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Archive for March, 2009

Mar 11,2009

I see my namesake, Tom Harris, (I receive a lot of his emails on the Parliamentary system), claims NEVER to have seen “Gone with the Wind” or “Casablanca”.  While sitting through “Gone with the Wind” is an ordeal it has, however, been pretty inescapable on television – particularly on public holidays over the years.  As for “Casablanca” that has to be one of the most enduring films of all time, one which can still be relished on repeated viewing, and again has been pretty inescapable on television.  Something wrong here surely …..

Mar 10,2009

The Postal Services Bill has had its first full debate today.  The Bill makes provisions for the restructuring of the Royal Mail Group, addresses problems in the Royal Mail Pension Fund and changes some of the regulatory arrangements.

Usually, the House of Lords gives Bills – however controversial – are given an unopposed Second Reading, so that they can be given detailed consideration at the Committee and Report stages.  Today, however, Lord Tony Clarke, a former postman who became Deputy General Secretary of the Union of Postal Workers, put forward an amendment to the motion that the bill be now read a second time, to leave out all the words after “that” and insert “this House declines to give the bill a second reading”.

In introducing the Bill, Lord Peter Mandelson set out clearly the case for modernisation:

“We live in a digital age.  As we send more texts and emails, we send fewer letters. The Mobile Data Association estimates that in 2008, we sent around 216 million text messages per day.  That same year, we sent five million fewer letters per day than we had done just two years ago.


The fall in mail volumes is happening across many modern economies but I do not accept that postal services are locked into an inevitable decline. I believe mail is still a critical part of our social fabric, our communication infrastructure and our economy. And for those reasons, I want to see Royal Mail modernised and made fit for the future.


The Government is fully committed to maintaining the universal service. Royal Mail is at the heart of that service. Only Royal Mail has the ability to collect and deliver letters anywhere in the country, six days a week, for a single, affordable price.


That’s why the Royal Mail’s service requires sustaining not abandoning – and sustaining with a vision that will ensure its commercial success.”


He also made clear the Government’s commitment to:

“a universal service which is reliable, offers good value for money, is innovative and responds to their needs.


Our proposals seek to deliver that.  Part 3 of the Bill sets the standard for the universal service.  It requires Ofcom to ensure that the universal service is maintained.  If Ofcom finds that there is tension between its functions in relation to post, the Bill is explicit in requiring the regulator to give precedence to the universal service. “


In the end, Tony Clarke withdrew his amendment – while making it absolutely clear that he was not convinced by the arguments.  So we didn’t vote today, but there will be no doubt much detailed debate and discussion over the weeks ahead.


Mar 10,2009

I have tabled some Parliamentary Questions for written answer about how Britain’s nuclear sites are protected.  This is part of my wider campaign to ensure that the critical national infrastructure is adequately protected.  There is a special police force (the Civil Nuclear Constabulary) to protect nuclear power stations, other nuclear installations and the transport of nuclear materials.  It is funded by the nuclear industry and it does not come within the statutory remit of the Home Office.  The force itself is heavily armed, so one of the questions I am asking is what steps are being taken to ensure that the training and skills of police officers working in it (along with those in a similar position like the British Transport Police and the Ministry of Defence Police) are consistent with those of other police forces.

The other issue is about resourcing.  The Civil Nuclear Constabulary effectively provides services under a service level agreement to its paymasters, the nuclear industry.  Whilst the industry will be concerned that security standards are adequate, there is no guarantee that their assessment of what is needed (given that it costs them money) will be the same as the Government’s or even what any of us as intelligent lay people might feel is necessary when we think about the consequences of nuclear materials falling into the wrong hands.  Accordingly, I am asking who is responsible for assessing the security risks associated with the protection of (a) the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant and (b) Dounreay nuclear establishment and how is that risk assessment fed into the funding and support for the Civil Nuclear Constabulary and who is responsible for assessing whether the arrangements to protect civil nuclear establishments are adequate.

Necessarily, the Civil Nuclear Constabulary might have to rely on reinforcements from regular police forces in the event of any emergency.  However, as nuclear installations are in remote areas, the speed of response provided and the capacity of the forces concerned to assist may be limited.  Therefore, I have also asked about who is responsible for assessing whether the support available to the Civil Nuclear Constabulary from other police forces is adequate.

I hope I will be reassured by the answers.

