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19 January 2017

Briefing: Government plans on extremism

Briefing: Government plans on extremism

In response to terrorism and radicalisation, the government has put forward a number of policies in the area it describes as 'counter-extremism'. The government set out their proposals in detail in the Counter-Extremism Strategy, in October 2015.

The Evangelical Alliance recognises that a key role for any government is to protect its citizens. However, the Alliance has raised concerns around the language of extremism and the proposals that spring from it. We have argued that these proposals have concerning implications for the religious liberty and free speech of evangelical Christians and churches. This page sets out the concerns that we have.

What is extremism?

This is what the government says about extremism in their official documents:

"Extremism is 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. We also regard calls for the death of members of our armed forces as extremist."

Extremism is much broader than terrorism and violence. For example, Sarah Newton MP has written: "The government is committed to tackling all forms of extremism. Our Counter-Extremism Strategy was published last year and, for the first time, commits the government to addressing all the harms which extremism can cause, not just where it leads to terrorism.

The government have also made it clear that 'extremism' is primarily a matter of the beliefs that motivate harmful behaviour, which they describe as "extremist ideology". Counter-extremism is therefore the attempt to reduce the influence of such thinking, especially among children, who are seen as being particularly vulnerable.

How does this relate to the Prevent strategy?

The Prevent strategy is part of the government's counter-terrorism agenda. Its specific aim is to prevent people being drawn into committing violent acts of terrorism. It therefore has a narrower focus than government proposals to counter-extremism. A clearly non-violent yet controversial opinion would be outside the scope of Prevent, but could nonetheless be considered extremist. On occasions when the Prevent strategy has been invoked against Christian groups, it has been made clear by central government that this is a "ludicrous" misuse of the policy. However, one does not need to be violent in order to be an extremist. The government have frequently made reference to tackling "non-violent extremism".

What does 'non-violent extremism' mean?

Good question. Without a clear link to violence, all sorts of different beliefs could potentially be defined as 'extremist'. For example, the Christian Institute have written a book that lists some prominent non-violent extremists in British history and the good which they have done. It's accessible here:

http://www.christian.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/non-violent-extremists.pdf

These figures include William Tyndale, John Bunyan and William Wilberforce, all of whom were described as dangerous and extreme in their own day.

Why is the Evangelical Alliance concerned about 'counter-extremism'?

The Alliance supports the government's desire to maintain the rule of law. This includes deterring and punishing those engaged in criminal activity, including violence and terrorism. The Bible tells us that this is one of the central functions of human authorities (Romans 13:1-5; 1 Peter 2:13-15). We also recognise the need to safeguard children and protect them from abuse.

However, the government have struggled to answer the question of which specific beliefs would fall under the definition of 'extremist'. Calls for the death of members of our armed forces are clearly abhorrent. However, the fundamental values, which extremism can also oppose, are much vaguer than this. As a result, counter-extremism proposals could penalise not only those engaged in criminal activity, but also those with controversial or unpopular opinions. These include orthodox religious beliefs which have been freely held and expressed in this country for centuries.

We are thankful that we live in a society in which free speech and religious liberty are honoured and celebrated. We therefore believe that any attempt to regulate non-violent opinions that are deemed 'harmful' must be treated with extreme caution.

In this we agree with the Joint Committee of Human Rights, who concluded that:

"The government gave us no impression of having a coherent or sufficiently precise definition of either 'non-violent extremism' or 'British values'. There needs to be certainty in the law so that those who are asked to comply with and enforce the law know what behaviour is and is not lawful."

The Defend Free Speech Coalition is a broad group of different organisations, including the Peter Tatchell Foundation, the Christian Institute, and the National Secular Society. These groups are particularly concerned with counter-extremism proposals and the risks they pose to free speech. The coalition has a website that keeps track of developments in this area: http://defendfreespeech.org.uk/.

Out- of-school settings

As part of the attempt to defend children from extremism, the government has put forward proposals to regulate and inspect out-of-school education settings. The government stated in its counter-extremism strategy:

[T]he Department for Education will introduce a new system to enable intervention in unregulated education settings which teach children intensively.

In December 2015, the Department for Education launched a short consultation over the Christmas period on this policy. This consultation received 18,000 responses. The consultation itself is awaiting a formal government response. However, responding to a question in the House of Lords on 11 January, Lord Nash reiterated that the government was 'committed' to regulating out-of-school settings.

The proposed policy was also the subject of an adjournment debate in Parliament on 20 January 2016, where MPs from all parties condemned the proposals. In spite of this, the Casey Review, published December 2016, contained recommendations for out-of-school settings to be regulated by Ofsted and the Charity Commission.

Of the counter-extremism proposals, the attempt to regulate such out-of-school settings has been of the greatest concern for the Alliance. We believe that such proposals are highly likely to impinge on legitimate Christian activities.

What is an unregulated, intensive, education setting?

An education setting is any institution providing "tuition, training or instruction" to children under 19. Intensive education was originally defined by the Department for Education as six hours or more attendance at a particular setting (e.g. a church) within any given week. These proposals would therefore cover the children and youth ministries of many Christian churches.

Will these proposals apply to Sunday schools?

Yes. While the government have said that "institutions such as Sunday Schools that educate young people for a short period of time" would not be caught by these proposals that will be the exact effect. Given that every minute a child spends at a church setting counts towards the six-hour threshold, Sunday schools can't be exempt. Sunday schools are not third party institutions with any personality - they are indissociably part of church life. The proposed threshold of six hours will be easily met by a young person who attends two hours for choir practice, two hours for youth group and two hours on a Sunday - or any theoretical combination. This confusion illustrates the government's lack of understanding of the effect of their own proposals.

What would such intervention involve? How is it different from safeguarding good practice?

Government proposals in this area have suggested an enhanced role for Ofsted, the body that inspects schools, in regulating out-of-school settings. However, while the government has identified safeguarding concerns in these settings, such issues are already covered by existing regulation. Such regulation includes health and safety law, and the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) system. Indeed, in reviewing government proposals, the Joint Committee on Human Rights were unconvinced "that existing safeguarding measures are inadequate in this regard". The main new feature of this regulation would be Ofsted intervention to prevent what is described as "undesirable teaching". This goes significantly beyond current concerns around safeguarding.

What is meant by "undesirable teaching"?
Teaching is undesirable "that undermines or is incompatible with fundamental British values, or which promotes extremist views". However, as noted above, these values have not been precisely defined, leaving it up to the discretion of individual inspectors. This would place Ofsted inspectors in the position of being the state regulators of religion. Some recent Ofsted reports identify points of tension between orthodox Christian doctrines and what these Ofsted inspectors define as "fundamental British values". It is likely that similar points of tension would be identified in both doctrines and practices if Ofsted were to seek to regulate out-of-school Christian settings.

Action

What can I do about this?

1. Pray for our leaders as they debate these serious issues, that they will be open to hear the concerns of evangelical Christians and others. Pray for the Evangelical Alliance and for the advocacy team, that we will represent Christian viewpoints effectively in parliament.

2. Speak. Let people know your concerns about this bill. Talk about them with other people in your church. If you feel able, write to your local MP expressing your concerns.

3. Serve. Do not let any of the above discourage you from volunteering in your church, and from working with children and young people. Evangelical Christians, churches and organisations make a massive difference to the lives of thousands of young people across our country. We are confident that the government will recognize this contribution and take steps to ensure that the fight against terrorism does not do the collateral damage that we fear.

Where can I find out more?

The Evangelical Alliance will publish updates on the planned extremism legislation here:

http://www.eauk.org/current-affairs/politics/latest-articles.cfm

You can also sign up for our weekly update e-mail Everything Advocacy:

http://www.eauk.org/current-affairs/everything-advocacy/

The advocacy team will continue to work with MPs and Peers as legislation moves forward, to ensure that evangelical Christian concerns and perspectives are clearly heard in the debates that will come. Many parliamentarians have indicated that they share our concerns, and want them to be reflected in any laws that are made.

Dr David Landrum, director of advocacy, and Simon McCrossan, head of public policy at the Alliance had a discussion on UCB radio about the counter-extremism proposals. This discussion can be accessed here:

Image: CC0 OneRandomMonkey