Friday, February 20, 2009

The creeping loss of liberty in Britain never stops

Britain's descent into the world of V for Vendetta has been building for a long time. There have been creeping restrictions on free speech, closed-circuit TV cameras on every corner, national ID cards on the way, and the like for many years. But over the past two weeks ... Well, let's just look, shall we? The Daily Mail reports:
A secret police intelligence unit has been set up to spy on Left-wing and Right-wing political groups. The Confidential Intelligence Unit (CIU) has the power to operate across the UK and will mount surveillance and run informers on `domestic extremists'. Its job is to build up a detailed picture of radical campaigners.

Targets will include environmental groups involved in direct action such as Plane Stupid, whose supporters invaded the runway at Stansted Airport in December.

The unit also aims to identify the ring-leaders behind violent demonstrations such as the recent anti-Israel protests in London, and to infiltrate neo-Nazi groups, animal liberation groups and organisations behind unlawful industrial action such as secondary picketing.

The paper based its report on "[a]n internal police job advertisement," and it didn't take that much effort to find an expired (but still cached) relevant job listing at
Head of Confidential Intelligence Unit (CIU) National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU

City London

Career Level Senior Manager / Head of Department

Industry Public Sector/Public Authority, Local Government, State/Internal Security, National Security

Job Description Organisation: ACPO Business Area: Terrorism and Allied Matters Job Title: Head of Confidential Intelligence Unit (CIU) National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU) Rank: Detective Chief Inspector Reports to: D/Supt Head of NPOIU Salary: Chief Inspector range + allowances Type: Full time police officer Location: London Main purpose of Role: To manage the covert intelligence function for domestic extremism, and the confidential intelligence unit. The post carries membership of NPOIU Senior Management Team and you will be expected to make a significant contribution to the overall performance of the police service of England and Wales

Rather chillingly, The Daily Mail reports,"The CIU will also use legal proceedings to prevent details of its operations being made public."

Britain, like the U.S. has a history of such domestic spying, and it always ends badly. Intelligence units tasked with watching terrorists inevitably include mere radicals among their targets, then simple political protesters and, ultimately, pretty much anybody who says something critical about the government. Among the past targets in the UK of domestic surveillance were Ewan MacColl, a Pete Seeger-ish folk singer with communist sympathies, John Lennon, and the band UB40. The new British unit actually appears to be starting out with that far-reaching mission.

Then there's The Daily Telegraph's report that pending legislation would allow just about every governing body in the UK to see who is communicating with whom, and how often.
Towns halls, along with police, security services and other public bodies will be able to view "communications" details of any one suspected of crime. But critics fear the move will simply pave the way for authorities to spy on millions of citizens and taxpayers. ...

Bodies will not be allowed to see the content of communications but will have access to data such as who was called or texted and when or which websites were visited. ... Since 2007, phone companies have had to retain data about calls for 12 months and hand it over to more than 650 public bodies. Parliament approved the powers, described as a vital tool against terrorism, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. But under the latest order that is to be extended to all communications, including the internet.

The move appears to be a revival of an effort to extend electronic surveillance powers that was shelved amidst public fury back in 2002. At the time, press reports described the retreat as "a humiliating climbdown," but the state is nothing if not patient. Speculation at the time was that the government was dissuaded as much by technical hurdles as by widespread resistance. The new bill suggests that technology has advanced enough in seven years to make the surveillance scheme more feasible.

And electronic surveillance is at least as popular with British authorities as with their American counterparts. The European Court of Human Rights ruled last summer that the UK government went too far with its years-long wiretapping of civil rights groups.

If you were planning to keep tabs on the domestic snoops and wiretappers in Britain, don't plan on including photographs in your files. Taking snapshots of police officers is about to become a serious crime. According to the British Journal of Photography:
Set to become law on 16 February, the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 amends the Terrorism Act 2000 regarding offences relating to information about members of armed forces, a member of the intelligence services, or a police officer. The new set of rules, under section 76 of the 2008 Act and section 58A of the 2000 Act, will target anyone who 'elicits or attempts to elicit information about [members of armed forces] . which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism'. A person found guilty of this offence could be liable to imprisonment for up to 10 years, and to a fine.

The law is expected to increase the anti-terrorism powers used today by police officers to stop photographers, including press photographers, from taking pictures in public places. 'Who is to say that police officers won't abuse these powers,' asks freelance photographer Justin Tallis, who was threatened by an officer last week.

The Home Office doesn't deny the possible application of the new law to photographers, saying that interpretation will be up to police and the courts. Even before the new law, photographers have been challenged in Britain (as in America) by police officers unhappy about being the target of a lens. Last year, photographer Lawrence Looi was forced to delete images from his memory card by a police sergeant, and Andrew Carter was actually dragged off to jail for a similar "offense." Such incidents are bound to increase when police officers can point to new legal authority.

