Archive for the ‘civil service’ Category

I just got an e-mail from my MP, Lynne Featherstone, regarding publishing the NHS Risk Register. Here’s the important bit.

Risk registers are used by government departments and more generally by private companies to plan for worst-case scenarios. They range on everything from flu epidemics to terrorist attacks. As you can imagine, publishing these documents could cause unnecessary alarm and compromise sensitive information and investigations.

If the Government publishes the NHS risk register, it would then set a precedent to publish all registers. An unintended but dangerous consequence would be that government officials hold back vital information for fear of being connected with bad news. The most significant risks would therefore no longer be recorded, and no contingency plans would be identified.

This is a common argument used by the government against transparency. It is formidably stupid. In what universe is it a good idea to specifically protect the practice of giving advice you are not willing to explain, defend, or take responsibility for? I mean, this is cracksmokingly insane. Let’s work through the process.

So I’m a civil servant, and am responsible for working up policy options on some issue. I have a brilliant idea that will solve the problem at a stroke. But for some reason, it is so politically unpopular, embarrassing, or evil in an ethical sense that I would be afraid or ashamed to put my name to it. Further, even if it works, it is still so awful that neither me nor my Minister would want to be associated with it. Not just that, it’s so clever that despite being conspicuously weird, violently anathema to some major section of public opinion, or monstrous, and capable of resolving a major issue of public concern, nobody will notice it when it happens.

This last is required, because if they did notice it, it would surely not take too long to head over to data.gov.uk and look up the Department’s organisation chart.

How likely is this? How likely is it that politicians would refuse to take credit, deserved credit, for something successful?

On the other hand, how likely is it that policy advice whose author is unwilling to take responsibility for it is bad advice? If you give people an out like this, you’re likely to get more ideas that are evil, politically impossible, or simply idiotic. These classes of ideas will always be out there, and one of the reasons why we have things like public records and select committees is to act as a restraining influence on their production. “What would the papers say?” is not a stupid or cowardly statement. The constraint that your ideas should be defensible is a useful discipline, and one that may even be an aid to creativity, like the rules of a sonnet.

As far as I know, this argument was originally aired during the Franks report inquest into the Falklands War. On that occasion, the policy recommendation was “well, sort of vaguely wave our hands, and hope the fascist dictator eats Benny quietly and nobody notices. Let the file mature a bit”. I think it is obvious that this was not the civil service’s finest hour, and the prospect of public scrutiny might have induced someone to come up with a better plan and perhaps be more honest about it.

A further problem is that what the quote is describing is essentially the Noble Lie so dear to Leo Strauss. This is what designers and computer scientists call an anti-pattern – a common example of indefensibly awful practice. It is not actually impossible that the situation above might arise. Perhaps we do need to introduce an alien DNA virus into the school milk to induce immunity against Case NIGHTMARE GREEN. However, it is far more likely that the civil servant involved is actually doing just what it looks like, proposing a horrifically dangerous, stupid, irresponsible, and evil plan that ought never to have been thought for more than seconds. In fact, fundamental cognitive biases mean that someone whose idea is stupid, evil, or impossible and they know it, or whose motives are corrupt, is very likely to make use of such an argument to protect themselves.

I think of this as a She Was Asking For It argument – it isn’t impossible that she was, but it is infinitely more likely that you are just trying to wriggle out of the consequences of your own behaviour, and therefore it is a safe aim-off to treat all such arguments as being dishonest. Once you admit the possibility, you’re going to get a lot of shit in the meat.

Beyond that, we can knock off the other arguments quickly. Civil servants might be afraid of punishment for airing ideas considered weird. Well that’s why we have a professional civil service with independent line management. The problem isn’t the idea, it’s the practice of punishing people for thinking. The public might be alarmed. Bullshit! Blah blah politically embarrassing. Grow up. The register might contain secret information. Well that’s what the complex disclosure machinery in the Freedom of Information Act is for. We already fixed it.

