Parliament must define what constitutes domestic extremism

“The police making political judgements is not new and it will continue until Parliament sets clear limits and definitions.” After it was revealed that Extinction Rebellion had been placed on a police extremism list, Green Peer Jenny Jones calls for a clear definition of domestic extremism to prevent the suppression of legitimate protest.

Police officers controlling a group of Extinction Rebellion protestors
Police officers controlling a group of Extinction Rebellion protestors

Image: Extinction Rebellion / Arkadiusz Kasperczyk

Jenny Jones

Someone once said to me that, in their mind, a domestic extremist is someone who cleans behind the cooker. The police have a different definition that can include just about anyone, while the Home Office prefers the David Cameron approach of anyone defying the liberal British values of tolerance and democracy. Any of these definitions is equally arbitrary, as Parliament has never taken a vote on the issue. In fact, Parliament has debated the need for a clear definition and the government has agreed that it would be a good idea, but nothing solid has ever emerged.

As a result of Parliament avoiding a proper debate about who is and is not a ‘domestic extremist’, the police have made their own political judgements. This leaves the police with the choice of either sticking to the investigation of actual crimes, or making political choices about who to monitor and spy upon in the belief that those people may commit some sort of crime at a future date. 

Of course the police are there to investigate crime, or have some evidence that a crime is about to be committed. Except we also want them to deal with acts of terrorism ahead of anyone being killed or injured. That is why we have given the security services the resources and powers of surveillance that would rival any big brother state in the world. Some of us might want to attach a few more safeguards as part of this legislation, but most of the population are content that something needs to be done to keep them safe.

The problems arise when the police depart from the investigation of actual crimes or terrorism and use their considerable powers to deal with what they see as public order infringements and call it 'domestic extremism'. This immediately involves the police making choices about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour, or acceptable beliefs. 

The Prevent guidance, listing Extinction Rebellion alongside right wing fascists, is an example of this, but a similar thing happened to the Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA) last year. The HSA symbol was found alongside Islamic State in a Prevent training document, despite all the work they do in partnership with the police to stop illegal hunts from taking place.

Controversies over public order policing extend from the cancellation of Remembrance Day parades to the farcical Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, which Mark Thomas so brilliantly exposed. The monitoring and heavy-handed policing of anti-fracking campaigners is a modern extension of a well-established pattern of British policing that includes the miners' strike and the anti-road building protests of Reclaim the Streets and Road Bloc. A section of the police has been focused on such protests since 1968 when the Special Demonstration Squad was set up by the Home Office. These SpyCops are now subject to their own public Inquiry, covering several decades of misbehaviour and breaking laws, including the abuse of innocent women.

Extinction Rebellion have proven themselves to be a successful part of the democratic protest. Their non-violent protests have led to Parliament calling a climate emergency and ensuring that it was a key issue during the General Election. The police response was an outright ban on their protests in London. I was amongst several Greens who beat the Met Police in court and got that ban lifted, but I have little hope that senior officers will have learned from this mistake.

The increasingly political role of the police is not doing them any favours. They are alienating people. They were seen as protecting the frackers, rather than the local community, as the government attempted to bypass local democracy and impose the industry on rural areas. In London, they have failed to strike a balance between the need for Londoners to get to work and facilitating an essential protest on behalf of the planet. It is a tricky balance, I admit, but if the police can’t arrest the politicians and corporate leaders who are destroying our environment, they can at least cut us some slack when we protest about it.

The police making political judgements is not new and it will continue until Parliament sets clear limits and definitions. My own personal experience as someone who was on the Met Police's domestic extremism database during a decade when I sat on the Metropolitan Police Authority, overseeing the police budget and such, shows that anyone can be labelled that way. I did pester the police into changing their definition of domestic extremism to restrict it to ‘serious crime’. 

However, I then found out that the police retain their right to label whoever they want as an extremist, regardless of the definition, as it is merely guidance rather than law. That is why we need Parliament to agree the wording.

Jenny Jones is a Green peer sitting in the House of Lords as Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb.