Infectious criminalisation: new waves of ‘coronavirus’ criminalisation and zemiology

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

In this article, Avi Boulki considers the ways in which social harms are proliferating during the Coronavirus pandemic. Avi Boukli is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at The Open University.

Spring has struck this year. Food is really expensive. Have you noticed?

Amidst the world-sweeping pandemic, some of us find solace in exercising at home, indulging in [fill in the blank with something you/I can still afford], reading and re-reading the news, zoom-drinking with loved ones. The world has changed. Susan Sontag wrote in 1973 “… a society becomes ‘modern’ when one of its chief activities is producing and consuming images…”. Then perhaps a society becomes “unmodern” when, amid lockdown, successions of joggers elbow you at the park, shouting goodbye to the recommended 2-meter distance and your spleen.

Writing in lockdown on criminalisation and zemiology is both a complex and a simple task. On the complex level, with the lens focused on the state-corporate management of the pandemic, this blog post traces some of the relations between criminalisation measures that emerged as a response to the coronavirus pandemic and zemiology. It starts by visiting some criminological insights in relation to crime and the pandemic, before it moves to offer some suggestions as to how zemiology could account for the social harms exacerbated and made visible by the pandemic. It is also simple. Zemiology still enables us to assess what is happening from a political, economic, physical, emotional, and cultural point of view. Amid rapid socio-political changes, zemiology retains its shape and hope.

But let’s trace Ariadne’s thread:

Criminology is fascinating. In his lucid podcast, Manuel Eisner, discusses crime in times of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. He takes a criminological perspective to discuss the social, legal, and political dimensions of a “crisis” but also includes criminological theories that strive to explain the current crime declines and increases, the trends’ highs and lows. The pandemic has raised some crucial fluctuations in crime, Eisner argues. For instance, in NY burglaries seem to be declining, while car thefts are on the rise. Similarly, some variations in crime rates appear in London too: knife crime and burglaries have dropped in the weeks that followed the introduction of social distancing and subsequent lockdown state response to the pandemic. This has meant both a material effect but also a shift in public and media discourse.

But what are the effects of keeping the focus solely on crime and crime control? Firstly, the narrow gaze on crime and crime control, at best, pushes back the perpetuation of social harm on the list of priorities for investigation. At worst, it further silences social harm, supplemented by surreptitious zemia. Particularly, the measures to deal with the “pandemic crisis” are not applied to a pre-existing just and equal society, but spur an authoritarian controlled capitalism that protects corporate interests while “offloading the costs onto the rest of us” . Essentially, vulnerable highly indebted workers, with limited access to benefits and public services are further crushed in the mill of casualisation, while working rights are demolished and layoffs skyrocket, “without concern for due process and as remote working destroys all limits to the working week”. As a result, a wide variety of physical, financial/economic, emotional, psychological, and cultural harms proliferate.

A picture containing outdoor, rock, bird, rocky

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Image of underwater pebbles and seashells, IP: Avi Boukli

Secondly, a sole focus on crime and crime control threatens to conceal the harms perpetuated by criminalisation measures. In the UK, draconian countermeasures are both vague and sweeping simultaneously, allowing the police almost unlimited discretion in exercising ill-defined powers. While they are combined with ever more draconian “feel good” and stay at home “essentials” – foldable table tennis nets (no space-shaming involved), jigsaw puzzles, and flour – are now sold at eye-watering prices for the labour aristocracy, and the wider working class alike. These criminalisation measures did not come in time to curb the deaths inflicted by the pandemic but with a time delay, and with an unequal impact on those of us who live on the streets, in shared accommodation, limited spaces, total institutions, and those of us who have long-term health conditions, which are meant to be paused to avoid further strains on an already overstretched health service. Further, these criminalisation measures do not put pressure on big pharmaceutical companies to develop, let’s say, the fastest and most affordable vaccine against a highly contagious virus, but on individuals to accept responsibility for catching or spreading the virus. Again, structures disappear, and the individual is reborn, Matrix-esque, responsible (“an imminent threat”) and covered in gelatine sociability (subject to “restrictions or requirements”).

