Archive for category Government

PAVA Palaver

About a month ago the latest prisons minister Rory Stewart announced a countrywide rollout of PAVA (synthetic pepper) Spray for all prison officers in male prisons in England and Wales following a ‘successful’ pilot study of its use. At the time of his appointment Mr Stewart stated that he would resign within a year if the levels of illicit drugs and violence had not reduced. And so this announcement appeared to show he was taking decisive action to keep his promise.

A screen grab of the press release from the MOJ titled "Prison officer safety equipment rolled out - prisons minister announces roll-out of PAVA incapacitant spray to prison officers across the country" dated 9th October 2018

Violence within the prison estate of England and Wales has sky rocketed in recent years. For example, between March 2017 and March 2018 assaults on staff increased 26% whilst the prison population remained static or only slightly increased. There is a negative correlation between the levels of violence and a significant reduction in staff numbers since 2010. At least seven thousand operational staff have been lost in that time with a modest increase in recent months.

This is obviously less than ideal for a number of reasons that go beyond just the physical damage caused by such violence. Unstable and unsafe prisons are not places where people can be rehabilitated and helped to lead positive, crime free lives upon release.

There have many pronouncements by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) as to what they intend to do about this problem in recent years. PAVA is the most recent. News of this roll out did not include the pilot study itself or outline what exactly was meant by ‘success’.

The pilot study was initially somewhat elusive and none of its details were contained within any of the reporting, apart from this apparent ‘success’. A number of people including Rob Allen, an independent researcher in this area, made FOI requests to the MOJ who obliged and provided the report which can be found here

The Pilot Study

So now we are able to see what the aims of the study were and what is being defined as ‘success’.

The aims of the study were to answer the following:

  1. How does presence/use of PAVA impact on prison violence and use of force?
  2. How does presence/use of PAVA effect perceptions of safety?
  3. How does presence/use of PAVA impact on relationships between staff and prisoners?
  4. How do staff and prisoners perceive the presence/use of PAVA?
  5. What are the risks or issues presented by the presence and use of PAVA in prison?

In order to achieve these aims pilots were undertaken in 4 prisons where officers received half a day of training on the use of PAVA. Officers were advised that it should only be used in exceptional circumstances where control and restraint were unlikely to be effective. Four ‘control’ prisons without PAVA were also part of study. The eight prisons involved totalled 7651 prisoners and 2972 officers out of a total England and Wales population of 83,163.

A photograph taken through the bars of a prison cell with an out of focus bed, sink and desk in the background

The study ran from December 2017 to June 2018. Results were gathered both quantitatively and qualitatively via recording the number of uses of PAVA and by interviews with those involved in some of the instances of use.

PAVA was used (either drawn and/or deployed) 50 times in incidents involving 56 prisoners across the four study sites. It was actually deployed 30 of those 50 times. However the levels of violence in both the pilot and control sites remained at similar levels and indeed increased, continuing current trends. This raises serious questions about how this study was considered to be successful.

The main way it appears to have been deemed successful is in relation to the second aim, namely perceived safety. The study notes that “staff felt better able to deal with it and better equipped to arrest escalation and prevent harm with PAVA”. Of course perception of safety and actual safety are two different things as is made very clear by the fact that levels of violence were unchanged by the introduction of the spray.

More than just a last resort?

A large percentage of the incidents where PAVA was deployed and/or drawn, 16%, were not instances of violence (either between prisoners or towards staff) but instances of ‘passive non-compliance’ or self-harm. This raises the concern that use of PAVA during the study went far beyond it being a weapon of last resort. A Panel that reviewed each incident concluded that between 4 and 11 of the incidents went beyond expectations of professional conduct. Some of the case studies seem to be particularly concerning. For example case study 33 is recorded as follows:

‘PAVA is deployed 3 times in 2 incidents running concurrently involving 1 prisoner and 2

officers. Prisoner suffers from mental health issues and is awaiting formal assessment. Two

CMs respond to alarm (officer A and officer B) and find Prisoner is resisting staff attempts to

close his cell door. Prisoner A is warned and sprayed at the cell entrance and again on his

bed. Upon healthcare assessment 5-10 minutes later, PAVA is sprayed again as prisoner A

is refusing to withdraw his hands from his observation flap.’

There is no indication that this prisoner was being aggressive or causing harm yet he was sprayed with PAVA twice in succession. This goes completely against the guidance that indicates that PAVA should not be used simply to gain compliance.


There were also worrying discrepancies in how the physical effects of PAVA were described depending on whether it was prisoners or staff who were feeling the effects. In 13 of the 33 instances where the spray was actually used the staff involved were affected by the spray. It was described by staff and prisoners as “nasty”, “unbearable”, “like your skin peeling off” and “acid attacked”. However overall the staff involved described the use of PAVA as a ‘minor’ use of force towards prisoners but ‘awful’ when staff were hit.