I'd like to say that's it, but it's not. There's the small matter os the creeping national ID program in the UK. And then Dutch rabble-rousing politician Geert Wilders was detained at Heathrow airport before being ejected from the country for his political views.

After years of depressing civil liberties violations here in the United States, it's astonishing to be able to say that the UK makes America look good. Just what kind of country is the British government trying to create? And is it time to break out those Guy Fawkes masks?


Another step forward for the British police state

Colleges told to monitor students' web use. Political crimes are all that the British police are interested in. Things like car theft are too boring to bother about

Lecturers have criticised government anti-extremism guidance that says colleges must monitor what staff and students look at on the internet and report it to the police if necessary. The University and Colleges Union said that it could lead to the arrest of innocent people carrying out genuine academic research.

Last year Rizwaan Sabir, 22, a student at the University of Nottingham, was arrested and detained for six days after downloading an al-Qaeda handbook and sending it to a member of staff in connection with his dissertation on terrorism.

A spokesman for the union said: "The last thing we need is people too frightened to discuss an issue or research a subject because they fear being arrested or institutions panicking and calling in the authorities."

The guidance says that colleges should do all they can "to prevent staff or students from accessing illegal or inappropriate material through college ICT systems". It adds: "Using college computers to e-mail terrorist publications to others could be a criminal offence. "There have been examples of groups linked to violent extremism trying to use college premises for campaigning or other events. Colleges should be aware of this risk."

The guidance highlights examples of concern at colleges, including a student challenging fellow Muslims on their un-Islamic clothes and telling them not to mix with non-Muslims. Similar guidance was issued to schools and universities last year.



Switch on the light. Is the filament glowing because of a heavy gust of wind, or is it nuclear fission? If you flick a switch today, the light goes on because of coal. Almost half the power generated in Britain on Tuesday came from coal and a bit more than a third from natural gas. Nuclear power stations were contributing 17 per cent and windmills provided 0.6 per cent.

It's a day's work in the power industry and it is 16 years since the Kyoto conference on climate change, when this country signed up to a process that would seek to avert global warming by weaning the world off the combustion of oil, gas and coal. Since then we have had two Energy White Papers, one Energy Review, the launch of European carbon trading, the decline of North Sea gas, the promotion of wind farms and the eleventh-hour rescue of Britain's nuclear industry. After all the politics, we are breathless as our bright new whirligigs stand motionless on a beach horizon.

The wind has failed, as it does during periods of intense heat and cold, and although we have built, with enormous subsidy, enough wind turbines to generate 5 per cent of our electricity, no more than 1 per cent is operational when we need it. Like Coleridge's ancient mariner, the nation is becalmed, a painted ship on a painted ocean and we have gone back a century, hewing the same coal that first put Britain on the fast track to the Industrial Revolution.

The reason why we are still stuffing black lumps of carbon into furnaces is simple: it makes economic sense and the financial markets are shouting this message louder than ever before. Everyone loves to hate financial markets - casinos operated by spivs, jungles filled with rapacious speculators - but they provide warnings when things are about to go wrong and the carbon market is no exception. The price of European Union allowances to emit carbon dioxide has collapsed and it has reached a level where even the greenest of utilities might be tempted to flirt with a hod of dirty brown coal.

If you believe that to be cynical or just pragmatic, consider the behaviour of the Government of Japan, which is doing a carbon trade with Ukraine. Under the Kyoto Protocol, governments are able to sell surplus rights to emit carbon to other nations. Like emissions trading between companies, it means that governments that succeed in reducing carbon emissions can sell "surplus" carbon to struggling nations.

No one thought that the whole process might go backwards. The benchmark against which Kyoto's carbon world was pegged was 1990 and since then the former Soviet satellite has struggled to stay upright. Desperate for cash and with its economy in freefall, Ukraine, too, has found some certificates in the bottom drawer. Japan is offering to buy Ukraine's "surplus" carbon for E300 million. Should we begrudge Ukraine the opportunity to pledge the planet's future to a Japanese pawnbroker? If Ukrainians are lucky, the money earned will not be squandered and might help to pay the bill for imported Russian gas over the rest of the winter.

We should not be too critical, because Europe is about to face a big decision over coal. The fuel is abundant and at present very cheap, the main reason why power stations love it. The margin earned from burning coal, according to Societe Generale, is about E15 per megawatt hour, compared with E7 from natural gas - and those figures include the cost of the EUAs.

Meanwhile, the UK must make a huge decision. We have promised to shut down seven old coal plants by 2015 because they emit too much sulphur. These can supply 12 gigawatts, or a sixth of UK capacity. Ideally, we would fill the gap with nuclear power, but EDF has made it clear that the first new British nuke won't be ready until 2017, supplying less than 2 gigawatts. It is self-evident that we must carry on burning coal for the time being and politicians must stop telling lies about energy. They must begin to set plausible targets, explain their true cost and how they will be achieved. The impact of recession on industrial demand is one reason why the carbon price is weak. The other reason is credibility.


