In Lords Question Time today, there was an exchange about the future of the BBC digital radio channel 6 Music. The Minister replying, Lord Shutt of Greetland, the Deputy Chief Whip (or Captain of the Queen’s Bodyguard of Yeoman of the Guard to give him his proper title), a LibDem component of the coalition, quite properly said this was a matter for the BBC Trust and that the Government was keeping out of it.
I sought – as one does – to widen the scope of discussion by asking about the Government’s attempts – described by Gavin Allen, Executive Editor of BBC1’s “Question Time” programme – to demand a change in the Labour representative on the programme before they would allow a Cabinet Minister to appear.
To loud exclamations and laughter, the Minister described the whole incident as “a strange affair” but that people “get up to ideas like that” when they work in places such as No 10.
The exchange is below:
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the BBC regarding the future of BBC 6 Music radio station.
Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. I am sure that it stems from a desire for the BBC Trust to be seen to be totally independent, but I hope that he does not consider the BBC Trust to be impervious as well as independent. Will he, with his departmental colleagues, ask the BBC Trust to take note of something in the order of 1 million people per week who now listen to 6 Music? With the demise of NME digital radio, it is the only radio station that is showcasing new British music. The destruction of 6 Music, I hope he will agree, would be cultural and economic vandalism.
Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his supplementary question. There has been consultation about 6 Music over a 12-week period and the BBC is considering this. Anybody who happened to switch on to Radio 4 this morning at about 7 o’clock would also hear about further consultations for Radios 3, 4 and 7 that are taking place. The remarkable thing is that, since the suggestion arose that this particular radio station would cease to be, the listenership has doubled.
Lord Harrison: My Lords, while the noble Lord may wish to retain the independence of the BBC to make these decisions, will he understand and communicate to the BBC that many of us are wedded to the more recondite products of the BBC, including Radio 3 which, as he has just announced, is also receiving invitations from the BBC for commentary? The BBC is the pearl of radio output and it would be a severe loss to this country and culture if it were to be reduced in any way.
Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, I understand exactly what the noble Lord is saying. He will be heartened to know that the listenership of Radio 3 is double that of 6 Music. The BBC will no doubt look at today’s Hansard and note the comments of noble Lords. I am happy to make certain that that happens.
Lord Addington: My Lords, will my noble friend give some thought to the fact that this House is probably not the best place to discuss new, cutting-edge music for the young? We should listen to people outside before we make any decision.
“to inform, educate and entertain”,
and 6 Music is at the “entertain” end of that. I happen to believe that the BBC is for all three objectives. Whether this particular station is to the taste of their Lordships or not, with all the consultation that has taken place, proper regard of the way forward must be taken in coming to a view.
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, in his initial Answer, the noble Lord gave a very proper statement about the BBC’s independence and the independence of the BBC Trust. Does he therefore condemn the actions of spin doctors at No. 10 who apparently felt that it was proper for them to tell the BBC who it should invite on to the “Question Time” panel?
Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, I do not quite think that the decision about who should appear on “Question Time” relates to the business of whether 6 Music should continue. It struck me as a strange affair but people come up with ideas like that when they work in organisations such as No. 10.
According to the Evening Standard, the post of Minister for London has been quietly abolished by the new Government. The argument is that there is not going to be a Government Office for London and that as London has an elected Mayor, it no longer needs its own Minister.
However, there are three Cabinet Ministers who have territorial responsibilities for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – all parts of the United Kingdom with their own devolved administrations and elected leaderships.
It is worth reminding the Coalition that London has a population greater than that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined and, as the key driver of the UK economy, is of more importance to the country as a whole than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland put together.
London needs and deserves its own unique voice within the central Government machine.
According to the Standard:
“Ironically, at the same time as abolishing the post, Mr Cameron has decided to boost other cities across the country with their own “city minister”.”
So those other cities matter more to the Prime Minister than London.
