When Prison Means Life: Child Lifers and the Pains of Imprisonment*

David Scott, The Open University

 

A

Source: Medway Secure Training Centre, BBC / ‘The Justice Gap’

 

Why No Scandal?

The experiences of children in prison have failed to create the kind of scandal which might be expected in a modern, progressive and civilised society. Children are some of the most vulnerable members of our society, yet there seems to be both public and political acceptance of their incarceration, despite mounting evidence of its terribly harmful effects.  Although the number of children in prison has fallen enormously since 2007, there are still more than 800 children in prison, of which 42 are under the age of 14.  We also need to situate this also within the context of social backgrounds of the children we imprison.  43% of children in prison are from BAME backgrounds (which is a significant rise in BAME child prisoners in 2007 when it was 24%) and significant numbers of children in custody have drug problems, learning difficulties, mental health problems and have witnessed or experienced physical or sexual violence.  Although only 1% of children and young people are in care, more than 35% boys and 61% of girls in custody have previously been in care.  Indeed, children in care are much more likely to be sent to prison than to go to University (where the figure is about 10%).

 

Child Life Sentences

A child prisoner includes children who are held in Secure Children Homes; Secure Training Centres and Young Offender Institutions (the later hold around 70% of all children in custody)When talking about when prison means life for children I mean two things: 

  • First, any sentence which authorises the detention of a child potentially encompassing the rest of their natural life (including sentences of “detention for public protection” and “detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure”)
  • Second, when a child loses their life after being given a prison sentence. Here sentence length is irrelevant as the point is that their imprisonment has actually brought an end to their natural life.

 

According to the most recent MoJ statistics the following life sentences have been handed down to people under the age of 18 by year in England and Wales:

Table 1: Child Life Sentences

Year Child Life Sentences
2006 19
2007 26
2008 25
2009 23
2010 19
2011 15
2012 14
2013 13
2014 21
2015 14
2016 8
TOTAL 197

 

From 2006 – 2016 197 child life sentences were handed down.  The average age of the person at the time of sentencing is 16 years, but life sentences have been handed down in this period to children as young as 13.

 

The main life sentence for children is “detention during Her Majesty’s pleasure” (DHMP) but from 2004-2012 290 children were also sentenced to “detention for public protection” (which were sentences for “dangerous offenders”, Criminal Justice Act 2003 Ch. 5). Although this sentence was effectively abolished in 2012 with The Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 a number of those sentenced are still in prison Although the government is not at that time able to identify the exact number of child lifers, the  Children Rights International Network (CRIN, 2015) estimate that the figure serving at Her Majesty’s pleasure or other sentence over 14 years in duration is around 400.

 

Despite the fall in the number of children in custody England and Wales still has the highest incarceration rate for children in Western Europe.  It also stands virtually alone in the use of child life sentences.  Of the 28 different countries in the European Union, life imprisonment for children has been abolished in 22. Two children have been sentenced to life imprisonment in France in the last 25 years and one In Ireland.  There are currently two children serving life imprisonment outside of the United Kingdom in the EU today.

 

B

Source: Hiaki Deck Educational Resources

 

Reducing Culpability

The original meaning of detention at ‘Her Majesty’s Pleasure’ was first introduced with the Trial of Lunatics Act of 1800.  Yet at the time detention “Her Majesty’s Pleasure” was not to be a place of punishment but intended as a place of safety for those considered ‘insane’.  With the Children’ Act of 1908 – which abolished capital punishment for children – detention at “Her Majesty’s Pleasure” was introduced for children aged 10-16.  The term was adopted to imply that children had a reduced degree of culpability for murder and that they should not bear full responsibility for their actions.  It indicated that it would not be appropriate to impose a life sentence on children. It was only in 1983 that the then Home Secretary explicitly linked detention at Her Majesty’s Pleasure with the mandatory sentence of adult life imprisonment.

 

Further, in most of the countries within the European Union the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) is 14.  The MACR for children in England and Wales is 10. Yet whereas on the one hand children are held legally responsible for their actions from the age of 10, bizarrely, under the Pet Animals Act 1951, children under 12 are not deemed legally entitled to buy a pet.  Indeed, in most instances we as a society recognise we should treat children very differently to adults.

 

Without doubt, we should like our historical forbearers and many of European neighbours and consider life sentence for children as a form of ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’ and totally unsuitable for a civilised society.  Life sentences for children cannot be justified

 

When Prison Takes Life

The regimes experienced by child prisoners as one of deliberate harm which leads to thousands of children being physically, psychologically and emotionally damaged every year.

Indeed, child prisons are places of suffering, violence and death.

C

According to data from INQUEST 78 people under 21 took their own lives in child prisons from 2007-2017 and in total 318 young people under the age of 21 have died in penal custody between 1990-2017.

