Nigel Farage. Photo: Getty
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We can't just give Nigel Farage the silent treatment

Nigel Farage's attacks on the vulnerable - the unemployed, immigrants, and in this case, people with AIDS and HIV musn't go unchallenged.

Perhaps understandably, George Osborne said that he would not dignify Farage’s commitment to be “tough on Aids victims” with a response. Granted, Osborne is not a confrontational figure – he’s hardly the Noel Gallagher of Westminster - and, anyway, plenty of other politicians took the opportunity to tell the sweat-drenched UKIP leader that he should be ashamed of himself, so what’s the problem?

The issue is that by not engaging in debate with Farage when he says ugly things, we fail to spot when he attempts to deliberately deceive us. In last week’s debate, Farage distorted the figures. Let’s look at exactly what the Ukip leader said about the people he terms “health tourists”:

There are 7,000 diagnoses in this country every year for people who are HIV positive.

But 60% of them are not British nationals, you can come into Britain from anywhere in the world and get diagnosed with HIV and get the retro viral drugs that cost up to £25,000 per year per patient."

Here Farage paints a picture of legions of dastardly HIV-positive foreigners logging onto to EasyJet and booking budget flights to Stansted, before holding out their greedy hands for 25K worth of the British taxpayers’ cash and probably stuffing their faces with our cod and chips, too.

The reality is much diffrent. According to the most recent figures available online, of the 62,540 who received HIV treatment in the UK in 2010, only 250 of them were short term residents. Of those only 180 actually received antiretroviral therapy. To put things in perspective then, only 0.28% of those who got the drugs Farage is so keen to keep for himself had lived in the UK for less than two years. The rest were UK nationals or people who had lived here for many years.

How Farage can call any of these people ‘tourists’ is beyond reproachable, but even financially, Farage’s tough on AIDs policy does not make sense. First consider the cost of testing every person on the border for every single disease that Farage deems a deal breaker, then perhaps treating a couple of hundred short term UK residents will not seem so bad.

Unfortunately, Farage’s unprecedented popularity means that we all need to dignify him with a response, especially when he bullies and scapegoats the least fortunate in our society.

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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.