Saturday, December 17, 2005 

Cameron: "I'm a liberal Conservative."

David Cameron yesterday moved to exploit the leadership crisis that has engulfed the Liberal Democrats by appealing to the party's supporters and MPs to "come and join the new Conservative party" if they want to see Labour defeated. Speaking in Hereford yesterday, the Conservative leader said that the two parties shared many values and that he was now the natural leader of a "modern, progressive, liberal, mainstream opposition to Labour".

"Let me make one thing clear. I'm a liberal Conservative. So I believe it's time for Liberal Democrat voters, councillors and MPs that share these values and this agenda to come and join the new Conservative party," he said.

Mr Cameron's allies have been attempting to build links with Lib Dem MPs in the hope of persuading some to defect before the next election. In his speech Mr Cameron set out the importance of cutting into Liberal Democrat support to gain the 126 seats he needs to form a majority government.

So what exactly has Mr Cameron done so far to show that he is a "liberal Conservative?" Despite that almost being an oxymoron, we can have a quick look back at his record. So far his only main policy announcements have been to have a list of candidates for seats that would be widely inclusive, and that he will support the government on their education white-paper. In actual fact it's obvious that Cameron and his new conservative cronies actually wish to go much further than the already dangerous education white paper, and if they could, re-introduce selection for secondary education. So, he's for making sure that the working classes are kept down. That isn't very meritocratic, one of Tony Blair's favourite words, and Cameron's obvious hero.

The other piece of evidence we have of Cameron being a liberal conservative is that he wrote this year's Conservative party manifesto. Let's take a brief look at some of its main points:

The Conservatives are promising to create more good local schools. Parents will have the right to choose the best schools for their children, which means they will be able to send their child to an independent school for the cost of a state-funded education.

In other words, giving money to the rich who would send their kids to "independent" i.e. private and exclusive schools anyway.

Headteachers and governors will have complete control over discipline in school, including control over admissions and exclusions. Heads will set minimum standards of behaviour and will no longer be forced to admit children excluded from other schools. The party will establish Turnaround schools for disruptive pupils - at a cost of £200m a year. Pupils will attend full-time and will only be readmitted to mainstream schools if their behaviour significantly improves.

In other words, we'll throw all the little bastards out of sight of everyone and let them all kill each other out of harm's way, away from our own little darlings. Headteachers will also have complete control over admissions - why, that sounds remarkably similar to selection, doesn't it?

The Connexions careers service will be scrapped and a new service created with strong business involvement.

Ah yes, get them stacking the shelves and make the promise that they might just one day be able to become a manager.

Let's move on asylum and immigration:

Michael Howard has said that an incoming Conservative government would ask parliament to approve a limit on the maximum number of refugees allowed into the United Kingdom. A quota of around 20,000 a year would be set - even though it could mean genuine refugees are refused the right to refuge and asylum in Britain. Applicants for entry to the UK would be processed at offshore asylum centres.

So if there was a catastrophe in say, Zimbabwe or another country which forced huge numbers to leave, they wouldn't be able to come to our little island if the nice round figure of 20,000 had already been reached. The "offshore asylum centres" is a euphemism for the Tories' infamous fantasy islands' - places they hadn't found where they would keep all the darkies to make sure they couldn't rob the decent taxpayers of their money.

How about crime and law and order?

The party intends to return cannabis to a class B classification to resolve current confusion.

This conflicts with Cameron's personal statements that he would keep cannabis as Class C and would also consider downgrading Ecstasy - about the only other truly liberal policy he would like to implement. Too bad his party wouldn't let him.

Pledges to create 20,000 extra prison places to guarantee that sentencing will not be driven by capacity. Plans an end to the early release scheme that sees prisoners monitored by electronic tagging and believes community sentences should only compliment not substitute prison.

In other words, prison works! Even though we've got over 80,000 already serving time and that crime has been falling for 10 years, we need to clamp back down on the yobs and scroungers who blight our streets. Never mind that it would take years to build new prisons and that the early release schemes are broadly successful. Community sentences shouldn't substitute prison - in English that means throw everyone away, and we'll think about the consequences when they come out much the worse for their experience later.

