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My new year nightmare: finance, political imperatives and a lack of strategy

“Pregnant and homeless” by Ed Yourdon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; “Cash” by BlatantWorld.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The new year is here.  At its last knockings, the previous year offered hope of some sort of return to normality.  The second new vaccine was on its way, far easier to store and distribute, it offered hope. Unfortunately, the joy of the new year has been somewhat muted as we have witnessed Covid-19 cases rise to new heights. Talks of stricter measures have turned into our new reality, as one minute the government insisted on schools opening then the next a partial U-turn before a forced full-scale retreat. But as we watch all of this unfold, I am reminded of a comment I heard from a radio presenter on the lead up to Christmas. Her view was that there was much to be happy about, we know more about the virus now than we ever did and scientists have developed a vaccine, several vaccines, in record time.  Over the Christmas and new year period I reflected on last year and tried to think about what we have learnt. 

Brexit has just proved to be a complete farce.  Promises of a good deal turn out to be not so good, ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ the politicians said.  And then in desperation, realising that any deal was better than no deal and that the best deal was the one where we were in the European Union they settled on something and thanked the gods that there was far more pressing bad news to hide their incompetence.  So, we are now a ‘sovereign’ nation but poorer to boot and whilst we think we have regained control over our borders, it is only limited to bureaucratic, time consuming form filling, as we beg people to come here to work in our care homes and on the farms for a pittance.  Perhaps the refugees that we have reluctantly accepted might help us out here. Brexit has been delivered but at what cost?  No wonder Stanley wants to take up his opportunity for a French passport.

We are all equal its just that some are far more equal than others. We saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and I have a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to do that discussion justice; I’ll leave that to others that are far more capable. It did have a profound impact on me though as a former serving police officer, I would like to think it had an impact on others both retired and serving, but I’m not so sure.  I think that quite often the police are simply a reflection of our society and I’m not willing to bet much on that changing rapidly.  I remember Michael Holding, a former West Indian cricketer, turned commentator, talking about ‘white privilege’ and he provided what I thought at the time was a good example. Now I’m not so sure, this so called ‘white privilege’, isn’t privilege at all, it’s rights. It’s the rights that white people avail themselves of everyday in a democratic society (well that’s what we are supposed to be in anyway) without a second thought.  The problem isn’t that white people have those rights, it’s that Black and ethnic minority individuals don’t, or where they do, the rights are somehow conditional.  I might be wrong in my thinking, but I know one thing, without some very clear leadership from government, institutions and general societal attitudes are unlikely to change sufficiently.  Although footballers and staff take a knee before every match, I fear that the momentum is likely to be lost.  By the way, I’m not holding out much hope on the leadership gambit.

Sticking to the we are all equal theme; the pandemic has shone a spotlight on poverty in this country.  Yes, Mr high and mighty Reece-Mogg, there really are very poor people in this country and they do need a helping hand. The fact that food banks are even required is shameful. The fact that foodbanks rely on charity is an even more shameful indictment of our government. The fact that a senior politician can stand up in the house of commons and accuse a charity of political motives when distributing aid beggar’s belief.  I find it extraordinary that pre pandemic, homeless people were left to their own devices on the streets, reliant on charity and handouts and yet as soon as we went into lockdown, the government found money from somewhere to house them.  What changed? My worry is that when the pandemic is over, the government are going to be more concerned about balancing the books than they are about the pervasive poverty endemic in our nation.

Children returning to school has been a huge issue for government and they rely on evidence that suggests that the best place for children is at school. A headmaster reminded us in an interview on the radio that this ‘online learning’ phrase that trips off the tongue is far easier to talk about than to achieve. What hits home is the huge disparity in opportunity for children to avail themselves of online learning. Poorer families cannot provide the technology required. Poorer families are likely to live in cramped conditions making it impossible for children to concentrate on work as siblings run around trying to keep themselves amused. And let’s not forget the plight of the parents who are more likely to be in jobs that require them to be at work, not home. Then of course there are those children that are vulnerable where school is a safe haven from abuse, whether that’s physical or mental or simply because school is where they will be fed. So, in a sense for many, school is a better place than home, but we really ought to be asking why that is. What does that say about our society? If I were to hazard an educated guess, I’d say its broken. The return of children to school had wider implications. What about the teachers and staff? It seems to me that government have different standards of risk depending on what suits. I’ll come back to this in time but I think the closure of schools owes itself more to the action of teachers in their refusal to turn up to work in an unsafe environment than it does any sensible government strategy.

