Thursday, December 30, 2004

Tsunami death toll reported at over 120,000

Reuters have reported the latest death toll figures for the Tsunami:

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (Reuters) - The death toll in the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster has soared above 120,000 as millions scramble for food and fresh water and thousands more flee in panic to high ground on rumours of new waves.

Aid agencies warned on Thursday that many more, from Indonesia to Sri Lanka, could die in epidemics if shattered communications and transport hampered what may prove history's biggest relief operation.

Rescue workers pressed on into isolated villages shattered by a disaster that could yet eclipse a cyclone that struck Bangladesh in 1991, killing 138,000 people.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi called for an emergency meeting of the Group of Eight so that the rich nations club could discuss aid and possible debt reduction following "the worst cataclysm of the modern era".

The total toll had shot up more than 50 percent in a day with still no clear picture of conditions in some isolated islands and villages around India and Indonesia.

So it seems the death toll will probably rise even further. Serious questions must be asked as to whether and how the death toll could have been avoided via e.g. an early warning system. In the meantime the aid efforts continue.

Concerned British readers are directed to the Disasters Emergency Committee for making donations, in addition to the organisations I referred to in an earlier article.

BT reported to have doubts over bidding for ID cards contracts...

The Register reports that British Telecom is having doubts over whether to apply for ID card related contracts:

British Telecom may not bid for ID card contracts because of concern that its involvement would make it seem like a 'Big Brother' company in the eyes of the public. According to This is London, BT has been talking to consultants and public bodies, including Liberty, in order to gauge how close involvement with the ID scheme would be perceived.
Later the article suggests a further reason why BT might have doubts:
BT is currently claiming that it hasn't yet decided whether or not to bid, but any hesitation may not stem entirely from the Big Brother factor. The company is already involved in the the NHS National Programme for IT, and it might view that as enough headaches for the moment. Nor are large UK Government IT contracts viewed by industry with undiluted enthusiasm these days. Bad planning and moving goalposts can make project failure a near certainty, and it's generally the contractor that ends up being blamed. Add the Government's determination to push down prices to this and you might reckon winning a UK Government contract boiled down to very publicly trashing your own reputation while tearing up five pound notes.
Will the ID card scheme end up as a government white elephant?

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Asia earthquake

With a death toll now reported at over 50,000, the Asia earthquake and it's accompanying tsunami must surely count as one of the worst disasters in human history. It is a reminder that for all our technological prowess, nature is still a force to be reckoned with.

I hope that this incident spurs the development of early warning systems for tsunamis so that in future the awful death toll we've seen with this quake can be averted.

For the moment though, sending aid is the best we can do, a list of British charities involved in the effort can be found here.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Churchill on Xmas (circa 1941)

The Auroran Sunset quotes Churchill on Xmas:

quote of the day: something christmasy from churchill
Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.
And so, in God's mercy, a happy Christmas to you all."

--winston churchill, dec. 24th, 1941
Sentiments which I can only echo.

Season's Greetings!

Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 23, 2004

The govt's hostility to Freedom of Information shows again

The BBC is reporting that civil servants have stepped up the shredding of official documents, ahead of the Freedom of Information Act coming into force:

From a series of parliamentary answers Dr Julian Lewis, the Conservative spokesman for the Cabinet Office, says he has discovered a huge acceleration in shredding.

The Department of Work and Pensions destroyed nearly 37,000 files last year - up 22,000 on four years ago when the Act was passed.

The number of files destroyed by the Ministry of Defence and the departments of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Trade and Industry has also risen dramatically.

Dr Lewis has called for an investigation by the information commissioner Richard Thomas

This follows on from the recent reports that the govt has ordered internal emails more than 3 months old to be deleted.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Michael Howard on ID cards & further ID related links

I was going to do a critique of Michael Howard's piece on ID cards in the Telegraph.However, Stephen Robinson writing in the Telegraph, has done such a good job I decided it better to refer people to it instead:

If you like the idea of all this and can afford the £400 or so it will cost your extended family (the Tories could have said), then vote Labour and help Charles Clarke, the new Home Secretary, get one over all those he accuses of "liberal woolly thinking". On the other hand, if you are sceptical of grandiose government in general, and of ID cards in particular, the Tories might have said, then vote for us.

Mr Howard might have added that he would take the billions that Labour will spend on this scheme, and use it to improve border controls, to put more police on the streets, and bolster the security services.

He might have pointed out that we face a real and immediate terrorist threat and that ID cards will not be fully operational for at least seven years, even assuming the technology works. The Tories might have remarked on how America's Department of Homeland Security, no slouchers in the war on terror, have no plans for a national ID card, but prefer to concentrate their efforts on border control and intelligence.

They might have mentioned that the real terrorist threat we face might actually come from within the pool of 26 million short-term visitors to British ports and airports every year, and that, if none of these foreigners needs an ID card, then why should your elderly parents in Cheltenham?

The Tories might, heaven forbid, have said they would not raise or spend the billions the ID scheme would cost because Conservatives believe in small government and want to cut taxes, not raise them.

<>But Mr Howard could not bear the thought of looking "weak on terror", so preferred to make his front-bench team seem ridiculous yesterday in forcing them to fall in line behind a scheme that will cost billions, make us no safer and ultimately prove highly unpopular. He has deprived millions of people like me with an innate scepticism towards government of a real choice next year. At the very moment when one senses that voters are growing uneasy at the controlling instincts of New Labour, the Tory front bench has endorsed Big Government on stilts. (Emphasis added)
Also, a few more critiques of Charles Clarke's defence of ID cards have appeared. The ever excellent has produced a good critique here.

Henry Porter also provides a good critique in Friday 17th's edition of the Guardian. A particularly good passage reads:
To be anonymous, to go privately, to move residence without telling the authorities is a fundamental liberty which is about to be taken from us. People may not choose to exercise this entitlement to privacy, or see the point of it, but once it's gone and a vast database is built, eventually to be accessed by every tentacle of the government machine, we will never be able to claw it back. We are about to surrender a right which is precious, rare even in western democracies, and profoundly emblematic of our culture and civilisation.
A further point Porter raises is that we currently have many ways of identifying ourselves if we wish. The point of the ID card is for the government to identify us.

That is why the ID cards bill contains e.g. £1000 fines for failing to notify the govt of a change of address and other similarly draconian requirements on people to fill forms in correctly. It is also why there will be an audit trail recording every use of the card, enabling the government to monitor all our lives in incredible detail, as stated in my earlier article. have also produced a clause by clause analysis of the ID cards bill that is well worth reading. has become an immensely useful resource on all things civil liberties, privacy and surveillance related.

Govt keeps legal advice re: ID cards secret

In line with its (lack of) commitment to freedom of information, the government has decided to keep the legal advice it received on whether the ID cards bill conforms to the European Convention on Human Rights secret. According to The Register:

This line, however, merely confirms the Government's shameless approach to human rights in its legislation. One of the early moves of the Blair Government was to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into UK legislation in the Human Rights Act. This one might suppose would mean that the UK Government would be far more careful about human rights in its legislation, but instead of this it tends to be used as a kind of cloaking device. Instead of being accompanied by detailed assessments of human rights impact, UK legislation now tends to have just a one liner saying 'the provisions of this legislation are compatible with the European convention of human rights.' So, as Browne put it today, the Cabinet has advice on the impact prepared for it, and nobody else needs to see the advice because the legislation has been deemed to be compatible by the Cabinet. Trust us.
Thus in one fell swoop this illustrates both the weaknesses of the human rights/freedom of information legislation and the attitudes of this government towards privacy, openness, freedom of information and human rights. I.e. they know best and are quite happy to keep secrets about the legislation that will open up our lives to their scrutiny at the expense of our privacy and freedom.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Charles Clarke's woolly defence of the govt's ID cards

Charles Clarke has written an article in The Times defending the govt's plans for identity cards. He claims that ID cards will prevent benefit fraud and help in the "War on Terror". However his claims do not stand up to scrutiny.

