The loss of a good man

When the perks are so attractive, it's no wonder our public servants are tempted by retirement

A politician's life is nothing if not unpredictable; you plan a day and then the phone rings and some "crisis" or media raucousness has to be dealt with.

So it was the other day when as leader of the Conservative Group on the London Fire Authority I received an urgent phone call from our Commissioner for London (until four years ago the holder of the post was known as the Chief Fire Officer but members of the Fire Authority were not going to allow Livingstone's former transport commissioner Bob Kiley to take precedence) telling me he had accepted the post of Chief Fire Advisor to the government and the minister was going to announce it that afternoon.

Well, Sir Ken Knight is indeed the most professional fire officer of his generation in an occupation desperately lacking any men (and they are all men) who know which knife and fork to use at the Mansion House, but I expressed surprise that he was taking a job of advising a minister (Angela Smith) held in universal contempt in the fire world, not least because the only subject she has taken an interest in is the colour of a suggested new national fire uniform.

Furthermore, the traditional post of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Fire Services (and with it the honour of laying the wreath at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday) had been abolished following the forced retirement of the last incumbent, the bumbling Sir Graham Meldrum, much, rumour has it, to the personal displeasure of Her Majesty herself, who does not like elected politicians interfering with posts appointed by Royal Warrant.

Sir Ken, who led London's response to the 7 July Bombings, is not daft. He is following an increasingly well worn path in the public sector in that he will officially retire from the Fire Brigade, take his six-figure lump sum payoff from the pension scheme, his not insignificant annual pension (all of which he is perfectly entitled to) and a £160,000 salary (plus bonus, apparently).

The pioneers in this field were Ian Johnstone, chief constable of the British Transport Police, and his deputy, Andy Trotter, who take substantial Met pensions and no doubt well earned salaries.

But for men who obviously do not deserve their salaries we need look no further than the designers of the new Olympic logo.

For £400,000 (that is even more than Sir Ian Blair earns as Met Commissioner), we have something that has been universally derided and even had Ken Livingstone spitting feathers with his office apparently in despair with Seb Coe for allowing another Olympics PR disaster and the opportunity for the likes of me to pop up on endless news outlets and have an "easy hit" (Memo to self: remember to decline the rude and cantankerous Nicky Campbell on Radio Five Live and stick to those nice presenters on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire who are just grateful for any notable guest).

Oh well, perhaps we should ask the Olympic logo designers to organise the new Fire Brigade national uniform!

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
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.