The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Posts Tagged ‘liberty’

Some Good News In The Darkness

Posted by The Futility Monster on June 15, 2010 @ 09:28

We love databases cos they do all good stuff like this!

In the past I’ve strongly challenged the idea that what this country needs to protect its children is a bloody great database constantly monitoring the activities of nearly one-quarter of the adult population on it.

So today’s announcement that the Independent Safeguarding Authority’s Vetting and Barring Scheme is to be suspended pending a very rigorous investigation is to be welcomed.

So far this government has been reasonably true to its word of looking carefully at ways to roll back the frontiers of the infant police state that Labour were building. A state based around databases and vast swathes of information about its subjects, all built to make them sound good and thoroughly decent, but with no safeguards as to where they could head, and with little concept of how damaging they are to our civil liberties.

I understand that there is actually some relief within the civil service at this announcement, primarily because the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) was not going to be ready for its July start date. This news will mean no need for embarrassing admissions about yet another bureaucratic failure.

But there’s still some way to go before proper celebration. We don’t yet know the full extent of the “Great Repeal Bill” promised by Clegg and Cameron. The ISA and its associated legislation would have to be included in such a repeal bill if it were to be shelved altogether. Indeed, as I pointed out in one of the posts linked to earlier, there was no need for the ISA in the first place, given the fact that the CRB could easily have done the job.

All it takes is a little imaginative thinking in government. I dearly hope this review gives them enough time to think properly about what is actually needed for the safety of children and vulnerable adults. What risks are we prepared to accept in society?

Sadly, yes, anyone with close, and frequently isolated, contact with children must be checked out. This does include the voluntary sector too. But how much further beyond that do we need to go? Do we really need, as I have seen in job adverts, chefs working for a major English professional football club being CRB checked because they might also be cooking food for the youth teams?

The coalition keeps moving in the right direction with this kind of stuff, and so it fills me with some confidence that we may finally be seeing the limits of state intrusion.

The scores on the doors: ContactPoint child database: to be scrapped. Identity cards, and the national identity database, to be scrapped. ISA bureaucratic, intrusive nightmare: on the abyss. Great Repeal Bill? Jury’s still out on that one…


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Criminal Records Disclosures To Be Curbed?

Posted by The Futility Monster on March 19, 2010 @ 10:35

I approve this message

Imagine my surprise this morning when I read that the government is taking seriously a report by their new “watchdog” on criminal records which says

… many lives have already been affected by… disclosures [of old and minor crimes] in employment vetting checks.

The extent to which such information is passed on to employers will now be curtailed after the Home Office accepted her concerns and promised action.

If this is true, it is truly remarkable. A government, which has done its level best to create and empower the bureaucratic nightmare that is the CRB, and a state in which people are guilty until proven innocent by the Politburo, freely and willingly admitting that maybe it’s gone a little too far and ought to row back a little.

It’s so unbelievable to me that it can’t possibly be right. The criminal records Disclosure service has grown inexorably in scope, as more and more employers use them for all kinds of unintended purposes. Then there is the impending start of the Independent Safeguarding Authority, which will provide a continuous link between an employer and the repository of criminal records, so that any “relevant” information” can be disclosed on a regular timely basis.

And now we’re being told that, after all, the state was wrong and may limit the amount of additional information given to employers?

The problem with enhanced disclosures is that they have always given out information on general police intelligence, all spent convictions, whether relevant or not and allegations, even unfounded ones that may be malicious.

In certain cases, you can make a serious argument that releasing such background information, not tested or proven in a court of law, is a necessary evil in the modern world. We’ve had to sacrifice these liberties for wider protection.

But now, maybe this string of frequently irrelevant information, a minor caution for smoking dope while a youth which may be used to stop someone from becoming a football coach, or a taxi driver, may be coming to an end.

What makes me so shocked is that, in case you didn’t know, there’s an election coming up. And far from wanting to look “soft” on matters of this delicacy, you would have thought the rhetoric would be being ramped up.

Or maybe they’re just accepting it knowing they won’t be in power to implement it and it’ll be all down to the Tories.

