Not Saussure

June 17, 2007

More thoughts on Integration and Cohesion

Filed under: Community, Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 12:36 am

Having become engrossed in Second Life (see below), I haven’t yet had the opportunity to read through Our shared future, the report by the Commission on Integration and Cohesion about which I was rather rude the other day.

I have, though, been thinking about why I dislike its approach so much; it is, I fear, yet again another example of our old friend well-intentioned managerialism, at work. The way I look at the question is this; by and large, most people are tolerant by default. That is, in most counties — and Britain, thank God, is certainly one of them — people are really primarily interested in getting on with their own lives in their own way and aren’t particularly bothered one way or the other about other people might be doing so long as it doesn’t adversely affect them too much. We’re all of us members of umpteen overlapping, and at times conflicting, ‘communities’ — the area in which we live, our families, our friends, our colleagues, our partner’s family (oh, dear God… quote from my late wife, shortly before she died — ‘at least I’ll never have to put up with my brother again, and you won’t have to, either, after the funeral’ — a somewhat unchristian remark, but people like Anna’s brother were the reason the word ‘nincompoop’ was invented), other members of social, political or religious organisations to which we may belong . None of them define us; and through our experience of belonging to them, we’re all of us perfectly well able to deal with people we might not particularly like or who seem to us rather odd (my sometime brother in law, for example).

If there’s someone you don’t like, or who doesn’t like you, you either avoid them or, if circumstances — work, in particular — throw you together, most of us learn quite early on how to deal with such situations. And we do because we’re sensible adults who’ve learned how to conduct our lives so we can concentrate on pursuing, in our own ways, those ends that seem important to us, with a minimum of frustration. When conflicts arise, as inevitably they do, they’re normally between individuals, not communities — though they might well be between particular individuals who, for their own motives (usually political and financial) claim to speak ‘on behalf of’ particular communities.

Now, it seems to me that, in this fallen world of ours, conflicts between individuals are inevitable. Sometimes they can be solved by more or less amicable negotiation, but sometimes they can’t and that’s when the civil or criminal law comes into play. But for government to say, ‘conflict is undesirable so we’ll do our best to ensure it never arises’ is not only deluded; it’s downright dangerous. (more…)

June 14, 2007

Our shared (and bureaucratic) future

Filed under: Community, UK — notsaussure @ 4:39 pm

I’ve not yet read the Commission on Integration and Cohesion’s report on Our shared future, which is obviously a substantial piece of work, comprising some 168 pages. What little I have read, however, does not bode well; one can feel few emotions other than profound suspicion, I think, about a document containing the announcement

In this chapter, our recommendations are about:

  • A shared national vision
  • A national shared futures campaign
  • How Local Authorities can better understand their communities and mainstream integration and cohesion
  • A new performance framework Strong leadership and local democracy – including political parties acting responsibly
  • How we can move away from a “one size fits all” approach

and which contains — this I’ve picked out at random — statements like

Our proposal therefore is that we use integration and cohesion policy to generate a working sense of citizenship that is based on a set of rights and responsibilities appropriate for the changing UK of the 21st century, and one that chimes at a national as well as local level.

The document proposes, among many other things, yet another Quango (don’t look so surprised),

a national body to manage the integration of new migrants, sponsored by Communities and Local Government, but independent of Government.

The authors tell us that

we see the priority actions for this body as being:

  • To clarify the objectives of a strategy […]
  • To baseline the evidence: clarifying the current situation and building an evidence base […]
  • To consolidate and take forward the good practice work currently being developed […]
  • To provide guidance on how to work with settled communities in areas experiencing high levels of migration […]
  • To explore whether asking new migrants (from the EU or elsewhere) to attend the local town hall to pick up local welcome packs when they arrive might address some of the data tracking issues outlined in Chapter 7 below. This could mean not only providing the information they need at first point of contact with a local area, but could also introduce local agreements or contracts that cover behaviours, norms etc. [quoted in full]
  • To secure buy-in and joined up policy making from Whitehall and the third sector: acting as a catalyst for policy development, and an independent voice both for new migrants and those settled communities experiencing rapid change. [again,quoted in full]

I don’t think they anywhere actually promise to hold seminars and deliver endless PowerPoint presentations, but I doubt these can be far from the authors’ minds.

I quote the last clauses of bureaucratic prose in full for two reasons. The first is that the BBC were actually able to persuade a spokesman for the Commission to explain a bit about these proposed local agreements or contracts that cover behaviours, norms etc.

The proposed packs are based on work by some councils to explain basic facts about British ways of life to newly-arrived migrants.”The packs might say that we like to queue at the Post Office and the bus stop and we don’t really like spitting in the street,” said a spokesman

I’m not completely sure if this spokesman is a blithering idiot or possessed of Machiavellian cunning. At first I inclined to the former view, chortling as I was about the bathos of his examples, and, indeed, their utter irrelevance; do many people find themselves beset by newly-arrived migrants jumping queues in Post Offices and spitting in the streets? Then I started having fun wondering what happened if you didn’t sign one of these patronising ‘contracts’ and wondering what else might go in them– ‘we don’t really like people chucking their empty coke cans and Macdonalds cartons in the streets or letting their dogs crap all over the pavement, either, but don’t worry … lots of people do it.’

