Not Saussure

May 23, 2007

Latest Madness from HMG

Filed under: civil liberties, UK — notsaussure @ 7:22 pm

A bit belated, but I couldn’t let this monstrous proposal go without comment, though:

Council workers, charity staff and doctors will be required to tip off police about anyone whom they believe could commit a violent crime, under secret Home Office plans.

Well, that’s just about everyone in the country, since we’re all of us capable of committing a violent crime under the wrong circumstances. Fortunately, for most of us these circumstances don’t arise.

Apparently, though, the idea is to be a bit more selective:

Danger signs used to identify an individual as a potential perpetrator might include a violent family background, heavy drinking or mental health problems. A potential victim might come to the attention of the monitoring agency on seeking treatment for stress-related conditions from a GP.

Right, so someone trying to take the difficult step of admitting he needs help with his drinking and his depression as a result of a difficult family situation and seeking help from his GP now has to take into account the risk that his GP will be under a statutory obligation to inform the police. What the police are supposed to do with this information is anyone’s guess.

The proposal’s ludicrous. It seems the document’s author

admits that a number of issues need to be resolved, including what should trigger an initial report and what should count as a serious violent crime.

Well, yes. That is a bit of a problem. One of my favourite pieces of legislation, the dear old Criminal Justice Act 2003, has a shot at defining them, and tells judges what they’re supposed to do when people have actually been convicted of committing them. Essentially, if you’re convicted of one of a number of offences, the Court has to undertake a risk assessment before you’re sentenced and, if the sentencing judge concludes that you present a serious risk of causing serious harm to people in the future, he’s required to sentence you in a particular manner. That, as the Court of Appeal noted, in the case of R v Lang, in which the Appeal judges made an initial stab at making sense of how this works in practice, can get a bit tricky. The judgement concludes, after 150-odd paragraphs rehearsing the facts of actual cases where people had been sentenced under these provisions and trying to work out if the relevant bits of the CJA applied — and, take it from me, it’s complicated — with the comment:

It would be inappropriate to conclude these proceedings without expressing our sympathy with all those sentencers whose decisions have been the subject of appeal to this Court. The fact that, in many cases, the sentencers were unsuccessful in finding their way through the provisions of this Act, which we have already described as labyrinthine, is a criticism not of them but of those who produced these astonishingly complex provisions. Whether now or in the fullness of time the public will benefit from sentencing provisions of such complexity is not for us to say. But it does seem to us that there is much to be said for a sentencing system which is intelligible to the general public as well as decipherable, with difficulty, by the judiciary.

The author of this crack-pot idea, though, envisages placing a legal obligation on GPs to undertake a similar exercise to the one the judiciary finds so difficult, and then to break their duty of patient confidentiality if they reach certain conclusions. How on earth you’d go about prosecuting a GP who you thought hadn’t fulfilled this obligation is an utter mystery, by the way.

The more I think about it, the more insane the scheme appears. Chap goes to his GP to discuss his problems. GP is alarmed and says, ‘I’d like to refer you for some help with anger management and with alcohol abuse.’ Chap agrees. What’s the point, then, of bringing in third parties?

Alternatively, chap doesn’t agree, or attends the sessions for a while and gives up. Everyone now alarmed, but what do they do? If we’ve actually convicted someone of a crime, then there are sanctions to make him cooperate; breach his probation and re-sentence him (or activate his suspended sentence), or recall him to prison if he’s out on licence. But we can’t do that if we just suspect he might do something illegal in the future, can we? Well, yes, I know about control orders, so probably this government wouldn’t see any problems, but the courts might.

The whole idea seems inspired, if that’s the right word, by the thinking behind the National Children’s Database; keep tabs on people and focus multi-agency intervention in an attempt to head off potential problems in the future. And, as the ArchRights blog has frequently pointed out, one reason for keeping a close eye on what the government do to children is that they’ll probably try to do it to adults, too, sooner or later.

Seems typical of this government’s thinking; at some level it regards all of us as both children to be guided and as criminals who just haven’t got round to committing a crime yet, but probably will do if someone doesn’t stop us.

The justifications for this wheeze bear looking at, too. Inevitably, the Soham murders and the murder of Victoria Climbié are quoted as examples of why we need more collection and sharing of information.

I can never understand why that is. As I recall, and if anyone disagrees, I’ll dig out the official reports into both cases and go through it in detail, in neither case was the problem ‘we didn’t have enough information’. In the Climbié case, the problem was, on the contrary, the Social Services department had plenty of information and complaints, but didn’t follow it up properly. In the Soham case, it was, again, people not doing their jobs properly — references not being properly checked, criminal records inquiries not being conducted properly, Hull Police not recording complaints and information received about Huntley properly,so no one investigating one of the many complaints about him never got the full picture, because no one understood the computer system and because they’d completely misunderstood what they could and couldn’t do under the Data Protection Act, and so on.

If everyone concerned had done their jobs properly — or even if some of them had, certainly in the Soham case, then the murders could probably have been avoided. And if organisations can’t even supervise and manage their own staff properly, then I don’t see why anyone expects them to do particularly grand job of supervising and managing the general public.

And, again inevitably, we get told that

the Home Office has its duty of public protection as its top priority.

This sounds all very worthy, until you think it through. It might well be the Home Office’s top priority, since the Home Secretary carries — does his best to avoid carrying, more like — the can when something goes wrong, but most of us don’t live our lives on the basis that protecting ourselves, or being protected by others, from criminals is our top priority. It’s one of them, certainly, but my main worry in life certainly isn’t that I might become a victim of crime and that, in consequence, I’d better do everything I can, no matter how irksome or disproportionate, to avoid it. In fact, I’d think anyone who did live his life primarily on the basis he must at all costs avoid the risk of falling victim to crime was rather odd.

This is, of course, only a leaked first draft, and the Home Office say

These proposals are still in development and no decisions have been made

which probably (I hope) means they were never meant to see the light of day; it’s not unusual, as I understand it, to start with draft proposals so extreme and unworkable that they’ll never be implemented, as part of a method of seeing what’s, in fact, acceptable and practicable and what isn’t. But it’s worrying people’s minds in the Home Office seem to be running on those lines.



  1. A bit like the old “everyone’s out of step except me.”

    Comment by Warwick Motley — May 24, 2007 @ 3:59 am

  2. The focus in youth justice over the past few years has been on prediction and ‘risk management’ and now, inevitably, that approach is extending to adults. I don’t think there’s a single information-sharing initiative that hasn’t already been road-tested over the last 5 years on children, and particularly on teenagers (probably the least tolerated group in society).

    These days, I keep running across that Niemoeller quote. An up to date version should probably begin “first they came for the adolescents…”

    Comment by archrights — May 24, 2007 @ 6:45 am

  3. Jesus wept, not more neo-Lombrosian database politics.

    Comment by Alex — May 24, 2007 @ 10:10 am

  4. The best comment on this sort of seen a long time I’ve seen for a long time is over in the comments to a piece by Tim Worstall about a planned database of gay men:

    SQL Macht Frei

    Comment by notsaussure — May 24, 2007 @ 12:24 pm

  5. I agree entirely with the main thrust of this, but:

    “If everyone concerned had done their jobs properly — or even if some of them had, certainly in the Soham case, then the murders could probably have been avoided. ”

    Huntley/Nixon had access to the girls not because he was a school caretaker, but because he was Maxine Carr’s boyfriend. Had Humberside collated their information better (and a lot of other police forces probably welcome Bichard’s report with a “There but for the grace…”) then he wouldn’t have got his job. But there was nothing to lift him on, and nothing to stop him living with Carr.

    Comment by Chris Williams — May 24, 2007 @ 2:15 pm

  6. Point taken, Chris. I suppose there are so many ‘what if’s’? As far as I remember from the Bichard Report, several of the officers involved in investigating the individual complaints about Huntley said they’d have handled the investigations, and particularly when the complainants withdrew their allegations, if they’d known about all the other times there’d been very similar complaints that were later withdrawn. And, even if, in the event, no charges had been brought, but he hadn’t got the job, would he have ended up in Soham with Maxine Carr (I can’t recall the circumstances of how and where they met). Would the girls have gone with him if they hadn’t known him through his job as school-caretaker, even though his telling them that Maxine Carr was in the house, too, was what really persuaded them to accompany him?

    I do see what you mean though, and maybe I put it too strongly. Certainly, though, had everyone (or even some people) done their jobs properly, it’s almost certainly less likely that the murders would have taken place. And my point still stands, I think, that the problem was a lack of information about him. There was plenty of that; it didn’t, however, get passed on properly even when people asked for it. And I don’t see how a new database or set of legal requirements would have helped.

    Comment by notsaussure — May 24, 2007 @ 2:50 pm

  7. “Would the girls have gone with him if they hadn’t known him through his job as school-caretaker”

    Purely for clarification: Huntley wasn’t caretaker at the girls’ school. They were at St Andrews primary school; he was at Soham Village College. They knew him through their relationship with Maxine Carr.

    The press reports have consistently conflated two separate issues: the murder of the two children, and the fact that someone with Huntley’s background was working in a (different) school.

    While he would not have had a job at SVC had his references been checked and so on, and therefore might not have been in Soham at all, to a large extent that isn’t relevant. The partners of those who work with children aren’t routinely checked out, so what would the story be had Huntley been, say, a plumber?

    Comment by archrights — May 25, 2007 @ 12:43 pm

  8. Thanks, Archrights. I hadn’t fully realised he worked at a different school. That does rather put a different complexion on matters. Obviously he’s not the sort of man you want working with children, but I now appreciate that all the data-sharing in the world probably wouldn’t have made much difference had he been in a different line of work, though the risks would have remained pretty much the same.
    Well, it might have got him convicted of an earlier offence back in Hull, but that’s a different issue ; unless, possibly, then the National Offender Management Scheme might have taken a view on his relationship with Maxine Carr and the access it gave him to children. I’m not sure what action they could then take, though, particularly if he had no longer been on licence for any offence might have been convicted of back on Humberside, other than perhaps expressing to her their concerns and making sure she was aware of his background.

    Comment by notsaussure — May 25, 2007 @ 1:08 pm

  9. Re 3, this reminded me of the Lombroso Program in Philip Kerr’s A Philosophical Investigation.

    The government should talk about “preemptive justice”: that might help sell it.

    Comment by Steven — May 25, 2007 @ 6:33 pm

  10. […] Not Saussure on yet another attack on our civil liberties by our wonderful government. […]

    Pingback by Under The Weather « The Nether-World — May 26, 2007 @ 4:34 am

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