More immigration incompetence from the Home Office

“Ms Tomioka is not subject to removal from the UK. We are currently working with her to explain how she can make an appropriate application should she wish to do so.”

Or, to put it another way: “Sorry”.

This story from the Guardian this morning does not bode well for the 3m EU residents currently settled in the U.K….

A field guide to lies

Daniel Levitin believes “we have failed an entire generation of children” by not preparing them properly for college. By this Levitin, who is an American cognitive psychologist, neuroscientist, writer, musician, and record producer, and currently James McGill Professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, means students are increasingly entering tertiary eduction without the necessary critical thinking skills. 

“Words matter”, he told at audience at the RSA today. “Alternative facts” is a dangerous euphemism, he says. “Fake news, alternative truth – these are all euphemisms used by journalists in order not to offend people.” But, he says, truth is not about politics. Politicians should be saying  “these are the facts, what are we going to do about them?” Politicians can have an honest disagreement about the same facts, but they can’t have alternative facts. 

Journalists need to just call “alternative facts” what they are – lies. “Don’t be afraid of offending people. If they are lying they deserve to be offended.” In fact, he would go further. “I’d like to see fact checkers on TV. There should be a ticker running along the bottom of the screen saying “that’s a lie” – perhaps with a Pinocchio nose or a halo!”

He says Barrack Obama made a lot of sense when he said that democracy isn’t free. “We’ve begun to think it is and as soon as you do that you risk democracy itself.” 

The solution is to support the key institutions like law and science. “We’ve got used to thinking all politicians lie.” But it shouldn’t be left at that. 

He has written a book called “A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics” which offers some basic advice. 

“Before you hit like button and share a story think ‘is this true’,” he advises. There are good techniques for evaluating claims. For example, is it plausible?

He cites the example of a recent taxi ride where the taxi driver told him – “Do you know that there are 15bn people in the world who don’t have access to the internet.” What he meant to underline was an emotional point, Levitin says, which was that a large section of people in this unequal world are held back by not having access to the internet. But “numbers matter”, he says. After he explained that there were only about 7bn people in the world in the first place, they went on to have a good conversation about the topic. 

Another critical thinking tennet is that experts are not always what they seem to be. Take the famous Colgate advertisement that 4 out of 5 dentists recommend Colgate. 

 There are several issues this throws up. “How many dentists? Five or 500 or 5000? Who are these dentists? Is it likely they would have an incentive to say this?  Is the dentist even the right person ask in any case? I’ve never been asked by my dentist which toothpaste I use in all the years I’ve been going.”

In fact, he says, this is one of the key issues today – picking the right expert. “Experts are too ready to step outside their area of competency.” 

Cable on Brexit and Education

Brexit will paralyse Government for the next five years, predicted Vince Cable today at the launch of a report on Further Education at the RSA.

The former Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills warned that Brexit now meant a “massive diversion of energy as MPs and civil servants spend the next five years focused on a problem which was entirely unnecessary.” He said he has some experience of the planning for what might happen in the event of Scottish separation, and said this was a drop in the ocean compared to the massive effort that would be required to separate from Europe.

The further education sector had been battered by under-funding and ever-changing Government policy, he said, but it was going to be critical in the post-Brexit world where free movement of workers in no longer the norm. “If you exclude people you have to train people to fill the gap,” he said, arguing that at least in part the reason immigration is so high is because of a skills shortage in the UK economy. And, as public finances will be weaker in the future as the economic consequences of Brexit become a reality, this extra effort in skills training is going to be a real challenge.

He believes the further education sector should fulfil two roles: providing the higher level skills a sophisticated economy increasingly needs; and providing first class remedial training for people who have fallen behind for whatever reason.

Whatever the challenges ahead for further education, it was, he said, worse in the universities which will see research funding lost and overseas students numbers dropping.

– a difficulty. sector but report optimistic view of the possibilities for the future. Brexit will have an impact: FE sector not as bad as universities which will loss research funding and students.


