Letters

Reply from Downing Street

Downing Street have responded to my letter about electoral reform.

Number 10 Letter Head

The Prime Minister has asked me to thank you for your recent letter.

Mr Blair would like to reply personally, but as you will appreciate he receives many thousands of letters each week and this is not possible.

The matter you raise is the responsibility of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, therefore he has asked that your letter be forwarded to that Department so that they are also aware of your views.

Yours sincerely

KIMBERLEY WELLS

Or in other words: 'The prime minister hasn't seen your letter, when we say he asked that it be forwarded we didn't mean your letter precisely, but rather that he left an instruction not to bother him with these things. In this way he can have the honestly held belief that people aren't concerned with this issue'.

Or is that overly cynical?

Still listening, Tony?

P.S. I'm not naïve enough to assume that he would reply personally, but I do resent the implication that the PM has read the letter without actually saying he has explicitly. If he has read a letter include 'The Prime Minister read your letter and asked me....', if not, use the above form to give that impression without saying so..

Letter to Harriet Harman

Last night, Harriet 'What anomalies' Harman appeared on Question Time, where electoral reform got a good airing. Boris was on top form, though his idea of 'electoral reform' amounted to pushing the boundaries around a bit, thereby completely missing one of the main points.

Ms. Harmen annoyed me greatly when a panellist mentioned constitutional anomalies in the UK and she said 'What Anomalies?'

She will shortly receive the following letter:

Dear Ms. Harman

Last night you appeared on "Question Time". There was a comment about constitutional anomalies. In an astonishingly unaware comment from the Constitutional Affairs Minister you said "What anomalies?"

Please allow me to explain just a few of them.

In the UK, the government launched into a system of constitutional change, despite your statement on Question Time that this is not something to be rushed.

Your Government emasculated the House of Lords without having adequately thought through what would take its place, or consulting the public on a question which affects our governance - one item in a manifesto does not make a consultation. To date, the House of Lords question still remains unresolved. Any resolution should build in the ability of the Lords to be independent. My ideal would be three member constituencies, with one member elected via STV every three general elections. Thus the individual Lord is not continually looking for their next election and can scrutinize legislation without personal worry for their post.

Your Government also started on a process which weakened the UK government by devolving power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Island. Whether this was a right move or not is incidental at this stage. The situation as it stands is that, for example, Scottish MPs can vote upon matters which affect English constituents but not vice versa.

I fully accept that the UK parliament is for the whole of the UK - and so it should be for UK matters. Nevertheless it is fundamentally unjust that English constituents can be affected by votes from Scottish MPs and the reverse is not true. I do not personally want the UK to split up, but this imbalance can only grow with time - for the long term stability of the UK, balance is needed.

A failure to address this matter appears to be driven purely by concerns of party above country, especially given that the Conservatives won the popular vote in England - something which personally I'm not thrilled about.

Given that yesterday you were not aware of anomalies, I hope this letter has helped you to recognize some of them. I wish you well as you begin to address them.

I would be interested to hear your views on these matters and, in particular, how a Scottish parliament can be justified and yet an English parliament with similar powers cannot.

Letter to my New MP on electoral reform

Today, I wrote my first letter to my new MP, Michael Gove.

Dear Mr. Gove,

Given that Labour have attained a substantial majority of seats, almost double that of the Conservatives despite having only achieved about 3% more of the popular vote, I am writing to learn your views on electoral reform.

In 1997, Labour promised electoral reform as part of their manifesto. Despite a 1998 recommendation to move to the AV+ system, this promise was quietly dropped. AV+ maintains a constituency link and allows voters to select individuals (as opposed to the list based PR system)

If you support the current system, I would be interested to learn your reasons, especially as it seems self evident that the electoral system itself is responsible for much of what politicians like to call "voter apathy".

If you do support electoral reform, I would be pleased to hear how you intend to challenge the government and promote this issue.

In addition, England remains the one part of the United Kingdom without national representation, Scottish MPs in Westminster vote on matters which they know will not affect their own constituents. I would like to learn your views on this matter, and how you plan to redress this democratic deficit. This topic holds some potential interest given that your party has beaten Labour in England, a cynic may wonder if this is the reason that powers haven't been devolved to England.

As with previous letters, when I get a reply I'll scan it for you. (I did forget to scan a couple in the past, oops, sorry, nothing too important!)

I have sent a modified version of this letter to Number 10.

Dear Mr. Blair,

I am writing this in the hope that this makes its way to your desk and that you are continuing to listen to the electorate as you said this morning. Labour have attained a substantial, albeit diminished, majority of seats, almost double that of the Conservatives despite having only achieved about 3% more of the popular vote. Given this, I am writing to learn your views on electoral reform.

In 1997, Labour promised electoral reform as part of their manifesto. Despite a 1998 recommendation to move to the AV+ system, this promise was quietly dropped. AV+ maintains a constituency link and allows voters to select individuals, thus not penalizing independents (as opposed to the list based PR system).

If you support the current system, I would be interested to learn your reasons, especially as it seems self evident that the electoral system itself is responsible for much of what politicians like to call "voter apathy". It might seem that your support for first past the post stems from the advantage which it gives the Labour party. I would hope that this appearance is incorrect.

If you do support electoral reform, then I am thrilled. I would be pleased to hear how you intend to promote this issue.

In addition, England remains the one part of the United Kingdom without national representation, Scottish MPs in Westminster vote on matters which they know will not affect their own constituents. I would like to learn your views on this matter, and how you plan to redress this democratic deficit. Given that the Conservatives won the popular vote in England, a cynic may wonder if this is the reason that powers haven't been devolved to England. I am sure that this is not the case, and I would like to understand the reasons why England seems to be treated as a special case within the UK.

Edit 6th May: Make My Vote Count points out an article from the FT.

Edit 13th May: A good letter to Gordon Brown

Edit 24th May: A holding letter from Downing Street. As of now, my MP has yet to reply.

Where's England?

The otherwise excellent (and scary) BBC Electoral seat predictor for the UK election has subdivisions for Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland, but not England. Why not? Even though England is governed in part from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (all with national bodies), it would be good to see a breakdown for this part of the UK. The subdivisions are for the westminster vote, not for the various assemblies and parliaments.

I've asked them this question and will relay any reply I receive - even if it is my error!

I note that your excellent 'seats predictor' has subdivisions of the UK offered. These are Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Unless I've read it incorrectly, the subdivisions all relate to the Westminster vote and not to the Scottish parliament, welsh assembly etc. Why is England not represented seperately as well in this case?

I look forward to any response, and will update www.murky.org to reflect your reasons.

Update: A reply from the BBC

Reply from Hazel Blears

Hazel Blears replied to my MP after I wrote a letter stating my concerns about the government trying to claim the power to remove liberty without due process. My MP forwarded my concerns to the home office.

Coincidental that this should occur today... the letter from Hazel Blears is undated, but it was forwarded to me yesterday.

Hazel Blears, as expected, put out the usual government spin, and my MP did nothing that couldn't have been done by a post office forwarding system. I still don't know where the man stands.

Thank you for your letter dated 1 February 2005 on behalf of XXXXXX of YYYYY about the Home Secretary's control orders proposals.

The ATCS Act 2001 introduced exceptional powers to counter the risks posed by terrorist activities. Part 4 of the Act is an immigration power which enables the Home Secretary to certify and detain foreign nationals who are suspected of involvement in international terrorism and who are believed to present a risk to our national security but cannot, at present, be removed from the United Kingdom. They cannot currently be removed, as a result of either practical considerations or the United Kingdom's international obligations, such as those under the European Court of Human Rights. However, the detainees are free to leave this country voluntarily at any time, as two have already chosen to do.

Whilst Article 5(1) (f) of the ECHR permits the detention of a person against whom action is being taken with a view to deportation, UK caselaw is clear - a person can only be detained if there is a reasonable prospect of their removal within a reasonable time. In the Part 4 cases, where there is a barrier to removal, we would therefore be prevented from detaining these individuals, pending their ultimate removal, without a derogation from the ECHR.

This is why a derogation was sought from Article 5 of the ECHR in relation to the part 4 powers. The detainees challenged the legality of the derogation. On Thursday 16 December 2004 the House of Lords allowed the appeal in the case of A and others V the Secretary of State for Home Department.' The Law Lords ruled that the powers in Part 4 section 23 of the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001 were incompatible with Articles 5 and 14 of the ECHR in so far as they are disproportionate, and permit detention of suspected international terrorists in a way that discriminates on the grounds of nationality or immigration status.

This appeal was about the compatibility of domestic law with ECHR and it is ultimately for Parliament to decide whether and how the law should be amended. There is no legal obligation to release the detainees as a result of this judgment.

The part 4 powers have been used sparingly, a total of 16 people have been certified and detained under the part 4 powers. One other person has been certified but detained under other powers. Of these 10 people remain in detention. One individual appeal against certification was upheld, two certificates have been revoked by the Home Secretary and one detainee has been bailed under strict bail conditions.

There are extensive legal safeguards, including an individual right of appeal against certification to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC). SIAC is a superior court of record chaired by a high court judge. SIAC also conducts statutory reviews and those detained can also apply to SIAC for bail at any time.

As the Home Secretary announced in his statement on 26 January, we are seeking to develop alternatives to the part 4 powers. We are continuing with the work on deportation with assurances for foreign nationals who we can and should deport. We are also planning to introduce control orders, which would enable a range of preventative measures to be placed on a suspected terrorist irrespective of nationality, where we can neither prosecute nor deport. These will be preventative measures designed to disrupt and restrict an individual's activities where intelligence assessments indicate involvement in terrorism.

These orders will:

  1. be capable of general application to any suspected terrorist irrespective of nationality and, for most of the controls, the nature of terrorist activity.
  2. consist of a range of provisions from a ban on the use of communications equipment to restrictions to premises in very serious cases
  3. allow for a criminal sanction for a breach of any order imposed include independent judicial scrutiny of each case involving the hearing of evidence in both open and closed session, both against the imposition of an order and any subsequent variations of the provisions. There will also be regular reviews of extant orders.

As the Home Secretary said in his statement on the 26th January "A careful balance has to be struck between the rights of an individual and the protection of society against threats from organisations which seek to destroy". We believe that these powers will address this balance in a proportionate and effective manner.

It is ultimately for Parliament to decide whether and how we should amend the law. The Governments intention is to introduce a bill to give effect to control orders as soon as is practicable. It may be possible to enact the bill in a time scale that makes renewal of the part 4 powers unnecessary. Should that not be possible the Government will seek to renew the Part 4 powers for a limited time to enable the new powers to be put in place.

The Home Secretary will not be revoking the certificates of the current detainees between now and when the new powers are in place unless the threat they pose changes and they no longer meet the criteria for certification.

Andy Hamilton on the news quiz: 'What a topsy turvey world we live in when our best hope of opposing draconian laws is Michael Howard'. and 'Am I alone in having an extreme dislike for ... Hazel Blears'. The consensus was 'no'. The news quiz is available for download from saturday afternoon and will be available for a week.

