Harriet Harman

Member of Parliament for Camberwell and Peckham. Mother of the House of Commons.

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Queens Speech Debate: Government need to tread carefully and consult widely on counter-extremism and human rights


Today's debate on the Queen's speech was on 'Europe, Human Rights & Keeping People Safe at Home & Abroad'. Here is my speech from earlier:


"I would like to say a few words about the counter-extremism Bill and human rights. First, however, I pay tribute to the shadow Foreign Secretary for his speech, with which I strongly agreed. It was profound, principled and progressive, and without wanting him to think that I want some sort of promotion—I am so beyond that at this point—I should say I thought it was exceptionally good. He does great credit to our party, to the House and to politics, and I thank him for what he said.

I was glad to hear the speech by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who is a weighty Member of this House and speaks as a former Home Secretary, Justice Secretary, Health Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He is well and truly a “former”, and I agreed with an awful lot of what he said. In fact, I agreed with everything he said about prison reform and Europe. I find that quite traumatic, because when I was first in the House, he was sitting in Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet and was not to be agreed with on everything, or indeed anything. However, today I agreed with what he said. I also now find myself elevated to the status of a “former”, albeit not one as weighty as the right hon. and learned Gentleman. In this House, one thing about “formers” is that we must crack on with our speeches and not make them too long—that was a reference to the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), not to the right hon. and learned Members for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) and for Rushcliffe.

I want to mention two measures in the Queen’s Speech. The first is the counter-extremism Bill. I have the privilege of chairing the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway), who sits on the Committee and has a particular interest in mental health and human rights, is also in the Chamber.

The Government have a duty to protect us—a responsibility that any and every Government take with the utmost seriousness. That is undoubtedly uncontested ground, but when it comes to how to tackle terrorism, specifically the task of countering Daesh-inspired terrorism, ​there is no consensus. The Government’s approach, set out in the counter-extremism strategy, appears to be based on the assumption that there is an escalator that starts with religious conservatism and ends up with support for jihadism, and that religious conservatism therefore is the starting point in the quest to tackle violence. However, it is by no means proven or agreed that extreme religious views, in particular religious conservatism, are in and of themselves an indicator of, or even correlated with, support for jihadism. If there are to be, under the new Bill, banning orders, extremism disruption orders and closure orders, it has to be clear that they are banning disruption and closing something that will lead to violence, not just something of which the Government disapprove.

The second issue is that if the Government are going to clamp down on Islamic religious conservatism in the cause of tackling violence, is that discrimination that can be justified, or will it serve merely to give rise to justified grievance? Everyone seems to agree that the most precious asset in the fight against terrorism is the relationship between the authorities—the police, the schools and the councils—and the Muslim communities of this country. We must guard against any undermining of the relationship between the authorities and the Muslim community, which would thereby make the fight against terrorism even harder. The last thing we must do is anything that fosters the alienation that can lead to radicalisation.

The third issue is the problem of taking conservative religious views in the Muslim community as an indicator of future terrorism if the same beliefs in evangelical Christianity or Orthodox Judaism would not be seen as prompting the need for any action. Are the Government going to discriminate and seek to justify that, or will they be indiscriminate and annoy and concern everybody?

The fourth issue is the question of definition. This was hinted at by the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) in his intervention. Even if there was reliable evidence of the escalator from extreme views to violence, if the law, in the form of banning orders, closure orders and extremist disruption orders, is to be invoked, there needs to be clarity and consensus around the definition. It is far from clear that there is an accepted definition of what constitutes non-violent extremism, or, indeed, extremism. In the counter-extremism strategy, the Government describe extremism as the:

“vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”.

Now, I am not tolerant of the beliefs of those who are homophobic and I do not respect those who regard women as inferior. Which is the extremism: their beliefs or my intolerance of their beliefs? If we denounce our judiciary as biased Islamophobes, is that undermining the rule of law or is that the exercise of free speech? I have done a certain amount of denouncing the judiciary for all sorts of things in the past, but I would not have regarded myself as extremist—I was just pointing out that they were sexist and needed to be replaced by many more women judges.

The fifth issue is whether it is better to suppress views or to subject them to challenge. Many in the higher education sector say that for their students they believe ​it is better to challenge abhorrent views rather than to repress them, but do we allow the same approach for school-age children? Some have argued that it simply should be seen as a question of child safeguarding, but although there is a consensus around the nature of child neglect, physical abuse or sexual abuse, from which children have to be safeguarded, there is no such consensus around the definition of extremism from which children should be safeguarded. We can all understand the definition of safeguarding; it is just a question of what we are safeguarding children from. In relation to extremism, there is no such shared consensus or definition. The difficulty around these issues should lead the Government to tread with great care. They should publish the Bill in draft and allow extensive debate and discussion. We should listen with particular attention to those who would be expected to apply for and enforce these orders, such as the police, educational establishments and councils, and to the Muslim community.

I completely agree with everything that the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield said about the repeal of the Human Rights Act and its replacement with a British Bill of Rights. We have not yet seen the consultation, but, when we do, it will again be important that the Government tread carefully. They should ensure that human rights remain universal, rather than simply retaining the popular and carving out the unpopular. The legal protection of human rights is important for everyone, even those who are justifiably the subject of public hostility.

The Government should not do anything that makes it more difficult for people here to enforce their rights in the UK courts, as the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe said. I had to trek all the way to Strasbourg to get my rights. Had we had the Human Rights Act, I would have been exonerated seven years earlier and at much less expense to the Government. Neither should they do anything that would disrupt the devolution settlement in Scotland or the peace agreement in Northern Ireland, of which the Human Rights Act is part, as was made clear to us on our visit to Scotland and in evidence submitted to our Committee from Northern Ireland.

The Foreign Secretary acknowledged that this country is seen as a champion of human rights around the world, and the Government should be mindful of how what the UK does affects those in other countries who are fighting for their rights but who do not have the democracy and rights we have. Our adherence to the framework of international human rights standards, which includes the European convention, is a beacon to which those campaigning for rights in other countries look and demand in their own countries. That was made clear to us when we visited the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, where people, whether from Poland or Russia, basically told us, “If you leave the European convention, we’re done for.” If our Government were to abandon the convention, it would have a devastating effect on the progress of human rights in other countries.

No Government like any court telling them what to do. Legislators, elected as they are, do not like to be constrained by unelected judges. Parliament does not like to be so restrained. Governments, having got elected and into government, like even less to be constrained. That feeling is multiplied when the judicial ruling comes from—perish the thought!—abroad, but even the best ​intentioned Government need to be subject to the rule of law. Governments can abuse their power, on purpose or by mistake, so oversight by the courts is essential. International standards, presided over by international courts, are important abroad and to us too. If the Government do not agree with a court ruling, they can gnash their teeth or try to get the court to think again in a subsequent case, but their disagreeing with a judgement does not justify their rejecting the jurisdiction of the court concerned.

In conclusion, it is easy to promise to tackle extremism, to whip up hostility to court rulings and to make “human rights” dirty words, but when it comes to legislating on counter-terrorism and amending our human rights framework the Government need to tread carefully, consult widely and work on the basis of consensus. What I have heard in the debate so far gives me confidence that there are Members on both sides of the House, as there are in the House of Lords, who will make sure the Government do exactly that."


You can read the full debate here.

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