Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Reform Guest Blog: crime

Generally speaking, the think-tank Reform is on the side of those of us who think that our public services are a pile of shit—although they aim to be a little more contructive than merely observing that our public services are a pile of shit. Their mission is "to set out a better way to deliver public services and economic prosperity."

A couple of days ago, I received an email from one Dale Bassett, asking if I would participate in their web strategy, partly by allowing guest posts at The Kitchen. If only because I consumed an enormous amount of free booze at their website relaunch, I thought that I may as well answer in the affirmative—we shall see how it goes...

UPDATE: apparently, Dale has been a little too hasty, and Reform did not want to trail their report until after its publication. Oh dear...
Robocop justice
by Dale Bassett

Centralised and technocratic—that’s the “Robocop justice” being delivered by the criminal justice system in Britain today. It’s the consequence of a paradigm shift in people’s response to crime. Citizens have become “passive bystanders”, abdicating personal responsibility in favour of an ever-increasing role for monolithic institutions, ill-equipped to deal efficiently with crime. This has made Britain the most expensive country to police in the world, with spending on law and order increasing by nearly 40% in real terms from 1997/8 to 2006/7.

New research, to be published on Monday by the independent think tank Reform, suggests that there are two keys to rectifying this and improving the efficiency of our criminal justice system: decentralisation and information.

With mishaps such as the ongoing lost data scandals demonstrating the failure of the creaking centralised state, politicians from all parties are beginning to realise that a local, decentralised agenda is often the best approach in many areas of public policy. But as ever, there seems to be more lip-service than action. The so-called “colouring book” approach—with detailed targets and parameters dictated from the centre and only minimal local autonomy allowed—will mitigate the impact of decentralisation in the criminal justice system. Effective policing needs different approaches in different local areas—and local commanders know what works. Giving local police forces the freedom to focus on low-level crime and anti-social behaviour is the way to make a real difference to crime on our streets.

A lack of information is the single biggest barrier to individuals taking responsibility for law and order—two thirds of Britons would “play a role in tackling or preventing crime” if they felt empowered to do so. Again, politicians have begun to recognise this, and crime mapping has become one of the hot topics in criminal justice at the moment. But the government needs to go further, publishing detailed, granular information about all aspects of the justice system on a local basis, informing citizens and encouraging society itself to become the main instrument in maintaining lawfulness.

Six out of ten Britons would be unlikely to challenge a group of 14 year old boys vandalising a bus shelter. Six out of ten Germans would challenge them. We need to rebuild the relationship between the public and the police, shift responsibility back towards the individual and away from centralised institutions and encourage participation in maintaining justice. Rather than seeing the criminal justice system as a “distant, sealed-off entity”, government needs to encourage people to become a part of it.

Dale Bassett is Reform’s New Media Politics Executive
Reform’s report The Lawful Society is published on September 1 and will be available at on the Reform website.

They are looking for debate and input, so feel free to let fly in the comments. I shall add my thoughts in due course...


Panopticon Britain said...

That report is wonderful. An orgasm in my eyes.

Harry Hook said...

Think Tank my arse... do they honestly believe that we will ever get policing by consent back in our 'fractured society'.

6 out of 10???... I say 10 out of 10 wouldn't intervene, along with the rising number who wouldn't stop to help a woman in distress, or help a lone child wandering the streets... all for the obvious reasons.

We're heading for total anarchy... get out of denial... deal with it!

Obnoxio The Clown said...

The police need to be completely decoupled from their relationship with the state and the state's need for statistics showing how wonderfully they are governing us (which, to be fair seems to be covered by your report.)

Furthermore, I believe that the current top three layers of police management should all get sacked because they've been complicit in this corruption of the business of the police. They have been far too keen to "be of assistance" to their political masters.

Another thing which you have not mentioned is the complexity of the legal environment after a decade of lawmaking like gangbusters. Frankly, I haven't the time or the energy to learn all the new laws that have been introduced (and they all seem to be rather woolly as well!) There needs to be a radical simplification of the law to make it much clearer where the ordinary subject of Her Majesty fits into the picture.

Personally, I couldn't give a fuck about information. I want to feel like the police are protecting me. The most wonderful mashup of crime in my street is no compensation for policemen not being bothered to appear when my car has been broken into. Information is nice, but it's no substitute for a visible and active police force.

leg-iron said...

We haven't abdicated personal responsibility. We aren't scared of the young thugs (well, not me anyway). The reason nobody would stop them smashing that bus stop is that we would be prosecuted for interfering with them. The hooded hooligans would go unpunished. It's the police that scare me. Not the thugs.

So no, we didn't abdicate. We were deposed.

haddock said...

