Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, admitted last month that the proposed Counter Extremism Bill the Government wants to introduce “raises complex issues relating to freedom of speech and the importance of having a clear legal definition of extremism”.
She was responding to a letter from Labour MP Harriet Harman, Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, which expressed many concerns about the proposed bill. The new bill would effectively criminalise the propagation of extremist views, but defines extremism only in reference to that which opposes “British values”. Harman told the Home Secretary in her original letter on February 8 that “the Government gave us no impression of having a coherent or sufficiently precise definition of either ‘non-violent extremism’ or ‘British values’.”
The human rights committee has been calling for a draft legislation to be published before the bill is put forward. Rudd made no mention of a draft legislation in her letter, referring only to having more consultation before the bill is brought before parliament. The committee has also called for an independent review into the Prevent Strategy as part of the consultation on the new bill because “the current oversight arrangements for Prevent are too opaque and do not engender confidence.”
The Counter Extremism and Safeguarding Bill first tabled by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary in 2015 came under fire from a wide variety of organisations, including both the Jewish Council for Racial Equality and the Muslim Council of Britain. The human rights committee held an inquiry into the proposed bill last year, flagging up many concerns. These were chiefly the vagueness of the term “extremism” and the proposed civil orders to be introduced to clamp down on this undefined “crime”.
The inquiry came to the conclusion that there was not enough of a gap in the current legal framework to introduce new legislation that policed people’s speech and actions. Such civil orders would be an impingement on human rights and free speech because they would be used “as a means to avoid having to make a criminal case to the requisite criminal standard of proof”.
Speaking at the inquiry last year 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.”
The inquiry also raised concerns that the new bill would target people who held religious or seemingly conservative views: “The Government’s approach, set out in its Counter-Extremism Strategy, appears to be based on the assumption that there is an escalator that starts with religious conservatism and ends with support for jihadism; and that combating religious conservatism is therefore the starting point in the quest to tackle violence. However, it is by no means proven or agreed that conservative religious views are, in and of themselves, an indicator of, or even correlated with, support for jihadism.”
The committee also wrote to May in October 2015, asking for definitions of “non-violent extremism” and “British values”, but did not receive a substantive response. The bill only defines extremism as “the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”