Is Michael Gove now going to be held to account for his advisers' "bullying tactics"?

There are accusations the Education Secretary misled Parliament.

Last week, my colleague Rafael Behr warned that the "ultra-partisan tactics" being used by Michael Gove at the Department for Education and reported by the Observer were just the start, given that the Education Secretary is considered to be one of the most effective Tory minister in government.

He's been proved right, and perhaps more quickly than we could have guessed, as today's Observer carries further details of how Gove is now facing accusations that he "may have misled parliament over claims of bullying and intimidation by key advisers". Toby Helm reports:

The Observer can reveal that a senior civil servant in the education secretary's department has received a secret payoff of about £25,000 out of public funds, after a lengthy grievance procedure involving members of Gove's team, including his special adviser, Dominic Cummings, and the department's former head of communications, James Frayne.

While an investigation within the department cleared the men, and said no disciplinary action was necessary, the final judgment made clear that their conduct had on occasions fallen short of the levels expected and that the behaviour of Cummings and Frayne, who has since left the department, "has been perceived as intimidating". After the internal investigation was launched in the spring of 2012, the civil servant also decided to lodge a case with a tribunal, where the allegations would have been heard in public. A date was set for last month, but after further negotiations the financial settlement was agreed and the tribunal was cancelled.

On 23 January, however, Gove – who under the ministerial and special advisers' codes is responsible for the behaviour of his advisers (known as Spads) – denied knowledge of any allegations of misconduct during an appearance before the education select committee.

Observer columnist Nick Cohen has also weighed in on the subject, explaining how Gove stays above the fray as a "Tory gentleman", allowing his advisers to do his enforcing:

Here is how the retaliation works. The gang around him treat any slight to their master as an affront. The lead comes from his special advisers Dominic Cummings and Henry de Zoete. Cummings is a piece of work. He is a political hack of such reputation that Andy Coulson tried to blackball him from working for the coalition. If a former editor of the News of the World, now awaiting trial, warned me that a potential employee was too unsavoury to touch, I would pay attention. Gove did not.

Cummings and de Zoete can call on the services of Paul Staines, author of the Guido Fawkes website. They also have Telegraph journalists, the Murdoch press and most of the rightwing blogosphere at their disposal.

Part of the allegations against Gove's advisers revolve around their alleged use of the @ToryEducation Twitter feed to publish personal, partisan attacks against Gove's critics. If Gove's special advisers are indeed behind it, it would constitute a breach of both the special advisers' and the civil service code. The virulent nature of its attacks have started attracting wider attention in recent weeks, as NS deputy editor Helen Lewis noted recently:

It's long been suspected that Gove considers himself a viable future Tory leader. As a former journalist, he already has excellent contacts among right-wing hacks, and it would seem that his advisers have made pains to maintain those links. Most definitely one to watch.

Michael Gove - a "Tory gentleman"? Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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.