Saturday 28 February 2009

The Week Ahead

This will be a "Washminster Week". The British Prime Minister will travel to Washington DC, and on Wednesday he will address a joint session of the US Congress. [10.45 EST (15.45 UK)].

The President's Budget for Financial Year 2009/10 was delivered to Congress last week - and the budget process now begins in Congress. The current system is described at http://assets.opencrs.com/rpts/98-721_20080307.pdf. Reform ideas for the process can be found at http://wikileaks.org/leak/crs/R40113.pdf

The Senate begins consideration of the Omnibus Appropriations Bill.

At Westminster another busy week is expected - with some bills due to complete their progress through the Commons.

Full details can be found at -

House of Representatives: http://democraticleader.house.gov/docUploads/8WeeklyLeader30209.pdf?CFID=7017212&CFTOKEN=43085550

UK Parliament: http://services.parliament.uk/Calendar/2009/03/02/week.html

Thursday 26 February 2009

Eroding Liberties

On both sides of the Atlantic there are concerns that ancient liberties are under attack. The response to 9/11 and the threat of terrorism is one reason - but the increased sophistication of surveillance techniques and computer databases also give rise to concerns.

A number of organisations in the UK are promoting a "Convention on Modern Liberty" this Saturday - http://www.modernliberty.net/

You may find the following document disturbing

It's certainly worth thinking about!

Monday 23 February 2009

Enfranchise the Lords

There are some people are are not allowed to vote in General Elections -
  • EU citizens resident in the UK (although they can vote at elections to local authorities, devolved legislatures and the European Parliament)
  • anyone other than British, Irish and qualifying Commonwealth citizens
  • convicted persons detained in pursuance of their sentences (though remand prisoners, unconvicted prisoners and civil prisoners can vote if they are on the electoral register)
  • anyone found guilty within the previous five years of corrupt or illegal practices in connection with an election

and members of the House of Lords.

It is unusual for members of one house to be barred from voting in elections for a fully elected chamber. The original reasons were forgotten, though I discovered that Thomas Jefferson had explained the origin of the ban.

Today Lord Dubs will ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will extend the right to vote in general elections to members of the House of Lords.

Saturday 21 February 2009

The Week Ahead (and beyond)

Both Parliament and Congress return from their breaks. On Tuesday President Obama will come to the Congress in the evening to deliver his first State of the Union Address. At Westminster there are a number of interesting committee meetings on some key subjects.

For more details -

House of Representatives: http://democraticleader.house.gov/docUploads/7WeeklyLeader22309.pdf?CFID=7017212&CFTOKEN=43085550

Westminster: http://services.parliament.uk/calendar/2009/02/23/week.html

As you may already know, I will be a candidate in the European Elections in June. While Washminster usually appears on a daily basis - due to the additional workload, I will be reducing the number of posts, by approximately half. Please do keep coming up on a regular basis - and I will continue to post details of particularly relevant developments.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

My Favourite City

Ten years ago today, I made my first flight to Washington DC - a city I have returned to on a frequent basis. If you haven't been to DC it is well worth a visit. Some people don't like it. During that first visit in 1999 one woman told me "the trouble with Washington is that the place is obsessed with politics" - well!

There is so much history there - if you stand at the base of the Washington Monument you can see - just by moving your eyes, not even your head - the White House; Congress; the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington Cemetery. Scenes of some of the most important events in our lifetimes. A visit to see the Senate and the House of Representatives is a must! Thanks to my friends I have become interested in the US Civil War - and as well as researching the role of the Committee on the Conduct of the War during one of my visits - most of the key battlefields are within easy driving distance.

For more information on visiting the area go to

Tuesday 17 February 2009


Both the UK Parliament and the US Congress are closed for the week. In the UK this is often referred to as "half term", as it is designed to coincide with the half term in most schools. A chance for MPs to "spend some time with their families".

