I hope that George Osborne will finally introduce some policies to help savers

Autumn Statement wishlist.

I hope that George Osborne will finally introduce some policies to help savers.  It is vital that the Government stops punishing those who want to take responsibility for themselves and their future, rather than spending everything immediately and then falling back on benefits.  Savers have had such a rough deal in recent years.  It is understandable that some emergency economic help had to be introduced, but enough's enough.  Savers need some help now, in order to ensure that future generations are not put off taking responsibility for their own financial future.

Whether it's young people saving for a house deposit, or older generations trying to prepare for retirement, savings have been damaged by recent policies.  Ultra low interest rates have decimated savings income, high inflation has reduced savers' capital spending power and the policy of Quantitative Easing which has bought huge swathes of the government bond market, has resulted in much lower pensions all round.

There are some major policies that I would love to see in this Autumn Statement.

1.  Help all savers by relaxing the restrictions on ISAs (tax free Individual Savings Accounts) so the savers can choose to use their full annual limit either to save in cash or in stocks and shares.  Currently, only half the annual allowance can be saved in cash.  But young people saving for a house deposit or retirees living on their savings cannot afford to gamble on the stock market.  They should be allowed to shelter the full annual allowance from tax.  This would have the same effect for them as a rise in interest rates, as they would get more savings income.

2.  Pensioners who do not want to buy annuities with their pension fund have had their incomes cut by Government policy when they are in an Income Drawdown pension.  I am calling on the Chancellor to allow people to take more money out of their own pension savings, rather than cutting their pensions in line with the plunge in market annuity rates.  The changes the Chancellor made last year have caused serious hardship for many pensioners, and reversing them would allow people to maintain their pension income, they would have more money to spend and pay more tax, so actually it would benefit the Exchequer.  If they have been responsible enough to save large sums for their retirement, they should be trusted more to spend it appropriately.

3.  I would like to see the Chancellor introduce policies to encourage people to save for later life care needs - at the moment, savings policy is focussing far too much on just pensions, without addressing the looming crisis in social care funding that is coming down the track.  A separate ISA allowance for care savings, which would only be tax-free if the money is used for care - either for oneself or a member of ones family - would start to signal to people that later life saving is about more than just pensions.

4.  I would like to see a more creative approach to encouraging pension funds to invest in local construction or infrastructure projects, or even lending to local businesses.  Perhaps issuing some local bonds specifically for pension funds, with a minimum return underpin that would allow local authority pension schemes to help boost their local economies, or to invest more broadly to benefit the UK economy. 

5.  I would like to see some temporary tax breaks for capital spending projects, perhaps a 12 or 24 month special incentive that would encourage firms to undertake expansion investments quickly.  Large firms have plenty of cash, but currently they are not feeling confident enough to use it. Giving them an incentive to do so, when we know they do have the money, could help kick-start growth and would pay for itself in reduced benefit spending.  Pension funds also have billions of pounds of investments, but they are currently using their money to buy gilts to try to reduce their risks.  This is a counterproductive strategy and the economy would benefit much more if they invested in projects that would provide a benefit to growth directly.

Ros Altmann is a UK pensions expert and campaigner

Savers have had a rough deal. Photograph: Getty Images

Ros Altmann is director general of Saga Group

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.