Tag Archives: UK

White terrorists

A bit of an absurd sentence in a Guardian news item on the ‘Gordon Brown’ assassination plot (see here). Unfortunately the writer’s (or the sub-editor’s, maybe) lack of history or context, and an obsession with Islamist terrorism, leads to this:

He is not the first white person arrested for an alleged terrorism offence.

Obviously they should add ‘connected with the current al-Qaida inspired terrorism’ but the assumption is that al-Qaida inspired terrorism is the only terrorism that ever existed.

Of course, he’s not the first white person arrested for an alleged terrorism offence. In the 70s there were hundreds of white-Irish people arrested and some executed by the security services, and as well as this there were anarchist/leftist terrorists (such as the Angry Brigade). It’s like the IRA never existed or the world started in September 2001.

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Work brings freedom?

Our government’s obsession with workfare in order to prove that it’s not soft on the undeserving poor continues unabated. This time it’s an ’empowerment white paper’ from DCLG (here), which somehow makes paid employment into the most enjoyable and empowering thing one can ever do. Even call centres?

‘The Empowerment White Paper, to be published in the Summer, will set out how the untapped talent of communities can be unleashed to ensure everyone has a greater say in improvements to public services, local accountability and opportunities for enterprise’

Of the three elements of empowerment mentioned here, two are about improving democracy, and one is about entrepreneurship. However, in the ‘Unlocking talent’ discussion paper, five pages are devoted to reducing worklessness, while about one and a half cover the public services and accountability. I’m not quite sure why getting a job empowers you to be involved in participatory democracy, especially as it reduces the time you have for ‘getting involved’. Of course, getting a job does empower you by reducing your reliance on the state, and empowers you as a consumer, but I didn’t think that was the point.

Anyway, now for the bad social science. Part of their ‘evidence shows that those in employment are happier, healthier and less likely to be involved in crime’ (DCLG 2008, p.4). The truth, of course, is far more complicated.

Firstly, this short and authoritative statement is based on a number of papers (Strategy Unit 2002, Meghir and Machin 2000 and one other) that don’t really support it.

The paper (M&M) on crime showed that ‘falls in the wages of low-wage workers lead to increases in crime’, suggesting we should increase the minimum wage!

Early on, the Strategy unit paper reminds us that correlations don’t tell us the direction of causation. Given that an employer is looking for people who are fun, or at least nice to work with (I always did this), miserable people are less likely to get jobs. I can’t think of many jobs where being pessimistic is an asset.

And we should always be on the look out for spurious correlations, and in this research they are legion. The data this paper uses, suggests that workers have greater life-satifaction than non-workers. But of course, in an unequal world the workers have more money than the non-workers, they socialise more with their colleagues (’cause if you’re unemployed while all your mates are working, you’ve no-one to go out with), and they aren’t bored stuck at home with no money.

In order to research this properly, we should do either a randomised controlled trial, but my ethics committee would turn this down, or some kind of matched survey.  In the latter, instead of comparing a sample of workers with non-workers, the research would compare like-with-like. Each unemployed person would have as much money, activity and lifestyle (and so on) as the comparator employed person. Let’s see if the middle-class, middle-aged retiree on a £50k pension aged 50, is happier or less happy than his/her equivalent who still has to work to sustain the lifestyle. Or let’s compare the young minimum wage cleaner (less than £12k), with someone who get’s £12k from a trust fund. This might give a result that is consistent with the fact that almost no-one who wins the lottery carries on working full-time (NS 2005). In fact, lottery winners are happier as they ‘do what they like’ and enjoy an ‘easier life’.

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This week has seen a load of noise about alcohol, and in particular ‘binge drinking’ and teenage drinking. As always, the complicated truth can’t be allowed to get in the way of soundbites and simplistic analysis.

First, there’s the “tipping point” that Jacqui Smith has been touting.  ‘Where more 13 year olds have drunk alcohol than have not’. But what does this mean? For the Daily Mail (but I’ve lost the link!) this meant most 13 year-olds were getting drunk, which is not what the minister said. Most papers stuck to her wording (see this) but this sounds like it means over 50% have had a drink some time in their life, not in the last week, month or year. In fact, saying we have now reached this point is absurd. In 2006, a drinkaware survey found the average age of first drink (not just a sip) was 11, a 2003 survey in Northern Ireland found the average age for the first drink was 11. There’s a big difference between 50% of 13-year-olds getting drunk once a month and 50% having had a couple of drinks with their parents at Christmas.