Mar 9,2009

The news today is that the directly-elected Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent, Mark Meredith, has stood down following his arrest a few days ago by police investigating alleged corruption.  Mark Meredith was elected as a Labour Mayor and his arrest follows the arrest a few days earlier of the Conservative Group leader on the same Council.  I don’t know the background of this series of events and I make no comment other than to note that both men have said that they are standing down “to clear their names”.  However, this is more evidence that the history of directly-elected Mayors (outside London) has not been an easy one.

Another, directly-elected Mayor – this time in Doncaster – has just defied a vote of 46 to 6 by Doncaster council calling on him to resign.  This is at least the second occasion that that Mayor has ignored motions of no confidence passed by the Council.

And, of course, in 2003 the Mayor of North Tyneside had to resign following his arrest on child pornography charges – charges of which he was subsequently acquitted

Much was made of the election of a “monkey” as Mayor of Hartlepool in 2002 but, of course, the record of Stuart Drummond was sufficently good that he was re-elected in 2006 with 68% of the vote.

So what next for directly-elected Mayors?  Of the nine Mayoral areas outside London, two have had their Mayors resign following police action.  And the history elsewhere has often been turbulent.  Obviously, it is a small sample, but two out of nine does begin to look statistically significant.

In London, the experience seems to have been different.  In the three Boroughs where there are directly-elected Mayors (Hackney, Lewisham and Newham) the administrations appear to have been by and large well-run and many would argue an improvement on what had gone before.  And whatever Londoners’ views of the current incumbent of the London-wide Mayorality or of his predecessor, there is little doubt that Londoners prefer to have directly-elected Mayor presiding over the capital, compared with either the absence of city-wide authority that existed from 1985 to 2000 or the old Greater London Council that rather uneasily operated on top of the Boroughs from 1965 to 1985.

Certainly, my own experience in London makes me a supporter of the concept of directly-elected Mayors.  And both the Government and the Conservative opposition would support more directly-elected Mayors in the big cities at least.

I hesitate to suggest that the reason the model has worked in London is because of the fact that London has innately more sophisticated electors than those in the rest of the country.  While this may be true (and, if that doen’t excite hate mail from out-of-Londoners, I don’t know what will), I suspect the real reason is that so far outside London there have only been a small number of directly-elected mayors and often these have been in areas where the local political processes have not been working well or have been under great stress (as in Doncaster).  And why have two Mayors been arrested?  I don’t know.  However, it is certainly the case that directly-elected Mayors will by their very nature be more high profile than more traditional civic leaders and as such they attract strong feelings (which may mean politically-motivated attacks) and greater scrutiny. 

Greater scrutiny has to be a good thing.  Moreover, if the end-result, is that the political parties exercise greater care as to who they chose as Mayoral candidates (and that does not mean more celebrities!) and, if the local media and indeed local electorates are more discriminating as to who they back as “independents”, that will be good both for local democracy and local government itself.

Mar 5,2009

Troubles come in threes for Mayor Johnson. 

Yesterday’s tally:  first, the joint meeting of the MPA and GLA Standards Committee ruled that he and his team should be sent for “re-education” (like call centre operatives who deliberately mis-sell products to the public) so that they can understand what the Codes of Conduct that they have signed to certify that they will abide by actually say; second, BBC London revealed that he has been ticked off by London First, the organisation representing all the major businesses in London, about his failure to promote London; and third, he attempted a David Blunkett impersonation by attacking the criminal justice system and the judges for being soft on crime at a Crimestoppers dinner (and look what happened to David Blunkett).

What will next week bring?

Mar 5,2009

Earlier today the House of Lords voted by 135 to 48 to continue the existing system of Control Orders for a further year.  The Conservatives were urged by Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones, the Tory’s security spokesperson, to abstain.  The Tory position is in essence that they accept the need for Control Orders (there will always be a small number of individuals – currently fifteen – who are thought to be a serious risk to the country but who cannot be brought to trial because the evidence against them will not be admissable and cannot be deported either because they are British or because they could only be deported to a country where they would be executed or tortured), but they don’t want to be seen to vote in favour of them.  They say that the answer is to allow intercept evidence in court so that the individuals concerned could be tried, despite being told that even with evidence from intercepts they could still not be brought to trial.  And if that isn’t sufficient, more of the individuals should be deported presumably to countries where they can be tortured or summarily executed.  It doesn’t really add up to a convincing security policy.

Mar 4,2009

Apparently, the Conservative Group on the London Assembly is not a happy ship.
I am told that at yesterday’s meeting there were raised voices, stamped feet and one member even stomped out of the meeting to get evidence to contradict what a ‘colleague’ was saying.
My spy tells me that Brian Coleman was ‘purple with indignation’ and that Kit Malthouse was being ‘icily calm’.
What can it all mean? Why aren’t they all happy bunnies working together to build the Old Etonian renaissance?

Talking sense on the Royal Mail

  • Filed under: Economy
Mar 3,2009

Hopi Sen’s perceptive analysis on the Royal Mail is well worth reading. 

There is no question that the Royal Mail urgently needs to modernise.Ideally this debate should have happened ten years ago – the changing nature of communications means that the existing business will die unless the Royal Mail evolves and develops to reflect a modern world in which most communication takes place on-line. 

We all want to see a continuing public service, in which for a (reasonable) flat-rate fee posted material can be delivered fast and reliably to anyone in the UK, but this is not sustainable – even with enormous levels of public subsidy – unless the Royal Mail itself changes.  The risk is that by not proceeding and not having this debate now the universal service will collapse completely and disappear.  That would do nothing for those who currently work for the Royal Mail or for the pensioner waiting for a letter from his or her grand-children.

Mar 2,2009

The London Assembly’s Transport Committee, chaired by Val Shawcross, has published a powerful indictment of last month’s snow chaos.  It is clear that there was little proper planning for the snow (about which there had been plentiful warnings from the Met Office), virtually no coordination between the relevant bodies, and it took the best part of 24 hours before anyone took a proper grip of the situation.

I am quite clear that most of the Boroughs were woefully ill-prepared: they should all have had in place proper plans for gritting the most important routes and protocols in place for clearing access to bus garages, to London Ambulance stations and for other emergency services.  I am also amazed that there were not better arrangements for coordination and what there was was only finally triggered on the Monday after the snowfall with no direct communication with Transport for London until nearly 30 hours after the severe weather warning that a major snow-fall was hours away (ie 5pm on the Monday – some 17 hours after buses were ordered to return to their depots).

So who should have triggered the emergency coordination?  It may not be a statutory responsibility for the Mayor and the GLA, but the whole premise of the Greater London Authority Act is that the Mayor should use the authority of his elected office to bring people together and make things happen in the interests of London.  I trust the failure to do so on this occasion (until it was too late) will not be repeated again.

Mar 1,2009

I had recently come to the view that my comments on this blog were receiving more attention than anything I might say in the chamber of the House of the Lords.

So I suppose I should be flattered that the debate I initiated in the Lords on young people and social networking sites should have got a full half-page of coverage in today’s Observer.

Catherine Bennett certainly seems to have got the measure of the effects of being in the Lords on some of my colleagues (I hope not me, but you never know ….) when she writes:

“Given what we now know about the human brain, it is clear that prolonged exposure to an unnatural environment like the House of Lords must have a damaging effect. If the ageing brain is artificially denied stimulation over a long period, it might lead to a condition almost indistinguishable from idiocy.  The effects on communication have been documented for years. Now some leading neuro-scientists are suggesting that flashing lights and bells be fitted to go off regularly in the chamber, in order to induce in members something resembling an average attention span.”

She then weighs in to attack the comments of Baroness Susan Greenfield for her contribution to the debate analysing the impact of social networking and online phenomena like Twitter from her standpoint as a neuro-scientist.  It is a fine polemic and yes the comments from Susan Greenfield were rather tangential to the purpose of my debate which was intended to explore whether more safeguards were needed to protect the interests of children and young people online.

However, the comments (and the whole debate can be read here) were of interest and do deserve some serious discussion.  Twitter and Twittering seems a largely pointless exercise to many and as Catherine Bennett puts it:

“Twitter emphasises its desirability by being unfathomable to anyone a bit inflexible or busy who is neither a self-promoter nor an exhibitionist.”

Now I don’t feel that Susan Greenfield’s speech detracted from the rest of the debate – it is part of the way that the House of Lords operates that colleagues bring their various experiences and expertise to bear on the topics under discussion.  And it certainly didn’t “hijack” the debate as Catherine Bennett suggests.

Catherine Bennett was kind enough to say that “The Lords are right to want to protect vulnerable users from exploitation and from the inadvertent creation of an indelible archive of social networking follies.”  So, if that is so, and she wants to avoid the debate being hijacked, perhaps she might have devoted more than just three lines of her article to the rest of the  debate and what she rightly regarded as its main substance.

Or perhaps I’m missing something ….