Britons would “play a role in tackling or preventing crime” if they felt empowered to do so.
We are empowered, it is the bloody police and judges who are taking our rights to our law away from us.
leg-iron is right, the police are scary.... not respected as they once were.

Roger Thornhill said...

What leg-iron and haddock say.

It is not that we want to "feel empowered" - how DARE the State think that they are in a position to "grant" us "empowerment". What we need is for the State to stop, and demonstrate visibly that they have stopped, taking away our rights and focus on the real wrongdoers.

A fish rots from the head and, as Obnoxio says, we need to clean the Augean Stables above and have suitable leaders who instill discipline - I suspect the rank and file will prefer it in the long run as they will become Police Officers, some for the first time.

Not Somebody Else's Problem said...

I've been running an experiment (and a blog) for the last 4 months where I have been roaming around our suburbs looking for stuff that needs cleaning up (graffiti, damaged infrastructure, abandoned cars etc) and then reporting it and seeing if anything gets done about it. This is driven by my belief that we, the citizens, need to stop waiting for "the state" to do something about our problems and start fixing them ourselves.

I've actually been quite surprised at some of the successes that I've had.

I'm not trying to mindlessly plug my blog here - but I have set it up to show like minded people that they don't just have to sit back and go, "God that's crap - why do we put up with it?" Try copying some of what I've been doing and see how it turns out. If nothing else, you might get some hilarious responses from the people that you are hassling.

Tim said...

I'd rather they focused on real crimes (like some bastard cloning my bank card and trying to steal my money yesterday), rather than 'anti-social behaviour' - which I'm sure is just what old people call something that they don't like but isn't actually against any laws.

Anonymous said...


I'm sure some anti-social behaviour is very serious, and some is merely hanging around on street corners. That's the trouble with New Labour expanding definitions all the time: sexual assault (is it a pat on the bum?), child pornography (is it pictures of Sam Fox when she first appeared on Page 3?), terrorism (is it heckling a politician?).

Anonymous said...

It's all very worthy I'm sure, but the language! Are you really going to let him get away with expressions like "p*r*d*gm sh*ft", d*c*ntr*l*s*d *g*nd*" and "*mp*w*r*d"? I mean, spare a thought for any adults who might read this! Tell him to wash his mouth out and come back when he's learned to clean up his act.

Anonymous said...

The commentors who lay the blame at the government and police are correct. Too many people who have done the decent thing have ended up in the cells or dead. The police are not in charge of us all as they seem to think, they are part of the population and should behave as such. The top layers need to be culled before any improvement will occur. Back to Sir Robert Peel's nine rules of policing and the Common Law.

Chalcedon said...

Of course we would challenge a gang of hoodies vandalising a bus shelter if we knew:

a) the police would not arrest us and bang us up for 22 hours because a toe rag lied about an assault
b) the hoodies would be arrested and charged with the offense
c)the little bastards actually received a sentence reflecting their crime and not just a let off with a caution

John B said...

It's interesting (and reassuring) that we're so close to the Germans in terms of the numbers of people who'd intervene - the difference between 40% intervention and 60% intervention is not enormous.

I suspect the main problem keeping that number lower than the 100% we'd all like to see is not so much the rozzers or the lawyers, but the fact that people believe egregious nonsense. In real life, if you intervened, the police *would not* arrest you and they *would* arrest the hoodies.

The fact that we have the most despicable lying press (OK, outside of China and Saudi Arabia...) is the problem, since it publishes a non-stop diet of semi-made-up scare stories, and readers assume that this is what happens all the time...

John B said...

[I suspect there's also a physical cowardice point which explains why the tabloid lies are so widely believed: it's a lot easier for someone to say 'I would intervene, but the Evil Human Rights Lawyers will bang me up and give the yobs compensation' than to say the more accurate 'I would intervene, but the yobs might hit me, and that would hurt'...]

RobertD said...

I seem to be going with the majority. The way the state in all its apparatus seems to go for the easy target of the citizen who tries to stay within the law and work for social order rather than tackling the shits who couldn't care less who they hurt means that the only rational strategy for the concerned citizen is to minimise any contact with the authorities and keep out of sight. Rational for short term survival but with no chance of longer term improvement

Obnoxio The Clown said...

Perhaps those who want to be "empowered" again could become proto-Fingermen.

Anonymous said...

"In real life, if you intervened, the police *would not* arrest you and they *would* arrest the hoodies."

You're prepared to put your job on the line for that assumption? Because if you have an allegation of assault (and of a child!) on your record, you can be pretty sure that no school or taxi firm is going to hire you ever again.

fewqwer said...

From their website:


An independent, non-party think tank whose mission is to set out a better way to deliver public services and economic prosperity.

I would avoid the suggestion that governments 'deliver economic prosperity'. The state in a free society is meant to create and enforce the rules of the game, not play it.

