Friday, January 30, 2009

Proportional Representation

Polly Toynbee raises the question of proportional representation again, which I feel deserves a little bit of comment on this blog.

Columnist Polly Toynbee thinks this unlikely, but says if the result was a hung parliament that ushered in proportional representation that could prove a good outcome for progressives.

Now I have a fundamental problem with the idea of introducing proportional representation into our Parliamentary system. I think it leads to weak governments, where coalition is virtually always necessary, and it cuts the constituency link between MP and constituent.

However, I do have some sympathy with the proponents of PR, and recognise the more desirable aspects of a more representative system where smaller parties have a larger voice and no person's vote is wasted.

So perhaps the solution is actually more radical and even more democratic - have direct elections of the Executive, reducing Parliament to a humble legislature, and introduce PR for Parliamentary elections. This way the government will always be strong, mimicking the USA Presidential system, while the legislature which keeps a check on the executive would be more representative.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

More On Rights And Wrongs

Comment Is Free is frothing with talk of civil liberties. However failing to make the distinction between liberties and rights, Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty says...

Like all bills of rights, the Human Rights Act is neither magic wand nor computer program. It does not end vital debates about competing rights and freedoms.

Well, how very surprising! If there is a situation where two or more rights or freedoms are in conflict then they are clearly not all liberties, and clearly not well thought out. It again brings us back to my continual frustration of the lazy fusion of rights and liberties, and casual use of the terms interchangeably.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

On Rights And Wrongs

Following on from my previous post on a UK Bill of Rights, a fine example has just landed in my inbox from Open Europe...

The Mail reports that the European Court of Justice has ruled that employees on long-term sick leave are still entitled to paid holiday. It means that staff can take their annual leave built up while off sick as soon as they return to work. In addition, any worker who is sacked or who leaves a firm while off ill must be financially compensated for the holidays not taken. EUobserver notes that the Court based its decision on a clause in the EU's Working Time Directive that states that employees have the "right to a minimum period of paid annual leave."

This is how a 'right' is stretched and interpreted, and leads to results not foreseen. In doing so it essentially steps in between a private contract decided between employer and employee. In other words in order to uphold that right, a freedom must necessarily be eroded.

Now it may or may not be a good thing, but that is a question for the government of the day to decide, not lawyers. If people want it then let a political party present it in their manifesto at an election, and let any future government have the ability to repeal it. This should not be a matter of legal interpretation.

Bill Of Rights

Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights continues its deliberations over a UK 'Bill of Rights', and has published the Government's response to its original report. Frankly, it terrifies me to the core as I see a charge down the path of "rights" instead of liberties...

The Committee notes that the Government has agreed with a number of its recommendations, particularly in recognising the place for developing social, economic and environmental rights in an enduring constitutional document such as a Bill of Rights

Here we see an attempt to use rights to interfere in the political domain. In the future the hands of government will be even more severely limited than they are today, and the all out assault on the liberty of the freeborn Englishman; the shift in principle from the individual to the collective; moves us inexorably in the opposite direction of freedom and towards socialism.

The report is further muddled when looking at the issue of "responsibilities", a fallacious buzzword which distorts the underlying ideological complexity of the issue...

It regards responsibilities as a cornerstone of our democratic society and as such they merit a prominent place in any future Bill of Rights . It appears to have in mind "a wide range of responsibilities in the legal, social and moral spheres." We acknowledged in our Report that responsibilities have some role to play in bills of rights, but we pointed out that they fall far short of being directly enforceable duties.

Of particular concern here is the insistence on responsibilities in moral spheres, which would seem to attempt to legislate morality. What might such a responsibility be? How about a responsibility to treat everybody equally, or not to discriminate? Well that could initiate claims left right and centre and drag hitherto 'human' problems, which are resolved privately between individuals, into the legal domain. And the Government seems to desire a move into very dangerous territory...

consideration could be given "to the degree to which it would be possible to underline to the courts, in more explicit language, the fullest extent of their discretion to factor in the fulfilment of the parties' duties and responsibilities." It also appears to disagree with our conclusion that the Government's interest in "responsibilities" is misconceived to the extent that it is an attempt to "rebalance" human rights law by increasing the weight to be given to considerations such as safety and security

The Government appears to be suggesting that somehow rights can have different importance. And this brings me back to my underlying point that rights, by their nature of positive entitlement, end up being contradictory.

Conservative Home has a pretty good analysis on the problem of rights, though it also fails to grasp the deep importance of liberties, which are protecting, and the problems created by rights, which are empowering...

