Thursday, October 30, 2003

On the Tory party

Looked at objectively, solid progress was being made by the Tories under IDS' leadership. They'd gone from -20 to level pegging and better, in the opinion polls. They'd stopped fighting over Europe. They did well in the 2003 local elections, arguably better than any of the 3 major parties. At their conference they'd even presented a range of solid, well thought out policies on health, crime and education. On top of that, Labour's lost it's look of invulnerability -- the public no longer trusts the PM and the govt has actually looked vulnerable for the first time since it was elected. Thus it was looking as if the Tories might actually have turned a corner and be ready to come out fighting for the next general election.

So what happens? The knives come out and they remove their leader from office. Just when it appears they're on to something, just when the govt is faltering, they demonstrate to the electorate that theyre still preoccupied with their internal squabbles and to anyone wishing to lead them that they might as well herd cats for a living.

This is not to say that IDS was a stellar choice for leader, but he was doing the right things for the Tory party. Under his leadership the Tories were repositioning themselves, coming up with new ideas for governing the country, inching their way to producing a coherent alternative to Labour, to presenting themselves an alternative govt with a clear vision of what they're for and how they'll govern. He didn't have a great deal of charisma, but ultimately that matters less than having the right ideas. With practice, IDS may have overcome his problems in public speaking and moreover could have delegated his more capable public speakers to sell the message where it mattered. Besides people may well be fed up with the smooth speaking charisma of Blair and the lack of charisma might actually make people more inclined to trust IDS.

So where now for the Tories? ISTM their best bet is to unite quickly around a new leader and carry on with the strategy IDS set out. This will probably still see the party set back effectively 6 months whilst people get used to the new leader but is the best option. Spending a month or two with an actual contest is likely simply to reinforce the impression of a party still obsessed with internal factional fighting. But which leader? Elect Ken Clarke and watch as Blair calls a Euro referendum in order to see the Tories implode. Michael Howard is looking likely, but his public image in the last Tory govt was hardly positive and moreover he presided over the attacks on civil liberties that opened the door for Labour to do even worse. Portillo does not seem to want the job. As for any other candidates, they're mostly unknown quantities, which may be a good thing or a bad thing.

At any rate this is a crucial period for the Tories, it may make the difference between being returned to power some day and going the way of the old Liberal Party.

Sunday, October 12, 2003

ID cards dropped from Queen's speech?

I spotted this on White Rose. According to the Observer Downing Street is to dump plans for ID cards, apparently because it would "close to useless" for fighting terrorism a point that has been made by opponents of the cards all along. Indeed the Observer report makes some very familiar points:

The move comes after a new report revealed that there are serious concerns at the Home Office that the scheme would be dogged by security and cost problems and that its introduction would do little to help the war on terrorism. Such arguments were a central part of the Government's case for ID cards. Blunkett also said that it would mean only those entitled to do so would be able to use public services.

Critics point out that it is already possible to check National Insurance numbers or passports of people who use the NHS without the need for a new form of identification which could cost each person £40 under a compulsory purchase scheme.

The report also says that legitimate British citizens trying to use their ID card for public services such as a visit to their GP or to book a place in their local school could be barred because of high 'false reject' rates of ID cards.

If the govt really is dropping this it is good news, though I wouldn't be surprised to see them return to the agenda later.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

The Tory conference

One of the depressing aspects of British politics at the moment is the fact that the opposition parties seem to be rather hopeless, thus ensuring that Labour can do what it likes, and reducing the opportunities for sold criticism and scrutiny of legislation. So I've taken some interest in the Tory party conference to see if there are any signs that they might be turning the corner and beginning to recover from the defeats of 1997 and 2001.

It seems to me that on the policy front, they do have some bold ideas and are well placed to take the govt on if they sort out their other problems. Not that everything they've announced has made sense. But 3 initiatives in particular are intriguing.

The idea of making police forces accountable to local communities via an elected sheriff is a bold decentralist move which reduces the power of the central state and helps to ensure the police will be the servant of the people as they should be.

School passports, whereby parents can choose which school to send their kids to, and the school chosen receives the money, seems to me a good way of putting power into parents' hands and using market forces to improve school standards. Combined with less of the stalinist use of targets and directives to control schools from the centre, this should lead to steady improvement in school standards over the long run.

Finally the patient passports look set to ensure a similar power for users of the NHS.

Of course there are details to work out with the above policies, but a clear theme is emerging of decentralising power to communities and individuals in the public service, which IMHO is all for the good.

However the Tories still seem to be bedevilled by infighting, conflicting signals (promising to cut taxes, whilst promising pension increases and 40000 police officers) and their leader's inability so far to articulate a coherent message for the electorate and otherwise hold the govt to account.

