We know the Conservative Coalition doesn’t care about Britain’s place in the world – that’s why they are cutting the BBC World Service

Conservatives don’t like Europe.  In fact, they don’t like abroad generally.  However, it is also clear that they don’t care about Britain’s place in the world.

Hence, the cuts in the BBC World Service.

Jeremy Paxman in today’s Guardian sums it up:

    “I don’t suppose there are many heroes who wear a cardigan and cords. But that’s how I imagine the BBC World Service, an ageing uncle who’s seen it all. It has a style that makes understatement seem like flamboyance.

    Yet I have never, ever, anywhere in the world, heard anyone say a bad word about the World Service. It is more trusted than its American equivalents, more lively than Deutsche Welle, more imitated (unsuccessfully) than any of them. It has a team of steady, dedicated and resourceful correspondents stationed around the world. Their probity is beyond doubt. Its television service puts its poverty on proud display every day.

    How many people will be going to the barricades to save the Macedonian or Albanian services and the others now to be cut? Not many – most of us have no idea what they’re saying. And as for the Caribbean, that’s presumably a decision to leave the former colonies to the mercy of the American networks.

    No journalistic service has a God-given right to exist for ever. But we are dealing here with something more. How many millions listen to the World Service in some form? A mere 241 million people, they say – the figures are so vast as not to mean very much. But it must be many more than will ever clap eyes on William Hague, listen to an ambassadorial speech or attend a Foreign Office leadership conference.

    The World Service’s misfortune was to be controlled by the Foreign Office. I can imagine the scene when the menacing note comes across from the Treasury. “Good Heavens!” says the Permanent Secretary, “they want us to save money. Anyone got any ideas?” No one suggests abandoning the pile on the Faubourg Saint-Honoré or recognising that perhaps the whole diplomatic service belongs to the days before email and the internet – the telephone even. Then a voice pipes up, “I know, why don’t we hand the BBC World Service over to the BBC and make it their problem?” “Excellent,” says the PS. “Shall we have a cup of tea?””

Police officers killed on duty – the grim lessons from the USA

In 2010, five UK police officers lost their lives in the course of duty or on their way to or from being on duty.  All five died as a result of road traffic accidents.  They are remembered here.

Contrast this with the experience in the United States:

“In just twenty-four hours, at least eleven cops were shot around the country. The most recent incident at a fugitive’s house in St. Petersburg, Florida, left two officers dead and a U.S. marshal wounded Monday. Hours earlier, an Oregon officer was critically wounded after being shot multiple times during a traffic stop. Monday’s violence followed a bloody Sunday that left an officer in Indianapolis critically wounded during a traffic stop shooting, four officers in Indianapolis wounded after a gunman opened fire in a precinct and two more officers in Washington wounded in a shootout in a Walmart parking lot.”

According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, over the last ten years there have been on average 163 US police officers killed each year, 16,041 injured and 58,821 assaulted. 

Thank goodness the UK is so much less violent than the US.

Deputy Mayor auditions for position of New Year Grinch

The Metropolitan Police Authority is in session and Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse AM DCiC* and Putative Deputy MOPC** (pronounced “Mopsy”) is in the Chair.

As usual the meeting began with the grandly-titled Chairman’s Update – a list of items of good news and congratulations with a description of the last few weeks in the life of Kit Malthouse.

Normally, the Putative Deputy MOPC reads his report in a monotone with his head down – the contents already having been circulated.

This meeting paragraph 5 – with slightly strange grammar – recorded:

“thanks goes (go?  and to whom?) for the smooth policing of the New Year’s Eve celebrations in London and fireworks on the Thames, which involved the deployment of 3,200 officers and 68 police staff.”

However, there was a deviation from the circulated text and the celebrations were described as:

“increasingly burdensome”.

So is this a bid to tell Mayor Boris Johnson that at the end of this year there should be no more “panem et circenses” (“bread and circuses”, Juvenal cAD100)?

