Saturday, 28 May 2011

Rape prevention and the government

[trigger warning]

Inspired by the recent exchange between Baroness Gale and Lord McNally to find out what the government is up to regarding rape prevention, I've sent this letter off to the Equalities Office.

Dear Government Equalities Office,

The response by the government to rape has been highlighted in the media again recently. On 24 May in the Lords (Hansard HL Deb, 24 May 2011, c1682) Baroness Gale asked Lord McNally

"Will the Minister give an undertaking to ensure that there is a public awareness campaign about the laws on rape and consent so that we make it absolutely clear that non-consensual sex is a serious offence?"

Lord McNally replied

"I agree with the noble Baroness that it is time to publicise the seriousness of rape, and I think that that could be started in the schools and by looking at some of the worrying things in advertising, in pop music and in some of the newspapers [...] Some of those should look at where they put the position of women in society and whether they encourage young men to give women the respect that they should have."

The exchange raises a very important point that is often overlooked: while there has been significant progress made in improving the justice system's response to rape in investigation and prosecution, and in providing more support for the victims of sexual violence, the sheer prevalence of the crime, and the vast number of people willing and able to commit rape, means that such strategies, no matter how effective, cannot alone solve the problem.

Could you please tell me:

  • what campaigns to prevent rape and/or to discourage people from choosing to rape has the Equalities Office recently run or have planned?
  • what other government departments have or will soon run campaigns with similar aims?
  • what recent studies the Equalities Office has commissioned or is aware of concerning the motivations, psychology and methodology of rapists in the UK, and what, if any, future studies you intend to commission?

Thank you

Yours faithfully


Other departments that I might expect1 to be involved in rape prevention:

  • Education: obviously good education on consent and respect in general, and in sexual behaviour more specifically, would be beneficial. But how to get around the attitudes normally associated with sex education?
  • Culture, Media and Sport: as Lord McNally hinted at, advertising and "pop culture" play a large role in reinforcing rape culture. Most of this is privately-produced, so there are limits to the government's powers - but I certainly don't want my taxes going to promote rape apologism and to portray rape or sexual assault as normal sexual behaviour.
  • Defence: Rape as a weapon of war is very common. There's a role here in both policing conflict areas that we're involved in, and in making sure that our own forces aren't committing rape.
  • Justice: Beyond the obvious "locking up rapists so they don't do it again", prevention of prison rape and attempting rehabilitation of convicted rapists should be on their agenda. Education of people who were caught for something other than rape would also be beneficial, given the correlation between rape and other violent crimes

Those seem like the obvious ones - I may have missed some. It will be interesting to see what reply I get.

1 "Expect" as in "this should", not "this is", probably

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Friday, 27 May 2011

Friday Links

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Sneaking out of public view again?

[trigger warning]

Parliament discusses rape quite a bit more often than makes the news - since the latter only seems to happen if one side or another can see advantage in drawing journalist's attention to something their opposition said.

Yesterday had a debate in the Lords with Lord McNally (Liberal Democrat), the Minister of State for Justice in the Lords, answering questions on sentencing in rape cases.

(There was also a debate in the Commons on Monday - Cath Elliott at Too much to say for myself has more on that, and particularly commends Fiona Mactaggart MP's (Labour, Slough) speech - to that I'd add that the speeches made by Helen Grant MP (Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald) and Jenny Chapman MP (Labour, Darlington) are also well worth a read.)

A few of the exchanges in the Lords debate are interesting in themselves.

The first, from Lord Campbell-Savours (Labour). If you've been lurking here a while, you know what's coming next.

My Lords, would it not be quite wrong for the Government to duck legislating in the area of rape, given the problem we had this last week? In particular, the argument over whether men should have anonymity in rape cases remains outstanding, as does the question of whether women who make false allegations should enjoy the anonymity that they currently enjoy.

Lord McNally's reply is:

I know that the noble Lord has raised these matters on a number of occasions. The Government's sentencing and legal aid Bill will shortly come before the House-or, rather, before Parliament, as it will go to the Commons first-and it will give us a chance to consider again the issues that he has raised consistently. However, his assertion that there are large numbers of false claims for rape is not, as far as I am concerned, borne out by research.

I had hoped that issue was done with for this Parliament, but of course while the Government might no longer want to pursue it, that's not to say they'll stand in the way of a backbench amendment. The Sentencing and Legal Aid Bill isn't yet on the list of bills, but it seems like it will need watching.

On the positive side, Baroness Gale (Labour) asks:

My Lords, all incidents of rape are serious and to indicate otherwise sends the wrong message to victims of rape. Will the Minister give an undertaking to ensure that there is a public awareness campaign about the laws on rape and consent so that we make it absolutely clear that non-consensual sex is a serious offence? I believe that this would clear up any misunderstandings that have happened over the past week.

Lord McNally replies:

I do not think that there are misunderstandings from over the past week. There has been no doubt that this Government take rape very seriously, and the Secretary of State takes rape very seriously. The amount of money, even at a time of difficulty in overall spending, has been maintained and the number of rape advice centres has been extended. However, I agree with the noble Baroness that it is time to publicise the seriousness of rape, and I think that that could be started in the schools and by looking at some of the worrying things in advertising, in pop music and in some of the newspapers, which have been so quick in their editorial pages to condemn my right honourable friend. Some of those should look at where they put the position of women in society and whether they encourage young men to give women the respect that they should have. That might be a start.

