The new dawn of control orders-lite

The cynics were right. Control orders were repackaged and rebranded and it worked: the Lib Dems cave

Those of us of a cynical bent were, as usual, proved right. Control orders haven't been scrapped or "replaced" -- they have been rebranded, rebadged and repackaged. Officially, they're now called "Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures" but I agree with those who call them "control orders-lite".

Alex Deane of Big Brother Watch, who once worked as chief of staff to a younger David Cameron, has sent me his eloquent and erudite response and it is worth quoting in full:

Certainly, they have been watered down and renamed. But, while any dilution of these oppressive and unjustifiable orders is to be welcomed, their continuation is completely wrong. The orders, now replaced with "Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures", or -- and this just trips off the tongue -- "Tpims", are control orders with a cosmetic makeover. Yvette Cooper is right. What's been announced today is not the much-heralded (and promised) end of control orders -- rather, the government has simply modified control orders -- meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Control orders were introduced when the courts stopped the government of the day imprisoning suspected foreign terrorists who could not be deported. That was the explicit justification for them given to parliament. But, today, all the "controlees" are British. So what's the justification for them now?

The current 16-hour curfews will be replaced by an "overnight residence requirement", typically of between eight and ten hours. And the new powers will be limited to two years and will only be renewed "if there is new evidence that they have re-engaged in terrorism-related activities", which -- depending on what will be considered to be "new evidence" -- is welcome.

But, in many ways, the new orders are worse than [what we have] at present. These powers will no longer need to be reviewed every year -- plainly restrictions against those labelled terrorists without any sight of the evidence against them are now permanent. Furthermore, the "overnight stays", which might sound like a nice school trip but aren't, will be monitored using electronic tags. And the rest of the package of unpleasantness is still at hand if the powers at be want to wield them: curfews and further restrictions on communications, association and movement could all be brought in as part of "exceptional emergency measures", the Home Office said.

The injustice remains. The violation of the presumption of innocence remains. No matter how serious a judge claims things to be or how gravely he shakes his head, no assurance from a judicial source should be regarded as an acceptable substitute for a proper trial process. A judge is no substitute for a jury. It is simply never acceptable for the word of a servant of the state to be enough to lock you up -- no matter how senior or supposedly well-informed he may be. There has to be an external, verifiable, testable validation process that stands between the state accusing you and incarcerating you. In this country, we have established an excellent system of doing that: it's called a trial.

So, nobody will be fooled by this childish slight of hand -- except, perhaps, the Lib Dems, because none are so blind as those who will not see -- they can now pretend that they haven't broken their manifesto commitment.

But, of course, they have. Again. And, this time, they can't blame the deficit or the financial crisis or Greece or whatever else they've blamed in the past. The 2010 Lib Dem manifesto is clear. On page 94, it says:

We believe that the best way to combat terrorism is to prosecute terrorists, not give away hard-won British freedoms. That is why we will:

- Reach out to the communities most at risk of radicalisation to improve
the relationships between them and the police and increase the fl ow
of intelligence.
- Scrap control orders, which can use secret evidence to place people
under house arrest.

As I asked, in a Guardian piece last month: "The question the Liberal Democrats have to ask themselves is this: if they are not for liberty, then what are they for?"

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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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.