I'm back!

Not that I've been away all that much, a quick trip to the Isle of Wight to spend Christmas Day with my Mum and John (step-dad).

I have for many years now wondered why, despite being probably the easiest person in the world to buy presents for, as a cooking, reading, perfume wearing, chocolate eating female that Santa has been concentrating, in a very sensible and methodical manner, on building up my Wedgwood dinner service. Not that I really mind, as I love my Wedgwood dinner service and its original existence on my wedding list is actually the most forceful reminder to me that I was once actually married. But I've often wondered why Santa never saw fit to bring me say, a boxed set of The West Wing DVD,as just one example.

I am, after all possibly one of the easiest people in the world to buy presents for!

But it now seems a breakthrough has been made, Santa has noted that I am in fact a Lib Dem! Because what did Santa put in my stocking this year(amongst other things to be fair to the old man)? A low voltage, environmentally friendly light bulb!!!

Because of course, that is what you buy a woman who is easily the easiest person in the world to buy presents for, isn't it? A light bulb!

Am I sounding ungrateful? I'm not, honest...because they're not cheap and it is already in use as the light bulb in my study went this morning; I'm in the process, as is Ming I understand, of replacing horrid high voltage greedy light bulbs with the environmentally friendly ones as they run out.

I am cheered to be honest, because the message that we are the most environmentally aware of the main stream political parties is getting out there and even Santa know its true!

(Before anybody gets too cross with me, I did get some other really lovely presents from Santa, for which I'm really grateful but found a light bulb just one of the more surreal ones!)

Just because I'm paranoid....

Well, yes, but just because I may be being paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get us! There I was reading, on the suggestion of the Free Think Blog a perfectly innocent article on free will and neurology and then more came up against the implications of a DNA database that captures innocent people’s DNA.

From the Economist – on their article on neurology and free will.

“At the moment, the criminal law—in the West, at least—is based on the idea that the criminal exercised a choice: no choice, no criminal. The British government, though, is seeking to change the law in order to lock up people with personality disorders that are thought to make them likely to commit crimes, before any crime is committed.

Such disorders are serious pathologies. But the National DNA Database being built up by the British government (which includes material from many innocent people), would already allow the identification of those with milder predispositions to anger and violence. How soon before those people are subject to special surveillance? And if the state chose to carry out such surveillance, recognising that the people in question may pose particular risks merely because of their biology, it could hardly then argue that they were wholly responsible for any crime that they did go on to commit.”

I suppose I’m getting some comfort from the fact that I keep picking up references to the wider implications of this DNA database in the media and so hopefully, it might start to snowball into something, but am I the only person noticing how close we’re getting to Big Brother (and that’s the Orwellian version) here?

You do have something to fear

Two items in the news today have got me back up on my civil liberties soap box; one from the Today programme and one picked up from my reading of someone else’s discarded Metro on the Victoria Line but both about Government databases.

At 6.30am this morning there was concern around the fact that everybody’s medical records were going to be put on the national NHS Patients Records database for all health professionals to see and the only way you could have your personal information excluded from this process was to plead that you would suffer considerable ‘emotional distress’ – although whether that is more or less than the amount of emotional distress required to explain why you would have emotional distress, I don’t know. All getting a bit ‘yes, minister’ around here….

Or at least, if it was the slightest bit funny, it would.

The second is about the DNA database and the numbers of ‘innocent’ people on it. Having googled the whole subject, I have discovered (from Lynne Featherstone’s website) that not only are 25% of the people on the database innocent but that in London, 57% of the innocent people on the database are in fact non-white. A third of all the black population in England & Wales is already on the database.

These databases, at first thought, which might be the only one that most of us give them, might seem to be attempting a general good. After all a database is only recording fact, isn’t it? And after all, in both cases the innocent have nothing to fear do they?

But it’s not that simple – already we can see that the DNA database is becoming racially skewed, to mirror a racial skew in the police’s stop and search and questioning policy. It is also at risk of being used for research purposes to racially profile suspects DNA. If the DNA were being collected in a random fashion it would not be as potentially socially explosive.

Ok, as one contributor to the BBC message board put it today, so what if someone over the other side of the country can see I’ve got a problem with my leg or my kidneys? But what happens when a record gives an indication of a more socially loaded condition, such as alcoholism, what then? What if the concerns around security do come true, what then?

If information is power then we are giving more and more power to government employees and governments and fundamentally changing the relationship between the state and the citizen.

Yet, as Shami Chakrabarti points out time and again, this is something we are sleep walking into. Why do so many of my non political friends not care, or feel slightly uncomfortable about it but shrug and accept it? I think, mainly, because they don’t think it will ever happen to them. And just like they can’t imagine ever needing to flee their country and claim asylum or not being able to get a visa for anywhere in the world they may choose to visit; they can’t imagine getting on the wrong side of a database.

“First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me”

Martin Niemöller

I’ve probably rambled a bit and tried to get too many ideas into this blog and perhaps when I’ve been going for years I might be able to control my desire to get everything out at once. It is something gets me really exercised, as you can probably tell.

