Archive for the ‘Home Office’ Category

So, if you wanted really informed commentary on the Theresa May/Brodie Clark upfuck (now there’s some slash), where would you go? Wouldn’t you want to ask a distinguished civil servant? I bet you would. Specifically, a career immigration officer with 39 years in the service. Who’s just retired, and is therefore allowed to be snarky.

Now you can! Because my dad has a blog.

I’ll always remember the day he brought home the video briefcase. I think it’s safe to tell the story now.

Thinking about the political castration of Ken Clarke and the fact that not even the Treasury in its most R.G. Hawtrey-esque mood seems to be able to stop the expansion of the prison industry, it struck me that the political class’s attitude towards the public service known as justice is fundamentally different to its attitude to all the others, including defence and policing.

Since the mid-1980s and the rise of the New Public Management – possibly an even more pernicious intellectual phenomenon than New Classical economics – it’s been a universal establishment consensus, shared by all parties, that any public service can be improved by giving bits of it a pseudo-budget to spend in a pseudo-market. Playing at shops is the defining pattern language of post-80s public administration. (This chap wrote at the time that the whole thing was remarkably like the 1960s Kosygin reforms in the Soviet Union, and perhaps we can induce him to post it up on his blog!)

For example, the 1990s Tory government wanted “fundholder” GPs to buy hospital services in an NHS internal market. Now they want to do something similar again, but more, faster, and worse. All sorts of local government services were put through a similar process. Central government agencies were ordered to bill each other for services vital to their operations. The Ministry of Defence was ordered to pay the Treasury 6% a year of the value of all its capital assets, such as the Army’s tank park, reserve stocks of ammunition, uniforms, etc. As a result, the MOD sold as many vehicles as possible and had to buy them back expensively through Urgent Operational Requirements when they had to fight a war. Supposedly, some vehicles were sold off after Kosovo, re-bought for Afghanistan in 2001, sold again, re-bought for Iraq in 2003, sold again, and UORd in a panic in 2006.

(Off topic, if you’re either a reporter hunting a story or a dealer in secondhand military vehicles, watch closely what happens to the fleet acquired under UORs for Afghanistan in the next few months.)

But there is one public service where the internal market is unknown. I refer, of course, to criminal justice. For some reason, it is considered to be normal to let magistrates and judges dispense incarceration, one of the most expensive products of the state, as if it were as free as air. The Ministry of Justice is simply asked to predict-and-provide sufficient prisons, like the Department for Transport used to do with motorways. Like motorways, somehow, however hard the bulldozers and cranes are driven, it never seems to be enough, and the prison system operates in a state of permanent overcrowding. Interestingly, the overcrowding seems to prevent the rehabilitative services from working, thus contributing to the re-offending rate, and ensuring both the expansion of the prison industry and the maintenance of permanent overcrowding.

The new public managers bitch endlessly about “producer interests” – they mean minimum-wage hospital cleaners, but somehow never GPs – but you never hear a peep about our bloated and wasteful criminal justice system. In fact, now that we have private jails, this producer interest is vastly more powerful as it has access to the corporate lobbying system and a profit motive.

Clearly, the problem here is that the gatekeepers to the system – the courts – have no incentive to use taxpayers’ money wisely, as they face neither a budget constraint nor competition. There is a rhyme with the fact that a British Army company commander in Afghanistan has a budget for reconstruction of $4,000 a month, which he must account for meticulously to the Civil Secretariat to the Helmand Task Force, but in each section of ten riflemen under his command, at least one of them can spend $100,000 on destruction at any moment, by firing off a Javelin anti-tank missile, every time he goes outside the wire. As once the thing is fired, he no longer needs to tote the fucker any further, you can see that a lot more is spent on Javelin rounds than reconstruction, and indeed the task force was getting through 254 of them a month at one point.

But it’s not a precise match. The military do, indeed, have to worry about their resources, as do the police. Only the courts can dispense public money without limit.

