Moving home and other stuff

This blog started out in the dark days of Pompey’s life when it wasn’t clear whether the club would survive or not.  It has since gone off at a tangent into politics, and it now balances precariously on a tightrope between the two.  The football club is now in a far better state than the City Council is!

I am moving the blog to my own hosting at www.stuartcrow.com.  The site is already up with all the content from this blog copied to it, and in future I will be posting there. If you subscribe to receive email updates from this site, I’m afraid you’ll have to re-subscribe on the new site – there’s no way to carry subscriptions over automatically.

If anyone has any comments on the look of the new site, they will be welcome.  I’m using a bigger font than I can here, being stuck with the default, and I think Gill Sans is as beautiful as anything man ever designed.  It should render well enough on everyone’s devices or screens, but if it doesn’t please let me know.  Moving to my own hosting will allow me to do other things in future that I can’t here.

The other housekeeping issue is I have changed my Twitter “@” from @lord_palmerston to @stucrow.  This doesn’t have any effect on anyone who follows me (or who I follow) as @lord_palmerston, Twitter has switched the username over without dumping any connections.  It saves a few of the precious 140 characters in replies and retweets and leaves a bit more room for debate.  The point of being anonymous long since passed, since Chainrai was ousted from the football club and I stopped working there.

The Hancock saga is rumbling on, Southsea is flooded, Pompey are in something of a relegation battle, the whole city is groaning under the burden of Lib Dem rule.  There’s plenty to write about on the new blog!  Thanks for reading.

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Lib Dems under pressure over Hancock as Councillor quits

Update 28/1: Final update for this post before I open up a new one.

Cllr Eleanor Scott gave an extensive interview to Victoria Derbyshire on Radio 5 Live this morning.  It was actually distressing to hear her evident discomfort at her experiences inside the Lib Dem group on Portsmouth City Council.  Although she resigned over the failure to remove Mike Hancock from the Cabinet, her grievances extend across a wide range of the “culture” of the Lib Dem group.  The audio is here.  She has clearly been subjected to appalling sexism, aggression, and all sorts of unacceptable behaviour.  Her comments on Nick Clegg are again damning for his failure to take the issue seriously.  She says Nick Clegg “protected his reputation up in London, but what about Portsmouth?”

I found a tweet I almost a year ago about Hancock and Rennard, saying these issues would threaten Clegg’s position and that the Lib Dems were in denial:

I have emailed the City Solicitor to ask him to look into the comment made by Cllr Les Stevens, “I am protecting Mike because I am his friend”.  Cllr Stevens’s can hardly continue to serve on a disciplinary panel on that basis.  Indeed, his conduct amounts in itself to a breach of the Council’s Code of Conduct (here, in pdf), which is based on a number of sensible principles:

CoC

Please note the requirements relating to “selflessness”, “integrity”, and “objectivity”.

I’ve been in correspondence with the City Solicitor about some other matters, which will form part of a blog I hope to get up some point tomorrow.

Update 27/1: In the wake of Cllr Scott’s resignation, described below, the “can of worms” has burst open.  She has given an interview to Jessica Parker of Radio Solent, and didn’t pull any punches.  You can hear the whole thing here.  Cllr Scott says:

“I can’t imagine anybody else on the Council in any political party being allowed to stay in a ruling cabinet given the fact that a QC who had been employed by [the] Council to express an opinion on a series of allegations has made comments such as we have here [i.e. in Pascoe’s report].”

“Nick Clegg’s stance needs some serious looking at.  Because he did know about the seriousness of the situation down here in Portsmouth, particularly the culture, in which I was operating very unhappily.  I went up to Party Headquarters on the 21st June and I had a meeting with Tim Gordon who’s the Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrat party and Dave Allworthy was there, the Head of Compliance and I told them a fair bit about my feelings on the unacceptable culture on the Liberal Democrat group in the city.  So it’s not as though they weren’t aware there is unhappiness down here in some quarters, and one of those expressions of unhappiness came from the only woman member of the Cabinet at the time.”

