Remembering and forgetting the Woolf Report

By David Scott

Lord Justice Woolf’s Prison Disturbances April 1990: Report of An Inquiry (1991) is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and progressive reports in the history of prisons in England and Wales.

The Woolf Report (1991) was commissioned in the aftermath of the disturbances at HMP Strangeways between 1 – 25 April 1990. The Strangeways disturbances were the longest in UK penal history and sparked riots in twenty-five further institutions, including Glen Parva, Dartmoor, Cardiff, Bristol and Pucklechurch. On publication the Woolf Report was acclaimed as the blueprint for prison policy for the next three decades. So, should those of us looking to end the barbaric penal regimes pertaining in prisons in England and Wales today, still be looking to Woolf for inspiration nearly 30 years on?

Prisoners on the roof at Strangeways Prison in 1990. Photo Credit: Rex

First of all, the proposals of the Woolf Report were not really that innovative. Many of the assumptions of the Woolf Report are based on the ideas of penal realism and the concept of “humane containment”, first articulated in the 1969 Home Office white paper People in Prison. Recognising that prisons are expensive ways of making people worse, penal realism calls for a minimum use of custody; minimum use of security with greater links between the community and the prison. Prisons should contain prisoners in safe custody and daily conditions and practices grounded in universally agreed basic standards.

Yet although the report went beyond merely a focus on ‘security and control’ and also advocated ‘justice’ as the third of his key themes, he tied this commitment to the Prison Service to follow its own Statement of Purpose. Prison authorities are under an obligation to look after prisoners with humanity and to help to encourage their charges to live a law-abiding life both whilst in custody and after release.

Second, the proposals of the report were not really that progressive. Although Woolf made 12 central recommendations and a further 204 supporting recommendations, his proposals were largely policy signposts that were not very specific in terms of their application and he largely restricted his analysis to administrative questions, offering minor adjustments and revisions to the aims, policies, and procedures of the prison.

Further, his apparently liberal reforms were often justified on a consequentialist basis which were predicated on prisoner responsibilities and, in the long run, reducing re-offending. This included his promotion of ‘justice’ (which meant procedural fairness and decent living conditions). Prisoners had a legitimate expectation, not an absolute legal right, to be treated humanely. The commitment to decent prison conditions was predicated upon prisoners acting with responsibility. Lord Justice Woolf was:

… not seeking to achieve more comfortable surroundings, greater luxuries or increased privileges for prisoners for their own sakes. To think that would be to fundamentally misconceive the argument. We are seeking to ensure that a prisoner serves his sentence in a way which is consistent with the purpose behind the courts decision to take away his liberty and his freedom of movement, while ensuring he is treated with humanity and justice.

Prisoners were conceived to have privileges that could be earned by good behaviour, rather than inalienable rights. Further, the main aims of the report were undoubtedly to restore the authority, legitimacy and stability of the prison service and ultimately to create an environment that would reduce the likelihood or prevent a re-occurrence of the events of April 1990.

The liberal line adopted limited the report and failed to evaluate the deeply problematic nature of punishment or examine those intractable and inherent problems reflecting the deep malaise in the prison estate. Rather than open up the agenda to questions regarding the actual legitimacy of imprisonment, the aim of the report was to silence such radical critique. The parameters of legitimated knowledge remained relatively unchanged by the report, as did any progress towards a genuine commitment to assess the role of prisons from a human rights perspective.

Given its historical significance, it is important that those lobbying for penal change remember the Woolf Report, but this should be as an illustration of how official discourse co-opts progressive ideas. As a blueprint for the future of how we deal with human wrongdoing though, we should forget the Woolf Report. The consensus on prisons that must emerge in our historical conjuncture has to go beyond penal realism and embrace the genuinely innovative and progressive ideas of penal abolitionism.

Contra Woolf, this means focusing on the responsibilities of the powerful rather than prisoners; prioritising the accountability of the state and its agents rather than emphasising that of its subjects; conceiving justice in terms of social justice and the promotion of human wellbeing and the meeting of need for all; and questioning the very moral and political legitimacy of the penal apparatus of the capitalist state.

For those wishing to bring an end to the penal barbarism of the present, inspiration should not come from Woolf, but rather from the grassroots abolitionist movements and all those struggling elsewhere around the globe for the defunding of the police and its replacement by peace officers who are committed to safety and protection. It is only by situating progressive penal change within the context of tackling existing social divisions and the development of social policies that can deliver better housing, education, welfare services and jobs that we will find solutions to the problems that have haunted penal regimes since their inception.

This blog was originally posted on the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies website:

Further Reading:

Dr David Scott is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at The Open University.

Critical reflections on participatory visual methods and voice

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Dan McCulloch critically explores claims of a relationship between participatory visual research methods and ‘voice’. Dan McCulloch is a Lecturer in Criminology and Social Policy at The Open University.

Social research sometimes makes commendable, but at times under-evidenced, claims to raise the ‘voices’ of ‘marginal’ groups or individuals. However, it often remains unclear what is meant by voice in such assertions, with voice having numerous possible meanings, as this article explores. Related to this, recent years have seen an explosion in the use of participatory visual methods. One of the reasons for employing such methods is their supposed benefit for the voices of those involved as participants.  The proclaimed advantages of participatory visual methods include (but are not limited to):

  • the proclaimed communicative power of the visual to go beyond the written word;
  • the possibilities for collaboration and co-creation between those who might normally be called researchers (or facilitators) and participants (or co-creators);
  • the potential for challenging power imbalances between researchers and participants;
  • the possibilities and opportunities for self-reflection for participants;
  • the potential for visual ‘outputs’ to generate dialogue and influence others (for example with policy makers or different community groups as ‘audiences’).

However, like claims about voice, the evidence base for such assertions is sometimes ambiguous.

Between September 2017 and March 2019, the participatory visual methods and voice project (on which I was the Principle Investigator) aimed to critically explore the relationship between participatory visual methods and voice. I hosted workshops with researchers and facilitators to explore our perspectives on participatory visual methods and voice; in addition to exploring the viewpoints of those involved in a participatory visual project as participants and as audiences.  

A key starting point was that far from being universally accepted, the meaning of voice is vastly contested and can be conceptualised in various ways. For example, dictionary definitions of voice show that this can be understood as either a noun or a verb (to voice). Moving beyond this basic conception, Wendy Luttrell and Richard Chalfen highlight in their introduction to a special issue of the journal Visual Studies on participatory visual research and voice, that a definition of voice might include “a capacity for reflection, commentary, perspicacity, creativity and reflexivity about oneself in relation to one’s social context. Still, the concept of voice spans different terrains” (2010, p. 199 [emphasis added]).

In his book about why voice matters, Nick Couldry (2010) suggests that voice can be understood as both a process (of giving an account of one’s life and the world in which we act); and a value – through giving weight to ways of structuring society that allow for voice as a process, particularly ‘voice that matters’. The notion of ‘voice that matters’ refers to both expressing one’s own voice, and to the right to be heard or listed to by others. In this sense, voice might be understood as being linked to the politics of representation (Thomson, 2009; Dreher, 2012; Fairey, 2017). Furthermore, questions persist in the literature around whether voice is ‘given’, ‘negotiated’, ‘constructed’, ‘co-created’, or a combination of these things and others. While these formulations each imply slightly different things, they share a sense that it may belong to individuals or groups, but that voice can also affected by researchers, as well as situational factors such as the context of production.

Findings from workshops with researchers also showed a number of meanings of voice, including suggestions that voice relates to a person’s or group’s beliefs, experiences, perspectives, opinions and understandings. Thus, this might be thought of as broadly relating to the expression of oneself, and being able to tell something about one’s story or perspective. In this way, these definitions have similarities to Luttrell and Chalfen’s definition, but just as those authors propose, the concept of voice can also have different focal points.

In exploring meanings of voice with participants and audiences, it also became clear that voice can be a jargonistic term – with its meaning sometimes being thought of in relation to a much more literal sense of speaking. As such, it’s important to remain aware that our own conceptions of voice may differ from those who are involved in research projects. Even in thinking beyond this literal definition, voice had very different meanings (and was linked to different motives for being involved) for participants, such as leaving a legacy beyond one’s own death; voicing one’s concerns; a way to share a person’s own opinion; and a means to share one’s sense of injustice. As such, voice can be multi-dimensional and have different meanings for those involved within a single project.

It was also made clear within workshops with researchers that voice is social, requiring an understanding and ability to communicate using the tools of recognised languages in order to connect with others. However, researchers also suggested that there are questions about when voice is valid, as the narratives and stories we tell are constructions – meaning that there are questions about where, when, and for whom they are valid. This is perhaps particularly important in thinking about the relationship between participatory visual methods and voice, because visual communication also has normative ‘good’ languages and cultures, particularly in relation to ‘visual voices’ (Luttrell, 2010; Fairey, 2017). Thus, there are problems with presuming that all people are able to communicate in normatively ‘good’ visual ways. As such, there may be a call for participants to be versed in visual literacy and norms, as well as norms around voice and narrative. However, briefing participants in this way couldmean that researchers care unduly influencing the research.

The responsibility that researchers or facilitators bear for the voices of others was also discussed with researchers, including the role they can play in influencing the parameters of power relationships in research projects. One such example is the way in which those who facilitate such projects can amplify some voices and silence others – especially in our editorial role. For example, we might edit out those voices which appear incoherent, which do not fit our overall narrative, or which may not maximise external influence or impact – to fit either our own or other people’s sense of ‘good voices’.

“Visual Tag” by cogdogblog is licensed under CC BY 2.0

These issues trouble conceptualisations of participatory visual methods. Whilst the boundary of what counts as a visual method is contested, the extent to which a piece of research can be considered participatory is particularly contentious. Practices of participation can vary between and within projects, and can refer to (among other things) self-determination and agency; challenging traditional roles within research; the power imbalance that results; ‘ownership’ of stories told; and respect for everyday experiences and practices of participants.

Reflections from participants and audiences drew attention to a range of considerations for researchers in working with participatory visual methods. For example, adopting a single and uniform approach to participation can mean that projects work well for some participants, but not so well for others. Such issues are particularly pertinent in thinking about whose voices become more (and less) raised within projects.

These reflections also made clear that motives for becoming (and remaining) involved in a project can differ, with each person having their own intentions and goals, as well as the potential for some shared priorities. Furthermore, these motives and goals can also differ to those of the researcher. As such, participation is as a negotiated and ongoing process throughout projects, and may need to be tailored and personalised in order for projects to be worthwhile for everyone involved.

Further, participants and audiences did speak positively about the visual as being able to go beyond the spoken word, with audiences particularly talking about the impact of visual representations. However, they also highlighted that as visual representations are constructed narratives, there is a need to remain critical about what is presented.

Most fundamentally, researchers, participants and audiences all highlighted that they felt there was no guaranteed relationship between participatory visual methods and voice – and that there was a need for researchers not to presume such a relationship, nor to overstate its significance for those involved in projects.

Thus, whilst participatory visual methods can offer value as a research approach, it’s also important for researchers to remain aware of the trade-offs and tensions involved in any participatory visual project. Some of those have been discussed here, but there are many further considerations in carrying out any participatory visual project. Importantly, these often manifest in different ways for each project – and as such, it’s important for those of us utilising participatory visual methods to continually critically reflect on the claims and assumptions we make about the meaning of voice, the value of the visual, and what we consider to be participatory about participatory visual methods.

Further details about the participatory visual methods and voice project can be found at:

This article was originally posted on The Sociological Review blog on the 26th of May 2020 at

What would a world without prisons be like?

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

We take prisons for granted – but how effective are they? Are there better alternatives? In a new BBC ideas video, David Scott and Deborah H. Drake ask what a world without prisons would be like. The video is available to view at:

The video is accompanied by Scott and Drake’s Abolition in Questions: Part One, a previous HERC blog post, which is available to view at:

Why educate prisoners?

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Stephen Akpabio-Klementowski considers the arguments for educating prisoners. Stephen Akpabio-Klementowski is a PhD candidate in Criminology, Associate Lecturer, and Regional Manager in the Students in Secure Environments team, at The Open University.

‘Why educate prisoners’ is a question that is always implicit in UK penal policy but, rarely ever explicitly addressed. For instance, the most recent government review of education in prisons which was conducted by Dame Sally Coates in 2016 failed to address this question directly. Admittedly, the review focused on prisoners’ access to education and the quality of education provided. However, it was a missed opportunity to state or restate the reasons and benefits of educating prisoners to their full potential. This blog addresses this question head on.

Prison education historically

Although widely known for their brutality, the Victorians were the first to recognise the futility of simply locking people up in the pursuit of punishment without doing something to address the underlying issues that brought them to prison. Their solution was to give prisoners access to learning and instructional activities (another term for education). Indeed, this has become one enduring feature of the UK’s criminal justice system. However, when it comes to Higher Education in prison, the approach is currently somewhat chaotic, which means that for many prisoners, access to Higher Education can be a lottery, depending on the particular prison that they find themselves in.

For example, structural barriers such as the so-called ‘six-year rule’ has the effect of restricting and discouraging engagement with the limited Higher Education opportunities available to prisoners. The six-year rule requires prisoners to be within six years of their earliest release date, in order to secure a student loan to fund their undergraduate degrees. This clearly restricts the number of prisoners who are eligible for loans and blocks some students from accessing HE. Indeed, no other cohort of potential Higher Education student is subject to any such condition.

Education as a human right

According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Vernor Muñoz, “learning in prison through educational programmes is generally considered to have an impact on recidivism, reintegration and, more specifically, employment outcomes upon release. Education is however much more than a tool for change; it is an imperative in its own right.” (Munoz, 2009). However, like other civil, political, economic and social rights denied to prisoners, the right to education is inequitable to what is available to their peers in the community.

Education as a public good

According to the Ministry of Justice, “research evidence strongly suggests that education in prison can help people desist (move away) from offending”. The UK has one of the highest rates of reoffending in the Western world and this comes at huge costs to both taxpayers and victims. Encouraging engagement with education in prisons should be a priority as it has been shown to work in reducing reoffending.

According to official sources, 42% of adult prisoners report having been permanently excluded from school. Out of 101,600 learners, under the previous OLASS (Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service) contracts for prison education, only 100 prisoners participated in a full Level 3 course (equivalent to ‘A’ level) in 2014/15, with none participating at Level 4 which is equivalent to first year undergraduate or above (MoJ, Unlocking Potential, 2016). Recognition of the importance of education in prisons appears to have been lost (Coates, 2016). Considering that most prisoners will eventually be released back into the community at some point, there is a need to ensure that they develop the right skills and gain useful qualifications whilst in custody, to help facilitate their successful reintegration back into society. Thus, they may be better able to avoid the ‘revolving door’ that prison can be for many people.

A safer working environment

Many people would agree that the prison presents a difficult and challenging environment for both prisoners and staff, especially those working on the Wings. For instance, the threat and use of violence is a constant feature of daily prison life and it has been noted that “There is no evidence punishment works under any circumstances but much evidence that punishment (especially severe punishment) encourages violent or otherwise undesirable behaviour.  Thus, the idea that the particular punishments that prisons deliver will transform people and encourage (or force) them to lead better lives upon release is fundamentally flawed.” (Drake and Scott, 2017). Conversely, a prison full of people engaged in purposeful learning activities which can help improve their well-being and is likely to generate a different, more positive atmosphere.

Academic research conducted by the Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA), a network of academics with an interest in prison education suggests that education in prison serves many purposes and significantly improves prisoners’ sense of well-being, an antidote to what Sykes (1958) describes as the ‘pains of imprisonment’. Other benefits include increasing human and social capital, knowledge, skills and employability.

A practitioner’s perspective

As someone who has been involved in education in prisons for almost two decades now, my experience has provided me with unique insights and knowledge about the value of educating those in custody.

As a student in prison, I found a culture where learning was disincentivised, almost frowned upon. The idea that you could put your time to better use than education was ever present and that can have a draining effect on a student.

As a regional manager for a university with students in prison, my role involves working with the prison authorities to facilitate higher education (HE) study in their establishments. My experience in this role has helped to highlight the many difficulties faced by both prisoners who wish to engage in higher level study and prison staff who are tasked with supporting them.

I also lecture Year 1 criminology students and have a number of prisoners in my student group. In my experience, these students are amongst the most dedicated and committed you can come across. This is magnified when you consider the conditions under which prisoners are forced to learn and study.

In summary

The benefits of educating prisoners are numerous. For example, education can aid prisoners’ personal development and improve their sense of well-being, thereby contributing to an improved prison environment for prisoners and staff alike. In addition, it can help to reduce the financial cost of reoffending and the number of victims of crime, thus helping prisoners with their successful reintegration back into society. This, I believe, is a key objective for the prison service.

This blog was originally posted at OpenLearn – – and is accompanied by a short film at BBC Ideas

Alternative Perspectives to nature

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

Dr. Eleni Dimou looks at how we have lost our relationality to nature and considers alternative indigenous perspectives that view human beings in connection and complementarity with Mother Earth.

The origin of the recent pandemic of COVID-19 that has affected significantly everybody’s life around the world, has been traced to be most likely Wuhan’s live wildlife market in China. A market, which is used from a minority of rich and powerful individuals in China. What happens in this and similar markets around the world is that alive non-human animals are being stacked for human consumption one on top of the other, which increases the possibility for viruses to pass from one species to another. This was allegedly the case with COVID-19, which passed from a bat to a pangolin before infecting humans.

What is important to understand through Wuhan’s example, however, is that not only in China but around the world’s global capitalist economy, non-human animals and nature in its entirety, are considered simply as ‘resources’ to be used, consumed, exploited and destroyed for profit. Perceiving the Earth and non-human entities as resources is a result of the dominance of Western frameworks of knowledge over the rest of the world – among which the economic system of capitalism, which prioritises profit over life. Some of the consequences of the dominance of this Western framework is not only COVID-19 but also climate change that threatens life on the planet as a whole.

Myanmar Illicit Endangered Wildlife Market. Photograph by Dan Bennett / Wikimedia Commons

So how did we come to this? You may have heard of ‘cogito ergo sum’ (I think therefore I am). This quote by Descartes is one of the most important Western philosophical quotes and a key pillar of the Enlightenment, which dawned during the 17th century. Also called as the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, was associated with European conceptions of science, reason, progress, free-will, order and control. Descartes by privileging the mind came to construct binaries that constituted what it means to be human: human versus nature, reason versus nature. As such, if humankind was distinct from the natural world, then we could in fact treat it as our servant, as a resource to be exploited, as our slave. Descartes quote non only marked the beginning of what we term as the modern world in the West but also the Age of the Anthropocene or Anthropocentrism, whereby human life is considered to be the most important form of life; it is superior to nature and other non-human animals, and as such it is seen to be the centre of the world. The Earth though is not anthropocentric and if we carry on treating it as we have done for the past centuries, it will continue to exist without us, as it has done for billions of years. So could we do something differently?

The Earth is not only pieces of dust from which we were born. The Earth is history. The Earth is Mother. The Earth is Eternal Father. That is why we are all brothers and sisters: the humans, the animals and things. The Earth is dignity. The Earth is the Spirit of our people and our ancestors. The Earth is Life itself from the indigenous point of view. The Earth is history. It is difficult for the white Westerner to understand it in that way.  

Berito Cobaria: Spiritual Leader of the U’wa tribe Colombia [(Cidemos, 2016) translation from Spanish by the author]

Cobaria’s quote provides the essence of how many indigenous cultures around the world have viewed the relationship of humans with the Earth: as one of coexistence, connection and complementarity. Mother Earth is a living spirit to which humans are only one part of its interconnected whole. That is why for many of these civilizations the Western binary distinction between humans and nature makes no sense, as everything is interconnected. Despite the fact that indigenous knowledges have been suppressed, silenced, discredited and almost erased in some cases from the past centuries’ dominance of Western frameworks of knowledge, in recent years some positive developments of resurfacing indigenous knowledges have been taking place. Bolivia and Ecuador for example have passed into their constitution laws which grant all nature equal rights to humans. Perhaps then a more global paradigm shift that draws in indigenous ‘nature wisdom’ is needed if we are to reverse the destructive consequences of our practices over the past centuries.

This blog was originally posted at OpenLearn – and is accompanied by a short film at BBC Ideas,

Primodos: The first step towards Justice

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Sharon Hartles reflects upon the significant impacts of avoidable harms that have been perpetuated for decades through a culture of denial and an absence of state and corporate pharmaceutical accountability. Sharon Hartles was awarded an MA in Crime and Justice (with distinction) from The Open University in December 2019 and is a member of HERC. 

Primodos was the most widely used hormone pregnancy test prescribed to women in the UK. During 1958 to 1970 Primodos was marketed as a hormone pregnancy test and for the treatment of secondary amenorrhea. However, this was changed to just the treatment of secondary amenorrhea from 1970 to 1978, at which stage Primodos was withdrawn from the UK market. When Primodos was placed on the UK market in 1958 there was no centralised structured pharmaceutical regulation. In other words, no licence was required, no specific safety test was needed and there was no general consumer protection legislation.

In 1978, the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests, was set up in the UK to represent families who suffered congenital abnormalities, stillbirths and miscarriages, allegedly due to taking the oral hormone pregnancy test Primodos. Decades of fighting for justice to uncover the truth about the failures of past Government Health Regulatory Authorities led to a review being commissioned in February 2018, by Jeremy Hunt, the then, Secretary of State.

The announcement in the House of Commons was for a review into how the health system responds to reports about harmful side effects from medicines. This stemmed from patient-led activist campaigns on the use of: hormone pregnancy test Primodos, sodium valproate and surgical mesh. Jeremy Hunt stated “patients and their families have had to spend too much time and energy campaigning for answers in a way that has added insult to injury for many.”

Two and a half years after this review was commissioned, on Wednesday 8th July 2020, the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review published the First Do No Harm Report. This Report, together with the additional supporting documents to accompany it including: Personal Testimonies, Oral Hearing Transcripts, Hormone Pregnancy Tests Supporting Information, Timeline Key Events, History of Regulation and the Press Conference Speech (by Baroness Julia Cumberledge, CBE, Chair of the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review) evidence unequivocal systemic failures and a clear link between PRIMODOS and its tragic side-effects.


Marie Lyon, Chair of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests and active campaigner for justice, since 1978, on reading the First Do No Harm Report, declared “I’ve tried to be very calm and I can’t. It’s the fact it’s been acknowledged. They’ve actually looked at the documentation honestly and openly and for me that is the biggest result for our families today. They will be absolutely overjoyed.”

The Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review has set out nine recommendations in their First Do No Harm Report. Recommendation 1: states ‘The Government should immediately issue a fulsome apology on behalf of the healthcare system to the families affected by Primodos, sodium valproate and pelvic mesh.’ On the 8th July (the date the report was published) Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care apologised “on behalf of the NHS and the whole healthcare system” to those who have suffered and their families.

For decades, there have been numerous publications evidencing an association between hormone pregnancy tests and congenital malformations in babies. In 2018 and 2019, Oxford University published an analysis of data which found a clear association relating to Primodos and birth defects. Other supporting research which have found links between hormone pregnancy tests and birth defects includes:

However, there have also been opposing publications which have found no association and/or inconclusive results. In 2017, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) published their report on the use of hormone pregnancy tests and adverse effects related to pregnancy including possible birth defects. The MHRA is an independent Expert Working Group of the UK’s commission on Human Medicines, which was established, in October 2015, in order to conduct this review. The MHRA found there to be insufficient evidence to support an association. Other opposing research includes:

For Marie Lyon, Chair of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests “after viewing the oral evidence presented by members of the Expert Working Group who were responsible for the scientific publication in 2017, it seems I already have a perfect example of the denial and protection culture endemic in our regulators. Denial when problems occur and protection, not for the patient but for the manufacturer.”

In light of the decades of jostling to and fro of supporting and opposing evidence, it is clearer to understand why the findings of the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review in the First Do No Harm Report, together with Matt Hancock’s prompt apology on behalf of the UK Government and acceptance may in the first instance offer some form of relief for the families of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests.

In the Press Conference Speech by Baroness Julia Cumberledge Chair of the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review, she stated ‘In our view Primodos continued to be given as a pregnancy test for years longer than it should. In the face of growing concerns it should have ceased to be available from 1967.’ Yet Primodos remained on the UK market until 1978. This is a failure on behalf of the UK Government to protect its population from harm. Equally, a failure on behalf of the corporation Bayer (Schering). Primodos, was manufactured by Schering in Germany. In 2006 Schering was acquired by Bayer plc.

It is important to point out that Amenorone Forte a hormone pregnancy test prescribed by GPs, during this same time frame, acted in much the same way as Primodos and was manufactured by Roussel in France.  Roussel was acquired by Sanofi in 2004. For this reason families of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests hold both corporations accountable for the avoidable harm inflicted.

According to the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review, History of Regulation, The Medicines Act 1968 received Royal Assent in October 1968, however the ‘transitional period’ meant this Act did not come into effect until 1st September 1971. During this time the Committee on Safety of Drugs was formed, yet it had no legal powers. With little irony, there was no formal regulator, it was part of a voluntary arrangement. There was no body to legally mandate the removal of a drug from the market and limited mechanisms to regulate drugs and restrict their use.

More systemic failures followed because the Committee on Safety of Medicines, (which replaced the Committee on Safety of Drugs, 1st September 1971) focused its gaze on formalising new medicines entering the UK market. Products, including Primodos, which had been on the market before the 1st September 1971 were automatically granted a Product Licences of Right (PLR).

Primodos was awarded a PLR yet its product which had been on the market since 1958, had never been required to submit evidence of quality, safety or efficacy. This oversight to ensure Primodos met the appropriate standards of safety, quality and performance in line with new rules was another missed opportunity to protect public health and safeguard the interests of patients and users.

The Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review Timeline has brought to light other damning evidence. On 22nd July 1969 Schering UK wrote to Schering Germany recommending the removal of the pregnancy testing indication. In a letter dated 17th February 1970 to Schering, Dr Ruttle a member of the Standing Committee on the Classification of Proprietary Preparations (known as the MacGregor Committee – 1965 and 1971) which provided guidance as to which preparations should be used on the NHS, stated ‘The Committee would be prepared to place the product in A.3 if the promotional indication as a “pregnancy test” were withdrawn and I would suggest that the most appropriate and, acceptable to the Committee, promotion be “symptomatic treatment of amenorrhea to produce withdrawal bleeding.”

On the 9th March 1970 Schering agreed ‘to the deletion of “pregnancy test” from the indications, and to the promotional statement “the symptomatic treatment of amenorrhea not due to pregnancy, by producing withdrawal bleeding”. Further correspondence in April 1970 acknowledged the suggestions from Schering (removing the pregnancy test indication and altering promotional statements) and confirmed that Primodos would be placed in category A.3 (prescription-only medicines).

Five years later, the Committee on Safety of Medicines (an independent advisory committee to the UK medicines licencing authority) published a letter in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on 26th April 1975. In this letter the Committee on Safety of Medicines stated they agreed with an article published five months earlier in the BMJ entitled Synthetic Sex Hormones and Infants which advised ‘there is little justification for the continued use of withdrawal type pregnancy tests when alternative methods are available.’

On 5th June 1975, the Committee on Safety of Medicines sent an alert letter – to all doctors in the UK – entitled Hormonal Pregnancy Tests, in which they advised them of a possible association between hormonal pregnancy tests and an increased incidence of congenital abnormalities. The Committee on Safety of Medicines stated ‘In view of the possible hazard, doctors should not normally prescribe certain hormonal preparations for pregnancy tests’.

Spanning 1958 to 1978, Primodos was given to around 1.5million women in Britain. Primodos was a hormone pregnancy test prescribed to women to detect pregnancy. It consisted of two tablets which were to be taken on consecutive days. A negative pregnancy test would result in a withdrawal bleed (within three to ten days of consumption of the tablets). It is now known that Primodos prescribed to women to confirm their pregnancy, by today’s standards equates to 13 morning-after pills or 40 oral contraceptive pills. Moreover, the hormones contained in Primodos are now used in the morning-after contraception pill.

A statement taken from the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review Personal Testimonies from the families of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests illustrate their distress – “We feel that we were used as collateral damage by the pharmaceutical company who were developing the contraceptive drug at the time.” The personal testimonies of Nicky Gibbins and Daniel Mason evidence how “The effect on our lives have, as you can imagine, been devastating.” The alleged impacts of PRIMODOS comprise:

  • all congenital malformations
  • more specific malformations:
    • cardiac malformations
    • musculoskeletal
    • neurological
    • neurogenetical malformations
  • birth defects
  • miscarriage
  • stillbirth

The First Do No Harm Report together with the supporting documents is significant because it evidences a clear link between Primodos and the terrible avoidable harms that have been perpetuated for decades through a culture of denial and the absence of state and corporate accountability.

Acknowledgement in the form of an apology on behalf of the Government was the first step towards justice. However, in a letter dated 13th December 2018, to the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review, Bayer stated ‘there is nobody at Bayer plc who could usefully contribute anything on the subject matter of your inquiry’. Notwithstanding this response, it is now time to look to the future.

The Government (on behalf of the UK regulators) and corporations Bayer (Schering) and Sanofi (Roussel) should as recommended in the First Do No Harm Report, fund the costs of care for those affected by state and corporate harm. In addition to this, the families of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests using the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review evidence should be able to successfully take legal action for the harms done to them by Bayer, Sanofi and the regulators.

In line with recommendation 9, of the First Do No Harm Report, the Government has a duty to set up a task force which must schedule a timeline for the implementation of the remainder of the recommendations. Such initiatives should endeavour to provide a safety net to ensure that a patient-led approach is centred at the heart of future health care provision.

The perfect storm: reflections on the death of care homes residents and social care workers

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Vickie Cooper reflects on the deaths of care home residents and social care workers in the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic. Vickie Cooper is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at The Open University.

At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, 25,000 NHS inpatients were discharged into care homes and the responsibility to protect this particularly vulnerable population was passed onto the social care sector.

Like a mirror, coronavirus reflects the damage done under austerity. In 2010, right-wing governments blamed the deficit problem on public sector expenditure, and through savage cuts to welfare, they removed key support mechanisms for people out of work, in low-paid work and those who cannot work. The social care sector has been particularly affected by austerity. Since 2010, £8 billion has been wiped off the social care budget, directly affecting who can access social care and quality of care.  The devastating impacts of these cuts can be seen in the spike in mortality rates amongst people over 60 and care home residents, with 45,368 excess deaths counted over a 4 year period.

This was the mortality landscape under austerity, long before COVID-19. Now at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, government ministers have rolled out reckless policy decisions and have multiplied the risk of infection in a sector that was already struggling against the tide of austerity. These reckless policy decisions have led to the death of scores of care home residents and social care workers. It is estimated that approximately 16,000 care home residents have died directly or indirectly as a result of COVID, but data is still emerging and the actual number is still unknown. Not alone in this plight, critical attention must also be paid to the disproportionate number of social care workers who have died as a result of COVID 19.


Mishandling at the Backdoor

At the peak of the pandemic 25,000 NHS inpatients were released into care homes. Health Ministers were quick to rule out the possibility that the NHS could meet the full demand of the COVID-19 pandemic. Already struggling with pre-existing demand and running on dwindling resources, the government knew that the NHS couldn’t survive a health crisis of this magnitude. Rather than face that inevitability, the government changed the goal posts and urged NHS trusts to move patients out the backdoor, to discharge them back into the community. And we’re hearing mixed messages about how this was coordinated, if it was coordinated at all.  NHS directors are claiming that they only discharged patients to residential homes where those homes agreed that it had the capacity and early on, Matt Hancock waded in with the vacuous promise to do ‘whatever it takes’ to support the social care sector. But care home providers claim that hospitals were discharging patients where there was no residential capacity and without protection or testing for the staff and residents. If the government’s farcical planning of PPE and testing is anything to go by, then we are probably safe to assume that decision to discharge NHS inpatients into care homes was not a joint or coordinated venture. On the contrary, testimonies and leaked reports reveal how government ministers repeatedly ignored expert advice not to discharge NHS patients into care homes and instead, local authorities ‘block-booked’ care home beds.

In February, just prior to lockdown, Public Health England National Infection Service advised the government not to discharge elderly patients from hospital to care homes, fearing that it will increase the spread of the virus. Age, pre-existing health conditions, shared communal facilities and regular contact with staff and care workers, were all known contributing factors seriously affecting care homes at the peak of the COVID pandemic.  Ignoring this advice, government reports then tried to peddle the idea that care homes were not at risk, claiming that its “very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected.”

Now thousands of bereaved families want to know why: why the government made the dangerous decision to discharge 25,000 patients into under-resourced and unprepared care homes.

This may be a new virus, but government Ministers were not facing too many unknowns when considering the impact of COVID 19 on care homes. Experience could be drawn from other countries. Just before the UK went into lockdown, we saw neighbouring countries struggle with mass fatalities in care homes. In Spain, the military found care homes abandoned by staff and found residents left in their beds, dead. Italy, Belgium and Sweden have reported similar, but different devastating impacts of Covid in residential homes. The evidence emerging from those countries was unambiguous: without radical lockdown measures, care home residents faced multiple, acute risks. These deaths could have been avoided. Had the government heeded the warning and legislated for radical lockdown measures in care homes, the outcome could have been very different. Radical lockdown measures could have involved the use of temporary accommodation to quarantine and isolate residents and the provision of full-payment of staff to move into the care home. The care homes that successfully reduced the risk of infection, voluntarily implemented radical lockdown measures and recommendations, whereas care homes that continued to admit new residents, owing to pressures from NHS levels of discharge, saw a rise in infection rates. Even with the provision of basic protection measures, the outcome could have been very different. At the beginning of lockdown, care homes struggled to acquire sufficient PPE and the extra local authority funding they received went towards independently purchasing PPE from over-priced suppliers. Amidst the PPE calamity, the government also ceased community testing in March and limited these crucial protection measures to hospitals. To the dismay of health experts and public at large, the government ceased community testing in support of ‘herd immunity’, which they suggested could delay the spread of the virus and ‘flatten the curve’. The government’s swaggering commitment to herd immunity led the implementation of dangerous political decisions that multiplied the risk of infection for this vulnerable population and social care staff.

Official health guidance published in February 25th states: “it’s unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected.”


Institutional racism and structural inequality

The other silent killer in this uncomfortable story is the labour market and rampant inequality underpinning the social care sector – compared to other areas of the labour market. Blame has been apportioned with the model of working, with staff working between care homes and coming into contact with multiple different residents in any one shift. But rather than look to individual staff, we need to shine a light on the labour market driving the social care sector: the low-paid, precarious workers it relies upon, the creeping privatisation of sector at large, and regulatory framework tasked with monitoring the network of  public and private providers. It is these volatile economic conditions that drive the risk of infection and seriously undermine the health and safety conditions for care home residents and social care workers.

And these concerns are reflected in the data on coronavirus-related deaths, per occupation. The Office for National Statistics show that social care workers are particularly vulnerable to infection, where a disproportionate number of these workers have died as a result of COVID-19:

Men and women working in social care, a group including care workers and home carers, both had significantly raised rates of death involving COVID-19, with rates of 23.4 deaths per 100,000 males (45 deaths) and 9.6 deaths per 100,000 females (86 deaths).

The institutional and economic landscape of the social care sector also reinforces the same racialised and structural inequalities that are unravelling under COVID-19.  People from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds constitute a disproportionately high number of social care workers. In England, 1 in 5 social care workers in England are black, Asian or from a minority ethnic background, but this representation varies geographically. In London, for example, 67 per cent of social care workers are black, Asian or from minority ethnic backgrounds.  In terms of waged-labour, the social care sector notoriously ranks amongst the lowest paid sectors within the labour market, with a high number of staff recruited on zero-hour contracts, which is the most precarious form of employment. With such a low-waged sector, social care employers struggle to recruit and retain staff and draw heavily upon agency workers, bank staff and migrant workers as a source of low-waged labour.

How did such a critical source of care and support to so many become so volatile? Social care workers provide a crucial provision of care and support to millions of vulnerable people in society, but the scale of inequality they endure, compounded by years of government disinvestment, has culminated in the countless number of deaths of already disenfranchised and marginalised groups. The risks presented under COVID-19 are particularly acute for these groups because of the targeted nature of the political decisions and policies implemented, long before and during this pandemic. Political decisions were made that prioritised groups who matter and downplayed the risks of those who matter less. From care home residents to social care staff, government ministers ignored and downplayed all the known risks and rather than heed the warnings, they put them at even greaterrisk by releasing scores of vulnerable patients into the community, accommodated them in communal settings and refused the most basic safety provisions for the social care staff tasked with protecting them.

Moving on: Burying Coronavirus Deaths

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Joe Sim and Steve Tombs explore the numbers game that has been played by the Government since the start of the coronavirus crisis – and question their efforts now to move on from it. Joe Sim is a Professor of Criminology at Liverpool John Moores University and Steve Tombs is a Professor of Criminology at The Open University.

The first reported UK death as a result of coronavirus was recorded on 2nd March. It was followed by three hospital deaths the next day – the day of the first Downing Street press briefing, where Boris Johnson said: ‘I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody.’ Johnson would continue shaking hands until at least 9th March when it was confirmed that a fifth person had died. In fact, updated NHS England data indicated that 16 people had died by 9th March, including three on the day Johnson declared that he was still shaking hands.

Then, on 23rd March, Johnson went on to announce what was to become quickly known as the ‘lockdown’ – albeit a misleading euphemism as many had to continue to work, if under far from normal conditions. These were the ‘key’ workers, a group covering not only health, social care and emergency service staff, but also included transport and shop workers, those in the food supply chain, cleaners, postmen and postwomen, refuse collectors, and, albeit less celebrated, workers in construction, security and the diffuse areas of the gig economy. These groups who worked through the ‘lockdown’, mostly in “low-paid, manual jobs”, were, it was revealed in early May by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), up to four times more likely to be killed by exposure to the virus than those in “professional and technical roles”.

Counting the Cost of Coronavirus?

Within three months, by 8th June, the government’s record on the coronavirus was described as “shameful”. In a global context, the UK’s sorry status was reported as follows:

5th in the total number of cases;

4th in terms of deaths per million of the population;

2nd in the total number of deaths;

1st in excess deaths per million of the population.


One week later, on June 16th, the Office for National Statistics revealed that the total number of excess deaths – the statistic that is regarded as the most comprehensive for measuring the impact of a pandemic – had reached 64,500, or 671 a day, dating back to 2nd March.

This gruesome figure for excess deaths does not begin to account for the cancellation of hospital operations for ongoing medical conditions which has added another lethal layer beyond the devastating immediacy of the virus. To take one example: it is estimated that a further 18,000 extra cancer-related deaths could occur over the next year as a result of delays in cancer treatment during the height of the pandemic.

Nor, of course, do stark figures of death say anything about the traumatic desolation experienced by, and the multitude of harms caused to, the anguished families, relatives and friends of the deceased, a toll which is incalculable but increasingly being hidden, ignored and marginalized – except, that is, for the frankly insulting platitude of ‘our hearts go out to all those who have lost loved ones’ message mealy-mouthed by whichever politician happened to draw the short straw to front the Government’s daily press briefing and was thereby obliged to mention the hundreds of deaths the previous day, before moving on, of course, to ‘the next slide’. 

Draw a Line and Move on

Exactly one week after the ONS had revealed a total of excess deaths close to 65,000, Johnson, in typically upbeat tone, announced in the Commons the effective end of lockdown in England, dubbed by himself as the end of “our long national hibernation”, and by others as ‘Super Saturday’, or as the UK’s 4th July ‘Independence day’ which the Telegraph had demanded weeks earlier.

Johnson went on to “encourage people to take advantage of the freedoms that they are rightly reacquiring”, wanting to see “people out in the shops—it is a fantastic thing to see. Yes, I want to see people taking advantage of hospitality again—a wonderful thing”. And he urged those in tourism to send out a welcoming signal ​to people from other parts of our country and to roll out the welcome mat, rather than the “Not welcome here” sign. The next day he spent much of Prime Minister’s Questions encouraging MPs from seaside towns to throw open their doors and extend hospitality to visitors.


As he spoke, a mini-heatwave was moving northwards across the UK, accompanied by mass gatherings in parks, resorts and city centres. Some of these resulted in clashes between people and police. The net effect was to generate real fears of social disorder two weeks later, when such gatherings, not least in and around bars, would become quasi-legal. Two days later, on 26th June, it was announced at the Government’s daily coronavirus press conference that it would be the last.

Back to Business and Burying the Dead

However, over the previous 24 hours to 26th June, 186 people had died from the virus. In the seven days up to that day, there had been 848 such deaths, a rolling average of 121 a day. This was, of course, considerably down on the reported  April 8th peak, when 1,445 people died from Covid-19 in 24 hours – one of 22 consecutive days on which more than 1,000 people died in the UK every day.

But this ‘low’ figure of of 848 weekly deaths, unnoticed as a return to business as usual was being eagerly heralded, has to be placed in the context of more ‘normal’ times and more routine Government priorities. For example, in the year up to September 2019, there were 617 homicides in England and Wales. Or, if the same number of 121 people who died on an average day that week had been killed in a multi-fatality incident – an industrial disaster, plane crash or ‘terrorist attack’ – the cries of outrage would have been deafening. Not with COVID-19, though. The dominant discourse had become, and remains, that it was ‘unprecedented’, a word that appears to cover much – every death toll, every error, every incompetence, every lack of preparedness  – but does not really say anything. 

So while 848 people died, this was the week in which the Government sent out signals that the crisis was more or less over. Only local “flare ups” were to be feared should now fully responsibilised citizens fail to act to protect each other by maintaining ‘1 meter-plus’ distancing at work in shops, offices and factories – where possible – or as they drank and ate in bars, restaurants and cafes whilst planning holidays to kick-start the hospitality economy, all the time once again freely moving around and between our cities and towns.

Given this bizarre juxtaposition – still over 100 officially recorded deaths a day in the context of the effective announcement of normality – how were the deaths covered in the broadcasting and print media?

Taking the main news broadcasts on Friday 26th June as a snapshot, there was no coverage at all of the daily death rates on Channel 4 News broadcast between 7 and 8pm.  The BBC’s main news bulletin at 10pm did provide some coverage of the virus, including the daily death rate. This lasted for 34 seconds. In contrast, Liverpool’s Premier League Championship win took up 6 minutes and 20 seconds, 11 times the coverage of the daily death rate. This, in turn, was almost a full minute more than the lead story which concerned the appalling devastation in Yemen where one child was dying every ten minutes due to a combination of war and the virus. So even here the broadcaster still gave more air time to football than to the harrowing and utterly preventable deaths of children.

On ITV’s News at 10, COVID-19 was covered for 1 minute 39 seconds. The programme at least recognised that the 186 deaths was the highest daily increase for 10 days but did also introduce the usual caveats about focussing on the rolling 7-day average rather than looking at one day’s figures. Liverpool’s League Championship win was given twice the coverage, at 3 minutes 22 seconds.

The main headlines on the front pages of the nine national newspapers on the morning of 27th June also contained nothing about the latest number of deaths, but did contain advice for foreign holidays: Green Light for Hols (The Mirror) and Fly Out for Sun, Sea and 70% off (Daily Mail).

Clearly, at this point, we would not claim that these broadcasts and headlines were based on any kind of random sample. However, they do reinforce our argument and suspicion about the government’s shameless desire to move the caravan of death on and to open up the country again, for British business, beer and holidays. Quite literally, in human and media terms, the disposables have been disposed of. Coronavirus death has become normalised.


Several questions become crucial as we are on the brink of the weekend on which ‘lockdown’ is released – albeit as tighter restrictions on work and travel have been re-imposed on Leicester, a city of over half a million and one of the most ethnically diverse in England, facts-on the-ground indicating that there is no real, only a discursive, ‘moving on’.

These questions include: where is the political discussion about the devastating and still unfolding toll of avoidable deaths? Who or what will be held accountable, and how? And, will there be a time when the daily rate of death ever again becomes politically and morally unacceptable and a focus for the media, politicians, the government and the wider population? Or, will the facts around the horrendous levels of preventable deaths, and the long-term devastation wrought by the virus on hundreds of thousands of lives be, in the words of Hannah Arendt  ‘denied and distorted, often covered up by reams of falsehoods or simply allowed to fall into oblivion[?]’

If this happened it would be morally and politically intolerable. However, at this dangerous moment it would not be surprising given the political forces at work in constructing the dominant, consensual narrative that society needs to move on to the promised land of Brexit and to the ideological normality that the UK has a world-beating, track record in every conceivable area – excluding, of course, in preventing COVID-19 deaths.

This blog has been simultaneously published by the Centre for the Study of Crime, Criminalisation and Social Exclusion at Liverpool John Moores University, see 

Abolitionism must come from below: A critique of British Anti-Slavery Abolition

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, David Scott argues that contemporary penal abolitionists can take inspiration not from British liberal anti-slavery ‘abolitionism from above’ but from the lived experiences and testimonies of slaves and former slaves. David Scott is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at The Open University.

Picture of Black Lives Matter Activists Throwing Statue of Edward Colston into river, June 2020

The political fall-out following the death of George Floyd, who died on the 25th May 2020 during a coercive physical restraint by a police officer in Minneapolis, USA and the revival of Black Lives Matter on a global level, has placed renewed emphasis on calls for defunding the state police and greater acknowledgement of the brutal British colonial past.  These calls, alongside those for further recognition of the manner in which British wealth is in large part historically derived from the slave trade, have great significance for penal abolitionism (a moral philosophy which questions all forms of legal repression and dehumanisation).   In the UK one of the main mobilising events of Black Lives Matter  has been to call for the pulling down of statues and monuments which were erected to honour slave traders, such as the statue of seventeenth century slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol. 

Given this renewed emphasis on the British slave trade, should penal abolitionists today take inspiration from anti-slavery abolitionists in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and the broader political culture in Britain at that time? The short answer, I would argue, is NO. The bourgeois British liberal anti-slavery ‘abolitionism from above’ was not an emancipatory social movement like Black Lives Matter, nor did it connect with, or was motivated by, the experiences and voice of former slaves, as was sometimes the case in the USA anti-slavery movement during the mid-1800s.  If we are looking for inspiration when challenging legal repression, dehumanisation and state coercion, then it is to the lived experiences and testimonies of slaves and former slaves, such as the American former slave Frederick Douglas, or Toussaint Louverture and all those slaves involved in the proclamation of the Republic of Haiti (Saint Domingue) from 1791-1804, that we will find genuinely radical and emancipatory social actors.

The politics of anti-slavery and English liberty

Whilst calls for the abolition of slavery had a long history – such as Jean Bodin in the 1570s or Antonio Vieira in the 1650s, in the main slavery was taken for granted in moral and political philosophy.  Indeed, it was not until the writings of John Woolman and his fellow Quakers that there was an organised and principled critique of slavery in Britain.  The British anti-slavery abolitionist movement that is most heralded today, however, emerged in the 1780s, and was underscored with ideas of free trade and free labour.  For the British anti-slavery abolitionists ‘coerced labour‘ (i.e. slavery) was increasingly seen as less productive than ‘free labour’ (i.e. labour exchanged for money in the free market) and this was something that would become of increasing significance for capitalist accumulation across the British colonies at  turn of the nineteenth century.  Whilst these economic arguments proved wrong, they opened a space for a moral critique of chattel slavery.

Recognition that chattel slavery was a ‘social evil’ also gained moral and political significance following the defeat of the British in the American War of Independence in 1781.  From the 1780s chattel slavery was increasingly considered as something which caste a moral stain on the British Empire.   Whilst it was to take a number of decades for slavery to be fully denounced / abolished, the distancing from American slaveholders (rejecting their rejectors) as an ‘un-British’ state of affairs was of crucial importance.  This was in part because it resulted in the promotion of a new moral basis for the empire through the very ‘English’ value of ‘liberty’’.  In the late eighteenth century, the seeds of British Virtue and American Sin were sown and the critique of chattel slavery was the key symbolic index of this moral differentiation.   For the British, it was not just military power than had failed them in the American war of independence, but also the moral foundations of their global leadership.  Privileging English liberty and free market economics over slavery was one way of addressing this moral deficit.  Indeed, ‘English liberty’ (and the moral condemnation of slavery) and free trade was considered as something that could justify further imperial expansion around the globe, especially Africa.  In other words, anti-slavery advocacy provided a new form or ‘moral capital’ for the British Empire.  Critiquing slavery and critiquing the British Empire, then, are not necessarily the same thing.

