George Osborne leaves 11 Downing Street for PMQs earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Osborne's unwise joke mars a solid debut

The Chancellor misjudged the mood by joking about "Bennites" in response to a question on suicide bombing. 

George Osborne, to his credit, is a politician with a sense of humour. But at his PMQs debut it worked against him. The First Secretary of State (standing in for the EU-detained David Cameron) began by rightly noting how "proud" Hilary Benn's father, Tony, would have been to see his son at the despatch box. But he followed this with an unwise, pre-scripted joke: "We’re relieved there’s no Benn in the leadership contest but plenty of Bennites" (a nod to Jeremy Corbyn). After Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, had asked him a sober question on reports of Britain's youngest suicide bomber, that line fell like a lead balloon. One of the most crucial qualities at PMQs is nimbleness. By failing to excise that joke from his script, Osborne failed in this regard. 

Benn smartly denied the Chancellor the chance to deploy his favourite attack lines by devoting his six questions to national security and the Mediterranean refugee crisis, rather than the economy. Osborne's answers were solid enough (there were no further gaffes) but this was not territory on which the potential next Tory leader could dazzle. The closest thing to a flashpoint came when he challenged Labour to confirm its support for the government's new Extremism Bill. In response to the SNP's Angus Robertson, who asked whether the Chilcot report had been delayed until next year, Osborne replied that "it has been a long time coming and people I think are running out of patience" before recalling the "cross-party alliance between the SNP and the Conservatives to set up that inquiry earlier than it was". Robertson, unsurprisingly, was in no mood to build bridges, reminding the Chancellor that he and Cameron voted for the Iraq war.  It was only towards the end of session that Osborne finally won the chance to boast about today's jobs and wages figures in response to planted Tory questions.

Aside from his ill-judged "Bennites" gag (which will be cited as evidence of his "nasty" streak), nothing today will have harmed Osborne's chances of succeeding Cameron, even if little will hae advanced him. But the simple fact that it was Osborne at the dispatch box gives him an advantage over his leadership rivals. Like Gordon Brown before him, a politician he resembles in so many respects, he will have more opportunities to make himself the "inevitable" successor. 

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.