Lord Toby Harris Logo

Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

Saturday
Jan 12,2013

Nicholas Watt in today’s Guardian has a fascinating insight into the dilemma facing David Cameron as he contemplates what he will say in his long-awaited speech on Europe or whether he can put it off yet again:

“Over the Christmas break William Hague dusted off a sacred text that has served as the lodestar for British Eurosceptics over the last quarter of a century: Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech of 1988.

The foreign secretary thought that in preparation for David Cameron’s most important speech on Europe later this month, it would be wise to remind himself how Thatcher memorably set herself against a “European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels”.

As officials and ministers chewed over Thatcher’s speech they reached a rather startling conclusion. Were Cameron to deliver such a “pinko and pro-European” speech, in the words of one source, at least 25 anti-EU Conservative MPs would walk out of the party.

Eurosceptics often forget that Thatcher balanced her warnings of the dangers of a European super-state with a staunch defence of Britain’s place at the heart of the EU. “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European community,” she said. “Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the community.””

The real problem for Cameron is that there is now such a gap between what any sensible British Prime Minister might say about the country’s relationship with our European allies and partners and what the backbenchers on whom he has to rely believe. In practice, the gulf is unbridgeable. A fantasy that is rooted in a century-old vision of the United Kingdom as a world power straddling the Atlantic with a political and economic empire stretching round the globe is frankly incompatible with the realities of the twenty-first century.

It would be tempting to sit back and watch the fireworks as the Tory (and Coalition) meltdown unfolds, but the consequences for the country’s future are really too serious for that.

Thursday
Nov 15,2012

Last Friday there was a debate in the House of Lords on the Second Reading of a Private Members Bill introduced by Baroness Howe of Idlicote on Online Safety with particular emphasis on the protection of children.  The Bill would have the effect of requiring internet safety providers ansd mobile phone operators to provide an internet service without access to pornography (although adult subscribers would be able to opt in to receive adult material).

The Bill was welcomed by virtually every speaker from all parts of the House (although reservations were expressed by one Conservative and one LibDem peer).  The Minister (Viscount Younger of Leckie), however, declined to say whether the Government supported the principle of the Bill (ie of protecting children from adult content online) and said that such matters were the responsibility of parents, even though many parents are far less technologically adept than their children.

A flavour of the Minister’s equivocation is given by these exchanges from the closing section of his speech:

Viscount Younger of Leckie:  I realise that many questions have come out of this interesting debate. If I have not been able to answer any, particularly on age verification, I will certainly make it a point to reply to noble Lords.

Baroness Thornton: The Minister mentioned age verification, and he prayed in aid the totally inadequate self-regulatory proposals that have been proven not to work. They are not working and we have an increasing problem. Will the Minister confirm that both the Byron report and the Bailey report recommended the use of age verification to block adult content on the internet?

Viscount Younger of Leckie: I can give the briefest of answers in the time available on age verification. It is an important issue. However, I would make a distinction between age verification in terms of the gambling sites, which the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, mentioned. My understanding is that with gambling sites there is a clear distinction at the age of 18. Material for the over-18s is pin-protected. Taking our view that parents would in effect be in control, parents would want to set a range of controls appropriate for their children, which may be different for a five year-old and a 15 year-old.

I started by thanking the noble Baroness for giving us the opportunity to debate these issues today and I close by doing the same.

Lord Harris of Haringey: I am sorry because I realise the Minister is trying to close his remarks. But I am trying to understand the answer that he has just given my noble friend. Is he in essence saying that the Government are disregarding the recommendations from those two reports because the age verification used for gambling sites kicks in only at 18? The point is that they are saying that age verification is an important mechanism. We have the evidence from the gambling sites that age verification is possible and can work. Why is it not possible to put the two things together and introduce age verification structures that may kick in at younger ages?

Viscount Younger of Leckie: I note the noble Lord’s comment but the issue of age verification is more complicated than at first it appears. We need more time to discuss this. The best thing for me to do is to get back to the noble Lord and other noble Lords who have raised this particular issue with some answers.

Technology changes rapidly and legislation does not. Industry is better placed than legislators to design the simple and effective tools that parents want, keeping pace with technology and the way that their children access the internet. But there is a role for government in setting an expectation, bringing the right people together and always pushing for more and better-

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass: I am sorry to intervene again, but it is necessary. Everything that the Minister appears to be telling us is unsatisfactory. If it is not possible for legislators to set standards, how will a mishmash of providers across the entire community come up with anything that is consistent and reliable? Will he at least tell us that?