But then I thought, ‘Hang on; he’s smuggling in, under cover of this risible example, the somewhat un-British notion that aliens have to register with the local authorities.’ I was used to having to deal with the OVIR (ОВиР, “Отдел Виз и Регистрации”, “Office of Visas and Registration”) back in Russia, but I’m a bit alarmed to see the idea brought in here, even inadvertently.

The final clause, though, really irritated me. We’re used to, I thought, and many of us are profoundly fed-up with, self-appointed ‘community spokesmen’ or ‘community leaders’. Now, here we have someone proposing ‘a national body […], sponsored by Communities and Local Government, but independent of Government’ that will purport to act as ‘an independent voice both for new migrants and those settled communities experiencing rapid change.’

Errm… am I alone in spotting a bit of a problem with that?

 

June 10, 2007

The Commission on Integration and Cohesion

Filed under: Community, Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 5:15 pm

I’m a bit confused by this; the Telegraph reports that

Employers will be told to pay for language lessons for immigrant workers who have a poor grasp of English, under proposals to be unveiled this week. […] The Commission on Integration and Cohesion, which was promised by Tony Blair in the wake of the July 7 bombings in 2005, says that moves to prevent immigrants from being marginalised will help to ease racial tensions and fight the appeal of extremist ideologies.As the rate of overseas settlement in Britain runs at its highest ever, the commission will argue that many new immigrants are too poor to afford tuition and should have the costs covered by their employers. That would greatly improve their ability to contribute to society and would bring long-term benefits to cohesion in Britain, its report will suggest.

I find this confusing for two reasons; first, it’s self-evidently mad (not that this means it would not recommend itself to this, or any other, government, of course) and, second, Darra Singh, the Chairman of the Commission, says nothing about it in his article in today’s Observer, though he does discuss, at some length, his proposals for encouraging people to learn English:

Some basic translation is useful and necessary, but we have not always struck the right balance. My Commission on Integration and Cohesion will publish a series of tests public bodies should apply when making decisions about whether to provide translated material. And where savings are made by cutting translation services, they should be reinvested in English lessons – both for newcomers and settled communities. It is a lost opportunity, for individuals and for society, that some people who have lived here for 30 years or more have never acquired the language skills to play a fuller role in local life.

That may well have much to commend it, particularly in Wales, where a surprising number of people even in South Wales (as opposed to traditionally Welsh-speaking rural North Wales) appear to speak only Welsh and consequently need everything translating for them at enormous public expense, but he doesn’t seem to say anything about requiring employers to pay.

It’s a daft idea for two reasons. First, I don’t quite see why anyone would want to hire someone if they didn’t think their language (or any other) skills were adequate for the particular job they had in mind. Well, any private employer, at least; certainly our local hospital — of which I saw rather more than I would have wanted during my late wife’s last years — employed whole armies of absolutely charming ladies from the Philippines as nursing auxiliaries whose English, unfortunately, wasn’t up to communicating with patients at anything other than the most rudimentary level, which meant that complicated requests like ‘please get me a bed pan’ (from the elderly lady in the bed next to my wife’s on one stay in hospital) frequently went unanswered.

But any normal employer would, one rather assumes, try to make sure that his sales staff could understand enough English to serve the customers (though possibly not to write business letters), while being rather less bothered about the standard of English attained by his cleaners, so long as they understood what they were being asked to do.

Quite why an employer should be asked to pay for training he doesn’t think his staff need is a bit beyond me; yes, it would doubtless be nice if they could all drive, too, but is he also to be asked to pay for driving lessons for non-drivers?

Second, this proposal would, almost certainly, run smack into anti-discrimination legislation, and quite right, too. I’m old enough to remember when, shortly the Race Relations Act was passed, employers who wanted to continue to discriminate against recent immigrants started introducing tests in written English for jobs that didn’t obviously require such skills to any great extent (working on a production line, for example). Quite rightly, the Race Relations Board, as it then was, stepped in and the courts rapidly agreed that this sort of indirect discrimination was unlawful; you can only insist on linguistic skills that are relevant to the job.

Well, require employers to pay for language teaching in certain circumstances and, it seems to me, you’ve automatically made those language skills of direct relevance to the job and, in effect, given employers every reason to discriminate against applicants even they don’t want to. If I want to employ someone who seems perfectly well qualified for the job but the government are likely to insist I pay for training I don’t think he needs, then obviously I’m going to look for someone else who definitely won’t need the training because English is his first language.

It’s a barmy idea, and I rather wonder if the Telegraph isn’t rather exaggerating, though possibly not since Mr Singh is clearly well able to come up with pretty bonkers ideas without any help. For example, he’s got the idea that

a new citizenship ceremony – perhaps on students’ completion of their GCSEs – would be one way of more publicly marking their understanding of what it means to be a responsible citizen in modern Britain

Tim Worstall says all that needs to be said:

What really seems to be missed is that (whether it’s at 16 or any other age) the attainment of full citizenship is not some privilege that is handed down to us from on high. Rather, it’s that one is now of an age when one gets to choose who those on high are going to be. It is not the mighty who offer us the privileges of citizenship, it is us who choose who is going to handle those minor matters that cannot be handled privately, whether individually or collectively.The correct ceremony would therefore be for politicians to abase themselves before such gatherings, begging for votes so that they might continue their lives upon the gravy train. The correct response to this from those celebrating would for 40% not to bother to turn up, the remainder to view the vote stealers with the contempt they deserve: precisely the (correct) reaction of all the other adults in the Kingdom.

