Thursday, March 05, 2015 

Still mass debating the debates.

It really can't be stated enough just how much of a blinder David Cameron has played from a position of weakness on the debates, or increasingly likely non-debates, and what a spectacularly craven one the broadcasters have from a position of strength.  For months before the first proposal sources made clear Cameron would do everything possible to avoid a repeat of what he and his advisers felt was a debacle last time round, when Clegg seized the advantage they felt was rightfully theirs.

Rather than adapt their bids accordingly, they walked straight into Craig Oliver's trap.  Dave debate with Nige? Not without Natalie there to snipe at Ed and Nick from their blind sides.  Instead of saying OK and calling his bluff, they came up with the completely ridiculous and unwieldy idea of also inviting Plaid Cymru and the SNP, and to two rather than just one of the showdowns.  Why then not invite the DUP as well, or Sinn Fein, the Natural Law party, the Pirates, the Real Elvis continuity wing?  There didn't seem to have been the slightest thought put into how a 7-leader debate could possibly work, presumably because they were expecting Miliband and Clegg to now say hang on, this is becoming a joke.

Only they didn't, apparently believing the pressure on Cameron to take part would become too much.  It hasn't, as was predictable considering there isn't as much demand for the debates as the broadcasters, heady from the belief the debates were the campaign last time, and the other parties have convinced themselves.  Then you also have to factor in the lack of pressure from the press, both as they have an interest in not helping out the broadcasters and as most have already dismissed Miliband as only slightly less weird than Arnold Layne, making anything that could prove them wrong extremely unwelcome.  If it was Miliband refusing to be involved you can imagine the uproar, the jibes, taunts, the multiple interns in chicken suits that would be following him around everywhere.  As it's Cameron he'll raise the ire only of the Daily Mirror, and their stock isn't exactly high at the moment.

Now we have Oliver and Cameron's "final" offer, and it's playing the broadcasters at their own game.  You wanted 7 leaders, you've got it, but we're only doing one and before the campaign proper gets under way.  As contemptible as this is for all the reasons the other politicians have spent the day outlining, you also can't help but admire the way it's been done.  It's been Campbell-esque in its evil genius, which is no doubt why it's annoyed the man himself so much.  Having a debate before the Conservative manifesto has been published is all but pointless, as Paddy Ashdown pointed out, as is one when the very presence of at least two of the leaders is completely irrelevant to most of those watching as they can't vote for the SNP or Plaid Cymru whether they like the sound of their policies or not.  Even if answers to questions were limited to two minutes, that's nearly quarter of an hour that's going to be spent on just each leader's opening gambit.  No wonder Cameron thinks he'd escape completely unscathed from such an encounter.

And so we are once again left with the broadcasters threatening to "empty chair" Cameron.  Only because of the impartiality rules the Conservative policy would have to be outlined regardless, quite possibly by a journalist, making the spectacle even more ludicrous, and leaving the one-on-one debate with Miliband presumably transformed into either a long-form interview with Paxman or a town hall style non-event.  The question is who comes out of such silliness looking worse, and Cameron will quite happily take a few negatives headlines rather than risk Miliband appearing prime ministerial a week before voting.  Channel 4 and Sky offering to move that debate forward yesterday was all the encouragement Cameron and Oliver needed to make a final mockery of the "negotiations".  What a mess, and for all the cowardice, cynicism and calculation of the Conservatives, the incompetence of the broadcasters has been just as remarkable.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2015 

Drugs, sensationalism and paternalism.

I didn't watch Drugs Live, mainly for the reason that like most people my age I know fairly well how cannabis affects those who use it.  It doesn't instantly make you an utter prick, as say cocaine does, nor is it unpredictable in the way alcohol is.  I've also known people who've been smoking it for so long it has almost no effect on them whatsoever, or seemingly doesn't.  David Nutt then ranking hash, as opposed to skunk at the very bottom of his harm index doesn't come as a major surprise.

You can't though have a television programme in this day and age purely discussing the effects of drugs or even just how they impact on the brains of Mr and Mrs Average Punter, as that's boring and not going to get Twitter, err, blazing.  No, instead you must have Jennie Bond and Jon Snow (the other one) getting baked, purely for scientific reasons, of course.  I did happen to catch one moment when the former royal correspondent's "pleasure sections" of her brain lit up while listening to music after taking a good long pull, which was instantly declared as definitive proof that weed does make shit music sound better.  It reminded me and no doubt only me of the Monty Python Planet Algon sketch, or at least the presenting style did, so the more things change etc.

Any chance the programme had of being more than just a typical Channel 4 stunt, coming after the previous show on ecstasy and Mariella Frostrup asking couples who had just finished shagging in a box in the studio how it was for them was rendered all but academic in any case by the advance promotion.  Jon Snow declared he found being on skunk while in the MRI scanner to be more terrifying than when he'd been in war zones, to which one response is he should try it while in any smaller town's excuse for a nightclub.  Post-traumatic stress disorder would no doubt instantly descend.  Regardless of Snow's intentions, this was the cue for the likes of the Mail to declare that if someone as unflappable and worldly wise as Snow could be reduced to such a state, just what is it doing to the immature and less refined?

Coupled with the other new research into psychosis and use of high strength cannabis, the government was quick to declare it had no intention of changing the law, unless of course there's enough of an outcry to think about tightening it further.  What better time for of all people, Richard Branson to renew his call for the government to follow the example set by Portugal's decriminalising of possession, only this time joined by the man who's turned many of his own party to drink if not drugs, Nick Clegg?

Had Clegg been as explicit in his support for decriminalisation earlier in this parliament, as opposed to simply making noises in that general direction he might just have made something approaching a difference.  Leaving it this late invites cynicism that his conversion to the Portuguese model is less out of genuine belief it would reduce drug usage overall and help addicts and more about trying to retain some of the votes his party has lost.  To be fair, the Lib Dems have long called for a rethink on drugs and they did succeed in getting their comparative study published, even if it did little more than just reinforce what most already knew.

We also shouldn't get carried away, just as it was advisable not to after said report.  Branson and Clegg write that as well as remaining illegal drugs should also remain "socially unacceptable", to which the obvious response is why?  Why should it be socially acceptable, even felt to be obligatory in some circumstances to drink fermented vegetables and fruits but not smoke or chew the extracts of a plant, when the effects are often far less damaging?  Why should it be unthinkable that MDMA could ever be legal, when the real danger from "ecstasy" is from adulteration, or when the supplied pill or powder doesn't contain MDMA at all?  Why should someone be arrested for possession of small amounts of cannabis or any other number of drugs we know to pose a low risk and cause little overall harm, let alone then sent for treatment or assessment for a problem the vast majority won't have?  Surely If we're looking towards any model it ought to be the American one, where the effective legalisation of cannabis has taken the trade almost wholly out of the hands of organised crime.  This isn't to deny there will always be problem users, addicts and the potential for harm beyond that measured on a scale, but we have the worst of all worlds at the moment.

The answer to all the above is not just that we have a sensationalist approach to drugs and the harm they can cause, hence why journalists can be felt responsible enough to take them and tell us plebs what it's like, just as The Day Today satirised years ago, but we also have doctors who believe smoking should be banned in parks and squares.  When smoking is to be made socially unacceptable, regardless of your personal view on it, and my own isn't favourable, what chance is there of making any progress on drugs that are illegal but we know to be less harmful?

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Tuesday, March 03, 2015 

5 years in prison for not doing your job? Only for social workers, naturally.

It's getting to the point where it would be easier for all concerned if the government changed tack completely and passed legislation setting out what is legal as opposed to illegal.  David Cameron's major response to the latest report on child sexual exploitation is to propose those in a position of authority who fail to protect their wards could face up to 5 years in prison.  Yvette Cooper says that isn't good enough and argues child exploitation should become a specific offence.  Yesterday the ban on driving under the influence of drugs came into effect, covering both legal and illegal substances, with little in the way of an awareness campaign.  Also to be illegal before long is smoking in a car with children present, destined you have to suspect to be another law seldom used or enforced but had to go on the statute book to "send a message".