Kofi Annan made a Keynote address to the Closing Plenary of the International Summit on Democracy, Terrorism and Security in Madrid

By the same token, the United Nations must continue to insist that, in the fight against terrorism, we cannot compromise the core values I have listed. In particular, human rights and the rule of law must always be respected. As I see it, terrorism is in itself a direct attack on human rights and the rule of law. If we sacrifice them in our response, we will be handing victory to the terrorists.

Quite so, Kofi.

House Arrest

I've had a letter from the Office of the Leader of the Opposition in response to the letter I copied to Michael Howard.

It reads as follows:

Thank you for your recent letter to Michael Howard about the Government's policies on house arrest, as laid out in the Prevention of Terrorism Bill currently before Parliament.

The Government's proposals centre around house arrest for suspected terrorists on the say so of the Home Secretary. David Davis, the Shadow Home Secretary, and Mr Howard have thought long and hard about these proposals. They have serious misgivings about both their effectiveness in protecting life and their consequences for the British way of life.

We have always said that this was a bad Bill. The Government have not allowed anything like enough time for Parliament to consider it.

In the time available, the Conservative Party has put down a number of amendments to improve the Bill which we will continue to press. These include, for example, that there should be judicial decisions on all the control orders and that there should be a reconsideration of the appropriate burden of proof in relation to the making of the orders.

But even if the Government give way on all the amendments we regard as essential, the Bill will still be unsatisfactory. That is why we are calling for an additional safeguard which is that the Bill even with those essential amendments will need to be replaced in November. This will give the Government of the day the time necessary to bring forward a properly considered Bill to deal with terrorism.

However, if the amendments we regard as essential are not passed, including the sunset clause, the Conservative Party will vote against the Bill.

Thank you for taking the trouble to write.

Yours sincerely,

(name removed)
Office of the Leader of the Opposition

Reply from the Home Office

I've had a reply to the letter which I sent to the Home Office regarding ID cards (the concerns expressed seem to pail in the light of internment proposals! Still, it shows the principle of giving an inch....)

The reply is signed by a civil servant, so the name is removed.

Any comments? (Please let me know of any obvious OCR errors in the comments). The No2ID site is here.

The letter reads as follows:

Thank you for your letter of 29 January to Des Browne MP about identity cards. Your letter has been passed to me in the Identity Cards Programme Team to respond.

As you may be aware that the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has established standards in the use of biometrics in passports. From next Autumn, British tourists who need a new passport will have to get a biometric one to visit the US or obtain a visa in advance and have their biometrics recorded on arrival. The European Union has also recently considered Regulations on common standards for biometric security features to be included in common format visas and residence permits for foreign, i.e. nonEU, nationals. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) establishes standards in the use of biometrics in passports and the UK is committed to compliance with these standards. On 13 December 2004 the EU adopted a Regulation on biometric features (digital image and two flat fingerprints) in the EU common format passport

The decision to introduce biometrics into existing identity documents has therefore already been made. What we gain with the ID card and the added requirements for these, over and above just adding biometrics to existing documents, are the benefits of secure identification and a register to hold the information.

It is envisaged an identity card will help UK residents establish their identity and entitlement to services in a simple, easy, convenient way and to regulate access to public services to reduce fraudulent use of services by those not entitled and in time to deliver more efficient access to services.

However, I must emphasise that we have never said that the identity cards scheme is intended to be the sole solution to identity fraud, illegal immigration and working, or terrorism. The scheme is therefore not being designed to be the primary method of combating these problems. Nevertheless, the Security services and Sir John Stevens, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, have stated that they believe an identity card scheme will help in the fight against these problems. The Spanish police have also stated that their identity cards scheme makes life harder for terrorists and easier for the police. Terrorists have had to find other ways to carry out their activities such as staying in hotels, renting accommodation, hiring cars and purchasing mobile phones. The culture of identity cards in Spain has marginalised terrorists who are driven to reside outside Spain. Identity cards have also meant that the police have a better idea of who they are looking for when tracking down a terrorist as they will have information available such as a photograph, age, fingerprint and addresses and can focus their investigations faster.

With regards to the checking process, applicants will also be asked to produce their current identity documentation, which will be checked for authenticity and validity. This is to ensure that individuals are who they say they are. The precise arrangements for what information will be necessary for making an application vOll be decided as the identity cards programme progresses following further preparatory work and testing of different options.

It may also be necessary to make changes to the application process over time. These arrangements are therefore not spelt out on the face of the Identity Cards Bill. Rather provision is included for the detailed arrangements to be set out in Regulations. These arrangements must be scrutinised by Parliament and no information may be required unless it is required for the statutory purposes of the scheme as set out in the primary legislation.

ID Cards will be issued by an executive agency incorporating the functions of the United Kingdom Passport Service which will work closely in conjunction with the Immigration and Nationality Directorate of the Home Office in respect Of foreign nationals.

With regards to cost, our assessments to date have indicated that the benefits outweigh the costs of the scheme.

The fact is that we are having to incorporate certain biometric identifiers into existing identity documentation. What the identity cards scheme does is take this opportunity to ensure we maximise the benefits to the UK. These include reducing unauthorised access to benefits and public services, reducing illegal immigration and working and tackling organised crime and terrorism.

There are considerable benefits to individuals from the introduction of identity cards and the principle will be that overall costs of the scheme will be met from charging. This principle is well established for documents like passports and residence permits, which as we have pointed out will have to be upgraded anyway. We have made clear that ID cards will be subsidised for those least able to pay.

However, no date has yet been set for a decision on a move to compulsion. There are a number of factors which the Government will need to consider before recommending a move to compulsion to Parliament. These are explained in Identity Cards: The Next Steps (CM 6020).

