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Archive for February, 2011

Tuesday
Feb 15,2011

The House of Commons is currently debating the amendments made to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill by the House of Lords.  The Government is intending to oppose virtually all of the changes on which they were defeated in the Lords – in particular, the 40% threshhold on the AV referendum and the 7.5% tolerance around the electoral quota.

So what are they ready to concede?

The Deputy Prime Minister has tabled an amendment to the Lords change to the Bill (originally proposed by Lord Fowler) that set out the principle that it would be wrong for any Parliamentary constituency to link the Isle of Wight to the English mainland.  Norman Fowler’s amendment proposed a single (over-size) constituency for the Isle of Wight.

And the Deputy Prime Minister’s concession?

There should be two (under-size) constituencies for the Isle of Wight.

Two safe Coalition seats rather than one*.

Did anyone ever doubt that this Bill was about gerrymandering?

*At the last General Election the combined Conservative and LibDem vote amounted to 78.3%.

Tuesday
Feb 15,2011

I have tabled a Parliamentary Question to ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration have Ministers given to mitigating the security issues surrounding the location in St Pancras of the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation and its laboratories that will be working with highly dangerous viruses?

This follows reports that:

“One of Britain’s leading bio-scientists .. [has] .. voiced fears over the safety of a £600 million virus “superlab” planned for St Pancras.

Professor Guy Dodson, who has worked at Oxford University, warned that the 14-storey, maximum security site containing viruses including malaria, tuberculosis, bird and swine flu, cancer cells and HIV would need to be “bulletproof”.”

UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation is to be built in London on the redeveloped St Pancras site.  In principle, this is excellent news.  However, the laboratory could be a magnet for terrorists.

As Guy Dodson comments:

 “The issues are if you have an earthquake, some idiot lets a bomb off or there’s a fire at St Pancras International.

“These are extreme examples but you don’t want that building to suffer a serious knockabout when you’ve got this material in there.

“The unspoken concern is terrorism because it’s a natural target. We need to know the capacity they have for dealing with the unexpected.”

The plans have been approved by Mayor Boris Johnson – so that’s all right then ……

Tuesday
Feb 15,2011

There is an arrogance about the Conservative Coalition, especially in respect of those who will bear the brunt of their policies. 

There could not be a starker illustration of this than the story in today’s Sun, “Heroes sacked by email“, which reports that:

“TROOPS were stunned yesterday after 38 senior heroes including one on the Afghan front line were crassly sacked by EMAIL.

The shocked men – all warrant officers – were informed they were victims of defence cuts.

Each got an impersonal message advising them: “Start planning your resettlement.” One stormed: “I thought it was a joke.”

The MoD was branded “shameful and callous”.

The group, who all have more than 20 years’ service, includes a Royal Tank Regiment veteran unceremoniously dumped while serving on the frontline in Afghanistan. Another – who risked his life doing FIVE warzone tours – said: “It was out of the blue. We’re disgusted.

“Essentially 38 of us are ‘sacked’ having spent our lives in the military. It’s not good – five tours of duty and sacked by email.””

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy has responded to the news, saying the soldiers had been treated in a “callous, cold-hearted, soulless” way and called on ministers to take responsibility for the incident.

“We can’t halt every redundancy in the armed forces, but this is no way to treat men and women who have served their country fearlessly for so many years,” he told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“Sacking anybody by e-mail is wrong, but sacking our armed forces in this way is absolutely unforgivable.”

Is he bothered?

Are they bothered?

Expect more of this.

Wednesday
Feb 9,2011

It is the Third Day of the Report Stage consideration by the House of  Lords of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill and the Government has suffered a serious defeat in another record turnout of Peers.

The issue was an amendment proposed by Lord Pannick, a Cross-bench Peer, that has the effect of allowing the Boundary Commission in exceptional circumstances to permit a constituency to be as much as 7.5% above or below the population quota if that is necessary to create a viable, ie workable, constituency.

He was supported – inter alia – by speeches from two former Secretaries to the Cabinet, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster and Lord Butler of Brockwell.

The result of the vote was 275 in favour of the amendment and 257 against – a total vote of 532, exceeding yesterday’s record.  82 Cross-benchers and unalligned Peers supported the amendment (with 11 against).  Five Bishops also voted – splitting three to two in favour of the amendment.

