EU judges to decide on pension rights of trans woman in the UK

August 11, 2016

Earlier this week, the UK Supreme Court referred the case of a trans woman who is fighting for her right to the female state pension to the European Union’s top court, BBC News reports.

Despite having voted to leave the EU on the 24th June of this year, the UK exit will take several years to negotiate. Consequently, for the time being decisions made by the EU’s highest courts still take precedence over those made by courts within the UK. 

In the UK, women are entitled to a state pension when they reach the age of 60. For men, the age is 65.

What complicates the case of ‘MB’ – as the plaintiff in this case is known – is that she married her wife before transitioning from male to female, at a time considerably before same-sex marriage was legal, and before trans people had the legal right to change their gender.

According to the BBC News article, the couple were married in 1974 and MB began living as a woman in 1991. She underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1995.

Yet it only became possible for trans people to change their gender officially with the passing of the Gender Recognition Act in 2004, when they were allowed to acquire a so-called “gender recognition certificate.” 

Even so – and this is the crucial point in MB’s case –  this law was passed ten years before same-sex marriage was legalised, and at the time it was not possible for people who were married to obtain a certificate if they did not have their marriage annulled as a result of their transition.

MB, who had two children with her spouse, wished to remain married “in the sight of God,” and did not apply for a gender recognition certificate, the BBC News article reports.

Consequently, when she turned 60 in May 2008, she is said to have applied for a state pension, but to have been refused by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP)  on the grounds that legally she was still a man, and would therefore have to wait until she turned 65.

This DWP decision was upheld by judges at the Court of Appeal in 2014, although some sympathy was expressed for MB’s situation. Lord Justice Maurice Kay described her as the victim of “a real misfortune” and noted that legal developments had come “too late for her to benefit from them.”

MB has subsequently requested the Supreme Court Justice overturn the lower court’s decision. Her legal representative, Christopher Stothers from the law firm Arnold & Porter, has argued that by relying on domestic UK law, the DWP’s decision contravened EU laws.

According to an article by the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF), MB’s representatives argued that the decision by the DWP “breached an EU directive on the equal treatment of men and women in matters of social security.”

The Supreme Court then issued a ruling, in which it stated that, “”The Supreme Court is divided on the question, and in the absence of Court of Justice authority directly in point, considers that it cannot finally resolve the appeal without a reference to the Court of Justice.”

Meanwhile BBC News quotes Stothers as saying, “This issue is a matter of principle as well as having financial consequences for pensioners.”

“Where an individual is physically, socially and psychologically a woman, as recognised by the state in their passport and driving licence, and indeed surgically, why should they be required – before the state will recognise their gender for pension purposes – to get divorced or have their marriage annulled, particularly where they and their spouse do not wish to do so and indeed have religious objections to doing so?” 

Stothers added that, “although we are pleased with the result, the slowness in getting the issue resolved is highly frustrating for the pensioners involved.”

 

Sources include: BBC NewsThomson Reuters Foundation

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Kosovan judoka makes history at Olympics

August 8, 2016

By taking gold in the 52kg women’s judo on Sunday, Majlinda Kelmendi has made history by becoming the first athlete representing Kosovo to win an Olympic medal, in what is also the first time that this country has competed at the Olympics.

(Foto: Jack GUEZ / AFP).

(Photo: AFP)

The second-seeded Kelmendi took the title by beating Italy’s Odette Giuffrida 1-0,  the Washington Post reported. Bronze was shared by Misato Nakamura of Japan and Russia’s Natalia Kuziutina.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and although recognised by major European Union countries and the United States, Serbia, and also Russia, continue to deny the autonomy of this region. 

According to the Washington Post, the National Olympic Committee of Kosovo was established in 1992, long before the territory declared independence. 

Nevertheless it would be a number of years before international recognition of Kosovo in the sporting world would follow. 

In 2013, one year after the International Judo Federation granted full recognition to Kosovo, Kelmendi won her first world title under the Kosovan flag in Rio de Janeiro.

