Plans for a Counter-Extremism Commission have been announced in the Queen’s Speech, but free speech campaigners called for the Government to pause its plans and consult widely.
The Speech did not mention the plans for an Equality Oath, or Ofsted entering Sunday schools and youth clubs. However, the Government has continued to advocate both these strands of its counter-extremism strategy.
Defend Free Speech, which includes The Christian Institute, the National Secular Society and Index on Censorship, cautioned that the new Commission will simply be a scapegoat for “when things go wrong”.
Her Majesty announced: “A commission for countering extremism will be established to support the government in stamping out extremist ideology in all its forms, both across society and on the internet, so it is denied a safe space to spread.”
She added that in the wake of recent terror attacks, the Government would review its counter-terrorism strategy “to ensure that the police and security services have all the powers they need”.
In its explanatory notes, the Government said the Commission would:
– “Identify examples of extremism and expose them;
– Help the Government to identify new policies to tackle extremism;
– Support the public sector and civil society in promoting and defending pluralistic values across all our communities.”
Responding, Defend Free Speech warned against the idea: “We are disappointed that the Government has yet again said it will bring forward unnecessary and intrusive legislation to counter so-called non-violent extremism.
Not only will civil liberties be damaged, but we will all be less safe
“Government lawyers have been bogged down for years trying to come up with a watertight legal definition of who is and is not an extremist.
“The chances of coming up with a definition that does not criminalise those with traditional or challenging views, such as people of faith, outspoken academics or anti-fracking campaigners seems highly remote.”
It argued that ‘outsourcing’ the job of defining extremism to the Commission was simply to have someone else to “blame when things go wrong”.
The group added, “this will not change the fact that if the Government decides you are officially an extremist, your life will be ruined by a panoply of new legal restrictions”.
It said: “Not only will civil liberties be damaged, but we will all be less safe”, because the authorities will be forced to waste time examining people who don’t represent any kind of threat at all.
The group called on the Government to put its plans on hold and instead “engage fully and openly with the widest possible range of stakeholders” to make sure civil liberties and free speech are maintained.
The Conservatives announced the Commission for Countering Extremism before the election, but The Christian Institute cautioned that it needed “to warn committee members that using the vague concept of ‘extremism’ on its own as a basis for taking away freedoms is a serious risk to civil liberty”.
The Commission is part of wider Government plans on extremism, which include:
• Ofsted inspections of churches: registering and inspecting out-of-school institutions to check for so-called British values;
• Equality Oath: public office holders making a promise to uphold British values;
• Extremism Disruption Orders: gagging orders triggered by anything deemed contrary to British values.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd recently noted that no further laws were needed to combat extremism – a view echoed by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Max Hill QC.