Politics often lurches dangerously close to self-parody – as Neil Kinnock would no doubt acknowledge – but occasionally it drives head long towards it, laughing manically as it speeds towards the canyon’s edge.
Witness the decision to have Gordon Brown share a platform with an Elvis impersonator last week:
Either Peter Mandelson is getting lazy – and can’t be bothered to conceal his attempts to undermine Brown anymore – or Brown himself has finally and irretrievably taken leave of his senses. I’m not sure any other scenario can possibly explain the decision to place in close proximity a man pretending to be an important and popular figure…and Gordon Brown.
I’ll be here all week. Tip your waitresses.
And then there’s the last Liberal Democrat Party Election Broadcast
We are, of course, supposed to take from this video that the broken promises of the “Labservatives” litter the streets. Personally, however, I merely hoped the LibDems cleaned up after themselves.
One would assume that whoever scripted the broadcast had never seen Terry Gilliam’s Brazil – or else appreciated the irony of recalling the sequence in which Harry Tuttle, played by Robert De Niro, is literally consumed by paperwork.
This tendency of political messages to open themselves to alternative interpretations fosters in local politics a perceived need for simple messages. Nuance – and the true clarity which it fosters – is abandoned in the name of the ersatz clarity of simplicity.
But this tendency towards unambiguous messages is itself ripe for parody, as wonderfully demonstrated by Glum Councillors, a blog cataloguing our local representatives’ photographic unhappiness at potholes, fly tipping, and boarded premises. There’s something surreal about these images: men in suits awkwardly bent double to point a finger into a pothole, or two people flanking and gesturing towards a lopsided, undressed Christmas tree. Stripped of the context of a political leaflet or website, and presented without explanation, these simple images – and the obligatory unhappy expressions of their subjects – make an interesting artwork.
At the other end of the scale, Birmingham blog Lolitics weaves surreal stories out of a combination of local politicos’ photographs and LOLspeak. Focusing on Conservative Councillor Deirdre Alden and Labour MP Gisela Stuart (now the Conservative and Labour candidates at the general election) the site has built up some brilliant running gags and exploited the unintentionally amusing way in which political photographs are posed.
Personally, I prefer these sort of parodies to the like of My David Cameron – it’s funnier when politicians own images tell the story without editing.
I’ve written a piece for TheLawyer.com about bullying, duties of confidence, and the National Bullying Helpline:
William Shakespeare asked,
Charity itself fulfills the law.
And who can sever love from charity?
The answer, it turns out, is Gordon Brown.
* * *
In 1972, the economist James Tobin gave a lecture in which he proposed the introduction of a currency transaction tax, to be levied on all foreign-exchange transactions. Tobin was speaking a few months after the demise of the Bretton-Woods system, the international monetary system which had governed relations between the economies of the major industrial states between 1944 and 1972.
The tax which Tobin proposed was intended to dampen fluctuations in currency exchange rates, by dissuading speculative trading. It was not intended as a revenue raising measure, but rather as a means of rendering certain behaviours uneconomic.
With a similar name, and some superficial similarities, we are now faced with a proposal for a “Robin Hood Tax”. A coalition of several dozen charities and trade unions have launched a glossy website, complete with a Richard Curtis scripted video starring Bill Nigh, and various Robin Hood themed campaign tools (Twitter “arrows” and green robber’s masks).
What is now proposed under this amusingly inappropriate name is not a Tobin tax, either in form or intent. It would be levied on a broad range of financial transactions, not merely foreign-exchange, and its backers evidence no interest in altering market behaviour: they are simply and solely interested in raising revenue.
I say that the name is inappropriate precisely because of the way in which the so-called “Robin Hood Tax” diverges from what Tobin proposed. Broad ranging taxation aimed solely upon the raising of revenue is the very behaviour, on the part of King Richard and King John, which supposedly led Robin Hood to begin his revolt.
Make no mistake, the proposed tax is broad ranging. It is to be levied on a menu of different financial instruments:
Implemented globally, it would tax the trade of certain financial assets. Things like stocks, bonds and foreign exchange, traded both physically and as derivatives (options, forwards, futures and swaps), and bought and sold on Exchanges and Over the Counter (OTC).
Shares/equities traded on a market
Foreign exchange trading
Exchange traded derivatives including those relate to interest rates and gilts
Over the counter, derivative and swap trading
One major difference between 1972 and today is the extent to which such instruments are traded broadly in the economy. Trading in any of the items listed above is no longer – and has not for some years been – the sole preserve of financial institutions. Householders engage in foreign exchange speculation to reduce mortgage costs, large companies use interest rate derivatives and swaps to control financial exposure, and one in ten of us owns shares. Even those who do nothing more exotic than paying into a pension are exposed to the costs of share transactions.
Those behind the proposal are well aware that their only chance of success lies in assuring the public that this is a “tax on bankers”. At one point, their explanation goes as far as to pose the rhetorical question “Why tax bankers?”, even though their proposal is for a financial transaction tax, not a windfall tax on bank profits, or any kind of income or profit tax.
Some care is taken to assure us that this new tax will not affect ‘ordinary’ people, but only banks:
Will the tax be passed on to consumers?
The Robin Hood Tax will not impact on personal banking or on retail banking. That’s because it targets a distinct area of bank operations – high-frequency large-volume trading, undertaken by financial institutions in the ‘casino economy’. If you change money to go on holiday, send remittances abroad, invest in a pension fund or take out a mortgage, you will not be affected by this tiny tax.
You will search in vain, however, for any explanation of how this neat compartmentalisation is to be effected. Indeed, it is difficult to reconcile the table of transaction values on one page, with the claim above that the tax targets only “high-frequency large-volume trading, undertaken by financial institutions in the ‘casino economy’”. It’s undeniable that the main impact will be on churn transactions, but the campaigners need it to be limited to this area, to avoid a loss of public support.
It is claimed that the tax will raise “…as much as $400Bn” worldwide. Whether this takes into account the expected sharp decline in transaction volumes (perhaps by as much as 75%) is unclear, nor is entirely clear how reliable the estimates for revenue raised actually are.
What is certain is the purpose for which this revenue to be raised.
An unprecedented bailout of the UK banking sector has left a gaping hole that threatens government commitments to end fuel poverty, child poverty, safeguard jobs, the protection of natural systems which support adaptation in the south (flood defences, forest protection etc), investing in schools and the NHS, and dealing effectively with climate change and poverty around the globe.
Let’s not for a minute imagine that those trade unions involved in this campaign are primarily concerned about third world poverty or climate change. They see this as a way to avoid the public sector having to economise.
Given the involvement of Unison and Unite (Private Eye said of the latter this week, “…after a Labour defeat [it] will be the sole proprietor of whatever is left of the party”) it’s unsurprising that the Labour government seems to be leaning towards this idea. It certainly won’t hurt that a few of their previous economic turkeys are about to come home to roost.
There is no cross party support for this idea. One straw poll conducted this week showed almost universal Labour support and Tory opposition, with the Greens siding with Labour and the Lib-Dems split.
