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New extremism definition unveiled because 'democracy at risk from far-right and Islamist extremists'

The government has unveiled its new definition of extremism despite warnings it could have a "chilling effect" on free speech.

Michael Gove, the communities secretary, has updated the definition as part of a drive to clamp down on the Islamist and far-right extremism that has intensified in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.

The new definition, released today, describes extremism as "the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance" that aims to "negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others", or "undermine, overturn or replace the UK's system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights".

It also includes those who "intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve" either of those aims.

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The government is also intending to release lists of organisations classed as "extremist" which will then be banned from meeting with ministers or other elected officials and will be unable to receive public money so they do not get a platform that could "legitimise" them through their association with the government.

Speaking to Wilfred Frost on Sky News this morning, Mr Gove insisted groups would only be deemed extremist after "a patient assessment of the evidence" and if they showed "a consistent pattern of behaviour".

But he didn't rule out naming specific groups when he gives a statement to the Commons on the new definition later this morning.

Ministers have insisted the new definition will not affect free speech, and the communities secretary told Sky News it was "not intended to prevent people demonstrating per se" amid a debate over the weekly pro-Palestine marches being held in London.

But critics have expressed concern the updated version could end up penalising the "wrong people".

A coalition of Muslim organisations told Sky News they believed the new definition "signals an attack on civil liberties by attacking law-abiding individuals and groups that oppose government policy by labelling them as 'extremist'".

'Divide and rule approach'

Speaking during Prime Minister's Questions this week, Miriam Cates, the co-leader of the influential New Conservatives group, said broadening the definition of extremism could have "a chilling effect on free speech".

"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".

Conservative peer Baroness Warsi also criticised the move, branding it a "divide and rule approach" intended to "breed division and encourage mistrust".

And on Wednesday, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York warned that the definition could "vilify the wrong people and risk yet more division".

'High bar' for groups that fall foul of definition

Despite the criticism, the government believes the definition outlined today is narrower and more precise than the previous version published in 2011.

It is designed to include conduct that falls short of criminality but the government still deems "unacceptable" - prompting fears that groups such as trans rights activists, gender critical organisations and even anti-House of Lords campaigners could be caught by the new definition.

By contrast, the 2011 version, outlined in the government's counter-terrorism strategy Prevent, described extremism as "vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and belief" as well as "calls for the death of members of our armed forces".

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), said the new version is "clear that extremism involves advancing or promoting an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance - a high bar that only captures the most concerning of activities".

"It is not about silencing those with private and peaceful beliefs - not will it affect free speech, which will always be protected," it said.

'Our democracy and our values are under challenge'

Mr Gove, who has overseen the formulation of the new definition, said it was necessary to act because "our democracy and our values of inclusivity and tolerance are under challenge from extremists".

"The pervasiveness of extremist ideologies has become increasingly clear in the aftermath of the 7 October attacks and poses a real risk to the security of our citizens and our democracy," he said.

"This is the work of extreme right-wing and Islamist extremists who are seeking to separate Muslims from the rest of society and create division within Muslim communities.

"They seek to radicalise individuals, deny people their full rights, suppress freedom of expression, incite hatred, and undermine our democratic institutions.

"Today's measures will ensure that government does not inadvertently provide a platform to those setting out to subvert democracy and deny other people's fundamental rights."

Groups that meet the new definition of "extremist" will only be able to appeal against their inclusion by launching a judicial review in the High Court.

However, because the guidance is non-statutory, it will not give police or other law enforcement powers and would only affect decisions around government engagement and funding.

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'Don't use extremism as a battering ram'

Lord Mann, who advises the government on tackling antisemitism, said the announcement was a "helpful tweak" to the extremism definition, but he wanted to see a change in the law, enabling the police to arrest people who promote terrorism.

"My advice is the key priority is bringing communities together with precise bits of law that actually allow us to take out the real extremists," he told Sky News.

Lord Mann also warned against the "politicisation" of the issue, adding: "My call is on politicians of all parties to work together.

"The Jewish community, and I think other communities, don't want to see politicians battling in a general election year, using them as part of the battering ram.

"What communities who are impacted - the Muslim community, the Jewish community, other communities - what they want to see [is] Labour, Conservative, the other parties, working together to ensure that they are able just to get on with their lives without any hassle."

He added: "All the Jewish community is asking for, and I'm sure it's what the Muslim community is asking for, is to let us get on with our lives and politicians, leaders, to work together.

"That should be the tone. That should be the consensus in parliament today.

"If it is, that's a good thing. And if they want to fight it out, it's the communities that lose."

'Tinkering is not enough'

Thursday's announcement comes against a background of rising antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents since the 7 October attacks, in which Hamas killed around 1,200 people and seized more than 230 hostages.

Since then, health authorities in Hamas-run Gaza say more than 31,000 Palestinians have been killed.

Angela Rayner, Labour's deputy leader and shadow communities secretary, said: "This is a serious problem that needs serious action and tinkering with a new definition is not enough.

"The government's counter-extremism strategy is now nine years out of date, and they've repeatedly failed to define Islamophobia.

"Any suggestion that the government has been engaging with groups that they've now decided are extremists raises serious questions over why it has taken so long to act."