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Tuesday
Jan 29,2013

There is a debate going on in the House of Lords today on the economy.  It was intended as platform for the new Treasury Minister, Lord Deighton, to strut his stuff.

However instead Labour’s Lord John Eatwell eviscerated the Government’s economic policy and its (lack of) growth policy:

 “Lord Eatwell:

My Lords, it is a particular pleasure for me to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, to the Dispatch Box and to congratulate him on his appointment to the Treasury team. It is always a special delight to see one’s former pupils do so well. When I marked his economic essays back in the mid-1970s, I never imagined—nor do I suppose did he—that we would find ourselves in this situation. I think it is appropriate to report that his essays were typically examples of excellent economic analysis, and I hope and believe that he will put those skills to good use in re-educating the Treasury. It certainly needs it.

Today, he has been placed in an extraordinarily difficult position. It is rather difficult to defend the Government’s growth record when there is none—growth, that is. The latest figures are truly awful, with no growth at all in 2012, despite the heroic efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Deighton, and his team at the Olympics.

Taking the longer view, since the Government’s spending review in the fourth quarter of 2010, when it might be said that coalition policies replaced Labour policies, the UK economy has grown by just 0.4% over that entire period. Over the same period, the USA has grown by 4.2%, Germany by 3.6% and France by 1.5%. Accordingly, while the UK economy is now still over 3% below its pre-crisis peak, the USA is 2.5% above and Germany is 2% above.

The question before us today is: in the situation in which we find ourselves, what is to be done? How can we get Britain back on to a secure growth path? Should we follow the recommendations of the Chancellor of the Exchequer that we stick with austerity, accepting his declaration that “Britain is on the right path”? Let us call this plan A. Or should we adopt plan B, following the advice of Adam Posen, former member of the Monetary Policy Committee, and particularly of Olivier Blanchard, chief economist of the IMF, who said last week,

“if things look bad at the beginning of 2013—which they do—then there should be a reassessment of fiscal policy … We think that slower fiscal consolidation in some form may well be appropriate”.

That is the IMF view on Britain.

The answer to our question, “What do we do?”—the fundamental issue in this debate—rests on a consideration of three issues. First, how did the Government get into this mess and are they tackling it in the best way? Secondly, what is necessary to restore the UK economy to growth? Thirdly, what is there to prevent us following this path of restoration?

So, first, how did we get into this mess? As the noble Lord said, the Government inherited the terrible economic consequences of the international financial crisis—everyone agrees about that. These consequences were and are particularly severe for a country as dependent on financial services as we are. But then the crucial question is: in the past two and a half years, have the coalition’s policies made things better or worse?

The previous Chancellor, my right honourable friend Alistair Darling, had been battling the crisis since 2008, and by the spring of 2010 he had succeeded in beginning to turn things around. Recovery was under way at a similar rate to that in the US and Germany, so that George Osborne inherited an economy growing at an annual rate in excess of 2%. He killed that recovery stone dead. He destroyed business confidence by preaching the coalition dogma of austerity and by foolish and demeaning comparisons with the plight of Greece and other eurozone countries without their own currency and exchange rate; he slashed public investment so that in the past three years the Government have spent £12.8 billion less in capital investment than Alistair Darling had planned; and, with savage glee, the coalition set about shrinking the state and impoverishing the poor. This is all justified in terms of the Tory manifesto commitment to eliminate the deficit in one Parliament—a commitment, by the way, which will not be kept, for the deficit is not falling.

Recent figures published by the Office for National Statistics show that public sector net borrowing in the first nine months of fiscal 2012-13 was about £107 billion compared with £99 billion in the same period last year—a rise of 7.3%. I repeat: the deficit is over 7% up on the equivalent period last year. So the answer to the first question is that the coalition inherited a very difficult but recovering economic situation and proceeded to make it much, much worse.

What should be done to turn the position around again and to set the economy on a new growth path or, to put the question in a more practical fashion, how can businesses be encouraged to invest? Firms invest because they are reasonably confident in the future demand for their products. Without demand, if they are shackled by a framework of fiscal discipline, as referred to by the noble Lord, it does not matter how much cheap money there is, as no one will invest. That is why monetary policy is not working. Interest rates can go no lower and the first positive announcement effect of quantitative easing has now worn off. Quantitative easing may be inflating asset prices and ruining pension funds but cheap money will not encourage investment when the Government are intent on slowing the growth of demand.

However, if there is a prospect of growing demand then, to invest, firms need finance and access to the very best skills and technologies to secure markets in a competitive world. Demand is the key to making all the measures that the noble Lord referred to as his fourth pillar work.

That is why my right honourable friend Ed Balls has proposed a temporary cut in VAT to boost family incomes, together with the boost to demand and capacity that would result from bringing forward infrastructure investment, including building thousands of affordable homes. Enhanced demand prospects would then be underpinned by a British investment bank to boost lending to small businesses, complementing fundamental regulatory reform of the banks. To sustain confidence there should be a compulsory jobs guarantee for the long-term unemployed and, further up the employment chain, investment in skills and in transformational science and technology. That is plan B.