As a result of the above, the language of zemiology is helpful in reading critically the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 and the Coronavirus Act 2020, and the collapse of public health into public order. In summary the Regulations make it illegal for: i) a wide range of shops and businesses to open or to sell food or drink for consumption in their premises (Regs 4, 5); ii) a person to leave their house without a reasonable excuse (unless they are homeless) (Reg 6); a person to take part in public gatherings of more than 2 people subject to exceptions (Reg 7).

However, the lack of clarity regarding what constitutes a “reasonable excuse” or a valid “exception” may actually leave room for the usual norms around disability, class, and gender to fill in the blanks left by this “crisis” law. For instance, would a victim of trafficking escaping captivity, have a reasonable excuse on the basis of Reg 6 (m.) and what burden of proof does this involve? And a bit further, who is excluded from business bailout plans? Sex workers? Who is excluded from the category “vulnerable persons”? People with mild chronic asthma who struggle to breathe in spring, people with chronic conditions such as Crohn’s, Colitis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and high blood pressure or an undiagnosed condition at the time when the measures were imposed? Lastly, who is the exception and who is the rule: is homelessness an exception, or is it a sign of vulnerability, or is the “crisis” the Pool of Siloam for political purposes… And equally, who is included? Do the business bailout plans include highly profitable wealthy businesses with large cash reserves? Uneven impacts are not abstract ideas but material realities, made up of bodies like yours and mine. Pre-pandemic we didn’t live in an equal society and it is hard to see how the restrictions imposed are going to mend the harms of these inequalities by collapsing the maintenance of public health into that of public order. As for the cultural harms, there is a concern that a decline in (street) violence in the public sphere, may go hand in hand with a rise in domestic violence.  But, after having being circled by a group of fellow citizens to be coughed at, or experiencing the exacerbation of physical dominance in public spaces by certain bodies over others, I argue, women, LGBTQ people, and men locked in with their abusers experience not just the collapse of public services into public order but, most crucially, the collapse of the public sphere into the domestic sphere and vice versa. Public inequalities are now domestic ones. Drawing on a zemiological analysis seems vital at a time when governments exhorts us to “work together” and focus only on essentials. While reducing infections is clearly crucial, we must not forget to consider who is treated as collateral damage or in need of more repressive state intervention in the name of public health.

The Johnson Government: Working for the Brexit Clampdown

Joe Sim, Professor of Criminology, Liverpool John Moores University and Steve Tombs, Professor of Criminology, The Open University

As the country teeters on the brink of the chaos of an impending no-deal Brexit, Boris Johnson’s administration has entered electioneering mode. The administration is following a familiar path that has a history of at least 40 years in the Tory party: first, that attitudes and actions towards the EU are not at all about any ‘national’ interest but are about party interests and, specifically, keeping a Tory Government in power at all and any costs; and, second, invoking a tough on crime, law and order discourse to capitalise on popular anxieties to offer false certainties around security and a sense of protection.

Mobilising Fear

On the latter – the subject of this short piece – virtually the first act of the incoming Prime Minister Johnson was to announce the recruitment of 20,000 police officers in order “to make our streets safer”. This was followed by a concerted set of announcements by the Prime Minister and his capital-punishment flirting Home Secretary Priti Patel; their Government would, they trumpeted, “shift the balance of fear” and fill criminals with terror, as they announced alongside the increase in police numbers a ramping up in sentences, stopping early release, and extending the right to stop and search – no doubt, Johnson added, prompting the “Left-wing criminologists” to “howl”. Priti Patel used the Sun on Sunday, the newspaper that emerged phoenix-like from the ashes of the crime-ridden News of The World, to cynically exploit the “attack on brave police officer Stuart Outten” which had taken place in London days earlier, an attack which she claimed “was a reminder that the police put their lives on the line to keep us safe”. Clearly, police officers are injured and killed during the course of their work, as the most recent death of PC Andrew Harper has shown, and their victimisation should not be denied. However, Patel’s comments somewhat obscure the fact that, compared with other occupations, policing is a relatively safe occupation. Deaths in these other occupations deserve to be treated with the same respect and consideration when lives are lost and families are irreparably damaged.

