FOCUS: An Independent Review of the Prevent Strategy

FOCUS: An Independent Review of the Prevent Strategy

John Holmwood and Therese O’Toole

The immediate context of this special issue of Discover Society is the Independent Review of the Prevent Strategy which the government announced as part of the passage of the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Act (2019). Among other concerns, Liberty has argued that the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Act is a further step in a process of the criminalisation of speech. This was begun in the Counter Extremism Strategy of 2015, and the new Act adds the idea that support for extremism can be inadvertent, but ‘reckless’, if there was insufficient care with regard to the consequences of speech in influencing others toward radicalisation.

According to Liberty, the Act is the continuation of a “poorly conceived strategy that mistakes unreflective expansion of government power for evidence-driven responses to national security concerns” (page 4). In this situation, the Independent Review might be thought to be a welcome reversal, albeit one that has taken place after the enactment of the legislation rather than before. However, in announcing it, then Security Minister, Ben Wallace, accused critics of Prevent of ‘spin and distortion’ and challenged them to provide solid evidence for their criticisms.

This special issue of Discover Society is a response to the Minister’s challenge. However, it is not clear that the government is in fact open to consider evidence contrary to its increasingly authoritarian policy enactments.  It was left to his replacement as Security Minister, Brandon Lewis, to announce the name of the Independent Reviewer, Lord Carlile.

This appointment has been met with widespread criticism: his role until recently as the government’s reviewer of terrorism legislation and member of its Prevent oversight board, professed support for Prevent, and view that an independent review of Prevent is ‘completely unnecessary’, have all raised doubts about his independence. There have also been complaints that his appointment did not comply with the government’s Code on Public Appointments, since the post was not advertised and the selection criteria were not made public. Likewise, the terms of the independent review have not been published either. Responding to these concerns, Rights Watch UK have launched legal challenges  to Lord Carlile’s appointment and the process of appointment.

Indeed, Lord Carlile’s position has not only left him open to charges of bias, but also inconsistency. For example, he  recently contributed a foreword to a Policy Exchange pamphlet which argued that adopting a definition of Islamophobia, as recommended by the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims would ‘cripple’ counter-terrorism, writing that,  “the Prevent strand of counter-terrorism policy, which would be thrown into turmoil by the APPG, provokes a refrain of clichéd criticism, but that is rarely evidence based: Prevent demonstrates statistically and evidentially a high net profit of success, which would be lost.”

Yet, in a debate in the House of Lords on the second reading of the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Act, he opposed an amendment calling for evidence to be collected on the religion and ethnicity of those individuals referred under Prevent. He made a rather different point about the value of the very expanded powers questioned by Liberty, specifically that, “I know that there are figures, which I accept completely, showing that many—even the majority—of those who are referred into Prevent are not, in the end, shown to be appropriate for its programmes. But what do the police do? They stop people in the street; they arrest them; they question them in an aggressive way; and they are often wrong in their suspicions. Finding the people who commit offences involves talking to an awful lot of other people.”

In the febrile atmosphere of Brexit and attacks upon institutional checks and balances, it is hard to give credence to Lord Carlile’s disingenuous statements that he will do his best to avoid bias. Nonetheless, what can be done except to take him at his word and monitor closely the nature of his decisions and judgements? The stakes are high and the consequences for all our civil liberties, but especially for those of British Muslims, are grave. In this special issue, we begin the process of spelling them out, examining different elements of the Prevent strategy and its impact on different sectors and communities.

In his contribution, Rob Faure-Walker is sceptical of the extent to which any review can be independent unless it can distinguish between civil society organisations that emerge organically within civil society and those that are instituted by government and operating as vehicles of the Research Information and Communications Unit (RICU) of the Home Office. Any submission to the review by the latter is, in truth, a submission by the government and, therefore, risks compromising its independence.

Therese O’Toole sets out the changes in the government’s Prevent strategy after 2011. These expanded its scope to include a focus on countering on extremism, while failing sufficiently define it except in opposition to (supposed British) values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. This was further exacerbated by further revisions to the strategy in 2015 which created new duties on public sector bodies – for example, in health, education, and prisons – to combat extremism under the general idea of ‘safeguarding’ vulnerable individuals. These duties, she argues, have contradicted other obligations and contributed to an ‘unsafe’ environment for British Muslims.