Take for example benefit fraud. He states:

Moreover, their help in tackling fraud will save tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. Some £50 million a year is claimed illegally from the benefits systems using false identities. This money can be far better spent improving schools and hospitals and fighting crime and antisocial behaviour.
However according to the govt's own regulatory impact assessment (see clause 19):
The current best estimate is that the additional running costs of the new Agency to issue ID cards on a wider basis will be £85m pa when averaged over a ten year period. A further £50m pa is the estimate for the average cost over ten years of the verification service but this would not fall on the individual card holder.
Thus the system is already projected at costing more than twice as much as could possibly be saved from benefit fraud on the govt's own figures!

Later on, Clarke accuses critics of ID cards for woolly liberal thinking, and claims there will be no real cost in civil liberties:
I believe that some critics of our proposals are guilty of liberal woolly thinking and spreading false fears when they wrongly claim that ID cards will erode our civil liberties, will revisit 1984, usher in the “Big Brother” society, or establish some kind of totalitarian police state. Those kinds of nightmare will be no more true of ID cards, when they are introduced, than they have been for the spread of cash and credit cards, driving licences, passports, work security passes and any number of the other current forms of ID that most of us now carry.
This argument is quite flawed. The forms of ID we now carry are either entirely voluntary (e.g credit cards, ATM cards, loyalty cards) or linked to and limited to very specific purposes (e.g. driving licences, passports). One is not even required to carry any of them, and one needn't own any of them if one doesn't wish to drive or travel abroad. None of them are universal.

However the main points missed in the above argument are that:
  • On the govt's current plans, the ID cards would become a licence to live, revokable at the touch of button. Once the cards become compulsory the govt plans for them to be required for getting a job, accessing government services and accessing benefits. It is highly likely they'll also become necessary for opening bank accounts, taking out mortgages, getting credit cards and making major transactions. Clarke's article even suggests they might be used for renting videos. With so much of daily life tied to these cards, it will be impossible or at least very difficult to live without one. And given that they'll be tied to a central database with one entry per person, they could be rendered useless at the touch of a button by govt officials either deleting or flagging the database entry. This isn't an identity card, this is an internal passport.
  • According to the ID cards bill, the database entries will record all accesses for auditing purposes, thus every time you or your card is checked against the corresponding database entry, this fact will be recorded. Thus if a card check is required for accessing e.g. medical or educational services, this fact will be recorded in the database. Thus the ID card system will enable detailed recording of your everyday activities, more comprehensive than any store's loyalty card and compulsory to boot.
  • The ID card will facilitate all sorts of surveillance activity. If every resident has one by law, then the police merely need to ask for identification when people leave, e.g. political or religious meetings, protests, pubs, or any venue. Although carrying one won't be compulsory, the bulk of the law abiding population is likely (a) to carry it (because it is needed for so many things) (b) hand it over. And there's nothing to stop a future govt making it compulsory to carry.
It thus seems clear to me that the proposed system will form a powerful tool for social control and has very little to do with eliminating benefit fraud. However Clarke's claims that it will be useful for fighting terrorism, will help with identity fraud, and will even help prevent such tragedies as the death of the cocklers in Morecambe Bay, remain:
For example, a secure identity system will help to prevent terrorist activity, more than a third of which makes use of false identities. It will make it far easier to address the vile trafficking in vulnerable human beings that ends in the tragedies of Morecambe Bay, exploitative near-slave labour or vile forced prostitution. It will reduce identity fraud, which now costs the UK more than £1.3 billion every year.

Taking the £1.3 billion figure first. This figure comes from a report on identity fraud produced by the government a few years ago (see Annex B for the figures). However the figures contributing to this are not reliable, often included items that identity cards would do nothing to fight and were often based on guesswork. For example the figure was compiled, in part, on the assumption that 10% of VAT fraud (£215m out of £2.15billion) was due to identity fraud. The figures for credit card fraud (£370m) included card not present fraud e.g. for internet payments or payments over the phone. ID cards would have no impact on this. Why is the govt using such a dodgy figure to argue for a flagship piece of legislation?

As for the Morecambe Bay cocklers they were working illegally and off the books for companies that did not have scruples about employing illegal immigrants trafficked in from outside the country. How likely is it that such companies would ensure all their employees had ID cards? How likely is it that illegal workers would contact the authorities to register? The problem here was a lack of policing of employment/immigration, not a lack of identity cards. Unless the policing of these areas is increased the identity cards will make no difference.

Finally to the terrorists using multiple identities, it would appear that on Clarke's figures most terrorists (about two thirds of them) do not do so and therefore would not be affected by identity cards. Still disrupting the activities of the remaining third would be quite useful. But will the identity cards do this?

It is here that the discussion has to get down to some technical issues and the hurdles the identity cards system faces. The government is relying on biometric scans such as fingerprints and iris scans to prevent multiple identities being registered on the system for the same person. So, for example, when you enroll on the system your biometric scans will be compared with those already on the system to try and ensure you only get one identity on the system. Clearly allowing multiple identities will seriously undermine the ability of the system to deal with any of the problems above.

And this is where things fall down. Biometric scans are scans of living systems (people!) and multiple scans of the same part of the same person will not be identical. Moreover when comparing biometric scans one looks for closeness of match. Thus when deciding whether two scans match, one has to decide where to draw the line -- how close a match is good enough. Thus each biometric has associated with it a false match rate (the chance of two scans from different people matching) and false nomatch rate (the chance of two scans from the same person not matching). These typically have to be balanced off against each other to find a happy mean.

Now suppose you have a false match rate for a biometric of say 1 in a billion (higher than any I've seen claimed for existing biometrics -- typical claims range from 1 in 10000 to 1 in a few million). Note that this must include the possibility of operator error in using the machines, faulty machines and software errors. Suppose further that the database already has 20 million entries in it. There will be almost a 2% chance that a false match occurs. I.e. 1 in 50 people will register a false match, against a database of 20 million. And this figure will grow with each addition. The govt's plans would involves millions of people registering per year. For each million new people added, one can expect 20,000 (and growing) false matches on a database of 20 million people. Any system for dealing with these false matches and trying to ensure they're not attempts to fool the system into taking multiple identities are likely thus to get overwhelmed, they'll need to deal with 10s of thousands of false positives.

To add further doubt, this is a large IT system, one of the largest the govt will ever have attempted to produce. It's record with such systems (criminal records bureau, passport office, etc) is atrocious. Even the Police National Computer is shot full of errors!

As if that weren't enough, both fingerprints and iris scans have been shown to be forgeable. For example, fingerprints have been forged from prints left on a glass. And Iris scanners have been fooled by someone looking through a picture of an Iris with a hole cut out where the pupil lies. Admittedly the latter technique wouldn't be practical in most situations, but the lack of sophistication of the technique suggests, e.g. contact lenses printed with an Iris might actually fool the scanners.

At any rate, I'd expect those wishing to fool the system to use the long roll out to study the system and the scanners intently for weaknesses. Given government incompetence, the technical limitations of biometrics and the sheer ambition of what the govt's attempting, it seems to me quite clear that it'll be lucky if it makes any positive impact on fighting identity fraud or any other problem the govt has cited at all.

Does this mean we have nothing to worry about? Not quite. Most law abiding people will cooperate with the system, and the system may well thus "work" for this section of the population. Thus law abiding people will find themselves subjected to a licence to live, intrusive surveillance and a bureacracy capable of meddling in just about every area their lives thanks to the card. The criminals and terrorists won't.

The cards should be abandoned as a waste of resources from an anti-crime/anti-terrorism/anti-benefit fraud point of view and as a serious erosion of privacy and individual freedom otherwise.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Govt orders destruction of emails

According to this report in the Scotsman newspaper, the government has ordered that all government emails more than 3 months old be destroyed:

The Cabinet Office, effectively the Prime Minister’s department, says messages more than three months old must be wiped by Monday, The Times revealed.

