BBC BLOGS - Mark Easton's UK

Archives for June 2010

What price punishment?

Mark Easton | 16:41 UK time, Wednesday, 30 June 2010


In his speech today, Ken Clarke said this:

"Sentencing should not be based on cost, but on principles of retribution, reflection of public anger and the effective prevention of further crime."

He then went on to say something slightly different:

"I believe in intelligent sentencing, which will seek to give better value for money and the effective protection that people want."

While the former includes the notion of punishment, the latter does not. It is a contradiction that goes to the heart of much public concern about prison and sentencing policy.

The British public seems convinced that prison works, not necessarily on a strict cost-benefit analysis, but as a practical demonstration of how criminals should be treated.

A poll by Ipsos MORI a few years ago found that 57% of Brits were opposed to putting fewer criminals behind bars and 74% wanted more prisons.

Ipsos MORI poll showing people's feelings on prisons

When asked more recently about how to save money in the criminal justice system, the most popular answer for 38% of people was to cut education programmes in jails.

Chart showing responses to the question asking if the Criminal Justice System was to face lower levels of spending, which option, if any, would you be most/least willing to accept?

This is pretty much the exact opposite of what the government is intending. Ken Clarke's argument is that what the tax-paying public really want is "reduced reoffending, fewer victims and value for money".

Researchers from the international consultancy Matrix Knowledge recently did some number-crunching to estimate the cost-effectiveness of alternatives to prison. Some of the results are startling.

They calculated that sending a heroin-addicted offender for residential treatment rather than jail makes them 43% less likely to reoffend - saving the taxpayer in the long term an estimated £88,000. The figures rise to almost £203,000 if you include an estimate of the savings from having fewer potential victims.

Using a surveillance programme like the current intensive supervision programme is likely to lead to 31% less reoffending - saving between £57,000 and £130,000.

Curiously, using surveillance as well as non-residential drug treatment is less cost effective than surveillance alone, it appears. Still an improvement on prison when it comes to re-offending, but only 14% better with savings of £41,000 up to £61,000.

Chart showing the predicted level of reoffending by an offender released from custody

However, community sentences for tagged juvenile offenders make them just 3% less likely to reoffend, saving only £3,000 against the cost of locking them up.

The researchers also looked at the impact of programmes in prison. Treating a sex offender behind bars saves £35,000 to £130,000. Drug treatment in jail saves £31,000 to £115,000. But psychological therapy, they calculated, saves just £400 up to £17,000.

Graph showing total savings per offender as a result of<br />
re-offending and intervention costs

If you are Justice Secretary Ken Clarke trying to save 25% of your budget, these are just the kind of numbers you want to read.

Chart showing predicted level of re-offending by an offender released from custody

But when I looked at the formula Matrix Knowledge used to calculate effectiveness, I noted that there was something missing.

Chart showing how value for money was calculated

Nowhere in the arithmetic is there a value for punishment, for retribution, for what Mr Clarke calls the "reflection of public anger".

It would be difficult but I think it would be worth trying to do the calculation because only then can the public get a true sense of the "price of punishment".

Police told to break previous promises

Mark Easton | 12:50 UK time, Tuesday, 29 June 2010


With severe cuts to police budgets on the cards, the answer to keeping bobbies on the beat, it transpires, is to tear up the promise to... er... keep bobbies on the beat.

Backs of two policemenYes, the National Policing Pledge for England and Wales is to be scrapped as part of government plans to drive out bureaucratic inefficiencies from the service. But a quick look at the pledge reveals that it is all about ensuring officers do what the public wants them to do - not least, pounding the streets.

It demands that neighbourhood officers "spend at least 80% of their time visibly working in your neighbourhood, tackling your priorities". That promise is now to be dropped.

It also demands that police answer 999 calls within 10 seconds and get to an emergency within 15 or 20 minutes. Those commitments are to be ditched. So is a promise to attend to a non-emergency within 60 minutes if the caller is vulnerable or upset.

The police, the government argues, must be much more accountable to local priorities rather than central targets. But they've just torn up the pledge to hold monthly local public meetings to set priorities and promises to keep victims informed of progress on crimes.

