News analysis

British laws on 'hate preachers' set to ignite fiery debates

Britain unveils measures today to crack down on "hate preachers" and others who advocate religious violence, as part of a broader effort to tackle what the country's leaders refer to as the "poisonous narrative" of Islamic extremism.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II is expected to devote a substantial part of her speech at the ceremonial opening of a new parliamentary session in London to fresh legislation against radicalisation.

The legislation is expected to give the government powers to ban extremist organisations, prevent proscribed individuals from working with young people, and empower the authorities to shut down premises and websites used to "promote hatred".

But the measures have already been denounced by opposition MPs as too broadly defined and only likely to alienate Britain's Muslim community.

Since suicide bombers struck London on July 7, 2005, in a series of attacks that killed 52 people and wounded 700, Britain has introduced, on average, one fresh piece of anti-terrorism legislation each year.

  • Key anti-terror measures

  • Britain's new anti-terror measures are expected to include:

    • The authority to ban "extremist" organisations

    • Preventing proscribed individuals from working with young people

    • Empowering the authorities to shut premises and websites used to "promote hatred"

    • Restricting the freedom of movement of individuals who the Home Secretary determines to be "engaged in extremist behaviour"

    • The authority to shut down or take over private or public premises that could be used for meetings to discuss violent behaviour

    • Tighter background checks on job applicants for the civil service and public sector

    • Fresh powers to shut down television and radio channels that provide a platform for extremist or violent views - new provisions will extend to foreign broadcasters, particularly those in the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent, which reach British audiences through cable and satellite providers

The unprecedented frequency of these measures is partly due to the evolving threat and rapid technological changes, but also to the difficulty all British governments have encountered in defining extremist behaviour that may lead to terrorism.

It has taken a year to prepare today's legislation from at least two dozen different drafts, as officials struggled to define what "extremism" actually is.

For the past five years, it was "vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values", but the concept is now considered too imprecise to be legally useful.

Until the Queen speaks, British government sources are refusing to say what new definition they have adopted, but claim it would be "robust enough" to withstand legal challenges in the courts.

But the aim of the new measures is clear. The government is expected to get powers to outlaw groups advocating extremist ideas and restrict the freedom of movement and action of individuals whom Britain's Home Secretary determines to be "engaged in extremist behaviour".

The government will also seek authority to shut down or take over private or public premises that may be used for meetings discussing violent behaviour.

Another purpose of the new legislation is to weed out those with extremist views through the tightening of background checks which Britons have to pass when they apply for jobs in the civil service and the public sector.

Here, the government is responding to the discovery of the so-called Birmingham Trojan Horse plot in 2014, when education inspectors in that English city stumbled upon a blueprint for what was termed the "radical Islamisation" of secular state schools through the infiltration of extremists into the local teaching community.

From now on, people identified as Islamist extremists face lengthy bans on working in schools, colleges, charities and care homes, similar to the ban already enforced on those convicted of paedophile offences.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has vowed to provide parents and schools "with all the advice, tools and practical support they need" to identify existing teachers who may be preaching ideas contrary to religious toleration and racial harmony.

Britain's Office of Communications (Ofcom) will also be granted fresh powers to take off the air television and radio channels that provide a platform for extremist or violent views.

Ofcom can already shut down offending broadcasters based in the United Kingdom, but the new provisions will extend to foreign broadcasters, particularly those originating in the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent, which currently reach British audiences via cable and satellite providers.

But it is understood that controversial plans to give Ofcom powers to vet programmes before they are broadcast have now been dropped, for fear that these would transform the British communications regulator into a censor.

The main opposition Labour Party has refrained from criticising the government's plans. It claims that it will wait to see the full proposals before commenting.

But in a warning of parliamentary battles to come, Mr Alistair Carmichael, a leading MP for the smaller opposition Liberal Democrats, has already dismissed the measures as "handing a propaganda victory to those who preach hatred".

"The correct way to tackle this would be to engage actively with the communities," he said, adding that the government "must accept that not every problem in life is solved by passing a new law".

Still, Mr Cameron, who described the fight against religious extremism as "the struggle of our generation", claims that the choice is stark. "Do we choose to turn a blind eye, or do we choose to get out there and make the case for our British values?" he asked.

The answer will come in the fiery parliamentary debates now guaranteed to follow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2016, with the headline 'British laws on 'hate preachers' set to ignite fiery debates'. Print Edition | Subscribe