Campaigners protest against the bedroom tax in Trafalgar Square before marching to Downing Street on 30 March 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Bedroom tax survey poses headaches for the Tories and Labour

Just 6% of tenants affected have moved but the measure is saving money.

When the government introduced the bedroom tax a year ago, it justified the policy on the basis that it would encourage families to downsize to more "appropriately sized" accommodation. Critics responded by warning of the lack of one bedroom houses available. In England, for instance, there are 180,000 social tenants "under-occupying" two bedroom houses but just 85,000 one bedroom properties available. Unable to move, poor and vulnerable tenants would simply be hit by yet another welfare cut (housing benefit is reduced by 14 per cent for those deemed to have one "spare room" and by 25 per cent for those with two or more). 

New research out today from the BBC vindicates these warnings. In the first year of the policy, just six per cent of social housing tenants affected have moved house, while 28 per cent have fallen into rent arrears for the first time. But while failing to achieve the behavioural change they wanted, ministers claim that the measure is saving £1m a day. As Prof Rebecca Tunstall, director of the centre for housing policy at the University of York, notes: "There were two major aims to this policy - one was to encourage people to move, and the other was to save money for the government in housing benefit payments. But those two aims are mutually exclusive. The government has achieved one to a greater extent and the other to a lesser extent."

While the policy is also costing money, by increasing homelessness and pushing some tenants into the private sector, where rents are higher (inflating the housing benefit bill), it seems likely that there is a net saving. For Labour, which has pledged to abolish the measure if it comes to power, this is a headache. It was the likelihood that the change would cost money (up to £465m) to introduce that meant some shadow cabinet ministers, such as Ed Balls (who is focused on ensuring fiscal discipline), were sceptical of the commitment. In the end, while noting that the bedroom tax could end up costing more than it saves (and it still may), Labour promised to fund its abolition by reversing the £150m tax cut for hedge funds announced in the 2013 Budget, abolishing George Osborne's "shares for rights" scheme, which businesses have been using to avoid capital gains tax (shares sold at a profit are exempt) and which the OBR has forecast could cost up to £1bn, and preventing construction firms avoiding tax by falsely listing workers as self-employed. 

But as coalition ministers have repeatedly pointed out this week, Osborne's new cap on welfare spending, which includes the bedroom tax, means that Labour will have to decide which benefits it would cut in order to remain within the £119bn limit. At present, the only welfare cut planned by Labour is the removal of Winter Fuel Payments from the wealthiest 5 per cent of pensioners, a change that would raise just £100m a year. While the party rightly argues that the measures it plans to increase housebuilding and to expand use of the living wage will reduce the benefits bill (by increasing tax revenue and reducing welfare payments) these savings will not be achieved immediately. Until Labour can say how it would scrap the bedroom tax without breaching the welfare cap, it faces exactly the kind of "black hole" that Balls is desperate to avoid. 

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.