Effective government initiatives designed to directly oppose rape culture, and especially to stop men from picking up the attitudes that lead to far too many of them becoming rapists, would be extremely welcome. Prevention is far more important than detection and punishment, where rapists are concerned.

It seems to me to be worthwhile to try to get that bandwagon rolling by contacting the various departments and Ministers who might be most involved with this.

It would of course be essential for the government to actually consult with rape victims and survivors, support organisations, and so on, to make sure that it was effective and to prevent a repeat of some of the disastrous victim-blaming campaigns that have come out in the past.

Edit: Given that one of the key areas would be Sex and Relationships Education in schools, this is going to be an uphill struggle.

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Monday, 23 May 2011

Useful Tools: They Work For You

There are quite a number of useful tools for activists that often get ignored, or that people haven't yet heard about, which can save a lot of time and effort to get the information you need.

This post looks at one that is very useful for keeping an eye on Parliament: "They Work For You".

Please leave recommendations for other tools in the comments - I have a few more I want to do, but since these are far less famous than they deserve, there's probably plenty more that I don't know about.

They Work For You

They Work For You - - is a heavily reformatted Hansard (the official record of the UK Parliament). It has several advantages over using the original:

  1. A nicer interface than Hansard, with speeches more clearly separated; photographs, party affiliations, constituency and Ministerial responsibilities of MPs displayed; as well as inline links and cross-references for common terms.
  2. An excellent search that actually has a good chance of finding what you were looking for. Having performed a search, you can then set up an alert (either email or RSS) and be updated every time a new entry matching your search appears.

    Without this facility, the Parliamentary Timeline wouldn't have existed - it quite literally turned it from impossible to practical.

  3. Link to a single speech on its own or in the context of the debate. You can do this with Hansard, but not quite as easily.

  4. The same good interface covers Commons debates, Lords debates, Westminster Hall "informal" debates, and Written answers and statements. This is where a lot of the work of Parliament goes on, largely out of public view. Some of the answers include quite detailed quantitative data - it's often worth checking here before making a Freedom of Information request to a government department: you can save yourself some time if an MP has got a suitable answer already.

  5. Summaries of MPs, including data drawn from other sites. Very useful for seeing what your own MP is up to, or finding out which Lords might be interested in your issues.
  6. Also covers the three devolved Parliaments and Assemblies to the same standard, and with the same search interface.

It's extremely useful if the issue that you're dealing with is political in the Parliamentary sense. Less useful otherwise, but there might be something interesting hidden in a written answer or an un-publicised debate.

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Thursday, 19 May 2011

On Clarke's policy and comments

[trigger warning: rape, prison]

So, the big news recently is that Kenneth Clarke MP (Conservative, Rushcliffe, Minister for Justice) has made some comments about rape. As with a previous occasion, what he said was appalling, but it still wasn't particularly good even just considering what he meant.

The BBC has helpfully provided a transcript of the interview.

A bit of background: Clarke is considerably more liberal on punishment than the average Conservative, concentrating more on alternatives to prison. This has brought him into conflict with both his own party and with Labour, who generally support the "lock 'em up and try not to think too hard about what to do next" approach to sentencing.

At the moment, a suspect who pleads guilty can expect to have their sentence reduced by up to a third. Clarke proposed that this be increased to a possible reduction of a half, for all crimes.

Labour opposed this, and Clarke's junior minister, Crispin Blunt MP (Conservative, Reigate) gave rape victims as an example of people who would benefit from early guilty pleas. Sadiq Khan MP (Labour, Tooting) asked a follow-up question, which Clarke then answered.

The press reporting then concentrated on the effects on sentencing for rape, and Clarke gave the interview above.

He has since clarified that he thinks "all rape is a serious crime" and that he had made the "wrong choice of words" earlier.

So, two things:

On Clarke himself

He is not the best person for picking the right words, which is a political liability, though not a moral one. However, I think his problems regarding the treatment of rape cases go beyond that.

I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt that, intellectually, he gets that all rape is serious, that rape without additional violence is still serious, that rape within a relationship is serious, and so on. The problem is that he doesn't appear to instinctively understand this.

So, when he's under pressure - in an interview or in the Commons - and doesn't have the luxury of thinking it through, he says things that he wouldn't otherwise say.

I don't think he should be sacked as Minister for Justice over this - bad as his instinctive attitudes on this issue are, they're fairly typical for a privileged man who's spent their whole life soaking up rape culture, and so I have no confidence that anyone the coalition picks as a replacement would be any better. (Yes, there are people on the coalition benches who would be far better on this issue, but they're not likely to get the job if Clarke steps down)

I would, however, recommend that he does a lot more reading of the research on rape and rapists, until it starts to sink in at an instinctive level. It would - as well as the general benefits to society of having a Justice Minister who got this - make it less likely his verbal slip-ups would be in the pro-rape direction.

One of the exchanges in the transcript that hasn't yet been widely picked up on is this one:

Derbyshire (interviewer): Have you met women who've been raped?

Clarke: I've taken part in rape trials. I was a lawyer, sort of, yes I've met women who've been raped.

Derbyshire: And have you put this idea to women who've been raped?

Clarke: No I haven't put this idea to women who've been raped because I haven't met one recently. My experience of rape trials….