New Labour of course turned legislation into the art of seeing to be doing something.  Umpteen criminal justice acts, a smattering of terrorism acts, some of which caused unforeseen problems that had to be corrected with further legislation.  But hey, at least this constant activity at Westminster meant MPs were doing something, as opposed to now when they've got so much free time they boast about it, right?

Or perhaps it's all the free time Dave has to spend chillaxing that leads him to such counter-productive, beyond stupid ideas as further making work all but intolerable for those at the sharp-end of child protection, whether they be social workers, police officers, teachers or the councillors with overall responsibility.  It certainly didn't come from reading the Serious Case Review published today into the Operation Bullfinch grooming case in Oxfordshire, which sets out just how incredibly difficult it was for all concerned to help the victims when the control over them was so absolute and the pattern of abuse had yet to be properly identified.

Without excusing their failures for a second, it describes all the hurdles in their way, the challenging background of the girls which the abusers exploited and the almost complete lack of cooperation from the victims as a result of their grooming.  Three of the six girls the SCR focuses on had experience of sexual abuse in their family prior to being groomed.  Most had experienced parental domestic violence; the police attended one family 74 times in a two-year period (page 37).  A senior police officer related to the inquiry how one girl had as punishment been taken into a wood, where she was raped and humiliated by seven men (page 39).  Left crying and naked, the person she called for help was not a parent, a friend, a social worker or a police officer, but one of the men who had been involved in the assault.  There were a number of attempts to prosecute men involved in similar crimes to those convicted as a result of Bullfinch, one of which went to court but collapsed after the key witness refused to continue giving evidence after a defence cross-examination.  In another instance an officer described himself as "shocked" the victim was only 13, and she was also considered to be "out of control", and there were "no corroborating forensics".  Of the six girls themselves, there were a number of attempts to prosecute their abusers prior to the final court case (compiled on page 43), but only in a couple of instances did the victims cooperate prior to then.

If this all sounds familiar, the report itself notes just how uncannily similar it is to what happened in Rotherham, Rochdale, Derby and Bristol.  The two key differences are that unlike in Rotherham, the council itself isn't getting blamed and second that despite the fact five of the men convicted were of Pakistani heritage, there is no evidence and also been no suggestion of inaction due to fears of being seen as racist.  Indeed, Alexis Jay in her Rotherham report felt decision making had not been affected by fears of racism, even if councillors and others had felt pressure to downplay the ethnicity of the perpetrators.

While there have clearly not been the same problems with denial in Oxfordshire as reported in Rotherham, the report itself asks just how it was "with many professionals very worried about the girls, with considerable resources being used to keep them safe (for example, in distant secure facilities) and ‘missing’ statistics which were unusually high, why the full picture did not emerge and the issue never percolated through to governing body level such as CEOs, Boards, or Committees" (page 75).  The answer, as much as any, the report suggests, is how it wasn't until the late 00s that grooming of this type and this scale was properly identified as being such a major concern in the official guidance (page 70).  That, coupled with the sheer difficulty of trying to help victims who seemingly didn't want to be helped, and who at times, were treated as making their own choices despite their age, seem the key reasons.

This obviously doesn't tally with Cameron's denunciation of a "walk on by" culture, nor with the common assumption that it was apparent what was happening and so could have been stopped far sooner.  Quite why child sexual exploitation required a Downing Street summit now also isn't clear, or rather, is: the election's coming, and Cameron apparently fears UKIP will escalate its campaigning after Farage's disgraceful comments on Fox News.  Not that Cameron's description of sexual abuse as occurring on an "industrial scale" is helpful either, not least for the image it conjures in the mind.  Ridiculous rather than tasteless is making CSE a "national threat", without there being the slightest explanation as to how doing so will help rather than just sound good.

Much the same thinking seems behind the five years jail plan.  Social workers must wonder what fresh hell each new day will bring: damned if despite their best efforts they fail to protect a child, damned if they "overreact" and take a child of a lovely middle class family going through a few problems into care, whom then go to the Daily Mail.  Little wonder there are so many vacancies, few now wanting to go into a profession which despite being incredibly rewarding invites such hostility.  It's not even as though politicians at a national level accept they, like others, failed to see CSE as a problem, only responding once it started to receive wider attention.  Nor will it see extra resources provided to councils as their budgets are slashed further by Whitehall, as fine words and big sticks are the only things on offer.  While reports try and explain why, politicians remain interested only in the now. 

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Thursday, February 26, 2015 

The immigration monster strikes again.

You can't help but admire the Tories' hugely successful efforts to increase net migration.  There was the campaign abroad stressing just how wonderful the United Kingdom is, the repeated loosening of the rules on claiming benefits, despite there not being the slightest evidence a country's welfare system was a pull factor, and, not unrelated, we've also seen the rise in the polls of the single issue EU-OK! party.  The government hasn't quite reached its ultimate target of 300,000, no ifs, no buts, it must be noted.  Still, 298,000 couldn't be much closer.  Considering the miserable failure to double the deficit in a single term, to all but achieve his aim on immigration is a major fillip going into the election for David Cameron.

Yep, we are once again in bizarro world.  There was never the slightest chance of getting net migration down to the tens of thousands as Cameron so foolishly promised, but it looked for a time at least as though the numbers would come down enough for some sort of progress to be claimed.  For the figure going into the election to be 50,000 above the number which prompted Cameron to make his pledge is little short of fantastic.  Indeed, you'd need a heart of stone not to laugh, if it wasn't for how immigration has long since just become another issue to beat politicians as a whole over, transforming unpopular populist bores into salt of the earth sages who can be trusted to mean what they say.

As plenty of Tory sympathisers have been quick to say, what the increase really shows is that compared to much of Europe the UK economy has recovered faster, except they naturally included the words long, term and plan, when there has never been any such thing.  And had the main parties and most commentators not decided that it was better to indulge the tabloids and public opinion by saying it was no longer enough to make the case for continued immigration on economic grounds, instead of doing so while promising to deal more effectively with the pressures on local services in the areas most affected, with the impact of the cuts naturally having the exact opposite effect, they might now not be in a mess entirely of their own making.

Those with memories longer than your proverbial goldfish might recall much of the immigration panic of 2013 was centred around our Romanian and Bulgarian friends, whom on 1st of January 2014 would have unfettered access to our glorious shores.  Estimates varied from every single person currently in the two countries emigrating to Britain to slightly more sensible guesses.  To give the doommongers some credit, the numbers from the two countries have indeed gone up on the 2013 figures, after the first estimate suggested there might have been a fall.  37,000 came, which isn't a number to be sniffed at considering the 298,000 overall net figure.  This is however an increase of only 13,000 on the previous year, when those wishing to work here had to apply for work permits.  A statistically significant one, as the ONS says, but hardly the end of the UK as we know it.  Nigel Farage can rest assured he's unlikely to be getting any new and unwelcome neighbours.

Let's not kid ourselves here, though.  There's just the one stat that will be seen and it's the headline figure.  How much it really matters is open to question, considering poll after poll suggests people tend to see things in their local area as having not been majorly affected, if at all, as most haven't, while by contrast elsewhere no one speaks English and something has to be done.  Draw a line in the sand, the Sun says, and the fact the Tories didn't have immigration in their 6 key election themes was proof Cameron didn't want to win the election.  If we're to believe Matthew d'Ancona the reason the prime minister's so frit of the debates is he doesn't want to give Farage a platform.  Someone with just a bit more courage ought to take it upon themselves to inform Dave that the very moment he came up with his ridiculous pledge he gave UKIP the kind of platform they had dreamed of for years.  You can't control immigration while you're in the EU, Nige repeats, and it's true, you can't put a cap on the numbers.