British anti-slavery abolition

For Quakers such as John Woolman, who was writing in the 1750s, chattel slavery should be morally condemned because was inconsistent with Christian morality and undermined the possibilities of a universal Christian brotherhood.  Though providing strong moral and intellectual leadership, as well as being able to promulgate their ideas through the Quaker religious network, these and other early abolitionists were only moderately successful because they lacked access to political power.  The ultimately more successful bourgeois British anti-slavery movement, mobilised across 50 years from 1788-1838, may well have drawn upon increasing grass roots support against the slave trade, but they also were part of the establishment.   The British liberal anti-slavery abolitionists, such as Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, all benefitted from either aristocratic patronage, wealth and/or had access to the political elite.  It was these members of the British establishment who most strongly argued that chattel slavery stood against ‘English liberty’ and infringed upon basic British freedoms.  Such anti-slavery also differentiated the British from the Americans and appeared to reinstate a sense of ‘moral superiority’ over their former colony.  Yet, rather than being tied to emancipatory politics and praxis or calls for radical social transformation, the British anti-slavery abolitionists were reformers who were looking to strengthen the moral legitimacy of the current social, political and economic order.  In so doing they worked closely with the British State to achieve their aims.

The intimate connections between anti-slavery abolition and the emerging capitalist state included then a clear moral discourse challenging the most barbarous social institutions of that time and showing moral leadership to the new (industrialised) working classes.  The moral message was not just about the errors and vice of chattel slavery, but also about the importance of self-discipline, personal industry and engaging in what the anti-slavery abolitionists considered to be non-coercive labour – the capitalist labour market.  This was in part because of growing (inaccurate)  economic concerns among the ruling elite that the coerced labour of slavery was much less productive than ‘freely chosen’ labour of workers in the labour market and the increasing ideological influence of the free labour doctrines of political economists such as Francis Hutchenson.  Chattel slavery was deliberately isolated from other forms of labour exploitation and presented as a unique and immoral aberration across the British Empire.  The liberal, anti-slavery abolitionist ideology, highlighted the specificity of the misery of slavery, but in so doing deflected attention away from the inequities of the given social order, state racism and wider colonial abuses of power in the Empire.

It is important to note that the context of chattel slavery in Britain was different to the USA even before the defeat in the war of independence.  In a 1772 legal case, which considered whether JamesSomerset could be treated as a slave on British shores, prominent abolitionist Granville Sharp successfully argued that as vlleinage – the then only legal form of feudal human bondage in Britain – had fallen out of usage in the early 1500s if not before, chattel slavery was against both natural and English common law.  TheSomerset ruling was largely interpreted as meaning that chattel slavery was illegal in Britain, and whilst this was not actually the case, it did result in reinforcing popular mythologies of British freedom / English liberty as well as deterring many slaveholders from openly displaying their slaves in public or bringing new slaves into the country.  Popular support against slavery was also augmented by the extensive evidence compiled by the British anti-slavery abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, who produced detailed accounts of the barbarous nature of the slave trade on his wider travels around the Empire.  By 1789 William Wilberforce had initiated an anti-slavery abolitionist campaign in Parliament, and whilst this in the long term proved decisive, the French Revolution of the same year and the slave rebellion in the French colony of Haiti initially poured cold water on this idea.  Yet the wheels of change had been irrevocably set in motion.

Toussaint Louverture, who was one of the leaders of the slave rebellion in the Republic of Haiti (Saint Domingue)

Ending chattel slavery but the unfreedom of free labour

By the 1830s chattel slavery had undoubtedly became the unacceptable face of labour exploitation, state racism and class domination in Britain and its empire. The Slave trade had been abolished in 1807 in Britain and the delayed introduction of the Slavery Abolition Act (1833) brought an end to slavery in British Empire in 1838.  But during this this time, not only was there an intensification in the exploitation of ‘free labour’, but also a rise in penal servitude, which was to reach its zenith in Britain later that century with the ‘hard fare, hard bed and hard labour’ prison policies under the tenure of Edmund Frederick Du Cane.  Indeed, there proved to be nothing inconsistent between the promotion of the liberal ideology of anti-slavery and associated adherence to “English liberty” and the creation of dehumanising ‘reformed prisons’ grounded in legal repression, nor the rampant domination and exploitation of labourers through free market capitalism. 

The British anti-slavery abolitionist focus on a distinctly “British [English] freedom [liberty]” obscured the problem of ‘wage slavery’ and the appalling living and working conditions of people exercising their non-coerced ‘free labour’.  Early socialist activists, including The Chartists, challenged anti-slavery meetings in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s, highlighting the close similarities between ‘wage slavery’ and ‘chattel slavery’.   Indeed, this was no more certain than in the overtly ‘coerced’ labour of the ‘free market’, where, for example, English sailors were impressed into the navy; Scottish coal miners were forced to remain in this line of work for life; and until 1875 certain workers could be sent to prison for quitting their jobs under the Master and Servant Acts

There are then clearly blurred boundaries between ‘coerced’ and ‘free’ labour.  Market capitalist societies are inevitably underscored by some form of coercion, but this takes a number of different forms – slavery, imprisonment, contracted labour exploitation or starvation – for if people do not ‘freely work’ they will die.  The differences between these forms of coercion are certainly important, and the nature and extent of coercion is clearly different between slavery and factory work for example, but still they operate on a continuum of coercion rather than as distinct entities. The beautiful idea of ‘freedom’ certainly is not well served in capitalist labour markets.

It is also worth remembering that there was no ending of penal servitude in the colonies of the British Empire post the ending of the slave trade.  Prisons continue into the present and transportation to British colonies continued well past the end of chattel slavery.  Further, the reformed prisons, since the early 1800s, have at various different times been places characterised by hard labour and are widely conceived in the critical penological literature as a state institution designed to discipline the labouring poor.  They perform an important remainder of the coercive power of state and what awaits those who do not adhere to the requirements of ‘free labour’. Apparent contradictions in the language and commitment of liberty and freedom of the anti-slavery abolitionists may in fact simply just be a further indication of the fact that the capitalist free market is underscored by ever-present coercion.  One of the leading ‘free labour’ advocates in the eighteenth century was the famous enlightenment thinker Francis Hutchenson.  In his System of Moral Philosophy (Volume 2), published in 1755, he argued that “perpetual labour” may be “justly adjudged” as an appropriate punishment for law breakers.  He goes on,

… no law could be more effectual to promote a general industry, and restrain sloth and idleness in the lower conditions, than making perpetual slavery of this sort the ordinary punishment of such idle vagrants, after proper admonitions and trials of temporary servitude, cannot be engaged to support themselves and their families by any useful labours.  Slavery would also be a proper punishment for such as by intemperance or other vices ruined themselves and families, and made them public burden.

Finally, a number of British anti-slavery abolitionists, including leading campaigners like William Wilberforce, Samuel Romily and Thomas Fowell Buxton became prominent penal reformers.  Indeed, William Wilberforce unsuccessfully acted as the advocate for Jeremy Bentham’s proposals for building a ‘Panopticon prison’ with the British Cabinet in the early 1800s. Penal abolitionism in Britain does not find its roots in the anti-slavery abolitionist movements of slavery, but perhaps penal reform does.

Frederick Douglas, a freed slave anti-slavery campaigner in the United States in the mid-1800s

Four Things We Can Learn

The above critique of the British anti-slavery abolitionists may be helpful to us at this given moment for the following four reasons.

First, it indicates that a focus on the critique of slavery is not the same as shining a light on the brutal harms of colonial power and the British Empire.  If the ending of slavery was a means of providing new moral capital for the expansion of the empire into Africa and elsewhere, then it is important that Black Lives Matter looks directly at the legacy and atrocities of the British Empire.  This perhaps means a shift towards some of the harder symbols of the British Empire, including the historical and contemporary constitution of the British State.

Second, it indicates that anti-slavery abolition can be co-opted and utilised in the interests of the capitalist state and inform the moral discourse of the ruling elite more broadly.  This shines an historical lens on the current moral capital that is accumulated through discourses of ‘modern slavery’.  It is important to note that like its historical predecessors, modern slavery focusses neither on penal servitude or the exploitation of free labourers.

