February 06, 2024
New information shows government failing to record data in tens of thousands of cases despite recognised risk of bias.
(London, 31 January 2024)
New information obtained by Rights & Security International (RSI) shows that UK police have failed to record information about the race or ethnicity of more than 33,000 people referred to the controversial Prevent counter-extremism programme since 2015 – amounting to nearly two-thirds of cases.
The fact that this vast gap has only now come to light shows that Sir William Shawcross, the Independent Reviewer of Prevent, either ignored or failed to uncover this systematic police failure despite an officially recognised risk that Prevent will have racially disparate impacts, the organisation said.
In response to a complaint RSI made to the Information Commissioner’s Office following the rejection of freedom of information requests, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (‘NPCC’) said it would need more than 1,350 working days to collate data showing the racial/ethnic impact of Prevent referrals – because officers are recording this information inconsistently or not at all.
Sarah St Vincent, Executive Director of RSI said:
“Information about people’s race or ethnicity is sensitive data under the law, and sloppy handling of that data is illegal. The police are in the worst of both worlds: they are attaching racial or ethnic labels to people, which creates serious data privacy issues, while doing it so erratically that no one can assess whether Prevent is having a discriminatory impact.”
Prevent is a UK-wide programme with a stated purpose of stopping people from being drawn into terrorism. In all regions except Northern Ireland, the law requires teachers, health care providers, local authorities and others in the public sector to report people whom they believe might hold ‘extremist’ beliefs. Although Prevent is officially not a criminal justice programme, all referrals result in police scrutiny and are logged in police databases.
Human rights and community groups have long complained that the government targets UK Muslims under the programme in a biased manner, and Home Office statistics show that children and young people are especially likely to be referred to Prevent.
RSI submitted a series of freedom of information requests to the Home Office, the NPCC and the Metropolitan Police Service seeking statistics about the race/ethnicity of people referred to Prevent between 2021 and early 2023. After the agencies refused the requests and pointed to one another as potential sources of information, RSI filed a complaint with the ICO in October 2023. The ICO rejected the complaint on 20 December 2023, but revealed what the NPCC had told it about the incomplete data.
RSI has previously obtained race/ethnicity statistics from the Home Office about later stages of the Prevent process, although the Home Office has similarly told the organisation that there are large gaps in its data.
In this case, the NPCC told the ICO that data about race/ethnicity was not easily accessible for 33,116 of Prevent referrals made from 2015 to April 2023, explaining that officers do not gather this information consistently and may record it in different places within the relevant database. Government figures show that there were 51,204 Prevent referrals in total during approximately the same period, meaning that police are clearly recording data about race or ethnicity in only a third of Prevent referral cases.
Without this information about the race/ethnicity of people referred as potential ‘extremists’, the police and the government are unable to properly assess whether Prevent is resulting in discrimination.
Police have allowed this information gap despite a prior commitment from the government to monitoring the equality impacts of the Prevent strategy. In particular, in its 2011 Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) regarding Prevent, the government stated:
‘The impact of the new strategy in terms of race and religion will need to be monitored closely. ACPO (TAM) [which is now the NPCC] will put in place Prevent EIA monitoring arrangements with all Police Forces in England and Wales and ensure that data is shared with OSCT [(Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism)] Prevent and reviewed on a regular basis. OSCT Prevent will also put in place a Case Management Information System to monitor data including the race and religion/belief of all individuals subject to Prevent interventions.’
The information RSI has now uncovered shows that the government did not do what it said it would do.
In February 2023, the Home Office published the long-delayed Independent Review report, which did not address the potential for racial discrimination under Prevent.
Sarah St Vincent added:
“It is disconcerting that the Independent Reviewer either did not know or did not care about this vast and critical gap in basic police data about the racial impact of the programme he was reviewing. It is hard to see how any serious review of a policing activity in the UK today would fail to ask about equality impacts, let alone be satisfied with an information void so gigantic that it would take the police five years to fill it.”
RSI is represented by Carolin Ott, human rights department solicitor at law firm Leigh Day. She said:
"The Information Commissioner’s Office has previously recognised the significant public interest in disclosing information relating to Prevent ethnicity data. Our client is concerned about the manner in which public authorities are dealing with this data: there appears to be a pattern of obfuscation and inconsistency across different public authorities in relation to how this data is held, tracked and shared. There also appear to be substantial obstacles to obtaining this data, despite the clear public importance in understanding it. There is an ongoing debate about the appropriateness of the Prevent programme and its potentially disproportionate impact on minority ethnic groups. Our client considers that the ability to review, analyse, and discuss the ethnicity data would make an important contribution to that debate.”
For more information, see the attached decision notice below.
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