What you can do is make a case for exactly why a cap isn't necessary provided the resources are in place to deal with any problems unexpected surges will have temporarily.  What you can do is try and provide enough housing for everyone, enough jobs, introduce regulations that stop the unscrupulous from exploiting casual labour and enforce the payment of a living, as opposed to poverty wage.  You can make the point that a real sign of strength, both economically and culturally is the number of people from outside who want to live in a particular country.  What you don't is encourage the belief that it's all about an over generous welfare system when it's not, that despite previous waves of migrants being welcomed and celebrated for their achievements it's now time to say sorry, we're full when you can't, and then, finally facing that reality, decide it's time to make immigration the key factor in the debate about the EU when that's precisely what the headbangers in your party and the antediluvians in UKIP want to make it.

Considering the number of mistakes Cameron and the Tories have made, and when you factor in Andy Coulson, Libya, Syria, the bedroom tax and continuing to humour Iain Duncan Smith amongst others there's plenty to go round, the immigration target has to be the biggest.  It's not as though it's his only broken promise, that little one about eliminating the structural deficit in a single parliament also jutting out.  As a major cause of cynicism and anger it must be right up there, and yet rather than even at this late moment decide it's time to put a stop to such idiocy and level with a public that could still respect them for doing so, politicians look set to put in place further targets making them a hostage to fortune.  It seems they'd rather see the rise of blowhards and buffoons than make a case for the national interest, something they're more than prepared to fall back on when it comes to taking part in crazy foreign adventures.  Politics at times just doesn't make any damn sense.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015 

Yes, Islamic State is Islamic. No, it isn't representative, and here's one way to counteract its propaganda.

This has been the daft and besides the point debate of the past week: is the Islamic State like, Islamic? The clue is there in the name people, and if you needed a fatuous piece in the Atlantic which quotes Anjem Choudary as though he's an authority on such matters to bring that home then you might not have been paying attention.
 

Yes, the Islamic State is Islamic.  It's Islamic in a similar way to how Pat Robertson, Stephen Green and Jehovah's Witnesses are Christians, only with less door knocking in the case of the latter and a slightly more intense hatred of gays.  The people saying IS are not Muslims are nonetheless right in the sense they couldn't be more removed from your average Sunni Muslim, let alone from the Shia or Sufi traditions.  IS frankly take all the fun out of fundamentalism, as it's difficult to laugh at them in the same way as the cretins in Northern Ireland desperately trying to cling on to discrimination, when they're enslaving women and so insistent on slicing off the heads of anyone looking at them askance.

You can understand the reticence: if we accept Islamic State is Islamic, doesn't that make this a war on Islam?  Won't it encourage idiots to see Muslims in general as the problem rather than the 0.01% who adhere to this particular brand of Islam, the violently intolerant and hateful variety of the Salafi Wahhabi strand?  And doesn't this make a mockery of the whole Islam is peace stuff we hear so often?  Well, no; they were anyway; and no, not really.  The first two questions sort of meld into one, as jihadists depict everything as a war against Islam, everyone against them as crusaders and so on, the same way as people who just hate Muslims because they're brown and not white and over here are delighted by the likes of Choudary doing their work for them.  As for Islam being the religion of peace, every religion has its violent past, its extremists and fundamentalists, its martyrs and heretics.  Even a Buddhist sect in Burma is currently doing its level best to persecute the tiny number of Muslims there.  Yes, an extreme minority of Muslims with the veneer of theological backing would really quite like to bring about the apocalypse and they currently control a fair swath of Iraq and Syria.  This is though to give the fighters rather than the ideologues more credit than they deserve; they're just there for the killing, to imagine themselves as historical warriors and treat the people they're living among like dirt.

How then do we react when three London school girls decide they want to join up with such people?  To call some of the reaction shallow is to do injustice to paddling pools, and not just from those who instantly wrote the girls offHumaira Patel in the Graun suggests "something beyond religion is also playing a part" and she's undoubtedly right.  Almost certainly not right is her claim of it being down to everything being against these girls, being female, being Muslim, being victims of Islamophobia, living in the east end, and so on and so forth.  There's being alienated, getting angry about discrimination and then deciding joining up with an essentially supremacist group in a war-torn country provides the answers to those problems.

Nikita Malik from the Quill.i.am Foundation (as only I call it) meanwhile takes to Left Foot Forward and refers to push and pull factors.  More convincing are the push factors, the belief of not fitting in, of an interpretation of religion not shared by parents or friends.  Far less are the pull factors, when Islamic State's propaganda is relatively clear about what is expected of women: hardly any will be fighters, and they instead are to be wives to fighter husbands.  Aqsa Mohammed and others alleged to have played a role in recruiting other women have made no bones about their lives in Syria and the mundane, behold to men reality.  If this can really be considered a pull factor, as pointed out on Monday, there are serious questions to be asked concerning just what sort of expectations of life these girls had to begin with.

Nosheen Iqbal for her part makes a worthy intervention somewhat undermined by making it all about sex.  The comparison with grooming is legitimate up to a point, only it falls down again on the whole propaganda hiding the reality front.  There's not many 16-year-old girls who in their heart of hearts are yearning to get married for a start, let alone to someone they've never met and might find they have nothing in common with other than a world view.  This said, the emphasis she places on their age and the stupidity that so often goes hand in hand with being a teenager deserves repeating, and it's also the case they are undoubtedly being judged more harshly precisely because of their sex.  We expect teenage boys to get into trouble, and Islamic State is nothing if not teenage in so many ways: the belief of everything being against you, the ridiculous level of self-importance, the absurd claims of the next stop being Europe that only those both amazingly ignorant and arrogant could make with a straight face.  Girls though should be more sensible, regardless of being susceptible to the exact same pressures and influences.  They could well be already regretting their decision, we just have no way of knowing.

Which brings us finally to Shiraz Maher, who makes an important point but probably not in the way he intended.  Repeating an argument he's made previously about the callousness of allowing jihadis to go out to Syria, without explaining how we're meant to stop the most determined when as we've seen three schoolgirls can manage it, he refers to recently imprisoned Imran Khawaja, who faked his own death in Syria in an effort to return home without being picked up.  Khawaja it seems "couldn't hack it" in Syria any longer, just as Mashudur Choudary couldn't.  The policy of prosecuting some of those who return and not others, which has to be a policy considering the numbers we're told have been and since returned without facing court, doesn't make a lot of sense.  If there's one point of the Atlantic piece worth dwelling on, it's that those who have returned are considered "dropouts", and the vast majority are not likely to pose any sort of threat.  Prosecution then achieves precisely nothing. It certainly doesn't act as a deterrent when it will just encourage those who do go to stay if they know a prison sentence awaits should they decide they've made a mistake.  At the same time, as argued before, not letting those who want to go amplifies the risk at home.

If anything, those who do return could play the exact role needed to discourage others from making the trip: as much as Islamic State doesn't hide the reality of life under it, there's nothing like the testimony of someone who believed they were acting out of their duty as a Muslim to dispel the wider fantasies those disposed to such thinking may have.  Little can be done for Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum now, but it may well take a change in thinking on the part of us "kuffar" to prevent others from following their path.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015 

The politicians we deserve.

You know, part of me really wants to look at the latest cash for access scandal, or whatever it is you want to call it, see the MPs ensnared, indulge in a bit of schadenfreude and leave it at that.  Couldn't have happened to a nicer couple of politicians, barring Nadine Dorries, John Hemming or a whole load of others you could name.  Good old "Rockets" Rifkind, who made a career out confusing people into thinking his innate pomposity was gravitas, and had never seemed happier than as chairman of the government's committee for whitewashing the intelligence agencies.  As for Jack Straw, what more is there to be said for the torture authorising (allegedly), prison building, dictator fawning war criminal?  Well plenty, but let's not extend ourselves too much.

