Should we follow New Zealand and nationalise consumer energy sales?

There's much more to be done in the energy sector, writes William Wallace.

Kia ora! New Zealand; stunning mountains, untouched coastline, rugby madness – but also a policy goldmine. British politicians love “borrowing” ideas from our Australian and New Zealander cousins (Scandanavia always serves well in a pinch). From welfare reform to free schools, through family law and prisoner rehabilitation, we’ll take it. So could there be the potential to add energy policy inspired by the Kiwi left to the mix?

A conversation with a friend in the New Zealand energy sector alerted me to this policy announcement from the New Zealand Labour Party. Could the proposal to create a new, independent body, "NZ Power", to act as a single buyer of wholesale electricity inspire the UK parties to revisit their troubled consumer energy policies? With the Energy Bill stumbling into a new parliamentary session and Ofgem announcing a new, complex, tariff comparison service there is certainly scope for fresh policy thinking.

At first sight, as a New Zealand Minister has said, it all sounds a little “North Korea like”. And it is. But reading the policy in more detail, the power of a new regulator to take a unified approach to development, the energy mix, set prices based on operating costs and a fair return on investment and encourage competition in the interests of consumers might pique more interest among policy makers. The policy comes with claims that prices for the average household will drop by £150, business prices will drop between 5 per cent and 7 per cent and 5000 jobs will be created. All hot air? Maybe, but it sounds politically attractive enough to give some food for thought.

Energy is shaping up to be one of the defining issues of the next general election like never before. But despite the current Energy Bill going through its parliamentary stages, neither Caroline Flint (with her slightly light pronouncements on abolishing Ofgem announced on a whim at party conference) or Number Ten’s disastrous counter-attack announcing un-workable plans that everyone would get the lowest tariff have come up with a way to address persistent energy price rises. With Labour viewing energy through the prism of consumer fairness and the Coalition through the prism of growth, there is certainly scope for  some fresh thinking on the issue.

In reality, this policy isn’t going to happen in the UK. It’s clearly politically toxic, with the Coalition likely to reject it on ideological and competition grounds and any Labour temptation towards nationalisation tempered by long-memories of Michael Foot and co. But what this does serve to show is that there is a paucity of ideas in this electorally significant area and as the Energy Bill continues to stall in Parliament, manifestos develop and the parties move to a war footing, that fact is becoming ever more politically relevant.

William Wallace is a Consultant at Fishburn Hedges.

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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.