Who gets asked to “stop and account” and why?

Being mistaken for a pickpocket on the London Underground gives Sunder Katwala an insight into the changing practices of policing.

As I reached the top of the stairs at Embankment tube station, heading around to the ticket barrier, a voice behind me asked me to stop.

Had I dropped something?

As I turned around, the man produced a police ID, and said he wanted to ask me some questions.

Odd. I asked to see the police badge a second time. It looked authentic enough.

I was told that I had been observed as exhibiting possibly suspicious behavior, so the officer would like to know what I was doing and where I was going.

It was about quarter past six on a Thursday evening. I was taking the tube to Charing Cross station, so that I could get a train home, I said. The sort of thing that a lot of people were up to around that time in the evening, I imagine.

What was the suspicious behavior, I asked?

It turned out that I had been spotted in the very act of changing my mind.

You were headed in one direction to the Jubilee Line escalator, but you spotted a uniformed officer and went the other way, I was told. That had formed the basis for a theory, he explained, that I might well be a pickpocket, looking for a victim to target. Apparently, while cunningly avoiding surveillance by the law too.

I had indeed changed direction. After taking several steps towards the Jubilee Line escalator – and my most direct route home, via London Bridge – I had walked across to the much emptier platform on my right, realising that I could spend less time on the tube, and avoid those long Jubilee line escalators too, if I headed to Charing Cross.  

I hadn’t seen a policeman, just a lot of wet commuters with coats and umbrellas.

Perhaps I was in two minds because Westminster wasn’t my usual route home. I explained. I had been at the BBC offices on Millbank after doing an interview for Radio 4. Coming out into heavy rain, I had ducked into Westminster tube rather than walking down Whitehall to Charing Cross. (Historian Anthony Beevor and I had been discussing the government’s plans to commemorate the centenary of the Great War. We weren’t in the same studio, so I can’t use Professor Beevor as any kind of control in terms of his chances of having been stopped at Westminster tube on his way home.)

Was that suspicious enough to be stopped, I wondered? The explanation for stopping me meant, I realised, meant that the two police officers had probably come from the ticket hall at Westminster, and followed me on and off the tube at Embankment. Perhaps the slightly lazy one stop journey added to their suspicion that I was targeting my next mark.

Some people could hang around on the tube, for no reason, perhaps for eight hours at a time, in order to carry out criminal activities, hence the activity of stopping some people.

I had, I was told, given a perfectly legitimate reason for being on the tube network that evening, and so could go on my way.

Before going our separate ways, it did seem worth a couple of minutes more dig into how to carry out that tricky job of protecting us all from these undesirable criminals without too much inconvenience to law-abiding citizens, and in a way which Londoners of all types could trust.

My wife would be amused, I said, at my being taken for a pickpocket, I said. Why? They asked. She would doubt that I would make much of a pickpocket, I suggested, though I couldn’t be totally sure, having never tried it.

It felt to me that, even if I were a mastermind pickpocket, that I pulled off quite a good impression of a commuter. I was even, for me, at least a tiny bit more spruced up than normal, because my colleagues had rightly insisted I put a tie on to go and talk about the solemn issue of Remembrance on the BBC news channel about half past three. But perhaps the criminal masterminds can pull off the commuter look too, making decisions about who to suspect rather trickier.

So how did they decide? Was there any profiling involved, I asked. Of what kind?

Were single Asian males in their thirties travelling alone more likely to be stopped, I asked.

No. We just try to base it on behavior, I was told.

I am never quite sure whether or not to believe this official "no profiling" policy. I explained that my uncertainty about that is not based on a great deal more than my (inconclusive) anecdotal experience of seemingly happening to be stopped more often than my colleagues in think-tanks and journalism – though, only, as it happens at transport hubs. I am only, however, talking about four times in the last ten years overall: once at Stanstead airport, once at Luton, once on the Eurostar platform when it used to be at Waterloo, and now by the ticket barriers at Embankment.  

Any think-tanker knows that one could never derive any proof from such as small anecdotal sample.

But it has led me to ask the same question, and always to receive the same reply.

When I asked what details I could have from the police officers, I was told it was possible to record the incident, so I thought that I would like to do that.

Looking over the officer’s shoulder as he used his rather smart e-device, I questioned his initially selecting the option “white”.

I don’t think “white” is the right option for me, I said.

“That’s what I would have said you looked like to me”, he said. 

I wondered if that was over-compensating a little from one potential inference of the earlier profiling question.

But I thought non-white was the right answer if the question was ethnicity, while British was fine for nationality. That threw up a much more extensive menu, for “self-defined ethnicity” where I could choose an “M3 Mixed White/Asian” to reflect my Indian-Irish parentage..

That was one small insight into the stuff that the official statistics are made of.

Recording the stop seems to involve quite a lot of information – including giving your name, date and place of birth, and your home address if you filled out the full thing.

I wasn’t entirely sure that the opportunity would necessarily have been spontaneously offered if I hadn’t specifically asked for some type of identification or record, and opened up a broader policing policy discussion.

And the initial instinct to flag me for the computer as "white" offered confirms the insight that any statistics can only be as accurate as the source material.

But the officers were professional and polite throughout, and not necessarily any less so before I had mentioned coming out of a BBC interview either.

The hand-held printer – rather in the style of the Apple Store – took two or three minutes to print out, so we were able to have a bit more of a chat about policing, trust and indeed the politics of the think-tank scene. I established that I could do whatever I wanted with the receipt of the encounter – if, for example, I wanted to put it on Facebook – and was even given the Twitter account of the British Transport police. (Another culture shift there, as it tweeted me back this morning). 

The receipt shows that it was printed eight minutes after the stop, but we seemed to have covered a fair amount of ground.

It showed that the “power” was “Rec 61 – Stop and Account”, and the outcome was “no further action”.

The policeman asked me how I had found this experience, personally.

I said that it had been odd – but they had shown a professional willingness to answer my questions about it.

Stop and account, if you will, but it needs to work the other way around too.

I had found a rather more surly response when asking similar questions when being interrogated about my business at an airport. The policeman had found the same when flying to the US, so we turned out to have that in common too.

I said that I understood that the police have a job to do. My instinct was to be sympathetic to them, I said, because I felt they had tried to come quite a long way over the last fifteen years, certainly from some of the controversies that I had followed closely when I had lived in Eltham, on the Well Hall Road, during the inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence case. So my instinct is that progress has been made – and that more progress is possible.

The question mark on which people want assurance have is that policing is effective, transparent and fair.

I think that may be why questions such as who gets stopped – and why – can still matter.

 

A policeman stands guard in an underground station. Photograph: Getty Images

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?