 

D

Source: BBC / Open Democracy

 

Coping with prison life a tenuous, relative and fluid concept that ebbs and flows over time. The real pains of imprisonment are to be found in the denial of personal autonomy, feelings of time consciousness, and the lack of an effective vocabulary to express the hardship of watching life waste away. It is also clear that custody is experienced differently by young people. Young people are emotionally vulnerable and more likely to find the loss of personal relationships on the outside harder to cope with than adults. It has long been noted how suicidal ideation is heavily influenced by the nature of responses by significant others and the ‘end of hope’. Young people also have less life experience on which to rely to help to deal with problems associated with prison life, or to manage a suicidal impulse when things are looking bleak and hopeless.

 

Where do we go from here?

I would therefore like to make the following three brief conclusions:

  • Immediately abolish life imprisonment for children and look to house children who do series wrongs in places of genuine care and safety
  • Raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility immediately to 14 so that we match most other European Union Countries and call for an independent review to explore the possibility of raising this to 16 as soon as possible
  • Recognise that the pains of imprisonment are potentially deadly for children, and therefore we need to think again about what we mean by child prison as a ‘last resort’.

 

 

* This paper was originally delivered in the House of Commons, London, England
15th November 2017

 

 

 

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Build communities, not prisons

Deborah H. Drake and David Scott, The Open University

buildcommunities.JPGImage source: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-fq2W0bJAAKE/UEBDMMO_jyl/AAAAAAAADIk/EQx2Nm74aaw/s1600/buildcommunities.JPG

 

The prison industrial complex is large and growing. Prison building and expansion projects generate trade exhibitions, mail-order/Internet catalogues, and direct advertising campaigns that seek to engage architects, construction firms, investors, food, landscaping and plumbing supply companies, and other firms that specialise in fixtures and fittings for large industrial building. There is no doubt that the building of prisons creates a market of both temporary and permanent employment opportunities and can appear to increase the economic potential of the lucky local community that agrees to house a prison in their area.

If we look more carefully, however, at what the prison industry is, does and costs, prison building programmes become less attractive.

Economic benefits?

In 2003, researchers King, Mauer and Huling carried out the first study to use statistical controls to measure the effect of a prison on the local community, including its impact on the local economy and on employment and per capita income trends.  The study examined 25 years of economic data for rural counties in New York and looked at 38 prisons located in upstate counties.  The full report can be found here: Big Prisons, Small Towns: Prison Economics in Rural America, but some of their key findings indicated that:

  • In 25 years, there was no significant difference or discernible pattern of economic trends between the seven rural counties that hosted a prison and the seven rural counties that did not;
  • Residents of rural counties with one or more prisons did not gain significant employment advantages compared to rural counties without prisons;
  • Unemployment rates moved in the same direction for both groups of counties and were consistent with the overall employment rates for the state as a whole;
  • During the period from 1982 to 2001, these findings are consistent for the three distinct economic periods in the United States, and in fact, the non-prison counties performed marginally better in two of the timeframes;
  • Counties that hosted new prisons received no economic advantage as measured by per capita income;
  • From the inception of the prison building boom in 1982 until 2000, per capita income rose 141% in counties without a prison and 132% in counties that hosted a prison.

When comparing new prison towns across the USA with other towns of a similar size, Besser and Hanson also found that there was no discernable differences between unemployment rates between 1990 and 2000 between the towns.  Like King et al., they concluded that building a new prison did not create jobs for local unemployed people.

At a similar time to the above studies there was a further comprehensive analysis of prison towns in the USA which explored the impact of prison building and job growth in the USA from 1976-1994.  In a follow up study, expanding the period to 2004, the evidence shows that rather than promoting economic prosperity and creating new jobs, in both urban and struggling rural communities, prisons may actually impede employment growth.  Hooks et al. (2010) conclude that ‘our research into employment growth suggests that prisons are doing more harm than good among vulnerable counties’.  The reasons why prisons failed to provide economic stimulus to the local economy included:

  • There were not necessarily new jobs as prison officers moved from other prisons to fill the new jobs;
  • There was the possibility of adverse local impacts of prison labour through prison industries and low cost prisoner labour;
  • There may be a paucity of local skills and direct connections to the services required by the new prison.

Despite the initial promises of economic prosperity that it is assumed can be made from opening a prison, these promises are not borne out in practice.  Moreover, no prison can generate income or be ‘cost efficient’. Prisons cost a lot to run and they drain resources from other areas of social life, such as hospitals, schools, housing or social services.  Investing, instead, in local services, programmes, health and education sectors or other community-focused initiatives would be a far better use of resources and, incidentally, are more effective than prisons at PREVENTING crime, as opposed to responding to it after the fact, as prisons do.  That is, the idea that increased funding for police and a larger prison estate will solve and economic problems is a myth.

Human costs

Setting the obvious economic shortcomings to prison building aside, let’s think for a minute about the human and social costs of prisons.  Firstly, there is no evidence that prisons effectively do very many of the things they claim to do.  This has been repeatedly demonstrated through society’s years of experimentation with the prison and in numerous academic considerations (see Mathiesen, 2000 for example).  Prisons do not deter crime, they do not ‘rehabilitate’ prisoners, they do not prepare people well for law-abiding lives in the community.  The only functions that prisons serve well relate to pain and suffering: they deliver punishment and incapacitation and, symbolically: they are a demonstration that ‘justice’ is being done and that the ‘system works’.