The exact format of ID cards will be set out in Regulations to be approved by Parliament. It is likely that all ID cards will be credit card sized plastic cards with a photograph of the holder, and containing a secure chip where biometric data may be stored. They will be designed to be convenient and easy to carry in a purse or wallet.

As mentioned earlier, the identity cards scheme is an inclusive scheme intended to cover everyone in the UK for longer than 3 months. Nothing in the legislation is discriminatory and we are working now with interested groups in the early stages of the design of the scheme to make sure that it operates in a way that is not discriminatory.

A card scheme that is open to everyone and treats everyone on an equal basis, alongside rules on the production of cardslidentity checks that are consistent and do not single out particular groups will help to reduce discrimination as everyone will have an equal means of proving of identity when using public services.

The administration of the scheme is covered by the Race Relations Act 1976, as amended by the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. Therefore, the scheme must have due regard to the elimination of unlawful racial discrimination, the promotion of equal opportunities and good relations between people from different racial groups. We have taken advice from relevant sections within the Home Office as well as outside consultation, involved CRE as well as a number of other race organisations, individual in the community, focus group and minority ethnic polling.

Research done with the minority ethnic groups in 2004 showed the majority of all four ethnic populations were in favour of the proposal to introduce ID cards in the UK, with the Chinese group being the most favourable (84%) and the black group the least (60%). Favourability towards ID cards has increased since the study was last conducted in 2003.

Clause 14 of the Bill enables checks to be made on the Register with the consent of the individual in order to provide an identity verification service. This clause limits the information that may be provided to the organisation as part of this check, this includes information within paragraphs 1, 3 and 4 of Schedule 1, the photograph, signature, information concerning whether the ID card is valid, voluntary information and security questions. This limitation on 'the information that may be checked means that information failing in other parts of Schedule 1, for example the records of provision of information, may not be provided to organisations verifying identity. This type of information isalready provided with the consent of individuals to a wide variety of organisations on a daily basis.

In addition, the identity cards agency will be accrediting user organisations based on the type of information they are requesting provision of, as well as a justification of why they are requesting it. We will also reserve the right to audit any user organisation processes to ensure they remain compliant with the ultimate sanction for those who are misusing information being the removal of accreditation.

The statutory purposes of the Register as defined in the Bill set boundaries for its use to prevent function creep. The "registrable facts" listed in the Bill set limits on the types of information which may be held on the Register. Only Parliament would be able to change the statutory purposes of the scheme or the information which could be held by the scheme.

Clause 1(2) of the Identity Cards Bill sets out the statutory purpose of the Register. It makes clear that the register is to provide a record of "registrable facts" about the identity of individuals who are resident in the United Kingdom or have applied to be entered on the register. The Schedule in the Bill lists the categories of information that may be held on the Register, although not every item listed need be included when the National Identity Register is established. The Schedule includes the following information:

  • personal information - names, date and place of birth, gender, addresses;
  • identifying information - photograph, signature, fingerprint, other biometric information;
  • residential status - nationality, entitlement to remain, terms and conditions of that entitlement;
  • personal reference numbers - for example the National Identity Registration Number and other government issued numbers, and validity periods of related documents;
  • record history - information previously recorded, audit trail of changes and date of death;
  • registration and lD card history - dates of: application, changes to information, confirmation; information regarding: other ID cards already issued, details of counter-signatures, notification under clause 13(1) and requirements to surrender an ID card;
  • validation information - information provided for any application, modification, confirmation or issue; other steps taken in connection with an application or otherwise for identifying the applicant and verifying the information; particulars of any other steps for ensuring there is an accurate entry in the Register; and particulars of notification of changes;
  • security information - personal identification numbers, password or other codes, and questions and answers that could be used to identify a person seeking provisions of information or the modification of an entry; and
  • records of provision of information - how and when any information from an entry was provided to any person or body.

However, there is absolutely no question of an identity card holding sensitive personal information such as medical records, racial or ethnic origin, political opinions or religious or other beliefs.

The Identity Cards Bill is available on the Parliament website:

Link to the Bill

or if you would like to obtain a hard copy of The Bill, this would cost £6, however you will have to write to:

Her Majesty's Stationery Office
St Clements House
2-16 Colegate
Norwich
NR3 1 BQ

More information about identity cards is also available on

Link to the site mentioned.

I am grateful for the time you have taken to comment further on this issue.

Yours sincerely

(name removed)
Identity Cards Programme Team

Reply from Card Company

A while ago I wrote to my Credit Card company, the reply has been sitting in my intray for a while. Here it is.

Thank you for your letter dated 28 November and for taking the time to tell us of your concerns.

I would firstly like to sincerely apologise for any concern you have been caused, and confirm that you are entirely correct about being vigilant with your personal information. I would like to assure you that staff are required to only ask for sections of your identification questions and not the full answer, for example to only give the month of your birth and the first two letters of the password/mothers maiden name.

Please accept my sincere apologies that the member of staff bullied you into giving your security details. I can assure you that customer complaints are taken very seriously and this matter will be raised as internal training issues with the members of staff concerned.

The problems that you have mentioned have been raised before by staff on regular occasions, I am aware that the Royal Bank of Scotland group as a whole is currently looking for a resolution to these problems. Staff have been suggesting some sort of password system, and we are looking to find ways of making a system like this work.

The telephone number given in our messages is given for a specific reason, as the number is for our designated fraud detection call centre with specialist staff.

In the meantime, if you receive a call from someone advising that they are calling from NatWest and is asking for all your security information in full, please feel free to refuse to give this information and call the telephone number on the back of your card. As far as I have been made aware, sales calls will not ask you to divulge any security information so you will only need to do this when we are actually needing to discuss your account.

