Independent Review of Prevent - what did we learn?
William Shawcross’s much anticipated and previously leaked Independent Review of Prevent was published in February. While the government has said it is committed to implementing the findings of the review, there have been widespread criticisms
In his foreword to the review, Shawcross says: “No counter-terrorism programme will ever be able to shield us from all harm, but every society has a duty to try to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.
“Prevent seeks to divert people away from being radicalised into terrorism and back towards lawful life within society. This is a far more humane approach than waiting until someone has crossed a criminal threshold and then bringing punitive action. In the last 20 years, Prevent has evolved and adapted as we have learned more about how to counter radicalisation effectively.”
He continues: “I found a programme that is broadly right in its objectives, admirable in its intentions and that fulfils many of its functions to good effect. However, there is room for improvement.
“Prevent must return to its core mission – countering all those ideologies that can lead people to committing or supporting acts of terrorism. This can only be done if Prevent properly understands the nature of these ideologies and how they attract and suborn individuals.
“It is correct for Prevent to be increasingly concerned about the growing threat from the Extreme Right. But the facts clearly demonstrate that the most lethal threat in the last 20 years has come from Islamism, and this threat continues.”
The review was commissioned in 2019 – it is now 2023 – and since then, Shawcross claims six terrorist attacks have taken place in the UK: Fishmongers’ Hall (November 2019), Whitemoor Prison (January 2020), Streatham (February 2020), Reading (June 2020), Southend (October 2021), and Liverpool (November 2021). As Shawcross points out, “All these attacks were Islamist in nature.”
However, Shawcross does not mention the October 2022 Dover firebomb attack, which was led by right-wing ideology. This happened more than three months before publication of the review, so could have been included in his list.
It is worth mentioning the delays to the review, which was published two-and-a-half years after its original deadline.
The parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee launched an inquiry into the government’s counter-extremism strategy to examine Prevent in 2015. David Anderson, the UK’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation at the time called for an independent review of Prevent. The committee’s final report also called for an independent review of the decision to place the Prevent duty on a statutory basis.
In 2018, Neil Basu, then deputy assistant commissioner in the Met, and others including Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and Liberty called for an independent review of Prevent.
In January 2019, security minister Ben Wallace said that the government would accept an amendment to the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill which committed the government to commission an independent review of Prevent. The bill became law in February that year and required the government to appoint a reviewer within six months (by 12 August 2019) and present the report and the government’s response within 18 months (by 12 August 2020).
Lord Carlile, a former reviewer of terrorism legislation, was appointed to the role on 12 August 2019. However, this appointment was criticised as he had provided independent oversight on a previous review of Prevent by the Home Office in 2011 and was a member of a Home Office committee responsible for enforcing the implementation of the Prevent duty by public bodies. Carlile himself said: “I admit I played a part in it, so I may be somewhat biased towards it.”
Legal action was launched by Rights Watch (UK) contesting his appointment. Carlile was dropped as reviewer in December 2019.
In April 2020, the government launched an “open” competition to recruit an independent reviewer. With the deadline for publication approaching, legislation was introduced and a new deadline of August 2021 was set.
Shawcross was announced as the reviewer in January 2021 (five months after the original deadline for publication). Shawcross, a journalist and author, was previously chair of the Charity Commission and former director of the Henry Jackson Society think tank. However, this appointment was also criticised, when comments Shawcross made in 2012 as director of the Henry Jackson Society surfaced: “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future.”
In February 2021, a group of human rights and civil liberties organisations including Amnesty and Liberty, announced they would boycott the review. In a statement, they said: “Shawcross’s appointment, given his well-known record and previous statements on Islam… brings into question the good faith of the government in establishing the review and fundamentally undermines its credibility.”
The deadline was pushed back again, with Shawcross set to deliver the review to parliament by the end of September 2021 and the report and the government’s response set to be published by 31st December 2021. Then on 24 December, the government announced another extension into 2022, with no final deadline given.
In February 2022, an alternative review known as The People’s Review of Prevent, which was supported by many of those who had boycotted the official review, found that Prevent “leads to the stigmatisation of certain communities as suspect and even dangerous, regardless of how carefully they seek to stay within the law”.
Then there were leaks. In May 2022, the Guardian reported that it had seen extracts of the report and that it would call for renewed focus on Islamist extremism and criticise the inclusion of far-right extremism. In September that year, the Telegraph reported that Suella Braverman (in her first short stint as Home Secretary) was planning an overhaul of Prevent based on Shawcross’s findings, again mentioning that the focus should be more on Islamist extremists and less on far-right extremism.