Prisons are places that cast out, ostracize and de-socialise members of our communities and society.  They are places that take things away from people: they take a persons’ time, relationships, opportunities, and sometimes their life.  Prisons constrain the human identity and foster feelings of fear, anger, alienation and social and emotional isolation. For many prisoners, prisons offer only a lonely, isolating and brutalising experience.  At best, prison environments are dull and monotonous living and working routines depriving prisoners of basic human needs. At worst, they are places of violence, suffering and physical and psychological pain.  Combined with saturation in time consciousness/awareness, these situational contexts can lead to a disintegration of the self and death (Scott, 2016).

For prison officers and other prison staff prisons are toxic environments.  Stress, illness and sometimes also death are perils of prison work.  Prisons do not encourage health, education, renewal, care, compassion, decency or any of the other values that most societies and individuals cherish.  Instead, they stimulate humiliation, illness, anger, hatred and punishment.  They are places that encourage moral indifference between staff and prisoners, where the shared humanity of prisoners and staff is neutralised and where the pain and suffering of one another is ignored.

Rather than investing in criminal justice and building more prisons in a time of economic austerity, we should be demanding investment in our communities, in our social lives and in programmes that centralise the importance of social justice – for everyone.

 

This article first appeared on the Reclaim Justice Network site, at: https://reclaimjusticenetwork.org.uk/2017/06/29/build-communities-not-prisons/

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry

Steve Tombs, Professor of Criminology, The Open University

 

Introduction

What follows is my response to the consultation by The Chair of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, into its terms of reference, which will set out what the Inquiry will cover. The text that follows is an un-edited version of that submission, save for adding hyperlinks as references to this version. The submission aimed not to reproduce the details that would have been forwarded by other organisations with whom I have close working relationships, such as INQUEST and Hazards.

 

Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Terms of Reference

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry is designed to ascertain the causes of the tragedy, and to ensure that the appropriate lessons are learnt.  With this in mind, and as a leading academic commentator on regulation and enforcement in the context of social regulation, not least with respect to occupational and public health and safety, it is my considered view that it is crucial that the Terms of Reference of the Public Inquiry take cognisance of three broad sets of issues within which many of the specific concerns that it will no doubt address must be contextualised. These are crucial not simply for understanding why the fire occurred, but also in preventing other multi-fatality incidents, since each of these contextual features continue to be in existence whilst some, notably cuts in Local Authority funding, are likely to become even more significant.

 

  1. Anti-Regulation Rhetoric

The rhetorical undermining of the very idea of regulation and its enforcement, and thus of those men and women who undertake this work as a form of public service, which have contributed significantly to an anti-regulatory culture in the UK. This rhetorical under-mining has long been espoused through formal politics, and has seeped into popular consciousness, not least via repetition across all forms of broadcast and print media. It can be traced back some forty years but my specific concern is with the ways in which it has circulated through and seeped into political and popular consciousness in the past twenty years. Based on apocryphal tales, half-truths and sheer falsehoods, it undermines regulation and regulators, and thus makes social and public protection less likely with publics offered a very distorted view of what ‘health and safety’ means in practice with regard to protecting them, their families and their communities.

This Term of Reference might be captured thus:
The nature and effects of the long term pejorative rhetoric around regulation and its enforcement as ‘red tape’ as part of a broader anti-regulatory culture.

 

Grenfell.jpg
Source: Hazards magazine, http://www.hazards.org/votetodie/bluemurder.htm

 

  1. The ‘Better Regulation’ Initiative

The broad policy direction in terms of regulation and enforcement which spans some fifteen years at least in the UK and which can be subsumed under the rubric of the ‘Better Regulation’ initiative, which since 2004 has formally impacted upon all national and local regulators in the UK. This trajectory has drawn upon, and then contributed to, the anti-regulatory culture highlighted above (1.). Officially launched by a Labour Government, then maintained and developed both by the subsequent Coalition then Conservative Governments, this cross-party initiative contains a series of assumptions and constituent policy dynamics which are crucial to understanding the combination of policy decisions which produced a context within which the Grenfell Tower fire could occur.

This Term of Reference might be captured thus:
The nature and effects of Better Regulation in producing a policy context within which the fire at Grenfell Tower could occur.

 

  1. The Absence of Credible Enforcement Capacity

The particular effects of funding reductions since 2008/09 both for national regulators and also for Local Authorities, not least in a context of the ‘Better Regulation’ policy initiative ( see 2., above), which has claimed that ‘less’ can and should be done with ‘more’. The specific dynamics of how funding reductions have, at both national and local levels, impacted upon regulation and enforcement is a crucial issue for the inquiry to consider, undermining as it does the idea of public protection and safety. Specifically, the Inquiry must address the extent to which, on the part of those regulatory services and bodies which have a statutory requirement to enforce laws for public and social protection against public bodies and private organisations, there remains any form of credible enforcement capacity.

This Term of Reference might be captured thus:
The nature and effects of the funding of national and local regulatory bodies and services upon public protection.