That’s damning testimony and it raises much wider questions about Cllr Vernon-Jackson’s leadership of the group, given that Cllr Scott’s concerns seem to go far beyond the specifics of the Hancock case and concern the wider “culture” of the Lib Dem party locally.

We know as a result of earlier fall-out from Cllr Scott’s resignation that at Friday’s Lib Dem group meeting, the vote not to suspend the now-Independent Hancock from the City Council Cabinet was a dead-heat.  He retained his place on the “status quo” principle; 10 voted to remove him, 10 to keep him, 2 (including the Chairman) abstained, and 2 councillors were absent.  This destroys the statement Cllrs Hugh Mason and Rob Wood read afterwards, reaffirming the unity of the group.

This morning it emerged that the local Lib Dem Executive – representing the entire party membership in Portsmouth – has decided to run the selection process for their 2015 candidate in Portsmouth South while Hancock is suspended from the party.  This effectively deselects him, as he is ineligible while under suspension.

Hancock has reacted angrily, telling The News: “I’ll make the decision whether I stand as an MP or not when I decide, not when people are trying to make a decision when they know it will be impossible for me to be involved in it.”

The Executive have reaffirmed their support for Gerald Vernon-Jackson’s leadership.  If the intention is to quickly ditch Hancock and replace him with GVJ, the Lib Dems may well find they misjudge the mood of voters.  Everyone in their party connected to the Hancock affair and the surrounding cover-up is tainted.

Radio Solent again had an excellent report on the situation this morning (it’s a shame they can’t snip them out of programmes to append to their website news stories) which is here.

Yesterday’s blog continues below:

Cllr Eleanor Scott, who like Mike Hancock represents Fratton ward on PCC, has just resigned from both the Cabinet and the Lib Dem group over the way the Hancock crisis has been handled.  She has been a member of PCC for over ten years, and has served for most of that time as a Cabinet member, lately for Environment.  Her loss deprives the Lib Dem group of one of its most respected members.  Cllr Scott told The News: “I’m deeply unhappy with the group’s decision and I’ve done the only thing that I feel I can”. Radio Solent’s Political Reporter, Jessica Parker, quotes her saying she hopes “others involved in group’s decision on Friday will reflect on their positions & do the right thing.” 

Cllr Scott’s resignation undermines the position the Lib Dem group arrived at on Friday night when they had a meeting to discuss the crisis.  Cllr Hugh Mason was adamant that the Lib Dems remained “one group” when talking to the press after the group meeting.   Cllr Rob Wood said “This is about making sure we do the right thing together and we stick together as a group.”

Earlier in the day, Mike Hancock arrived at the Guildhall for a “decision meeting” in his capacity as Cabinet member for Planning, Regeneration and Economic Development.  He went in and out of a side-door to try and dodge the waiting press, and refused to answer their questions saying “You’re wasting your time”.

That evening, after the Lib Dem group meeting The News reported the statement they had agreed – you can see video of it on their website.  The text itself is worth analysing:

“Cllr Mike Hancock no longer remains a member of the Portsmouth City Council Liberal Democrat group, because having had his membership suspended by the party at national level, it is not possible for him to remain a member of the City Council group until such time as the suspension is lifted.”

Very true.  What everyone wonders is why the national party didn’t instigate a proper inquiry when they were first made aware of the complaint.

“The group acknowledges that the suspension has been imposed before the issue to which suspension relates has been properly and fairly determined through due process in the courts.”

Let’s be clear about this: if anyone is being denied due process, it’s the complainant against Mike Hancock.  The Pascoe report relates to a complaint against Hancock as a City Councillor in relation to alleged breaches of the Code of Conduct.  Pascoe was engaged by PCC to produce a report to inform the council’s own disciplinary process.

