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Just some more meaningless populism…

Photograph by Jonathan Hordle/ITV/Rex/Shutterstock in The Guardian

As we follow the recent American-style media circus posing as the Conservative Party leadership contest set to determine the interim Prime Minister until the next General Election, we are reminded that both ‘finalists’, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are pretty much showing us their real faces fairly early in the show, while they pander to their own, in a frenzy to be seen as the modern-day version of Thatcher. Truss’ emulation of the ‘Iron Lady’ through evident vocal coaching to sound more ‘masculine’ and ‘assertive’ has helped her come across even more awkward and inept than before; perhaps the ‘Wooden Spoon’ may be a more appropriate title. Nevertheless, with promises to cut taxes…despite having announced 15 tax rises in just over 2 years…‘restore trust’ in politics…despite having been directly complicit in keeping the outgoing clown Prime Minister (Boris Johnson) in power for so long given his track record for lying…and continue with an illegal migration policy that will see refugees and asylum seekers deported to Rwanda, we are reminded that it is not the British public that will get a say in who will represent our country on the global stage, but a comparatively handful of Conservative Party members.

Lest we forget that the Conservative Party membership is dominated by middle-aged white men, many with nationalist and strongly-held religious views, seeking to preserve traditions that go back (sometimes) centuries. It seems inevitable then that the next leader will not be a racially minoritised candidate, despite being the elite private-school multi-millionaire type that Conservative voters have grown to love since the 2010’s, paving the way for Liz Truss to put her very important ideas surrounding growing British apples and setting up pork markets in Bejing to the forefront of the current populist political model we have unfortunately allowed to flourish in the UK. Truss may find meeting the Queen during her term as quite awkward given her openly anti-monarchist history. She also seems, despite having voted to remain in the European Union in the 2016 Referendum, to have jumped on the bigoted Brexit bandwagon that is slowly eroding the last remaining remnants of democracy in this country. We know that every crumb of functioning public sector life has been crushed over the past 12 years:

…and there are many other examples. Without getting into yet another Brexit debate, there is no doubt that the very act of voting to leave the EU in 2016, and its subsequent consequences, has had a long-lasting impact in these services, one which we cannot hope to treat for many years. Let us not be in any illusion that either of these candidates will swoop in and majestically heal the UK from the deep wounds this Party has inflicted for 12 years, nor that there will be some miraculous light at the end of the tunnel of tyranny. Perhaps this is a rather pessimistic outlook on the years leading up to the next General Election, but unless in the unlikely event the soon-to-be PM decides to call a snap election to allow the public to finally boot out the last of this government and pave the way to some change, the situation seems rather hopeless…at least for the time being.

Chaos in Colombo: things fall apart

Following the mutiny that we witnessed in Downing street after members of the Johnson’s cabinet successfully forced him to resign over accusations of incompetency and the culture of inappropriate conducts in his cabinet, the people of Sri Lanka have also succeeded in chasing out their President, G. Rajapaksa, out of office over his contributions to the collapse of the country’s economy. This blog is a brief commentary on some of the latest events in Sri Lanka.

Since assuming office in 2019, the government of Rajapaksa has always been indicted of excessive borrowing, mismanagement of the country’s economy, and applying for international loans that are often difficult to pay back. With the country’s debt currently standing at $51bn, some of these loans, is claimed to have been spent on unnecessary infrastructural developments as well as other ‘Chinese-backed projects’, (see also; the Financial Times, 2022). Jayamaha (2022; 236) indicated that ‘Sri Lanka had $7.6 billion in foreign currency reserves at the end of 2019. However, by March 2020, it had exhausted its reserves to just $1.93 billion.’ One of Rajapaksa’s campaign promises was to cut taxes, which he did upon assuming office. His critics faulted this move, claiming it was unnecessary at that particular time. His ban on fertilizers, in a bid for the country to go organic (even though later reversed), had its own effect on local farmers. Rice production for example, fell by 20% following the ban – a move that eventually forced the government to opt for rice importation which was in itself expensive (see also; Nordhaus & Shah 2022). Critics warned that his investments and projects have no substantial and direct impact on the lives of the common people, and that what is the essence of building roads when the common people cannot afford to buy a car to ride on those roads? The fact that people have to queue for petrol for 5 days and only having to work for 1 day or where families cannot afford to feed their children simply shows how the government of Rajapaksa seem to have mismanaged the economy of the country. Of course, the problem of insecurity and the pandemic cannot be left out as crucial factors that have also impacted tourism levels and the economy of the country.

Foreign reserves have depleted, the importation of food is becoming difficult to actualise, living expenses have risen to high levels, the country is struggling with its international loan repayments, the value of Rupees has depreciated, there is inflation in the land, including shortages of food supplies and scarcity of fuel. Those who are familiar with the Sri Lanka’s system will not be particularly surprised at the nationwide protests that have been taking place in different parts of the country since May, because the Rajapaksa’s regime was only sitting on a keg of gun powder, ready to explode.

In an unprecedented fashion on July 9, several footages and images began to emerge online showing how protesters had successfully overpowered the police and had broken into the residence of the President. Their goal was to occupy the presidential palace and chase the president out of his residence. In fact, there are video footages online allegedly showing the motorcade of the president fleeing from his residence as the wave of protest rocked the capital.

