Extremism Definition and Community Engagement - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 6:24 pm on 19 March 2024.

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The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Thursday 14 March.

“With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement about the next steps that we are taking in the Government’s strategy to counter extremism and to build greater national resilience and social cohesion.

The United Kingdom is a success story: a multinational, multi-ethnic and multifaith democracy, stronger because of our diversity. However, our democracy and values of inclusivity and tolerance are under challenge from extremist groups that are radicalising our young people and driving greater polarisation within and between communities to further their own ends. In order to protect our democratic values and enhance social cohesion, it is important both to reinforce what we all have in common and to be clear and precise in identifying the dangers posed by extremism.

As our new definition makes clear, extremism can lead to the radicalisation of individuals, deny people their full rights and opportunities, suppress freedom of expression, incite hatred, weaken social cohesion and, ultimately, lead to acts of terrorism. Most extremist materials and activities are not illegal and do not meet the terrorism or the national security threshold. For example, Islamist and neo-Nazi groups in Britain are operating lawfully, but they advocate and work towards the replacement of democracy with an Islamist or Nazi society.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has been working with local authorities, civil society and faith groups, especially in those areas where social cohesion is most under strain, to de-escalate tensions and to explore the most constructive support that we can offer. From our engagement we hear widespread unease about the safety and security of community organisations, political candidates and elected officials. Councillors have been threatened with violence; council meetings have been disrupted; council officers and elected members talk of walking a tightrope, terrified of inadvertently saying the wrong thing or offending one side or the other. Many choose to remain silent and to take no action, such is the chilling element of these extremist groups on our democracy.

It is gravely concerning that the conflict in the Middle East is driving further polarisation. We have seen a terrible increase in anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hate crime, as well as a very significant increase in radicalisation. Troublingly, there is also evidence that some Islamists and extreme right-wing groups and others who seek to tear our society apart are working together to maximise the reach of their message and cause. That is why the work of civil society organisations such as the Community Security Trust and Tell MAMA, as well as Muslims Against Anti-Semitism, the educational charity Solutions Not Sides and the Forum for Discussion of Israel and Palestine, is so important. We have provided additional funding for the CST and Tell MAMA to counter anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred, and we will do more. We will shortly establish a new fund to provide additional, direct and tangible support for grass-roots organisations, building bridges and fighting division. I commend those who are doing so much to counter prejudice.

Working in civil society, it is critical that we do not unwittingly, or through ignorance, fund or otherwise support organisations or individuals who are themselves extremist. In the past, it has unfortunately been the case that extremist groups and actors have sought to present themselves as moderate voices representative of majority or mainstream opinion. The Government have had a definition of extremism since 2011. It has helped inform our Prevent counterterrorism work and was designed to assist the Government in engagement. But in a considerable number of cases organisations and individuals with views that are clearly extreme have nevertheless benefited from state engagement, endorsement and support, and furthermore have exploited that association to further their extremist agendas.

Among the most significant was Shakeel Begg, who was labelled an Islamist extremist by a judge. Mr Begg, an NHS chaplain and regular speaker at state schools, ran Lewisham Islamic Centre and was on both the Metropolitan Police’s independent advisory group in Lewisham and Lewisham’s standing advisory committee on religious education. In 2016, Mr Begg sued the BBC when it described him, accurately, as an extremist. The judge in the case, Mr Justice Haddon-Cave, conducted his own scrupulous research, identifying many occasions when Mr Begg had advocated extreme positions, including promoting and encouraging religious violence, and by telling a Muslim audience that violence in support of Islam would constitute a man’s greatest deed. Mr Justice Haddon-Cave not only dismissed Mr Begg’s claim but drew specific attention to the danger of extremists exploiting sponsorship from state institutions. He outlined the need for an updated and more precise definition of extremism to guide engagement by government and others.

We have since seen how figures of potential extremism concern have been able to work with the Crown Prosecution Service and the Metropolitan Police, co-opt charities and benefit from public funding. We know from William Shawcross’s excellent independent review of Prevent that such engagement has inadvertently provided a platform, funding or legitimacy for groups or individuals who oppose our shared values. This apparent legitimising of their views can lead extremists of all ideologies to be emboldened and to exert greater influence. That is why today my department is publishing an updated, more precise and rigorous definition of extremism, alongside a set of cross-government engagement principles for use when engaging with external groups. There is also detailed guidance on what the definition does and does not capture. We are also setting up a new counterextremism centre of excellence in my department, as a world-leading authority on best practice, data and research.

