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Archive for May, 2010

Monday
May 31,2010

It rather looks as if the so-called “new politics” is dead.  The cleansing that the General Election was supposed to have brought seems to have vanished in just a few days.  The Government is now mired in “sleaze” stories – the sort of stories that were supposed to be behind us given the way the political parties had taken action against those who had been embroiled in expenses problems and the electorate’s verdict on those that had survived that process.  Both David Cameron – and to an even greater extent Nick Clegg – had been incredibly sanctimonious before the General Election.  Now their words are coming back to haunt them.

What have the last few days brought?

  • David Laws forced to resign following revelations that he had broken the rules on claiming second home expenses to  make payments to a partner.  His arguments to try and justify himself and the attempts to turn this into an argument about sexuality have been comprehensively debunked.
  • Double questions about Danny Alexander’s expenses (flipping and Capital Gains Tax avoidance) and his choice of Special Advisor.
  • Stories that a top Tory donor was nominated for a peerage, but then had to withdraw after “questions” were raised about his tax payments.

None of this looks good for the “new politics”.

And what was Nick Clegg thinking when – in the first Leaders’ debate in the General Election – he called on the other Parties to come clean about flipping houses, pocketing huge profits and avoiding capital gains tax and asserted that not a single Liberal Democrat MP had been involved?  Had he forgotten Danny Alexander, his closest aide?

Friday
May 28,2010

This afternoon Downing Street announced the appointment of 55 new Peers, which when added to the three new Peers appointed by David Cameron as Government Ministers, makes a total of 58.  When they all take their seats (plus the two newly “elected” hereditary Peers), there will be 767 members of the House of Lords.

The announcement today is in fact an amalgam of three lists:

  • a list of “working” Peers, nominated by the political parties, that has been working its way through the system for some time.  This comprises sixteen Labour; ten Conservatives (including one of the new Ministers); and six Liberal Democrats.  This list was completed well before the General Election and should have emerged months ago.
  • a list of ex-MPs who were not standing in the General Election – the “dissolution” list, which traditionally appoints former senior Ministers and leading Parliamentarians to the Lords.  This comprises thirteen Labour; six Conservatives; three Liberal Democrats (one of whom – Richard Allan – retired five years ago and now works for Facebook); and one Democratic Unionist (Ian Paisley).
  • one individual appointed as a Cross-bencher in recognition of having held a significant post in public life (Ian Blair).

I am told that the out-going Prime Minister had been sitting on the list of “working” peers for some time, along with the nomination of Sir Ian Blair, who was sacked by Mayor Boris Johnson/resigned the Metropolitan Police Commissionership to pursue other opportunities in October 2009.

Still to come is the normal “resignation” list of nominees by the outgoing Prime Minister (Tony Blair’s list is also still outstanding) and a list of peerages for any senior ex-Ministers or Parliamentarians defeated in the General Election.

This, of course, also excludes the “gerrymander” list of 100-200 new Peers that the Coalition has promised itself to avoid any risk of being voted down in the House of Lords.

Despite the extra Peers announced today, the Coalition’s case for bolstering its position remains extremely weak.

When the new Peers are in place the make-up of the House will be:

  • 204 Conservatives
  • 239 Labour
  • 80 Liberal Democrat
  • 218 Cross-bench and others
  • 26 Archbishops and Bishops.

The coalition will have 284 members of the House out of a total of 767.  This is 37% of the House and is in practice a working majority as the Crossbenchers and the Bishops do not vote in a bloc (usually splitting on either side of the argument) and in practice they do not attend and vote as frequently as the Party representatives.

The outgoing Labour Government never had more than 30% of the membership of the House and was virtually always defeated if the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats voted together.

And the accepted principle had been that the Government of the day should not have a working majority in the House of Lords.

There is, of course, another reason why there should be no more Peers appointed for a while after the announcement today.  The House is now bursting at the seams.  In the Chamber it is frequently now standing room only and the Liberal Democrats have encroached onto the Bishops’ benches (encircling any Bishop present).  A note has gone round to many Peers telling them that they can’t have both a desk and a locker.  And it won’t be long before Peers have to share coathooks.

