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Archive for July, 2010

Friday
Jul 30,2010

I have already explained that I really don’t mind.

However, just in case you really really want to cast your vote for this blog in the Total Politics annual beauty parade, this is what you have to do:

The rules are:
1. You must vote for your ten favourite blogs and rank them from 1 (your favourite) to 10 (your tenth favourite).
2. Your votes must be ranked from 1 to 10. Any votes which do not have rankings will not be counted.
3. You MUST include at least FIVE blogs in your list, but please list ten if you can. If you include fewer than five, your vote will not count.
4. Email your vote to toptenblogs@totalpolitics.com
5. Only vote once.
6. Only blogs based in the UK, run by UK residents or based on UK politics are eligible. No blog will be excluded from voting.
7. Anonymous votes left in the comments will not count. You must give a name.
8. All votes must be received by midnight on 31 July 2010. Any votes received after that date will not count.

So I’m not asking you to do it, but I really won’t mind if you do……

Thursday
Jul 29,2010

Yesterday morning I went to an event hosted by the King’s Fund at which the Minister for Public Health, Anne Milton MP, was the guest speaker.  There was no questioning the Minister’s personal commitment to improving public health, but how much she will be able to deliver will only be clear once the Coalition Government publishes its detailed plans on the subject later in the year.

She clearly feels that her presence on a series of Cabinet Committees will give her the opportunity to shape the Government’s other policies so that they are more beneficial for public health.

I did wonder how much clout in practice she will have. 

For example, will she be able to stop in its tracks the Coalition’s intentions to phase out speed cameras with all the risks of increased road deaths and speed-related serious injuries?

And where was she when the Coalition decided that it should resist the inclusion of Personal, Social and Health Education in the curriculum requirement for its Academy Schools?

Tuesday
Jul 27,2010

Just before the last Parliament was dissolved the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) became convinced that Trevor Phillips, the Chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, had behaved improperly in trying to nobble members of the Committee in an attempt to water down the Committee’s criticism of his stewardship of the Commission.  As a result, they referred him for investigation by the Privileges Committee to consider whether he had committed Contempt of Parliament (which in the old days – and for all I know now – could be punished by imprisonment in the clock tower under Big Ben).

The Privileges Committee report was considered this afternoon by the full House of Lords.  The Committee’s finding was that Trevor Phillips had behaved in a way that was “inappropriate and ill-advised” but concluded that he was not guilty of Contempt – at least in part because his lobbying had been ineffectual.

Normally, such reports are approved with little debate.  However, on this occasion there was considerable dissent.

The Earl of Onslow said:

“I was on the Joint Committee on Human Rights when these allegations were made. We were advised by our clerks that this was a clear breach of privilege. The effect of the lobbying—which there undoubtedly was—was obviously going to be minimal, because the three people whom others attempted to nobble were grown-up and intelligent enough to maintain the views that they had maintained the whole way through the discussion on Trevor Phillips’s behaviour. Admittedly, there was discussion in the committee and some people favoured a harsher report than others, but we came up with what was in effect a unanimous opinion. However, I am quite disappointed—that is the best way to put it—that this is what the Committee for Privileges found ….. at the time it seemed to us that there was a clear breach and I maintain that opinion.”

He was followed by Lord Dale Campbell-Savours who was even more scathing about the Committee’s findings:

“I will say a few words on the judgment of the committee, because I dissent from it. Perhaps I may take the time of the House to refer to a number of documents that underline my view. Paragraph 21 of the report states:

“We therefore conclude that, however inappropriate and ill-advised, Mr Phillips’ actions did not significantly obstruct or impede the work of the JCHR”.

The judgment of the Committee for Privileges seems to have turned on the words “significantly obstruct”. That should be seen in context. The chairman of the Joint Committee, Mr Dismore, in his submission to the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee, stated:

“The Committee’s consideration of its draft report on the EHRC was hampered by Mr Phillips’ actions. We were unable to agree a report on 9 February. Although we did agree a second version of the draft report on 2 March … I am in no doubt that Mr Phillips wanted either to tone down any criticisms we made of him in the draft Report or to delay the Committee’s deliberations so that we were unable to report before dissolution. Whether or not he was assisted by being familiar with the contents of the draft, he sought to achieve this aim by persuading Members he thought were ‘friends’ that the Committee’s inquiry was unbalanced and was motivated by hostility to him on the part of me or other Members. This represented a significant interference with our work which is why we looked to refer the matter to your Committee”.

The key words in that statement are:

“This represented a significant interference”.

We therefore have the chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights saying that, in the view of the committee, this was a significant interference; we also have the judgment of the Privileges Committee that it “did not significantly obstruct”. The matter turns on those words.