Mr Singh also favours the idea of compulsory volunteering, which rather suggests he could do with some English lessons, as least with regard to what ‘compulsory’ and ‘voluntary’ might mean. Apparently,

It is to be welcomed that many young people now take part in volunteering and give something back to their local area. The benefits are great – bringing together young people from different backgrounds to work together towards a common goal. I think we need to consider a national community service and we should not be afraid of asking whether this should be compulsory.

Well, yes, it’s certainly to be welcomed that people, of their own initiative, see something that they think needs doing and, quite sensibly, get together to do it themselves rather than ask the government, be it local or national, to do it for them. That Mr Singh thinks that the correct response to this is, in effect, to nationalise such efforts and to make them compulsory rather suggests he hasn’t properly thought it through. But, if we look more closely, we see that the benefits he perceives aren’t anything to do with the actual project being voluntarily undertaken; no, he likes the idea of

bringing together young people from different backgrounds to work together towards a common goal

Well, yes, I’m sure that’s a good idea. Employers do it all the time, do they not? Bring together people of all ages and backgrounds to work together to keep Tescos running profitably or what have you.

Obviously that’s not what he has in mind; I think he imagines, in effect, imposing community punishment orders on all young people, whether or not they’ve bothered to commit a crime first, which would be perfectly in line with government thinking. He might first, though, want to take some advice from people who’ve had experience of such national voluntary compulsory work schemes, though. They used to have them in the old Soviet Union, for example, for girls (boys did military service, obviously).

My interpreter and PA back there, the lovely and talented Inna, did hers at the local hospital in her home town, Kiev; from what she said, it’s a wonder the hospital ever managed to treat any patients, so busy were they trying to cope with finding jobs for — and supervising — dozens of untrained, mutinous and completely unmotivated 18 and 19-year-olds, where the girls couldn’t do too much damage (by accident or design) and wouldn’t get too much under the feet of the staff who were actually being paid to do the jobs properly.

Afterthought:  To be fair to Inna, she said that, in principle, she wouldn’t have minded doing some voluntary work, so long as it was voluntary;  it’s just that, as she said,  if you take a bright and somewhat stroppy 18-year-old who’s primarily interested in clubbing it and getting into university to study modern languages, and then tell her she’s got to spend a day a week at the local hospital helping with the filing and in the laundry (she got to help with the filing because she was one of the bright ones who was going to go on to university, you see), you’re looking for trouble…

June 6, 2007

Nadine Dorries MP on abortion

Filed under: Abortion, UK — notsaussure @ 10:33 pm

Nadine Dorries MP has written a couple of posts about abortion (she’s agin it) and has had the shit deservedly ripped out of her by Trixie at Is There More To Life Than Shoes?, DK and Unity at Ministry of Truth.   Nevertheless, I will add a few words to the debate.

As I’ve said elsewhere, to my mind objections to abortion such as those raised by Ms Dorries are, essentially, theological ones; they depend on beliefs about the soul and when life begins and, quite simply, these are beliefs that a great number of people, rightly or wrongly, do not share with Ms Dorries. It is, quite simply, wrong for MPs to legislate on primarily theological grounds. The reason we have laws against murder and theft are not, as I keep on saying, because God forbids such activities (though I believe He does) but because you can’t have any sort of complex society in which people can go around murdering and robbing people with impunity. Society can, however, knock along reasonably well despite some of its members committing adultery and worshipping graven images, which is why we don’t ban those activities despite the fact that we have it on equally good authority that The Almighty disapproves of them, too.

My views on abortion are very much coloured by personal experience. Some twenty years ago, my then girlfriend found herself pregnant as a result of a condom bursting (baby oil and condoms do not mix, experto crede). What to do? This is two intelligent professionals in their 30s we’re talking about, remember, and it wasn’t an easy decision for either of us. One thing we were both completely clear about, though, was that, ultimately, it had to be her decision and — this was what was foremost in my mind — was that whatever my views on the matter, ultimately the only honourable thing I could do was support her in whatever decision she took.

Unfortunately, at least from my point of view, she decided — unwillingly — that an abortion was the least bad option. I didn’t agree, but I could see it from her point of view and, as I said, all I could honourably do was give her all the love and support I could in what was, I know, a very difficult decision for her.

Now, as far as I’m concerned, if anyone had the right to interfere with her decision, it was me. And I certainly didn’t think, and still don’t think, I had that right.

That being the case, I’m bloody sure no MP, nor any Cardinal of a church to which she did not belong, has any say in the matter. She asked me to drop her off at the end of the road where the clinic was, so she could walk in by herself (and, if she chose, turn round by herself). While I am not by nature a violent man, unless circumstances demand it, there is no law of God nor man that would have saved anyone who tried either to stop her or force her through those gates at the end of what I know was a very difficult walk for her, no matter what were my views on her decision.

