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Prevent: UK government warned of 'widespread illegality' over data practices

Report says public bodies and security agencies may be unlawfully gathering and retaining data on 'a massive scale'
Britain's Home Secretary Suella Braverman (R) arrives the attend the first cabinet meeting under the new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak at 10 Downing Street in central London on October 26, 2022 (AFP)
Britain's Home Secretary Suella Braverman (R) arrives the attend the first cabinet meeting under the new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak at 10 Downing Street in central London on October 26, 2022 (AFP)

The UK government's controversial Prevent strategy has led to the unlawful collection and sharing of the personal data of those targeted by the counter-terrorism programme and created conditions for "widespread illegality", a human rights advocacy organisation has warned.

In a report published this week, Rights and Security International (RSI) said that the holding of information in Prevent databases accessed by the police, intelligence services and other public bodies appeared to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

It accused the government of failing to provide proper guidance to official bodies to ensure that Prevent-related data was handled in a way compliant with human rights law - and said this amounted to a breach of Article 8 of the convention concerning the right to privacy.

Describing government policy as "confused, secretive, and illegal", the report said, "Prevent, like other aspects of the government's national security strategy, operates largely in secrecy. The handling of people's personal data under Prevent is no exception.

"We conclude that, despite an abundance of general government guidance about Prevent, little information exists about how the government believes agencies such as police, schools, hospitals and local authorities should treat people's personal information under Prevent."

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The report acknowledged that UK law allowed for the collection and retention of data by the intelligence services "potentially on a massive scale" on national security grounds.

But, RSI said the UK government had not demonstrated that the retention of data gathered through Prevent was a necessary or effective means of stopping terrorism.

"To put it bluntly, the government has not established a sufficient evidence base to justify data gathering, storage and sharing under Prevent as effective in – let alone necessary to – stopping acts of terrorism," the report said.

Jacob Smith, who helped compile the report, told Middle East Eye that he feared the hoarding of Prevent data would disproportionately impact Britain's Muslim community and lead them to be targeted by UK security agencies.

"Since Prevent’s introduction, the strategy has negatively affected Muslim and other minority communities, activists or individuals who hold different political or religious opinions," said Smith.

"Official government statistics indicate that Muslims are more likely to be referred to Prevent unnecessarily, yet the police and other public authorities still want to hoard this data – putting the person under constant suspicion and impacting their daily life."

Smith cited an example of a High Court case in 2020 where a mother brought a claim against the London Metropolitan Police, who insisted on retaining her 11-year-old son's data for six years despite admitting that his referral was a mistake. 

“While in theory this applies to all individuals referred to Prevent, the fact remains that more Islam-related referrals are classed as mistaken than any other category of extremism that the government identifies,” said Smith.

“As such, they are more likely to have their data held unnecessarily – when they have been held, by the government’s own reasoning, to not require intervention.”

The report also said that the UK government was likely sharing data gathered through Prevent with other countries.

A Home Office spokesperson rejected the RSI report's conclusions and said: "Prevent is a safeguarding programme helping people to move away from radicalisation."

"Data is only held temporarily by the police, and individuals, parents, or carers can request for it to be deleted sooner, where appropriate," the spokesperson told MEE. 

"Recording Prevent referral data is a standard procedure and is in line with other safeguarding processes such as child sexual exploitation or domestic abuse. It ensures that cases are progressed and managed appropriately.”

The Prevent Duty, introduced in 2015, requires all public bodies, including universities, schools and hospitals, to refer people to the programme if they are assessed to be vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism.

Critics of the programme, including the Muslim community and human rights advocacy organisations, argue that it discriminates against Muslims and may be counter-productive.

The launch of the RSI report comes with no publication date in sight for a long-delayed official review of Prevent, first commissioned by the Home Office in 2019 and originally due to be completed by mid-2020.

Last year, Muslim community groups and several human rights organisations said they would boycott the review over the appointment of William Shawcross as the reviewer, who is a former director of the Henry Jackson Society think tank.

It also comes amid controversy over the re-appointment of Suella Braverman as home secretary by Rishi Sunak, the new British prime minister.

Braverman, a former attorney-general who quit the Home Office only days ago over a security breach, has previously called for the UK to leave the ECHR.

Last month, the Telegraph newspaper reported that Braveman considered reform of Prevent a "key priority".

During his campaign for the leadership of the governing Conservative Party, Sunak also called for Prevent to be reformed, suggesting he would treat those who "vilify Britain" as extremists.

"There is no more important duty for a prime minister than keeping our country and our people safe," Sunak said. "Whether redoubling our efforts to tackle Islamist extremism or rooting out those who are vocal in their hatred of our country, I will do whatever it takes to fulfil that duty."

Sunak said Islamist extremism was "the single largest threat to the UK's national security" and added that the Prevent strategy failed to address it.

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