2017-02-17

The question for every EU citizen resident in the UK: ”Should I stay or should I go?”

(And will I have a choice?)



On February 8 MPs dealt a further post-Brexit-referendum blow to three million EU citizens resident in the UK and voted 332 to 290 against granting such citizens the right to remain. It later transpired that one of the reasons Home Secretary Amber Rudd was able to secure such a convincing majority was that she had circulated a letter to Tory back-benchers two days before the vote reassuring them that there was “absolutely no question of treating EU citizens with anything other than the utmost respect”. Of course, since the Brexit vote, many EU citizens in the UK feel that they are being treated with a great deal of disrespect. Perhaps a more important issue for them, however, is how worried they should now feel about their status here.

In her letter, Amber Rudd reprises the claim that the plight of EU citizens here is somehow the fault of the EU:

“The Government remains committed to providing reassurance to EU nationals here and UK nationals in the EU as a priority once Article 50 has been triggered. The hold-up is less an issue of principle than one of timing with a few EU countries insisting there can be ‘no negotiation before notification’, and therefore that nothing can be settled until Article 50 is triggered.”

Coming at this from the opposite point of view, The European Council President Donald Tusk has opined that the “only source of anxiety and uncertainty [for the UK and EU citizens living in one another's territories] is [...] the decision on Brexit”. It is, he argues, our “rejection of the free movement of people and all the rights it entails” that will, by default, abolish the rights of EU citizens in the UK and the rights of UK citizens in the EU.

But regardless of how blame might be most appropriately apportioned, there would seem to be some fundamental misunderstandings concerning the symmetry of the UK’s relationship with the EU and its members. By and large, the EU has no say in how non-EU citizens are treated in member states. After all, how we deal with, say, Australians here in the UK has always been a matter for our government and the Australian government. So the notion that there could be a simple reciprocal deal between the EU and the UK over this issue is quite misguided.

Moreover, the rights that EU citizens currently enjoy throughout the EU are wide-ranging and complex. They involve health-care, and pensions, and travel, and family members who may or may not be EU citizens themselves, and benefits, and education. There are no simple decisions to be made over what exactly we want existing UK citizens living in the EU and EU citizens living in the UK to retain; or even over how we define “living in”.

While the EU cannot negotiate on behalf of its members when it comes to the specific residency rights of their UK inhabitants, it is clear that there are many aspects of the UK’s post Brexit relationship with the EU that have implications for those residents. It is often claimed that Germany’s Angela Merkel bears particular responsibility for the EU’s refusal to discuss any of this prior to our triggering of Article 50 but the German chancellor’s spokeswoman, Ulrike Demmer has insisted that there is “complete unanimity [among the remaining 27] that there can be no pre-negotiations with Great Britain before notification”.

Pace Amber Rudd’s acknowledgement of MP’s concerns about how long this might take to resolve, the UK’s decision to tie this issue to Brexit negotiations with the EU, and with its 27 individual members, risks delaying any resolution for months or years. In this context, it is perhaps understandable that the EU were wary of open-ended “pre-negotiations” and insisted on definite start and end dates.

So how worried should EU citizens be about their future in the UK?

As the UK Home Office puts it: “EU nationals who have lived continuously and lawfully in the UK for at least 5 years automatically have a permanent right to reside” and it has been estimated that about 84% of EU citizens currently living in the UK already meet this criterion or will have met it by the time we leave. This seems to imply that the whole issue is a bit of a storm in a tea-cup. But,as is often the case when it comes to Brexit, things are a bit more complicated than they seem at first sight.

Post Brexit there will have to be some way of distinguishing between EU citizens in the UK who have continuing rights to live and work here and those who do not. Those citizens will need to be issued with papers – i.e.  “Permanent Residency Documents” - that evidence such rights; and they will need to be issued with those papers within two years or at least before whatever date is chosen for the ending for freedom of movement.

While the numbers of EU citizens in the UK applying for permanent residency documents from the Home Office has increased significantly, this only represents a small proportion of the millions who are (notionally) eligible. The Kafkaesque nature of the Home Office’s procedures and its treatment of applicants may be putting many off. Others seem to be seeking refuge in Micawberism. After all, as even the fiercely pro-Brexit Jacob Rees-Mogg has put it, “The idea that [the Home Office] can deport three million people is bonkers”. What Rees-Mogg seems not to realize is that deportation is not really the fear. If EU citizens lose their rights to work and receive health care and re-enter the country and hold a driving licence and maintain a bank account, unless they can furnish the correct papers, they will have to leave - at least those whose lives involve things like national insurance numbers and paying tax. I suppose that many of the hundreds of thousands working in the UK’s large black economy and the destitute may simply carry on living here until they get caught. Below the radar, the UK is already interning and deporting thousands of EU nationals it considers unfit to be here.

And even among those that do apply to the UK Home Office have their situation in the UK regularized, about 34% are being turned down – some then being ordered, for good measure, to pack up and leave the UK. One reason for refusal seems to be failure or inability to provide documentation sufficient to satisfy the Home Office’s draconian rules. More worryingly, many are being turned down for failure to provide evidence of “Comprehensive Medical Insurance”. This is a mind bogglingly complex area of law and, according to the EU, the Home Office is in breach of the law when it insists, retrospectively, that some categories of UK residents who have been legally using NHS services all their lives require evidence of health insurance before they can apply for residency. This is, however, exactly what the Home Office is insisting on.

Although the Home Office has made some concessions recently in reducing the complexity of the application process, the accompanying guidance for the new forms contains a chilling new entry:

“Scenario 3:
Colette, a Belgian citizen, came to the UK for a holiday in August 2003 but then remained without permission or entitlement under community law. Any residence in the UK after her entitlement under community law came to an end was residence in breach of the immigration laws.”

In other words, there are many EU citizens exercising their right to free movement here in blissful ignorance of the fact that our Home Office now considers their presence not just unwelcome but unlawful. Residence in breach of the immigration laws can land you in prison.

Since public hostility and bureaucratic malice towards UK citizens in other EU countries is rare and the process (at least judging from the impressions given to me by friends living abroad) for obtaining residency permits is cheap and straightforward, it could be argued that the EU has already made the concessions towards UK citizens that we intend to wring from them in our negotiations. Nonetheless we are now entering those negotiations armed with a threat to strip EU citizens living here of rights we already deny to more than a third of those who claim them.

If this threat is empty, why do we insist, in Parliament, that we need to make it as the opening gambit in our negotiations?

Amber Rudd’s letter seems to claim, in contradictory passages, both that the fate of EU citizens in the UK is contingent on the success of our negotiations with the EU and that it is in the gift of Parliament. Only one of these claims can possibly by true. Even if the latter is true, our MPs have shown few signs that they are losing sleep over this question.

Without wishing to sound alarmist, I think it would be extremely prudent for any EU citizens currently resident in the UK to apply as soon as possible for permanent residency and to begin making contingency plans for leaving – just in case. Even if leaving the UK is never actually mandated by the Home Office or remaining is never actually made truly impossible, leaving may become the only way to preserve rights, prosperity, and dignity.

2017-01-23

Germany is Responsible for the Plight of EU Families in the UK (and other alternative-facts from the Brexit camp)

One of the Brexiters' favourite memes at the moment (oft repeated in the press) is the one that lays blame for the fear and uncertainly being suffered by EU citizens living in the UK at Angela Merkel's door. Take this recent tweet I received - after complaining that the UK Government were threatening to deport my wife (which, at the moment, they still are):

First of all, it should be pointed out, the EU has very little control over how individual EU countries deal with their non-EU residents. For example, the UK's arrangements for Australians or Pakistanis who wish to come here and reside here are very much our affair not the EU's. So a "reciprocal" deal between the UK and the EU, in the way May talks about this, simply is not possible.

