Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Damning Indictment

Following on from my previous posts about the poverty line existence of pensioners and the exploitation of the new lower middle class, a story today of a 76 year old man who was sentenced to 34 days in jail for not paying his Council Tax.

Richard Fitzmaurice, who spent 22 years in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, had declared in court: "I am here on a matter of principle. The way old age pensioners are being treated is shameful."

To make a bad situation worse, a pair of handcuffs was slapped around his wrists as soon as his 34-day sentence was passed at King's Lynn Magistrates' Court, Norfolk. As the handcuffs were put on him, the former warrant officer asked: "Is that really necessary? You don't need those for me."

But the court ruled "procedures had to be followed". A phrase that was probably very reminiscent for him, as it's remarkably similar to the line trotted out by the lower ranking Nazis after the war ended: "we were only following orders"

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Going To Dubai? Check Your Shoes

Read today about the Radio One DJ Grooverider being sent to prison in the UAE for four years because he carried 2.16g of cannabis in his luggage. Now, that's a pretty stupid thing to do anywhere - despite the relatively small amount of the drug in question - but to carry it into a Muslim country is just asking for trouble.

The UAE have form on this zero tolerance approach. A 43 year old youth worker from the West Midlands was also sentenced to four years in jail for carrying much, much less. By much, much less, I mean "invisible to the naked eye and weighing less than a grain of sugar". And when I say carrying, I mean "had stuck in the tread of his shoe".

Fair Trials International put out a press release earlier this month highlighting the other cases of the past twelve months that have caused them some concern.

Here are some of the more absurd examples:

Tracy Wilkinson, 45 of West Sussex
Arrested at Dubai airport in 2005 for possession of codeine, a common pain relief medication, which she had been using to ease chronic back pain. She was held in custody for 8 weeks before officials accepted proof from her doctor of its use for prescribed medical purposes only.

Robert Dalton, 25 from Kent
Robert travelled to Dubai on 13 November 2007 for a holiday after finishing his economics degree. He was stopped and searched at the airport and arrested after Customs officers alleged they found 0.03g of cannabis in his pockets. He is currently on trial and if convicted, will mostly likely receive a 4 year prison sentence.

20-year old man from West Yorkshire
Arrested at Dubai airport on 16 January 2008 while travelling back to the UK from Pakistan. Currently standing trial in Dubai after Customs officers alleged they found 0.02g cannabis in his pocket.

British resident Cat Le-Huy
Arrested in Dubai for carrying Melatonin jet-lag tablets, which are sold over the counter in the US and Dubai. Mr Le-Huy told BBC News he was forced to sign a document in Arabic and was refused a translator. He said once the tablets were proved to be Melatonin, police took what he described as dirt from his bag and said they were now testing it to see if it was cannabis.

And most bizarrely of all;

A Swiss national currently serving 4 years after 3 poppy seeds were found on his clothes by customs officials at Dubai airport. He had bought and eaten a bread roll at Heathrow before flying to UAE.

So be aware when travelling to the UAE, I'd suggest you buy completely new clothes before travelling. Oh, and make sure any drugs you might have taken have completely passed out of your system, as the UAE government also consider anything in your urine or bloodstream to be "carrying". Just so you know.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Licence To Smoke

As reported by the BBC on Friday, there has been a proposal that in order to purchase tobacco, people should pay £10 a year for a licence. And the application for the licence should be hideously complicated and annoying as possible (so standard Government issue then) so that people would be discouraged from purchasing tobacco.

Other people have commented on the somewhat totalitarian approach of this (although this should be read just for the line "Julian Le Grand: 1984 is a warning, NOT A FUCKING INSTRUCTION MANUAL, you terrible cunt.") but I think they've all missed a couple of points.

First up, there seems to be nothing in these proposals that would stop me (or anyone else) from popping over to Europe and buying cigarettes over there. Obviously they would only be for my personal consumption, so I could - technically - bring back as many as I want with no need for a licence. Obviously there would be a very lucrative black market in these "imported" cigarettes, probably amongst people who didn't want to appear on yet another Government database, or couldn't provide all the required information in order to get a licence themselves.