The limitations

The study did include some limitations which were noted by the authors. For example the definition of a deployment did not include instances where officers were covertly drawing a cannister behind their back with the intention of using it if needed. It is not known how often this happened and so the 50 instances recorded in the study could actually be a significant under-report. To be fair the study does make this and other limitations clear and highlights that the results should be seen as indicative rather than definitive as a result. In my view this makes the fact the MOJ have used it as a basis for a wholescale roll out pretty odd. This is especially true as there is a general lack of previous studies about custodial PAVA use to also relay on. This is something the study also concedes.A screen grab of the PAVA pilot study report titled "PAVA in prisons project evaluation report" dated 2018

There is no doubt that prison officers do a very difficult job in extremely challenging circumstances and the need to protect them in volatile situations is vital. However, introducing more weapons into this already toxic environment on the basis of this study is at best questionable. In conclusion, when it comes to reducing violence in prison, the MOJ have a funny definition of ‘success’ and Mr Stewart is still someway from keeping his promise (and his job).


A photo of Emma McClure, she has long brown hair and is smiling at the camera

Emma McClure

Emma McClure is a solicitor specialising in prison and public law whose work sees her regularly representing prisoners during parole hearings and bringing judicial reviews against public bodies. She has given talks around the country on the way in which over-confidence in the veracity of forensic science can lead to miscarriages of justice and has gone undercover to investigate psychics, faith healers and Mind Body Spirit fairs.

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The GMO debate and the rise of anti-science

Guest post from Dr Geraint Parry.

Over the past few days, the EU passed legislation that changes the ability of member states to grow genetically modified (GM) crops. As with most EU legislative documents this new declaration is not light reading but essentially reports that member states will have more power to decide whether they individually wish to grow GM crops in their territories. This alters the present situation where any GM crop needs EU-wide approval. Currently only a few GM crop varieties are approved including an insect resistance maize/corn called MON810. However many members states including France, Germany and Italy have individually banned MON810 and so it is only grown in warmer climates, the majority of which in Spain.

The new ruling will allow countries to develop crops that are more appropriate for their climates as long as, importantly, all the necessary safety checks are carried out and contingencies are put in place to ensure no unintended spread of these GM plants. In some countries this new ruling will make little difference as there currently is little political will in France or Germany to accept this technology and it will be difficult in countries surrounding these European powerhouses to make a strong case that there will be no spread across land-locked borders. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Mass Libel Reform Blog – Fight for Free Speech!

This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.

The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.

You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.

The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at

Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.

If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.

We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at

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Popes and Jokes

As you may all have noticed, the Catholic Church has recently been creaking under the weight of its own paedophiles. That’s what happens when you keep hiding them. The glare of the media must have spooked the Church, because in the tradition of all large amoral institutions they’ve been trying to distract us with a story about virtually nothing. Well, I think they have… maybe I’ve just assumed it was down to them because it was so perfectly timed. It could just be coincidence that one moment everyone was shaking their heads in disgust at the sexual abuse of children and the next they were shaking their heads in disgust at a civil servant making a condom joke. I don’t know. There’s been a lot of Catholic-originated disgust and anger about in the papers, denouncing this affront… a few weeks ago every prominent Catholic was quiet for fear that the righteous fire of popular anger would burn their face off. 

I really can’t get to grips with the psychology at work here. Read the rest of this entry »



Mad Journalist Syndrome

On the 14th January, Simon Jenkins published an article online at the Guardian’s Comment is Free section entitled: “Swine Flu is as Elusive as WMD. The Real Threat is Mad Scientist Syndrome.”, in which he criticised both scientists and the government for what he saw as scare tactics and misinformation in the handling of the swine flu outbreak. The article annoyed me a little, but I had food in the oven, and as I’m a man who lives on his stomach (to paraphrase Dr. Bruce Banner, you wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry), I forgot about it and went about my merry way.

A week later, the article began to surface from the sea of my subconscious and I grew increasingly irked. I gradually came to realise that it was a much more frustrating article than I had initially given it credit for. Read the rest of this entry »

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Evidence Check Evidence Check (or; What The Papers Say)

Over the last couple of weeks, the Commons Committee on Science and Technology held a couple of their “evidence check” sessions, looking at homeopathy.  Sessions such as this are held to examine whether there is evidence to support government policy.

The oral hearings take the form of witnesses with relevant backgrounds being quizzed by committee members.  Witnesses for the first of these sessions included the legendary Ben Goldacre, Edzard Ernst from the University of Exeter, and Tracey Brown from the charity Sense About Science.  Speakers in favour of homeopathy included Paul Bennett from Boots, Peter Fisher from the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, and Robert Wilson from the British Association of Homeopathic Manufacturers.

The big thing that came out of this hearing, from a rhetorical point of view, was the admission by Paul Bennett that Boots did not believe homeopathy to be effective – but they sell it anyway because of consumer demand.  This lead to us here at Merseyside Skeptics drafting An Open Letter to Alliance Boots, calling upon them to withdraw the product.  If you haven’t done so already, or even if you have, please check out the letter.  Digg it, tweet it, repost it, write about it.  Help up make some noise!


The pro-homeopathy witnesses, when challenged, mentioned a number of studies which they claimed supported the idea that homeopathy has strong effects beyond placebo.  So I thought I’d look up a few of the studies mentioned and see what those studies actually say.

Read the rest of this entry »

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