I would like to confirm that it should have been explained to you that failing to give your details on the phone at that time would only have resulted on problems with your card until you did call the number on the back of your card and confirmed usage genuine. Please accept my apologies that you were threatened with the card not working at all.

I hope that, in spite of your complaint, my response has helped restore your confidence in us. We want you to stay with us and would welcome the chance to look after you in the future.

If you remain dissatisfied with this response, you can write to: (snip). Thereafter if you remain unhappy, The Financial Ombudsman Service is an alternative open to you. Details can be found in the enclosed leaflet.

My reply to this will be sent tomorrow:

I am writing in response to a letter from *****, dated 10th December. Your ref: ***/*****. Please accept my apologies for the delay in this response.

There are several aspects of the reply which I am not satisfied with, and the fact that the fundamental problem remains does not inspire my confidence. I will explain the problems as carefully as I'm able.

Firstly, you quite rightly say that I should not divulge my full security information to anyone who phones me and says they're from RBS or Natwest. However, I was phoned, left a number I did not recognize and when I rang it I was asked to divulge some of my details. This leaves the customer open to two possible attacks.

The first attack is that this could be repeated over a period of time, and each time a different fragment of the security details could be asked for. Eventually there would be enough information for the third party to stand a good chance of gaining access to the accounts of the customer. The second attack is the classic "man in the middle" attack. Once the customer is identified, the person on the phone claims a slow computer whilst a colleague phones the bank. The colleague identifies themselves as the customer, and when asked for the security information the request is relayed back to the customer, the system slowdown having "cleared up". The effect of this is that the customer believes they are talking to the bank, and the bank believes they're talking to the customer. Once the business of the real customer is over, they hang up the phone and the "man in the middle" can continue the conversation with the bank. For this reason, one should not yield ANY security information.

These attacks may seem unlikely, but they are quite workable for an organized team.

The second issue is the statement that "the problems ... mentioned have been raised by staff before on regular occasions". Frankly I find this amazing. If this is the case, then why have steps not been taken to rectify this issue? It was mentioned that the bank was looking into a password system, this seems completely superfluous. A fix could be implemented right this second without any more passwords for the customer. I suggested this in my original letter.

My suggested fix was that if the bank needs to contact the customer, and security information is needed, then the bank should simply say: "please telephone us on the number on the back of your credit card, or on the top of your statement". Should a specific department be needed, then the customer should be asked to dial that number, and then be forwarded on to the appropriate extension. This should be the case even if the person answers the phone. There should be a sentence of the statement reminding customers that they should only divulge security information when they ring one of the numbers which are printed on the statement.

The original letter was due to the fact that I'd been asked to ring back a number which I didn't recognize and asked to provide security details, had the number been the one on my card there would have been no problem.

House Arrest and my Prospective MP (Tory)

I've received a reply from the Conservative Candidate in my area regarding the house arrest of terror suspects.

My apologies for not replying earlier.

I take the threat of terrorism very seriously. Which is why I want to see terrorists face trial and be punished, not be placed under house arrest at the request of the executive.

I'm sorry you found it so hard to find my website. I'll explore what we can do to ensure a higher profile. And thanks also for your blog tips

(I made some comments about putting in an RSS feed, and how it was so difficult to find out who the conservative candidate was given that the current guy was deselected - though I don't support the chap in all things, he'll probably be my MP as this is a safe seat and I want to keep tabs on what he's doing.)

Reply from the German Ambassador

I've received a reply from the ambassador...

... actually, from his assistant.

Thank you very much for your letter of 30th January 2005 addressed to the German Ambassador, Thomas Matussek, who has asked me to reply to you on his behalf

The allegation that in Germany unemployed women can now be forced into prostitution is, of course, absurd. The article you refer to has clearly distorted or confused the fact that prostitution has been legalised and is therefore now part of the official labour market.

However, the job agencies do not advertise or publicise job offers in this sector. Only persons out of work who specifically inquire about such job offers would be informed accordingly.

In any event, no one can be forced to accept such job offers, as any unemployed person still has the right to decline any job for moral reasons.

The new situation merely means that prostitutes are given more rights and are more protected socially than they used to be.

We hope that we have been able to resolve any misunderstandings deriving from this article.

Yours sincerely

Albert Luig

This all derived from this post and this article.

I have sent the following reply:

Sehr geehrter Herr Luig

I am writing to thank you for your response to my letter of 30th January. I had my suspicions about the article; however the consequences of it being correct were unthinkable, hence the letter. I am sure that you appreciate the natural concern expressed.

I am pleased to hear that the concerns were unfounded. Especially as it is possible to see many benefits to the German policy, not least of which being an improvement in healthcare.

I trust that you have clarified the situation with the newspaper concerned.

Hochachtungsvoll,

The story was updated to 'False' from 'Undetermined' on the Urban Legends page yesterday.

Reply from Nick Hawkins MP

I've had a reply from Nick Hawkins MP (Con) to my letter.

It reads:

Thank you for your letter of 29 January on the subject of the decision about Belmarsh. I will send the Home Secretary a copy of your letter so that he too is aware of your concerns in this regard and will write to you again when I have a reply.

Yours sincerely,

NICK HAWKINS MP

He has completely ignored the bit which says 'I would be extremely interested to hear your personal views on this matter.'

I know the views of Charles Clarke, though I'm happy that the home secretary will know that he is opposed - what I don't know are the views of my own MP. If when he replies he simply forwards the response of Clarke, then I shall press him on this issue. Especially as he lists his special interests on his website as 'Home affairs, law and order...'

I don't hold out much hope though... he's been deselected as the Tory candidate in the next election. What I don't know are the views of the new conservative candidate (this is a safe tory seat).

