David Cameron on his mosque visit in 2013. Photo: Getty
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Leader: The challenge to British Islamists

Too often, David Cameron has failed to engage with all aspects of Britain’s Muslim community so: he has visited a mosque only once in five years.

In the decade since the London terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005, the British government’s response to the threats posed by Islamist extremism has too often been haphazard and disjointed. These failings – as well as what David Cameron called the “failures of integration” in a speech in Birmingham on 20 July – have contributed to many hundreds of Muslim Britons, young and old, travelling to Iraq and Syria to live under the self-declared Islamic State (IS), perhaps the most malignant force in the world today. Something is seriously wrong if British citizens would rather join IS than live in an open, plural society.

In opposition, Mr Cameron gave an important speech to the Community Security Trust in which he first identified the dangers of non-violent extremism. He reiterated this in his speech in Birmingham but went much further. If “non-violent” extremists – preachers, teachers, community leaders – create the moral imperatives for violence, he said, government must engage in the “battle of ideas” informing their world-views. Too many politicians have shied away from doing so, considering it a problem that only Muslims could deal with. There is some truth in this – after all, Muslim liberals and reformers will have to take the lead in confronting extremist interpretations of their faith. Yet the Prime Minister is right to offer them his explicit backing and support.

Because these Islamist extremists are British and their narratives of grievance and struggle are informed by this country’s policies, the Prime Minister is correct to argue that the government cannot be a passive onlooker as British Muslims contest the varying constructions of their faith.

Mr Cameron’s rhetoric about a “five-year plan” has been backed up by what has the makings of a coherent and nuanced strategy, countering “warped” extremist ideology and radicalisation by empowering the government to take ­action against individuals or groups considered to be espousing such views. Accompanying this strident approach will be attempts to address the “drowning out” of moderate voices, aiming to isolate extremists from the overwhelming majority of peaceful Muslims in Britain. It is a powerful and necessary step forward in the UK’s anti-extremism strategy. Perhaps most significant is the promise to adopt an “inclusive” approach to the problem: working with British Muslims rather than alienating them. “The extremists are the ones who have the money, the leaders, the iconography and the propagandamachines,” Mr Cameron said. “We have to back those who share our values.”

As the Muslim Council of Britain stressed, it is now incumbent on the Prime Minister to engage with “all sections of the community, including mainstream Muslim organisations and those who have differing views”. Too often, Mr Cameron has failed to do so: he has visited a mosque only once in five years in office. Now would be a good time to rectify that lamentable record. He should also pay heed to the review by the civil servant Louise Casey into boosting opportunities and integration for minority groups.

When Mr Cameron refers to Islamic extremism as the “struggle of our generation”, it is hard to accuse him of hyperbole. The urgency is undoubtedly overdue and brings with it the promise of mending the government’s fraught relationship with significant sections of the Muslim community.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.