Our plans, drawn up in close collaboration with the Home Office, will enable the Government to express more clearly than ever before which groups fall within the extremism definition, point to the evidence, and explain the funding and engagement consequences. They will also support national efforts to counter the work of extremists who promote their ideologies both online and offline. The new definition will strengthen vital front-line counter-radicalisation work. The new centre of excellence will also help us to understand the role played by state actors and state-linked organisations in extremist activity that is taking place in our country. The wider knowledge of what constitutes extremist behaviour and who is behind it will, I hope, help all of us to identify potential threats, and to take steps to challenge and marginalise them.

Critically, the rights that we enjoy in the United Kingdom extend to everyone. Freedom of expression, freedom of religion and belief, the rule of law, democracy and equal rights—these are the cornerstones of our civilised society that government and Parliament, on both sides of the House, strive always to uphold. To be clear, our definition will not affect gender-critical campaigners, those with conservative religious beliefs, trans activists, environmental protest groups or those exercising their proper right to free speech. In drawing up the new definition, the Government have taken every possible precaution to strike a balance between protecting fundamental rights and safeguarding citizens. Our definition draws on the work of Dame Sara Khan, the Government’s independent reviewer of social cohesion, and Sir Mark Rowley, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, before his appointment to that post.

The proposed definition will hold that extremism is the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance that aims to: negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve those results. While the Government in no way intend to restrict freedom of expression, religion or belief, we cannot be in a position where, unwittingly or not, we sponsor, subsidise or support in any way organisations and individuals opposed to the freedoms that we hold dear.

Across the House, I am sure that we agree that organisations such as the British National Socialist Movement and Patriotic Alternative, which promote neo-Nazi ideology and argue for forced repatriation, a white ethno-state and the targeting of minority groups for intimidation, are precisely the type of groups about which we should be concerned and whose activities we will assess against the new definition. The activities of the extreme right wing are a growing worry. The targeting of both Muslim and Jewish communities and individuals by these groups is a profound concern requiring concerted action.

As with our definition of extremism, it is important that we be precise in our use of language when discussing Islamism. Islamism should never be confused with Islam. Islam is a great faith, a religion of peace that provides spiritual nourishment for millions, inspires countless acts of charity, and celebrates the virtues of generosity, compassion and kindness. Islamism is a totalitarian ideology that seeks to divide, calls for the establishment of an Islamic state governed by sharia law, and seeks the overthrow of liberal democratic principles. It has its roots in the thinking of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami, Abul A’la al-Maududi, and the Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb. The Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is, of course, Hamas. Organisations such as the Muslim Association of Britain, which is the British affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, and other groups such as CAGE and MEND, give rise to concern because of their Islamist orientation and views. We will be holding those and other organisations to account to assess whether they meet our definition of extremism, and will take action as appropriate.

There are, of course, further steps that we will take in the coming days and weeks to marginalise extremist groups, and to support and strengthen the communities where extremists are most active and spreading division. They will include responding to Dame Sara Khan’s forthcoming report on social cohesion and democratic resilience, and Lord Walney’s independent review of how to counter political violence and disruption. In this debate, we must never forget about the experiences of victims of extremism who are targeted by extremist groups and the severe and distressing impact that that has on their lives, and I am pleased that Dame Sara Khan will be addressing that in her forthcoming report.

As the Prime Minister has said, the time has come for us all to stand together to combat the forces of division and beat this poison. The liberties that we hold dear, and indeed the democratic principles that we are all sent here to uphold, require us to counter and challenge the extremists who seek to intimidate, to coerce and to divide. We must be clear-eyed about the threat that we face, precise about where that threat comes from, and rigorous in defending our democracy. That means upholding freedom of expression, religion and belief when it is threatened, facing down harassment and hate, supporting the communities facing the greatest challenge from extremist activity, and ensuring that the House and the country are safe, free and united. I commend this Statement to the House”.

Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 6:27, 19 March 2024

My Lords, hateful extremism threatens the safety of our communities and the unity of our country. It is a serious problem demanding a serious response. When it comes to national security, the threat of radicalisation and the scourge of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism or any other corrosive hatred, the whole House can and should stand together. I welcome that the Statement addresses concerns about the dangers facing our elected representatives. We can all agree that nobody who has stepped up to take on a role as an act of public service should find themselves facing threats or harassment as a result, either to themselves or to their families and staff.