 

Further, Specific Considerations

These broader issues will provide some of the key context within which some of the more focussed considerations of the Inquiry will proceed, these including, but not exhausted by, the following:

The triggering event for the fire.

The history of the tower block, from inception and planning as a local authority housing development, to its commission, design, transfers of ownership, subsequent modifications, so on.

A consideration, since at least 2004, of the oversight of fire and health and safety regulations at Grenfell Tower and other tower blocks.

Complaints by and demands of residents of Grenfell Tower in relation to safety of the block in particular and its general maintenance and housekeeping issues in general, as well as responses to and actions following these by TMO and RBKC.

A review of all previous Coroner’s recommendations on fires in high rise residences, and an audit of actual responses to these recommendations.

Relevant, related governmental and / or parliamentary knowledge, response and oversight of recommendations and actions in response to those cases and relevant surrounding issues.

A consideration, since at least 2004, of the oversight of fire and health and safety regulations at Grenfell tower and other tower blocks.

The nature of the response to the fire and subsequent crisis by a variety of state bodies.

When Justice is (not) blind…

Evgenia Iliadou, The Open University

 

(…) And now, I am finding myself in Eleona’s prison trying to hold on. And I am thinking: Everything is allowed in their “conscience”. They say that their irrational purposes are more important than a life. They are not crazy. Craziness is an alibi. It is arbitrariness, by taking advantage of their anonymity and their hierarchical position.

(Irianna B.L, 09/06/2017, freely translated)


The aforementioned excerpt is from a recent statement from Irianna, a 29 year old PhD student at the University of Athens, whose life course dramatically changed and interrupted when she was confronted with the Greek (in)justice.

Irianna’s ongoing court adventure began in 2011, when her partner was accused of being related to anarchism and, also, to a terrorist group. Irianna was initially prosecuted and released, but was afterwards (in 2013) accused for “possession of illegal firearms with intent to distribute them for criminal activities and for being part of the same terrorist group as her boyfriend had been accused and acquitted”. This accusation was firstly based on the fact that her partner faced charges of being a member of the terrorist group Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire. However, in 2013 Irianna’s partner was found innocent of all charges against him. The accusation was secondly based on a DNA sample, which, according to the medical forensic expert, was “extremely insufficient in the degree that in no case whatsoever, could a definite outcome be the result.” On 17 July 2017, the court rejected her appeal and, thus, Justice was dispensed: 13 years in prison without any mitigating circumstances being acknowledged, and no right to bail. 

It must be denoted that Irianna’s case is not the only recent case concerning the unfair treatment in the Greek justice system. Along with Irianna, Perikles who is Irianna’s partner’s housemate has also being accused of being a member of the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire. He also had an unfair trial and been charged with 13 years imprisonment, similarly to Irianna, although he is facing serious health problems. Furthermore, from 2012 onwards, Tasos Theofilou was also facing charges for being a member of the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire, as well as numerous other accusations. Theofilou was brutally stigmatised by the mass media, which released his personal information and photo to the public and also represented him as a terrorist. After spending five years in prison, in 7 July 2017 he was found innocent for all the accusations against him. During the court rehearsal Theofilou stated, “I have not committed any of the crimes I have been accused of. I have only committed one crime, which includes all crimes; I am an anarchist”.

Practises of stigmatisation, criminalisation and targeting of people associated with the anarchist movement are not something new. Justice’s strict and severe treatment as far as anarchists concern is overwhelming. It is an undoubtable fact that in Greece, although a European democratic state, ideologies and political beliefs (i.e. anarchism) are, in a sense, put on trial. What is even more overwhelming, however, is how justice treats people who are indirectly related and linked via their acquaintances, social relationships and life, with anarchism.

injustice.jpg
Image available at: http://sekp.gr/irianna-v-l-sekp/


There are four lessons the State desires to teach us through Irianna’s and Theofilou’s cases. Lesson one: social relationships are “put on trial”. That fact has been wisely emphasised by Irianna’s partner as follows: “if you are a friend with someone, who is friend with someone who…”, you are in danger to find yourself being accused of being a criminal and a member of the Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire, because you socialise with people. Lesson two: our life itself is an eventuality; one day, one could possibly find one’s self in Irianna’s and Theofilou’s place. Irianna and Theofilou could be me, but they could also be you in the reasoning, as stated above, “if you have a friend who has a friend…”. Lesson three: What we learn from the above two lessons, is that we must live in a constant fear and terror that one day somehow, somewhere we will experience the same situations with Irianna and Theofilou, unless we remain silent, with limited social life and politically inactive. Also, that we should feel fear and terror of Justice and the State itself.

It is more than astounding and devastating when one realises the extent of the unbearable injustice, stigmatisation, discrimination, violence and suffering that people are exposed to in a so-called democratic state, like Greece. It is almost seven years since Greece was in a severe financial crisis, followed by multiple austerity measures, which are causing a lot of suffering and social harm to people (i.e destitution, homelessness, unemployment, suicides, collective depression etc). However, why have no actions have been taken in order accountability to be given for Greece’s bankrupt and deptocracy, misuse of power, misery and suffering? Why has justice not been dispensed in this case, whilst for cases like Irianna’s, Perikles’s and Theofilou’s it has been dispensed with the most severe way?

