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Archive for the ‘Personal rant’ Category

Nov 2,2009

I have been becoming increasingly irritated at the way in which the Ministry of Defence have appeared to be engaging with veterans about their pensions and compensation.  I recently tabled three questions on the subject and have now had the response to the first of these.

The question was:

“Lord Harris of Haringey to ask Her Majesty’s Government what were the total administrative and legal costs incurred by the Ministry of Defence in contesting war pension claims in each of the last five years. HL5842?

The answer I have had tells me:

“The Service personnel and Veterans Agency administers the War Pensions Scheme.  The external legal costs incurred by them in contesting war pension claims in each of the last five years are as follows:

2004/5          £405,284

2005/6          £415,269

2006/7         £491,054

2007/8         £436,924

2008/9         £483,901

TOTAL      £2,232,432

It is not often that I am lost for words, but as we approach Remembrance Day I have to admit to being dumb-founded.  I know lawyers are expensive, but I just hope that those who approved this expenditure thought about the human consequences of the legal quibbling in which they were engaged ……

Nov 1,2009

We do a regular shop from Sainsbury’s using the home delivery service selecting items on-line.  Those who do likewise will know that if the item you want is not available Sainsbury’s will carefully select for you an equivalent purchase – unless you have ticked the “No substitution” box.

This morning’s groceries arrived with only one substitution.  We had ordered four 125gm bars of Wrights Coal Tar Soap (you will be pleased to note that the Harris household washes).

However, instead of this:

See full size image

Sainsbury’s sent:


four three-packs of Wrigleys Orbit Complete Strawberry flavour chewing gum.

I am still trying to work out the thought processes of those who made the substitution.

Nov 1,2009

Due to a server/domain name issue that I do not pretend to understand, the last four days on this site (including emails in and out) have disappeared into a cyber void where they are irretrievable (at least by my technical skills).

My apologies to my readers (both of you) and to any passing trade who will have missed my posts on last week’s Metropolitan Police Authority, on my meeting with the London-wide representatives on the UK Youth Parliament following their day in the chamber of the House of Commons, and on anything else I may have posted ….

I think normal service – whatever that may mean – has now been restored.

Sep 16,2009

Mayor Boris Johnson has been in New York on an arduous fact-finding mission meeting his counterpart Mayor Bloomberg.  I hope he took the opportunity to discuss the proposal that New York’s smoking ban inside buildings should be extended outside as well – with a view to adopting a similar approach in London.

There is no doubt that the ban on smoking in workplaces, restaurants, bars and inside places of entertainment has been hugely beneficial to the health of both smokers and non-smokers alike.

However, the cloud of toxic smoke outside buildings, on pavements and in the so-called open air, as unreformed addicts puff away is now more and more noticeable as one becomes increasingly used to the relative purity of the air inside buildings.

It would be deeply unfortunate if New York succeeds in making its city more attractive by extending the smoking ban as envisaged.  London cannot be allowed to lag behind on this.  I trust that Mayor Johnson will not allow London’s competitive position to be eroded.  Do your duty Boris.

Sep 13,2009

I see that David Tyler, currently Chairman of Logica CMG, is to become Chairman of Sainsburys.

In 1974, David Tyler and I stood against each other for the Presidency of the Cambridge Union.  I won.

I don’t think I have seen him for 35 years.  But it is good to see that the “Anti-curse of Harris” is still potent: those who cross me always do well for themselves.

I am delighted for him and what I know of his business career suggests he is an excellent choice for Sainsburys.

When I mentioned it to my wife, she said: “I always knew you made the wrong career choice.”

Sep 7,2009

Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones is a member of the Shadow Cabinet and is Shadow Security Minister and National Security Advisor to the Leader of the Opposition.  Or is she?

The BBC has repeatedly described her today merely as a former chairwoman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.  What can this mean?

Three possibilities:

  1. The BBC has got wind of another member of the Shadow Cabinet who is being sacked and is dropping a large-size hint;
  2. The BBC, in another example of its pro-Tory bias, is quoting her as an “independent” expert, when really she is a mouth-piece of the Conservative Party; or
  3. BBC news editors are so incompetent that they don’t realise that she is a member of the Shadow Cabinet.

I know which I think is the more likely.

Sep 1,2009

I have been posting about the experience of becoming a member of the House of Lords (see here, here and here).

A date was set for my Introduction.  This is a formal process where you are robed up (the one and only time that I have worn the robes) and led into the Chamber at the beginning of the day’s business.

You form part of a procession involving both Black Rod and Garter, together with two colleagues also in robes who “introduce” you (in my case, the two introducers were Lords Andrew McIntosh – the other Haringey – and Frank Judd, both of whom I had known since I was a teenager). Then you listen to your Letters Patent being read out, swear or affirm (I affirmed) an oath of allegiance to the Queen, sign the Roll, and bow.  This is the abbreviated ceremony that lasts about seven minutes – the old ceremony lasted about twice as long and involved much more bowing and the doffing of hats with feathers.

Fortunately, this – as far as I was concerned – took place in something of a pleasant haze.  It is customary to have a good lunch beforehand (which you pay for) with your two colleagues, along with your family and friends.  (With another feudal touch the three Peers are served first when the food arrives.)  I dimly remember being taken off to the Moses Room, putting on the robes and my two colleagues bursting into a chorus from Iolanthe, before a brief rehearsal, and into the Chamber.

Colleagues in the Chamber are keeping tally of those who swear and those who affirm, and mark out of ten the quality of the bow at the end – although (just as well) didn’t know anything of this at the time.  Finally, as you leave the Chamber, you shake hands with the Lord Chancellor (now the Lord Speaker), colleagues growl “Hear, hear” in approval (you hope), and the formal process is over.  Then, after a brief pause to take off the robes and have photographs taken (I was advised not to have any official photographs taken in my robes, as these would thereafter always be the ones used by the media whenever your name was mentioned), you go back into the Chamber in more normal clothes – and the rest of your life begins.

Aug 28,2009

I have been posting about the experience of becoming a member of the House of Lords (see here and here).

Before you can take your seat, you have to have a series of meetings with a number of strange and wonderful feudal functionaries with mediaeval titles.  Like Black Rod – or to give him his proper title: The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, then General Sir Edward Jones  KCB CBE. Or jonese@parliament.uk to give him his e-mail address.

Then you have to see Mr Peter Gwynn-Jones LVO, who is the Garter Principal King of Arms, to “settle the question of your title”.  You don’t know who the Garter Principal King of Arms is?  That’s easy.  He’s the Chief Herald.  Still not clear?  Let me give you a clue: he’s the one who dresses up like a playing card in the State Opening of Parliament.

Now I had been warned about him.  I was told he might be difficult.  So I wrote to him in advance to ask him what the rules were regarding the choice of titles.  By return of post I got back a letter saying that Garter (as he likes to be known) has discretion under Rules (capital R) agreed by Her Majesty the Queen.  So that puts people like you and me in our place.

And then the letter went on for three or four paragraphs to summarise these rules.  But what it actually said was that you should call yourself after an area that was neither too small nor too large. Frankly, not too helpful.

Now I knew that I wanted to call myself after Haringey, the Borough I had been brought up in, live in and whose Council I had led for nearly twelve years.  But I was aware of one problem: Andrew McIntosh, then Deputy Chief Whip in the Lords, was already called Lord McIntosh of Haringey.  Could I use the same place name?

Anyway the appointed time came for my meeting with Garter at Garter House in the College of Arms (where else would you expect it to be?).  So I explained my concern.

“Oh, that’s not a problem” came the immediate reply.  “Who would mistake a Harris for a McIntosh?””

“Fine,” I said.  “Where do I sign?”

“Oh no, you can’t call yourself Harris of Haringey.  It’s against the Rules.  London Boroughs are now too important for mere life peers to be called after them.”

“But what about McIntosh of Haringey, or Turner of Camden, or Fisher of Lambeth, or for that matter Morris of Manchester.  There is even another Harris – this time of Greenwich.”

“Oh I think you’ll find that their titles were all created before the Rules were changed.”

All of this was beginning to take on even more of an Alice in Wonderland feel.  I began to understand why Garter dresses up as a playing card.  Every time I mentioned a name called after a London Borough, a dusty card index was produced.  A card would be pulled out, waved triumphantly, and I would be told “No that was in 1991 before the Rules were changed.”

“Are these rules actually written down.”

This was an insult:  “Of course they are” and a dusty paper was pulled from the bottom of a pile of papers and read out aloud.

“But that doesn’t say what you said the rules said.”

A pause.  Garter looks at the paper.  “Aah.  That’s because these are the 1963 rules.”

What was being proposed was that I should call myself after part of Haringey.  And I kept explaining that I couldn’t do that because I had spent the last ten years trying to hold the different parts of Haringey together.  I couldn’t show favouritism to one part at this stage.

Haringey could not be permitted.  If the Rule was bent for me, then everyone would want to be called after a London Borough.  And where would that end?

Eventually, to try to be helpful, I said, “What if I call myself Harris of Hornsey, Wood Green and Tottenham?” – thereby covering all the constituent parts.

There was a long pause while Garter digested this.

“Well, it’s not actually against the rules, Mr Harris, but ask yourself is it practicable?  People will shorten it.  The newspapers in particular.  Then there will be confusion.  There will be trouble.  People will complain.”  I had a vision of the massed ranks of Lords Harris marching on the College of Arms.

Finally, I said “Look we seem to have an impasse here.  I want to call myself Harris of Haringey.  You tell me that’s against the Rules – Rules you yourself have changed in the last few years.  The alternative is Harris of Hornsey, Wood Green and Tottenham that we both agree is a little unwieldy.  Would you like time to think it over?”

Now I don’t think that anyone had ever suggested that Garter should think something over before – certainly not a mere Life Peer.

We arranged to meet a week later.  “But there’s no point in coming back if you are not prepared to be more flexible,” he warned.

Anyway, a week later I returned – stubborn as ever – to be greeted by a beaming Garter.  “Mr Harris, you are in luck.  I have found a precedent.” Pause for effect.  “There is a Lord McIntosh of Haringey.

“I know, we talked about him last week.  I’ve known him for thirty years.”

It was though I hadn’t spoken.

“If my predecessor in his infinite wisdom, decreed that he could be called after Haringey, I don’t see how I can prevent you doing the same.”

Huge relief all round.  Where do I sign?

“There is one little thing you could do for me.”

Warning bells ringing.  “Yes?”

“I’ve been checking in the Domesday Book.”  (As one does.)  “Would you mind using the alternative spelling of Haringey – with two “R”s and an “A”?”

So I said: “Well, you do realise don’t you that in the local area Harringay spelt like that is either associated in people’s minds with a Sainsbury’s Superstore or with the old greyhound racing stadium.  I mean do you think it’s really fitting for a Life Peer to be called after a greyhound stadium?”

There was a very long pause.  “I think you’re going to win on this one, Mr Harris.”

So that’s how I became Lord Harris of Haringey.

But then we came to the really serious part of the meeting.

“Here in the College of Arms, we always feel very sorry for Life Peers.  They have nothing to hand on to their children.”

At this point a price list was slid across the table.  “A coat of arms at £4,035 costs less than a car and lasts forever.”  (I believe the price has risen since then.)

“What do people use them for,” I said.

Another question that hadn’t been asked before.  “Well, people used to put them on their shields when they rode into battle.”

However, I have to admit that I wasn’t convinced that it would come in useful in the hurly-burly of London politics.

So now – or at least once my Letters Patent had been Sealed – I was a Lord.  The final step was to take up my seat.

Aug 26,2009

A couple of days ago I posted about the telephone call that contained the offer to become a member of the House of Lords.  This is what happened next.

Having accepted the offer, I was still sworn to secrecy.  I filled in a form so my nomination could be vetted and then I heard nothing more.  I discovered subsequently that this was quite normal, but it certainly felt strange.  I was supposed to be reorganising my life, giving up full-time paid employment, creating an alternative income, but I had nothing in writing to say it was actually going to happen.

Despite the urgency with which I had been asked to make my decision (“We do need to know by the end of the week”), the rest of April 1998 and the whole of May passed without any announcement.  And, of course, I knew that the Labour Party was quite capable of changing its mind about such matters.

Then in June a contact in the North East told me of a conversation about my putative candidature for the National Executive Committee of the Party.  One of the trade union regional officials there had asked Peter Mandelson (very much a power in the land in 1998, although not quite to the same galactic extent that he is now – still “Prince of Darkness”, not yet “pussycat”) what he thought about me standing for the NEC.   Apparently, Peter’s response was not entirely positive:  “Toby Harris is precisely the wrong sort of person to be a member of the NEC – the last thing we want is another middle-aged, white, overweight, bearded local government leader from London.”  So if that was the received wisdom about the NEC, what about the House of Lords?

At this point, I cracked and rang Downing Street:  “Oh yes, you’re still on the list.  It’s just that Tony’s been very busy with Northern Ireland and so on.”

Finally, at the end of the first week in July, a letter arrived saying my name had been forwarded to the Queen – and the formal announcement came seven days later.

If the wait had felt a strange and surreal experience, it was still no preparation for the process following the announcement up to the moment I was introduced and took my seat.

Aug 24,2009

I am often asked – well sometimes asked – or to be more precise somebody asked me once:  “What is it like becoming a Peer?”  Therefore, as a public service, I thought that over the next week or so, I would share my story.

In March 1998, I took it into my head that I might run for the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party.  It would be the first year of the new system with constituency representatives being elected by a ballot of all Party members.  As the Chair of the Association of London Government (the body now called “London Councils”) and as the leading Labour local government figure in London and with a quarter of the Party’s national members being in London, I thought I might stand a reasonable chance.  Before going any further, I thought, however, I should find out whether I would be going against some master plan determined centrally.  So I tried to ring Sally Morgan, who is now a colleague in the Lords, but was then Political Secretary to the Prime Minister.

Over the space of two or three weeks, I called four times and left a message.  No return calls.  I was beginning to get a bit irritated, I had known Sally for at least ten years, and however pressing life was in Downing Street the very least I thought I was entitled to was getting my call answered.  Finally, on the fifth call I was put through.  Before I could even ask about the NEC, Sally cut me off:  “I’m sorry not to have come back to you before, but I knew your name was being discussed in another context and I thought I should wait until it was resolved before I spoke to you.  Anyway, Tony would like you to go into the House of Lords.  You don’t have to decide now, but we do need to know by the end of the week.”  This was the Tuesday before Easter, so the end of the week was effectively in 48 hours time.

At his point I needed to sit down and I pointed out that I was being asked to make a life-changing decision.  I was so busy over the next few days (at that time I worked full-time running the consumer body for the NHS, and in addition was a Council Leader, as well as chairing the ALG) that I said I couldn’t possibly make my mind up on that time-scale and was grudgingly given until the following week, “But you mustn’t say anything to anyone, although I suppose you can tell your wife, but that’s all.”.

The Easter weekend was surreal – we were away with our two teenage sons, the television was full of the negotiations in Belfast that culminated in the Good Friday agreement, and we kept having muttered conversations about whether I should accept the offer from the man on the television with the hand of history on his shoulder.  My sons soon realised something was going on.  Eventually over breakfast one said “Oh God, they’re not going to make you a bloody Lord are they?”.

In the end – as is obvious – I accepted.  I genuinely had not expected the offer, nor had I sought it.  The title was no attraction – a few months earlier I had rebuffed suggestions that my name should be put forward for a knighthood on the basis of my local government service – indeed, I was worried that it would be political death in the London Labour Party.  Fortunately, I had realised some years before that the life of a backbench member of the House of Commons could be a pretty miserable existence – as a council leader I had far more opportunity to make things happen for my local community than an MP – so the ending of any possibility of entering the Commons was not a big issue as far as I was concerned.  I finally convinced myself that the House of Lords would provide me with a platform in which I could argue about the issues that concerned me, campaign on the issues affecting London and at the same time play a part in getting the details of legislation right.  (Eleven years on, I am less sure, but that’s a discussion for another day.)