Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Useful tools: government consultations

On some issues, the government has a firm idea of what it wants to do, and it will go ahead and do it regardless of public opinion, expert advice, whether what it wants to do is even physically possible, and so on.

Government, however, is huge. The vast majority of issues it deals with never make it to Parliament itself, and are not so much of a party-political line in the sand. On these, the government departments tend to have more of an interest in making sure that their actions are reasonable, and that there are no embarassingly obvious-in-retrospect details that they happen to have overlooked.

Enter, the government consultation. It's easy to be cynical about them, since the majority of high-profile consultations are on the high-profile "we're doing this anyway" issues. The majority of consultations, however, are not high-profile. Some of them, the department running the consultation may consider itself lucky to get even 10 replies.

These consultations take place in the background - away from the shouting matches of Parliament, and the criticism of the tabloid press - and so they're one of the easier ways to get the government to actually listen. Of course, they won't be listening on a topic of supreme importance, but there is a good opportunity here to get some small improvements made.

I've responded to several of these "background" consultations, and in all cases the final proposal was better than the original proposal in at least one way that I had requested. Furthermore, in a couple of cases where the consultation results were published in enough detail, I was the only respondee raising certain points that became part of the final proposal.

This is not due to my secretly being an influential lobbyist (I'm not) or particularly persuasive (likewise) but because the set up of consultations is very favourable to the government listening, and because the response rate is so low that one's submissions rarely get lost in the noise.

It's therefore a great opportunity to get some non-default perspectives into government thinking.

So: a few tips for replying to consultations.

  1. First, find your consultation. This is harder than it looks. Well-known organisations may get an invitation to the consultation, if it's relevant to their field. Ordinary citizens and residents do not. So, you either have to hear about it in passing elsewhere, or go looking for it. There is a search. It's not particularly good. (Still, this keeps most of the reactionary journalists away - too much effort for them - so the obscurity isn't all bad)
  2. Remember that you don't need to answer all the questions. If you only have things to say on one or two, it's still worth saying them. You don't necessarily have to spend a lot of time replying.
  3. If you are aware of research studies that support your argument, provide the references in your reply when summarising what they say. This will make it much easier for the civil servants who process your response to also obtain the research, if they want to.
  4. "Form" responses to consultations are almost certainly pointless (though having several people co-sign a single submission is fine)
  5. Check the deadlines. Consultations usually run for a few months, though because of the first point there's a fair chance you'll only find out about it a few days before the deadline.
  6. Remember that you don't need to have formal qualifications or experience in an area to put forward an opinion. (Though it may be worthwhile to mention them, if you do). Generally you will be required to specify whether you are replying as an individual or on behalf of an organisation.
  7. Submission formats for consultations vary. Try to use their preferred format unless it's inaccessible for you. (This being the government, they should be reasonably good about providing accessible formats if you ask)
  8. Finally, tell other people about the consultation! That's how I usually find out about them.

A few current consultations that you might be interested in. The first two I've already posted about - the rest are ones I've just found now:

Feel free to link to other consultations and/or your responses in comments.

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Friday, 26 August 2011

Friday Links

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Allowing religion as an excuse for discrimination: consultation response

Spark in Darkness highlights an Equality and Human Rights Commission consulation (Word document) on its intervention in a number of religious discrimination cases.

As pointed out by Sparky, the consultation wording is pretty bad, and seriously downplays the discriminatory nature of the inactions that two of the plaintiffs were rightly barred from. The consultation also makes it quite difficult to find the details of the cases - they give you a link about six steps out in the convoluted court website, and then approximately describe the first two steps needed to find them (one of which no longer works as described). As linked below, there are perfectly good1 direct links to the case descriptions!

The cases in question are:

  • The two cases Eweida and Chaplin, in which the plaintiffs were forbidden from wearing particular visible Christian symbols as part of their work uniform.
  • The two cases Ladele and McFarlane, in which the plaintiffs hold that requiring them to carry out all aspects of their jobs with all clients was discriminatory, since heterosexist discrimination is part of their religion.

In all four cases, the UK courts have decided that the plaintiffs were not subject to unfair discrimination.

Currently the EHRC's position is that the UK courts were wrong in the first two cases, and correct in the last two. They also ask if a concept of "reasonable accommodation" should be applied to religious discrimination.

