The UK government is set to overhaul its counter-extremism strategy and introduce a new programme against hateful behaviour, according to Whitehall officials.
The Home Office said it kept its counter-extremism strategy under “constant review”, but Whitehall officials expressed concerns that the shake-up could jeopardise important work in communities to tackle hardline Islamist and far-right ideology.
One government insider said the Home Office’s counter-extremism unit was set to be scrapped as part of the changes.
This person added that staff in the unit have been asked to draw up proposals to fold it into a new programme focused on hateful behaviour, or absorb it into the department’s counterterror team.
“Counter-extremism is on its way out,” said the government insider. “As far as we are aware it’s going to be transformed into hateful behaviours, or integrated into counter-terrorism work.”
Another person familiar with the shake-up said: “This is a serious overhaul of the counter-extremism strategy . . . The idea is to focus less on extremism by itself, and more on the nexus between extremist ideology and hate speech.”
The Home Office counter-extremism unit is separate to Prevent, the department’s programme that focuses on individuals who have shown a tendency towards violence that could culminate in terrorism.
The government’s counter-extremism strategy was launched in 2015 by then prime minister David Cameron, partly in response to how hardline Islamic activists had sought control of several Birmingham schools.
The strategy aimed to prevent extremists infiltrating public institutions and charities, in part by funding civil society groups to work in communities to help individuals at risk of being drawn towards radical ideology.
A government document about the strategy published in 2015 said ministers would tackle all forms of extremism: violent and non-violent, Islamist and neo-Nazi.
While it said the greatest challenge was the global rise of Islamist extremism, the document also cited hate crimes and harmful and illegal cultural practices, including female genital mutilation and forced marriage.
The expected overhaul of the government’s strategy means flagship Home Office projects such as Building a Stronger Britain Together, which funds community groups to work against extremism, face an uncertain future.
Groups were not offered funding as normal this year due to budget constraints caused by the coronavirus
pandemic, according to a government official.
Nasra Ayub, a trustee and outreach worker at charity Integrate, which receives funding from the Building a Stronger Britain Together programme, said grassroots organisations had not been consulted about the looming shake-up.
She suggested that a programme focused on hateful behaviour would not tackle the full range of issues raised by extremism in Britain today, including female genital mutilation.
Ms Ayub said problems with the defining of counter-extremism, particularly among communities of colour targeted by the government’s strategy, meant a review was welcome but that people most affected must be consulted.
A Home Office official said discussions about the future of the counter-extremism unit were at an early stage and no decisions had been made.
The Home Office said it was committed to “confronting extremism in all its forms”.
“We remain focused on disrupting the activities of the most dangerous extremists, supporting those who stand up to extremism, and protecting vulnerable people from being drawn into terrorism,” it added.
“We keep our counter-extremism strategy under constant review to ensure it is best placed to tackle the evolving threat.”