National Days

Filed under: UK — notsaussure @ 7:09 pm

Pretty widespread condemnation for the plan by Ruth Kelly and Liam Byrne to celebrate a Britishness Day, ranging from some excellent suggestions at both The Virtual Stoa and Blood and Treasure as to how, perzactly, we might celebrate it (the latter has a most useful link to The London Riot Re-enactment Society) to a really rather good leader in the Telegraph, including the observations

Being British means not worrying too much about what it means to be British.

and

We may fly flags and sing Rule Britannia enthusiastically at the Last Night of the Proms, but it’s not like us really.We might quite like the idea of a national day, but we would hate to be told what to with it.

And, as if to demonstrate the idea’s a complete non-starter, David Cameron promptly decided not only that he agreed with Ms Kelly and Mr Byrne but told us we:

should take a leaf out of America’s book when it came to teaching citizens “what it means to be American”.

One of my infallible rules of political analysis, other than that when both main parties agree on something, it’s time to worry, is that recommending an idea on the grounds ‘it’s what the Americans do’ is about as pointless as recommending something because the French do it. It might conceivably a good idea, but most Brits would, I think, instinctively feel it’ll be a good idea even though, rather than because, the French and the Americans do it.

In this case, there are good historical reasons for distrusting American and French examples. Both countries have had, in the past, to sit down and define themselves, the USA when they drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the French when, having done away with the French Monarchy, had completely to redefine what — other than speaking French — all citizens of the new Republic were supposed to have in common.

We’ve — fortunately, to my mind — never had that experience or necessity. Being British is, and always has been, ultimately a legal concept — you’re one of HM’s subjects, and that’s about it. Certainly there are various values that, at least at present, we hold to be important — liberal democracy, tolerance, freedom, the rule of law and so forth — but they’re hardly uniquely British; the Dutch or the Czechs would doubtless sign up to them, too. If people really want a liberal capitalist democracy day, then fair enough, but call it by its proper name.

Nationalism, it should be remembered, is an historical political movement which has never really got very far in Britain, for good historical reasons. It sprung from German romanticism and became very popular, and understandably so, both with people who were trying to liberate themselves from larger empires and with people who were trying to unify smaller polities into a larger whole. Yes, if you were a C19th subject of the Hapsburg Empire who spoke Hungarian (at least to the servants) and didn’t like being ruled from Vienna you quite possibly wanted to insist on a separate Hungarian identity, just as various Irishmen didn’t like the idea of being West Britons. Similarly, Italian and German nationalists of the C19th wanted to insist on a larger German or Italian identity that would unify all the little statelets and principalities.

But in Britain, we’ve never really had that experience; England essentially took over these islands and then we set about creating an overseas empire. I can see the point of being a Scots, Welsh or Irish nationalist; I can just about see the point of being an English nationalist, though I think it’s a pretty self-defeating idea, but trying to combine nationalism with Britishness — a supranational concept — is both ahistorical and utterly illogical. We don’t have a National Day in the way that the French or the Americans do for much the same reason we don’t have a President, do drive on the left and don’t speak French or get particularly fussed about abortion and gun control; our history is not that of either France or the USA.

Ruth Kelly, in her whitterings on The Today Programme about this said something suitably vague about

“The point of it would be to celebrate the contribution that we all make to society,

Well, what is that supposed to mean? Parades in honour of taxpayers? Somehow I don’t think so. Well, we know roughly what she meant, because she was praising voluntary organisations, but even that misses the point. Most people make a small but very important contribution to a small part of society just by being decent people. My late mother was able to spend her final years — particularly the last year, after she lost her sight — with independence and dignity not just because of the help various voluntary organisations gave her but because of the informal support network provided by her friends and neighbours. OK, that’s just one old lady they were helping, but it was extremely important to her. That, to my mind, is one of the important things that makes communities.

June 5, 2007

Binge drinking and citizenship

Filed under: Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 9:09 pm

Two pieces of apparently unrelated — other than that they annoyed me — news that maybe have a bit more in common than at first I thought.

First, the BBC reports:

Health minister Caroline Flint denied they were targeting “middle-aged, middle-class hardened drinkers”, but said: “There are people, adults, who on a very regular basis are probably drinking twice the amount that is recommended.”

Just so we’re clear what that means, the Department of Health tell us that

men should not regularly drink more than 3 – 4 units of alcohol per day, and women should not regularly drink more than 2 – 3 units of alcohol per day.

and produces a handy chart so we may calculate what this means.

According to the chart, ‘A 175ml glass of red or white wine [represents] around 2 units.’ Now, I have no real idea what a 175ml glass looks like, but a bottle of wine is normally 750ml, so that means there are 4.28 of them to a bottle. So according to my calculations, a woman who regularly splits a bottle of wine over dinner at home with her partner is already getting pretty close to twice the recommended daily amount, and if she accompanies this with a decent sized pre-prandial sherry or gin and tonic, she’s well over twice the recommended daily amount and thus, according to HMG, a regular ‘binge drinker.’

While I’m sure we’re all grateful to

Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker [who apparently] added: “It is unacceptable for people to use alcohol and urinate in the street, vomit and carry on,”

(he gets paid £90,000 a year to tell us this sort of thing), that’s not normally the behaviour I associate with women who’ve had half a bottle of wine and a couple of sherries of an evening. Presumably the women with whom I tend to socialise must be such hardened topers that they seem to take such excess in their stride (though obviously it wouldn’t be a good idea to drive after drinking that).