"It is a paradox that we have seen record numbers of police officers recruited in the last few years and yet the public still say to us that they don't see them on the streets", Home Office Minister Nick Herbert told the Today programme this morning. "There is some evidence that they get caught up doing other things, not spending sufficient time on the beat."

How, one might ask, does getting rid of the commitment to ensure officers are out on the streets improve matters?

One of the reasons Labour ministers introduced the National Policing Pledge in 2008 was to try and ensure chief constables did what the public told them after they had scrapped all of the previous targets save one. As things stand, there is only one measure of police performance in England and Wales - that 60% of local people should have confidence in them.

Instead of detailed targets for how officers are performing in cutting crime, responding to calls or dealing with local issues, the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith introduced a single target based on how people feel.

The debate about cuts to police is also a psychological one, it seems to me. As research as shown [1.18MB PDF], bobbies on the beat are hopeless at catching criminals and there is a heated academic discussion as to whether they do much to prevent crime. Whether they reduce or increase fear of crime is also contested.

And yet we have set up the argument over policing budgets as a battle between back-room bureaucracy (bad) and front-line policing (good). Of course there is waste. Of course there is inefficiency. But those problems can be found back and front.

Does the immigration cap fit?

Mark Easton | 17:04 UK time, Monday, 28 June 2010


The tiny tweak to the immigration rules announced today by the Home Office is not a cap. It's not even a knotted handkerchief.

Theresa MayOfficials stress it is simply an "interim measure" and, they've admitted to me, it may have no effect whatsoever on total immigration.

What it does do, however, is illustrate just how difficult it is going to be to introduce an immigration limit next year that has any meaningful effect on the big numbers without damaging an already struggling British economy.

Latest immigration figures show that, in 2008, 590,000 people came to live in Britain.

Today's change only applies to one narrow category and reduces the number by 1,300 over the next nine months. It doesn't cover other categories, which might even increase.

The internal difficulties experienced by the Home Secretary Theresa May in getting even this modest reduction agreed by her cabinet colleagues reflects the lack of room for manoeuvre she has.

Ms May says she is determined to introduce the promised cap because she wants net immigration into the UK to fall to the levels of the 1990s - "to tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands".

This is likely to happen even if she does nothing at all. Net immigration in 2008 the latest yearly figure, was 163,000 for the UK and 135,000 for England and Wales. Since then, there have been much tougher rules on non-EU immigration which have significantly reduced numbers arriving and EU migration is falling too as a result of the recession.

I wouldn't be the least surprised if the net immigration figure for 2009 falls to well below 100,000 on the basis of economic and bureaucratic changes last year. No doubt, government ministers will claim credit if this comes to pass.

Nevertheless, we now have a period of 12 weeks consultation in which the details of a cap will be worked out.

Let's be clear: this is a limit only on skilled and highly-skilled workers from outside the European Union coming to live and work in the UK. It won't affect workers from Eastern Europe or anywhere else inside the EU because they, like the British, have freedom of movement.

Roughly 55,000 non-EU workers were given permission to come to Britain to live and work in 2009. Around a third of them came in under the highly-skilled-migrant route - so-called Tier 1.

Two-thirds were skilled workers with a designated job offer in a sector where officials have agreed there is a shortage of suitable applicants in the UK - so-called Tier 2.

In setting the "interim measure" today, the Home Office exempted quite a few of the sub-categories within tiers 1 and 2.

Wealthy investors and entrepreneurs will be unaffected, as will be elite sports-people, ministers of religion and intra-company transfers. Numbers in these categories might conceivably go up over the next nine months.

The reason given for the exemptions is that the measure was simply being introduced to stop a rush of applicants from "speculative" migrants ahead of the cap next year. The restrictions may also reflect pressure from other government ministers and senior Conservatives who are known to have been worried that the changes might damage the economy.

Boris JohnsonLondon Mayor Boris Johnson told Channel 4 News that "a crude cap could be very detrimental to the free movement of the talented, creative and enterprising people who have enabled London to be such a dominant global force."

