Monday, 29 December 2008

Not 2015 yet

The Guardian says that the government is facing New Year revolts against privatising the Post Office and a third Heathrow runway. Rather ineptly, it says about the runway:
Campaigners believe it will cause air pollution levels to soar, rendering impossible a 2015 emission target set by the European commission.

It's not just that the runway wouldn't be built until 2020. There is no 2015 emission target. The legally binding nitrogen dioxide limits in the EU air quality directive come into force in 2010. The government hopes to extend that for five years but that has by no means been agreed.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

The Times thinks that the presence of British troops in Iraq is in jeopardy as the country's parliament may not pass a law giving them legal cover by the end of the year. It isn't clear whether this would necessitate an full withdrawal - which would scupper Gordon Brown's plan to delay the inquiry - or merely confinement to the barracks they are mostly confined to already.

John Hutton thinks it's the latter but is worried:
Asked what would happen if no agreement were in place by December 31, John Hutton, the Defence Secretary, said: “That would be a very serious situation and obviously we couldn’t let it happen, but I don’t think it will happen. We have contingency plans.
Perhaps Hutton's quote has been compressed but it is intriguing to think what "we" would do to control the democratic process of supposedly free and independent country.

Not the brightest copper

The Mail's Peter Oborne says all that needs to be said about Bob Quick's humiliating climbdown:

What are the essential qualities the British are entitled to expect in our national counter-terrorism chief?

Here, surely, are a few: sound judgment, coolness under pressure, good intuition, total discretion, the ability to sift through evidence without leaping to conclusions and mental alertness.

There is no evidence that Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick, who is in charge of keeping Britain's streets safe from the Al Qaeda menace, possesses a single one of these vital characteristics.

Friday, 19 December 2008

The Mail gets it

The Daily Mail is, along with the Indy, one of the few papers to really understand what Gordon Brown did yesterday. Ben Brogan says that Brown
left open the possibility that the long-promised inquiry could be put off indefinitely as long as Britain maintains even a small military presence in Iraq.
In a very strong leader, the Mail says:
we need an inquiry now, and not another whitewash conducted by some Government stooge, but a Royal Commission, with wide-ranging judicial powers, which will leave no stone unturned in the search for the true lessons of this conflict. It must be conducted by substantial national figures whose judgment and independence cannot be questioned.

What is Brown afraid of?

I did a piece yesterday about the Iraq inquiry issue for Comment is Free but it's only just been posted.

In the meantime Andrew Grice has gone into print with this a story along the same lines.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Backtrack on Iraq

This morning I did another Indy Minds piece saying that Gordon Brown "really does need to spell out today exactly when his promised Iraq inquiry will take place".

Well, he didn't. Here's what Andrew Grice said about it, in full. Rather more than Brown said, in fact:
Gordon Brown angered MPs in all parties today by rejecting calls for an immediate inquiry into the causes, conduct and cost of the Iraq war and its aftermath. Reporting to the Commons on his flying visit to Iraq yesterday, the PM insisted it was not the right time to set up the inquiry he has promised while 4,100 British troops remain in the country.
Opposition parties smell a rat. They believe Brown's game is to stall the start of an investigation for as long as possible, so that it could not report before the next general election. They even expect Brown to hide behind the presence of up to 400 servicemen in Iraq after the bulk return home by next July.
Brown aides say he will make as decision the timing of an inquiry next summer. If he tries to use the remaining personnel as an excuse, he may have a problem. David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, told MPs last week: "We are not going to hide behind the idea that the last troop must have come home." We shall see.

Restating the bleeding obvious

Tremendous piece in the Indy from Matthew Norman , who is very cross about Iraq. Looking back to October last year, Norman recalls that Brown:
torpedoed a reputation for straightness, as skillfully nurtured as it was ill deserved, with an act of political opportunism so cretinously transparent that it beggared all belief. The chump flew to Basra and announced troop reduction figures that proved, after 0.37 seconds of the barely numerate's inspection, what is known to professors of political science as a whopper, but which I guess, in honour of the week's hilarious shoe theme, we should know as arrant cobblers.


"Oh my God," yelped my wife as the penny dropped – like many, she had developed quite a crush on the old bruiser in his first months in power. "I thought the whole point to Brown was that he didn't play stupid games like Blair."
Aware that it's perhaps tedious to rehash an old line, Norman rails against the continuing absence of a proper inquiry and adds:
If the mild embarrassment of restating the bleeding obvious ad infinitum is the cost of sustaining the righteous fury that is Mr Brown's due for supporting the war back then, and for spinning such poisonously mendacious gibberish about victory now ... so be it.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Easily cleared up

The Guardian reports that:
The brother of an Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at George Bush claimed today that the television reporter was too badly beaten to appear in court.
but adds:
Iraqi officials have denied that Muntazar, a 29-year-old reporter for the private Al-Baghdadia TV station, has been injured. Under Iraq's legal system a judge investigates an allegation before recommending whether to order a trial. Initial hearings are often conducted informally rather than in court.
It should be easily cleared up, if the Iraqi government allow the media to see him.

Harman loses the Inquiry plot

I've done a couple of Indy Minds pieces today about the Iraq inquiry, the second of which wonders whether Harriet Harman is hardening the government's line, softening it, or merely (understandably) confused.

The element of surprise is gained by lying

It's worth noting that Brown has gained the element of surprise with his Iraq withdrawal announcement not only by making it in Iraq in advance of a statement to Parliament but by misleading the press about when that statement would be made.

Journalists who were briefed on the withdrawal last week reported:
The Prime Minister is expected to announce the pullout that, in effect, ends the UK's engagement in one of the most controversial wars in recent times, in the Commons next January.

Less on the Iraq inquiry.

I've done a piece for Indy Minds about this, with Downing Street refusing to say when the Iraq Inquiry will take place. My conclusion is that it's all about news management.

It is interesting to wonder why none of the journalists who went on the trip with Brown seem to have asked him about the inquiry. By inviting hacks to take part in a headline-grabbing surprise visit, Brown controls the agenda, even if he is only confirming something that was leaked last week.

Obviously the type of journalists who go on these trips have to promise to behave well and not leak or throw shoes. The case of Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi, who probably shouldn't have done it, represents a test for Iraq's "democracy" and "freedom of speech".

If the Iraqi government wants to prosecute him for throwing shoes, that's fine, but not for "insulting" politicians . Neither should they beat him up. With allegations being made that al-Zaidi has been quite seriously injured in custody, it will be telling how quickly he is released.

What exactly will Brown announce?

So Gordon Brown is in Iraq this morning. According to the Times, this is
to set an end date for Britain's mission in Iraq, announcing all but a handful of troops will be home by next summer.

Mr Brown thanked UK troops and declared Britain's mission in Basra complete.

The 4,100 troops stationed in Iraq will start to return home in March.
According to the Indy, Brown and the Iraqi PM Nouri Maliki said:
"The role played by the UK combat forces is drawing to a close. These forces will have completed their tasks in the first half of 2009 and will then leave Iraq."
So will Brown announce that an inquiry will start when the combat troops are home? Not one of the papers has yet asked this question.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Yes he did

Home Office minister Vernon Coaker has indeed apologised for claiming that 70 police had been injured by demonstrators at the Kingsnorth demonstration.

It's another victory for freedom of information.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Shoe throwing effective -Bush

As protesters in Iraq demand the release of the journalist who threw his shoes at George Bush - and missed - the BBC has video of the incident and of Bush saying afterwards calmly and good-humouredly that the protest was "effective".

The Iraqi government is still holding the man, more for causing embarrassment than anything else:

The Iraqi government has demanded an on-air apology from his employer.

An Iraqi official was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that the journalist was being interrogated to determine whether anybody paid him to throw his shoes at President Bush.

He was also being tested for alcohol and drugs, and his shoes were being held as evidence, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Cairo-based al-Baghdadiya TV channel said Mr Zaidi should be freed because he had been exercising freedom of expression - something which the Americans had promised to Iraqis on the ousting of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"Any measures against Muntadar will be considered the acts of a dictatorial regime," the firm said in a statement.

