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Sunday, January 19, 2020

The new threat posed by face recognition technology

Back in May 2019, a former Liberal Democrat Councillor in Cardiff went to court to claim that the suspected use of facial recognition technology on him by South Wales police was an unlawful violation of privacy. Ed Bridges alleged that his image was captured by facial recognition cameras when he popped out for a sandwich in his lunch break and, quite rightly, objected to what he saw as a further extension of the surveillance state.

Facial recognition technology maps faces in a crowd and then compares them to a watchlist of images, which can include suspects, missing people and persons of interest to the police. The cameras scan faces in large crowds in public places such as streets, shopping centres, football crowds and music events such as the Notting Hill carnival:

Dan Squires QC, representing Bridges, said: “What AFR [automated facial recognition] enables the police to do is to monitor people’s activity in public in a way they have never done before.”

He said: “The reason AFR represents such a step change is you are able to capture almost instantaneously the biometric data of thousands of people.

“It has profound consequences for privacy and data protection rights, and the legal framework which currently applies to the use of AFR by the police does not ensure those rights are sufficiently protected.”

Just how big a threat to individual privacy and freedom is now becoming apparent, with this article in the New York Times outlining some frightening developments in this technology that leaves it open to widescale abuse.

The paper reports on a company called Clearview AI, which has devised a ground-breaking facial recognition app. You take a picture of a person, upload it and get to see public photos of that person, along with links to where those photos appeared. The system — whose backbone is a database of more than three billion images that Clearview claims to have scraped from Facebook, YouTube, Venmo and millions of other websites — goes far beyond anything ever constructed by the United States government or Silicon Valley giants.

According to the paper, Federal and state law enforcement officers said that while they had only limited knowledge of how Clearview works and who is behind it, they had used its app to help solve shoplifting, identity theft, credit card fraud, murder and child sexual exploitation cases:

Until now, technology that readily identifies everyone based on his or her face has been taboo because of its radical erosion of privacy. Tech companies capable of releasing such a tool have refrained from doing so; in 2011, Google’s chairman at the time said it was the one technology the company had held back because it could be used “in a very bad way.” Some large cities, including San Francisco, have barred police from using facial recognition technology.

But without public scrutiny, more than 600 law enforcement agencies have started using Clearview in the past year, according to the company, which declined to provide a list. The computer code underlying its app, analysed by The New York Times, includes programming language to pair it with augmented-reality glasses; users would potentially be able to identify every person they saw. The tool could identify activists at a protest or an attractive stranger on the subway, revealing not just their names but where they lived, what they did and whom they knew.

And it’s not just law enforcement: Clearview has also licensed the app to at least a handful of companies for security purposes.

“The weaponization possibilities of this are endless,” said Eric Goldman, co-director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University. “Imagine a rogue law enforcement officer who wants to stalk potential romantic partners, or a foreign government using this to dig up secrets about people to blackmail them or throw them in jail.”

As the New York Times points out, Facial recognition technology has always been controversial. It makes people nervous about Big Brother. It has a tendency to deliver false matches for certain groups, like people of color. And some facial recognition products used by the police — including Clearview’s — haven’t been vetted by independent experts.

Clearview’s app carries extra risks because law enforcement agencies are uploading sensitive photos to the servers of a company whose ability to protect its data is untested.

The paper says that police departments have had access to facial recognition tools for almost 20 years, but they have historically been limited to searching government-provided images, such as mug shots and driver’s license photos. In recent years, facial recognition algorithms have improved in accuracy, and companies like Amazon offer products that can create a facial recognition program for any database of images.

This goes far beyond anything South Wales Police have used, and underlines the frightening potential of technology that has now fallen into the hands of the private sector, with no guaranteed security for their databases. You could potentially be scanned anywhere, and the person in control of that technology would instantly have access to every piece of data you have put on-line.

But before anybody starts to think this is an effective law enforcement tool, even Clearview admit that it is not always accurate and that mismatches can occur. The company says its tool finds matches up to 75 percent of the time. But the paper say it is unclear how often the tool delivers false matches, because it has not been tested by an independent party such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal agency that rates the performance of facial recognition algorithms.

“We have no data to suggest this tool is accurate,” said Clare Garvie, a researcher at Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology, who has studied the government’s use of facial recognition. “The larger the database, the larger the risk of misidentification because of the doppelgänger effect. They’re talking about a massive database of random people they’ve found on the internet.”

The article's conclusion is chilling: Even if Clearview doesn’t make its app publicly available, a copycat company might, now that the taboo is broken. Searching someone by face could become as easy as Googling a name. Strangers would be able to listen in on sensitive conversations, take photos of the participants and know personal secrets. Someone walking down the street would be immediately identifiable — and his or her home address would be only a few clicks away. It would herald the end of public anonymity.