Maybe "... a better way to deliver public services and facilitate economic prosperity" or something.

Claiming to be 'independent' is pretty trite these days, too. It looks to me more like they are hoping to cadge some quango cash from the Tories.

"Six out of ten Britons would be unlikely to challenge a group of 14 year old boys vandalising a bus shelter. Six out of ten Germans would challenge them."

Information about Britons and Germans gained from this statement: zero. Information gained about 'Reform': they are willing to use pseudoscience to support their argument.

Assegai Mike said...

John B. I haven't had any direct experience of this intervention/arrest business. I do know that a very good friend of mine intervened (Hammersmith, about three years ago) when a yoof dropped unfinished bag of chips on the pavement. She got knocked over and kicked by the yoof and its friends, who evaporated on arrival of the cops who promptly arrested my friend (a woman, incidentally) and banged her up in Fulham nick for about 8 hours.

Around the time the cops murdered the Brazilian on the tube, another friend of mine was arrested (also on the tube), detained and interrogated for over 24 hours, had his flat ransacked and electronics seized and was kept on the terrorist suspect register for several months. He's a non-Muslim Frenchman, lived in London for decades. Made the front page of the Grauniad, that one.

So, no, it is not just the newspapers making this shit up.

John B said...

" can be pretty sure that no school or taxi firm is going to hire you ever again."

So the 10% of the population whose jobs are subject to CRB checks are excused from intervening. Fine.

"[Your friend] got knocked over and kicked by the yoof and its friends, who evaporated on arrival of the cops who promptly arrested my friend (a woman, incidentally) and banged her up in Fulham nick for about 8 hours."

You're saying the police arrived, found someone who'd been beaten up whilst her assailants had fled, and immediately arrested her and locked her up? I'd stake my life that it didn't happen like that (did she yell at the coppers for being late and run into Jobsworth Arsehole Syndrome, perhaps?)

"[French bloke arrested story] Made the front page of the Grauniad"

Quite. Note that the front page of the Grauniad doesn't run with 'innocent non-Muslim chap banged up on terror charges' every day, or even very often at all, because it happens so rarely. I'm also not sure what that has to do with intervening...

Dale Bassett said...

Well, I'm glad to see we are provoking some debate! A response to just a few of the comments:

Obnoxio - as you'll see once the paper is published, we offer several proposals specifically to make people feel like they are being protected by the criminal justice system, and to see the effect it is having in action. The idea is that, if people can see it works, they'll have a bit more faith in it and be more likely to contribute.

Roger Thornhill - I agree there's no use in people "feeling empowered" if there's nothing to back it up. But the state can "grant" empowerment, insofar as it can provide citizens with information they don't currently have access to. If people then use that information, they are empowering themselves.

Not Somebody Else's Problem - interesting to hear, and hopefully proof that some of our ideas could work in practice.

Tim - again, I couldn't cover everything in my post, but you will see when the paper is published that we specifically recommend the establishment of a new, national force to deal with precisely these problems, so that local police forces can focus on local policing.

Dale Bassett

Steve_Roberts said...

It's too late. It is already well known how to make the public services work - the splendid John Seddon has written two excellent boooks on the subject "Freedom from command and control" and "Systems thinking in the public sector", which are based on his practice. So the issue is not lack of knowledge, it is the stubborn refusal of the politicians to act on that knowledge, and it is the way we have come to the situation where important areas of life such as policing, health, and education are firmly in the grasp of people who stubbornly refuse to act on the knowledge out there, or to release their grasp to someone who will. What answer do Reform have to that ?

The Tin Drummer said...

" can be pretty sure that no school or taxi firm is going to hire you ever again."

So the 10% of the population whose jobs are subject to CRB checks are excused from intervening. Fine.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry at this statement. What, exactly, is "fine" about it, John? That I have always to think whether or not some toe-rag will make the unfounded allegation that will destroy my career before I do something, anything, to help myself or others? That I cannot be an active citizen? That I need to be afraid of this government's bizarre "justice" policies?

What is fine?

John B said...

Fine /in the context of the argument/.

If only the 10% of people who're subject to CRB checks have any reason to fear intervening on legal grounds, then that still leaves 90% of people free to intervene - which isn't going to be an appreciably different outcome for society than 100% of people being free to intervene.

Yes, of course it'd be better if the vetting system was cut back - that's yet another artefact of our gibberingly mad press. In cases like Ian Huntley (and indeed, in nearly all cases of serious crime), the correct thing is to say "that's an awful thing to happen, but it's something that has always happened, will always happen and is mercifully extremely rare; lock the bastard up forever and then forget about it" - but the tabloid reaction is "Something must be done! Someone has failed! Make new laws!". And yes, of course the government is complicit in pandering to that agenda.