Some reaction has been essentially superficial. Lib Dem blogger Sara Scarlett argued yesterday that Robin Hood was in fact a Libertarian, making the adoption of his name for a broad ranging tax even less appropriate. Paul Staines/Guido Fawkes followed up today with the same basic point.
On a more developed level, Tim Worstall (of the Adam Smith Institute) highlighted one obvious flaw in the logic behind the proposal:
Oh, here’s a lovely little point.
Although 0.05% is a tiny tax, $400 billion is a substantial amount.
That’s what they expect to raise (not the £400 billion some papers are reporting).
Banking is the most profitable industry in the world, with profits of $788 billion in 2006,
They’re seriously suggesting that 50% of the profits of the banking system can be taxed away…
Of course, the $400bn figure is global. To take the figure directly from the total number of transactions assumes that every country in the world will agree, and it assumes that traders won’t be able to avoid it…both assumptions are nonsense. If these trades have a profit margin of less than 0.05%, they won’t happen and there won’t be anything to collect.
This is the real nub of the problem. I referred above to the expected sharp decline in transactions, and to the protestations of the Robin Hood Tax’s proponents that their proposal is aimed solely at “high-frequency large-volume trading, undertaken by financial institutions in the ‘casino economy’”. As Thomas points out, if those trades have a profit margin less than the tax they will not take place.
If you are proponent of a Tobin Tax (or of a general financial transaction tax with similar objectives), this is not a problem: it is the objective you have been seeking to achieve. If, however, you are a Trade Union looking for a way the government can raise cash without losing votes, you are about to be sorely disappointed.
Curiously, this was not one of the flaws that Left Foot Forward identified in their article today supporting the Robin Hood Tax. They were perhaps too busy coming up with misleading headlines for it. The three “cons” they do identify are worth looking at:
Claim #1: It will harm the economy
Claim #2: It will harm ordinary consumers, including ‘holidaymakers when they exchange money at the airport’
Claim #3: It will never work because a global agreement will not be reached
Claim 1 is interesting because it is a definitional question. David Taylor, the author of the Left Foot Forward article, pleads in support comments made by Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize winning economist:
Does anybody seriously believe that anything happens because of the sort of micro-second trading we’re now seeing? It’s a function of speed. No investments are being made as a result of it, no jobs are being created.
Finance has a vital socially important role to fulfil, which is to raise capital, to run payment systems, to oil the wheels of everything society does. But the bankers fail to perform that socially useful function — and because of that, the world’s economy has suffered.
Frankly, I share Stiglitz’s view. I have little love for the approach to investments that has led to the primacy of share prices over dividends. At the same time, these transactions take place because there are profits to be made. Those profits are spent, and not on nebulous financial instruments, but on real world goods and services. If these transactions do not take place, and profits are not made, those purchases of real world goods and services will not happen.
And it is common ground that transactions will not take place. The “Robin Hood Tax” campaign admit it themselves:
Can the financial sector afford to pay it?
Although 0.05% is a tiny tax, $400 billion is a substantial amount. We recognise that even such a small tax will have an effect on the market. Economists such as Schmidt have estimated that at a rate of 0.005% currency markets may shrink by 14%. This is due in part to the fact that the margins on some speculative trades are extremely low and these may not continue.
Banking is the most profitable industry in the world, with profits of $788 billion in 2006, which have rapidly returned since the financial crisis, and are predicted by some to double by 2016. Banking is 26 times more profitable per employee than the average of all other industries. (Source: McKinsey, What’s in store for global banking?)
It is interesting to note that this particular response by the Robin Hood Tax campaign refers to a contraction in the currency markets of 14%. Another study – which they plead in aid of a claim that “…risky trading practices played a major part in the financial crisis” – found that a contraction in transaction volumes of between 25% and 75% was to be expected, depending on the level at which the tax was set.
Recall, also, Tim Worstall’s point about bank profits. That 2006 $788Bn profit is less than twice what we are expected to believe this new tax will raise. Yet those profits include the fruits of the transactions which will not now take place.
As to the second “claim” – that ordinary consumers will be impacted – Left Foot Forward merely reprint the comments of the “Robin Hood Tax” campaign. As I’ve outlined above, I draw no comfort from these, due to the lack of any detail about how they intend to prevent consumer transactions being caught.
There is also an indirect way in which consumers will be hit by this tax – pass through. Most transactions, financial or otherwise, take place with assumptions about who will pay the various taxes which may fall due. Virtually all consumer transactions involve an assumption that the consumer will pay the tax (either by law, or because these are the terms on which the business they are dealing with is willing to transact).
Asked about a Tobin Tax, as a response to financial institutions becoming “too big to fail”, a former Chief Economist at the IMF said this:
I think it’s hmm… partially a response, or an attempt to respond, that’s not my preferred line of approach to the problem, I think that would lead to a lot of distortions, a lot of moving of activities offshore. If you did it at the full level of the G20, you might be able to get some traction. Evasion at that level would be hard. But still I think it doesn’t address the core problem which is really about financial institutions that are ‘too big to fail’. Financial transaction tax is more of a tax on regular people like you and me.
The “Robin Hood Tax” campaigners offer no answer for this, because there is none. Unlike taxing profits or wages, the “Robin Hood Tax” would, literally, be a transaction cost. It would probably be hidden from most consumers, who would simply, unknowingly, pay a little extra.
So what about the final “con” which Left Foot Forward admitted, the difficulty of getting international agreement? In an article for Conservative Home, the Chief Economist of Reform said this:
In the almost 40 years since a Tobin tax was first proposed this idea has never gotten off the ground. The reason for this is simple – it will never work. For it to work it would require every tax jurisdictions to agree on it. But the international community struggles to agree on trade talks (such as the failed Doha round) or on climate change (COP 15 in Copenhagen), so the idea that an international consensus will arise over a tax issue is hopelessly naive.
Ironically, it’s from misquoting Nolan and mis-attributing his quote that Left Foot Forward manager to get their misleading headline (‘Tories call Robin Hood tax “hopelessly naive” – despite its backing by world economists’), and this quote sets out the real problem with the “Robin Hood Tax” idea.
Only with broad international consensus can such a tax be introduced, but, as we have seen, such a tax is unlikely to yield the revenue that its supporters believe. It will work the way professional economists expect it to work: making churn transactions within the margin of the tax level uneconomic, and dampening market fluctuations. If we can achieve the unprecedented international consensus needed to introduce such a tax, must we really squander it on something like this?
* * *
I started with a quote from Shakespeare about charity, because underneath the economic issues is a more fundamental one. We are asked to support the “Robin Hood Tax”, in large part, because it will raise money for relieving poverty, both at home and in the third world. We are also promised – although as I’ve set out above, I think this is a false promise – that we, the ordinary public, will not be hit by this “tax on bankers”.
We are asked, in short, if we’d like to spend someone else’s money for them, on something we think is important.
[A] democratic government is the only one in which those who vote for a tax can escape the obligation to pay it.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
There’s something pernicious – and dreadfully left-wing, in an economic sense, about this approach. If we want to relieve poverty at home, or in the third world, we must be prepared to pay for this. We can’t simply assume that somebody else will pick up the bill. That kind of thinking, turned into the Private Finance Initiative, has gifted the next generation with a extortionate bill. Nor should we be attempting to live beyond our means. That’s essentially how we got into the credit crunch to start with.
