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No national DNA database here thanks

By admin
January 18th, 2011 at 4:04 pm | 1 Comment | Posted in freedom, UK Politics

Labour MP Kerry McCarthy recently called for all men in Bristol to have their DNA screened in the hope of discovering the murderer of Jo Yeates. Fortunately, it seems that the police have more sense than McCarthy does, and her proposal will not be implemented. Given the costs and practical difficulties of testing thousands of people for the purpose of solving just one criminal case, such a suggestion is clearly unrealistic in practical terms.

However, some argue that if a compulsory national DNA database of every UK citizen was established, far more cases where DNA evidence is left at the scene of the crime could be solved, as the DNA from the crime scene could be matched to the database. This would probably not work as smoothly in practice, and the potential benefits are usually over-stated: DNA evidence has sometimes resulted in wrongful convictions, and multiple matches on DNA databases are often returned. Compiling the database would also be very expensive. But regardless of the effectiveness of a compulsory national DNA database, it should be opposed as a matter of principle by anyone who believes that the state should pay any attention at all to respecting our privacy.

Our DNA is perhaps the ultimate symbol of our individual identity. It can reveal information about us which even we ourselves are not aware of – such as our susceptibility to certain diseases. If we have no right to restrict the state from holding our genetic information (assuming that we have not committed a crime), then we cannot logically be seen as having a right to any privacy at all, and any principled case for upholding our civil liberties must be abandoned. A fundamental liberal value is that the state is the servant, rather than the master of the individual; the creation of a compulsory national DNA database would imply a complete reversal of this notion.

Furthermore, a national DNA database could potentially be turned into a tool of vast oppression. While catching criminals is the standard justification, there is no guarantee that its use would remain limited to this (illegitimate, but not in itself critically threatening) function. Historians such as Jon Agar have noted a tendency of ‘function creep’ in the use of identification technologies; personal information often ends up being used in ways markedly different from those for which it was originally intended. Over the next few decades, scientists look set to make enormous progress in determining which specific genes contribute to various human traits. If the genetic associations of psychopathy or paedophilia (or a number of other characteristics) are determined, I imagine that the majority of people, without fully considering the implications for liberty, would support the state revealing to the general public who has such genes. I also imagine popular support for taking pre-emptive action against people with certain genes; for example, those with a gene associated with paedophilia might be banned from working with children. Once you accept such a principle, the power of the state is effectively unrestricted. Any future government that wished to control which people should and should not reproduce would certainly find a national DNA database very useful indeed.

I was opposed to Labour’s plans for ID cards for many reasons, but one significant reason why I felt it was such an important issue is that I feared that a national DNA database could soon follow. Thankfully, the coalition government have abandoned the ID cards scheme and have also recognised that the state has no right to store the DNA of those who have not been convicted of any crime. But McCarthy’s recent call should remind us that such illiberal principles are still supported, and we must remain vigilant against the potential threat posed by DNA databases and other technologies of identification.

Post by Simon Rigelsford


Socialist pundit ‘cannot afford’ living wage

By Andy Mayer
January 18th, 2011 at 2:10 pm | 2 Comments | Posted in Labour, The Human Condition

Whilst we rarely comment on the minutiae of blog wars, the latest Guido Fawkes (libertarian) versus Laurie Penny (socialist) bust up over whether she’s breached her own principles by advertising an intern job marginally under the minimum wage, and well below the ‘living wage‘ she supports imposing on businesses, has yielded the following unintentional insight 

PennyRed Laurie Penny @OllyDeed because I don’t make much more than minimum wage myself. If I could pay the living wage without bankrupting myself, I would.”

Well yes… that’s the point isn’t it… the problem with the Living Wage… is that if applied coercively to internships and other jobs on the margins of the employment sector… it that those opportunities cease to exist. This helps neither employer or wanabe employee.

Where the minimum wage is set too high the impact similarly is to reduce the number of jobs available below minimum wage. This is quite a problem in France where the long term consequences, along with other labour market  interventions, have been high rates of youth unemployment.

Better surely to let supply and demand determine wages and tackle genuine exploitation by exposing bad employers to publicity. Something Miss Penny appears not to be enjoying today.

Minimum impact legislating – for your own good

By Andy Mayer
January 18th, 2011 at 12:44 pm | 2 Comments | Posted in health, Lifestyle Products, Nudge Dredd

I have a modest proposal. In future all regulation and legislation should be subject to a minimum impact threshold. Where either does precisely nothing of any value to anyone beyond generating mindless bureaucracy to service it, it should be quietly binned, and the minister or civil servant responsible along with it.

This surely is the only way we can tackle the blight of legischolism,  a cruel disease unhappily prevalent amongst politicians of all stripes, that sees sufferers reach for the easy comfort of activity it the hope it will relieve the cravings of interest groups. The temporary respite it affords usually result in far deeper cravings later and gradual deterioration in the condition of the nation until there is chronic economic failure.

Today’s announcementof proposals for minimum alcohol pricing, something the SNP failed to impose in Scotland thanks to heroic opposition from everyone else, has been attacked on all sides as pointless.

