Homelessness beyond criminalisation: Surviving in a global pandemic

Sharon Hartles critically reflects on the year 2020 and explores the shifting approach towards rough sleepers within an unprecedented global pandemic. Sharon Hartles was awarded an MA in Crime and Justice (with distinction) from The Open University and is a member of the Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative (HERC). 

The year 2020 may be regarded as a year which many would rather forget, or remembered as an unprecedented year in which approximately 1.82 million+ people lost their lives to a global pandemic. Few remain untouched by the loss of loved ones, neighbours or members of their wider communities. During 2020 the initial voluntary compliance and the ‘stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’ message was replaced with the introduction of compulsory government tier lockdown restrictions which have ushered in 2021. Yet within this turbulent year the homeless have again found themselves the target of callous and ineffective policy measures.

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

No one should be punished for being homeless or sleeping rough yet the past actions of government and local authorities made available into the public domain verify that punished they are. These vulnerable and marginalised people within society have already been targeted and ousted due to shifts in shared ideology, policy and practice. Such changing trends were executed in the wake of the 2007 – 2008 financial global crisis. Against this backdrop, the consequences of austerity policy shone a light on the punitive shift towards the criminalisation of homelessness. This accumulated through a number of harmful actions including: diminishing availability of services and hostels; welfare cuts and reforms; public space orders; stigmatising homelessness and resurrecting and implementing Dickensian vagrancy law. Then came the pandemic.

Nationally, the number of prosecution cases for begging under the Vagrancy Act 1824 over the past decade have generally steadily declined. However, even during a pandemic, which re-prioritised focus to one of social welfare; in England and Wales the action of begging still managed to be prosecuted and therefore criminalised on 1,422 occasions. The worst offenders with 311 prosecutions and representing 22% of the tally was West Yorkshire. They were closely followed by Merseyside who prosecuted 275 cases, equating to 19% for the period 2019/2020.   

Criminalising rough sleepers for begging by using a law which is nearly 200 years old needlessly exacerbates the vicious cycle of poverty. The only way to guarantee that the Vagrancy Act is not used in the future to target ‘at risk’ members of society, is to have it repealed. To this end, the second reading of the Vagrancy (Repeal) Bill 2019-21, is scheduled to go before Parliament in March 2021. In light of the global pandemic, focus should be directed away from punishing homelessness and instead be steered towards tackling the root causes and problems of the homeless epidemic.

The raw and devastating effects of Covid-19 are all too apparent, yet alongside the roller-coaster of emotions of fear, grief and thankfulness; for a while, there was a national sense of us all being in it together. In the spirit of togetherness, in March 2020 the Everyone In scheme was introduced. This scheme was initiated in response to the mounting concerns for the need to get the homeless off the streets and into self-contained accommodation. For this reason the ‘Everyone In’ provision provided local authorities with additional funding to cover the cost of accommodation arrangements. In practise this scheme had two-folding benefits because it protected the homeless from the virus and it also protected their wider communities. 

Image source: ITV News

In March 2020 the government announced it would be committing £643 million (over four years) in funding to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. This may seem like a substantial amount but when it is compared to the billions of pounds of public money which parliamentary members unlawfully handed out to inexperienced associates of ministers and advisers  through a secretive V.I.P Lane for Covid-19 contracts; maybe more could have been allocated to tackle the homeless crisis?

Despite this commitment, in an October 2020, press release from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government it was announced that 3,300 units of accommodation would be made available for rough sleepers. On the surface it seems like a considerable amount of units, however, when there are approximately 15,000 people in emergency accommodation there is a clear disparity between this inadequate supply gesture and the real-world demand needs.

In response to the Covid-19 crisis lessons could have been learnt from the Everyone In initiative. This response to dealing with rough sleeping, which all but ended rough sleeping overnight, in turn should have informed future policy and more importantly its implementation into practice. With little irony this has not been the case, instead ministers made the decision to stop the funding and “quietly pulled the plug“. Although demands were made to revive it in the form of the Everyone In 2.0, it was instead replaced in November 2020 by the Protect Programme. It was quickly brought to light that this programme was inadequate favouring some local authorities whilst leaving others short.

In a press release on 8th January 2021, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick announced that an additional £10 million in funding would be made available to councils in England. This extra support has been given to enable councils to redouble their efforts to accommodate rough sleepers and ensure they are registered with a GP. The government’s latest announcement merely reveals that the Protect Programme is not fit for purpose. Furthermore, this was not a proactive act on behalf of the government, instead it was a reactionary response to growing concerns from homeless charities including St Mungo’s who called upon the government to take action to support rough sleepers who were in real need. 

Even with this additional funding, under the Protect Programme some local authorities do not have surplus reserve funding to cover the deficit. Thus local authorities will bear the brunt for removing a provision which they had previously provided. In actual fact it is the government who should be held responsible and therefore held to account because the continuous reduction of funding as noted by the Local Government Association has had detrimental impacts at the local level:

‘By 2020, local authorities will have faced a reduction to core funding

from the Government of nearly £16 billion over the preceding decade.

That means that councils will have lost 60p out of every £1 the Government

had provided to spend on local services in the last 8 years.’

Notwithstanding the withdrawal of funding, the government’s official data in no way reflects the reality of the rough sleeping crisis. According to the government’s official count 4,266 people bedded down outside overnight on a snapshot night in autumn 2019. Yet, in February 2020, a BBC report claimed that this count was significantly underestimated and the actual number of rough sleepers was closer to 28,000, which is five times higher than the official data. Here we can see how the official snapshot of 4,266 which was deemed to be a “good estimate” was at best misleading and at worst deplorable.

By its own admission, in a government press release in November 2020, it stated ‘by September it had supported over 29,000 vulnerable people, with two-thirds now moved into settled accommodation.’ In this sense the term ‘vulnerable people’ has been favoured instead of the term ‘rough sleepers’. What is interesting is that only 19,333 people have managed to be settled, thus leaving a total of 9,667 still rough sleeping. This amount is a 127% increase on the government’s official count of 4,266 as published in February 2020 by the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government.

By the end of 2020, the ‘all in it together’ rhetoric was a distant memory and calls on Government to Bring Everyone In again to ensure rough sleepers could stay safe during the new national lockdown fell on deaf ears. As a direct result, instead of rough sleepers being provided with self-contained accommodation, they now have to choose between the risk of contracting covid through sheltering in unsafe communal spaces or facing freezing temperatures whilst returning back to their roofless and homeless state.

2020 was the year which brought an end to rough sleeping, albeit not permanently. It saw rough sleepers’ allocated emergency accommodation including: hotels, bed and breakfasts and other temporary accommodation. Although more than a roof can be alleged to be needed to tackle the social and structural harms/violence suffered by homeless people, accommodation in the first instance for the vast majority can make a significant difference.

Indeed such an immediate and radical approach to this crisis raises the obvious question of why the government would remove a scheme which was working at the local level and replace it with one that does not work as effectively. Looking to the future, 2021 must be a year which focuses on challenging the reasons behind why the homeless have been left out in the cold, and why the homeless problem exists at all. With this in mind, the Protect Programme together with the government’s latest funding scheme are not fit replacements for the Everyone In scheme which was underpinned by an inclusive approach. Given the new strain of the coronavirus; re-instatement of national lockdowns and death rates on the rise again, it is essential now more than ever that vulnerable members of our society are not left to fall through the safety net.

To find out more about understanding homelessness or any of the wider key issues listed below visit: OpenLearn

  • The Homeless Problem
  • Being homeless
  • Impact of legislation
  • Lack of coordinated support
  • Criminalisation of homelessness
  • Homelessness and Incarceration
  • Slipping through the net
  • Getting off the streets

Primodos: The next steps towards Justice

In this article, Sharon Hartles critically examines the journey so far towards the implementation of the remaining eight recommendations set out in the landmark publication of the Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review First Do No Harm report in July 2020. Furthermore, she explores the wider impacts this publication has set into motion. 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. 

Wednesday 8th July 2020, marked the publication of the final report by the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review, which was commissioned to examine the harmful effects of three treatments: Primodos, an oral hormone pregnancy test that caused birth defects;  sodium valproate, an epilepsy drug that also causes birth defects, and surgical mesh, a treatment for incontinence that causes chronic debilitating pain. Primodos was the most widely prescribed ‘hormone pregnancy test’ in the UK (and around the world) in the 1960s and 1970s until it was taken off the market in 1978.  First Do No Harm found that avoidable harm was caused because the UK Government and the Healthcare system failed in their duty to protect patients and regulate Primodos.Primodos, Sodium valproate and Pelvic mesh implants banner

Primodos, Sodium valproate and Pelvic mesh implants banner. Photo Credit: Review Tweets (@IMMDSReview Twitter Page) Posted: 31 Aug 2018

For the Primodos-affected members of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests, a lobby group, the findings and recommendations offered recognition ‘that hundreds of families have been wronged.’ Recommendation 1 of First Do No Harm was fulfilled when Matt Hancock apologised for the avoidable harm caused to those who suffered. However, after this welcomed and prompt first step towards justice, the next steps – the implementation of the remaining eight recommendations – have been fraught with resistance. 