It is the UK who has decided to strip its own citizens of their EU citizenship and EU citizens of their rights in the UK; so the current predicament is entirely of our making. We cannot somehow shift the responsibility to the EU.

It is true that May offered to discuss this, not to "settle" it, before submitting Article 50. Who knows whether there will be an agreement on this with all 27 countries or how long such agreements might take? But the suggestion that there might be "pre-discussions" (about anything) before submitting Article 50 was rejected not by Germany but by all 27 countries unanimously - and they don't agree on very much unanimously these days. For obvious reasons, the rest of the EU want to stick to a firm timetable.

Moreover, there are other problems with the notion of negotiating "reciprocal arrangements" with the EU. There is no symmetry between the distribution of EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in Europe. Quite how the Home Office, or the UK’s EU negotiating team, imagine that their threat to deport Germans (like my wife) will dissuade (say) the Spanish from deporting their large collection of UK pensioners (perhaps in a fit of pique over Gibraltar) is never made clear.

Sadly, the UK is not the only country in the EU which now has a right-wing nationalist and isolationist government in power. Hungary and Poland have taken similar directions and an even more lunatic and xenophobic party is on the ascendancy in France. It is by no means entirely beyond the cards that some other EU countries might, one day, start expelling British Citizens. We do not have to invoke Godwin's law and go back before 1945 to find examples of war, dictatorship, and ethnic cleansing in Europe.

Think about the position of our own Government! It is saying that if other countries refuse to allow UK citizens to remain once we are no longer in the EU (which would also, of course, be abhorrent) we shall retaliate by expelling law-abiding EU families - who came here legally and in good faith - from the UK. Such retaliation would be morally reprehensible - whether the citizens in question were originally from a country expelling our citizens or originally from a third country.

And even to threaten such a thing is morally reprehensible.

While many EU leaders are doing their best to try and make it possible for UK citizens to acquire some kind of "associate" EU citizenship post-Brexit (though this very well might not happen - it's complicated) the UK is going out of its way to make life for its EU citizens as difficult as possible.

The UK, for practical and political reasons, and for reasons af basic human decency needs to unilaterally guarantee the rights of its EU citizens living here; and it needs to do it now.

2017-01-19

Sorry this is about the Home Office and Brexit again

STOP PRESS!

The Home Office have quietly changed their online PR application form:

EU CITIZENS NO LONGER NEED TO LIST EXITS FROM AND ENTRIES TO THE UK!

The form is still riddled with errors. For example, if you say "yes" to the question as to whether you have "ever" received Child Benefit, you are then asked how much you are receiving. If you answer "£0", your answer is rejected. So, if you are not getting it now, you are forced to go back and lie and say you have never received Child Benefit. And there are many such problems with the form. But the onerous, spiteful, and impossible-to-comply-with requirement to list your trips away from the UK is no more.

I wonder where this decision came from?

For even more background see: EU citizens in the UK are already facing Home Office threats

The background to this post:

EU citizens (such as my German wife - who has lived and worked here for 31 years) who wish to apply for UK citizenship or guarantee that they won't be expelled from the UK post-Brexit have to obtain a "Residency Permit" from the Home Office. The relevant 85 page form asks (inter alia) for a list of every date of departure and date of return for every trip away the UK since the applicant entered the UK.

5.3 Have you (or has your sponsor, if applicable) had any absences from the UK since you/they entered?

Yes/No

If yes, please give details in the tables below. Continue on a separate sheet if necessary and enclose with your application.

The kind people at the Home Office have now conceded that "only" five years of entry and exit dates are required (though they have not corrected their form). But I did not know this originally (I took what it said on the form at face value - silly me) so I thought I should write to them and ask about this:

To: nationalityenquiries@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk 2017-01-06

Dear Sir/Madam

My wife of 31 years is a German citizen and has lived with me (and worked) in the UK since 1985.

Our understanding is that, in order to apply for UK citizenship, my wife will first need to apply for a residency card.

The form for applying to UK citizenship asks her to list all trips away from the UK for the past 3 years (again as we understand the form) but the application from for a residency permit seems to require us to list all trips for the past 31 years.

Please could you confirm whether this is really the case. Does my wife really have to try and remember every single trip she has made since she came to live in the UK or will her trips over the qualifying period (3 or 5 years) suffice?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours faithfully

Dr Michael A Ward

I received an automated reply:

From: NationalityEnquiries@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk 2017-01-06

IMPORTANT - PLEASE READ THIS MESSAGE AS THE INFORMATION YOU REQUIRE MAY BE GIVEN BELOW. YOU WILL NOT RECEIVE ANOTHER RESPONSE

RTFM [I paraphrase]

What should I do if I have a different nationality related enquiry that has not been covered by this message or by the website links provided? You should call our Contact Centre on 0300 123 2253 or email us at: FurtherNationalityEnquiries@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk (you should provide your name, date of birth, place of birth, current nationality, immigration status and Home Office Reference number where known. A telephone number should also be provided so that we may contact you. We aim to respond to your enquiry within 20 working days.

Since I had "read the ******* manual" I wrote again:

To: FurtherNationalityEnquiries@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk 2017-01-06

My wife of 31 years is a German citizen and has lived with me (and worked) in the UK since 1985.

Our understanding is that, in order to apply for UK citizenship, my wife will first need to apply for a residency card.

The form for applying to UK citizenship asks her to list all trips away from the UK for the past 3 years (again as we understand the form) but the application from for a residency permit seems to require us to list all trips for the past 31 years.

Please could you confirm whether this is really the case. Does my wife really have to try and remember every single trip she has made since she came to live in the UK or will her trips over the qualifying period (3 or 5 years) suffice?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours faithfully

Dr Michael A Ward

And received the following gracious reply:

From: generalimmigrationenquiries@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk 2017-01-12

Dear Dr Ward

Thank you for your email correspondence of 6 January.

Please note, the onus is upon the individual customers to ensure that they satisfy the requirements set out in the guidance material that accompanies each and every application form. Therefore, you are advised to read through the guidance prior to submitting a future application.

If after reading the application guidance you are still unsure as to the requirements for the application you wish to submit you should seek independent immigration advice.

Immigration advisers can help you with immigration matters, including completion of forms and representing you at a tribunal. The Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC) regulates immigration advisers, which means they must meet certain standards.

Please see the link below to find an immigration advisor:

https://www.gov.uk/find-an-immigration-adviser

We are unable to advise you any further on your enquiry.

Yours sincerely

XXX
Customer Service Operations
UK Visas and Immigration

I was disinclined to let this pass:

To: generalimmigrationenquiries@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk 2017-01-12

Dear Ms XXX

Thank you for your email.

I have read the guidance material in depth. It is labyrinthine, ambiguous, and often downright contradictory.

I asked a simple specific question. A simple answer to this question and a clarification on your website would make life much easier for three million EU citizens living in the UK and for your own officials who have to deal with applications from EU citizens.

I find your email discourteous and insulting.

Please could you advise me as to your complaints procedure.

Yours sincerely

Dr Michael A Ward

And received another reply:

From: generalimmigrationenquiries@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk 2017-01-13

Dear Dr Ward

Thank you for your email correspondence of 12 January.

Please refer to the link below for information on how to make a complaint:

https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/uk-visas-and-immigration/about/complaints-procedure

I hope this is helpful.

