Heather Bellamy spoke with Simon Calvert, the Deputy Director for Public Affairs at the Christian Institute, about the concerns surrounding the proposals.
A Counter Terrorism and Security Bill currently going through Parliament includes provision for Extremism Disruption Orders, designed to try to curtail those who would radicalise young people. However these plans are causing a lot of concern among Christians about how even declaring Jesus as the only way to salvation could fall foul of their plans and when the Government tried to bring them through earlier this year they were largely opposed by the Liberal Democrats on the grounds of free speech. So to find out more Heather Bellamy spoke with Simon Calvert, the Deputy Director for Public Affairs at the Christian Institute.
Heather: So could you start by letting us know, what exactly is an Extremism Disruption Order?
Simon: We haven't seen the legislation yet, but what we understand from briefing, coming out of Government is that it will be tied to the Equality Act and the various protective grounds of the Equality Act like sexual orientation. It will target people who they say will promote or justify hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation and so forth.
The Government has said that it is aimed at people that do things that don't currently break the law. In fact the Prime Minister used the slightly chilling phrase to that effect, that up to now we've said to people in our society, 'as long as you don't break the law you'll be okay' - the clear implication being they want to be able to get people who don't break the law. It's a slightly worrying, very vague, very broad provision that they seem to be talking about.
The kind of example people have been coming up with and I'm not talking about Christian people here, are examples like the former head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, who said, it's not difficult to see how a harmless evangelical street preacher could be targeted under an Extremism Disruption Order. Another example that's been used several times by commentators and politicians is, what about people who say they believe that marriage can only be between a man and a woman? And we all know that when we as Christians express these views, there are some people who call us haters and accuse us of spreading hatred. We know that when we talk about your orthodox basic Christian beliefs about these things, there are some people who call us extremists. So that's the culture into which these Extremism Disruption Orders will be injected. So if they are very vague and broad, and it sounds like that's what the Government want, then there's a real risk that campaigners and activists, people with agendas, will try and use them to silence Christians who are saying things that are not hateful, they're just orthodox Christian belief.
Heather: I read that Nicky Morgan, speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, when she was speaking about all of this, she was asked the question by the presenter, what about a child in school who said homosexuality was wrong? She said that such comments, whether they say it's evil, hating it or just simply wrong, she said that such comments could trigger concern among teachers and lead to the incident being discussed with senior school staff, social workers or the police. What are your thoughts on that?
Simon: It's very serious isn't it? This is being said again by people who are not Christians. There was a very strong discussion about this on Radio 4 last week on the World at One. The idea that because a Christian child is brought up to believe that God's word says that the only proper context for sexual activity is marriage and therefore all sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong, including homosexual activity, the idea that believing that and explaining that belief to a friend who asks somehow puts you on the conveyer belt to terrorism is an utter outrage. It's a complete outrage. But this is what some of our politicians seem to believe and we need to be able to say, if you can't tell the difference between somebody who believes the Bible, which has been a cornerstone of British culture and political life for centuries, if you can't tell the difference between someone who believes the Bible and somebody who blows themselves up in a marketplace in the Middle East then you're not really safe to be making these laws. We have to try and get politicians to understand what the real problem is, which is terrorism, and not confuse it, or inflate it, with simply having a mainstream Christian conviction, or socially conservative moral views.
Heather: You touched on terrorism there and the whole point of these Extremism Disruption Orders, are they not to deal with the radicalisation of young Muslims into terrorism?
Simon: This is of course the powerful emotive argument the Government have, that people do involve themselves with terrorism, including some people who live in the United Kingdom. Obviously we want to see something done about that, but my answer to that is use the existing laws. There is a whole panoply of laws that can be used to catch for example an Imam who preaches that you should kill Christians, Jews and Americans. That's the kind of thing we have heard some extremists, to use the word properly, Islamic preachers saying in this country. There are laws to deal with that.
There are laws against inciting violence; there are laws against inciting hatred and there are laws against glorifying terrorism. There are any number of laws that could be used and I wonder if the problem here is not like the problem in so many other areas of life, that we have laws to deal with problems, but unfortunately those people charged with enforcing these laws aren't always doing a good enough job. As a result of that people say something must be done and politicians say, 'I have the solution, we'll bring in another law'. We don't necessarily need another law, what we need is the politicians to supervise the police and the authorities to make sure they're using the existing laws to the maximum effect.
Heather: So with this potential new law, what would be the consequences of falling foul of it?
