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Bad nasty Sorites disrupts infant nap time

Here’s a bit of an old one that I had lurking around. I was going to post it weeks ago, but as the Hansard source it is discussing is already over a decade old, I figure a few more days in the freezer wouldn’t do it any harm.

For today’s Parliamentary logic lesson, we’re going back to the 11th of March, 1998, for a debate on class size limits in schools. The debate reminds me that an upper limit on school class sizes was one of New Labour’s 1997 manifesto commitments.

This is not a particularly controversial topic: everyone really agrees that it is a preferable situation to have fewer children in classes – it really is not justifiable to have, say, 40 students in a class. One of the key selling points for independent schools, prep schools and also of some universities later in the educational cycle is the one-to-one and small group attention. Dealing with 15 students rather than 40 means that during an hour, one can have more personal attention to each person’s work and learning, and one has less disciplinary problems.

Any kind of policy needs to fit in with government’s “choice” agenda: the very idea of choice has become an ideological commitment for government. You need to have a choice of hospitals, a choice of schools, a choice of surgeons, a choice of this, that and the other. It sure is nice to have a choice of dentists. I would like it more if my previous NHS dentist could communicate with patients better and wasn’t a rampant misogynist, but, you know, choice!

Stephen Dorrell brought up the issue of faith schools and choice: if one is supposed to have choice between going to a Catholic school or a Church of England school or a Jewish school or whatever, the imposition of a class size limit may make it so that your child cannot go to the religious school of your choice. The same is true of specialist schools, which have been blossoming across the country. In my area, we now have specialist secondary schools doing technology, arts and sport. Across the country, there are also specialist secondary schools for languages, humanities, mathematics, business, music and so on. How has your choice been increased, then, if you have a kid who is really good at music but can’t get into the specialist music school because he would put the school above the size limit? That’s a problem.

Or, as Stephen Dorrell put it:

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I shall willingly give way to him if he can explain how a limit on class size and a refusal to accept a 31st child into a class, although that may reflect the parents’ preference, enhances parental preference. How does it enhance parental preference to deny parents the opportunity to put their child into the 31st place, if that is their choice and if the head teacher believes that it is consistent with the educational interests both of the 31st child and of the other 30? How does the removal of that opportunity enhance parental choice?

Here we have a budding Sorites fallacy living in the wild, in an evolutionarily undemanding environment – the House of Commons. A Sorites fallacy is intriguing. To understand the fallacy, you must understand the paradox it is based on. To understand that, ask yourself a question: what is a heap of sand? If I put a grain of sand on the table in front of you, you would agree that is not a heap. If I add another grain of sand next to it, that doesn’t make it a heap. Now, I can keep on adding grains of sand, and at some point it becomes a heap. But at whatever point I add that grain of sand and you declare it a heap, I can take one grain of sand away and it doesn’t suddenly stop being a heap. There is a real vagueness we have about grains of sand, crowds of people, herds of cows, swarms of bees, expressions like “quite a lot” and, indeed, class sizes.

Where does the fallacy come in? If you argue from the vagueness of the heap to the non-existence or over-existence of the heap, you have committed a Sorites fallacy. So, if you say that because we can’t actually say at which point the heap comes into existence, there is no heap, that’s obviously wrong. Or if you go the other way and say that because you can’t say at what point the heap comes into existence, then any grain of sand sitting alone is a heap, that’s an erroneous conclusion too. Any conclusion from the existence of the Sorites paradox other than “gee, there’s either a philosophical puzzle or just vague langauge in play” leads you to the wrong conclusion. In fact, it is self-defeating, because if you deny the heap, then the Sorites paradox doesn’t arise, which means you don’t have your grounds for dismissing it.

How does this apply to the infant class size discussion? Simple. Everyone agrees that there is a point at which the class is too big. But it isn’t an absolute limit: if the limit were 30, then the odd case of there being 31 pupils in the class is not a major concern. And maybe 32 is okay. But if 32 is okay, why not 33? And if that is okay, why not 34? If 34, why not 35? Feel free to carry this logic on for as long as you like. But then you get to your endpoint – 40, say – and then you say “hold on, there really is a big difference between having 40 in the class and 30? Damn you, logic, how did you get me to this point?”

The problem here seems to be that the law ought to have an absolute upper bound, but also have some other way of ensuring that the class numbers are kept towards the preferred upper bound. So, you’d say the absolute upper bound is 35, but the preferred upper bound is 30. You’d then average out the school or the LEA’s adherence to this rule, and if, on average, they kept their schools at the preferred upper bound rather than the absolute upper bound more often than not, they’d get a financial reward for doing so. There are clear analogies here: if you are going 71 miles per hour in a 70 miles per hour limit (a motorway, say), you will not get punished in the same way that someone going 75 miles per hour in a 30 miles per hour limit will. This involves both discretion (from the police, the CPS and judiciary) and some clear set rules over things like statutory penalty notices.

Of course, when you have a big cloud of politics over the proceedings, you cannot necessarily tell the intent of the government. Perhaps 30 is supposed to be the absolute upper limit, and that the government really want schools to try and cut class sizes down to 25, with the ability to go up to 30 at a push.