Sunday morning, as it should be....

As I write, the Archers omnibus has just started, I am sitting in the bay window of my living room watching all the birds in my garden and a very greedy Squirrel moving his treasure around the garden. I've just finished the most gloriously fattening breakfast of cinnamon eggy bread with greek yoghurt, banana and maple syrup! I've read theleft overs of yesterday's independent and all is well in the world - well, clearly all is not well in the world at large, but it's all very pleasant at the Garden Flat!

Yesterday, I nearly finished my Christmas cards - I wrote 70, having already posted about 60 and still have another 20 or so to do - well, they will have to go first class. It is a ridiculous number of Christmas Cards to send out but, I just love receiving them and therefore......

Anyhow, I have a reprieve from Christmas Card writing this morning as I have run out of them and instead have to make a start on Christmas present wrapping. Again, all just in time, as I am taking my 'friend/mentee' to the Science Museum this afternoon and this is the last time I will see him before Christmas. I was matched with Simon two years ago by a small charity working in Camden & Islington called Friends United Network, an excellent programme and whatever Simon has gained from our friendship, I'm sure that I have gained more!

I'm going to call him Simon in this blog, which is not his name, but it's not possible to go publicising a 15 year old's name on a public blog. We're going to see the space capsule as we caught the end of the Apollo movie last weekend, while decorating the Christmas Tree, and Simon didn't know you could see one in London. He is dead keen on Science, a thing that can only be encouraged!

Just one thing that jars about this morning. Last week, I caught sight of the adverts for Adam & Ian's wedding and they were using pictures of the actors!!! I wish they'd stop! It is playing havoc with the world of Ambridge that sits in my imagination! Outrageous!

Who stands to gain...

You know there's this rule of thumb, that if you want to know who has leaked something to the press ,then look at who has most to gain.

Well, you could also apply that to pressure on the government; if you want to understand whether it really is commercial or national security that has led Blair to instruct the SFO to drop the case against BAe then look who has most to gain.

According to this Guardian Online article BAe share value has risen by £900m since the news!


Do we know if our security threat staus has gone down at all?

National Security, my foot!

Sure, it’s realpolitik ….

..but is it what we really want and shouldn’t we be striving for something different?

Today’s news that the Attorney General has stooped the Serious Fraud Office investigation into corruption of a £billion Saudi arms deal is depressing, if unsurprising. That the Blair government have sought to manipulate the legal process is just one more of many nails in the coffin of New Labour’s much trumpeted ethical foreign policy 10 years ago.

They quote our national interest, security, peace in the Middle East (as if that’s worked!) as reasons. They say, commercial interests were absolutely nothing to do with it. Even if that were true, nobody is going to believe it.

And those commentators supporting the intervention and its explanation quote ‘realpolitik’, that that’s the way the world works.

A familiar refrain that reminds me of being back at Aberystwyth in my ‘International Relations Theory’ seminars! Where at the beginning of the 19th century those who believed that realpolitik, self fulfilling as it was, was the only way to operate called themselves ‘realists’ and called those who believed in international cooperation the ‘idealists’; they meant it in its pejorative sense.

And already, I can feel the ‘realists’ pat me on my little blond head, as they smile condescendingly at my naivety in actually believing that things should be done differently.

Well, first I would question, as many others have done today, whether this is in our national interest. Perhaps it is in the short term interests of the 4,000 BAe employees but I fail to see in the wider, longer term how deploying corrupt tactics cosy up to the Saud family is a sound foundation to our long term economic interests.

Sadly, it is not just that it is ineffective but that it has such far reaching implications.

It shows that BAe is effectively above the law. It shows that a foreign government can effectively blackmail the UK government. It shows other governments that the UK is not capable of maintaining its own standards, it’s own laws. Dictatorships, military leaders, phoney democracies; they’ll all got the message that the UK doesn’t care about the rule of law. And what is good enough for us, is surely good enough for them?

And, in whose national interest? How it is my interest for a government to collude with a country that has such an appalling human rights record? Where the female half of the population are not even treated like second class citizens but not even treated as human beings. We have a long way before we rid our own country of misogyny e.g. lad’s mags that offer its readers the chance to win plastic surgery for their substandard girlfriends. So if we support a regime such as Saudia Arabia, what message are we sending to those who objectify and belittle women in our own country let alone the other misogynistic regimes of the world? Would we find friendship with this country so important if the issue were not one of gender but of race?
As someone who believes in the rule of national and international law this is a sad and depressing day. But even if I thought that the end justified the means, I would question that this action by the government gets us anywhere near the place we want to reach. Shame on them.

Do you feel safer now?

Over the last few days, on the pathway out of Sydenham Hill Station the Safer Neighbourhood Team for Southwark’s College Ward have put up notices about a mugging that took place on many of the commuters' route home.

As a Chair of an adjacent Safer Neighbourhood Team Residents Panel (Crystal Palace, of course!!), I probably recognise more readily evidence of community policing that goes on and am always heartened to see the teams are reaching out to the residents.

Part of the rationale behind the creation of the Safer Neighbourhoods teams is to try and close the gap between perception and fear of crime and the actual crime on the ground. You know the kind of stuff: elderly people terrified of going out when in fact the group most likely to be victims of crime are young men between 15 and 25 or the belief that crime is on a continuous upward spiral when in fact it is down on previous years figures.

We want our police to be visible and back on the beat; not in cars zooming from one emergency to anther with a flashing blue light on top.

But I did wonder, as I read about the muggings and the team’s warnings to commuters, whether notices like those actually made me feel safer.

In the 18 months or so that I have been involved in the Safer Neighbourhoods project I have watched our team change from a group of police who seemed to have come into the force to drive police cars fast to a group that have chosen community policing and care passionately for the area and the quality of life of the residents.

This, I believe will be Sir Ian Blair’s lasting legacy, as this switch to community policing is an enormous cultural change for the Metropolitan Police Service and as always, cultural change can only come from the top. Policemen and women will want to work on these teams only if community policing is valued by their bosses.

After reflection, I think I do feel safer – because the police are there, on the case and making efforts, not just to arrest the criminals, but to prevent it happening again and being on the side of the law abiding resident.

Arab women not realising their full potential....

The UN Report on Arab Development came out today. For someone who visits the Middle East regularly, this report resonates well with my own experiences in trying to engage with the people I know there in debate on issues of freedom of speech and women’s rights.

I’m currently having a, at times very heated, debate over email and text message with a Bedouin friend of mine as to why I think sharia law and human rights are mutually exclusive.

My friend and I often stumble in our debate as I see it as the most normal and necessary process in the world to interrogate and scrutinise everything from religion to a parent’s decision to take a girl out of school to help look after her younger siblings. He sees this as a disrespectful attack on his religion and traditions. We struggle to even agree on the terms of the debate.

This report is a bit like knowing the Myers Briggs preferences (I’m an INTJ, by the way) of someone but for a whole region. It helps me understand better why my desire to debate is so often rejected and that I may need to reframe my approach – although I haven’t quite worked out how yet!

It also confirms a concern I had when I read on the BBC website that around 40% of Muslims (polled in February 2006) in Britain wanted to introduce sharia law to the UK. UK development and economic success didn’t happen by accident; they are a result of our values and traditions of free speech, human rights and equality before the law – we can’t just cream off the bits we like and dump the rest. They come as a package.

I have sent a link to the report to my friend; I’m interested to find out what he thinks of it!

Are MPs overpaid wasters…..?

Last night, I went to the Hansard Society’s ‘do’ at Portcullis House on the publication of it’s report by Gemma Rosenblatt entitled ‘a year in the life; from member of public to member of parliament’.

It’s an interesting report, especially for an aspirant politician like me. During the debate, prompted by the fact that MPs have been talking about salary rises again, one of the audience asked the panel if MPs are worth £100,000 per year.

The response of most of the panel was: some are, some aren’t – a response that it’s hard to disagree with, unless you are Anne Treneman, who was quite clear that they’re not worth it. The prevailing view in the media seems to be that MPs are a bunch of wasters who are only ever trying to screw as much money out of the government as possible!

This is unfair! There will be elected officials whether councillors, assembly members or MPs who abuse the system but the idea that someone becomes an MP for the money is just rubbish.

£60,000 is a lot of money but in trying to work out if MPs deliver value for money – hard, as there is no job description – we might be better off looking at the hourly rate. If you take the fact the average MP in their first year works 70 hours a week (according to Hansard’s Report) that’s only £18 per hour*, the amount that a good PA in London can command! So, lets get it into perspective!

I am really worried about how our politicians at all levels are portrayed as low life by the media; it is harmful to our democratic process and it stops people from joining in and getting involved.

There are those that bring it on themselves and there are those that give all others a bad name. Would that I might have the opportunity to find out what it is about power that seems to corrupt many politicians. But it doesn’t corrupt all and we need to remember that and make being a politician something for young people, from all backgrounds, to aspire to!

Now, how do we do that….?

*assuming 6 weeks holiday per year, which many of them won’t take.

First Post....

...and I'm a bit nervous as, up until recently, I'd always considered blogs in the same vein as slightly self indulgent Christmas newsletters. However, in the last few weeks I've found myself perusing other people's blogs and leaving comments and am now converted! As, I imagine, with most other bloggers, I also feel the need to start doing a bit of agenda setting.

Although, it would be perfectly in character to witter on about nothing much at all (and is very tempting, at this point in time when nobody knows I'm writing it) I am going to at least attempt to only blog when I have something that may be of interest to someone else!

If I'm not posting, it's either because life has got ridiculously busy (one of my reasons for not blogging before is that I should be doing the things on my to do list instead) or I'm doing more shopping, gardening and eating then perhaps I'm ready to let on about.

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