I have just heard the Rt Hon Michael Mates MP talking eminent sense of Radio 4′s World Tonight (he’s about 30 minutes in). He is a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee (the Parliamentary Committee that oversees the Security Service and whose report “Could 7/7 have been prevented?” is published today). His comments were measured and dispassionate. They didn’t treat national security questions as a political football or an occasion for political point-scoring. He was being statesmanlike and behaving responsibly – exactly what I suspect most members of the public would like to get from their MPs.
I have now started reading the House of Lords Privileges Committee report on the conduct of the four Members of the House. Actually, there are two reports and it is the first that I have been through so far (I will probably save the 540 or so pages of the main report on conduct and the associated evidence until tomorrow). The first report is on “The Powers of the House of Lords in respect of its Members” and its broad conclusion is that the House does not have the power to exclude a Member permanently but can suspend a Member for a period during the remaining life of this Parliament.
This may not sound like a very Earth-shattering conclusion, but it turns out not to be as straightforward as one might think. The question turns on what powers the House of Lords already has, whether a House of Parliament can take extra powers upon itself without primary legislation and whether the House’s rules can over-ride the Monarch’s Writ of Summons to a Member.
What is interesting is that the Committee first took advice form the Attorney General, Baroness Patricia Scotland, the senior legal advisor to the Government. However, when she concluded that the House did NOT have the power to suspend a Member, but could merely resolve to invite a Member to take “leave of absence” for a specified time, the Committee asked one of its members, the former Conservative Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, to give a second opinion. When he gave his view that the House DID have the power to suspend, the Committee decided unanimously to accept his advice rather than that of the Attorney General.
The whole issue rests on the mystical significance of the Writ of Summons from the Queen, which each Member receives on first being appointed to the House and then on each occasion a new Parliament is called (ie after each General Election). This was a big issue at the time of the House of Lords reform when all but 92 hereditary peers lost the right to sit in Parliament. Could an Act of Parliament over-ride the Monarch’s Summons? Parliament (and the Courts) eventually concluded that yes it could.
Intriguingly, according to John Wells in his book “The House of Lords“, this same issue was tested by Lord Tom Taylor (one of the four Members who are the subject of the other Privileges Committee report). According to page xiv in the paperback edition I have, Tom Taylor “argued in the early 1980s that insanity should not prevent peers from attending”. The book goes on: “He himself had been detained in a psychiatric hospital, where his wife would have preferred him to stay, but he secured his release by claiming parliamentary privilege and made his way back to Westminster.”
Patricia Scotland took her argument back to 1705 when both Houses of Parliament agreed that “neither House of Parliament hath power, by any Vote or Declaration, to create to themselves any new Privilege, that is not warranted by the known Laws and Customs of Parliament.” She then argued that as the House had never suspended anyone since then to introduce a power of suspension now would indeed be a “new Privilege” contrary to the 1705 decision.
Lord Mackay’s contrary argument was that suspension would not interfere with the Writ of Summons itself. The Writ of Summons does not confer a right or privilege; it is a command to fulfil a duty (ie attendance at Parliament) and the duty includes an obligation to perform the duty in accordance with the rules of Parliament. It follows therefore that a breach of those rules is a failure properly to fulfil the duty and suspension might be an appropriate sanction.
Lord Mackay also argues that in any case the power to suspend already existed in 1705 – it had been used on 19th May 1642 when the House resolved that Lord Savile should not sit or vote for the remainder of that session. Lord Mackay admits that the power has not been used since then, but the House would not be voting itself a “new Privilege” if it decides to suspend one or more Members.
The first thing the House will have to do next Wednesday when it considers the Privileges Committee’s reports will be to decide whether it backs the Mackay view or not (and by implication whether it is rejecting the advice of the Attorney General). Then assuming the power of suspension is approved, decisions can be made about the two Members who the Committee is suggesting be suspended. It will be interesting to see whether at that point anyone will raise the point that retrospective penalties are being applied (an issue that normally vexes many Members of the House when it is deemed that a piece of legislation has a retrospective effect). It may be a long debate.