Justice should be objectively and neutrally dispensed. This condition is often poignantly illustrated via the expression; “Justice is blind”. Justice should be blind. Though, what reality demonstrates is that justice is not blind, but on the contrary it turns a blind eye, particularly, when crimes are committed by the powerful. This is the fourth lesson the state desires to teach us: justice has a class structure. What is justice for the powerful is injustice for people in the lower social strata.

These are not just lessons, but also an indirect warning for all citizens to show obedience, to keep quiet and live in apathy and ignorance, by being detached from any political movement, which dares to criticise and doubt the powerful State. It is also a frightening reminder of our positionality in the society and of who rules our lives. It is horrific to realise that we do not rule our own lives.

These kinds of practises challenge the foundations of democracy. Although, in Greece we celebrate the Restoration of Democracy Day each year, in a country where political beliefs are penalised, we cannot talk about democracy. On the contrary, we should talk about a Junta covered with a democratic veil. 

For more information concerning Irianna’s case and petition see here (English) and here (Greek)

Dangerous Times: health and safety protections under attack

Steve Tombs, The Open University

 

Since 2010, the Coalition, then the Tories, have both continued and significantly extended some of the ‘reforms’ initiated by Blair and Brown under the Better Regulation initiative from 2004 onwards; and, significantly, these approaches to regulation in general and to health and safety law and enforcement in particular, have been pursued in the context of austerity and the attempt to shrink the state. The effect of these trajectories has been to unravel the levels of social protection for workers and local communities. Health and safety law is being undone, undermined and is under attack.

There are three keys ways in which attack this has proceeded: first, through a constant stream of reviews of regulators and of regulation in general; second, through various legal reform initiatives which have delivered both de-regulation and re-regulation; third, via the ratcheting up of a long term rhetorical assault on regulation as burdensome, red tape and so. These, alongside austerity cuts to national and local regulatory services, have combined to undermine health and safety law enforcement to the point where it lacks credibility.

First, specific regulatory agencies and the very practice and purpose of regulation in general is under constant scrutiny via review. 2011 saw the Priority Regulatory Outcomes Review, which eradicated the word “enforcement” from the working priorities of local authority regulators, instead committing inspectors to “support economic growth, especially in small businesses, by ensuring a fair, responsible and competitive trading environment”. This has been accompanied by a whole series of (often quite populist) reviews of regulators or regulation or both, including: the review of 900 ‘quangos’, announced in 2010; ‘Red Tape Challenge’;  ‘Transforming Regulatory Enforcement’; ‘Your Freedom’; ‘Focus on Enforcement Review’; ‘Business Focus on Enforcement’; and, most recently in 2016, ‘Cutting Red Tape!’. None of this is to mention two ‘Triennial’ Reviews of the HSE where the very existence of the regulator is on the line, and two further, major reviews of health and safety law per se, namely, in 2010, The Young Review, followed quickly by, in 2011, The Löfstedt Review.

These initiatives have been accompanied by a series of institutions, set up in or around the heart of Government, designed to provide a level of oversight that restricts the development of regulation. These in fact stretch back at least to the establishment by the first Blair Government, in 1997, of the Better Regulation Unit, since when a torrent of bodies have been created, all with the aim of mitigating any tendency to regulate, these including, amongst others,  the Better Regulation Task Force, Regulatory Impact Unit, Better Regulation Commission, the Risk and Regulation Advisory Council, the Regulatory Policy Committee, Better Regulation Executive, Panel for Regulatory Accountability, Ministerial Committee on Regulation, Bureaucracy and Risk, Local Better Regulation Office, Better Regulation Delivery Office, Better Regulation Strategy Group. Independent Regulatory Challenge Panel, Regulatory Delivery and, last but not least, a Better Regulation Minister in every Government Department, supported by Board Level Champions themselves supported by Departmental Better Regulation Units. Phew!

Hazards

Image courtesy of Hazards Magazine, http://www.hazards.org/index.htm

Second, there has been a plethora of regulatory and legal reforms – too numerous to mention. But crucial here are not just Acts of Parliament per se, but apparently ‘technical’ reforms or developments which are central to the re-fashioning of regulation and enforcement. One example of these is the use of Regulatory Impact Assessments, which require every law that might affect business to be costed in terms of its costs and benefits prior to enactment. First introduced in 1997, they were used, in 2010, as the basis for a One-In, One-Out approach to regulation, whereby the costs of any new law for business had to be offset by a similar saving in the form of the withdrawal or regulation; this saving had to be doubled with the onset of One-In, Two-Out in 2013 and then trebled in 2016 when Government announced a One-In, Three-Out policy, one which “raised the bar” in an economy which already has the lowest burden of regulation in the G7.