Upon gaining entry into the innermost chambers of the president’s dwelling, protesters started touring and taking selfies in euphoria, some of them had quickly jumped into the presidential shower, others helped themselves to some relaxation on the president’s bed after days of protests, some were engaged in a mock presidential meeting in the president’s cabinet office, some preferred to swim in the president’s private pool while others helped themselves to some booze.

Indeed, these extraordinary scenes should not be taken for granted for they again reaffirm WB Yeats classic idea of anarchy (in ‘the second coming’ poem), being the only option to be exercised when the centre can no longer hold.

Of course, some may ask that now that they have invaded the presidential villa, what next? In my view, the people of Sri Lanka seem to be on the right direction as President Rajapaska has eventually bowed to pressure and agreed to resign. The next phase now is for the country to carefully elect a new leader who will revive the sinking ship, amend the economic policies, foster an effective democratic political culture which (hopefully) should bring about a sustainable economic plan and growth reforms.

Importantly, this is a big lesson not just for the political class of Sri Lanka, but for other wasteful leaders who continue to destroy their economies with reckless and disastrous policies. It is a lesson of the falcon and the falconer – for when the falcon can no longer hear the falconer, scenes like these may continue to be reproduced in other locations of the world.

Indeed, things fell apart in Colombo, but it is hoped that the centre will hold again as the country prepare to elect its new leaders.

Here is wishing the people of Colombo, and the entire Sri Lankans all the best in their struggle.

References

Financial Times (2022) [Twitter] 20 July. Available at: https://mobile.twitter.com/FinancialTimes/status/1549554792766361603

Jayamaha, J. (2022) “The demise of Democracy in Sri Lanka: A study of the political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka (Based on the incident of the Rambukkana shooting)”, Sprin Journal of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, 1(05), pp. 236–240. doi: 10.55559/sjahss.v1i05.22.

Nordhaus, T & Shah S, (2022) In Sri Lanka, Organic Farming Went Catastrophically Wrong, March 5, FP. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/03/05/sri-lanka-organic-farming-crisis/

What’s happened to the Pandora papers?

Sometime last week, I was amid a group of friends when the argument about the Pandora papers suddenly came up. In brief, the key questions raised were how come no one is talking about the Pandora papers again? What has happened to the investigations, and how come the story has now been relegated to the back seat within the media space? Although, we didn’t have enough time to debate the issues, I promised that I would be sharing my thoughts on this blog. So, I hope they are reading.

We can all agree that for many years, the issues of financial delinquencies and malfeasants have remained one of the major problems facing many societies. We have seen situations where Kleptocratic rulers and their associates loot and siphon state resources, and then stack them up in secret havens. Some of these Kleptocrats prefer to collect luxury Italian wines and French arts with their ill-gotten wealth, while others prefer to purchase luxury properties and 5-star apartments in Dubai, London and elsewhere. We find military generals participating in financial black operations, and we hear about law makers manipulating the gaps in the same laws they have created. In fact, in some spheres, we find ‘business tycoons’ exploiting violence-torn regions to smuggle gold, while in other spheres, some appointed public officers refuse to declare their assets because of fear of the future. Two years ago, we read about the two socialist presidents of the southern Spanish region and how they were found guilty of misuse of public funds. Totaling about €680m, you can imagine the good that could have been achieved in that region. We should also not forget the case of Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, both of whom (we are told) amassed over $10 billion during their reign in the Philippines. As we can see below that from the offshore leak of 2013 to the Panama papers of 2016 and then the 2017 Paradise papers, data leaks have continued to skyrocket. This simply demonstrates the level to which politicians and other official state representatives are taking to invest in this booming industry.

Via BBC https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-58780561

These stories are nothing new, we have always read about them – but then they fade away quicker than we expect. It is important to note that while some countries are swift in conducting investigation when issues like these arise, very little is known about others. So, in this blog, I will simply be highlighting some of the reasons why I think news relating to these issues have a short life span. 

To start with, the system of financial corruption is often controlled and executed by those holding on to power very firmly. The firepower of their legal defence team is usually unmatchable, and the way they utilise their wealth and connections often make it incredibly difficult to tackle. For example, when leaks like these appear, some journalists are usually mindful of making certain remarks about the situation for the avoidance of being sued for libel and defamation of character. Secondly, financial crimes are always complex to investigate, and prosecution often takes forever. The problem of plurality in jurisdiction is also important in this analysis as it sometimes slows down the processes of investigation and prosecution. In some countries, there is something called ‘the immunity clause’, where certain state representatives are protected from being arraigned while in office. This issue has continued to raise concerns about the position of truth, power, and political will of governments to fight corruption. Another issue to consider is the issue of confidentiality clause, or what many call corporate secrecy in offshore firms. These policies make it very difficult to know who owns what or who is purchasing what. So, for as long as these clauses remain, news relating to these issues may continue to fade out faster than we imagine. Perhaps Young (2012) was right in her analysis of illicit practices in banking & other offshore financial centres when she insisted that ‘offshore financial centers such as the Cayman Islands, often labelled secrecy jurisdictions, frustrate attempts to recover criminal wealth because they provide strong confidentiality in international finance to legitimate clients as well as to the crooks and criminals who wish to hide information – thereby attracting a large and varied client base with their own and varied reasons for wanting an offshore account’, (Young 2012, 136). This idea has also been raised by our leader, Nikos Passas who believe that effective transparency is an essential component of unscrambling the illicit partnerships in these structures.

