Incels, blasphemy, Jihad: 41 changes urged to tackle UK's 'extremism problem'

Credit: PA

A range of measures have been proposed to crackdown on what has been described as the UK's "growing problem with extreme protest movements that use political violence, intimidation, incitement, law breaking, and disruption".

Lord Walney set out 41 recommendations for the government in a 292-page report, which include making organisers pay towards policing and a review of undercover surveillance of activist groups.

Other measures include a blanket ban on face coverings at protests and allowing those impacted by disruptive demonstrations to claim compensation from organisers.

The peer also had recommendations for how police should deal with incels, blasphemy, and chants of jihad.

Asked about the report, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “Extremism has no place in our society. Threatening or intimidating behaviour that disrupts the lives of ordinary hardworking people isn’t acceptable.”

What else is included in the 41 recommendations?

  • A review of whether undercover surveillance is being used appropriately in the context of public order and aggravated activism.

  • The government should develop a mechanism to review charging decisions by prosecutors to make sure protest laws are being followed properly.

  • The law should be changed to allow the police to consider the cumulative effect of protests on antisemitic hate crime levels.

  • The intimidation of candidates and campaigners should be specifically criminalised before the next election.

  • The Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice should review whether juries and judges are more lenient on protesters who support “progressive” causes such as climate change and anti-racism.

  • The government should boost physical protection for private defence companies against protesters.

  • The intelligence services and relevant government departments should be given more resources to identify disinformation online and work with technology companies to have it removed.

Home Secretary James Cleverly said he would carefully consider Lord Walney’s recommendations.

He said: “The right to protest is a vital part of democracy, but there is absolutely no place for criminality or harassment on our streets. Too often, we have seen vile displays of hate crime and aggressive tactics used by so-called protesters.

“Lord Walney’s report raises important questions on the cumulative impact of disruptive and extremist activity on our communities. I thank Lord Walney and his team for this extensive and compelling report.”

Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion criticise author's links to fossil fuel companies

Lord Walney stopped short of calling for protest groups which regularly carry out illegal activities, such as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion, to be banned.

But he said the ability of some groups to organise and fundraise should be restricted if they have a policy of using criminal offences that would lead to a prison term.

But two of the most disruptive groups have already suggested the recommended policies would not deter them.

Both Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion criticised the report's author, claiming he has vested interests because he is linked to fossil fuel companies.

An XR spokesman said: “We are a movement committed to non-violence.

“We train everyone acting in the name of Extinction Rebellion in non-violence.

“We have stewards to manage crowds responsibly. We have a policy for how to clear an area for emergency services.

“If the government can come for a group that works this hard at peaceful protest, they can come for anyone.”

A Just Stop Oil spokesperson said the group "does not recognise the legitimacy of this report" because of Lord Walney's ties to fossil fuel companies.

Lord Walney came under fire before the publication of the report because his interests, as declared on the House of Lords register, include jobs for companies that also act for energy firms.

He told the Guardian he had maintained an objective standard and sought a wide range of views while writing the report.

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Incels, blasphemy and Jihad

Lord Walney had a number of recommendations following specific incidents in the UK which have raised serious concerns.

He said serious violence related to the incel movement should not be categorised as terrorism because incels who choose violence "rarely do so to bring about social or political change".

The term incel, short for involuntarily celibate, is used to describe men who feel angry and resentful because they believe women do not find them attractive.

The UK's most famous case is that of killer Jake Davison, who shot dead five people in Plymouth before turning the gun on himself in 2021.

Lord Walney also had a recommendation around blasphemy, after a teacher was forced into hiding after he showed a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed to his class.

The religious studies teacher received death threats and was forced to move house, after protests outside Batley Grammar School in 2021.

He said the government should issue guidance on managing blasphemy-related incidents in schools.

This should include commitments to upholding teachers’ freedom of expression and not automatically suspending teachers involved in such incidents or revealing their identity.

He said the guidance should set out that schools are not required to engage with local community groups or religious institutions in managing blasphemy-related incidents or other tensions.

There was also a recommendation around chants at protests, after the Metropolitan Police decided a video of a man chanting "Jihad" at a pro-Palestine protest last year did not show any offence being committed.

The incident sparked outrage and led the home secretary to demand a meeting with the Metropolitan Police chief, who said the law should be tightened.

Lord Walney said police should publish and "regularly update guidance for the public regarding statements, chants, or symbols that, in the context of a political protest, may constitute an offence".

"This should include guidance on protestors’ chants that may disturb public order or encourage terrorism, such as those calling for jihad," he added.

How did we get here?

Protests in the UK have become more tribal and divisive in the past decade, perhaps starting with the Brexit debate and running through to the current pro-Palestine marches - which have been labelled "hate marches" by senior politicians.

But it was the roadblock protests carried out by environmental groups, such as Extinction Rebellion and its offshoot Just Stop Oil, beginning in 2018, which eventually led to the government wanting a crackdown.

Tens of thousands of people have been impacted by the disruptive protests, despite tens of millions being spent on policing them.

Lord Walney, who was previously Labour MP John Woodcock, was commissioned five years ago to write a report examining disruptive tactics, such as blocking roads and entrances to buildings.

In the meantime, the government introduced its own mitigations, such as lowering the bar for allowing police to intervene in disruptive protests.

Government measures lowered the threshold for what is considered “serious disruption” to community life, from “significant” and “prolonged” to “more than minor”, allowing officers to make arrests much sooner.

They also allowed police officers to take into account “any relevant cumulative disruption” of repeated protests.

But on Tuesday the High Court ruled the definition change unlawful.

Lord Justice Green and Mr Justice Kerr said: “As a matter of ordinary and natural language ‘more than minor’ is not within the scope of the word ‘serious’.”

Number 10 said it was "disappointed" by the ruling and would explore all options for allowing police to retain those powers, including lodging an appeal.

Will protest groups be forced to pay compensation to those they impact?

With disruptive protests such as roadblocks impacting so many people, businesses and institutions, Lord Walney has recommended a policy which would force them to pay compensation.

The scheme could be modelled on the small claims court system or along the lines of the financial services ombudsman.

Any individual, business or institution which could prove they endured loss, distress or suffering from an illegal protest would be entitled to compensation.

Just Stop Oil said it will not stop disruptive protests, nor be intimidated by the proposed policies.

It also went on the attack, accusing the government of itself breaking the law.

"In truth it's the government who are dangerous lawbreakers - their climate strategy has just been declared unlawful for the second time," a spokesperson said.

Earlier this month, a High Court judge ruled the government acted unlawfully by approving a plan to cut carbon emissions, which it said relied too heavily on future technologies.

Extinction Rebellion, an affiliated environmental protest group, accepted the policy would have an impact, but suggested it would not be deterred.

It said people protest because "they have tried all other avenues and have come to the end of the road to have their voices heard".

A spokesperson added: "Promoting punishments and costs will inevitably discourage all forms of protest, and will help shield both the government and private companies from visible criticism of their policies.

"No one should be silenced in a free society from expressing outrage at businesses and institutions who are directly responsible for the breakdown of our climate.

"If anyone should be paying anything, it should be the polluters, the companies profiting, and countries paying reparations to those already impacted by climate and ecological breakdown."

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