Is it because his school “friend” Boris Johnson is the Mayor that London has been snubbed in this way?
Of course, one solution would be to give the Mayor of London a peerage and put him in the Cabinet as Minister for London.
And that would solve another problem: it would stop all this talk that Boris Johnson is pursuing a hidden agenda of toppling David Cameron from the Conservative Party Leadership, as he couldn’t lead the Conservatives from the Lords.
The more I think about it, the more it’s a no-brainer.
Civil servants are supposed to be in “purdah” during the General Election campaign. However, despite central Cabinet Office guidance, Government Departments seem to be developing rather different interpretations of what this means and some seem to be taking it to ludicrous extremes.
Three examples that I have come across this week illustrate the point:
I am not sure that any of the decisions make particular sense, but they all stretch the meaning of “purdah” as previously interpreted.
Presumably, civil servants are now so busy producing policy options for so many different permutations of electoral outcomes that day-to-day government has had to come to a grinding halt – no wonder it took them so long to notice the volcanic ash crisis.
Fanatical followers of this blog (and you both know who you are) will be aware that – as is my habit – I posted a short tongue-in-cheek piece from the Metropolitan Police Authority meeting at 11.06 on Thursday 25th February.
This poked gentle fun at the man I call the DCiC (Dog-Catcher-in-Chief), Kit Malthouse, and his sensitivity about the nit-picking from the Green’s Jenny Jones at his attendance record. I referred to his boast that he had attended 46 meetings since the last session of the MPA and this Stakhanovite work-rate was even more impressive given that he had been on holiday for a week of that time. I also mentioned his nickname: “HoT” – a reference to his Hand on Tiller fixation.
Sometimes I think my sense of humour is rather esoteric and unlikely to be shared by anyone else, so it was gratifying to learn that some three hours later at 2.02 Ross Lydall posted his own thoughts on the same subject on the Evening Standard web-site. He even has his own nickname for Kit – he calls him “The Tillerman” and he linked to the same article as I did to illustrate the nitpicking.
My cup runneth over – I am not alone.
We clearly are thinking the same.
Ross Lydall, under the headline
“Kit Malthouse began his first meeting as chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority by revealing he had attended or chaired 46 meetings since the MPA last met (on January 28). What’s more, he had squeezed in a week’s holiday to boot.
Why this inconsequential start to proceedings? Because the Greens made quite a fusson the eve of his confirmation hearing as MPA chair (he succeeds the fleeing Boris, who has obviously realised what hard work it is) by revealing that Kit had failed to ever attend all three key MPA sub-committees of which he is a member in the 18 months since the Tory takeover of City Hall.”
And I said (just three hours earlier):
“The Metropolitan Police Authority is in session and the DCiC*, Deputy Mayor Kit “HoT”** Malthouse AM is in the Chair.
And the DCiC was showing his sensitive side. He has clearly been hurt by the criticism that he is too busy to fulfil the role of MPA Chair and the nit-picking about his attendance record at MPA Committee meetings. So the item on the agenda for his oral report consisted merely of him telling the Authority that he had had 46 meetings in the last month – and as he was away or one of the weeks concerned that works out as a productivity rate of around 3 per working day.
He promises to keep us informed of his work rate at future meetings, but that will not satisfy Jenny Jones AM. She wants an indicator measuring the “quality” of the meetings. No doubt those meeting HoT in future will be asked to fill in a form afterwards asking “how was it for them?”
However, HoT is clearly alive to this danger: he assured the Authority that he prefers what he calls “action” to meetings.”
Now isn’t that nice ….
I should declare an interest: “Twelfth Night” is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays – mainly because it is the play I know best, having studied it for my GCE O-level (what would now be GCSE) in English Literature (I got a Grade 2, since you ask) at the same time as my English teacher directed it as the school play. As a result, I approach every production I see with a very critical eye. And I am pleased to say that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production, currently at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London, very much met with my approval (I am sure this will be an enormous relief for the RSC).
