Discussion Into Historical Subcultural Theories Of Youth Offending Criminology Essay

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The essay will look at historical subcultural theories and explanations which play a role in explaining youth offending behaviour. It will in particular focus on deviant and radical subcultural theories including theories from Merton and Cohen and look at ways in which these theories are still prevalent amongst contemporary society and continue to be relevant. The essay will consist of an in dept critical analysis of the arguments put forward.

Browne (2000) defines a subculture as a group of people who hold their own norms, culture, ethnicity, sexuality and values. Subcultures are smaller cultures held by a group of people within a larger culture in the society of which they belong to. Crime and deviance subcultural explanations of deviance advocate that those individuals who commit deviant behaviours share similar values which are to an extent differentiated from the main values of society

The dissertation will critically review the literature. It is useful to do this as it helps to identify to the validity of the literature. In carrying out a critical literature review it aids in ensuring that new research into the topic avoids the errors found in some earlier research. Aims and objectives of the dissertation will be to critically analyse literature of historical theorists well known for their work associated with early deviant subcultural theories and to explore their relevance within contemporary society and demonstrate how historical ideas differ and/or are similar with ideas from society today. Other aims and objectives include carrying out a critical analysis on the work of these theorists and of sources which information has derived from.

Literature - Early Radical and Deviant subcultural theories

Robert Merton put forward the theory of anomie/ strains which posed of great relevance to subcultural theories in the origins of deviant subcultural theorists. The theory suggest that deviance is a means used to achieve society's goals when they cannot be achieved through legitimate means due to factors such as socio economic factors, disadvantages in education and job prospects. This can then place strain upon these individuals as they want to achieve the goals but lack the opportunity for doing so by conventional means, (Cote, 2002).

Great Britain Department for Work and Pensions (2004) in their sixth annual report state that many neighbourhoods have been subject to a spiral of decline. Areas with high unemployment and crime rates attain bad reputations resulting in businesses and employers to move out and which means there is high turnover and plenty of housing which is left empty posing opportunity for crime, vandalism and drug dealing. This supports Merton's view that deviance may in actual fact be a result of deprived areas posing disadvantages on individuals. This provides strong support for Merton's theory as it has been derived from a credible government organisation's findings which have been providing data for the government for six years.

Cohen (1955) criticised Merton's theory however and states that it does not account for crimes which are committed for no apparent reason. He fails to address why acts of deviance may take place where they fail to provide any monetary value. Cohen believes that acts of deviance take place out of fun not out of necessity.

He also believes that crime does not take place on an individual level but as a collective problem for gang members who seek audiences in order to gain status and respect.

In addition Cohen(1973) states that undesirable subcultures may be used as scapegoats for the government and law officials with the aim of creating moral panic so they can be viewed as fighting off these delinquents.

There have been occasions when the government's claims have been questioned. BBC (2002) talk about the government placing blame for the growth of youth crime on incompetent and violent parents. Questions however have been raised as to whether the government is evading responsibility for the increase of crime levels to parents. This can however only be a matter of raising questions as to whether or not the government exercise the use of scapegoating.

Baerveldt et al (2006) used criteria from work carried out by Goode and Yehuda to carry out an investigation to prove the hypothesis that a moral panic relating to youth crime has been prevalent since the 1990's in the Netherlands. They had found that most of the criteria identified by Good and Yehuda had been met however it was unclear that the underpinning of this moral panic was solely down to beurocratic processes. There were also flaws identified with the methodology or the research and Baerveld et al felt that future research should be more comparative looking at moral local panics or comparing panics with non-panics. This suggests that the finding from this study may not be as significant as the methodology may have been flawed.

The work carried out by various sociologists in The Chicago School also contributed to the origins of deviant subcultural theories. Hopkins Burke (2008) speaks of the Sociologist Ernest Burges who put forward a theory of 'social disorganisation in 1928. The University of Chicago Centennial Catalogues (2010) state that Burgess played a central role in research which he contributed to the Chicago School of sociology. He observed that there was a high presence of criminal behaviour in the 'zones of transition'. He put this down to the constant expansion of the business district into these areas resulting in the displacement of residents in this area. As this was one of the most desirable zones to live in, it was an area of attraction for immigrants who were too poor to live elsewhere. Burges claimed that this resulted in the weakening of family and communities due to social patterns.

