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A powerful committee of MPs is likely to hold a formal hearing into allegations that a government anti-extremism programme is being used to gather
information on innocent Muslims.

The home affairs select committee meets on Tuesday and will discuss widening its inquiry into the £140m Preventing Violent Extremism scheme, also known as Prevent.

The hearing follows a Guardian investigation that revealed allegations that the programme, whose public aim is to prevent Muslims from being lured into
violent extremism, is being used to gather intelligence about innocent people not suspected of involvement in terrorism.

Information the authorities are trying to ascertain includes political and religious views, information on mental health and sexual activity and
associates, according to documents seen by the Guardian. Other documents reveal that the intelligence and information could be stored until the people
concerned reach the age of 100.

The all-party committee of MPs will consider offering private evidence sessions for whistleblowers and those who believe they were affected.

Some of those making the accusations, including people involved in running Prevent-funded projects, fear losing their jobs or reprisals for speaking out.

In a further move, the civil rights group Liberty is examining the prospect of suing the government over the scheme because it may breach a guarantee of
a right to privacy in the Human Rights Act.

A leading counter-terrorism expert said the scheme was trying to brand non-violent Muslims as "subversives", which if maintained would lead to the
Prevent scheme backfiring.

The government denies that Prevent involves spying on the innocent.

Keith Vaz, a Labour MP and chairman of the home affairs committee said: "We will be inquiring into these allegations. It's very important this engagement
takes place, but that does not mean innocent people are targeted. In the end that would be counter-productive.

"We have the power to offer private sessions to those who wish to bring to parliament's attention issues concerning Prevent and its alleged gathering of
sensitive information on the innocent."

Reacting to the investigation, Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, called Prevent the biggest spying programme in Britain in modern times and an
affront to civil liberties.

She said today the group would consider suing if whistleblowers came forward, which they could do confidentially.

Chakrabarti said: "We're inviting people who feel they may have been affected to come forward to us, and we will consider litigation," she said. "We also
invite anyone who has been working on these projects and has concerns."

Prevent is a cross-department programme, run by the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism. Its head, Charles Farr, is a former senior intelligence
officer. He was reported to be the choice of some of his peers to be the next head of MI6, but lost out to Sir John Sawers.

A former Scotland Yard counterterrorism officer has warned the government about its tactics.

Robert Lambert headed a special branch unit countering extremism by working with Muslims whose views the government disliked. His Muslim
Contact Unit gained respect from arch-critics of the police.

Lambert said: "Not only is it morally reprehensible to treat law-abiding Muslim citizens as a subversive threat, it is also hugely counter-productive.

"If ministers continue they will begin to jeopardise social cohesion as well as effective and legitimate counter-terrorism in the UK."

Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "Prevent must not become an intrusive spying programme that destroys relationships
within the Muslim community and between Muslims and the rest of society.

"Combating radical Islamist ideas is one thing; gathering and keeping intelligence on the innocent is another."

This article first appeared in the Guardian on the 19th October 2009.

Under the guise of tackling Islamic extremism, the government has created one of the most elaborate systems of surveillance ever seen in this country. As this newspaper revealed on Saturday, the Preventing Violent Extremism programme, known simply as Prevent, is being used to gather intelligence about innocent people who are not suspected of involvement in terrorism.

Researching the programme myself over the last six months, I discovered that a range of agencies such as schools, colleges, youth and community services  in areas with significant Muslim populations are expected to gather intelligence about the young people they work with. Youth workers, for instance, are under pressure to provide to counter-terrorism units detailed information about those whose religious and political opinions are considered extremist, a vague term that can include things like religious literalism or anger at British foreign policy. Muslim youth workers who have been unwilling to involve themselves in this kind of information sharing, because of legitimate concerns about professional confidentiality, have themselves come under suspicion and, in at least one case, become the target of a smear campaign.

