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Archives for December 2009

Another Christmas quiz for all ages

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Mark Easton | 12:50 UK time, Thursday, 24 December 2009


In keeping with an annual tradition on this blog (ie I did it last year), I humbly offer readers a Christmas quiz. It is unusual in that no-one is expected to know the answers. Instead, the idea is simply to see who gets closest. All the solutions are numbers.

The beauty of this kind of puzzle is that everyone has a chance to win, whatever age or festive state.

The way I do it with my family is to divide the players into two or four teams depending on the size of the party. There are 20 questions and, to make it fair, each player/team should have equal numbers of questions to answer first and last.

Good luck and Merry Christmas!


1) We are told 10 million votes were cast in this year's X factor final. If that is right, to the nearest 10,000, how many votes did Joe McElderry receive?
2) We were warned this year that swine flu could kill as many as 65,000 people in the UK. Figures published this month on swine-related deaths across the UK totalled how many people?
3) How much has the prime minister agreed to pay back in claimed expenses?
4) Last month in London, security consultant Manjit Singh - aka Ironman - attempted to make up for his disappointment of 2007, when he failed to break the world record for pulling a double-decker bus with his ears. This time he did manage to set a new record for pulling an eight-ton double-decker with his hair. How far, in metres, did he pull it?
5) While England (brilliantly) won the Ashes series against Australia this summer, the Aussies actually scored more runs than the home side. How many more?
6) Suddenly everyone was twittering in 2009. Among the most popular twitterers was the wife of the PM, Sarah Brown. How many people had signed up to follow her tweets by mid-December?
7) While Sir Fred Goodwin was running the Royal Bank of Scotland it lost quite a lot of money. In February this year, RBS put the total losses under his stewardship at what?
8) How much did Michael Jackson's "moon walk" rhinestone glove fetch at auction last month (in dollars)?
9) The Staffordshire Hoard was found in July. How much did the British Museum say the treasure was worth?
10) Jade Goody lost her battle with cancer in February. How many extra women did the NHS say came forward for cervical screening as a result of the "Goody effect"?
11) Comedian Eddie Izzard raised £200,000 by running approximately 43 marathons in 51 days this summer. Exactly how many miles did he run altogether?
12) The US investment bank Goldman Sachs, which last year only survived with a $10bn dollar loan from US taxpayers, has put aside money for bonuses this year. How much, in dollars, does the FT think will be in the bonus pot?
13) The model and businesswoman Katie Price hoped the jungle would rehabilitate her image this winter. But when she arrived in the "I'm a Celebrity" camp, she discovered the viewing public were unforgiving. Out of 10 celebrities up for a painful Bushtucker Trial on her first show, what proportion of the votes went to Katie?
14) If Usain Bolt had been able to maintain his new world record 100m speed for a marathon, how long would it have taken him to run the distance?
15) Among the more controversial MPs' expenses claims exposed this year were those for a duck house and moat-cleaning. Adding together the cost of both, how much did the honourable members expect the taxpayer to stump up for these items?
16) This year John Terry became the highest paid Premier League footballer ever. How much does he get paid every day?
17) This year, the village of Seathwaite in the Lake District saw more rain in 24 hours than any other place in the UK since records began. In millimetres, how much rain fell?
18) This year, Google's Street View arrived in Britain. When it was launched in March, how many miles of road did the company claim the service covered?
19) Rage Against the Machine beat Joe McElderry to the Christmas number one. How many more sales did Killing in the Name achieve over The Climb?
20) Mexico City this year set a new world record for the tallest artificial Christmas tree. It is covered in 1.2 million light bulbs and 80 kilometres of cable. But, in metres, just how tall is it?


1) 6,130,000
2) 300 exactly
3) £12,415
4) 21.2
5) 17 (Aus 2886 / Eng 2869)
6) 1,034,006
7) £24.1bn
8) $350,000
9) £3,285,000
10) 400,000
11) 1105.62
12) $29bn
13) 84.29%
14) One hour seven minutes and 37 seconds
15) £3760 (duck house £1,645 and moat £2,115)
16) £24,286
17) 316.4
18) 22,369
19) 51,834
20) 110.35

Do politicians affect the murder rate?

Mark Easton | 14:12 UK time, Wednesday, 23 December 2009


According to new American research, the less we trust our politicians, the more likely we are to kill each other.

