I recently took part in the Crime Survey for England and Wales and, in the absence of something more interesting to talk about, I thought I would share with you how exchanging my interviewer hat for an interviewee one gave me cause to consider the potential impact that I could have on the data and the validity of the data itself. My reflections start with the ‘incentive’ used to encourage participation, which took the shape of a book of 6 first class stamps accompanying the initial selection letter. This is not uncommon and on the surface, is a fair way of encouraging or saying thank you to participants. Let’s face it, who doesn’t like a freebie especially a useful one such as stamps which are now stupidly expensive. The problem comes when you consider the implications of the gesture and the extent to which this really is a ‘freebie’, for instance in accepting the stamps was I then morally obliged to participate? There was nothing in the letter to suggest that if you didn’t want to take part you needed to return the stamps, so in theory at least I was under no obligation to participate when the researcher knocked on the door but in practice refusing to take part while accepting the stamps, would have made me feel uncomfortable. While the question of whether a book of first class stamps costing £3.90 (Royal Mail, 2018) truly equates to 50 minutes of my time is a moot point, the practice of offering incentives to participate in research raises a moral and/or ethical question of whether or not participation remains uncoerced and voluntary.
My next reflection is slightly more complex because it relates to the interconnected issues associated with the nature and construction of the questions themselves. Take for example the multitude of questions relating to sexual offending and the way in which similar questions are asked with the alteration of just one or two words such as ‘in the last 12 months’ or ‘in your lifetime’. If you were to not read the questions carefully, or felt uncomfortable answering such questions in the presence of a stranger and thus rushed them, you could easily provide an inaccurate answer. Furthermore, asking individuals if they have ‘ever’ experiences sexual offending (all types) raises questions for me as a researcher regarding the socially constructed nature of the topic. While the law around sexual offending is black and white and thus you either have or haven’t experienced what is defined by law as a sexual offence, such questions fail to acknowledge the social aspect of this offence and the way in which our own understanding, or acceptance of certain behaviours has changed over time. For instance, as an 18 year old I may not have considered certain behaviours within a club environment to be sexual assault in the same way that I might do now. With maturity, education and life experience our perception of behaviour changes as do our acceptance levels of them. In a similar vein, society’s perception of such actions has changed over time, shifting from something that ‘just happens’ to something that is unacceptable and inappropriate. I’m not saying that the action itself was right back then and is now wrong, but that quantitative data collected hold little value without a greater understanding of the narrative surrounding it. Such questions are only ever going to demonstrate (quantitatively) that sexual offending is problematic, increasing, and widely experienced. If we are honest, we have always known this, so the publication of quantitative figures does little to further our understanding of the problem beyond being able to say ‘x number of people have experienced sexual offending in their lifetime’. Furthermore, the clumping together of all, or certain sexual offences muddies the water further and fails to acknowledge the varying degree of severity and impact of offences on individuals and groups within society.
Interconnected with this issue of question relevance, is the issue of question construction. A number of questions ask you to reflect upon issues in your ‘local area’, with local being defined as being within a 10-15 minute walk of your home, which for me raised some challenges. Firstly, as I live in a village it was relatively easy for me to know where I could walk to in 10/15 minutes and thus the boundary associated with my responses but could the same be said for someone who 1) doesn’t walk anywhere or 2) lives in an urban environment? This issue is made more complex when it comes to knowing what crimes are happening in the ‘local’ area, firstly because not everyone is an active community member (as I am) therefore making any response speculative unless they have themselves been a victim of crime – which is not what these questions are asking. Secondly, most people spend a considerable amount of time away from home because of work, so can we really provide useful information on crime happening in an area that we spend little time in? In short, while the number of responses to these questions may alleviate some of these issues the credibility, and in turn usefulness of this data is questionable.
I encountered similar problems when asked about the presence and effectiveness of the local police. While I occasionally see a PCSO I have no real experience or accurate knowledge of their ‘local’ efficiency or effectiveness, not because they are not doing a good job but because I work away from home during the day, austerity measures impact on police performance and thus police visibility, and I have no reason to be actively aware of them. Once again, these questions will rely on speculative responses or those based on experiences of victimisation which is not what the question is actually asking. All in all, it is highly unlikely that the police will come out favourable to such questions because they are not constructed to elicit a positive response and give no room for explanation of your answer.
In starting this discussion, I realise that there is so much more I could say, but as I’ve already exceeded my word limit I’ll leave it here and conclude by commenting that although I was initially pleased to be part of something that we as Criminologist use in our working lives, I was left questioning its true purpose and whether my knowledge of the field actually allowed me to be an impartial participant.