The BBC also says:
Also on Monday, Human Rights Watch accused Iraq's main criminal court of failing to meet basic international standards of justice.

The New York-based group said torture and abuse of prisoners before trial appeared common, and legal representation was often ineffectual.

Human Rights Watch said some of the court's failings showed disturbing similarities to those that existed during the Saddam Hussein era.

The group called on Iraq to take immediate steps to protect detainees from torture, and ensure they had access to proper defence and received a prompt hearing.

Hissy fit over leaks

The Times says that Britain faces a "humiliating" withdrawal from Iraq, in that it will have to share its "status of forces" agreement with five other countries. I'm not sure it's a humiliation but, it's a good story, which quotes - on the record - Iraq's national security adviser and its industry minister. However:
A British government spokeswoman declined to comment on “leaked” information.
In what sense is this "leaked"? The government's desire to control information is such that if another party to a bilateral (or bigger) international agreement discusses it in public, it throws a hissy fit.

What happened to objectivity

It would be tedious to get into the rights and wrongs of the latest silly row over Strictly Come Dancing. If you ask me, anyone who takes part in a Scam TV phone-in, whether it be a "quiz" on this morning or a phone poll, can't complain afterwards that their money is "wasted".

But this "news story" from the BBC is a disgrace. It quotes a BBC spokesperson as saying nothing went wrong and, in any case, it will all be sorted and then has another quote from the BBC's controller of entertainment production, Jon Beazley.

The BBC needs to stop running news stories and puffs for its entertainment programmes because it throws objectivity out of the window.

No, that's not right

Meanwhile, the Guardian's Patrick Wintour has the bigger environmental story:
Hilary Benn, the environment secretary, lifted the lid yesterday on the Cabinet-level debate on the expansion of Heathrow, saying the government must not contemplate allowing itself to breach air pollution limits set by the European commission.

His intervention could potentially put a break on government expansion plans.

Air pollution around Heathrow already exceeds limits set by the commission and Britain is expected to seek a temporary abrogation from an air pollution directive agreed in June, but only on the basis that it will be able to meet the pollution requirements by 2015, the deadline set by the commission.

Britain will have to satisfy the commission that Heathrow's expansion will not undermine Britain's ability to meet its commitments by 2015.

Apart from a shocking spelling mistake, Wintour has it wrong and has probably been influenced by government spin. In order to get a derogation from the directive, Britain will have to satisfy the commission that Heathrow expansion will not undermine Britain's ability to meet its commitments before 2015. The commission is not going to give Britain a derogation to allow it to increase pollution in the meantime.

Wintour quotes something Geoff Hoon said in last month's commons debate, showing that he (Wintour) doesn't really get it:

In a Commons debate last month Hoon told MPs: "The problems are mainly to do with existing pollution from traffic in Greater London, including around Heathrow, and traffic in other major cities across the country. They are not to do with decisions about future capacity at Heathrow.

"Reports that we are seeking to abrogate from our responsibilities in this area solely in order to promote expansion at Heathrow are completely and utterly wrong."

The fact that Hoon had to add the qualification "solely" is an indirect admission that the derogation is partly related to Heathrow expansion, even if, as most people know, the government will be in trouble in 2010 anyway.

No shame

More lies from the Home Office, this time around the policing of the Kinsgnorth protest. According to the Guardian:
Police were accused of using aggressive tactics, confiscating everything from toilet rolls and board games to generators and hammers. But ministers justified what they called the "proportionate" £5.9m cost of the operation, pointing out that 70 officers had been injured in the course of their duties.

But data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act puts a rather different slant on the nature of those injuries, disclosing that not one was sustained in clashes with demonstrators.

The Home Office has now admitted that the protesters had not been responsible for any injuries. In a three-line written answer to a parliamentary question, the Home Office minister Vernon Coaker wrote to the Lib Dem justice spokesman, David Howarth, saying: "Kent police have informed the Home Office that there were no recorded injuries sustained as a result of direct contact with the protesters."

Presumably Coaker will be apologising.

It all adds up

Philip Johnston in the Times says the knife crime figures scandal shows that "you can never believe a Labour statistic". People in the government don't seem to realise how counter-productive it is to acquire this kind of reputation for spin. Apparently, having briefed the media:
suspicions were aroused when the Home Office refused to publish the detailed statistics, bizarrely citing "police confidentiality".

The truth soon emerged: the official statisticians did not want any figures released because they were incomplete and had not been subject to proper methodological scrutiny.
Obviously, this raises further questions about arresting people for leaking - at the Home Office. Labour leaks when it suits it and then gets on its high horse about national security, confidentiality and the workings of government when that suits it instead.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Thanks, Lawrie

Former footballer and manager Lawrie Sanchez has just opined on Radio Five Live that the transfer window is "past its sell-by date".


Still shopping transatlantic

Back on Heathrow, the Sunday Telegraph says
The British may be spending less, but they haven’t given up on their Christmas visits to New York
Yesterday, the Guardian reported falling numbers at BAA's airports. But:
Heathrow proved the most resilient of the BAA airports, with traffic down 4.8% on the same month last year, partly because the open skies agreement meant there were additional US services.
Whatever anyone says about the need to have a variety of destinations from the Heathrow "hub", in reality the airport is jam-packed with very profitable flights to the US, many of them for shopping.

How low can it go?

The Sunday Times also says that
STERLING’s fall could limit the Bank of England’s scope for further aggressive cuts in interest rates, analysts warn, following the pound’s drop to a record low of E1.11 against the euro last week.
As could the fact that the Bank's base rate is at 2%

Is Benn breaking ranks?

The Sunday Times says that:
Hilary Benn, the environment secretary, broke cabinet ranks yesterday to warn that Heathrow’s controversial expansion plans should be rejected unless noise and air pollution are dramatically cut.
It depends on how you read this as to whether Benn really is breaking ranks and whether this illustrates that the Cabinet is split. Benn did give an absolute assurance that the EU air quality directive will not be breached after 2015, something that Ed Miliband previously declined to do. But apart from that, this is the basis for the story:
Benn’s remarks lay bare the growing tensions within the government over the issue. While Heathrow’s supporters in the cabinet, such as Hoon, pay lip service to the pollution and noise concerns, they prefer to concentrate on the economic arguments in favour of expansion.

In contrast, Benn did not say a word of support for the third runway during his 45-minute interview.

“The government has had a consultation,” he said. “We are currently looking at the results. What I have been looking at in particular is air quality and noise.”

He suggested the effect of a third runway on Britain’s overall carbon emissions was also a key issue.

No problem then

The Observer reveals the dirty tricks that we have come to expect from the tobacco industry. The Save our Shops campaign is apparently the "brainchild" of the Tobacco Retailers Association, which is itself an offshoot of the Tobacco Manufacturers Association.

Obviously, all concerned are admitting that plans to remove cigarettes from public display will reduce sales, which is a good thing. That doesn't stop them insisting that any changes should be "evidence based". If it doesn't work (which it has done elsewhere), why are they worried?

Friday, 12 December 2008

An unsung whistleblower

I've done a piece today for Index on Censorship about Atif Amin, the customs investigator who is being investigated by the IPCC (yes, really, the Independent Police Complaints Commission) over allegations that he broke the official secrets act.

He isn't a whistleblower in the true sense of the word as all he did was comment on information that was already in public domain, that he was prevented from investigating the A.Q. Khan nuclear smuggling network after he found that it was smuggling proliferation-sensitive materiel to Libya.

As I commented in an Independent Minds blog, what seems to have upset the state is that he (very mildly) questioned whether it was a good idea to watch Khan proliferating for a further three and a half years. During this time the network supplied Iran and caused Tony Blair so much worry that he invaded Iraq.

So why is the IPCC investigating Amin and questionning BBC journalists, while the killers of Jean Charles de Menezes get away scot free - not to mention the proliferators?