In the US, yesterday was "Presidents' Day", a day which began as the celebration of George Washington's birthday - but extended to cover Lincoln, and other Presidents.

Washminster will not be appearing every day this week - but do keep an eye out for any postings. Congress and Parliament may be closed - but politics continues.

Monday 16 February 2009

The Future of NATO

Last week I attended a lecture by Lord Robertson (former NATO Secretary General & previously UK Defence Secretary). He highlighted the fact that currently we face no existential threats - but there are new vulnerabilities..

            • failed states
            • health threats - a pandemic
            • nuclear proliferation
            • energy insecurity
            • climate change
            • piracy
            Our interconnectiveness makes our vulnerability greater. Robertson argued for a new definition of security. The key challenge for the 21st Century is - how do we keep people safe!

            NATO is "not simply a military organisation ... and is no longer even its main business". Robertson argued that NATO has a key role to play, if we are prepared to recognise the imperative of new multilateralism.

            He pointed out the main challenges to NATO

            1. Enlargement - should we put up the "No vacancies" sign - "Russians need not apply"?
            2. Capabilities - are we able to deal with reconstruction after a conflict?
            3. Political Will - are we prepared to stress the importance of NATO and of NATO's missions?

            Friday 13 February 2009

            Progress on Lords Reform

            The controversy over the (alleged) behaviour of certain Peers has led to renewed demands for House of Lords reform. On Tuesday the issue was raised in the House of Lords at Question Time. The Transcript can be found at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200809/ldhansrd/text/90210-0001.htm#09021041000471

            The House is due to consider Lord Steel's House of Lords Bill on 27th February. Some people, including myself, are concerned abot this bill. It proposes a partial change, but doesn't tackle the more thorough reform which is required. In fact, it may end up entrenching an unelected House. Many of its most active supporters are completely opposed to a democratically elected Upper House. Some reform should not be an alternative for necessary action.

            Thursday 12 February 2009

            Guest Column

            Today the entry on this blog has been contributed by Dr Gary Robertshaw. Gary runs The Green Providers Directory (http://www.search-for-me.co.uk/), commenting and writing on a range of environmental and political issues.

            Your thoughts in response to this article would be appreciated.

            Time for optimism?

            The prospects for the emergence of a genuinely sustainable global economy have been given fresh impetus with the election of Barack Obama, extending beyond the well intentioned rhetoric characteristic of new administrations. I think we can be optimistic for several reasons.

            Firstly, it signals a radical departure from the previous administration’s policy of denial, apathy and denigration of science. Gone too is the unthinkable prospect of Sarah Palin presiding over US energy policy, whose ignorance on scientific and environmental matters are truly breathtaking.

            Secondly, the Obama administration does not regard sustainable energy investment as ‘nice to have but not during a recession’. In particular, there is a stark recognition that a reversion to old coal mining technology and a reliance on foreign oil are not in the US’s long-term economic or international interests. Investment in sustainable projects is seen as a growth opportunity that will contribute to (i.e. not dilute) the US economy, creating new jobs and new technologies. For example, the Obama administration aims to create five million new jobs by strategically investing $150 billion over the next ten years to catalyse private efforts to build a clean energy future. It has also set a target of 10% of US electricity from renewable sources by 2012, and 25% by 2025.

            Thirdly, US environmental and energy policies have ramifications far beyond its borders. The old adage that when the US sneezes the rest of the world catches a cold applies not just to financial markets, but also to the global environment. As the largest contributor to global emissions, its commitment to developing renewable energy sources, cutting back on fossil fuels (which should concurrently reduce its involvement in foreign conflicts) and investment in sustainable living will naturally have the largest impact whilst encouraging other nations to follow suit. More specifically, the new administration seeks eliminate its current imports from the Middle East and Venezuela within 10 years.