So how does Ohio State University professor Randolph Roth explain the fact that the homicide figures for England and Wales are the lowest for a generation? Or why today's BBC research suggests 21 fewer teenagers were victims of murder or manslaughter year-on-year? After all, the last 12 months have seen the reputation of our parliamentarians take a battering.

Criminologists have long puzzled over the key factors in a society's murder rate. Professor Roth has tried to take an historical view, analysing the records of tens of thousands of homicides in the United States and Western Europe over the past four centuries. Familiar arguments as to what contributes to the problem simply don't hold up, he claims.

Poverty and unemployment don't correlate with higher murder rates and locking up criminals and the death penalty don't correlate with lower murder rates, he says. Professor Roth believes a far more convincing argument is that "the predisposition to murder is rooted in feelings and beliefs people have toward government and their fellow citizens."

While the first part of his explanation will attract headlines, I suspect it is the second part which is more important. It seems almost self-evident that people kill their fellow citizens more when they respect their fellow citizens less.

To be fair to the professor, he suggests four factors which contribute to lower murder rates:
• a belief that one's government is stable and its justice and legal systems are unbiased and effective
• a feeling of trust in government officials and a belief in their legitimacy
• a sense of patriotism and solidarity with fellow citizens
• a belief that one's position is society is satisfactory and one can command respect without resorting to violence

This is not really about fury over dodgy duck-house receipts or "flipping" second home designation. It is about a broader confidence in the way society is run and an individual's place within it. Violence, it is suggested, is often a consequence of powerlessness - a last resort for those who feel their voice is not being heard.

A look at people's experience of violence as reflected in the British Crime Survey [1.2Mb PDF] suggests that it has fallen from its height in the mid-1990s and has remained broadly flat over the past five years or so.

Trends in BCS violent crime by type of violence, 1995 to 2008/09

The biggest falls have been in what is designated "acquaintance" and "domestic" violence - crimes in which the victim knows his or her assailant. If citizens feel secure and respected within their community, perhaps it makes them less likely to lash out.

When it comes to fatal attacks, the latest figures for England and Wales show that the police recorded 648 incidents of homicide in 2008/09, the lowest recorded level in 20 years. The number of attempted murders also decreased from 621 in 2007/08 to 575 in 2008/09.

Since homicide statistics are difficult to refute, the numbers suggest our society is not becoming more violent but less. The BBC figures for a year-on-year fall in homicides involving teenagers reflect a broader picture both in terms of overall violence and juvenile crime.

Last month, the Ministry of Justice reported [86Kb PDF] a big drop in the number of young people entering the criminal justice system for the first time in England.

Even when including those youngsters given a Penalty Notice for Disorder (PND), the rate of 10-17-year-olds receiving their first reprimand, warning or conviction fell by 20.7%.

Rate of young people aged 10-17 receiving their first reprimand, warning or conviction (including and excluding PNDs) per 100,000 10-17 year old population in England, 2000-01 to 2008-

Further good news is that the level of youth re-offending is at its lowest since records were first collected in 2000, with the rate down by almost a quarter between 2000 and 2007.

Some of these falls may be down to the initiative of youth offending teams, police officers and other agencies. Government ministers may point to this scheme or that policy.

One thing I am reasonably confident about is that the figures have little to do with the current levels of public affection towards members of parliament.

Promises, promises: Tinsley House children detained by the immigration authorities

Mark Easton | 10:27 UK time, Friday, 18 December 2009


Breaking a promise to a child is a pretty mean thing to do. But it appears that the British government is struggling to keep the promises it has repeatedly made to children detained by the immigration authorities.

When inspectors paid a surprise visit to a removal centre near Gatwick in October, they found conditions had actually got worse since they last inspected the facility. Today, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, Dame Ann Owers, described the arrangements for children at Tinsley House as "wholly unacceptable" [246Kb PDF].

Both staff and detainees talked of a "more prison-like culture" with increasingly restrictive rules. Far from honouring their pledge to treat children in a way that "promotes their welfare", the inspectors found that childcare and education had actually deteriorated. "Children", they write, "had limited access to fresh air".

Another government promise is enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to which the UK is now a full signatory. Article 37 of the convention states that the detention of a child "shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time".

However, the inspectors "were especially concerned about the detention and welfare of children held for over 72 hours":

"In the previous six months, five families a month, on average, had been detained for over 72 hours, and some had been held for many weeks."

