Thursday, 25 November 2010

Kettling: Not suitable for children.

Since originally posting this, I've found this article on the Guardian, the video from which I've now included, and it looks frankly terrifying. These are the kinds of tactics police feel they have to use to control a peaceful protest.

And so the protest continues, with yesterdays countrywide protests (though you'd be forgiven for thinking it was only London after the press coverage) against the disgusting abuse of our education system. But today's post isn't about that. It's about police abusing and beating young children, right in the middle of London.

A lot of people will now be familiar with the police tactics of 'kettling', it having sprung to fame in the G20 protests. (For all the wrong reasons) It was used again yesterday, presumably because the police were rather embarrassed at the mess from the last weeks protests, but is it really a good way to control a crowd?

For those not entirely sure what 'kettling' is, I'll give a brief overview. Basically, at any large event or protest, the police will never have enough numbers to control the whole crowd because it can move so quickly from one place to another. When it gets away from the police, they could lose control. So the idea is that if things start getting uncomfortable for the police, they box the protesters into a small space, and keep them there for hours. No one in, no one out, to try and keep an eye on, and control of, the crowd.

The flaw though, should be clear. If you take a crowd of people and stick them crammed together in the same spot for a long period of time, with little or no toilet facilities, sparse water supplies and no food, then even the most tame protesters are going to get very angry indeed, and with good reason. The name 'kettling' is actually very appropriate, you will very quickly turn up the heat on the situation and that steam has to come off somewhere.

Yesterday's example however, was particularly barbaric.

It looked very much like the police had a twitch yesterday, they changed tactics from soft touch to heavy handed very quickly indeed, most likely a little over eager to avoid the same embarrassment as last time out. But that twitch meant that thousands of school children (because they joined the march yesterday alongside students) were left stuck in a very claustrophobic and cramped environment, with no idea what was going on and having very angry policemen shouting at them and flailing their batons at them.

With my own eyes watching the TV, I saw one policemen hit a school child with a baton and another get thrown off a wall back into a crowd as he was trying to leave what looked like a pretty terrifying crush. Many others have equally appalling tales.

It is claimed the police had to resort to this heavy-handedness because the crowd was becoming restless and trying to break through. I'm sorry, I consider myself pretty moderate, but if I was stuck in an area unable to use the toilet or get access to food and water then I'd get pretty 'restless' too, and if that meant trying to push through a police barricade then that's exactly what I'd do.

And the argument that these people knew what they were getting into when they joined the protest is hogwash as well. Many of these people from schools had no idea what a protest looked like, they were just angry and wanted to have their say. They followed the crowd because that's what human nature tells us to do and ended up penned in by police. As one put it: "It's ridiculous that they won't let us march, we can't even vote yet, we should be allowed to have our say."

Are we now going to ban protests or penalise protesters because a few rogue elements might turn it violent, and in doing so deny people their say who otherwise wouldn't have a voice. We might have elections, but they're only five years, what about if we're angry in between that time, should we just keep schtum? And anyway, you try telling a Lib Dem voter that voting means you know what you're going to get.

If you put people in a crowded environment, they panic, they push to get out, and tempers flair. And then, at the first sign of any minor violence the whole protest is declared void and suddenly 'students' (as if you could ever make such a sweeping generalisation and have it keep any legitimacy) are somehow the bad guys in the whole affair. Conveniently forgetting that it wasn't their decision to triple their debt and slash their teaching budget by 80%.

It's very simple, kettling is a travesty, it's barbaric, undemocratic and it should be banned. Even the Lib Dems agree with me, or at least they did a year ago:

"Tactics like baton charges, the seizure of personal property and the kettling of protestors for hours on end are fundamentally wrong. They are a threat to democratic rights, they cause distress and injury, increase tension, provoke reaction and damage the reputation of the police.

"These tactics must change. The police must recognise the democratic right to protest and put the protection of the public first at all times." - David Howarth

But we all know how Lib Dems like to change their minds at a sniff of power don't we, so I'm not too sure what their current stance on the issue is. Probably what ever David Cameron tells them I'd imagine.

P.s. Of course it's wrong when protests turn violent, but maybe if the news channels cared about the peaceful marches up and down the country without insisting on focussing solely on one small area of trouble, people wouldn't feel like violence was the only way to get their voice heard. 50,000 people marched last week, but we heard only about the few at Millbank. There were protests at many universities yesterday, but the coverage focussed on one vandalised police van. Ridiculous.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

In the War on Drugs, Reason is Treason.

Last night, Professor David Nutt (the previous Chair of the drug advisory council to the government who was sacked for a paper he wrote) held a lecture at the University of Manchester on the science (or rather lack of it) in current drug policy. Much of this post is based on that talk.

I've wrote posts on this subject before, but now that I've heard the arguments come from an infinitely more knowledgeable person on the subject I thought I'd reiterate with a few new points. The basic message is that our current views and laws on drugs are completely out of touch with the scientific reality. The Misuse of Drugs Act is being abused and its original purpose to take the politics out of drug policy is being swept aside in order to score cheap points.

First of all, I'll start with what made him famous in the first place, his being sacked as the Chair of the Advisory Council On the Misuse of Drugs by Alan Johnson, the then Home Secretary. It may have come to the attention of readers that I'm something of a Labour man, I don't hide it all that well, but this is one of those occasions when I was appalled by what we did in government. Our drugs policy, and that of the opposition, was completely out of kilter. In trying to cosy up to the tabloid rags (i.e. Daily Mail, Sun etc.) Johnson decided to put his boot in where it was not wanted or indeed appropriate.

Nutt's crime? To publish a scientific paper, stating the facts about the relative harms of drugs. Because what he said embarrassed the government he was shown the door, hardly the kind of treatment you would expect to give to someone who is supposed to work independently of the government in order to give sound unbiased advise.

I have a feeling the government weren't too happy even before this paper was released, what with his previous findings on the relative harms of Ecstacy and horse riding (for which he coined the term Equasy). It didn't suit the tough rhetoric of the government that in fact Ecstacy was less harmful than horse riding and so they distanced themselves. Nutt had evidence, but the politicians had an image to protect.

So, here's some of the facts the government would rather Nutt wouldn't let the public know about, because they'd rather keep us all in this hysterical Daily Mail style bubble which keeps us all frothing at the mouths about the dangers of drugs over a pint in the pub. (And failing to see the irony) These are all findings from previous studies and Nutt's new independent body, which did a much more detailed analysis of both the harm to users and to society of a range of drugs.

  • The most harmful drug overall was Alcohol, mainly due to its exaggerated damaging effects on society. Because so many of us drink, we fail to see the massive damage that this drug does.
  • Tobacco comes in 6th place, ahead of Cannabis, Amphetamines and Ketamine.
  • The most dangerous drugs to the individual user are Heroin, Crack and Crystal Meth, the most dangerous to others are Alcohol, Heroin and Crack, in that order.
  • Horse riding is more dangerous than taking Ecstacy, with acute harm occurring once every 10,000 times a person takes Ecstacy, but once in only 350 times someone goes horse riding.

For these scientific facts, backed up by evidence and peer reviewed studies, he has been hung out to dry. Politicians seem to think they know better than the people whose job it is to study and research these things every day of their lives. What one person 'believes' to be true is not equivalent to the opinion of a man with over 30 years research experience. People may say that they 'know' better, and that these claims can't be true, but you only have to walk through an insane asylum to see that faith proves nothing.

It really was an excellent talk he gave, and it really does beg the question why we continue with such a clearly broken system for classifying drug use. We are criminalising people for their sickness and for their attempts to reduce their perceived suffering, what kind of system is that?

The Misuse of Drugs Act was set up to take the political point scoring out of drug policy, and make sure it was evidence based. What we have now makes a mockery of that original purpose. It's high time we got more evidence at the heart of policy making and had a grown up debate about drug use without people screaming their invalid opinions and distorting the debate.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The Untouchable Monarchy

Unless you've been living in a cave for the past couple of weeks you may have noticed that there is going to be a royal wedding next year, something which judging by the amount of coverage it's received seems to be on a par with a cure for HIV. I'm not being dour, I'm sure they'll have a lovely wedding and enjoy life as a married couple, but I just don't care. We're essentially fawning over a headline of: 'Couple who met at university to marry next year.' Not exactly front page worthy is it?

Great news for them, but why exactly should I care?

