Sunday, 30 June 2013

Cleaning Up Politics


The Sunday Times contained an interesting opinion poll at the weekend - one which suggested there is great public support for toughening up the rules at the Palace of Westminster - where MPs and 'noble' peers go about their work.

Now I think the answers to the questions are quite predictable - because a great many people hold politicians in contempt these days even though not all of them are corrupt and completely useless.

But the problem is that there are far too few, if any, politicians who are selfless - who give the impression that they really do want to clean up the Palace of Westminster - without playing party politics and by tackling the vested interests on their own side.

The point about MPs is that they should not, as a general rule, be able to take up other paid jobs - which mean that they are absent from day jobs on a regular basis or for any significant length of time.

As far as the House of Lords is concerned, the place is a joke and a huge waste of public money - quite why we pay 'noble' peers any money at all is beyond me - because most of them have retired (often early) from already well paid public service jobs which means lots of the buggers enjoy very generous pensions.

So why do they need a tax-free attendance fee of £300 a day - never mind a salary - when all they should really be entitled to is their legitimate expenses for travelling to and staying in London when they are on official business.   

Take Jack McConnell, for example, the fomer First Minister of Scotland - now Lord McConnell of course - what in the name of God does he need a daily attendance fee for when he retired early as an MSP on a pension based on his First Minister's salary?

The notion of 'public service' gets bandied around quite freely these days - yet it strikes me that far too many people, often in very privileged positions, still feel a sense of entitlement - that they deserve to be exceptionally well rewarded just for serving the public.

Likewise the man with the 'moral compass' - Gordon Brown - you would have thought that the former Labour leader and Prime Minister would realise how ridiculous he looks - clinging on to his job as a full- time MP when he spends so much time out of the country.

Sunday Times Opinion Poll  

Do you support changing rules so that Lords found guilty of offences can be disqualified?

Support - 87%
Oppose - 4%
Don't know - 9%

Would you support a right for constituents to sack their MP between elections if enough people backed such a move?

Support - 77%
Oppose - 9%
Don't know - 14%

Do you support a ban on MPs holding second jobs?

Support - 57%
Oppose - 25%
Don't know - 18%


Do you support introducing a register of all meetings between ministers and lobbyists?

Support - 73%
Oppose - 8%
Don't know - 21%


Do lobbyists have too much influence on politicians?

Too much - 56%
About right - 10%
Not enough - 7%
Don't know - 26%


Should peers receive a salary and be banned from taking outside jobs?

No - 52%
Yes - 30%
Don't know - 18%

Winner Loses Out

Scottish Labour leader - Johann Lamont - has sacked her finance spokesperson Ken Macintosh, and replaced him with her predecessor as Labour leader, Iain Gray.


I can't be the only person to find this move rather strange especially as Ken actually beat Johann in the Labour leadership vote amongst ordinary Labour members.


Yet again the trade unions are responsible for defying the wishes of individual party members - as they did at a UK level when the trade union vote handed victory to Ed Miliband when his brother David Miliband - actually won the support of a majority of Labour party members. 


One Member One Vote (OMOV) is the obvious solution to this farcical situation - which the party leadership must face up to at some stage.


Labour Loser Wins Again (18 December 2013)

The new leader of the Scottish Labour party - Johann Lamont - has not been elected by individual Labour party members.

In the individual member section of Labour's barmy electoral college - the votes cast were as follows:

Tom Harris - 3.444%
Johann Lamont - 12.183%
Ken Macintosh - 17.707%

Total - 33.33%

Now the reason that the total adds up to 33.33% instead of 100% - is that party members have only one-third of the votes - which sounds completely bonkers because it is completely bonkers.

But in most other political parties this would have produced the following result:

Tom Harris - 10%
Joahann Lamont - 37%
Ken Macintosh - 53%

Total - 100%

So Ken Macintosh won an overall majority in the ballot of individual Labour party members in Scotland - of whom there are less than 20,000 these days.

And no wonder because they don't even get to elect their own leader.

In the Alice in Wonderland world of the Labour party two more sections of the 'electoral college' come into play - one for parliamentarians (MSPs and MPs) and the other for trade unions.

So out of the total number of ballot papers sent out - well over 300,000 according to Labour - less than 20,000 are for individual Labour party members - 100 or so are for MSPs and MPs - and around 300,000 are for non-Labour party members in the trade unions.