One reason PCC has not carried out its own due process is because there is a politically-motivated cover-up in operation.  Cllr Les Stevens, who sits on the disciplinary panel, admitted it in comments to The News: “I am protecting Mike because I am his friend”.  PCC has already been warned it is in danger of losing an application for judicial review by the complainant should she make one, because the Lib Dems have stalled the council’s own disciplinary process.  PCC lost a case on Friday in the High Court, and will now have to make a full copy of the Pascoe report available to the complainant.  But back to the statement:

“The group decided that the independent councillor Mike Hancock should retain his seat on the Cabinet at the City Council. This was decided because Councillor Hancock is best placed to fulfill the role of Cabinet member for Planning, Regeneration and Economic Development.”

It’s a nonsensical statement.  Given the poor performance of the City Council on projects such as Northern Quarter or the Palmerston Road pedestrianisation, it’s a wonder Cllr Hancock still has any kind of job anyway.  Clearly the Lib Dem group are hoping that after a short interval, public concern about Mike Hancock’s activities will wane and he can be allowed to carry on as previously, regardless of what Nick Clegg nationally eventually decides to do.

The Lib Dem group has outraged many Lib Dems elsewhere in the country, and are deepening the embarrassment to Nick Clegg and Tim Farron for their own failure to deal with the Hancock issue before it got to this point.  In refusing to suspend Mike Hancock from their own single-party Cabinet, they are rebelling against the eventual decision taken at national level to suspend Hancock as a Lib Dem.

Given the wider issues relating to the way Cllr Stevens and Gerald Vernon-Jackson have handled the case, I would think there is pressing need for the Lib Dem leadership to have an inquiry into the operation of the entire Lib Dem machine in Portsmouth.  It is out of control, it is damaging the reputation of the city, and is complicit in an outrageous mishandling of the complaint against Mike Hancock.

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Leak of Pascoe report into Mike Hancock – reactions

Tuesday’s blog reporting the events at the full City Council meeting, where the Pascoe report was debated is here.

Updates 24/1/14

The BBC South political editor Peter Henley gave an excellent summary of “where we are” with Hancock on the BBC News channel earlier.  The audio is here.  He said there is a “divide emerging” between Portsmouth Lib Dems, staying loyal to Hancock, and the national party.  Peter also reminded viewers of how this area is “haunted” by past Lib Dem national scandals like Mark Oaten and Chris Huhne.

The News have spoken to Lib Dem Cllr Les Stevens, who is on the PCC disciplinary panel investigating Hancock.  He admits “I am protecting him because I am his friend”, calls the allegations “unfounded”, and says “we made the right decision for the right reason”.  The legal ramifications of this for Portsmouth City Council may well be serious if the complainant seeks judicial review of PCC’s delays to the process.

A further blow to the Lib Dem leadership’s pleas of “we knew nothing” comes from Cllr John Ferrett, who has released a letter he wrote to Nick Clegg in April 2013 reminding him of the allegations and claiming that “the desire to avoid a by election, against a backdrop of scandal and intrigue” was the reason for the Lib Dems’ attempt at a cover-up.

Radio Solent have spoken to Lib Dem PPC Vikki Slade from Poole, who reinforced the sense that her party is in total denial about the scale of the crisis:

“It’s a distraction, it’s not really what we want…it’s not just politics these things happen [in]”.

And yet, if Hancock had been an employee of PCC, or an employee anywhere else and not a City Councillor and MP, he would have been suspended and properly investigated long ago.

“Last year when it came to light, he resigned [the whip] as a Lib Dem MP, so he hasn’t been holding the Lib Dem whip for the last nine months.”

This despite his continued service as a Lib Dem Councillor and Cabinet member.  Who do these people think they are kidding?

Did the Lib Dem leadership really not know what was going on, when journalists like Michael Crick were digging into the story in July last year?

Hancock

Updates 23/1/14

Mike Hancock’s son Dean has been charged with assault causing actual bodily harm by Police following an attack on a photographer outside Mr Hancock’s house in Portchester.  ITV captured footage of the attack. The video ends with the victim saying he is calling the Police and his attacker saying “Yeah? Go f*****g get them then.”  Dean Hancock will appear before Fareham Magistrates on February 12th.

ITV News have found an email from Mike Hancock’s office admitting he may be a “flirt and touchy-feely”.