Now, the idea of halving sentences for guilty pleas has been around for a while. I can find news reports from late 2010 that talk about it as a policy proposal that had already been introduced by the coalition.

Quite evidently the chances that Clarke has met no women who have been raped since then are zero. He might not have sat down with anyone to ask "as a rape victim, how do you feel about this plan?" (though, one might think that asking the people a policy will supposedly benefit might be a good start) - but that's not quite the same thing. (Derbyshire's first question from the exchange isn't useful for much the same reason)

Intellectually, but not instinctively.1

On the policy

It all comes down to the details, of course, but I think the policy in general is fairly good - and it would be a shame if it was lost because Blunt and Clarke can't keep their feet out of their respective mouths.

Prison - in contradiction to former MP Michael Howard (Conservative, Lords) and current MP Jack Straw (Labour, Blackburn) - does not work all that well. For crimes so severe that life imprisonment is appropriate for the protection of society, it's necessary.

For other crimes, society - those parts of society living outside the prison walls, at least - may be temporarily protected while the offender is in prison, but unless successful work is done on rehabilitation, that often stops when they're released again.

We don't know anything like as much about rehabilitation as we should - because it's been far easier for politicians to go for a populist "lock 'em up" approach. So keeping people on average in prison for less time, and using the significant savings to fund more and better rehabilitation programs, seems an excellent idea in general.

What about for rape?

From what we know about rapists, any rapist who actually gets caught has probably committed several rapes that most people don't know about. (Weinrott and Saylor's research, for instance, estimates an average of 10, though with significant variance). Numerous studies into undetected rapists have shown that they will readily admit to raping people - provided they're asked "did you do action X?" not "did you do action X which is rape?".

The likelihood of a released rapist reoffending is therefore almost certainly really high. Effective intervention and rehabilitation - given that we don't give most rapists a life sentence - would therefore significantly reduce the number of rapes. Letting a rapist out after two years, with effective rehabilitation so that they don't reoffend, is far better than letting them out after four years without that and having them continue their crimes (I'm assuming an average 8-year basic sentence, halved for general parole, halved again for an early guilty plea).

(Starting early on the rehabilitation might also prevent them committing more rapes while in prison, which is an aspect of the crime and punishment debate which gets swept under the carpet rather too often)

Can two years of prison costs, targeted on someone who entered a very early guilty plea and so is perhaps more likely to be reformable, deliver a highly effective rehabilitation programme? I've absolutely no idea. That's for government researchers to figure out, and as I said, it all comes down to the details.

It seems, to me, that if after doing that research it looks feasible, that it's got to be worth trying. We can't end rape by locking up all the rapists - there's just too many of them by several orders of magnitude. That's not to say that temporary imprisonment of the ones we catch won't help, but it can't solve the problem.

Prevention of rapes, by preventing people from becoming rapists, and convincing existing rapists to stop, is the only way that rape will stop being such a major problem. Imprisonment is a fairly ineffective way to convince rapists to stop - we need something better. If Labour and the Conservatives are going to unite behind a "tough on crime" populist stance every time alternatives are suggested, this won't happen soon.


1As an aside, this is yet another problem with having MPs and senior civil servants mainly come from the most multiply-privileged section of society (which is unsurprisingly also the section least likely to be raped). A government and civil service that more reflected who actually lives in society would notice these things before the public mistakes.

"Intellectually, but not instinctively" is the reason why well-meaning privileged allies are no substitute for people with lived experience, and that includes in Parliament. The counter-argument that MPs have to represent all their constituents really misses the difference. I've written about this before.

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Thursday, 12 May 2011

Journalists downplay rape prevalence in DR Congo

[trigger warning]

Several news sources are reporting on this study on rape prevalence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The headlines are all along the lines of "48 rapes per hour" or "1100 rapes a day". Here's the BBC article.

My first thought on reading the headline? "That's really low." Somewhere between study, press release and news article, they've lost some really important details.

The "shocking" figure they quote is - while absolutely terrible - only a fraction of the real problem.

The UK is a similar size to the DRC, in terms of population (62 million and 67 million respectively). Going from British Crime Survey data, my low bound for the number of rapes annually in the UK is around 200,000. It's a low estimate because the BCS data doesn't cover children or people aged 60 or over, but it gives a rough estimate.

The reporting claims the figure for the DRC to be around 400,000. Worse, even accounting for the slightly higher population, but not much worse.

"UK: 20 rapes every hour, study finds" would be an equally accurate headline (and perhaps expressing it like that might shock a few people into action).

The figure for the DRC is considerably higher - not just twice as bad as the UK

  1. The study, according to the article, only covers women and girls aged 15-49. Like the BCS, that misses out a lot of people (and, indeed, the authors of the study acknowledge this)
  2. The figure of just over 400,000 is not how many rapes occurred, but how many women were raped in the last 12 months. Like the BCS, it doesn't measure multiple victimisation. Given that the lifetime estimate is only four times higher, there must be a lot of multiple victimisation going on.
  3. They also note a figure of over 3 million women experiencing "intimate partner sexual violence", though the abstract doesn't say whether this is lifetime or annual. It's not quite clear how this figure relates to the initial count, but from the Guardian reporting it seems to be a separate figure, and includes yet more rapes. Not at all surprising - but imagine how much better the UK's figures would look if they only counted stranger rapes; now think about what that implies for the DRC figures.
  4. Unlike the BCS, the figures this study were based on don't appear to have had the same effort put into avoiding reporting stigma (Dr Peterman explicitly mentions this as a cause of underestimation).

