Brian Sims

Civil rights groups determine to boycott Government's Prevent review

CIVIL RIGHTS and community groups have accused the Government of using the Prevent review to merely rubber stamp the central policy strategy that's focused on national security after the appointment of William Shawcross as reviewer.

No fewer than 17 separate groups – among them Liberty, the Open Society Justice Initiative, Muslim Engagement and Development and Amnesty International – have issued a joint statement outlining that, rather than participate in the Government’s review, they will instead conduct a parallel assessment process that “properly considers the harms of Prevent”.

Shawcross was appointed as Prevent reviewer by the Government to replace Lord Alex Carlile who, according to Liberty, was removed from the role following legal action initiated by Rights and Security International over the fact that he was directly involved in the oversight of Prevent and had previously declared his “considered and strong support” for this element of the Government’s strategy.

Again according to Liberty, Shawcross has “made comments which call in to doubt his suitability as an independent reviewer”. While a director of the Henry Jackson Society, Shawcross is reported by Liberty to have said: “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest and most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly and very quickly growing Islamic populations.”

In the joint statement, the civil rights and community groups comment: “The appointments of both William Shawcross and Lord Carlile have made clear, beyond doubt, that the Government has no interest in conducting an objective and impartial review of the Prevent strategy, nor in engaging meaningfully with communities affected by it. We cannot be complicit in a process that serves only to rubber stamp a fundamentally flawed strategy.”

Human Rights and freedoms

The Prevent review was established in response to civil rights and community groups raising serious concerns about the “discriminatory and anti-Muslim impact” of Prevent and its potential to violate core Human Rights and freedoms.

The Prevent duty itself requires public servants like teachers, doctors and social workers to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.” In effect, the duty requires them to make referrals to the police service based on what their pupils and patients are perceived to think or believe.

Thousands of people – children among them – have been referred to Prevent since the duty came into force. Last year alone there were 6,287 referrals. That represents a 10% increase on the prior 12-month period.

The Prevent duty has led to incidents which have seen teachers report primary school-aged children to the police for things like having toy guns or talking about video games. According to the civil rights groups, these are “examples of how Prevent sows the seeds of discrimination at the heart of public services,” as a result “stifling speech and spreading fear and distrust.”

Last year, Liberty revealed that the details of everyone referred to Prevent are stored on a huge police database, regardless of whether or not any further action is taken. People still don’t know if their details are on the database, what data is held on them, how it’s used, with whom it might be shared at any given point in time or what decisions it influences.

For these reasons, the civil rights and community groups had been eager to engage in a properly independent review, but they now suggest that the appointments of Lord Carlile and then William Shawcross have “fundamentally undermined” the credibility of the whole procees.

Negative impact

Speaking about the joint statement and the decision that has been taken, Jana Sadler-Forster (a lawyer with the Open Society Justice Initiative) observed: “Had the Government been willing to undertake a genuine independent review, we were ready to participate constructively. However, given the appointment – for the second time – of a patently inappropriate reviewer, we cannot be complicit in the Government’s efforts to whitewash a strategy that continues to negatively and disproportionately impact Muslim communities in the UK every day.”

Rosalind Comyn, policy and campaigns manager at Liberty, commented: “When people suspect there is injustice planted at the heart of the public services they access, the least they can expect is the Government of the day to undertake a serious independent investigation. However, the Prevent review has shown that the Government is determined to ignore the damage this programme is causing, particularly so to Muslims and people of colour.”

Comyn went on to state: “This is just the latest in a long line of failures which show any review carried out by this Government will never be independent. This exercise could have been a chance to properly scrutinise the premise and impacts of the Prevent strategy which stifles speech, spreads fear and distrust and encourages discrimination. Liberty will no longer engage in the farce that it has become. We need interventions that respect the rights of the people directly affected and that bring communities together. Both the Prevent strategy and its review are very far removed from that ideal.”

Honest scrutiny

Isobel Ingham-Barrow from Muslim Engagement and Development said: “We originally regarded the independent review as an important mechanism for ensuring genuine evidence-driven change to the structurally Islamophobic Prevent strategy. However, with the appointment of William Shawcross, the Government has given up any pretence of sincerity. Its purposeful manoeuvring obstructs any honest scrutiny of a policy which is responsible for serious abuses to the rights and freedoms of minority communities.”

In conclusion, Ingham-Barrow outlined: “As this is a question of securing social justice, equality and freedom for all, we cannot in all good conscience engage with a review process that no longer has any credibility nor remit to reach objective and meaningful conclusions.”

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