Viscount Younger of Leckie: I can reassure the noble Lord that it is in their interests to bring themselves up to scratch in order to be able to produce online safety for children. I know that this will not be a satisfactory answer for him, but our view is that it is the responsibility of parents, ultimately, to take this forward.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, why does the Minister say that it is in the interests of online suppliers to do this? It costs them money, they are in a highly competitive market and I suspect that a large number of them make money on the basis that they know perfectly well what some of their users want to access online and they simply want to increase the number of users. Why is it in their interests to introduce this without some form of regulation in the background?

Viscount Younger of Leckie: We are getting into quite a detailed discussion. My best response is that I look forward to discussing these issues in more depth in Committee.

In conclusion, the Government will continue to ensure that everyone is playing their part in keeping our children safe online.

Baroness Thornton: I am sorry, but before the noble Viscount sits down, I asked very specifically at least twice during my remarks whether the Government support the Bill in principle. The Minister has not answered that question. It is very important. It does not necessarily mean that the Minister wants the Bill, as it stands, to go forward, but the principle behind the Bill, that of protecting children from adult content online, seems obvious and I would really like to hear from the Government that that is the case. I do not wish to be rude to the Minister, but I wonder whether his speech was drafted in California or Whitehall.

Viscount Younger of Leckie: I do not have to say whether I agree with the Bill or not. I am simply summing up and giving my considered views on the issues that have been raised today.”

This morning I have signed a letter sent by Baroness Howe to the Prime Minister seeking urgent clarification of the Government’s position.  The letter says:

“We are writing to express concern about the Government’s policy on child internet safety following Friday’s debate on the Online Safety Bill in the House of Lords.

Just last month OFCOM published research highlighting the problems parents face in setting up their own filtering arrangements without government assistance, demonstrating what we already know, namely that parental controls are perceived to be  “a fairly complex area, and… choosing and installing them would therefore require a considerable investment of time and effort”.

In this context, we feel that the approach suggested by the Minister – who appeared to suggest that putting in place appropriate protections is a matter for parents who should be better educated – is less than helpful.

We were particularly concerned that the Minister dismissed an opt-in system, as if the Government had always been opposed to it. This is troubling for two reasons. First, the opt-in model provides parents with the greatest level of assistance with filtering, whilst not in any way taking their decision-making responsibility away. It actually empowers them. Second, the opt-in model has just been presented by the Government (further to your very welcome intervention after the publication of the Perry Report) as one of three options that it is considering for promoting child safety on-line in its summer Parental Internet Controls Consultation, to which it has yet to make a formal response.  This is particularly unfortunate not least because many parents engaged with the consultation believing opt-in to be a genuine option.

As the Government has yet to publish its response to the Parental Internet Controls Consultation, the good news is that there is still scope for the position presented on Friday to be reassessed in light of consultation submissions and indeed arguments made during the Second Reading debate.

We would urge you to do this and would be grateful for the opportunity for a meeting with you to discuss this matter further.

In closing a positive note from the Minister’s response is that he did not seem very sure about rejecting age-verification and said he would write to Peers. The truth is that without age-verification any form on online protection will be very weak. That age-verification is possible is clearly demonstrated by the regulatory frameworks surrounding online gambling and the sale of alcohol online which were stressed during the debate. Age-verification must be central to whatever regulatory framework the Government adopts.

We remain deeply concerned about this issue, as we know you are, and want to work with you to secure the most robust regulatory framework for our children. They deserve it.”

The letter is signed by three Labour, one Conservative, one LibDem and five independent/crossbench peers.

My speech in the debate was as folows:

“My Lords, the whole House is enormously grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, for bringing forward this timely and important Bill today. The degree of support that it seems to be finding from all quarters of your Lordships’ House is encouraging. Indeed, it is encouraging to see the range of speakers that we have today. That fact alone should send a very clear message to the Government that they should no longer be dithering on these issues but moving to try to find some solutions. There is also a very clear message to the internet service providers that they, too, need to put their house in order and start to find the most appropriate technical solutions to these problems.

The only note of dissent so far has been from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. He seemed to make the point that the Bill would place too much of an onus on internet service providers, that this was not what they were good at, and that responsibility should essentially rest with parents. I hope that I have not misrepresented his argument too greatly. That is the standard defence that is heard in these arguments in all aspects: that the internet service providers are the mere conduit or the mere pipeline by which this stuff gets into people’s homes and that somehow, because they are merely the provider of the pipe, they are not responsible for anything that flows through it. To argue that they therefore have no responsibility is rather like saying that water companies have no responsibility for purifying the water that they deliver, because their main purpose-the thing that they are good at-is providing pipes. Actually, they are not that good at that either, given the level of leaks. We do not accept that argument. We say that there is a responsibility on the providers of the pipeline to ensure that the water is pure and safe. That is essentially what the Bill is about.

