Reshufflitis breaks out in Westminster

The prospect, however slim, of a cabinet vacancy releases a predictable surge of stored up speculati

So the Crown Prosecution has announced it will declare tomorrow morning whether or not Chris Huhne, Energy Secretary, will be charged in relation to allegations - steadfastly denied - that he persuaded his ex-wife to take speeding points on his behalf.

Huhne's statements on this have been unambiguous and robust, so if it turns out the CPS thinks there is a case to pursue he will be in trouble. A prosecution doesn't necessarily mean the man is guilty - he has the right to remain innocent until proven otherwise.

But the noises coming out of Downing Street and Lib Dem high command suggest a sword would quickly be offered for the Energy Secretary to fall upon. He could always use the old line of not wanting the whole business to be a distraction for the government, a position wholly consistent with protestations of innocence.

And indeed the CPS might well say there is insufficient evidence and Huhne can get on with his business (although there is no doubt he has been politically damaged by the accusations either way).

One reason why tomorrow's announcement is anticipated with inordinate excitement in Westminster is the high levels of pent up reshuffle energy. David Cameron has famously avoided swapping ministers between portfolios in the restless way that was Tony Blair's preferred management style. There were some movements and promotions when Liam Fox resigned last year but it was hardly a great re-ordering of the pack. There are good reasons why Cameron hates reshuffles. He wants ministers to actually master their briefs, which takes time. And he heads a coalition, which means a delicate balance of Lib Dems and Tories has to be maintained.

If Huhne has to go - and this is, I hasten to add, veering off a little prematurely into the realms of speculation - a vacancy would be created for David Laws to return to the cabinet, although it is uncertain he would want the Energy portfolio. There has been a fair amonunt of speculation that a lower ranking Lib Dem might up up for elevation. Edward Davey at the Business Department is often tipped for promotion.

But there is a feeling around government that it might, at last, be time for a more ambitious round of musical chairs. Crucially, anxiety about the passage and presentation of health reforms in Downing Street is approaching the status of panic. There is very little confidence left in Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, to explain to people what exactly it is he means to do to the NHS, let alone persuade them it is a good idea. Might a forced reshuffle provide an opportunity to put the Department of Health portfolio into a pair of hands somewhat safer than Lansley's have proved to be?

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former 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.