On April 28, the Government will start borrowing more to borrow less

With Universal Credit, the Government is trying to invest in the future. Why can't it do that elsewhere?

You wouldn't know it from their criticism of Labour, but for the last year, the Government has been borrowing more to borrow less.

If its plans for Universal Credit come to fruition, spending on welfare will be reduced by millions, both through efficiency savings and reduced payouts. There will be a knock-on effect, too, from the changed incentives Universal Credit creates. With a smoother phase-out of benefits as claimants' income increases, the hope is that fewer people will find themselves in the situation where working more leaves them with less disposable cash. More people in employment means more tax revenues, fewer benefit payouts and faster growth.

But Universal Credit, the first "pathfinder" of which is starting in Manchester this month, has required an enormous outlay to get off the ground. Because it integrates six different benefits, the software required to calculate the correct payout is costly, and has had to be specially commissioned at great expense. It's made more complex by the fact that it is supposed to synchronise information out-of-work benefit claimants with Job Match, a job-search site. On top of that, the commissioning appears to have been done ineptly; as the Guardian's Patrick Wintour writes, "suspicion remains that the software is not ready".

But even if it's been performed ineptly – and incorporates a number of punishing reductions in transfers to poor people – the idea behind Universal Credit is sound. A massive initial outlay to modernise the infrastructure which underpins our social safety net, which will lead to reduced expenditures in the following years, ultimately contributing to the deficit reduction programme. Or, in simpler terms: Borrowing more to borrow less.

The Conservatives know that reducing the economy to glib talking points plays well in PMQs and TV interviews, and so can't quite drop that handy stick with which to beat Labour. But they also know, and demonstrate through their actions, that borrowing more to borrow less is an entirely sensible course of action for an economy like ours. Some infrastructure is falling apart; some more has glaringly obvious modernisation opportunities; and yet more won't be fit for purpose when (if?) the economy begins to return to growth.

Investment is a sound economic strategy. It's what the Government is trying to do with Universal Credit, and it's what they should be doing with a lot more projects.

IDS, Universal Credit's creator. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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.