Is this part of the softening up process to allow the Coalition to ignore the Saville Inquiry report?

Ken Clarke, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, has said that Bloody Sunday inquiry conducted by Lord Saville has been a “disaster in terms of time and expense” and got “ludicrously out of hand”.

I doubt whether there will be many people (apart from the many lawyers who have done extremely well out of the process) who would disagree with the sentiment that the inquiry has taken an extraordinary length of time and has therefore been monumentally expensive.

However, Ken Clarke’s timing is interesting.  His comments were made just 48 hours before the report was due to be published.  Is this part of a process of softening-up, so that, when David Cameron does introduce the report, the Coalition Government is able to distance itself from the inquiry’s twelve years of deliberations and the conclusions it has reached?

So who has been hacking the Taliban? Is this an early sign of “offensive” cyber activity by the United States?

Apparently, an elite jihadi forum with strong Taliban links has been warning subscribers that it has been “infiltrated”.  It is not clear who has done the infiltration nor what the nature of it is (although potentially it would enable the infiltrator to obtain details of those logging into the site and identify their location).

There has, of course, been a large amount of discussion in the United States about the importance of building not only a defensive cyber capacity but also an offensive capacity.  Usually, the offensive role is described as being available for retaliation against an individual, organisation or nation that threatens US cyber space.  However, the principle might easily be extended to others – such as the Taliban – who threaten US interests and troops.  So is this the first example of the talked-of US offensive capacity in action?

Cameron and Clegg are trying to change the climate of opinion on economic policy and here’s a reminder of why they are wrong

I remember being told by a (slightly tipsy) Conservative MP before the election that the Tories’ political strategy, if they won, would be to declare that the state of the economy was much worse than had been expected and then embark on a programme of “Ridley-ite” cuts that would make Margaret Thatcher proud.

And, so far, so true.

The objective, of course, is to make the eye-watering severity of the cuts in public spending seem inevitable and try to blame the previous Government for all that happens.

It is, of course, one of the oldest tricks in the book.  I am sure I could find it in Macchiavelli’s “The Prince”, if I looked.

Therefore, it is important that people try and keep hold of a sense of reality and proportion, while David Cameron and George Osborne, plus their faithful assistants Nick Clegg and Vince Cable, attempt their political and economic sleight of hand.

Today’s “Observer” provides a helpful primer for those who want to remind themselves why the Coalition Government is wrong and why there should be no inevitability about the economic cul-de-sac down which George Osborne wants to take us in just over a week’s time.

Katie Allen’s Q&A, “Spending Cuts: Be Concerned but There’s No Need to Panic” has a message that needs to be repeated every time the smug inevitability mantra emerges from the mouth of a Tory/LibDem apologist and I make no apologies for repeating it here:

“Has Alistair Darling really left the public finances in an even worse state than we thought?

The public purse is pretty threadbare, but it is unfair to suggest Darling left hundreds of skeletons to tumble out of the cupboard – and the former chancellor takes the idea as a personal affront. The figures bear him out: the latest official statistics showed a massive tax windfall at the end of the financial year to April, and as a result the deficit was revised down by £7bn. In fact, it is now £11bn below Darling’s final budget forecast.

Is there no alternative to drastic cuts in public services?

The fact that the deficit figures are not quite so horrific in itself raises questions over macho austerity policies and the £6.2bn of cuts already announced. Yes, we do need to bring the deficit under control, but too much austerity too soon could strangle a fragile recovery.

But won’t my tax bill go up if we don’t cut spending?

There will be a mix of spending cuts and tax rises. One of the big issues is getting the balance right between the two. Concentrating too heavily on cuts could hurt the vulnerable in society, but hefty tax rises, particularly on high earners, can be self-defeating because people avoid paying.

If we don’t tighten our belts enough, won’t our debts run out of control?

People tend to think that the government debt is like a household debt and needs to be managed very tightly. But as Leslie Budd at the Open University Business School says: “This… belongs to the less well known branch of economics called Ignorance Economics.” It is sensible to cut waste, but slashing spending indiscriminately to deal with fiscal crises can do more harm than good. Public spending is an injection into the economy that boosts national income and employment.

Hold on, though, didn’t David Cameron say our debt interest was rising to £70bn a year? That sounds bad.