Parliamentary Fridays

On Friday the second reading of Caroline Lucas’ Private Members NHS Reinstatement Bill didn’t happen because Conservative backbenchers spent four and a half hours debating the Foreign National Offenders (Exclusion from the UK) Bill. This bill, brought by Conservative MP Peter Bone, has only two clauses and had previously been brought and withdrawn following opposition.

I had previously written to my MP, Bob Stewart (Conservative, Beckenham) to ask him if he was going to be present for the NHS Bill. This is what he told me:

Dear Mr Muttram

Thank you for your e mail.  True there is a Second Reading of a Private Members Bill on the NHS on Friday 11th March.  It has been proposed by Caroline Lucas MP (Green Party).  It is not really a debate though and I do not expect many MPs will be present.

That is because Fridays are reserved for Second Readings of Private Members bills but the vast majority of MPs are expected (by constituents mainly) to be in their constituencies doing things like their surgeries then.  That should normally also apply to me but by chance I am in Westminster that day as I have two appointments which will take up the morning.  That having been said, if I can, I will go into the Chamber although the Commons rises at 2.30pm.

In addition the NHS Bill is on second next Friday and I wonder if it will be reached in the time available?  The first bill to be discussed is the Second Reading of the Foreign National Offenders (Exclusion from the UK) Bill proposed by Peter Bone MP (Conservative) and I suspect that will go on for quite a long time before the NHS Bill is called, if it is.

In my time at Westminster I have never seen a Private Members Bill reach the Statute books without Government approval – and that is only one Bill.  So, although a campaigning organisation (maybe 38 Degrees but I don’t know)  is encouraging people to write to me using their template letter they must also know that the chances of this Bill reaching the statute books are practically nil which is slightly disingenuous to its members I believe.  They know that and perhaps they should have explained the situation.

I am sorry to disappoint you on this but I will, if I can pop, into the Chamber if I can get away from my appointments.

With best wishes

Bob Stewart

Indeed, as it turned out he was able to be in the Chamber – in order to add his voice to the Conservative MPs talking out the NHS bill.

It may well have been “disingenuous” of 38 Degrees to push on a Private Members’ Bill with “practically nil” chance of making it to the statute books, but I think Bob Stewart’s reply to me might have also been slightly disingenuous.

As the Independent says:

After the conclusion of proceedings Ms Lucas tweeted: “Just tried – without success – to stop Tory backbench filibuster.

“Parliamentary process needs radical change – makes mockery of this place.”

Smart Citizens for a Smart State?

Beth Simone Novak is a woman on a mission – to use technology to transform government. It is a task she realises is herculean, as she told the audience at the RSA on Thursday.

She illustrated the potential by highlighting a couple of successful apps – PulsePoint  and GoodSam. The first is an app which launched in California which puts people who know CPR together with those who are having a heart attack. The second, the equivalent in the UK, alerts off-duty medics to emergencies in their vicinity. Both aim to use technology to tap a need which cannot currently be met well enough by the State. Novak says 7,000 lives have been saved so far by PulsePoint alone.

The key question for Governments, she says, is : “How do we take this know-how and make it work to improve government?”

The UK and US have done well with open data, she says and Government is generally getting much better at asking people – take the government petition initiatives in both countries for example. “But we need to go beyond this and ask what we know as citizens and what we can do.”

One way of mobilising this know-how is through prizes and challenges. For example the platform in the US offers prizes for solving hard problems.

But, she says, “here’s where we’re stuck – it’s only happening at the edges. Open challenges don’t get the word out.”

One of the key problems is that “Government not used to saying ‘I don’t know’,” she says. Governments tend to view asking questions as embarrassing and the modern press in both the UK and the US doesn’t help. We need to move from “crowdsourcing widely to crowdsourcing wisely”, she argues.