As our fundamental freedoms are pawned off cheaply, Britain is suffering a rights contagion – with endless novel grievances metamorphosised into human rights.... And the government is contemplating a whole new brand of economic and social rights. Historically in this country, liberty-based rights protected the citizen from the state. But, New Labour’s approach to human rights inflates the role of the state, promoting dependency on it. This creates three problems.

First, legal turmoil. The rule of law requires predictable rules. Yet, the rapid spread of rights creates widespread uncertainty, saddling public servants with stultifying bureaucracy and paralysing legal liabilities...

Second, the proliferation of rights - through judicial legislation at the European Court of Human Rights, exacerbated by the Human Rights Act – conflicts with basic principles of democracy. New law is created - and public services prioritised - by lawyers and judges in courtrooms, when they should be debated and decided by elected law-makers.

Third, the expansion of novel rights – and accompanying compensation culture - undermines social responsibility. Parents, police and teachers have been shorn of their traditional respect. The public just see common sense turned upside down. The right to family life now facilitates divorce. Prisoners claim the right to twigs to practice paganism in their cells. And a paratrooper, who lost his legs and suffered brain damage from a Taliban landmine, has to haggle for the same compensation that a transsexual soldier gets for injured feelings, having been required to wear a male uniform. 

Indeed. Many politicians and commentators see rights and liberties as one and the same thing - both, they see, are there to protect the individual. This, however, is not the truth. Liberties create a 'bubble' of safety around the individual to protect them from the state and also from their fellow men. Rights erode those bubbles of freedom by laying entitlements upon some people and corresponding obligations on others. That is not to say rights are wholly wrong in themselves, but rather that they must be understood and seen for what they are, and most certainly not confused with liberties.

Gordon Brown said early in his new Premiership that people have a freedom not to be blown up, and that to protect this 'freedom' the government needed to take other freedoms away. Not only is this deeply incorrect and contradictory, but 'rights' are being used as justification for the erosion of liberties. Ultimately, not only is it a lesson borne out historically time after time, but the erosion of liberties does little to increase security, and generally reduces individual security as the power of the state grows.

The legal power to take action against nuisance neighbours who continually play loud music late into the night could be interpreted as a right to reasonable peace within one's home, however if that were a legal right it would lead to a myriad of cases and used in the most bizarre of situations. Instead, awarding the specific power to erode the liberty of another person where they are infringing on your liberty, is both morally sound but also specific and explicit and unlikely to 'creep'.

Britain needs a true Bill of Rights; one which clearly sets out the limitations of the state and which erects a solid ring of steel around individuals. What we do not need is a bill of enshrined rights, which lay entitlements and obligations on citizens.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Euro Trap

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has a brilliant piece in the Sunday Telegraph. Every now and again a commentator strikes at the core of the issue as in this instance.

Events are moving fast in Europe. The worst riots since the fall of Communism have swept the Baltics and the south Balkans. An incipient crisis is taking shape in the Club Med bond markets. S&P has cut Greek debt to near junk. Spanish, Portuguese, and Irish bonds are on negative watch.

Dublin has nationalised Anglo Irish Bank with its half-built folly on North Wall Quay and €73bn (£65bn) of liabilities, moving a step nearer the line where markets probe the solvency of the Irish state.

A great ring of EU states stretching from Eastern Europe down across Mare Nostrum to the Celtic fringe are either in a 1930s depression already or soon will be. Greece's social fabric is unravelling before the pain begins, which bodes ill.

Each is a victim of ill-judged economic policies foisted upon them by elites in thrall to Europe's monetary project – either in EMU or preparing to join – and each is trapped.

As UKIP leader Nigel Farage put it in a rare voice of dissent at the euro's 10th birthday triumph in Strasbourg, EMU-land has become a Völker-Kerker – a "prison of nations", to borrow from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The straight jacket of a single currency, binding together economies with different dynamics, different needs, different problems, is perhaps the most idiotic concept ever conceived, and the most incredible display of hubris by politicians. Ambrose goes on with a devastating analysis...

These three states are all members of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM2), the euro's pre-detention cell. They must join. It is written into their EU contracts.

The result of subjecting ex-Soviet catch-up economies to the monetary regime of the leaden West has been massive overheating. Latvia's current account deficit hit 26pc of GDP. Riga property prices surpassed Berlin.

The inevitable bust is proving epic. Latvia's property group Balsts says Riga flat prices have fallen 56pc since mid-2007. The economy contracted 18pc annualised over the last six months.

Leaked documents reveal – despite a blizzard of lies by EU and Latvian officials – that the International Monetary Fund called for devaluation as part of a €7.5bn joint rescue for Latvia. Such adjustments are crucial in IMF deals. They allow countries to claw their way back to health without suffering perma-slump.