Only last week, the Royal College of General Practitioners, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the UK Faculty of Public Health published a joint policy statement [171Kb PDF] asserting that "immigration detention of children is harmful and unacceptable" and demanding that the government "stop detaining children without delay".

President of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Dr Iona Heath, said:

"Any detention of children for administrative rather than criminal purposes causes unnecessary harm and further blights already disturbed young lives. Such practices reflect badly on all of us."

While inspecting Tinsley House, HMIP "were concerned to discover an incident where force had been used on children to effect the removal of a family":

"There was no suggestion that the children were at risk of harm to themselves or others, and no prior UK Border Agency (UKBA) authorisation was sought or given."

Clearly, the process of removal of families who have no right to stay in the UK will be an emotional and fraught experience on occasion. Government ministers stress the importance of sensitivity and compassion given their promise to ensure that children "are seen first, foremost and fully as children rather than simply migrants subject to immigration control".

In a statement, the UK Border Agency's Strategic Director of Criminality and Detention Group, David Wood responded to today's HMIP report:

"Removal centres are a necessary part of enforcing immigration control. It is vital that they are well-run, safe and secure. Detainees are cared for with respect, with access to a range of medical, educational and welfare facilities."

"We accept the conditions at Tinsley House at the time of the inspection were not ideal but we do not agree that they are wholly unacceptable for women and children. However, we are nonetheless reviewing our services."

Yet another review. You may recall a piece I wrote following the inspection of a larger removal centre, Yarl's Wood near Bedford , by the Children's Commissioner for England.

Sir Al Aynsley Green's shocking findings prompted a "review". But the promises made do not appear to have travelled from Bedfordshire to West Sussex.

Take the issue of "stinking", "stained", "caged vans", highlighted by Sir Al and apparently used to move children whose families face deportation. When the HMIP had a look at the vehicles used to transport people to Tinsley House they found that "one had a caged seating area" and another, used to transport families with children was "dirty".

Apparently driven to collect a woman and her six-year-old, it was littered with soiled tissues and food debris. "We were told by escorting staff that the vehicles based at Gatwick were only cleaned once a fortnight."

"Overall", Dame Ann concludes, "this is a deeply depressing report". She suggests that the focus of staff has been on a new and neighbouring facility called Brook House. "Tinsley House has become almost an afterthought", the inspectors suggest, "housing some poorly cared for children and a small number of scared and isolated single women".

Their conclusion? "This is more than a missed opportunity - it is a wholly unacceptable state of affairs."

Update 1104: A Home Office spokesman has responded to the HMIP concerns about the vehicles used to transport families and children to and from Tinsley House:

"Family friendly vehicles are used for the majority of journeys that involve families. However, there are some exceptional circumstances - in which for example a risk assessment has indicated that a parent or older child may be disruptive - where we have to use more secure vehicles. This is extremely rare."

Map of the Week: Very boisterous weather

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Mark Easton | 13:11 UK time, Tuesday, 15 December 2009


"November," say the scientists, "was a singular month in hydrological terms".

There is almost a tone of boyish zeal in the latest report from the Hydrological Survey for the United Kingdom, with the experts describing the "very boisterous weather conditions and exceptionally high rainfall" which swept across most of the country last month.

If your working life centres on rainfall and river flow data, you may be forgiven for allowing your enthusiasm to permeate through the normally objective and dispassionate narrative. Records were broken all over the place.

"The UK registered its wettest November on record (in a series from 1914) and, more remarkably, a new 24-hr maximum rainfall for the UK was established in the Lake District", the survey people report today [2.1Mb PDF].

Weather map

As I reported here last month, Seathwaite Farm in Borrowdale experienced 316.4mm in just 24 hours - an event likely to occur only once every two thousand years. Today's report reveals how "the site also recorded remarkable totals of 402mm over 37 hrs and 495mm over 4 raindays (provisionally 4000 & 3000 years)".

It wasn't just the Lake District, of course. Overall, UK rivers disgorged more water into the sea last month than in any since they first started measuring these things back in 1961.

"Very exceptional flows" were recorded "from north Wales to well into Scotland". The River Nith was higher than it has been in November in a 53-year series. Severe flooding in Northern Ireland saw Lough Earn spill over "causing extensive agricultural flooding".

Boy, did it rain. "In contrast to much of 2009," the scientists say, "November saw a relentless sequence of low-pressure systems crossing the British Isles". It was wet on all but two or three days culminating in extreme rainfall totals, particularly across high ground in the Lake District.