Let us be clear. In this country, access to pornography is controlled offline. Therefore, there are limitations but they are not total limitations. However, it is made more difficult to access pornography in printed form, on DVD or whatever else. This legislation, should it be passed, will enable us to adjust to the fact that society increasingly exists online. It levels the playing field. It brings what is happening on the internet to the level of everything else, whether it is the top shelf of the newsagent or the age clarification which exists for cinema or DVD material.

We also know that Parliament has already legislated on the principle of age verification. The Gambling Act requires robust age verification. We have already tested this and Parliament has been through these arguments. As my noble friend Lady Dean said, the world did not end because age verification was required in that area-actually, she was applying it to another area, but the principle is that the world did not end. Age verification can be done and it now needs to be applied more generally. The solutions are available and workable. A number of sites notionally have an age restriction but the reality is that those restrictions are laughably weak. However, mechanisms are available that can make those age restrictions work. We should be encouraging that and this Bill is a step towards enabling that to happen.

The other change that has happened in recent years, which we have to accept, is that most children now spend much of their lives online. Most of their social transactions are mediated through internet-enabled mobile phones. The days when I recall one of my sons spending about three hours on the phone to arrange where he and his mates would meet no longer apply. Now, it is all done through the internet-through social media networks and so on. Ofcom’s survey in 2011 found that the average time spent online by five to 15 year-olds was 90 minutes per day. However, I suspect that that statistic is already out of date. It is probable that most five year-olds do not spend that amount of time online but that therefore means that the figure for slightly older age groups is much higher. The same survey found that many-in this instance, I think it was 41%-had been disturbed by something that they had found online and that a quarter had received unsolicited explicit material online.

That was a survey of a year ago. This is an area where things move rapidly and I suspect that we need to have in place legislation that is able to respond to these changes. Those figures will already be out of date. Even I was surprised to learn that 37% of three to four year-olds use the internet, but we have all heard stories of, and perhaps even seen, toddlers whose reaction to a picture in a printed book is to try to expand it with their fingers to make the image get larger. Again, I suspect we are simply not keeping up with the trends.

The reality, which again was found by the Ofcom survey, is that parents know less about the internet than their children do. I recall that when I was part of the sub-committee of the Science and Technology Committee that looked at personal internet security, we were told repeatedly of parents who could not quite manage the parental control software and so got their children to install it for them. That is hardly going to induce this sort of control and maybe they were not quite the responsible parents whom we are looking for, but that is the reality. The children are ahead of their parents in all this, so you have to make it easier for the parent who wants to be responsible. In my view, this is what this Bill is about: opt-in control through ISPs will limit unsolicited and inappropriate material getting into the home.

There is also a sort of golden age view, rather like the image of the family sitting around the dining table in their front room listening to the Home Service, which we were all brought up with in the 1950s. If it ever really was a golden age, the day of the concept of the computer being somewhere in the main room of the home, so that access to the internet is mediated through that process, has long passed. There are now so many internet-enabled devices in most homes that such access is not confined to one room where there may be adequate supervision.

Most children, as has already been said, will have internet-enabled mobile phones but most of the game machines that they use in their bedrooms are also now internet-enabled. There are Xboxes and Game Boys, and all these things are internet-enabled. Not all of them can receive images or material but that is the direction of travel. Children play games on them with people all over the world whom they do not know. That raises all sorts of interesting and wider child protection questions but it demonstrates why we have to be able to control the pipeline that delivers what comes into the home. It is not just about the main computer; it is about all the internet material that comes into the home, which is mediated through the channel of the internet service providers. However responsible parents may be, they can simply no longer actively monitor all the material that their children are accessing, even if such total monitoring would be wholly desirable.

There is of course a collective responsibility in all this. In that inquiry into personal internet security, we used the road safety analogy. We said that responsibility for safety on the roads was accepted and that there was: a personal responsibility as to how you were a road user, whether you were a driver or a pedestrian; a responsibility on the manufacturers of cars to make their cars more safe; a responsibility on local authorities to ensure that roads were well lit; and a responsibility to have roads that were well maintained. All that was with a view to delivering safety. We need to take that same approach to these sorts of issues.

