Preventing Evidence: ‘Rights’ and the Wrongs of Government Policy Reviews

Layla Aitlhadj and John Holmwood

In 2011, the Home Office undertook an internal review of its Prevent strategy. It was extended to include measures directed against non-violent extremism; that is, against “organisations that oppose our values of human rights, equality before the law, democracy and full participation in our society” (2011: 1). The measures were further extended in 2015 with the introduction of safeguarding duties on schools, further and higher education institutions, health services, prisons and other providers of public services to protect children and other vulnerable individuals from ‘radicalisation’ under the influence of extremist ideologies. This included (published in the previous year) a statutory duty on schools to promote ‘fundamental British values’, now codified as commitments to the rule of law, democracy, individual liberty, and tolerance of different views (religious and non-religious).

Many civil society groups saw the measures as being themselves a threat to civil liberties, especially those associated with free speech; they as also viewed them as contributing to the idea of British Muslims as a ‘suspect’ community. The latter charge was countered by the claim that the measures were also directed against  threats other than possible terrorism conducted in the name of Islam, such as the potential violence of the ‘far right’. At the same time Muslim advocacy groups that opposed Prevent were represented as ‘extremist’, both by government and by right wing think tanks such as the Henry Jackson Society and Policy Exchange.

… none of these extensions of Prevent place a specific community under suspicion

As feared by civil rights groups, the government has recently given indications (for example, in the new guidance to schools about curriculum material) that it seeks to include other forms of ‘extremism’ under the lens of Prevent, such as that associated with environmental activism, Black Lives Matter protests and ‘far left’ groups. Unlike the focus on Islamic extremism, however, none of these extensions of Prevent place a specific community under suspicion.

The 2011 Home Office Review occurred at the same time that the then prime minister, David Cameron, made a speech at the Munich Security Conference repudiating ‘state multiculturalism’, by arguing that, “we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream…  We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values”. The claim was problematic even in its own terms. Human rights involve respect for difference and, thus, for multiculturalism – in Britain, within a liberal framework – as was set out in 2000 in the Parekh Report and the Runnymede Trusts Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain.

… the government’s aim was to promote an assimilationist idea of ‘collective identity’

Instead, the government’s aim was to promote an assimilationist idea of ‘collective identity’, but it sought to do so without addressing British Muslims and their legitimate criticisms of the inequalities and discrimination they faced. Indeed, sociological research has consistently shown a high level of commitment to the values identified by the government (Karlsen and Nazroo 2015). At the same time, the government has resisted the adoption of a formal definition of Islamophobia (once again supported by the Henry Jackson Society, Policy Exchange, and the British Secular Society).

Indeed, most government policy developments are accompanied by the trumpeting of Britain as one of the ‘most successful multi-ethnic societies’ in the world. This is alongside appointments of commissioners across a range of supposedly independent bodies who have repudiated the idea of ‘institutional racism’ (as set out in the MacPherson Report), or with a record of hostility toward British Muslims centred on the view that the latter have failed to integrate.

In February 2019, the government finally conceded an Independent Review of Prevent (to be completed within 18 months) at the tail end of Theresa May’s minority government. It was part of a ‘deal’ necessary to pass a new Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill. The latter introduced  ‘stop and search’ measures at UK borders, and it removed the requirement that there should be reasonable suspicion, as well as restrictions on the posting and accessing of images (for example, of flags and clothing) that might indicate support for terrorist groups. Notwithstanding their concerns about these measures, the announcement of an independent review of Prevent was welcomed by the human rights and civil liberties groups that criticised the new act.

Ben Wallace, the Security Minister, announced the review with a challenge to critics of Prevent to provide solid evidence, accusing them otherwise of ‘spin and distortion’. It was left to his successor, Brandon Lewis, to announce the appointment of the reviewer, Lord Carlile. The latter was hardly independent; he had, in fact, endorsed the 2011 Prevent Strategy that was at issue.

Following the threat of a legal challenge by Rights Watch, Lord Carlile stepped down. The review fell into abeyance, until, finally, William Shawcross was appointed by the new government of Boris Johnson in January 2021. Shawcross had been a Director at the Henry Jackson Society, a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and was Chair of the Charity Commission between 2012 and 2018 when it carried out investigations of Muslim charities (Scott-Baumann and Perfect 2021).

… ‘spin and distortion’ would certainly seem to be the approach of government, not that of its critics

The immediate response by Muslim organisations and civil society advocacy groups, alike – for example, MEND, CAGE, Rights Watch, Liberty and Amnesty International – was to call for a boycott of the review. Seventeen organisations signed up, which has now grown to 500 organisations and individuals. Other reviews have been criticised for their partisan character and the selective use of evidence – for example, the recent Commission on Racial Disparities review was the most egregious. It has been widely criticised, including by the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, as well as by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission in a dossier of critical comments prior to its publication, notwithstanding that the EHRC welcomed it on publication. Taking all of this into account, ‘spin and distortion’ would certainly seem to be the approach of government, not that of its critics.

Of course, it is possible that some ‘independent’ evidence will be supplied to the current ongoing review of Prevent chaired by William Shawcross, specifically from academic researchers. Policy Lab – a policy design group within government – put out a call for evidence on UPEN (the Universities Policy and Exchange Network). The latter is a collaboration across universities to increase the impact of academic research and provide ‘a dedicated contact point for policymakers, and a collective response to requests for evidence’.

