Monthly Archives: May 2008

Parliament should have scrutiny powers? How radical can you get?

If you want evidence of how weak the UK’s model of Parliamentary democracy truly is, you only need to glance at this article:

Parliament should be able to bypass ministers and launch its own inquiries into issues of “exceptional” public concern such as the Iraq war, MPs say.

This is a power that pretty much every single Parliament in an established democracy takes for granted. It goes to the heart of the point of democracy, yet here it is considered to be radical and should be reserved for “exceptional” circumstances.

Meanwhile, the government’s Constitutional Renewal Bill, which was supposed to usher in a new era of Parliamentary scrutiny, only actually codifies existing conventions on things like the government’s (or “Crown’s” if you will) war and treaty-making powers, and actually proposes to reduce scrutiny of the attorney general. Even Charlie Falconer dismisses it as “trivial“. That is what Gordon Brown chose to launch his premiership on all those months ago – a complete figleaf. Is it any wonder his government is collapsing like a compost heap on a sunny day?

Henley and Paddy’s memoirs

The Tories seem to be having problems deciding on who should replace Boris Johnson as their candidate in Henley. Meanwhile I got an email this morning from Lord Rennard about why I should go and help the Lib Dem campaign there:

When Paddy publishes his memoirs, he will pay great tribute to a particular group of people. This group is the one that travelled across the country and worked so hard to bring about the famous by-election victories that established the Liberal Democrats.

A particular debt is owed to those who came to help in the early stages of the key campaigns. It took many hundreds of people throughout the campaigns to win successes for the party from Eastbourne (1990) to Winchester (1997).

I’m sure that is all true, but why is Paddy planning to publish his memoirs when he published his far more extensive diaries 7 years ago?

Boris Johnson’s crime maps, data protection and land values

Unaccustomed as I am to defending Boris Johnson, I’m not convinced that publishing crime maps would necessarily result in a breach of data protection. Didn’t we solve this problem with census data decades ago?

A more intriguing objection is the complaint by RICS that “publicising high crime areas in such detail could literally wipe thousands off house prices overnight, further disadvantaging those who are already struggling to make ends meet.” I think this is possibly true, although it is a particular problem for the UK where we don’t have proper land/property taxation. In countries which use property taxes more extensively and reassess them more regularly (or indeed, at all), such data is a double edged sword. Yes, it would lead to the value of their properties dropping but that in turn would lead to them paying less tax. If you don’t get the service, you get your money back: sounds like a fair deal to me. In the UK though it would be unambiguously bad news for many, whilst enriching those fortunate enough to live in safe areas still further.

Child porn, cartoons and unintended consequences

Everyone hates child porn, right? So, superficially, who could possibly object to government proposals to “help close a loophole that we believe paedophiles are using”?

The problem is twofold however. Firstly, what the government is planning to do is “create a new offence for the possession of non-photographic visual depictions of child sexual abuse.” From reading the consultation paper, this would appear to exclude the written word and apparently this will exclude any “items of genuine historical interest” – so that’s Romeo and Juliet and the Gospels saved then. But everything else is for the pot. Last time I looked that would include a lot of anime and manga.

Secondly, the Ministry of Justice’s “justification” for this is as follows:

We are unaware of any specific research into whether there is a link between accessing these fantasy images of child sexual abuse and the commission of offences against children, but it is felt by police and children’s welfare organisations that the possession and circulation of these images serves to legitimize and reinforce highly inappropriate views about children.

In other words, they have no grounds for doing this whatsoever and don’t even know whether it would be counter-productive (i.e. are paedophiles using visual representation of child abuse as a substitute for the real thing), but they are going to do it anyway.

This has bad law written all over it. This is an explicit attempt to legislate against thoughtcrime and “yuk”.