A third plank in the assault on regulation in general and health and safety law and enforcement in particular has been via the ratcheting up of a long term rhetorical assault on regulation – as burdensome, anti-entrepreneurial red tape. This has a long history in the UK, and can be traced back to Thatcher’s attempt in the 1980s to unleash an ‘enterprise society’. But since 2010, both the Coalition and then the Tories have missed few opportunities to rhetorically undermine health and safety law. Examples abound, with some of the more recent vitriol espoused by Cameron when PM being recalled in the light of the disaster at Grenfell Tower – not least his stated desire to kill off health and safety culture for good. Regulation has been at best derided, at worst an object of class hatred.

In combination, these three processes have undermined the idea and practice of regulation. They have also fuelled by the cuts unleashed in the name of austerity. Caught within the pincer of these ideological and material processes has been the capacity for law enforcement, at both national and local authority levels, upon which any effective system of health and safety protection depends.

This capacity has been dramatically eroded in the UK under the Coalition and the Tories. So, for example, in 2010 there were 1,311 frontline HSE inspectors; but by the end of 2016, there were just 980, a decline of 25%.  In April 2010, there were 1050 local authority health and safety EHOs (FTEs holding appointments under S19 of HSW Act); by April 2016, there were 711, a decline of 32%.

Given these declines in staffing – and the demoralisation to which inspectors have been subject – it is hardly surprising that, from 2010/11 to 2015/16, all forms of health and safety enforcement activity, at national and local levels, have been in sharp decline. This much is indicated by the fact that the very basis for any enforcement activity – that an inspector actually enters a workplace – is becoming a rarity. Between 2010 and 2016, inspections by Health and Safety Executive (FoD) inspections fell by 38%; at local authority level, inspections by Health and Safety EHOs fell by 69% and preventative inspections by EHOs fell by 96%.  To provide some indication of what this means, in 2015/16, HSE inspected 18,000 of the 900,000 premises for which it is responsible – meaning that the statistically average workplace could expect to see an HSE inspector once every 50 years.

In short, we have a system of health and safety protection systematically under attack to the point where its enforcement capacity lacks credibility. But there is no inevitability in this. Some very simple, achievable changes to the current framework for regulating workplace health and safety could change the situation radically. What is mostly needed is the political will to break from what has become a consensus about regulation as “red tape”.  Such changes form part of the IER’s recent proposals for reform of Labour Law under a Corbyn-led administration. For safety’s sake, that cannot come too soon.

 

This blog was originally published on 30 June 2017 by The Institute of Employment Rights at http://www.ier.org.uk/blog/dangerous-times-health-and-safety-protections-under-attack

This is What Austerity Looks Like

Joanna Mack, The Open University

 

The hulking, charred remains of Grenfell Tower stands as a symbol of the disastrous results of years of austerity, deregulation and outsourcing. When government ministers sit on warnings of the fire risk of high-rise social housing, when penny-pinching renovations involve unsafe cladding, when councils run inadequate inspection regimes, when warnings from tenants are ignored, then there is nothing accidental about the resultant loss of life. It is social murder.

 

Grenfell tower remains

Image source: ChiralJon/FlickrCC BY 2.0

 

While Grenfell has brought these issues into focus, it is just the tip of the damage done by the neoliberal agenda to decrease the size of the state and the years of elective austerity. In the Violence of Austerity, Vickie Cooper and David Whyte, and their co-authors, set out the depth and extent of this damage, the way the very fabric of society had been dismantled and people’s lives impoverished. The effects are being felt by everyone, but one of the groups that has been hardest hit has been families with children and, in particular, lone parents.

Back in 2010, the coalition government promoted their aggressive programme of cuts, justified as an economic ‘necessity’, as fair, as something we were ‘all in together’. It was only after leaving office, the then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg – accusing the former chancellor George Osborne of taking the axe to welfare to boost Conservative popularity – admitted that the policies were designed to hit the incomes and housing security of the poorest households. And that’s what they did.

While the incomes of households without children on middle incomes rose between 2010 and 2015, those of the poorest two deciles fell by around six per cent. Before these cuts, adults in households with children were already over twice as likely to be in poverty as adults without children.  Lone parents – of whom, before the cuts, two-thirds were in poverty – saw the severest percentage reductions: getting on for ten per cent (around £2,000) for those out of work and nearly seven per cent for those in work.

And these households already had a hand-to-mouth existence, were already missing out on the most basic of contemporary needs. Before the impact of current changes to the benefit system had taken effect, the Poverty and Social Exclusion survey found that in 2012 more than two and a half million children, around one in five, lived in a home that is cold or damp. Over a million children, just under one in ten, missed out on an essential item of clothing. One in twenty households couldn’t afford to feed their children adequately, resulting in 600,000 children missing out on one or more of three meals a day, fresh fruit and vegetables each day, or meat, fish, or the equivalent, while 300,000 children went without two or more of these essential food items.

 

So, when the Coalition government opted for a programme of progressively harsher cuts to welfare spending of around £20 billion, the outcomes were entirely predictable – and predicted.  Back in 2012, the Institute for Fiscal Studies was warning that the absolute living standards of poorer households were declining and that as the welfare cuts began to bite there would be further pain in 2012–13 and beyond.

