Posted in Master's blog

I’ve let the blogs slip… why? Well, I was away on leave for three months and allowed myself to get immersed in my research world. So the blog was not a priority – was I wrong? I haven’t let everything slip. I think the answer is that I am not sure who I am writing the blog for, and who might be reading it. I find my monthly editorials in the Criminal Law Review much easier – the audience is obvious.

The sabbatical leave was fantastic, allowing me the space to complete the fieldwork of a research project observing the Parole Board at work, in particular observing oral hearings of the Board where they are deciding whether to direct the release of life sentence prisoners. These lifers include the thousands of prisoners, most of them well past their minimum term, still serving a sentence of ‘Imprisonment for Public Protection’, a sentence abolished in 2012. I carried out the first part of the project in July and August last year, observing 19 oral hearings conducted by video from the Parole Board’s Headquarters in the Ministry of Justice –  the panel of the Board in the Parole Board’s ‘hub’; the prisoner and his lawyer and ‘Offender Supervisor’ (a member of the prison staff) in a room in a prison; whilst the ‘Offender Manager’ (his probation officer) was often on a third video link, or on a telephone link. In January and February I was able to sit in on 17 hearings held in 11 different prisons, where the prisoner and the panel would be in the same room (but even here the Offender Manager might be only on a telephone link), and to interview a wide variety of ‘players’ in the process, including prisoners.

It was a privileged opportunity. I was often shocked: in part at the squalor of many of our prisons, but more often at what appeared to be a culture of inertia. My report for the Board concludes that there should be a much clearer commitment to avoid delays and to create a culture of urgency, both within the prison and probation system and within the Parole Board. The Board’s leadership (of the parole process) and independence within the broader penal system seemed to be missing: were they really an ‘independent court or tribunal’? Prison and probation services should be required to be more pro-active in seeking ‘progression’ for prisoners, less focused on offender ‘management’. Prisoners should have access to strong independent support and advice throughout their sentence.

It is very difficult to comment on the outcome of these hearings: for a start, there were only 36 cases in my sample. But only seven of the 36 cases resulted in the prisoner being released, so the Board is certainly cautious. Many of the prisoners were already many years post-tariff – they had served years more than the minimum term specified by the sentencing court. Probably 13 of the prisoners were satisfied with their ‘result’ as they had not all been seeking release: some were seeking a recommendation that they could be moved to an open prison. But the most depressing outcome was the fact that 15 of the 36 cases were deferred or adjourned on the day of the hearing. Expensive and cruel last-minute delays which could put the hearing back many months.

Since this fieldwork ended I have had the opportunity to visit (briefly) prisons in France, Japan and Scotland. I am left with the urge to write much more – but I am not convinced that, if there is an audience for this blog, they (you) really meant me to focus on what’s wrong with English prisons today. It’s a Fitzwilliam College blog. (If you want more on parole, let me know, or try my Understanding Recall 2011 as the system hasn’t changed – And now I’ll get on with writing about Fitz as well…

Posted in Guest posts · Master's blog

This ‘guest’ blog, originally published on ‘The Conversation’, is written by Jake Phillips, Sheffield Hallam University; Loraine Gelsthorpe, University of Cambridge, and Nicola Padfield, University of Cambridge.

Getting released from prison or police custody can be a huge shock to those who have been incarcerated. Our new research gives an indication of just how vulnerable these people can be. We found that over a seven-year period, 400 people died of a suspected suicide within 48 hours of leaving police detention.

The number of people dying in prisons and in police custody has been increasing for several years. There is, rightly, a statutory obligation for every death that occurs within a state institution to be investigated by an independent body. So each death in a prison is investigated by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO), while the equivalent in police stations are investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).

But for people who die shortly after release from police or prison custody, their deaths are not subject to statutory investigation and are too often invisible.

A dangerous transition

Our research, published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, looked into non-natural deaths of people who have been released from police detention or prison custody. We found that the data on these deaths is contingent upon the relevant institutions (prisons, police or probation) finding out about the death in the first place – and this can be difficult.