Who’d have thought the Daily Mail harbours better journalists than the Daily Mirror?
Last week the Mirror couldn’t wait to tell us about their “discovery” that Adeela Shafi, Tory PPC for Bristol East, had incurred several CCJs since 2007.
So hasty were they that they apparently forgot the minor detail of reporting the story – as opposed to merely relating public facts – leaving their readers to wonder what the story was.
As I pointed out at the time, the Mirror (and some left-aligned blogs) went much further than the public information would support, claiming that Shafi had “outstanding” CCJs, or that she had “defaulted” on debts. Happily for the Mirror, the Mail has now bothered to go and do some reporting.
…the [CCJ], for £324,000 owed to her mortgage company Kensington, is listed as ‘unsatisfied’.
Although the house – which was valued at £460,000 last spring – has now been sold for a knockdown price of £250,000 after Kensington foreclosed, Mrs Shafi, 36, is liable for the remaining money.
The mother of four ran into financial problems after setting up a building company to develop the large grounds surrounding the home she shared with husband Ijaz, who was himself declared bankrupt in 2000.
However, despite being approved by local planners, her development was refused permission after the Environment Agency highlighted a flood risk at the site, on the banks of the River Severn.
Kensington, a specialist sub-prime lender, refused to comment on the case. But a spokesman said: ‘As a matter of process, if a customer were to incur a shortfall following the sale of a property, where possible we would enter into an arrangement to repay the shortfall with the customer.’
The Mail bothered to do all the things the Mirror didn’t – speak to the creditor, obtain the facts, speak to other people involved: in other words, report. In so doing, the Mail has answered many of the questions the Mirror left hanging.
But one question it hasn’t answered is the process story: Was the Mirror’s apparent haste, as Tory Bear claimed at the time, down to them having been handed the story on a plate by Labour sources? Interestingly, the Mail’s enquiries vindicated the description of Shafi having “defaulted” on debts – which the Mirror avoided, but others did not.
As if more evidence were needed that the Mirror is a rag, it has worse journalism that the Daily Mail, and apparently worse journalistic ethics than the local press in Bristol – of which Kerry McCarthy noted this week:
…local paper haven’t run it bcs she hasn’t given her side of story yet.
What of Adeela Shafi herself? The existence of these debts doesn’t disqualify her from standing for election, nor from taking her seat in parliament should she win, but the existence of an unsatisfied judgement debt of that size must constitute a Category 11 registrable interest for the purpose of the Register of Members Interests:
Miscellaneous: Any relevant interest, not falling within one of the above categories, which nevertheless falls within the definition of the main purpose of the Register which is “to provide information of any financial interest or other material benefit which a Member receives which might reasonably be thought by others to influence his or her actions, speeches, or votes in Parliament, or actions taken in his or her capacity as a Member of Parliament,” or which the Member considers might be thought by others to influence his or her actions in a similar manner, even though the Member receives no financial benefit.
I’d say that forbearance by a lender from enforcing a debt of that size would constitute something which “…might be thought by others to influence his or her actions in a similar manner”.
It’s not clear whether this story has the capability to change the result. Shafi’s supporters believe they came second to Kerry McCarthy in 2005, once boundary changes are taken into account, and Shafi herself has a strong local reputation. She sits on the board of local Asian women’s charity Humdard (last year her mother Jamila Aftab recieved the CBE for her work with the same group) and was one of the community leaders who fronted a 2005 Kashmir earthquake relief campaign which raised £120,000.
It will be interesting to see whether the #KerryOut campaign is resumed with anything like the same vigour. Having tried to make an issue of Kerry McCarthy’s expense claims, dealing with their favoured candidate’s debts will be a balancing act.
I’m not quite sure what I like most about Liam Byrne’s press release site (calling it a blog would require stretching the term beyond sense).
Perhaps it’s his glacially slow uptake of basic blogging rules, to the point the credibility of his own postings is impaired.
Mostly, I think it’s that reading his mock-outrage, faux-anger, his so-patently-manufactured-pissed-offed-ness, gives me a burning urge to do a bad Micheal Winner impersonation and beg him to “Calm down, dear!”
His latest missive shows us that his tenuous relationship with true anger, as opposed to the ersatz variety, is now mirrored by a similarly strained grasp on the concept of truth.
It has just come out that George Osborne’s plans to take away Child Tax Credits from households earning over £50,000 has fallen apart. It looks like the Tories are going to take tax credits away from families with a combined income of £31,000. We think 1.3 million families are going to be on the receiving end of this kick in the teeth. Im trying to work out what will mean for the over 10,000 families in Hodge Hill getting this vital support so I’ve written to Gorge Osborne urgently demanding answers, and here is the letter below.
Wow. I mean, WOW.
The wheels have clearly come off the Conservative campaign. George Osborne has been caught in a lie that will rebound and destroy his credibility with middle England, with this secret Tory plan to strip tax credits from families earning over £31k.
Calm down, dear, it’s Liam Byrne.
If one reads the letter Liam Byrne wrote to George Osborne – and ignores the ersatz anger – the truth is somewhat different from Mr. Byrne’s blog post.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies summarises Osborne’s proposals:
At its 2009 party conference, the Conservative Party proposed to start the withdrawal of the family element of the child tax credit at an annual family income of £40,000,
rather than the current threshold of £50,000.
Despite quoting that exact passage in his letter, Liam Byrne still manages to say on his “blog”
It looks like the Tories are going to take tax credits away from families with a combined income of £31,000.
Hmm…surely it can’t be both ways? Maybe the letter Byrne wrote to Osborne would help. What does it say about the £31,000 figure?
This week I noticed the IFS confirmed the Treasury’s view that a “more accurate” estimate of your Child Tax Credit cut yields a saving of just £45 million – £400 million. The IFS say a £400 million saving from Child Tax Credits would actually “require lowering the threshold to £31,000″.
That sounds pretty clear and unequivocal. He’s even quoting the IFS. Isn’t he?
What the IFS actually said was this:
An early estimate of the savings from this reform was produced by researchers at IFS and cited by the Conservative Party, and this was that the change could save £0.4 billion a year. However, the government has estimated that the threshold would have to be cut by more – to £31,000 a year – in order to save £0.4 billion.
It is likely that the estimate from the government is more accurate, because the IFS estimate assumed full take-up of the child tax credit. Without access to HMRC’s data, it is not possible for us to say precisely how much money would be raised by the Conservative Party’s proposal having allowed for incomplete take-up, but it can be stated confidently that it would be less than £0.4 billion (because that would require lowering the threshold to £31,000), but more than £45 million (which is what would be raised if the threshold at £50,000 were replaced by a cliff-edge, as this is the total amount to which families with incomes exceeding £50,000 are entitled).
In other words, the IFS doesn’t think either Osborne or the Treasury (Liam Byrne) are right. They think – unsurprisingly – the truth is somewhere in between.
