Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category.

Paying tax is not an aspiration

George Osborne is alleged to have told some backbench Conservative MPs:

“Let’s not forget there are advantages in more people paying tax at 40p.

“It means they feel they are a success and joining the aspirational classes. That means they are more likely to think like Conservatives and vote Conservative.

“If they are paying 40p tax they have a greater interest in cutting Government spending because they are paying for it. All the polling evidence suggests that I am right.”

Whilst I would prefer to earn more money, I see paying more tax as a bug, not a feature – and I certainly don’t aspire to pay more of it which is why I take measures (subject to the limitations of PAYE) to reduce the amount stolen from me each month.

However I can see that there is, in a perverse and twisted way, some logic to what Gideon is saying – especially in the last line of quoted above. The problem is that whilst those who are paying more for government certainly have a greater interest in cutting government spending, the reality is that government isn’t cutting spending, has deliberately squeezed the basic tax rate band in order to catch more people in the 40% band and shows no indication of stopping doing either.

And George wonders why the ‘aspirational classes’ are disillusioned with him and his party.

Dr. Wollaston and the Case of the Smartphone Ban

Known bansturbator Dr Sarah Wollaston was reported by the BBC yesterday (before the story was subjected to some rewriting) as apparently being in favour of banning teenagers from using smartphones in order to save them from the dangers of sexting.

The original BBC story was based on the exchange between Dr. Wollaston and Norman Baker (Minister for Crime Prevention) during Home Office questions yesterday afternoon (emphasis mine):

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con):
What steps she is taking to prevent harassment through the sending of unsolicited sexual images via the internet and telephone.[902169]

The Minister for Crime Prevention (Norman Baker):
The coalition Government takes all forms of harassment, whether online or offline, very seriously. We have robust legislation in place to deal with cyber-stalking and harassment, and perpetrators of grossly offensive, obscene or menacing behaviour face stiff punishment. We will continue to work collaboratively with industry, charities and parenting groups to develop tools and information for users aimed at keeping society safe online.

Dr Wollaston:
I welcome the measures that the Government have taken to prevent sexual violence against women and girls. The Minister will be aware that many young people have been pressured into sending intimate photographs of themselves only to find that those images are sometimes posted, distributed or shared without their consent, which is an important form of bullying and harassment. What measures have been taken, and does the Minister support measures to prevent smart phone use by those who are not mature enough to understand that it can result in an important form of bullying?

Norman Baker:
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes an important point. We have given teachers stronger powers to tackle cyber-bullying by searching for and, if necessary, deleting inappropriate images or files on electronic devices, including mobile phones. It is critical to educate young people about the risks of sending intimate photographs. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has developed a specific educational resource to tackle sexting that is designed for use by teachers. There are numerous laws in place that can be used to deal with those who behave in this appalling manner.

On the basis that we should be able to trust Hansard, I’d say that the original BBC piece (sadly now lost unless anyone managed to screen grab it) entitled “‘Sexting’ abuse: Wollaston urges teen ban on smartphones” was an accurate representation of the words spoken in the house.

However Wollaston took to twitter after the the story was published and people started to mock her to say that…

before going on to ‘clarify’ her remarks…

All of which may or may not be more reasonable but if that was what she meant, why not say so at the time (she did have follow-ups prepared before she walked into the chamber, didn’t she?) rather than having to issue her clarifications in the face of laughter from an audience all too inclined to believe that yet another MP is out of touch with reality?

Consequences

SSE also said in yesterday’s statement that it would be investing less over the next five years.

An SSE spokesperson attributed this to “uncertainty in the underlying [regulatory] framework”.

I’m sure that the SSE spokesperson wasn’t alluding to Millipede Jr’s proposed freeze in energy prices. Honest.

On the proposed NMW increase

In an interview with the BBC yesterday George Osborne said that he would like to see above inflation increases in the National Minimum Wage (NMW), potentially increasing the rate for those aged 21 and over to £7/hour. Whether this was a pre-emptive strike or a panicky reaction ahead of Millipede Jr’s speech on the cost of living today is left up to the reader to decide based on their own particular biases.

The bare numbers (courtesy of Listen to Taxman) for someone doing a 37.5 hour week in the 2013/14 tax year are as follows:

£6.31/hour £7.00/hour £ Change % Change
Gross Pay 12,304.50 13,650.00 1,345,50 10.94
Income Tax 572.90 842.00 269.10 46.97
Employee National Insurance 546.78 708.24 161.46 29.53
Employer National Insurance 635.97 821.65 185.68 29.20
Nett Pay 11,184.82 12,099.76 914.94 8.18

Increasing the NMW to £7 would (in this tax year) make the employee £914.94 better off, the government £616.24 better off and the employer £1,531.18 worse off.*

Yet increasing the thresholds for Income Tax and all types of National Insurance to £12,304.50 would leave the employee with an extra £1,119.68 in their pocket, the employer with £635.97 per employee to spend on something else and a reduction in the amount taken by government of £1,755.65 – which would no doubt be offset by a reduction in the need to hand out quite so much in in-work benefits (and, potentially, reduce the admin overheads involved).