Wants to see the civil law provision that a householder will be only be prosecuted for "grossly disproportionate" action against a burglar extended into criminal law through a householder protection bill.

In other words, the Tories want you to have the right to murder anyone who sets foot on your property. This despite that the law already covers 'reasonable force' being used against intruders. The most infamous case of this kind, the Tony Martin debacle, was only taken to court because he had purposefully lay in wait for the two men who broke in and then shot them when they were in fact running away. Still, it's a good soundbite and it makes all of us who consider our home our castle feel more secure.

How about 'tax and spend'?

The Conservatives promise to spend £4bn of their £12bn worth of efficiency savings on tax cuts. They plan to spend £1.3bn of that on halving council tax for the over-65s and are believed to be considering raising the threshold at which low earners start to pay income tax and cutting inheritance tax and stamp duty further. Ten million workers would get tax relief on their pension contributions, using £1.7bn of the Tories' efficiency savings. The Tories have promised to abolish the 1% stamp duty on house purchases below £250,000. At the last Budget, the threshold was raised from £60,000 to £120,000. The Tories claim that lifting it to £250,000 will free more than 500,000 homebuyers a year from stamp duty, and leave 80% of house purchases unaffected by the tax.

The Tories never managed to explain how they were going to cut taxes and still keep up Labour's spending on the public services. They also promise to go the way of the Republicans in America in trying to abolish inheritance tax, which they misrepresent as a death tax, which helps the Treasury immensely and makes sure that money which is left behind for no one does not just lay dormant.

And finally, let's look at Health:

The party supports free choice for NHS patients in terms of care delivery. Patients will have the option of going private, with 50% of their costs underwritten by the state. GPs will advise patients on the best hospital for their needs.

Similar to their schools policy, they'll pay half the cost to those already wealthy enough to go private out of the pockets of those who rely on the NHS. Their choice policy is similar to Labour's, which is still not supported the public, as opinion polls consistently show a majority in favour of just one good high quality local hospital, not the choice of five in the region.

Is a man who wrote the above really a "liberal Conservative"? Or is he just another nasty man disguised by charisma and good looks? Until Cameron proves that not just he but his party has managed to move on from the above failed policies, no self respecting Lib Dem, let alone anyone else, should touch the Conservatives with a 10-foot pole.

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Friday, December 16, 2005 

Blair considers lifting ban on tapping MPs' phones.

Is there really no depth to which this government will not sink?

Tony Blair yesterday indicated that he may scrap or change a longstanding ban on tapping of MPs' phones brought in by his Labour predecessor at No 10 Harold Wilson.

MPs were given a government guarantee that their phones would not be tapped by police or the security services, "whatsoever the circumstances", by Wilson in the late 1960s.

Prime ministers including Mr Blair have regularly confirmed to parliament that the rule remains in place. Although the ban, known as the Wilson doctrine, does not carry statutory backing, MPs must be told by the prime minister if it is to be changed.

Yesterday Downing Street appeared to take steps towards that in a written statement to MPs. In it, the prime minister said he had received advice about the implications for the ban of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, passed by parliament amid much controversy in 2000.

The statement said the new advice had come from Sir Swinton Thomas, the interception of communications commissioner, and that Mr Blair was considering "possible implications".

Last night a Downing Street official confirmed a decision on whether the Wilson doctrine would be changed was expected in the new year but refused to reveal details of Sir Swinton's advice.

Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, yesterday called for the protection that MPs currently enjoy to remain in place. He has repeatedly called on the government to reveal whether any MPs have had their phones tapped.

In 2003 it was suggested in parliament that the phones of at least one Sinn Féin MP had been bugged.

