26 February 2011

Alcohol Needs a Less Dangerous Competitor

Millions of people in the UK (including myself) will get wasted on alcohol this evening. There's something inherent in humans (primates?) that makes being intoxicated an insatiable desire.

For many of us, it will be reasonably harmless fun, or at least nothing that a few ibuprofen, glasses of water and rashers of bacon in the morning won't sort out. In the process, many of us will make new friends, or improve the bond between existing friendships. Some of us will meet someone we end up falling in love with, and some of us will get laid.

But with all this, there are some serious downsides. A significant number of us will end up in hospital after an alcohol-fuelled attack, or spend the night in a police cell after being induced into violence. There will probably be a few deaths on the road caused by drunk driving. And in the long term, more and more of us are binging on alcohol too often, which is leading to higher rates of liver disease, as well as causing dependency and addiction.

Most of us know about these risks, but our instinctive enjoyment of inebriation makes the risks worth it. But that in turn means all these significant social costs won't go away unless there's a significant policy change that shifts society's relationship with alcohol.

The medical establishment's attempt to see minimum alcohol pricing didn't stand a chance up against the alcohol industry's powerful lobbying. Anything that could reduce our ability to get hold of our beloved alcohol is a hard sell politically, as our centreground-chasing politicians are terrified to do anything that will hit the wallets or lifestyles of swing voters in marginal constituencies. I admit experience shows that what I am about to suggest won't be any easier politically.

Those of us who seek inebriation tonight have little choice in the drug we take. Alcohol is the only legal means we have to artificially induce euphoria. The other options have been made illegal, which means tracking down a drug dealer and buying substances of unknown chemical composition, with the risk of getting caught and having the full weight of the law come down on you. Millions of (normally young) people every year take that extra risk, but a big majority of us don't.

However, given the huge problems alcohol will hand to the police and paramedics tonight, isn't there a better drug we could all be taking? I think there is.

Ecstasy is less toxic, less addictive and kills its users at a lower rate when compared to alcohol. The latest research (caution: only one trial) suggests that ecstasy may not have the negative effect on the brain that was once thought. Instead of making us violent towards each other, it would make us empathetic and 'loved up'.

This means there would lead to less violent crime and anti-social behaviour, and less pressure on health resources if users switched drugs.

However, it would mean users switching substances. Alcohol and ecstasy simply don't mix. Alcohol takes away from the stimulant effect of ecstasy, but both drugs place a great strain on the kidneys and can cause dehydration and overheating, so taken together compounds the immediate health risks. This in turn would mean the alcohol lobby would pile all its resources from stopping this from happening, because ecstasy would be a major rival to its substance-monopoly in the recreational drug market. The Daily Mail et al would also be morally outraged (for profit) at the mere thought of this.

I want to be clear:

• Whilst ecstasy remains illegal, I wouldn't suggest going near it. You don't know what's in it, and you don't want to give your money to criminals, or end up with a criminal record yourself. Sadly I doubt anyone who takes illegal drugs will ever bother heeding these sorts of warnings.

• I'm not advocating a switch of legal status of alcohol. That doesn't tend to work out too well.

• I'm also not suggesting that all alcohol users would be better using ecstasy. They are different drugs that induce different effects. Alcohol is primarily a depressant, whereas ecstasy is a stimulant. The issue is that alcohol at the moment is being used as a stimulant drug, which is having the negative consequences we see in our town centres at weekends. Frankly, many revellers would be better off taking ecstasy than alcohol.

In conclusion, my question is this:

When alcohol is a more dangerous and antisocial drug than ecstasy, why is ecstasy illegal?

I know which I'd rather be taking tonight.

18 February 2011

William Hague: Reckless or Dishonest?

William Hague, today:
[AV] is the worst of all worlds. Even if one was going to embark on changing the electoral system this would certainly not be the system to move to.

You can argue for the current system, as I do, on the grounds that it is decisive. In the vast majority of elections it produces a clear decisive result with the party getting the most votes in the country becoming the government. Or you can argue legitimately for a proportional system, as in Germany for instance, where the seats won by the parties in Parliament is in pretty strict accordance with the votes received in the country.

The trouble with the Alternative Vote system is it's neither of those. It could produce - it is likely to produce if enacted - election results which are more indecisive, or more disproportionate, or even both at the same time, and be more complex and expensive to operate into the bargain.

So it is the worst of every world.

Then why are we having a referendum on this "worst of all worlds"AV system?

William Hague, May 10th 2010:
In the interests of trying to create a stable, secure government we will go the extra mile and we will offer to the Liberal Democrats, in a coalition government, the holding of a referendum on the Alternative Vote system, so that the people of this country can decide what the best electoral system is for the future.

That's right, it's the Conservatives' negotiating team who chose the referendum to be on AV. Hague was one of the "top four" negotiators for the Conservatives.

