Will May’s terrorism clampdown restrict freedom of speech?

Police at Finsbury Park after latest terrorist attack

Police at Finsbury Park, north London after the latest terrorist attack this week Pic credit: BBC


Theresa May promised ” Enough is Enough”  after the two vicious terrorist attacks in Manchester and London Bridge during the election campaign. Since then we have a third attack in Finsbury Park, north London targeting Muslims.

Today a much slimmed down Queen’s Speech promises new laws on security and possibly a U-turn on police cuts. But we need to be vigilant on what measures are taken and ensure that in a rush to clamp down on extremist perversions of the Muslim faith that the law is not used against other people to restrict freedom of speech and robust debate.

This threat was highlighted by none other than researchers at the House of Commons library who produced a timely review of terrorist legislation and also pointed out the pitfalls of badly drafted legislation and loose definitions of extremism.

As I wrote in Tribune last week:

In the Tory manifesto Theresa May had committed herself to creating Commission for Countering Extremism. The Commons library paper says the last Tory government has already got a Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill in the pipeline – which was never introduced because of the snap election.

This included powers to regulate all official out-of-school activities to prevent extremists from using them and banning people with extreme views from teaching in schools by extending the scope of the debarring system, at present used to prevent criminals and sex abusers from getting jobs.

It also included new powers to block people streaming extremist videos from outside the EU and new action to be taken against local councils that did not act to stop extremism in schools.
What is not clear is whether the new legislation would also include measures to disrupt extremist activity, including outlawing some organisations and some individuals, barring them using premises and trying to criminalise people who say they do not believe in democracy and advocate violence even if they have no intention of committing offences themselves. Some of this would involve issuing civil orders against individuals.

The  Commons report  raises a lot of questions:
• Can extremism be defined in a way that offers legal certainty?
• Is it necessary to resort to new civil orders instead of existing criminal offences?
• How will proposals avoid unjustified interference with freedom of religion and expression?
• Is it justified to limit speech which is not in itself illegal?
• How can online extremism be dealt with both by government and social media companies?

It warns: “Unless a consensus can be reached as to what constitutes extremism in the first place, the development of effective measures will continue to prove problematic.”

And the government can hardly introduce a law that singles out Muslims.

These are wise words because the direction of travel is to try to prosecute people for what they say not for what they do – and somehow try and control what is on the internet.

It is a law of unintended consequences as the Commons paper reveals. For while naturally Liberty objected it also led when the idea was debated in 2015 to objections from Christians.

They were protesting that people advocating gay marriage should be banned could face prosecution or denial of access to buildings because they would be described as extremists.

It is delicious irony that tough talk to clamp down on radical extremism could end up alienating  the Tory’s preferred government partner, the Democratic Unionist Party , who oppose gay marriage, unless of course there will be a special exemption for Northern Ireland.  Even Dominic Raab, Conservative MP for Esher, now a government minister at the Ministry of Justice, objected to curbs on free speech, warning it could be used to prosecute other groups – including Christians opposing gay marriage,

People should scrutinise the proposed terrorism bill very carefully when it is published today. The Commons research paper is here.

Fire Chiefs’ Warning: Don’t rely on a fire engine near you

firefighters tackling a blaze. pic courtesy: shoutmeloud.com

Don’t tell any potential rioter, arsonist or terrorist, but if the coalition continue with their present cuts policy by the time of the next general election the forces to fight such evils will be  seriously weakened.

This is  the sober conclusion of six of the most senior fire officers in the country who have already had experience in implementing some of the biggest cuts since Nick Clegg and David Cameron came into power. They cover such big cities as Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Bradford, Birmingham and Sheffield. Their phrase for what is about to happen – a further 27 per cent cut –  is ” potentially catastrophic.”

While the police have hogged the headlines the fire chiefs of a quarter of the most urban areas in England ( who strike me need a good public relations officer) have warned Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, that the service will not survive in its present form.

They exclude London where a botched privatisation has seen the capital’s fire service reliant on Lloyds TSB bank and machines serviced by a company snapped up by a baronet, Sir Aubrey Brocklebank, for £2.

The full story of the horrors facing the service can be read in my piece for exaro news ( http://www.exaronews.com) and also in the Independent  at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/chief-fire-officers-warn-of-potentially-catastrophic-impact-of-cuts  and in Tribune magazine this week.

Suffice to say some very serious issues are being raised. Here a few of the quotes :

Steve McGuirk, chief fire officer of Greater Manchester, says: “A further 27 per cent disproportionate cut equates to a reduction of 11 whole-time crewed fire appliances, reducing frontline capacity by 24 per cent. All incidents requiring more than one fire appliance, which includes all domestic fires, commercial fires, secondary moorland/wild fires and other specialist incidents would have a slower effective response.”

Jamie Courtney, chief fire officer of South Yorkshire, says: “The extreme option of closing seven community fire stations would be necessary to absorb a further 27 per cent cut from the government grant. There would be an increase in deaths and injuries due to longer attendance times.”

His area incidentally include’s Nick Clegg’s Sheffield constituency.

West Yorkshire’s chief fire officer, Simon Pilling, said: “If the authority were to be faced with savings as great as 27 per cent, this could only be achieved through the ‘ad hoc’ and immediate closure of fire stations and the removal of appliances.”

Now this may sound alarmist but with a government committed to a 27 per cent cut over two years, this is not something that can be ignored and needs to be reversed.

Manchester was after all the scene of some of the worst riots just one year ago – and people are not going to thank the government if they is not enough manpower or machines to contain the  damage. Terrorism is also not unknown in Manchester either.

So far Eric Pickles has been pretty complacent. His spokesman saying :“Fire services can make sensible savings without impacting on the quality and breadth of services offered to communities. Such savings can include more flexible staffing arrangements, better sickness management, sharing back-office services, improved procurement and sharing chief fire officers and other senior staff.”

Yet if they read the submission officials would realise that all of this has already been done. For those wanting to see all the facts. the document is available from  Merseyside Fire here (http://bit.ly/Uy2Jzp) The chiefs are arguing about what they will have to cut next if the government  continues with its misguided cuts at this level.

Let’s hope that we don’t have endure another disaster before those in power  are convinced that some of these cuts are mad. Nobody wants to be left waiting to die in a burning building or in a motorway smash while under resourced services try to in vain to rescue them.