Baroness Julia Cumberlege, a life peer who chaired the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review, explicitly championed the need for the recommendations set out in First Do No Harm to be implemented with determination and urgency. Despite this, it has now been more than three months since the report was published, which may not seem like much time within the political agenda, and given the preoccupations with Covid and Brexit, but England is lagging behind Scotland. At a 9th July 2020, press conference, Julia Cumberlege raised concerns about the importance of implementing the report’s recommendations and the significance of not leaving it to “sit on a shelf and gather dust”. 

Julia Cumberledge calling for justice (screenshot) in the House of LordsJulia Cumberledge calling for justice (screenshot). Photo Credit: APPG Horomone Pregnancy Tests (@APPGHPTs Twitter) Posted: 2 Sept 2020

Yet, two months later, amid rumours the report was going to be buried, during a Parliamentary debate which took place on 2nd September 2020, the Baroness requested assurances from Ministers that the recommendations would be implemented. On the same date, MP and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hormone Pregnancy Tests, Yasmin Qureshi, took a different approach. Namely, she accused Government Ministers of hiding behind irrelevant “legal action, which has no bearing on this reports findings” to ignore their duty to implement First Do No Harm recommendations a point which she had previously voiced in a letter to Matt Hancock on 15th July 2020.

To its credit the Scottish Government has led the way; and on 1st September 2020, First Scottish Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed that Holyrood had accepted, in full, the recommendations of Baroness Cumberlege and would be appointing a Scottish Patient Safety Commissioner, “the emphasis of this new role is on the patient voice within the safety system.”  Moreover, on 13th September 2020, Andrew Davies, Shadow Minister for Health announced that a Welsh Conservative-led government would appoint ‘an independent patient safety commissioner in Wales.’ Currently, First Minister of Wales and the Welsh Labour-led government Mark Drakeford has not made any announcements regarding intentions towards the appointment of an Independent Patient Safety Commissioner.  

The Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review findings have had wider reaching ramifications. Primodos, a drug marketed by the West German pharmaceutical company Schering AG, was marketed in West Germany until 1981 as Duogynon. On 16th September 2020 the German Federal Ministry of Health announced it would be launching a review into whether or not the relationship between the regulator then the Federal Health Office today known as the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices  and the manufacturer then Schering AG, now Bayer AG led to ‘the drug remaining on the market despite concerns about its safety.’ 

In an article by Jason Farrell, Home Editor at Sky News, published on 19th September 2020, he noted ‘The German government has been reluctant to look into the issue and campaigners in Germany were relying on a breakthrough in the UK. That came after an independent review in Britain found in July that government health regulators had failed patients and that Primodos was responsible for “avoidable harm”.’ Although Jens Spahn German Federal Minster for Health, confirmed a research project into possible collusions between the German regulatory authority and the manufacturer; he also made it clear that “all the known findings and the scientific evidence do not currently support a causal link” between the hormone pregnancy test and birth defects.

Marie Lyon, chair of the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests, met with the German Health Committee and MPs in March 2019 to present analyses from Oxford University scientists Carl Heneghan and Jeffrey Aronson. Based on the research conclusions she discussed a possible review of Primodos and Duogynon and its association with ‘increased risks of congenital malformations.’ The subsequent pressure from German politicians calling for a review, together with First Do No Harm findings played an instrumental part in sparking the German investigation into the Duogynon scandal. For Marie Lyon, who has been working with the Duogynon Network, an association for members affected by Duogynon, since 2012, the announcement came as “a huge step forward for the German campaign group and one we thought we would never see happen”.  

MPs supporting calls for the implementation of First do No Harm - (From left to right - Sir Ed Davey, Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ian Blackford, Westminster Leader of the SNP, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Leader of DUP Party in Westminster, Caroline Lucas, co-Leader of the Green Party, Liz Saville-Roberts, Plaid Cymru, Westminster Leader, Colum Eastwood,  Leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Sir Keir Starmer Leader of the Labour Party).Image source: Courtesy of Sharon Hartles (adaption/remix of  I , II ,  III ,  IV , V,  VIVII ) MPs supporting calls for the implementation of First Do No Harm recommendations.

Back in the UK, in a bid to ensure that First Do No Harm is not ignored on 16th October 2020, six leaders of political parties: Sir Ed Davey, Ian Blackford, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Caroline Lucas, Liz Saville-Roberts and Colum Eastwood signed a joint letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson urging him to ‘instruct the Department of Health to implement the findings of the Cumberlege Review’. According to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hormone Pregnancy Tests on 28th October 2020, Sir Keir Starmer added his signature of support, a notable action, because all seven opposition party leaders have presented a united front in calling on Boris Johnson to implement the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review recommendations “in full and without delay.”

The UK government failed in its duty to regulate Primodos. The health care system failed in its duty to protect patients.  These failures resulted in avoidable harms spanning decades. For Primodos survivors these alleged life changing harms include: cardiac malformations, musculoskeletal, neurological, neurogenetical malformations, miscarriage and stillbirth. However, it was not the role of the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review to determine whether or not there was ‘a causal association between HPT use and physical malformations’. Therefore the review findings have not laid to rest scientific debate around the contested harmful nature of this synthetic sex hormone. And so there are still open questions regarding claims about the effects caused.

What is significant, is that Recommendation 4 of First Do No Harm states ‘The state and manufacturers have a moral responsibility to provide ex gratia payments to those who have experienced avoidable damage from the interventions we have reviewed.’  First Do No Harm may not have determined a causal association but recommendation 4 suggests that the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review findings are a long way from establishing harmlessness.

Tablet user

Image source: First Do No Harm

Now is not the time for the Government to unnecessarily prolong further suffering. It is time for these survivors of Primodos (and of sodium valproate and surgical mesh) to get the recognition and justice they so rightly deserve. In line with Recommendation 2, the appointment of an Independent Patient Safety Commissioner who will champion the patients’ voices and perspectives is long overdue. Furthermore, in accordance with Recommendation 9, action must be taken immediately to set up a task force in order to schedule a timetable for the implementation of the remaining recommendations as set out on 8th July 2020 by First Do No Harm.

To find out more about the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests (ACDHPT) campaign and keep up to date with news, visit primodos.org. In addition, there are a number of ways you can support the campaign:

Follow ACDHPT on Twitter

Follow ACDHPT on Facebook

Sign ACDHPT’s petition Protect patients and make our healthcare system safer for your children to Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling for him to implement the recommendations set out in the Cumberlege Review.

Encourage your MP to join the APPG for hormone pregnancy tests.

Make a donation to help ACDHPT continue their campaign

Get in touch with Marie Lyon

No place like home: Prisons and homelessness

By Dr David Scott

The homeless and especially those who are rough sleepers, comprise a disproportionate number of people in prison in England and Wales. Dr David Scott looks at why prisons and the streets are not a replacement for a true home.

In 2018 The Chain Reports found that 15% of newly sentenced people in prison had reported being homeless before entering custody. They also found that a third people sleeping on the streets in London in 2018 had served some time in prison. Further, in 2018 of the 7,745 women sent to prison in England and Wales, 3,262 were recorded as ‘being of no fixed abode’ when arriving in custody, which is approximately 42% of the prison intake for women prisoners in that year.

It has long been documented that people living on the streets are largely without work, privacy, decent food, or shelter and are often without good health. For many homeless people, life in prison is likely to exacerbates already existing personal troubles and health problems and does very little to address the existential crises generated by being without a home in wider society.

Home is a place of intimacy, familiarity and meaning. It is a place of openness and is essential to the foundation, development and stabilisation of human identities, and the creating a sense of ‘rootedness’. Home is about a sense of ‘belonging’ and feeling part of a wider community. A home is safe, familiar and comfortable. Home is a place of rest, recuperation, care and respite, something essential for the well-being of all humans.

A homeless man sleeping in a parkAn image of a homeless person sleeping in a park in Canada. Source: https://www.123rf.com/photo_31129604_14-may-2014-montreal-canada-homeless-person-sleeping-at-downtown-park-during-the-day-the-financial-c.html

The prison is not an environment that can deliver the beneficial place characteristics of a home. Through inherent violations of human dignity and the fear, or actual presence, of violence, the prison place blocks the ability to be emotionally vulnerable or open when encountering other people. The prison cannot be a sustained place of habitation and dwelling, nor are prisons environments conducive to delivering care and the generation of a sense of ‘belonging’ and inclusiveness. Instead, the prison is characterised by sadness, melancholia, insecurity and a sense of loss. 

