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Thursday, 30 August 2012

Paralympics crashes Orange voicemail

If you dial 07973100123 from any phone in the UK, you can access your voicemail on your Orange phone (a Pay As You Go phone, in my case) - you enter your Orange mobile number and a PIN, and it takes you to your messages. This is how you 'remote-access' your Orange voicemail from another phone that is not your Orange phone, and it is a very important service. Today when I did it, it was "not available", so I could not check my voicemail. Orange then told me that it had stopped working on 28 August and will only be fixed on 9 September, the delay being due to the Olympics and Paralympics. No complaints against Orange, who handled my 'complaint' very well, but how interesting is this - a major telecoms facility not working as a consequence of London 2012! Those politicians who congratulated themselves on such a thing not having happened sadly spoke too soon.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Heathrow truths

Politically active people often assume that everybody else knows the things that politically active people know, but this can be a mistaken assumption.

For example, does everyone know that there is a swathe of marginal seats in west and south-west London in which opposition to a third runway at Heathrow is a huge vote-winner, as the people who live there are very concerned about the noise and other disruption that they associate with any expansion of the airport? That is one reason why Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were so clear in opposing the then Labour Government's plans for a third runway at the last General Election.

One of the seats in which this is a big issue is Putney, which the Conservative Justine Greening gained from Labour as recently as 2005. Now she is Transport Secretary, opposing a third runway - I do not see how she could face her Putney constituents if she did otherwise. It would be like George Galloway now coming out in favour of the Iraq War.

Also, with the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Aviation in the news for producing a report that calls for Heathrow's capacity to expand, it would be foolish to assume that everyone knows what an APPG actually is.

APPGs often arise when an industry's lobbyists think that it would be useful for their industry to have one. The lobbyists will then talk to MPs and peers about the need for such a group, which the MPs and peers will then set up, with the lobbyists "providing the secretariat".

"Providing the secretariat" means that all the office work is done by the lobbyists, while the MPs and peers chair the meetings and set the agenda - with the lobbyists suggesting what major policy issues the APPG might discuss.

This means that the APPG might publish reports on policy areas that the lobbyists and their clients are most interested in, thus generating useful news coverage of the issues concerned (with those lobbyists who "provide the secretariat" sometimes doing much of the administrative legwork when it comes to getting the report ready for publication).

This is all perfectly above board and open, and the reports themselves will fairly reflect the views of the Parliamentarians in whose names they are issued - and APPGs are often created at the behest of voluntary sector bodies, and not just corporate interests. There are APPGs on Human Trafficking, Antisemitism and Poverty; I once worked for a trade association that provided the secretariat to an APPG for one of the most important sectors of the UK economy. APPGs are a sensible way of enabling Parliamentarians to discuss and report on a range of issues of genuine public concern.

If one wishes to be an informed reader of news coverage of the Aviation APPG's report on airport capacity, then one might find it useful to know (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmallparty/register/aviation.htm) that MHP Communications (http://www.mhpc.com/) provides this APPG's secretariat. Pro-Heathrow campaigners will have known that Tim Yeo's article on Heathrow (published on the very eve of the APPG report) was in the offing; such campaigners (and lobbyists) wanted this to be this week's big political news story, and they have succeeded.

Nothing wrong with that, I might add. That is politics in a democracy and it's all perfectly above board and legitimate.







Tuesday, 28 August 2012

No "little local difficulty" today

Turning on the BBC, I was startled to see that the top television news story was about some sort of challenge to the authority of the Prime Minister. Complete with archive footage of Harold Macmillan talking about "a little local difficulty". What can have happened? Who has resigned? Who is in and who is out?

The story so far: in 1958, Macmillan, as Prime Minister, was hit by the resignation of all three Treasury ministers, including the Chancellor, and responded with a display of his trademark 'unflappability' by embarking as planned on a Commonwealth tour and saying that he wasn't going to be knocked off course by "a little local difficulty".

Then it turned out that the excitement on today's News was not the resignation of George Osborne. The Coalition is intact and the Queen is not warming the teapot ahead of an urgent Prime Ministerial visit. No, the story is that...Tim Yeo has said something! About aeroplanes. The same something about aeroplanes that he had already said this morning, if not yesterday.

Is it possible that it is not a crisis of authority for Mr Cameron after all?

Friday, 24 August 2012

Should we welcome Bahrain's king?

