LONDON—The UK government should repeal 2015 legislation that imposes a legal obligation on education and healthcare professionals to report individuals believed to be at risk of being drawn into terrorism, according to a new report from the Open Society Justice Initiative.
Eroding Trust: The UK’s Prevent Counter-Extremism Strategy in Health and Education is the most comprehensive assessment to date of the workings of the Prevent strategy, which aims to “stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism” and imposes a statutory duty on health and education bodies to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”.
The report concludes that the Prevent strategy in health and education creates a serious risk of human rights violations and is also counterproductive. Further it argues that its application in schools, colleges and in healthcare institutions is damaging trust: between teachers and students; between doctors and patients; and between the police and members of the UK’s Muslim community, whose support is an essential element of counter-terrorism efforts.
Based on 87 interviews and including 17 case studies from across England and Scotland, the report finds that:
- The statutory Prevent duty on education and healthcare professionals is leading to a tendency to over-refer individuals seen as being at risk of being drawn into terrorism.
- The Prevent strategy’s definition of “extremism” as a target is too broad and too vague (“vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”) and creates a risk of violating the right to freedom of expression among other rights.
- Prevent’s targeting of non-violent extremism and its “indicators” of risk of being drawn into terrorism lack a scientific basis.
- Prevent’s requirement to report individuals to the police-led Channel programme creates a risk of discrimination, particularly against Muslims, given the prevailing climate of anti-Muslim sentiment, and the extent to which the duty grants frontline professionals broad discretion to act on their conscious or unconscious biases.
- The Prevent duty creates a risk that healthcare professionals will breach their duty of confidentiality towards patients.
Amrit Singh, author of the report and head of the Justice Initiative’s work on counter-terrorism-related rights issues, said:
“To effectively counter the real threat of terrorism, the government must let health and education professionals get on with their jobs and use their common sense and professional judgement to intervene where genuinely warranted. Conscripting these professionals to counter a vaguely defined concept of “extremism” under a statutory duty is only making things worse by violating human rights, generating fear and distrust, and alienating Muslim communities while undermining their access to health and education. The government and health and education bodies should heed the voices in this report and abandon the flawed aspects of the Prevent strategy.”
The report includes several accounts of how Prevent is being applied in health and education:
- Prevent officers apparently feeding a psychologist questions to ask her patient with a view to relaying the answers back to the officers;
- Nine and ten year-old predominantly Muslim students being asked by a funding organisation in an art class, apparently without informed consent, to fill out a questionnaire to elicit their political opinions for the Home Office;
- The University of Huddersfield imposing onerous conditions under Prevent on the organiser of a conference on Racism and Islamophobia;
- A Cambridge college’s actions apparently leading to cancellation of a debate on Islam in Europe; and
- Prevent’s chilling of free expression in schools and universities, including Cambridge and Oxford.
The report’s recommendations to the government include:
- Legislate to repeal the Prevent duty with respect to the health and education sectors.
- End the targeting and reporting of “non-violent extremism” under the Prevent strategy.
- End the use of empirically unsupported indicators of vulnerability to being drawn into terrorism.
- Establish an independent public inquiry into the Prevent strategy and associated rights violations.
- Create a formal and independent complaints mechanism through which individuals whose rights have been violated by the Prevent strategy can seek and obtain prompt and meaningful remedies.
The report also recommends that the relevant professional bodies in education and health conduct appropriate assessments of the impact of Prevent strategy in their field, including on children’s interests, academic freedom, and medical confidentiality.
The Open Society Justice Initiative, part of the Open Society Foundations, uses law to protect and empower people around the world, using litigation, advocacy, research, and technical assistance. It has worked extensively both on national security–related human rights abuses in Europe and Africa, as well as on discriminatory policing practices in western Europe and the United States.