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Prevent Strategy

Volume 776: debated on Wednesday 26 October 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to set up an independent inquiry to evaluate the operation of their Prevent strategy.

My Lords, Prevent is a key part of the UK’s counterterrorism strategy, Contest. Since 2011 we have expanded Prevent to take account of the changing scale and nature of the terrorist threat. Prevent is working; it is safeguarding people from being drawn into terrorism. The statistics on Prevent delivery are reported in the Contest annual report. We have committed to updating Contest in 2016 and Prevent will be included as part of that refresh.

My Lords, I think that what the Minister said was no, the Government have no intention of supporting an independent inquiry. Am I right in that? Could I also ask her whether she is aware that my Question is being asked not just by me but by two Independent Reviewers of Terrorism Legislation—my noble friend Lord Carlile of Berriew and David Anderson QC—the Joint Committee on Human Rights and last week by the Open Society Justice Initiative in its report? I should declare an interest as a former board member of that organisation. Is she aware therefore that many more people than I think that it is now urgent to restore mutual trust and confidence by having an independent inquiry?

My Lords, I was not aware that the noble Lord was speaking on behalf of others because his was the only name attached to the Question—but I take his point. My Answer was not actually “no” in the sense that we review how effective Prevent is being all the time. The previous Home Secretary, now the Prime Minister, commissioned an internal Home Office review of Prevent which concluded that it should be strengthened, not undermined, and made 12 suggestions on how to do so. Those suggestions are being brought forward as part of the Contest strategy review this year.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, inquiry or not, universities need to be trained in how to ensure that extremist speakers are challenged and to be reminded of their public sector equality and diversity rights? It has been responsibly recorded that many extremist speakers are coming on to campuses—people who preach what is anathema to our human rights and equality law. The campaign against Prevent is masterminded by the National Union of Students, whose own leader has been accused of associating too closely with terrorists.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right to say that we have to tread a very fine line in protecting what is a great freedom in this country—the freedom of speech—without creating an environment of the kind she outlined.

My Lords, do not university authorities and staff in fact find the Prevent strategy more of a hindrance than a help? It can make Islamic students, for example, more isolated and perhaps therefore open to radicalisation. It also spreads distrust in the student body much more generally. Should not the Government steer clear of these freedom of speech issues and leave them to universities, which understand them?

My Lords, I do not think that freedom of speech should be ignored in that sense—and Prevent should not be seen as a threat to universities. What Prevent is not trying to do is curtail freedom of speech. What it is trying to do is protect those people who might be targeted by the terrorist recruiters who threaten this country.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that within much of the Muslim community Prevent has now become tainted and discredited? It risks alienating the very communities it needs to engage with in order to be successful in defeating terrorism. Is she aware of the harmful effect in particular on children who are being targeted and referred by schools, often wrongly, under the legislation? On average one child a week under the age of 10 is now being referred, and that is harming their health, education and well-being. How is this engaging positively with communities to defeat terrorism?

My Lords, I will not repeat the previous answer I gave—but, far from trying to target people, Prevent tries to protect people. As to children being dealt with inappropriately in schools, there have been some of the most ridiculous stories you might hear of children being targeted. The Government have recognised the need for much-enhanced training in this area. Since 2011 we have significantly stepped that up, training more than 600,000 front-line staff in how to spot the subtleties the noble Baroness talks about, which are often being missed.

My Lords, the difficulty with Prevent is that it is very vague. Words such as “extremism”, “fundamentalism” and “radicalisation” all leave us none the wiser—and “Islamist” is a positive insult to the Muslim community. Would the Minister agree that the real target of Prevent is the out-of-context use of religious texts to justify the abuse of human rights and the cruel treatment of women and people of other faiths? Will she try to engage with faith leaders to ensure that they interpret religious texts in the context of today’s times?

The noble Lord, as always, makes very wise points. So often in the case of religion, religious texts are misinterpreted to the extent that they are completely out of context with the actions of those who would seek to undermine the true tenets of those religions. Islam is one such example: it is a very peaceful, loving religion, but you would not think so sometimes from some of the actions of some people.