It is crucial, of course - to prevent religious exemptions and "conscience clauses" from making equality laws useless - that the European courts uphold the decisions against Ladele and McFarlane. It's also therefore important that the EHRC does not ask those courts to rule in favour of Ladele and McFarlane. Please send a response to their consultation if you have time (contact details on the final page of the consultation document, deadline 5 September.

Here's my response:

Regarding your consultation on intervention in four religious discrimination cases before the European courts:

Response to question 1:

In the case of Eweida, I believe that the courts probably made the correct decision based on current law, given that "In the interim, British Airways had offered to move the applicant without loss of pay to work involving no public contact, but the applicant had chosen to reject this offer and instead to stay away from work and claim her pay as compensation.".

Whether or not this decision was correct would depend in my view on whether the alternative work offered was at a similar standard - not just in pay but in working conditions, opportunities for promotion and skills development, fit with the plaintiff's skillset, and so on - to the original work. If it was - and the UK courts appear to have found that it was - I can see no reason for BA to make payments based on the plaintiff not taking up this offer.

In the case of Chaplin, I believe that the court's response was also correct. The hospital's uniform policy was designed to minimise risk of infection and preserve health, and so requiring employees to follow it should be considered a legitimate restriction "necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, [and] the protection of [...] health".

Response to question 2:

In both of these cases I believe that the domestic courts made the correct decision. Both plaintiffs were required to carry out particular tasks as part of their jobs, without discrimination based on the sexuality of their clients. This is not a case where the religious discrimination claimed is largely unrelated to the performance of their jobs, but one where their religion is definitionally incompatible in their view with the duties of their job. In this case, there should be no responsibility upon the employer to vary the duties, especially where such variance would require discrimination against other protected groups. Protection against religious discrimination should not extend to being able to pick and choose which aspects of ones job should be carried out.

Response to question 3:

A "reasonable accommodation" test for religious discrimination would seem - on the basis of the four cases presented - to be superfluous with current law.

In Eweida, the employer attempted to make reasonable accommodations - firstly by offering a job in which the contested restriction would not apply, and secondly by amending the contested restriction. This was found under current law to be sufficient, and so an explicit "reasonable accommodations" law would have been unlikely to make a difference to the outcome.

In Chaplin, Ladele, and McFarlane, the cases fall outside the scope of "reasonable accommodation". The actions requested by the plaintiffs were incompatible with the duties of the job, and so no "reasonable accommodation" could have been made. Furthermore, in the cases of Ladele and McFarlane, no accommodation of the plaintiff's stance could have been provided without harming the employers' provision of service towards LGB people. Again, a "reasonable accommodations" law would have been unlikely to have made a difference. (Had, in Chaplin, a way of displaying the crucifix been available that was compatible with infection control and health and safety requirements, it seems unlikely that neither the employee nor the employer would not have suggested this at some point in the dispute)

The "reasonable adjustments" part of disability law is in my view to reflect that the infrastructure of society is generally set up by default in a way that is not accessible to people with disabilities, and so it may not be possible - especially for a small business or organisation with a very limited budget - to provide a fully accessible environment. There is therefore only a requirement to do what is financially and physically possible unilaterally, rather than requiring a multilateral rebuild of social and physical infrastructure to truly eliminate environmental disability discrimination.

There is not an analogous situation with religion - no buildings need be completely rebuilt, no tools need to be completely redesigned, and so on - and therefore the concept of "reasonable adjustments" seems unnecessary.


1 Well, in so far as the court website itself isn't particularly accessible or user-friendly.

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Friday, 19 August 2011

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Inconsistencies in attitudes to the legal system

[trigger warning]

Okay, so we have a group of crimes where:

  • There are very harsh sentences for those convicted, with even the least serious offences in this group likely to give several weeks if not months in jail.
  • Bail is generally refused for those charged, so there's a good chance of being in jail on remand for months while a full trial is scheduled, even if completely innocent.
  • The police may batter down your door at 5 in the morning to arrest you if suspected, and then hold you for days.
  • There can be serious damage to one's reputation within the local community for those suspected and especially convicted of these crimes, and the police and media widely report (more widely than usual) on convictions to ensure this.
  • Those accused are mostly male.
  • The government, police, companies, charities and media are encouraging anonymous reports of these offences to try to ensure as many offenders as possible are caught.
  • The courts have been condemned by many observers and legal experts for attempting to rush the legal process at the expense of justice.

On the whole, in fact, it's quite clearly about vengeance and being seen to be doing something, rather than justice, rehabilitation, and repairing the damage caused to society by these crimes.

