March 06, 2023Counter-Terrorism Prevent Closing of civic space
Rights & Security International (RSI) has raised concerns about trends it believes are suggested by data on ethnicity and race from the Government’s Prevent and Channel programmes.
The London-based human rights organisation says the data it has obtained from the Home Office prompts concerns that people recorded as Asian and cases recorded as “Islamist related” have been subject to comparatively greater scrutiny than other ethnic groups and types of ideology in the years 2015 to 2019 (the years covered by the released data).
The Prevent programme is part of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy, but people referred to the programme do not need to be suspected of intending to engage in any type of violence. Channel is a multi-agency programme, and its stated aim is to identify and support at-risk individuals who have been referred via Prevent.
One of RSI’s key concerns about Prevent and Channel has been the potentially disproportionate and discriminatory implementation of these programmes against groups that have historically experienced bias in the UK, in particular Muslims and individuals of South Asian, African and/or Middle Eastern descent.
RSI obtained data covering the years 2015 to 2019 through a Freedom of Information (FoI) request and analysed it with sociologist Dr Zin Derfoufi of St Mary’s University London.
It says the data it has analysed suggests that officials involved in the Prevent and Channel processes treated cases recorded as raising ‘Islamist’ concerns more seriously than they treated cases raising other types of concerns, even as the number of referrals to Prevent for other types of concerns increased.
Despite decreases over time in the Channel caseloads of people recorded as Asian, Home Office data on terrorism-related criminal arrests and charges shows Asian Britons are more likely to face terror-related criminal justice measures. Dr Derfoufi and RSI said this suggests officials may view suspected ‘extremist’ beliefs among people recorded as white as a concern to pursue through non-criminal measures such as Channel, if at all, while viewing suspected ‘extremist’ beliefs among people of Asian descent as a criminal justice matter.
The FoI request seeking data about people referred to Prevent and Channel, disaggregated by race and ethnicity, was submitted by Leigh Day on RSI’s behalf in March 2021 and the information has only recently been released following a complaint to and intervention by the Information Commissioner.
The Home Office initially refused the request, and its decision not to release the data on the grounds of national security (Section 24 of the Freedom of Information Act) was upheld following an internal review.
When releasing the information, the Home Office provided a number of ‘caveats’ about the poor quality of the data and said that RSI was required to publish them. This has prompted RSI to raise concerns about the effect of such caveats, including on freedom of speech, particularly since the Home Office provided no legal basis for saying that RSI must publish its statements.
In its response, the Home Office indicated that the government does not systematically collect such data about the race of people impacted by Prevent and Channel, noting that the ‘incomplete’ information the Home Office does hold about the race and ethnicity is ‘data … as recorded by the case officer’. RSI says this approach raises concerns that officials may be making their own judgements about an individual’s race or ethnicity. The Home Office did not explain how officials decided whether – in their view – a person’s race or ethnicity was relevant to Prevent or Channel discussions.
RSI has raised concerns about the independence of the Prevent Review that finally published a report last week after more than a year’s delay. RSI is concerned that the Review apparently did not engage with the data RSI has now obtained, whilst coming to conclusions at odds with what RSI believes the data suggests. The Review called for a shift in focus towards Islamism instead of right wing ideologies, and recommended a more stringent approach to people referred to Prevent, with less focus on potential vulnerability.
This week, Leigh Day sent further legal letters on behalf of RSI to underline its concerns about the independence of the Review, asking for more information about potential interventions by the Home Office before the report was published.
Executive Director of RSI, Sarah St Vincent, said:
“There are several human rights problems with both what the data shows and the Home Office’s effort to compel RSI to broadcast its views when publishing those numbers. The data —although incomplete — raises concerns about stereotyping and over-policing of Asian Britons.
“The Home Office also tried to insist that RSI “must” tell you it only keeps low-quality data about the racial impact of Prevent. That wish is granted, but we find it concerning not only that the Home Office has an inconsistent and potentially arbitrary approach to collecting data about people’s race, especially in the context of programmes that have long been accused of bias—but also that the government tried to force us to say what it wants us to say about its data.’
“The racial or ethnic categories the Home Office employed in the data it disclosed to RSI were broad, consisting of ‘Black’, ‘Asian’, ‘Mixed’, ‘Other’, ‘Unknown’ and ‘White’. In our view these racial categories are socially constructed and categories such as ‘Black’, ‘Asian’ and ‘White’ have historically been defined by British and other governments based on skin colour and other physical features. The Home Office did not detail why it collects data about these physical features in some, but not all, Prevent or Channel cases.”
Solicitor Carolin Ott, from law firm Leigh Day added:
“Our client is concerned that data is not systematically collected and that the potential impact on racial or ethnic minorities is not adequately monitored and analysed. RSI also continues to have serious concerns regarding certain interventions by the Home Secretary in relation to the Independent Review of Prevent which have only been reinforced by the content of the now published review. It has sought clarification from the Home Secretary and the Independent Reviewer on how the Review was prepared and will continue to seek further data on race and ethnicity.”
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