BBC BLOGS - Mark Easton's UK

Archives for June 2008

Happy Birthday YJB

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Mark Easton | 13:50 UK time, Monday, 30 June 2008


Today is the 10th birthday of the Youth Justice Board, the body Tony Blair created to sort out the problem of children who commit crime in England and Wales.

HoodiesNew Labour believed society had become far too soft with young troublemakers, simply cautioning them over and over again and not dealing with the problem. As the then Home Secretary Jack Straw put it: "No More Excuses".

However, Plan B does not seem to have been a brilliant success either. Spending has rocketed to £648.5m last year.

And yet most people think youth crime has got a lot worse and the rise in gang culture in some parts of our inner cities dominates the media.

Lack of data makes it difficult to know quite what is happening to youth crime rates, but a recent assessment of Labour's Youth Justice policies by academics at King's College (pdf, 341KB) put it this way:

"Despite the huge investment, self-reported youth offending has not declined and the principal aim of the youth justice system set out in the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, 'to prevent offending by children and young persons', has yet to be achieved in any significant sense."
"Ten years of Labour's youth justice reforms: an independent audit"
Enver Solomon and Richard Garside

More than three thousand children are behind bars and razor wire in England and Wales today - more under 18-year-olds proportionally than any other country in Europe with the exception of Ukraine.

It is an expensive business. Each place costs on average £100,000 a year. £280m in total last year - over ten times what was spent on preventing youth crime. And there muse be real doubts as to the effectiveness of custody. 73% of those incarcerated are reconvicted within a year of leaving custody.

Last year there was a 3% rise in reoffending rates among those given custodial sentences. And a 13% rise in the proportion who went on to commit an even more serious crime on release.

The use of ASBOs and other court orders has also helped push up the numbers of young people who enter the justice system each year - criminalising behaviour that in the past might have been regarded as mischief. In 2006-7, 93,730 children entered the youth justice system for the first time.

A new survey published today by the Prison Reform Trust (pdf, 278KB) suggests the public are far from convinced we have got our tactics right.

For instance, the poll asked:

If a young drug addict is caught for a non-violent crime such as shoplifting, which of the following do you think would be the most effective in reducing the likelihood of them committing further crimes?

• Compulsory work in the community along with drug treatment
• Sentenced to a short prison term
• A fine to be paid within the next 28 days
• Other
• Nothing - no punishment should be imposed

The overwhelming majority, over eight out of ten (84%) thought that compulsory work along with drug rehabilitation treatment would be effective.

Just one in ten (11%) thought that prison would work to cut non-violent crime.

Two in three people thought prisons were 'universities of crime' with only one in ten people think prison turns young offenders into law abiding citizens.

The government accepts that the number of children in custody is too high and the Youth Justice Board has a target to reduce it. But, again, the audit of the government's policies paints a sombre picture:

"Despite regular commitments made by the YJB to reduce the number of children sentenced to custody, the latest targets have not been met. In fact, at present,
performance is deteriorating, with numbers increasing by 8% since March 2003 against a target of a 10% reduction."
"Ten years of Labour's youth justice reforms: an independent audit"
Enver Solomon and Richard Garside

To my mind, the Youth Justice Board has done a huge amount to improve the way youth justice is managed and delivered. But it must be a matter of some disquiet that this afternoon there will be the usual frantic attempt at YJB headquarters to find enough beds for all the children the courts have ordered be locked up.

Map of the week: Public spending in the UK

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Mark Easton | 08:15 UK time, Monday, 30 June 2008


This week's map looks at public expenditure in each of the UK nations and regions as a proportion of the GDP in that area. Basically, it's the relationship between how much a region gets from the state against how much they contribute.

Map of public spending in the UK

There is a marked variation, from 34.1% in the South East of England to 62.7% in Northern Ireland.

Scotland, I notice, has similar levels of public spending as a proportion of GDP to North West England and less than Wales and the North East of England.

Overall public expenditure for the UK is at 43% of GDP, having risen from 39% in 2001/2.

An explanation for the variation is that areas with, for example, high levels of worklessness and poor health will receive more state help than less deprived regions. But the economists at Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), to whom I express thanks for the original data, are anxious about what our map reveals:

"Parts of the UK have become so dependent on public spending that it can crowd out private enterprise in these regions and countries. It is partly a chicken and egg situation - public spending in these regions is high because they are doing less well economically, but on the other hand a high public spending share can make a revival of the private sector difficult to achieve. And the latest data suggests that this problem is getting worse."