Surely it is time for legislation to protect people's privacy before this technology hits the UK.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Police PR blunder raises alarm

A police counter-terrorist briefing document may well have been designed as “a guide to help them identify and understand the range of organisations they might come across” as they claim, but the clear impression being given is that they are seeking to smear legitimate and non-violent protest groups who are exercising their democratic rights. I am not surprised that those identified in the briefing are angry and confused.

The Guardian reports that the document, which was distributed to medical staff and teachers as part of anti-extremism briefings, included Greenpeace, Peta and other non-violent groups as well as neo-Nazis. The guide, produced by Counter Terrorism Policing, is used across England as part of training for Prevent, the anti-radicalisation scheme designed to catch those at risk of committing terrorist violence:

Last week, police said documents uncovered by the Guardian that listed the environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion (XR) alongside far-right extremists and jihadists were a local error.

But the list of groups viewed as a potential concern contained in the new 24-page document includes Extinction Rebellion. It also includes Greenpeace – among whose supporters are Dame Judi Dench, Stephen Fry, Gillian Anderson and Joanna Lumley – and the ocean pollution campaigners Sea Shepherd, whose supporters include Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan. Also included is Stop the Badger Cull, which is backed by Sir Brian May, the Queen guitarist.

They appear alongside a number of extremist rightwing groups including Combat 18 and the National Front, as well as National Action, which has been banned for terrorist violence. The last page of an accompanying visual guide seen by the Guardian advises people to report “any concerns identified via this document” using an online portal for reporting suspicious activity that is operated by Counter Terrorism Policing under the slogan: “Action counters terrorism”.

Police insist the guide is not meant to portray all the groups that it features as extremist and thus needing to be reported to them. They said it is meant to boost understanding of the signs and symbols people may come across, and point to a statement in the document that “not all of the signs and symbols noted within this document are of counter terrorism interest”.

However, on the visual guide the disclaimer appears to refer specifically to a set of religious and historical symbols used by white supremacists including “Odin’s Rune’, “SS Runes” and “Thor’s Hammer”. Mainstream leftwing and environmental groups are not similarly marked.

Either somebody is deliberately trying to squash legitimate campaigning organisations or it is time for the authors of this document to have lessons on basic democracy, freedom and the right to protest.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Boris bonged by Big Ben botch-job

I hope you like my attempt at a tabloid-style headline. I rarely reference the Telegraph, largely because it sits behind a big blue firewall, but the latest lead article is irresistible if only because it is so funny.

The paper reports that battle for Big Ben to bong on Brexit night has 'descended into farce after it emerged that a six-figure sum donated by Brexiteers cannot be used to fund the chiming of Parliament's Great Bell.'

I am laughing so much I can barely type, not just because the whole idea was ludicrous, divisive and downright insulting, but, as with many of the bonkers-ideas thrown out from beneath the Prime Minister's blonde thatch, it was half-formed, poorly researched, trivial and deliberately misleading.

For the record, the reason given as to why the rather incredible £150,000 raised so far cannot be used to set the bells ringing on 31 January is because of parliamentary rules on financial donations. Rather predictably this has set off another round of finger-pointing from Leavers, but as ever, they only have themselves to blame.

Don't you think they should have checked the rules before jumping on this particular roller-coaster?

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Have the Welsh Government run out of ideas on the NHS?

When I heard on the radio that Health boards in Wales could face fines for failing to tackle issues around the amount of time it takes ambulances to hand over patients to A&E departments, I did a double take.

Have we really come to the point where Ministers are so powerless to do anything about the stacking up of ambulances outside emergency rooms and 12 hour waits to be treated that they are having to resort to meaningless sanctions to punish hospitals?

The BBC reports that Health Minister Vaughan Gething is to set up a taskforce after a review of amber response times. He said he was "increasingly concerned" and would not rule out fines among a "range of options" to improve things. How exactly they will improve things remains a mystery.

There were 79,150 wasted hours - the equivalent of nine years - last year for crews waiting outside A&E. The number of patients delayed in this way in November 2019 was 513 - the highest number since March 2016. None of this is new.

As an Assembly Member I was raising similar issues ten years ago.  The fact is that the number of hospital beds have shrunk, staff recruitment is difficult especially in the nursing profession. Because beds are full then patients cannot easily be transferred from accident and emergency, this adds to the waiting time to be seen, and that means that ambulances cannot unload their patients. This, in turn, means that the number of ambulances available for emergency calls is diminished and people wait longer to be attended to.

