Explaining the Shawcross Review: The (perhaps not so) Independent Review of PREVENT

By Sameeha Rafeek (Researcher at the Community Policy Forum)

After four years of waiting, the Government is today scheduled to publish the ‘Independent’ Review of PREVENT headed by William Shawcross. Major concerns have been raised about the legitimacy of the review before it is even published, with indications that it is simply a tool to further entrench discriminatory and draconian practices into a fundamentally flawed strategy.

But where has the review come from? And why is it problematic?

Where did the PREVENT review come from?

In 2019, an Independent Review of PREVENT was mandated under an amendment to the   Counter-Terror and Border Security Bill, 2019. This followed many years of sustained criticism of the programme from academics, communities, practitioners, and UN observers. Although the review was initially welcomed by Muslim and non-Muslim groups, as well as equalities, human rights, and civil liberties advocates across the country, as time progressed cracks began to appear and evidence mounted indicating that the review was not being conducted in good faith. 

The Government initially appointed Lord Carlile to head the review. However, it wasn’t long before he was removed in December 2019, following a judicial review and severe criticism that he could not be considered independent due to his long-standing support for the PREVENT programme. Indeed, he had previously declared his “considered and strong support” for the strategy, as well as admitting to Parliament that he “may be somewhat biased”.

Appointment of William Shawcross

No sooner had Lord Carlile been removed as the reviewer, another controversial individual was appointed to replace him. William Shawcross was appointed as the current independent reviewer of PREVENT in January 2021. To equalities, human rights, and civil liberties advocates it became clear with Shawcross’ appointment that the Government was far from interested in conducting an “objective and impartial review of the strategy, nor in engaging meaningfully with communities affected by it”. Shawcross’ appointment was thus seen as an attempt to “whitewash” the long history of criticisms that have been levied against the PREVENT strategy.

Criticisms levelled against William Shawcross

The critique levelled against Shawcross’ suitability for the role are in many ways even more damning than those directed at Lord Carlile, especially considering his long history of engaging within anti-Muslim discourses. The initial response to Shawcross being appointed reviewer was a widespread boycott of the review by hundreds of Muslim and non-Muslim civil society organisations, who argued that his appointment undermined any notion of the review being impartial and capable of critically engaging with the concerns raised. This was of particular concern for Muslim organisations who had long highlighted the discriminatory application of PREVENT – an aspect that was deemed unlikely to receive appropriate attention considering Shawcross’ links to “anti-Muslim rhetoric”.

Shawcross is a former director and trustee of the neoconservative think tank, the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), which has been frequently cited as engaging in and promoting Islamophobia. In 2012, (whilst director of HJS) Shawcross stated that “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations”.

For more information about HJS, see the reportThe Henry Jackson Society: The Threat to British Democracy caused by Security Think Tanks

Shawcross is also a senior fellow at Policy Exchange, which is another neoconservative think tank that has been criticised for questionable research practices and a “ clear and visible… anti-Muslim agenda”. The Bridge Initiative describes Policy Exchange as “exclusively [vilifying] Muslim organizations, labeling them as “Islamist” and “extremist,” sending a clear signal to the public that they are somehow tied to terrorism. These unsubstantiated accusations are dangerous smears that inevitably sow fear within the Muslim community.” The organisation was further referred to the Charity Commission in 2022, having been accused of racism and Islamophobia following a report in which they accused those raising concerns about PREVENT of “enabling terrorism”.

In 2022, Shawcross (alongside Michael Gove, who is also a key figure within HJS) addressed a profit-making lobbying group of which the directors and shareholders are known to be “tied to racist, anti-Muslim and antisemitic pro-Trump hate groups in both the UK and US”. Both Shawcross and Gove also dismissed the definition of Islamophobia created by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims as “drivel” – a definition that has been widely accepted by political parties, universities, local councils, and civil society actors across the country. 

Evidence of Shawcross’ allegedly anti-Muslim stance extends to his time as Head of the Charity Commission. During his tenure, the Commission lost a number of legal battles after Shawcross was accused of presiding over a campaign of attacks on Muslim charities and grassroots organisations, with over a quarter of statutory investigations between 2012 and 2014 and 38% of all disclosed investigations between January 2013 and April 2014 targeting Muslim charities. A report from the Claystone Institute observes that following Shawcross’ appointment, the Commission initiated a new issue code for ‘extremism and radicalisation’ that was applied to dozens of charities without their knowledge and despite having no written criteria for applying or removing this label (thus raising concerns that its application was not subject to any significant burden of proof).