Not that it will happen though.

*Obviously this assumes that nobody loses their jobs because their labour isn’t worth the increased amount because at that point the employee and the government are both worse off…

The mask of civility and reason

For one of the few MPs with supposed libertarian leanings, the following tweet, even given the character limitations of twitter, hardly ranks amongst as Douglas Carswell’s finest utterings:

It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that this went down like a cup of cold sick with those who are in favour of free speech no matter how distasteful it can get and he came in for a bit of stick from them.

Carswell went on to ‘clarify’ his opening remarks in replies to some of the responses he received, saying that he’d like to be able to ‘exclude anonymous posters from one’s time line’ – an idea that perhaps (as a user-enabled setting) has legs assuming that anyone can come up with an acceptable definition of ‘anonymous’. Given that Guido and Old Holborn still use those identities even though pretty much everyone knows who Guido is these days and Old Holborn’s name was made public earlier this year, which side of the line do you place them? What about those like me who use a pseudonym as a handle but have their forename as their display name? Personally I’d place the odds of coming up with something that might suit Doug, let alone anyone else, at about the same as producing a useable internet porn filter.

The ‘explanation’ however leaves something to be desired as an optional block is a world away from wanting to sync twitter handles with the electoral roll in a cack-handed attempt to force civility on tweeters. Whilst I tend to be civil online (although my language is known to get somewhat fruity in meatspace), others are just as forthright in person as they are online so, anonymous or not, civility is not a certainty just because you know the real name of the person who has just suggested you perform some anatomically impossible act or has called you names that are slang for parts of the body.

Since Carswell is someone who has previous lauded the idea of the internet as a way of doing without big government, it is rather depressing to see him fall into the exact same trap. Is this simply the result of drinking the water in the Palace of Westminster or has his mask finally slipped?

You will be tolerent… or else

Unforeseen consequences

Millipede Jr is a miracle worker.

Yes, really.

As a result of his speech yesterday, and barring iDave saying something utterly insane in his conference speech next Thursday, I will, if I find myself living in a Labour/Conservative margin seat come the 2015 General Election, hold my nose, grit my teeth and do something I never thought I’d do again: vote for the Conservative candidate. I shall do this with the (admittedly slim) hope that my vote will, in some way, help stave off the possibility of a Labour government lead by Ed Milliband by reducing the number of seats won by that party.

May Zeus have mercy on my soul.

On compulsory voting

On Monday (didn’t they know it was a bank holiday?), the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) put out a press release about a forthcoming report of theirs which will recommend that voting should be compulsory for first-timers:

Voting should be compulsory for your first election, according to a new report to be published by the think tank IPPR next month.

Under IPPR’s plan, young voters would be required to go to the polling station to vote and would face a small fine if they didn’t. But IPPR also proposes that they would be given a ‘none of the above’ option, so they would not be forced to vote for a party.

They argue that this is necessary because only a minority of 18-24 year-olds bother to vote in elections these days.

Whilst I would certainly be delighted to see a ‘NOTA’ option of my ballot slip* (assuming that the IPPR isn’t suggesting that this option is only restricted to the first-timers) I’m afraid that I cannot get behind the idea of fining people should they not act as their elders and betters would like.

Wether they like it or not, abstention from the voting process is still a vote – albeit one that can be interpreted in a number of ways from ‘being happy with status quo’ through to ‘what’s the point?’

The task for our politicians is to make themselves worth voting for, not for them to force us into the voting booth under threat of violence.

NB: I have always voted, in General Elections anyway. My first was in 1997 as a young and fairly innocent 18 year-old and it went to the Conservative candidate. These days, assuming I don’t spoil my paper, it goes to anyone but a candidate from the Big 3. Living in a Conservative safe seat, such as I do, my vote is pretty much meaningless.

* Further enhanced by a compulsory rerun of the election – with new candidates – in any constituency where ‘NOTA’ is the ‘winning’ candidate.**

** Possible extensions include rerunning elections where the ‘winner’ fails to gain 50% of the votes cast (looking at the numbers from the 2010 General Election that would have meant reruns in two-thirds – 433 – of the constituencies) or, to make life even harder, where the ‘winner’ doesn’t get 50% of the registered electorate (in 2010 this mark was not reached in single constituency).

Organ snatching

Governments like to steal things, whether it is money (via taxes) or assets (via Nationalisation) but until now our bodies have been off the agenda for our so-called modern Western democracies.

That changed last week when the Welsh Assembly (a regional government) passed a law of presumed consent with regards to the organs of the deceased:

The Welsh assembly voted on Tuesday night to adopt the opt-out policy, which will allow hospitals to act on the assumption that people who die want to donate unless they have specifically registered an objection.