I have just introduced a short debate in the Moses Room (Grand Committees in the House of Lords take place in a room known as the Moses Room as there is a large fresco called ‘Moses bringing down the Tables of the Law from Mount Sinai’ there) on the possible use of the Segway Personal Transporter in the UK. My interest in this was fired by seeing a demonstration of a Segway in use and hearing of the use of them made by some 1000 police and law enforcement agencies around the world.
The police experience elsewhere has found a series of benefits: they can easily be integrated into patrolling, they cut down response times, they provide a better line of sight for officers (because the officer is on a platform 40-50cm above the ground), and they improve engagement between the police and the public (compared with officers in a car).
They are also of use for other specialised purposes. For example, BAA deploy them at Heathrow and find that they speed up response times in the event of an incident or equipment breakdown and provide an efficient way of patrolling and doing routine maintenance tests. A number of UK local authorities are also interested in deploying them in parks, city centre precincts, routine maintenance patrols and even for parking enforcement.
Finally, if made available for general use, there is evidence from a major study in Canada that a high proportion (62%) of car users would be keen to give up their cars for many short journeys – with a considerable saving in carbon emissions and congestion.
Most other countries permit their use. In the UK, however, the Deparment for Transport is adamant that existing legislation does not permit their use on roads, on cycle routes or on pavements. Moreover, there are – it is claimed – no powers that would even permit a trial to take place. (I am not convinced of this. As a non-lawyer, Section 44 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 seems to permit the appropriate exemptions to be made.)
Andrew Adonis, the Lords Transport Minister, stonewalled elegantly on behalf of the Department. However, he did agree to try one out himself (although he insisted that I do so as well) and offered me a meeting with his Departmental colleague, Jim Fitzpatrick MP.
What was noticeable was the make-up of the discussion. As Andrew pointed out, he and I, “as the representatives of the Proletarian Party were the only mere Life Barons present”. The other speakers were the Earls Attlee (grandson of Clement, but now speaking on behalf of the Conservative front-bench), Liverpool (also a Conservative and descendent of another former Prime Minister – a Tory this time) and Erroll (a cross-bencher who is also the hereditary Lord High Constable of Scotland), and Viscount Falkland (speaking for the Liberal Democrats). The Earl of Glasgow (another Liberal Democrat, who had originally wanted to speak as well) also sat in for most of the debate. When Earl Attlee expressed his sympathy to Viscount Falkland that he was only a Viscount, Lord Falkland hastened to point out that he was, in fact, also an Earl, but as it was a Jacobite creation it didn’t count. All in all, five of the ninety-two remaining hereditary peers still sitting in the Lords were present. I am not sure what it means, but it certainly felt strange.
An unscientific sample of my personal experience seems to suggest that it is. However, this is not just that I had a bad journey in this morning or even through this week. Instead, it is a view that has been developing over several months.
One bus route I use reasonably often has had its frequency reduced from once every ten minutes during the week to once every twelve minutes – marginal in itself, but if a particular bus doesn’t run and it is raining …..
On another route that I use virtually every day, the number of times a week when there seem to be problems seems to have risen as well.
I am not aware of any consultation on changes in the contracts with the bus companies concerned and, of course, it may just be chance, but I wonder how many other Londoners are beginning to feel that under Mayor Boris Johnson there seems to have been a deterioration of service.
By and large, the bus service remains good and efficient and is still markedly better than that which existed before the improvements instituted by the current Mayor’s predecessor. However, I hope we are not starting down the slippery slope to what existed in the 1990s.
According to some reports today’s meeting of the Metropolitan Police Authority was rowdy with much heckling and disruption from protestors about the policing of the G20 demonstrations. As someone who over the years has been in many meetings where there have interruptions from the gallery, this was – in actual fact – rather mild stuff. There were at most 15-20 protestors (so much for “kettling” MPA members in City Hall) and they were nowhere near disrupting the meeting. Mayor Boris Johnson warned them once not to be too rowdy but apart from the odd shouted comment there was really very little to interfere with the discussion at the meeting.
