With new counter-extremism measures announced in the Queen's Speech, we need a clear definition of who is and isn’t an ‘extremist’
The Queen’s speech includes a ‘counter-extremism and safeguarding bill’ which will ‘tackle extremism in all its forms’. The proposed legislation appears to be building on the work of the Prevent strategy in schools by providing teachers with a list of banned people and widening the reach of Ofsted to include all the unregulated ‘informal’ religious schools.
It suffers from the same flaws as the Prevent Strategy, especially the failure to provide a clear definition of who is and isn’t an ‘extremist’. Without a clear definition, it will be the police, the Home Office, and the government who will decide.
As one of the many campaigners, journalists and senior Greens who have featured in the police’s domestic extremism database, I have an obvious concern that I will be classed alongside paedophiles as someone who fails a CRB check as suitable to work with children.
Legislation aimed at ‘extremism in all its forms’ could include all of us the police believe to be worth monitoring. Or will there be an A-list of real extremists and a B-list of minor domestic extremists who only go to sit down protests at weekends? Perhaps those on the B-list could up their game by chaining themselves to the railings outside Downing Street on a Wednesday morning?
I realise that this sounds frivolous, but it illustrates my concern about who is and isn’t on the list. I spent several years on the London Assembly trying to pin down the Met Police about their definition of ‘domestic extremism’ and successfully removed several thousand people from their database by narrowing it down to those involved in ‘violence and serious crime’.
The numbers in the database are now creeping back up again and it is clear from my re-inclusion on the list, alongside Sian Berry and Caroline Lucas, that the Met Police regard the definition as merely ‘guidance’ and not legally binding.
In other words, they can spy on who they like.
The proposed legislation gives Parliament a great opportunity to engage its collective brain and ask whether such legislation is compatible with democratic values. Remember, this legislation was promised over a year ago but faced constant delays as the Home Office was unable to agree on a definition that would target terrorism, but allow free speech for the rest of us.
It’s not an easy thing to do, especially after David Cameron has said repeatedly that he wants to include those advocating bad ideas but non-violent means. Can we encourage people to engage in a debate about their ideas and beliefs if we are threatening them with a banning order for expressing them?
Parliament needs to really think about what liberty and security means, especially as the passage of this legislation coincides with a public inquiry into undercover policing. The Pitchford Inquiry will expose all the downsides of allowing the police to intrude on innocent people’s private lives for a fairly non-specific purpose, unrelated to any specific criminal investigation.
That connection with a serious, criminal investigation, or even with a conviction or two, is one of the key tests of the legislation for me.
Without that connection, then the police develop mission creep and widen the net until it includes lots of innocent people who are a threat to ‘our’ economic interests, such as marching students, anti-fracking campaigners, or those organising sit-down protests in banks.
I hope that Parliament sees the need for a tighter definition of so-called ‘extremism’ that directly links it to violent activity and is legally binding, to prevent the police or Government from inventing their own rules and banning innocent people.
Jenny Jones is a Green Party peer and a former London Assembly MemberLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.