Sticking to the education theme, the pandemic shone a rather harsh spotlight on higher education too. What became increasingly obvious was that the return of students to campus was purely financially driven.  At least one vice chancellor put his head above the parapet and stated as much.  His university would fail if he did not fill the halls of residence. So here we had a situation where scientific advisors were stating it was folly to open universities and yet universities did so with the backing of government. The reason, we can’t put education on hold and yet how many students take a gap year, before going to university? Putting education on hold doesn’t appear to be that damaging to the individual, but it is very damaging to a morally corrupt educational business model that needs halls of residence to be filled to prop up the system. To make matters worse, students flocked to university only to find that face to face teaching was patchy, the university experience was not what they were promised or envisaged it would be, and more time was spent in isolation and lock down than was healthy.  If education was supposed to be good for their mental health, it had the opposite effect for many.  I don’t think it required a rocket scientist to work out that online teaching was really going to be a default position, so either management and government were very naïve and reckless, or they were somewhat economical with the truth.   Time to revisit higher education, I think.

Talking about government advisors, what’s the point in having them? Everything I read suggests that government advisors say one thing and government does something else or dillies and dallies its way into a dead end where it finally admits the advisors are in some way right, hence another eleventh hour lock down. The advisor’s said universities should not go back, they did and is it coincidence it coincided with a rise in Covid-19 cases? Advisors were saying schools shouldn’t go back but the government insisted they should and many did for just one day.  There is a saying about tactics and strategy. Strategy is unlikely to be achieved without tactics but tactics without a strategy are useless. I have yet to understand what the government strategy is, there is however a plethora of disparate (or is that desperate?) tactics . The result though, anguish and suffering to more than is necessary.  Some of the tactics seem to be based on decision regarding who is most at risk.  We hear that term an awful lot.  I watched the prime minister at lunch time, the man who promised us a fantastic Brexit deal, as he explained how important it was that children went back to school.  Children are at very little risk going to school he said and then added, and teachers are not at very much risk or at least at no more risk than they would be normally.  He bumbled and blustered over the latter part; I wonder why?  A few hours later he told us schools would be closed until at least the 15th February. What happened to ‘no risk’? When we talk about risk, there are a number of ways of viewing it.   There is the risk of death, easily understood and most definitely to be avoided, but what seems to be neglected is the risk of serious illness or the risk of ‘long Covid’.  By ordering schools to be opened or that universities resume face to face teaching, the policy seems to have been that as long as you are not at a high risk of death then it is an acceptable risk.  Time for a bit of honesty here.  Does the government and do managers in these organisations really think that a group of people in a room for a number of hours with inadequate ventilation is not a serious risk to the spreading of the disease? Maybe some of the managers could reassure us by doing most of the face to face teaching when we prematurely come out of lock down again.

It seems to me that much is being made, on the news in particular, about the effect a lock down has on mental health, especially children. And I do understand the mental health issues, I can’t help but think though that whilst this is a very valid argument there is the elephant in the room that is either ignored or conveniently understated. The elephant; the fear engendered by the virus, the fear and anguish of those that have had to face the loss of a loved one. Just to put that in perspective that’s over 70,000 people whose families and friends have had to go through firstly the fear and anxiety of a loved one being ill and then the additional fear and anxiety of having lost them. Add to this the fear and anxiety of those that have caught the virus and ended up in hospital coupled with the fear and anxiety of their loved ones. Now add to this the fear and anxiety of those who have to work in conditions where they are at serious risk of catching Covid and the fear and anxiety of their loved ones. And then of course there is the fear and anxiety caused to the general population as the virus spins out of control. Somehow I think a little perspective on mental health during lock down might be needed. Is it any wonder teachers decided that what they were being asked to do was unsafe and unnecessary?

