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Archive for May, 2011

Nick Clegg seems set to have a hard time with his fudged plans for a mostly elected House of Lords.

A survey shows that 80% of Lords who replied are opposed to reform. No great surprise there: turkeys are not known to be overly keen on the festive season. But there is also opposition to the plans within the two parties, despite both having a commitment to reform in their election manifestos.

Clegg’s plan is for an upper house with 80% of its members elected and the rest appointed. Church of England bishops would also have seats by right. But many in favour of reform see a wholly elected chamber as the only democratic alternative to the House of Lords.

The Times sent questionnaires to all of the 789 people entitled to sit in the Lords. A total of 310 responded. Of those, 80% oppose a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber and 81% believe the Lords works well as it is.

And there are sceptics in the House of Commons too. Many Tories are opposed to reform while there are those on the Labour benches who don’t think the issue should be a priority, arguing that the public seem unconcerned.

Party leaders in both chambers will shortly select 26 peers and MPs to sit on a committee to draw up a final proposal. The government intends to have a bill ready for the Queen’s Speech in spring 2012.

The House of Commons can push legislation through without the support of the Lords. The rarely used Parliament Act has a provision which states that any legislation backed by MPs three times can become law even if the Lords vote against. And the Lords can only delay plans for one year.

In the Times’ survey 74% of Lords said that it would be unconstitutional to use the Parliament Act to force through reform. Again, they would say that, wouldn’t they? And there is a convention that the Lords will not block government legislation that was in an election manifesto, the so called Salisbury Convention.

But will the Government have the political will to force its plans through? After the defeat of the Alternative Vote in a referendum Liberal Democrats will be doubly keen to get this major reform through. Whether their coalition partners share that zeal remains to be seen.

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Twitter has been forced to hand over the personal details of a British user following a landmark legal ruling in California.

This is thought to be the first time that Twitter has been forced to identify an anonymous user. It comes at a time when online privacy is a major issue following the leaking of names involved in so called super injunctions through Twitter.

This case started in South Shields after a number of allegedly libellous tweets were posted about senior councillors and council officials of South Tyneside Council. The main suspect was an independent member, Cllr Ahmed Khan, but the local authority was unable to prove that he was the author.

So the Council took a case against San Francisco based Twitter to the Superior Court of California. They won and the judge ordered the user’s private details to be handed over.

Council spokesman Paul Robinson said information had been disclosed by Twitter to its lawyers, and was, “being analysed by technical experts.”

Cllr Khan has always denied being the author of the remarks. He said he was told by Twitter that IP identities, mobile phone numbers and e-mail addresses related to two Twitter accounts would be handed over to the Council.

“It is like something out of 1984,” Khan told the Guardian. “If a council can take this kind of action against one of its own councillors simply because they don’t like what I say, what hope is there for freedom of speech or privacy?”

Media lawyer Mark Stephens, who represented Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, said, “I am unaware of any other occasion where somebody from this country has actually gone to America and launched proceedings in a Californian court to force Twitter to release the identities of individuals.

“The implications are that people who have had their name released can actually now go to California and begin proceedings.”

This case has profound implications for anyone who thinks that posting online behind an anonymous user name will protect them against the legal consequences of their remarks. A previous British ruling established that tweets are public information, but now it seems that they are not protected in law.

And if Ryan Giggs wants to know who has been making comments on his love life it looks like he now has a way to find out.

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Raising A Genderless Baby

Four month old Storm looks much like any other baby, with blue eyes and blonde hair. But his/ her parents have decided to raise their child without gender – and have not revealed to anyone whether the perfectly healthy child is actually male or female.

David Stocker and Kathy Witterick from Toronto didn’t want their child to be stereotyped. They didn’t want the inevitable blue or pink clothing that arrives as soon as you announce your baby’s sex. So they decided to raise Storm without gender.

Their belief is that without being cast into a role as male or female Storm will develop his/ her own personality, likes and traits without the straightjacket that societal norms can impose.

In an e-mail, Ms Witterick wrote that the idea that, “the whole world must know what is between the baby’s legs is unhealthy, unsafe, and voyeuristic.”

It’s a test of the old nature v nurture debate really. And does gender matter that much to a baby? Or is this a bizarre experiment that’s bound to go wrong eventually?

Storm’s has two older brothers, Jazz, aged 5, and Kio, 2. Their parents allow the boys to pick out their own clothes and decide their own look. Jazz often wears dresses, braids his hair and loves to wear pink nail polish. Ki meanwhile wears his hair long and likes to dress in purple.

“As a result, Jazz and now Kio are almost exclusively assumed to be girls,” says David Stocker, adding he and Kathy Witterick don’t out them. They leave it up to the boys to correct assumptions about their gender.

Is this the ultimate freedom for children to develop in their own way, or is it simply placing unnecessary pressure on two young boys? Again it can be seen as an interesting experiment, but is it healthy to test out your own theories on the assumption of gender roles through your children?

Stocker and Witterick are rather unusual parents. And only time will tell whether their children benefit or suffer from their unconventional approach.

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In the latest high tech law suit, Paypal, which is owned by E-bay, is suing Google over its new Google Wallet technology.

The issue is the development of the technology behind a system that will allow consumers to buy goods in shops via their mobile phone rather than a credit card.

Paypal claims it had been developing a system to run on Android mobile phones using what is known as Near Field Communication (NFC), which is basically a secure way of allowing phones to communicate with sellers’ terminals.

Earlier this year Paypal executive Osama Bedier left the company after nine years to join Google, where he is now Vice President of Payments. And Paypal alleges that Bedier “misappropriated PayPal trade secrets by disclosing them within Google and to major retailers”.

The suit was filed at Superior Court of the State of California just hours after Google unveiled its plans to allow people to pay for shopping with their mobiles. Google had no comment, saying it had not seen a copy of the lawsuit.

NFC technology is already used in Japan, and is predicted to become popular around the world. Google Wallet is to be launched in the USA this summer. At its launch Google said the service would be open to all businesses and invited banks, credit card issuers, payment networks, mobile carriers and merchants to work with it.

This is basically the next step on from the chip and pin technology now used in most direct credit card transactions. Google Wallet will require a PIN, as will each transaction. The payment credentials will be encrypted and stored on a chip, called the secure element, inside the phone.

If a phone was stolen, the credit cards inside could be remotely disabled. And Google assured potential users that consumers would have the same “zero liability” for unauthorised transactions made with their phone as they would with their plastic cards.

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Santre Sanchez Gayle, aged just 16, has been told he will serve at least twenty years in prison after being convicted for the murder of a young mother.

Gayle, also known by the gang name Riot, was just 15 when he shot and killed mother of two Gulistan Subasi in Hackney with a sawn off shotgun. He was paid just £200 for the East London hit.

By the age of 14, Gayle, who lived in Kensal Green, north west London, already had convictions for attempted robbery. He was a member of a notorious street gang known as the Kensal Green Boys (KGB), who were responsible for violently robbing commuters outside Kensal Green tube station.

The Old Bailey heard that the teenager was hired by a middle man, Izak Billy, to carry out the shooting last March. Billy, of Willesden, north London, was also found guilty of murder and given a life sentence with a minimum term of 22 years.

The prosecution claimed that he had been hired by Subasi’s ex-husband, Serdar Ozbek from Tottenham, who was also on trial for murder. After deliberating for three days the jury found Ozbek not guilty.

According to Detective Inspector Andy Chalmers, who led the inquiry into Subasi’s murder, it is common for Turkish gangs to recruit young black men to commit murder.

Judge Stephen Kramer told Gayle, “You were an easily led, immature youngster, who, if money was involved, was capable of violence out of loyalty, having cynically been used by others. You shot and killed Gulistan for money, and at the bidding of an older man who you were trying to impress.”

Is the price of a human life really just £200?

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After two years of discussions the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland has voted to allow gay men and lesbians to become ministers, as long as they have declared their sexuality and were ordained before 2009.

The vote was a narrow one, with those supporting change coming out ahead by 351 votes to 294 votes after a six-hour debate But a decision on whether to allow gay men and women to be ordained in the future won’t be taken for another two years.

And the General Assembly also voted to maintain a ban on members speaking publicly on the issue until 2013.

The Church of Scotland had imposed a temporary ban after the appointment of Scott Rennie, a gay minister, to a church in Aberdeen in 2009. The issue threatened to split the church and a commission was set up to investigate the issue.

The Special Commission on Same Sex Relationships and the Ministry conducted a two year consultation on allowing gay and lesbian ministers and found gays and lesbians at all levels in the Church who have struggled with having to hide their sexuality. No surprise there.

The Commission’s report showed the nature of the divisions the issue is causing as it predicted that up to 100,000 worshippers could leave in protest if gay ministers were allowed. And it also forecast that 40,000 parishioners would leave if gay ministers were not admitted.

Some have warned that the issue threatens the greatest split in the Church since the 1843 Disruption, when one third of its members left to form the Free Church of Scotland. And it has been reported that some Highlands members have already been in discussions with the Free Church.

The protestant Church of Scotland was formed in 1560 and has 445,000 communicants, or active members, which is around 9% of the population of Scotland.

The general assembly, which meets every year in Edinburgh, will also decide whether to allow gay and lesbian ministers who are sexually active, but only those in stable, long-term relationships, or whether to demand celibacy of gay ministers.

Carl Watt, Director of Stonewall Scotland, the lesbian, gay and bisexual charity, said, “We hope the decision signals the start of the Kirk demonstrating a commitment to fairness, equality and dignity on this issue.”

The Church has reached a rather confusing decision at the end of this particular part of what will be an ongoing debate, leaving many questions unanswered.

It would appear that a gay man or woman can now become a minister as long as they are open about their sexuality. But what about those who are already ministers? Will they lose their posts if they come out?

If the Church now believes that a gay or lesbian person should be allowed to become a minister then why impose conditions? Will the Church take the next step and allow its ministers to bless civil partnerships? And why not finalise a position on the whole matter now rather than drag it out for another two years?

Is this a decision that takes the church at least into the twentieth century or one that goes against biblical teaching? This question will be discussed long and hard among many congregations as members of the Church come to terms with its decision.

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Yesterday’s edition of the Sunday Herald had a picture of a footballer on its front page. Not exactly an unusual occurrence, but this time it has raised a great deal of legal interest.

The player in question, who looked an awful lot like Ryan Giggs to me, is only supposed to be identified as CTB. This is because of a so called super injunction covering allegations of an alleged affair with someone called Imogen Thomas, who apparently used to be on Big Brother.

Now I really don’t care greatly who either one of these people chooses to sleep with. And I wouldn’t know Imogen Thomas if I walked past her in the street.

But it does seem crazy that anyone with access to Twitter can find out the identity of the footballer, which has been tweeted by tens of thousands of users, but newspapers are supposedly unable to publish his name.

The Sunday Herald had clearly worded its editorial carefully, after consulting with its legal adviser, Paul McBride QC. It said: “We should point out immediately that we are not accusing the footballer concerned of any misdeed. Whether the allegations against him are true or not has no relevance to this debate.

“The issue is one of freedom of information and of a growing argument in favour of more restrictive privacy laws.”

And the editor of the paper, Richard Walker, added that he was not expecting any legal consequences because the injunction was not valid in Scotland – only in England. Today the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, has said he is not actively seeking contempt proceedings against the Sunday Herald.

The cynical would argue that increasing sales also played a part in the Herald’s decision to publish. And the matter gained worldwide attention, with reports on a vast number of web sites. Indeed the interest was so great that the Herald’s own site crashed under the weight of the number of hits it received.

But the decision to publish does bring the privacy debate into sharp focus.

Is there an absolute right to privacy when it comes to the private lives of public figures? Or does the public’s right to know take precedence?

I think there has to be some sort of legal test developed to weigh whether the public actually has a legitimate reason to poke into someone’s personal life or whether the desire is simply a salacious one for celebrity gossip.

If a politician who espouses family values and the sanctity of marriage is found to be playing away from home I would argue that there is a public interest in the story. But can the same be said for someone who has appeared on a reality tv show or indeed a footballer?

Of course it’s not as easy to make law as that. But we have politicians who make law and judges who interpret it – and it is their job to sort things out so that we don’t end up in the kind of mess that has resulted from this story. And a new law must take account of the digital, as well as the printed, media.

So it’s over to parliament to have a full and proper debate on exactly what type of privacy laws we should have in this country.

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