Shaw and McKay state that it is neighbourhood organisation which allowed or prevented offending behaviour. They noted that parents of youths from neighbourhoods which were wealthier fulfilled their children's needs resulting in less crime in the areas. However they stated that in the zone of transition families were strained as a result of migration, poverty and rapid urban growth. Left with little support children and young people had no social constraints placed on them therefore were more likely to seek friends in the streets of the city in search for excitement.

It can be argued however that poverty does not always lead to crime as there are people who want to break the cycle of poverty and change their lives around. BBC (2005) state that the cycle of poverty (As shown in Appendix 1) is where families or communities become trapped in poverty as a result of limited resources such as education, and finance. Breaking the cycle of poverty can be demonstrated by the self made millionaire Sir Alan Sugar; his early life began by being brought up in a council estate. It can be said that in some situations being bought up in poverty may have a positive effect on some people, Barke and O'Hare (1991).

However sometimes it may be necessary to commit crimes in order to break thee cycle of poverty.

Jenks (2005) stated that The Chicago School contributed to the discovery of new and different people. Subcultural studies by The Chicago School discovered new ways of life and different sides of cities.

Albert Cohen is a well known theorist for contributing to early US deviant subculture theories throughout the 1940's and 1950s. Burke (2005) talks about Cohen's deviant subculture theory, which suggests that it is the family position in the social structure which determines the child's actions in later life. Cohen states that juvenile delinquents were motivated to offend in order to achieve status, with their offending serving no real purpose. He questioned acts of deviance which were non finance motivated such as vandalism. He put this down to a term which he described as 'status frustration'. He talks about mainly working class boys who are denied of any status achievement through education which ultimately leads to failings in education and future prospects. This according to Cohen caused frustration due to the lack of goal achievement and as a result they formed delinquent subcultures in order to create new achievable goals of their own. Moreover Cohen believes they take middle class values and rebel against them. This theory replaces the emphasis that Merton placed on financial incentive for delinquent behaviour with the focus being on the achievement of status.

Cohen rightly shows how deviance is a rational response to life and indicates how it can be learnt through peer groups. Moreover Cohen's theory offers a good explanation for non utilitarian crimes.

Cloward and Ohlin in Downes and Rock (1988) disagree with Cohen and state that he overrated the role of school and education as the cause of delinquency.

Short and Strodbeck (1974) however found little evidence to support Cohen's claims of rejection towards middle class values of society within gangs

Cohen has also been criticised for not accounting for female deviance and emphasising too much on males. Home Office (2003) looks at the summary of cautioning rates for non-monitoring offences by sex from 1992 to 2002 (see Appendix 2). This summary shows female cautioning to be relatively low, accounting for an average of 10% up until 1996. The rate then increases by a substantial amount between 1997 up until 1999 where at one point it is the same as males. From 2000 to 2002 there is a drop in the female figures. This shows that females do also account for offending behaviours and also shows how society's situation can change over the years and therefore one single theory which applies at one stage may not be sufficient enough to apply at later stages and therefore goes against the relevance of early deviant subcultural theories with regards to contemporary society.

Albert Cohen is a well known for his work with relation to sociological explanations of theories of gangs; his theories have played an important role throughout the 1940's and 1950's. Cohen's work has been of high relevance throughout the decades and continues to provide foundation for contemporary society, (Kinnear, 2009).

The notion of the family position being a factor in causing deviant behaviour is also supported by Albert. K. Cohen who talks about breakdown of the family controls being a casualty of gang membership, (Cohen 1955). Albert Cohen's work is supported by another well know researcher, Albert. K. Cohen and therefore provides more support for Albert Cohen's claim that status achievement provides a source of encouragement for gang membership.

ESRC Society Today (2009) state that members of organised gangs are generally males who are from broken families and lower class backgrounds. It is said that they may join gangs as they are more likely to gain moral support from them which encourages excuses of violence and criminal activities. They also spoke about the link between social class and crime in deprived neighbourhoods. This shows how the work of Cohen is still reflected in modern day society.

Smith (2007) supports this by claiming that the majority of young offenders derive from broken homes and that gangs usually consist of boys who have never been a part of an intact family. This supports the view that broken homes contribute to delinquent behaviour. This provides support for the notion that it is males who are usually involved in gangs is still consistent with modern day ideologies.

