Domestic violence during quarantine: the hidden crime of lockdown

Domestic violence is often described as a “hidden epidemic” within the UK. Even before Coronavirus forced the country into lockdown, support services faced funding and resourcing challenges, and many people fleeing domestic abuse already faced barriers to accessing support,  but as social distancing has become the dominant policy response to suppress Covid-19, it is clear there have been unintended consequences for domestic abuse victims which have exacerbated the challenges in providing and accessing support.

An increase in reporting of domestic violence

Figures show that calls to domestic abuse services have increased significantly worldwide during the Coronavirus pandemic. Calls and online enquiries to the UK’s National Domestic Abuse line increased by 25% after the UK entered lockdown in March 2020. More than 40,000 calls and contacts were made to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline during the first three months of lockdown; in June, calls and contacts were nearly 80% higher than usual, according to the charity Refuge, who runs the service.

An investigation by the BBC’s Panorama found that three-quarters of victims told them that lockdown had made it harder for them to escape their abusers and in many cases had intensified the abuse they received and research by a team at LSE showed that while the overall level of domestic abuse crimes (not calls) have remained stable when compared with the long-term trend, calls to the Metropolitan Police between March and July which related to reports of domestic abuse increased by 11% compared with the same period in 2019.

This same research from LSE also noted some changes in the characteristics of the cases being reported, with calls more likely to be made by “third parties”, such as neighbours, and that while abuse by ex-partners fell by 9.4%, abuse by current partners and family members increased significantly – by 8.5% and 16.4% respectively.

In early May, the government announced a £76m package to support the “most vulnerable in our society”, including victims of domestic violence and modern slavery, rough sleepers and vulnerable children. However, with many charities which support victims of domestic abuse struggling with the financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and facing a significant rise in demand for their services, concerns are being raised that the availability of specialist support could be reduced, meaning people exposed to domestic abuse may not be able to access the help they need.

Local level support for vulnerable people fleeing violence

Lockdown offered an opportunity for local authorities to think about the support offered to vulnerable people, including those who were homeless due to fleeing violence.

In Greater Manchester GMCA formed partnerships early on to secure accommodation for women fleeing violence to ensure they would have a safe space. The accommodation was intended for women who are homeless or facing homelessness, including rough sleeping or in shared supported accommodation where the service was unable to meet public health guidelines regarding Covid-19. This included women experiencing domestic abuse, trauma, or contact with the justice system as well as other multiple disadvantages. The service delivery model was designed to be a Trauma Responsive Service Model in order to create a safe and secure environment for each resident and to avoid further traumatisation. The process marked a departure from how cases of female homelessness due to domestic abuse would typically have been handled pre lockdown.

Halls of residence at the University of Cambridge were also offered to homeless women and their children after students vacated them early due to the pandemic. St Catherine’s College formed a partnership with Cambridge Women’s Aid to provide over 1000 nights of secure supported accommodation during the lockdown period.

In both instances the partnerships allowed for practical and quick solutions to provide support to vulnerable women, filling the support gap some traditional routes like refuge shelters were unable to fill because Covid 19- restrictions on the mixing of households meant that homeless and refuge centres were operating with a limited capacity.

Final thoughts

People fleeing domestic violence already faced significant barriers to finding the safety offered by refuge services, even before the lockdown imposed by the Coronavirus pandemic. But we know now that the pandemic has made it harder for survivors to leave an abuser or to seek help, that their experiences of abuse were made worse by the conditions imposed by lockdown and that the circumstances gave abusers more control than ever. When the pandemic is over the majority of local services expect to see a spike in people looking to access their life-saving support, but at the same time the pandemic has threatened the sustainability of the network of services which makes up this support, many of whom were already experiencing a funding struggle.

The work being done to help support vulnerable people fleeing abuse and people facing barriers to accessing refuge is more important now than it has ever been, and continuing support from government and effective partnership working will be vital to ensuring these services continue in the future.


If you need help or support in the UK, call the national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247, or visit Women’s Aid online.

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Facial recognition systems: ready for prime time?

by Scott Faulds

Across the UK, it is estimated that there are 1.85 million CCTV cameras, approximately one camera for every 36 people.  From shopping centres to railway stations, CCTV cameras have become a normal part of modern life and modern policing, with research from the College of Policing indicating that CCTV modestly reduces overall crime. Currently, most of the cameras utilised within the CCTV system are passive; they act as a deterrent or provide evidence of an individual’s past location or of a crime committed.

However, advances in artificial intelligence have allowed for the development of facial recognition systems which could enable CCTV cameras to proactively identify suspects or active crime in real-time. Currently, the use of facial recognition systems in limited pilots has received a mixed reaction, with the Metropolitan Police arguing that it is their duty to use new technologies to keep people safe. But privacy campaigners argue that the technology possesses a serious threat to civil liberties and are concerned that facial recognition systems contain gender and racial bias.

How does it work?

Facial recognition systems operate in a similar way to how humans recognise faces, through identifying familiar facial characteristics, but on a much larger and data driven way. Whilst there are a variety of different types of facial recognition system, the basic steps are as follows:

An image of a face is captured either within a photograph, video or live footage. The face can be within a crowd and does not necessarily have to be directly facing a camera.

Facial recognition software biometrically scans the face and converts unique facial characteristics (distance between your eyes, distance from forehead to chin etc) into a mathematical formula known as a facial signature.

The facial signature can then be compared to faces stored within a database (such as a police watchlist) or faces previously flagged by the system.

