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An area of the Queen’s Speech earlier this month that has received particular coverage is the requirement for some employers to identify would-be extremists applying for jobs. If found to be associated with extremism a candidate could be barred from working with children.

Under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (CTSA) 2015, schools, universities and health service providers can no longer opt out of monitoring students and patients for supposed radicalised behaviour. Although not specifically mentioned, charities that work with children unsupervised may also be affected. For the first time in decades, employers will now have a duty to proactively participate in national security.

One of the triggers for this change was undoubtedly the Trojan Horse Affair in which children were exposed to Islamic extremism after a group of Sunni extremists made a coordinated attempt to take over various schools in Birmingham (right up to governor level).

The government’s counter terrorism strategy, CONTEST, contains four prongs.

  • Prevent people from becoming involved in terrorism or supporting it.
  • Protect the nation against attacks.
  • Prepare for attacks.
  • Pursue terrorists before or after they carry out an attack.

It is the Prevent section we are concerned with here. The government already runs a programme for Prevent called CHANNEL, which is designed to help people who are reported as vulnerable to becoming involved in terrorism. It considers their mental state, their home and financial situation, and what can be done to draw them away from potential terrorist involvement.

Under the CTSA, certain employers must actively participate to identify and report terrorism, rather than simply having a duty to report suspected terrorism if they come across it.

But it goes further than that. The government is not just looking at “terrorism” (an act of violence to create fear and cause a change in policy), but also at “extremism” (political/religious viewpoints). Rather than focusing only on violence as a result of extremism, the Home Office is going after extremism in its non-violent forms as well. Anything which is deemed to undermine “British values” of the rule of law, democracy, equality, free speech and respect for minorities will be deemed extremist material and therefore a threat to our nation and a likely driver of terrorism.

This will rake up the ongoing debate on the balance between tolerance and tolerating intolerance, and the continuing widespread opposition to gay marriage from people of many faiths and viewpoints may be a particular area of controversy.

Politics aside though, what do employers actually have to do?

So far that’s unclear, but it is likely to involve either an extra part of a DBS check or a separate database that employers can check for known extremist involvement. It may operate in a similar way to the new driving licence checks which use a candidate’s unique reference number.

Whether candidates will be asked to answer intelligence-style “vetting” questions on application forms along the lines of…

  • “Have you ever been involved in terrorism?”
  • “Have you ever spread of extremist views?”
  • “Have you engaged in espionage for a foreign power?”

…remains to be seen, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if questions like these spread into schools.

Hopefully the government will provide guidance as to which organisations are considered “extremist” and what constitutes “involvement”. That in itself will undoubtedly cause controversy if some people end up on an extremist register for only a tentative or unproven link.

Whilst schools will probably follow the new rules regardless of how difficult they may be (due to such stringent requirements from the DfE), we are likely to see opposition from some universities. Adult centres of academia see their institutions as realms of free thinking where less usual views can be considered and debated, although not necessarily condoned.

It is one more requirement for employers to deal with, and one that might be quite difficult to define. Most people wouldn’t object to the principle of keeping extremism out of schools, but it will require an effective and easy-to-use system from the government. Employers will also need guarantees through legislation that they will not be at risk of litigation if they follow that system correctly.