Friday, August 14, 2009

Spying is good says Sir Christopher Rose

Daily Telegraph letters today included the following:

SIR – It is unfortunate that you repeated (Leading article, August 10) the criticism of local authorities for using their Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act covert surveillance powers against dog fouling. This is, at best, a half truth.

It is unlikely that the use of those powers would be necessary or proportionate in relation to fouling a pavement. But fouling a children’s playground is much more serious, as dog excrement contains a parasite which can cause blindness in children.

I suspect that many people would welcome the use of these powers to reduce that risk.

Sir Christopher Rose
Chief Surveillance Commissioner
London SW1

Check out the signature. Sir Christopher Rose's job is to make sure the large number of agencies who made the more than half million communications intercept requests and engaged in other surveillance activities stay within the law. On the evidence of this letter he brings the wrong sort of enthusiasm to his role, arguing that surveillance by Councils for trivial reasons is absolutely fine. Now, a standard method to try and justify the unjustifiable is to suggest a lurid risk, usually involving children, that can only be mitigated by an extreme but sadly necessary course of action. There are two components to a risk: threat, what might happen, and probability, how likely it is to happen. Because probability is poorly understood by many people, I give you the National Lottery, then the risks can often be wildly overestimated especially when someone wants to support a weak argument. What is the chance of a child going blind from dog excrement? The answer is very, very small. In fact, based on the 2003 figures the chance of someone being diagnosed with the damaging infection at all was a tiny 0.0037%, and many people so diagnosed have only mild symptoms. So, while dog owners clearly should clean up after their pets, this cannot possibly justify the use of covert surveillance. In fact if you use Sir Christopher's line of argument that even a very small chance of public harm justifies spying on the public then all of us should be watched all of the time. Given that is almost what this country has come to he must be pretty happy.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Sporting Village in the news

BBC coverage here.

John Baron MP presses Planning Inspectorate over Western Road Development

MP complains of over-development and traffic problems

John Baron MP continues his opposition to the proposed development at 43 Western Road, Billericay, and has written to the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol asking him to turn down the developers appeal against the Council’s decision to refuse planning permission.

John said:
Having visited the site, I do feel that the proposal to build 12 apartments represents overdevelopment and will be totally out of keeping with the surrounding area. I also believe that such a development would result in traffic problems, as the approach is difficult.

In general, I am concerned about the wider problem of overdevelopment in residential areas which I believe is totally unfair on local residents.

I also believe there is something undemocratic about decisions regarding residential developments being made by outside organisations such as The Planning Inspectorate in Bristol or the Government. Local residents should have the final say, given they have to live with the decision.

If you know this site then you know it has a long and complex planning history. Basildon Council Planning Committees have repeatedly rejected plans for large flatted development in an ordinary residential street, but it does appear that this saga is set to continue.

Obama, Healthcare, Hannan and the NHS

There is a frenetic debate going on the the US on healthcare. This was a key part of President Obama's election campaign, particularly addressing the problem of tens of millions of Americans who lack health insurance. But it is proving a very divisive issue, because while it is anything but equal the US healthcare system is oriented towards excellence and if you get treatment then the statistics for outcomes are some of the best in the world. Those opposing the President are using the NHS as an example of what not to do, and this has been reinforced by Daniel Hannan MEP's criticism of the service. In turn that has been used by the Labour Party as political ammunition against the Conservatives despite the fact that Mr. Hannan has no brief for healthcare whatsoever.

Let us try and reduce the argument to its fundamentals. In the US enormous numbers of people either have no access to decent healthcare or are bankrupted by trying to pay for it. This cannot stand in a developed country and President Obama is right to address the issue. That does not mean that his proposed solution is automatically perfect though, but critics at least must acknowledge that there is a problem and join a debate on fixing it. Pretending that the current system is fair an reasonable is ridiculous. Moving on to the the NHS, this is a vast organisation and has many successes against a much smaller number of failures. Speaking personally, I have had nothing but exemplary care for my serious health issues, but that does not mean that the system could not be improved. In particular the Labour government has returned to a very centralised model and that does not work for anything particularly well, be it tractor production or making people well. Conservatives would keep to the principles of the NHS but move the service on to the 21st century. That is what John Major's government was doing in reforms stopped by Labour, so there is a lost decade of reform to make up there. Daniel Hannan has made some measured criticism of the NHS, but this has been blown out of proportion by parties in the US who find it useful to portray the NHS as a disaster and Labour in the UK, who are desperate for anything that might damage their opponents. Daniel Hannan tries to put his comments into context here.

This whole row typifies the problem with the healthcare debate in the UK. Because health is so important and affects, well, everyone it is easy to replace rational debate with emotive nonsense that improves the lives of patients not one jot. Suggest change and Labour politicians in particular will try and shift the argument to who cares the most as opposed to who will make people live longer. Frankly, I would rather be alive than know our leaders really, really do care.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Reality of War in Afghanistan

This country is at war in Afghanistan. It is a war that we have stumbled into, led by a government that subscribes to the worst of liberal woolly thinking on military matters, but it is a war nonetheless. In April 2006 then defence secretary John Reid said:
We're in the south to help and protect the Afghan people to reconstruct their economy and democracy. We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years time without firing one shot.
This neatly sums up the attitude that put our soldiers into battle with too few numbers, too few helicopters and vehicles that shreded when struck by a bomb blast. There is a sort of left-establishment consensus that force achieves nothing and that wars against guerilla armies are unwinnable anyway. So, Reid and Brown committed our soldiers in the hope that they would spend their time building schools and handing out aid parcels and they thought that inadequate forces didn't matter because war doesn't work, so why resource it properly?

Meanwhile, reality is a little different. First of all, while war is concentrated horror and any sane nation must apply itself to the avoidance of conflict, it can be an effective tool of foreign policy. There are plenty of military actions that when the ghastly tally of death and loss has been made it still has been as the right thing to do. World War Two is the classic example, but more recently the Falklands and British intervention in Sierra Leone fall into that category. Moreover, guerilla armies are often on the losing side in conflicts, lately the Tamil Tigers have been defeated and the insurgency in Iraq has retreated into occasional urban terrorism. Any casual reader of Afghan history would have figured out that foreign intervention was likely to cause a very violent response in the south of that country and anyone with common sense would realise that aid could not be effectively delivered to the Afghan population unless they were guaranteed security. A government with a grip on reality would either have kept British soldiers out of Afghanistan or provided enough military power to win the inevitable conflict quickly. Instead Brown and Reid decided on military intervention without enough strength to win the war. The result has been a military stalemate and a ghastly procession of coffins back through RAF Lyneham.

The government and the nation needs to decide where we go from here. We should fight like we want to win, or we should get out. Anything else is a betrayal of our brave fighting men and women.