Business Secretary Vince Cable has said that "the process of operating this cap will be subject to consultation, and the business groups will make the point, which I fully support, that if you've got a growing economy you've got to draw people in from all over the world where they've got unique contributions. The new regime has got to accommodate those concerns."

So where to draw the line?

Q: Should a 40-year-old manager earning £54,000 a year in his homeland with a masters degree in business studies and perfect English be allowed to come to work in Britain?
A:This applicant would fail under the current points system.

Q: What about a young graduate, again with perfect English and already earning £34,000 a year in his homeland?
A: This applicant would also fail under the current points system.

So, if the cap is to go further than the current system, it means preventing people coming to Britain who have rare talents and earning potential even greater than these examples.

Some believe that a cap will encourage firms to train British employees for the top jobs. Others argue that these are just the kind of people the UK cannot afford to turn away as it seeks to rebuild its battered economy.

PS I have updated the net immigration figure quoted to reflect both the UK and England and Wales.

Critical public interest

Mark Easton | 17:47 UK time, Friday, 25 June 2010


Democracy only works if you have well-informed public debate. So why did senior civil servants (and a Labour minister) believe it was legitimate to consider withholding official information simply because it might be used to criticise government policy?

The extraordinary insight into how some Whitehall officials think the Freedom of Information Act should operate is revealed in documents inadvertently sent to my BBC colleague Martin Rosenbaum and published on his blog today.

In advice sent to Vernon Coaker when he was a Home Office minister in 2009, a civil servant warns of the dangers of releasing unpublished research on whether drugs policy represented good value for money. He writes:

The release of the report entails the risk of Transform, or other supporters of legalisation, using information from the report to criticise the Government's drug policy, or to support their call for legalisation of drugs and the introduction of a regulated system of supply. These risks should be considered in reaching a decision on whether to release the report

This seems to be run entirely counter to the principles underpinning the Freedom of Information Act.

As the Information Commission states in his introduction to the legislation, a factor that would "encourage the disclosure of information" is that it would "allow a more informed debate of issues under consideration by the Government".

Parliament did not design this legislation in order that ministers could avoid criticism of their policies. Quite the reverse. One of its fundamental concerns is, as the commissioner says, "furthering the understanding of and participation in the public debate of issues of the day".

I am sure there will be plenty of people reading this and thinking: "Well, what do you expect? That's what government officials do - they are there to protect their masters or mistresses, to cover up and hide things that might leave ministers open to criticism."

I am not going to allow myself to be that cynical. I want to believe that our Parliamentary system is built on the idea that open, honest debate is the way to achieve good, democratic governance.
The Civil Service Code is founded on four "core values":

Integrity: Putting the obligations of public service above personal interests
Honesty: Being truthful and open
Objectivity: Basing advice and decisions on rigorous analysis of the evidence
Impartiality: Acting solely according to the merits of the case and serving governments of different political parties equally well

That first "core value" seems the most relevant to me. It might serve the "personal interests" of departmental civil servants to ensure citizens are deprived of information which allows people to construct cogent criticism of their policy, but what about the "public interest"?

In the case of the Drugs Value for Money Review which had prompted the advice to Mr Coaker, the document was eventually published but only after a lengthy delay because the Home Office wanted "to avoid a focus on the gaps in the evidence base".

When I asked the Information Commissioner what he made of the revelations today, his office was emphatic:

"Requests should not be refused simply on the grounds that disclosing the information would reveal gaps in the evidence base for a policy. There is a public interest in openness and transparency...
"The fact that the information may not reflect well on the public authority in question is not in itself a reason for it to be withheld."

There is that phrase again: "public interest".

I spoke to the Cabinet Office this afternoon to ask whether they thought civil servants had behaved properly in telling a minister to consider the "risk" that releasing information might lead to criticism of policy. A spokesperson told me:

"We take our duties under the Freedom of Information Act very seriously. It is also our duty to give ministers all the facts and advice in relation to the Act. In this case, the likelihood of criticism was something they felt the minister should be informed about. They might have been rebuked if they had not."

But why, I pressed, did they think that informing public debate constituted a risk? "Maybe they shouldn't have used the word 'risk'. There is a semantic point about the word 'risk'," he conceded.

