POLICY AND POLITICS: Reviewing Prevent

POLICY AND POLITICS: Reviewing Prevent

Therese O’Toole

Despite various reforms to Prevent since 2011, concerns about its aims and impact continue to be voiced by academics, human rights, civil liberties and antiracist groups, trade unions, Muslim organisations, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy and those in senior institutional or policing roles. A genuinely independent review of Prevent’s aims, scope, underlying assumptions and impact on public life and civil society is badly needed – beginning with the definition of extremism that underpins Prevent.

Defining extremism
The reforms to the Prevent strategy that were introduced in 2011 shifted its focus from preventing ‘violent extremism’ to the broader aim of countering ‘extremism’, defined as ‘opposition to fundamental British values’. With no public debate or consultation, the 2011 Prevent strategy stipulated these values as “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”. This conceptual expansion was followed by a widening of its implementation, with the passing of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act in 2015, which imposed the Prevent Duty on public sector institutions, requiring specified authorities to ‘have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’.

The sector-specific statutory guidance issued with the Prevent Duty directs schools, universities, police, prison, probation and health services to combat non-violent extremism – in line with the 2011 Prevent Strategy. This has raised concerns about its implications for civil liberties, given that the definition of extremism underpinning Prevent potentially applies to a very wide range of political positions and social beliefs, and seems to transfer what were designed as obligations to be imposed on government onto individuals and civil society. Government has, though, encountered difficulties in arriving at a legally defensible definition of extremism, and this is presumably why the further legislation that was promised in 2015 has yet to be introduced. The parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights argued in 2016 that the government’s definitions of extremism “are couched in such general terms that they would be likely to prove unworkable as a legislative definition … It is far from clear that there is an accepted definition of what constitutes extremism, let alone what legal powers there should be, if any, to combat it.”

Tensions between the Prevent and other Public Sector Duties
The expansion in the implementation of Prevent also creates tensions with other duties and norms across public sector institutions. In Higher Education, conflict has centred on the tensions between the requirements of the Prevent Duty to report extremist views and bar extremist speakers from campus-hosted events and the statutory duty of universities to protect freedom of expression, enshrined in the Education Act 1997. A case heard by the High Court, Salman Butt v Secretary of State for the Home Department 2016, resulted in a ruling that whilst countering non-violent extremism does fall within the terms of the Prevent Duty, it only applies where there is ‘a risk of being drawn into terrorism’. Whilst this appears to limit the scope of the Prevent Duty in universities, the distinction will be difficult to maintain in practice. In a subsequent appeal brought by Butt, the judges ruled that the Prevent Duty Guidance did not sufficiently balance universities’ obligation to bar extremist speakers with their statutory obligation to uphold freedom of expression – requiring revision of the guidance. The tensions between these obligations are ongoing.

Government frames Prevent as simply an extension of existing safeguarding practices within public sector institutions, but many argue the requirements of the Prevent Duty are in tension with safeguarding practices within schools and healthcare settings. An Open Society Justice Initiative report argued “In contrast to the Prevent strategy, for which the primary objective is preventing terrorism, the primary objective of the duty to safeguard children under domestic legislation is the welfare of the child.’ Similarly, in the field of health, Heath-Kelly and Strausz’s research found that the ‘positioning of the Prevent Duty as a safeguarding measure is ambiguous. Safeguarding professionals alerted us that they are operating in a “grey area” with Prevent, and that significant differences exist between Prevent Duty safeguarding and normal safeguarding.’

The impact of an expanded Prevent
The expansion of Prevent since 2015 has raised concerns about its discriminatory effects. A report by Just Yorkshire found that the Prevent Duty has created a hostile climate towards Muslims in public sector institutions, whilst the Open Society Justice Initiative report argued its application in schools, colleges and healthcare institutions was damaging trust in those institutions and risked violating human rights. Heath-Kelly and Strausz’s report found healthcare staff were interpreting signs of radicalisation in ways that went beyond the guidance of the Prevent training, to include hate speech, the possession of radical Islamic/Anarchist philosophy and anger at foreign policy – raising concerns that the Prevent Duty is being implemented in ways that are in conflict with civil liberties.

In part, this relates to the quality of Prevent training, which has faced ongoing criticisms that it is too superficial, inconsistent, based on a decontextualized or erroneous reading of radicalisation and a check-list approach to vulnerabilities that closes down debate, and that there are insufficient mechanisms for quality control. But much of the problem lies in the scale of its implementation: according to the Home Office over a million public sector employees have undergone Prevent training.

This expansion has been attended by a growth in quasi-autonomous agencies providing Prevent compliance services, such as risk assessment and self-evaluation tools, (micro) guidance materials and training – which can exceed what is formally required by the Prevent Duty or Statutory Guidance, in effect promoting forms of ‘hyper-compliance’ with Prevent. For example, the Education and Training Foundation includes an extensive checklist of behaviours for staff in Further Education to report on, including concerns about ‘plans to travel abroad’ and ‘Evidence of non-compliance with the providers expectations of behaviour’. Thus, the nature and practices of Prevent compliance potentially carry worrying consequences for civil liberties, ethnic equalities and Muslim inclusion.

Lack of community engagement
The revisions to Prevent in 2011 have seen a shift away from the ‘hearts and minds’ approach of the 2007 policy, which enabled some, especially local level, engagement between government and Muslims on issues relating to Prevent. Since then government has tended to engage with a narrow range of groups (often counter-extremism rather than Muslim civil society organisations), and with those that agree with its stance, rather than those that offer critical feedback to it. Consequently, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee commented that: ‘Rather than being seen as the community-led approach Prevent was supposed to be, it is perceived to be a top-down ‘Big Brother’ security operation.’

It went on to argue that ‘Allaying these concerns and building trust will require full and wide engagement with all sections of the Muslim community, including at grassroots level—and not just with groups which already agree with the Government.’ Perhaps responding to these concerns, the 2018 CONTEST Strategy signalled the aim to ‘Build stronger partnerships with communities, civil society groups, public sector institutions and industry to improve Prevent delivery.’ However, the emphasis remains on mobilising such actors for the purpose of delivery rather than creating opportunities for them to shape or critique policies on extremism or radicalisation.

Recommendations for the Prevent review
These issues suggest a range of concerns for the Prevent review. The first concerns the importance of the perceived independence of the review for the credibility of its conclusions. Secondly, the definition of extremism that underpins government’s approach to counter terrorism requires scrutiny, particularly its implications for civil liberties. Thirdly, the review needs to engage with civil liberties groups, Muslim civil society organisations and voices critical of Prevent – moving beyond the closed feedback loop that currently characterises Prevent policy development. Fourthly, the methodology for the evaluation and monitoring of Prevent should include its wider impact on equalities, civil liberties and British Muslims.


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. She researches the impact of the Prevent and Counter Extremism agendas on Muslim civil society, based on her ESRC and AHRC research projects on Muslim Participation in Contemporary Governance and Muslim Civic Engagement in Bristol. She recently co-authored, with John Holmwood, a book critically examining claims that there were attempts by Muslim extremists to Islamify schools in Birmingham: Countering Extremism in British Schools? The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair (2017, Bristol: Policy Press).