Macdonald (1995) also supports the view that it is generally males who join gangs and states that males gain identity from being in a gang whereas women tend to pursue independence.

Muncie (2004) discusses Cohen's work further and talks about the concept of "status frustration" which is similar to Merton's anomie/strain theory. It states that children who are lower class feel this notion of status frustration as they feel they can not meet the same criteria as the children from the middle class so they seek groups who share similar status frustration in which they fit in better. Muncie's claim demonstrates that Cohen's work is still relevant to modern day researchers.

This view can be supported by the work of Gold and Mann (1972) who found that it was students who achieved lower grades with the most involvement in delinquent behaviour. They also reported that these students felt threatened by academic failure which lowered their self esteem and delinquency was a factor which was identified in order to raise esteem.

This link can still be found in schools. Wales News (2009) states that only 28 percent of children who were entitled to receive free school meals received 5 GCSE's graded A* to C whilst 62% of other pupils received these grades. This shows the link between social deprivation and underachievement as children who receive free school meals are receiving school meals as a result of social deprivation.

This is a neo-Marxist argument in the sense that it suggests that the most powerful culture in society (middle class children who do not get free school meals) will over rule the lower class in terms of education and future prospects (children who receive free school meals). According to the Marx class theory the bourgeoisie (the capital class) are economically the dominant class, as a result of their ownership and control of means of production. Neo Marxists also claimed the bourgeoisies were politically the ruling class. The proletariat (the working class) are property-less and must work for the bourgeoisies in order to sustain a living, (Messner and Krohn, 1990). Therefore it can be said that neo-Marxist views are consistent ideologies which are evident within everyday contemporary society.

Social Justice Challenge (2007) state that more than 3 in 4 of young offenders have no educational qualifications. This supports the view that the majority of delinquents lack in education and this may be the underlying factor which influences delinquency.

This shows that in actual fact modern day society does project similar notions as ones identified in the 90's and therefore the changing nature of contemporary society does not invalidate theories which were established in the past completely.

Cloward and Ohlin like Cohen and Matza and Skye, were known for contributing towards early deviant subcultural theories. They build on the work of the strain disorganised perspectives in their theory of 'differential association theory' and state that delinquency was most prevalent within lower class subcultures however they take different forms. They propose three different types of deviant subcultures and state that the ability for them to develop depends on the opportunities available to them to commit deviant crimes and also the area in which they derive from (Burke, 2008).

This is however based on a subjective nature and therefore may not be sufficient enough to solely rely on this theory. It can be argued that the validity of this may be supported in the sense that a number of different theorists share similar notions which have derived from the work they have carried out.

In addition their view is also supported by findings from a study conducted by Elliott and Ageton (1985) who studied National samples and found that lower class youths committed four times as many offences as middle class youths and one and a half times as many as working class youths. This supports the views that delinquency is more prevalent within the lower classes.

The figures of these samples however may not show the true statistics as they may not account for the dark figures of crime, which Koffman (1996) defines as crimes which have not been reported such as white collar crimes.

White collar crimes are crimes which are committed by people who are educated with a high social status. These crimes are hard to detect as they are often carried out by highly intelligent individuals and can therefore be less visible than blue collar crimes which are usually committed by the working class., (Sutherland, 1945). Examples of white collar crime can be demonstrated with the recent MP's expenses scandal in 2009 which went undetected for a long period of time.

Tittle (1995) argues that the impact of social class on crime is a myth. Although there may be some truth on this claim, it is of a subjective nature which is presented without any supporting findings to back it up with.

Thee first of the three deviant subcultures identified is by Cloward and Ohlin was 'criminal gangs' which are believed to emerge in areas where there are conventional and non conventional codes of behaviour with the combination of lawful and unlawful businesses.

BBC (2009) report that the criminal gangs in the UK are costing the country up to £40bn a year and about 30,000 criminals in the UK are members of organised crime gangs. They have also been described as having derived from areas which hold similar traits to those described by early subcultural theories.

The second of the identified deviant subcultures was 'the conflict or violent gang' which develop from individuals from unstable backgrounds. It is defined as grouping which develops as a result of absence of stable criminal organisation and consists of members who seek status and reputation from committing violent crimes which are often carried out as random acts of crime.