BBC Radio Solent interviewed Nigel Pascoe QC this morning.  He reiterated his view that the redacted version of the report which has leaked is not fair to either party, and that it would be better if the whole document is published as soon as possible.  Audio of the interview is here.

Mr Pascoe has put out a statement on Pump Court Chambers’ website reiterating points he’s made over the last couple of days in press interviews.

The complainant in the case has given an interview in The News, in which she says she has contemplated suicide since the incidents in question happened.

The Lib Dem group will meet tomorrow evening to decide Mr Hancock’s fate as a Cabinet member, but only after he oversees a Planning, Regeneration and Economic Development meeting earlier in the day.  That meeting is at noon at the Guildhall, and is a public event.  Mr Hancock is currently still the Cabinet member with responsibility for the portfolio.  I hope to be at the meeting to see whether Mr Hancock turns up, and what happens if he does.

Both the Conservative and Labour group leaders are now calling for Gerald Vernon-Jackson’s resignation as Council Leader for his part in the shambles:

Updates 22/1/14

As a result of the furore surrounding the leak of Pascoe, the Lib Dems have finally suspended Mike Hancock:

Gerald Vernon-Jackson must now immediately suspend Hancock from his Cabinet post, and move to complete the PCC disciplinary process which the Lib Dem majority has been stalling for some time now.  Given his role in the cover-up, I cannot see how GVJ could be a credible candidate to replace Hancock as the Lib Dem candidate for Portsmouth South.

The Lib Dems have shown themselves to be a shambles of a party, having allowed Hancock to remain a Lib Dem councillor despite having suspended himself from the Westminster whip.  As with Rennard, the accusations of complacency and incompetence reach straight back to Nick Clegg.

Here are some reactions and responses to the day’s news:

Sky 2-way with their political correspondent, Jon Craig, as the news broked about Hancock suspension is here.

The complainant’s solicitor, Harriet Wistrich has accused the Lib Democrats of dealing with the matter “appallingly”.

At the meeting yesterday, a version of the Pascoe report was circulated around the gallery by someone I don’t know, but who has identifies himself as “S Evans” on his website which tracks supposed Police corruption.  He published the version of the document online that everyone else has been following up.

An excellent summary of the position from Jessica Parker on Radio Solent is here, including reaction from Conservative group leader Donna Jones, calling for Hancock to be suspended.

Cllr Jones gave a fuller interview earlier on Wave 105 FM, which is here, accusing Lib Dem council leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson of “burying his head in the sand” in not suspending Hancock.

Earlier today, Guido Fawkes has published the link to the Pascoe report on his blog.

I emailed Michael Lawther, the City Solicitor, to ask him if the leaked version is accurate – it is in nobody’s interest that a fake propagates widely.  Either way, the only course PCC has left is to publish properly, and to conclude the disciplinary process against Mr Hancock.  Mr Lawther initially replied:

Thank you for your email and the link to the attached document. I note your view on the publication of the report by the Council. The procedure which the Council approved in July 2012 was that reports produced in relation to investigation of complaints are not published and this was reaffirmed in the debate yesterday. Unfortunately, I am unable to comment upon the document which has been published in the link.”

Nigel Pascoe has said he’s happy the report has leaked, but that the leaked version misses out some details due to redaction and that the full version should be published:

Mike Hancock has issued a statement, which may well have been written before he was aware of the Pascoe leak as it says nothing about it.

Stephen Tall, editor of the influential “Lib Dem Voice” website says:

Leader of the Conservative group on PCC, Cllr Donna Jones reports that Hancock is set to be suspended by Gerald Vernon-Jackson from the Lib Dems:

In a letter to the Evening Standard, former Lib Dem PPC Jo Shaw says:

The problems of allegations of abuses of power are not confined to the Lib Dems, and within the Lib Dems they are not confined to Lord Rennard. Allegations of improper behaviour were made against Mike Hancock MP. He resigned the Lib Dem whip in the Commons but still sits as a Lib Dem councillor in Portsmouth. The allegations are serious and are politically very difficult – all the more reason to deal with them face-on without any kind of fudge. That has not happened.