Dr Stephen O’Brien is the Dean for the Faculty of Health and Society at the University of Northampton
The other week I had the opportunity to visit one of our local prisons with academic colleagues from our Criminology team within the Faculty of Health and Society at the University of Northampton. The prison in question is a category C closed facility and it was my very first visit to such an institution. The context for my visit was to follow up and review the work completed by students, prisoners and staff in the joint delivery of an academic module which forms part of our undergraduate Criminology course. The module entitled “Beyond Justice” explores key philosophical, social and political issues associated with the concept of justice and the journeys that individuals travel within the criminal justice system in the UK. This innovative approach to collaborative education involving the delivery of the module to students of the university and prisoners was long in its gestation. The module itself had been delivered over several weeks in the Autumn term of 2017. What was very apparent from the start of this planned visit was how successful the venture had been; ground-breaking in many respects with clear impact for all involved. Indeed, it has been way more successful than anyone could have imagined when the staff embarked on the planning process. The project is an excellent example of the University’s Changemaker agenda with its emphasis upon mobilising University assets to address real life social challenges.
My particular visit was more than a simple review and celebration of good Changemaker work well done. It was to advance the working relationship with the Prison in the signing of a memorandum of understanding which outlined further work that would be developed on the back of this successful project. This will include; future classes for university/prison students, academic advancement of prison staff, the use of prison staff expertise in the university, research and consultancy. My visit was therefore a fruitful one. In the run up to the visit I had to endure all the usual jokes one would expect. Would they let me in? More importantly would they let me out? Clearly there was an absolute need to be on my best behaviour, keep my nose clean and certainly mind my Ps and Qs especially if I was to be “released”. Despite this ribbing I approached the visit with anticipation and an open mind. To be honest I was unsure what to expect. My only previous conceptual experience of this aspect of the criminal justice system was many years ago when I was working as a mental health nurse in a traditional NHS psychiatric hospital. This was in the early 1980s with its throwback to a period of mental health care based on primarily protecting the public from the mad in society. Whilst there had been some shifts in thinking there was still a strong element of the “custodial” in the treatment and care regimen adopted. Public safety was paramount and many patients had been in the hospital for tens of years with an ensuing sense of incarceration and institutionalisation. These concepts are well described in the seminal work of Barton (1976) who described the consequences of long term incarceration as a form of neurosis; a psychiatric disorder in which a person confined for a long period in a hospital, mental hospital, or prison assumes a dependent role, passively accepts the paternalist approach of those in charge, and develops symptoms and signs associated with restricted horizons, such as increasing passivity and lack of motivation. To be fair mental health services had been transitioning slowly since the 1960s with a move from the custodial to the therapeutic. The associated strategy of rehabilitation and the decant of patients from what was an old asylum to a more community based services were well underway. In many respects the speed of this change was proving problematic with community support struggling to catch up and cope with the numbers moving out of the institutions.
My only other personal experience was when I spent a night in the cells of my local police station following an “incident” in the town centre. This was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. (I know everyone says that, but in this case it is a genuine explanation). However, this did give me a sense of what being locked up felt like albeit for a few hours one night. When being shown one of the single occupancy cells at the prison those feelings came flooding back. However, the thought of being there for several months or years would have considerably more impact. The accommodation was in fact worse than I had imagined. I reflected on this afterwards in light of what can sometimes be the prevailing narrative that prison is in some way a cushy number. The roof over your head, access to a TV and a warm bed along with three square meals a day is often dressed up as a comfortable daily life. The reality of incarceration is far from this view. A few days later I watched Trevor MacDonald report from Indiana State Prison in the USA as part of ITV’s crime and punishment season. In comparison to that you could argue the UK version is comfortable but I have no doubt either experience would be, for me, an extreme challenge.
There were further echoes of my mental health experiences as I was shown the rehabilitation facilities with opportunities for prisoners to experience real world work as part of their transition back into society. I was impressed with the community engagement and the foresight of some big high street companies to get involved in retraining and education. This aspect of the visit was much better than I imagined and there is evidence that this is working. It is a strict rehabilitation regime where any poor behaviour or departure from the planned activity results in failure and loss of the opportunity. This did make me reflect on our own project and its contribution to prisoner rehabilitation. In education, success and failure are norms and the process engenders much more tolerance of what we see as mistakes along the way. The great thing about this project is the achievement of all in terms of both the learning process and outcome. Those outcomes will be celebrated later this month when we return to the prison for a special celebration event. That will be the moment not only to celebrate success but to look to the future and the further work the University and the Prison can do together. On that occasion as on this I do expect to be released early for good behaviour.