"With catchments saturated and most responsive rivers in high spate, the extreme rainfall over the 17-20th triggered a devastating flood episode in Cumbria," the report reminds us. "Many rivers in the Lake District (including the Derwent, Cocker and St Johns Beck) exceeded their previous maximum flow by a wide margin as did outflows from Windermere (in a 70-year series)."

Weather map

They refer to "very severe impacts on communities", the collapsed bridges and landslips contributing to severe transport disruption.

If there was any good news, it was that the heavy rain filled up the reservoirs. "Entering the winter," they report, "the water resources outlook is notably healthy in almost all regions but, with catchments generally saturated, many river basins are very vulnerable to further significant rainfall."

How to lose at risk

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Mark Easton | 17:47 UK time, Monday, 14 December 2009


Government ministers talk of "striking the right balance" between risk and regulation as they soften the effect of their vetting scheme.

But another balance we may need to consider is that between risk and wider risk: the potential harm to an individual against the potential harm to the fabric of our society.

Britain has become a risk-averse and individualistic nation. Those two characteristics drive so much of our politics: the incessant demand of voters for government to protect them from all dangers.

CCTV camera observes passers-by

Or, more accurately, to respond to their fears (however irrational they may be): fear of crime, injury, disease or destitution.

As individuals, we have never been safer. With every hour that passes, life expectancy increases by 16 minutes. The risk of suffering serious injury or death in advance of your expected span is, historically, tiny.

Nevertheless, such is the insistence that our elected representatives reduce hazard to virtually zero, we have collectively manufactured the "health and safety" culture - which we then have the audacity to resent.

One can see it everywhere: measures to make individuals feel safer which end up making our communities weaker and more fearful:
• neighbourhoods planted with CCTV cameras and strewn with barbed wire giving the impression of security but magnifying a sense of threat
• a vetting system designed to reduce the risk to the vulnerable but which makes society more vulnerable to distrust and isolation
• legal frameworks which purport to protect individuals but which undermine community co-operation

We have got ourselves into this mess because we can easily identify individual harm - the abused child, the injured householder, the frightened pensioner.

There is plenty of data to help us quantify these threats and to demand that "something be done". The media bubbles daily with these tales of woe.

However, we don't have an easy measure of community harm - distrust and loneliness, anomie and cynicism.

The concept of "social capital" cannot compete with a tragic story of personal distress and, although we might mourn the loss of community spirit, it is a nebulous notion compared to the hard facts of a gruesome crime.

The consequence is that public mood and policy are often shaped by the perceived risk of harm to an individual without great consideration being given to the risk of harm to wider society.

I was reading the results of a new poll conducted for the Jack Petchey Foundation, a charity which works with young people in the south-east of England.

The survey suggests that one in four people over 26 is so uneasy when they see young people in the street, they will cross the road to avoid them.

This is a potential catastrophe. If the levels of inter-generational suspicion and fear have reached such a point, our neighbourhoods may lack the resilience to survive.

When Parliament was designing the Vetting and Barring scheme, (as I discussed here), members did not have access to a ready-reckoner on its likely impact on community cohesion.

The concern was protecting children, not some "candy-floss concept" of social well-being.

But I would argue that they are flip sides of the same coin. Protecting individuals cannot be achieved solely by laws, safety protocols or security cameras. Sometimes they make matters worse.

If communities function well, people keep an eye out for each other. Instead of adults crossing the road to avoid young people, generations converse and co-operate. We are safer together.

Image by Erel Onyecherelam of Set Fashion Free: Girls jumping in the air for joy

It is not impossible to achieve. Tomorrow at the Royal Geographical Society in London, an exhibition celebrating community life presents hundreds of photographs, films and stories which chronicle the ways in which:

"[O]rdinary people have been doing extraordinary things to make their communities better places in which to live, work, play, grow up and bring up families."

The show, titled And They Say Community Is Dead, reveals how small charitable grants have transformed neighbourhoods "from the Shetland Islands to Land's End and the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea".

"Gardens, allotments, orchards and whole streets have sprung into life; books, films, costumes, scores and instruments have flowed into libraries, cinemas, theatres, choirs, circuses and brass bands; village shops and community cafes have opened their doors again and football, cricket, netball, rugby, boxing, biking clubs have received balls, bats, bikes and gloves."

The schemes have brought thousands of people - of all ages - together.