The system then determines if it believes it has identified a match; in most systems the level of confidence required before the system flags a match can be altered.

Facial recognition and the police

Over the past twelve months, the Metropolitan Police and South Wales Police have both operated pilots of facial recognition systems, designed to identify individuals wanted for serious and violent offences. These pilots involved the placement of facial recognition cameras in central areas, such as Westfield Shopping Centre, where large crowds’ faces were scanned and compared to a police watch-list. If the system flags a match, police officers would then ask the potential match to confirm their identify and if the match was correct, they would be detained. Police forces have argued that the public broadly support the deployment of facial recognition and believe that the right balance has been found between keeping the public safe and protecting individual privacy.

The impact of the deployment of facial recognition by the police has been compared by some to the introduction of fingerprint identification. However, it is difficult to determine how successful these pilots have been, as there has been a discrepancy regarding the reporting of the accuracy of these facial recognition systems. According to the Metropolitan Police, 70% of wanted suspects would be identified walking past facial recognition cameras, whilst only one in 1,000 people would generate a false alert, an error rate of 0.1%.  Conversely, independent analysis commissioned by the Metropolitan Police, has found that only eight out of 42 matches were verified as correct, an error rate of 81%.

The massive discrepancy in error rates can be explained by the way in which you asses the accuracy of a facial recognition system. The Metropolitan Police measure accuracy by comparing successful and unsuccessful matches with the total number of faces scanned by the facial recognition system. Independent researchers, on the other hand, asses the accuracy of the flags generated by the facial recognition system. Therefore, it is unclear as to how accurate facial recognition truly is, nevertheless, the Metropolitan Police have now begun to use live facial recognition cameras operationally.

Privacy and bias

Civil liberties groups, such as Liberty and Big Brother Watch, have a raised a variety of concerns regarding the police’s use of facial recognition. These groups argue that the deployment of facial recognition systems presents a clear threat to individual privacy and privacy as a social norm. Although facial recognition systems used by the police are designed to flag those on watch-lists, every single person that comes into the range of a camera will automatically have their face biometrically scanned. In particular, privacy groups have raised concerns about the use of facial recognition systems during political protests, arguing that their use may constitute a threat to the right to freedom of expression and may even represent a breach of human rights law. 

Additionally, concerns have been raised regarding racial and gender bias that have been found to be prevalent in facial recognition systems across the world. A recent evaluative study conducted by the US Government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology on 189 facial recognition algorithms has found that most algorithms exhibit “demographic differentials”. This means that a facial recognition system’s ability to match two images of the same person varies depending on demographic group. This study found that facial recognition systems were less effective at identifying BAME and female faces, this means that these groups are statistically more likely to be falsely flagged and potentially questioned by the police.

Final thoughts

From DNA to fingerprint identification, the police are constantly looking for new and innovative ways to help keep the public safe. In theory, the use of facial recognition is no different, the police argue that the ability to quickly identify a person of interest will make the public safer. However, unlike previous advancements, the effectiveness of facial recognition is largely unproven.

Civil liberties groups are increasingly concerned that facial recognition systems may infringe on the right to privacy and worry that their use will turn the public into walking biometric ID cards. Furthermore, research has indicated that the vast majority of facial recognition systems feature racial and gender bias, this could lead to women and BAME individuals experiencing repeated contact with the police due to false matches.

In summary, facial recognition systems provide the police with a new tool to help keep the public safe. However, in order to be effective and gain the trust of the public, it will be vital for the police to set out the safeguards put in place to prevent privacy violations and the steps taken to ensure that the systems do not feature racial and gender bias.  


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“We’ve updated our privacy policy”: GDPR two years on

by Scott Faulds

Almost two years ago, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force across the European Union (EU) and European Economic Area (EEA), creating what many consider to be the most extensive data protection regulation in the world. The introduction of GDPR facilitated the harmonisation of data privacy laws across Europe and provided citizens with greater control over how their data is used. The regulation sets out the rights of data subjects, the duties of data controllers/processors, the transfer of personal data to third countries, supervisory authorities, cooperation among member states, and remedies, liability or penalties for breach of rights. However, whilst the regulation itself is extensive, questions have been raised regarding the extent to which GDPR has been successful at protecting citizens’ data and privacy.

Breach Notifications and Fines

Critics of GDPR have argued that whilst the regulation has been effective as a breach notification law, it has so far failed to impose impactful fines on companies which have failed to comply with the GDPR. National data protection authorities (such as the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in the UK) under the GDPR have the ability to impose fines of up to €20m or up to 4% of an organisation’s total global turnover, whichever is higher. Since the introduction of the GDPR, data protection authorities across the EEA have experienced a “massive increase” in reports of data breaches. However, this has yet to translate into substantive financial penalties. For example, Google has been issued a €50m fine, the highest issued so far* by CNIL, the French data protection authority. CNIL found that Google failed to provide sufficient and transparent information that allowed customers to give informed consent to the processing of personal data when creating a Google account during the set-up process of an Android powered device. This is a serious breach of multiple GDPR articles and CNIL argued that the infringements contravene the principles of transparency and informed consent which are at the heart of the GDPR.

*  The confirmation of record fines issued by ICO to British Airways (£183m) and Marriott International (£99m) has been delayed until 31st March 2020.

However, the fine imposed on Google amounts to approximately 0.04% of their total global turnover, which some have argued is simply too small an amount to act as any real deterrent. Therefore, it could be said that while GDPR has been effective in encouraging companies to be transparent when data misuse occurs, national data protection authorities have yet to make use of their ability to impose large financial penalties to act as a deterrent.

