The Home Office has named a former Charity Commission chair who previously described Islam in Europe as “one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future” as the independent reviewer of its anti-terrorism programme Prevent.
William Shawcross, who led the charity watchdog from 2012 to 2018, is the second person to be named to the role in an appointment that continues to be plagued by controversy.
The announcement comes after the previous appointee to the role, Lord Carlile, was forced to quit after a court challenge.
Terms of reference for the review, which will consider the strategy and delivery of the Prevent programme and make recommendations for its future, will be published “shortly”, the Home Office said.
Human-rights and campaign groups have been pushing for a review of the programme, which is part of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, Contest, and is designed to prevent vulnerable people from being drawn into terrorism. Groups such as Amnesty International have expressed concerns that it fosters discrimination against Muslims.
In a statement on his appointment, Shawcross said he intended to lead a “robust and evidence-based examination of the programme”.
However, critics have said comments Shawcross has made in the past prevent him from providing an objective and fair review.
Shawcross was previously a director of the Henry Jackson Society, a neoconservative think-tank that has been accused of stoking Islamophobia.
In 2012, while director of HJS, he said: “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations.”
Noting these comments, Miqdaad Versi, spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain, commented: “One wonders why bother.”
Versi added that the council, among others that supported an independent review of Prevent, had been “roundly criticised by many for implicitly trusting that this would be done fairly”. “It seems the critics were right,” he said.
Shawcross’s critics have also noted that the Charity Commission came under scrutiny during his leadership for appearing to focus its efforts disproportionately on Muslim charities. A quarter of the commission’s inquiries targeted Muslim groups in 2014.
UK NGO Mend – Muslim engagement and development – said this showed the “harmful effects of PREVENT are demonstrably manifested in Charity Commission’s interactions with Muslim charities [which] suggests that Shawcross’s position would colour the review with a pre-determined bias”.
In November, when Shawcross was reported to be the frontrunner for the role, Mend described his comments on Islam and Europe as “reminiscent of broader narratives that seek to justify the War on Terror by reducing complex discussions on immigration, terrorism and multiculturalism to reductive binaries of the threat of Islam to Western civilisation”.
“Given his history as an embedded figure within the propagation of anti-Muslim biases and the overarching apparatus of the War on Terror, Shawcross’s leadership of the review would only encourage the continued infringement of civil liberties, sanitise the adverse effects of the strategy, risk deflecting criticism and compromise potential reform that the strategy so desperately requires,” the NGO wrote.
Dal Babu, a former chief superintendent in the Met police and a Muslim, told the Guardian: “Shawcross is a man who has demonstrated lack of independence in matters involving the Muslim community and sadly this is a missed opportunity to develop an effective [programme] that safeguards our children.”
Announcing Shawcross’s appointment, Lords minister Baroness Williams said: “Prevent plays an essential role in stopping vulnerable people being drawn into terrorism and I am grateful to those who work tirelessly, including throughout the pandemic, to turn lives around and keep our communities safe.
“It is important that this vital programme continues to improve and I look forward to seeing Mr Shawcross’s recommendations in due course.”
Shawcross said he was “delighted” to be leading the review to “ensure that Britain has the most effective strategy possible for preventing people from becoming terrorists”.
“As independent reviewer, I look forward to assessing how Prevent works, what impact it has, and what further can be done to safeguard individuals from all forms of terrorist influence. I look forward to hearing from a wide range of voices, particularly those who have had experience of Prevent in practice.”
Responding to the criticism, a Home Office spokesperson said: “There was a full and open recruitment process to find the new independent reviewer of Prevent.
“A panel, led by an independent chair, assessed the candidates and found that Mr Shawcross met the criteria and possessed the right range of skills and experience to conduct this important review.”