Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Britain's terrorist immigrants

The government faces new embarrassment over Britain’s porous borders with the revelation that one in four terrorist suspects arrested in Britain is an asylum seeker. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, there have been more than 1,100 arrests under antiterrorism legislation. While some of the most serious threats come from Al-Qaeda supporters born in the UK, there is new evidence of many suspects exploiting loopholes in the country’s immigration laws. It was confirmed last week that Muktar Said Ibrahim, one of the bombers involved in the failed suicide attacks of July 21, 2005, was given a passport even though he had convictions for indecent assault and robbery. Gordon Brown has said an applicant in similar circumstances would not now be granted citizenship.

A Home Office analysis of those arrested under antiterrorism laws from 2001 to 2005 found that almost a quarter – 24%, or 232 out of 963 – had previously applied for asylum. This figure includes failed asylum seekers who should have been removed from the country.

Omar Altimimi, 37, who was jailed for nine years this month at Manchester Crown Court for hoarding computer files on jihadi terrors, illustrates the ease with which Al-Qaeda supporters have been able to remain in the country and fund their activities using Britain’s often chaotic asylum system. Altimimi, a father of three who settled in Bolton, Greater Manchester, used the name Abou Hawas when he first arrived in the country, claiming he was an Iraqi fleeing persecution. In reality, he had come from the Netherlands where he had shared a flat with other extremists. When Altimimi’s asylum application was rejected, he should have been removed from the country. Instead he simply adopted another name. Over a six-year period he was given pay-outs from the National Asylum Support Service and other agencies of more than 100,000 pounds. This income helped support him as he spent hours at his computer, collating material on bomb making and identifying possible targets.

Susan Williams, the leader of Trafford council in Manchester and prospective Conservative candidate for Bolton West, said: “How many more terror sleepers are the British taxpayer funding? It is time we had a full, independent investigation into this appalling situation.”

The estimated backlog of 400,000 failed asylum seekers who have not been removed from the country is said by opposition MPs to be one in a series of systemic failings that undermine the security of Britain’s borders. They complain that while Tony Blair and now Gordon Brown have pledged tough action, not enough has been done. There is still no comprehensive system for checking the identities of people leaving the country. The lax regime was highlighted when Hussain Osman, one of the July 21 bombers, left the country undetected after the failed attacks.

The government has trumpeted the forthcoming introduction of a new electronic system– e-borders – to log all entries and exits. But the programme has been hampered by technical difficulties and it is unlikely to be fully running until 2014.

David Davis, the shadow home secretary, said that while he would welcome any “calm and effective” measures to improve border controls, the government should have acted more quickly to monitor and check people entering and leaving the country. “Our porous borders have got worse under this government,” he said. “It is a straightforward matter for people with criminal or terrorist intent to cross our borders in both directions with almost no control on them.”


Do immigration amnesties work?

A reasonably informative comment from the BBC

A think-tank is calling for an amnesty on illegal immigrants in the UK - with claims that it would bring in 1bn pounds in tax revenue. But what's the record of places where an amnesty has been attempted?

Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal and Holland are among the European countries that have had amnesties in recent years - but the experiences of 20 such "regularisation" exercises have raised as many questions as they have answered. In Spain, there have been five separate amnesties since 1991 - in successive attempts to tax and control the large numbers of illegal workers that have entered the country from North Africa and South America. The initial ruling gave the right to stay to 135,000 illegal residents - but since then a further 1.2m people have been allowed to stay in subsequent amnesties. To be given a legal right to remain, these illegal immigrants had to show that they had lived in the country for more than six months, could support themselves in work and had no criminal records.

Italy has allowed more than 1.5m illegal workers to stay since the 1980s. In its most recent amnesty, in 2006, it gave permits to a further 180,000 people - but the number of applicants was more than 500,000, with no sign that the illegal economy was coming under control. In the United States, longstanding plans to grant legal status to illegal workers have been derailed - leaving 12m people in the shadows. In Malaysia, there was a recent amnesty of sorts, allowing illegal workers to leave the country without punishment - after which anyone remaining could face imprisonment.

From the European experience, the figures suggest that granting an amnesty - or not granting an amnesty - seem to make little difference to the pattern of migrants seeking work, legal or otherwise. What it does reveal is how difficult it is for a modern, globalised economy to put a fence around itself - when there is a highly-mobile workforce and demand for cheap labour.

There might be political pressure for clampdowns on illegal immigration, but putting it into practice is less than straightforward. The IPPR think-tank, which has suggested a amnesty, says it would take three decades to process the deportation of the UK's estimated 500,000 illegal workers - at a cost of 11,000 pounds per person. Such a huge operation - removing almost one in a hundred of the population - is not feasible, says the think-tank. Instead these workers should be taxed - and in return receive the right to remain and the protection of safer working conditions.

But opponents, such as campaign group Migrationwatch, argue that amnesties provide an incentive for further illegal immigration. "It is wrong in principle to reward illegal behaviour," says Migrationwatch. It also argues that "the problems surrounding social housing would be massively exacerbated if the government were to give an amnesty to illegal immigrants".

Both the Labour government and Conservative opposition are unsympathetic to amnesties - arguing they could provide an incentive for further waves of migrants. But there are MPs in both parties that have pushed for a legal status for such "irregular migrants". Labour deputy leadership contender Jon Cruddas and Conservative MP John Bercow both signed a recent early day motion in the House of Commons calling for a two-year work permit for people who had already been working in the UK for four years or more.

The Strangers into Citizens campaign, supported by trade unions and churches, wants to create a "pathway" for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship - giving workers a more dignified and secure future. Trade union leader Jack Dromey argued in a recent speech that there was growing support for a more pragmatic approach to resolving the large numbers of well-established workers who remained illegal. "The people of middle England will listen to new thinking on migration, they do understand that the current approach is failing and that the human costs are horrendous. They understand that the economic and moral case for an 'earned amnesty' for migrants is overwhelming," said Mr Dromey.

But there are deep political tensions over any attempt to resolve the situation of immigrants working illegally - with pressures over public services, housing and the possibility of attracting further illegal migrants.


One in ten Scottish hospital patients 'suffering infection'

ALMOST one in ten patients in Scottish hospitals is suffering from an infection such as MRSA, a survey suggested yesterday. The new study - thought to be the most comprehensive ever carried out in Europe - found 9.5 per cent of people in acute hospitals had a healthcare associated infection (HAI). And the cost of such infections to the NHS is thought to be at least 183 million pounds a year.

Experts and campaigners last night said that HAIs continued to be a problem because of poor hygiene in hospitals and a lack of isolation facilities. Professor Hugh Pennington, Scotland's leading microbiologist, said more attention was also needed to ensure that only patients who needed antibiotics were receiving them to help tackle drug resistance.

Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish health secretary, yesterday pledged to step up efforts to combat HAIs in light of the latest figures, which give the most accurate picture yet of the issue. This includes the possibility of introducing an MRSA screening programme for those going into hospital.

The new report, by Health Protection Scotland, suggested the rate of HAIs is higher in Scotland than the rest of the UK. A study by the Hospital Infection Society from February to May 2006 found that 8.2 per cent of patients in England had an HAI, 6.3 per cent in Wales and 5.4 per cent in Northern Ireland. Over the same three-month period, the rate in Scotland was 9 per cent. But experts said the differences in rates were most likely due to the more comprehensive nature of the Scottish survey, which covered every acute hospital and a sample of community hospitals.

The HPS report involved teams going into every acute hospital - 45 in total - and a sample of 22 community hospitals between October 2005 and October 2006. There they counted the number of inpatients over the age of 16 with an HAI who were in hospital on the day of the visit. In total, they found 1,103 patients in acute hospitals had an HAI - amounting to 9.5 per cent of all these patients. Of these, 126 had more than one infection. In the sample of non-acute hospitals, they found 157 patients with an HAI, of which seven had more than one. Taken across the country as a whole, this could mean more than 1,800 patients in hospital have an infection at one time.