This was blocked by Brussels – purportedly because mortgage debt in euros and Swiss francs precluded that option. IMF documents dispute this. A society is being sacrificed on the altar of the EMU project

I do like the metaphor of the ERM as a pre-detention cell, particularly since it is so apt. The surprise is that, while any objective commentator can see the impossibility of economies with such vast troubles ever comfortably unifying themselves within the Eurozone, the EU is literally sacrificing entire societies on the alter of the EMU project. The Euro is and has always been a political project.

The political capital invested, and the importance of a common currency in the eyes of Europhiles, who see it as a necessary pre-requisite to a single federal European state, drives the process forward at breakneck speed. To hell with the consequences, to hell with the damage wrought on the lives of families in these countries - the pain is but a necessary evil; to recycle the words of Normal Lamont on unemployment it "is a price worth paying".

Latvians have company. Dublin expects Ireland's economy to contract 4pc this year. The deficit will reach 12pc of GDP by 2010 on current policies. "This is not sustainable," said the treasury. Hence the draconian wage deflation now threatened by the Taoiseach.

The Celtic Tiger has faced the test bravely. No government in Europe has been so honest. It is a tragedy that sterling's crash should have compounded their woes at this moment. To cap it all, Dell is decamping to Poland with 4pc of GDP. Irish wages crept too high during
the heady years when Euroland interest rates of 2pc so beguiled the nation.

Spain lost a million jobs in 2008. Madrid is bracing for 16pc unemployment by year's end.

Private economists fear 25pc before it is over. Spain's wage inflation has priced the workforce out of Europe's markets. EMU logic is wage deflation for year after year. With Spain's high debt levels, this is impossible.

Italy's treasury awaits each bond auction with dread, wondering if can offload €200bn of debt this year. Spreads reached a fresh post-EMU high of 149 last week. The debt compound noose is tightening around Rome's throat. Italian journalists have begun to talk of Europe's "Tequila Crisis" – a new twist.

They mean that capital flight from Club Med could set off an unstoppable process.

When economies are deprived of a floating exchange rate, which would ordinarily allow the economy to re-value according to economic pressures, the pain must necessarily show in other ways. The Eurozone economies are merely experiencing this - wages and unemployment.

Don't expect tremors before an earthquake – and there is no fault line of greater historic violence than the crunching plates where Latin Europe meets Teutonia.

Greece no longer dares sell long bonds to fund its debt. It sold €2.5bn last week at short rates, mostly 3-months and 6-months. This is a dangerous game. It stores up "roll-over risk" for later in the year. Hedge funds are circling.

Traders suspect that investors are dumping their Club Med and Irish debt immediately on the European Central Bank in "repo" actions.

In other words, the ECB is already providing a stealth bail-out for Europe's governments – though secrecy veils all.

An EU debt union is being created, in breach of EU law. Liabilities are being shifted quietly on to German taxpayers. What happens when Germany's hard-working citizens find out?

Well, there you have it folks. The Euro is in meltdown and will most likely fail, as many multi-national monetary unions have before it. Thank God we in Britain are not in the Euro. Where would we be if we were unable to devalue as we have in recent months? The Euro is doomed, I just hope we have the sense to keep well out of it, and that its inevitable demise doesn't drag us down with it!

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Impotence Of Parliament

Fundamental to any democratic system of government is the separation of powers between the Executive branch and the Legislative branch. In the UK, particularly in the area of foreign relations and treaties, the Executive branch is extremely powerful as it exercises the royal prerogative.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch has asked how many times the Government has overridden the scrutiny reserve of the Parliamentary European scrutiny committees, and received the following answer...


House of Lords

House of Commons

Jan-June 2003 30 26
July-Dec 2003 34 33
Jan-June 2004 13 16
July-Dec 2004 20 22
Jan-June 2005 28 52
July-Dec 2005 17 19
Jan-June 2006 14 12
July-Dec 2006 24 29
Jan-June 2007 6 5
July-Dec 2007 9 14
Jan-June 2008 7 4

The Scrutiny committees are weak and powerless, as examined by Open Europe; mere sifting committees with no teeth to oblige the Government to adopt a particular line in voting or negotiations.

At the very least, while we are inside the EU, in order to have any degree of democratic accountability, the role of these committees ought to be significantly enhanced. The committees should have to pre-authorise Government action in EU affairs, and force full parliamentary votes on EU legislation of significance. It should be able to bind the hands of Government.