I’m not completely sure why I find this sort of thing so irritating; I hardly ever drink myself, on medical advice, so it’s not because I have a vested interest. Maybe, in fact, that’s part of it. My GP, whom I trust far more than I do any government minister, and who certainly knows considerably more about me than do they (though, of course, that may change with all these databases that are being set up in our own best interests), put it to me that, for various reasons, I had choice between stopping drinking and dying considerably sooner than I might otherwise expect. She also — and this, I think, is the important bit — treated me like an adult, explaining exactly why this was a particular problem for me and saying, in terms, ‘it’s entirely up to you what you decide to do about my advice, but you do need to know the consequences so you’re making an informed decision.’

The government, though, seem to prefer to treat us like children to be lectured and cajoled. By all means provide sensible medical advice, though I for one would rather have it from my GP rather than this broad-brush approach from ministers. But then, it’s surely up to people what they do with their lives; obviously we want to discourage people from getting falling down drunk in the street, but this isn’t what Caroline Flint seems to be talking about. The government seems determined — with, I’m sure, the best possible motives (which always alarms me) — to intrude more and more into our private lives.

This expansion of government interest is, I realise, one of the many things that so irritated me about another piece of ministerial nonsense, the proposal from Ruth Kelly and Liam Byrne to have a ‘citizenship day’ and give would-be citizens credits for doing voluntary work and the like. The great thing about voluntary work, it seems to me, is that is something people do because they think it’s important; it’s people getting together and deciding, of their own initiative, that here is something worth doing. No one makes them do it and the government doesn’t tell them how they ought to be doing it. Involve the government and it seems to me that voluntary work becomes an unpaid arm of the state. Indeed, there’s some voluntary work that seems to annoy the government no end; we’ve several times been told, as I recall, that supporting rough-sleepers (rather than trying to get them into hostels) is a bad idea, and I get the impression that some work some people do supporting asylum seekers isn’t always as greatly appreciated by Liam Byrne as it might be.

One of the things that I recall astonished the Mayor’s Office in St Petersburg back in the early ’90s — and, which once they’d got their heads round the concept, they thought was absolutely brilliant — was our idea of charities and community organisations doing things themselves, rather than — as had been the case under communism — the state and the party organising everything. The idea, for example, that people would actually undertake first-aid training, join the St John’s Ambulance and help provide support at sporting events because this was what they wanted to do rather than because it got them kudos with the local party was revolutionary. Seems to me that we’re in danger of losing that in this creeping nationalisation of just about everything; it’s as if state control of the economy is out, so the state has to find some other way of making our lives better for us, whether we want them to or not.

It’s enough to drive you to drink.

June 2, 2007

Louise Casey, the Respect tsar

Filed under: Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 3:03 pm

Gosh, I hadn’t realised until I read today’s Telegraph quite how much Louise Casey, Mr Blair’s ‘Respect tsar’ (tzarina, I would have thought, though more properly Tsaritsa, цари́ца,) resembles Jade Goodey; she could be her older sister. And not just in looks; here’s Ms Casey’s account of her reaction to a development in popular culture that seems to have given her some pleasure:

“Did I punch the air when the word Asbo was used on EastEnders?” she says. “Yes. I jumped off my sofa and shouted my head off.”

I suppose her family must be used to that sort of thing by now, but it seems a tad eccentric to me.

Mind you, Ms Casey seems to watch rather too much television for her own, and others’ good; what else is one to make of a remark like,

The Government is right to interfere in family life, she insists. “Look at the viewing figures for Supernanny. There’s no shortage of people who want to be bossed around a bit,” she says. “The taxes I pay are partly to try to make the country a better place and parents are the most important thing we have in the fight against every social evil.”

I’ve said enough lately about people who want to mobilise the power of government to try to make the world (or even the country) a better place, so I’ll content myself with the observation that I suspect the viewing figures for Supernanny reflect, rather, some people’s epicaricacy, their pleasure at watching other people’s horrible sprogs misbehaving, rather than any serious basis for policy-making.

Reading through the article, one realises that she really does seem to derive many of her ideas from the telly;

She wishes soap operas would paint a more positive picture of the country. “I hate the fact that everything is gloomy, everybody is sleeping with each other, everybody is killing each other, everybody is committing anti-social behaviour all the time when Britain doesn’t look so awful in real life.”There’s a public service responsibility to try to uphold certain standards of decency.”

Well, most of us do, in fact, realise that soap operas are a made-up story rather than documentaries; what’s she so bothered about?

Anyway, the article offers a couple of rather more significant insights into Ms Casey’s manner of thought. First, apparently

After eight years in Government, the leader of the Respect task force says: “I am still an outsider.”She finds Whitehall jargon “bizarre”. “Each department has its own word for the same thing – boundaries is social work, rules is school, law is the Home Office and regeneration, well what is regeneration?”

Apart from the fact that, after 8 years in a senior role, most people would be rather ashamed to admit they still didn’t really understand the terminology their colleagues were using, it seems to me her confusion typifies the way this government thinks. Most people can understand the difference between the boundaries of socially acceptable behaviour, the rules of a school and the law of the land — related and sometimes overlapping concepts, but each of them distinct — but it’s something with which this government clearly has problems. That’s why, to my mind, every time something’s identified as ‘a problem’ — that is, a problem in the sense that focus groups and newspaper editors express concern about it (teenagers being teenagers, for example) — the government’s response is, ‘There ought to be a law… I know, we’ll pass one’.