Criticisms of the review

Criticism of the review itself has centred on three main areas. Firstly, the terms of reference and stated objectives were criticised for their limited focus (obscuring many of the longstanding criticisms of PREVENT) and the inference that there was no scope to consider repealing the program, regardless of its faults. The objectives of the review stated that it would not consider the “past delivery of PREVENT” and would ultimately be a forward-looking review – an objective that was considered to render the review “superficial” at best.

 Secondly, the initial call for evidence for the review has been critiqued for being ‘deficient’. It utilised a questionnaire to collect evidence but questions had a limitation of 2000 characters which leaves little room for detailed submissions. Aside from this, the questionnaire did not allow for submissions to discuss PREVENT’s design flaws as well as its human rights implications. Instead, it asked a narrow set of questions that were seemingly purposefully directed. 

Finally, the independent nature of the review has been heavily brought into question due to interference from the Home Office. Rights and Security International (RSI) raised concerns on how lawful the review was given the “interactions between the Home Secretary and the independent reviewer”. This followed a series of FOIs revealing emails and meetings between the Home Office and members of the review team. The executive director of RSI, Sarah St Vincent, has noted that: “Parliament, by law, required an independent review of PREVENT. If the government has shaped the content, then the review is not independent… This is a fundamental issue of good governance, and the idea that the UK government might be willing to put the label of ‘independence’ on a report in which it has interfered behind closed doors is Orwellian and deeply alarming.”

What the review is expected to say

In recent months, there have been numerous leaks and indications of the conclusions and overall narrative that the review will likely offer. While these will only be confirmed with the final publication of the review, below are some of the angles that we suspect the review may take:

There needs to be a reduced focus on the far-right and a greater focus on Islamism. This suggestion has been heavily criticised as such a strategy does not support the data surrounding the threat posed by the far-right. Indeed, 41% of counter-terrorism arrests in 2021, and three in four advanced terrorist plots disrupted by police that year, involved individuals affiliated with extreme right-wing ideologies. 

There have been too many unnecessary referrals for the far-right which distracts from the ‘real’ danger posed by Muslim groups. In reality, the problem is with the damage done by unnecessary referrals across the board, including unnecessary referrals of Muslims. 

Recommending an increasingly McCarthyite approach to Muslim organisations, blacklisting those that criticise Government policies. This has obvious implications for the state of our democracy as well as equalities and the ability of minority groups to fully engage within political structures.

There needs to be a greater focus on organisations promoting non-violent ideologies for fear that they lead to violent extremism. This is damaging to democracy as there are a variety of religious, nationalist, left/right-wing, and single-issue ideological doctrines that are not inherently violent, but for which violence has been used in their pursuit (anti-abortion, environmental, and animal rights causes are good examples). Non-violent groups that support these causes should not be targeted for exercising their democratic rights.

The “vilification of Britain” should be seen as a sign of extremism. There is a danger this may lead to criminalising political dissent and demonising those who are critical of government policies, as well as those who highlight issues of racism, Islamophobia, and the need to decolonise education. Also, how do we define Scottish independence movements, for example, within this paradigm? 

PREVENT currently exerts too much focus on mental health and treating those vulnerable to being drawn to politically motivated violence as victims because of its safeguarding approach. It is not true that the need to safeguard vulnerable individuals is a problem. However, it is entirely true that PREVENT has created significant problems in safeguarding practices and has no place in schools, healthcare, and other settings where safeguarding should be of priority concern. When it comes to mental health, it is incredibly concerning that Shawcross would seemingly choose to aggressively focus on victims of grooming as threats and deprioritise their need for protection from the risk of grooming.

As stated, we cannot be sure that these are the exact lines of argument that the review will take, however, the leaks so far paint an extremely worrying picture.

Community Policy Forum will release updates as we have the information. Look out for our briefings and further explainers that will be available after the review has been published.

In the meantime, learn more about PREVENT and its problems in the report from The People’s Review of PREVENT here.

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