Saturday, January 20, 2018

Saturday music spot: Handel, "The king shall rejoice"

On Heresy and Censorship

A few days ago I posted on this blog and on my Facebook page the statement by Richard Branson explaining why he had overturned the decision by a lower level of management at Virgin Trains not to sell the "Daily Mail" on Virgin Trains onboard shops.

As the one critical comment on this blog was anonymous it cannot be included in the analysis I am about to describe , but the response on my Facebook page was interesting for three reasons beyond the merits of the points made.

1) Almost to a man and woman, the contributors felt the need to insist that Virgin Trains had the right to impose the original ban, something which neither I nor the articles critical of it to which I had linked had challenged at any point, in any way whatsoever.

2) There was an almost perfect correlation between the way the contributors had voted in the EU referendum and how strongly opposed they were to the referendum result and how supportive they were of Virgin Trains' original decision. Without exception "Hard Remainers" who commented were  supportive, usually strongly so, of the original ban. "Soft Remainers" who voted Remain but have accepted the result took a more nuanced position. Leave voters who read the post mostly "liked" it and moved on without commenting - which I take to be an endorsement of Richard Branson's decision to reverse the ban. There were one or at the most two Leave voters who commented, and the one person who I know to be a Leave supporter who commented also took a nuanced view, though it started with the words "Basically, everyone is wrong."

3) Practically every person who commented including those who agreed that the ban was a mistake got into a semantic argument over the use of the word "censorship." Virtually all of them were "more royalist than the King" in the sense that they objected to the use, even with qualifications, of the word "censorship" to describe the original decision to drop the Daily Mail even though Richard Branson himself had twice used it and made clear that the wish to avoid being seen as, quote, "censoring what our customers read" had been his primary reason for overturning the original decision.


I think the debate on whether people should read or advertise in newspapers like the Daily Mail and the Sun caught up in a culture war in British and indeed European society (and there is a similar debate in many other societies such as the USA and Canada.)

I am not going to get into a semantic argument over the use of the word "Censorship" - having looked it up in the dictionary I think you can argue either way whether it applies to the original Virgin Trains decision. My problem in arriving in a suitable definition is that if you go for a very precise and narrow definition of the word it will be so limited in what it would catch as to be almost useless, while a  broader definition of the term, something like "attempting to suppress the expression by others of an opinion you disapprove of" could potentially catch all manner of things I personally regard as entirely reasonable, as for example if I remove an offensive post about the deceased person from an obituary published on this blog.

I do think that some of the attacks on the press from a wide range of political directions, whether it is the Donald Trump "fake news" narrative or similar comments from Corbynistas, and campaigns like "Stop Funding Hate," whether you call it censorship or not, are damaging to and subversive of democracy, and it may have been unfortunate for Virgin Trains that their decision was seen as another example of the same sort of attack.

I think there is a worrying modern tendency on all sides and in many countries to demonise those who express different views which amounts to a modern form of the search for Heresy.

Let's take the reaction of some people to the Canadian academic Jordan Peterson. Let me make clear that I am not endorsing his views, but it is reasonable to describe some of those views as "controversial" and the reaction of many people to him can be illustrated by Cathy Newman's line of questioning in this interview on Channel 4:


He also holds what are seen in some quarters as the "wrong" views on some of the incredibly difficult issues about transgender people and how to speak about them.

There is an article in the Spectator here, called

"Beware the modern day heretic hunters,"

about how another Canadian university treated a junior academic who showed her class a video clip of Jordan Peterson.

I don't think freedom of thought or speech are as safe as we need them to be.

Quote of the day 20th January 2018

Friday, January 19, 2018

Friday music spot: J.S. Bach's Triple Concerto in A minor

Quote of the day 19th January 2018

"Mr Trump is a deeply flawed man without the judgement or temperament to lead a great country. America is being damaged by his presidency. But after a certain point, raking over his unfitness becomes an exercise in wish-fulfilment because the subtext is so often the desire for his early removal from office.

That is a fantasy."

"Mr Trump's mental state is imposible to diagnose from afar, but he does not appear to be any madder than he was when the voters chose him over Hillary Clinton."

"Unless he can no longer recognise himself in the mirror (which in Mr Trump;'s case would surely be one of the last powers to fade) neither his cabinet nor Congress will vote him out.

Nor should they. Alarm at Mr Trump's vandalism to the dignity and norms of the presidency cuts both ways."

"Every time Mr Trump's critics put their aim of stopping him before their means of doing so, they feed partisanship and help set a precedent that will someday be used against a good president fighting a worthy but unpopular cause."


(Extracts from a leader article in The Economist about the first year of the Trump administration.)

In other words, if you believe in democracy, you need to have much stronger reasons than not liking the result of an election to try to remove someone before the term for which they were elected is up.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

When skills in different areas do not transfer ...

