Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Murder in mind

Murder has been high up on the radar this past week. We've had three big trials come to an end and not surprisingly, someone's started a bandwagon rolling.

The Tories (yawn) were off the mark with their revelation that 13% of people charged with murder, although Iain Dale was quick to point the finger

That would be why his government is letting murder suspects
out on bail
There was a bit of yelping about this on the Today programme, with the Tory shadow minister Nick Herbert claiming that a 'large number' were free on bail. He did this solely on the basis that a whopping 13% of those charged with murder on the 31 January 2008 were out on bail. He has no idea about the individual cases which might mean that the judiciary have applied the law on bail correctly. There is an old adage that bad cases make bad law and the tragedy of the Gary Weddell case - where he murdered his mother-in-law while on bail for murdering his wife - should not cause us to make wholesale changes.

Anyway, the Sun has their own unpleasant little campaign running, including an entirely unscientific survey where 99% of those who could be bothered to ring in (at a cost of at least 10p) backed the return of hanging. This is out of kilter with real polling - a recent-ish YouGov poll put support for the return of hanging at below 50%, well down on the 1994 figures of 75% when the matter was last debated in parliament. Readers of Private Eye might note a sad little irony in the Sun's joyous coverage, as the paper's senior reporter, John Kay, killed his wife.

Unsurprisingly, as a card-carrying, bleeding-heart liberal conspiracist, I'm opposed to the death penalty for a range of reasons.

It isn't a deterrent. A survey of police chiefs in the US put the death penalty at the bottom of the list of seven measures. Reducing drug use, improving the economy and putting more cops on the street all came much higher.

Juries make mistakes, scientists cock up evidence, people lie. No matter how long we imprison somebody, we can always release them. In the West Midlands, we have cause to remember Stefan Kisko, the Carl Bridgewater case and the Birmingham Six. All featured innocent men who would have been hanged.

It is wrong. Few developed countries retain the death penalty - in fact bringing it back would put us outside the EU as scrapping capital punishment is a requirement for entry. Even the US is reviewing it. Do we really want to be bracketed with China, Iran and the Sudan? I think we have to leave the possibility for most people that they can change and turn their lives around.

It costs more. Curiously enough, Californians have paid $250 million for each prisoner executed - some $114 million more than it would cost to keep them incarcerated for life.

Good to see Boris Johnson posting on the Sun messageboard:

blondeplanet: We need to bring it back not only to punish these scumbags
but to reduce prison overcrowding

Not even Michael Howard suggested that solution. Speaking of wacky Tories, Widders and David Davis got in on the capital punishment act (and Iain had the temerity to accuse Gordon of blowing the dog-whistle on this)

Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said he stood by his views that Britain should bring back the death penalty for serial killers. He faced a storm of
controversy in 2003 for suggesting its return. But he said: “I would bring back capital punishment for serial murderers. This is not a crime of passion – it’s premeditated and cold-blooded.” Former Home Office Minister Anne Widdecombe also wants a return. She said: “I believe it acts as a deterrent. It should be available in cases of premeditated murder.
The Sun have hijacked a serious issue to make a quick buck out of the 90,000 callers who each paid at least 10p to register their views in an entirely unrepresentative poll. They've also got quotes from the relatives of victims to support their 'campaign.' Quite apart from the skin-crawling unpleasantness of soliciting those views from people who have already had their lives shredded, of course they want to kill the people responsible. If one of my family was a victim, I know I'd want to tear the attacker limb from limb, but we have a justice system to protect us from ourselves.

Of the three high-profile killers jailed in the past week, two of them will never be released. They've joined a select group of three dozen who will see out their last days through a barred window. The other, who is 49, will serve at least 34 years in jail before he can even apply for parole and the odds are that he won't get it first time, as lifers rarely do. If he is lucky, he might celebrate his 85th or 86th birthday on licence, a 'free' man. Chances are, he'll die in jail too. I have no problem with that - that's what they deserve.

That's the other thing to remember - lifers may be released after thirteen or fourteen years on average, but they are on licence for the remainder of their life. That means that if they EVER break the terms of the licence or are considered to be a danger to the public - they don't have to commit a crime - back they go to jail. And they do go back.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Who are you?

"How to maintain the security of a database with 4.5m people on it is one thing. Doing that for 60m people is another."

Home Office Minister Tony McNulty on proposals to create a truly national DNA database.

I quite agree. I wonder how many interrogations it has to cope with? The national fingerprint records system has around 6.5 million records and that has to be able to handle thousands of checks a month. According to Private Eye this week, the new system isn't able to handle even that.