And then I think about all of those parties and gatherings despite restrictions. The shopping trips from tier 4 areas into tier two areas to snap up bargains in the sales. The Christmas and New years eve parties that defy any logic other than pure self-indulgence. Just as we see all of those selfless people that work in organisations that care for others or keep the country running in some capacity, we see a significant number of selfish people who really don’t care about the harm they are causing and seem to be driven by hedonism and a lack of social values. Unfortunately, that accusation can also be aimed at some of the very people that should be setting an example, politicians.

We should of course be happy and full of hope. We have a new vaccine (that’s providing it still works on the mutated virus) and normality is around the corner, give or take a few months and a half decent vaccination strategy (that’s us done for).  A vaccine that was found in an extraordinary time period.  I wonder why a vaccine for Ebola wasn’t found so quickly?  I agree with my colleague @paulaabowles when she says we all must do better but more importantly I think its about time we held government to account, they really must do better.  After the second world war this country saw the birth of the NHS and the welfare state. What we need now is a return to the fundamental values that prompted the birth of those provisions. There are so many pressing needs and we really mustn’t allow them to be forgotten.  A strategy to tackle poverty might just ameliorate a raft of other ills in our society and the cost of tackling it might easily be mitigated by a reduction in demand in the NHS and many other public services.  I can but dream, but my reality envisages a nightmare world driven by finance, political imperatives and a lack of strategy.

A Lockdown Moan

As the second lockdown has come to an end, I find myself reflecting on my own lockdown experiences quite a lot. My overall sense is that of gratitude, in that I have been fortunate enough to maintain and be offered new employment during this difficult time.   

During the first lockdown I was a key worker and travelled to and from work on public transport whilst everyone else was ordered to ‘stay safe, and stay at home’. At times this was frustrating, and although I generally had faith in humanity my views on this were tested. During, lockdown 1.0 I witnessed people being much more aggressive to key workers. I worked in a place where I did not expect people to be nice to me, but even on my route to and from work I found that I was subjected to the odd remark.  

One morning at 6am whilst in the city center I was even called ‘a rapist’ because I did not have any change to give to a homeless person, he then sort of offered to fight me. Of course, I wouldn’t ever fight anyone, and he would have been completely unaware that I had just finished a night shift so I would not prove to be a worthy opponent in any sense. I also remember sitting on the bus one night whilst a man, who appeared mentally unwell, persisted to cough all over me (mask free) before exiting at his stop. 

I didn’t take any of these experiences personally, and thankfully I didn’t get Covid. It was clear that these people had many of their own problems – many of which may have been exacerbated due to Covid. The lack of understanding of Covid for some people also highlights a key issue i.e., that mainstream concerns are not being communicated to wider population within our society.  

I did find myself frustrated by the general population who in my experience, did not appear as positive and kind as the media seemed to suggest. I experienced many incidents of people being selfish, such as people snapping and venting their frustrations at others who are simply just trying to do their jobs (with shocking pay and poor contracts might I add). On top of this was the notion of visiting a supermarket after a 12 hour night shift whilst people scramble for the last scraps of essentials whilst you are walking around like a zombie. With bare shelves, rude people and long queues….what more could key workers ask for? For Christ sake, someone even tried to steal a tin of beans out of my shopping trolley on one occasion!  

During lockdown 2.0 I have been very privileged indeed, as I am able to work from home. Staying in this bubble of mine has also made me feel much less frustrated. But I do still wonder, why is it that we feel that those who provide a ‘service’ to us are not people themselves? People with their own problems, thoughts and feelings. Do we think that people are robots? Is this why some people think that it is ok to vent their frustrations at others? I am sure that other people have had more positive experiences than this, but I can’t understand why people aren’t being more kind and understanding of each other. There is a difference between being a service provider and being a servant…people seem to forget this sometimes.  

What price justice?

Photo by Pawel Janiak on Unsplash

Having read a colleague’s blog Is justice fair?, I turned my mind to recent media coverage regarding the prosecution rates for rape in England and Wales.  Just as a reminder, the coverage concerned the fact that the number of prosecutions is at an all-time low with a fall of 932 or 30.75% with the number of convictions having fallen by 25%.  This is coupled with a falling number of cases charged when compared with the year 2015/16.  The Victims’ Commissioner Dame Vera Baird somewhat ironically, was incensed by these figures and urged the Crown Prosecution Service to change its policy immediately. 