But my reason for writing this is that I genuinely couldn't believe some of the comments I've seen aimed at republicans who would dare suggest that the monarchy should pay for their own wedding. It would seem a relatively un-provocative idea in a time of austerity surely? So I thought I'd counter some of the monarchist arguments in one handy post, in order of how often I've heard them. (Aside from those I already made last time)

  • What does it matter, they don't do anything and have no power: First of all, how this can be a defense of an institution we are spending good money on is beyond me, (the idea that we should work out the cost by dividing by the population is bizarre indeed, any cost looks small when you divide it by every citizen, including non-taxpayers) surely we'd want something back for our substantial amounts of money.
    And secondly, whilst it might be true that the Queen has little real power left, (save to choose the Prime Minister in a tie) the institution of the monarchy holds all the power in the land. Whilst most of it is given to parliament, this arrangement allows the Prime Minister and Privy Council to have unchecked power that they would not have without the monarchy. 

  • The power to go to war without a vote and to give immunity are just two of many powers available under the 'Royal Prerogative'. We can only move towards a real, democratic constitution when we get rid of the monarchy. 

  • They pay for themselves through tourism: Well, this argument is just patently untrue, as well as being brilliantly irrelevant. There is no evidence that the monarchy does anything for tourism, and even less to suggest it brings in substantial amounts. 

  • The royal residences make up 1% of Britain's total tourism revenue, and only one makes it into the Top 20 list of tourism destinations (Windsor Castle at 17). In fact, the Tower of London is much more successful than any of the residences (at number 6) which may even suggest the royal residences would make much more money if they were vacated by the current dwellers.
    You can still have all the pomp and tradition of things like the changing of the guard without the Queen around, it's all ceremonial anyway.

It's lovely, and not going anywhere if we get rid of the Monarchy.

  • There are more important things to worry about: Of course there are, no-one would deny that. But since when as a country did we rank our priorities and decide we could only cope with dealing with one at a time? It'd be pretty slow progress if we worked like that.

  • I'd say the validity of our democracy was something we should deal with, regardless of how high up the pecking order it is. We look back at history and laugh at Kings who claim they were sent by God to rule, yet still we have an unelected representative as our Head of State who is simply chosen by bloodlines? You cannot claim that is democratic in any sense of the word, it makes a mockery of our attempts to espouse the virtues of democracy to other nations.

  • It would cost more to have a president: Again, this is just patently untrue, and quite beside the point. This isn't about money, it's about democracy, but I may as well disprove this fallacy anyway.

  • The palace may claim to cost £40 million a year, (a big enough figure in itself) but they left out some key expenses. If you include lost revenue from the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall, unpaid tax, security costs and costs for local authorities the real figure is around £180 million. By contrast Ireland spends £1.8m and Austria spends £3.5m. Even an expensive president like Germany's costs £26m, still a massive saving.

    And those who claim the monarchy pays for itself because they 'donate' the proceeds of the Crown estate to the government are also wrong. The Crown estates don't belong to the Queen, she can't donate what she doesn't own. The estates belong to the Sovereign, they are not the personal property of any individual monarch. In essence the Queen looks after the estates, the revenue from them always has and always will have the purpose of providing income for the country, with or without a monarch.

There are more, but I won't bore you longer, anyone interested can look at more here, and those who aren't will surely have switched pages by now, so no need to worry about them.

Some of the attempts to defend such a patently unfair and backwards institution really do amuse me, but sadly we still have to make the arguments because not enough people care to actually get rid of them, despite the lack of any cohesive argument for them to be retained.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Another hit to health reform.

It's been nearly a week without a post, many apologies for that, it's not that I've been particularly busy but just that I didn't feel like posting. So for the return I thought it's time to revisit my old favourite subject... How much of an idiot Andrew Lansley is and his attempts to break down the NHS.

You probably won't have noticed it in the news, (good news about the NHS never seems to be given a lot of airtime or print space) but yet again the NHS has been found to be one of the best health care systems in the world. This time for its access to healthcare and in terms of efficiency. You'd never believe it from all the hype you hear about over-paid executives from the right-wing press, but yes, the NHS is one of the most efficient systems with its money.