The deadline comes just 11 days before the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act comes into force.

Conservative leader Michael Howard has written to Mr Blair demanding an explanation.

“There are reports that your Government is engaged on a massive email destruction binge in order to get round the law which you yourself passed,” he wrote.

“How hypocritical can you get ? What is your Government trying to hide ?

“The public are entitled to a clear and simple explanation as to what is going on.”

Many officials, including those in the PM’s Strategy Unit and the offices of Alan Milburn and Cabinet Secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull, receive around 100 emails a day.

The Cabinet Office’s 2,000 staff have been told to print and file emails that should be disclosed but there will be no supervision.
(Emphasis added)
Such is the government's commitment to freedom of information. But then anyone who reads the Freedom of Information Act would soon realise the government's commitment was weak -- the Act sets out a right of access to information held by the government and then produce a list of exemptions so broad as to effectively nullify that right.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Incredible fun

A couple of nights ago I went to see The Incredibles at the cinema. What can I say but that this is funniest, most enjoyable movie I've seen in ages.

Pixer have done it again and produced an animated masterpiece, with great characters, incredible special effects, engaging storyline and wonderful gags.

The basic plot is that a retired super-hero couple, Mr Incredible and Elastigirl, come out of retirement, along with their kids, to battle an evil enemy. However that is a truly inadequate description of a move that is quite simply great fun to watch and forms a wonderful homage to various genres such as Bond movies, super hero movies and action movies generally.

The heart of the movie is the wonderful contrast between the Parr family, as a modern semi-dysfunctional family complete with a shy highly self-conscious teenage daughter, an overworked mum, a father frustrated by his day job plus a wayward son getting into trouble at school, and their superhero alter egos with their special powers and the desire to do good and battle evil.

Numerous hilarious gags are built around this contrast and around the heroes' use of their powers. Especially good are the scenes where the kids are finally allowed to use their powers to the full and find out what they're capable of. And the characters developed through the film as they battle with and confront their hangups -- a nice parallel with their battles with the evil enemy "Syndrome".

Mixed in with all this we have a designer of super hero costumes who's a brilliant parody of a fashion designer, a Bond-esque base inside a volcanic Island which becomes the setting for much of the action and of course the sort of stunning computer animation that is Pixar's trademark. There's even a theme mixed in about the ill effects of the culture of compensation and litigation, though it's not allowed to stand in the way of the sheer fun of this movie.

An enjoyable romp from beginning to end. I recommend you take your kids (if you have any), your partner or your friends to see it. Just be careful as you might crack your ribs laughing!

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Reminder: the lack of safeguards in the Civil Contingencies Act (updated)

Further to the Civil Contingencies Act getting Royal Assent, and in response to a reader's request, I figured a reminder of the lack of safeguards in this legislation is needed.

Note that since I posted the original article, it has come to my attention that the Bill was amended so that the Human Rights Act 1998 is protected from emergency regulations. I've updated this article to reflect this.

The Act enables any cabinet minister or govt whip to declare an emergency orally. Under emergency regulations, the minister/whip concerned can make "provision of any kind that could be made by Act of Parliament or by the exercise of the Royal Prerogative" [Section 22(3)].

Without any limitations, this is absolute power. The main limitations provided in the Bill are that:

  • regulations have to be approved by Parliament within 7 days (but this does not stop new regulations being issued...),
  • that the state of emergency can only last 30 days without
    parliamentary approval (but this does not stop a new emergency being declared...),
  • conscription to the military is prohibited (but the govt can confer any function on anyone and require them to carry it out)
  • any new offences created by regulations can carry a maximum of 3 months imprisonment (but the govt can make regulations requiring movement to and prohibiting movement from a specified place),
  • strikes and other industrial action may not be prohibited (but the govt can make regulations requiring movement to and/or from a specified place and can confer any function on people and require them to carry it out),
  • regulations cannot alter criminal procedure (but the govt has the power to confer jurisdiction on unspecified courts and tribunals and the power to alter any legislation whatsoever aside from the Civil Contingencies Act(CCA) itself and the Human Rights Act(HRA) 1998).
So what of the HRA 1998, doesn't it prevent the government exercising absolute power under the CCA 2004? The answer is no for 2 reasons:
  • Firstly, section 14 of the HRA enables derogations from the European Convention on Human Rights, and indeed we already derogate from the right to a fair trial under legislation passed after 9/11, to enable foreign nationals to be detained indefinitely without trial. This was done by declaring an ongoing public emergency. As the Edge of England's Sword blog notes, it is likely that the grounds used to invoke the CCA could be used to invoke a derogation from any awkward rights.
  • Secondly, many of the rights are either nullified or weakened in the event of an emergency, thus invoking an emergency reduces the rights available. Amongst those affected are the rights against slavery and forced labour (exempt is service/work exacted in an emergency) and the rights to privacy, freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of protest all of which are heavily qualified with respect to such things as national security, public safety and public morals.
Thus the provisions of the CCA and the HRA can combine to nullify the protections the ECHR would normally provide and the govt can still thus exercise absolute power under this legislation.

As I stated in an earlier blog article:

``It is a common pattern of this Bill that any safeguard that is
proposed in one section can be subverted or undone in another,...''

``...the Bill enables the government to rule by decree and cut
Parliament out of the process, with no practical limits on its power.

And as an earlier article demonstrated, a Minister need merely claim that in his opinion an emergency is about to occur and existing legislation might not be sufficient to deal with it. And there are no penalties for misuing the powers in the bill.''
Isn't it comforting to know that at a moment's notice our govt, or any cabinet minister or govt whip, can acquire absolute legal power in the event of an "emergency"?

Isn't it odd that the mainstream media have failed to cover the passing of this legislation by Parliament and instead give more airtime/column inches to Band Aid 20 and the Fox Hunting Bill?

Friday, November 19, 2004

Spy Blog: Civil Contingencies Act 2004 gets Royal Assent

Blair's enabling Act is now law. In fact it was so as of yesterday.'s Blog reports that the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (formerly the Civil Contingencies Bill) has received royal assent after passing through Parliament. Yet the mainstream media have given scant coverage to this, instead focussing on such things as Band Aid 20 and the anti-fox hunting legislation.

Anyway, we are now in a position where, legally speaking, all a cabinet minister or govt whip has to do to acquire pretty much absolute power, is to state that an emergency is about to occur, that existing legislation might not be sufficient to tackle it and they need to enact emergency regulations to deal with it. At this point they can then cut Parliament completely out of the loop.

Comforting thought eh?

Sunday, November 14, 2004

No2ID e-Petition and Scottish website

I've been meaning to blog these two items for a while. No2ID an umbrella group campaigning against ID cards have a petition online here. This will be sent to the govt in time for the Queen's Speech on the 23rd November. The closing date for signing up is the 19th November.

There is now also a website for No2ID in Scotland. This is run by Trevor Mendham of Big Blunkett fame.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Insane political correctness: School told to drop its 'offensive' saint's name

The Telegraph reports that a Church of England school has been told to drop its 'offensive' saint's name by the Lib Dem controlled council of Islington, despite the fact that parents, teachers and governers all want the name to be retained.

Apparently this council thinks that having the word "Saint" in the name of the school would be offensive to other religions.

What next? Banning/renaming the TV program "The Saint" for the same reason?!

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Lancet study claims 100,000 extra deaths due to Iraq war: but is it flawed?

The Lancet (free registration required) has published a study of mortality in Iraq before and after the 2003 invasion. This study concluded that 100,000 extra deaths had occurred, mainly due to the violence, a figure that has been widely reported in the media.

However it seems to me the study is seriously flawed.