The production gave a proper weight to the different characters and the quality of the acting meant that even the more minor parts had a vitality and wholeness that is often missing. Thus, Fabian, played by Tony Jayawardena, seemed to have a real role in the action with his own separate motivations, rather than being a makeweight character created when Shakespeare realised that he couldn’t have Feste appearing so frequently at both Orsino’s Court and in Olivia’s household without having him absent some of the time (thereby requiring an additional character for a number of the scenes). And Feste, played by Miltos Yerolemou (adding an additional frisson when Sebastian calls him a “foolish Greek”), himself was excellent, capturing the viciousness implicit in some of the clowning and the fool’s own insecurity. Pamela Nomvete’s Maria was also fine with a clear hint at the end that she ultimately rejects Sir Toby (Richard McCabe).
The main set-piece scenes were well handled. In particular, the second embassy scene where Olivia’s desire for Viola/Cesario (Nancy Carroll) was marvellously conjured up by Alexandra Gilbreath and the letter scene where Richard Wilson’s timing as Malvolio and the reactions from the box tree were impeccable. (I was relieved there was no “I don’t believe it” moment to placate the many Richard Wilson groupies of a certain age in the audience, although had there been it would have no doubt completely baffled the equal number of Americans).
A combined operation by the Metropolitan Police, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre and the Spanish Police have successfully intercepted a vessel carrying £375 million-worth of cocaine.
What with the snow, Eurotunnel and even John Hutton, the story barely got a sentence on the BBC News tonight.
Yet, it has to be seen as a stunning coup for the law enforcement agencies.
Presumably a successful bank raid netting £375 million might have attracted a tad more coverage ….
Those who know me will be aware that I am one of the world’s most modest individuals, have absolutely no self-aggrandising tendencies and would never under any circumstances seek to blow my own trumpet ……
So it goes without saying that the only reason I would want to draw attention to the statement, referring to me, in the Guardian last week (in its “Metropolitan Lines” newsletter) is to correct one small inaccuracy. What the Guardian said was:
There are now quite a few good blogger-politicians. Lord Toby Harris is one of the best.”
The error, 0f couse, is that I am not a “politician”, but – to use Al Gore’s phrase – a “recovering politician”.
I hope that’s clear.
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.
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.
At today’s Lords’ Question Time, I am afraid that a spirit of devilment got the better of me. There was a question on the progress being made towards delivering broadband to rural communities. I should make it clear that I am a great supporter of the Government’s proposals to ensure that all citizens have access to broadband services. However, the automatic sense of entitlement that was being expressed on behalf of rural interests finally got the better of me, so I intervened to ask:
“My Lords, can we be assured that, given the extraordinary extent to which city dwellers already subsidise those who live in rural communities, this will not be another example where urban dwellers will be taxed, or have to pay more, so as to subsidise the often very pleasant lifestyles of those who live in rural communities?“
In essence, the answer was that this would indeed be yet another subsidy that everyone else would pay for by the 50p levy on fixed line telephony. This will go with the subsidy to ensure that all rural households can get digital TV, the subsidy that maintains less well-used roads in rural areas, and, of course, the many subsidies paid to farmers.
This was regarded as being rather “controversial”, but an interesting number of Peers from all parts of the country came up to me afterwards and congratulated me for raising the “elephant in the room” …..
The full series of exchanges were as follows:
Asked By Baroness Byford
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress is being made towards delivering broadband to rural communities.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Davies of Oldham): My Lords, the Digital Britain White Paper outlined the Government’s universal service commitment for broadband at a speed of 2 megabits per second to virtually every community in the UK by 2012. The paper also outlined plans for a next generation fund, to help to deliver next generation broadband to at least 90 per cent of homes and businesses by 2017. The Network Design and Procurement Company will be responsible for the delivery on behalf of the Government.