These are well-trodden, and therefore highly cynically chosen, paths. In 1979, the Thatcher government’s first major policy initiative was to implement the Edmund-Davies pay review leading to a spike in police numbers. The result?  A spike in the recorded crime rate. Home Office research concluded at the time that ‘whatever the benefits in terms of public reassurance or confidence, increasing visible police presence through extra foot or car patrols is by itself unlikely to reduce crime; nor does there seem much scope for a general improvement in detection rates’. Sir Robert Mark, the Met’s Commissioner, noted that police numbers had little effect on crime rates and ‘seen objectively against the background and problems of 50 million people it [crime] is not even amongst the more serious of our difficulties’. The idea that the present government’s prison building programme and tougher sentencing will reduce victimisation and increase public protection is also a fallacy.  In 1983, Leon Brittan instigated the biggest prison building programme of the twentieth century, alongside a tougher sentencing regime. It failed. In 1995, Michael Howard declared that ‘prison works’. He was wrong. There are no demonstrable relationships between prison numbers and recorded crime rates.

Cutting Social Support

By contrast, and to take the example of the offence category exploited by Priti Patel as she lauded the bravery of the police, knife crime may be a significant social problem but neither it, nor the conventional crime problem in general, will be solved by the blitzkrieg of criminalisation, punishment and pain rolled out in recent weeks. It is widely accepted that funding for early intervention services can prevent the numbers of young people finding themselves at risk of victimisation and offending. However, as Action for Children, the Children’s Society and National Children’s Bureau recently revealed, “between 2010-11 and 2015-16, spending on early intervention fell in real terms by 40%”, while Sure Start centres had their budgets halved in the 8 years to 2016. Meanwhile, Tim Bateman has highlighted “a massive contraction in youth service provision, leading to a sharp decline in the availability of constructive activities for young people, resulting in many of them spending more time on the street where risks may be higher”. Johnson and Patel have said nothing about reversing any of these spending cuts.

Crimes of the Rich and Powerful

Nor will the blitz on crime deal with rampant state-corporate criminality. It will not address income tax avoidance and evasion, which even on the Government’s own “laughable” estimate now stands at a record £35 billion per annum, nor the 36,000 deaths each year which the Government links to air pollution in the UK in its recently revised downwards estimate, nor the 50,000 work related deaths which occur year in, year in out in one of the wealthiest economies in the world. The cultures of immunity and impunity which allows the rich and powerful to engage in routine criminal activity will continue to be encouraged: programmes of deregulation and non-enforcement of law against businesses have been institutionalised since 2010 to the point where, for example, there are no officers to enforce law in some local authority areas, where some regulation has been privatised, and where prosecution in some areas are now non-existent. The changes will do little, if anything, to reduce the rampant levels of domestic and sexual violence against women, nor far-right extremism and racist attacks, nor homophobic violence, nor will they introduce desperately needed structures of democratic accountability into the criminal justice system.

What they will do, if these policy turns really do end up meeting the stated aim of putting 10,000 more people in prison, is exacerbate the dramatic levels of violence in British prisons. Therein, as the charity INQUEST recently noted on the basis of the Ministry of Justice’s own data, the 12 months to July 2019 showed: 86 self-inflicted deaths, up 6% from 81 in the previous year – that is, one every four days – of 309 deaths in prison in total. This is not to mention, in a 12 month period, that self-harm levels had “increased by 24% from the previous year, once again reaching record highs … In the child and youth prison estate, there was a 30% increase in self-harm incidents.”