It’s particularly dishonest for Liam Byrne to claim the IFS called the Treasury’s estimate “more accurate”, when they actually said it was “likely [to be] more accurate” because of the Government’s access to data the IFS doesn’t have.
Rather than be content arguing – honestly - that George Osborne may be wrong about how much money he can save with these changes to the Child Tax Credit, Liam Byrne prefers to scaremonger by claiming – falsely – that
It looks like the Tories are going to take tax credits away from families with a combined income of £31,000. We think 1.3 million families are going to be on the receiving end of this kick in the teeth.
The worst part of this farcical attempt to get some good press, is the source. Remember how Liam claimed “This week I noticed the IFS confirmed the Treasury’s view…”?
Did that have anything to do with Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News putting the first entry on her her new Fact Check blog, assessing the strength of the Tory claims to be able to save c.£300m by changes to the Child Tax Credit? The one that appeared the same day as Mr. Byrne’s post, and for which she had been speaking to the Treasury during the day?
She spoke to the IFS about the issue, and then wrote this:
So who is right?
The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) says: “It is likely that the estimate from the government is more accurate because the IFS estimate assumed full take-up of the child tax credit.
“Without access to HMRC data, it is not possible for us to say precisely how much money would be raised by the Conservative Party’s proposal having allowed for incomplete take-up, but it can be stated confidently that it would be less than £400m”.
However, according to Mike Brewer, an economist at the IFS, Labour’s saving of £45m is definitely an “underestimate” because “the Conservatives’ proposal would also save money from families with incomes between £40,000 and £50,000, which was not allowed for in the estimated saving of £45m a year”.
I’m going to repeat myself: In other words, the IFS doesn’t think either Osborne or the Treasury (Liam Byrne) are right. They think – unsurprisingly – the truth is somewhere in between.
At the end of his letter to George Osborne, Liam Byrne rhetorically asks “Can I give you a bit of free advice?”
Here’s some for Mr. Byrne:
Calm down, dear.
In a bizarre development, ITV crime reporter Kier Simmons tweeted:
I’ve learnt none of politicians facing trial over #mpsexpenses were arrested or fingerprinted or had to give controversial DNA samples.
No doubt there were good reasons for not treating these MPs like any ordinary (alleged) fraudsters, and I hope we’ll be told what they are before public confidence is knocked!
Jim Devine appeared on Channel 4 News earlier this evening. It was car crash television.
By the looks of it, he’ll be a treat when he gives evidence in his own defence. Better issue the jury with galoshes – he may simply explode.
What a difference a day makes: the Labour party finds itself with three MPs facing charges under the Theft Act, as does Tory peer (and Leader of Essex County Council!) Lord Hanningfield.
It makes Paul Richards’ Labourlist piece yesterday (“I’ve never met an MP who was either corrupt or greedy, yet the witch hunt goes on”) look rather silly. Richards used to be Special Advisor to Hazel Blears, who was claiming c.£140,000 in expenses a year according to local website Salford Star, so I guess he’s well placed to judge whether MPs were greedy or not.
The truth of the matter is that the abuse has gone much further and spread much deeper. Reading Sir Thomas Legg’s report, it is striking how many substantial (over)payments were defended by MPs on the basis the Fees Office agreed to them. MPs knew – or should have known, since they set the bloody system up – that the Fees Office had no such authority. It’s also worth remembering that Legg dealt only with the Additional Costs Allowance.
Does anyone who has worked in business recognise any aspect of the so-called “expenses” system that MPs enjoyed? The idea of being able to claim up to £250 without receipts? The lavish travel costs? The idea that accommodation allowances would cover such essentials as refitting bathrooms and kitchens, or building extra rooms?
Personally, I think the benefits system is a good comparator for the way MPs were treated. What benefit claimant, forced to divulge copies of their bank statements, forced to explain their living arrangements to a stranger in an open plan office, forced to jump through contrived procedural hoops to get their £60 a week, wouldn’t yearn for a system like MPs enjoyed?
MPs think that the Local Housing Allowance is enough for people to live on? That’s fine – let’s see them live on it. I’m perfectly serious: MPs should be offered a choice between booking into a Premier Inn when away from home or receiving the LHA.
Unlike benefit claimants accused of wrongdoing, many MPs have simply repaid money – and no further inquiry has been made. What makes me most angry about this debacle is not the greed, or the corruption – and it is corruption – but the sheer brazen cheek of these elected people who think that they are above the law. This was never better illustrated that by Jim Devine MP, who, facing charges under the Theft Act, said:
Other people have paid money back. If there’s a problem, and I don’t think there is one, why wasn’t I given the opportunity to pay it back?
You didn’t get the opportunity, Sonny Jim, because it’s an alleged criminal offence. The world doesn’t work that way.
More than a decade ago, I went with a criminal defence solicitor to was “benefits day” at the local Magistrates Court, where the alleged benefit fraud cases were heard one after another.
Some defendants were notable for their stoicism. A builder in his forties stood quietly and impassively as the prosecution explained that he’d been both claiming incapacity benefit and rebuilding people’s houses. He barely reacted when sentenced; it was not his first offence.
Others had intriguing stories. A smartly dressed woman in her late fifties had a string of soliciting convictions from thirty years ago, the occasional petty theft, then she’d graduated to living off immoral earnings and brothel keeping. All this had stopped about a decade before; “She bought a pub and settled down”, her solicitor told me.
By far the most harrowing case was a young woman in her twenties. Her mother was in court, as the prosecution explained she’d been found earning cash in hand while claiming benefits. On her behalf, the defence pleaded with the magistrate not to send her to prison, referring to the circumstances of the offence and her young daughter. The amounts involved are shocking to me even now – she’d been working about ten hours a week as a cleaner, earning a little over two pounds an hour, to supplement the meagre child benefit and unemployment benefit she received – as was the sentence. She went to prison for six weeks, and had to be dragged screaming from the dock, her mother trying to reassure her that her daughter would be alight.
All of these defendants had repaid some or all of the money. They still went to prison – in some cases had to be dragged.
And people wonder why I’m an anarchist.
I’m going to hell for this one, but…I think Cherie Booth was right. Not in general, you understand, but about the decision to give Shamso Miah a suspended sentence.
For those who haven’t been getting dreadfully excited about this case, Shamso Miah came before Inner London Crown Court on 22 January 2009, when Cherie Booth QC was sitting as a recorder. Miah had attacked another customer in a branch of Lloyds, in a dispute over who was next in the queue. The assault caused a minor fracture of the victim’s jaw.
The basis for the complaint? When passing a six month sentence, the judge said:
I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a religious person and have not been in trouble before.
You caused a mild fracture to the jaw of a member of the public standing in a queue at Lloyds Bank.
You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour.
As Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society explained on their website:
…what would have happened if he had been an atheist? Would Mrs Blair/Booth have refused to suspend the sentence on the grounds that non-believers have no guiding principles that tell them that smashing people in the face for no good reason is not the right thing to do?
This is a very worrying case of discrimination that appears to show that religious people get different treatment in Cherie Blair’s court.