Ms Casey goes on to explain,

She wants a new spirit of politeness. “I’d love London buses to have announcements telling passengers to give up their seats to pregnant women.”

Personally, I find it rather depressing that there is a need for such notices (if, in fact, there is such a need — my impression is that many people using public transport in London and elsewhere normally will offer their seats to pregnant women anyway), but I started to wonder why she hadn’t asked Transport for London to put up such notices. They have them on buses around where I live, after all, and there are similar notices on most trains I’ve used recently. Then I realised what the problem must be; a notice politely asking you to offer your seat, not only to pregnant women but also to anyone else who looks as if they might need it, would be no use to Ms Casey. She almost certainly wants to tell you you’ve got to, or face a fine. That’s the only way she, and the government, can be seen to be doing something.

She also observes,

we’re a nation that wants to keep our heads down and be polite, we don’t have a culture of being over-confrontational in shops, we need to queue at the bus stop.”With our reticence comes our need for some structures that mean we can fit in.”

There’s a couple of half-truths in that, at least insofar as any statement that starts with the generalisation, ‘we’re a nation that …’ means very much. People certainly want, in general, to be polite and to have a sense of structure because experience has taught most of us that, in a large and complex society of free individuals pursuing their own ends, some general rules of social interaction make life far more pleasant for everyone. It’s the ‘wanting to keep our heads down’ bit of her analysis that irritates me, with its implication that everyone’s somehow cowed or frightened. ‘Having better things to do with our time than fight over trivialities,’ might be a better way of putting it; I’d certainly rather be gracious and let someone through the door ahead of me, or onto the bus first, rather than get into a row with him about it, not because I’m scared to stick up for myself but because life’s too short to get vexed about such things, at least most of the time.

It’s this idea that we need the state, complete with a Tsaritsa, to enforce codes of behaviour that’s worrying, and perhaps takes us back to Ms Casey’s confusion between boundaries, rules and laws. Yes, social boundaries are very important, and we start learning at a very early age how to play nicely together, take turns and not push and shove. So are rules, much of the time; some of the ones I’ve internalised are maybe rather archaic — almost by Pavlovian response, I stand up when a lady enters the room, at least in social circumstances — but others — giving up your seat on the tube to a pregnant woman — are quite important. It really just comes down to a combination of showing consideration and of finding a modus vivendi that allows all these total strangers to live close to each other and pursue their own ends without coming blows or tripping over each other too frequently. The law, to my mind, only needs to get involved when there’s a conflict we can’t sort out by mutual negotiation or that the nuisance someone’s causing is insufferable.

The two problems with this government (not that I’m convinced the alternative is much better) are that they seem to think we can have a trouble-free life and that it can be achieved by legislation and enforcement — the only sort of rules and boundaries it seems to recognise.

I wonder if Ms Casey and her respect unit will long survive Mr Blair. It might well be a significant indication of the way Mr Brown intends to proceed.

May 25, 2007

Dr Reid in discussions with the judiciary

Filed under: civil liberties, Law, UK, War on Terror — notsaussure @ 6:45 pm

The Home Secretary, House of Commons, 24 May:

I entirely accept that we should speak to a range of people, including retired members of the judiciary, but at the end of the day this is a matter for politicians. It is not a matter for judges or lawyers. They are a vital tool in interpreting existing laws, but it is for politicians to address the historical disjunctions that arise because of changes in the world. It is for them to address the law of conflict as it currently exists and its inadequacies in terms of the nature of today’s conflict, the law of peace and the disjunction between it and the nature of today’s peace—for we currently have something between war and peace—and the nature of the threat that we face. […]Let me put it simply. The European convention on human rights was intended to defend the individual from the unparalleled destructive capacity of the fascist state. That is what gave rise to it. People did not envisage at that time that the state and the community might now be under threat from the unparalleled destructive capacity of fascist individuals working in networks. That is what we face today. The arbitrary imposition of one’s will on another by destructive power is fascism, whether it emanates from Europe or any other area. We now face a historical development that requires all of us to build on the European convention on human rights, strengthen it and ensure that the most fundamental of all rights—the right to life and to protection of that life—without which no other right—

Lord Hoffman (a not-yet retired member of the judiciary) in his dissenting judgment in A (FC) and others (FC) (Appellants) v. Secretary of State for the Home Department (Respondent) [2004] UKHL 56, 16 December 2004:

If the finger of suspicion has pointed and the suspect is detained, his detention must be reviewed by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission. They can decide that there were no reasonable grounds for the Home Secretary’s suspicion. But the suspect is not entitled to be told the grounds upon which he has been suspected. So he may not find it easy to explain that the suspicion is groundless. In any case, suspicion of being a supporter is one thing and proof of wrongdoing is another. Someone who has never committed any offence and has no intention of doing anything wrong may be reasonably suspected of being a supporter on the basis of some heated remarks overheard in a pub. The question in this case is whether the United Kingdom should be a country in which the police can come to such a person’s house and take him away to be detained indefinitely without trial.The technical issue in this appeal is whether such a power can be justified on the ground that there exists a “war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation” within the meaning of article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights. But I would not like anyone to think that we are concerned with some special doctrine of European law. Freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention is a quintessentially British liberty, enjoyed by the inhabitants of this country when most of the population of Europe could be thrown into prison at the whim of their rulers. It was incorporated into the European Convention in order to entrench the same liberty in countries which had recently been under Nazi occupation. The United Kingdom subscribed to the Convention because it set out the rights which British subjects enjoyed under the common law.