Take the reported excess of deaths. They estimate roughly 98,000 excess deaths in the post war period. But the 95% confidence interval for this estimate is 8,000 to 194,000 deaths! (See page 5, column 2, second paragraph). That is a huge level of uncertainty. The range of this confidence interval is 186,000, almost twice the stated estimate itself. The actual number of excess deaths could be as low as 8,000, or as high as 194,000, and still be consistent with this study!

Then there is the methodology (from page 2, column 1, second paragraph):

``We obtained January, 2003, population estimates for
each of Iraq’s 18 Governorates from the Ministry of
Health. No attempt was made to adjust these numbers
for recent displacement or immigration.''

Thus we have them using pre war data provided by Saddam Hussein's government, hardly the most trustworthy source, and no attempt to assess whether there was any migration between January and the time of the study.

Moreover, they interviewed 988 households and asked them about deaths. However they only attempted to corroborate the reported number of deaths by asking for a death certificate in 78 households, and only actually obtained a death certificate in 63 of the households. In the vast bulk of households there was no corroboration of the reported deaths. Given that this a population that lived under tyranny for decades and may be wary about what they tell people lest it gets them into trouble, and people may also lie if they have strong (pro or anti) views/feelings about the occupation, the failure to verify the bulk of these deaths is yet another source of error.

Then there is the method of sampling used. They used cluster sampling. According to this critique of the article, this can exaggerate figures if there is a skewed distribution of deaths. Yet most of the violence is concentrated in a few areas such as the so-called "Sunni triangle". Several clusters fell inside the Sunni triangle.

Returning to the pre-war estimates of mortality, the study gives a figure of 29 deaths per 1000 live births for infant mortality, rising to 57 deaths per 1000 births for infant morality. Yet earlier studies of infant mortality in Iraq give higher pre-war levels than this. For example, UNICEF reported a 1999 figure of 108 deaths per 1000 live births for infant mortality, implying that if the study is correct, the post war infant mortality rate is still an improvement on 5 years ago, despite the invasion and continuing violence, damaged infrastructure, etc.

An estimate for 2002, from the CIA world factbook puts the infant mortality rate at 57.1 per 1000 live births, about the same as the post war infant mortality the Lancet study gives. My point here is that the Lancet study appears to have used an optimistic estimate of the pre war Iraqi infant mortality rate. Certainly there's no obvious reason why the infant mortality rate in Iraq would have dropped sharply (from 57 per 1000 down to 29 per 1000) between 2002 and Jan 2003, whilst the country was still under sanctions.

In conclusion, it seems to me this study is pretty worthless. Even taken at face value, the reported figures include such a high degree of uncertainty as to be worthless.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

EU court ends protection of press sources.

As noted by both Samizdata and the EU referendum blog, the Telegraph has reported a disturbing development in EU law, whereby the European Court has made a ruling that will seriously undermine investigative journalism.

The case concerns Hans-Martin Tillack, a journalist whose articles for Germany's Stern magazine have exposed fraud and corruption in the EU, relying on inside testimony. Tillack's computer, address books, telephone records and 1000 pages of notes were obtained by the European Commission, after being seized by Belgian police acting on EU instructions. By perusing the information held by these, the Commission could find out who Mr Tillack's sources were.

Mr Tillack had been arrested in March and held incommunicado for 10 hours, for allegedly bribing an official to obtain internal EU documents. However, according to the Telegraph, leaked EU anti-fraud office documents have since shown the allegation was concocted by two European Commission spokesmen.

Mr Tillack filed a lawsuit at the European Court, backed by the International Federation of Journalists to block commission access to his records on the grounds that it was a flagrant violation of European Convention law for press protection, established over decades.

However the European Court has ruled against Mr Tillack on the grounds that the case was a strictly Belgian matter! Yet the request for the arrest was made by the EU and the European Commission had been shown to have orchestrated the raid from the start.

The bottom line is that the European Court has backed the European Commission in a blatant attempt to seize a journalist's documents in order to find out their sources. For anyone else considering investigating or exposing corruption in the European Commission, or elsewhere in the EU, this is a rather chilling development.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Chip implants

The day when we all have chips implanted under our skin to identify ourselves looks like it is drawing ever closer. The Telegraph reports that implanted medical record chips 'will save lives globally':

The chip is inserted under the skin of a person's upper arm in a 20-minute procedure costing £100. Each device has an identification number, which allows doctors to access individual patient information on centrally stored medical records.

Don Mackechnie, the chairman of the British Medical Association's Accident and Emergency committee, and a consultant at the Rochdale Infirmary, said: "Such a device could prove very useful in a situation where we have an unconscious patient with an unknown medical history. It could reveal serious allergies to medicines, for example."

He said, however, that he had some concerns about the devices. "We would need to see how much it cost to buy the equipment needed to reed the devices," he said.

"There's also the issue of privacy and who would be able to access the information and how. In other words, we need to see what the practicalities will be.

I guess by the time e.g. 80% of the population have these, governments will start making them mandatory.

How the Civil Contingencies Bill might be used

Discussion of this Bill continues in the blogosphere. Over at Airstrip One, Philip Chaston has offered us this scenario for its usage:

An 'emergency' is declared by the government. Who knows what the catalyst may be? It could vary from an outbreak of foot and mouth to a mega-terrorist attack on the United States of America or another European country. The definition of emergency within the Civil Contingencies Bill is so vague that it could be stretched to cover a terrorist attack in a foreign country, and the consequences of any perceived threat on our own shores. My own assumption is that it would have to be an NBC attack. Nothing less could do for the government's subsequent actions.

Following this, a nationwide emergency is declared and all democratic assemblies are prorogued. The Government pushes through a number of authoritarian measures by regulation including a national ID scheme and, possibly, the reintroduction of a limited draft. In oredr to show solidarity with fellow European Union Member States, the government also signs up to the Euro and the Constitution, promising a democratic vote once the national state of emergency has ended.

Regulatory changes include the creation of a list system for parties, the use of postal, mobile and electronic voting, and the prohibition of 'extremists' such as the British National Party and UKIP. Certain opinions and arguments deemed offensive are banned from the media or the public airwaves. After these regulatory changes, introduced as modernisation or democratisation, are embedded, the government calls another election, which Labour wins handsomely, having introduced a 'managed democracy'. This election is cited as a referendum on Europe and the ruling party declares that no further votes are required on membership within Europe.

Tying this in with the EU constitution is not something just plucked out of the air either. The EU constitution lists "civil protection" as one of the "coordinating" powers for the European authorities. Note that the bill enables the creation of arbitrary imprisonable offences and can delegate powers to anyone or confer jurisdiction on any court or tribunal.

The scenario above sounds plausible to me. Certainly, a nuclear, biological or chemical attack (NBC attack) in the US or the EU would engender enough fear, anxiety and panic for the government to declare an emergency with some credibility in the eyes of the public. Taking Britain into the Euro and the EU Constitution would fit with the aims of Tony Blair and many pro-EU politicians in all the major political parties. And the actions taken, whilst falling short of turning Britain into Nazi Germany or even East Germany, would turn it into a state where political views deemed offensive are repressed and elections are easily manipulated. And the possibility of invoking another emergency remains if too much opposition is generated by such actions and needs to be repressed.

A key question here is what if the scenario was modified in one crucial respect. Suppose the emergency is declared, ostensibly in anticipation of a NBC attack? Remember the Bill merely requires that a Minister thinks an emergency has occurred, is ocurring or is about to occur? Would the government get away with it?

If this Bill reaches the statute books in its present form, such questions will have real significance. Since the emergency powers can be invoked so easily and without any real scope for legal challenge, it follows that the main restraint on using this bill is down to what the government (believes it) can get away with.

One thus has to make tricky judgements about whether there'd be a large enough, powerful enough body of resistance, either within or without the UK, to stop the government, and to do so by force if necessary and whether the government is willing to tolerate certain consequences such as being regarded as a pariah state internationally or economic disruption caused by people and companies fleeing the country.