Normally, I’d be with the NSS on this one, but the facts just don’t support them. A quick glance at the sentencing guidelines for offenses against the person, and the guidance on suspending sentences shows that the sentencing decision was correct.
For starters, the custodial sentence imposed – six weeks – is spot on. Depending on your view, this was either a “pre-meditated assault resulting in minor, non-permanent injury” – the starting point for which is six months, the sentence inposed – or the less serious “other assault resulting in minor, non-permanent injury”. If it falls into the latter category, the maximum sentence would be six and a half months (26 weeks) and this would clearly be a more serious example.
With no cause for concern over the sentence, that leaves the decision to suspend. The only basis for challenge seems to be the reference to Miah being a “religious man”. He is a first time offender, and the judge’s comments no doubt reflect the submissions made in mitigation by his advocate. If his religious nature make it less likely that he will reoffend, and there for more likely that a suspended sentence is appropriate, why shouldn’t this have been referred to?
The decision to suspend was accompanied by an requirement that Miah complete 200 hours unpaid work. Although this is always reported as “community service”, it isn’t -and I wonder if part of this debacle is down to a lack of understanding about what a suspended sentence really means. Unlike a community sentence (which is not community service) a breach of a suspended sentence will generally result in the suspended custodial term being served. It is a harsher penalty that a community sentence, but also one which – given the state of the prison estate – strikes a balance.
Anyway, part of the fun is to sit back and enjoy the furore, from Andrew Brown’s straw men in the Guardian, to Sunny Hundal’s more realistic but still extreme take.
Iain Dale picked this post as one of “The Daley Dozen” for today.
In a comment to this post, Billy North suggests that Tory Politico’s site design used to closely resemble Politico’s.
That isn’t my recollection.
The snapshot image of his homepage from Wikio (dated 20091103) shows a site that looks nothing like Politico.com.
Here’s a nice case of legal overreach – the owners of US political website Politico, Capitol News Company LLC, are threatening to sue UK political blog Tory Politico.
At the heart of the dispute is the domain name <tory-politico.com> and the logo Tory Politico uses. The lawyers for Capitol News, Dow Lohnes, apparently think both are infringements of their client’s trademarks for POLITICO.
Capitol News has form for this. In September last year they threatened to sue “The College Politico”, a right leaning student blog based in the US, relying on registered trademarks for POLITICO and CAMPUS POLITICO. Four months later, The College Politico is still going strong.
There are obviously grounds for arguing infringement in the US by a US website, especially given the CAMPUS POLITICO trademark, but you might be forgiven for wondering what possible basis could be advanced for claiming that a UK website writing about UK politics infringes a US trademark. It’s not as if Capitol News owns any UK or EU trademarks (on which more later).
What makes the situation complicated is the overlapping jurisdictions. Capitol News is located in the US, and relies on US registered trademarks. Tory Politico is based in the UK, and arguably has unregistered UK (and EU) rights in that name. The domain name, meanwhile, is subject to the Uniform Dispute Resolution Procedure (UDRP) set up by ICANN.
Uniform Dispute Resolution Procedure
Every registrar of .com domains is required to abide by the UDRP, and each contract for the registration of a .com domain commits the registrant to abiding by the process.
The UDRP allows interested parties to bring complaints, asking that a domain name owned by someone else to be transferred to them.
You are required to submit to a mandatory administrative proceeding in the event that a third party (a “complainant”) asserts to the applicable Provider, in compliance with the Rules of Procedure, that
- your domain name is identical or confusingly similar to a trademark or service mark in which the complainant has rights; and
- you have no rights or legitimate interests in respect of the domain name; and
- your domain name has been registered and is being used in bad faith.
In the administrative proceeding, the complainant must prove that each of these three elements are present.
The question of “confusing similarly” is one we’re going to return to time and time again. While <Tory-Politico.com> is not identical to POLITICO (Capitol News’ trademark), it’s clearly similar. Is it so similar as to confuse people into believing that <Tory-Politico.com> is something to do with the owner of the POLITICO trademark?
DowLohnes certainly think so, saying:
[<Tory-Politico.com>] is confusingly similar to the POLITICO mark in that it wholly incorporates the “Politico” mark and merely adds the descriptive word “Tory”…
This is classic litigator nonsense. Tory may be a descriptive word, but so is Politico. It’s a word in common usage which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as
noun (pl. politicos) informal, chiefly derogatory a politician or person with strong political views.
that Capitol News have managed to register as a trademark in the US. Given the use they are making of it – a political news and comment site – their trademark is descriptive, and any distinctiveness it has has been acquired through use. One US legal blogger (and trademark lawyer) noted this last year, when The College Politico was under threat, saying
…[Capital News]’s problem is that although it may indeed be able prove that POLITICO has acquired distinctiveness for online journals, it is still a rather weak trademark because of its descriptiveness. A “weak” trademark means that someone has to really more or less copy it exactly the same way as the trademark is used by the mark owner in order to be considered infringing…
For now, let’s give Capitol News the benefit of the doubt. TORY POLITICO combines two descriptive words, but without creating a new and unusual form that doesn’t describe what it’s being used for. It also appends a descriptive word (“Tory”) to a trade mark. There is a line of authority in UDRP practice to show that doing this does not prevent a domain name being confusingly similar (see the “NokiaGirls” case, for example).
If we allow that TORY POLITICO is confusingly similar to POLITICO, what about the next stage in the test? Does Jason Brown, the blogger behind the site, have “rights or legitimate interests in respect of the domain name”? Given he’s happily used <Tory-Politico.com> for some months, he’s commonly known as Tory Politico, including on Twitter, and his site is not commercial, it would be nice if this counted for something.
Hang on, it does:
How to Demonstrate Your Rights to and Legitimate Interests in the Domain Name in Responding to a Complaint.
Any of the following circumstances…if found by the Panel to be proved based on its evaluation of all evidence presented, shall demonstrate your rights or legitimate interests to the domain name…:
- before any notice to you of the dispute, your use of, or demonstrable preparations to use, the domain name or a name corresponding to the domain name in connection with a bona fide offering of goods or services; or
- you (as an individual, business, or other organization) have been commonly known by the domain name, even if you have acquired no trademark or service mark rights; or
- you are making a legitimate noncommercial or fair use of the domain name, without intent for commercial gain to misleadingly divert consumers or to tarnish the trademark or service mark at issue.
This makes the final stage in the test, registration or use of the domain name in bad faith, a bit of a moot point. But let’s look at it anyway.
Evidence of Registration and Use in Bad Faith.
…the following circumstances…if found by the Panel to be present, shall be evidence of the registration and use of a domain name in bad faith:
- circumstances indicating that you have registered or you have acquired the domain name primarily for the purpose of selling, renting, or otherwise transferring the domain name registration to the complainant who is the owner of the trademark or service mark or to a competitor of that complainant, for valuable consideration in excess of your documented out-of-pocket costs directly related to the domain name; or
- you have registered the domain name in order to prevent the owner of the trademark or service mark from reflecting the mark in a corresponding domain name, provided that you have engaged in a pattern of such conduct; or
- you have registered the domain name primarily for the purpose of disrupting the business of a competitor; or
- by using the domain name, you have intentionally attempted to attract, for commercial gain, Internet users to your web site or other on-line location, by creating a likelihood of confusion with the complainant’s mark as to the source, sponsorship, affiliation, or endorsement of your web site or location or of a product or service on your web site or location.
