Jobcentres, Border Force and asylum staff may soon have a legal duty to report those they believe to be at risk of becoming extremists in an expansion of the counter-terror Prevent programme, the Home Office has said.
The department has accepted a recommendation to “explore extending the Prevent Duty to immigration and asylum (through UK Border Force, Immigration and Protection Directorate) and to job centres (via the Department for Work and Pensions)”, made in a long-delayed review published yesterday.
The recommendation was one of 34 included in Sir William Shawcross’s review of Prevent, which aims to identify people at risk of radicalisation. The publication comes four years after the review was commissioned in January 2019 following a series of missed reporting deadlines and disagreements over which parts of the document to redact.
The Home Office has accepted all 34 recommendations, including one that said Prevent should be “recalibrated” to put more focus on the terrorist threat from Islamism than from right-wing extremism; and another that called for the programme to “move away from ‘vulnerability’ language and towards ‘susceptibility’, wherever accurate”.
It has also agreed to set up a “standards and compliance unit” to handle complaints about the counter-terror programme, after the review found an “absence of an overarching and comprehensive oversight mechanism”.
Responding to the call to explore expansion of the programme, the Home Office said it agrees that “all organisations who work with people at risk of radicalisation should have strong and robust processes in place to identify and refer these individuals to Prevent”.
Prevent places public bodies, including schools and the police, under a legal duty to identify and report people who may turn to extremism, and facilitates interventions to stop them from doing so.
The Home Office said it will “work closely with partners, including those in Border Force, Immigration and Asylum, and in the Department for Work and Pensions, to explore how Prevent can be embedded operationally in these sectors”.
Expansion of the Prevent duty to DWP, immigration and asylum staff will be “explored fully” as part of an upcoming refresh of the government’s CONTEST anti-terrorism strategy, it said.
Standards and compliance unit to provide 'stronger oversight'
The Home Office has committed to creating an “independent standards and compliance unit” to handle complaints.
The review called for the unit to be set up to “monitor standards and compliance across Prevent”, and said it should be a “mechanism whereby complaints are considered and mistakes are corrected”.
In its response, published alongside the report, the Home Office accepted the recommendation, agreeing that “there is a need for stronger oversight of Prevent, including greater coordination and communication between secondary oversight boards and committees”.
The unit will “provide a clear and accessible route for the public and practitioners to raise concerns about Prevent activity where it may have fallen short of the high standards we expect”, it said.
The review criticised the “absence of an overarching and comprehensive oversight mechanism” to ensure bodies responsible for implementing Prevent are meeting their statutory duties. At present, it said, it is “not clear where valid complaints and concerns about Prevent should be raised, nor is there an independent process that can examine and rebut false claims disseminated by bad faith actors”.
It described “piecemeal” oversight by a series of bodies “that do not always have either sufficient expertise or knowledge of the subject”.
It said the existing – but long dormant – Prevent Oversight Board “could have been used to provide better scrutiny of overall Prevent delivery”, but was limited because it “appears to meet very infrequently” and its members have high-level jobs with “many other duties”.
Last summer, CSW revealed the board had effectively been disbanded, having not met since 2018. A list of members provided by the Home Office included nine former ministers, including two who were no longer MPs.
The board was set up following a 2011 review, which found Prevent would “benefit from greater scrutiny and increased levels of independent oversight”, and promised to strengthen governance “at every level”.
In yesterday's response, the Home Office said it would “consider options for reinvigorating the ministerial Prevent Oversight Board so that there is a clear oversight mechanism for the standards and compliance unit, for implementation of the recommendations of the review, and other Prevent work”.
The compliance unit will undertake investigations, but the response says that this will be under the instruction of ministers – despite the Home Office’s description of the unit as “independent”.
The department has also promised to “publicise the unit on GOV.UK and guarantee a transparent process for publishing the unit’s findings in a way that protects the anonymity of those involved”.
Following the review, the Home Office will update guidance on the Prevent duty, as well as frontline operational guidance and training on the programme.
Review 'will make Britain less safe'
The shift towards focusing on Islamist terrorism has prompted some criticism.
Zara Mohammed, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said the review was “playing down the threat of far-right extremism”and that implementing its recommendations would “make Britain less safe”.
She said the review's outcomes had been "predetermined", citing a series of leaks spanning several years, and that the document was a "rehashing of divisive talking points determined at stigmatising Muslims and Muslim civil society".
Brendan Cox, the widower of murdered Labour MP Jo Cox, who was killed by a white nationalist in 2016, wrote that Shawcross's appointment to lead the review "made it almost impossible for it to hold credibility right from the start".
When Shawcross – who is now commissioner for public appointments – was chosen to lead the review in 2021, critics said his previous comments prevented him from providing an objective and fair review.
While director of the Henry Jackson Society, a neoconservative think-tank that has been accused of stoking Islamophobia, Shawcross once described Islam in Europe as “one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future”.
It has also been noted that while Shawcross was chair of the Charity Commission, the watchdog came under scrutiny for appearing to focus its efforts disproportionately on Muslim charities. A quarter of the commission’s inquiries targeted Muslim groups in 2014.
Announcing the publication of the review, home secretary Suella Braverman said: “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.
“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.”