Apparently, the Putative Deputy MOPC wants to enter the 2012 London Elections as the “Grinch Who Stole New Year“.


*Dog Catcher in Chief

**Mayor’s Office of Policing and Crime

The importance of rivers in the debate on constituency boundaries

It is Day 13 of the Committee Stage of the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill.

Here is my contribution to a debate on whether constituency boundaries should cross rivers like the Thames, the Mersey or the Tyne:

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, we owe my noble friend Lady Morgan of Huyton a debt of gratitude for introducing this group of amendments which are extremely important in the context of this Bill. First, they raise the issue of geography, and we have already had some debate on that on the amendment that was passed in respect of the Isle of Wight. Secondly, they raise the question of the way in which communities are divided. This group of amendments is about division by rivers. I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, said about rivers uniting and driving communities, but the reality is that rivers do divide communities, and communities on one side or other of a river feel very differently from those on the other side. My noble friend Lady Armstrong of Hill Top has just articulated it supremely well. If we believe in the principle of representation whereby individuals are elected to the other place on the basis of a community of feeling and are able to represent that community of feeling, that should be taken into account as part of these discussions.

I know that the Government are committed to the concept of fairness. There are other ways of achieving fairness. For example, I fail to understand why it is a given that when Members of the House of Commons go through the Division Lobby and are ticked off in the way that we are familiar with in this House, they each count for one vote. If you really want to have equality of representation, have them have a statistic associated with them so that one gets 1.1 votes and one gets 0.9 votes and, at a stroke, you have solved the problem that the Government claim they are trying to deal with. I am not suggesting that that is a solution that we should follow, but it is a much easier way than the many hours that this House has debated this issue.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: Does the noble Lord recollect the myth that when the Habeas Corpus Act was passed, it did not achieve a majority but fat men were counted as two? Some of us would have served the cause of liberty magnificently. 

Lord Harris of Haringey: I am particularly grateful for that intervention because I can see the value of such an analysis, though I must admit that I was not previously aware of that historical fact.

What is it that creates a community? Do we value community in terms of representation? I should have thought that for the quality of our democracy we want to value the quality of representation and the way in which there is a link between the community that elects a representative and that representative. It is interesting that if you look at constituencies and the history of where there has been division by a river, you see this problem. For example, my noble friend Lady Morgan of Huyton talked about the Mersey. I have a report from a Boundary Commission inquiry into that issue. The Boundary Commission clearly wished to cross the Mersey on that occasion but was overwhelmed by the nature of the representations. It stated that,

“local opposition is a factor to be weighed, but it cannot of itself be decisive”.

It went on to say that,

“the unusual factor in this case, is this: opposition to the proposed cross-Mersey constituency is voiced by all political interests as well as a number of individuals without any party political affiliation. The Commission will know whether such practically universal opposition to an aspect of their Provisional Recommendations is unique. However, if not unique, I suspect it is something which is rarely found”.

Another inquiry report looked at crossing the Clyde. The inspector concluded,

“that strong feeling exists on this issue on both sides of the Clyde and that none of it is supportive of the Boundary Commission’s proposal for a river-spanning constituency … It is I think significant that their opposition does not appear to have a connection with any party political advantage that might be derived from having or not having a cross-river constituency but it is based purely on a conviction from their local understanding that an attempt to span the Clyde is quite simply wrong for the area”.

The report went on to talk about the differences between the communities.

That is why we should recognise those considerations regarding the Bill. I particularly want to speak, but shall not speak at length, about Amendment 75ZB, which deals with constituencies not crossing the Thames. I appreciate that those who are not part of London may not realise that there are such strong feelings between the north and south of the city. I speak as someone who, although an unabashed north Londoner, has had the privilege of representing the whole of the city when I chaired the Association of London Government, now London Councils. I was very well aware of the strong feelings between the north and the south. It goes into every aspect of community life. A study published just a few weeks ago demonstrates—I think this is fascinating—that 54 per cent of Londoners living north of the River Thames never, not occasionally, but never, venture south for work or cultural pursuits. It is interesting that south Londoners are more likely to go north. I make no comments about the quality of life in south London or about whether anyone would wish to travel south. I have travelled south of the river on many occasions for cultural pursuits. However, it is interesting that more than half of north Londoners have never done so. If that does not indicate that there is a difference in terms of community feeling, then nothing does.