In an ideal world, Britain would regain Independence from the EU, and cooperate with our neighbours through a loose forum rather then political union. In this situation, a new "International Scrutiny Committee" should be established with full powers to bind the hands of Government. An unrestrained Executive is dangerous and undemocratic. National Legislators determine the remit of the Executive, and where international relations are concerned so national Legislators should be directly involved.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Can We Leave The EU?

There is a rather interesting post over on Conservative Home, which I have been meaning to get to, by Rupert Matthews, a freelance Historian and Conservative MEP candidate. He asks what would happen if Britain tried to leave the EU?

In recent months I have been looking at the build up to the American Civil War and have been struck by the fact that the political and constitutional debates that took place in the USA in the 1850s are strikingly similar to those that I have been hearing recently in this country.

That set me pondering on the question: Would Britain be allowed to leave the EU?

He gives the following background...

There were, essentially, three positions on the question of how a state should legally and constitutionally secede from the USA.

States Rights. Most prevalent across the South was the view that since the Union had been called into being by the various state legislatures passing into law the Constitution of the USA, then a state could secede by passing an act through its legislature repealing that law. Effectively this meant that a state could secede any time it liked.

Union Rights. Most people in the North held that by joining the USA, the individual states had pooled part of their sovereignty to create a new body with sovereign powers of its own. A state could leave this Union only if an amendment were passed to the Constitution of the USA. Effectively this meant that a state could secede only if the other states let it do so.

Inviolable Union. A few hard liners in the north held that the creation of the USA had been an irreversible act and that no state could ever leave it.

Needless to say, I take option 1 as holding true for reasons I will get to below.

In 1861 South Carolina decided to secede. The state legislature of South Carolina passed a law repealing the law that had taken it into the USA. Over the next few weeks six other southern states did the same. Those states then began acting as if they were now independent states.

The newly elected President of the USA, Abraham Lincoln, refused to recognise the secessions. He declared that all those who had been involved in passing the secession laws were traitors to the USA and so liable to arrest and trial. But Lincoln could not actually have them arrested since the enforcement of law and order was a function of the states, and the seceding states were hardly going to arrest their own people.

The legal and constitutional impasse was, of course, solved by the Civil War, which was won by the North.

The legal argument over the constitutional position regarding secession from the USA finally reached the Supreme Court in 1869...The Supreme Court effectively discounted all the provisions of the Constitution of the USA as being irrelevant. Instead they focused on the preamble, and on one particular phrase within it. That read that in forming the USA the states were desiring to create “a more perfect Union”. The Court ruled that having signed up to that phrase, no state could ever secede from the Union.

Roll forward to 2009, and look at the current EU. The EU has a supreme court that, like that of the USA in the 19th century, has consistently given rulings that favour the Union over the states. And the EU is founded on a series of documents that include the all-encompassing phrase that the states wish to form “an ever closer Union”.

The phrase “an ever closer Union” is disturbingly close to the phrase “a more perfect Union”. Would the EU supreme court follow the lead of the USA supreme court?

Now, the question is over sovereignty. In Britain the legislation which took us in to the European Community, and from where authority to implement EU regulations, etc, derives is the European Communities Act of 1972. In the preamble to the Act, as with all Acts of Parliament, is the most powerful sentence in the English language...

Be it enacted by the Queen’s most excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:-

This implies to me that no matter what comes after, Parliament remains sovereign and able to repeal the Act and secede from the EU. Further, there is the issue of practicalities, and I find it hard to conceive of EU nations refusing to honour the will of the people and government of Britain.  And even if the EU did not recognise it and attempted to wage war, which I feel enters the realms of fantasy, the international community may have something to say about it!

As one commenter says in response tot he article...

Surely its just a matter of asserting our Constitutional law , like the Bill of Rights 1689....

...'That noe Forreigne Prince Person Prelate, State or Potentate hath or ought to have any Jurisdiction Power Superiority Preeminence or Authoritie Ecclesiastical or Spirituall within this Realme'...

And I also take the view that these two principles alone should be sufficient to assert our sovereignty. However, might this alter when the Lisbon Treaty comes in to force?

The Lisbon Treaty introduces a new clause setting out the right of a member state to voluntarily leave the EU. However, the clause reads...

2. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 188 N(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.

3. The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned,
unanimously decides to extend this period.

In other words, a member state must ask to leave, at which point an agreement of secession is negotiated. This agreement has to be approved by Qualified majority. Although the treaties will cease to apply after 2 years in the absence of such an agreement.

Now, this is a shift in power and sovereignty to the EU. The EU allows us to leave, and even once we have decided to leave the EU can still apply treaty provisions for 2 years. Our Parliament has ratified the Lisbon Treaty, and thus presumably has subordinated Parliament to EU supremacy. And let's not forget the treaty is self amending, allowing this clause to be altered or removed.