As a result, the UK’s child poverty record has slipped far behind many other nations with similar levels of economic development. Eurostat, which gathers comprehensive data across Europe, reports that in 2014 over 22 per cent of children in the UK lived in deprived households, taken as being unable to afford for three or more of a range of household items, compared with 14 per cent in France, around 12 per cent in Germany and a mere four per cent in Norway and Sweden. In 2007, before the austerity years, the UK’s rate was 15 per cent – well below the EU average. Now it is above.

Throughout childhood, poverty raises the risk of premature death.  The progress that had been made in the 1980s and 1990s in reducing child mortality rates, shuddered to a halt in this millennium with the result that the UK has fallen behind other European countries with similar levels of development. The BMA notes that if the UK had the same all-cause death rate as Sweden, around 1,900 children’s lives would be saved each year.

The UK infant (0 to 1 years) mortality rate, at around four deaths per 1,000 births in 2014, is higher than all but two of the nineteen Euro area member states. About half of these deaths are linked to short gestation and low birth weight, both of which are highly associated with deprivation.  Babies born into poorer families in deprived neighbourhoods are, as a result of many interlocking factors, more likely to die at an early age than children from richer families.

In addition, children born in poor areas have, as is well and long established, a shorter life expectancy than those born in rich areas and a much shorter period free of the limiting effects of illness and disability – inequalities that are increasing.

As well as the sharp reduction in benefit levels, the Coalition government also introduced a far more punitive regime, with more restrictive conditions for the receipt of benefits and tougher sanctions. These sanctions came with a new set of fixed-period suspensions of benefits ranging from four weeks to three years. Claimants are not allowed to appeal till two weeks after the decision. Combined with administrative delays in processing applications through over-loaded benefit offices, it leaves many desperate and penniless.

 

food bank queue- food poverty

Image source: www.foodpoverty.org.uk

 

Kayleigh Garthwaite, in her book Hunger Pains, talked to Gemma who was four days from giving birth when she ended up in a food bank in Stockton-on-Tees. She and her partner had had no money for three weeks as they waited for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to process their jobseeker’s allowance claim:

 ‘I was crying on the phone to them [the DWP] telling them I am pregnant. I don’t want my baby coming home to a house with no gas or electric. We have laminated floor and it’s so cold.’

Allowing a pregnant woman to go without food in a cold, unheated home, is to compromise her baby’s life-chances. WHO defines ‘child maltreatment’ as an action that in the context of a relationship of power results in ‘actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity’. If an individual takes such actions then they may be liable to prosecution. Yet if a political system results in such actions, it is seen as an inevitable, if unfortunate, by-product of economic necessity. This is not covert violence but overt violence.

 

After winning the 2015 election, the Conservatives announced a further £12 billion of welfare cuts, which included limiting tax credits to two children, a continued freezing of working age benefits and a lowering of the level of the benefits cap.  The poorest households were, again, the hardest hit; poor households with children were hit the hardest of all, set to lose up to 12% of their income.

The damage caused by austerity has been well documented. The United Nations has issued damning reports.  Claimants have told their stories. Advocacy groups have warned of the dangers and damage being inflicted.

All ignored.

 

en-austerity-now-march

Image source: Peter Damian/WikipediaCC BY-SA 3.0

 

Instead, the government has blamed the problems of poverty on the poor themselves, the life styles of individual families and their parenting practice.  Thus the rolling back the state could continue and the state’s responsibilities to provide an adequate safety net be abandoned.

But, suddenly, this dominant discourse seems to be unravelling. In the general election, the Labour Party, campaigning on a clear anti-austerity agenda (in contrast with the 2015 election), far outperformed expectations, upturning conventional thinking on what is politically possible.  Last week, the High Court ruled that the government’s benefit’s cap is unlawful, illegally discriminating against single parents with young children. Delivering his verdict, High Court judge Mr Justice Collins said the benefit cap was causing ‘real damage’ to lone parent families, noting that ‘poverty can have a very damaging effect on children under the age of five’.

And Grenfell Tower has unleashed a wave of anger at the way in which the poorest have been treated.  The voices of the poorest have started to be heard.

But this should not be mistaken for the end of austerity. For all of the government’s sudden talk of a change in direction, all the planned cuts to benefits are still going ahead. The predictions of a sharp rise in the numbers of children in poverty remain in place.

To reverse austerity will need not just a change in direction, but a complete reversal. And even with that, it will take years to overcome the vast damage already done.  It will need a real commitment to the transfer of income and wealth from the rich to the poor. It will require a sustained challenge to the neoliberal ideology that has dominated for the last thirty years.

But, if there is a long way to go, the first cracks are appearing.

 

Joanna Mack is an honorary senior research fellow at the Open University and contributory author in the ‘Violence of Austerity’ where she writes on ‘Child Maltreatment and Child Mortality’.

One law for the poor at Grenfell Tower

Steve Tombs, Open University and David Whyte, University of Liverpool

 

In austerity Britain, can justice and accountability be served for the victims of the Grenfell fire? Or are our laws already too much shaped to the needs of the business class?

