BBC BLOGS - Nick Robinson's Newslog

Archives for December 2010

Something's bugging me

Nick Robinson | 14:19 UK time, Wednesday, 22 December 2010


Vince Cable was sacked yesterday - not from the cabinet of course but from "all responsibility for competition and policy issues relating to media, broadcasting, digital and telecoms sectors" which will be transferred immediately to the secretary of state for culture, media and sport. He survived as secretary of state for (rather less) business (than before).

Vince Cable


This, some will say, is vindication of the Telegraph's decision to send undercover reporters into MPs' offices posing as constituents to record what they heard. The public, they argue, has a right to know the private policy disagreements of those around the cabinet table. Besides, they may add, Vince Cable spoke candidly to two total strangers who could have called a paper with the story or written a blog post about it even if they weren't reporters themselves. I am not convinced.

Undercover reporting is legitimate, necessary indeed, to uncover wrongdoing. At the BBC a decision to carry hidden cameras or microphones requires high-level prior authorization and prima facie evidence of wrongdoing. It's been used with great effect to expose football hooligans, violent racists, fraudsters and the like. I know that the paper's executives considered the press complaints code and the law before deciding to proceed, but where was the evidence of wrongdoing amongst Liberal Democrat ministers which justified bugging them?

Be clear: the one thing the paper was not examining was the business secretary's attitude to the takeover of BSkyB. It was Vince Cable who raised the subject of BSkyB's bid, not the undercover reporters. It's now obvious why: Cable was the ally of the Telegraph which wants to block the advance of the Murdoch empire. The truth is they stumbled across a story which Robert Peston then scooped them on.

The paper's stated aim was to highlight the gap between ministers' private conversations and their public statements - in other words, to expose hypocrisy. This argument could have been used to justify the bugging of ministers in any government. Should reporters have bugged Gordon Brown to reveal his policy disagreements with Tony Blair or Liam Fox and David Cameron?

Now I should declare an interest. Political correspondents thrive on hearing, analysing and reporting on the gap between private and public statements. Save the Murdoch story, none of what Lib Dem ministers said in private comes as a surprise to me. I would suggest, however, that the idea that Lib Dems are worried about child benefit and housing cuts would not come as a surprise to anyone who follows politics.

Some might believe - in the spirit of Wikileaks - that it would be better for what some see as a cosy Westminster club to be smashed so that the public can hear everything for themselves. After all, they might argue, political journalism did not reveal the MPs' expenses scandal. It took a leak and the Telegraph's willingness to risk a political storm.

Here's why that argument doesn't convince me. Starting from today, politicians will be more wary about what they say to their own constituents, more suspicious of journalists and more keen to meet behind closed doors without the risk of microphones, cameras, prying eyes and straining ears. Candour will be less common, not more.

Sympathy with politicians is in short supply so perhaps the easiest way to think about this is to ask yourself this: how would you feel if that chat about a relative, a workmate or a boss at the water cooler, in the canteen or at the pub was secretly taped, transcribed and distributed in order to expose your hypocrisy?

Follow the (lack of) money

Nick Robinson | 10:19 UK time, Monday, 13 December 2010


Governments with money centralise and claim the credit.

Governments without cash decentralise and spread the blame.

Those are not the views of a hardened media cynic. They are what I was told by one of the Tories' top policy wonks before the election.

Eric Pickles


Today Eric Pickles will take money - lots and lots of money - away from local councils. He will, at the same time, promise them new freedoms to reorganise themselves and their services. The second will be regarded by many as good in itself but be in no doubt that it is connected inextricably to the first.

Pickles wants - as a matter of long-term belief as well as short-term political convenience - local people to hold local councils to account for what they spend. That is why he has highlighted the pay of council chief executives. That is why he has attacked council newsletters so as to protect and promote a vigorous local press to look for and criticise council waste. That is why he pursues populist attacks on council "absurdities" like staging Winterval instead of Christmas celebrations.

Deep council cuts are coming. The political question is who do people blame - the coalition, the minister or the council?

It's worth remembering today that the communities and local government secretary has spent his life studying how to get his way in politics. He is, these days, widely regarded as being on the Tory right. However, for his 14th birthday, Pickles - then an ardent left winger - received Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution as a present and learned a great deal from the master of political organisation. As a young man, when he was chairman of the National Young Conservatives and the Joint Committee against Racism, he was a Tory "Wet" who took on Margaret Thatcher on the issue of unemployment and racism in northern cities. As leader of Bradford City Council in the late 80s, the "right wing" Pickles emerged to announce a five-year plan to cut the council's budget by £50m, reducing the workforce by a thrd, privatise services and undertake council departmental restructuring.

Pickles is, in short, no pushover.

They think it's all over...

Nick Robinson | 19:24 UK time, Thursday, 9 December 2010


The Commons may have voted for higher tuition fees in England tonight but the debate on student finance is far from over. The Lords has yet to have its say. What's more the Commons vote was only about the level of fees and not the income at which they're paid back, the interest rate charged or the assistance given to poorer students. Legislation on that will come in the New Year and is sure to face rebellions in both Houses.

