Labour exploits Osborne's pasty problem

Osborne's "pasty tax" comes under fire from Miliband.

Full marks to whichever Labour staffer positioned Ed Miliband in front of Greggs during his interview with Sky News earlier today. George Osborne's decision to apply VAT to hot supermarket food [raising the price by 20 per cent], an obscure change announced in last week's Budget, has become a political problem for the government following yesterday's select committee hearing. After admitting that he "can't remember" the last time he bought a pasty at Greggs, Osborne suggested that cold pasties would not be VAT-able, a comment that inspired today's Sun to compare the Chancellor to Marie Antoinette ["Let them eat cold pasty," reads its headline].

Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Rachel Reeves made a well-timed visit to Greggs.

The tabloid's editorial goes further, declaring that "the Chancellor and his rich Cabinet colleagues cannot begin to understand what it's like to be so hard-up that a sharp rise in the price of a pasty will hurt.

"Unlike Sun readers, they don't worry how to pay for food, rent or petrol. If they ever have done, they certainly can't remember how it feels now -- any more than Mr Osborne can remember the last time he bought a pasty in Greggs."

It's tempting to dimiss this as a bit of knockabout fun but symbolism matters in politics and the current row both reflects and reinforces the view that the government is out of touch with ordinary people. Put simply, it has cut taxes for millionaires and raised them for pasty-eaters [the two categories are, of course, not mutually exclusive, though Osborne's performance suggested they might be]. As ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie has written, class is the Conservatives' "Clause IV" and this week's ComRes poll showed that 66 per cent of voters regard the Tories as "the party of the rich".

Miliband told reporters outside Greggs:

"Not just fuel duty going up, child benefit taken away, tax credits being cut, now even putting 20 per cent on the cost of pasties, sausage rolls, and the Chancellor's excuse? Well, he says you can buy them cold and you can avoid the tax.

"It just shows how out of touch this Government is and it shows that we've got a Budget that is hitting millions of people while cutting taxes for millionaires."

In an attempt at damage limitation, David Cameron told a press conference that he "loves a hot pasty" [although he bought his from the West Cornwall Pasty Company] but offered no hint of a U-turn. Has any Budget ever offered an opposition party so many easy hits?

Ed Miliband speaks to reporters outside a Greggs bakery earlier today.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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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.