The PREVENT Strategy: a threat to our civil liberties

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Photograph: Shelly Asquith

PREVENT, introduced as part of the British Government’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy (CONTEST) in the 2006, refers to a series of policies designed (in secret) to counter the roots and ideology of terrorism. PREVENT is the most widely known (and controversial) component of CONTEST. PREVENT aims to tackle the ‘ideology of extremism’, described by the government as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values”, through the increased use of surveillance and monitoring in society – particularly in schools and universities.

Since early 2015, PREVENT has been placed on a statutory basis for ‘specified authorities’, including educational institutions, all NHS trusts, prisons and police institutions. This means that employees of all these institutions have a duty to look out for and report people “at risk of being drawn into extremism” and who hold “ideas that can be used ideas which can be used to legitimise terrorism and are shared by terrorist groups” to the police, who decide whether to refer them to the Channel programme (a panel of police, youth-workers, healthcare and education providers) which will attempt to reduce the “vulnerability” to radicalisation of these people.

The government claims that these measures are necessary for tackling extremism and protecting “British values” – which, according to the government, are democracy, free speech, individual liberty and tolerance. However, in reality, the PREVENT strategy sets a dangerous precedent and involves monitoring innocent people. It has severe implications for free-speech, and disproportionately targets Muslims.

PREVENT training changes the relationship between teachers and students or GPs and patients from one of trust and confidentiality, to one of suspicion. Vocally opposing the actions of the British government, criticising UK foreign policy or holding views antithetical to British values (even if such views are not illegal) makes you a suspect. According to the 2012 “vulnerability assessment framework” produced by the government as a guideline for Channel, even having “relevant mental health issues” or “being in a transitional time of life” are valid indicators of one being at risk of becoming an extremist that staff must look out for. This is particularly worrying, as it helps further stigmatise the issue of mental health. Other indicators are similarly vague; a desire for status, excitement and adventure, a need for identity and belonging, feelings of injustice and being under threat, even a desire for political change.

So far, this policy has disproportionately targeted Muslims. 56% of referrals to Channel from 2012 to 2014 were Muslims, with the number of total referrals rising sharply from just 5 in 2007 to 1681 in 2014. Many referrals were spurious and Islamophobic in nature. For example, a 4-year-old boy was reported to the deradicalisation panel after mispronouncing the word cucumber like “cooker bomb” and drawing a stick figure with a knife (his dad, cutting cucumbers). Similarly, a postgraduate student of counter-terrorism was accused of being a security risk because he was Asian, had a beard, and was reading a book about terrorism. However, it isn’t just Muslims who are at risk. The vague language of PREVENT – opposition to “British values” is “non-violent extremism” – is a risk to the freedom of all people. Environmental activists have been harassed by police officers, their families questioned, simply because they attended anti-fracking protests. Student protestors have also been targeted. For example, Pat Grady (at the time, politics student at the University of Birmingham) was arrested in 2014 for protesting police presence on campus. After being released without charge, the university suspended him. Not even councillors and politicians are safe; two members of the Green Party, Jenny Jones and councillor Ian Driver, were put on a domestic extremism database and monitored by the police – even though neither of them has a criminal record.

It is clear that PREVENT is problematic. It disproportionately targets Muslims, makes suspects out of children in nursery and makes dissent, protests, demonstrations and political activism ‘pre-crimes’.

Why, then, does the government continue to enforce it? Has it really been effective against extremism? Not according to UN special rapporteur Maina Kiai, who stated that the programme had “created unease and uncertainty around what can be legitimately discussed in public”, and could even promote extremism. Kiai further said, “The spectre of Big Brother is so large, in fact, that I was informed that some families are afraid of discussing the negative effects of terrorism in their own homes, fearing their children would talk about it at school and have their intentions misconstrued.” In 2009, Shami Chakrabarti (at the time director of human rights group Liberty) called PREVENT “the biggest domestic spying programme targeting the thoughts and beliefs of the innocent in Britain in modern times”.

Dal Babu, former senior police officer, called PREVENT a “toxic brand” that was regarded with deep suspicion by Muslim communities and seen as a way for the government to spy on them. A 2008 report by MI5 provides further evidence that the PREVENT strategy is ineffective; according to the report, there was no one path towards violent extremism. Most of these violent extremists were “demographically unremarkable” and “religious novices” who do not practice their faith regularly. Many of the extremists profiled by this report were involved in “drug-taking, drinking alcohol and visiting prostitutes”. There was even evidence that “a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation”. There was also little evidence of mental illness being a major factor in violent extremism, as there was no more mental illness amongst the extremists than amongst the general British population.

The National Union of Teachers has voted overwhelming to reject PREVENT, saying it results in “suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staffroom”, while NUS Vice-President for Welfare Shelly Asquith condemned PREVENT, saying “The Prevent duty is proving counterproductive by alienating certain communities and has the potential to create discrimination based on their ethnicity, faith or culture. Black and Muslim students are subjected to racial profiling and state-sponsored islamophobia, which has no place in our universities and colleges.”

The government’s disregard for all this evidence and opposition provides evidence for the idea that perhaps it promotes PREVENT to further the expansion of the surveillance apparatus and thus enable it to keep track of dissent and protest. As students, this will particularly affect us, as it will limit our ability to question the status quo and debate controversial ideas – something that university is supposed to be known for. It will severely compromise our ability to demonstrate and protest – indeed, it already has – and will restrict our freedom of speech to only government-approved speech that conforms to Ofsted-approved British Values. As such, it is important for us to raise awareness of this issue amongst our peers and support our student unions, lecturers and professors in their opposition to it.