Did the Jury rebel?

The Guardian and Independent both seem to have the right line on the de Menezes verdict. The Indy says outright "Menezes jury rejects police claim of lawful killing" while the Guardian says:
The jury at the inquest into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes today rejected Scotland Yard's claim that he was lawfully killed as part of an anti-terrorism operation.

Banned by the coroner, Sir Michael Wright, from returning a verdict of unlawful killing, the five men and five women decided on an open verdict – the most critical that was available to them.

Even the BBC gets it, although you have to read down their story a bit:

The jury were given the choice of two possible verdicts, but chose to reject the option that Mr Menezes was killed lawfully by the police.

BAA incompetent liars?

The Telegraph reports with some glee that:
Gatwick Airport was closed for several ours due to snow, as it was disclosed it has opted out of a £1,000 a month weather forecasting service from the Met Office.

There were also reports that BAA had used the wrong chemical to de-ice the runway, but this was denied by the airport operator.


However BAA attributed the closure of the runway to an "unforecast snow flurry and a sudden dip in the temperature".

The Met Office said last night that it had predicted snow, ice and a drop in temperature and its customers at Gatwick encountered no problems. BAA insisted it had the same information from its own supplier but was unable to keep the runway open.
So the snow was "unforecast" and predicted at the same time?

Thursday, 11 December 2008

No election - unofficial

In the latest New Statesman, Martin Bright says, rightly, that "It can be hard to believe James Purnell and Ed Balls are in the same party."

Meanwhile, James Macintyre says there will not be a general election until 2010:
"No one is even talking about it this time," says a source, in reference to the disastrous speculation about the election that never was in the autumn of last year. Downing Street insiders suggest that, if the electorate were to have even a hint that the Prime Minister was putting party politics before tackling the effects of the recession, Labour would collectively pay the price.
Which rather suggests that they wouldn't admit to planning an election, even if they were. Talking about an election and then bottling it is not clever. Not talking about an election and then doing it is quite a lot cleverer.


The Guardian says this morning that:
Unions representing steelworkers at Corus have strongly denied reports that they have offered to take a 10% pay cut across the company's UK workforce of 25,000.
Given that the original story, in the Financial Times, quoted a union - rather than a company - source, as saying "Representatives would accept a 10 per cent decrease for everybody, from the bottom to the top of the company", you have to assume there was something in it.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

More on the Iraq Inquiry - and the leak

I've just done a piece for Independent Minds on David Miliband's (sort of) announcement on the Iraq Inquiry.

Here's what William Hague said on that and on the briefing on the planned withdrawal:

The first issue is that it was announced to the Press overnight that “the withdrawal of the 4,000 British troops in Iraq will be completed by next June, a senior defence source has disclosed”, that “the Prime Minister is expected to make an announcement in the New Year laying out the timetable for the troops to pull out”.

‘This information, if true, should have been given to Parliament in the form of a statement to the House of Commons.

‘It has the appearance of an authoritative leak, and since this time it does involve national security, it might be appropriate for the perpetrator to be arrested.

‘We have a government that deplores leaks by day and lives by leaks at night, and in which ministers either have no control over their departments or are deliberately sanctioning such behaviour.

‘Perhaps the Defence Secretary can tell us when he winds up the debate which of these alternatives is true, and whether the leak is correct. We certainly hope that our troops can be withdrawn from Iraq as soon as is consistent with the security of that country.’

In his speech in Abu Dhabi two weeks ago, the Foreign Secretary said that “Despite good intentions in Iraq, and current progress, it is clear that serious mistakes were made” and he must surely agree that if that is the case, it is important to examine what these mistakes were and what has been done to ensure that they will never be repeated.

‘When we last debated this issue in the House, on 25th March he said that “there is agreement across the House that an Inquiry into the Iraq war will be necessary” and that “the dispute between us concerns not substance, but timing”. Since the government now speaks of “tasks completed” and “fundamental change” in our mission in Iraq, it must surely be the time for them to make clear their intentions on an Inquiry and I once again serve notice that if they fail to do so, we will again be returning to the issue this session and that the continued absence of an Inquiry, or its setting up on an inadequate basis will be rectified immediately upon the election of a Conservative government.’

Iraq inquiry announced

In the Queen's speech foreign policy debate, the older Miliband has just said that the government is not going to be hiding behind the idea that all our troops must be home before the Iraq inquiry takes place.

This is the first time that this has been said.

Not apologising

In the debate following James Purnell's statement on welfare reform, tory Peter Lilley has just criticised Purnell for revealing his proposals to the press rather than in a statement to Parliament. Purnell offered no acknowledgement of the point, let alone the apology Lilley requested.

Be careful what you wish for

Green Party MEP Caroline Lucas has a blog on which she opens with the following observation:
Environment Secretary Ed Miliband should be careful what he wishes for. No sooner had he told the Guardian that more popular mobilisation on climate change was needed, than the activist group Plane Stupid kindly obliged.
It's a good point, even if the younger Miliband is in fact the energy and climate change secretary. In fact, Miliband had called for a popular mobilisation when he said virtually the same things to the Environment Agency conference two weeks ago.


The Guardian and the Independent have both been very well briefed by "a senior defence source" about plans to withdraw troops from Iraq next year. The Indy says:
The Prime Minister is expected to announce the pullout that, in effect, ends the UK's engagement in one of the most controversial wars in recent times, in the Commons next January.
So, either this is an officially sanctioned briefing, pre-announcing what Gordon Brown is going to say to Parliament, or it's a leak. Given that it includes details of troop and equipment movements, it would be a pretty serious breach of the Official Secrets Act. Pretty hypocritical either way.

Grateful for their information, what neither the Guardian or the Indy ask is whether Brown will announce that his promised Iraq Inquiry will follow the pullout.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Majority verdict allowed

According to the Guardian, the coroner in the inquest into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes today told the jury he would accept a majority verdict. The paper also says:
Last week, he ruled that the jury was forbidden from considering whether the innocent Brazilian was unlawfully killed. Since then the jury has been deliberating for four days.
Could there perhaps be a connection?

Monday, 8 December 2008

Arguments against additional aviation

The Guardian's report on today's protest at Stansted makes the case against allowing an inexorable expansion of aviation - in the words of those who are inconvenienced.

Vivienne Brinton, 56, of Harlow, Essex, had been due to fly to her second home in France until her flight was cancelled. "I suppose people will have some sympathy with the protesters," she said..

"But in the modern world we live in, people want to travel. Cheap flights allow us to have homes elsewhere."

Another woman said she was flying to Bremen, Germany, to spend the day at a Christmas market. "The flight has been cancelled because some delightful people have decided to drive a fire engine around a runway, we hear. I think it really is a shame because they are not going to get any sympathy because of this disruption."

Clearly disrupting passengers risks being counter-productive but why someone flying to Germany to spend the day at a Christmas market expects sympathy is unclear. Or rather, it shows the situation we've got ourselves into.

Quite wrong

In today's corrections and clarifications, the Guardian's readers' editor Siobhain Butterworth says:
The headline on an article about a third runway for Heathrow airport was misleading (Climate change watchdog backs expansion of Heathrow, page 1, November 27). As the story made clear, plans for expansion were not endorsed by Lord Turner, the chairman of the Climate Change Committee set up to advise the government on the issue of global warming. He said that it might be possible to increase aviation emissions and still meet the government's target for cutting greenhouse gases. The headline on the web story has been changed to: Aviation can expand while meeting climate targets, says watchdog.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Heathrow decision delay shows cabinet split

I've just done a piece for to the effect that today's delay to the decision on Heathrow expansion shows that a debate is raging at the heart of government, to quote Labour MP John Grogan.

The cabinet is clearly wobbling on the issue. Today’s announcement will be a surprise to those who thought it was a done deal, but claims to this effect appear to have been wishful thinking. No doubt it’s taking longer than expected to square the environmental circle.

