Monday, 31 May 2010

Happy plants

A short break from the usual with some plant photos.

Bluebells
The bluebells are finally out.

Leafy plants
The big leafy plants are starting to cover a lot more of the ground now, so after a year it looks a lot less bare earth. This one isn't quite flowering fully yet, but the leaves are nice.

Garlic flowers
Like the bluebells, the garlic put out some leaves months ago, but only flowered just now. It's a small cluster of pretty white flowers.

Lots of flowers on stalks
We planted these not long ago, and in the last few days they've all flowered. The bright white one in the middle is more garlic.

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Friday, 28 May 2010

Friday links

Countering bad arguments for defendant anonymity

So, this proposal to give anonymity to defendants in rape trials is picking up a bunch of bad arguments. Since, no doubt, they'll come up again if this ever gets to the legislative stage, I'm writing them down now for future reference. I'll keep editing this post to add more arguments as needed.

Meanwhile, a few other possible campaign actions:

  • In comments, gorilerof3b points out this petition to the Justice Secretary to drop the proposal.
  • From the petition page, there's this Early Day Motion (Parliament's internal equivalent of a petition). So far (as of 28 May) it has 52 Labour signatories and 1 Plaid Cymru one. If your MP isn't on that list, encourage them to sign up.

    Looking at who has signed it 38 of the 53 signatories are women, or 72%. In the Commons as a whole, 22% of MPs (143 of 650) are women. So, the motion has so far been signed by just over 26% of the women in the Commons (46% of the Labour women), and by just under 3% of the men.

    So, yes, let's file this proposal under "ones that a Parliament with decent gender balance would probably never have even considered".

  • Another post, and an excellent letter, on this, by Sian and Crooked Rib.

On to the arguments. (Last edit: 9 July)

[trigger warning]

The victims get anonymity, so why shouldn't the defendant?

Short answer: Because the defendant is suspected of a crime and the victim isn't.

While there's obviously a temptation to say that it's only fair that the defendant should have the same right to anonymity - a temptation that the 1976 Labour government succumbed to - it makes no sense.

Suspects for a crime are generally charged with the crime many months before their trial. This is unavoidable - we have a busy justice system, and both sides need time to prepare their cases. In that time, it is possible that the suspect, rather than face trial, will go into hiding. So, we have bail arrangements, and suspects who can't put down a satisfactory bond or who breach their bail terms are detained in prison until the trial.

No-one, so far as I know, is arguing that we should either extend the same treatment to witnesses, or arguing that because we allow witnesses to go about their lives and trust them to appear when called at the trial we should extend the same trust to all suspects. The bail system is widely seen as fair and reasonable.1

There may be reasons why defendants in a particular trial or class of trials should be given anonymity, but that witnesses in the same trials are anonymous is not one of them. There is no principle anywhere else in the system that defendants and witnesses/victims should be treated identically.

However, this line of argument doesn't even hold together if you believe that while in general defendant and victim rights should be different there is nevertheless a case for them to be the same regarding media anonymity.

If that was the case, the victims in cases where the defendants currently get anonymity (an over-18 victim of a non-sexual crime allegedly committed by an under-18 defendant, for instance) should also be given anonymity. There's no demand for this, and I've never seen anyone anywhere explicitly suggest it, and it makes no sense whatsoever, but that's the consequence of a "victims and defendants should have the same anonymity" argument.

1 It has problems with racism and classism, yes, so it's not actually as reasonable as it is perceived, but those are largely problems with the implementation rather than the principle.

Anonymity should be for defendants in all crimes (or all "serious" crimes)

I have to say, I would be far more sympathetic to this argument if I ever saw it anywhere else. It only seems to come out, though, as part of sequences like this:

Person A: We should have anonymity for defendants in rape trials.

Person B: Why? Defendants on charges of terrorism, or child abuse, or murder, or other horrific crimes don't get to be anonymous, despite the potential for their reputation to be damaged also being very large.

Person C: I'd be in favour of anonymity for defendants of all (serious) crimes.

What I don't see is Person C saying this in any other contexts. If there were really masses of people holding this opinion, I'd expect to see some sign of this. I've looked, and I found a lot calling for anonymity for rape defendants specifically, but only one calling for general anonymity, and while they are on paper for all defendants, the vast majority of their proposals and case studies relate to rape and other sexual offences, so I don't think it breaks the general pattern. They are massively outnumbered, to put it mildly, by calls only affecting rape defendants.

But, that's not a reason to reject the proposal. The following, however, are - and are also perhaps reasons it's rarely suggested outside this context:

  1. Public trials are generally in the interest of the defendant, since it means that justice can be seen to be done. This is articles 10 and 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I don't think many people would be entirely comfortable with a country where suspects were arrested, charged and tried in absolute secrecy - with reporting on this being itself an offence - and only after they had been found guilty and jailed could the whole process be reported on.

    Meanwhile, those who were arrested, charged, tried and later acquitted would have to explicitly waive their anonymity for any lessons regarding the process to be made public. This could cover up a number of abuses of process, or cases of systematic discrimination in the system.

  2. While there are rightly laws that allow defendants anonymity in the cases where revealing their identity might reveal the identity of their victims or other vulnerable people (and these laws are used in rape cases already), extending these as a matter of course to all trials leads to ridiculous situations.

    For example: A major business collapses into bankruptcy. The CEO is arrested on fraud charges and brought to trial. The press cannot usefully report on the trial at all because there is no way to mention even the details of the charges - or perhaps in some cases even the company - without revealing the identity of the defendant. Not all trials would be affected this way, of course, but some high profile ones would.

    If we take the case, for instance, of Bernard Madoff (I know, US rather than UK law, but the principles don't differ in this case), I can't see how you could even report that his pyramid scheme had collapsed without breaking a strict defendant anonymity requirement.

  3. What do the police do if they have a suspect, and want to either find out who they are or gather further evidence? At the moment, they might release CCTV footage, or a photo-fit, or even just a description to the press, in the hope that someone will recognise them and give them additional evidence. How this is reconciled with a requirement not to identify in association with a crime anyone not found guilty of the crime I'm not sure.

    Here's a suspected rapist who had an e-fit of their appearance released recently. It's rare for identifying information to be released by the police pre-charge, but here's a case where it's necessary to do so pre-arrest.

    Conversely, if you allow the police to release a suspect's name (or other strongly identifying information) and the press to report on this for the purposes of evidence gathering, this is really no change from now. Since one argument against defendant anonymity in rape cases is that it may encourage other victims of a serial rapist to come forward, this is going to be a fairly common action by any police force that actually wants to convict rapists.

Innocent until proven guilty! Eleventy!

This isn't used as an argument in itself, as such, but as a statement to back up other arguments. It's being badly misused.

"Innocent until proven guilty" means that where someone is suspected of a crime, the burden of proof is on the prosecution, who has to prove to the satisfaction of the court that the accused did in fact commit the crime. If they cannot, they are acquitted and freed as there is a presumption of innocence.

It is in contrast to the system of prosecution used - for instance in Revolutionary France - in which suspects are presumed to be guilty unless they can provide satisfactory evidence of their innocence, and is a definite good thing and part of the universal declaration of human rights.

It does not, however, mean that people who are suspected of a crime must be treated identically by the justice system to other presumably innocent people who are not suspected of that crime, because that would be absurd and make it impossible to try people at all.

There are lots of false allegations of rape

There have been many studies done that show, firstly, that there aren't many false allegations made, and that secondly, that most of the false allegations that are made do not name a perpetrator. The number that reach the charges/court stage is incredibly small indeed. Before this stage suspects usually have anonymity in practice anyway, because very few rape cases reach press attention in the pre-charge stage. ACPO guidance from 2000 recommends that for all crimes, in general, suspects should not be named by the police pre-charge.