What if we were to give every magistrates’ court a Single Offender Management Budget, out of which it could buy imprisonment, probation, community service, electronic tagging, etc in an internal market? This would make it obvious to the magistrate how much cheaper non-custodial interventions are than jail. It would force them to resist the temptation to jail everybody out of risk-aversion or political pressure. If a court was to start off the year handing down 16-month sentences for stealing a packet of fags, and end up in queer street by Christmas, well, that will teach them to waste taxpayers’ money.

In fact, we could go further. Foundation courts would be able to borrow, if necessary, to tide themselves over to the end of the year, although of course they would have to make efficiency gains next year to repay it. It would be possible for a foundation court to go bankrupt and close. This, of course, will drive up standards. Perhaps we could even introduce an element of choice, letting defendants choose which jurisdiction they are prosecuted in.

I am, of course, joking. But not entirely.

The Obscurer has possibly the first intelligent article on the whole “turn off their Facebook! that’ll learn em!” furore. Notably, they interviewed one-man UK mobile industry institution Mike Short. Go, read, and up your clue. I especially liked that the piece provided some facts about the 7th July 2005 terrorist incident and the mobile networks.

There is only one reported case of a UK network being closed by police. During the 7/7 London suicide bombings, O2 phone masts in a 1km square area around Aldgate tube station were disconnected for a number of hours.

Police have an emergency power to order masts to be put out of action known as MTPAS – Mobile Telecommunication Privileged Access Scheme. The move has to be approved by Gold Command, by the officers in highest authority during a major incident, and is designed to restrict all but emergency service phones with registered sim cards from making calls. But a shutdown can have dangerous knock-on effects. Short says that phones within the Aldgate zone automatically sought a signal from live masts outside it, overloading them and causing a network failure that rippled out “like a whirlpool”.

On the day, other networks were simply overloaded as Londoners sought reassurance and information. Vodafone alone experienced a 250% increase in call volumes

MTPAS is the GSM-land equivalent of the old fixed phone Telephone Preference Scheme (not to be confused with the new one that blocks cold-callers), which permitted The Authorities to turn off between 1% and 90% of phone lines in order to let official traffic through. As far as I know, the Met never asked for it and it was City of London Police who initiated it without asking the Met or anyone else, and in fact O2 UK’s network had been keeping up with demand up to that point, before the closure caused the cascade failure Short describes.

The significance of O2 is that it used to be “Surf the Net, Surf the BT Cellnet” and some residual gaullist/spook reflex in the government tried to keep official phones on what was then one of two British-owned networks.

Anyway, this weekend seems to have the theme “The Intersection of Charlie Stross and the August 2011 Riots”. Charlie’s talk at USENIX is sensibly sceptical about some tech dreams as they apply to networking.

This leaves aside a third model, that of peer to peer mesh networks with no actual cellcos as such – just lots of folks with cheap routers. I’m going to provisionally assume that this one is hopelessly utopian, a GNU vision of telecommunications that can’t actually work on a large scale because the routing topology of such a network is going to be nightmarish unless there are some fat fibre optic cables somewhere in the picture. It’s kind of a shame – I’d love to see a future where no corporate behemoths have a choke hold on the internet – but humans aren’t evenly distributed geographically.

Especially as the theoretical maximum bandwidth of one fibre is about the same as the entire radio spectrum. And the point about routing table size and complexity is a very good one, especially as it’s assumed that the routers aren’t CRS-1s but rather Linksys fifty quidders or mobile phones.

However, one thing the liberation technologists should take away from the riots is that you shouldn’t get hung up on bandwidth. It’s great to be able to post the photos on Flickr, but it’s more useful to have your own secure voice and messaging. When the Egyptian government relented on its GSM cut-off, the Egyptian Twitter feeds lit up with calls for more people to this or that exit of Tahrir Square or medical supplies to the clinic or (and I remember this) that a lost child was waiting at the press tent.

It was what NANOG users would call operational content. There was of course no need whatsoever for it to go via a Bay Area website – all Twitter provided was the one-to-many element, very important, and the publicity on the Web. The latter is a nice-to-have feature, the former, critical. Text, or even voice, is not a high bandwidth application and doesn’t necessarily need access to the global Internet.

