The UK’s counter-extremism programme ‘PREVENT’ is to undergo an independent review, an announcement by the government has confirmed after years of controversy.
MPs and senior police officers had previously dismissed criticism regarding the strategy and urged communities to support the scheme, resisting persistent calls to overhaul or rebrand it.
However, the security minister said the “time was right to initiate a review of Prevent”. The security minister, Ben Wallace, announced the review in the House of Commons but threw down the gauntlet to critics of the strategy to produce “solid evidence of their allegations”, accusing them of using “distortion and spin”.
The move was announced after the government accepted an amendment to the counter-terrorism and border security bill passing through parliament.
“Communities across the country have got behind Prevent and are contributing to it because they want, as we do, their own young people to be protected from grooming and exploitation by terrorists,” Wallace added.
“This review should expect those critics of Prevent, who often use distortions and spin, to produce solid evidence of their allegations.”
The Prevent strategy initiated a statutory duty for schools, NHS trusts, prisons and local authorities concerns about people who may be at risk of turning to extremism.
However, civil liberties and human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have been calling for an independent review of Prevent for some time, claiming it fosters discrimination against people of Muslim faith or background and setting the barrier for intervention too low, with cases including a young boy mispronouncing ‘cucumber’ as ‘cooker bomb’ eliciting widespread criticism for the legitimacy of the law.
Proponents of the strategy say statistics prove that it does not target one community in particular and has successfully diverted vulnerable individuals from being radicalised and in turn from becoming terrorists. As recently as last month, Sajid Javid was defending Prevent and said some of its critics were “on the side of extremists”, while the head of UK counterterror policing called the programme the “most important pillar” of a national strategy against extremism. Similarly, Security Minister Wallace also quoted statistics on referrals, which show a 36 per cent rise in the number of suspected far-right extremists, as proof that Prevent “is not about singling out any particular group or ideology but is similar to other forms of safeguarding, carried out every day by social workers, teachers and police”.
Muslims groups have made it clear they have little or no confidence in Prevent, which over time has faced claims that it is more concerned with gathering intelligence than supporting communities, claiming that the government is prepared to work only with those who do not challenge it.
According to The Guardian, the head of counter-terrorism policing, Neil Basu, revealed that 18 plots to causes mass murder on British soil had been thwarted since March 2017, of which 14 were Islamist and four rightwing.
Basu said that one in five pieces of information provided by the public had helped police and MI5 move closer to those plotting attacks, but the amount of information coming in had more than halved compared with 2017, from 31,000 pieces of information to 13,000.
Thus, there is unanimity between counter-terrorism officials and the security sector that Prevent and counter-terrorism laws like it are needed to tackle the growing pervasion of right-wing terrorists and Islamist terrorism in Britain.
The government has additionally stated that, since 2012, more than 1,200 people have been given tailored mentoring through “Channel” an intervention programme initiated, after being flagged to Prevent. However, participation in both the Prevent and Channel programmes is voluntary, prompting some officials to question whether the process should be obligatory after terrorists slipped through the net. In 2017-18, more than 7,300 referrals were made but 42 per cent resulted in no action being taken.
The government has accepted several other amendments to the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, watering down a controversial new law that will see people jailed for up to 10 years for entering “designated areas” abroad.
The amendments create exceptions for people who remain in newly designated areas involuntarily, or for listed purposes including humanitarian aid, journalism, working for a government, military or United Nations, court appearances, funerals or visiting a terminally ill relative.
The law was drawn up to target Isis fighters and other terrorists who have proven difficult to prosecute under current British laws but aid workers told the government it was too broad and could criminalize British citizens working in conflict zones. However, Britain’s national newspaper The Independent highlighted that areas considered for prohibition are likely to overlap with those where the government already warns against all travel, which currently includes the whole of Syria, Yemen, Libya, parts of Iraq and other warzones.
The changes accepted by the government fall short of 29 amendments put forward by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which called for a clause making accessing terrorist material online a criminal offence punishable by up to 15 years in prison to be scrapped.
Lords amendments inserted protections for journalism and academic research.
The new law will also make statements deemed to support a banned group illegal, broaden powers to stop and search people at borders without suspicion, and limit access to a lawyer for those questioned and detained.
The review, to start within six months, was proposed by the House of Lords as part of a raft of amendments to the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, which will proceed to royal assent without a Commons vote.