After making the guarantee, Wilson became convinced in his second spell as prime minister that he was himself being monitored by the security services.
Is this really about the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act or is it about Blair's continued seeming loss of reality? Who is to say that Blair wouldn't like to have his opponents in parliament bugged? With the Campaign group of MPs' raising hell, and even former loyal ministers supporting the alternative education paper published this week which Blair arrogantly dismissed out of hand, he may well be feeling hemmed in from all sides, with a seemingly resurgent Tory party led by Cameron. Maybe I'm just clutching at straws and that such a ban would only be used against the Sinn Fein MPs who don't even sit in the house.

One thing though is certain. Blair is striving for a legacy, and the only thing that the public at the moment will remember him for is Iraq. That is why he seems so determined to push ahead with the education reforms that he and Lord Adonis had as much a hand in as Ruth Kelly. He doesn't realise that if he tries to push through the white paper, not only will Labour desert him, but he will be sealing his own fate.

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Thursday, December 15, 2005 

No Trousers Charlie wins EU pact for new snoopers charter.

Remember the snoopers charter? Back in the halcyon days of 2002, the then home secretary David Blunkett intended to let hundreds of different government officials and companies have access to the records of internet and mobile phone usage. He backed down after the plans were leaked to the Grauniad, sparking outrage. Now 3 years later Charles Clarke has managed to get a very similar piece of legislation through the European parliament, and hardly anyone has batted an eyelid.

The home secretary, Charles Clarke, yesterday won an agreement across Europe to ensure that telephone and internet records are stored by telecoms companies for up to two years.

The deal, which won the backing of the European parliament yesterday, will mean that police investigating terrorism and serious crime will have access to the commercial traffic logs of all phone calls, text messages, emails and instances of internet use by suspects.

Mr Clarke said: "This agreement on retaining communications places a vital tool against terrorism and serious crime in the hands of law enforcement agencies across Europe."

The new EU directive will make it mandatory for telecoms firms to keep phone and internet data for a minimum of six months but will not cover police access to the content of calls or emails, and will be subject to strict data protection. Mr Clarke said yesterday he would however urge EU governments to make it mandatory to store data for up to two years. He had made the issue a key element of the British presidency of the EU; it proved highly controversial, with Germany, Ireland and other countries raising concerns about privacy and cost.

The deal will mean that the voluntary agreement with the telecoms industry in Britain will now become mandatory across the EU. At present in Britain, emails, text messages and internet data are kept for six months. Telephone details, including numbers dialled, the time and duration of calls, and location of the mobile, are kept for 12 months.

Even details of calls that are connected but go unanswered will be archived on the grounds that they could be signals to accomplices or used to detonate a bomb.

Mr Clarke said yesterday the EU member states would each decide on how long the data should be kept, and whether they would reimburse telecoms firms. The UK contributes £6m a year to national costs.

There was also flexibility in the ruling to ensure new forms of data are covered.

Yesterday, the Liberal Democrat MEP Sarah Ludford said it amounted to a green light for mass surveillance: "Ordinary citizens could find details of their movements, acquaintances and favourite websites circulating in Whitehall."

On the surface the deal sounds fairly reasonable. Only police investigating terrorism and serious crime are likely to have access to the records, and then they will only be able to see the time messages and calls were made, not the content of them. Then you realise that "serious crime" can be very broadly interpreted. MI5 during the 80s kept huge databases on "subversives", many containing information on people who only had a casual interest in left wing politics or might have happened to attended a protest on nuclear disarmament. Now we are also told that embassies are drawing up lists of people who should be banned from entering the UK. Babar Ahmed is being extradited to the US on the pretext that he supported Islamists in Chechnya and Afghanistan through a website that was based in the United States, despite him living here.

None of the above inspires confidence that these powers will not be abused. Of nearly every new power the police are given, they use it to their advantage in ways which it was not meant for, i.e. the section of the Terrorism Act that led to the heckler at the Labour party conference being stopped from entering the hall. Then we remember that there are many companies dying to get their hands on our personal information, such as the major supermarkets and advertising firms, let alone those who use such information to set up bank accounts in the names of those who become victims to identity fraud. Finally, we have the entertainment industry, which would dearly love to have to avoid the hassle of getting court orders against ISPs to reveal what their customers are doing on the web, intent on cracking down against the teenagers who dare to sample music or films before they buy.