If you wanted evidence that skill in one area does not always translate well into skill in another, you could not have a better example than to look at the mess made of it by many actors or singers who have intervened in politics. Case study for this month is the left-wing singer Lily Allen.

Ms Allen had to apologise to Rochdale child sex abuse victims after a crassly insensitive tweet which I will not repeat but the circumstances are described in a Daily Mirror report here.

Reality one, Lily Allen nil.

Also at the start of this month, when people of all persuasions were expressing - entirely justifiable - concern that the Parole Board is recommending convicted serial sex offender John Warboys for release, she launched a vicious and completely inaccurate attack on the government about the circumstances of his conviction, encouraging people to "direct your anger at this awful awful govt today."

There was a slight problem with this. The "awful awful govt" which was in power in 2009 when Warboys was convicted and the events she was complaining about took place was, of course, Gordon Brown's Labour government.

Describing the Brown administration as am awful, awful government would probably have been the only accurate comment she's ever posted on Twitter about politics, other than when apologising for one of her many gaffes, but I don't think that's what she meant to do.

And of course, ministers do not manage prosecutions: this is rightly devolved to the Crown Prosecution Service. However, the DPP in 2009 has since become a politician - he's Labour's shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer.

Reality two, Lily Allen nil.

This week Lily Allen tweeted a photograph of Transport Secretary Chris Grayling and former Chancellor George Osborne apparently dining together (just as well she did this after the reshuffle or she might have got him sacked) and claimed that it showed Grayling dining in London on the day that Monarch Airlines collapsed.

However, the new Conservative Deputy Chairman, James Cleverley was on the case, and pointed out that on the day Monarch Airlines collapsed Chris Grayling was not in London but in Manchester, meeting Monarch Airline Passengers at Manchester Airport and then speaking at Conservative party conference.

Poor Lily had to apologise again.

Reality three, Lily Allen nil.

Like any other citizen of a democracy, singers and actors have every right to express their views about politics. It's just important to remember that their skill in singing or acting gives them no special insight into how you run a country and their views about politics are no more significant - or less significant - than those of anyone else.

Copeland Local Committee 23rd January 2018

The Copeland Local Committee of Cumbria County Council (which consists of all twelve county councillors representing divisions in the area of Copeland Borough Council) will be meeting on Tuesday (23rd January) at the Town Hall and Masonic Centre in Cleator Moor at 10.15 am.

The meeting is open to the public for those whose work and travel position allows them to attend.

The agenda and committee reports are available on the CCC website here.

There are a lot of important issues on the agenda, but probably the most important is to consider the allocation of the budget devolved to the committee for £2018/19.

This includes the prioritisation for major road resurfacing and rebuild schemes. Top of the list of a proposal to spend £120k on a major resurfacing of Meadow Road, Mirehouse, which is in the area I represent. That road is in a terrible condition and badly needs action so I will of course be supporting the proposal.

Follow the link above and click on the committee report if you want to see where any other road or footpath repair scheme is in the queue. If you are a resident in my division and think something is missing which urgently needs attention, please drop me a line before Tuesday. (I already have a couple in mind.

Also on the agenda are a number of proposals from the Highways Working group, following public consultation on changes to parking regulations (mostly extra double yellow lines,) and some important reports on health and children's services.

Be careful if you have to travel today

In my part of Whitehaven last night's snow soon turned to sleet and by this morning most of what is left is slush, but over the county as a whole road conditions are treacherous and Cumbria Police have tweeted that there are reports of a lot of road accidents.

Be careful if you have to travel today.

Quote of the day 18th January 2018

"In times of extremes, extremists win. Their ideology becomes a religion, anyone who doesn't puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated."

(Margaret Atwood, from a Globe and Mail article explaining why she called for due process to be followed in the case of an academic accused of sexual harassment.)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Meadow Road and Derwentwater Road.

Following on from several posts written here starting on New Year's Eve about potholes in the Mirehouse West in general, and Meadow Road and Derwentwater Road in particular, here is a progress report.

Derwentwater Road, which had potholes like craters, is being fixed this week, with a short term solution (but a bit longer term than just filling with tarmac - it also intended to seal the potholes to stop the material just washing out. A contractor is being sought to come back in February and do a more thorough rebuild which we hope will last longer.

Meadow Road, which in places such as near McColls is in nearly as bad a condition and is also a significant bus route, is in need of a complete rebuild such as was done in 2017 for Homewood Road near the Hospital.

It is being proposed on the agenda for the Copeland Local Committee of Cumbria County Council next Tuesday (23rd January) that Meadow Road should be the first item on the highways improvement programme for 2018/19 and that £120,000 should be spent sorting the road out.

I honestly don't know whether that will be enough, but it should at least make a start on the worst of the problem and I will, of course, be supporting the proposal.

As I said in previous posts on this subject, if anyone in another part of my division is reading this and thinking "What about my road?" please drop me a line and I will try make sure it is also on the list.

On NHS Funding

In posting this I am not for one moment suggesting that the NHS is not under great pressure or ruling out the idea that still more resources may be required.

I am merely pointing out that the problems the health service faces are because of increased demand, not because the government has failed to put any more money into it.




Channel 4 Factcheck endorsed Dominic Raab's claims that the Conservatives have put £12 billion more into the NHS after allowing for inflation and recently promised a further £6 billion during this parliament, that there are more doctors working in the NHS than ever before and that the NHS has more flu vaccines available than ever before. See link here.)

Quote of the day 17th January 2018


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

UK inflation rate drops to 3%

The UK's inflation rate has fallen for the first time since June.

The inflation rate as measured by the Consumer Prices Index dipped to 3% in December, down from November's rate of 3.1% according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

ONS said it was too early to say whether this was the start of a longer-term reduction in the rate of inflation.

The Bank of England has said it thinks inflation peaked at the end of 2017 and will fall back to its target of 2% this year.

The rate had been rising over the past year, partly due to the fall in the value of the pound since the Brexit vote which has pushed up the cost of imported goods. That appears to have been a once-and-for-all increase which is beginning to work its' way out of the figures.

Carillion

Obviously the collapse of Carillion is not good news for their employees, the small businesses which sold things to them, or the businesses which employed them.

I am sure the government is right that the company should not be bailed out by taxpayers and to order a review of the actions and remuneration of the directors of the company.

There will be lessons to learn from this and they should be learned - the disastrous record of the New Labour government's PFI schemes is evidence enough that not every private-public collaboration is a good one.

Equally we should be careful not to adopt contradictory views. In the past 36 hours I have heard it suggested by various commentators just seconds apart both that the government was shouldering all the risk while leaving private companies like Carillion to make all the profits, and that the collapse happened because the government had screwed the prices for contractors like Carillion right down so that they were not making enough profit.

Obviously those criticisms cannot both be accurate.

The first thing to do is ensure that someone able to cope with them, whether public or private sector, takes over the public services Carillion was running. The next thing is to try to minimise the numbers of innocent people hurt by the crash. Then we must look at learning lessons for the future.

Quote of the day 16th January 2018


Monday, January 15, 2018

Second quote of the day 15th January 2018 - RIchard Branson reverses the DM ban

Richard Branson has issued the following statement today on the Virgin website, here.


"When Virgin Trains took the decision back in November to remove the Daily Mail from sale, it was not part of some grand campaign or at my behest – indeed Brian Souter and I were not aware of the decision until we read the media reports this week.

The decision was made in response to feedback from some of our Virgin Trains employees. Brian and I respect our people when they make decisions and we listen to their views. It is the way we have always run our companies.

But we must also listen to the concerns voiced widely this week – by those who agree with The Mail’s editorial stance and those who vehemently disagree with it – that this move has been seen as censorship.

Freedom of speech, freedom of choice and tolerance for differing views are the core principles of any free and open society. While Virgin Trains has always said that their passengers are free to read whatever newspaper they choose on board West Coast trains, it is clear that on this occasion the decision to no longer sell The Mail has not been seen to live up to these principles.

Brian and I agree that we must not ever be seen to be censoring what our customers read and influencing their freedom of choice. Nor must we be seen to be moralising on behalf of others. Instead we should stand up for the values we hold dear and defend them publicly, as I have done with The Mail on many issues over the years.

So Brian and I have instructed our team at Virgin Trains to reconsider this decision and re-stock the Daily Mail while they undertake a full review of their sales policy, making clear that this policy should not single out individual media titles."

This has to be the right decision and I welcome this move by Richard Branson. If you don't sell something because the customers don't want it, that is a commercial decision. If you don't sell it because you disagree with it's position, you are starting down the slippery slope to censorship.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Captain Rick Jolly RIP

Surgeon Captain Rick Jolly, who was honoured by both Britain and Argentina for saving the lives of hundreds of wounded from both nations during the Falklands War, died yesterday at the age of 71.

He set up a field hospital which treated about a thousand casualties, and despite there being more than one unexploded bomb on the site he and his colleagues continued to operate. Every casualty who arrived at that field hospital alive was saved. Link here.

Captain Jolly also saved several people from drowning by literally plucking them from the sea - he was lowered from a helicopter to rescue them.

When you look up the word "Hero" in a dictionary, you should find a picture of Captain Rick Jolly there.

Rest in Peace.


On the new "Respect" pledge

Whether or not any other party joins the Conservatives in adopting such a policy I agree with Brandon Lewis's proposal that Conservative candidates should sign a pledge to campaign in a way which shows respect for our opponents. As I recall we did something of the kind in the 2005 election.