The new candidate seems to be someone called Michael Gove.

The Lib dem candidate is Rosalyn Harper (eek, I've got to the age when parliamentary candidates are younger than I am).

I've emailed them both with a copy of the letter I've sent to Nick Hawkins and asked for their responses. I haven't bothered with the labour candidate as they don't stand a snowball's chance in hell of getting in here.

Letter to the German Ambassador

Following this post, I've drafted the following to the German Ambassador in London. I will send an email copy to the Today Programme (BBC Radio 4). I'm not the only one who has spotted this.

I've modified the letter slightly since first putting this on the site. This is the final version.

Herr T. Matussek
c/o Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany
Side Entrance
23 Belgrave Square
London
SW1X 8PZ

Sehr geehrter Herr Matussek

I was surprised to read in The Telegraph, that a woman in Berlin faces loss of benefit as she refuses to work as a prostitute in a brothel.

URL referenced

I understand the rationale behind the legalisation of brothels, for example improved healthcare and working conditions, yet I cannot believe that the German legislature believed that it would be "too difficult to distinguish them from bars".

Given that the businesses are legal in Germany, there is nothing at all wrong with the business advertising for employees. Nevertheless there is absolutely everything wrong with the state pushing people into this profession against their own moral code. Such action reduces the state to the position of "pimp" or worse.

I look forward to hearing your opinion on this matter, and I hope that you will pass this message on to the relevant authority in Berlin.

Hochachtungsvoll,

Update: The reply has been received.

House Arrest

Whilst in a letter writing mood, I'm firing off another letter to my MP. Now, I've not been terribly impressed with him in the past, despite being a conservative (i.e. in the opposition) he has tended to forward my letter on the the appropriate government department and cc: me the reply. There seems to have been nothing which could not have been done by an automated mail handling system.

This time the letter is about the latest 'great idea' from the Home Office, house arrest. I've explicitly asked for his opinions, as well as mentioning that i'd cc'd the letter to the leader of his party as well as the director of liberty, Shami Chakrabarti.

Coupled with the Civil Contingencies bill it's all fun-fun-fun.

It probably will have little effect, as Howard is unlikely to read it.

Anyway, fingers crossed.

Update: I have just drafted a modified version of this letter which I've sent to Charles Kennedy. The modified version is essentially the same, but begins with: I am writing to you as the "leader of the opposition", I have written a similar letter direct to my MP (Nick Hawkins), as well as sending a copy to Michael Howard and Shami Chakrabarti at Liberty. . It then begins a new paragraph with 'Following the decision about Belmarsh...

Dear Mr. Hawkins

Following the decision about Belmarsh, I am deeply concerned that the Government plans to give itself the ability to place anybody under house arrest at the whim of the Home Secretary, without any possibility of due process. The essential message from the executive is "trust us".

Does the United Kingdom really wish to join the ranks of countries like Burma, South Africa during Apartheid, China or North Korea? This is a list upon which we should not seek to appear.

As Peter Hain has pointed out, house arrest was a counterproductive tactic for the South African government as it provided a focus for discontent. Quite apart from the appalling precedent set by a politician being able to "imprison" people without trial, the Government will be actively promoting the causes of the people they wish to restrain.

I would be extremely interested to hear your personal views on this matter.

I trust that both you and your party will strongly challenge the government's constant erosion of the legal protections which we have enjoyed in this country for many years. I fear that the Conservatives will tacitly support this move as they fear "being soft on terrorists". Whilst I appreciate that these are difficult issues, I would remind anyone taking that line that if there is evidence of such activity, then we already have powers in place to deal with the individual concerned in the form of the criminal courts.

Even during the 1980s, when IRA activity was at its height, the Government did not consider such a step.

Yours Sincerely

cc: Michael Howard MP, Shami Chakrabarti (director of Liberty)

ID Cards - a reply to Des Browne

A little late, but I have finally got around to drafting a direct reply to Des Browne's letter concerning identity cards.

I'm slightly concerned that it's too long and won't get addressed at all as a result, however, this is a risk I thought it may be worth taking.

I'm watching the FOIA request site with interest and it'll be interesting to see what they get!

I hope the House of Lords once again shows its worth!

Dear Mr. Browne

I am writing in response to your letter of 2nd November, which you sent to Nick Hawkins MP. He forwarded a copy of the letter to me.

Please allow me to first apologise for the delay in this response.

There are a few questions which I would like to put directly to you, if I may. I am putting the questions because I truly wish to understand your position.

  1. Exactly how would ID cards have prevented acts of terrorism, such as the Madrid bombings or the September 11th attacks (which were performed by non-US citizens who entered the country legally)?
  2. The production of an ID card can lead to a false sense of security. Checking the ID of an individual does not give any test of intent. How would the checks operate in practice?
  3. For any checks to be effective, the cards would need to be universal, and checks frequent. How does this match up to the "voluntary" aspect of the card?
  4. If cards are "voluntary", how can the system do what it claims?
  5. If cards effectively become compulsory to exist in this country, why do we have to pay a "voluntary" fee?
  6. Having one form of ID will provide a tempting target for thieves. It seems that people checking ID will often check that the ID exists rather than that it belongs to the person. For this to be avoided the scanners would have to be ubiquitous.
  7. Would the cards contain RFID chips? This would allow the nationality of any bearer to be established at a distance, and hence provide a security risk if traveling abroad in some of the less savoury parts of the world. It is this aspect which is causing much concern about RFID chips in US passports at the moment.
  8. Though 21 of the 25 EU member states have ID cards, how many of these are a remnant of World War 2 or extremist regimes?
  9. How many of the 21 countries use cards which contain biometric identifiers?
  10. Have the cards in any EU country contributed to making ethnic minorities feel more excluded and isolated?
  11. How many of the 21 countries have unwritten constitutions?
  12. Have ID cards been used in countries outside the EU to oppress their citizens?
  13. How does the Government intend to ensure that the system which they set up cannot be misused by any future administration?
  14. The necessary decision to include biometrics into existing documents has already been made. How was this decision made, and by whom? What parliamentary oversight was there?
  15. Who will hold the data? Who will have access to the data? What rights will the citizen have to view this data?
  16. Will the ID card contain information such as home address in a human readable, or unencrypted, form? If so how does the Government intend to mitigate the security risk this presents if the card is stolen?
  17. On a mundane level, how will the process of providing biometric information be handled? Personal attendance at a passport office could prove to be difficult in many cases.
  18. With the technology under consideration, what is the rate of false negatives? What is the rate of false positives?