I mentioned manga above. Comics have regularly fallen foul existing obscene publications legislation and while such attempts often fail if contested the lack of money sloshing about in the industry (as opposed to, say, cinema) means that there is a tendency to play safe. All it would take is an over-zealous police chief to launch a couple of dawn raids on his local Borders with the active support of the Daily Mail and the whole industry would go into a tailspin. We’ve been here before.

The consultation paper also includes this section which, again superficially, sounds quite scary:

Technological advances mean that current software can allow a user to photograph an image (or download one onto a computer) and manipulate it to look like a drawing, a tracing, a painting or cartoon. It is possible to manipulate a real photograph (or video recording) of real child abuse into a cartoon or drawing format, be it still or animated. In that scenario the image/s would appear to be merely a fantasy cartoon or drawing, etc, but would in fact be a distinct record of an actual abusive and illegal act. Yet under current legislation, while possession of the original images of child sexual abuse would be illegal, it would not be illegal to make and possess these cartoon or “fantasy style” images, and they would not be subject to forfeiture by the police.

It may, in some circumstances, be possible for the police to re-engineer the resultant “fantasy style” image to discover the original indecent photograph. In this case a prosecution under POCA 1978 could follow. However, if the process was unavailable and the original indecent
photograph, or convertible data, remained undiscovered, i.e. if the “fantasy style” image had been forwarded on or simply printed as a hard copy, then it would not be possible to prosecute. In addition, the images would not be subject to forfeiture and would remain in circulation.

Note that this is carefully worded to NOT suggest that this has ever actually been done or even that police have come across material where this may have been done. And why would anyone do it? The purpose of filming pornographic images is to give the viewer a sense of reality. Making it look unreal to such an extent that it would be literally impossible to tell if it was real or a drawing would defeat the whole point of the enterprise. And if technology really did advance to such a stage (we’re talking about ever paedo having the skill and resources of Industrial Light and Magic at the click of a mouse key), why would anyone go to the risk of filming an actual act of child abuse when they could simply replicate it artificially.

The bottom line is we can’t legislate for every single hypothetical science fiction scenario. On the other hand, if we do legislate, we should perhaps consider what is going on, right now. Yet I can’t find anywhere in this consultation paper any reference to “second life”, “avatar”, “role play”, “virtual reality” or “MMORPG” despite the fairly obvious implications. Is every avatar in a school uniform going to be banned?

I want to hear a compelling argument backed by strong evidence, not rumour and speculation, before I will consider a law to be necessary. In lieu of I hope the Lib Dems in Parliament will give these proposals short shrift.

Abbey normal customer service

Readers may recall that late last year I blogged about my girlfriend’s family’s problems with Abbey when they tried closing her late stepfather’s account. That particular incident ended happily as if by magic once the Observer got involved.

I wish I could say that was the end of the matter. Sadly, it is not the case. I’ll let Alex’s mother’s letter to the Financial Ombudsman do the rest of the talking – there really isn’t anything my usual brand of sarcasm can add:

I have enduring power of attorney for my mother. She has recently moved into a care home and I wanted to purchase an insurance policy to cover the fees for her care home.

In order to fund this we needed to release the funds (approx £16,000) in her savings accounts with Abbey. I wrote to Abbey on 8th April, enclosing a copy of the POA form, asking them to transfer the funds to my mother’s current account.

A week later I phoned Abbey who said they had no record of having received the letter and could not speak to me because I am not the account holder.

The next day I received a letter from Abbey acknowledging that I had sent a copy of the POA forms and asking me to fill in a number of Abbey forms to register that I had POA for my mother. I did this immediately and sent it back to them – I had it faxed and posted from the local Abbey branch.

I then spoke to Abbey twice and was given conflicting messages – one person said they would transfer the money once the POA had been registered the other said that this would not be possible.

On the 24th April I received a letter from Abbey acknowledging that the POA had been registered in relation to my mother’s accounts. I didn’t receive anything else from Abbey and the cheque did not arrive.