In recent months, the German and Dutch data protection authorities have both created frameworks which set out how they intend to calculate GDPR fines. Analysis of their fining structures indicates that both models will operate based on the severity of GDPR violation. However, both structures allow for the data protection authority to impose the maximum fine if the amount is not deemed fitting. The International Association of Privacy Professionals believes this will result in significantly higher and more frequent fines than those issued previously, and has suggested that it is possible that the European Data Protection Board may consider implementing a harmonized fine model across Europe.

Brussels Effect

The effects of the GDPR can be felt beyond Europe, with companies such as Apple and Microsoft committing to extend GDPR protections to their entire customer base, no matter their location.  Even the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, admitted that the introduction of GDPR was necessary due to the scale of data collected by technology companies. The ability of the EU to influence the global regulatory environment has been described by some experts as the “Brussels Effect”. They argue that a combination of the size, importance and regulatory power of the EU market is forcing companies around the world to match EU regulations. Additionally, this effect can be seen to be influencing data protection legislation across the world, with governments in Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Brazil, South Africa and California all introducing updated privacy laws based on the GDPR. As a result, it can be said that the introduction of the GDPR has enabled the EU to play a key role in global discussions regarding privacy and how citizens’ data is used worldwide. 

Brexit

Following the UK’s exit from the EU, the GDPR will remain in force until the end of the transition period (31st December 2020), after this point it is the intention of the UK Government to introduce the UK GDPR. However, as the UK will no longer be a member state of the EU, it will require to seek what is known as an “adequacy agreement” with the EU.This allows businesses in the EEA and UK to freely exchange data. The UK government believes that this agreement will be signed during the transition period, as the UK GDPR is not materially different from the EU GDPR. However, it should be noted that the most recent adequacy agreement between the EU and Japan took two years to complete.

Final Thoughts

The introduction of the GDPR almost two years ago has had a variety of impacts on the current discussion surrounding privacy and how best to protect our personal data. Firstly, the GDPR has forced companies to become more transparent when data misuse occurs and gives national data protection authorities the power to scrutinise companies’ approaches to securing personal data. Secondly, the influence of the GDPR has helped to strengthen privacy laws across the world and has forced companies to provide individuals with more control over how their data is used. However, the effectiveness of GDPR is limited due to a lack of common approach regarding fines in relation to GDPR violations. In order to develop fully, it will be important for the European Data Protection Board to provide guidance on how to effectively fine those who breach the GDPR.


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Five blog posts that told the story of 2019

As the old year makes way for the new, it’s time to reflect on some of the topics we’ve been covering on The Knowledge Exchange blog over the past twelve months. We’ve published over 70 blog posts in 2019, covering everything from smart canals and perinatal mental health to digital prescribing and citizens’ assemblies. We can’t revisit them all, but here’s a quick look back at some of the stories that shaped our year.

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Tomorrow’s world today

Artificial Intelligence was once confined to the realms of science fiction and Hollywood movies, but it’s already beginning to have a very real impact on our personal and working lives. In February, we looked at the pioneering local authorities that are dipping a toe into the world of AI:

“In Hackney, the local council has been using AI to identify families that might benefit from additional support. The ‘Early Help Predictive System’ analyses data related to (among others) debt, domestic violence, anti-social behaviour, and school attendance, to build a profile of need for families. By taking this approach, the council believes they can intervene early and prevent the need for high cost support services.”

However, the post went on to highlight concerns about the future impact of AI on employment:

“PwC’s 2018 UK Economic Outlook suggests that 18% of public administration jobs could be lost over the next two decades. Although it’s likely many jobs will be automated, no one really knows how the job market will respond to greater AI, and whether the creation of new jobs will outnumber those lost.

Tackling violent crime

One of the most worrying trends in recent years has been the rise in violent crime. Figures released in January found overall violent crime in England and Wales had risen by 19% on the previous year.

As our blog reported in March, police forces around the country, along with health services, local government, education and the private sector have been paying close attention to the experience of Glasgow in tackling violent crime.

Glasgow’s Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) was launched in 2005, and from the start it set out to treat knife crime not just as a policing matter, but as a public health issue. In its first ten years, the VRU helped to halve the number of homicides in the city, with further progress in subsequent years.

In March, our blog explained that the VRU takes a holistic approach to its work:

“…staff from the VRU regularly go into schools and are in touch with youth organisations. They also provide key liaison individuals called “navigators” and provide additional training to people in the community, such as dentists, vets and hairdressers to help them spot and report signs of abuse or violence.”

 Protecting the blue planet

Environmental issues have always featured strongly in our blog, and in a year when people in larger numbers than ever have taken to the streets to demand greater action on climate change, we’ve reported on topics such as low emission zones, electric vehicles and deposit return schemes.

In August, we focused on the blue economy. The world’s oceans and seas are hugely important to the life of the planet, not least because they are home to an astonishing variety of biodiversity. In addition, they absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions. But they are also a source of food, jobs and water – an estimated 3 billion people around the world rely on the seas and oceans for their livelihood.

Pollution is having a devastating impact on the world’s oceans, and, as our blog reported, governments are finally waking up to the need for action:

The first ever global conference on the sustainable blue economy was held last year. It concluded with hundreds of pledges to advance a sustainable blue economy, including 62 commitments related to: marine protection; plastics and waste management; maritime safety and security; fisheries development; financing; infrastructure; biodiversity and climate change; technical assistance and capacity building; private sector support; and partnerships. 

