The watchdog on terror legislation has urged caution over proposals to ban far-right hate groups before they turn to violence, warning that doing so could glamorise designated organisations.
Jonathan Hall QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, was responding to recommendations by a thinktank, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, to draw up new laws to punish non-violent hate groups.
The thinktank said any fresh legislation would be similar to proscription powers – banning groups concerned with terrorism – but would not be directly linked to violence or terrorism. Rather, it would designate hate groups as organisations that spread intolerance and antipathy towards people of a different race, religion, gender or nationality.
Hall, who took up the role in May, said the proscription model was one with many difficulties, adding “great care [is] needed before taking specialised counter-terrorism tools such as proscription out of their box, and applying them to other areas”.
The impact of an official ban could not be overestimated, the barrister said. “There are not just the immediate and intended consequences of restricting freedom of speech and assembly, but the risk of unintended consequences: for example, individuals suspected of being associated with banned groups having banking or other services withdrawn – the phenomenon of ‘de-risking’.”
Hall said Blair’s own government in 1998 found that the pros and cons of a power to ban non-Northern Ireland terrorist groups were “finely balanced” as there was a real risk of the list quickly becoming out of date. The government might also come under pressure to target organisations that might not be regarded as terrorist.
“History has proven that these fears are justified,” Hall added. “Whilst those difficulties may be capable of being managed with respect to terrorist groups where there is an established set of criteria … these difficulties would be overwhelming if applied to hate speech.”
Offences related to designation as a hate group should be treated as civil, not criminal, the thinktank recommends. The authors also acknowledge that the issue of linking violent and nonviolent extremism is contentious and steps would need to be taken to protect free speech.
The recommendations and conclusions are based on analysis of the overlap between four far-right groups – Britain First, For Britain, the British National party (BNP) and Generation Identity England – and the ideology of the terrorist Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011.
Hall said many such groups would welcome the opportunity to defy such banning orders.
He said: “There is a risk of glamorising designated groups. Given that the TB Institute proposes only civil penalties for contravening a designation, which may be of limited impact where a designated group does not have centrally held funds, groups are likely to welcome designation and the opportunity to defy it.”
The barrister said that it would be very difficult to prove whose words are most causative of harm, given that innocent speech and legitimate ideas may be taken up by violent extremists as justification for their actions.
He praised the report, Narratives of Hate: The Spectrum of Far-Right Worldviews in the UK, for drawing attention to the accountability gap if decisions on whether to permit or ban speech are taken by social media companies based on their terms and conditions.