The government describes Prevent as a community-led approach and believes that by selectively directing resources at moderate Muslim organisations to carry out community development and anti-radicalisation work it can empower them to unite around shared British values to isolate the extremists. While the government denies the programme has a surveillance element, this is contradicted by its adviser Ed Husain of the Quilliam Foundation, who says intelligence gathering is a part of Prevent. He also believes it morally right that professionals such as teachers should alert the authorities to those who hold views considered extremist. Indeed, through its Radicalisation Awareness Programme, the foundation is receiving significant public funds to advise local authorities on how extremist views among Muslims can be identified by public service workers.

Of course, it is appropriate that the police and intelligence services have placed a number of Muslim individuals under surveillance. It is also right that channels should be made available for youth workers and teachers to provide information to the police if there are reasons to believe an individual is involved in criminality. What is at issue is whether professionals providing non?policing local services should be expected to routinely identify to the police not just individuals who might be at risk of committing a criminal offence, but also those whose opinions might be deemed unacceptable. Not only are the professional distinctions between the teacher or youth worker and the police officer being confused, but policing itself is being widened to include the surveillance of radical opinion.

Expecting teachers and youth workers to identify extremists in this way undercuts trust between Muslims and providers of public services. And trust is an essential ingredient in counter-terrorism. Young people need to be able to speak openly with teachers and youth workers about the issues they feel strongly about. If schools and youth clubs can no longer be relied on to provide a venue for such discussions to take place then where will young people go? The likelihood of their turning to those already committed to violence will only be increased.

Ultimately, the real alternative to terrorism is not the official promotion of state-licensed British values but a democratic process that is capable of listening to views that the majority may find offensive or discomforting. Unfortunately, the Prevent programme is doing the exact opposite.

This article first appeared on the Guardian's Comment is Free on 19th October 2009.

Arun Kundnani wrote in the Guardian that the government's Preventing Violent Extremism programme (Prevent for short) "is being used to gather intelligence about innocent people who are not suspected of involvement in terrorism". His report for the Institute of Race Relations says that the government treats "the Muslim population as a suspect community".

Confusion lies at the heart of the problem. The police have a legitimate and necessary mandate to help tackle radicalisation. To do this they have to have access to intelligence about individuals. The argument is whether, as a part of the Prevent strand, their interlocutors in the community should be expected to contribute to the acquisition of that intelligence. Their interlocutors see themselves as having a different function in Prevent: strengthening community cohesion. In this, being asked to supply detailed information about those they are in contact with is liable to undermine rather than create trust. The allegations now being made about Prevent that it is a covert mechanism for spying on innocent individuals demonstrate the point. This confusion is undermining the chances of success in Prevent and it is right that the home affairs select committee should seek to air the issues involved.

Arun Kundnani's report raises the issue of how policing and intelligence fit into Prevent. The challenge faced is how, before individuals are ready to use violence, to intervene in a way that does not criminalise them but is effective in moving them away from ideas that could lead to criminal behaviour. The role of the police is to share information about local vulnerability and extremism with community leaders and institutions such as schools, colleges, youth and community services. It is to these institutions that the task of promoting democratic values, through their everyday activities, falls. In the process they should certainly inform the police if they have good reason to suspect criminal behaviour but they should not be expected to provide detailed information about individuals on a systematic, untargeted and identifiable basis.

Radicalisation is the long-term challenge to democracy and shared values in this country, so getting Prevent right is very important. I have said before that a Conservative government would immediately conduct an evidence-based review of Prevent. Is it succeeding in its objectives? This is partly to do with funding: how do we know that the projects Labour has funded are actually reducing vulnerability to extreme ideas and radicalisation? Where is the evidence?

But there is also a broader problem. Labour continues to treat people according to ethnicity and creed. They see Muslims as people who need special attention and special funds. They are now doing the same with rightwing extremists. But how does this create a sense of belonging and shared identity? Prevent should not be a stigmatising "add on" with a separate fund. Citizens should not be branded as potential violent extremists in need of funding to induce better behaviour: it is the role of government, local authorities, schools and others in the public sector to promote and encourage democratic values everyday. Government should treat all people as equal citizens and it should encourage interaction between them. Where voluntary groups seek funding, this should be provided on the basis that the project is inter-faith and inter-cultural. In other words, Prevent should be aimed at bringing citizens and communities together.