Sir Harry Burns
Image: Jason Kimmings

A sense of place

The ties that bind environmental factors, health and wellbeing are becoming increasingly clear. This was underlined at an international conference in June on the importance of place-based approaches to improving health and reducing inequalities.

One of the speakers was Sir Harry Burns, Director of Global Public Health at the University of Strathclyde. His research supports the idea that poverty is not the result of bad choices, but rather the absence of a sense of coherence and purpose that people need to make good choices:

“People who have a sense of purpose, control and self-esteem are more positive and secure about the places they live in, and a greater ability to make the right choices. Ask people to take control of their lives, build their trust, and people can make choices that support their health. We must create places that do that”.

Celebrating diversity

While it sometimes seems as if our society has made great strides in stamping out prejudice and supporting minority groups, at other times the stark reality of discrimination can shine a light on how far we still have to go.

In June, we marked Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) History Month with two blog posts that aimed to raise awareness of the many issues faced by GRT communities in the UK today:

“Research by Travellers Movement has found that four out of five (77%) of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers have experienced hate speech or a hate crime – ranging from regularly being subject to racist abuse in public to physical assaults. There is also evidence of discrimination against GRT individuals by the media, police, teachers, employers and other public services.”

But our blog also highlighted work being done to address these issues and to spread the word about GRT communities’ rich cultural heritage:

“Today, organisations and individuals such as The Traveller MovementFriends, Families and Travellers, and Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson strive to promote awareness of and equality for the GRT community. The recent Tobar an Keir festival held by the Elphinstone Institute at Aberdeen University sought to illustrate traditional Traveller’s skills such as peg-making.”

 Back to the future

Since first launching in 2014, The Knowledge Exchange blog has published more than 700 posts, covering topics as varied as health and planning, education and digital, the arts, disabilities, work and transport.

The key issues of our times – climate change, Brexit and the economy haven’t been neglected by our blog, but we’ve looked at them in the context of specific topics such as air pollution, higher education and diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

As we head into a new year, the aims of The Knowledge Exchange blog remain: to raise awareness of issues, problems, solutions and research in public policy and practice.

We wish all our readers a very Happy Christmas, and a peaceful, prosperous and healthy 2020.

A long way from home: county lines, serious organised crime and exploitation in the UK

Gangs and serious organised crime groups are increasingly targeting vulnerable people, including children and young people to become involved in drug trafficking and other kinds of illegal activities. Police and local authorities assisted by third sector and charity partners are trying to stem the flow of vulnerable people leaving towns and cities and travelling elsewhere in the UK as part of a wider network of organised crime and exploitation. The aim is to break the chain of supply which is seeing organised crime move away from our inner cities to rural and coastal communities across the UK. From London to Liverpool, Glasgow to Cardiff, county lines practices have been growing, and solutions to prevent vulnerable people being targeted are needed urgently across the whole of the UK.

A growing emergency across the UK

Figures have shown a significant rise in the number of drug-related deaths across communities in the UK, with a significant rise in deaths among young people and among those in rural communities. While drug problems are widely considered an urban, inner-city issue, increasingly communities in rural and coastal areas are struggling with drug-related crime and deaths as new markets and channels for moving drugs across the country are opened up by organised crime groups and gangs.

Research has shown that, unlike in previous decades, these are not just the result of social, ad hoc sharing and transporting of drugs, but strategic and coordinated networks designed specifically to open new markets for drugs beyond city centres and expose more communities to markets of illicit materials, including drugs. The National Crime Agency (NCA) reports that the main driver of this “county lines” practice is fundamentally the demand and supply of controlled substances within the UK and the opportunity of “new” drug markets to make significant amounts of money. Analysis from the NCA indicates that an individual line can make profits in excess of £80,000 per year and can make thousands of pounds of profit from one single trip.

An easy target

One of the defining features now recognised as a key part of county lines drug trafficking is the exploitation of vulnerable and socially excluded people.This offers a degree of safety for those at the top of the network who avoid getting their hands dirty by delegating work to those further down the chain. Vulnerable groups, such as the homeless, care leavers or young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, are identified by county lines groups both as a target market for the drugs trade and for “recruitment”, involving them in the storage, transportation or selling of drugs in these new sites. This means that, on the whole, these groups are being disproportionately impacted. Many often don’t see themselves as victims or realise they have been groomed to get involved in criminality. Commentators and practitioners have stressed that an urgent and powerful response to safeguard these groups is needed.

A 2017 report from the Children’s Commissioner estimates there are at least 46,000 children in England who are involved in gang activity. It is estimated that around 4,000 teenagers in London alone are being exploited through child criminal exploitation or ‘county lines’. In March 2018, the Children’s Society published the second edition of Criminal exploitation and County Lines: A toolkit for working with children and young people. It summarised the risks to children and young people who become involved in county lines as including:

  • physical injuries: risk of serious violence and death
  • emotional and psychological trauma
  • sexual violence: sexual assault, rape, indecent images being taken and shared as part of initiation/revenge/punishment, internally inserting drugs
  • debt bondage – young people and families being ‘in debt’ to the exploiters; which is used to control the young person
  • neglect and basic needs not being met
  • living in unclean, dangerous and/or unhygienic environments
  • tiredness and sleep deprivation: the child is expected to carry out criminal activities over long periods and through the night
  • poor attendance and/or attainment at school/college/university

These challenges are also faced by other groups of vulnerable adults who are targeted in the same way. But while vulnerable children are subject to a compulsory referral process in relation to suspected exploitation, adults must consent to being referred, which research has suggested may be impacting the reported numbers of victims. This in turn indicates that the true number of vulnerable adults being exploited may be significantly higher.

