PMQs review: a win for Cameron as he ridicules "predistribution"

The Labour leader's big idea is dangerously vulnerable to mockery.

David Cameron, a man not known for his attention to detail, armed himself with several powerful statistics at today's PMQs. Private sector employment, he boasted, had risen by a million since the election, while the deficit had fallen by a quarter. In response, Ed Miliband pointed out that borrowing is already 25 per cent (£9.3bn) higher than at this point last year, with George Osborne set to abandon his golden debt rule.

Cameron, naturally, replied that, if Miliband was so worried about borrowing, why did he want to increase it? Miliband should have replied that while Labour would borrow for growth, the Tories are borrowing due to recession. But, perhaps fearing that PMQs wouldn't allow for an explanation of Keynes's paradox of thrift, he simply declared that borrowing was "rising on his [Cameron's] watch". It was at this point that Cameron turned his attention to "predistribution", the zeitgeisty concept Miliband discussed in his speech last week. It meant he said, borrowing a quip from Danny Alexander, that "you spend the money before you actually get it, and I think you'll find that's why we're in the mess we're in right now." Seated next to Miliband, Ed Balls, who yesterday described "predistribution" as "a good idea looking for a good label", looked visibly unnerved.

As a result, Miliband's next question - "Is he going to be a beneficiary of the 50p tax cut?" - couldn't help sounding rather desperate. Cameron failed to answer it, just as he failed to say whether the government would rip up its debt target, but his replies were sufficiently strong for this to be of little consequence.

The man who invented predistribution, Joseph Hacker, had, Cameron observed, written a book called The Road To Nowhere. But Miliband "didn't need to read it, he's there already." Rather optimistically, the Labour leader again asked the PM whether he would benefit from the abolition of the 50p rate ("a question he will have to answer between now and April"). But, today at least, buoyed by the cheers of Tory MPs, Cameron could happily ignore him.

Prime Minister David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street in central London, on September 5, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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.