Conservative Diary

« Cameron's attack on Facebook was part of his nudge strategy | Main | Cable floats a dubious case for a graduate tax »

The story behind the Government's decision to axe the Preventing Violent Extremism fund

By Paul Goodman

Eric Pickles cheerfulIt was briefed out to the Guardian yesterday - as news of the Government's civil liberties review was being reported - that the Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) fund is to be axed.  The paper's not keen on the programme: during the last Parliament, it gave space to claims that it was used by the police for spying.  This presumably explains why the Home Office gave it the story.

But the fund's not administered by Theresa May's Department.  Rather, it's run by the DCLG, which distributes the funds to local councils: a Working with Muslim Communities toolkit here, a Cohesion Asssessment Framework there, a Muslim Women Developing Resilience project elsewhere.  So Eric Pickles will have been key to the decision to discontinue the scheme.

A DCLG spokesman confirmed to me that: "We're not very keen on this programme", and that PVE won't simply be discontinued at the time of the next spending round: the axe will fall on some projects previously agreed (contracts permitting).  But I have to confess that checking was a bit of a formality, because I know why the decision was made - and can claim to have had a small hand in it.

For the decision wasn't a snap judgement, made on a hunch by new Ministers.  Rather, it was the logical end-point of a view developed by the Shadow Home Office and DCLG teams during the last Parliament. Members of the cast came and went.  David Davis was succeeded by Dominic Grieve who in turn was replaced by Chris Grayling.  Eric Pickles was in at DCLG, was followed by Caroline Spelman, and is now back again.

In place throughout were Pauline Neville-Jones at Shadow Cabinet level, covering security, and Sayeeda Warsi at the same level, covering cohesion.  I covered the Commons at DCLG and was later joined by Crispin Blunt at the Home Office.  We saw the gradual unfolding of a policy aimed, at its simplest, in thwarting Al Qaeda by spending taxpayers' money.

It's important to remember the context in which PVE was introduced.  It came in a year or so after 7/7.  Tony Blair's first response to the horror was to introduce a programme called Preventing Extremism Together.  It included the Muslim Council of Britain and called for an enquiry into 7/7.  Blair lost confidence in the MCB - he thought rightly that it was tainted by extremism, and didn't really represent British Muslims - and rejected the enquiry proposal.

So Ruth Kelly, then the DCLG Secretary, was sent out to argue that "new voices" were needed to oppose violent extremism - carrying with her bucketloads of taxpayers' money.  The PVE fund was worth some £60 million when I last looked.  My local Council, Wycombe, got a slice of the money.  A new cottage industry of anti-extremism "consultants' and "advisers" sprang up.

I began by believing that government needed an anti-terror strategy (Contest), which needs a 'Prevent" element, which in turn requires public money.  I still do.  As a Shadow Minister, I journeyed the country viewing projects, and saw some good ones.  But I became extremely doubtful whether PVE as a whole was delivering value for money - and solving more problems than it raised.

Unusually - and perhaps controversially - I rather liked Hazel Blears, who succeeded Kelly as DCLG Secretary.  She had sensible views on the main issues, and did what she could to stop Ministers turning up at Islamist-leaning events, such as the Global Peace and Unity conference and Islam Expo - and delivering vote-hungry platitudes alongside apologists for extremism.

But it became evident that her Department wasn't in control of where the PVE money was going.  It imposed detailed conditions on how the money could be used, but not on who used it in the first place.  For example, the Cordoba Foundation, usually regarded as the British arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, got hold of a slice of the money in Tower Hamlets.  Furthermore, the DCLG kept no record of to whom services were sub-contracted.

Tim kindly gave me space on this site to harry Blears.  Some Councils simply had enough.  Kris Hopkins - now the MP for Keighley and Ilkley, and formerly the leader of Bradford Council - worked with other local councils in telling the DCLG to stop micro-managing their use of the money.  Muslims complained that PVE was a police operation; non-Muslims that they were excluded from it.  I remember a meeting with some black church leaders in Wycombe on exactly this theme.

Sayeeda disliked PVE from the start.  She'd an instinctive aversion to balkanising people on the basis of race or religion rather than levelling with them as British citizens, and a strong prejudice against dealing with Muslim through special interest groups.  I think that she was also strongly resistant to the state moving, as she saw it, from politics to theology, and picking out particular strands of Islam to support.

Pauline's stress was on British institutions delivering common values.  She'd a particular interest in what the state was doing in places for which it was responsible - such as schools and universities and prisons - rather than with community groups for which it wasn't responsible.  We all noted that there was no impartial assessment suggesting that PVE was providing value for money.

Like Kris Hopkins, Pickles has hands-on experience of running a Council - indeed, the same one: Bradford, during the 1980s.  He's seen the Salman Rushdie and Ray Honeyford controversies come and go.  He'll be well aware of the problems, both in practice and principle, of using taxpayers' money at least in part to build up the capacity of a particular religion.

I can't imagine that the decision cost him much sleep.  Pickles is also understood not to have been drawn by a paper from Abdul Aziz, a controversial DCLG adviser on extremism, proposing a "critical mass" engagement with such Islamic Groups as the MCB, which polling has found to represent little more than five per cent of Britain's Muslims.

I'm sorry that some good projects will go.  However, it's the right decision overall, and I doubt if there'll be an outcry about this particular economy, since the main losers will be the consultants and advisers.  As for the projects worth keeping, well, there's always private, voluntary and independent sector money.  Government encourages its use elsewhere.  It should also do it in this case.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.