What we need to do is target the right people. We need a science of people analytics. We need ‘Tindr for Government’

There are various attempts to get engagement in the wider population and to surface know-how in a meaningful way. The World Bank, for example, developed Skill Finder, and app to bring out the embedded knowledge in the organisation. They also added a help desk, recognising that one of the biggest challenges is getting the platform widely used. Spanish political party Podemos recently launched Talent Bank to do the same thing.

The key, says Novak, is to “re-envision the government’s role as broker”. We need new systems of credentials, such as the “badging” system, and we need to run more experiments.

Stackexchange, the knowledge exchange for software programmers is a good example of how it could work, she says.

The goal in the end is to build stronger, smarter state.

Beth Simone Noveck is the Jerry Hultin Global Network Professor at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering and director of the Governance Lab. She was the United States deputy chief technology officer for open government and led President Obama‘s Open Government Initiative.

Magnolia as a climate marker

Every year for the past several I’ve stopped to take a photo of two magnificent Magnolia trees in a garden around the corner, on my usual dog-walking route to Beckenham Place Park.

Last year it occurred to me that these photos are all dated and that this might be able to tell me something about how the Spring was progressing.  And so it seems. 2014 and 2015 seem to me to be about normal – with the Magnolia coming into flower in mid to late March. 2013 was a real anomaly as we had a very cold Spring which delayed everything. It wasn’t until a month later that the Magnolias burst into flower, although as they were so late they put on a fabulous show, as you can see. This year is another anomaly – this time in the other direction. The buds were already well formed by the first week of February. Whether they will last if we get a severe frost, who can tell.

Magnolias 7th February 2016
Magnolias 7th February 2016

Magnolias 22nd April 2013
Magnolias 22nd April 2013

Magnolias 15th March 2014
Magnolias 15th March 2014

Magnolias 28th March 2015
Magnolias 28th March 2015

Disposable people?

In 2008 an insurance company of a 64-year-old woman with lung cancer refused to pay $4,000 a month for chemotherapy but offered instead to pay the $50 charge for drugs for physician assisted suicide. This was just an extreme example of the kinds of unintended consequences which can flow from legislation like Oregon’s Death with Dignity law.

This was the central point of a fascinating talk by Professor BroDr Browne Lewiswne Lewis, currently in the UK under the Fulbright Scholarship programme, who was speaking at a Gresham College lecture in London on Monday.

After giving a quick history of euthanasia in the US she explained that subtle changes in terminology as well as other details played a key part in getting assisted death on to the statute books of some states. Groups in favour choose to describe euthanasia as “physician aided death” while opponents call it “physician facilitated suicide”.

Dr Lewis herself has settled on the term “physician assisted suicide” (PAS) because she points out the physician does not actively “facilitate” the process of dying but does assist it by supplying the drugs. And, as the patient is the one dying ultimately by their own hand (a key provision of the law) this is by definition suicide.

Oregon was the first state to pass legislation legalising PAS in a people’s ballot measure in 1994 and it was on this law that Dr Lewis focussed. The key provisions of the Oregon law were that the law permits PAS if the subject is:

  • Capable
  • Adult
  • Resident
  • Diagnosed with terminal disease (six months or less to live)
  • Making an informed decision
  • Making the request for the prescription in writing…
  • …which is objectively the same handwriting as usual
  • Gets a second opinion
  • And waits for the 15-day waiting period

There are several groups included, but without specific protections, and several groups explicitly excluded.

Included but not protected are the:

  • Elderly
  • Disabled
  • Mentally ill
  • People of low income
  • People of colour

Excluded from the provisions are:

  • Under 18s
  • Persons predicted to live more than 6 months
  • Those suffering from dementia

These provisions throw up some series ethical concerns, argues Dr Lewis.

In the case of the elderly, for example, there is evidence of some old people feeling they almost have a “duty to die” she says. Also they are clearly potentially vulnerable to pressure from relatives, particularly those for example doing the bulk of the caring or who stand to benefit from any inheritance.

