Grant Shapps's woes grow as he faces investigation

Tory chairman accused of misleading the public with false name will be investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority.

In his capacity as Conservative chairman, Grant Shapps will welcome the media to his party's conference in Birmingham this weekend, so it's unfortunate that he's increasingly a figure of ridicule. As Ed Miliband caustically observed in his conference speech:

We’ve got a Party Chairman who writes books about how to beat the recession, under a false name. Really, I’m not making this up; I’m really not making this up. I mean I have to say if I was Chairman of the Conservative Party, I’d have a false name too.

That false name was "Michael Green" (and/or "Sebastian Fox") and, following a complaint by blogger The Plashing Vole, Shapps is now under investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The ASA will respond to claims that Shapps's website, HowToCorp (which now exists only as a help page for existing users), misled the public by implying that  "Sebastian Fox" or "Michael Green" were "real people", and that the glowing testimonies they attracted were "genuine".

Green was presented as a successful businessman with a personal fortune of $28 million (£17 million) who could make customers "$20,000 in 20 days" through the software package, TrafficPaymaster (while also providing a Partridge-esque guide on how to "bounce back" from recession), or offer them their money back. An ASA spokesman told the Vole:

We intend to deal with your complaint under our formal investigations procedure, which means that we will ask HowToCorp to comment on the complaint that the ad misleadingly implies Sebastian Fox or Michael Green are real people, and that the testimonies are not genuine, and to send evidence to support the claims. We will then draft a recommendation and refer your complaint to the ASA council for adjudication.

A spokesman for Shapps, who stepped down from the company in 2008, said: "Mr Shapps hasn't been involved with this company for four and a half years. These websites are no longer online and any blogger can make a spurious complaint about any website, which then has to be investigated. This is in the hands of the ASA."

In the absence of Andrew Mitchell, who has elected to stay away from the Tory gathering, it is Shapps who will be the media's prime target. Of the former, David Davis observed that it would be "very, very difficult" for him to do his job. Could the same now be said of Shapps?

Conservative chairman Grant Shapps adopted the alias "Michael Green" for his internet business HowToCorp. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.