Why cannot this be done? “Because”, cry the coalition, “it’s a policy for borrowing more when debt is the problem”, and we heard a similar statement from the noble Lord today. But hang on, at the moment, as we all know to our cost, spending cuts are resulting in a growing deficit. How can this be happening? The IMF has provided the answer and it, at least, has acknowledged its earlier mistaken commitment to austerity.

The answer lies in the relationship between changes in spending and the overall performance of the economy. This is measured by what, in the economics jargon that the noble Lord and I used to discuss, is called the multiplier. If a cut in government spending of, say, £2 billion results, for whatever reason, in a fall of output of just £1 billion, then the multiplier is a half. That is what the IMF believed the multiplier to be back in 2009. The share of taxes in output is about 40%, so if government spending is cut by £2 billion and output falls by £1 billion, tax revenues fall by about £400 million. The fall in tax revenues is much less than the cut in spending, and so the deficit falls by £1.6 billion. That was the policy that the Government thought they were implementing.

However, what if the multiplier happens to be bigger than that? Supposing that it is as large as 2.5, the cut in spending results in a fall in tax revenue of exactly the same amount. You can go on cutting taxes until the cows come home and there will be no change in the deficit at all. All that will happen is that the economy will be driven further and further into the mire of depression.

In acknowledging a previous error, the IMF estimated the multiplier to be a bit less than two, so a £2 billion cut in government spending will drive the economy down by about £4 billion and, when cuts in revenue are taken into account, the deficit will fall by only £400 million. Throw in a depressed European Union and you arrive at our current miserable situation: ever bigger cuts and a growing deficit. But the good news is that what goes down can also go up. What if government spending is increased by £2 billion and the multiplier, optimistically, is 2.5? The economy then grows by £5 billion and the increase in tax revenues pays for the extra spending; there is no extra borrowing at all. I repeat: increased spending results in no extra net borrowing. Plan B is a strategy to cut government spending. And there is more. The government cuts—particularly those disastrous cuts in government investment—not only reduce output now by cutting demand; as the OBR has pointed out, they also cut future output by reducing the real productive capacity of the economy.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean:My Lords, I am a simple lad. Can the noble Lord tell me what the difference is between his party’s policy and that of the government Front Bench? He gave the figure of £2 billion as the extra borrowing and the extra expenditure that would be required. In quantitative terms, what separates the Opposition from the Government? How much money are we talking about?

Lord Eatwell:The figure of £2 billion was purely for illustrative purposes; it was a simple number. I thought that people could do the arithmetic in their heads. The issue is directly whether we continue with a policy of cutting government expenditure or whether we are committed to an increase in expenditure, particularly on infrastructure. Your Lordships will note that the noble Lord did not say that his infrastructure plans fell outside the tight vice of austerity policy. That vice must be unwound. That is what I am talking about today.

As I was saying, there is more to it than that. As the OBR has pointed out, government cuts in investment cut future output by reducing the real productive capacity of the economy. This long-term loss of output brings with it a long-term reduction in tax revenue, in addition to the medium-term effect that I have just outlined. In other words, the Government are not just failing to cut the deficit now; they are increasing deficits for years to come. By contrast, if the IMF is right, the measures proposed by my right honourable friend will be substantially self-financing in the medium term and will stimulate tax revenues in excess of spending in the longer term. This point has also been argued by the Harvard professor and former US Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers.

Before we sign up to plan B, however, another issue must be confronted. Today, any Government’s finances can be devastated by a loss of confidence in the international bond markets. The noble Lord referred to this. After a particularly violent example of sovereign bond market hysteria, James Carville, the political adviser to President Clinton, famously remarked,

“I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the President or the Pope … But now I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody”.

Well, the bond market certainly seems to have intimidated the coalition. Whenever its destructive policies are challenged, it argues that unless the vice on Britain is tightened, the financial markets will lose confidence, interest rates will rise and any prospect of recovery will be destroyed.

There are three things wrong with that argument. First, no one is suggesting a spending spree. Plan B is a cautious expansion to begin the task of building the foundations for growth. Secondly, it is austerity that is now undermining market confidence. All three of the main credit rating agencies—Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch—have put Britain on “negative outlook”, citing concerns over the weak recovery and the public finances.

Thirdly, let us consider the experience of the United States, which lost its AAA rating last year. Would you rather have our AAA rating and zero growth or the lower US rating and 3% growth in the last quarter? I know which I would prefer.

The noble Lord, Lord Deighton, outlined in his speech a number of desirable measures that the Government can take to help to build productive capacity—the structural measures to which he devoted the majority of his speech. However, the Chancellor’s commitment to cutting demand and shrinking the state—less Bullingdon Club, more Tea Party—is eliminating any significant impact of those worthy measures. The Government’s attempt to stimulate growth has been a failure; the Government’s attempt to cut the deficit is a failure; and, if informed predictions are correct, even the Government’s attempts to preserve Britain’s AAA rating in the markets will prove to be a failure.