Secondly, if someone from outside of the UK were to try to purchase cigarettes here (although Lord knows why as it'd probably be cheaper for them to bring them with them) would they have needed to get a licence before entering the UK? If so, how? And if they don't need a licence but can show a foreign passport instead, then anyone of foreign nationality who lives in the UK would be at a distinct advantage over people who were born & bred here.

Thirdly, why are the Government so keen on persuading people to quit smoking? The income raised on cigarette sales + expenditure reduced by shorter pensions to smokers > cost of NHS care for people with smoking related illnesses. Smokers effectively subsidise the national pension contributions of non-smokers. As it has been predicted for many years that there will be a crisis in pensions, surely the Government would be better served by *encouraging* people to smoke?

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The Birth Of The Lower Middle Class

Maybe I just missed it prior to the beginning of the Thatcher era (1979), but I don't recall there being a pursuit of wealth and possession before the Conservatives came to power. Perhaps there was and it just didn't manifest itself as fully as it did during the "grab what you can" times of the early 1980s.

The phrase "Greed Is Good" as spoken by Gordon Gecko in "Wall Street" was - in my mind at least - supposed to be a damning indictment of the wealth at all costs approach. Unfortunately (from my point of view) the drive of the City to make more money at the expense of everyone else seems to have seeped out and infiltrated every day life to the point where it became expected by everyone that they too would be millionaires.

In a post in 2006, I mentioned about the way in which City Centre regeneration had been kick-started by gentrification, rather than a grass roots approach. I didn't suggest then that the problem was caused by Councils not having sufficient funding, but this is a very real possibility due to the decreased amounts of rent they were receiving from the reduced amount of Council tenants.

I can still remember people being happy to live in a Council house that they rented and would never own. Of course that changed when the Conservatives allowed the purchase of Council houses by tenants. The tenants bought the house - thus removing it from the social housing pool - and then, often, sold it on at a small profit shortly afterwards. Whole housing estates suddenly went from being all social housing to being entirely privately owned in a matter of years.

And it was encouraged, no, it was expected that if you were able to, you would buy your own council house: then you would have an asset. You clambered onto the mortgage ladder and your working life went toward paying for your castle. Repairs and maintenance that had previously been undertaken by the Local Authority became your own responsibility. Bonus for the LA as they no longer had to have hundreds of workmen to do these jobs. And in the short term (a phrase that I may well be using a lot) the LAs also benefited from receiving the sale price of the house.

Unfortunately, this short-termism was just that. In the longer term, the LAs received less money from tenants - as there were less tenants - and those there were were usually in dire financial straits and the Council were effectively paying for them to be housed (in the form of Housing Benefit and Council Tax rebates). True council housing now has become mainly a ghetto of the elderly, the extremely poor and the migrant. These "sink estates" as they have become known, can have up to 80% of the houses with no-one in full time employment living in them.

Mostly gone from council housing were people in full time employment who took little from the system, but gave a lot back. These people were to become the new order, the lower middle class. Not wealthy enough to be deemed truly middle class, they're taxed harder as a percentage of their earnings and receive less financial support from the Government than those both above and below them. Created by the drive towards home ownership for all, the lower middle class are essentially stuck in an endless fight against losing it all, and trying to reduce the gap to the true middle class.

And I shall return to how this lower middle class fight has affected the financial markets worldwide in a later post. Mark one thing though, things need to change; there needs to be a revolution.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Football And The Pursuit Of Money

First off, this will be a rant in a series of rants. So if you don't like rants, look away now. If you do like rants but don't like football, you might actually enjoy this one.

For those who don't know, I am a Newcastle United fan by birth. In that I have no choice; I was raised there. I was (and still am to a lesser extent) a fan of Tottenham Hotspur, and this was due to how they played football when I was a kid - exciting attacking stuff.

But that is about to end. I shall be giving up the support. I shall no longer be caring what the results are and where "we" are in the table. My mood at weekends will no longer determined by 11 people on a football pitch. The enjoyment I get from the game has waned over recent times. Last week however it impossible to continue.