However, I have some questions. As far back as 7 June 2011, the then Conservative Home Secretary told the other place:

“If organisations do not support the values of democracy, human rights, equality before the law, participation in society … we will not work with them and we will not fund them”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/6/11; col. 53.]

What has been happening between 2011 and now? Have Ministers been engaging with groups that they now regard as extremist?

I welcome that the Statement says strongly and clearly that the diversity of our country makes us stronger. I agree wholeheartedly with that. We all need to show that we mean it. The way in which the Government do this work matters and the language that we all use is important. At a time when we face the risk of real division in our communities, it is crucial that all of us in politics avoid fanning the flames of division any further.

Labour will want to scrutinise the Government’s plans in this area, as in any other, but if Ministers behave responsibly then we will engage in good faith. However, given the sensitivities of these issues, it was unhelpful that, before the Statement was finally made to Parliament, we had to endure days of briefing, and inevitably speculation, about the scope of the new definition and who might be covered by it.

There was a longer debate on this Statement when Michael Gove made it in another place, and I do not propose to revisit all the arguments made there, but I think this House would like to understand more about exactly what the Government propose to do. If the means by which it is decided that an organisation meets the criteria in the new definition is to be truly evidence-led, the process must be robust and be allowed to take its course. The nature of that process is, at least to me, still rather opaque.

I have some questions about how the definition will work in practice. How will the new centre of excellence operate and how it will be resourced? Who will take the decision to declare that an organisation meets the definition of extremism, and is that decision subject to appeal? Can the Minister confirm that this will apply only to central government and not to local or regional government or devolved Administrations? Is it intended that it will apply, now or at any later stage, to other public bodies or to services such as the police or universities? What is happening with the appointment of a new Islamophobia adviser?

I have talked to people from a number of groups from different faith communities, many of whom are worried that they may find themselves caught by this new definition. The Statement says that the definition

“will not affect gender-critical campaigners, those with conservative religious beliefs, trans activists, environmental protest groups or those exercising their proper right to free speech”.

Can the Minister say any more about which groups it will affect, and on what basis the Government have chosen to draw the line?

I have a few more questions. We all know there has been a huge surge in online extremism. What action is being taken across government to assess and confront online hate? Will the Government be publishing a new cross-government counter-extremism strategy, given that the last one is now very out of date? Will it include action to rebuild the resilience and cohesion of our communities? What new funding will there be in this area and what will be done to invest in multi-faith dialogue? Given the appalling surge in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in recent months, will we soon see an updated hate crime action plan?

To tackle extremism we need to work with people of good will at all levels. The Statement says that DLUHC has been working with faith groups, civil society and local councils. All of those have a crucial role to play in tackling extremism, but as shadow Faith Minister, I talk to a lot of faith groups and I have no idea which were consulted or what the results of that consultation were. Can the Minster tell us more about the consultation and its findings?

We all agree that we need strong action to tackle the corrosive forms of hatred that devastate lives and damage our communities. This is a moment when politicians must take firm action, but it is also a moment when we need to be statesmen and stateswomen. We should remember the words of the most reverend Primates the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, who warned that, against the backdrop of growing divisions, it is for political leaders to provide “a conciliatory tone” and to

“pursue policies that bring us together, not risk driving us apart”.

Keir Starmer has made it clear that if Ministers behave responsibly, if they reach out to other parties to seek to build consensus, rather than using the issue for party gain in a pre-election period, we will engage in good faith. I hope the Minister can give us good assurances on this front. I look forward to her reply.

Photo of Baroness Hussein-Ece Baroness Hussein-Ece Liberal Democrat

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, most of whose wise words I agree with. I am grateful to the Minister for our meeting earlier.

The majority of us agree that hateful extremism and hate crimes threaten society and the safety of our communities and undermine social cohesion. I will speak quite plainly today. The Government’s new non-statutory definition of extremism has not been universally welcomed or embraced, and it has created concerns that it will be used disproportionately to target British Muslim communities and organisations that the Government of the day may disagree with.