Just try and imagine all the phone calls, messages and web sites you would make, send and visit in two years. Through this the authorities can build up a whole picture of the life that you lead. We trust the companies that we use to keep this information private, and the majority have done. Can we trust that the government will be so careful? Many will say that if you've nothing to hide, then you've nothing to fear from such legislation. The simple answer to that is that everyone has something to hide, some thing however small or big that they would never tell either their partners, their friends or their parents. With this legislation, the government and the police will know your every movement, if they are so inclined to inquire about it. Faced with the threat of suicidal terrorism, it seems that the public and the majority of the politicians have given up their privacy to stop a small minority of threatening people. Once again, those who wish us harm seem to have won.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005 

Most wanted: Corporate human rights violators of 2005.

The full account with what they have done and continue to do is available here, but here's a quick roll-call of shame:












I'm guessing the only reason that BP, Exxon, Shell and Tesco aren't on there is because everyone is only too well aware of the enormous damage they are causing.

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The death of free speech.

By now you've probably heard of the case of Maya Evans, who was arrested and convicted under the "Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005" for committing the heinous crime of daring to read out the names of dead Iraqis outside Downing Street. She was caught under a piece of reprehensible legislation that was mainly meant to remove Brian Haw from Parliament Square (He remains, as a judge found that the law had been poorly drafted and as Mr Haw's protest began before the act was passed, it did not apply to him.). The legislation requires planned protests to be cleared by the police before they go ahead, a piece of nonsense purely concocted by MPs who were annoyed by the protests by schoolchildren before the Iraq war began, and also the protests by the Countryside Alliance, when they clashed with police.

You know that the threat to freedom of expression in this country is serious when you get Tony Blair's best mate and chief apologist in parliament, Charlie Falconer coming on to Radio 4 to say the following:

The lord chancellor branded as "ridiculous" yesterday claims that the prosecution of a peace campaigner for reading out the names of British soldiers who have died in Iraq showed that free speech was threatened.

Maya Evans was last week given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay ��100 costs after being prosecuted under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, which limits protest around Westminster, for reading the names by the Cenotaph in Whitehall.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he said the law "was a simple measure to avoid disorder around parliament".

I like how he seems to refer to legitimate protest as "disorder". Obviously reading out the names of Iraqis who have died as a result of our actions slows down the traffic and might aggravate the tourists that come to our glorious capital city. Even Tony's chief unelected crony didn't go so far though as Maya Evans own MP, who wrote to the Independent:

Sir: I am really sorry that my constituent Maya Evans was convicted under Section 122 of the new Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (report, 8 December).

On the face of it, it looked to be an overreaction on the part of the prosecutors but be that as it may, it would be wrong to say that the legislation is unnecessary. Its purpose is not to deny protest but to ensure that such protest is possible.

Historically all sorts of protests have taken place around Parliament, but with the current terrorist threat it would be easy to mask a terrorist atrocity under the guise of a legitimate demonstration. The easy solution would have been to simply ban such protest - as the media indeed claim is the purpose of the Act - but that was not the Government's intention.

Ms Evans's prosecution is unfortunate and appears to have been somewhat zealous, but to suggest it is an attack on free speech is bizarre. Such a right must be, and indeed is, protected by this legislation.


So though the prosecution was unfortunate, an overreaction and zealous, nowhere does he mention that it was wrong. It also isn't an attack on free speech, because if you wish to express your right to protest you have to inform the local plod first. But wait, what's this? Oh yes, the dear Michael Foster of course has to bring in a reference to terrorism. Apparently a terrorist atrocity could be masked beneath the veneer of a peaceful protest, although he doesn't quite explain how. Perhaps the protestors could deliver a biological attack by coughing on MPs as they try to enter the House.

I'll leave the best to last though. Guess who said this in 2002:

I may not like what they call me, but I thank God they can. That's called freedom."