Guardian (2005) talks about criminal gangs from several neighbourhoods in London who call themselves 'Muslim Boys' in order to pretend they have links with global terrorism and to gain status by causing fear within public domain.

The third of these is 'the retreatist gang' who are individuals who retreat to sex, drugs and crime as a result of failure in successfully perusing legitimate and illegitimate opportunities.

National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Centre (2004), describes gangs which are involved in similar activities and hold traits similar to 'the retreatist gang' which Cloward and Ohlin identified. This shows that all three gangs described by Cloward and Ohlin are still prevalent in modern day society and suggests that their research may not be in dated. However it is important to remember that although the types of gangs identified still exist there may be many more different types which have formed during the years.

According to Sykes and Matza (1957) delinquents drift in and out of offending. They state that this delinquent behaviour fluctuates due to the 'neutralisation' theory which attempts to explain how deviants try to justify their deviant behaviours by explaining to themselves and others their lack of guilt. They identified five different types of rationalisations, these are, denial of responsibility, denial of injury, the denial of the victim, the condemnation of condemners and the appeal to higher loyalties. This theory attempts to explain why delinquents drift in and out of delinquency as many delinquents feel or express remorse and guilt as a result of their criminal act. Another reason for this may be because delinquents frequently show respect for law abiding citizens.

Sykes and Matza's (1957) techniques of neutralisation were introduced at a time in society where there were great concerns over juvenile delinquency, this meant they had a large sample of delinquents to study as there was a large outbreak of delinquency within society at this moment in time.

Post modern deviant subcultural theories

Post-modernism rejects the idea that theories or meta-narratives are sufficient enough to apply to modernity. Post modern theories state that it is aspects such as fashion, image and popular culture which are most relevant. It stressed that contemporary Britain consists of diverse and fragmented social groups from different backgrounds, (Hopkins-Burke and Sunly 1998).

An example of post-modern youth culture is rap music. Hopkins-Burke and Sunley (2008) state that in the 1990's 'gangsta' rap which is a form of black music that derived from the USA became a popular phenomenon in Britain. This style of music promoted problems to stem from the white culture and carried out criminal activity as a solution to this problem. This style of music is also popular within other ethnic groups.

Osgerby (2004) stated that there was a rise in 'gangsta' rap around the 1980s and 90s which provides support for Hopkins- Burke and Sunly's theory as modernity may bring about new trends, fashion and culture which influence delinquent behaviour. The songs of 'gangsta' rappers such as Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G were far from discreet in rapping about guns, violence and their hate for the police. Critics stated that their music could promote crime and violence within society as people looked up to them and may have seen it as a 'cool' concept.

This is also supported by the Guardian (2005) who talks about criminal gangs around London who communicate in slang, most of which had derived from black American rap music.

Seifert (2009) also supports this by claiming that children absorb information like a sponge and that because of this they are likely to withdraw into a world of fantasy and misinterpretation of the violence and lifestyle portrayed in rap music.

Sutherland (1937) warns of the dangers of preconditions for criminal behaviour such as motivation and attitudes which have to be learnt. This supports the views that the messages 'gangsta' rap music promote may pose to be a detrimental threat according to Sutherland's views.

Deviant subculture theories were revisited and revised by neo-Marxist sociologists and criminologists at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (BCCCS). They observed that deviant subcultures were a result of structural economic problems created by social change.

The work by BCCCs was in some way similar to Merton and The Chicago School theories as they all suggest similar factors and concepts play a role in influencing deviant subcultures. The BCCCS focused on mainstream youth and delinquency and spectacular youth subcultures (Hopkins-Burke 2008)

Hopkins Burke and Sunley (1988) state that early British subcultural theories focused on levels of economic activity and the structural class analysis playing a key role in explaining delinquency.

A good example of this can be demonstrated by the Global credit crunch which we are currently experiencing. Telegraph (2008) stated that a leaked home office letter revealed that the credit crunch could lead to a crime wave in the form of more crime and more illegal immigration. This shows that when people are suffering from lack of finance, crime is more likely to be carried out as a result in order to sustain a living.

