Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Layer 207 . . . Free Speech, Privatisation, Annual Elections and Parallel Universes.

Some things the Guardian gets wrong, but there's a very great deal which it, and its writers,  get absolutely right.

George Monbiot, for example: 

How our senior libel judge stamps on free speech – all over the world

This is a very important focus on this country's appalling libel laws, and how they serve mainly the interests of the rich and powerful. Starting with the Guardian's clash last week with Trafigura and its solicitors' attempts to prevent publication of information that ought to be in the public realm -

“Trafigura's super-injunction is weird for lots of reasons. But the strangest fact is this: it has nothing to do with the Honourable Mr Justice Eady. The company's lawyers injuncted the Guardian, injuncted their injunction, and tried to injunct reports of parliament's proceedings. And they did all this without enlisting the help of the hanging judge of the Queen's Bench Division, the legal censor who appears to be fighting a one-man battle against freedom of speech. That's quite an achievement.
But even as the Trafigura case was being discussed in parliament, the court of appeal was handing down yet another damning ruling on Sir David Eady's judgments.
Eady [appears]to see the interests of the state and the interest of the public as the same thing.
In another case

"The law lords decided that Eady was "hostile to the spirit" of the public interest defence and that he had "rigidly applied the old law" in a way that was "quite unrealistic … unnecessary and positively misleading". In one amazing passage, Lord Hoffmann compared Eady's approach to that of the Communist party censors in the Soviet Union.

But perhaps the gravest judgments against the Honourable Mr Justice Eady are those made by legislators in the United States. Such is the reach and severity of his illiberal rulings that four states have so far passed what are, in effect, Eady laws, and Congress is currently considering a federal bill whose purpose is to defend US citizens from his judgments, and the English law he interprets. The Eady laws arise from his encouragement of libel tourism: allowing cases with only the most tenuous connection with this country to be heard in London, and using them to stamp on free speech all over the world.
Monbiot then goes on to say

Eady's clerk tells me that the judge doesn't want to comment, but I expect he would answer that he was merely applying the law. And, though his interpretation is draconian, the sad truth is that he would be right. Long before Eady's reign of terror began, gangsters such as Robert Maxwell were using the defamation laws to sue the backside off anyone who tried to investigate their crooked affairs. Such are the perversities of this law that the English courts can be used by criminals to prevent exposure of their crimes. With average costs 140 times higher than those of other European countries, libel proceedings here can be defended only by people . . . who have a lot of money and a lot of guts. Until the law is changed, men like Mr Justice Eady will continue to hold free speech to ransom.

Perhaps the real target of this column should have been Straw, whose determination to preserve this bookburners' law means that all of us are forced to share his terror of upsetting the rich and powerful. Through 12 years in power, a government of frightened little men has done nothing to reform the democratic world's most illiberal laws, which permit an old-fashioned judge to punish us for holding power to account.

Polly Toynbee, meanwhile, says

Beware the zealots selling miracle cures of privatisation

"Harsher, deeper and faster, comes the call from the CBI, licking its lips as it eyes up public services cuts. Yesterday's report from the business lobby group urges an eye-watering extra £120bn to be cut two years earlier than the government proposes. Whatever remains of the public sector after all these cuts should, they say, be subject to outsourcing and privatisation with "wider use of co-funding" – the polite word for making people pay for services that are at present free.

Less for more is what happened when Tony Blair rushed out independent sector treatment centres (ISTCs) to inject private sector values into NHS surgery. In 2003, Blair and Alan Milburn commissioned 36 centres with a few mobile and diagnostic units to add extra surgery beds for rapid-throughput, simple routine surgery, mostly on hips, knees and cataracts. Some more capacity was needed to speed up waiting times: old people were waiting up to eight months for cataract operations. Some consultants who kept long lists to promote their private practice needed a sharp prod.
But ISTCs were ideologically designed to part-privatise the NHS, with no level playing field for fair competition with existing hospitals. All were centrally commissioned by diktat without local consultation. The priority was "to increase private capacity" so even the most flourishing foundation hospitals were banned from bidding for the contracts. Some companies that won contracts, such as United Health, later employed key Blair health advisers. To prevent competition with the NHS, only foreign doctors were employed, many of them unfamiliar with British practice.

The contracts were disastrous from the start. They guaranteed higher prices per patient than the NHS tariff, though it should be cheaper to treat routine surgery patients in brand new units with no untidy emergency cases or old people with complex broken pelvises.

Ignoring local need meant many beds stayed empty – but the ISTCs were paid anyway. By the time many units opened, the NHS had already cut waiting lists to target levels, and there was no work to be done. When Gordon Brown came in he took one look and cancelled most of the second wave: Alan Johnson found one centre with bed occupancy under 10% and closed it at once, though cancelled contracts cost the NHS £37m. The Tories, egged on by private health companies, unfairly accused Brown of being the roadblock to Blairite "reforms" for ideological reasons. The truth is that the Department of Health finds ISTCs still cost 11% more per operation, and government sources say bed occupancy falls as low as 78%, far below the NHS which is well over 90%.

