Monday, 12 October 2009

Police officers or health visitors?

In a recent Telegraph column Mary Riddell quotes a senior Strathclyde police officer as saying that he would rather have "1,000 more health visitors than 1,000 more cops", in order to stop children ever getting involved in crime and anti-social behaviour.

But back in the days when cops actually policed instead of acting as an adjunct of the social work department, children were generally adequately deterred from embarking down that route, or police officers would quickly nip their actions in the bud if they strayed off the straight and narrow.

Now police are either hidebound by human rights and paperwork, or engaged in 'multi-agency' toing and froing with their 'partners' elsewhere in the bureaucracy, rather than able to actually deal directly with errant youngsters.

I wonder if Fiona Pilkington - who killed herself and her disabled daughter after years of torment from youths - would have preferred direct police involvement and enforcement instead of neglect and buck-passing between various branches of officialdom?

The public sector zeitgeist thinks that the rights/welfare-based approach to law and order is the solution, but its creeping dominance of the justice system has surely been the problem.

Meanwhile, on the subject of the Fiona Pilkington tragedy, a recent letter published in the Independent suggests one reason why no one listened to the family:
Following some previous horrific case of child abuse the Government put in place partnerships, where all agencies were to take responsibility for cases like that of Fiona Pilkington. As all are supposed to take responsibility, no one takes responsibility. Each partner puts a great deal of thought and effort into defining the limits of its role and responsibilities within the partnership, and is assiduous in analysing any problem and demonstrating quite clearly that it is (just) outside its remit. They are usually so, so sorry about this.
The letter is also sceptical about the official response:
Just as I am not surprised by the Pilkington case, neither will I be surprised by the report produced by the "scrutiny" of what went wrong. It will be a wonderful report, describing in detail what happened, but not allocating blame, because how can you apportion blame when all concerned have acted strictly within their own agency terms of reference?
Which indeed is just a more diplomatic way of expressing the criticisms I made recently regarding the Pilkington case (and the Brandon Muir case previously):
And, of course, as with Brandon Muir in Dundee, this kind of pompously termed multi-agency approach can clearly result merely in institutional buck-passing due to the diffusion of responsibility and communications breakdown, exacerbated, of course, by fawning politicians who hide with officialdom behind a pretence of accountability.
But my comment about "fawning politicians" was perhaps a bit ironic given that the author of the Independent letter is a councillor, and a Lib Dem one to boot. Whatever next?!!

5 comments:

Indy said...

I have to say your logic is pretty confused here. The reason the Fiona Pilkington scenario worked out as it did is because it would appear there was no joint working between the different agencies, not because there was. There does not appear to have been any information sharing between the different agencies which is why the family was left isolated.

You are completely wrong to place responsibility for dealing with anti social behaviour with police officers. Anti social behaviour is not always criminal. It can be, and that is where the police can become involved, but the police have no powers to deal with 'errant youngsters' unless those youngsters are committing an offence.

What should have happened in the Fiona Pilkington case is either that she and her daughter should have been moved to a place of safety or the families whose children were doing the harrassing should have been evicted (supposing they were tenants). The police have no powers to bring about either outcome and never have had. That would be down to the housing provider or council. (There is an interesting secondary issue here in my view - is it any coincidence that anti-social behaviour has become an increasing problem as the numbers of people living in rented accomodation has declined? It is less easy to deal with anti social behaviour by homeowners because they cannot be evicted).

If the police had managed to gather sufficient evidence in the Fiona Pilkinton case they could have passed it to the prosecuting authority and a case could have been made. However do you think that would have necessarily been the end of Mrs Pilkington's problem? If you think it through you will see that, given the likely mindset of the familes and friends of the youths involved in this case, such a prosecution could actually have made Mrs Pilkington's position worse. I am not arguing against criminal proceedings in these cases but the priority is to protect the vulnerable. Before anything else happened the authorities should have made that family safe.

The point made by the Strathclyde Police officer about having more health visitors is I think shorthand for more early intervention. It's about the fact that people like health visitors can very accurately predict which children are going to become involved in crime and anti social behaviour due to what they see in the family background.

It does bring us back to perhaps the core question - when should children be removed from their families. Should they be removed on the basis that they have become involved in crime and anti social behaviour or should they be removed because they are at risk of becoming involved in crime and anti social behaviour.

Stuart Winton said...

Indy, thanks for the lengthy response.

I have to say your logic is pretty confused here.

Cannae be right??!!

The reason the Fiona Pilkington scenario worked out as it did is because it would appear there was no joint working between the different agencies, not because there was. There does not appear to have been any information sharing between the different agencies which is why the family was left isolated.

But surely that's a problem inherent in this kind of thing; there's going to be an element of buck-passing and a lack of clarity over who should be taking action, as in both the Pilkington and Brandon Muir cases.

A generation ago the police could have been called and sorted the thing out without all this rigmarole and bureaucracy (even assuming it all works properly). End of.

You are completely wrong to place responsibility for dealing with anti social behaviour with police officers. Anti social behaviour is not always criminal. It can be, and that is where the police can become involved, but the police have no powers to deal with 'errant youngsters' unless those youngsters are committing an offence.

Perhaps, but on the other hand there's plenty of criminal behaviour that the police could address, but don't, for various reasons, but there's no point in going into the minutiae of that here.

