Not Saussure

March 27, 2007

Blair’s legacy: bright ideas on Security, crime and justice

Filed under: Blair, civil liberties, Politics — notsaussure @ 8:15 pm

Yet another addition to the ramshackle and grotesque edifice, Blair’s legacy, was unveiled today in the form of a gargoyle called Building on progress: Security, crime and justice. This is a hotch-potch of measures, many of which, such as the plans to detect potential future criminals virtually from the moment of conception by the more effective use of databases, monitoring and ‘interventions’ have been wheeled out before, and look no better second time round. This time the details are fleshed out a bit; for example, we learn that

Early intervention can be highly effective in preventing future crime. Individuals can move in and out of risk. However, by using intelligence on risk factors (such as conduct disorder or living in very low income families), high-risk individuals can be identified early and specific, tailored interventions used. The availability of this kind of intelligence is increasing, meaning that a more systematic approach can be taken both in identifying which interventions work best and in applying them. There is strong evidence that, when targeted effectively, early intervention and prevention can have a significant impact and be cost-effective

Several thoughts occur to me from this. One is that they’ll have their work cut out, since apparently

A quarter of Britain’s children—3.4 million—still live in poverty

unless there’s a technical difference between poverty and living on a very low income. But it would seem that, to the many hardships and humiliations of poverty (or, as it may be, living on a very low income) is now to be added having your children regarded as likely future criminals unless something’s done to straighten them out. Quite what is to be done is not completely spelled out; we’d heard until recently a lot about the Sure Start programme — Polly Tonybee, writing in praise of it in the Guardian alone, accounts for 451 pages of Google hits, for example — but the document is curiously reticent on the subject, cautiously telling us (p 29) that

there are a number of additional government policies and programmes (such as Sure Start) which cannot yet be evaluated fully but have longer-term prospects of achieving better outcomes for children, parents and communities.

Some of the proposals are almost old friends by now, such as that much-loved and familar favourite, a new and imaginative approach to community penalties. As Bystander JP says of this aspect,

Every year there is a promise to make community penalties tough, like I mean really tough, all right? Some years there are two promises. It won’t happen. No money you see. As it is some of those sentenced to community orders are still waiting for courses or work weeks and months after the order is made.

That may be because the money’s going on much more exciting things; we have the benefit of initiatives like

detecting drugs-related premises – the police can now use infrared cameras in police helicopters at night to detect intensive heat lamps used to cultivate cannabis plants (p 45)

How much does it cost an hour to keep a police helicopter in the air, racketing around reminding us that we’re being watched? For watched we’re certainly going to be; the plans include proposals to

Make greater use of more sophisticated CCTV (perhaps enabling some degree of automatic facial recognition)

though one hopes with a greater degree of success than such initiatives have hitherto enjoyed where they’ve been tried in practice, such as Newham and Tampa, Florida. Of Newnham, James Meek reported in The Guardian in 2002 that

It doesn’t work. There is certainly no proof that it ever has in Britain. I learned that from someone who should know, Detective Inspector Ian Chiverton, the police officer responsible for liaising with Newham council on the Visionics package. I called on him before I set off for the FaceIt hot zones.’There have never been more than 20 or 25 faces on the system,” he said. “They’ve been weeded on a monthly basis. We’ve chosen what we call our nominal criminals, so they would be convicted burglars and robbers, but only one facial shot [of each] was ever put on. And there has never been a recognition of that facial shot.”

That is right, never. Not once, as far as the police know, has Newham’s automatic facial recognition system spotted a live target. It is not surprising. DI Chiverton explained that for the system to work properly, it needs pictures taken of suspects from at least five different angles and the Metropolitan Police doesn’t take that many. “To be recognised you would have to walk around Newham like this, wouldn’t you,” he said. He got up from his desk and stomped around the room, holding his face in a grinning rictus at a 45 degree angle to the ground. “It’s not recognising your face – it’s a computer, isn’t it? It recognises digital imagery – how many times are you going to walk around Newham like that?”

It doesn’t do any better in warmer places, either, at about the same time it was reported that

Facial recognition technology on the streets of Tampa, Florida is an overhyped failure that has been seemingly abandoned by police officials, according to a report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union.System logs obtained by the ACLU through Florida’s open-records law show that the system never identified even a single individual contained in the department’s database of photographs. And in response to the ACLU’s queries about the small number of system logs, the department has acknowledged that the software — originally deployed last June, 2001 — has not been actively used since August.

It was also, it seems, given to making

what were to human observers obvious errors, such as matching male and female subjects and subjects with significant differences in age or weight.

And, of course, even if they could get it to work, it’s not a huge amount of use; as DI Chiverton, back in Newham, put it

“Say you’re Bill the burglar and I was just to get your face on the system and a little bell rings at Folkestone Road – what would I do with it? I haven’t got the resources to follow you around Newham. So what is the purpose of putting 300 Bill Burglars on there? It’s different if you’re wanted for murder or you’re a paedophile. But then you have to make sure you have the management systems in place.”

To the extent that it deters crime, it does so by deploying this administration’s favoured techniques of hype and spin; criminals think, for a bit, that they’d better avoid an area because these high-tech gadgets will cause Judge Dredd suddenly to materialise if you put a foot wrong, and then, sooner or later, people realise that they don’t actually seem to, errm, work or, err, do anything in particular.