Last Thursday, Premier League chief Richard Scudamore announced a plan which would make teams play one more game each in a foreign venue. All 20 clubs of the Premier League agreed to explore a proposal to extend the season to 39 games.

Those 10 extra games would be played at five different venues, with cities bidding for the right to stage the game, but not guaranteeing which teams would play. It is understood the fixtures would be determined by a draw and that the top-five teams could be seeded to avoid playing each other.

Scudamore is reported by The Telegraph as saying on Friday "Never on my watch will it go to a 40th game" yet by Monday this had changed to "You can't sit here in the job I have and say 'never'." An expansion beyond 39 games is now under consideration.

Scudamore claims that this move is necessary: "We've seen how sport's globalising, we compete in the entertainment industry." He tries to argue that this is about positioning football as the world's number one sport and to encourage the leagues in "developing countries".

This is bullshit: it's all about the Benjamins.

As has become the norm in the Premier League, money has become the driving motivation for all decisions. There is no regard whatsoever for the loyal UK based supporter of limited means: the traditional football fan.

With the average Premiership footballer now receiving (correct to April 2006) £13,000 per week, the gap between football player and football fan is enormous. In the Championship the average wage is £3,700 per week and in League One it's £1,300. League Two players on average bring home £950 per week.

The average wage across the whole of the UK is around £500 per week. In two weeks the average Premiership footballer earns the same as the average worker does in an entire year. There are, of course, well known examples of footballers who earn in excess of £100,000 a week. It’s a long, long way from 1881 when Blackburn Rovers were the first club to pay their players. The wage then? £1 a week.

Dan Jones, partner of Deloitte's sports business group, said "We do expect the average annual earnings for a Premier League player next season will be in the region of £1.1m and that over the next three years we will see English football's first player to earn £10m per annum from a club, equivalent to £200,000 per week"

The pursuit of money is the driving force for the Premier League's decision. It is my view that the pursuit of money is destroying football. Further, it is my view that the pursuit of money is destroying society, and it is to this subject that I shall return in my next post.

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Friday, February 08, 2008

Next Census, Senseless.

In quite astounding news, the Government are planning to outsource the collating and retention (but not collection) of census data to a foreign company. Either Deutsche Telekom or, more worryingly, Lockheed Martin.

That would be the same Lockheed Martin who is a major defence contractor for the US Government. And that would be the same US Government whose Patriot Act requires all US firms to hand over any data the Government want without any protections or need for court time for a subpoena.

Angela Eagles, the Treasury Minister, has assured MPs that the data will be safe because "We have received legal advice that there is no risk that that would happen," she told the committee on Wednesday. So that's alright then, isn't it?. She continued;

"Some of the arrangements that would be made would ensure that data was owned and kept within the UK."

Right, because data leaving the country for no apparent reason never happened before, has it?

"There has been no evidence of the US Patriot Act being used to subpoena companies that are not US-based."

And I think the word you may have missed out of this sentence is "yet".

/me checks next available flight out of the UK

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

US Customs Seize Data

Following on from my predictions of 17th January for what may happen at border control over here, it seems that the Americans have been going through people's data for a while.

The Washington Post is reporting that customs agents are taking mobile phones, mp3 players and, of course, laptops off people arriving into the USA.

The carriers of the laptops (who aren't necessarily the owners) have to give over login and password information at the very minimum, but often the entire laptop. I would suspect that the US then rips all the information off the laptop and then attempts to see why you're a terrorist.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and Asian Law Caucus (two civil liberties groups in San Francisco) plan to file a lawsuit to force the Government to disclose its policies on border searches, including which rules govern the seizing and copying of the contents of electronic devices.

They also want to know the boundaries for asking travelers about their political views, religious practices and other activities potentially protected by the First Amendment. The question of whether border agents have a right to search electronic devices at all without suspicion of a crime is already under review in the federal courts.