The report found that Clostridium difficile was the most common bug among infections where researchers had identified the organism, accounting for 17.6 per cent of cases. This was followed by MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) at 17.2 per cent and MSSA (methicillin-sensitive Staphylococcus aureus) at 8.9 per cent.

The hospital with the highest HAI rate in Scotland was Stobhill Hospital in Glasgow at 18.3 per cent, followed by Falkirk Royal Infirmary at 17.2 per cent. But the reason for the higher rates may be that these hospitals were surveyed during winter, when infections are more common. Older hospitals have sometimes been blamed for rising rates of infection. But yesterday's figures showed that this was not necessarily the case. The flagship Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, which opened in 2003, had an HAI rate of 11.6 per cent, compared with 6.8 per cent at the much older Southern General Hospital in Glasgow.

Rates also depend on the type of patients treated, with older people more vulnerable. And hospitals also have to deal with patients and their visitors bringing infections in.

Dr Jacqui Reilly, from HPS, said HAIs clearly had an impact on costs to the NHS, adding: "Patients with an HAI stay in hospital 70 per cent longer than those without an HAI." And she said if infections were cut by 30 per cent, the NHS could save 55 million pounds a year. Ms Sturgeon said this money could pay for an extra 8,000 patients to be treated. She added: "It is not good enough that 9.5 per cent of patients in Scottish acute hospitals have some form of HAI. The 183 million cost to the NHS, together with the human cost of HAI is also unacceptable."

Prof Pennington said the key to tackling HAIs was to continue with measures already in place, but to do them better. He added: "At the moment we are just about holding our own, but cases of MRSA are not going down and C difficile is going up. We need to continue to implement policies to control antibiotic prescribing, which contributes to resistance. "The cleaning and hand hygiene must also be a key focus. I am also in favour of screening, but it would need to consider what we do with patients who are carrying the bugs." Prof Pennington said Scotland and the UK in general did not have enough isolation facilities to care for patients with an infection, and added that there was evidence of more virulent strains of infections spreading.

Moya Stevenson, of campaign group MRSA Action UK, said it wanted to see screening for MRSA in hospitals. She added: "Bed occupancy rates have to be reduced within our hospitals and this will reduce quite significantly those rates of infections." Willie Duffy, from health union Unison, said that the quality of cleaning in hospitals had declined since the introduction of competitive tendering of hospital cleaning in the 1980s and the continuing outsourcing of cleaning at PFI hospitals. He added: "It is no coincidence the lowest levels of HAI in the UK are found where there are the lowest levels of contracting out - in Wales."


Let's fight back against the new Model Army

Like voodoo forecasts, computer models of climate change are being used to stifle political discussion and resign man to his Fate. Given the sad state of history education these days, I guess I should note that the original New Model Army was mostly comprised of Christian fundamentalists, was in part led by Oliver Cromwell and ultimately brought about the beheading of Charles I. So the heading above is basically a pun

Everybody models nowadays. Nothing gives a new forecast, policy or strategy more weight than knowing that it is, in some way, the product of a computer model. The world's top capitalists use models to perform `what if?' exercises on crises and disasters, and to simulate future business growth. Governments bow down to models on all sorts of issues: right now, Britain's chief scientist is modeling the future of UK obesity. Yet computer models are not all they're cracked up to be. They remain based on a host of untested assumptions; worse, they tend to reduce human beings simply to the role of passive victims - helpless spectators in front of unfolding Great Events.

In no other arena has modeling gained so much kudos as in climate change. Back in 2005, spiked forecast that forecasting itself was due for a boom, because of the growing sense of uncertainty suffered by government and business (see All eyes on the future, by James Woudhuysen). This prediction has proved right, but the trend has been reinforced by the way in which models of climate change have become the gold standard upon which all decision-making must be based.

