Dr Paul Stott is the Head of Security and Extremism at Policy Exchange
Suella Braverman’s commendation to Parliament a week ago today of William Shawcross’s Independent Review of the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy is the beginning rather than the end of a process.
Perhaps understandably, the Home Secretary was at times punchy. Shawcross submitted his review back in April 2022, and a series of leaks had displayed a Home Office clearly divided by his findings. Conservative backbenchers were left in little doubt about the Home Secretary’s views when she declared that ‘the review establishes that Prevent has funded – using taxpayer money in the name of counter-extremism – those legitimising extremism. That ends on my watch.’
Time will tell.
Some people, however, clearly don’t want to wait. Even before the 192-page report could have been properly digested, it came under attack – though this has so far largely been a case of playing the man rather than the ball.
The two Labour MPs for Luton, Rachel Hopkins (Luton South) and Sarah Owen (Luton North) issued a joint statement accusing Shawcross of having ‘expressed anti-Muslim opinions’, failing to consult with communities and their representatives, and not taking the threat from the far-right fully into account. They claimed that the report was “ideological” and had “overruled hard evidence” (though since Shawcross carefully considers the evidence of referrals which they cite, it is hard to see what meaning that phrase might have). In the debate which followed the Home Secretary’s speech, Labour’s Zarah Sultana and Afzal Khan were equally hostile.
So is Prevent a Conservative v Labour issue – another of those left/right spats which will only intensify as we approach a hotly contested general election?
The answer to that question is almost certainly no. In the chamber, Labour’s big guns, except for Yvette Cooper, were largely quiet. The whipless Jeremy Corbyn’s request for the Home Secretary to discuss Prevent with the Muslim Council of Britain served, less as a call to action and more a reminder of a changing Labour party.
Outside the Commons, the Prevent review caused barely a ripple on a day that Parliament ceremonially received Volodymyr Zelensky. National media coverage was intermittent, reflecting the reality that Prevent evokes strong if predictable passions in certain circles, but is met with equanimity or indeed mild approval by the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus.
For all the time and effort that some academics and self-described representatives of the “Muslim community” have put into attacking Prevent, polling invariably shows that attitudes to Prevent and counter-terrorism policy among British Muslims are broadly similar to those of the wider society. People want to feel safe. And they like governments to take a robust lead on the matter.
In fact, the debates which have hampered Prevent have historically been within government rather than between the main parties. At times, they have been damaging.
In 2008-9 Jack Straw (Justice) and Hazel Blears (DCLG) clashed repeatedly, but mostly behind the scenes. In 2011, there was no Labour v Tory dispute, but a series of fierce internal rows between Number 10 and the Home Office about the direction of counter-extremism (including Prevent).
Little had changed by 2022. As soon as Shawcross submitted his report, the leaks and counter-leaks began, and it became clear that certain officials found sections of the Independent Review unpalatable and felt free to undermine it. This raises again – on a central matter of national security – the question of who really decides government policy: Ministers or officials? The convention, of course, is, the former. The reality – too often these days – is the latter. That is unsustainable.
Now that the review is in the public domain, signposting much-needed change, the future of Prevent depends first on resolving this issue decisively in favour of Ministers. That requires the strong support of the Prime Minister.
Two other inter-related elements – competence and delivery – then need to be addressed. Interestingly, it was here that Cooper sought to land a blow, reminding the Commons that we had been here before. She noted that after the 2011 review the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, declared mistakes had been made in funding extremist groups and this would not happen again. Yet here we are – and “after 13 years in government, it is unclear what they have been doing”.
She has a point. Indeed, you could say much the same of the Government’s record on the Clarke Report into the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham, the Acheson Report into prisons, Sir John Jenkins’s Muslim Brotherhood Review or indeed Alexis Jay’s report into the Rotherham child grooming scandal. Time after time, a report is commissioned. Promises of action are made and nothing happens.
Cooper’s desire for competence is also a reminder that it is not in the Opposition’s interests to have a firefight with government over counter-terrorism or counter-extremism policy. In practice, Prevent, introduced by Tony Blair, is not a party-political issue. Ministers have space to get a grip, and time (just) to do so before the next election.
Braverman must now act. The question of violence related to Islamic blasphemy codes – as illustrated by the threats to a Batley Grammar School teacher in 2021, the Lady of Heaven cinema protests in 2022 and the murder of Glasgow shopkeeper Asad Shah in 2016 – is a classic example of one of those ‘too difficult’ questions which civil servants and senior police officers will always prefer to avoid, but that cannot be kicked into the long grass indefinitely if we wish to remain a state of law.
We cannot have a de facto blasphemy law whenever a mob gathers to threaten violence. We need a robust ministerial strategy for the next panic over blasphemy, freedom of speech or incitement to violence, coupled with Prevent practitioners and the police primed to resist support for unlawful actions at the local and national levels and instructed to deal effectively with any law-breaking. Delivery is essential for our social cohesion.
Another of Shawcross’s recommendations was to establish a rebuttal unit, dedicated publicly to addressing ill-intentioned, misleading and inflammatory criticism of Prevent. The need for such a unit, and indeed for an interventionist communications policy could be readily observed in the 48 hours before and after publication.
We need action. And we need ministers who understand how to exercise power. They need to use that power to take decisions and make sure they are implemented. And they need to explain clearly what they are doing and why they are doing it. Competence and delivery matter, and the Home Secretary, with Prime Ministerial support, must now ensure both she and her officials demonstrate them.