India Visa Changes

Thinking of travelling to India on business or for a holiday?

Be warned that the process for applying for a visa to go to India has just changed. The website says that the change applies from 14th March, but in fact VFS Global, who deal with visa applications on behalf of the Indian High Commission, have already applied it.

Previously, you could apply for the visa by post. Now, you must visit the visa application centre in person and be fingerprinted to get the visa.

This change has not been widely reported. The BBC does not seem to have noticed it at all, although the Telegraph has reported it.

You have been warned.

Interestingly, the same company uses the exact same website and the same process to deal with applications from Indians for visas to visit Britain. They also require biometric details.

And the same company uses the same process and website to handle applications from British citizens to visit Russia.

In fact, reading about VFS Global on Wikipedia, it seems that there has been some controversy about the company having a worldwide monopoly position in this market.

Perhaps then it is not surprising that the visa processes of different countries are being “harmonised”.

The Government’s Fictional Miigration Figures

The latest immigration statistics from the Government are awful, from their point of view.

When they came to power, net migration (numbers arriving minus numbers leaving) was around 250,000 per year. They promised to cut it to less than 100,000 per year.

Of course, you can debate whether that is a good thing. That is not the purpose of this post. The fact is that they made that pledge.

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that net migration in the year to September 2014 rose from 210,000 to 298,000. In other words, David Cameron’s pledge is “in tatters”, as Labour’s Yvette Cooper noted.

The government claim it is not their fault.

Home Office Minister James Brokenshire said: “We have been blown off course by net migration from within the EU, which has more than doubled since 2010.

“That’s why we need to continue to crack down on the abuse of EU free movement and continue our reforms to make our welfare system fairer and less open to abuse.

“We have also been constrained in government by Liberal Democrats who don’t have that same aim and focus on reducing net migration.”

To paraphrase, “the government have been doing the right thing and it’s the Liberal Democrats’ fault that we haven’t been doing the right thing”.

Beyond that panicky contradiction from Mr Broken-promise, are his comments right?

Looking at the detail of the ONS figures, immigration to the UK rose from 530,000 to 624,000.

Within those figures, immigration of non-EU citizens rose by 49,000 to 292,000. Immigration of EU citizens rose by 43,000 to 251,000. Immigration of UK citizens was 82,000. In the same period, emigration was 327,000, leaving the headline net figure at 298,000.

Therefore certainly, over the last year at least, about half the increase in immigration was accounted for by EU migration.

More importantly, though, all those figures are completely, totally, fictional anyway. Let me explain.

Over the same period, National Insurance number registrations to overseas nationals went up 24% to 768,000.

Of course, some of those NI numbers will have been granted to people who migrated into the UK in previous years. However, since immigration has been rising and not falling, it seems a little strange (to put it mildly) that NI number issues exceeded total gross immigration by 23% (768,000 NI numbers and 624,000 immigrants). Especially when you consider that the immigration figures include children.

Why this discrepancy? Has there been a sudden flood of people who migrated in previous years, and are now applying for NI numbers in order to work? Well, perhaps a few, with the economic recovery under way. Is it credible that the discrepancy is so large?

Let me say bluntly: the official migration figures are wrong. Naturally, they do not include illegal immigration. That much is widely understood. But even just talking about legal immigration, they are still wrong.

To understand why, you need to look at the way the ONS measures migration.

Start on page 4:

There is no single, all-inclusive system in place to measure all movements of people into and out of the UK. Therefore it is necessary to use a combination of data from different sources, which have different characteristics and attributes, in order to produce estimates of international migration.

In short, the Government does not count people in and out of the UK, so actually does not know how many are arriving. The ONS figures are only estimates, based on a range of sources.

Page 5 makes it clear that the figures are fundamentally based on the International Passenger Survey. This is a random survey of passengers that is carried out by the ONS at UK airports, sea ports and the Channel Tunnel.

The document explains that the methodology was changed in 2009 “to increase its coverage of regional airports”. The reason is that many immigrants arrive on cheap flights, which usually arrive at regional airports. So the figures, before that, had understated immigration.

The document then explains that the raw survey data is grossed up to cover total numbers travelling.

A detailed description of how the IPS raw data is grossed is available in Travel Trends – A Report on the International Passenger Survey.

The link provided is to a page about the “Travel Trends” report. That page explains the IPS method.

The known passenger traffic information is provided to the IPS team by CAA, Department for Transport, Eurostar, Eurotunnel, BAA and a number of airports themselves.

