Power to subpoena?

Lord Tyler 14/07/2011 – 5:44 pm

Watching the Home Office Select Committee interrogate present and past Met Police Officers this week made me wonder whether the RSCPA should have been called in.  I felt that the ferocious MPs on the Committee were (understandably) trying to make up for their previous failure to get anywhere near the full horrendous habits of some of the Murdoch media.  They clearly now believe that News of the UnderWorld did have a very special relationship with the Police as well as with successive tenants of No 10.

However, in the cold light of dawn I am musing on the contrast between the tough investigations of Congressional Committees in Washington and the usual relatively cosy inquiries of our own Select Committees, in both Houses here. How did the Murdoch family members and minions manage to avoid requests to attend previously?  When both Houses next consider the powers of our Committees I hope we will reconsider whether we should have the equivalent of subpoena powers.  As I recall, the Commons Speaker can insist that any British citizen in apparent contempt of Parliament can be summoned to appear at the Bar of the House to explain and/or apologise.  In 1974, I persuaded the then Speaker to consider such a summons, when my Union threatened me for voting in Parliament  in a way that didn’t suit them.  On that occasion, they hurriedly backtracked.   Of course, as we should constantly remind ourselves, the Murdochs are not British citizens, despite the stranglehold they appear to have had over so many British Prime Ministers.  Perhaps Rebekah Brooks, who has no such get-out-of-Committee-free card, will find herself forced to appear on their behalf?

All this leads me to wonder whether the Lord Speaker should have similar powers to those enjoyed in Commons, to summon recalcitrant witnesses.  My principal US political adviser (my son-in-law) tells me that the Senate is far more effective than the House of Representatives in matters of this kind.  Perhaps that’s a useful lead for the reformed House of Lords to follow?  And should we employ more Joint Committees of Peers and MPs to work on special inquiries, rather than leave it all to the various Commons Departmental Committees, who (frankly) don’t have a great track record of success?

The smoke clears

Lord Rennard 14/07/2011 – 5:30 pm

When I first came to the Lords (1999) the library was inaccessible for me because it was very heavy smoking area.  Some of the dining areas were also unpleasant and dominated by cigar smoke.  I remember Charles Kennedy coming to an afternoon tea in the Peers Dining Room that I hosted for all of us involved in his diary planning team.  Charles was told off by the waiters as he arrived smoking a cigarette and taking off his jacket (it was July).   He removed the cigarette and was apologising for smoking when they explained that he was certainly allowed to smoke, but not to take off his jacket.

Times have changed and most peers like the vast majority of the public (according to polls) appreciate the freedom to be in a smoke free environment.  On Monday we debated the Government’s timetable for implementing the ban on point of sale tobacco advertising.  The law banning tobacco advertising was actually passed as a private member’s bill put forward by my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones.    The 2008 Health Act proposed further measures to prevent the advertising of cigarettes at ‘point of sale’ eg with the chocolates, crisps and drinks that children see at their newsagents or on the way out of supermarkets.  The coalition’s tobacco control plan allows shops a little more time to spend the few hundred quid changing displays and looks towards consideration of ‘plain paper packaging’ as is being introduced in Australia to make the products even less glamorous.

On Monday we debated ‘a motion of regret’ from Baroness Thornton who would have liked the ban on point of sale advertising to be introduced more quickly.  Lord Faulkner of Worcester and Baroness Tyler were amongst those who spoke most effectively in favour of controlling tobacco promotion.  The Minister Earl Howe was certainly on the side of those of us who don’t want to see anyone, especially young people,  encouraged to smoke and who want to help those who have given up – or are trying to give up. 

My contribution to Monday’s debate is here and more of the personal reasons for opposing promotion of tobacco when I supported Tim Clement-Jones’s Bill is here.

Legal Highs

Baroness Murphy 13/07/2011 – 7:30 am

Baroness Meacher has tabled amendments at Report Stage of the Police and Social Responsibility Bill (for debate today Wednesday 13th July) to discuss the issue of ‘legal highs’. Mephedrone was one of the early ones, now there are clever chemists in China and indeed everywhere else creating new synthetic chemical stimulants every week. As one is detected and outlawed, another six pop up.

The continuing government policy of trying to prohibit legal highs on very little evidence of public harm calls into question the procedure for controlling drugs. Members of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform at their last meeting on the 23rd May were concerned about the practicalities of implementing an alternative approach to the regulation of new drugs in the UK. We proposed instead that we carry out an Inquiry into this issue. Such an Inquiry would involve four to five meetings of the group, over six to nine months, would take evidence from approximately twelve expert witnesses attending the meetings and would canvass written evidence from a further 20 witnesses. We are currently seeking funding to support the implementation of the Inquiry.

Baroness Meacher, the Chair of our group moved amendments to the Bill intended to promote a debate about alternative forms of regulation and to introduce specifically a consideration of the Intoxicating Substances (supply) Act 1985 which was designed to limit the access of minors to solvents and more generally ‘enactments of trading standards’.   As the Bill stands, it introduces a capacity to take out ‘temporary class drug orders’ (often referred to as ‘temporary banning orders’) for new psychoactive substances by amending the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. After a good debate with a number of supporting contributions Baroness Meacher withdrew the amendment with a view to discussing the detail of the implementation of Schedule 17 with the government. This she has now done and her amendments at report stage reflect those discussions.

This is what I call a long haul issue. We would like policy to conform to five basic principles: 

1)    Evidence of effectiveness and value for money should be the cornerstones for national and international drug policy.

2)    Where there is insufficient evidence, it should be a priority to promote research into the effectiveness of different approaches.

3)    Effective drug policies need reform of UN Conventions and domestic laws.

4)    Policies should minimise harms to users and wider society while at the same time not restricting the development of pharmaceuticals which potentially could confer benefits  to society.

5)    The use of potentially harmful substances needs to be controlled and regulated in a way which is: proportionate to their potential harms and benefits

Government Support for Industry

Lord Haskel 11/07/2011 – 10:52 am

Like everybody else I was disappointed that the new Thameslink carriages will be made in Germany and not in Derby.  This decision seemed contrary to our ambition to balance the economy more in the direction of manufacturing and less in financial services.  After all, look at the success of rescuing Rolls Royce, which is now a cornerstone of British manufacturing and the aero engine industry.

The culprits were said to be the last Labour government for making the bidding process too open, the European Commission for insisting on open bidding and on our bureaucrats for “gold plating” EU rules.  The quality and reliability of the carriages hardly entered into it. 

The real reason of course, is that we don’t have a consistent policy on supporting manufacturing.  There are random interventions but these just make for uncertainty.

Our future prosperity depends on our infrastructure, both physical and intellectual and this is where government’s should intervene.  Our national capacity and will to design and build the railway track is what is crucial.  It took 25 years to build HS1 because Margaret Thatcher ruled that it could only be done by the private sector.  In France the equivalent line was completed 15 years ago with government intervention.  So the decision to give the contract for the carriages to Germany was probably right.  But let’s ensure that we get the infrastructure that we need and let’s not make the same mistake with power, water, broadband or even HS2.  This is where support from the tax payers should be.

Quiz: The press

Lord Norton 09/07/2011 – 3:20 pm

Congratulations to Len and JH who are the winners of the previous quiz.  They offered very full answers.  For this quiz, I have jettisoned the questions I was going to set – I’ll use them next time – and opted instead for a single and somewhat topical question.  Given that the press is now part of the news as well as part of the media for transmitting the news,  I thought a question relating to the press would be appropriate.    

We have in the Lords some members with knowledge and expertise in the field.  Name at least four current members of the House who have owned or edited newspapers or have been journalists working on a national newspaper or magazine (such as The Economist).

 As usual, the first two readers to supply correct answers will be the winners.