There was a fairly surreal discussion in the House of Lords this afternoon following the Government statement on the resignation of the Director General of the BBC. This reflects the wider political and media preoccupation with the inner workings of the BBC and not the very serious allegations of child abuse that lay beneath the two questionable editorial decisions by those in charge of the BBC Newsnight programme.
The depths were plumbed by Lord Pearson of Rannoch, former Leader of UKIP, who seemed to think that the central issue was that “a large majority” of the members of the BBC Trust are “climate change enthusiasts” and that “the BBC remains blindly Europhile …. as exemplified by its chairman, who has a large EU pension which he could lose if he went against what the European Commission regards as the interests of the European communities.”
It took a Bishop to reinject some sanity into the discussion:
My Lords, I am very grateful that in the initial Statement the Minister said that we must continue to recognise the needs of those who have been abused. He spoke of the BBC facing a series of crises. Those who were abused face a far more serious series of crises. Will he stress again that the primary concern at this point needs to be the protection of children and young people? Will he also stress the continuing desire of us all to encourage those who have suffered abuse to come forward so we can change the culture of how we deal with such issues?
But that didn’t stop Lord Stoddart of Swindon from trying to bring the debate back to the people selected as BBC Trustees and lobbying for his UKIP mate, Lord Pearson, to be appointed:
Does the noble Lord agree that the selection pool for the BBC Trust is very narrow? Would it not be as well that that pool should be widened so that a perhaps more critical attitude could be taken of the operations of the BBC? Perhaps one of the new candidates could be the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch.
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate has rightly reminded the House that the people we should be most concerned about in all of this are those who were the victims of abuse. Can the Minister comment on whether the Government feel that the frenzy around the existential crisis of the BBC is not really a distraction from concerns that there was very real abuse in children’s homes in north Wales and elsewhere; that there was an individual who, because of his celebrity, was able to abuse children all over the country; and that we are in danger of being deflected, which of course plays into the hands of those who would rather cover up what happened and the names of those who were ultimately responsible?
Lloyd George famously referred to the House of Lord’s as “Mr Balfour’s poodle” because of its in-built Conservative majority. Since the exclusion by the last Labour Government of most hereditary peers from voting rights in the Lords, no Party has had a majority in the House. This has meant that the House has been properly able to hold Governments to account and challenging the House of Commons to think again about elements of legislation.
Thus, in the last eight years of the Labour Government (from 2002 to 2010), the Government was defeated in the Lords on average 44 times per year. Not really a surprise, given that at no stage did Labour hold more than 31% of the membership of the House and a combination of the other groupings (eg Tories plus LibDems or Tories plus some crossbenchers) could easily be sufficient to out-vote Labour Peers.
With the advent of the coalition in 2010, the dynamics changed somewhat as the Government comprises two Party groupings and the rate of Government defeats fell to 24 per year.
Since the General Election in 2010, the Prime Minister has appointed 122 new members of the House of Lords and there are now 760 peers (excluding 39 who are on leave of absence or the 13 who are disqualified from sitting because they are Law Lords or MEPs).
The current breakdown (as of 31st October) is 212 Conservative (28%) plus 90 LibDems (12%), making a Government total of 302 (40%). Then there are 225 (30%) Labour peers and 208 (27%) crossbenchers and others plus 25 Bishops. As the crossbenchers and others attend less regularly than the party-affiliated peers and split on issues, there is an effective Government majority over the Opposition of 70-80.
However, it appears that this preponderance of Government peers over the Opposition is not sufficient for this Prime Minister. Rumours are swirling around the House that another list of new members is about to be announced with the figure suggested ranging from 40 to 80 new members bringing the total able to sit and vote in the House of Lords to well over 800. The vast majority of these would be Conservative, although for forms sake a quarter might be LibDems with a handful given to the Labour Party.
This has constitutional, practical and financial implications.