What do I think of Prime Minister David Cameron's meeting the King of Bahrain in Downing Street (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-19355337)? I don't know. I guess I am still of the view that it is useful for UK leaders to meet such people in pursuit of Middle East regional peace, an end to human rights abuses and other matters of mutual interest ("A Downing Street source told BBC correspondent Nick Childs the meeting would be focused primarily on trade, but the pair would also discuss the situation in Syria"). As I wrote in May 2011 (http://matthewfharris.blogspot.com/2011/05/is-anyone-surprised.html?m=1):

"David Cameron has been roundly attacked for recently hosting the Crown Prince of Bahrain at Downing Street, although Number 10 says that Mr Cameron used the meeting to press the Crown Prince to embrace "reform not repression", and I can guardedly respect that (by the way, Bahrain's Crown Prince does have a very positive record when it comes to supporting the Israeli/Palestinian peace process).

"The balance between engaging with unsavoury regimes and criticising them is always a difficult one to strike. That is a challenge with which the Liberal Democrats amply engaged in opposition, and, now that the party is in government, we find that, lo and behold, it is not a challenge that disappears or is easily met. This government, like any other British government, balances its concern for human rights with the UK's security needs and the preservation of British interests overseas. As a great supporter of the Coalition Government and its approach to foreign policy, I do not claim to have easy answers to the questions that I am raising in this post. Is it lame to say that, when it comes to human rights in this difficult context, the Foreign Office is doing the best it can to strike the right balance? Especially with a Lib Dem Minister, Jeremy Browne, responsible there for human rights, doing his impressive best to take a nuanced approach to these difficult, complicated issues.

"The situation in Bahrain stinks, of course. But again, why should this come as a surprise? It's been going on for years. One has to support all constructive efforts to improve the situation for the people who live there, while recognising that this is going to take a long time and might well get worse before it gets better, a stark assessment that will come as scant comfort for the people concerned. Crucially, the presence in Bahrain of Saudi troops (and troops from the United Arab Emirates) must be seen in the context of the increasingly complicated, evolving relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia."

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Liberals and Gambling

The Liberals used to be the party of the temperance movement. Brewers thus always used to be Tory, prompting a barrel-load of appointments to the House of Lords that was once collectively dubbed the beerage. Anti-gambling used to be a big part of the same movement.

With that in mind, I was interested to read a month-old BBC story about the Commons culture committee (do we no longer have Select Committees?) having urged what the BBC calls "further deregulation of the gaming and betting industries".

I am on the Right of my party (a party that Charles Kennedy once called not so much a broad church as a hexagonal cathedral, or words to that effect) and am a pro-business Liberal Democrat. That notwithstanding, I doubt that I will be the only Lib Dem who will not be disappointed if the Coalition Government fails to find the time to further deregulate the gaming and betting industries.

I quite like the idea of allowing those gambling dens that have the tightest entry rules to have the most lax gaming restrictions, so incentivising the imposition of tight entry rules. I understand that some past efforts to regulate gambling have had unintended consequences, including the opening of more (not fewer) betting shops. I appreciate that logic might dictate some further relaxation of the law.

But there is more to life than logic and the streets are not filled with indigent casino magnates begging for the price of a cup of tea. This need not be a priority for government. The gaming industry has done nothing to win my affection. This is an issue on which a lot of ordinary people have strong views, in a way that does not particularly favour the gambling industry.

Were senior Lib Dems in government to let it be known that gaming reform is a non-starter whatever the Tories and their donors may say, I think that they could generate a lot of support in unexpected quarters, including in some conservative parts of the media.

I write as someone who is in relative ignorance of this policy area.

"Good Times" at Drink Aware

I am a huge supporter of Drink Aware, and they have an excellent website and online tools. I am slightly intrigued by this one: http://www.drinkaware.co.uk/campaigns/2011/why-let-good-times-go-bad-2011/get-the-good-times-mobile-app. Really? We go out and mark anything that happens as either a Good Time or a Bad Time, on a Facebook page?!

"Your friend finally got chatting to the person they've been going on about for ages? Take a snap and upload it as a 'good time'. Later on one of your friends has ended up making a bit of a fool of themselves - you guessed it, snap it and upload it as a 'bad time'."

It all involves Facebook "minimising the chances of the night turning bad, for example having too much to drink, losing your friends, getting into a fight or ending up without a ride home." Well, quite.

