The Prevent database confirms our fears about the Government’s ‘counter-extremism’ work

Posted by Debaleena Dasgupta on 07 October 2019

For a long time, experts and campaigners have suspected the Government’s “counter-extremism” work is more about keeping tabs on people predominantly from communities it deems problematic, than it is about keeping us safe. Now those fears appear to have been confirmed.

Freedom of Information (FOI) requests by Liberty have uncovered a secret Government database of all referrals received under Prevent – the Government’s counter-extremism strategy.

To understand why this is so alarming, we first need to understand Prevent.

What is Prevent?

The Prevent Duty forces public sector workers, such as teachers, to monitor and report purported signs of extremism – encouraging them to view even very young children as potential future criminals. This erodes the trust that relationships between teachers and pupils should be built on – replacing it with suspicion on one side, and fear of speaking openly on the other.

Further, Prevent is fundamentally flawed. For a start, the definition of “extremism” is so broad and vague as to be almost meaningless, and goes far beyond what is criminal. It is defined as “active or vocal opposition to fundamental British values”, without proper explanation of what that might mean. Significantly, there are no safeguards against any individual prejudice public sector workers might have.

This confusion has led, in one example, to British Asian primary school children being detained by a school for police questioning, simply for having plastic toy guns at home. Such experiences can stigmatise and traumatise the children involved, as well as their families.  

We have been concerned for some time as to what the long-term consequences of a Prevent referral might be. Given that only about 5% of referrals result in de-radicalisation action, there’s a serious question over what happens to the data of the other 95%. In the period April 2017 to March 2018 alone that was 6,924 people – one third of whom were under 15.

The 'Prevent database' uncovered

We now know local police forces add the data of every Prevent referral they receive to a database – which the Home Office can access. There do not appear to be strict guidelines as to what should be included. For example, even a discriminatory referral made with no evidence might be placed on the database. And there is no publicly available information on how long the data will be held or, importantly, how it might be used.

This raises serious concerns that the information might be disclosed years later and could potentially impact someone’s employment, education, or even travel plans - even if the person in question should never have been referred under Prevent in the first place. We also don’t know which other Government departments or outside organisations – like councils or the NHS – can seek access to the data, or what decisions it could influence.

Perhaps even more shockingly, our FOI requests revealed that the majority of forces don’t even tell people, or in the case of children their parents, they have been placed on the database. The police claim people have the right to be removed – but that’s meaningless if you don’t know you’re on the list in the first place. 

This database isn’t about keeping people safe

The fact the database is built and run by the police, and shared with the Home Office, undermines the Government’s bid to re-brand Prevent as a safeguarding policy. This database isn’t about keeping people safe. It’s about the authorities keeping tabs on people – particularly those from minority communities – without good evidence and therefore good reason.

There is no evidence that monitoring people’s thoughts and beliefs keeps us safe.

Along with the Domestic Extremism Database, the Gangs’ Matrix and the Massive Migrant Database, this is another example of the Government monitoring people, and creating a pre-criminal database, which particularly targets the speech and thoughts of those in minority communities and/or those with dissenting voices.

To make matters worse, the Government has hamstrung a review into Prevent which many hoped would finally scrutinise the very premise the strategy is built on.

The Government has announced Lord Carlile will lead the review – a man who is on public record saying he is “biased” towards Prevent, and that the appointment of a Prevent reviewer is “completely unnecessary”.

Now it has been announced the review won’t examine the problematic premise Prevent was founded on – nor how it has worked in the past.

If the review is to have any credibility and give Prevent the independent scrutiny it so desperately needs, the Government must rethink this appointment and the terms of the review.

And whoever is in charge needs to look at this database too, and consider whether it is even lawful.

If you are concerned about anything in this blog and have any legal queries arising, please contact our advice and information line.

Debaleena Dasgupta Liberty

Debaleena Dasgupta

Liberty
Lawyer