Tackling county lines by working together

Partnership working between services which come into contact both with the county lines gangs and with the vulnerable people they exploit has been shown to be critical to facilitating an effective response and halting the spread and further development of county lines networks. However, it has also been highlighted that traditional approaches and mechanisms used to identify and safeguard vulnerable groups, particularly children, are no longer sufficient in the context of county lines child criminal exploitation (CCE), and that new guidance is needed to support practitioners in this field.

In September 2018 the National County Lines Coordination Centre was launched to crack down on drug gangs. The multi-agency team of experts from the National Crime Agency (NCA), police officers and regional organised crime units are working together, along with other partners in local areas, to build a national picture of the complexity and scale of the threat.

At a local level, pilot projects in several London boroughs, including Hackney, Islington and Lambeth and in other trial areas outside of London, such as Kent and Merseyside, have taken place. Evidence has shown that frontline services across the board play a key role in helping to identify and support those people at risk of exploitation from county lines gangs – not just police and prison service staff – but healthcare workers, social workers, teachers and youth work professionals from the public and third sectors. Working together as multi-agency partnerships, while challenging, results in the best outcomes and opportunities for intervention and support for children and vulnerable people who are at risk. It is essential that staff receive a high standard of training and that they themselves are given the time and resources needed to try and forge effective partnerships which in turn will help to identify and intervene with those at risk of gang exploitation more effectively and at an earlier stage.

Partnerships which include opportunities for staff training and guidance from third sector specialists like St Giles Trust and Safer London make use of the significant knowledge and experience held within the third sector and help local authorities to apply these to their own statutory responses. They also encourage the sharing of effective practice and knowledge on tackling exploitation across the whole of the UK, which is helping to create a more effective and joined-up approach to tackling child exploitation and the links to county lines practices. Maintaining this sharing of knowledge and skills across different sectors and professions will continue to be vital in helping to develop practice and responses that can react more effectively to exploitation in the future.

Providing a safe place and a route forward for victims of county lines exploitation

In a county lines context, better safeguarding and early intervention practices with vulnerable people serves a dual purpose: preventing the person involved being exploited and engaging in criminal activity; and disrupting the county lines operation, and subsequently the flow of illicit materials into our communities. The networks are, by their own design, elusive and hard to trace. Those involved are threatened and often trapped in roles within the network which they would otherwise be unable to escape on their own. Providing a safe space for these exploited people is an important first step in the process of tackling county lines and organised criminal networks.

Local authorities are working closely with partners to try and provide this support at a local and very personal level while trying to fit into the wider strategic process of the national response to county lines. These national and local responses are both vital in tackling county lines and the exploitation that comes with it.


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Teaching offenders to code: supporting digital skills and reducing reoffending among those leaving prison

Breaking the cycle of reoffending by teaching prisoners to code

In the UK, we have one of the highest numbers of adults in prison in western Europe, and of those who have been in prison, almost half will re-offend within a year of release. Reoffending in the UK is estimated to cost as much as £15bn each year. One of the major factors in reducing reoffending is finding and sustaining employment upon leaving prison, however, it has been suggested that the skills and training that offenders receive while in prison only prepares them in a limited way for life “on the outside”.

The importance of digital literacy and the disadvantage caused by a digital skills deficit

Whether it is applying for benefit payments, booking a doctor’s appointment, online shopping, paying council tax or word processing and data navigation in a wide range of today’s job roles, having a basic understanding of digital literacy is important. For many people these skills are acquired over time, sometimes even by accident as we come into contact with more and more digital services in our day to day lives, including in many of today’s jobs where word processing and email skills seem to be a given.

However, for people leaving prison, perhaps who have been away from the fast pace of digital development for a few years, the leaps and bounds in terms of technological change and how we use digital platforms for a range of tasks can be a daunting prospect. While there is some exposure to digital platforms inside prisons, there are increasing calls to ensure that in order to better reintegrate into society on release from prison, digital skills should be higher up the agenda for those prisoners being prepared for release.

Linking digital skill programmes to labour market need

While we raise concerns about digital literacy, it is also widely reported that the UK is facing a digital skills deficit, with job roles going unfilled because there are not enough skilled individuals to fill them. Why not then, supporters argue, align the two policies to meet a need within the skills market and better support offenders to be able to live a full, digitally literate life on their release from prison.

In his Ted talk on teaching coding in prisons, Michael Taylor highlights some of, what he sees as, the key issues with the current skills and training programme in prisons: it is mundane and repetitive, and it is not linked to skills or labour market need. Coding, he argues, in addition to being accessible, cheap to teach and not requiring any pre-requisite qualifications, is an easy way that prisoners can be equipped with high-level digital skills to help them find employment, and teach skills that employers want and need to employ.

He also argues that coding is a way to equip offenders with the basic tools to go into a range of careers or further training across a range of occupations, in a range of sectors doing a wide range of different jobs – giving the variety and scope for development that many offenders simply don’t get from current skills and training programmes. The benefits, he argues, go beyond just teaching the ins and outs of how to code, with digital skills having wider applicability around managing information, communicating, transacting, problem solving and creating as well as raising confidence and self esteem.