While all these dirty behaviours have continued to damage our social systems, they yet again remind us how the network of greed remains at the core centre of human injustice. I found the animalist commandant of the pigs in the novel Animal Farm, by George Orwell to be quite relevant in this circumstance. The decree spells: all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. This idea rightly describes the hypocrisy that we find in modern democracies; where citizens are made to believe that everyone is equal before the law but when in fact the law, (and in many instances more privileges) are often tilted in favour of the elites.

I agree with the prescription given by President Obama who once said that strengthening democracy entails building strong institutions over strong men. This is true because the absence of strong institutions will only continue to pave way for powerful groups to explore the limits of democracy. This also means that there must be strong political will to sanction these powerful groups engaging in this ‘thievocracy’.  I know that political will is often used too loosely these days, but what I am inferring here is genuine determination to prosecute powerful criminals with transparency. This also suggests the need for better stability and stronger coordination of law across jurisdictions. Transparency should not only be limited to governments in societies, but also in those havens. It is also important to note that tackling financial crimes of the powerful should not be the duty of the state alone, but of all. Simply, it should be a collective effort of all, and it must require a joint action. By joint action I mean that civil societies and other private sectors must come together to advocate for stronger sanctions. We must seek collective participation in social movements because such actions can bring about social change – particularly when the democratic processes are proving unable to tackle such issues. Research institutes and academics must do their best by engaging in research to understand the depth of these problems as well as proffering possible solutions. Illicit financial delinquencies, we know, thrive when societies trivialize the extent and depth of its problem. Therefore, the media must continue to do their best in identifying these problems, just as we have consistently seen with the works of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and a few others. So, in a nutshell and to answer my friends, part of the reasons why issues like this often fade away quicker than expected has to do with some of the issues that I have pointed out. It is hoped however that those engaged in this incessant accretion of wealth will be confronted rather than conferred with national honors by their friends.

References


BBC (2021) Pandora Papers: A simple guide to the Pandora Papers leak. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-58780561 (Accessed: 26 May 2022)

Young, M.A., 2012. Banking secrecy and offshore financial centres: money laundering and offshore banking, Routledge

Policy, procedures, processes, and failure

Examine any organisation and you will find a myriad of policy and procedures that are designed to inform its processes and guide employees.  On paper, these formalised ideals and directions make absolute sense but frequently they bear no relationship to reality and rather than empowering, they constrain and often demoralise.  These idealistic notions of how an organisation should function facilitate the dehumanising effects of managerial diktat and engender an internalisation of failure amongst employees.

By way of an example, in the 1990s police forces began to consider notions of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in respect of crime investigation.  These SOPs seemed on the face of it to be a good idea.  The police service, driven by government notions of New Public Management, were being measured on crime reduction and crime detection.  Performance indicators were propped up by idealistic notions coming out of government supported by HMIC and the now defunct Audit Commission that catching more criminals would engender a virtuous circle resulting in crime reduction.  Nothing of course, was further from the truth. But the introduction of SOPs was meant to attempt to address police failings. These, certainly in one force, were at the outset seen as a guide, a minimum standard required in an investigation.  They weren’t intended to constrain.

A small department was set up in this force to measure adherence to these SOPs and to report back where there were inherent failures.  For example, on attending a house burglary, the attendant officers were required to take a statement from the householder, and they were required to carry out house to house enquiries in the vicinity.  At the very least, they needed to knock on doors either side of the house that had been burgled and a couple of houses across the road.  Frequently the statement wasn’t taken, or the house-to-house enquiries hadn’t been completed.  It became clear that the officers were failing to carry out simple procedures.  Measuring adherence to SOPs and providing feedback to promote improvement soon resulted in measuring adherence in order to enforce compliance.

In hindsight, there should have been a realisation that the SOPs, far from being helpful were in fact having a detrimental effect.  Where officers could have carried out further investigations based on their professional judgement, they adhered to the minimum required in the SOPs or simply failed to comply with them fully.   This was partially resultant of a notion amongst officers that discretion was being curtailed, but more notably it was driven by other processes and organisational priorities.  These other processes were to do with attendance at other incidents.  Graded as a priority by the control room, officers were being pulled off the burglary investigation and therefore couldn’t comply with the burglary investigation SOPs. Police forces were also being measured on how quickly they responded to and arrived at various calls for service.  There was clearly a direct conflict between management ideals and reality with the officers being set up to fail in one aspect or another.  There were simply not enough staff to do all the work and to manage the overwhelming demands at certain times.