Lucky we aren't thinking about creating a database with 60 million records that will be interrogated tens of thousands of times an hour, eh?

Oh. It appears we still are.

This will be Labour's poll tax unless we see sense now and scrap the whole ID card idea. The £2 billion (and more) saved could be better spent.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Oh, Darling.

The Tories have failed to find the political G Spot.

For all their efforts, over three-quarters of the electorate blame the company's management, two thirds the mortgage market and 60% other institutions. 60%-80% DON'T blame the government. According to a Times/Populous poll, that is.

Indeed, the Tory performance has been such that the voters favour Gordon and Alistair over Davey and Gideon to manage the country's fortunes, by 38% to 34%.


Unknown, non-white Democrat Congressman ascends to the presidential nomination to take on and defeat an elderly moderate Republican who is loathed by the right of his party? Sounds like a TV script, right?

The Guardian reveals that the story arc of the final season of the West Wing included a character based on Barack Obama - the eventual victor, Matt Santos.

Only one fly in the ointment - that wasn't how the story was supposed to work out. Arnie Vinick was supposed to win, it was the sudden death of John Spencer, Leo McGarry, that changed the script.

Anyone fancy being Obama's running mate?

Mohammed Fayed - by royal disappointment, purveyor of lies, untruths and conspiracies since 1997

There are news events that have the Kennedy factor – you remember where you were when you first heard the story. Amongst them for me, there was the Challenger explosion, the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher, the death of John Smith and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. I can recall stumbling downstairs on a Sunday morning and switching on the radio to hear Jim Naughtie intoning the words ‘This is BBC Radio.’ All the radios in my house are usually tuned to R4, so Jim’s voice wasn’t unknown, but it wasn’t expected on a Sunday morning and that particular station ID is only used when the networks join together in times of crisis. Unsurprisingly, that’s when I switched on the TV and stunned, woke my wife with the news.

Fayed’s appearance in court last week didn’t do him any favours. I think we have to extend a certain latitude to somebody who has lost a child, but his continued and unfounded assertions of a massive conspiracy at the top of the British establishment to plan and conceal the murder of Diana is simply ludicrous. From the very start, I’ve held the opinion that there is a strong element of self-protection here. Perhaps he’s afraid of litigation because one of his employees was allowed to drive a high-performance armoured limousine while drunk, or perhaps he just can’t accept the fact that his own people effectively killed his son.

The inquest stems from a vain hope that by exposing all the theories, no matter how whacky, to the light, that the facts will out. Sadly, I don’t agree. Conspiracy theories don’t need facts to survive – quite the opposite, as they thrive on a diet of rumour and half-truths. Unless the coroner decides that Diana was murdered and Prince Philip was driving a white Fiat Uno through Paris that night, there will always be a corner of the internet that sustains the lie. Perhaps we just don’t want to admit that a woman who could dominate the front pages of newspapers and magazines like no other could die so suddenly and in such mundane circumstances - the hands of a drunk driver egged on by his rich playboy boss. To suggest that icons can fall that way somehow goes against our view of the world – even though people die daily in car accidents caused by intoxicated drivers.

I’ve never bought into the conspiracy theories for a whole range of reasons. One is that Fayed expands the conspiracy to extend across the whole hierarchy of government, the intelligence services and assorted royals and flunkies. This makes the chance of a leak that would explode the whole thing more likely. Secondly, the alleged method seems to be very vulnerable to chance – if the princess had been wearing a seatbelt, she’d probably be alive. Thirdly, if the royals were so opposed to her marrying a Muslim (and there is no evidence that she was about to marry Dodi, outside of Fayed’s mind), why was she allowed to live past her serious involvement with the surgeon, Dr Khan?

Now, you have to accept that the family does have some form when it comes to murdering recalcitrant wives, being pro-Nazi and expressing questionable views on other cultures, but does that really extend to a plot that if exposed would destroy the monarchy and bring down the government, based upon such a flimsy and risky plan?

Nope, I just don’t buy it.

Perhaps we’ll just leave all this to Simon Smith and his Amazing Dancing Videos of Truth. (Hat tip to Bob Piper for this prime example of right-wingnuttery). The force of the flapping white coats is strong in this one. If you don’t bother voting in the local elections this year, Simon Smith is an example of what you might get.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Simon Heffer is still not happy with the Cameroons.

We are often told that George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, is the most significant figure on the Conservative front bench. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king....

With an open goal to kick into on Monday, and with an abject and defeated Chancellor of the Exchequer opposite him, Mr Osborne turned in a sub-undergraduate performance. The reedy, irritating timbre of his voice can be placed to one side if he has something serious to say, but there was the problem. His own policy - or selection of policies - on Northern Rock is hardly credible.... all Mr Osborne could supply was hysteria and name-calling.... suggested naivety and vacuity...

At times like this, Mr Cameron's desire to pursue style rather than substance is exposed....

Not often I agree with Simon, but he's on the money with those comments - apart from the line about the Chancellor being defeated.

Those with long memories may recall Cameron's victory speech, where he declared himself

fed up with the Punch and Judy politics of Westminster, the name calling, backbiting, point scoring, finger pointing.

We've seen very little else from the Tories apart from this sort of behaviour. While Cameron and Osborne think that they are being so very clever in the chamber, I suspect that they just come across as smug, over-confident smart arses. Gordon was exactly right with his 'student politics' jibe. As Chris Paul puts it

Tories are looking nasty. Wild-, nay swivel-eyed. The louder they wail the more their toff in-breeding comes to the surface.

Graffiti by GoogleAd

Researching a different issue, I google searched for graffiti in Birmingham and one of the links that came up was to one of The Stirrer's columns in the Evening Mail. One of the Google Ads at the bottom helpfully led to a North American website providing graffiti supplies and DVDs glorifying graffiti art on trains and public walls.
Nothing if not helpful, the local paper.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Farewell, comrade - we're a poorer City today

Birmingham has lost one of its greatest adopted sons, as Sir Dick Knowles has heard the voice of the great returning officer in the sky. He was the man who worked hard to lay the foundations of the reborn Birmingham we have today and probably the man who has the greatest claim to the mantle of Joe Chamberlain.

His integrity was first class. I hope people will study his career and take his life as an example of the way politics should be conducted. He was a great servant to Birmingham. He was a very nice and kind man.
That from Neville Bosworth, the Tory leader of the early 80s.

Liam Byrne adds
This is a huge loss for the city. He was an absolute giant of a man in the renaissance of Birmingham. But, he was also one of those men who managed to combine vision and determination with a genuine kindness and compassion to improve the lives of ordinary people.
Sir Albert Bore comments that,

Dick was the leader who saw the way out and he saw that we had to turn the basis of our economy around, which meant trying to overcome the dependency there was on manufacturing industries. There is no doubt in my mind that Dick Knowles as leader contributed massively in steering Birmingham in a new direction. He had vision and could stand on the stages of the world but at the same time he had a very common touch.

Sir Richard Knowles, 1917-2008.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ready for the off in Ladywood

Rumours reach me that the contest to be Labour's candidate in Birmingham Ladywood at the next election is about to kick off, if a local party meeting goes to plan tomorrow. The whole contest will take around 13 weeks.

A number of names have been put forward, but a new one to reach the radar is that of Sandra Samuels, a nurse from Wolverhampton who featured in a Labour election broadcast back in 2001 as one of a range of quiet heroes and had a run out in Shropshire last election, falling to Owen Paterson. She may have had hopes of succeeding her local MP, Ken Purchase, who has served Wolverhampton North East since 1992 and as he will be around 70 when the next election rolls around, he announced his retirement last October. Unfortunately, it seems that this seat might be being kept warm for another candidate - Jack Dromey is rumoured to be in the frame, according to Black Country sources.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Worry Lines?

Apparently John 'Slugger' Lines has apologised for calling asylum seekers 'scumbags' in an interview.

So that's all right then.

He was merely getting 'emotional.' Not tired, just emotional.

Not now Voyager

Private Eye this week covered some of the travails that have afflicted the new all-singing, all-dancing Voyager accounts package that is currently laying Birmingham City Council low and Computer Weekly delve a little deeper.

There have been huge problems with this – authority levels within the system have meant that senior accountants are the only ones approved to order toilet paper, care home staff have had to buy food for the residents with their own money and thousands of invoices remain unpaid, to the point where the bailiffs have turned up to collect. Cllr Hemming assured the nation that this case was an exception and that the invoice was only three days overdue. Frankly, that’s complete rubbish. It is unclear whether the bailiffs were court-appointed or merely a debt collection agency, but it would not be possible to get a judgement against the council within three days of the debt being due as the process takes months – which is why it is always the last resort. Similarly, no company would throw money away on debt collection after just three days. I suspect that this may be another economy with the truth - John means that it was only three days overdue according to Voyager. As the clock only starts ticking once an invoice is entered on Voyager and there remains a backlog of thousands of invoices still to be entered, some of which are months old, the council may soon be seeing bailiffs taking walking possession of one of the shiny new gold stars awarded this week. As many companies have a clause in their standard terms and conditions saying that goods remain their property until paid for, it is not surprising that I have heard of a couple of occasions of items being removed by suppliers for non-payment
– and that’s certainly the tip of the iceberg.