Do you believe all that information is accurate? Of course the figures are grossed up to the total number of people travelling, based on that “known passenger traffic information”.

But that is only the start. The sample data is then weighted “for each port/route and direction of travel combination”, according to a 7 stage weighting system:

Stage 1 – grosses up from the number of surveying shifts to the total number of shifts at the port in question (thus removing the bias that some ports are covered more thoroughly than others)
Stage 2 – grosses up for non-response (people refusing to participate and people who could not subsequently be contacted), complete with different weightings for weekday versus weekend
Stage 3 – a further grossing “relating to the sub-sampling of non-migrants”, meaning – search me what.
Stage 4 – a weight factor for minimal survey responses (which are discarded), for example because the respondent is unable to speak English
Stage 5 – a weight factor for total traffic at the port in question
Stage 6 – a weighting for hours that are not covered, e.g. night-time, on the basis that, for example, flights from certain parts of the world are more likely to arrive in those hours
Stage 7 – a “fudge factor” to take account of “an observed imbalance between the number of non-migrants entering and leaving the UK”.

They then apply a seasonal adjustment. Then they add more figures derived from:

  • UK residents on cruises departing from or arriving at UK shores,
  • Channel Islands expenditure and receipts from tourism,
  • Rail fares purchased by overseas visitors to the UK and UK visitors abroad before the start of their visit, and
  • Estimates of travel across the land border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, from the Irish Central Statistical Office.

Really. I kid you not. This tortuous process of figure-massaging is the basis for those headline migration figures.

Consider how reliable opinion polls are. Not very, eh? The typical opinion poll is based, like those ONS migration figures, on a sample. The methodology for a typical opinion poll will be much less tortuous than the one the ONS uses for those migration figures.

In other words, the official migration figures are less reliable than a typical opinion poll.

This is not a criticism of the ONS. It is doing its best to estimate figures that simply are not available, but should be. Like I said, the Government does not count people in and out of the UK, so actually does not know how many are arriving. What is more, it has absolutely no intention of doing so.

Those figures for NI number issues are real, measured figures. The ONS migration statistics are an estimate. No surprise, then, that they are not consistent with each other.

Using the NI figures, for example, you could say that 768,000 NI numbers were issued, multiply them by say 1.3, to account for dependants of those arriving, and produce a figure of 1 million for gross immigration – almost double the ONS figure.

That figure would be more reliable than the ONS figure. Or not. Who knows?

How on earth can we have a reasonable debate in this country about immigration control, if we do not have any reliable figures at all upon which to base the debate?

Another Dog’s Dinner in the NHS

The government have announced that responsibility for health services is to be devolved to local authorities in Greater Manchester.

The plan will apparently see “local leaders” and Greater Manchester’s new directly-elected mayor controlling the £6 billion budget for healthcare in the region.

Or will it?

A shadow Greater Manchester Health and Wellbeing Board will be appointed, which will work closely with existing clinical commissioning groups of GPs.

The new Board will get full control of the £6 billion budget after a year.

Manchester City Council confirmed 10 local authorities, 12 clinical commissioning groups, 14 NHS partners, NHS England and the Government are in discussions.

To really understand all this, we have to go back 30 years, to the days of Margaret Thatcher. Her Government noted the inefficiency within the NHS, and created what they called the “NHS Internal Market”. Ken Clarke was Health Secretary at the time – this wasn’t a creation of the rabid Tory Right.

The idea was to dismantle the traditional top-down control of the NHS from Whitehall. Hospitals would become “Hospital Trusts”. They would compete within the NHS internal market to deliver healthcare to patients, under contracts with fund-holding GPs. The GPs would get control of NHS budgets, and they would spend the money on behalf of their patients. Thus GPs, as the champions of the patients, would be put in the driving seat of the service.

The idea was that this competition between Hospital Trusts would drive up standards and drive down costs, just as it does when Tesco and Sainsbury’s compete to deliver food. As with any market, there were costs involved. A price list for every treatment had to be worked out. A myriad of contracts between providers and GP commissioners had to be negotiated and signed. But the idea was that these costs would be outweighed by the beneficial effects of the competition.

Then came Tony Blair. He declared that “the NHS is not a supermarket” and one of his first acts in government was to abolish the internal market.

