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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Thursday
Mar 18,2010
  • Through the introduction of civil partnerships, Labour has for the first time given legal recognition to same-sex partners. Gay couples now have the same inheritance, pension and next-of-kin rights as married couples.
  • More than doubled Britain’s overseas aid budget.  UK aid helps lift an estimated three million people out of poverty every year.
  • Cancelled up to 100% of debt for the world’s poorest countries.
  • Britain now has more offshore wind capacity than any other country in the world.  Wind last year provided enough electricity to power 2 million homes.
  • Launched the £1.5 billion Housing Pledge to speed up the delivery of new affordable housing and embarked on the biggest programme of council house building for twenty years.
Thursday
Mar 4,2010

It is nice to know that debates and questions in the House of Lords have an impact in the outside world.  In June 2005, I asked the following question in the House of Lords:

“Whether the time spent preparing the e-Government Unit’s document, Tomatoes are not the only fruit: a rough guide to taxonomies, thesauri, ontologies and the like, represents value for money.”

This was not, of course, entirely serious, although it did seem to me to be a particularly jargon-led approach to promoting e-government and the wrong approach to making e-government easy and accessible.

I haven’t thought about the matter since then, so I supposed I should be flattered/embarrassed to discover it appearing yesterday in a blog hosted by the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alabama.  The blog has the catchy title: “Metalogues from the Delta” (I wish I’d thought of that one first) and is subtitled “A Bama SLIS student’s weblog on all things metadata”.

The blog’s first paragraph is a classic:

“While reading Heather Hedden’s “Better Living Through Taxonomies,” I couldn’t help but be reminded of a brief article on taxonomy that circulated about Dr. MacCall’s LS 500 class during my first semester in the MLIS program. Really, how could anyone forget a title like Tomatoes are not the only fruit: a rough guide to taxonomies, thesauri, ontologies and the like?”

And the blog then refers to another earlier blog entitled 

025.431: The Dewey blog

Clearly, there is a big academic market out there for Lords debates.

For those who want the original exchange here it is:

e-Government Unit

11.22 am

Lord Harris of Haringey asked Her Majesty’s Government:

    Whether the time spent preparing the e-Government Unit’s document, Tomatoes are not the only fruit: a rough guide to taxonomies, thesauri, ontologies and the like, represents value for money.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, yes, the document was published in 2002 by the Office of the e-Envoy, at the request of technical users in government who were new to the subject. It was produced in-house at an estimated cost of less than £100.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that information. I ask him to congratulate the civil servants concerned on the diligence and speed with which they must have produced 12,000 words and four charts on the subject of Tomatoes are not the only fruit, containing such gems of information as:

    “How long has it been for many of us since the primary meaning of the word ‘mouse’ has been ‘a small furry mammal that frightens elephants?'”,

 or the information that carrots can be either salad or root vegetables. That will no doubt come in very helpful in promoting e-government.

Can we also congratulate the authors of the Guide to Meta-Tagging with the Integrated Public Sector Vocabulary, which gives another eight pages of valuable advice and information? It includes the information that the phrase “common agricultural policy” may appear under the phrase “European Union” or under “Farming” but will mean the same under both.

Given the diligence of the civil servants in the unit, can the Minister assure the House that the same energy and effectiveness is being applied to delivering information security throughout the public sector? Are such arrangements susceptible, or likely to be susceptible, to external challenge?

Lord Bassam of Brighton:

My Lords, I shall of course pass on my noble friend’s congratulations. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that civil servants are, as we speak, listening carefully to his kind congratulations and warm words.