            Of course the Obama administration will be criticised by both sides. The oil industry, loggers, car manufacturers, arms industry, et al will claim that his ambitions are unrealistic, and that they will cost jobs – they will use lobbying, corporate influence and every tactic available to undermine him (expect to see Bush’s involvement here too). On the other side, he will be condemned by the doom mongers as doing too little too late.

            The transition from the world’s worst polluter to a leading, sustainable economy will not happen overnight. Old infrastructure, corporate inertia and scepticism, vested interests and general apathy will slow down progress. However, green campaigners, long frustrated by the Bush years, now have cause to be imbued with real optimism.

            Dr Gary Robertshaw
            The Green Providers Directory

            Wednesday 11 February 2009

            A New Record of Service

            Today John Dingell will become the longest serving Representative in history. He will surpass former Rep. Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.), who served from Nov. 4, 1941 until Jan. 3, 1995 — a total of 19,419 days. His service amounts to about 24 percent of the entire history of the House of Representatives. (Carl Hayden and Robert Byrd have longer service in both Houses combined)

            Congressman Dingell represents the 15th District of Michigan. His website is http://www.house.gov/dingell/index.shtml.
            After service in the US Army he began a lawyer. He won a special election to succeed his father as Michigan's 15th District Congressman. He has been re-elected 26 times! Congresspedia has a detailed biography at http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=John_Dingell

            Tuesday 10 February 2009

            Bankers Face Questions

            Today and tomorrow the House of Commons Treasury Committee will take evidence from some of Britain's top bankers. This is part of an inquiry into the banking crisis. Background on the inquiry (including transcripts of earlier evidence sessions) can be found at http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/treasury_committee/bankingcrisis.cfm

            The details of the hearings are: -

            Tuesday 10 February, Thatcher Room, Portcullis House, at 9.45am
            • Sir Fred Goodwin, former Chief Executive, Royal Bank of Scotland• Sir Tom McKillop, Chairman, Royal Bank of Scotland• Andy Hornby, former Chief Executive, HBOS• Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, former Chairman, HBOS

            Wednesday 11 February, Wilson Room, Portcullis House, at 2.30pm
            • Eric Daniels, Group Chief Executive, Lloyds Banking Group• John Varley, Group Chief Executive, Barclays• Stephen Hester Group Chief Executive, Royal Bank of Scotland• Antonio Horta-Osorio, Chief Executive, Abbey Bank• Paul Thurston, HSBC UK Managing Director

            The sessions should be available live, and on archive at http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Home.aspx
            The bankers are likely to face an intensive grilling - particularly over bonuses; lax & risky lending practices in recent years; current lending to businesses and individuals.

            Monday 9 February 2009

            I attended the excellent Hansard Society 'Democracy Forum' last month on "Citizens or Consumsers". A recording of the event is available at -

            Some thought provoking material
            Tom Paine wrote one of the great works which influenced thinking in America at the time of the revolution. If you haven't read Common Sense, I strongly recommend it! It is available online at http://www.ushistory.org/paine/commonsense/singlehtml.htm

            His chapter "Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession" greatly influenced me. We should never forget that, although Paine played a key role in developments in America and then France, he was an Englishman. But as the Bible says "A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country". Perhaps I am being a bit unfair - Tom Paine has many supporters in the UK.

            His ideas on a hereditary monarch are backed by "Republic" - the Campaign for an Elected Head of State. You can visit the website at - http://www.republic.org.uk/

            It states:

            Britain still retains a political culture centred on "Her Majesty's Government" - not ours, but hers, a powerful reminder in days gone by of where our place was in the system. The idea of royal "ownership" continues to pervade this culture and to reinforce the idea that the system is not our own.

            Despite the extravagant costs of monarchy, and the increasingly erratic behaviour of the royals, our arguments are concerned with democracy, the principle that this is our country and we should choose our heads of state.

            We should have the right to elect and hold to account all who hold public office and such people must remember that they are there to serve us, and not vice versa.

            It is time to claim the right to our own country and to choose our Head of State.