Prisoners long for a secure dwelling place where they can relax and be themselves, but the place characteristics of prisons prevent this. A prison, whatever the physical conditions, will always be a pale imitation of a natural home. It cannot reproduce, at least for any significant time, the love, joy, safety and stability of a home that generate human life and vitality. The prison place is characterised instead by discomfort, fear and a lack of security and safety. Prisons may then be best described as dead places that overwhelmingly lead to endings and the breaking of ties and bonds, as well as being haunted by the pains and sufferings of their past generated by institutionally structured violence and hostility.

Prisons are institutions of legitimate abandonment. Abandonment, which is when someone is banished from society or forcefully separated from previous human connectedness, can dislodge a person from their attachments to a previous sense of place and time.

For prisoners who have previously experienced a sense of ‘home’, the abandonment, loneliness, dehumanisation of prisons may now be felt as something akin to being homeless. Like homeless people living on the streets, prisons can destroy lives and leave people struggling for survivalism and existing as a ‘bare life’ rather than truly living. Whereas it does provide shelter and some basic necessities, the prison ‘zone of abandonment’ can also lead to rootlessness, the breakdown human intactness and a penal abyss of hopelessness and sometimes self-harm, suicidal ideation and death. 

Uprooted from their social milieu and former lifeworld, the prisoner is turned into a stranger who is likely to experience social death – that is, the ‘death’ of human relationships, status and moral standing and in its extreme the non-recognition of a persons shared humanity. It also means to be ‘out of place’ – to be estranged and Othered. Estrangement entails removing someone from their previous life. It is to be shifted from familiarity to strangeness and to be re-assigned to a new devalued status. Estrangement is premised on the process of being forcefully made stranger from that which was previously inhabited as home.

Prisons are institutions of legitimate abandonment. Abandonment, which is when someone is banished from society or forcefully separated from previous human connectedness, can dislodge a person from their attachments to a previous sense of place and time. The prisoner – an estranged Other – inevitably experiences abandonment as they are no longer part of their former lifeworld and have apparently lost any previous claims on the wider community for help or assistance. Prisoners are often neither seen nor heard. Abandonment results in detachment, loss and desolation and the prisoner as de-socialised and depersonalised enforced stranger.

To conclude, there are undoubtedly certain similarities between the problem of homelessness and the failure of the prison to engender the necessary place characteristics for it be a habitable dwelling generating security, love and care. Human wellbeing and growth for everyone require our lifeworld to be situated in a place of safety – what we call home. Like living on the streets, a prison is no place like home.

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

This blog first appeared on the Open Learn site: https://www.open.edu/openlearn/society-politics-law/criminology/no-place-home-prisons-and-homelessness?in_menu=1575722.

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 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/11489148/Prison-conditions-as-bad-as-Strangeways-25-years-ago-Lord-Woolf-says.html

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: https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/resources/remembering-and-forgetting-woolf-report

Further Reading:


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

Of Dangerous Nexuses and How to Survive in a Post-truth World

Giulia Zampini from the University of Greenwich presents thoughts on the Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative conference


The Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative (HERC) at the Open University organised a launch event on 9th November, 2016. The one day conference was free to attend, opening its doors to scholars across disciplines, students, third sector and campaigning organisations. As the name suggests, the aim of this collaborative is to establish cross disciplinary and cross field networks to investigate the harm and evidence nexus in relation to various aspects of the criminal justice system and beyond. Following the zemiology turn in criminology, replacing crime with harm is regarded as a useful way to shift the focus away from narrow definitions of crime and criminal justice towards broader engagement with the notion of harm in pursuit of social justice. In their own words,

HERC’s research can be summarised as “evidencing harm and harmful evidence” which encompasses a range of areas such as the use of evidence in the criminal justice system and the harmful practices of public and private institutions. The notion of harm is increasingly central to new initiatives in policy and practice. However, policy-makers and practitioners fail to regard their own institutional practices as harmful to health and wellbeing and fail to recognise that institutional neglect can severely impact on people’s life chances.[1]

Scholars and campaigning organisations alike hope that by ‘evidencing harm and exposing harmful evidence’ change should follow. In other words, there is an assumption that producing and exposing evidence of harmful institutionalised practices – ‘speaking truth to power’ – will eventually result in change for the better. In an ideal world, public institutions should be responsive, accountable and open to change. However, in reality, institutions are perceived as stubborn, neglectful, and blind to their own failings. Thus, state institutions are regarded as harmful, and not evidence-informed.

For someone who spent a great deal of time thinking about evidence, what it means to people, how it is constructed and how it is used, I am painfully aware of the manners in which it can be at once emancipatory and treacherous. If evidence is always granted an emancipatory role – if evidence is assumed to provide better, fairer, more neutral grounds for justifying claims in seeking change – then there is a risk that it becomes misleading. Though evidence is often portrayed in the evidence/policy nexus as the thing that will make policy fair and just, the reality is that there is a complex interplay between evidence and policy, and that evidence is neither neutral nor apolitical. Similarly, the relationship between evidence and harm should not be conceived as a linear one, but as a complex interplay; we must critically engage with both sides. A key aspect of my own work has been to understand the ways in which evidence is (mis)understood and (mis)used by institutions whose putative role is the prevention of harm. More important, I question what can and should be done when we realise, as we increasingly are, that these institutions are responsible for causing the most harm?

Professor David Nutt, keynote speaker for the day, is a classic example of a scientist who has taken on the task of producing and using evidence as political ammunition to question an institutionalised truth that has caused immense harm, namely that ‘drugs are bad, therefore they should be criminalised’. His solution to address this simplistic logic was to compare harms, not only across a variety of legal and illegal substances, but also by comparing activities as mundane as horse-riding with illegal activities such as ecstasy consumption. When confronted about this comparative choice by a politician – for whom the thought of comparing a legal activity with an illegal one was unacceptable – a painful truth became clear: the idea that harm is not tied to the legal status of an activity is simply unthinkable. Indeed, the illegal-because-harmful nexus has been sustained for decades despite being misleading and dangerous. Harm must be understood as a much more complex, multifaceted and non-linear process. The intricate design and comprehensive nature of the harm index developed by David Nutt in collaboration with other scholars – motivated by his persistent efforts to shift the debate from criminality to harm – has gone somewhere to addressing this. This work has also gained Nutt the reputation of a maverick in political circles. And yet, he has attracted the attention of portions of the public, contributing to bring this debate outside policy and science.

The modern state and its institutions have continuously positioned themselves as protectors of their people from harm, so any evidence to the contrary (of which there is plenty; i.e. that the state and its institutions cause a great deal of harm) is seldom well received. It is often when people and communities are personally affected by harms perpetrated by institutions, as the case of justice4paps made clear, that they mobilise to attempt to change the culture and practices within them. And yet, as in the case of this campaign seeking justice by exposing police brutality, communities are routinely silenced and discouraged from pursuing change. In the end, the most harm is suffered by those who are institutionally and positionally weaker in society; the marginalised, the homeless, sex workers, LGBT communities, ethnic minorities, refugees and asylum seekers. These groups were at the very heart of the discussions throughout the day, as they embody the very contradictions that exist within a democratic state. That is, a state moved by the values of inclusion and universal rights but governed through social, economic and cultural hierarchies. This discrepancy lies at the very essence of our contemporary politics; something that was felt even more acutely on the particular day of the conference as we absorbed the news that the US had elected Donald Trump as its leader.

Narrative after narrative, paper after paper, it was clear that both institutions and majorities in the nation-state go through a process of ‘explaining away’ and re-legitimising every time they are questioned and critiqued. Focusing on symptoms rather than causes, never engaging with the systemic nature of the problem, and routinely shifting the burden of responsibility away from the system and toward the individual: these are favourite tactics, which also lie at the very foundation of the modern criminal justice system. Jo Phoenix’s contribution, highlighting the struggles of legitimation involving sexual deviants, was a timely reminder of the limitations of the sociology of deviance in accounting for what happened after decades of moral and political struggles: only those who could adapt to hetero/mononormativity were mainstreamed and welcomed into the licit and moral economy, leaving the ‘sluts’ and the ‘paedos’ stuck in the landscape of immorality and criminalisation.

During the panel on gendered and racialized harms, I was reminded once again that evidence is a double-edged sword. One of the panellists noted that the World Value Survey was used to evidence British tolerance in a radio debate, which reminded me of Trevor Phillips’ argument that Britain is the least racist country in Europe (because the levels of integration – measured by mixed parenting as main indicator – are higher than anywhere else). To use evidence in this way is extremely dangerous; it panders to the belief that we are on an exponentially growing curve of progress, and that things can only get better. The World Value Survey is an invaluable tool, but it remains a data set that needs to be carefully interpreted. It is paramount that we make clear the difference between data and evidence. Data never speaks for itself. Evidence is a construct; it is built from our interpretation of data. It is our responsibility to be open and honest about this process of interpretation and construction.

