prevent programme places emphasis on “British values”, to which ethnic minority citizens need to assimilate to. According to the authors, a prime illustration of this policy is the former Prime Minister David Cameron’s Speech in February 2011 at the Munich Security Conference. Here, he declared that “state multiculturalism has failed”, because Muslims not only lived in segregated areas but they also held values at odds with mainstream Britain14. The idea that far-right extremism is a problem of Muslim integration is further highlighted when looking at the Prevent policy of community engagement. Here the focus is disproportionately on neighbourhoods with a high concentration of Muslim residents. When Prevent priority areas were initially identified, they involved areas with 5% or more Muslims. This was later revised to areas with more than 4,000 Muslims15.

    However, the authors argue that there is no evidence for the claim that there is a problem of integration of British Muslim communities. Not to mention that the statistics from the University of Manchester’s Centre of Dynamics of Ethnicity Citizenship Survey, provided on page 25 of the report, counter this point16. More specifically, according to this survey, 90% of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians felt a part of Britain and many did not see a contradiction between being British and maintaining a separate cultural or religious identity (Holmwood and Ailthadj: 2022, 25)17.

    2.Prevent is discriminatory” in the way it approaches far-right terrorism differently from that of Islamist terrorism in guidance, training and application.

    Similarly to finding one, the authors demonstrate that within Prevent, extremism is addressed with the underlying assumption that Muslim communities lack integration into British society (Holmwood and Aitlhadj: 2022: 34)18. They distinguish between the perception of Islam extremism and the right-wing extremism. Islamic extremism “is associated with supposedly problematic individuals within communities that are also problematic” (Holmwood and Aitlhadj: 2022: 30)19, whereas right-wing extremism is associated “with problematic individuals detached from their communities and wider, mainstream society” (Holmwood and Aitlhadj, 2022: 30).20

    The authors also argue that right-wing views are considered “normal ” within the wider UK community, including among middle-class professionals. To that effect, Holmwood and Aitlhadj reference the study on Islamophobia “The Dinner Table Prejudice” by Dr Stephen Jones (University of Birmingham) and Dr Amy Unsworth (University College London) which shows the hostility towards religion is associated with prejudice towards Islamic belief21,22.

    3. “Prevent undermines free expression

    According to Professor Alison Scott-Baumann (SOAS University) “free expression requires the active encouragement of difficult or controversial discussions around faith, identity, and politics”23. Prevent, however, has the opposite effect because it pathologises religious and political expression, particularly freedom of speech and ability to express one’s religious identity24. For example research conducted in 2017-2018 by the UK NUS (National Union of Students), found that one in three students were concerned about PREVENT on campus because it directly impacted their willingness to seek mental health support, on their decision politically participate in their students union, and their willingness to speak in class23, for fear of becoming the object of suspicion.

    The testimony of Adil on page 47 of the report is an example of how the political views of British Muslims are treated with suspicion. Adil, the mother of an 8-year old, was questioned by her sons school about attending a peaceful protest in 2014. In explaining that the event was about the conflict between Palestine and Israel, Adil was met with questions from the social worker asking if she was “protesting against the government” or “instilling hate for the government in her son”. She was also questioned by the headteacher about her son’s attendance at the local mosque. At the end of the questioning, Adil thought this was the end of the proceedings. However, it was referred to PREVENT by the social worker. Whilst schools are encouraged to present “both sides” of contentious issues, in this case Palestinian rights, as expressed in solidarity symbols or protests, is treated by schools as potentially antisemitic, or extremist25.

    4. “Prevent targets actions and behaviours which are not in themselves illegal and for which there is no evidence that they have any relation to future terrorist offenses. It [Prevent] has no justification in the light of national security requirements, which can all be satisfied through other measures within the counter-terrorism strategy and the UK’s extensive legislative toolkit” (Holmwood and Aitlhadj: 2022: 69)26.

    For example the authors discuss the findings from the Manchester arena Inquiry, after the 2017 Manchester arena bombing. According to evidence provided by Detective Chief Inspector Dominic Scully, Salman Abedi (the man who carried out the suicide bomb attack) was known to Manchester Counter-Terrorism Police as a potential “subject of interest” (but was downgraded in July 2014) with known connections to other subjects of interest under the Pursue strand of CONTEST. It was also noted that MI5 passed on intelligence to the police regarding Abedi in the months before the Manchester bombing, yet it was not acted upon27

    Holmwood and Aitlhadj argue that the failures here are a consequence of fragmentation and outsourcing of the criminal justice system which has allowed neo-conservative think tanks to promote the extension of surveillance and control over individuals who have not committed any offences and for whom there is no expectation they will (2022: 57)28. This has led to “Prevent Panels” being established by the UK Government in England. Each Panel is chaired by a local authority and brings together a range of multi-agency partners such as social workers, and counter-terrorism police, all of whom are required to have training to identify signs of “vulnerability” for people at risk of radicalisation. These signs of vulnerability can include things an individual says, changes in circumstances, becoming isolated, and adopting religious modes of dress. Holmwood and Aitlhadj urge that “what needs to be stressed […] is that none of the apparently troubling signs are offences under criminal law and yet they trigger the involvement of the police and security services” (2022: 59)29

    5. “Prevent relies on profiling

    The authors argue that profiling is “built into Prevent ‘institutionally'”30 in three ways. Firstly by sectors with a responsibility for monitoring the users of its service. For example children and young people are a targeted population for a Prevent risk assessment by virtue of the Prevent duty applying to education settings. Secondly by Prevent Priority areas, which according to a 2011 census around 73% of Muslims in England and Wales live within these areas31. Finally, Prevent also sanctions the activism of young people and takes ordinary signs of identity development (such as changes in their individual dispositions, social situations, and mental health) as an indication of being “at risk” of radicalisation32.