We examined two sets of data: IPCC data on suspected suicides that occurred within 48 hours of release from police detention and data from the National Offender Management Service on deaths of people under probation supervision, which includes those released from prison. We also conducted interviews with 15 custody sergeants – police officers who are responsible for the welfare of a detainee while in a police station – prison officers and others such as representatives of police and crime commissioners (PCCs) and Public Health England.

The IPCC data suggest that 400 people died between 2009 and 2016 of a suspected suicide within 48 hours of release, although this number declined between the years 2014-15 and 2015-16, as the graph below shows. People who had been detained on suspicion of sex offences accounted for 32% of the 400 total suspected suicides.

We also examined a selection of 41 investigations and summaries of investigations into apparent post-release suicides that were provided to us by the IPCC. Half of these people had pre-existing mental health conditions. These referrals also pointed to inadequate risk assessment, record keeping and onward referral to relevant community-based care providers such as mental health or drug treatment providers.

We then looked at deaths that had occurred within 28 days of release from prison. Despite some issues with the accuracy and completeness of the data, we identified 66 people between 2010 and 2015 who had died from non-natural causes within 28 days of leaving prison. The numbers are small and so it is difficult to draw wider conclusions, but we found that 44 of those 66 died from a drug-related death. Of the 66, 35 had served a sentence for an acquisitive offence such as theft, shoplifting or robbery, offences which are commonly associated with drug use.

We also analysed investigations conducted between 2010 and 2015 by the PPO into deaths that occurred in approved premises, also known as bail hostels, within 28 days of release from custody. These investigations seek to understand what, if anything, could have been done to prevent the death. This highlighted problems with supporting drug-using offenders, a lack of confidence among staff and a failure to create a smooth transition from prison into the community.

Staff under strain

These analyses only tell part of the story. Our discussions with custody officers painted a complex picture. They argued that they were getting better at identifying people in custody with mental health conditions but that their ability to deal with them effectively was restricted by factors beyond their control such as a lack of appropriate treatment for people after leaving their care and an inadequate number of beds in mental health hospitals. They told us that the risk assessment tool they use for identifying such people was not fit for purpose because it did not go into enough detail and that they would benefit from additional mental health training. They were also strongly in favour of the responsibility for healthcare commissioning in police stations being handed to the NHS, rather than PCCs, a proposal which was dropped in December 2015.

The story from prison staff was similar, but they also talked about the use of new psychoactive substances and the negative effects these substances are having on mental health and safety in the prison.

Problems also exist when it comes to the provision of community-based care after people are released. These include cuts to community mental health services and drug services, as well as recent changes to the probation service, which have seen 70% of the service outsourced to the private sector. Such reforms have made communication between prisons and probation providers more difficult. These budget cuts and public sector reforms are having a serious impact on the ability of criminal justice agencies to deal with these issues and prevent any future deaths.

There needs to be an improvement in the way in which data on non-natural deaths is collected. Deaths post-detention should also be subject to similar levels of investigation as those that occur in police custody and prison. It would be naive to suggest that all deaths of people leaving state detention can be investigated, but there is scope for more oversight from both the IPCC and PPO, at least while they are adjusting to life back in the community. At the same time, the government must maintain investment in mental health and drug services to help prevent those most vulnerable when they are released from detention from taking their own life.

The Conversation

Jake Phillips, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Sheffield Hallam University; Loraine Gelsthorpe, Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice, Deputy Director, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge, and Nicola Padfield, Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice; Master, Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Posted in Master's blog

Yesterday’s ‘riots’ are a misery –  most of all for the prisoners themselves and for the committed staff who work in the prison. About 60 prisoners have been removed with no notice to other prisons and the sense of insecurity and uncertainty on the wings must be ghastly. Somewhere between 150 and 230 prisoners were involved – at the end of a long Sunday, which are of course particularly challenging days for prisoners: very little to do, little ‘regime’ and many hours of ‘lock down’.