Singling out a number of mainstream law-abiding British Muslim organisations that have contributed to society over many years sets a dangerous precedent, undermining democracy, religious freedoms and free speech. I echo the words of the noble Baroness about the leaking and briefing that has been taking place over the last few weeks. It was briefed that, for example, the Muslim Council of Britain could be the sort of extremist organisation that the Government must have nothing to do with. The MCB is the UK’s largest Muslim umbrella group. Many of us know and respect its first female secretary-general, the dynamic Zara Mohammed. It is an umbrella group with more than 500 affiliated members, including mosques, schools and charitable organisations. Are the Government saying that they are to be labelled as possible extremists? This can serve only to smear groups and individuals. How will the Government address these concerns, in order to counter fear and division? As we have heard, online extremism is on the rise, but surely, smearing organisations and all those who work within them or benefit from them is not the way to bring about social cohesion.

Michael Gove says that his department will establish a civil service centre of excellence. Who will these people be and where will they be drawn from? Will there be transparency? Will they include people who already have displayed intolerant views, such as William Shawcross, whom the Secretary of State describes as the author of the “brilliant” review of Prevent. In 2012, he was quoted as saying:

Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future”.

It is no wonder that over 400 organisations refused to engage with him on that Prevent review.

What evidence-based threshold will be applied by this new centre of excellence, especially when compiling lists of organisations and guidance? Will any of these organisations have the right to appeal any decision? It is disappointing that the Secretary of State seems to have ignored civil liberties groups. As we have heard, three former Home Secretaries are against politicising such an important issue. I would also like to know who was consulted in drawing up this definition of extremism.

In the past few years, the Government have refused to recognise or accept a definition of Islamophobia, despite it now being widely adopted across civil society and by all other political parties. They said that they would come up with their own definition. In the past week, they have had problems in condemning racism and misogyny in respect of Diane Abbott. There was even a debate on whether making such hateful remarks constituted racism. Yet they are promoting this new definition of extremism with apparently little reference to minority communities, who have seen a massive increase in racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and other hate crimes.

The respected race equality think tank, the Runnymede Trust, described the definition as an “attack on civil society”. It went on to say that it has

“bypassed parliamentary scrutiny and will likely shut down organisations supporting people of colour, who are critical of the government of the day … This definition governs what people are thinking, rather than doing, and will likely silence those who oppose the govt’s position, for example on pro-Palestinian marches and critical race theory. Muslim groups and orgs supporting people of colour will be targeted as a result”.

This is the perception outside, and I have been contacted by numerous faith groups and other community groups who are concerned that, instead of people being brought together, the seeds of division are being sown.

Can the Minister please respond to the concerns I have raised? Does she agree that we need a commitment to bring unity and not division to our society? We certainly need more inter-faith dialogue, not less.

Photo of Baroness Swinburne Baroness Swinburne Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I thank the noble Baronesses for their questions. I understand that this is a sensitive issue, and I appreciate the co-operation being shown here today. But as the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, said in his Oral Statement in the other place last week, the UK is facing a rising threat of extremism. The 7 October terrorist attacks in Israel, the aftermath in Gaza and the domestic implications have sharpened our focus on countering radicalisation.

My department has announced that it is publishing a new definition of extremism, which we are discussing today, and a set of cross-government engagement standards to be housed in a new centre of excellence on counter-extremism. To date, the Government’s approach to countering radicalisation has focused on preventing people being drawn into terrorism. However, we have not yet taken a comprehensive and strategic approach to preventing a wider cohort of people being radicalised into extremism. Hence, these are vital interventions at this challenging time, and the Government must ensure that they have the tools they need to tackle this ever-evolving threat. I really am grateful for that cross-party support.

I can reassure the noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock and Lady Hussein-Ece, that the announcement is the culmination of a concerted cross-government endeavour, bolstered by the expertise of external agencies and practitioners. The ways in which extremist agendas are pursued have evolved since extremism was first defined by government in 2011. As such, government’s approach must evolve, too.

The new definition of extremism seeks to limit the advancement of extreme ideologies and ensure that open debate can take place unfettered by those who seek to exploit our freedoms—or, indeed, overturn them. The new definition is more specific, allowing us to better target extremists in this changing landscape while avoiding unnecessary overstep into public debate and the freedom of expression. This has always been a tricky balance but, with clear thresholds and thorough guidance, I hope that we can support the first duty of government to keep citizens safe and the country secure.