Perhaps when the permanent secretary at the Home Office, Sir David Normington, read the advice that releasing official documents might risk people "using information... to criticise Government " he hauled the author over the coals. Perhaps Vernon Coaker or the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith demanded to know why departmental officials were apparently in favour of stifling informed debate.

One would like to imagine so because the alternative explanation is that public servants and elected ministers are content to undermine our democracy.

What is crime?

Mark Easton | 16:50 UK time, Thursday, 17 June 2010


At school, two children get into an argument and one hits the other giving them a nose bleed. Is that a crime?

Boys fightingWhat about this? In a domestic situation, two males are arguing and one of them deliberately smashes the other's prized property. The law would consider it a crime. But what if perpetrator and victim are both 10 years old and the property is a favourite toy?

These questions are considered in the first-ever British Crime Survey (BCS) of 10-15-year-olds [268KB PDF] which, in trying to measure victimhood among children, finds itself examining the nature of crime itself.

Today's research reminds readers that academics wrestled over how to count crime when the first adult BCS was being designed in the early 80s:

there are some troublesome conceptual issues: for example, precisely what is it that crime surveys are counting - crimes as defined by criminal law? Or as defined by the police? Or as popularly defined - however that might be? Deciding whether an incident is a crime can be far from straightforward. The dividing line between 'borrowing' and theft is a fine one. And when does an assault count as an offence? If a person punches a stranger in the face, this smacks of criminal aggression - unless we are told, for example, that the two are on the rugby pitch, or are schoolchildren.

So, 20 years ago it was accepted that what is clearly a crime against an adult is not necessarily a crime against a child. One obvious example of this is how a parent is at liberty to smack their son or daughter but might well end up in court if they did the same thing to another adult.

Home Office research into youth offending [256KB PDF] has previously highlighted how children are often involved in "relatively minor transgressions (eg a low value theft from the workplace or a child stealing a small item from school)" which are unlawful but would be unlikely to be considered a matter for the justice system.

Most people would accept that many acts committed by and against children, while technically unlawful, are not really crimes in the way we understand it. The question, though, is which incidents do you include and exclude?

Today's junior edition of the BCS comes up with four ways of looking at children's experience of "crime":

All in law includes all incidents which are in law a crime, that is where the victim perceived intent on part of the perpetrator to inflict hurt or damage or to steal property
Norms-based applies to a set of rules to exclude relatively minor incidents which society would not normally be regarded as crimes
All in law outside school includes all incidents that are in law a crime except those occurring in school
Victim perceived includes all incidents which are in law a crime and that are thought by victims themselves to be crimes

On the basis of talking to 3,661 youngsters, the survey suggests that 10-15-year-olds in England and Wales are victims of anywhere between 400,000 and more than two million crimes.

Using the different definitions, this is how the figures stack up:

• All in law: 2,153,000 incidents
• Norms-based: 1,055,000 incidents
• All in law outside school: 643,000 incidents
• Victim perceived: 404,000 incidents

Which one you choose to select depends on what you think this new juvenile BCS is attempting to count. Is it a measure of crime or of victimhood? If it is the former, is it assessing crime as defined by the laws of the land or a more subjective understanding of what society regards as right and wrong?

The debate over what defines a crime has raged for hundreds of years. In the mid-18th Century, the judge and jurist Sir William Blackstone defined the concept of "natural law":

This law of nature, being co-eval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times.

The definition works well for acts like murder, rape and theft which are considered crimes pretty much "over all the globe" but it is not always that simple. As the psychologist Philip Feldman wrote in 1993, "the core of criminal law is the same, but the border moves".

One can see this happening: UK law once prohibited adultery and consensual sex between men; a hundred years ago you could buy opium and cocaine over the counter at Harrods. Acts which are perfectly legal here may be serious crimes in other countries and vice versa. One culture's crime is another culture's social norm.

Today's report tries to get closer to a "social norm" definition of crime for British children. It is clear that most "crimes" committed against youngsters are committed by other youngsters or family members that they know. This, it might be suggested, is in contrast to most adults' experience of crime committed against them by strangers.