Some, of course, may conclude that a change of government is needed to end fees. Interesting then that tonight Ed Miliband was careful not to make that promise and to say instead that he had learnt from the mistakes made by the Liberal Democrats.

PS. The final voting figures show that 21 Lib Dems voted no to higher fees and five actively abstained (three were out of the country). Meantime six Tories voted no and two abstained. Ministers point out that the margin of victory tonight is four times the one Tony Blair got when he introduced fees in 2003 and that the Labour working majority back then was almost double that of the coalition.

Looking confident

Nick Robinson | 17:40 UK time, Thursday, 9 December 2010


Government sources are sounding confident about tonight's vote. One just claimed that 21 Lib Dem MPs would vote against higher fees and five would abstain. They expected four or five Tories to vote no and around the same number to abstain.

That would - if correct - give the government a majority in the low 20s.

Update 1747: Three-quarters knocked off the government's majority... the biggest Lib Dem rebellion since the party was formed... a coalition with a healthy majority having to haggle, woo, persuade to get its policy as the streets around Westminster were filled with angry protesters.

This will come as a relief to the coalition but also a warning of what could lie ahead.

The House voted for both measures - raising the cap to £6,000 and up to £9,000 in exceptional circumstances - by 323 votes to 302.

To vote is to choose

Nick Robinson | 12:33 UK time, Thursday, 9 December 2010


The time for talking, the time for listening, the time for agonising will soon be over. The time for voting is almost upon us.

People often under-estimate the significance of the choice individual MPs face when they decide whether to vote with or against their party leadership. It defines which tribe they're in - loyalist or rebel. Once in a tribe it can be hard to escape.

Rebels come to enjoy the praise they get from voters, the attention they get from the media and the wooing by their party's leadership.

All that leads loyalists to resent and rather envy rebels. In return for their support they expect that they will be rewarded and the rebels will be punished.

How many Liberal Democrats and how many Conservatives join each tribe will shape the future of their parties, their leaders and the coalition - even if, as all sides expect, the motion to raise tuition fees is carried.

Tuition fees for beginners

Nick Robinson | 10:22 UK time, Wednesday, 8 December 2010


I'm well aware that the politics of tuition fees can seem complex, even Byzantine. So, here's my brief, easy-to-understand guide:

The minister who introduced student tuition fees now says a graduate tax may be better even though he once described the idea as unworkable...
he's opposing the man who pledged to oppose any increase in fees who now insists it's the right thing to do...
... who's in coalition with a man who wrote a manifesto promising that his party would scrap fees but is now planning to double them.

Easy really, isn't it?

If you like detail here's a longer version with more facts:

Labour introduced tuition fees having come to power saying it had no plans to do so* and after promising in its 2001 manifesto that "We will not introduce top-up fees and have legislated to prevent them".
The minister who pushed fees through the Commons in 2004 was Alan Johnson. He admitted later that Labour was open to the charge that it had broken its manifesto pledge.** Behind the scenes he had fought and won a battle with the then-Chancellor Gordon Brown and his advisor Ed Miliband who wanted to introduce a graduate tax. Mr Johnson advised Labour's new leader "for goodness' sake, don't pursue a graduate tax"*** and has consistently argued that a graduate tax won't work.****
However, today the shadow chancellor tells the Times [subscription required] that his leader - by strange coincidence Ed Miliband - is right that "there is a strong case for a graduate tax, which may offer a fairer way of sharing costs between individuals and government."
The Conservatives opposed fees - including David Cameron, who wrote the party's 2005 election manifesto which promised "We will restore real choice in higher education by scrapping fees". He and they now say that choice will come by doubling fees.
The Lib Dems opposed fees, then pledged to oppose any increase in them and now say that that is, in fact, the right thing to do even though, they also say, that it's not what they would have done if the electorate had elected a Lib Dem majority government.
Surely this spectacular series of U-turns deserves a doctoral thesis or, perhaps, a long series of sessions on the psychiatrist's couch?
* Questions to Tony Blair - "Will Labour introduce tuition fees for higher education?" His answer - "Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education." (Evening Standard, 14 April 1997)

** "Is the party open to the charge that it has broken a manifesto commitment? Yes. Is that crime of a century for a government? No." (Independent, 26 January 2004)

*** "Oh, and for goodness' sake, don't pursue a graduate tax. We should be proud of our brave and correct decision to introduce tuition fees. (Independent, 26 September 2010)

**** "Well, I don't think [a graduate tax] could [work]. Frankly, there's a difference of view...I feel it's going to be very difficult to make a graduate tax a workable proposition." (Telegraph, 4 December 2010)

Walking through fire

Nick Robinson | 20:44 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010


Nick Clegg says he and all his fellow Liberal Democrat ministers will "walk through fire" together when they vote for a rise in tuition fees on Thursday. He has urged all his MPs to join him but knows that many will refuse.

Clegg sees this as a vindication for the tortuous process of consultation he's pursued in recent weeks and which has left him, Vince Cable and other ministers open to mockery for suggesting that they might abstain.