How does a fine, or even an incentive alter this dynamic? In fact what is even meant by a fine? Hospitals are funded by public money. Is the Welsh Secretary seriously thinking of taking some of that money off them as a punishment, thus adding to their deficits, their underfunded services and overworked staff and making the whole situation worse?

The whole system approach, whereby we reduce pressure on hospitals by caring for patients in the community and though primary care centres has been talked about for decades. It involves close collaboration between social care providers (local councils) and health providers (health boards) both in terms of planning and service delivery and funding. We are still a long way from delivering on that vision.

Talk to many health care employees and they will tell you about the wasting of valuable resources, failures to cope with an increasingly complex and expensive care system and problems in liaising or working with social care providers. There is frustration and concern at all levels and in both social care and health care that the system is not working properly and that patients are losing out as a result. A lot of this is due to underfunding, but the failure to reform is also a major factor.

The Health Secretary and the Welsh Government have it within their power to deliver solutions but have failed dismally to do so. Instead they are talking about fines, incentives and task forces to look at the one aspect of health delivery that is a symptom of the problem rather that the cause. It is the surest sign yet that the politicians have run out of ideas and are instead virtue-signalling their own impotence.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Another Boris Johnson claim debunked

We all knew that Boris Johnson was talking nonsense of course, when he claimed that his deal with the EU would not include checks in the Irish Sea, so it is gratifying to be proved right by the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.

He has confirmed to the European Parliament that there will be “checks and controls” between Britain and Northern Ireland under the agreement that will govern the UK’s exit from the EU, despite Boris Johnson falsely claiming several times during the general election campaign that there this would not be the case.

The Independent rather charitably suggests that the prime minister could have misunderstood the agreement he had signed. An alternative suggestion is that Johnson was lying to the public as the text of the deal signed in November is clear that there will indeed be checks:

“The implementation of this foresees checks and controls entering the island of Ireland,” Mr Barnier said during a sitting of the European Parliament.

“I look forward to constructive cooperation with British authorities to ensure that all provisions are respected and made operational.”

Mr Barnier had kept quiet during the UK general election campaign, telling anyone who asked him – even in private – that he did not want to say anything that could have political impact and undermine his Brexit deal.

Mr Johnson repeated his claim just on Monday, telling a press conference: “Be in no doubt. We are the government of the United Kingdom. I cannot see any circumstances whatever in which they will be any need for checks on goods going from Northern Ireland to GB.

“The only circumstances in which you could imagine the need for checks coming from GB to NI, as I’ve explained before, is if those goods were going on into Ireland and we had not secured, which I hope and I’m confident we will, a zero-tariff, zero-quota agreement with our friends and partners in the EU.”

During the election campaign he was even more emphatic, saying: “We will make sure that businesses face no extra costs and no checks for stuff being exported from NI to GB.”

Yet more misleading information from the Prime Minister. In fact I have a suggestion: instead of fundraising to allow Big Ben to mark the 31st January point of no return, why don't we use any money raised to have the bell toll whenever Johnson is caught out in a lie of a misleading statement?

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Time to revise UK immigration rules

A Law Commission report has confirmed what many of us have known for some time, that immigration rules are “overly complex and unworkable”. As the Guardian reports, the Commission believe that simplifying them in would save the government £70m over the next decade. It may also save many immigrants a huge amount of grief and heartache.

The Law Commission point out that the regulations have quadrupled in length since 2010 and are “comprehensively criticised for being poorly drafted”. When introduced in 1973, immigration rules ran to 40 pages; they now extend across 1,100. The report observes that making them more prescriptive was intended to produce more transparent outcomes but instead rendered them harder to follow:

Nicholas Paines QC, the public law commissioner, said: “For both applicants and case workers, the drafting of the immigration rules and frequent updates makes them too difficult to follow. This has resulted in mistakes that waste time and cost taxpayer money.

“By improving the drafting, restructuring the layout and removing inconsistencies, our recommendations will make a real difference by saving money and increasing public confidence in the rules.”

The need for clarity has become more acute, the Law Commission heard in evidence it received, because more and more applicants are unrepresented and struggle to understand proceedings.

Immigration regulations have an impact on millions of lives every year, the report accepts. “Their structure is confusing and numbering inconsistent. Provisions overlap with identical or near identical wording. The drafting style, often including multiple cross-references, can be impenetrable. The frequency of change fuels complexity.”

The report adds: “It is a basic principle of the rule of law that applicants should understand the requirements they need to fulfil … For the Home Office, benefits include better and speedier decision-making.

“This leads to a potential reduction in administrative reviews, appeals and judicial reviews, and to a system which is easier and cheaper to maintain.” Reforms could result in savings of almost £70m over the next 10 years.

It is little wonder that so few people have any confidence in the current system. Let's hope that government listens to these recommendation.

Monday, January 13, 2020

How will Brexit hit the City?

Our balance of payments has for a long time depended on the financial markets and in particular, on the City of London.

Already, a number of companies are relocated out of the country, losing us jobs and much needed revenue. When I was in Mannheim I was told that property prices in Frankfurt were soaring as a result of financial companies moving their headquarters there from London. The latest threat to the City therefore, must be a matter of concern.

The Guardian reports that the EU will be unashamedly “political” and block the City of London’s access to European markets if Boris Johnson tries to exempt the UK from its laws.The City earns about £205bn a year from European demand for financial services. Trade experts have described the so-called “equivalence” decision as vital for the UK’s financial services sector, which generates 11% of total tax revenues.

British banks, traders and insurance firms will lose their automatic “passporting” rights to work for EU clients at the end of the transition period. After 31 December 2020 they will instead be reliant on the commission providing temporary rights:

A major issue in the EU-UK negotiations over the future relationship concerns the extent to which the British government wants to diverge from the bloc’s rules in various sectors of the economy.

The outgoing governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, said this week that it would not be appropriate for the UK to be a “rule-taker” in the field of financial services after Brexit.

The European commission president, however, warned of the economic costs of seeking a loose relationship with the EU. Ursula von der Leyen was also speaking in Zagreb following a meeting with Johnson in Downing Street.

“We have to find a good balance between divergence and being close to the single market,” she said. “There is a difference in being a member state and not. And there are trade-offs between regulatory divergence on one side and access to the single market. This room now has to be explored in the coming negotiations. In June we will take stock of the progress.”

The European commission will make a unilateral decision before the summer on whether it recognises British regulations and supervisory bodies as being sufficiently robust for its financial services sector to continue to work for EU-based clients.

This issue underlines how difficult it will be for Boris Johnson to disentangle the UK from Europe. If he is working in the UK's best interests then he will accept that his room for manoeuvre is limited. So far though his rhetoric is taking us in an opposite direction.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

EU settlement scheme delays leave people in limbo

The Independent reports that people are being illegally blocked from getting jobs and renting homes in the UK due to lengthy delays in the Home Office’s EU settlement scheme.

Lawyers claim that spouses of Europeans are waiting months for their applications for settled status after Brexit to be decided on, despite the government saying the process should take one to four days – often leaving them with no formal documentation to prove their status.

The paper quotes one case, in which an Iranian woman married to a Swedish man said she had been driven to a state of permanent anxiety after being blocked from opening a bank account and was unable to get a job while she waited months for a response to her EU settlement application.

Experts said there was a lack of knowledge among employers and landlords about the fact that applicants retain their rights to live and work in Britain while their cases are pending, and warned that the issue was being compounded by delays in the scheme:

Christopher Desira, solicitor at the law firm Seraphus and at the European Commission Representation in the UK, said he had seen multiple cases of people being wrongly refused employment and turned away by landlords while they wait for a response on their settlement applications on the basis that they hadn’t yet got settled status.

He told of one case where the non-EU citizen married to an EU national got a job offer, but was told by the employer that he was not able to work until he was granted settled or pre-settled status. It took three months for his application to be concluded, during which he was unable to earn a living.

“People are facing financial issues because of this, and it is often the most disadvantaged people who don’t have the means to get a lawyer to know how to put pressure on the Home Office to work with them to speed up the application process. They are being left in a state of temporary limbo,” said Mr Desira.

“In an ideal world, the employer will understand that freedom of movement applies until the end of this year, but because of all the uncertainty and confusion around Brexit, that employer may not understand any of this. And they don’t want to take the risk, so they insist on asking to see pre-settled status or settled status when they should not do so. Those affected could take them to court, but this is a costly and long-winded process, so most choose to try to find another job.

“The Home Office are educating everyone, but whatever communication they’re doing for this now, it is not enough. We’ve seen multiple cases, and there will be more because we know there is underreporting on this.”

Luke Piper, legal adviser to the3million, which campaigns for the rights of EU citizens in Britain, said he had seen a number of people who had been refused promotions because of their pending applications, but added that while it was “arguably unlawful” for employers to do this, the issue was only likely to grow. He pointed out that the “certificate of application” – which is issued to people once they have applied under the EU settlement scheme and is supposed to prove their right to live, work and study in the UK for six months – was not being recognised by employers.

“In the real world, do you think employers are going to employ someone who essentially has six months to remain in the UK with the potential for a grant of pre-settled status of settled status?” he said.