Except the whole thing's a bit well, underwhelming, isn't it?  If you thought the previous sting by the same people was lacking in evidence of any wrongdoing as opposed to the suggestion there could be in the future, which memorably saw Stephen Byers describe himself as a "cab for hire", this one's even less convincing.  Dispatches could barely fill its half-hour time slot with the secret recordings of Rifkind n' Straw, and instead went to the expense of showing what both look like in cartoon form, presumably to eat up some time.  As previously, it was more they looked dodgy as filmed by hidden cameras, as most people will shot at an angle, something Newsnight dared to suggest, than anything else.  Then we heard the familiar boasts and exaggerations, which an awful lot of people will make if there's the possibility of some lucrative work in the offing.  Straw had "gone under the radar" to a former Ukrainian prime minister for a client, using a mixture of "charm and menace", neither of which are qualities you'd normally associate with the Blackburn MP.

Rifkind was even more effusive.  You'd be surprised how "much free time" he has, despite his parliamentary commitments, and in any case, he considers himself self-employed rather than, err, a public servant.  Not apparently realising the seriousness of having seen pound signs before his eyes, he then went on the Today programme and informed the listeners of BBC Radio Middle Class you can't expect people of his calibre to get by on a piffling £67,000 a year.  Most probably nodded sagely and then switched over to Grimmy.

"Rockets" has since claimed he's been terribly stitched up, and that he wouldn't for a moment have dreamed of lobbying on behalf of a Chinese firm in his capacity as an MP.  Instead his suggestion of contacting ministers without revealing his motives was to be done in a private capacity, one would have to assume, or at least would have been his explanation to the standards commission, since rendered fairly academic by his decision to stand down at the election.  Straw has long since announced his "retirement", although he clearly believed he was due to receive a peerage, as he would be able to help "even more" as a Lord.  There is perhaps a more prima facie case of breaking the rules for Straw in that he hosted the meetings in his parliamentary office, but hardly the most serious when compared to, ooh, signing off on the rendition of people back to Gaddafi's torture dungeons.

It's never so much the details in these exposes though as it is the sheer fact MPs have been caught looking comprised at all.  It just invites the "snouts in the trough" and "all the same" lines we've heard beyond the point of tedium.  It's also distinctly odd that we have such double standards over individual MPs' interests as opposed to those of their parties: conferences barring the Lib Dems' long since ceased being about policy and instead became an opportunity for a week of lobbying.  The Conservatives for their part advertise how they can be influenced, as pointed out before: just the £50,000 "donation" gets you access to the Leader's Group, where you can schmooze with Cameron and Osborne of an evening a couple of times a year.  Just the other week they were auctioning off "prizes" such as going for a run with Iain Duncan Smith, shoe-shopping with Theresa May, or a back-scuttle in a bus stop with Boris, as though such activities would be the only subject up for discussion.  Everyone points and laughs for a day or so, a few say how corrupt it all is, and then it's back to normal.

Only as we're so close to the election Labour's seized on the idea of trying to get an advantage where there almost certainly isn't one.  Miliband's suggestion of imposing a cap on earnings from outside interests to 10 or 15% of an MP's salary seems to be neither one thing or the other: it won't put an end to the claims of MPs' being bought, while it could have the perverse effect of stopping MPs from being able to work as barristers, GPs, or carrying on running a family business as some currently do.  As suspect and self-serving as the yelps from those extremely well renumerated for directorships and "advice" to businesses are, the last thing we want is a further professionalising of politics when that other cry is MPs don't have a clue as they've never had an ordinary job.

It's easy to be cynical about politics, as this blog proves on a daily basis.  £67,000 a year for working a number of hours broadly comparable to that of a teacher is more than a decent wage, not far off 3 times the national average.  Or at least it seems that way on the surface.  Factor in constituency work though, the arcane Commons practices currently being spotlighted in the BBC2 series, the way so many seem to think the absolute worst of their representatives, not always wrongly, and how in the current media environment you are essentially never off duty as it were, your every move and comment there to be scrutinised, filmed and tweeted, and you'd have to be either a masochist or a true believer in the idea of public service to want to be an MP.

This isn't of course to excuse Rifkind or Straw, god forbid, who proved to be just as gullible and potentially grasping as plenty of other mortals, but the last thing needed is further restrictions on individuals when the entire system of political funding is so open to abuse. Hence why it's possible something akin to Miliband's proposal could yet become law while all sides will continue to prevent the reform of party funding.  Frankly, we often get the politicians we deserve.

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Monday, February 23, 2015 

Don't pity them? I can't even begin to understand them.

Too much can at times be drawn from something depicting the ordinary which subsequently becomes extraordinary in the light of subsequent events.  The CCTV grabs of Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum at Gatwick airport on their way to board a flight to Turkey show three young and fashionable women.  The clothes they're wearing give absolutely nothing away, or perhaps they do; maybe the entire point was not to look overtly religious.  Sultana is not so much as wearing the hijab, and yet she's apparently on her way to a place where she'll be required to wear the full veil most, if not all of the time.  To judge entirely by the two grainy images given to the media, only Begum looks even vaguely anxious, pensive at the journey they're setting out on.

There is, all but needless to say, little to add to what's been reported so far on the apparent decision by the three teenagers to go to Syria, seemingly to join Islamic State, other than speculation.  Everyone is assuming they've gone to become "jihadi brides", as the Mail tastelessly but at the same time probably accurately has put it.  It certainly seems doubtful in the extreme they really would have gone in an attempt to persuade their friend who left back in December to return home, not least because of everything that could go wrong.  At the same time, I at least cannot even begin to understand what possible attraction there could be for a 16-year-old girl to want to go and live in Syria at all, let alone in Raqqa, Islamic State's self-proclaimed capital and their most likely destination.

You can at least begin to fathom why a young man of about that age might want to do so, radicalised or not.  Islamic State has done its utmost to mostly presently the conflict as one not just of religious duty where the rewards outweigh the sacrifices, some of whom are travelling with the exact intention of making the biggest one possible, but of fun and excitement, with spiritual discovery thrown in.  Brought up on a diet of braindead action flicks, superhero movies and vacuous yet satisfying video games, why not go where the real action is and live your life, away from the kuffar?  Hell, IS will even do their best to get you a wife, and if there aren't fellow Western girls available, you can have your pick from any number of Syrian or Iraqi women, so long as you can get over how they're probably just making themselves available to keep their family alive, if they're not an outright slave.  Then again, such recruits might not even be shaving yet, so such thoughts are probably not high on their list.

All of which just brings us back to what possible kind of mindset these very young women are in.  It's not as though Islamic State hides what it expects of women under their yoke: if they must be seen, it's concealed by the veil, and a male guardian has to be present should they want to go much further than beyond their doorstep.  Western recruits are to be wives to their fighting husbands, do everyday household chores, look after children, make themselves available to their husband should he be home and not away fighting, and that's about it.  To most 16-year-old girls, even pious, dare it be said slightly repressed ones, bearing in mind most 16-year-old girls tend to be 20x more mature than their male counterparts, it would come across as a vision of hell.  And yet not only are some deciding this is the life for them, they go out of their way to encourage others to come and join them.

Reading the words of Aqsa Mahmood, aka Umm Layth, fingered by some as being potentially responsible for convincing the girls to make the journey is to be transported into her fantasy world.  To join Islamic State is comparable to the journey made by Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina, and indeed, those who have gone call themselves hijrah in the same fashion.  Her last post on her Tumblr blog, from the 22nd of last month, explicitly counsels women to know their rights in the event of their husband being killed, or "martyred".  She reassures anyone reading that parents of some of the women have despite everything come to accept what they've done, have even visited themselves, and not to take any notice of those calling it a "sexual jihad".

