In recent years, Government policy has increasingly sought to confront the underlying causes of terrorist behaviour, including extremist ideologies. However, the Government’s approach to countering extremism has been criticised as divisive, counterproductive and ‘Orwellian’. In particular, the definition of extremism has been widely criticised as unworkable and there is no consensus as to what legal powers, if any, should be used to combat extremism. The new Government will be faced with a number of challenges. What constitutes extremism? Is the current strategy fit for purpose? Is there is a need for new legislation?

Extremism was defined by the May Government 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.

There are concerns that such a definition is imprecise and therefore unworkable. Further, defining “British values” in relation to contested terms such as “democracy” is always likely to prove controversial.

What is the current strategy?

The Prevent strategy, part of the Government’s wider counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST, seeks to deal with the factors that predispose individuals or groups to respond to terrorist ideologies. It sets three key objectives:

1. To respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism and the threat we face from those who promote it.

2. To prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support.

3. To work with a wide range of sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation.

Prevent placed a duty on certain public sector bodies to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. This duty was recently written into law by the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015.

The Channel programme, part of the Prevent strategy, is a multi-agency programme coordinated by the police to identify individuals vulnerable to radicalisation and direct them towards appropriate support. The charts show the total numbers of referrals and the percentage rate of referrals by age and indicators of risk.

Referrals to the Channel programme have increase since 2011/12

Is Prevent working?

The Home Office Minister, Baroness Williams of Trafford, reported that since 2012 over 1,000 people had received support through Channel, and the vast majority of those people left the programme with no further terrorist-related concerns. Critics say the strategy assumes there is a “conveyor belt” leading from religious conservatism to violent extremism, which is unproven.

Channel programme referrals - indicators of risk

There has also been a widespread perception in Muslim communities that Prevent is divisive because its main purpose is to gather intelligence. Civil liberties organisations have highlighted the potential “chilling effect” on freedom of speech, particularly within the education sector. Consequently, there have been repeated calls for an independent review.

A new regime?

Proposals to introduce a new civil order regime were announced in 2015 and 2016. In May 2015, the Coalition Government announced the introduction of an Extremism Bill, which included:

  • Banning Orders – a power for the Home Secretary to ban extremist groups
  • Extremism Disruption Orders – a power for law enforcement to stop individuals engaging in extremist behaviour
  • Closure Orders – a power for law enforcement and local authorities to close down premises used to support extremism

There were further announcements in October 2015 and May 2016 (when a Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech), but no detailed proposals emerged.

Is legislation needed?

David Anderson QC, the former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, told the Home Affairs Select Committee he was “wary about extending the law… any further than it already goes into what people believe and what they say”. Critics warned that the proposed new powers would be counterproductive, potentially criminalise orthodox views, and constitute a crackdown on “thought crime”.

If counter-extremism legislation is published, the new Parliament will need to grapple with questions like:

  • Can extremism be defined in a way that offers legal certainty?
  • Is it necessary to resort to new civil orders instead of existing
    criminal offences?
  • How will proposals avoid unjustified interference with freedom of religion and expression?
  • Is it justified to limit speech which is not in itself illegal?
  • Is there evidence of a causal link between extremism and terrorism?

Unless a consensus can be reached as to what constitutes extremism in the first place, the development of effective measures will continue to prove problematic.

This article is part of Key Issues 2017 – a series of briefings on the topics that will take centre stage in UK and international politics in the new Parliament.

For more on countering extremism, please see the Commons Library briefings: Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 (Amendment) Bill 2016-17, Counter-extremism policy in English schools and Counter-extremism policy: an overview.

Image: Police by Charles Roffey. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 / image cropped