Actually arguing on that basis is rather pointless, though, because there are also studies (ones, admittedly, with a methodology that it would be generous to describe as extremely flawed) that show the opposite. Without a great amount of time, a strong knowledge of statistics and survey design, and often expensive access to the original papers to look at the methodology, it's difficult to put that argument together.

There is, however, a very simple argument for why the rate must be low (though it doesn't say exactly how low).

According to the British Crime Survey (volume 1, table 3.11), 0.2% of adults aged 16 to 59 were victims of rape at least once in the previous 12 months. There were about 36 million adults of those ages in that year, so that's at least 72,000 rapes of adults of those ages (but this is an absolute minimum, as it doesn't cover multiple attacks on the same person in the same year).

This Home Office study gives an estimate for repeat victimisation in Figure 5.2 and the surrounding text. It references another study suggesting an average of 2.9 rapes per year, or about 210,000 a year nationally.

Only about 8,000 rapes of adults were reported to the police, which is around 4% of the total (less, in fact, since some of the rapes reported will have been of victims aged 60 or over).

There are two things to note here:

  1. Firstly, anyone claiming a false accusation rate above 4% is claiming that it is more likely that a particular report of rape will be false than it is that a particular rape will be reported. While these are not directly comparable reporting rates (the numerator of one is the denominator of the other), it still seems highly unlikely.
  2. Secondly, if the false accusation rate is really 80% (or any of the other ridiculously high figures claimed), that means that 80% of those 8,000 reports are false. That means that only 1,600 are true, which brings the reporting rate for the rapes that did occur down from 4% to less than 1%. It's already a low enough figure to be extremely worrying - and the lower it gets, the less case there is for defendant anonymity (since that has been shown to be harmful to reporting rates).

Anonymity would better protect the reputations of people who were acquitted

There's lots of talk about how people accused of rape can find themselves shunned by some of their social circle even if acquitted. More likely is that the victims will find themselves shunned or disbelieved if they ever say anything, while people will make all sorts of excuses for the perpetrator's behaviour, but let's assume, just for the sake of demolishing this particular argument for defendant anonymity, that people who are accused of rape, and either not charged or acquitted, are subjected to shunning (and according to one now-deleted and implausible comment on this post, vigilante attacks) at some noticeable rate.

An anonymity law would not prevent this.

People's reputation with their social circles is largely dependent on informal conversations and gossip. The anonymity law, like the existing one for victims, would prevent the press from reporting on the suspected rapist's identity. It would not prevent the suspected rapist's acquaintances from wondering why exactly he was in trouble with the police, or off to court. If rape was the only crime for which routine anonymity was granted (and I've covered above why blanket anonymity would be a problem), then they'll know he's off to court, they'll know it's confidential what for, and can connect the dots themselves.

This is the way that most people will find out - if they find out at all - that their acquaintances have been charged with rape. This is absolutely impossible to stop within the resources of the law. Very few rape cases are actually reported in the press anywhere, and there are usually particular situations that lead to that - trials collapsing through prosecutorial incompetence, or high profile defendants, or being particularly horrific even for rape (usually involving murder or another form of additional serious violence, and/or by a stranger). The average rape trial doesn't make even the local papers. (Suspects who are not charged, or who are charged but not brought to trial, are even less likely to get press mentions)

So this proposed anonymity law? Not actually much help to most defendants, if that's the particular consequence they're worried about. It might marginally help the tiny minority of defendants who were brought to trial, in situations newsworthy enough to be reported, but not newsworthy enough for their acquittal to also be reported, but that's really not many people, or much help for them.

More on this, analysing the extreme rarity of suicide and attempts by newsworthy defendants and false accusations more generally, in other posts.

The consequences of being accused and then acquitted of rape are more serious than those for other serious crimes

Really? Given people like Polanski, I don't think it's provable that there's a significant reputation loss associated with being a convicted rapist, but for a suspected rapist, let's look at Ian Huntley. His reputation was strong enough to get work in a school despite having been suspected of ten separate sexual offences. This reputational damage doesn't look very severe at all.

Is this more or less than the reputation loss associated with, for instance, a suspected terrorist? Suspected terrorists can be held without charge for a long period of time. Even without formal charges the government can impose control orders and other restrictions that make it clear that you are a suspected terrorist (and if you want your former quality of life back, it requires a lengthy court fight to have them lifted).

No-one is arguing for anonymity for terrorist defendants, though (other than the "well, okay, other serious crimes too" arguments that have suddenly sprung up), least of all the suspected terrorists who in most cases benefit strongly from the trial being public even despite the reputational costs.

Things you just don't hear human rights organisations saying: "I think it's good that the Guantanamo detainees are being tried in secret military tribunals rather than the public courts - think of how much better it will be for their reputation if they're acquitted." - public trials are in the declaration of human rights for a reason, and it's because it is generally in the interests of the defendant.

All serious crimes, and a fair number of less serious ones, have the potential for a significant loss of reputation for the suspects. On acquittal, if the terms of the acquittal are in the public record, they have a good way to show that the arguments of the prosecution weren't convincing, or that there was incompetence in the evidence collection and they shouldn't even have been a suspect, or whatever, and most of the loss will only be temporary.

Here's the Prime Minister, defending the necessity of being able to deport suspected terrorists who he freely admits there is insufficient evidence to prosecute. Any argument that an accusation of rape is more serious for the suspect than an accusation of other serious crimes is probably not considering things properly.

Addition in light of details

The government are specifically planning to restrict this to rape, but not the very similar crime of assault by penetration. The two crimes are equally severe, and essentially the only difference is that a penis must be used for rape, but any object or other body part may be used for assault by penetration.

Arguing that being accused of [colloquial] rape-with-a-penis causes significantly more serious reputational damage than [colloquial] rape-with-anything-else is not, I think, an argument based in facts.

It's still not clear whether the separate offence "rape of a child under 13" is going to count, but again I find it unlikely that anyone is arguing that raping young children is viewed less harshly by society than raping adults. At any rate, it's clear that assault of a child under 13 by penetration is not covered.

Several other crimes from the Sexual Offences Act 2003 that meet the colloquial but not legal definition of rape, that include the possibility of life imprisonment, and that have similar public disapproval for those that commit them, are also not included. As well as various forms of sexual assault where the victim is under the age of 132, this includes kidnapping or false imprisonment with intent to commit a sexual offence (even if the sexual offence one intended to commit does not itself have a life sentence, and even if it's not actually committed, incidentally)

So even if you agree that colloquial rape is far worse than other crimes for the accused's reputation (and as I said above, I don't), legal rape is clearly not.

2 This I don't entirely get. Obviously the offences for under-13 and under-16 victims need to be different offences so that the "without consent" line can be excluded. However, I don't understand why a particular sexual criminal activity, when carried out on someone under 13 is liable for life imprisonment, but the same acts carried out on a 14-year old or a 40-year old would only have a maximum sentence of 14 years. That doesn't make a lot of sense - why isn't that also punishable by life imprisonment?

The conviction rate is actually around 58%

This one is technically true, and still a bad basis for an argument favouring defendant anonymity.

The government definition of "conviction rate" is the proportion of trials that end in conviction. The colloquial definition is the proportion of reports that end in conviction (for which I'm not sure there is a name, though the proportion of reports that do not end in conviction is the "attrition rate"). There may be a case for using more precise language - referring to "the proportion of reports that result in a conviction" rather than "the conviction rate", but since even some MPs use the two interchangeably, it's probably not urgent.