The definition will capture only those individuals, organisations and groups that are driven by ideologies of hatred, violence or intolerance and intend to negate or destroy our fundamental rights, overturn or undermine our democracy, or intentionally provide a platform for those that do. I appreciate that the speakers agree with that premise. Importantly, as mentioned by the noble Baronesses, the definition does not capture those who advocate for democratic change to rights and freedoms and does not seek to restrict lawful protest or debate.

Community engagement is a fundamental part of the work of UK ministerial government departments. We are proud to engage with groups and individuals from across the country, with charities and community organisations and directly with local people. Our external engagement can strengthen our democracy, our policy-making and our society, and we agree with the Benches opposite that nothing should weaken this legitimate engagement with our communities. However, through the independent review of Prevent, we know that, if best practice is not followed, the UK Government’s engagement with communities and external groups can inadvertently provide a platform, funding or legitimacy for individuals, organisations or groups that oppose our shared values. If we do not tackle this, this allows extremists of all ideologies—this is not aimed at one part of society—to exert greater influence and be legitimised and publicly emboldened.

To ensure that we maximise the many benefits of engagement and minimise the risks, the definition is being published alongside a set of community engagement principles that central government departments will be expected to consider when undertaking external engagement or providing funding. These will enable officials to make carefully considered, risk-based judgments about the individuals and groups with which they could or should engage. Their implementation across government will ultimately enhance and, I hope, broaden our external engagement practices.

I can respond to concerns raised by the noble Baronesses about scope. It is focused on central government and does not apply to local authorities or public bodies. However, all local authorities have a duty to ensure that public money is being spent effectively and not wasted or misused and, as such, are expected to undertake their own community engagement and due diligence appropriately and responsibly. The extremism definition is not a statutory definition and does not create new powers but instead helps the Government and our partners to target existing powers better. The definition and principles will apply to engagement, including funding undertaken in England, Scotland and Wales by UK Government ministerial departments. Engagement undertaken in Northern Ireland is exempt due to the unique political and historical circumstances, and the definition of principles does not apply to the engagement undertaken by the devolved Administrations themselves.

I turn to the processes that I was asked about with regard to the centre of excellence. It is important that we tackle the threat of domestic extremism, and we are setting up a counterextremism centre of excellence, which will become a world-leading authority on best practice, data and research in this field. The new centre of excellence will be housed in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and will provide leadership for departments’ operations and implementation of the definition. The cross-government engagement principles and extremism-related due diligence process will in time be the home to new counterextremism assessment and analytical functions and capabilities, as and when the budget and the staff are employed. Since its inception, the team, many members of which have moved over from the Home Office, has been undertaking community engagement in each local authority to get to the heart of the issues our country faces today and explore how we can support these local authorities holistically. In response to the question of who ultimately decides: as joint leader for countering extremism, the DLUHC Secretary of State and the Home Secretary will make the final decision on who will be added to the list. This will be based on the recommendations made using the evidence gathered and analysed by the subject experts.

I was asked whether there would be a right to appeal. During the process of identifying these groups, they will have the opportunity, before things are made public, to provide mitigating evidence, which will then be analysed before a decision is taken. Following publication on a list, if anyone believes our judgment is wrong, as in any case where it is believed that the Government have acted unreasonably, the option of judicial review is always available. Indeed, DLUHC is finalising the process for reviewing the inclusion of names of extremist organisations and groups on the list so that they can come off it in appropriate circumstances. For example, this could be based on a change of position, such as an individual’s, an organisation’s or a group’s efforts to refute or rescind any previously extremist behaviours. We plan to appoint a new, independent anti-Muslim hatred adviser. It is important to get this appointment right, and it is currently going through due process. I hope to update your Lordships very soon. I can confirm that an investigation has been launched into the leaked information as of last week.

While the Government and their partners have worked tirelessly to combat extremism through the updated Prevent and Contest counterterrorism strategies, the Defending Democracy Taskforce and the integrated review, the pervasiveness of extremist ideologies in the aftermath of the 7 October attacks has brought the need for further action into sharper focus. We are trying to put that in place as part of, and accompanying, our broader counterextremism strategy. I hope the Secretary of State will make further announcements regarding this in the coming weeks. I look forward to coming back to this Dispatch Box to update your Lordships’ House imminently on what that strategy will be.

On the hate crime action plan, the Government do not intend to publish a hate crime strategy. We keep our approach to tackling hate crime under constant review, and we remain committed to protecting all our communities from crime. We fund the national online hate crime hub, a central capability designed to support local police forces in dealing with online hate crime. As to whether this will apply to online extremism more broadly, assessing that online activity will be in scope of the definition where the law allows.