The issue of ‘safeguarding’ is taken up by Charlotte Heath-Kelly who suggests that it shifts the focus of concern from supporting victims of various kinds of abuse to a general problem of risk. Safeguarding otherwise rests upon formal criteria relating to severe needs where they may require protective assistance. In contrast, Prevent proposes that an unspecified process of ideological grooming constitutes abuse, and that this grooming is potentially dangerous for every member of society. Moreover, the very trajectories of radicalisation for which it is purportedly providing a safeguard, are themselves poorly evidenced. If everyone is supposedly vulnerable to radicalisation, then Prevent more closely resembles a surveillance measure than act of care for those classed as formally vulnerable.

For Shamin Miah the safeguarding approach of the current Prevent strategy is concerned with developing a sense of ‘ontological security’ – protection from existential risks – in the majority population. Its consequence, however, is ‘ontological insecurity’ for Muslim communities. The majority population is encouraged to trust in the government’s capacity to protect, but only at the cost of creating a fundamental mistrust of Muslim fellow citizens.

In contrast to other contributors, Paul Thomas, suggests that developments of the Prevent strategy after 2015 have been positive, precisely because they have moved away from an over-emphasis on Muslim communities to include ‘far-right’ extremism. An early critic of the Prevent strategy, his research discovers little opposition to the new duties on the part of professionals called on to enact them. There is one important caveat. The duty on schools to promote fundamental British values is regarded as problematic, especially the divisive implications of representing democratic values as ‘fundamentally British’.

Ironically, Narzanin Massoumi, David Miller and Tom Mills suggest that the problem with Prevent and the way in which successive governments have implemented their counter-terrorism policies is that they have failed to embody the values that are otherwise enjoined on others. They call for a strategy that embodies the values of democracy, human rights and respect for evidence.

If, as Paul Thomas suggests, the Prevent strategy is less focused on Islamist extremism to the neglect of other forms of extremism, this does not mean that the impact on wider communities is less skewed. The consequences for British Muslims is a topic taken up by Madeline-Sophie Abbas who examines the internal divisions that have been produced within Muslim communities under Prevent through co-option of Muslims to spy and inform state authorities on Muslim community members. This has undermined community projects and partnerships, both within Muslim communities and with the state in a way also outlined by Rob Faure-Walker in his consideration of the role of the Home Office’s covert civil society engagements.

Madeline-Sophie Abbas argues that locally defined solutions that bridge policy and community voices, provide safe spaces for Muslims to perform a range of identities and build relations locally, are central to effective an effective counter-extremism strategy. These ideas are taken up by Necla Acik who considers alternative approaches developed within Germany. While the British government promotes Prevent as an exemplary strategy for countering extremism, Acik points to the long-standing German experience with far-right extremism. Here there is more trust in civil society organisations to develop local strategies and also to operate independently of security agencies which, in turn, builds trust within communities.

Prevent does not only have consequences for the civil liberties of specific communities, but for all those active in civil society. Roaa Ali suggests that the creative sector, particularly theatre, might not be a readily identifiable site where the Prevent strategy is in operation, or of influence. Yet, there have been several recent examples where Prevent has led to the securitisation of art through direct censorship or negatively influencing the process of cultural production of a creative work. Both her cases show that the question of who has the right to represent and speak for Muslims is regulated by the culture of Prevent.

Simon Perfect considers how the Charity Commissioners, in their role as regulators of student unions, have been increasingly active in addressing supposed extremism on campuses. He explores the connections between the Prevent Duty and charity law, and how the Charity Commission’s approach impacts on freedom of speech in universities, notwithstanding that the latter is a legal duty. Alison Scott-Baumann extends this analysis to consider the role of the Henry Jackson Society in identifying extremism on campus and their conflation of extremism with religious conservatism. Scott-Baumann outlines the chilling effect this has had on Muslim students, but also points to a general sense among students of not having a voice in matters that concern them.

Finally, John Holmwood addresses how the government has increasingly used the Equality Act 2010 as a way of articulating ‘fundamental British values’, arguing that civil society groups organised to promote the rights associated with its different protected characteristics – for example, women’s rights, LGBT+ rights – can be effective in countering extremism, especially that associated with Islamic extremism. However, in doing so, it has increasingly attenuated the rights of religious expression which are also protected under the Equality Act.


John Holmwood is Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham. Therese O’Toole is Professor of Sociology. Therese O’Toole is Professor of Sociology in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies and the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol. They are authors of Countering Extremism in British Schools? The YTruth anout the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair (Bristol: Policy Press, 2017)