One intriguing CTR mechanism is the Prevent Oversight Board. It is intriguing because very little information is publicly available about it. The Board is a Home Office Committee with broad responsibility for overseeing the implementation of Prevent in different sectors. As explained in our earlier post, Prevent is one of the four strands of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST. Since 2011, Prevent broadly encapsulates an agenda of ‘de-radicalisation’ which involves identifying and challenging those vulnerable to developing terrorist sympathies. The statutory guidance published following the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 explains the aim of Prevent is to “reduce the threat to the UK from terrorism by stopping people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.” The Act also placed a duty on local authorities, schools and registered childcare providers, higher and further education providers, the health sector, prisons and probation services, and the police to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. The bodies (known as “specified authorities”) under the duty are subject to monitoring and inspection. In most cases the monitoring authority is the relevant regulatory agency. For example, in Higher Education the monitoring authority is the Office for Students (formerly HEFCE). The monitoring authority for schools is Ofsted and the Prevent duty sits within the existing safeguarding framework. According to the duty guidance, sector specific monitoring is overseen by the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism (OSCT) in the Home Office and the Prevent Oversight Board.
Only five sources of official government information have so far been identified as outlining the role of the Oversight Board. The June 2011 Prevent Strategy Review, the July 2011 CONTEST Strategy, the statutory guidance published in accordance with the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 , a reference by James Brokenshire MP, then Minister of State for Security and Immigration, in a Commons debate on counter-terrorism in 2015, and a House of Lords written answer by Baroness Williams, the junior minister for Countering Terrorism, responding to a question tabled by Lord Carlile, the former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism legislation in 2017 (see our previous blog post on this role).
The information that can be gathered from these sources has two qualities. First, it is nearly identical and second, it is limited. The Prevent Strategy Review describes a non-executive oversight board which “will be permanent, with strong, independent membership, but not statutory. Reflecting the importance of local partnerships – and recognising the important connections between Prevent and the wider work referred to above – it will be jointly chaired by the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government” (paragraph 11.9). The overall CONTEST strategy merely alludes to the existence of a Prevent Oversight “sub-board” (see paragraph 11.8). The 2015 statutory guidance indicates that the Home Office oversees Prevent, particularly in the 50 priority areas, and the Board is “chaired by the Minister for Immigration and Security, which may agree on further action to support implementation of the duty” including recommending that the Minister use section 30 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 to give directions to an authority which has “failed to discharge its duty”. Brokenshire’s speech, which took place during a debate on the draft guidance, merely noted that the Board has “an integral role in ensuring that the guidance … is properly recognised” and that it can “share good practice, and indeed the issues on adherence to it.” The constitution of the Board has changed over time, with Baroness Williams indicating in 2017 that it is now chaired by the Home Secretary. Baroness Williams’ brief answer to Lord Carlile describes the Board as providing “scrutiny and independent oversight to the Prevent Programme,” and states that the membership includes the Secretaries of State responsible for each Prevent sector and a number of independent members.
What does this information tell us about the role of the Prevent Oversight Board in CTR? Review occurs in layers. Some layers are external, such as the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. Other layers are internal. The Prevent Oversight Board is an internal review mechanism. This sits somewhat at odds with the repeated reference to the “independent membership” and “independent oversight” of the Board. Independence in the context of review usually signifies distance from central government, that is external oversight. The Board is independent from the sectors that have been placed under the duty and it gathers together the information from the separate monitoring authorities, but it is not independent from those who initiated the strategy. Indeed, the Prevent Oversight Board sits in close proximity to central policy making. Assessing the independence of the Board is further hindered by two factors: the lack of information on the “independent members”; and the apparent absence so far of any published reports of the Board’s work.
The lack of transparency in the reporting on the oversight of the Prevent duty was echoed recently by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in its report into Freedom of Speech in Universities. The Committee was critical of the shallow depth of the material available on compliance with the duty in Higher Education. While HEFCE – and now the OfS – produces high-level reports on Prevent compliance more “rigorous and transparent reporting is needed to dispel myths about Prevent.” The JCHR repeated its call for an independent review of the Prevent policy initially made in its 2016 report on Counter Extremism. Any further review should consider how more information can be provided on the work and role of the Prevent Oversight Board. The apparent central role of the Board in the internal review and scrutiny of the Prevent Strategy is currently undermined by the lack of information publicly available on the Board.
The CTR project team have submitted an FOI request to the Home Office to request further information on the Prevent Oversight Board. We will update you on any response in due course.