Yours sincerely

YYY
Customer Service Operations
UK Visas and Immigration

So I thought I'd submit a complaint:

To: complaints@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk 2017-01-13

Dear Sir/Madam

[I reproduced the correspondence above and then said:]

This experience has prompted me to write to you. I have a number of concerns:

  1. The information on your website for people in our situation is labyrinthine, ambiguous, and often downright contradictory. It should be improved.
  2. When people write to you pointing out problems with the information on your website, this should be welcomed by the Home Office as useful feedback rather than treated with contempt.
  3. I see no justification for your refusal to answer the simple question I raised. A simple answer would help me, millions of others in the same boat (at least if you clarified your website), and your own staff.
  4. Even if, for some reason, it is not possible for you to answer a question from a member of the public, I do not understand why you cannot respond using an apologetic tone rather than using a rude, hostile, and condescending tone.
I look forward to receiving your response.

Yours faithfully

Dr Michael A Ward

And duly received a charming response to my complaint ... which didn't address anything in my complaint but which provided an answer the the question I'd asked in the first place:

From: generalimmigrationenquiries@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk [sic] 2017-01-18

Dear Sir [sic]

Thank you for your reply of 13 January.

If your wife is required to apply for permanent residency before applying for British citizenship, the qualifying period for a permanent residence card is 5 years under the EEA regulations. Therefore information regarding absences is only required for the qualifying period.

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/apply-for-a-document-certifying-permanent-residence-or-permanent-residence-card-form-eea-pr

Please note that as the onus is upon the individual customers to ensure that they satisfy the requirements set out in the guidance material that accompanies each and every application form, the UK Visas and Immigration is not able to give, indicate or advise upon the outcome of any such application prior to it being given full and careful consideration. Therefore, you are advised to read through the guidance prior to submitting a future application.

We are unable to advise you any further on your enquiry and you should seek immigration advice if you need help with permission to stay in the UK. Immigration advisers can help you with immigration matters, including completion of forms and representing you at a tribunal. The Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC) regulates immigration advisers, which means they must meet certain standards.

Please see the link below to find an immigration advisor:

https://www.gov.uk/find-an-immigration-adviser

I hope this clarifies the matter.

Yours faithfully

ZZZ
Customer Service Operations
UK Visas and Immigration

I tried again:

To: generalimmigrationenquiries@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk CC: complaints@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk 2017-01-18

Dear ZZZ

While this is a response, of sorts, to my original question – a response which you initially refused to provide - it is not a response to my *complaint* (please see points 1-4) below. Since I have received an unsatisfactory response to my complaint, I should now like to escalate my complaint. I note that https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/553890/Complaints_Management_Guidance_September_2016.pdf Section 7.1 states:

“When any verbal or written response to the complaint is provided, the complainant must be informed about how they can take forward their complaint if they are not satisfied with the reply. SOPs include templates and standard paragraphs containing the prescribed wording.”

So you are in breach of your own rules here. I now look forward to a review of my original complaint by someone at Grade 6 or above [you see I've been RTFM!]

Yours sincerely

Dr Michael A Ward

For once they got straight back to me (though obviously without reading anything I'd written to them first):

From: generalimmigrationenquiries@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk [sic - not, I note, from complaints] 2017-01-18

Dear Sir [sic - they do know my name and I haven't been knighted yet]

Thank you for your further reply of 18 January.

Please refer to the following link regarding the complaints procedure. [...errrrmmm are we not going round in circles a bit here?]

https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/uk-visas-and-immigration/about/complaints-procedure

I am sorry I am unable to assist further. [further?]

Yours faithfully

ZZZ
Customer Service Operations
UK Visas and Immigration

So I've tried to escalate matters:

To: complaints@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk 2017-01-18

Dear Sir/Madam

I should like to add the behaviour of Ms ZZZ (please see below) to my escalated complaint.

Yours faithfully

Dr Michael A Ward

[record of correspondence so far]

I have just received a reply. Needless to say, my complaint was not upheld.

From: lsecsu@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk 2017-01-27

Thank you for your email correspondence of 18 January, where you have raised a complaint about the handling of your enquiry of 13 January.

I have assessed the circumstances relating to the matter you have complained about. With this work now complete, I have based my response on my findings. I am not upholding your complaint and I hope my reply helps you to understand the reasons why.

You have expressed your dissatisfaction at the misleading information on our website and have asked for it to be improved. You also say that you have received an unsatisfactory response to your complaint asking if your wife needed to apply for permanent residency before she could apply for British citizenship. You have requested that we escalate your complaint as you feel we are in breach of our own rules.
I am sorry to hear of your experience in using the website, we find customer feedback valuable in order to improve the services provided and your comments have been forwarded on. Further feedback can be provided via the following website address: www.gov.uk/contact/govuk

Our records shows your email dated 13 January about the advice you received from the Nationality Enquiries Team was forwarded to General Immigration Enquiries who are not part of the Complaints Team. They replied to your email on 18 January. I am sorry if you were dissatisfied with the information provided.

[more information about recruiting an immigration adviser]

I am now escalating my complaint to complaintsreview@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk - this is clearly going to the Ombudsman

Dear Sir/Madam

I write to request a review of my complaint CMS Reference: 131-137272.

I should like a review because you have not addressed any of the complaints I made.

NB I did not escalate my complaint because I felt you were in breach of your own rules. I escalated my complaint because the original response I received was unsatisfactory. Your response was also in breach of your own rules, but that was not the reason I found it unsatisfactory. I found it unsatisfactory because it did not address my complaint.

My original complaints were that:

  1. The information on your website for people in our situation is labyrinthine, ambiguous, and often downright contradictory. It should be improved.
  2. When people write to you pointing out problems with the information on your website, this should be welcomed by the Home Office as useful feedback rather than treated with contempt.
  3. I see no justification for your refusal to answer the simple question I raised. A simple answer would help me, millions of others in the same boat (at least if you clarified your website), and your own staff.
  4. Even if, for some reason, it is not possible for you to answer a question from a member of the public, I do not understand why you cannot respond using an apologetic tone rather than using a rude, hostile, and condescending tone.
To which I added a specific complaint about ZZZ’s rudeness towards me in her responses to my original complaint.

My reasons for asking for a review are as follows:

  • You still have not corrected your form which still asks “Have you (or has your sponsor, if applicable) had any absences from the UK since you/they entered?” [5.3];
  • you have not apologized for the behaviour of your staff (in initially refusing to answer a simple question);
  • you have not apologized for the rude and hostile tone of you staff in all their correspondence with me; and
  • you have not given any indication that you would expect your staff to behave in a different fashion in future.
I look forward to your response

Yours faithfully

Dr Michael A Ward

And since the Home Office have now confirmed to me twice in writing that the wording of the form is incorrect, I though I should take up the suggestion that I provide feedback "via the following website address: www.gov.uk/contact/govuk":

I submitted the following message on 2017-01-27

At 5.3 the form states:

5.3 Have you (or has your sponsor, if applicable) had any absences from the UK since you/they entered?

Yes No

If yes, please give details in the tables below. Continue on a separate sheet if necessary and enclose with your application.

It should say

5.3 Have you (or has your sponsor, if applicable) had any absences from the UK during the five-year qualifying period?

(at least according to the letter I received form Robert Goodwill MP - the Immigration Minister)

The online version of this form has the same error. Please could you correct it ASAP as this is causing a lot of confusion and distress for EU citizens applying for proof of residency.

I have just received a reply.

From: support@govuk.zendesk.com 2017-01-31

Dear Dr Michael A Ward

Thank you for your message. Unfortunately the GOV.UK support team can not provide direct advice on visas, application process/timeframes, immigration or general guidance.

