Archive for the ‘civil service’ Category

Something else that came up at OpenTech; is there any way of getting continuing information out of the government? This is especially interesting in the light of things like Who’s Lobbying? and Richard Pope and Rob McKinnon’s work in the same direction; it seems to me that the key element in this is getting information on meetings, specifically meetings with paid advocates i.e. lobbyists. Obviously, this has some pretty crucial synergies with the parliamentary bills tracker.

However, it’s interesting at best to know who had meetings with who at some point in the past, just as it is at best interesting to know who claimed what on expenses at some point in the past; it’s not operationally useful. Historians are great, but for practical purposes you need the information before the next legislative stage or the next committee meeting.

I asked Tom Watson MP and John “not the Sheffield Wednesday guy” Sheridan of the Cabinet Office if the government does any monitoring of lobbyists itself; you’d think they might want to know who their officials are meeting with for their own purposes. Apparently there are some resources, notably the Hospitality Register for the senior civil service. (BTW, it was a bit of a cross section of the blogosphere – as well as Watson and a myriad of geeks, Zoe Margolis was moderating some of the panels. All we needed was Iain Dale to show up and have Donal Blaney threaten to sue everyone, and we’d have had the full set.)

One option is to issue a bucketful of FOIA requests covering everyone in sight, then take cover; carpet-bomb disclosure. But, as with the MPs’ expenses, this gives you a snapshot at best, which is of historical interest. As Stafford Beer said, it’s the Data-Feed you need.

So I asked Francis Davey, MySociety’s barrister, if it’s legally possible to create an enduring or repeating FOIA obligation on a government agency, so they have to keep publishing the documents; apparently not, and there are various tricks they can use to make life difficult, like assuming that the cost of doing it again is the same as doing it the first time, totalling all the requests, and billing you for the lot.


Well I didn’t expect that – it looks like the Canadians have found a rather serious exploit in Westminster 2. And as far as I can tell, it probably affects Westminster 1 through 3 as well. Yes, we’ve got a class break on our hands!

Now, to understand this we need to realise that a very important part of the constitution exists only as a letter to the editor of The Times. Seriously. An anonymous letter to the editor of The Times. I am not joking. The procedure I described in the last post rests on the so-called Lascelles principles, which were laid down in the early 1950s by the King’s private secretary, Sir Alan “Tommy” Lascelles. Here is the text.

To the Editor of The Times

Sir,—It is surely indisputable (and common sense) that a Prime Minister may ask—not demand—that his Sovereign will grant him a dissolution of Parliament; and that the Sovereign, if he so chooses, may refuse to grant this request. The problem of such a choice is entirely personal to the Sovereign, though he is, of course, free to seek informal advice from anybody whom he thinks fit to consult.

In so far as this matter can be publicly discussed, it can be properly assumed that no wise Sovereign—that is, one who has at heart the true interest of the country, the constitution, and the Monarchy—would deny a dissolution to his Prime Minister unless he were satisfied that: (1) the existing Parliament was still vital, viable, and capable of doing its job; (2) a General Election would be detrimental to the national economy; (3) he could rely on finding another Prime Minister who could carry on his Government, for a reasonable period, with a working majority in the House of Commons. When Sir Patrick Duncan refused a dissolution to his Prime Minister in South Africa in 1939, all these conditions were satisfied: when Lord Byng did the same in Canada in 1926, they appeared to be, but in the event the third proved illusory.

I am, &c.,


April 29.

It should be clear enough that a Prime Minister who loses his or her majority and can’t immediately restore it doesn’t automatically get another chance at the polls. This is necessary, in order to observe the principle that the will of the people is expressed in a Parliament they elect.

Now, it’s also clear that this is a weird kind of constitutional text. Some of its features are obviously bound by context; the bit about the national economy would seem to give the monarch a bizarrely large role in Treasury policy, but this is very much a document of its time, a time of menacing war debts, a fixed and overvalued exchange rate, the Sterling balances, and whatnot. According to Peter Hennessy, this principle has been dropped from the Cabinet Office file some 30 or more years ago.

And of course, it’s weird that Lascelles should choose to express himself in this way, rather than issuing a statement, getting a legal opinion, or asking the Government to put the matter before Parliament. Perhaps he found it so obvious that it didn’t need a more formal statement? Or so controversial that he didn’t want to go on the record? But then, why did he go public at all?

I don’t see any reason to think that the Canadian parliament is unable to do its job, or that it no longer represents the electorate. Further, it evidently has another candidate, and written assurances to that effect. And although the Lascelles principles are a British document, they are based on Canadian precedent, so you can hardly deny they have standing. It seems there has been a grave LDQN error – can they really have allowed a prime minister just to get rid of parliament because he doesn’t want to lose?