Learning from digital skill programmes in prisons elsewhere

The Last Mile programme in California is being used as a model to create a UK based coding programme for prisoners. The programme teaches digital skills, specifically coding, to allow offenders to find employment once they leave prison. The American programme is based out of San Quentin prison and has consistently shown positive outcomes for participants, with a recidivism rate for participants dropping from over 70% to 0 in the latest cohort of “graduates”. These positive and tangible outcomes are one of the reasons supporters have been so keen to roll out a similar scheme in the UK.

The UK Government has acknowledged this evidence and in March 2019 the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced it is investing in two pilot schemes, one at HMP Humber and one at HMP Holme House which will see a selection of “carefully vetted prisoners” participate in new digital skills programmes. Prisoners will learn CSS, HTML and JavaScript before moving on to more advanced coding techniques. They will then be invited to work for partner companies, eventually on day release, with a view to better preparing them for work when they are released from prison, while also helping employers manage perceived risks that come with hiring former offenders.

Final thoughts

Offenders leaving prison face a number of barriers to successful reintegration into the community, and preparing them fully to meet all of these challenges can be a difficult task in itself. However, by better equipping offenders with digital skills we will enable them to leave prison with knowledge employers are looking for. Coding programmes could be one route to developing skills for prisoners due for release which can help them adapt to life outside prison, give them purpose and options and, it is hoped, reduce the likelihood of reoffending in the future.


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Treating violence as a disease: can a public health approach succeed?

Knife crime, especially deaths of young people, has been making the headlines in recent weeks. And an approach which has a proven track record in Glasgow is now being adopted by the GLA, MOPAC and the Met police to try to tackle the growing levels of violence being seen on London’s streets. Learning from the experience in Glasgow, the police and other agencies are being encouraged to see violence as a public health issue, related to poverty, wellbeing and social deprivation and which, if identified and tackled early, can be prevented.

Contagion: a new way to think about violence

The Violence Reduction Unit was pioneered by Strathclyde Police (now part of Police Scotland), working with health and social care practitioners. Launched in 2005, the approach aims to make earlier identifications of those at risk of becoming involved in violence, and to take a more holistic view of the reasons for violence of all types. The long-term strategy looked at more social and wellbeing interventions to tackle gang violence in Glasgow, which at the time was among the worst in Europe.

The VRU in Glasgow took its inspiration from a scheme in Chicago, which sought to use a World Health Organisation (WHO) approach to tackling the spread of disease but applied it to communities in the hope of curbing the significant rise in homicides in the city. The approach was three-pronged: interrupt transmission, prevent future spread, and change group norms.

In addition to changing the approach to tackling violent crime, the VRU also used a multi-agency approach, involving social services, health care, housing and employment support, to give people a route out of violence and opportunities to find work or training opportunities. One of the key elements to ensuring the VRU is successful are the relationships these people build with individuals in communities.

Identifying young people at risk

Another important aspect of the VRU strategy is to intervene early to identify children and young people who are at risk of joining gangs or becoming involved in gang violence. Research supporting the creation of the VRU suggested that violence (like a cold) is spread from person to person within a community, that violence typically leads to more violence, and that one of the key identifying factors in someone becoming a perpetrator of violent crime is first being the victim of violent crime themselves.

In order to prevent this, staff from the VRU regularly go into schools and are in touch with youth organisations. They also provide key liaison individuals called “navigators” and provide additional training to people in the community, such as dentists, vets and hairdressers to help them spot and report signs of abuse or violence.

There is also a broad view of what a culture of violence is. Work in schools focuses strongly on contemporary issues such as sexting, bullying and gender-based violence. It challenges the attitudes and beliefs that underpin such violence, and encourages young people to recognise and reject these.

A new approach to drug abuse too …?

In November 2018, the Scottish Government launched its new drug and alcohol strategy. One of the notable additions to the strategy was the acknowledgement that (like violence) drug abuse and addiction should be seen, not as a crime, but as a public health issue – an illness which people need support and treatment for.

Looking at how drug abuse is tackled within the criminal justice system and the interactions of addicts, policymakers have identified that many have had adverse childhood experiences, are exposed to drugs and/or alcohol at a young age, and are also at significant risk of being unemployed and homeless.

Creating a holistic package of support which seeks to identify those at risk and directs them towards a range of services to tackle not just the addiction but other trauma or socioeconomic barriers earlier, will, in a similar way to the VRU, give people a sense of purpose and value, and help them to see an alternate route that will allow them to contribute positively to society and improve their own outcomes.

A new way to tackle social issues in the UK?

Tackling the spread of violence through communities is not an easy task, nor is breaking the cycle of crime that many find themselves trapped within, often as a result of family allegiances or geographic location. It is often the case that either you participate, or you become the next victim yourself. More and more young people are feeling the need to carry knives for protection, due to the high levels of fear of becoming a victim.

Identifying those young people who are at risk of turning towards a life of violence at the earliest possible stage is difficult, but has been shown to be effective in helping to tackle violent gang-related crime. Although it is not the only tactic available to police, used effectively in conjunction with other outreach programmes it can be an effective tool in preventative policing, helping to keep communities safe.

The outcome in Glasgow has been largely positive, following the roll out of the Violence Reduction Unit programme. Whether this approach has the same success in London, operating on a larger scale, with different economic and social variables, and in a very different budget climate, remains to be seen. In particular it is worth noting that the Glasgow approach recognised there were no quick fixes, and was based on long-term planning covering ten year periods.