35353492476_2faa7aa6a8_o.jpg

Image source: ChiralJon/FlickrCC BY 2.0

 

Days after the Grenfell Tower disaster, London Mayor Sadiq Khan expressed the sentiments of many, not least the bereaved, the survivors and the local community at large, when he stated that, “if negligence or other wrongdoing by individuals or companies played any role whatsoever, I will fight for the full force of the law to be brought to bear.” But what exactly is the full force of the law in this case?

One demand has been that those who had the knowledge and ability to prevent what has happened should be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter. And the fire at Grenfell seems exactly the kind of disaster which the Corporate Manslaughter and Homicide Act was introduced in 2007 to deal with. Yet in almost 10 years since it was introduced, the law has only been used successfully 21 times – and in no cases has a large organization been convicted following a multi-fatality disaster. In fact, following the deaths of six people at the Lakenal tower block in 2009, the CPS eventually decided against pursuing a case of corporate manslaughter against Southwark council despite the fact that the council “knew the building posed a fire risk but did not act and had not carried out a fire risk assessment.”

In any case, the scope of this relatively new law was carefully shaped to the needs of the business class rather than ordinary people. Champagne and Pimms glasses would no doubt have been chinking in some parts of Kensington and Chelsea when the Blair government announced in 2006 that the new law would grant a blanket exemption to directors and senior individuals in organizations. This means that the most likely result of any such prosecution is a fine against the organization (and in this case the costs of a fine against the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) would ultimately fall on local taxpayers). It is a prime example of what happens so often in our legal system: even the laws that appear to be holding the wealthy to account tend to do nothing of the sort.

Some senior experts have noted that there may be evidence to support a different approach, a prosecution of individuals for the common law offence of manslaughter. We already know unequivocally from the testimonies of the Grenfell Tower Residents Association, that the RBKC was told about the fire risks, and were warned of specific risks on multiple occasions. Yet apparently there was no adequate fire safety assessment.

Here we confront a much deeper problem with the law designed to regulate organizations and businesses. Regulation has been on the back-foot in the UK for some 30 years. Successive governments have virtually mandated a withdrawal from law enforcement in health and safety and in local authority regulation.

When David Cameron pledged to kill off health and safety for good, he followed a long line of governments desperate to prove their pro-business credentials by cutting inspection and prosecution, and stripping back regulations. In most recent years, austerity cuts have taken us to the point that the average workplace can now expect an inspector to call once every 50 years.

Fire protection has been similarly compromised by the cuts. A report by the National Audit Office shows that between 2010 and 2015 funding for stand-alone fire and rescue authorities fell by 28% on average in real terms. Savings came predominantly from reducing staff costs and reducing audits, inspections and fire risk checks. The result: fire safety checks in tower blocks fell 25% in the most recent 5 years. Perhaps most alarmingly in light of Grenfell, the report noted that the government had “reduced funding most to fire and rescue authorities with the highest levels of need….as defined by the social and demographic factors.” In other words, the cuts to fire and rescue services have fallen hardest on the poorest – just like all austerity cuts.

More generally, at local authority level, since the cuts began to bite, campaigns to enforce regulation against business have become almost extinct. This is because most councils, unlike RBKC, have reached rock bottom in terms of their ability to maintain services. As an Environmental Health Officer in Merseyside put it to one of us recently: “it’s going to come to the point where it’s going to affect the residents, the local population, in many ways we are at that point now, public health and protection is being eroded.” Even more galling is that RBKC, the richest borough in London and one of the few councils that remains cash-rich, is choosing law enforcement on behalf of the rich over enforcing the law in the general interest.

We know this by looking closely at what building enforcement officers in Kensington and Chelsea have been doing in recent years. In 2015 RBKC embarked on a major campaign to stop construction companies displaying unlawful and ugly advertisements and messages on the side of the buildings. At the time, RBKC planning policy head Cllr Timothy Coleridge said:

“Unfortunately, some developers ignore the rules and turn their hoardings and scaffolding covers into huge adverts, sometimes in the heart of historic and sensitive residential areas. This is unfair on our residents and it is unfair on those developers that follow the rules and we will prosecute when required.”

In other words, this was a law enforcement campaign aimed at enhancing the aesthetic appeal of the area, and maintaining the successful gentrification of the area, rather than ensuring high standards of building renovation for working class residents.

The public inquiry and inquests will seek to learn how we can prevent another Grenfell Tower happening again. If the police and the CPS are serious about using the full force of the law, it may well be possible to prosecute for corporate manslaughter and for common law manslaughter. Individuals in charge of key decisions can be held accountable for this latter offense if they have acted with gross negligence and have breached a particular duty of care. It is very possible those conditions will be met in the case of Grenfell Tower.

By contrast, a lack of prosecution will send a clear and powerful message: that justice and accountability cannot be served in austerity Britain. But the solution to what happened at Grenfell will not be found in the courts. If there is one resounding lesson that must be learned, it is that any future government must reverse 30 years of attacks on regulation and law enforcement and cease this war against the poor.

This post was first published by Open Democracy on the 21st of June 2017, at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/uk/steve-tombs-and-david-whyte/on-grenfell-one-law-for-rich-one-poor