I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock and Lady Hussein-Ece, for their comments and questions on this sensitive issue. I look forward to continued co-operation as we implement this across government and further develop the counterextremism strategy over the coming weeks and months.

Photo of Lord Walney Lord Walney Non-affiliated 6:48, 19 March 2024

My Lords, I welcome this new definition, in particular its focus on protecting our parliamentary democracy. I was pleased to be consulted on it in my role as the Government’s independent adviser on political violence and disruption. It was helpful to hear the Minister set out the process for ensuring that organisations deemed to be extreme and included on the list which emerges have sufficient chance to engage and put their case.

It is worth reminding the House that it was a Labour Communities Secretary who made the decision on non-engagement with the Muslim Council of Britain in 2009, which has stayed in place for much of the previous 14 to 15 years, on the basis that the then deputy general secretary of that organisation endorsed a call by Hamas for attacks on foreign troops, including British troops, so this has not come out of the blue. Nevertheless, the process of who ends up on the list is really important. Does the Minister have an update on how long the Government anticipate that process taking before a list can be published?

Photo of Baroness Swinburne Baroness Swinburne Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

We are just finalising the criteria regarding how this will be measured, what the metrics are, and how the evidence will be compiled and then decided. As and when that happens, we would expect to complete this within weeks and certainly as quickly as we possibly can.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Conservative

My Lords, the proposition that my enemy’s enemy is my friend is probably one of the most wrong-headed and dangerous in politics. I am proud that over the past few years, when the Jewish community marched first against Mr Corbyn and more recently in favour of and to support Israel, we have absolutely rejected the far-right extremists trying to hijack our demonstrations because they think we have a common opponent. That is a completely wrong-headed and dangerous thing to do, because we all know that, ultimately, all extremists want to take us to the same place: to divide communities and to undermine our democratic process. Does my noble friend the Minister therefore agree that what fundamentally underpins this definition of extremism is a distinction between those who want to work within our democratic process, albeit perhaps to change it, and those who seek to undermine the democratic process, which is the foundation of all civilised debate and safe living for all communities in this country?

Photo of Baroness Swinburne Baroness Swinburne Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Absolutely. I totally agree with my noble friend; I am sure most people in this House do as well. We are in a period of heightened tensions. Anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hate crime levels are at an all-time high. Flags, symbols and graffiti are all causing division and stoking fear locally, and now is the time to tackle this issue head on. The definition tries to ensure that it focuses on extremism that is founded in hatred, violence or intolerance, and which poses a threat to our rights and our freedoms. It does not matter where it comes from: we need to tackle it and try our best to stop it.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour

My Lords, I too believe that this is very important. Clearly it is right that the Government look fully at the risk of extremism. I worry about the definition and some potential unintended consequences. I note the Minister said that organisations that felt they were unfairly affected had recourse to judicial review. Given that this Government have been chuntering about use of judicial review, I am glad to see that they now think that it has a positive benefit.

I want to ask the Minister about one point in the Statement issued by her department, which talks about this work complementing the Government’s updated Prevent guidance. I am puzzled by the guidance issued last year, which lists socialism, anti-fascism and anti-abortion on the Prevent list of terrorism warning signs. A section on the left wing goes on to say:

“Two broad ideologies: socialism and communism. Each are united by a set of grievance narratives which underline their cause”.

I am not sure whether I call myself a socialist. Members of the Labour Party probably would not describe me as a socialist and my local branch definitely would not—it would find other ways to describe me. However, that seems to show some of the risks of Prevent making these quite alarming statements and, because of what Mr Gove has said, their maybe being translated into the extremism definition. I would be grateful if the Minister would at least look at how this relationship will operate.

Photo of Baroness Swinburne Baroness Swinburne Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I certainly will undertake to do that. The sole purpose of bringing this under one umbrella is to ensure that all departments treat this with the same lens. They will have the same evidence- based methodology and the same basis for making decisions, and we will then ensure that that is across all departments. This is the method by which we will bring all that together so that all departments say the same thing and treat people equally.

