Minimum alcohol pricing fails the coalition's "cost of living test"

Policy irony of the day: the Tories reject minimum alcohol pricing because it "hits the poorest hardest".

The most notable thing about the government's apparent U-turn on minimum alcohol pricing is the basis on which the policy has been rejected. Theresa May, Michael Gove and Andrew Lansley have led a cabinet revolt against the proposal on the grounds that it would hit the poorest hardest and punish responsible drinkers as well as irresponsible ones. 

On a point of fact, they are correct. Minimum pricing would have a disproportionate effect on the poorest since they spend a greater proportion of their disposable income on alcohol. An IFS report found that a price of 45p per unit (the level proposed by ministers) would cost the poorest households 2 per cent of their total food budget, compared to 1.3 per cent for the richest. Lansley, a long-standing opponent of minimum pricing, told the Spectator last year: "it's regressive, so there are perfectly normal families who just don't happen to have much money who like to buy cheap beer or cheap wine. Should they be prevented? No, I don't think so". 

The policy, it appears, has failed the coalition's new "cost of living test". After the great pasty tax revolt, ministers are wary of anything that increases the price of people's pleasures, particularly at a time when the government is about to hand 8,000 millionaires an average tax cut of £107,500 by scrapping the 50p rate. 

But if the new measure of a proposal is to be whether it hits the poorest hardest (as Lansley's stance suggests) it's worth noting how many of the government's existing policies fail this test. The decision to raise VAT, for instance, a regressive tax that takes no account of income, inevitably had a disproportionate effect on low earners. A study published in 2011 by the Office for National Statistics showed that the poorest fifth spend nearly 10 per cent of their disposable income in VAT compared with 5 per cent for the richest households.

Alongside this, the government has capped benefit increases at 1 per cent (a policy that will force even more to choose between heating and eating), reduced the fund for council tax benefit by 10 per cent (a measure that will force thousands to pay the tax for the first time) and elected to charge social housing tenants for their "spare" rooms (the notorious "bedroom tax"), all at the same as cutting income tax for the highest earners. Confronted by a government that has so often chosen to hit the poor, while sparing the rich, it's hard to take their new emphasis on the "cost of living" entirely seriously. 

A 'Cheap Booze' sign displayed outside a Hoxton off licence on November 28, 2012 in London. 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.