Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Branson and the Broken Justice System

I imagine that most people have heard by now of Richard Branson's intention to create a £100,000 account to fund the defence of the parents of Madeleine McCann. If not the linked article is worth checking out, because it really throws into relief some of the issues I am going to try to deal with. I am not interested in Mr. Branson's motives - I will assume that they are altruistic and not merely publicity-seeking, but it is irrelevent. I also have no desire to second-guess the guilt or innocence of the McCanns. I feel that such public guesswork tends to do more harm than good, at least where there is no compelling evidence (like a confession).

What concerns me is just how starkly the criminal justice system is shown for what it is here: The creation of the fund is a tacit admission that to get decent representation against criminal charges, you need money. Lots of it. The McCanns were planning to sell their house to raise the money. Many people either cannot do that, because they do not own a house, or will not because it will leave them with nothing. They will instead take the free representation guaranteed to them.

Ah, the free representation. The modern society's nod towards equality before the law. I would never denegrate those solicitors and barristers who do legal aid work, but many of them are unexperienced in the areas in which they take such cases, and their ability and experience varies. Pay for legal aid work is low and so it tends to attract less experienced and skilled lawyers and to sit at the bottom of long priority lists. All of this is known: It is common knowledge, and unquestioned, that if you are able to pay you will get better representation, and the more you pay the better you will get. Better lawyers are able to charge more - that's the way of the free market.

But like it or not, the quality of representation has a massive impact on your chances of winning a case. Of course, the bare facts and the law are very important, but having a lawyer capable of making the right arguments and putting in the time to do the research can often be crucial. Where there is an inequlity of financial resources available on different sides, the richer gains a distinct advantage. This turns justice into a free market commodity - something to be bought according to the income at your disposal. To some people this might seem acceptable, but such people frighten me. Unless we are equal before the law, with justice blind to money and social circumstance, then really you cannot have the kind of liberal democracy in which we claim to believe. The 'justice' system unwittingly becomes a tool for keeping the poor permanently in danger of having their liberty stripped away.

It is imperative to end the correlation between ability to pay and success in defending one's case. (In fact, the point extends to all kinds of areas of law, but here I am just dealing with criminal, where it is most acute.) Again, some will argue that this can never happen because lawyers need pay incentives to do a better job. To them I say that you can have your cake and eat it. You can still have a career structure with pay increasing as lawyers are assigned to more difficult levels of cases (the simplest structure would be magistrates court, Crown court, appeal court, House of Lords), and bad lawyers will still be weeded out because people will no longer go to them. The crucial difference would be that at each level of the case, you would have lawyers at the same grade and paid the same on each side, levelling the playing field. The state would stump up the cost originally, and recoup it from the accused party after a conviction, as far as they are able to pay.

Of course, key to all of this is pay setting, and that will outrage some. It will cap the possible wages of criminal lawyers, although the cap should of course be generous to retain lawyers in the area. It might smack of socialism to some, but surely if there is one area to be socialised and made equally available to all, it is justice? The McCanns are lucky to to have found (through the publicity the case has generated) a backer willing to give them a fighting chance. Many others do not have that fortune. Let's stop leaving justice to luck and class.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Oxford Uni: Getting Exam Results

Sometimes Oxford University just completely baffles me. Two examples come to mind, both concerning exams. Firstly Oxford, pretty much uniquely in the country, strives to deny students access to exam feedback, including their exam scripts. According to the article, Data Protection law requires that comments on exam scripts be made available on request, but to get around this Oxford ensures that all scripts are shredded as soon as the results are officially announced. No-one else does this, and it seems to be a ridiculous practice. Perhaps there is little real point to demanding feedback for your last exams, but there certainly is for prior exams, allowing one to prepare better in future. Oxford claims that since examiners do not always write comments, allowing access would give "uneven levels of feedback to individuals." Well, read the article and decide for yourselves what you think of the policy.

More clear cut, I feel, is the next example. Oxford appears anxious to prevent exam results going up on the internet. As you can see, the Online Exam Results website, which has in previous years put up photos of the exam result listings, now has a disclaimer stating "For a variety of reasons, including threats of a legal challenge from the university, we are unable to publish results for 2007..."