So yes – perhaps there is in fact quite a bit of angular momentum to be had in a mobile mesh-WLAN client as an instrument of democracy, as long as you’re willing to accept that it’s not the sort of thing that can be exclusive to people who agree with you. But then, that’s the test of whether or not you actually believe in democracy.

Something else, between Charlie’s USENIX talk and the riots. Isn’t one of the biggest disappointments, from a police point of view, the performance of CCTV? No doubt it will help put some of the rioters in jail. But it didn’t prevent the riots and neither did it seem to help quell them much. It’s possible that the whole idea that potential surveillance (like the original panopticon) is a policing influence isn’t as strong as it’s made out to be.

Another point; not all crimes are punished or even taken notice of. This is obvious. Less obvious is that the degree to which the police ignore crime is an important political fact. Is it possible that CCTV, by forcing them to make at least a token response to everything that passes in camera range, actually contributed to using up the police strength? In a riot, the police aim is to demonstrate public, mass control. They are usually willing to ignore quite a lot of individual criminality in the process. It’s possible that surveillance culture and technology are opposed to strategy.

Over at Stable & Principled, I’ve been blogging about running out of policemen and how the Prime Minister doesn’t seem to have any thoughts at all that weren’t adequate-ish newspaper columns from about 2004. But how did we get to the stage of using up the Met and most of the wider police forces’ reserves of manpower just like that? This isn’t a “What does it all mean?” post, although inevitably we’ll have one of them for you as well. It’s more like a “How does it all work?” post.

In all, 2,347 people have been arrested nationally. This is only a rough lower bound on the numbers of people involved, as obviously not everyone got caught and some of the people arrested are innocent. At an arrest rate of one in 10, that would give a total of 23,000. 51% of the arrests were in London, or to be precise the Met’s area of operations, which gives us the answer to one question at least – the police eventually quelled the riot by outnumbering the rioters, 16,000 cops versus an estimated 11,500 rioters. Obviously if you pick a different arrest rate fudge factor you’ll get a different answer, but then at least we’re using a model of sorts.

It’s certainly interesting, though, that a fairly small crowd was able to exhaust the policing resources of most of the UK. If the 23,000 rioters had shown up in central London to march on Whitehall, even assuming they were willing to be as troublesome and violent as they were elsewhere, I think the Met would have handled it without breaking sweat and certainly without needing to summon the South Wales force as mutual aid. Even the most hayseed British police forces deal with crowds of 23,000 young men reputed to be ready for violence, every weekend, quite commonly several at the same time, without very much happening. They are lower division football matches. And to be frank, a 23,000 strong national demo is disappointing.

So what’s up? One point is dispersion vs. concentration. Demonstrators want to occupy symbolic space and show their organisation by the very fact they could concentrate all these people. Casuals want to duff up the other mob. Therefore, the police problem is to either prevent them from getting to Parliament Square or the match, or else keep them segregated from other people while they are there. The police are on the tactical defensive, but the strategic offensive – if they stick it out they win.

Obviously, the demonstrators (or thugs) can’t counter this by dispersing because that would defeat the point. They have to come to the Bill, and the Bill can then canalise them. Kettling is the ultimate expression of this thinking.

If the police have to look for the crowd, though, this is obviously going to be a much more labour-intensive exercise. You can’t kettle several dozen groups of ten or so people spread over a dozen streets – the idea is absurd. You have to go looking for them. That in turn conditions what the crowd can do – it can’t stage a classic mass demonstration – and favours people who are willing to just randomly destroy stuff that happens to be undefended, while the traditional mass demo favours a show of what you might call subversive respectability. The slow march of the Zulus, if you like.

Another important point was that there was no key identity-group here – it wasn’t aligned with any one ethnic or religious group or geography and wasn’t even totally young, and it didn’t explicitly identify with a class either. Therefore, anyone who felt like it could join in, and did. This obviously helped it go national and also made a traditional (since the 80s) police tactic more difficult. How do you call community leaders to ask everyone to go home if you can’t identify the community? From the other direction, how do you negotiate with authority if you can’t identify a community?

