UK's DNA Database Shame

There’s an interesting discussion going on at the Radio 4 PM Blog about the impact of the new stop and question powers that the government want to bring in. My concern is particularly on the impact that it will have on the DNA database and I see I am not the only Lib Dem concerned about this today.

If one assumes that the purpose of new stop and questioning powers is to identify, arrest and convict more potential terrorists or just 'ordinary' criminals, then the police will be able to take more DNA and put them on the DNA database.
Some DNA database facts from Lynne Featherstone’s blog:
· 25% of the people on the database innocent of any crime
· 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.

And now, Lib Dem Research suggests that in 3 years half of all black men will be on the database whether they have been convicted of a crime or not.

As I've blogged before, the DNA database is racially skewed, to mirror a racial skew in the police’s stop and search/questioning policy. This will eventually mean that an even higher proportion of convicted people are non-white (hence the Lib Dem researched projections).

The obvious inability to identify potential terrorist subjects by sight and therefore the need to use crude indicators based on colour of skin, or length of beard or dress underlines why these things are so pernicious. A leap is made from appearance to behaviour and then, in the UK, it gets hard coded into data on databases.

I consider myself very fortunate to be living in Britain and I love my home, the country and the city I live in but when I think about how we as a nation are the world leaders in compiling databases on our citizens such as the DNA database I hang my head in shame.

"Those who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security." (Benjamin Franklin)

Chavez and Livingstone: a tawdry alliance

More reports today than Hugo Chavez has an eye on yet another TV station that he doesn’t like. It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, watching someone pulling the switch on such foundations of democracy as free speech.

But here in London of course, Mr Chavez is our great friend, since the deal done by our Mayor, Mr Livingstone with Mr Chavez back in February for cheap oil to fuel our buses. Yes, Venezuela, a developing country is helping to subsidise the travel of one of the most prosperous cities in the world.

So, what’s in it for Venezuela? Apparently part of the deal is that we are giving them advice on recycling and waste management! Us! In that case one might expect that we are a best practice City for recycling; but we’re not. In fact our recycling figures in London are some of the worst in the world, far behind such cities as Berlin, San Francisco or Seattle.

Not only that, but recycling isn’t even within Ken’s powers at the GLA. He has failed to get his own Government to include in the GLA bill provisions for a pan London waste authority. So presumably Ken is providing advice on the basis of what he’s like to be doing as opposed to what is actually happening in London.

A raw deal for Mr Chavez, perhaps? For Venezuela, maybe; for their increasingly despotic leader, no.

Because what Mr Chavez gets are signed contracts with one of the greatest cities in the world, which he can tout around other countries just like service organisations provide in their sales pitches their list of blue chip clients. London’s business is in effect a loss leader for Mr Chavez.

What Mr Livingstone has given him is an air of respectability that he does not deserve.

And so to my day job....

Today I read with dismay but also a certain level of comfort about the almighty cock up in the development of a ministry of justice. Why comfort? Because as long as the government doesn't follow even the most basic principles of good change management there will always be work for someone like me! And that means I get to fund the new extension to my flat that I've just today commissioned an architect to design! Because this is all a very expensive mistake!

I have to admit that I raised a bit of a professional eyebrow at the speed at which the new organisational design for the home office came out - I gave them the benefit of the doubt that they'd had people beavering away doing all the hard thinking about how it was going to work, the legal and constitutional constraints and making sure they kept all the interested parties on board along the way, for the years that everybody's been talking about it.

But no, my benefit of the doubt was sorely misplaced. Not only was it poorly thought through in terms of feasibility but they didn't even bother to speak to the Lord Chief Justice about it! And where was their stakeholder plan!

This is just plain incompetence and if there are any external companies advising or working with them on this they should be dumped forthwith; and if they're working under a contract that doesn't allow them to be dumped when they screw up like this then, frankly all the OGCs work on government procurement has been done for nothing!!!!!!!


Woman forced to divorce husband

More human rights abuses from Saudi Arabia, well, what a surprise!!

Fatima A has been forced to divorce her husband because her half-brother, her legal guardian, has claimed and won in court that her husband failed to disclose that he was from a tribe with a lower status than his wife to be. This is effectively, under Saudi Law, a breach of contract.

Both Fatima and her husband wish to remain married to each other; they have two children. Fatima is currently staying in al-Dammam Prison with one of her children rather than return to the house of her half-brother. If she contacts her now ex-husband then she will, by law, be guilty of adultery and subject to the death penalty.

In Saudi Arabia, a woman is not a human being but just a possession of her nearest male relative; having asking permission from a male guardian to travel is just the start of it.

I have been trying to imagine what my life would be life if it were to be lived at the whim of my nearest male relative; but it is impossible to compare. In the west we are lucky, with our relatively small families, that we can have close relationships with our male relatives. But neither, my uncle living in Thailand, my two cousins in Australia nor my Step-Dad would ever contemplate telling me what I could or could not do, firstly because the culture we have all grown up in means that they view me as an equal; secondly, frankly, they wouldn’t dare!! Although that last bit may be a function of the first; perhaps my character and my confidence would be altogether different if I were brought up in Saudi Arabia. So, it is hard to imagine any of them ordering me to break up my family against my wishes even if they had that legal power! I tell you something, I wouldn’t want to have been living at the whim of my (ex-)father in law; he certainly wasn’t one of my fans! Apparently he thought I was ‘too bossy’, I can’t imagine why.

But I have acquaintances, who are from traditional Bedouin families (not from Saudi Arabia, I might add, so they don’t have such direct legal power) that have up to 30 siblings – so you might end up hardly knowing the person who has effectively the power of life and death, happiness or misery!

And, no, I can’t even begin to imagine the constraints that one half of the population of Saudi Arabia have to live under. To my mind, this is surely a form of slavery.

And this is a country that we are so eager to do business with, that we suppress investigations into corruption with BAe in order to keep on the ruling Saud family’s good side.

You can find more details on Fatima’s case and how you can help from Amnesty.

Further from peace than ever....

I am feeling miserable and full of gloom for the world and the Middle East today.

In the autumn of 1994 and stretching into the summer of 1995 I spent the lion’s share of my time in the Levant, specifically Israel, Jordan and Egypt. In those days, once you’d paid your airfare, volunteering on a Kibbutz or Moshav in Israel was self funding and was a ticket to a mild winter, at times boredom and more than a passing acquaintance with Carmel wine, of which it was rumoured, had a complete absence of grapes in it! The fact that I saw Jerusalem primarily as a weekend clubbing destination should give you an indication of the fun that was to be had pootling around the region in those days. I arrived on the 26th October 1994; the day the Israel Jordan Peace treaty was signed.

It was a trip that literally changed the course of my life because on travelling to the Sinai, I fell in love, came back to the UK in order to settle down, got a proper, reasonably well paid job with Barclays Bank and the rest, although not an entirely straight path, is history. Somewhere in another a dimension, is Jo Christie-Smith the slightly poorer University Lecturer, who continued on with her studies and didn’t go to work in the City.

So far, so what? Last night it became absolutely clear just how much the lack of peace in the region has spread to every corner. It is a sign of the utter misery of the situation in the Middle East that the very sites of some of the most precious memories of my twenties have now become imbued with the war and terrorism. At times I feel like my anger at what is happening, makes me sound kind of spoilt because frankly my memories are the least of it; but for me, the fact that now so many things that are precious to me are being subsumed into the violence is evidence of the all pervading nature of such violence. If it does this to me, a woman, who just happened to spend a few months of her twenties in the region, what must it do to the people whose home it is?

I haven’t been back to Israel but I have lost count of the number of times I have been to Egypt since.

Just under a year ago, I was holed up in a hotel in Halifax, eating my room service dinner when I recognised on the 10 o’clock news, a bombed out shell of a bazaar in Dahab, Sinai, where I spent the summer of 1995 hanging out with my Egyptian boyfriend, Azima.

Last summer I stood where the blast of the bomb had made it’s indentations into the concrete of the pavement on the exact spot that I had first clapped eyes on Azima back in 1994. In the end, the pavement had got off lightly and by the time of my visit, about 6 weeks after the bomb, the shop had been rebuilt. But now it is the spot where ‘Little’ Mohammed, a young man, in 2006 a great hit with the girls who came to dive in Dahab but who as a 12 year old had trailed around behind me in a persistent, and at times quite annoying manner, was killed by the bomb. His father, who owned the shop opposite for getting on for 20 years, has sold up and gone back to Cairo. How would you be able to face work every day looking out onto the site of your son’s death?

And then last night another 10 o’clock news, I got another jolt. I have been getting used over the last couple of years to hearing the small town of Sderot described by BBC correspondents as a city and each getting quite annoyed because the Sderot that I knew 13 years ago was much more of a large village than a city, as anyone who had been there would know!

I worked on a kibbutz which was in between Gaza and the village of Sderot, so that rockets that fly over from Gaza must have to fly over where I once lived. But Sunday night, and this shows that seeing something really is believing, it came home to me with a thud, as the correspondent delivered her broadcast from the fields in between the village and Gaza; the very fields that I had driven a tractor up and down when I was 23. Another precious memory! I had been so excited that I was being allowed to drive a tractor, even if it was only pulling a trailer of irrigation pipes. As I go about my daily business in London, I don’t have the look of a woman who knows how to drive a tractor (not very difficult, in fact, as long as you’re not ploughing) but it is certainly on my list of my life’s achievements.

No one has died in Sderot, yet, but people are scared and angry and I know that I am glad that I’m not living in Kibbutz Gevim at the moment. What’s more, the price being paid by the residents of Gaza for those rockets is terrifying.

Of course the two incidents should not be conflated; the supposed reasons for the bombing in Dahab (according to the Egyptian Government a result of internal terrorists from northern Sinai, where there is a Mubarak resistance movement) and the rockets going into Sderot are different. But if I feel dismay having the scenes of my memories overprinted with death and fear then think how it must be for the people who live there.

I don’t have some perverse way of picking out future war zones for my travels; the increasing violence in my old stamping ground must mean that it is all pervasive, that in the 12 years since my life changing trip, nowhere is safe, nowhere untouched by sadness and loss. It’s true, it is worse in Iraq and no one knows what would be happening in the Middle East now, if Iraq had not been invaded in 2003. But the worsening situation in the Levant and the Sinai does reflect the action in Iraq. It is too easy to view the region as having a perennial problem, but make no mistake, it is getting worse.

But really, I have no great political point to make in this posting; just to wonder at the situation and to give voice to the sadness I feel for all the people who live there and have their happiness and joy rubbed out by violence.

The trouble with targets

The police federation is complaining about targets and saying that this is not what they all joined the police force for.

OK but all organisations that are spending someone else’s money, whether shareholders or tax payers, should be accountable and transparent in showing what they’ve done with the money.

BUT, lets face it, the government has a real blind spot when it comes to setting targets.

You get what you measure and when setting targets, you have make sure that you actually want what you’re measuring.

Too often, government departments set out to measure activity rather than outcomes. So, what you get is a lot of activity. In the example of the police’s you get a lot of arrests being made rather than serious crime being reduced; in education, you get good test results but kids who get to university unable to spell and in health you get short waiting lists but a rise in hospital acquired infections.

The trouble is, this government, does trust people to deliver those outcomes, it is unconvinced that it will be done their way and so, in the manner of a control freak (and Gordon isn’t even in charge yet) it sets out to measure what actions are taken as opposed to as what outcomes are achieved.

Outcomes are invariably harder to measure and often subjective and qualitative rather than easy numbers but it can be done. I have filled in enough Lottery and other Grant application forms to know that it can be done; it just takes more work and a bit more vision…or…, even.

That said, one concern I have about the call from the Police Federation is their suggestion that dealing with small crimes isn’t what they all joined the police service to do and they should be focussing on large, serious crimes. Well, maybe they didn’t, but an awful lot of money been spent on a new focus, particularly in the Metropolitan Police Service, on community policing and dealing with low level crimes.

Safer Neighbourhood teams are the physical incarnation of that focus and they are as much about the perception people have of crime and dealing with their fear of it as they are about dealing with the big things – there is definitely no rushing around in police cars with the sirens on allowed – our PSCOs, in Crystal Palace, have bikes when they’re not on foot!

Key to this is dealing with signal crimes like graffiti, fly tipping, unruly teenagers and unruly adults and crime prevention. It is slow burn stuff but here in Crystal Palace Ward (where I chair the resident’s panel that provides direction to the team) we are just beginning, after two years, to reap the benefits. The police are starting to get more information about the drug dealing that goes on in the car parks of one of our estates because the residents are starting to know and trust the beat officer. This kind of success will eventually be measured in terms of arrests but in them mean time we need to protect and support the activity. Because what it seems do is change people’s perception and fear of crime and above all improves the quality of their lives.

This approach to community policing and its focus on dealing with low level crime is important and over the last 40 years the direction of the police, particularly in London has oscillated between the ‘Bobby on the beat’ and dealing with the big, ’important’ crimes that the Police Federation and John Denham (Chair of the Home Office Select Committee) seem to want them to go back to pursuing.

However, the model of community policing that is being implemented by the Met and funded by Londoners has not been made up on the fly…it is based on a model developed in the US and the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy that has been in place and successful since 1993.

What it really needs is consistent funding and a belief that successful outcomes will be delivered in the long term and not necessarily in the short term; although, I have to say our experience in Crystal Palace is that it is a bit of both. The Government, the Select Committee and the Police Authorities all have to hold their nerve and not veer back to measuring just large scale crime detection.

I know that I am beginning to sound like a broken record on this, again, but the government and the centre has to trust locally accountable organisations (although not as accountable as I’d like them to be) to deliver and not force them to use just one method of getting to the right outcome.

We must stop measuring just activity; a good start would be to measure levels of satisfaction with the service provided or perception of crime or quality of life.

How to be happy

The government wants us to be happy and well. So now GPs should be prescribing country walks as medicine for those suffering from depression (actually, it’s called an ‘ecotherapy’) and happiness lessons for school children.

I am not going to do a rant about it all being common sense etc, etc because I do understand that the study on country walks, was looking at non-chemical responses to an illness that by its very nature leads the suffers to not believe that anything can improve their life, let alone something like a bit of fresh air. They are therefore are unable to apply such a self help approach without prompting. I am a great fan of cognitive therapies and this one sounds much better than filling someone full of drugs.

But it doesn’t take much to imagine how we’ll soon be getting leaflets through the door and adverts on TV about the anti-depressive benefits of a walk in the park.

What this has a whiff of, and the teaching happiness directive from a government advisor reeks of, is the habit of this Labour Government, promulgated by Blair, Brown and practically every member of the Labour Party I’ve ever met, of trying to legislate for human behaviour.

For some people this does lead them to wander off ranting about the glories of common sense (or maybe that’s just my Step-Dad!!) but what those rants fail to do is find a solution to the problem...which is, for the Labour Government at least, how to ensure that everybody applies the benefits of collective common sense to their lives.

So, Labour takes a typical process driven response which is to ensure that everybody follows the best practice route to achieve happiness. Rather like I, as a project manager, tend to follow a recognised project management approach to ensure the correct outcome for any change I am attempting to bring about is positive.

Many companies and organisations and, indeed, the Government make it ‘policy’ for their employees to follow these project management processes as otherwise they would have to rely on wisdom, experience and talent… which may or may not be there!

And the Government is trying to make it their policy that we too follow the correct process to deliver ‘happiness’ and ‘well being’.

They have to channel the implementation of these polices through the health service, schools and the police as even they cannot currently reach into our homes and make us do it for ourselves; hence why the responsibility for producing happy children now seems to be the responsibility of the teacher and not the parent.

So far, so logical; if not entirely common sense-ical.

But of course, what this betrays is the fact that the Labour party is pretty much convinced that we have neither the wisdom, talent nor experience to be happy or well human beings.

They do not trust us, and so, they step in and sort it all out for us.

Ten years of not being trusted to get on with things has created in many people a culture of being receivers of aid – it is not our responsibility to sort our problems out but the government’s. This is the nanny state in action and all coming on top of the previous 18 years of Tory ‘personal responsibility’, in other words responsibility for yourself, and maybe your family, but no one else.

As a civil libertarian I am all for a small government and am keen to be as free as possible to follow my own path to happiness and take advice from whom I choose on how to get there…if, indeed, that’s my aim.

But I, like many others, am concerned about reports that our children are the unhappiest in the OECD countries, that anti-depressant drugs are being prescribed more than ever before and that there are teenagers living in my community for whom the value of a human life is less than their pride at not being ‘cut up’ by another’s’ car on the Walworth Rd.

So, it is not enough to rail against the nanny state and leave it at that.

Firstly, we should not get it out of proportion; it is clear that good, well behaved and happy children and human beings do not make the news.

Secondly, we have to look to ourselves and take responsibility not just for ourselves but for our community. And. that, is why I find Liberal Democracy so compelling. At its philosophical heart it satisfies not just my need for freedom but also my desire to be free within a community.

The personal responsibility that I take on is not just a compact with the state but also with my neighbours and fellow human beings. By sucking up all the power into the centre and issuing policies on how to behave and what to do the Government undermine the local community and the personal responsibility within that compact.

Westminster politicians and the government do have a role to play and that is to give the power back to local communities and leave it to them. Of course, this requires them to trust people and communities which is why Labour will never do it, no matter how Gordon bleats on about personal responsibility because they will never be able to believe that they don’t know best, including on how to be happy.

Focus on the Congo

Many of you will have listened over the last couple of mornings to the Today Programme’s reports on the Congo.

If you have you will know how harrowing they are, if you didn’t then go along to Radio 4’s listen again feature; this morning’s report was on at about 7.40am. In it a young woman from the Congo told of how, amongst other abuses, she’d been raped by 19 men in one ‘session’, been forced to hang her own child and watched as the Rwandan militia killed her brother for refusing to rape her, his sister. For the four months that she was held by the militia she was naked; no clothes at all, not even rags.

Deemed too harrowing for us to listen to, were the descriptions of forced cannibalism and worse (although I’m not sure I can imagine what that could be).

You can find details of how to help at Oxfam, where there is also a link to the Arms Control Campaign.

My point, in bringing this to your attention, is to make sure, as we are all agog at the transfer of power from Tony to Gordon, that we remember what their and our job is. On the Radio 4 PM Blog this afternoon, one blogger made the comment that it was time to for the UN to get off their backside…they’re right of course. But the UN works to the priorities of the member states and particularly those of the Security Council.

Our government seems currently to be more focused on its own party political navel and dealing with the ‘blowback’ from their foolish and illegal decision to go to war in Iraq.

The Middle East is important (I know, what an understatement) and if peace were to be brought to that region the world is sure to be a safer and more stable place. But, always hard to do, I am not sure it is possible to compare even what is happening in the Middle East & Iraq, to what is happening in Africa. It seems that as the atrocities in Africa get worse and worse we stop up our ears and hope nobody tells us any more.

It occurs to me that we might do this through a sense of colonial guilt. If we find out too much, our sense of guilt might just be unbearable; so better out of sight and then it will be out of mind. But if that’s so, then it is stuff and nonsense. I am not responsible for the actions of my ancestors of a hundred or even fifty years ago. Although, obviously, I must be is cognisant of the fall out from their actions and the effect it has had on mine and others life. But I am responsible for what is allowed to happen now and it is up to us as human beings to make sure that this barbarism in Congo stops; by supporting the UN, by supporting the NGOs, by not ignoring it or feeling too overwhelmed by it all and putting our leaders back on the hook.

So, Mr Brown, who has made so much about his concern for Africa…what are you doing about the Congo?

I cannot begin to imagine the unbearable pain of the parents of the little girl gone missing in Portugal. I can, however, imagine that the pain now coming out of Africa is multiplied a thousand fold. I only wish that our outrage and concern, as evidenced by the media, was as proportionate.

24 hours away from London!

I've just got back from 24 hours away from London to go to the wedding of a fellow crew member from the Clipper2002 Round the World Yacht Race...and it's all come flooding back!

Although my part of the race was just the first leg, from Liverpool to Lisbon to Havana...6 weeks spent on board a 60ft yacht with 12 other people in some of the most trying physical conditions (because, yes, I had signed up for the Bay of Biscay bit!) is more than enough to build close, long lasting relationships. We now get together about once a year to celebrate some major occasion in one of our lives.

It takes no time at all to slip back in to that easy intimacy and comfort that is as close as you can get to being with family without actually being related. And like with most family gatherings the same stories and jokes are brought out and rehearsed and you know you are witnessing oral history in the making! The stories about me are all based on my legendary sea sickness, which, with the exception of 4 days in Lisbon, was how I spent the first half of the trip to Havana.

Our South African navy skipper at one point suggested that rather than writing my crew name, JoJo, on the back of my 'oilies' jacket so that I could be recognised in bad weather, it should have been written on the seat of my trousers, so much time did I spend hanging over the back of the boat being ill. That is, until we turned left towards Cuba, were no longer heading into wind and I was able to start speaking again!

For me, the little girl with her nose constantly in a book and with an uncanny ability to get out of any activity in sports day, taking part in a transatlantic yacht race was somewhat counter intuitive - I am not sporty to say the least. Despite the sea sickness, as my crew always take care to remind everyone, I didn't miss a single watch...and I did it! And I am, as you can probably tell, rather amazed and very proud that I managed it. I am not a natural sailor and it was physically the most challenging but also one of the most precious experiences of my life. Everything from going for a swim hundreds of miles from land during the doldrums, to witnessing the beauty of a moon rise at sea to finding the energy from somewhere to rustle up scones with jam and cream 14 days sail from land was just amazing.

I also, of course, found a set of wonderful crew members, those of whom I sailed with, know me as well as anyone else on this earth and can make me uncharacteristically sentimental! It was just lovely spending yesterday and today with them..again...and telling the same old stories again!!!

Weak leadership strikes again.....

The criticism of the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert from the Israeli Government’s Commission into the first five days of the war is damning. It lays the blame for the results of the war on Ehud Olmert’s as a result of his position and behaviour.

What is so striking about the findings of the report (read more here) is that it brings us back to the reality, that whatever our analysis of international relations, our models and frameworks for understanding conflict and consensus or our processes and goervernance, in the end politics and sometimes, the very act of war, comes down to personalities and their feelings about themselves and the events around them.

I know that it’s easy for me to say now, but I felt at the time that, had Sharon been in charge, he would have not felt the need to prove anything. But Olmert, with Sharon in a coma in hospital was feeling like a shadow of his predecessor and attempted to act decisively. Had he in fact been as strong a leader as he was trying to look the Israelis would never have gone to war.

The whole episode achieved nothing for Israel, nothing for Lebanon, nothing for the Middle East and just further entrenched an externally funded terrorist organisation like Hezbollah. It is a grim situation indeed.

At the time of writing he is refusing to entertain any idea of resigning. I am glad to see that at least one of his ministers, Eitan Cabel, has done so, because he can no long bring himself to sit in a government led by him. I hope that the Israelis themselves take decisive steps to get rid of him soon, which at least they can, as one of the few democracies in the region.

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