The wrong people are feeling shame for Britain's poverty

More than half a million people rely on food banks to eat; almost triple that of the year before. Shame is the logical response - but something has been lost in translation.

I remember noticing poor kids as a child. The ones whose clothes were an inch too short or started the day with dirt on their face.

My primary school was not middle class. Low income parents, with the strange grandness of a swimming pool crumbling at the back of the gates. No one was rich but some were poor enough to stand out. School dinners and a smell that wasn’t soap. Peeling plastic off a paper plate, as one seven year old was set out as different than the rest.

I think about difference sometimes, and the stigma that can come with it. I’ve thought about it more lately, as benefits (and more divisive, certain types of benefits) seem to be increasingly accompanied by a dose of shame. 

This Government is good at shame. It’s less a politics of policy and more one of morality. Not the sort of morality that’s recognisable to many of us, granted. More moralising. Where middle class stay-at-home wives are rewarded whilst single mothers are punished, where unemployment figures are greeted with forcing the jobless into unpaid labour. Be a good little citizen and behave the right way. Even if you can’t, even if you wouldn’t want to.

A Conservative MP said last week that emergency food parcels shouldn’t be given out because people might become reliant on them. “I value responsibility,” Paul Maynard MP said. “I do not believe that immediate food relief should be the role of the Government.”

The problem isn’t food poverty but that going to food banks for help might become “a habit.” As if there were people who found the experience of exchanging a voucher for scraps enjoyable. A free supermarket, where the cardboard boxes are lined with pride and self-esteem is on special offer.

Even the stereotype of stealing a loaf of bread to feed your kids isn’t enough anymore. Now it’s the ones filling in forms to apply for the help Government is meant to give or going to the food banks when that help fails them. Benefits are the new theft. Need – or rather, needing help to meet that need – is the new shame.

More than a quarter of people on benefits say they’ve hidden the fact because they’re worried what others will think, a YouGov study by the new charity coalition Who Benefits? shows today. This rises to half if they are 16 to 24. Over a half of all those who had never been supported by benefits said they’d feel embarrassed to claim.

This is good, isn’t it? If shame made people richer, perhaps. Strangely, the solution to unemployment isn’t embarrassment and poverty isn’t cured by stigma. Shamed people still need help to stop their children going hungry. They’ll just feel bad about themselves as they do.

There’s no martyrdom in going hungry. No one who’s ever faced a choice between the heating and eating found the sacrifice edifying. Few people have seen their children hungry and needed motivation to ‘help themselves’. This seems genuine news to many on the right. Where poverty is caused, not by market, but individual failure, where using benefits is a signal, not of doing what you need to live, but of a lack of personal responsibility.

Responsibility? This Government wouldn’t know the meaning. It lets children get poorer and blames “workless” parents for its crimes. One in five children in this country are now in poverty. Half of disabled people are using credit cards or payday loans to buy clothes or food.  More than half a million people rely on food banks to eat; almost triple that of the year before. 

I wonder if Cameron or Osborne notice. If their kids ever see someone set out as different and think.

The funny thing is, guilt is natural. In the face of this poverty, shame is the logical response. It just happens to be the wrong people feeling it. This Government, whilst it's finding its conscience, should also feel the shame in that.

Volunteer Maureen Wiltshire puts together a parcel of food at a Food Bank depot at St. Paul's Church in Brixton. Image: Getty

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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.