Advice of the form “If I were you, I’d do X. But don’t tell anyone I told you, and I don’t want to take any responsibility for this.” is probably bad advice.

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Well, here’s a contribution to the debate over the riots. The Thin Blue Trots’…sorry…Police Federation report has been leaked.

Among the failings highlighted by the federation, which represents 136,000 officers, were chronic problems, particularly in London with the hi-tech digital Airwave radio network. Its failings were one reason why officers were “always approximately half an hour behind the rioters”. This partly explained, it said, why officers kept arriving at areas from where the disorder had moved on.

The Airwave network was supposed to improve the way emergency services in London responded to a crisis after damning criticism for communication failures following the 7 July bombings in 2005.

It is being relied upon to ensure that police officers will be able to communicate with each other from anywhere in Britain when the Olympics come to London next summer. The federation wants a review into why the multibillion-pound system collapsed, leaving officers to rely on their own phones.

“Officers on the ground and in command resorted, in the majority, to the use of personal mobile phones to co-ordinate a response,” says the report.

It sounds like BB Messenger over UMTS beats shouting into a TETRA voice radio, as it should being about 10 years more recent. Not *this* crap again!

There’s surely an interesting story about how the UK managed to fail to procure a decent tactical radio for either its army or its civilian emergency services in the 1990s and 2000s. Both the big projects – the civilian (mostly) one that ended up as Airwave and the military one that became BOWMAN – were hideously troubled, enormously overbudget, and very, very late. Neither product has been a great success in service. And it was a bad time for slow procurement as the rapid technological progress (from 9.6Kbps circuit-switched data on GSM in 1998 to 7.2Mbps HSPA in 2008, from Ericsson T61s in 2000 to iPhones in 2008) meant that a few years would leave you far behind the curve.

And it’s the UK, for fuck’s sake. We do radio. At the same time, Vodafone and a host of M4-corridor spin-offs were radio-planning the world. Logica’s telecoms division, now Acision, did its messaging centres. ARM and CSR and Cambridge Wireless were designing the chips. Vodafone itself, of course, was a spinoff from Racal, the company that sold army radios for export because the official ones were ones nobody would import in a fit. BBC Research’s experience in making sure odd places in Yorkshire got Match of the Day all right went into it more than you might think.

Presumably that says something about our social priorities in the Major/Blair era? That at least industrially, for once we were concentrating on peaceful purposes (but also having wars all over the place)? Or that we weren’t concentrating on anything much industrially, and instead exporting services and software? Or that something went catastrophically wrong with the civil service’s procurement capability in the 1990s?

It’s the kind of story Erik Lund would spin into something convincing.

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 Grauniad Dabatlog has produced a rather fancy network visualisation of the sources cited in Anders Behring Breivik’s personal manifesto/horse-shit compendium. This is great as I now don’t need to worry that I perhaps should have made one. It’s very pretty and you can click on stuff, and see that some of the sources are thinktanks and some of them are newspapers, and well, it’s very pretty and you can click on stuff. It also comes with a piece by Andrew Brown reprising his “Don’t be beastly to the creationists!” shtick but with Melanie Phillips, for some reason.

Unfortunately it’s almost completely intransparent, and gives little indication of what data is being visualised or on what basis, and there is really no obvious conclusion to draw from it. But did I mention pretty and click? If forced to take a view, I would reckon that the underlying data is probably a matrix of which sources appear together with others and the layout algo is a force-directed graph (aka the default in pretty much any visualisation toolkit), probably weighted by appearance count. There’s some sort of proprietary metric called “linkfluence” which appears to be given by(indegree/outdegree)*len(neighbourhood) or words to that effect.

As a result, the only information I got from it was that he linked to Wikipedia, the BBC, and big news sites a lot. Well yes; Wikipedia, bbc.co.uk, etc, generate a hell of a lot of web pages and people read them a lot. Obviously, to say the least, you need to normalise the data with regard to sheer bulk, or you’d end up concluding that Google (or Bing or Yahoo) was his inspiration because he did a lot of web searches, or that he was a normal man twisted by SMTP because he used e-mail.