The constitutional implications are that it risks turning the House of Lords into a rubber stamp for the Government. It would recreate the world of “Mr Balfour’s Poodle”. However, given the hybrid nature of the coalition, I suppose this would make the House of Lords a poodle crossbreed in the manner of a labradoodle, a westiepoo or a schnoodle – perhaps the correct term would be a Cameroodle.
It is also ironic that, at a time when the Conservative element of the coalition wants to gerrymander constituency boundaries so as to reduce the number of elected MPs from 650 to 600, it is proposed that the unelected House of Lords should increase in size to well over 800.
The practical implications are not insignificant. The Lords Chamber cannot accommodate the existing numbers during Question Time and major debates – and other facilities will also be overstretched.
Similarly, there are financial implications – the extra costs of allowances and travel expenses plus the administrative and support costs of the House in servicing extra members.
However, we seem to have a Government and a Prime Minister that cannot cope with disagreement and scrutiny by the House of Lords. Twice in the last ten days – rather than risk being defeated in a vote – the Government has ignominiously cancelled its business in the House.
Presumably even an average of two defeats per month (defeats that are usually successfully reversed in the House of Commons) is too much for this Government and this Prime Minister.
So what is David Cameron’s solution?
Pack the House of Lords with more Conservative cronies and place-men and place-women. A Chamber of Cameroodles.
Don’t say you haven’t been warned:
Conservative candidate for Cameroodle peerage
There was an oral question in the House of Lords this afternoon on what measures the Government are proposing to take to recognise the contribution the Armed Forces made to the success of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. (Apparently, those who helped with the Games will be receiving a commemorative coin.)
The House was unanimous in its support for the efforts and hard work of those servicemen and women who were drafted in at short notice to help with security at the Games. However, inevitably the questioning turned to the failures of G4S which led to the army being called in in the first place.
And my colleague Lord Alan West broadened it to the dangers of privatisation in general:
My contribution was as follows:
And the Defence Minister was simply not prepared to answer …
Earlier today I intervened in the discussion in the House of Lords on the Home Office statement on the historic allegations of child sex abuse in the North Wales police area.
Despite the Minister’s response, I remain concerned.
The exchange was as follows:
Last week I signed up to become an IWF Champion. This means that I fully support the important work that the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) does to remove child sexual abuse images on the internet.
The IWF was established in 1996 by the internet industry to provide the UK internet Hotline for the public and IT professionals to report criminal online content in a secure and confidential way.
The IWF Hotline service can be used anonymously to report content within its remit. The IWF successfully works in partnership with the online industry, law enforcement, government, and international partners to minimise the availability of this content, specifically:
The IWF helps internet service providers and hosting companies to combat the abuse of their networks through its ‘notice and takedown’ service which alerts them to content within its remit so they can remove it from their networks. The IWF also provides unique data to law enforcement partners in the UK and abroad to assist investigations into the distributors. As a result of this approach the content the IWF deals with has been virtually removed from UK networks. As sexually abusive images of children are primarily hosted abroad, the IWF facilitates the industry-led initiative to protect users from inadvertent exposure to this content by blocking access to it through their provision of a dynamic list of child sexual abuse web pages.
I am proud to be associated with an organisation that has successfully:
A nice crisp morning at Wembley Stadium saw the launch of the first funding round of the Wembley National Stadium Trust.
The Trust, which I chair, was set up in 1996 and was originally the vehicle which bid for National Lottery money for the new National Stadium to be built on the Wembley site. In exchange for the £120 million grant that secured the site it was a condition of the grant that once the new Stadium had been open for five years 1% of its turnover should be passed to the Trust for distribution as charitable grants.
The old stadium closed in 2000 and the new Stadium finally opened in 2007, which means that five years has now passed, and the Trust now has the proceeds to make its first grants. Applications are now open and the aim will be to award around £300,000 to projects supporting sports activities across Brent. Dozens of local groups are likely to benefit.
And to help us at the launch, I was joined by Rachel Yankey MBE, England’s most capped women’s footballer, and Olympic gold medal winning boxer James DeGale MBE, along with the Stadium’s Managing Director, Roger Maslin.