Cynicism. That’s more like it!

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Societal Failure Starts Early. Very Early.

Posted by The Futility Monster on February 15, 2010 @ 09:53

Hilariously, the top three Google Images results for "feral youths" all came from the nation's favourite right-wing newspaper...

Yet another report this morning highlights just how important the early years for children are

Children from the poorest homes are almost a year behind middle class pupils in language skills by the time they start school, research suggests.

Labour’s immediate defence (not yet though) will be to say that it proves their SureStart programme is the right idea, and that the Tories want to scrap it, etc. etc: a message that is somewhat unclear, because some reports say the Tories won’t scrap it, while others say they will cut money from its budget.

But in this case, I’m not interested in the partisan hackery. We’ve had enough of that over the past few days regarding the issue of care for the elderly.

This time, the point is simple. Study after study is showing that the biggest “damage” is done to a child’s prospects before they even enter school. Indeed, the sceptics might argue that all school does is merely nurture a child’s abilities as they get older and turn them into what has essentially already been pre-determined for them by the facts of their early childhood.

A very depressing argument, but there has to be some element of truth to it. After all, why is it that bad schools tend to be in “bad” areas, with high levels of poverty, unemployment, and general deprivation? And that this just never seems to change, decade in, decade out?

Time and again, the evidence shows that early intervention is the only way we can tackle the long-term nature of the underachievement from the difficult estates of Britain.

Such a platitude is very easy to say, however, without defining what we mean by “intervention”. And that’s where it begins to get tricky.

Parenting classes are the solution offered by The Sutton Trust, the ones who sponsored this research. Only problem is that you’re broadly dealing with people who, let’s just say, aren’t the sharpest tools in the box in the first place. How much will they be able to absorb and actually put into practice?

More money spent on the right things might help, but in our short-termist mentality it’s just not doable, even though it would probably pay itself back in the long run.

So are we talking then about very aggressive intervention? Social workers and health visitors keeping a very close eye on the development of children? It doesn’t sound very liberal, does it? Where do we stop after that: will people be required to take an IQ test before they’re allowed to reproduce?

Nobody ever said democracy was easy.

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Ruling The Unruly Mob

Posted by The Futility Monster on February 4, 2010 @ 10:04

The natives of Little Whinging are getting restless once again...

With the news this morning once again filled with stories about MPs and their expenses, it’s made me wonder just what would satisfy not just the media, but the baying mobs of the general public.

The stocks? Self-flagellation? Walking barefoot across a firey pit of doom in the depths of Mordor?

No. Nothing would. The point was sort of reinforced to me the other day when I watched Tower Block of Commons – because there is a scene in the programme where Tory MP Tim Loughton (who, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t been embroiled in any of this) tries to have a reasonable conversation with a man whose anger and rage is palpable.

But Tim might as well be talking to a brick wall. Indeed, although it was probably a trick of the editing, by the end of the conversation he merely stands there silent while the man begins at MPs expenses and uses it as a delicate springboard to spout off about all the conspiracy theories everyone has about MPs, power and corruption.

Not that I don’t enjoy the odd degree of cynicism about those in power (he says with much understatement) but the real tragedy of the expenses farrago is that it has been used as the perfect excuse to justify all the things over the years that have been said about MPs, that they don’t listen, they don’t care about people like me, they’re only in it for themselves, they spend all day talking about nothing, what do they actually do, and so on and on and on and Ariston.

Some might say a lot of these people never bothered anyway, and democracy is already lost to them. It’s a fair point, and in truth, horrible though this sounds, they are the reason why voting should not be made compulsory. There is a great deal of ignorance in society about politics, either through choice or through necessity: some people’s lives are hard enough without worrying about whether Cameron really does want to cut inheritance tax for the wealthy.

That creates a brick wall, one which will never be knocked down by politicians. Democracy as a concept is fragile, but just as we shouldn’t export democracy over the world, so we shouldn’t force democracy down the throats of our own citizens. It is up to the political class to prove that democracy is worth the time and effort.

Politicians are not just advocates for their party (or more optimistically, their principles), they ought to be a shining beacon of why democracy is the right and fair choice for delivering the just society and the common good.