A new national anthem

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Mark Easton | 11:12 UK time, Friday, 27 June 2008


Watching Euro 2008 as a neutral has been almost liberating. Of course, I desperately wanted some UK involvement to provide the stomach tightening fix that comes with emotional investment in these occasions. But I have been surprised at how much I have enjoyed the sheer spectacle of the tournament.

Apart from the action on the pitch, one aspect that has particularly struck me has been the national anthems. The last couple of weeks have seen a sort of Eurovision Song Contest running alongside the football. Only without the pirate costumes and ice dancing.

Dutch defender Khalid Boulahrouz and midfielder Giovanni van Bronckhorst sing their national anthem prior to the kick off of the Euro 2008 quarter-final The fervour with which the fans and players have belted out their country's tune has been quite something. And there are some great numbers they sing along to: inspirational patriotism on display.

Now, a confession: I have never really liked the UK anthem. God Save The Queen is stately and regal, sure. But to my ears it lacks the passion of the French or Italian anthems. It doesn't move me like Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers) or rouse me like Flower of Scotland.

In fact, I think it is rather dull. And please don't let's get started on the lyrics.

In response to a previous blog this week, one correspondent suggested the Rolling Stones' I'm Free as our anthem. Not sure about that.

But I would like to start a discussion on ideas for a new anthem. In the context of this blog, it needs to be an anthem for all of the United Kingdom of course. It needs to inspire, to stir and to move people. (It should also strike fear in the hearts of our opponents.)

So, let's have some nominations. Or if you think God Save The Queen is wonderful, defend it. And it might be interesting to know which of the other European anthems people like.

If we get enough responses, we might put together a Top Five at some point.

The spectre of the paedophile

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Mark Easton | 16:19 UK time, Thursday, 26 June 2008


I remember as a cub reporter attending a committal hearing for a man accused of sexually abusing children. It was a shocking case and I raced back to the office ready to write it up. But the news editor took me aside and quietly explained that "paedophilia", a word I had never heard before, was not a suitable subject for the pages of his paper.

I do recall a sense of puzzlement that a crime with such appalling consequences for the victim should go unreported but I was junior and green. Some areas of life were simply taboo.

Today how different things are: we have Asda supermarket banning a picture of a baby's bottom as "nudity" and a think-tank complaining that routine criminal record checks on those working with children have made adults scared of interacting with kids.

The spectre of the predatory paedophile is everywhere. Last year a Downing Street survey listed a series of concerns and asked what worried people most. The top answer was "paedophiles on the internet". A separate poll found that eight out of 10 people wanted information on sex offenders who live in their neighbourhood.

So have we got our response to child sex abuse in proportion? Or, as the Civitas think-tank argues, are we in danger of destroying the very thing we aim to protect - a trusting relationship between adults and children?

A few years ago the NSPCC commissioned some extraordinary and detailed research to try and get a handle on the scale of child sex abuse in Britain. The findings have never been seriously disputed.

Sixteen percent of women and 7% of men surveyed said they'd been sexually abused involving physical contact before they were 12 years old. That's one in every nine pre-teen children. If non-contact sexual abuse such as exposure is included, the proportions rise to 21% and 11% respectively.

On this basis, literally millions of people in Britain have been victims of sex abuse as a child. Given the difficulties in gaining intimate and personal information from a self-report survey, these figures may themselves be underestimates.

Picture posed by a modelThe NSPCC estimates that at any one time, one million children are suffering sexual abuse.

If the findings are even close to reality, it must mean there are hundreds of thousands of people who have sexually abused children living in the UK right now. Home Office research backs up the estimate. It found that over 40 years the courts have convicted 110,000 child abusers. Most paedophiles, of course, never get caught.

But it is important in understanding our response to this huge problem, to know the relationship between the abuser and the abused.

The perpetrators are usually known and trusted individuals - a third themselves abused as young people. One in a hundred children will be abused by a parent or carer. One in nine by someone they know.

The analysis poses difficult questions in terms of the correct response. Were we to identify the abusers, the criminal justice system would be incapable of dealing with them. The courts and prison system would be overwhelmed.

The response that says "lock them all up and throw away the key" is simply impractical.
Increasingly, even the most hard-nosed professionals are suggesting we look to prevent abuse by offering paedophiles help and support to change their behaviour.

But the medical evidence for success is mixed. And public attitudes are likely to make such an approach controversial to say the least.

Child abuse is ubiquitous. Solutions all too scarce.

The gender gap

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Mark Easton | 08:42 UK time, Thursday, 26 June 2008


When the strike committee from Ford's Dagenham motors was invited round for tea by Barbara Castle, they probably had their first inkling they'd started something. Eight hundred and fifty women sewing machinists making seat covers for Cortinas and Zephyrs walked off the production line exactly 40 years ago this month. They had discovered that, although they did exactly the same job as some men at the factory, they had been designated unskilled B-grade labour and paid 15% less than their male counterparts.