This, we’ve heard, is justification for a crackdown on a) children drinking in public places, and b) parents buying their kids alcohol. This again is complicated, both with regard to the law and what happens in the real world. It isn’t illegal for kids to drink in public places, but it is illegal for under-18s to buy a drink, or to buy a drink for a child. However, it’s not illegal for a parent to buy a drink for an under-18, and it’s expressly allowed in pubs if you are eating and the child is 16/17. The law seems a bit confused here, but if the parent buys alcohol to send the kids out on the street with, then this may be illegal (I think it is… it’s illegal ‘for anyone to buy alcohol for someone under 18 to consume in a pub or a public place’). If the parent buys alcohol for the child to drink at home, then that’s OK, and if the child then takes it outside then that’s not illegal either! The police can confiscate if they think it’s going to be drunk outside (to avoid public nuisance) but not if the kids are on the way to someone’s house. Either way, no ‘crime’ has been committed.

Furthermore, research suggests that ” ‘Fewer’ teenagers drink regularly” because the crackdown on rogue shops is working, and that parents should be encouraged to give their children alcohol at home because that means less drinking on the street. Children that buy their own booze are far more likely to be binge drinking or street drinking. We should be encouraging a continental approach.

But even this, for me, is problematic. There’s an oft used trope in youth work and youth studies, that tells why the kids on the street and at youth clubs are the poorer kids. Whereas the richer kids have the resources to go to events (e.g. being driven to a sports centre or theatre let’s say) the poorer one’s don’t. Richer kids in big houses have their own rooms so they can invite friends round, and the most priviliged might have a spare room or a converted garage. Poorer kids might be sharing with their little brother or sister, and the smaller space means it’s harder to get out of the way of parents. They don’t have a big dining table so can’t invite friends over for dinner: everyone prefers to drink with friends to their parents. Because of this, richer kids can have their earlier experiments with alcohol at home in safety. Poorer one’s have no opportunities, except in public spaces. To be just, a crackdown on teenage problem drinking should be helping these children into more comfortable homes where there’s opportunity to socially drink with friends (and maybe parents too).

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This is the first of two posts on the topic of supply, demand and consumer behaviour (the next one on housing). Today, on Woman’s Hour, while driving through town, I heard a great article about fish.

The essence of it was the fact that cod and some other popular fish have massively increased in price (overfishing, more people wanting more fish). The question was asked why don’t people move to buying cheaper alternatives. ‘I only eat cod, Idon’t like anything else, I don’t like the look of it’ was one quote. Now the funny thing is that the reason why working class Brits ended up eating a lot of fish was because it was a cheap meal, compared to other sources of protein.

The best bit was when some old dear said, I don’t like pollock, I only eat cod, and an Oldham fishmonger presented a plate of pollock and a plate of cod and asked the lady to taste them. She liked one, said what a nice bit of cod it was, and then the fishmonger said it was pollock.

So although prices, supply, and demand are related, what makes up demand is complicated. In this case, some ‘tradition’ coming from post-war food policy makes people used to cod. What’s interesting is that it seems people are less price sensitive in this case than they used to be. We’ve got used to being able to buy what we want for food, due to our relative affluence. This, of course, isn’t the case for housing… my next topic.

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Data protection

Ho ho ho, yet another story of missing government packages. Aren’t we glad the government isn’t organising Christmas?

But does this really reflect badly on the people who work for government? I’m not sure it does, because it’s IT companies and couriers that have been losing the data, not government departments or people. In this latest story the problem is with Pearson, a global media company (Financial Times, Penguin etc.) who run the test centres. I noticed this a few months back, and thought it was odd that they have this contract / that it’s contracted out at all. However, the Thatcher/Blair consensus seems to be that the private sector does things more efficiently so that’s what happens (efficiency being achieved by??? cutting corners?).