The coalition is now responsible for the longest slump in the British economy in the past century—longer than the great depression—yet last week George Osborne said something truly chilling. He said:

“We can either run away from these problems or we can confront them and I am determined to confront them”.

What is it in the word “failure” that George Osborne does not understand? For the sake of this country’s economy, it is time for him to run away. He is the living embodiment of plan A and must accept responsibility for its failure. Perhaps I may suggest that an excellent replacement as Chancellor would be my former pupil, the noble Lord, Lord Deighton.”

Monday
Jan 28,2013

There were a series of exchanges during Question Time in the House of Lords this afternoon on the Arctic and the implications of the melting of the ice cap.  The implications are substantial – and not just because of the impact on global sea levels.  There is the potential opening up of a new sea route: the North West Passage sought by explorers so assiduously for centuries.  There is the potentially easier access to mineral deposits and the possibility of oil drilling as the ice recedes.  The ocean (and this brings with it the rights to exploitation of natural resources) itself falls within the territorial waters of a handful of countries – principally Canada, Russia and Greenland.

So what is the strategy being followed to protect UK interests (indeed have those interests even been defined)?

Alas, the answer is not to be found in today’s Hansard:

Lord Giddens

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the 2012 Arctic Report Card of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States showing record-low sea ice extent in the Arctic Ocean during the past year.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Baroness Verma):My Lords, the Government have noted the contents of the NOAA report with concern. The observed reductions of Arctic sea ice extent and thickness and the consequent regional environmental and societal impacts re-emphasise the urgent need for strong international action to tackle climate change. The UK has a leading role in the international negotiations and is working through the European Union, the G8 and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to reach further global agreement to reduce emissions. Domestically, we are also taking action through the Green Deal and through the Energy Bill.

Lord Giddens:I thank the Minister for that Answer. The self-same report says, in heavy scientific jargon, that the extreme melting of the Arctic is a kick up the pants to the world. In terms of doing more to combat climate change, I take it that the Minister will agree with that assessment. Are the Government prepared to work bilaterally with the Americans on the possible implications for changing weather patterns in the north Atlantic, since such changes look quite likely? These changes will have radical implications for our own weather and are perhaps already beginning. Are the Government working, or planning to work, with the Americans on these issues?

Baroness Verma:My Lords, the noble Lord raises a very important issue—we must be mindful of the different weather patterns that we are witnessing currently. We work through the UNFCCC process, and at the recent conference of the parties in Doha all countries restated their commitment to negotiate a global deal by 2015 on a single comprehensive and legally binding climate agreement to come into effect from 2020. The noble Lord also mentioned our relationship with the US. He is aware that the United Kingdom has bilateral relationships with many countries, particularly in the north Atlantic. Our relationship with the United States is crucial and we will be having ongoing discussions with it and with other partner countries.

Lord Trimble:My Lords, in the context of the United States, would the Minister consider that the US has greatly reduced its carbon emissions in the past year by reducing its dependence on coal plants through the development of shale gas?

Baroness Verma:Yes, my Lords; the noble Lord is right that the United States has reduced its carbon emissions and increased its production of shale gas. However, this country takes the view that we need to ensure that our energy supplies are a mix of renewables and traditional fossil-fuel based. Therefore, although we are looking at shale gas, it will be part of a mix of energy rather than our having a dependency on it.

Lord May of Oxford:My Lords, is the Minister aware that the cost of the actions that we should be energetically taking against climate change—the need for which is underlined by the faster than previously expected melting of Arctic ice—is significantly smaller than the discounted present value of the much more difficult actions that we will be faced with in future if we do not act? I declare an interest as a member of the Committee on Climate Change.

Baroness Verma:The noble Lord is of course right that we need to take action. I am pleased to say that this Government are taking action and working very hard with all partner countries to ensure that this global issue is tackled with a global response.

Viscount Hanworth:My Lords—

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally):My Lords, there is time for both sides. Perhaps we can hear first from the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth.

Viscount Hanworth:My Lords, an example of extreme folly is the manner in which we are allowing petroleum companies to pursue the exploration of oil and gas in the Arctic as the reduction of ice cover renders this more practical. Can the Minister tell us what steps, if any, the Government are taking to restrain such activities?

Baroness Verma:My Lords, the fact of the matter is that we will need supplies of oil for the near future. Although we work very hard with our partner countries to ensure that everything is done in an environmentally safe way and with consideration to the environment and locations, we cannot dictate to the Arctic states or to the Arctic Council how they progress with their drilling. However, we know that they take the issue very seriously and are very environmentally effective when it comes to the security and safety of how they drill.

