Cameron hints that child benefit cut could be eased

"We always said we would look at the steepness of the curve," says PM, as worries over the female vo

Removing child benefit from higher rate taxpayers was a coalition policy which drew criticism from across the board -- and now David Cameron has hinted that it could be watered down.

After the plan to cut child benefit for higher earners was announced in 2010, inconsistencies quickly emerged: stay-at-home mothers would be penalised, as a household in which one parent earns just over the threshold of £42,000 would lose all their child benefits, while another with two earners of £41,000 each would not be affected.

Cameron told the House magazine:

Some people say that's the unfairness of it, that you lose the child benefit if you have a higher rate taxpayer in the family. Two people below the level keep the benefit. So, there's a threshold, a cliff-edge issue. We always said we would look at the steepness of the curve, we always said we would look at the way it's implemented and that remains the case, but again I don't want to impinge on the Chancellor's Budget.

This reflects growing concern about falling support for the Conservatives amongst female voters. (New Statesman blogger Gavin Kelly has written extensively on this). The cut to child benefit is just one on a long list of policies which hit women harder than men: cuts to Sure Start, the abolition of baby bond and the health in maternity grant, and the three-year child benefit freeze. Indeed, a recent study by the House of Commons Library found that of the £2.37 billion to be raised through tax credit cuts and caps on public sector pay, 73 per cent (£1.73 billion) will come from women, and just 27 per cent (£638 million) from men.

It is no surprise, then, that the government is thinking of somehow sweetening the pill (this has been on the cards since September at least). But how much change are we talking? The Welfare Minister Chris Grayling said last night that he had "heard nothing to suggest we are about to change direction massively", while George Osborne has previously said that a more sophisticated way of implementing the cut would be too expensive.

So we are unlikely to see the cut -- due in 2013 -- scrapped all together. It is a big part of the coalition's deficit reduction programme, and could save. £2.5 billion a year. What is more likely is that it will be examined to see if a taper can be applied to the system to ease its implementation. It is speculated that Osborne could make a move as soon as the next Budget. Exactly what that move is -- and whether it successfully halts falling support amongst female voters -- remains to be seen.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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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.