You must contact the UK Visas and Immigration team (UKVI) directly for advice:

- https://www.gov.uk/contact-ukvi/visas-and-settlement

[lots of other URLS]

Kind regards

DDD

GOV.UK

Government Digital Service

I have, of course, responded (I'm a stubborn old bugger):

2017-01-31

Dear Ms DDD

Thank you for your email, but you seem to have misunderstood my message to you.

I do not require any advice on visas, application process/timeframes, immigration or general guidance.

I simply wanted to draw you attention to an error on your website.

When I drew this error to the attention of UK Visas and Immigration team, they suggested I got in touch with you. I understood them to be saying that correcting the website is your responsibility not theirs.

Please could you correct the forms on your website. You can confirm that this is an error by speaking to UKVI or to Robert Goodwill MP.

Yours sincerely

Dr Michael A Ward

Another reply

From: support@govuk.zendesk.com 2017-02-03

Dear Dr Michael A Ward

Your feedback has been passed on to the team at the UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) who manage this material. They will review your comments, but will only be able to deal with your query if it relates to an error with the website or its content.

In the meantime your original query with GOV.UK will now be closed.

Best wishes

I got straight back

2017-02-03

Dear Ms DDD

My query does relate to an error with the website and its contents.

I have already been in touch with UKVI. They put me in touch with you.

I do not understand why you are being so difficult about this. Why not simply correct the error?

Yours sincerely

Dr Michael A Ward

And, to DDD's credit she got straight back to me:

From: support@govuk.zendesk.com 2017-02-03

Dear Dr Michael A Ward

You were previously told incorrect information. GOV.UK cannot advise.

The content you are querying in the PDF guidance is managed and owned by the UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI). I have to pass over to them for them to reply to you directly.

Best wishes

I rather doubt I shall hear back from UKVI regarding the incorrect form, but I do expect a response to my complaint review. When they reject it I shall take it to the Ombudsman.

Reading the Home Office's Complaints guidance for UK Visas and Immigration, Immigration Enforcement and Border Force I note that

  • Incivility.
  • Brusqueness.
  • Isolated instances of bad language.
  • An officer’s refusal to identify themselves when asked. [and]
  • Poor attitude, for example, being unhelpful, inattentive or obstructive.
are all considered "minor misconduct complaints" and are "complaints about the professional conduct of IBD staff [...] which are not serious enough to warrant a formal investigation". If such complaints are substantiated "they would not normally lead to discipline (misconduct) proceedings". So I'm not holding out much hope of getting a reasonable - or even remotely civil - response to my complaint. But we shall see.

Watch this space for any further developments!

2017-01-18

There's no place like the Home Office



For background see: EU citizens in the UK are already facing Home Office threats

Unless something very big starts happening very soon, two or three million [1] EU citizens will wake up in the UK on the morning of 2019 April 1 without continuing permission to remain working, studying, or living here. This is, I submit, going to be a bit of a problem.

The Government have made it very clear that, as they put it, they 'want to protect the status of EU nationals already living in the UK' and that 'the only circumstances in which that would not be possible is if British[2] Citizens' rights in other EU Member States were not protected in return'[3]. This statement chills me to the bone.

Quite how the Home Office, or the UK’s EU negotiating team, imagine that their threat to deport Germans like my wife Karin will dissuade (say) the Spanish from deporting their large collection of UK pensioners is never made clear. Nor is the question ever addressed of whether – even if the Spanish (perhaps in a fit of pique over Gibraltar) decided to deport hundreds of thousands of Brits (a move that would clearly be morally reprehensible) – it could ever be morally justifiable to retaliate by deporting law-abiding families (Spanish or otherwise) from our country.

But let us assume that the remaining 27 EU countries[4] do not wish to start rounding up and expelling UK citizens and that the Home Office finds itself able to grant permission for most or all of the EU citizens already here to stay[5]. What will happen then?

Theresa May has made it very clear that she considers keeping new EU students and workers out of the UK is more important to her even than the prosperity of the UK. There will, it must therefore be concluded, have to be some way of distinguishing between EU citizens who are and are not entitled to continue living, working, and studying here. The current Home Office system whereby EU citizens may obtain a Residency Permit is positively Kafkaesque and up to 30% of EU applicants are actually being turned down because they cannot satisfy the absurdly onerous conditions imposed by the Home Office[6]. If we are going to process three million people in two years we need a new regime and we need plans for that new regime now - if not by several months ago.

Since my wife and I are directly affected by this situation, I decided to write to the Government (through my MP) and ask them what their plans might be. I reproduce my correspondence below:

2016-12-15

Dear Ms Shah

I write as one of your constituents.

My wife (a German – and thus an EU - citizen) has lived with me in Bradford since 1985. I understand that, under international law, the UK government will not actually be able to deport her once Brexit goes through, since she has been here more than five years[7], but we are very worried about what *is* going to happen.

At the very least, I assume she will require some kind of proof of residency or risk being turned away at the UK border whenever she returns from visiting her family in Germany or goes abroad on holiday or with work. Even if German citizens retain the right to visa-free *travel* to the UK, this will not allow them to enter the UK to continue living and working here – without any required papers.

We are investigating obtaining a residency permit (EEA PR), but this requires Karin to fill in an eighty-five page form – including listing every trip she or I have made abroad during the last thirty-one years. Since we both travel a lot – on business and for pleasure – the list will be almost impossible to draw up with any guarantee of accuracy.

Obviously, in the end, we shall have to try and complete this form and assemble the sheaves of documentation required, but this raises another concern: I understand there is already a huge backlog in processing applications for residency. Once Article 50 is submitted and the two year countdown to Brexit is underway, this backlog can only increase. And there are three million EU citizens living and working in the UK.

I realize that Theresa May’s government refuses to offer any guarantees on the continuing rights of EU citizens (something I find appalling, but we are where we are) but could you ask the government (on our behalf) for some kind of guidance as to what the arrangements are going to be – post Brexit – for EU citizens who *are* given the right to remain in the UK (especially those who, like my wife, have acquired rights under international law which can’t simply be negotiated away )?

Specifically:
  1. Will there be some kind of fast track system under which EU citizens can register or will they have to apply for residency under the existing procedures?
  2. What will happen if the backlog in the system prevents EU citizens living here obtaining the required papers in time for April 1, 2019? Will they be trapped in the UK until things are sorted out or will there be some kind of transitional arrangements?
We both lead busy working lives and we need to begin planning ahead. I don’t think it is unreasonable of us to request timely and clear answers to these questions.

Yours sincerely

etc

I have just received a reply from the Minister for Immigration Robert Goodwill. It was rather less hostile in tone than his recent letter to The 3 Million[8] and than any of the correspondence I've received from the Home Office (nothing, for example, about the "onus" being on EU citizens) but did not answer or even address either of the questions I asked.

2017-01-13

Dear Naz Shah

Thank you for your letter of 15 December 2016 on behalf of your constituents Dr Michael Ward and Mrs Karin XXXXXXXXXXX about the arrangements for European Union (EU) nationals after the UK leaves the EU.

As the Government has said, there will be no immediate changes in the circumstances of EU nationals currently residing in the UK and they continue to be welcome here. EU citizens make an invaluable contribution to our economy and our society. The Prime Minister has been clear that she wants to protect the status of EU nationals already living in the UK, and the only circumstances in which that would not be possible is if British citizens' rights in other EU Member States were not protected in return. The Government intends to reach agreement with the EU on this issue as soon as possible.

More information on the rights and residence requirements of EEA citizens in the UK following the referendum is available here: www.gov.uk/qovernment/news/statement-the-status-of-eu-nationals-in-the-uk.

