Hold on to your hats: Nick Ross's book on crime is actually not bad

There’s a lot that’s right in this book, but there are some deep flaws too, Alan White finds.

Crime: How To Solve It, and Why So Much of What We're Told Is Wrong
Nick Ross
Biteback Publishing, 361pp, 17.99

What with the best part of 30 years presenting Crimewatch and other programmes on the subject, seats on Government committees and even the setting up of an institution dedicated to its prevention, Nick Ross has thought a lot about crime. Not necessarily a recommendation, but what we can say for a start is that there is a lot of stuff in this book. Ross has read up and has plenty to say on every type of crime, from firearm homicides to illegal downloads to - we’ll get there in the end - rape.

In one interview he revealed that the book suffered heavy edits, which makes me wonder how big a work was originally submitted to his publisher: it weighs in at 361 pages and is so heavily referenced that notes are not included in the text: instead you have to type in phrases from the book at in order to find the source. Perhaps I’m a dinosaur, but I found this somewhat annoying.

Anyway: in terms of scope, this may be the most wide-ranging book on crime ever published. But the central conceit that runs through it is very simple: prevention is better than cure. Or as Ross neatly puts it early on: “Crime has been with us since Adam and Eve and, surprisingly, God didn’t spot the solution. Rather than punishing the miscreants, it might have been better had he put the forbidden fruit higher up the tree.”

Now how willing you are to accept this rather depends on your perception of human nature. Perhaps you agree, or perhaps you think if God had done that then Adam and Eve would only have ended up crapping on the rhododendrons or something. In which case Ross’s aim is to win you over.

His thinking is rather less original than he or his publishers suggest. The last policing minister Nick Herbert was talking about the need for preventative justice as recently as 2010, and as it happens I dedicated most of a chapter of my own book to it in 2008, having been inspired by this 2003 report into a chief constable who nearly lost his job after mediating between two gangs, thus causing arrest figures to go down and panic at the Home Office. I’d love to believe my trailblazing ideas have a huge impact on the thinking of cabinet ministers, but the truth is there have long been debates on this issue. 

What Ross brings to the table is a vision in which prevention can eventually supplant detection. The rub for policy makers, of course, is that while we wait for this promised land to appear the police won’t be able to find out who stole your bike because they’re giving classes on securing them safely. It's not a concern for which he dedicates much time. However, it has to be said that he makes a good fist of arguing for prevention for much of the book. He has an eye for a telling historical anecdote, deftly running through the history of burglary and shoplifting in the Twentieth Century and arguing cogently how the huge decline in both crimes were influenced by social changes that simply made them harder to commit. 

And he’s very good on the fog of bullshit that wafts up from the interface between politicians, the media and the criminal justice system whenever we talk about crime. There are a number of uncomfortable truths that the public just don’t want to hear. First, as the criminologist Thomas Gabor says: “Dividing all of humanity into two camps - the decent and the villainous - is at odds with the facts.” Ross draws on everything from the Milgram experiment to recent political scandals to show that people are susceptible to temptation: crime is opportunistic, and it’s little more than an accident of birth as to whether you end up a street mugger or an investment banker fiddling the books.

Another truth we don’t want to accept is how the criminal justice system (CJS) amounts to little more than an elaborate confidence trick. It’s arbitrary as to whether a case makes court and produces a guilty verdict. It doesn’t reform criminals. It doesn’t take them out of circulation for very long. And it doesn’t put them off committing crime again.

Of course the police should be spending more time stopping crimes before they happen - they’re the best placed to do so - but instead they spend their time responding to crimes and filling out paperwork in order to placate the legal system. It costs millions, but this entire system has been gradually erected with barely a shred of statistical evidence to validate its efficacy. Many of Ross’s arguments on this have been heard before, generally from the ‘“left” - but as he points out, this shouldn’t really be political at all: it’s an issue of pragmatism.

So there’s a lot that’s right in this book, but there are some deep flaws too. First of all, there’s the issue of methodology. Ross wants criminology to be less of a humanities subject and more of a science, and writes well on the way it’s been infiltrated by various political doctrines. He also deconstructs the ludicrous way in which the media reports crime, and he analyses how unreliable crime statistics are to great effect. But then he uses all three as the primary sources for his arguments. When you’re just sharing an opinion rather than reporting, you’ve got nowhere else to go.

