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Archives for January 2011

Will crime maps work?

Mark Easton | 22:00 UK time, Monday, 31 January 2011

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I did what I suspect almost everyone will do if they log on: I put in my postcode, clicked and frowned.

Policeman standing by police cordon tape

 

The new Home Office crime maps allow users to input any place in England and Wales and see what reports of crime and anti-social behaviour have been made to local police within a mile of that point in the previous month.

Even though I have been looking at crime statistics for more than 25 years, seeing the dots relating to 1,672 incidents a mile from my north London front-door was quite sobering.

I could drill down to see the half dozen burglaries that were committed in my street in December alone, the robberies and car crimes, the hundreds of calls about anti-social behaviour that police have received from residents in my neighbourhood. I could see the faces of the boys and girls in blue who patrol my streets and, in some cases, the numbers to call them directly on their mobile. I could watch the CCTV clips of blurry silhouettes the police would like to talk to. I could see the date of the next beat meeting when I would have the chance to discuss any concerns.

It is an impressive piece of technology but its real importance is as a key-stone in the architecture of David Cameron's "post-bureaucratic age". The prime minister has talked of turning accountability on its head: instead of bureaucracies in Whitehall attempting to maintain or improve the quality of public services, the general public would be given the power to hold them to account.

The crime maps are a vital piece of the accountability jigsaw: in place of appointed experts sitting on police authorities scrutinising performance, local residents can use the information from the site to drive the priorities of elected police commissioners. But I do wonder whether it will work that way?

Lots of people will have a look over the next few weeks. Like me, they may be surprised at what they find. But will they keep using the site, going back every few weeks to check on the local crime scene? Will they turn up for public beat meetings and demand more effort be applied to, say, vehicle crime if they see a spike in the stats? Or will the system quickly become the province of the same people who sit on Neighbourhood Watch committees and resident associations now? Who will speak up for the concerns of those who don't have easy access to the internet, who don't have the time or the expertise to exploit the information?

I met some young mums in Windsor today, sitting with their babies in a café after toddler club. What did they think of the crime maps? None, I have to say, were enthusiastic and most said they simply didn't want all that information. They thought it might make people more frightened, push down house prices or provide information for burglars on where to find rich pickings. They didn't think they'd be able to make sense of all the data.

Research by Ipsos/Mori suggests these are common views. A recent poll found 60% want information on what police are doing to cut crime in their neighbourhood, but were far less interested in information on crime levels or police priorities. Only 28% had a particular interest in strategy, just 16% wanted to know who was in charge of policing their force area.

The National Policing Improvement Agency is optimistic, however. It recently conducted a randomised controlled trial to test the impact of crime maps and claims "the study was able to challenge the myth that sharing information with the public would increase the 'fear of crime'. In fact, information was found to improve people's perceptions of their neighbourhood and of the local police."

Ministers remain confident that the public will use the power that comes from access to information and police will do a better and more responsive job as a result. I am told there are plans to incorporate details of what happened in each crime, whether the culprit was taken to court and what punishment they received. This might well improve public accountability of the Crown Prosecution Service and judges. But I still need convincing that that is how it will turn out.

Few would argue that it is a bad thing for the public to be given information, but the question is whether they will be willing and able to use it effectively. Will people power help shape a safe, tolerant and fair society?

Passing the buck

Mark Easton | 16:04 UK time, Friday, 21 January 2011

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A charity is mounting a legal challenge to cuts it says threaten thousands of homeless people.

Framework has initiated judicial review proceedings against Nottingham City Council and the Department for Local Government and Communities claiming it is "caught in the middle" of a blame game between local and national politicians.

It is the kind of row we are likely to see more often: councillors and ministers accusing each other of being responsible for unpopular cuts to public services and squabbling over figures.

On this occasion it concerns the Supporting People grant, money from central government that is distributed by local government to providers of services for the homeless. In Nottingham, the council has announced it is cutting payments to the Framework charity by a whopping 45%, a move that could affect up to 7,000 homeless people in the city.

The Labour council's leader, Jon Collins, blames government cuts. He has pored over the details of the formula grant - the money going from central to local government in England - and says that he can see how Nottingham's Supporting People money has been slashed from £22m to £12m. He has tried to soften the impact of the cut, he insists, but Conservative ministers in Whitehall are responsible.

