The Home Office just demonstrated “an incredible lack of awareness” with an extraordinary statement in court

Old Bailey statue of justice
Emily Apple

During a tribunal court case on 21 May, the Home Office made an extraordinary statement. And it’s one that shows exactly how out of touch the department is with the impact of the policies it implements.

Police monitoring and civil rights group Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) was in court to challenge a freedom of information request refusal. Netpol wanted to know how many anti-fracking protesters had been referred to the Channel programme. Channel is part of the government’s controversial Prevent strategy to counter extremism and terrorism. But the police refused either to confirm or deny any referrals.

The case was defended by Greater Manchester Police, the Home Office and the Information Commissioner.

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But it was the submission from the counsel for the Home Office that was breathtaking. Speaking about the counter-terrorism referral process, counsel claimed that the process:

cannot in any circumstances be considered frightening.

“Complete lack of awareness”

In a comment to The Canary, Netpol’s coordinator Kevin Blowe accused the Home Office of not understanding “the impact of its policies”:

Once again, the Home Office showed its complete lack of awareness or concern for the impact of its policies on ordinary people’s lives. Insisting that referrals to a process controlled by counter-terrorism police ‘cannot in any circumstances be considered frightening’ is extraordinarily crass. It would be frightening for anyone, but even more so for vulnerable people that Channel is supposed to support.

This view has been backed up previously by the National Union of Teachers (NUT). In 2016, NUT deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney stated:

We are worried that children are increasingly unwilling to talk about their view of the world because they are frightened and their parents are frightened that their name will be put on a list.

The case

Blowe explained that the court case is part of a three-year battle to obtain the information from the police:

Yesterday’s appeal to the tribunal is the latest stage in a legal battle that began with freedom of information requests in October 2015 to five north-west police forces, asking for statistics on referrals of anti-fracking campaigners to the government’s Channel “deradicalisation” programme.

Despite widespread evidence to the contrary, including a Prevent training presentation from the police describing anti-fracking protesters as extremists, the police argued in court that anti-fracking protesters were not viewed in this way. Blowe stated:

To this day, the police, the Home Office and the Information Commissioner continue to argue there is no proof that the anti-fracking movement has ever been targeted for surveillance by Prevent counter-terrorism officers, despite growing evidence showing this is exactly what has happened.

A judgement is expected soon, but Blowe is hopeful about the message the case could send:

We await a ruling, but if the tribunal supports our case, it will send a signal to the Information Commissioner’s Office to stop buckling under whenever the national security card is played by the police.

Secret database

But an acute lack of awareness wasn’t the only thing the Home Office revealed. It also admitted to the existence of a database of referrals made to Channel by members of the public. The database holds records of people referred and the outcomes of the referrals.

Blowe said:

It is also alarming to discover that every referral to Channel by members of the public – no matter how unfair, unfounded or even potentially malicious – remains on a national database.

But he also asserted that, based on the current legal challenge, people would never be able to find out if they are on the database:

Based on what we have heard in the course of our legal challenge, it is impossible for anyone to ever find out if they have been accused of “vulnerability to terrorism” – the state will simply cite national security to neither confirm nor deny it holds any information on individuals.

What is extremism anyway?

There is no legal definition of domestic extremism. But the counsel for the Greater Manchester Police gave a clear example of what he considered extremism:

Young people being drawn into a fringe group of extremists – who were plotting criminal damage to fracking equipment.

But it is unclear why “plotting criminal damage” is justification for a referral to a programme designed to tackle terrorism. Blowe stated:

Once again, representatives of Greater Manchester Police repeated the extremely narrow view within policing circles of what is considered ‘acceptable protest’, conflating any situation where arrests are made with alleged extremism in circumstances that are wholly unrelated to either terrorism or violence.

In 2017, a UN Human Rights Council report called Prevent “inherently flawed”. Instead of spending years obstructing campaigners who seek very basic information, the government should abolish the whole strategy.

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Featured image via Wikimedia/Lonpicman

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