Why? If there was actually any concern about maintaining the privacy of students, I might be sympathetic. But not only are the lists published in the Exam Schools, they are also up in college lodges across Oxford, most of which are often open to the public anyway! It would seem that if someone were to write down what is on the lists (or alternatively get them from the university site) then type them up on the internet this behaviour would be unchallengable. But the university has threatened legal action for putting photos of these publically available lists up. Absurd!

As for the university site, the apparently preferred method for students to get hold of results, this is only available from within Oxford, and so is completely useless for the vast majority of students who will already have left. If it also available for those few who have set up a Virtual Private Network which, as far as I know, can only be set up within Oxford. So why deny the useful service provided by Online Exam Results? What possible good can it serve? Honestly, I sometimes wonder what goes through the heads of those who run this ancient and revered university.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Smoking Ban: Hopes and Fears

Well in one way, a big hooray for the ban on smoking in enclosed public places, which came into force today. For all the misinformation and twittering going around, it should be re-stated that the purpose of the ban is to protect workers who would otherwise have to work in smoky environments. Even if secondary smoke does not adversely affect health (a proposition which appears increasingly absurd), it makes breathing more difficult and disgusting, causes clothes and body to smell and leads to general discomfort. To anyone who suggests that an employee can simply choose not to work in a place where people smoke, I point to the similar situation of workers who are assaulted and maltreated by customers, but told that they could seek employment elsewhere. It should be the legal duty of employers to prevent workers from being subjected to such behaviour, and that applies equally in the smoking case.

So I am in favour of the ban on that ground, and I also must admit much joy on the grounds of not having to endure smoky atmospheres when out in pubs, clubs and restaurants. Nevertheless, the ban also leaves me with deep worries which only intensify when I read things like this, arguing for further and further restrictions of tobacco. In short, I'm worried that the intentions underlying the ban are not limited by the harm principle.

Consider the following from the article:

"Ministers are believed to be considering a range of options to reduce the number of smokers. These include testing pregnant women for carbon monoxide levels and referring smokers for treatment..."

"Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) wants a ban on tobacco products being displayed in shops or sold in vending machines. It also wants an end to brand names, logos and colours so that all cigarettes are sold in the same kind of packaging - an idea that the tobacco industry, predictably, opposes fiercely.

The Department of Health is, however, finalising proposals for the introduction of graphic picture warnings on tobacco packs, which are expected to come into force next year... Officials are looking into a ban on the display of tobacco products behind shop counters. The age at which cigarettes can be bought legally will rise from 16 to 18 this autumn. The move will be accompanied by a nationwide advertising campaign that will target teenagers."

Okay. As a liberal, I'm starting to sweat here: What kind of movement have I been supporting?

Firstly, let's consider the measures on parents with children. I wholeheartedly agree with attempting to reduce the number of children (particularly young children) exposed to tobacco smoke, which when done in knowledge of the risks I can agree is a kind of child abuse. But you have to be careful about this kind of thing. Where you have mandatory tests on pregnant women which may lead to their punishment, you discourage them from coming in for any tests at all, a retrograde step.

Secondly, moving the age for buying cigarettes from 16 to 18 makes sense given that it is the age for buying alcohol and other things. I still think it absurd that compulsory education ends at 16, leaving many teenagers to get careers, pay tax and possibly get married, without allowing them access to 'grown up' substances and the right to vote. But maybe this is an argument for another time.

What really, really worries me is the rest. A ban on display behind counters, and graphic warnings on packets potentially followed, if ASH gets its way by bans on sale from vending machines and on 'brand names, logos and colours.' This is getting insane. Of course a crucial function of government is to give information to allow consumers to make better decisions, even forcing manufacturers to give that information if necessary. But cigarette packets already include massive warnings. These measures do not inform. They are purely to make it more and more difficult for the tobacco industry - without even taking money from it which can be plowed back into healthcare, as taxation does - forcing them to drive up prices to limit people's options to buy cigarettes.

I will say again, driving up prices to pay for the extra healthcare required by smokers or to inform smokers of the risks is fine and already done. Simply trying to have cigarettes priced out of the means of smokers is paternalistic, suggesting that it is only one step along the line to a full ban, with tobacco lining up with all the other illegal drugs. Once again free choice will be sacrificed in the name of the government knowing best.