NHS hospitals fail to do routine checks on suspiciously injured children

Two thirds of hospitals fail to conduct routine checks on injured children despite warnings after the death of Baby P, The Times has learnt. A poll of NHS trusts conducted by the Conservative Party suggests that staff at many accident and emergency departments are not able to check whether children are in contact with social services or subject to a child protection plan, even when they have suspicious injuries.

Doctors' failure to detect evidence of non-accidental harm and poor links between health and social services were identified last year as key failings contributing to the death of Baby P in Haringey, North London, in 2007. But few hospitals can check databases of children at risk, while one in ten clinical staff has not had child protection training, the survey suggests.

The Conservatives, who received responses from 120 out of 171 hospital trusts under the Freedom of Information Act, said that problems identified by the independent report into Baby P's death appeared to be systemic. Only one in seven hospitals claimed to be able to make any sort of online check on whether social services were involved in the care of an injured child, the Tories said. Some trusts said that it was not permitted for staff routinely to check whether children were subject to child protection plans.

Last month the Government announced the setting up of a database of 11 million juveniles in England for professionals working with children. The Tories have attacked the œ224 million ContactPoint as "another expensive data disaster waiting to happen". "A far better solution would be to make sure basic checks are maintained in A&E and that other hospitals learn from those that are doing well so that children who are really at risk are identified before it's too late," Andrew Lansley, the Shadow Health Secretary, said. "The NHS is doing its best, but many hospitals are getting incoherent messages about what to do to prevent tragedies like the Baby P case from happening again."

John Heyworth, president of the College of Emergency Medicine, said that although A&E departments could be overwhelmed because of staff shortages or a need to see patients within a government four-hour target, trusts had a "major responsibility to find out whether the child is on a protection plan or in a family that is in contact with social services". "Access to and use of databases varies widely across the country," he said. "In some areas links between A&E and social services are sub-optimal while in other areas there are next to no links at all."

Ben Bradshaw, the Health Minister, said that rules on child protection applied to all trusts, including arrangements for checking if a child was subject to a child-protection plan, and staff training. "The Conservatives are confusing the requirement to check if a child is subject to a child protection plan with accessing details of the plan itself," he added. "That is not a requirement and not something we would expect NHS staff to do."

Rosalyn Proops, child protection officer for the Royal College of Paediatrics, said that all A&E professionals should have an awareness of child protection and be able to check quickly with social services if they had concerns. However, there was a danger that routine checks on child-protection status could override clinical judgment about whether injuries were suspicious. "There has never been a system of routine checks on children coming to A&E and any such system would be at best unhelpful and at worst dangerous to the child," she said. "If children were formally screened, it could provide a false sense of security." The Healthcare Commission, the NHS watchdog, is expected to publish a review of the matter shortly.


Some skepticism about the firstborn "advantage"

What does surprise me, though, about the findings of the researchers at University College, London, is their conclusion that first-born children are privileged on account of the fuss that besotted parents make of them. David Lawson and Professor Ruth Mace, who conducted a study of 14,000 families, liken the process to primogeniture, the aristocratic inheritance policy whereby the winner takes all, leaving the younger siblings with a choice of Army, Church, marriage and black-sheepdom as career options.

Lawson and Mace talk of "later-born disadvantage", and a "deficit" in parental care. But I doubt if many first-borns would share the conviction that they have drawn the long straw. Most would gladly swap the extra violin lessons and help with their viking longboat model for a dose of the benign neglect enjoyed by their younger siblings.

Eldest children score higher in IQ tests because they spend more time having precociously grown-up conversations with parents. As a result, they are often high achievers, but they are made anxious, burdened with the weight of parental expectation. Depression, adherence to convention and feelings of failure are a high price to pay for an unfair share of attention.

Early on, the eldest of my five children spotted that it was a drag being the first past every milestone. He developed a cunning way to deal with it: he didn't play ball. He loathed school and resisted all organised activity - we are talking here about a child who managed to "forget" to sit one of his GCSEs - until my husband and I accepted that he was going to do what he wanted, regardless of what we had dreamed up for him. In doing so, he passed the baton to his younger sister, who has responded more enthusiastically to the pressure.

When I told him of yesterday's report, he was adamant that he would rather be a younger member of a family. "Parents get better at being parents with later children," he said. And are middle-class parents worse at it than working-class? "Yes, because they aren't so used to having children around. They've spent more years in offices."

There I go, proving the researchers' point by asking the first-born's opinion and ignoring the rest of the family. But I fear he's right. My younger children have it easy. I've long since stopped worrying about whether they are making the most of their talents. So long as they appear happy, and their school reports aren't too dismal, they can pretty much do what they please. That isn't "disadvantage".


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