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?