The need to make such judgements, and the gamble living in Britain thereby represents, are the consequences of giving the state a means of suspending democratic politics and assuming absolute power, however temporary the basis is meant to be. This bill provides such means.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Trackback added to blog

Courtesy of Haloscan, I've added trackback to this blog. Please feel free to make use of it when linking to articles in my blog.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

The Civil Contingencies Bill: Safeguards and the scope of emergency regulations

In this article, I shall concentrate on the powers given to Ministers via emergency regulations and on the effect of the safeguards that are in the bill. Already in my first article on this bill I described the powers in some detail.

The key point regarding the powers is that the emergency regulations permit any provision that can be made by an Act of Parliament or by Royal Prerogative.Without any constraint being put on this formulation, this would amount to absolute power. There are, however, some apparent safeguards in the Bill. I contend that these are ineffective and that Ministers will have absolute power under the Bill, despite these safeguards.

Section 23 details the main limitations of emergency regulations. The limitations specified are that (to summarise):

  1. The person making the regulations thinks the regulations are for preventing, controlling or mitigating an aspect or effect of the emergency for which the regulastions are being made and that the effect of the provision is in due proportion to that aspect or effect of the emergency.
  2. The regulations must specify the parts of the UK or regions in which they're to have effect.
  3. The regulations may not require or enable a person to be required to provide military service and may not prohibit or enable the prohibition of strikes or other industrial action.
  4. The regulations may not create an offence other than one of failing to comply with emergency regulations, disobeying an order made under emergency regulations or obstructing a person in the performance of a function under emergency regulations.
  5. The regulations may not create an offence other than one only triable before a magistrate's court (or in Scotland before a sheriff under summary procedure).
  6. The regulations may not create an offence punishable by more than 3 months in prison or a fine exceeding level 5 of the standard scale.
  7. The regulations may not alter procedure in relation to criminal proceedings.

Points 1 & 2 do not limit the power of the regulations in any way.

Point 3 seems significant in apparently preventing conscription or the banning of strikes. However given that Section 22 explicitly allows a regulation to require the performance of an unspecified function on someone, this would merely mean that the person could not be drafted into the Army. Carrying out a function involving pointing guns at people who disobey you need not involve being conscripted. Similarly the banning of strikes might be a limitation, but it is a deeply uncertain one given that emergency regulations can prohibit or require movement to or from a particular place, and can ban assemblies. I submit that any limitation of power due to point 3 is insignificant or nonexistent in practical terms.

Point 4, does not affect the power of the regulations at all and merely affirms the ability to make an offence of disobeying regulations.

Point 5 simply limits the offences to those that can be tried in a magistrate's court. Yet Section 22 explicitly allows jurisdiction to be placed on a court or other tribunal, thus ensuring that the normal system of courts can be by-passed for special courts set up for the purpose of administering emergency regulations.

Point 6 limits the scale of punishment for disobeying regulations. However since regulations can confiscate property without compensation or mandate indefinite detention in one place, I submit it is no real practical limitation on the power of the regulations.

Point 7 preserves criminal procedure but this only matters if a trial takes place. Given that regulations can require indefinite detention in a particular place, with disobedience carrying a 3 month sentence of imprisonment or fine, after which you could be put in indefinite detention again (on pain of 3 months imprisonment), again we have no real limitation.

There are some further safeguards in the bill.
  • Emergency regulations lapse after 30 days (Section 26). However this does not prevent new regulations being issued, and thus enabling permanent renewal of the regulations.
  • Where emergency regulations are issued by a senior Minister of the Crown, the regulations have to be accepted by both Houses of Parliament within 7 days or they lapse. Again this does not prevent new regulations being issued.The government can thus cut Parliament out of the loop by simply reissuing regulations every 7 days. They can thus bully or bribe Parliament via these regulations until Parliament agrees to e.g. make some set of the regulations permanent or make the state of emergency permanent.
  • Section 22(3)(j) prevents regulations amending Part 2 of the Bill (the part that is the subject of these articles). This does at least prevent regulations being used to e.g. extend the lifetimes of regulations, or remove such limitations on regulations as are in the bill. However given that ALL OTHER LEGISLATION could be repealed or modified that's not much of a limitation at all.
It is a common pattern of this Bill that any safeguard that is proposed in one section can be subverted or undone in another, as can be seen with the first two bullet points immediately above. An additional example: Under section 25(1), if the government wish to set up a tribunal under emergency regulations they're supposed to consult the "Council on Tribunals". However section 25(2) enables the tribunal to be set up without such consultation if the government thinks setting the tribunal up is urgent, and also stipulates that failure to consult does not affect the validity of the regulations setting up the tribunal!

Anyway as we can see above, the Bill enables the government to rule by decree and cut Parliament out of the process, with no practical limits on its power. And as an earlier article demonstrated, a Minister need merely claim that in his opinion an emergency is about to occur and existing legislation might not be sufficient to deal with it. And there are no penalties for misuing the powers in the bill.

Can we trust this and all future governments not to abuse such legislation?

I regard it as a Sword of Damocles hanging over British democracy, should it get on the statute books. If the government gets its way, it'll be in force by the end of the year.

Correction made to previous article

When re-reading the article on emergencies in the Civil Contingencies Bill, I spotted an omission. The person making regulations must preface those regulations with a declaration of what the emergency is and their opinion that all the conditions are met to justify making emergency regulations.

I don't regard this requirement as important as it is merely a statement of the maker's opinion on the matter, but I now include it for completeness sake.

"Emergencies" in the Civil Contingencies Bill

After my previous article on the Civil Contingencies Bill, I've decided to cover some aspects of the Bill in more detail to help explain my concerns over it. Those concerns do not just relate to the draconian powers the government acquires upon declaring an emergency, but also relate to the lack of effective safeguards to prevent abuse of the process.

To appreciate the lack of safeguards and the potential for abuse, one needs to consider the following features of the bill:

  • The threshold for lawfully declaring an emergency in the first place.
  • The nature of the powers the government acquires.
  • The intended safeguards against abuse contained in the bill.
This article will consider the first of these, and subsequent articles the remainder. The threshold for lawfully declaring an emergency in the first place is determined by:

  • The definition of an emergency.
  • The conditions that must be met for someone to declare an emergency.
  • How that person can go about declaring an emergency.
Taking the definition an emergency first, Section 19 of the bill provides it. To summarise section 19(1), an emergency is an event or situation that threatens serious damage to human welfare in, the environment of, or the security of the UK or a part or region of the UK.

Sections 19(2) to (4) elaborate on this (to paraphrase and summarise):

An event or situation threatens human welfare if it involves, causes, or may cause loss of human life; human illness or injury; homelessness; damage to property; disruption of supply of money, food, water, energy or fuel; disruption of transport facilities; disruption of a system of communication; disruption of health services.

An event or situation threatens the environment if it involves, causes, or may cause contamination of land, water or air with harmful biological, chemical or radioactive matter or oil; flooding; or disruption or destruction of plant or animal life.

War, armed conflict and terrorism (as defined in the Terrorism Act 2000, section 1) are all deemed to threaten the security of the UK.