However, if we look back to an inquiry that took place in the Commons in 1994, we have some guidance on how the Privileges Committee deals with these matters. I think that it is worth explaining to the House that this matter was dealt with by the Privileges Committee in the House of Lords because the Commons went into recess and was not in a position to consider the matter fully, although it put into the public domain a number of memoranda that had been submitted to the committee for consideration for a report that it subsequently did not produce.

In the Willetts inquiry in 1994, Mr Willetts, a member of the other place, had been accused of trying to nobble the chairman of the Select Committee on Members’ Interests, Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith. In response to a remit from the House to investigate an allegation of improper pressure brought to bear on a Select Committee, the conclusion of that inquiry was that,

“we have to consider how far the term ‘pressure’ is synonymous with ‘influence’. We recognize that, while assent to or reinforcement by one Member of an opinion held by another could be regarded as influence, something further is required, in the form of a positive and conscious [effort] to shift an existing opinion in one direction or another, for a Member’s words and actions to constitute pressure”.

I argue that there was a positive and conscious effort to shift existing opinion because the draft report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights had, in part, been leaked to Mr Phillips. My noble friend Lord Dubs says no, but perhaps I may refer him to another document, which provides us with evidence of that. It is a submission from Mr Phillips himself to the Standards and Privileges Committee, in which he states that he received a memorandum on 22 March this year. I am sorry to delay the House on this matter but it is extremely important, because it is about nobbling the members of a Select Committee prior to the publication of their report. An e-mail received by Mr Phillips from a member of staff of the Equality and Human Rights Commission dated 6 February 2010 states:

“I was talking to someone this evening”—

that is, a member of his staff is being quoted—

“who had had sight of the current draft of the JCHR report. He said the report, in its current state, was fairly weak and emphasised a few points”.

The leak of that report advises Mr Phillips of the contents that are critical of him, which is why he was seeking to influence the individual members of the committee.

All I am saying to the House is that this is an important matter. We are not going to divide on it, but I believe that the Privileges Committee could have produced a far stronger document. It has not taken into account the precedent of pressure on Select Committee members and I believe that today the House is taking the wrong decision.”

Then it was the turn of Lord Tyler:

“The fact that the attempt to influence members of the committee was unsuccessful is surely not entirely relevant. The fact that the members were successful in resisting any attempt to influence them is of course important in the outcome, but if someone attempted to bribe a Member of either House but was unsuccessful, would it not still be contempt and a very serious matter? The success of members of the committee in resisting the attempt to influence them is not crucial in this matter.”

So the Committee’s report was criticised from all sides of the House – Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat – and it sounds as if Trevor Phillips was lucky to get away with just having his knuckles rapped.  Goolies in the mincer next time?

Tuesday
Jul 27,2010

Over the last thirty years or so there have been concerns that London MPs have never banded together to form a strong cross-Party lobby for London and Londoners – in the same way that MPs from other regions have done.

There is a very active group of London Labour MPs, which achieved much in the past.

And there is an All-Party London Group in the House of Lords, chaired by Lord Montgomery of Alamein (not that one, his son), but that is hardly the same thing and any way members of the House of Commons are not part of the Group.

So I was interested to see that in the All-Party Notices – an official document put together by the Parliamentary authorities that is circulated with the Party Whip documents for all Parties in both House – that an inaugural meeting of an All-Party Group on London was to take place last night at 6pm in Room W2 (off Westminster Hall).  Strangely, no contact was given in the Notice as to who was organising the meeting.  And unusually, there had been no e-mail or letter round to MPs and Peers who might be interested explaining the purpose of the meeting.

Intrigued, I turned up to room W2 at the appointed time.  It was empty.  A few moments later I was joined by Jim Fitzpatrick MP, former Minister for London and as intrigued as I was as to what this new Group was all about and who was organising it.

Ten minutes or so later, we were still the only people present and, as inaugural meetings normally only last two or three minutes, we left.  On our way out we checked who had booked the room.  It turned out that the meeting was in the name of Mike Freer MP, the former Leader of Barnet Council who introduced the Ryanair approach to public services to local government.

So why didn’t he turn up?

And why were no Coalition MPs or Peers present?

Clearly, the Coalition Government does not regard London as important.  No Minister has been designated as Minister for London -despite the practice of having a Minister for London pre-dating the last Labour Government.

Maybe Mike Freer thought this deficit might be – in part – rectified by setting up an All-Party Group, but his enthusiam didn’t seem to extend beyond booking a room.  Bit pathetic really.

