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Archive for the ‘Parliament’ Category

Apr 14,2009

I have been out of the country for a few days (France, since you ask) and following the McBride “smear-gate” story from internet news reports and bloggers’ comments.  With the benefit of that small degree of distance, there seem to be some very simple conclusions to draw.

First, the whole idea was deeply and irredeemably wrong.  It is not acceptable to spread defamatory lies about people – whether you dislike their politics or not.  The Prime Minister and the Labour Party should make it quite clear that the pursuit of such tactics by anyone purporting to act on their behalf or ostensibly in their interests will always be unacceptable and the individuals concerned will be treated as having brought the Party into disrepute.  I trust other Parties (no names, no pack drill) will do the same.

Second, the concept would almost certainly have been utterly counter-productive.  I am not convinced that the electorate think it matters what individuals might have done in their student days nearly twenty years ago and they are unlikely to think it relevant to their current suitability for public office.  Nor are the past (or even current) sexual peccadilloes of public figures that relevant to their ability to be Government ministers.  That doesn’t mean that people won’t take a prurient interest, but I am not convinced it makes much (if any) electoral difference.  (Indeed, I remember talking to one politician who had recently had some particularly lurid stories printed about his sexual habits.  He admitted that he had been worried about how his constituents might react.  In fact, he said that, although he had had to endure some ribald comments, most of the reaction seemed tinged with – if anything – admiration.)

Third, it would appear that the execution of the proposed smear plot was incredibly inept – using an official and traceable email address, for example.

Finally, the net result of what has happened will further demean and degrade the reputation of politicians and – in turn – the democratic process.  If you believe, like I do, that democracy and politics matters, then this may turn out to be the most worrying consequence of the whole sorry business.

Mar 30,2009

In all the fuss about Jacqui Smith’s expenses, one matter that remains obscure is how did the Sunday Express see the documents concerned?  They have not yet been published by the House of Commons authorities.  It seems unlikely that either Jacqui Smith or her husband (or anyone in her Parliamentary office) will have leaked them.  So they were either leaked by someone working in the House of Commons Fees Office or by someone working for Virgin Media.  If the former, I would guess that a lot of MPs (of all Parties) are getting very jumpy and combing over their old expense claims with a fine tooth comb.  If the latter, presumably anyone’s Virgin Media account can be accessed by the press.

Mar 23,2009

Bismarck said if “You like laws or sausages, never watch either of  them being made.”  It is 8.45pm and Labour Peers have been told to hang on for a possible vote on an amendment to the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill.  

The amendment moved by the LibDems apparently raises an important point of principle.  Or at least that’s what the LibDems say.

So what is the amendment?  In Clause 67 of the Bill (which creates a requirement for there to be a regional economic strategy for each region) the LibDems want the Bill to say “The regional strategy for a region is to set out policies in relation to sustainable development and regeneration in the region” rather than “The regional strategy for a region is to set out policies in relation to sustainable growth in the region” .

Is someone taking the p*ss?

And after all that they didn’t press it to a vote!

Mar 11,2009

Baroness Sue Miller hosted an interesting meeting earlier today, billed (slightly tendentiously) as “The Internet Threat: Who needs privacy when we can have relevant ads?”.  Speakers included Sir Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of  of the World Wide Web) and a variety of other experts.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee was arguing that the integrity of the internet is under threat by the emergence of Deep Packet Inspection by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) – this now enables ISPs to scan the contents of all communications and the contents of all web pages viewed by their customers, and for that data to be analysed so that customer-specific targetted advertising can be produced.  This raises substantial privacy issues – as one speaker pointed out each person will have a different view as to what is private for them.

Of course, such privacy issues are not new.  Already, websites place cookies on the computers of those visiting the site “to enhance the experience” of those that visit the site again and many of these track what the user does (individuals can of course block cookies or subsequently erase them – so in a sense the user can control this).  Search engines like Google also keep track of the search terms typed in by those who use them and again target advertising and recommend links accordingly.

What is new about Deep Packet Inspection is that for effectively the first time ISPs are looking routinely into the material that is being transferred through their service – it is as though Royal Mail sorting office staff were given access to the content of all the correspondence that they were sorting.

In the US this is apparently explicitly banned.  In the UK, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act would appear to forbid this unless (Section 3 (3) (b)) it is “for purposes connected with the provision or operation of that service”.  So is targetted advertising a purpose connected with the provision or operation of that service?  Ultimately, this will no doubt be a question for the Courts, but, so we were told, Home Office guidance suggests that Deep Packet Inspection is permissable ….

Part of the argument has to be that websites and ISPs have to be able to make their money somehow and Peter Bazalgette, consigned to the audience, forcefully pointed out that the internet had destroyed the existing business model of many newspapers, much of the music industry and may do the same for films and books and that service providers had to evolve to find new ways of making revenue.