One would have naively thought that the usual suspects would have been very vocal about the need to guard against the possibility of malicious accusations, and to give defendants in these cases anonymity to protect their reputations, but I haven't - including doing some searches specifically to look for them - found a single one.

Actually, I'd have been surprised if I had - but it just goes to show how little "reputation", "fairness" or "justice" are actually concerns of theirs.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Rape prevention: reply from Ofcom

[trigger warning]

Here's the answer I received from Ofcom regarding the Broadcasting Code. It's good enough on paper, but how it gets applied in practice is the key.

After confirming that "violence" in section 2 did include "sexual violence", despite a distinction being drawn between the two earlier in the document, I got this answer to my question on section 3.

The application of Rule 3.1 is essentially concerned with incitement, that is - very broadly speaking - the active encouragement of crime or disorder. Were a broadcaster to include material that actively encouraged or procured the commission of sexual offences it would be in breach of the rule. I think the prospect of such material being screened is remote.

Our application of the Code to the portrayal of sexual violence is strict. We recognise it as an especially sensitive area - from the point of view of offence as well as of harm (particularly in respect of its possible effect on those (few) men with violent sexual impulses towards women) - and regulate it accordingly.

From that answer it seems most likely that challenges to Ofcom regarding the screening of sexual violence portrayed as legitimate sexual behaviour are more likely to succeed under Rule 2.4 than Rule 3.1. I watch very little Ofcom-regulated broadcast material myself, so I expect that I won't personally be putting in any complaints - but if you do, drop a note in comments to say how it went.

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Friday, 12 August 2011

Riot Links

Most of what I've been reading this week has been about the riots. Potential trigger warning for violence on all of these. Normal links post back next week, probably.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Riots and responsibility

[Trigger warning: violence, also applies to most of the links]

So, riots. Some other reading on the subject first:

And for some idea of the general public response:

  • This rapidly-growing petition to remove all benefits from rioters (presumably after they've been released from jail) is by far the most signed petition on the government's new petitions site.
  • YouGov polling reports significant majorities in favour of major escalations of force against the riots, and 33% in favour of the use of live ammunition.

My own thoughts...

There are two things that the government needs to do. Immediately, it needs to restore an approximation of order to the affected cities. The people involved in the riots do need to be arrested and tried if possible. The government are taking this - after a shaky start - pretty seriously1, with a large police presence in city centres at night, and rapid work to arrest the rioters during the day. The rioting isn't going to be completely over for a while - but provided nothing escalates it (see footnote1 again) then normality should return fairly soon.

As soon as that is done, however, the government needs to do a much more important task - stop this happening again.

Riots could in theory break out at any time. There are nowhere near enough police across the country to stop this. If thousands of people decide at the same time that they want to make a point through violence, it's really difficult for the police to stop this happening.

Generally, they don't, however. Most of the time, people feel they have better choices available to them, or don't co-ordinate their attempts to riot.

The police can maintain a strong presence enough to stop these riots. They cannot maintain that presence indefinitely - already officers have been on duty for much longer than they should have been. Eventually they will need to stand down - and then, if nothing has changed, it will only be one more spark needed for more riots to start.

Unfortunately, the government seems to be determined not to change anything.

Its all too clear that we have a big problem with gangs in our country. For too long there has been a lack of focus and a complete lack of respect shown by these groups of thugs.

I am clear that they are in no way representative of the vast majority of young people in our country who despise them frankly as much as the rest of us do. But there are pockets of our society that are not just broken, but frankly sick.

When we see children as young as 12 and 13 looting and laughing, when we see the disgusting sight of an injured young man with people pretending to help him while they are robbing him, it is clear there are things that are badly wrong in our society.

For me the root cause of this mindless selfishness is the same thing I have spoken about for years: it is a complete lack of responsibility in parts of our society.

People allowed to feel that the world owes them something, that their rights outweigh their responsibilities and that their actions do not have consequences. Well they do have consequences.

We need to have a clearer code of values and standards that we expect people to live by and stronger penalties if they cross the line. Restoring a stronger sense of responsibility across our society in every town in every street in ever estate is something I am determined to do.

That's David Cameron PM (Conservative) there. But with all that talk about how people should "take responsibility", it could easily have been his Opposition counterpart, Ed Miliband MP (Labour). As the Guardian reports:

He said: "Then we have got to look into the causes, why people are going around doing this. And I think there are a complex number of causes."

He said he thought it was "partly about parental responsibility, partly about gangs and some of that culture".

