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New definition of extremism ‘could have chilling effect on free speech’

Broadening the definition of extremism could have “a chilling effect on free speech”, MPs have been warned.

Conservative MP Miriam Cates said moving the definition away from acts of violence could lead to a criminalisation of “legitimate views”.

Communities Secretary Michael Gove is expected to produce a new official definition of extremism later this week.

Michael Gove
Michael Gove is expected to produce a new official definition of extremism later this week (Michal Wachucik/PA)

Groups captured by the term are set to be cut off from public funding and engagement, effectively blacklisted by the Government and public bodies.

Speaking in the Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions, Ms Cates, the MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, said: “Radical Islamists pose a serious threat to our nation’s security and I agree with my right honourable friend that we must urgently address this, but reports that the Government wish to broaden the definition of extremism are concerning.

“Because in separating the definition of extremism from actual violence and harm, we may criminalise people with a wide range of legitimate views and have a chilling effect on free speech.”

She added: “Can (Rishi Sunak) reassure me that instead of trying to police people’s thoughts and speech, as those opposite clearly wish to do, the Government will instead target the specific groups that foster terrorism and those who fund them?”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak urged Ms Cates to wait for the extremism strategy, adding: “This is absolutely not about silencing those with private and peaceful beliefs, nor will it impact free speech.”

The decision to produce a new definition of extremism comes after Mr Sunak used an address to the nation outside Downing Street to warn of “extremist disruption” and “forces here at home trying to tear us apart”.

Prime Minister’s Questions
Rishi Sunak departs 10 Downing Street to attend Prime Minister’s Questions at the Houses of Parliament (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Also during PMQs, Labour MP Afzal Khan (Manchester Gorton) pressed the Prime Minister on the extremism definition, saying that: “On the benches opposite, members peddle far-right conspiracy theories about Islamists and Muslims taking over Britain.”

He said: “Shouldn’t the Prime Minister’s priority be getting his own house in order and stamping out extremism, racism and Islamophobia from within the Conservative Party and will the Prime Minister finally take Islamophobia seriously and agree to the definition?”

Mr Sunak replied: “Discrimination has no place in our society and it’s important to distinguish between strongly felt political debate on one hand and unacceptable acts of abuse, intimidation and violence on the other.

“I would urge him to wait for the details of the strategy. It’s a sensitive matter but it’s one we must tackle because there has been a rise in extremists who are trying to hijack our democracy, that must be confronted.

“He talks about peddling conspiracy theories, I’d just point him in the direction of his previous Labour candidate in Rochdale.”