It ought to be possible to express disagreement with opposing candidates policies and views without insulting them as human beings.

Sunday music spot: Gustav Holst's "Turn back, O man"

Banning Credit card charge surcharges

Credit card surcharges have been banned throughout the EU with effect from yesterday. The ban was implemented by the UK government which after consultation extended it to include payments through PayPal. The ban will continue as UK legislation when we leave the EU. This is a Conservative graphic on the subject which was put out yesterday:







There has been a certain amount of twining about the above Conservative message because the ban was initiated by the European Union, and I blocked one Momentum troll, not for pointing this out, but for doing so in a gratuitously offensive way.

Yes, the ban on credit charge surcharges which came into effect this weekend is part of an EU initiative, the Directive on Payment Services (PSD2).

No, that doesn't mean that British Conservatives had nothing to do with it.

The EU Commissioner responsible for Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets at the time the measure was agreed was a UK Conservative, Lord Jonathan Hill, who said of the measure when it was approved by the EU parliament:

"European consumers want to know that their payments are safe when they shop or make a payment online. The new Payment Services Directive will ensure that electronic payments in Europe become more secure and more convenient for European shoppers. This legislation is a step towards a digital single market; it will benefit consumers and businesses, and help the economy grow. I want to thank the European Parliament for the work it has put into reaching this agreement, and pay tribute to the work of rapporteur Antonio Tajani, Vice-President of the European Parliament.”

Every single Conservative MEP present and voting when the measure was put to the vote in the European Parliament on 8th October 2015 supported it as you can check at the EU parliament votewatch website here.

As part of the EU withdrawal bill now going through parliament there is a review of which parts of EU law should be incorporated into UK law when Britain leaves the EU in March 2019. If the British government thought this was a bad law they could and would be using this mechanism to drop it. Instead the Conservatives support it and extending it to cover payments by PayPal etc.

As the Economic Secretary to the Treasury when these rules were put into UK law, Stephen Barclay, said at the time:

"Rip-off charges have no place in a modern Britain and that’s why card charging in Britain is about to come to an end. This is about fairness and transparency, and so from next year there will be no more nasty surprises for people at the check-out just for using a card.

These small charges can really add up and this change will mean shoppers across the country have that bit of extra cash to spend on the things that matter to them."

Quote of the day 14th January 2018


Saturday, January 13, 2018

Nick Cohen on Free Speech and the Virgin Trains ban on the Daily Mail.

"For all their bombast, censors give every appearance of being dictatorial neurotics, who are so frightened of their opponents that they cannot find the strength to take them on in the open.

I can’t imagine many saying, “I’ll side with the people who tell me what I can and can’t think.”

I find it equally hard to picture readers turning away from the Mail because Sir Richard Branson and “alternative” comedians who haven’t had an alternative thought since Blair’s second term tell them to.

On the one hand, “liberals” rightly say that sexists, racists and homophobes are preposterous bigots. On the other, they run away from the chance to confront them. If you can’t beat a bigot in argument, you shouldn’t ban them but step aside and make way for people who can. It’s not as if they have impressive cases that stand up to scrutiny."


(Nick Cohen, extracts from an excellent article criticising censorship, "no platform" and banning newspapers, which you can read here.)

Saturday music spot: Handel's Lascia ch'io pianga (Voices of Music)

"The Darkest Hour"

I've just returned from watching "The Darkest Hour" with my family in the cinema.

The film, starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, Kristin Scott-Thomas as Clementine, Ben Mendelsohn as George VI, Ronald Pickup as Neville Chamberlain and Stephen Dillane as Lord Halifax, depicts the first few weeks of Churchill's premiership, including the events leading up to and including the evacuation of Dunkirk and fierce arguments inside the government about whether to sue for peace with Hitler.

It is an incredibly moving film and I strongly recommend it.

Quote of the day 13th January 2018

"The biggest problem with a second referendum would he a repeat of what happened in Scotland."

"People don't like referendums on the whole: they didn't like falling out with family members or friends and they had no desire to repeat the experience, which is why the SNP did worse."

"The anger at simply 'having to do this debate over again' would, I suspect, be a major hindrance to any 'Remain' campaign should the miraculous happen and a parliamentary majority for a second referendum emerge."

(Stephen Bush, article in the New Statesman which you can read here.)

Friday, January 12, 2018

Friday Music spot: "The dance of the Furies" (Orpheus & Euridice by Gluck)

Meadow Road and Derwentwater Road

Following on from the posts written here from New Year's Eve onwards about potholes in the Mirehouse West part of my county division, I have continued to chase for a date for action and there has been some progress today.

Residents of Derwentwater Road should have received a letter today advising them that the potholes in that road will be filled and then sealed starting on Monday (15th January) and continuing for a few days over the coming week.

Meadow Road is also on the list of roads awaiting urgent attention and because it is both a main bus route and the main spine road for the Western half of Mirehouse as well as being in nearly as bad a condition as Derwentwater Road it is,  I am advised.  now number one on the priority list of road surfaces needing attention in Copeland.  There will be a proposal to rebuild the road in the coming year's budget, although I have been warned not to underestimate the challenge given the construction of the road. There will be a report to the next Highways Working Group the week after next.

If there is anyone else in my division thinking "What about my road?" please drop me a line and I will try make sure it is also on the list.

Bashing The Press

I am frequently infuriated by the press. It is often irresponsible, unprofessional, sloppy, inaccurate, and follows a herd-like mentality.



But there is a fundamental difference between being annoyed when the press gets it wrong and trying to censor the ability of the press to write things I don't like.

The only thing worse that an occasionally irresponsible free press would be a press which could only write what government or self-appointed censors allow it to write.

That's why even when I don't much like the newspaper concerned I am very concerned at attempts to organise boycotts of newspapers by advertisers or customers.

As David Aaronovitch argued in yesterday's Times, this starts us down a slippery slope.

Similarly I strongly disagree with the House of Lords outrageous hijacking of the Data Protection Bill to instruct the government to re-start the Leveson Inquiry.


However well-intentioned some of those involved may be, as Guido Fawkes explains here, this is basially an attempt to muzzle the press.

I hope the government succeeds in reversing this egregious action by the unelected Lords in the elected chamber.

Quote of the day 12th January 2018

"To many who may not even read the Mail but who oppose the kind of one-sided censorship that now gets it banned from trains, the boycott represents a bullying juggernaut hurtling towards them and their belief in the freedom of expression."

"Today Virgin, tomorrow . . . who else? "

"Going down this route — using the bludgeon rather than reasoned argument — simply answers intolerance with more intolerance. To attempt to shut down a world view, however much it may offend you, is far worse than allowing that world view to be heard. And doing so merely justifies attempts to shut down the opinions of those who claim to be liberals."

"You can be the bold, banning anti-racist one moment, only to find that you’re someone else’s to-be-banned transphobe the next. When the censors come knocking it’s never just for your enemies. That’s why the only thing that we can all hang on to is the right to be heard whatever we think of the other side’s opinions."

(David Aaronovitch, extracts from Times article "Beware the slippery slope of censorship")

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Cumbria County Council meeting today

The County Council met today in Kendal.

The page on the county council website with the agenda papers, and where the draft minutes will appear when they are written, can be found at

http://councilportal.cumbria.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=123&MId=9295.

Probably the two most important items on the agenda were

Item 8) to vote on the outcome of a review of the constitution, which produced a set of proposed changes to the council's contract procedure rules designed to make them more robust and transparent and reduce the risk of any future shambolic fiascos like the one which led to the recent Amey court case, and

Item 9) a proposal to amend the council's "Minimum Revenue Provision" policy to adopt a more prudent and stable approach to the accounting treatment, and particularly the time profile, of repayment of the authority's debts.

I don't want to trivialise the rest of the agenda or suggest that none of it was significant. A number of very important issues were raised in questions and discussions on other parts of the agenda: for example, I asked a question on the council's response to a current government consultation about billions of pounds they propose to spend on improving Britain's major road network and how we can make sure some of that money comes to Cumbria and is spent on roads like the A595.

What distinguished items 8) and 9) from the rest of the agenda is that these were the two items on which the council was actually taking material decisions relating to the authority's own responsibilities which required the approval of the full council.

* The former was an attempt to tighten up an area where the council recently lost £20 million of taxpayers' money in a legal action.

* The change to the historic and planned profile of debt provision was designed to ensure that the council's historic debts will be paid off in 50 years rather than 400 years but changes the amount of money available for the council to spend at any given council tax level this year and over the next three financial years by a total of £36.8 million pounds - which happens to correspond to the terms of office of the present set of elected county councillors.

C Northcote Parkinson (creator of "Parkinson's Law") once suggested that the time which a meeting would spend on items on the agenda would be in inverse proportion to the financial significance of any decisions being taken.

It is horrifying how often Northcote Parkinson's cynical and humorous observations about the operation of government and business organisations are dead right and he had CCC bang to rights today. The meeting lasted about two and a half hours including an adjournment to sort out a totally unnecessary row about the fact that one of my colleagues wanted to record the meeting, but of that less than ten minutes was spent on the two most important items (far less than on "Camera-gate.")

Under item 8) I asked if the council was satisfied that the proposed changes do everything that can reasonably be done to strengthen governance and transparency in the contract process and minimise the risk of any future Amey-type failures, and whether how they work will be monitored to make sure these changes will be effective. The response to my question was, in my humble opinion, an Olympic-Gold-medal-standard demonstration of how to subtly evade responsibility and pass the buck elsewhere, though it also roughly translated as "Yes." The proposal then sailed through without further debate.