Yes, it was the Dear Leader himself. We have now lost that freedom. If you don't want to be arrested, tried and convicted, you'd better make sure that you don't do something that could be considered a protest within a mile of Parliament. Thanks Tony, thanks Charlie and thanks Michael. You guys sure are saving this country from the mongrel hoards who wish to impose totalitarianism.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2005 

"Sir" Ian Blair continues to scaremonger.

Does this man never know when to shut up?

The terrorist threat to the UK has intensified so much since July 7 that Scotland Yard gets high-grade intelligence on suspects almost every day, in contrast to the monthly reports it received before the London bombings, the UK's most senior police chief said yesterday.

Sir Ian Blair, the commissioner of the Metropolitan police, told a Metropolitan Police Authority conference on terrorism, where relatives of the July 7 victims were among hundreds of delegates, that cells were plotting further attacks.

"The level of threat has intensified and continues to intensify. The terrorists are here and they are going to go on attempting to kill people like you and people like me," he said. "The sky is dark. You may argue on the current legal position or British government's position, but we are in a different place than before the opening of this century.

"There are currently people in the UK as we speak who are planning mass atrocities and who will use suicide as a weapon. That's a different place to where we have been in my lifetime."

He said there had been a 75% increase in counter-terrorism operations by his officers since the July bombings. Three conspiracies had been thwarted since July 7, which had resulted in charges and deportations, he said, although he declined to comment further owing to ongoing court cases.

"Before July 7, my service and the security services believed themselves to be absolutely flat out against international terrorism," he said. "We are now further flat out than we could have ever imagined ourselves to be."

Referring to high-grade intelligence reports, Sir Ian said: "Andy Hayman [the Met's assistant commissioner in charge of anti-terrorism] would expect to get, before July, maybe one every month. Now, it's almost daily." The UK terrorist threat level has remained at "severe general" since late August and security chiefs believe that London is a prime target.

If Ian Blair is telling the truth, and judging by his inability not to and to misinform in the past, I wouldn't bet on it, then the reasons why the "threat" has increased are simple. The police are no longer taking any chances, and are pulling in anyone they even suspect of daring to search the internet for terrorist sympathisers websites, or even viewing beheading videos.

Other reasons include fighters either returning from Iraq or choosing to come here because of the UK's role in Iraq, trained and with further knowledge of how to plan jihadi attacks. As Tony Blair and many other government ministers do not dare to admit, the Iraq war has made us a huge target for all those who are violently opposed to the presence of the West in Iraq. Instead of countering this by withdrawing, or admitting to the mistakes made, they continue to make vacuous statements about not "cutting and running" while they are actually into the final stages of planning their escape, likely to begin next year. Instead of reacting to the July the 7th attacks proportionately, Blair ruined the consensus with the other parties with his "the rules of the game are changing" speech. With the tabloids baying for blood, he gave in and as a result was defeated by a parliament that finally found its dissenting voice. The result is that we are now back to the scaremongering of before the Iraq war, and "Sir" Ian Blair is more than happy to play the role of ramping up the fear factor. Like Bush, he gives details of attacks supposedly thwarted, then fails to give any evidence of these threats. The government then wonders why the public doesn't believe them when they call for more powers and awareness.

The sooner the government and the police realise that this cycle of idiocy is helping no one the better. Either keep us updated on what is happening, with some proper evidence or facts, or don't bother. The last thing we need is the constant scaremongering of a head of police who wasn't even informed that an innocent man was executed by his officers until the following day (if he was telling the truth, of course).

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Steve Bell: Pants on fire.

No comment necessary:

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Sun-watch: Beyond parody.

Here's today's superb Sun front-cover banner boost.

Three stories: one intruding in the private grief of a mother whose son was killed, another on footballers going to a casino, and last but certainly not least, one on the page 3 lesbians of last week.

The first exposes Mary Wragg as a "coke mom". Obviously revealing that she uses cocaine is in the public interest, as it really helps us understand why she gave evidence against her husband for ending the life of their severely disabled son. The Sun would never cause further distress to a person who has just been told that she was complicit, whether she was or not, oh no.