As for Nick Clegg, these issues again make clear his lack of a liberal compass. I am sure he cares about equality, but not enough to make difficult choices about his own appointments or the structures of power in the party and the country. If liberals aren’t about resisting abuses of power then what are they for?

Jo Shaw is the Lib Dem who resigned from the Lib Dems in front of the TV cameras at a party conference saying “It’s not me, it’s you, Nick”

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Portsmouth City Council – Mike Hancock & the Pascoe report

Since writing up this blog, a version of the entire Pascoe report has been leaked online, and it – and the uproar it’s generated – are all over the media.  I’ve put up another post with some of the reactions to today’s events here.    Hancock has been suspended from the party at national level, but Portsmouth Lib Dems still back him, and Gerald Vernon-Jackson refuses to suspend him from his Cabinet position.  Yesterday’s original blog continues below:

There are two parts to what happened today in the Council Chamber at the Guildhall; a Cabinet meeting to consider the ill-fated Palmerston Rd South pedestrianisation, and the regular monthly full meeting of the Council at which the Pascoe report into Mike Hancock was debated.  I’m going to take them backwards in chronological terms, and deal with the full Council meeting first, as it was marginally more bizarre than the Cabinet meeting (but either one would shame a “banana republic” dictatorship).

The full Council meeting got quickly into the main business to be dealt with.  First of all there was a motion from the Labour group calling for central government to devolve powers to local councils to control the spread of betting shops and the operation of “fixed odds betting terminals”.  These are typically the roulette machines you now find in many bookies.  There is a reasonable libertarian approach which says “you can’t regulate against addiction” and a paternalist approach which says “you shouldn’t put temptation in people’s way”.  I think the outcry over FOBTs is out of all proportion to their impact, but in that the motion was asking for powers to regulate rather than an outright ban, I wasn’t too upset that it was passed with a large majority.  I look forward to the motion from the Labour group at the next meeting in support of the “War on Sugar”, as launched at PMQs last week by Keith Vaz.

The next item was the Pascoe report into Mike Hancock, and the motion proposed by Cllr John Ferrett and seconded by Cllr Luke Stubbs (Labour and Conservative respectively) called for publication of the report.  The full wording of the motion was:

“This council notes with concern the recent public disclosure in the Guardian newspaper of a hitherto confidential investigation report into a complaint made against an elected member. This disclosure followed the decision of the Governance, Audit and Standards Hearing Sub-Committee of the 15 November 2013 to defer a decision on the complaint until civil proceedings on the same matter had been concluded.

The printing of excerpts from the report has led to a great deal of debate, conjecture and innuendo. It has also led to public demands for the disclosure of the full report.

This Council believes it is now in the interest of all concerned, including the member who is subject to the complaint, to disclose the Pascoe report to the public. A failure to do so could result in the report being released and disseminated in an uncontrolled fashion, thus causing continuing damage to the reputation of the member and, indeed, this Council. Therefore, the Council resolves to instruct the Monitoring Officer to reconsider whether, or not, the Pascoe Report can now be disclosed to the public”.

I’ll pick out the “highlights” from the debate which followed, and as one would expect was almost entirely divided on party lines.

Cllr John Ferrett opened and pointed out that Nigel Pascoe QC himself recommends publication of the report and that PCC wouldn’t want to be accused of acting in “similar dilatoriness” to another body currently in difficulties over poor handling of a case of sexual harrassment.  Whoever could he mean?  He repeated a charge he’s made before against Gerald Vernon-Jackson, that GVJ said the complainant “was doing it for the money”.  I don’t think there was any denial of that later on when the council leader spoke.

Cllr Ferrett complained that excerpts from Pascoe have already been printed in the Express and The Guardian, and that these partial leaks exposed the report in “the worst possible way”.  Ian Wise QC had considered the position and warned PCC that delaying the progress of the PCC inquiry into Hancock risked judicial review and an award of damages against the council, and Cllr Ferrett argued that therefore legal opinions counted up two in favour of proceeding (Pascoe and Wise) against one against (Michael Lawther, the City Solicitor).