Yes, it’s certainly not a good place to be. Debt service payments are set to rise from £41.6bn pencilled in this year to about £70bn in five years’ time. It is, as Cameron says, “a terrible, terrible waste of money” and more than the combined budgets for education, climate change and transport. But it is not a new figure and, to put it in perspective, households spend a similar amount of their income servicing their debts and many companies spend far more. Also, it’s not unusual for any country to spend a large part of its revenues on servicing debts.

But I heard that we are in a worse position than Greece.

Nowhere near. Britain has never defaulted on its national debt. Our debt has a long time to run, with an average of 14 years to maturity, twice as long as most European countries, including Greece. In simple terms, that means the UK government needs to refinance less of its debt in any given year and is less sensitive to rising interest rates.

Hmm. But I also heard Cameron say we are “indebted on an unprecedented scale”.

This is the kind of phrase that enrages economic historians. Some context is needed. On paper, the deficit of £156.1bn for the last financial year is indeed the highest since records began at the end of the second world war. But as any economist will tell you, it’s not hard for any nominal figure to be a record after more than 60 years of inflation.

So that’s all right then?

Debt has been higher than this at many points in wartime and peacetime since the creation of the national debt in 1690, according to Glen O’Hara of Oxford Brookes University. The 18th century saw particularly large increases in the size of the armed services and each successive conflict saw public debt peak at a new high. The level of our debt is a cause for serious concern, but not panic.”

What game is Jim Fitzpatrick playing over the London Mayoral selection?

Jim Fitzpatrick MP, who chairs  Oona King’s campaign to be London Mayor, has written a strange letter to Ray Collins, General Secretary of the Labour Party.

Why is it strange?

He claims the process for selecting the London Mayor “fails the  fairness and openness tests” and then proposes tinkering with the electoral college process in ways that will make it less open and less fair – presumably believing that doing so will favour his preferred candidate.

He objects to the procedure laid down by the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party whereby there is to be an electoral college with 50% of the votes being decided by the individual votes of Party members in London and with the other 50% being determined by the votes of the members of trade unions and other organisations affiliated to the London Labour Party.

He seems to think that this process is new and untried – even though it is the same process used the last time there was a contested selection process for Labour’s Mayoral candidate in the run up to the 2004 elections.

So what is he proposing instead?

He has two options.  The first is simply to disenfranchise the members of trade unions and other affiliated organisations – even though all those members pay a political levy contribution to the Labour Party.  That is hardly very open and fair, is it?

So he offers an alternative – a “tri-partite” electoral college.

Now we had one of those before – in the selection of Labour’s candidate for the first Mayoral elections in 2000.  And that process was widely derided as being a stitch-up.  I remember it well.  The third section of  the electoral college comprised London Labour MPs and the 25 selected candidates for the London Assembly (even though some of them stood no chance of being on the Assembly unless Labour achieved 96% of the vote in the eventual elections).  I remember the embarrassment, as a London Assembly candidate, of having one of those gold-plated votes – worth the equivalent of the votes of a thousand Party members and several thousand affiliated members of the Party.  It was certainly neither open nor fair.

In so far as I understand Jim Fitzpatrick’s argument, it is that in the election of Party Leader there is a tri-partite college – with a section for MPs.  There is a good reason for that:  the House of Commons is the battleground in which the Party Leader has to operate, whether as Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition, and Labour MPs should have a direct say in who should lead them as well as the wider Party.

So, if there were a tri-partite electoral college for the Mayoral selection, who would be in the third section?  The only logical answer would be the eight Labour members of the London Assembly.  Now they are all excellent people, but this wouldn’t just be giving them a gold-plated vote, it would be giving them a platinum-plated vote – more than 4% of the electoral college each.  And I don’t think many people would regard that as open and fair.

No doubt, Jim Fitzpatrick would like to give London MPs a platinum vote as well.  But why do they have a more legitimate remit than, say, Labour Council Leaders or indeed all Labour councillors in London.  It all begins to look like a return to the bad old days of manipulation and skullduggery.

And Jim ought to remember all that – he used to be Chair of the London Labour Party.

And actually Jim, the London Labour Party has now grown out of all that.

Coalition Lords Ministers count for less than Special Advisors

Lord Strathclyde is Leader of the House of Lords and a member of the Cabinet.  He is paid £101,038.  Two of the Prime Minister’s Special Advisors (Andy Coulson and Edward Llewellyn) are paid more than he is (they get £140,000 and £125,000 respectively).

Lord McNally is Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords and Minister of State in the Ministry of Justice.  He is paid £78,891.  No less than nine of the Prime Minister’s Special Advisors are paid more than he is and – particularly humiliating – three of the Deputy Prime Minister’s Special Advisors are paid more as well.

The other Lords’ Ministers – or at least those that are paid and not donating their services for free – are also receiving less than twelve of the  Special Advisors in the offices of the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.  And most of them are paid less than four other Departmental Special Advisors.

They must feel really valued compared with the cronies/Special Advisors (who – unlike Ministers – aren’t actually responsible for anything and don’t actually make decisions just provide political advice or act as spin doctors for their masters).

Of course, David Cameron is the first Prime Minister ever to have worked as a Special Advisor before they became an MP.

Ministerial pay rates are here and Special Advisor’s pay rates are here.

So why was Simon Hughes elected LibDem Deputy just by MPs?

I have never taken an interest in the constitution of the Liberal Democrats – and in case anyone’s concerned about me I don’t want to start doing so now.

However, I am intrigued (admittedly only slightly so) by the news that Simon Hughes has been elected as Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats by the Party’s MPs.

Given that the Liberal Democrats in 2008 conducted a Party-wide ballot to select their nominees to be appointed to the House of Lords – a full eighteen months before the Coalition agreement to creating a gerrymander list of Coalition peers was even thought of, it is surprising that they permitted their MPs to go about the business of choosing the Party’s Deputy Leader all on their own.

There is a risk of course that someone who is immersed in the minutiae of the rules of the Liberal Democrat may tell me the reason – in detail.  However, I will be quite happy to continue in ignorance – albeit momentarily puzzled.

Nuclear proliferation and the risks of nuclear materials falling into the wrong hands – raised at Lords Question Time

Over the last few months, I have been doing some work on the danger of nuclear materials falling into the hands of terrorists and had the opportunity to raise the issue during Lords Question Time this afternoon.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer had tabled the following question:

“To ask Her Majesty’s Government what contribution they will make to the work required to achieve progress on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons following the resolution passed at the review conference in May.”

Lord Howell of Guildford, the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, answered as follows:

“My Lords, as we promised on taking office, we pushed hard for agreement of a final document at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. We will give the highest priority to reversing the spread of nuclear weapons, keeping them out of the hands of terrorists and cutting their numbers worldwide, and we will work with partners to translate those commitments into action.”

I came in with the following supplementary:

“My Lords, the IAEA’s illicit trafficking database has recorded 336 incidents involving unauthorised possession of nuclear materials and associated criminal acts in the past 15 years. There have also been incidents of terror teams carrying out reconnaissance of nuclear weapon trains in Russia. Can the noble Lord tell us, first, whether Her Majesty’s Government are satisfied with the security arrangements around the nuclear facilities in this country and what steps they are taking to protect them? Secondly, what steps are they taking to ensure that security arrangements around both civil and military nuclear facilities elsewhere are being properly maintained?”

And this elicited the following response:

“I thank the noble Lord for his question. We are satisfied, but we are always on guard and always watchful for any need for improvement. The international security of nuclear materials was discussed, analysed and strengthened at the Washington conference in April that preceded the nuclear NPT review conference. A whole series of measures was put forward there and agreed. In so far as one can, one can say that these measures are a step forward in what is undoubtedly, as the noble Lord fully realises, a very dangerous situation.”

I will be returning to the issue later in the Session.

Is the civil liberties lobby beginning to question the Coalition’s commitment?

It is early days yet but I am beginning to hear that the various civil liberties lobbying organisations and activists are questioning whether the Coalition’s commitment to their agenda is quite as strong as they were led to believe before the General Election.

Even though the Coalition Government in its document “Our Programme for Government” trumpets that:

We will be strong in defence of freedom. The Government believes that the British state has become too authoritarian, and that over the past decade it has abused and eroded fundamental human freedoms and historic civil liberties. We need to restore the rights of individuals in the face of encroaching state power, in keeping with Britain’s tradition of freedom and fairness.”

and Nick Clegg has made bizarre statements about the greatest reforms since 1832, those who are picking over the details are clearly not impressed.

For example, Ross Anderson at Cambridge University is already talking of “A very rapid betrayal“, saying:

“The coalition Government plans to keep the Summary Care Record, despite pre-election pledges by both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to rip up the system – which is not compliant with the I v Finland judgement of the European Court of Human Rights.”

And Hawktalk says:

“Ah! The reality of power! For all the Opposition talk about strengthening the protection of privacy, in the first weeks of Government, the pro-privacy proposition has become more difficult to implement. The inevitable result is that gears are being put into neutral or reverse (as quietly as possible, mind you!).

So it is with the repeal of the ID Card Act and the abolition of the National Identity Register by the “Identity Documents Bill 2010-11” whose Second Reading is today. We all know that from their respective manifestos, both Lib-Con coalition partners wanted to scrap ID Cards and strengthen the penalties in the Data Protection Act. We know that the previous Government had draft legislation on the stocks which provided for custodial penalties for misuse of personal data under the Data Protection Act.

With apparent political unity about the weak data protection offences associated with the deliberate misuse of personal data, one would have thought that an stronger penalty could have been introduced quite quickly. Alas, this is not the case. The Identity Documents Bill has used a contorted definition of “personal information” in order to avoid strengthening the offences in the Data Protection Act.”

And then there is the huge anger already generated by the plans to repatriate asylum-seekers to Iraq and the deportation of children to Afghanistan.

I always thought that the Tories were cynical and opportunist in their attacks on the last Government’s record on civil liberties and human rights, but I suspect the LibDems believed their own rhetoric.  I suspect that faultline is going to get increasingly strained as the Coalition comes to grips with the realities of being in Government.

First Lords division of the new Parliament and the Government lose by four votes

Thr first Lords drama of the new Parliament took place this afternoon.  And I missed it as I was chairing a seminar away from the House (no expense allowance for me today, then!).

The issue was whether the Coalition Government’s Local Government Bill should be referred to the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills and the Government lost the vote by 154 to 150.  As a result, the Bill did not have its planned Second Reading today.

The Bill itself is a spiteful measure designed to prevent Exeter and Norwich from becoming unitary local authorities as agreed by the last Parliament.  The Coalition is determined to do this despite unitary status being the wish of the overwhelming majority of the residents of the two cities concerned and regardless of the extra costs associated with stopping the reorganisation in mid-flow.

The motion was moved by Lord Alan Howarth and the reason it was successful was that many Crossbench peers accepted his argument that because the Bill singles out Exeter and Norwich the Bill should follow the (more convoluted) procedure that governs any legislation that appears to apply to one group of individuals differently from other similar individuals.

These are complex arguments that Lord Alan Howarth summarised as follows:

“My Lords, I declare an interest as a resident of Norwich. I want to put it to the House that there is a strong prima facie case that the Local Government Bill is hybrid, and that it should therefore be referred to the Examiners to determine whether that is so. As soon as they saw it, a number of experienced colleagues said surely this Bill is hybrid.

The noble Lord the Leader of the House just told us the definition of hybrid Bills in the Companion , but perhaps it would help the House if I quoted the words again. The definition states that they are,

“public bills which are considered to affect specific private or local interests, in a manner different from the private or local interests of other persons or bodies of the same class, thus attracting the provisions of the Standing Orders applicable to private business”.

In the next paragraph, the Companion goes on to say:

“It is open to any member who considers that a public bill may be hybrid … to move that the bill be referred to the Examiners. Such a motion is usually moved immediately before second reading”.

These semi-mythological creatures, the Examiners, are the Clerks of Private Bills in both Houses.

I recognise that hybridity is not for amateurs. These are deep waters and a prudent politician does not even get into his bathing trunks, let alone plunge in. But I fear that, unlike my right honourable friend the former Prime Minister, prudence has never sufficiently been my watchword.

I regret that I was unable to give the House more notice of this Motion. The difficulty has been that the Government have advanced this Bill with extraordinary speed. We saw the Bill only on the eve of the long bank holiday weekend. That was followed by a day when the House was not sitting, so I was not able to consult the Clerk of Public and Private Bills until the following day, last Wednesday. I then had to discuss with Norwich and Exeter City Councils whether they wished to seek the advice of parliamentary agents and counsel. The lawyers then worked at top speed, with e-mails flying around all over the weekend and late at night. Counsel’s formal opinion and a letter of advice from parliamentary agents were delivered yesterday, and in the light of them I tabled the Motion on the Order Paper for today. We could not have got to this point more quickly, and I have had no desire to wrong-foot the House.

In any case, while the concept of hybridity may be obscure and elusive, the issue before us now is simple. Do we consider that there are sufficient reasonable arguments that the Bill is hybrid to warrant referring it to the Examiners?

Plainly, the Government have sought to draft this Bill so that it is not hybrid. However, they are navigating tricky waters, and the House ought to satisfy itself on this point, since there are major implications for how we proceed depending on it. If the Bill were judged by the Examiners to be hybrid, after Second Reading, as I understand it, the Bill would go to a Select Committee which would receive and examine petitions and question witnesses and then report to the House before following the usual course of a Public Bill.

It seems clear to me that the Bill is hybrid on this ground most obviously, although there are others. Norwich and Exeter are treated differently from other local authorities under this legislation for the following reason. Since the Bill, significantly, does not repeal Section 1 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007—the Act that permits the Secretary of State to invite a local authority to make a proposal for reorganisation into single-tier government—the Bill contemplates that authorities will in the future, after the Bill has become law, have the opportunity to make such proposals. However, the Bill specifies that Norwich and Exeter—just those two named authorities—are not to become unitary authorities. It seems plain as a pikestaff that the local interests of Norwich and Exeter are especially prejudiced for the future. In the language of the Companion , Norwich and Exeter are affected,

“in a manner different from the … local interests of other … bodies of the same class”—

other councils that may wish to propose unitary reorganisations.

However, I speak merely as a politician and not as a lawyer. Far more significant are the views of learned counsel. I will not attempt to paraphrase either the lengthy opinion of Mr Peter Oldham QC or the shorter but densely argued advice of Mr Alastair Lewis of Sharpe Pritchard, parliamentary agents. Both those documents came in after the Clerk of Public and Private Bills had given his opinion that this particular Bill was not hybrid. I will just say that Mr Oldham concludes his opinion with the words:

“In my view, there are proper and reasonable arguments that this Bill is hybrid”.

Mr Lewis says he believes that a further line of argument that he has put forward,

“represents a strong argument in favour of saying that the Bill is hybrid”.

What I am not proposing to the House in this Motion is that the House should decide here and now that the Bill is hybrid. Nor is this a debate about the rights and wrongs of the Government’s policy on Norwich and Exeter—that is for Second Reading. What I am proposing is that the House should recognise that there are various views about whether this Bill is hybrid, all put forward in good faith by serious people—professionals who are competent to make such a case—and agree that all these arguments should be considered carefully and expertly by the Examiners so that they can determine whether the Bill is hybrid in accordance with the procedure that Parliament has provided.

It has long been established that there should not be a high hurdle for referral to the Examiners. Mr Lewis notes that the Companion says at paragraph 8.214 that the threshold for the hybridity test is whether there is a prima facie case. That means, as he puts it, that,

“if there is any doubt, the Bill should be referred to the Examiners”.

In that, he is following rulings of the Speaker in another place. The Speaker ruled on the Local Government Bill in the 1962-63 Session, at HC (1962-63) 669 col. 45:

“I accept the true position to be this, that if it be possible for the view to be taken that this Bill is a Hybrid Bill, it ought to go to the examiners. There must not be a doubt about it”.—[Official Report, Commons, 10/12/62, col. 45.]

Again, in the 1966-67 Session, the Speaker, at HC (1966-67) 732 col. 1221, referred to the “duty” to refer a Bill to the Examiners when the Bill was prima facie hybrid. The House will, I hope, acknowledge that, given the advice that I have quoted from two eminent experts, the threshold for referral has beyond doubt been crossed.

I hope that the Government will not oppose this Motion for political reasons. I hope that they will not seek to take advantage of the new-found situation in this House, since the formation of the coalition, in which they can use their majority simply to crush propositions that are inconvenient to them, rather than, in the tradition that makes this House so valuable, respect the arguments and respect the rights of minorities. Your Lordships’ House is not a House where machine politics should operate. It would reflect poorly on us and it would certainly cause bad feeling outside if the House were to dismiss without fair and proper consideration the arguments put forward in these opinions.

In the matter that we are dealing with now, the responsibilities of us all are as parliamentarians. We are dealing not with the merits of the Government’s policy but with the status of the Bill and with the responsibility of Parliament to ensure that it is scrutinised according to the correct procedure. It may be that the Examiners will, after due consideration, endorse the Government’s view of the Bill’s status, but we owe it to those whose lives and fortunes will be affected by the Bill to ensure that we do indeed follow the correct procedure. I beg to move.”

Had I been there the Government would have been defeated by five.

Baroness Jan Royall re-elected as Leader of the Labour Peers

Baroness Jan Royall has been re-elected unopposed as Leader of the Labour Peers (and therefore has been confirmed as Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords).

Lord Philip Hunt has been re-elected unopposed as Deputy leader.

There is to be a ballot amongst Labour Peers for the position of Labour Chief Whip in the House of Lords.