Some of my Parliamentary colleagues were keen to divert the debate on to the Government’s consultation on the draft Communications Data Bill.  However, there is a world of difference between a government that is accountable to Parliament collecting data and commercial companies that are accountable to no-one but their share-holders doing so.

There is a real debate to be had here and Sue Miller is to be congratulated for facilitating this morning’s meeting.

Mar 10,2009

The Postal Services Bill has had its first full debate today.  The Bill makes provisions for the restructuring of the Royal Mail Group, addresses problems in the Royal Mail Pension Fund and changes some of the regulatory arrangements.

Usually, the House of Lords gives Bills – however controversial – are given an unopposed Second Reading, so that they can be given detailed consideration at the Committee and Report stages.  Today, however, Lord Tony Clarke, a former postman who became Deputy General Secretary of the Union of Postal Workers, put forward an amendment to the motion that the bill be now read a second time, to leave out all the words after “that” and insert “this House declines to give the bill a second reading”.

In introducing the Bill, Lord Peter Mandelson set out clearly the case for modernisation:

“We live in a digital age.  As we send more texts and emails, we send fewer letters. The Mobile Data Association estimates that in 2008, we sent around 216 million text messages per day.  That same year, we sent five million fewer letters per day than we had done just two years ago.


The fall in mail volumes is happening across many modern economies but I do not accept that postal services are locked into an inevitable decline. I believe mail is still a critical part of our social fabric, our communication infrastructure and our economy. And for those reasons, I want to see Royal Mail modernised and made fit for the future.


The Government is fully committed to maintaining the universal service. Royal Mail is at the heart of that service. Only Royal Mail has the ability to collect and deliver letters anywhere in the country, six days a week, for a single, affordable price.


That’s why the Royal Mail’s service requires sustaining not abandoning – and sustaining with a vision that will ensure its commercial success.”


He also made clear the Government’s commitment to:

“a universal service which is reliable, offers good value for money, is innovative and responds to their needs.


Our proposals seek to deliver that.  Part 3 of the Bill sets the standard for the universal service.  It requires Ofcom to ensure that the universal service is maintained.  If Ofcom finds that there is tension between its functions in relation to post, the Bill is explicit in requiring the regulator to give precedence to the universal service. “


In the end, Tony Clarke withdrew his amendment – while making it absolutely clear that he was not convinced by the arguments.  So we didn’t vote today, but there will be no doubt much detailed debate and discussion over the weeks ahead.


Mar 1,2009

I had recently come to the view that my comments on this blog were receiving more attention than anything I might say in the chamber of the House of the Lords.

So I suppose I should be flattered that the debate I initiated in the Lords on young people and social networking sites should have got a full half-page of coverage in today’s Observer.

Catherine Bennett certainly seems to have got the measure of the effects of being in the Lords on some of my colleagues (I hope not me, but you never know ….) when she writes:

“Given what we now know about the human brain, it is clear that prolonged exposure to an unnatural environment like the House of Lords must have a damaging effect. If the ageing brain is artificially denied stimulation over a long period, it might lead to a condition almost indistinguishable from idiocy.  The effects on communication have been documented for years. Now some leading neuro-scientists are suggesting that flashing lights and bells be fitted to go off regularly in the chamber, in order to induce in members something resembling an average attention span.”

She then weighs in to attack the comments of Baroness Susan Greenfield for her contribution to the debate analysing the impact of social networking and online phenomena like Twitter from her standpoint as a neuro-scientist.  It is a fine polemic and yes the comments from Susan Greenfield were rather tangential to the purpose of my debate which was intended to explore whether more safeguards were needed to protect the interests of children and young people online.

However, the comments (and the whole debate can be read here) were of interest and do deserve some serious discussion.  Twitter and Twittering seems a largely pointless exercise to many and as Catherine Bennett puts it:

“Twitter emphasises its desirability by being unfathomable to anyone a bit inflexible or busy who is neither a self-promoter nor an exhibitionist.”

Now I don’t feel that Susan Greenfield’s speech detracted from the rest of the debate – it is part of the way that the House of Lords operates that colleagues bring their various experiences and expertise to bear on the topics under discussion.  And it certainly didn’t “hijack” the debate as Catherine Bennett suggests.

Catherine Bennett was kind enough to say that “The Lords are right to want to protect vulnerable users from exploitation and from the inadvertent creation of an indelible archive of social networking follies.”  So, if that is so, and she wants to avoid the debate being hijacked, perhaps she might have devoted more than just three lines of her article to the rest of the  debate and what she rightly regarded as its main substance.

Or perhaps I’m missing something ….

Feb 12,2009

My debate on social networking has just ended. 

In my opening speech, I set the context by citing the OFCOM research that found that virtually all (99%) of children and young people aged 8 to 17 use the internet.  In 2005 the average time spent on line by children was 7.1 hours per week.  By 2007, this had almost doubled to 13.8 hours per week.  And virtually half (49%) of those aged 8 to 17 have set up their own profile on a social networking site.


My thesis was that social networking and video sharing sites, online games, iPods and internet-enabled mobile phones are now an integral part of youth culture.  While many adults worry that their offspring are wasting precious hours online, children and young people themselves see online media as the means to extend friendships, explore interests, experiment with self-expression and develop their knowledge and skills.


However, in the same way that young children are taught how to cross the road and at the same time safety features are built into cars and traffic laws regulate unsafe driving, we need to make sure that our children and young people are protected when they make their way on the internet.


As we know, there are real perils for the unwary.  Children and young people have been the victims of sexual predators as a result of the information they have revealed about themselves on social networking sites; there are increasing problems of cyber-bullying; security weaknesses on sites have led to serious privacy infringements; and young people have discovered the hard way that the permanence of information posted in public cyber-space may not only be embarrassing in later life but may also mean that employment offers (or university places) are not forthcoming.


I went on to argue that:


·     Children throughout their education should be taught digital citizenship so that they can both make the most of the internet but also recognise and deal with any dangers they may encounter.  As most parents acknowledge that their children are more internet literate than they are, there should also be a serious effort in parallel to help parents (and indeed all adults) to keep up with the rapid development of the internet and social digital media.


·     At the same time, privacy laws ought to be strengthened with an age-related component, specifically giving enhanced protection to the data relating to or provided by children and young people.  The US Children Online Privacy Protection Act, whilst not perfect, provides a model that has required a number of US-based companies operating on the internet to improve their standards significantly.


·     There should also be higher expectations on those responsible for social networking sites – particularly those aimed at children or where there are a significant number of users who are children and young people.  These higher expectations should include:

o        Prominent and clear safety information, warning about potential dangers;

o        Simple systems for reporting abuse or inappropriate/threatening behaviour with appropriate links to the police and law enforcement;

o        Increased numbers of suitably-vetted moderators patrolling areas of sites frequented by young people;

o        User-friendly systems enabling people to ignore and erase unwanted comments and to erase permanently their own profiles; and

o    Increased server security to prevent hacking and unauthorised access to personal information.


·     Finally, there should be urgent work undertaken by internet and technology companies to find and agree a simple, efficient and cost-effective means of achieving age-verification on the internet, so as to prevent under-age people accessing inappropriate sites and older people passing themselves off as under-18.


In addition, other peers made a range of interesting points. 

There was a notable contribution from Baroness Susan Greenfield approaching the topic from the stand-point of neuro-physiology. 

Baroness Doreen Massey told the House about the Bill she is introducing on internet age verification and the Minister replying, Lord Bill Brett, almost gave a commitment on behalf of the Government to support it – although when I pressed him on it he entered the most enormous health warning about what he had said.  Nevertheless, it was clear that there was a lot of support in the House for the principle of such legislation.

Feb 10,2009

Today’s evidence to the Home Affairs Committee by Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick about the processes surrounding the arrest of Damian Green MP by the Metropolitan Police as part of their investigation into Home Office leaks throws some interesting light on the whole saga.

Most importantly he was not subjected to a dawn arrest which would have been the norm for anyone who was not a member of the House of Commons.  According to Bob Quick, this was very much a “softer” option rather than the “customary, normal” option.

Moreover, the police went to “enormous lengths” to try to make the searches carried out at Mr Green’s home and offices in Kent and London “as discreet as possible”.  Again, this was the kid glove treatment.

A member of the public would also not have had two of his associates (in Damian Green’s case these two associates were David Cameron and Boris Johnson) contacted to alert them that his offices were about to be searched.  Nor would it have been customary to ask one of the associates (in this case David Cameron) to contact the individual concerned and invite him to contact the police.

According to Bob Quick, these efforts to soften the impact made the resulting investigatory process “more unwieldy”.

Feb 10,2009

So what was Ken Clarke MP doing coming away from Lord Peter Mandelson’s office in the House of Lords yesterday evening with a big smile on his face?

Feb 2,2009

I have been successful in the ballot to obtain a two and a half hour debate on the adequacy of the safeguards protecting children and young people using social networking sites on the internet.

The debate will be on the afternoon of Thursday 12th February 2009 and appears on the order paper as:

Lord Harris of Haringey to call attention to the growth in the use of social networking internet sites by children and the adequacy of safeguards to protect their privacy and interests; and to move for papers.

The process was that at the beginning of the session I tabled my debate proposal and waited to see whether it would be successful in the ballot: in fact, I gather it was fourth in the ballot for 12th February but those winning the top two slots couldn’t manage the date.

I have been interested in the issue for some time and I hope the debate will cover the extent to which children and young people are encouraged to post personal information on social networking sites to an extent that damages not only their personal security but also their future job prospects.  Nearly 50% of those aged 8 to 17 living in this country are – according to OFCOM – members of an online network community.  Often the warnings given to those signing on for the first time are inadequate.  The Home Office has issued guidance to social network providers but the guidance is not mandatory and has little effect on sites run from outside the UK.