The problem here is that you can’t have vague legislation: however you slice it up, with whatever incentives, flexible options and the like, you still need to have some point at which you say “too much is too much”. Hence Bob Blizzard’s later remark:

In setting, in effect, a class size limit of 35, would not the hon. Lady, by her own argument, then face the problem of the 36th child—if that is deemed to be a problem?

Now, to try and give weight to this Sorites-backed argument, Stephen Dorrell constructs a hypothetical:

Surely to goodness, when deciding about class size against the background of the different skills and experience of individual teachers, a head ought to take that into account. It is nonsense to say that it is always better to be in a class of 29, even if the teacher is young and recently qualified and has had some difficulty in qualifying, than to be in a class of 31 taught by a very experienced, highly qualified and successful infant school teacher.

The fallacy here is far more clear: if you don’t compare like with like, you can come to silly conclusions. Hence the need for our politicians to take a spoonful of ceteris paribus with their morning tea.

How will we recoup our investment in dodgy logic?

I apologise for the complete absence for the last month or so. I finally got around to reading Hansard today. I intend to set up a process to automatically download Hansard onto my e-book reader each day so I can read it on the train – about the only place I can find that is properly air-conditioned!

In today’s reports from the Commons, I found this question from the Labour MP Michael McCann at PMQs:

Last Saturday afternoon, I joined the community of Stonehouse in my constituency to welcome home Sergeant Gary Jamieson. Sergeant Jamieson, from the Scots Guards, lost both legs and his left arm in an explosion in Afghanistan. The most humbling aspect of meeting Sergeant Jamieson was his distinct lack of bitterness. He fully supports the mission in Afghanistan, and strongly believes that the British forces there are making a difference. May I ask the Prime Minister to join me in paying tribute to a true British hero, and does he agree that the most fitting way in which to pay tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and those who have suffered the most terrible injuries, is to stay in Afghanistan until the job is done?

David Cameron, of course, paid tribute to Sgt Jamieson and the serving soldiers. He then responded:

Let me be clear. Do I think that we should be there, in a combat role or in significant numbers, in five years’ time? No, I do not. This is the time to get the job done, and the plan that we have envisages our ensuring that we will not be in Afghanistan in 2015. We have already been in Helmand for four or five years, and, obviously, we have been in Afghanistan since 2001. It is time to maximise the pressure now, and then to bring our forces home as we train the Afghan army and police force to do the job that needs to be done, which is to keep the country secure. That is our goal, that is in our national security interest, and that is what we will do.

That is a perfectly good answer to the question McCann was asking. But McCann’s question needs to be examined a bit.

Rhetorically, both the pro- and anti-war advocates can use the sacrifice of the soldiers as part of their arguments.

  • The war in Afghanistan has cost us so many men, we would do a dishonour to their sacrifice to not finish the job. Do we want our soldiers to have died in vain?
  • The war in Afghanistan has cost us so many men, why carry on? Haven’t we sacrified enough lives in this pointless war?

The former is a clear example of the sunk costs fallacy. The sunk costs fallacy is very easy to exploit: Las Vegas was built on the back of it. Many of the scams played by con-men exploit the sunk costs fallacy – the Razzle Dazzle being a prime example. I remember seeing a video once of a man playing slots in Vegas. He was feeding bills into the machine and consistently losing. He was asked by the cameraman and he justified continuing to play the slots because he had invested such a large amount that it will pay out “soon enough”. Here, he was invoking sunk costs to justify his (obviously erroneous) belief that the results of the slot machines aren’t probabilistically independent. It’s not just gambling: people say that we ought to finish, say, building projects because of prior capital investment. “We’ve already spent a million pounds, we ought to continue!” But, in this case, we ought to judge the completion of the project on the future costs. If it is only going to cost £100 to complete the project, it seems an obvious thing to do. If it is going to cost £10 billion, it might not be worth continuing. In either case, whether one continues is dependent on whether the future cost is justified by the benefit that completing the project will bring.

What about war, then? Obviously, the tragedies of war can justify both a claim that we should end the war and a claim that we should continue it. Saying we should continue the war because of the sunk costs (i.e. the deaths of soldiers so far) is unpersuasive to someone who doesn’t believe in the worthiness of the cause, just as the sunk costs won’t convince the person who isn’t caught up in the slot machines of the Vegas casinos.

It is also a bad idea to use this strategy, because it potentially blinds us to the possibility of us being wrong. The problem is that if you are using the sunk cost fallacy, the facts may change but the sunk cost fallacy continues to exert control over one’s opinions. It may be the case that the situation in Afghanistan changes dramatically and the war becomes unwinnable. Let us imagine an unlikely example: for some reason, the Americans and our other allies pull out of Afghanistan. Our best experts tell us that the war is now completely unwinnable. Sunk costs do not justify military suicide pacts.