One way of dealing with the failures was to link these to the performance and development review (PDR) process.  The development aspect was a somewhat redundant term as the PDR was all about performance.  Of course, each time the PDR came around the officers had failed to achieve their objectives.  This provided lots of evidence of people not doing their job properly.  In the wider gamut of crime figures officers at various levels began to realise that the only way to avoid accusations of poor performance was to manipulate the crime figures.  In the meantime, those driving the behaviours, washed their hands of them whenever someone was found out, often hiding behind the SOPs and policy.  The misuse of the PDR process and the consistent scrutiny of performance metrics resulted in the internalising of failure by staff.  Whole systems and processes had been set up to measure failure, after all how could success be measured if it could never be achieved.  Of course, it could never be achieved because the ambition and driving force behind this, government’s notions of crime control, were based on ideals and rhetoric not science.  But the overriding fact was that it could never be achieved because there were never enough resources to achieve it. 

The failure of course wasn’t in the officers that didn’t adhere to the SOPs or those that manipulated crime figures to try to avoid overbearing scrutiny, it was the failure of managers to provide adequate resources.  It was a failure of managers to try to understand what reality looked like and it was a failure of managers to deal with the dehumanising effects of policy, procedure and processes.  

Having left the police, I thought higher education would somehow be different.  I don’t think I need to say anymore.

Youth or Adult: can you tell?

This week’s blog begins with a game: youth or adult, secure estate in England and Wales. Below are some statements, and you simply need to guess (educated guesses please), whether the statement is about the youth, or adult secure estate. So, are the statements about children in custody (those under the age of 18 years old) or adults in custody (18+). When you’re ready…

  • 70% decrease in custody in comparison to 10 years ago
  • Segregation, A.K.A Solitary Confinement, used as a way of managing the most difficult individuals and those who pose a risk to themselves or others
  • Racial disproportionality in relation to experiencing custody and being remanded to custody
  • Self-harm is alarmingly high
  • 1/3 have a known mental health disability
  • Homelessness after release is a reality for a high proportion of individuals
  • Over half of individuals released from custody reoffend, this number increases when looking at those sentenced to 6months of less

How many did you answer youth secure estate, and how many adult secure estate? Tally up! Did you find a 50/50 split? Did you find it difficult to answer? Should it be difficult to spot the differences between how children and adults are treated/experience custody?

All of the above relate specifically to children in custody. The House of Commons Committee (2021) have argued that the secure estate for children in England and Wales is STILL a violent, dangerous set of environments which do little to address the needs of children sentenced to custody or on remand. Across the academic literature, there is agreement that the youth estate houses some of the most vulnerable children within our society, yet very little is done to address these vulnerabilities. Ultimately we are failing children in custody! The Government said they would create Secure Schools as a custody option, where education and support would be the focus for the children sent here. These were supposed to be ready for 2020, and in all fairness, we have had a global pandemic to contend with, so the date was pushed to 2022: and yet where are they? Where is the press coverage on the positive impact a Secure School will make to the Youth estate? Does anyone really care? A number of Secure Training Centres (STCs) have closed down across the past 10 years, with an alarmingly high number of the institutions which house children in custody failing Ofsted inspections and HM Inspectorate of Prisons (2021) found violence and safety within these institutions STILL a major concern. Children experience bullying from staff, could not shower daily, experience physical restraint, 66% of children in custody experienced segregation which was an increase from the year prior (HM Inspectorate of Prisons, 2021). These experiences are not new, they are re-occurring, year-on-year, inspection after inspection: when will we learn?

The sad, angry, disgusting truth is you could have answered ‘adult secure estate’ to most of the statements above and still have been accurate. And this rings further alarm bells. In England and Wales, we are supposed to treat children as ‘children first, offenders second’. Yet if we look to the similarities between the youth and adult secure estate, what evidence is there that children are treated as children first? We treat all offenders the same, and we treat them appallingly. This is not a new argument, many have raised the same points and concerns for years, but we appear to be doing very little about it.

We are kidding ourselves if we think we have a separate system for dealing with children who commit crime, especially in relation to custody! It pains me to continue seeing, year on year, report after report, the same failings within the secure estate, and the same points made in relation to children being seen as children first in England and Wales: I just can’t see it in relation to custody- feel free to show me otherwise!

References:

House of Commons Committees (2021) Does the secure estate meet the needs of young people in custody? High levels of violence, use of force and self-harm suggest the youth secure estate is not fit for purpose [Online]. Available at: https://houseofcommons.shorthandstories.com/justice-youth-secure-estate/index.html. [Last accessed 4th April 2022].

HM Inspectorate of Prisons (2021) Children in Custody 2019-2020: An analysis of 12-18-year-old’s perceptions of their experiences in secure training centres and young offender institutions. London: Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons.

They think it’s all over…….

https://www.northampton.ac.uk/news/covid-blog-they-think-its-all-over/

Probably the most famous quote in the history of English football was that made by Kenneth Wolstenholme at the end of the 1966 World Cup final where he stated as Geoff Hurst broke clear of the West German defence to score the 4th goal that “Some people are on the pitch…. they think it’s all over…….it is now”. I have been reminded of this quote as we reach April 1st, 2022 when all Coronavirus restrictions in England essentially come to an end. We are moving from a period of pandemic restrictions to one of “living with Covid”. Whilst the prevailing narrative has focussed on “it’s over” the national data sets would suggest it is most definitely not. We are currently experiencing another wave of infections driven by the Omicron BA-2 variant. Cases of Covid infection have been rising steadily over the past couple of weeks and we are now seeing hospital admissions and deaths rise too. This has led to an interesting tension between current politically driven and public health driven advice.

