How much ‘Better’ can ‘Better Regulation’ get?

Steve Tombs, Professor of Criminology, The Open University

This week, the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee published an evaluation of the Better Regulation initiative. The Government, it stated, “has set a target to reduce the cost to business of regulation by £10 billion between 2015 and 2020. So far it has achieved less than £1 billion”. In other words, ‘Better Regulation’ must do better.

Indeed, who could object to ‘Better Regulation’? In a sense, no-one. But the question that has to be asked is what is meant by the term or, indeed, for whom should regulation be better?

A 2005 report – Reducing Administrative Burdens: Effective Inspection and Enforcement – proved to be a turning point in the trajectory of business regulation and enforcement across Britain. It marked the consolidation of the establishment of what had already been termed ‘Better Regulation’, a formal policy shift from enforcement to advice and education, a concentration of formal enforcement resources away from the majority of businesses onto so-called high risk areas, and consistent efforts to do more with less. The Report was the work of Sir Phillip Hampton who was appointed, in 2004, by Chancellor Gordon Brown to oversee a review of a Remit encompassing 63 major regulatory bodies – including the Environment Agency, the Food Standards Agency, the Health and Safety Executive, and the Financial Services Authority – as well as 468 local authorities.

Focusing on three areas of social protection – environmental, food and worker protection – my research indicates clear trends in enforcement practices over the ten-year period since Better Regulation was rolled out. Thus, summarising inspection and enforcement data between 2003/04 and 2014/15, across three regulatory functions overseen by five sets of regulators, I found some stark data.

If we look at food safety and hygiene law, enforced by Local Environmental Health Officers, we see, during this period, that: food hygiene inspections fell by 15%; food standards inspections fell by 35%; food prosecutions fell by 35% .

Turning to pollution control, a function split between the national regulator, the Environment Agency, and local Environmental Health Officers, we find that Environment Agency officers undertook 52% fewer inspections* and 54% fewer successful prosecutions, while issuing 42% fewer cautions. Meanwhile, local Environmental Health Officers enforcing local pollution control law undertook 55% fewer Inspection Visits, while notices issued fell by 30%**.

Finally, examining health and safety law enforcement, inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive, the national health and safety regulator, undertook 69% fewer inspections (on the part of Field Operations Directorate, the body within HSE which undertakes by far the vast majority of inspections) and 35% fewer prosecutions of offences. Local Environmental Health Officers enforcing health and safety law undertook 69% fewer inspections, 96% fewer preventative inspections and 60% fewer prosecutions.

Taken in isolation, perhaps none of this data as it relates to specific enforcement activity on the part of any one regulator is particularly surprising. What is remarkable, certainly for a set of social scientific data, is that each set of data reveals precisely the same trend: that is, notwithstanding variations across regulators, the form of law being enforced, and indeed within regulators and specific forms of enforcement activity by year, each set of data unequivocally indicates a long-term downwards trend in every form of enforcement activity.


Sonae Chipboard plant, Kirkby, Merseyside; after years of controversy over worker health and safety and pollution of the local area, the plant closed in 2012; photograph courtesy of David Jacques

Of course, this period, from 2003/04, is also marked by the 2007 financial crisis which was used, by the Coalition Government from 2010 onwards, to justify austerity – so it is likely that within this data there is evidence of both politics and economics at play. And, indeed, ‘austerity effects’ are confirmed if we drill down to local authority level. Thus a case study of five local authorities’ regulatory efforts in these three areas of social protection reveals:

  • Considerable reductions in staffing in these regulatory functions
  • Declining enforcement activity
  • An increasing reluctance to prosecute
  • A widespread perception that enforcement capacity has been dangerously undermined.

On the last point, the following quotations, drawn from interviews with EHOs, were typical:

“at present, we can’t meet our statutory duties”

“to be honest we’re now doing statutory stuff only”

“there’s nothing left to cut now”

“there is no padding left, we’re below the statutory minimum … there are no areas of discretion left”

“there’s nothing else to be cut”

“Where we are now, we’re at the point where worker safety is being jeopardized”

“It’s going to come to the point where it going to affect the residents, the local population, in many ways we are at that point now, public health and protection is being eroded”

“We’re at the point where there is no flesh left, this is starting to get dangerous, a danger to public health”

A further, worrying finding from the qualitative research reveals significant push factors towards contracting out or even wholesale privatisation of regulatory services – something which a handful of Local Authorities have now embraced. Taken together, these changes may mark the beginning of the end of the state’s commitment to, and ability to deliver, social protection. Yet this process continues apace, virtually without political, popular nor indeed academic comment. Meanwhile, the Government wants this ‘better regulation’ to get even better. That translates into businesses being freer to flout the law, with workers, consumers and the natural environment less protected than ever.

* This figure refers to the period 1999/00-2008/09; the Environment Agency claimed it could not separate data for inspections to businesses from 2009/10 onwards.

** Notices rather than prosecutions are used, since the latter are so few as to render data almost meaningless.

This blog was originally posted by the Institute of Employment Rights on 14 October 2016 at

Prisons: Places of Harm and Dehabilitation

David Scott, The Open University


HMP Manchester [Strangeways] – Photo by David Scott, 2016

Prisons: Places of Harm and Dehabilitation

On the 4th October UK Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, delivered her speech Prisons: places of safety and reform to the 2016 Conservative Party Conference.  For Truss the UK ‘justice system’ is “incorruptible” and “the best in the world”.  If we follow the principles of meritocracy, it will become a “justice system of all talents” that “works for everyone” providing “justice for all”.  Although Truss digresses away from prisons (to talk about the courts and a new Bill of British Rights) her central arguments focus on how the Conservative government is “going to make prisons work”.  Sadly her speech is nothing but the same old story, harking back to the “making prisons work” rhetoric employed by Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw in 1997, as well as regurgitating an idea with a 200 year record of abject failure.

Truss starts her speech by talking about a prison governor who was assaulted by a prisoner but still came into work the following day. She later highlights the “abuse, intimidation and violence” experienced by prison officers, citing data claiming to show that last year prison officers were attacked on average 15 times a day [5,423 recorded attacks in 2015].  In a key message directed to our “brave” and “dedicated” prison officers she states: “I promise you this – I will do everything in my power to protect you”.  Prisoner assaults are from now on to be treated as “serious crimes”.  Further protection will come via more intensive drug testing and greater prison officer numbers and authority.

Harmful Evidence used for Political Legitimacy

Before we go any further let us consider some of these points in more detail.  First the official data.  Over the last few years the Prison Officers Association [POA] has called for a “zero tolerance” approach to prisoner violence and encouraged members to report every single incident that could be considered an assault.  As a result, the recorded number of “attacks” on prison officers has dramatically increased.  Prison officers have also allegedly been encouraged by the POA to seek medical assistance irrespective of obvious injury, the end result being that such incidents appear in recorded medical data sets.  What we do not know – what is not actually indicated such data – is the seriousness and harm of the recorded incidents.  The apparent deliberate manipulation of data therefore means we should treat such claims of evidence with considerable caution – as indeed should the UK ‘Justice Secretary’.  Further, drug testing has been a tried and tested failure in terms of measuring or deterring substance usage in prisons for more than 20 years.  More rigorous testing will not solve the problem of Spice or any other ‘drug’ in prison: substance usage is systematically generated by the pain, isolation and difficulties in building and sustaining relationships in prisons.  Drug testing does not change this.  Nor does it alter the wasting of life, boredom and loneliness of the prison place.  But what about the increases in prison officer numbers? Truss in her speech makes a commitment to employ 400 new prison officers.  Yet what this fails to take into account is the recent decline in prison officer numbers in the Prison Service of England and Wales and the deep underlying structural problems confronting prisons.  More prison staff will not address the daily inhumanities, harms and degradations characterising prison life.   Further, the introduction of the 400 new staff is only a remedial measure to address the most obvious problems associated with the recent staff cuts, for new prison officers will only be employed in “prisons that have seen sharp rises in violence in recent years”.

A Distorted Picture of Violence in Prisons

For Truss, the priorities of reform are on identifying prison officers as victims of prisoner violence and protecting prison officer safety, but there is no mention in her speech of prison officer violence or prisoner safety, or the truly terrible reality that in the last year we have seen the highest rate of self-inflicted deaths in prison ever recorded in England and Wales.  At best, the account of violence by Truss is partial.  At worst, it gives a distorted picture mystifying the true reality of violence in prison. We know that the data of violence against prisoners by prison officers is much more difficult to record than violence perpetrated by prisoners.  This is because of the nature of officer violence (it could involve violence during restraint procedures) and that prisoners may fear repercussions if they report violence by officers. There is also problems regarding whether the prisoners account will be believed by other prison staff charged to investigate such incidents.  That violence against prisoners by prison staff occurs, however, is evidenced in prisoner and prison officer autobiographies as well as other official accounts, both historical and contemporary.  Further, the hidden ‘institutionally-structured violence’ and the harmful outcomes generated by the prison place are also neglected in the speech by Truss.   As of the 29th September 2016 there were 84 Self-Inflicted Deaths [SIDS] in prisons (and 43 awaiting classification).  Sadly this number is only going to rise in the final three months of this year.   A prisoner is recorded as attempting to take their own life every five hours and a prisoner is recorded as self-harming once every 20 minutes.  The seriousness of such events cannot be questioned.


Liz Truss, Justice Secretary – Source:, 2016

Wanted: Obedient, Disciplined and Reliable Staff

A further, and quite significant proposal from Truss in her speech is a commitment to employ more prison officers who are from the armed forces.  In her words “Who better to instil the virtues of discipline? Who better to show what you can achieve in life with courage and integrity? [Personnel from our armed forces] will help our prison officers lead the change.”  This policy commitment is revealing for a number of obvious reasons.  When the ‘reformed prisons’ of England and Wales were being introduced in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, prison reformers felt that ex-servicemen would be ideal to run prisons, both as governors and prison officers.  The prison reformers wanted obedient, disciplined and reliable staff to replace the old ‘turnkeys’ and prisoners who had ran the prisons and jails in the UK before that time.  The emphasis of ex-service men (and women) as prison officers reflects a particular penal ideology – one not just of reform but also of authoritarianism.     The infamous ideas of ‘hard fare, hard bed and hard labour’ that underscored the Victorian prison regimes overseen by Sir Edmund Du Cane were built on such punitive assumptions.  Questioned in terms of efficacy and morality, the implementation of Du Cane’s harsh regimes were often associated with ex-servicemen prison officers.  Whilst this proved largely mythical – prison officers have never been exclusively from the army, air-force or navy and so on – it led the Gladstone Report of 1895, which itself arose due to public outrage against the Du Cane regime, to undertake a detailed survey of the number of ex-service men in the prison system in the 1890s.  The call by Truss for greater discipline clearly indicates a vision of more punitive times to come.  Truss also blatantly disregards the fact that currently there are a large number of ex-servicemen prisoners.  The disastrous failure of current policies regarding the care and re-entry of ex-service personnel into society will not be addressed by increasing their employment as prison officers.

The Human Costs of Prisons

Truss also leads us to consider the  ‘the human costs of prisons’ beyond merely those of prison staff, but her focus here is primarily in terms of victims of ‘crime’.  Yes, there is some recognition in the talk that prisoners have problems.  Contradicting her point on meritocracy, she shows awareness that prisoners are some of the most “damaged” people in society.  Truss notes problems around literacy, mental health and sexually-violent victimisation.  But her concern is not with prisoners because we as a society fail to meet their needs before, during or after prison. Instead of prisoners squandering their time in prison Truss would rather have them undertaking “purposeful activity” in an endeavour reduce recidivism rates.  The key beliefs of her position though are crystal clear – prisoners should be made better people in prison in the interests of law abiding others.  Prison reforms are for those on the outside rather than those we house behind the prison walls.

Truss talks of her “optimism” and the need to join her as a “champions of change”, whilst at the same time recognising that most ex-prisoners re-offend, more than half within one year of release.   Her assumption is that prisons are places of potential reform if managed correctly.  The grand solution, as discussed above, is to give prison governors and prison officers more powers and to spend £1.3 billion to “sweep away our decaying Victorian jails and putting in place new modern prisons”.  What is missing though is any reflection on two important factors driving this change.  First, a number of the Victorian prisons are built on land which is highly attractive to property investment.  Either through pulling down the prisons or transforming the existing buildings into gated communities for exclusive accommodation, the selling off of such Victorian prisons could generate sizeable capital.  Second the proposed new prisons are to be ‘supersized’.  Such large new prisons, housing between 1,000 – 2,000 prisoners, are cheaper to run, are less staff intensive and could swell the volume of private prisons in the UK.  Such reforms are evidence of placing profits over people and looking to solve social problems through penal confinement.  What Truss misses is that prisons always have been places of harm and dehabilitation rather than safety and reform.

Throughout her talk – which actually offers little new – there is no mention of the vast evidence from 200 and more years that ‘reformed prisons’ have never achieved the goals that she aspires to.  The vision presented by Liz Truss is one of discipline and policies which only exacerbate despair. It is one which must be challenged.

Today’s immigration laws have teeth, and their bite is toxic for people seeking asylum

image-20160929-27017-ogktxdVictoria Canning, The Open University

As a dock city, Liverpool has served as a gateway to the sugar trade, slavery and global transport for hundreds of years. It has long been a city of immigrants from Ireland, India and Pakistan to Somalia, Ethiopia and Jamaica. It boasts the oldest Chinese community in Europe, and the largest Chinese arch outside of China. But like other parts of the UK, for those seeking sanctuary in the city today, the tightening of the immigration regime has made life full of uncertainty and injustice.

In early September, the women of Migrant Artists Mutual Aid (MaMa) – a Liverpool-based group of refugee rights advocates and women seeking asylum which I am involved with – were worried when two of its core members did not attend a regular meeting.

As news filtered through, we learned that the women (alongside two others) had been dispersed from their accommodation to a northern town 20 miles away: too far to walk back, and too expensive to travel for women receiving £5.30 per day while awaiting refugee status. The practice of dispersal means people seeking asylum can be moved away from friends and family at any point, without choice or negotiation, with little notice, to a place they may have never been.

Eventually, from speaking with the two women, it transpired that they had been approached by staff from one private sector provider at the accommodation block they lived in at 1pm on a Friday afternoon and informed they would need to move “temporarily”. They were given until 4.30pm to gather their belongings and leave their already temporary homes. No need for the children to get ready for school on Monday morning, since they were being wrenched from attendance at the very start of term.

Echoes from 70 years ago

The treatment of people seeking asylum in Liverpool today has parallels with a more sinister moment in the city’s post-war history. In 1946, it was Chinese migrants who bore the brunt of rising anti-immigration sentiment in the region. Having recruited around 20,000 Chinese men into the British Merchant Navy during World War II, once their service was over, they were deemed “undesirable” elements of Liverpool life.

Instead of offering these men and their families sanctuary, the Home Office ordered a police raid on their homes. In an early morning round-up in the summer of 1946, an estimated 1,362 Chinese men were arrested, temporarily detained, and deported. Around 500 children were estimated to have been left behind.

Seven decades later and similar events are still happening. In 2014, the women of MaMa were shocked when a long-time member was detained and deported by the Home Office. Her right to further appeal had been rejected. She was forced to leave 13 years of life and belongings in the city that she loved, with the friends she knew. We had known her well, some for almost as long as she had been in the UK. We sang from a phone on loudspeaker to comfort her as she sat in Yarl’s Wood detention centre. She was deported to her country of origin within days.

As weeks and months went by, other women grew increasingly concerned for their own futures. Those seeking asylum must comply with regulations which require them to sign in with the Home office regularly. In the aftermath of their friend’s deportation, Home Office meetings were daunting. Some of the women have already experienced Yarl’s Wood – none of them want to experience it again.

The ‘Utopia’ of rights

Unlike 1946, the legislative landscape of contemporary Britain is now embedded in a discourse of rights: human rights, refugee rights, and the rights of the child. Home Office policy and legislation advocate rights-based approaches and it has even published a plethora of guidelines on how to adhere to them.

And yet there seems little evidence of this Utopia of rights in practice. People seeking asylum are subjected to arbitrary detention, with no time limit in the UK. Abject poverty and destitution have become staple parts of the asylum process. Living in limbo, the threat of deportation looms every day, limiting individuals’ ability to look ahead to the future, particularly if they fear returning to their past in their country of origin. For asylum-seeking women living with violent men, refuges and support have been diminished by government cuts.

Meanwhile, people seeking asylum face ever more insidious forms of social controls on a daily basis, including immigration enforcement officers on public transport and regulations within housing. To give one example, women I spoke with who lived in one accommodation facility run by SERCO said that they had been told they would be reported to the Home Office for leaving bedroom doors open that could be a fire hazard. In this way, everyday actions become border offences.

House rules at an accommodation block for asylum seekers.
Anonymous., Author provided

New laws are biting

The impact of legal aid and appeal restrictions, introduced in the 2014 and 2016 immigration acts have begun to bite. Refusals for asylum faced by women in MaMa are regularly based on obscure and sometimes legally precarious grounds.

Adequate legal support is ever diminishing. Cuts to legal aid mean fewer lawyers are available to take on appeals. The 2016 act facilitates easy deportation with those removed expected to appeal from the home country, and this has already begun: 42 people were recently deported on a chartered flight to Jamaica. A huge increase in the fees for appealing Home Office decisions now threatens further limitations on access to justice: another wall between refugees and their rights.

To fight back, MaMa has turned to choir performance fundraisers among other projects in an effort to pay legal costs. Only recently we collected goods to raffle to raise legal funds: a “raffle for justice”, in one of the world’s richest countries, with one of the world’s oldest legal systems. A country that colonised many of those that MaMa members have come from. The irony is not lost.

The Conversation

Victoria Canning, Lecturer in Criminology and Social Policy, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wild West Property Trading

Vickie Cooper, The Open University

UK Property Registered Offshore

Over the last 18 months, Private Eye and, more recently, the Panama Papers published by the ICIJ, have exposed the scale of property owned by people using the offshore trading route. In the midst of this growing public concern, the Conservative government vowed to turn a ‘torchlight’ on corruption and provide greater transparency in land and housing ownership in the UK.

There is nothing illegal about purchasing UK property using ‘shell companies’ registered offshore: tax havens have provided legal facilities for tax evasion since they were formed. International criminals benefit immensely from the offshore trading route where arms smugglers, dictators, corrupt government officials and oligarchs, are all now lawful and respectable owners of UK property – while falling under the radar of public scrutiny.

So lucrative is the UK property market
to the anonymously wealthy, Global Witness estimate that £122 billion
worth of property is now registered offshore. According to The Guardian, 2,800 properties in London are registered under Panama firm, Mossack Fonseca. Shrouded in the complex web of offshore trading, it is difficult to say what portion of this property has been bought using illegal money. The Metropolitan Police estimate that £180 million worth of UK property is used for money laundering, but it too concedes that this is ‘just the tip of the iceberg’.

Despite a growing public awareness and increasing politicisation of offshore wealth, rarely do we see the pervasive effects of offshore property trading coming home, and how it directly impacts on people and communities.

Trading Sweets Way Estate: The Story of Privatisation, Global Investment Banking and Offshore Establishment

In 2015, the impact of this pattern of offshore trading became crystal clear to the residents in Sweets Way estate in Barnet, North London who began to fight back against elite financiers that set out to evict them from their estate. This conflict captured a rare moment in which we were able to see how companies registered in offshore tax havens directly impact upon local communities and residents at the bottom of the housing market. Annington Homes, one of the largest private owners of residential properties, owned Sweets Way estate for 15 years. Exactly, how it came to acquire the estate tells us a great deal about the relationship between privatisation, private equity investment and offshore tax havens. Sweets Way was originally owned by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) as part of its Married Quarters Estate. In 1996, as part of the former Conservative government’s privatisation programme, the MoD sold 57,000 properties to the Japanese investment bank Nomura, for £1.7 billion – only £30,000 each. This deal made Nomura the largest owner of residential property in the UK. Annington Homes was set up as the subsidiary company of Nomura. Guy Hands, hailed by Private Equity Magazine as the ‘20th most influential figure’ in the investment world, formed Nomura Principle Finance Group (PFG) as a subgroup of Nomura. Hands then made a string of private equity investments which mainly involved purchasing failing companies and selling them on for profit. This role extended to the purchase of MoD properties and setting up Annington Homes as a subsidiary of Nomura.

While the success of Annington is well publicised, understanding its ownership structure is tricky. In 2002, Nomura PFG split and Terra Firma was set up as the spin- off company under the ownership of Guy Hands.

Hands’ wealth continued to grow as Terra Firma expanded and in 2009 he moved
to Guernsey, an offshore tax haven, to
avoid paying the (then) 50% tax rate on
his sizeable profits. Gradually, Terra Firma purchased back those investments originally brokered under Nomura PFG – including Annington Homes, which Terra Firma purchased from Nomura in 2012, for £3.2bn.

When Terra Firma bought Annington Homes, residents of Sweets Way quickly learned about the plans to evict and demolish 140 homes, to make way for a new development. For the best part of 2015, members of ‘Sweets Ways Resist’ mobilised support against the eviction and demolition, and began exposing the relationship between offshore property trading and the British state.

Adding insult to injury, when Sweets Way residents approached their local authority about their rehousing ‘options’, Barnet council told them that they had to make a formal homeless application – to be eligible for priority rehousing. Like all homeless applicants, residents were forced to accept the first housing offer, otherwise they would be classified as ‘intentionally homeless’. This warped duty of care stripped residents of their freedom to choose and make key decisions about their housing futures, and effectively forced them to move out of the estate, afraid they might miss their one-offer window of opportunity.

As residents moved out, activists ramped up the resistance, occupying empty homes and continuing to rally support for the last remaining tenant, Mostafa Aliverdipour. The resistance ended as High Court enforcement officers, supported by a major police operation, evicted Mostafa and activists from the estate. 15 activists were subsequently charged with obstructing those enforcement officers.

Sweets Way Estate

Sweets Way Estate, London, September 2015. Photograph by Vickie Cooper

What happened on Sweets Way estate demonstrates the direct relationship between offshore property trading and housing poverty, and further exposes the role of the British state as the guarantor of this relationship. Established on the back of a lucrative privatisation programme,Annington Homes has profited from purchasing cheap MoD properties and renting them to low to mid-income families. Now at the peak of the property market,Terra Firma has been granted planning permission – authorised by the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson– to clear out Sweets Way estate, charge higher rents and sell profitable housing to first-time buyers. Given the harmful impacts that this trading has had on Sweets Way residents, it is hard to believe that, in 2014,Terra Firma won two awards for ‘responsible investment’ from the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association.

Smoke and Mirrors

Terra Firma is not an unusual case, and
the impact of offshore on UK housing is pervasive. Offshore funds drive up housing prices and have created what looks like a dangerous bubble in London in particular. But no one has felt the impact of this type of transnational trading more than Sweets Way residents, and no individual has benefitted more than Guy Hands. Even the return to the government is minimal. Richard Brooks commenting on the tax status of Annington in The Great Tax Robbery, noted that the ample income that the company receives in rent,‘produces almost nothing in the way
of tax payments’, because it is registered offshore.

While David Cameron claims that he wants to turn a ‘torchlight’ on corruption in the UK property market, George Osborne
is trying to privatise the Land Registry. Now on his second attempt, Osborne revealed plans in the Spending Review and Autumn Statement, to shake up public ownership of the Land Registry and ‘create a new company, to which responsibility for the performance of the service delivery functions would be transferred’. While this move is stirring some serious concern about job losses, it will also create even more opacity in the UK housing market. The privatisation of the Land Registry will effectively restrict public access to important details concerning land ownership – casting yet another veil over wealth, power and corruption. The government’s pledges of transparency appear like smoke and mirrors as they continue to encourage predatory capital – at a dangerous social and economic cost to us all.

This article was originally published on



Just another Scumbag Millionaire? Green, BHS and the State of UK Regulation

Steve Tombs, Prof of Criminology, The Open University

Trotting out the phrase “the unacceptable face of capitalism” as part of a “damning” House of Commons Work and Pensions and Business, Innovation and Skills Committees report on the collapse of BHS may make for good headlines but does nothing in terms of progressing reforms towards any more effective system for controlling the behemoths of corporate capitalism.

While the headline versions of the report make much of Sir Philip Green’s “systematic plunder” of the company, a closer reading reveals a systematically flawed system of regulation, one untouched by the financial crisis of 2007, still under attack as a burden on business, and likely to be further weakened as the realities of Brexit become increasingly apparent.

The report – or at least its popular reception – is a classic instance in individualising corporate offending. Sir Phillip Green, and to a lesser extent Dominic Chappell, are the equivalents of the ‘Scumbag Millionaires’ of the 2007 financial crisis, the headline The Sun ran across its front page cover of Fred Goodwin, Stephen Hester, Andy Hornby and Tom McKillop as they sat before the UK Treasury Select Committee hearings of 2009 into the banking crisis.

Thus a key aspect of the debate surrounding the demise of BHS and its systematic plundering, not least of its pension fund, is whether Green will be stripped of his knighthood, itself intimately linked to whether or not he will fulfil what the report calls his “moral duty” and make a large cash payment to the pension fund. But in this latter call, we see the resort to moral duties as an indictment of the state of law and regulation of corporate activity, both in terms of the corporate person (by definition, an a-moral, legally constructed entity) and its directors, senior managers and shareholders. Indeed, the report is less than sanguine about the abilities of The Pension Regulator to secure restitution for the 22,000 pension holders who have been the victims of what is no more nor less than theft and fraud – an all too typical scenario in deregulated, neo-liberal version of capitalism that has long dominated the UK political consensus.

Sir Phillip Green before the Common Committee, 14 June 2016

Sir Phillip Green before the Common Committee, 14 June 2016

Source, The Huffington Post,

The whole affair – which the Committee’s report and media response to it seems somehow to represent as aberrant and a-typical (hence the ‘Unacceptable Face of Capitalism’ epithet) – in fact sheds light on other routine ways of doing business in the UK. One of these is the normal practice of squirreling funds offshore into tax havens – something Green achieved through his wife’s ownership of Taveta Ltd – and which the Panama Papers revealed, as if such revelations were necessary, is simply one element of industrial scale personal and corporate tax avoidance. And in this business of ‘aggressive tax planning’ – an anaesthetising term if ever there were one – the UK, and its financial services, those which Cameron and Osborne long sought to protect from over-burdening EU legislation – is a world leader.

This affair also tells us something about the craven attitude of UK media and political elites to leading business figures. Until very recently, Sir Philip Green had been lauded as an archetypal entrepreneur, the turnaround kind, the businessman who could not only speak for the best that is competitive capitalism but in fact was fit to advise Government: this is the same Phillip Green who was called upon by the Coalition Government in 2010 to advise on cost savings at it prepared for its ‘Emergency Budget’. At the time, Minister Francis Maude said of Green that “He’s shown how he can turn around big complex businesses. Government is a huge complex organisation, and while it’s not the same as a business, a lot of the same disciplines are needed.”

This is simply one instance of the craven attitude that successive Governments, since the days of New Labour at least, have portrayed in front of entrepreneurs. Recall it had been Gordon Brown when becoming Prime Minister in 2007 who called for a ‘Government of all the Talents’, and invited a series of unlikely bedfellows (and they were mostly fellows) into a labyrinthine of advisory – non-elected – posts. One notable such appointment was (Lord) Digby-Jones, former head of the employers’ organisation the CBI. On resigning his post as Trade Minister in 2009  Digby-Jones argued that “top businessmen” – and not  “incompetent politicians” – should run major Government departments: “Health, education, business, transport, defence and security are too important to be left any longer to enthusiastic amateurs and their honest and hard-working but risk-averse civil servants.”

Finally, this whole shabby episode reveals much about the systematic and ongoing failings of a patchwork regulatory system. None of the regulators involved – Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Financial Reporting Council, the Pensions Regulator, the Insolvency Service and the Serious Fraud Office – come out of this tale with their already-hardly-stellar reputations enhanced. And for all the talk of regulatory reform, improved systems of corporate governance, greater transparency for private business – all of which grace the pages of this 60 page report – little is likely to transpire in any of these areas. We’ve been here before, many times, not least in the series of Governmental inquiries which followed the 2007 financial crisis, which in sum resulted to virtually no meaningful regulatory reform. Perhaps the most lauded were the proposals in the Vickers Report, that a ring-fence to be erected between investment and retail banking. Subsequently, even Andrew Tyrie the Conservative Chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, said of the proposed UK fencing that it is “so weak as to be virtually useless” (Armistead, 2013). A handy catch-all verdict on the state of business regulation in the UK.

This is the story of BHS, of 11,000 jobs lost, of 22,000 pension holders impoverished. It’s a story not of rogue, vilified, condemned individuals. It’s the story of an economic system based on structural irresponsibility, a supine political and media elite, and a regulatory system unable to mitigate capitalism’s inherently destructive effects.

 A slightly earlier version of this blog was originally published on 26 July, 2016 at openDemocracy UK,

Hillsborough, justice and the state


James Mehigan

Just over three years after the Hillsborough Disaster the reigning champions met in the cup semi-final against a smaller team in a stadium which was disastrously unfit for the crowds expected on the day. The teams on this occasion were the dominant French club of the era,Olympique Marseille, and the smaller Corsican outfit, SC Bastia. In order to try to maximise the profitability of the fixture against the country’s highest profile team, Bastia’s Stade Armand-Cesari de Furiani was expanded using temporary scaffold-like structures. Having qualified for the semi-finals only 13 days earlier the engineers and executives at Bastia had to demolish their North stand and build a 10,000 seat metallic structure in record time. On 5 May 1992, some 10 minutes before kick-off, the temporary stand collapsed killing 18 fans and injuring more than 2,000.

The similarities with Hillsborough are somewhat uncanny. The nation’s dominant team, from a port city past its prime, ignored economically and looked down upon by the rest of the country, playing in a cup semi-final at a stadium poorly engineered and improperly supervised by local government, ends in the death of innocent fans. However, the differences between the two disasters are perhaps more interesting. In particular the states’ different responses to the disasters are illuminating.

After both disasters an inquiry was set up within days. Just over three and a half years after the disaster in Bastia the criminal convictions of nine officials involved in the planning and building of the stadium were confirmed on appeal. Eight received suspended sentences ranging from 10-20 months and fines of between 15,000-30,000 francs (about £1,800-£3,600). One official, engineer Jean-Marie Boimond, received a 24-month sentence and was the only person to spend time in prison as a result of the disaster. Those convicted included engineers, local government officials, the vice-president of SC Bastia as well as senior officials from the Federation francaise de football and the Ligue corse de football.

While the whole investigatory and criminal process in France was done and dusted within 3 and a half years, those who lost loved ones at Hillsborough were not to experience such swift justice or accountability. Certainly the Furiani disaster was smaller, both in the number of people who died and the number of agencies who were involved, but this alone cannot explain the different waiting times. Although it took 27 years for a jury to find that the 96 had been unlawfully killed(that is that they had died due to manslaughter caused by the gross negligence of a known, but not named, individual), the road to accountability remains to be completed. Nobody has been held criminally responsible for Hillsborough, let alone sentenced to time in prison. Decisions about charges arising out of the disaster remain with the Crown Prosecution Service.

Why is it that for basically the same match, in the same era, French families had their cases resolved in 3 and a half years, while those in England waited 27+? There is a simple two-word answer: the police. There is no suggestion that the police were responsible at Furiani, but almost everybody knew they were to blame at Hillsborough, and knew this almost immediately. They knew it themselves and began a horrible smear campaign against the fans. It was a smear campaign to be taken on by the Murdoch press and local Tory MP Sir Ivan Patnick (who, along with the major architect of the cover-up, Sir Norman Bettison, never had his knighthood rescinded).

The mechanics of the smear campaign have been covered in detail elsewhere (notably by the Hillsborough Independent Panel), but at its most basic the police and their allies alleged that Liverpool fans arrived drunk, late and ticketless. This alleged misbehaviour overwhelmed the police, causing the crush outside and inevitably lead to the deaths. The problem for the police was that there was no evidence to support these allegations. There was no moment during the second Inquests when lawyers for the police were able to show alcohol being consumed in any meaningful quantity. The crush outside was building up before 2.45pm and the writing on the back of the match tickets asked supporters to arrive 15 minutes before the 3 pm kick-off. The third limb of the smear campaign, ticketlessness, is of course a complete red herring. Numerous experts have reviewed the footage and concluded that the numbers coming through the gates at Leppings Lane did not exceed the number of fans that could be safely accommodated on the terraces, if the police had spread them appropriately between the different pens. There was no evidence to support any of the aspects of the police smear.

The fact that the smear against the fans lasted for so long is testament to the police’s capacity to ‘prove’ what they want without relying on evidence. There is a scene in Rumpole where the eponymous character says to a judge: ‘My Darling, Old Lordship, anyone can get a conviction on evidence. It takes a legal genius to obtain one without it’. Viewed in these terms the South Yorkshire Police were phenomenally skilled and industrious in ‘prosecuting’ the fans, en masse, of hooliganism. A smear that was not fully overturned until the jury absolved the fans of blame in April 2016.

There is no doubt that there was a problem with football hooliganism in England in the 80s and it was a problem that required a thoughtful policing response. The division of the terraces on Leppings Lane into pens to separate supporters and allow a sterile area between home and away fans was a response to a problem of violence that was common at English football matches. Many techniques in crowd control, surveillance and the invasion of privacy were invented or initially road-tested on football fans. Segregating fans may be unique to football, but CCTV pervades all our lives. Other techniques such as ‘kettling’ and the infiltration of undercover officers have blighted peaceful protest movements consistently since they were introduced to control hooliganism.

These were often blind, poorly thought out, rage-induced responses to the problem of hooliganism. As it is almost universally agreed that hooligans are, or should be, marginalized, it becomes easy to de-humanise them and introduce measures that would otherwise be considered significant restrictions of civil liberties. Even today football fans across the country report unfair treatment at the hands of British police forces. As criminologist PAJ Waddington says of these severe interventions; ‘because those who were affected by these interventions were politically marginalized, the police felt they could do so with impunity’. Once the techniques are normalised on the marginalised, they can be steadily imposed on others within society, notably, as mentioned above, the political protester.

Hillsborough marked a high water mark in the use of the term ‘hooligan’ to justify cruelly mistreating people. There are innumerable examples of the myopia induced by the fight against hooliganism that had a terrible impact on the day. So obsessed were the police with controlling hooliganism that, once the fatal crush had begun, before calling for ambulances, the match commanders called for police dogs. The working assumption at all times was that any disturbance was a matter of public order rather than a matter of public safety. The stadium was built that way, the police planned for the match that way and they policed it that way, even when people were obviously dying in front of them. Fans were treated like cattle, herded into pens and manhandled by police. Through all of it, the police failed to see the humans and the human suffering because of their culturally engrained prejudice that football fans were hooligans.

However detestable football hooligans are, it is a dangerous road to take to allow football fans to be treated as one homogenous block. Indeed it is this type of prejudice against groups of people based on the behaviour of a few of their members that has lead to some terrible injustices and inhumanity throughout the years. In the case of Hillsborough, a widespread dismissal of football fans as hooligans allowed the police to perpetrate a smear campaign against the fans and the people of Liverpool. Having been heavily criticised in the first public inquiry, the police then ran their smear again in the original inquests, accusing fans of drinking and invoking the evils of hooliganism. Through the following years they continued to do so. Lobbying Parliament to that effect and allegedly spying on families as they fought for justice. Even in the Inquests that finished this year the SYP, having apologised for their failings before the Inquests, continued to run a case that blamed fans and exonerated themselves. After the jury returned its conclusions condemning the SYP’s failings, they apologised again. Between the apologies they continued to blame the fans and hide behind the horrors of hooliganism.

Hooliganism is repugnant, but prejudice is even more so. One of the main causal factors for the Hillsborough Disaster was the police’s inability to see that human beings were dying and trying to escape death. Because of their prejudices, the police assumed the fans were trying to cause disorder. As lawyers we have learned many things from the inquests including the importance of the Human Rights Act and proper victim representation. For those involved in the struggle to protect our civil liberties, it is also important to remember that ignoring the prejudice against and repression of marginalized groups, even those as repugnant as ‘hooligans’ (or ‘terrorists’) can lead to dangerous working assumptions with knock on effects.

The jury’s conclusions in April 2016 have put the Hillsborough families in the position they should have been in in 1990. The blame for that delay falls squarely with the police. We now wait for the CPS to decide if they will achieve some level of accountability and reach the point their Corsican counterparts got to in 1995.

James Mehigan is a barrister at Garden Court Chambers and lecturer in criminology at the Open University, he was part of the legal team that represented 77 families at the Hillsborough Inquests.

This article was originally published by ‘The Project, a Socialist Journal’:

The Empire is Out With a Million Bullets Fired: a short introduction to the poetic rhetoric of harm

Dr Avi Boukli, Lecturer in Criminology, The Open University

 Poetry is the saying of the unconcealdness of what is.

Martin Heidegger (1971) Poetry, Language, Thought. NY: Harper Perennial, p.71.


Source: BBC 2014

In the recent past the demand for “taking back control” was at the core of pertinent political and economic debates. For instance, it was suggested that border –as well as economic– control was hijacked by European intervention (refer to the critique offered by Jacqueline Rose 2/7/2016). Subsequently, this demand was mobilised by consolidating identity claims about what it means to be a body, a group, a bordered entity. But in the recent past, destructive “nationalisms” have contributed to lethal harms knitted with politics of contingency and “a creed of (gregarious) uncertainty” (Goodrich, Douzinas & Hachamovitch, 1994, 9).

In this short article, the aim is to unravel how recent monumental political events have been reflected on and through poetry. New poetry is everywhere, observes everything, reports and pushes back against everything. Less for the purpose of enumeration and more of remembrance, transformation and resolution, in the following paragraph the powerful accounts of recent political events are explored to show how the key themes of feeling “manipulated”, “misled”, “nostalgic”, “angry” and “sad” came into being by enacting politics of reason and (un)truth. The second part turns to poetry as radical recognition, to explore how poetry cultivates reflective, projective and transformative production. While this extract is part of a wider project on Poetic Rhetoric and Harm, which focuses on poetic representations of the Greek economic crisis, here the focus shifts. From Brexit and the murder of MP Jo Cox to the Orlando killings and to the Greek economic crisis, poems anticipate the present mood and times of the new millennium. What follows offers a brief recollection of recent political events:

  1. Jo Cox, a pro-immigration Labour MP was brutally murdered prior to the referendum on Britain’s status in the EU (El-Enany 19/6/2016).
  1. “Breaking Point”: Farage’s controversial campaign poster depicting non-white refugees crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border in 2015, indeed, broke many points to the extent that it was reported to the Metropolitan Police. For once more, it harmfully conflated distinct legal and social terms such as “migrants” and “refugees” synecdochically aiming to create a persuasive rhetoric for expulsive desire and action (see previously Boukli & Renz 1/2/2016).
  1. Pre-Brexit, specific Eastern countries were stigmatised as un-worthy recipients of EU funds (see e.g. Hall, 2/2/2016).
  1. Post-Brexit racist and xenophobic cards were posted through letter boxes inciting racial hatred; a cultural center was vandalized with graffiti; protesters incited hatred through demands for stopping migration and starting deportations of (one can only assume) European citizens.
  1. European colleagues and prominent academics were questioned by students about their right to live and work in the country. European citizens have been referred to by their employers as “non-UK” instead of “valued employees” or European.
  1. Misleading comparisons have been made between the Greek referendum in 2015 and the British referendum in 2016, implying that both states have voted for a Grexit and a Brexit respectively. Conveniently this silences radical differences between the two referenda: the Greek referendum was asking people to decide on the “Reforms for the Completion of the Current Programme and Beyond”, suggested by the European Financial Stability Facility in the form of a loan facility agreement. As a result, the Greeks voted NO to the austerity politics, the intensification of privatisation, the acceleration of “open markets” and the cruel lending circuit proposed by the Master Financial Assistance Facility Agreement. The Greeks voted NO to this agreement, which led to the imposition of capital controls and to subsequent negotiations of an imposed Grexit. In political terms, the Greeks cast an anti-austerity “NO” rather than an “exit from the EU” vote.

This list of events above is only partial. Endless amphibologies, aposiopeses, paradoxes, ironies, catachreses and rhetorical ambiguities weave the legality of the contingent (see Goodrich 1994). Similarly, the recent comments by European leaders describing Brexit as an “amicable” or “clean” “divorce” are further distorting legal and political facts (see e.g. Diekmann and Hoeren, 26/6/2016). These comments are distorting in the sense that they animate the fantasy of states as sentient subjects: loving each other, cheating on, and divorcing amicably. This is not to suggest that a Brexit is not possible. I merely intend to point to the toxic intricacies of a democratic referendum that was urging people to vote for a Brexit with no legal plan in place, in case of a successful leave campaign. A Brexit campaign that relied on dialectical disputations and on the fantasy of intensified border controls. While it ultimately fabricated the myths of the “British Refugee Crisis” and the “British Migration Crisis” (El-Enany 19/6/2016). A successful Brexit campaign that silenced the volatility of the post-9/11 political landscape and of what Brexit would factually mean for people; in other words, the “politics of reason” has always been a dimension of governance, utilised against all attempts to question the authority of established order.

Dear Capitalism

Photographer: F.S. Renz, Greece Athens May 2016

I would like us to momentarily step into poetry in order to re-examine this contemporary list of creeping inconsistencies, xenophobic reverberations, murderous harms, and resistance as their poetic manifestations create new worlds.

Starting with a tone of European nostalgia, Glastonbury poem by Jodi Bickley reflects on the silent aftermath, on speechlessness, as the result of Brexit (see also Andrew Motion). Conveyed in imperfect rhyme, the poem suggests that Britain has lost a good “old friend” and it is opening up to the future with that loss. Others turn to social media [#WriteAPoemAboutBrexit] to convey internal rhymes. They make reference to a decision that is “abandoning humanity”; to being “brainwashed by the far right”; to bringing division and pain “[m]any wept / As reality sank in”; to being misled by personal political opportunistic agendas creating “Eton Mess”; to being manipulated by lies about immigration, which profit more “privatization” (Moran 26/6/2016). Scarcely, the other side of the polemic also spoke and instead used celebratory signifiers and made reference to a successful “break up” – “We’ve had our say, goodbye EU …hooray!” (Moore 26/6/2016).

Similarly, in the aftermath of the Orlando shootings poets turned to poetry to talk about harms linked directly or indirectly to the killings (#‎poetryfororlando). Poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, wrote the emotive poem “After Orlando: Gay Love”. In this Duffy urges us to see “gay” in a hypervisual and intersubjective form: “The writer is gay…/ The Farmer is gay…/ The politician is gay…/ The scientist is gay…/ The actress is gay…/ And God is gay”. Pointing to wider systemic harms, poet Joe Jimenez wrote the spearing poem Smutgrass:

“Growth is the hardest place for harm to lay its hair […]

All of it means this: not everyone has a phoenix

inside. Some of us growing beside

roads, among beer cans & ditch weeks, waste & trees

smothered with hunger, sightlessness, maladies. […]”

Amongst controversial and often divisive responses to the Orlando shootings and the staggering realisations of violence, these poems stay still like a persistent residue lingering when adversarial debates have been exhausted.

Lastly, turning to the Greek economic crisis, a polyphony of poets crystalise a revolt. In Greece, poetry is being written on walls, in public squares, theaters, empty lots, shopping centres or tattooed on bodies. Only recently, various edited collections transmit poetic representations of the Greek poetry and society as shaped by austerity (see for example, Futures: poetry of the Greek crisis”, “Cross-Section: an anthology of contemporary Greek poetry”, and “Austerity Measures”). As a light seen through a convex mirror, the poems are “news bulletins from an undeclared war against the human condition” (Siotis, 2015, xi). The poems detect harmful messages and transform them into a mixture of volatile dimensions: they protest against crimes of capitalism, they rise up against planned misery and offer counter-narratives as substitute to the depression that ensues.

Poets construct allegories to describe the violent financial negotiations between the EU and Greece. For instance, poet Stavros Asteriou uses metaphors and the allegory of the train called “EUROPE”, with an “a-historic platform…/Inflicting pain upon the passengers as it turns […]/ Italians, Spanish, Irish, Portuguese, Greeks and others travel together/ and a river of despair is their destination.” Bearing witness to the hard lives led in Greece and the Balkans today, poets mock neoliberal responsibilisation and gendered security plans. Exemplary of this is the poem  Ways to Avoid Sadness, by Anna Griva:

“Be careful where you tread […]

Be careful of your womb if you are women

of the Adam’s apple swelling your throat if you are men

and if you are still children find a way at last

to die painlessly without needing to appear

either men or women

Be careful of the danger that rises every morning […]”

In these times of “the danger that rises every morning”, can poetry light the spirit of revolution? Following Karl Marx, the social revolution of the twenty first century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. Poetry, imagination and social revolution are entangled, stripping away all superstition against dogma and deceit. What poetry invites us to do, then, is to pause; to stop being absorbed in the production of wealth, in the “peaceful” competitive struggle; to question why our democratic vote is reduced to plans that are revealed to us only after we vote. Poetry invites us to question the divisions of our fragmented words by obtaining the inaccessible (Agamben, 1993). Poetry is here, is current, can change the future, and promises not to conceal.