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Prevent: Independent Review

Volume 737: debated on Thursday 7 September 2023

With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the Prevent programme.

The terrorist threat to the UK is unrelenting and evolving, and, as I noted earlier this year in announcing our refresh of Contest, it is rising. To combat that, the tools to counter terrorism must evolve. Contest, our counter-terrorism strategy, has four pillars: prevent, pursue, protect and prepare. Prevent aims to stop people becoming involved in terrorism by tackling radicalising ideologies at their root. It is an early intervention programme that relies on frontline public services across society, including healthcare, education, local authorities, the police and civil society.

I am delivering wide-ranging reforms, following the reappraisal of its effectiveness by the independent reviewer of Prevent, Sir William Shawcross. Prevent needs to better understand the threats we face and the ideology underpinning them. Ideology is the lens through which terrorists see the world. Our agencies work closely with leading experts, practitioners and former extremists. They all say that ideology is pivotal.

Terrorism is fundamentally an attack on our ideas and freedoms, so we must attack the threat at its source and disrupt those who seed and spread extremist ideology. Non-violent extremism can certainly lead to violence, but it is a problem even where it does not. It undermines our values and divides communities by diluting our sense of shared belonging. That is why I have been so disturbed by the sorts of incidents we have seen recently in Batley, Wakefield and elsewhere. We do not have blasphemy laws in Great Britain and we must never succumb to their de facto imposition by a mob. Individuals under the Prevent duty must challenge those who enable “permissive environments” for radicalisation, where grievances, identity politics and disinformation are used to whip up fear and division.

Six months on from the publication of the independent review of Prevent, I am pleased to report significant progress to the House. We are on track to deliver our commitment to implement each of the independent review’s recommendations in full. So far, working closely with the Minister for Security, we have completed 10 out of 34 recommendations, and 68 out of the 120 tasks. I expect to have implemented at least 29 of the 34 recommendations a year after the review’s publication, and the rest shortly thereafter.

Today I am publishing the first major revision of the Prevent duty guidance since its introduction in 2015. Subject to the approval of Parliament, it will come into force on 31 December this year. The guidance is the key text underpinning the way in which Prevent is delivered by the range of partners most central to its success. The changes reflect the spirit and the detail of Sir William’s recommendations.

I accepted the review’s recommendation for thresholds to be reset to ensure proportionality across all extremist ideologies. RICU, the Research, Information and Communications Unit, which provides analytical and analysis products on behalf of the Home Office, was identified by Sir William as a concern. In the past, it has failed to draw clear distinctions between mainstream Conservative commentary and the extreme right. People such as my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg) and Douglas Murray express mainstream, insightful and perfectly decent political views. People may disagree with them, but in no way are they extremists, and Prevent must not risk any perception of disparaging them as such again. From now on, all RICU products which report on extremist trends, and in future themes, will clearly state the purpose of such reporting and be proportionate.

Our new Prevent duty training, available on, will highlight the importance of ideology and enhance understanding of the drivers of Islamist and extreme right-wing terrorism. We will pilot and roll out new face-to-face training alongside the new guidance so that organisations across the sector have the appropriate skills to spot genuine radicalisation. A new security threat check will ensure that strategic decision making related to Prevent is informed by the current threat landscape and local threats, and that activity is directed accordingly.

The review recommended great care over terminology. The term “susceptibility to radicalisation” should be used where appropriate, and the word “vulnerability” only where necessary. Many people who embrace extremism are affected by a range of complicating factors in their lives, but there is almost always an element of personal decision making in the choices they make. They must not be absolved of responsibility when they choose this path.

