The UK home secretary, Priti Patel, has defended anti-terrorist police for putting the Extinction Rebellion environmental protest group on a list of extremist ideologies, saying it was important to look at “a range of security risks”.

While accepting that XR was not a terrorist organisation, Patel told LBC radio that such assessment had to be “based in terms of risk to the public, security risks, security threats”.

Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow home secretary, said Patel’s comments were “indefensible”.

XR has threatened legal action after the Guardian revealed it had been placed on a list of ideologies that should be reported to the authorities running the Prevent anti-radicalisation programme. Police now say that was an error.

Sir Peter Fahy, who was head of Prevent from 2010 to 2015, subsequently told the Guardian that such categorisations risked Prevent losing confidence from communities.

Asked about Fahy’s comments, Patel defended the Prevent programme and the police’s actions.

“I think it’s important to reflect, when it comes to anti-terrorism, Prevent and the work that the government is doing, and has done for a considerable period of time – we are constantly looking at individuals, groups,” she said. “That’s right and that’s proper. But everything has to be based and calibrated upon risk.

“Sir Peter Fahy has made one comment. Quite frankly, I look at a range of security risks.”

Asked if she believed XR was a terrorist organisation, Patel replied: “No, they’re obviously a protest organisation. But everything has to be based in terms of risk to the public, security risks, security threats. That is based on information from the police, and various intelligence that we will receive. That’s the proper thing to do. You develop your policy approach accordingly.”

Boris Johnson’s spokesman said the issue was primarily a police matter. He said: “The home secretary was very clear that it was considered a protest group. These are obviously matter for the police and the police set out on Friday that they were looking at this.”

In a tweet, Abbott said: “Home secretary’s decision to list XR as a terror group is indefensible, and strikes at right to protest. May well be challenged in the courts.”

XR, which has held a series of protests against the climate emergency involving blocking streets, was included in a 12-page guide produced by counter-terrorism police in the south-east titled Safeguarding Young People and Adults from Ideological Extremism, which is marked “official”.

The group featured alongside threats to national security such as neo-Nazi terrorism and a pro-terrorist Islamist group. The guide, intended for police officers, government organisations and teachers, who by law have to report concerns about radicalisation, was dated last November.

It says that issues to look out for include people who speak in “strong or emotive terms about environmental issues like climate change, ecology, species extinction, fracking, airport expansion or pollution”.

In the guide, people are advised to listen and look out for young people who “neglect to attend school” or “participate in planned school walkouts” – an allusion to the school strikes for the climate, a global movement of which the activist Greta Thunberg is a lead proponent. Thousands of UK pupils and millions worldwide walked out of school last year in protest at government inaction on the climate crisis.

When the Guardian first asked police about the document, officials said they would review the guidance to clarify their position on Extinction Rebellion.

Following further questions, counter-terrorism police confirmed it had been circulated to “statutory partners” and had been recalled. They said they now accepted that the protest group was not extremist.


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