Baroness Parminter:What global greenhouse-gas emissions stabilisation levels do the Government believe will be necessary to protect Arctic summer sea ice for the remainder of this century? In asking this question I also congratulate the Government on the launch today of the Green Deal, which will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from British homes.

Baroness Verma:My Lords, I thank my noble friend for mentioning the Green Deal, which will of course help very much in how we respond individually to a very serious issue. Greenhouse gases are the key cause of climate warming. We have invested heavily in research to ensure that, working with Defra, we have many ways of responding to the climate change which is happening around us and to ensure that other countries are working with us in that response.

Lord Harris of Haringey:In the past 60 years more than half of the ice in the Arctic has disappeared. That opens up the prospect of the north-west passage—which we all remember from our history books in childhood—becoming a reality. This has enormous strategic implications not only in the movement of goods but in extra exploration for both oil and other minerals. How do the Government see the United Kingdom’s strategic interests, and are they pursuing those through their associate membership of the Arctic Council?

Baroness Verma:My Lords, the noble Lord is right to raise that issue. Although we are not a member of the Arctic Council or an Arctic state, we have been invited in as observers and we are able to have a very constructive dialogue with those Arctic states and with other observer states as well.

Baroness Worthington:My Lords, the Arctic is experiencing rapid change due to the impact of man-made global warming. In recognition of the unique and fragile nature of this region, Greenpeace is calling for the establishment of a global Arctic sanctuary. The Environmental Audit Committee also recommended that a sanctuary be established in its report, Protecting the Arctic. Can the Minister please inform the House what actions the Government are taking to secure a marine protected area in the Arctic and what assessment they have made of the risks, both economic and environmental, of allowing oil extraction in the area?

Baroness Verma:My Lords, as I think I have said in answer to a number of the questions put to me today, we have to work very closely with the Arctic states and the Arctic Council. However, I recognise the noble Baroness’s point about the depletion of marine life. If she will allow me, I will make sure that she receives a much fuller answer, given that this is quite a serious issue that needs to be tackled.”

Wednesday
Jan 23,2013

There were some exchanges on local government grants in House of Lords Question Time this afternoon.

The Bishop of Liverpool asked the Government “what steps they are taking to ensure that financial settlements for local government funding are fair.”

The subsequent exchanges had the Minister assuring the House that the settlements were in fact fair despite evidence to the contrary:

“The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Hanham):
My Lords, the Government have proposed a fair settlement for 2013-14 and 2014-15. Each local authority’s baseline funding level and the calculation of its tariff and top-up are based on figures that take account of the different needs of each area. The settlement allows local government to keep nearly £11 billion of business rates and keep the growth on that share of business rates, providing a direct financial incentive for councils to deliver growth.

The Lord Bishop of Liverpool:
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer, and I assure her that my Question arises out of very genuine pastoral concern. Can the Government not think again in the interests of greater fairness and make more allowance for the highest levels of deprivation in both rural and urban areas? For example, in Liverpool there is to be a 52% cut in services over four years, which will directly impact upon services to mentally ill children, vulnerable families and the elderly housebound.

Baroness Hanham:
My Lords, I know that the right reverend Prelate is very involved in the discussions that are taking place about settlements and the various levels of deprivation. I believe he held a conference last week that addressed this important subject.

However, the methodology that has been used and is set out in the formula funding document, which has been out to consultation several times, takes account of deprivation and the high cost of providing services in areas that have high deprivation, where local authorities have a low ability to raise funding. Such authorities will receive more funding than authorities with a low cost of providing services and a high ability to raise funding locally.

Lord McKenzie of Luton:
My Lords, under the local government settlement for the two years ending this March, the Audit Commission reported that in the 20 most deprived areas of the country revenue spending had fallen by 14% and in the 20 least deprived by 4.4%. In the most recent settlement, the 20 most deprived authorities will have their spending power cut by an average of 8% and the least deprived by 0.7%. Can the Minister tell me what definition of fairness justifies this distribution?

Baroness Hanham:
My Lords, the distribution has been carried out, as it always is, against a formula which makes sure that there is fairness of distribution across the piece.”

Hardly convincing, so I tried again:

“Lord Harris of Haringey:
The Minister tells us that she is presiding over this pure system of allocating resources between local authorities which is delivering fairness. Did Ministers change the formula for distribution so as to produce a result whereby, as my noble friend from the Dispatch Box pointed out, the most deprived areas are losing the most?

Baroness Hanham:
My Lords, the formula has not been, as has been suggested, tinkered with; that is how it has come out. It is fair to point out that the local government settlement is not the only funding that local authorities get; there is also the new homes bonus and other contributions that local authorities can have. It is not just the settlement.”

So it wasn’t tinkering, it just happened.

Pull the other one.

