Human rights groups have criticised government plans to label anyone “undermining” the UK’s values as an extremist.
The Observer has revealed officials, overseen by Michael Gove, are working on controversial plans to broaden the definition of an extremist to anyone who “aims to overturn or undermine the UK’s system of parliamentary democracy, its institutions and values.”
It would also apply to anyone who “threaten[s] the rights of individuals or create[s] a permissive environment for radicalisation, hate crime and terrorism”, which includes “sustained support for, or continued uncritical association with organisations or individuals who are exhibiting extremist behaviours”.
The leaked documents sparked backlash from groups, including Amnesty International and Liberty, who fear the move could suppress freedom of expression and “criminalise dissent”.
One Whitehall official told the Observer: “The concern is this is a crackdown on freedom of speech. The definition is too broad and will capture legitimate organisations and individuals.”
Akiko Hart, interim director at Liberty, told the paper: “This proposed change would be a reckless and cynical move, threatening to significantly suppress freedom of expression.”
Ilyas Nagdee, from Amnesty International UK, said: “This [extremist] definition must not be accepted or implemented… The proposed definition could criminalise any dissent.”
It comes after the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) began a review of non-violent extremism earlier this year, with a new national plan expected shortly.
The Observer said groups affected by the new proposals could include the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), Palestine Action, and Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND).
Under the government’s 2011 Prevent strategy, extremism was defined as “active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”.
Palestine Action told City A.M. the definition “is clearly an attempt to undermine and intimidate our movement… we refuse to be deterred”.
A MEND spokesperson added: “We will not sit by and idly watch our cherished democracy destroyed like this. [We] call on parliamentarians and civil society organisations to work together to resist this draconian legislation.”
And a spokesperson for the MCB said: “The government’s leaked proposals to broaden the definition of extremism, seems deeply troubling given its impact on free speech, pro-Palestinian advocacy and marginalisation of democratic representative organisations like the MCB.
“We live in a democracy where, with free debate, we scrutinise our governments… this government needs to challenge its own extremists who are intent on dividing our communities.”
A government spokesperson said: “We are clear there is no place for extremism, and over the last few years we have taken action to tackle hatred and those who seek to divide us.
“As you would expect, we keep our approach to tackling extremism under review to ensure it meets the evolving challenge it poses.”