Except that it wasn’t abolished. In fact, he kept the inefficiency but got rid of the competition. The “purchaser-provider split” was retained. Purchasing was put in the hands of new bureaucratic bodies called Primary Care Trusts. They bought services from Hospital Trusts – but the competition element was removed. All the inefficiency and cost of the market, without any of the benefits.

What a mess. Could things really get any worse?

Unfortunately, they could. David Cameron’s government came to power. Andrew Lansley, as Health Secretary, spent over £2 billion on a new NHS reorganisation. This reorganisation had basically the same aims as Ken Clarke’s original NHS internal market. The idea was that GP surgeries would band together into groups, big enough to sensibly negotiate with providers.

These bold ideas gradually morphed into something else. The GP fund-holding groups became so-called “Clinical Commissioning Groups”. Although these were (are) nominally groups of GP surgeries, what they actually are is bureaucratic bodies who buy services from Hospital Trusts. In other words, they are Primary Care Trusts by another name.

Sailing over all this mess was, and is, NHS England, a rather odd body that “controls the NHS” despite the fact that it is GPs who were supposed to control the NHS.

Back to today’s announcement.

A shadow Greater Manchester Health and Wellbeing Board will be appointed, which will work closely with existing clinical commissioning groups of GPs.

A bureaucratic body to rule them all, it seems. For “work closely with”, read “control”.

The Government has already taken control of schools away from local councils, via the Academies programme – started by Tony Blair’s Labour and continued by David Cameron’s Conservatives. Now council responsibilities for social care will be merged into the NHS, under this new Health and Wellbeing Board.

There is a glib elision between this new “Board” and “local leaders”, who are said to be local councils and the mayor. But the idea that the new Board will be responsible to elected local councils is laughable. We are told that 10 local authorities are involved. No body could be meaningfully accountable to 10 different elected councils, plus a mayor.

And the new Board “will work closely with existing clinical commissioning groups”. What, pray, will be the role of those clinical commissioning groups? Why do you need the Board and also the CCGs? What will the CCGs do? Sign the cheques that are printed by the Board?

I can just imagine that in a little while we shall be told there is a “Greater Manchester Health Care Services Group” that “brings together the bodies responsible for health care in the region”, and has representation from each of the CCGs plus the Board.

You can bet that NHS England will still be there lording it over the new Board, grinning like the Cheshire Cat.

All these adminstrative bodies will be very busy. They will be discussing strategies, negotiating contracts with other administrative bodies and lobbying other adminstrative bodies and the Government to protect their own interests. They will have lots of work to do in offices, and occasionally may even venture out to meet healthcare professionals.

Remember them? The doctors who were supposed to control the NHS and its budgets?

What an utter, utter mess.

BBC Correspondents in Ukraine Surely Ought to Be in Favour of Peace?

The BBC reports the Ukrainian retreat from Debaltseve in Ukraine.

The ceasefire agreement between the Ukrainian government and the rebels, that was brokered by Angela Merkel of Germany, along with representatives of Russia, has largely held, we are told, with the main exception being Debaltseve. That is why the decision by the Ukrainian government to withdraw its troops from the town is good news indeed for the ceasefire agreement.

The BBC report, however, contains one section, by their correspondent David Stern in Kiev, that was so outrageous I couldn’t help but comment on it:

The rapidly deteriorating situation inside Debaltseve and its possible fall to Russian-backed forces – despite a ceasefire brokered specifically to avoid this scenario – raises a number of questions but one in particular: What were Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande thinking?

Eh? “A ceasefire brokered specifically to avoid the scenario of Debaltseve falling to the rebels”? And there was me thinking the ceasefire was brokered specifically to try to stop the war!

“What were Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande thinking”? Perhaps they were thinking that they might be able to stop people being killed in Ukraine. Perhaps indeed the UN Security Council was thinking the same thing when it unanimously voted for a Russian resolution supporting the ceasefire agreement this week. Even the United States supported that resolution!

Did they receive assurances that the insurgents would observe the ceasefire? Or was the fate of the strategic railroad junction under question even during the Minsk negotiations? If so, why did the Europeans proceed with an agreement that was unenforceable?

“An agreement that was unenforceable”? This is getting silly. Ceasefire agreements are always unenforceable. They depend on the goodwill of both sides in the conflict. I guess the signature of the “insurgents” on the agreement counts as an assurance that they would observe the ceasefire. But everyone seems to be agreed that both sides are mostly observing the ceasefire.

There is a disagreement about the situation in Debaltseve, because the Ukrainian government forces there were pretty much encircled. So did it count as the front line or not? That is why the decision of the Ukrainian government to withdraw its forces ought to be heartily welcomed by everyone.

