Cameron delays his privatisation plan again

Plans to open up all public services to private providers are put on hold.

Tony Blair famously declared: "I can only go one way, I've not got a reverse gear". But as the coalition's first year taught us, David Cameron certainly has. The backlash over the government's NHS reforms means that Cameron's entire public service reform agenda is in doubt. His radical pledge to open up almost all of the public sector - bar national defence and the judiciary - to private and voluntary providers may never be implemented.

I noted earlier this month that the government's white paper on open services, which was due to published in the spring, had been delayed in the face of opposition from the Lib Dems and scepticism from the Treasury. At the time we were assured that the white paper would finally be published in mid-July. But Francis Maude, the minister responsible for the reforms, tells today's Times (£) that the paper now won't appear until the autumn.

It's not hard to see why Cameron has retreated again. The pledge to open up the NHS to "any willing provider" proved toxic for Andrew Lansley's reforms. The pledge to do the same for the entire public sector could inflict yet more damage on the Tory brand. As my colleague Rafael Behr observed in his column recently, "One fear at No 10 is that the public hears the words "Conservative reform" and understands "mass privatisation".

The government's inertia reflects a growing division between George Osborne and Steve Hilton on the pace of reform. Hilton, Cameron's chief strategist, is determined to push ahead with the reforms to prove that the government is in control of the policy agenda ("Everything must have changed by 2015," he once remarked. "Everything"). But Osborne, who is focused on securing a Tory majority in 2015, is more cautious and is desperate to avoid another politically damaging row. In an illuminating piece on the Hilton-Osborne relationship, the Times's Sam Coates notes that senior Tories suggest there is now a "50-50 chance" of an increasingly disillusioned Hilton leaving Downing Street within the next six months.

It's unlikely that the reforms will be abandoned altogether but rather, like Lansley's NHS plans, that they will survive in a diluted form. The Lib Dems, to their credit, are determined to avoid anything that resembles privatisation. The near-collapse of Southern Cross, the company responsible for 750 care homes, was a timely reminder of the limits of the market. But Tory MPs are only likely to see this as further evidence of Cameron's diminished ambition.

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.