The Third Reading of the Bill is now likely to take place on Monday – another breach of the Conventions of the House, as the normal procedures would have the Third Reading at least a day later.  The House of Commons will consider the Lords amendments on Tuesday and, assuming the Government reverses the Lords’ changes, the Bill will be back in the Lords next Wednesday.  And then, potentially we are into “ping pong” …..

Tuesday
Feb 8,2011

It is the Second Day of the Report Stage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.  Yesterday, in a very tight vote the Government was defeated by 219 votes to 218 on the issue of whether there should be a minimum turnout requirement before the referendum vote on the alternative vote would be binding.

There has just been another very close vote with an even higher turnout of members of the House of Lords.  This time the Government won by 266 votes to 262.  The issue was whether there should be local inquiries into the recommendation of the Boundary Commission on particular constituency boundaries.  In the Committee Stage the Government had promised that they would bring forward their own amendments to make this possible (this was the offer that helped bring the Committee Stage proceedings to a close after seventeen days of detailed consideration of the Bill).  In the event, the Government’s proposals were so weak and watery (it in practice only provides for the Boundary Commission to hold some public hearings) that there was a widespread feeling in the House that the Government had reneged on their promise – hence the amendment to strengthen the arrangements which was in the end narrowly defeated.

What is notable is the size of the vote: 528 members of the House voted (more than two-thirds of the House).  This is almost certainly the highest number of votes cast since most of  the hereditary peers lost their right to sit and vote in the House.  And it approaches the  record vote on the ratification of the Maastrict treaty, when a total of 621 Members voted in a division on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill on 14 July 1993 – and that was the largest recorded vote since 1831.

The figures, of course, reflect the wholesale creation of new members of the House of Lords since the Conservative Coalition was formed last May – 88 so far with more to come.

Friday
Feb 4,2011

The procedural truce in the House of Lords looks likely to break down big time next week.

Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith, 2nd Baron Strathclyde and Leader of the House of Lords, has tabled the Report Stage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of next week. 

Those who thought that it was all over bar the shouting when the Committee Stage consideration finally finished after seventeen days (and nights) of discussion last Wednesday are in for a rude awakening (if that is the right word).

With a cavalier disregard for the conventions of the House, Lord Strathclyde has pressed ahead with the Report Stage immediately.  He has also announced that the Third Reading is scheduled to take place on Monday 14th February.

The Companion to the Standing Orders is very clear on the conventions that should have been followed:

“8.03  The following minimum intervals between stages of public bills should be observed:

(a)  two weekends between the first reading (whether of a new bill or one brought from the Commons) and the debate on second reading;

(b)  fourteen days between second reading and the start of the committee stage;

(c)  on all bills of considerable length and complexity, fourteen days between the end of the committee stage and the start of the report stage;

(d)  three sitting days between the end of the report stage and third reading.”

There is no doubt that, at 305 pages and dealing with the kind of constitutional issues which are at its heart, the PVSC Bill meets the test of ‘considerable length and complexity’.

The purpose of these rules is not to delay governments trying to get legislation through the House. The purpose of these rules is to give Members of the House, as well as all sides of the House and all Members particularly interested in a piece of legislation, time to consider the issues raised at the committee stage, and to draw up amendments to bring issues to closure at report stage.

So that is TWO breaches of the conventions and rules of the House.

In addition, it is customary not to schedule business on a particular Bill on consecutive days without the agreement of the Opposition – particularly if the sessions concerned are likely to be lengthy.

And there is still a lot to do on this Bill.

Again the normal custom is that a Bill’s Report stage takes around half the length of the Committee stage (reflecting the fact that some issues will have been resoved during the Committee stage or because the Government has agreed to take on board some of the concerns about the Bill).  On that analysis, it might have been expected that at least six (and probably eight) days would have been scheduled for the Report stage – yet only three days are planned.

It has been estimated that between twenty or thirty substantive issues still need to be resolved.

