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.