This article first appeared in the Guardian on 20th October 2009.

It goes without saying that Nick Griffin is a hateful, slippery character. Unfortunately he and other BNP members are getting good at running rings around journalists and others who want to ask them questions.

To help anyone wondering what to ask the BNP leader when he appears on the BBC's Question Time on Thursday, I've prepared, with the help of my co-bloggers, a list of 20 questions that should be asked of the BNP and its leadership. So without further ado...

1. Which parts of Hitler's book Mein Kampf does Nick Griffin agree with, considering that he is on record as stating that he has "learned a lot" from it ?

2. Specifically which policies and ideology of the historical German Nazi party does the BNP as a whole renounce or support, considering the confirmed admiration for Hitler and his organisation among several senior members of the BNP?

3. What is the BNP's official position on the Holocaust, given Griffin's claim that "I am well aware that the orthodox opinion is that 6 million Jews were gassed and cremated and turned into lampshades." Does he not believe the 6 million figure?

4. Griffin has been pictured with and rubbed shoulders several times with high-ranking members of the American Ku Klux Klan. Does he agree with their vision of Aryan supremacy? Would he renounce their policies and ideology?

5. Would Griffin, Andrew Brons and all other members of the BNP be willing to submit to multiple independent DNA tests to confirm that none of them have any non-European ancestry?

6. How will a BNP government ensure the safety of Britain's female population, considering that a senior member of the BNP (Nick Eriksen) has been on record as stating that he believes "rape is simply sex. Women enjoy sex, so rape cannot be such a terrible physical ordeal."

7. Does Griffin agree with the senior member of the BNP who is on record as stating that he supports forced euthanasia of people with disabilities and others deemed to be "a waste of time, money and resources", including the very old and (especially) newborn babies?

8. Griffin said previously that he believed white and black people could not live together. Is he still against mixed-race relationships? How will he stop people from having them?

9. What would be the status of British citizens (both minors and legal adults) who are the children of one white/Caucasian parent and one non-white parent?

10. The BNP's constitution says that it wishes to restore "the overwhelmingly white makeup of the British population that existed in Britain prior to 1948". Does that still remain his aim?

11. Does he still believe in voluntary repatriation of ethnic minorities in the UK? What if they don't want to move to another country?

12. Should ethnic minority Britons have any lesser rights or legal status than white Britons? Given the choice between a white Briton and a non-white Briton for a job ? would you choose the white Briton because of their race?

13. Non-white Britons represent Britain internationally in sporting events and academia and in other fields all the time. Yet you say these people are not "British". Would you deny them the chance to represent the UK?

14. Would you be OK with a mixed-race or non-white Briton being prime minister of Britain?

15. Do you think white people are genetically more intelligent than black people?

16. During an interview in May 2009, Griffin clearly stated that he would use the current Saudi Arabian policy on non-Islamic places of worship as a guideline for official policies towards non-Christian places of worship under a BNP government, thereby effectively turning Britain into a Christian version of Saudi Arabia. Is that still the case?

17. Does he have any problems with Christians converting to any other religion?

18. Will the BNP's proposed policies in relation to non-white British citizens also be applicable to Jewish British citizens? If the answer is "Yes", then all further queries in relation to non-white British citizens should be interpreted to also include Jewish British citizens.

19. During its various references to Britain's historical participation in the first and second world wars, why does the BNP never mention the fact that millions of non-white soldiers from the former British Empire fought alongside white/Caucasian soldiers on the side of the Allied powers in both world wars, including 2.5 million volunteer soldiers from the Indian subcontinent during the second world war?

20. How will a BNP government ensure the safety and welfare of Britain's disabled, considering that a senior member of the BNP (Jeffrey Marshall) has been on record as stating that "We live in a country today which is unhealthily dominated by an excess of sentimentality towards the weak and unproductive. No good will come of it", in response to the death of David Cameron's baby in spring 2009?

Think I've missed something out or you can do better? Let me know below.

This article first appeared in the Guardian on 19th October 2009.