The overriding question then is why remove all restrictions now if infection rates are so high. The answer sits with science and the success of the vaccination programme, and the protection it affords, which to date has seen 86% of the eligible population have two jabs and 68% boosted with a third. Furthermore, we are now at the start of the Spring booster programme for the over 75s and the most vulnerable. The introduction of the vaccine has seen a dramatic fall in serious illness associated with infection and the UK government now believe that this is a virus we can live with and we should get on with our lives in a sensible and cautious way without the need for mandated restrictions. The advances gained in both the vaccination programme, anti-viral therapies and treatments have been enormous and underpin completely the current and future situation. So, the narrative shifts to one that emphasises learning to live with the virus and to that end the Government has provided us with guidance. The UK Government’s “Living with Covid Plan” COVID-19 Response – Living with COVID-19.docx (publishing.service.gov.uk) has four key principles at its heart:

  • Removing domestic restrictions while encouraging safer behaviours through public health advice, in common with longstanding ways of managing most other respiratory illnesses;
  • Protecting people most vulnerable to COVID-19: vaccination guided by Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advice, and deploying targeted testing;
  • Maintaining resilience: ongoing surveillance, contingency planning and the ability to reintroduce key capabilities such as mass vaccination and testing in an emergency; and
  • Securing innovations and opportunities from the COVID-19 response, including investment in life sciences.

So, in addition to the restrictions already removed from 1 April, the Government will:

  • Remove the current guidance on voluntary COVID-status certification in domestic settings and no longer recommend that certain venues use the NHS COVID Pass.
  • Update guidance setting out the ongoing steps that people with COVID-19 should take to minimise contact with other people. This will align with the changes to testing.
  • No longer provide free universal symptomatic and asymptomatic testing for the general public in England.
  • Consolidate guidance to the public and businesses, in line with public health advice.
  • Remove the health and safety requirement for every employer to explicitly consider COVID-19 in their risk assessments.
  • Replace the existing set of ‘Working Safely’ guidance with new public health guidance

My major concern with these changes is the massive scaling back of infection testing. In doing so we run the risk of creating a data vacuum. Being able to test and undertake scientific surveillance of the virus’s future development would help us identify any future threats from new variants; particularly those classified as being “of concern”. What we should have learned from the past two years is that the ability to understand the virus and rapidly scale up our response is critical.

What is also now abundantly clear from the current data is that this is far from over and it is going to take some time for us to adapt as a society. The ongoing consequences for the most vulnerable sections of our society are still incredibly challenging. It will not be a surprise to any health professional that the pandemic was keenest felt in communities already negatively impacted by health inequalities. This has been the case ever since the publication of the “Black Report” (DHSS 1980), which showed in detail the extent to which ill-health and death are unequally distributed among the population of the UK.  Indeed, there is evidence 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 located in socially deprived communities. Consequently, there is a genuine concern that the most vulnerable to the virus could be left behind in isolation as the rest of society moves on. However, we are now at a new critical moment which most will celebrate. Regardless of whether you believe the rolling back of restrictions is right or not, this moment in time allows us an opportunity to reflect on the past two years and indeed look forward to what has changed and what could happen in terms of both Coronavirus and any other future pandemic.

Looking back, I have no doubt that the last two years have changed life considerably in several  positive and negative ways. Of course, we tend to migrate to the negative first and the overall cost of life, levels of infection and the long-term consequences have been immense. The longer-term implications of Covid (Long Covid) is still something we need to take seriously and fully understand. What is not in doubt is the toll this has had on individuals, families, communities and the future burden it places on our NHS. The psychological impact of social isolation and restrictions has been enormous and especially so for our children, young people, the vulnerable and the elderly. The social and educational development of school children is of particular concern. The wider economic implications of the pandemic will take some time to recover. Yet, whilst the negative implications cause us grave concern many features of our lives have improved. Many have identified that this pandemic has helped them re-asses what is important in life, how important key workers are in ensuring society continues to operate smoothly and the critical role health and social services must play in times of health crisis. Changing perspectives on work, work life balance and alternative ways of conducting business have been embraced and many argue that the world of work will never be the same again.

On that final note it’s important that as a society we have learned from what I have previously described as the greatest public health crisis in my lifetime. Pandemic planning was shown to be woefully inadequate and we must get this better because there is no doubt there will be another pandemic of this magnitude at some point in the future. Proper support for health and social services are critical and the state of the NHS at the start of all this was telling. Yes, it rose to the challenge as it always does but health and social care systems were badly let down in the early stages of this pandemic with disastrous consequences. Proper investment in science and research is paramount, for let’s be honest it was science that came to our rescue and did so in record time. There will inevitably be a large public enquiry into all aspects of the pandemic, its management and outcomes. We can only hope that lessons have been learned and we are better prepared for both the ongoing management of this pandemic and inevitably the next one.