Labour’s Political Opportunism

And what has the Labour Party had to say about this law and order noise, and the grim threat it poses to the already-restricted rights and liberties of those powerless communities and groups it purports to represent? Not surprisingly, the answer is very little.  Labour’s response has been based on political opportunism.  And so while Diane Abbott has pointed to some of the problems in the “Draconian approach” to the use of stop and search, Labour has failed to seriously contest the government’s announcements. There has been no informed critique of the prison building programme or of tougher sentencing or of the increase in police numbers. There has been no obvious strategy to curtail the brutal exercise of state power and to hold to account those state servants who routinely abuse this power through the capricious discretion they have on the streets and behind prison walls.  In fact, Labour’s policy has been to restore police numbers to their pre-cuts level, ignoring the criminological research which, as noted above, shows the negligible impact the police have on conventional crime.  What the party has demanded is an inquiry into the welfare and morale of police officers despite the fact that, compared with other jobs, policing is a relatively safe occupation. Again, as noted above, the systemic lack of health and safety is a key factor in the shameful levels of self-harm and deaths in custody. On this, there is silence.  Labour has allowed the government to articulate, effectively unchallenged, its toxic, punitive agenda. Such timidity should not be surprising; Labour has an abysmal track record on law and order when in government, reproducing the Tories’  relentless focus on working class crime and turning a blind eye to the systemic abuses of the state and the institutionalised criminality of the rich and powerful. 


In the world-view of Johnson and his media and political acolytes, ramping up the crime, law and order rhetoric is a vote-winner, a distraction from the Tories’ disastrous handling of Brexit, and the tooling-up of the state for post-Brexit disorder. In general terms, the Johnson government’s strategy can be understood as consolidating still further, in Stuart Hall’s words, the ‘[p]hilisitne barbarism’ begun under the first Thatcher government. It is an ideological strategy, a form of ‘regressive modernisation’, designed to ‘”educate” and discipline the society into a particularly regressive form of modernity, by paradoxically, dragging it backwards through an equally regressive version of the past‘. This regression will have dire consequences for communities and groups already stricken by the pitiless social and economic policies pursued in the last decade, and indeed, before. In 1972, the great American writer James Baldwin pointed out that ‘ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have’. Fifty years on, Baldwin’s eloquent statement provides a fitting testimony to the cynicism, hypocrisy and naked self-interest inexorably driving the government’s law and order bandwagon. Inevitably, this will be followed by the ruthless rolling out of state power in order to maximise and maintain the corrosively exploitative, immoral and amoral neoliberal social order. However, for all its material and ideological power, it is contradictory and, just like the Prime Minister and his government, remains open to contestation and resistance. In these bleakest of times, it is important to remember and reflect on this point.

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

Part of the title of this article is from the title of the track by The Clash, ‘Clampdown’, on their 1979 London Calling album.

Crime, harm and the question of justice: an interview with Samantha Fletcher

Samantha Fletcher is a lecturer in criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University. Much of her research focuses on ‘crime, harm, and global justice’, and she has a particular interest in ‘new social movements that seek to challenge global inequalities and injustice’.

Samantha is a former member of HERC and lecturer in criminology at the Open University. Commonweal is an education organisation that inspires, informs and connects nonviolence activists in the UK.

1) Please tell us, Sam, how you interpret the terms ‘crime’ and ‘harm’, with examples?

The discipline of criminology has a long history of overwhelmingly focusing on matters of crime, as defined by criminal law and the state.

In contrast, over the years, various scholars within criminology and beyond have sought to depart from this narrow conception of the ‘crime’ agenda.

They have instead sought to recognise that ‘crime’ as defined by laws and states severely limits the attempt to truly understand and adequately recognise all forms and wider conceptualisations of harms and violence.

One of the biggest developments in this line of thought was the arrival of zemiology.

At the annual conference for the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control in Spetses, Greece, in 1998, members of the group called for a new area of study that placed harm at the centre of their concerns (zemia is the Greek word for harm).

The basic premise of their argument was that there is no ontological reality to crime – what is meant by this is that there is nothing intrinsic to an act that makes it criminal. Instead, there are acts, and some are defined as criminal and others are not.

A publication by EG Press, the publisher of the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control

Therefore, the concept of ‘crime’ helps very little in adequately recognising the scale, form and extent of harms within society.

Thinking about harm more broadly – rather than as acts that have been assigned the ‘crime’ label by state institutions – allows us to expand our imaginations and recognise a whole range of additional harmful activities, often happening on a far greater scale.

Violence is subject to similar critique and concern. States, governments and their related criminal justice systems overwhelmingly focus on matters of interpersonal violence – actual or threatened violence that takes place in close proximity between a relatively small number of people.