So why did he pick a referendum on AV when he could have picked a more "legitimate" proportional system? The Lib Dems would undoubtedly grabbed at the chance of a referendum on PR.

There are two possibilities:

1. Hague deliberately risked our country being subjected to what he considers to be the worst possible electoral system. This is a profoundly reckless attitude to our democracy.

2. Hague actually prefers AV to PR, which is why the referendum is on AV. This makes his comments today deeply dishonest.

I think number 2 is far more likely to be the explanation. The truth is that the Tories would be content with AV, but will say anything to keep hold of their precious FPTP system that many others despise.

16 February 2011

AV has Something for Everyone

Another argument from No2AV is that the Alternative Vote is a 'voting system that nobody wants'.

This isn't true. Labour's manifesto [pdf] pledged a referendum on AV on the basis that the system will "ensure that every MP is supported by the majority of their constituents voting at each election".

Press a No2AV supporter on this and they'll explain that they meant to say is that it wasn't in either of the Coalition partners' manifestos.

This is true. The Conservatives have long advocated keeping the current First Past The Post system, whereas the Liberal Democrats have long campaigned for a move to the proportional Single Transferable Vote system.

These two systems have two key distinctions:

• FPTP takes place in single member constituencies, where one MP is elected to represent all the people in the area. STV would have multi-member constituencies, where multiple MPs would be elected that would represent a wider variety of views of people over a bigger area.

• FPTP requires the voter to mark their ballot for one candidate only, and the most votes wins. STV allows the voter to rank several candidates in order of preference so that the winners have a bigger consensus.

AV shares features of both FPTP and STV - it has the single winner feature of FPTP and the preferential ballots feature of STV. While AV is not seen as the perfect system for the Tories or the Lib Dems, it has features which both parties like.

Yes, this does make AV a miserable little compromise. But compromise is a good thing when it means everyone getting a bit of what they want. It is blatantly fairer than one side having it all their own way.

14 February 2011

The Daily Mail's Reckless Association of Homosexuality and Paedophilia

I'm not going to go into the rights and wrongs of Dr Hans-Christian Raabe's farcical appointment-then-sacking from the ACMD. For good summary of the background to this story, see Mark Easton. It suffices to say that it appears Dr Raabe was sacked for writing a paper that links homosexuality to paedophilia. As Tom Chivers explains, there is no link:

The University of California’s psychology department does a very good “facts about homosexuality and child molestation” section, and I’ve taken the following from there. First, the idea of “homosexual [or heterosexual] paedophiles” is not really an accepted one in psychological circles: “many child molesters cannot be meaningfully described as homosexuals, heterosexuals, or bisexuals (in the usual sense of those terms) because they are not really capable of a relationship with an adult man or woman. Instead of gender, their sexual attractions are based primarily on age. These individuals – who are often characterized as fixated – are attracted to children, not to men or women.”

Further, among those who are not solely attracted to children – those known as “regressed” child molesters – seem to be no more likely to be homosexual than the rest of the populace.

Sadly, it is still common to associate the two, despite the evidence. Paedophilia is clearly immoral behaviour, so it is up to those who value honest, factual reporting to counter the damaging myth that it is an any way linked to homosexuality.

Unfortunately the Daily Mail (and its Sunday sister paper) can't be relied on to provide such reporting. Their 'journalists' James Slack, Iain Drury, James Tozer, Stephen Glover, Peter Hitchens and Melanie Phillips have all written articles on Dr Raabe. All the articles mention his 'research', often uncritically pronouncing his work as 'academic' or 'scientific'. An unsceptical reader would be left with the clear impression that there is a clear evidence showing a link between homosexuality and paedophilia, when there is no such link. I consider this to be reckless.

In particular, Peter Hitchens and Melanie Phillips attempts to add more credence to this link by citing a government report. On Sunday, Hitchens wrote:

Who said these words? ‘Approximately 20 to 33 per cent of child sexual abuse is homosexual in nature.’ I will tell you.

It was the Home Office, on Page 14 of Sex Offending Against Children: Understanding The Risk, published by the Policing and Reducing Crime Unit in 1998. I have a copy.

You can have a copy too. The document is available on the Home Office website [pdf]. The specific words cited by Hitchens and Phillips are simply referencing a paper called ‘The heterogeneity/homogeneity of pedophilia’, a study from 1988. So what we have here is a single 23-year-old study. That's all Hitchens and Phillips are using, albeit with a drizzling of irony that the Home Office happens to have mentioned this paper (once, 13 years ago).

The aforementioned University of California's page on the subject has far more citations, including literature reviews that incorporate many more studies. The overall body of evidence shows there's no link. The science shows that sexual attraction to children is a different phenomenon to sexual attraction to adults (male or female).

That's why the same Home Office report cited by Hitchens and Phillips explicitly states in the very same paragraph:

Individual studies must be viewed cautiously before generalising from them.

The Daily Mail's inability to exercise such caution is likely to spread homophobic views amongst its readership.

11 February 2011

Freedom Bill - Now and Then

Two years ago, the Liberal Democrats launched a draft Freedom Bill.

Today, the Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister announced a real-life Freedom Bill.

Let's go through the 2009 list of measures to see how progress is going:

• Scrap ID cards for everyone, including foreign nationals - Already scrapped by the Coalition, but for British nationals only.

• Ensure that there are no restrictions in the right to trial by jury for serious offences including fraud - In the Bill.

• Restore the right to protest in Parliament Square, at the heart of our democracy - Fail.

• Abolish the flawed control orders regime - Already replaced by 'Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures'.

• Renegotiate the unfair extradition treaty with the United States. - Fail.

• Restore the right to public assembly for more than two people. - Fail.

• Scrap the ContactPoint database of all children in Britain. - Already scrapped by the Coalition.

• Strengthen freedom of information by giving greater powers to the information commissioner and reducing exemptions. - In the Bill.

• Stop criminalising trespass. - In the Bill.

• Restore the public interest defence for whistleblowers. - Fail.

• Prevent allegations of "bad character" from being used in court. - Fail.

• Restore the right to silence when accused in court. - Fail.

• Prevent bailiffs from using force. - Fail.

• Restrict the use of surveillance powers to the investigation of serious crimes and stop councils snooping. - In the Bill.

• Restore the principle of double jeopardy in UK law. - Fail.

• Remove innocent people from the DNA database. - The Bill makes good progress, but suspects of serious crimes could still have their DNA retained for three years.

• Reduce the maximum period of pre-charge detention to 14 days. - Permanently fixed in the Bill.

• Scrap the ministerial veto that allowed the government to block the release of cabinet minutes relating to the Iraq war. - Fail.

• Require explicit parental consent for biometric information to be taken from children. - In the Bill.

• Regulate CCTV following a Royal Commission on cameras. - No specific mention of a Royal Commission, but further regulation is in the Bill.

So out of 20 items on the original Lib Dem draft Bill, 8 are happening, 3 are happening in a limited form, but 9 have yet to see any progress.

The situation basically looks like this:

There are also several bonus freedoms that are to be restored in this Bill:

• It will be illegal for a vehicle to be clamped or towed away by anyone but the police.

• Restrictions on stop and search powers.

• The Vetting and Barring scheme will be scrapped.

• Old convictions involving consensual gay sex will be stripped from criminal records.

• There will be no more restrictions on the times when a marriage or civil partnership can take place.

And that's still not all. In 2012 the Ministry of Justice plan to introduce a Defamation Bill to reform our suffocating libel laws and a Repeal Bill to remove unnecessary laws from the statute.

Given that the Lib Dems didn't have any of this as their Top 4 priorities in their manifesto (much to my disappointment), I'm delighted we've made significant progress in all these areas. My only concern is that the Your Freedom website had little to nothing to do with any of programme, but perhaps the Repeal Bill will take more inspiration from the public suggestions.

No2AV are Quoting Irrelavent Australian Polling

The No2AV campaign are circulating the findings from an Australian opinion poll commissioned by the right-wing Insitute of Public Affairs. On the face of it, the findings are devastating for the Yes campaign:

More than half of Australians would support FPTP, according to a Newspoll. Only 37% favoured the current preferential system. #no2av
Bad news? Not exactly.

If you've been following the AV referendum polling done in the UK, you'll be aware that the wording used in the question can significantly alter the outcome.

This is the question [pdf] as asked by Newspoll. The emphasis in bold is theirs, not mine*:

Currently, elections for the Federal House of Representatives, or lower house, use a preferential voting system. This is where voters indicate an order of preferences for all candidates, and these preferences are taken into account when deciding which candidate wins. (PAUSE). An alternative system would be "first past the post", where voters only vote for one candidate and the candidate with the most votes wins. Would you personally prefer…?

1. A preferential system,
2. A first past the post system
The form of AV preferential system used in Australia forces voters to indicate a preference for every single voter. The form of AV that will could be used here in the UK won't have this feature. You will be able to indicate a preference for as many or as few candidates as you like.

Given that we won't "indicate an order of preferences for all candidates" if AV is adopted, it is wrong to suggest a poll that asks about an system where voters "indicate an order of preferences for all candidates" is relevant to our decision.

* I have quoted the question's text exactly as written and formatted in the poll's report. The poll was conducted over the telephone, so was read out by "fully trained and personally briefed interviewers". It is clear that the words emphasised in bold are intended to be emphasised when read out by the interviewer.