The government’s counter-extremism measures have been roundly criticised by a joint committee of MPs.
In May 2016, a Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill was included in the Queen’s Speech. Christian organisations warned then that the government could end up trapping innocent people in its measures, and now, an all-party Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) has voiced serious reservations.
The JCHR takes issue with the lack of detail, timetable or contents for the legislation. It says: ‘The government has a duty to protect the public and this is a responsibility that any and every government take with the utmost seriousness.
‘But when it comes to how to combat terrorism, specifically the task of countering ISIL/Daesh-inspired terrorism, there is no consensus; particularly since the government is also under a duty to uphold the democratic and human rights, which terrorists so often aim to extinguish. These include the right to freedom of speech, association and religion’.
Harriet Harman, JCHR chairman, said: ‘The government’s proposals rest on the assumption there is an escalator that starts with religious conservatism and ends with support for violent jihadism, and that violence is therefore best tackled by curtailing or placing restrictions on religious conservatism.
‘However, it is by no means proven or agreed that religious conservatism, in itself, correlates with support for violent jihadism. The aim should be to tackle extremism that leads to violence, not to suppress views with which the government disagrees’.
The committee also said: ‘If extremism is to be combated through legal mechanisms, such as civil orders, clarity as to the definition of extremism will be essential. In particular, the extent to which lack of “mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs” could or should be deemed unlawful is likely to prove deeply contentious.
‘Many people would argue that it is right to be intolerant of certain aspects of religious belief, for instance where religious belief is used to justify homophobia or the subservience of women.
‘The question then arises, what is extremist: the homophobic and misogynist beliefs, or others’ intolerance of those beliefs? If someone denounces the judiciary for being Islamophobic, is that undermining the rule of law or is it the exercise of free speech?’
Ofsted plans criticised
The committee also criticised such measures as getting Ofsted to monitor Sunday school activities and Christian summer camps. It said: ‘Even if the government is able to clarify its definition of safeguarding, any new measures should only apply where identifiable concerns have been raised about a particular institution.
‘We are not persuaded there should be a regime of routine inspections of out-of-school settings. Any intervention should be complaint-based. It is far from clear that Ofsted would be best placed to do this work’.
The committee’s words were welcomed by such organisations as the Christian Institute, whose director Colin Hart said, ‘We can give thanks the committee, chaired by Ms Harman MP, has taken such a clear-headed approach on this controversial issue. Please pray the government will take on board the committee’s recommendations and rethink its approach to counter-extremism’.
In a recent editorial, Barnabas Fund said: ‘It is becoming increasingly difficult to speak about the causes of persecution in the West. Not only has political correctness sought to blur the distinction between people and their beliefs — claiming that if you criticise someone’s beliefs you are rejecting them as a person — but a new threat is also increasingly arising from government counter-extremism policies.
‘The government needs to genuinely tackle extremism, while ensuring it doesn’t undermine the very freedoms it is seeking to protect’.