Archive for the 'bureaucracy' Category

Nick Clegg on DRIP


I used WriteToThem to write to Nick Clegg, my MP; asking him how he intended to vote on the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill. He didn’t say. But he did make this reply:

Thank you for your email regarding the Data Retention and Investigation Powers Bill.

The bill ensures that critical capabilities to fight crime and protect the public are maintained; it clarifies existing law without extending current powers. Interception and access to communications data are critical to the ability of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies to fight crime and protect the public. Furthermore, the bill makes clear that anyone providing a communications service to customers in the UK, regardless of where that service is provided from, should comply with lawful requests made under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. It also replaces the current Regulations under which domestic companies can be required to retain certain types of communications data for up to 12 months, so this may later be acquired by law enforcement and used in evidence. In addition, the bill will introduce further safeguards for the use of investigatory powers, building on our already stringent regime, to respond to criticisms raised by the European Court of Justice. If we fail to act immediately, there would be a critical gap in our investigative capabilities.

As a Liberal Democrat I believe that successive governments have neglected civil liberties as they claimed to pursue greater security. There is a real risk that we will suddenly be deprived of the legitimate means by which we keep people safe. Liberty and security must go hand in hand; we cannot enjoy our freedom if we are unable to keep ourselves safe. I therefore believe there is an urgent challenge facing us. As the Prime Minister has set out, we face the very stark prospect that powers we have taken for granted in the past, will no longer be available to us in the coming weeks.

Communications data and lawful intercept are now amongst the most useful tools available to us to prevent violence and bloodshed on Britain’s streets. Vital to the work of the police and the agencies is lawful intercept, which allows them to look, under warrant, at specific communications between individuals, who may be planning plots, and without retained communications data, we wouldn’t, for example, be able to piece together the web of relationships between members of the organised crime gangs responsible for trafficking drugs and vulnerable children and adults into our country.

It must be crucially noted that this bill has nothing to do with the so-called ‘Snooper’s Charter’. That was a Home Office proposal to store every website you’ve ever visited for a whole year. I blocked that last year and I’ve blocked every further attempt to bring it back. Moreover, this bill is about maintaining existing capabilities, not creating new powers. The legislation will restore the data retention powers we had before, but amend the law to do it in a more proportionate way, and it will help companies which currently provide assistance with UK intercept warrants to continue to do so.

Most importantly, I have only agreed to this emergency legislation because we can use it to kick-start a proper debate about freedom and security in the internet age. In the post-Snowdon age, people are, rightly demanding to know more about what the state does on our behalf. There are fundamental questions to be asked about the scope of existing powers; about whether the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act has kept pace with technology; about how nation states grapple with a global internet; and about how we continue to protect security, privacy and liberties while safeguarding our security. We cannot answer these big questions on the hoof, and that is why I’ve insisted that the legislation only extends the existing powers for a temporary period. We’ve inserted a termination clause in the bill that means the legislation falls at the end of 2016, so the next government is forced to look again at these big issues.

Moreover, we will introduce new checks and balances to protect privacy and civil liberties for the future. We will establish, for the first time, a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board on the American model to ensure that Civil Liberties are properly considered in the formulation of government policy on counter-terrorism. We will radically cut the number of public bodies who have the right to approach phone and internet companies for your data. I don’t believe, for example, that local councils should unilaterally be able to access your communications data. From now on, councils will need to justify their requests first to a central body, and then a magistrate, and will not be able to approach phone and internet companies directly.

We will take practical steps to improve the accountability and transparency of our laws, by publishing regular transparency reports, listing new details about exactly how many warrants are issued, by whom, and for what purposes. The public will know more about how and why surveillance powers are administered on their behalf than ever before.

We have been working on this bill on a cross-party basis to achieve a balanced package which restores necessary powers while at the same time taking big new steps to defend our civil liberties.

I hope that this helps to answer your concerns. Please do not hesitate to get in touch again on this matter.

Yours sincerely,

Nick Clegg MP


Extreme Pedantry For The Win!


Last month I got a Penalty Charge Notice from Islington. I am the registered keeper of the vehicle in this alleged contravention:

A car, going the wrong side of a "keep left" sign.

I think normally I would’ve just sucked it up and paid the fine, but… they caught me in the wrong mood. Clearly the street furniture is arranged so as to maximise ticketing revenue from tourists. This appears immediately after a left-turn to enter the road. In the first picture (left) the brakes are on; the car is stopped because the driver is wondering how to interpret this fantastic and unusual display of road furniture. Locals will know about already and just drive around.