Add all that together and this study is still a massive underestimate.

It's also a big increase on previous estimates - which says a lot about those estimates.

That rate is significantly higher than the previous estimate of 16,000 rapes reported in one year by the UN.

If anyone at the UN actually believed that figure - again, only about twice the number reported in the UK - to be remotely accurate, they would have been congratulating the DRC on its successful strategies against sexual violence. Clearly, no-one actually did - the UN staff are not naive! But again, it's measuring something completely different - and the DRC government points out that the difference between the two figures is due to reporting and collection, not a change in the number of actual rapes.

But I don't think the journalists get just how high rape prevalence is in countries like the UK, or they wouldn't print things like (BBC):

The highest numbers of rapes were found in war-ravaged North Kivu, where an average of 67 women out of 1,000 have been raped at least once.

...which, back of envelope, makes North Kivu noticeably safer than the UK. Or it could be - as the authors of the study state - a severe underestimate.

If UK journalists - and the public as a whole - were actually aware how many rapes took place in their own country, then they might not have to have the obvious underestimates here pointed out to them - underestimates that make the DRC's problems with rape look nowhere near as bad as they actually are.

In an effort to get the reporting to be more accurate, here's the message I sent to BBC Complaints - I also sent a similar one to the Guardian regarding their article (to I didn't even get into the extra 3 million, since I wanted to keep the initial complaint short. I'll mention it if they get back to me.

Dear Editors,

Your article reported that "A study by US scientists has concluded that an average of 48 women and girls are raped every hour in the Democratic Republic of Congo.". The study actually concludes something far worse than this - the figure of 400,000 a year from which the hourly rate is derived is the number of women and girls raped at least once in the last twelve months. Dividing this into hours forgets that many will be raped far more than just once. Furthermore it ignores the statements made - and reported on - by Dr Amber Peterman that the estimate from their study is likely to be a significant underestimate.

This becomes obvious when you consider the comparable rate for the UK. The British Crime Survey finds that around 70,000 people between the ages of 16 and 59 have been raped at least once in the last twelve months. Studies on multiple victimisation suggest that many rape victims are raped more than once, for an estimate of around 200,000 rapes each year in the UK - or around 20 every hour.

Similarly, your article gives a lifetime victimisation rate for the worst area - North Kivu - of 67 in 1,000 - a rate that is actually somewhat less bad than the equivalent rate for women in the UK.

I'm not suggesting that rape in the UK is as prevalent as it is in the DRC - though "UK: 20 rapes every hour, studies show" is a horrifying statistic in its own right - but by doing a simple division your headline and article actually hides the true scale of the problem in the DRC.

Please correct the article - especially the headline and lede paragraph - to better reflect the original study.

Yours faithfully


Wednesday, 11 May 2011

More bad education policy, more misguided criticism of same

Education funding policy is back in the news again after journalists noticed that David Willetts MP (Conservative, Havant, Minister for Universities and Science) had suggested that in addition to the publicly-funded places, universities should be able to offer unfunded places to UK students, with the fees payable up front.

Cue massive misplaced outrage about the rich being able to buy university places.

The proposals had a lot wrong with them, and they appear to be being either quietly dropped or quietly hidden for a few weeks. That they let the rich buy university places was not one of the problems.

A quick recap

Undergraduate places available to UK applicants are subject to a strict quota, with universities facing harsh penalties to either under- or over-recruiting to that quota1. Since the universities have to make offers to most potential undergraduates without knowing if those undergraduates would make the grade, this causes a lot of tension among admissions departments, since making the wrong number of offers is a very costly mistake.

On the other hand, if there wasn't a penalty, then the government could be required to pay for far more places than it had budgeted for (yes, they're going to end up doing this anyway)

Places for international undergraduates are not subject to any direct2 quota - universities can recruit as many suitably qualified applicants as they can attract. However, there is no UK public funding for these students (though some may obtain grants from their home country's government, of course) and so they must pay the full costs of their degree - which can be whatever the university declares them to be.

The proposal would allow (or rather have allowed) universities to also supply "off-quota" places to UK students, on the same terms. This would quite clearly not have worked.

Why it was (yet another) doomed idea

Students needing these places are the ones who have failed to successfully compete with the other UK undergraduates for the publicly-funded places. That doesn't make them underqualified - universities reject plenty of straight-A students - but it does mean that they're unlikely to do any better competing against the international undergraduates for the off-quota places.

While there's no externally-imposed limit on how many off-quota undergraduates a university can take, there are plenty of internal limits. Lecture theatre capacities, availability of academics to teach, and for some universities the availability of accommodation for students are all limiting factors. Being willing to pay the off-quota fees doesn't avoid competition - it just gives a second chance.

Since the students who go to study abroad tend to be the best a country has to show, getting a place on this second chance is probably going to be even harder than getting one of the publicly-funded places.

The idea was that the fees would be paid from corporate or charity sponsorship, rather than directly by the student - but what company3 is going to sponsor someone to go to university who couldn't get an offer the normal way? Far more cost effective for them to provide some living-cost grants to several students who did get in.

The number of UK students who actually took an off-quota place - and bear in mind anyone rich enough to do this could study abroad instead - would be tiny.

