UKREN blog

Thursday 14 July 2016

PREVENT: A ‘chilling effect’ on free speech in schools

Rights Watch UK’s new landmark report (‘Preventing Education’) sheds light on the disturbing impact of one pillar of the UK government’s ‘counter-terrorism’ policy: Prevent. Under Prevent, a vast panoply of public and private sector workers, including educators and caregivers are legally obliged to identify and report children and young people who show ‘signs of extremism’.

Image: Getty

Referrals are made from Prevent the to the government's anti-radicalisation programme: ‘CHANNEL’. Referrals can be made on the basis of a student expressing feelings of grievance or injustice; expressing a need for identity, meaning and belonging; having a desire for excitement and adventure; having a desire for political or moral change, or being at a transitional time of life, and experiencing relevant mental health issues.

Prevent disproportionately targets and impacts Muslim communities. A recent shadow report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination reported that in 2007-2010, 67% of referrals from Prevent involved Muslims; between April 2012 and end of March 2014 56% of referrals were recorded as Muslim, with other religions accounting for 11% and 33% where religion is unknown (which, if religion were known, could mean a total of up to 89% Muslims). Meanwhile the national census in 2011 showed Muslims comprising only 4.8% of the population.

Whose best interest?

Preventing Education unequivocally demonstrates that Prevent strategy is, “leaving a generation of young Britons fearful of exercising their rights to freedom of expression”, and in direct contradiction to Prevent’s purpose, the strategy risks being counter-productive by “driving children to discuss issues related to terrorism, religion and identity outside the classroom and online where simplistic narratives are promoted and go unchallenged”.

Far from championing what the scheme defines as ‘British values’ (which include ‘democracy’, ‘the rule of law’, ‘individual liberty’ and, ironically, ‘mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’), in practice the Prevent duty curbs free speech, shuts down healthy and important discussions in classroom settings, and contributes to- in the sinister terminology of Britain’s new Prime Minister Theresa May- a “hostile environment” for Black/Asian/minority ethnic and migrant communities.

At the launch of the report at the Houses of Parliament last night, an attendee referred to Prevent as “intelligence gathering masquerading as safeguarding”. Prevent operates on the emotive principle of protecting children from radicalisation, and yet considerations of the impact on children of the policy is not central to its design or delivery, and the lived experience of Prevent fails dramatically to match up to its rhetoric. Prevent’s current operation is consequently in breach of Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which details that, “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary concern”.

The report launched yesterday calls for Prevent to be repealed and abandoned. Once the scheme has been stopped, in the circumstance that “gaps in the existing legal and policy framework are identified”, Rights Watch UK encourages the government to perform “genuine and wide stakeholder consultation”- including soliciting the opinion of the children and young people impacted by Prevent- when planning future policy around this issue.

A chilling effect

Rights Watch UK’s report is crucial in giving voice to the children and parents affected by Prevent. The report includes a case study of a student, Rahmaan, who, after wearing a Palestinian scarf to school was visited at his home by two police officers brandishing a substantial file- apparently relating to him- which they informed Rahmaan would be kept for the rest of his life. In the report, Rahmaan talks about the potential ‘chilling effect’ that Prevent is having on young peoples’ legitimate political expression.

Rahmaan mentions a friend who went through a similar experience, and who, “has completely withdrawn from politics [...] now, because of Prevent, he [has become] really quiet and submissive and withdrawn from society. And if you look at all those people that have gone to ISIS, it’s because they have been withdrawn from society that they found these different societies on the Internet”. In his testimony Rahmaan draws a line of causality between the harmful racial profiling implicit in the Prevent duty, and ‘pull-factors’ towards extremist activities.

An Ofsted report released this week examined ‘how well’ further education and skills providers have been implementing the ‘Prevent’ duty. The report found that, far from learners being supported and protected, theywere being put at risk through exposure to external speakers and facilitators that had not been subject the the schools’ own usual monitoring and vetting procedures. Tellingly, the report does not include any testimonies or insights from children or supposed ‘beneficiaries’ of the Prevent duty. Celebratory spotlight is given to a school that has ramped up surveillance of its students, including “blocking 3G and 4G data on learners’ personal devices while on provider premises”.

What next?

The Muslim Council of Britain reported that between the period 2006-2014, fewer than 20% (777 out of 3934) of individuals referred to the police were accepted by Channel panels. Even those who support the implementation of Prevent cannot deny that this indicates that up to 80% of people under scrutiny and suspicion will have suffered the harm involved in Prevent without any ‘legitimate’ cause. Rights Watch UK recommends that the government provides reparations to children and families who have been harmed by the Prevent strategy.

Interested parties can download the detailed and comprehensive report- Preventing Education- here, sign Rights Watch UK’s petition appealing to the government to abandon Prevent strategy here, and are encouraged to explore the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol)’s Activist’s Guide to Resisting Prevent.


By Leah Cowan


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