I wrote the following letter:

I have received a Penalty Charge Notice from Islington.

“LLATLA 2003” is a reference to primary legislation London Local Authorities and Transport for London Act 2003.

On reviewing the relevant legislation I find that Islington fail to meet their statutory obligations with regard to the penalty charge notice (LLATLA 2003 Section 4 subection (8)).  I find that:
– there is failure to state the grounds on which Islington believe that the penalty charge is payable.  In particular, Islington should state whether their belief is that Section 4 subsection (5)(a) applies, or Section 4 subsection (5)(b) applies (referring to LLATLA 2003).  I am content that Section 4 subsection (7) does not apply;
– there is failure to state that the person on whom the notice is served may be entitled to make representations under paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 of LLATLA 2003;
– there is failure to specify the form in which any such representations are to be made.

If Islington intends to pursue this matter further, please send a revised penalty charge notice.

Today I got a letter from Steven Prieditis, Correspondence and Appeals Office, Islington Council. There’s some blurb, and then:

Due to an error when issuing the PCN thsi ticket has been cancelled.



I’m actually slightly disappointed. In the (now cancelled) PCN they allege: “Failing to drive in the direction shown by the arrow on a blue sign”.

That contravention did not take place. Referring to diagram 606 of The Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002, we can plainly see that the alleged offence would be failing to observe a sign like this:


“vehicular traffic must proceed in the direction indicated by the arrow”.

You can just about make out the blue sign in the pictures at the top of the article. It’s this:


(Diagram 610 of the regulations). And the description of that sign is “vehicular traffic must comply with the requirements prescribed in regulation 15” (of The Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002).

Wrong sign. Didn’t happen.

PS I hereby license you to do whatever you like with the letter I wrote.

Ofsted: satisfactory doublethink


Maybe you’ve read the BBC article “how maths teaching is not good enough”? Perhaps you should read the Oftsted report. Perhaps I should.

41% of the maths teaching (in secondary schools) is satisfactory. The tone of the news article is that this is not good enough.

This is characterised by the section headline in the Ofsted report (section 26): «What is not good enough about ‘satisfactory’ teaching?»

I have news for Ofsted. “satisfactory” means almost the same thing as “good enough”. If you’re not satisfied with “satisfactory” teaching, then you set your assessment criteria incorrectly. How unsatisfactory.

Quality Improvement Agency, improving the 404


I know I shouldn’t. It’s silly to mock quangoes. But I just couldn’t resist.

Check out the Quality Improvement Agency’s 404:

Quality. Got to have that 404 displayed in Rockwell Bold. Outline. What the heck is «http://404» anyway?

I was going to mock them for the hilarious graphic, amongst other things, in this press release. Most excellent.

DEFRA promotes bovine TB in herds


Farming Link is a magazine published by DEFRA. I assume it is sent to all DEFRA registered farmers (in the UK in order to receive money under the Single Payment Scheme you must be the registered owner of entitled land; DEFRA probably uses this list or something similar).

August’s edition is hot off the press and contains an article that introduces the gamma interferon test (for bovine tuberculosis). This article correctly identifies the major benefit of the gamma interferon test, namely higher sensitivity compared to the skin test. Sensitivity is the proportion of infections that are identified as positive according to the test. So the gamma interferon test correctly identifies more infections than the skin test. The appendices of Specificity Trial of the BOVIGAM® IFN-Gamma Test in GB Cattle give a sampling of figures for sensitivity: around 77% for skin test; around 88% for gamma interferon.

Currently in some situations it is up to the farmer whether a herd should be tested using the more sensitive gamma interferon test or the traditional skin test. Carl Padgett, president of the British Cattle Veterinary Association, is quoted as saying “If you have a herd with a brand new infection, you want to get rid of that infection as quickly as possible before it spills over to neighbouring farms or into the local wildlife population. So you want to take out as many animals as possible that might be infected rather than keeping them in the herd”. Sounds like jolly good advice to me.

But then the article goes on to say that in some herds with recurrent TB problems “the [gamma interferon] test may pick out more infected cattle than the standard skin test”. Well yeah, it’s more sensitive, that’s what it’s supposed to do. The articles says that in these circumstances the gamma interferon “might not be in the farmer’s interests”. In other words DEFRA is saying that because the skin test leaves more infected animals in the herd it could be better for the farmer; the farmer will have to replace fewer heifers (expense) and therefore should opt for skin test. In any case I don’t really buy the expense argument. Animals that test positive are compensated for at the market rates, isn’t there an equivalence between money and heifers? Isn’t this what economics is about?

What is DEFRA’s agenda here? Reducing bovine TB, or minimising the number of positive animals it has to purchase?

Background Checks For Our Corporate Citizens


Before people are employed it is routine to do some sort background check on them. Most employers would check a candidate’s references before going ahead and employing. Some jobs (or perhaps employers) have more involvd background checks than others. Applicants to be local government positions, for example, are required to disclose any previous convictions. Jobs that involve working with children require a CRB check.

I think we should extend this background checking principle to corporations that we contract with. For example, when a school contracts with a caterer it should check that the caterer has not been convicted of pushing alcohol at kids; when government buys software perhaps it could check and see whether the vendor has been convicted of running an illegal monopoly in multiple countries.

I’m looking at you Microsoft.

Stupid Password, Stupid Sign-in


I was going to write a longer article about stupid password requirements and other sign-in annoyances, but Jared Spool beat me to it.

Instead here’s a contribution from ourHer Majesty’s Government:


I had to shrink the picture to fit. So in case you can’t read it, it says my password must be memorable and:

  • be between 8 and 12 characters
  • contain a combination of letters and numbers
  • contain two or more numbers which are separated by one or more letters
  • not contain spaces or the word ‘password’
  • not contain three adjacent letters or numbers the same (eg ‘aaa’ or ‘999’)

They commit mistake number 10. Too many requirements on the form of the password.

So, let’s pick a password. Naturally my first choice is “bob”. Typically I try and the use same password on all these stupid websites where I have to create an account; that way I have a hope of remembering what it is.

bob is too short, how about bobandbob? Oh no, must have numbers is as well.

bob777bob? Oh hold on, there’s a little logic exercise to solve: 2 or more numbers (check) which are separated by one or more letters. Oh no, 7 and 7 are separated by 7. Hmm. This is tricky. Maybe they should just suggest an example password and I’ll use that. The wording of this requirement is precise but confusing (it’s almost as if they translated the Java code into English). “Must have numbers with letters in between the numbers” would have been a clearer way to say it.

Aha, what about 7boooob7? Oh, damnit! 7bobbob7 it is then. Good job I wrote this blog post so I can refer to it when I want my password again.

At least they didn’t commit mistake number 9 and hide all these complex requirements. Unlike Livejournal, which only reveals that your password must contain a number when you reset it via e-mail. If they told me my password had to contain a number when I got it wrong, that would give me a clue as to what it is.

This sin committed by a lot of these websites that require an account is pride. They think they’re important enough for me to care about their website. So that I might actually forgive the annoying user interface and arbitrary requirements. Whereas the reality is that it’s just another tedious annoying hoop to be jumped through just to get on with whatever it was I was trying to do (get a new driving licence because I have moved house, in my case).

Filling in the CRB form


The Criminal Records Bureau’s Disclosure Application Form seems to be a fairly typical form. It’s one of those forms where the onus is on the you to fill it in with every detail correct and if you get anything wrong then they Just Say No. There’s no advantage to them (the CRB) to say “yes”, so they may as well just say no at the slightest mistake or deviation. Better be careful then.

The wording in these forms often arouses the pedantic mathematician in me. And not always in a good way.

Field 20, Section C: “Surname at birth (if different)”. Clearly if I had a different surname at birth I am supposed to write my surname at birth in this field. What am I supposed to do if it was the same? Am I at liberty to write whatever I like in the field?

Fields 28 and 29 are the “Town/City” and “County/District” for my “Place of Birth”; “Please enter town/city names and county/district names in full as recorded on your Birth Certificate”, I am advised. Amusingly, it turns out that my Birth Certificate doesn’t record my place of birth. Nor does it record anything called a Town, City, or County.

The form is booby trapped. Section E, Addition information, asks for things like marital status, bank account details, and has one of those classic false dichotomies: “Cross ONE box only: Employed, Self Employed, Part-time Employed, Unemployed, Student, Other”. One could easily be Employed, Self Employed, Part-time Employed and a Student; that being the case, which box is one supposed to cross? This is all irrelevant however, Section E should not be filled in, as advised by “An Applicant’s Guide to Completing the CRB Application Form”. Nor should section F. Obviously. (The front of the form says “Please complete section A-H in BLOCK CAPITALS”).

Good job I’m a human and not a robot.