The rise of models has coincided with the evaporation of the concept of human agency, of human beings consciously gaining and applying new insights through struggle. While we're supposed to realise that climate change demands the most profound spiritual and lifestyle revolution for each and every person on the planet, in computer models of the future we are consigned to a fate that is pretty much pre-ordained. Such a view demeans the capabilities of people, distorts policy, and is also simply unrealistic. In the real world, human beings do not wait for things just to happen to them; we react, adapt and innovate around problems as they arise.

Just a third of a century ago, when politics actually meant something, highly regarded analysts derided vapid computerisations of the future. When the Club of Rome published its epoch-making bestseller The Limits to Growth in 1972, reaction was sharp. Christopher Freeman, then director of the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex and doyen of the world's technology policy gurus, satirised the Club's approach as `Malthus with a computer'. The Fall of Man into a world of depleted resources, it was felt, could not be verified by the movement of electrons and punched cards around an IBM mainframe (1).

Things have changed. In October 2006, when Sir Nicholas Stern published his 700-page UK Treasury report on the economics of climate change, he referred more than 500 times to models of climate change and its monetary cost; models of hydrology, crop growth, risk and uncertainty; and models of innovation, technology and energy. Yet rapture, not criticism, was the main reaction to his argument (2).

Why have models taken on such importance in policymaking today? Whatever happened to the healthy scepticism that accompanied the portentous conclusions of models in the past?

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Pentagon notoriously corralled emerging, mathematics-based disciplines - cybernetics, game theory - into the cause of the Cold War. Particularly after the development of the integrated circuit in 1957, computers were also used, in practice and in propaganda, to lend a veneer of respectability to the campaign. Since those years, the prestige of IT has grown. Today's Unbearable Rightness of Foreseeing, then, is the product of both climate catastrophism, and revived chutzpah on the part of those promoting IT.

Even before the dot.com boom of the late 1990s, Shoshana Zuboff's seminal In the Age of the Smart Machine claimed that IT didn't just automate industrial processes, but gave rise to new insights `into functional relationships, states, conditions, trends, likely developments and underlying causes' (3). Today, with the rise of the supposedly all-conquering technologies of Web 2.0 and their dramatic use in Barack Obama's campaign for the Democratic Party nomination, only a few detractors are on hand to sniff about IT's deficiencies.

As solutions to the problem of seeing into the future and providing a vision for it, IT-based methods have gained in credibility. At the same time, the past 20 years have also seen the decline of politics as a vehicle for change. In place of the clashing ideas of left and right have come neutralising, anaesthetic diagnoses and cures. We had think tanks and audits in the 1980s, going on to balanced scorecards and Key Performance Indicators in the 1990s. Until the demise of his government-by-sofa, former UK prime minister Tony Blair had Lord Birt, ex-boss of the BBC and all-round management Dalek, to perform `blue skies' thinking for him on everything from transport to the prison system.

Alongside this managerial approach to every political issue, a New Scientism has sprung up in relation to global warming, converting questions of economic and technological development into matters of physics or climatology - perfect for number-crunching modelers. The main thing about this approach is that it looks hip, modern, cool and unanswerable. But if more people now turn to expose the emperor's new clothes, the profound fatalism that informs the modeler's prognoses about the future will finally come out.

For proof, let's look at the two most recent summaries for policymakers produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In a previous article, we took up the ideas in the summary produced by IPCC Working Group I, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (see A man-made morality tale, by James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky). Now whatever its faults, this summary at least confined itself to the physical science of climate change. But the IPCC's subsequently published Working Group II summary, on the impacts of climate change, adapting to it, and mankind's vulnerability to it, is a very odd document. So is the Working Group III summary on how to mitigate climate change. Each of these summaries is, in fact, an eclectic mish-mash of monolithic computer simulations. Each uses computer models to predict social phenomena - developments quite different from those covered by climatology. (4)

The Working Group II summary runs to 22 pages. Interestingly enough, however, it only deals with how human beings might respond to the impact of climate change on page 17. Most of the summary is devoted to repeating the forecasts of climate science. We learn that sea defences might be a good idea; but then again `altered food and recreational choices', `altered farm practices' and more regulation are also part of the IPCC's oh-so-scientific approach.