Conservative Local Government Minister Grant Shapps, however, has written a public letter to the council refuting the maths and blaming the council. He says the Supporting People money has been incorporated into the overall grant to the city and that has only been cut by 10.7% while other income means the authority's spending power is only reduced by 8.4%.

"The government does not expect authorities to respond to reductions in their budgets by passing on disproportionate cuts to other service providers", he warns.

Mr Collins has since responded to Mr Shapps' suggestion that the council's decision is "based on a misunderstanding of how the local government finance system works" by saying in a letter: "I must admit to being surprised at how poorly you appear to have been briefed by the civil servants." Ouch!

It would be almost amusing if it wasn't so serious. The spat between Labour councillor and Tory minister is in danger of obscuring the very real impact 45% cuts in the Supporting People grant would have on very vulnerable people in Nottingham.

Michael Hunter

On a recent visit I met a man known on the streets of the city as "Crow". But the stooping and dishevelled figure holding the bottle of cheap white cider was once Corporal Michael Hunter, commanding a four-man section of Royal Fusiliers in Northern Ireland. When a bomb blew up their vehicle, three of his comrades were killed and a proud young soldier's life fell apart. More than 25 years later and Framework found him sleeping in a stinking doorway at the back of Nottingham's central post office.

Crow showed me the vomit-stained step that had been his bed for five years and explained how now, thanks to Framework, he had a roof over his head and was getting treatment for drug and alcohol problems. "If I can't stay at the hostel", he told me, "I will be back sleeping in the doorway again."

Explaining why the charity is seeking a judicial review of the planned cuts, Frameworks Chief Executive Andrew Redfern said:

"The proposed cuts will have a devastating impact on the city. Levels of rough sleeping, crime, anti-social behaviour, ill-health, unemployment and poverty will all increase. We have to do whatever we can to stop the cuts."

No-one denies that the implications of cutting the homeless budget could be extremely serious. Jon Collins accepts it might well lead to more rough-sleeping in the city but is not prepared to protect services by moving money from other budgets.

What of Grant Shapps? How does the minister reconcile his public letter with its direct criticism of the "disproportionate" way Nottingham is cutting homelessness funding and his commitment to localism? Well, of course, he doesn't want to take the flak for the decisions of local authorities but equally he daren't appear to be bossing councils around.

"I believe in 'guided localism'" he explained to me. "All I am doing is shining a light on what councils are doing." Expect more of the same.

Another ACMD member threatens to quit

Mark Easton | 18:11 UK time, Thursday, 20 January 2011

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The "Just Say No" drugs lobby will be much cheered, I suspect, by the appointment of Dr Hans-Christian Raabe to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD).

Screengrab of ACMP webpage

 

He has long argued that the committee has been dominated by "groups and organisations that promote 'liberal' drug policy or may even support the legalisation of drugs".

However, I understand that at least one member of the council is so incensed by the appointment that he is considering resigning. The Home Office, which prompted seven resignations when it sacked ACMD chair Professor David Nutt, might find itself facing yet more as it tries to replace those who have gone.

Dr Raabe could certainly not be dismissed as soft on the issue of drugs. He has argued that "it is futile to pursue discredited policies of so-called 'harm-reduction' and vital that the government and the nation are totally committed to the ideal of a drug-free society." But it is his less his views on narcotics and more his opinions on homosexuality that are causing fury.

In 2009 he stood as MEP candidate in the North West region for the Christian Party/Christian Peoples Alliance Party and is a leading light in the Manchester-based Maranatha Community which is dedicated to "re-establishing Christian values in society". It is an organisation with very strong anti-gay views and has briefed MPs against measures for homosexual rights.

One member of the ACMD told me this afternoon:

"The Council prides itself on basing its views on evidence. This man put his name to documents which include very questionable views... His appointment makes me extremely uncomfortable."

Dr Raabe is said to be on holiday this week and was unavailable for comment. His appointment to the ACMD would seem to reflect a determination within government that this key advisory body should include voices from outside the drugs establishment.

