We face a real and genuine terrorist threat. It is the first duty of any government to try to ensure the safety and security of its citizens. It has long been a commonplace, although not always upheld, that undermining our fundamental values and rights is to do the terrorists’ work for them.
Unfortunately, in the name of anti-terrorism, governments can come dangerously close to infringing civil liberties in a way that actually undermines fighting terrorism. We have seen this in the recent past with the Prevent anti-terrorism programme. It has long been widely mistrusted. Many people believe that it has become a toxic brand.
It has become even more toxic following the revelation this week that a number of peaceful protest organisations were named in guidance produced by counter-terrorist police as part of the Prevent programme. These groups include: Greenpeace; the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; Campaign Against the Arms Trade, Stop the War; and Extinction Rebellion.
This follows the prior disclosure that the Home Office maintains a secret database of persons, including children, who have come into the contact with the Prevent programme. This is contrary to repeated assertions that contact with Prevent by itself would not lead to permanent suspicions against individuals concerned.
It seems that an already failing programme has been abused to target legitimate campaigns and protest organisations. The government is in danger of crossing a line in drawing a parallel between terrorism and people who hold views it disagrees with.
In parliament, I have raised the inclusion of non-violent organisations like Extinction Rebellion in counter-terrorism police guidance. Ministers were careful to row back and say that the guidance had been withdrawn and the inclusion of non-violent organisations was “an error of judgement”. But there have been too many errors of judgement in the context of the Prevent programme. And they all tend in the same direction: undermining the liberty of the subject.
Ministers need to understand and accept that in a democracy there is a fundamental right to disagreement and non-violent campaigning and protest. Interfering or denying that right is a fundamental breach of the democratic contract between government and the governed. It also undermines that actual, needed struggle against terrorist organisations.
Last year, the government promised a review of Prevent. When I raised this with ministers last week they insisted that the review was still on track. But the original leader of the review – Lord Carlisle – has resigned, and ministers were unable to tell me last week who will replace him.
Precisely because terrorism is so horrific a threat, the government has a responsibility to examine properly the Prevent programme and assure the public that anti-terrorism programmes are fit for purpose.