In an age where every statement from policy maker and pundit alike needs to be justified as evidence-based, or at least notionally evidence-informed, our transformative efforts need to be rooted in openness and engagement; we must not fall into the trap of hiding behind the false neutrality of evidence, or else we risk further polarising debates. If both we and our political opponents are making supposedly evidence-based claims, then how can anyone judge the validity of those claims with any level of confidence (particularly considering many people do not know how evidence is constructed in science)? Perhaps, it is not incidental that we are increasingly living in this ‘post-truth’ regime. The public is saturated with contradictory truth claims. The world of science is often too complex, pessimistic, and full of caveats and uncertainty to provide people with that (false sense of) protection the state offers.

Safety and security are among the cornerstones of the modern state. They served to justify its creation and its expansionary aims, and continue to be used to justify its existence, running concurrently and in opposition with democratic liberal values of inclusion and universal rights. This paradoxical state of inclusion/exclusion is what we currently find ourselves in at every level of political engagement, and with every group that challenges our sense of stability, security, and identity. Going further in our struggle for inclusion and universal rights, we must find strategies to address the divisiveness of current politics. Else, we run the risk of alienating and excluding people who will likely turn to the state and its rising populist leaders in search of protection and the very inclusion and rights we seek to obtain.


[1] http://www.open.ac.uk/researchcentres/herc/events/exploring-harm-and-evidence

This post was originally published on the University of Greenwich Law and Criminology Research blog at http://blogs.gre.ac.uk/lawandcrim/2016/11/22/88/

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s own, and are not necessarily representative of the University of Greenwich or any of the organisations mentioned in this post.

Historical abuse: witch-hunt, scapegoat, moral panic?

Dr Johanna Motzkau, The Open University.

Dr Nick Lee, University of Warwick.

panic photo Panic.jpg
The scale of the historical child abuse committed by some individuals is startling. The fact that this abuse went unprosecuted for decades raises the question of how that could happen. Many people, us included, are struggling to make sense of it all.

How the issue is framed in popular culture, in policy debate and in academic life will have serious consequences both for further investigation of individual cases and for wider inquiries. We are concerned about the recent use of a cluster of terms in attempts to frame these events: witch-hunt, scapegoat and moral panic. Very recently Harvey Proctor accused police to be conducting a ‘gay witch hunt’ against him, a claim cited again in coverage about sexual abuse allegations against Paul Gambaccini being dropped.

These terms can all too easily frame normal processes of criminal prosecution and legitimate inquiries into past abuses as irrational and disproportionate. We can see why commentators would reach for these terms. Historical child sexual abuse is a very complex issue that raises doubts about children’s safety in the past and in the present, and about adults’ failings in their moral and professional duties to nurture and protect them. This is why responses are so often sought with urgency. Given this, readily available framing devices have a strong appeal. They are tools to help us make sense. But what kind of sense do these terms make? Each in its own way ends up minimising the reality of historical abuse and, just at the point where survivors are being heard, suggests we stop our ears once again.

The critical force of the term ‘witch-hunt’ rests on there being a consensus view that there are, in reality, either very few or no ‘witches’ at all. Further, a ‘witch-hunt’ would be conducted using deeply suspicious methods of gathering and testing evidence (including ‘witch dunking’). It is remarkable then that the term is used in the context of successful criminal prosecutions that have established that crimes did indeed take place. For example, the term had been bandied around by the media and commentators in June/July 2014 after Rolf Harris’ conviction.

In what sense could a proven sexual offender be understood as a ‘scapegoat’? Perhaps the idea is that as we go about judging the actions and mores of previous decades by our own contemporary standards we select individuals to carry a disproportionate load of blame for our culture’s historical shortcomings. But the actions in question were just as criminal decades ago as they are today.

‘Moral panic’ is, perhaps, the most sophisticated of this cluster of terms. It derives from the work of criminologist Stanley Cohen in the 1970’s. The basic idea was that when a given group of people share the sense that they are losing social influence, they may try to regain their status by campaigning against a putative moral or behavioural trend or event. So-called ‘moral entrepreneurs’ who lead such campaigns can benefit. It’s a strong idea and generalizes well beyond 1970’s UK criminology. Campaigns against nuclear weapons, abortion and GM crops have been just as much shaped by these processes as complaints about swearing on television and banning punk rock gigs. But there is a strong consensus in the UK that sexual offending and sexual abuse of children are wrong. This is not a domain in which moral entrepreneurs can distinguish themselves. Further, the sexual abuse of children comprises activities that are already criminal offences and has done for many years.

To call the current focus on historical sexual abuse a ‘moral panic’ may be intended as a call for a sense of proportion. Historical child sexual abuse cases certainly sell newspapers and generate website ‘clicks’. We would suggest, however, that we are currently witnessing processes of criminal prosecution that are normal and proportionate (if delayed), along with other normal forms of public accountability. The legal system does not get it right all the time. It never will. It is particularly stretched and at times baffled by these cases, and there is consensus that more can be done to improve procedure; but this is indicative of the complexity of these cases and of legal reform, and not a result of moral panic.

It is indeed important to highlight exaggerated and unhelpful reactions by the media, and to remain sceptical towards ‘quick fix’ policy-making that monopolises isolated issues (e.g. child sexual abuse in public institutions) only to divert attention and resources from longstanding problems at the heart of child protection (e.g. poverty, inequality, neglect and intra-familiar abuse). But this can be done without referring to moral panics as for example Featherstone, White and Morris show in their recent book. The fact that in the past the pendulum of concern has swung steadily (and repeatedly) from ignorance to alarm does not mitigate the seriousness of the problem of sexual (and other) offences against children; and while it seems impossible to control such pendulum swings, this should not be taken to demean the motives of those committed to do something about child abuse (historical or recent). We might reasonably consider this period of heightened sensitivity an occasion to learn and improve.

Once terms like moral panic, scapegoat and witch-hunt are in play it is difficult to maintain a differentiated view of ‘what really happened’. Talk of witch-hunts and scapegoats implies that all those at the centre of attention are innocent or that no findings could be legitimate or safe. Talk of moral panic stymies analysis by conflating issues and closes down debate, as contributors have to hedge against being seen as moral entrepreneurs.

Declaring a moral panic in this context is ultimately a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if this is clearly not intended, it provides traction for those who are indeed keen to play down the problem, conflate issues and point out that there’s ‘nothing to see here’. This does not add transparency or a sense of vigilance and proportion. It takes us straight back to the no win situation, where the voice of actual victims is just as difficult to hear as that of those falsely accused.

If you heard allegations that child sexual abuse had taken place in your workplace, wouldn’t you want to know whether, and if so, how that happened?

This article was originally published by opendemocracy.net at


The Corporate Criminal



The Corporation as a Fact of Life

The dominant role that corporations play in our lives makes them appear to us as a fact of life. Corporations now profit from providing most of the food that we eat, the clothes we wear, the communications systems we use, the films we watch, the music we listen to and so on. What corporations do well or badly fundamentally affects our chances of a healthy life.  Corporations produce the chemicals that end up in the air we breathe and the water we drink, just as they produce the drugs that claim to keep us healthy and to prolong our lives.  Corporations are central to virtually all systems of child-, social or health-care, criminal justice, education, energy and transport. The presence of corporations in every aspect of our lives is so overbearing that it makes it seem as if this presence is both normal and natural.

At the political level, it has become received wisdom for most governments around the world – whatever their formal political leaning – that the corporation is the single best way of organising the production and distribution of goods and services in the contemporary world.  The corporation is  a motor of efficiency, innovation, economic progress, and ultimately social good. On this dominant view, corporations are essentially benevolent institutions.

Of course, it would be impossible to deny that corporations can, too, generate destructive side-effects.  But if corporations appear to act irresponsibly, or even illegally, it is argued widely in political circles that corporations and their senior managers must be empowered to reform themselves along more socially responsible lines.  Only where ‘corporate social responsibility’ fails should governments step in to regulate (or enforce) the law in order to bring recalcitrant corporations into compliance. The dominant, unifying, principle in contemporary mainstream politics is that it is possible for corporations themselves to balance effectively economic progress with social welfare.

Externalising Machines

None of these claims withstand scrutiny. The problematic consequences of corporate activity are not merelyside effects, marginal aberrations to be remedied  through self-regulation or even law enforcement. The problems caused by corporations – which seriously threaten our lives and our planet – are enduring and necessary elements of corporate activity. Corporations lie, cheat, steal, injure and poison as part of their everyday routine.  If this seems like a wild or even conspiratorial claim, it is not one that we make lightly.  Let us take three brief illustrations, all related to deaths, the tip of the iceberg of corporate harms.

