Last month, the Waltham Forest Liberal Democrats held an event examining the Prevent Duty, which aims to safeguard people in Britain from being radicalised.
Prevent is one of the cornerstones of the UK government’s counterterrorism strategy, yet it has also been accused of impinging on the civil liberties of those affected by it.
Back in 2015, the Waltham Forest Council of Mosques (WFCOM) called for a boycott of Prevent, accusing the Labour-run Council and Conservative Government of treating the borough’s 70,000 Muslims as a “testing ground for Prevent Programmes,” which they described as “toxic”.
In 2021, WFCOM were among the 550 organisations and individuals nationwide to announce they were refusing to co-operate with William Shawcross, who was appointed by the Home Secretary to carry out an ‘independent’ review into Prevent. Shawcross had been described as having “a track record of hostility to Islam and Muslims”, and the alienating effect of his appointment was highlighted at the time by the Metropolitan police’s assistant commissioner for counter terrorism – but the appointment was made regardless, and the report was finally published earlier this year.
Given the number of local people affected by Prevent, Waltham Forest Liberal Democrats wanted to better understand this policy, its efficacy and impact.
The public event, held at the Great Hall in Leyton on 6 November, was chaired by human rights lawyer and former MEP Irina von Weise. Our keynote speakers were Dr Layla Aitlhadj, a director and case worker at advocacy group Prevent Watch, and Professor John Holmwood, who has studied and written extensively on the impact of the Prevent Duty on communities, democracy and freedom of expression.
The pair are among the UK’s foremost experts on Prevent. They co-authored the UK’s largest study into Prevent, drawing on 600 case studies of adults and children investigated under the Duty. The report, called the People’s Review of Prevent, was published in 2022 and has been endorsed by human rights lawyers, experts and organisations.
I attended the Great Hall event in my capacity of Chair of the local party, and found the event to be a hugely interesting and stimulating examination of this crucially important piece of government policy. Here’s what I learned.
The Liberal Democrats have a long history with the Prevent Duty. It was first proposed under the Labour Government nearly twenty years ago, but was rejected by the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords due to the breadth of its reach and the lack of definition around its key concepts.
The idea was revived in 2011, and again, the Liberal Democrats in the Coalition Government kept it from being brought forward as legislation. It was only in 2015, with the Liberal Democrats in a weakened position, that it was finally brought into effect.
The East London borough of Waltham Forest, where around 1 in 5 people are of the Muslim faith, was declared a Prevent Priority Area in 2016. Many from this large minority have seen first-hand the impact of the zealous application of this policy.
The Labour-run Council have maintained a stance of being a proud supporter of Prevent and nationally, a future Labour government remains committed to keeping this policy.
Their attitude shows they are not only failing to listen to local people and faith leaders, but also ignoring evidence from human rights and civil liberty experts, lawyers, academics, and those who are at the forefront of implementing the policy, all highlighting fundamental flaws in the system.
Our expert speakers reminded the audience that the Liberal Democrats are the only party with a history of casting a sceptical eye over Prevent.
Dr Layla Aidlhadj and Professor John Holmwood unpacked the obligations that the policy places on front-line public sector workers, such as teachers, social workers, and doctors, often with minimal training and support. They also shared details of the experiences of those referred to Prevent, particularly young people.
We learned that the Prevent duty, in keeping with the concerns of those Liberal Democrats who worked hard to block its passage earlier in the century, has been defined broadly and interpreted selectively in order to strategically deprive those targeted by it of their right to due process.
We heard how the behaviours targeted by Prevent, including voicing support for oppressed Muslims, are defined as ‘pre-criminal’ (which appears to be a strange euphemism for ‘legal’), and that this allows counter-terrorism officers to interrogate children as young as 8 without an adult present.
The experience for those who have been referred to Prevent is deeply traumatising and, in many cases, humiliating. People’s phones and laptops are seized, and they are subjected to questioning that is akin to interrogating a criminal suspect, despite no crime ever being committed.
The stats show the vast majority of referrals are subsequently rejected, and yet instead of dropping this wasteful policy, the Sunak Government wishes to increase its mandate.
We heard how records of Prevent interventions are retained on file for up to a hundred years and are shared through a proliferation of agencies, meaning that children of 17 are finding themselves denied opportunities for higher education due to overzealous reports filed against them when they were as young as 12.
And we heard how the duty is now being extended in its scope to supress the speech of those protesting for the humane treatment and protection of civilians in war zones like Gaza. Indeed, our two experts said they expect a record number of referrals to arise in the near future given the strong levels of activism on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The Home Office has issued fresh directives to schools and other public sector services to ensure they report any ‘extreme’ behaviour to Prevent, despite there being no clear guidance on what type of non-criminal speech and activities constitutes ‘extreme’. It would seem thousands more people will needlessly go through this awful ordeal for no good reason.
Crucially, we also learned that the Prevent Duty has been ineffective at its core goal: safeguarding vulnerable people by stopping them from being radicalised and carrying out terrorist attacks.
Since the policy was put into place in 2015, there have been no fewer than three terrorist attacks on British soil: the 2017 London Bridge attack, the 2017 Parsons Green train bombing and the 2021 murder of David Amess. These attacks were all carried out by perpetrators who had been referred to Prevent and subsequently lost within the system.
The misuse of this policy, coupled with the disproportionate targeting of British Muslims has alienated various sections of society. In its wake, Prevent has created a deep distrust of the very officials who rely on strong community relations and support in their fight against extremism and terrorism.
We came away from this event with a sense that those who had opposed the implementation of the Prevent Duty had had their worst fears confirmed.
It is too wide in its scope, too poorly overseen and regulated, and too lax in its definitions, to the point where an 11 year old girl explaining the concept of Ramadan to a classmate was considered a justifiable referral under Prevent’s vague terms.
Due to the broad nature of its interpretability, Prevent has been used by the Police, by counter-terrorism units, by the Labour-run Council in Waltham Forest, and by an increasingly authoritarian Conservative Government to systematically oppress and repress entire communities, without even having the thin justification of efficacy.
As Liberal Democrats, we are happy to reaffirm our opposition to this nakedly unfair and discriminatory policy. We remain committed to working with the communities affected by it to ensure that their civil liberties are protected and their rights upheld.
We are tremendously grateful to Dr Layla Aitlhadj, Professor John Holmwood and all of the other esteemed contributors to the People’s Review of Prevent, from Amnesty International and Liberty to the UN Rapporteur for Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights; without their work, so many cases of government overreach would have remained in the dark.
If you or anyone you know has been referred to the authorities under the Prevent Duty, please contact Prevent Watch – their website can be found here. This not-for-profit organisation has case workers who can provide expert support throughout the Prevent process and explain your legal rights.
If you are a Waltham Forest resident impacted by Prevent, do also let us know. We would be happy to support you in your interactions with the Council. You can get in touch using the contact details on our website.
Josh Hadley is Chair of the Waltham Forest Liberal Democrats