Photo of Lord Mann Lord Mann Non-affiliated

My Lords, I refer to my entry in the register of interests. The New British Union describes itself as the fastest-growing far right organisation. What criteria were used to determine that it should not be included on the list? For those organisations that are included on the list, if an individual says publicly that they have left such an organisation, will the Government engage with them immediately, or after a year or in five years’ time? What timescale will the Government use after someone has been directly connected with one of the five current organisations, or however many it ends up being, for non-engagement? Is there a specific timescale in which the Government will choose not to meet, associate with and recognise individuals from those organisations?

Photo of Baroness Swinburne Baroness Swinburne Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I can answer part of the question, but the other part is yet to be worked out in terms of the detailed processes. The Secretary of State referred in the other House to the types of groups and extremism that we are concerned about. This was not in any way an exhaustive list and it certainly was not “the” list. The process of making those assessments, following the evidence and collecting all the data is ongoing. It has not been completed and therefore there is no list. I will be able to share that with the House as and when that work is completed.

On someone who has left an organisation, rejected the ideology and now wants to be considered in a different light, I suspect that will need to be on a case-by-case basis, and the evidence and data will need to follow it. There will be experts in the group who will be able to make that judgment. I suspect they have not yet got far enough down the processes to determine the timeline.

Photo of Baroness Gohir Baroness Gohir Crossbench

My Lords, there have been examples, recently and in the past, of Conservative politicians making unfounded allegations, particularly against Muslims, that have resulted in the paying of damages. Words have consequences, such as death threats, damage to reputation, loss of livelihood and mental ill-health. This new extremism definition could be abused to make false allegations that inflict lasting damage. What safeguards will be put in place to ensure that power and position are not abused?

I am also very worried about the safety of Muslim women. Last Wednesday, a Muslim woman came to see me. On the eve of the definition being released, she was subjected to hate crime on the Tube on her way home. She has reported it to the police but most Muslim women do not do so. I am really worried about the safety of Muslim women. When will the Government start to engage with Muslim women’s groups? How many have the Government engaged with? I run the only national Muslim women’s organisation, so I declare that interest. To date, we have had no engagement.

Photo of Baroness Swinburne Baroness Swinburne Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I thank the noble Baroness for her questions. I will commit to replying in writing on how many of those groups the department has engaged with. The Minister, my noble friend Lady Scott of Bybrook, is responsible for that engagement with those faith groups so I will ensure that we collate the information and write to the noble Baroness.

If anybody uses inappropriate language it should be condemned and called out immediately. I personally would feel comfortable doing that. However, I will confirm that anybody who is an elected representative will not be on the list.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I will make two points. First, I think there was an overlap between some of the work that the Intelligence and Security Committee has been doing about foreign interference in British politics and the dangers this is trying to address. We all know that internal politics in Pakistan spills over into British cities, with Tehreek and others. There are close links between some of our communities and political parties in Pakistan; we need to watch that. I have done all my politics in West Yorkshire, and I am certainly concerned at the extent to which the growth of Hindu nationalism within India may also spill over into British communities. We certainly need to be very concerned about that; we have seen one or two instances already.

I am even more concerned about the extent to which the rise of extremely well-funded anti-democratic right-wing groups within the United States might spill over into this country, with money from those right-wing organisations trying to influence British politics. We have just seen a former leader of the Conservative Party attending a very right-wing conference in Washington, standing with people whose loyalty to democratic principles is extremely doubtful, and not being sent into suspension by the Conservative Party. That worries me considerably, and we all need to think about it. On a cross-party basis, we need to think about how we conduct our democratic debate.

That leads to my second point, which is that if one looks at opinion surveys, one sees that we face a public in Britain who are now more disillusioned with our parliamentary democracy than we have seen in our lifetimes. That breeds extremism, particularly among those who are unskilled or unemployed, or who have done badly in school. That is not entirely new; in the first election I fought, in Huddersfield in 1970, I had a National Front candidate against me, and it made for a very nasty campaign on occasions. We are well aware that unless we as democratic politicians make sure that we mind our language as we compete with each other in the forthcoming election, and do something to improve the quality of our democracy and encourage greater participation in it—membership of all political parties has gone down over the last 20 years—we will leave the bed out of which extremism grows there for it to grow. That is a problem which, before and after the election, all of us in all parties need to address.

