We don’t do referendums in the UK. Quite apart from the sense that they are too easily manipulated into providing cover for unpopular government policies – or getting Government off the hook – they don’t fit very well inside our tradition of parliamentary democracy.
What we do have, courtesy of New Labour, are focus groups, “Citizen’s Juries” and a whole paraphernalia of devices put in place to support “listening”. With much the same results.
The latest piece of “listening” is a Cabinet Office report titled Engaging Communities in Fighting Crime – aka the Casey Report (pdf), after its author and yobbish Tsar, Louise Casey. A lot of talking to an “ordinary” cross section of the public leads to around 30 recommendations that are a mix of the banal, the bizarre and the decidedly gimmicky. Very little consideration is given to the consequences of these recommendations, either at the micro level (its effect on crime) or at the broader political level (its effect on human rights).
The press release for this report claims it has been strongly influenced by the views of nearly 15,000 ordinary members of the public and front-line staff. That is true. However, the initial research base around which the report was shaped seems to be a “Have Your Say” questionnaire which elicited approximately 1350 responses (Appendix I).
The five areas on which it focuses are:
- Putting victims, witnesses and other law-abiding citizens first
- Fighting crime and delivering justice for communities
- A new approach to crime statistics
- The citizen's role in tackling crime
- Freedoms and accountability
Despite its pseudo-academic language, it leaves the strong impresssion that this is what happens when the Government subcontracts policy-making to the Daily Mail letters page. The basic thesis of the report is that effective policing needs community support and involvement, and that because ordinary law-abiding citizens are feeling unloved they are less likely to be supportive.
They would like the government to take more notice of their views – for which, read an overall more punitive approach to crime and punishment. They want more support for victims. Less bureaucracy. Simpler statistics.
At no point is any real consideration given to where these measures would lead. It demands “naming and shaming” – despite evidence that this can often make it harder for criminals to rehabilitate, and therefore make re-offending more likely.
It would like CSO’s to have the power to detain people for up to 30 minutes and hand out fixed-penalty notices for disorder. It calls for online maps of crime stastistics – a move which must have some estate agents reaching for the cyanide tablets.
There are problems, too, with the report’s larger themes. First, it acknowledges that crime has fallen, but for some unaccountable reason the public are not convinced. The media are often cited as the issue here, with politicians occasionally scoring a bit part. Presumably, Ms Casey cannot have been listening when her boss, Gordon Brown leapt into the controversy over knife crime. Far from allaying public fears or relying on evidence-based research to come up with a considered response, he seemed determined to stoke the fires of public alarm.