The paper says that the latest EU settlement scheme figures published by the Home Office showed that 525,200 applicants – more than one in five – were still waiting for an outcome, fuelling fears that a backlog is building up ahead of Brexit.

These delays are impacting on the quality of life of people who have lived and worked in the UK for years, contributing to our economy, as well as causing great anxiety and uncertainty for the individuals concerned and their families.

Is this what we must expect from this government after Brexit is concluded?

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Have the Tories sent Erasmus for an early bath?

The defeat of an amendment tabled by Liberal Democrats, which would have enshrined in law a duty for ministers to try to keep Britain in the Erasmus programme, means that the future is bleak for one of the European Union's most successful programmes.

The amendment would have forced the government to keep the scheme open to UK students after Brexit, providing exchange opportunities at universities around Europe. But the programme spreads its net much wider. For example, Erasmus helps fund work experience in Swansea for apprentices from Mannheim, helping to keep open the two cities twinning links.

I have also come across teacher exchange programmes funded by Erasmus plus, widening the opportunities available to all concerned, including the pupils of the participating schools.

As the Independent reports the House of Commons vote has led college representatives to conclude that there is now “a definite risk” that British students will lose access after the end of this year, when a “transition period” to Brexit concludes:

Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James was among those taking to social media to denounce the outcome, which she branded “disgraceful”.

Following the vote, Lib Dem education spokesperson Layla Moran told The Independent that it should be a “no-brainer” for the government to commit now to Erasmus+.

“Erasmus has transformed the way we think about education,” said Ms Moran. “It has made studying abroad fashionable and affordable.

“Universities warn that no UK-led scheme could ever match the reputation and extensive partnerships that Erasmus has to offer. But rather than voting for our amendment, Conservative MPs are willing to let ministers negotiate away our membership of Erasmus if they think they could do a better job.

“It is time the Tories wake up and smell the coffee – are they in favour of staying in Erasmus or not? Liberal Democrats will fight to stop the Tories taking us out of vital EU programmes, weakening our universities and limiting the horizons of young people.”

So much for taking back control.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Johnson flirts with the far right

I suppose that as his main policy plank is splendid isolation for the United Kingdom, our newly re-elected Prime Minister has to find friends when and where he can. But does he have to embarrass us all by choosing Hungary‘s authoritarian nationalist leader, Viktor Orban as his new best friend?

As the Independent reports, Orban has heaped praise on Boris Johnson, calling him “one of the bravest European politicians”. This comes days after it was revealed that one of Mr Johnson’s top advisers had called for a “special relationship” with the Hungarian government and endorsed its attacks on liberalism:

“I believe a generous and strategic cooperation is needed with the British in the coming period when they are no longer members of the EU,” Mr Orban told journalists.

“I regard Boris Johnson as one of the bravest European politicians,” he said, adding that his eurosceptic Conservative party still won a large majority in December’s general elections despite “the whole world” being against him.

The right-wing leader described Brexit as “a fantastic opportunity”, adding: “I am sure there is a success story in the making there.”

The intervention is the latest episode in the makeshift alliance forming between parts of the Tory party and Fidesz, Mr Orban’s nationalist outfit. Conservative MEPs were previously criticised for standing almost alone among mainstream western European conservatives for refusing to censure Hungary over breaches of the rule of law.

Mr Orban was also one of the first world leaders to be invited to Downing Street after Theresa May took office.

At the helm of his far-right Fidesz party, Mr Orban has centralised power around himself and his allies, cracking down on civil society and monopolising the media.

The government has also been accused of running antisemitic and Islamophobic hate campaigns, notably against Jewish philanthropist George Soros.

This is also the same Viktor Orban whose government was subject to censor by the European Parliament.

In September 2018, more than two-thirds of MEPs backed the censure motion - the first such vote against a member state under EU rule - accusing the Hungarian government of attacks on the media, minorities, and the rule of law.

Not my first choice as our premier European ally.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

On that Harry and Meghan decision

I am no royalist, so I am struggling to understand the reaction of certain media outlets to the decision of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to step down from royal duties and find a different life for themselves.

As long as we are not paying them to shoot off to North America, I don't feel it is really any of our business what they do with their lives.

There are a few tweets on this issue however, which I reproduce below, that sum up the sorry state of much of our media and those who join them in criticising the Sussex's:

I very much identify with the sentiments expressed above. The incipient racism in much of the criticism of Meghan has been depressing. Good luck to them both. I really don't blame them for taking the decision they have.

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

The emasculation of Parliament?

The Guardian reports on claims by senior MPs that ministers and civil servants are not being properly scrutinised by parliament because of delays in setting up select committees.

