Ed Miliband’s war on waste

How the Labour leader can make a convincing attack on wasteful public spending.

It feels like the Labour party is doing its best to park its tanks on the TaxPayers' Alliance lawn today. First Ed Balls calls for a tax cut, albeit a temporary one funded from borrowing. Then the Times reports that Ed Miliband is planning on attacking wasteful public spending. Don't worry about it, we won't resist the occupation, everyone is welcome. And like a good host handing around the lemonade, I'd like to offer a little advice on how they might make this agenda effective, and make it fit with their broader aims and objectives.

To make it convincing, they'll need to surprise people. If examples of waste sound too trivial or convenient then no one will be convinced. Or if calls for tax cuts are just another way of plugging the Keynesian line instead of a way to let taxpayers keep more money in their pockets, then the political results will be meagre. The party will need to surprise people a little to get their attention.

That doesn't mean they need to sacrifice their principles though. When £250,000 is spent on a shower for Nicolas Sarkozy at a three day EU summit in Paris - a luxury shower with air conditioning and surround sound - then torn out unused because he decides to wash at his normal place in the Élysée Palace ten minutes away, that is equally offensive whether you think the money should be left in people's pockets or spent on public services.

The best schemes to attack are the ones designed to satisfy some already fat special interest, at the expense of ordinary people. Too many Tories love that kind of thing because it gets a round of applause at the right CBI conferences. Look into some of the spending in the Local Enterprise Partnerships for example, a replacement for the Regional Development Agencies that most participants are only involved in as a vehicle to grab Government grants. Heseltine and his committee are going to hand money down like some Aztec emperor bestowing gold on grateful subjects, while other priorities are bleeding sacrifices. The way to help businesses isn't to take their money and then give it back to a favoured few.

The biggest opportunity which the Labour Party is missing at the moment is the Government's plans for a new high speed rail line. HS2 is hugely expensive, over £1,000 a family in total, so no one could doubt the fiscal significance of such an announcement. It won't deliver anything till 2026, and means foregoing opportunities to improve capacity in the shorter term, so services to places like Milton Keynes get more and more congested in the meantime. Even when it is finished many big towns like Coventry will get a worse service. There are more affordable alternatives that can be delivered more quickly and do more to ease congestion.

This is a scheme which will benefit a fortunate minority of passengers. Nearly half of all long distance rail journeys in Britain are made by people from households in the top income quintile. There is no reason to think HS2 will be much different. The business case has assumed a third of passengers are businessmen earning an average of £70,000. Why are the Government taxing the poor to pay for a rich man's train?

Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle is cleverly keeping her options open on this one. She told the Guardian "we rightly start with a blank sheet of paper - that sheet doesn't have a high-speed train line running through it". The last Government only started to work on the scheme under Andrew Adonis - the most ultra of Blairites. The Green Party are opposing it because of the lacklustre environmental case and the effective subsidy to the rich, their London Mayoral candidate Jenny Jones attacked it at a recent event we held bringing together the scheme's opponents.

There are other areas where the government are splashing taxpayers' cash with abandon. You can support International Development, but still question writing cheques to a Rwandan Government the Metropolitan Police thinks might be sending hit squads to London. You can support action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but wonder if we should really be putting £3 billion into a Green Investment Bank which won't be accountable to Ministers, Parliament or the public. Is more investment banking what the planet needs?

And that's before we get talking about taxes. The hideously complex tax code is as much of a burden on the poor as it is on the rich. Improving it will help create a system where everyone pays their fair share and time and money aren't wasted navigating the loopholes.

Failing that, just point and snigger when the police paint a car to look like a pumpkin on Halloween night, or when Cornwall Council plans to send 12 councillors on fact-finding trips to lap dancing clubs.

Matthew Sinclair is director of the TaxPayers' Alliance.

Matthew is the director of the TaxPayers' Alliance

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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.