With that in mind though, they really ought to buck their ideas up…

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Posted by The Futility Monster on January 9, 2010 @ 18:02

The uniforms on Star Trek were never up to much...

This is a “reprint” of a post I made in November 2006. I’m not saying I still stand by all of it, but I enjoyed re-reading it none the less. What do you think?



There is something about the word “uniform” which is simply filled with negative connotations. The answer is quite clearly that uniform means everything is the same. There is no independent thought, no creativity, just bland conformity. So why is it that the concept of uniform is giving me so much trouble on a bright Saturday morning, with the joyful haze of that Tuesday-Wednesday All Nighter for the US midterms still gripping my consciousness? Well, there’s only one way to find out…

In the UK, almost all school children wear a uniform. The idea is simple: that there is a certain “our school” way, that everyone is united in some manner. It also makes it very easy for people to complain, and the usual “you are representing our school” derives from it. In theory, these are generally good things. They encourage a sense of belonging, something which is rather lacking in society today. However, where school is involved, all of these ideals tend to be filled with a certain sense of naffness. I’m sure everyone can remember a school assembly in which the entire school was berated because of the activities of the usual minority who give everyone a bad name. After those we’d be given a lecture in all of the previous concepts about representing the school. No one ever listened, and no one really cared.

Everyone just hated the uniform. No one wanted to wear it, simply because a) it’s terribly uncomfortable and b) it made you stick out like a sore thumb. When the usual inter-school rivalries set in, the pupils of Our Lady of Religious School would often do anything they could to avoid the Evil and Wicked children (so the rumours said on the playground) of Inner City Comprehensive. At that age, if these concepts of belonging and representation work, then they only do so on the sub-conscious level. Otherwise, you spend all your time trying to evade the “benefits”, sometimes trying to express your individuality, which then gets you into trouble. On the conscious level, they are a failure. They actively encourage rivalry between children who otherwise would have no quarrel with each other.

To me, uniforms are a representation of something more sinister in society. The only possible benefit they have is that they remove the idea of a fashion war happening in schools. This is something I can’t deny, and I would have difficulty devising another system that escapes this. I hate the idea that a child from a poor family may have to suffer because they can’t afford to buy the best trainers on the market, while Rich Child with Inherited Wealth can.

But everyone remembers the moment in which they never had to wear their school uniform again. The shackles of conformity were broken; at long last, the freedom to wear whatever you choose.

Then, suddenly, you start in the world of work.

And then you discover that, in fact, uniform is still alive and well. Women have a little more flexibility. But men don’t. It’s either a suit, or… a suit without a tie.

Oh dear. It then dawns on you that, in fact, you haven’t left the manacles of conformity behind at all. Indeed, it was just a temporary slipping of the noose while the hangman adjusted his line. Worse, whereas before your parents ironed your uniform for you, now you have to iron a perfect crease in your trousers and take a terribly long length of time ironing your shirt. Then you have a suit jacket which needs dry cleaning every now and then. Oh, the extra effort and expense!

Then you ask yourself the question: why? Why the hell is it like this? Why do we trust the man in a suit more than the man in a tracksuit? Is there a proper reason other than the fact “it’s always been that way”? Isn’t the man in the suit just as likely to want to screw you over – in business terms – than the man in the tracksuit? Why does a suit give an impression of professionalism? Why does a strip of silk, or even polyester, around one’s neck give the idea that this person is someone who you can trust, and then, in all probability, stab you in the back at the first opportunity to enhance their career over you?

So we conform. We go back to our uniform days and relive them, again and again, until retirement. There are only a few lucky careers which don’t require people to conform to some kind of dress code. In many ways, it’s very similar to the argument we’ve been seeing this week over whether Jon Snow is right to receive the indignant protestations of the Poppy Fascists. Why are people so hell-bent on forcing their regimented ideals on each other?

