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Braverman signals ‘major reform' of anti-terror Prevent programme

William Shawcross recommended a series of reforms for the Prevent programme (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
Flora Thompson, Margaret Davis and David Lynch, PA

The Government's anti-terror Prevent programme needs “major reform” and must focus on security, “not political correctness”, the Home Secretary said.

Suella Braverman told MPs the scheme – which aims to stop people turning to terrorism – needs to “better understand the threats we face and the ideology underpinning them”.

Her comments came after a long-awaited report, published on Wednesday, made 34 recommendations for an overhaul of Prevent.

Led by ex-Charity Commission chairman William Shawcross after being ordered by former home secretary Priti Patel in 2019, the assessment found Prevent was “out of kilter with the rest of the counter-terrorism system, and the UK terrorism threat picture” and “must return to its overarching objective: to stop individuals from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism”.

Terrorism was wrongly treated as a mental illness and there was a “failure” by those working on Prevent to properly understand the nature of ideology in Islamist radicalisation which risks “several potentially serious consequences”, he said.

Ms Braverman told the Commons: “Prevent needs major reform. Prevent needs to better understand the threats we face and the ideology underpinning them.

“I will swiftly implement all of the review's recommendations and will report on my progress a year from now.

“Prevent's focus must solely be on security, not political correctness.”

But some MPs and campaigners heavily criticised the review, with human rights group Amnesty International UK claiming it was “riddled with biased thinking”.

Ms Braverman said Prevent had shown “cultural timidity and an institutional hesitancy to tackle Islamism for fear of the charge of Islamophobia”, adding: “These are false charges that spread fear and misinformation within communities.”

Among the wide-ranging findings, Mr Shawcross said Prevent was not doing enough to tackle “non-violent Islamist extremism” and highlighted double standards in the way in which extreme right-wing and Islamist cases were approached.

The programme was “carrying the weight for mental health services” leading to referrals for vulnerable people who do “not necessarily pose a terrorism risk”, he said, branding this a “serious misallocation of resources” which “risks diverting attention from the threat itself”.

Mr Shawcross raised “particular concern” about civil society organisations (CSOs) funded by the programme which have “promoted extremist narratives, including statements that appear sympathetic to the Taliban”, adding: “As a core principle, the Government must cease to engage with or fund those aligned with extremism.”

In the 188-page report, he also told how he was “disturbed by the prevalence of antisemitism” in the so-called “Channel” cases he observed – referring to people in the programme who are considered most at risk of becoming radicalised and turning to terrorism – and called for Prevent to “better understand and tackle antisemitism”.

A litany of concerns have been raised about how the deradicalisation programme was working after it emerged several terror attacks were carried out by extremists who had been referred to Prevent.

They include: homegrown terrorist Ali Harbi Ali who murdered veteran MP Sir David Amess in 2021; Reading terror attacker Khairi Saadallah who killed three men in a park and Sudesh Amman, responsible for stabbings in Streatham, south London, both in 2020; Usman Khan, who murdered two people in the Fishmongers' Hall attack in November 2019; and the 2017 Parsons Green Tube train attacker Iraqi asylum seeker Ahmed Hassan.

Mr Shawcross said he had heard “several examples” of the role of Islamist ideology being “misinterpreted, misunderstood, or even overlooked by Prevent staff.”

But by contrast, analysis of terrorism associated with extreme right-wing sentiments were “generally taken seriously and accepted as a radicalising influence”.

His report described how a “prominent” Conservative politician and former member of the government was named in Prevent research as being among figures “associated with far-right sympathetic audiences, and Brexit” as he highlighted how the bar for analysing Islamist activity was “relatively high” but the threshold for what could be considered as “extreme right-wing” was “comparably low”.

Prevent focuses too much on the psychological factors behind radicalisation, which “appears to have led to a medicalised understanding of terrorism within the system – one that mischaracterises radicalisation as an illness, rather than having an ideological root in ideas and beliefs.”

The “failure by frontline Prevent practitioners to understand fully the nature of ideology as the primary driver in Islamist radicalisation risks several potentially serious consequences”, adding: “Recent attacks, inquests, and inquiries have highlighted the dreadful dangers of underestimating the motivating force of ideology, Mr Shawcross said.

“Treating terrorism as a mental illness, or a social deficiency that can be placated by social services, might make acts of extreme violence seem more intelligible to some – yet ultimately this approach fails to grasp the inherently ideological nature of radicalisation and terrorism.”

Staff are in danger of “missing crucial warning signs, misdiagnosing problems, and responding ineffectively unless the Home Office urgently corrects this,” he warned.

While praising the work of Prevent in stopping radicalisation, the report added: “All too often those who commit terrorist acts in this country have been previously referred to Prevent.

“Prevent apparently failed to understand the danger in these cases and this review demonstrates how such failures might be avoided in the future.”

His recommendations include a closer relationship between MI5 and Prevent bosses to allow better consideration of the wider terrorism threat by those who run the scheme.