In December 2022, The Times reported that publication was delayed due to legal concerns over the naming of individuals and organisations accused of spreading Islamist extremism.
The review was finally published on 8 February 2022.
Shawcross said: “Prevent has a noble ambition: stopping people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. I heard time and again about how Prevent saves lives, helps tackle the causes of radicalisation, prevents individuals from potentially carrying out an act of terrorism, and assists others to disengage from extremism. The government should be proud of Prevent’s positive impact in this regard. Prevent’s architecture is sophisticated and impressive. The caricature of Prevent as an authoritarian and thinly veiled means of persecuting British Muslims is not only untrue, it is an insult to all those in the Prevent network doing such diligent work to stop individuals from being radicalised into terrorism.”
However, Shawcross also points out that often those who commit terrorist acts have previously been referred to Prevent and seeks to demonstrate how these failings may be addressed.
Areas that require improvement are addressed: “Prevent must return to its overarching objective: to stop individuals from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism”.
Shawcross criticises the safeguarding of those referred to Prevent: “i.e. an emphasis on protecting those referred into Prevent from harm and addressing their personal vulnerabilities”.
He says: “Prevent too often bestows a status of victimhood on all who come into contact with it, confusing practitioners and officials as to Prevent’s fundamental purpose.”
The main conclusions of Shawcross’s review seem to be: “Prevent is not doing enough to counter non-violent Islamist extremism” and “Prevent has a double standard when dealing with the Extreme Right-Wing and Islamism”.
By way of explanation, Shawcross claims that “Prevent takes an expansive approach to the Extreme Right-Wing, capturing a variety of influences that, at times, has been so broad it has included mildly controversial or provocative forms of mainstream, right-wing leaning commentary that have no meaningful connection to terrorism or radicalisation. However, with Islamism, Prevent tends to take a much narrower approach centred around proscribed organisations, ignoring the contribution of non-violent Islamist narratives and networks to terrorism.
The review lists 34 recommendations, ranging from exploring the prevalence of anti-semitism in Channel cases to moving away from vulnerability language. Shawcross recommends revising the first objective to “tackle the ideological causes of terrorism”; resetting thresholds to ensure proportionality across Prevent workstreams; improving the understanding of ‘blasphemy’ as part of the wider Islamist threat; and revising the Prevent Duty to ensure that the scheme meets its revised objectives. Shawcross also recommends extending the Prevent Duty to immigration and asylum and job centres; lengthening the Prevent funding cycle to between two and five years; and improving Prevent datasets by revising how referrals are categorised.
Other recommendations include encouraging referrals from friends, family and community cohorts; investigating whether there is an imbalance in thresholds applied to Islamist and Extreme Right-Wing Channel cases; and developing a new training and induction package for all government and public sector staff working in counter-extremism and counter-terrorism.
The government has accepted the recommendations. Home secretary Suella Braverman said: “I wholeheartedly accept all 34 recommendations and am committed to quickly delivering wholesale change to ensure we are taking every possible step to protect our country from the threat posed by terrorism.”
“Prevent will now ensure it focuses on the key threat of Islamist terrorism.
“As part of this more proportionate approach, we will also remain vigilant on emerging threats, including on the extreme right.
“This independent review has identified areas where real reform is required. This includes a need for Prevent to better understand Islamist ideology, which underpins the predominant terrorist threat facing the UK.”
In the government’s official response to the Independent Review of Prevent, Braverman said: “The Independent Review, led by William Shawcross, is a vital part of ensuring Prevent is fit for purpose and agile enough to meet the threat we face. I would like to thank William Shawcross and his team for their hard work and dedication in completing such a thorough piece of work. In his report, the reviewer is clear that while Prevent is a crucial element in our armoury against terrorism, it needs to refocus on its core mission of stopping people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. This includes Prevent placing greater emphasis on tackling ideology and its radicalising effects, rather than attempting to go beyond its remit to address broader societal issues such as mental health.”
Counter Terrorism Policing’s National Prevent lead, Detective Chief Superintendent Maria Lovegrove said: “Counter Terrorism Policing has long held the view that our delivery of the Prevent Duty is one of the most important things we do in our mission to keep the public safe.
“We are pleased that William Shawcross has recognised the vital work Prevent does, particularly how the Government, Counter Terrorism Policing and our many partner agencies are tackling the radicalisation of young people and reducing the risk of violent extremism.
“The terrorist threats we face now are very different to when Prevent began, and a strong collective approach is absolutely vital if we are to keep up with this changing landscape and its growing dimensions.
“We will now work alongside the Home Office to respond to the recommendations, and continue our contribution to the Government’s refresh of the CONTEST strategy.”