(This is of course the final problem with the Big Society – its only organising principle is that it’s a society and apparently it’s big.)

I wonder if a lot of the violence was driven by the fact anyone could turn up, and therefore the only way to demonstrate that you really were one of the gang rather than a do-gooder or a fink or just some random spectator was to do something obviously illegal.

Also, did this kind of riot drop in between the classic modes of British policing? If someone commits a crime, there’s investigative policing, if it’s the right kind of crime and the right kind of victim. If the Chartists are marching on Westminster, line up on Westminster Bridge with shields and big sticks. And of course there’s community policing if there’s time between the other two for some cups of tea and old ladies, etc.

Investigation was rather irrelevant while it was going on, although of course it’s not any more. And the heavy mob couldn’t draw a shield wall around every shop in London. Neither could they find enough bodies to kettle every group of rioters, or find enough rioters in one place to kettle. It does look like the December 2010 student riots were a tactical learning-experience for a lot of people.

Finally, those BlackBerries. Not much to say here, except that the most important feature involved seems to have been the fact that BBM is multicast. You can message groups rather than only individuals. There are apps that let you emulate this with SMS, although the reply will only go to you.

As a general rule, BlackBerry Enterprise Server traffic should be hard to do anything to as the server, typically hosted by an organisation for its own purposes, generates its encryption keys when it’s set up. It’s not anything RIM or your operator has to know about. But this is of limited relevance – plenty of people run their own mail servers, but I’ve never heard of anyone who self hosts BlackBerry. The BlackBerry Internet Service, which is hosted by operators, certainly can be monitored by the operator as they own the server. UK operators would be covered by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and might have to hand over logs from the BIS servers.

I don’t know, however, if the BIS machine archives the content of what passes through it (which isn’t required by RIPA anyway). Obviously, the traffic-analysis data of who messages who and when is potentially revealing.

From a network point of view, though, I doubt if snooping on the traffic in transit would be very useful. You’d know that someone was using a BlackBerry, as it would be opening Packet Data Profile connections through the network and querying the BlackBerry network DNS. But as they monitor messaging all the time, that isn’t very useful information. Certainly nothing as useful as the BIS server log.

What Sunny said. One of the most depressing things about the Labour leadership candidates’ focus on The Very Real Concerns is that it enforces a deeply negative, ungenerous, and futile definition of what those Very Real Concerns are. If you’re concerned about – to be brutal – the labour share of national income, and how it might possibly nudge up a tad, about housing, about unions, about green issues, you’re out of luck. Your concerns are not Very Real ones.

These issues only get to the status of being Very Real if you can somehow work an immigrant in there. It’s a circular process – the Serious People are only interested in Very Real Concerns if the Concerns concern immigrants. Why? Because only concerns concerning immigrants are Very Real Concerns that interest Serious People.

Of course, this is probably because it’s hard to use a privatised immigration detention centre to build council houses. Once you’ve acquired certain skills, habits of mind, contacts, networks, etc, you will try to apply those solutions to everything. Part of the problem, of course, is that toughosity has a zero lower bound, a bit like the interest rate; there is no utopia of immigration detention.

Well, that was grim, wasn’t it? I refer, of course, to the new government. Having read through the coalition agreement, I’m almost convinced by Charlie and Jamie‘s argument that it’s really not that bad. Almost. I’m not particularly worried by the supposed 55% thing either, for reasons well explained here – it’s fairly obviously an attempt to self-bind, a costly signal of commitment to cement the deal, and it’s probably content-free.

On the other hand, there’s the NAMELESS DREAD. It’s pre-rational, emotional, Lovecraftesque…political. And look at some of the gargoyles and Queen’s bad bargains in the government. Also, Vince Cable at the Mandelsonministerium is a reasonably good idea, but couldn’t we have got at least one real job? Obviously, the Tories couldn’t have worn a Liberal foreign secretary for ideological reasons.

What went wrong with this post? I think the key unexamined assumption was that the Labour Party could be treated as a united actor for negotiating purposes; I didn’t take into account that significant numbers of backbench MPs wouldn’t support a coalition or wouldn’t support an electoral reform bill. I still believe that significant numbers of Tory backbenchers will rebel, but the coalition whips have more leverage over them with the Liberals as a reserve pool. Obviously, it’s telling that the Labour whipping operation would pick this moment, rather than – say – March 2003, to break down.

It’s also telling just who was lobbying the Labour backbenches; David Blunkett, John Reid, and Charles Clarke! The three monkeys of Blairite authoritarianism, a sort of negative triumvirate of failed home secretaries. Because, after all, as I said about identity cards back in 2004, we are going to win. That is, in fact, the only good thing here; the achievement of NO2ID and Phil Booth is that all political parties except one went into the 2010 general election pledged to abolish the National Identity Scheme. And, crucially, the civil service gets it – I hear that IPS is actively looking at contingency plans as to what to do with its officials when the NIS shuts down, how to cancel the contracts, disposing of office space and kit, that kind of stuff.

Hilariously, my dad spent quite a lot of time trying to get the IPS to give him an identity card, in order to demonstrate various flaws in the process – he was eventually issued one after the intervention of the chief of identity cards. He’s now trying to decide whether to sell it on EBay or frame it. Does anyone have suggestions as to what to do with an British National Identity Card?

So, no ID cards, no NIR, no ContactPoint. Home Office junior ministers have swung from people like Phil Woolas to Lynne Featherstone. I should be delighted. But then, yes, nameless dread. I agree that it wasn’t so long ago that it looked like we’d get Dave from PR with a majority of 100, so I should be pleased that the damage control exercise has been a success. But, no. Perhaps I should concentrate on MySociety stuff; perhaps I should concentrate on London politics. I have no idea if I’m going to stay a Liberal member.

One thing that will be happening is a new blog patterned on Boriswatch that will be covering our Stable and Principled new government, especially the unstable and unprincipled bits. Check out our statistical model of coalition survival, which is currently showing them sticking it out for the full five years…yup, nameless dread all right.

Aaronovitch Watch reflects upon dinner with Denis MacShane. There’s an important point here, and one that was well made as a by-product of Nick Davies’ brilliant reporting on Operation PENTAMETER 2, a giant police sweep looking for prostitutes brought into the UK by force that failed to find even one. It turned out that the entire project was driven by policy-based evidence – a succession of politicos and thinktanks progressively taking what had once been the upper bound in an actual study, treating it as an actual forecast, and then adding a bit.

Not so long ago, I had the opportunity of discussing this with a source in the Met vice squad, and the take-home message is Davies was being conservative – it was actually worse than that.

Anyway, one of the most egregious examples of PBE in the story was the fault of none other than MacShane, who promptly responded by writing to the Guardian and accusing Davies of “taking the side of the managers of the sex industry”. As Davies pointed out in the original story, the whole thing followed the pattern of the campaign for war with Iraq with uncanny accuracy.

There was the exaggeration by stripping out caveats, the practice of using deliberately extreme limiting cases as central forecasts, the search for anyone who would provide the right kind of intelligence when the intelligence services’ intelligence didn’t fit around the policy…and the shameless red-baiting attacks on anyone who disagreed. Sniff, sniff. Are you a good anti-Fascist? Will you condemn, etc, etc?

The lesson, however, is that some people seem to gravitate to this set of tactics or political style (because that’s what it is); if Denis MacShane worked for the Party of Kittens, he’d be secretly briefing the press that Mickey Mouse was part of a decadent Hollywood-liberal elite in league with feline leukaemia, based on his summary of a leaked report from the newly established Council for a Flea-Free Future, and if you called him out on it, he’d get all the members of the Accuracy in Cat-Related Media mailing list to write and accuse you of being objectively pro-dog.