These include such matters as:

  • the date of the AV referendum (is it right that it should coincide with local government elections in some parts of England, but not all, and should it take place on the same day as elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections – all scheduled for 5th May this year);
  • what limits should there be on spending by the “Yes” and “No” campaigns;
  • should there be a threshold in the turnout required for a valid “yes” vote (as Mayor Boris Johnson is proposing for strike ballots);
  • should the referendum be compulsory or advisory (previous referenda have always been advisory – allowing Parliament to legislate after a “Yes” vote on the details of Scottish and Welsh devolution, the powers of the London Mayor etc – this one would be compulsory, so a “Yes” vote will mean that the system will automatically change without further discussion on the detail);
  • what flexibility (if any) should the Boundary Commission have on the strict numerical size of electoral constituencies for the House of Commons;
  • what is the correct size of the House of Commons (it is currently 650, the Conservative manifesto proposed 585, the LibDem manifesto suggested 500, the Bill fixes the number at 600 without any rationale – leaving the Government open to the accusation that the number has been chosen because it inflicts more net damage on the Labour Party than any of the other options);
  • should constituency boundaries cross county boundaries;
  • should the same rules apply in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland as in England;
  • what should be done about those areas of the country where there is clear evidence that the electoral register under records those eligible to vote;
  • should there be an adjustment in the number of Ministers in the House of Commons to avoid the Executive having even greater domination there with a reduced number of back-bench MPs;
  • when should the first boundary review on the new rules be completed;
  • will there be a proper provision for public inquiries into contested boundary reviews (the Government has promised that there will be some changes to the Bill to allow this, but the draft amendment has not yet been tabled – this was the concession that helped produce an armistice between the Government and Opposition at the end of the Committee stage); and
  • what should be the frequency of constituency boundary reviews (the Bill proposes that this should happen every five years or once each Parliament – meaning that MPs will continually be fighting each other for the right to contest particular seats).

These are all substantive and serious issues.  They will all take time for debate.  Even if each of the issues identified was debated for only an hour and a half (and it is unlikely to be any less) and then voted on (which takes another fifteen minutes or so), twenty to thirty substantive issues will take around 40  to 60 hours to deal with – suggesting that each of the three days business will continue till around 4am (if there are only twenty issues) or 11am (for thirty issues).

And that is without anyone trying to waste time or delay the progress of the Bill.

This is not a sensible way of carrying out the proper scrutiny that a constitutional Bill such as this deserves.

And this Bill needs such scrutiny.  After all this Bill has had no green paper preceding it, no white paper preceding it, no pre-legislative scrutiny, and no public consultation – yet it is a piece of legislation which will decisively change some of the fundamental elements of our constitutional and Parliamentary arrangements.

Thursday
Feb 3,2011

United States citizens have been warned not to use public transport in Britain, following a new warning from the State Department.  This is presumably a response to the raising of the threat level to “SEVERE” by the UK Government last month.

It will be interesting to see whether American tourists take any notice and whether it eases the problems of overcrowding on London Underground and on London’s buses.

Thursday
Feb 3,2011

People go in to public life for many reasons.

A few simply want to BE something – to be called “Councillor” or have “AM” or “MP” after their name.

Most in my experience want to make a difference – to improve public services or make them more accountable; to help those who are disadvantaged; or to promote other interests they regard as important (I will resist the temptation to talk about ex-Bullingdon Club members promoting their class interests).

The rewards and gratification for most public service are pretty small.

I was interested therefore to hear one of my MPA colleagues (a Member of the London Assembly as it happens) purring by the coffee machine just before the start of an MPA Sub-Committee.  I realised this could not be in anticipation of a riveting discussion on a particularly technical business case that was the main item on the agenda of the meeting, nor was it likely to be the prospect of the machine-generated coffee.

What had produced this reaction?

She told me it was the “sexually suggestive” description of the Sumatran coffee option – “dark roast, sweet and chocolatey”.

She had a happy smile on her face ….

…. whatever floats your boat.

Wednesday
Feb 2,2011

I don’t claim to be at the cutting edge of new technology, but I am aware that I am more up-to-date on these matters than some of my House of Lords colleagues.

It was with some trepidation therefore that I picked up the recommendations of that venerable and important body the House of Lords Administration and Works Committee on “Use of Electronic Devices in the House.”  The Committee chaired by the Lord Chairman of Committees, the Lord Brabazon of Tara, has noted that:

“the rules regulating the use of mobile telephones and other electronic devices … in the House are incomplete, outdated and contradictory”

and accordingly is recommending to the full House that the rules be revised and updated.

Most of what they are recommending makes sense and is sensible.  For example, they are proposing that:

“Hand-held electronic devices (not laptops*) may be used in the Chamber and Grand Committee provided that they are silent, but repeated use of such devices is discouraged. Members making speeches may refer to electronic devices in place of paper speaking notes, subject to the existing rule against reading speeches.”

But one of their recommendations seems harder to follow and will, I would assume, be rather unenforceable.  They are suggesting that:

“Electronic devices may not be used to send or receive messages for use in proceedings. They may be used to access Parliamentary papers and other documents which are clearly and closely relevant to the business before the House or Grand Committee, but not to search the Web for information for use in debate which is not generally available to participants by other means.”

So Twittering from the Chamber is presumably permitted because the messages are “not for use in the proceedings”. 

Accessing Parliamentary papers – presumably via the Parliamentary web-site – will be allowed, but a Google search forbidden because this may yield “information … not generally available to participants by other means”.  I am not sure exactly how this is meant to work or even why it is a distinction worth making.  Perhaps I am missing something.

*And another thing: does the prohibition on laptops preclude netbooks and does the approval of hand-held devices encompass iPads and Kindles?

Wednesday
Feb 2,2011

Having been around during the time of rate-capping and the advent of the Poll Tax, Luke Akehurst’s warning/reminder, “Exposing the Far Left”, should be taken seriously.

As he puts it:

“There are people who really want to mess up the campaign against the Tory-led government’s cuts. They aren’t all in the Tory and Lib Dem parties. Some of them are pretending to be on our side. …

The canary in the coal mine that always tells you the far left are up to something is the student movement. Why? Because it’s full of idealistic young people who are enthusiastic about politics and naive about the motives of people selling them political newspapers. That makes it the ideal recruiting ground for the 57 varieties of ultra-left faction. …

This reached its logical conclusion with the obscene spectacle in Manchester on Saturday of Socialist Workers’ Party and other far-left students throwing eggs at Labour’s Tony Lloyd MP when he tried to speak in support of students, and chasing moderate NUS President Aaron Porter down the street having interrupted his speech with chants of ‘you’re a Tory too…’ and according to the Union of Jewish Students, the anti-Semitic variant ‘Tory Jew Scum…’. Pause for a moment and digest this. What kind of leftwinger shouts antisemitic abuse at anyone? What kind of leftwinger throws eggs and shouts abuse at the people on the same side as them in the campaign against the tuition fee hike and the EMA cuts because they are not revolutionary enough? …

The student movement is just the start though. Local government is the next key target, as it was in the 1980s, as councils are about to set their budgets. Activists were dishing out leaflets outside Hackney town hall (where I’m a councillor) on Wednesday night, three quarters of the text of which attacked in aggressive and personally vitriolic terms not David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne or Eric Pickles but Labour mayor of Hackney Jules Pipe.

In the ‘through the looking glass’ world of the ultra-left, Labour councils are not the victims of Eric Pickles’ massive cuts; we are the villains ‘implementing’ them. We are to be harangued, insulted and abused until we agree to replicate the 1985 ratecapping rebellion by setting illegal unbalanced budgets. That won’t stop any cuts – they’ll just be made by officials instead, but with no Labour input into deciding which services to protect. But the people campaigning for it think it would ‘send a signal’ to government. Actually the signal it would send is that we were completely irresponsible. Eric Pickles is laughing all the way to the polling station about this because his strategy of localising the blame for cuts on councils is being implemented by the far left. It’s a classic Trotskyite transitional demand – call for councils to do something they can’t – spend money the government hasn’t given them – then when this doesn’t happen tell people revolution is the only solution. A tactical objective for the far left is to get left Labour councillors to break the whip and get themselves expelled from their Labour groups – thereby fracturing the unity of the Labour party and creating political martyrs.

On Saturday in Hackney as Labour members used street stalls to promote the 26 March TUC national demo against the cuts and explain their impact on one of the UK’s most deprived areas, the SWP counter-leafleted the people our members were talking to, attacking the Labour council and saying there was no difference between Labour’s deficit-reduction plans and the Tories’ (surely halving the deficit not eliminating it is a difference of 50 per cent, quite aside from the difference in emphasis between the parties on the balance of cuts versus tax increases?). Another unachievable transitional demand – call for Labour to support having no cuts at all.

In weeks to come the SWP have announced they will be turning up en masse at individual Labour councillors’ advice surgeries, effectively stopping residents with real problems seeing their councillors, and creating a very intimidating atmosphere.”