Monday, 30 July 2007

Letter to the Editor

The Editor
Observer Sport Monthly
via Email

Dear Sir,
I was enjoying last months cover story (The Big Sell Out, August) right up until the penultimate column when Tom Bower stated: "The difference is that football is not a utility or a bank, but part of the fabric of England"

I will briefly mention the argument that people's lives are significantly more at risk from real harm by utility price rises and these companies being run for the benefit of foreign shareholders. If a season ticket is priced out of person's means they have less enjoyment in their lives, if food or financial services are, they could freeze or starve.

The real issue here is to respond on the authors own turf, football being part of our society, especially as the outgoing editor was defending the amount of coverage the sport was getting. For comparison with what follows Football in approximately this form has been part of our lives for 150 years, I can use no other date as I am writing this in Sheffield. Firstly to directly rebut the two sectors Tom mentioned, banking is a difficult one to pin down a starting point on, but the founding of the London Royal Exchange was in 1565 to bring banking services together seems a good point, it implies that there was a significant sector beforehand but it works for my point as it points out banking has been part of the fabric of England for three times longer than football as we know it today. As for utilities, I got as far as a dimly remembered lesson at school about London's water and the New River company in the first two decades of the seventeenth century. Of course the New River was quite literally part of the fabric of the country and around two and a half centuries before the Sheffield Rules.

Casting the net wider, I feel that there is an intrinsic part of British life that is under far greater threat than football, having been with us for hundreds of years, massively popular with all sectors of society since the middle ages and with the oldest extant company dating from 1698. Brewing in this country has come under sustained, well financed attack recently. We should be campaigning loudly for the American, Belgian and other foreign money out of brewing because of the risk to the performance of our native beer styles.

After all the worst case scenario for the foreign money in football is an under-performing England team and that sounds no different from all the years where the top flight clubs were owned by our citizens does it?

Tony Kennick
(Address Supplied)

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Hours of news

While looking for something completely different I found this:
BBC One 2508
BBC Two 673
BBC Three 114
BBC Four 8
BBC News 24 8468
BBC Parliament 8760
Radio 1 304
Radio 2 476
Radio 3 75
Radio 4 2374
Five Live 6549
IXtra 306
6 Music 325
Asian Network 124

It is the total hours of news and weather on network TV and radio for 2005/2006. A couple of things caught my eye, that BBC One has more coverage than Radio 4 and that News 24 can't manage 24/7/365 but BBC Parliament can...

British Broadcasting Corporation

A few interesting things are emerging from the current set of attacks on the BBC.
First and most obviously the shear gall of the newspapers will never reach a limit, the specific catalysts this time round are misleading people, with bad editing of footage and phone-ins. If I had all day I could sit here and list for each newspaper the various episodes where they have done similar, with dodgy diaries, faked photos, crooked competitions, various vexatious vouchers etc, leaving just the Lanark and Carluke Advertiser with its unblemished record to report on the matter. But know even the blackest fingered of papers is sticking the boot in, most of them with a vicious zeal.
Secondly we have the usual round of politicians and political commentators using this as a platform to have a go at the licence fee, generally adding that the Beeb has it coming as it is biased against their side. If this is the case then the BBC must politically stand alone as to be against all of the major and most of the minor parties in this country is a huge feat. I suspect that the one or two smaller local parties that aren't complaining are run by people who wont have one of those televisions in the house, but where part of the Radio Three backlash or recent times.
The last group I have some sympathies with, those that believe the licence fee is a regressive tax, but I feel that it gives the BBC an invaluable editorial independence that would be difficult to provide any other way. I have no solution as to how to make the licence fee fairer (apart from larger discounts for the blind). One suggestion has been licensing by the set which would be difficult to police and probably still hits the poorer harder.
All I am going to say before tuning in the wireless to see what is on the Home Service is God bless Aunty and all who broadcast on her.