So the answer is yes we can leave now and we can leave after Lisbon. I maintain that even after Lisbon a strong Government could rip up the treaty and refuse to wait 2 years, and set about ignoring the EU entirely - what would the EU do? Invade?!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Email Database

Rules which force Internet providers to retain information of all emails sent in the UK have been damned as a waste of money and an attack on civil liberties

The new rules, part of the European Commission directive, will start on March 15th, and will require all internet companies to store every email sent in the UK and make the data available to public bodies.

It is believed the government may have to shell out £25 to £70 million to help ISPs set up the system.

Now, I have been following this for some time. It is completely outrageous that it was even considered, let alone implemented. On cost grounds alone, let alone issues of liberty, this is an horrendous extension of state power.

Now I was at an industry event recently and was talking to a couple of fine people who work for major ISPs. There was even a frosty round table 'debate' with some poor fellow from the Home Office defending the plans. The consensus was that the costs to be borne by ISPs will be significant, place burdens of judgement on ISPs beyond their remit, and then there is the issue of spam emails which would also have to be stored. But, crucially, this is the bit that gets my beef...

"Implementing the EC directive will enable UK law enforcement to benefit fully from historical communications data in increasingly complex investigations and will enhance our national security."

The industry is also concerned about the practical implications that this move will have, especially the effect on the smaller companies. Malcolm Hutty, from Linx, told "The larger companies that already retain this information voluntarily will not see any adverse affects.

"The smaller companies, which will be excluded from this, are worried about what happens when the company grows to a size that the Home Office takes notice of. Will they be expected to implement the rules immediately and how much will this extra expense be, which did not figure in their business plans?"

Did you get that? Small ISPs will be exempt. Forget them worrying about becoming big enough to incur the costs - any terrorist or 'undesirable' with 1/10th of a brain cell will just use the ISPs not on the list and so render the entire project completely useless. This point was again raised at the industry round table. I mean seriously, are we this stupid?

Kidneys & Blood Suckers

This amuses me...

A US man divorcing his wife is demanding that she return the kidney he donated to her or pay him $1.5m (£1m) in compensation...But divorce lawyers say a donated organ is not a marital asset to be divided.

But it also a rather intriguing point.

If one believes in the concept of self ownership, or sovereignty of the individual (video below), then an organ of mine is very much my property. But if I choose to donate my property - whether a car, money, or iPod - then it is no longer my property because gifting it is akin to selling for £0 - a voluntary transaction.

However, for the purposes of marriage a large degree of property is deemed to be shared, and division of that property is usually on an equitable basis. So if I had donated, or gifted, my kidney to a stranger out of goodwill, it could properly be considered a gift, but in a marriage situation does that remain the case?

This man's wife has essentially received a gift of enormous value, which he was prepared to write off due to love, etc, but now that he is sticking needles into voodoo dolls of the bitch, he wants to call up the value of that gift as part of the total assets under consideration - i.e. he wants his kidney counted as an asset of $1.5m, leaving him, presumably, with the majority of the rest of the material assets (house, car, etc).

One could say that the same rules of organ donation apply whether gifting to a stranger or a spouse - i.e. it ceases to be the donor's property and becomes the new property of the donee. I tend to agree with this conclusion, in that once the transaction has been made, the kidney ceases to be the donor's. If I give a Christmas present to somebody, I can't ask for it back several years later. I ceased to have claim over it from the moment the recipient received it.

Take a look at the video below, and let me know what you think.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Carswell Nails It

Douglas Carswell - one of the decent MPs to inhabit Westminster - get's this spot on on his blog...

Human Rights legislation has empowered judges to make political decisions.  Matters that ought to be decided by those answerable to the rest of us through the ballot box are increasingly determined by the judiciary.

Government by unaccountable judges adjudicating on the basis of abstract texts is what you'd expect to find in Tehran

Absolutely. And that is what comes of ill-conceived legislation, rushed through parliament without proper scrutiny, and when what scrutiny is applied is by legislators who are deeply ignorant and oblivious to the problems that will be caused by such legislation.

I note again that it is the issue of 'human rights' rather than liberties which causes the issue, because rights confer an entitlement while liberties are negative in that they limit the boundaries of the state.

Note how senior judges have undermined measures introduced by successive Home Secretaries aimed at controlling large scale immigration and asylum into Britain.

Indeed. When the judiciary steps into the political domain, driven by the necessity of poorly worded, vague and ambiguous, and usually fatuitous and fallacious, legislation, we enter dangerous territory.