The bad news, according to Working Group II, is that climate change itself can slow progress toward sustainable development. We learn, too, that there are `formidable environmental, economic, informational, social, attitudinal and behavioural barriers to implementation of adaptation'; indeed for developing countries, a principal barrier blocking adaptation to climate change is - wait for it! - the fact that they have yet to build the capacity to adjust to climate change. How brilliant is that?

The Working Group II report puts forward six different Emission Scenarios, describing six different possible worlds of the future. The `A2 storyline and scenario family', for example, projects rapid population growth resulting in problems of food supply, coastal flooding and water scarcity for particularly large numbers of people. Here, more population means that the effects of global warming will hit more people. These kinds of banalities have nothing to do with climate science. They are waves of the arm about the economics, psychology and fertility of the future. Broadly, the suggestion is that there is little that the world can do to adapt to climate change.

A similar insouciance marks the Working Group III summary on mitigation, which runs to 35 pages. Economic and political assumptions are there, yet precisely what these are is never made clear, even in the fuller versions of the reports available to date. For example, we are reassured to learn that, by 2030, average CO2 emissions in the Third World are projected to remain substantially lower (2.8-5.1 tonnes of CO2 per head) than those in First World regions (9.6-15.1 tonnes). But where is the natural science in that `projection'?

Working Group III is adamant that changing its projections of population, or using market exchange rates rather than purchasing power parities to compare the GDPs of different countries, are adjustments that conveniently make no difference to the level of greenhouse gas emissions it projects for 2030. On the other hand, we are made to understand that most models of mitigation assume `universal emissions trading. transparent markets, no transaction costs, and thus perfect implementation of mitigation measures throughout the twenty-first century'. These are quite extraordinary assumptions to make.

To conclude, about the only time the IPCC's Working Group III admits the case for human agency is when, on page 16, it acknowledges that the macroeconomic costs of mitigation might be lower if the human species were to engage in technological change. But it is quick to admonish: `However, this may require higher upfront investment in order to achieve costs reductions (sic) thereafter.'

Instead of raising technology to a higher level, the IPCC seems to prefer that motorists adopt what it calls an `efficient driving style'. So while technologies to save the planet are held to be a bit expensive, we're told that changes in lifestyle and behaviour, by contrast, can mitigate climate change `across all sectors'.

Such a view fits in nicely with the low horizons of modern politics. With the IPCC, the modern computer modeler's work is complete. The conclusions are already there in the premises; but the presentation as the product of cold, logical number-crunching ensures that this work will brook no counter-argument.

But there is a counter-argument. We can uphold humanity's talent for taking the future into its own hands. And we can mount our own, humanistic critique of voodoo forecasts. Computer models of the future are both products and producers of political muddle. It's time they were held up to the light, then given the searing interrogation they deserve.


British police want to get tougher: "British police chiefs are demanding the power to lock up terrorism suspects indefinitely. Reopening the debate over detention without trial, the Association of Chief Police Officers called for some suspects to be held for "as long as it takes". The call for longer detention periods came as two suspects in last month's failed bomb attacks in London and Glasgow were released without charge, British police said overnight. The suspects, both thought to be trainee doctors aged 24 and 27, were arrested on July 2. Police have also charged a third person over the bombings. Sabeel Ahmed, of Liverpool, was charged on Saturday with withholding information that could prevent an act of terrorism. The former prime minister Tony Blair was defeated in Parliament two years ago when he tried to introduce a 90-day detention period. Instead, MPs backed an increase to just 28 days. But the association's president, Ken Jones, said police were struggling to operate within the 28-day limit, stressing the global scale of terrorism investigations and the need to arrest suspects early. "We are now arguing for judicially supervised detention for as long as it takes," he told The Observer. "We are up against the buffers on the 28-day limit."

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