There was slightly more debate on item 9) with two or three of my colleagues asking questions designed to establish that the proposals were reasonably prudent and not just an accounting trick to allow the present administration to spend an extra £36.8 million pounds over the period between now and the next county council election, at the expense of future generations of council tax payers over the following fifty years. Then these proposals sailed through too.

I think it would be a healthy thing if more members of the public were to take an interest in how councils such as Cumbria County Council spend vast amounts of money on their behalf and hold councillors to account, preferably in a constructive way.

NB - anonymous personal attacks on social media are not an effective or constructive way of holding councillors to account and although I would welcome any reasonable feedback on this post, I will delete anything which is offensive, potentially actionable or abusive, and I am not going to get into any long debates about the changes to "Minimum Revenue Provision" unless it is evident that the person making the comment has made some effort to inform themselves about what was actually proposed, which you can do by following the link above and clicking on the "agenda reports pack" icon or those for the specific reports on the MRP.

Although I would probably accept "This report made my brain hurt." from someone who is not an economist, accountant or an experienced councillor as evidence that they had tried to read it !!!

And the reason I don't think the "Camera-gate" row about one of my colleagues trying to record the meeting should have been necessary in the first place because I believe that as a matter of routine all important meetings of County, Borough, District or Unitary councils should be recorded by the council itself and placed online so that residents of the authority area who for reasons of employment, their personal circumstances or any other reason cannot attend and watch in person can look it up online and see what their elected representatives are doing on their behalf.

Music to relax after a council meeting: Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6

Quote of the day 11th January 2017

"The House of Lords have just voted to restrict press freedoms. This vote will undermine high quality journalism, fail to resolve challenges the media face and is a hammer blow to local press." 

"We support a free press and will seek to overturn these amendments in the Commons."
(Matt Hancock, new Culture Secretary. speaking last night after the House of Lords effectively voted to re-start the Leveson inquiry.)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Midweek music spot, "Not the black horse"

Bach's first variation on Cantata 140, "Wachet Auf" (Sleepers Wake.)

I nicknamed this "Not the Black Horse" because the side melody from a different variation on the same theme was used by Lloyds Bank as the music for their "Black horse" TV adverts.

UK Manufacturing growth the highest for a decade

UK manufacturing output is expanding at its fastest rate since early 2008 after recording a seventh consecutive month of growth in November.
Renewable energy projects, boats, aeroplanes and cars for export helped make output 3.9% higher in the three months to November than in 2016.
For the month of November, total production was estimated to have increased by 0.4% compared with the previous month, with the biggest contribution coming from energy supply.
Lee Hopley, chief economist at manufacturers' organisation EEF, said: "UK manufacturers were, in the main, in good shape as 2017 came to a close, with the majority of sub-sectors enjoying growth.
"Manufacturers' expectations for the year ahead point to output and export growth being maintained through this year on the back of continuing support from a burgeoning global economy.
"This, together with an ongoing commitment from government to deliver on its industrial strategy, will be crucial in helping to propel the sector forward," she said.



Quote of the day 10th January 2018


Tuesday, January 09, 2018

The new government

Following this week's reshuffle the full list of members of the new government can be found at

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/ministerial-appointments-january-2018.

Balancing justice for rape victims and those accused

Rape is a vile crime which can do massive damage to the lives of victims:

To make a knowingly false accusation of rape is also a vile crime which can also do massive damage to the life both of the immediate victim, the person falsely accused, and to the indirect victims, which can often include genuine rape victims whose truthful complaints are taken less seriously as a result.

There are also instances where both the accuser and the person in the dock are innocent victims. Most often this happens when through mistaken identity the wrong person is accidentally accused of a real rape. DNA evidence and other improvements in forensic technology has made such cases much rarer, but the possibility for mistakes is still there.

The prosecutor's dilemma

There is no way to construct a criminal justice system which will not sometimes fail all these types of victim. It is difficult to increase the chances of convicting genuine rapists without increasing the risk of ruining the lives of some innocent people through wrong convictions: it is equally difficult to take measures to avoid convicting the innocent without the risk that some guilty individuals will also get away with their crime. This is not an argument for doing nothing: it is an argument for proceeding with great care.

The high profile collapse of two rape trials last month, and subsequent review of about 30 rape prosecutions threw this problem into stark relief.

I may be slightly biased because the prosecuting counsel concerned is an old friend - I knew Jerry Hayes both when he was chairman of Eastern Area YCs, a post in which I followed him a few years later, and when he was MP for Harlow. But I think that the innocent young man who had been wrongly accused in the first of those cases was most fortunate that the prosecutor was an honourable man with the wiser judgement to see that his job was to administer justice rather than to get as many convictions as possible.