They say that despite crucial Brexit policy passing through the Commons and the possibility of conflict in the Middle East, chairs of four committees have said they have not yet been given any indication by Boris Johnson’s government when they will be able to sit again.

Their concern is exacerbated by previous accusations that the prime minister and his close adviser Dominic Cummings have avoided appearances before MPs on these committees:

Since 2010, the members of most of the Commons committees are chosen by a system of internal party elections. But it is up to the leader of the house, Jacob Rees-Mogg, working with whips from both sides, to settle on a timetable for those elections.

Parliamentary sources have claimed that the government is delaying the process because of planned departmental mergers which may be postponed.

Senior MPs said they have not yet received any indication that the government will set elections to the committees by next month, as was hoped.

Meg Hillier, the chair of the powerful public accounts committee which scrutinises government spending, said the government’s big majority meant scrutiny was vital.

“We are seeing big promises on policy and projects and need to challenge how realistic they are,” she said. “On the most optimistic plan, committees will not have met for four months on the current timetable. We need to speed up the process.

“Possible changes to government departments should not be an excuse for delay,” she said.

It is these committees that do all the real work in Westminster in holding government to account. Does taking back control mean emasculating Parliament as well? I think we should be told.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Dilemma facing councils on fly-tipping

This article in the Guardian from a few days ago about the rise in fly-tipping in England perfectly illustrates the dilemma being faced by local councils around the UK.

Of course, it is not just England that is experiencing a surge in illegal dumping since 2012, though the article concentrates on that one nation. It is happening in other parts of the UK as well, including Wales. A large part of my caseload as a local councillor is reporting illegal fly-tipping, often material just left in the middle of the street as well as on hidden-away waste land and lanes.

The paper says that fly-tipping incidents in England fell from 1.3m in 2007-08 to 0.7m in 2012-13, but there has been a steady rise since then to 1.1m in 2018-19. Total fines of £1m were levied last year. The million-plus incidents of illegal rubbish dumping in 2018-19 cost English councils £58m to clean up. Most involved household waste being jettisoned from cars or vans by the side of a road.

The paper says that councils are handing out more on-the-spot fines and pursuing more prosecutions. Offending vehicles can be seized and in some cases are crushed. The number seized jumped to 207 last year. However, English councils have lost 60% of their central government funding since 2010, meaning less money is available for action against fly-tippers. Welsh councils are also struggling to make ends meet.

The issue of course is that all councils are trying to cut down on landfill for environmental reasons, but also because the landfill tax and a reducing number of sites where waste can be buried, makes it uneconomic. That means that households are limited in the amount of rubbish they can dispose of legitimately.

All councils are trying to maximise recycling, while at the same time limiting the non-recyclate they will take from taxpayers and companies. Costs of commercial waste disposal are increasing, and individuals are struggling to get rid of items, and surplus domestic waste. None of this excuses illegal fly-tipping.

A lot of this surplus material can be eradicated by better individual management and commitment to recycling. The dilemma for councils however, is that while they are saving money by reducing landfill, they are spending more picking up junk illegally left on the roadside and elsewhere.

Bigger fines will help, but we also need more investment in enforcement. However, the biggest difference could be made if government honoured its obligations to the waste hierarchy and legislated to reduce packaging, and to encourage manufacturers to use materials that lend themselves better to reuse or recycling.

Monday, January 06, 2020

Johnson's 'Festival of Brexit' designed to accentuate divisions

For a Prime Minister who claims to want to heal the divide in our country caused by his championing of Brexit, Boris Johnson has a peculiar way of delivering on his objective.

As the Guardian reports, the UK Government is planning to press ahead with plans for post-Brexit festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 2022 at an estimated cost of £120 million. Of course the two year gap between commitment and delivery is plenty of time for that cost to double.

The paper says that figures from arts institutions have privately expressed concern about the project, which some say is likely to alienate remain-supporting visitors at museums and galleries that are expected to take part.

In addition they say that there had been previous warnings that the idea – announced by Theresa May in 2018 as an initiative that would “strengthen our precious union” – could inflame tensions in Northern Ireland, coming a year after the centenary of Irish partition and on the 100th anniversary of the start of the Irish civil war.

As Liberal Democrat MP, Layla Moran, says: “I’m astounded that the government is going ahead with what is basically a Brexit festival despite everything that is going on. It is a complete waste of money at a time when funding cuts to our schools, hospitals and local services continue despite government announcements to the contrary. The Conservatives are trying to distract us with bread and circuses, but it won’t work.”