Barton, R., (1976) Institutional Neurosis: 3rd edition, Butterworth-Heinemann, London.
Not long after starting my new post at the University of Northampton, I one day remarked ‘you know, I do feel a bit sorry for Theresa May’, or words to that effect. Well, my colleagues were shocked and stunned, clearly I had touched a nerve. But you know what, they were absolutely right to feel this way. Let me first explain myself. I was reflecting on the challenges she has faced as Prime Minister overseeing our exit from the European Union and the seemingly constant questions over her legitimacy and capability as a leader. She had faced a humiliating election result on top of everything else and was criticised for holding Donald Trump’s hand as a symbol of her courting favour with someone many find…..distasteful. So, I thought, she must be feeling attacked from all sides. Also, I did definitely say I was feeling ‘a bit’ sorry for her. However, my colleagues’ reaction did make me think about this view. They pointed out her decisions had led to this and, as it turns out, they also reveal a pattern of behaviour which reinforce their views, not mine. When you examine this from her time as Home Secretary and as Prime Minister, there are numerous examples which show her limitations as a leader.
Let us start with Theresa May, Home Secretary. In 2010, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition promised to tackle the budget deficit and through the ‘Big Society’ initiative, reclaim communities for the ‘law abiding majority’. Theresa’s speech to the Police Federation struck a triumphant tone, and presented a plea to accept her deal to cut spending, to allow the police more autonomy, less bureaucracy and less focus on targets. She celebrated the police as heroes, the front line in the fight to fix the ‘broken society’ and deal with the criminals we were all living in fear of. The slogan of the Conservative Party campaign was reiterated, to tell the police that ‘we’re all in this together’. She promised to always back the police, always fight for them and support them.
Her 2015 speech was less conciliatory and did not celebrate the work of the police. In her announcement to the Police Federation in May 2015, she accused the police service and management of scaremongering as they presented evidence on the impact of cuts, especially on neighbourhood policing functions. Perhaps bolstered by the recent Conservative party election win, she went in all guns blazing. Neighbourhood policing was described as an ‘endangered species’ by serving officers, and they also took this opportunity to plead with her to listen and not resort to her usual position of dismissing their concerns (BBC News, 20 May 2015). For the police service, preserving neighbourhood policing was clearly important. It offers safety, reassurance, a visible police presence and a conduit between the police and public to uphold their legitimacy and consent (Johnston, 2001; Rowe, 2008). Reduced budgets are bound to impact these services not deemed a priority, even though they can help to prevent crime and enable productive partnerships between the police and the citizens they serve (Thurman et al, 2001). For Theresa however, the falling crime rate was proof positive to justify cuts to spending, and that ‘angry and demoralised’ officers with their claims of putting the public in danger were ‘crying wolf’ (BBC News, 20 May, 2015).
It is not surprising then that at the end of Theresa May’s speech, polite applause was all that could be offered. The process of reflection and consideration of the premise that one can be wrong that I undertook, is something Theresa May seems unable to grasp. Her performance at Police Federation conference has further demoralised the police and embedded a sense of hopelessness that anything would change under her leadership. The need for the police to plead with her to listen to them is also a real concern – good leaders should not need to be flattered or cajoled into listening to those who deliver front line services such as policing.
So, as we now seem to be hurtling towards an exit from the EU which means we leave the Custom’s Union, despite the concerns about the impact this will have on the economy and Northern Ireland, Theresa remains resolute, and firmly aligned with the belief that hard Brexit is the way to go. This is presented as appeasing the hard Brexiteers in the Conservative party, who are ready to pounce should she not deliver what they want. However, her speech at Lancaster House presented Brexit as the promise of a new ‘global’ Britain, taking advantage of the opportunities outside the EU, while also offering the hand of friendship with platitudes about our European partners, that we will remain ‘reliable partners, willing allies and close friends.’ Also, she voted remain. She campaigned to keep Britain in the EU in the interests of business and jobs, to maintain security and protections against terrorism and crime, for trade access – and I quote ‘it is in the national interest to remain a member of the European Union.’ I am an ardent remainer, so on this, the Theresa May campaigning in 2016 and I agree. But now we are poles apart.
This is where I have seen the error of my ways to feel sorry for her. Her stance in 2010, celebrating the work of the police when she was new in post, was clearly to cement her status as Home Secretary, so she asked nicely for them to accept the reductions in spending. In 2015, she made a clear shift, to tell the police to stop whining, that there is no more money and she made no reference to the heroic efforts of the police at all. In fact, to her, they were making things worse. The same pattern of shifting loyalties to preserve her position seems to occur on a weekly basis, as we lurch back and forth from soft Brexit to hard Brexit (remember, at one point it was a red, white and blue Brexit?).