As to my noble friend’s second point, there is an important issue at root here—I said that with a straight face. The Government are paying careful attention to those information security issues. The document, although it has attracted a certain levity, is, I am sure, most useful to those who work in government IT services.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, can the Minister not pass on congratulations to the civil servants on producing a document that is completely incomprehensible to a normal person and really does not make any sense at all? Why cannot they learn to write English?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, having looked at the document, which has a modest number of words, I disagree with the noble Earl. I believe that IT users in the business will probably find it very helpful and useful. Certainly, when I read it, I began to understand notions relating to taxonomies, thesauri and ontologies.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, although the use of what the Civil Service calls “controlled vocabulary” may operate as a disincentive to get online  
to the Government, can the Government say whether there has been a significant improvement in access to e-government over the past two years? It was made clear in June 2003 that only one-tenth of the population was using the online e-government services, as compared with 50 per cent of the population in Canada, with its single portal.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, there have been improvements, and I am sure that the e-Government Unit is aware of its role and responsibility in ensuring that those improvements continue. There is an increasing number of visits to government websites and increased participation—as I understand—in www.govtalk.gov.uk. So I believe that people are learning their way around the system.

Lord St John of Bletso: My Lords, would the Minister comment on how successful the OGC has been in implementing Sir Peter Gershon’s e-government efficiency review?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I can only at large and in general say that I believe that there have been improvements. The work of Sir Peter Gershon has been widely welcomed throughout government, and our IT record is one of continued improvement and success.

Viscount Eccles: My Lords, is the Minister aware that if he were unfortunate enough to have cancer of the bladder, medical advice would be that he should eat no more tomatoes? Is that information on the website?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, not that I am aware, no.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I really wonder whether the noble Lord is aware of the extent to which he has attracted to himself this morning the wholehearted sympathy of the House at the appalling ordeal that he has had to go through in not giving a single answer to a question and really fluffing what he has said beyond the limits of comprehension.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord always makes generous remarks across the House, and I suppose that I have to be the beneficiary of those remarks on some occasions.

Tuesday
Mar 2,2010

Scott Charney, the Microsoft Vice President in charge of Trustworthy Computing, is speaking today at the RSA Conference in San Francisco.  He is re-stating both Microsoft’s commitment to “End-to-End Trust” but also the need for business, government and the public to work together to ensure that those using the internet are safe and secure.

The message is an important one: responsibility for internet security has to be shared.  The House of Lords Committee on Personal Internet Security, on which I sat, reported nearly three years ago and used a road transport analogy to make the point: safe road use requires responsible behaviour by drivers and pedestrians, but cars need to have safety features embodied in them, roads themselves need to be well-maintained and properly lit, there need to be laws regulating safe behaviour on the roads (speed limits etc) and those laws need to be properly enforced.

If anything the message has become even more important since our Committee reported.  More and more commercial and personal interactions take place on line.  Social networking sites are booming and an increasing proportion of commerce is conducted via the internet.

The threats to security have also become more pronounced.  The threats are no longer from isolated individuals, but from organised crime and it is also becoming abundantly apparent that some nation states are operating in the same way to infiltrate commercial and government networks for their own purposes.

And the technology itself is developing.  Cloud computing is becoming the norm and this presents its own challenges.  Certainly, this has raised the issue of security for many people (although it is not automatically a given that the security of data held in a cloud is necessarily worse than if it is held on your own servers, particularly if it turns out that they are inadequately protected).

So how do we move forward?

Partnership is certainly essential.  Governments have to work together in setting an international framework for collaboration and for law enforcement.  And at a national level they must also work with IT service providers and with business in general.

But above all, the individual user must be at the heart of all this.  Sensible security arrangements that make sense to the individual have to be devised.  It needs to be acknowledged that most individual users of the internet, whether they are trying to do their weekly shopping or organise their social lives, are rushed and busy.  Moreover, they are not technological experts.  They have inadequate levels of knowledge, so an error message or system alert that makes sense to an IT professional will probably be gibberish to most of us.

And critical to all of this is the need for robust identity management.

Surely, it is not too much to ask that people can feel confident that their personal details are secure, that they can communicate with others secure in the knowledge that the person or organisation with which they are communicating is who it says it is, and that when they are asked to identify themselves they need reveal no more about themselves than is necessary for the transaction concerned.

If today’s discussions at the RSA Conference take us further towards those objectives, we will be making real progress and we can all feel more hopeful that a trusted and secure internet environment is being built.

Sunday
Jan 10,2010

Everybody knows that the European Parliament is at the cutting edge of global political thought.