Instead, we can and should think of violence as including structural violence – the everyday systems and structures in society that lead to grave harms through the denial of people’s basic needs (for more on this, see Johan Galtung’s 1969 article ‘Violence, Peace and Peace Research’).

Johan Galtung. Source

Without downgrading interpersonal violence, if it’s to be the only understanding of and framework for violence, this masks a whole host of everyday forms of structural and institutional violence that happen routinely and often go unchallenged.

Thinking critically, starting with the concept of harm and a wider understanding of violence, allows us to think beyond interpersonal interactions and recognise other harms to human (and non-human) life.

Harms to human life include

– to highlight just a few examples.

2) Your work also examines harms caused by ‘powerful persons’. Who are they, and what are these harms?

‘Crimes of the powerful’, a term coined by Frank Pearce in 1976, refers to a number of types of harmful activity committed by persons with significant economic, political and/or social power – I say and/or, but the three of these often go hand in hand and are in many ways inextricably related.

Those studying the crimes of the powerful seek to turn the analytical lens towards harmful activities and actions by states and corporations, many of which are rarely labelled as criminal.

Or if they are defined as subject to criminal law, they receive comparatively lenient sanctions.

Various scholars have also drawn attention to the relationship between the state and the corporation, examining how they act in mutually reinforcing ways (see for example Tombs and Whyte), as opposed to one dominating the other at different times, as many people expect.

Within the remit of highlighting the crimes of the powerful, it is also vital to recognise that the harms caused by powerful persons and institutions have varying impacts on different social groups.

For example, a vast range of scholars have sought to unpack the continuing harms caused by colonialism, patriarchy and capitalism in order to recognise the impacts of different structural relations within society.

I am particularly drawn to the words of Marcia Rice (2008), who speaks of the importance of recognising ‘qualitatively different’ experiences across gender, ‘race’ and class lines (the full chapter by Marcia Rice is available within the book Gender and Crime: A Reader).

3) What can activists do to tackle harms and crimes by powerful people?

I’m very cautious about speculating or prescribing specific courses of action on these issues.

However, what can and should be recognised is the role of grass-roots movements in challenging the dominant narratives masking the true extent and variety of harms and violence within society.

Going further back, these groups range from the various protests of 1968 and the civil rights movement to the movements of 2011 onwards, such as the Occupy/Decolonise movement and Black Lives Matter – to name just a few!

These movements emerging ‘from the ground up’, rather than ‘from the top down’, have played and continue to play a vital role in highlighting the harms and violence committed by the ‘few’ at the expense of the ‘many’.

Most recently, we have seen a growth in grass-roots movements calling attention to the ever-pressing matter of climate change and environmental harms, including various anti-fracking campaigns and Extinction Rebellion.

As has always been the case (even if hasn’t always been well documented), young people are playing a vital role in these movements. In recent times, the Climate Strike and related movements, inspired by Greta Thunberg’s extraordinary initial strike action outside the Swedish Parliament in August 2018, have been making great strides towards greater recognition and the action needed for positive change.

If I were intrepid enough to foresee anything, it would be the key role young people will play in forging a less harmful and less violent future.

4) Can you recommend any books or other sources to deepen understanding of these topics for a general readership?

Although there is less research on harms and violence in the wider context than on mainstream criminological concerns, there is still a plethora of literature and resources available.

There are many free online resources that give further insight into these issues. Readers may wish to check out two of the free short courses available on OpenLearn:

  • Crimes of the powerful, which provides an introduction to examining the harmful activities of powerful people in society, and
  • Criminology beyond crime, which includes an introduction to Green Criminology and the vast range of eco or environmental harms involving humans, non-humans and the environment.

In addition, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies hosts Criminal Obsessions: Why Harm Matters More than Crime, a key publication covering a lot of ground on all the matters discussed in this post.

For anyone inspired by these free resources to go even further, I would recommend these books:

I would also recommend the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control as a great starting point for connecting with active scholars in this field (Twitter handle: @european_group).

Thank you, Sam!

