The horror and death which were brought to the streets of Paris last month were a dark reminder of the serious threat we face from terrorist groups around the world who wish to attack our way of life. The Government is rightly seeking to address this.
In addition to an international strategy against terrorism, we must also stop dangerous ideologies from claiming converts within our own country. We need people of all faiths and none to stand up against the poisonous ideologies that fuel such terror, and show to the vulnerable young people who these radical groups often seek to recruit that there is nothing but death and lies in these beliefs.
Unfortunately, and not for the only time, Government proposals to counter extremist ideology in the UK could actually threaten the very way of life it is seeking to protect.
What do I mean by this? In its attempt to prevent certain extreme and marginal views, in a consultation published recently, the Government is proposing Ofsted-style regulations and inspections of any groups and initiatives for young people which involve teaching or training for 6 hours or more in any week, including annual or one-off events. That means your child's church youth group or summer camp could be inspected by officials; that local community work to teach English to children in ethnic minority communities could be inspected by officials; it may even mean that your local Mums and Tots group could be inspected by officials.
When the Government's definition of extremism is so broad that you have officials sitting in to ensure Mums and Tots aren't being radicalised by singing Bible songs, it's probably time to go back to the drawing board!
Sound ridiculous? It does, but the potential situation is in fact no joke for many initiatives run by churches, charities, and communities across the country. The Government's plans could well include officials checking that all faiths and beliefs are respected (I respect Scientologists as people, but do I respect Scientology?). What will happen to the beach mission claiming that Jesus is the only 'way, the truth and the life; no-one comes to the Father except through Him'? What will happen to the teens' group teaching creationism or Christian sexual ethics? And what about the Christian volunteer in a local community project, who is asked by an inspector their views on a controversial issue? Or the Street Pastor who prays with a young person on the street?
There could also be professional implications for anyone volunteering for a group which is later questioned by officials. Is it possible that trade unions could advise their members not to volunteer to serve in any initiatives that include teaching and training for young people, out of concern that their professional position could be compromised if such an organisation fails an Ofsted inspection? Or that out of concern for professional position, should inspection occur, could thousands of individuals refrain from volunteering to serve in such a role? No individual can be sure of the action of all those involved in volunteering in a large church organisation, for example, but a banning order could have serious repercussions on a professional's career even if they had no involvement in the cause of the ban. That could prove catastrophic for the voluntary sector – and therefore for communities – across the country.
It is also clear that no group of extremists is likely to register the settings they use to radicalise young people – so it is entirely unclear how this policy would have any positive effects on national security, in that respect! If the Government brings in these new powers, everyone who currently volunteers in teaching and supporting young people for 6 hours or more in any one week, whether in cub scouts, a beach mission, one of the thousands of holiday Bible weeks held each summer across the country, or a local sports initiative, could have this investigated by Ofsted officials to see if their teaching is 'undesirable' or 'undermines' the Government's concern about as-yet undefined 'non-violent extremism' – and there is no indication this would actually help to combat the violent extremism that actually threatens us. Meanwhile, potentially a whole new layer of bureaucracy will develop involving countless additional officials to monitor groups which are not only completely harmless, but which are actually beneficial to local communities and British society. Is this really a sensible use of public resources – and is it really what the Government intends?
The Government should think again. Which is why it is so important that voluntary groups and individuals across the country respond urgently to the official Government Out-of-school Education Settings Consultation on these proposals which, disappointingly, is being held over the Christmas period. The closure date is currently 11th January. The Consultation asks for views on how the Government's proposals would affect out-of-school settings – so responses could include impacts including the administrative burden it places on small youth initiatives or churches, discouraging responsible and experienced people from volunteering, causing unnecessary distress to children involved, or making it harder to teach and advocate Biblical truths. So if you have a moment, and share these concerns, please do let the Government know, while they are listening, here.