Full details of the application process are available on the Trust’s website at www.wnst.org.uk and applications must be received by 5pm on 7th December for this round of grants. Subsequent rounds will benefit projects across London and from time to time major nation-wide grants will be made.
Over the last few years, I have repeatedly expressed concern about the potential importance of the threat of an electro-magnetic pulse that could disable or destroy electronic installations. Such a pulse could come from an errant solar flare or other extreme space weather or it could be produced by a nuclear warhead exploded in the upper atmosphere. Both could have devastating impacts on ground-based electronic equipment and on electric power grids.
Now comes news of a weapon that could be carried in a cruise missile that can be programmed to disable the electronic systems in individual buildings. Apparently, the U.S. Air Force and its contractor Boeing, along with Raytheon, have created the High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project, or CHAMP, which was just tested over a Utah desert.
The cruise missile, which was launched from a U.S. bomber, was pre-programmed to fly over a target and shoot a burst of high power microwaves at a two-story building. It knocked out rows of personal computers and electrical systems which were shown in a video taken of the test.
Following the first target, the cruise missile then was guided to six other targets, resulting in knocking out all electronics.
Even if this was a US initiative, it sounds as though more effort needs to go into protecting UK infrastructure and critical systems against such attacks – which is more or less what I was saying about three and a half years ago.
There was a debate today in the House of Lords on the challenges to the police service of the new system of electing Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). I posted about it yesterday on the Labour Lords blog.
In my speech I talked about the experience in London of effectively having the new system since January with the (unelected) Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime acting as a quasi-PCC, saying:
“London has already shown up some of the problems. The first is a lack of transparency. Information about the operation of the police service or about key financial decisions that was previously made available in published police authority committee papers is no longer available or is available only in very abbreviated form. The second is the lack of visible answerability of senior police officers. A few weeks ago, the new deputy mayor for policing and crime instructed Bernard Hogan-Howe, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, not to attend the London Assembly’s police and crime committee eight minutes before the meeting was due to begin.
The third problem is that the deputy mayor has to act on his or her own, as PCCs will have to do. As the current incumbent has commented to me, he does not have what he calls the “band width” to address all the topics that the public might expect him to pursue. It is simply impossible for one person to do so. When I chaired the police authority in London, I had 22 members to whom I could delegate matters. Those 22 members could also keep an eye on me, which meant that capricious decisions could not be taken. But the Government, in their wisdom, have declined to provide a standards framework in which PCCs or their equivalents in London should operate. The Government seem to believe that having police and crime panels will be a sufficient safeguard against misconduct.
However, the money being made available for the servicing of these panels outside London is to be just £53,000 per year, which is barely enough to cover the cost of one member of staff who has to co-ordinate the work of and support a disparate group of local councillors drawn from up to a dozen or more different local authorities. Even in London where the police and crime committee of the London Assembly has been better resourced and the 12 members all know and work with each other on a regular basis, it has struggled to get the answers that it wants. There is the potential for problems and inappropriate interventions in operational matters.”
I then went on to pose some questions about Mayoral behaviour:
“Will the Minister tell us whether he regards it as appropriate that an elected PCC should be regularly briefed about the course of a policing operation and should then, almost as a matter of routine, have contact with those who are subject to that operation, and, what is more, then fail to disclose that those contacts have taken place? Perhaps your Lordships will think that such a scenario is far fetched but I have to say that it is not. On 10 January last year, the Mayor of London was briefed by Assistant Commissioner Yates. The mayor later told the London Assembly that he could not remember the briefing in detail but acknowledged that it may well have been about Operation Weeting, the investigation into phone hacking at News International. Four days later he had lunch with Rebekah Brooks and 10 days after that he had dinner with Rupert Murdoch at his London home. Neither of those two meetings was disclosed in the published mayoral diary and they were omitted, initially at least, from the list of contacts with News International that was requested by the London Assembly. There were further briefings from John Yates on 21 April and 3 May. Remarkably, days later, the mayor had more initially undisclosed contacts with News International, including a telephone call with James Murdoch on 6 May and, five days later, with the News International lobbyist, Frederic Michel. I could go on. I have a long list of meetings and contacts.