A constitutional outrage by trying to gerrymander the second Chamber is one thing; sharing coathooks is quite a different kettle of fish.

Friday
May 28,2010

As Mayor Johnson prevaricates (“I’m not going to…all I will say is this: I’m having, you know…being Mayor of London is a fantastic job and a very challenging job and a wonderful job and obviously if I still think at the end of this year that things are going well then I’d be crazy not to put my hat in the ring and have another go for sure”) on whether he is standing again for Mayor in 2012, I am one of the signatories in a letter to the Guardian supporting Ken Livingstone as the candidate best placed to deliver a progressive future for London.

The letter reads:

“The election of a London mayor in 2012 will test the strength of Conservative support nearly two years into David Cameron‘s administration. London needs to return to a policy of investing in our public services, leading the capital and speaking for London as a whole, not the cuts and incoherence of the present administration under Boris Johnson. Labour will shortly choose a candidate for mayor. We need a candidate who can give leadership in a time of crisis, has demonstrated their commitment to innovation and cutting-edge policies, who understands London’s political landscape and who always puts London first.

To maintain our safer neighbourhood police teams, protect the fare payer, and ensure a powerful voice for London in future we will be supporting Ken Livingstone as the best-placed candidate to secure a progressive future for London.”

The other signatories are: Claude Moraes MEP; Virendra Sharma MP; Andy Slaughter MP; Val Shawcross AM; Nicky Gavron AM; Cllr Liam Smith (Leader, Barking and Dagenham); Cllr Julian Bell (Leader, Ealing); Cat Smith (Vice Chair, London Young Labour) and Dame Sally Powell (Hammersmith and Fulham Council).

Thursday
May 27,2010

Michael Caine’s immortal line in “The Italian Job” was, of course:

“You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”

According to the BBC, it appears that bank robbers still need to remember the lesson:

“Suspected robbers in Germany appear to have miscalculated the quantity of explosives needed to blow their way into a rural bank.

The building housing the bank in the northern village of Malliss was largely destroyed by an overnight explosion.

The bank’s cash machine survived intact and the suspected thieves are not thought to have made away with any money.”

Thursday
May 27,2010

The Metropolitan Police Authority is in session and Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse AM, DCiC* and SDEI**, is in the Chair.

And the SDEI was in teasing mood, like a fading diva flashing a bit of leg to raise the flagging interest of her devotees, offering a few hints of how he would like the new governance arrangements for the Metropolitan Police to change when the Coalition Government gets its way on Police Authorities.

The Coalition has said:

“We will introduce measures to make the
police more accountable through oversight
by a directly elected individual, who will be
subject to strict checks and balances by locally
elected representatives.”

And the SDEI told the Authority that during the Election campaign a document may or may not have been published which set out the views of the Mayor’s Office on how these arrangements would operate in London and he also said he would shortly be making public his detailed views when he responded to the Association of Police Authorities’ consultation on the subject (although he had told the APA Board that he disagreed with the Association’s general line and was not consulted on the content of their recent newspaper letter).  He also said that he had met new Home Office Ministers to discuss it.

So what was he recommending?

The SDEI remained rather vague – presumably just in case the final outcome is not quite the same as his recommendations – and acknowledged he was not clear on the timetable.

What was clear was that he envisaged the Mayor (whoever that might be – because if the timetable extends beyond 2012, Mayor Boris Johnson is likely to have stepped down by then to pursue his national ambitions) being the “Directly Elected Individual” for London’s police (??? will this include the City of London Police???).  And that the Mayor will then appoint a Board to oversee the Metropolitan Police with the scrutiny function being provided by the London Assembly.

So who would sit on the Board?  The members would be Mayoral appointments (and might include some elected politicians, such as Borough Leaders or Assembly Members).

So how would this differ from the existing independent members of the MPA?  Ah well, said the SDEI, these would be individuals with high levels of relevant external experience and rather than use the outmoded system of public advertisement and interviews to select members (as happens with the existing MPA independent members) it “would be possible to go out and look for particular skills”.

So that made eleven members of the MPA feel properly valued.