But this month we learn that the parole board is proposing to release John Warboys, the so-called "Black Cab rapist," of whom we can be as certain as is ever practically possible that he really was guilty of rape.

Warboys had been given an indeterminate sentence in 2009: this was a device introduced by the last Labour government which was supposed to enable very long sentences for the worst perpetrators, but which was ruled unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) because it was being used far too often for people who had not done anything serious enough to justify banging them up for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately the fallout from this ruling is now starting to mean that people who there really was a good case for locking up for a very long time to protect the public are starting to be released.

(In case anyone reading this is not aware of the distinction, there are two European Courts, one which is part of the EU and which the UK is leaving because of Brexit and one which isn't and we're not.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) is part of the EU and the writ of the ECJ will cease to run in Britain when the transitional period of exit from the European Union is completed. The ECHR is part of the Council of Europe which Britain is not leaving. This is the court which has caused the sentences of thousands of convicted criminals to come under review. In many cases they may well have been right to do so, but others - as with the case of Warboys - will cause reasonable people grave concern. )

So this is the challenge:

How on earth do we get as close as possible to a system which locks up guilty people who really are a threat to women and vulnerable people, and keeps them behind bars until they are no longer a threat, without doing the same thing to innocent people?


Is the present system biased?

Many people are convinced that the present system is loaded in favour of the rapist and against the victims of rape. A Home office study published in 2005, Number 293, is often quoted as having found that only 4% of rape allegations are false. I'll come back to that 4% figure, but this study did indeed argue that although false allegations do exist they were much less common than many police officers and officials in the justice system then believed. The study also noted that the proportion of reported rape allegations leading to a successful prosecution was a little over 5%. (It is still in the same area.) Hence the argument runs that about one woman in 25 making a rape allegation is lying but only about one man in twenty accused of rape is convicted.

You don't have to be certain that the 4% estimate is reliable to recognise that a conviction rate of 5% has alarming implications. Even if you believe that eight out of ten rape allegations are false - and to the best of my knowledge nobody has ever made a credible argument that the proportion is anywhere remotely that high - this would still imply that three quarters of rapists get away with it.

This is a strong argument, but even before the events of the past few weeks there were also many people who believe that the attempt to treat rape victims in a more humane manner and to address the low conviction rate has swung the pendulum too far in the other direction, creating a de facto presumption of guilt rather than innocence and a real danger of convicting innocent people.


No easy answer

There is no easy answer to the question of how society can protect people from being raped and get justice for victims without ruining the lives of those wrongly accused. How difficult this is to get right is illustrated only too clearly by the case of footballer Ched Evans whose conviction for rape was subsequently quashed.

There was once a time when it was a regular tactic of defence barristers in rape cases to raise the past sexual history of the accuser in a manner which all too often effectively put the victim on trial.

It is right that this is no longer usually permitted

It is also a good thing that accusers in rape and sexual assault cases usually have anonymity to provide them with some protection from the humiliation which is often associated with this crime.

Indeed, what happened to the female witness in the Ched Evans case demonstrate that anonymity for witnesses in rape trials can be necessary even if the accused is found innocent. If press reports are accurate the woman in the Ched Evans case has said all along that she does not remember the key events of the night in question, never directly accused Evans or the other footballer involved of raping her and, some reports suggest, originally went to police to report a missing handbag.

There is a clause in the rules which normally ban introducing evidence about the sexual history of a witness in a rape case, which permits an exception in special circumstances. The appeal court made a controversial ruling that those special circumstances applied and that exception could be used in the Evans case, as did the subsequent retrial.

By all accounts this was an immensely difficult decision and I understand the viewpoint of those who fear that it might set a precedent which undermines this important rule. But I can also see why the Appeal Court and the retrial jury did not regard the original conviction as safe.

I am not going to try to second-guess the courts by pretending that I know of a perfect way they could have dealt with the Evans case, I refer to it only to illustrate how difficult it is to run a justice system which is fair to both accused and to victims.

Incidentally it is not just the criminal justice system which has a problem with this issue but society.

Between his release from prison after his initial conviction, and his being acquitted at the retrial after that conviction was quashed, Evans was the target for a largely successful campaign to stop him ever being employed as a footballer again from people who for various reasons did not consider that his prison sentence was sufficient punishment. Effectively a self-appointed lynch mob took it on themselves to wreck the employment chances and prospects of rehabilitation of someone who had served his punishment for what turned out to be an unsafe conviction and who was eventually cleared.

Meanwhile the woman in the case, although the people doing this were of course breaking the law,  suffered a campaign of harassment on social media and had to change her identity.

There is much controversy over this difficult case but there should be two things that everyone can agree with: first that the campaign of harassment against the woman involved was wrong, and secondly that the case illustrates that there are no easy answers to the questions of how we deal fairly with sexual crimes.


