Category: Other

Reforming defamation law in Scotland

The Scottish Law Commission has issued a lengthy consultation paper on the reform of defamation law in Scotland, but I’ve only just seen it and the deadline for responses is set for tomorrow.  This is not my expertise (it’s forty years since I studied torts as part of English law, and I never used it)  and I’m not proposing to make a submission, but there  are issues of concern.  I don’t share the view of the Libel Reform Campaign that “Corporate bodies do not have a private life, personal identity or psychological integrity.” Clubs, societies and charities do have identity and integrity and may well depend very heavily on their reputations.  The law privileges  financial damage over other kinds of reputational damage, and that by comparison with the protection given to commercial traders there is a relative lack of protection for smaller, non-commercial groups, such as a mosque.

The main issue affecting the academic community is the potential suppression of scientific debate or criticism, most notoriously in the action taken against Simon Singh by the British Chiropractic Association.   There is an exemption made in the 2013 Defamation Act, but it only allows for material in peer-reviewed academic journals or conference proceedings.  (For those who don’t know it, academic books are peer-reviewed too – 13 of my books have been peer reviewed anonymously, 2 others were subject to an editorial board.)  The restrictions mean that academics have to rely substantially on defences of public interest and fair comment, and they are likely to be forced to fold long before they get that far.

Erdogan calls for more tortoises

Osman Hamdi Bey - The Tortoise Trainer.jpg
Kaplumbağa Terbiyecisi (The tortoise trainer), 1906

Turkey has been transformed during my lifetime, both in economic terms and in terms of people’s welfare.  In 1970, the average birth rate for each woman was 5.5, and the under-five mortality rate was 134 deaths for every 1000 children born. Now the fertility rate is 2.0, and there are 19 deaths per 1000.

The progressive improvements in welfare go a long way towards explaining the popularity of the ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP.  Income per capita has almost trebled during their time in office.  However, President Erdogan has been developing his own solution to Turkey’s traditional problem of governance – how to train tortoises.  Erdogan has expressed the view that any woman who does not have at least three children is “deficient” and “incomplete”.  There have to be more tortoises.

The right to be objectionable

I’ve had a protracted debate in the course of the last week with some of the new Puritans, who hold that people who don’t agree with them should be isolated, ostracised and silenced.   This approach is both illiberal and anti-academic.  I was interested, then, to see some ratings of UK universities by Spiked, who have constructed an index of Free Speech.  Of 115 universities surveyed, only 12 have substantially avoided censorship of objectionable opinions.

I don’t agree fully with Spiked’s position.  Their manifesto argues for the removal of all limits on speech, including hate-speech and libel, and that’s why I couldn’t sign it.  We should not underestimate the power that speech has to deny a voice to other people, and free speech should not extend to statements like “kill these people before they kill you”.  There’s also an implicit contradiction in advocating the freedom to shout down other people.

There’s a persuasive academic argument from Scanlon that free speech is a misrepresentation of the true right, which is not so much the right of speakers to express themselves as the right of the audience to hear and decide for themselves.  If the audience would be wrong to decide  – “let’s lynch this murderer” – it may well follow, depending on the context, that the person saying it does not have the right to express it.   The context does matter, however.  In the course of teaching theory and ethics in academic institutions, I’ve reviewed arguments for lots of unpalatable positions, including eating babies, corruption, letting poor people starve and torturing people. The academic world depends on dialogue and developing the skills to deal with contrary views; suppressing those arguments is anathema to learning.

Floods: the British press show their colours

Arthur Koestler wrote a book once about uncanny coincidences.  Late last night we were witness to an extraordinary conjunction of events:  three right-wing newspapers, the Mail,  the Telegraph and the Express, all decided, within a couple of hours of each other, to link the lack of flood prevention to the foreign aid budget.   This argument is so strange that it seems difficult to account for it by rational explanation.  The floods have been going on for some time, so the synchronicity is even more unsettling.  One might almost think they’d got together to decide to do it.