I hate having any agreement with those miserable souls who seem to insist on an absolute right to poison whoever is around them with second hand smoke, but here I will stand with them. It is not for the government to take choices from us 'for our own good,' where it is not harming others. Loathsome as cigarettes are, private abuse of our own health must remain a matter for the self.

I still support the current ban, because it protects workers and others from second hand smoke. But I think we need to be very careful where we go from here. We need to curb paternalistic urges and draw a line in sand, reaffirming the rights of people privately, when it is *not* harming other people, to be absolute idiots.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

I'll Have My Say

Rant time.

I'm beginning to loathe the BBC News 'Have Your Say' page, not because there is anything wrong with the concept but because of the kind of commentators it attracts. It's rather ironic that despite the supposed and much-touted left-liberal bias of the BBC, the majority of commentators and recommenders appear to be anything but. Time and time again they whine about anti-Americanism (when anyone is critical of the US for, you know, the absolutely awful things it tends to do). And they will seize on any point to tout their conservatism in the most condescending and spiteful way possible.

So on the issue of immigration in the US (arranged for popularity), you have to go a long way to find anyone dissenting from the anti-immigration chorus, and yet they still go on about how anti-US Have Your Say is!

On US v socialised healthcare (likewise), the board is dominated by Americans mocking the idea of healthcare for those who can't afford it, with one stating "I have full medical, dental, and vision coverage; I even get legal coverage as a perk too. This is a reward for my hard work and education I paid for. I know this offends socialists but in America you have to EARN YOUR WAY." Apparently the poor deserve to die in the street from wholly treatable illnesses, because they aren't trying hard enough.

These are the prime examples at the moment, but long experience shows that it is not just domination by American conservatives which causes this. Although specifically UK debates tend to be less one-sided (see the smoking debate), I know from long experience that it still tends to be the most self-righteous and self-indulgent conservatives who manage to get recommended to the top of the pile.

But wait... It's not quite a simple as that, because I also know from experience that HYS commentators on the whole hate religion, and will use absolutely any excuse to bash it. Now I'm none too keen on religion in general myself, but these pronouncements are generally rude, unnecessary and simplistic. More importantly however, they are not really in the general conservative mould, since conservatism generally trusts old established power structures. Taking this into account, it looks less like the commentators are simply conservative, more like they are simply jaded and cynical, unwilling to think anything but the worst of anyone. To a large extent this supports the conservative agenda, but without the established structures bit, leading to a particularly dire view of humanity and an 'every man for himself' mentality which no longer seems to give a damn about anything we might call justice, only our right to be left alone.

Right, rant over. Any comments?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Tearfund Learn To Spin

I have nothing against Tearfund, I really don't. But it is disheartening and distasteful to see them behaving like Comical Ali in drawing insanely positive conclusions from what is to them a rather dire situation.

Here is its report on its survey of church attendance in the UK, its press release and the (slightly more informative) BBC News article about it.

Some analysis:

Firstly, and most strikingly, despite the way the 53% Christian figure is put forward positively in the press release, the BBC point out that this is massively down from the "almost three-quarters" suggested by the 2001 census. My experience may be far from representative, but it suggests the Tearfund figure is probably more accurate. It could of course be that with the rise of religious extremism and the religious right in America, more people are disassociating themselves from religion, although I would be surprised if this accounted for the whole of the drop.

The figure makes it extremely disingeuous for Tearfund representatives to say things like "What is clear from this survey is that the UK is holding firmly to the Christian faith" and "This statistic alone has major implications not only for the churches but for public debate and public policy." No doubt the latter quote is suggesting that Christianity should have more influence over public policy, which is an astounding conclusion to draw from a drop of around 25%! Completely ignoring the official census turns this press release from laughable to borderline dishonest, especially given that the report itself acknowledges it and gives (possibly quite intelligent) reasons for it (page 4 of the main report).