Only last week the Minister of Justice published a White Paper called Prison Safety and Reform.  Society as well as staff, prisoners and their families deserve the promised overhaul. There are many (often somewhat vague) promises in the White Paper. They are going to put power into the hands of those working on the frontline in order to “sweep away” the current centralised system. While setting detailed policies and standards from the top is important to improve conditions in prisons, it has indeed become overly bureaucratic, thus sapping the initiative of staff and stifling innovation. Of course prisons have to be safe before they can be rehabilitative.  And what they need now is loads more committed staff and good facilities.

The White Paper promises that independent scrutiny and the monitoring of prison inspections will be strengthened.  Let’s see what happens. All prisons have an Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) which have struggled for years (forever?) to get their concerns heard.  The 2015-16 report of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) of Bedford prison is soon to be published. But last year’s is on the web.  It paints a picture of a crumbling Victorian prison, where much needed upgrading has been deferred time and again. “There has been an alarming increase in the number of prisoners considered to be at risk of harming themselves, in the number of violent encounters between prisoners, and in the incidence of officers employing control and restraint techniques to deal with difficult prisoners. It is the Board’s position that, despite being central aims of the prison, resettlement and rehabilitation have been comprehensively overshadowed by containment. Inadequate time and resources have been available for the kind of positive engagement with prisoners that can address offending behaviour”. The IMB discuss chronic staff shortages, overcrowding, the dangers of new synthetic drugs and the systematic erosion of local management authority, amongst many other things. The Board’s overall evaluation of the staff response to some very difficult impositions, and to unsustainable levels of unremitting stress, is one of praise for their resilience, professionalism and essential decency. The Report asked hard-hitting questions of Ministers and of the National Offender Management Service.

I should declare an interest. My husband Christopher (Engineering, 1968) is on the IMB of Bedford Prison, and indeed he chairs the National Association of Members of IMBs. They have tried hard to get their voices heard. They fight to find and recruit more volunteers to join their Board. How much support, respect and encouragement have they had from the Ministry of Justice?  Let’s hope the new regime in the Ministry of Justice is genuinely prepared to improve the regimes in prison.  And can I encourage all readers of this blog to find people to join their local IMB?

Posted in Master's blog

I see I haven’t blogged for months, and must get back into the habit.  The months rush by.  What have I been doing?  College life goes on for Fellows into July as we worry about exam results and other important matters.  I was also fortunate enough to go again to Singapore for a week in July, talking at the Third Criminal Conference organised by the Singapore Academy of Law.  I spoke on white collar crime and corporate offenders.  In what sense are white collar crimes different from other crimes?  Certainly corporate offenders are different from human offenders.  I discussed the need for ethical compliance strategies as much as criminal law, and explored new (controversial) ways of dealing with corporate offenders, such as Deferred Prosecution Agreements (DPAs).  It was also an opportunity to pursue our plans for a Lee Kuan Yew Fitzwilliam Fund.

I spent the rest of the summer on a fascinating project for the Parole Board, investigating the barriers to release for indeterminate-sentence prisoners.  In June 2016 there were still 4,000 IPP (Imprisonment for Public Protection) prisoners in prison, even though the sentence was abolished in 2012.  It was abolished as a sentence available to judges: but that does not mean that it doesn’t remain a reality for those still serving it.  The Parole Board has to decide whether to release life sentence prisoners based on a test which provides that they must be satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the person should be confined.  Over the past 6 years the IPP release rate has increased from 12% to 38%. The number of IPPs released increased to 747 in 2015-2016 (figures include recalled IPPs).  Based on current release rates, the Parole Board estimates that the number of IPPs in prison will be in the region of 2,000 by 2020.  But once released, they are hardly free – the number of prisoners recalled to prison increases as the release rate goes up….