Making assumptions is a mug's game, and yet it's all we have in cases like this.  You can explain it as brainwashing, as some have, as though you can take a 16-year-old from London and in the space of two months convince them to go and live in a war zone.  You can blame the security services, as if they're meant to put every single person who contacts a known Islamic State propagandist on a no fly list.  You can point at the airport authorities, for not looking down the flight lists and treating young women flying to Turkey with suspicion.  You can wonder exactly what their home lives were like, and how the idea of becoming wives at 16 could possibly appeal unless their aspirations were that low, or the alternative so apparently bleak, achievements at school aside.  You can try and imagine the brand of Islam they ascribed to and were brought up in, and how it could have influenced them.  You look at the words of Abase's father, who said "she [wouldn't] dare discuss something like this with us, she knows what the answer would be", the kind of statement you could easily read too much into.

The Mail on Saturday described the girls as "naive", complete with scare quotes, while the Torygraph's women's editor says they shouldn't be pitied.  In a way, again, you can't really object: no one can say they don't know what Islamic State does or stands for when they set it out for all in their videos, when their atrocities and idiosyncrasies have been so well documented and reported.  To decide to go and join them is to abandon your life to that point, to make yourself complicit in the actions of a movement that has an ideology without a single positive aspect, completely incomparable with those few who've previously gone to live in the Soviet Union or even Nazi Germany, being far more akin to those who've been won over by cults.

All the same, you also can't for a moment imagine they know what they've let themselves in for.  Something has blinded them to the reality of their decision, whether it be religion, contact with their friend or others, a belief they're doing something for the greater good, however absurd or ridiculous that looks to us on the outside looking in.  Having made that decision, it's now going to be next to impossible to reverse it, whether unable to escape if they so wanted to or treated as potential terrorists on their return, regardless of what the police currently say.  Letting immature morons go and blow themselves up on their gap year is one thing; knowing how to stop those you would have thought had more sense, should have more sense, whom apparently defy everything we think we know about young people, is quite another.

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Thursday, February 19, 2015 

Bloody football.

"Bloody football," my nan always used to say when it was on TV.  Considering her idea of an evening's viewing was to watch any and all of the soaps that were on, whether it was Scousers living in a cul de sac, farmer drama, former Carry On actors screaming GET OUTTA MY PUB or Mancunians in their local, it was a subject we agreed to disagree on.

That if you weren't a fan of the very occasionally beautiful game there were all those other things you could be doing was at least something.  Now you can't so much as watch the news and switch it off before the sport comes on.  As the ever wonderful Marina Hyde has been at the forefront of identifying, it seems every major societal issue must be refracted through the prism of our national game.  We've had the great Ched Evans debate, from which I think it can be said not a single person came out well, the victim herself all but forgotten.  Nor was foreign policy immune, as it was claimed Islamic State had a former Arsenal trainee in their ranks.  It was complete bollocks, just like the very old tale of Osama bin Laden being an Arsenal fan and turning up for a game at Highbury in the mid-90s was, but hey, it makes for a good story doesn't it?

And so we must sadly come to a combination of this plague with another: the blurry filming of an unpleasant public incident which tells us something very uncomfortable about life as we know it.  Paul Nolan happened to be present at a Paris underground station as a horde of quite probably half-pissed Chelsea fans were on their way to the Champions League game against Paris St. Germain.  We hear them chanting "where you were you in World War 2?" (answer for the vast majority: waiting to be born) before views are apparently exchanged between a black man trying to get on the train and the fans inside.  He is grabbed and pushed off, and then pushed off again.  Next the chant "we're racist we're racist and we like it" is heard, and we at last see a shot of the people who may or may not have been involved.  And that's it.

This has been enough to be front page news for the past two days.  Some have argued, a Chelsea fan amongst them, that it's all been taken out of context and the man wasn't being pushed off because he was black but as he was a PSG fan and there wasn't enough room anyway.  That quite clearly, considering the chanting and the available evidence, isn't the case.  All the same, it's not exactly the hooliganism of the past either, is it?  All things considered, there's likely to be far, far worse happening in cities and town across the country at the weekend, only they won't be filmed and they won't involve football supporters, at least not identifiably.

The search has duly commenced for the perpetrators of this crime, although it isn't exactly clear if one has been committed.  Assault, presumably?  Use of discriminatory language, if it can be proved, as none can be heard on the recording itself?  Acting like a bunch of cretins in a train station?  The Met has nonetheless said it will consider issuing banning orders, while Chelsea has since announced it has suspended three people from being able to attend Stamford Bridge.  One of the men it was soon discovered has even had a photograph taken with Nigel Farage, while the aforementioned Chelsea fan allegedly tweeted the chant about being racist at the time.

A few sensible people have pointed out that abhorrent and disgraceful as this incident was, it's a bit rum to concentrate on the actions of a tiny minority of idiots and suggest they are in any way representative of either Chelsea fans, football supporters in general or Brits abroad, however embarrassing and ugly such things are.  Not least when the "we're racist and we like it" chant is without doubt in part a reference to Chelsea captain John Terry, who was suspended by the FA after charmingly referring to Anton Ferdinand as a "fucking black cunt".  Terry received the wholehearted support of his club, unlike those who help to pay Terry's wages.  We also really don't need to bring up the whole Luiz Suarez debacle again, nor is there any reason to draw wider conclusions about the comments of former Italy manager Arrigo Sacchi, who said his country "had no pride, no dignity" after seeing the number of black players involved in a youth tournament.

You could also, if you wanted, point out the remarkable discrepancy between a profession which more than any other is a model of diversity, proof talent and skill have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with skin colour, and how this obvious truism hasn't filtered down to some of the people watching the game.  This again though would only result in the conclusion some people are complete boneheads, and very little is going to get them to change their ways.  On their own they most likely wouldn't dream of acting in such a way, but in a group the pack mentality comes into play.  It ought to be a equal shame then that the response of so many to such videos is similar, with calls for those responsible to lose their jobs as well as face criminal penalties, the kind of additional punishment that wouldn't be counter-productive in the slightest.  The opprobrium that has already descended upon them is surely enough, isn't it?

Or maybe we should really get to the bottom of the prejudice, discrimination and boorishness at the heart of our country by sending out tens of thousands of pairs of Google glasses to whoever wants them and then compiling the footage into the most wrist-slittingly terrible document of our times yet seen.  The camera after all can never lie, mislead or give a false picture, just as bad behaviour can never be outbalanced by the good, the random acts of kindness that aren't rewarded or come to wider attention.  And just think we'd have bloody football to thank for putting an end to stupidity and the entire darker side of human nature; my nan would turn in her grave.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015 

Can I vote for the Church of England party, please?

(Exposition: The BBC has for some unknown reason seen fit to reunite the cast of Blackadder II.  All the surviving original actors have returned except for Stephen Fry, as he no longer wanted to portray the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Something about bone cancer.  The actual Archbishop of Canterbury takes up his role.  Russell Brand takes over from the late Rik Mayall as Lord Flashheart, only he insists on playing Flash as himself.  Olivia Colman plays Nursie as she's in fucking everything, but at least does so in tribute to Patsy Byrne.)

(The final scene in the 'Bells' episode.  Lord Flashheart has just made his late, extravagant entrance.)

Lord Flashheart: Brand by name, brand by nature!

... (Skipping to the relevant part)

Lord Flashheart: And Melchy! Still worshipping God? Last thing I heard he started worshipping me! Ahaha aha!

Audience and cast: (Silence)

(At this point Justin Welby decides he can take no more. He grabs Brand by the lapels and headbutts him.  Everyone cheers.)

