A boat with refugees. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
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Why does the UK now oppose funding search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean?

Political expediency trumps the needs of the most desperate.

How do you solve a problem like desperate foreigners risking their lives to get to the UK? The government has a new answer. 

Britain will not support search and rescue operations to prevent refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. “We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean,” the Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay has explained, asserting that search and rescue operations acted as “an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths”. The implication, therefore, is that the policy is a humane one, designed to save lives.

It is easy to take a different view. Those who flee from Libya or Syria do so in desperation. The existing rescue operations hardly make crossing the Mediterranean as a refugee risk-free. Over 3,000 people have died attempting to reach Europe from the Mediterranean so far this year. The idea that they will cease now that the quality of the search and rescue operation has deteriorated even further is extraordinary.

The UK has long maintained a certain sense of moral superiority in its attitude to welcoming immigrants and refugees. When the Australian government released its notorious posters two weeks ago – ‘NO WAY: You will not make Australia home’, accompanied by the image of a boat being tossed in a threatening sea – many said that it could not happen here.

That claim just became a lot harder to make. In the quest to clamp down on immigration, of any sort, the UK government has put thousands of desperate refugees at risk. One of David Cameron’s most notable achievements has been the development of the What Works Network, with its emphasis on evidence in policy-making. Yet there seems no indication whatsoever that evidence that reducing search and rescue operations will save lives, as Lady Anelay suggested.

The conclusion is inescapable. The UK government is acting brazenly out of a need to be seen to be doing something – anything, really – about immigration. Political expediency trumps the needs of some of the most distressed people in the world.

They are not the only losers. Acts like these, together with the ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’ vans last year, create the image of the UK as distrustful and even resentful of foreigners, which has already manifested itself in the steep drop in foreign students studying in the UK. If talented foreign people see a country that seems suspicious of them, they will be less likely to work in the UK or do business with it, with negative economic consequences for everyone in the UK.

The government’s stance on search and rescue operations not only fails on a humanitarian case, but also on the most hardheaded business one too.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.