The same survey demonstrates some quite interesting findings about the different interests of north Londoners and south Londoners. I am a north Londoner, and 55 per cent of north Londoners rated eating out as one of their top three interests, followed by the visual arts and popular music. While eating out and visual arts also ranked highly for south Londoners, they were more likely to enjoy the capital’s performing arts, heritage, classical music and markets. Again, I make no judgment about that. The indication is that on these issues alone there is a distinction in the approach of north Londoners and south Londoners.

Where does this come from? In the 1850s, London was already the world’s wealthiest city, but that success had come at the expense of many of the people of London. Population growth and overcrowding had created a divided city, with Londoners living in separate worlds of rich and poor. Up to half of those born in the capital’s slums did not survive their first year. However, not only the poor died young; tuberculosis, smallpox, cholera and typhoid also killed the rich. The significant point was that London had failed to provide clean water, basic sanitation and housing for its growing population. In its analysis, the People’s City, the Museum of London stated:

“The deadly River Thames flowed like an open sewer through the heart of the city”.

That open sewer feeling is the reason why the divide is so deep and cultural between the different parts of the city.

Even more modern literature reflects this. Wise Children, the novel by Angela Carter, centres on a particular family and focuses on the distinctions between members of the family as represented by the physical divide of the River Thames. A very deep-seated difference exists between north Londoners and south Londoners.

If we are to have any concern whatever about the importance of geography and community to representation in Parliament, we have to take these issues into account. If the Government say that that would wreck the central purpose of the Bill of fair representation, I would ask two questions: first, will they consider an alternative which changes the value of the votes of Members at the other end of the Corridor; and, secondly, what is the value of fairer representation if you destroy the basis on which it rests in the communities that elect Members of Parliament?”

This sums up some of the nonsense about the Government’s Health and Social Care Bill

I picked up a copy of the mammoth Health and Social Care Bill yesterday afternoon, but have yet to digest its 353 pages what with Parliamentary Voting and Constituency Bill grinding on through much of the night.  However, I thought Paul Corrigan put his finger on the fundamental flaw in its central proposal:

According to the Government GPs aren’t up to buying flu vaccines, but they are up to buying everything else!

I might have missed something overnight, but I expected to wake up this morning to hear the Government extolling the capacity of GPs to commission the nation’s health care. It is after all their policy.

Instead I wake up to hear the Health Protection Agency saying why, for a variety of very plausible reasons, GPs do not have the capacity to buy the nation’s flu vaccine – and why they are almost certainly going to have their duty to buy the nations flu vaccine taken away. In future it will be done by the DH.

There are certainly good arguments for this, but presumably the Government also believes that it’s a good idea for doctors with much better local knowledge to buy the vaccine and not faceless bureaucrats at the DH.

The arguments for GP commissioning of NHS care are the same arguments in favour of GPs commissioning the flu vaccine.

The arguments against GP commissioning of NHS care are the same arguments against GPs commissioning the flu vaccine.

Somehow the Government finds itself arguing against itself on the very morning when the press is full of the Bill.

To say the least this is very odd.”

The Isle of Wight prompts a Government defeat in the Committee Stage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Lord Fowler has brought about a Government defeat in the Committee Stage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.  He moved an amendment that would add the Isle of Wight to the list of exemptions from the provisions of the Bill that redraw all the other constituency boundaries (the two exceptions in the Bill are the constituencies of Orkney and Shetland and of Na h-Eileanan an Iar).  He is a resident of the Isle of Wight and attracted support from a number of other Government supporters, including Lord Forsyth of Drumlean and Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay.