Tory accusations of “dithering” over the proposed third runway have a point when you remember that this is the second time that the decision has been put back. In July, Ruth Kelly, then transport secretary, said that an announcement that had been due in August would now happen “before the end of the year”. Funnily enough, she said that:

there was still work to be done in assessing the views of 70,000 individuals and organisations consulted on the expansion.”

Her replacement, Geoff Hoon said today that “he had begun to consider the evidence, including 70,000 responses.” It isn’t clear what ministers were doing in the meantime, apart from arguing amongst themselves.

Reports of a cabinet split at the beginning of November seem to have been borne out, as have the insights of Environment Agency chairman and former minister Chris Smith, who told me last week that a “major debate” was still going on amongst ministers.

At the Agency’s conference last week, environment minister Hilary Benn appeared to go off message when he said that people who ignore issues like air pollution “don’t get it”. But climate change secretary Ed Miliband, also alleged to have been a rebel, refused to rule out ignoring breaches of legally binding air quality rules to allow expansion to go ahead.

BA are putting a brave face on the delay, although the Evening Standard’s Joe Murphy says it “will be seen in the industry as a significant loss of momentum”. Opponents like Hillingdon Council bemoan the continued uncertainty and describe the delay as part of a “long history of broken promises on Heathrow”.

The other problem is that the expansion that would precede the new runway will very soon run up against those legally binding air quality rules. Airport owner BAA and the government want to increase flights as early as 2010 through moving to mixed mode operation – using both existing runways at the same time for takeoff and landing. With nitrogen dioxide limits in the EU air quality directive due to come into force at that time, the government admits that it is dependent on delaying the directive for up to five years.

While it says with some justification that a delay will have to be sought whether or not Heathrow is expanded, what it won’t say is whether airport expansion will put back the date by which it will comply. There is in any case no guarantee that European environment commissioner Stavros Dimas will allow any delay, let alone an extended one that allows for Heathrow expansion.

According to Jim Pickard of the FT, Hoon is spinning the delay as a presentational issue, to make people think that he has taken the environmental issues into account. It seems unlikely that he would do something so cynical and then own up to it, but you never know with Hoon. It’s more likely that he knew he couldn’t take the cabinet with him.

Heathrow decision delayed

The government has announced that it is putting back a decision on Heathrow expansion. Clearly ministers are still arguing over the issue.

That explains it!

The Times has a piece about why older people are more affected by speed cameras - and why they are so much against them. Research has found that cameras led to a huge percentage increase in the number of men and women over 60 receiving penalty points for speeding, "though starting from a very low base."

The theory is that such drivers would previously have been let off with a warning, at the "discretion" of police officers.
Rob Gifford, director of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, said that older drivers had been accustomed to driving on roads without cameras and would have found it harder to adapt when they spread across the country.

“Police may have given elderly drivers a telling-off rather than a fine whereas cameras are blind to the age of the driver,” he said. “It was wrong to be lenient with older drivers because they were posing a danger on the roads by ignoring the limit. Since the growth in cameras, the proportion of vehicles breaking the 30mph limit has fallen from 75 per cent to 30 per cent and deaths have fallen sharply.”

Mr Gifford said that the rise in older speeding offenders helped to explain the emergence of a vociferous anticamera campaign dominated by drivers in their fifties and sixties.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

National security indeed!

Damian Green's intervention following this afternoon's statement by Commons speaker Michael Martin should shoot the national security fox once and for all.
"An MP endangering national security would be a disgrace. An MP exposing embarrassing facts about Home Office policy which ministers are hiding is doing a job in the public interest."
In a blog for Index on Censorship, one time Foreign Office mole Derek Pasquill points out the similarities and differences between his case and that of Green, although Pasquill's position is more like that of civil servant Christopher Galley. In either case you wonder whether it's really a matter for a criminal investigation.

Out comes the national security card

The Guardian says that the police claim that national security issues led to the arrest of Damian Green overshadows the release of a tory film of the search of his office. It could not have been more blatant that the security card was being played had they said "trumped" instead of overshadowed.

The first three lines of the Guardian article say it all:
The Metropolitan police conducted a search of Damian Green's parliamentary office last week after being told by the Cabinet Office that a series of leaks to the shadow minister could have posed a threat to national security.

Minutes after the Tories intensified the pressure on the police last night by releasing a short video showing the "rigorous" search, the Met hit back by highlighting the seriousness of the operation.

Sources said their investigation was prompted by a request from the Cabinet Office, whose officials told the police that the "systematic series of leaks" from the private office of the home secretary were so serious that they could pose a threat to national security. Police sources said this explained their decision to take the step - unprecedented in recent history - of arresting Green and searching his parliamentary office.

The police sources certainly know how to get their version of events in the paper without direct attribution or comeback.

When you dig into the national security claim, as subsequently set out in a letter from Jacqui Smith, it's fairly clear there is nothing in it:
She wrote: "Given the sensitive issues that the Home Office deals with - including matters of national security - there was a clear duty to take action to prevent leaks from happening."

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Whose fault is that?

In the Times, Rachel Sylvester says that the real problem - for which Damian Green is being punished - is that the government has lost control over the flow of information. She accepts without question, the claims of ministers and officials that the freedom of information act is a bad thing:

They have a point. Of course, as a journalist I am all in favour of getting as much information as possible. But there comes a time when the public interest means that some things should be kept private. If the Information Commissioner decides that the details of Cabinet meetings should be released it will become almost impossible for ministers to have a frank discussion.

Officials have already become more circumspect in the advice they give for fear that their private musings will be released. People are reluctant to put things on paper. Even in e-mails civil servants use codenames, or replace some letters with asterisks when discussing individuals - so that a search for the person's name under the Freedom of Information Act, would draw a blank. Legislation that was meant to encourage more openness has, in fact, led to greater obfuscation. Sir Gus jokes with investigative journalists at parties that it is his job to frustrate their inquiries; the Civil Service sees its role as to block any important requests, which means that only trivia (such as the guest lists for dinners at Chequers or the amount of money MPs claim on expenses) is revealed. “Most ministers think that the Freedom of Information Act is a joke and a waste of taxpayers' money,” says one government member. “It's killing the system.”

There were 8,865 freedom of information requests in the past three months for which records are held. Hundreds of civil servants have to work full-time on answering the questions, at a cost of more than £20 million a year. Officials estimate that they have spent more than £1 million answering requests from the BBC alone. Lord Turnbull, Sir Gus's predecessor as head of the Civil Service, once told me he had to devote an hour a day to deciding which documents should be made public while a minister claims he spends twelve hours a week answering “scrutiny” questions including those submitted under the Freedom of Information Act. Many requests are a waste of time - one questioner asked how much money was spent on Ferrero Rocher chocolates by British embassies; another woman asked for a list of phone numbers of eligible bachelors in the Hampshire police force. Legislation designed to increase voters' trust of the political system has ended up undermining it.

It's quite astonishing that a journalist can accept such tosh at face value without asking whose fault it is that civil servants spend so much time and money being obstructive. Not that £20m a year for freedom of information is a great deal when the government spends hundreds of millions on its own propaganda. The old chestnut about Ferrero Rocher chocolates came straight out of the very same government spin machine.

A convenient cliche

Today's Telegraph says that
An investigation is under way into whether a man who was shot dead by police on the steps of a cathedral goaded officers into firing at him as a means of committing suicide.
but how true is this? The paper claims that:
Mike Franklin, the IPCC Commissioner for the South East, confirmed that the theory of "suicide by cop" would be "one line of inquiry".
But the press office at the Independent Police Complaints Commission said it was unaware of any such comment. It's a very convenient cliche, not least because it automatically exonerates the police involved even before the investigation starts.

As the de Menezes whitewash draws to a close, we see how easily a phrase like "mistaken for a suicide bomber" can colour the public's understanding of such events.