So it is no surprise to discover that in 2005 (long before last month’s attempted airline bombing made them a world-wide must-have) the European Parliament bought six full body scanners to protect MEPs from being attacked in the Parliament buildings.

Given the legendary efficiency of the EU institutions, it is also no surprise to learn that these six machines – purchased for over 700,000 Euros – have never been used.  Apparently, in 2008 the Parliament rejected a bill to permit the use of such scanners across the EU on the grounds that the graphic images provided by such scanners constituted a “virtual strip search”.  It is thought that MEPs were not aware at the time that the Parliament had six scanners lying around in their unopened boxes.

After the MEPs had voted against the use of such scanners, European Parliament officials then “rushed” to dispose of the unwanted items.  Obviously, there are complex procedures to be followed in such cases, so that the invitation to bid for the six scanners will only be issued in the next few days.  The delay, of course, means that, given the current fashion for full body scanning, there should be no shortage of bidders.

But should the European Parliament still be going ahead with the sales, in the light of the latest security threats?  Of course it should – as its spokesperson perspicaciously points out, “The Parliament is not an airport”.

Friday
Dec 18,2009

Two recent articles demonstrate how seriously more and more countries are taking the possibility of war in cyberspace, either by developing their own offensive capability or by strengthening internet security and resilience.  There are even talks about a new international treaty to “demilitarise” cyberspace.

According to Reuters, Major-General Amos Yadlin, Israel’s chief of military intelligence, has placed vulnerability to hacking in the same list of security threats to the State of Israel as the Iranian nuclear project and Syrian and Islamist guerrillas attacking across Israel’s borders.

He also made it clear that Israeli armed forces had the means to provide network security and launch cyber attacks of their own, pointing out that:

The cyberwarfare field fits well with the state of Israel’s defense doctrine  …. This is an enterprise that is entirely blue and white (ie. Israeli) and does not rely on foreign assistance or technology. It is a field that is very well known to young Israelis, in a country that was recently crowned a ‘start-up nation’.”

Reuters says that:

“Cyberwarfare teams nestle deep within Israel’s spy agencies, which have extensive experience in traditional sabotage techniques and are cloaked in official secrecy and censorship.

They can draw on the know-how of Israeli commercial firms that are among the world’s hi-tech leaders and whose staff are often veterans of elite computer units in the conscript army.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that the United States has begun talks with Russia and a United Nations arms control committee about strengthening Internet security and limiting military use of cyberspace.  According to the New York Times:

“Many countries, including the United States, are developing weapons for use on computer networks that are ever more integral to the operations of everything from banks to electrical power systems to government offices. They include “logic bombs” that can be hidden in computers to halt them at crucial times or damage circuitry; “botnets” that can disable or spy on Web sites and networks; or microwave radiation devices that can burn out computer circuits miles away.”

The Russians are apparently arguing that the increasing challenges posed by military activities to civilian computer networks can be best dealt with by an international treaty, similar to treaties that have limited the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

So where is the UK on all of this?

Well according to Major-General Yadlin, Britain is setting up a cyberwarfare command, and this demonstrates why Israel needs to have its own “soldiers and officers” dedicated to this field.

I have to admit that the existence of a UK cyberwarfare command is new to me – not that I (or many other people either – apart presumably from Major-General Yadlin) would necessarily know if it did exist.

My concern has usually been the opposite and that until recently at least the UK has seemed naively complacent about the scale of the cyber-threats faced.

The publication of a national cyber security strategy has been a welcome first step in the right direction (as I have commented before) and there are also signs of increasing Parliamentary interest in the matter (although when I sat in on the last part of the latest House of Lords hearing on internet security in Europe the main preoccupation seemed to be that Heraklion – where the relevant EU agency is based – is awfully difficult to get to from London).

Nevertheless, these two articles do show that the rest of the world recognises the problem, so the UK probably ought to be doing more as well (unless we really do have a cutting edge cyberwarfare command based in a bunker underneath Cheltenham).

Wednesday
Dec 16,2009

The Parliamentary Information Technology Committee (PITCOM), of which I am the Honorary Treasurer, has produced a useful briefing summarising the key issues about the increasing reliance of the critical national infrastructure (CNI) on technology and the crucial importance of ensuring that that technology is resilient and adequately protected.