On the 6th May I phoned Abbey again and spoke to someone called Maria in their Belfast office. Maria told me that a cheque would be put in the post and sent first class by the end of that day. It wasn’t.

On 7th May I phoned Abbey again but this time was put through to their Glasgow office and was told that they could not help because they could not see if any action had been taken; they did however give me the number of the Belfast office. I then called the Belfast office direct and spoke to Chris who refused to discuss any of this with me as I was not the account holder. I explained that I had POA and this had been registered with Abbey, but he still refused to talk to me about the account. Even when I quoted the reference from the letter from Abbey saying that POA had been registered he said he could do nothing!

Eventually he agreed to speak to their legal department and got the POA registered. He then said that a cheque would be put in the post that day and would phone me to confirm that this had been actioned. He did not phone and the cheque did not arrive.

On the 8th May I phoned Abbey again and spoke to someone called Miles who was very helpful – he said that the cheque had not been sent despite all the assurances and that he did not know why. He once again agreed that the cheque would be sent that day and that he would phone me on my mobile to confirm that this had in fact happened. Again he did not phone and the cheque has not arrived.

We have been given a one week extension by the insurance company to raise the funds but if Abbey do not send us the cheque that quote will no longer be valid and the price will increase by approx £6,000. The price of these policies has increased considerably since the credit crunch.

On the 14th May I spoke to Laura in the Belfast call centre. I was told that although they have a record of my power of attorney registration, they have no record of my request to close the account and send a cheque. I was told this would need investigating and that they would phone me back in 24-72 hours and would mark this as urgent.

At this point I also formally lodged a complaint, by e-mail, with the Abbey complaints department.

By the 19th May I had still not had any contact from Abbey and the cheque had not arrived so I sought legal advice from which?

They advised me that Abbey’s abysmal customer care and inability to respond within a reasonable time frame had contravened the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982.

I once again wrote and e-mailed the Abbey complaints department to this effect. I have still not had a response beyond a standard acknowledgment of the receipt of my complaint.

On 21st I phoned the Belfast office – a recorded message said that all their systems were down, so I phoned the complaints department and spoke to Sam who gave me a reference number and promised to phone back. He didn’t.

I phoned Abbey again on 23rd May, I spoke to the Belfast office again as the complaints department apparently closes at 5pm. Anthony said that they would investigate, as once again he could not find the POA registration, and phone me back. They didn’t.

I phoned again on the 24th and was referred to the ISA customer services helpdesk. Gillian said they would have to contact the ISA administration team who would not be in until Tuesday. I was told that referrals take 24-72 hours but they would mark it urgent. She also said that they only had records of me having phoned once – I have records of at least 10 phone calls to date.

At no point so far has anyone returned a phone call. The only acknowledgement I have received is a letter dated the 24th April confirming my POA registration and confirmation of receipt of my complaint on 22nd May.

My advice to anyone thinking of banking with Abbey? Don’t. In the meantime, any helpful journalist out there want to take this up? This whole sorry mess is haemorrhaging real money now.

In the meantime, here are some related links:

Cameron and Johnson timed the Venezuela announcement for after the Crewe by-election

At a stroke, Boris Johnson has undermined the capital the Conservatives have made out of the 10p income tax fiasco. It isn’t that the cheap oil deal with Venezuela was defensible – it wasn’t. It was this sort of tokenism that disqualified Livingstone from office in the eyes of most Londoners. But no-one begrudged low income earners from getting half-priced travel. In Crewe, the Tories ground Labour into the dust attacking them for doubling the 10p rate and blithely ignoring the impact it would have on low income earners. Now the Tories have imposed swingeing cuts on a very similar group in society.

What’s worse is the timing: on a bank holiday weekend just hours after winning the Crewe by-election during which time they had very carefully kept quiet about the plans. It is clear they don’t plan to offer people on income support any alternative, otherwise why the stark announcement rather than a more cuddly “consultation” about how to continue paying for the scheme? It is clear they knew it would be politically damaging. And it is abundantly clear that was not merely approved by CCHQ and Cameron but crafted by them in the first place. Make no mistake – this was Cameron’s decision.