How is the quality? Officially, it's good, but a two-year study published last month in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery casts doubts: examining patients sent from Cardiff to the Weston-super-Mare ISTC, two-thirds of hip replacements showed evidence of poor technique, with 18% needing repair surgery. That is 20 times the normal NHS rate for revisions and each costs about £15,000. Leading orthopaedic surgeons report similar evidence, pointing out that ISTCs should perform better, since they are never sent complex cases.
Weak public managers are often even worse at drawing up private finance initiative, public-private partnership or even bog-standard procurement deals with the private sector. The danger is that canny companies will run rings round civil servants with neither the knowledge not the greedy motivation to squeeze out every penny's worth.

I have a small example: researching my book Hard Work, I took an agency job as a hospital night cleaner and it was plain that far too many hours had been assigned to a simple routine. The hospital manager who drew up the contract had long lost touch with cleaning and was clueless as to how long a job should take. There are worse examples, where hospital cleaning companies undercut each other and skimp on the job, with disastrous consequences. Either way, ward sisters have lost the power to manage cleaners to their own standards, as they used to in cleaner pre-contracting days.
There is no one-size-fits-all. The lesson of the ISTC debacle is that politicians who dash for eye-catching quick fixes, "modernising" and "reforming" with an ideological zeal for the private sector will come a cropper. Blair did it often with his "scars on my back" political distaste for the public sector; Brown's worst case was his botched PPP for the London tube, done to spite Ken Livingstone. Beware politicians of all complexions who defy complexity to opt for political, not pragmatic solutions.
One of the main reasons for highlighting so much of this is that my own mother was one of the victims of those badly performed hip replacement operations.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft this week writes a good column about the need for annual parliamentary elections -

Now more than ever, Britain needs the last Chartist reform
"The expenses scandal has prompted a panoply of ideas to fix politics. But the strongest of all is missing: annual elections

Although the expenses scandal has prompted various schemes for constitutional and electoral reform, here is one that has gone missing. And yet it was among the radical Chartists' demands for parliamentary reform more than 150 years ago, and is the simplest and potentially the most effective of all.

But repellent as the MPs' impenitence is, institutional reform of parliament is desirable in its own right – and should be achievable. Looking over our political history, it's striking how daring radical demands once seemed, and how almost all were met, and quite soon at that.

The People's Charter in 1838 demanded six reforms, only one of which has not been achieved to this day. Universal suffrage took less than 80 years to accomplish, and property qualifications for voting were finally ended . . . The secret ballot was introduced as early as 1872.

Successive reform acts slowly addressed the Chartists' demand for "equal representation", in the sense that all constituencies should have electorates of roughly equal size.

As to the fifth demand, payment of members began in 1912, and has had an unintended consequence, not to say a lamentable one: the emergence of a new class of permanent, if often mediocre, professional politicians. This was further encouraged by a system of expenses that, even when it wasn't flagrantly dishonest, rested on the assumption that politics was a full-time profession. That has now met its nemesis.

And the sixth demand? This was the one never achieved, rarely mentioned now, but simpler than any of the others: annual parliaments.
To those Victorian radicals it was axiomatic that the best way to make the government accountable to parliament was to make parliament accountable to the electorate – every year. The objections to this are themselves revealing. Too expensive? But elections don't need to involve enormous sums of money spent by parties, and we would be much better off without that. Governments would be less stable and weaker? Well, yes, that's the point. Electing parliament every year would keep our rulers on their toes. More than any other possible reform it answers the simplest call of all: power to the people."
A very lucky universe

There's a fascinating column by John Gribbin on the subject of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN which has “suffered a series of mishaps preventing it from commencing its search for the elusive Higgs Boson particle”.

As I understand it, Gribbin is saying that in a parallel universe this collider did actually work when it was switched on, and it immediately caused that particular universe to unravel and disappear. The reason we're still here and still trying to get the collider to work is because it refuses to work each time we press the switch, in our particular universe at least. However, several other parallel universes have probably already disappeared owing to the thing actually working (in them) each time we've tried to switch it on. Lucky us! All we have to do now is stop trying to make it work.

PhillipD comments -

As Niels Bohr once (more or less) said: 'If you don't get a headache thinking about this stuff, you don't understand it'.
Fortunately, I don't understand it so just maybe I'll sleep tonight :-) If I could really grasp this stuff I suspect it would drive me nuts!

AllyF says -

I read about multiverses, time-travel, particle transportation and all this stuff. I think hard about it.
Then I return to the conclusion that you're all making it up as you go along.
But good luck to you. It's more entertaining than sociology.

says -

Future ripples and multiverses my arse, it doesn't work because they've ballsed up the wiring. Same thing happened with our boiler.

DomC -

This is all very well but both Blue Peter and Tomorrows World promised me Jet powered rocket pants by now... where are they? That's what I'd like to know

ChanceyGardner -

Computer says No.

delphinia -

Schroedinger's blasted cat wakes me up at 3 am on alternate mornings.
Did you know he ( Schroedinger, not the cat) is buried in Alpbach, Austria, with a minging little plaque?

Butwhatif -
If 8 out of 10 of Shroedinger's cats prefer Whiskas, what about the other 10?

Haliborange -
Parallel universes?
You can buy one here for a quid.

Bristol Boy -

excellent artic .  .  .  .  .

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