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Archive for January, 2010

Wednesday
Jan 13,2010

I see that my MPA colleague James Cleverly has fallen (despite being a Tory) into the typical trap that usually catches the LibDems of having a Pavlovian reaction every time the words “counter-terrorism” or “anti-terrorism” are seen.

He has repeated the myth that the UK Government wrongly used counter-terrorist powers to freeze the assets of Icelandic banks when it looked as though British citizens and institutions might suffer when the banks appeared to be about to default.

The powers used were in the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001.

LibDems and James Cleverly should notice that, although the Act’s title contains the magic word “anti-terrorism”, it is also about “crime and security”.

The specific power used was the freezing power and the Act specifies the following:

“(1) The Treasury may make a freezing order if the following two conditions are satisfied.

(2) The first condition is that the Treasury reasonably believe that—

(a) action to the detriment of the United Kingdom’s economy (or part of it) has been or is likely to be taken by a person or persons, or

(b) action constituting a threat to the life or property of one or more nationals of the United Kingdom or residents of the United Kingdom has been or is likely to be taken by a person or persons.

(3) If one person is believed to have taken or to be likely to take the action the second condition is that the person is—

(a) the government of a country or territory outside the United Kingdom, or

(b) a resident of a country or territory outside the United Kingdom.

(4) If two or more persons are believed to have taken or to be likely to take the action the second condition is that each of them falls within paragraph (a) or (b) of subsection (3); and different persons may fall within different paragraphs.”

Even a LibDem (and especially someone who is usually more sensible – like James Cleverly) might recognise that these powers are not about combatting terrorism.  They are more general powers and are about protecting the UK economy and/or the property of UK nationals.

The question that James Cleverly has to answer – I don’t expect a coherent response from the LibDems – is why repeat something that is wrong and more particularly is he against protecting the UK economy and the property of British citizens?

Monday
Jan 11,2010

I too like Dr Who.  However, I am not quite as much of a fanatic on the subject as is my (no relation) namesake Tom Harris MP (and indeed my favourite Doctor would be Patrick Troughton rather than Tom Baker – it’s an age thing).

Over the weekend Tom Harris recorded what thirty-five years ago would have been every male adolescent’s wet dream: a meeting with Dr Who companion, Katy Manning – and yes he is right she was the definitive Dr Who companion.

And note in the second photograph where Katy Manning has put her hand ……

The good news is that Tom Harris would have been only nine years old in 1973.

Sunday
Jan 10,2010

Everybody knows that the European Parliament is at the cutting edge of global political thought.

So it is no surprise to discover that in 2005 (long before last month’s attempted airline bombing made them a world-wide must-have) the European Parliament bought six full body scanners to protect MEPs from being attacked in the Parliament buildings.

Given the legendary efficiency of the EU institutions, it is also no surprise to learn that these six machines – purchased for over 700,000 Euros – have never been used.  Apparently, in 2008 the Parliament rejected a bill to permit the use of such scanners across the EU on the grounds that the graphic images provided by such scanners constituted a “virtual strip search”.  It is thought that MEPs were not aware at the time that the Parliament had six scanners lying around in their unopened boxes.

After the MEPs had voted against the use of such scanners, European Parliament officials then “rushed” to dispose of the unwanted items.  Obviously, there are complex procedures to be followed in such cases, so that the invitation to bid for the six scanners will only be issued in the next few days.  The delay, of course, means that, given the current fashion for full body scanning, there should be no shortage of bidders.

But should the European Parliament still be going ahead with the sales, in the light of the latest security threats?  Of course it should – as its spokesperson perspicaciously points out, “The Parliament is not an airport”.

Friday
Jan 8,2010

According to Local Government Chronicle, a slip of the tongue by Deputy Mayor Sir (rumoured soon to be Lord) Simon Milton has suggested that Mayor Boris Johnson only intends to serve one term in office and will not run on his record (or otherwise) in 2012.  Listening to the slip, it sounds to me like a genuine slip of the tongue, but psychologists claim that such slips are more revealing than one might think ……

Certainly, Londoners will expect more of a coherent vision from a Mayor seeking re-election than they got in 2008 and is so far apparent from the incumbent, so may be there really will be no appetite for a second term.

Friday
Jan 8,2010

There is always a surreal air about aspects of the Annual Dinner hosted by the (unelected) Lord Mayor of London in the City’s Mansion House for the (elected) Mayor of London and the “Governing Bodies of London”.  And tonight’s was no exception.

The surrealism began with a Grace from the Lord Mayor’s Chaplain that seemed to be based entirely on a song by Noel Coward – an innovation too far even for the New Model Conservative Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham, Stephen Greenhalgh, or at least for his phone which warbled its protest whilst the Chaplain was speaking (Greenhalgh tried ineffectually to silence it..).

Meanwhile nearby, discontent simmered amongst Mayor Johnson’s Deputy Mayors about the seating arrangements: why had (unelected) Deputy Mayor Sir Simon (rumoured soon to be Lord) Milton been given such a prominent seat allocation, compared with the two other (elected) Deputy Mayors?  (Milton was at the centre of the top-table at the left hand of God himself or more precisely at the left hand of  Stuart Fraser, the (unelected) Chairman of the Corporation’s Policy and Resources Committee.)

And then, of course, there was the speech from Mayor Boris Johnson himself.  Surreally praising those present for braving the snow and ice – the snow and ice itself being a tribute to the success of the team from City Hall that had gone to the Copenhagen to reverse global warming (“How successful they were and so quickly”).

He then moved rapidly on to an argument that the success (sic) of London in coping with the snow and ice was itself a metaphor for the success that London was having in weathering the recession(sic, sic).

This elided into a paeon of praise for the decision he had himself announced that in future all the data held by the GLA would be made freely available on the internet.  This in itself would transform the economic prospects of London (if not the Universe).

And then after a brief digression on how his heart goes out to those poor MPs caught up in the expenses scandals “for buying themselves a pepperami” (sic) and how the GLA decision, if adopted by Parliament, would have averted the scandal because the afore-mentioned pepperamis would not have been purchased.  At least, I think that was the argument.

Finally, the great champion of openness informed his audience that he could tell us that he had seen the proposed 2012 Olympics mascot but that he couldn’t tell us anything about it – we were not permitted to know whether it was an animal or not, what its gender was, or its sexual orientation.  All he could say was that it would be “a howling success”.  And what is more, if by the time it is unveiled in May, Gordon Brown has been sent to a salt-mine (there was a sub-theme of the evening relating to salt and grit) the Olympics mascot will be temporary Leader of the Labour Party.  Now as everyone knows, if the Leadership of the Labour Party becomes vacant, the post is automatically filled by the Deputy Leader of the Party until a successor is elected – so presumably this was Mayor Boris Johnson’s way of telling us that the 2012 Olympics mascot will in fact be the Right Honourable Harriet Harman MP.

As the Governing Bodies of London filed out of the Mansion House into the snow and ice (which amazingly still remained), you could hear the murmur of confusion/buzz of excitement about the sweeping vision of London’s future that they had just heard from Mayor Johnson.

Thursday
Jan 7,2010

The third question this morning in the House of Lords Question Time managed to cover astrology, alternative medicine, the views of Prince Charles, mumbo jumbo and quackery, provoked an intervention from the Astronomer Royal and from myself on psychotherapists and so-called “Schools” of psychotherapy and other therapies.

The question and the subsequent supplementaries demonstrated concerns from all parts of the House that alternative therapists need to be regulated in order to protect the public from unscrupulous practitioners and highlighted the importance of better understanding of real (as opposed to pseudo) science by the public and young people in particular.

The full exchanges were as follows:

“Alternative Medicine: Astrologers

Question

11.21 am

Asked By Lord Taverne

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, following their proposals to regulate practitioners of alternative medicine, they plan to regulate astrologers.

Baroness Thornton: No, my Lords, the Government have no plans to regulate astrologers.

Lord Taverne: My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the charity Sense About Science. The forms of alternative medicine which the Government propose to regulate have as much scientific basis as astrology. As official regulation is likely to give such practices a spurious scientific reliability and respectability, is it not unfair to leave out astrologers? More seriously, will the Government note that august bodies of proper scientists—the Medical Research Council, the Royal College of Pathologists, the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges and other eminent professional bodies—strongly oppose the proposed regulation? Will the Government ignore the assiduous lobbying for pseudoscience from Clarence House?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I am aware that the noble Lord is making a wider and serious point about alternative therapies. At present there is no statutory regulatory system in the United Kingdom to govern the practice of complementary and alternative medicine, with the exception of chiropractitioners and osteopaths who are regulated by statute. We are undertaking a consultation exercise to determine whether and, if so, how to regulate the practitioners of acupuncture, herbal medicine and traditional Chinese medicine. The Science and Technology Committee of this House suggested that we should address that issue. No other complementary therapies, including medical astrology, are within the scope of this consultation and we have no proposals to regulate in any of these other groups.

Baroness Pitkeathley: My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence. I remind the House and the noble Lord who asked the Question that the purpose of regulation is to protect the public, and that is what we try to do. However, in order to help me do my job better, can my noble friend give me a definition of medical astrology?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, medical astrology is traditionally known as iatromathematics and is an ancient medical system associated with various parts of the body, diseases and drugs and the influence of the sun, moon, planets and the 12 astrological signs. For example—I did the research on this issue myself—the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, and I share the same birth sign, Libra, which apparently rules excretory functions through the kidneys and skin. I could go on about lumbar regions but noble Lords will get the picture. I am happy to say that the underlying basis for medical astrology is considered to be a pseudoscience and superstition as there is no scientific basis for its core beliefs. The Government remain neutral on this issue.

Earl Howe: My Lords, does the Minister share my view that this is an uncharacteristically flippant Question from the noble Lord, Lord Taverne? Does she accept that statutory regulation is not a badge of rank but exists, as the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, has just said, to safeguard the public? The key regulatory bodies—the Health Professions Council and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency—have both concluded that acupuncture and herbal medicine practitioners should be subject to statutory regulation.

Baroness Thornton: The noble Earl is quite correct and I concur with him that this is a very serious matter. Although we do not specifically promote or endorse the use of complementary or alternative medicine, we have to appreciate that a high proportion of the population actually uses these medicines, and our concern, as my noble friend said, is to protect patients. Responsible complementary practitioners adhere to codes of ethics, know the limits of their competence and make appropriate referral of patients to orthodox practitioners where there is potential risk to their health and well-being. However, the noble Earl is completely correct—we have to look to how best to safeguard patients in respect of those complementary medicines such as acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicines that have the potential to cause harm. Therefore we need to take serious action to make sure they are regulated in the correct fashion.

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, I confess to being an Aquarian, and share my birth date with Copernicus and my Auntie Ivy, although I have to say that my Auntie Ivy had much more influence on me than my birth sign. However, on a more serious note, does the Minister agree that the popularity of mumbo-jumbo such as astrology and many forms of alternative medicine is due to the fact that people have very little scientific education at school? Will she say what this Government, in their 10 years in power, have done to further education in science and mathematics?

Baroness Thornton: We have done a great deal for further education in science and mathematics, although that is not exactly what this Question was about. I agree with the noble Baroness that of course people often turn to things like medical astrology because they do not understand the basis of whatever ailment it is they are looking at, and that can be a risky thing to do. However, I simply do not accept this Government have not put a significant amount of investment into mathematics and science in our schools.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords—

Lord Rees of Ludlow: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, we have not heard from the Cross Benches yet.

Lord Rees of Ludlow: My Lords, I declare an interest as Astronomer Royal, and therefore as someone who could enhance his income hugely by becoming an astrologer and offering horoscopes. Does the Minister agree that, even though were we in India it might be appropriate to regulate astrology because government ministers there, one is told, are heavily guided by it, in this country to do so might imply that the problem has rather more seriousness that it really deserves?

Baroness Thornton: The noble Lord is completely correct.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that we should indeed have no truck with pseudoscience? As it happens, I have some sympathy with the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, raised about the teaching of science and mathematics. None the less, there are, as Hamlet observed,

“more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy”,

and some very respectable branches of medicine were once alternative in their day. Therefore, it is important that we keep an eye on the things in which people invest confidence, and make sure, as my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley observed, that they do not cause harm.

Baroness Thornton: My noble friend is right. Complementary and alternative medicine therapies have proven to be effective, cost-effective and safe. Decisions about which treatments to commission and fund, for example, are the responsibility of the NHS locally, and indeed primary care trusts often have their own policies about funding complementary medicine such as osteopathy or chiropractic. Indeed, we are funding research into complementary therapies, for example in the care of cancer patients.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I speak to the Minister as a fellow Libran. Is she satisfied with the quality of regulation of therapies such as psychotherapy? Is it still the case that anyone can set themselves up as a college of psychotherapy or any other therapy, and offer diplomas and apparent validation to practitioners whose skills may be negligible?

Baroness Thornton: My noble friend raises an important point, which the House has discussed in the past year. I had a huge postbag about that; I was inundated by suggestions from psychotherapists of all different kinds on this issue. My noble friend is quite right that there is an issue, and the department is looking at it.”

Wednesday
Jan 6,2010

Lord Lawson of Blaby (Nigel Lawson) has spelt out what the great mass of the Conservative Party really think about climate change and the Copenhagen summit: if you believe the scientific evidence on climate change (and most of them don’t), as the summit was a failure, the UK Government should repeal the Climate Change Act 2008 (as in the absence of concerted international activity it will not make a difference) and do nothing at all; and if you don’t believe the scientific evidence on climate change, the UK Government should repeal the Climate Change Act 2008 and do nothing at all. Either way, we should bury our heads in the sand.

Yesterday afternoon, in the House of Lords he spelt it out:

“Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, it is difficult to
engage with the Minister, since his answers to previous
questions have made clear that he is not living in the
real world at all, as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, to
some extent pointed out. Nevertheless, does the Minister
recall that last year I pointed out that his own department
put the cost of the Climate Change Act to the British
economy at anything up to £18 billion a year, year in,
year out, and that there would be no conceivable
benefit unless there was a global agreement of the
same kind? Therefore, I asked him a year ago whether
he would undertake, if there was no such agreement at
Copenhagen, to repeal the Act, or at least to put it into
suspense. He replied that the question did not arise
because he was confident that there would be a wholly
satisfactory agreement atCopenhagen. Since the Minister’s
confidence, like everything else that he has said, has
been proved to be wholly misplaced, will he now
undertake—unlike the European Union, which has
made this conditional—to put thiswholly unconditional,
hugely damaging and hugely costly burden on an
economy which is not in the most robust condition
anyway into suspense as a result of the total failure of
Copenhagen to achieve what he was confident it would
achieve? Clearly, no useful purpose can be served by
carrying on with this at present.”

And then a few minutes later shook his head vigorously in disagreement when Lord Chris Smith referred to the “overwhelming” scientific evidence on climate change.

Nigel Lawson is absolutely clear on what he believes and is confident he is speaking for the great bulk of the Conservative Party.

Sunday
Jan 3,2010

I did enjoy the Riddell cartoon in today’s Observer:

Back in the saddle

Chris Riddell 03.01.10

© Chris Riddell 2010

I had just read the front-page lead, “David Cameron to pledge NHS cash boost for most deprived areas“.  This reports that David Cameron is going to announce tomorrow that in the (unlikely) event that he wins this year’s General Election billions of pounds of NHS resources will be diverted to the most deprived parts of the country- apparently in an attempt to defuse the “class war” attacks on his Party.

Interesting, if true.

So where would this money come from?  Even bigger cuts elsewhere in the public sector?  The King’s Fund has demonstrated that even maintaining current cash spending on the NHS would lead to devastating reductions elsewhere.  So what will suffer?  Defence?  Police??  International Development???

Or is it going to come from elsewhere in the NHS?  So does this mean that middle-class areas will have their NHS resources cut?  Will Tory candidates in those areas come clean with their electorates??  And is the plan that the middle classes are to be forced into private health insurance???

So is this the vision for “Modern Conservatism”?

I think Tom Harris (no relation – he’s Scottish) seems to have got it right.

Saturday
Jan 2,2010

Over the Christmas break I enjoyed “The Tortoise and the Hares“, the enormously readable account by my colleague Lord Giles Radice of the relationship between Clement Attlee and the giants in his 1945-51 Cabinets like Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison, Stafford Cripps, Hugh Dalton, Aneurin Bevan and Hugh Gaitskell.

The book focuses on the relationship between the quiet, unassuming Attlee and the extraordinary figures around him in the leadership of the Labour Party and the Labour Government.  Attlee’s ability to play off those around him, so that he was always able to head off the frequent challenges to his leadership by one or other of them, but at the same time giving each of them the space to deliver fundamental change in their respective policy areas, was quite remarkable.

However, even more striking is the formidable nature of the individuals making up those Cabinets.  Today, we have become used to Parties led by strong figures with other leading members being clearly several steps behind.  The situation in Attlee’s Cabinet was rather, if taken forward fifty years, as though Tony Blair had had four figures of the calibre and strength of Gordon Brown filling the major offices of state, all seeking ownership of the government’s direction.  The change seems to have occurred after the 1979 General Election when Margaret Thatcher came to completely dominate her Cabinet.  There was something of a reversion under John Major – although none of the figures in the 1990-97 Cabinets could really be described as of huge substance.  Then from 1997 onwards, we again had pre-eminent Prime Ministers.  And in the (unlikely) event of a Conservative Government being elected later this year, it is hard to see any of the present Shadow Cabinet having the stature to affect the authority of David Cameron.

So has the change come about because of the individuals holding the office of Prime Minister?  Or do we no longer have the same supply of dominating figures in the front-rank of politics?  I rather suspect it is the latter – although if few of the present Cabinet are in the mould of the Bevins and Morrisons of the 1940s, they are giants compared with the pygmies on the Tory front-bench.

Of course, politics sixty years ago were very different.  Today, it is hard to envisage a senior Cabinet Minister having to resign, as Hugh Dalton did, for briefing a member of the press before an announcement in the House of Commons.  Nor is it possible to imagine that the wife of a prominent Cabinet member might have tea every Friday afternoon with a Sunday newspaper correspondent and give him near-verbatim accounts of Cabinet discussions (as was the practice of Isobel Cripps) without the source of the leak rapidly becoming known (according to Giles Radice even the security service failed to identify her).

Even more striking is how ill some of the major figures were much of the time.  The book describes the mission to the United States in 1949 to discuss the sterling exchange rate led by Cripps and Bevin.  The two men sailed to the US on the RMS Mauretania, because as the book describes it:

“Both Cripps and Bevin were in poor health: Bevin could not travel by air because of his heart and stayed in bed resting, while Cripps used the boat journey to prolong his convalescence (from acute colitis which had incapacitated him for months).  Curiously the two ministers did not actually meet for the first three or four days.  Cripps rose at 4am, often pacing the deck till dawn, and retired to bed early at around 4 or 5pm.  Meanwhile Bevin did not rise until late afternoon.  It was not until well into the voyage, when Cripps agreed to stay up a little later, that … (the civil servants) … had the opportunity to brief the two statesmen together.”

It is not clear that politicians are allowed to be unwell these days.  (This, of course, was not just a factor for Labour figures – Churchill was frequently indisposed even during the War and his devastating strokes in 1949 and when he was again Prime Minister in 1953 were kept secret for months.)  Attlee, of course, outlived all the hares in the book and Churchill.

Friday
Jan 1,2010

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).

Enjoy!