Thursday, December 23, 2004

Criminal Lies from the Tories

This morning, Andrew Mitchell was wheeled out for the Tories to have a go at the new powers for Community Support Officers. Andrew isn't a big gun, more of a child's bow and arrow, but that didn't stop him telling outright lies to the audience of the Today programme on Radio 4.

Repeatedly, he describes the crime figures as 'soaring.'

Now, you may ask how you can justify this. The short answer is that you can't. The most authoritative survey on crime in Britain is the British Crime Survey. This asks almost 40,000 people about their experience of crime (around 1200 is enough to predict the result of a General Election to within a percentage point or two, so this is a BIG survey). This is done because simply relying on crimes reported to the police doesn't give satisfactory data. In some cases, there is massive under-reporting of crime. As an example, the police logged almost 6 million crimes in 2003/4, while the British Crime Survey estimates that the total was twice that.

There are weaknesses in the BCS - it doesn't cover murder, crimes against children, crimes against businesses or crimes that have no direct victim (like drug dealing). On the other hand, it does cover the crimes that are most likely to have an impact on us. Despite what you might think, murder is exceptionally rare. The most recent statistics show an upturn, but there have been two cases in recent years that have contributed massively - the numbers of people murdered by Harold Shipman and the 58 Chinese immigrants who suffocated in a container while being brought into the country. The BCS only provides national figures, it can't work down to local level.

Police reporting figures are unreliable, because there have been significant changes in how crimes are reported and classified and also because they rely on crime actually being reported. To be fair, they have shown increases over recent years, but there are statistical flaws over reporting. For consistency, look at the BCS.

Burglary - DOWN 42% since 1997

Thefts of and from vehicles - DOWN 40% since 1997

Common assault - DOWN 33% since 1997

Robbery - DOWN 15% since 1997

Domestic and acquaintance violence are both DOWN 45% since 1997

Mugging has only dropped by 4% since 1997

Overall, household crime is DOWN 42% since 1997 and personal crime DOWN 35%.

Now, where there is a problem is with 'Stranger' violence, which has RISEN by 22% since 1997. There has also been an increase in 'snatch' thefts from people, up by 46%. Given that every other item has dropped significantly, I don't think that these two items actually justifies the Tories in labelling crime as 'soaring.' If we are being fair to the Tories (and it IS Christmas), these falls actually started following a peak in 1995.

So why should this matter? Well, if we don't correct the lies, they will enter the common conscience as fact. Not only is this bad for the Labour Party politically, it is bad for the country. Fear of crime is worse than the reality in the way it affects lives. Older members of society live in fear of crime, yet when you look at the reality, only 5% of robberies are perpetrated against them. Almost half of the robbery victims are under 25 - a quarter under 15.

Truth matters. Together, we'll crack it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The Things They Say Pt 245 - David Blunkett

"Probably my failing is that I feel I need to be on top of things too much"
The Guardian, May 2000.
'Nuff said.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Nicked Griffin

This week saw some cheer, with the leader of the BNP being (temporarily) under lock and key as part of a police investigation into comments he made while being secretly filmed, which may fall foul of the Public Order Act.

I don't like seeing the law used to repress political parties, but I feel that this is a special case. Like all rights, freedom of speech comes with responsibilities - you aren't free to shout 'Fire' in a crowded place, for example. By the nature of democracy in this country, it is open to all, so the moment you start to spread fear about a distinct racial or religious group, you put yourself beyond the limits of reasonable political behaviour. Inspiring racial division makes you an enemy of democracy.

The BNP are wise to the fact that attacking a racial group will being the force of the law down upon them, so they have cynically used the post-September 11th climate to target the Islamic minority in this country. The BNP seize upon a general fear and ignorance to spread their half-truths and lies in pursuit of a broader aim. They want to work at a visceral level, digging below our reasoned, intellectual processes to spark our fears of the unknown and the different.

A few years back, the BNP and other parties were the preserve of a few nutcases and skinheads, but that is changing. At the 2004 local elections, they were out in force and there are a number of smarter, more politically-savvy leaders coming up through the ranks. They now work smarter - they try to work through small local 'cells' and make great efforts to talk only to those who want to hear their brand of hatred. They promise to end the domination by 'the old gang' of Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat councillors and take up suitable local issues. Fortunately, their political successes so far have been few and seem to have a habit of ending in failure, with BNP councillors facing criminal charges, admitting that they don't understand the council budget or just not doing anything at all.

That doesn't mean that they aren't a threat to good order. Their policies and their political activity is divisive and designed to spread fear and hatred. I have in front of me a leaflet handed out by the BNP in Birmingham, which states:

"Next time you see a Muslim driver with black ribbon tied to his exhaust, remember this is a wonderful example of the positive enrichment of multi-culturalism. It signifies allegiance to the barbarian terrorists of al-Qaeda!"
The leaflet also accuses the Liberal Democrats of aiming to "destroy the moral fabric of our society." I don't like the LibDems, but even I think that's a little strong.

In case there was any doubt, the BNP post a revealing 'news item' on their website. Firstly, it points out that secretly obtained footage is inadmissible as evidence in the UK, so those arrested have to resort to 'no comment' in their interviews, hoping that no-one else present at the speech which triggered all of this will provide evidence. They also repeat an email from a senior BNP member to their founder, John Tyndall, which describes the 'Race Act' as "a disgusting piece of legislation."

So what do we do? I favour allowing them the maximum amount of rope - as they can't avoid damning themselves the more they talk. The interview by John Gaunt with Julian Leppart, the BNP London Mayoral candidate in 2004 is particularly revealing, as he seems to blame asylum seekers for traffic congestion - and everything else, obviously. I trust the British people - of whatever ethnic origin, religion or colour - to see through the tarnishing veneer of legitimacy and find the racist, fascist truth underneath. When their spokesmen fall foul of the law, shout about it - make sure that everyone knows that we won't tolerate the preaching of hatred and that we will stand up for those groups who need support and protection. If that means going to law, then let's do it. Being a politician, even an unsavoury one, shouldn't be a defence against inciting racial hatred.

Incidentally, if you want to find out the truth behind those claims about asylum seekers, try the Refugee Council's myth busting page - lots of facts, all referenced and supported.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Bye, bye Blunkett

And there goes another one, returning to spend more time with his constituency.

I feel sad about this whole thing, because it undermines faith in the political class in this country. With a few exceptions, there isn't any massive corruption in British politics. The system has faults and these can be exploited, but there is nothing like the porkbarrel politics of the US. I am concerned about the level of corporate involvement in politics - an argument for me for public funding of political parties.

This case doesn't show massive corruption. At the worst, a minister got a visa expedited for a friend of a friend - somebody he loved. Quite possibly, a civil servant overstepped the mark in helping his boss. That's it.

What we have witnessed over the past couple of weeks is the vultures of the press, snacking on the titbits of prurient information leaking from one side or the other and waiting for the main course. Not exactly edifying and distracting from the real business of politics.

Let's argue over identity cards, falling crime figures, terrorist internment or immigration, but let's not fight about private lives.

Of course, it may yet backfire - Blunkett on the backbenches will have more time to fight the case for access, so all that leaking from Kimberley Fortier-Quinn to the Daily Mail may prove to have contributed to something of a pyhrric victory. We shall see.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Stubbing it out

There are those crying foul at the government plan to limit smoking in public places.

I don't think that it goes far enough. Smoking should be prohibited in all bars and restaurants.

I accept that this impinges on the liberty of the minority who smoke, but it is a simple health and safety issue for me. If you work in any other industry, you expect your employer to protect you from hazardous gases, but if you work in hospitality, you are expected to work in a fug of carcinogenic smoke. For the sake of these people - expected to work unsocial hours for some of the lowest rates available - we should ban it.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Sound of the Blunderground

I've been covering big national stuff lately, even veering into the international arena in my own, ill-educated way. But now, let's come home, to Birmingham, Britain's second city, currently under the cosh of an ill-starr'd marriage between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats (run by that darling of LibDemWatch, millionaire councillor John Hemming).

Anyway, in June the Tories hit upon this bright, election-winning idea. They decided that what Birmingham needed to make it an even more go-getting international city was an underground system. Given that we've made a start on a mass transit system with the Midland Metro between Birmingham Snow Hill and Wolverhampton, some might suggest that to add another type of system into the mix wasn't a good idea, but it was a BIG idea and the Tories needed BIG ideas.

