Last week, Security Minister Ben Wallace announced an independent review of Prevent – the government’s strategy for supporting people vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism. The announcement represented the Government ceding to repeated calls for such a review. The House of Lords had just inserted a new clause into the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill requiring the Home Secretary to arrange for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. Despite repeated calls for a review of Prevent from, amongst others, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, civil society organisations and the media, the government has consistently denied that a review was necessary, most recently by Home Secretary Sajid Javid who last month said Prevent critics were “on the side of extremists”. In an attempt to shape the announcement as a challenge and not a concession, Wallace said he was challenging Prevent’s critics to provide evidence of their allegations that the strategy targets and discriminates against Muslims, serves as a form of surveillance of Muslim communities and, ultimately, does not work.
An independent review of Prevent has the potential to be transformative for a policy widely held – even by Government actors – to be “toxic” and for preventive approaches to radicalisation, if – and it’s a big if – the review established and conducted in the open, with the buy in of affected communities, and is given access to internal Home Office evaluations, such as the previously unpublished Extremism Risk Guidelines (ERG22+). We don’t yet know whether it will do this. So what do we know about the review?
The amendment requires the Secretary of State to arrange for an independent review of Prevent within six months after the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill being enacted. It also requires the report of the review to be laid before Parliament within 18 months of enactment. If the Bill is passed as expected in February, the review report should be published by summer 2020. However, we do not yet know what shape the review will take; whether it will be undertaken by one individual (like the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation) or a panel (following a format like the Privy Council review of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001). More importantly, we do not yet know what the review’s terms of reference will be – what, in fact, will the review be assessing Prevent against? Will it merely rely on statistical evidence or will it also include the informal and unintended consequences of Prevent? These questions matter because the person who is appointed to undertake the review, the questions they ask, and the people they listen to will have a significant impact on the quality of the review, its outcome, and its reception by its critics and supporters.
The research we have undertaken for the counter-terrorism review project has highlighted a number of challenges faced by reviews of counter-terrorism and suggests that the government should bear the following in mind as it establishes the independent review of Prevent:
- Beware statistical pitfalls. Any good statistician will tell you (see O’Neil 2016 and Levitin 2018), statistics are dependent on the parameters set and the interpretation applied. The Government have released Prevent statistics more regularly in recent years and they appear to show that no “particular group or ideology” group has been unduly singled out, as Wallace claims. However, it is also true that the Prevent statistics show that the majority of those referred, in 2017/2018 some 82%, were considered not to need further action or should be referred to other services such as mental health teams. Not only does the 82% not-relevant-to-Prevent statistic tell you that most concerns are unfounded, it also tells you Prevent is used as a quicker route to other services which serves as much as a reason for “communities engaging with Prevent” as the desire to protect young people, as Wallace suggested.
- Remember informal impacts and unintended consequences. A review of Prevent in a narrow sense, focusing only on the operation, impact, and effectiveness of the policy on the individuals immediately affected by it will fail to capture the full picture of Prevent. Alongside formal referrals there is a plethora of informal discussion and assessment that takes place, where schools, universities and other duty-bound organisations contact their local police Prevent contact to discuss the behaviour of a person or an event. There are also numerous examples of the “chilling effect” and shift in culture that Prevent has wrought.
- Consider the underlying premise. The review should be able to examine, question, and interrogate, the underlying premise of Prevent and should not be restricted simply to assuming that it should exist. Look at causal considerations- Can Prevent be shown to be the causal factor in averting anyone from becoming a terrorist/ being radicalised? Is it even possible to assess such a claim? There are several examples of individuals who have been part of the Channel programme (the Prevent funded police-led multi-agency programme which supports referred individuals) and still go on to commit acts of terrorism. One example of this was the Parsons Green Attacker.
- Publish existing internal reviews. The government has itself undertaken a significant number of internal reviews of Prevent and collected data on the programme, such as the unpublished Extremism Risk Guidelines (ERG22+). These should be opened up, not only to assist the Independent Reviewer, but so that the government’s assertions about the programme can be challenged in light of the information uncovered by the Independent Review.
- Remember participation is key. Participation is key, and not simply participation of those perceived as moderate or deemed ‘acceptable’ by the government, particularly with regards to the Muslim community. One approach could be to hold public evidence sessions and including regional ‘town hall’ debates.
Unusually, the House of Lords amendment requires the Secretary of State to respond to each recommendation made by the review. However, this does not necessarily mean that the Government will commit to taking any actions based on the recommendations of the review. It will still be possible for the Government to ignore the review and carry on as before with its Prevent programme.
Rather than continue to insist that the Prevent programme works and challenging critics to detail its problems without providing access to evidence, the Government should be prepared to have its homework checked thoroughly- a basic tenet of accountability: the people check the work of the Government, not the other way around.