In fact, this is not the first time that Kelmendi has competed at the Olympics. At the London Olympics in 2012, although she won no medals, perhaps an equally important difference for Kelmendi was that in Rio 2016 she has fought with the letters “KOS” on her back; in London 2012, her judogi read “ALB” for Albania

Nor was this the only time Kelmendi was forced to fight under flag other than Kosovo’s. When she successfully defended her title at the 2014 world championships, once again, she was not allowed to represent Kosovo, despite having done so the previous year. 

This time,because host nation Russia refused to recognise her homeland, her outfit bore the acronym “IJF” for “International Judo Federation.” 

Yet in December of that year, the International Olympic Committee finally granted Kosovo official recognition.

“When we got recognized by IOC, it was the best thing that happened to Kosovo,” Kelmendi told CNN last year.

“Not just for sport but as a country, because now athletes and young kids can dream to be in the Olympics and represent Kosovo.”

Meanwhile talking about her achievement in Rio, Kelmendi is quoted on IOC website as saying, “People, especially kids, in Kosovo look to me as a hero. I just proved to them that even after the war, even after we survived a war, if they want something, they can have it. If they want to be Olympic champions, they can be. Even if we come from a small country, poor country.”

Sources include: CNN, Washington Post, Reuters, IOC

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South Korea accuses North of hacking official emails

August 3, 2016
shutterstock_313805942

(Photo: Shutterstock)

According to prosecutors in Seoul, a significant number of South Korean government officials had their email accounts hacked by North Korea last year.

An article in Asahi Shimbun reports that investigations into the cyber-attack found that between January and June 2015, a “North Korean operated group” stole the email passwords of 56 people. This included officials in South Korea’s Defence, Foreign and Unification ministries. 

The story was first reported by Yonhap news agency.

In order to obtain email passwords, Yonhap informs us that in January North Korean hackers used a free web-hosting server to create 27 phishing sites, which pretended to be portal sites run by the South Korean Foreign Ministry, universities or companies related to defence, for example.

As yet it is unknown whether any confidential information was leaked, but an investigation is underway.

This is by no means the first time that Pyongyang has been accused of involvement in cyber-attacks. 

Just a few days previously South Korean police accused the regime of stealing personal data of over 10 million customers of South Korea’s online shopping mall Interpark, Asahi Shimbun reported.

Interpark only became aware that their customer data bank had been hacked on the 11th July, when the company was blackmailed to the sum of 3 billion won ($2.6 million or €2.3 million) in return for not publicising this private information. 

The National Police Agency of South Korea asserts that North Korea’s main spy agency, The Reconnaissance General Bureau, is behind the latest attack. They said that the same codes and internet protocol addresses had previously been used in cyber-attacks carried out by Pyongyang.

According to the Japan Times, Seoul believes that military institutions, banks, various state agencies, TV broadcasters, media websites and a nuclear power plant have also been targeted by North Korean hackers in recent years. 

The South Korean Police Agency believes that the North Korean regime is seeking means of obtaining foreign currency. 

According to the South’s spy agency, Pyongyang has an army of over 1,000 hackers intent on targeting Seoul’s top institutions and officials.

Meanwhile accusations of North Korean involvement in cyber-attacks have also come from beyond the Korean Peninsula

Last year, for example, Pyongyang was accused by the FBI of being behind a major cyber-attack on Sony Pictures. This attack happened to occur as the company was preparing to release The Interview, a comedy film featuring a plot to kill the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.

In November of last year, the Sony system was hacked and embarrassing emails and personal information subsequently published. Later, a group calling themselves “Guardians of Peace” threatened cinemas showing the film with attacks in the vein of 9/11. 

According to BBC News, while the North Korean leadership praised the cyber-attack calling it a “righteous deed,” they also called claims of their involvement absurd and denied any responsibility.

Even before this incident, the US government had sanctions in place over North Korea’s nuclear programme. BBC News reported that in response to the attack on Sony, Washington added further sanctions.

This is thought to be the first time the US has punished another country for a cyber-attack on a US company. 

