George Osborne’s economic policy is based on lies

The budget is the fiscal equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting ‘LALALALA NOT LISTENING’.

On Wednesday the Chancellor announced his plan, hailed by many as a “steady as she goes budget”. I confess some confusion as to how this might be a good thing, when according to most indicators “she” is steadily going to hell. I am also bemused by the attention this man’s policy announcements have attracted. It seems to me that intense dissemination of how these policies might work in practice, is tantamount to a spirited and detailed conversation about the quality of the stitching on the Emperor’s New Clothes.

The assumption that this Government will implement anything it says, let alone implement it successfully, flies in the face of evidence. Infrastructure projects which will not be completed during this Parliament (and some which will not even have started), Enterprize Zones which are still being set up, two years after being announced, and have delivered 5 per cent of the jobs projected, a Business Bank which is only now setting out a schedule for its creation, a Funding for Lending scheme (a replacement for the grand Loan Guarantee Scheme, scrapped after four months) which has actually seen lending drop dramatically, a Back To Work programme which is actually worse at getting people into jobs than doing nothing, a Green Investment Bank whose only action so far has been to appoint an expensive private consultant, a Right to Buy home ownership scheme which has delivered 1.5 per cent of the sales envisaged, a Big Society Bank for a Big Society which Cameron launched four times, that shows no signs of getting going and, in fact, hopes to have appointed a Chair by 2014! I could go on.

Why should anybody be interested in any big announcements this government makes? They are just that: announcements. With the economy stagnating for three years now, they are the equivalent of what I do when I am supposed to go out, but having a “fat day”; I try on every single outfit, having already decided to stay in and sob quietly, while having a large pepperoni pizza.

The only thing of interest in a budget nowadays is the actual data of how the Chancellor has performed – not his promises of how much better he is about to. In that respect, the budget was fascinating. Many commentators have assessed thoroughly and forensically the failures of this Government on growth, stagnating wages, lending, future borrowing et al – the IFS’s review does so as well as any. I am more interested in the two items claimed by the government as successes; the two planks to which this drowning Chancellor is clinging: the borrowing rate and the employment figures.

On these, I offer two short sentences from the OBR’s budget report.

On the Chancellor’s attempt to show – “by hook or by crook” according to the IFS – that we borrowed less this year compared to last, para. 4.27 explains that “the Government has taken action to ensure that central government departments spend less in 2012-13” and this includes “a number of elements”. Here is one:  “payments that were due to be made late in the current financial year (for example payments to international institutions), but which are being delayed into 2013-14.”

Read that again. Take it in. In order to keep his head above water, the Chancellor has asked Government departments to delay payments which were due this financial year until after 1 April. These payments, of course, still have to be made. Just not right now. The direct fiscal equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting “LALALALA NOT LISTENING”. And this man, with his Delboy approach to state finance, is the person entrusted with the long-term health of the country’s economy.

On the employment rate, many have expressed doubts about the claim repeated with almost drummerlike monotony that “one million new private sector jobs have been created”. We know, for instance, that there has been an astonishing surge of hundreds of thousands of people who show as “self-employed”. We know there have been strange transfers of public service jobs directly to the private sector, as support services are privatised in every department.

The OBR hints at these irregularities in their executive summary: “The labour market continues to surprise on the upside, despite the continued weakness of GDP growth.” As a former civil servant, I would be tempted to read that as “there is something really dodgy about these figures”. Then, at para. 3.108, which talks about “people employed in government supported training and employment programmes” comes the confirmation: “Of the total increase in employment in 2012, compared to 2011, around 14 per cent reflects increased participation in those programmes.”

People on unpaid internships, training schemes, apprenticeships and workfare schemes, are counted as employed. One hundred and forty thousand of them are part of the Government’s job creation success story.

I never understood Hollywood’s obsession with the Evil Genius as the film villain of choice. It has always been clear that, given a position of power, an Clueless Idiot has infinitely more potential to cause harm. What I find astonishing is that Conservative MPs, many of whom are honourable men and women and all of whom are obsessed with fiscal responsibility, have not yet grabbed this man by his expensively tailored lapels and thrown him in the Thames.

British Finance Minister George Osborne poses for pictures outside 11 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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.