I’m always sceptical about the use of statistics, they are just simple facts, manipulated in some way or another to tell a story.  Useful to the media and politicians alike they rarely give us an explanation of underlying causes and issues. Dame Vera places the blame squarely on the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and its policy of only pursuing cases that are likely to succeed in court. Now this is the ironic part, as a former Labour member of parliament, a minister and Solicitor General for England and Wales, she would have been party to and indeed helped formalise and set CPS policy and guidelines.  The former Labour Government’s propensity to introduce targets and performance indicators for the public services knew no bounds. If its predecessors, the Conservatives were instrumental in introducing and promulgating these management ideals, the Labour government took them to greater heights.  Why would we be surprised then that the CPS continue in such a vein?  Of course, add in another dimension, that of drastic budget cuts to public services since 2010, the judicial system included, and the pursuit of rationalisation of cases looks even more understandable and if we are less emotional and more clinical about it, absolutely sensible.

My first crown court case involved the theft of a two-bar electric fire. A landlady reported that a previous tenant had, when he moved out, taken the fire with him.  As a young probationary constable in 1983, I tracked down the culprit, arrested him and duly charged him with the offence of theft.  Some months later I found myself giving evidence at crown court.  As was his right at the time, the defendant had elected trial by jury.  The judicial system has moved a long way since then.  Trial by jury is no longer allowed for such minor offences and of course the police no longer have much say in who is prosecuted and who isn’t certainly when comes to crown court cases.  Many of the provisions that were in place at the time protected the rights of defendants and many of these have been diminished, for the most part, in pursuit of the ‘evil three Es’; economy, effectiveness and efficiency.  Whilst the rights of defendants have been diminished, so too somewhat unnoticed, have the rights of victims.  The lack of prosecution of rape cases is not a phenomenon that stands alone. Other serious cases are also not pursued or dropped in the name of economy or efficiency or effectiveness. If all the cases were pursued, then the courts would grind to a halt such have been the financial cuts over the years.  Justice is expensive whichever way you look at it.

My colleague is right in questioning the fairness of a system that seems to favour the powerful, but I would add to it.  The pursuit of economy is indicative that the executive is not bothered about justice.  To borrow my colleague’s analogy, they want to show that there is an ice cream but the fact that it is cheap, and nasty is irrelevant.   

Coronavirus (Covid-19): The greatest public health crisis in my lifetime

The coronavirus has caused an ongoing pandemic of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome. The outbreak started in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, as early as November 2019. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January 2020 and recognized it as a pandemic on 11 March 2020. Whilst we all have an interest in the ongoing spread and consequence of the greatest public health crisis in generations it holds a specific interest for me given my visits to Wuhan and Hubei province whilst working for Coventry University. Wuhan is a massive city with over 11 million of a population, but little heard of until this outbreak. It is believed that its origins are most likely linked to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, in Wuhan which also sold live animals, and one theory is that the virus came from one of these kinds of animals. The virus spread quickly through the population of Wuhan City which led to comprehensive lockdown to contain the virus. However, the virus spread beyond the city across China and into other countries. The scale of the spread has been significant and by the time the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak a full pandemic in March 2020 there were cases recorded in hundreds of countries.

Cases in the UK emerged on January 31st 2020, which prompted a government response to manage the outbreak. In the early stages there was some discussion about “taking it on the chin” and allowing the virus to spread through the population in order to gain “herd immunity”. However, the public health, medical and scientific experts at Imperial College London suggested that the death toll through their modelling exercises, if this strategy played out, could be in excess of 500,000. This was a situation that would be socially and politically unpalatable, and a change of thinking emerged with a combination of social distancing, public health advice on washing hands and a strategy to protect the capacity of the NHS to cope with escalating cases. A new lexicon emerged that we are now all familiar with: flattening the curve, delaying the spread, the peak of the infection and latterly the language of the health professionals in the frontline supporting and caring for people acutely ill with Covid-19; Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP), ventilation and oxygen saturation and therapy. This is because the virus can attack the respiratory system leading to pneumonia and in several cases an immune response that leads to multi-organ shutdown. The media presentation of this crisis is all very frightening.