So that kept me very busy over the summer, sitting in on hearings held by video links: three-way videos from the Parole Board both linking to the prison where the prisoner is with his (my sample was all men) lawyer and Offender Supervisor, whilst his Offender Manager (probation officer) is usually in her office.  There’s lot to write about…

I went round the world swiftly with the Middle Temple (where I am a Bencher) in September: a few days judging moots at Pepperdine School of Law, and alumni events in Santa Monica and San Francisco, followed by an Amity Visit of the Middle Temple back in Singapore which explored recent developments in law and practice in the UK and Singapore. This time I discussed another subject dear to my heart, joint enterprise liability following the decision of the Supreme Court in Jogee [2016] UKSC 8.

Santa Monica Fitz Dinner-Josh Young

Fitzwilliam alumni gathering in Santa Monica











I came home just in time for the alumni week-end and the beginning of term round of meetings.  We are now half way through term.  I think the College is calm (famous last words) despite the slight delay in the completion of the marvellous B and C staircase.  My parole report is with the Parole Board, but I have a heavy teaching load (only 27 lectures over 8 weeks, since you ask, but I’m still supervising three different undergraduate papers as well).

And last week I had my first ever visit to Japan – for three nights.  It was a wonderful experience.  The Bursar and I joined the splendid celebrations of the 60th Anniversary of the Tsuzuki Gakuen Group.  The relationship between our two institutions now goes back 20 years and has given the College its splendid auditorium and generations of students a chance to spend a year living and studying in Japan.  It was so interesting to enjoy reunions with two distinct groups of alumni: our recent graduates studying hard in Fukuoka (and two other Fitz alumni, including Sebastian Dakin (Oriental Studies 1990), who has been working for Tsuzuki Gakuen for many years) and a wider group, across the ages, in Tokyo.

Ruby Jack's Tokyo IMG_0193

With Fitzwilliam alumni at Ruby Jack’s in Tokyo












Now back to a stream of jolly pancake parties with freshers and a host of amazing extra-curricular activities.  But I must get back to blogging.

I enjoy your comments!


Posted in Master's blog

I spent a couple of hours this week in the House of Lords, courtesy of Lord Bradley, discussing Tamara Pattison’s research project carried out under the umbrella of the Griffins Society on why prisons should not be seen as ‘a place of safety’ for women with complex mental health needs. Tamara, a governor at HMP Low Newton, has a powerful but depressing message: everyone who works in prison is convinced that mentally ill people should not be detained in prison, and they can come up with endless depressing ‘stories’ (too often ending with suicide and self-harm). But why does nothing change? Indeed, why does the situation continue to deteriorate?

Tamara’s first solution is better advocacy for mentally ill offenders. Far too often mentally ill suspects in police stations do not ask for legal advice. And they find themselves swiftly remanded in custody. It is a slow road out, as they queue for a hospital bed. Then there’s the need for better screening, better training: we have heard it all before and Tamara is to be congratulated on keeping these vital issues on the agenda.

Why does the ‘system’ let people down so badly? It is difficult to answer that question. Partly it is the ‘silo’ mentality, everyone working away in their own little part of the system. Magistrates, who make bail decisions, need to understand why prisons are not the best place for the mentally ill: understanding can be helped by better guidance, but nothing beats spending time talking to people in prison. Listening to Tamara, and to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) is certainly enriching.  Should magistrates be encouraged to join Independent Monitoring Boards, to see for themselves the consequences of their decisions?

More than one voice in the House of Lords discussion suggested that the current fixation with ‘contracts’ consolidates the status quo, and stifles innovation.  There are some very good things going on diverting women from police stations, but the news from Women’s Centres was less encouraging, as some are losing out in the contractual world of ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’. Good learning and continuity of provision are both lost as contracts change hands.There’s even a fragmented approach to commissioning in health care. How difficult it is to provide a good service for prisoners. It would certainly be easier if we could halve the prison population and provide better mental health care in the community.

