Counterproductive counter-terrorism bill

January 29, 2015

It is entirely appropriate that the UK government should seek to do all it reasonably can to prevent people from being drawn into terrorist activity (“‘People should be allowed to say things we don’t like’”, News, 22 January). The UK’s long and painful experience of terrorist atrocity has reinforced governmental imperatives to do everything possible to protect its people from such violence, and we fully support that goal.

But some of the current recommendations seem potentially counterproductive. In relation to higher education, it is very welcome that “Prevent” Duty Guidance: A Consultation makes clear the view that “universities’ commitment to freedom of speech and the rationality underpinning the advancement of knowledge means that they represent one of our most important arenas for challenging extremist views and ideologies”. A belief in the importance of open discourse in universities, no matter how unpopular the views being expressed, is the founding assumption behind the statutory commitment to free speech that is to be found in the Education (No 2) Act 1986, Section 43. But some of the ensuing recommendations seem to us to work against such a principle, and to do so in three main ways.

First, the suggestions about events featuring speakers and public debate seem potentially unhelpful, as university settings can offer one of the few places in which those who espouse extreme views might be challenged in a calm, interrogative manner. To insist that any speaker must provide prior presentations and detailed contents for their talks so that they can be assessed beforehand will make universities far less likely to be able to host the kinds of events that have, on occasions in the past, been fruitful in rationally challenging the views of those who advocate violence.

Second, there is considerable debate about whether it is right to assume that the expression of non-violent extremism is something to be monitored because it might encourage terrorism. Some within government service itself hold the view that the encouragement of non-violent articulation of extreme political views can in fact work as an insulation for some people against involvement in terrorist violence. To seem to blur the distinction between violent and non-violent political views might, in practice, risk pushing exponents of the latter towards the former.

Third, the many bureaucratic requirements are likely to have the practical effect of discouraging academics and students alike from sustaining open and fruitful political debate on issues of high importance. They would also damage the reputation currently enjoyed by UK universities as places where open debate can be had without fear or favour.

We ask, therefore, that these aspects of government policy be reconsidered.

Robin Jackson
Chief executive and secretary, British Academy


From reading the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ report on the counter-terrorism and security bill, it is clear that the government failed to come up with a justification for seeking to apply new powers over universities.

The committee is right that the government’s consultation on the guidelines makes things less clear. The “Prevent” strategy is defined in terms of a wide attempt to tackle extremism, which includes those who are campaigning against “British values”. Here we hit a major problem. For example, tolerance is one of those British values that has changed – this country has imprisoned (or worse) members of any number of groups: Catholics, Chartists, suffragettes, gay men and so on. In the university section, the government refers to extremism that leads to terrorism, but how will it handle that? It would be easy to fall prey to reductio ad absurdum, but where will this stop?

Meanwhile, the government explains how this will work with an Orwellian banality. The Regional Prevent Coordinator would raise an issue of non-compliance and this would be considered by the Prevent Oversight Board before an order was made that could be enforced only by the courts.

Mike Ratcliffe

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