Several points are worth noting at this juncture:
  • The situation or event concerned need not be occurring in the UK, e.g. events in the middle east could lead to a reduction in oil production leading to disruption of the supply of this fuel to the UK.
  • The situation or event need not actually have caused damage, it merely needs to threaten "serious" damage.
  • There is no indication how serious "serious" is, in the phrase "serious damage".
  • Many situations that have been handled perfectly well without such draconian powers in the past would fall under this definition of emergency: hurricanes, deep recessions (e.g. that may make some people homeless), oil spills, the fuel protests of 2001, terrorist bombings, accidental explosions and the oil crises of the 1970s.
  • Many forms of civil disobedience and protest could fall under this definition, e.g. strikes by medical staff in the NHS (note however that the bill protects the right to strike), anti-GM crops campaigners tearing up GM crops (damage/disruption to plant life).
  • The above definition is very broad and quite vague.
The conditions that must be met for someone to declare an emergency are set out in Section 20 and Section 21. These conditions are that:
  • The person is the Queen (by an Order in Council), or (without an Order in Council) a senior Minister of the Crown (a cabinet minister or commissioners of the Treasury, this latter including government Whips).
  • A "senior Minister of the Crown" can make emergency regulations without an "Order in Council" if they are satisfied that conditions in section 21 are met and that arranging for an "Order in Council" would cause a delay that might cause serious damage or seriously obstruct the prevention control of mitigation of serious damage.
  • The conditions in section 21 that need to be met include that the emergency is occurring, has occurred or is about to occur; it is necessary to make provision for the purpose of preventing controlling or mitigating the emergency or an aspect or an effect of it; and the need for the provision is urgent. It is necessary to make provision if existing legislation cannot be relied on without risk of serious delay; it isn't possible without risk of serious delay to ascertain of existing legislation can be relied upon; or the existing legislation might be insufficiently effective.
  • The person making the regulations must preface the regulations with a statement specifiying the nature of the emergency and declaring that they are satisfied the conditions in section 21 are met, they are satisfied the regulations only contain provision for the purpose of mitigating, controlling or preventing the emergency or an aspect/effect of it, they are satisfied the effect of the regulation is in due proportion to the emergency or the aspect/effect of it, that they are satisified the regulations are compatible with the Human Rights Act and they are satisfied that arranging for an Order in Council would risk serious delay.
Note that the final requirement is simply to produce a declaration of the opinion of the person making regulations that the required conditions are met.

Putting this all together, we can summarise the weakest set of conditions that suffice: A senior Minister of the Crown may make emergency regulations if in their opinion an emergency (which could just be a flood) is about to occur and existing legislation might be insufficiently effective at tackling the emergency.

Thus all that's required is for a cabinet minister or government whip to state that they personally believe an emergency is about to happen and that the existing legislation might not be effective enough, and the power to make emergency regulations is thereby acquired.

There is no requirement in the Bill that their belief be reasonable, thus making the possibility of legal challenge remote.

And note that it is ANY cabinet minister or government whip who could do this on their own authority, where previously the agreement of Parliament was required.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Is Britain headed for dictatorship?

In 1933, Adolf Hitler managed to get his Enabling Act through the German parliament, which gave him absolute power over Germany in the event of an emergency. Once this Act was in place, Hitler declared an emergency and the rest is, as they say, history.

Over on Samizdata, David Carr is worried that the British government is pushing through its very own Enabling Act in the form of the Civil Contingencies Bill.

Having read the Bill myself in detail now, it seems to me Carr's concerns are entirely justified. I find myself wishing I'd paid more attention to this earlier. So what is the cause for concern?

Under this Bill, Cabinet Ministers (and government Whips!) can declare a state of emergency in the UK, or any part of it, orally.

An emergency is defined in a very loose manner that would cover, e.g. the fuel protests of 2001. The conditions for making such a declaration are that an emergency has occurred, is occurring or is about to occur, that it is necessary to make provision to mitigate, control or prevent the emergency or an aspect of it and that the need for the provision is urgent[see Sections 19 to 21].

Note that a Minister merely needs to be "satisfied" (i.e. believes/thinks that) the conditions apply. There is no test of "reasonableness" that might enable, e.g. a court challenge.

Furthermore, as notes, there is no provision for authentication of Ministers' orders or for punishing the false declaration of an emergency and there is no punishment for abusing emergency powers.

On declaring such an emergency, Ministers acquire the power to make regulations for any of the following purposes [Section 22(2)]:

  • protecting human life, health or safety,
  • treating human illness or injury,
  • protecting or restoring property,
  • protecting or restoring a supply of money, food, water, energy or fuel,
  • protecting or restoring an electronic or other system of communication,
  • protecting or restoring facilities for transport,
  • protecting or restoring the provision of services relating to health,
  • protecting or restoring the activities of banks or other financial institutions,
  • preventing, containing or reducing the contamination of land, water or
  • preventing, or mitigating the effects of, flooding,
  • preventing, reducing or mitigating the effects of disruption or
    destruction of plant life or animal life,
  • protecting or restoring activities of Parliament, of the Scottish
    Parliament, of the Northern Ireland Assembly or of the National
    Assembly for Wales, or
  • protecting or restoring the performance of public functions.
I.e. just about any purpose imaginable.

Furthermore, the Act explicitly states that regulations may make provision of any kind that could be made by Act of Parliament or by Royal Prerogative[Section 22(3)]. Under the British system of government, this is absolute power.

The Act reinforces this by explicitly listing the making of provisions[Section22(3)] to:
  • (a) confer a function on a Minister of the Crown, on the Scottish Ministers,
    on the National Assembly for Wales, on a Northern Ireland
    department, on a coordinator appointed under section 24 or on any
    other specified person (and a function conferred may, in particular,
    • (i) a power, or duty, to exercise a discretion;
    • (ii) a power to give directions or orders, whether written or oral);
  • (b) provide for or enable the requisition or confiscation of property (with
    or without compensation);[i.e. everything you or your business owns could be confiscated without compensation]
  • (c) provide for or enable the destruction of property, animal life or plant
    life (with or without compensation);[i.e. everything you or your business owns could be destroyed without compensation]
  • (d) prohibit, or enable the prohibition of, movement to or from a specified
    place;[i.e. you could be indefinitely imprisonened]
  • (e) require, or enable the requirement of, movement to or from a specified
  • (f) prohibit, or enable the prohibition of, assemblies of specified kinds, at
    specified places or at specified times;[i.e. banning all forms of protest, but also note that Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly are all assemblies!]
  • (g) prohibit, or enable the prohibition of, travel at specified times;
  • (h) prohibit, or enable the prohibition of, other specified activities;[i.e. banning anything at all!]
  • (i) create an offence of—
    • (i) failing to comply with a provision of the regulations;
    • (ii) failing to comply with a direction or order given or made under
    • the regulations;
    • (iii) obstructing a person in the performance of a function under or
    • by virtue of the regulations;
  • (j) disapply or modify an enactment (other than a provision of this Part) or
    a provision made under or by virtue of an enactment;
  • (k) require a person or body to act in performance of a function (whether
    the function is conferred by the regulations or otherwise and whether
    or not the regulations also make provision for remuneration or
  • (l) enable the Defence Council to authorise the deployment of Her
    Majesty’s armed forces;
  • (m) make provision (which may include conferring powers in relation to
    property) for facilitating any deployment of Her Majesty’s armed
  • (n) confer jurisdiction on a court or tribunal (which may include a tribunal
    established by the regulations);[i.e. set up courts/tribunals that bypass the normal legal system!]
  • (o) make provision which has effect in relation to, or to anything done in—
    • (i) an area of the territorial sea,
    • (ii) an area within British fishery limits, or
    • (iii) an area of the continental shelf;
  • (p) make provision which applies generally or only in specified
    circumstances or for a specified purpose;
  • (q) make different provision for different circumstances or purposes.

I.e. just about any provision imaginable.

Note that under existing laws, as I understand it, Parliament has to agree a state of emergency, whereas under this Bill it is the senior members of the executive, along with the Queen, who hold the power to declare an emergency without Parliament getting a look in. Once this is done, they have absolute power over us.

This Bill is currently in the Lords and was rushed through Parliament with the third reading "guillotined" so that opposition amendments were not debated and the Bill was passed "on the nod". The government want it on the statute books before the next Queen's Speech in November.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Young Muslims downloading and distributing militants' snuff movies

What is one to make of this disturbing story? The Times reports that young British Muslims are downloading, watching and distributing videos of the be-headings being carried out by militants in Iraq using their mobile phones.