Hopkins-Burke and Sunely (1998) looked closer into such mainstream deviant subcultures. They talked about work carried out by Paul Corrigan whose work was highly influenced by American subcultural theories. He carried out a study on males aged between 14 to 15 years old within two working class schools in Sunderland. This study observed the distribution of power within the school environment. He argues that school is a concept which has been forced on to working class children in which the system attempts to force middle class values upon them. This in turn led to the working class children rebelling. In terms of spectacular youth subcultures, this was subcultures which consisted of generally the working class young people who possessed a distinctive style which included dress, lifestyles, behaviour patterns and musical styles. The types of people which have been identified as falling into this category are individuals who are: Teddy Boys. Mods, Skinheads and Punks.

SDFS (1999) talk about how clothing and style can be a trademark which is adopted by juvenile gangs. They state that gang members wear certain types of clothing, colours or having certain hairstyles and tattoos. This is a common phenomenon within modern society and is important to keep up with as it helps identify members within gangs and trace them back to the criminal activities they may have committed.

Hopkins-Burke and Sunley (1998) state that early subcultural studies put forward the notion of young delinquents as being 'social climbers' climbing up the social ladder from lower class to middle class.

Cohen (1973) states however that creation does not justify behaviour.

Later studies support the notion that subcultural theories continue to provide relevance in contemporary society. This is demonstrated by the work of Wilson. Wilson puts forward the 'underclass theory' in which he states groups which are from isolated neighbourhoods acquire fewer legitimate opportunities available to them in the form of employment, education and job information networks. All these deprivations of opportunities helps raise the likelihood of people turning to deviant activities, (Wilson, 1991).

Hopkins-burke and Sunley (1998) talk about William (1989) and Moore (1991) who refer to poverty as central to the underclass thesis which results in individuals attempting to gain economic through other means such as crime.

Rodger Hopkins Burk has done a vast amount of research on post-modern subcultural theories, Hopkins Burke (2008) states that Rodger Hopkins Burke is Principle Lecturer for Criminology at Nottingham Trent University and therefore his work is of a credible nature.

The importance of early subcultural theories has also been stressed by Bailey (2004) who states that during the past decades many theorists have contributed towards what we now consider as being contemporary criminology.

In addition, Blackman (2005) has accused postmodernism of being reluctant to focus on social structure. However he states that post-modern theories offer useful critical insights but their theories lack substance and critical application to young people's social, economic and cultural lives.


From this critical literature analysis, the conclusion can be drawn that no single theory can sufficiently explain all delinquent behaviours as it has been shown that there can be many factors which play a role in contributing towards the causes and motives of delinquency. Also it can be said that early subcultural theories are still of relevance to contemporary society, however solely cannot be used in explanations of delinquent behaviour in modern day society as it has been demonstrated by post modern theorists that other factors may influence delinquency as trends and fashion change with society.

The literature review has sufficiently met all its aims and objectives which were to answer the question as to whether early deviant subcultural theories still prove to be relevant within contemporary society. Recent sources have been used to demonstrate similarities and differences apparent with regard to early deviant subcultural theories and modern day society. The literature review has also met aims of critically analysing research and sources.

The literature review has looked into the history of subcultural theories which consisted of deviant and radical explanations of delinquency. Taylor et al (1975) defines radical delinquency as being a 'conservative' theory of delinquency, which looks at theories put forward by theorists such as Marx. Hopkins Burke (2005) states that deviant subcultures share common notions which are that certain social groups have values and attitudes which influence delinquency.

Many early subcultural theories have been put forward in order to explain deviant behaviour. Merton states that deviance occurs as a result of financial incentives whereas Cohen put forward the view that it is status frustration which motivates delinquency, other theorists such as Miller believe delinquency is related to class cultures and post modern theories state that it has got to do with certain trends prevalent within society at any given time such as influences from the Rap music culture.

The analysis consists of work from 'The Chicago School' who according to Colosi (2010) were the first major body to emerge during the 1920's to study youth offending. Theorist such as Albert Cohen, Cloward and Ohlin who were described by Cressey (1999) as pioneering theorists and praised for addressing both origin and transmissions of deviant subcultures. These theorists work has undoubtedly contributed vastly towards deviant subcultural theories in the past but also provided foundation for modern day theorists to base their work upon. This supports the view that early subcultural theories do provide relevance to modern day society and even if they may not be directly relevant they may pose relevance in the sense that their work can be further studied and built upon with relation to future research.