The potential vulnerability of the CNI to a variety of threats and the need to raise the level of protection and readiness of the UK to respond to attacks are highlighted.  The briefing also emphasises the importance of partnership between the Government and the private sector to mitigate risks, particularly given the extent to which major parts of the CNI are under private ownership and may not automatically prioritise the national interest above short-term commercial interests.

The briefing should be essential reading for all Parliamentary candidates and anyone else interested in national security.

Tuesday
Dec 8,2009

I am delighted to hear that the Government is going to make internet safety and security part of the core curriculum for primary schools.

This is being described as the internet equivalent of the Green Cross Code on road safety.   This neatly continues the use of the road safety metaphor adopted by the House of Lords inquiry into personal internet security which I took part in and which reported in 2007.  The idea of better IT citizenship training was also a concept developed there.

Concerns about the vulnerability of children on social networking sites was in addition a topic that I pursued in the debate I sponsored in the House of Lords earlier this year.

Given the early age at which children are now IT-literate and regular users of the internet, this proposal is long overdue.  Predictably, some teachers are already complaining that there is too much in the curriculum already, but unless school education is relevant to modern needs it is all the more likely that young people will be alienated from the classroom.  And in any event they face real dangers on the internet, unless they are warned, just as much as kids face real dangers on the roads.

Tuesday
Dec 1,2009

Lord Naseby had the second oral question in the House of Lords this afternoon.  His question was:

“To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they ensure that requests arising from the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 are proportionate.”

Helpfully he had already told us on ePolitix.com what he was getting at.  The trouble was that he was blurring the issues and muddling a whole number of topics.  The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act – for the first time in many areas – placed a regulatory framework around all of the surveillance and investigatory techniques that can be used by the different public bodies, provided an external scrutiny process on how public bodies used the techniques and a means of pursuing complaints.

The answer from Admiral Lord Alan West and the ensuing exchanges (including my own modest intervention) is below:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 provides a number of safeguards. Proportionality is explained in statutory guidance in the form of codes of practice and is subject to inspection by independent commissioners whose annual reports to the Prime Minister are laid before Parliament. In addition, anyone who believes that they have been subject to any unlawful action under RIPA may complain to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal.

Lord Naseby: My Lords, how can more than 500,000 such requests be proportionate? One of them was the keeping of petrol without a licence. Secondly, is it really proportionate for the Government to announce on 9 November that the provisions are to be extended to every single e-mail, telephone call, text or website posting? If the threat is so great to require that, surely it should be done only with legal sanction and not just by some council official, senior policeman or senior government manager?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, there are a number of issues there that need to be unpacked. It is important to note that RIPA is not anti-terrorist legislation: it regulates covert techniques. Before the 2000 Act, none of these things was regulated at all and no check was kept on how local councils might have carried out intrusive investigations that now, post RIPA, they are not allowed to do at all. To be absolutely clear, the Government accept that minor offences such as dog fouling or littering were never intended to be subject to these techniques, and RIPA was not what put them in place. That is using powers incorrectly and that is why we have now had a long period of consultation through the summer looking at these issues and will come out with a number of proposals in January that I hope will make this even clearer than it is at the moment.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, does the Minister agree that some of the local issues for which RIPA has been used, such as rogue traders selling knives to children, are serious matters and that it is right that local authorities should use the powers available to crack down on them? Does he also agree that what is really important is that the orders are made at a sufficiently senior level; that there is a framework within which the powers are used; and that they are used accountably and transparently?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right. Following our consultation we will certainly raise the level of authorisation. We will also make sure that elected councillors are involved, so that they are privy and party to all of this. We will put this in statutory instruments in January.

Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, can the Minister be specific on this point: following the consultation that the Government are conducting, will local authorities still be able to use covert investigation techniques?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, yes, they will be able to use them, as they have always been able to use them. There are restrictions because of RIPA. Before the Act local authorities were not so restricted. For example, in communications data, because of RIPA, they are not allowed to use traffic data because that is the most intrusive. They are not allowed to use intrusive surveillance. However, there are a number of powers that they have always been able to use, and they use them. Some of these are rather important.