First, deaths associated from air pollution. The UK Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution (COMEAP), looking at the effects of poor air quality effects at a population level, has estimated that 29,000 deaths every years are ‘brought forward’ by pollution, albeit this is thought to be a significant under-estimate. Other estimates are higher: the UK Parliament all-party Environmental Audit Committee concluded in 2010 that “[a]ir pollution probably causes more deaths than passive smoking, traffic accidents or obesity’, possibly “contributing to as many as 50,000 deaths per year”. Moreover those deaths are not equally distributed across communities, since in what the all-party Environmental Audit Committee calls “pollution hotspots”, some peoples’ lives are being cut short by as much as 9 years.  Although it is virtually impossible to estimate precisely how much pollution is caused by corporate activity, as opposed, notably, to private car or fuel use, there is ample evidence to conclude that that most pollution is produced by commercial activity that corporations profit directly from.

Second, what is most commonly referred to as “food poisoning” is a major source of death and illness in the UK. According to the most recent report from the Chief Scientist, “Our best estimate suggests that there are around a million cases of foodborne illness in the UK each year, resulting in 20,000 hospital admissions and 500 deaths”. Even these estimates of food related illness are likely to understate the scale of the problem.  More recently, Food Standards Agency sampling of chickens bought from large UK retail outlets and smaller independent stores and butchers between February 2014 and February 2015 found that 73% of chickens tested positive for the presence of campylobacter – that is, three-quarters contained a pathogen which is the major source of hospitalisation from food poisoning in the UK. Again, to be clear, these cases of food poisoning are directly linked to food businesses – mostly to large corporations in the retail sector.

Finally, there is now strong evidence that around 50,000 or so deaths per annum are related to working in Britain.  Most of those deaths are caused by diseases that may take many years of illness before their victims die.   While we know little about the vast majority of these deaths, we know for sure that they are overwhelmingly not the result of accidents, a term implying these were unforeseen, unpreventable, or usually both. Quite the contrary, they mostly are the effects of failures of employers to meet clear obligations in law to protect the health, safety and welfare of workers and members of the public.  Again, the vast majority of people who are killed by working, are killed in the employment of private profit-making corporations.

These three examples provide clear indications that corporations produce harms which kill thousands annually – while they also routinely injure and generate significant levels of ill-health.   Alongside the physical costs of corporate activity are significant economic costs, too – the bulk of which are borne by individuals (as losses of earnings to a family when someone is made ill by industrial activity) or are more widely socialised (for example as a burden on health or welfare services). Yet standard cost-accounting mechanisms reduces the value of death, injury, illness, immiseration and environmental degradation to mere externalities; that is, peripheral side effects of corporate activity, which remain absent from the balance sheets of costs and benefits of private economic activity.  Thus corporations are only generally financially liable for only a proportion of the harmful costs of their activities.  It is this principle that enables corporations to act, using Bakan’s term, as “externalising machines.”

State-Corporate Symbiosis

But if we can estimate the scale of some harms, and if we can link these directly to corporate activity, the extent to which these are crimes is much more difficult to assess. Some of these harms are effectively legalized.  Air pollution, for example, up to certain levels and for certain substances, is legal, notwithstanding the harms produced.  Yet in cases of air pollution where there is clear evidence of illegalities on the part of private corporations, just as with food poisoning or deaths at work, the law is rarely used to punish those responsible.  Corporate offending is effectively decriminalised.

On one hand, this is because regulators, at both national and local levels, are so under-resourced that they cannot do their job, while, in any case, they do not see themselves, nor have the mandate, to act as any kind of ‘police force’ for commerce.  Equally significantly, the law itself provides corporations with a shield from liability for its crimes and harms. Thus: law constructs a formal impunity for corporations and its senior officers and owners; law effectively legalises many corporate harms; and the ways in which the law is effected provides a de facto state of decriminalisation where bodies of law are in fact violated as a result of corporate activities.  Law, then, sits at the crux of the freedom and structural irresponsibility with which the corporation is endowed. These legal structures, created and under-pinned by states, constitute the main reason why corporate power can never be simply separated from state power; corporations are effectively empowered by law to commit crime.

Many social scientists have, over the past forty years with the emergence of both neo-liberalism and ‘globalisation’, erred in assuming that the rise of corporate power necessarily entails a diminution in state power. Typically, trends towards deregulation and privatisation in the developed world are cited as ‘proof’ of this ‘fact’.  And yet, to the extent that many have been persuaded by this zero-sum analysis, it is at least in periods of social and economic crises that the real nature of the relationship between corporations and states is revealed. The bank bailouts that followed the so-called ‘credit crunch’ represented one of those moments of exposure. For here was a moment in which national governments intervened to save ‘private’ banks from the ravage of market forces, an intervention that is disavowed when jobs are threatened by offshoring production, or when meaningful curbs on executive pay are suggested.  In the bank bail-out, the ‘invisible’ hand of the market began to look a little more like the very clearly visible hand of the state.  It was a moment at which the illusion of the formal separation of power between states and corporations was shattered as governments around the globe scrambled to save finance capital.

In the UK alone, the immediate value of the bailout for the banks was £550 billion across 2008 and 2009.  And this burden on all of us imposed by the banking bailouts is by no means limited to those sums initiated in the aftermath of the ‘crash’.  As the New Economics Foundation has noted, ‘too big to fail’ banking subsidies exceeded £30 billion in both 2011 and 2012.  Indeed, corporate subsidies are more common across all sectors of the economy than most of us realize. Numerous sectors such as the care sector, health and pharmaceuticals, private security, the arms industry, educational suppliers and publishers and so on would be tiny by comparison without government contracts and the role of the public sector in stimulating those markets.  The construction industry enjoys remarkably high levels of public subsidy. UK train operators are completely dependent upon government subsidies.  In virtually every area of criminal justice social policy, vast swathes of ‘service’ delivery has been handed over, usually in the name of greater efficiency, to private corporations operating in oligopolistic market sectors. Indeed, virtually all of the ‘private’ economy is subsidized in one way or another – adding up to massive, and increasing, levels of corporate welfare.

For us, then, it is the interdependence between states and corporations – in contrast to the dominant and prevalent claim that these entities exist in relations of antagonistic, external independence – that must be the starting point for understanding the production of corporate crime and harm. More specifically, the corporation is an essential part of the infrastructure of the modern capitalist state, albeit that its place and roles therein are constantly in flux. Rather than viewing power as somehow distributed in a zero-sum fashion between states or corporations, it is more accurate empirically and theoretically to understand the relationships between corporations and states as much more complex and often symbiotic.

Its relationship to the state – or, rather, the capitalist state – is also crucial for understanding that the corporation cannot effectively be held to account through criminal, administrative, regulatory nor company law. It needs to be replaced. Now, this is not to say law can achieve nothing.  Legal reforms can mitigate some of the worst excesses of corporate power.  For example, we would argue that in order to limit corporate welfare, the delivery of a range of services should be nationalised and taken out of the for-profit sector; and the governance of national and local government procurement should be changed to develop effective forms of contract compliance, excluding recidivist companies from tendering to undertake work.  Moreover, via radical reform of company law, the ability of companies to externalise their social costs might be mitigated.  Moreover, workers can be empowered by law to challenge corporate power: for example, firms with legally-protected, effective trade union safety reps and safety committees have half as many recorded injuries as those where these counter-vailing sources of power do not exist. Consumers and local communities might also be so empowered to challenge polluting corportions. And, in the realm of criminal law, we can still identify reforms which might radically undermine the legal protections which corporations currently enjoy – laws which pierce the corporate veil, for example, so that the relationships between the corporate entity and those who own and control it are exposed, and legal liability is not compartmentalised and minimised.

But these reforms are always going to be piecemeal and always precarious – so working for them must not  prevent us thinking more imaginatively about  demands for more lasting and fundamental social change.

Why Corporations must be Abolished

The corporation cannot be effectively reformed: not through corporate social responsibility, not through regulation, not through tinkering with structures, its functions or its functionaries. It is an essentially destructive, irresponsible phenomenon.  It is its fundamentally destructive and anti-social nature that means the goal of corporate opposition must be the abolition of the corporation. Just as Thomas Mathiesen, the Norwegian criminologist, made a powerful case for prison abolitionism through placing the Prison On Trial, our book The Corporate Criminal places the corporation on trial.

In The Corporate Criminal, we challenge both the idea and the reality of the corporation. A starting point is the recognition that, although the corporation appears as a ‘natural’ and ever present entity, it is in fact a relatively short-lived historical construction, one entirely dependent upon state activity, continuously created and recreated through law, politics and ideology. We must imagine and struggle towards a world without the corporation. The corporation is not merely a threat to our lives in the ways that we indicate here, but in the long term, placing the trust of the future of the planet’s climate, or the future of food production or water distribution in the hands of the corporation, as is the case, is, literally, suicidal.  And so, a challenge to the corporation is now more necessary than ever in order to save all human life. In making such a grand claim we do not dismiss more piecemeal reform strategies per se – via law, regulation, enforcement, political challenge – but such efforts need to be placed within and judged against the wider, demanding, yet compelling political goal of meaningfully challenging corporate power through dismantling the corporate form itself.