The workers' struggle became an inspiration for millions of women determined to fight discrimination. Indeed it was the spark that led ultimately to the Equal Pay Act in 1970, making it illegal to have separate pay rates for men and women.

Four decades after the Dagenham machinists' industrial action, how do things look? Well, the good news is that in April, the gender pay gap narrowed to its lowest value since records began. The less good news is that using the internationally accepted measure, women's average hourly pay is still 17.2% less than men's. It is a figure that angers trade unionists and women's rights activists. Why, after all this time, should women still be earning less than men? Well, the answer is not necessarily employers secretly paying the blokes more for the same job - although some undoubtedly do.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the explanation is probably down to different work patterns. Female employees tend to have more disrupted career patterns than males: a greater number of different occupations, and their length of service with an employer is likely to be less.

Nevertheless, the government will today announce its determination to close the gap completely. And to help make that happen, any private company looking to win some of the £160bn worth of orders from the public sector will have to be upfront about the pay differential in their firm. If they don't, no contract. If they do, and it's too wide, no contract. The differential is said to be significantly higher in the private sector.

Woman at computerBut it is worth noting just how much things have changed since the Dagenham strike. Back then, the employment rate for working-age men was 92%. And for women, it was just 56%. Today, it is 79% and 70% respectively.

Women now run 700,000 companies in Britain. Women own 48% of the nation's personal wealth - predicted to rise to 60% by 2025.

There are many more young female millionaires in Britain than men - 47,000 aged between 18 and 44 as opposed to just 38,000 men.

Women now sit in the boardrooms of 78 of the FTSE 100 companies - more than ever before. True, there are still many more men and fewer women get to sit in the big chair and control the extendable pointer. But even that seems to be changing as hard-nosed investors recognise that successful companies increasingly are those which are empathetic and consensual rather than aggressively competitive.

Given that women are outstripping men, educationally and financially, it's probable that the real losers from any inequality will ultimately be male.

An old problem

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Mark Easton | 20:16 UK time, Tuesday, 24 June 2008


The problem of witness intimidation is as old as justice itself. However, in a judgment last week which today led to the abandoning of a £6 million murder trial, the Law Lords explained that the principle that a defendant should be confronted by his accusers to cross-examine and challenge originates in ancient Rome and remains a principle of English law today.

I thought you might like to see how one of the judges, Lord Rodger of Earlsferry put the issue in an historical context.

My Lords, When Cicero was intent on prosecuting Verres for his reign of terror in Sicily, highly-placed henchmen of Verres threatened "the fearful and oppressed Sicilian witnesses" with dire consequences if they gave evidence against him. Two thousand years later, still in Sicily, prosecutions of Mafia bosses have been bedevilled by the prevailing atmosphere of intimidation, with its insidious counterpart, the code of silence, omertà. The same goes for prosecutions of Camorra clan members in Campania and drug traffickers in Colombia. Hollywood has made everyone familiar with the problem of witness intimidation in the United States, whether today or in former times. For many years the wall of silence in London's East End frustrated attempts to prosecute the Kray Twins, until they were taken into custody in 1968 and people felt able to come forward to give evidence. In 1996 worries about the effects of witness intimidation led Strathclyde Police to introduce a Witness Protection Programme.

So what do people think about this issue today - particularly in light of the increasing number of gang-related prosecutions that rely on evidence from anonymous witnesses?

I am sure that many will recognise that some of the most vicious criminals can escape justice by threatening those who might give evidence against them.

But the Law Lords do have a point, don't they? If you are standing in the dock accused of murder, it is surely just that you can challenge those who threaten your liberty.

The government promises possible emergency legislation within days to allow anonymous evidence.

As ever, I'd be grateful for your thoughts.

Map of the week: Poverty in the UK

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Mark Easton | 14:00 UK time, Tuesday, 24 June 2008


As promised, I am going to post a "map of the week" which I hope will inspire comment and discussion about the UK. In fact, a bonus this week with two maps: one which shows where Britain's poorest households live. (Poverty is defined as an income which most people would regard as being too low to buy the necessities).

The second map illustrates which areas are getting richer and which poorer. The unusual view of the UK arises because each hexagon represents a broadly equal number of people.

Maps of poverty in the UK

Where's where on these maps?

It tells an interesting story about Northern Ireland as it happens - it is getting poorer while the rest of the UK, apart from the north east of England, seems to be getting richer.

The cartograms show the situation in 2001 on the left, and the change from 1991 on the right. The maps cannot be updated until the 2011 census is taken and the data released in 2013.

UPDATE 16:40: Great to see how on the ball those commenting on this blog are - but not to see how dozy your host can be! The maps do indeed show poverty has RISEN in most places with the exception of Northern Ireland and the North East of England. In 1991 21% of all households in the UK were poor; by 2001 that proportion had risen to 24%. Poverty is now most concentrated in East Central London and Glasgow. It rose the least in Britain in North Tyneside (by only 0.3%) and in Cotswold (by 0.9%). It rose the most in London and in other large urban areas as well as some coastal resorts, and fastest by 13% in Newham.

Map of the week: Where's where?

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Mark Easton | 13:00 UK time, Tuesday, 24 June 2008


Here's a key to illustrate the geography of my weekly maps.

Map of the UK

I hope this helps to clarify where's where.

Will the poor always be with us?

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Mark Easton | 20:01 UK time, Monday, 23 June 2008


Britain has the unenviable reputation for having the worst social mobility of any industrialised nation. What is more, the chances of a British youngster climbing out of hardship are said to be lower today than they were fifty years ago.

Gordon Brown says "the great test of our time" is to change that. But after a year in No 10 he knows there isn't a lever marked 'pull this to get the poorest parents to be more ambitious for their children'.

There are two principal drivers influencing movement up or down the social ladder - our education and our parents.

Labour has targeted resources to help schools in deprived areas and yet the gap between primary school kids on free school meals and others has widened. School choice has aided those most able to play the system while for those able to opt out, Britain's private schools offer the greatest educational added-value in the world. University expansion has also generally benefited the better off, in part because poorer families are less likely to take on student debt.

Ensuring your 'social inheritance' doesn't stunt your growth is summed up in Labour's mantra - "opportunity for all, not just the privileged few". Sure Start, working family tax credits and the minimum wage have also attempted to reduce what the left likes to call "differential life chances". But research suggests a child's ambition and risk-taking are likely to be dictated by family rather than policy.

So how can politicians encourage parents to do better for their children? You can punish bad behaviour: parenting orders, Asbos, that sort of thing - but it can end up making a difficult situation even worse. Or you might reward good behaviour, which is what the prime minister announced today. Hard cash - £200 for parents in some of England's most deprived communities whose children take part in programmes to improve health and development.

However, that too has its problems: those who take responsibility for their children can feel justifiably miffed that others who don't get rewarded.

In researching this issue for the BBC News At Ten tonight I was sent some fascinating graphs (how sad am I?) which show how household income distribution has changed in the UK since 1961. Watch the animation. It becomes clear how relative wealth has improved, but the gap between richest and poorest has widnened. What is really worrying is that those at the very bottom of the income table do not seem able to escape. If anything, their plight is getting worse as they slip further behind the rest of society.

In that short animation is one of the greatest social challenges of our age.

Do we all need a nudge?

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Mark Easton | 11:49 UK time, Monday, 23 June 2008


A new book out in Britain this week, entitled Nudge, suggests we need to get smarter at using psychology to change our behaviour for the better. Instead of councils snooping on pet-owners who let their dogs foul the park, nudge them into changing their behaviour.

CCTV cameraThis morning on the Today programme I heard a representative of electronics giant Siemens UK arguing that it wasn't new technology that was needed to cut carbon emissions - just for people to start using what already exists.

The nudge answer might be pointing out to people when their energy consumption goes above the average for their street - you can now get a gizmo that gently lets you know. Just a nudge.

And later today, the prime minister will say that the answer to improving social mobility is "people themselves adopting the work ethic, the learning ethic and aiming high." In other words, it's not down to government or new laws. We need to find a way of "nudging" people into doing the right things to help their children succeed.

The theory is that people tend to behave the way they imagine others behave - the "social norm". So, if you think people like you go to the gym, always pick up their dog poo, refuse their kids junk food but tend to overdo it on the Sauvignon, chances are you will do the same.

Politicians, inevitably, are keen on this stuff. They want to make us behave differently but laws often don't work or see them accused of running a nanny state.

The new book on the subject is written by two American academics, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, who have "informally" advised Barack Obama on nudging apparently. Not quite sure what that means, but the theories are flavour of the month in British politics too.

Former No 10 advisor Matthew Taylor has written extensively on the subject. David Cameron is known to be a believer.

Perhaps the most famous example of a "nudge" is at Schiphol Airport in Holland. Managers were fed up with the state of the gents. Men were none too accurate in their aim. Warnings and signs did no good so designers tried a "nudge".