            Sunday 8 February 2009

            Energy Bills

            The issue of the costs of domestic gas and electricity was raised last Monday (appropriately a very cold, snowy day) -

            Lord Tomlinson asked Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the recent report of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development which indicated that energy utility bills in the United Kingdom rose by 16.7 per cent in the year ended November 2008.

            The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the Government monitor energy prices and are well aware of the significant rises in the UK over the past year. The Government expect reductions in those prices following reductions in wholesale prices. To improve transparency on energy prices, the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change have asked Ofgem to publish quarterly reports on wholesale and retail prices.

            Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, is the Minister aware that in those OECD figures not only was there the 16.7 per cent increase in the United Kingdom, but in the same survey there was a reduction of 2.4 per cent in the OECD as a whole, a reduction in the United States of 13.3 per cent and a very small increase in the G7? Is it not the case that the astronomical increases in energy prices in the United Kingdom, despite the too little, too late cut from British Gas, show that the benefit to consumers from competition in energy, which was promised at the time of privatisation, has yet to reach the British consumer?

            Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I well understand my noble friend and public concern. The Government have impressed the need to see retail energy prices reduced as soon as possible to reflect changes in wholesale prices. As well as taking the percentage increase, one has to look at the comparator of prices generally. The UK domestic electricity price is below the EU 15 median and domestic gas prices are the lowest in the EU 15 for July to December 2008.

            Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, will the Minister admit that high fuel prices are causing poor British people today to underheat their homes in these freezing conditions, threatening their lives? Is he not ashamed of his Government for doing nothing at all to force energy suppliers to bring down prices for our poorest families?

            Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the Government have been very active in their work in relation to the companies. There has been an Ofgem probe as a result of the intervention, which has led to recommendations about problems of differentiation in prices. The Government have already invested £20 billion in relation to fuel poverty. Another package was announced last autumn. We are not at all complacent. We continue to meet the energy companies. We have said that if they do not respond positively to the current Ofgem consultation, we will make interventions.

            Lord Addington: My Lords, I accept that the Government have promised that they will make interventions, but can we have some idea of roughly when these will occur? If we do not have a figure for that, can the Minister take back to his colleagues that they should not make such statements in the first place?

            Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, there is a consultation by Ofgem, which finishes this month. It has been made abundantly clear that if the companies do not respond satisfactorily as a result of that consultation, we will certainly consider intervention.

            Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, would not low energy users benefit directly from the rising block tariff system? How is the proposal developing within Government? Are we getting anywhere?

            Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the rising block tariff essentially means charging a lower rate for the first proportion of energy used. The Government are in discussion with Ofgem about how that could be considered in more detail. However, there are concerns about that, because fuel-poor people, out of need, may consume more energy than the average. Clearly, as we discuss this further with Ofgem, it has to be considered very carefully and looked at in the round.

            Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the noble Lord, Lord Turner, the chairman of the climate change committee, made it clear that the only way in which the Government’s binding commitments for emissions reductions can be met is by a significant increase in energy prices? In light of that, has his department calculated how large an increase in energy prices is likely to be required to meet the 34 per cent reduction in emissions that the committee said was necessary by 2020?

            Lord Hunt of Kings Heath:My Lords, the Government are not in the business of forecasting future prices. We listened carefully to the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Turner, and his committee. As the noble Lord will know, energy companies are expected to make considerable investments in the energy field in the next few years. It is a mixture, including new nuclear stations. We also wish to see a considerable increase in the amount of renewable energy. I am confident that we can achieve that.

            Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, made a fair point in one sense, but have not the Government also made a welcome decision? In this year’s Budget there will be a parallel financial budget relating to the short and medium-term fund and the raising of taxation through CO2-type tax, some of which could be recirculated so that it does not have negative effects on prices for lower-paid people. That is an important balancing factor to what is being discussed.

            Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point. A premium had to be paid in relation to the cost of renewable energy; that is well understood. In general—I return to the question of whether we can meet the commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—it is clear that we need a mixed economy in relation to energy. That will include the development of new nuclear, and increased renewable energy as well.

            Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, we may need a mixed economy but we also want to avoid a mixed policy. The Minister referred to a premium for renewables. At present, fossil fuel prices—oil, gas and coal prices—are 75 per cent lower than they were a year ago, which means that the premium for renewables such as wind power has to be vastly increased. Is there not a difficulty there about how that will be raised? If it is raised by higher energy prices, how is that consistent with our proper concern about lowering energy prices?

            Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to point out that wholesale prices have come down; as my noble friend said, we had the announcement from British Gas. We hope to see more reductions in domestic prices over the next few months. Lower energy prices are, of course, important to the economy as a whole. Equally, as part of our climate change policies, renewable energy in this country must be increased. It is an important part of the contribution to future energy supply. Clearly, a premium must be paid in that regard. The essential point is to have a balance.

            Saturday 7 February 2009

            The Week Ahead

            This is the last week before the Presidents' Day recess, so the stimulus bill is likely to dominate the agenda of both Houses of Congress. The target has been to have a bill ready for the President's signature before the recess starts. There may be further action on confirmations in the Senate.

            At Westminster a busy week is expected before recess for 'half term' begins at the close of business on Thursday. The House of Commons will take the Political Parties and Elections Bill – Report stage (day 1) on Monday.

            Westminster: http://services.parliament.uk/calendar/2009/02/09/week.html
            House of Representatives: http://democraticleader.house.gov/docUploads/6_Weekly_Leader_209091.pdf?CFID=13924048&CFTOKEN=38577085

            Friday 6 February 2009

            The Parliament Website

            A very useful resource for followers of Parliament is its website - http://www.parliament.uk/. It's worth spending a little time exploring the site. There's a lot of material available.

            To follow business in the House the most useful pages are
            For Bills before Parliament the best page is http://services.parliament.uk/bills/ - which links to many related resources.

            Details of members of both Houses can be found at http://www.parliament.uk/people/index.cfm

            Background material on how Parliament works, and its history is accessible at http://www.parliament.uk/about/index.cfm

            Thursday 5 February 2009

            UK Policy and the USA

            This week there have been a couple of questions relevant to the UK-US Relationship.

            On Tuesday Lord Renton of Mount Harry asked Her Majesty’s Government "whether they will alter their foreign policy as a result of the election of the new President of the United States."

            The exchange (Question and supplementaries) can be found in Hansard for Tuesday 3rd February - http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld/lords_hansard_by_date.htm

            Lord Judd will ask today Her Majesty’s Government "what representations they have made to the new United States Administration on future policy towards Iran."

            Wednesday 4 February 2009

            Health Bill

            Today the House of Lords is due to give a Second Reading to the Health Bill. This is a large bill covering a number of health related areas.

            When reading a Bill for the first time there are some useful aids. (All current bills are listed - and have useful links at http://services.parliament.uk/bills/)

            Firstly look at the long title - always at the start of the text of the bill itself. In this case the long title is "A BILL TO Make provision about The NHS Constitution; to make provision about health care (including provision about the National Health Service and health bodies); to make provision for the control of the promotion and sale of tobacco products; to make provision about the investigation of complaints about privately arranged or funded adult social care; and for connected purposes."

            Then view the structure by looking at the Part and Chapter headings, and then the Schedule titles. These are found in the contents, which are physically situated at the beginning of the bill.