The fact is that if the facts change, the soldiers will have died in vain anyway. This is an unfortunate fact of life: in the context of epistemology, you can be an open-minded, careful, rational inquirer who collects his facts and tries to draw the most reasonable and sensible conclusions he can and still be wrong. (And, then, even more annoyingly, the stupid, irrational and irresponsible people can be right!) You can have fought valiantly and bravely in a war, dying a hero for your country, but then due to circumstances outside of your control, you can still die in vain. If the war is unwinnable, then rather than having more soldiers die in vain, one ought to cut one’s losses and get the hell out.

Carrying on with the mission may be a fitting way to honour the sacrifices of the soldiers who have died or been wounded, but what about the interests of the active soldiers? Again, the sunk costs of war ought not to blind us to the possibility that sometimes we do need to pull out. (I’m not saying we do, of course. Personally, I’m very ambiguous about the war: I absolutely hope we can beat the Taliban and bring about a democratic, liberal state, but I’m not at all sure whether the cost of doing so is too high.)

Interestingly, Barry Schwarz uses the Iraq war and George W. Bush’s statements about it to illustrate his article on the sunk costs fallacy.

Press conferences: maybe bad, but they provide answers

The new Parliament is finally back! TheyWorkForYou.com is broken (Matthew is working on it) and they’ve redesigned the Parliament website in an effort to make my life difficult, no doubt. During the election lull, I’ve been enjoying Martin Rowson’s hilarious depictions of the new leadership in the pages of The Guardian: with Cameron as a dandy, Clegg as a Pinocchio-esque wooden puppet, Osborne as an executioner carrying a large axe and swathed in black executioners robes, and Vince Cable as a tamed ape.

But let us get back to business. After the Queen’s Speech, Peter Lilley and Don Foster gave opening speeches where they got to show off their wit and wisdom. Then the stand-in leader of the Labour opposition, Harriet Harman started a rather subdued first round with David Cameron, and said the following:

Despite what we have heard about accountability in the new politics, the Government’s decision to announce £6 billion-worth of cuts in a press conference rather than to this House was a poor start. When I was at Highshore school in my constituency on Friday, people were asking me whether they will be able to go ahead with their new rebuild. They, and people all around the country, want answers, not press conferences. (Commons Hansard, 25 May 2010, Column 41 – web)

As well as a ‘Coalville fallacy’, Harman seems to think that the public have been done a disservice by the Coalition press conference because they are being denied clear information about cuts. But would the teachers and govenors of the Highshore school – to pull a random example – be any more in the know about whether or not the proposed cuts will affect them by the Coalition government announcing the cuts in the House of Commons or at a press conference? Unless Ms. Harman’s constituents spend their days perusing Hansard or sitting in the public gallery of the Commons, it frankly would make no difference. If they are getting news from the press, it makes no difference at all whether the original source is a speech in the Commons or a speech to a press conference.

“Policy by press conference” as critics have come to call it is a problem – it does show some disrespect for Parliament (this is raised later in the debate as a point of order brought up by Chris Bryant at Column 53) and the oversight that Parliament ought to provide for changes in policy, legislation and spending. But to say that it is affecting the people of Camberwell and Peckham – or, indeed, any constituency – is a stretch. It is infuriating for other politicians – especially those on the opposing side of the Commons benches, but it probably isn’t quite as big a concern to people outside Westminster.

The full extent of the cuts would not satisfy the level of detail required for the concerned people at the Highrose school – neither a press conference or a statement in the House of the general thrust of the new government’s changes to spending would be informative enough to help any particular school determine whether it is going to be subject to those cuts. The only way to really know is to wait and see. But during that period of waiting, I’m sure much political hay can and will be made over the process of announcing the public service cuts…

What do the police think about Community Support Officers?

Police Community Support Officers were one of the former Labour government’s love-it-or-hate-it policy innovations in the area of policing. The basic idea is simple: training a police officer is time-consuming and expensive, and then you have to pay them a considerable sum of money to do the often difficult job they have to do. Police Community Support Officers are there to do the door-to-door policing in the community, and they then allow the warranted officers time to investigate more serious crime. A PCSO gets three weeks of training compared to six months of training for a constable, and are paid substantially less than a constable is. They do not have the full set of powers that warranted police officers do.

Opponents of PCSOs have frequently called them “plastic bobbies”, and described how they are a way for the government to provide “policing on the cheap”. The former government strongly deny this and point to the increases in police funding, and the increase in warranted offices with PCSOs being complementary to a strong police service rather than a replacement for it. Critics have also pointed to situations where PCSOs have not been able to intervene in ongoing crimes or help people in the same way that warranted police officers would – instead, they have to stand-by and wait for the ‘real cops’ to turn up, sometimes with tragic consequences. Again, these are individual anecdotes – if PCSOs were to go beyond the remit given by their limited powers, there would undoubtedly be similar stories about how some individuals have cocked things up.

What do our Parliamentarians have to say about PCSOs? Lots, obviously. Is what they say any good? Debatable.

Consider this question by Bill Cash in a Westminster Hall debate about PCSOs earlier this year:

Can the Minister give us, drawing from general surveys, a sense of what the Police Federation and other police officers feel about the fact that PCSOs have now become an integrated part of community policing arrangements?