Dr Stephen O’Brien

FHES

Originally posted here

Days to mark on our calendar!

It is common practice to have a day in the year to commemorate something.  In fact, we have months that seemed to be themed with specific events.  I look at the diary at the days/months which are full of causes, some incredibly important, others commemorating and then there are those more trivial.  Days in a year to make a mark to remind us of things.  An anniversary of events that brings something back to a collective consciousness.  Once the day/month is over, we busily prepare for the next event, month and somehow between the months and days, I cannot help but wonder; what is left after the day/month? 

When International Women’s Day was originally established, at the beginning of the 20th century, socialism was a driving political movement and women’s suffrage was one of the main social issues; since then other issues have been added whilst the main issue of equality remains on the cards.  Has women’s movement advanced through the commemoration of International Women’s Day?  Debatable if it had an impact.  Originally the day was a call for strikes and the mobilisation of women workers. Today it is a day in the calendar that allows politicians to utter platitudes about how important the day is, and of course how much we respect and love women these days!  It is hardly a representation of what it was or set out to be.  Like so many, numerous other events are marked on our calendar, but wehave lost sight of what they were originally set out to be. 

Consider the importance of a day to commemorate the Nazi Holocaust.  Never again!  The promise that such a mass crime should never happen; the recognition that genocide has no place in our respective societies.  Since that genocide, numerous others have taken place, not to mention the mass murder, violent relocations, and the massacres and ethnic cleanings that have happened since.  Somehow the “never again”, to people in Biafra, East Timor, Rwanda, Darfur, former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and many other places simply sounds ironic!  We commemorate the day, but we do not honour the spirit of that day. 

In this mixture of days and months we also have days for mothers, fathers, lovers, friends, hugs, happiness, and many other national and international events.  To commemorate or to offer a moment of reflection.  Somehow the reflection is lost and for some of these days, millions of people are required to purchase something to demonstrate that they care or worst still, to make something!  How many mothers worldwide have had to admire badly made pottery or badly drawn cards from kids who wanted to say “I love you” on one specific day.  Leaves me to wonder what they would want to say on all other days! 

So, is it better to forget them? Get rid of these days and if anyone suggests the creation of another, we feed them to crocodiles?  It would have been easy from one point to end them all.  Social issues are never easily resolved so we can recognise that a day or a month does not resolve them!  It raises awareness but it’s not the solution.  In the old days when the Olympics started there was a call for truce.  They did not allow for the games to take place whilst a war was happening.  Tokenism? Perhaps, but also the recognition that for events to have any credibility they need to go beyond words; they must have actions associated with them.  What if those actions go further than the day/month of the commemoration?  Imagine if we respect and honour women, not only on IWD but every day, imagine if we treat people with the respect, they deserve beyond BHM, LGBTQ+ months?  Maybe it is difficult but if we recognise it to be right, we ought to try.  We know that the Holocaust was a bad thing so lets not just remember it…lets avoid it from happening …Never again! 

Higher education, students, the strikes and me*

It was somewhat disappointing to read some of the comments purportedly from a university student in our local newspaper the other week. Critical of the current UCU industrial action and its impact on students, the student suggested that lecturers knew what they were signing up for and should just get on with it. I found it interesting and somewhat incongruent with what the national student union stance is (actually, I was livid).  I know there has been a response to the article from the local union representative and other comments perhaps suggesting that my previous blog should be read (I wouldn’t think anyone in their right mind would have signed up for what I described). But just to be clear, I signed (or my union did on my behalf) a contract that states I am required to work 37 hours a week with the occasional evening or weekend work and that the normal working week is Monday to Friday.  I take the meaning of ‘occasional’ as the definition found in the English dictionary (take your pick as to which one you’d like to use), which is not ‘permanently’ or ‘all of the time’ or ‘ad infinitum’.  I can only speak for myself and not for my colleagues, but I don’t mind working a little longer at times and working the weekend to do marking or open days, but I didn’t sign up to be working all of the time.  So, for me the industrial action is not just about my working conditions but about a contract, a legal obligation, which I am fulfilling but my employer seems to suggest that I am not because I am not working far in excess of my contracted hours.  That to me, is illogical.  

I remember a discussion where a senior manager stated that bullying included giving someone excessive workloads. I wonder whether that means that most lecturers are being bullied by management, isn’t there a policy against that? And then I seem to recall that there is some legislation against inequality, would that not include paying lower wages to women, disabled staff and people from minority ethnic groups? Systemic bullying and discrimination, not a pretty picture in higher education.  

But perhaps the most important point is that as lecturers we don’t want to impact our student’s education, and this shouldn’t be about us versus the students.  It’s what management would like because it detracts from so many issues that plague our higher education system.  Students should quite rightly be unhappy with their lot.  A system that plunges students into a lifetime of debt that they will rarely if ever be able to repay and at the same time lines the pockets of private companies seems to me to be immoral.  A system that requires students to pay extortionate fees for accommodation is completely bonkers especially when it means the less affluent students have to work to afford to live.  A system that requires students to study for approximately 46 hours per week in semester time (If we accept that they are entitled to holiday time) seems overly punitive. Couple this with the need to work to afford to live and it becomes unsustainable.  Add to that any caring responsibilities or anything else that complicates their lives, and it starts to look impossible.  I and my colleagues are not really surprised that so many fail to properly engage, if at all, and that there are so many stressed students and students with mental health issues.  Of course, if we add to that individual capabilities, think unconditional offers and low school grades and let’s be honest widening participation becomes simply a euphemism for widening deBt, misery and, more importantly establishment profit. 