… government policy generates its own self-justifying knowledge base

This is in the context where public-funded research is assessed for its contribution to users, with status and revenue deriving from that contribution. Despite claims for academic independence and objectivity, academic research is shaped toward providing policy-based evidence by the nature of how impact is measured and rewarded. This is especially so with regard to research relating to national security, as has been argued by Mills, Massoumi and Miller. This means that government policy generates its own self-justifying knowledge base.

It is ironic that much of the government’s promotion of the Prevent strategy mobilises human rights against those who threaten ‘our values’. The policy that schools should promote ‘fundamental British values’, for example, is based on a misconception. The ‘rule of law’, for example, is not primarily a constraint upon the public, no matter that any breaches of the law will give rise to sanctions upon them. Properly understood, it is a constraint upon government in the exercise of its authority.

Equally, the Equalities Act 2010 which sets out protected characteristics (including, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, disability, and religious belief), and which must be respected, is a requirement on the provider of services; its primary purpose is to ensure they do not discriminate. It is not a set of ‘values’ that must be inculcated, notwithstanding its incorporation in some schools into their ‘whole school’ curriculum for promoting fundamental British values.

As Massoumi (2021) has argued, an inversion in the relation of government and publics and in the role of civil society groups is a central part of the Prevent strategy. The dominant understanding of civil society is that it is a domain of social movements that express social solidarities and seek to influence government policies from outside institutionalised arrangements. Under Prevent, the government has set up, or funded, civil society organisations within communities in order to promote its policies; that is, it establishes quasi-social movements as an expression of state policy, rather than as a challenge to it.

This strategy was set out in the Conservative Party Manifesto for the 2017 election, where it was stated that, “extremism, especially Islamist extremism, strips some British people, especially women, of the freedoms they should enjoy, undermines the cohesion of our society and can fuel violence. To defeat extremism, we need to learn from how civil society and the state took on racism in the twentieth century… We will support the public sector and civil society in identifying extremists, countering their messages and promoting pluralistic, British values.” (page 55).

The strategy has involved the setting up of the Commission for Countering Extremism, as well the placement of commissioners favourable to government on a series of independent bodies otherwise intended to monitor its actions. In the context of challenges to the idea of institutional racism, for example, the policy is breath-taking. After all, that was precisely one of the successes of civil society in the 1970s directed against the Conservative governments of the day.

How should civil society today address an increasingly draconian government, one that already has a record of misrepresenting and distorting any evidence presented to it that challenges its intentions? A boycott of the Shawcross Review of Prevent was necessary to communicate the deeply dysfunctional nature of reviews, consultations and other checks on government policy. However, the Shawcross Review is also charged with making recommendations to which the government must respond. It is unlikely that it will recommend anything different to what the government seeks to implement. It is important that those concerned about civil liberties be in a position to respond, and to respond with evidence.

… we propose to ‘learn from how civil society took on racism’ in the 1970s

In this context, we propose to ‘learn from how civil society took on racism’ in the 1970s and apply it to the government’s Prevent strategy. In April 1979, there were serious disturbances in Southall, West London, following a National Front meeting at the Town Hall. These involved a violent response by police to demonstrations against the meeting in which Blair Peach died (another young man, Gurdip Singh Chaggar had been killed three years earlier in a racist attack). In the face of official indifference to the need for an inquiry, an Unofficial Committee of Enquiry was set up under the direction of Sir Michael Dummett, QC. Its report was published by the National Council for Civil Liberties (1980).

To this end we have established the People’s Review of Prevent, which will gather evidence and publish a report for dissemination to the public, media, and civil society groups. Details of the People’s Review are on the website. It is an opportunity for the presentation of arguments and evidence that challenge the policies of an increasingly authoritarian government that scapegoats ethnic minority citizens and those professing minority religious beliefs.


Massoumi, Narzanin (2021) ‘The role of civil Society in political repression: the UK Prevent counter-terrorism programme’, Sociology, Online first. DOI:

National Council of Civil Liberties (1980) Southall 23 April 1979: The Report of the Unofficial Committee of Inquiry, Nottingham: NCCL.

Karlsen, Saffron and Nazroo, James Y.  (2015) ‘Ethnic and religious differences in the attitudes of people towards being “British”’, Sociological Review, 63(4). DOI:

Scott-Baumann, Alison and Perfect, Simon (2021) Freedom of Speech in Universities Islam, Charities and Counter-Terrorism, London: Routledge.

Dr Layla Aitlhadj and Professor John Holmwood are Co-Chairs of the People’s Review of Prevent. Those wishing to submit evidence should do so by September 30th to preventreview<at> Where possible please do so accompanied by a one to two page summary.

Layla Aitlhadj is the director of Prevent Watch, a charity that supports people who have been directly impacted by the government’s Prevent strategy.

John Holmwood is emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham . He is the author (with Therese O’Toole) of Countering Extremism in British Schools: The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair (Policy Press 2018) and (with Gurminder K. Bhambra) Colonialsm and Modern Social Theory (Polity 2021).

Header image credit: FullFact


Aitlhadj, Layla and John Holmwood 2021. ‘Preventing Evidence: ‘Rights’ and the Wrongs of Government Policy Reviews’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (3):