*DCiC = Dog Catcher in Chief

**SDEI = Shadow Directly Elected Individual

Wednesday
May 26,2010

It was rather like watching a train crash in slow motion – fascinating but nauseating at the same time.  It fell to Lord De Mauley, Old Etonian, “elected” hereditary peer and Government Whip, to repeat the statement in the Lords given in the Commons by David Laws MP, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, on the spending cuts announced on Monday.  He responded to this challenge by reading the statement exceedingly slowly and in a monotone.

He was followed by Lord John Eatwell, a serious economist and President of Queens College, Cambridge, making a welcome return to the Labour frontbench, who was in devastating form:

“My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, for repeating the Answer given by his right honourable friend in another place. I congratulate him on his new responsibilities, and express the hope that he will display the same forensic ability in economic affairs displayed by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, in the previous Parliament.

It is an axiom of sound financial management that actions have consequences. What is striking about the Statement made by Mr Laws is that the consequences of the expenditure cuts are not spelt out at all. Instead we are presented with £6 billion-plus of cuts in government expenditure, but not told what the true consequences will be. Of course I can understand the sheer delight with which the Chancellor imposed swingeing cuts on the Department for Business—or should it now be called the department for closure? That will teach Vince Cable to declare earlier this year that,

“cutting spending further … would be extremely dangerous”.

Try a cut of £836 million on for size, Vince!

The rationale for the cuts is declared to be,

“to start tackling the UK deficit and secure the recovery”.

The Chief Secretary cites the United States as following a similar policy. That is arrant nonsense. On the very day that Vince Cable suffered the unkindest cut of all, President Obama announced a £30 billion new initiative to support small businesses. Has the noble Lord read the speech of Professor Christina Romer, chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, delivered at the William and Mary College last week? Professor Romer said:

“I worry that policymakers may take the return of growth as license to withdraw the support that has been essential to the recovery. That is exactly what happened in 1936 and 1937. President Roosevelt, Congress and the Federal Reserve switched to fiscal and monetary contraction before the recovery from the Great Depression was complete. The result was a second recession in 1938 that pushed unemployment back up to 18 percent and delayed the return to normal for another three years”.

That is the potential cost of this Government’s deficit hysteria.

So will the noble Lord tell us, first, what is the Treasury’s estimate of the increase in unemployment directly attributable to these spending cuts? Secondly, what is the Treasury’s estimate of the number of business failures that will be directly attributable to these spending cuts?

The Government claim continuously to be protecting front-line services—a laudable objective. To enable your Lordships’ House to assess the Government’s achievement, will the noble Lord give the House a precise definition of what is a front-line service? A precise definition would enable your Lordships to assess whether the £1.7 billion of the contracts and projects delayed or stopped are front line. Can the noble Lord tell us exactly what the contracts and projects to be stopped might be? Can he also tell us exactly what are the £1.7 billion of local authority services that are no longer to be ring-fenced? Are they front line? Is the removal of funding to underwrite children’s futures in the children’s trust fund front line—they look jolly front line to me.

The Government have presented a policy without consequences, because they are unwilling to spell out the true consequences. It is a pretty poor start to open, transparent government. What is transparent is the evident relish with which Mr Laws wields the budgetary axe. He revels in the policy of shock and awe. Mr Laws is the Donald Rumsfeld of economic policy, and we can expect his activities to achieve equally constructive consequences. Lloyd George would be ashamed of him.”

Answers came there none.

As other Peers asked further questions, the responses became even more abbreviated and Lord De Mauley looked more and more discomfited.

And as the minutes wore on the Tory Leader of the Lords, Lord Strathclyde, stared fixedly at the clock – as though willing the minutes to pass so that the time limit for questions would be over and Lord De Mauley’s would be ended.

Wednesday
May 26,2010

I gave the keynote address last week at the International Secure System Development Conference.  One of the suggestions I made was that there might be a “kitemark” system on software giving consumers some assurance that industry-agreed security standards were applied in any software that they bought displaying the mark.  Some people clearly liked what I said.

Tuesday
May 25,2010

The Liberal Democrats held a Special Conference to endorse Nick Clegg’s decision to join a Coalition Government with the Conservatives.  The Conference held on 16th May approved the coalition but added a number of conditions.  One of these was:

“Conference urges Liberal Democrat ministers and MPs to take all possible steps to ensure the repeal of those sections of the Digital Economy Act 2010 which are inconsistent with policy motion Freedom, Creativity and the Internet as passed at Spring Conference 2010.”

