Money, Territory, and the New Generation

by Rt Revd Peter Selby

Posted: 21 Mar 2012

I've just sat through a fortnight-long trial. It involved five people, four of whom (all found not guilty) were under 19. It must have been very expensive: six barristers were in court throughout, and of course they had been briefed by the same number of solicitors; the accused had been tagged and under curfew for nearly seven months since the events which had given rise to their charges, events connected with the August riots, and the daily monitoring of their electronic tags won't have been cheap either. That's quite apart from the expense of the original police investigation and subsequent further investigations.

But the expense doesn't seem to have been a problem for the prosecuting authorities. If, as at one point seemed likely, the jury had failed to reach a verdict the decision had been taken to order a retrial, which would presumably have involved, again, the same number of solicitors and barristers, judge and court time, the expense involved in their continued bail and curfew, and further work by the police to obtain further evidence more likely to bring about a conviction.

I never learned the value of the stolen property the young persons were accused of handling, but on the basis of what I saw I doubt it would have equalled one day's costs of the trial. No violence or personal injury was alleged.

Why mention this in a article for the Institute, part of the work of St Paul's Cathedral in engaging with the economy? There are many issues which these events and a trial like this raise, and most of them are not within the Institute's remit. But I do mention it, because at a time when public services are supposed to be under severe constraint this piece of expenditure was, so far as I could tell, entirely demand led. Perhaps not entirely: forensic evidence was not available because a policy decision was taken not to seek any - and that may have been to save money, though was more likely to have been because seeking forensic evidence in the aftermath of the riots might have overwhelmed the forensic science laboratories.

The contrast between the general budget reductions in the public services and this apparently entirely demand-led expenditure is not something to be ignored. As someone involved in the world of prison monitoring I have long been aware that the budget savings required of the Ministry of Justice were bound to endanger expenditure on creative, sometimes quite inexpensive, activities aimed at rehabilitation in preference to the basic costs of 'secure warehousing', where there would always be enough places and enough money to perform that basic function. But this trial expresses in sharp relief just which activities are going to be demand led and which are going to be vulnerable to budgetary constraints.

What are we hoping to do as a society for those at present in their teens? What investment are we prepared to make in their future? The answer appears to be that in preference to activities that might be an investment - detached youth work, incentives to produce high quality education and skills training, opportunities for employment - we shall prioritise immediate responses to what are seen as crises: we shall 'send a strong signal' and 'teach them the hard way' the virtue of obedience to the law. It is not that we don't spend money on education and training: we do, but my point is these are not the activities where expenditure is entirely demand-led and the way that criminal justice remedies are.

Much of our language about young people reveals other economic aspects of our relationship to the teenage generation. It is frequently observed that young people 'hang around on street corners', a sight which older people find quite intimidating. But what other 'territory' do people of that age have? Wherever they are it is on someone else's property - their parents or their friends' parents, where they would perhaps prefer not to be, or in cinemas or clubs, which are fine as leisure venues but at a price.

It is not just the recent experience with which I began this article that should provoke us all to think about the question, how is the senior generation to respond to the new generation? With limitless expenditure on prosecution, trials, custody? Or with some sense that the environment in which the teenage generation finds itself is often not conducive to their flourishing, and teaches them lessons we would rather they did not learn, but are somehow complicit in teaching them?

It is not hard to come to the pessimistic conclusion that our financial priorities are answering that question for us, and not in a very constructive way. And what might the financial sector say to all this? They are after all the ones who, in their own terms, generate the money that might be used for the giving of real hope and is too often used instead in the service of a basically punitive approach. If as seems the case that the financial sector has considerable influence on government, perhaps they could use it to push for a change of direction. Certainly the future looks bleak if that doesn't happen.

About this author

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby was President of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards from 2008 until 2013 and the former Bishop of Worcester. He is currently part of the Interim Directing team for St Paul's Institute.