The Corporate Criminal: Why corporations must be abolished (Routdledge, 2015) by Steve Tombs and David Whyte.

Steve Tombs is Professor of Criminology at the Open University. He has a long-standing interest in the incidence, nature and regulation of corporate crime. He works closely with the Hazards movement in the UK, and is a Trustee and Board member of Inquest.

David Whyte is Professor of Socio-legal Studies at the University of Liverpool where he teaches and does research on the relationship between law, politics and corporate power. He works closely with Corporate Watch and is a member of the executive committee of the Institute of Employment Rights.

Original article published in The Project

Austerity as Bureaucratized and Organized Violence

Vickie Cooper, Lecturer in Criminology

In July 2014, a member of the Disability News Service sent a Freedom of Information Inquiry to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), asking it to reveal mortality statistics on those who have died while in receipt of benefits and/or while serving a benefit sanction. Typically, Ian Duncan Smith, head of the DWP refused, claiming that the DWP does not review such cases. However, after mounting pressure, including an ongoing petition and pressure from within the House of Commons itself, it was subsequently revealed that the DWP carried out 49 – 60 reviews of people who died while claiming benefits. In a separate but recent review by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, the government claims that it found “‘no particular case’ in which a ‘benefit sanction alone’ had directly led to the death of a benefit claimant”, but conceded that in 33 of those cases, the procedure could have been improved. This review makes recommendations that the DWP should conduct a system for formal death inquiries where an individual dies ‘whilst in receipt of that benefit’. This system, it is recommended, should be comparable to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, where death inquiries are made upon public request.

This particular Freedom of Information request is critical for thinking beyond the poverty implications of austerity, as it forces us to think more about the violent and harmful implications. A sharp rise in suicide mortality across those economies most impacted by austerity suggests that these post-crash economies are having particularly violent and harmful affects. Here in the UK, reports of ‘benefits-related suicides’ are being brought to our attention thick and fast. Perhaps the most familiar benefit-related suicide, one that raised much media attention, was the suicide of Stephanie Bottrill, from Solihul, near Birmingham. Following a thirty-minute assessment, the housing authority concluded that Stephanie Bottrill would have to pay an additional weekly fee for her spare bedroom. In her suicide note, Stephanie Bottrill blamed the government for causing her such stress.

Accused of failing in its duty of care towards disabled people, a death inquest led to various speculations as to why Stephanie Bottrill committed suicide. As such, Stephanie Bottrill’s history of mental health issues were called into question and were used to undermine the political significance of her death – as though the harms of austerity are any less significant or political when they impact upon those with mental health issues. A spokesperson in defence of the council responsible for making Stephanie Bottrill’s assessment claimed that she was in a ‘situation’, living in a house,  ‘that the government policy said was too big so she would have to pay a spare room subsidy’. The coroner passed a verdict that Stephanie Bottrill committed suicide due to ‘stress and anxiety’ and no local authority or government official was reviewed and/or policy implementation revised. But the biggest twist in the tale is that Stephanie Bottrill may have been exempt from paying bedroom tax. According to the pre-1996 exemption rule, any adult or family member living in the property before 1996, are exempt from paying bedroom tax. Stephanie Bottrill had been living in her accommodation since 1995.


Esther McVey and Chris Hayes during Parliamentary Inquiry into benefit-related suicides. Photo: screengrab, BBC Democracy Live

We know from Durkheim’s seminal study Suicide, that economic crises are often followed by a rapid rise in numbers of suicide mortality. However, the rise in suicide mortality is not as a result of encroaching poverty levels, but the extent to which economic crises disturb the ‘collective order’. And nothing quite disturbs a sense of order like citizens being evicted from their homes and further displaced from those communities they once inhabited. The psychological and physical responses to welfare policies in this post-crash period is not the fact that individuals and communities now find themselves destitute and on the margins, but the means by which it is done and the disorder that ensues.

While increasing suicide mortality is one way for us to think about austerity as harmful and violent, perhaps it is not indicative enough of the violent and harmful impacts of austerity. Durkheim reminds us that:

“those who kill themselves through automobile accidents are almost never recorded as suicides; those who sustain serious injuries during an attempt to commit suicide and die weeks or months later of these injuries or of inter-current infections are never registered as suicides; a great many genuine suicides are concealed by families; and suicidal attempts, no matter how serious, never find their way into the tables of vital statistics.”

The problem with relating suicide mortality with social injury caused by economic crises, is that many of the harmful and violent outcomes are hidden and multifarious: the suicides that are recorded are only the tip of the iceberg.

Austerity as Organized Violence

Another way to think about the harm and violence of austerity is to pay more attention to those bureaucracies and organizations challenged with the task of enforcing it. Since 2010, the welfare reforms have encompassed a whole range of assessments for determining new thresholds of eligibility, with the aim of removing people from their benefits entitlement. Benefit claimants have been forced to make the transition from old benefit entitlements, to new ones; with new rules, new measures of entitlement, new guidance frameworks and more strict sanctions for those claimants who fail to adhere to these new rules. In this transition, claimants have had to undergo new benefits assessments such as Personal Independence Payment (PIP), Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Spare-room Subsidy (bedroom tax) and Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA).

These new thresholds of entitlement and eligibility, and the volume of assessments they entail, should not be underestimated as we think about how austerity is violently enforced through bureaucracies and organizations. Putting these new measures of eligibility in motion, the government and local authorities have recruited a number of private companies to administer the new rules of eligibility. Companies such as Experian, A4e, ATOS, Maximus and Capita have all been recruited to assess and process millions of benefit claimants. Where authorities claim that these companies ‘improve the quality’ of their assessment process, individuals assessed by them would most likely claim the opposite. A government inquiry into the standard of assessments made by the company Atos, revealed that 41 per cent of face-to-face assessments ‘did not meet the required standards’. When A4e set unattainable targets to reduce the number of people claiming employment seeker’s allowance, staff members resorted to ‘numerous offences of fraud’ in order to remove people from their benefit entitlement. Such offences involved ‘tricking’ claimants into carrying out job-search activities that, as a result of learning difficulties, they could not complete and were subsequently sanctioned. Although privatisation plays a significant part in the violent enforcement of austerity, local authorities have also been reprimanded for conducting benefit assessments unlawfully.

So how we can we think of these bureaucratic practices as organized violence? Mainstream policy analyses frequently dismiss the political significance of administrators of eligibility and entitlement as technical systems that separate ‘the deserved’ poor from ‘the undeserved’. But history tells us a more compelling story about the role of bureaucracy and organizations for enforcing and legitimating a violent political order.

Systems of classification and eligibility have a long history in shaping society and political relations. At worst, repressive regimes have relied upon bureaucracies to enforce formal eligibility rules to disqualify and deny citizens access to fundamental rights  – often relegating them to ‘stateless’ and ‘non-human’ identities. The Apartheid regime in South Africa began with the classification and reclassification of race that enabled the state to organize the violent expulsion of certain racial and ethnic groups and deny citizens their most basic rights. Similarly, Hannah Arendt observed that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were not atypical monsters, but mundane bureaucrats, as demonstrated in her analysis of the Adolf Eichmann trials.

These violent histories raise two key points for thinking about austerity as bureaucratized and organized violence. First, they reveal the manner in which violent political orders are legitimated at the bureaucratic level and second, how bureaucracies are necessary for reconfiguring socio-economic relations through systems of ‘entitlement’. These relations often include: property relations, race relations, class relations, family relations, gender relations, geographical relations and state-citizen relations.

And austerity serves as something of a peculiar model in this process. Austerity and the bureaucratic means by which it comes to be enforced is about reconfiguring social relations. Here, gender-relations and new benefit rules are a good case in point. With Universal Credit (which amalgamates six benefit and tax credits) claims are made on households, not individuals. The Women’s Budget Group argues that the design of Universal Credit – with its system of joint assessment, joint ownership and joint income – reshapes gender relations as it reinforces the ‘single breadwinner model’, a model that has disadvantaged women throughout history. In reshaping gender relations, Universal Credit is positioning women in harmful positions as it allows for abusive male partners to centralise and control household finance. Financial abuse is a common source of power and violence that is exercised over women and Universal Credit simply gives the abuser more money and more opportunity to control.  This comes on top of overwhelming evidence from Women’s Aid showing that the provision of domestic violence specialist services and hostel accommodation available for women, is diminishing directly as a result of local authority cuts.

Clearly, the government is failing in its duty to promote gender equality and protect women from harm and violence.