Come to think of it, it’s part of the package of modern thinking; you need a Boris Johnson-esque clown figure, a Tony Blair-esque tebbly tebbly concerned type, and a MacShane-esque underhand thug.

Read this now

A classic piece at The Register on biometrics and stupidity: read David Moss and you’ll be more competent than anyone in government on this issue. It’s the false positives, of course; but the truly shocking thing is that despite everything, the ID scheme still depends on the n=10,000 trial from 2004 that they deny is a trial.

Go, read.

I don’t do this very often, but I’m going to link to the Mail: this is a definitive ferret kebabbing reported hatchet job on ACPO. We live in strange times; usually they only devote this sort of work to some poor woman trying to blag £5 more housing benefit. But thar ye go. It’s one to keep around as a comments thread grenade, that bursts and scatters hard facts with sharp corners.

I’ve said it before; ACPO must go. It’s Britain’s newest political party, a free-floating lobby for authoritarianism that permits the executive branch of government to engage in parliamentary politics, a policy-laundering entity that carries out operational police tasks but which is shielded from local or parliamentary accountability and ministerial line management and which is also exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, and a rent-seeking missile devoted to enriching its management at the taxpayer’s expense.

It must go, and there is a simple way to achieve this. As a commercial company, it has essentially one customer, the Home Office. It does have other products, but their value lies entirely in the monopoly the Home Office has granted ACPO over them. Kill the body and the head must die. Cut its funding and either privatise or nationalise its operational functions. Alternatively, it could be converted into a Police Central Services Authority managing things like the PNC and the NPIA, accountable to the usual public powers, or even rolled into the Met. Either way, it’s really got to go.

Iduntity cards. Jamie quotes a Computer Weekly article on a “business breakfast” with Jacqui Smith as proof of private sector interest in the project. A business breakfast with Jacqui Smith; the horror. I remember that a “breakfast briefing” with a certain mobile industry luminary who would always have it at Claridges when he was in London always consisted of an interview and no breakfast, but at least it wasn’t no breakfast with Jacqui Smith.

You may remember that the government has consistently refused to cost either the card readers, none of which exist, or the enrolment process, by attributing it to the private sector fairy.

However, no company has ever gone public and stated their interest in the scheme. So the CW story is interesting because it says that

Post offices, pharmacists, supermarkets, high street chemists, local authorities and universities have expressed an interest in taking the fingerprints and photos of applicants for ID cards.

In fact quite a lot of local authorities and universities have expressed refusal to cooperate in the scheme. But no company is actually mentioned in the story; there are no names, nor any suggestion of what constituted “interest”.

CW has been historically the absolute best news source on ID cards, but I find this a little strange, and it strikes me as sounding a lot like the official line. It also doesn’t say if any of the people who expressed an interest were present, or if so, whether they expressed it at the time.

However, there is some interesting news in here; it seems that there is a new PR strategy afoot.

She introduced a well-made and expensive film which portrayed the ID card as a designer brand. “Identity: what does it mean? Sometimes it’s about individuality, to say that you are you.”…It sounds a good business arrangement, especially for post offices, which struggle to exist.

It’s a twofer – aspirational property-bubble bollocks plus populist-cum-Prince Charles sentimentality about sub-post offices. Sick bucket to the guy with the laptop!

Interestingly, those people who have expressed any thoughts from the private sector sound quite different. Here’s another CW story:

Confederation of British Industry deputy director general John Cridland questioned the robustness of the enrolment process, saying, “One sticking point is the requirement on the private sector to provide information that can be used to verify data held on the national register without making clear who will be liable for the accuracy of the information and how it will be used. The government must address this as a matter of urgency if it wants to build confidence in the scheme.”

The British Bankers Association said the banking industry had no plans to use biometrics to authenticate customers or transactions.

By the way, the Manchester trial will not actually provide any cards, because neither they nor the NIR will be ready. You’ll be able to “pre-register”, which sounds a lot like paying £30 for sweet fuck all. I’m more than interested to know exactly who will sign up.





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