You asked about the arrangements for EU nationals applying for residence documentation. UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) staff are deployed according to demands on the service. Currently, all residence documentation applications from EU nationals are being considered within the published service standards.

I note your constituents are concerned about the length of the application forms. The application forms are designed to cover a range of scenarios in which an applicant may qualify. No applicant is required to complete every page only those sections that are relevant to their circumstances.

The forms are also accompanied by comprehensive guidance notes to assist applicants in submitting the relevant supporting documentation.

Applicants who, like Mrs XXXXXXXXXXX, have lived in the UK for a number of years do not have to provide evidence covering their entire period of residence. Applicants can, in principle, focus on any continuous five-year period of qualifying residence. However, if the period of qualifying residence ended more than two years ago, she must also provide some evidence that she has not been continuously absent from the UK for more than two years since then.

UKVI continue to make applications quicker and easier and are working to digitise applications to provide a more modern service that is in line with modern consumers. As part of this, we recently added two EEA application forms to our online application service. These are currently available for applicants who meet specific conditions but we are currently working towards expanding the service to those who apply on behalf of themselves and family members. With digitisation, the online forms are able to screen out any irrelevant questions, depending on the application type and previous answers given.

Finally. if Mrs Karin XXXXXXXXXXX was [sic] to submit an application online, she may be interested to know that it is not necessary to surrender her passport and be without it while her application is being considered.

Since October 2016, the European Passport Return Service has been provided by local authorities for EEA and Swiss nationals applying online using the EEA(PP) or EEA(PR) application forms. A participating local authority can photocopy an EEA or Swiss passport and forward a copy to the Home Office on the applicant's behalf. Further information is available at https://www.qov.uk/qovernment/collectionsteuropean-passport-return-service.

I trust this answers your constituent's concerns.

Yours sincerely

Robert Goodwill

You may have your own opinions on whether EU citizens "continue to be welcome here". Anyway, I have just replied:

2017-01-18

Dear Mr Goodwill

Thank you for your letter of 2017 January 13 which Naz Shah’s office has forwarded to me.

Far from answering my concerns, your letter has increased my concerns. Moreover you do not answer, or even address, either of the questions I actually asked.

You make the chilling suggestion that, if British Citizens’ rights were not protected in EU countries (which would obviously be entirely unacceptable too) you would retaliate by expelling law-abiding people who came here legally and in good faith. I find this suggestion morally repugnant.

You also provide a lot of information about the information and facilities on your website and the process for submitting our documents (which involves a 30 mile round trip in our case) but I was well aware of all of this when I wrote in the first place. Your website is labyrinthine, ambiguous, and – in places – downright contradictory. I am grateful for your clarification that my wife only need fill in 5 years of travel dates not 31. Perhaps you might suggest to your staff that they correct the instructions on your site? (Though I do not really understand why we have to provide these dates as this is information that the Home Office already has – automatically from the airlines and ferry companies – and information we do not really have.)

In conclusion, I note that, by default, three million people will wake up in the UK on the morning of 2019 April 1 with no permission to remain working, studying, and living in the UK. Assuming that you do decide to allow most or all of them to stay and assuming that you are going to prevent new EU migrants from coming here to settle, study, and work after that date (unless they have special permits) I submit that you are going to need some way of distinguishing between the two categories of EU citizens. I therefore assume that you are making plans for new systems that will be fit for the purpose of issuing appropriate documents to three million people over the next two years. I do not think it is unreasonable for people in our position to ask what those plans might be.

I repeat my two questions:

  1. Will there be some kind of fast track system under which EU citizens can register or will they have to apply for residency under the existing procedures?
  2. What will happen if the backlog in the system prevents EU citizens living here obtaining the required papers in time for April 1, 2019? Will they be trapped in the UK until things are sorted out or will there be some kind of transitional arrangements?
I hope you will now answer them.

Yours sincerely

etc


I'll post any replies here. Tempus fugit.



  1. Depending on how many simply decide enough is enough and leave these shores before then; or who manage to find their way through the existing Home Office maze.
  2. Odd that they say "British" rather than UK. What about the Northern Irish?
  3. See eg letter from Robert Goodwill of 2017 January 13 in this blog-post.
  4. Of course there is the added complication here of the cut-off date. Will it be the date of the referendum? Such a decision would, whenever it were announced, retrospectively affect those who came her legally between the referendum and the date of any such announcement. Or will it be 2019 April 1? Such a decision might cause a stampede nearer the time. Or will it be some other date.
  5. The status of non EU citizens in EU countries is actually a much more complex question than the UK Governments seems to realize. Some matters are decided at the EU level but most are decided in the individual countries (think of how we treat (say) Americans versus how (say) Germany treats them).
  6. Brexit: 1m EU citizens in Britain 'could be at risk of deportation'
  7. It turns out that this is not actually true: Brexit: acquired rights report from the House of Lords European Union committee
  8. The Home Office responds to our question about deportation of EU citizens

2016-11-18

Get Over It: a response to John Rentoul Chief Political Commentator at The Independent and Stephen Kinnock MP



Brexiters who tell remainers to "get over it" are people who think losing the referendum is like losing at football or having your favourite celebrity voted out of a reality TV programme. Brexit is an economic catastrophe in waiting (how big a catastrophe depends on some decisions within our control and many without our control, but there will be a great deal more red tape and a relative, if not an absolute, reduction in real UK living standards). More significantly – at least to those directly impacted like my own family – Brexit represents an assault on the rights and freedoms and lives of millions of people in the UK and the rest of Europe.

True democracy has checks and balances. It is not a system whereby a majority of those who vote can impose any whim – no matter how damaging – on the rest of the population. I rather doubt that that Messrs Rentoul and Kinnock would be quite so sanguine over a majority vote to (say) permanently banish all MPs and journalists from anywhere south of Watford Gap – unless they applied for special papers.

If the vote had gone other way: 52% remain 48% leave, I should have been relieved but still deeply dismayed that 48% despised other Europeans to an extent that they were prepared to reduce their own living standards in order to prevent those foreigners coming here. (Let us not kid ourselves, cries of “we want back control and sovereignty” were just a more politically correct version of “send them back!”.) Moreover, Farage and his ilk would have never “got over it” (as he made perfectly clear before the vote) if it had gone the other way and he – and his fellow travellers in the Conservative party – would have carried on stirring up hate and division and fighting to leave.

There are approximately three million EU citizens here in the UK and approximately two million British citizens living and working in the EU – with families and loved ones – who are absolutely terrified as to what the future holds. We will use any legal and democratic means to thwart the plans of the Brexiters. If (and you may scoff but it has happened often enough before in history) they begin rounding up families (who came here legally) and interning them and forcibly deporting them, I personally would support civil disobedience to protect the deportees. In fact, I should argue that civil disobedience was a moral duty.

We are never going to “get over this”. We are going to keep fighting for our values of internationalism and tolerance - and for whatever rights we can salvage from the mess of Brexit – as long as we draw breath.

2016-06-18

The bitter taste of Apple

I'm old enough to remember entirely command-prompt computing on DOS and UNIX systems. Then along came the XEROX/PARC work on GUIs. I remember seeing "GEM" running on an old BBC and could instantly see the enormous potential.

When our lab got its first Macintosh 128K, I was blown away. As things worked out, I next got a new job in an entirely UNIX workstation environment. Powerful machines (at the time) but the SUN GUI was primitive compared with what the Mac had to offer & we had shelves of manuals 5m long whereas the Mac offered an intuitive interface that required no manuals.

We then moved to PCs running Windows 95 (or "Mac 89" as people joked).

Thereafter, PCs (usually at least) got better and better and easier to use with each new O/S and I always naively assumed the same was happening at Apple. Certainly the Apple hardware got better and better.

Then last Christmas my wife needed a new phone and laptop and decided to go for a 4s and a MacBook Air. I assumed – as a computer programmer with nearly 30 years’ experience and fond memories of how easy to use Apple Macs used to be – I’d find it child’s play to help her. How wrong I was. I quickly discovered that Apple had apparently spent the past 27 years making their interfaces as counter-intuitive as possible and hiding as much basic functionality away from the user as possible.

Whereas, in the old days, a UNIX or DOS user required all sorts of arcane knowledge to perform basic computing functions, it is now the Mac user who has to learn all the secret tricks.

It begins when you full-size your first window and the resize, minimize, and close buttons disappear from the screen (one of many situations where the user is led into a cul-de-sac from which there is no obvious escape or way back). You try to scroll, and again you need to know a secret trick. You try in vain to accept predictive text suggestion on the phone until, once again, you are let in on the secret – using the space key (why didn’t I think of that?). Right clicking, deleting forwards – things which are entirely obvious on the PC – require esoteric actions on the Mac which have to be discovered and learned.

I could go on and on …. but let me jump to the very worst aspect of the Mac …..

The DOS and UNIX operating systems were built on the idea of a file tree. A highly intuitive metaphor for what actually goes on on a computer disc – which isn’t really organized at all like a tree. Because the idea of a file/folder tree is so intuitive, it was (conceptually at least) easy to navigate files and folders - even in the days when all we had was a command prompt.

Then we got GUIs with icons for different computers and their drives and for the flies and folders on those drives and with drag and drop so you could see exactly where your stuff was and where you were putting it or moving it to.

Why oh why oh why did Apple abandon a paradigm so intuitive and easy to use in favour of vague notions like “libraries” and “synching” and “sharing” and “streaming” and try to “flatten” trees into lists, and different locations into textual descriptions of actions? Most of the time, the user has not the foggiest idea of where his/her stuff is, or where it is going, or which copy of his/her stuff is having a particular action performed on it.

Trying to set up and use iCloud or iTunes is a nightmare. I need to know exactly what file (versions) are in which place and what’s going to happen on my various devices or on the central repository when I click “OK” in a dialogue box. It is impossible to find out except by trial and error, and an error might result in the loss of all my data.

The worst application, by a million miles, on the Apple desktop is “Finder”. OK this works as a search tool – something that has never worked well on the PC (though many 3rd party tools did and do) – but is utterly utterly hopeless for browsing and reorganizing your files. How on earth did Apple's GUI designers take something as intuitive as a UNIX file-tree and come up with something as opaque as Finder? It defies belief.

Please can Apple go back to the days when they tried to make life as easy as possible for the end-user rather than as difficult as possible?

2016-05-25

Lost in France

Driving almost anywhere in the UK has become a nightmare, but driving along the D roads of France is a pleasure I have always treasured - and one that is still available even today.

France has a wonderful system of roads – all numbered in a highly logical way – and wonderful (again, highly logical) Michelin maps to help you navigate your way around.

Unfortunately, there is a catch. In fact there are several catches. If you drive through the back roads of France, you will frequently get lost (and often hopelessly so.).

As a Francophile (and general nerd) I have spent many years thinking deeply about why this is the case. Here are the results of my internal deliberations:

The arrows of outrageous foredoom

Wittgenstein once wrote:

How does it come about that this arrow points? Doesn't it seem to carry in it something besides itself? — "No, not the dead line on paper; only the psychical thing, the meaning, can do that." — That is both true and false. The arrow points only in the application that a living being makes of it.[1]

And here, he is making the point (as part of his discursive theses on language and rule-following –which need to detain us here) that there is nothing intrinsic to an arrow that forces us to react to it in any particular way. After all, what would you say to the person who looked at the arrow and then walked left? You could, perhaps, say “no, that means go that way” pointing to the right with your finger. But your eccentric observer might then reveal that he or she interprets pointing gestures by walking from the tip of the pointing finger towards the elbow of the pointer. In the end, Wittgenstein argues, we are left with the facts of “what we do” when presented with pointers and arrows.

Though (or perhaps because) the French were never great fans of analytical philosophy, they seem to have taken it upon themselves to reify Wittgenstein’s remarks on a grand scale.

Let me explain:

If you walk footpaths in the UK, you encounter signs like this:

[2]

These work perfectly well for walkers. I approach the sign from Malham and I only need to turn my head slightly, as I walk by, to see that I must continue in the same direction for ½ a mile in order to reach Malham Cove. The sign points in the direction I have to go.

Signs like this are useless for driving however. If we were concentrating (as we ought) on the road ahead we should miss them. Instead we have, by and large, adopted the convention that road signs should function like a map held vertically in front of our eyes:

[3]

The two arrows on the right of the sign do not mean “ascend vertically”. They mean “drive forwards at ninety degrees to the direction I am pointing in” ie North (And who, of course, would wish to go in the other direction?).

The French, though this is now slowly changing (see for example the cartoon at the start of this post), never really took to this convention as they established their highways infrastructure. Instead, the French adopted the convention that a sign pointing at forty-five, or even ninety, degrees to the direction of travel should be used to indicate “straight on”:

[4]

Which is clear enough in a situation like this. Unfortunately, the French also retained the convention that a sign may actually indicate the direction of travel.

The end result is that you reach a junction littered with signs - some of which are pointing in the direction you actually need to drive in order to reach the destination indicated on the sign and many of which are pointing at some almost arbitrary angular displacement to that direction.

At complex junctions, with many roads radiating out from the junction at many angles, towering helixes (that would put Crick and Watson to shame) of road signs are constructed with each sign actually pointing along the road prior to the one intended:

I have only shown the main signs (for clarity). The sign post will also have dozens of signs pointing to lesser destinations such as the local l’Hotel de Ville and La Marie. Some of these lesser signs will actually point in the direction of l’Hotel de Ville and La Marie or whatever it is. Others will, like the main destination signs, follow the convention of pointing at forty-five degrees to the intended direction. It all comes down to the whim to the person who erected the sign post, and how many glasses of vin ordinaire he or she had for lunch beforehand I suppose.

The chances of a non-native selecting the correct road in this situation are exactly zero.

Having selected the road-pointed-down at this junction rather than the road-intended, your problems have only just begun. The French have set far deeper traps for the unwary navigator ………

The French have never quite grasped the function of road numbers

Let me set the scene ……

You have just driven through the moderately sized town of Le Chatméchant and made the fatal mistake of driving in the direction that one of the road signs was pointing. You now find yourself heading along a beautiful country road but in the general direction of the Alps rather than the Mediterranean. You pull over and check the map. Rather than turning around and heading back to Le Chatméchant - where you will almost certainly be led astray again - you realize that you can simply carry on, take the next fork right on the D996 towards the little town of Uncheval. Continue through Uncheval on the D996 and you will soon re-join the N666 (the road you should have taken out of Le Chatméchant) and be back on your way heading south.

You drive on and soon reach a fork in the road. There is no mention of D996 or of Uncheval. Instead there is a sign (pointing at some arbitrary angle but apparently indicating the road forking to the right) which mentions the name of a place you are quite unable to locate on your Michelin map (without consulting the index). Nonetheless, you conclude this must be the correct turning and you bear right.

You are soon reassured. Every hundred metres, as you drive along, there are little concrete signs informing you that you are still on the D996.

[5]

Since there are no turn-offs or junctions, this seems a trifle redundant, but I suppose it helps those with poor short term memory.

You then arrive in the centre of Uncheval. There is a lovely town square, a Hotel de Ville, and a Marie and a dozen roads radiating out from the central square.

Which one to take?

All mention of the D996 has now ceased. You are presented with lots of signs (all of them pointing at entirely mysterious angles) which list all sorts of places you might love to visit if you had time but bear no relation to any of the places which (you have noted from the map) lie along your intended route.

Now you have two choices:

  1. You try each of the radial roads in turn until you exit Uncheval and encounter a concrete waypost bearing the rubric “D996” … or not.
  2. You pull over in front of the Patisserie (nipping in to buy a surfeit of Tarte aux mirabelles) and once more consult the map.

Craning your neck and then getting out of the car to get the view from the other side of the peuplier tree you draw up a list of each of the dozen or so indicated place names. You look each one up in the atlas index and then try to locate them on the map. Eventually, you suppose, you will find a place name that lies on the D996 and be able to choose the correct road out of Uncheval.

But the French have one more trick up their sleeves ..... well not really a "new trick", more a further illustration of the fact that identifying roads (rather than destinations) is essential to navigation:

The Mornington Crescent problem

Imagine, if you will, that you are travelling from Belsize Park (perhaps after a bit of “loving on the floor”) and wish to get to Mornington Crescent.

Imagine further that you are entirely unfamiliar with the topology of the London Tube system and that, once you get down to the platforms, no information whatsoever is provided. All you get is trains arriving and leaving declaring their final destinations as “Edgeware”, “Mill Hill East”, “High Barnet”, and Morden.

(Actually, this is more or less the situation you always find yourself in when trying to use the Paris Metro; but I am using this as an analogy for navigating roads using only direction signs.)

The destinations of the trains are not going to help you find your way to Mornington Crescent.

Now imagine you are provided with a map. You realize that you must catch one of the trains going to Morden rather than one of the others. But which train going to Morden?

Let us now imagine that the illuminated signs on the fronts of the trains and on the platforms announce not just the final destinations, but some of the intermediate destinations. Thus:

MORDEN
Via Camden Town, Euston, Kennington, and Balham.

That is still not going to help you get on the right train.

What is required (and what Transport for London – in their wisdom – provide) is some way of distinguishing between the two lines (the line that goes through Charing Cross and the line that goes through Bank). And that is, in fact, how TfL do it. The train signs announce “Morden via Charing Cross” or “Morden via Bank” (or more often “Kennington via ~” ….. but let us stick to the point).

I have often thought it would be clearer from a navigation standpoint if the Northern Line were split into two lines (as it once was: City and South London Railway and the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway) but I do not suppose they will take any notice of my views here. At least TfL do provide a way of distinguishing the different routes and you can (if you look on the map and find out where Bank and Charing Cross are) figure out which train to get on to reach Mornington Crescent.

In the analogous situation on a French country road, you have a much chance of reaching your intended destination without getting lost as you have of arriving at Mornington Crescent by driving down the D996.

In short, responsibility for signposting in France should be taken entirely out of the hands of the French and handed over to us. They could take over our cooking and cheese production (except, of course, for Wensleydale).

Still, there are few finer places on the planet to get completely lost than the back roads of France.





[1] Philosophical Investigations, trans Anscombe. p454
[2] https://www.contours.co.uk/inspiration/challenging_or_iconic.php
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hatfield_and_the_North
[4] http://www.cotedazurcollection.co.uk/touring-holidays-south-of-france.htm
[5] http://www.123rf.com/stock-photo/road_milestone.html

2016-03-04

Making sense of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016

Now I'm not a lawyer and you should take any legal conclusions I reach below with a pinch of salt. But I am good at modelling (or at least I make a living from it) and I thought I'd have a go at trying to represent the drug-law framework as a Venn diagram so that we can all understand it better:

So ..... from the top:

Substances

There are lots of different substances in the world. Some, like (say) plutonium, are rather dangerous and should probably be illegal on account of their dangerousness. Some are more benign - like say water (though even water will kill you if you immerse yourself in to for too long or even if you drink a few litres too quickly) - and quite useful so should probably be legal. I have an open mind on some things .... like "pop-tarts" and copies of the Daily Mail.

Psychoactive substances

A "Psychoactive substance" is "capable of producing a psychoactive effect in a person who consumes it" and "a substance produces a psychoactive effect in a person if, by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, it affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state". [ref]

Hmmm. I suppose that makes sense so far .... though it covers a rather broad range of substances - many of which have yet to be discovered. And it, in effect, makes all those substance (apart from those in a new list of "Legal psychoactive substances" that come along with the new bill) illegal .... but also (logically) legal by virtue of not being in the set of "Illegal psychoactive substances". Some of these substances - legal or illegal (or perhaps in a quantum superposition of legal and illegal) - may or may not be very bad for people, but I've never been quite sure why we ought to punish people for doing themselves harm (and in addition to that harm) by imbibing such substances. By the way, I suspect that breathing in the fumes from dry-wipe pens could be especially bad for your liver and brains if you overdid it and it's probably best to stick to the water-based ones - though they are not as good as the old smelly ones for writing on (or cleaning off) white boards.

Anyway, onward and downwards ....

Legal psychoactive substances

... listed by the new Act

I suppose the first thing to point out is that washing down codeine tablets with whisky will probably kill you - as will whisky on its own if you drink too much of it all at once ... or even over an extended period if you overdo it. If you buy your codeine over the counter from the local pharmacy it will come with paracetamol and you will die particularly horribly if you take too much.

But all that aside ...."Legal psychoactive substances" are already (from a logical point of view) legal by virtue of not being in the "Illegal psychoactive substances" set. So I suppose putting them in a "legal" set makes them super-double-plus legal ... or something.

Illegal psychoactive substances

... listed by the old Misuse of Drugs Act

If you take heroin you will get terrible constipation. It is also nearly as addictive as nicotine - one of the legal (and also not illegal) highs. Also, because it is illegal, any heroin you buy will probably come mixed with all sorts of things that are really bad for you - especially if you inject them.

As with dry-wipe pens and tobacco and lots of other things, it's probably, on balance, not a good idea to take heroin .... but should it be illegal?

The logical problem here is, again, that "Illegal psychoactive substances" are already illegal by virtue of not being in the set of "Legal psychoactive substances". So I suppose, again, putting them in an "illegal" set makes them super-double-plus illegal... or something.

In short, I have the impression that whoever dreamed up this legal framework must have been completely off his (or her) face.

2016-01-25

A letter to my MP re Nicky Morgan's heroic attempts to prevent integration

Letter to my MP @NazShahBfd re @NickyMorgan01's latest bizarre moves sent using writetothem.com - please feel free to use as a template for a letter to your MP.

Dear Naseem Shah

You were recently reported in the Guardian as saying that the poor standard of English among many women in our constituency was a “huge barrier to integration”.

I agree.

David Cameron (whatever you think of his proposed solutions - and I don't think very much of them) has expressed similar views - suggesting that the Government too is in favour of better integration of our communities and that the Government also thinks that the failure of integration helps promote extremism.

In view of this it seems all the more bizarre that more and more school children are being segregated along religious lines in *state funded* "faith schools" and "schools with a religious ethos" (which are apparently not considered "faith schools"). Far from promoting integration, such schools promote division and discrimination (both against the children themselves and in the recruitment of staff) that would be illegal in any other walk of life.

Even worse, many (most?) such schools do not even fully stick to the limited laws and rules which are in place to try and mitigate the divisive effects of faith based admission criteria.

Against this already dismal background, I was particularly dismayed to learn that Nicky Morgan is going to further "protect" faith schools from campaigners against religious discrimination - who, as a minimum, want faith schools to be compelled to abide by the existing rules.

