The Prevent counter extremism strategy has been curbing freedom of expression as teachers and Muslim parents fear talking about terrorism and extremism with children, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation has warned.
David Anderson QC found that “strong concerns” about the implementation of Prevent were held among Muslims and “quite normal ordinary people” across the country including in Leicester, Dewsbury Bolton and Manchester.
In his oral evidence to the Human Rights Committee in Parliament on Wednesday, Anderson gave anecdotal examples of how Prevent endangered the right of free speech, religious freedom, and the right to privacy.
A college teacher from the North West told him that “Isis comes up quite often and she used to use it as an opportunity for a discussion: why are they using violence, what about other ways, what about Martin Luther King, what about Mahatma Gandhi, someone mentioned the IRA – are they the same as Isis? You would have had a discussion.
“The toxic views would come out and they would either be blunted or neutralised… If that happens now, you actually choke off the discussion because teachers are watching their backs and don’t want to be reported.”
Another teacher faced suspension due to the suspicions of a colleague. Anderson said: “A fellow teacher, perhaps one who didn’t like her very much, complained about her and said she’d indicated an intention to go to Syria.
“The teacher told me in fact she had said she was going to attend a fundraising dinner for Syria. She was the only Muslim teacher in a well-to-do white school in an area south of Manchester.”
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Anderson also received complaints from Muslim parents that “[they] don’t like talking about these things in their home because if the subject comes up and the child goes into school the next day and gives a colourful or inaccurate account and some half-trained teacher misinterprets that and thinks ‘I’d better be safe and make a Prevent referral’, the family could be in trouble.”
He concluded “So all these things make people feel inhibited. You can say it’s a breach of their human rights but a more powerful matter to me is why aren’t these matters being ventilated and talked about in a controlled manner in a space where ideas can be challenged.”
Although Anderson’s predecessor, Lord Alex Carlile, agreed with the concerns about the “potential” rights issues that Anderson had identified, he clarified that he did not “take quite as dramatic view” as Anderson’s on the effect of Prevent upon human liberties.
However, Carlile expressed real concerns about the forthcoming Extremism Bill, which is expected to introduce banning orders, extremism disruption orders and closure orders targeting extremist groups and behaviour.
He said: “I am very concerned about making unlawful that which we have always taken to be lawful… It would apply to things across the board. It could apply to creationism. It could apply to people who refuse to speak English and who only speak Welsh. I do have real concerns about these proposals.”
The need for an independent reviewer of Prevent, in a similar manner in which terrorism legislation is scrutinised, was stressed by Anderson as he described his oral evidence as “gossip” which he resorted to since he had no real access to classified information held by the government on Prevent.
He said if he had that access, he wouldn’t have even “mentioned the gossip.”