I have strengthened the operational delivery of Prevent by switching to a regional delivery model that provides support for all local authorities in England and Wales. The 20 areas in England and Wales with the highest risk ratings will receive multi-year funding. I have also provided Home Office Prevent expertise to Scotland. It is vital that Prevent does nothing actively to undermine its mission, for instance by supporting groups that work against the freedom and values that we stand for. Due diligence checks on partners delivering Prevent in local communities have been strengthened following input from the Commission for Countering Extremism and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

Prevent, and public authorities such as the police, should not fund or work with those who legitimise extremism, such as CAGE or MEND—Muslim Engagement and Development. That is completely at odds with Prevent objectives. Extremist and anti-Prevent groups have waged mendacious and malicious campaigns to try to discredit Prevent as anti-Muslim to undermine its work. Through the work of a new specialist unit, we are now working to rapidly rebut and counter inaccurate information about Prevent when it appears.

The independent review found that Prevent had not taken antisemitism seriously enough, so specialist intervention providers have now been recruited to better address the prevalence of antisemitism in those referred to Prevent. They will work directly with those susceptible to radicalisation to deconstruct their extremist mindset and tackle it head-on. This approach is complemented by new research allowing Prevent to explain the pernicious and often subtle indicators of antisemitism.

Like any public service, Prevent needs independent oversight, and I expect the new standards and compliance unit to be operational and publicised online early in 2024. It will process complaints from both the public and practitioners, and will take instruction from Ministers to conduct investigations and publish findings. The unit will be delivered by the Commission for Countering Extremism, and will be answerable to Ministers on the Prevent oversight board, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Security Minister.

Extremists of whatever disposition, be they neo-Nazis or Islamists, must know that in our fight against them, we will never be hampered by doubt or cowed by fear. Ensuring that Prevent is fit for purpose is critical to delivering that message, and to winning that fight. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Home Secretary for her statement. I join the Government in paying tribute to the work of our security services, our counter-terrorism police, the myriad different agencies—local communities, councils and education bodies—that work on the Prevent programme, and all those who work so hard to keep us safe.

Extremists try to divide us and to undermine our democratic values and our respect for one another. Extremist ideologies are a stain on our society: they feed on fear and vulnerabilities to promote hatred and violence. We have seen appalling terror attacks, from the attack on children in Manchester and the attack in Fishmongers’ Hall to the attacks on our own Jo Cox and David Amess. A strong and determined response to extremism and terror threats and threats to our national security, wherever they come from, is immensely important to our safety.

The Contest strategy rightly includes “prevent”, “pursue”, “prepare” and “protect”, and it was right for the Home Secretary to update the House on the approach to extremism and to the Prevent programme. However, on a day when there are grave unanswered questions about how a terror suspect could possibly have escaped from prison, before trial, hidden on the bottom of a food van, I am astonished that she said nothing about Prevent and prisons. We have unanswered questions about how on earth the escape could have happened, and also about staffing levels. There have been repeated warnings of 30% staff absences and shifts not being covered. Those staffing issues are a matter for Prevent as well. The independent review highlighted an issue about which countless other reports have warned: the lack of sufficient action on deradicalisation and Prevent in our prisons. Prisoners are actually leaving prison more radicalised than they were when they went in. Referring to extremism-related training for staff, Sir William said:

“it became clear during the review that this training was frequently cancelled due to staff and resource shortages…I was further told that there have been delays to staff beginning Prevent training and to extremist prisoners beginning rehabilitative programmes. These delays are attributed to staffing and resourcing issues”.

The Government have been warned repeatedly about this, and I am concerned about the complete lack of reference to it in the Home Secretary’s statement. Will she please tell us what action is being taken, and also what action is being taken for those due to be released from prison—those who are due to be deliberately released, that is, as opposed to those who escape? Contest has warned that

“four of the nine declared terrorist attacks since 2018 were perpetrated by serving or recently released prisoners.”

The joint inspectorate warned just a few months ago that there were not enough senior officials in place to oversee the 120 prisoners with terror-related convictions who are due to be released by next March. What deradicalisation and Prevent work have those 120 prisoners undergone in prison, and what provisions are in place in the community to ensure that there is no risk to the public? We cannot afford any suggestion of failure by the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to take national security treats in prison seriously.

