Michael Gove defends new definition of extremism amid fears it will stifle free speech

14 March 2024, 09:31 | Updated: 14 March 2024, 10:26

Muslim groups that incite hatred are expected to be named as extremists by the government
Muslim groups that incite hatred are expected to be named as extremists by the government. Picture: LBC

By Flaminia Luck

Michael Gove has defended the UK's new definition of extremism amid concern from campaigners it will stifle free speech.

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Speaking to LBC, Michael Gove, the communities secretary, unveiled the new definition today amid rising concerns about social cohesion and British democracy.

Those deemed to have views based on "violence, hatred or intolerance" will be cut off from any public funding.

Mr Gove said in the past some extremist individuals have benefited from government support and money.

The definition is "more precise" and will help the government to better decide who they'll work with, with Gove adding it will be a "rigorous" process.

Groups that are covered by the new definition, which covers conduct that fails to reach the criminality threshold but is still considered "unacceptable", will be denied access to government funding.

They will also be stopped from meeting ministers and officials or from gaining a platform that could "legitimise" their views by association with Government.

However, Joe Mulhall, director at Hope not Hate, has said the measure is too vague.

"One of the big issues here is that it seems the implementation of the definition of extremism will rest with the Secretary of State alone.

He added there was no "democratic oversight".

"There's a real concern here that actually what's been done here is the definition of extremism will be used to attack people that Michael Gove or the Conservative Party dislike," he said.

Communities Secretary Michael Gove
Communities Secretary Michael Gove. Picture: Getty

What is the new definition?

The newly-unveiled definition describes extremism as "the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance" that aims to "negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others" or "undermine, overturn or replace the UK's system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights".

It also includes those who "intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve" either of those aims.

The previous definition, published in 2011, described extremism as "vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and belief" as well as "calls for the death of members of our armed forces".

It is not yet clear which groups will be named by the Government but the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and Cage International told The Telegraph that they would consider legal challenges if named by Mr Gove.

Mr Gove, who has presided over the new definition, said it would "ensure that Government does not inadvertently provide a platform to those setting out to subvert democracy and deny other people's fundamental rights".

He added that it was the first in "a series of measures to tackle extremism and protect our democracy".

The new definition comes into force from today, with the Government expected to publish a list of organisations covered by it in the coming weeks.

Read More: Tories have ‘rushed’ new extremism definition which could ‘become stick to beat police with’, former Met boss warns

Read More: Three ex-Home Secs urge Labour and Tories to work together on extremism as Gove's new definition looms

Both the nature and timing of the Government's new definition of extremism have raised eyebrows, with some - including the Archbishop of Canterbury questioning whether it will solve the problem.

Yesterday, a former assistant Met commissioner told LBC that the Government has rushed its new definition of extremism, which he says could become a "stick to beat police with".

Neil Basu, who helped to run specialist operations at the Metropolitan Police, told LBC's Andrew Marr that the redefining of extremism is a "quick reaction to a problem that has been decades in the making".

"I'm incredibly pleased that the government is taking this very seriously...but it can't be so vague as to be unworkable or discriminatory, it can't erode free speech, and it can't be such that it drives dangerous ideas underground," Mr Basu said.

"I'm concerned that it's happened too quickly and there clearly hasn't been a consensus...it's united the right, left, and the centre in its concern about what's happened. It's been too quick."

Andrew Marr is joined by Neil Basu to talk about the government's new definition of extremism

"A general policy description of who we should and should not deal with as a government or as government institutions is very different from actually preventing hateful extremism from becoming a criminal problem," Mr Basu went on.

"I don't think this goes far enough in terms of giving us a legal operating framework.

"I worry for policing that this rather nebulous policy stance will become a stick to beat police officers with, particularly at protests."

There are fears the new definition could lead to a crackdown on protests
There are fears the new definition could lead to a crackdown on protests. Picture: Getty

Mr Basu added that under the definition he expects to be released by government, police will be seen as either "too weak or too strong".

His comments come as Michael Gove, the levelling up and communities secretary, prepares to officially announce the new definition of extremism in Parliament tomorrow.

Mr Gove reportedly plans to use Parliamentary privilege to name groups that he believes meet the new criteria, despite warnings from government lawyers.

Ex-Assistant Met Commissioner: Extremism definition lacks 'consensus'

Commenting on Mr Gove's potential plans to use Parliamentary privilege, Mr Basu said the fact that Government "has to use Parliamentary privilege tells you volumes".

Parliamentary privilege is the right of legal immunity afforded to MPs, protecting what they say or do in the course of their legislative duties against civil or criminal liability.

Mr Gove is not expected to call out mainstream groups in Parliament, such as the Muslim Council of Britain, The Guardian reports.

However, he could name smaller organisations, such as Cage, which said Palestinians had the "right to resist" following Hamas' terror attack on Israel on October 7.

Angela Rayner, the party's deputy leader and shadow communities secretary, said: "Hateful extremism threatens the safety of our communities and the unity of our country - there is no place for it in Britain.

"Labour is steadfast in our commitment to work across communities to ensure no one feels unsafe at the hands of corrosive extremism.

"This is a serious problem that needs serious action and tinkering with a new definition is not enough. The Government's counter-extremism strategy is now nine years out of date, and they've repeatedly failed to define Islamophobia.

"Any suggestion that the Government has been engaging with groups that they've now decided are extremists raises serious questions over why it has taken so long to act."