This means that the management of government is now done with contracts not directives. In the old days the minister and civil servant said X, and this got transmitted down the heirarchy into actions. Yes, it was subverted and translated, but in the worst case scenario someone got sacked or resigned. In the new world of contracting, the policy (X) gets drawn up into a contract, which is then interpreted, subverted etc. Same issue, different lines of accountability. When it comes to data protection, do we really know what each party really means. If you tick a box to say you don’t want data to go to ‘another organisation’ does this include subcontractors? No: the data being with Pearson is taken as still being with the Driving Standards Agency. The DSA retain responsibility and, as far as I can tell in the guidance, don’t need to ask permission of the data subject (i.e. us) to transfer data to a private and/or overseas company (see this too).

So instead of focusing on the little mistakes, shouldn’t we really be asking why a hard drive with UK driver data on it can go missing in Iowa in the first place. We didn’t ask for our government to be outsourced, we didn’t ask for our data to be transferred into private hands, and we didn’t expect the database state to be run by multinational IT and media companies. Ironically, if I want to copy a picture from a Penguin book (perhaps the cover of 1984) to illustrate a lecture on government and data, I have to ask permission from them.

P.S. These issues aren’t that new.

P.P.S. Another issue for later. Pearson produce textbooks for schools, and own EdExcel that produce the examinations. Is that not a conflict of interest?

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My stats: UK ghettos

I don’t put much up on this blog, because I’m too busy writing elsewhere. However, I’ve noticed that the one entry that repeatedly gets read is the one on ghettos in the UK. It seems people are always looking for information about ‘UK ghettos’, suggesting that race and racism are very much ‘live’ topics.

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Government data

I got my letter from HMRC at the weekend, apologising for losing some CDs with information about myself and my family. Unfortunately, all the apology, and all the news has been about the wrong problem…

Most of the comments have focused on the facts that the CDs weren’t sent by registered post, and that the files were just protected with a zipfile password…

(technically this is encryption, so I’m guessing that all the nonsense about ‘password protected but not encrypted’ was to say that it hadn’t got strong encryption, but if they’d put the key on the disk anyway, what difference does it make)

Now of course these aspects of the affair are just stupid: stuff gets lost in the post all the time, and if you are going to use physical media it makes sense to encrypt it as strongly as available, and to send the decrypt key separately or electronically.

More importantly, though, we have to wonder how on earth this state of affairs came about. I know in other parts of government there are secure networks: if you want to work from home in some government organisations you can’t use your own ISP, but you get an extra line that connects to government servers. In this case there would be no need to use the post. Indeed, for important mail you’d think the government would use its own internal mail service, Government Mail, although this is run with a private company and it’s possible that HMRC had to get the best deal, and this turned out to be TNT.

And why and how was the information sent out in this format in the first place. Apparently a junior manager burnt the data to CD and sent it out, but surely this is something that should only be done with authorisation at the highest levels. Otherwise, what’s to stop a corrupt employee doing this with all records: just copy them to a memory stick and leave the building and no-one would ever know.

More importantly, the auditors didn’t want all this information anyway. They wanted all the address, bank and parent details removed, but the HMRC people reckoned this was a burden too much, and could cost £5k to do ‘additional data scans/filters’! Now I know it’s a big database, but once the query is set up, it should only take minutes to make a new query without this data. Even if this couldn’t be done, it would have been easy to run a query on the outputted dataset: at most an hour’s work and then leave a computer to get on with the new output. This suggests that the IT providers have got the government over a barrel. The database is set up in such a way that the HMRC staff (and I assume someone there could do the work) can’t get full access to it. And then they charge five grand to come and make minor changes.
Herein lies the rub. EDS (I believe it’s them) have designed a system in which the end user (HMRC) can export data from a query that uses every record to a CD, yet can’t create or modify queries; the government have their own ‘secure’ mail network but they don’t use it, and have their own secure intranet but don’t use that either.

It just goes to show how well ‘competitive tendering’ works. It reminds me of a conversation I had with an IT professional who said that the industry was slowing down because they could no longer ‘rip off the government’. He said that in the past they could charge the government ludicrous amounts for small amounts of work, but that the government had got wise to it and new contracts were much less profitable. Looks like the HMRC job was sorted long before this, though.

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