The first and second heads are clearly not applicable, and while Capitol News could argue the third, the laughter from the UDRP panel in response would be deafening (the “Metrolink Sucks” case is a recent illustration of why). As for the fourth, a quick comparison of the two home pages is telling:
Not exactly screaming imitation, is it? Aside from the logo – we’re coming to that – there’s very little similarity between the sites at all. As the WIPO panelist in the “Metrolink Sucks” case noted:
The Complainant argues that the [domain name], was selected to mislead and divert Internet users. But [the domain name] is ambiguous; it might be linked to the Complainant, but it could suggest a different, consumer’s perspective.
<Tory-Politico.com> presents a very similar scenario. It might be connected with the owner of the POLITICO trademark, but equally it might not be. With no real evidence to show attempts to confuse, that argument isn’t going to get very far.
UDRP, then, is a dead end for Capitol News; short of Jason Brown choosing not to respond to UDRP proceedings, it’s difficult to see how the panel could find against him.
US Trademark Law
There’s a curious, perhaps even bizarre passage in the letter from DowLohens:
According to Alexa.com, only 57.3% of visitors to [Tory-Politico.com] are from the United Kingdom, and the site is ranked 120,293rd within the United Kingdom. Presumably, a significant portion of the non-UK traffic comes from the United States.
Just in case anyone in under any illusion about what this means, let me spell it out. A highly paid US attorney went to a public webstats site, typed in <Tory-Politico.com>, and found this:
I know what you’re thinking. Bad news. No, not that Politico probably recieved a bill for several hundred dollars for that bit of Clouseau-like detective work by their attorney. No, bad news that Tory Politico slipped 18,500 places in the Alexa rankings.
As this graphic illustrates, the statistic has been moving against DowLohnes since they wrote their letter. Tory Politico also disputes them:
While I can understand why they are saying only 57% of visitors are from the UK this is a wholly false claim. According to Google Analytics, which has been tracking traffic since the site launched, 85% of readers are from the UK with only 5% coming from within the United States.
But why does it matter?
If the UDRP isn’t going to help them, Capitol News might turn to the US courts and assert trade mark infringement, but to do that they’d need to show Tory Politico was supplying services (the blog itself) to the US. Hence they want to show a large audience for the blog there.
In the US, Capitol News own a number of trademark for Politico. US TM No. 3350909, filed in December 2006, protects the word POLITICO, and includes the following services in Class 41:
Providing news and information via the Internet in the nature of current event reporting about the activities of the legislative and executive branches of the Federal government, officials and employees of the executive and legislative branches of the Federal government, members of Congress and their campaigns, and other matters of interest to people who work for or with the Federal government.
while US TM No. 3665992, filed in September 2008, protects a specific device – this one:
Tory Politico may have a problem here. The current TP logo is this:
and the similarity to US TM No. 3665992 is fairly obvious. In the UK, this might start to be a cause for concern, but here I start to run out of road. The US trademark system has some things in common with the UK and EU, but there are also plenty of differences. I’m really not sure how the US courts woul;d approach this situation.
Trademark infringement does not generally require that the [alleged infringer] utilize an exact copy of the trademark, but rather, whether the two uses lead to, well, a LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION, which is not so simple, but in essence amounts, as we say around here, to this:
Our analysis is not mechanical, but rather, focuses on the ultimate question of whether, looking at the products in their totality, consumers are likely to be confused.
That’s what makes a horse race! Take it from me: Stylized marks incorporated words most certainly have been found to be infringed by unstylized uses of the same words. Just note that here, however, that the [likelihood of confusion] analysis would have to weighted by the point I made above — the narrow ground of protection afforded a fundamentally weak mark such as POLITICO under any circumstances, which acts as a counterweight to this last point.
["Likelihood of confusion" is both the - trademarked! - name of Ron's excellent blog, but also a term often used as a synonym for "confusingly similar".]
It looks as if Capitol News may have a stronger case before a US court, suing for trademark infringement, than they would before a UDRP panel. It still wouldn’t be a particularly strong case.
UK Trademark Law
Capitol News has never registered a UK or EU trademark for POLITICO. This, in and of itself, is not a bar to obtaining protection for POLITICO in the UK, but it does change the form of the protection.
The owner of a registered trademark can sue for infringement of their trademark, but the owner of an unregistered trademark must rely on “passing off” – literally, an action to stop a third party misrepresenting their goods as being those of the owner of the unregistered trademark.
To get started with a passing off action, Capitol News face the reverse problem they had with US trademark law: instead of showing Tory Politico is providing services into the US, they must show they are into the UK. They have to prove they have a reputation in the UK for providing services (their site) under the trade mark POLITICO.
Using the Alexa test, it does seem that they’d be able to show that:
Having passed that hurdle, Capitol News now need to show a likelihood of confusion – is Tory Politico confusingly similar to Politico?
The design of the sites – the “get up” or “trade dress” – would be vital in a passing off case. As the comparison of their home pages above shows, the two sites are visually different, with markedly different layouts, but they do use similar colours (red, white, blue). Personally, I doubt that any passing off action could succeed in the UK (I know I wouldn’t advise a client to pursue one!).
Two obvious ways that allegations of passing off could be avoided would be to change the site design of Tory Politico so that it’s even further away from that of Politico, or to add a clear and unambiguous disclaimer. Personally, I think this would do the trick:
Jason Brown seems to be anticipating similar action himself, posting today:
For the record I have no intentions of ether changing the name of this blog or transferring the domain name to Capital News…I am refusing to comply with demands [to cease using TORY POLITICO and transfer the domain name to Capitol News]…
Obviously this leaves the door open for a redesign of the site, changing its look and feel, and perhaps adding a disclaimer – probably less direct and unequivocal than the suggestion above!
On a side note, there’s a UK trademark for POLITICO’S, which covers Classes 41 (Political publishing services) and 42 (Internet and website design and hosting; design of political websites). In an ironic twist, this used to belong to Tory blogger Iain Dale, who used it for the Politico’s publishing and bookshop business. He confirms that it was sold to Methuen along with the business, although it appears that Methuen haven’t filed a TM16 to amend the register to reflect this.
[At a stretch, you can see an argument being made for Tory Politico infringing the POLITICO'S trademark in classes 41 and 42, but (given the filing date of 14 December 2001) the relevant parts of the POLITICO'S trademark are now open to a revocation on the grounds of non-use.]
Could Tory Politico get some help from this existing UK trademark? Possibly, but it would need to come from the beneficial owners, Metheun. A licence of the POLITICO’S trademark might see the blog continue as TORY POLITICO’S, but that would mean Capitol News getting exactly what they want. Ultimately, the existence of this UK trademark is just a curious coincidence.
Playing Top Trumps
It doesn’t look as if Capitol News has much of a case on either side of the Atlantic, and certainly not one that a commercially minded lawyer would advise them to pursue.
