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New laws needed to tackle ‘shocking’ scale of extremism

The findings from a legal review examining the adequacy of existing legislation in relation to hateful extremism has been published, calling for new laws to tackle the ‘shocking and dangerous’ scale of extremism in the UK.

Undertaken by Sara Khan, Lead Commissioner for the Commission for Countering Extremism, ad Sir Mark Rowley, former head of Counter Terror Policing, the report demonstrates how many hateful extremists are able to operate lawfully due to a lack of legislation designed to capture the specific activity of hateful extremism.

As the report evidences, hateful extremists are creating a climate conducive to hate crime, terrorism or other violence; or are attempting to erode and even destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of our democratic society as protected under Article 17 of Schedule 1 to the Human Rights Act 1998.

Due to the lack of legislation, it is currently possible to glorify terrorism, so long as one avoids encouraging the commission, preparation, or instigation of acts of terrorism or related offences, as well as intentionally stir up racial hatred, so long as one avoids being threatening, abusive or insulting and, in the case of religious hatred, avoids being threatening when doing so. It is also legal to publish and distribute material to intentionally stir up racial or religious hatred as long as the material avoids being threatening, abusive, or insulting in its content, as well as collect material that encourages terrorism, so long as the person does not possess it in circumstances which give rise to a reasonable suspicion that the possession is for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism.

The Commission has put forward a new working definition for hateful extremism as: activity or materials directed at an out-group who are perceived as a threat to an in-group motivated by or intending to advance a political, religious or racial supremacist ideology:

a. To create a climate conducive to hate crime, terrorism or other violence; or

b. Attempt to erode or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of our democratic society as protected under Article 17 of Schedule 1 to the HRA 1998

Khan and Rowley have made the following recommendations to the government: for a legal and operational framework to be commissioned to robustly counter the hateful extremism threat; for an expansion of current offences relating to stirring up of hatred and strengthen current resources and capability of law enforcement agencies; and for the government to elevate hateful extremism to be a priority threat alongside terrorism and online child sexual exploitation; and to implement the most robust proposals in the Online Harms White Paper.

Khan said: “Since the 2005 London bombings, one of the long-standing conundrums for the British government has been how to deal with extremist groups or individuals who are not caught by counter-terrorism legislation, but who are creating a climate that is conducive to terrorism and other societal harms. Previous attempts - such as the 2015 Extremism Bill - were unfocused and rightly criticised because of an inability to ensure the protection of freedom of expression and other civil liberties.

“Our report shows how it is possible to square this circle. We have charted a path the government can take which will ensure protection of freedom of expression while restricting the dangerous activity of hateful extremism. Extremist groups whether neo-fascist, neo-Nazi, Islamist or others are able to operate lawfully, freely and with impunity. They are actively radicalising others and are openly propagating for the erosion of our fundamental democratic rights. Their aim is to subvert our democracy. This is a threat to our civilised democratic order, which cannot be taken for granted and requires a robust, necessary and proportionate legal response.

“That is why we are calling on the government to commit to devising a new legal and operational framework to capture the specific activity of hateful extremism. Without such a framework this activity will continue unchallenged and the many harms it is causing in our country will continue to persist and worsen in the next decade.”

Rowley added: “As the national lead for Counter-Terrorism Policing I have witnessed many awful acts of terrorism and violence. However, during the course of conducting this review, I have been shocked and horrified by the ghastliness and volume of hateful extremist materials and behaviour which is lawful in Britain.

“Not only have our laws failed to keep pace with the evolving threat of modern-day extremism, current legal boundaries allow extremists to operate with impunity. They are carefully steering around existing laws in the ways we describe in our report, openly glorifying terrorism, collecting and sharing some of the most violent extremist propaganda, or intentionally stirring up racial or religious hatred against others. Hateful extremism is creating an ever-bigger pool for terrorists to recruit from, as well as increasing violence, hate crime and tensions between and within communities.

“Over the decades, Britain has built a robust legal and operational counter terrorism machinery which has continually evolved in response to the changing terrorist threat. The same is certainly not the case for hateful extremism. The current situation is simply untenable. That is why Sara and I are convinced that it is now critical for government to devise a new legal and operational framework to counter hateful extremism to strengthen our response, both online and offline. We are at a watershed moment and action is required urgently.”

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