Today’s report from the borders inspectorate is highly critical of Border Force’s failures on insider threats, saying that organisational structures for addressing

“insider threat were found to be confused, with complex inter-relationships and unclear lines of accountability”.

What action is the Home Secretary taking to deal with insider threats?

There is also no mention of any action on online radicalisation or the use of artificial intelligence. Online radicalisation was raised by the independent review, and we know that generative AI raises further challenges and questions. We have identified potentially serious legal loopholes in our ability to take action against those who choose to use generative AI to try to radicalise people. What action is being taken on that? We have asked the Home Secretary about this before. Will she agree to Labour’s proposal to tighten the law?

The majority of the extremist threats our security agencies deal with are Islamist extremism, followed by far-right extremism. Other warped ideologies have also driven violent threats, but the main focus must continue to be on Islamist extremist threats. I welcome the emphasis on antisemitism, but the agencies, the police and the Prevent programme need to follow the threats of violence and hateful extremism wherever the evidence goes, rather than having to follow any political hierarchies that have been set.

Neil Basu, the former counter-terror chief, has said that we also need to make sure there is earlier intervention and prevention. He said:

“If we set the bar for Prevent so high that it can deal only with those who are already radicalised, we will have more terrorists, not fewer.”

Finally, what action is being taken in response to the former countering extremism commissioner’s report on hateful extremism, published some years ago? Are the Government ever going to respond to that or update the countering extremism strategy, which is now eight years out of date? We need that action. Prevent is not a whole countering extremism strategy. We need broader action if we are to keep our democratic values safe.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her response. She raised several points to which I will respond.

First, I pay tribute to all the professionals and experts in our agencies who work day and night to keep the British people safe from the evolving, changing and, indeed, increasing risk we carry when it comes to terrorism. They work in many ways of which we will not be aware, but they make huge sacrifices. I am very proud of the progress that they and this Government have made in recent years. That includes the opening of a new counter-terrorism operations centre that is now up and running and delivering state-of-the-art counter-terrorism work between all the agencies—be they the police or others—working in one place in a co-ordinated and streamlined way. I was pleased to visit CTOC recently. Our Contest strategy was relaunched earlier this year and, since 2018, 39 attacks have been disrupted by the brave men and women working in law enforcement and other agencies. That huge amount of work is going incredibly well.

Of course, the threat remains substantial, which means an attack is likely. There is no room for complacency on this issue, which is why I am wholly committed to focusing on the effective delivery of Sir William Shawcross’s recommendations. That is why I have come to update the House today.

The right hon. Lady mentioned prisons and, of course, William Shawcross referred to the threat of terrorism, extremism and radicalisation within the prison estate. In fact, recommendation 27 makes it clear that better and more training is required for prison officers, which is why I am very pleased that there has been significant progress on the roll-out of the new terrorism risks behaviour profile. This new prison-based product is led by the Ministry of Justice, building on the recommendations made by Jonathan Hall and reiterated and built on by Sir William. That roll-out will be completed by the end of the year. The value of this new tool is that prison officers will be better trained. They will have more skills and more tools at their disposal to better identify terrorism and the risk that it poses within the prison estate. That is a direct response to recommendations and concerns that have been raised.

I refer the right hon. Lady to the previous statement made by the Lord Chancellor on the broader issues. I am receiving regular briefings on the circumstances leading to the escape of Daniel Khalife yesterday and on the wide-ranging operation involving the police, Border Force and the agencies to track him down.

The right hon. Lady also mentioned resources. Let me be clear that funding for counter-terrorism is as high as it has ever been, and Prevent funding has not been cut. However, we are redirecting resources to better reflect the evolving threat picture, so that our resources are directed at the priorities informed by the intelligence picture. For example, I am very pleased that all local authorities now have a dedicated Home Office point of expertise and contact. That has been rolled out throughout England and Wales. It will properly equip those in the local authority sector to have proper training and a connection, a dialogue and a meaningful relationship with the Home Office so that they can be better tooled up to respond to radicalisation and the risks relating to Prevent in the community.

