How The UK's New Anti-Extremism Bill Could Affect You

Anti-fascists, BLM activists, environmentalists and others could all get tangled up in the government's new anti-extremism legislation.
01 July 2020, 9:35am
black lives matter protest london
Photo: Alex Rorison 

In May, when Donald Trump threatened to designate "Antifa" a terrorist organisation, it was concerning – but also seemed ready-made for ridicule. Just the latest off-the-wall statement from the most powerful man in the world that could have easily been a dril "bit".

The statement didn't make any sense: "Antifa" isn’t a single, cohesive organisation, and the White House doesn’t have the authority to proscribe domestic political organisations. While it was a moment of light satirical relief, statements like this aren't exactly a laughing matter: they also consciously pave the way for further repression from the state and the far-right.

If you're counting your blessings that the UK isn't quite so far gone, you might want to take a deep breath. In June, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced plans to fast-track prosecutions for those arrested during Black Lives Matter protests, allowing them to be jailed within 24 hours and facing a newly doubled maximum sentence of two years, for vandalism or criminal damage (apparently inspired by now-Labour leader Keir Starmer's infamous all-night courts in the wake of the 2011 riots). In another clear targeting of BLM protesters, maximum sentences will be extended to ten years for "those who desecrate war memorials".

The Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons in June, and the Public Bill Committee will report to Parliament in a matter of weeks. When it becomes law, it will bring us much closer to a world in which criminalising anti-fascism no longer sounds absurd.

Building on emergency legislation brought in after the Islamist attacks at London Bridge and in Streatham, the bill ends the prospect of early release for serious terrorism offenders, extends maximum prison sentences across the board (including for membership of a proscribed organisation, raised from ten to 14 years) and widens the list of offences classed as terror-related to ensure they carry tougher sentences. The bill has received little public attention, but, as with the ten-year penalty for “war-memorial vandals”, Keir Starmer’s Labour Opposition is broadly in support.

The bill rolls back on commitments to reviewing the Islamophobic Prevent programme, which – despite its broad remit of combating "extremism" – has been criticised for historically focusing on Muslims.

A long-awaited independent review of Prevent was announced in January of 2019, but the appointment of Lord Carlile as Chair prompted legal action from Rights Watch UK over his "considered and strong support" for the programme. Following his subsequent dismissal last year, the deadline for applications for the post was extended to the 22nd of June. The waiving of the initial statutory deadline for the conclusion of the investigation is presented as a response to the delays produced by Carlile’s removal from the post. The fact that the deadline has been removed rather than extended has led NGOs to speculate that the government isn’t serious about interrogating its counter-terrorism approach, especially as it seeks to extend Home Office and police powers in the interim.

Extending the scope for punitive incarceration over rehabilitation, the bill leaves room for further infringements on civil liberties through its focus on Terrorist Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs). In a world in which both Antifa and Stop The Badger Cull can be framed as extremist networks in police anti-terror literature, this legislation lays the groundwork for wider surveillance and extended incarceration of Muslims, black people and "far left" activists.

The newly-introduced surveillance powers revolve around TPIMs, brought in by the Coalition government in 2011 to replace Tony Blair’s infamous Control Orders. TPIMs currently allow for the surveillance of un-prosecuted terror suspects for a maximum of two years, along with the imposition of restrictions that can include enforced relocation to another part of the country, wearing an electronic monitoring tag, limits on the use of financial services, telephones and computers, and a ban on holding travel documents.

Under the new Counter-terrorism and Sentencing Bill, the basis for serving a TPIM notice will be downgraded from “balance of probability” to “reasonable grounds”. The two-year limit will be abolished and the range of restrictions widened. That means that someone with no involvement in terrorist activities could be subjected to intrusive surveillance, effective house arrest and mandatory drug testing for the rest of their lives, on the basis of flawed secret intel. Breaching a TPIM condition will also now become a terrorist offence – if a suspect breaches the terms of the TPIM notice, they could be charged and incarcerated.

Resource-heavy and expensive, TPIMs are rarely actually used. The government’s own Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation has questioned the basis on which these changes are being proposed – but the underlying rationale is political, not practical, and it’s not just about Islamist extremism.

In 2018, the Stansted 15 were convicted for protesting the deportation of vulnerable migrants, using counter-terrorism legislation enacted almost three decades earlier in response to the Lockerbie Bombing. The same year, anti-fracking protesters became the first environmental campaigners to be imprisoned in the UK. since 1932, and legal action by Netpol revealed that anti-fracking activists were targeted for surveillance by Prevent. A few months later, counter-terror police were forced to drop Extinction Rebellion from a Prevent report on extremist ideologies, after an outcry from campaigners. All of this takes place against the backdrop of years of complaints from Muslims about Prevent’s inherent Islamophobia and inefficacy as a tool of de-radicalisation.

This year has seen an acceleration of policies promoting surveillance and incarceration over civil society engagement and rehabilitation, kicking off with the deployment of live facial recognition tech in parts of London. The newly-passed Immigration and Social Security Bill will expose a whole swathe of migrants to indefinite detention, with many pronounced “illegal” and targeted for detainment and deportation.

Boris Johnson’s claim that Black Lives Matter has been hijacked by violent extremists is laughable, but that language – much like Trump’s on Antifa – is carefully chosen. It gives further license to police to use "extremism" as a pretext for targeted arrests and surveillance of activists.

If this sounds like a reach, bear in mind that in June the Commission for Countering Extremism earlier announced a legal review of existing counter-extremism legislation that will aim to “identify the gaps that exist at the boundaries of current laws”. This is being launched just as the Counter-terrorism and Social Security Bill kicks a long-awaited independent review of Prevent into the long grass, by the same Commission that last year framed ideological opposition to capitalism as a threat to the public good in a report on "revolutionary workerism".

The left isn’t explicitly the focus of the new bill, but we can’t ignore the reality that a Tory government will use any tool available to consolidate its power. As police raid homes and round up activists at peaceful protests, and legislation recommits law enforcement to intrusive surveillance and extended incarceration, there’s reasonable cause to worry that the state could one day proscribe Black Lives Matter UK.

If that happens, TPIMs in particular could become a much more important weapon for the government. But even at the thin end of the wedge, the remaining measures in the new legislation – in conjunction with fast-tracked prosecutions and anti-iconoclasm measures announced last week – have worrying implications for dissent. House raids and snatch squads at anti-racist protests are just the beginning.