The students were on strike for one day the other week, someone asked me why, well I rest my case.  Whilst I understand student anger about the strikes, that anger is directed at the wrong people.  We all signed up for something different and it’s simply not being delivered.    

*The first part of this entry can be found here.

Higher education, the strikes and me

I joined the UCU last year, the first time I’d ever been a member of a union in my 43 years of working life. Admittedly, thirty years of that working life was spent in policing where membership of a union was unlawful.  Yes, there was the Police Federation but to be honest it was a bit of a toothless tiger.  During my career I saw successive governments hack away at pay and conditions in policing, sometimes only to be halted from catastrophic changes when they thought there might be an all-out mutiny, an example of which was the reaction to the Sheehy Inquiry in the early 1990s.  In that policing career I was called upon to be involved in policing of pickets, sometimes peaceful, sometimes not.  I never thought about joining a union or being part of a picket and when I started a second career in Higher Education, I didn’t think about it then.  But my experiences in higher education over the last few years has driven me to join a union, mismanagement in various guises, has driven me to join.

I thought it somewhat ironic when I first saw the UCU posters declaring ‘we are at breaking point’; too late I thought, I’ve already been broken, and whilst I may have recovered, the scars are still there.  Thirty years of policing, with all the horrors, the stresses and the strains didn’t break me, but 7 years of higher education managed to do so.

A couple of years ago, having been ill, resulting a short stay in hospital, I found myself on a farcical fast track of phased return to work.  I managed to get back to some form of normality with the help of my colleagues, who took the brunt of my workload; I will return to that later.  The new normality was however short lived, Covid hit, and we all went into lockdown and teaching online.  It seemed that we might weather the storm and later the same year, amidst reported complaints from students about lockdowns, teaching online and mental health, our institution like nearly every other university in the country vowed there would be face-to-face teaching.  And of course, if you promise it, you have to deliver it, particularly if you are under pressure from national student bodies about refunds and the like.  As Covid took hold in earnest, as reports came in about people dying in the thousands, as the proliferation of news suggested who were the most vulnerable, and as we saw 50% of our team leave to join other institutions, our managers continued to insist that we do face to face teaching.  Three members of staff could work 5 days a week, teaching over 250 students.  The maths was confounding, the incredibility of it all was only surpassed by the staggering management determination to ensure that at least 2 hours of face-to-face teaching took place.  The breath-taking simple-mindedness saw suggestions of cramming students, 40 at time into hired, poorly ventilated, venues.  The risks were quite simply ignored, government guidelines were side-lined as were the university’s promises of a Covid secure environment.  It was apparent, nobody cared; all that mattered was delivery of 2 hours of face-to-face teaching. The university had decreed it and so it had to be done.

If that wasn’t bad enough, our team had to endure machinations around how many new staff to advertise for.  Three had left to be replaced by two because of the uncertainty around student recruitment. Even when we had ridden the wave of Covid, if we survived it unscathed, we were to be worked to the bone. The fifty to sixty odd hours a week would have to be increased. Nobody cared, just do what you are told and get on with it. Make use of associate lecturers, we were told, when we had very few and they were threatening to leave.  Recruit more, from where we asked and what about their training?  Such trivial matters were met with stony silence, face to face teaching, that was the mantra.

I remember one meeting, my colleagues will tell you about one meeting, where enough was enough. I was done and I couldn’t do anymore, I didn’t argue, I didn’t get cross, I just stopped, numbed by the sheer callousness and stupidity of it all.  Signed off sick with work related stress I was told I was mentally burnt out.  I was asked whether I ever switched off from work, the answer was no.  Not because I didn’t want to, of course I did.  But with lectures to prepare and deliver, with modules to manage, with Blackboard sites to build, with expectations of visiting schools and working open days, with expectations of helping with validations, with the incessant marking and second marking with dissertation tutorials and personal academic tutorship and the myriad of other tasks, I couldn’t switch off.  Working evenings and weekends to keep up has been the norm, working even harder to buy space to take annual leave became unmanageable.  Hollow words from management suggesting we have to take our annual leave.  Hollow because they do not give you the time to do it.  An extra closed day was the reward for our hard work, thank you, I worked that day as well.  And after my absence from work, another attempt at fast tracking my phased return.  And a return to full time work just meant a continuation of the fifty hours plus working week.  My colleagues took a lot of work, too much work, to try to help manage workloads.  So not just a return to challenging workloads for me but a guilt trip as well, as I felt I hadn’t been pulling my weight.  On the one hand the institution makes the right noises, Covid safe environments and occupational health assistance and on the other its managers give scant regard for the human beings that work for them. Utilising outdated and unfathomable workload management tools, they manipulate data to provide a thin veneer of logic and fairness.  If ever there were a good example of neo-Taylorism, look no further than higher education.   