He may not like criminology, but I’d contrast his technique with, for example, this piece of research into gangs in Waltham Forest. It, too, is flawed, but here we have first-hand testimony from gang members, probation workers and locals, maps of the gangs’ whereabouts, and general conclusions extrapolated from the interviews. And one thing you see a lot of in that report is the necessary interaction between police, schools, probation, housing officers and other bodies: utterly vital to a modern justice system, yet something on which Ross has little to say.

The report's conclusions may be wrong, and what the individuals might say may well only be subjectively true, but the truth is you can cut statistics and news reports as easily as you can interviewees’ words. Bluntly, you’re more likely to make a significant contribution to knowledge by concentrating on a single type of crime in a small area than by holding forth for a few thousand words on, to pick a chapter, “violence”.

So there's a pot/kettle element to his complaints about the selective use of evidence by various institutions. Ross is convinced that the “design” of estates can be a major preventative tool, and cites the Pepys Estate in Deptford as an example: with high-rise stairways removed, there has been “no crime”. Except: a) His only reference for this turns out to be, um, a documentary he filmed, b) There’s certainly some crime, and c) The forerunner of this kind of idea was the Mozart Estate in Westminster, which was completely redesigned by Alice Coleman, after which drugs raids, gang shootings and other social problems resolutely refused to go away. 

The other issue is that his method leaves major analytical gaps and unanswered questions. It's all very well to bemoan the "austere dichotomy" of innocent or guilty verdicts in court, but then you have to wonder what the alternative is. Probably guilty, but six months off for a sharp suit and a plausible manner?

Likewise Ross's analysis of statistics shows, he feels, that ethnic minorities aren’t unfairly treated by the CJS, but he’s unwilling to say whether over-representation is because they live in rougher areas or because of different “cultural values”. I have an opinion, based on a year researching different-coloured youths in housing estates everywhere from Brixton to Grimsby and seeing very similar patterns of behaviour - but it’s just a gut feeling based on talking to lots of people.

I get the impression that this view is of little use to Ross because it just isn’t scientific enough. That would be fine, but his own book does little to convince us that the analysis of crime can ever be an exact science. His efforts to do so, along with the fact he’s determined to write on every crime under the sun, also lead to some rather jarring clashes of tone. You can see where we’re going with this.

To the issue of rape, then. First, we should note the entire chapter is now available online: I invite the reader to draw their own conclusions, but here are mine. Ross certainly doesn’t say, “Not all rape is rape.” Those words were the invention of an excitable sub-editor. And the edited extract that appeared in the Mail did divest the argument of much of its nuance. Indeed, it’s only fair to see the chapter in the context of the book I’ve described above: a book almost entirely about stopping crime before it happens. I imagine these are the lines he would describe as key:

“Of course she was right that ‘no means no’, which is fine as a finger-wagging exercise, but being justifiably indignant is not the same as being prudent or pragmatic.”

One can sympathise with Ross - up to a point. There’s the kernel of a difficult debate with some very fine gradations here - when offering safety advice, when is the line crossed between promoting caution and victim blaming? Don’t take an illegal taxi? Don’t walk home alone drunk? Don’t wear high heels? The line “rape is rape” just doesn’t settle this. For more on this see here. But the problem is that Ross over-reaches. A lot:

“We have come to acknowledge that it is foolish to leave laptops on the back seat of a car...Yet for some it is heresy to suggest victims should ever be held responsible at all.”

It’s only by reading the rest of the book that you can understand how he’s ended up expressing these crass sentiments - it’s part of his work-in-progress to turn all criminal behaviour into a kind of mathematical equation (indeed he jokingly attempts this at one point). Laptop theft may, like rape, be expedited by various factors, but the simple fact is that everything else surrounding the crime from motive to victim impact is totally different. If we talk about it differently, it's not just out of respect to victims.

I feel sorry for Ross - he’s clearly a decent man who’s on a mission to do some good, and by all accounts he’s deeply upset by the reaction. But he really shouldn’t be surprised. His subsequent pronouncements on child pornography have only made things worse: all a little reminiscent of the middle-aged Harry Enfield character trying to come to terms with his gay son. It’s what happens when writers think too much, and don’t listen enough. In all fairness, the chapter on rape is an anomaly. The dull truth is that this is largely a comprehensive and thoughtful book.

Nick Ross subscribes to the idea that when it comes to crime, prevention is better than cure. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.