Yeah, that worked better in my head than written out.  Still, the general point's there.

As indeed the general point is expressed by the Church of England's 56-page pre-election epistle to the few who'll bother to read the entire thing.  It deserves to be read for two reasons: firstly because it's shorter than any of the actual manifestos soon to be published by the various political parties will be, and second as it's almost certain to be far more coherent and radical than their efforts into the bargain.

It's this very fact an organisation once known as the Conservative party at prayer finds itself in such a position that causes the Bishops such disquiet.  At the one extreme they see the main parties denouncing each other in no uncertain terms over what are often the slightest of policy differences, while at the other they look at preening cocks like the aforementioned Brand calling for a revolution, right, but not the sort achieved through the ballot box, because like nothing ever changes so it's a waste of time, yeah?  Little wonder the Bishops suggest there's a, err, third way.

If there's a criticism to be made of the House of Bishops' efforts, and there are plenty if you so wish, it's that often they seem to be echoing the now all but forgotten mantras of New Labour.  An entire section is devoted to setting out how post-war the administrations of Attlee and Thatcher changed the political settlement, heralding a consensus around first social democracy and then neoliberalism, although neither are defined as such.  


The answer, the Bishops appear to suggest, is taking the best parts of each and using them to dilute the excesses of the other, so Beveridge's welfare state is preserved but the voluntarism and other responsibilities he called for are emphasised, while the cohesion and security provided by the state help to tone down the individualism and consumption encouraged by the markets.  If this sounds familiar, that's because it's almost exactly what both Labour pre-97 and David Cameron were talking about and promoting before they came to power.  The Bishops go so far as to name check the Big Society, an idea from "thoughtful Conservatives", and say it should not be "consigned to the political dustbin" rather, "it could still be the foundation for the new approach to politics, economics and community we seek".

This is to give Cameron and the Tories a little too much credit.  The Big Society was never truly about a new political ethos or way of going about things as the Bishops would like it to be, but rather a ploy to make cuts while claiming it a way of fixing the broken society, another subject the Conservatives quickly dropped.  It's also just a little naive - the Big Society was partly dropped not only because it was believed confusing, but as most people either didn't have the time or inclination to do the work the state had previously.  The Bishops would no doubt argue this is precisely because of how we have become a "society of strangers", as they set out, rather than a "community of communities", where consumption, individualism and competition, to the point almost of social Darwinism, now define who we are, yet it wouldn't entirely be convincing.  The past sense of community didn't instantly also extend to charity and helping out, as the CoE surely ought to know better than others.

What impresses more than any of the suggestions as to how politics might be fixed is the strength of the analysis and the decision not to mince words.  Yes, we all know how elections have been reduced to a battle over the marginals, but rarely are mainstream commentators so blunt about what politics has become.  As the Bishops write about the lack of vision offered, "We are subjected to sterile arguments about who might manage the existing system best. There is no idealism in this prospectus." They note how "There is a deep contradiction in the attitudes of a society which celebrates equality in principle yet treats some people, especially the poor and vulnerable, as unwanted, unvalued and unnoticed."  They go on "when those who rely on social security payments are all described in terms that imply they are undeserving, dependent, and ought to be self-sufficient, it deters others from offering the informal, neighbourly support which could ease some of the burden of welfare on the state." And on that other theme of the parliament they say "The way we talk about migration, with ethnically identifiable communities being treated as “the problem” has, deliberately or inadvertently, created an ugly undercurrent of racism in every debate about immigration."

Hardly surprising then that despite their attempts to reject both labels of left and right, saying their approach could be "embraced by any of the mainstream parties without being untrue to their own histories", that plenty of comment has referred back to the 80s and Faith in the City.  While most of the suggestions are more instantly associated with the left than the right, the document was clearly intended as wounding criticism of politics in 2015 rather an exercise in Tory-bashing.  It calls for an improvement in the standard of debate by involvement, instead of the Brand-like on the outside pissing in.  It also deserves a far more serious response from the people it criticises than the idiotic one it received from David Cameron yesterday, who repeated the exact argument about it not being kind or compassionate to leave someone idle on benefits that the letter so utterly rejects.

It's not the most original sentiment, but if it wasn't for the whole God thing and the occasional forays into ill-advised comment on sex and science, I could grow to quite like Welby and friends.  That on this evidence many people would also vote for a Church of England party given the opportunity, it ought to give the political class much pause for thought.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015 

All in the name.

Ever pondered how different things might have been if Hitler's name had been something else?  Would he still have electrified the beer halls in the same way as Adolf Schicklgruber, as his father was originally known?  And what for that matter if rather than Churchill, the right man at the right time had been called Reginald Boggis?
 

No, of course you haven't, because you're not an idiot.  All the same, names are important, especially for terrorist groups.  Boko Haram for instance, which isn't the group's actual title but is usually translated as western education is sinful/forbidden.  More literally though, it's books are forbidden.  The only book Boko Haram wants to suggest is of any worth is the Qu'ran, with the hadiths alongside, which tells you more about them than anything else.  Al-Qaida as you probably know translates as The Base, and in the beginning was a literal database of former mujahideen who had fought in Afghanistan.

Now there's Islamic State, and the name itself is enough to cause journalists to go weak at the knees and governments with ulterior motives to send in the bombers.  The group calling itself Islamic State in Libya has about as much connection with the self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria as I would if I started flying a black flag from my roof and shouted Allah akbar every time I did anything.  All they've done is declared allegiance to everyone's favourite messianic loon Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but such is the fear the Islamic State name carries that it's the moniker itself which demands attention as much as their murder of 21 Coptic Christians.

We haven't after all shown the slightest interest in the Libyan civil war, despite the fact that it was Nato's fabulous intervention against Gaddafi that precipitated today's insecurity.  David Cameron's visit to Benghazi ought to be seen as his "mission accomplished" moment, except Cameron and Nato had sort of learned the lesson of Iraq: impose regime change, then get out as soon as.  Just like in Iraq, where the Ba'ath party effectively was the state, in Libya Gaddafi played a similar role.  And just like in Iraq, with the overthrow of a secular, vicious dictator, into the void have come various groups, some nationalist, some of a more moderate Islamist tinge, others like Ansar al-Sharia and our pals IS of the takfiri Wahhabi bent, and they're all fighting for power and influence.  The key difference is that unlike in Iraq, where the country has become riven due to the schism between Sunni and Shia, with the Kurds and smaller numbers of Yazidis and Christians thrown in for good measure, in Libya the vast majority of the population is Sunni.  Where others see Iraq as a lost cause as a state ruled from Baghdad, this should, according to them, make it easier to reach a political solution.

Only compared to Syria, Libya doesn't exactly strike most as being of the greatest urgency.  It's up there with Ukraine: it's not pleasant that cities are being made uninhabitable and thousands have died, but it rather palls in consideration with the however many hundreds of thousands killed in Syria and Islamic State declaring Sykes-Picot to be history.  With Islamic State duly rearing their ugly heads on the coast of Libya, deciding this time to film their latest atrocity on a beach, no surprises that both Italy and Egypt have decreed something must be done.

Italy's unease and anger is more than understandable: they along with Greece and Malta have become the new frontline of this latest wave of migration from Africa, with the rest of the European Union refusing to stump up the cash necessary to fund the operation to both save lives and turn boats around.  As for Egypt, beyond the anger and grief over the slaughter of Copts themselves looking for a better life, bombing an Islamic State grouplet is the kind of action designed to calm any remaining nerves the West might have over the military coup and subsequent massacres of Muslim Brotherhood supporters.  Facing an insurgency in the Sinai, the last thing Egypt wants is the another hostile force operating in a safe haven next door.  And even if it doesn't become anything more than a militia with a negligible amount of fighters seeking infamy by proxy through Islamic State, the very name and its professed allegiance means Egypt is hardly going to be criticised for striking against it.