Here is the basis on which the BCS excludes certain acts which, while technically unlawful, are regarded as acceptable behaviour in normal society.

BCS summary of norms-based approach

This gives an adult perspective of crime to the debate, but what about the views of the child? What if a youngster thinks the theft of a low value but much-loved soft toy is a crime? Should that be counted?

This table from today's report offers a range of incidents and how the different definitions apply.

Incident scenarios showing how they are counted under different approaches

One scenario they could have included is that a child being smacked at home by a parent would be counted as a crime under the "all in law", "all in law outside school" and, potentially, "victim perceived" but not within the "norms-based" definition.

When the Home office was convinced to extend the British Crime Survey down from 16 to 10-year-olds, it was thought the exercise would provide answers to the amount of crime being committed against children in England and Wales. Instead, it appears to have raised many questions about what we actually mean by crime.

Battle lines are drawn

Mark Easton | 10:28 UK time, Wednesday, 16 June 2010


The leader of Britain's largest public sector union has announced the start of what looks sure to be a long and bloody battle over cuts to services and jobs.

Dave PrentisUnison general secretary Dave Prentis yesterday urged his 1.3 million members to embark on a nationwide campaign of resistance.

He told his union's annual conference in Bournemouth that "if this government picks a fight with us, we will be ready, we will be the fiercest defenders of our members and the services they deliver".

"The next four years will test our resolve," Mr Prentis said, "but they won't know what hit them."

I have recently returned from Nottingham where the fighting is under way. City and county councils have already announced plans for £100m cuts and 2,000 job losses between them. The battle lines have been drawn.

Some Unison workers are currently working to rule over changes to terms and conditions and, as I stood in the union's city HQ, workers were stuffing envelopes for a ballot on possible strike action.

Protesters and placards have become a familiar sight in the city centre. When services for deaf people were threatened, angry demonstrators lay across the city's tram lines.

I met grass-roots campaigners around the kitchen table fighting plans to sell off council care homes and middle-class ladies on a Nottinghamshire village green protesting at a decision to close their local library.

MoneyIt is a glimpse of the future. We won't know exactly how deep the axe will strike until the autumn, but today's BBC survey suggests council leaders are planning for the worst.

They know that two-and-a-half billion pounds in transport projects may well be cancelled: bypasses, bridges, rail-lines and rural bus routes.

Hundreds of millions due to have been spent on school buildings have been shelved. The plug may be pulled on plans for two new hospitals in Liverpool.

Millions are being cut from police budgets across England. Social housing schemes are in doubt. Many of the councils who responded to the BBC said they had plans to save on social care - services for the elderly and disabled, child mental health and respite for carers.

Local government leaders say they are doing what they must do, but unions claim the plans amount to a vicious attack on services and jobs.

Nottinghamshire's council leader is the aptly named Kay Cutts, a Conservative who has already pledged to slice £86m from the county budget.

"After 28 years of Labour administrations, it had got a bit flabby," she told me. "They weren't bad people," she continued, "but they hadn't actually looked at the services that we needed to have."

With a portrait of Margaret Thatcher hanging above her desk, there was more than an echo of the Iron Lady in what she said. "There is no alternative," she said.

"You see this as an opportunity?" I asked. "No, I see this as a necessity," Mrs Cutts replied. "Generally speaking, whenever we ask members of the public what they think, they say the public sector is too large."

Whether driven by ideology or pragmatism, the public sector looks certain to become significantly smaller. The Labour-controlled Nottingham City Council is also having to make cuts, a situation which political campaigners on the left think plays into their hands.

I attended a Socialist Party meeting in a community centre, packed with activists young and old. "It's come back again to a class war," said one veteran of the movement. "If we have wave after wave of industrial action we can stop the cuts," claimed another. "We do need to bring about something on the lines of what's happened in Greece where we take to the streets," it was suggested to applause.

It appears that old political fault lines may be re-opening as passion and anger rise to the surface. What is starting to unravel in Nottingham today, may be repeated in many more communities tomorrow.

