Armed police outside Parliament (Photo: David Holt/Flickr/Creative Commons)
The Government’s proposed new counter-extremism legislation has caused concern for human rights groups who fear a further erosion of civil liberties.
The new Counter Extremism and Safeguarding Bill which featured in the Queen’s Speech in 2015 and again in 2016, gives the law new powers to ban organisations which express extremist views. Criticism of the new Bill has come from a wide variety of organisations, including both the Jewish Council for Racial Equality and the Muslim Council of Britain. The chief concern is that the new legislation does not define extremism, but gives the law new powers to gag people who hold ‘extremist’ views.
Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights has called for an independent inquiry into the Prevent Strategy as a pre-requisite for the new Bill. It launched a pre-legislative Inquiry in February this year and has called on the Home Secretary to publish draft legislation of the Bill before any further legislative action is taken.
Speaking at the Inquiry was ex-chief constable of Greater Manchester and a former policing lead for the Prevent programme, Peter Fahy. He told the Inquiry that the proposed Bill was so vague that it ventured into the territory of “policing of thought, which is a very dangerous area for the police in this country to be drawn into.”
Other issues that were raised during the Inquiry included “fears that any new legislation would either focus predominantly on Muslims (thus undermining community relations) or have unintended consequences – for example placing restrictions on other religious groups (e.g. evangelical Christians or Orthodox Jews) or others who had no intention of inciting violence.”
The Committee warned that new legislation could be “counter-productive”. The Government has not been able to prove that there is a gap in existing policy in this area, and needs to address current concerns surrounding Counter-Terrorism policy before introducing any new legislation.
Current problems with Counter-Terrorism policy
The Prevent Strategy has a long history. Its genesis can be traced as far back as 2002, when it was recognised that a long-term effort would be needed to counter the ideologies of groups such as Al Qa’ida. In July 2005, home-grown terrorism became a priority and required a new kind of relationship with the communities perceived to be supporting these individuals. Thus the CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy was born, and its community-based arm, the Prevent Strategy. In 2007 a new anti-radicalisation support program called Channel was introduced as part of the Prevent Strategy and was aimed at young people aged 15-24 who were deemed to be in danger of radicalisation.
The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 took the targeting of young people even further. The “Prevent Duty” was introduced and became applicable to all frontline services, including Primary schools. It requires staff to actively safeguard children and young people against the dangers of radicalisation. Since the introduction of the Prevent Duty, referrals to the Channel program have drastically increased. In March it was reported that almost 4,000 people (triple the number reported the year before) had been referred to Channel. One of the more notable referrals happened in March this year when Luton Council referred a 4-year-old nursery child who had drawn a picture of a cucumber but had mispronounced it so it sounded like “cooker bomb”.
Assistant Principal and Prevent Officer at Chobham Academy, Karon McCarthy, told the Parliamentary Inquiry that staff at schools were referring children to the Channel programme out of fear. She said that people might be “being a bit too enthusiastic and feeling very scared that if they do not report something, which is now a duty, they will somehow fall foul of the law.”
In universities the Prevent Duty becomes even more problematic if it can feasibly encroach on freedom of speech in an academic context. The Prevent Duty means that the duty of care that higher education institutions have towards their staff and students could interfere with the openness of debate that is vital to academic environments.
University of Oxford’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, told the Inquiry: “My position on this is that any effort to infringe freedom of expression should be opposed, whether it comes from what I take to be the well-intentioned but misguided Prevent counter-terrorism policy or from student unions that do not want to hear views that they find objectionable. A university has to be a place where the right to express objectionable views is protected.”
Earlier this year, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights, Maina Kiai, criticised British counter-terrorism policy for its encroachment on free speech. Speaking about the Prevent Duty he said: “The spectre of Big Brother is so large, in fact, that I was informed that some families are afraid of discussing the negative effects of terrorism in their own homes, fearing their children would talk about it at school and have their intentions misconstrued…None of us want to live in a country where you are not sure where the next bomb is going off, but none of us want to live in a country where you’ve got to look over your back and watch what you say because you don’t know how it’s going to be used.”
David Anderson QC, Parliament’s independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, has made the case for an independent review of the Prevent Strategy (in particular on the operation of the Prevent Duty in schools). He said the Prevent programme was “clearly suffering from a widespread problem of perception, particularly in relation to the statutory duty on schools and in relation to non-violent extremism.”
The proposed Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill
In 2015 the Government proposed introducing the following new powers: Banning Orders, Extremism Disruption Orders and Closure Orders. The status of these proposals is unclear, as are any details about their implementation, but “it is plain that any such measures are likely to prove controversial and will potentially interfere with a number of human rights including freedom of religion, expression and association” according to the Inquiry.
Last year, the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, said non-violent extremism could not go “uncontested” as it led to the erosion of women’s rights, the spread of intolerance and bigotry and the separation of some communities “from the mainstream”.
Witnesses at the Inquiry were concerned that it would be difficult to define terms like ‘non-violent extremism’ and ‘British values’ as set out in the new proposals. Speaking at the inquiry, Karen Bradley MP, the then Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Home Office, defined non-violent extremism as the “preaching of ideology that leads to harmful behaviour”. However, Professor Clive Walker argued that: “[T]he attempts to date to define ‘extremism’ with legal precision have so far failed.”
Professor of Jurisprudence at Bristol University, Julian Rivers, said: “One of the problems that we have with the term ‘extremism’ is that unlike terrorism it is not at all understood. […] If you ask anyone what extremism is, they come up with a whole range of suggestions. That is a problem for the rule of law. If people do not have an instinctive understanding of what we are getting at in our law, it is very difficult to get the law to work. People know instinctively what terrorism is and what it looks like, but that is not at all the case for extremism.”
The term ‘British values’ which is used in the new proposals is also problematic. It was unclear to the Inquiry how British values differed from universal ones. On the question of British democratic values, Professor Louise Richardson said: “If our university were to refer everyone, we would have to burn all our books by Plato and refer half our philosophy department who question these matters.”
Emma El-Badawy, a senior Analyst at The Centre on Religion and Geopolitics, has pointed out that banning extremist groups does not work to ban extremist views, which go underground and continue to thrive through informal networks. In a recent article for politicshome.com, she wrote, “We have seen this in the Middle East, for instance, where outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt did not disrupt the grassroots network. Even in the UK, al-Muhajiroun (founded by Hizb ut-Tahrir leader Omar Bakri Muhammad and led by Anjem Choudary) continues to operate informally under one guise or another despite having disbanded in 2004.”
“By contrast to the incitement of clear-cut criminal offences, it would be deeply concerning to allow any Government the power to effectively ban speech which merely has the potential to lead to harmful activity, by way of a civil order. Such orders could be used in a profoundly illiberal way”, was the conclusion the Inquiry came to.