So, after news like that you'd expect maybe a well done for all the hard work from the health secretary right? Maybe a little pride in one of the nations favourite and best-performing institutions? No sir, not from Andrew Lansley. All you got from him was moaning about how bad the NHS performed in other areas (with some very dubious claims) and an insistence that only his reforms could help mend the system. I really don't get why this man is in charge of something he clearly loathes.

No-one ever claimed the NHS is perfect, because no health care system in the world is perfect. But to just brush off any praise and insist on focussing purely on negatives is a ridiculous stance for a man in charge of our health.

And now onto the latest in a long series of high profile criticisms of his planned reforms, which I've previously wrote about not once, or even twice, but a fair few times now. (I can't help it if people keep adding their names to the 'Andrew Lansley is an idiot' fan club)

The new head of the Royal College of GPs, a distinguished doctor who has helped massively improve health in deprived areas, has herself come out against the reforms, saying (amongst other more detailed criticisms) that:

"I think it is the end of the NHS as we currently know it, which is a national, unified health service, with central policies and central planning, in the way that (Aneurin) Bevan imagined."

Bearing in mind that his plans are supposed to be about giving GPs the power they so desperately crave to help patients without the interference of 'evil' PCTs, isn't a bit bizarre to Lansley that the RCGP and its leader have both now come out with damning attacks? What will it take for him to see that he is in fact a lunatic with a plan that no-one wants?

There is negligible support within the health care profession for these reforms. The fact that Lansley promised no more 'top-down reorganisations' seems to have been lost in the carnage of the multitude of other broken coalition promises, with Lansley's plans being the mother of all top-down reorganisations. It could cost over £3bn on a risky reorganisation at a time when the NHS is being told to save money, it makes no sense whatsoever.

It makes me sad that someone so stupid can be in such a position of power over something the country and I love so much. If Cameron has even one brain cell to share out amongst the cabinet, please lend it to Lansley for a while.

Edit: This seriously annoyed me when I read it just after originally posting. The current chief executive has said that any staff who oppose the reorganisation should offer their resignations as they will be a 'drag' on the health service in transition. Absolutely outrageous. I'd suggest the only person who should be offering their resignation any time soon is David Nicholson for such an arrogant statement which shows such disdain for the opinions of those working in the NHS.

He has to go, it's that simple. You cannot insult the personal views of so many of your workforce, suggesting they leave for disagreeing with you and expect to remain in a job.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Wealth and/or Happiness?

I'm going to do something pretty unusual in these parts, say that I think David Cameron has done something good. (Interestingly, the one time I agree with him, Liam the Tory man seems to disagree) His plan to introduce a Happiness Index, as devised by two economic Nobel laureates, is a great idea in principle (IF done properly), though I'm not sure he'll like the results.

For a long time, the only thing anyone has been interested in is how much and how quickly a country can make money, a massive jump in GDP was all that mattered. But what people are realising is that more money doesn't make for a better society, it doesn't mean a happier electorate, and that more money for a country doesn't usually mean more money for everyone in it.

We should take more of an interest in how the people of our country are getting on, and not just assuming that all is well because the money is rolling in. The last decades may have seen a jump in wealth but they've also seen a jump in the amount of mental illnesses people suffer from. If more money is bought in because people are working harder and longer with no time for family life is that a price ever worth paying?

This isn't going to be a case of asking people to fill in a form that says, 'How happy are you on a scale of 1 to 10?', which would clearly be useless. It's been shown that there are reliable ways to measure subjective happiness and well-being which are meaningful to those interpreting what they mean. New policy shouldn't just be judged on what happens to the economy, but on what happens to society as a result.

Looking at these measures will hopefully lead to a renewed focus on just how unequal our society still is, and that will be reflected in people's feelings. It's well known in psychology that being richer isn't what makes people happier, it's how they compare to their peers that matters. Someone on £21,000 whose social group includes many people on lower incomes will be happier with their current state of affairs than someone on £50,000 who socialises with millionaires.

A society where everyone feels they have a fair shot at getting on in life would be the happiest, we can't rely on the trickle down effect any more where the rich rule the roost and tell the rest to be happy with their lot because they are making money that will benefit everybody. It just isn't true. For every extra £100 earned as a country, £40 goes to the top 10%. 13% of our national wealth resides in the pockets of just 1% of the population. I'm not advocating communism here (that seems to be the buzzword for anyone who wants to attack the left) but simply a fairer society where you earn more based on merit, rather than coming from a privileged background.

The Tories who deride this are right on one thing, it's the exact type of policy that Cameron would have ridiculed if it had come from Labour. We might yet have a bizarre situation where Cameron is trying harder to convince Tories that this is a good thing than he is with the opposition.

It will be hard to get a reliable measure of how policy is affecting us as a society, but it can be done, and should be. It will be an extra tool available to see just how society can be made better for everyone in it. And if nothing else it shows one thing, we're finally realising that there is more to measuring the successes of a nation than the narrow and flawed notion of GDP.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

How to break a promise spectacularly.

I seem to talk about tuition fees a lot recently, but humour me for one more post, because this might just make you sick if you were one of those unfortunate souls to vote Lib Dem last election. It's clear for all to see now that the Libs are spineless puppets with no principals, but until now it wasn't clear just how far back that state of affairs went.

It now turns out (having been revealed in the Guardian, the very paper that swapped parties to support them in the General Election) that senior Lib Dems decided they wouldn't pursue their pledge to scrap tuition fees in the event of a coalition (the only way they were ever going to get to implement their policies) a full two months before polling day! That's before Clegg and co. signed their pledges in the desperate attempt to win the student vote, and before he released his video promising to get rid of broken promises in politics. Hypocrisy, thy name is Clegg.

Here's what Danny Alexander said in the document:

"On tuition fees we should seek agreement on part-time students and leave the rest. We will have clear yellow water with the other [parties] on raising the tuition fee cap, so let us not cause ourselves more headaches."

'Leave the rest'. Three words which in one swoop destroy any last vestige of respectability that the Lib Dems had left. And this isn't just about tuition fees, they did the exact same thing with the economy. When people cast their votes, over 60% of people voted for parties on the basis that they had committed to a slow cutting of the deficit, and not taking the risk of plunging millions into unemployment. But the bottles of champagne and the ministerial car proved to much of a temptation, and so now we're going through a devastating round of cuts even deeper than the Conservatives had promised. Instead of compromise, they've just agreed to everything that Cameron has fed them.

The idea that events have changed so much since before the election to cause this change of heart is laughable. The events in Greece were not a sign of things to come for us, we were and are in a much stronger position than Greece was at the time, and the idea that they hadn't realised how bad the countries finances were until they got into office is the biggest sham of all. First of all, they campaigned relentlessly on how bad they thought the countries finances were, and second, every indicator over that period suggested that we were actually in better shape than even Darling had thought.

Those who climb the highest, have the furthest to fall. And maybe that's why I loathe Nick Clegg so much right now. I expected to be sold down the river by slime balls like Cameron, but I'd always respected Clegg and thought he was an honest politician. How wrong I was.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Jailed for your jokes

The more I read about this story, the more horrifying I realise it is. We're now essentially barred from making any statement online which could be taken in a literal way. Say goodbye sarcasm and irony, you're illegal now.

This might not be the biggest story around right now, but I thought it was a horrendous and ridiculous story all at the same time, Paul Chambers today lost his appeal against a conviction and fine he received for a joke he made on Twitter. Apparently, the judge decided he was a 'menace' and was likely to be taken seriously.

Here's the offending tweet, sent to a friend whom he was meant to meet, about the fact that his nearby airport had closed due to heavy snow:

"Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

Now I'm sorry, but if anyone took that seriously, they're a moron. It was a message sent to a friend, and visible to a small number of people who 'followed' him, I would guess he assumed he could trust them to know him well enough to know that he wasn't a terrorist. A fairly safe assumption you would have thought.

Added to that, what kind of terrorist would pre-announce their plans in joke form via Twitter, surely they'd be the single most incompetent terrorist ever, and not being able to see a friend would hardly be the most solid motive would it.

Because of the judges over-zealous interpretation of the law and lack of basic common sense this man not only has to pay a £1000 fine, but more importantly for him has lost his job, and will find it harder to get one in the future.

The Crown Prosecution Service must have known that this really was a nothing case because when they bought it to court they used the 'Nuisance Calls' Law, (designed to protect female telephonists at the Post Office in the 1930's) rather than the actual bomb hoax legislation, precisely because to get a conviction with the bomb hoax legislation they would have needed significantly more evidence of intent.

If you can get arrested for jokes made on the internet then I'd suggest that right now 90% of the British population are criminals on the run, it's absurd to take something like this from a social networking site and pretend that it was meant with any real intent at all.

I suggest we all secretly follow the idiotic judge who rejected this appeal, and next time he says 'Man, I'd kill for a cup of tea' I will personally jump out and make a citizen's arrest for intent to murder.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Admission Impossible

You could hardly have missed it if you even just glanced at the news today, there was a major protest in London against the tripling of tuition fees, with up to 50,000 people marching. Of course, everyone will talk about the 'violence' at Millbank tower, but that misses the bigger point.

I also said before that it's good to admit when you're wrong, and earlier I was a bit too hyped up to see the damage done by a minority of people. I would never ever sympathise with people who choose to hit innocent policemen, or threaten innocent people. I think my natural instinct to protect the right to protest overrode common sense. Marching, sit-in's and blockade's are fine, but I draw the line at any violent behaviour. That said, I think the media coverage was ridiculously over keen to show Millbank rather than the 50,000 other people and that they are partly to blame for how this protest will be remembered.

I've already done to death the reasons why a rise in tuition fees is a ridiculous idea. It will lead to university once again becoming the preserve of the rich, it will mean the richest students pay less than those in the middle, and it ends up costing the government more, so you can't even say its needed to reduce the deficit. We are constantly told that we as a country can't build a future when we're burdened with massive debts, but expect students to do exactly that.

People say that this protest may even end up hurting the student cause, but I think that the next part of the protest, which hasn't been mentioned in the news much yet, will be the key part.

The NUS are now going to pursue a 'decapitation' route (which sounds cool enough already), aiming to take out high-ranking Lib Dems for their U-turn on tuition fees. Imagine how beautiful it would be if the coalition's own 'Right to recall' power was used to bring down Nick Clegg in Sheffield. I might have defended him a couple of months ago but the way he's acted since getting into power have been nothing short of disgusting.

They will use the 'Right to recall' to force a by-election in University seats where they can count on the student vote to punish Lib Dems who broke their pledges, pledges which were a big part of the reason why they got elected in the first place. Nick Clegg himself, before the General Election, lambasted politicians who broke their promises. Now he will reap what he has sown.

For too long people have accused students of not doing enough to get their voices heard like they once did, the peaceful part of today's protest (hijacked at the end by thugs) shows that they won't roll over on this one.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Legal Torture

It's well accepted among sane people that George Bush was a moron of the highest proportions, and that he should never have been able to hold the most powerful job in the world. But sometimes even morons can do something that surprises you in its stupidity, and he's decided to demonstrate this point in a beautiful way, and we should never misunderestimate old George's ability to do just that.

Today's big cover story in The Times proclaims that 'Waterboarding Saved London from Attacks', going with a story from George Bush that he allowed waterboarding to take place, and he thinks the information gleaned from this saved many lives from terrorist attacks.

Now in the much glamourised world of spies, the likes of Jack Bauer go running round all day chasing bad guys and it's only through the use of force that anything gets done, then all of a sudden the day is saved. Bush seems to subscribe to this view. That isn't how it works.

First of all Bush tries to claim that waterboarding isn't torture because it 'didn't leave any permanent damage'. I understand that George has his own dictionary, and a very 'special' way with words, but this has never been the definition of torture, and so it shouldn't be.

The real definition, if you're interested, is that torture is defined as "...any act by which severe suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person".

For those who don't know, waterboarding is essentially a way of slowly drowning someone, so that they are put in such pain that they will tell the people torturing them absolutely anything. Christopher Hitchens volunteered to be waterboarded to see what it was like, and to show just how horrifying it is. If that isn't torture, then nothing is.

As a country we should never participate or condone anything like this, or any form of torture whatsoever. There is the argument that the ends (getting information) justify the means, but I don't think that stands up at all. If you justify waterboarding then why not beating up the prisoner, or putting them on the rack? We realised long ago that torture is immoral and not helpful, justifying a new form of torture on the grounds that it doesn't cause 'physical damage' is abhorrent.

To use the ends justify the means argument you're making a lot of assumptions. You assume you have the right person. You assume that they know everything you need to know. You assume that they will tell you the right information in time. I think that's a lot of assumptions to make to justify inflicted horrendous suffering on someone, and indeed there's plenty of evidence which shows that torture is a terrible way of getting accurate information from people.

And on that other point, I said the prisoner would tell the torturer 'anything', and I meant exactly that. They will say absolutely anything to get out of that situation, not just the truth. You could end up with a whole load of false leads because someone is so understandably desperate to get out of that situation that they will say whatever they think the person wants to hear.

Torture doesn't work, and is indefensible morally. Whatever benefits George may now claim it bought (which are very dubious indeed) it cannot justify the means. I've said before, if security services need to break human rights laws to get their job done, then they should find another way to do their job.

How can we as a people criticise human rights issues in other countries when we are complicit in torture? We can't. It makes no difference whether it's a pensioner, a schoolchild or a terrorist, human rights apply to everyone. If human rights aren't universal, then they aren't worth a jot.

Like Franklin said, "Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security, will deserve neither and lose both."

Edit: A writer at ConservativeHome has applauded George Bush for his 'decisiveness' and claimed he will be seen positively in the future. I've said before why I think being decisive is a very overrated attribute, and would much rather have someone in power who occasionally changed their mind after seeing new evidence than a leader like Bush who went charging all guns blazing (quite literally in some cases) without any thought for consequences or changing situations.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Yes to AV, yes to fairer votes.

On 5th May 2011, there will be a referendum on changing the voting system in the UK, from the current First Past the Post, to the Alternative Vote. Here's why I think it's time for a change.

It seems bizarre to me that there is even a serious movement that would be opposed to the change in this referendum, but it seems as though there may be a serious fight on the cards to win a change in the voting system. So here's why I think the 'Yes' vote really has to win.

The first idea to quash is that we shouldn't have this referendum because people don't care, and there are other more important issues to deal with than the way we vote people into parliament. Quite how the No2AV campaign can use this as one of their main objections baffles me, we're having the referendum anyway, why would you vote 'No' just because you don't think it should be held? Surely your vote should reflect what you feel on the subject, the question on the paper won't be 'Do you like that we're having this referendum?' Just because there are other more important issues doesn't mean we shouldn't address it, I'm sure that the world won't implode into anarchy because for one day the people of Britain have to go out and put a cross on a piece of paper.

The system we have right now is broken, unfit for the size of the country and for multi-party politics. Whichever way you look at it First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) is unfair. Millions of people up and down the country didn't get a vote at this last election. They may have dutifully gone down to the polling station and filled in their slip, but it was a wasted effort. FPTP means wasted votes, any vote for a losing candidate counts for nothing.

Too many people couldn't even vote for the party that they wanted, because they knew there was no chance of that candidate winning in their seat, they might have been Labour in a Lib Dem-Tory seat or Tory in a Labour-Lib Dem seat, either way they were effectively kicked out of the whole process. They had to vote 'tactically' to try and block the other major party from winning, meaning their own candidate suffered even more. Never again should someone be told that to vote how they want to would be a wasted vote.

With AV you are guaranteed that the winning candidate has a majority of at least 50% of their constituents, something far too many failed to achieve in 2010. There is no need to break the constituency link and it eliminates tactical voting.

Because in AV you rank your candidates, it will often be second preference votes which allow a person to be elected. This will mean they have to appeal to a broad range of people outside their traditional base and rely on picking up second choice votes from them. We will be rid of some the disgusting negative tactics epitomised by Phil Woolas (though he isn't alone, all parties engage in it) because insulting another party will instantly mean losing all their second choice votes. Finally, votes will be cast for policy, not out of fear of the alternative.

So, what could people possibly object to? These are a few choice ones from the No2AV campaign, and are frankly laughable.
  • It will let extremist party supporters (i.e. BNP) have more than one vote - It will give everyone a choice to vote in ranking, yes, but will actually make it harder for extremist parties to get support because it's unlikely that they'll be many people's second choice. Their appeal is very narrow. Score one for an own goal to the 'No' campaign there then.
  • It will 'muddy the debate' in marginal seats - No, what it will mean is that in marginal seats you won't be able to bash the other candidate in a desperate grab for power, you'll have to set out policies which appeal to a broad spectrum of the constituents. 
  • AV is a compromise no-one wants - I know that there are plenty of people (myself included) who think that AV is not enough, we should reform the voting to be much more proportional. But AV is a step in the right direction, and crucially, whilst its not as far as some want, it's infinitely better than what we have right now. A 'No' vote won't be interpreted as a vote for 'AV doesn't go far enough'. It will be seen as a vote for 'we like things how they are'.
But, for the pièce de résistance, this is by far the most condescending, ridiculous and insulting objection of all:

The AV system (i.e. putting numbers from 1 to 5 in a box rather than a cross) is too confusing for people.

Now I'm not sure who exactly many of my readers are, but I'd like to hedge a bet here. I'm willing to put a significant amount of money on the fact that pretty much everyone reading this is capable of not only counting to 5 (in order as well!), but of writing those numbers down in a box.

Vote 'Yes' for AV, yes for fairer votes.
Maybe I give people too much credit, but it doesn't seem like much of a jump from a cross, to numbers.

The No2AV campaign has nothing positive to say because there is nothing positive about the FPTP system they try to defend. So instead, they resort to this condescending negative attack which doesn't even look at the real issue of which is the better voting system, and they end up suggesting that most people would find counting to 5 far too difficult. Utter buffoons.

There are many more reasons to vote for AV than I could mention in one blog, some of which can be found here and here. And there are many more reasons why FPTP is dead, which you can find here. In six months time everyone gets a vote, and for the sake of a fair democracy I pray to whichever God/s you might or might not believe in that you vote Yes.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Letting emotion rule the roost.

Sometimes in Medicine people let their hearts overrule their heads, and it inevitably ends up hurting patients. I have a feeling that this is exactly what's happened with the decision to take away the power from NICE to decide which drugs should be paid for on the NHS. Instead we'll have a postcode lottery, with a real probability of money being wasted on popularist treatments that aren't actually as effective at what they do and drain money away from where it is really needed.

I've written before about how NICE gets undeserved scorn from some areas of the press, and perhaps that's inevitable given that their job involves denying the funding of drugs to patients. But the fact of the matter that while people might not think it in good taste to look at aspects of health care from a cost-effectiveness point of view, that is what you have to do when there isn't a limitless budget. You have to prioritise treatments, and that means that some people will inevitably lose out. All you can do is make sure the smallest amount of people lose the smallest amount possible. In fact, despite it's reputation for negative decisions, NICE has approved 83% of all new treatments it's had to consider funding.

You don't have to look far to see that people won't always be able to see what the best treatments will be for themselves. The very fact that the NHS spends £4 million a year on Homeopathy, a treatment which has been thoroughly debunked and shown to have no positive effect beyond that of a placebo, is proof enough that people will happily shell out hard cash for worthless treatments.

That is why NICE is so essential, it takes out the political and business influence from something that should be purely based on rigorous clinical assessment of its cost/benefit. Of course government's are going to want to provide the drugs that give the most positive headlines, and the pharmaceutical companies are going to want to claim every drug they produce is worth spending fortunes on, but we can't let those vested interests get in the way of giving patients the best care we can with the funds available.

We shouldn't give in to the powerful lobbying of the big pharma companies, who will benefit massively from this new supposed 'value-based pricing' which will take out the ability of an independent body to just say no to these companies. When you have a body that can simply say no, this isn't worth the price you're charging, it forces pharma to up their game and provide value for money.

Of course, this isn't the only time I've suggested reform of pharmaceutical companies, and it's not that I want to damage them, but I think reform is needed so that they serve he patients interests before they serve their stockholders.

If you want to see what happens when pharma holds all the cards and claims that this is in the interests of the patients, then look to the USA. Admittedly, their problems run deeper than simply the drugs companies, but they are a major reason why their health care costs have increased exponentially since the 1980's, to the point they pay the most per capita anywhere in the world. Yet, for all this money being spent on the top drugs, they have some of the worst health outcomes of any developed country. Lots of money spent on health care is only beneficial if it's targeted in the right areas.

Andrew Lansley is playing political games with the NHS, and so far its fallen on unsympathetic ears from all areas of health care. This is the latest in a long line of failures. Let's keep providing money for treatments that are shown to work, and provide the best care possible. Let's keep NICE.