    For example, the authors provide the testimony of “Joel”, a 16-year old school boy, who in 2015 visited the school library. Joel took out a number of books, one of them being on the topic of terrorism. The librarian stopped him from taking the book out and a Prevent referral was made. Joel’s mother believed this would not have happened to another other non-Muslim student and he was singled out due to his race and religion.

    6. “Prevent undermines the proper safeguarding obligations of social workers, teachers and health professionals. It does so by bringing children and young people under an extraordinarily extensive net of surveillance” (Holmwood and Aitlhadj, 2022: 6)33.

    In 2015, multi-agency safeguarding was brought under the security-framework of Prevent. However, the authors argue that “longstanding ethical and philosophical principles associated with regular safeguarding responsibilities differ largely with those associated with Prevent” (Holmwood and Aitlhadj, 2022: 83)32. By regular principles of safeguarding, they refer to: “1) protecting children from maltreatment; 2) preventing impairment of children’s health or development; 3) ensuring that children grow up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care; 4) taking action to enable all children to have the best outcomes” (Holmwood and Aitlhadj: 2022: 84)34

    An example of the different principles underlying safeguarding in Prevent is the testimony of Noah on page 87 of the reportNoah is a 12-year-old schoolboy who suffered bullying at school. He used the term “jihadist” in class and when questioned by a member of staff why he would us such a term , he revealed he befriended an individual online and learnt it there. Noah’s mother was contacted by the school And they asked her to bring his devices in to be searched because of their concern he was being groomed online. After his devices being searched and being questioned the school a referral was made to Prevent was made. His mother disagreed with the approach. She questioned why the The school and Prevent Officer did not investigate the person Noah was speaking to online if they suspected him of being a victim of grooming. Instead they construed her son as the problem and the person needing de-radicalised35. Through Noah’s case the authors show how under the Prevent principles of safeguarding, Noah, the vulnerable individual, is constructed as a possible risk to others, rather than someone to be protected.

    7. “Prevent is an abuse of individual rights to privacy and the protection of data”.

    Integral to Prevent is collecting a significant amount of personal information about individuals who come under its purview, even when a referral is deemed unnecessary. This raises many questions around the Data Protection such as: “What Data is collected? What is done with the data and with what reason? What is the impact and risks for those individuals whose data may be used?”36.

    8. “Prevent is overwhelmingly directed at children and young people”.

    The authors demonstrate that individual child’s interests are not being actively considered when a decision is made about a Prevent referral, and there is also a tendency to treat cases involving children as a top concern for national security37. The authors move on to show that in accordance with children’s rights standards, their best interests are served by keeping them out of contact with the criminal justice system where possible. However, Prevent brings children directly into contact with security services even if they are not suspected of an offense. Numerous cases also show the lack of respect for families in raising their children and can undermine the role of Muslim parents in guiding children to exercise their freedom of religion. The case of Yunus on page 119 is a case in point. Yunus is a secondary school boy who was on a Child in Need plan (an assessment under Section 17 of the 1989 Child Protection Act, to identify the needs of a child and ensure that the family are given sufficient support in enabling them to safeguard and promote their child’s welfare)38. Under this plan it was recommended that Yunus be assessed by a PREVENT to determine whether he was vulnerable to radicalisation from one of his parents.

    Yunus did not want to take part, nor did his parents, which is why they believe it was escalated to a Child Protection Plan on the grounds of failing to engage. Despite Yunus making it clear he was uncomfortable taking part in anything Prevent-related, and having no issues that would deem him incompetent, his views were not taken into consideration.

    9.“Prevent is an abuse of fundamental human rights and protected equalities”.

    Despite the government arguing that terrorism and terrorist activities threaten Human Rights, the authors show how Prevent policies breach these rights and evade scrutiny. They provide two specific concerns raised in the UN Special Reports about the UK Counter-Extremism Strategy: Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (2016) and the UN Rapporteurs’ statements about Prevent (2017)39. These concerns were directed towards the ambiguity of the terms “terrorism” and “extremism” (which is left open to interpretation and has led to increased profiling based on ethnicity and religion), the negative impacts on rights of freedom of expression, and the collection and retention of information on individuals, particularly children. However, none of these reports have been addressed by the UK Government.

    10. “Prevent ‘expertise’ is being shared with oppressive regimes“.

    The authors provide the example of the British Government offering training in counter-extremism to other governments that have comited atrocities against their Muslim populations, such as India and China. They argue that is is part of “a broader drift towards authoritarianism and efforts to reduce long-established human rights principles”40.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The authors conclude that Prevent provides no additional value to counter-terrorism than what is already in the Prepare, Protect and and Pursue strands. Based on the findings detailed in the report, Holmwood and Aitljadj claim that the government should withdraw Prevent on the grounds it is discriminatory, ineffective, and disproportionate, and that practitioners involved in Prevent, such as community groups and professional associations should also demand it’s withdrawal.

These demands have been supported by a wide range of organisations, (secular, legal, and faith-based). For example Ahammed Hussain, Director of Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK stated:

The People’s Review of Prevent is giving us all something that has been long overdue: an honest account of the facts and flaws of the Prevent strategy. In doing so, this true Review is an indispensable tool for those of us who understand that the Prevent strategy legitimises Islamophobic paranoia and must be scrapped”41.

Similarly Dr Katy Sian, from the Northern Police Monitoring Project acknowledged the limitations of Prevent highlighted in the report and the damage it has caused to Muslim communities. “The findings of this vital report are irrefutable; Prevent must be dismantled once and for all”42.

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