Of course, the discussion itself was rather low-key. MPA members had had a behind-closed-doors briefing on the policing of the G20 demonstrations a few days before and, as a result, for those observing the proceedings, it must have seemed as though a lot of ground was not covered.
Nevertheless, there was no doubting the wide concern amongst most MPA members about aspects of the policing and a consensus motion was agreed that the MPA would set up a new “Civil Liberties Panel” that would examine the issues in more detail. It will be interesting to see who emerges as the Chair of this group.
The meeting itself lasted for three hours – exceeding by 50% the arbitrary time allocation that has been imposed on meetings since the new adminsitration took control of the Authority. Mayor Boris Johnson chaired the meeting quite well, allowing everyone to have their say (many times in the case of Jenny Jones AM), although Uber Vice-Chairman, Kit Malthouse AM, had to reprimand the Mayor at one point for interupting him (Kit) before he had finished his point.
Mayor Johnson was also visibly engaged in the discussion with few signs of his customary boredom. He made a virtuoso defence of his article in the Telegraph when accused of fomenting violence (no-one recognises irony when they see it), perked up when one of the members suggested including “inter alia” in the wording of the consensus resolution, and when I asked about the role of the so-called Police Medics added (not quite sotto voce) ”..and look after the people they’ve just hit”.
I understand that various groups are planning to be present in force at tomorrow morning’s meeting of the Metropolitan Police Authority at City Hall. This will be the first major public occasion when members of the Authority will question the leadership of the Metropolitan Police about the policing of the G20 demonstrations and the death of Ian Tomlinson. Sky News is planning to broadcast the meeting live and there are rumours that some demonstrators are planning to try and “kettle” the MPA inside City Hall. No doubt this will turn into great theatre and some MPA colleagues may be tempted to play to the gallery. However, whatever happens, I hope it does not obscure the very important process of – in public – seeking answers from the Metropolitan Police about the tactics of policing the G20 demonstrations, the nature of the briefings given to officers, the extent to which front-line supervisors were supervising what happened and so on.
We will see.
What is a certainty is that the meeting, which was originally planned by Uber Vice Chairman, Kit Malthouse AM, as a celebration of Mayor Boris Johnson’s first year as Mayor and his successes in policing, will not spend long discussing the final draft of MetForward the statement of the new administration’s vision for policing in London.
On this morning’s Radio 4′s “Today” programme, George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor, made it clear that the Conservatives would not repeal the proposed 50% income tax rate on top earners. His reason: they had to think of the “many not the few”.
Those who remember the mid-1990s will remember that the “many not the few” was one of the campaign mantras used by Tony Blair and the Labour Party in the run-up to the 1997 General Election to highlight the difference between Labour and the Conservatives. It is nice to hear that the political consensus has now shifted so much that George Osborne can repeat it with approval and with what was presumably (as you know you cannot see on the radio) a straight face.
But the point he seems to miss is that the whole Budget, which he was of course trying to rubbish comprehensively, was for the “many not the few”. Still one step at a time.
What will be really interesting is how the rest of the Conservative Party interprets it – will they be so happy with the “many not the few” line? Will Mayor Boris Johnson, for example, who was distinctly unchuffed with the idea of having to pay 45% tax on his newspaper earnings be happy with a Conservative Shadow Chancellor going along with the 50% top rate? We will see.
The Director of Public Prosecutions has now published his decision on the Damian Green case. Many people will no doubt be saying that they knew it all along, but it is worth noting that the DPP does say:
“I considered an alleged offence of misconduct in public office against Mr Galley and an alleged offence against Mr Green of aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the alleged offence against Mr Galley, and of conspiring with Mr Galley for him to commit misconduct in public office. …. I have concluded that there is evidence upon which a jury might find that there was damage to the proper functioning of the Home Office. Such damage should not be underestimated.”