Secondly, the much vaunted 3 million who "would attend church if only they were asked" translates to only 6 percent of the population, as admitted much later in the report. Despite this being heralded as a great thing for the church showing some kind of revival of interest, let us consider this. The 'unchurched' and 'dechurched' together come to 66%, of which 6% are still open to 'churching'. That's 1 in 11. Perhaps more strikingly, of the 53% Christian, only 25 % are 'churched', which means that the 6% will (mostly) be out of the remaining 28%. This means that just over only 1 out of 5 (21.5%) of non-churchgoing Christians (who themselves are over half of Christians) are open to the possibility of churchgoing! This still sets the absolute churchgoing limit at about 31%, which is still less than a third of the population.

Thirdly, 6% of the population are of other religions, leaving just over 40% non-religious. I am personally stunned (if pleased) that it is this high. Unfortunately there is no breakdown of Christian into denominations, but I would be willing to hazard a bet that the largest single denominations will be C of E and Roman Catholic, both of which will be significantly lower than 40%. Of course, it is ridiculous to think of the 40% as in any way a denomination, but this is something to think about.

Some random observations:

"London is not the heartless capital is it sometimes portrayed as being. It has the highest proportion of regular churchgoers (22%) of any English province." Thanks for labelling me heartless, Tearfund, along with the vast majority of other non-churchgoers. Really classy.

It will surprise no-one to learn that the young (especially under 34) are much less churched, while the old (especially over 55) are much more. Perhaps less obviously, the English tend to go to church less often and remain stubbornly unchurched, while the Welsh and Scottish are increasingly becoming dechurched, ie. stopping going. Scotland has just above average attendance, while Northern Ireland has above the average attendance (surprise surprise).

The National Secular Society of course have something to say, and I'm left wondering whether they're also being disingenuous. They claim this shows that we live in an overwhelmingly secular society. Now given that for me, secular is about the separation of religion from politics, I don't think the survey gives us that kind of information. But given that the NSS is thinking in terms of personal non-religion, I struggle to see how 40% can be overwhelming. I would usually require much more than 50% for a society to be 'overwhelmingly' one way or another. Perhaps the spokesman means that the statistic is overwhelming given previous surveys. I agree with this, but I don't think it's the natural meaning of the words. Still, at least he mentioned the actual statistic in the context to let other people make up their minds.

So Tearfund have displayed some wonderful spinning. Not only is 53% (down from 73%) a 'positive' thing with clear implications for public policy (in favour of religious influence), but the church should celebrate 25% attendance (15% at least once a month) with the possibility of an extra 6% if they threw all their effort into it. The unchurched are of course 'heartless', bowing down to the 'modern-day gods' of 'individual choice and secular consumerism'. It's unfortunate, because a little bit of humbleness and soul-searching might actually have improved people's view of such organisations. Instead, anyone subjecting the statement to the least bit of critical thinking will probably dismiss Tearfund (despite all its good work) as a propaganda body.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Post-Grad and Forms

I've received a conditional offer for my post-graduate course! Woooo! Now I just need to meet the offer and get a First...

As soon as I'd settled down after getting the letter, I decided that I really needed to apply for funding. Therefore I dutifully went to the appropriate website and downloaded the form. After scanning through it and checking the advice at the bottom, I discovered that they expected the form to be word processed, rather than printed out and filled out manually. No big deal, I thought. Then I tried to do so...

Along with most other people, I hate long forms at the best of times. This form, however, has been put together by a muppet. A total muppet. Let me illustrate this claim with examples:

1. The instructions told me that inputting my initials and surname in the boxes provided in the header of one page would automatically copy it to all pages. That's how headers work, right? Wrong. It resolutely refuses to copy it out. Furthermore, the first of three boxes for initials refuses to let me write anything in it.

2. Although the font stays constant, the size seems to vary box to box, making the finished product look like the product of a slightly deranged mind.

3. They give tick boxes, then no way to tick them. Seriously. I presume that I am meant to print it out and then tick them, but they could have mentioned this somewhere. I've been putting capital Xs in them instead. Of course, they could just have learned how to insert tick boxes if they's wanted. Bizarrely, they manage to take this latter suggestion, *but only in the Equal Opportunities Form*!

4. No effort has been made to line up answers with the middle of the box provided, meaning that they often hug the top or bottom. Again, this looks stupid.

Would it be too much to ask that they hire someone who is either competent at writing forms in Word, or can at least be bothered to learn? Really?

On another note, I can't believe I have to write *another* personal statement...