Also I would like to see a commitment to restore the civil liberties trashed by the current govt, e.g. a commitment to restore jury trial should the govt's criminal justice bill get through parliament, a commitment to ensure effective oversite of the powers of surveillance exercised by various govt agencies alongside the means to ensure accountability on the part of those agencies' use of those powers.

The Tories often talk about promoting individual freedom, if they're serious they should promise a restoration of civil liberties alongside the reduction of centralised state power.

Friday, October 03, 2003

On the spot fines for parents of kids off school.

The BBC reports that the govt plans to introduce on the spot fines of £25 to £100 pounds to parents when found with their kids out of school without the school's permission. The fines can be imposed by head teachers, council officers or the police. The fines are as follows:

  • £25 - Parent agrees absence unauthorised and pays in 14 days

  • £50 - Parent does not agree absence was unauthorised and pays in 14 days

  • £50 - Parent agrees absence was unauthorised and pays in 28 days

  • £100 - Parent does not agree absence was unauthorised and pays in 28 days

Note that disputing that the absence was unauthorised will double the initial fine. This proposal would thus see parents fined if, for example, the school failed to record the authorisation or, worse, if a head teacher or police officers was abusing his or her powers. The cost of going to court to challenge these fines would likely be more than the fines themselves, leaving the imposition of fines open to abuse.

657 days in prison without charge or trial.

Just to remind people that when the British parliament passed the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, the govt obtained the power to detain foreign nationals resident in Britain if the Home Secretary signed a certificate saying they were "suspected international terrorists". Liberty have been campaigning on this and point out that (as of this writing) there are several detainees who've spent a total of 657 days, 1 hour and 53 mins in prison under this legislation. Note that:

  • appeals cannot be made to normal British courts -- a special committee, the Special Immigration Appeals Committee, is in place instead operating under different procedures, thus the normal protection of the law is not afforded to these detainees. Proceedings of this committee can take place in the absence of the detainee, the detainee's lawyers, or both. Evidence can be given in the absence of the detainee and/or his lawyers. The reasons for decisions can be withheld.

  • No other European state has felt it necessary to introduce such powers to combat terrorism.

  • The detainees can be denied access to lawyers and families and have been denied such access for long periods.

This document from Liberty discusses Britain's anti-terror laws more generally and contains considerable detail on the internment measures. CAMPACC have a web page on the ATCS Act here. My own writings on Britain's anti-terror laws can be found on Magna Carta Plus.

Finally, I should mention that on uk.politics.misc Alan Goss has been highlighting this issue periodically.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

ID cards: It looks as if they're serious...

Several reports appeared over the period I was in the US regarding ID cards. Taiwan has finished rolling out 22 million Java-based ID cards according to White Rose, and Thailand is planning a similar card for its 61 million citizens. Scottish secondary school pupils are to be issued an ID card according to a Scotland on Sunday report (thanks again to White Rose for highlighting this). Tony Blair apparently thinks ID cards might protect civil liberties, whilst the Guardian reports that plans are afoot to create a unified population database.

All this suggests the govt are serious about introducing ID cards, despite some reports of splits in the cabinet over the issue. Clearly the practical problems that could affect ID cards can be overcome as Taiwan has shown. The govt's own consultation suggests making driving licences and passports double as ID cards, enabling the roll-out to exploit the renewal and updating of these documents that already occurs, with a new ID-card being issued to those without. Such a process would minimise the costs associated with issuing the ID cards, although creating the unified population database will not be trivial. I will not be surprised to see a bill in the forthcoming Queen's Speech.

I don't believe for a minute they'll have any real impact on crime, terrorism, benefit fraud, illegal immigration or any other excuse the govt has for introducing them. There's no evidence that those countries who have ID cards have had any more success at dealing with such problems than those who don't. Even if the cards are difficult to forge, people could get hold of them by forging the documents needed to obtain them. Such a large database will contain numerous errors, and will also be a target for organised criminals wishing to extract or modify the database for their own purposes. Illegal immigrants could simply arrive without contacting the authorities, work on the black market and fraudulently obtain the cards by forging the documentation to apply for them. The vast bulk of benefit fraud comes from misdeclared circumstances, not false IDs.

Those opposed to this might like to visit this site.

Daleks beware...

...Dr Who is set to return to BBC TV by 2005, according to this Guardian report. Yes I admit it, I am a fan of the series. I hope they do a good job of it, I'm glad the people involved seem to be an entirely new team -- I feel one reason the show died in the 1980s was it got stuck in a rut. I hope the new series does for Dr Who what Star Trek: The Next Generation did for Star Trek -- update a classic sci-fi show for a new era, retaining the essentials of the original but carving a new furrow all of its own. Just a few requests: No wobbly sets, give Paul McGann a second chance (the TV movie was cheesy, but he played the role well nevertheless), don't dwell on the past, be original and aim for solid scifi drama.

I guess that's one for the "anything else that takes my interest" section!

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