I look forward to your reply.

Yours Sincerely,

Letter to Card Company

Let's see what this gets, it's a letter prompted by the card fun this evening.

My particular card is a Tesco one, but it's run by Royal Bank of Scotland. I wonder what they'll say? Probably something bland and non committal.

Dear Sir/Madam

I am writing to express a fundamental concern about your security systems.

This evening I arrived home to find a message asking me to ring the "credit card centre" as soon as possible. The number given was not one I recognised.

When I rang the number, I was immediately asked for my card details and I was a little surprised. To give out card details, including security details to someone who phones up and asks for them is a fundamental security flaw.

Even if in this instance it was legitimate, this approach is open to abuse as you are effectively suggesting to your customers that these details should be given out to anyone who phones up and leaves a phone number.

The man I spoke to tried to find out from my name why the message was left, but could not get into the system without these details.

I tried to explain my concern to him, and asked whether I could simply ring the number on the back of my card. As I was trying to explain this he was saying that if I could not give him my security details then he'd have to terminate the call and I would not be able to use my card.

This is most definitely not appropriate. There was no way that I was going to give these details to someone when I could not verify who I was talking to – and I should not have been pressured to do so.

What should have occurred is that the original message on the answering machine should have asked me to telephone "the number on the back of my Tesco Personal Finance credit card, or on the top of the statement". In this way I could have been sure who I was talking to. In the end I rang this number and the issue was dealt with. I mentioned this to both people I talked to on the phone, but did not get the impression that they even understood the issue.

I appreciate that you need to validate spending from time to time, but in an era of "phishing" scandals I feel that to be left an unusual number on the answer-phone is a huge error, as it could be repeated by the dishonest without raising alarm bells in the customer's mind – especially when the solution mentioned above is so easy. The customer should be told never to give out these details except when they phone the number on their statement/card.

ID Cards: A reply from the Home Office

I've had a reply from the Home Office on the subject of ID Cards, via my MP (who apparently just forwarded letters). This is not a reply to the letter sent to David Davies, the Shadow Home Secretary, but a reply to the letter sent to my MP.

Of course, the sheer fact that I've written to these people means that my opinion can be safely discounted - there is something rather Orwellian about that way of doing business, I find.

Des Browne MP

Nick Hawkins Esq MP
House of Commons
London
SW1 A 0AA

Our Reference: XXXXX

Your Reference: YYYYY

2nd Nov 2004

Dear Nick

Thank you for your Letter of 14 October to David Blunkett on behalf of your constituent Mr XXXX of YYYY about identity cards. Your letter has been passed to me for reply as the Minister with responsibility for identity cards.

I should explain at the outset that the Government's decision to proceed with the introduction of a national identity cards scheme is based in part on the fact that we will have to introduce more secure personal identifiers (biometrics) into our passports and other existing documents in line with international requirements. Right across the world there is a drive to increase document security with biometrics. If our citizens are to continue to enjoy the benefits of international travel, as increasing numbers of them are doing we cannot be left behind. It is worth remembering that 21 of the 25 EU Member States (all apart from the UK, Ireland, Denmark and Latvia) have identity cards.

Identity cards will be linked to existing documents such as passports and will incorporate a biometric such as a fingerprint or iris scan. The introduction of identity cards on a phased basis will on current plans start from 2007-2008.

The necessary decision to introduce biometrics into existing identity documents has therefore already been made. Even without an identity cards scheme, the majority of the population would require to be enrolled in a biometric database via existing identity documents like passports anyway. The costs involved in this would be nearly the same as implementing a comprehensive identity cards scheme available to the whole resident population, but without the added benefits.

People's identities are incredibly valuable and too easily stolen - ID fraud is a growing crime, costing the country more than £1.3 billion per year. Multiple or false identities are used in more than a third of terrorist related activity, and in organised crime and money laundering. Lack of clarity over someone's identity also presents risks to the public and private sectors when providing services. It is crucial we are able to confirm and verify our own and others' identities quickly and easily. (Consequently, we believe that there are further clear benefits to be gained from biometric identity cards.)

The Government's proposals are designed to safeguard, not erode, civil liberties by protecting people's true identity against fraud and by enabling them to prove their identity more easily when accessing public or private services.

So what we gain with the ID card, over and above just adding biometrics to existing documents, are the benefits flowing from secure identification and a register to hold the information, such as in tackling illegal working and fraudulent access to public services. Added to this, offering an ID card at a reduced cost for those on low incomes and the elderly will give the least well off the same means of proving their identity as those who can afford to travel abroad.

We are grateful for the time Mr XXXX has taken to comment.

Des Browne

I disagree, but it's tricky to know how to respond - and do so in a way that appears constructive and not the ravings of a lunatic. Any ideas? Even if the thing is benign now, how can the minister guarantee that all future governments are benign? However to ask this question is to be seen as a conspiracy theorist and dismissed out of hand, lessons of history be damned.