A few years ago Dr Raabe helped write a pamphlet entitled A Warning Cry to the People of Great Britain in which the Maranatha Community warned that drug problems were part of a "morally self-destructive society". He has also urged health officials to consider drug-prevention schemes that involve spirituality.

"From a Christian standpoint we are concerned that the issue of drug misuse is frequently focused only on the physical and perhaps also the emotional aspects of drug misuse, ignoring the spiritual dimension", Dr Raabe's organisation has stated, adding that, "consideration, encouragement and support should be given to the established track records of many Christian help groups and drug treatment centres."

The Maranatha's approach is at odds with much current policy. It argues that "harm-reduction accommodates and normalises, rather than prevents, drug misuse" and the organisation has been very critical of educational material teaching young people about safe drug use.

"This is a contradiction in itself, since there are no safe ways of taking drugs. This type of educational material encourages rather than discourages drug misuse. It should not be used in schools or in any health education context."

Such views could lead to some frosty moments inside the ACMD committee room. Existing members of the council are avowed "harm-reductionists" and regard Dr Raabe's appointment as provocative. But I am informed that more than one member of the committee is gay or lesbian and it is his views on homosexuality which may lead to an ACMD member quitting.

The name is Bond: Social Impact Bond

Mark Easton | 11:40 UK time, Wednesday, 19 January 2011

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Fancy paying more tax? No? Think it's a good idea to prevent people becoming a huge burden on the state? Yes? Maybe it is time for some sort of special agent. The name is Bond - Social Impact Bond.

Mother and child

One of the big challenges for any government is how to find the money to invest in preventive schemes which won't save money for years. The problem is even more acute in times of austerity.

Today the Labour MP Graham Allen will hand the prime minister a review of Early Intervention Projects citing good scientific evidence which shows how, for instance, supporting teenage mums now can save billions in anti-social behaviour costs later.

Mr Allen is something of an evangelist for early intervention and three years ago wrote a book with former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith - Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens [884KB PDF] - to try and convince policy makers that investing in "tried and tested" schemes was pretty much guaranteed to cut crime, improve educational attainment and reduce welfare dependency.

His latest report, commissioned by David Cameron, suggests that over a generation or two the savings from preventive action would run into the hundreds of billions of pounds. All those noughts are bound to attract ministers' attention, but where to find the cash?

For the answer to that we have to wait. The second part of Mr Allen's review, due in the summer, "will detail the new funding options needed to resource Early Intervention".

"There is massive saving to be made by helping babies, children and young people to make the best of themselves rather than cost society and the taxpayer billions of pounds for want of a modest investment. The next task is to discover the best way to use that massive potential saving to drive up-front investment in Early Intervention policies."

We know, however, that "the best way" won't be higher taxes. The money must come largely from non-state sources - namely the private and charitable sectors. The conundrum preoccupying large parts of Whitehall at the moment is how to unlock that cash.

This is where "Bond" enters the action. Or rather a whole array of bonds and finance schemes that civil servants are looking at. The central idea is that investors buy bonds and the money funds preventive social schemes now. The bond issuer (usually a government department) will repay the bond with a return on top at a later date - after the benefits of the scheme have started to feed through.

A small scheme on these lines is already operating in Peterborough prison aimed at cutting reoffending. The Ministry of Justice has sold £5m worth of Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) to charitable trusts and rich philanthropists. If reoffending is reduced significantly, the investors could get up to £8m back after six years - a very healthy annual return of 7.5%. If recidivism doesn't fall, they stand to lose their money.

I know of a number of charities actively working with government officials on other schemes where SIBs might be used: cutting school truancy and exclusion; increasing youth employment; reducing acute hospital care by improving community support; improving provision of fostering to cut the cost of residential placements for children in care.

There are, however, real challenges with issuing bonds of this kind. The Treasury is still to be convinced on how they might underwrite the bonds and there are departmental questions about who issues and pays out on them. After all, a health or education initiative might well save money in the courts and police stations years later. How are they going to calculate where any benefit has gone?

In some respects, the ideas listed above are the easy ones. It is relatively straightforward to measure reoffending, truancy or bed occupancy in a hospital. When it comes to the kind of early intervention projects that Graham Allen is proposing, measuring outcomes is much harder.