Unfortunately for both Egypt and Italy, although whether the latter truly favours a reintervention in Libya isn't as yet clear, getting the team back together which did so much to cause this mess in the first place isn't going to happen.  Only France might be so inclined, and considering the French attitude to arming the rebels in Libya was to drop them from a great height and worry about the groups picking them up later, they have more to answer for than most.  Ourselves and the Americans however aren't interested, as we're both far too busy in Iraq and Syria, and for David Cameron there's the whole election thing to worry about.  Not even blood-curdling warnings from the Egyptians of Islamic State jihadis masquerading as refugees turning up on the shores of the Mediterranean ready to strike will change minds, although they do make for great quotes and clips in news reports.

Much as it feels a little churlish to criticise the media for the unbelievably one-dimensional and often plain ignorant coverage of Islamic State popping up in Libya, considering no one has expressed the slightest interest in the country since the death of Gaddafi, to give the impression IS is metastasing across the wider Arab world is simply wrong.  Nor is it just the usual suspects failing to provide context or make clear worrying about IS in Libya is even less a good use of time than panicking about Ebola was; the BBC have been at the forefront, and the Graun hasn't been much better.  Egypt is relying on just such a lack of knowledge for its own purposes, and its conflation of all varieties of Islamism as posing the same threat is being used to stifle the last remaining voices of dissent in the country.  The last thing Libya needs is further outside intervention; instead, a summit of the kind that could have worked in Syria if all sides had wanted it to is what ought to happen next.  Such things are boring sadly, especially when compared to a death cult's latest reprehensible crime.

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Thursday, February 12, 2015 

Fink for the man.

Poor old Stanley Fink.  When you consider just how much potential there was for endless puns on his name, that not one of the tabloids splashed on Ed Miliband naming him in the Commons in his "dodgy" attack on the prime minister, you couldn't have asked for a better indication of just how quickly his say that again and I'll hit sue you theatrics would be dropped.  Sure enough, Conservative Central Office most likely bothered last night to ask Lord Fink if there was perhaps the possibility he may have indulged in the odd bit of "vanilla" tax avoidance regardless, and so quietly this morning his put your dukes up Ed routine was scaled down in the Evening Standard.  After all, everyone does a bit of tax avoidance now and again, and when the opportunity arises to put down deposits on houses for your kids through a Swiss family trust scheme, to "help them make their way in the wider world", it'd be foolish not to do so.

As much fun as it is see Ed go in for the kill occasionally at PMQs, which if not quite the equivalent of being savaged by a dead sheep isn't that far away from being poked by soft cushions, you fear he got away with his assault on Dave lightly.  The whole Cameron is Flashman with questionable friends attack hasn't worked up to now, and failing something really cataclysmic befalling the Tory leader, isn't about to start to.  For every barb about being BFFs with donors who used HSBC's "gone rogue" Swiss branch, the Tories can point back to all of Tony Blair's irrepressible pals, or as Cameron did, just repeat the ever infuriating line about the unions owning Labour.  It doesn't matter that was in the past, that on Monday the Tories were auctioning off and presumably getting money for such horrors as going shoe-shopping with Theresa May or spending an evening with the Goves over a chicken dinner, presumably not in the basket, or you know, the unions created Labour and their members voted for Ed.  The way the public sees it, everyone who pours money into political parties is either questionable or doesn't have much in the way of sense.

This isn't to say there aren't questions for the government to answer over Stephen Green.  On Tuesday George Osborne's chief fluffer Matthew Hancock was on Newsnight saying it was unthinkable that HMRC would so much as tell ministers what they were up to, as it would be absolutely wrong for them to know the exact details of future prosecutions, only for Lin Homer to say yesterday she believed this was precisely what civil servants had done.  When you consider the ridiculous lengths the Tories went to try and tie "crystal Methodist" Paul Flowers to Labour, to ennoble Green and make him trade minister demands answers over just how much in the way of vetting was performed.  Instead he was seemingly welcomed with open arms, described by the saintly Vince Cable as "one of the few to emerge with credit from the recent financial crisis".  In more ways than one, the reality is hardly anyone has emerged from the crisis with credit.

To solely go after Green or those who made use of the services rendered by HSBC's Swiss branch then is to miss the point.  The real scandal is just how useless, if not outright complicit HMRC has been with those attempting to swindle the taxpayer.  We already knew about the cosy deals reached by Dave Hartnett with Vodafone and Goldman Sachs, where much larger sums in owed tax were bartered down to far smaller payments, and how within months of leaving the civil service he was in the employ of, err, HSBC and then Deloitte, one of the accountancy firms that designs the very tax structures used to dodge paying.  These latest revelations prove how it wasn't the influence of that one individual, the very ethos of HMRC seems to have become to make deals with those caught in the act rather than prosecute.  This wouldn't matter as much if the deals were suitably draconian, but as the amount retrieved so far from those named in the HSBC files shows, in comparison with the French and Spanish tax authorities less has been recouped from a far larger number of accounts.

This friendly relationship with avoiders hasn't developed in a vacuum.  For all the fine words from both Tories and Labour over cracking down, they still rely on the big four accountancy firms behind so many of the loopholes for advice or research.  HMRC itself has suffered cuts that make precisely the kind of investigations as those needed into the HSBC leaks all the more difficult and time consuming.  As with so much of the rest of government, they are expected to do more with less, only in HMRC's case it's difficult not to think it's deliberate.  The coalition has also joined in the race to the bottom on corporation tax, resulting in the need to make up the loss elsewhere, with more people as a result going over the 40p threshold.  When Labour then suggests putting the corporation tax rate back up a couple of pence, the reaction from Cameron is to cry about the opposition "demonising" business.  As opposed as to demanding the middle classes, the supposed people Cameron is meant to represent, stump up more instead.

The relative silence from the likes of the Mail over the HSBC files after it made so much of attacking Labour after the Stefan Pessina interview suggests the vulnerability of the right over the issue.  As the Tories and their friends in the media have belatedly realised, not talking about something is often the best way to try and shut it down, hence why the NHS and immigration don't feature among the Conservatives' key themes for the election campaign.  Expect now the Fink issue to be forgotten, and if Labour doesn't keep up the attacks over Green, side issue as he is, so too will any impact the mini furore will have.  Labour instead should be promising they will be far more proactive in going after the avoiders and prosecuting the evaders, insisting they face the same opprobrium as the "skivers" targeted by the Conservatives.  More likely is as business itself knows, should Labour gain a majority or form a coalition, the story is bound to stay the same.

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Thursday, February 05, 2015 

The numbers game and demanding something must be done.

Many of us have a problem with getting our heads round numbers.  The chief point of protest from those in Rotherham to Louise Casey's inspection team, sent in after Alexis Jay's report into child sexual exploitation in the town, was the 1,400 victims figure.  As I pointed out at the time, Jay had reached this number by not so much as an estimate but an outright guess, as the documentation was so lacking.  Her team had also read only 66 case files as part of random sample.

Casey in her report writes "those denying the figures could not point to any more authoritative figure" (page 22), precisely because of the lack of documentation or the changing counting methods, or indeed different things being counted in the documentation.  In other words, no one has the slightest idea just how many children have been sexually exploited in Rotherham, but it's a high one and Jay's figure is probably a conservative estimate, or rather guess.  When you consider that again Casey is counting not just those definitively groomed by Pakistani heritage gangs, but who may have been abused by members of their own family, it puts further doubt on her own conclusion.

This is not to deny the accuracy of Casey's other conclusion, that behind the questioning of the figure, by the councillors at least, was the denial of the very real problem of CSE.  Alexis Jay's report otherwise was excellent, and if anything Casey's work distracts from it.  When however you have a number that is focused on above everything else, as happened with the excess deaths figure leaked to the press concerning the Mid-Staffs care scandal, a figure that didn't appear in the final report precisely because it was felt to be confusing, it does invite questioning and disbelief.

