Ukip is an unexpected champion of scrapping the tampon tax. Image: The Period Blog at Wikimedia Commons.
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The campaign to end the "tampon tax" has found itself an unlikely ally in Ukip

"When we leave Europe, we'll be able to remove it, and rest assured we will."

Today, at 2pm, a petition with 198,000 signatories found its way to the Chancellor's desk at No 11, Downing Street. Its cause? To get rid of the luxury VAT tax applied to tampons and sanitary towels across Europe – or, in the words of the petition itself, "stop banning periods".

Support for the move has been widespread. Pieces calling for the tax to be axed have been shared hundreds of thousands of times, while others have unearthed the products that somehow don't fall into the HMRC's "luxury, non-essential" tax category, including flapjacks, exotic meats, bingo, and pitta bread. 

Previous calls for action from central government have fallen on deaf ears. In an interview with the Independent today,  the founder of the Change.org petition, Laura Coryton, suggested this may be because George Osborne is far more likely to eat exotic meats than use a tampon. But there's another reason too: under current EU rules, you cannot cut VAT to 0 per cent on any product which is currently taxed under it. 

This doesn't mean that rule couldn't change: Coryton's plan is to gain UK government support before taking the campaign to the other 27 EU member countries. But this furore around an EU-specific regulation hasn't escaped our favourite eurosceptics, Ukip. Last week, a briefing note was found in Nigel Farage's car that implied the party was in favour of banning the tampon tax, though he hasn't mentioned it in public yet. 

We spoke to the party's deputy chair of policy, Suzanne Evans, who told us:

I can safely say we are committed to getting rid of the tax. When we leave Europe, we'll be able to remove it, and rest assured we will." 

Other parties have been less decisive on the matter. When asked about the issue by a student earlier this month, David Cameron said it would be "very difficult to do but I'll have to go away and have a look and come back to you” (he hasn't). The Labour party hasn't made a statement on it. However, a campaign in 2000 to lower the tax rate on tampons and sanitary towels from 17.5 per cent to 5 per cent (the minimum under UK rules) was led by Labour MP Dawn Primarolo and passed by Gordon Brown, the chancellor at the time. 

Women may want to think twice before voting Ukip on this basis though – other policies include reducing or scrapping maternity pay, while one MEP said she would get rid of the Minister for Women and Equalities.

Barbara Speed was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric in 2014-16.

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.