The argument for the amendment was that under the terms of the Bill the electorate of the Isle of Wight was too large to remain a single constituency as at present and would have to be split with at least one of the parts being linked to a section of the mainland of Southern England to make up two constituencies with the right  size of population.

Lord Fowler clearly had had discussions with the Government front-bench and, as a result, had expected the Government to offer to consider the matter positively.  In his opening speech he indicated that he would withdraw his amendment, if such an offer was forthcoming.  In the event, the Government realised that it had to stand firm.  If the principle of equal-sized constituencies is breached for the Isle of Wight, it will be difficult to avoid other areas getting treated differently.  So in his reply for the Government, Lord Wallace of Tankerness did not go anything like as far as Lord Fowler had expected.  A clearly irritated Lord Fowler then forced a division and the Government was defeated by 196 to 122.

This will present some problems for the Government ….

Sartorial standards are falling with the Government’s new peers

There has been a shocking deterioration in standards in the House of Lords with the recent infusion of new coalition-supporting Conservative peers.  One of them wandered in to the Chamber on Monday night/Tuesday morning WITHOUT A TIE and sat down on the red benches before he was pounced on by the doorkeepers and ushered out.  Now tonight, another new member sat on the red benches in the Chamber and TOOK OFF HIS SHOES.

What are things coming to (tongue firmly in right cheek)?

Another day on the legislative front-line with the Committee Stage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

It is 10.45pm and Day 11 of the Committee of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill has been under way for seven hours.  We are now on amendment 66ZB – the fourth amendment debated today.

The mood is better than during the all-night session earlier in the year and the average time spent per amendment has fallen as the Government hint at more flexibility both on the timetable and on one or two of the substantive issues.

However, the improved mood was nearly wrecked by Lord Thomas of Gresford who moved a closure motion on the first amendment being debated after a little more than ninety minutes of discussion.  Closure motions are normally extremely rare – the one used during the all-night session was the first time the procedure had been used for twenty years.  So the second use – less than forty-eight hours later – provoked a substantial discussion and debate.  The net result was an hour of voting (a closure motion, if pressed, automatically requires a division and, if passed, another division on the substantive issue follows immediately) and debate on whether the procedure had been righly used.  As the debate that was forcibly closed was drawing to an end anyway, the effect was probably to prolong rather than shorten proceedings.

Another own goal by the Government?

Despatches from the legislative front-line III: exploring the numerological implications of the number MPs during the Committee Stage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

The Bill proposes to cut the number of seats in the House of Commons from 650 to 600.  So far, no real explanation has been given as to why the number of 600 has been chosen.  One of the amendments we have debated in the last few hours suggested that the number of seats in the Commons should be 630 instead.

Here is my contribution:

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, when I saw the amendment on the Marshalled List, I thought that we would have a very different debate from the one that has emerged. Until the speeches of my noble friends Lady Nye and Lord Brooke, I thought that we were not going to touch on what I understood was the essence of the amendment that my noble friend Lady McDonagh has moved.

I had assumed that the amendment represented not a real belief on the part of my noble friend that 630 should be the proper size of the House of Commons but what, in a traditional Committee stage of a Bill, we would regard as a probing amendment. The reality is that we have yet to have exposed to us any rationale for the size of the House of Commons that the Bill proposes. My noble friend Lord Brooke referred to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who talked about plucking a nice round number out of the air. I remember also the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, telling us with enormous earnestness—and, I assume, absolute honesty—that no political considerations were contained in the figure that emerged. So what were the reasons for choosing 600 as opposed to 650, 630, 575 or 585?

I was tempted to say that there was some sort of arcane numerology about this. Noble Lords will be aware that 650 is the product of three prime numbers: two, five squaredand 13; 630 is of course the product of four prime numbers: two, three squared, five and seven. I defy anyone to find a similar formulation or number that involves five prime numbers. Maybe my noble friend Lord Winston, or some such person could come up with something.

Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke: Perhaps I could postulate another figure, given the nature of the debate. Could we maybe go for 666?

Lord Harris of Haringey: It is interesting that the noble Baroness suggests that. When I looked in more detail at the combinations of prime numbers, I was going to say that perhaps the figure of 600 was chosen because it was a round number and that it would be very different from choosing 666, which is the mark of the beast, which no doubt noble Lords opposite would not have wished to use.

Lord Snape: As the mover of the next amendment, let me just assure my noble friend that there will be no fancy mathematics from me.

Lord Harris of Haringey: I would expect nothing less.

However, 640 has the virtue of being the product of only two prime numbers: two to the power of seven and five, as I am sure the noble Lord is well aware. Actually, it is interesting that you could choose a number that is simply one prime number—I have not done the analysis of to which they will be—but there is a comparatively small number of options that we have considered that are the product of two prime numbers.

I do not believe that that was the motivating factor in the Government choosing that figure, but the people of this country have a right to know what were the determining factors for the choice. Essentially, we have two options. One is that it is a political fix, as a number of noble Lords have suggested, but the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, has assured us that that is not the case. What is the answer? Has the number been entirely been plucked out of the air, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally perhaps suggested? If so, that is an extraordinary way of choosing the size of the elected House of Commons. It is bizarre. Are we being told that the only two possible reasons why 600 has emerged as the figure is either a crude political fix or a random number plucked out of the air?

I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, would not be party to a crude political fix, nor do I believe that he would treat the country with such contempt as simply to allow a number to be plucked out of the air. There must be a rationale, so why is that not being shared with your Lordships in this House or with the country? What exactly are the arguments? In the absence of being given a convincing explanation that is not numerology or a number that seemed nice—a number that is less than 650 but a bit more than any number that we have previously mentioned in the run-up to the election, which may be the way that these things were done—I begin to believe that perhaps there was some political undercurrent in choosing the number 600.

I want to hear the noble Lord, Lord McNally, reaffirm that there have been no political calculations of that sort. I want him to say that none of the special advisers supporting Ministers involved in the decision have been exchanging e-mails on the subject of what will be the political consequence of choosing 600 as opposed to 585 or 650. Let the noble Lord make the assurance that there are no e-mails between special advisers, that there have been no conversations with Ministers and that work in the political parties has not been done—or, if it has been done, that it has not been shared with those who have been making the decisions.

It cuts no ice if we are being told that the number of 600 has been arrived at for no reason whatsoever. Frankly, we will believe that it was political chicanery. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, will have to work very hard to convince us otherwise and that there are not smoking e-mails or smoking correspondence somewhere that demonstrate that that was the motivation driving the Government to the figure that has been chosen.”

Despatches from the legislative front-line II: hour 14 on day 9 of the Committee Stage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

It is 5.45am and the House of Lords has been sitting since 2.15pm yesterday.  It is still Monday here.

The House is now debating the fourth amendment on today’s (Monday’s) marshalled list.  There have been four votes so far.  Two on motions from the Opposition to adjourn (the Conservatives and the LibDems voted to carry on). 

One was on a closure motion – an extremely rarely used procedure – which required the Lord Speaker to say:

“I am instructed by order of the House to say that the motion ‘That the Question be now put’ is considered to be a most exceptional procedure and the House will not accept it save in circumstances where it is felt to be the only means of ensuring the proper conduct of the business of the House; further, if a member who seeks to move it persists in his intention, the practice of the House is that the Question on the motion is put without debate”.

This had the effect of curtailing the debate on that amendment leading to a vote on the amendment, which the Government won.  However, the inevitable consequence of the procedural manouevre was that the debate on the following amendment took much longer.

The Government have not yet learned that every time they use bullying tactics to restrict debate, Opposition peers will redouble their efforts to scrutinise the Bill properly.