Photo of Baroness Swinburne Baroness Swinburne Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I acknowledge the noble Lord’s comments and recognise many of them. For me, there is no boundary as to where this goes. If somebody is practising extremism that matches the definition—that it is founded in “violence, hatred or intolerance” and poses that threat to our “rights or freedoms”, or our liberal democratic positions that uphold them—they need to be called out. It does not matter whether they are far left or far right, or another other colour or description you would give in between. DLUHC has worked with the Home Office and other government departments, including arm’s-length bodies, agencies and practitioners confronting extremism in our country, as part of this review, so anybody who has had any role in doing this has come together to try to get this definition across the line and to now support the strategy, which will be made public in the next few weeks.

Everyone has a right to freedom of expression. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right that we will always protect in this country, but obviously there are limitations to that if it does damage to others. The definition does not single out single subjects as inherently extremist, but calls for that careful assessment of evidence in relation to any individual organisation or group. In each case, the question is whether they are taking action to advance or promote that ideology with the “violence, hatred or intolerance” in mind. It is very specific, but it is likely to cover a broad swathe from all different parts of the spectrum. I reassure the noble Lord that the expert group will look at this in detail, and will apply the same metrics across the board.

Photo of Baroness Mobarik Baroness Mobarik Conservative

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for the reassurances she has given. In our time in the European Parliament, when we served together, I admired my noble friend for her moderate and well-balanced views. But the overwhelming perception of Muslim communities at the moment is that this latest statement by the Secretary of State for Levelling Up is a way to silence them—to stop public discourse. It is extremely worrying. I cannot stress enough just how upset people are; there has to be a way to allay those fears.

Organisations have been named publicly; what evidence has there been to deem them extremist? Would that evidence stand up in a court of law? Where does it all end? If I stand here one day and say, “I believe that there should be an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, and the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem should be lifted, in a process towards peace and mutual recognition”, and if some people feel that to be extremist in some way, how does that impact any kind of public discourse? I have grave concerns about the way this has been put out and articulated, and the communities that it will impact the most.

Photo of Baroness Swinburne Baroness Swinburne Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I agree with my noble friend that those documents being leaked is really unfortunate, and has had some damaging effects. I assure the House that the list does not currently exist; the evidence and data are being compiled, and therefore an assessment will be made in due course. There is no list at this point in time. As and when it is appropriate, I will come back and present that context to your Lordships’ House.

I have heard the messaging that the Muslim community is finding this difficult. The way in which it has come out in the media has caused some issues. But it is really important for me to say at the Dispatch Box that the Muslim community makes an enormous contribution to British society, and has done so for centuries. Islam is a religion observed peacefully by over a billion people worldwide; we need to acknowledge that there is a huge difference between those who practise Islam and Islamist extremists. Therefore, we need to differentiate between them.

Rightly, the Prime Minister has made it clear that we stand for British Muslim communities; we maybe need to accelerate and emphasise that a little more. Some of that will be by working with those Muslim communities and, indeed, in the support we give to some of those Muslim groups. We certainly need to encourage most of those groups to come forward to work with us to counter extremism. I think this gives us the ability to work with a broader, more diverse group of individuals, to try to see whether we can make a bigger difference. I thank the noble Baroness for the question.

Photo of Baroness Hussein-Ece Baroness Hussein-Ece Liberal Democrat

I just think it is important that the record is straight; I was very taken with what the noble Lord, Lord Mann, said about the length of time. An organisation that in the past had somebody associated with it, who is no longer there, continues to be smeared. I mention this because the noble Lord, Lord Walney, mentioned a name—

Photo of Lord Walney Lord Walney Non-affiliated

I do not think I smeared them.

Photo of Baroness Hussein-Ece Baroness Hussein-Ece Liberal Democrat

The noble Lord did mention a name—

Photo of Lord Walney Lord Walney Non-affiliated

No, I did not, and I did not smear anyone. I ask the noble Baroness to please be careful with the language she uses.

Photo of Baroness Hussein-Ece Baroness Hussein-Ece Liberal Democrat

I am on my feet speaking; I would like to finish, if the noble Lord does not mind. An organisation is smeared if it is continually associated with somebody who has not been involved for over a decade. It is really important we have that distinction. I urge the Minister to look into that closely. That is being said; it was said here about somebody who was involved, who supported Hamas 10 years ago, and it is not fair to continue that in the present day, to keep that on the record.

Photo of Baroness Swinburne Baroness Swinburne Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I confirm that the list has not yet been generated. As and when it is, I expect it to be on current, up-to-date data and evidence. I can therefore reassure the noble Baroness that that is what I will be looking for.