Tuesday
Jan 15,2013

A few hours after I posted about the “explosive” purchasing of the UK’s critical national infrastructure by the Chinese, there was a series of exchanges about the privatised water companies during Question Time in the House of Lords:

Lord Bradshaw:

Does my noble friend believe that the people who privatised our utilities expected that within 10 years they would be in the hands not only of foreign administrations and foreign countries but actually of the Governments of those countries? We have denationalised here and renationalised from abroad. Surely the regulator should get a lot tougher on these people who are making absolute fools of people who have to subscribe increasing sums to the maintenance of essential services.

Lord De Mauley:

My noble friend makes a fair point, my Lords, but we believe in free capital markets.

Lord Harris of Haringey:

My Lords, does the answer to the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, mean that the Government are indifferent to the extent of foreign ownership of our critical national infrastructure? Are they indifferent to the possible implications of that?

Lord De Mauley:

No, my Lords, we are not indifferent; we take these things very seriously. As I say, however, we believe in free access to our capital markets.

So now we know.  The Government takes these matters very seriously, just so long as the national interest doesn’t get in the way of the free market.

Friday
Jan 11,2013

Yesterday afternoon I initiated a short debate in the Moses Room of the House of Lords on the biological threats facing the United Kingdom, specifically I was asking “Her Majesty’s Government what arrangements they have in place to protect the residents of the United Kingdom against biological threats; and what measures they are taking to promote the international regulation of biological weapons and to ensure that security standards are sufficient in laboratories engaged in biological research around the world.”

The National Risk Register has in its top tier of risks facing the UK major natural hazards, such as a flu pandemic, but also includes as a serious threat in that top tier of risks a biological attack by terrorists.

As Lord Tony Giddens pointed out later in the debate:

“There are three sets of factors which make biological threats far more menacing than they were for previous generations. The first of these … is work in scientific laboratories that is designed to unpack the basic building blocks of nature but which can have spin-offs of a dangerous kind. … Secondly, there is the disruption to or destruction of the world’s ecosystems, releasing pathogens from their normal hosts. The process is normally known as zoonosis and it is one that is fraught with implications for human beings. Thirdly, … we have globalisation which can transmit pathogens almost immediately from one side of the world to the other.”

But the other big change that I had highlighted was the speed of technological advance that has taken place in the last ten or fifteen years in respect of genetic manipulation and as I explained:

“viruses are very simple. They are simply a capsule, often with perhaps 10 or 12 genes within them. The changing of just one gene within a virus can have a very profound effect on what that virus does: how easily it is transmitted, the extent to which it can be transmitted from an animal to a human being or between humans, and the consequences for the organism that is infected.

In fact, in 2001 the Journal of Virology published a research paper that demonstrated a whole number of ways of modifying the mousepox virus. This new virus was so effective that it overwhelmed the immune system of the test mice, causing massive liver failure and eventually killing the subjects. That reaction occurred even if the mice had been vaccinated against the mousepox virus. That was a legitimate scientific experiment—an effort to control the mouse population in Australia—but it demonstrated that a quite small change in a single gene with comparatively simple techniques could have major consequences.

These techniques are becoming more straightforward and all sorts of legitimate research is taking place in these areas around the world. Some of this could have the consequence of rendering a vaccine ineffective; some of it could confer resistance to therapeutically useful antibiotics and antiviral agents in pathogenic organisms; it could increase the virulence of a pathogen, or make it easier for that pathogen to be transmitted; or it could perhaps alter the range of hosts for that pathogen. A whole number of things are now technically possible that were not easily doable 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Entirely legitimate research on genetic manipulation and modification is of course going on all over the world for entirely benign purposes.

The question that I want to pose is: how well regulated around the world is that research? How confident can we be that other countries are applying the sorts of restrictions that we would wish to see? Some pharmaceutical companies may have an interest in carrying out experiments and developing their techniques in countries where the regulatory regime is far less intense than it might be in our own country.”

Biological weapons are outlawed under the Biological Weapons Convention, which has been signed by virtually every country in the world.  However, as I pointed out:

“although countries have said that they accept that they should not be developing biological weapons, the world has not set up what we might consider to be any effective system for monitoring compliance or verification. Some of the biggest and most powerful countries—the United States of America, for one—are extremely dubious about setting up any external system to monitor their own compliance and do not necessarily see the need for a supervisory body.

The US, for example, clearly has no official bioweapons capability but has constructed a huge research base, in many different centres around the United States, under the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures programme. That is undertaking, no doubt quite properly, genetic research, development and testing. However, if the United States says, “We are not happy with our compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention ever being tested by anybody else”, it is very difficult to see how that could be enforced on other countries.

Scepticism also persists about whether Russia’s offensive bioweapons capabilities have been completely dismantled. There are, I think, five Russian military bioweapons facilities which remain closed to outside inspection. Many of the officials linked to their current defensive programme are the same officials that developed Soviet offensive capabilities during the Cold War. There is a question again about how secure those facilities are, particularly as we know that regimes change and that certain parts of the world become less stable as things move forward.”

I also warned that:

“There is clearly a risk that stocks of materials developed for one purpose could be misused or fall into the hands of terrorist groups or, potentially, rogue regimes.”