At the same time, the mayor’s deputy was raising, in an ostensibly jocular way, concerns that too many detectives were involved in investigating phone hacking, so much so that assistant commissioner Dick had to remind him, as she disclosed to the Leveson inquiry, that operational policing decisions were a matter for senior police officers, not elected politicians. The Mayor of London has form for this sort of thing. In February 2009, an investigation was conducted by Jonathan Goolden, a solicitor, at the request of the monitoring officers of the GLA and the MPA—roles that will not exist as far as PCCs are concerned—into the behaviour of the Mayor of London in contacting Damian Green MP at the time of his arrest on suspicion of involvement in breaches of the Official Secrets Act. Mr Goolden found that the mayor’s action in contacting a potential suspect in a criminal investigation was “extraordinary and unwise”. These contacts followed briefings that the mayor had been given about the case.”
Suffice it to say when the Minister, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, replied he chose not to address the question of the behaviour of the Mayor of London, saying merely:
“As this House will know, the police and crime panels—the PCPs—will also form a key check and balance in the model. As a result of amendments that this House argued for, PCPs will both challenge and support PCCs in making good their important role. This balance was emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, who has enormous experience on this matter.”
Was I surprised at the non-answer? Well no – defending Boris Johnson’s behaviour would probably be a career-limiting move for a member of the Government …
During Question Time in the House of Lords this afternoon I intervened to try and get a straight answer from Earl Howe, the Parliamentary Under Secretary for Health, as to how many Accident and Emergency Departments will close in London hospitals over the next four years. I also wanted to know who would take the strategic decisions for London as a whole and how they were accountable for those decisions.
Needless to say, I didn’t get a proper answer.
This was my exchange with the Minister:
My colleague Baroness Janet Whittaker tried again a minute later:
So the Minister acknowledged that there would be a series of closures of A&E Departments in London, but couldn’t say how many there would be because he didn’t have the “pan-London figures” in front of him. And, as all the decisions would be “subject to local determination” presumably as a result of the accumulated, but separate, individual commissioning decisions by local Clinical Commissioning Groups (whose less than satisfactory governance was debated last week), by implication there will be nobody who will take a strategic pan-London view of the level and distribution of Accident and Emergency Services in the capital.
Doesn’t inspire confidence……
Lord Blair of Boughton (the artiste previously known as Sir Ian Blair) has made a particularly silly suggestion. Interviewed on Sky News, he has suggested that people should boycott the elections on 15th November for Police and Crime Commissioners:
“I’ve never said this before but I actually hope people don’t vote because that is the only way we are going to stop this.”
Like most other people, Ian Blair thinks the proposed system of elected Police and Crime Commissioners is flawed. There are no proper checks and balances in the governance arrangements, many of the police force areas make little sense as electoral districts, there is a risk of politicising aspects of operational policing that should not be politicised, and the changes are a waste of money at a time when frontline police budgets are being cut as never before.
However, the legislation rightly or wrongly was passed last year with a its flaws intact (despite the best endeavours of some of us in the House of Lords). The elections ARE going to take place in just over three weeks time (holding the elections in November when it is likely to be cold, wet and dark was an incomprehensible sop to the Liberal Democrats). And yes, the turnout will probably be low – maybe very low – but a boycott is simply going to mean an even lower turnout and an even greater risk that maverick candidates will be elected.
Police accountability matters. This may be the wrong system, but on 15th November forty-one Police and Crime Commissioners will be elected in every part of England and Wales with the exception of London (where we have the “benefit” of an elected Mayor in charge of the Metropolitan Police and where the Corporation of London retains its own medieval system of oversight of the City Police).
A boycott will achieve nothing. I am confident that before too long this new system will have to be changed – probably drastically. In the meantime, because police oversight is so important in any democracy, everyone will have to make the best of the flawed arrangements. And that means ENCOURAGING people to vote on 15th November.