At the time of writing the pandemic has progressed relentlessly in the UK with currently over 65,000 people have tested positive and of those hospitalised nearly 8,000 patients have died. Some commentators have suggested that the UK was slow to recognise the seriousness of the virus and was slow to initiate the “lockdown” measures required to halt the spread. In addition, the UK’s position on testing for the virus has been criticised as slow, lacking preparation despite the global warnings from WHO and a shortage of the essential materials required. Whether these criticisms are valid only time will tell but the UK’s data on cases, hospitalisation, need for critical care and deaths is on a trajectory like other countries which could be described as liberal democracies. Here is the first clue to the timing of the response. The measures required to halt the spread of the virus have massive economic consequences. Balancing these two issues is incredibly difficult and has led to some commentators suggesting all liberal democracies will struggle to respond quickly enough.

What is now abundantly clear is that this is going to take some time for us to get through as a society and the consequences for large sections of our society are going to be devastating. However, what I’d like to discuss in the remainder of this blog are a number of early lessons and personal observations in terms of what we are seeing play out.

First, the data emerging indicates that the narrative about the “virus does not discriminate” is a false one. It is clear that health professionals are much more greatly exposed and that the data on cases and deaths indicate higher numbers of the socially deprived and BAME community. This should not be a surprise as the virus will be keenest felt in communities negatively impacted by health inequalities. This has been the case ever since we recognised this in the “Black Report” (DHSS 1980). The Report showed in detail the extent to which ill-health and death are unequally distributed among the population of Britain and suggested that these inequalities have been widening rather than diminishing since the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948. It is generally accepted that those with underlying health issues and therefore most at risk will be disproportionately from socially deprived communities.

Second, the coronavirus will force the return of big government. The response already supports this. In times of real crisis, the “State” always takes over. Will this lead to more state intervention going forward? If so then we will witness the greatest interventionist Conservative government in my lifetime.

Third, the coronavirus provides one more demonstration of the mystique of borders and will help reassert the role of the nation state. Therefore, the coronavirus is likely to strengthen nationalism, albeit not ethnic nationalism. To survive, the government will ask citizens to erect walls not simply between states but between individuals, as the danger of being infected comes from the people we meet most often. It is not the stranger but those closest to you who present the greatest risk.

Fourth, we see the return of the “expert”. Most people are very open to trusting experts and heeding the science when their own lives are at stake. One can already see the growing legitimacy that this has lent to the professionals who lead the fight against the virus. Professionalism is back in fashion, including recognition of the vital role of the NHS.

Fifth, the coronavirus could increase the appeal of the big data authoritarianism employed by some like the Chinese government. One can blame Chinese leaders for the lack of transparency that made them react slowly to the spread of the virus, but the efficiency of their response and the Chinese state’s capacity to control the movement and behaviour of people has been impressive.

Sixth, changing views on crisis management. What governments learned in dealing with economic crises, the refugee crisis, and terrorist attacks was that panic was their worst enemy. However, to contain the pandemic, people should panic – and they should drastically change their way of living.

Seventh, this will have an impact on intergenerational dynamics. In the context of debates about climate change and the risk it presents, younger generations have been very critical of their elders for being selfish and not thinking about the future seriously. Ironically the coronavirus reverses these dynamics.

Finally, I return to a point made earlier, governments will be forced to choose between containing the spread of the pandemic at the cost of destroying the economy or tolerating a higher human cost to save the economy. In conclusion, I have heard many say that this crisis is different to others we may have faced in the past 30 years and that as a result we can see society changing. Whilst I’m sure a number of the issues raised in this blog could potentially lead to society change it is also a truism that our memories are short, and we may return to life as it looked before this crisis quite quickly. Only time will tell.

Reference
“The Black Report” (1980): Inequalities in Health: Report of a Research Working Group. Department of Health and Social Security, London, 1980.

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