It wouldn’t need to be, however: the real nuclear option that Capitol News have is to sue in the US, leaving Tory Politico (almost certainly) unable to afford to defend the case. A default judgement from the US court could then be used to get the registrar of <Tory-Politico.com> to hand it over to Capitol News.
Final word to Jason Brown on Tory Politico:
I am anticipating escalation on their part as I am refusing to comply…so in the next couple of days I will be considering my option, this could involve launching a “Save Tory Politico” campaign and a fundraising operation to fund a defence.
Not sure how much creadence I give that – it’s in the Mirror for a start – but would be a interesting strategy if true.
Last week I was making fun of the Guardian leader writer’s selective approach to poll results that favoured the Conservatives. Fair’s fair, I guess – time to talk about a Conservative problem with statistics.
BBC Home Editor Mark Easton has been pursuing a story about crime statistics for a couple of weeks now. He began with a report on David Cameron’s speech in Kent on 22 January, following the sentencing of the children involved in the Edlington attacks, focusing on a question he had asked Cameron:
Easton: After 15 years of falling crime in Britain, is it not unfair to take one very unusual crime as evidence of a broken society?
Cameron: I don’t agree with that. If you take the last decade, violent crime has risen significantly. Gun crime has risen. Knife crime has risen. People know that and sense that.
At the time, Easton questioned this claim by reference to the British Crime Survey statistics (which show a decline since Labour came to power). The British Crime Survey (it’s actually the English and Welsh crime survey, as Scotland opted out) is not a measure of recorded crime, but rather a victim study, based on questionnaires completed by a weighted sample of the population. The 2008/9 BCS (large PDF) estimated that there were c.2.11m violent offences committed during 2008/9, down from 3.59m in 1997.
From this, it’s clear that Easton’s claim that
…according to people’s experience of violence in England and Wales, violent crime has almost halved since Labour came to power…
is wrong in detail (in that the headline BCS violence figure has fallen by about 42% over the period) but correct as to the general trend.
On 25 January, Easton followed up with a blog post highlighting what he said was a fundamental error in the way statistics had subsequently been used by Conservative Party HQ to support David Cameron’s comments. Easton’s key argument related to the adoption, in 2002, of the National Criminal Reporting Standards. As Easton explained it:
The Home Office had been accused of under-estimating violence for years because the decision as to whether an incident was a violent crime had been taken by police. So, for instance, a drunk with a fat lip staggers into a police station and claims that he has been the victim of assault. Under the old system, the desk sergeant might have offered a weary shrug and said that the police had better things to worry about.
After 2002, though, officers were obliged to record all incidents as violent crimes if the alleged victim said that is what it was. The aim was to stop police fiddling the figures and to get a better picture of violence. The obvious result was to send the statistics shooting up.
and Easton repeated this argument on the Today programme on 3 February.
The new procedures that Easton refers to are the Home Office Counting Rules for Recorded Crime, which took effect on 1 April 2002. The key document is the National Crime Reporting Standard (NCRS), but this is not as prescriptive as Easton makes out. One of the NCRS general principles is that:
All reports of incidents, whether from victims, witnesses or third parties and whether crime related or not, will result in the registration of an incident report by the police.
An incident report is not, however, a crime, as the NCRS general proceed to make clear:
Following the initial registration, an incident will be recorded as a crime (notifiable offence) for offences against an identified victim if, on the balance of probability:
- the circumstances as reported amount to a crime defined by law (the police will determine this, based on their knowledge of the law and counting rules),
- there is no credible evidence to the contrary.
Things aren’t looking so good for Easton’s hypothetical “…drunk with a fat lip…” and his chances of reporting an assault are about to be dealt a further blow by the NCRS:
When examining a report of an incident regarding offences related to identified victims, the test to be applied in respect of recording a crime is that of the balance of probabilities: that is to say is the incident more likely than not the result of a criminal act? In most cases, a belief by the victim (or person reasonably assumed to be acting on behalf of the victim) that a crime has occurred is sufficient to justify its recording as a crime, although this will not be the case in all circumstances. Effectively, a more victim oriented approach is advocated.
The fact that a person is drunk or otherwise impaired might have a bearing on the balance of probability issue[.] As a minimum an incident must be recorded and followed up by the police when the person is in a fit state. However, if at the time of reporting supporting evidence exists, a crime should be recorded, regardless of the victim’s condition.
In other words, the desk sergeant can still offer a weary shrug to the drunk’s thick lip, provided he notes an incident report and follows up when the “victim” is sober – which is a deal less prescriptive than Easton suggests. The drunk’s appearance at the front desk does not, contrary to what Easton claims, force the police to record a crime.
Nonetheless, some increase in recorded crime is almost inevitable when a reporting standard changes, especially if – as the NCRS was – the changed standard is intended to catch additional offences. Easton argues:
In 2002, there were 230,704 recorded incidents of “violence against the person with injury”. The following year, the number recorded shot up to 372,124. Three years later, it had risen still further to 543,605.
Now, you might argue that the later figures are more reflective of the level of violent crime, but what you cannot do is compare one with the other to identify a trend. To do so may only reveal the effect of new counting rules, rather than any real change in the level of violence.
There’s an obvious problem with this argument. The change to the NCRS was effective from 1 April 2002 (Easton’s reference to 2002 in the above quote is, confusingly, to FY02, aka 2001/2, which ended on 1 April 2002) yet the crime statistics for violence against the person with injury continued to rise for three years after the change in reporting standards. Even after they declined Easton makes no attempt to engage with or explain away this situation, glossing over it with a comment about politicans wanting to compare statistics today and in 1997.
Here are the facts: In 2002/3 – the first year in which the NCRS was implemented, there were 372,124 offences of violence against the person with injury. This rose for three successive years, peaking at 543,607 in 2005/6, before declining to 506,595 in 2006/7, and continuing to decline until the last year on record (2008/9) when there were 421,157 offences recorded.
In other words, recorded offences of violence against the person with injury are currently falling, but are 13% higher than when NCRS was implemented.
That statement involved no comparison across the boundary of NCRS introduction, and would support a claim that violent crime has risen significantly.
Easton then turns to the references to gun crime and knife crime which David Cameron made, and its difficult to argue with any of his conclusions. The statistics to him offered by Conservative Party HQ seem at first glance to support the claims of increases in gun and knife crime, but suffer from the attempts to compare across the boundary of NCRS introduction.
Indeed, for offences of possession, an additional problem arises: from 2008/9, the police have started collecting separate statistics about possession of “firearms with intent”, “other weapons”, and “articles with blades or points”. Akin to the issues with the introduction of the NCRS, this makes it difficult to compare accurately with the previous figures for “possession of weapons” (which had followed the general downward trend).
What gave a dying story about disputed interpretations of statistics new life was the decision to issue a briefing to local parties, providing ready made comparisons for violent crime rates in local areas over the last decade. The data used to make the tables drew on statistics for the Crime and Disorder Partnerships (CDRPs) around England and Wales, and compared statistics from 1999/2000 with that from 2008/9. Given the NCRS introduction in 2002/3, this comparison was arguably invalid.