            1 NHS Constitution
            2 Duty to have regard to NHS Constitution
            3 Availability, review and revision of NHS Constitution
            4 Availability, review and revision of Handbook
            5 Report on effect of NHS Constitution
            6 Duty of providers to publish information
            7 Supplementary provision about the duty
            8 Regulations under section
            9 Direct payments for health care
            10 Jurisdiction of Health Service Commissioner
            11 Direct payments: minor and consequential amendments
            CHAPTER 4 - INNOVATION
            12 Innovation prizes

            13 Trust special administrators: NHS trusts and NHS foundation trusts
            14 De-authorised NHS foundation trusts
            15 Trust special administrators: Primary Care Trusts
            16 Trust special administrators: consequential amendments
            CHAPTER 2 - SUSPENSION
            17 NHS and other health appointments: suspension

            PART 3 - MISCELLANEOUS
            18 Prohibition of advertising: exclusion for specialist tobacconists
            19 Prohibition of tobacco displays etc
            20 Power to prohibit or restrict sales from vending machines
            21 Power to prohibit or restrict sales from vending machines: Northern Ireland
            22 Tobacco: minor and consequential amendments
            Pharmaceutical services in England
            23 Pharmaceutical needs assessments
            24 New arrangements for entry to pharmaceutical list
            25 Pharmaceutical lists - minor amendment
            26 Breach of terms of arrangements: notices and penalties
            27 LPS schemes: powers of Primary Care Trusts and Strategic Health Authorities
            Pharmaceutical services in Wales
            28 Pharmaceutical lists - minor amendment
            29 Breach of terms of arrangements: notices and penalties
            30 LPS schemes: powers of Local Health Boards
            Adult social care
            31 Investigation of complaints about privately arranged or funded adult social
            Disclosure of information
            32 Disclosure of information by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs
            PART 4 - GENERAL
            33 Power to make transitional and consequential provision etc
            34 Repeals and revocations
            35 Extent
            36 Commencement
            37 Short title

            Schedule 1 — Direct payments: minor and consequential amendments
            Schedule 2 — De-authorised NHS foundation trusts
            Schedule 3 — NHS and other health appointments: suspension
            Part 1 — Amendments of enactments
            Part 2 — Supplementary
            Schedule 4 — Tobacco: minor and consequential amendments
            Schedule 5 — Investigation of complaints about privately arranged or
            funded adult social care
            Part 1 — New Part 3A for the Local Government Act 1974
            Part 2 — Minor and consequential amendments
            Schedule 6 — Repeals and revocations

            A summary of the Bill can be found at http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2008-09/health.html

            Useful Background can be found in the Explanatory Notes - http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200809/ldbills/018/en/2009018en.pdf
            and the House of Commons Library usually produces a Research Paper (http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_publications_and_archives/research_papers.cfm), though only when the Bill is before the Commons.

            The House of Lords briefing Note is available at http://llweb.parliament.uk/Library/content/NotesPapers/Default.aspx

            Tuesday 3 February 2009

            Introductions to the House of Lords

            Yesterday Mervyn Davies CBE was introduced to the house as Lord Davies of Abersoch. The ceremony is described in Appendix L of the Companion to the Standing Orders. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld/ldcomp/ldctso59.htm.

            The ceremony can be viewed at

            http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/VideoPlayer.aspx?meetingId=3267. It's worth noting that the front benches are kept clear for the ceremony. The activities of the doorkeepers as they prepare are also worth noting.

            Interestingly Lord Davies took the oath both in English and Welsh

            Monday 2 February 2009

            Ducking Taxes

            When President Obama was merely a Senator, he introduced the "Stop Tax Haven Abuse" bill with co-sponsors Carl Levin (Democrat) and Norman Coleman (Republican) - saying that "We need to crack down on individuals and businesses that abuse our tax laws so that those who work hard and play by the rules aren't disadvantaged". Sadly the bill ran out of time.
            One area for positive transatlantic activity would be for such legislation to be passed both sides of "the pond". The Guardian has today started a series on the "Tax gap" in the UK Ordinary citizens are having to stump up more (and will be required to pay even more in the future) to make up for household name companies who are taking lots out, but increasingly putting less in. It's worth visiting the Guardian site on the issue at http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/series/tax-gap