Legislation should be as specific as possible, be clear in its intentions, and leave as little ambiguity for interpretation as possible. This requires full and proper scrutiny as necessary, an intelligent, informed, and aware legislature, and as limited a state as is practically achievable.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Brown To Steal UKIP Policy?

Well, obviously not explicitly. But it is the same policy nonetheless, and good ideas remain good ideas no matter who says them...

Gordon Brown is considering raising the tax-free allowance to £10,000 as part of measures to help families struggling with the credit crunch,...

Even though many lower income households face savage tax credit withdrawal rates, pushing effective marginal tax rates up towards 70% and more, this move would shave 20% off for starters.

Somebody earning £10,000 or over would stand to gain £800, a major boost in hard times. Those gaining the most would be those on the lowest incomes, helping make work pay.

Upping the limit would also benefit those earning more, because they too would only start paying basic rate tax at £10,000, [Labour MP John McFall] added.

I would prefer to see the higher rate threshold reduced and/or the basic rate raised a little, if it would allow for a higher allowance and/or lower tax credit withdrawal rates.

Reversing the 2p basic rate cut to pay for a higher personal allowance would not only be a good move politically, perhaps repairing some of the damage wrought by Brown's 10p rate fiasco, but also be a fantastic boon to low earners.

Having already shot his fiscal rules to pieces, and the economy in such turmoil, Brown has an opportunity to radically re-shape the tax system in Britain, simplifying it and lifting millions out of the tax net.

Unfortunately, I am assuming this will all be paid for by extra borrowing rather than deep cuts in government spending, but if the choice is spending it on a tax cut for the low paid, or on some ill-conceived Keynesian infrastructure project, I vote for the tax cut.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Free To Do As I'm Told

I've just stumbled across a great post by Henry Porter over at Comment is Free. The whole thing is well worth a read.

The Christmas holiday brought much depressing news all of which challenges Clarke's ridiculous spin that the government is simply trying to protect us from terrorism. Last week we learned that it wants the private sector to run and manage a communications database that will record the data from everyone's emails, telephone calls and internet connections. The former DPP, Sir Ken MacDonald, has called the plan "an unimaginable hell house of personal and private information."

He went on to say, "We must avoid surrendering our freedom as autonomous human beings to such an ugly future. We should make judgments that are compatible with our status as free people."

Well said Sir Ken! Security should not be chased at any price, but within the context of liberty requisite with living our lives unencumbered from state interference in our activities.

Given the choice between [Charles] Clarke and Sir Ken's view, I know which I trust. Clarke is an old-style statist control freak – someone who has only a very feeble grasp on the conventions of the free society that he has benefited from and which he now seeks to undermine. The former DPP, who served until late last year with an unblemished record, understands the necessary balance between the state's authority and individual freedom. He is one of the few friends of Tony Blair to do so.

Indeed. It is shocking and deeply terrifying to see the lack of understanding of such an important issue from politicians of all parties, especially the Government. Tony Blair's grasp was so limp as to be non-existent.

In the Conservatives' newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, Philip Johnston today reveals that Labour has created over 1,000 new imprisonable offences. "It is now an imprisonable offence to allow an unlicensed concert to take place in a church hall," he writes.

You can go to prison if your child fails to attend school, or if you smoke in a public place, or if you fail to obtain a passport for your pet donkey or if you are a child caught in possession of a firework at any time other than on or around November 5 or New Year's Day.

It is hard not to agree with the sentiment voiced last week by Andrew Alexander in another conservative newspaper, the Daily Mail. He wrote:

The government, astonishingly, has apparently created a new imprisonable offence every four days for the past decade. Curiously little row has been made about this, least of all by what passes for the parliamentary opposition.

And  what of the Conservative's flaccid opposition? Well, Ken nails it with this cutting analysis...

Perhaps the answer lies in what Philip Johnston calls the "criminal justice arms race". That is to say the Conservatives dare not risk being sidelined as weak on terror and criminality in the run up to the general election. There is probably a lot in this but nothing excuses their silence... From where I sit it looks like a disastrous failure of nerve and conviction.

But perhaps the single best paragraph from that Telegraph article Ken quotes above, is this, which I think sums up part of the problem very concisely...

Activities that were never unlawful, like smoking in a public place, are now crimes because they are objectionable; yet eating a burger and chips on a crowded train, equally revolting, is not and nor should it be. This failure to distinguish between a crime and a wrongdoing has warped the criminal justice system. As Lady Stern said: "The Government has gone mad in looking to use criminal justice law as a way to deal with social problems. It is extraordinary."