I realize you are a member of the Opposition not the Government, but you are (I understand) in a position to ask questions of the Government and expect an answer.

Please could you ask Nicky Morgan why integration of adults with different religious backgrounds is regarded as a good thing whereas the integration of children with different religious backgrounds is regarded as a bad thing?

Yours sincerely

Michael A Ward (Dr)

2015-12-14

Unicorns

Charles Arthur (@charlesarthur), reacting to a question from a ten year old, posted the following tweet:

Which turns out, like many “silly questions” to be a rather profound one … and one which I certainly struggled to answer (if you have any more answers or object to any of my reasoning or claimed facts, please comment below).

The initial pedantic responses to the question from various geeks like me (and indeed – in one case - from me) pointed out that rhinos don’t have true horns (their “horns” comprise matted hairs) and that they do usually have two horns (one behind the other). But neither of these observations (relevant though they are) do anything to diminish the force of Charles’s question.

As Charles responded to one claim that rhinos don’t have horns: “let’s impale you on one and see how that goes”.

Lots of creatures have horns, antlers, tusks, swords etc, which I shall generalize to: Pointy Things Sticking Out Of Their Heads (PTSOOTHs). Swordfish, walruses, elephants, deer, narwhals, rhinoceroses, and many others spring to mind in this context.

Ptsooths may be composed of bone, cartilage, hair, skin, or tooth enamel. Ptsooths start out, in evolutionary terms, as small bumps that confer some tiny advantage, and evolve from there. They may serve (or have served in different phases of evolution) various purposes which include: protection from predation, hunting weapons, digging tools, and sexual signalling devices.

The term “sexual signalling devices” covers a multitude of sins here. Huge antlers may signal “don’t mess with me” to rival males (and may be used to actually fight rival males) and “please mess with me” to females. In this kind of situation, runaway sexual selection often occurs and – as with the peacock’s tail – we can end up with ptsooths that are far too big for the purpose for which they originally evolved and that may actually be an encumbrance for the ptsoothholder – at least in its non-sexual life.

But to get back to the real topic here, all vertebrates have basic bilateral symmetry[1]. The symmetry is not absolute. Most men have unsymmetrical testicles and while we usually have two lungs and two kidneys, humans only have one spleen, one penis/clitoris, and (timelords aside) one heart. Our single heart does not, however, offend the basic symmetry of the body as much as many imagine:

[2]

The spleen does:

[2]

But these are soft tissues. Vertebrate skeletons are far more symmetrical and (save for the backbone itself and a few other bits) contain two of everything. In particular, the skull (or at least areas of the skull from which ptsooths grow or could grow) develops (embryologically speaking) from two symmetrical sets of bones that fuse together.

[3]

You can see the join!

Jaws (mandibles), foreheads (frontal bones), crowns (parietal bones) are all made from two symmetrical halves with a join (suture) down the middle. Even “single” skull bones – like the occipital bone at the back of the skull – are formed (earlier on in embryo development) from two (or four) initial symmetrically arranged sites.

So to really come to the point (pun intended) animals with ptsooths generally have two or four or six – ie even numbers of ptsooths – because they grow ptsooths from bits of bone that come in pairs and not from the joints between them.

So this could be why there are no unicorns …… but (to go back to Charles’s initial question) what about rhinos? (Let’s just consider the long front horn or consider Asian rhinos which do only have one horn it seems[4]).

Well because the rhino “horn” is essentially a modified tuft of hair, it was free to start evolving wherever on the skull it wished to. After all, many of us have tufts of hair between our eyebrows or on our noses (which many of us pluck out in order not to further enhance our rhino resemblances). Both single or double ptsooths could be useful and the rhino went for a tandem (or single) arrangement because it could[5].

It should be noted that both rhinos and deer still have bilateral symmetry – if Damien Hirst sawed either in half down the middle he’d end up with two pieces that were essentially mirror images of each other. (By the way, I wonder what he did with the other half of his shark?)

”But what about narwhals (the ‘unicorns’ of the sea)?” I hear you all cry.

Well this is where it starts to get really interesting! (So I hope you’ve persevered this far.)

The narwhal[6] “horn” is in fact a tooth – a left canine tooth to be precise. It grows very long and in a helical fashion. The socket for the tusk has migrated very close to the line of symmetry of the narwhal and grows straight forward – providing the unicorn-like appearance:

[7]

– but narwhals are actually slightly asymmetrical:

[8]

Very occasionally, narwhals grow two tusks, but they never grow a single right tusk or reverse the handedness of the helical twist of either tusk.

Unicorns also have a twisted horns and it is often claimed that depictions of unicorn horns were based on observations of narwhal horns.

[9]

Unicorns, however, twist both ways:

[10]

There again, so does DNA – in its depictions! In real life, DNA[11] only goes one way – the opposite way to the narwhal horn.

The ancestors of modern deer also had tusks[12]. Later they evolved horns and their tusks withered away as their horns grew. I see no reason – in principle – why deer or antelope (or other ungulates) could not have evolved to grow (say) only their left horns and why that single horn could not (with a slight asymmetrical deformation in skull development) have moved over towards the centre of the head. Such a “unicorn” would not be quite symmetrical but, given that they have helical horns, unicorns aren’t really symmetrical either.

In fact, thinking about it, I don’t really see why – if the horn were composed of two fused halves (like the swordfish “bill”) – we couldn’t have had a “unicorn” with a single symmetrical untwisted horn.

Moreover, if the frontal and parietal bones of the skull withered away and the occipital bone filled in for them (stranger things have happened in skull evolution) why couldn’t a single horn develop from the middle of that bone in roughly the right place for a unicorn style horn? I know not.

In conclusion then, I have no idea why there are no unicorns …… perhaps there are!



Postscript: Since writing the stuff above, Rab Austen (‏@RabAusten) has reminded me that the triceratops also had a (front) horn on the midline of its skull. This was a "real" (bony) horn and would - as Paolo Viscardi (‏@PaoloViscardi who has forgotten more about bones than I shall ever learn about them) kindly confirmed - have been formed from the fusing of two symmetrical elements - like the swordfish bill. I'm not sure whether a horn formed like this could then grow with a helical twist (though as Paolo also points out, stranger things happen at sea) but Rab's insight certainly lends support to the claim that there is no reason - in principle - why a horse-like creature could not have evolved a bony horn in the middle of its forehead.


  1. Invertebrates often have bilateral symmetry too. Even starfish - which superficially have radial symmetry - have a complicated and interesting way of forming that involves bilateral symmetry. Other invertebrates - snails and sponges spring to mind - break the "rule" in other ways.
  2. http://keckmedicine.adam.com
  3. http://http://fineartamerica.com
  4. Thank you to Steve Jones (‏@TheEulerID) for this information
  5. http://news.bbcimg.co.uk
  6. Please note that evolution does not work in the way I talk about it (metaphorically) in this post. Evolution has no plan, intent, or purpose. It's all natural (or sexual) selection acting on random mutations, It is, however, often easier to describe what happens in evolution using teleological language - as long as we don't forget that it's just a metaphor! OK?
  7. I'm getting all my information about narwhals from Chris McManus's excellent Right Hand, Left Hand which I urge you all to read.
  8. https://cdn-images-1.medium.com
  9. http://www.mermaidsrock.net
  10. http://http://kristell-ink.com
  11. OK I'm talking B-DNA not Z-DNA ... pedant!
  12. Deer Antlers: Regeneration, Function and Evolution by By Richard J. Goss esp p72 et seq


Also published at Pulling on the corkscrew of life