Expect this issue to become a Focus leaflet staple, within London at least. I can think of no better symbol of how paper thin the “new” Conservativism really is. Scratch beneath the surface and the nasty side is just itching to come out. At least now we know, but is has the public already made up its mind?

Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls (spoilers)

I have to admit I doing my best to keep expectations down to a minimum with this film. I still bear the scars of the Star Wars prequels. On the other hand, this film had two things going for it that those films did not: firstly, the setting is (literally) more down to earth – meaning there was less scope for going completely green screen; secondly, with Spielberg at the helm there was a good chance he would be able to keep Lucas’ worst excesses under control. At least that was the theory.

The truth of the matter is, Indy IV is less of a travesty than Star Wars I-III, but by as much as it should have been. One of the biggest problems was the lack of any surprises. For about the last fifteen years it has been rumoured that if a new Indiana Jones film were to be made it would involve UFOs and tie together the Roswell incident with the theories of Erich von Daeniken. And so it turned out to be. But this in itself is very old fedora. We’ve had the X-Files. We’ve had Stargate. And Steve? Remember Close Encounters of the Third Kind? There was no point in going to all the expense and effort of making a film that had nothing new to say. Surely the reason for all this delay and all these screenplays was that they were looking for a decent twist in the tale. If that was the case, they clearly failed.

The other main plot thread is equally badly handled. You don’t need to have read the internet rumours to have figured out that “Mutt” Williams was going to turn out to be Jones’ son, so why leave it to halfway through the film for the revelation? This was hardly an Empire Strikes Back-style twist – we knew from the titles who the mother was and they even continued the joke from the Last Crusade about being named after the dog. Yet, while the Last Crusade spent a fair amount of time exploring the father-son relationship, in Kingdom it is all-but resolved in a single scene.

That was a shame because at the start I really thought they were going to take this in a more interesting direction. The first part of the film seemed to be concerned with exploring how this 1930s pulp action hero would be a fish out of water in the atomic 1950s and that all his achievements would be forgotten in a country dazzled by science and gripped with Cold War paranoia (and at this point can I just ask: what was the point of the first five minutes of the film except to give Lucas an opportunity to wank over his American Graffiti glory days? It slowed down the film interminably). In comic-book parlance, this is a case of the Golden Age crash landing into the Silver Age. Yet that theme is completely forgotten within half and hour.

In place of all this promise is a very by-the-numbers adventure which, having flirted with the idea of exploring something deeper, recoils and retreats into safety. The problem is rooted, I think, in the fact that Spielberg and Lucas got their fingers burnt so badly with Temple of Doom while winning high plaudits for Last Crusade. In truth, neither of those films were the respective disaster or triumph that legend makes them out to be (although I don’t disagree that the later film is the superior). Temple of Doom is undeniably sexist and racist, something which cheapens it. But as an exploration of the lead character it is the most interesting of the lot. A prequel to Raiders, at the start Jones’ ethics are rather closer to Belloq’s in the first film. Doom is about why he ultimately rejects that way of life and turns instead towards a purer form of archaeology.

The theme running through the series is the tension between wisdom and knowledge. In Temple, Jones lacks wisdom and is nearly destroyed. In Raiders, he has learned enough to know that there are times when too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing. In the Last Crusade, lesson learnt, he doesn’t merely avoid getting himself destroyed but gets to save his own father in the process. But there was already a sense that the Last Crusade was merely retreading Raiders ground. Kingdom just repeats the same tired formula. Wouldn’t it have been better if this had been an attempt to redo Temple, without the flaws, rather than simply remake Raiders imperfectly once again?