If only such an app had been available in the Colony Rooms circa 1979. Lewis and Tolkien could have done with it on many occasions, as could Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, the Shelley Circle and the Evelyn Waugh set. Had the good times not gone bad, Profumo would never have got in that swimming pool at Cliveden, and Lady Ottoline Morrell would now be remembered for throwing the most amazing whist drives.

There is nothing funny about alcohol abuse. I do support Drink Aware. If this app helps some people to stay safe, then I support it, although it does make me laugh a bit, sorry. I wish Simon Gray could have seen it. Ah well. I suppose danger seems less funny when you're actually in it and this is about helping people to stay safe.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Barnet Libraries Without a Prayer

Praise be to Barnet Council. On Wednesday 18 July, I took a copy of Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks' daily prayer book out of East Barnet Library. I needed three, so I ordered two more, as the Council's website says that there are several copies in libraries across the borough, according to the "Aqua Browser" (why "Aqua"? What does any of this jargon actually mean?). What I, as a secular Jewish agnostic, wanted with three Orthodox Jewish prayer books is a question that need not detain us until later.

A helpful librarian and I filled in the two forms for the two copies of the book, and I went merrily on my way, assured that it would be a mere day or three before the books had winged their way to East Barnet from their current homes upon the shelves of libraries in Hendon and (Finchley) Church End, at which point I would be able to pop in to East Barnet Library to collect them and willingly pay the tiny fee charged for ordering books in this way.

On Friday 3 August, I went to collect the two books (I needed them for that evening) and (in a narrative twist worthy of Steven Moffat, or possibly Ronnie Corbett) they had, of course, not arrived - more than a fortnight after they had been ordered.

Another very helpful librarian then told me that they had had to be ordered from stock or from stack and were therefore still waiting to be sent from a storage facility in Hackney, despite my having ordered them so many days before and been assured that they would arrive within days of my ordering them, and despite the Council's own website showing copies available at several libraries across the borough - I was able to show the librarian this on my Blackberry there and then.

Only one of my two order forms was on file - what had happened to the other one? - and neither book was there.

Leaving aside any feeble jokes about my offering up a prayer for the arrival of the prayer books, or an equally feeble joke about my reflecting at that moment upon Lord Sacks' own past writings about the difference between hope and optimism, I asked if I could go to Hackney myself, now, and get the books - to which the answer was No, of course.

However hard-working and committed to excellence Barnet's librarians surely are, they are clearly working with a system that is not fit for purpose, if one cannot simply order a couple of books from libraries across the borough.

A librarian helpfully phoned Hendon and Church End and ascertained that the two books did indeed appear to be there, on the shelves, although there was doubt in one case as to whether it actually was the same prayer book...Everyone was trying to be more than helpful. They just hadn't got me the books - that is, the system had not done the one simple thing that I had been reasonably assured that it would do.

I have always defended Barnet Council, and the Tories who sadly have been elected to run it, from suggestions that it is scandalously awful. I am not up in arms so much as down at heart, at the pointlessness of a vast local government infrastructure that cannot achieve something so simple as ordering some library books.

It is in those little ways that Barnet sometimes seems to let residents down, despite the best endeavours of the Council's employees. Most people are not in a state of uproar about our local council; rather most people take it for granted that there is little point in expecting the institution that is Barnet Council ever to do very much.

People therefore don't bother to think of using the Council when they need some little thing done. My little thing was for a dinner that my girlfriend was cooking on a Friday night, with a guest coming who is "religious", hence the need for prayer books, in case we decided to do the whole Jewish Friday night thing.

Since I had neither bought nor cooked the delicious food, and had provided nothing other than the challah (bread), some wine and my scintillating presence (the latter of which it is cheaper to buy wholesale), it really meant something to me to have been so thoughtful as to track down the prayer books and order them - but I might as well not have bothered, it transpired.

It's the principle. I do not say that nothing bad ever happens at councils controlled by Liberal Democrats, as opposed to those councils, like Barnet, that are controlled by Conservatives, although I believe that Barnet's Lib Dem councillors could surely deliver a vast improvement to the running of our council if the people elected them to do so.

I do not wish to start a blame game with the Tory Cllr Robert Rams, who runs Barnet's libraries and with whom I am on friendly nodding terms. These things (lack of delivery of ordered library books) happen. I just really wish they wouldn't.