So, my problem is not just that we disagree, it is that she does not make decisions based on evidence and what is best for the country. She certainly does not offer leadership in which we can feel reassured about our future. She seems to bend to the will of mysterious others, editors of right wing press, hard Brexiteers and then, occasionally, softens her stance after meetings in Brussels. Or, what I like to call, a reality check. But I no longer think she is struggling to deal with tensions between her belief in a Hard Brexit and the evidence presented to her from her negotiations with the EU. She is also seemingly ignoring concerns raised by MPs, business sectors, universities, and the many who voice their concerns about the legitimacy and consequences of this goal of a hard Brexit. Her leadership style is reflected in the frustration of the press and public when she repeats meaningless platitudes. Remember, ‘strong and stable’, the classic ‘Brexit means Brexit’, prefixing everything with ‘let me be clear’, and then being anything but this. Good leadership is meant to empower others, and in policy making is defined as an approach to generate collective responsibility as found in Belbin’s (1993) ‘team leader’ approach. This is a form of leadership is distinct from role of managers, as they must act to seek new opportunities, transform activities of a group, to be a visionary, to be clear on their goals. The divisions in the Conservative party do not reflect this. It seems that the Maybot’s leadership programming setting has defaulted to her true self and her goal of self-preservation. Therefore, it is not merely a misjudgment to feel even a ‘bit’ of sympathy for her, it is an act of delusion.
Senior Lecturer in Criminology
University of Northampton
BELBIN, R.M. (1993). Team Roles at Work. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann
BBC NEWS (2010) Police Federation crying wolf over cuts, says Theresa May, (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-32806520)
JOHNSTON, L. (2001) ‘Crime, fear and civil policing’, Urban Studies, 38(5/6), 959–77.
PRIME MINISTER’S OFFICE (2017) The government’s negotiating objectives for exiting the EU: PM speech (see https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-governments-negotiating-objectives-for-exiting-the-eu-pm-speech)
ROWE, M. (2008) Introduction to Policing. London: Sage.
THURMAN, Q., ZHAO, J. and GIACOMAZZI, A. (2001) Community Policing in a Community Era: An Introduction and Exploration California: Roxbury Publishing Company
Helen is an Associate Lecturer teaching on modules in years 1 and 3.
Last term, my 9-year-old son’s class topic was “Crime and Punishment”. They took a historical perspective, comparing punishments across different periods of time and they began their topic with a “creative kickstart”: a visit to the National Museum of Justice in Nottingham (albeit two weeks later than planned because the bus failed to turn up!). They had a whale of a time! They were photographed with a range of gruesome artefacts and they took part in a mock trial (a re-enactment of a genuine historical case). My son’s group acquitted the defendant, Isabella, who was accused of stealing clothes, on the basis of insufficient evidence, but the other group from his school found her guilty.
Part of the class’s enthusiasm for this topic undoubtedly stems from the fascination of 9-year-old children with blood and guts. The teacher reported that they were particularly excited to learn about criminals who had been hung, drawn and quartered (although she refrained from playing them the clips from Gunpowder which depicted what this actually looked and sounded like!!). My son drew great pleasure from thinking about what it would be like if he was actually allowed to impose mediaeval punishments on his arch enemy. However, exploration of issues of crime and punishment has value far beyond satisfying a fascination for the gory.
Thinking about crime and punishment requires critical reasoning skills. What is fair? What is reasonable? How much evidence do I need? How good is this evidence? Why do we do things differently now? And critical reasoning skills are essential for navigating a world of social media, peer pressure, advertising and fake (or at least dubious) news that these children will soon be entering. My son’s class had a debate on the death penalty. When I asked him his views later, over tea, he thought carefully and told me that the death penalty was a good thing because if someone had done something really bad, they deserved a really serious punishment. It was a very good example of level two moral reasoning (Kohlberg, 1964): what you would expect from a reasonably well-adjusted 9-year-old. But the class vote at the end of the debate was split equally for and against, demonstrating a range of views. As we ate our tea, I explained my own position on the death penalty (formulated much later, when I was a post-graduate student), that there are some things that a good society just should not do and killing its own citizens, for whatever reason, is one of those things. That argument might have been a bit abstract for my son to take on board, but it is exactly through discussion and debate and exposure to different views that we develop and improve our critical and moral reasoning skills. It’s never too early to start!
Kohlberg, L. (1964) Development of moral character and moral ideology. In M. Hoffman and L. Hoffman (Eds.) Review of Child Development Research, Vol. 1. (pp. 381-343). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.