In the case of the physically disabled similar concerns raise their heads, in addition to concerns about pressures driven by economic factors: doctors and insurance companies could encourage PAS because of the considerable costs of long term care.

With those of low income this worry is more concrete as the case at the very beginning of this post illustrates. Before PAS was legal the most cost-effective option choice for lung cancer treatment was chemotherapy and the insurer therefore offered to fund it. After PAS was legalised in Oregon there was a cheaper option – the $50 lethal drugs. The poor may find themselves with no options, she argues.

With persons of colour, Dr Lewis says, the worry is that there is considerable evidence that they are not getting appropriate treatment in general at the moment, so if we can’t even ensure this, she argues, then how can we be sure they won’t be encouraged to “self-terminate”.

Another key problem with the Oregon legislation is that, although there is a requirement to seek a second opinion, there is no limit to the number of doctors you can ask. This leads to “doctor shopping” which reduces the protections in the face of the pressures listed above. Dr Lewis says there have been many deaths where the doctor signing off PAS was not the first consulted.

There are other concerns, too. Why six months? What if you are given 12 months but by 6 months your condition will have deteriorated to the extent that you fail the test for informed decision-making or applying in writing?

Also, what about non-terminal cases such as a person suffering from progressive irreversible brain disorder who is not predicted to physically die? Should they not have the same options?

And what about the under-18s. Psychiatrists have argued that a terminally ill 17-year-old is psychologically older than their compatriots.

With this list of reservations you might think Dr Lewis was against the law. In fact she supports it – it’s just that she thinks it’s provisions and safeguards should be tightened up.

She says, as Oregon was the first the enact the legislation the State is very much sought after as a blue print but that because of this there is resistance to making changes which could improve safeguards considerably.

For example, doctor shopping could be protected against if, when one doctor says yes and one says no there was an independent board to adjudicate.  She believes the terminality threshold should be updated, too. “I don’t think there is anything magic about six months.”


Lessons from Save the Children

Justin Forsyth

In an engaging and powerful talk on Tuesday at the RSA out-going Save the Children Chief Executive Justin Forsyth shared five lessons he says he has learned in his time at the charity.

1. Build powerful platforms not powerful organisations. Charities can no longer do everything alone and teaming up with other charities to build platforms is now essential. He gave the example of the Humanitarian Leadership Academy which describes itself like this: “We will work together across the humanitarian sector to ensure that information, knowledge, learning and resources are shared to make us all more efficient in this time of growing pressure.”

2. Unexpected allies are more powerful than usual suspects. He cites the unlikely alliance of Bono and President Bush in the very effective campaign to tackle the HIV crisis in the developing world.

3. It is as important to have an exceptional team as an exceptional idea. This, he says, is “very important for sustaining good work.” Charities, in particular, he says, “can forget to focus internally”. This was especially critical for building sustainability, he said.

4. The power of the mass rather than elite. The unexpected success of the G8 Summit in Gleneagles in 2005 was made possible because of the Live 8 movement which was going on at the same time, he believes. Engaging the power of the masses “gives us permission to be edgy”.

5. Who you are should determine what you do, not the other way round. This means charities should always be true to their founding principles, he says. “If you don’t you don’t look authentic and you weaken your mandate.”

Aside from these five insights, Forsyth also had more to say on a range of topics in response to questions. Here are a selection:

“The biggest weakness of any organisation is self-righteousness, and charities too prone to this.”

“There is real power in riding waves rather than planning campaigns. The modern media environment can change the conversation across the world.” Examples he cited were the outcry following a rape in Delhi and the seismic response to pictures of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying drowned on a Turkish beach, both of which had dramatic political consequences.

There was a need to “move the debate on from the CEO’s salary and admin costs to measuring the real impact we have in the world.”

“Engagement gets left behind in the drive to raise money,” he said, and “fundraising can become industrialised”. He argues that charities haven’t changed the “very old fashioned” way they raise funds. He doesn’t believe the “market” is saturated. “We can raise much more if we engage better with people, particularly through the use of digital technologies.”

Forsyth takes up a new post of deputy executive director of UNICEF next month.


How to have a good day


How do you have a good day? Caroline Webb thinks she knows and has written a book to explain her theories. Webb, previously a consultant with McKinsey and now running her own consultancy, laid out some of the foundation ideas in a talk at the RSA on Thursday.

She calls her philosophy “realistic optimism” and says it is based on general insights from behavioural science and aims to look for “wiggle room” within the constraints we all face.

Her talk focussed on three themes – bending reality, stretching time and growing intelligence.


She illustrated what she meant by bending reality with a story. When she was working for McKinsey she was asked to join a project involving a large-scale corporate change program. This was exactly the kind of project she was least keen on doing. In addition, the kick off meeting turned out to be by video conference, a medium which she always found difficult, frustrating and prone to misunderstandings.

A colleague turned up for the meeting who she called, pseudonymously, Lucas: a young, tall, well-dressed and very enthusiastic German. As she sat in a foul mood, with the meeting confirming all her worst fears, Lucas was powering through deck with undimmed enthusiasm.

After the meeting was over she sat down with Lucas to discuss what a disaster the meeting had been, only to find he was incredulous. He was convinced that the meeting went very well. When he recounted the evidence she was amazed to find so much that was positive.

This led her to the first insight – the brain sees what it expects to see. The conscious brain can only process a fraction of the stimulus it receives, she says, so the sub-conscious brain provided and edited version. The sub-conscious uses cues such as what is currently top of mind to set that filter. This is what is behind the phenomenon of confirmation bias, she says.

So, she reasoned, if you are deliberate about what is top of mind, what your mood is, then you can determine what gets filtered in. This, she now says, she always does, with dramatic results.


Of course you can’t really stretch time, she says, unless you park yourself at the edge of a Black Hole (and that has all sorts of complications attached to it!). However, she argues, the conscious brain can only do one thing at a time with any degree of facility. She illustrated by getting the audience to count to seven really fast – no problem. Then she asked us to recite the letters ‘a’ to ‘g’ as quickly as possible. Again, no problem. Then she asked us to combine the two – ‘a1’, ‘b2’ etc. Disaster.  “Multitasking loses mental energy,” she said. It is slower and more error prone. So, she reasons, do one thing at a time and you can make the day go further.


The final example was increasing intelligence. Again, a bit of a cheat – “you can’t really increase your basic intelligence” she admits. However, intelligence degrades markedly with stress. This is because, she says, when faced with danger the body is evolutionarily adapted to adopt a “flight or fight” response which results in the automatic part of the brain taking over and putting much less energy into the conscious brain.

It isn’t just the sudden appearance of a sabre-toothed tiger which triggers this response – “it takes almost nothing to trigger this response,” she says.

Again, she illustrated this point with another story from her days at McKinsey. She enrolled on a coaching course and found that she absolutely loved it. She wanted to build a career around coaching but was convinced that there would be no role within McKinsey (a place she loved) where she could do this. As a consequence she because badly conflicted – follow her dream and leave, don’t and stay. She could see no way out.

However, as part of the course the participants were encouraged to practice coaching techniques on each other so she did just this with her seemingly intractable problem. “Jill”, the colleague she was doing the exercise with, asked Webb to visualise the ideal situation – which was clearly continuing to work at McKinsey, but as a coach. She realised she had shut this option off completely because she had already convinced herself it was a non-starter and the flight-or-fight reflex had kicked it.

So her solution these days is – visualise the optimum outcome before coming to any conclusions. This puts your brain in “discovery mode”. You can then use all of your conscious intelligence on ways to make that outcome a reality.

“I’d say doing these three things was a pretty good recipe for a good day,” she said.