I have many examples but a good one is that of North Yorkshire council’s trading standards people. They prosecuted three roofers who had ripped off 11 elderly victims, two of whom had lost their entire life’s savings. It was quite appropriate that there should have been some form of covert investigation of that. It came out with a very good result. Those people ended up in prison, one of them for six years, one for five and one for three. It is appropriate that that should be done. Equally, it is totally inappropriate that a council should use this for matters that are not proportionate. That is what the consultation has come out with and that is what we are now trying to make even more certain. It would be wrong to use these powers over matters such as dog fouling, littering and so on. It is not proportionate.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, given that there was no oversight of the use of investigatory powers by local government until RIPA in 2000 and that there is now a complaints system and scrutiny of what happens, is it not the case that it is this Government who have protected citizens from improper intrusion by local authorities into their lives and are now increasing the level of protection by the new regulations which are being consulted on?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. I have to admit that I had not realised that, until 2000, none of these things was regulated at all. It is very interesting that the Chief Surveillance Commissioner said in his report for 2008–09:

“I am satisfied in general that the use made”—

of RIPA—

“is proper and of a good standard. This applies to all types of public authority. Error is usually due”—

and this is talking about the minor things—

“to inexperience resulting from lack of use. The lack of use is because most public authorities use the power as the last resort. This is what the law requires”.

Baroness Manningham-Buller: Would the Minister mind correcting the point that there was no authorisation for these methods before RIPA? There was not for local authorities but, of course, the Interception of Communications Act 1985 and the Intelligence Services Act 1994 authorised the most intrusive methods. Secondly, would the Minister agree that the way to approach this sensitive and difficult issue is to regard the powers authorised by RIPA as a hierarchy; that the most intrusive powers should be used only in the most serious cases, when all other approaches to investigation have failed; and that the least intrusive should also be used infrequently and with great care and caution? There should be a hierarchy of both authorisation and intrusion.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Baroness touches on two points. The first is to do with interception. Interception was different and that is why I did not specifically mention communications data. Interception was covered by a specific Act before 2000. Of course, that is still not allowed to be used by local authorities. It is restricted to a small number of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. It is right that none of these powers should be used unless it is used proportionately. What they need to take into account is the severity of the offence and how useful these powers will be to the investigation. I gave a good example of where I thought it was proportionate to use them. However, we must not get this out of context. For example, the number of requests to use communications data of the type that local councils can use—they cannot use all of them—was only 0.3 per cent of all the demands for communications data. The bulk of them came from the intelligence agencies and the police. That is the way it should be, but that does not mean we should not do even better. That is why we have had the consultation and will bring in statutory instruments in January next year.”


Friday
Nov 13,2009

The BBC has picked up on yesterday’s mini-row about the curse of “Reply All”.  What started the problem was an email from Mark Pritchard MP asking, what he no doubt thought was an innocuous question, about who might be interested in joining a new All-Party Group on Cyber-Security.  He had sent it to all MPs and Peers on the Parliamentary email system.  This in itself is not uncommon.

Derek Wyatt MP then responded to say – I paraphrase – that, as one of the handful of Parliamentarians interested in and knowledgeable about cyber issues, he  hadn’t known that Mark Pritchard was also concerned about such matters, that there were a number of other All-Party Groups in existence that looked at cyber questions and, given the extraordinary number of All-Party Groups in general, was an additional one really necessary.  Perhaps in an effort to stifle the fledgling prior to birth he pressed the “Reply All” button and sent his comment to all MPs and Peers.

This then prompted, first, a cascade of MPs and Peers agreeing with him that there were far too many All-Party Groups (all sent using “ReplyAll”) and, second, a torrent of MPs and Peers complaining about the excessive use of the “Reply All” button (some of them were quite intemperate in tone, typed in capitals and used red ink) but also – no doubt to emphasise how irritating it was – sent “Reply All”.

There are, of course, two issues here.