So, back to "striking the right balance". While it is of course necessary to have systems in place to protect the individual, there is much more we could do to protect our neighbourhoods. And that balance involves ensuring that in pursuing the former, we don't diminish the latter.

The image above is by Erel Onyecherelam of Set Fashion Free.

Do you sincerely want to get rich?

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Mark Easton | 18:02 UK time, Thursday, 10 December 2009


How much are you worth? When you add up the value of all the stuff you own, what's in the bank or owed to the credit card, any investments and pension - how much do you reckon?

Today, for the first, time, Britain's top statisticians have attempted to identify Britain's wealthy: who they are, what they've got and where they live.

The Wealth and Assets Survey pulls together answers from more than 30,000 households conducted over two years from July 2006. It is a huge document and I have only dived in and out, but some fascinating detail emerges.

I will come onto the big stuff in a moment, but first:

Question: "What proportion of British households own a car with a personalised number plate?"
Answer: 5.2% with a number plate of which the average value is £1,400. (Never hankered after one myself but perhaps they are an investment...)

The survey estimated total wealth in Great Britain to be £9trn. A "trillion" in this context is a million million (which was a billion when I was a boy, but I am getting distracted.) It is a lot of lettuce.

The median household wealth was £204,500 - mostly made up of property and pension assets. However, there are quite large regional variations, as my map shows.

The wealthiest region is the south-east of England followed by the south-west and then the east of England. The poorest households are found in Scotland. It is as though Britain's assets are being pulled down to the bottom.

Map of wealth distribution in the UK

So what kind of household has got the most stuff? Households without kids, of course. If you are one of two adults, one of you being a pensioner and with no children running around the place, chances are you are going to have assets worth around half a million quid. If, on the other hand, you are a lone parent with dependent children, your wealth is likely to be minimal.

Distribution of wealth graph

This graph tells the likely story of our worth over time. We start poor, slowly build up a pot of possessions until we retire and see our wealth dwindle.

Distribution of wealth graph

The value of a university education is also evident in the data. Those households headed by someone with a degree or above had the highest median total wealth of £400,200. The 'no qualifications' group was the least wealthy with a median of £105,100.

Distribution of wealth graph

If your household is headed by someone who is self-employed, its wealth and assets are likely to be around £283,000. If you are an employee, it falls to £217,500.

Distribution of wealth graph

The value of the home (or homes) the household live in is one of the biggest factors in the calculation and, no surprise, the wealthiest parts of Great Britain in terms of net property wealth were London and the south-east of England with median net property wealth of £220,000 and £200,000 respectively. Scotland had the lowest median property wealth; 65% of households in Scotland owned property in 2006/08 with a median net property wealth of £100,000.

The statisticians admit that calculating the value of private pensions was "more complicated than measuring the other forms of wealth". There were nine categories of private pension wealth to which different valuation methodologies had to be used in order to arrive at figures that were comparable. All wealth from state pensions was excluded.

So, if you do sincerely want to get rich, get a degree, buy a house in Surrey, live with a pensioner and don't have children.

The survey also tried to understand people's attitudes to their wealth. Respondents were asked to what extent they agreed with three statements:
• "I tend to buy things when I can't really afford them"
• "I tend to buy things on credit and pay it off later"
• "I am more of a saver than a spender"

The answers were correlated to find out who are the "big spenders"? Answer - young people, particularly women. Hardly a surprise, but now we have a pretty graph to prove it.

Graph showing spending patterns

I would really recommend having a good root around all the data. If you find something surprising, interesting or baffling, please post your discovery below. I am off to count my spoons.

Map of the Week: Fuel poverty

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Mark Easton | 08:20 UK time, Thursday, 10 December 2009


For some of the estimated 3.5 million households in Britain who have good reason to fear they will not be able to afford to heat their homes this winter, there was a crumb of warming cheer in the chancellor's pre-Budget report yesterday.

Amid all the warnings of belt-tightening and tax hikes, Alistair Darling announced an extra £200m for "Warm Front", the government scheme which provides grants for people in England to make their homes "warmer, healthier and more energy efficient".

The cash announcement has only just come in time. There were warnings at the end of last month that Warm Front had effectively run out of money with the company that operates the scheme predicting long waits for help.

So the money will be welcomed. But this hand-to-mouth existence for an initiative which was recently accused by Parliament's Public Accounts Committee of "failing" to help those most in need is hardly cause for celebration.

Spiralling oil and gas prices have seen increasing numbers of people classified as living in fuel poverty and left government promises to eradicate the problem looking increasingly unrealistic.

