Sunday, July 5

Lack of intelligence

Today the broadcast media are leading on the Mail "scoop" that the future head of MI6 had personal information published on Facebook.

The Conservatives are expressing concerns over the security implications. The Liberal Democrats are more hysterical, calling for a public inquiry.


Why do we need an inquiry? What would it achieve?

Reading the Mail article, it appears the facts are fairly straightforward: the wife of a diplomat posts personal photos and other information on a networking site; she doesn't apply adequate privacy settings; an opportunistic journo spots the lack of privacy and manages to squeeze a splash out of it.

The information which raises security concerns include: "family holidays"; "showbiz friends"; and [tenuous] "links to David Irvine".

It is possible an opportunistic terrorist might use these to exploit the head of MI6, but I suspect even if the information wasn't available on Facebook that someone with the will and means might be able to find out such information anyway.

So an inquiry seems to be completely pointless, both in what it would discover and what it would achieve.

Perhaps we should have a public inquiry into the Liberal Democrats' opportunism?

The incident raises questions about online privacy in general and our own responsbilities in policing what information we share with the world. But it is not the earth shattering news the Liberal Democrats would have you believe.

David Miliband put it well when he spoke about the matter this morning:
"Are you leading the news with that? The fact that there's a picture that the head of the MI6 goes swimming - wow, that really is exciting. It is not a state secret that he wears Speedo swimming trunks, for goodness sake let's grow up."

Thursday, June 18

Climate strange

Hilary Benn outlined climate change projections in Parliament today. The question remains why he made the announcement at all.

In October 2008, Gordon Brown announced the creation of a new department to tackle the issue of climate change - the aptly titles Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC). Ed Miliband was installed as its first Secretary of State.

The department took some responsibility from BERR (mainly energy issues) and others from DEFRA (climate change).

So you would have thought that DECC would be responsible for things such as reports on the impact of climate change.

If you are on the DECC website, it appears they are. Not so say the DEFRA website: they are. (There is even a his and his video introduction from Ed Miliband and Hilary Benn, on their respective websites).

A charitable explanation might be that DECC look at climate change, whereas DEFRA manage its effects.

Even if that were true, it invites the question as to why the two departments are not even more closely integrated? For instance, their functions being part of the same department?

The UK government has been relatively more pro-active about environmental issues than most countries. But there is no reason why a separate department is required for climate change - particularly if the environment department works on the same issues.

The DECC/DEFRA split looks, in hindsight, like wasteful and inefficient duplication.

To say nothing about the abilities of the incumbent Secretaries of States, DECC and DEFRA should be merged.

Tuesday, June 16

Labour pains

The UK labour market has shown surprising flexibility, which should help during a recovery.
Today British Airways announced that it was asking workers to work for free, or take unpaid leave, in a bid to cut costs. Other companies are doing the same: for example, business services firm KPMG recently asked staff to consider unpaid leave and Honda shut down factories for months.

This helps businesses retain skilled employees during the downturn, but simultaneously reduces their wage bills. Not all businesses have had that luxury - many have made staff redundant, or closed completely.

The appetite amongst workers for such schemes underlines the flexibility within the UK labour market, in contrast to previous recessions and more rigid labour markets elsewhere. And retaining skilled workers mean gearing up for a recovery should be easier, quicker and less costly for business than letting staff go.

New unemployment figures are out tomorrow. They are likely to show another jump in the number of people looking for work. It'll be scant consolation for the newly unemployed that the situation could be much worse.

Saturday, June 6

State of the Union

The people behind 18 Doughty Street and ConservativeHome have set up a union. No, really.

An email dropped into my inbox the other day - it had obviously been mail-merged as they had spelt the site name incorrectly - with information about a new union: a union of Voters.

The "union" has four manifesto commitments:
  1. There should be no such thing as a 'safe seat for life' - voters should be able oust any MP in whom they have lost trust.
  2. There should be referenda when all the establishment politicians agree but the people don't.
  3. Political parties should look to voters for their funding, not big business, big unions or big government.
  4. Politicians should not be able to hide their expenses, income and connections from voters.
Some of these points are difficult to argue against, and are perhaps trivial as a result. The one on funding might disadvantage Labour compared to the Conservatives given the spending power of their respective traditional constituencies.

What is really interesting is that its founders - of the right and centre-right - have appropriated the language of the left in order to establish a (rather modish) movement against the political class. A tacit admission of the value of unions?

The site aims to be like the MoveOn movement in the states, but in typically British fashion looks a little staid from the off. It'll be interesting to see if this union becomes a tour de force in British politics...

Saturday, May 23

Mountains and molehills

The Economist's leader about expenses-gate is well worth a read this week, and makes some salient points:
There may indeed soon be good reasons for forcing an election—especially if it becomes obvious, as it well might, that Gordon Brown’s spindly government has lost the authority to govern the country. But the expenses crisis, if anything, weakens the argument for a contest now. If an election were called next week, Britain might well end up with a Parliament for the next five years that is defined entirely by its views on claiming for bath plugs, rather than on how to get the country out of the worst recession in 70 years.

The same yes-but-not-now logic applies to the calls for constitutional reform. Some elements in this crisis can indeed be traced back eventually to defects in Britain’s system, notably the drift of power away from Parliament to the executive. But the heart of the matter was much smaller: a shoddy way of dealing with expenses. You could re-engineer great swathes of Westminster—bring in an elected House of Lords, introduce a Bill of Rights, design open primaries for MPs, scrap the first-past-the-post electoral system—and it would not make a shred of difference if the people elected were left in charge of claiming their own expenses amid a “course-you-can-chum” culture. A pile of swimming-pool-cleaning receipts is not a good starting place for constitutional reform.
More here.

Tuesday, May 19


The Times appear to imply the Speaker of the House, Michael Martin, is a drunk today. The ritual humiliation the man is being put through is unfair, and misses the point.
Michael Martin isn't the best orator this country has ever produced - you only need watch his statement yesterday to see that. Nor may he be the most qualified to act as Speaker (although I don't feel expert enough to opine on this).

But the opprobrium heaped upon him by fellow MPs defies belief. They may think that sticking the knife in one of their own may in some way make up for their collective failings - like a sacrificial expenses lamb.

However, the electorate is likely to meet out a harsher, more visceral punishment at the next national poll. Such is the problem with accountability.

Monday, May 18

Showbusiness for ugly people?

First Lumley, now Rantzen and Carson. "Celebrities" should probably stick to the day job.

I'm all for people being interested in politics, but why is that those who build a celebrity career in the entertainment industries always feel the need to get involved in politics?

Sometimes their interventions can be beneficial, although oftentimes they look a little out of their depth, or do serious damage to their reputations. When backing political parties or campaigns, they are often used. Even independents, like Martin Bell, can go a little native.

They say that politics is "showbusiness for ugly people". And, particularly of late, it is not just politicians' looks, but also their moral compasses which look disfigured. 

Those in real showbusiness would probably be better off well out of it.