Now, that is a good question. If one is to evaluate the effectiveness of PCSOs, hearing what police officers and the Police Federation think – in aggregate, rather than based on widely varying anecdotal testimony – is a useful thing to know. Even if one accepts that PCSOs have a useful role to play in policing or are a necessary measure for cost reasons, if the PCSOs are not fully integrated into the police service and have the support of existing warranted police officers, their effectiveness is hampered. Note the key part of this question though: “drawing from general surveys”.

The Minister (David Hanson) responded by giving a torrent of personal anecdotes:

Certainly, when I talk to officers on the ground – officers at senior level and sergeants and constables – there is recognition that PCSOs are part of the integrated policing family and perform a valuable function.

Taking up the hon. Gentleman’s point, when I make visits throughout the country, I get a sense of real engagement with PCSOs and the police. On Monday morning, I was in Stockport with my hon. Friend Ann Coffey, paying a visit to the policing family there. I met PCSOs and residents, who really appreciated the PCSOs. They knew their PCSO by name and knew their phone number and e-mail address; they called them by a friendly moniker and talked to them as though they were part of their local community.

Recently, I was in Carlisle with my hon. Friend Mr. Martlew. There, too, PCSOs are in the lead on neighbourhood policing engagement. They organise the policing meetings and are the first port of call for local people.

Last Thursday, I was with PCSOs on the beat on the south bank, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Kate Hoey, seeing some of the general neighbourhood work that they undertake in reassuring the public, particularly businesses and shopkeepers in the area.

Note how none of these personal anecdotes (which I wrote about in Come and visit Coalville!) actually answer Cash’s question. They do show that in Stockport, Carlisle and the South Bank in London, PCSOs are doing what they ought to be doing: community policing. But to answer Cash’s question, one needs to provide a “sense of what the Police Federation and other police officers” think about the role of PCSOs, preferably “drawing from general surveys” – that is, statistical information about what police officers think, not anecdotal data about what a government minister thinks. Lest anyone think that Hanson is alone in attempting to justify PCSOs on the basis of single anecdotes, consider this statement in the Commons by Linda Gilroy.

The Minister did make one reference to a review – the Casey Review:

The service that PCSOs provide is valued by the public. The recent Casey review found that six times as many people said that PCSOs were doing a good or excellent job than said that they were doing a poor or very poor job. The review also found that people wanted PCSOs to have the strong backing of Government.

The Casey Review – aka. Engaging Communities in Fighting Crime – does contain survey findings about PCSOs, but the survey was one of the general public, not the police. Should Bill Cash presume the answer to his question is either “no, there aren’t any” or “I haven’t got any to hand”? It certainly would have answered the question, but it wouldn’t have provided an opportunity to sing the praises of government policy.

Your vote is less powerful than they think

I know the About page says that the site excludes election rhetoric, but I’m going to break this rule. Not for politicians, mind, but for a common rhetorical move that appeared frequently in the media about the political process following the lack of a majority in the General Election. It took the form:

The public didn’t vote for X1, they voted for X2 and X1 wouldn’t be democratic, where Xs are from the set of possible resolutions to the hung Parliament: Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, minority government, another election, a combination of the above or some other alternative.

The fact is that the public were not offered a choice of whether they wanted a hung Parliament or not, or any preferred way to form a government. They voted for a local MP. The total sum of their preferences is a hung parliament, but the ultimate end result doesn’t mean that any individual person democratically supported that particular choice.

As an example, when I voted last week, I was offered a choice between five different people representing, between them, the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, UKIP and Greens. Now, I chose to vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate who did not win – it is a very safe Tory seat and we sent back the incumbent Tory. Did I vote for any particular resolution to the hung Parliament? No. I didn’t even vote for Cleggmania (anything but). I voted because I’m broadly on the left, and between the Greens, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the latter had a greater chance of unseating the Conservatives in Wealden. I voted on policy, not on politics. Politics is actively uninteresting for me except as a rich source of faulty logic; policy has a direct effect on my life.

Does my vote for the Liberal Democrats imply that I have voted for a Conservative-Liberal coalition? What if I had voted for the Labour candidate? Would that mean that I would be counted as a supporter of a Liberal-Labour pact? What about the smaller parties: if a vote for the Conservatives, Liberals or Labour has some kind of mapping to an opinion on the resolution to the hung parliament, surely those who voted for the Greens or UKIP or the British National Party or the Socialist Workers Party or whoever also implicitly and silently voted for some particular choice of the alternatives. I don’t understand how that follows.

All of these claims seem to be riddled with special pleading. If you heard someone from the Conservative party, they told you of how a Liberal-Labour coalition is undemocratic because the people didn’t vote for it – but they wouldn’t tell you that people didn’t vote for a Liberal-Conservative coalition. If you hear someone from Labour, they’ll tell you that the voters didn’t vote for a Conservative-Liberal coalition, but they didn’t vote for a Liberal-Labour coalition either! After Gordon Brown announced that he will step down as Labour leader, Conservatives started saying that if there were a Liberal-Labour coalition, then whoever Labour choose to replace Brown would not have been democratically elected. Except, they would. Doesn’t matter if it was Alistair Darling, Ed Balls, Harriet Harman – whoever were chosen as Labour leader would presumably have been democratically elected as an MP.

The problem is simply this: in Britain, we do not vote for a leader or even a government. We vote local MP. If we wanted a way to specify who the Prime Minister is, we ought to switch to American-style presidential elections. That way we would all get a vote as to whether we wanted Brown or Clegg or Cameron or whoever in charge. If we wanted to choose who to vote into government, we could actually have an election based around parties.

Ah, you might say, but people who voted for Labour thought they were going to get Brown, not some unknown former Cabinet Minister like, say, Alistair Darling (plus a Liberal Democrat coalition). But imagine this alternative result: Labour had won the election with a clear majority but Gordon Brown had not been re-elected in his constituency. Same problem. Brown could become Prime Minister, but it would be politically impractical – the Labour Party would elect a new leader as quickly as possible. It’d be quite strange, as you would actually have an elected leader in the sense of ‘elected’ I reject – people who had voted for the Labour Party in constituencies other than Brown’s would have been voting for Brown to be Prime Minister (sigh: where does it say that on the ballot form, again?). But he wouldn’t have been elected in the boring technical sense of actually getting more votes than his constituency opponents. Then, the Labour Party would rush around to find a leader who is actually an MP. He or she would have actually been elected in this boring technical sense: hence their being an MP. But in the woolly sense of having been the leader who appeared on TV, in debates and on the campaign trail, they wouldn’t have been elected in that sense.

Hung parliaments and coalitions are really good fun for journalists: rather than waking up the day after the election and saying “We’ve got a Conservative government run by David Cameron“ (or the same for Labour or Liberal or whatever), they get to draw it out for nearly a week of speculation. An endless supply of talking heads are able to then trot along to radio and television studios and pontificate about what possible conclusion to the proceedings would be democratic. The true answer is any of them. The problem is that our current electoral system doesn’t give enough information to answer the questions that have been do confidently answered by the pundits for the last week or so.

There is a simple moral that can be taken from this: when you vote, you are only voting for what you see on the ballot paper and that which can be deduced from it. Once you start having to invoke complex counterfactuals, you have unmoored yourself from the actual election and have entered a world of hazy speculation and power games.

Lords: Homosexuals? Aren’t they into child abuse?

In the previous post on the second reading in the Lords of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill, I hinted that there were some crazy views expressed during the debate. They certainly deserve an airing. But first, what was the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill about?

Lord Williams of Mostyn described the purposes of the Bill in his introduction of the Second Reading as follows:

First, Clause 1 reduces the age of lawful consent for certain sexual practices, including buggery, to 16 from 18; that is, to the lawful age of consent for heterosexual intercourse.

Secondly, Clause 2 provides that a person under the age of consent no longer commits an offence if the other party is over the age of consent. Clause 3 introduces a new offence where a person of 18 or over has sexual intercourse or engages in sexual activity with or directed towards a person under that age if he or she is in a position of trust.

Now, some legitimate questions were raised in the debate over this third clause: some thought that the category of “position of trust” was not wide enough: it includes teachers, church ministers and the like, but not the adults leading Scout or Guide groups, and doesn’t include some “schoolmasters and schoolmistresses” (or as normal people call them ‘teachers’).

The majority of the fallacious reasoning was in regards to the first clause regarding the age of consent. There is a very simple justification for this clause: firstly, male homosexuals are discriminated against if the primary method by which they are to have sex (anally) has an age of consent two years higher than that of heterosexuals; secondly, the current law makes it so that a 16-year-old girl can consent to vaginal sex at 16 but cannot consent to anal sex until she is 18. Not only was there inequality between gay men and heterosexuals, there was also considerable confusion. There is enough to try and explain to hormone-addled teenagers in sex education classes without having to explain different ages of consent for anal and vaginal sex.

Throughout the debate, opponents of the changes brought up the Waterhouse Report which described the sexual abuse of teenagers in care in North Wales. There is, of course, one key difference between consensual homosexual sex and non-consensual abuse: that little issue of consent. In the Waterhouse Report cases, sexual abuse and rape were perpetrated by those who have a duty of care as mandated by the state to their charges. The age of consent is irrelevant: if you are not consenting to sex, it is still rape or sexual assault regardless of your age. Age of consent is about the age at which you can consent, not the age at which you are presumed to consent. Even if the age of consent were dramatically lowered to, say, 14, that would not mean that if you had sex with a 14-year-old without consent it isn’t rape. Seriously, this is not a particularly complicated thing to understand, but the Lords opposed to this bill spent a considerable amount of time going on about the Waterhouse Report despite it having nothing at all to do with consensual homosexual sex or consensual anal sex between heterosexuals.

Consider, then, Baroness Seecombe’s speech:

Since this Bill was last in your Lordships’ House there has been an important event; that is, the publication of the Waterhouse report. It made for disturbing and horrifying reading. In fact, I felt quite sickened when I read how young people were subjected to acts of such depravity and brutality when “in care”. How bizarre those two words appear in this context. We supposed that they were in a safe and caring situation when, in fact, the carers were abusers of the worst kind.

I cannot believe that such wickedness has taken place in this day and age. One had hoped that evil people would no longer be able to act in that way. I feel that all those young people who suffered were completely let down, particularly by those in authority, but also by all of us. So we must accept responsibility and do everything in our power to ensure that such ghastly events never occur again. That is why I find it inconceivable that this new Labour Government are going ahead with this Bill, and at this particularly sensitive time.

But, as I described, the age of consent has absolutely nothing to do with the abuses described by the Waterhouse Report. Why, then, would the publication of the Waterhouse Report change anything with regard to age of consent? Why would it make it a “particularly sensitive time”? The reason is simple: the opponents of the Bill are trying to equate homosexuality generally (or anal sex specifically) with non-consensual sexual abuse. Gay rights campaigners allege that it is all about anal sex and the ‘yuck!’ factor. This seems quite true.

Baroness Seecombe explains:

I am reluctant to go into detail, but I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I do so just a little. There has been extensive research on the effect of consensual buggery which makes for distressing reading. Anal intercourse carries particular risk for the transmission of disease and increased vulnerability to HIV. It also carries the risk of actual physical damage for the receptive partner as the soft tissues can become traumatised and impaired permanently. The use of condoms cannot offer adequate protection. Also, there is great significance in the fact that those who have ever had anal intercourse are not permitted to donate blood in the UK through the National Blood Service.

There is plenty to unpack here: firstly, the use of condoms does protect people engaging in anal sex from HIV transmission and transmission of other STDs. Obviously, a condom cannot protect one from the physical damage that can happen from anal sex. But painful sex is possible with any orifice you choose to use, not just anally. Seecombe is also wrong about the National Blood Service: it doesn’t exclude anyone who engages in anal sex, only men who have had anal sex with other men (regardless of their stated orientation). Men who have had anal sex with women are not excluded, nor are women who have had anal sex. Health screening policy is an even more blunt instrument than the law. Consider this: you can have a man who goes out and has unprotected sex with hundreds of women, and have a gay man who is in a monogamous relationship, uses condoms and gets tested for HIV transmission frequently – the latter is obviously less of a risk of contracting or transmitting HIV. But because it is would be very difficult to ask people to describe their intimate relationships when giving blood (remember: people lie), it is easier to have a blanket ban on men who have sex with men than a slightly more nuanced policy.

This does not establish the conclusions sought. Or, rather, it goes too far. If you accept Baroness Seecombe’s statements about anal sex, and you accept the principle that people ought to be protected from this evil, ass-rupturing, HIV-transmitting curse, then not only should you oppose lowering the age of consent for gay or straight anal sex to 16, but to push for a complete ban on anal sex both gay and straight. If it is so terrible that 16-year-olds ought not be able to consent to it, why should 18-year-olds be able to? Or 21-year-olds or 35-year-olds for that matter?

An even more curious statement comes straight after Baroness Seecombe from the Earl of Longford:

Do we or do we not wish our children to be homosexual? Do we just laugh it off, as some people do? The strange fact is that, in the 50 years that I have been in this House, there has been only one man, and no women, who has got up and said that he is homosexual–Lord Alli. I salute him; I give him all credit, and we want men like him. If it is a normal fact of life that people are homosexual, why has no one here said that they are homosexual? We cannot see it in the same way as backing Manchester United rather than the Arsenal, or something like that. It is really very serious and it is very rare.

It is difficult to know where to begin. Firstly, this is irrelevant. The debate is about whether or not one ought to lower the age of consent for anal sex to 18, not about the desirability or not of people being gay. Not that the opinions of members of the House of Lords is going to change anyone’s sexual preferences! The Earl of Longford here is committing a gross statistical mistake: he is arguing that if homosexuality were a normal part of life then members of the Lords would be happy to state that they are gay. Since they have not, it isn’t. A hasty generalization indeed.

A similarly silly argument could have been presented in the upper house before 1957 along these lines: some claim that being a woman is a perfectly natural and normal fact of life, but how many of my fellow peers would own up to being a woman? Go on, hands up! Oh deary me, womanhood is not normal or natural at all!

Concluding the strangeness of homosexuality based on the lack of homosexuals in the House of Lords is to get things backwards: a much more sensible conclusion is to say that the House of Lords is strange. It certainly allows arguments of dubious logical merit to fly unchallenged. The House of Lords is certainly not representative of wider society in terms of class, race, sexuality or opinion. How could it be? And how deluded do you have to be to believe it to be so?

In the debate, Earl Ferrers gave us a slippery slope (greased up with a big jar of lubricant that he may or may not have purchased from a shop in Old Compton Street!):

I did say, as, indeed, members of that lobby have said quite clearly, that they wanted homosexual acts in public lavatories to be allowed to take place. I believe that that is quite appalling. I believe that no one should doubt that, should the lobby achieve what it wants today, that will be the next issue on the agenda.

A slippery slope, dear readers, is when you oppose one measure because you believe that it will automatically lead to another thing. Slippery slopes aren’t always bad arguments: if I told you that if we do x then there is a 95% chance that y will happen, you are not being unreasonable to decide that to avoid y one ought to avoid x. This is not one of those acceptable arguments. It may be so that gay rights lobbyists will move on to pushing for removing restrictions on sex in lavatories, but that does not justify opposition to lowering the age of consent. If one opposes making it legal for people to have sex in lavatories, then one simply has to vote against it if it were to ever reach Parliament (don’t be fooled: even the most liberal of Liberals is hardly chomping at the bit to push the ‘Cottaging Is Awesome Bill’ through Parliament!).

In a discussion of anal sex and homosexuality, what would really finish things off? If your answer is “an intervention from the Bishop’s bench”, give yourself a gold star. The Bishop of Gloucester’s speech was not rabidly homophobic, but was a totally pointless distraction:

I believe that Bills such as this one can so easily distract us from emphasising as strongly as we possibly can the venerable institution of marriage.

How? How does ensuring age of consent equality for gays and straights distract one from emphasising the venerable institution of marriage? (An institution that gays still cannot partake in, although there is marriage-in-all-but-name, ‘civil partnerships’.) Not putting 16-year-olds in prison for doing it up the backside doesn’t prevent the Bishop from singing the praises of marriage as much as he likes. This kind of argument gets brought up whenever homosexuality is discussed, and especially when marriage rights for gays is discussed. It is a frankly terrible argument: increasing gay rights doesn’t reduce the value of marriages among heterosexuals. Giving gays and lesbians the right to marry doesn’t mean that straight couples can’t get married or that their marriages are worth less.

One wit really grasped the silliness of it all a few years ago when they said something along these lines: gay people can’t destroy the institution of marriage – Las Vegas and Britney Spears have already done it!

If you have consensus, you don’t need a whip

In the Lords debate over the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill back on the 11th of April 2000, Lord Lester of Herne Hill said that his party (the Liberal Democrats) would be supporting the Government.

Later in the debate, the Conservative Earl Ferrers said this:

The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, said that all the members of his party would back the Government, despite getting himself into a slight intellectual tangle as a result of a question from my noble friend Lord Monson. That means that the Liberal Democrats will not have a free vote.

It doesn’t mean any such thing. Lord Lester may in fact be saying that he has polled his fellow Liberal peers and found them in agreement with the law, and they have committed to voting for it. If everyone in a political party agrees to something, that doesn’t mean they are not getting a free vote. That only happens if the vote is being whipped.

Remember: part of the reason people are in political parties is because they agree on some set of fundamentals. There is a reason why people choose to be in, say, the Liberal Democrats rather than the Conservatives. It isn’t too shocking of an idea to suggest that this may be why there is a certain uniformity in opinion from all the peers in that party.

A subsequent correction was made by the Liberal Democrat Earl Russell:

My Lords, perhaps I may set this matter to rest. My noble friend correctly stated the policy of our party. He did not say that this party intended to whip for that policy.

There’s plenty of nutty thinking in the rest of the debate, but I’ll have to save that for a future post.

Come and visit Coalville!

David Taylor, Labour MP for North West Leicestershire, said this on the 3rd February, 2009 in a debate on Skills and Further Education:

I spent many years working in further education, and I recall that, in the period leading up to 1997, FE was left to go to rack and ruin; indeed, there was no capital spend towards the end of that period. One day when he has a spare moment or two, will the hon. Gentleman come with me to the A511 just a little north of Coalville town centre to have a look at the magnificent Stephenson college, named after George Stephenson, that has been built there, and which is having a huge impact on FE in Leicestershire? We will then see whether he can still read with a straight face the following phrases in the Conservative motion:

“current policies are hindering training opportunities…freezing the further education capital spending programme”.

What hypocrisy! If I were allowed to say that, that is the word I would use.

This, logic fans, is called a hasty generalization: deducing a general conclusion from an unrepresentative sample. The Conservative motion may be right or it may be wrong about the freezing of capital spending in the further education sector – I do not know without consulting the statistics –  but you cannot simply point to one particular “magnificent” college.

The rhetorical move here is widespread through public debate both in Parliament and outside. I think of it as the “come visit with me gambit”. Someone makes a general statement about something, and then the person who opposes that view responds by saying “how dare you say that for many things t, p holds? There is one thing t in such-and-such a place where p does not hold! You ought to come visit!”

The “you ought to come visit” is simply an appeal to emotion: how dare you, the Westminster elite, cast judgement on all the good people of this land without even daring to visit them? But, I would suggest, to anyone who is thinking reasonably, it ought to be unconvincing. For plenty of ordinary day-to-day things we accept testimonial evidence. For instance, I am confident in my belief that Mount Fuji exists, but I have never been to Japan. I have heard people who live in Japan or have visited Japan speak of Mount Fuji, and I have seen photographs and other representations of Mount Fuji. And I have not heard anyone tell me that Mount Fuji does not exist. It would be a strange world indeed if the only way to make a statement like this would be to have direct perceptual experience of Mount Fuji. Similarly, if the only way to make statements about general sets is to have direct perception-based knowledge of all the members of that set, then politics would cease to be possible.

In Britain, there are over 1,200 hospitals and over 3,200 secondary schools: given that each politician would – in order to protect themselves from ignorance – need to spend half a day at each place (say) before he is allowed to make decisions about health and education, he would need to spend at least six years visiting hospitals and secondary schools. This is a rather contrived and silly example, but it is the sort of thing I think of whenever I see politicians making pious remarks about how wonderful their local school or leisure centre or hospital radiology wing or whatever is. If politicians are not allowed to have these beliefs without this lengthy process of direct experience formation, then voters aren’t either. The problem is that the direct experience doesn’t actually help: if something very bad is happening, a quick visit from an MP won’t reveal that. To the casual visitor, a school with a major bullying problem won’t look very different from one without.

Of course, the rhetorical move cuts the other way. One can simply respond “Ah, but there is one thing t in such-and-such a place where p does hold and you ought to come and visit!” This is in fact what two Conservatives promptly did: David Willetts and David Burrowes.

If David Taylor wanted to refute the motion without offending logic, he need simply have answered it with the statistics, by appealing to facts about all further education colleges. However wonderful Stephenson College on the A511 near Coalville is, it is logically feasible that it is a rare exception to the rule.

Lammy not answering the question on student loans

In a debate on January 29, 2009, Dr Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Lib Dem) asked David Lammy, the Minister of Higher Education and Intellectual Property (an unhappy marriage in my humble opinion!), about student loans:

While I accept that the income-contingent loans are better than what went before, does the Minister accept that the level of graduate debt is much higher now than it was 10 years ago, and will he further accept that it tends to hit women graduates harder because they stay in debt longer for reasons we understand?

A reasonable question. With so-called “top-up” fees, student debt has enormously increased in the last few years. The very terminology “top-up” masks the finances of it – if you are drinking a glass of wine and someone offers you a top-up, that is rather a different thing from a “refill” – tripling the student loan sounds much more like a refill and much less like a top-up, but there you go.

Lammy responds:

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the repayments of the loans kick in once income reaches a sufficient level, that there are repayment holidays for people if they fall on hard times, and that there are exceptions, such as for those with disabilities or mental illness. It is true that this is a loan system, but the terms of those loans are the best available in the country.

This is quite simply not answering the question. Evan Harris already made the point that income-dependent student loans are better than what went before, but his point was that it is a bad thing that so many students are in debt regardless of the repayment regime they are under.

Clark on high-speed rail fares

I’m a South Eastern rail customer on the Hastings–London line, so rail fare hikes in the south-east affect me. I’m also concerned about them politically – if the government wants to convince us to all stop using our polluting cars and switch over to rail travel, the Government needs to make it cheaper and more convenient to do so.

But Greg Clark, Conservative MP for Tunbridge Wells, is wrong about rail fares:

As my hon. Friend eloquently said, we face fare increases well above inflation. The increase is 10 per cent. in Tunbridge Wells this year, following one of 7.9 per cent. the previous year. We can look forward to increases for a further two years, all because the Government, in the tendering document, required Southeastern customers to pay for the costs of the channel tunnel rail link. On the Hastings line, from Sevenoaks right down to Hastings, none of our constituents would benefit from the high-speed line. It is fantastic that it is going ahead, and those who can benefit from it clearly have cause for celebration, but no one in Tunbridge Wells, High Brooms, Tonbridge or any of the stations used by my constituents will benefit. Indeed, we actively disbenefit in the following way.

Journey times from Ashford, which now last 83 minutes on average, will fall to 36 minutes. In so far as there is competition between our towns, Ashford will be more attractive in commuting terms than Tunbridge Wells. We think we have manifest charms that might make up for that, and we are confident that we can hold our own, but nevertheless it is galling for my constituents that they will have no reduction in journey time, while paying the same or more than commuters in Ashford.

First of all: none of Greg Clark’s constituents are going to benefit from the Channel Tunnel Rail Link? How about if they use Eurostar? Reduced journey times from London to Paris are pretty useful and benefit anyone who can get to London reasonably easily. And there is at least a possible benefit for commuters in Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells and down the line to Hastings: as Eurostar trains are no longer using the track from Tonbridge to London, that potentially means more capacity for commuter trains.

It is disappointing for those of us who live on the Hastings line to not be able to take advantage of high-speed London trains and also – as was once suggested – Tonbridge becoming a Eurostar station. “Tonbridge International” and a high-speed link to Paris, Lille and Brussels would have rid the area of any lingering provincialism.

Clark is wrong about how Tunbridge Wells commuters have no reduction in journey time “while paying the same or more than commuters in Ashford”. Ashford commuters who want to use the high-speed service pay a supplementary charge of £4.50 (single), £8.20 (return) or £4.40 (offpeak return) – as do high-speed commuters in Canterbury, Dover, Folkstone and Ramsgate. Ebsfleet travellers also pay a supplementary charge, although it is lower than those from the other stations.

An Anytime Day Return from Tunbridge Wells to London costs £27.80. An Anytime Day Return from Ashford to London (Waterloo East or Charing Cross, not high-speed to St. Pancras) costs £41.30. Add another £8.20 on top of that for high-speed for a whopping £49.50. This is hardly Tunbridge Wells commuters “paying the same or more than commuters in Ashford”!

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