It’s entirely possible that the Minsk accords have done irreparable damage to the peace process and seriously weakened the position of President Petro Poroshenko. Ukrainian officials may very well be asking what other “exceptions” to the ceasefire will the rebels insist on?

Now this is getting really silly. What peace process? The only peace process that existed was in fact – the Minsk accords. There is no other peaceful way forward available at all. All credit to Mrs Merkel for getting this far.

Mrs Merkel and Mr Hollande have long insisted there’s no military solution to the war in eastern Ukraine. Now there may not be a diplomatic one either.

There may indeed not be a diplomatic solution to this crisis. Perhaps the ceasefire agreement will yet break down. Let’s hope not.

In fact, let’s hope that Mr Stern is as completely wrong about that as he is about everything else he said in that piece.

Or perhaps Mr Stern thinks a military solution would be preferable? How many lives does he think would be an acceptable price?

The Last Thing Ukraine Needs is Hotheads Right Now

Mariupol, Ukraine
The “Azov Batallion” in Mariupol, June 2014
Image by Atlantic Council via Flickr

 

The BBC reports that

Ukraine’s president has warned that a deal to end the war in the east is in “great danger” after heavy fighting ahead of Saturday night’s ceasefire.

Consider that for a moment. Here is a man who leads one side in a civil war. He has just signed a ceasefire agreement that is due to come into force tomorrow. You would expect him to be saying something like, “We will be keeping to the ceasefire agreement and we hope the other side follow suit”. Instead here he is openly saying the ceasefire is unlikely to work.

Not surprisingly, the fighting has intensified ahead of the ceasefire. Both sides are trying to obtain the maximum possible advantage before the ceasefire comes into effect. Apparently the fiercest fighting is around Debaltseve, where the rebels are trying to push the Ukrainian government forces out of a strategic rail junction.

We will have to hope that the fighting stops tomorrow. Really, we have to hope for that. It is the only hope left now for a stop to the slaughter in Ukraine.

Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Petro Mekhed said the rebels wanted to “raise their flag” over Debaltseve and Mariupol before the midnight ceasefire (22:00 GMT) kicked in.

Yes, that makes sense. I’m sure he is right. Why? Because under the agreement, both sides have to withdraw their troops at least 50 km from the front line. That means that both sides have to withdraw their troops from both Debaltseve and Mariupol. Whichever side is in charge when the ceasefire starts will stay in charge after the troops withdraw.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) representative on the ground, Michael Bociurkiw, is trying to push for peace:

The group responsible for monitoring the ceasefire said it remained hopeful, despite there being “quite serious live fire” in several areas on Friday.

“We feel that the Minsk agreements are really the only available roadmap to a sustainable ceasefire,” Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for the OSCE, told the BBC.

He is right, and Mr Bociurkiw has been throughout the conflict a rare voice of sanity and humanity. Surely everybody should be working to prove that he is right.

Ominously, ex-British forces Saxon armoured cars have apparently just been delivered to the Kiev government.

The Ministry of Defence confirmed these were out-of-service unarmed vehicles and not lethal equipment.

If that is true, one has to wonder why the Kiev government was interested in buying them! This is a clear violation of the UK government’s expressed intention not to send arms to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the American ambassador to Ukraine chose this moment to tweet a picture that he claimed showed the Russians were preparing a shipment of heavy weapons for Ukraine.

Russian units along the border are preparing a large shipment of supplies to “seps” fighting in eastern Ukraine

says his tweet. The picture then shows something that looks like it might (or might not) be rocket launchers – but showing a location for the photograph that is well inside the Ukrainian border. How can a photograph taken well inside the Ukrainian border show that Russians “along the border” are preparing a shipment of supplies to the separatists?

While the world waits with bated breath, hoping tomorrow’s ceasefire will hold, Western media are still cheering on “our side”. Consider for example the statement in that BBC article:

Ukraine’s volunteer Azov battalion said pro-Russian rebels were using artillery and tanks to attack Shyrokyne, a village near Mariupol, on Saturday morning.

Just who are “the volunteer Azov battalion”?

Another BBC article from December explains:

The Azov volunteer battalion is run by an extremist group and sports a modified neo-Nazi Wolf’s Hook.

