Public left ‘at risk’ over UK counter-terrorism strategy, says Prevent review author

The author of a heavily criticised review of Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy claims the public have been left “at risk” because many of his key recommendations have been ignored.

In the review of Prevent for the Home Office last year, William Shawcross concluded that it had concentrated too much on the far-right and not enough on Islamist extremism.

Shawcross told the BBC on Wednesday that Prevent was failing to identify terrorist sympathisers and that there was an increased risk in the UK due to the war in Gaza. Prevent gives public bodies a legal duty to identify people who may turn to extremism, and intervene.

Shawcross was previously accused of failing to do the job properly after it was revealed he had attended only six of the review panels charged with examining the more extreme cases identified by Prevent.

His comments coincided with the publication of a new report raising concerns that the data of people referred to the Prevent programme is being widely shared and retained for years, even when referrals are marked “no further action”.

The study from the privacy and free speech organisation, Open Rights Group, also said there appeared to be a lack of oversight and parliamentary scrutiny over data sharing. It found the overwhelming majority of people subject to Prevent referrals did not meet the threshold for a de-radicalisation intervention, yet their data is being retained for at least six years – and up to 100 years. The data is being shared across multiple databases, with potentially harmful outcomes, the research found.

Ministers published a progress report on Tuesday, on the anniversary of the publication of Shawcross’s review, and said they had “brought Prevent back to its core mission”.

The home secretary, James Cleverly, said: “Thanks to the work undertaken in response to [Shawcross’s] review, we have a first-class Prevent programme that can play a central role in this effort.”

Shawcross told the BBC that ministers had “ignored” some of his key recommendations and that he thought “as a result the public is at risk”. The Home Office said it had implemented almost all of Shawcross’s proposals and would eventually enact them all.

Shawcross said: “The government has published a report saying that they have made some of those changes that I asked for, that I proposed – but not enough.”

He said he felt more worried about extremism in the UK after Hamas’s 7 October attacks on Israel, and that the government – through Prevent – “should pay much more attention to the Hamas support network”.

“There are unfortunately quite a lot of Hamas sympathisers and some operatives in this country,” Shawcross said, adding: “Prevent and the police should have been working much harder against those Hamas people in this country.”

He added: “The public are more at risk because of the events of 7 October and subsequently – and many, many people in this country are much more frightened than they have ever been before.”

Responding to the comments by Shawcross, Sarah St Vincent, executive director of Rights & Security International, said: “Sir William’s review of Prevent expressed a desire – rightly – for the UK government to take antisemitism seriously. At the same time, it appeared to suggest that Prevent was focusing too heavily on the far right. This is contradictory: antisemitism is the foundation of far-right ideologies.

“Sir William’s report effectively urged the Home Office to evaluate whether Prevent activities were focusing inadequately on ‘Islamist’-related concerns, and excessively on far-right issues. The Home Office has now replied that this is not the case, and Sir William appears to be unhappy with this answer.”

St Vincent added: “By now referring vaguely to ‘those Hamas people in this country’, Sir William risks exacerbating Islamophobia. He also risks pushing the government away from an adequate focus on far-right antisemitism and violence. Violence prevention is not a zero-sum game: police should be directing their energy toward all credible threats and exploring a range of rights-respecting approaches.”

Government sources briefed the BBC that the most recent statistics on Prevent referrals end in March 2023, and therefore did not reflect any impact his recommendations might have had on government policy.

A Home Office spokesperson said the government had made “significant progress to deliver a strengthened Prevent”.

“William Shawcross’s review was critical to ensuring Prevent is fit for purpose, which is why we accepted his recommendations in full,” the spokesperson continued. “One year on, we have delivered 30 of the 34 recommendations he made, and we are making rapid progress on delivering the remaining four.

“The government agrees that extreme Islamist ideology presents the greatest threat to the UK and has moved swiftly to update Prevent duty guidance and training to make that clear.”