Pretty similar thoughts from both. In summary, the causes of the riots are that "the rioters are scum, and their parents are scum, and their culture is scum, and we should punish the lot of them".

And with that level of shallow political analysis and responsibility-dodging from our political leadership, there are always going to be people who feel that society is giving them nothing.

Today's rioters can be dealt with. Arrested. Tried. Imprisoned. Tomorrow's rioters are still going to grow up in the same hopeless situations, being blamed by the politicians for being in those situations. And in a few years we'll arrest them too, because that's far easier than trying to figure out what the real underlying problems are and then fixing them. Far easier than treating people as actual people and listening to them and taking them seriously before they get so desperate they take to the streets to loot and destroy because that's all that's left. But no. They're scum, their families are scum, and they deserve what they get. Political consensus acheived, Parliament adjourned.

I think tomorrow's Parliamentary debate will be very reluctant to look "soft on crime" and consider why these riots might be happening. Why decades of social deprivation and institutional racism and cuts to what few bits of social safety net there were might be giving people nothing left to lose by rioting. I hope I'm wrong about that, but if I am it'll have to come from the backbenches.


1 Populist but dangerous and largely useless measures such as water cannon and plastic bullets aside, that is. Because they worked so well in Northern Ireland.

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Friday, 5 August 2011

Friday Links

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Sex education and rape prevention: consultation response

[trigger warning]

Earlier, the Department of Education recommended this new consultation regarding the department's work on rape prevention.

Here's my response - if you have any opinions on this issue, or additional evidence for them to consider, I strongly recommend that you send a response to them as well (the consultation is open until the end of November). Many of the questions relate to details of the curriculum or teaching process, or request case studies for best practice, neither of which I'm able or qualified to provide. There were a few more general questions as well, though.

I am responding to the consultation Review of Personal, Social, Health and Economics (PSHE) Education. This is a response to question 2, though elements of this answer have relevance to questions 1 and 6c as well.

I believe that the teaching of sexual consent needs to be significantly extended, and begin (in age-appropriate terms and levels of detail) at a young age. A discussion and debunking of the various common myths around sexual consent should take place before any of the children are likely to become sexually active with their peers, and this should be reinforced throughout the PSHE curriculum.

The current guidance, while covering the concept of consent, does so only in broad terms. Discussion of sexual violence is largely limited to that perpetrated by adults against children, with sexual violence perpetrated by children against each other ignored.

Children should be encouraged to see consent as an active rather than a passive state ("Yes means yes" rather than "No means no", colloquially) and to avoid tolerating a disrespect for consent by their peers.

Research supporting this view:

Lisak and Ivan found that sexually aggressive men were considerably more likely to believe the various myths about rape and consent (e.g. that flirting indicates consent to sex). By making sure that these myths are firmly and consistently counter-acted throughout schooling, the number of people believing in them could be reduced, thereby reducing the numbers of rapists and potential rapists in the population.

Weinrott and Saylor found that the vast majority of convicted rapists were serial rapists with an average of around 10 victims. Studies on undetected rapists (e.g. Lisak and Miller or McWhorter et. al.) show a similar pattern, though with a lower average. Many of these rapists had begun their offending during adolescence. It is therefore important to begin education about consent early, before the idea that sexually aggressive behaviour is normal takes hold.

Lisak goes on to say:

the research on undetected rapists tells us that actually a very small percentage of men - serial sexual predators - are responsible for a vastly disproportionate amount of the sexual violence in any community. These men cannot be reached or educated. They must be identified and removed from our communities. Our prevention and education efforts must be focused on the vast majority of men who will never themselves cross the line into criminal behavior, but who by their participation in peer groups and activities either actively or passively provide support or camouflage for the sexual predators in their midst. By laughing at their jokes, by listening uncritically to their stories of “conquests” and “scores,” men become facilitators or passive bystanders of criminal behavior.

Educating children early enough that they do not become serial sexual predators themselves, and have the confidence to avoid creating a supportive environment for those that do, is therefore vital in reducing the current high levels of sexual violence among adolescents and young adults.

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Monday, 1 August 2011

Season's Greetings

Season's Greetings! Happy Northern-Hemisphere temperate summer to you all!

Various plant photos, again.

Purple climbing plant - I still can't remember what this plant is, but it's come back nicely since last year.

Giant daisies - I really like these large daisies. (I've no idea if they're actually daisies, or just look a bit like them)

Coming up later in summer ...
Unopened sunflower - sunflowers!

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