The article claims that an Algerian who lives in London, and who is an al-Qaeda sympathiser, has saved every available video of hostages being killed in Iraq. But it's not just the militants who are doing this:

Even Muslims opposed to the beheadings have used the new phones to look at them. Outside an Iraqi café on Edgware Road in London yesterday, Mais Ahmed, whose family are from Basra, stood holding his Nokia 6600 phone as he chattted to friends. He was one of a dozen young men in the area who admitted watching videos of the killings on mobile phones, including the beheading of the American contractor Nick Berg in May, the film of which Mr Ahmed had saved on his phone. It was common among his Arab friends, he said.

Mr Ahmed, 23, of Islington, who came to Britain five years ago, said: “It’s very common to see this, so many people are watching them on phones. I know people who have been sitting in a café and have got the film sent to them, without asking. It happened to me.”

Mr Ahmed is against the beheadings. “I don’t think what the kidnappers are doing is good: it is against our religion. The hostages never did anything to anyone,” he said.

Another man, an unemployed Iraqi Kurd, 19, admitted having watched the beheading of the two Americans captured with Kenneth Bigley. “I felt like crying,”he said.

Militants aside, can this just be put down to "morbid fascination" or is there something more disturbing driving the young Muslims featured above to do this?

Are we seeing the development of a culture that deems the viewing and distribution of such videos to be acceptable?

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Blair's announcement on his retirement

Blair's announcement that he will seek and, if elected, serve a full third term but not a fourth one must go down as one of the most extraordinary declarations of an incumbent leader about his or her future in the job. Blair has told us how long we can expect him to be around for assuming the electorate, his party, his family and his health let him.

I'm guessing his intention was to end speculation about when/if he'll hand over to Gordon Brown, and to prevent it being an issue during the forthcoming election campaign. He may also have done it to spike Gordon's chances of being PM. However it seems to me that this may well turn out to be a turning point in British politics which could have quite unexpected consequences. I say this for several reasons.

Firstly, Blair has ensured that Labour's historic third term in government, should they get it, will involve a struggle for the succession, starting openly probably no later than mid term. From day one, ministers' pronouncements and activities will be scrutinised by both media and opposition for any hints at ambition for the PM's job or support or otherwise for those considered to be in the race. As we saw with both Thatcher and Major, such jockeying for position can do a lot to undermine a sitting government.

Secondly, Blair has given anyone within the government who is in a position to oppose a policy an ideal means of doing so -- delay it until the PM resigns. The policy's future thereafter will be uncertain and making political alliances for the succession could then kill it.

Thirdly, this will give the opposition parties a reason to do everything they can to delay government bills and provide opportunities for them to exploit the tensions within the government and the Labour party for their own advantage or at least the government's disadvantage.

Fourthly, in foreign policy, anyone who doesn't like Blair can simply hold on for someone new. Blair's ability to push forward his own policies in e.g. the EU will thus be considerably weakened -- the EU leaders will know he'll stand down by a certain point and can adopt delaying tactics on policies they dislike and policies that Tony likes.

Whilst Blair's announcement may help to keep Labour disciplined in the run up to the next election, ISTM he has considerably weakened his ability to govern thereafter with this announcement, both on domestic policy and on the international stage. He has also made it more difficult for Gordon Brown to ensure that he's the one to succeed Blair, whilst making it more likely that the struggle for the succession will see a level of infighting in the Labour party not seen since the 1980s.

At any rate, the PM's annoucement has ensured that what happens in the post-Blair era is likely to be a dominant theme of Britain's political discourse after the next election, as both the government, the media and the political parties gradually take on board the reality that Blair's days have now been numbered by none other than Blair himself.

Mark Steyn on John Kerry and Iraq

Mark Steyn in the Telegraph has this to say about Kerry's position on Iraq:

If John Kerry is so polished and eloquent and forceful and mellifluous, how come nobody has a clue what his policy on Iraq is? As he made clear on Thursday, Saddam was a growing threat so he had to be disarmed so Kerry voted for war in order to authorise Bush to go to the UN but Bush failed to pass "the global test" so we shouldn't have disarmed Saddam because he wasn't a threat so the war was a mistake so Kerry will bring the troops home by persuading France and Germany to send their troops instead because he's so much better at building alliances so he'll have no trouble talking France and Germany into sending their boys to be the last men to die for Bush's mistake.

That just about sums up my impression of Kerry, who's got a different position on the Iraq war depending on his poll ratings, whether things are going well or badly (according to the press) in Iraq and what audience he is talking to.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Barcelona beach club implants chips under its VIP members' skin

Having a microchip implanted under your skin that emits a signal to identify you, far from being science fiction, has been doable for some years, and now it is apparently the latest way for members of a club to pay for drinks and get access to VIP lounges.

I nominate the BBC reporter Simon Morton for "the turkey most likely to vote for Christmas" for making this comment:

The idea of having my very own microchip implanted in my body appealed. I have always been an early adopter, so why not.

Now, how long before some bright spark suggests chipping people at birth in order to access government services/provide quick proof of residency at airports?

Monday, September 27, 2004

More musings on Iraq

After my recent article and accompanying discussion with "the auroran sunset" on the "magnet theory" in Iraq, I've been mulling the issue over a bit more. As indicated earlier I believe it would be a mistake for troops to be withdrawn whilst the insurgents are strong and the fledlging regime isn't strong enough to deal with them. Given that, ISTM the Bush/Blair plan of shoring up the regime and holding elections is the only game in town that offers the Iraqis hope.

It is likely things will get worse in the short to medium term for various reasons. The insurgents seem to be well aware of the political timetable in the West. I don't believe it is an accident that the Kenneth Bigley crisis is running in the run up to and during the start of the Labour party conference.

The fact that the US presidential elections are in full swing is not lost on the insurgents either. Causing trouble in Iraq and giving Kerry bad news with which to try and capitalise is likely to be a prime motivation for the insurgents. Likewise with the election on the go, the US is likely to hold off any major attempts to crush the insurgents at least until after polling day, and to stick to "holding the line" as it were. There is some advantage to the coalition in delaying a major push in that in the meantime the Iraqi army continues to be built up, and can thus play a stronger role should such a push come. Nevertheless the insurgents will exploit the opportunities they have to rock the boat in the meantime.

Then of course there's the planned elections in the new year. The insurgents are likely to do everything they can to derail these elections. Success in doing so would be a major setback for the coalition and is essential if the insurgents are to achieve their goals. However if the elections go ahead, it would be a major setback for the insurgents who will have been waging a costly battle against coalition forces and the fledgling Iraqi state only to see the coalition's plans for the country moving ahead regardless.

Thus it seems to me that as the January elections in Iraq approach the level of violence is likely to increase and that after the November US elections we'll likely see a major push against the insurgents (assuming Bush wins, I'm not certain how a Kerry victory will change things). The success or failure of that push may well determine whether the elections go ahead as planned. I think there is everything play for however here -- a successful set of elections would give the resulting Iraqi authorities more legitimacy and more confidence to fight against the insurgents thereafter. Derailing the elections would give the insurgents more confidence and will make the task of reconstruction much more difficult as a result.

The next few months in Iraq are going to be crucial -- and for that reason they are likely to be bloody.

Sunday, September 26, 2004


Just how useless can the UN get?

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Where now in Iraq?

Hitherto on this blog, I've made little comment on the toppling of Saddam's regime in Iraq and its aftermath, with the exception of this article. I started the blog some months after the regime was toppled (for the record I supported the toppling of Saddam's regime), and from that point on until recently, I was content just to follow what was happening and read other commentary on the issue.

After the regime was toppled, I felt that having gone ahead and invaded, the US/UK and other coalition forces have a responsibility to the Iraqis to rebuild their country and put it on the road to democracy. I also believed that the worst thing that could happen would be for the coalition forces to withdraw prior to a stable government having been put in place and the security situation stabilised.