Which brings us to another example of what happens when the very best of intentions, the demand something must be done, leads to poor decision making.  Back in February last year the Guardian and other newspapers began a campaign against the continued practice of female genital mutilation.  As worthy causes go, there isn't a much higher one: there is no reason whatsoever why so much as a single girl living in this country should be cut in such a way, nor should it ever be tolerated, regardless of any cultural sensitivity.  It's a crime, and its chief aim is to prevent women from experiencing pleasure during sex for the purposes of "control".

Alongside the urgently needed awareness campaign was however the bandied about figure of 65,000 girls being at risk, and much emphasis was also placed on how there had not been a single prosecution in the 29 years of legislation being on the statute book.  The reasons why there hadn't been any were fairly obvious: it's not something many victims are going to confess to until they start having serious relationships, or become pregnant. It's also nearly always organised by the victim's relatives, if not with the active permission of the parents, with all that entails for investigations if suspicions are reported to teachers or the police.  Failing careful monitoring of those most at risk, which carries with it the potential for accusations of profiling, misunderstandings and racism, it's always going to be difficult in the extreme to bring charges.

We can't then know exactly why the head of the CPS, Alison Saunders, decided to go ahead with the prosecution of Dr Dhanuson Dharmasena for committing FGM.  Was she under pressure to do something because of the campaign?  We do know that the prosecution was announced three days before she was due to appear before the Home Affairs Select Committee, where the failure to prosecute anyone over FGM would undoubtedly been questioned.

Nonetheless, even on the basic facts of the case it ought to have been clear that Dharmasena had acted in the interests of his patient, even if he erred in precisely the procedure he carried out.  Dharmasena's patient, who did not want the doctor to be prosecuted, had undergone either type 1 or type 2 FGM as a child.  Hospital policy was she should have been seen by the antenatal team earlier in her pregnancy when the damage caused by the FGM could have repaired.  For whatever reason, this hadn't occurred.  Dharmasena himself had not encountered FGM previously, nor undergone training on it.  After making a number of cuts to the patient in order for the baby to be delivered, it was born safely.  The bleeding however didn't stop, and on the spur of the moment he put in a single continuous suture in a figure of eight.  Hospital policy was the damage should not have been repaired in such a way, and was considered to be in effect reinfibulation, or carrying out the FGM again.  An investigation by the hospital after Dharmasena himself raised concerns over his actions recommended further training and a "period of a reflection".  It was also, fatefully, referred to the Metropolitan police.

Almost as soon as the prosecution was announced doctors responded anxiously, saying there was a world of difference between a repair being made during delivery of a baby and actual FGM.  Calls for it to be dropped were however ignored, and the judge during the trial also rejected 3 separate attempts by the defence for the case to be thrown out.  Even so, it took the jury little more than 30 minutes to decide Dharmasena was not guilty.

On the face of it, as the campaigning midwife Comfort Momoh commented, what Dharmasena did was against the law on FGM.  This was surely though a case with extenuating circumstances, which in itself shows how further training is needed for doctors, let alone other health workers and civil servants.  In the end the jury reached the correct decision and Dharmasena seems likely to be able to carry on as a doctor.  It should also though concentrate the minds of journalists over the power they have to affect policy, and just how easily it can lead to good people being made scapegoats.

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Monday, February 02, 2015 

Who's winning the campaign before the campaign?

Most of you are probably familiar with Betteridge's law of headlines, popularised by John Rentoul as questions to which the answer is no.  Today's Graun front page for instance asks "Are insects the new sushi?"  This not only follows Betteridge's law, it asks whether something is the new something, which again, can nearly always be responded to with no.  To cap it all, if you bother to look at the piece, something I wouldn't advise, you'll find it's one of the Graun's sponsored articles, or in another words an advertorial.  Marvellous.

Every so often though you get a headline which doesn't adhere to the rule.  These I humbly suggest can nearly always be categorised as questions to which the answer is who gives a fuck.  The BBC, bless them, ask "Who won the social media Super Bowl?"  Is this, as a species, what we have become?  Where it's not enough to not care about the result of the most overblown and wretched sports event of the entire calendar, you also have to not care about who won the battle on Twitter and Facebook?  The Graun for some reason sent out a push notification about the Super Bowl getting under way; unless the mind's playing tricks, I can't remember them doing the same for the World Cup final.

Perhaps it's not surprising when one of the bigger news stories of last week was girlfriend of tennis player swears.  And then, ho ho, she responded to it yesterday by wearing a sweatshirt with the old parental advisory logo you sometimes got on CDs on it.  Everyone laughed.  Then cried.

Much the same ought to have gone for the comments of a certain Stefano Pessina, who until yesterday 99.9% of the country had never heard of.  He is of course CEO of everyone's favourite crap shop, Boots, a chain that mystifyingly continues to exist in spite of it how it does precisely nothing better than its rivals.  Its continued existence is no doubt helped by its tax arrangements, for which it has been hammered in the past.  You might then have thought Pessina, who naturally resides in Monaco, would have considered the potential consequences of launching the first attributable salvo from a business leader against Labour of the election campaign.  Not that Pessina could so much as put his finger on which Labour policies would be a "catastrophe", as he put it, probably because they're so benign they wouldn't make a scrap of difference, it was the mere intervention of such a titan of industry that really had an impact.

Stupidly wealthy man in not wanting to potentially hand over more tax shocker!  Except, such is the incredible bias against Labour, much as there was an incredible bias against Scottish independence, the merest utterance of an entrepreneur or chief executive of a fairly large company demands that anyone so much as thinking of voting for Red Ed or Yes should mull it over again.  Labour fighting back against such idiocy, which anyone even remotely fairly minded would consider to be par for the course, becomes "LABOUR'S WAR ON BOOTS THE CHEMIST".  Yes, because Pessina is Boots, isn't he?  There's always a danger in a mass employer commenting on politics, not least when most of those employees are likely to be young, female and low paid, and look favourably on Labour's catastrophic utterances.  Still, George Osborne clearly thought it was a great idea, so we can no doubt expect this to be just the first in a stream of wannabe John Galts denouncing the opposition's socialism.

The whole bash Labour as if they were an unstoppable political juggernaut and not an incredibly pusillanimous wee beastie campaign has undoubtedly commenced.  This is completely expected, yet still instructive for what it's distracting attention from.  Labour's re-running the 1992 campaign, sighs a man who ran a disastrous campaign of his own, and might just have a conflict of interest due to his private health interests, a message taken up not just by the right-wing press, but also by Newsnight.  Matthew d'Anconservative in the Graun says Miliband is ever more solitary, and it's true in the past the Conservatives have tended to make up lost ground in the last few months before an election.  Only, for everything supposedly in Labour's favour, little things like a growing economy, low unemployment (relatively, with the figures hiding a multitude of sins) and now also low inflation would normally signal a victory for the incumbents.

Instead they're still neck and neck, reduced to cringeworthy stunts like promising a return to learning by rote for the kiddies, presumably alongside compulsory semolina pudding at lunchtime.  Cameron can't even work out if the education budget will remain protected if they win, unsurprising considering the "colossal" cuts needing to be made to be able to reach a surplus and reduce taxes as promised.  There was almost no comment on George Osborne's refusal to spell out anything in his interview with Evan Davis, while Andy Burnham's frankly superior altercation with Kirsty Wark received far more attention.  The focus isn't however on a party that hasn't won an election for 23 years, and which at the moment shows no signs of breaking that record, it's on the one fighting to return to office after a single term out of power.

Only another three months to go.  Where's that social media Super Bowl article when you need it?

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