We get something of the flavour of this, I think, from the promise (or, more likely, empty though expensive threat) to

Expand the use of the most cost-effective crime detection technologies to assist in the gathering of information and intelligence, in order to facilitate improvements in crime detection and public safety. Over time, this could include: – identity cards; – mobile fingerprint readers for the police; – crowd scanners that detect bomb- related devices; and – expanding the DNA database to all suspected offenders who come into contact with the police.

Cost effective? ID cards?? And note that the DNA database is to be expanded to include, in effect, anyone the police feel like including.

This is a long report, and there is much in it to dislike. Doubtless I will return to it in future; the proposals for the Criminal Justice System seem utterly preposterous, so I want to give them the going over consideration they deserve.

But I cannot end without an example of what seems to me so wrong about this government’s whole approach. In the executive summary (I haven’t got as far as the detail yet) they say:

The Government’s vision is for a cohesive and tolerant country in which citizens share a set of common values and have a sense of belonging to both their community and their country. There are three key elements to realising this vision:• promoting common values to ensure that all people living in the UK share a common civic British identity;
• building cohesion locally to promote safe and tolerant communities that are close, vibrant, support each other and are resilient to extremist sentiment; and
• addressing actual and perceived inequalities to tackle differences in opportunity by race, faith, class and gender.

I have what I think is a better vision. Let government forget about inculcating shared values, promoting common visions and building cohesive communities. Let it, instead, just let people worry about their own values and visions and leave us to get on with the business of pursuing our own multitudinous ends and ambitions on our own? When people pursuing their own ends come into conflict, we can usually compromise in a more or less civilised manner. The proper role of government, it seems to me, is to step in, impartially, on those specific occasions when individuals cannot peacefully and informally resolve their conflicts, not to pursue impossible — and, in practice, sinister — dreams of a society in which conflict can never arise. Blair’s — New Labour’s — vision is, it seems to me, precisely that attacked by Oakeshott:

they tell us that they have seen in a dream the glorious, collisionless manner of living proper to all mankind, and this dream they understand as their warrant for seeking to remove the diversities and occasions of conflict which distinguish our current manner of living. Of course, their dreams are not all exactly alike; but they have this in a common: each is a vision of a condition of human circumstance from which the occasion of conflict has been removed, a vision of human activity co-ordinated and set going in a single direction and of every resource being used to the full. And such people appropriately understand the office of government to be the imposition upon its subjects of the condition of human circumstances of their dream. To govern is to turn a private dream into a public and compulsory manner of living. Thus, politics becomes an encounter of dreams and the activity in which government is held to this understanding of its office and provided with the appropriate instruments.

And now, of course, governments have access to instruments undreamed of when Oakeshott was writing 50 years ago.

There is, he says, another way of understanding the task of government;

To govern, then, as the conservative understands it, is to provide a vinculum juris for those manners of conduct which, in the circumstances, are least likely to result in a frustrating collision of interests; to provide redress and means of compensation for those who suffer from others behaving in a contrary manner; sometimes to provide punishment for those who pursue their own interests regardless of the rules; and, of course, to provide a sufficient force to maintain the authority of an arbiter of this kind. Thus, governing is recognized as a specific and limited activity; not the management of an enterprise, but the rule of those engaged in a great diversity of self-chosen enterprises. It is not concerned with concrete persons, but with activities; and with activities only in respect of their propensity to collide with one another. It is not concerned with moral right and wrong, it is not designed to make men good or even better; it is not indispensable on account of the “natural depravity of mankind” but merely because of their current disposition to be extravagant; its business is to keep its subjects at peace with one another in the activities in which they have chosen to seek their happiness.

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  1. Thanks for the link that obtains the desired result. I tried the one on Bel’s and it went to the Home Office website and their Adobe file had damaged beyond repair.

    Is this a symptom of our government?

    Comment by jailhouselawyer — March 27, 2007 @ 9:51 pm

  2. That the Home Office link was not fit for purpose? Never!

    Comment by notsaussure — March 27, 2007 @ 9:56 pm

  3. LOL.

    Comment by jailhouselawyer — March 27, 2007 @ 10:29 pm

  4. Expertly dissected Not Saussure. In addition to leaving us alone, New Labour might try revisiting some of its own traditional values like the one where they involve themselves in wealth distribution at the top end of the salary scale rather than the bottom.

    Comment by Noosa Lee — March 28, 2007 @ 10:06 am

  5. Common sense just oozes out of every pixel on this page. Terrific stuff.

    Comment by Larry Teabag — March 28, 2007 @ 1:27 pm

  6. […] There are articles by Tim Worstall, The Magistrate, and Not Saussure. […]

    Pingback by Little so far on the criminal justice reform proposals « UK Liberty — March 28, 2007 @ 4:37 pm

  7. Big Brother gets ever closer. Blair has made the Socialism of Labour in to English Socialism- Ingsoc.

    Comment by crushed by Ingsoc — March 28, 2007 @ 5:23 pm

  8. […] to me that fixing this would be a far more sensible use of resources than sending police officers up in helicopters with infra-red cameras to look for cannabis farms or investing in facial recognition technology that doesn’t recognise people (and, even if it […]

    Pingback by Blair's legacy: Security, crime and drugs policy « Not Saussure — March 29, 2007 @ 12:58 pm

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