18 May 2012

Rochdale: The disproportionality dilemma

View all news

Are Asian men in towns like Rochdale disproportionately involved in sexual perversion of some kind? There are wildly differing answers to choose from. The official chief crown prosecutor for North West England is clear: “There is very troubling evidence that Asians are overwhelmingly represented in prosecutions for such offences.” Meanwhile, the chair of the Commons home affairs select committee pleads that “any attempt to look at the ethnic dimension of such attacks could stigmatise a whole community”. Clear as muck, then, and completely unhelpful.

People have been shocked by what has come out of Rochdale last week for the simple reason that these are shocking crimes. If Asian men are over-represented, it is vital that this is acknowledged so that a proper effort can be made to tackle cultural, community or social causes. But it raises the question of how we should feel about disproportionate bad behaviour (and not just good behaviour) that are found among certain groups.

So what about groups who on one hand undershoot on social evils (binge-drinking or divorce perhaps) but overshoot on others (paedophilia, gang crime, etc)? Are these groups integrated into our society – or not?

Speaking to a London policy audience last month, I pointed out that migrant integration was chiefly about characteristics of migrants and natives converging. How far and fast were “they” becoming like “us”? Thus, gaps in education and employment (first generation) gaps in achievement might hopefully melt away among British-born kids of migrants. This seemed uncontroversial enough.

But could this logic also be applied to convergence in bad things and behaviours? I argued that it could and should – with controversy.

If, for instance, a society that newcomers joined contained a ten per cent paedophilia problem, then that too should be added to the basket of characteristics that group shared. Uncomfortable, for sure. So long as a group undershot significantly, and refused to comply with society’s evils, it might be stranded on the excluded hinterland. Its own chauvinists might start speechifying about their community’s inherent moral superiority (unlikely to win over middle opinion in the larger population). Uber-assimilationists, meanwhile, would no doubt criticise minorities for deliberately missing out on shared experiences and identities, however ugly.

Why the controversy? Principally because the same tension underpins almost any aspect of our society that involves policy to bear down on bad things. Certainly sexual exploitation of kids in an organised way is about as horrific as it gets. But parallels abound everywhere. Are young black men disproportionately involved in street crime? If they are, then – to many lay people – aggressive stop and search that effectively targets them stands up. Many accept that, if Asian-owned legal firms are disproportionately caught up in poor client practices, this might warrant especially close scrutiny from watchdogs.

In essence, if group X punches above its weight in certain types of bad behaviour, then public agencies (immigration entry officers in the case of visa fraud) and private businesses (the Association of British Insurers in the case of false insurance claims) need to sharpen up if they want to get ahead of things. Indeed, they might be accused of being naive and/or cowardly if they fail to factor such intelligence – where it exists – into their operational plans. And, in my varied observations, a fair number could be so criticised.

Data matters. But it is too simplistic to think that a social problems dashboard with a “disproportionality needle” would tell us all that we need to know. Thinking about social problems as if there were a dashboard with a ” needle”  would not solve is not all there is to it. There are two big hurdles to cross first. The first is to figure out if the bad behaviours (sexual, financial, familial, etc) are the characteristic of the group directly. Often they are not. In fact the underlying problems and causes may be linked to disadvantage and/or severely deprived places. This is not to get anyone off the hook but to say that bad things happen in some places rather more than others.

The second is that, where culture comes into apportioning responsibility, it is essential to be specific. If not, messages get lost and worse. Whole groups get tainted through loose association. For instance, on the demand side, there is a specific local cultural tolerance of something that must be condemned and punished severely. But, on the supply side, there is also a wider societal culture of hyper-sexualisation of young children that needs to be tackled.

Right now, particular condemnation is needed of those in Rochdale and elsewhere who turn a blind eye to grooming. But the same thing is also true of tacit backing for radicalism and violent extremism in Luton. The sad reality is that zealous, superior-sounding demands for individuals to speak out are usually counter productive. Getting the tone wrong means that perverts and violent extremists can continue to hide in the crowd.

We are routinely reminded since our childhoods that there is good and bad in every quarter. There is no point in trying to pin evil on a single community as we may discover that it also lives within our ranks.  ‘Disproportionality Politics’ is now embedded in our political lexicon. Today, we can see that some groups are disproportionately caught up in sex rings; tomorrow, there will be another social evil supported by the facts. But elsewhere they may be disproportionately under-represented in bad behaviours. Such politics is, at most, a means to solutions – it is certainly not an end point.

Group reputations do matter in society, however much we get the sense that a group doesn’t want to talk about a widespread perception of the group. Simply shrugging in the face of Rochdale and saying “What’s it got to do with us?” cannot be good for the reputation of any group. It is better to try to own and shape that reputation than to cede it to others to exploit at will.

Shamit Saggar 

Read Shamit Saggar’s recently released report Building a British Model of Integration in an era of Immigration: Policy Lessons for Government.


British Future’s latest activity on Twitter