Monday, 23 July 2007

What am I missing

I am going to start this with a confession, I have read Private Eye since my teenage years. I am not so blind a fan to not realise that reading it requires a reasonably high amount of cynicism, more so than for most other quality newsprint except perhaps the comment pages of the strongly "sided" newspapers.
Of the many journalistic certainties in life like "British newspapers can't cover science to save their lives" it is a true universally acknowledged that Private Eye is against PPP especially PFI. With the collapse of Metronet the issue is in the foreground again and it has reminded me to go looking into what the advantages are and I am obviously missing something as I can't work out what they are. I can see the argument that it keeps the money away from the government's debt column. But is it worth it? As pointed out given some of my reading material I don't hear much about anything but those that fail, but all the stories are of overspend, delay, corners being cut etc. Given that the government is considered a safe bet for money lenders this seams very much like taking out a very expensive hire purchase agreement when you could just use your overdraft which is much cheaper.
Of course there is also the issue that risk should be transferred, again however the stories show that in practice this isn't the case. But if the government raises the money itself and then contracts the private sector to build and even maintain the asset, if the service is bad or expensive then there is much less of a lock in to prevent them changing providers.
If the idea was bought up as new today with accurate numbers like we know have in hindsight, would any government or council be able to sell it to the voters, so why do we carry on.

Friday, 20 July 2007

The half-caff skinny latte of human kindness

The main point of this post is to say thank you to the young lady who ran half way down Surrey Street after me. In my half woken state this morning, I had got through 80% of a cash machine transaction before striding off towards work. Of course the last 20% is "taking the cash out of the machine" and I had failed miserably in remembering to do so. I am very grateful that nice people still exist, not that I would expect the average citizen to be dishonest and steal the cash, but I wouldn't expect them to go pelting after someone when they could just let the machine reclaim the notes.

On the flip side, I fully expected the reactions to the by-election results that have come out today, with spin totally in evidence from all sides (admittedly Labour doesn't need to spin the results, they won, but they are certainly beating their opponents with a far larger stick than reality indicates). Ming was the one to dodge the largest bullet, had the Liberal Democrats' come third in either poll or worse both, he would have been further mired in the criticism of his leadership. Brown of course had his "bounce" and a loss could have been waved away as the midterm blues. Cameron will be licking his wounds especially in Ealing Southall where they were off to a flying start, but I don't think this is bad enough to threaten his leadership and he has bigger things to worry about gambling his credibility on.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

And finally, well almost nothing

The last section of The Governance of Britain is on "Britain's future: the citizen and the state" and as far as I am concerned they might as well have left it out as it suffers most of all from waffle and complete lack of any significant proposals on the way forward. After a huge section that basically says "nobody seams to be sure at all about what Britishness is" it moves on to talking about teaching "citizenship" whatever that is. I am serious about this point, if the government cannot put down what it means to be a British Citizen in a chunk of green paper titled "Citizenship and national identity" then what are they teaching to children in schools? Apparently Citizenship Studies is the fastest growing GCSE subject, so what is on the syllabus that is used for this short course GCSE? I expected to find points in this document that made me angry, but I always thought that it would be a point of principle rather than just sloppy thinking. While I accept this is a document to let discussion prosper, it is always easier to start such a discussion when there is a starting point.
Even more woolly is the subsection on "common British values" but it at least has a concrete proposal, allow the flag to be flown above government buildings on more than the current fixed 18 days, that will make a huge difference!
Then it gets really bad, the item on a "British Bill of Rights and Duties" is actually mostly a defence of the Human Rights Act. I can see that this piece of legislation has been attacked recently and support it being upheld, but to define one possible future set of laws in terms on holding on like grim death to another is bordering on pathetic.
Lastly you might be fooled by a heading "Constitution" that there would be proposals contained within about bringing the various parts of our constitution into one ordered document, instead we get this:

"It is clear that neither a Bill of Rights and Duties nor a written constitution could come into being except over an extended period of time,"

Which really gets my goat, firstly because we have a written constitution; it may be written in thousands of places, but given the way Britain works, the land of the Civil Service, the home of following the rules (even if we occasionally do so in a way that could be counted as playing the system). Secondly what does extended period of time mean is it going to be reviewed over months years, decades. You can call me cynical if you like, but for someone brought up watching Yes (Prime) Minister that phrasing makes it simply sound like neither document will ever happen.