If Johnson really wants to heal divisions, he will scrap this idea now and spend the money on essential services instead.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Missing in action

As Donald Trump does his damnedest to start World War Three by assassinating Iran's top general and lining up 52 additional targets, one for each for the American diplomats and citizens who were held hostage in Iran for 444 days from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981, the questions on every Briton's lips must be 'where is the Prime Minister?' and 'what idiot made Dominic Raab Foreign Secretary anyway?'

By far the most disturbing aspect of this whole crisis is the President's assertion on Twitter that "We have ... targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture".

Having accused Obama of targeting Iran to secure his own re-election (something the former President did not actually do), Trump has fulfilled his own prophecy, and is using a crisis he manufactured as a means to try and keep him in the White House for another four years.

In the face of such lunacy, the UK should be standing firm. But no, instead we have the Foreign Secretary backing Trump's irresponsible actions, while the Prime Minister hides away on the sun-kissed island of Mustique, drinking vodka martinis (stirred not shaken) and will not be back in work until tomorrow.

In his absence, Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, has been left to chair three emergency Cobra meetings about the assassination of Qasem Soleimani. This is not leadership, it is the deliberate creation of a moral black hole to avoid upsetting Trump. Surely, we can expect better from our leaders?

Saturday, January 04, 2020

PM's attempts to shake up civil service off to stuttering start

Having read Tim Shipman's account of the 2016 EU referendum it was already clear to me that Boris Johnson's SpAd, Dominic Cummings does not think much of the civil service nor of the way that we are governed.

It is no surprise therefore that he has already put in motion calls to recruit his sort of people to take some of the key positions in the new Tory Government, blogging in particular that he is keen to work with “weirdos and misfits with odd skills”.

Johnson is also proposing changes to the way that the civil service operates, including making those in the most senior positions take regular exams to prove that they are up to their jobs, and ending the “merry-go-round” of officials changing jobs every 18 months. He also wants to restructure government departments. He and Cummings believe that senior government officials are “woefully unprepared” for the sweeping changes they want to implement.

As sure as night follows day however, the institutional conservatism of government has kicked back, and given what is being proposed is the politicisation of our civil service, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

The Guardian reports that one of the UK’s top employment lawyers has said Cummings' blogpost - in which he describes who should apply for jobs at No.10, and which circumvented the usual Whitehall recruitment process, being peppered with the type of combative language Cummings has become known for – is “quite outrageous from an employment law perspective”.

Meanwhile, Mark Serwotka, the head of Britain’s biggest civil servants’ union, said that Cummings’ comment: “I’ll bin you within weeks if you don’t fit – don’t complain later because I made it clear now”, implied that he “wants to hire and fire at will” and revealed an anti-trade union mentality that would be “strenuously resisted”.

In another article in the Guardian, Prospect’s deputy general secretary, Garry Graham, whose union represents government-employed specialists and scientists, said a previous test applied to Home Office staff before promotion was discriminatory:

“The idea of annual exams may be a good headline, but it risks putting the cart before the horse and introducing more bureaucracy and potential discrimination into the system,” he said.

In March, the government paid out £1m to 49 Home Office employees who had been told they would need to undertake a core skills assessment (CSA) if they were to be considered for promotion, which they all subsequently failed.

CSAs have been long criticised by unions that support Home Office staff, which say success rates for BME workers, or those older than 35, have been significantly lower than that of other employees.

Tribunal claims were initiated against the Home Office, which disputed the claims but agreed partway through the hearing, on 27 February, to settle, without admission of liability, and pay the claimants compensation totalling more than £1m.

Graham also questioned whether the new reforms announced by “diktat” will be successful without consultation of staff.

“Ultimately any civil service reform package stands the best chance of success if it is conceived together with civil servants, rather than issued by diktat from the centre,” he said.

If this sounds all very 'Yes, Prime Minister' then that maybe because it is. However, the objections are not without merit. Our system is designed to prevent the likes of Johnson and Cummings riding roughshod over it for a reason, to better protect the democracy that we hold sacrosanct and to ensure that those administering government stay above the fray.

If Johnson and Cummings are determined to take on the establishment then this may be a battle worth watching. I will go and buy some popcorn now.

Friday, January 03, 2020

Tory Government still havent convinced business on their Brexit plans

Boris Johnson may talk a good story, but he has still not convinced the people who matter that his so-called timetable for exiting the EU and delivering a trade deal is deliverable.

Any idea that the Tories were the party of business was lost some time ago in the mists of Brexit fantasy, however now that we are faced with an 80 seat Tory majority, a Prime Minister who struggles with the truth, and the cliff edge looking a much more realistic destiny, the economy's only hope is that business confidence somehow holds up.