The final stage of a bill to adopt a system of presumed consent was passed by 43 votes to eight, with two abstentions, in spite of objections from religious groups on moral grounds and concerns that the scheme could add to the distress of grieving families.

Objections? I’m not surprised that there were objections!

When I die my body becomes the property of my estate, not the State. It is up to the person who has power of attorney over said estate to dispose of it as per my wishes, not get rid of whatever is left after it has been pillaged by forces acting on behalf of the State.

Now, as it happens, I have nothing against volunatry organ donation and am more than happy for that to take place. However I want to make it perfectly clear to these modern-day descendents of Burke and Hare that if I do happen to die on the western side of the River Severn* any time after this piece of legislation comes into force in 2015 then they do not and never will have my permission to take any organs from my still warm corpse.

Welsh politicians are happy though:

“This is a huge day for Wales, for devolution and, most importantly, for the 226 people in Wales waiting for an organ transplant,” said the Welsh health minister, Mark Drakeford.

Wait, what? In order to deal with 226 cases – a number which will, of course, change between now and 2015 – they are planning on harvesting organs from how many thousands of people who die** in the country each year? Or are they intending to be slightly more targeted in the matter and only take those organs which they think will match the requirements of those on the transplant list?

Leaving the numbers aside, I foresee some practical problems ahead…

  • How does one actually opt-out? Is it a card in the purse/wallet (i.e. the exact opposite of the current donor card), a statement in your last Will and Testament or other?
  • Who is going to check to see if an opt-out exists and what is the time limit on finding it?
  • Does this only apply to people nominally resident in Wales or to anyone who happens to depart this life whilst in the principality? I’m sure the relatives of tourists wouldn’t necessarily be amused to discover something is missing from the corpse they have just shipped home…
  • No doubt various religious groups will claim that this is against their beliefs.

And, looking to the future, who is to say that the ability to opt-out won’t be taken away by a subsequent administration? Organ donation was once opt-in, now it is starting to become opt-out so obviously the next stop down the slippery slope is to take away any pretense of allowing people to make up their own mind on the issue…

* Yes, I know it isn’t the full border but you get the point I am trying to make.
** 30,426 according to Table 3 of the ONS stats for 2011.

On Spying

Like it or loathe it, espionage is part of a State’s foreign policy arsenal and any State which doesn’t practice it to some degree is missing a trick. Knowing what your allies as well as your enemies are planning before it occurs allows you to take advantage of any developing situation. Thus State spying will only cease when the whole concept of the Nation State ceases to exist…

… and even then the idea won’t die as trying to gain a jump on your competitors is only natural – corporations do it, sports teams also and so do individuals. When it takes place on the sports field or in the exam hall we call those practise it cheats – but outside?

For what we term the ‘advanced democracies’ military conflicts these days are generally remote affairs and so cross-border espionage is as likely (if not more) to be about the commercial and industrial secrets of our trading partners than state or military ones.

Any threat to these countries generally comes, these days, from single or groups of dissatisfied individuals (either internal or external) who look to conduct random acts of violence (or ‘terrorism’) against either civilian, military or governmental targets out of hatred, as a method of protest or misguided revenge, or for other petty reasons.

It is these people whom Western governments are more concerned about these days but whom it is much harder to spy upon as there are laws (and civil liberty concerns) about spying on domestic populations which simply do not apply to foreign ones.

Previously the smarter governments (UK, USA to name but two) have got around the need to have court authorisation for domestic signals intelligence (SIGINT) gathering (which they wouldn’t have got) by exchanging the information they collected on each other’s populations. The rise of the internet and changing technology has made this harder though and as a result attempts are made by governments (prompted, possibly, by their internal security apparatuses) to monitor populations directly, trampling over and, often, completely ignoring the civil liberty infringements which accompany such a move.

The problem with large-scale data collection, as laid out over at The New Liberty in regards to the ongoing PRISM relevations, is simply that so much data is transmitted electronically these days that it is highly improbable that it could all be stored by central government. Much more likely is that they store the metadata (still a not inconsiderable amount).

Secondly, governments who choose to undertake such mass surveillance have to process the data collected. By far the vast majority of what they collect will be static, stuff that needs to be filtered out in the search for useful information. Programming techniques will deal with a lot of this but they will still be left with false-positives which need to be examined by human beings before they can be safely discarded. There will also be false-negatives – and these may not be discovered until after something horrible occurs.

Even once any useful information is uncovered, governments need to have the human resources (HUMINT) in order to be able to analyse and follow-up on it – whether this means getting a court order to obtain more detailed SIGINT on the subject or just the number of warm bodies necessary to conduct long-term surveillance operations against them. Then you have to check every person the target comes into contact with just to work out whether or not there is a possible connection.

Spying on people can be a time-consuming, labour intensive and potentially fruitless task… and attacks will still happen. Attacks which will lead to calls by useful idiots and the media (but I repeat myself) for yet more surveillance, more restraints on liberties and thus more static to be sorted through in order to find the proverbial needle in the haystack…