A tough and controversial new law to curb extremism following the two terrorist outrages during the election campaign is certain to be included in the delayed Queen’s Speech by the new minority Tory government.
A detailed paper published on June 9 by the House of Commons library outlined the scope of the likely legislation and warned that it will raise issues like restrictions on freedom of speech and curbing the spread of extremist views on the internet. Theresa May herself in her “enough is enough” statement after the London Bridge terrorist attack also indicated during the campaign that she was minded to curb traditional liberties to fight Islamic radicalism.
In the Tory manifesto Theresa May had committed herself to creating Commission for Countering Extremism. The Commons library paper says the last Tory government has already got a Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill in the pipeline – which was never introduced because of the snap election.
This included powers to regulate all official out-of-school activities to prevent extremists from using them and banning people with extreme views from teaching in schools by extending the scope of the debarring system, at present used to prevent criminals and sex abusers from getting jobs.
It also included new powers to block people streaming extremist videos from outside the EU and new action to be taken against local councils that did not act to stop extremism in schools.
What is not clear is whether the new legislation would also include measures to disrupt extremist activity, including outlawing some organisations and some individuals, barring them using premises and trying to criminalise people who say they do not believe in democracy and advocate violence even if they have no intention of committing offences themselves. Some of this would involve issuing civil orders against individuals.
The Commons report raises a lot of questions:
• 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?
• How can online extremism be dealt with both by government and social media companies?
It warns: “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.”
Certainly even last year the plans came under attack. Counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam suggested that the proposed Bill risked making matters worse by driving extremists underground, making it more difficult to challenge their arguments.
Liberty issued a press release suggesting that the proposals would enable the Government to ban people and views with which they disagree, and had “no place in a liberal democracy”.
Even Dominic Raab, Conservative MP for Esher, also objected to curbs on free speech, warning it could be used to prosecute other groups – including Christians opposing gay marriage, something to which the Tories’ government partner, the Democratic Unionist Party, would also object.