In a House of Lords debate before Christmas, Lady Stern quoted from Governing Through Crime by Jonathan Simon, professor of law at Berkeley in California. He wrote: "Social problems have been reconceptualised as crimes, with an attendant focus on assigning fault and imposing consequences." The outcome is "to erode social trust and, with it, the very scaffolding of a 'free' society"

Absolutely. The law should exists solely to protect the freedom of individuals, ensuring no other individual or group of individuals, and most importantly the State, violates that freedom. Attempts to use the law and full force of the State to construct a 'model society' of any kind, legislating on social activities, morals and ethics, is wholly odious and heanous.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Rule Of Law? What That?

THE Home Office has quietly adopted a new plan to allow police across Britain routinely to hack into people’s personal computers without a warrant.

The move, which follows a decision by the European Union’s council of ministers in Brussels, has angered civil liberties groups and opposition MPs....

The hacking is known as “remote searching”. It allows police or MI5 officers who may be hundreds of miles away to examine covertly the hard drive of someone’s PC at his home, office or hotel room.

Material gathered in this way includes the content of all e-mails, web-browsing habits and instant messaging.

Under the Brussels edict, police across the EU have been given the green light to expand the implementation of a rarely used power involving warrantless intrusive surveillance of private property. The strategy will allow French, German and other EU forces to ask British officers to hack into someone’s UK computer and pass over any material gleaned.

Jesus H Christ!

Hell, why not just let the police do what the hell they like, after all they are jolly nice people who are only trying to protect us!

However, opposition MPs and civil liberties groups say that the broadening of such intrusive surveillance powers should be regulated by a new act of parliament and court warrants.

Damn right. The Police should not be judge and jury over the use of such powers...

A remote search can be granted if a senior officer says he “believes” that it is “proportionate” and necessary to prevent or detect serious crime — defined as any offence attracting a jail sentence of more than three years.

Incredible, but sadly not at all surprising. We have the most authoritarian and mendacious Government in the history of this country. We are sinking into the quicksands of the EU, rendering our Parliament powerless to oppose or enforce any degree of regulation over such powers.

And it is extremely ironic that this measure exposes the hypocrisy, contradictory, and impotent European Convention on Human Rights / Human Rights Act. For example, take Article 8 of the ECHR, supposedly designed to protect privacy...

Article 8 – Right to respect for private and family life

  1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
  2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Part 2 undermines the very existence of the part 1. And indeed, such a right could not be a blanket right. As soon as one begins attempting to uphold positive liberties (rights), one gets into one hell of a mess as the contradictions render them practically meaningless.

Of course Brits already enjoyed a right to privacy before the ECHR. Not explicitly, but by the limitations of the powers of the state as granted by Parliament. That universal freedom, where an individual has absolute freedom other than where specifically denied by the law, serves as the best protection of freedom. We have no need for nebulous 'rights' which only serve to confuse the situation, and then require derogation in certain circumstances because they cannot be upheld universally.

It is time we repealed the Human Rights Act 1998 and withdrew from the ECHR. They serve no useful purpose to the British people.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Value Added Nonsense

Nick Clegg is spouting some rubbish again...

"We would not waste £12.5bn on the VAT cut which the Prime Minister has delivered, which we don't think makes much difference," he said.

"We would use all of that money for a green investment programme, insulating every school and every hospital in this country, and installing smart meters in every home.

"That kind of radical action not only creates jobs but it's good for the kind of green economy we need in the future

What? Is he thick or something? Oh yeah, I forgot.

1) How exactly can a tax cut be wasted? Ok, so the microeconomic affect of the VAT cut is non-existent as companies wont be cutting prices across the board, and people wont respond to small shavings off prices, but the macroeconomic impact will still be significant. In a nutshell either consumers will pocket some of the £12.5bn or companies will. Either way it means more money flowing round the system. And is it not aggregates that really matter? (Ok, so from a presentational view, and to have had a greater impact on people's confidence, a cheque to every family or increased personal allowance would probably have had a better affect, but hey)

2) Creating "green" jobs is a cost. It's not a good thing. Labour is a cost in producing something, and when artificially created are even worse.

3) Taking £12.5bn and using it on pet "green" projects, as opposed to tax cuts, means that money will flow into new economic activity rather than into alleviating the pain for existing activity. In other words a tax cut means that desperately needed cash flows through those companies feeling the pain, and lessens that pain (kind of like Ibuprofen), whereas taking that cash and doing something new with it will not help existing companies to the same extent. It will take time for the wages of those new "green" employees to trickle round the system and into the pockets of those companies feeling the pain for one thing, but it is primarily an exercise in re-distribution from old to new.