Which means that 20,000 votes - has the same value as 100 votes - has the same value as 300,000 votes - or to put it plainly some votes in the Labour party are much more equal than others.

Not everyone votes of course which distorts the picture even further - but the turnout figures have still to be released for each section - and will make interesting reading at some point.

Ironically, Labour's new deputy leader in Scotland - Anas Sarwar - has been elected by ordinary party members who voted for him by a majority of 61% - despite a trade union campaign to elect one of his rivals.

So Scottish Labour has ended up in exactly the same position as the UK Labour party - they have a new leader - but one who has been rejected by ordinary party members. 

Sexist Plonkers


Scotland's First Minister - Alex Salmond - deserves credit for telling the 'stuffed shirts' at Muirfield golf club that they can stick their invitation to this year's Open Championship - where the sun don't shine.

Now, of course, the First Minister used more polite language that I've just employed to convey his message, but his point is still plain for all to see - exclusive 'all male' golf clubs in this day and age are ridiculous and a terrible embarrassment to Scotland.

I don't know who decides where the Open Golf Championship will be held  every year, but whoever it is - they should grow up and decide that, in future, they will boycott any golf clubs that deny membership to women players.

Now that would include the home of golf course - the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews - which has a long standing tradition of offering honorary membership to the principal of St Andrews University.

Yet that tradition was abruptly halted a few years ago when a new woman principal  took over the reins at the university - in the shape of Dr Louise Richardson.

What a sad bunch of sexist plonkers - what does this say about their outlook on life, moral values and relationships with women?

I'm not a golfer and never have been, but I know for sure that I wouldn't want to be a member of an 'all male' club - no matter how exclusive - because it is simply unacceptable that women can be treated as second class citizens.



    

   


Saturday, 29 June 2013

Shurah Council


I've been scouring the internet searching for news of the Saudi Shurah Council - to see if this body has finally decided whether women in one of the most conservative of Muslim countries in the world - are able to drive.

Not able to drive in a physical sense, of course, because women in Saudi Arabia are able to operate plenty of other mechanical devices - ones that came along long after the motor car - such washing machines, air conditioning devices and TVs. 

Yet the country's religious rulers don't seem to have a problem with women getting their 'hands dirty' on these domestic contraptions - so why do they get their knickers in such a twist about women being able drive a car.

It's a control thing, of course - whatever will these pesky women want next: the right to control  when and if they have children, perhaps, what clothes they want to wear or the right to a decent education - and a job with a career.         

But as soon as I know what the Shurah Council has decided - I'll share it right here. 


What's the Point? (18 March 2013)

What's the point of the Duchess of Cornwall?

Is the question I'm asking myself after reading her comments about the 'remarkable' social changes this royal personage has witnessed - since her last visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabi in 2006.

Now the Duchess - or Camilla Parker Bowles as she is more commonly known - was at the the Bab Rizq Jameel Nafisa Shams Female Academy for Arts and Crafts in Jeddah - and the Duchess and said, quite spontaneously, apparently:

“I’ve noticed that since the last time I was here there’s been a sea of change. Talking to people, they all tell me they think there’s a big difference and they are all so intelligent and sensible. I have had so many more chances to meet women.”

Before adding that the cakes on display were so good - that she would like to take some with her.

Now I'm not naive enough to believe that members of Britain's royal family should be going off abroad fomenting revolution in other countries - fun though that thought might be - but surely this woman could have thought of something slightly more intelligent and worthy to say than these banal comments.

Meanwhile women in Sudia Arabia continue to fight back against one of the most conservative and repressive regimes in the middle east - because Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world to forbid its women citizens to drive.

The Saudi ban - which is a religious proclamation- is due to be debated again by the Shura Council - which advises King Abdullah (89) on such sensitive matters - the country being an absolute monarchy of course, as opposed to a democracy.

So the King's word is law - although he is open to argument from time to time, readers will be pleased to hear.

The Shura Council last debated the ban on women drivers in 2006 - and while at that time the King's advisory body rejected any changes out of hand - since then its 150 members include 30 women appointed by King Adbullah in January.

The Shurah Council has agreed to reconsider the issue after receiving a petition of more than 3,500 names - and its deliberation will be televised which is bound to reignite the public argument over women’s equality.

So here's hoping that women drivers in Saudi Arabia become a fact of everyday life soon - the only down side, I suppose, is that they'll have less time to make such famously good cakes.

A Bold Step?


Labour's Number Two Ed - Ed Balls - gets mercilessly mauled in the latest edition of Private Eye quite rightly, in my view - for his 'head in the sand' approach to the UK's mammoth debt problem over the past few years.

But now Ed has seen the light, so we are encouraged to believe, yet as the Private Eye and others have pointed out - there's a long, long way to go before the country gets back on its feet.

Now if Labour would stop treating the voters as 'useful idiots', I would start thinking about supporting for the party again - although at the moment, I have to say, we are rather a long way from that too.   

Ed Balls unveils his grand strategy to solve Britain's debt problem

By Our Political Staff

Peter O'Bore

Labour's Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, stunned the political world yesterday by revealing his radical blueprint for slashing Britain's £1.3 trillion national debt.

Previously, Mr Balls had faced savage criticism for failing to acknowledge that the £1.2 trillion debt was in any way a problem, and that the answer to the huge rise in Government borrrowing was to borrow enough money to pay it back.

But now, in a dramatic u-turn, Mr Balls has recognised that something dramatic needs to be done to get our public finances back on an even keel.

He has, therefore, come up with a revolutionary 3-point plan that has left both politicians and economists gasping at the scale and audacity of his financial vision.

That Ed Balls 3-Point Plan In full

1. Abolish winter fuel allowance for top-rate taxpaying pensioners, thus saving £100 million a year. This will leave only £1,199, 900,000,000 left to find.

2. Er...

3. That's it.      

What's the Point?


John Rentoul was spot on with this recent article in The Independent - in which he asks, rhetorically - what's the point of voting Labour? - if they are following virtually the same economic programme as the Conservatives by 2015.  

A very good question, if you ask me.

Recovery means... dumping Labour policies

Protected by the amulet of Saint Clem, Ed Miliband could go on to bury John Maynard Keynes

By John Rentoul

That is what Ed Miliband was up to in his speech yesterday, in which he pointed out – a brilliant touch, this (no, really) – that Clement Attlee balanced the budget

It's like that moment in a fairy tale when the long winter is ending, the forces of darkness recede, and there's a CGI sparkle in every hedgerow. Government ministers think the economy is on the turn, although they can't say so in public, so they do the next-worst thing, which is to tell journalists.

George Osborne will not say anything remotely upbeat when he announces the election baseline, also known as the "spending review", on Wednesday. But Ed Balls, his opposite number, has already announced the return to growth. In his Reuters speech earlier this month, he started the huge task of repositioning the Labour Party to fight an election at a time when the economy is growing.

That is what Ed Miliband was up to in his speech yesterday, in which he pointed out – a brilliant touch, this (no, really) – that Clement Attlee balanced the budget. Thus protected by the amulet of the Sainted Clem, Miliband could go on to bury John Maynard Keynes.

Labour's promise of a Keynesian boost was fun while it lasted. Well, not fun exactly, but it served the purpose of keeping the naive left and the trade unions quiet and had the huge advantage of being right. Since 2010 it would have been better to borrow even more to give people more spending power. That would probably have increased growth, which would have meant that borrowing would have come down last year rather than, as we discover now that the figures have been revised and the Chancellor's accounting tricks stripped out, going up.

But Miliband and Balls realise this phase is over if the CGI sparkle of growth has returned. The important line in Balls's Reuters speech was this: "Over the coming year if, as we all hope, some kind of recovery does take hold, the balance of advantage will shift from temporary tax cuts to long-term capital investment."

If the economy is growing reasonably well in 2015, the case for a Keynesian stimulus recedes like the memory of the dark times in the fairy tale. Hence the rediscovery of the socialist virtue of fiscal responsibility, and the invocation by Miliband yesterday not just of Attlee but of Aneurin Bevan.

That leaves Labour with a problem. Complaining that the Government is cutting "too far and too fast" has been the one big, easy-to-understand difference between the parties on economic policy for three years. Once it has gone, what's the point of voting Labour?

Hence the ambiguity at the heart of Labour's new position. Note that Balls reserved the right to borrow more for "long-term capital investment". The soft fudge of Miliband's speech yesterday was its talk of "investing for the long term" without admitting that this might mean borrowing more. My guess is that, as the economy picks up, the option of higher "borrowing to invest" will also be abandoned.