The ID Card Scam

The Register reports on the standalone ID Card Scam.

A quote from 'The Register' article:

The latest ID card consultation document tells us that: "People tend to be motivated to write in because they are opposed to the proposals under consultation", the point here appearing to be that the views of these people (who by definition are going to know something about the subject in hand) should be discounted, while surveys and focus groups (of people who turn out to know stuff-all about the subject in hand) provide a more valid gauge of public opinion.

Outrageous... and well spotted.

No response yet to my letter, which now looks like it'll be ignored.

Schneier talks of the problems of using RFID chips in documents.

Letter to Shadow Home Secretary on ID Cards

I've just written to David Davies MP, let's see what response he gives.

Mr. David Davies, MP
House of Commons
London
SW1A 0AA

Thursday, 28 October 2004

Dear Mr. Davies,

With regard to ID cards, on the BBC website you say:

'"If these criteria can be met without sacrificing civil liberties they should be introduced soon - not in 10 years time. The terrorist threat is real and is here today."'

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3958653.stm

This is merely echoing the government's line without much critical reasoning. Yet as far as I know not ONCE has anyone said exactly how the ID card will help fight terrorism. The Madrid bombers and the IRA all were in the country legally. The spectre of terrorism is a straw man argument as it rather assumes that we know in advance who the terrorists are.

It has also been said that the ID card will help prevent benefit frauds - if this is the case, why does it not pay for itself?

It has no added benefit to the individual. It won't do what it claims to do. In effect, it is an extra tax - one which the conservatives, as the current opposition, and a party which claims to value a lower tax economy, should be opposing.

The idea seems one that is fraught with difficulties. The UK government does not have a good history of implementing large secure systems. Witness the passports debacle of a few years ago. With one über-database there will be much difficulty when the inevitable mistakes happen. If, as will happen, someone is labelled as a convicted paedophile, it will be incredibly difficult to undo this – the authoritative database says it is so, therefore it must be true.

ID cards are also liable to lead to a false sense of security, which can be more dangerous than no security at all.

Bruce Schneier, a well known and respected security consultant based in the US, recently wrote cogently for United Press International about security issues relevant to the World Series:

http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2004/10/world_series_se.html "ID checks don't make sense. Everyone has an ID. Even the 9/11 terrorists had IDs. What we want is to somehow check intention; is the person going to do something bad? But we can't do that, so we check IDs instead. It's a complete waste of time and money, and does absolutely nothing to make us safer".

I would strongly suggest that you read the rest of this article.

There has been no obvious reasoned response by either government or opposition to the points raised at: http://www.no2id.net/ and elsewhere, such as by liberty (director of liberty: Shami Chakrabarti ) http://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/privacy/id-cards.shtml

The only argument I've heard for ID cards that is hard to refute is "If you have nothing to hide…", and this is hard to refute simply because it is tough to know where to start!

Along with many other topics, this issue makes the conservatives look more and more irrelevant at the moment. Why? They simply seem to be rubber stamping any half thought out idea of this government, such as the rolling use of the anti terror legislation against protestors.

I would dearly like to know, with concrete reasoning, why the conservatives seem to be supporting these proposals.

Yours Sincerely

etc...

Lighter Evenings

With regard to the Lighter Evenings Bill, I have had this letter from Nigel Beard MP (more than my own MP, who when written to on two issues, responds to one).

Nigel Beard MP, BexleyHeath and Crayford, House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA

Dear Mr. XXX

You kindly contacted me to offer support for the Lighter Evenings Bill, which was scheduled to have its Second Reading in the House of Commons on Friday 15 October 2004. Unfortunately, parliamentary time did not permit my Bill to be heard and so it slips off the schedule for this parliamentary session.

However, I am genuinely pleased with the response from members of the public that the Lighter Evenings Bill has generated and the publicity that has been gained for the idea of advancing our time one hour throughout the year.

There has been an additional benefit as well, in that during the course of the Bill, it has become clear that current Scottish hostility to this issue is based on incorrect information put out at the time of Sir John Butterfill's British Time (Extra Daylight) Bill in 1996 by the then Conservative Scottish Secretary, Michael Forsyth MP. He implied that the traffic casualty reductions resulting from a move to Central European Time (CET) would only apply to England and Wales, despite evidence to the contrary provided by the Transport Research Laboratory. Although the Scottish Executive have now recognised that CET would lead to 60 fewer deaths and serious injuries in Scotland, the comments by Michael Forsyth set the antagonistic climate of opinion in Scotland which still endures.

I am pleased to tell you that the Government are now re-examining the idea of moving our clocks forward. For this reason, it would be very useful if you were to write a brief letter to the minister responsible for time zones, Mr Gerry Sutcliffe, to express your support for Lighter Evenings. His address and title are: Mr Gerry Sutcliffe MP, Minister for Employment Relations, Competition and Consumers, DTI, V860 - 1 Victoria Street, London, SW1H OET.

To maintain momentum, it would also be wonderful if you were to write to local or national newspapers in preparation for the clocks going back on 31st October 2004.

Finally, if you are keen on getting more involved, then you might be interested to know about an organisation called Longer Day UK. This organisation is run by Noel Stevenson on a voluntary basis, and he has been very proactive in lobbying for my Bill. Mr Stevenson is attempting to create a network of interested individuals throughout the country who might be willing to form a grassroots lobby on this issue and he can be contacted by email on: ns@proconsul.xxxx, or by phone on: 020 8874 xxxx. details removed

Best wishes and many thanks for your support.

Yours sincerely,

Nigel Beard