"Politicians have sought to put more and more duties onto police officers." Photograph: Getty Images.
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The role of the police has become too broad

In an age of austerity, officers need to stop taking responsibility for social problems that can be better dealt with by others. 

Like their counterparts across local government, and those other parts of the public sector not lucky enough to be protected by "ring-fences", the police have had to face up to dramatic and unprecedented cuts to their budgets since 2010. How they have chosen to respond to this challenge has fallen largely to newly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). The choices they have made are already beginning to transform the policing landscape in profound and sometimes unexpected ways.

The exception is London, where PCC powers are delegated in law to the unelected deputy mayor Stephen Greenhalgh. Yet the capital faces the same hard choices as the rest of the country – Boris Johnson has ordered the Met to find £500m in savings by 2016 – and Greenhalgh has set about this task with vigour, implementing a "20-20-20 Challenge": to cut key neighbourhood crimes by 20 per cent, boost confidence by 20 per cent, and cut costs by 20 per cent.

But the deputy mayor’s ambitions do not end there. In a new report out today from the think-tank Reform, Greenhalgh and co-author Blair Gibbs call for a fundamental re-think of the whole policing function. They argue that the role of the police in recent decades has become too broad: that politicians have sought to put more and more duties onto police officers, and that the can-do culture of the police themselves has led senior officers to take on responsibility for social problems better dealt with by others. They call on PCCs to take hard decisions about what activities might be stopped outright (such as responding to abusive behaviour online) and where other agencies must start to play a larger role (such as dealing with the complex needs of mental health patients).

Of course, for many years, the easiest way to dodge these sorts of hard decisions was to increase the precept that the police can place on council taxpayers. In the last two years  of the Brown administration alone, the government was forced to take capping action on twelve separate occasions against police authorities seeking to increase their precepts, in one case by a staggering 79 per cent.  These sorts of excesses have ended with Eric Pickles's introduction of council tax referendums. Yet many PCCs are once again looking to pass on costs to local ratepayers, in the hope that the extra revenue will see them through. Greenhalgh and Gibbs have little time for this, arguing that "raising the precept by the maximum permitted amount without triggering a referendum is no substitute for a radical reshaping of the service to prevent crime and tackle rising demand."

But what right does the deputy mayor have to lecture his democratically-elected colleagues? After all, this is the man who has overseen the wholesale closure of police stations across the capital and who now wants to introduce water canon as a public order tool.  Reform commissioned an opinion poll from Populus to coincide with the publication of today’s report. Strikingly, what it found was that the public does not think that policing has deteriorated since 2010: nationally, around half of respondents said performance had stayed the same with the proportion saying it had improved equal to the proportion saying things had got worse. Yet the standout difference was the capital. Despite the terrible riots of 2011, the survey found Londoners were much more likely to say the Met’s performance had improved (29 per cent), with 40 per cent saying it had stayed the same and just 10 per cent saying it had worsened.

Not all will agree with Greenhalgh and Gibbs's diagnosis, and some will say their medicine is too harsh. Yet there is no denying that the deputy mayor has shown that it is possible to deliver radical reform while holding council tax down and keeping the public on side.  With future austerity an absolute certainty, PCCs across the country should pay close attention to the arguments in this report.

Richard Harries is the deputy director of Reform

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.