The right hon. Lady also said there should not be a hierarchy of threats. Of course, there is no such hierarchy. Prevent is ideologically agnostic, but we must always be clear about the facts. When I last updated the House, for example, 80% of live investigations by the counter-terrorism police network were Islamist in nature, and MI5 is clear that Islamist terrorism remains our predominant threat, accounting for 75% of its case load, yet only 16% of Prevent referrals in 2021 were Islamist. That is a fundamental problem that Sir William identified and that I am addressing right now through these robust and wide-ranging reforms.

Prevent is a security service, not a social service. The role of ideology in terrorism has too often been minimised, with violence attributed to vulnerabilities such as mental health or poverty and to the absence of protective factors, rather than focusing on individual responsibility and personal agency in the choices that these people are making.

I am implementing all the review’s recommendations, and I have committed to reporting back to the House on progress. I am clear that Prevent must focus solely on security, not on political correctness or appeasing campaign groups. Its first objective must be to tackle the ideological causes of terrorism. We will not be cowed by fear, and we will not be hampered by doubt. I am very grateful to the House for hearing this update.

It is welcome that the Home Secretary has come to the House today to update us on the report. I am sure the whole House and the country will be grateful that all the review’s recommendations have been accepted. She is absolutely right to say that it is about individuals making individual choices and that there can be no excuses relating to their background or the indoctrination that has taken place. This is about freedom of speech, too. People should not be frightened that Prevent intrudes on freedom of speech. It is about keeping this country safe from terrorism.

I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend. He is absolutely right that this is about national security and public safety. It is not about appeasing campaign groups or the fear of offending particular minority groups. It is not about putting community cohesion ahead of the interest of national security. I am absolutely clear that our Prevent professionals in all the relevant agencies must work without fear or favour and in the interest of national security first and foremost.

The Shawcross review has found that the Prevent strategy has failed and lost its way. The very system that aimed to identify would-be terrorists has allegedly funded a group whose head was sympathetic to the Taliban. That failure is why the Home Secretary is coming to the House today to make a statement. I am sure she will agree that public confidence in the Prevent strategy has been shaken to its foundations. We know that those previously referred to Prevent went on to commit terrorist acts and that the terrorist threat across the UK remains substantial, which means that an attack is likely. What long-term work is being done to monitor those who leave prison after serving sentences to ensure that they do not remain a threat to our communities and national security?

Islamist terrorism is the primary terrorist threat, but it is not the only one. The fact that the Wagner group is to be declared a terrorist organisation has to be welcomed, but there must be ongoing concern and vigilance in respect of extreme and far right incel movements. Questions about how to tackle online radicalisation remain. Will the Home Secretary assure us that there will be full co-operation with the devolved nations as we seek to tackle the scourge of terrorism? What guarantees will she provide that Prevent will have the necessary budget and resources to fulfil its central aim and mission of preventing terrorism across the UK?

Finally, the Home Secretary talked about better training for prison officers, but staffing crises in our prisons are rife. Training is all well and good, but it is important that the prison estate has the proper manpower levels to play its part in deradicalising and rehabilitating those who have been convicted of terrorist offences, so that when they are released they can go back to their communities without causing alarm. What action is she taking to address the staffing crisis in our prisons, as part of this strategy?

The hon. Lady talked about historical Home Office funding of groups linked with extremism, an issue identified by Sir William in his landmark report. I was appalled when I read that Prevent had historically funded groups that have legitimised extremism or has worked with groups whose values totally contradict our own. That is not a proper use of public money, it undermines Prevent’s objectives and it is potentially a threat to national security. I will ensure that that never happens again. As a result of that issue identified in the report, we are running a full-scale audit of all counter-extremism funding arrangements and we will immediately terminate all agreements that fall below our standards. We are working closely with the Commission for Countering Extremism to ensure that we strengthen our oversight and vetting procedures to ensure that taxpayers’ money always goes to the right groups.

