Scotland's Counter-Radicalisation Programme to remain secret, says Information Commissioner

Press release from SACC, 2 April 2016

The Scottish Information Commissioner has upheld the Scottish Government's refusal to name charities and NGOs that it is funding to carry out counter-radicalisation work connected with the controversial Prevent strategy.

SACC regrets the Commissioner's decision and believes that continued secrecy will damage the confidence of Scotland's minority communities and undermine the work of organisations that have avoided involvement in the racist Prevent strategy.

The Scottish Government initially claimed that the information is exempt from disclosure on national security and law enforcement grounds. After an appeal was filed with the Scottish Information Commissioner, the Scottish Government added the claim that disclosure would create a risk to the health and safety of individuals working for organisations they fund.

The Scottish Government has disclosed the names of a limited number of NGOs that it has funded to support Prevent delivery in Scotland, but this accounts for just 13% of the funds that the Scottish Government says that it has provided over the period 1 April 2011 to 16 July 2016. Besides this, it is known from freely available accounts filed at Companies House that Amina Muslim Women's Resource Centre received £15,000 in 2014-15 and £21,000 in 2015-16 for purposes that are clearly to support Prevent delivery in Scotland.

The Scottish Information Commissioner says that she has found that "disclosure of the information would, or would be likely to, endanger the physical or mental health or the safety of individuals" and that this risk outweighs the public interest in disclosure. She says that, having found that the information was correctly withheld under the Health and Safety section (Section 39 (1)) of the Freedom of Information Scotland Act, she is not required to go to consider the Scottish Government's claims of exemption on national security and law enforcement grounds.

Health and safety concerns are harder to refute than other Freedom of Information exemptions because it is triggered by "endangerment" rather than by harm reached the level of   "substantial prejudice" applied in other exemptions. The Commissioner states in her decision that the "endangerment" test is less demanding than the "substantial prejudice" test. If health and safety are endangered, the usual presumption that there is a public interest in disclosure is tempered by the guidance given in the Commissioner's briefing notes that "there would need to be a significant public interest in favour of disclosing the information to outweigh the public interest in withholding information which would endanger health or safety."

SACC Chair Richard Haley said:

"The Scottish Government's last-minute addition of the health and safety issue - which they did not refer to in their initial response or in their internal review of their response - is a transparent device to avoid disclosure. It's harder to refute health and safety claims than other Freedom of Information exemptions. In this case it has allowed the Commissioner to avoid scrutinising Ministers' claims about the relationship of the Prevent strategy to national security and crime prevention.

The involvement of public-sector workers - teachers, university staff, social workers etc - in Prevent is openly accepted in official publications. There has never been any suggestion that these people are endangered by their work. People working for third-sector organisations may be perceived by minority communities as being more trustworthy than public-sector workers, but in fact some of them are also involved in Prevent. Scottish Government policy is evidently to conceal this fact and to use any argument that comes to hand to do so.

The fact that the Commissioner accepted Ministers' submissions that the mental, as well as the physical health and safety of individuals was likely to be endangered  speaks volumes about the work that these individuals have been drawn into by the Scottish Government and their own management."

The information was requested by Dr Julia Davidson in August 2016. The Scottish Government initially refused to provide any of the information, but provided limited information on 14 September 2016 after carrying out a review at the request of Dr Davidson. Dr Davidson then filed an appeal with the Scottish Information Commissioner. The Commissioner's decision was passed to Dr Davidson on 24 March and as a result of this, some further information was provided by the Scottish Government to Dr Davidson.

Submissions to the Commissioner from Ministers included written statements from some of their key Prevent stakeholders outlining the risks to their individual safety and the detrimental effect that they claimed disclosure would have on their work, not only during their day-to-day life in Scotland, but also when travelling overseas. This seems to imply that individuals are carrying out works overseas, perhaps with a propaganda element, without disclosing that they are in effect working for the Government.

The Commissioner says, in her decision notice:

"Disclosure of the information would, the Ministers believed, put individuals and organisations working with Prevent at serious risk of reprisal, injury, harm or harassment from those who support and endorse terrorism and/ or those who have been vociferous in their condemnation of Prevent."

In her submission to the Commissioner, Julia Davidson said:

"The Ministers refer in their submission to 'those who support terrorism and/ or those who have been vociferous in their condemnation of Prevent.' This seems to imply that criticism of Prevent is not legitimate, and perhaps that it is not legitimate to seek information about Prevent. I find this rather personally intimidating, and feel it could be taken to be more widely intimidating. Regardless of the decision reached on my information request, I strongly urge the Information Commissioner to caution Ministers to avoid comments that could be interpreted in this way."

It is very disappointing that the Commissioner has reproduced Ministers' statement in exactly the terms complained of, without any comment. SACC believes that statements of this kind represent a real threat to freedom of expression.  The statement aligns Scottish Ministers with publications like the Daily Mail which has demonised individuals who campaign against Prevent, with the result that some of them have received abusive and threatening messages via social media.  The Commissioner has given no indication that she has raised this issue with Ministers.

SACC urges organisations that do not cooperate with Prevent or take Prevent funds to sign the Together Against Prevent pledge and include the logo on their publications.

 

Decision by the Scottish Information Commissioner:

Notes for Editors

  1. SACC believes that the Prevent strategy is anti-democratric, Islamophobic and counter-productive in relation to its supposed aim of stopping people being drawn into terrorism. We believe that it should be scrapped and that in the meantime individuals and organisations should avoid cooperating with it.
  2. The information released by the Scottish Government in response to this freedom of information request can be found here. This covers the information released after the Scottish Government's internal review and the additional information released following the Information Commissioner's decision.
  3. Any appeal to the Court of Session over the Commissioner's decision would need to be based on a point of law, rather than just on the view taken by the Commissioner