I have always been of the opinion that just because something has always been done, that alone is not enough to justify it continuing to be done. Everything needs to prove itself in the here and now. If people’s opinions are dated back to the Victorian age, when Rich Businessman wore a black-tie suit and so was the right kind to mix with instead of the povvos in the slums, then they have no place in today’s society. And not just because any old, or even young, fraudster can now buy a cheap suit in Matalan…

Therein lies the problem. So many people, holding so many stereotypical values, socialised, even indoctrinated, upon them by a so-called tolerant society. It may not seem like a serious issue, talking about why we wear uniforms, but it’s only when you examine the subtle prejudices and assumptions that lie within – only when you scratch the surface – do you discover some very revealing, and equally fascinating, aspects of human psychology. The undercurrents of the argument run throughout many layers of society; and all emanating via an issue which I doubt very few people ever even consider.

So next time you stand there making a choice between the stripey tie, the dotted tie or the Father Christmas, all singing, all dancing, novelty tie… ask yourself: is this what expressing your individuality, your independence as a person, has come to?

Is that what we call freedom?

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Should Fireworks Be Banned?

Posted by The Futility Monster on November 7, 2009 @ 09:53


Can't beat a good fireworks display though. Let someone else worry about the risks...

The obvious answer to this question from most people is surprisingly knee-jerk libertarian. For a nation that loves banning things though, we would be loathe to give up our yearly dose of gunpowder. “How dare the political correctness brigade try to infringe our British culture”, might be the cry from the Littlejohn pages, despite it having nothing to do with political correctness…

This is an issue, though, that I’m torn upon. I have some sympathy with the idea that these things are actually extremely dangerous and probably shouldn’t be put in the hands of the general public.

It’s one of these things though that is purely based on anecdotal experience. And, as everyone knows, anecdotal evidence makes for bad policy. But bear with me…

The other night round here there was a “run the gauntlet” atmosphere surrounding the local supermarket. The area is particularly scummy, and the local youths were having their fun setting fireworks off and aiming them at cars. The staff in the supermarket told me they’d been terrified all night – as several fireworks had managed to get into the shop – phoning the police on several occasions, only to be told they were too busy with other calls.

That kind of behaviour is somewhat expected round here. In truth, while it’s not great, it’s no worse than the behaviour of drunken adults pouring out of the local pubs at closing time. That’s what everyone’s used to. Maybe we shouldn’t be, but this tends to be what it’s like in the forgotten corners of Britain.

Anyway – that’s not sufficient for me. What makes me ask the question though is that, on many occasions, we have had many near misses on a number of different occasions. From Roman candles tipping over and firing horizontally, to badly designed imported (read “dodgy”) fireworks which were inherently unstable – with the consequence that after a few shots, they had wobbled enough to also be on their side, with the resulting rockets firing past people standing at a door and into the house, where they proceeded to explode…

Then the rockets, firing off at all different directions, hitting other people’s houses, exploding on roofs. And the ones that don’t seem to have the power to lift off, and end up exploding at ground level. Leading to much screaming and ducking for cover…

And on Thursday night, the absolute clincher. A rocket that essentially turned into an artillery shell.

The blue touch paper was lit, the rocket started screeching… it just about managed to go into the air, and then started coming down in a perfect arc. A one in a million shot. And as it reached the bottom of its parabola, it landed perfectly into the garden of someone living in the street behind us.

And exploded.

We were all, as you do, pissing ourselves with laughter. And hoping that there wasn’t anyone actually out there. We ran indoors and turned all the lights out.

That was the end of the festivities. But someone could have been out amongst that. Imagine a firework coming in at you as if it were a Hamas rocket and then exploding in front of you.

These things are bloody dangerous. And judging by the sheer amount of things that we’ve witnessed going wrong over the years, I’m convinced most other people must have had similar issues happening to them.

I wonder what the evidence suggests on the number of firework related injuries each year. It must, if you pardon the pun, rocket on 5th November.

Maybe they should just be confined to official displays. But they’re so embedded in culture that people would just get hold of them anyway.

Politics ain’t easy…

(Meanwhile, you could buy a computer from my computer sales business, ElpaTech. Or locals can try the computer repair Andover service. Sorry, shameless plug alert.)

