ITV News, Yahoo News and the Local Government Chronicle report on the government’s legislative plans for the coming year that were announced in the Queen’s Speech to Parliament on Wednesday. Despite the Prime Minister promising a “clear programme for working people, social justice and bringing our country together”, many of the policies are likely to negatively impact on Muslim civil liberties and charitable sector.
A new Extremism Bill was announced which proceeds to further plans first entertained during the passage of the Counter-terrorism and Security Bill but which were resisted by the Liberal Democrats and which have since been criticised for targeting and marginalising British Muslims.
The proposed Extremism Bill will pave the way for the Home Secretary, Theresa May, to ban “extremist” groups. It will also give law enforcement agencies new powers to tackle “hate preachers” and enable local authorities to close down premises, such as mosques, which they believe support “extremism”. The Bill will also grant Ofcom greater powers to deal with channels that are considered to have broadcast “extremist” content.
Despite a number of Cabinet Ministers in the previous Government aligning with the Liberal Democrats to resist any encroachment to free speech or invite pre-broadcast censorship, the Government has proceeded to include plans to extend Ofcom’s powers in the Bill to be presented to the new Parliament.
The Extremism Bill will also grant employers new powers through the Disclosure and Barring Service to check whether an individual is an “extremist” and bar them from working with children. The fact that “extremism” has been ill-defined, as brilliantly exposed by John Humphrys in an interview with the Home Secretary during which she struggled to offer a clear definition of extremism or adequately respond to concerns about thought policing, presents a number of challenges to an open society. Reports from the US about an initiative which is identifying pro-Palestinian activists on university campuses in an attempt to malign their employment prospects augurs ill for what looks to be similar moves in the UK.
A new Charity Bill, the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill, was also announced in the Queen’s Speech. The Bill sets out plans to progress on the Draft Protection of Charities Bill which began under the previous Parliament. The Bill has already faced criticism over impeding the work of charities engaged in work in conflict zones and for lack of proportionality, given that its intended focus, tackling the “menace of extremism” in the charity sector is at odds with empirical evidence about the nature and scale of the problem. In its legislative scrutiny of the previous Bill, the Joint Committee scrutinising the Bill’s provision stated in relation to concerns about extremism:
“The consensus of opinion is that abuse, distinct from honest mistakes and persistent mismanagement, is rare in the charity sector. There is, moreover, insufficient evidence available to make an accurate assessment of the incidence or significance of such abuse. We heard that, when such abuse does occur, the financial costs and reputational damage to the charity sector can be considerable. It is right that the Charity Commission should be more effective at tackling it than has historically been the case. This raises the question of whether this would also need additional legislative underpinning and, if so, whether the proposals in the draft Bill are the correct ones.”
Needless to say, as the Government proceeds to introduce these draft Bills into the legislature, Muslim groups will have to be ready for political struggles ahead.