Gale's View from Westminster - July 2012
In July the sun is hot. Is it shining? No it`s not. Those searching for a silver lining in the clouds have their work cut out as Westminster obsesses itself with vital issues of Lords` Reform and Same Sex Marriage while the Recession goes into a double dip. The God Particle is found but the Church of England Synod dithers over Women Bishops. For the elderly the answer to pay as you live is “pay as you die”. But it`s “Allez Wiggo” in the Tour de France, Olympic spirit begins to trickle through the rain and there`s always Mayor Boris to contribute to the jollity of the nation.
July is always a scratchy month in parliament. Notwithstanding the downpours London is sweaty and full of people bumping into each other while gazing up at the Clock Tower or peering into maps; the boys and girls are tired and want to get the hell out of Town ; the minutiae of legislation seems to take precedence over the few things that really matter and the press gallery, gearing up for their monumental summer break, are busy preparing their “MPs Three-month holiday” stories in the full knowledge that the Members that they criticise will continue to slog through constituency post and e-mails while they, having worked the occasional 24-hour week between free meals, will be propping up the bars of the Mediterranean. (To be fair, there are some hardworking parliamentary hacks but prudence prevents me from naming either of them).
“MPs Demand A Four-Day Week” screams the Sunday edition of the Bourgeoisie Women`s Tabloid with characteristic dishonesty. This wild assertion stems from the review, undertaken by the Procedure Select Committee, of Parliament`s sitting hours.
Since The Legacy decided, at the behest of the Blair Babes, to try to make parliament more attractive to women and more “family friendly” we have been confronted with a determination to fit a gallon into a half-a-litre pot. Those of us on the select committee, and I am one such, who hark back to the days when parliament commenced sittings in the afternoon and worked on into the small hours of the morning know that there is a given amount of legislative work to get through, an increasing number of constituency demands and a fixed number of hours in the day. Shuffle those hours how you will it all adds up to a family-unfriendly 80 hours plus per week. The Select Committee, having taken shedloads of evidence, concluded that the schedule that we work at present offered the least worst solution to meet the need. A huge new intake of Members of Parliament has decided that the House will sit, on Tuesdays, from 11.30 am until 7pm (which means 7.45 allowing for votes) as it does on Wednesdays. This has been tried once and was reversed because it reduced to one (Monday) morning the occasions when MPs might escort visiting constituents around the House and because it played havoc with the work of Legislative committees formerly carried out on Tuesday mornings. I shall not be remotely surprised if, in 12 months time, the decision is reversed again.
For the record, and the benefit of journalists incapable of mastering basic arithmetic, parliament will, as the select committee recommended, sit for precisely the same number of hours as before. It is only the chairs upon the deck of the Ship of State that have been reshuffled.
Talking of re-shuffles, it is traditional for a Prime Minister needing to refresh his Ministerial team to do so just before the Summer recess. This allows a decent interval in which those who have been removed from office can recover their equilibrium away from the gaze of colleagues and it permits those with newly acquired Ministerial cars and red boxes to have a stab at mastering their brief before appearing at the despatch box to answer for their predecessor`s errors.
It is generally accepted that, mid-term in this parliament, Man David needs to rearrange the pieces on the Coalition chessboard. This is, of course, harder than usual because of the need to take account of a disproportionate number of Liberal Democratic members of the Ministerial peloton (as we must, presumably, now come to know it). As a result the event is not likely to take place until early September, allowing months of speculation about a “True Blue” shake-up and, no doubt, a House seething, on the government benches, with bruised egos.
In the meantime the Prime Minister has created for himself other obstacles that will have to be overcome. The unwanted, unloved, unnecessary and ill-designed proposals to reform the House of Lords received the largest government-bench raspberry for many a long year, resulted in the resignation of two respected Parliamentary Private Secretaries and has left the parliamentary party in what might best be described as “turmoil”. The proceedings of the Conservative 1922 Committee are risibly described as “confidential” but as the Prime Minister`s end-of-term remarks were being tweeted to the press even as he uttered them it is, I think, no great secret to reveal that he has decided to “have one more go” at securing agreement but that “we are not going to go on and on with this and damage the rest of the Government`s performance”. This will, of course, be seen by Mr. Clogg and his acolytes as “bad faith” and it remains to be seen whether it will wreck the bill designed to re-draw boundaries and reduce by fifty the number of parliamentary seats. It could, in theory, even bring down the coalition but wiser heads than mine suggest that that possibility is remote.
And then there is issue of same-sex marriage.
Legalising same-sex marriage is supposed to be the subject of “consultation”. When pressed on this issue, and in the context of Her Master`s Voice, The Home Secretary has said that we are not, actually, “consulting” on whether or not same-sex marriage should be permitted but on how it should be permitted, which of course makes a complete mockery of the whole exercise. Man David has indicated that the proposed legislation will be the subject of a “free vote” for Tory backbenchers. This is a fig-leaf to disguise what would otherwise be a monumental back-bench rebellion. The Prime Minister knows that with the support of the “payroll vote” (and with that in mind watch the re-shuffle) and the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party this measure will receive its second reading. In the Commons. If it ever reaches the House of Lords then it is anybody`s guess as to the outcome. What is clear, though, is that the subject has generated more correspondence than anything since foxhunting and has managed to antagonise the overwhelming majority of paid-up and loyal members of the Conservative Party who, whatever their views on homosexuality, believe as I do myself that marriage is, and must remain, the recognition of a union between one man and one woman. We are continually told that the legislation will apply “to civil ceremonies only” and will not be forced upon faith communities. Civil Partnerships already, of course, provide for that civil need. We are also told that when tested, as it assuredly will be, in the European Court then the churches will find themselves on the losing side. The Europhile atheist Mr. Clogg has opined that the law should embrace same-sex church weddings and departmental officials have already indicated that once a bill is law schools will be required to teach children about the concept of same-sex marriage “although there may be a need for guidance”. This is a minefield and, having walked into it, it was assuredly sheer folly for the Prime Minister to state, in terms, that same-sex marriage would be enshrined in law by 2015.
This is the same Prime Minister that, at Question Time, asserted that if the European Courts did not confirm the right of Christians to wear crosses at work then he would “change the law to allow this vital freedom”. Will he defend, before the Court of Human Rights, the “vital freedom” to permit the guardians of many faiths to deny access to same-sex marriage in Church or Mosque or Synagogue or Temple? I remain to be convinced.
While we are distracted by these peripheral lunacies the core problem of the economy and the mayhem that continues to be created by the financial services sector persists. Was the Bank of England, via Deputy Governor Paul Tucker and Barclays` Diamond, complicit in the LIBOR rate-fixing fiddle? Is there a tape-recording of phone-conversations between the two men? Liborgate? A Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry will look into the issue but Milipede the Younger raves on about the need for an “independent inquiry” that would, of course, cost millions and kick the findings into the long grass for months if not for years. Diamond himself is “sorry” but, pleading “don`t blame me” before the Treasury Select Committee, walks into the sunset clutching an obscene payoff for his “success”.
Matching the weather, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, predicts that financial gloom will last “until 2017”. Amid fears of a Spanish meltdown the Eurozone crisis is, according to the European Central Bank, worse than the Lehmann Brothers debacle. The German people , one of their national newspaper polls tells us , want to quit the eurozone. The International Monetary Fund, having backed austerity but now looking into the worst double-dip recession for fifty years, tells Chancellor George that his austerity plan is failing. HSBC is thought to be guilty of money laundering the proceeds of serious drugs crime and the Co-op buys 600 of Lloyds TSBs High Street outlets. Mayor Boris, meanwhile, instructs the Coalition to “stop overdoing the economic gloom” and the Treasury announces an £80 billion “funding for lending” scheme designed to motivate banks to provide funds to enable businesses to grow. Supposing we go one step further and legislate to peg bankers` remuneration directly to business lending? No loans, no pay. How does that sound to Mr. Stephen Hester?
The Salford Broadcasting Corporation, ( “Live from Salford – via video link from London”) , resident on a parallel economic universe, has managed to spend £350 thousand of your licence payers` pounds to head-hunters to secure a replacement for the departing and unlamentedly expensive Director General, Mark Thompson before appointing, internally, the Head of BBC Vision, George Entwhistle to the position. Look on the bright side. They could have selected Labour Luvvie and Commissar of Ofcom, Ed Richards, for the post.