How reliable is the 4% figure?

I referred earlier to Home Office Research study Number 293 of 2005, and how this study is often quoted as having found that only 4% of rape allegations are false. That way of describing their  finding implies a much greater degree of certainty to this finding than the authors of the report actually claimed. What they actually wrote is that

"Nine per cent of reported cases were designated false, with a high proportion of these involving 16- to 25-year-olds. However, closer analysis of this category applying Home Office counting rules reduces this to three per cent. Even the higher figure is considerably lower than the extent of false reporting estimated by police officers interviewed in this study."

These comments were made on the basis of a detailed study of about two and a half thousand reported rape cases in three geographical areas which had a slightly above average rate of rape convictions (about 8% compared to a national average of a little over 5%. Of the 2186 reported cases which could be categories, police classed 216 as false allegations, which represents about 9% of the 22,884 cases in the study which it was possible to classify. Those cases, incidentally, represent about a third of those which the police classed as "no crime."

The authors of the study had clearly done a lot of detailed work, but to try to form a view about the proportion of rape allegations which are false they had to make a huge raft of assumptions. None of those assumptions struck me as unreasonable and they may very well be right, but equally, a different study making alternative and also defensible assumptions might have concluded that 20% of rape allegations are false.

I think most fair-minded and intelligent people reading the study would conclude that

1) The authors are almost certainly right that the majority of rape allegations are genuine

2) The authors were probably right that there were at that time a significant number of people in the police and criminal justice system who overestimated the proportion of false allegations of rape.

(However those attitudes appear to have changed significantly and this is probably much less true in 2018 than it was in 2005.)

3) The authors recognised that false allegations of rape do happen and there is no reasonable doubt that they were correct about that.

4) Nobody knows for certain what the real proportion of false allegations is, but the overall proportion is  irrelevant to any given case anyway. Each individual case has to be judged on the evidence in that case without pre-judging the evidence from the accused or the accuser and witnesses.


CONCLUSIONS

The only way to treat both the accused and accusers or witnesses fairly is to take seriously the possibility that they may be telling the truth until and unless it is conclusively proved otherwise.

The more vile the alleged offence, the more important it is that the accused is treated as if innocent until proved guilty - but that does not mean ignoring what the accuser has to say.

DNA testing, CCTV and other forensic advances may solve crimes which might otherwise have been insoluble, but they will not remove the need for old-fashioned police work.

Police, prosecuting and defence lawyers, judges and juries all need to be better advised about advances in science and the meaning of statistics and the provision of a series of books to advise juries about science (including statistics) is a big step forward.

The duty of the prosecution to disclose evidence to the defence in a timely way is an essential safeguard against wrongful conviction and there is evidence of the need for a full review of whether this is happening properly.

It is a recipe for massive injustice if people use social media to "take the law into their own hands" whether by persecuting witnesses who they believe to have brought false charges or defendants who they believe have not been sufficiently punished. Britain may need stronger laws against such social media lynch mobs and it is the duty of service providers running social media platforms to help prevent those platforms being used in this way.

Quote of the day 8th January 2018

This seemed rather topical today.

Journalists often present the willingness of a Prime Minister to change or terminate ministerial careers with no attempt to consider the views of others as a sign of strength.

It could, however be seen as a sign of wisdom if, as has been reported, the PM was willing to discuss with her ministers what role they should play in the government rather than just issue orders.

Monday, January 08, 2018

The new cabinet

New cabinet following today's reshuffle:

Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury

Theresa May

Chancellor

Philip Hammond

Home Secretary

Amber Rudd

Foreign Secretary

Boris Johnson

Brexit Secretary

David Davis

Defence Secretary

Gavin Williamson

Transport Secretary

Chris Grayling

International Trade Secretary

Liam Fox

Environment Secretary

Michael Gove

Northern Ireland Secretary

Karen Bradley - replaces James Brokenshire, who resigned for health reasons

Justice Secretary

David Gauke - moves from Department of Work and Pensions, replacing David Lidington

Health and Social Care Secretary

Jeremy Hunt - stays at Dept. of Health and is also given control of social care

Conservative Party chairman

Brandon Lewis - replaces Sir Patrick McLoughlin

Business and Energy Secretary

Greg Clark

Housing and Communities Secretary

Sajid Javid

Culture, Media and Sports Secretary

Matt Hancock - former minister for digital & culture, promoted to replace Karen Bradley

International Development Secretary

Penny Morduant

Leader of the House of Lords

Baroness Evans

Scotland Secretary

David Mundell

Work and Pensions Secretary

Esther McVey - promoted from deputy chief whip to replace David Gauke

Education Secretary

Damian Hinds - replaces Justine Greening, who apparently turned down a move to the Department for Work and Pensions

Welsh Secretary

Alun Cairns

Leader of the Commons

Andrea Leadsom