Home secretary also now likely to shelve publication of official counter-extremism strategy until after the general election
The home secretary, Theresa May, has been forced to drop new statutory rules under which ministers could order universities and colleges to ban external extremist speakers.
It is also now likely that the publication of a long-awaited official counter-extremism strategy will be shelved until after the general election as a result of what is said to have been the last remaining big row within the coalition.
May has been forced to abandon her plan to issue ministerial directions backed by the threat of contempt of court proceedings against universities who fail to comply with the new policy in the face of strong opposition from the Liberal Democrats and the House of Lords.
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The original Home Office guidelines stipulated that universities should introduce stringent checks on all visiting speakers who are invited to address students on campus, and required student unions to give university authorities at least 14 days’ notice to allow for background checks and cancellation of the event, if necessary. These guidelines are now understood to have been completely dropped.
Senior Tory peers, including Lord Lamont and Lord Deben, also voiced their strong opposition describing it as a major attack on freedom of speech.
A report reviewing the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Britain has also been shelved until after the election. The failure to publish a new counter-extremism strategy brings to an end one of the most fraught areas of coalition policy which even led last year to May openly clashing with her Tory cabinet colleague, Michael Gove.
The home secretary is to make a wide-ranging speech on Monday outlining the challenges involved in tackling extremist values in society in the broadest sense, including issues such as female genital mutilation and women not being allowed to go out to work.
David Cameron said earlier this week that it was clear that “further, more comprehensive measures will be required in the next parliament to tackle the threat from extremism in the UK, and to support communities to challenge those who oppose British values”.
May is also expected to renew pledges she made at the party conference in October that the Conservative manifesto will include banning orders for extremist groups and “extremism disruption orders” for extremists who spread hate but do not break any laws. The latter, which sought to deny their access to the airwaves revived memories of Margaret Thatcher’s broadcasting ban on Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin.
Both proposals were blocked by the Lib Dems last autumn after it became clear May wanted to target the “full spectrum of extremism”, including possibly environmental activists, and not just the “hard end” that had previously been the focus of counter-terrorism policy.
The prime minister repeatedly promised to ban groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir over the last five years but the Home Office has ruled each time that they fail to pass the legal and evidential tests to be a proscribed organisation under current legislation.
Home Office ministers will ask MPs and peers to use the last remaining days of this parliament next week to vote through secondary legislation implementing a new duty on all parts of the public sector, including prisons, schools and local authorities to “prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”.
The statutory guidance under the new Counter-Terrorism and Security Act requires frontline staff, including in universities and schools, to undergo counter-terrorism awareness training and to engage with the Prevent programme. They also make clear they will be under a legal duty to tackle not only potentially violent extremism but also non-violent extremist groups who may be perfectly legal.
“Being drawn into terrorism includes not just violent extremism but also non-violent extremism, which can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and can popularise views which terrorists exploit,” says the official guidance.
The Home Office says the new statutory guidance is needed to ensure that all local authorities and public bodies co-operate with the government’s counter-terrorism Prevent programme.
The new Prevent guidance, which was published 10 days ago, included a promise that “there will be further guidance issued on the management of external speakers and events, including on the interaction of the Prevent duty with universities’ existing duties to secure freedom of speech and have regard to the importance of academic freedom.”
A Home Office impact statement earlier this month acknowledged that there was a “risk that parts of the policy may be perceived to restrict the freedom of speech, and that legislating will give greater prominence to criticism that the programme is there to spy on individuals, or that it targets Muslims”.
But it said this risk was outweighed by the danger that without the new statutory duty there could be “missed opportunities to identify and prevent radicalisation and consequently put the UK at a higher risk of terrorism”.
May has said: “Tackling the radicalisation of young people is not and cannot ever be the sole responsibility of the government and law enforcement agencies. The new Prevent duty means universities will have a legal obligation to play their part, and I hope they do as fully as possible.”