Volunteer Azov battalion, eh? There is more detail:

Run by the extremist Patriot of Ukraine organisation, which considers Jews and other minorities “sub-human” and calls for a white, Christian crusade against them, it sports three Nazi symbols on its insignia: a modified Wolf’s Hook, a black sun (or “Hakensonne”) and the title Black Corps, which was used by the Waffen SS.

This is a very delicate moment for Ukraine. More than that, it is a delicate moment for us all. If this ceasefire does not hold, the Ukrainian conflict is likely to descend into open and total war. That war could easily suck in the Russians, who have a clear national interest in the outcome, and the Americans, who are clearly itching to “have a go at the Russians”.

Angela Merkel has brokered this ceasefire and it is a glimmer of hope. Everyone should be working to turn the hope into a peaceful future for us all.

America Is Still Trying to Prevent Peace in Ukraine. Will the Europeans Let Them Succeed?

There is still hope from the peace talks to try to end the Ukrainian conflict. The Russian, Ukrainian, German and French leaders are to meet again on Wednesday in Minsk.

Signatories of a previous ceasefire deal – Ukraine, Russia, rebel representatives and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – would also meet in Minsk on Wednesday, Mr Seibert said.

All good. We shall have to hope that an agreement comes of the talks that can halt the fighting. Surely everyone must agree with at least trying for that, mustn’t they?

Not if they’re American.

At a meeting in Munich, Senator John McCain compared Vladimir Putin with Hitler.

“History shows us that dictators will always take more if you let them,” Senator McCain allegedly said. “They will not be dissuaded from their brutal behaviour when you fly to meet them to Moscow – just as leaders once flew to this city.”

But the current German leader, Angela Merkel, is apparently not enough like Hitler for American tastes:

In [the] meeting attended by General Philip Breedlove, Nato’s military commander, and Victoria Nuland, the US’s most senior European diplomat, Angela Merkel was described as “defeatist” for her opposition to arming Ukrainian forces, according to details leaked to Bild newspaper.

You remember Victoria Nuland? She was the one caught discussing with the American Ambassador to Ukraine whom they should install in the next Ukrainian government, after the coup in Kiev, last year. The media reports at the time concentrated on her comment during that phone conversation:

“F*** the EU”

but more sinister really was the way she was openly discussing installing a sympathetic government in Kiev.

Delegates at the American meeting in Munich discussed how to press ahead with arming Ukrainian forces despite the new push for peace, according to the report in Bild.

How long I wonder before American talk of arming Ukrainian forces turns to talk of putting in US military advisers, closely followed by talk of American troops to help “defend Ukraine against Russian aggression”.

The Germans – as ever more circumspect in their diplomacy, having seen their country ruined by war in living memory – are not convinced:

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German foreign minister, appeared to address the issue in his speech. “I cannot consider it as easy as those who suspect cowardice or forgetfulness of history behind our scepticism,” he said.

“Those who are so sure also have to address the question: would the alternatives that are currently being discussed … really achieve our common goal of preventing thousands more deaths and getting out of the spiral of escalation?

“Are not we already close to the point of no return?”

Our common goal of preventing thousands more deaths? Is that really the common goal? Do the Americans share that goal? Or is their real goal to spread “truth, justice and the American way” across the globe?

Mrs Merkel and Mr Hollande’s peace initiative was dismissed as “Moscow bull****” at the meeting of American delegates to the Munich Security Conference, held behind closed doors at the conference hotel.

Well, there’s American diplomacy for you. Subtle to a fault. I guess it comes from being the “exceptional people”.

The Internet of Things Could End Up Being Remarkably Dumb

Our TV is a kind of “semi-smart” TV. It has built-in apps for doing things like watching Youtube videos or Netflix. You wire it up to the internet, and off you go.

Frankly, I hardly ever use those things. The kids do, though, to watch videos on Youtube.

Now, the Youtube app says that Google are about to discontinue support for the app. So it will stop working.

The TV itself will still be fine of course – you just won’t be able to use its built-in Youtube app.

That got me thinking. We are always hearing about the “internet of things”. Everything from our electricity meter to our fridge will supposedly soon be “online”. But they won’t be updatable – and at some point that internet-connected fridge will experience the same fate as the Youtube app on our TV.

Worse, somebody will find a way to hack into your “smart fridge”, and nobody will be there to update the software to remove the vulnerability.

I found this great article on Ars Technica that goes into all this in more detail. Read it and remember it next time you are buying something and the salesperson tells you that you want the “smart” version – or indeed next time the government tells you it wants your power meter connected to the net.