I was reminded of my blog of 17 April 2015 ‘You can’t learn to swim without water’, where I proposed that every prisoner at the very start of his or her sentence should have a ‘ champion’, a key worker… who “would have the lead as the offender’s advocate, arguing loudly for measures and interventions which support rather than impede desistance. Pushing the prisoner’s case for reintegration, for progress through the system, at every corner”. We have a long way to go before we reach that point. What sort of tools and incentives can be offered to prison staff to help them achieve what they so clearly want to achieve – moving those with severe mental health needs out of the prison environment?


Posted in Master's blog

Two important Bills were promised in the Queen’s Speech earlier this month and are coming very soon:  the Higher Education and Research Bill, and the Prisons and Courts Bill.  And important background papers on education in both the HE and prison sectors have been published very recently.

First, the higher education White Paper – Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice .

This reflects the government’s declared determination to drive up standards and the status of teaching. No bad thing, but this endless emphasis on creating a competitive market and choice for students doesn’t sound very innovative to me. Nor is it obvious how it encourages social mobility… We have had a competitive market in HE for all the years I have worked in it.  Whether or not the Teaching Excellence Framework lives up to the Government’s expectations remains to be seen.  Widening participation in HE requires decent funding for poorer students and much better encouragement and support for them throughout their school careers.

Then there was Unlocking Potential: A review of education in prison by Dame Sally Coates on behalf of the Ministry of Justice.

This tells us that 42% of adult prisoners report having been permanently excluded from school. What a statistic. Dame Sally perfectly sensibly wants to put education at the heart of the prison regime: “education in prison should give individuals the skills they need to unlock their potential, gain employment, and become assets to their communities. It is one of the pillars of effective rehabilitation. Education should build social capital and improve the well-being of prisoners during their sentences”.  One of the most challenging parts is what is often called  ‘through the gate’ support – helping individuals continue to progress through education, training and employment through different prisons and then on release. The big idea of the moment is to give Prison Governors autonomy – but how and why would you hold them to account for the educational progress of all prisoners?  Perhaps Masters of Cambridge Colleges should be held to account for the exam results of their students?

Dame Sally wants a new ‘people’ culture in prisons to support leadership, to build routes to attract new talent into working in prison, and to ensure professional development for all staff.  How shocking that this is currently lacking. Of course the prison regime should be personalised and concerned with raising aspiration. Of course it should enable more prisoners to move into sustained employment and/or continue education on release. The idea is a “prisoner learning journey”, with a dynamic Personal Learning Plan.  Let’s see how it works out.  The evidence of recent years in prison has been fewer resources, and more fragmented services.  Reducing the prison population by half would help.

In an article published last week, Peter Dawson, one-time prison governor and now Deputy Director of the Prison Reform Trust wrote: “The condition and performance of your local prison should be as important to you as that of your local hospital or school. The people it holds have the capacity to make a significant impact on your quality of life”.

I suspect he’s right: until everyone worries more about what goes on in prisons, nothing much is likely to change.

Posted in Master's blog

This term is obviously a really challenging one for students…  exams and exam pressures are every where.  So it is useful to remember that there are other things going on too.

First, an illustration of a recent tandem outing: five tandems loaded with Fitzwilliam graduate and undergraduates gathering behind us on the top of a Cambridgeshire mountain (some of the hills feel big when you’re lugging your partner up the hill – funny he thinks that’s what he’s doing too!).  I love these regular wanderings just a few miles away from Cambridge, but nonetheless an eternity away, as none of the students we’ve had on these trips had any idea that there were real rural landscapes within easy reach, where the pressures of the Cambridge bubble fall away for a brief interval.  It’s a joy to listen to undergrads and grads in conversation, often apparently for the first time ever, even though the two communities intermingle physically within the College.  Too often they seem tacitly to assume that there’s no mileage trying to strike up friendships across such a massive gulf in maturity – all of 3 years, perhaps!  But sitting outside at lunchtime at a pub somewhere, eating a spartan picnic, the tethered tandems grazing peacefully close by, barriers of seniority fall away.  And we get back to Storey’s Way exhilarated by a crumb of exercise in the open air.