I’m not at all sure that the papers are in tune with their readers.  Some of us might imagine that the distressing and sometimes horrific experience of flooding might make us more sympathetic to the plight of vulnerable people abroad, who suffer floods in even worse state.   The papers got it wrong about the plight of refugees in the Mediterranean; they may well be wrong about this, too.

 

 

 

At liberty

Today is the last day of my employment with the Robert Gordon University.  I have been granted the title of Emeritus Professor, and have every intention of carrying on with my work.  I set up my own domain for the website and blog earlier this year.  For the moment, I have short books in progress – on poverty, the welfare state and social security – as well as long with some articles to place.

This should also mean that in principle, I should be able to take up other opportunities as they arise.  I’m open to proposals.

Does the Supreme Court know how to make sense?

I opted out of legal studies when I was still a student, choosing to a PhD in Social Administration instead, and my only legal qualification expired a long time ago, but on occasion I still like to dip a toe in the water.  I was intrigued enough by a debate reported by Mark Elliott to read a lecture by John Finnis on judicial power.   Finnis thinks the Belmarsh judgment was a ‘debacle’, comparable to the nonsense they got into when the House of Lords was reviewing attempts to do the  impossible. I agreed about the silly rule on impossible attempts, which was the law when I took the exams, so I wondered whether I might also agree about Belmarsh, and read the judgment front to back.   I don’t agree with Finnis, as it happens, but I think I can see the problem.

I’ve only read a handful of judgments like this, but all have followed the same process.  Up to nine judges offer individually written, considered arguments, most of which make sense in their own terms.  There will usually be a statement to the effect that they agree with a particular one of their number, but hardly anyone does what Lord Caswell did in Belmarsh, and stop after saying, more or less, that ‘I agree with that one’.

This process creates two immediate problems.   The first is a problem of over-inclusion. Each of the judges addresses a slightly different agenda.  The longest judgment, by Lord Bingham, addresses a long series of issues:  the statute, human rights law, international obligations, discrimination, public emergency, and proportionality.  In the eight judgements, all the judges consider human rights issues; all refer to the terms of the 2001 Act (which Finnis accuses them of not considering adequately); nearly all consider discrimination (one only indirectly); six consider the public emergency; five refer to proportionality.  The difficulty here is that even when judges are similar things in different words, it can be difficult to determine which is the best or clearest statement of the law.   When they say different things, it is impossible.

The second problem is a problem of exclusion.  Each of the Lords has arrived at an an individual judgment, and to do that they have had necessarily to select the issues that they consider to be most relevant and important.    Two judges thought it relevant to refer to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the others presumably did not.  It is much more difficult to spot the issues that no-one thought pursuing, but that is the substance of Finnis’s complaint – that there were further considerations in the statute and the Human Rights Act which ought to have been included too.

Both of these problems have a common root.  If the material was ordered thematically, instead of being argued one judge at a time, the contradictions, elisions and omissions would be evident; if there were visible gaps, they could be plugged.  The decisions of the Supreme Court are not the decisions of individual judges; they are decisions of the Court.  Unless and until they are stated collectively, they will never make sense.

 

I am leaving the Robert Gordon University

I have given my notice to the Robert Gordon University.  I plan to work independently, though I will be happy to consider any other opportunities that may arise. RGU gave me the opportunity, as Director for the Centre for Public Policy and Management, to engage with a varied range of practical projects in public administration, and I am grateful for that experience.

I moved my website  from the University this summer; to be sure that there would be no disruption to readers, I have paid for the domain and web hosting myself.  I hope to continue my work on the blog and the website in the future.

 

A petition for sanctuary for refugees

I signed a petition yesterday: No more drownings.  I don’t agree wholeheartedly with its terms, because it doesn’t go far enough: I think we should be offering a safe and permanent sanctuary to refugees, as Germany has now agreed to do, and the idea that it is somehow difficult to find eligible refugees is beyond parody.   The UK’s failure to respond to a mortal crisis is a disgrace.

I’m moving my website

I need to move my website, An introduction to social policy, from its home at Robert Gordon University.   I’ve taken steps to try to ensure that the materials on it won’t be lost in transit, and a  first step has been to build a mirror of the site here on the WordPress blog.  You’ll now find the website material in the links  on this site.  WordPress doesn’t use standard coding so this has taken a bit of work; if any links don’t work (there are certain to be some) please let me know.

In the longer term, I’ve registered an independent domain – www.spicker.uk – and made arrangements for private hosting, so I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to shift the primary website in the course of the next week or so.

Additional note, 7th July:  The new domain and website are now up and running, at http://www.spicker.uk/ .  Please change your bookmarks.

Further note, 26th July:  I have been doing a considerable amount of tweaking to make sure that everything gets directed to the new domain.  I have also prepared the blog for a move, and I am running two versions of the blog in parallel.  The new address, which works now, is at http://blog.spicker.uk/   People who get notice of the blog on Twitter,  Linkedin or Facebook will not really notice, but those who get e-mail updates or  RSS will need to sign up for the new feed.  I’ll  give plenty of notice before I do anything.

29th July:  I have been able to shift email subscribers automatically.  I’ve found however that I can’t redirect people from the wordpress.com site – the problem is that the two sites don’t have parallel structures  so I have to rely on posting notices there to come to the address over here instead.  If you’re reading this, you’re in the right place.

 

 

 

Why spend 2% of GDP on defence?

NATO’s guidelines ask its members to devote 2% of  GDP to defence spending, and currently there is a debate in the UK about whether spending plans are consistent with that.   Most NATO members don’t meet the 2% target;  it comes from a time when defence was about the prospect of a major land war in Europe, and as the prospect of such a war receded, most countries took advantage of the ‘peace dividend’ to wind down.  As it stands, the figure is difficult to defend – not because there may not be a case, but because it isn’t visibly related to  defence needs.  It seems fairly basic to public spending decisions that we ought to know what money is being spent on and what the spending is supposed to achieve.

It’s fairly unusual, in public policy, to start with a fixed amount of money and then to thrash around looking for ways to spend it.  Most spending starts with a set of commitments or  a recognisable set of demands or needs, and the purpose of budgeting is to try to do what’s necessary with the resources available. There is however a parallel in another field.  We are also committed to providing 0.7% in Official Development Assistance (ODA), and in recent years we’ve managed to do that.  ODA has been taking a battering from the political right, often for the same reasons that might lead to reservations about defence spending – the distribution of benefits  doesn’t seem to be related to the needs (why does so much go to Afghanistan and India?),  it’s not self-evident that the money is being spent on the right things, and it’s difficult to tell whether the money is being used to best effect.

The parallel is instructive.  Spending on ODA is  elective in its character – despite the international obligation, we can spend most of it as we think fit.   Whatever we spend, the problems of development are bigger than our capacity to deal with them, and we can only make a limited contribution.  In some ways, that’s liberating.  We don’t have to do the things we do in other forms of public spending – identify needs, assess the demand, or determine priorities.  It’s possible simply to do anything that seems effective and worthwhile.  If it turns out that ODA is not being used well in some cases, we can divert the money to other activities which work better, and there are plenty of those.   We’ve been refining these approaches  for some time, which is why ODA appears to be rather better used than many of its critics suppose.

Back to defence.  What is implied by setting defence spending at a set proportion of national income?  On one hand, the proponents of higher spending are arguing that expenditure on defence represents an irreducible minimum for any government – it’s something that governments absolutely have to do.   On the other, the case is being made for a figure that’s almost completely unrelated to that irreducible minimum – that treats defence as if it was elective, like ODA.  The two positions seem woefully inconsistent.  If defence is a necessity, then we should be paying what is necessary.  If defence spending is really an area where we can do as  we think fit,  we can use the money in any way we think effective, and it needs to be justified in those terms.

I’m not convinced that defence money is used effectively at present.  I don’t really understand – maybe someone out there can tell me – why we have maintained separate defence services fifty years after supposedly unifying the Ministry of Defence; why we try to do bits of everything in international cooperation rather than specialising in what we’re good at; or why we’re so focused on international actions that we don’t have the capacity to defend our territory or maritime  interests.  If we are going to spend 2% of our income on defence, let’s have a defence policy that works.