Table showing estimates of fuel poverty in households in the UK

Last month energy minister David Kidney was asked about "progress towards meeting the target of ending fuel poverty in England". His telling reply was that the government remained "committed to doing all that is reasonably practicable to ensure that households do not live in fuel poverty". He talked of "a review" of fuel poverty policies - politics speak for "help"!

Yesterday the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) in England published this map showing how isolated communities are suffering from fuel poverty.

Map showing fuel poverty in rural England

Rural communities tend to endure much higher rates of fuel poverty than urban areas because of limited availability of mains gas which means greater use of generally more expensive alternatives. Variations in income, home energy efficiency and the climate also contribute.


The CRC has identified three areas of in England − County Durham, East Riding and Shropshire - which they want to target in a fuel poverty pilot project. The regions were chosen "based on statistical data that shows high levels of fuel poverty, properties off the gas network and 'hard to heat' houses, all of which can result in people living in cold, damp homes".

Around 7,500 households will be asked about their "health and financial well-being, what type of fuel they use to heat their home and what concerns they have in relation to affordability or health issues". Solutions will then be proposed "on a 'house-by house' basis".

One hopes the "Hands Up" campaign does some good. But such initiatives are more about trying to push the issue up the political agenda than resolving fuel poverty itself.
A recent Consumer Focus report [680KB PDF] argued that if the government was still serious about eradicating the problem, the answer was retrofitting older houses to the energy efficiency standards we now demand in new homes.

"The research shows that the implementation of a major energy efficiency programme to 'fuel poverty proof' the homes of the fuel poor would eradicate the vast majority of fuel poverty in England."
"The programme would cost, on average, £6,800 per property if all properties in England are improved, or £8,800 if the programme only targets the fuel poor. The total cost of the programme would be £21bn, or £3bn pa based on the 2016 target date for fuel poverty elimination. Current annual expenditure on energy efficiency programmes aimed at the fuel poor is estimated at £910m. The proposed retrofit programme would therefore require a three fold increase in expenditure."

Now is probably not the time to be asking government to spend an extra £3bn a year. But we know what happens in a cold winter if people cannot afford to heat their homes: thousands of people die. Last winter you may remember, saw the highest winter deaths figures in almost 10 years. The Office for National Statistics revealed last month that there were an extra 36,700 deaths in England and Wales from December 2008 to March 2009, compared with the average for non-winter periods.

Yesterday's bonus for "Warm Front" may prove to be cold comfort.

A substitute for prison drugs policy?

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Mark Easton | 21:24 UK time, Tuesday, 8 December 2009


One of the government's former drug "tsars" has told me how a battle between two Whitehall departments is undermining efforts to get prisoners off heroin.

methadoneMike Trace, who currently heads a charity which runs drug rehab programmes in jails, says that the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health are "fighting each other about who runs treatment in prisons".

The result, he says, is that last year a record 20,000 English prisoners were prescribed the addictive heroin substitute methadone instead of being encouraged to use their time inside to get drug-free.

"It is madness," he says. Mr Trace claims the reason health ministers agreed to spend £40m on drug services in prisons is "not because they love methadone, it's because they want to take control of prison drug treatment".

Methadone can be an effective tool in helping heroin addicts conquer addiction but critics argue that too often drug services use it as an easy option and are not ambitious enough in getting users "clean".

In a rehab centre in Burton-upon-Trent recently, I met many former prisoners all telling a similar story - that prison doctors are "doling out" heroin substitutes and making it less likely they will get off drugs. Only now, after their release, have they been able to get help to give up all drugs for good.

Barry JonesOne ex-con, Barry Jones, told me that prisons now use methadone as a way of "keeping the roof on" - to control prisoners. "I was never even asked why you do it. Just given a dose, told to get my head down. Don't kick your door. Don't kick off."

Another, David Bywater, said:

"Things can get difficult if you are shoplifting or whatever you are doing. So you think, I will go to a prison for a bit of a rest period. You know you are going to get your drugs, methadone and what have you, so you are better off inside."

Andrew Whalley was recently released after spending 10 years behind bars for a drug-related robbery with a firearm. In jail, he told me, methadone was the most certain way of ensuring he remained an addict and a criminal.

"We don't want to get stabilised, get maintained," he told me. "I'm an addict, so if you give me free methadone, free drugs, keep me in active addiction, then release me out of prison, then surely when I come out of prison I've got to commit crime to keep me there."

He listed all the prescription drugs he had been given by doctors while in jail: methadone, diazepam, subutex, sleeping pills. "Was he ever offered rehab?" he was asked. "The last course I was offered was a safer injecting course," he replied.

In a joint statement tonight, the Department of Health and the Ministry of Justice said:

"It is categorically untrue to say methadone is used as any sort of control mechanism. Decisions regarding treatment are clinically based.

"The programme includes abstinence, but all treatments are aimed at getting the person off drugs. The rise in prisoners getting methadone treatment means more prisoners are getting the treatment they need and there has been significant investment in prison clinical drug treatment to help this happen. Most prison methadone prescribing is for detoxification not maintenance purposes... with the goal of becoming drug free."

Mike TraceThe government commitment to do more to help English prisoners deal with their addiction problems is to be welcomed. But Mike Trace argues the Department of Health's determination to wrestle control of treatment budgets from the Justice Ministry is undermining efforts to get inmates off drugs:

"The budget for supporting methadone and health care in prisons sits with the Department of Health and the budget for drug free programmes sits with the Ministry of Justice. Each department pushes its preferred solution.

"The mechanism for those two departments to agree on a balanced strategy is clearly too weak at the moment. We have two different departments pushing two different strategies in prisons."

He explained to me that when a heroin-addicted prisoner arrives at a jail, among the first people they meet is a health worker who, he claims, almost routinely offers them methadone:

"We do see, to quite a worrying extent, that when they see the health professional sometimes the only choice they are offered is a prescription of some type - which means their motivation to remain drug-free can be undermined, and we see that regularly on a week-by-week basis."

The Conservative Shadow Minister of Justice, David Burrowes, says the Tories would change the philosophy if elected. Pointing to a policy paper entitled Prison with a Purpose, Mr Burrowes told me tonight:

"The public would rightly expect that at the very least prison is a place where drug-free conditions exist and there would be an expectation that drug-free rehabilitation would be available."

The policy paper published last year says that "across the entire prison estate there are just four abstinence-based therapeutic communities, and only 300 prisoners entered such programmes in 2006/7".

It says that "the reality for the majority of those going into local and remand prisons is 'clinical services' to manage substance misuse. These comprise detoxification and maintenance prescribing programmes which are meant to be a prelude to broader based drug treatment interventions. In the main they are not."

The prisoners at the Burton rehab centre explained that methadone has a high value behind bars and most inmates will jump at the chance to get what they describe as "free drugs". Some criminals, however, are desperate to get off drugs and yet are still put on methadone.

Darren HoltDarren Holt has spent three of the last five years in jail for drug-related offences and during his last sentence decided enough was enough. He told prison medical staff he wanted to get clean but, he says, they refused to listen.

"I was desperate to get off the methadone they was giving me. I asked them to take me off the methadone programme which they declined. I ended up having to spit it out."
"You actually detoxed yourself?"
"I detoxed myself."

A few weeks ago, the Ministry of Justice revealed how the number of prisoners put on methadone has increased 57% in a year.

Such are the numbers now being prescribed it in jail, that the government has recently spent £4m on biometric methadone dispensing machines in jails. This, I believe, is the first published image of these devices, which are located in prison medical departments.

Biometic methadone dispensing machine. Courtesy: NECNoreen Oliver who runs the Burton Addiction Centre believes voters would be shocked by how few prisoners are given the chance to get off drugs:

"I think what the public wants is their money getting people off drugs, back contributing to society and out of the benefits system. At the moment, that's only happening for 850 prisoners out of 60,000, that's crazy figures, who are actually given the chance to become drug-free."

Methadone, incidentally, can rot your teeth - which has led to a poignant joke doing the rounds in the prison system:

Q: What's got three teeth and a hundred legs?
A: A methadone queue in jail.

A victory for the Happy Revolutionaries

Mark Easton | 17:12 UK time, Monday, 7 December 2009


Quietly, without fanfare, this morning the British government embraced the politics of happiness. It did so, coincidentally, on the day that two former Downing Street advisers separately urged ministers to go further: to make well-being, rather than wealth, the key measure of political and social progress.

The Happiness Formula seriesI remember being ridiculed by one of Tony Blair's inner circle when, a few years ago, I wrote an article which suggested that a quiet revolution was under way in Whitehall, with influential officials proposing that well-being should be a strategic aim of every government department. Well today, buried in a report on mental health strategy, ministers commit themselves to putting "well-being in all policy". I feel vindicated.

