Sadiq Khan speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Sadiq Khan tries to shoot the Tory fox on human rights reform

Shadow justice secretary pre-empts expected Tory move by promising new guidance on the Human Rights Act. 

After cases such as the Abu Qatada affair and votes for prisoners, the Tories have made much of their commitment to reform human rights law. Theresa May has pledged that the next Conservative manifesto will include a commitment to scrap the Human Rights Act (something the Lib Dems have so far prevented them from doing) and has hinted that a Tory government could withdraw from the European Convention altogether. 

But after an inner-cabinet battle, sources suggest that the final reform package is likely to be more modest. William Hague, Dominic Grieve and Ken Clarke are among those who have warned that it would be untenable for Britain to become the first country to leave the convention (which it helped to invent) and to join Belarus as the only European state not under the Strasbourg court's jurisdiction. Michael Heseltine put it well when I interviewed him earlier this year

"I get as irritated as everybody does about the European Court of Human Rights, but of course that’s got nothing to do with the European Union. It’s a very difficult one, the European Court of Human Rights, every so often they come up with some absolutely gut wrenching decision and, in the end, you’re asked as a minister, and I was asked, 'well shall we get out?'

"And then of course I remember why we’re in in the first place, and we’re in in the first place because in the 40s, long before the European Union come into existence in any form, we signed up to sending a signal to the countries, the peoples behind the Iron Curtain, that to the west was a rule of law and certain enshrined rights for people. So 'yes minister , the question is, we do understand how furious you are with this judgement, do you want to be the first country to abrogate the treaty of human rights and send a signal, not just to the people of Europe, but to the rest of the world, whom you’re trying to improve, increase, encourage to improve their democratic and human rights records, do you want to be the first country to have torn up the treaty that made this all possible and led to the collapse of the Iron Curtain?' And as a minister you tend to go a bit quiet at the stage."

More likely, I'm told, is a British Bill of Rights, including a rewritten version of Section 2 of the Human Rights Act. This stipulates that UK courts must "take into account" Strasbourg's decisions when making judgements, but is often thought to be misinterpreted. It is notable, then, that Sadiq Khan, Labour's shadow justice secretary and a former human rights lawyer, has used a piece in today's Telegraph to outline his plan to reform precisely this part of the law. 

He writes: "The wording, contained in Section 2 of the Human Rights Act, very clearly states that our courts only have to take into account Strasbourg judgments, not be bound by them. This was extensively debated at the time in Parliament, and as the records clearly show, the Tories tried to change Labour’s wording, which would have actually resulted in our judges being bound by Strasbourg’s rulings. Thankfully, Labour defeated the Tories’ crazy plans.

"But 16 years on, I think we have to acknowledge that, at times, our courts haven’t always interpreted section 2 in the way we’d intended. Too often, rather than “taking into account” Strasbourg rulings and by implication, finding their own way, our courts have acted as if these rulings were binding on their decisions. As a result, the sovereignty of our courts and the will of Parliament have both been called into question. This needs sorting out.

"And it’s not just me saying that. Senior judges and former Law Lords have also raised concerns. Former Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge and former Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine both believe there’s a problem with how our courts have interpreted Section 2 of the Human Rights Act."

He adds that Labour will use the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta to make it clear to judges that "they’re free to disagree with Strasbourg, that it’s sometimes healthy to do so, and that they should feel confident in their judgments based on Britain’s expertise and strong human rights standing." Khan believes that this could be achieved through guidance alone, but does not rule out legislation. 

In the piece, he also confirms Labour's existing support for the Human Rights Act and the European Convention. While the Tories will undoubtedly seek to portray their support for a British Bill of Rights as a radical alternative to Khan's proposals, the reality is that there may end up being little difference between them. 

A Labour spokesperson told me: "Not only is this the right policy but it shows Labour has a positive reform agenda on human rights issues. We remain passionately committed to the Human Rights Act and to the European Convention, and these reforms will strengthen human rights here and abroad. On the other hand, the Tories are obsessed with doing down anything to do with human rights. They never tire of trying to outdo Ukip. Labour's measured move will pre-empt any attempt from the Tories to claim to be fixing a problem which we have already sorted. But don't be surprised if they still try, in an attempt to portray it as some grand negative attack on judges, courts, human rights and Strasbourg."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.