EXCL: Prevent strategy oversight board hasn't met since 2018

Rishi Sunak eyes extended remit for counter-extremism programme – but "independent" governance panel has been mothballed
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The panel designed to provide independent scrutiny and oversight of the Home Office’s counter-terror Prevent programme has not met since 2018, CSW can reveal.

The Prevent Oversight Board was set up in 2011 as a mechanism to improve the governance of the 2007 counter-terror strategy, which Conservative Party leadership contender Rishi Sunak has said he wants to expand.

Sunak said this week that he wants to “refocus” the programme – which requires public-facing bodies to report people they feel are at risk of being radicalised – on Islamist extremism and widen the definition of extremism to encompass "those who vilify our country".

But information obtained by CSW under the Freedom of Information Act reveals that the oversight mechanism for the controversial programme appears to have effectively not been operating for the last three and a half years.

Not only has the board not met since November 2018, its membership has not been updated since then. A list of board members provided by the Home Office included nine former ministers who have stood down since July 2019, including two who are no longer MPs.

A Home Office spokesperson said the board’s membership has not been updated because it has not reconvened, and will be updated when it next meets.

This calls into question an earlier claim by Home Office minister Baroness Williams, who said in response to a parliamentary written question in February 2020 that the board was “currently in existence”.

Statutory guidance published in April 2021 – by which point the board had been dormant for more than two years – said the Home Office would "support the Prevent Oversight Board" but did not mention that it was not operating at the time. The guidance also said the board could recommend an intervention by the home secretary if an organisation was failing to comply with the Prevent duty.

A meeting of the board had been scheduled for April 2019, but was cancelled after the government announced an independent review of Prevent in January that year.

The review was intended to determine if Prevent was effective and to address concerns that it could encourage discrimination or have a chilling effect on free speech.

A Home Office spokesperson said the department would take the review’s recommendations into account in deciding when to reconvene the Prevent Oversight Board. They said the department would not speculate on the outcome of the review.

The review was intended to put its recommendations forward in 2020 but was delayed after Lord Carlile – who stepped down from the oversight board to lead it in August 2019 – was removed as independent reviewer after a court challenge.

The review is now under way, led by William Shawcross, who succeeded Carlile in January 2021.

The Prevent Oversight Board: what we know

The oversight board was set up following a 2011 review of the Prevent strategy, which promised to strengthen governance of the programme “at every level”. The foreword to the review acknowledged that “some problems have arisen, notably from the feeling of some parts of the community that they have been victims of state ‘snooping’”, as well as a need to reduce the “potential for perceived discrimination”.

“We believe that Prevent would benefit from greater scrutiny and increased levels of independent oversight. For that reason, we intend also to establish a non-executive Prevent board to oversee the Prevent strategy and its local implementation,” the review said.

“The board will be permanent, with strong, independent membership, but not statutory,” the review added. It was to be jointly chaired by the home secretary and the communities secretary, recognising “the importance of local partnerships”.

There have been scant public references to the board since then. No list of members or record of meetings has ever been published.

The Home Office declined to share the names of some current board members, on the basis of national security and health and safety exemptions from the FoI Act. It also refused CSW’s request to see redacted minutes of the last board meeting for the same reason.

It did share the names of 10 politicians currently listed as oversight board members. Among them are defence secretary Ben Wallace – as well as nine former ministers, including two who are no longer MPs.

Many of these members were no longer in government by the time Home Office minister Baroness Williams said the board was “currently in existence” in February 2020.

They include Damian Hinds, who nominally chaired the panel before he resigned as security minister last month. Also on the list are former justice secretary David Gauke; ex-armed forces minister Mark Lancaster, who retired from government in December 2019; and ex-attorney general Jeremy Wright and former mental health minister Jackie Doyle-Price, who have not had ministerial roles since July 2019.

The list also includes former health secretaries Matt Hancock and Sajid Javid, who resigned in June 2021 and July 2022 respectively; and Lord Agnew, who quit government in January over its handling of Covid support scheme fraud. Another member is former foreign secretary and health secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Williams's response said the board's membership consisted of ministers and director-level civil servants and their equivalents from several government departments, as well as the Counter Terrorism Police Headquarters, Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, the security services and the Charity Commission.

Responding to a similar question in 2017, Williams had said the board also included “a number of independent members”.

She said at the time that then-home secretary Amber Rudd had taken on the role of board chair – suggesting a more junior minister had filled the position previously. 

The decision recognised the board’s “essential and ongoing role in driving delivery and scrutinising the Prevent programme to ensure it continues to effectively safeguard people vulnerable to radicalisation”, Williams said.

Chair responsibilities have since transferred to the Home Office's security minister.

Responding to CSW's queries about the Prevent Oversight Board, a Home Office spokesperson said: “We are committed to supporting those at risk of radicalisation which is why an independent review is in progress to assess how Prevent works, the impact of the programme, and how we can continue to develop our approach to protect people from radicalisation in future.

“Once finalised, and after full consideration, the report will be published as will the government’s response.” 

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