Thursday 20 October 2011

The carelessness of government

I have broadly supported this coalition through all its vicissitudes so far. As a Liberal Democrat I have had to swallow hard over some issues – student fees, the NHS, the enthusiasm for cuts, particularly to services for the vulnerable, the continued velvet glove treatment of those responsible for the economic crash. But I have regarded all of these as a necessary price for providing the stability of government that the country desperately needed to get out of the hole that the bankers and Labour between them put us in. Particularly on cuts to benefits, I do not like them, I do not regard them as necessary, but I recognise that there is a limit to what we, as the minority party in government, are capable of enforcing.

But there is one issue that has given me cause to hesitate, and finally to decide that LibDems in government have not served well themselves, their party, their country, or one particular individual. That is the case of Gary McKinnon.

Let us be as clear as we can about the facts. Gary McKinnon has Asperger's Syndrome. This was only diagnosed in 2008. He is an expert in computing. He also believes that the US government is holding data on UFOs that he thought should be made public. In 2002 he began tracking down computers in the US military system, and discovered that many had very poor password and firewall protection. So he found his way in (it's hard to call it hacking when it involves getting into a Windows computer with inadequate protection). He found his way into dozens of computers and networks. He was eventually identified and arrested by the British authorities. That, I remind you, was in 2002, nearly ten years ago. The US authorities soon demanded his extradition to face trial there, despite the fact that he carried out all his activities on British soil, using British equipment and British connections. He faces a penalty of up to 60 years in prison in the USA. The USA may count as one of our more civilised allies, but when it is prepared to do what it has done to Bradley Manning, one can only be cynical about the prison conditions that Gary McKinnon might face. In addition, as a sufferer from Aspergers, Gary would be so disturbed by life in prison that suicide would be a real possibility. (Simon Baron-Cohen’s Report.)

There is a lopsided extradition agreement between the UK and the US. The tests are for the US authorities they only have to say what the alleged crime was, what the punishment can be, and who they suspect. They have to provide no evidence. But for the British authorities to extradite an American citizen from the US they have to demonstrate that they have good reason to believe that the suspect is the guilty party. They have to show evidence. The Baker report released this week states that there is no unfairness in the actual implementation of the agreement between us and the USA. There's something very unjoined up going on in our public processes at the moment if Baker felt it was necessary to consult the Americans over what to put in his report. And he may be historically accurate in so far as British citizens have not so far been unjustly treated, but the tests remain lopsided, and it is possible that British citizens may be unjustly treated in the future.

Perhaps this government was delaying on its response to the McKinnon case in the hope that Baker would get it off the hook. But Baker is actually irrelevant to the treatment of Gary McKinnon. The political noise coming from the other side of the Atlantic is that, in his case, our decision will be respected, and will not cause a problem between our governments. (I leave aside the issue that if I were the US government I would, far from wishing to prosecute McKinnon, be very grateful that he had shown up how pathetically inept US military security was, and enabled me to knock heads together to get it improved.)

The various legal issues about the treatment of vulnerable people are outlined very well here, and I need not go into further detail. The tools are in the hands of our government to take the decision and draw to an end the ten year – I repeat that, the ten year – limbo of a sick man. And yet we still delay.

So far, McKinnon has been treated as an object of a bureaucratic machine. Bureaucracies do not care for individuals. Bureaucracies are not designed to respond to the desperate needs of a lone person. Instead bureaucracies slowly and efficiently over long periods of time squeeze that individual round peg into a square hole. They have no humanity. That is not a criticism of bureaucracies. They do what they are designed to do - administer efficiently. But it is a criticism of governments, which represent the people, if they do not rescue individuals from the slow torture of bureaucracy.

It is over issues like this that governments lose their soul. It is not in the big policy decisions and announcements, crafted for party conferences, or news conferences, that the temper of a government is truly discovered. It is not in the well practised, monotonous cut and thrust of Commons debate, or the pas de deux of Newsnight or Sky TV interviews. Still less, Heaven forfend, in the cloyingly ritualised tangos of Question Time. It is in the effect that governments have on the treatment of individuals by an administration that is not built to care for individuals. At the moment the temper of this government is wanting.