Freedom of Information requests will, in due course, reveal just how much the regiment of Salford Engineers and commentators have cost, in transport, hotel bills and hospitality to cover the Olympics ( and to give credit where credit is due much of the interior and exterior camera work and some of the commentary has been exemplary) but we might reasonably expect that the 765 broadcasting staff have notched up a rather larger bill than our 550 athletes living in the Olympic Village.
What really strikes a sour note, though, is the manner in which the Corporation and its “stars” on inflated salaries have connived, through payments to specially established “Personal Service Companies” to avoid payment of the taxes that us mere mortals are compelled to fork out. Radio and television inquisitors who daily crucify others in public life for their misdemeanours have, it transpires, been avoiding tax like nobody`s business but their own. Auntie, it seems, has told these pillars of fiscal virtue to engineer their tax “off the books” or face the sack. That doyen of public probity, the Witchfinder General, Mr. Paxman, whines that he and his colleagues have been “hung out to dry” by the BBC. Has the man who likes to dish it out but is not so good at taking it ever considered turning down the squalid deal offered by the BBC`s vast legions of managers? Or was such rectitude in too stark a contrast with his bank balance? We are told, after the unwelcome follow-spot of publicity has been beamed upon the Corporation`s Finance Department, that the BBC “will review its tax arrangements with its stars”. I am not, generally, in favour of retrospective punitive action but in this case I could countenance an exception.
“Oh it`s Tommy this and Tommy that and Tommy go away
But it`s “thank you Mr. Atkins “ when he rescues Mrs. May” (Daily Telegraph, Friday 13th May).
There has been much that has been brilliant about the whole Olympic project and many gold medals, for construction, management, delivery and presentation that ought to be awarded but I think that it is not unreasonable to suggest that, in the modest litany of minor errors and major cock-ups the performance of the G4S security company sticks out like an erupting Vesuvius. That one of the world`s hitherto (note the past tense) “leading” security companies should not only have fallen so far short of its contracted observations as to necessitate the call-up of troops supposedly on leave from the arduous duties imposed upon them in Afghanistan is unforgivable. That they should then have concealed their shortcomings from the Home Secretary, the London Olympic Organising Committee and the Government ought to lead to a root-and-branch clearout of those responsible and severe financial penalties. The Chief Executive`s appearance before a Commons Select Committee was so inept that, had it been a boxing match, the fight would have been stopped within the first round. I hope that the nine thousand “Tommies” drafted in to bail out security checks and who, at the time of writing, are performing the unaccustomed duty of searching handbags with such efficiency and charm, realise just how much they are appreciated. Perhaps those that try to chuck them out of pubs and restaurants and shops when they are wearing uniform will, in future, think more than twice.
In this context we might also note press criticism of the fact that “some A-level students” have been recruited for security duties when they are only eighteen. They may not be on the front line but it`s worth remembering that some of our young soldiers are also “only 18”!
Into the Olympic cauldron, feet in mouth, plunges the American Presidential contender Mutt Rimney. Borat O`Bama must have been beside himself with glee as the Man from Utah arrived to lecture the Brits on the shortcomings of our preparations, security, ticketing, and the like. He might be forgiven for forgetting the name of Milipede the Younger and resorting to referring to him as “Mr. Leader” as it is doubtful whether very many of the world`s politicians, or even many UK citizens, can name the front-man of Her Majesty`s Opposition but his other gaffes sent his entourage into an overdrive of back-pedalling. To mix the metaphor his team described his performance as “a car crash” while a frigid Mr. Cameron, in reference to Mutt`s hand in the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, noted that “it`s easier if you hold the Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere”. Votes in London may not count for much in the scheme of the Rimney campaign strategy but Boris Johnson`s re-writing of the O`Bama battle cry to read “Are we ready? Yes we are!” may yet resonate throughout the American colonies to Rimney`s electoral embarrassment. Seriously, would you want an accident prone foot on the nuclear pedal?
Unkind, perhaps, to describe Cyclist Bradley Wiggins` triumph in the Tour de France to become the first Brit in 109 years to win the toughest road race in the world as “a warm up act” for the Olympics but the timing was as perfect as it could possibly have been. That the Mod with sideburns, with “Allez Wiggo” ringing in his ears, was able to stand on the podium at the end of the Champs Elysee and announce that he was “now going to draw the raffle” must have perplexed the French but the thousands of Rosbifs present to witness this remarkable scene got the joke that then ricocheted around the world. More of Wiggo, no doubt, in the Olympics but a superb curtain raiser for what has been billed as the Greatest Show on Earth.
James Bond arrives at Buck House by helicopter, sprints up the front staircase and walks in on the seated figure with the grey hair. As she turns around and says, coolly, “Good evening, Mr. Bond” the entire Gale household, including my 90-year old Mother, splutters in unison “My God! It`s Her!” Say what you like about the “Marxist undertones” of the whole opening extravaganza, the fact of the matter is that Her Maj, with help of her corgis, just stole the show.
What other Monarch, celebrating a diamond jubilee, could have got away with such delightfully wild eccentricity? Her entrance into the Olympic stadium , with Prince Philip, following a lookalike skydive from the helicopter performed by two stuntmen , brought the house down and the millions watching around the world can only have marvelled with envy at our good fortune in having managed to retain such an amazing institution as “The Firm”.
The new immigration test is designed to examine visa-hunters in their knowledge of Shakespeare, Florence Nightingale, The Beatles, The Battle of Trafalgar, Brunel and the like in order to ensure that they can “integrate into society”.. How many existing UK residents do we suppose would pass the test?
Sample immigration test question: from which two places can you obtain advice if you have a problem at your place of work? (a) The CAB (b) an MP (c) your employer or (d) ACAS?
The “correct” answer is the CAB and ACAS. The Whitehall desk-bound author has clearly never seen the inside of an MP`s “advice surgery”.
The Equalities and Human Rights Commission is on the rack. To save money they propose to sack almost ninety of their lowest-paid staff almost all of whom come from ethnic minorities or are disabled.
As part of an American “tactical review” designed to protect civilians it is suggested that troops in Afghanistan should “not shoot until you are shot at”. A worthy concept dreamed up, no doubt, by a strategist who has not seen the front line recently.
Don`t ask me where these figures come from but apparently only one in five building labourers now bothers to wolf-whistle at passing pretty girls. The practice “represents times past”. Like opening doors, giving up seats and walking on the outside of the pavement, no doubt.
`Veteran Broadcaster` John Simpson, himself the reporter of many conflicts, has declared war on `management jargon` and wishes to `hunt down and destroy` Birt-speak and Americanisms`. Sounds good to me but BBC Standard English might not go down too well in Salford.
Labour`s Quango Queen Dame Suzi Leather has held a reported 30 posts in 15 years . Nice “work” if you can get it.
Olympic sponsors have paid large sums of money for the privilege of promoting their brands throughout the games but the “protection” of the Olympic logo extends, now, to words such as “summer” and “games” and the baker who made rings out of five bagels or the butcher who designed them out of strings of sausages or the florist who made five attractive rings out of paper flowers must have been bewildered to have their patriotism challenged by the Ring Police.
The authorities might better spend their time tracking down Swindon`s dastardly kidnapper. Having stolen a beloved garden ornament he then posted a ransom note demanding “ £10 - or the gnome gets it”.
London`s Olympic `Zil` traffic lanes are clearly working well. President of the IOC, Jaques Rogge, was swept serenely into Central London accompanied by five police outriders. Unfortunately, the dire warnings of a traffic-jammed city have proved such an effective deterrent that not only the Capital`s roads but also its theatres, shops and restaurants are empty and losing money fast.
Wirral Council has determined that teaching staff must register “lavish” gifts from grateful departing students. They should have taken a lesson from my now ageing Scottish friend who says “thank you” to taxi drivers while telling them that “it`s an old Scottish custom that we use instead of a tip”!
“To avoid upsetting transgender students” Oxford University`s males may now wear skirts and stockings to exams. References to “men and women” have now been dropped from the dress code .
The Olympic Games are “not inclusive but ruthlessly and dazzlingly elitist” says Mayor Boris. More from the stadium next month.