Post-modern theories however raise the important issues of early deviant subcultural theories not being able to account for newer influences which derive as a result of changes in society. This has been shown by theorists such as Burke and Sunley (1988) who propose that delinquent behaviour may be influenced by aspects such as rap music, drugs and alcohol.

Substance Abuse and Mental health Service Administration (2003) discuss findings from The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA) (2000) which found a relationship between alcohol usage and emotional and behavioural problems in adolescents. These behavioural problems included delinquent and criminal behaviours. This supports the statement that other factors which have risen with societal changes play a role in influencing delinquent behaviour. Post modern studies help compare how society has changed throughout the years and are more up to date on modern day society and therefore has been able to provide newer insights into the causes and influences of deviant behaviours.

According to Tanner (1996) early subcultural theories in the 1960's and 1970's were subjected to vast amount of criticisms. He claims that they exaggerated the cultural differences between delinquent and non delinquent individuals. These place focus upon delinquent individuals' rejection towards middle class values.

Siegel (2007) accuses early subcultural theories of being of a descriptive nature. He states that they sufficiently describe values and how they are transmitted in a normal process of socialisation but fail to address their origins.

This is something Cohen has been accused of doing as he fails to address cultural differences. For instance his theory of delinquency identifies that it is the need for status which causes delinquent behaviour but he fails to address where this status frustration derives from, so his theory does not explain what has caused this need for status and what factors are involved in this process.

He has also been criticised for placing too much emphasis on the male gender. As the analysis found female offending has increased over the years. This shows how he has ignored cultural differences as he fails to address the issues of women and crime.

Another criticism Cohen's has been criticised for is to having placed too much focus on working class crimes and middle class crimes have not said to been accounted for and neither have individual acts of crimes been considered.

In addition it has also been argued by critics that there is too much emphasis and research focused upon delinquency within schools. They state that delinquency within schools is only short lived and episodic and therefore they cannot be generalised as being full time delinquents.

As stated earlier Matza (1964) supports these criticisms by arguing that the majority of youths in schools who are less successful tend to only drift in and out of rebellious traits which have little influence upon later life, thus supporting the views that delinquency is episodic.

Miller's claims of deviance being an extension of working class culture in schools was also subject to criticisms. Subcultural theories were said to over exaggerate the extent of working class delinquency as it suggests that the majority of working class youths are culturally estranged from education when in reality most of these youths abided by the rules in school.

Although these criticisms proved to be insightful, there were mostly drawn from speculations rather than actual studies. Therefore the reliability of the criticisms may be questionable.

This dissertation may prove helpful for any researcher in the future who may be studying questions of a similar nature to this which looks at the relevance of early deviant subcultural theories to modern day society. It may also provide an overview or act as a stepping stone for professionals. It may aid in providing research which is up to date with current issues in the criminology field and provide background research. In addition the review helps identify flaws and strengths within previous research which has been put forward and may help future researchers to carry out studies which account for questions which were left unanswered previously such as why deviance is often collective rather than individual acts and why people commit different deviant acts of crime rather then just one motivating factor which underpins deviant behaviours. The analysis has also found a number of recent supporting findings which demonstrated how some of the early subcultural theorists' presumptions still are prevalent within society today. These findings have derived from up-to-date research originating from credible sources such as government institutions.

It also show how these theories continue to provide relevance to modern day society such as helping with policing methods, helping to identify problematic factors in society which contribute to delinquency, helping to implement changes in order to tackle poverty, contribute to theorists work in contemporary society etc. HM Treasury (2000) states that government departments have set targets to improve life for people living in deprived areas. Their aim is to reduce crime rates, create more jobs and improve health. This shows that the factors Merton identified are issues the government in contemporary society considers high priority and shows the recognition that these factors are problematic and consistent throughout deprived areas. This shows how Merton's ideas continue to provide relevance in modern day society and also shows how the same problems continue to underlie society. The analysis found that there are many similarities in the causes and influences of delinquency throughout history and modern day society, however also showed how new factors prevail as society is ever changing and how these other factors influence delinquent behaviour.


Appendix 1

The vicious circle of poverty - Individual level.

(source: Barke & O´Hare, 1991, page 43.)

Appendix 2

(Source: Home Office, 2003)