And concluded as follows:

“In responding, can the Minister first say what is being done to improve supervision of these matters? Secondly, what is being done to regulate the security of scientific establishments, including those that hold stocks of pathogens? It all ends with a fundamental question. We are at risk, as a nation, from a pandemic of whatever sort and from whatever origin, whether naturally or unnaturally occurring. Are we really satisfied that our emergency and health services are able to withstand that?”

The Minister who responded was Lord Wallace of Saltaire who acknowledged that:

“This is an important subject, and both a domestic and international one. We are concerned with the potential of a terrorist attack and the very distant potential of a global state attack. … We are also concerned with the possibility of accidental release from badly secured laboratories.”

Being a LibDem Minister he could not avoid taking the opportunity to snipe at his Conservative Coalition colleagues, saying:

“This is an area of domestic and international overlap. I would not discourage noble Lords from pointing out, as we deal with the intensely emotional issue of the defence of British sovereignty from European and other interference, that this is one of many areas where you cannot have entirely different British and foreign issues. We have to have international co-operation and, as far we can, regulation.”

He did confirm that:

“The Government are deeply committed to protecting the United Kingdom from biological threats. That requires us to have strong measures at home and co-operation abroad.”

but warned that:

“There is resistance to a strong international compliance programme … it is not simply from the United States, let alone from the American pharmaceutical industry, but from a range of other countries that I will not go through. For many of them it is a question of sovereignty and, for one or two south Asian countries, of suspicion of the West. There are limits to what we can achieve and we have to work as far as we can through education, co-operation and providing assistance. I also note that we are working with our partners inside the European Union through the establishment of centres of excellence with regional centres around the world to build this level of co-operation.”

His basic message was:

“There are some real problems here … this is a very complex area.”

And he concluded  – rather strangely for a Government Minister – with:

“I shall finish by saying that we need to keep on challenging our Government and even more so other governments.”

We?!

So I suppose those of us who took part in the debate were being told: keep on nagging us and maybe we (the Government) will finally take this as seriously as it deserves.

If you want to read the full debate it is here.

Tuesday
Dec 11,2012

Today’s widely welcomed statement by the Government on equal marriage contained an extraordinary admission about the Church of England (and also the Church of Wales).

The Government is proposing legislation that will enable same sex couples to get married but provides a number of exceptions to ensure that those those who do not want to conduct same-sex marriages are not required to do so.  Thus, the Government says:

“First, we will write on to the face of the Bill a declaration that no religious organisation, or individual minister, can be forced to marry same-sex couples or to permit that to happen on their premises. Secondly, I will amend the Equality Act 2010 so that no discrimination claims can be brought against religious organisations or individual ministers for refusing to marry a same-sex couple or for refusing to allow their premises to be used for this purpose.

Thirdly, the legislation will make it unlawful for religious organisations or their ministers to marry same-sex couples unless the organisation has expressly opted to do so. As part of this lock, a religious organisation will have to opt in as a whole, and each individual Minister will then have to opt in too. Therefore, if a religious organisation has chosen not to conduct same-sex marriage, none of its Ministers will be able to do so. However, if an organisation has chosen to conduct same-sex marriage, individual Ministers are still under no compulsion to conduct one unless they wish to do so.”

That seems pretty comprehensive.

But the Government goes on:

“Finally, ….  the legislation will explicitly state that it would be illegal for the Churches of England and Wales to marry same-sex couples.”

The only conclusion is that the Government believes that neither the Church of England nor the Church of Wales are religious organisations.

Have they told the new Archbishop?

Thursday
Nov 22,2012

Last night in the House of Lords (in between the debates on the Justice and Security Committee which led to the Government’s proposals on so-called secret courts being savaged) there was a debate on the regulations that set out how the Chair and members of the committee of Healthwatch England are to be appointed as a sub-committee of the Care Quality Commission.

The regulations are controversial because the subservience or apparent subservience of Healthwatch England to the Care Quality Commission undermine the independence of Healthwatch England as the national body representing patients’ interests – particularly as part of its job in the future may be to raise, on behalf of patients, questions about how the Care Quality Commission has carried out its functions.

The Minister’s response was pretty unimpressive – essentially that the initial appointments made to Healthwatch England were so good that there would never be any problems in the future.

You can read the full debate here.

My contribution was as follows:

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, on this Prayer. She has highlighted the weakness in the Government’s position. I am confident that the people who have set up Healthwatch England are of good will and that they intend and wish it to work; that Anna Bradley will be an excellent person as chair of Healthwatch England; that the outgoing chair of the Care Quality Commission is committed to making it work; and that the chief executive of the Care Quality Commission is committed to making it work. I even believe that Ministers in the Department of Health are committed to making it work.

The problem is that we are provided with a framework of regulation which does not guarantee that in future. One or two appointments down the road, with a new leadership of the Care Quality Commission and, perhaps, with different Ministers at the Department of Health, how will those things be ensured, especially if budgets remain tight and Healthwatch England starts to be effective and makes criticisms which are difficult for Ministers-or, worse still, in this context, for the Care Quality Commission? That is when those problems may arise.

That is why, when the Bill was passing through this House, there was so much concern about the importance of independence for the Healthwatch structure. My concern is that, given that the legislation has passed, this is a wasted opportunity to make it stronger.

One of the lessons that is expected to come from the Mid-Staffs inquiry relates to independence. The report is expected to identify the systemic failure of organisations to focus primarily on the needs of the patients of that hospital. Because each was looking at its own area, nobody was taking the step back to say, “How does this work from the point of view of patients?”. That is where Healthwatch should come in and be influential: to cut through the complicated organisational structures which the Health and Social Care Act has bequeathed to the NHS. That is why the simple issue of how it preserves its independence is so vital.

When the Bill was going through Parliament, the noble Earl held a meeting to discuss how Healthwatch England should work. He made the point that there would be valuable synergies from Healthwatch England being located within the Care Quality Commission. He did not stress, but it was clearly part of the equation, that there would also be some useful cost savings associated with that. The cost savings could be achieved in a whole variety of ways. It would be possible to have an agency agreement whereby some of the back office functions were provided by the Care Quality Commission or any of the plethora of structures that the Health and Social Care Act has bequeathed to the NHS. Similarly, because the duty of co-operation exists, you would hope that those synergies could be activated without the need for the Healthwatch organisation to be subservient to the Care Quality Commission. It would have been possible in these regulations to create a structure which, while preserving the general framework of the Act, would ensure that there was independence.

If we look at the regulations that we have before us, we see a number of flaws. First and foremost, for example, is the size of the Healthwatch England committee. Potentially, this will be a committee of as few as six members. I appreciate that in the initial instance it is larger than that, because people of goodwill are trying to make this structure work. However, in three, four or five years’ time there may not quite be the same atmosphere or there may be a feeling that the wings of Healthwatch England need to be clipped back. In any event, with six to 12 members it is going to be extremely difficult to ensure that there really is the geographical diversity that is necessary; the coverage of all the many major areas of special need that exist as far as health and social care is concerned; and proper recognition of ethnicity and gender within that. Again, the initial membership has provided a reasonable attempt to achieve that diversity, but where is the guarantee of that in the future?

I know there is a feeling that small boards work well. The noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, who is not in her place on this occasion, has talked to us glowingly about the value of having small, dynamic boards to run organisations but this is a different sort of organisation. It is supposed to be one that represents the generality of the interests of patients across the whole country and which derives its authority from what is happening in local Healthwatch organisations around the country-the 150-odd local organisations that will exist. It is therefore not appropriate to have a small board in such a case, as it is not the same sort of structure.

Then we have the rather strange arrangements for the appointment process. In the first instance, the chair of Healthwatch England has to get the approval of the chair of the Care Quality Commission before appointments can be made. The future arrangements are that the chair will make the appointments directly but let us be clear: the chair of Healthwatch England is a Secretary of State appointment and has the potential to be the poodle of the Department of Health. I have been in the position of being in charge of the organisation representing patients and I remember successive Secretaries of State, from two parties, making attacks on the organisation because we were being effective and raising issues that were uncomfortable.

Under those circumstances, can we be satisfied with a future arrangement whereby the Secretary of State solely makes the appointment of that individual, who then appoints all the other members of the Healthwatch England committee? In the initial stage, you have a double lock where the chair of the Care Quality Commission gets involved but in future you will have someone who might be appointed as a poodle or to muzzle the watchdog nature of Healthwatch England appointing individuals who are, no doubt, like-minded. That is why the arrangements are strange.

We then have the provision for suspending members, which is set out here. Presumably, the suspension is different from disqualification but the Secretary of State may dispense with the chair of Healthwatch England for a variety of reasons, which includes,

    “failing to carry out those duties”.

Who is going to determine what those duties should be? Essentially, we are being told that the Secretary of State will decide what he or she thinks is appropriate for Healthwatch England to be carrying out. Again, the chair then has similar powers in respect of individual members. I make a specific request of the Minister: that in his reply he spells out absolutely that it will not be appropriate for either the chair or the members of Healthwatch England to be suspended from their membership if they are pursuing their interpretation of what is in the interests of patients and their organisations, and the people that they represent.

Because of the requirement saying that the chair of Healthwatch England must be a member of the board of the Care Quality Commission, we are inevitably creating that subservient relationship. Will the chair of Healthwatch England be subjected to, in essence, the collective responsibility of the members of the board of the Care Quality Commission? There have been recent issues with the membership of that commission’s board, where the chair has taken a different view about what the role of individual members should be. That has led to conflict and serious problems.

Let us pan forward a few years: if the chair of the Care Quality Commission does not like the approach being taken by the chair of Healthwatch England, are they then able to say, “You are not fulfilling your duties as a member of the board of the Care Quality Commission because you are not abiding by the collective responsibility of that board’s members. I am therefore asking the Secretary of State to remove you from office and suspend you because you are not fulfilling your roles”? Even if that does not happen we will have, as my noble friend Lord Collins said earlier, the appearance of potential conflict of interest. Ultimately, how are the public going to have confidence in a structure where it looks to them as though the leadership of Healthwatch England is subservient to the Care Quality Commission, one of those important agencies about whose effectiveness it may have to make criticisms?

We should remind ourselves that the aim of all this is to enhance the collective voice of patients in the NHS. You will succeed in doing that only if the public at large have confidence in the structures that you have created. If you build into them the appearance of subservience and potential conflicts of interest, you are weakening that voice. That cannot in any way be in line with what either your Lordships would expect to see from this, or indeed with what I believe Ministers’ intentions to be as far as Healthwatch England is concerned.”

Wednesday
Nov 21,2012

This morning the Children’s Commissioner published her shocking report “I thought I was the only one. The only one in the world.” on child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups. This authoritative and well-researched document reports that it had identified 2,409 children as having been identified as victims of sexual exploitation by gangs or groups.

And what has been the Government’s response?

To welcome the report and promise action?

Unfortunately not.

Instead, anonymous government spokesmen briefed the media to say that the report was “over-emotional” and “sensationalist”

I raised this in Question Time in the House of Lords this afternoon. The Minister’s response was hardly effusive: the report was “useful to have”.

Here is the exchange:

“Lord Harris of Haringey:
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has referred to the Children’s Commissioner’s report which came out today, in particular the dreadful findings about how many children in care have been sexually abused. Will the Minister tell the House the Government’s stance about that report, given that, apparently, people speaking on behalf of the Government to both the BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme and the Sun said that the report was overemotional and were trying to undermine its conclusions?

Lord Hill of Oareford:
The Government’s stance is that the report from the deputy Children’s Commissioner is helpful for the Government to have. We will reflect on the findings that it makes in terms of its recommendations and its estimates about the extent of the problem. I think I am right in saying that the report recognises that making any precise estimate is by nature very difficult, but the more information we have the better. Even before this report, the Government have been seeking to improve the systems for getting accurate reporting from various local agencies and authorities to make sure that we have as accurate a picture as possible to make sure that we do not underestimate or overestimate the problem. Everyone is very aware of the salience of this issue and the important issues that that report gives rise to.”

Almost as though the Government are frightened of the issue.

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.”

Monday
Nov 12,2012

There was a fairly surreal discussion in the House of Lords this afternoon following the Government statement on the resignation of the Director General of the BBC.  This reflects the wider political and media preoccupation with the inner workings of the BBC and not the very serious allegations of child abuse that lay beneath the two questionable editorial decisions by those in charge of the BBC Newsnight programme.

The depths were plumbed by Lord Pearson of Rannoch, former Leader of UKIP, who seemed to think that the central issue was that “a large majority” of the members of the BBC Trust are “climate change enthusiasts” and that “the BBC remains blindly Europhile …. as exemplified by its chairman, who has a large EU pension which he could lose if he went against what the European Commission regards as the interests of the European communities.”

It took a Bishop to reinject some sanity into the discussion:

The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds:

My Lords, I am very grateful that in the initial Statement the Minister said that we must continue to recognise the needs of those who have been abused. He spoke of the BBC facing a series of crises. Those who were abused face a far more serious series of crises. Will he stress again that the primary concern at this point needs to be the protection of children and young people? Will he also stress the continuing desire of us all to encourage those who have suffered abuse to come forward so we can change the culture of how we deal with such issues?

But that didn’t stop Lord Stoddart of Swindon from trying to bring the debate back to the people selected as BBC Trustees and lobbying for his UKIP mate, Lord Pearson, to be appointed:

Does the noble Lord agree that the selection pool for the BBC Trust is very narrow? Would it not be as well that that pool should be widened so that a perhaps more critical attitude could be taken of the operations of the BBC? Perhaps one of the new candidates could be the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch.

This goaded me to get to my feet and ask:

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate has rightly reminded the House that the people we should be most concerned about in all of this are those who were the victims of abuse. Can the Minister comment on whether the Government feel that the frenzy around the existential crisis of the BBC is not really a distraction from concerns that there was very real abuse in children’s homes in north Wales and elsewhere; that there was an individual who, because of his celebrity, was able to abuse children all over the country; and that we are in danger of being deflected, which of course plays into the hands of those who would rather cover up what happened and the names of those who were ultimately responsible?

By mentioning the dread words “cover up” I am no doubt at risk of being dubbed a conspiracy theorist but the fact remains that the present furore about the internal workings of the BBC does nothing to help those who were abused in North Wales or by Jimmy Saville, nor does it do anything to bring to justice those who were directly involved or complicit in that abuse.  And frankly that is what really matters.