The government does not consider Extinction Rebellion to be an extremist organisation, the security minister has said, after counter-terrorism documents featuring the climate emergency activists were revealed in the Guardian.
Brandon Lewis was forced to clarify the government’s stance on Extinction Rebellion and a wide range of non-violent protest groups in response to an urgent question tabled in the House of Commons.
The Guardian revealed that counter-terrorism police included Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace and other non-violent groups in a range of documents used by teachers, medical staff and council workers as a resource for Prevent, the government’s controversial anti-radicalisation programme.
Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, who was granted the urgent question, said the move was a “very serious error of judgment”, while the Conservative MP and former secretary of state, David Davis, accused the agencies of acting like “thought police”.
Lewis said: “Counter-terrorism policing in this country is operationally independent. This is an important principle. The operational independence of our police from government is integral to our democracy.
“The Home Office does, however, carry oversight of the police on behalf of the home secretary. We are clear that the right to peaceful protest is a cornerstone of our just society and an indispensable channel of political and social expression.
“Counter-terrorism policing South-East have for example stated categorically that they do not classify Extinction Rebellion as an extremist organisation and the inclusion of Extinction Rebellion in their guidance to frontline officers was an error of judgment. The police have recalled the guidance and are reviewing it.
“I want to reiterate that Extinction Rebellion is in no way considered an extremist group under the 2015 definition of extremism and the home secretary has been clear on this point.”
The government’s counter-extremism strategy, published in 2015, defined extremism as the “vocal or active opposition to our shared values. These include democracy and the rule of law, mutual respect and tolerance of other faiths and beliefs. We also consider calling for the death of our armed forces either in the UK or overseas to be extremism.”
Davis, a former shadow home secretary who opposed Labour proposals to detain terror suspects for 42 days without charge,
said: “There’s no doubt this is a difficult area. But it always used to be the case that the Home Office saw as its job both the protection of life and the protection of our way of life and unfortunately in the almost impossible task of preventing every act of violence and every act of terrorism it has sometimes slipped into somewhat of a thought police mode.
“Can he [Lewis] remind the agencies, all of them, that we all subscribe to a French saying, ‘I may detest what you believe but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it’.”
The Guardian revealed this month that Extinction Rebellion had been placed on a list of extremist ideologies issued to public sector workers, including teachers, to help them spot warning signs that individuals are at risk of being drawn into terrorism.
The climate emergency campaign group was placed alongside banned terrorist groups such as National Action, a neo-Nazi group, and Islamist jihadists al-Muhajiroun in the guide produced by the south-east division of the counter-terrorism policing network.
Another document drawn up by Counter-Terrorism Policing HQ, a guide to symbols and signs, featured non-violent groups such as Greenpeace, Peta and Stop the Badger Cull, and was distributed across England to teachers, NHS trusts and councils.
Both documents encouraged anyone with concerns identified by the content to consider a referral to Prevent or report suspicious activity through the Action Counters Terrorism anonymous online form.
Further evidence of a counter-terrorism interest in Extinction Rebellion emerged in a report seen by the Guardian, in which City of London police labelled the group one of its “key threats” in an assessment of its counter-terrorism operations.
Police chiefs have emphasised they do not believe Extinction Rebellion and other non-violent groups named in the documents are extremists or of counter-terrorism interest.
Abbott said: “He (Lewis) is telling the house now it was an error of judgment but on this side of the house we would argue it was a very serious error of judgment.”
She added: “In a democracy there is a fundamental right to disagreement and non-violent campaigning and interfering or denying that right even in terms of an error of judgment is a fundamental breach of the democratic contract between the government and the governed.”