Both Nick Clegg and David Cameron spoke about McKinnon's case when they were in opposition. They are quoted here.

David Cameron - “It should still mean something to be a British citizen – with the full protection of the British Parliament, rather than a British Government trying to send you off to a foreign court”….(July 2009)

Nick Clegg - “If he boards the plane to the U.S., it is almost certain he will never set foot on British soil again, doomed to pass out the rest of his days in shackles on a foreign shore. This is nothing short of a disgrace” ….(August 2009)

And yet they still do nothing.

Nick Clegg in August this year, now in government, compared Britain to Libya. Libya has in fact shown us the way. The Transitional National Council has made it clear that al-Megrahi, convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, will stay in Libya. There is no question of him being returned to the UK. They do this because he is a Libyan citizen, and they stand for all Libyan citizens. Yet we still do nothing for McKinnon.

In the same article Nick Clegg says: “those who need to make use of human rights laws to challenge the decisions of the authorities are nearly always people who are in the care of the state: children's homes, mental hospitals, immigration detention, residential care. They are often vulnerable, powerless, or outsiders, and are sometimes people for whom the public feels little sympathy. But they are human beings, and our common humanity dictates that we treat them as such.” Gary McKinnon has not been in the care of the state, but he has been under its thumb for nearly ten years. He is vulnerable and powerless. With every day that passes without Gary McKinnon being told he will stay in the UK, the government that Nick Clegg represents loses another piece of its soul.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

One rule for people on benefits....

... and another rule for everybody else.

In one corner, the government plans to remove benefit from claimants with a spare room. They will lose up to £11 a week in housing benefit.

In the other corner, there is a proposal to give tax breaks to older people to downsize their housing. The government's response is given by housing minister Grant Shapps: "Whilst this report makes interesting reading, we do not agree that people should be taxed or bullied out of their homes." Perhaps he should talk to Lord Freud, who is pushing through the housing benefit plan.

I'd also be really interested to know what on earth his next sentence actually means: "Instead we will work with families to ensure that housing becomes more affordable over time." As far as I can see, his only plans are to take over the green belt and / or to trash the economy enough to cause a crash in house prices.

Thursday 13 October 2011

Is there a liberal case for not raising the speed limit?

When Philip Hammond announced that he was in favour of raising the motorway speed limit to 80 mph, my instinctive reaction was “That's stupid”. The immediate reaction was based on his reasons for doing it, the most prominently quoted of which, at the beginning at least, was that so many drivers on motorways exceed the limit anyway, that we may as well raise it. On that basis I look forward to him repealing the law on using mobile phones in cars and also voting for the legalisation of cannabis. No? No, I didn't think so.

His other key reason makes marginally more sense in that both cars and roads have become safer since the limit was set. Both fatalities and serious accidents have reduced significantly and steadily over a long period, and so it makes sense to look at whether the limit is still appropriate. So I thought I should, rather than nurturing my own prejudices, look at what the liberal arguments are for and against raising the speed limit.

One of the issues I think is that the argument for raising the speed limit is quite simple, whereas the argument against has to be put in a more complex way. The argument for is that people should not be prevented from doing what they want to do unless it harms someone else. If it does harm someone else then in order to come to a decision on what to do, you have to consider the relative harms of restricting the rights of person A, the doer, or person B, the done to. The main issues you have to deal with are that people get killed and that there is a cost to the environment. The figure for last year, 2010, is that, with our modern safer cars and roads we managed to kill 118 people on our motorways. Even if you accept the argument that speed kills (lots of people don't – but more of that later) presumably those 118 were killed by a probable maximum of 113 perpetrators (there were 113 accidents). These figures are from the DfT. One might say that the other millions of motorists should not be prevented from doing what they want because of the consequences caused by a very small number of people. On the environmental issue, you either ignore it or you try to come up with an argument that says the gains in time saved etc are worth the environmental costs. I don't plan to spend much time on the environmental argument, because I'd like to concentrate on the human angle and the rights angle.

