The welfare debate and the end of reason

The way in which the entire debate on benefits seems to be taking place entirely outside the realms of logic seems unprecedented, says Alex Andreou.

I am quite frightened. There have always been some unreasonable people in politics. However, the way in which the entire debate on benefits seems to be taking place entirely outside the realms of logic, seems unprecedented. The way in which evidence is openly sneered at, is nothing short of medieval. The End of Reason.

People going to work early in the morning were stopped outside a London tube station and "vox-popped" by Channel 4 News.

"What do you think about the proposed cap on benefits?", they were asked. "If I have to get up and go to work, I don't see why they shouldn't have to", said one person. "I think it's fair," said another. Challenged by the reporter on whether it's fair on someone who has just been made redundant and has been paying tax and NI for years, she added "well, obviously not them".

The debate earlier in the House of Commons displayed equal levels of Daily Mail common sense. A hissing Kris Hopkins MP suggested that unemployment was "a lifestyle choice". Aidan Burley MP - you know, the one that thinks Nazis are an appropriate theme for a party - read out a letter from an unnamed constituent, relating how she had heard from an unnamed friend, that she was claiming five hundred pounds a week in benefits.

Asked about trial schemes today, Chris Grayling - the dude in charge of Justice, no less - said: “The last Government was obsessed with pilots. Sometimes you just have to believe in something and do it.” That's right. None of your namby-pamby, pinko-leftie evidence rubbish. YEAH. We just think of stuff and do it. And, as the last budget proved, then hastily undo it.

And so it goes, the End of Reason.

A national debate, orchestrated from the top down, which cares not a jot for facts or evidence. Facilitated by the poison pumped daily through our television set, which has seeped so deep into our national muscle memory that we are no longer able to distinguish between Jeremy Kyle guests, chosen because they make for good voyeurism, and ordinary decent people. Our reaction as considered as that of a patellar ligament to a doctor's reflex hammer.

So, how do we fight it? Anger may well provide the energy, but it is not the whole answer. Reason, logic, truth are - and have always been - the precision instruments for dissecting hysterical phobias.

The Conservatives will continue to speak the language of fear. It suits them; it is all they know. They released this image yesterday.

Look at that little arrow. You're only getting that now. Look at that BIG ARROW. Someone else is getting that. Look at what all that scrounger waste can win you. Iain, show the contestants what is behind door number 1. Doctors! And behind door number 2? Teachers! And let's open door number 3. A tax cut of ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY POUNDS!

How exciting. So, what are we getting for sentencing two million innocent children to hunger? Well,  in fact, none of the above. NHS frontline staff numbers are declining, education is being hung, drawn and privatised and the tax burden on the majority of the electorate is higher than when the coalition took over.

But at least my arrow will get bigger, right?

Guess again. Quite contrary to the rhetoric of "making work pay" this measure does absolutely nothing to improve what work pays. As a matter of fact, making the 9 unemployed people chasing every 1 vacancy that much more desperate, is likely to have a deflationary effect on your wages. Your arrow is shrinking.

But at least this will get people back to work - the government keeps saying that. That's true, isn't it?

Wrong again. This bill does not create a single job. Indeed, the IMF recently admitted that cutting of precisely this sort has a disproportionately negative effect on growth. Essentially, by reducing the spending power of people who spend all their income on necessary goods and services (rather than those who squirrel it away in tropical island tax havens), local businesses sell less and the economy contracts.

What's that, Channel-4-News-lady-outside-the-tube-station? You work in a shop? Not for long. Soon, you will get your wish fulfilment. In a way. You won't have to resent those who don't get up to go to work. You will join them; with the added bonus of having the government that made you unemployed call you vermin. It may not be economic growth, but it is an opportunity for personal growth, don't you think?

So, what does it actually do, this bill? The short version: it attempts to plug a hole in the Government's forecasts, which keep getting revised down and down and further down, as if calculated by an over-enthusiastic limbo dancer. Only the savings are small, the hole is massive and their policies (including this one) are making it bigger. So, it's more like throwing a single shrimp into a shark's gaping mouth. Bad news for the shrimp, little effect on your chances of survival.

The added bonus is that nobody seems to be talking about huge multinationals paying no tax in this country, about which everybody seemed to be talking a month ago.

The End of Reason.

Several coalition MPs even suggested a link between rises in tax credits and the financial crisis. "Is there a direct correlation between the time that tax credits started," asked Marcus Jones MP, and "the start of the financial crisis"?

I would love to tell you that Hansard recorded the response: "Which crisis? The global one? The one that started in Iceland in financial institutions, spread to US  financial institutions and eventually reached the financial institutions of the UK? Of course there is no correlation, direct or indirect, you fucking numpty."

Sadly, the response by Alun Cairns MP was: "My Hon. Friend makes an excellent point". Pretty much any point is an excellent point, when you are witnessing the End of Reason.

An estate in Rochdale, named the most deprived area in the UK. Photo: Getty

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.