This blog was originally posted at Commonweal on 26 February 2019.

What is Crime?

David Scott, The Open University

Crime is an essentially contested concept.  There is no universally agreed definition of what a crime is.  However, the most straightforward way of thinking about crime is to look at it in terms of a legalistic perspective – from this approach a crime is an act which is illegal.  It’s against the law.  Specifically it is against the criminal law.  In so doing the act will have certain aspects to it – it will have an aspect of criminal harm and it will have an aspect of criminal blame. 

 Interestingly though, many people have questioned this legalistic definition.  First of all this is because it’s always going to be partial and determined within a very specific and limited set of criteria about what is crime.  If a given act  isn’t illegal, then whilst we might see it as wrong, or problematic or harmful, it’s not going to be something which will be defined as a crime.  Many criminologists  have argued  that it is important to unpack the legal definition, and have questioned the very notions of what is and what isn’t criminal harm.  Criminologists have also questioned notions around criminal blame and both the strengths and weaknesses of a backward looking approach grounded in individual culpability.

Watch Dr. David Scott discussing the question, What Is Crime?

A number of criminologists have even gone as far to say that a crime is a statist category, i.e. that it’s defined by the state and it’s infused with certain interests, ideas and power relations which reflect the interests of the powerful.  For these critics, the state defined categories of crime reflects the interests of those who have something to lose in society, where as at the same time it does not necessarily reflect the interests of those who are powerless or those at the bottom end of society.

Hence, the crime logic is seen as imposed and perhaps even a reconstruction of reality in legalistic and statist classifications.  A crime something which is placed as a specific legal category, as a way of generating meanings and understandings and some criminologists (sometimes referred to as abolitionists)  have argued that this  is a problem in itself and that we shouldn’t necessarily even think about the logic of crime because using the language and logic of crime will lead those who are responding to it down certain pathways which may be considered solutions, such as punishment.

The own-race bias in eyewitness identification

Catriona Havard, The Open University



The own race bias is the phenomenon whereby individuals are better at recognising and differentiating between faces that are the same race as they are, and much poorer with faces of another race.

The issue of the own-race bias has serious ramifications when it comes to eyewitness identification and when a witness is faced with the situation where they have to identify a culprit from a lineup who is of a different race. The innocent project organisation aims to reform the criminal justice system to prevent injustice has exonerated 315 people through the use of DNA evidence. 71% of cases involved eyewitness misidentification, the majority of which also involved a witness identifying a suspect from another race.

There are a number of theories as to why people are better at recognising a face from their own race. One theory, the contact hypothesis, argues that through the high level of contact that individuals have with own race faces, they become experts at recognising such faces (Brigham & Malpass, 1985; Slone, Brigham & Meissner, 2000). On the other hand, the comparatively lower amount of contact with other-race faces, leads them to be relatively inexpert at differentiating between other race faces (Hugenberg, Miller, & Claypool, 2007). According to the contact hypothesis, the more experience that one has with a different racial group the more accurate they should be at identifying members of that particular group (Brigham, et al., 2007).

In our latest research we wanted to see if the amount of contact children had with children of another race would influence how accurately they could identify a culprit of another race from a lineup (Havard, Memon & Humphries, 2017). In our study, we showed a group of Caucasian and a group of Asian children 2 mock crimes, one with a Caucasian thief and one with an Asian thief. After a delay of 1 or 2 days the children were shown 2 video lineups, one for each thief and asked if they could identify the culprits they had seen before.  Each child saw one line-up that contained one of the culprits that had been previously seen (culprit present) and one lineup that didn’t contain the culprit, but someone of a similar appearance (culprit absent). With culprit present line-ups, we were interested in whether the children could correctly identify a person from the line-up and if they were accurate with their own race. Whilst culprit absent line-ups,  were used to simulate the situation that the police have arrested the wrong person, and to investigate whether the children would still pick someone,  and make a false identification, even though the person they have seen previously is not there. We were also interested in whether children would make more false identifications for the culprit that was of another race. A measure of interracial contact was also taken, where children were asked about their contact and relationships with children of another race.