Health Secretary Andy Burnham calls it a "major social issue demanding action across all parts of government" and says his officials will work with other departments to "ensure that policies consider the impact on well-being, as well as informing future policy and research".

This is a major victory for what I once called the "new utilitarians" - campaigners, thinkers and strategists working inside government who believe the political preoccupation with economic indicators has been at the expense of our happiness.

Among them is Geoff Mulgan, one of New Labour's key policy strategists. As former director of Tony Blair's strategy unit and head of policy at Number Ten, Mulgan's ideas have shaped British politics in the last decade. Today, in a report published by the Young Foundation think-tank which he heads, he and others consider how to put the "well" into the "welfare state".

In Sinking and Swimming: Understanding Britain's Unmet Needs [4.53Mb PDF], it is argued that the politicians who designed the welfare state saw a distinct division in the role of state and society:

The state's job was to meet material needs and to insure people against material risks; society's job was to meet most of the psychological and psycho-social ones

"Sixty years later the picture is very different," it goes on. "Decades of economic growth have created a society which by past standards is materially abundant," but where "society's ability to meet people's psychological and psycho-social needs appears to have declined." Mulgan argues that the "buffers of religion and family" have been weakened with "a rise of individualism".

One answer proposed in the report is that "social accounts including subjective measures of well-being should be published alongside the more familiar economic accounts". The problems with measuring happiness have always been in the weakness in the utilitarian argument, but this report suggests that we now have the understanding and ability to manage it.

The Hidden Wealth Of NationsThe importance of finding an accepted way to quantify our social well-being is stressed in another publication today. The book The Hidden Wealth of Nations is by another "new utilitarian", David Halpern. Chief analyst in the prime minister's Strategy Unit between 2001 and 2007, he has written many of the most influential papers in shaping the politics of happiness. Now outside government, he expresses his confidence that within 10-15 years, "policymakers will routinely be using sophisticated well-being measures in judgements about policy".

Halpern believes that simply by measuring it, happiness will come to be seen as a more important political outcome than riches. "This shift will subtly change the focus of policymakers, and probably of citizens too," he claims. "If we can increase the growth in this, then surely we shall have cause to celebrate," he says.

An embryonic measure of well-being is announced in today's New Horizons report from the Department of Health. In encouraging ministers and civil servants to think about well-being in designing policy, the DH reveals that an "online cost calculator is being developed... to support best value for money in effective local approaches to population well-being in both urban and rural areas".

The document helpfully offers an official definition of well-being as "a positive state of mind and body, feeling safe and able to cope, with a sense of connection with people, communities and the wider environment".

Well-being is therefore distinct from mental illness. Someone can have symptoms of a mental illness and still experience well-being just as a person with a physical illness or long-term disability can. In the same way someone can have poor mental well-being, but have no clinically identifiable mental illness.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with the Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman a few years ago at his house in Princeton in New Jersey. He had been attempting to measure happiness and unhappiness in a study across the United States.

"It turns out", he said, "something like 15% of the overall time that people spend is bad time, unpleasant time. Now that gives you something to get your teeth into. If you manage to reduce that number from 15% to 14%, you would be doing a great service to humankind!"

I like this idea, that the purpose of politics is to promote happiness and reduce misery. As David Cameron told me once: "we should be thinking not just what is good for putting money in people's pockets but what is good for putting joy in people's hearts."

There is too much unhappiness in our society, as the Young Foundation report documents.

"Although most people are content with their lives, a growing number, particularly women, are not," it claims. This diagram indicates what the report describes as "a long and apparently lengthening spike of unhappiness, loneliness and stress":

Graph of psychological well-being

Between one in six and one in four people in the UK experience mental health problems at some point in their lives. The number of prescriptions for anti-depressant drugs increased from 9 million in 1991 to 34 million in 2007. There are also important psycho-social needs - some people have no one to talk to day-to-day or about important issues

The report suggests that "loneliness has become a stark feature of a more individualistic society" with nearly half of all older people considering the television as their main form of company.

There are those who think it wrong for politicians to bother themselves with ideas of "emotional well-being". But few would suggest it is not their job to try and reduce unhappiness. If the commitment buried in today's strategy document is to be taken at face value, as David Halpern suggests, perhaps today we "have cause to celebrate".

PS: See also my post from September, An obsession with wealth.

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