Like many of this government's policy ideas, it seems to be a way to generate controversy, reinforce their reputation (both constituent parties) as a party for the default, and not actually help any of the people they were nominally supporting.

Not buying places for the rich

What this outrage basically ignores is that the ultra-rich can and do already buy university places for their children.

The admissions processes of universities try to be fair and judge each candidate on their merits. This just isn't possible from a few expected grades, a short personal statement, and maybe a 10 minute interview - especially not with the number of applications that need processing - but universities generally do their best.

The problem is that - as with everything else - a context-free equality of treatment just gives the advantage to those who already have privilege. Rich families can give their children many of:

  1. A home environment focused on academic learning4
  2. Private schooling
  3. Interview practice (especially for Oxbridge)
  4. Private tutors
  5. Access to expensive extra-curricular activities, including gap years, that look good on a personal statement

Middle-class families can give their children enough of those privileges to give them a good chance at a place as well, which is why there's not much wider complaint about this arrangement.

Being outraged that the rich would be able to buy their children university places at market rates rather than subsidised rates is rather strange, in that context - I'm sure that if a "left-wing" group had proposed means-testing fees support so that the ultra-rich weren't entitled to any and had to pay up front, there would have been very little complaint5.

Footnotes (and extended asides)

1 The total quota for all UK universities is smaller than the number of people who would like a UK undergraduate place. This is a major reason why the whole "market in higher education" won't work - as can be seen by the vast majority of universities declaring at £9,000 - demand outstrips supply. The threats of "A uni that as an Oxbridge graduate I consider a Third Rate Ex-Poly can't charge £9,000 - students will go elsewhere" that ministers were making were completely empty: applicants have nowhere else to go except "not to university at all".

Then recall that students are effectively not paying the fees with their own money due to the extremely generous loan repayment terms (which resemble a tax more than a loan), for many students the repayments when/if they graduate on a £7,000 a year degree and on a £9,000 a year degree will be exactly identical; for the rest there will be relatively little difference, and earning a salary in excess of £40,000 a year1a will probably make them uninclined to care.

So demand is higher than supply, and the difference between the low and high prices is negligible. No-one has an incentive to charge a low price, and no-one has any economic reason not to pay. (Fear of debt, because of all the huge numbers being thrown around, is a reasonable but not economically sound reason)

I've actually been quite surprised by how many universities haven't declared £9k fees across the board - I expect by 2014 or thereabouts the fees will have crept up to this.

1a I'm not saying all graduates will go on to a 40k or above salary - I'm saying that only those who do will notice a difference in repayments between those two costs of degrees.

2 The whole "we will cap immigration to a round number whether it's a good idea or not" policy that the government is imposing does provide a national limit. This has already led to conflicts on international student numbers between the government departments responsible for racism ("keep those foreigners out!") and money ("they're willing to pay tens of thousands to UK organisations, let them in!")

3 Of course, a family rich enough to afford the up-front fees can probably also afford a front company to pay the grant, but they can probably also afford to just buy the place the old-fashioned way.

4 And because this is something that the rich provide, academic learning becomes morally more valuable than other ways in which a home environment can be good.

5 I would have objected to this, because the problem with this means-testing (and it's a problem with the existing set-up too) is that it assumes that the only barrier to all young applicants to university getting financial support from their families is their wealth. Applicants whose families don't want to fund them through university but theoretically could get the short end of this stick.

The NUS LGBT campaign has been pointing out from years that the students they represent are particularly vulnerable to their family refusing financial support; they're not the only un-privileged group of students this applies to.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Kyriarchy for kids

Durham County Council has recently put out this press release, which was reprinted in the local free paper and probably elsewhere.

The search is on for young people in County Durham with an outstanding school attendance record.

Durham County Council is tracking down all final-year primary and secondary school pupils who have never taken a day off.

The council is planning a special celebration to reward young people with a 100 per cent attendance record at either primary or secondary school.

Maureen Clare, Durham County Council’s head of countywide services, said: “Never missing even half a day of primary or secondary school is a fantastic achievement and one we want to reward.”

Unauthorised absence from school is a problem, but there are serious problems with this plan.

[trigger warning]

Pupils spend six or seven years at primary school, and five (optionally seven) at secondary school. School is generally open 5 days a week, 39 weeks a year - so that's an unbroken absence record for over 900 days (primary) or over 750 days (secondary). This includes no absences for the various authorised reasons.

According to the Department for Education, there are just under 36,000 primary-age pupils in County Durham (so probably around 5,500 in their final year), and around 30,000 secondary age pupils (so probably around 6,000 in their final year). I suspect the odds of never missing a day are well over 1 in 12,000.

Managing this is a "fantastic achievement" only in the sense that winning the lottery is a "fantastic achievement". I very much doubt that they'll find anyone. I hope they don't find anyone. Rewarding someone for that combination of luck and privilege sends entirely the wrong message.

A partial list of children who - through no fault of their own - will not be getting the prize.

Health and disability

  • Those who were seriously ill for at least one day out of several hundred. Even with a great immune system and full vaccinations that's going to be tricky to achieve. I don't know anyone who didn't miss at least a couple of days of school for general illness - stomach bugs, severe colds, etc.
  • Similarly, anyone who's seriously injured. Break an arm? Tough. No prize for them unless they splint it with their school ruler and carry on. Break their arm while playing rugby for the school? Still tough.
  • Disability or other condition requiring medical treatment, or making continuous school attendance difficult? Nope. No prize for you.

Yet again we have "being ill is immoral". The same attitude permeates government at all levels, and society in general, with well-documented effects.

Family situations

  • Bereavement? Family member terminally ill? No taking time off to visit them in hospital or attend their funeral. They should have the decency to die at a weekend and so not harm productivity. Similarly for happier family occasions.
  • Family moves in or out of the county? I suppose the Council might try to chase up attendance records from other education authorities, but I doubt it. In or out of the country? No chance. Similarly for people who were home-educated at any time - it's legal, and rightly so, but that doesn't mean the government likes it.
  • Abusive family so they run away from home? Or get placed in care? Not conducive to a perfect attendance record. The Council is fully aware of this

Bullying and other peer abuse

  • Bullied to the extent of needing time off to recover from injuries (physical or mental)? See above.
  • So (justifiably) terrified of the bullying that they make up an illness to avoid going in, or are ill because they're so worried, or just don't go in without telling their parents1, or their parents rightly refuse to send them in? No prize for them.
  • Sexual violence? Still the victim's fault.

LGB kids, or fat kids, or neuroatypical kids, or really, any kid that doesn't conform to the exact social stereotype, tend to be even bigger targets for bullies, but it can and does happen to anyone and we somehow accept it as largely inevitable; there are no equivalents of Trades Unions to speak up for childrens' rights here, and children who go on strike in protest... well, that's an unauthorised absence.

Even worse, there's nothing in this section to stop the bullies themselves having a perfect attendance record and getting the prize. "Trample those beneath you to raise yourself up" is perhaps not the ethos schools should be trying to instil.

Miscellaneous bad luck

  • The last couple of winters have been extremely harsh, with schools closed several days for snow. There will have been days when the school wasn't closed but children living in more isolated parts of the county will have been snowed in anyway. Didn't walk three miles through over a foot of snow? Tough.
  • Foot and mouth outbreak causes your farm to be quarantined? As usual, that's no excuse - you should break the law and come in anyway.

The TUC were very critical of the employers who expected their staff to come in, at risk to their life, during the severe weather this winter. Again, apparently this is something that starts early.

Closing thoughts

There's nothing unusual about these proposals. The value of attendance - whether you should be there or not, whether you're productive there or not, whether your attendance causes more problems later or not - is insisted upon by many employers and starts off at school. The idea that people who are ill, or disabled, or victims of assault and bullying, are somehow morally and otherwise inferior, or brought it on themselves - it's an idea probably as old as humanity, but that doesn't make it right.

There's another bit of point-missing, too. The reason that Councils have a legal responsibility to provide education and to require attendance at some form of education, is for the benefit of the children, who will have better chances in life, on average, if they receive education.

The children who attended every day have already, by that logic, received their reward - an education - and don't need an extra reward. The children who were missing are surely the ones who need more attention and help. It's far easier to reward attendance - useful attendance or not - of course.

I've sent the following letter to the Council itself, and to my two local councillors.

I write regarding the scheme described in your April 28, 2011 press release "Search for 100 per cent school attendees".

I fully understand that unauthorised absences from school can be a serious problem, and one which the Council has a legal responsibility to deal with. However, I do not feel that this plan is an appropriate part of that strategy.

Not missing a single day - out of the several hundred that must be attended - is only a "fantastic achievement" in the same sense that a lottery win is a "fantastic achievement". Not only must the winning child - I will be very surprised if you find even one, given the odds - not have had any unauthorised absences, which is quite possible, but they must not also have had any authorised absences either.

Not needing any authorised absences is, however, largely a matter of luck. People get ill. Children, who generally have less well-developed immune systems than adults, get ill even more often. Getting through over 750 days of schooling without being ill even once requires a perfect immune system, which is largely a matter of genetic luck and other factors outside the child's control.

Children with disabilities, chronic health conditions, cancer, or other conditions requiring regular treatment would find it impossible - through no fault of their own - to win the prize being offered. Effectively the Council is declaring that the genetic luck of being in perfect health is "an achievement" - which implies that it is something that the children had a choice in and control over. That is not a pleasant implication.

While luck of birth is one factor the winner or winners of this prize will need, they also need other sorts of luck too. The County's schools all have anti-bullying strategies, but these strategies are not fully effective, and one reason for unauthorised absence can be an entirely justified fear of bullying. (Being bullied can also affect one's physical and mental health, causing authorised health-related absences)

LGBT children, children with disabilities - including learning difficulties or mental health conditions, and children who don't "fit in" for any other reason are more likely to be targets for bullies, again, through no fault of their own.

Not being bullied is not "an achievement" - rare as it is - and to treat it as such is to blame the victims of bullying for the bully's actions. Worse still, the bully could still attend every day and be eligible for the prize while their victims are not!

There are many other good reasons for absence too - a bereavement in the family, being snowed in during the winter's bad weather, road accidents, and many more - for which describing it as "an achievement" to have avoided them is wrong and extremely insensitive. Think of a pupil who had an otherwise "perfect" attendance record, but took a few days off when their father died to grieve and attend the funeral. How will they feel if they hear about this prize?

I understand why the Council wishes to encourage attendance at school, but this is very much the wrong way to go about it, and I urge you to withdraw the scheme.

Yours sincerely



1 The only item on this list that actually counts on school records as unauthorised absence, I believe.

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Friday, 6 May 2011

Friday Links

And finally, for those who think that their "one vote" can never make a difference - a rare counterexample. The difference between Labour having a plurality on Bury Council and having a one-vote majority all depended on the Ramsbottom seat. The Conservative and Labour candidates had exactly identical vote totals (after several recounts). The longest cable tie was drawn by the Labour candidate, and Labour went on to take the seat.

One more vote for the Conservatives, or one fewer vote for Labour, and Labour would not have majority control of Bury Council today.

(As someone who has been in that exact position, my sympathies to both candidates - it's a horrible way to win or lose)

Thursday, 5 May 2011

False allegations - response to CPS consultation

[trigger warning]

The Crown Prosecution Service are holding a consultation on the prosecution of false allegations of rape. My own response is copied below - Laura Woodhouse at The F-Word has more background information and Women Against Rape have a response to which they are inviting additional signatures.

The deadline for consultation submissions is tomorrow (6 May) so there's not a lot of time if this is the first you heard about the consultation. (Government consultations such as this are not well publicised, and this isn't the first time I've missed or nearly missed something I wanted to comment on)

Here's my response. Most of it covers the 'public interest' criteria for prosecution. Quick summary if you don't want to read the lot - I believe it's basically never in the broader public interest to prosecute, even if it appear to be in the narrow public interest when only looking at a particular case.

I had [stronger trigger warning] this Shakesville post about a recent US case in mind for a lot of what I wrote, and one of the references is taken from comments there.

Question 1

The description of perverting the course of justice is clear.

Question 2

In paragraph 15 - for reasons I discuss more fully in my answer to the following question, I believe that for there to be evidence of a false allegation there needs to be far more than simply a lack of evidence of a rape.

To have victims of rape who are considering reporting second-guessing themselves as to whether the evidence they have is strong enough to prevent a charge being placed against them is fundamentally unjust, and as paragraph 13, and the recent Home Office study on attrition [1] point out, there are many reasons that a victim might later decide that they do not wish a prosecution to proceed.

Since a retracted allegation is not therefore sufficient evidence in this case of the initial allegation being false, I believe that prosecutors would need to look for affirmative evidence that no rape occurred, rather than for a lack of sufficient evidence that a rape occurred - the latter, of course, being all too common for true reports of rape for it to be used as evidence of falsity.

Question 3

Regarding the public interest factors set out in the consultation document, I believe that there is a major factor missing for consideration, under which a prosecution would only rarely be within the public interest.

Rape and sexual offences, as is known from the British Crime Survey and many other sources, are rarely reported to the police in the first place. Distrust of the police and/or courts is cited as a common reason for not reporting.

Kelly's 2001 literature review for the CPS [2] refers to research by Jordan into recorded false allegations, which found that:

[...] within the file analysis were three cases that were designated false reports which subsequently turned out be assaults by serial offenders. Additional analysis of one serial rapist case showed that an early report by a young woman who named her attacker had been discounted as a false report; the man was convicted of 24 rapes eight years later.

Prosecuting a suspect who has been deemed to have made a false allegation is therefore extremely risky. Should the allegation be true, and have been retracted under duress, or - as has led to prosecutions recently - been deemed false by the police or CPS without a retraction, then to prosecute that suspect firstly revictimises them again, and secondly leaves a rapist free to rape again.

Furthermore, the idea that a victim can report rape - as victims are encouraged to do by the police - and then end up facing trial herself, is utterly abhorrent, and serves as a severe deterrent to reporting. There are very few other crimes - including those where false reports are more common - where people would find themselves scared away from reporting the crime for this reason.

The public interest test therefore needs to be considered more generally. The ultimate public interest of prosecuting crimes is that future crime is deterred and reduced. Rape is a far more common crime than perverting the course of justice through false allegations of rape. It is also - despite the maximum sentences being identical - a more serious crime.

It might be possible, taking a single case in isolation, to conclude that it is in the public interest to prosecute someone for making a false allegation. However, because of the particular contexts in which rape occurs and in which accusations of rape are investigated and prosecuted, it is not sufficient to consider that case in isolation.

If by prosecuting a case, one successfully punishes the maker of a false report - but by doing so, deters even one other person from reporting their own rape, and so leaves a serial rapist free to commit several further crimes - Weinrott and Saylor [3] found that convicted rapists on average had committed ten times as many rapes as they were eventually prosecuted for, as well as numerous lesser violent crimes.

It would therefore be very hard indeed to argue that the prosecution was in the interests of the public as a whole.

That prosecutions relating to false allegations of rape (but not false allegations of other crimes) are regularly reported in the press means that the likelihood of such a prosecution having a deterrent effect are extremely high.

Hundreds of thousands of rapes occur in the UK each year. Mere hundreds of false allegations are made, and those in which a suspect is named by the accuser are much rarer - arrest or charge of a suspect based on a false allegation is rarer still. Even a tiny deterrent effect could therefore let a significant number of rapists go undetected.

In addition to this, of course, the high-profile reporting that false allegations receive feeds in to the common belief among many members of the public that false allegations are commonplace. This attitude and culture is something that the CPS already have to work against. By prosecuting a false allegation case, prosecutors may be directly increasing the difficulty of the - already difficult - task their fellow prosecutors have in prosecuting rape cases. Again, this is difficult to justify as being in the broader public interest.

A consideration of whether prosecuting the case could increase the likelihood of other rapes being committed, other rapes remaining undetected, and rapists being difficult to prosecute successfuly - causing great harm to the general public interest - should therefore be weighed against the local public interest served by prosecution of an individual case.

Question 4

The explanation of "double retraction" is clear. However, under the circumstances described in paragraph 26, I am unable to think of a situation in which a prosecution would be in the public interest, for the reasons of the matter of logic stated within that paragraph.

An example of a case where prosecution might be in the public interest is perhaps needed here.

Question 5

Given the likelihood of a prosecution having wider repercussions beyond the narrow public interest of prosecuting a particular case, and the difficulties therefore caused in achieving justice for future victims of rape, I believe that the interim measures described in paragraphs 29 and 30 (referral to the Director of Public Prosecutions) should be made permanent.

These cases are extremely rare, but the need for oversight at the highest level is clear.


  1. A gap or a chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases. Kelly, Lovett and Regan, 2005.
  2. Routes to (in)justice: a research review on the reporting, investigation and prosecution of rape cases. Kelly, 2001
  3. Self-Report of Crimes Committed by Sex Offenders. Weinrott and Sayler, 1991
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Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Referendum 5 May - a summary of the issues

In-person voting opens soon for the UK's second fully-national referendum, which has been characterised by campaigns by both sides which generally avoid the real advantages and disadvantages of their preferred options. If you have a vote, but aren't completely decided how to use it, here's a quick summary of the major reasons I've found to vote for 'Yes' or 'No'.

Voting is open from 7am until 10pm on Thursday 5 May (including elections to local councils and/or devolved administrations in many parts of the country), and the votes in the referendum will be counted starting at 4pm on Friday (with verification beginning at 1pm). Results will probably therefore be known late on Friday evening. There is no minimum turnout threshold; the result will be binding on the government however many or few votes are cast.

I'm sure I've missed some reasons - feel free to add your own, or ask for more explanation of these, in comments.

I've broken the most important reasons as I see them for each side into rough categories, excluding reasons which are false or irrelevant.

There are many more arguments for and against Alternative Vote and First Past The Post, which I go into more detail in other posts - see below for a few links.

On technical issues...

If you want to vote based on which is the 'better' voting system for an electoral structure such as the UK Parliament, based on the criteria such a voting system should fulfil.

Vote 'Yes' (to use Alternative Vote for future general elections) if:

  • You dislike the idea that similar candidates can split the vote allowing a generally unpopular candidate to win.
  • You want to encourage honest voting rather than requiring tactical voting.

Vote 'No' (to keep First Past The Post for future general elections) if:

  • You think non-monotonicity is a serious problem with AV, and the likely rate of around 1% of constituencies potentially being affected is too high for you.
  • You don't believe that sufficient work will be done to make preferential ballot papers at least as accessible as the current ones.

On party-political issues...

If you want to vote based on which political parties will be helped or hindered by the voting system in use.

Vote 'Yes' if:

  • You want the Lib Dems and other generally centrist parties to improve their share of seats, and/or in Scotland or Wales you want the SNP or Plaid Cymru to improve their share of seats
  • You want non-centrist parties such as the Greens and UKIP to have a better chance at winning seats in the long-term
  • You want to shake up the political system in a way that is not predictable from the currently available information.

Vote 'No' if:

  • You are happy with the current political system, and the shares of seats it generally results in.
  • You would like both the Labour and Conservative parties to maintain their share of seats if their share of votes falls.

On campaign related issues...

If you want to vote based on which official campaign is better - and I don't recommend it - then...

Vote Yes if:

  • You prefer mostly-honest incompetence

Vote No if:

  • You prefer mostly-competent dishonesty

Scribble "I hate you all" all over your ballot paper if:

  • You were holding out for competent honesty and are still determined to vote on these grounds

In more detail

If you find that you're agreeing with at least some statements on both sides, then I go into arguments for and arguments against in more detail, including reasons why some of the common official arguments for both sides are actually wrong. Some of the more complex questions have supplementary articles, linked from those summaries, where I've looked into the issue in much more detail.

If you're wondering what the short-term impact of Alternative Vote might be, the Swingometer will let you try out various scenarios. Remember that it involves, by necessity, by the lack of reliable polling data, and by the inherent problems of asking people how they would vote in completely different circumstances, a lot of assumptions and simplifications.

Think of it more as "What might happen if...?" rather than "What will happen when...", and remember that it can't account for any long-term impacts on the political system regarding which parties are electorally viable, how parties change their campaigning or policies to adjust, and so on.

(Re-)Declaration of Interest

I will be voting 'Yes' on Thursday. I'm doing so in the hope that this is also the result of the referendum. Therefore, I would obviously prefer you to vote 'Yes'.

However, I would prefer it more if you cast an informed vote. Successful democracy depends on - among other things - people having ready access to good quality information.

There are good reasons to vote 'Yes'. There are also good reasons to vote 'No'. Though I personally believe those reasons to be less compelling, I'd rather you voted 'No' for good reasons than 'Yes' for bad reasons (and I'd certainly rather you vote 'Yes' for good reasons than 'No' for bad reasons).

Obviously, of course, if you have a vote, it's your own, and you can use it - or abstain - for whatever reasons you choose (and you may well disagree with me over what counts as a 'good' reason, too). Happy voting or not, as you wish!

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