Our findings revealed an own race bias for the Caucasian children, this resulted in more correct identifications for the own race culprit from culprit present lineups, and more false identifications of the other race culprit for the target absent lineups. The Asian children from both age groups showed no own race bias and performed equally accurately for culprits of both races. The measures of interracial contact revealed that the majority of Caucasian children in our study had very little contact with Asian children, whereas the majority of Asian children had high levels of contact with Caucasian children. The more contact children had with children of a different race, the more likely they were to make a correct response when trying to identify someone of another race.

This article was originally posted on the OU Psychology blog at: To find out more about this research you can access the full article here or contact


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?


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:

Do new laws on phone use whilst driving fully reflect scientific knowledge?

Gemma Briggs, The Open University


On 1st March, tougher penalties for hand-held phone use whilst driving came into force. Those who are caught now face a £200 fine and 6 points on their licence. On announcing the change in legislation, Transport minister, Chris Grayling claimed that drivers must “take responsibility” for their actions, making phone use behind the wheel as socially taboo as drink and drug driving. This is a message few would disagree with, yet the legislation it relates to misses one crucial point: hands-free phone use is just as distracting as hand-held conversations.

The difficultly with this issue is that people are often unwilling to believe that hands-free phone use is any different from talking to a passenger. I’m often asked if this research means drivers must travel in total silence to avoid distraction, or whether I’ve ever tried to drive with screaming kids in the back of the car – surely that’s more distracting than a simple phone call? Of course, any type of secondary task whilst driving can be distracting, but phone use seems to be qualitatively different due to where both conversation partners are: someone on the phone cannot see what the driver can, and therefore consistently demands their attention. A passenger, on the other hand, can see when the driver is facing a challenging situation and can stop talking, thus reducing the amount of information the driver needs to process.

Our research takes this a step further by investigating which aspects of a phone conversation affect driving. As we all have a limited amount of mental resources available to us when completing any task, speaking on the phone introduces competition between the two tasks for these resources: the cognitive resources needed for driving may also be needed for a phone conversation. When talking on the phone, drivers may create mental images of what the other person is saying, where they are and what they’re doing. If this is the case, the conversation could have a ‘visual’ element to it, meaning some of the resources needed for accurate visual attention whilst driving may already be in use for a phone conversation.

Using a hazard detection test, we measured driver’s reaction times to hazards and their eye movements. Some drivers were distracted by a phone task which sparked their visual imagination, and others completed a phone task which did not require imagery. A final group of drivers completed the task without any distraction. Unsurprisingly, we found that dual tasking drivers reacted to fewer hazards, and took longer to react to those hazards they did notice, than undistracted drivers. But, those who were distracted by a conversation sparking mental imagery were the most distracted. Of more interest to us was the finding that those distracted by imagery took longer than undistracted drivers to react to hazards that occurred right in front of them, in the centre of the driving scene, yet did not take longer to react to hazards in the periphery – to the sides – of the scene. This seemed odd, until we established a worrying trend: very few dual tasking drivers reacted to the peripheral hazards at all, suggesting they hadn’t seen them.

Eye-tracking data revealed that dual tasking drivers looked at an area of the driving scene around four times smaller than undistracted drivers – in fact, they tended to focus on a small area at the centre of the scene, largely ignoring what was happening at either side. But, even though they were looking directly ahead, dual taskers took longer to react to hazards presented at that point, and on occasion still missed them altogether!

Taking hazard detection and eye-tracking data together we were able to identify that dual tasking drivers can look at a hazard yet fail to see it, due to a lack of available cognitive resources.

So, having two hands on the wheel and two eyes on the road isn’t enough if a driver is distracted by a phone call. Essentially, distracted drivers can be ‘cognitively blind’ to important aspects of the driving scene, making them more likely to be involved in accidents which could affect both their own and others’ safety. Phone use behind the wheel should definitely be as socially unacceptable as drink driving, but legislation needs to recognise and acknowledge decades of scientific research which emphatically demonstrates that hands-free phone conversations pose a significant danger.


This blog post originally appeared on the Open University Centre for Policing and Learning blog, at: