Now Brexit gets in way of Counter Extremism Bill
by- 20th January 2017
Government is to delay legislation of its troubled counter-extremism policy for two more years, according to Lapido sources.
With preparations for Britain’s departure from the EU already preoccupying all the best brains, the word in Westminster is that there is no appetite for forcing through yet more complicated and controversial legislation.
Sources have told Lapido Media that further debate on the Counter Extremism Bill is not now expected for at least two years.
The delay will entail a third Queen’s Speech announcement. So why is it still on the shelf at all?
When the legislation was unveiled in 2015, the Charlie Hebdo Paris attacks in January 2015 were fresh in everyone’s mind. Six months later, in June, David Cameron set out his vision for the British way of avoiding a similar attack in the UK.
He said: ‘We must take on the radical narrative that is poisoning young minds . . . We must be stronger at standing up for our values.’
The vision may have been sound, but the implications for legislators were enormous.
Standing up for values, taking on radical narratives, stopping the poisoning of young minds: the Greek authorities of 399 BC had to resort to hemlock in the end. The UK Government has, some would say, gone as close as it can to doing the same thing.
It was always going to be a difficult job banning things in order to change hearts and minds. As the Government’s independent scrutineer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson QC put it: ‘We didn’t ban communism during the Cold War, and I think we should be strong and robust enough to argue back.’
In both its 2015 and 2016 incarnations, the Bill contains proposals that have alarmed a wide spectrum of groups objecting to everything from infringements of civil liberties, to woolly definitions of extremism and British values, to the prospect of Ofsted inspecting Sunday Schools. There seems something to offend nearly everyone.
Among the most vocal initially was the campaign Defend Free Speech
The campaign was launched to oppose the civil orders - the powers to ban extremists. And the coalition of groups behind it - ranging from the National Secular Society to the Christian Institute - quickly found some powerful allies.
In September 2015, David Anderson published a 15-point analysis highlighting the problems of legislating on terrorism by banning extremist language. In the crosshairs were three special powers giving the state extra-judicial controls:
- Extremism Banning Orders which were designed to stop extremist groups
- Extremism Disruption Orders that would give the police powers to stop the extremist behaviour of individuals, and
- Closure Orders to shut down premises used to support extremism.
David Anderson was unsparing in his criticism of the orders when interviewed on the BBC.
‘They say that if you are going to engage in extremist activity, then you could be made subject to some coercive measure . . . or you might be limited in your associations, or in where you can go, and so on,’ he said.
‘I think silence coerced by law . . . is a very dangerous business, particularly when you are looking at something as vague as extremism.’
The e-word itself has proved a massive problem from the start. Even before the Government could define it, it was split, like the broom of the sorcerer’s apprentice into two: violent extremism, which is already outlawed, and its slippery cousin the non-violent sort, which remains as undefined as ever.
Like the apprentice’s broom, both definitions continue to cause mischief. Rumours abound of at least fifty drafts by Whitehall lawyers already in the waste basket.
Giving evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which examined the Bill last year, Professor Julian Rivers of the University of Bristol argued that detaching non-violent extremism from terrorism triggered a raft of problems with human rights, especially freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of association, and privacy rights.
The need for any legislation at all to stop extremism has been repeatedly questioned.
Detractors claim that nearly all the provisions of the Bill can be found in existing law, and many simply do not believe that it is the Government’s job to legislate on what it deems extreme anyway, even if it knew what it was.
The Government’s anti-extremism policy had, until the Bill was proposed, been mainly focussed on empowering and encouraging civil society to monitor and control the menace of radicalization.
Haras Rafiq, Chief Executive of the counter-extremism think tank, the Quilliam Foundation, played a key role in the development of the Government’s Prevent strategy. He told Lapido Media: ‘The Government should not be taking the lead on the building of resilience, but they should be empowering and assisting.
‘The Home Office took it one step further and said let’s ban people who are not breaking the law. That’s where we draw the line.'
The Bill was given a refresh and announced again last year, this time with an additional element - a plan to safeguard children from extremist teaching in what the jargon calls ‘out-of-school settings’ (OSS) i.e. madrassas and - er - Sunday schools.
Under the plans, any group that works with children for more than six hours a week will be forced to sign up to a new register to counter extremism. The Government additionally proposed that Ofsted would inspect these groups – meaning a double lock - and this remains the policy, despite an apparent climb-down last July.
The spirit of David Cameron’s 2015 ‘poisoning young minds’ speech echoes through these plans. 'Poisonous' words turning children into violent malcontents must now be legislated against.
This has triggered a furore even more vociferous than that of the reaction by the Defenders of Free Speech to the banning orders. The consultation process on out-of-school settings received 18,000 submissions.
But with Prevent being attacked by nearly all sections of the UK’s Muslim community for singling them out, the attempts in anti-extremism legislation to appear even-handed with all faith groups has been hugely problematic.
Last month, the Daily Telegraph reported concerns among the head teachers of Christian schools that Ofsted is picking on them, in order to seem balanced.
Andrea Williams, Chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said those that were not ‘following the political ideology of Ofsted are now liable to be punished’.
If scrutinizing conservative Christianity for hints of intolerance in out-of-school settings is to get the Government off the hook that it found itself on with Prevent, it has also stirred up a hornets’ nest. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury accused the Government of having a ‘seriously flawed’ view of extremism that placed Christians alongside extreme Muslim groups.
The even-handedness problem reared its head just a few weeks ago, when, in a bid to seem balanced, Dame Louise Casey took on the Catholic Church. The Bill’s 2016 wording specifically cited her review into opportunity and integration as a foundation for further counter-extremism legislation. It was commissioned by David Cameron and published in December.
When Casey, a Catholic, was asked to give evidence to MPs on the Communities’ Select Committee earlier this month, she likened the teaching on marriage in Catholic schools to the extremist Islamism exposed in the Birmingham Trojan Horse case.
Whistles of incredulity doubtless echoed around Lambeth Palace. The Archdiocese of Westminster has been notably silent on the matter.
The problem of the term British values - again echoing that Cameron speech - has also set off its own hares. British values suggest to many ears an eternal or at least long-established consensus. But homosexuality for instance was only legalized in the UK in 1967.
The Liberal Democrats have proposed an alternative term – ‘universal democratic values’.
The Quilliam Foundation cites theocratic rule as the antithesis of the values we in the UK hold dear, even if the Queen is the head of the church and head of state. And so it goes on.
The latest wheeze is a compulsory oath of allegiance to British values for holders of public office. Lapido Media has evidence from those who have undergone the citizenship oath that those who administer it in some left-wing authorities are openly skeptical even within the ceremony itself.
Nonetheless such an oath was proposed by Louise Casey in her review and endorsed by Communities’ Secretary Sajid Javid last month.
Opponents of the Extremism Bill believe that the civil orders outlined in 2015 - banning organizations, places and people - are unlikely to be realized in their original form. The Government seems to be soft pedaling them. They were not prominent in the 2016 version of the Bill and will in any case be plunged into the cooling waters of a consultation process, something not originally envisaged.
But hopes among campaigners that out-of-school settings might go the same way were dashed last week when, responding to questions in the House of Lords, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools, Lord Nash, said: ‘We want a system that regulates out-of-school settings and works effectively’.
The safeguarding element of the Bill seems to be limping on. Some fear that if the Bill as it was originally proposed founders, this element at least will survive, possibly rolled into other legislation.
David Anderson called the early draft of the Counter Extremism Bill ‘the single most alarming’ he had seen of all the documents he had reviewed during his time in office.
Ironically, Brexit preoccupations may have sidelined it for now.