The child benefit tax could be a disaster for the coalition

More than 300,000 households have not been informed that they must either stop claiming child benefit or pay a new tax.

2013 will be a year of dramatic changes to the welfare system: the introduction of the benefit cap, the abolition of Council Tax Benefit and, most notably, the national rollout of Universal Credit. But the first test for the government will come next Monday when the withdrawal of child benefit from higher earners begins. From 7 January, payments will be tapered away from individuals earning over £50,000 and completely withdrawn at £60,000 (however, a household with two earners each on £50,000 will keep the benefit in full). Those households affected will either need to stop claiming the benefit or pay a new tax (known as the High Income Child Benefit Tax Charge) to cover the cost of the payments. Families will lose £1,055.60 a year for a first child and a further £696.80 a year for each additional child, meaning that a family with three children stands to lose £2,449.20 - the equivalent of a £3,500 pay cut (since child benefit is untaxed)

With the changes announced as long ago as the 2010 Conservative conference, the government has had no shortage of time in which to inform those who will lose out. But as today's Telegraph reports, almost a third of the families affected have still not been formally warned that they will no longer be eligible for all or part of the benefit. Of the 1.1 million households due to be affected by the change, 316,000 have not yet been contacted by the tax authorities. As a result, having missed the opportunity to opt out of the new system (as 160,000 have done), they will have to fill in self-assessment forms or face fines running into hundreds of pounds.

A spokesman for HMRC insists that "extensive advertising, media and online activity" means those affected will know about the changes. However, it's not hard to imagine that some families will get a nasty surprise when they discover that they owe hundreds of pounds in additional tax.

But then the Conservatives have long appeared complacent over the policy. Last year, in a bid to assuage Tory MPs fearful that the party could be heading for a 10p tax moment, George Osborne released private polling showing that 82 per cent of people favour the plan, with just 13 per cent opposed. But as I've argued before, more important than the question of how many oppose the policy, is the intensity of their opposition. If even a small chunk of the 13 per cent opposed to the move vote against the Tories in protest at the next election, the party will suffer significant losses. And those who lose out certainly won't be feeling charitable if the government hasn't had the courtesy to inform them of as much.

George Osborne announced the coalition's plan to remove child benefit from higher earners at the 2010 Conservative conference. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.