Tuesday
Jul 27,2010

Earlier tonight, I went to “An Audience with David Miliband” hosted and chaired by Simon Fanshawe in Wood Green.  The 150-strong audience listened first to David Miliband being probed by Simon Fanshawe on his beliefs and ideology and on his views on where the Labour Party is now and where it should be going.  This was followed by a lively Q&A session in which the audience elicited some genuinely inspirational responses from the former Foreign Secretary, particularly on education, the role of community activism, and the need to safeguard the recovery and build sustainable growth for the future.

Those there who were undecided before will have come away enthused.

Monday
Jul 26,2010

Today the Coalition Government announced its plans for the future of policing.  Theresa May’s statement was repeated in the House of Lords by the Security Minister, Baroness Neville-Jones.  My intervention and the reply to it was as follows:

Lord Harris of Haringey: I declare an interest as a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, which I understand is to be abolished under these proposals. Could I ask about this brave new world of the police and crime commissioners? In parenthesis, calling somebody a crime commissioner implies that they commission crime, which seems a slightly strange thing for the Government to want to do. Given that the commissioners will apply to the forces that provide neighbourhood policing, which is essentially visible to local communities and for which there are already substantial arrangements for local dialogue with local communities, why are other areas of policing not to have the benefit—if benefit it be—of having their own police and crime commissioners? Why, for instance, is there no police and crime commissioner for the British Transport Police or the Civil Nuclear Constabulary or the Ministry of Defence Police—or, for that matter, the City of London Police? The Civil Nuclear Constabulary and the Ministry of Defence police are extremely heavily armed and the work they do raises important issues of public accountability. The City of London has its own slightly different means of democratic control from anywhere else. Why is there not that clarity? Could the Minister also tell the House about the accountability arrangements for the new national agency, given, again, that this will have very important but not essentially visible responsibilities for policing? These are precisely the areas in which strong, robust and transparent accountability mechanisms are necessary.

Baroness Neville-Jones: The noble Lord raised the question of other functions not covered by the police and crime commissioners and he is quite right to do so. The proposals make a distinction between those issues where we believe that local accountability is of the essence, in the area of neighbourhood and constabulary activity. Where we think that the functions have a much more national character—and certainly the police commissioners themselves must contribute to efficient national policing by collaboration—such as in counterterrorism, or in the powers that are going to be grouped under the National Crime Agency, different arrangements are needed. We will certainly have to put in place, subject to further consultation, the nature of the accountability arrangements that will be required. There will certainly be accountability arrangements but they have not yet been spelled out. Our purpose today is to make it clear that lying at the core of this is the need for accountability of local and neighbourhood policing.

On the British Transport Police, there is indeed a series of other protective policing powers and activities which are not covered by today’s proposal. We are looking at the rationality of present structures in that area with a view to seeing whether we cannot make them more efficient. Again, we will have to deal, in that instance also, with the question of accountability.”

There is a real concern here about the accountability of the specialist forces and the proposed new National Crime Agency – often they operate outside the public gaze and, given the nature of what they do, it is rather depressing that the accountability and governance arrangements are clearly an afterthought.

Other exchanges demonstrated that the costs of electing the new Commissioners of Crime will have to come from existing policing budgets (which, of course, are scheduled to be cut by 25%) and the Minister was blissfully vague about whether the Commissioners would really have a free hand to set policing budgets or whether they will be subjected to a capping regime by the Home Office (or the Department of Communities and Local Government).

Meanwhile, on another planet, Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse AM, Chair of the Metropolian Police Authority, reacted to the news of the abolition of the Authority he chairs by saying:

“This is brilliant news for crime fighting in London and indeed the UK. Over the last two years Boris has brought clarity and focus to our mission in the capital, and we have made progress.”

So the changes in governance will make up for the local police lost as a result of the planned 25% cut in police grant. But we really shouldn’t worry about this because as he goes on:


“Democratic control of policing has to be at the heart of our society. Without an electoral mandate for policing, there can be no real consent or legitimacy.”

And then in a bid to keep in with Mayor Boris Johnson he added:

” Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”


Sunday
Jul 25,2010

Iain Dale (and other Conservative commentators) are exulting that “the war on the motorist” is to end.  He has been whipped into a state of frothing excitement by the story on the front page of today’s Sunday Times (hidden behind a pay wall, but Iain Dale helpfully reproduces most of the article – so he will presumably be in Rupert Murdoch’s bad books now) that suggests that speed cameras are to be abolished.

40% of the budgets of local road safety partnerships are to be cut and all over the country speed cameras are going to be switched off as a result.

While this is joyful news for the likes of Iain Dale – who has, he admits, nine points on his driving licence for driving too fast (so one more contravention would mean that he would be disqualified from driving) – it must be much less welcome news for the families of the more than 2000 individuals who are killed or seriously injured on the roads each year.