But going back a few years again, it wasn't necessary for police to take formal action or for the behaviour to amount to an offence for the police to nip things in the bud; all it would need was a slapped wrist, or whatever. But now it's all human rights and referring things to a 'partner agency' and suchlike, and the whole thing just lacks the same efficacy.

Of course, all this didn't happen overnight, and by the same token it can't be reversed overnight.

Contd...

Stuart Winton said...

What should have happened in the Fiona Pilkington case is either that she and her daughter should have been moved to a place of safety or the families whose children were doing the harrassing should have been evicted (supposing they were tenants). The police have no powers to bring about either outcome and never have had. That would be down to the housing provider or council. (There is an interesting secondary issue here in my view - is it any coincidence that anti-social behaviour has become an increasing problem as the numbers of people living in rented accomodation has declined? It is less easy to deal with anti social behaviour by homeowners because they cannot be evicted).If the police had managed to gather sufficient evidence in the Fiona Pilkinton case they could have passed it to the prosecuting authority and a case could have been made. However do you think that would have necessarily been the end of Mrs Pilkington's problem? If you think it through you will see that, given the likely mindset of the familes and friends of the youths involved in this case, such a prosecution could actually have made Mrs Pilkington's position worse. I am not arguing against criminal proceedings in these cases but the priority is to protect the vulnerable. Before anything else happened the authorities should have made that family safe.

Indeed, sorting the problem out wouldn't have been an easy task, but my essential point is that a generation ago many of these things just wouldn't have gotten to the stage they do now. I agree that to an extent the authorities have to work with what they've got at the moment, but on the other hand the current approach is part of the problem.

The point made by the Strathclyde Police officer about having more health visitors is I think shorthand for more early intervention. It's about the fact that people like health visitors can very accurately predict which children are going to become involved in crime and anti social behaviour due to what they see in the family background.

But again I can only repeat what I said earlier. Parents, teachers and police were the ones practicing the early intervention in the past, but again the current ethos means that they are less effectual and thus the problem and the need for the health visitor approach. Clearly in the past the health visitor would have been more about health per se rather than behaviour per se, although of course there's no strict dichotomy between the two.

I wish I had more time to go into a bit more detail, and I doubt if my response will cut much ice with you, but I've tried my best ;0)

Indy said...

You say a generation ago the police would have been called and would have sorted all this out without all this rigmarole and bureaucracy.

No they wouldn’t have. The police have never had powers to deal with what you could call soft anti-social behaviour i.e. behaviour which is not criminal but which is offensive and hurtful to the person or people it is targeted at. That is precisely why new legislation has been brought in dealing with anti-social behaviour, although ASBOs are pretty ineffective in my view. They are also the responsibility of local authorities, not the police. There is also new hate crime legislation which should have given additional protection to Fiona Pilkington and her daughter but you will be aware that a lot of people are against that approach.

Whatever the case, the police’s job is to enforce the law. They are not and never have been social workers.

If you want to talk about the difference between the previous generation and this one in terms of dealing with anti social behaviour I do suggest that housing tenure is an issue. Twenty or thirty years ago most Scots lived in council housing. They therefore had an incentive to behave themselves because if they – or their children – behaved in an anti-social way they could lose their house. That is no longer the case. Right to buy has meant that most council housing has been sold off, most people are now home owners or in private rented accommodation. That is why new approaches have been sought to deal with anti social families. You can’t evict someone from their own home and private landlords do not have the same social obligations as social landlords.

I do believe that is the main difference between the way anto social behaviour was tackled in the past and the way it is tackled now. I agree that the way it is tackled now is far from perfect but we cannot go back to the past so we need to think of approaches which will be more effective given the changed nature of society.

Stuart Winton said...

Indy, you may have a point about some elements of ASB not amounting to crime, but on the other hand I think a lot of it does, but for whatever reason police don't act; for example, the bureaucracy is too cumbersome, the justice system is clogged up, or because of the changed nature of social control a warning or anything short of formal action is ineffective.

A related point pertains to what I said earlier - behavior didn't necessarily have to amount to criminal behaviour in the past to make police intervention effective, the intervention per se would be enough without formal action being necessary.

Indeed, surely you'd agree that this is still often the case, but the point is that whereas some people respect and/or fear the police, others hate and/or laugh at them; "I know my rights", and that kind of thing.

But the point is that as compared to the past, on average more people belong to the latter rather than the former category.

And while clearly it's difficult to reverse this, I don't accept the defeatist attitude that all this is in the past.

For example, in recent years the powers that be have tried to re-emphasise responsibilities as well as rights, which is fine, but to a large extent this is just soundbites and rhetoric rather than substantive measures.

One fairly recent Scottish example which demonstrates the wrong approach IMO is the the community warden scheme - if police were ineffectual then why bother with a completely toothless quasi-police force? That just compounds the problem rather than addresses it, and is symptomatic of the touchy-feely approach which rolled back the boundaries.

As for housing tenure, that may indeed be a point, but do you really think that's the major factor?

The problem is a rolling back of rules and boundaries generally, and while the possible loss of housing tenure may be one deterrent that may no longer be so effective, ASB and law breaking generally is hardly confined to people in purchased social housing who would previously have rented.