But ha. Harper didn’t ask for a dissolution, but only prorogation, and Lascelles doesn’t make any mention of prorogation. Here’s the bug. Is there any way to stop a PM from proroguing again, and again? Is there, in effect, a way of getting root access to the executive?

This is especially interesting for a number of reasons. There have been various Acts of Parliament recently that strengthen the ability of the executive to govern by itself, notably the Civil Contingencies Act, which contains powers which almost amount to rule by decree. If it’s possible to kill confidence votes by proroguing for any or no reason, a malicious PM (or actually almost any other cabinet minister, having first invoked the CCA) could declare an indefinite state of emergency with the help of a weak LDQN. And, at some point in the near future, we’re going to replace ours. I’m fairly confident in the current one, but the likely replacement is both flaky and given to statements a lot of people consider unsuitably partisan.

It’s high time to legislate for the whole mess.

Alternatively, if a letter to The Times can be part of the constitution, surely so can a blog post? Perhaps I’d better get in there first – it’s the only way to be safe. Let’s just say that prorogation exists to do two or maybe three things. The first is to send the MPs on their summer holiday. The second is to start the dissolution process. The third is to stop Parliament if for some reason it’s utterly impossible for it to meet.

The first we can surely leave to the Speaker. The second we could simply roll up into dissolution – it doesn’t do anything useful. The third, well. In 1941 the German air force wrecked the Commons chamber, but the Commons reconvened over the road in Church House. Obviously we need some contingency planning, but we don’t need a way to get rid of Parliament altogether.

I am beginning to think I was a little harsh on Simon Heffer yesterday. After all, it’s got to be tough; not only has the entire structure of policies, assumptions, and style he’s devoted his entire working life to just been demonstrated to be utter drivel, but who else is even trying?

Seriously. I’m sure there used to be a Conservative Party somewhere around here. You know – blue rinses, die hards, wets, dries, One Nation, Policy Exchange, Eurosceptics, backwoodsmen, Notting Hill set, John Redwood. That lot. Hey, only last week, they were still trying to save the Bradford & Bingley with magic central bank ponies. But now? Not a peep.

In fact, you’ll find far better commentary on the crisis from the Daily Mash than you will from anyone even vaguely on the Right. The field has been left entirely to the professional economists, and the broadest possible Left.

But it’s not just that; it’s the whole of world conservatism. The US Department of the Treasury, the Federal Reserve, the Bank and the Fund, the Republican Party – none have the least credibility.Who now remembers when the IMF was feared by all right-thinking people? If you want to know about the world economy, you ask some random blogger called “Tanta”; if you want practical advice you ask Tom Scholar of HM Treasury and, well, Gordon Brown, who is suddenly basking in international respect. If you want cash you ask the Bank of Japan. And we’re asking the Afghan government for assurances over the fate of POWs we might hand over to them….assurances that the Afghans won’t let the Americans have them, because we don’t trust them not to commit a war crime.

Again, the Daily Mash is more cogent than the global conservative movement:

Emma Bradford, an office manager from Luton, said: “Whenever things were going well there was always this voice in the back of my mind saying, ‘make the most of it because sooner or later it’s all going to be completely fucked by some bastard Americans’.

“I just assumed I’d be horribly maimed as a knock-on from one of their insane, catastrophic wars, but instead they have, in the most beautifully co-ordinated fashion, demolished the system that provides me with a job, a home and the vague hope that life may not an elaborate waste of time. I’d applaud them, if only I wasn’t so weak from all the nauseating terror.”

I mean, what do you do as a British Tory if you can’t credibly speak for the City, the Landed Interest, or the Americans? Perhaps you do what Greasy Phil Hammond just did:

“This accelerating decline in house prices will inevitably lead to wider negative equity and more repossessions .”

In other news, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury and one-man real estate lobby said that heat flows from a hotter to a cooler body, 2+2=4, and that he is a pathetic excuse for a politician who doesn’t deserve to lick the boots of the civil servants at his putative department who are putting this lot back together.

I can’t be the only one who’s noticed that Brown’s “national economic council” is built exactly on the traditional civil service handbook for a war cabinet, nor that it looks a lot less like a gimmick now than the week it was born. Nor that spotting the possible use of ATCSA2001 to recover Landsbanki UK assets is just the kind of thing we pay them for. Bank bailouts: expensive. Depression: worse. The Home Civil Service: priceless.