In fact, I thought they actually did that until I realised that RSS.org is about the other RSS, the Indian extreme-right movement, not the popular Internet syndication standard. Harrowell fail. Anyway, it does show up rather nicely that the groups “European nationalists”, “Counter-Jihad”, and “American Right-Wing” overlap. However, I feel there’s something missing in the characterisation of MEMRI and various other sites as just “Think Tanks” as if they were just like, say, IPPR.

Also, an emergent property of the data is that there is an Axis of Barking running vertically through it: the nearer you are to the top of the diagram, the more extreme and crazy. MEMRI, FrontPage, Gates of Vienna, Melanie Phillips are near the top; the Wikipedia article on the Russo-Turkish War of 1878 is at the bottom. And the MSM is somewhere in the middle. (Although I do wonder if they allocated the sources to groups before or after running the force-directed graph.)

It seems to be one of those command the exciting world of social media with just one click! things.

Anyway, upshot. I want to avoid Project Lobster producing a diagram like this one. It’s too impressionistic and fluffy and reliant on basically aesthetic reasoning. (I think we’ve had this point before.) Of course, that’s partly the difference between the underlying data sets; it was at least thinkable if unlikely that there would be no grouping in Breivik’s sources, while presumably political lobbying is nonrandom and subject to intelligent design.

Elsewhere, a reader passed this along which I need to actually watch (isn’t video time consuming?). There’s a shindig in Warsaw in late October. And I want this on a T-shirt.

So I had the opportunity to take part in an Augmented Reality standardisation meeting on the fringe of this year’s 3GSM Mobile World Congress. First of all, it was the year the heavens opened (someone on twitter said it was as if the show had turned into Glastonbury) and I got drenched and my shoes went bad, and my cab didn’t take me to the Telefonica R&D building in Via Augusta but instead to the main switching centre, this amazingly domineering building…

2011-02-17 13.07.09 Telcos – they live in places like this, they know where your dog goes to school, but can they tell you if it’s really your bank on the line?

So I got soaked again, and eventually arrived, and spent the first session listening to my shoes rotting. I acted as scribe for the session on AR browser implementations, markup language vs. JSON, native application vs. browser plugin and the like. I hope I contributed something of value. I have a Flickr set of the annotated flip charts here; I’ve been asked to help prepare the final report. Which just goes to show the enduring truth that if you want to influence something, wait until the very end and sum up with a balanced account. Supposedly this used to be the way to pass the Diplomatic Service exams – buy a pipe, puff on it occasionally during the team exercise, then “sum up with a balanced account”. But you’re not allowed to smoke these days.

2011-02-17 19.16.26

So I was moaning about the Government and the release of lists of meetings with external organisations. Well, what about some action? I’ve written a scraper that aggregates all the existing data and sticks it in a sinister database. At the moment, the Cabinet Office, DEFRA, and the Scottish Office have coughed up the files and are all included. I’m going to add more departments as they become available. Scraperwiki seems to be a bit sporky this evening; the whole thing has run to completion, although for some reason you can’t see all the data, and I’ve added the link to the UK Open Government Licence twice without it being saved.

A couple of technical points: to start with, I’d like to thank this guy who wrote an alternative to Python’s csv module’s wonderful DictReader class. DictReader is lovely because it lets you open a CSV (or indeed anything-separated value) file and keep the rows of data linked to their column headers as python dictionaries. Unfortunately, it won’t handle Unicode or anything except UTF-8. Which is a problem if you’re Chinese, or as it happens, if you want to read documents produced by Windows users, as they tend to use Really Strange characters for trivial things like apostrophes (\x92, can you believe it?). This, however, will process whatever encoding you give it and will still give you dictionaries. Thanks!

I also discovered something fun about ScraperWiki itself. It’s surprisingly clever under the bonnet – I was aware of various smart things with User Mode Linux and heavy parallelisation going on, and I recall Julian Todd talking about his plans to design a new scaling architecture based on lots of SQLite databases in RAM as read-slaves. Anyway, I had kept some URIs in a list, which I was then planning to loop through, retrieving the data and processing it. One of the URIs, DEFRA’s, ended like so: oct2010.csv.

Obviously, I liked the idea of generating the filename programmatically, in the expectation of future releases of data. For some reason, though, the parsing kept failing as soon as it got to the DEFRA page. Weirdly, what was happening was that the parser would run into a chunk of HTML and, obviously enough, choke. But there was no HTML. Bizarre. Eventually I thought to look in the Scraperwiki debugger’s Sources tab. To my considerable surprise, all the URIs were being loaded at once, in parallel, before the processing of the first file began. This was entirely different from the flow of control in my program, and as a result, the filename was not generated before the HTTP request was issued. DEFRA was 404ing, and because the csv module takes a file object rather than a string, I was using urllib.urlretrieve() rather than urlopen() or scraperwiki.scrape(). Hence the HTML.

So, Scraperwiki does a silent optimisation and loads all your data sources in parallel on startup. Quite cool, but I have to say that some documentation of this feature might be nice, as multithreading is usually meant to be voluntary:-)

TODO, meanwhile: at the moment, all the organisations that take part in a given meeting are lumped together. I want to break them out, to facilitate counting the heaviest lobbyists and feeding visualisation tools. Also, I’d like to clean up the “Purpose of meeting” field so as to be able to do the same for subject matter.

Update: Slight return. Fixed the unique keying requirement by creating a unique meeting id.

Update Update: Would anyone prefer if the data output schema was link-oriented rather than event-oriented? At the moment it preserves the underlying structure of the data releases, which have one row for each meeting. It might be better, when I come to expand the Name of External Org field, to have a row per relationship, i.e. edge in the network. This would help a lot with visualisation. In that case, I’d create a non-unique meeting identifier to make it possible to recreate the meetings by grouping on that key, and instead have a unique constraint on an identifier for each link.

Update Update Update: So I made one.

Mark Ballard of Computer Weekly is trying to get the details of government meetings with the IT industry, and struggling. Among other things, this seems to be yet another use case for an enduring Freedom of Information Act request. It’s also one of the reasons why I like the idea of a central contacts register. Back at OpenTech 2009 I said to Tom Watson MP, just after he resigned as a minister, that it wasn’t just useful for citizens to be able to find out who officials were contacting – the government itself might benefit from keeping track of who was lobbying it, maintaining a common line-to-take across different departments, and the like. Hey, even the lobbyists might benefit from knowing who else was lobbying.

Of course, there’s an argument that the government quite likes having pathological relationships with its suppliers. But that’s one of the points where as soon as you get radical enough to understand the situation, you’re also too cynical to do anything about it. Watson’s been campaigning about this, and the Cabinet Office recently released some data. With the embarrassing bits taken out.

The bulk of it is here, it looks like they’re planning to split the disclosure between departments as this only covers ministers in the Cabinet Office (i.e. the PM, DPM, Secretary for the Cabinet Office, Leader of the Commons and the whips). It’s also on data.gov.uk but it’s going to need reparsing. At least it’s not a PDF. It’s a bit thin, presumably because the bulk of meetings with external organisations go via officials or bag carrier MPs – DEFRA’s is rather chewier.

Adam Greenfield responds, and anyone who uses the BOAC speedbird as their avatar is probably worth listening to:

“But that becomes a political problem, something almost all geeks seem incapable of understanding, probably because its a social rather than a technical problem.”

Well, “geeks” may be incapable of understanding that, Cian, but that happens to be where we start. I mean, you guys’d know this if you actually bothered to look into what happens at a walkshop instead of taking the lazy way out and slagging it as a “kool kids” thing. The whole point, as far as I’m concerned, is to take a good close materialist look at how communities, institutions and individuals contest public space and the public sphere.

