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JCHR report on Counter Extremism Strategy, Extremism Bill and Prevent

JCHR report on Counter Extremism Strategy, Extremism Bill and Prevent

Categories: Latest News

Friday July 22 2016

The Joint Committee on Human Rights today published a report following its inquiry into the Counter-Extremism Strategy, Prevent and the proposed Extremism Bill.

The committee’s inquiry was intended to review the proposals in the Government’s announced Extremism Bill, declared in the 2015 Queen’s Speech, but the Bill has not yet been published despite several references to its proposed measures such as banning orders and closure orders in political speeches since May 2015.

The Counter Extremism Bill, which was announced again in the Queen’s Speech in 2016, is still awaited and while the JCHR inquiry has not been able to scrutinise its provisions, the current report does assess the justification for legislating in this area and the merits of doing so when the Government cannot offer a coherent definition of “extremism”, “non-violent extremism” or “British values”. Given the frequency with which these terms are used by Government ministers and Prevent cheerleaders, the absence of clear definitions on the terminology which permeates the counter-terrorism strategy is alarming indeed. Though disquiet about the Government’s inability to give clear answers on the question of definitions is not new, merely indicative of policy making driven by an ideological zeal that shows little regard for effective, proportionate and necessary legislative instruments.

new strategy for counter-extremism was introduced by the previous Government in October 2015 alongside the promise of future legislative proposals to tackle “non-violent extremism” through the use of “disruption orders”. On the back of the Extremism Taskforce report published in 2013, these measures were dubbed “terrorism ASBOs”.

The JCHR has examined extant counter-terrorism policy, including the Prevent strategy, and the proposed Extremism Bill measures against the provision of the European Convention on Human Rights and specifically Articles 9, 10 and 11, which respectively guarantee the rights to freedom of religion, thought and conscience, freedom of expression and freedom of association. While these rights can be subject to reasonable restriction, any government purporting to be democratic must ensure their reasons for infringement are proportionate and fair.

The JCHR raises a number of salient points in relation to the counter-extremism strategy, Prevent and the human rights implications of future proposals which would invariably curtail free speech and free association by legislating for police powers to “disrupt” activities suspected of “non-violent extremism”.

The JCHR notes the Government’s reference to far right extremism as part of its counter-terrorism strategy and Prevent but notes that the post-Brexit rise in hate crimes and incidents would suggest the scope of the strategy is more focused on ‘Islamist’ extremism.

The JCHR notes, in relation to Prevent, that the policy has undergone one review, in 2011 and though subsequent reviews may have occurred, these were internal to the Home Office, have not been published or opened to external scrutiny and no independent review has been commissioned at all in the intervening years despite legislation proceeding in this area. During the passage of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act last year, amendments were tabled calling for a review of the strategy to be laid before the House but this was rejected by the Government. The JCHR therefore calls for “an independent review of the Prevent Strategy and Duty as part of the consultation on the Bill.”

In respect of the Prevent strategy’s operation in schools, the report calls for the “rigorous and transparent reporting” of Prevent duty operation in schools. It notes “anecdotal evidence” which raises “some cause for concern about the impact of the Duty” in schools. The “cause for concern” arises from more than just anecdotal evidence as the recent report by Rights Watch UK on the Prevent statutory duty and its violation of human rights obligations points out. It is disappointing that the JCHR report does not make any particular mention of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which, as the Rights Watch UK report notes, presents specific challenges to the statutory duty with respect to human rights compliance.

On the Government’s consultation to extend measures to cover “out of school settings” the JCHR report notes that “these should not be specifically aimed at religious activities, nor are we convinced that existing safeguarding measures are inadequate in this regard.”

On universities and the duty imposed by the CTS Act, the committee states, “We believe that free speech is precious, particularly in universities, and should not be undermined.”

The report draws attention to the “conflicting” demands placed on universities to both uphold free speech and clamp down on the expression of “extremist views” but it does not, sadly, draw attention to a more relevant conflict apparent in the statutory duty on universities: the requirements of the public sector equality duty in the Equality Act and the potential for Prevent to lead to, as has been documented, discriminatory treatment of Muslim students on campus.

JCHR takes the Government to task over its presumed “escalator” theory drawing a direct, linear causal relationship between non-violent and violent extremism. The committee states, “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.”

It further criticises policies based on unproven assumptions that target religious conservatives, particularly within Muslims communities, saying such a focus may serve to widen the chasm between the authorities and Muslim communities – a process which may further harm attempts to tackle violent extremism.

On the Extremism Bill which the Government has announced by not published, the Committee believes no convincing case has been made for new legislation. The current legislative framework is comprehensive enough to tackle those who incite violence, and any additions could prove damaging and counter-productive.

Important among the observations noted in the Committee’s report is the government’s attempt to bypass the criminal justice system through the use of a “civil order regime.” By introducing such measures as “banning orders” and “closure orders” as police or executive powers, the Extremism Bill would render subjects liable for criminal offences (breach of civil order) without due regard for “a criminal case to the requisite criminal standard of proof”.

On “extremism” the Committee argues, “It is far from clear that there is an accepted definition of what constitutes extremism, let alone what legal powers there should be, if any, to combat it.”

One wonders why the Government, still unable to provide the Committee with clear answers to these questions, proceeded to include the Counter Extremism and Safeguarding Bill in this year’s Queen’s Speech. Would it be too much to ask the Government to answer these questions fully before scheduling plans to introduce legislation that is cannot justify or explain?


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