Well over a quarter of a million pounds of NRF project funding hangs in the balance as spending has yet to be approved by the accounts team and if it is not completed by the end of the financial year, then these projects will lose out.

A poster on the Stirrer reports that the Computer Weekly story has one glaring inaccuracy - the helpdesk wasn't taking 48 hours to respond to problems. It was taking that time just to enter the report onto their systems, but it might take SIX WEEKS to respond to the user.

The best guess is that upwards of 30,000 invoices are outstanding – weeks of work still to be completed in the teeth of the end-of-financial year barrage that always afflicts the council. Even better news for the besieged administration is that outgoing invoices are also being delayed, so that organisations that actually owe the council money – things like commercial rent, for example – are unable to raise payment. With six weeks to the end of the financial year, this could prove more embarrassing yet for BCC. How it will fare when it takes over the wages system as well, nobody knows.

Computer Weekly adds this coda to the story
At first we had trouble getting any information at all from Birmingham City Council. It gave the impression it was one of those defensive, resticent [sic] public authorities that react to a project failure by trying to switch off all the lights in the hope nobody will see them.

In a rare moment of partial openness, though, the man in charge of transformation, Glyn Evans, who recently lectured on the subject at a conference, came partially clean to the trade paper - so bonus points to him. Would that others could learn from his example.

I'm sure Capita - the commercial partners with BCC - were paid on time, though.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Stepping out

Those of you who have been intrigued as to my identity may have your curiosity resolved by the Politics Show in the West Midlands this Sunday. As I've said before, it isn't as exciting as some have suggested.

Watch this space on Sunday afternoon for proof that I have a face for radio and a voice for silent films.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Real Spooks

Bob picks up on the Sadiq Khan bugging case.

He runs through a few possibilities posed by Iain Dale as to who authorised what in terms of surveillance, but Iain (and others) have missed the point that it seems that Khan was merely unintentionally caught up in a surveillance operation (allegedly carried out by the Anti-Terrorist Squad) where the prisoner was the target.

Iain rambles on trying to smear the government
The idea that a Labour Member of Parliament was being bugged and neither the Prime Minister or the Justice Secretary knew about it simply beggars belief
Well, actually it doesn't. The Justice Secretary is not involved in decisions about surveillance - they are a matter for the relevant authority - in this case, a senior police/intelligence officer or possibly the Home Secretary if telephone monitoring was required. If Khan was himself the target of the operation - as we can assume Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein MP for West Belfast was - then that would have required approval from the PM, in line with the Wilson agreement. In any case, the agreement isn't backed by law, so providing the law has been followed, there isn't actually a real legal problem here at all. As far as we know, however, Khan wasn't the subject, so the PM would not need to have been involved.

It isn't clear whether the Home Secretary would need to have been involved in authorising the operation, as there are powers for senior police and intelligence officers to approve such activities, but even so, the authorisation would have been for an operation against the named prisoner, not against Sadiq Khan, who was merely a collateral issue.

It isn't a scandal for the government, although I would be concerned as to how this information came to light, as it seems to have been leaked with the intention of causing political embarrassment.

This story has been in the possession of David Davis since December, yet only now does it hit the media - ideally placed to create enough noise to drown out the problems with Tory sleaze. Most expedient.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Bad choice of words

Derek Conway has given an interview to the Mail in which he reassured us that he 'is not a crook.'

Now where have I heard that before??? Oh yes - I remember.

Possibly not the best example to chose as a political point of reference. Unaware of the ancient teaching - when in hole, stop digging, Derek makes a heartfelt plea on behalf of his soon-to-be-former colleagues for more cash. Hey - he's got a daughter to support as well!

'An MP is paid less than the sous chef at the Commons. Many people may think 60 grand is the right level for an MP – most MPs would not.'
Somehow, I don't think this is quite the right moment to make a stand for a payrise, Derek.

He also says that

I still believe I have done nothing wrong

which rather runs counter to his statement to the House this week:

The Committee was entitled to reach the conclusions that it did and I have accepted its criticisms in full. I unreservedly apologise to the House for my administrative shortcomings and the misjudgments I made.
Apparently his son, Freddie, studying at Newcastle University

would go up and down like a fiddler's elbow while he was away.
I remember what it was like to be at university too....

But wait - Bob 'Send them back' Spink, the charmingly moderate Tory MP for Castle Point in Essex, has been employing his ex-wife (from her Dorset home), his daughter and his ex-lover's daughter. That office must be a soap opera scriptwriter's dream.