Let us imagine that an investor funds a Family Nurse Partnership to support at-risk teenage mothers bring up their babies.

According to a US evaluation, by the age of two, nurse-visited children are seen in hospital emergency departments 32% less often than similar kids without the help. By age 15 there are noticeable differences in reports of child abuse, teen-pregnancies, welfare requirements and arrests.

So there are expected savings across 15 years, but how can you be sure that any improvements are caused directly by the intervention? It might be the impact of a brilliant GP or teacher, a parent with high aspirations for their child, an astute police officer or, most likely, a complex mixture of a multitude of factors.

In 2009 the Cabinet Office published the results of work by the Measuring Social Value consortium [629KB PDF] which had been trying to find ways to monetize the success of social projects.

They produced a tool called Social Return on Investment (or SROI in the uninspiring jargon) and there is some hope that it could be used to unpick the cash saving of a particular scheme. If cautious Treasury officials can be convinced that SROI is measuring something real, they might be more enthusiastic about underwriting bond issues.

The charity Action for Children, for instance, is suggesting that with early intervention schemes "there is a strong case for raising the funds needed through a series of annual bond issues with 10-year maturities".

"Even after factoring in the transition costs from the system we have now to a more preventative approach returns to the UK economy would total £486 billion over 20 years. These savings are calculated on the basis of an investment of £620 billion to fund the transition and £394 billion to implement the bond scheme."

To back their argument, the charity has conducted SROI measures of some of its preventive schemes and says that for every £1 invested annually, "society benefits by between £7.60 and £9.20".

The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is today urging banks to "put something back into society by supporting social impact bonds and other forms of social investment". But success won't come from shaming financiers to invest. They must be convinced that there is a reasonable prospect of getting a return and, as yet, the case has not been made. Graham Allen has got four months to do so.

Undercover under scrutiny

Mark Easton | 16:28 UK time, Monday, 10 January 2011

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The authorities refuse to say exactly why they pulled the plug on the prosecution of six environmental activists today, but there must have been concern inside Scotland Yard that the case would result in undercover policing itself being put on trial: its methods exposed; its justification questioned.

PC Mark Kennedy

 

From a short-back-and-sides police officer to a tattooed and pony-tailed eco-warrior, for seven years PC Mark Kennedy lived deep undercover at the heart of Britain's environmental protest movement. But as well as his appearance, his loyalties changed.

Today saw the collapse of a trial of six people accused of trying to shut down a Nottinghamshire power station after the officer who'd infiltrated their group offered to give evidence for the defence.

In a statement, prosecutors simply said the reason was that "previously unavailable information that significantly undermined the prosecution's case came to light" adding that the cause was "not the existence of an undercover officer".

The Met has been infiltrating protest groups since they were embarrassed in London's Grosvenor Square in 1968 when an anti-Vietnam rally unexpectedly turned violent. An elite covert unit was set up, nicknamed the hairies because undercover officers changed their appearance to blend in.

During the 70s and 80s the "special demonstration squad" penetrated organisations from the Troops Out movement to the Anti-Nazi league but the tactic was always controversial with accusations of entrapment and suggestions that police were undermining peaceful protest.

Peter Bleksley, a member of Scotland Yard's undercover unit in the mid-80s thinks today's case raises the same questions again.

"I think the cops have got to ask themselves the question about whether it was proportionate with what they were doing here? I mean I would rather undercover cops, who should be very highly trained and expensive resources, I think they'd be best put to use trying to catch the drug dealers, the gun runners and the murderers as opposed to others who might be seen, although not by me, but might be seen as a bunch of fluffy tree huggers."

It was a point echoed by Mike Schwartz, the solicitor representing the 113 activists who were arrested after what is presumed to have been a tip-off from Mark Kennedy.

"One expects there to be undercover police on serious operations to investigate serious crime. This was quite the opposite. This was civil disobedience which has a long history in this country and should be protected."

There are also questions as to whether the activities of PC Kennedy amount to entrapment.

Senior backbencher David Winnick, a Labour member of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, said:

"The concern is not the fact that the Metropolitan Police, and possibly other police forces, use undercover agents. No-one is so naive as to believe that that hasn't been the case since time began.
 