He also makes clear that he applied a “high threshold” test before making his decision (ie. a higher standard of proof was required than would have been necessary for others) and warns:
“This should not be taken to mean that in future cases, a prosecution on other facts would not be brought. My decision is made on the particular facts of this case and the unauthorised leaking of restricted and/or confidential information is not beyond the reach of the criminal law.”
So the message seems to be: Damian Green could have been prosecuted and was close to being prosecuted, but not this time and don’t do it again.
I have been out of the country for a few days (France, since you ask) and following the McBride “smear-gate” story from internet news reports and bloggers’ comments. With the benefit of that small degree of distance, there seem to be some very simple conclusions to draw.
First, the whole idea was deeply and irredeemably wrong. It is not acceptable to spread defamatory lies about people – whether you dislike their politics or not. The Prime Minister and the Labour Party should make it quite clear that the pursuit of such tactics by anyone purporting to act on their behalf or ostensibly in their interests will always be unacceptable and the individuals concerned will be treated as having brought the Party into disrepute. I trust other Parties (no names, no pack drill) will do the same.
Second, the concept would almost certainly have been utterly counter-productive. I am not convinced that the electorate think it matters what individuals might have done in their student days nearly twenty years ago and they are unlikely to think it relevant to their current suitability for public office. Nor are the past (or even current) sexual peccadilloes of public figures that relevant to their ability to be Government ministers. That doesn’t mean that people won’t take a prurient interest, but I am not convinced it makes much (if any) electoral difference. (Indeed, I remember talking to one politician who had recently had some particularly lurid stories printed about his sexual habits. He admitted that he had been worried about how his constituents might react. In fact, he said that, although he had had to endure some ribald comments, most of the reaction seemed tinged with – if anything – admiration.)
Third, it would appear that the execution of the proposed smear plot was incredibly inept – using an official and traceable email address, for example.
Finally, the net result of what has happened will further demean and degrade the reputation of politicians and – in turn – the democratic process. If you believe, like I do, that democracy and politics matters, then this may turn out to be the most worrying consequence of the whole sorry business.
A report in Local Government Chronicle suggests that the much-vaunted “Charter” due to be signed between London Mayor Boris Johnson and London Councils representing the 32 Boroughs (and the Corporation of London) is running into difficulties.
I remember when I chaired the Association of London Government (as London Councils was then called) in the five years preceding the creation of the London Mayoralty. It was always clear that the arrival of the Greater London Authority would present challenges for the London Boroughs. It was almost inevitable that any directly-elected Mayor would start to encroach on the Borough’s statutory and non-statutory responsibilities. I remember speaking about this on a number of occasions – my theme was that any incoming Mayor would need to keep his or her tanks off the London Boroughs’ lawns.
During the period of Mayor Ken Livingstone, there were indeed tensions over such matters as – for example – his desire for street cleaning in London to be improved and his ambitions for education.
When Mayor Boris Johnson was elected he proclaimed that he was much more ready to work with the London Boroughs (many of which were by then Conservative controlled). A new concordat or charter was promised, but now – nearly a year on – it looks as though the initiative may dissolve without any real substance into a bath of warm words.
If this happens, it will be unfortunate and I would urge both those in the Mayor’s team and those in London Councils who are trying to finalise the document to redouble their efforts to reach some form of meaningful statement.
Although the London Mayor is always going to be more visible than London Borough councillors and, of course, is directly accountable to Londoners, he/she cannot run local services and it is the local councils that are accountable for them. The Mayor of London cannot dictate to the Boroughs, even though he/she has a direct mandate from Londoners and may have a clear vision for the future of London (I am still waiting to be clear about the current Mayor’s vision, although I sense he his groping towards one).
Working together is harder. However, it is essential if progress to be made.
The skill of any London Mayor will be whether or not he/she having articulated a view of how London is to develop can carry not only Londoners, but their elected representatives in the Boroughs (and indeed all the other elements of civil society), along with their vision and inspire them to work with him/her on delivering it.