In this case, sure, the lens we’re using is technological. But the concerns predominantly have to do with accountability, agency and control, and the language is everyday. Come join us on a walkshop sometime and contribute your insight, and I think you’d be hard pressed to come away with any other conclusion.

I think what I’m getting at here is that in many ways, the power-relationships in our cities aren’t embedded in architecture some much as in software, as it were. Sometimes it really is software, too – the social services’ disastrous computer system that played a role in the death of Baby P, and did so by imposing a sort of dysfunctional and extreme-Taylorist workplace on the social workers, or the systems that allocate tax-credits and then sometimes demand repayments that essentially amount to the recipients’ entire economic surplus.

But it’s broader than that – it’s about people’s expectations, levels of economic security, and the strategies they adopt to cope with life. After all, everyone adapts in some way, it’s just that some local optimisations cut off more options than others.

It’s also about how institutions adapt to people; one difference between having visible, hardware favelas and having them in software is that it’s easier to think that it’s just another damn fool, or someone who is In Need of Care, although the flip is that it’s also easier just to adopt a hardware fix and build a fucking great wall…

In Victorian England, the poor risked going to debtors prisons. In contemporary America, the poor face a different form of lockup.

Its walls are built out of predatory mortgage loans, rent-to-own contracts, payday lending, instant tax “refunds,” the repo man, the old-fashioned pawn shop, bait-and-switch debt consolidators and a rogues’ gallery of scam artists.

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.

Bob Dylan lyric too appropriate not to use yet again. Who is trying to frighten MySociety.org users?

It begins with a Daily Telegraph story that a clerk, Lisa Greenwood, in the Department for Children, Schools and Families was sacked for posting a comment about Hazel Blears on theyworkforyou. Unfortunately, no comment including the text quoted exists in any MySociety.org system, and the Torygraph doesn’t seem to know which Web site they actually mean.

Further inquiries show that the story originates from a local news agency (South West News) and the DCSF press office. The Telegraph claims that the comment was sent by e-mail, but there are no MySociety sites that accept comments by e-mail, so this cannot be true. TheyWorkForYou doesn’t send confirmations by e-mail, so it can’t be one of those, although WriteToThem and FixMyStreet do.

Clearly, someone is telling porkies, and using the same as grounds to terminate some poor sod’s employment. Now, civil servants are formally bound by oath to renounce partisanship; however, the text doesn’t make any reference – if it wasn’t invented out of thin air by the DCSF press office – to any political party, only to Hazel Blears’ personal financial probity.

It is probably worth remembering at this point that several government ministers have been in the habit of quoting what they claim is other people’s private correspondence during parliamentary debates, no doubt because they cannot be sued for what they say in the House. Specifically, Lord Warner, Andrew Miller MP, and Caroline Flint MP used what purported to be private e-mail sent by Professor Ross Anderson of Cambridge University and Simon Davies of Privacy International and LSE to score points in debates on ID cards and on the NHS National Programme for IT.

Nobody has ever explained how they came by these documents, or whether the quotes were genuine, and the (sigh) mainstream media has displayed zero interest. E-mail messages have the legal status of letters, and even under RIPA it would be hard to consider the campaign to opt out of the NPfIT Spine a question of national security. The government has form for using dubiously acquired, or possibly fictional, private correspondence for partisan ends.

Update: Well, well. She contacted Blears from her own Web site, by clicking a MAILTO link, which of course launched her local (i.e. service) mail client rather than a Hotmail account.

But the issue here is that a minister (with exceptions – Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland, of course. Yes, yes) is responsible as an MP to their constituents, and as a minister to Parliament as a whole, i.e. the nation at one remove. Further, it’s just fucking indecent and violent, an act of boss brutality. She was on £16,000 at age 38; what else is it?

Far from wanking about trivialities, we ought to demand her reinstatement. If she wants to deal with an organisation that spies on private correspondence for partisan ends, that is.