It is to be hoped, though, that changing the way we think about violence within communities may offer a route to tackling it.


If you liked this, you may also be interested in other articles exploring policy lessons from other countries:

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Released with nowhere to go: housing solutions for prisoners

It has been widely argued that securing adequate housing for ex-offenders reduces rates of recidivism. However, it is not uncommon for a person to be released from prison with nowhere to live and there have been criticisms over the statutory support available for prison leavers, and the lack of housing options available on release.

Being homeless on release from prison can lead to a downward spiral, re-offending and more prison time, incurring substantial social and economic costs for all concerned. The annual cost of re-offending to the economy in the UK has been estimated at between £9.5 and £13 billion.

Housing linked to re-offending

Various studies have highlighted the link between housing and recidivism and the importance of housing support for rehabilitation.

A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) back in 1996 highlighted that ex-prisoners are more likely to re-offend if they do not find satisfactory accommodation on release – two-thirds of ex-prisoners with no satisfactory accommodation re-offended within 12 months of release, while just a quarter of those with good accommodation did so.

The Social Exclusion Unit highlighted in a 2002 study that housing was one of the factors that had a “huge impact” on re-offending and that having stable accommodation reduces the risk of re-offending by a fifth.

A report published in 2012, found that three-fifths (60%) of prisoners believed that having a place to live was important in stopping them from re-offending in the future. It also found that 15% of people in prison were homeless prior to custody. More than three-quarters of prisoners (79%) who reported being homeless before custody were re-convicted in the first year after release, compared with less than half (47%) of those who did not report being homeless before custody.

The Howard League of Penal Reform has highlighted that a third of people leaving prison say they have nowhere to go. If those on remand are included, it is estimated that this could represent up to 50,000 people annually.

Further, the rough sleeping in London report (CHAIN) found that 32% of people seen rough sleeping in 2015/16 had experience of prison, indicating that a significant number hidden homeless are ex-offenders.

Such statistics suggest a clear link between housing and re-offending. It has even been suggested that ex-prisoners have intentionally re-offended to avoid homelessness.

 ‘Inadequate’ housing support

The JRF report found that the general level of housing support received by prisoners was ‘inadequate’.

Worryingly, 15 years after this report, Barnardo’s highlighted the need for improved support for young ex-offenders as it found children as young as 13 were being released from custody without a safe place to live. Barnardo’s argued that supported accommodation on release from custody could produce savings of more than £67,000 per individual over a three-year period.

A review of probation services carried out in 2014 also criticised the system, finding that:

“contact between offenders and offender supervisors or managers varied considerably and even where there was good contact, this had little impact on accommodation and ETE [employment, training and education] outcomes at the point of release, although contacts were more effective post-release. Sentence planning and oversight were weak and resettlement work in prisons was insufficiently informed.”

The Public Accounts Committee has more recently noted that “the offender housing problem is deteriorating”, despite probation reforms. And Crisis has also raised concern about the lack of financial or practical support to find accommodation for those leaving prison.

Current action and the Homelessness Reduction Act

Most prisons have a housing and resettlement service called ‘through the gate’, introduced by the government in 2015. However, early reports on these services have not been hopeful, described as “having a negligible impact on reducing prisoner re-offending rates, two years after its introduction.”

Local authorities also have a statutory duty to assist homeless and vulnerable ex-offenders in some circumstances, and if not entitled to social housing, they must provide advice to ex-offenders at risk of homelessness. This duty has been strengthened by the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 in England, which has just come into force. The Act puts an obligation on prison or probation services to notify a local authority if they believe a person to be at risk of homelessness.

Crisis has described the Act as “the most significant change to the homelessness legislation in 40 years”.

In Scotland, the Scottish Prison Service and partners launched the Sustainable Housing on Release for Everyone (SHORE) standards in December 2017. These standards represent a good example of preventative measures, which aim ‘to ensure that the housing needs of individuals in prison are handled at an early stage, in a consistent way across Scotland, regardless of where they come from, their housing status and how long they have been in prison or young offenders’ institution’.

Will it make a difference?

It is too early to tell whether these actions will have the desired impact but here’s hoping they will be more effective than previous reforms. It has been suggested that such provisions will go some way to help create the culture change needed but that it is not enough.

The evidence points to the need for greater collaboration and partnership working across all sectors.

With the shortage in housing, austerity, and increasing numbers of homeless people among the whole population, it will certainly be no mean feat.


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Planning to protect: how architects and urban planners are balancing security with accessibility

Wall Street Security Project by Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers

 “In high profile buildings or crowded places that may be attractive targets for terrorists, the challenge for designers is to incorporate counter-terrorism measures into their buildings and public spaces whilst maintaining quality of place.” RIBA guidance on designing for counter-terrorism

In recent years, terrorist attacks in London, New York, Berlin, Barcelona and Nice have heightened concerns about the safety of living in and travelling to cities in Europe and North America. In many of these attacks, cars or trucks have been driven at high speed into crowded streets with the aim of causing the maximum number of casualties. While such attacks remain relatively rare, planning authorities are now working on methods to deter and thwart the use of vehicles as weapons in public spaces.

From buildings and infrastructure to “soft targets”

The attacks on London’s transport infrastructure in 2005 and an abortive car bomb attack at Glasgow Airport in 2007 prompted a rethink in the UK about how to protect people from acts of terrorism.  As a result, protective cordons and barriers were installed at government offices, public buildings and transport hubs.