To look at the other side – the case for not raising the speed limit, I think there are two key issues. First of all the principle of freedom is clear – if I want to restrict other people's freedom I need a good reason. Secondly, the reasons should be based on evidence rather than doctrine. Problems arise of course when the evidence is equivocal. Then the skills of weighing it and interpreting it come to the fore.

So, first of all, let us visit the evidence. The debate is about freedom versus life and limb (leaving the environment aside for the moment). My right to travel at what speed I like against other people's right to remain alive and unharmed. So the evidence must show how many people are killed and injured, how many of those accidents are preventable, and whose fault they are.

In terms of deaths and injuries on our roads, the trend has been firmly downwards for many years. To take a sample year pretty much at random, in 1990 5217 people were killed and 60,000 injured seriously on our roads. In 2010 the corresponding figures were 1850 and 20803. (Note: 1850 is a revision in the latest version of the 2010 figures released by the DfT.) The collection of these figures has been challenged in that a study in 2006 found discrepancies in police reporting and hospital admissions, suggesting that the method of police reporting, on which the official figures are based, was reducing the actual number. This is now acknowledged in the DfT's annual summary. But the reporting effect is minimal. So, yes, our roads are a lot safer than they were. Does that mean they are safe enough? In the announcement something was made of the fact that our roads are among the safest in Europe. That claim has been examined by and shown to be broadly correct, if a little disingenuous. Now, that is not an evidential claim. It's a comparative claim, and it is open to us to say “So what?” I'm not that impressed by the fact that our roads are safer than Romania's. I'd rather they were safer still. The fact that our roads are safer than other people's means nothing when we still managed to kill nearly 2000 people on them last year. So I'm discounting that comparison for the purpose of deciding what a liberal response should be.

Part of the context of this is that motorway driving is considerably safer than driving on other roads. Motorways make up less than 1% of our road network, yet take 19% of the traffic. Even so, 5% of last year's fatalities happened on motorways. So by comparison with other roads, they are very safe. But that still does not necessarily mean that they are safe enough. The next thing to check is whether speed is a contributory factor in deaths and injuries on the motorways. The evidence here needs to be divided into two parts. Does speed contribute to accidents happening? And does speed contribute to the severity of the consequences if an accident does happen? The evidence for the first question is that it makes a limited difference. There is a problem here in that the safety of cars has increased in such a way that people get the impression that they're perfectly safe to drive at high speeds because the car will protect them. Road, tyre and braking technology have also increased to the point where it is much more rare for a driver to lose control of a car at high speed. But that does not mean that it does not happen. A significant number of deaths are in single vehicle collisions – in other words, a vehicle colliding with a tree or failing to negotiate a bend. I have no data for the proportion of such accidents on motorways as opposed to other roads. It is almost certainly a lot less, but equally certainly it does happen. The safety of new cars and roads is only relative. The higher the speed, the longer the reaction distance needs to be to allow for safe braking even with new technology. And driving at least two seconds apart is an activity that seems to have escaped a lot of British drivers. (I will come back to driving habits later.) Overall the WHO estimate that 1 km/h decrease in travelling speed would lead to a 2–3% reduction in road crashes.

Looking at the consequences of accidents the evidence is much stronger. Many studies demonstrate that increases in speed cause great increases in severity of impact. The WHO paper referred to above estimates “For car occupants in a crash with an impact speed of 80 km/h, the likelihood of death is 20 times what it would have been at an impact speed of 30 km/h.”

It seems clear from this evidence then that raising the speed limit from 70 to 80 would cause a small increase in accidents and a significant increase in the proportion of fatalities and serious injuries resulting from such accidents. This is admitted by the DfT, whose initial analysis indicates a 1% increase in deaths, according to the Guardian.

This still leaves open the question of what we should do. Millions of motorists used our motorways in 2010. Only 113 of them, at most, killed somebody, and only 668 caused serious injuries (injuring 798 people). Does a few people getting it wrong give us reason to restrict everybody's liberty? I think that there is an argument for that. Here we leave evidence behind and move into the realm of consequence, principle and practice.