The Lib Dem leader's message to his party tonight was to "stop beating ourselves up" and to start recognising that they had moved from being a party of protest to a party of government. He told them that their opponents wanted the debate to focus on broken election pledges made in opposition but it was time they moved on to talk about the choices they had made in government.

Clegg has - unless ministers change their minds between now and Thursday - seen off the threat of ministerial rebellion and resignation. However, his party will now split three ways:

• Clegg, his 17 government ministers and backbenchers including I understand David Laws, Alan Beith, Malcolm Bruce, Tom Brake, David Ward, and Gordon Birtwistle will vote for the rise in fees. In all, Clegg expects at least half of his 57 MPs to vote with him.

• Former leaders Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell look set to lead a group of a dozen or more voting against. Some close to Clegg claim that only three MPs actually disagree with the government's policy but the rest are opposed on the grounds that they will be breaking their pre-election pledge.

• The rest will abstain taking advantage of the Coalition Agreement and the fact that backbenchers will not be whipped.

Do the courts work?

Nick Robinson | 11:46 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010


Ken Clarke says that the debate between himself and Michael Howard about whether prison works is in the past and about the past. It seems to me that the real debate about the future is whether court works.

Ken Clarke


Michael Howard was the first of a string of home secretaries - Tory and Labour - who effectively said that the courts could not be trusted to mete out justice in a way that would produce public confidence in the criminal justice system.

So he and his successors passed a series of laws to hem judges in. Mr Clarke now says that only the courts - not politicians, the public or, indeed, media headlines - can decide the appropriate sentence in particular cases.

Thus today's sentencing Green Paper for England and Wales will limit the use of so-called "indeterminate sentences", which were created under Tony Blair to ensure that certain prisoners had no fixed release date and had to meet certain conditions before leaving prison.

Currently, I'm told, there are 6,000 such prisoners and a long backlog of case reviews means that they're only being released at a rate of 5% per year. Ken Clarke will propose speeding that up and limiting indeterminate sentences to those serving more than 10 years.

On knife crime, as I reported yesterday, Mr Clarke wants to leave it to judges to decide whether imprisonment is the best response; his party's manifesto had made it clear that judges would be told what to do.

After behind-the-scenes haggling between the Justice Department and No 10, the Green Paper will say that anyone who "commits a crime using a knife" can expect to be sent to prison: a subtle but significant change from the manifesto line that anyone convicted of a knife crime can expect to face a prison sentence.

Not, in other words, those caught in possession of a knife. What's more, the Green Paper will say that juveniles caught carrying a knife should face "serious consequences" - what those will be is less clear.

This debate about whether to trust judges goes beyond the issue of sentencing. It's at the heart of the agonised debate in Whitehall about the future of control orders and Tory angst about the abandonment of their promise to re-write the Human Rights Act.

Ken Clarke and Michael Howard are both lawyers - but one trusts the judges and the other doesn't.

Prisons: A 'rehabilitation revolution'?

Nick Robinson | 18:00 UK time, Monday, 6 December 2010


Lock 'em up. That's been the approach of ministers, first Tory then Labour, for more than 15 years - but the coalition's justice secretary is different. The prison population is now double what it was when Ken Clarke was Home Secretary in the early 1990s. Now Mr Clarke says that we can't afford to keep imprisoning more and more people and, what's more, it doesn't work.

Today, he got the backing of some of those serving time at Her Majesty's pleasure in Wormwood Scrubs - including Bob, a thrice-convicted drug dealer and Sayed, a twice-convicted burglar and drug user. They told him that jail doesn't work and criticised it as "a revolving door". Ken Clarke joked that they'd been reading his speeches.

In an interview afterwards he told me that the "vast population" housed in prisons could be reduced with "a bit of effort" to "get them off drugs, get them off alcohol. Get them some sort of employment prospects."

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A cut of almost a quarter in the prison budget assumes that there will be 3.000 fewer prisoners in four years' time than now. So where, I asked Mr Clarke, did that leave the Tories' manifesto pledge to crack down on those carrying a knife?

"We are not setting absolute tariffs for particular things. What happens is pundits on newspapers suggest tariffs for particular forms of crime. Anybody who's guilty of serious knife crime will go to prison... I'm not in favour of absolute rules; I'm in favour of actually allowing judges to see how nasty the offender is, see what the offence was, see what the best way of protecting the public from him is... I'm more interested in actually will we stop this man doing this again in future now we've caught him?"

The Conservative manifesto stated that:

"We have to send a serious, unambiguous message that carrying a knife is totally unacceptable, so we will make clear that anyone convicted of a knife crime can expect to face a prison sentence."

Labour is likely to pounce on this as an embarrassing U-turn.

However, all the main parties now agree on the need for what Mr Clarke will hail tomorrow as a rehabilitation revolution to stop prisoners re-offending.

It may not have helped Mr Clarke make his case that when he departed from the Scrubs, his car passed a bread delivery lorry with the slogan "Voted Britain's softest".

Ken Clarke beside lorry with

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