BBC in analysis - shock

The Tories are clearly winning the Damian Green row, lately because of an email that was not so much leaked as sent to them by mistake. Despite the government claiming that there was no attempt at a stitch-up over the forthcoming statement from the Speaker , the facts are against them. According to the BBC:
a spokesman for Ms Harman said the meeting had "nothing to do with the contents" of the statement.

"The content of the Speaker's statement is entirely a matter for the speaker," he said.

"The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the parliamentary business and handling of issues that arise from the fact that the Speaker's statement and the Queen's Speech will be happening on the same day."

However, BBC political correspondent Reeta Chakrabarti said: "Harriet Harman details in the e-mail several principles she sees as vital, including that MPs must be able to do their work and that they are not above the law; matters that would appear to be central to the issues the speaker must discuss."

How very unlike the BBC to give the public the facts that show that one side is right and the other wrong in an ongoing political argument. BBC "balance" usually involves making both sides look equally valid.

Destroying democracy and the environment

According to the Evening Standard:

Militants trying to stop the expansion of Heathrow are planning a series of direct action protests in the New Year, the Standard can reveal.

They will carry out co-ordinated attacks designed to cause maximum disruption. Protesters said they wanted to make the Government pay for "broken promises" by targeting leading MPs and Heathrow officials.

It has been clear for a while that a decision to expand the airport will lead to some serious direct action. As far a broken promises are concerned, to promise strict environmental tests and then fix them as blatantly as has been done over Heathrow will irreparably damage faith in the democratic process.

Meanwhile the BBC reports a survey from the British Chambers of Commerce demanding a third runway at Heathrow and a high speed rail link, supposedly because of the increasing costs of congestion. But:
The report also found that employers are increasingly willing to implement policies that allow staff to work from home and take advantage of technological advances.
Isn't that the way forward?

Labour behind but ahead

A new poll in the Independent says that Labour are only a single percentage point behind the tories, contradicting polls at the weekend that had a tory double-digit lead. Because of the vagaries of the electoral system:
The figures would give Gordon Brown an overall majority of 10 if repeated at a general election.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Secrecy office

Linking the cabinet minutes and the Damian Green case is the involvement of the Cabinet Office, who obviously see it as their main job to stop information that will damage the government getting into the public domain.

Meanwhile, Douglas Carswell MP blames Commons speaker Michael Martin for allowing Green's office to be searched and says he will call for him to go.

More on the minutes

I've got a piece on Comment is Free suggesting that the minutes of the cabinet meeting held as Lord Goldsmith was making up his mind might be just as interesting. Did Blair string the cabinet along?

Daft and stupid

I'm pretty gobsmacked by the arrest of Damian Green for using leaked information. On Comment is Free, David Hencke says that "whistleblowing happens every week and any government that thinks it can stop it is daft and stupid".
What he was actually doing, as any good investigative journalist would know, is obtaining information that the government had suppressed of an extremely embarrassing nature that ministers would rather not see published.
And indeed, journalists are also at risk under the same law.

Astonishing arrogance

Yesterday I read headlines like "BAA to accept air quality watchdog at Heathrow" and wondered if anyone had proposed such a thing. Apparently not. Monopoly airport owner BAA used to be the British Airports Authority and some people think it still is. It seems to think it is still part of government, as do the Department for Transport officials who let it fix their modelling on noise and pollution at Heathrow.

What an astonishing piece of spin, to propose a dodge that it thinks will get Heathrow expansion through in spite of the environmental issues. If the government did choose to take this route, whether BAA accepted it or not would be irrelevant.

Greenpeace says that "BAA's arrogance knows no bounds" and I tend to agree.

Along the way

I've been out and about for most of the week and haven't kept up with this blog.

I was at the Environment Agency piece on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday, I did this piece for, pointing out that ministers are still not quite singing from the same hymn sheet on Heathrow and air quality. The most interesting thing was that when Hilary Benn apparently went off-message, the potentially offending words were struck from the record.

On Wednesday and Thursday, I was at the information tribunal to hear the government's appeal against the information commissioner's order to release cabinet minutes around the attorney general's Iraq war advice. It emerged that the minutes may "prove the absence of sufficient discussion".

Monday, 24 November 2008

Oh no he didn't

According to yesterday's Sunday Times,

In a speech tomorrow the government’s own green watchdog will increase pressure on ministers not to approve the expansion [of Heathrow].

[Chris] Smith will tell his agency’s annual conference: “The government has committed itself to rigorous targets to emissions 80% by 2050, which now include reduce CO2 aviation and shipping. It is impossible to see how they would be achieved if the current plans for a third runway go ahead.

I'm at the conference today and Smith said no such thing. He didn't mention Heathrow. Maybe he'll say it tomorrow...

Getting ahead of ourselves

The Guardian says "10,000 jobs to be created by insulating homes" but what is this based on, apart from government spin? The paper clearly has a tip-off of what Alistair Darling will announce in this afternoon;s pre-budget report but who knows how many jobs will be created?

It was always clear that the government would seek to claim that jobs are being protected or created and that they would like to get credit for it. So how naive is this?
Ministers believes the report will be a defining moment for Labour, and that the government will receive credit from voters for acting to stem a looming recession, rather than be blamed for taking state borrowing to record levels.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Mr Toad indeed

It's hard to believe a national newspaper could print the kind of tosh today's Telegraph has served up from Clive Aslet, Editor at Large of 'Country Life'. The piece is headed: "Speed limits are about money, not safety". How does someone spin a proposal to ban speeding drivers rather than fine them as being "about money"?

Well, first Aslet comes up with the usual argument that it's not speed that causes accidents but bad drivers. Then he brings up the circular claim that road safety measures have alienated the poor motorist:
Show the British motorist a plausible idea for improving road safety, and he'll laugh in its face. He has lost faith in the system.
The fact that the Telegraph, the Mail, Top Gear et al repeatedly churn out this sort of nonsense has nothing to do with it, presumably.

Finally, Aslet says;
on speed, part of me rebels against a regime whose priorities are so badly skewed. We all know which aspect of motoring is most rigorously patrolled: parking. Around here, you'll be given a ticket within minutes of overstaying your meter. That isn't about safety, but money.
So even if banning speeding drivers can't possibly about money, the fact that you get fined for overstaying your parking means that it is, after all. I am truly lost for words to describe this childish self-indulgent nonsense.

Thursday, 20 November 2008


The department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) continues to spin announcements that are not backed up by reality. As I describe in a piece on, they have made what could be a landmark commitment to end rough sleeping by 2012 but put no new money or ideas into the task.

Rather worryingly, CLG has now scrapped the idea of a national (England) estimate of the number of rough sleeping after the headline figure refused to drop in the last five years. Many of the measures trailed in CLG's press release are not stood up by its "action plan".

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Election fever all over again

Also in the Guardian, Patrick Wintour reports on the tories' problems, including a collapsing poll lead:
Labour is wary of fuelling speculation after the debacle of not calling an election last year, but said if polls went in the same direction over the winter, an election in June, the date of the European elections, becomes a serious option.
If that isn't speculation, I don't know what is.
The Guardian follows up yesterday's story on Lord Bingham's comments with an editorial calling for a full inquiry into Iraq.

It's good that the paper is reminding people that the Inquiry should not just be about the debacle the followed the invasion but the scandal of how Britain got into an illegal war.

Unlike the BBC, the Guardian doesn't try to diminish Bingham's signficance:
Lord Bingham is not just any old lawyer. He is the most senior judge of the modern era. He is regarded by many as its finest legal mind. Though Lord Bingham only retired a few weeks ago, he has been at the pinnacle of English law-making for a decade and a half and has clearly been pondering the war's legality for years.
Strangely though, the editorial, which is about "time" and refers to the forthcoming withdrawal of troops, doesn't suggest that the latter will allow the inquiry to take place.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Calling it vigilantism is too kind

My take on Lord Bingham's comments can be found on this piece on Comment is Free.

I argue that Bingham has damned Blair, Straw and Goldsmith even while assuming that they acted in good faith. But it's quite clear that they set out a year before the war to create a legal justification - but failed to do so.

On the issue of the promised Iraq Inquiry, the government will still not say whether the withdrawal of most British troops by the middle of next year will allow it to take place.

The BBC in action

If anyone doubts that the BBC does its best to appease the government (of the day), take a look at what it did with the story of Lord Bingham's criticism of the illegality of the Iraq war.

PA, which has no axe to grind says:
Legal advice given to Tony Blair prior to the invasion of Iraq was fundamentally "flawed", a former senior law lord has said.
The BBC says something almost identical:
Legal advice given to Tony Blair by the attorney general prior to the Iraq war was fundamentally "flawed," a former law lord has claimed.
So the BBC demotes Lord Bingham and decides that, whether he was a law lord or not, his opinion only has the status of a claim. It systematically seeks to undermine anything that shows the government in a bad light.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Brown not savaged shock

Considering all the fuss we had back in September when Charles Clarke attacked Gordon Brown, you would think that another Blairite attack dog breaking his silence would make news. Except that, according to the Independent:

Reid breaks his silence to back Brown

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Talking up the story

The Observer is leading with a terribly cobbled-together story about George Osborne being under pressure over yesterday's comments about the pound.
The shadow Chancellor was forced to defend himself after Labour aides and small business organisations accused him of talking down sterling despite a convention that politicians do not predict currency collapses. Kenneth Clarke, the man some MPs now want to replace Osborne, had to ride to his rescue, insisting his words were 'perfectly sensible'.
So Kenneth Clarke not agreeing with Osborne is a point against him? It seems the only pressure is coming from "Labour aides" and Stephen Alambritis from the Federation of Small Businesses and Labour councillor, who warned:
'It is important that politicians rally together at times like these and do not use terms like "run on the pound".'
Good point, let's not say it.

I can't find anything in the article to justify this:

'Baffled' Lib Dems join attack

Osborne has a point when he says:
behind-the-scenes spinning from the Prime Minister and his entourage in America is fuelling speculation that the government is planning to borrow recklessly for a big, unfunded tax con.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Peaking too soon

In the Independent, Andrew Grice has some fun at the expense of still shadow chancellor George Osborne, who was asked to present a Spectator award for "newcomer of the year" to Peter Mandelson. The main thrust of the piece is that many tories think Osborne is - or should be - on the way out.
The shadow Chancellor is being blamed by Tory backbenchers for a lacklustre response by the Opposition to the economic crisis. They admit it is not all his fault but he is an easier target than Mr Cameron after being damaged by the "yachtgate" affair in which he was accused of seeking a Tory donation from Oleg Deripaska, the Russian oligarch.
Despite all the rumblings, Cameron aides insist Mr Osborne will not be moved from his Treasury brief. "They are joined at the hip," said one frontbencher. A strategist added: "Nobody should underestimate how close they are. It is a very strong partnership – like Blair and Brown, but without the tensions, rivalries and rows."
Also in the Indy, Michael Brown says that Cameron should ditch Osborne. But I didn't get past the sub-headline:
If they want to be taken seriously, how about Redwood?

Thursday, 13 November 2008

It's no choke

This week's events suggest that air quality - or pollution - is likely to be the first stumbling block for Heathrow expansion, as I argue in a piece on Open House this afternoon.

But - as I said earlier - don't forget the noise nuisance.

Meanwhile, the five Plane Stupid activists who climbed onto the roof of parliament and unfurled anti-expansion banners have been found guilty. The activists were publicising the fact that the Department for Transport had colluded with Heathrow owner BAA to fix its figures. That was mentioned several times inside parliament on Tuesday.

Fake ending to fake war

In some ways it is highly appropriate that a fake newspaper should announce the end of the Iraq war, which was based on lies. Sadly, hundreds of thousands of real people have died along the way and people are still being killed.

The idea of filling a newspaper with "all the news we hope to print" is an interesting one. But aren't a lot of papers full of speculation wishful thinking and, well, made up stuff already?

That letter

Michael Meacher, a former environment minister, did a good piece for Comment is Free yesterday at about the time my piece went up. Meacher talks about the impact of Heathrow expansion on climate change, then says:
But there is one environmental constraint which will apply very quickly, which is mandatory under EU law, and which cannot be circumvented. That is the EU targets on nitrogen oxide which come into force in 2010, just over a year away. Nox limits are already being breached in London now, and frankly it is ridiculous to pretend, as the government seems to, that increasing by 50% the number of flight movements at Heathrow from 480,000 a year to 720,000 – equivalent to bolting on to Heathrow another airport the size of Gatwick – will not push nox and noise levels sky-high above what is lawfully permitted.
He adds:
I contacted Stavros Dimas, the EU commissioner for the environment, to ask him to investigate. He wrote back to me last July saying: "Technical reports underpinning the Heathrow expansion suggest that nitrogen-limit values near Heathrow will be significantly exceeded in 2010, the year in which those limit values become mandatory, and that this will be the case even after 2015."
It now becomes clear that Meacher was the recipient of the letter cited in this Guardian story in August.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Dimas threatens enforcement

I've just done a piece for quoting EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas as looking to take enforcement action if Britain ignores breaches of the new air quality directive resulting from Heathrow expansion.

The piece also reveals the difference between what Department for Transport officials were saying behind the scenes about possible mitigation measures - "let's not bother" - and what they said in the official consultation.

Radioactive leak

In the Guardian, Ian Black reports on a row over leaked claims that the International Atomic Energy Agency found traces of processed uranium at the site of Syria's alleged nuclear reactor, which was bombed by Israel.

Melissa Fleming, an IAEA spokeswoman, said:
"We regret that people are trying to prejudge the IAEA's technical assessment... We are, however, accustomed to these kinds of efforts to hype and undermine the process before every meeting of the IAEA board."

The IAEA did not challenge the substance of Monday's revelations about the uranium traces. The concern is that the leak of confidential information could jeopardise future Syrian cooperation.
This could be very significant, although the IAEA would look a bit silly complaining about leaks and then confirming/denying them.

As usual, Black mentions in his article that:
Israel is an undeclared nuclear power and, unlike Syria, has never signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

No contest

Theresa Villiers has been through all the evidence showing that the Department for Transport colluded with BAA to fix its modelling to meet its criteria for Heathrow expansion. As one of her colleagues pointed out, Geoff Hoon entirely failed to deny it.

Hoon isolated?

Theresa Villiers has just started off her response to Geoff Hoon by saying that in her three years in the Commons, she has never seen a secretary of state so isolated.

Poor Hoon is virtually alone on the front bench, with no cabinet colleagues, e.g. environment secretary Hilary Benn, at his side.

Buff Hoon doesn't get it

I've been watching Geoff Hoon opening the Commons debate on Heathrow. He is going through the motions of pretending not to have made a decision while saying over and over again that there is no alternative to expanding the airport.

Hoon showed just how much he has failed to understand the issue when he challenged his tory counterpart Theresa Villiers to say where the inevitable increase in aviation will take place if not at Heathrow. What he can't grasp is that many people don't want aviation to expand inevitably and inexorably and think that if it is constricted by a lack of capacity that will be a good thing. Adding extra capacity to allow aviation to expand is just mindless.

Chris Mullin has just put him right, saying that sooner or later politicians are going to have to say no to the aviation industry as it continues to demand infinite expansion.

Dimas jumps into Heathrow debate

As the House of Commons debates Heathrow expansion, the Standard reports that EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas has warned that "pollution laws must not be flouted to allow a third runway at Heathrow".

Dimas told the Standard:
"It is critical that Member States respect EU legislation which is designed to protect the environment and the health of our citizens."
Nicholas Cecil has done well to get this warning out of Dimas at this time, with increasing evidence that the UK is planning to "fudge" the EU air quality directive, in spite of what Hilary Benn said last week.

Dog eats man whole

It's not surprising that Paul Dacre's comments about the BBC and privacy have not gone down well at the Guardian. Polly Toynbee calls Dacre "the nation's bully-in-chief" and "a coward".

Peter Wilby's analysis is equally harsh:
He argues, with truly astonishing sophistry, that "the freedom to write about scandal" is essential to "the democratic process" because, otherwise, newspapers like his wouldn't sell copies and therefore wouldn't exist.Dacre says that "it is the duty of the media to take an ethical stand." Pick up the Daily Mail and you will see that his idea of ethics includes running stories that are, at best, distorted and, at worst, plain wrong.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Is Daily Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre deliberately confusing ethics with sexual morality, corruption with sexual misconduct? He has said that the "imposition" of a privacy law by High Court judges:
apart from allowing the corrupt and the crooked to sleep easily in their beds is, I would argue, undermining the ability of mass-circulation newspapers to sell newspapers in an ever more difficult market,"
Dacre's slightly more sophisticated argument is that tabloid papers need to include sexual scandals to get people to buy papers that "devote considerable space to reporting and analysis of public affairs".

Is the Daily Mail really relying on a public interest case for its existence, based on its analysis of public affairs?

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Going round in circles on Heathrow

Patrick Hennessy's piece in the Telegraph on Heathrow expansion is certainly more spin than substance. He probably correctly analyses that the decision to hold a debate on the issue this week is a clear sign that the government is likely to back the scheme but he claims that ministers:
also believe that David Cameron has allowed his party to get on the "wrong side of the argument" by officially opposing the plans
Once again a leading journalist uses the "believe" construction to put forward the government's spin on a topic. Hennessy also claims:
Mr Hoon, backed by Gordon Brown, is confident he has seen off objections to the runway raised by some cabinet ministers, including Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader.
Hoon seems to be short of friendly newspapers to plant this type of story as the Sunday Times runs a leader against Heathrow expansion.

Don't vote for a tax exile

In the Telegraph, Olympic swimming champion Rebecca Adlington says that people like her, who hit the headlines every four years, are more deserving winners of Sports Personality of the Year than Lewis Hamilton. The Telegraph adds:
There have, however, been further arguments put forward as to why he shouldn't get the award, such as his decision to move to Switzerland for tax reasons and the debate over whether someone who drives a car can be considered a sportsman.
I'm not sure where those arguments have been put forward but I certainly agree with the Telegraph that tax exiles are reprehensible.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Have your runway and eat it

BA's chief executive is engaging in a blatant piece of having it both ways over Heathrow. According to the Guardian, Willie Walsh
said the need for an expanded Heathrow had become more important over the past few months because the UK will need a bigger hub airport when the economy recovers.
So the recession and consequent drop in demand for air travel is a reason to expand capacity at Heathrow, even though it is unlikely that flights would be able to increase (under "mixed mode" operation) until 2012. But:
Walsh added that a 2% cut in winter flights at Heathrow this year did not undermine the case for adding a new runway to an airport that is 98.5% full throughout the year. "There is no link to the third runway. This is a short-term capacity reduction that reflects a short-term reduction in demand. A third runway is for the long term."
There's a mistake in the Guardian piece by the way. The early day motion has been signed (at present) by 121 MPs, not 40. The latter number is/was the number of Labour MPs who have signed.


At first Hilary Benn's answer to John Grogan's question, trying to smoke out Benn's opposition to Heathrow expansion looks like a non-answer.
To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the effects on air quality in the area around Heathrow of the proposed third runway.

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues about air quality and noise in relation to transport, including plans around Heathrow.
But Grogan didn't ask Benn about noise. Is Benn saying: don't forget the noise John?


The car lobby, in the form of the RAC Foundation, has launched a report claiming that new roads are environmentally friendly and much needed.

In the Scotsman, the "myth-busting" report is fisked and heavily criticised by green groups, including Friends of the Earth Scotland. Its chief executive Duncan McLaren, who presumably doesn't run a Formula 1 team, says:
"Far from 'myth busting', the claims in this report comprise a litany of misleading assertions, half truths and straw men. I don't think I've seen such a dodgy dossier since the one used to justify war on Iraq."
Perhaps the dodgiest claim is this one:
Building roads will not have a significant effect on climate change, so long as wider policy measures are also introduced. Road building on its own can slightly increase carbon dioxide emissions, but it could also reduce emissions by up to 10 per cent if introduced alongside road-pricing.
So building new roads is green if we subsequently price people off them. But if road pricing is such a good idea, why not do it anyway?

Here's another top claim, with the Green Party's counterclaim:
RAC: The construction industry can accommodate a substantial increase in road building.

GREEN: The construction industry would no doubt deliver any level of road-building required.
Indeed. Still, the Express agrees that motorists are hard done by.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Don't fudge, says Benn?

According to the Standard
CABINET minister Hilary Benn today warned against fudging pollution rules to allow a third runway at Heathrow.

The Environment Secretary told the Commons that the Government had made it "very, very clear" that limits on harmful gases could not be ignored just to allow Heathrow to grow.

But the government's policy is not to ignore the rules, just to delay their implementation. Isn't that a fudge?

Look out for state funded PR

I've done a piece for Comment is Free today on the eco-towns story.

One of the issues I've mentioned is the tendency for the government to give money to campaigning or "third sector" organisations, which then engage in positive PR in support of their policies.

In this case the Town and Country Planning Association has been very quick to issue a press release supporting a draft policy planning statement on which the department for Communities and Local Government is supposedly consulting. As I say:
There is no suggestion of a conflict of interest here, as long as you accept that TCPA is paid to support the government policy and treat its pronouncements accordingly. It just doesn't seem right that the government's allies are trying to influence a formal consultation process before anyone else has seen the documents.

Who could she mean?

According to the Independent, Hazel Blears gave a speech yesterday in which she said that:
Political blogs are written by people with disdain for the political system and politicians, who see their function as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and perceived hypocrisy
And spin, Hazel. Still, at least she said it on the record.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Scarlett protected by censorship

I've done a piece myself for Index on Censorship. The Cabinet Office has refused to release the email in which MI6 chief John Scarlett is alleged to have asked for the report of the (post-war) Iraq Survey Group to be sexed-up.

Here is the report that gave me the idea.

New Statesman censored

Index on Censorship reports that the New Statesman has censored the blog of Martin Bright, after a threat of legal action from Iraqi billionaire Nadhmi Auchi.

Wikileaks are unhappy about this and have posted the before and after versions of Bright's blog.

In the censored version, Bright removed the titles of various Guardian and Observer articles:

Here is the full list of the six:

  1. "Labour blocks extradition of Iraqi tycoon" Observer, 2 February 2003
  2. "Billionaire linked to Labour arrested in London" Guardian, 2 April 2003
  3. "So, Norman, any regrets this time?" Observer, 6 April 2003
  4. "Tycoon in quiz over ties to Labour" Observer, 6 April 2003
  5. "Politics of sleaze" Observer, 16 November 2003
  6. "MP questions Iraq role of Briton tainted over Elf"(this has also been titled "British fraudster to profit from Iraq contract")Observer, 16 November 2003

A bit circular

The other day I blogged Jackie Ashley's piece in the Guardian on Heathrow expansion. She wrote this about Labour's inexplicable enthusiasm:
The most cynical explanation, which I have heard buzzing around in the past few days, is simply that ministers who know they have lost the next election are cosying up to the business interests that may help them out in the private sector afterwards.
Yesterday, jossc wrote something very similar on the Greenpeace blog:
The cynical answer is that Labour know they've already lost the next election and are cosying up to industries that will employ them once they're out of government...
Perhaps Jackie has been talking to Joss, who is presumably Joss Garman. On the New Statesman today, Garman approvingly quotes Ashley:
It's surprising that it's taken this long for any serious Labour dissent over this to become apparent, especially when, to quote Jackie Ashley, "a swath of Labour ministers and MPs can expect to lose their seats if Heathrow's third runway is given the go-ahead."
All very circular.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

A good day to bury eco-towns

I've done a piece for the Indy's Open House today, suggesting that the government is using the cover of the US election to back away from Gordon Brown's promise to build ten eco-towns, which in any case may not be quite as green as is claimed.

Bond (still) an anachronism shock

I went to see the new Bond last night and found it a bit hard to follow - visually and plot wise. On Comment is Free today, James Denselow says Bond is still an anachronism, specifically:
The ability to kill everyone in sight and disobey the orders of elected officials pursuing realist agendas is totally out of place in the multi-polar and highly unstable foreign policy environment of today.
I did find the plot a bit unlikely - and the "realist" element quite unrealistic. The main premise was that the US and UK would let a shadowy international conspiracy have its way because it suited them. A bit unlikely, especially when it becomes clear that the shadowy international conspiracy is (unsurprisingly) trying to pull off a con - quite a small one in the grand scheme of things. Do they really think they'll get away with it? More than once?

If you've seen the film, perhaps you'll know what I mean. If you haven't, I hope I've not spoilt it.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Hardly a good reason to wreck the planet

The Guardian reports that cabinet ministers are joining a revolt against expanding Heathrow, which was last week's story, except that it adds that the number of flights in and out of the airport will decline over the winter.

Jackie Ashley wades in with a suggestion that Gordon Brown will back the third runway to show that he is on the side of business during a recession.
Briefings over the past few days suggest that Gordon Brown and Geoff Hoon, the transport secretary, will ride roughshod over the critics. They want to push through approval of the new runway so that when the Tories come to power, it's too late to cancel. "We have to show that we are on the side of business," says one minister.
Ashley thinks Gordon Brown believes this is clever politics.
He thinks that in a recession, the party which seems most pro-business will gain. As deep fear grips the electorate over unemployment and bankruptcy, green arguments about the way we live, about pollution and climate change, will seem merely namby-pamby and irrelevant. If Labour commits itself to job-creating grand projects, and the Tories are forced to promise to try to halt them, then it is David Cameron who will suddenly look silly and old-fashioned.
This may be unfair but, after 42 days amongst other issues, it's a sad reflection on Brown that people still think he makes big decisions just to wrongfoot the tories.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

You haven't really thought that through

The Telegraph is reporting that Gordon Brown will approve the third Heathrow runway within weeks. It's a rather naive take on the political process that imagines it's just something that the prime minister can say will happen, in spite of a cabinet revolt.

The report also says:
The decision will be announced before the end of the year, and could come as soon as next month.
As it's now November, before the end of the year does really mean next month at the latest, doesn't it?

Friday, 31 October 2008

What do they expect?

The Independent is among the papers reporting the gripes of the England cricketers at the Stanford Super Series:
England's players agreed yesterday to continue the quest to win the millions of dollars on offer from Sir Allen Stanford. But they made it clear that they are desperate to get out of Antigua, which has become a kind of hell in paradise for them this week.
How heroic.

A thorough investigation

The Guardian was first (last night) to report that the home secretary has asked the attorney general to investigate possible "criminal wrongdoing" by the MI5 and the CIA over its treatment of a British resident held in Guantánamo Bay.

They may just be going through the motions. The Guardian quotes lawyer Richard Stein as saying that the government had little choice once the evidence, which foreign secretary David Milband had sought to suppress, was aired in court.

Doesn't it make you proud?

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Today's burning issues

I've done a piece on Comment is Free today about Heathrow expansion.

Jack Straw, yes the "lord chancellor and justice secretary", has done a CiF blog too - about Ross and Brand. Hasn't he got anything better to do than jump on bandwagons?

Motorists threatened again

The Telegraph is very confused this morning. "Motorists face tolls to drive on hard shoulder," it says, as if it is some kind of a threat. Of course, motorists are not currently allowed to drive on the hard shoulder in normal circumstances, so it's really more of an opportunity - for the better off. It seems like a bit of a crazy idea to me.

The problem for the Telegraph is that it has a campaign against road pricing. Therefore every example of road pricing must be bad.

Meanwhile, Alistair Darling has called for cheaper petrol prices, because it's a populist cause. Never mind global warming.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

More trouble for Heathrow

Chris Smith, chairman of the Environment Agency and a former Labour minister, has criticised the government for seeking to delay the EU air quality directive while expanding Heathrow, as I report in the New Statesman online today.

Not what they're there for?

In the Independent, Patrick Cockburn reports Iraqi criticism of the US attack on Syria:
"The Iraqi government rejects US aircraft bombarding posts inside Syria," said an Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, in a surprise rebuke to Washington. "The constitution does not allow Iraq to be used as a staging ground to attack neighbouring countries."
Anyone would think that the US contrived to invade Iraq to give it a military base in the Middle East...

Protecting the guilty

There's an intriguing new decision on the Information Tribunal website. The Foreign Office has been ordered to release documents dating back to the 1960s showing the involvement of British diplomats in bribing Saudi officials and ministers to secure arms deals. But the tribunal has allowed the FCO to conceal the names of the Saudis involved, some of whom remain in goverment today.

The tribunal found that publication of files requested by Campaign Against Arms Trade campaigner Nicholas Gilby would be highly likely to cause "real and substantial prejudice" to Britain's relations - and arms dealing - with the Saudi regime But it ruled that the public interest nevertheless requires disclosure of evidence that UK officials facilitated illegal payments to secure contracts relating to tank exports and aircraft maintenance.

Significantly, the tribunal ruled that there was a "greater sensitivity" around information relating "directly to those involved in the [Saudi Arabian Government]". For this reason, it found that the public interest in concealing the information outweighs reasons for disclosure.

During the hearings in March, the UK's ambassador to Saudia Arabia, William Patey, had pointed out that the country's defence minister, Prince Sultan, had been in place since 1962. "Thus the documents... may notwithstanding the passage of time continue to be directly relevant to those currently in power."

Gilby, who has carried out extensive research into Britain's ongoing arms trading relationship with Saudi Arabia, won praise from the tribunal for the way he represented himself during the public parts of the hearing. The tribunal had taken the unprecendented step of appointing a special advocate (Khawar Qureshi QC) to represent his interests in its closed sessions.

Gilby told me: "I am delighted the tribunal has accepted the strength of the public interest arguments in exposing British Government complicity in highly dubious business practices relating to arms deals with Saudi Arabia."

The tribunal also hinted that it had heard evidence suggesting that the public interest in continuing arms exports to Saudi Arabia was greater than could be stated publicly. It stated that, although the value of sales in global economic terms was very small, it was "in no doubt as to their importance in the public interest having regard to both the open evidence which we have heard but also that in closed session."

What could this mean? There have been suggestions that BAE might not survive without Saudi contracts, although this seems unlikely. It was also said during the recent case over the Tony Blair's decision to drop the Serious Fraud Office inquiry that intelligence co-operation was at stake.

One thing is for sure: everything about the arms trade with Saudi Arabia is very murky.

For what it's worth, an FCO spokesman gave me the usual line in such cases: "we have seen the judgement and are considering it carefully." The FCO has 28 days (from 22 October) to release the information or appeal to the High Court.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

McCarthyism returns

The most worrying think about the government's latest "eye catching gimmick" is that there might be something in it. As the state broadcaster the BBC credulously reports the government's line "extremists to be barred from UK", even though many "extremists" are barred already, while the Guardian at least reports it as a strengthening of the rules. It says:
The burden of proof is to be placed on the individuals concerned by demanding that they refute accusations made against them by publicly denouncing or retracting their reported views. At present the Home Office has to provide evidence that the individual holds the views ascribed to them. Individuals may have to make a statement of their attachment to democratic values to prove their change of heart is genuine.
Does no-one get the irony of forcing people to make a statement of their attachment to democratic values? How does forcing someone to say something prove they are genuine? What next? Show trials where "extremists" (after recanting) denounce fellow travellers? Making people genuinely love Big Brother before putting a bullet in the back of their heads? If "political correctness" ever had any meaning, which it doesn't, forcing people to hold acceptable views would be the very definition of it.