Atos: Why are we campaigning?

The Stream – a programme on Al Jazeera English – are covering the protests against Atos in their show this evening at 19:30 GMT. They asked me what I thought should be included.

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These are the key points that I think are the problem.

  1. That Atos staff and Lima system do not adequately assess whether patients fit the descriptors as set by government, instead asking their own questions to fit their tick boxes then trying to make the answers fit the legislation set out by government. (Found at http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2011/228/made)
  2. That Atos as a private contractor is not accountable in the same was as gov, e.g. FOI requests
  3. That the whole concept of assessing patients as fit for work or not is flawed, this cannot be tested in a 45 minute session as Atos does not draw on medical history, variation from day to day, etc.
  4. Atos judge a person’s ability to walk, stand, concentrate, communicate etc on what they look like in one 45 minute session which can be very different from other times.
  5. In making the decision Atos ignore impact of work on state of health and they don’t account for the health impact of doing many things in sequence to work, just ability to do any one of those things in isolation!
  6. Asking trick questions to catch people out.
  7. Having “Medical Centres” that are not fully accessible, including centres with no lifts, no disabled car parking bays, or sometimes no parking at all, and unsuitable chairs in their waiting rooms.
  8. Frequently keeping patients waiting hours for their appointment, and observing them in the waiting room for behaviour that might mark them as liars.
  9. Having assessments carried out by staff other than fully qualified doctors.

I would particularly like to know why Atos do not ask the questions as set out by legislation, instead asking their own random questions, including trick questions to catch people out. For example, “Do you watch Eastenders?” if answered with yes is taken as proof of ability to set in one place for an hour, and to concentrate fully. “Do you have any pets?” is used to determine that the patient is capable of feeding, cleaning and caring for the pet and therefore themselves. “How did you get here?” is another trick, since it can be taken as proof of being fully able to use public transport, when in fact the journey might have caused considerable deterioration in health for the patient but was undertaken out of fear of losing benefits.

This list is just what I can think of in a few minutes, I am sure there are other problems too.

 

Godwin’s law must die

On the internet we have a rule. It is called Godwin’s law. Godwin’s law states that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1 (100%).”

In the 21 years since Godwin first made this observation, it has been quoted whenever anyone has mentioned Nazis, as a way of saying “You have mentioned Nazis, therefore your argument is ridiculous, therefore you have lost the debate.”

The use of Godwin’s law to end and win an argument by default has been helpful in keeping arguments from straying into ridiculous comparisons but it also brings a risk; the danger that when a comparable situation does arise, it will be ignored because the comparison cannot be made in argument. Godwin’s law has power because of the idea that nothing as bad as the Nazis and the holocaust will ever happen again because we have learnt from what happened in the past. I think that this assumption is foolish and dangerous. Of course such atrocities will happen again. Throughout history we have had bloodthirsty power-hungry leaders of pure evil, over and over again. Pol Pot, Pinochet, Mao, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and many other leaders have killed thousands, even millions each. Genocides are an relatively frequent occurrence. Groups have been singled out and slaughtered for many different reasons over the centuries, and others will be in the future.

My point here is important so I will state it again. Atrocities of this sort are not rare, have happened and will happen again, and to ridicule anyone making a comparison with the Nazis is to dismiss warnings in a very dangerous way.

Godwin’s law and disability rights

I and many other disability rights activists abandoned Godwin’s law some time ago. I believe that sick and disabled people in the UK are under attack and are the subject of a government and media smear campaign with the aim of turning public opinion against them. Although the Nazis ran a eugenics programme to eradicate all incurably sick and mentally ill people, (Called Action T4) the comparison that I am drawing is mostly with the propaganda element of that programme and the attitude behind it.

Nazi Euthanasia Propaganda
English translation: 60000 RM - this is what this person suffering from hereditary defects costs the Community of Germans during his lifetime. Fellow Citizen, that is your money, too.

The poster seen here speaks of the cost of caring for the disabled person depicted, the same message that is echoed in the cries of “this is taxpayer’s money” that we hear from indignant right-wing tabloid papers today. Papers like the Daily Mail and the Express routinely publish every “benefit cheat” story that they can find, with big front page splashes about people with houses and multiple cars. Headlines claim that just 1 in 14 are unfit for workWe even have “Saints and scroungers” from the BBC spreading the hate. Otherwise nice people are being convinced that there are legions of benefit cheats faking their inability to walk or the horrendous pain that makes every activity torture. (Apart from me. For some reason they never mean me.) All of these politicians and journalists seem to be adept at twisting the facts and lying through omission just for the public outrage that they feed on. They also ignore the realities of illness, of having good days and bad days, of choosing to push through pain to have a good day out, or just to pretend to your family that you are having a good day out so as to keep them happy. As Sue Marsh said, by their standards, we are all benefit cheats now.

Black Triangle Campaign recently received an email referring to comments on their forum making comparisons with the past as “dangerous and extreme”. The email said: “I am not interested in extreme, left wing politics. I am trying to bring attention to government funded medical tyranny, copied from America, and such extreme comments are a distraction from what’s happening at government level. (…) you are playing a very, very, VERY dangerous game with desperate peoples’ lives by posting such extreme comments relating to past war time atrocities that belongs in the past. I DO understand why people feel like this but there are many, many very frail people out there and this will cause harm.

I disagree with the author of that email. I’ve talked before about how government ministers are spreading these stories and lying about the facts and how party special advisors are feeding the media frenzy in a previous blog post. No one here is suggesting that anyone be killed, but our government is focussed on ruthlessly cutting benefit costs along with healthcare and services, all while smiling and announcing that “the most vulnerable will be protected.” Well the most vulnerable are having their benefits cut, being told to shit themselves rather than receiving help to get to the toilet, being told to find jobs when they can barely leave the house, losing their homes, and committing suicide. Many of those that aren’t in that situation expect to be soon and many have talked of suicide. The policies of this government and the relentless abuse coming from newspapers have people living in fear – if what they fear hasn’t already come to pass. In Nazi Germany the killing of sick and disabled people was at first kept well hidden away from any chance of public opposition. What plans are our politicians hiding from us? Is it their intention to force all sick and disabled people out on the streets where they will helpfully freeze to death? Quite honestly, I think that they don’t even care as long as it’s not their problem. I think it is completely fair to compare this demonisation of the sick and disabled to the start of the Nazi attack on the same.

References

Daily Mail: Callous judges have sentenced Elaine to life without dignity (Daily Mail link. Yes, I was surprised too.)

DPAC: Elaine McDonald case: Court puts prisoners before the disabled

Purple noise: The beginning of the end (Warning, discusses suicide.)

Guardian: Jobcentre staff ‘sent guidelines on how to deal with claimants’ suicide threats’

 

 

 

Abortion rules changes allow dangerously biased counselling

Nadine Dorries and Frank Field contend that the existing organisations that offer pre-abortion counselling – Marie Stopes and BPAS – must give biased and flawed counselling because they are only paid if they carry out an abortion. One blogger saysThere is an evident bias because companies like BPAS and Marie Stopes are profit-making businesses and have a vested interest in procuring abortion: when women are dissuaded, it hits the profit margin.

I have used the same argument myself against private companies hired by the DWP to carry out disability assessments so I can sort of see their point. Dorries’ solution is to change the law so that counselling cannot be given by an abortion provider. It seems reasonable to me, on the face of it, however there are problems with this approach.

  • It isn’t actually compulsory for a woman to undergo counselling prior to an abortion at all, and many argue that to make it compulsory is inherently sexist, and to do so is to to assume that a woman is not in control of her own mind and emotions.
  • Having to go to a different provider places an extra step in the way of women who want abortions. That step alone may dissuade some from an abortion. This seems to be Dorries’ intention.
  • Dorries is framing this as giving women more choice and more information. However, Dorries herself simply wants to reduce abortions which is actually less choice. Her previous attempts to get the deadline for abortions reduced from 24 to 20 weeks with no basis in evidence of any kind proves this.
  • These proposals are on track to be implemented as a regulatory change without being subjected to a parliamentary vote. Dorries and Field have been in discussion with Andrew Lansley to implement the change. This is not democracy.
  • Outside organisations that offer counselling for pregnant women are largely Christian or otherwise religious in nature. Religious counselling is not wanted by most people who are not religious themselves.
  • Current organisations offering counselling have been found to offer information that is heavily biased and even plain wrong, in order to scare women away from having an abortion.
I have written before on the subject of abortion, and I have said that I don’t like it. However, it is not my place to determine what a woman does, and whether or not she must have an unwanted baby, and neither is it the place of the government or of religious activists. This effort to reduce abortion seems to be part of a larger effort by right-wing Christians to impose their morals on a country that is largely not Christian. It goes hand-in-hand with the Tory desire to force women to stay married and to keep women in the home and raising children. It seems fairly clear that this whole change brought forward by Dorries and Field is an effort to impose their desire for less abortions on the general public, not to allow more choice, and they have no evidence of any kind on which to base their desire to change things.

Relevant links

The Telegraph: Abortion rules to be tightened in biggest shake-up for a generation

The Guardian: Ministers back anti-abortion lobby reforms

 

Atos had CarerWatch forum suspended over a five month old link

I hope that by now you are all aware that Carer Watch had their support forum suspended by their server host after Atos made threats to the host regarding libel action. I wrote about this in my previous blog post.

Carer Watch have at last received a reply from Atos as to exactly which messages were considered libellous.  You can read the message from Atos and the response on their blog. The reply is baffling. The message in question is dated March 23rd, 8:51 pm – that is, over five months old. Not only that, but the message does not even contain anything considered libel, but merely a link to an article on a different website entirely. That article is still there, even though Carer Watch’s forum is not.

This whole situation raises several problems. First of all, a hyperlink to an article is not and should not be considered libel. It is merely pointing people to that article. If libel action is necessary, it should be aimed at the article containing libel, not at the sites linking to it. The legality of hyperlinks to libellous articles has not yet been settled.

Secondly, the Carer Watch forum is a private discussion forum. As such, messages posted within are available only to members. This is very different from publishing something on a public-facing websites. It is the equivalent of conversation, not of publishing. We must also ask, how were Atos made aware of the message that they have deemed libellous? Did an employee of Atos deliberately sign up to the Carer Watch forum to look for such messages? If that is the case, then that raises all sorts of questions over the behaviour of Atos. Who else are they spying on? Atos is a private company, but contracted by the government. Atos has power but not responsibility such as to the Freedom Of Information act.

Thirdly, the forum was suspended not by any court order or judicial oversight, but merely by sending a threatening letter to the hosts of the forum. It is an unfortunate fact that when faced with a letter from lawyers, most internet providers and server hosts would rather switch off the (potentially) offending website rather than ask for proof or give their customer any chance to fight the accusation. In the case of Carer Watch the letter from Atos was not passed on to them, and in fact they had to fight to find out what they were even being accused of. It is not acceptable that a whole group can be silenced, and prevented from associating with each other merely at the whim of a letter from a lawyer and an uncaring internet provider.

This situation is by no means unique to Carer Watch; websites are taken down like this all of the time. This issue is a small part of the larger problems surrounding libel and the issue of libel reform has become very important. I urge you to visit libelreform.org and read more about these problems, and sign their petition.

Atos moves to shut down criticism

Atos are the French IT outsourcing company whose Atos Healthcare arm have been running Work Capability Assessment for the Department of Work and Pensions.

Lots of people are unhappy about Employment Support Allowance, about the assessments, and about the way that Atos run them. There have been protests outside Atos offices using slogans such as “ATOS kills” to express their feelings. Lots of people have explained why they are unhappy with Atos in blogs, on social networks, and in support forums.

It seems that Atos don’t like this. They have started issuing legal threats, and they have succeeded in shutting down some of their opposition. Various websites and forums have spoken out against ATOS and collected personal stories about them. After ATOS first received a take down request in May 2011. Atos lawyers recently threatened legal action against Paul Smith who runs the “Atos Register of Shame” website, accusing him of libel and claiming that “This is a direct attack on Atos and the name of the website in and of itself is implying that Atos carries on its business in a manner which is shameful.” You can see a take-down letter from Atos here.  http://issuu.com/atosvictims/docs/legal_letter_from_atos?mode=a_p

They have also shut down a support forum for carers, CarerWatch, by contacting their server host directly and having it taken down. This has removed a vital support network from many carers, presumably because of private discussions about Atos in members only parts of the forum. Apparently people are not even allowed to talk about Atos now, despite needing to do so to support each other when going through tests administered by Atos.

Following this action against them, CarerWatch have published their reply to Atos, which I reproduce here. (I hope they won’t mind.)

21st Aug 2011

FAO  – ATOS Legal Department

CarerWatch is an internet forum for sick and disabled people and their unpaid family carers. This is a private forum and only members are allowed to make/read posts.

We understand from the organisation that hosts our forum that they received a letter from your solicitors threatening to sue us for libel. The provider immediately closed our site down.

We have many members who are very fragile and the sudden disappearance of a support group has caused a lot of distress and fear. Some are ringing us in tears. We cannot get in contact with all of them though as we have lost their contact details through the closure.

All this distress could have been avoided if you had had the courtesy to contact us first and tell us what had been posted on our site that you considered libellous. Obviously if any post was possibly libellous we would have removed it and all this distress could have been avoided.

We imagine this distress is unintended and hope you will work with us in looking at the problem and finding a solution.

Please note that this letter, and any reply received from yourselves, will be posted on our website. It is the only means left to us to reach some members and keep them updated.

It is vital we have our forum up and running again to reach those that are isolated.

Frances

On behalf of CarerWatch members

 

Obviously, I don’t want my website taken down. I have been careful to state only known facts here. These are the facts that I know.

  • Atos Healthcare carries out Work Capability Assessments for the DWP.
  • The contract is worth approximately £100 million per year.
  • There has been a sharp rise in people found fit for work
  • There has been a sharp rise in people appealing that decision
  • 40% of those that appeal, win, rising to 70% with legal representation.
  • Although the decision over “fit to work” lies with the DWP,a government review found that the DWP are institutionally incapable of overriding the Atos Health Care Professionals. The Atos recommendation is, in effect, the decision.
  • Atos employ Health Care Professionals to carry out the assessments. HCPs are a mix of doctors, physiotherapists and nurses. Only people with certain problems will definitely see doctors.
  • Atos use their own Lima computer system to record the patient’s answers. Lima has been widely criticised.
  • The HCP fills in Lima by choosing keywords and statements from a list and then justifying them.
  • An Atos recruiter said “We don’t call them patients . . . We call them claimants.”
  • Twelve Atos doctors are under investigation by the GMC over allegations of improper conduct.
  • Two Atos employees are under investigation after referring to patients as “parasites” and “down and outs”.
In the end, although there is much to criticise with the way that Atos carry out ESA WCAs, they may really only be doing what the government expects of them. The descriptors that are used to make the decision of whether a person is fit for work or not are set out in the by the government. (See The Employment and Support Allowance (Limited Capability for Work and Limited Capability for Work-Related Activity) (Amendment) Regulations 2011) I personally question whether Atos accurately records if a patient fits the descriptors or not, and their ability to do so given the way that Lima Works or the staff that are used. Even if they do make an accurate record in line with the government’s descriptors, it is questionable whether the descriptors are an accurate description of being fit for work or not. Even then, it seems that decision makers at the DWP are “institutionally incapable” of taking into account all of the relevant information for the case as they are supposed to, instead simply rubber stamping the recommendation made by Atos. It would seem that the appeals tribunals are making a fairer judgement on this issue than Atos or the DWP.

Go Away! (A personal rant)

My home is my safe space. Anywhere outside of my home, I can be approached by other people who want to sell me something, or ask me questions. In my current state of mind, I can’t deal with questions. I can’t deal with unscripted conversations unless it’s with friends or in the form of text on the internet.

So whether by telephone or in person at my front door, cold callers are really frustrating.

Knocking on my front door means that I am expected to answer it. I have trouble moving around the house. It is bad enough if I am in the living room on a chair or the sofa; I often have to stagger through the house pushing myself off walls and furniture as I go, leaning on my stick. Getting to the front door is not easy, causes pain, and uses up valuable energy that could have been used for more desirable activities. (Some days I don’t manage to move between rooms at all, so you can see that I would rather save my energy.)

If I am in bed then it is even worse, because as well as getting up and moving through the house, I have to put on acceptable clothing. Considering that some days I don’t manage to get dressed, this is also a big problem, and again I would rather use my energy elsewhere.

I get particularly annoyed by people who post catalogues through my letterbox, and then expect them back. If you post something through my letterbox, it’s mine. You have no right to knock on my door and ask for it back. I won’t store it for you, it goes in the recycling. The same with donation bags. And no, I’m not leaving things outside my front door for days, getting wet and looking disgusting and messy.

I could choose not to answer the door, but I have family who visit me, and I don’t wish to turn them away unnecessarily.

To be honest, even if I were perfectly well and had no pain and no mobility problems, I would still be annoyed by people calling at my house to sell me things. We put up with advertising all over the place, and I won’t stop people advertising or putting a flyer through my door, but demanding a response from me is too far. You have the right to talk, I have the right to ignore you.

Then there are phone calls. I have a telephone for three reasons. First, because I need broadband and a phone comes with that. Second, to communicate with friends and family who I wish to speak to. Third, to communicate with companies with whom I do business. I DON’T have a telephone so that shitty little call centres can interrupt my rest and tell me that I am entitled to reclaim my Payment Protection Insurance payments (I never made any) or ask me if I want their car insurance. (I don’t have a car.)

I have been registered with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) since the day it became available. The TPS is a database of phone numbers that do not wish to receive marketing calls. The TPS is run by the direct marketing industry themselves, under direction from OFCOM, and marketing companies are required to check numbers that they call against this database before calling. They can be fined if they call a number on the list. Unfortunately, the TPS does not apply to call centres that are overseas. And quite a lot of cold callers just don’t care about it. The chances of someone getting enough details from them when they make an unwanted call are slim, and complaints about calls seem to go nowhere at all. As a result, I still receive the occasional phone call, and they don’t usually care about the TPS.

I had one company call me a few months ago, and I told her that I was on the TPS and to go away, then hung up. She actually called me again demanding to know why I hung up. I got very annoyed and swore and hung up again. This woman actually called me back four times, culminating in me screaming and shouting down the phone at her. Whatever you make of my anger, this woman’s sense of entitlement not only to call me, but also to demand that I listen to her, and not tell her to go away, is astonishing and infuriating. I don’t understand how she could not understand that she was intruding into my life and had no right to do so.

I can choose not to answer the phone, and since I have caller ID and I can tell when a number is unknown to me, I quite often decide not to. It is less easy with the front door. In both cases I strongly resent the intrusion and just wish some people would shut up and go away.

Don’t judge my ups and downs

I want to address an extremely worrying lack of understanding amongst the general public about how sickness and disability work. This tweet is typical of the problem. (This is not an attack on the person that tweeted it, I just want to address the perception so please leave her alone.)

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Sickness and disability can be immensely variable.  I can’t speak for all disabilities, but I can talk about my own. I have good days and bad days. Actually, I have good and bad minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years. I can have bad patches within bad patches. Basically, my health varies to an incredible degree, and what I do at any point is no indication at all of what I can do at another point.

Some days I need a walking stick. Some days (most of them at the moment) I need a wheelchair. Some days, I can walk unaided. Some (rare) days I can run up the stairs.

When it comes to events, though, I take no chances. If I had to attend a football match like the quote above was talking about, it would be wheelchair all the way. (I hate football, but run with it for the example!) The important thing to realise is that I might start out able to walk, maybe even unaided, but I would still have to be in the wheelchair on arrival at the game, because otherwise I wouldn’t have it with me later. By the end of something like that, I would probably be barely able to keep my head upright while sitting in the chair.

A few years ago I attended the recording of a TV show in London. The two hours of travelling was OK, but when we arrived I desperately needed to sit down. We had turned up an hour or so early as instructed, but, horror, we had to queue for that whole hour. We had travelled by motorbike and I had no mobility aids with me because I was relatively well at that point, but that queue was hell. I was in agonising pain by the end of it. Had we just been walking around a bit, I would have been fine but it was the standing in one place that hurt me.

And so, I hope you can see the issue here. It is perfectly possible for me to be in a wheelchair one day, and then strolling across the town centre the next time you see me. And for a big event, I will be in the wheelchair anyway, not for any special treatment, but because if I don’t set out in the wheelchair, I will end up being carried home or leaving in an ambulance called by worried people when I collapse. The point is, YOU can’t judge. You have no idea how my body copes with each situation.

Note: comments that “We know you’re not faking it but the real cheats spoil it for everyone” will be deleted.

A rant about light sockets, or: Should the government take away our choices?

I’m annoyed.

OK, I am often annoyed. But I am currently annoyed about one thing in particular. PL Lamps.

You’re probably thinking this is an obscure technical thing and are about to stop reading and go and look at something else, but please, stick with me. I’m going to tell you how the government are imposing their choices on you and costing you more money for very little gain. (OK, skip to the last paragraph if you really must!)

Old and new: replacement lamps for bayonet and PL sockets
Old and new: replacement lamps for bayonet and PL sockets

This all stems from a desire to phase out the use of traditional incandescent light bulbs in the interests of energy efficiency. It is an objective that I for the most part agree with. Incandescent light bulbs are grossly inefficient, turning the vast majority of the electricity that they consume into heat rather than light. Modern LED or Fluorescent light bulbs are far more efficient. For example, a 100w traditional light bulb can usually be replaced by a 20w compact fluorescent lamp, using a fifth of the electricity.

While I agree that it is necessary for the population to switch to more efficient lighting in order to reduce our energy usage (both because we are running out of fossil fuels and because we need to address climate change) I generally disagree with behaviour being forced on the general public by the government, and I disagree with the government’s policy of forcing people to switch by banning incandescent bulbs. There are plenty of situations in which a compact fluorescent lamp or an LED lamp is not suitable – many people suffer from or migraines or other health problems that can be made worse by fluorescent lighting – and the option of an incandescent lamp should be available, although hopefully rarely used.

That’s all just background though. Most traditional light bulbs for home use have been banned from sale. The country is switching to compact fluorescent lamps as the readily available alternative. These lamps are now cheap enough for widespread use. They are fitted with the same bayonet socket that our traditional light bulbs used to go in, so it really is just a matter of disposing of the old bulb and fitting the new one. It is also possible to fit other types of lamp, for example LED lamps which are a lesser-used but potentially better technology than CFL.

Traditional bayonet socket
A traditional bayonet socket

That choice is something that is being taken away. My housing association is having work carried out on my flat. As well as a new kitchen, they are carrying out some electrical work to make the flat meet the same new building regulations as for new houses, including replacing the aged fuse box, adding some more power sockets, and replacing the light fittings. It’s this last item that has made me angry.  For decades most light fittings in the UK have used the B22d bayonet socket. It’s standard. You just buy a light bulb, it uses that socket. If you buy a compact fluorescent lamp, or an LED lamp, it uses that socket. If you buy a sound-activated switch, or a remote control switch, or a timer, that goes between bulb and light fitting, it uses that socket. Not any more. You see, in new buildings, the regulations now demand that at least a third of the light fittings in the building are made to only accept low energy light bulbs.

It is easy for the government to demand a socket that “must accept only low energy light bulbs” but implementing it is a different story. A standard socket simply carries electricity over two wires and supplies it to the lamp. You can make the socket any shape or size that you want, but it would still have to have those same two wires. Given that, any kind of lamp can be adapted to fit the socket, be it incandescent, fluorescent or something else. It would be trivial for an enterprising manufacturer to make an adapter to connect a traditional light bulb, or even design an incandescent bulb to fit the new socket.

So in practice, the socket must supply a different kind of electricity so that conventional bulbs cannot be used. Fluorescent lamps provide an answer to this problem. Compact fluorescent lamps actually contain two parts – the lamp tube itself, and the electronic circuitry that converts electricity to the necessary frequency and voltage to drive the lamp. While we have settled on the practice of including both parts in one unit, some manufacturers also produce a light fitting that has the circuitry built in, and the lamp fitting contains only the fluorescent tube. This means the light fitting and lamp will only work with each other. The perfect solution to the government’s demands.

A "PL" socket
A "PL" socket

The problem is that since there is only one simple solution to comply with the legislation, the government has effectively forced a specific technology on everyone. They have also imposed the associated costs which accompany that technology, with both the light fitting and the replacement lamp being more expensive than the standard items. Not only that, but the power output of the lamp is determined by the socket, not the lamp, so that I can now have only a 13 watt light in my living room. Since the socket is entirely different a new lampshade will often be necessary too. How many people know to look for a lampshade to fit a PL socket instead of a bayonet socket? Not many, I suspect.

I am torn on this legislation, and on the whole idea of the government imposing certain solutions and behaviour on people. For the most part I believe that the government should not be able to do this, but I also want some things to go in a direction that they won’t go without government intervention. I strongly resent the government using “Nudge theory” on us, and I’m not particularly enamoured of them deciding to tax some things purely because the government does not approve of their use. Especially so since taxing something to reduce usage will only deter the poor and not the rich, who may not even notice the difference.

What do you think? Should the government impose some behaviour or solutions on us? Which ones? How?

Police on twitter

GMPolice gloating about sentences

The tweet above is from Greater Manchester Police, tweeting as @gmpolice. It reads “Mum-of-two, not involved in disorder, jailed for FIVE months for accepting shorts looted from shop. There are no excuses!

My problems with this are:

  • The sentence is disproportionate (Although that is a problem with the judge, not the police.)
  • The tweet shows enthusiasm, maybe even glee, over the length of the sentence. Particaularly with the emphasis of “FIVE months” and “There are no excuses!” It is not the place of the police to comment on, recommend or celebrate the length of a sentence or the defence used in court.

On social media it is a good thing to comment, converse and give opinion. This builds community, which is why it is called social media. In the case of the police, however, they should remain detached and professional when it comes to presenting information to the public – just as in any other time they interact with the public. We expect our police forces to be unbiased and therefore accurate in their administration of justice, and adding personal opinion to the information presented on social networks gives the impression of a bias of the whole police force, whether that represents their general opinion or not. It would have been more appropriate to tweet something like

Mum-of-two, not involved in disorder, jailed for 5 months for accepting shorts looted from shop. Judges issuing tough sentences over riots.

This would have conveyed the information to the public without adding emphasis, but while still warning of tough sentences in order to provide a deterrent.

Overall, I have been told that @gmpolice are making good use of social media. Perhaps the people (yes, real people with opinions and lives) behind the twitter account are overworked and tired, especially after a week of rioting and looting. And we can all make mistakes. However, they must step back and examine what is professional and appropriate for them to say on twitter. Revelling, or appearing to revel, in a long and harsh sentence is not appropriate for the people that are supposed to uphold the law. Their job is to find the criminals and present them to the court, not to gloat.

—-Addendum—

@GMPolice published this message within an hour of the one mentioned above.

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And then a step to the right

If there’s one thing riots are good for, it is allowing politicians to introduce more authoritarian and right-wing measures as a knee-jerk response.  After a disaster of any kind it seems that a large section of the general public call for extreme measures in response. Calls to lock people up without trial, shoot them, deport them, and now to take away any state benefits and evict them from social housing. Today the government e-petition site announced “The e-petition entitled “Convicted London rioters should loose all benefits” has now passed the threshold of 100,000 signatures and has been passed to the Backbench Business Committee to consider for debate. It will continue to be available for signature once the site is re-opened.

Many politicians seem no different in their response. In fact any shocking emergency situation provides them with an opportunity to pass harsher laws. Examples include the USA PATRIOT act, brought in in the aftermath of 9/11, which gave US authorities extensive powers of search and surveillance as well as allowing easy detention and deportation of immigrants. Here in the UK we had the crackdown on gun ownership after the Dunblane massacre, and the extension of pre-charge detention to 28 days following the London 7/7 bombings. Then there are ID cards and the national identity register, and control orders which keep people under house arrest for years when there is not enough evidence to prosecute them in court.

In the last ten years the Labour government was responsible for introducing many authoritarian laws and eroding our civil liberties by quite a large amount. The Conservatives have largely been against many of these laws and for the protection of civil liberties. In June David Cameron said “The right hon. and learned Lady should understand that this is all about proportionality and making sure that we have a system that helps protect people while respecting civil liberties.” The Conservatives have professed to be against detention without trial, ID cards, and the over-use of CCTV. In practice, once in government they have not rushed to repeal any laws and there has been little improvement.

Social media

Since the outbreak of widespread rioting and looting in the UK the Blackberry Messaging Service (BBM) and social networks, especially Twitter, have come under fire in the last few days as the primary means of communication for those that are involved. TechCrunch has a good explanation of how these people use BBM which I recommend that you read, and I won’t repeat here. Unfortunately the news media and politicians seem to have seized on this use of modern communications methods and papers like the Daily Mail and The Sun have even blamed Twitter for much of the looting. I was particularly annoyed to see journalists asserting that passing on images and reports from the scenes of the crime amounted to encouraging the crimes. Many of the photographs and tweets to do with the riots where actually from journalists who were there, and while twitter allowed these to be spread a long way in a short time, the same photographs and tweets later formed the backbone of newspaper and television reports! It is almost as though traditional print and television news media are just jealous of the speed of social networks.

Nonetheless, there have been widespread calls among the news media, general public and politicians for BBM and/or twitter to be turned off during riots to deprive the criminals of a means of communicating. Today in parliament several MPs continued these calls and one MP even called for mobile phone masts in the area to be switched off. David Cameron stated that switching off twitter and BBM was the direction that we should be taking.

It should be obvious why this is a bad idea. These networks are not there for organising criminal activity. They are there for communicating. Just like landline telephones and the postal service, they can be used to talk about any activity, good or bad. If they were removed, it would impact on all sorts of things. The riot cleanup movement on twitter would not have got started. It would have an impact on all sorts of business. People rely on those communications networks to stay in contact with family for support and with the emergency services. Frightened people hiding in their homes over shops as they are attacked could be cut off from their only support if social networks were switched off, and from any means of getting help at all should the mobile networks be shut down. Sick and disabled people rely on these communications methods not just for support but for their very sanity.

Politicians should also note the example that they would be following if they did shut down communications. Dictators in Egypt and Libya shut down internet and phone networks to hide the attrocities that they were committing. It didn’t have the desired results, either. The whole world condemned those countries for their actions and the people found other ways to communicate, with all the more drive to remove their governments. China places severe restrictions and censorship on its internet connections. Twitter is frequently used to spread evidence of wrongdoing and brutality by the police, and videos taken and uploaded during protests have been used in investigations into killing by the police. This is not something that we want obstructed, although, of course, it might be something that the police would like stopped.

We already have censorship of internet connections here in the UK. ISPs already block any website on the list provided by the Internet Watch Foundation, sites which they deem to contain child pornography. A recent court case has seen internet providers ordered to block websites that index files available for download, and it is quite likely that the system in place for the IWF list will be used for this too. Our internet connections are already censored, the courts have ordered more sites to be blocked, and now the government are talking about turning off social networks on the whim of the police.  Add the comments made in parliament today and you can see why this tweet seems so believable.

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This tweet was taken as genuine by many people today. The problem is, it isn’t so far from reality. Don’t be fooled though; the “@skynewsticker” account is actually a spoof account set up to provide humorous insights. The genuine account is @skynewsbreak. And Cameron wouldn’t talk to China about it, because Chinese web censorship is mostly done using American technology.

I have a strong preference for our communications networks not to be shut down, even to help stop criminal behaviour. If the government has to resort to cutting off communications to retain order, that is indicative of deeper problems.  Amnesty International has concerns about this too.

Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, said:

“Human rights are not an inflexible, blunt instrument designed to prevent the police from protecting people and thwarting crime. However, any decision to block or limit access to social communications must be legal, proportionate and have a legitimate aim.

“It is legitimate, in specific circumstances, to stop people using social media to plan violence and crime. Freedom of expression is not an unlimited right and can be subject to regulation where risks are legitimately perceived.

“But David Cameron must ensure that the fear engendered by the recent riots and the determination to ensure that there is no repeat or escalation of the events of the last week, does not result in a knee-jerk reaction which curtails freedom of expression in a disproportionate way.

“Governments in other countries such as China, Iran, Syria or the United Arab Emirates notoriously inhibit access to communications networks and resources within their countries. Embarking down a road of curtailing free access to the internet and other networks is not a decision the UK authorities should take lightly and it is vital that any censorship does not inhibit legitimate forms of non-violent protest.

“We will await the outcome of the discussions with interest.”

We must keep in mind that once freedoms are given up, it is rare for them to return. At least, not without a revolution. Once it is standard practice to turn off communications for riots it will become accepted practice during legitimate protests too, especially since the public and the government will frequently disagree about what is legitimate protest. We must not let this become acceptable.