This also comes with plot holes as well. Big gaping ones in fact. The film ends with Dr Jones reinstated at the university he teaches at and getting married to Marion. All very well, and in common with all recent Spielberg films to end so happily. But hang on: if US intelligence were paranoid about to what extent Jones was conspiring with the Russians at the start of the film, how did he explain the fact that almost immediately afterwards he vanished into the Amazonian rain forest with the same group of Russians, apparently got them all killed and all evidence of what happened has been destroyed? And how come it isn’t just him that gets reinstated but Jim Broadbent’s character?

The aliens and their behaviour don’t seem to make that much sense either. How come the crystal skull’s “stare” works on Jones and Oxley but not the apparently psychic Spalko? And yet it seemed to work very well indeed on the all-but brainless giant ants. And if the aliens were so concerned about getting their thirteenth skull back, what about the alien recovered from Roswell (apparently sitting in a Russian truck somewhere in the jungle)? For that matter, since the aliens are clearly visiting earth still, and that damned skull was so magnetic, how come they didn’t simply recover it themselves? None of it sadly made much sense; worse, if these questions had been answered they probably would have resulted in a better film overall.

Oh, and a word about CGI. I expected some CGI. You can’t get away from it these days. I don’t begrudge the decision to depict a nuclear explosion – it was well done. What I really hated was the fucking ewoks. Well, okay, they weren’t actually ewoks, but it did almost feel as if Lucas and Spielberg felt they had to do something to twist the knife after watching that South Park episode.

So it is that in the Nevada desert, Jones encounters a bunch of CGI prairie dogs (is this some kind of obscure Caddyshack reference that I’m missing?). Later, Mutt decides to become Tarzan and in so doing befriends a bunch of CGI monkeys. Neither of these elements adds anything to the film except to give the effects department more to do. They pissed me off so much in fact that I almost expected the gray alien that appears in the finale to say “how wude!” before eating Cate Blanchett’s brains.

This isn’t to say it’s all bad. Some (but not all) of the action sequences are what you’d expect from an Indiana Jones film. When Karen Allen switches on that smile, it’s like a day hasn’t passed since 1981 (the lack of screentime for Karen Allen overall is another crime for which Spielberg and Lucas must be made to account for). It certainly could have been worse and the fact that it resists the temptation to try to compete with the Mummy franchise is no small mercy. But after 19 years, this needed to be something very special indeed. As it stands, it only succeeds in making Temple of Doom look good.

The Lib Dems’ death is being predicted once again

If you believe most of the people commenting in response to my CiF article this morning, and Bob Piper, you would think the Lib Dems were about to shuffle off this mortal coil. I seem to remember a remarkably similar bunch of people assure me of this at this point in the Parliamentary cycle every time over the last 13 years.

No-one seems to believe me when I point out that the Lib Dems always got squeezed in contested Lab-Con by-elections in the run up to 1997. So, without further ado, I thought I’d list them here and include how the Lib Dem vote went:

So, not so different then.

History is repeating in other ways as well. Clegg is being talked about as a failure in pretty much the same terms that people were writing Kennedy off in 2000 (“oh, you made a big mistake in getting rid of Paddy Ashdown – he was a brilliant leader, etc., etc.”), and Ashdown in turn in 1990.

The point is, none of this ever changes. People look at the chicken entrails, and generally the things they look at are the least useful indicators such as comparing the BBC’s annual guestimate of the local election share of the vote and by-elections, and make wacky predictions about our demise EVERY SINGLE TIME. They always struggle to see the wood for the trees.

I’m not deluding myself that the next election is going to be the sort of opportunity that 2005 was. I’m not even ruling out that we might make a net loss of seats (for the record I’m not ruling out our chances of making net gains either – in fact I’d say it is a distinct possibility). But no matter what our political rivals say, with us at between 19% and 23% there is no prospect of us even falling back to below our 1997 tally of 46 MPs. In the long run, however much people might stamp their feet, that means that three-party politics is here to stay.