Is Barnet's motto now "Most men (and women) lead lives of quiet desperation"? If this is the service at an unreformed council, then how could outsourcing possibly make it worse, given that we currently have a book-ordering service that orders no books? My experience of privatised utilities does not lead me to believe that the private sector is always the worst provider of public services. Or is this library "service" itself the result of the very same set of policies that itself includes outsourcing?

I don't know. I do know that there is clearly no point in relying upon Barnet Council to order two books that its own (supposedly accurate - otherwise what's the point?) website shows to be on the shelves of several of the council's own libraries.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Video: Nick Clegg speaks at Munich Memorial Service

I blogged previously about the International Olympic Committee's appalling refusal to include a minute's silence for the people murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics in the opening ceremony of subsequent games, including London 2012. London's opening ceremony quite rightly included sombre tributes to people killed fighting in two world wars, people murdered on 7/7 and also (as I understand it) the late fathers of Lord (Sebastian) Coe and the director Danny Boyle, but nothing - nothing - about the eleven Olympians murdered at the Olympic Games itself in 1972 (not to mention the West German policeman killed trying to rescue them, and not to mention the people murdered in a terrorist attack during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta).

Whatever some people may sometimes think about some of the actions and policies of the Government of Israel, it is unconscionable for the Olympic movement not to formally recognise the eleven Israeli Olympians murdered at the heart of the Olympic Games itself. In the disgraceful absence of such formal recognition, the Israelis and the British Jewish community had to do it themselves, organising a moving Munich Memorial Service at London's Guildhall last night

All three party leaders spoke, including Deputy Prime Minister (and Liberal Democrat Leader) Nick Clegg, and I recorded his speech on my Blackberry if you want to have a look. At least nobody can accuse the UK and its political leaders of not caring about the victims of terrorism, be those victims British, Israeli or anything else. It was a privilege to be there.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Nick Clegg meets Palestinian Prime Minister

Writing here in a personal capacity, I am very pleased (as a pro-Israeli Liberal Democrat) that UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg met Palestinian Prime Minister Dr Salam Fayyad on Friday (http://www.dpm.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/deputy-prime-minister-meets-palestinian-prime-minister-fayyad).

One could debate ad infinitum the strong criticisms of some Israeli policies expressed by Mr Clegg on this occasion; my point, rather, is that it's simply great that Mr Clegg is meeting the person who is surely the best leader that the Palestinians have (http://matthewfharris.blogspot.com/2011/06/listen-to-palestinian-people.html?m=1). It is people like Mr Fayyad who will lead the Palestinians to the sort of peace that will benefit Palestinians and Israelis alike.

Mr Clegg's support for Israeli/Palestinian peace includes his oft-stated belief that: "No Israeli should have to live in fear of terrorism. I want to see a prosperous and confident Israel, able to live in peace." I am more than happy with the UK Government's policies on Iran and on UK-Israeli economic co-operation, and I am also pleased to read that Nick Clegg and David Cameron will reportedly be attending Monday's memorial event for the Israelis murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics in 1972 (http://www.thejc.com/node/70774).

The importance of talking to leaders like Salam Fayyad is underlined by the latest grotesque behaviour of Hamas (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-19091147). Hamas has condemned the visit to Auschwitz of Ziad al-Bandak, an adviser to Palestinian President Abbas, as "unjustified and unhelpful", and called the Holocaust "an alleged tragedy".

Referring to Mr al-Bandak's Auschwitz visit (during which he laid flowers), Hamas' newspaper says: "What is the wisdom in such a simple step that supports the Jews and their crimes?...Neither the Jews nor we believe that Hitler killed six millions (sic) Jews."

When you defend Hamas, you defend views such as this. How would you feel if someone accused the British of fabricating the events of 7/7? Hamas is to Palestinian politics what the Ku Klux Klan is to American politics. Until it changes quite radically, it will have nothing to contribute towards the Israel/Palestine peace process (http://matthewfharris.blogspot.com/2012/06/life-in-palestine-under-ismael-haniyeh.html?m=1).

And just how pathetic is it that Egypt's embassy in Israel sent Israeli President Shimon Peres a letter from Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi wishing peace to the whole Middle East (including Israel), only for Egypt to deny that the letter had been meant?! President Morsi's letter was in reply to President Peres' Ramadan greeting to the Muslim world. http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/egypt-denies-morsi-sent-letter-to-israeli-president-shimon-peres-1.455053