The first is why for so many people is it their default reaction when responding to something to tell an entire mailing list that unfortunately they cannot attend a particular meeting or whatever it might be.  No doubt, it is assumed that their presence or otherwise is so crucial that the response of others will be determined by what they say.   This is sheer arrogance.  If they are that self-important, there are other outlets – they could take up blogging, for example.

Parliamentarians are not, in fact, the worst offenders.  I find members of the London Assembly and their staff are even more profligate with the “Reply All” button.

The second issue is the extraordinary number of All-Party Groups these days.  If you want to count them, look here.  There are so many that it is often impossible for them to find a room, however small, in the Parliamentary Estate for a meeting.  Often there are so many competing Groups meeting simultaneously that most of them are lucky to get more than two or three Parliamentarians even to look in for a few minutes.

And just for the record I responded to Mark Pritchard saying this was a topic I was interested in and in which over the last few years I had been actively involved.  I didn’t press “Reply All” – my reply was just to him – but I also said I had some sympathy with the view that the issue could be pursued ender the umbrella of one of the existing groups.

Tuesday
Nov 10,2009

I have a confession to make.  At least once a day I read Iain Dale’s blog.  Sometimes I find it amusing and sometimes I find it interesting, particularly as a means of understanding the modern Conservative mindset.  Occasionally, of course, I read it as an antidote to low blood pressure.

Today, he had a good rant with “This Pseudo-Fascist Plan Must be Scrapped“.  This relates to the proposals on communications data and the need to preserve these for law enforcement purposes.

Reading the rant, I was surprised – not at its tone (Iain Dale is renowned for giving good rant), but at what I naively assumed was the factual trigger for the rant.  It sounded as though the Government was pressing ahead with legislation on this with a view to getting it passed this side of a General Election.  I was surprised for two reasons: first, that I had missed the announcement; and second, I had understood that this was not what was intended.

However, such was my faith in Iain Dale that I have only just got round to checking the facts.

And what did I find?  The entire rant was based on absolutely nothing.

The Government has NOT announced that it is pressing ahead with legislation.  All it has done is publish the results of its consultation exercise on the issue.  And sensible commentators (not Iain Dale) have recognised that the plans have been shelved.  The idea of a single Government database had in any event been dropped months ago.

I have two warnings for Iain Dale.

First, if he gets himself this worked up about something that ISN’T happening, he will need to be on heavy-duty tranquillisers long before we get into a General Election campaign.

And second, as I have pointed out before, there is a real and serious issue here that any Government must address.  As I said before the consultation was launched:

“At present, telephone companies keep data on their subscribers who make telephone calls, who they connect to and for how long.  They do this, so that they can bill people.  For many years, it has been possible for the police to access this data as part of their investigations into crime.  To do so, they have to get proper authorisation, certifying that accessing the data is proportionate to the crime being investigated and each case has to be considered individually.  The data can be used as evidence in Court and does not involve tapping the call and listening to the content.  Many trials rely on this evidence for criminals to be convicted – there is a murder trial under way at the moment where the crucial evidence is which mobile phones contacted each other just prior to and immediately after the murder took place.

But – and this seems to have passed the pundits by – technology is changing.  Telecoms companies (both fixed line and mobile operators) are building new networks based on VoIP technology.  This is cheaper and more flexible and – critically – does not require detailed call-by-call billing.  The data on which so many trials now rely will soon cease to exist.  The Government is therefore quite rightly going to consult on what can be done to capture this information and allow it to be used in criminal investigations where necessary.

It is not about giving the police more powers to pry into people’s personal lives.  It is about not losing vital material that is currently used to catch criminals.

And, of course, new forms of communication are being created all the time (eg. on social networking sites and chat facilities built into on-line gaming).  Should the police have powers to find out who is communicating with who in these new ways?  That’s what the consultation is about.  It is not some monstrous new assault on civil liberties.  It is allowing a sensible debate about how existing powers should be modified to reflect the changes in technology.”

Unless Iain Dale wants to see the police having to fight serious criminals with even less information available to them than they have at the moment, this is a nettle that is going to have to be grabbed.