Simon: The plan as we understand it, is that the police would apply to the court for an Extremism Disruption Order against somebody. If the court grants an Extremism Disruption Order, then the person is breaking the law if they breach that Order and there are penalties that follow from that. I think from memory, based on briefing we've seen, that they include prison sentences up to several years. So that would be the chain of events, the police would have to approach the court for an Extremism Disruption Order, the court would have to grant one and then the person would have to breach that Order and beyond that there would be criminal penalties for breaching that Order.
Heather: So in terms of granting that Order, is there no jury, or appeal system? Is it just granted and then you're not allowed to speak in public, or do various things?
Simon: You're right. The terms of an Order can be that you're not allowed to speak in public, not allowed to use social media and not allowed to meet in certain places. So if one were granted by a court against, say, a Christian preacher for preaching orthodox Christian truths, then it could be a term of this Order that he doesn't preach the Gospel, which would be profoundly serious.
As for appeals mechanisms and so on, again we've got to see the detail of the law to see what would be involved there. You can be sure that there will be some kind of appeals mechanism, but that we should even be in this territory talking about these things in the first place shows you how far things have gone.
And I have to say, I keep stressing this point, that it isn't just Christians who are expressing concerns about these Extremism Disruption Orders. The National Secular Society has spoken out about them and I've certainly had conversations with people involved in civil liberties groups and organisations who are very concerned, because the problem with having the law against extremism is, what's extremism? I mean politically, does it mean somebody who is either to the right of me politically, or the left of me politically? It's a very subjective idea.
I've already said there's a very strong argument that you don't need new laws, you just need to enforce existing laws properly, but if the Government was to come forward, for example, with a proposal that people advocating the violent overthrow of democracy could be subject to one of these Disruption Orders, if that was the definition of extremism, well nobody would be too worried about that would they? But the problem is that what the Government seems to want is a very wide, vague sort of power that the authorities can use as they see fit.
We've seen this before, in 2014 the Government tried to outlaw being annoying in a public place and that is a law that would have been every bit as daft as it sounds, because what is annoying? You know, one man's annoying is another man's busking, another man's street preaching. The Government was actually trying to put this law through and thankfully the House of Lords gutted that law and so they didn't get their way, but again what you had there was quite a similar mechanism to Extremism Disruption Orders, the idea that the police would apply for an order and somebody who breached one of these Annoyance Orders could then be subject to various penalties.
The Government keeps returning to this theme of saying, give us a wide power and trust us, we'll only use it against the bad guys. Well that's not the way we do civil liberties in this country.
Heather: Obviously one of the British values that the Government are pushing at the minute is democracy, but do you think we're becoming more authoritarian as a nation with these powers that the Government are looking to have?
Simon: I can only say that I think a lot of people from a lot of different perspectives, religious and non-religious, liberal or conservative think that these particular powers are going too far. I think that there is a problem with a lack of focus; an unwillingness to say what the problem really is and then to address that specific problem.
One of the things that Jonathan Edwards, former head of MI5 said, when he wrote in the Telegraph last week, was that people might be willing to target the harmless evangelical street preacher in order to show that they're not just opposed to one religion. This is a quite chilling aspect to what's going on here, that sometimes people want to demonstrate that they're not anti-Muslim by bringing in policies that cause difficulties for all kinds of other people, in order to, as it were, give them cover for then taking action against extremist Islamic groups where the real problems are. That's not fair and that's not justice.
Heather: Do you think these orders could actually foster more suspicion and hostility between different races and different religions?
Simon: I think there is scope for people to use them mischievously against other groups of people that they don't like, or don't agree with. It's not difficult to imagine that somebody could stir up some kind of Twitter storm about somebody saying something that they think is politically incorrect. Then they complain to the police, 'Why aren't you doing something to stop this person saying these terrible, awful things?' And then the police agree and turn up in court with a lever arch file with a thousand Twitter postings saying this person is stirring up hatred. So what's a court going to do? I think it's entirely possible that it could be divisive between different communities and different groups of people, with different opinions and we don't want that. We need the authorities to be targeting the real problem, which is terrorists and the people who support them. Let's target them, let's not bring in a law that catches lots of innocents in the crossfire.
Heather: Are the Government rushing these measures through, or are they dialoguing with different sections of society to get adequate safeguards?
Simon: I'm not aware of much dialoguing going on at the moment, but as the level of public concern and controversy increases, then we can hope that the Government will be willing to talk to different groups and to try and come forward with some proposals that actually target the real problem and don't have all these unintended side effects.
Heather: And are you aware of the timescale of these Orders going through Parliament and becoming law?
Simon: We're waiting to see the Extremism Bill and that will take several months to go through Parliament and obviously we've got the summer holiday, so it's going to be running on until the end of the year at least, whilst all these things are debated in Parliament.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
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