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Manchester Colleges Sharing Data of Students Referred to PREVENT

Manchester Colleges Sharing Data of Students Referred to PREVENT

Categories: Latest News

Wednesday July 29 2020

It has recently emerged that colleges and universities in Greater Manchester drew up a data-sharing agreement after the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017 with the help of counter-terrorism police and the Department for Education (DfE) to share details of students who had been referred to PREVENT. The arrangement, which was revealed in documents uncovered by the researcher Dr Hilary Aked, includes the University of Manchester, University of Salford, Manchester Metropolitan University, University of Chester and the Manchester College, the largest further education college in the UK.

The documents show that, while a young person previously subject to a PREVENT referral may be informed of the sharing of their information, their institution does not require their consent.

However, with only 5% of those referred receiving CHANNEL support in 2017/18, the high levels of unwarranted referrals has led to critics of the data sharing agreement, including Dr Aked, to argue that students may be forced to carry the stigma of an unwarranted referral to PREVENT throughout their life.

The Guardian quoted Dr Aked as saying: “These agreements enable PREVENT referral data to be shared whether the young person concerned gives their consent or not. Highly dubious in terms of necessity and proportionality… It means that a PREVENT referral – which may have been made on completely spurious or racist grounds – could continue to blight a young person throughout their life, leading them to be treated like a potential terrorist and targeted for unwarranted suspicion and surveillance”.

The PREVENT duty has been repeatedly challenged for its apparent abuse of surveillance powers. Back in October 2019, it emerged that counter-terror police had been compiling a secret database of thousands of PREVENT referrals, without the knowledge or consent of individuals, under the guise of safeguarding. However, this latest revelation that colleges are potentially sharing young people’s data with the help of counter-terrorism police and the DfE serves to compound and reinforce existing criticisms of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy. 

Concurrently, the training that PREVENT practitioners receive raises concerns as to how individuals may come to be included in a database. PREVENT-trained public sector workers may often receive only 45-60mins of online training to identify signs of radicalisation. Equally worrying is the fact that there appears to be no formative examination nor on-going assessment for those who have been through PREVENT training. Indeed, this lack of adequate training was highlighted by the Home Affairs Committee who noted: “We are concerned about a lack of sufficient and appropriate training in an area that is complex and unfamiliar to many education and other professionals, compounded by a lack of clarity about what is required of them.”

The lack of adequate training and a lack of viable definitions of “extremism” and “radicalisation” has led to a situation where every day normative practices of the Islamic faith (for example, wearing the hijab or going on Hajj), cultural practices (watching an Arabic news channel), or taking an interest in politics (criticising foreign policy) can be seen as a sign of being drawn to political violence. Indeed, taking PREVENT in the NHS as an example, research conducted by Warwick University found that 70% of the respondents “were ‘likely’, or ‘very likely’” to refer someone for the “possession of Islamic/Anarchist philosophy books”. This is important, as the PREVENT training programme does not indicate this as a factor indicative of radicalisation. However, it is reflective of the subtle structurally Islamophobic nature of the current PREVENT strategy. The authors of the research, in line with the overarching concerns surrounding the PREVENT duty, conclude that “respondents are drawing their attitude from popular culture rather than official training or academic research”.

Meanwhile, there have been various instances of ‘false positive’ referrals of individuals to PREVENT who did not pose a risk of being drawn to political violence. In 2016/17 just 5% of those referred proceeded to receive CHANNEL support for de-radicalisation, with just over 5% accepting CHANNEL support in 2017/18. More recently, in the year ending 31 March, 5,738 individuals were referred to Prevent, with the education sector being the biggest source of referrals, at 1,887 or 33%. Of those 5,738, only 561 – or one in 10 – went on to receive CHANNEL support. There is a paucity of research on the effects of false or unnecessary referrals on these individuals. However, it is likely that the stigmatising effects of being flagged as a “security risk” will be adverse and affect individuals from a psychological, social, educational, and employment perspective.

Taking into account the insufficiency of training and definitions embedded within the PREVENT strategy and the significant levels of avoidable referrals, it is inevitable that people run the risk being added to a database or their being data shared without reason. Simultaneously, the deficiency of transparency and absence of accountability is an issue that must be investigated by any genuinely comprehensive independent review of the PREVENT strategy. At the same time, MEND further urges the Government to commit to independently reviewing all counter-terrorism legislation enacted since 2000 with a view to curbing the encroachment of counter-terrorism policies on civil liberties.


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