Baroness Stern, among others, has suggested that there should be more focus on this figure, and less on the attrition rate.

The bad argument is this: "Since the conviction rate is not too different to that for other crimes, there's therefore no compelling need to make things even better for victims at the expense of potentially innocent defendants."

I think Baroness Stern is wrong. The conviction rate is virtually useless in itself, and campaigners are right to focus on the attrition rate.

The Crown Prosecution Service guidelines state that prosecutors should only proceed with a case if they believe they have a better than even chance of success. It would be highly unusual in this case if the conviction rate (government meaning) was much different to the 58% it currently is - if it were much higher, for such a common crime, it would suggest that prosecutors were failing to take on some potentially winnable cases. If it were much lower it would suggest that prosecutors were getting it wrong and consistently failing to win cases that they should have done.

The attrition rate, on the other hand, lets the problems in earlier stages of the process be highlighted. I've linked to this paper by Kelly, Lovett and Regan before, and it's a detailed look at all stages where cases are lost. The differences by police force - compare Dorset on 1.6% with Cleveland on 18.1% are also instructive regarding how much more could clearly be done.

The attrition rate is also the important one for victims. Victims might, as Baroness Stern suggests, be encouraged by the thought that if their case gets to court, they're more likely than not to find their rapist convicted. Nevertheless, it seems unreasonable, and letting the police and CPS off, to not also highlight that those two organisations often fail to get cases to court.

And with the attrition rate being as bad as it is, there is definitely no case for making things harder for victims and easier for defendants.

Lots of things in the programme for government weren't in either manifesto

The example I've seen of this is that the proposed referendum on Alternative Vote was in neither the Conservative nor the Lib Dem manifesto, and this is true, it wasn't. This is, however, an entirely different sort of example.

The Conservatives want to keep First Past the Post. The Lib Dems want Single Transferable Vote and said so in their manifesto. The resulting policy of the coalition is somewhere between the two.

This policy is not somewhere between the two manifestos, however. Here's the relevant bits of the Conservative manifesto:

We will implement the Prisoners' earnings act 1996 to allow deductions from the earnings of prisoners in properly paid work to be paid into the victims' fund. We will use this fund to deliver up to fifteen new rape crisis centres and give existing rape crisis centres stable, long-term funding. To help stop sexual violence before it occurs, we will ensure that the school curriculum includes teaching young people about sexual consent.

The Lib Dem manifesto didn't mention rape at all.

A compromise between these two would be to only do some of the things suggested in the Conservative manifesto, or to do less of them. Doing something completely different, that just happened to be an obscure Lib Dem policy and a personal aim of some Conservative MPs, is not a compromise between the two manifestos.

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Thursday, 27 May 2010

Too high a standard

The BBC reports on the proportion of potential new citizens to pass the citizenship test. The overall pass rate was 70.9%, and to pass requires answering at least 18 questions out of a 24 question test correctly.

When the test was first announced, this sample test (flash-based, might not be very accessible, at least two of the questions on the sample test have answers that are not strictly true) got passed around various forums. Numerous UK citizens had a go at it.

The pass rate for UK citizens, I think, was between 10% and 20%. Without cheating and looking things up on the internet, I got 13 out of 24, which is nowhere near enough, but was a fairly typical score. It should tell you how useful some of the knowledge tested is to being a UK citizen, anyway.

There's a booklet that one can get before taking the test, that goes through the facts that might be tested. What the test is actually testing is that:

  1. You can read English well enough to read the book and then interpret the questions.
  2. You have a good medium-term memory for apparently pointless facts.

Unsurprisingly, the pass-rates for migrants from countries where English is an official language are really high (presumably the people who failed were those who were never any good at exams, and/or had disabilities that made the test environment inherently unfair), and the pass rates for migrants from other countries were much lower.

It's in keeping, of course, with the country's apparent need to be unfriendly to immigrants (while remaining reasonably friendly to ex-pats) that it sets a test for citizenship that the majority of the existing citizens would never pass without practice.

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Take away their dictionary license

Operation Black Vote reports that the General Teaching Council has cleared a teacher who posted "racially offensive" comments on the internet. Given the comments, there has been a lot of criticism of this decision, and rightly so.

[trigger warning for racist and dehumanising language]

Here's what they said, among other things:

"Our country is fast becoming a dumping ground for the filth of the third world. And all we do is sleep. If we do not wake up and get a grip soon then the country we have fought and died for and cherish so much will itself be turned into a third world cess pit. Indeed, in some parts of our country it already has!!!! We have enough on our plates sorting out our own home grown scumbags and scroungers without allowing filth from other countries to come here and destroy us."

And:

"Pull all of our soldiers out of all foreign conflicts and get them back here to patrol our own borders. This will prevent our country from being over-run by third world savages, the likes of which we have seen murdering our people and destroying our way of life."

So, some pretty clear dehumanisation and racism there.

Here's what the General Teaching Council decided about those postings in particular (all quotes from the Word document linked on that page):

The Committee's view is that such postings contain offensive terms and demonstrate views or an attitude that might be considered racist. The Committee notes that some postings appear to have been cut and pasted from other documents or websites, but the postings above appear to convey Mr Walker's views in no uncertain terms.

Very understated - "might be", indeed - but so far the case looks clear. And then...

However for the GTC to prove its case in relation to particular 2 the Committee has to be satisfied that contributions made by Mr Walker demonstrated views suggestive of racial intolerance. Although "suggestive" may be a relatively low threshold, "intolerance" is a significant word which the Committee has considered very carefully.

The Legal Adviser provided the Committee with a definition of intolerance from the Oxford English Dictionary which suggests it might mean "not tolerating opinions or practices different from one’s own, denying or refusing to others the right to dissent." The Committee has found this definition a helpful way to consider the ordinary meaning to be given to this word.

[...]

The Committee’s view is that, to be suggestive of intolerance, the postings would need to deny or refuse to others the right to dissent.

Well, yes, if you use that particular definition of "intolerance" then nothing Mr Walker did would count. He could be as racially abusive as he liked, but provided he didn't call for immigrants to be banned from the internet forum in which the discussion was taking place, it wouldn't be "intolerance".

The OED, good as it is, is not always up to date. This is trivially true in the case of "intolerance", since the definition, in common English usage and included in other dictionaries of "abnormal sensitivity or allergy to a food, drug, etc." is not included in the 1989 Second Edition (it will, of course, be in later revised editions)

Given that, it's fairly clear that the rest of it might also not reflect contemporary usage either. Relying on the dictionary is not, in any case, a sensible thing to do (I saw a good post on this not long ago, which I have no managed to lose - if I find it again I'll edit a link to it in here).

At any rate, the link there includes the slightly different definition:

lack of toleration; unwillingness or refusal to tolerate or respect contrary opinions or beliefs, persons of different races or backgrounds, etc.

"... refusal to ... respect .. persons of different races or backgrounds". That, it seems quite clear, is something that Mr Walker was doing.

Yes, under certain definitions of the word, Mr Walker was not being racially intolerant. But then, under certain definitions of the word "personal", they could have found him innocent of "personal use of a school laptop", if they'd used the OED definition 3b:

Affecting one's body; relating to one's physical safety or well-being.

Was Mr Walker repeatedly dropping the laptop on his foot? No.

Conversely, they could have found not only him but all of his colleagues guilty, by using definition 2a:

Done, made, held, performed, etc., in person, or by the person concerned; involving the actual presence or action of the individual (as opposed to an agent or representative). [...]