Boris Johnston really is turning out to be as bad as it was blindingly obvious he was going to be. There are no shortage of examples, but this one in particular makes me shudder with fear. Yes, it’s the desalination plant.

Desalination? Yes. But it’s not just that. A desalination plant that will produce about as much water as Thames Water loses in leaks. Seriously. Thames Water, and presumably the Borisphere (and surely none could be more spherical) claim it will be cheaper. Well, this may be true…for values of “true” including “assuming that our massive complicated prestige project won’t go over budget” and “assuming the price of natural gas doesn’t go up – after all, there’s an infinite quantity of it in the North Sea, right?”

But it’s worse. The justification for spending a ton of money converting natgas into drinking water and pouring the water into pipes WITH HOLES IN, rather than spending some more money (perhaps) fixing the bloody water pipes already, is that it’s “pro-motorist”.

Yes, the reason is that repairing the sodding water mains might be inconvenient to the bizarre sect who insist on bringing huge metal objects into central London and spending their day looking for somewhere to put the things so they can get out of them and start walking, when there was a perfectly good parking space back home in the suburbs they could have left it in. Yes, he is proposing to burn vast quantities of scarce fossil fuel imported from Russia so other people can more easily burn vast quantities of scarce fossil fuel imported from Saudi Arabia, when they have no reason to do so at all.

But it’s not the specifics that are the worse bit. It’s the general principle; policymaking based completely on pandering. I mean, why not go the whole hog and just GIVE people who claim to vote Tory actual cash? At least plain bribery wouldn’t do as much damage to London’s infrastructure. Unfortunately, this is precisely the spirit of Boris. On one hand, you’ve got the appalling pork barrel fan service. On the other, you’ve got the politics of spite and revenge; the deliberate effort to be unpleasant to anything described as feminist or anti-racist, the made-up stories about fabulous wine cellars, the fake audit team. And that, by the way, is a move copied precisely from the made-up “Clinton staffers trashed the White House” bollocks of 2001. You ask Dean Godson and Sooper Don Blaney.

This is, of course, completely inimical to anything that could be described as competent administration. Which is a pity, because there is famously no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage. The point of a mayor is precisely that; waste disposal, policing, space planning, infrastructure, social services.

Part of the good news is just how good the blogs on Boris are. Tory Troll and Boris Watch have forced their way into my RSS aggregator in the last few days. And it’s all an effective preview of a future Tory government: pandering, content-free government, and ideological revenge campaigns in the civil service.

Crack BBC journo Peter Taylor’s film The Secret Peacemaker, about Brendan Duddy, the man who maintained secret communications between the IRA leadership and the British government from the early 70s to 1993, was a cracker; it provided rich detail about the practicalities of ending the war, the missed opportunities of the first ceasefire, and moreover it conveyed something of the weird atmosphere. Secret meetings with spooks and terrorists were held in a Thatcherite DIY conservatory, and it struck me that most media coverage of Northern Ireland was always urban; intellectually, I knew there had to be countryside, and that due to its latitude and geography it would look vaguely familiar, but I wasn’t prepared for it looking quite so much like the moors. And the killer detail is surely that Duddy knew Martin McGuinness from when he delivered fish to his dad’s chip shop.

But rather than the mood music, a real point which nobody picked up on: here’s something from Taylor’s summary of the film, as published in the Guardian.

But one of the great mysteries of the peace process remained. Who did send the famous “conflict is over” message? I pointed out to Duddy that if he didn’t send it and McGuinness didn’t send it, that only left “Fred”.

Duddy was protective of the man he had come to admire. “I don’t want to say, as he’s a wonderful, honourable man.” The message was written in pencil in a hotel room in London. “It seems to me that message was to encourage the British government to actually believe dialogue was possible,” Duddy said. But the revelation of the messages and the unauthorised March meeting also marked the end of “Fred”. The government was appalled at how he had exceeded his brief, disobeyed instructions and almost brought the prime minister down. “Fred”, in Brendan’s words, was “court-martialled”. As he said goodbye, he gave Duddy a farewell present, a book inscribed with a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid: “One day it will be good to remember these things.”

When I read this I double-took; did he really just say “the conflict is over” was actually sent by an MI5 agent exceeding his authority? You what? It was what I think of as an Embassy Phew, after the bit in Conrad’s The Secret Agent where Comrade Ossipon finally gets clued-in to the fact Verloc has always been a stool pigeon for both the plod and the Russians. Police! Embassy! Phew! The political equivalent of the sensation of a cricket ball not quite hitting your head.

You would have thought that this was front-page stuff; “Fred” ended the war in Northern Ireland and nearly disposed of John Major, at one stroke of his pencil, whilst also precipitating the interrogation of Duddy. Frankly, he deserves a knighthood for the first two out of those three; he may of course have got one. But there are some pretty gigantic constitutional issues here, no? I mean, did the spies deceive the prime minister? As usual, the limits of British political discourse are that it stops as soon as you get to the question of power.

Alternatively, it’s possible that the message was given to “Fred” by a third party; it’s certainly not impossible that he had other Republican contacts, a back channel to the back channel. Or perhaps, as it seems that whatever the facts about the message, it accurately described the IRA leaders’ thoughts, an intelligence source in the IRA clued him in? (If it was the near-legendary Freddie Scappaticci, you’d be forgiven for suggesting it was more of a back passage than a back channel.) After all, it would be surprising, had he simply made it all up, if the results had accurately matched the IRA’s intentions. That suggests strongly that if the message wasn’t received from someone, it was composed with extensive knowledge of the IRA leadership’s thoughts; which begs the question of exactly what the word “message” means.

Presumably “Fred” was required to report on what was said at the meetings as well as what the IRA told him to pass on; it’s not impossible that a text which contained his opinion of their intentions, or a summary of the conversation, was taken for a verbatim message. In which case, it’s possible that the IRA deliberately signalled its content to him in order to stay plausibly deniable; a virtual back channel within a channel. At which point, the brain reels.

No. Three cheers.

I don’t know if anyone else noticed, but while everyone in the political press was huddling around scraps of gossip from the United States, or pouring abuse on Harriet Harman, the civil service has had a great couple of weeks.

Yeah, this blog snarls at Whitehall every time the bell strikes. Its self-interest, its unspoken ideology, its authoritarianism, its managerialism – we hate it like we hate sin. But I’m quite sure that Dsquared is plotting some dread coup against opponents of scientific management. And here’s something for you.

We’ve just seen half Yorkshire and the Severn Valley under water, with all kinds of funky logistics problems, like arranging for the Royal Engineers to boat over the right folk to look after a marooned supergrid substation and not have a real Wexelblat fuckup, or shifting super-hefty pumps from London to Doncaster when the railway and the M1 are shut for a possible dam burst. At the same time – as if some horrid bugger chucked it in a scenario-planning exercise – a terrorist wave.

And all in and among a prime-ministerial transition, while departments are dying, multiplying by mitosis, merging, and generally carrying out all the sexual manoeuvres bureaucratic entities can do.

Damn, it’s good to have a real civil service.

Back in December, 2004 this blog was after the details of Bernie Kerik’s brief, mouvementé tour of duty in Iraq. We discovered that, essentially, he did nothing constructive, posed with South African mercs, and vanished into the distance after the first big carbombs, leaving the mess to DCC Douglas Brand of South Yorkshire Police and a couple of MOD Plod volunteers to clean up.

A little more information trickled out this week in a Grauniad story by Patrick “Unseasonably Mild” Wintour. It seems that he had a chat with Andrew Bearpark, the British civil servant who was the CPA’s Operations Director, having once been Margaret Thatcher’s private secretary. Bearpark strongly criticised the US leadership of the CPA, and bears out the account in that post of Kerik’s departure and Brand’s elevation.

Namely, Doug Brand was summoned from the job of policing Sheffield to replace Kerik as chief police advisor for all of Iraq, but the US refused to accept this and insisted on limiting his role to one CPA region (North), a job in which he was the only policeman in Iraq who didn’t carry a gun. I do, however, slightly doubt Bearpark and Sir Jeremy Greenstock’s accounts of events at the CPA. After all, they must have been responsible for something, and..well…he worked for Maggie Thatcher, which does sound a tad like the Heritage Foundation selection process for US CPA men. This may be a little unfair, actually – he was Paddy Ashdown’s No.2 in Bosnia as well, and he’s a proper civil servant rather than a spad.

It is true, though, that various US panjandrums have regretted that “two of the finest civil servants I have encountered…were not brought into full participation by the American side.

Well, the decisions are in on the plan to break up the Home Office into the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry for Counter-Terrorism, National Security, Border Control, and Unauthorised Ball Games. And the snark in that link remains applicable.

The only interesting news is that it’s even worse than I thought. Not only does the permanent secretary in charge of security, intelligence, and resilience, Sir Richard Mottram, stay at the Cabinet Office, although 150 of his staff will move over, the Foreign Office has successfully defended its rights over GCHQ and MI6. So, an “Office of Counter-Terrorism and Security” will sprout within the Home Office, which will have the “UK strategic lead” for these issues – but it will still answer to the JIC and the Cabinet Office, who will still have control of the interface with GCHQ and MI6.

Clearly, Sir Humphrey. Meanwhile, the Home Office has also asserted powers over efforts to “win the battle of ideas” against Islamic extremism, but this doesn’t appear to mean that the Department of Communities and Local Government has explicitly lost them. And, worst of all worlds, the Ministry of Justice will get prisons, probation, the courts, sentencing, the constitution, and relations with devolved administrations, taking over the Department for Constitutional Affairs, but the Home Secretary will still have a “core public protection role” in sentencing.

To put it another way, John Reid can still interfere with the judiciary to send more people to jail for longer every time Rebekah Wade sez so, but now, he doesn’t even have to budget for it. The Home Office gets to keep the anti-social behaviour industry, but has an undemarcated frontier with Communities and Local Government and also with Justice running through it. On the other hand, it gets to “lead” on terrorism and national security, except when it doesn’t.

Mmm, spaghetti! There is simply no way this is ever going to work, is there? I foresee that the whole thing will be re-organised again within three years.

But I’m merry. If that happens, it’ll be a great opportunity to sink the chisel into the bugger and chip off some more. And the triggering event is likely to be the eventual tits-up of the NIR. Even Dave from PR apparently wants to have elected police commissioners, a silly Texan idea, but one that could quite easily be hacked into a restoration of elected police authority control over the force areas.

Whilst we’re on the subject of spooks, by the way, this tale on Slugger O’Toole is completely ridiculous, for reasons fully explained in a comment I left there.

Simply, the Government has plenty of places to go underground right huurr in the South-East, without needing to go to Northern Ireland (seriously! the only part of the British Isles where you can be certain there really are terrorists!). The RAF and various other agencies still use large chunks of the Corsham bunker under Box Hill, and there are also the various bunkers along the A40 – PJHQ/CINCFLEET at Northwood, and RAF Strike Command at High Wycombe.

I really have to stop this Dsquared-esque habit of posting comments that really ought to be posts on either TYR or AFOE.

The plan to break up the Home Office and let John Reid keep the macho bits is permitting us a rare glimpse of the core executive in action. Consider this story in teh Grauniad. First of all, note the close symbiosis of the Cabinet Office and the intelligence services – historically, the Cabinet Secretariat evolved at much the same time as the Committee of Imperial Defence and MI5, under the hand of Sir Maurice Hankey, so this is no surprise. But it’s nice to have examples.

For example, Reid, or rather the Home Office top bureaucracy, claims to have won a power-struggle to get control of the Cabinet Office’s emergency planning/crisis management machinery. This is interesting in itself, as traditionally, war planning and civil defence grew out of the MOD and the Cabinet Office intelligence-administrative complex, not the police-judicial Home Office. Note, though, that the organisation responsible for the revived civil defence effort is the Intelligence and Resilience Unit – the two are joined at the hip.

Even though this outfit and its head, Sir Richard “We’re fucked – you’re fucked, I’m fucked, the whole department’s fucked” Mottram, are moving into the Home Office, this link is going to be maintained. Mottram will remain as chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, very much rooted in the CabSec/intel world, and as the Cabinet Office Intelligence and Security Coordinator. That’s not so much double-hatted as triple-hatted.

It’s also a significant power grab by the Home Office, as they would now own part of the central intelligence analysis and policy machinery as well as MI5 and NCIS, and a share of Mottram’s responsibility for funding the intelligence services. Traditionally, the Cabinet Office control of the analysis-policy centre, with the division of responsibility for intelligence between the Home and Foreign Offices, has provided a balance of power between them and a useful division between intelligence collection and policy advice.

Hence the reaction of the Foreign Office to suggestions that SIS and GCHQ might come under Reid’s aegis as a single lead for intelligence. There is no way they will let that happen without a vicious struggle.

On the other hand, the CabSec probably thinks they’ve defanged the Home Office by wiring their man into it, and it’s also a classic civil service move to square the circle by having the Foreign Office spooks still report to the JIC and IS Coordinator, rather than to a new Home Office-run intelligence centre…but making the JIC Chair/IS Coordinator’s staff join the Home Office. Of course, the Foreign Office is probably thinking that, like any personal union, it can only last while Mottram’s in charge.

This amused me, though:

The shakeup will leave the new “core” Home Office responsible for policing, serious and organised crime, counter-terrorism strategy, MI5, immigration and nationality, passports, drugs and antisocial behaviour.

The Ministry for Counter-Terrorism, Internal Espionage, Organised Crime, Border Control, and Unauthorised Football in Public Parks, then.