The College has had many other wonderful events:  the highlight recently has to have been the debate in London, as a variant on the regular format of our “London Dinner”, between Andy Burnham (English 1988), Vince Cable (Economics 1962) and Norman Lamont (Economics 1961), on the issues of the EU referendum.  I am not sure they changed anyone’s mindset (don’t we all know how we are going to vote by now?), but the evening was terrific.  The three main speakers all showed their well-honed but nonetheless remarkable skills of oratory, and were followed from the floor by Marina Wheeler QC (Law 1983) and Professor Catherine Barnard (Law 1986) and others.  Real quality, and all home-grown Fitz!

With the speakers at the London Dinner, from left: Vince Cable (Economics 1962), Andy Burnham (English 1988), and Norman Lamont (Economics 1961).


As ever, my two working worlds reflect interestingly on each other.  I spent a day in HMP Altcourse last week reflecting on ‘Understanding and Preventing Suicide within the Criminal Justice System’.  Whilst it is clear (of course) that those who run the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) are deeply committed to new initiatives to support all prisons, both public and private sector, I am still depressed by the failure to join up work between different prisons, and between prison and community criminal justice agencies.  It was the prisoners there who had the best ideas – stop late evening arrivals in prison, don’t lock new arrivals behind the cell door too quickly, allow more than a two-minute phone call on your first night… The decency agenda is so basic.  It is not just a question of resources: as someone said, a smile is powerful, and free.

Posted in Guest posts · Master's blog

Kiana Thorpe (Geography 2012) and Nicky Padfield report on one of this term’s Master’s Conversations

On 2 February the College enjoyed an extraordinary ‘conversation’ on the vast subject of ‘stability’ in the Middle East (with a special focus on Jordan and Palestine). The three speakers had only ten minutes in which to outline their arguments, but packed in an enormous number of thought-provoking ideas.

The first speaker was Ardi Imseis (Fitz 2014), a UN lawyer currently studying for his PhD on the gulf between international law and international legitimacy in the work of the United Nations. Having worked with United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), his interests lie in political, legal and humanitarian issues in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. He argued that peace was rather more important than stability, exploring the reality of political power, the power imbalance between Palestine and Israel which he saw as central, crucial to any peaceful settlement.

The next speaker was Edward Chaplin (Queens’ 1969), who had been the Foreign Office’s Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Ambassador to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and between 2004-5 Ambassador to Iraq. He agreed that the quality of the stability (peace) is what matters, and that feelings of injustice drive radicalisation.  He suggested that good governance and strong leadership is the Middle East’s biggest problem, and cannot be solved externally.

Finally, Jonathan McIvor (Diploma in Applied Criminology and Police Management, Fitz 2000). A former soldier and policeman turned security reform consultant, he presented a view from the perspective of change, particularly in relation to community policing structures in Lebanon and Jordan. He explored the practical problems created by the concentration of refugees in the north of Jordan, arguing that the dual imperatives of stability and change stand somewhat in contradiction.

From left: Nicky Padfield, Jonathan McIvor, Ardi Imseis, Edward Chaplin.

From left: Nicky Padfield, Jonathan McIvor, Ardi Imseis, Edward Chaplin.

By the end of the discussion it was less clear that peace should rank above stability as an objective, since the two concepts were so inter-dependent.  The prospects for both seem to be increasingly remote as atrocity builds upon injustice, and the mixed communities living in close proximity seem to be inexorably extinguished. The taxonomy of difference is complex and the emotion associated with different identities and belief systems apparently impervious to rationality.

The three speakers were at one in believing that neither peace nor stability would be achievable in the region until solutions were found to the cohabitation of Israel with its neighbours.  While that prospect seemed remote, the human calamity unfolding in the region was now so great that it ought nonetheless to rank amongst the highest priorities for global leaders. The cynical lens of national interest is disgracefully inhumane.