Update, 13:22: I am informed that one of two PFI hospital schemes in Liverpool which had been under threat is confident that it will still go ahead. The Alder Hey Children's Health Park Project says NHS officials gave it the thumbs up to "go to market" last October.

Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

Mark Easton | 14:10 UK time, Monday, 14 June 2010


Is waving the Cross of St George an act of patriotism, nationalism or racism? With England flying the flag as never before, the distinction appears to have caused some confusion.

Lion with ball containing meat treatsA neighbour in my street decked his house in red and white bunting with a message attached: "If you are offended, leave the country!"

I have yet to meet anyone who is offended by the flags and banners supporting the English football team, but the papers have found apparent examples of employers who have "banned" the St George's cross because, it is claimed, the ostentatious display of a national flag might upset people.

Most of these tales turn out either to be nonsense or to reflect corporate concerns about safety or branding, but the notion that some people believe showing your true colours is offensive has significant traction.

Local government minister Grant Shapps recently wrote to local councils saying that he understood that a risk-based approach to health and safety was important, but urging them "to avoid accusations of being over-zealous or spoilsports". David Cameron, of course, has decreed that the English flag should fly over No 10.

On Friday, a friend joked that he didn't realise I was a BNP supporter when he saw an England flag on my car. It was a joke but also a reminder of how our national emblem was appropriated by racists during the 1970s and '80s.

EDLOver the last twenty years, however, the flag has gradually been regained by the moderate majority and this World Cup has seen it flown in greater abundance than I can ever recall; I was living in Scotland in 1966 but I suspect that even then the English scene was less decked than today.

So to return to my question: is the cross of St George a symbol of patriotism, nationalism or racism? We need to define our terms, a tricky task.

George Orwell had a go in his 1945 essay Notes on Nationalism:

"Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By 'patriotism' I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality."

In the shadow of World War II, one can understand why Orwell saw "patriotism" as a passive force (Britain) and "nationalism" as an aggressive force (Germany), but the distinction is important.

Some academics have divided nationalism into "good" and "bad" - the laudable good nationalists wishing to maintain and support their own nation versus the bad nationalists who seek to pit their own "superior" nation against all others.

Bad nationalism is almost indistinguishable from racism, it has been argued, and I suspect that some people do worry that in flying the flag they risk being perceived as inconsiderate at best and bigoted at worst.

However, the idea of a universal international identity in which citizens across the planet celebrate their bonds has had little success in the last 200 years.

The philosopher John Stuart Mill defined nationalism as a desire to match national and political borders:

Where the sentiment of nationality exists in any force, there is a prima facie case for uniting all the members of the nationality under the same government, and a government to themselves apart

His comment is a reminder of how the concept of nation is relatively new. It is often argued that the notion of nationalism was created along with the first nation-state - usually said to be France in 1789.

Victorian essayist Walter Bagehot wrote that "nation-making" was the essential content of 19th-Century evolution, but found it hard to put his finger on what defined a nation:

The problem of 'nation-making' - that is, the explanation of the origin of nations such as we now see them, and such as in historical times they have always been - cannot, as it seems to me, be solved without separating it into two: one, the making of broadly-marked races, such as the negro, or the red man, or the European; and the second, that of making the minor distinctions, such as the distinction between Spartan and Athenian, or between Scotchman and Englishman.

Bagehot recognised that race could not identify a nation, but he was stuck on what might. The climate? Shared history? "The way in which nations change, generation after generation, is exceedingly curious", he concluded.

Joseph Stalin got closer to defining a modern nation when he said that it was a "historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture". Even this does not account for the multi-lingual, multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-faith nations that have developed as the planet has shrunk.

England flagsThe World Cup is a celebration of nationhood as much as of football. Such "international" sporting competitions cement the concept of the nation-state, acting as a lightning rod for "bad" aggressive nationalism and a support for global values.

The flag is a symbol of support for a team and love for a nation. If people choose to fly it or interpret it as a symbol of English superiority or aggression, that is not the flag's fault. I shall continue to drape a large cross of St George upon my house.

I fear, though, that given England's recent history in the World Cup, a proud nation will end up saluting its sporting heroes as they "go down with all flags flying". Or is that an unpatriotic thought?