So, after the elections, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats jumped into bed with indecent haste - no courtship at all - and the Tories found that they had to implement their policies by scraping together £150,000 from the stretched City Council budget to fund a study. Now, I have no problems with big ideas or massive civil engineering projects, if they make financial, political and social sense, but this doesn't. I'm not going to charge you £150,000 for these comments, you get 'em for free.

Firstly, it will be hugely expensive. Light rail systems aren't cheap - they typically cost between £20 million and £30 million a mile. However, put the thing underground and the cost rises dramatically. Take the last major underground project in the UK, the Jubilee Line. Adding a chunk to an existing underground system cost a whopping £250 million a mile. So, that's ten times as much as extending an existing light rail system. The operating and maintenance costs will also prove prohibitive. I'd predict a startup cost of around £2 billion for this scheme.

Where's the flexibility? Continuing the rail lines through the City - as they do in Manchester and Nottingham, for example, allows easy running of through services and minimal changes for passengers. The proposed system could lead to a passenger trying to get from Wolverhampton to Birmingham Airport having to make two changes in the City Centre to complete the journey.

Trams can stop anywhere they choose - if you need to move a stop for safety reasons or if the needs of the city change, then you just move it. Underground stations are permanent constructions and limit the development of the city and plans to change the layout or the business mix. We're just getting rid of the concrete collar of ring roads that stifled development - we don't need a millstone to replace them.

Construction won't be easy. While there are problems with running surface rail through the City, other cities have proved that it can work. The underground could take twenty years to come to fruition and would have to cope with the difficulties of tunnelling through the sandstone under Birmingham and the assorted services already in place - aside from the rail and road tunnels, there's a nice big underground telephone exchange deep down there as well. You could extend the Metro within the next decade, if the government can be persuaded to loosen the purse strings and allow some controlled investment.

Light rail can work - maybe it can't turn a profit, but it does accomplish a wider social goal of reducing car journeys and that is worth investment in itself. The underground may achieve this, but the costs will be massively higher and not worth the benefits.

So will it happen? Not in a thousand years. Big underground projects are only built where labour is cheap - in Victorian London, the Soviet Union and now in the Far East. We don't have a hope of raising the billions required to build it, nor the extra millions required to run it. There is a receding hope of getting any more money to fund the Metro, let alone anything more impressive. The feasibility study will take £150,000 of our money and raise all the above objections and more.

What a waste.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Heseltine makes a fair point.

All kudos to the ever-excellent Recess Monkey for digging up this little gem from Michael Heseltine, overheard in conversation with a senior Labour MP.

"Of course you will win the next election, just imagine Michael Howard on television every day for three weeks"


I hold no torch for George Galloway - I think his ego outpaces his talent by some way and his 'salutation' for Saddam Hussein makes me cringe. I also believe that his Respect party is in bed with some politically unpleasant elements, all over one issue. Frankly, I don't like the guy.

But, I have no doubt that he was wronged by the Telegraph and I think that the whole affair has intelligence fingerprints all over it. We are expected to believe that a Telegraph journalist happened to go into an ransacked building, find an undisturbed room of files and then happen upon a file relating to the dictator's relationship with George Galloway?

For what little it may be worth, my view is that one of the spooks had already been there, found the document and directed the journalist where to find it. I think it is unlikely that the intelligence boys would try and feed the Telegraph a known false document or that they had the wherewithal to plan this little deception in advance of the invasion.

So, I think that the document is genuine in a way, but not in a way to excite George's lawyers. I suspect that somebody in Iraq was taking money from the oil for food programme and this letter was used as cover.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Boris' revenge

David Blunkett isn't the only Home Secretary accused of fast-tracking documents at the request of a friend.

Newsnight's Michael Crick reported that when Michael Howard was Home Sec, he arranged for Petronella Wyatt (Boris' former amour) to have her passport replaced within 24 hours.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Tory Cuts?

£15 million in the red and counting... With six months to the election, can the Tories put up any kind of fight at all? Have their big-money donors deserted them?