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Posted by The Futility Monster on September 16, 2009 @ 06:35

Well, I know it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy, but I shouldn't admit to that or I'll be getting barred from working with children and vulnerable adults...

Well, I know it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy, but I shouldn't admit to that or I'll be getting barred from working with children and vulnerable adults...

The government likes its three letter acronyms.

A few years ago, in response to the Bichard Inquiry, Labour decided to implement a brand new “vetting and barring” scheme.

As usual, it was a typical Whitehall reinvention of the wheel. The government already had its own vetting and barring scheme. It had existed for a long time in the guise of things like List 99, a central list of undesirable people that we didn’t want working with children, based on criminal records and intelligence.

But this was insufficient. The government decided it would be better farmed out to an “independent” agency.

The Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) was born.

Why a new agency? It has long been suspected that the real reason behind this outsourcing was so that the government could wash their hands of responsibility. The government’s calculation was that, one day, an abuse would again occur involving a person not on List 99 – such as what happened with Ian Huntley. Too many questions were already being asked as to why Huntley slipped through the net, some of them rather uncomfortable (e.g. the case of Kim Howells clearing a registered sex offender for a PE teacher’s job). So taking these kind of decisions out of the hands of politicians would, indeed, be politically desirable.

The problem here is that many years earlier, the government created an agency to collate and try to ensure that the system was much tighter. It was called the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB).  Charged with issuing Disclosures on people, based upon nationwide police criminal records checks and intelligence, it is, ostensibly, a neutral organisation which provides employers with information and allows them to take the final decision based on what they receive back from the check.

While they are subtly different – ISA takes decisions on people’s suitability, but the CRB only provides the information required for the decision – they were still overlapping sufficiently that, at first, the CRB were told to prepare to take on the new vetting and barring scheme. They did so, spending money and time in the process. After all, they were ideally placed to deal with this new function in-house. They

Then the government pulled the plug and decided that a new layer of bureaucracy was exactly what the country needed.

This woeful tale is yet another example of the failure of modern politics.

Firstly, the  creation of new bureaucracy when the existing system could be adapted is a ridiculous waste of time, money, will cause needless duplication of resources and will doubtless result in poor communication between the ISA and the CRB.

Secondly, the propensity of the modern politician to farm decisions out to quangos and other bodies (e.g. strategic health authorities, foundation hospitals, trust schools, academies…) means a lack of ministerial responsibility and accountability.

And thirdly, on principle, as we have seen in the news lately, the whole thing is going to lead to a further gross infringement on liberty and a redefinition of the fundamental relationship between adults and children in society.

Who knows where that will lead.

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Is Martin Kettle Right?

Posted by The Futility Monster on September 11, 2009 @ 06:37

Maybe we need one of these right next to Parliament...

Maybe we need one of these right next to Parliament...

The internet is filled with comment these days. but one of my favourite columnists is still Martin Kettle of the Guardian. And today, he wonders whether the Lib Dems should be doing better

His point is simple. We have been right on a range of issues: “the economy, Europe, ID cards, Iraq and localism… climate change, police powers, tax [and] electoral reform”.

Very nice of him to say so. Yes, we do indeed have some good policies in these areas. So why aren’t we doing better? Kettle’s diagnosis is three-pronged:

  1. The David Cameron effect
  2. The senior party has been institutionalised
  3. Britain just ain’t that liberal after all

It’s a tempting argument. For sure, the David Cameron effect is very powerful. Polls are now showing that a plurality of Lib Dem voters, when forced to choose between Labour and the Conservatives, will opt for Cameron’s party. If even our own party backers are being lured by the love-bombing, what does it say for everyone else?

David Cameron’s strength has been his ability to solidify the hardcore Tory vote – many of whom, out of pure fatalism, sat on their hands in 1997 and 2001 – and, meanwhile, pull in all the waverers, floating voters from all parties and even some of the non-voters. That’s why they consistently poll in the 40% region now, and have done so for a good while.