The exceptional power to derogate from those rights also reflected British constitutional history. There have been times of great national emergency in which habeas corpus has been suspended and powers to detain on suspicion conferred on the government. It happened during the Napoleonic Wars and during both World Wars in the twentieth century. These powers were conferred with great misgiving and, in the sober light of retrospect after the emergency had passed, were often found to have been cruelly and unnecessarily exercised. But the necessity of draconian powers in moments of national crisis is recognised in our constitutional history. Article 15 of the Convention, when it speaks of “war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation”, accurately states the conditions in which such legislation has previously been thought necessary.

[…]

Of course the government has a duty to protect the lives and property of its citizens. But that is a duty which it owes all the time and which it must discharge without destroying our constitutional freedoms. There may be some nations too fragile or fissiparous to withstand a serious act of violence. But that is not the case in the United Kingdom. When Milton urged the government of his day not to censor the press even in time of civil war, he said:

“Lords and Commons of England, consider what nation it is whereof ye are, and whereof ye are the governours”

This is a nation which has been tested in adversity, which has survived physical destruction and catastrophic loss of life. I do not underestimate the ability of fanatical groups of terrorists to kill and destroy, but they do not threaten the life of the nation. Whether we would survive Hitler hung in the balance, but there is no doubt that we shall survive Al-Qaeda. The Spanish people have not said that what happened in Madrid, hideous crime as it was, threatened the life of their nation. Their legendary pride would not allow it. Terrorist violence, serious as it is, does not threaten our institutions of government or our existence as a civil community.

[…]

I said that the power of detention is at present confined to foreigners and I would not like to give the impression that all that was necessary was to extend the power to United Kingdom citizens as well. In my opinion, such a power in any form is not compatible with our constitution. The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these. That is the true measure of what terrorism may achieve. It is for Parliament to decide whether to give the terrorists such a victory.

May 23, 2007

Latest Madness from HMG

Filed under: civil liberties, UK — notsaussure @ 7:22 pm

A bit belated, but I couldn’t let this monstrous proposal go without comment, though:

Council workers, charity staff and doctors will be required to tip off police about anyone whom they believe could commit a violent crime, under secret Home Office plans.

Well, that’s just about everyone in the country, since we’re all of us capable of committing a violent crime under the wrong circumstances. Fortunately, for most of us these circumstances don’t arise.

Apparently, though, the idea is to be a bit more selective:

Danger signs used to identify an individual as a potential perpetrator might include a violent family background, heavy drinking or mental health problems. A potential victim might come to the attention of the monitoring agency on seeking treatment for stress-related conditions from a GP.

Right, so someone trying to take the difficult step of admitting he needs help with his drinking and his depression as a result of a difficult family situation and seeking help from his GP now has to take into account the risk that his GP will be under a statutory obligation to inform the police. What the police are supposed to do with this information is anyone’s guess.

The proposal’s ludicrous. It seems the document’s author

admits that a number of issues need to be resolved, including what should trigger an initial report and what should count as a serious violent crime.

Well, yes. That is a bit of a problem. One of my favourite pieces of legislation, the dear old Criminal Justice Act 2003, has a shot at defining them, and tells judges what they’re supposed to do when people have actually been convicted of committing them. Essentially, if you’re convicted of one of a number of offences, the Court has to undertake a risk assessment before you’re sentenced and, if the sentencing judge concludes that you present a serious risk of causing serious harm to people in the future, he’s required to sentence you in a particular manner. That, as the Court of Appeal noted, in the case of R v Lang, in which the Appeal judges made an initial stab at making sense of how this works in practice, can get a bit tricky. The judgement concludes, after 150-odd paragraphs rehearsing the facts of actual cases where people had been sentenced under these provisions and trying to work out if the relevant bits of the CJA applied — and, take it from me, it’s complicated — with the comment:

It would be inappropriate to conclude these proceedings without expressing our sympathy with all those sentencers whose decisions have been the subject of appeal to this Court. The fact that, in many cases, the sentencers were unsuccessful in finding their way through the provisions of this Act, which we have already described as labyrinthine, is a criticism not of them but of those who produced these astonishingly complex provisions. Whether now or in the fullness of time the public will benefit from sentencing provisions of such complexity is not for us to say. But it does seem to us that there is much to be said for a sentencing system which is intelligible to the general public as well as decipherable, with difficulty, by the judiciary.

The author of this crack-pot idea, though, envisages placing a legal obligation on GPs to undertake a similar exercise to the one the judiciary finds so difficult, and then to break their duty of patient confidentiality if they reach certain conclusions. How on earth you’d go about prosecuting a GP who you thought hadn’t fulfilled this obligation is an utter mystery, by the way.

The more I think about it, the more insane the scheme appears. Chap goes to his GP to discuss his problems. GP is alarmed and says, ‘I’d like to refer you for some help with anger management and with alcohol abuse.’ Chap agrees. What’s the point, then, of bringing in third parties?