Handing back money proportionally to existing companies does not distort the economy. Lower employers NICs, lower VAT, lower income tax, etc, all simply put more money in the hands of actors in the current economic arrangement to carry on doing what they did before. Taking that money and doing something new with it distorts the economy and means certain companies and people will gain, but others will lose out. Of course this losing out is only relative since the Lib Dems are talking about using the VAT cut for something else.

4) Finally, for what reason exactly does Clegg deem it appropriate to ordain how my money should be spent? Handing back money to the people who earned it when times are tough, or even handing it back in a slightly progressive manner, can be morally justified, but telling people that they are going to have to shell out a little more tax to pay for a pet project of Clegg's is authoritarian, socialist, and totally immoral.

So for clarification - Nick Clegg is a pillock.

Hague vs. Euro

Freemania has a great analysis of immovable coherence of a certain William Hague. Tom contrasts Hague's current rhetoric to that of only a few years ago when he was party leader. Now Hague says...

We would never join the euro. The jobs and businesses of this country are too important ever to sign away our right to do our utmost to defend them.

Back then, however, in an interview with Jeremy Paxman, little Willy said this...

WH: I have been very clear from the beginning of the current Parliament that our approach is for the next Parliament because no Parliament can bind its successor. I am against euro, for keeping the pound. Our policies are for this Parliament.

Now my interest in this story is not that of Mr Hague's equivocation, but rather his insistence that no Parliament can bind its successor. Now, ordinarily, in the case of legislation, that may be fine (our EU entanglement excepted!), but joining the Euro is a pretty binding move, is it not? If a Government were to take us into the Euro, a future Government would be bound pretty tightly, the cost and pain of leaving being incredibly large, and the timeframe being pretty protracted.

Now call me old fashioned, but the principle that no Parliament may bind its successor seems pretty sound. I have not heard a single decent argument to the contrary. And if that is indeed to be the case, then any currency ought to be the same or smaller than the jurisdiction of a Parliament, since a currency which crosses nations cannot fall within the power of any single Parliament, by definition (unless the EU were to assume sovereignty and the Commission were to assume full control of economic policy at a federal level). Also while it may be technically possible to leave the Euro, the loss of control over monetary policy means that any government is not in possession of all the levers of power, and thus its ability to act is indeed bound to some extent.

Therefore the only scenario which meets William's statement is a national or sub-national currency. Any supranational currency is necessarily binding to a present parliament.

My point? Well, I just find it odd that one can find any logic in the notion that the Euro is not binding on Parliament.

Lies, Damn Lies, And Statistics

Ministers should not be shown official statistics before they are released, government statistics chief Sir Michael Scholar has said.

People did not trust official figures and thought politicians were "able to get at them", he told the BBC. Ministers are currently allowed to see official statistics 24 hours early, to allow them to prepare their response.

No, Michael. That is not the reason people don't trust statistics. It seems perfectly reasonable to me for the Government to see this information in advance, so long as they can't then put pressure on the ONS to change them!

Having time to look at the latest statistics, understand them, and prepare a response is simple good administration. If ministers found out at the same time as the media, then the onslaught of questions would be met with a "we'll get back to you". Newspapers wouldn't be able to publish a 'thought out' Government response, but only perhaps a hastily produced soundbite. Is it not actually more rigorous journalism to report on the official 'thought out' response alongside the analysis, since that reflects the true state of the Government. A mealy-mouthed non-answer soundbite tells the electorate nothing of substance.

It is vital that the statistics authority is independent of the forces of the Executive branch of Government. It is also vital that statistics are produced to a high quality and that they have credibility and are trusted widely. Perhaps improving direct accountability of the authority to Parliament, and allowing Parliament to appoint the Director, might improve public confidence?

Oh Darling

Having pumped £37bn into saving the crippled banking sector, and underwriting £200bn or so of lending, the Government is preparing for yet another round of money pumping...

A further bailout for the UK's banks is being considered by the government, Treasury sources have confirmed.

Sources say no decisions have been made but creating a "bad bank" where "toxic assets" could be left, or exchanged for government bonds, is being considered.

So not only do I get to be a minor shareholder in several major banks as an oh so very generous taxpayer, but I also get to have all the bad debts dumped on me.

So bankers make reckless lending decisions and get landed with toxic debts. They go all dough-eyed and plead innocence. Electoral politics, and teetering on the edge of economic oblivion, spur Governments into letting bankers off the hook. Taxpayers get shafted. Bankers blood pressure returns to normal. A whole generation gets saddled with the debt.

And this is a good deal how?

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