For Kettle’s second point, it also has the ring of truth to it. There are now a wide range of other third-parties that the electorate can choose from if they want to give the establishment a kicking. UKIP, Greens and now the continual assaults on the BNP have reduced them to martyr status. Anyone who really wants to piss off a politician only has to even contemplate voting BNP to be doing the system a disservice. It has been a mistake to treat the BNP in this way; personally I think it’s given them a lot more support than they would have had otherwise.

Kettle points to our failure in parliamentary by-elections too. In our defence, they haven’t exactly been winnable, though in times gone by I think we would have won a seat like Henley. The real problem here is related to his first point: in the past the Tories and Labour have always been ripe for a kicking (depending on who had the seat in question), and the way to do that was to vote Lib Dem. Nowadays, the Tories have been out of power for so long, and are now perceived as the government-in-waiting, that they have broken their by-election curse.

His final point is the most difficult for our party. Are we not a liberal nation after all? Kettle doesn’t offer any evidence, but perhaps I’ll take up the mantle…

We may well be right on ID cards, but they’re still popular. We may well be right on CCTV, but everyone still wants the whole nation camera’d up. We may well be right on detention without charge, but it remains a popular policy to extend it.

This is the battle we’re in, and why the party leadership will avoid all those issues in a General Election. Of course, those smart media guys and our opposition will still bring them up anyway to try to embarrass us.

I genuinely believe that we do not value our liberty as much as we used to. In the post 9/11 age, we are prepared to give away huge amounts of our freedoms in the name of security. But meanwhile, our lives go on in the same way as they always have done. It’s been so long since the last serious threat to our existence in World War II that we’re forgetting the conception of liberty we’re supposed to be defending.

Because we no longer appreciate that these liberties we have, and once had, took generations to secure, wrestled from the grip of tyrannical dictators and “our betters”, we are more prepared to sell our ancestors short. Trial by jury? Well, maybe a judge sitting on his own is better. Secret evidence? Well, we wouldn’t want to reveal our sources, would we? Refugees and asylum seekers? Sorry, Britain’s full.

No. The British just aren’t that liberal any more. Maybe we never were. Maybe all of our liberal heritage sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in the 18th century…

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Alan Johnson: Playing With (Political) Fire

Posted by The Futility Monster on September 7, 2009 @ 06:30

Alan Johnson looking very thoughtful... perhaps even mulling a leadership bid...

Alan Johnson looking very thoughtful... perhaps even mulling a leadership bid...

It seems Home Secretary Alan Johnson either has a new strategy to replace the containment of suspected terrorists in this country, or he is prepared to go steaming into a populist challenge to the judiciary…

This morning the news has broken that Alan Johnson has released a man from a control order that he’s been under for three years without giving any reason. The “sources” in these stories all claim that he  has done so in order to avoid disclosing into the public domain the reasons for keeping him – the thing which the judiciary are demanding if the control orders regime is to stay legal.

It seems to me an extremely revealing decision.

If this man is a threat, and, if we take at face value the government’s claim that disclosure would be a serious threat to our national security, then the decision by Alan Johnson seems reckless in the extreme. There are alternative systems he could well have rushed emergency legislation through to replace the control orders, such as hearings held in closed court but with all information accessible. I believe the French run such a system. Perhaps he could also have sought a derogation from the ECHR, but I’m no legal expert.

But let’s just say he is a threat, and goes on to commit a terrorist atrocity. What would Alan Johnson say? Not me, guv? “It were the liberal judges wot forced my hand!” he might quip. That would be extraordinarily damaging for this country. A populist, political, battle between the executive and the judiciary, fought in public. Of course, I would expect the British public to damn the both of them: Johnson for his recklessness (as above) and the judiciary for their decision, even though it is a wise one and entirely consistent with the liberties we are entitled to in this country.

If, on the other hand, this man is not a threat, then what is the possible justifiable reason for holding him for three years without charge or trial, or even worse, knowing what on Earth he has been held under house-arrest for for so long? That, surely, is contrary to any decent definition of liberty still remaining in society. Surely no one can support the arbitrary detention of individuals because the state says they don’t like them.