The second story is an amazing exclusive that the Chelsea footballers went to a casino for an Xmas party and John Terry allegedly won £200,000. I never would have believed that footballers gambled if the Sun hadn't told me about.

And finally we have the page 3 lesbians of last week with hints and tips for others. Their guide isn't meant to titillate men or lead them to retreating to the toilet at work with the paper, that would be tawdry and disgusting.

The reason for these typical tabloid stories is that the Sun and its red top stablemates are starting to get even more desperate. Last month's ABCs showed that all their sales continued to fall. It can't be too long before Murdoch comes up with another cut-price wheeze or makes some changes to the production team. And if the last few days are anything to go by, it'll be another race to the bottom of the barrel.

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Monday, December 12, 2005 

Lies and misinformation: just another interview with Jack Straw.

Jack Straw is a liar.

That's a pretty serious allegation to make, but I feel it is entirely justified. On today's Radio 4 Today programme,
he said that there was no evidence that US "extraordinary rendition" flights had passed through the UK. "Careful research has been unable to identify any occasion ... when we have received a request for permission by the United States for a rendition through the United Kingdom territory or airspace."
Perhaps so. But this entirely ignores a simple fact. The US hasn't asked anyone's permission. Both Poland and Romania, countries which supposedly housed secret CIA prisons, have said they had no knowledge of the US using their soil for such purposes. Are all the countries in Europe, all of which have said they have little or no knowledge of what America has been up to lying about what has gone on? Probably not. What some do know however is that they can get away with lying about what they do know. Jack Straw has managed to use this to his advantage.

Last Tuesday the Guardian published details of flights identified as being charted CIA planes and CIA-owned jets landing at numerous airports around Britain. You can see the tables below. A couple of them are believed to have definitely been involved in carry kidnapped prisoners. Whether they were carrying the prisoners at the time is unknown. Is Jack Straw denying that these flights landed in Britain? Is he saying that this is all the Guardian's imagination, and that the planespotters who saw these planes were seeing mirages?

The Lib Dems foreign spokesman, Sir Menzies Campbell said:
"I have no doubt of the good faith of the foreign secretary in this matter, but the truth is that the British authorities simply don't know whether extraordinary rendition is taking place using British airfields," he said. "The sooner we have a system of inspection, the better."
I am willing to bet that the British authorities know full well about these extraordinary rendition flights. If the government doesn't know, and the Department of Transport doesn't know, then I find it very difficult to believe that MI5/6 also do not. Whether they have been telling the government or not is a different matter. If they have, then Jack Straw needs to consider his position. If not, then MI5/6 needs to explain itself.
Karen Buck, the aviation minister, told Sir Menzies that this "indicates that if these aircraft landed in the UK they were either not involved in civil commercial transport or were stopping for technical purposes, for example to refuel".
Karen Buck is being very careful, and for good reason. In another article in last week's Guardian, there was this:
The British government is guilty of breaking international law if it allowed secret CIA "rendition" flights of terror suspects to land at UK airports, according to a report by American legal scholars.

Merely giving permission for the flights to refuel while en route to the Middle East to collect a prisoner would constitute a breach of the law, according to the opinion commissioned by an all-party group of MPs, which meets in parliament for the first time today.
So now Karen Buck is denying even that permission was given to the aircraft to refuel. Obviously they just landed, refueled and went on their way without anyone noticing, no contact with control towers, and without anyone asking who they were. Is this government now so arrogant that it thinks that we will believe this? This is a classic example of spinning, of distorting the original question and answering in such a way as to conceal the truth. I also find it outrageous that the Conservatives have not asked any questions or got involved in this at all. Instead it has been the Lib Dems and the media who have run with this and tried to get answers out of the government. The answers we have got are deeply unsatisfactory. They are, I believe, lies and carefully crafted misinformation. Jack Straw knows full well what has been going on, and if he didn't, he does now. He should drop the bullshit and apologise, instead of covering up for the Americans and their continued breachings of international law.

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