Is English test really about integration?

Post categories:

Mark Easton | 13:45 UK time, Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Comments (365)

The home secretary says her demand that foreign wives and husbands of British citizens learn basic English before they come to the UK is about promoting integration. But critics claim there's a more sinister and discriminatory reason for introducing the new rules.

One hand putting wedding ring on another handAs things stand, spouses from outside the EU are allowed to come to Britain for up to two years. By that point they must have passed a "Life in the UK" test, including an English language element, or risk being sent home. The idea is that foreign brides and grooms must integrate or leave.

What the change to the rules will introduce is a test of English before they leave their homeland, regulations that were due to be introduced under existing Labour plans next year.

However, the new Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May has brought forward the changes to this autumn, arguing that "the new requirement for spouses will help promote integration, remove cultural barriers and protect public services".

Given that spouses already have to learn English to a higher standard than is proposed under the new rules, some question whether they can have any additional impact on integration.

The changes will obviously have a very limited effect on those foreigners that Brits choose to marry from English-speaking countries or from countries where the education system ensures most have a decent grasp of the UK's mother-tongue.

The real impact will be felt in those countries where a basic command of English is less common, notably on the Indian sub-continent.

Some suspect the motivation for introducing the rules is to target British citizens with an Asian heritage who traditionally return to their family village for a bride or groom. These usually arranged marriages result in thousands of often poorly educated rural immigrants arriving in the UK, although numbers have been falling.

In 2007, 49,000 foreign spouses came to Britain including 19,000 from the Indian sub-continent [540 KB PDF]. In 2008 the figures were 44,600 and 16,000 [1.06MB PDF]. Last year's total was down to 38,000, a fall of 22% in two years. Figures for the sub-continent are not yet available.

By introducing the new English requirements even more quickly than had been planned, it makes it virtually impossible for rural villagers in remote parts of the Indian sub-continent to pass the test.

When ministers suggest that the visa regulations offer a business opportunity for entrepreneurs to market language courses they may be accused of being disingenuous. There is no way such facilities can be set up in a few weeks and, even if they were, there is no way many impoverished Pakistanis or Bangladeshis could afford them or complete them.

The real issue here is not integration or removing cultural barriers, it might be argued. It is about trying to reduce the economic impact of a legacy of British colonial rule.

Islam prison conversions

Mark Easton | 13:44 UK time, Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Comments (115)

Lags go Muslim for better foodIf you were in prison, why might you decide to convert to Islam? A "cushier life" and "nicer grub", according to the Sun this morning.

It is a line that many of the papers plucked from today's report from the Chief Inspector of Prisons [502Kb PDF] to explain why so many inmates of jails in England and Wales decide to embrace the Muslim faith while behind bars.

The idea that halal menus and Friday prayers are such "perks" that young lags queue up to convert surely cannot be the whole story. The perception of "material benefits" might be a factor, but another more compelling explanation is also included in the report. One prisoner convert said: "I've got loads of close brothers here. They share with you, we look out for each other." The Chief Inspector Anne Owers writes:

Many Muslim prisoners stressed the positive and rehabilitative role that Islam played in their lives, and the calm that religious observance could induce in a stressed prison environment.

The claim - made by an anonymous prison officer to BBC 5 live's Donal MacIntyre programme in March - that young inmates "were being forced to convert" in order to get "protection from a Muslim gang rather than follow the faith" is dismissed by today's report. It finds no evidence to back up any such claim.

A more compelling narrative might be that young, frightened men, arriving in jail - where physical and sexual violence are meted out to those who appear weak or vulnerable - are drawn to prisoners, as the report says, who offer "support and protection in a group with a powerful identity".

Around 30% of Muslim inmates are converts and many of those are, according to previous Home Office research, from black rather than Asian ethnic groups. In 1999, it was found that 37% of Muslim male prisoners were black compared with 7% of those in the wider population.

While less than 1% of Black Caribbeans are Muslims generally, in jail the figure is almost 19%.

These data are from before 11 September 2001 and suggest, therefore, the rise in Islamic extremism in the last nine years is not an explanation for the rise in prison conversions.

