UK claims “commercial interests” in counter-terror study

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2016 was not a good year for the British government’s counter-terror strategy Prevent. The National Union of Teachers voted overwhelmingly to reject the strategy, saying it caused “suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staffroom.” A month later, Maina Kiai, a UN special rapporteur, condemned the strategy for its “crude racial, ideological, cultural and religious profiling.” Two successive reports from Rights Watch UK and the Open Society Justice Initiative delineated in scrupulous detail the harms of Prevent in schools and health facilities. A Parliamentary report considered the strategy “too opaque.” A Home Affairs Select Committee report recommended that the government rebrand the strategy. The Liberal Democrats called it “counter-productive.”

Most damning perhaps was a report issued by CAGE which questioned the “science” behind the Prevent strategy. The report examined Extremism Risk Guidance 22+ (ERG22+), the methodology being used under Prevent to assess individuals for their vulnerability to radicalization, and criticized it for being secretive and unproven. ERG22+ was initially developed by HM Prison Service’s the National Offenders Management Service (NOMS), to “assess the risk and needs in convicted extremist offenders,” and had not been made public.

For its report, CAGE was forced to rely on a paper published by two forensic psychologists who developed the framework. A letter accompanying the CAGE report and signed by over 140 academics and experts condemned the strategy and called for the release of ERG22+. The report and the letter garnered international attention, undoubtedly adding to the headaches of Prevent proponents.

Equally damaging were a series of reports revealing a secret Home Office department, Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), which had been covertly supporting organizations masquerading as “grassroots” and “independent” to transmit “counter-extremism messages into communities and hard to reach audiences.” This government propaganda unit, with a budget of £17 million in 2015-16, worked through private companies such as Breakthrough Media Network Ltd to bring about “behavioural and attitudinal change” among British Muslims. The covert government efforts to shape how British Muslims think and act was shocking enough but the reports also revealed that private companies had developed significant financial stakes in the Prevent strategy.

These concerns had previously been highlighted by reports on Prevent training courses, many of which are produced by private companies. A significant number of teachers have complained about the “cringeworthy and crass” training they receive as part of their statutory duty under Prevent. More than 20 “products” were rejected from inclusion by the Home Office in a March 2016 training catalog, some of them deemed to be “poor quality.” Unsurprisingly, the Home Office refused to divulge the name of the products or the organizations which produced them as “it would prejudice the commercial interests of the companies concerned.”

Now, in a bizarre response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request filed in August 2016, NOMS claims that it cannot publicly release ERG22+ as doing so could “allow for the production of a competing product to the market, prejudicing the commercial interests of the department and allowing us to get best value for money.” There is public interest in disclosing the document, admitted NOMS, as it would “improve transparency in the operations of Government and of the justice system” but “on balance, the public interest is better served by withholding this information.” The rejection was justified by NOMS under section 43(2) of the Freedom of Information Act, which protects information that “constitutes a trade secret” or would “prejudice the commercial interests of any person (including the public authority holding it).”

Prevent has become increasingly secretive over the past few years, especially since the strategy was reviewed in 2011. Information about how Prevent is being implemented has become nearly impossible to find. FOI requests for funding information, for example, are routinely rejected, with many councils insisting that making such information public would help terrorists. What may seem like “harmless information,” stated one rejection letter, “may assist terrorists when pieced together with other information they may obtain.”

ERG22+ has also been subjected to such secrecy. Previously, the Ministry of Justice had refused to release the study, claiming that its release would compromise the assessment. This is the first time a government agency has claimed “commercial interests” in keeping the controversial study secret.

TMI contacted NOMS to seek clarification regarding what “commercial interests” it had in the study. A representative claimed that the agency does not sell ERG22+ as a “commercial product” but “as a tool developed by NOMS its reuse is strictly monitored and controlled.” The representative noted that the exemption under section 43(2) also applies when the information “could lead to an alternative product being developed which, if developed using the original as a base, could impact the standing and perception of the original.” ERG22+, like other NOMS assessments and programs, should be understood as a package that includes specialist training to ensure appropriate use and to “mitigate … the risk that an ineffective product is developed from our original materials.”

NOMS’ “commercial interests” seem limited to protecting the “standing and perception” of ERG22+ which it claims would suffer if the study is released to the public. Arun Kundnani, a signatory to the letter calling for of ERG22+’s release, does not find this rationale convincing. “Over the last few years,” he wrote to TMI, “the government has put the concept of ‘extremism’ on the statute books and made it a part of Britain’s criminal law. And yet it will not tell us how in practice it decides who is at risk of being an extremist. Without this information, we cannot know if the policy is working, let alone if it involves ethnic profiling.”

In fact, NOMS’ decision to withhold the study from the public seems directly aimed at shielding the Prevent strategy from scrutiny. Recently, the UK government has taken heavy handed measures to prevent any critical discussions of Prevent. A local mosque, for example, was warned that if it hosted an event featuring anti-Prevent campaigners, it would “cause major problems for them.” Despite government claims that Prevent does not involve the policing of political views and the stifling of dissent, it now seems that discussions of the strategy itself are being policed.

Even as Muslims are being questioned about their beliefs simply for reading books on terrorism or Syria, the government claims that the basis for such dubious measures cannot be disclosed. Any demands for transparency, says NOMS, must contend with how the department can get “the best value” for its money.