"One by one, Labour's dominoes are falling," as Michael Portillo said on BBC1's This Week on Thursday. Accepting coalition spending limits; supporting free schools; admitting mistakes were made in the NHS. In each case, the retreat has been stealthy, with plenty of confusing diversionary tactics to conceal what has been happening. But each time, differences between Labour and the coalition – differences liable to be unpopular – have been dropped.

Stephen Twigg, the shadow Education Secretary, delivered a speech last week in which he said Labour would keep free schools, which are, after all, legally the same as academies, which were Labour's idea in the first place. Twigg's policy was unclear before the speech, and remained unclear after it, as Michael Gove pointed out in a long and well written letter, but Twigg seemed to have moved from an anti-free-school fudge to a pro-free-school fudge. Gove's letter, incidentally, exposed the Education Secretary's weakness, which is that he is a journalist and controversialist as well as a passionate educationalist. Twigg gave as good as he got in reply, saying he feared Gove was spending too much time "sending letters to me, writing forewords to the Bible and dreaming up new names for GCSEs". But Gove had accurately identified a lack of clarity about Labour's willingness to put the interests of pupils above those of teachers.

Meanwhile, something surprising has been happening in the health service. This has been the very definition of comfort zone for Labour since 1948. Last month Ed Miliband chose it as his subject for PMQs and was doing fine until David Cameron said "Stafford hospital". The air froze and 65 years of history crumbled in the Leader of the Opposition's hands. The Myth of the Sainted Attlee cannot shield the party from everything.Last week Labour had nothing much to say about the fatal errors at Morecambe Bay NHS Trust, which happened under the last government.

Labour has got a lot of work to do, and shadow ministers are running out of time. I hear George Osborne has been giving some of them friendly advice: to enjoy a reasonable work-life balance now because it will disappear a year before the election. But if the economy does pick up, they may have left it too late.

Friday, 28 June 2013

South Lanarkshire


Here are two interesting pieces of information - the first is an extract from the Court of Session, Scotland's highest civil court, in which three senior judges unanimously threw out an appeal from South Lanarkshire Council.

The second is an extract from an article in The Sunday Herald newspaper by Tom Gordon and Paul Hutcheon - the final part of which I have highlighted in bold, for easy reference.

The thing that puzzles me is that South Lanarkshire Council now appears to be arguing that their aim is to protect 'sensitive data' as 'an important issue that's worth defending'.

Yet in the Court of Session the Council made no fuss or challenge on that particular point - the Council's main concern at that time being whether Mark Irvine had any legitimate interest in seeing the data - which the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) decided that I had.

In the event Lords Marnoch, Brailsford and Mackay agreed with SIC - and so South Lanarkshire Council has been forced to go back to the drawing board - as the basis of a further appeal to the UK Supreme Court. 

So, it looks like it's Plan B or bust as far as the Council is concerned - though it's worth pointing out that Plan B has already failed, once before.   

Court of Session Judgment

[1] This is an Appeal at the instance of South Lanarkshire Council against a decision of the Scottish Information Commissioner under Section 56 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

[2] The requested information concerned the basic hourly rate of pay for the Appellant's job category, "Land Service Operative 3" ("LSO 3"). The Requester, Mr Irvine, wanted to know how many of the total number of LSO 3 posts were placed at Spinal Column Points 25-34 respectively. Although the precise nature of this information was explained to us, it did not in the end prove relevant to a resolution of the legal issues involved. What is relevant is that the Appellant declined to divulge the information in question and it appears from the papers that their principal concern was the possibility that individual employees might be identifiable if the information were released. In the result, however, the Commissioner, who was the only compearing Respondent in the Appeal, found, as matter of fact, that that apprehension was unfounded and the Appellant makes no challenge to the validity of that finding. There were, however, certain other concerns expressed by the Appellant and these were considered by the Commissioner in the context of the information or data in question being, of concession, "personal data" in the hands of the Appellant within the meaning of Section 1(1) of the Data Protection Act 1998.

Sunday Herald

"The freedom of information case involves equal pay campaigner Mark Irvine, of Action 4 Equality, who in 2010 asked the council for details of its pay scales under FoI law.

The aim was to find out if men in manual jobs such as gardening, rubbish collection and gravedigging were paid more than women in jobs requiring equal or higher levels of skill.

In recent years, Scottish councils have been forced to pay out tens of millions of pounds to female staff who have been paid less than male colleagues in equivalent jobs.

If the data asked for by Irvine helped to expose similar bad practice, it could leave South Lanarkshire facing hefty compensation claims.

The council is already being taken to a tribunal by 1500 female workers, who claim they are owed more than £10 million in back pay.

After South Lanarkshire tried to dismiss Irvine's requests as "vexatious", he appealed to the Information Commissioner.n changed tack to claim Irvine had no legitimate interest in seeing the data, and claimed simply releasing the number of staff on various pay grades would be a breach of data protection law, as individual workers might be identified, causing them distress.

The FoI watchdog rejected both arguments and said there was "no reason" to think people would be identified.

The council appealed against the ruling to the Court of Session, but was again defeated.

In an opinion last year, Lords Marnoch, Brailsford and Mackay of Drumadoon confirmed that Irvine had a legitimate interest in the information as an established campaigner, and that it was necessary to hand it over.

However, the council again refused to release the data and appealed to the UK Supreme Court.

Irvine told the Sunday Herald he was sure that, if the information was released, it would show that the council had paid male workers more than their female counterparts for years.

He said: "I think the council has completely lost the plot. What it's doing is unique, as far as I'm aware. It's a huge waste of money after such careful adjudications by the Information Commissioner and the Court of Session judges.

"If there's nothing significant in the information why does the council not just publish it like every other council in Scotland is doing?"

South Lanarkshire Council said: "Our decision to refuse the Freedom of Information request was to protect the sensitive personal data of employees.

"We believe this is an important issue that's worth defending.

"If we released the information that was requested, we believe we would be in clear breach of the Data Protection Act."

Man the Rigging


So the Labour Party has finally stepped in and put an end to the shenanigans in Falkirk - where the Sunday Herald newspaper exposed voting irregularities in the contest to replace the sitting, former Labour MP - Eric Joyce.

The key allegation made by the Sunday Herald was that Unite members were suddenly joining the Labour Party in Falkirk in suspiciously large numbers - presumably in an organised attempt to influence or possibly manipulate the ballot - since some of the individuals concerned were apparently unaware that they had even become Labour Party members.

All of which stinks to high heaven of course - so the Labour Party has sensibly taken control of the contest and announced that any members who joined after Eric Joyce stood down on 12 March 2012 - will not be allowed to take part in the selection vote.

Predictably, the Unite trade union has thrown its rattle out of the pram and blamed the selection farce on a conspiracy within the Labour Party - led by Peter Mandelson apparently.

Instead of doing the proper thing and facing up to the very serious charges swirling around the whole affair - which many people would regard as a good old 'stitch-up'.  

Labour Party acts on Falkirk selection row

The Labour Party has said it will take over the selection process for the Falkirk seat at Westminster.

The move to put its Falkirk constituency party under "special measures" came after allegations that some unions were packing membership lists to influence the decision.

The sitting MP, Eric Joyce, resigned from Labour after admitting assaulting four people in a House of Commons bar.

Labour is choosing its candidate from an all-woman shortlist.

A Labour Party spokesman said: "After an internal inquiry into the Falkirk constituency we have found there is sufficient evidence to raise concern about the legitimacy of members qualifying to participate in the selection of a Westminster candidate.

"As a result, NEC officers today decided a series of measures are needed to uphold the integrity of the Labour party.

"The Falkirk Westminster constituency is placed under special measures and the General Secretary will review internal membership procedures and advise on any changes that may be needed to ensure that they are not open to abuse."

Union criticism

Anyone who joined the Labour Party in Falkirk after 12 March 2012, when Mr Joyce announced he was stepping down, will not be allowed to take part in the selection process.

The Unite union has criticised the Labour Party's decision.

In a statement, it said: "Unite rejects the decisions taken today by the Labour Party in relation to the Falkirk West selection process. It does so on behalf of the many decent trade unionists who have joined the Party in good faith and are now to be denied any say in the choice of their Labour parliamentary candidate.

"None of the allegations contained in the report of the so-called 'investigation' have been put to Unite in clear breach of natural justice. The intervention by Party officials into this process has been driven by Blairite pressure to exclude trade unionists from any influence in the Party, an ambition clearly spelled out by Peter Mandelson last month.

"Trade unionists will draw their own conclusions regarding the integrity of the Party's procedures."

Monkey See, Monkey Do


The Moors murder - Ian Brady - made the most of his appearance at a mental health tribunal the other day where he complained in a self-obsessed, narcissistic way - that he was a 'monkey in a cage being poked with a stick'.

An apt description, if you ask me - but something he has brought entirely on himself after the cold blooded sexual torture and murder of five young children all those years ago in Yorkshire back in 1966.

When asked why he committed these foul crimes, Brady replied - for the 'existential experience' - which in plain language (rather than his purple prose) means that he  committed these horrific acts for no better reason than he wanted to see what it felt like at the time.

The cost of providing this convict with the opportunity to impress the world with his contrived vocabuarly and interest in Shakespeare and Plato is estimated at £250,000 - much of which will be spent on legal fees for some of the most expensive lawyers and QCs that money can buy.

But there's surely something wrong with the criminal justice system that so much money is wasted on providing this man with such a platform to share his views - which no one is interested in apart from himself.

So while I am not advocating locking him up and throwing away the key - I do object to the fact that so much public money is being spent handing Brady yet another 15 minutes of fame - so that he can play to the gallery over the motives, or lack of them, for his crimes.

I can honestly say that I've no interest in poking Brady with a stick - though he does deserve to be in a 'cage' for the rest of his life where he can reflect on some of the big big mysteries of life.

Such as 'monkey see, monkey do' - or that classic line from from Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau - "Do you have a 'leesance' for that 'minkey'?"

In other words, Brady is desperate to be taken seriously, yet all he deserves is our cold contempt and ridicule - instead of all the attention that has been lavished on him recently. 

Public Inquiries


Simon Jenkins made a fair point in The Guardian the other day - more often than not public enquiries are a convenient and hugely expensive way for Governments and politicians - to kick awkward issues into the long grass.

The only recent exception I can think of is the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) which finally exposed the scandalous behaviour of the South Yorkshire Police Force - and its complicity in the unecessary deaths of 96 innocent supporters of Liverpool Football Club.

But on second thoughts the HIP was not a traditional public enquiry - of course.

No, its great strength lay in eschewing the 'usual suspects' approach and a judge led inquiry of the great and good - instead the HIP was made up of independent minded people - who possessed complementary skills and were drawn from all walks of life.

So, broadly speaking, I agree with Simon Jenkins and my instinctive reaction when I hear a call for another public inquiry - is to run screaming in the opposite direction as fast as I can - which is what should have happened over the Leveson Inquiry.  

Huge sums of public money were spent on Leveson - yet we have nothing to show for it - and at the same time the politicians got off the hook.

Politicians who demand inquiries should be taken out and shot

From Stephen Lawrence to Bloody Sunday, an inquiry serves as the establishment's get out of jail free card

By Simon Jenkins

The call for yet another inquiry into the Stephen ­Lawrence murder – by some counts the 17th – must make it the most interrogated death in history.

There should be a public inquiry. Indeed there should be a judicial inquiry, a veritable "judge-led" inquiry. Into what? That does not matter. An inquiry has become the cure-all for any political argument. Whether the subject is a dud police force, a dud hospital, a dud quango or a dud war, only a judicial inquiry will atone for wrongdoing and do penance for public sins.

An inquiry defers blame. It throws the ball into the long grass and kicks the can down the road. This week's call for yet another inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence murder – by some counts the 17th – must make it the most interrogated death in history. As with Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough, a British scandal is measured not in deaths but in juridical longevity.

Politicians who demand inquiries should be taken out and shot. In almost every failure in a public service – run by or regulated by ministers – we know perfectly well what happened and who was in charge. Guilt should lie at the top, or at some recognised cut-off point. An inquiry merely replaces the straight, sure arrow of accountability with the crooked line of pseudo justice. It is the establishment's get out of jail free card.

For a minister to set up an inquiry – or his opponent to call for one – is like a bankrupt board of directors calling in consultants. The hope is that it may soften the line of blame, fog the argument, postpone the day of reckoning. A minister declares, "I have asked the distinguished Lord Justice So-and-So to leave no stone unturned." By the time he does, the minister prays he may have moved on. The furniture of blame will have rearranged itself.

Almost all public inquiries are nowadays political. In 1998 Tony Blair, eager to push forward his Ulster peace process, set up yet another inquiry into Bloody Sunday. The Saville inquiry became a scandal of judicial extravagance and delay (into which, of course, there was no inquiry). In 2009 Gordon Brown wished to take the heat out of the Iraq war before an election. He set up the Chilcot inquiry, now so dormant it can be of use only to scholars of latter-day Blairism. Two years later David Cameron, under attack for his links to News Corporation, sought a judge known to be eager for higher office and chose Lord Justice Leveson to investigate press ethics. From the resulting shambles Cameron escaped scot free.

In the Victoria ClimbiƩ inquiry of 2001, thunderbolts of damnation were hurled on to the heads of hapless social workers. Trials and inquiries cursed officials, police, councillors and local managers. Lord Laming's subsequent report came up with 108 recommendations, so many as to allow responsibility to disperse like seeds from a dandelion. When a minister says "we are all to blame", he means no one is.

The recent bevy of inquiries into the Staffordshire and Cumbrian hospital scandals has shone a mesmerising light on modern quangocracy. Highly paid officials with ill-defined jobs that are nothing to do with health argue over who said what, when and to whom. The row cannot save a single patient, while the resources diverted must jeopardise thousands. The salaries and fees roll on.

Government by retrospective inquiry is not government at all. It is a first rough stab at history. Its strangest feature is the deference shown to lawyers and legal process. All professions have their biases and the law is no exception. The sanctity of court process, important in trying a criminal case, is hardly relevant to the politicised context of a modern public inquiry. Judges, for good reason, do not speak the language of politics. As we can see from their hysteria over legal aid, they certainly have no comprehension of budgetary priorities.

Those attending the 2003 Hutton inquiry into the death of David Kelly found it an eerily legalised process. It led to a whitewash so unconvincing it had to be repeated, in effect, a year later by Lord Butler. The Leveson inquiry was likewise conducted as if it were a trial of the press for the mass murder of celebrity reputations. No attention was paid to the ethics of the electronic media, let alone to those of lawyers who were equally assiduous users of hacking services. The reality is that inquiries set up to get politicians off a hook usually do so by finding some other individual or group to hang on that same hook.

De Tocqueville remarked that the intrusion of lawyers into every corner of government meant that "scarcely any political question … is not resolved into a judicial question". A lawyer is to a modern politician what a priest was to a medieval one – someone on hand to help in a scrape, to dispense indulgence for wickedness.

If political accountability were truly a matter for judicial determination, parliament could pass laws and go home, leaving judges to decide on their efficacy. Everything could be rolled into one ongoing, everlasting public inquiry, to which every political upset could be referred for trial and execution. Parliament could be removed to the royal courts of justice with the lord chief justice as Mr Speaker.

We know what this would be like. We can see it today following the centralisation of town and country planning by Cameron's eccentric commissar, Eric Pickles. Local plans and decisions based on them have been superseded by Pickles's targets and instructions to his planning inspectors. This plays so fast and loose with local discretion that any planning application is worth taking to appeal. Planning is no longer a local function but determined ad hoc by Whitehall inspectors, followed by public inquiries and potential judicial review. It is not planning but financial combat.

As a result, planning is set to join immigration in the soaring total of judicial reviews. What was once a relatively smooth mechanism for deciding what sort of building should occur and where has become a judicial free-for-all (or rather costly-for-all). Expediting government through legal process is a contradiction in terms.

Democracy cannot work without a clear line between a decision and someone who can be held responsible. That means clear when the decision is taken, not clear to subsequent inquiry. Big centralised organisations such as the NHS stretch that line to breaking point. Public inquiries validate that breakage. They are a menace. Lawyers should stick to the law. Elected politicians who screw up should come clean and resign.

Double Dipping


I was relieved to learn yesterday that the boffins have dipped back into the official statistics and declared that the UK economy did not experience a 'double-dip' recession - in 2011/2012 after all.  

So all that time people spent at night worrying what they would wake up to the next day - was just so much hot air - and a waste of good words as politicians traded their insults in the press and media - and at the Mother of all Parliaments in Westminster.

Not that it changes a great deal on the economic front - except to say that it's wise to treat what all politicians say with a great big pinch of salt.