So all those LibDem activists must be really pleased to see that Jeremy Hunt, the (Tory) Culture Secretary has taken their concerns on board and now says:

“We’re not going to repeal it.”

And there is nothing in the Queen’s Speech.

So looks like a betrayal to me.

Tuesday
May 25,2010

There is a tradition that when the House of Lords meets – by and large without fancy dress -  on the afternoon of the day of the Queen’s Speech two loyal Government backbenchers are chosen to propose “an humble address” thanking the Queen for taking the time to open the new session of Parliament.

This afternoon – in the spirit of the new coalition – two loyal – allegedly loyal – backbenchers from the Government benches – one Conservative and one Liberal Democrat duly made their speeches thanking the Sovereign.  The new proprieties were followed: they referred to each other as “My Noble Friend”.  However, the implicit stresses and strains in the new relationship were visible for all to see.

The Conservative speaker was the very grand Earl Ferrers, a member of the House for over 55 years.  There has been a Ferrers sitting in the House of Lords for hundreds of years and his ancestor the fourth Earl has the distinction of being the last member of the House to have been hung for murder- in 1760.  The present Earl (the thirteenth) is an individual not known for his liking of other political parties.  This is what he said about the Liberal Democrats:

“They received fewer seats than they expected, but I congratulate them on holding office for the first time in 65 years. That is quite an achievement whichever way you look at it. They have been at the forefront of all political jokes, especially from my party, most of which we thought were wholly justified. But not no more! We are chained together like suffragettes. When the late Lord Pethick-Lawrence, whom I remember sitting at the end of the Bench opposite, was in another place and his wife was a formidable suffragette, he made the wonderful observation that he would give £100 to a charity for every day that his wife remained chained to the railings of the House of Commons.”

Earl Ferrers has a reputation as a traditionalist.  And he did not hide his distaste for some of the constitutional change promised in the forthcoming session, saying:

“A fixed-term Parliament: that is a new idea.”

“New” is not a word of praise in his lexicon.  And he went on:

“There was a lot of talk about the Government wanting an Opposition majority of 55 per cent in another place before the Government are unseated. Your Lordships will have your own views as to whether that is wise or not. I shall content myself with saying that when the Labour Government were defeated in 1979 on a Motion of no confidence, I was watching in the Gallery. There was a sombre feeling in another place because everyone thought that the Motion was lost. Then, one of the Whips—Anthony Berry I think it was—rushed in holding up one finger. The roar was tremendous. Everyone knew that the Government had lost by one. Everyone understood that. Now, one would have to work out 55 per cent of 423—[Laughter]—and come in holding up three and a half fingers.”

And as for House of Lords reform:

“A second House which is wholly or partially elected is in the gracious Speech. One does not have to be a genius to realise from which end of the suffragette’s chain that idea came. I have always had the respectful temerity to advise your Lordships not to cheer too much at the removal of the hereditary Peers because the life Peers would be next.  ….  I can never understand why we always have to use up energy and parliamentary time in changing things which are working well—time which could be better addressed to the subjects which are not working well. I think that I had better not pursue that line too far, because it might be regarded as controversial, which of course it is not.”

Now Earl Ferrers is the President of the Association of Conservative Peers.  His loyalty to the Conservative Party is unimpeachable, but if that is his view of the Coalition and its constitutional proposals, it doesn’t sound as if the Government is going to have an easy time.

Monday
May 24,2010

There are Presidential Elections in Colombia at the end of this month.  Whilst there are no doubt attempts to influence the result through scare tactics, the country’s Defence Minister has warned that “hackers plan to disrupt” the Elections.  This apparently follows an attempt to disrupt the legislative elections that were held in March that affected the company hired to transmit the results over the internet and explains why the head of the National Electoral Council has said that the voting system is “falling apart”.  However, his solution was to propose a wider use of electronic voting systems, which would not obviously deal with the problems if there are concerns about people hacking into the existing systems.

It certainly raises questions about whether enough work has been done on the protection and security of electronic voting systems and of electronic counting systems like those used in the London Mayoral elections.