MPs and Peers Join NMA In Calling For Tougher Scrutiny of Terror Law

An influential committee of both Houses of Parliament has endorsed the News Media Association’s call for the new Counter-Terrorism Bill to be subject to enhanced scrutiny to protect free speech. 

In a report published today, the Joint Human Rights Select Committee said that the Government has so far failed to provide a “coherent or sufficiently precise definition” of key concepts in the Bill such as “non-violent extremism” and “British values.”  It added: “There needs to be certainty in the law so that those who are asked to comply with and enforce the law know what behaviour is and is not lawful.”

The Bill, which was trailed in the Queen’s Speech this year but has yet to be published, is expected to introduce a series of civil orders aimed at prevent the spread of political and religious extremism that Ministers believe leads to harmful activity or behaviour.

The NMA is concerned about the free speech implications of these measures, which have so far only been set out in general terms. It wrote to the Joint Committee to emphasise that the Bill must be set out in draft first in order to give Parliament and stakeholders the opportunity to examine the proposals in depth.

The report quoted the NMA’s letter saying that it is, “essential that any consultation on a Bill contains the intended definition of extremism and granular detail about the content, scope and operation of any new criminal or civil powers. If not, stakeholders responding to the consultation simply will not know what they are being asked to agree to.” The NMA added, “if ever there was legislation that merited the enhanced scrutiny afforded to a draft bill this is it.”

The Joint Committee agreed, concluding in its report that “if the Government wishes to take forward these proposals a draft Bill is required. A consultation which does not provide a clear legal definition of what is meant by extremism would be futile.”

The Committee, which is chaired by the Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP, added that the Government should not legislate to restrict freedom of expression unless there was a genuine gap in the law, which it said Ministers had failed to demonstrate.

The Committee also cast doubt on Ministers’ assumptions about the link between non-violent extremism and terrorism, saying “it is by no means proven or agreed that conservative religious views are, in and of themselves, an indicator of, or even correlated with, support for jihadism.” 

The then Home Office Minister Karen Bradley – now Culture Secretary – provided numerous different definitions of extremism when she gave oral evidence to the JCHR earlier this month. The report described the lack of clarity over this as “problematic.”