Alas, if this Guardian article is anything to go by, businesses are still having trouble believing anything they are told by this government. The paper says that a Bank of England survey has found that growing numbers of business leaders in the UK believe Brexit uncertainty will take longer to resolve than Boris Johnson pledged before the election:

According to the central bank’s decision maker panel, which surveys almost 3,000 chief financial officers from small, medium and large UK firms, as many as 42% said they thought the lack of clarity over Brexit that their business faced would not lift until at least 2021, up from 34% in November.

The findings come as factory output across the UK plunged in December at the fastest rate in almost seven and a half years, according to a separate survey. Both Brexit uncertainty and a wider manufacturing downturn around the world weighed on businesses.

In a sign of the stress firms face, IHS Markit and the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply said that manufacturing production levels fell more in December than they had since July 2012. Factory output also fell sharply in Germany and other EU nations. Activity levels have slumped around the world as the US-China trade dispute continues.

Nearly half the firms surveyed still class Brexit as an important source of uncertainty for their business, leaving the economy poised on a precipice in terms of business confidence and future prosperity.

Without certainty, there will be no investment and that means that any hope of better output and productivity may well be dashed. Despite Boris Johnson's fantasies Brexit is going to be a major jolt to the country's economy and our standard of living. This survey just adds to that expectation.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Federal judge blocks ID requirement for voting due to racial discrimination

The Independent reports on an interesting case in the United States where a federal judge has blocked North Carolina’s new voter identification law, citing the state's “sordid history of racial discrimination and voter suppression”:

The decision by US district court judge Loretta Biggs will prevent state officials from requiring voters to show identification in the 2020 presidential election after critics said the law unfairly targets African-Americans.

North Carolina could be a key state in this year’s election as voters chose Donald Trump in the last presidential vote but also elected a Democratic governor in 2016.

Republican leaders in the state House and Senate have asked North Carolina’s Department of Justice to appeal Judge Biggs’ decision, which blocks the law until a lawsuit filed by the state NAACP and others is resolved.

“North Carolina has a sordid history of racial discrimination and voter suppression stretching back to the time of slavery, through the era of Jim Crow, and, crucially, continuing up to the present day,” Judge Biggs wrote.

The judge said the newest version of the law was similar to a 2013 law that was struck down by a federal appeals court in 2016.

In that case, the court said voting restrictions were approved with intentional racial discrimination in mind and the law targeted African-Americans “with almost surgical precision.

Although this ruling has no repercussions for the UK, it does underline that in most cases the introduction of a photo ID requirement for voting in advanced democracies is done for the purposes of voter suppression. Boris Johnson should take note.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

More lies from Boris Johnson in New Year message

Despite pledging in his New Year message to end the “rancour and uncertainty” of 2019, and who claiming he wants to reach out to remainers, Boris Johnson continues to confound and frustrate any attempt at bringing the country together.

As the Independent reports, the Prime Minister's New Year message, issued as he was enjoying a luxury break on the Caribbean paradise of Mustique, in a reputed £40,000-a-week villa with his girlfriend Carrie Symonds, was just more of the same nonsense with which he bewitched a sizeable number of voters on 12th December.

Johnson insisted he was poised to begin cooking his “oven ready” deal for leaving the EU – a day after Brussels predicted he would be forced into yet another U-turn. He also reheated previously demolished claims that the NHS is about to enjoy “a record funding settlement”, with 40 new hospitals and 50,000 more nurses.

On Monday, Phil Hogan, the EU trade commissioner, predicted Mr Johnson will be forced to abandon his “stunt” of refusing to extend the post-Brexit transition period beyond 2020, because no trade deal will be ready.

But, in his message, the prime minister claimed: “That oven-ready deal I talked about so much during the election campaign has already had its plastic covering pierced and been placed in the microwave.

“We got down to work immediately after the election. The necessary legislation has already begun its passage through parliament and, once MPs return to Westminster, we’ll waste no time in finishing the job.”

Ministers have been forced to acknowledge that there is currently cash for six new hospitals only and that their target is to recruit 31,000 nurses – with a further 19,000 to be retained.

Similarly, the £20.5bn pledged to the NHS by 2024, in real terms, is smaller than the increase it received under Labour in the run-up to 2010.

Yet Mr Johnson said: “One our first actions will be to pass a bill enshrining in law a record funding settlement for the NHS, providing an extra £34bn a year.

“We will undertake the largest hospital building programme in living memory, delivering 40 new hospitals and 20 upgrades.

“We’ll ensure there are 50,000 more nurses, 6,000 more GPs, and 50 million more GP surgery appointments.”

As acting Liberal Democrats Leader, Ed Davey says, if the prime minister really wants to unite the country, he has to learn how to tell the truth.

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