The Coalition Government is, of course, ignoring the evidence that this expenditure saves lives, such as the paper in the British Medical Journal which concluded:

“Existing research consistently shows that speed cameras are an effective intervention in reducing road traffic collisions and related casualties.”

It is also ignoring the local campaigns of its own Ministers, like the ubiquitous Lynne Featherstone MP who is campaigning for a 20mph zone throughout her constituency, who writes in her blog (quite sensibly for once, despite the italics):

Last year there were six deaths in Haringey – as well as injuries. One little girl, for example, had both legs broken and will never be able to do sport or such like again – in her life.

From evidence elsewhere, 20mph saves lives, reduces seriousness of injuries and cuts pollution. 20mph as a pan borough speed limit has the downside of being a blanket policy – but the big upside of being simple, uniform policy. It’s a common complaint of motorists that rules are too complicated and are enforced wrongly.”

And then she adds:

There would clearly be a need for enforcement to make sure that there was a penalty to not observing the limit.”

So how might this enforcement be managed efficiently?  Speed cameras, of course.  Which her Government now wants to stop using.


Sunday
Jul 25,2010

We went to see “As You Like It” at The Old Vic yesterday.  This is one half of the Bridge Project’s 2010 offering - again directed by Sam Mendes – with a brilliant Rosalind from Juliet Rylance and a production that fully explores the darker sides of the play (including a water-boarding scene at the beginning of the second half, vivid enough to send the Observer’s Henry Porter into full rant mode).  The production is excellent and well worth catching if you get the chance.

One particular aspect was rather disconcerting.  There seemed to be an uncanny resemblance between Oliver (the scheming money-fixated and treacherous older brother of Orlando), played by Edward Bennett, and Phillip Oppenheim, the former Conservative MP and blogger, in his younger days.   I’m sure I must have been mistaken ……….

Saturday
Jul 24,2010

According to a German News Service, a man from the Rhineland has been arrested for spying on more than 150 girls in their bedrooms by hacking into their computers and using their webcams to watch them, provoking warnings that others will be doing the same thing.

Apparently, Thomas Floß from the association of data protection advisors, discovered the case. He often visits schools to talk with children about data protection and sensible behaviour on the internet and gives a presentation including a video showing how children can be spied on via their webcam.

“I want to show how dangerous webcams are,” he said. “I became suspicious when from February, increasing numbers of girls expressed the suspicion this was happening to them.”

According to the report:

“Two girls told him the little lights on their webcams were not going out when they had finished using them. On examining one of the computers Floß discovered a so-called Trojan computer program which was being used to control the equipment, and which had been spread via the chat service ICQ.

The hacker had allegedly broken into the chat service account of one schoolgirl, and used it to choose which others he wanted to spy upon, and send the Trojan to their computers.

He was traced to the Aachen region and arrested – when police officers arrived at his home they found several live feeds to bedroom cameras running on his computer.

Floß said he believed many more people were doing the same thing. “I have visited 50 to 60 schools, and every time at least one schoolgirl tells me they have such a problem [with webcams not switching off],” he said.”

Friday
Jul 23,2010

Lynne Featherstone has become a Home Office Minister – much to her own surprise and to that of many of her constituents who did not realise that by voting for her they would be supporting a Cameron-led Government that is determined to cut public spending by 25-40%, dismantle the NHS, undermine local schools etc.

Becoming a Minister has also inevitably meant that her blogging style has become even more stilted than before – particularly following what a little bird tells me was a monumental dressing-down administered to her by her Home Office boss Theresa May, who did not like the tone of one of Lynne’s first post-appointment blogs.

So Featherlight -as she was affectionately known (for reasons I cannot fathom) when she was a member of Haringey Council – is now much more careful in what she writes.  So yesterday, there was only a slightly breathless account of the oral questions in which she had participated earlier that day in the House of Commons.

She told her excited audience:

“Today at the Dispatch Box – myself, Theresa May, Maria Miller and Andrew Stunell were all on the front bench together – in a change to how things have been done in the past. Instead of Questions to the Minister for Equalities being only for myself and Theresa – as part of mainstreaming – Maria Miller who has Ministerial responsibility for People with Disabilities (from the Department of Work and Pensions) and Andrew Stunell  (Minister for Communities and Local Government) who has responsibility for race – came together for joined up equalities questions.”

Joined up, eh?

Sounded plausible, until the first comment on the post put it in context:

Adam says:

My respect for Theresa May has just increased massively.

I totally wouldn’t trust you to answer the questions on your own either.”

Squelch!