Thursday, 30 June 2011

Study shows researchers ignore structural issues

[trigger warning]

The BBC has yet another badly-researched story about "obesity". I'll skip over the unmentioned assumption that "obesity" is such a bad thing it needs to be prevented at all costs, and move on to places where the article fails even in its own terms.

Firstly, the article talks about how average calorie intake has increased significantly in the US since the 1970s. Naturally, because "obesity" is a personal problem with no structural issues whatsoever, the article completely omits that since the 1970s the USA's problems with perverse food-production subsdisies, "food deserts" and so on, in many places it's difficult or impossible to get foods other than the energy-dense ones, and more expensive even when they are available.

This is also something that does not really generalise to the majority of the UK, or other Western European countries, despite the claim in the article that "many of the factors causing the obesity epidemic there are mirrored in the UK".

The recommendations of the researchers - police what people individually eat, rather than making it easier for them to get nutritious food cheaply - are equally predictable.

Secondly, the article in a box-out includes a note that:

The recommended daily calorie intake is 2,000 for women, and 2,500 for men (NHS Choices)

If we assume that there are roughly equal numbers of men and women, and gender is the only factor that affects energy needs, metabolic rates, digestion efficiency, and so on - but does so with 100% predictive power (which is ridiculous, but is what the recommendation needs to be assumed) then that gives an average recommendation of 2,250 calories daily for each person.

Compare that with the figures from the article on US average - the article doesn't specify if it's mean or median - calorie intake:

  • 1977-8: 1,803 calories
  • 1994ish (implied): 2,145 calories
  • 2003-6: 2,374 calories

So, comparing with the "recommended" average, we can see that it's only in the last decade or so that US residents have stopped being (on average) underfed.

The average hides a lot of rich/poor disparity, of course, and a lot of people in the US are still malnourished - my point is that even in terms of pretending these averages mean anything at all, the conclusion isn't the one that the rest of the article implies.

Of course, this is fairly typical of "anti-obesity" research and campaigning: set an unjustified target for calorie intake - and then claim it's bad when people get anywhere near it. "Pro-malnutrition" might be a better term for them: perhaps if they didn't have the privilege not to remember the effects of widespread malnutrition themselves, they'd think more carefully about what they were saying.

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Monday, 27 June 2011

An ineffectual response for the scale of the problem.

[trigger warning]

Last month I asked the Government Equalities Office what the government was doing to prevent rape.

For reference, I asked them:

  • what campaigns to prevent rape and/or to discourage people from choosing to rape has the Equalities Office recently run or have planned?
  • what other government departments have or will soon run campaigns with similar aims?
  • what recent studies the Equalities Office has commissioned or is aware of concerning the motivations, psychology and methodology of rapists in the UK, and what, if any, future studies you intend to commission?

The relevant(ish) bit of the reply is as follows:

Turning to the issues you have raised in relation to public awareness about the severity of the offence of rape, the Home Office takes the lead within government on communications campaigns on rape and sexual violence. The last campaign was run in 2006 and concentrated on the issue of consent in the context of the Sexual Offences Act (2003), which was introduced in 2004. Further campaigns have been run more recently by individual police forces; a current example of this is the joint Thames Valley Police and Hampshire Constabulary campaign: `Don't Cross the Line' - The Home Office is planning a new campaign which will raise awareness of elements of the Sexual Offences Act as recommended by Baroness Stern in her recent review of the statutory response to rape in England and Wales.

The Home Office does not currently have any plans to commission any specific research on the taxonomy of perpetrators of rape. However, officials are in regular contact with the academic community and are always prepared to engage in active consultation on issues which relate to sexual violence policy.

Not unsurprisingly, the answer is "very little". I can't help feeling that if most other crimes with a potential life sentence - and a substantial average sentence - were being perpetrated by around 5% of the population, there might be a greater sense of urgency around dealing with them than a few rare awareness campaigns mostly reliant on the initiative of individual police forces1.

For a rough numeric comparision, using an offence of equivalent sentencing, imagine that the government was aware of a plot by the residents of Wales - yes, all of them - to drop a nuclear bomb on London. An awareness campaign that civilian possession of nuclear weapons is illegal and carries a potential life sentence might be considered to be a little ineffectual as the response.

The question of what recent studies they are aware of regarding perpetrators appears to have been ignored, too. I'm hoping that's just an oversight in replying to my questions, rather than an intentional omission because they aren't aware of any, but on previous form I'm not hopeful.

I'm going to send a few follow-up letters - to the departments named in my previous post to see what they're doing and suggest that they start; to the Home Office to find out more about this planned campaign; and to the Equalities Office to see if they are aware of existing research. As usual, I'll post the letters here after I've sent them.


1 While some police forces are definitely trying to deal with rapists as effectively as possible, others are ultimately siding with the rapists through inaction. The best-performing forces have a report:conviction ratio over ten times better than the worst-performing forces.

As Baroness Stern said (in far more academic and Parliamentary language than my paraphrase, of course): "If you actually paid any attention to the existing recommendations it would be a big help."

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Friday, 24 June 2011

Friday Links

... and the Liverpool Daily Post reports that MP Frank Field set to tighten up abortion law without parliament vote. Can pro-choice MPs force a vote anyway?

It'll always be next year

Various local papers are reporting that Ed Miliband MP will no longer be attending the Miners' Gala this year. An un-named spokesman for Miliband is quoted as giving two reasons.

  • He doesn't want to share a platform with Trades Union leader Bob Crow
  • "diary pressures"

He also says that "Ed has said he will come next year."

I predict, very confidently, that he won't come next year either. Nor any other year.

On the "diary pressures" side, the date of the Miners' Gala is hardly a secret. If he's too busy to make it this year - after saying back in March that he would come - the same pressures will probably exist next year, too. (Well, unless he gets replaced as leader, but I expect he won't come then either)

On the "not wanting to share a platform with people who disagree with Labour" side, he's going to be somewhat out of luck at the Miners' Gala in most years. Perhaps if Labour (nationally, rather than the local party) actually cared any more about places like Durham and the people who live and (try to) work there, he wouldn't have so many people criticising his leadership because of it.

Miliband's spokesman denies that it's because of the unpopularity among wealthy Londoners of Bob Crow1, but it's not a very convincing denial. His earlier speech on "responsibility" showed that he was going for the same upper-middle class swing voters as New Labour: refusing to attend the Miners' Gala because it might play badly with the Telegraph would be part of the same strategy.

Meanwhile, the promise of "next year" is a perfect analogue of the way Labour treats the needs of non-default people. Maybe next year, when there's more time in Parliament and the right-wing have stopped opposing it. (And if you don't re-elect us, there won't be a next year, and you definitely won't get it).


1: Bob Crow in many respects has one of the easiest (which is not the same as easy) Union jobs in the country. The workers he represents carry out a task that is worth millions of pounds a day to London's economy (or at least, when they go on strike, that's what it's claimed to cost), and have sufficient training that they can't easily be replaced. Getting them a reasonable share in those millions is therefore a much easier job than some other Union leaders have.

Of course, it does make him very unpopular with the rich people who think those millions should belong to them. Edit: As Simon Farnsworth points out in comments, I should have explicitly mentioned that those are not the only people who Crow is unpopular with, and I didn't intend to claim that Crow is right either. Crow should be able to get a good deal for his members without aiding other employers in their attacks on their workers.

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Friday, 17 June 2011

Friday Links

And a couple of important campaigns:

Monday, 13 June 2011

The moral equivalency of Miliband

So, Ed Miliband MP (Labour, Doncaster North, Leader of the Opposition) gave this speech today on "Responsibility in 21st Century Britain"

The basic theme - and if you read the speech, you'll see that I'm not exaggerating in the slightest here - is that there is a moral equivalence between:

  1. fraudulently running a business for years, stealing millions for your own pockets while leaving your vulnerable customers to face abuse; and
  2. claiming benefits instead of getting non-existent jobs.

and between

  1. causing a global financial crisis while taking millions in remuneration; and
  2. having an overgrown and litter-strewn front garden

and that a future Labour government needs to deal with the people who aren't "taking responsibility" for both.

I'm not going to pick apart the entire speech - it's quite long and just about every line involves some sort of confusion, false equivalence, and/or factual error - but a few examples.

The speech opens with:

While out campaigning during the local elections, not for the first time, I met someone who had been on incapacity benefit for a decade. He hadn’t been able to work since he was injured doing his job. It was a real injury, and he was obviously a good man who cared for his children.

But I was convinced that there were other jobs he could do.

And that it’s just not right for the country to be supporting him not to work, when other families on his street are working all hours just to get by.

Lisa and DaveG at Where's the Benefit? have both written on this already.

Misty's post at Shakesville - "Those People" was written days before Miliband's speech, and about a different country - but could easily instead be about Miliband's bizarre belief that there are tens of thousands of job vacancies just waiting to be filled by disabled applicants, if only they'd apply.

The idea that looking after children is work - though not paid work, which is the only real sort, of course - also appears to have passed Miliband by.

In Manchester, as well as helping the most vulnerable with housing, they give priority to those who are giving something back to their communities – for example, people who volunteer or who work.

They also look to reward people who have been good tenants in the past and who have paid their rent on time and have been good neighbours.

This approach means that rather than looking solely at need, priority is also given to those who contribute - who give something back.

In other words, rather than basing benefits decisions on how much you need the benefit, they will in future also be based on how much Ed Miliband MP approves of your life.

Well, no change from the current or previous government's policy there.

For too many people at the last election, we were seen as the party that represented these two types of people.

Those at the top and the bottom, who were not showing responsibility and were shirking their duties. From bankers who caused the global financial crisis to some of those on benefits who were abusing the system because they could work – but didn’t.

Labour - a party founded by hard working people for hard working people - was seen, however unfairly, as the party of those ripping off our society.

So: Labour were seen as being "not tough enough" on people on benefits. This is despite them bringing in massive restrictions on benefits over the 13 years they were in power - reducing eligibility, making the forms longer, bringing in the widely-criticised assessments for ESA, introducing an attitude of "better ten eligible people don't get benefits than one ineligible person does" to tackling fraud, and so on.

His solution - despite acknowledging that the perception was unfair - is to do it again, only more so, in the hope that it will work this time.

Well, so much for the claims that Labour under Miliband would be different to Labour under Blair. I suppose we've got several more years of headline-chasing to look forward to. Perhaps if a few more MPs had experience of claiming benefits and being looked down on as "scroungers" they might come up with some decent policies instead.

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Saturday, 11 June 2011

Some actual Opposition would be useful right now

The Welfare Reform Bill is currently working its way through Parliament, and unlike some of the other controversial Bills of the coalition, it hasn't got much attention. The various protests against it by disabled people have largely been ignored by the press, and Labour appear to have chosen it as an issue to be "reasonable" and "pragmatic" on.

If you have time, and are in the UK, please write to your own MPs to ask them to vote against it. Where's the Benefit? has a huge amount of background information on this Bill and the reasons why it's so bad.

Here's the letter I sent to my (Labour) MP.

Dear [MP]

The Welfare Reform Bill will be reaching its third reading in the Commons soon, and I ask you to vote against it when it does so.

Taking away benefits that people rely upon is a bad idea at the best of times, but while the economy remains stagnant and unemployment high, it is even worse. The idea that cutting someone's benefits will encourage them to find work - when hardly anyone is able to find work - is absurd, but the basis of this Bill.

In Durham, Wilkinson advertised 59 jobs when they opened. There were over 1,000 applicants - inevitably, hundreds of qualified applicants would have been turned away. Now, the government, through this Bill, wants to increase the pressure even more - by cutting benefits that people need to survive. People cannot get jobs that don't exist.

The changes to Disability Living Allowance, converting it to the misnamed Personal Independence Payment, will be particularly harsh. The government has already decided that too many people claim DLA, and aim to have a significant reduction in claims under the new PIP, on the grounds that some of the people currently claiming are "not disabled enough" to need benefits.

Their rhetoric against disabled people has been particularly vicious, with the implication from the government being that most people on disability benefits are "scroungers" and undeserving of government assistance - when in fact the disability benefits have the lowest fraud rate of any benefit, and also the highest successful appeals rate as people are impersonally assessed as fit to work against the recommendations of their own doctor.

Meanwhile, support and encouragement for employers to help them employ people with disabilities and pay for any reasonable adjustments required remains non-existent, and hate crimes and abuse towards people with disabilities has increased significantly since the coalition came to power.

Passing the Welfare Reform Bill will, quite literally, cost lives, and I hope you will vote against it and encourage your colleagues to do the same.

Yours sincerely

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Friday, 10 June 2011

Friday Links

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The Invisible Hand will compost your letters

So, I got this delivery note through the door recently.

Delivery Note:

Description: A standard "we missed you" delivery note from Yodel (formerly Home Delivery Network). Most of the fields are unfilled, except for one row reading (handwritten part italicised): "1 [package in] a safe space in compost bin"

For reference, compost bins are almost the antithesis of a safe place to store organic matter such as the cardboard and paper that packages are made from.

For further reference, a photo of the interior of the compost bin.

Compost bin: interior

Description: The inside of our compost bin. A large slug is in the top-right, chewing on an old flour bag which is significantly damaged after only a couple of days. Further down, and somewhat hard to make out on this photo, is a colony of woodlice.
The pink flour bag in the centre of the picture is in approximately the position that the package was retrieved from.

Obviously my instinctive reaction, having retrieved the package and brushed off two slugs and some sort of beetle, was to wonder how anyone could be so unthinking as to come to the conclusion that a compost bin - which they had recognised as such - was a safe place to store post.

Having thought about it a bit more, though, the real answer is probably that it would be commercially less competitive to do anything else.

  1. Courier firms are selected by the sender, not the recipient. The sender is going to prefer cheaper couriers for the same nominal level of service.
  2. Provided the courier doesn't lose or destroy the post too often, the cost of providing refunds and replacements to customers when they do may well not exceed the saving from using a cheap courier to start with.
  3. Courier firms therefore have an incredibly strong incentive to cut costs.
  4. Travelling to the same destination more than one for the same parcel is inefficient - if the parcel can be "delivered" first time, this saves costs on fuel, staff time, and elsewhere.

Therefore, it makes sense to instruct staff, as a matter of company policy, that a compost bin makes a usable safe space if nothing better can be found. (Probably not in those exact words, though)

The fact that the recipient will feel they've received bad service is beside the point - they're not paying for the service, and the fact that they're paying someone else to pay for the service is too indirect for the market.

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Monday, 6 June 2011

Crime statistics? Now why would journalists understand those?

[trigger warning]

So the BBC has an article on the number of women who have been convicted for domestic violence. It's as bad as you'd expect a BBC article to be.

It notes a rise in convictions of women for domestic violence between 2005 and 2010 from 1,500 to 4,000.

The article then goes on for several paragraphs speculating about why this might be, cultures of violence in women, etc.

In the final paragraph, after most readers will have got bored and wandered off, they note that in the same time period convictions of men committing domestic violence rose from 28,000 to 55,000 - not quite as large a proportionate rise, but still big.

Further penalty points, too, for their heteronormative assumption that all domestic violence is committed against someone of the 'opposite' gender to the attacker.

Domestic violence reduction is actually a relative success for our justice system and government - with the rates of assault significantly falling, and the rate of convictions significantly increasing. It remains a serious problem - around 300,000 incidents a year - but this is a third of what it was 15 years ago, and a vastly-increased proportion (now around 1 in 6) of those perpetrators are convicted (even if not all of them get appropriate sentences).

It's still really bad and there's much still to do - but there has been significant progress made. Not that you'd know that from this article.

Lots of quotes from un-named "some experts", too - presumably because no real expert would actually put their name to such uninformed speculation.

Here's the complaint that I sent them.

Regarding your article "Women's convictions for domestic violence 'double'", I found it to be poorly researched and sensationalist, leaving a key piece of context for the final paragraph, and ignoring obvious research that could easily answer some of the "experts say this" / "other experts say that" pseudo-debate in the article. By doing so, it gives a completely misleading impression, both about the extent of domestic violence generally, and the number of women committing it.

Firstly, convictions are not at a measure of the prevalence of crime. A doubling of convictions could mean twice as many crimes were being committed, or it could mean that the number of crimes was constant but the reporting rate had doubled, or it could mean that the reporting rate was constant but improvements in police and CPS procedure meant that the chances of a conviction had doubled. Or - more likely - some combination of the three.

Fortunately, the British Crime Survey is a long-standing statistical measure of crime, including domestic violence, and - together with other CPS and Police/Home Office statistics - can be used to answer this. A quick summary of the figures can easily be found by searching for "BCS Domestic Violence" - for instance

It shows that - far from increasing, the rates of domestic violence against both men and women have been generally decreasing. The proportion of victims who were male is also roughly the same as it has been over the last decade.

Secondly, the key piece of context - that there had also been a massive increase in convictions for domestic violence in general and by men specifically - is left for the last paragraph. This is a key piece of context, which strongly suggests that much of the increase is due to improvements in prosecution and investigation - contrary to the suggestions in the early paragraphs - and yet it is buried at the bottom of the page where relatively few readers will see it.

This news of a massive increase in convictions for men is not accompanied by "some experts" wondering if it is part of a "growing culture of violence" among men - despite the 2005 number for men being seven times the 2010 number for women.

Thirdly, the article assumes throughout that all male victims of domestic violence were attacked by women, and vice versa. This is obviously not the case, but the article implies it anyway.

Please let me know what steps will be taken to ensure that such basic mistakes in reporting on crime statistics do not recur in future.

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Saturday, 4 June 2011

Equality is a left-wing issue? Not in practice.

"Left-wing" traditional politicians are very often insistent that they are the party of "social justice" - especially when compared with their "right-wing" counterparts, but I'm not sure they're actually fooling anyone except themselves.

Obviously there are traditional politicians here and there who have indeed also been great campaigners against privilege and discrimination - but they're very much the exception.

Certainly it is also true that, on average, in modern UK party politics, more advances have been made on equality matters when a "left-wing" party has had the balance of power, and there has been less progress and more regression when "right-wing" parties have had majorities.

I'm not claiming that's a coincidence, but nor do I think it happens because social justice matters are definitionally "left wing" issues.

Left and right

"Left-wing" and "right-wing" are of course simplifications, and "everyone knows" that they don't represent modern politics very well.

Except... depending on how you define politics, they mostly do. In the traditional default definition of politics - the sort of thing that appears in the Politics sections of the papers and news websites, the debates between political parties, the election campaigns and the scandals and so on - a single axis mostly works, at least for politicians and parties relatively near the "centre". Moving away from the centre towards the political fringes, the simplification breaks down - but it works well enough that it's still widely used.

So - what would it mean for equality to be a "left-wing" issue. None of the obvious meanings appear to be true.

It's certainly not the case that all or almost all left-wing traditional politicians are against privilege - many of them are happy to make use of privilege and prejudice to gain some transient political advantage.

Nor does it seem particularly plausible or useful to claim that the "ultimate" left-wing position (if one exists) is a social justice one. It erases the many "right-wing" people who are working for some or all aspects of equality while holding "right-wing" views in other areas, and it likewise conveniently ignores the rampant ablism, cissexism, fat-hatred, and so on present and unchallenged in many "far left" groups.

I've seen it stated as a definitional thing - equality activism is "left-wing", as is environmentalism, or socialism, or liberalism, or various other causes. In practice this seems to end up as defining "left-wing" as "not right-wing" which is utterly useless as a definition, especially when it's followed up with attempts to get the various "left-wing" ideologies to make bad compromises with each other because "they must work together to defeat the Tories".

As a statement of hope and expectation - "equality should be a left-wing issue" - it's hard to argue against; but then, why not equally "equality should be a right-wing issue"? I'll come back to this meaning of the statement below.

In practice, it's not

In practice, I don't see that equality activism does assume that equality is particularly a left-wing issue; while on average there may be more pushing for progress under left-wing governments and to avoid regression under right-wing ones, that's only an average. Our last "left-wing" government had an appalling record on many equality issues - disability rights, fat hatred, immigration, and many more. The approach to traditional politicians of all parties is generally to demand better of them, with very little hope that they'll already be doing enough.

Conversely even our1 current "right-wing" government, while as bad or worse in many areas, has a few areas they're noticeably better - the parental leave proposals in their Modern Workplaces consultation are substantially better than Labour's were, for instance.

The expectation is that being critical of the government and campaigning strongly will be needed whoever is in charge.

The broader political landscape

Rather than imagining the political landscape as a line or a plane, imagine it as a crumpled ball of paper.

The traditional political affiliations can be drawn on one of the relatively flat bits, set out along a fuzzy line from 'left' to 'right'.

Some way round the paper ball, on a much crinklier bit, are the various areas of anti-oppression campaigning2. As it happens, if you cross the outside of the shape, the distance is shorter to the 'left' end of the traditional political line than it is to the 'right' end - but there are plenty of routes across the jagged and folded surface, and some of them come out near the centre or right of the line.

And so it's a struggle to even get most of social justice considered as proper politics - which is to say traditional politics - which is to say the sort of politics which important default people discuss. It's not even, when looking down on the face of traditional politics, on the map. Equality issues get dismissed as "special interests" (collectively, the special interests of 99% of the population, but of course only 0% of the 'important' default population).

Until traditional politics considers the experiences and issues of non-default people to be of equal importance to the special interests of default people, I don't believe there can be any real claim by any traditional politicians to be "the party of" social justice and equality. The "left" may be marginally closer to making that consideration than the "right", but neither, for now, is anywhere near.

For now, most of them are still at best stuck in a compartmentalised mode of thinking where equality issues are separate to all other issues - and generally separate to each other. If it's not a special "thinking about equality" day - they don't.

What would need to change

The majority of people who I see in practice stating that equality is a left-wing issue are left-wing traditional politicians rather than equality campaigners. So, if I take them at their word and assume that they want equality to be a left-wing issue, what would they need to do to actually make it one?

There are basically three things I'd be looking for to show that a left-wing (or right-wing, for that matter) traditional political organisation was actually considering equality to be a core part of its ideology.

  1. A recognition that there is so much overlap between various forms of discrimination that one cannot productively either consider them in isolation or only work against some of them.
  2. A complete renouncement of dehumanisation of both opponents and scapegoats, instead focusing on ending the effects of privilege; and the necessary readjustment of policies and justifications for policies to achieve this.
  3. Successful efforts made to have the officers of the organisation, at all levels (including candidates for public election, if applicable) be at least as representative of all under-privileged groups as the population as a whole.

At the moment I can't think of any major left-wing organisation which is even attempting to do all of those things; quite a few aren't even trying to do any of them.


1 Certainly there are also right-wing parties and ideologies whose ideology is explictly the maintenance and extension of privilege and discrimination. However, just as not all left-wing parties are particularly good on equality, not all right-wing parties are irredeemably terrible.

2 To save space, I'm not even going into the fact that many campaigners against one form of oppression see nothing wrong with and/or deny the existence of other forms - though it is reflected in traditional left-wing politicians who might (for instance) vote wholeheartedly for legislation against sexism while also expressing fat-hatred.

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Friday, 3 June 2011

Friday Links

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Scapegoating refugees for political advantage continues

[trigger warning]

So the news today is reporting that the Home Affairs Committee has described the news that 40% of asylum cases since 2006 have been given leave to stay in the UK as an "amnesty".

Well, of course they do. The idea that it's even remotely possible that anywhere near 40% of asylum claims might actually be justified is hardly going to be considered by politicians who view "immigrants" as a convenient scapegoat for all the country's ills.

Cue the usual comments from the usual suspects about "illegal immigration" and "overstaying visas" - none of which apply to asylum claims that are pending a decision, but it's useful to that argument to pretend all immigrants are coming over here to take our jobs and claim our benefits - and how the government hasn't yet succeeded in building a ten-mile high wall around the country to keep those nasty foreigners out. Except the white English-speaking ones, of course.

The idea that people might actually be claiming asylum because they face persecution and possibly death in their original country seems irrelevant - and with large parts of the world being unstable - indeed, with the UK playing its part in keeping large parts of the world unstable - the idea that 40% or more of claims might be justified doesn't seem unreasonable.

Given that the [trigger warning] deportation of LGB asylum seekers back to Uganda and other unsafe countries continues, despite assurances from the government that it wouldn't, it seems there's a very strong case that the UK isn't being generous enough when it comes to saving people's lives.

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