What the inspectorate also reminds us is that 11% of prisoners are Muslims - a very high proportion, since the religion represents only 3% of the population in England and Wales.

Given that close to a third of those are converts and that the Muslim community has the youngest age profile of any religious group in Britain, the figure is not as surprising as first appears.

Dr Basia Spalek, an academic at the University of Birmingham, has argued that the high levels of social and economic deprivation of the Muslim population is "linked to the kinds of offences that are processed by the criminal justice system".

It is certainly true that Muslims are more likely to be unemployed or economically inactive than those in other religious groups.

If the impression left by some coverage of today's report is that Muslim convicts have a "cushier time" in jail, the experience of the wider community is the opposite.

Cumbria and the risk from guns

Mark Easton | 11:20 UK time, Friday, 4 June 2010


As the prime minister and home secretary meet people in Cumbria today there will be voices urging them to do something to ensure that the horrors of this week can never be visited on another community.

David Cameron has already warned against a knee-jerk response but there will be a review of our gun laws when the facts are known, the dust has settled and the scars have begun to heal.

Before ministers consider tightening what are already some of the toughest gun-ownership laws in the world, however, it might be worth seeking answers to two questions:

• Is there a link between gun ownership and mass killings?
• Would further restrictions on gun ownership be justified?

To answer the first question, I have done a few back-of-an-envelope calculations and pulled together all the documented cases of mass shootings I could find from the last 50 years.

Only 18 countries have experienced more than one such tragedy.

Gun data

Column two shows that the USA has experienced the greatest number with 24 cases, followed by China with 18 and Israel with 11. Given that Israel has a population of around 7.5 million compared with China's population of 1,300 million (see column three), it is clearly important to see such incidents in the context of the size of the country.

Column four provides a rough estimate of the relationship between population and mass killings - the number of incidents in the last half a century for every 10 million people.

The last column lists the number of legally held guns per 100 people. The main source for this is the Small Arms Survey [2.02MB PDF] compiled by the Geneva Graduate Institute of International Studies.

The experience of Israel and the Palestinian Territories is by far the most acute when it comes to an individual opening fire on a crowd of strangers.

It could be argued that these events, in the context of the crisis in the Middle East, are fundamentally different from, say, school shootings in the United States or this week's massacre in Cumbria.

It is wrong to argue that the only factor increasing the risk from mass killings is the availability of guns; on the other hand, without access to firearms, such slaughters would be almost impossible. Derrick Bird could not have completed his murderous journey without his guns.

I have not been able to find figures for gun ownership in Israel but it is widely reported to be very high. For the purposes of this exercise, however, let us put the Middle East situation to one side and focus on the countries for which we do have ownership figures.

The seven countries with the highest known levels are USA, Yemen, Finland, France, Canada, Germany and South Africa. Britain, it emerges, has relatively low levels of gun ownership by international standards, estimated at 5.6 guns per 100 people.

Excluding those places for which we don't have ownership data, the seven countries with the highest number of mass killings per capita are exactly the same seven countries - albeit in a different order.

This suggests a correlation between access to guns and the risk of suffering mass shootings. Hardly surprising, perhaps.

It is worth pointing out that there are some countries with gun-ownership levels above 30 in 100 which have not experienced two or more mass killings in the last 50 years, Sweden, Switzerland and Serbia.

However, there was a mass killing in Switzerland in 2001 in which 14 people died, in Sweden in 1994 when seven people were shot dead and nine people died in a mass shooting in Serbia in 2007.

The second question, then, is whether the events in Cumbria justify further restrictions on gun ownership.

What the table shows is just how rare these kinds of incidents are. Britain has only experienced three in the last 50 years - possibly ever: Hungerford in 1987, Dunblane in 1996 and now Cumbria.

All are profoundly shocking and tragic moments in our history. All must prompt us to look at how our government and our society can respond most effectively. But there is always a balance to be struck between reducing small risks and restricting vital freedoms.

Update 1459: Thank you to Steve Hunt (comment 6 below) for pointing out that South Africa should move further up the table - corrected above.

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