UK Police Struggling To Tackle Rising Extremism Because Of ‘Weak’ Government Response
By Lizzie Dearden – The Independent
Extremism is growing in the UK because of a “weak” government response to the threat, a report has found.
Researchers said the police and other authorities were “confused” about what the word meant and what they should do about it.
The Commission for Countering Extremism, which was created by ministers in 2017 to advise what “tools, policies and approaches” were needed, produced its flagship report in October 2019 calling for sweeping action including a new definition of “hateful extremism” that could be used by law enforcement.
But more than a year later, the government has not responded to the recommendations or signaled whether it will adopt them.
The Home Office would not give a reason for the 14-month delay when asked by The Independent.
Criminal justice consultancy Crest Advisory warned that a “vacuum of leadership” was being exploited by extremists, who are left able to continue radicalizing followers, stoking division and targeting minorities.
“Extremism is a significant and growing threat to this country,” said a report seen exclusively by The Independent ahead of its publication.
“When left unchecked, extremism can incite violence, threaten the democratic institutions and norms that underpin liberal democracy, and undermine the social fabric that binds us together.”
“However, whilst there is political consensus around the urgency of tackling extremism, there remains a lack of clarity around how the government ought to respond.”
Almost a quarter of British adults said they had personally witnessed or experienced extremism in the past year, according to YouGov polling commissioned by Crest, and 58 per cent believe it is growing.
There is currently no legal definition of extremism in the UK, but indicators including hate crime and online abuse have been rising.
Neil Basu, the head of UK counterterror policing, recently warned that the coronavirus pandemic has created a “perfect storm” for online radicalization.
“The amplification of extremism and its ability to incite a vulnerable section of the population towards terrorism is probably my greatest single fear,” he told MPs in September.
Sara Khan, who heads the Commission for Countering Extremism, slammed “the lack of an effective and coherent approach.”
“Over the decades Britain has built a robust counter-terrorism machinery which has evolved with the changing terrorist threat,” she added.
“In contrast our national counter extremism machinery is weak, poorly coordinated and behind the curve. That is why the commission has called on the government to refocus efforts on countering hateful extremism.
“This has become even more pressing as we have seen extremists exploit the Covid-19 pandemic to spread disinformation and dangerous conspiracy theories in an attempt to incite hatred and violence, damage social cohesion and undermine our democracy.”
The government has pledged to refresh its 2015 Counter Extremism Strategy, which controversially defined extremism as “opposition to fundamental British values” and has been outstripped by events including international Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ‘ISIS/ISIL’] terror attacks and the rise of neo-Nazi groups.
In the same year, the Conservatives announced an extremism bill but it never materialized and plans for new powers were dropped.
“Five years on from the publication of its Counter Extremism Strategy, the government is yet to set out an agreed definition of extremism and the role it expects individual agencies to play in tackling it,” said the Crest report.
“Our fieldwork has revealed a worrying level of confusion about how police officers ought to respond to extremism within their communities, beset by conflicting objectives and a lack of clarity as to what success looks like.”
Officers told researchers that they did not have enough training on extremism and could not always spot groups or emerging issues in their local communities.
Police said they struggled to define and separate extremism, hate crime and terrorism, while many prominent extremists have been claiming to defend freedom of speech when facing legal action or social media takedowns.
Researchers called for the government to adopt the proposed definition of “hateful extremism” immediately and urgently adapt its “out-of-date” Counter Extremism Strategy.
They said a national framework for the policing of extremist protests should be created, and that the Commission for Countering Extremism should conduct annual reviews of how powers are used.
“The UK’s ability to counter extremism has been hampered by a lack of consensus: on what extremism means, on what the government’s response should look like and on what role the police, other agencies, and civil society, ought to play,” the report concluded.
“The government urgently therefore needs to establish a new vision and strategy for countering extremism.”
The government said it was still considering the Commission for Countering Extremism’s recommendations and would respond in due course.
It said proposals for internet regulation would be contained in the delayed Online Harms Bill.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The government is committed to tackling those who spread extremist views which promote violence, hatred and division against individuals and communities in our society.
“We remain focused on disrupting the activities of the most dangerous extremists, supporting those who stand up to extremism and preventing people from being drawn into terrorism.”