Third, for penal abolitionists, it is essential that connections are made across a wide range of sites of exploitation, repression and domination.  The socialist critique of the anti-slavery movement in the 1830s and 1840s highlights the importance of exploring all forms of exploitation and close scrutiny of legal forms of coercion.  Penal abolitionism must then consider together the historical legacies and contemporary manifestations of state racism; the insidious masculinist bias within the law and broader society; and the profound exploitation of capitalist labour relations.

Fourth, that engagement with the political, social and economic elite will not deliver social justice and radical social and economic transformation unless it is strongly tied / connected to the ‘view from below’ and infused with socialist emancipatory politics and praxis.  What we can learn from the anti-slavery abolitionists is that when the ruling elite champion a given moral cause, it may well be for the ‘moral capital’ that can be transferred to them rather than an honest and noble intervention. 

There are anti-slavery abolitionists that we can take inspiration from in the present, but these are the men and women who won their freedom through pain, personal struggle and triumph.  It is the narrative of the slaves and former slaves that penal abolitionism should draw strength and it is their conceptualisation of freedom and liberty which should inspire abolitionists and anti-racist activists today.

SNC-Lavalin: Charges to settlement, have lessons been learned?

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Sharon Hartles and Liam Miles examine the significance of corporate criminality and leverage through the business activities of a Canadian multi-national company. Sharon Hartles was awarded an MA in Crime and Justice (with distinction) from The Open University in December 2019 and is a member of HERC. Liam Miles is a Second Year BA (Hons) Criminology student at Birmingham City University.

Image: Courtesy of Sharon Hartles (adaption/remix of Wikimedia commons i, ii )

On the 19th of February 2015, corruption and fraud charges were filed in the Court of Quebec by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) against SNC-Lavalin and two of its divisions (SNC-Lavalin Construction Inc. and its subsidiary, SNC-Lavalin International Inc.). The alleged criminal acts took place between August 2001 and September 2011 and consisted of an exchange of ‘almost $47.9 million to Libyan government officials to use their positions to influence government decisions’ and defrauding ‘the Libyan government and other entities of “property, money or valuable security or service” worth almost $129.8 million.’  According to a statement released by RCMP, the then Assistant Commissioner Gilles Michaud, “The charges laid today demonstrate how the RCMP continues to support Canada’s international commitments and safeguard its integrity and reputation,” It will come as no surprise to note that the charges and statement were met with a counter public statement issued by SNC-Lavalin in which it declared the charges to be without merit.

The potential harm and wider-reaching ramifications which a guilty verdict would have incurred should not be understated. If SNC-Lavalin Group were to have been convicted of offences under the Canadian Criminal Code (or under these acts: Competition Act, Controlled Drugs and Substance Act, Corruption of Foreign Officials Act, Excise Tax Act, Financial Administration Act, Income Tax Act, Lobbying Act) they would have been ineligible to compete for federal contracts for ten years. In line with the Integrity framework regime which was introduced in 2015, a government–wide ban prohibits federal departments from doing business for a period of 10 years with companies who have engaged in improper conduct. This 10 year ban is in place to ensure the Canadian government does business only with ethical suppliers in Canada and abroad.

In 2018, SNC-Lavalin was ranked Canada’s top contractor, for the third consecutive year, generating around US$9.8 billion in revenue. Such an assertion is supported by SNC-Lavalin’s annual reports financial highlights for  2019, 2018, 2017, 2016 and  2015. On its 2015 report as at 31st December, SNC-Lavalin declared a figure of 36,754, as the number of people employed, of which around 9,000 of these reside in Canada. With this in mind, it is clearer to comprehend the potential global harm a conviction outcome would have set in motion and therefore why this may have been deemed not to be in the best interests of the Canadian government. With that noted an alternative arrangement to a 10 year ban had to be devised.

A solution presented itself in the form of a remediation agreement, also known as a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) which defers or suspends criminal charges. However, in 2015, when the charges were filed against SNC-Lavalin Group remediation agreements did not exist within Canadian law. Taking that into account, in 2016 SNC-Lavalin successfully lobbied government officials, and the direct result was that as part of the 2018 federal budget, Canada’s Criminal Code was amended to encompass the newly adopted DPA regime for corporate wrongdoing in Canada. This truth cannot be dismissed because it is reinforced in the report published in August 2019, by the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion: Ethics Commissioner’s report on Justin Trudeau and the SNC-Lavalin scandal.

The Dion Ethics Report sheds light on the political interference which surrounded the issuing of a DPA for SNC-Lavalin Group. Jody Wilson-Raybould, Minister of the Attorney General (2015–2019) stood before the Justice Committee on the 27th February 2019, and stated that between September and December 2018, she “experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the attorney general of Canada in an inappropriate effort to secure a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) with SNC Lavalin”.

According to the Dion report findings, the Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau (2015 – present) and members of his party had breached section 9 of the Conflict of Interest Act. This conclusion was reached with evidence that detailed how the former clerk to the Privy Council Michael Wernick, (2016- 2019) allegedly telephoned Jody Wilson-Raybould on the 19th December 2018 and stated “The Prime Minister wants to be able to say that he has tried everything he can within the legitimate tool box, so he is quite determined, quite firm, but wants to know why the DPA route which parliament provided for isn’t being used”. The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion concluded that Justin Trudeau made attempts to influence the Attorney General’s Department to politically steer the case against SNC-Lavalin to see a remediation agreement achieved. In his defence, Justin Trudeau maintained that he was looking to protect Canadian jobs after the company warned a conviction at trial risked damaging its business.

What is of interest is that in November 2018, SNC-Lavalin was categorised in the top 27% of all companies registered in the Corporate Political Engagement Index as being a key government stakeholder and donator to the Trudeau administration. Since the genesis of the prosecution case against SNC-Lavalin in 2017, the company exerted a very broad lobbying effort to secure legal and political assistance. Such assistance extended beyond the lobbying of numerous staff within the Prime Minister’s Office (and the Prime Minister himself) and went as far as the Ministers from the Departments of Finance, International Trade, Innovation, Science and Economic development. In the words of criminologist John Muncie in his work titled Decriminalising Criminology this may evidence ‘the legal transgressions routinely employed by those wielding political and economic power and their ability to deny or conceal the harms they unleash under the protection of the law.’

On the 18th December 2019, SNC-Lavalin pleaded guilty to fraud over its Libyan activities. Its construction division pleaded guilty to a single count of fraud. All other charges were withdrawn in the settlement. The outcome of which was a probation order and a fine amounting to C$280m ($213m; £163m) to be paid over five years and a three-year probation order. SNC-Lavalin stated:

  • ‘It had cleaned house and changed its ways since 2012.’
  • ‘openly lobbied for an agreement that would allow it to avoid prosecution and instead face alternative penalties’
  • ‘admitted that over the course of a decade almost C$48m ($36m; £28m) was directed to Saadi Gaddafi’’

In the aftermath of the SNC-Lavalin and the political scandal, damage has been done. On the one hand, by midday, the date the settlement of criminal charges was imposed, trading had resumed and SNC-Lavalin shares jumped 20 per cent to C$29.01. On the other hand, SNC-Lavalin reported a 6% drop in revenue during the first six months of 2019 to US$3.5bn from US$3.8bn in the corresponding period. This drop in revenue is a side-effect of what Ian Edwards (who was promoted to the post of interim president and chief executive officer of SNC-Lavalin from the 11th June 2019) referred to as a ‘really tough quarter’. Furthermore, data generated by the 2019 Transparency International index of global corruption, indicates that Canada has slipped and now ranks 12th on the list of 180 countries assessed. This is a decrease of three places compared to the 2018 index.

SNC-Lavalin avoided being barred from applying for lucrative federal contracts, meaning it has been able to return to generating billions in profit and billions in revenue. There is no disputing that SNC-Lavalin is one of the world’s largest engineering and construction companies and in line with its Annual Report 2019, as at 31st December 2019, it employed 47,000 people around the world. Having said that, this provides a broader understanding of SNC-Lavalin’s impact within an economic and social context and why it has a duty to enhance society. By investing in Corporate Social Responsibility and implementing this into practice, corporate citizenship can benefit society whilst simultaneously boosting companies reputations. To safeguard its world-wide workforce it is essential SNC-Lavalin be mindful of the consequences of its future profiteering endeavors. … Only time will tell if lessons have been learned and if SNC-Lavalin has truly drawn a line under its corporate-wrongdoing.

This article was originally published by the British Society of Criminology on 9 June 2020 at: