Monday, May 21, 2007

People are strange, when you're a stranger

This stinks: The Times : Secret plans to turn staff into police informers.
"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.

Civil liberties campaigners last night said that the proposal raised the prospect of people being placed under surveillance and detained even though they have committed no offence.

And a senior Whitehall official, who leaked the plans to The Times, said that it would entail a mass of personal information, including sensitive medical records, being passed around many different agencies — even if there was no firm evidence of any potential risk from an individual."

It is always difficult to work out how serious these things are, the words leaked and proposal being key. But it would be in line with the increasingly popular idea that all tragedy is preventable and the law enforcement authorities should become involved in matters where nothing which constitutes a crime has actually been committed (for example, Anti-Social Behaviour Orders or Clause 23 of the 2005 Terrorism Bill)

There are currently fairly clear guidelines about the parameters of confidentiality that public service workers have to work within. Whenever you see a psychiatrist or counsellor, for example, there is always a preamble about how nothing you say goes beyond the four walls unless you give them reason to believe you are going to put yourself in danger, are going commit a crime or have committed a crime.

But none of us are qualified to anticipate who may, at some time in the future, commit a crime - even those who are experts in human behaviour. If healthcare professionals could merely predict which of us were going to commit suicide, then many thousands more lives could be saved each year than if we somehow managed to eliminate violent crime. Only they can’t. Why? Because people are making choices in their own heads, choices we are not privy to, choices which are often completely different to the ones the same person might have made last week, or yesterday or five minutes ago. Free will is awfully inconvenient like that.

The only obvious predictive indicator of criminal activity is criminal activity; someone who beats his girlfriend up might eventually kill her outright, someone who has an illegal drug habit may, in time, feel compelled to commit theft in order to fund said habit, and so on. We can prevent these more serious crimes if we can effectively deal with their precursors, however that might be best achieved.

How else would you be able to guess who might be a potential violent criminal? Well, we've all seen the films and read the books. Your dangerous criminals - other than your sophisticated and charming master criminals who live in isolated mansions and rarely cross paths with public service providers - are oddballs; they are all men (the freaks!) and they’re kind of scary-looking. They don’t make eye-contact - or they make eye-contact but too intensely - perhaps they have a tic? They are sometimes over-friendly, they talk too much, make inappropriate remarks or become easily upset or angry when met with disappointment or confusion. This one seems a bit paranoid - being put under police surveillance is exactly what he needs!

People who lack social confidence or acumen, including a hell of a lot of disabled people, are extremely vulnerable to meeting the stereotype of a suspicious character. And I can't see what, other than sheer prejudice, folks could have to work off. Unless, of course, they had evidence of an actual factual crime being committed - in which scenario, no new legislation is required.

To be perfectly honest, I am myself suspcious of what this story implies, which is surely too outrageous to be true. Come on, it is; this is the stuff of totalitarian nightmares...

[Giving power to people who might exercise it out of malice is another issue, of course. Last time I came into face-to-face contact with a council worker, she was a grumpy lady whose inattention to what I was saying made the whole thing long-winded and rather frustrating. Towards the end of our conversation she thrust a Customer Feedback form in my direction, saying, “You need to fill this out.”

This was, in itself, a fascinating form. It had the various aspects of service you had to rate; Friendliness of Staff, Helpfulness of Staff, Office D├ęcor (which was, actually very nice, but not of tremendous importance). And then if you didn’t understand the conception of rating your responses as Very Unsatisfied, Unsatisfied, Neutral, Satisfied and Very Satisfied (in which case it seemed unlikely you would manage to read the rest of the form), they’d filled the columns with emoticons for you to tick; sad faces for the two negative columns, a straight face for Neutral, and smilies for the positives. And then, if this wasn’t clear enough, they had colour-coded the emoticons, red for Very Unsatisfied through to bright green for Very Satisfied.

You can tell I studied the thing. And all the time, this grumpy lady is sat opposite me, scowling impatiently (it is possible to give an impatient scowl; it's all in the eyebrows). So naturally, I ticked the bright green smiley, Very Satisfied for the friendliness and helpfulness of the customer service I had received. Which was a wise move, because the sourpuss – on whom I was relying on to pass essential documents on to the folks who would deal with my Housing Benefit claim – proceeded to scan down my responses the moment I'd handed it back.]


Anonymous said...

Is there an email I can contact the editor of DoaG on?


The Goldfish said...

Hi Harriet,

You can contact me by e-mail if you click on the picture of the goldfish with the cat's eyes behind it. This takes you to my profile and there's an E-mail Me link on the left hand side of the page. (It's not a privacy thing - if I published my e-mail address here, I would be inundated with spam).

Mary said...

Write an short, simple and polite anonymous letter explaining that you were extremely UNsatisfied with this person's friendliness and helpfulness, but felt that to honestly state this on a form which she was watching you fill out would jepoardise your claim. Best of all is if you can remember her name. Print it off a few times and send it to several different (preferably higher-up) people in the council food chain. Even people unassociated with HB - make the malice inherent in the council work for you.

You won't get a personal reply, obviously, but neither will your claim be under threat. If you're lucky, she'll be disciplined and the feedback system will be changed. At the very least, you might not have to read the drivel about how "98% of our clients are Satisfied or Extremely Satisfied with the service we provide".

The Goldfish said...

Mary, I may well do this. Thank you.

Harriet - what I said isn't true, I must have changed a setting. Okay, well currently the e-mail address is goldfish @ (without the spaces) - it won't be that for much longer so I guess it's okay to post it here.

ben said...


amazing what gets dreamed up when you stick enough suits in a room. the stuff of nightmares indeed...but i'm afraid that this is the direction that my government is pushing mental health care.