There was a fascinating debate, which ranged from the broad perspective of international diplomacy to the small picture of life in a refugee camp.  There were no easy answers, but plenty of challenges:  an erstwhile police officer calling for more popular protest and an erstwhile diplomat asking the international community to recognize its limits.  The influence of religious leaders was set against the frightening absence of women in the peace process, and in public life more generally.  The need for good governance, trust, fairness, and respect for human dignity at all levels is so obvious, and yet seemingly impossible to achieve.  Worth having the discussion even when the issues seem intractable?





Posted in Guest posts · Master's blog

This guest blog is written by current students Jack Philipsborn (HSPS 2014) and Conor Monighan (English 2014) in collaboration with Bye-Fellow Dr Matt Neal (History 2003). The debate ‘This house believes the perceived threat to campus free speech has been exaggerated’ was held at Fitzwilliam on 26 January.

Free speech is why universities thrive; cross-pollination of ideas happens when people can interact freely. So when the idea gains traction that campus free speech is under threat, alarm bells everywhere should surely start ringing. And what if the expected ringing is oddly subdued? It may be perhaps because the threat seems be coming not from government, but from students themselves. Recent student initiatives such as ‘no platforming’ (for example the high-profile no-platforming of Germaine Greer at Cardiff University), ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ provide the context for this important debate.

The debate began with the proposition arguing that a true threat to free speech would require an individual to face the fear of death, and therefore no threat to campus free speech can possibly exist. The proposition then argued that controversial speakers could speak elsewhere should they be denied access to a particular platform. Their central point was that the student-led initiatives mentioned were all critical for student welfare and must trump any trivial perceived threats to free speech.

The opposition were quick to point out that no-platforming is not only a threat to free speech, but is also counterproductive. They urged that controversial people should be allowed to speak in order that we might challenge views that are offensive or upsetting. Withholding platforms merely maximises publicity for bad ideas, and as there is often only one aspect of a speaker’s beliefs that might offend, the blanket denial of speech prevents the speaker from being heard on other issues.

The proposition then raised a point of information, asking whether this principle still applies to speakers who incite hatred. The opposition responded by arguing that government anti-hate and defamation laws are in place to prevent this already. On safe spaces, the opposition argued that safe spaces are not ‘safe’, and are rather an attempt to exclude as many people as possible from often-reasonable dialogue.

Throughout the debate there was a deep-seated sense of irony that it was students rather than government who were responsible for the perceived threat to free speech. Perhaps this why the issue has only just become apparent: government clampdowns on university free speech are widely reported, but it is commonly assumed that students know what is good for them.

In fact, this issue lay at the heart of the winning questions from the floor. Grayson Elorreaga noted that some students might choose to limit free speech in order to create a position of wilful ignorance for themselves. Chinedu Ugwu drew a distinction between the situation in the UK and his home country, Nigeria, where university authorities had only recently granted students the right to form a student union. When so many students in authoritarian states from China to Saudi Arabia are forcibly silenced, the perceived threat in the UK might be seen as exaggerated.

Nevertheless should we allow no-platforming and safe spaces to gain momentum, we might wake up to a university not dissimilar to those in authoritarian regimes. The slippery slope argument is too often used, but well-intentioned initiatives such as those described tend to become the basis for intolerance. Additionally, should students fail to be concerned by the curtailing of university free speech, there might be a greater government willingness to intervene – indeed arguably this has already been seen in the form of the enhanced discretionary powers created by the ‘Prevent Programme’.

The opposition won the debate with 23 votes to 8. Many thanks to Kirill Lasis, Harry Stovin-Bradford, Sourav Roy, Matthew Kellett, Sarah Collins and Carlo Lori for participating. Congratulations to our winning speakers Sarah Collins and Sourav Roy.

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Winners Sarah Collins and Sourav Roy.


Group debating

Group debating







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Sourav Roy speaking

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Sarah Collins speaking

We would like to thank the Master, who chaired the debate, and Dr Iacovou and Mr Middleton for judging. In addition, we would like to honour Lester Brewster who enables this debate to take place each year. He matriculated at Fitzwilliam House in 1948 reading history, and was a founder director of the Fitzwilliam Society Trust Ltd in 1974 (having been President of the Society in 1972-3). He died on 21t March 1996, and the Brewster debate is just one part of the legacy he left the College.