I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement and her strong leadership on this issue. The additional measures taken by the Ministry of Justice earlier this year to crack down on the activities of terrorist prisoners were very welcome. Is she able to provide an update on any assessments the Home Office, in conjunction with the MOJ, has completed on the success of those measures so far?

The Prevent duty applies to those working in the prison estate. Sir William identified a particular concern relating to the threat of radicalism and terrorism occurring and evolving within the prison estate, which is why he made a recommendation. I am pleased that we have made significant progress on rolling out the terrorism risks behaviour profile, which will now enable prison officers to have better training so that they can better spot, and are more confident and knowledgeable about, the signs of radicalisation, extremism and terrorism within the prison estate and are thereafter empowered to take steps to mitigate and eliminate that risk.

In ensuring that Prevent is fit for purpose, the Home Affairs Committee looked at the Prevent review and we were concerned about the under-representation of the Islamist threat in Prevent referrals when compared with right-wing extremism referrals. Some 22% of the 4,915 referrals related to Islamist radicalisation and 25% related to right-wing extremism. However, 75% of those who ended up on remand for terrorist offences were categorised as Islamist and 22% were categorised as extreme right-wing. When the Security Minister appeared before our Committee, he said that the Government needed to look at the reasons for that, and that they were going to look at the misallocation and seek to make sure there was better representation of the actual threat. Will the Home Secretary therefore set out what work has been done to ensure that we have that proper representation in those initial Prevent referrals?

We saw exactly that incongruity and disparity between the intelligence picture and the security threat picture, and what was happening on the ground among the Prevent community in the referrals that they were making. That is a problem, which is why today marks an important step forward in rectifying that erroneous approach. The new statutory guidance will focus increasingly on ideological causes of terrorism, and there will be much more stringency and robustness in looking more rigorously at the ideology behind extremism. Importantly, we are also adopting Sir William’s recommendation of including the security threat check, which consists of specialist questions that are directly informed by the intelligence and Home Office analysis of the security and counter-terrorism picture. That will form a series of principles that will help to ensure that Prevent referrals on the ground properly reflect the threat picture.

Coming from Greater Manchester, I know tragically what the end result of Islamist indoctrination can be for a community, so I welcome very much the re-emphasis on tackling Islamist indoctrination. In the Home Secretary’s reset of the Prevent system, will she explain to the House how she is going to take local communities with her? She knows that one criticism of the Prevent system as it stands is that it also stigmatises whole communities, not just those who are extremists. What confidence is she going to give to diverse communities across the UK?

It is not right to say that Prevent is anti-Muslim. Prevent is about ensuring that Islamism, extremism, radicalisation and violent ideology about hatred, evil and values totally at odds with ours are stamped out. The vast majority of British Muslims make a valuable contribution to the UK, but we must be courageous in calling out permissive environments and tolerance for extremism among some parts of our community. That requires a fearless approach, one that is not cowed by political correctness or fear of upsetting particular groups in the name of community cohesion. If we want to save lives, we need to take a united approach, but a robust and fearless one to calling out Islamism when we see it.

I thank the Home Secretary for her statement, and for the strength of character and delivery of purpose as well. She referred to discussions about possible support for Scotland. She is right to be strong on radicalisation. Steps have been taken to combat that in Northern Ireland, where the rewriting of history is leading to the glorifying of terrorism for a new generation—that must be combatted. Will she confirm the effectiveness of Prevent in all areas of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

As I mentioned when we refreshed our Contest strategy, we are seeing a concerning level of terrorism related to Northern Ireland. That is a very sorry reflection of unacceptable behaviour, which must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. Our agencies work UK-wide and we are always working closely with the Police Service of Northern Ireland and other authorities at the local level, to ensure that all leads are followed in the fullest possible way and measures are put in place to mitigate risks as they emerge. However, as we saw earlier this year, that threat is a concern and we must remain vigilant to it.