Alternatively, the man may be a threat… not directly, but as a rallying sergeant for others. The government may be prepared to use him as a bargaining chip to convince wayward MPs that we need to design some legislation to bring him back under control as quickly as possible. But surely even this is too cynical? Surely the government wouldn’t play such a dangerous game with our national security? And in any case, the

Perhaps this is simply an example of the government trying to save face. They’ve brought him in under a control order and couldn’t find any good reasons to hold him, but wanting to look tough. They persisted with this line, even when it became obvious that they don’t need him in custody, simply because to back down would look weak. And, the longer the man was held, the more difficult it becomes to take the brave decision to admit a mistake has been made. Maybe Alan Johnson has admitted that. Or is that too generous? It would, after all, be three years too late, and three years of misery brought upon one of our fellow citizens. That alone would be inexcusable.

That would be the most friendly spin I could put on this. No matter which way you look at it though, I can’t see anything positive here for this government that has botched our anti-terror policy time after time, sacrificing our liberty for the sake of a good headline. Well, maybe they’ve got their comeuppance.

There is one final intriguing chapter in this story. The man is half-Libyan.

Maybe we really do have a new “special relationship” blossoming.

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Separate Those Powers!

Posted by The Futility Monster on August 21, 2009 @ 06:31

It's impossible to draw a similar diagram of the UK system, because it ain't so neat as that... but you get the picture. Not that I drew this one; it was stolen, as usual...

It's impossible to draw a similar diagram of the UK system, because it ain't so neat as that... but you get the picture. Not that I drew this one; it was stolen, as usual...

It seems everywhere you turn at the moment it’s hard to escape the news regarding the release of the “Lockerbie bomber”. An appalling incident, yes. But, as is the case with anything like this, it’s very hard to know who is telling the truth.

If we make an assumption that the Americans and the Scots eventually got their man, we know for sure that there were other people involved who have never been brought to justice. To obsess so much over the only person we can hold responsible is understandable, but it does mean we narrow our focus a little too much. If we were really that upset over it, then we would never have normalised relations with Libya. But that’s Western hypocrisy for you.

But what’s fascinating me most is the way such a difficult judicial decision is needlessly politicised. The SNP, newbies to running national administrations, have had their first real taste of being between a rock and a hard place. And overall, I think they handled their responsibility extremely well and came to the right conclusion.

My main worry is why on Earth does a political figure take this kind of decision? Yes – there is an argument that at least we could hold them accountable by doing so. But following that logic we would end up with the election of all judiciary like in the USA. That would be totally unacceptable. I may be a democrat, but not that democratic that we would see the judiciary infected with populism and horrendous party politicking.

No, our justice system is very different. It is based on different principles of impartiality and strict adherence to statute, with judges knowing their place beneath the overriding power of Parliament. That balance has shifted in recent years due to the Human Rights Act, but broadly speaking judges cannot strike down a law.

The Home Secretary of the UK no longer has the power to adjust sentencing. We got rid of that because it was too easy for him/her to meddle with them for political purpose. I don’t want my politicians having anything to do with trials, juries, barristers – nothing at all to do with judging. They are just too susceptible to the wonders of the opinion poll.

That power instead resides with the Attorney General, who can appeal that a sentence is “unduly lenient” (but never that it is “excessive” – oh no!). Alas, the Attorney General is still a political appointee, serving at the patronage of the Prime Minister. Not good enough, but at least the decision is out of their hands.

So it should be the case in Scotland. The decision should have been either been made by the Lord Advocate – a political appointee, in part, but one with security of tenure and no “constituency” to impress – or by some other element of the judiciary.

The principle of the separation of powers is so important to me and to many other true liberal democrats (small ‘l’ and small ‘d’ in this case). It is only by enforcing that and strengthening it at every opportunity with rigorous checks and balances that we can protect our way of life, preserve our constitution and values over generations, and ensure the maximum freedom for all.

Unfortunately, this case fell some way short of the standards necessary to do that.

And the irony of it all? That the Americans, biggest fans of the separation of powers, had the high cheek to lobby the Scottish Justice Secretary to get the decision in their favour, when they wouldn’t dream of lobbying their very own Supreme Court.

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