Experiencing Research Interviews at the Ministry of Justice

Harry Annison

I like to walk to the Ministry of Justice. In part because you just can’t beat the Waterloo Sunset (so to speak); in part for the symbolism of a route that takes me past the Houses of Parliament, past the Supreme Court and past an assortment of other government departments. I can navigate most of it on auto-pilot by now. Off the train at Waterloo, racing to beat the crowds at the barriers. Out onto the South Bank. I squeeze past the endless waves of tourists near the London Eye, experience never teaching me that a quick pace is impossible. Over Westminster Bridge, usually dotted with bagpipers and tourists smiling at their selfie-stick phones. I use the road to skirt around people, until I remember this is ill-advised in central London. I push on through the hordes, wading through treacle. The air is thick with dirt. I arrive.

The brutalist exterior of 102 Petty France looms over me. It is a magnificent building, in its own way. I look up; take it in. Architectuul tells me that it is “a big, assertive building which succeeds in its job as a symbol of government authority and a landmark on the local skyline”. It is somewhat facile to describe it as prison-like, with its cold, concrete exterior and resistance to the outside world. But it is just that. I am a little early. I stroll down the side street, Queen Anne’s Gate. A plaque on the side of this mega-building tells me that Jeremy Bentham lived in a house on this site. I gaze through a barred gate. I could be free, launched into the open air of St James Park. I turn back.

Built in 1976, 102 Petty France was extensively modified from 2003 before the Ministry of Justice eventually became its new tenant in 2007. A high glass roof was installed, covering the former rear courtyard, meaning that there is now a large bright atrium at the building’s core. This contains a café, seating across various levels and glass-boxed meeting rooms. It looks remarkably like one of those overly-optimistic architect’s visualisations of how a space will be utilised: it feels light and spacious and there is a thrum of activity. Things happen here; power is held within these walls. I like being here, but feel a pang of guilt: I am there to talk about prisons, about punishment, about pain.

Getting past reception can be a challenge. They never seem to know the person I am meeting, to the point of doubting their existence to me. Initially this would induce panic in me. “Shit, I’ve got it wrong. Why didn’t I double check the details? What an idiot!” As I become more experienced, I realise that this seemed to be reception’s default approach for anyone. “Justice Secretary? Nope. Have you got a mobile number for them?” So, over time, my reaction shifts from panic to amusement. (And being more organised in asking for a contact number in advance). I sit and wait to be collected from reception.

I notice the whirr of a coffee machine: there is a brightly coloured mobile coffee shop shaped like a little tuk-tuk in the reception of the Ministry of Justice. I ponder the meeting at which this was decided to be A Good Thing. It is squeezed into the frontage, fitting – just – in amongst the anti-terrorist defences that have been installed. Out of the window I glimpse smokers, hanging around the huge strategically-placed planters on the pavement outside; more situational crime control in action. I hope that I’m collected soon; the longer I wait the more liable I am to have my bag searched by the security guards who inhabit the reception area. It would only take a moment, but it’s aggravating. My interviewee arrives.

Small talk, as we walk from reception, through the security ‘pods’ (think Derek Smalls in Spinal Tap) and to our meeting room. We walk past the signage for ‘independent’ bodies who are in fact physically based in the Ministry of Justice’s flagship building. This is normally coupled with a quip by the person I am meeting with. At the time this passes as polite chit-chat. But on reflection its importance strikes me more clearly: they mention it – and are primed to mention it – because they feel the problem. Every time they walk someone past it. Every single day.

A more recent experience involves the act of actually finding a space to meet. One interviewee had told me in advance that we might need to sit in the atrium as meeting rooms were hard to come by. It happens again. And again! And then, it became difficult even to find a table in the café. “Look forward to seeing you at 12. I’ll work in the café from mid-morning, before all the tables are taken.” What is going on?

Once I’m attuned to this situation, it can become hard not to be distracted by it. I notice people walking across my eyeline, like animals prowling the savannah looking for their prey. A free table! And they’re down, out of sight. I have also found myself, more than once, in a glass-boxed meeting room designed, I can only assume, for two-thirds of a small adult human. Being packt like sardines in a crushd tin box does not make for the best interview, it must be said.

These sometimes rather farcical experiences tell the tale, in their own way, of the crushing grip of austerity on the Ministry of Justice. Personal desks are being taken away; hot-desking is in. Partial home-working is another scheme, intended to reduce the need for office space. Different parts of government, and semi-independent bodies overseen by the MoJ, are moved in (and out), re-organisations to try to squeeze some more value (in a certain sense) out of this central London prime real estate. To the extent that this evokes the senses, it is a sense of impermanence and transience (there are always moving boxes somewhere, if you look for them), coupled with a low-level friction (people have been doing ‘more with less’, for a decade now).

My concluding observation is one that perhaps I shouldn’t admit, as a purported expert in penal policy: the Ministry of Justice makes no sense. Job roles change all the time. If you’re lucky, you may find an organogram (imagine a family tree, but for job roles) that putatively tells you who-does-what. You will invariably find that it is out of date, or does not help much on the specific issue you are researching, or both. The policy/operations boundary and related organisational schematics wash in, and out, like the tide. The organisations within 102 Petty France are contingent social constructions; they are in a permanent state of near-becoming.

Put another way, HMPPS is very much not the MoJ, and the MoJ is very much not HMPPS (or NOMS, as it was previously). Talking to insiders about issues that required a precise understanding of the current MoJ-HMPPS (and related organisational) dynamics would sometimes remind me of my French exchange trips as a young boy, trying to follow the rapid-fire chatter of my French family.

The observation that organisations – just like cultures, historical events and so on – are inherently resistant to efforts at a single and coherent account (and perhaps become more so, the more one learns about them), is by no means novel. I have myself explored what the Ministry of Justice ‘is’ from an interpretive analytical perspective, examining the narratives and webs of belief relied upon by penal policy makers.

Here, I have reflected on my sensory experiences of conducting research interviews in the Ministry of Justice headquarters, 102 Petty France, over recent years. This will hopefully be of interest to some, and perhaps even helpful to others. At the same time, I have a hunch that there is much more to investigate, to learn, and to theorise, about the sensory experience of being in spaces devoted to the development and maintenance of criminal justice policy, in addition to the direct study of spaces of punishment and social control.

Note: This account is an amalgamation of numerous visits to 102 Petty France, in part to ensure the anonymity of research respondents. To the extent that it can be said to take place at a particular moment in time, it occurred in spring 2018. For those planning to conduct their own research on penal politics and policy making, I am told that the appendix to my book Dangerous Politics, ‘Studying Penal Policymaking: Access, Ethics, and Power Relations’ is helpful and am happy to share the text with anyone who cannot access the book.