Crudely, the level of 24p for beer and 28p for spirits means no legal alcohol can be sold below the cost of the VAT and duty imposed. This on the basis that higher prices restrict people’s ability to drink to excess. Booze however, like most socially and chemically addictive products, impacts us all differently, and in the main demand is inelastic. It takes large changes in price over time to impact consumption. This proposal though does not impact price, it provides the framework to do so in future.

It will not impact demand. If raised in future it will mainly impact low income social drinkers.

Further next to no drinks are sold in the UK at a cost to the retailer. Those that are sold below tax price tend to be from the back of white vans rolling off the Eurostar. These are not retail outlets that comply with the law, and can be linked to organised crime.

It will not impact legal supply, and if raised in future it will largely benefit criminals.

For the 2-6% minority who display a tendency to dependency (alcoholics), demand is very price-insentive. An addict, in denial of their disease, will turn to illicit sources and petty crime to fund a habit they cannot otherwise afford. We can see this in levels of crime associated with prohibited drugs. Addiction cannot be legislated away, it largely rests of the willingness and willpower of the addicted to avoid their poison.

Whether raised or not it wil not help sufferers  tackle alcohol addiction.

I am generally sympathetic to the notion that the social costs of alcohol require a sin tax. For that we have duty, and duty imposed at such a level that like tobacco revenue it already excedes all but the wildest estimates of what that social cost might be. We do not in that regard need new instruments. The issue of discounted booze is principally a competiton matter between supermarkets, retailers, and pubs. It should be dealt with through current competition law.

Taxes should be simple. The law as stands is perfectly adequate to tackle unfair competition.

In conclusion I might understand this move from a Labour government. Nanny knows best and let’s prove our worth through laws were staples of the last regime. But this coalition came together promising such things as one in/one out regulation. This proposition sits entirely at odds with that principle.

Let us hope if the Commons are too addicted to the legimania that leads to this kind of gesture politics, that the Lords will help them kick the habit… for their own good.

Unpredictable reform

By Andy Mayer
January 17th, 2011 at 10:42 pm | Comments Off on Unpredictable reform | Posted in health, Public Sector Reform

It is unlikely the Prime Minister’s cliché-ridden speech today will go down in any anthology of great political rhetoric. It was at any rate reported mainly in the context of a story about groups representing powerful vested interests expressing concern their power would be diluted, prior to the release of a Health White Paper, later this week, that will suggest diluting their power.

The speech was wider that, it attempted to paint a picture of what the Coalition government will be doing to ‘modernise’ public services across the board. Broadly more opportunities for user choice, professional innovation, competition between providers, transparency, and devolution of control. Things we welcome, and that will largely only be opposed by those for whom any retreat from public sector purity runs the risk of actually improving services.

One criticism hurled at the proposals for example from the British Medical Association, a trade union for doctors, is that the outcome of reform is unpredictable, much like receiving treatment from their members. And this as opposed to the entirely predictable decline of British health provision relative to the rest of the OECD where such ‘modernisation’ has been common practice for decades.

Where possible competition and choice in any service are important drivers of innovation and productivity. Planning services by diktat or committee may hold an appeal for some members of the BMA, who perhaps suffer the medic’s delusion of perfect foresight. However there is no reason to believe that this works any better for health and education than it did in the old Soviet tractor factories.

Innovation and service improvement relies on people behaving unpredictably, entrepreneurially, thinking and acting differently. It relies on organisations have the flexibility and responsiveness to identify change that works and implement it in their own way, sensitive to the needs of their own users. It doesn’t generally happen through political consensus building by strategic authorities and national pay bargaining.

It would be good if the government would consider going further, perhaps re-examining systems that incentivise people to put more of the own money into their services. Whilst the left scream queue-jumping and fairness. The consequence of creating large walls between what is free and what can be bought, is that less money goes into services, whilst that which does is inefficiently allocated.

What I do think will be fascinating is how the BBC handle these changes in their flagship Casualty and Holby City franchises. Whatever happens in the political debate, public perceptions will in no small part be driven by popular media. Perceptions of crime levels for example are quite close to those painted by soap operas, rather than reality. Cameron might, in that regard, be wise to speed up plans to privatise parts of the Beeb before getting too radical with the rest.

Oldham – thoughts for Lib Dems

By Angela Harbutt
January 15th, 2011 at 9:01 pm | 2 Comments | Posted in Liberal Democrats

One serious omission from my previous post on Oldham. Norman Lamb (in the studio) and Tim Farron (at the Count) both gave stellar performances for the Lib Dems on the night (on the BBC’s by election programme).

Norman has long been a trusted friend of Lib Dem leaders and has a style and personality that makes him easily likeable. That possibly makes it all to easy to forget just how effective he really is in combative situations. I am sure he has many and important tasks within the Coalition – but why he is not given a more prominent role facing the public? He is easily one of the most effective advocates the Coalition has. Get this man out there. More. Now.

Tim Farron is likewise a class act. We have praised him on several occassions on this blog – his quality shines out- and whilst our support ultimately went to Susan during the election of President, I for one think that few, if any, could have done  a better job than Tim on the night. If he continues in this vein, and uses his many skills to support Nick and the party in coalition, then he will have my support all day long. Great job.

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