Subsequently – and perhaps as a consequence of the success of these measures – terrorists have changed tactics, focusing their attention on members of the public in crowded city centres. These so-called “soft targets” are harder to protect, partly because of the scale of defences that would be required, but mostly because city authorities want to retain the open and accessible nature of places which are most attractive to shoppers, tourists and businesses.

Approaches to protection

Guidance issued by the Home Office in 2012 explains how public authorities, communities and the private sector can mitigate terrorism risks by physical, technical and procedural measures, such as speed gates, barrier systems, closed-circuit television cameras and sufficient stand-off distance between vehicles and buildings. Similar guidance has been adopted in the United States, and most recently in Australia, which has also developed a self-assessment tool to help owners and managers of public spaces to assess their own risk.

Safer places with style

The challenges presented by terrorist attacks have prompted urban planners and architects to think again about how to protect the public without creating forbidding strongholds.

A successful example of an innovative approach can be found in New York City’s financial district. Home not only to the New York Stock Exchange, but to museums, shops and waterfront entertainment attractions, this part of the city is a vibrant area that brings together many people from different walks of life.

Wall Street Security Project by Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers

It’s this widespread appeal which makes the financial district a potential target for terrorism, and which presented Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers with the challenge of ensuring its security while retaining the positive aspects of the area.

Working with stakeholders, city agencies, and law enforcement officials, the architects came up with an innovative concept that includes sculptural barriers which play a dual role of seating and security. These “NOGO” installations quickly won over pedestrians and were widely applauded in the media. The Chicago Tribune was noted that the NOGO’s bronze surfaces:

“…echo the grand doorways of Wall Street’s temples of commerce. Pedestrians easily slip through groups of them as they make their way onto Wall Street from the area around historic Trinity Church. Cars, however, cannot pass.”

Closer to home, the National Assembly for Wales has also adopted counter-terrorism measures to protect the people who work in and visit this major public building. The architects have taken advantage of the public plaza around the building to achieve sufficient stand-off through landscaping. In addition, staircases and reinforced street furniture contribute to the protective facilities without turning the building into a fortress.

Secure and liveable public spaces

“Barbed wire and concrete barriers may be effective, but they make city dwellers feel like they are living in a war zone.”
A Green Living

Urban planners have a fine line to tread between making people feel comfortable in public spaces while ensuring their safety. Concrete barriers may be effective, but if they make residents and visitors fearful, they are more likely to drive them away. And since that is what terrorists are aiming to achieve, it’s all the more important to get the balance right.


Our thanks to Rogers Partners Architects + Urban Designers in New York City for supplying the information and photographs concerning the streetscapes and security project in the financial district.

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Drones in the city: should we ban drone hobbyists?

A young boy flying a drone

By Steven McGinty

Drones are becoming an increasingly observable feature of modern cities, from tech enthusiasts flying drones in local parks to engineers using them to monitor air pollution. And there have also been some high profile commercial trials such as Amazon Prime Air, an ambitious 30-minute delivery service.

However, introducing drones into the public realm has been something of a bumpy ride. Although the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) produces guidance to ensure drones are flown safely and legally, there has been a number of hazardous incidents.

For example, in April, the first near-miss involving a passenger jet and more than one drone was recorded. The incident at Gatwick Airport saw two drones flying within 500m of an Airbus A320, with one pilot reporting a “significant risk of collision” had they been on a different approach path. In addition – and just 30 minutes later – one of these drones flew within 50m of another passenger jet, a Boeing 777.

Videos have also been uploaded to websites such as YouTube, which have clearly been taken from drones – a clear breach of the CAA’s rules prohibiting the flying of drones over or within 150m of built-up areas. This includes events such as the Cambridge Folk Festival, a match at Liverpool FC’s Anfield Stadium, and Nottingham’s Goose Fair. Jordan Brooks, who works for Upper Cut Productions – a company which specialises in using drones for aerial photography and filming – explains that:

They look like toys. For anyone buying one you feel like you’re flying a toy ‘copter when actually you’ve got a hazardous helicopter that can come down and injure somebody.

Privacy concerns have also started to emerge. Sally Annereau, data protection analyst at law firm Taylor Wessing, highlights a recent European case which held that a suspect’s rights had been infringed by a homeowner’s CCTV recording him whilst he was in a public place. Although not specifically about drones, Sally Annereau suggests this decision will have far reaching consequences, with potential implications for drone users recording in public and sharing their footage on social media sites. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has already issued guidance for drones.

The CAA report that there were more than 3,456 incidents involving drones in 2016. This is a significant increase on the 1,237 incidents in 2015.

The response

Cities have often taken contradictory approaches to drones. Bristol City Council has banned their use in the majority of its parks and open spaces. Similarly, several London boroughs have introduced ‘no drone zones’, although the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames has a relatively open policy, only banning drones over Richmond Park. Further, Lambeth Council requires hobbyists to complete an application form “to ensure suitability”, a standard similar to commercial drone pilots.

There have also been several accusations of double standards as large commercial operators such as Amazon receive exemptions to CAA rules, in front of photographers recording events, hospitals delivering blood, and researchers collecting data.

Although cities have a responsibility to protect the public, they also have to ensure citizens are able to exercise their rights. The air is a common space, and as such cities must ensure that hobbyists – as well as multinational firms – can enjoy the airspace. Thus, it might be interesting to see cities take a more positive approach and designate ‘drone zones’, where hobbyists can get together and fly their drones away from potential hazards.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team.