According to the Post, some companies are so wary of laptops being seized for weeks or more that they are now instructing their staff to travel with hard-drives completely empty of data. While there is obviously a risk that their data can be compromised by being collected online (after passing through customs) they assume there's less risk of it falling into the "wrong hands" than if they entrust it to the Government.

So a bit like over here in that respect then.

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Brown: Manifesto Pledges Are Lies

Okay, I'm paraphrasing just a smidge, but that is roughly what the Prime Minister's barrister admitted in open court today.

In a case brought by a UKIP (and former Labour Party) member, Stuart Bower, against the Government over the pre-election promise of a referendum on the EU Constitution (now removed as the Government claim that the Lisbon treaty isn't a constitution, despite it being basically a slightly tidied up version of the old constitution document).

While Bower probably never expected to win the case (and he didn't), I doubt he could have believed his luck when the barrister, Celia Ivimy said;

"A manifesto promise is incapable of giving rise to a legally binding contract with the electorate. It is a point which is so obvious that I don't want to labour it."

So, as blogger Trixy managed to get to the world first, the Government have now confirmed that anything written in an election manifesto is likely to be a lie.

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MPs Insult Our Intelligence

Excellent opinion piece by Dominic Lawson in the Independent from a couple of days ago about the two most recent things to vex me: the Sadiq Khan bugging "incident", and the continuing payola/MP's expenses scandal.

As I may have mentioned previously, the Speaker of the House of Commons has repeatedly stopped increasing transparency of MP's expenses. Whether this is due to him having two grace and favour apartments in Westminster and still claim for his Glasgow house is debatable. Having him choose the MPs who lead the investigation he has been forced to undertake, however, is just idiotic.

Guido Fawkes has - as usual - some rather interesting views on the investigation into MP's expenses. As Guido's blog does move rather quickly, I've copied his points into here;

It beggars belief that as popular disgust with MPs is now near universal they decide to appoint three of their own to investigate themselves. When you find out which three MPs the Speaker has chosen to do the investigating you can only laugh or else you will cry. Guess what the result will be?

Monkey #1, Nick Harvey, a LibDem MP and former spinner for lobbyists Citigate Dewe Rogerson who still keeps his hand in as a consultant to parliamentary lobbyists Trimedia. Clearly the perfect choice to assess the shadowy influence of lobbyists given the tens of thousands he makes from the industry whilst a serving MP.

Monkey #2, David Maclean, the Conservative MP who tried to stop the Freedom of Information Act applying to MPs by using some very shifty parliamentary tactics. This provoked uproar and disgust leading to defeat after a few underhand shenanigans. Just the person to investigate calls for more transparency.

Monkey #3, Sir Stuart Bell, a Labour MP who hired his son Malcolm as a researcher. But unlike Derek Conway's sons, Malcolm definitely used to turn up at Parliament. In fact, it was while working in Portcullis House that Malcolm broke into George Galloway's office, stole his chequebook and made off with £2,000 from Galloway's bank acocunt. Which must have been the first time Galloway was the victim of a fraud. Young Malcolm Bell got 60 days in a young offender's institute. So his father is just the person to look into whether MPs hiring members of their family can lead to fraud.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Mackem Banned From Causing Nuisance

The BBC are reporting that a Sunderland man (and let's face it, that's hardly a surprise now is it) has been given an ASBO banning him from causing nuisance ANYWHERE in England & Wales*. Which is some achievement.

Getting over my own racism toward the great unwashed, I do find it utterly astounding that someone can get an ASBO for something so general as this. Surely it's illegal to cause public nuisance anyway? If you cause a breach of the peace, you can be arrested. So why give him an ASBO?

Since Labour came to power, they have introduced (and are planning on introducing still more) laws that are basically identical to ones already on the statute books, but just not fully implemented on a nationwide business due to their being too few police to do anything when they're broken.

Today, Jacqui Smith has announced she's going to give police more power to seize alcohol** from teenagers (under 18)***. Well, I know this'll come as a surprise to you love, but that's already a law. It's like saying "we're going to make murdering people with cheese illegal". The public go "oh good, there's been a couple of high profile cheese deaths recently, go you Jacqui" then pause and think, "wait, isn't murder of ANY kind already illegal?"

