Michael Gove to name organisations affected by new extremism definition

<span>Gove is expected to announce that the expanded definition will focus more on ideology than purely on words or actions and that government bodies will not engage with or fund any such group.</span><span>Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA</span>
Gove is expected to announce that the expanded definition will focus more on ideology than purely on words or actions and that government bodies will not engage with or fund any such group.Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

Michael Gove wants to use parliamentary privilege to name groups that he says fall foul of his new definition of extremism, despite pushback from government lawyers who have warned about the legal implications of doing so.

The communities secretary is understood to be keen to name individual groups when he presents his new counter-extremism strategy on Thursday, which he says will target organisations that undermine British democracy.

But he is unlikely to call out relatively mainstream groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain or the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and focus instead on smaller organisations such as Cage, which, after Hamas’s 7 October attack on Israel, said Palestinians had the “right to resist”.

Ministers are scrambling to finalise the proposals amid criticism from high-profile anti-extremist experts, including three former Conservative home secretaries. People involved in the process said ministers had repeatedly sought advice from different internal lawyers after being advised some proposals would leave ministers open to legal challenge.

Downing Street said on Monday: “This is in response to the fact that in recent months we’ve seen an unacceptable rise in extremist activity, which is seeking to divide our society and hijack our democratic institutions. It’s obviously a duty of government to ensure it has the tools it needs to tackle this ever-evolving threat.”

Gove will on Thursday say the government is changing its official definition of extremism to catch groups that subvert British democracy and to focus more on ideology than purely on words or actions.

Under the current guidelines, individuals or groups are only defined as extremist if they show “vocal or active opposition to British fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”.

Gove will also tell government bodies, including agencies, not to engage with or fund any group defined as extremist under the new rules.

Rishi Sunak gave a speech earlier this month outside Downing Street in which he said there were “forces here at home who are trying to tear us apart”.

Downing Street sees Gove’s announcement on Thursday as the next stage in fleshing out the government’s thinking on extremism amid the war in Gaza.

It will be followed in the coming weeks by a government-commissioned report by Sara Khan into the resilience of British democracy and another by the former Labour MP John Woodcock into political violence. Ministers will then publish an action plan – which may even come in the form of a green paper – later this year to spell out what further action they intend to take after those reports.

Number 10 said on Monday: “The new definition and the accompanying engagement principles will be the first in a series of new measures to counter extremism. This new more precise definition will ensure and will be used by government departments and officials to ensure that they are not inadvertently providing a platform funding or legitimacy to groups or individuals who attempt to advance extremist ideology.”

Extremism experts, former ministers and civil society groups have pushed back against the proposals.

On Monday evening, three non-governmental organisations – Liberty, Friends of the Earth and Amnesty International UK – became the latest to warn against making the definition of extremism too broad.

In a joint statement seen by the Guardian, the three groups said: “Any suggestion that the government or political parties should ban all meetings or engagement with legal civil society organisations or sections of the electorate, is profoundly anti-democratic and sets a dangerous precedent.”

Their statement comes after 12 anti-extremism experts, including three former Conservative home secretaries, signed up to a statement warning about the risks of politicising such a sensitive area of government policy. Tom Tugendhat, the security minister, said on Monday he agreed with the statement and said the government was not seeking to use the issue for party political reasons.

Other senior Conservative MPs have said the policy could imperil free speech, however, including Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger, the co-chairs of the rightwing parliamentary group the New Conservatives. Cates wrote at the weekend: “Attempting to define such nebulous terms as ‘extremism’ and ‘British values’ will have a further chilling effect on those with lawful, conservative views.”