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Prevent chief warns UK government over 'thought police' concerns

Head of widely criticised counter-extremism strategy also questions whether government plans to outlaw extremism are enforceable
David Cameron (L) has faced criticism over his government's counter-extremism strategy from senior police officers including Peter Fahy (R) (AFP)

The police chief responsible for leading the UK's Prevent counter-extremism strategy warned on Tuesday that plans to outlaw so-called extremism risked creating a “thought police” and suggested it was questionable whether the proposed legislation was even operationally enforceable.

The comments by Simon Cole, the chief constable of Leicestershire Police and the national police lead on Prevent, mark another setback for Prime Minister David Cameron, whose government has already struggled for years to introduce legislation aimed at tackling Islamist extremism.

Cole's remarks to the Guardian newspaper also suggested that police chiefs had not yet been consulted about the plans, with Cole saying that the police would offer an “operational view” on the proposed legislation “when asked”.

The government included plans for a new counter-extremism bill including proposals to ban groups and silence individuals deemed to be extremist in last week’s Queen’s Speech in which it set out its legislative plans for the new parliamentary year.

Cameron last year described fighting “Islamist extremism” as the “struggle of our generation”.

Lawyers and human rights campaigners have suggested that efforts to outlaw non-violent extremism, which many Muslims fear could also target political activists or those who hold conservative religious views, could be challenged on discrimination and freedom of speech grounds and point out that the government has so far struggled to come up with a legally robust definition of extremism.

Speaking to the Guardian, Cole echoed those concerns, warning of a potential risk that the police would be required to police people’s thoughts.

“Unless you can define what extremism is very clearly then it’s going to be really challenging to enforce,” said Cole. “We don’t want to be the thought police, we absolutely don’t want to be the thought police.”

Cole said the police needed to be able to safeguard people without being drawn into a “hugely contentious potential role” about what people could or could not say.

“I think we have concerns about how enforceable a piece of legislation would be,” he said. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable that we reflect on how we would do that and I think we as a profession are very focused on threat and risk and harm and how to deal with it.”

Growing criticism of policy

Cole is the latest of several critical voices from within police to express concerns about the direction of government counter-extremism policy.

On Saturday Peter Fahy, Cole’s predecessor as Prevent lead who retired in October, was among signatories of a letter signed by civil society groups and influential individuals including the Muslim Council of Britain, Liberty, and the Jewish Council for Racial Equality warning that the counter-extremism bill would “serve to alienate communities and undermine free speech” and would not contribute to tackling the threat of terrorism.

“We are gravely concerned that the proposed Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill will feed the very commodity that the terrorists thrive on: fear,” the letter said.

Last year Dal Babu, a former chief superintendent with London’s Metropolitan Police, said Prevent had become a “toxic brand” that had generated a “huge level of mistrust” in Muslim communities.

Cole has previously defended Prevent as something that is “making a difference every day to the lives of vulnerable youngsters in towns and cities across the country”.

"Prevent is voicing the concerns of people of good conscience. It is stopping people being criminalised, it is safeguarding the vulnerable. It is making us all safer, in a proportionate, thoughtful fashion,” Cole told the Home Affairs Select Committee last month.

Concerns that Prevent may actually be fuelling discrimination and potential radicalisation have been raised by international human rights watchdogs including the European Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, last week called on the government to reform Prevent after Middle East Eye had revealed that Labour was conducting an internal review of its own counter-extremism policies.

Prevent is also currently the subject of two separate parliamentary select committee inquiries.

The government argues that counter-extremism measures are needed as part of a counter-terrorism strategy focused on tackling the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) group.

The Home Office said that the counter-extremism bill would be introduced to “prevent radicalisation, tackle extremism in all its forms, and promote community integration.

“It is aimed at protecting the public against the most dangerous extremists and ensuring the government and law enforcement have a full range of powers to deal with extremism.”

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