This year, meanwhile, there has been increased tension in the region following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test carried out in January and the series of ballistic missile tests which followed. 

These events provoked an escalation of sanctions imposed by the United Nations, as well as individually by countries including the United States, South Korea and Japan

Sources include: Asahi ShimbunBBC News and Japan Times

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Antarctic ozone hole “healing” say scientists

July 3, 2016

A study published in Science claims to offer the first compelling evidence that the hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctic is shrinking. This study, conducted by US and UK scientists, contains data collected annually between September 2000 and September 2015, which demonstrates a decline of 4 million sq km in the size of the ozone hole during this period.

The study’s authors attribute the good news to the phasing out of Chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) chemicals since a global ban was introduced with the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

The study is also the first to highlight the role of volcanic activity in ozone depletion.

Ozone depletion and CFCs

Ozone is a gas which is present in the stratosphere, where it serves to protect humans, animals and plants on Earth by blocking harmful ultraviolet radiation coming from the Sun. For humans, exposure to UV radiation raises the risk of skin cancer and cataract damage.

Although depletion and production of ozone both occur naturally in the stratosphere, the level of ozone has been historically constant.

Yet in the mid 1980s British scientists discovered a dramatic thinning of the ozone layer above the Antarctic. Subsequently, in 1986, work by US researcher Susan Soloman called attention to the destructive effects on the ozone of the chlorine and bromine molecules in CFCs, which at the time were present in everything from aerosols to refrigerators and air conditioning units.

On the back of this research, in 1987 the Montreal Protocol introduced a global ban on CFC production, which was ratified by all UN member countries.

Ozone hole shrinkage

According to a BBC News article, the declining influence of CFCs has been reported by other studies prior to this latest research; however, this is the first time evidence has been put forward that the hole in the ozone layer is actually shrinking.

Between 2000 and 2015, Prof Solomon and her colleagues conducted detailed measurements of ozone in the stratosphere using weather balloons, satellites and model simulations. By so doing, they found that the hole above the Antarctic has shrunk by 4 million sq km over this period. Over half of this gain was due to the reduction of atmospheric chlorine.

For Dr Markus Rex from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany, “This is the first convincing evidence that the healing of the Antarctic ozone hole has now started.” He ascribes this achievement to the Montreal Protocol, and sees this latest finding as “a big step forward.”

Nevertheless as Professor Soloman made clear, “Even though we phased out the production of CFCs in all countries including India and China around the year 2000, there’s still a lot of chlorine left in the atmosphere.”

Given that this has a lifetime of between 50 to 100 years, recovery is expected to be slow. “We don’t expect to see a complete recovery until about 2050 or 2060,” said Professor Soloman.

Volcanic Activity

Yet, seemingly contrary to the reports conclusions, the reading taken in October 2015 showed the largest ozone hole on record; findings which at first baffled the researchers.

According to Prof Solomon, “Until we did our recent work no-one realised that the Calbuco eruption in Chile, actually had significantly affected the ozone loss in October of last year.”

The reason that thinning of the ozone layer occurred predominantly over the Antarctic is due to the extreme cold and ample light in this region. Conditions which helped to create Polar Stratospheric Clouds, in which CFCs linger and eat away at the ozone.

Prof Solomon explained that “”After an eruption, volcanic sulphur forms tiny particles and those are the seeds for Polar Stratospheric Clouds.”

“You get even more of these clouds when you have a recent major volcanic eruption and that leads to additional ozone loss.”

In fact this study has been hailed as “historically significant” by some in the field for being the first to draw a connection between volcanic activity and ozone loss.

Doubts

At the same time, there have been doubts raised by some in the field that the shrinkage in the ozone hole can be attributed to the decreasing amount of chlorine in the stratosphere.

Nasa’s Dr Paul Newman, for example, said, “The data clearly show significant year to year variations that are much greater than the inferred trends shown in the paper.”

“If the paper included this past year, which had a much more significant ozone hole due to lower wave driven forcing, the overall trend would be less.”

Even so, the researchers behind the study clearly believe strongly in their findings. For them, international efforts to tackle the hole in the ozone should serve as a model for other global environmental problems.

“This was an era in which international co-operation went rather well on some issues. I was inspired by the way the developed and developing countries were able to work together on dealing with the ozone hole,” said Prof Solomon.

Sources: BBC News, Guardian Newspaper

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Child Poverty and Pension Worries For The Japanese

May 19, 2014

At 16 percent, Japan’s relative poverty rate — the share of the population living on less than half of the national median income — is already the sixth-worst among the 34 OECD countries, just ahead of the United States. Child poverty in working, single-parent households  is by far the worst at over 50 percent, making Japan the only country where having a job does not reduce the poverty rate for that group.

As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe charges ahead with his “Abenomics” policies to revive economic growth, things look set to get harder, not better, for Japan’s working poor. This deepening divide between the haves and have-nots could threaten Abe’s vision of Japan’s economic revival

Having ramped up spending on public works projects and business incentives, the government has also moved to shore up its finances, cutting welfare benefits last summer and last month raising the national sales tax to 8 percent from 5 percent. The regressive tax puts the biggest burden on the poor, and another hike to 10 percent is planned in a mere 18 months.

For those like Ririko Saito, who lives hand-to-mouth with her daughter on an hourly wage of ¥1,080 ($10.6), last month’s tax hike has made life considerably harder. An extra ¥1,300 a month she will be receiving from the government to offset the higher costs of essentials is just not enough to avoid the repeated utility cuts.

“As it is, we can only afford discounted groceries.” Saito said. “I’m not sure how we’ll manage, but I’ll just have to find a way.”

Team Abe’s success in reversing 15 years of price declines that have hurt business confidence and investment also squeezes the poor, who cannot count on bonuses or financial profits to offset rising living costs as he artificially stokes inflation.

Japan says it plans more aid for welfare recipients, largely through job training. That, however, is little consolation because even those with jobs often live under the poverty line. The government does not officially define the “working poor,” but the number of part-time, temporary and other non-regular workers who typically make less than half the average pay has jumped 70 percent from 1997 to 19.7 million today — 38 percent of the labor force.

“The Abe administration’s stance is more about fixing things, including poverty, with a trickle-down effect from overall economic growth,” said Takashi Oshio, a professor at Hitotsubashi University specializing in social security. “There’s little political capital spent on issues like alleviating child poverty. It doesn’t garner votes.”

Some economists say a broad recovery in consumption, a key ingredient of Abenomics, may not last if more and more households struggle to hold above the poverty line. In the longer run, problems associated with poverty such as worse access to quality education, poor health and crime could increase fiscal burdens and dent Japan’s growth potential by shrinking the pool of skilled workers.

“Rising poverty leads to a wider gap in education,” said Makoto Saito, an economist at NLI Research Institute. “Japanese companies are supposed to be creating value-added jobs, but at this pace there won’t be enough people to fill those positions.”To be sure, higher sales taxes are widely seen as inevitable given Japan’s public debt is more than twice the size of its economy, and growing.

But economists say the government could limit the pain with policies that redistribute wealth better. With current social spending skewed toward pension and health care schemes that mostly benefit the elderly, Japan is the only OECD country where the poverty rate among working households and households with children rose after benefits and taxes, according to a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“Politically, it’s easier to get the understanding of the electorate since multiple tax rates would benefit everyone, not just the poor,” said NLI’s Saito.”But if effective countermeasures aren’t adopted to help low-income earners, the poverty rate is just going to keep rising.”

The majority of Japanese people are also worried about their financial future according to a recent survey by the Japanese Government which revealed that around two-thirds of Japanese aged 35 to 64 are concerned they will not have enough money to last through retirement. The Cabinet Office survey of around 6,000 people late last year revealed growing anxiety among people that savings, retirement payouts and public pensions will prove insufficient in old age.