Baroness Byford: My Lords, while thanking the Minister for that response, I understand that Ofgem does not have powers to compel internet service providers to provide broadband in rural areas, which has resulted in some 166,000 people having no internet at all and more than 2 million having inadequate service provision. How will the broadband be delivered in these circumstances, particularly with regard to the proposed new megabyte speeds of 24, 40 and 100? Will this not be more focused on urban areas, leaving rural areas out in the cold?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, Ofgem cannot command to be done what cannot be done technically. The noble Baroness is right to identify that a percentage of our households cannot receive the requisite signal. We are addressing that. Under the universal service commitment, which we have been following since the summer, we are committed to ensuring that all households have access to the basic service of 2 megabits per second. The second, longer-term project concerning vastly improved speeds, to which the noble Baroness referred, depends partly on market conditions and provision by private companies, but the Government are also taking steps to ensure that we universalise that service in due course as far as we are able to do so.
Lord St John of Bletso: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, with more and more people in rural communities working from home and the increasing trend to media-rich content, the requirement for broadband speeds is more in the region of 50 to 100 megabits per second? What assurances can the Government give that rural communities will move to these speeds in the future?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that is exactly the objective of the next generation access. It is clear that we will not be serving our communities, nor will we be remaining competitive with other countries, if we do not guarantee that next generation broadband is more universally available than it is at present. Certainly, there is provision of broadband at present from, for instance, Virgin, while BT is also interested in spreading its reach in these terms. However, the Government are concerned about that reach and I am grateful to the noble Lord for emphasising how important it is.
The Lord Bishop of Exeter: My Lords, the problem of lack of access to broadband is compounded for those rural communities that have poor analogue TV, no digital TV and often, at best, limited mobile phone connectivity. Do the Government have any plans to provide suitable grant aid to enable local rural communities to develop their own broadband, where it is clearly not commercially viable to provide that through the telecoms company? If there are no plans, will they consider that as part of implementing Digital Britain?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, far from there being no plans, there is a major government commitment to meeting the exact objective that the right reverend Prelate has indicated. We are going to use funds from the digital switchover—£175 million—to guarantee that we reach those areas that have not got digital television at present; the development of broadband goes along with that. The Government have identified the funds that will be made available. We have not the slightest doubt that that is merely objective No. 1. The right reverend Prelate will recognise that we are spreading digital television across the whole of the UK in the next four years.
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, can we be assured that, given the extraordinary extent to which city dwellers already subsidise those who live in rural communities, this will not be another example where urban dwellers will be taxed, or have to pay more, so as to subsidise the often very pleasant lifestyles of those who live in rural communities?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that may be regarded as a somewhat provocative question in some quarters. I merely emphasise to my noble friend that we are intending to guarantee that these services are available across the whole country, because they are essential to our future economic and social success. That is why there will be a tax on telephone users of 50p per month for a line—we are not talking about an excessive amount—to subsidise and help to spread the opportunities across the whole country, in circumstances where we could not possibly have parts of our communities having no access at all to these services.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, I am tempted to invite the noble Lord, Lord Harris, to come with me to visit some of my upland sheep farmer friends, who do not exactly have a luxurious lifestyle. Back in July, Defra announced that money from the European economic recovery plan, which rural development agencies would use as part of the rural development programme, would help to fill some of the holes in broadband provision, not least for my upland sheep farmer friends and for people in places like that. What is the mechanism by which this money will be used and what will it be used for?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we are of course grateful for resources from wherever they emerge, but the noble Lord will be all too well aware that £2.5 million from Europe is a flea bite in relation to the total issues to be addressed. While it is welcome and is directed towards particular areas, the context of this question is universal access. That is a massive project and we have given clear indications since the summer of how we intend to tackle it. It can be fulfilled only by a long-term commitment to the objectives that I have identified.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, if noble Lords asked shorter questions and gave shorter responses, we would have time for more questions. We are in the 24th minute.”
Provocative – me?