It seemed clear that leaving the country whilst the insurgents can still run riot and the fledgling Iraqi state is incapable of dealing with them effectively would be highly irresponsible. It would leave Iraq at the mercy of some of the most ruthless and bloodthirsty Islamist terrorists around, with a high risk of the country becoming a dangerous Islamic fundamentalist state, or descending into the sort of chaos we saw in post-Soviet Afghanistan. It would also effectively give the Islamist terrorists a victory against the West that would embolden them to carry out further attacks on Western targets.

After reading an article in today's edition of The Times, I am less certain of this position. Simon Jenkins argues we should get out of Iraq as quickly as possible. Whilst arguing for this, he made a point made that seemed to me quite valid and which he used to support the contention that the presence of coalition troops per se will make it impossible to deliver the security the Iraqis need. There is much in Jenkin's article I disagree with, but on the following point I think he is close to spot on:

As long as British and American troops are in Iraq and the Allawi regime depends on them, Iraq is a magnet for every militia and suicide bomber in the Middle East.
I say Jenkins is "close to spot on" deliberately. It seems clear to me that a prime aim of the insurgents is to thwart the efforts of the coalition forces and the fledgling Iraqi administration to build a peaceful, democratic Iraq. There is furthermore the kudos they gain in various Arab and Islamist circles at taking on the "Great Satan", i.e. the USA, on arguably its most important foreign policy issue. Therefore whilst the coalition troops are there, and whilst the US is still engaged in its project in Iraq, the place will be a magnet for these groups. It has thus become the primary military battleground in the conflict between the US/UK and the terrorists whom Bush declared war on after 9/11.

Jenkins' point misses something though. Jenkins' formulation implies that it is merely the presence of the coalition forces that draws the terrorist groups and militias into Iraq. I don't deny their presence does this, but I don't think the withdrawal of the forces will remove the motivations for the presence of the terrorists and other insurgents in Iraq. They want to defeat the whole project -- the fledgling Iraqi regime is as much a target as the coalition troops are. The insurgents want their brand of Islamist or Ba'athist totalitarianism to replace the fledgling regime.

Nevertheless, I think it would be fair to say that the presence of coalition forces in Iraq will be a red rag to a bull for these groups and will thus draw them into Iraq, jeopardising the efforts to rebuild the country. Jenkins concludes if the troops remain, there will be no security in Iraq. I find it hard to see that he is wrong to conclude this, given that such groups will continue to exist for the forseeable future.

It also still seems to me that if the troops were to be withdrawn as Jenkins asks, it will further embolden the Islamists as it would be a victory for them over the US/UK. That would lead to further terrorist attacks against the West, and would strengthen the hold of Islamic fundamentalism across the middle east.

So what does all this mean for my position then? Note that I said I was less certain of my position than I was before reading Jenkins' article. The point about the coalition presence itself being a magnet for the Islamist terrorists and militias seems to me quite valid and casts doubt on the idea that the coalition forces need to stay in Iraq in order to stabilise the country and prepare it for democracy, since their very presence draws in the groups that seek to destabilise Iraq in order to thwart that goal.

Thus, either the coalition troops withdraw, leaving the Iraqis at the mercy of the Islamists and emboldening those who'd attack the West, or we remain and fight the Islamists in Iraq itself for the foreseeable future. Under the latter option, if Jenkins is correct about the "magnet" theory as I think he is, only eradication of the Islamists would bring about the desired security, and that would require extending the conflict outside of Iraq.

However, under the former option, there seems little hope for security for the Iraqis either, and the conflict between the West and the Islamic fundamentalists will have shifted in favour of the latter (though the West would still be by far the more powerful party).

These are not good choices. My instinct is still to go for the troops remaining in Iraq and trying to help the Iraqis establish a peaceful democratic society as I suspect the other choice is worse. But it ain't gonna be easy, and it seems more difficult now than ever. Am I missing a third choice?

Saturday, September 04, 2004


What a horrible, awful tragedy. The responsibility for this lies squarely with the terrorists who created an impossible situation. Give in to their demands and you encourage more of the same. Try to storm the building and you risk a heavy loss of life, in this case including many children.

As it happens, it appears that the situation deteriorated after some hostages escaped and after a bomb accidentally exploded. This illustrates another aspect of the situation created by the terrorists: in a fraught, tense situation with lots of explosives, there is ample scope for simple error/accident leading to disaster.

Where do we go from here?

How do we deal with people willing to fly planes into buildings, or to pack children and explosives together in a gym or who think it just fine and will aid their cause to strap explosives to themselves and go and blow up a bus or a pizza parlour?

How do we deal with such insanity?

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Teenagers to face trial by teenage judges, jurors, prosecutors and defence lawyers.

This appears to be the government's latest wheeze to tackle crime:

Children as young as 14 will train to serve as judge and jury in trials of their peers, under government plans to cut inner city crime.

The initiative, an attempt to encourage young people to respect the judicial system, has the support of senior ministers but has alarmed some legal experts.

The Department of Constitutional Affairs could introduce the radical scheme next year, when it pilots a groundbreaking project in Liverpool that hopes to repeat the success of initiatives in the US.

Depending on the results of the two-year trial, the government intends to roll the scheme out across Britain.

Apparently, similar schemes have been adopted in the US, New Zealand, Japan and Canada:

Under the teen court scheme, which is being adopted by New Zealand, Canada and Japan, teenagers aged 14 to 17 study a number of disciplines including law and social sciences, to ensure they make fair judgments and recommend appropriate sentencing.

The courts will only be used for petty offences such as vandalism, drug taking or underage drinking and the penalties imposed will be limited to community service, writing letters of apology or attending anger management workshops.

I guess this is one way to reduce the burden on adult judges, prosecutors and jurors...

Saturday, July 31, 2004

Does Big Blunkett know his history?

David Blunkett once said, during a debate on ID cards that "No one should fear correct identification".

This T-shirt highlights Blunkett's flawed thinking quite beautifully. A clearer version of the graphic on the T-shirt is here.

(Those not getting the reference look here.)

NB: I first spotted the T-shirt over at Samizdata's coverage of the "Big Brother" awards.

Friday, July 30, 2004

Govt's information commissioner views ID card plan with "increasing alarm".

Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner has expressed "increasing alarm" at the govt's planned ID card scheme:

Plans for a national ID card scheme risk changing the relationship between the British state and its citizens, the information watchdog has warned.

Richard Thomas said he had initially greeted the plans with "healthy scepticism" but the details had changed his view to "increasing alarm".

One cogent point Thomas makes is that the scheme is not just about handing out cards to the population but about creating a detailed centralised database on every person in the country:

Mr Thomas told the MPs: "This is beginning to represent a really significant sea change in the relationship between state and every individual in this country."

It was now clear the scheme was not just about identity cards but about a national identity register, he said.

"It is not just about citizens having a piece of plastic to identify themselves.

"It's about the amount, the nature of the information held about every citizen and how that's going to be used in a wide range of activities."

Quite. The scheme is about creating the necessary apparatus for the government to keep tabs on us 24/7. And the government certainly seems keen on creating detailed databases of all and sundry when legislating in other policy areas.

Furthermore they seem keen on using blanket surveillance of the public's movements simply to introduce road charges:

The most radical vision for road pricing would see a satellite tracking-based system, with drivers charged variable rates per mile depending on how busy the route they used was.
They also back another blanket surveillance system for tackling drivers who drive away from petrol stations without paying:
For the stream of shoppers driving into the supermarket petrol station just outside Bradford, the CCTV camera has been such a familiar sight it may as well have been invisible.

But from this month, it is not just fuel-dodgers who the camera is there to monitor; up to 3,000 number plates an hour from the forecourt will now be fed into a police database.

This government clearly loves blanket surveillance of the public's doings (especially if linked into a database), and this extends to plans for recording who you phone, who you email, what websites you visit, and who phones/emails you or visits your website for a year for the authorities to be able to trawl.

Big Blunkett is watching you...