I’ve been on strike because of what happened to me and because of what is happening to my colleagues across the country.  A failure to acknowledge working conditions, a failure to treat staff with dignity and respect and a failure to provide equal opportunity shows how little managers care for higher education vis-a-vis profit.  I’ve been on strike because I don’t want my colleagues to be burnt out.  I’ve been on strike because I don’t know how else to try to change the future for those that work in higher education.  I don’t want to strike, I don’t want to impact my student’s education, but my colleagues are at breaking point, what else should we do?

“…the result is the same:  beasts of prey and ignorant thieves”

Photograph by AP in The Guardian

Since the ousting of a close Putin ally (ex-President Viktor Yanukovich) from Ukrainian politics and territory in 2014 during the Euromaidan revolution, the closeness the country had come to actually joining the defensive NATO alliance seems to have irked Putin enough to swiftly “recognise the independence” of, as with Crimea in 2014, two Eastern-Ukrainian regions, Donetsk and Luhansk. It is not a new politically strategic move and certainly not unique to Russia. Examples of this kind of act can be seen around the world in regions where complex power interplays are rendering regional enclaves powerless in garnering enough support for the recognition of their own independence from oppressive regimes, genocide or in securing mere rights to self-determination (e.g. Kashmir in Northern India, Artsakh in South-Eastern Armenia etc.).

Yesterday morning we awoke to the news that Russia’s Vladimir Putin had ordered a full-scale attack on Ukrainian sovereign territory, in violation of international law (among many other violations of basic morality and human decency). I should emphasise here that this is a Putin-centred issue rather than one which encompasses the Russian Federation, since it is not inconceivable to suggest that ordinary Russian citizens are not particularly excited that their relatives, friends, children are being sent to die like cattle in another country while their billionaire leader basks in complete safety in his ivory tower. With an attack from the northern, eastern and southern borders of the country…and now the imminent arrival of Russian troops in Ukraine’s capital Kiev…this does not seem like just a case of Putin’s desire to rebuild a modern-day Russian empire incorporating its former Soviet nations, but a much deeper personal desperation to be seen to be the only globally-remaining strong leader.

The stepping down of Angela Merkel in Germany, ousting of Donald Trump from the US, and the failure of Brexit in achieving what he thought would be a political and economic disaster for the European Union, have all contributed to Putin’s desperation. The poisoning and subsequent arrest/detention of Alexei Navalny, the populist Russian opposition leader who in recent years managed to almost successfully stage a political coop against Putin, demonstrates the lengths Putin will go to convince his increasingly oppressed citizens that the alternative to his leadership will equate to the kinds of political and economic failures they have witnessed of Western nations.

It is clear that the UK’s sanctions have not gone near far enough in preventing the kinds of miscarriages of justice that will inevitably follow from Putin’s appointment of a de facto Russian leader on Ukrainian soil without democratic support from the Ukrainian people. But I wonder whether the seemingly lazy response from Boris Johnson and the UK Conservative Party is indicative of the deeply-rooted corruption which helped his eventual election into British politics. We had for many years been aware of the extent of foreign money laundering through UK banks by Russian and Azerbaijani oligarchs, the billions of pounds’ worth of UK property owned by those with close ties to the Kremlin, the millions donated to fund the Conservative Party, and perhaps most significantly, the “we’ll return the favour” investments by Conservative politicians in Russian-owned banks, stocks and shares. Is it then surprising that Putin was so supportive of the Brexit campaign and the election of Donald Trump, both seemingly aimed at destabilising the West; the US, UK and EU? Surely, now is the time for the British public to demand the highest level of openness and transparency of their politicians, particularly those who have already been elected under the banner of lies. Perhaps this will help in our collective political and economic response to miscarriages abroad, as well as within our borders.

NATO nations’ unwillingness to intervene, militarily, in this conflict is evidently the green light Putin needed to set foot in sovereign territory under the guise of “denazification” (bizarre considering Volodymyr Zelenskyy – the current Ukrainian President –  is himself Jewish).  This should form a stark reminder to former Soviet nations not to be seduced by the thought of reliving some kind of Soviet nostalgia of perceived religious and cultural similarities with Russia which has been drip-fed for many years since the collapse of the USSR. Those living in this hazy nostalgic dream will soon forget the reality that the experience of a Russian invasion will be grounded not in the form of communism which once secured its citizens with guaranteed housing, easy employment, and annual trips to the sanatorium…but in a dangerous oppressive dictatorship and an isolationist economic model. To quote a well-known message from a 1993 Russian film Window to Paris: ‘Sure. You brought up builders of communism. Now, it’s builders of capitalism. And the result is the same: beasts of prey and ignorant thieves’.

Former Soviet nations not aiding and abetting the current aggression in Ukraine (as Belarus is doing) should now be alert to the fact that they will never be safe in a military limbo, nor under Putin’s wing. It is a time where citizens of these regions should let go of any hope of a return to a “simpler way of life” and move to securing effective political and military support for their nations away from Russian influence.

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