My concern is the manner in which it has been alleged that Kennedy acted almost as an agent provocateur."

During his time undercover using the pseudonym Mark Stone, PC Kennedy chained himself to the gates of a nuclear power station and drove protestors to hijack a coal train delivering fuel. He climbed a tower at Didcot power station, assisted with planning and funding some protests as well as offering expert advice on how to break-in and climb.

According to the lawyer's bible "Blackstone's Criminal Practice 2010":

"Police conduct which brings about state-created crime is unacceptable and improper and to prosecute it in such circumstances would be an affront to the public conscience. However, if the accused already had the intent to commit a crime of the same or a similar kind and the police did no more than give him the opportunity to fulfil his existing intent, that is unobjectionable."

It is always going to be difficult for covert officers to maintain their cover story without appearing supportive of a protest group's aims. The question is whether they can do so without encouraging or stimulating criminal activities. Were they to find themselves having to, say, help fund an operation or see their cover blown, would an undercover operative be prepared to walk away?

Given the criticism Scotland Yard endured for poor intelligence after the violence associated with student protests a month ago, it would seem likely that a handful of undercover Scotland Yard officers are even now working to infiltrate extremist groups who may be planning to hijack anti-cuts demonstrations. Today's events, however, illustrate how difficult the tactic remains.

A defining moment for anti-social behaviour

Mark Easton | 17:36 UK time, Tuesday, 4 January 2011

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The Home Office says today's launch of six-month "trials" in eight police forces in England and Wales will help them decide "what works best" when it comes to logging calls and responding to complaints about anti-social behaviour.

But this afternoon I learned that the official who might normally oversee the methodology of such research, the Home Office's Chief Scientific Advisor Professor Bernard Silverman, was not consulted.

The government claims to believe in the principle of evidence-based policy, but with no money to spend and a philosophy of "not being prescriptive", gathering robust data from local areas becomes difficult.

Today's press release explains that the "new approach to tackling ASB is seeing responsibility and control move from Whitehall to local agencies and neighbourhoods".

"Building on that principle, the trials are bottom-up, with each volunteer area deciding how to implement the five principles (see below). At the end of the trial the Home Office will assess each area's approach and publish details about what worked best across the eight forces and what other areas should be looking to copy."

The five principles are these:
• creating an effective call-handling system where each individual has a log of complaints created from the very first call
• introducing risk assessment tools to quickly identify the most vulnerable victims
• installing off-the-shelf IT systems to share information on cases between agencies, removing the need for meetings
• agreeing a protocol across all local agencies setting out how they will manage cases
• engaging with the community to clearly set out the issues which are causing the most harm to individuals and neighbourhoods, and setting out how the police, other local agencies and the public can work together to address them.

When I asked the respected Cambridge statistician Professor Sheila Bird for her assessment of the trials, she expressed concern that different police forces will define the process in different ways, making accurate comparison impossible. "What constitutes a call? What constitutes an incident? Are there agreed definitions?"

One significant problem is that there is no agreed definition of anti-social behaviour itself. A Home office research paper published last March made the point that "anti-social behaviour (ASB) is a confusing term which has been variously applied to a wide spectrum of activity, from serious criminal violence and persistent ongoing intimidation and harassment at one end of the spectrum, to subjective feelings of unease caused by relatively minor and perhaps occasional environmental disturbances, such as litter, at the other."

"Policy should try to move away from subjective interpretations of what constitutes ASB (as enshrined in the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act) towards a greater prescription and definition."

There's nothing wrong with encouraging innovation and a range of approaches to problems, but statisticians will be wary of how "non-prescriptive" trials without formal evaluation might be used as the evidence-base for policy.

Professor Mike Hough, president of the British Society of Criminology and formerly deputy director of the Home Office's Research and Planning Unit, warns that "if the informal approach to piloting turns out to be a low-cost substitute for formal evaluation, then that's obviously a cause for concern".

For the narrow and technical protocols under consideration in the ASB "trials" it probably doesn't matter hugely whether the evaluation is strictly scientific. Police forces will do their own assessment of how the pilots worked.

But if one of the consequences of localism is a non-prescriptive model for policy pilots, then it signals a move away from the principle of evidence-based government.

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