In this post-crash period, the war on the poor has resulted in various social injuries including debt, child poverty, evictions, homelessness, self-harm and suicide. Hell-bent on the idea that removing people from their basic entitlements can restore economic order, the government is throwing people onto unknown margins in order reduce the budget deficit.  But justifying this level of harmful and violent economic policy – as a means to an end, to reduce deficit budget – does not wash. Austerity is not a means to an end, but a long-term strategy by which governments are violently and legitimately disrupting the rights of citizens. As Hannah Arendt put it, violence is rarely a means to an end, but a power structure and political order that ‘outlasts all aims’.

It is worth paying closer attention to the rising levels of psychological and physical harms affecting young people as the next round of welfare reforms will disproportionately affect young people. With the new welfare reform bill, the Conservative government looks set on excluding young people between 18-21 years old from housing benefit entitlement (who are also claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance). Despite homeless charities ferociously ringing alarm bells showing how these policies will result in homelessness, the government wants young people to ‘earn or learn’. And bureaucracies will play a key role in enforcing these new rules as it begins to assess and remove approximately 20,000 young people from this benefit entitlement.

This blog first appeared at Open Democracy on 10 August 2015, at https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/vickie-cooper/austerity-as-bureaucratized-and-organized-violence

Tenants in danger: the rise of eviction watches

Vickie Cooper, The Open University

Kirsteen Paton, University of Leeds

Not since 1915 has private housing tenure been so dominant. The gradual rescinding of public housing over the 20th century sees us exposed to the raw edge of the market today. We are living in the darkest time of housing commodification as this project shifts from one of aspiration to coercion. With an unprecedented growth in evictions across the UK, tenants are increasingly being removed from their properties to release the value of the land.

This rise of evictions has resulted in a wave of resistance. Protection here, rather than statutory, comes in the form of “eviction watches” organised by community campaign groups and volunteers. Local campaign groups are mobilising to protect tenants facing eviction from bailiffs, gathering outside their homes to ward off any who might try. In this piece we are, firstly, casting light upon the prevalence of eviction watches today as housing privatisation and austerity take full grip. In so doing we are, secondly, raising critical questions about the state’s role and responsibility in evictions and the disparities in power between state-sponsored bailiffs and anti-eviction campaign groups who are providing short-term protection and intervention for tenants.

Eviction watches: then and now

100 years apart, the Rent Strike and New Era estate campaigns have discomfiting echoes and revealing differences which expose the degradation of housing regulation and increased privatisation over the course of the 20th century.

In 1915, housing, provided in a deregulated market, was a source of conflict between the state and tenants. Profiteering private landlords increased working-class household rents in the hope of capitalising on the influx of munitions workers as part of the war effort. With tenants unable to pay these rising rents, eviction notices were filed by private landlords, enforced by the Sheriff Officer with police back-up. In response, thousands of tenants mobilised and went on rent strike. The victory of these strikes resulted in the Rent Restrictions Act 1915, which froze rents at pre-war levels and paved the way for the Housing and Town Planning Act 1919 and later, council housing development which long since protected tenants from the vagaries of the market.

In current recessionary times, conflict between the state and tenants has been reignited and the might of the private rented sector, reinstated. In 2014, New Era housing tenants in London mobilised and campaigned against a large transnational corporate takeover by an $11bn asset management firm, Westbrook Partners. When New Era tenants received a letter from Westbrook’s solicitors informing them that their current stable rents would be raised to “market rates”, members of the community campaigned hard and fast to stop the takeover – and won. A key difference between the rent strikers’ and New Era’s victory is that the latter’s win relates only to the estate. As such, New Era are facing new challenges as the current owners of the estate – Dolphin Square Foundation – plan to means-test new tenants in order to determine rents.

What is also different is that, unlike the housing market of 1915, landlords are transnational; London is a goldmine for global property speculators and homeownership. Despite the role the housing boom played in the financial crash in 2008, property is a highly lucrative asset in austerity Britain. Private landlords, not rent strikers, are today’s unsung housing heroes, as claimed by former housing minister Grant Schapps. Bailiffs are also having a renaissance, gathering to celebrate their success at the £4,000 a head British Credit Awards in London recently. How is business? With 42,000 repossessions a day and 115 evictions a day, business is good, very good.

We are exposed to the coercive side of housing commodification and the market as authorities across the UK, with an absence of any statutory protection against evictions. Rarely do evictions take place without police presence, including riot police, serving to criminalise tenants and anti-eviction protestors. And increasingly coercive tactics of violence and intimidation are being deployed against those resisting and protecting tenants against eviction. The power mobilised by the state in the eviction process is disproportionate compared to the support offered, resources and advocacy available for those facing eviction. This, we argue, is an act of state violence on tenants and mortgaged homeowners as police forces and private security firms are utilised to facilitate evictions, shut down protesters and aid private developers and landlords.

As such, we highlight the rise of eviction watches across the UK, drawing from the frontline work of welfare campaign groups, ReClaim in Liverpool and E15 Focus Mothers, London. Like the function of food banks, eviction watches are local, voluntary support, providing a stopgap and temporary buffer for those facing a point of crisis.

ReClaims welfare advice poster

Poster at ReClaim’s welfare advice clinic in Liverpool.

They have become a critical aspect of welfare support group’s activities given the unprecedented increase in arrears. What follows is the authors’ account and observations of these two front-line campaign groups, documenting some of their experiences of working with tenants facing eviction. This sheds light on the state’s role in evictions and the disparity in power between the state-sponsored bailiffs and the anti-evictions groups.

Tenants in Danger: Mobilising Housing Action

We visited ReClaim’s Friday afternoon welfare rights clinic, 12 days before Christmas, in 2014. A couple come in for advice on their mortgage arrears. Their house is to be repossessed in 5 days time. They are £70,000 in debt and unless they can pay £17,000 upfront they will be evicted.

Juliet, one of the welfare rights volunteers, considers their options by process of elimination. She asks them why they couldn’t make the initial arrears repayment agreed by the bank and whether they can raise £17,000. The main breadwinner is a bricklayer, who is self-employed but struggles to get by being paid “by the brick”. His partner works part-time as a dinner lady on a zero hours contract. Faced with degraded and insecure job quality, repossessions disproportionately affect working-class mortgage borrowers.

Having exhausted their options with the bank’s repayment scheme, Juliet gives them two more options: one is to go down the homelessness route and live temporarily with friends and family until they find something else. The couple look disheartened; they want to be at home for Christmas. There is no statutory duty preventing repossessions which they can call upon. Although various “support for mortgage” schemes exist, people are often in denial about losing their home that many do not seek help until crisis point. The significance of this is echoed by Juliet who claims that, “quite often tenants don’t know why they’re facing eviction; they’re not informed by anybody, least of all by the social landlords. And it’s hard for anyone to come here and say ‘can you help me?’ because they’re ashamed of being of in debt and in needing help and support.”

Juliet offers the second option: “…we call round and get some ‘bodies’ in front of your house, stand in front of your house and get them off your backs until after Christmas…?” The couple look at one another tentatively. The woman puts her hand over her mouth in disbelief that ReClaim could help stall their eviction. At this point for the family, Christmas is plenty. And yet the local authorities failed to negotiate such a reprieve with the debt collectors. As promised, the advisors got to work, summoning networks, liaising across social media and mobilising a strong crowd of 40 to 60 volunteers to hold a vigil outside the couple’s home. This peaceful anti-eviction support resulted in the bailiffs, with police, being turned away. The couple were subsequently informed that the eviction notice served for that day, had been dismissed and the family had that much needed reprieve until January.

Juliet reports that they are busier than ever, due to rent arrear issues and changes in benefits. As a campaigning welfare rights collective and eviction watches form one of their many activities and caseloads are creaking. Of 50 “bedroom tax” appeals they have taken on, they have won 36 – a 72% success rate.  ReClaim are by no means alone in these activities. According to another campaigner in London, Jasmine Stone, from Focus E15 Mothers, mobilising anti-eviction support now plays a vital role in their day-to-day campaign activities.  She claims that, “we’ve never been so busy, we go to housing meetings with families who are being evicted and rally round at their houses to prevent them from being evicted – we just stand with our hands tied together so they can’t get through.”

In 2008, when the financial crisis unfolded, evictions amongst mortgage repossessions peaked at 142,741 in England and Wales. This followed an era of housing aspiration underpinned by Right to Buy and the availability of 100% mortgages. We are seeing similar peaks in evictions in the rented housing sector: 170,451 evictions (including private and social housing) in England and Wales in 2013, a 26% increase since 2010. In the 3rd quarter of 2014 (July-September), there were 11,100 landlord repossessions by county court bailiffs. According to the Ministry of Justice this is the highest quarterly figure since records began in 2000.