Re-invigorating our democracy

In the third section of "The Governance of Britain" we are treated to the governments ideas about "Re-invigorating our democracy" with Parliament "at the core of this effort."
First up is accountability and strait out of the trap we are onto the House of Lords, for openers they try and contrive to convince us that the messing about with the upper house has been a step forward. Worry not I am not about to defend the hereditary house, but I don't understand how anyone can suggest that the current make up is any better. The green paper says very little about what is planned, merely acknowledging the report of the Joint Committee and the free vote in the House of Commons. Personally I feel the country needs something radical that gives us at least a simulacrum if not a full analogue of the stability that the old House gave us. How can this be achieved? Well perhaps we could have a system of election by thirds like we use in a number of our council elections, or a similar system to the United States Senate with 2 people per "constituency" each being up for re-election every 6 years. Obviously that kind of system has inherent fixed terms; personally I would support the idea of fixed terms for both houses of Parliament.
The equivalent section for the Commons, pretty much in its entirety, refers the reader to another committee report, I will try and get to reading it and if it has interesting points their may well be another blog post on this subject.
Sadly the section on "Westminster and devolution" doesn't even bother to mention the West Lothian question; I obviously wasn't expecting anything substantial on the matter the government has stated that it won't be addressing this issue, but acknowledging the issue would have been a nice touch. As expected the document then goes on to quote the Phillips review which effectively supports All Women Shortlists and then questions whether similar measures could be used to improve the number of members from minority ethnic communities.
Frustratingly we then get three times as much coverage on whether election day should be a week day or on the weekend or a public holiday (given we get so few of these I would support declaring an election day bank holiday, this of course dovetails with my support of fixed term Parliaments) than we do on voting systems. Given the various and on occasion confusing, see the last set of elections to the Scottish Parliament for example, electoral systems in use in the UK today, we should try and come to a consensus on this issue. All we get in this document is a review of the various systems in use.
The success of the ultimately futile 10 Downing Street website petition system leads to suggestions on making it as easy to petition Parliament on similar matters. What practical formal effect such a system would have is glossed over somewhat.
Many commentators have welcomed the next provision, which puts forward a review of the current restrictions on protests in the environs of Parliament that were widely seen as a vindictive effort against on man that has ultimately proved futile.
The next three paragraphs simply put out a sensible point that could lead to a potential minefield. How can charitable organisations be allowed to operate in the political campaigning arena without risk to their charitable status. While I can see the point that change needs to happen so that specialist organisations can influence legislation in there area, it is true that measures are needed to protect against charities which are simply political animals.
The last part of section three is a disappointing collection of waffle and buzzwords, that reads more like something we would have got from John Major's government than anything. While I am a firm believer in interaction between the people and their elected representatives; the fact is the councillors have far less time and resource to deal with correspondence than MPs. Any attempt to meaningfully increase involvement in local politics by the wider populous would require major investment in support for the council members and therefore increases in local taxation. On top of this the suggestions for local charters, citizens' juries and other consultancy bodies the suggestion is made that local democracy can be improved by providing more real time data. What providing real time statistics at tremendous expense to one or two interested people will do apart from foster comedy fantasy leagues I don't know, but I don't see it improving community involvement in democracy.

Sunday, 15 July 2007

Quick (not dirty) Hollandaise sauce

Played with trying to do a Hollandaise sauce in without the whisking over water malarkey. So tried this:

  • Squeeze a lemon, make up the volume to 55ml with white wine vinegar; in a tall container (the one I got with my hand blender is just right) heat in the microwave.

  • Melt 225g of butter in a pouring jug.

  • Separate the yolks of two large eggs and put them into the hot lemon juice/vinegar mix, hand blend on a slow setting, then with the blender still running, slowly pour in the melted butter over the end of the blender.

  • Season to taste.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Making the executive more accountable

Section two of The Governance of Britain is introduced saying it is fundamentally based upon the re-evaluation of the balance of powers in the UK at the moment compared with the ideals of a Montesquieu tripartite system. The assumptions used are that Parliament's role in holding the executive to account needs strengthening and that the whole system needs more local accountability to communities. The introduction holds that devolution and regional ministers has indeed put this power closer to the people, I don't think the former has proved itself even yet and the latter is still very much in its infancy.

Item one is National security, which opens with the suggestion that the Intelligence and Security Committee will have its statutory basis reviewed, the document praises its work but points out the argument that as it meets in private, it cannot be said to be transparent. This is obviously a tightrope situation, the committee will never be a open forum to discuss matters so there are a number of suggestions to increase perceived trust of the committee and its reports. These options included opening up the selection process for members to greater scrutiny, giving the committee the option to meet in public when appropriate, and two moves to give it greater independence, having its reports debated in both houses and led by the committee rather than a Minister, and separating its secretariat form the Cabinet Office (tradition home of "security" in government); including the possibility of an established independent investigator.

The other National Security point is that the government wish to convene a National Security committee bringing "Defence and Overseas Policy", "Security and Terrorism" and "Europe" under one banner. I worried that I was not as up on the system as I thought, as I would at first thought had the Ministerial Committee on Europe looking into far more things than would be taken up by a National Security committee, then I re-read the document and saw that the body would be looking into "the Government's wider international, European and international development policies" as well as the National Security Strategy. Now I worry that there really isn't enough focus there to do any significant good.

Recently their has been lots of grumbling in the media about one of Gordon Brown's key commitments to Parliament that he has already implemented, that statements and policy announcements to Parliament really are that and not rehashes of items already leaked or "briefed" to the media. In a key, but I think welcome (I also welcome the announce it to the house policy by the way) counterpoint, the list of legislation that will be put forward in the Queen's speech will be presented beforehand. This will allow for debate and public consultation and even provides for there to be change before the final speech formally sets out the timetable.
Departmental accountability is tackled next, this is another of the frustrating sections of the document where the authors lay out how it is now, suggest its shortcomings and then sign off with "We will ask someone else what to do about it." In this case, the fact that the whole house rarely gets to formally scrutinise departments effectively outside of debating specific items of legislation. The current arrangements of select committees that have very little in the way of formal powers to push for their reported recommendations to be pursued and adjournment debates in Westminster Hall is highlighted as not cutting the mustard. An interesting point is that while the Treasury and the MOD are closely examined as part of the budget and defence estimates debates the only other ministry with a fixed slot for House of Commons scrutiny is the department for Welsh affairs during the St David's Day debate.

After a brief section simplifying the reporting of budgets, estimates and actual expenditure to Parliament and another about the independence of the ONS, which is already going ahead, it is on to the regions. Again as with the ONS this section is about reform that is already under way; the ministers for the English regions were appointed as part of the reshuffle Gordon Brown conducted when he took office. Their remit seams to mostly be "Minister for the Regional Development Agency" and responsibility for championing the region. I am having real problems believing that this will work; I am however willing to wait and see.

The last point in this section is reforming the Ministerial code, which reads as a "we don't want another Blunkett or Mandelson style scandal, that we can be accused of not dealing with, please." including independent investigatory powers, annual reports on Minister's interests, scrutiny before parliament and changing the emphasis on the recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointment Rules, from voluntary advise to a requirement Ministers are expected to follow.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

The Governance of Britain - part one.

This is the first of four posts I will make on my reading of the green paper on The Governance of Britain issued earlier this month by the new Ministry for Justice.

I was originally going to produce a summary and then a commentary however as it all got mixed in together I am splitting it based on the sections the report is itself in (I have included the introduction in with section one "limiting the powers of the executive." if you want a pure summary, I would recommend reading the executive summary in the document itself.

Well the introduction is fairly innocuous, apart from the possibly controversial use of the term Universal Suffrage, which the United Kingdom doesn’t have and the claim that they have modernised the House of Lords, as opposed to the half baked, half finished efforts actually enacted. It only takes until point 12 to get to the West Lothian question, as the authors have to “hope” that the devolved administrations will implement any reforms that fall under their purview, while MPs from those territories will undoubtedly be part of pushing through any points that don’t quite get the consensus Gordon Brown wants. After Box 1’s potted history of the UK constitution, which serves to highlight the perversity of not celebrating the act of union this year, we get to the first section, limiting the powers of the executive.

Right off the bat the intent of the process is stated as ensuring that these proposals reinforce the flow of power from the people to the executive arm of government is through Parliament. As expected they are taking the opportunity while going through this process to try and clear out any prerogative powers that at archaic or otherwise no longer in use, like the right to impress into the Royal Navy. After a brief mention of improved insight of intelligence and security activities, the Green Paper moves on to the specific powers that will be transferred to Parliament. I will gloss over the explanations of the technical differences between the several types of “Royal prerogative powers” as the next section is the first that has got people excited, the restriction of the executive’s ability to deploy the Armed Forces into armed conflict to a narrowly defined set of national security and operational effectiveness criteria that require swift action. Outside of these specific circumstances it will be Parliament’s responsibility to “send a gunboat” or some such and the paper even proposes that Parliament itself develops the convention that these resolutions will be based on. The wording is also important in that the word “war” is not mentioned at any point in the section, for as other commentators have pointed out, it is a rare event these days for their to be a formal declaration of war. I would very like to see what the Chiefs of the Defence Staff or other forces based expert body propose for the “emergency” powers and how closely the MOD and then the government as a whole follow them.

The next item is formalising the procedures for Parliament to scrutinise and ratify treaties, hopefully this will, as well as the face value improvements in accountability lead to better handling of bilateral treaties that other countries don’t ratify but take full advantage off, such as the USA with respect to the Extradition Treaty of 2003.

Next up is dissolving Parliament, no mention of the possibility of introducing full and fixed terms, but instead just requiring that the Prime Minister seeks the approval of Parliament before going to ask the Monarch. Now, there is mention of protections against Parliament refusing to support the formation of a government yet not allowing dissolution. I think there is another situation where this could cause an issue, in the case of a coalition government based round a part with no overall majority; it could be prevented from dissolving by the MPs of its coalition partners if they believe that after fresh elections they wouldn’t be required. Now our system makes this quite unlikely and obviously such tactics could lead to the breakdown of the coalition anyway, it just seams like a possibility for continuing chaos.

The section on recalling Parliament suggest that the powers will just be an extension of the Speaker’s current ability to do so, the issue is the wording which says that the Speaker should consider it and it would be in the Speaker's discretion. I would be happier that this would be a worthwhile reform if there were specific triggers that enforced the recall so that overly politicised Speakers couldn’t block the recall. Another section I’ll gloss over at this stage, I am little qualified to comment on the operation of the civil service and a great deal of it is “wait and see”. One really good point in there however is that confirmation that the Order in Council that allowed three of the Prime Minister’s Special Advisors to step out of the restrictions on their role and give orders to civil servants. Similarly the section on the Attorney General basically says that the government can see the problems with the role, but there is already a select committee report in the pipeline so let us wait and see what that says.

On ecclesiastical, judicial and public appointments, there is the simple desire to reduce the involvement of the Prime Minister’s office in appointing the various flavours of churchmen required, while maintaining a full commitment to the church being established. So henceforth the appointments based on the Crown Nominations Commission will be altered so that the commission will be only putting forward one name for the Prime Minister to recommend to the Crown. No mention is made about any possibility of rejecting the single name if the commission goes overboard and starts nominating Robert Mugabe or some such. For appointments made in other ways the General Synod is due to make recommendations and there isn’t likely to be any alteration of the arrangements for Royal Peculiars. In a similar vein the consultation process will look at increasing the role of the Judicial Appointments Commission and adjusting the oversight of that body, perhaps making it directly responsible to Parliament.

The green paper states that there are 21,000 posts in “arms length” organisations such as Quangos, NDPBs and executive agencies that are in the patronage of ministers. The government and the House of Commons Liaison Committee will draw up a list of appointments that will be subject to pre-appointment hearings within the existing select committee system, the document includes some examples of posts that should be included. This is a section I expect to have more to say on when this process goes forward and we are close to or get a white paper.

The last subsection is about the honours system and does little but set out the current committee based system and reiterates that the Prime Minister and the Secretaries of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs accept the output of those committees without any additions or deletions. There are no recommendations for change here, whether this will change during the consultation process remains to be seen.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Sorry for the interruption

Sorry for the interruption, it isn't as you might imagine the switch to using Blogger, that was exceptionally easy, with the possible exception of getting the "Edit colour hex code" box to work. It wouldn't but given that within certain tempting constructs you can directly edit most of the html and all of the css the whole thing was beaten into submission.

No after the aftermath of the play, the power cuts brought on by the floods and most immediately a stinking cold, kind of crimped my style.
So going to try and get the energy back into sorting the house, various other projects and most relevantly here, this blog.

First up, I am going through the new government's new green paper on The Governance of Britain, I was going to start with a summarising post and then follow with a commentary, I apologise in advance for what you are going to get which is a stream of conciousness mix of both.

I am a third of the way through so I suppose I might get it done by the end of the weekend, depending on how much fun I end up having and if the rain lets up enough for me to "get stuff done"TM on Saturday.