However, as we have already touched on, there are others who have voiced strong criticism. Ilyas Nagdee, Amnesty International UK’s racial justice director, said: “This review is riddled with biased thinking, errors, and plain anti-Muslim prejudice - frankly, the review has no legitimacy.
“William Shawcross’ history of bigoted comments on Muslims and Islam should have precluded his involvement in this ill-starred review in the first place.
“There’s mounting evidence that Prevent has specifically targeted Muslim communities and activists fighting for social justice and a host of crucial international issues – including topics like the climate crisis and the oppression of Palestinians.
“There is growing evidence that Prevent is having disastrous consequences for many people; eroding freedom of expression, clamping down on activism, creating a compliant generation and impacting on individual rights enshrined in law.
“A proper independent review of Prevent should have looked at the host of human rights violations that the programme has led to - but these have largely been passed over in silence.”
Ruth Ehrlich, head of policy and campaigns at Liberty, said: “We all want to live safe and flourishing lives, but Prevent is a fundamentally misconceived and oppressive policy that stops us from doing so. It embeds discrimination against Muslims in public services, erodes carefully cultivated relationships, and fosters a culture of fear and mistrust.
“In 2019, Liberty along with 16 other human rights and community groups made the decision to boycott the Shawcross review. Shawcross’s appointment as chair of the review, following his history of Islamophobic comments, made it clear that the Government did not intend to conduct an impartial review of the strategy, but instead sought to whitewash it.
“The publication of today’s long-delayed report – and the fact that its recommendations have already been accepted in full by the Government – shows that the Government is not committed to engaging meaningfully with Muslim communities but instead targeting them further. Muslim organisations are singled out for their criticisms of Prevent, despite the fact these concerns are shared widely among human rights organisations, as well as frontline workers. Instead of addressing the human rights issues raised by the Prevent duty, the review proposes to extend the reach of Prevent to more public sector bodies, entrenching its harmful effects.”
Zara Mohammed, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: “What we see in the so-called independent review is a rehashing of divisive talking points determined at stigmatising Muslims and Muslim civil society.”
The Guardian recently reported that there has been a rise in Andrew Tate related cases referred to Prevent by schools, and there has also been criticism that Andrew Tate and other misogynist and incel ideology has been overlooked by Shawcross.
Reports include incidents of verbal harassment of female teachers or pupils and outbursts which reflect Tate’s views.
One practitioner told the Guardian: “From September he’s just accelerated from nowhere to become a primary issue for schools that I have been dealing with. He obviously doesn’t fit within the Prevent sphere but incels do. He is parallel to them and has a crossover. When I’m in schools I find myself describing him, effectively, as toxic misogyny on steroids.
“It may have been the delayed effect off the back of young people talking more about him after he lost access to some of his social media platforms, but we started to see a rise before Christmas, in terms of schools telling us about pupils really challenging staff, such as cases where pupils have said to female teacher: ‘What do you know, you’re a woman, you can’t teach me anything. Your place is in the kitchen.’”
Shawcross concluded that the “Incel” culture was not a counter-terrorism matter, stating in the report: “However, the country’s deputy senior national co-ordinator for counterterrorism policy has said that Incel is not a terrorist ideology. I agree.”
This is despite cases in the UK such as the terrorism conviction of Gabrielle Friel who “expressed affinity with and sympathy for one incel-motivated mass murderer” and the mass shooting in Plymouth, which was carried out by a man involved in incel ideology. The Plymouth attacker had been referred to Prevent. Across the world, incel ideology has also been a factor in killings in Isla Vista, California, in 2014; in Toronto in 2018 and 2020; and in Tallahassee in 2018.
Dr Tim Squirrell of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) told the Guardian: “Tate clearly represents a risk of radicalising young men into misogynist extremism. This kind of extremism is not currently considered for support under Prevent unless it is accompanied with a recognised ideology, e.g. incel/extreme rightwing/Islamist. That’s a problem.”
Squirrell added: “Incel ideology isn’t the only misogynist ideology, or even the one that causes the most damage in absolute terms, but claiming that it is not and shouldn’t be considered a terrorist threat is misguided.”
“It also cannot be dealt with under hate crime because – and you would hope that Shawcross would know this – misogyny isn’t included in hate crime legislation.”
Shawcross’s 192-page Independent Review of Prevent has faced a lot of hurdles, including delays, changes in reviewer, criticism and even legal action. The government and counter terror policing have committed to working on the recommendations. On the other hand, the review has been criticised by human rights groups, experts and others for not being independent, for focussing too much on Islamist extremism and not enough on far-right extremism.