The Government really have missed a trick today. The guy from Sunderland has often been found shouting racist abuse from the City Hall steps at 10am while drunk. As a punishment he should be sent round schools to talk to kids about the dangers of alcohol. Once they realise that drinking could lead to being a Mackem, the kids are bound to stop binge-drinking in a heartbeat.

* - I'm presuming that it doesn't include Scotland because being drunk and noisy in Scotland isn't so much causing nuisance as "joining in"

** - Most entertainingly police removed 6500 pints from kids in 2006; in a one month period between October and November. Now perhaps I'm being nostaligic for when I were a lad, but I'm sure our school alone used to consume more than that in a month. Tsk, kids these days, eh? No idea.

*** - Which would mean that sharing some wine with your children in a restaurant would now become illegal. And technically, all the supermarket shelf stackers would need to be over 18 to work in the alcohol section. She really hasn't thought this through, has she?

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Jack Don't Know Jack

In more news about the case of Sadiq Khan's chat with Babar Ahmed, Jack Straw said, last night, that his own department had not told him about the potential bugging problem even though they'd been aware of it since December last year.

Which does make you wonder what else the Ministry of Justice aren't telling their own chief, doesn't it?

It also makes me wonder whether someone at the Ministry of Justice is telling David Davis things that they should be telling Jack Straw, as it was in December he wrote to Gordon Brown asking about whether bugging had taken place. Brown still claims to have been unaware of the Davis letter until very recently.

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Go Nick Clegg!

In today's Prime Ministers Question Time, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg asked Gordon Brown why he was leading the UK into a surveillance society and to put an end to the fingerprinting of school children.

Brown avoided answering directly (natch) but in turn asked if the Lib Dems supported the use of CCTV. I'm presuming Brown thinks there is a need for the huge increases in the number of CCTV cameras, and thinks that if the Lib Dems don't support it that they'd somehow be seen as weak on fighting crime.

Brown did manage to say "we are taking the steps to protect the liberties of citizens" so I'm guessing he feels that by removing privacy, he's somehow protecting our liberty.

Not entirely sure how that works, but that's probably why I'm not PM.

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Monday, February 04, 2008

Police Can Challenge Pay Deal

In more great news for the Government, Police Federation lawyers have been told by a High Court judge that they can challenge the ruling on their recently-introduced but in-no-way-backdated 1.9% payrise.

Mr Justice Collins said he had "no hesitation" in ruling there was a case to apply for judicial review. The hearing will take place before two judges on 15 April, so expect to hear some other news items suggesting the police have overstepped their boundaries, vis-a-vis some MP bugging or what have you, some time before early April.

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Big Brother Calls Khan To Diary Room

Following on nicely from my earlier post about bugging at high levels in the UK, Sadiq Khan MP has discovered that he was bugged while having a supposedly confidential conversation with a constituent, Babar Ahmed, who was spending time at Woodhill Prison.

Babar Ahmed, it should be noted, is currently wanted for extradition by the US who suspect him of being a terrorist (the case has been followed by The Register here). He is also, a childhood friend of Mr Khan.

There is, or was, depending on who you decide to believe, a protocol that dictates that the police will not bug Members of Parliament. As it appears that the bugging of Mr Khan has directly ignored this (Nick Robinson says that the police man who undertook it, did so with the full support of his Chief Constable) there is to be an inquiry launched by Minister of Justice, Jack Straw.

He might also want to ask some questions at Number 10, as David Davis, the Shadow Home Secretary, claims he sent a letter to the Prime Minister in December last year saying that he was aware of the bugging, but Gordon Brown is said to be "unaware" of that letter being received.

All of which is a nice distraction from the recent spate of undignified payola grabbing by MPs and their families. Almost odd that the bugging, which is reported to have taken place in 2005 & 2006, would make an appearance at this time. Fortuitous is one word for it. Suspicious is the one I'll use.

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