About 67 percent said they feel they will have inadequate economic resources to fall back on after they retire, with three-quarters of that group stating their provisions are “quite inadequate.” Only 1.6 percent said they feel they will have enough money and 21.7 percent said they will have the bare minimum. Around half of those surveyed also said they want to be able to keep working after they turn 65.

The survey’s results will go into a white paper on Japan’s aging society to be adopted by the Cabinet in June.

Source: The Japan Times, the OECD

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Japanese banknotes to be adapted for the visually impaired

May 9, 2014

Japan is to begin issuing modified versions of banknotes which are suitable for the visually impaired as it attempts to adapt to the its ageing society. From May 12th, new 5000 yen ($49, £29) notes carrying holograms of a different texture will be issued by the Ministry of Finance, in order to make it easier for the growing number of visually impaired people in Japan to accurately distinguish between the different denominations of banknotes.

As well as bearing a modified hologram, the new 5000 yen notes will also be both larger and squarer than their predecessors, so that they can be clearly distinguished from the 10,000 yen notes. Takayuki Suzuki, Vice Chairman of the Japan Federation of the Blind, said, “Holograms on the old notes were small, and so the new design will make it easier for blind people to feel the difference.”

The modifications come as part of an initiative by the government to address the issue of Japan’s ageing population, which is impacting upon its workforce and economic output . As of last year, an estimated 25 per cent of Japan’s 127.3 million citizens were aged 65 and over, a global record, and a number that is continuing in an upwards trend. Japan may have the third largest economy in the world, but the Japanese government are keenly aware of the potential harm the ageing population – and consequent decrease in workforce – could bring to Japan’s productivity and output. As such, the government, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, are introducing a number of different programs, including the new banknotes, designed to be more inclusive of elderly people in daily society.

Suzuki’s vision for the notes is one of great expectations, but he is aware that progress may be slow: ‘We’d like to see different notes having different widths and lengths like euros, but this would be difficult as all the vending machines in the nation would have to be adjusted.’

Sources include: Japan Daily Press, Bloomberg Business

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Court interpreting firm fined thousands for poor service

January 22, 2014

International translation and interpreting company, Capita, has been fined thousands of pounds for failing to fulfil a large proportion of Ministry of Justice requests for court interpreters, BBC News reported this morning.

A National Audit report comissioned by the government found that Capita had £46,319 of payments, the maximum number permitted, withheld by the Ministry of Justice between May 2012 and November 2013 for deficiencies in service. Additionally, it found that individual judges had filed for £7,229 worth of wasted cost orders against the company as compensation for interpreters‘ failures in attendance. Of the numerous other company errors included in the report, one claimed that Capita had registered a pet dog as a viable interpreter.

In an effort to cut costs, the Ministry had arranged to outsource the provision of interpreters to Applied Language Solutions (ALS) in 2011. The contract had not begun when Capita took over ALS, and thus its £90 million contract with the Ministry of Justice, in late 2011.

According to The Lawyer, when the company took over the account, it had not got the resources available with 1,340 people registered to work, but only 280 who had passed the necessary quality assessment. Consequently, it only met 58 per cent of bookings against a 98 per cent target. By 2012, MPs had accused Capita of causing “total chaos” after its lack of staff had caused disruptions to many trials. Following this, the numbers of interpreters dropped again in 2013 due to reductions in Capita’s mileage allowance for its interpreters.

Although the company’s fulfilment of bookings has since improved to around 94-95% in the last four months, after packages for interpreters were made more attractive, it is still falling short of its target.

Margaret Hodge of the Labour party, who commissioned the report after receiving complaints, has said she is “umimpressed” by the statistic and commented on the crucial nature of Capita’s services: “This is a vital service for ensuring that people who do not speak English as a first language have fair access to justice.”

Despite the problems, Conservative justice minister Shailesh Vara said the contract had saved taxpayers £15m in its first year, stating that “dramatic improvements had been made over the life of the contract so far.”

The firm itself claims that, after reviewing its terms and conditions for interpreters with the MoJ, interpreters are now “tracking to the target level of service required.”

Sources Include: BBC News; The Lawyer

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