UrinalA black fly was etched into the porcelain of each urinal - something to aim at. Spillages were reduced 80%.

Can we do better here? And not just in the gents.

I am looking for some UK-born nudges - ideas to make us behave better without the use of threats or sanctions. The most brilliant will be posted here soon. Nudge, nudge. Pass it on.

Always changing

Mark Easton | 08:00 UK time, Monday, 23 June 2008


What the world really needs is another blog. With only 175,000 created every day, there is clearly a gap in the market.

Well, maybe not. But I am hopeful we can make this blog a genuinely valuable space on the web.

UK border agency noticeThe United Kingdom is changing fast. If you sat yourself on a cloud in the upper atmosphere and had one of those time-lapse cameras looking down at our islands, what you see would astonish. The movement of people in and out of our island is unprecedented.

Every week, more than two million people enter through Britain's ports. That's two or three people coming into the UK every second of every day and every night. And there are almost as many going the other way. In. Out. In Out. In Out. From our cloud, Britain would look to be throbbing with travellers. Fizzing with humanity on the move.

And it's not just people burdened with physical luggage. They travel with new ideas, different customs, food and music and language.

Fixing a different lens to our camera we can see those swirling currents of ideas and cultures. And this maelstrom is even more dramatic because it is supercharged by technology which transports the ideas without the individual having to move outside their bedroom - global communication systems - chiefly, of course, the internet.

Wreck of bombed bus in LondonAnd with globalisation comes tension. Fear of other people is the common denominator in so many of Britain's concerns - fear of criminals, immigrants and terrorists. But we are also bewildered and frightened by change itself. The fear of being left behind, or missing out in a world that moves so fast. Of losing our way or our very identity.

So amid the shifting sands of the early 21st century, this place intends to offer some solid ground. A haven for reflection and debate and argument.

We've called the blog Mark Easton's UK, which suggests I am claiming ownership of the entire country. But I don't even want to claim ownership of the blog. This is a neutral space where all are welcome to contribute within the boundaries of common courtesy.

However, in shaping where our conversations might take us, I have deliberately avoided traditional government demarcations. There's no box marked Education Policy or Health Service Reform. We can talk about all these things but I hope we can do so in a forum that encourages greater perspective.

Shoppers on Oxford Street, LondonSo it might be about the way we live, the way we learn, the way we relax, the way we spend, the way we think or the way we behave. Or maybe there's another "way we" you would like to suggest, some part of the changing UK that we are neglecting.

I also intend to post a weekly map of the UK. Hopefully, each image will surprise, inform and prompt discussion. Let's see how it goes. I think it might be good fun.

And that is an important word - this enterprise is supposed to be fun. The fun of learning and conversing and arguing about our brilliant, fascinating, occasionally exasperating but always changing United Kingdom.

About Mark Easton

Mark Easton | 07:45 UK time, Monday, 23 June 2008


I recently filled out a form for a visa that asked me my nationality. The choices were English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish or Other. I didn't want to be an "other" but the options were forcing me to pick. So in the end 'other' it was.

I was born in a small detached house on what was then a new estate on the edge of Glasgow in 1959, first child of four. At the age of 10 my parents upped sticks and we all moved to a little village near Winchester in Hampshire. At the local primary school, my Scots accent was quickly knocked out of me and I was left dazed and confused.

My veins, so the genealogy would have it, course with mongrel blood. Saxon, Pict, Jute, and Celt almost certainly. And there's bound to be extract of Roman, Norman and Viking in there too.

Ancient Irish and Welsh ancestry mix with Scots roots and English upbringing. The whole I regard as 100% British.

Being British is not "other". It is me.

Since 2004 I have been BBC News' home editor, a title which has some strange consequences. I get sent samples of "premium quality laminate floor-coverings". I have been asked to review hammer drills. And offer opinions on Italian furniture design.

But my interest and certainly my expertise is not in the world of interiors. In a way, it is quite the reverse. I try to look at Britain from outside, endeavouring to make sense of the dramatic and rapid change affecting the UK by standing well back.

My title also implies a role as head of the BBC's UK Specialist Unit - a team of expert journalists working in radio, television and online. Thankfully, any responsibility in that regard does not extend to trying to manage the unit but I do champion its cause at every opportunity.

It is the quality of the BBC's specialist journalism that sets its news coverage apart and I believe we have some of the best in the world keeping tabs on the domestic scene.
What I want to do, (and what this blog is really about), is join some of the dots left by the dozens of stories we report each day. I want to understand our country, to see which direction we are heading in and what challenges lie ahead on our journey.

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