Earlier this month, human rights organisation Liberty revealed that UK counter-terror police have been running a database that records personal data on all those who have been referred to the Home Office’s controversial Prevent programme. Whilst the ‘secret’ nature of the database is contested, the concerns raised by the revelation run much deeper, revealing a UK government approach to extremism that is inconsistent, harmful and subsumed under a smog of secrecy and confusion.
The Prevent database contains personal details of individuals from schools, colleges, universities, nurseries, hospitals, prisons and wider civil society that have been reported for signs of extremism under the UK Government’s 2015 ‘Prevent Duty’ – which legally compels public servants such as teachers, doctors and police to report on those under its care. Whilst the total number of individuals on the database is unknown, 7,318 individuals were subject to referral between April 2017 and March 2018 (with 21,042 referred to Prevent between 2015 and March 2018). Gracie Bradley, Liberty policy and campaigns manager, criticised the database as “utterly chilling that potentially thousands of people, including children, are on a secret government database because of what they’re perceived to think or believe”.
Prevent practitioners have defended the database, including Nik Adams, the UK’s National Coordinator for Prevent, who countered that “numerous public documents reference the ‘secret’ Prevent database”, and that this approach is “no different to recording child or domestic abuse concerns”. This was echoed by a National Police Chiefs’ Council spokesperson, who stated that he considered this “no different to the way we record other forms of supportive safeguarding activities such as child exploitation, domestic abuse or human trafficking”.
However, the problem with the Prevent database runs much deeper than questions over its public knowledge. Firstly, it is inaccurate to state that counter-extremism is ‘safeguarding’ because, by the Government’s own practice, the safeguarding approach has been consistently undermined. Furthermore, counter-extremism is political, unlike child abuse or domestic abuse, so the comparison of safeguarding fails to stand up to scrutiny. Whilst the database is not ‘secret’, personal details of individuals referred are uploaded to the database without the individual being notified. And whilst it is possible to request removal from the database, the high number of minors referred suggests that such dragnet approaches are highly inappropriate. In a context where counter-extremism practices are critiqued as Islamophobic, the collecting of such data will disproportionately impact on the most vulnerable. As such, whilst the database may not be so secret, the way in which it operates and the potential impacts it might have, highlight an operational murkiness that hangs over government counter-extremism.
The argument that the database is ‘safeguarding’ represents a line of argument by proponents of counter-extremism developed in recent years, which attempts to link it with protection. However, whilst this has shielded counter-extremism from some forms of criticism, the notion of safeguarding has been applied inconsistently and there are high profile instances where this framing has been fatally undermined. In the Shamima Begum case, for example, Begum was ‘radicalised’ online at age 15 through extremist engagement before leaving London to join the Islamic State.
In 2019, Begum, then heavily pregnant, expressed an interest to return to the UK. Despite being – under the UK Government’s own metrics – groomed, exploited, raped, radicalised through extremism and pregnant with child, Begum was stripped of her British citizenship, leaving her trapped in a Syrian refugee camp in a move which contributed to her child’s death. The decision, taken by the Home Secretary Sajid Javid, directly contradicted the Home Office’s own guidance in a report that hypothesised a similar case, and was largely attributed to attempts by the Conservative Government to shore up support with hard-right elements of the British electorate.
Such failures of the ‘safeguarding’ paradigm underscore an important problem with counter-extremism – that the decision as to what constitutes extremism is inherently political. As the EU Commission project Building Resilience against Violent Extremism (BRaVE), which looks at European responses to polarisation and violent extremism, stated in its concept paper:
terms such as radicalism and extremism have a normative, relational and context-specific value: one is judged radical or extremist against culturally specific benchmarks, and this label is dependent on who is doing the labelling (Concept Paper, 2019)
The political nature of the term is demonstrated by the difficulty that the UK Home Office has had in even developing a legally consistent term. Sara Khan, the Lead Commissioner for the Home Office’s Commission for Countering Extremism, has stated that the government’s definition is so broad that it is hampering free speech. The Commission has resorted to clarifications to ‘extremism’, confusingly attempting to delineate between ‘extremism’, ‘violent extremism’ and a new category of ‘hateful extremism’ in recent reports. Meanwhile, catch-all terminology that include ‘behaviours that can incite and amplify hate’ and that ‘draw on hateful, hostile or supremacist beliefs’ risk including within its metrics several UK governments, political parties and policies (such as the 2016 Brexit vote). As such, the use of extremism in so many different, sometimes contradictory, contexts, means that it can be, and often is, easily manipulated by the UK government and weaponised in instances where it feels it can gain – as was true in the Begum case.
The same cannot be said of child exploitation, domestic abuse or human trafficking. Child abuse or violence in the home is determined by legal definitions that are far more strict and robust, set by international standards and cross-cultural norms in ways that cannot be applied to extremism. Furthermore, whilst those on lists for abuse or trafficking have been caught acting illegally, the extremism database is comprised of individuals who have been convicted of no crime. Extremism – and therefore counter-extremism – will always be ‘pre-crime’, always be grounded in the political and therefore always inherently tied to power, despite attempts to sanitise it under the cover of safeguarding.
What is furthermore concerning about the database is the impact that it could have on minorities and minors. The long-term implications of being on a government database of extremist actors is not adequately known nor conveyed by the Home Office. Whilst it will not be shared with future employers, for example, it may change how the child is dealt with by the state in the future. Furthermore, children are overly represented in terms of referrals, with 57% of those referred between 2017 and 2018 aged 20 or under, and the education sector making up the largest proportion of referrals, at 33%.
This raises questions about the role of state security apparatus in education, as critics of Prevent cite a litany of questionable referrals of children as young as four. There are also concerns that Prevent referrals are being used inappropriately, for issues unrelated to extremism. Public sector workers – often with little knowledge of the intricacies of debates over extremism and receiving sometimes only 45 minutes of Prevent training – have also referred individuals to Prevent based on securitised stereotypes of Islam and extremism in what are ‘false positive’ referrals.
Many of these false positives are, according to practitioners, screened out in an assessment that checks whether the referral is Malicious, Misinformed or Misguided (3Ms). However, the government’s failure to release precise database numbers leave it difficult to ascertain the extent to which this screening process is operating within the database. Furthermore, even with a screening process, Muslims are disproportionately targeted by counter-extremism and counter-terrorism activity, and have been consistently. The government has failed to adequately deal with questions over structural Islamophobia or even engage with communities that have raised concerns over Prevent – despite a supposedly ‘independent’ review. Rather, those who have raised concerns have been challenged by those close to Prevent as ‘extremists’ themselves, or as supporting, or supported by, ‘Islamists’.
The Prevent databases are not shocking because they are a new revelation; they are shocking because they are not. Critics of counter-extremism have known about the database and have been raising concerns over the impact it may have, particularly on minors and minority communities, for many years. The unstable and political nature of extremism – and therefore counter-extremism – is highly concerning considering the amount of legislation and activity founded upon it, and the defence that counter-extremism is safeguarding is inconsistent based on the UK government’s own actions. In turn, the UK government has weaponised concerns about Islamophobia in counter-extremism against itself through responses that range from the inadequate and dismissive to the downright hostile. The Prevent database represents just another opaque arm of counter-extremism, and another reason why government-led approaches will continue to fail to be trusted.
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, under the GREASE project (grant no. 770640) and the BRaVE project (grant no. 822189).
The opinions expressed in these blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors. The European Union is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information or opinions contained herein.