Alternatively, chap doesn’t agree, or attends the sessions for a while and gives up. Everyone now alarmed, but what do they do? If we’ve actually convicted someone of a crime, then there are sanctions to make him cooperate; breach his probation and re-sentence him (or activate his suspended sentence), or recall him to prison if he’s out on licence. But we can’t do that if we just suspect he might do something illegal in the future, can we? Well, yes, I know about control orders, so probably this government wouldn’t see any problems, but the courts might.

The whole idea seems inspired, if that’s the right word, by the thinking behind the National Children’s Database; keep tabs on people and focus multi-agency intervention in an attempt to head off potential problems in the future. And, as the ArchRights blog has frequently pointed out, one reason for keeping a close eye on what the government do to children is that they’ll probably try to do it to adults, too, sooner or later.

Seems typical of this government’s thinking; at some level it regards all of us as both children to be guided and as criminals who just haven’t got round to committing a crime yet, but probably will do if someone doesn’t stop us.

The justifications for this wheeze bear looking at, too. Inevitably, the Soham murders and the murder of Victoria Climbié are quoted as examples of why we need more collection and sharing of information.

I can never understand why that is. As I recall, and if anyone disagrees, I’ll dig out the official reports into both cases and go through it in detail, in neither case was the problem ‘we didn’t have enough information’. In the Climbié case, the problem was, on the contrary, the Social Services department had plenty of information and complaints, but didn’t follow it up properly. In the Soham case, it was, again, people not doing their jobs properly — references not being properly checked, criminal records inquiries not being conducted properly, Hull Police not recording complaints and information received about Huntley properly,so no one investigating one of the many complaints about him never got the full picture, because no one understood the computer system and because they’d completely misunderstood what they could and couldn’t do under the Data Protection Act, and so on.

If everyone concerned had done their jobs properly — or even if some of them had, certainly in the Soham case, then the murders could probably have been avoided. And if organisations can’t even supervise and manage their own staff properly, then I don’t see why anyone expects them to do particularly grand job of supervising and managing the general public.

And, again inevitably, we get told that

the Home Office has its duty of public protection as its top priority.

This sounds all very worthy, until you think it through. It might well be the Home Office’s top priority, since the Home Secretary carries — does his best to avoid carrying, more like — the can when something goes wrong, but most of us don’t live our lives on the basis that protecting ourselves, or being protected by others, from criminals is our top priority. It’s one of them, certainly, but my main worry in life certainly isn’t that I might become a victim of crime and that, in consequence, I’d better do everything I can, no matter how irksome or disproportionate, to avoid it. In fact, I’d think anyone who did live his life primarily on the basis he must at all costs avoid the risk of falling victim to crime was rather odd.

This is, of course, only a leaked first draft, and the Home Office say

These proposals are still in development and no decisions have been made

which probably (I hope) means they were never meant to see the light of day; it’s not unusual, as I understand it, to start with draft proposals so extreme and unworkable that they’ll never be implemented, as part of a method of seeing what’s, in fact, acceptable and practicable and what isn’t. But it’s worrying people’s minds in the Home Office seem to be running on those lines.

May 15, 2007

Don’t report fraud…

Filed under: Law, UK — notsaussure @ 6:28 pm

Well, this was news to me, and somewhat alarming news it is, too:

People will no longer be able to report cheque or card fraud or theft to the police under new rules being introduced by the Government.

From 1 April 2007, anyone who is a victim of this type of crime will be told to report it to their bank or building society and not police.

It will now be up to financial institutions to report such crimes to the police, which has lead to fears official figures will not truly reflect the seriousness of the problem.

Andrew Goodwill, managing director of Early Warning, an online card fraud specialist company, said the move is downgrading card fraud from a crime to an industry problem.

more here

One way to get the crime figures down, I suppose, but really…

This was brought to my attention, indirectly, from the author of the article, who writes that

I am working on a big scam [I assume she means she’s working on a report about one] at the moment and the victims are really bothered that they can’t report it to anyone – bar their bank . They feel cheated and short changed and want either a centre or police to take this back so a fraud specialist company has started a petition on No 10 website – the more people sign the better because this is a serious issue that the government brought in as per usual not bothering to care if it affects the public

Unfortunately, I can’t find the petition at the moment, but I’ll try so to do.

[Update:  now I have]

Does anyone have any further and better particulars of this extraordinary measure?

And could it be anything to do with the complaints from the Police Federation today about their members being required to arrest people, including children, on ludicrous charges, such as ‘being in possession of an egg, with intent to throw’ or a child for throwing a slice of cucumber at another child (yes, I know it’s a technical assault, but …)? The complaint from the Police Federation is that they’re being forced into this by performance targets, because all such incidents reported and dealt with by a caution or a fixed-penalty notice count as ‘crimes brought to justice’ just as do things that take a bit longer to investigate and prosecute, such as frauds?

The justification for this policy on not wanting to know about online fraud and suchlike, I’m delighted to see, is that

“Police forces at present will often not confirm a crime has taken place before they have had this confirmed by the financial institution that has issued the card… [making] financial the institution the first point of contact [is] removing an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and making it easier for customers, ” the Home Office said.

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