A lot of people assume that those who cause fatal and serious accidents are different. They are idiots, bad drivers, unlike the rest of us who are good drivers. But there is little indication that those who cause such accidents really are different – they are not boy racers, they are not serial offenders, they are not all travelling at egregious speeds that nobody sensible would ever consider. They are ordinary drivers, just like most of the rest of us, but their luck ran out. We might more legitimately think that some are a bit sillier than most of us, but even if we assume that, can we assume that the way we behave has no effect on them? We have in this country a culture of driving badly. We do not recognise it as such, but if you consider the common driving behaviour, it is difficult to escape that conclusion. Most people do not think of speeding as a crime, far from it. Large numbers of people think that they have a right to break the speed limit. This applies to people who regard themselves as law abiding in every other way. I once said to a room full of pensioners that we are all law breakers. There was instant disapproval. I asked for a show of hands of people who had never broken the speed limit. “Oh, that's not the same thing”, they said. I have one eye on Question Time as I'm writing this. The usual audience – the kind of solid upstanding citizens who are actually interested in politics. Good people, who think through and about issues. If I asked in that studio right now how many drivers could, hand on heart, say they had never broken the speed limit, I doubt that any would be able to do so. It has become routine; it is part of our driving culture. We assume that speeding is OK, which is one reason why Philip Hammond is raising the issue – he assumes it too. In his case, I think he has an idea that, given that people are travelling at 80 now, if you raise the speed limit to 80, they will continue to travel at that speed. I think their perception is not that they are travelling at 80, but that they are travelling at speed limit plus 10%. If the limit is raised, then the limit plus 10% will be raised commensurately.

Another indication of the kind of driving culture we have in this country is the way use our car horns. The meaning of sounding a horn, in the Highway Code, is “I am here”. The meaning of the horn, as used by most of us, is “I am angry with you”. The overall culture is one of a general selfishness, and a great carelessness. We work on the basis that we can get into our cars and then not pay attention till we get to our destination. We do not value awareness of what is going on around us. This is why so many of us think it's OK to use a mobile while we drive. “1/5 of UK motorists admit accessing social networking sites on their mobile phone while driving.” and many more will phone or text with. Many of us will travel at the fastest speed we can, or for the law abiding, at the stated speed limit pretty much regardless of the weather, road or traffic conditions. Varying our speed to suit the conditions does not come naturally to many of us. The culture will not change because the speed limit is raised. All it will do is assimilate the new limit into its way of thinking. (Work carried out in the United States confirms this.)

My general point here is that the driving culture is made by all of us. When people get killed on the roads most of us can quite rightly say we did not kill anyone. But it is wrong to draw from that the conclusion that we can escape responsibility for the cumulative effect of the things that we do. We determine and preserve the culture that enables the few who drive so carelessly and at such speeds that they do kill people. The speed limit as such isn't the problem: it's the way we drive that results in so many deaths and so many serious injuries. But the speed limit is a factor, because it is part of the equation people use to determine the speed at which they will drive. I doubt that the way we drive is going to change (I would like it to, very much, but I am not optimistic) so any decision made about speed limits has to take that into account.

In summary, my argument is:
- evidence shows that increasing speed causes small increases in the likelihood of accidents happening, and significant increases in the consequences of accidents, in terms of deaths and serious injuries.
- life has value, although we drive as if it does not - although the bulk of motorists are not directly responsible for deaths or injuries, the majority of us maintain a culture in which people are encouraged to drive selfishly and carelessly
- it can therefore be justified, on a liberal basis, to restrict everybody's freedom to drive at speed, in order to allow as many people as possible the freedom to live.

A more positive liberal approach would be to work on educating people about good habits of responsible driving, awareness, and the need to protect the environment. An even more liberal approach would be to get them out of their cars and onto more frequent and more reasonably priced trains and buses. But I only meant to discuss the speed limit.