Mark Easton was only too pleased to return to the issue in a blog on 3 February, and he took part in a Today programme item on the story, bookending a combative interview of Chris Grayling by Evan Davis. Grayling stuck to the line that it was legitimate to use the figures, given that they were the figures issued by the government – but Evan Davis made the telling point that claiming to be as honest in your use of statistics as the current government is a not particularly good start.
If people were to listen to you, and thought that the current government was selective or mendacious in its use of statistics, and those people who had hoped that you would somehow be different, should now acknowledge that your benchmark for your use of statistics is what the government does?
Ironically, Mark Easton has previously exposed the extent to which the current government has manipulated the release and publication of statistics, not merely their interpretation, for political advantage.
What made the latest mess particularly silly is that a slightly more bespoke and localised approach would have worked perfectly. Take the Slough CDRP, in which offences of violence against the person rose by 11% between 2007/8 and 2008/9. Or Wyre Forest CDRP, where it was up 15%.
Or Runnymede CDRP, where it had risen 29% in just one year.
The real focus of the latest round of this story has been the Milton Keynes CDRP, where local MP Mark Lancaster issued a statement referring to a 236% rise in “violent attacks”. Lancaster, in fairness to him, simply used the terminology provided by Conservative Party HQ, who apparently headed their document
Put the law back on the side of local people across (area) – (name)
Blueprint to tackle crime in (area), as (x) violent attacks took place last year.
despite the fact that a little further down it (correctly) stated
The table below shows the offences recorded in each local area for ‘violence against the person’…
Superintendent Nikki Ross, the acting commander of the local BCU, was naturally less than pleased by the suggestion there had been 6,015 “violent attacks” in the preceding year. In comments to the Milton Keynes Citizen, she rubbished the comparison, pointing out that:
The actual number of people who were victims of serious violence was 81.
In addition there were 2,042 people who suffered a low level assault where minor injury was caused.
Buried in her comments is reference to the fact that overall crime in Milton Keynes had fallen 2% in the preceding year. This may be perfectly correct, but violence against the person was actually up 1%, and robbery had risen 4%. These may not be the >200% rises that the Conservative Party HQ document offered, but they’re perfectly reasonable stats to use for local campaigning.
Ultimately, then, this story may not be about government data, or about its interpretation, but about the need for local approaches to local campaigns, tailored to local realities – whether those happen to be local issues, or local crime statistics.
At the risk of turning this into a bad journalism blog, I have to mention the BBC News story on Sally Bercow’s “spat” with EyeSpyMP. It does also raise some interesting questions about the interface between the law of privacy and modern commstech.
For those who aren’t political cognoscenti/anoraks, Bercow(S) is married to Bercow(J), otherwise known as the Speaker of the House of Commons, and right now she’s not politically notable for any other reason, although she is apparently to stand for Westminister Council in May. As a Labour candidate.
My personal favourite is the quote from Nadine Dorries at the end of this article.
How can we ask the people to trust us, when the man who holds us to account has such poor judgment that he allowed his wife to give such an appalling, self-obsessed interview?
My emphasis, of course. Reading that, isn’t it if the 1918 Representation of the People Act was never passed – save that if it hadn’t been we’d at least be spared Nadine.
As to EyeSpyMP, which is definitely more obscure to the man in the street than Bercow(S), this is a Twitter account which tweets crowd-sourced sightings of MPs received via e-mail.
Er…no. Breakfast, apparently.
That prompted Sally Bercow to tweet this a few hours later:
Dear @eyespymp, I am going out now. To do school run. I am not an MP. I just live here. So stop reporting my movements. Thank you.
and the reply from EyeSpyMP was predictable
Dear @SallyBercow you Twitter your movements far more than we do, you love the limelight. We are a crowd not an individual.
even if it did rather ignore the distinction between an individual choosing to tweet about their movements, and other people doing so. Sally Bercow responded
@eyespymp You are not being v. nice. You are clearly a bunch of Tories.
Quite why this is news worthy is another matter. The BBC website’s policy of not attributing stories to specific journalists is really annoying at times like these (I accept that approach from the Economist, but they earn the privilege with a consistently high standard of journalism) as it would be interesting to see who is responsible. I suspect that north of 90% of the population have never heard of Sally Bercow, and north of 99% have never heard of EyeSpyMP. It must have been a slow news day down at Television Centre.
One of the interesting aspects of this is one the BBC missed completely (quellé suprise). Bercow(J) and Bercow(S) are both public figures, but their children aren’t. If Sally Bercow’s objection had been about mentioning them, it would have been entirely valid.
Last month, EyeSpyMP tweeted
http://twitpic.com/z8021 – George Osborne taking tea in PCH with a child. His Chief Economic Advisor?
which prompted one of its followers to reply
Ah, now, steady on – covertly taking pics of people’s kids and posting them on the Internet is, as they say, not cool.
Despite an amusing reply from EyeSpyMP, the point is perfectly valid. Even if we accept that MPs and other politicians lose some privacy as part of becoming a public figure, does the same go for anyone interacting with them on a daily basis?
During a writing seminar last year I was asked to identify a technology which would change the world. I chose the ViconRevue pendant camera, which has the potential to transform the way we think about privacy in our daily lives. If every interaction is being recorded, not by some monolithic state or corporation, but by each of us, what does privacy mean?
A fundamental problem for the law in this area is the way in which new technologies – especially “microblogging” – change the nature of communication. Where seeing a famous person in the street might once have been a topic for conversation with friends, it is now something that can be published to and shared with the world at the click of a button.
In its ruling in the Gillan and Quinton case (see my blog post here), the European Court of Human Rights said this:
The Court’s case-law [has] made it clear that an individual did not automatically forfeit his privacy rights merely by taking his personal items into a public place such as a street. Moreover, the common thread running through Article 8 was personal autonomy. That concept was substantially undermined by the police power to require submission to a coercive search in a public place, particularly since the lack of prior notice entailed that everyone had to assume that, wherever they went in public, they might be required to submit to a search.
While the context of Gillan and Quinton (police search powers) is utterly different, it is important to remember that the ECtHR decision rested on Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights
Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
It was Article 8 that provided the foundation for the decision in Mosley v News Group Newspapers Ltd, following the Court of Appeal’s decision in Murray v Big Pictures (UK) Ltd earlier that year. Murray is particularly relevant because of the facts of the case – it involved photographs of one of J K Rowling’s children, taken in a public place, and subsequently published.
The Murray case never came to trial (contrary to hyperbolic headlines from various newspapers) so there is no answer here. As Pinsents pointed out later that year, the best we can say is that filming or photographing in public will sometimes be an invasion of privacy.
Microblogging someone’s movements has yet to come before the UK courts, but it is difficult to see how the courts could coherently hold it to be markedly different from photography. God help them if they are confronted with the ViconRevue pendant camera; we may be cleaning exploded judge-head from the inside of the Royal Courts.
But naturally, the BBC report on Sally Bercow v EyeSpyMP missed the interesting bit. I guess they prefer just quoting other people to doing actual reportage; maybe they’ve worked for the Mirror.