 Anyone interested in attending other events hosted by the Fitzwilliam College Debating Society is welcome to visit


Posted in Master's blog

The criminal justice statistics published in August 2015 state:

“There were 12,000 sexual offence proceedings in the 12 months ending March 2015 and 6,400 convictions over the same period; an increase of 3% on the previous year. Both the volume of proceedings and of convictions over this period are the highest in a decade.

The number of defendants proceeded against for sexual offences, in the 12 months ending March 2015, was 3% higher than in the previous year. In our previous quarterly publication, we reported a 9% increase between the 12 months ending December 2014 and the previous year. The apparent discrepancy between these figures over a three month period is due to the large and sustained increase in the number of defendants proceeded against for sexual offences occurring between the first and second quarters of 2013. The increase in the number of defendants proceeded against is likely to be partly due to the Operation Yewtree investigation, connected to the Jimmy Savile inquiry and the resulting media attention.

The number of convictions for sexual offences increased by 10% between the 12 months ending March 2015 and the previous year. The differences between changes in convictions relative to the change in proceedings may be due to the length of time between the proceeding and conviction of a sexual offence case. Therefore the changes in convictions tend to lag slightly behind the changes in proceedings for sexual offences.”

I have written elsewhere about the implications of this: a growing prison population (more prisoners, serving longer sentences) and a huge number of registered sex offenders in the community. There are now a number of prisons which only hold sex offenders. It’s probably easier to serve your sentence in a prison which only holds those convicted of sex offences than in the ‘vulnerable prisoners’ wing of an ‘ordinary prison’. But it is by no means easy.

I was lucky enough to be invited to chair a fascinating event in Cambridge this week, Living among sex offenders: Identity, safety and relationships in prison, hosted by the Howard League for Penal Reform. The focus was the work of Alice Ievins, who won the Howard League’s Sunley Prize in 2013. She discussed her research for her PhD on sex offender identity – she’s just spent several months in HMP Stafford carrying out lengthy interviews, and observing ‘life’. She discussed important questions of shame, guilt and self-disgust, as well as the interactions between prisoners and between prisoners and staff, suggesting that being labelled a ‘sex offender’, and living with other such offenders, might be painful and even contaminating in ways which aren’t necessarily the case for other types of prisoners.

Two other speakers also helped make this an evening to remember. First, Lynn Saunders, the governor of HMP Whatton, who spoke passionately about what Whatton could achieve. A few decades ago typical sex offenders might have been either a young man convicted of rape (an offence which appeared as much a crime of violence as a sexual offence) or an older child abuser: two different sorts of offender. But now the population is very much more complicated. Much older, of course, and the majority have no contact with their families: hence the innovative palliative care centre in Whatton.

Finally Dr Victoria Lavis, from the University of Bradford spoke about her research in three Yorkshire prisons on equality and diversity issues. She presented a fascinating argument that the Equality Act 2010 with its focus on the nine protected groups has had a ‘singularisation’ impact: it separates out different aspects of personhood. But people are more complicated than this: and they shouldn’t have to prioritise one aspect of their personhood. I shall be exploring intersectionality theory now, to see how it might help us (here in College as much as in a prison?) recognise difference and treat people according to equality of need, not output (no point unlocking all prisoners at the same time, if those with walking difficulties can’t get to the gym before it closes….).

What was the message of the evening? Different for all of us. For me, some more depressing recall stories. A sex offender is taught in prison to tell staff if he thinks he has a challenging situation to confront. So a sex offender on license tells his probation officer that he feels tempted to hang around outside a school play ground. The reward for doing what he has been encouraged to do? It is perceived as a sign of increased, not lowered, risk: so it’s recall to prison, for the rest of his sentence. See my Understanding Recall 2011 report.