Vickie Cooper image 02

The labour power and might mobilised by the state in the eviction process is disproportionate compared to the support offered and the resources and advocacy available for those facing eviction. While previously, anti-social behaviour was the leading cause of eviction notices this has been superseded by rent arrears. Rather than working on behalf of their tenants who fall into arrears, statistics show that housing associations and local authorities – supported by housing legal experts – have resigned themselves to a very anti-social housing policy, regularly dispensing “notices seeking possession” to tenants. In 2012-2013, local authorities in England and Wales evicted 6,140 households, 81% of which were due to arrears. In 2013-2014, social landlords issued 239,381 notices seeking possession for rent arrears alone – a 22% increase from previous annual figures.

Authorities across the UK are deploying increasingly violent and intimidating tactics against those resisting eviction. In a bid to evict sitting tenants from Chartridge House on Aylesbury estate, Southwark Council called in the riot police to derail the anti-eviction protest, resulting in the arrest of six people. Jasmine Stone confirmed that authorities are escalating levels of violence and “getting really intimidating with us and there are kids present”. She recalls when campaign members attended a public meeting at the local council offices to support a woman, with child, who was scheduled to be rehoused in Liverpool (from London). Jasmine claims that “security were really aggressive, they punched one of the mums [a campaigner] in the face…”

And what is to become of the evicted? As the above suggests with moves from London to Liverpool, it’s a displacement merry go-round. Plus, those evicted as a result of arrears are, according to homeless and housing law, intentionally homeless and therefore disqualified from meaningful housing support. Those lucky enough to pass the homelessness test are no longer given priority access to social housing: since the Localism Act 2011 they are offloaded to the private rented sector. At best, this smacks not only of a withdrawal of state level responsibility to rehouse tenants in affordable housing, but a redistribution of wealth from the state to private landlords. At worst, local authorities breach the law and refuse to follow their legal duty in accordance with the Housing Act 1996.

Southwark Council – who recently deployed the riot police to evict tenants from Aylsebury estate and, in a separate event, were found guilty of “civil conspiracy” after unlawfully evicting a tenant, leaving them homeless – have been ordered by the High Court “to stop breaking the law by turning away homeless people who apply for housing in the borough”. But let’s be clear, this foul play is not uncommon. Homeless and housing practitioners have, for years, avoided the local authority route for rehousing homeless clients due to various unlawful tactics. What is uncommon, but wholly welcomed, is that Southwark Council has been named and shamed.

From Eviction Watches to National Action

In 2015, we should expect to see a rise in tenant evictions inflicted by banks, private registered landlords and the state and more grim effects of the onslaught of welfare reforms. As such the work of welfare campaigners and advocates and their eviction watch activities become an essential local resource. Public spending cuts have negatively impacted on local support services at the same time when necessity and demand for them increases. Similar to the discussions of food banks, eviction watches should not be normalised nor be separated out as a discreet strand of inequality. The main drivers of housing inequality are welfare cuts, coupled with short term and zero hour jobs (increasing at a faster rate than permanent positions in the UK) and state regulation that promotes property development.

Today, we would do well to invoke the spirit of 1915, when rent-striking tenants recognised their exploitation and acted collectively across cities to lobby for housing equality. 100 years later we are at a similar frontier where communities and cities also recognise the erosion of housing rights. Eviction watches are not enough to assuage the harms of this deregulated housing market but these campaigns do mark the beginning, we hope, of a collective housing response of similar historical and radical significance.

This article first appeared on 17 April 2015 at Open Democracy, https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/kirsteen-paton-vickie-cooper/tenants-in-danger-rise-of-eviction-watches

Anti-austerity backlash is moving up a gear – even in ‘progressive’ Scotland

The anti-austerity protest outside Downing Street, central London, as protesters mark their opposition to measures set out in the Queen's Speech, following the State Opening of Parliament. ... State Opening of Parliament 2015 ... 27-05-2015 ... London ... UK ... Photo credit should read: Yui Mok/Unique Reference No. 23130754 ... Picture date: Wednesday May 27, 2015. See PA story POLITICS Speech Protests. Photo credit should read: Yui Mok/PA Wire

Protestors gathered in force for the UK state opening of parliament on May 27. Yui Mok/PA Wire

Gerry Mooney, The Open University

What to expect from the latest Westminster parliament? More strikes and demonstrations look very likely as the next phase of austerity takes hold. With the success of the Conservatives in winning an outright majority at the election, and with the collapse of the Labour vote, there are already numerous indications that many of those experiencing the reality of austerity are not willing to wait for signs of a Labour revival. The plans announced in the Queen’s Speech to tighten trade-union legislation have further soured the atmosphere.

The threat of the first national UK rail strike in 20 years in early June is the latest sign that resistance is building. Anti-austerity demonstrations have meanwhile spread across major towns and cities in England and Wales since May 7, with thousands most recently demonstrating during the state opening of parliament in London. Thousands more are expected to attend a similar demonstration in Glasgow organised by the STUC on June 20.

Much of this protest surely reflects, at least in England, the lack of choice at the recent election. Both coalition partners from the previous administration argued that austerity measures were working well in helping to reduce economic deficits. Labour promised that it would continue with the “fiscal responsibility” of the coalition government, though over a longer time-scale. UKIP was promising more cuts too, meaning that only smaller groups and parties such as the Greens and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition that were offering a real anti-austerity message in England.

The Scottish dimension

In Scotland, of course, the SNP campaigned on an anti-austerity platform. After it won 56 of the 59 Scottish seats, with 50% of the vote north of the border, the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems, together with much of the media outside Scotland, portrayed this as reflecting the growth of Scottish nationalism. But this arguably downplays the party’s anti-austerity campaigning, dismissing at a stroke any opposition to the main UK parties’ commitment to continue with the spending cuts. For UK Labour, any claim that it should have followed the SNP’s anti-austerity message has been firmly rejected since the election. Instead significant sections of the party are arguing that Labour failed because it was “too left wing”.

While this looks like folly from a Scottish point of view, the SNP’s anti-austerity message ought to be viewed much more critically too. Amid all the reasons put forward to explain the historic shift to SNP from Labour, one that has tended to be overlooked is the experiences of workers employed by Labour councils and in the public sector more generally.

Councils have been implementing cuts across Scotland, using Conservative anti-trade-union legislation and “volunteer” labour to break strikes. Glasgow City Council, Scotland’s largest authority, represents probably the most significant example of this. Long Labour-controlled, there is a history of public-sector disputes in the city.

From 1997 and the election of New Labour through to May 2015, there has rarely been a period when at least one group of public sector workers wasn’t involved in some form of strike or industrial action in the city. Since the end of March, 70 homelessness case workers have been involved in an indefinite strike over a re-grading dispute, for example. If successful, it would see the affected workers re-graded in line with other workers who have similar levels of responsibility, amounting to a pay increase of up to £5,000.

This dispute may not involve many staff, but it is indicative of the wider tensions and disputes that are bubbling away beneath the surface in public services across Scotland – and also elsewhere in the UK. It reflects the impact of austerity cuts, not only on public-service workers but also on service users, with up to 3,000 homeless people affected by this dispute alone.

Many of the affected staff sought support from the Scottish government, which could order the council to settle by agreeing to re-grading. Thus far, however, the SNP has been as silent on this as it has been on the possibility of a UK-wide rail strike – despite having been reminded by its critics that a previous SNP promise to bring the railways in Scotland back into public ownership and run by the public sector has yet to materialise.

Silence in Dundee

Another relevant dispute is taking place in Dundee, which recorded the highest support for Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum. It returned two SNP MPs in the UK election and has an SNP-run council. The dispute concerns 120 porters at the city’s Ninewells and Royal Victoria hospitals. It, too, is around a re-grading issue, which if successful would bring the porters into line with counterparts elsewhere in Scotland, adding £200 per week to their pay packets.

Scottish health secretary Shona Robison
Scottish Government, CC BY-SA

Once again, the Scottish government is in a position to end the dispute by agreeing to the demands of the strikers, this time as the direct employer via NHS Tayside. And once again there has been silence from the SNP, even though the Scottish government’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is an MSP in Dundee. Elsewhere in the city, SNP-run Dundee City Council has announced that it implement a further £33m worth of cuts over the next five years.

Other disputes have taken place and are again threatening to erupt, for instance among workers in Scotland’s further education sector, which has experienced significant cuts in funding in recent years. What will the progressive SNP do for the workers involved? And what are the chances that it will campaign and demand the ending of anti-trade union legislation for all workers in Scotland?

Great claims have been made about the Scottish government’s commitment to social democracy, equality and fairness in Scotland. But the reality on the ground is very different. As with their counterparts in other parts of the UK and beyond, Scotland’s public-sector workers are more and more sceptical about the willingness of the SNP to go beyond mere rhetoric. Following the experience of Scottish Labour, the risk is that this costs the nationalists much of their support as early as next May at the Scottish parliament elections.

Gerry Mooney is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy and Criminology at The Open University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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