Frankly, children need to be educated about internet safety at the same time as they receive road safety advice. We should be looking at them doing it at that young an age. Parents need to be enabled to be responsible through the measures contained in this Bill by being able to decide, in terms of the material that can come into the home, not to opt in to pornographic material. ISPs and equipment manufacturers need to make it easier for parents, and site owners need to have robust age verification.

This Bill is not a total solution to the problems of online safety but it is a step in the right direction, making it easier for everyone to play their part in securing online safety. I sincerely hope that the Government are going to be supportive and, if not, I hope that they are going to tell us how they will move forward on these issues.”

Wednesday
Nov 7,2012

There was an oral question in the House of Lords this afternoon on what measures the Government are proposing to take to recognise the contribution the Armed Forces made to the success of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.  (Apparently, those who helped with the Games will be receiving a commemorative coin.)

The House was unanimous in its support for the efforts and hard work of those servicemen and women who were drafted in at short notice to help with security at the Games.  However, inevitably the questioning turned to the failures of G4S which led to the army being called in in the first place.

And my colleague Lord Alan West broadened it to the dangers of privatisation in general:

Lord West of Spithead:My Lords, does the Minister not agree that this highlights the dangers of privatisation in certain areas that are fundamental to UK security? Does he not believe that the GOCO arrangements for the defence equipment and support areas might put us in a position where a failure by private enterprise actually puts service personnel and the security of the nation at risk?

Lord Astor of Hever:My Lords, I do not want to be tempted by the noble Lord to go down that route. We will be able to debate that when we get to that point.

My contribution was as follows:

Lord Harris of Haringey:Could the Minister tell us how many government contracts for infrastructure support are going to G4S in future, and whether the armed services will be ready to step in if need be in the event of G4S again failing to win a gold for logistics?

Lord Astor of Hever:My Lords, I am very sorry to disappoint the noble Lord but I am unable to answer that question.

And the Defence Minister was simply not prepared to answer …

Tuesday
Nov 6,2012

Last week I signed up to become an IWF Champion.  This means that I fully support the important work that the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) does to remove child sexual abuse images on the internet.

The IWF was established in 1996 by the internet industry to provide the UK internet Hotline for the public and IT professionals to report criminal online content in a secure and confidential way.

The IWF Hotline service can be used anonymously to report content within its remit. The IWF successfully works in partnership with the online industry, law enforcement, government, and international partners to minimise the availability of this content, specifically:

  • child sexual abuse images hosted anywhere in the world
  • criminally obscene adult content hosted in the UK
  • non-photographic child sexual abuse images hosted in the UK.

The IWF helps internet service providers and hosting companies to combat the abuse of their networks through its ‘notice and takedown’ service which alerts them to content within its remit so they can remove it from their networks. The IWF also provides unique data to law enforcement partners in the UK and abroad to assist investigations into the distributors. As a result of this approach the content the IWF deals with has been virtually removed from UK networks. As sexually abusive images of children are primarily hosted abroad, the IWF facilitates the industry-led initiative to protect users from inadvertent exposure to this content by blocking access to it through their provision of a dynamic list of child sexual abuse web pages.

I am proud to be associated with an organisation that has successfully:

  • Assessed over 390,000 web pages over the last 16 years;
  • Had 92,000 URLs removed for containing criminal content;
  • Reduced the proportion of child sexual abuse content hosted in the UK from 18% in 1996 down to less than 1% over the last decade;
  • Gets child sexual abuse content that is hosted in the UK removed within 60 minutes and cut the time taken to remove content hosted outside the UK by half to 11 days; and above all
  • By sharing intelligence with police, aided the identification and rescue of 12 children in the past two years.

 

 

Wednesday
Oct 17,2012

My colleague Lord Philip Hunt reported on the Labour Lords Blog that the new governance arrangements for the new Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) through which most local NHS money will be channelled are odd in the extreme, saying:

“A massive £60bn is to be entrusted to them despite very weak accountability and corporate governance structures supporting what are essentially a federation of GPs. Only two lay members will serve on the Board of each CCG so they will always be outnumbered by GPs who will have little or any accountability to the public. This is even more perverse given that the CCGs may make funding decisions which are advantageous to GPs.

Bizarrely, although the regulations we are debating in the Lords allow for a hospital doctor and a registered nurse to be appointed to the CCG Board, those employed by a local hospital are not. This is apparently because it would be a conflict of interest!”

Last night’s debate in the Lords on the Government regulations setting out how CCGs are to operate showed up the sheer absurdity of the arrangements and the normally-sensible Minister, Earl Howe, tied himself in knots trying to explain why certain categories of person were to be excluded from the Boards of CCGs and why it would NOT be a conflict of interest for GPs on the Boards to so arrange local services so that their practices benefitted.

I rather lost my temper when it was suggested by former Tory Health Minister, Baroness Cumberlege, that local councillors should in all cases be excluded from CCG Boards on the grounds that they would be incapable of making difficult decisions affecting their electorates (what does she think local councillors are having to do at the moment given the budget cuts that the Government has imposed on them?).

However, the debate also highlighted the absurdity of the Government’s proposals which would prevent someone being appointed to be a “lay member” of a CCG Board if they were employed by a local authority anywhere in the country; or – even more bizarrely – prevented someone who is a member (not even a governor) of a local NHS Trust, when in some areas every person who uses the local hospital is automatically enrolled as a member of the Trust!

You can read the full debate here and my rant was as follows:

“In this debate we are perhaps being asked to suspend our disbelief that the governance arrangements for the clinical commissioning groups make sense. We are being asked to suspend our belief on the question of whether pigs may fly. However, the extraordinary statement from the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, that somehow locally elected councillors are incapable of making decisions which affect the livelihoods of the populations that elect them is disgraceful.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I object to that. I said that they have a role on health and well-being boards, which is where the strategy is set out, and that is where the NHS, local authorities, Healthwatch and other organisations come together.

Lord Harris of Haringey: I understand that. My point is that the noble Baroness does not seem to understand that today, all over the country, locally elected councillors are making decisions about closures because they are having to balance the reductions in budgets that this Government are forcing on them and on their local communities. They are making those decisions on behalf of the people whom they represent. Why is it being said that somehow they have a conflict of interest which means that they are incapable of making decisions along with colleagues about health matters?

There are issues of principle here and issues of sheer practicality. The issue of principle concerns conflict of interest. The noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, has talked about conflict of interest. Perhaps we will also hear about that from the noble Earl in a minute. However, the biggest conflict of interest will be the fact that the primary care practitioners are key elements of the boards of CCGs’ governing bodies. They are not being excluded; it is just everyone else who is being excluded. Let us be clear about who is being excluded. It is not simply elected members but any employee not just of the local authority in the CCG’s area but of any local authority in the country. Therefore, any person who, under paragraph (4) of Regulation 12, the CCG feels has knowledge about the area and who does not have the misfortune of being an elected councillor but does have the misfortune of being a part-time employee of a neighbouring local authority is exempt.

When the Minister replies, I should like him to explain to us why every single employee of every single local authority in the country is being excluded from participation in CCGs. While he is about it and we are talking about conflicts of interest, we have already heard the point made by my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath that any person who has been public-spirited enough to decide to become-and frankly it is a fairly meaningless undertaking-a member of a local foundation trust or a local NHS trust is also excluded from membership of a CCG. Again, what is the point of that? It is being said that any person who is public-spirited enough already to have had some engagement with the local NHS is not allowed to sit on the board of the CCG.

This is frankly fatuous. You have ended up with a situation in which you have enshrined one set of conflicts of interest and excluded from the membership of the CCG all sorts of other people who could make a valuable and useful contribution. I am afraid that for the first time in our considerations I agree with 99% of what the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, said. The 1% with which I disagreed was that we should allow this instrument to go through and review it again in two years’ time. It is so flawed and riddled with poorly thought-out considerations of what would work at local level, and so dismissive of the best judgment of local people to decide who is best to be part of the board, that frankly we should endorse my noble friend’s Motion. I urge the Minister to withdraw the regulations and bring forward revised, more sensible regulations.”

 

Tuesday
Oct 2,2012

Ed Miliband’s brilliant bravura performance this afternoon at the Labour Party Conference – seventy minutes without a note (beat that Cameron) – proves that the Labour Party is six months ahead of the schedule necessary to prepare for the next General Election.

Before then, the Labour Party needs to articulate the philosophical themes that will underpin the next Labour Government and crystallise those down to a (small) number of symbolic policy commitments.

The next General Election is in May 2015 – two and a half years away. The equivalent point before Labour’s 1997 General Election landslide was the Labour Party Conference in 1994.  That was the Party Conference when Tony Blair in his Leader’s speech proposed that the content and wording of Clause Four be reviewed and reformulated for new times and New Labour.

The themes which underpinned Labour’s 1997 election manifesto (“The future not the past”; “The many not the few” etc) were not fully articulated until the new Clause Four was approved in the Spring of 1995 – two years before the Election.  And the policy commitments (The Pledge Card”) were not finalised until July 1996 – ten months before the Election.

And today Ed Miliband set out the philosophical basis on which “One Nation Labour” will appeal to the electorate in 2015.  The themes he set out today will resonate, not only with the Labour Party in the hall in Manchester and amongst Labour supporters across the country, but they will strike a chord amongst the rest of the public who can see how Cameron’s Government is out-of-touch and leading the country further and further into an economic quagmire, whilst dividing a nation and a people who will only flourish when united.

Friday
Aug 31,2012

The Garter King of Arms is, as I am sure you know, the senior of the three English Kings of Arms. The office takes its name from the Order of the Garter. Henry V instituted the office of Garter in 1415 just before sailing for France.

My experience of his office is recounted here when he argued with me about the correct spelling of Haringey given the way it was done in the Domesday Book.

However, the College of Arms keeps itself up-to-date and in these straitened times is always on the look out for new sources of income.

A little bird tells me that he has written to all Chief Constables to remind them the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act abolishes police authorities and transfers their powers to elected Police and Crime Commissioners.

You may wonder why this is of concern to the Garter King of Arms (Chief Constables haave their own concerns about this).

The answer, of course, is straightforward: the Armorial Bearings used by most police forces on cap badges, letterheads, websites etc were granted to Police Authorities.

And, if Police Authorities disappear, the right to bear the Coat of Arms lapses with them.

This would potentially make the cap badges on police helmets illegal.  I am sure many police officers – and certainly their Chief Constables – would find this a deeply discomforting situation.

Fortunately, the Garter King of Arms has a solution and says in his letter:

“The Kings of Arms think that it would be appropriate for a Royal License to be issued transferring the Armorial Bearings to the office of Chief Constable for use by the Constabulary.”

And just in case elected Police and Crime Commissioners feel hurt he has a solution for them as well:

“In such cases, the Kings of Arms would also be prepared to grant a variation of the Shield alone to the office of Police and Crime Commissioners for each authority.”

A wise compromise you may feel.  However, such matters cannot be done on a shoe-string as Garter goes on to make clear:

“If you are interested in pursuing this I should be happy to give you particulars of the procedure and cost.”

And please form an orderly* queue outside the College of Arms …..

 

*Any disorderly behaviour will be dealt with the City of London Police – as the College of Arms lies within their territory – and of course they are one of the few forces not affected by the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act and will not have an elected Police and Crime Commissioner.

Tuesday
Aug 28,2012

No doubt I will be told that I don’t understand the nuances of American politics, but I can’t help feeling that Tropical Storm Isaac’s disruption of the Republican Party Convention at Tampa in Florida is not the problem for Mitt Romney’s strategists that they are suggesting it is.

Conventional wisdom is it that a Presidential candidate – particularly one that is already securely nominated – gains a political boost from his Party’s Convention and the TV exposure that it brings.  In this case, the Republican Party was hoping to relaunch/repackage their Presidential candidate and demonstrate to/bamboozle an excited American electorate that  Mitt Romney was Presidential in timbre, had the vision thing, and was an-all-round nice decent guy (oh and that his Mormonism is OK really).

Now that some of the Convention has already had to be cancelled because of Tropical Storm Isaac this plan is in disarray.

However, the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party is also determined to use the Convention to write into the Party’s platform their particularly weird mix of ideology, including such gems as:

  • no exemptions on abortion being illegal for rape or incest, or where the mother’s life is at risk;
  • no legal recognition of same-sex couples including civil unions;
  • tough immigration laws, including a huge Berlin-style wall along the USA/Mexico border;
  • a return to the Gold standard and a ban on any tax increases, except for war and national emergencies; and
  • the elimination of the Environmental Protection Agency and a big increase in the use of fossil fuels.

This, of course, would be on top of Mitt Romney’s own platform of massive tax cuts for the wealthiest and tax increases for other Americans (sounds familiar).

Maybe I am naive but wouldn’t TV exposure of all this stuff strengthen the Democrats?

So perhaps Tropical Storm Isaac is actually a boon to the Republican Party and will in fact boost the chances of the rest of the world having to come to terms with President Romney in a few months time.

Monday
Jul 23,2012

The House of Lords, unlike the House of Commons, is still sitting and this afternoon Baroness Jan Royall, Leader of the Opposition, asked a Private Notice Question of the Leader of the House, Lord Strathclyde, about the position of the Trade Minister, Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint.

 

As the Daily Telegraph has pointed out, allegations that HSBC, while Lord Green was its Chairman, allowed money laundering on a huge scale to take place are now casting a cloud over his current role as a Trade Minister.  Their report says:

 

“The US Senate has launched a coruscating attack on HSBC for its slapdash approach to money-laundering regulations. The bank could face a $1 billion fine.

 

According to Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, “the culture at HSBC was pervasively polluted for a long time.” Just how polluted was revealed in the Senate report into the scandal. For example, between 2007 and 2008, HSBC’s Mexican operations moved $7bn into the bank’s US operations. According to the report, both Mexican and US authorities warned HSBC that the amount of money could only have reached such a level if it was tied to illegal narcotics proceeds.”

 

The Government’s answer boils down to saying that there is nothing that casts doubt on Lord Green’s integrity and that there is no reason that he should be held responsible for everything that the organisation of which he was chairman was doing.

 

However, what was he doing as Chairman of the Bank during this time? If the Bank were warned by both the Mexican and US authorities that transactions of $7 billion were tied to the illegal drugs trade, shouldn’t he have been told of the warnings.  If he wasn’t, why wasn’t he and what sort of system of corporate governance was he presiding over if it was not felt that such warnings should be conveyed to the Board? Is $7 billion too small a sum for him to worry about?  And if he was told, what did he do about it?

 

I tried unsuccessfully to get in and put a this question to the Leader of the House:

 

“How bad does the stench of money laundering have to be around its Trade Minister before it impacts on the reputation of the United Kingdom?  And why – if his integrity is as great as we are told it is – are they so reluctant to have him come to the House and dispel that stench by setting the record straight?”

 

The BBC captures the full exchange here and the Hansard test is as follows:

HSBC

Private Notice Question

3.07 pm

Tabled By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the allegations about HSBC made by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on the ability of Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint to fulfil his ministerial duties.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon:My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde):My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government have every confidence in my noble friend Lord Green’s ability to fulfil his ministerial duties. His experience, expertise and enthusiasm provide great benefit to the UK’s international profile and to the support that UK Trade and Investment provides to British businesses.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon:My Lords, I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that Answer. However, as the noble Lord will be aware, questions have been asked about the present ministerial role of the noble Lord, Lord Green, following the US Senate committee’s findings.

Paragraph 1.2 of the Ministerial Code, which sets out the responsibility of Ministers to Parliament, says that:

“Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest”.

Given that obligation, will the Leader of the House ask the noble Lord, Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint, to come to your Lordships’ House to place on record what he knew and when about the matters investigated by the US Senate committee, including what steps he took to deal with them? Would such a move not give the noble Lord, Lord Green, the opportunity to dispel once and for all the questions being asked about his present ministerial role?

Lord Strathclyde:My Lords, I congratulate the Leader of the Opposition. I know that she has been trying to find a PNQ to put to the House and she has managed to do so. I am very glad to be able to respond on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government.

There is no urgency in this matter. The investigation started more than two years ago. The report in question was published two weeks ago. There was no evidence of personal wrongdoing of my noble friend; indeed, there was no personal criticism whatever of my noble friend. The investigation is ongoing. As for ministerial accountability, my noble friend Lord Green is accountable to this House—to Parliament—for the work he does as a Minister. However, many Ministers have had previous careers. No Minister needs to be accountable to Parliament for their previous career, only for what they are doing as a Minister.

Lord Butler of Brockwell:My Lords, I declare an interest as a non-executive director of HSBC during the time when the noble Lord, Lord Green, was chief executive officer and chairman. Is the Leader aware that when I was advising the Prime Minister on calls for ministerial resignations, I drew a distinction—which I think is widely accepted—between accountability and responsibility? While it may be the case that the chairman and chief executive officer of a major international company is accountable for everything that happens in that company, there is no possible way in which they can be responsible for everything that happens in a worldwide group of the size of HSBC.

Lord Strathclyde:My Lords, with all his experience and knowledge—not just as head of the Civil Service and Cabinet Secretary but having had a more commercial career since he left—the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, has brought a lot of wisdom and good sense to this debate, on which we should all reflect.

Lord Kinnock:My Lords, since the Leader of the House has told us that the work of the noble Lord, Lord Green, is of benefit to the United Kingdom’s profile—the words he just used—does he think that the accountability of an individual in a very senior position in Government or business ceases when that individual changes post? Does he not think that it would benefit the UK’s profile to ensure that a Minister rigorously adheres to the wording of the Ministerial Code, as just spelt out by my noble friend? Further, does he not think that the ethics of business require that a Minister who has the opportunity and the right to come to this House to explain themselves should do so?

Lord Strathclyde:My Lords, I do not disagree at all with what the noble Lord says about the ethics of the industry in which my noble friend was involved. In fact, only last week, this House set up a special Joint Select Committee to look at ethics and many other practices in the banking industry. Surely that is the point. If a Select Committee of this House or another place wishes to ask my noble friend questions, it should do so. My purpose is to reflect on my noble friend’s role in government and to answer on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government.

Lord Cormack:My Lords, does my noble friend agree that anyone who knows the noble Lord, Lord Green, could not doubt his total integrity for a moment?

Lord Strathclyde:My Lords, I agree with that but I wholly accept that questions need to be asked—and are habitually asked—of a Minister to make sure that he is accountable to Parliament. As I said in my reply to the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, if a committee of Parliament wishes to put questions to my noble friend, it is entirely free to do so.

Lord Grocott:My Lords, perhaps I can remind the Leader of the House of a report with which he will be, no doubt, almost word perfect: the report of the Leader’s Group on Working Practices, which made a number of recommendations. Of course, the group was established by the Leader for the Leader. Recommendation 3 of that report—which, I remind him again, was published more than a year ago in April last year—said:

“We … recommend that there should be a monthly question time dedicated to questions on House of Lords matters addressed to the Leader of the House”.

Perhaps I may helpfully suggest that both today’s Question and indeed the very important one raised last week by my noble friend Lord Barnett could be handled were the Leader to accept that simple, unanimous recommendation by a committee that was set up at his instigation. I urge him to act on that recommendation as soon as possible.

Lord Strathclyde:My Lords, from memory, I do not think that there has been a single Question put to me in my capacity as Leader of the House in the past 12 months. That rather leads me to believe that there is no great demand for a monthly Question Time session for the Leader. There are perfectly good methods for asking me questions and noble Lords should use them if they wish to.

Lord Hughes of Woodside:My Lords, from a rather different view, perhaps, I query what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Butler. Surely accountability and responsibility cannot simply be divided one from the other—it is not as sharp as that. Accountability and responsibility go hand in hand and no one should doubt it.

Lord Strathclyde:My Lords, my noble friend Lord Cormack said that no one should challenge the integrity of my noble friend Lord Green, and I agree with him. But if it comes to a choice between the noble Lord’s view of what is responsibility and accountability and that of the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, I will go with the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall:My Lords, I personally—along with most of the House, I feel—am in no position and would not wish to challenge the integrity of the noble Lord, Lord Green. However, does the Leader of the House agree that perhaps there would be less question about his conduct over the issue of HSBC were the House to see him more often answering questions that relate to his ministerial responsibilities? It may have something to do with his relative unfamiliarity to Members of the House that they are perhaps more sceptical than they should be.

Lord Strathclyde:My Lords, as a Minister for trade, my noble friend of course spends a great deal of time overseas. Since he was appointed, he has travelled to 42 countries and visited 73 cities. In his role as Minister of State for Trade and Investment, he has answered a total of 72 Parliamentary Questions, including two Oral Questions out of three that he could have answered. The response to the point raised by the noble Baroness is that if more Questions on trade and investment were put down, I am sure that my noble friend would be very happy to come and answer them.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon:My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his answers, but perhaps I may say that I found his initial response to my Question slightly patronising, albeit not in terms of the substance. I table PNQs when I believe that there is a matter of accountability which is of interest to this Parliament as a whole—we are the only House of Parliament sitting at the moment—and when I believe that it is of importance to this nation. I do not do so for personal gratification.

Lord Strathclyde:My Lords, if the noble Baroness felt that I was in any way seeking to patronise her, I apologise fully.

 

 

 

Monday
Jul 16,2012

My attention has been drawn to a statement from the National Association of Retired Police Officers saying that many of their members could have been available to G4S as security staff for the Olympics but there has been no approach to their Association for help.

Eric Evans, the President of the National Association, has said:

‘ At a time when unemployment is so high and many police officers are retiring earlier than planned because of Government cut backs, it is difficult to understand how G4S have failed to recruit the required number of security staff. I am sure that many of those of our members, who have recently retired would have been glad of an opportunity to get some employment at the Olympic Games not only for the money but also to be involved in such a major ‘lifetime’ event. I am frankly very surprised that G4S have not sought our assistance in recruitment.’

He goes on to comment:

“It is however the case that we at the national office of NARPO have not at any stage been approached by G4S to assist in recruiting security staff for the Olympics and certainly have not received any memorandum from G4S this week or at any other time requesting such assistance.”

How serious were G4S to get themselves out of the mess in which they have got themselves and why haven’t the Home Office told them to use retired police officers in this way?