Oh no! They're using the laptops themselves instead of giving them to the designated laptop handlers to use.

Instead, they used the obvious and reasonable definition, not dissimilar to the OED's 1a:

Of, relating to, concerning, or affecting a person as a private individual (rather than as a member of a group or the public, or in a public or professional capacity) [...]

So if they could apply some basic sense to that, and consider what the rule was clearly meant to apply to, why throw it out - and change a relatively loose standard into a very tight and easily avoidable one - when discussing the specific charges of racism.

The criticism they are receiving from a wide variety of sources for doing so is entirely justified.

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Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Initial thoughts on the programme for government

So, the Program for Government. It's even possible to comment on the individual aspects of it online, which is impressive (well, now that they've got that bit working) but probably not useful.

The classifications are somewhat arbitrary, and it could do with more linking between sections, which makes it a little hard to read (and also allows things to be a little hidden on anything other than a comprehensive search). Some things appear to be missing entirely from the logical section, but have adequate coverage elsewhere. Other things are more notable for their complete absence from the programme.

It's - as is to be expected for a programme covering a planned 5-year term - very long. It's also short on details almost everywhere, which will only be revealed if and when the relevant legislation or guidelines or budgets are released.

In general, the principles seem fine, but what details there are for proposals don't always back up the principles. There are some long overdue ideas, and also plenty that it would have been better if they had never been put forward. On the whole, I'm cautiously optimistic - it's not a good programme for government, but it's not in most areas a disaster either, and the nature of a coalition government means that campaigning might be able to lead to more satisfactory outcomes.

Details and comments on some of the proposals below. There's a lot I've not commented on, on the basis that I just don't know enough about the area to know what the likely effects are.

Banking

At a first glance, this all looks okay. It'll depend on what the details of the new regulations are.

Business

This is a large section, and a lot of it is relatively uncontroversial. Help for small businesses, requirements for businesses to report on social and environmental duties, etc. However, there's some quite worrying clauses too.

We will cut red tape by introducing a ‘one-in, one-out’ rule whereby no new regulation is brought in without other regulation being cut by a greater amount.

So, on banking, it's all "too much deregulation, everything went wrong, let's regulate them again", but for other businesses it's "too much regulation, let's deregulate". There probably are some regulations that could be removed harmlessly, but imposing a requirement that the total amount of regulation always decreases is absurd - especially when a lot of the rest of the section is talking about things that would require added regulations. It seems like it's just a grab for an easy soundbite.

We will review employment and workplace laws, for employers and employees, to ensure they maximise flexibility for both parties while protecting fairness and providing the competitive environment required for enterprise to thrive.

Given the parties of the current government, I'm fairly certain that this will see more restrictions on the rights to take industrial action, and a net reduction in employee protections in other areas.

Civil liberties

All good stuff, now that the government seems to have accepted that it essentially can't usefully repeal the Human Rights Act (and would never have the Commons votes for it anyway).

Given that this was one of the previous government's worst areas, "stop doing that" is all you really need for a policy success, of course.

In practice, of course, it may just be a different set of civil liberties that get restricted.

Communities and local government

Again, some good things in here, such as improvements to energy efficiency standards, greater protection against aggressive debt collectors, and so on, though how much use they'll be in practice is hard to tell. Also some worrying bits:

We will freeze Council Tax in England for at least one year, and seek to freeze it for a further year, in partnership with local authorities.

Combine that with a likely drop in central government funding for local authorities, and a lot of important local services are going to have to be reduced or dropped entirely, with the usual greater effects on people who are working-class and/or disabled and/or old.

Consumer protection

It's hard for any government to put "actually, we think consumers are too protected", at least, not in this section of the document. There doesn't seem to be anything actually bad here, though how much good any of it does will as always depend on the detail.

Crime and policing

We will reduce time-wasting bureaucracy that hampers police operations, and introduce better technology to make policing more effective while saving taxpayers’ money.

We will amend the health and safety laws that stand in the way of common sense policing.

Making police record - for instance - every stop and search they do, is often perceived, both by the police and large parts of the press, as "time-wasting bureaucracy". Given that it's the only thing that makes it possible to definitively tell how much racial profiling the police are doing, and perhaps gives them second thoughts about doing so on occasion, slowing them down slightly seems a good thing.

As far as "health and safety laws" go, I have no idea what this refers to, but "health and safety" and "common sense" in the same sentence sets off alarms.

We will promote better recording of hate crimes against disabled, homosexual and transgender people, which are frequently not centrally recorded.

Definitely good. Should, of course, have been a requirement from the start.

Culture, Olympics, media and sport

They're in favour of them.

We will cut red tape to encourage the performance of more live music.

If this is about Form 696, then this is definitely a good thing.

Defence

We will maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and have agreed that the renewal of Trident should be scrutinised to ensure value for money. Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives. We will immediately play a strong role in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, and press for continued progress on multilateral disarmament.

"Value for money" is a strange concept to apply to nuclear weapons. In the event that you use them, there will be a near-complete collapse of civilisation and economic systems very soon afterwards. At that point, how much you previously paid for them is irrelevant (and before that point, the less you spend on them, the more you have left over for other things). If you don't use them (which is the plan), the most cost-effective one is the cheapest that your hypothetical enemy believes would work if you did use it.

Also, of course, maintaining the nuclear deterrent while wanting multilateral disarmament seems impossibly inconsistent.

Deficit reduction

We will significantly accelerate the reduction of the structural deficit over the course of a Parliament, with the main burden of deficit reduction borne by reduced spending rather than increased taxes.

In other words, reduced services for those who need them rather than more taxes on those who could do without the reduced services anyway. There might be sufficient unnecessary spending to reduce the deficit without harming services, but I doubt it.

Energy and climate change

Nothing particularly bad, but it's probably not ambitious enough either.

Environment, food and rural affairs

They're in favour of that, too. Lots of "investigate" and "work towards" and not so much actual commitments. Oh, and fox hunting.

Equalities

We will stop the deportation of asylum seekers who have had to leave particular countries because their sexual orientation or gender identification puts them at proven risk of imprisonment, torture or execution.

Better late than never (though "proven" allows a lot of room for error).

There doesn't seem to be anything on disabilities and despite the preamble nothing much on class either.

Europe

We will ensure that there is no further transfer of sovereignty or powers over the course of the next Parliament. We will examine the balance of the EU’s existing competences and will, in particular, work to limit the application of the Working Time Directive in the United Kingdom.

See previous comments on employer versus employee rights.

Otherwise nothing particularly surprising. Not getting any closer to Europe, but not getting further away either.

Families and children

We will review the criminal records and vetting and barring regime and scale it back to common sense levels.

...This will give us plenty of room to scale it back up again in response to the next five years of "how could this person ever have been allowed near children" headlines in the press.

We will encourage shared parenting from the earliest stages of pregnancy – including the promotion of a system of flexible parental leave.

Better leave arrangements in this area could be a big improvement, but the big difference between here and the Scandinavian countries that have more flexible leave is that those countries also pay that leave better.

Foreign affairs

Lots of bits in favour of world peace and co-operation, except for unpopular countries.

We will never condone the use of torture.

It's worrying how far the boundaries of what is acceptable have deteriorated that this even needs to be said.

Government transparency

They're in favour of that too.

We will ensure that all data published by public bodies is published in an open and standardised format, so that it can be used easily and with minimal cost by third parties.

This bit would be very good if it actually happens.

Immigration

Given how bad a mostly-Conservative policy on immigration could have been, it could be a lot worse. There's even some good bits

We will end the detention of children for immigration purposes.

Though it's not just the detention of children that makes the detention centres a problem, of course - and stopping the abuse of adult detainees doesn't get a mention.

The proposals for a cap on non-EU immigration really depend on where the cap is set. If it's too low, and the pressure from the media and the right will always be to lower it, then people who should be allowed in will be turned away (which happens enough as it is). If it's high enough not to actually restrict immigration significantly, then it will cause problems anyway with the reinforcement of the dominant "immigration is bad" framing.

International development

We will support actions to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. In particular, we will prioritise aid spending on programmes to ensure that everyone has access to clean water, sanitation, healthcare and education; to reduce maternal and infant mortality; and to restrict the spread of major diseases like HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria. We will recognise the vital role of women in development, promote gender equality and focus on the rights of women, children and disabled people to access services.

And lots of other things that sound good on paper.

Jobs and welfare

We will re-assess all current claimants of Incapacity Benefit for their readiness to work. Those assessed as fully capable for work will be moved onto Jobseeker’s Allowance.

This sounds like continuing with the previous government's programme, which has not been good. The comments on that page are full of complaints about it, and there was a highly critical report by Citizens Advice not long ago.

Nothing on job creation, either.

Justice

Lots of focus on rehabilitation and reducing reoffending, which is good.

We will change the law so that historical convictions for consensual gay sex with over-16s will be treated as spent and will not show up on criminal records checks.

Good.

We will extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants.

A lot has been said on this already. It's still a bad idea.

National security

Nothing surprising. I'm not sure exactly what constitutes a "verifiable guarantee" in:

We believe that Britain should be able to deport foreign nationals who threaten our security to countries where there are verifiable guarantees that they will not be tortured. We will seek to extend these guarantees to more countries.

Depending on how much verifying gets done, this could allow a lot of torture that apparently we don't condone.

NHS

They're promising to increase real-terms funding despite general cuts in government spending, which means that they can promise a lot more with this.

Lots of cuts on the easy target of "admin", though. I seriously doubt that a third of administration costs are unnecessary - done well, all your admin costs should either be saving money overall or improving service quality anyway.

We will seek to stop foreign healthcare professionals working in the NHS unless they have passed robust language and competence tests.

I keep reading this as "(robust language) and (competence) tests" rather than as "robust (language and competence) tests". Ties in with some of their anti-immigration policies.

As pointed out in the comments there already, the big thing that is missing is anything on mental health treatment. (People with mental health problems get a mention in Justice instead, next to "drugs offenders")

Pensions and older people

We will commit to establishing an independent commission to review the long-term affordability of public sector pensions, while protecting accrued rights.

This could be very controversial, depending on what it says. Public sector salaries are generally lower than private sector salaries for a comparable job, which means other benefits such as good pensions help to make up the difference.

Political reform

Five years seems a bit long for a fixed Parliamentary term, though it does at least ensure that they drift with respect to the local elections rather than being held with the same set each time.

Of course, whether the coalition actually lasts five years is hard to tell at the moment.

We will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies. We will whip both Parliamentary parties in both Houses to support a simple majority referendum on the Alternative Vote, without prejudice to the positions parties will take during such a referendum.

Alternative Vote isn't great, and wouldn't make much difference in most seats (except that the uniform transfer calculations don't take into account unpopular incumbents who could still maintain a plurality of the votes), but it's still an improvement on the current system, and a potential step towards a proportional voting system.

We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. [...]

A proportionally-elected upper chamber and a constituency-based lower chamber might actually work out quite well as a compromise system. They're going to adjust the composition of the Lords to make it proportional to vote share in the meantime, so that will provide some testing.

We will ensure that any petition that secures 100,000 signatures will be eligible for formal debate in Parliament. The petition with the most signatures will enable members of the public to table a bill eligible to be voted on in Parliament.

Here are the previous petitions in order of size. There were eight that got above 100,000 and there's one currently open that will probably reach that threshold too if the new government continues with the system.

The responses to the eight were "No", "No", "no answer" (it ended not long before the start of the election campaign), "No-one was planning to do that in the first place", "Still no", "No-one was planning to do that either", "We'll think about it" and "No", which perhaps gives an idea of why the new government is uncertain about what to do with the system, but doesn't explain why they think this is a good idea.

We will introduce extra support for people with disabilities who want to become MPs, councillors or other elected officials.

Good, but again, it'll be the details that matter.

Public health

The Government believes that we need action to promote public health, and encourage behaviour change to help people live healthier lives.

No explicit mention of the role of government in providing safe and affordable facilities for exercise, for instance, but there's also no explicit mention of the "obesity epidemic" in this section, which might allow for some improvements in policy there.

Schools

This section as a whole does not seem particularly good. A lot will depend, as usual, on the details, but many of the principles are worrying in themselves. No mention of home education (it doesn't belong in this section, but it wasn't in "Families and children" either) which hopefully means they're going to leave it alone.

We will give parents, teachers, charities and local communities the chance to set up new schools, as part of our plans to allow new providers to enter the state school system in response to parental demand.

How this will work in practice is difficult to tell. I don't know how many groups would want to take up this offer, or how easy they'd find it to set up a new school anyway. It seems like it would spread the state funding more thinly, and it's somewhat stretched as it is.

We will help schools tackle bullying in schools, especially homophobic bullying.

Again, the details will be important (and since they've mentioned recording transphobic and disablist hate crimes elsewhere, it seems unusual that they aren't also mentioned here), but this is urgently needed.

Social action

The principles are good, but the ideas seem a bit lacking.

I'm fully in favour of volunteering, collective action, and so on, as a way of making improvements to society. Obviously so. However, it's time-consuming, difficult, can have worse accessibility issues than more formalised work, and sometimes expensive. There's a lot of talk in this section about encouraging volunteering, but nothing about giving people the spare time to be able to do it.

We will give public sector workers a new right to form employee-owned co-operatives and bid to take over the services they deliver. This will empower millions of public sector workers to become their own boss and help them to deliver better services.

I'm not completely clear how outsourcing your job to yourself is supposed to improve services (if it really does give them better control, then it might increase morale, which might help). If they then don't deliver better services, can they be replaced? (Either answer makes it a bad idea for someone to actually let this happen for their public services)

Social care and disability

As with many sections, the principles are sufficiently uncontroversial that they're meaningless (who in mainstream politics would admit to being opposed to dignity and respect in a document like this?) but it all depends on the details.

Taxation

The compromises of coalition seem to have meant that most of the tax cuts - at least to start with - will be for people with low incomes and wealth. I expect the Conservatives will want to get back to the Inheritance tax cuts sooner rather than later, though, which they've left quite open.

We will seek ways of taxing non-business capital gains at rates similar or close to those applied to income, with generous exemptions for entrepreneurial business activities.

Good. Capital Gains Tax being lower than Income Tax makes sense for the riskier sort of gains associated with setting up a new business, but not for many of the other sources of money covered by this tax. It's very vague language, though, so whether it actually happens or not will be hard to tell.

We will make every effort to tackle tax avoidance, including detailed development of Liberal Democrat proposals.

I'll believe it when I see it. No government is ever explicitly in favour of tax avoidance, but they all leave enough loopholes.

Transport

Mainly focused on improvements to rail.

We will grant longer rail franchises in order to give operators the incentive to invest in the improvements passengers want – like better services, better stations, longer trains and better rolling stock.

I wonder if this might work better if they were given shorter franchises, renewal of which was made conditional on making improvements (and possibly on continuing the improvements of the previous holder), since the other possibility here is that they'll take the longer franchises as an excuse to do as little as possible.

Universities and further education

As usual, unpopular policy is being held off until a report scheduled for after the election. Funding for universities is quite a problem, and it wouldn't surprise me to see a few universities go bankrupt in the next five years.

Student fees is the big election issue here, but won't make a large difference to university funding as a whole. It really depends how they are implemented - if done well, with good-quality means testing (which, among other things, doesn't assume that students will necessarily be supported by their families) it could actually be beneficial for less wealthy students.

Notes

The deficit reduction programme takes precedence over any of the other measures in this agreement, and the speed of implementation of any measures that have a cost to the public finances will depend on decisions to be made in the Comprehensive Spending Review.

In other words "don't expect any of the bits which cost money to be done". Unfortunately, that includes a lot of the good bits and doesn't include a lot of the worse bits.

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Saturday, 22 May 2010

Predator-friendly government (letters)

[trigger warning]

I've written letters to the obvious contacts now, and I'll post any replies I get here. More coverage of this is at Shakesville and The Curvature.

Full text of the letters below (very long):

Firstly, to the ministers:

Dear Kenneth Clarke QC MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I note that in the Justice section of the coalition's Programme for Government is "We will extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants." I ask that this proposal be dropped.

The Conservative government of 1988 rightly abolished anonymity for defendants, as it was reducing the likelihood that victims of rape would report it. Studies such as the British Crime Survey show that only around 10% of victims of rape report the attack to the police. Of the reports made to the police, only around 6% result in a conviction. Combining these two figures shows that a rapist has around a 99% chance of getting away with their crime.

The recent review by Baroness Stern into rape reporting for the Equalities Office briefly examined the issue of anonymity for defendants, and concluded that no change should be made without further research. The review made a number of other recommendations for policy and practice which should surely be implemented before a change such as this.

The arguments for providing anonymity for rape defendants hinge on two premises - that a false accusation of rape is so damaging to someone's reputation that anonymity should be granted to defendants who have not yet been convicted, and that false accusations of rape are sufficiently commonplace for this to be a serious problem.

The first premise may be true, although the continuing professional success of a number of high-profile acquittals suggests otherwise. However, it seems implausible that an acquittal in a rape case is more damaging to one's reputation than an acquittal in any other case. There is no suggestion in the Programme for Government that anonymity will be given to defendants on trial for more serious crimes such as murder or terrorism, or for other similarly serious violent crimes.

The second premise is clearly false. Research conducted by the government and others - for example Home Office Research Study 293, conducted by Kelly, Lovett and Regan - shows that there is a very low false report rate (HORS293 estimates around 3%). Furthermore, studies have shown that in most false reports, no perpetrator is named. The number of false reports where a named perpetrator exists for their reputation to be harmed is vanishingly low.

There are, additionally, major advantages for defendants in rape trials to be publicly named. Research by Lisak and Miller in their 2002 paper "Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists" shows that the majority - around 85% - of rapes are carried out by serial offenders who have committed other rapes, sexual assaults, and non-sexual violent crimes.

Furthermore, this study and other similar studies carried out since show that these serial rapists intentionally seek out victims whom they perceive as vulnerable. They use the widely believed myths about rape - that the victim is partly responsible if they had been drinking, or wearing revealing clothing, that the majority of rapes are stranger rapes combined with other forms of physical violence, and so on - to ensure that their victims are likely to be disbelieved if they do report.

For this reason, they usually, as the conviction figures show, are able to get away with their crimes, and often continue committing them.

Because the reporting rate for rape is so low, it is only for the most extreme predators that multiple reports are likely. If only 10% of victims report, then it is unlikely that the police will receive two reports for the same rapist until they have committed around twenty offences. Depending on the quality of the local police and their approach to rape, which is incredibly variable across the country, it could take even longer before the police realise that they are dealing with a serial rapist for whom there is an excellent chance of conviction.

The recent high profile case of John Worboys, recently convicted of multiple rapes carried out over several years is an example of this. He was arrested after carrying out perhaps hundreds of rapes in London. While the Metropolitan police were at fault in this case for not properly dealing with previous reports of his actions, it is also notable that, following his arrest, eighty-five women came forward to report that they had also been attacked by him, and the CPS was able to secure twelve convictions, as a result of which Worboys is thankfully serving a life sentence.

Had Worboys been granted anonymity, none of this would have happened. He may even have been able to be acquitted of the rape he was charged for - a single report being harder to convict with than the massed evidence of eighty-five independent reports - but would almost certainly have received a much lighter sentence even if convicted.

The conviction rate for rape is so appallingly low, and taking steps such as this simply makes avoiding suitable punishment easier for the serial sexual predators who commit most of the offences.

Furthermore, while this policy has been Liberal Democrat party policy since 2006, it was not in their manifesto, nor in the Conservative manifesto. It is not, therefore, a policy for which the coalition government can claim any form of public mandate. I hope that the government, in light of this and the concerns raised by numerous rape-prevention campaigners and victim support organisations, will drop this proposal from its programme.

Yours sincerely,

[me]

I sent similar letters by different routes to Lord McNally, Theresa May MP, and Lynne Featherstone MP, adjusting the wording slightly for their party affiliations and ministerial responsibilities. Hopefully at least one of them will read it.

Secondly, to the party whose fault this is:

Dear Liberal Democrats

The inclusion in the coalition government's Programme for Government of the proposal to grant anonymity to rape defendants drew to my attention that this has been the policy of your party since 2006.

Rape is a strongly gendered crime. Around 90% of the victims are women, and almost all of the perpetrators are men. It is also a crime which successive governments have failed to prosecute successfully. Studies such as the British Crime Survey show that only around 10% of victims of rape report the attack to the police. Of the reports made to the police, only around 6% result in a conviction. Combining these two figures shows that a rapist has a greater than 99% chance of getting away with their crime.

This proposal to grant anonymity will give significant advantage to rapists, and nothing to their victims.

The arguments for providing anonymity for rape defendants hinge on two premises - that a false accusation of rape is so damaging to someone's reputation that anonymity should be granted to defendants who have not yet been convicted, and that false accusations of rape are sufficiently commonplace for this to be a serious problem.

The first premise may be true, although the continuing professional success of a number of high-profile acquittals suggests otherwise. However, it seems implausible that an acquittal in a rape case is more damaging to one's reputation than an acquittal in any other case. There is no suggestion in the Programme for Government that anonymity will be given to defendants on trial for more serious crimes such as murder or terrorism, or for other similarly serious violent crimes.

The second premise is clearly false. Research conducted by the government and others - for example Home Office Research Study 293, conducted by Kelly, Lovett and Regan - shows that there is a very low false report rate (HORS293 estimates around 3%). Furthermore, studies have shown that in most false reports, no perpetrator is named. The number of false reports where a named perpetrator exists for their reputation to be harmed is vanishingly low.

There are, additionally, major advantages for defendants in rape trials to be publicly named. Research by Lisak and Miller in their 2002 paper "Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists" shows that the majority - around 85% - of rapes are carried out by serial offenders who have committed other rapes, sexual assaults, and non-sexual violent crimes.

Furthermore, this study and other similar studies carried out since show that these serial rapists intentionally seek out victims whom they perceive as vulnerable. They use the widely believed myths about rape - that the victim is partly responsible if they had been drinking, or wearing revealing clothing, that the majority of rapes are stranger rapes combined with other forms of physical violence, and so on - to ensure that their victims are likely to be disbelieved if they do report.

For this reason, they usually, as the conviction figures show, are able to get away with their crimes, and often continue committing them.

Because the reporting rate for rape is so low, it is only for the most extreme predators that multiple reports are likely. If only 10% of victims report, then it is unlikely that the police will receive two reports for the same rapist until they have committed around twenty offences. Depending on the quality of the local police and their approach to rape, which is incredibly variable across the country, it could take even longer before the police realise that they are dealing with a serial rapist for whom there is an excellent chance of conviction.

The recent high profile case of John Worboys, recently convicted of multiple rapes carried out over several years is an example of this. He was arrested after carrying out perhaps hundreds of rapes in London. While the Metropolitan police were at fault in this case for not properly dealing with previous reports of his actions, it is also notable that, following his arrest, eighty-five women came forward to report that they had also been attacked by him, and the CPS was able to secure twelve convictions, as a result of which Worboys is thankfully serving a life sentence.

Had Worboys been granted anonymity, none of this would have happened. He may even have been able to be acquitted of the rape he was charged for - a single report being harder to convict with than the massed evidence of eighty-five independent reports - but would almost certainly have received a much lighter sentence even if convicted.

The conviction rate for rape is so appallingly low, and taking steps such as this simply makes avoiding suitable punishment easier for the serial sexual predators who commit most of the offences.

Your party's federal constitution, in its preamble, contains the sentence:

Upholding these values of individual and social justice, we reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race, colour, religion, age, disability, sex or sexual orientation and oppose all forms of entrenched privilege and inequality.

These are fine aims, though there seems to be no provision in your constitution that your party's policy be consistent with them. Nevertheless, it seems highly inappropriate for a party that claims to oppose "all forms of entrenched privilege and inequality" to be promoting a policy that will further increase the advantages that rapists have over their victims in the criminal justice system.

It seems even more inappropriate, and undemocratic as well, to have negotiated this policy into the Programme for Government despite it appearing nowhere in your manifesto. Its inclusion also goes against the recommendations of the recent Stern Review of rape reporting, which recommended that nothing be done in this area until research into the consequences could be carried out.

Please take the necessary steps to have this policy removed from the Programme of Government, at the very least until it receives a public mandate through being included in a national manifesto. I hope, furthermore, that you strongly consider removing this policy entirely as inconsistent with the stated aims of your party.

Yours faithfully,

[me]

Finally to my own Labour MP:

Dear Roberta Blackman-Woods MP,

I wrote to you twice during the previous government regarding the handling of aspects of the prosecution of rape cases, and you replied to inform me of the steps that the government had been taking to improve this and also of your own strong feelings that more still needed to be done.

The new coalition government has recently published its Programme for Government, containing a proposal to give anonymity to the defendants in rape trials. This will be a significant step backwards in the handling of rape by the criminal justice system, giving yet more advantages to rapists over their victims.

The arguments for providing anonymity for rape defendants hinge on two premises - that a false accusation of rape is so damaging to someone's reputation that anonymity should be granted to defendants who have not yet been convicted, and that false accusations of rape are sufficiently commonplace for this to be a serious problem. The former seems unlikely - especially when it is considered that for other serious violent crimes, including murder and terrorism, there is no proposal to provide defendants with anonymity, nor any public call for one. The latter is of course entirely untrue, as numerous research studies (for example, Home Office Research Study 293, conducted by Kelly, Lovett and Regan) have shown.

The disadvantages of such a provision are also obvious. The previous legislation allowing defendants anonymity was abolished in 1988 after it was found to be discouraging reporting. Research by Lisak and Miller in their 2002 paper "Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists" shows that the majority - around 85% - of rapes are carried out by serial offenders who have committed other rapes, sexual assaults, and non-sexual violent crimes. It is therefore likely, especially given the low proportion of rapes that are heard in court, that for most rapists who are charged it will not be their first offence, and there is an obvious public interest in encouraging other victims of the same attacker to come forward.

If this legislation had been in place recently, it is likely that John Worboys, for example, would only have been charged for one of his attacks, and would either have been acquitted and free to attack again, or at best received a much reduced sentence.

The proposal has been condemned by numerous anti-rape campaigners, victim support organisations, and women's groups. It is clearly not intended to help the victims of crime, but will instead provide shelter to some of the countries worst sexual predators.

I would appreciate it if you could pass my concerns to the appropriate ministers in the coalition government, and vote against any legislation containing this provision should it reach Parliament.

Thank you

Yours sincerely,

[me]

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Friday, 21 May 2010

Friday Links

Predator-friendly government

The Con-Lib coalition government has just released their "programme for government" - essentially a merger of the bits they're keeping from the two manifestos. Exactly where it lives keeps changing, but the PDF version of the programme should be readable from there for the immediate future.

I haven't had time to read through it in detail, but one particular bit stood out very strongly as a really bad idea.

[trigger warning]

On page 23 of the PDF, in section 20 (Justice), is this bullet point:

We will extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants.

Jess at The F-Word and Kate at Cruella-Blog have got some strong criticism for this proposal up already, to which I don't have a lot to add.

This proposal was in neither the Conservative nor the Lib Dem manifestos. It's a Lib Dem policy1, but not one that made it into their manifesto. Now, somehow, despite it being in neither manifesto, the negotiating team - made up of eight white men, of course - has put it in the coalition programme anyway.

The majority of rapes and other sexual assaults are committed by serial predators like John Worboys. Looking at the graphs in Lisak and Miller's paper (PDF) shows that 90% of the rapes were committed by serial rapists (who also committed the majority of the other violent acts studied).

The British Crime Survey estimates that the reporting rate (to the police) for rape is around 10%. The chances are that for all but the very worst predators, at most one of their victims will initially report it to the police. No matter how good the police and CPS are at tying together separate reports (maybe there's not enough evidence to prosecute either case separately, but two independent reports is a lot more convincing) - and they aren't, in fact, very good at this, as the Worboys case showed, this can't start until they have at least two reports about the same perpetrator.

Except for the very worst predators - even in a world where the police had ideal data analysis, this probably means 20+ rapes or other offences - the only way they'll get those reports is if the identity of the accused is publicised, and this encourages other survivors to come forwards.

It's not the first time we've had a measure like this - this BBC article points out that Labour introduced one in 1976, which the Conservatives repealed in 1988.

It's not clear how to comment on the coalition programme itself, so here's a list of people who might be worth contacting. Firstly, ministers who might be able to get the proposal dropped before it gets near legislation:

Secondly, people who might be able to help defeat it in Parliament if it gets that far.

  • The Shadow Minister for Justice, Jack Straw MP (Lab, Blackburn), who it will hopefully be possible to convince to strongly oppose the idea. Harriet Harman MP (Lab, Camberwell & Peckham), as the former Minister for Equalities and Women, and the current acting Labour leader, might also be worth contacting.
  • Your own MP. If they're Labour or another opposition party, they need to be convinced to vote against it and submit amendments against it. If they're Conservative or Lib Dem, then even better (and in this case, even a commitment to abstain or be elsewhere for the vote is better than nothing). Furthermore, a Conservative or Lib Dem MP might be more likely to quietly persuade the government to drop the proposal.
    All MPs, regardless of party, should also pass your concerns on to the relevant ministers.

As regards who you are "allowed" to write to. If you're a UK citizen or resident:

  • You can write to any minister directly, but they really make it hard to find their direct ministerial contact details in a lot of cases, because they prefer to receive communications via MPs. The general departmental contacts are better than nothing.
  • You can write to your own MP as a constituent.
  • You can write to any member of the House of Lords.

If you're not, then I've no idea who you could usefully contact. Your local British Embassy, perhaps?

I'll post my letters once I've written them, in case people want a starting point for their own - in the meantime, the blog posts linked to above have a lot of good points to include. If you can find better contact details for any of the ministers, or have any ideas for who to write to that I've missed, drop them into comments.

1 Something I was unfortunately not aware of before voting for them, though it fits well with the party's over-theoretical and over-privileged attitude to equality issues, so I really shouldn't be so surprised.

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Thursday, 20 May 2010

Paying people to be healthy

From the BBC, NHS explores paying people to become healthier.

The NHS is exploring the possibility of using financial incentives to encourage healthier lifestyles.

[...]

NICE, which advises the NHS in England and Wales, believes they may help tackle obesity, smoking and drinking.

[...]

And in Kent cash payments have been given to people who lose weight.

There are several major problems with this plan. Leaving aside the practical difficulties of implementation, and the likelihood of generating a perverse incentive (say, to take up smoking so that you can get paid more than the cigarettes cost to give it up), the proposed schemes take health care in a worrying direction and reinforce existing prejudices.

Firstly, the whole point of a universal health care system like the NHS is that it helps everyone. Obviously, the healthier the population in general, and the less frequently they require its services, the more money and staff time it has left to help the rest. Public health and prevention of disease are areas it should be spending time on.

However, if the system is allowed to mark certain people as "more deserving" of health care, then the consequences will be very severe indeed. The system is of course - in practice, possibly also in theory - allowed to do this, as in the case of Daisy's "death by indifference" [trigger warning], so further extensions into the realm of officially-condoned actions are extremely unwelcome.

Giving direct incentives like this does that. There's not a lot of difference in practice between giving someone money to "behave in a more healthy fashion" and charging them extra if they don't.

There's no moral requirement to be "healthy". The disablism that says that there is, is very closely related to the disablism used to justify killing Daisy and many others. It's an attitude that needs to be removed from health care entirely, not encouraged.

Secondly, there's the hugely oversimplistic and incredibly commonplace use of "losing weight"1 as a proxy for "getting healthier". That the two are conflated is a big enough problem already, both for the NHS and health care specifically, and for society and fat people in society more generally.

Paying people to lose weight seems a pretty sure way to encourage disorded eating, including in people who you aren't actually paying. What worries me is that this particular likely consequence is very unlikely to be picked up in any trials of this scheme. Let's think about the format the trial would take, in the probable best case:

  • Find a sample of X people who want to lose weight. X is small relative to the local population, but large enough to be statistically valid
  • Pay half of them based on whether they do or not, don't give the other half anything. Well-designed controlled experiment etc. etc.
  • Look at the differences in the average weight loss of the two samples after six months. Let's assume for the rest of this that there will be a difference, and the paid group will have on average lost more weight by a statistically significant amount.
  • Approve the bribery scheme for wider use, forgetting that:
    1. Weight loss does not equal health gain.
    2. Just about anything will show weight loss over a six month period compared with the control. Nothing, yet, has been shown to do so over a longer follow-up period of five years.
    3. The trial didn't consider side-effects on people outside the sample.

When released to the public, of course, it will add to all the social pressure to be thin, but it might be years before the NHS actually starts getting the bill for the disordered eating that results, by which time the process will be too embedded to easily stop.

Thirdly, it largely ignores the social factors that cause these particular public health problems. Bribing people might work temporarily, but perhaps the money would be better spent on subsidising the provision of healthy, cheap and convenient food (and it has to be all three), or on providing more accessible spaces for exercise. The whole thing is based on the assumption that people just don't care "enough" about being healthy (which may, because it's not a moral requirement, be true and not a problem for some people), rather than not actually having the resources to reach their preferred level of health.

Yes, a bit of extra cash might well help them with this aim, but in that case, why not just give them the extra cash for whatever purpose they choose and let them get on with it! (The likely study above will probably also forget this other control group)

1 As measured, this being the NHS, either by the uselessly two-dimensional BMI measure, or by the even sillier one-dimensional "waist circumference" measure.

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Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Parents have more sense than BBC journalists, then

From the BBC, another reprint-the-press-release article, this time with the headline Parents 'more worried about murder than obesity' threat.

On the whole, this seems like a sensible balance. Murder may be rarer than "obesity" but the consequences are significantly more severe.

The findings, in a YouGov poll of 1,244 parents, contrast with data showing the risk of a child being killed by a stranger is a million to one.

The risk of severe health problems for children due to lack of exercise is one in three, figures have suggested.

"Figures have suggested". No mention of what figures, or how reliable, or anything. Also note the addition of the qualifier "by a stranger", which is necessary given that the risk of being killed - at any age - by someone one knows is considerably higher.

As mentioned before, research shows that - for Western industrialised populations at least - the death rate is not significantly correlated with weight (and in so far as it is, the government-mandated weight is correlated with a higher risk of death within a particular time period than heavier weights).

The article does talk more about "long-term health problems" than death as a consequence of obesity, but what's not mentioned is that the evidence that the correlation is causative is sparse. Indeed, for many "obesity-related" conditions, there is more evidence of the reverse - that weight gain is either a symptom of an underlying condition or caused by an underlying factor that also causes susceptibility to that condition.

That lack of evidence of causation is of course a serious problem for the government policies developed around this. It's much like the government, upon discovering that people with blonde hair were more likely to have a particular health condition, recommending hair dye - except that in this case some of the suggestions for hiding the symptom are actively harmful to health.

The article doesn't, at least, mention restrictive diets for children as a possible "solution", instead advocating more exercise and walking to school. The problems with "more exercise" and "walking to school" as a solution have been repeatedly said elsewhere, so to summarise:

  • Not every child can exercise that much, because of disabilities, and/or a lack of suitable or sufficiently cheap places to exercise near where they live, and/or a lack of free time.
  • Similarly, it's not practical for every child to walk to their primary school, due to the distance, or lack of time, or inaccessible routes.
  • The effects of exercise on weight are not particularly clear in adults. I don't know if there have been useful studies specifically for children.

So that's the conclusions, but what about the data used to conclude them? Going back to the article, it's fairly clear that - despite YouGov being a reputable survey company - the questions that they were given to ask were clearly set with the aim of producing the press release in mind. From the BBC article.

But only one in 20 picked concerns about poor health in later life due to the child's levels of physical activity.

Here's the options for the question, which was "which of these do you fear most for your child?"

  • They are injured or killed in a road traffic accident - 30%
  • They are abducted or murdered - 30%
  • Poor health in later life due to your child's current levels of physical activity - 5%
  • None of these - 21%
  • Don't know - 7%
  • Prefer not to say - 7%

This is not a good question.

Note that the survey - unlike the press release and the article - doesn't qualify "abducted or murdered" with "by a stranger". Given how prevalent abusive relationships are, that makes the "million to one" statistic pretty much irrelevant. It's like asking someone whether they're scared of being bitten, and then laughing at them if they say "yes" on the grounds that hardly anyone is attacked by sharks.

The important thing to note is that the survey only gives those three options, plus a few standard "none" options. If the survey was repeated, but with a more substantial list of plausible fears (and perhaps some that the surveyors believed less plausible), then this would give a very different result. People tend to go more for options that they're prompted for, rather than "Other". Of the three options, especially as worded, the third is - regardless of relative risk - considerably less scary.

It wouldn't surprise me if they wrote most of this press release before the survey results were back, and just added the exact numbers later.

So, bad data collection, and then conclusions that aren't really supported by the data anyway, and then reprinted pretty much from the press release without any challenge. Exactly the "standards" I've come to expect from science reporting, in fact.

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