Cllr Lee Hunt spoke next, dismissing everything as being a political smear campaign.  It was a loud speech which said nothing much because, ironically, it consisted of nothing but politics.  When Mike Hancock was under investigation originally in 2010, the Lib Dems were insistent that there was nothing to investigate and any legal action was a waste of time.  Now there is a legal action, they are adamant that nothing should be done for fear of prejudicing it.  This selective fondness for judicial process is so nakedly political on the Lib Dems’ part that I’m amazed even they have the nerve to try it on.

Cllr Vernon-Jackson spoke next, pointing out that the City Solicitor has said that he would not publish Pascoe even if the motion was carried.  His argument goes that as there is an FoI appeal to the Information Commissioner for release of Pascoe, they should do nothing until that appeal has been heard.  I would say that if PCC wanted to publish the report they could do so straight away without waiting for the ICO.  It was a confused argument.

Cllr Bosher referred to the legal advice circulated by the City Solicitor and asked why he assumed in his advice that it was a council member who had leaked the report to the press, and not a council officer.  No council member had a copy of the report in their possession, any copies were returned to the City Solicitor at the conclusion of the meeting at which it was discussed.

In fact, while Cllr Bosher was speaking, a full copy of the report was circulating in the public gallery.  It consists of 8 chapters plus an Appendix and looked like a photocopy of a photocopy (so who knows how many copies there actually are in the public domain?).  I made some notes on the content, which I will not repeat here at this point – I intend first to ask the City Solicitor if he will verify that the version circulated is in fact an authentic copy.  I don’t know the person who was passing it round, so I have no way of assessing the source or the document.

Cllr Luke Stubbs seconded the motion, pointing out that the public had paid a lot of money (probably around £60k by now) for this report and should all get to see it.

Cllrs Hugh Mason, Terry Hall, and Darren Sanders all repeated the Lib Dem line that PCC should do nothing and let matters play out in court.

Cllr Donna Jones pointed out the long list of things that Mike Hancock has been found to have a case to answer for.  These charges can be summarised thus:

1) Failing to treat people with respect

2) Conducting himself in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringinghis office or authority into disrepute

3) Using his position as a member improperly to confer on or secure for himself or any other person, an advantage or disadvantage

4) Doing something that may seriously prejudice their authority’s ability to complywith any of its statutory duty under the equality law

5) Bullying a person

These are very serious allegations, and were they to be made against a Council employee, they would be suspended immediately pending an investigation.  Cllr Jones repeated her disappointment that Mike Hancock has not been suspended.

Cllr Winnington disputed Cllr Ferrett’s comparison between Hancock and Rennard, saying that Rennard’s case has been concluded and therefore the outcry over him had no relation to that over Mike Hancock.  It was a strange argument given that Rennard, like Hancock, refused to talk to the relevant QC, and has just again now been told he will face another Lib Dem inquiry.  The Lib Dems have stalled their own party’s inquiry into Hancock.  The charges against him are arguably more grave than those Rennard faces.

Cllr Ferrett wound up the debate by pointing out the ludicrousness of the PCC position.  They are going to court to argue that the Pascoe report should not be called as evidence in the civil action against Hancock, and if they get their way the Pascoe report will not feature in the court action.  At the same time, they are arguing that Pascoe cannot be published because of the court action which they argue Pascoe is irrelevant to.  If the Council do not think the Pascoe report is relevant to the High Court action against Mike Hancock, what possible justification is there for suppressing it or for failing to complete the PCC disciplinary process (which the Lib Dem majority has stalled until after the High Court action)?

In the end, the motion was defeated by the Lib Dem majority.  The Lib Dems have got themselves into an incomprehensible position – they could have refused to allow the motion to be debated (which was what I expected them to do), but they imagined that having the debate while voting to carry on the cover-up was somehow a less damaging position.  It looked like political lunacy to me.

There are two elements to this scandal – a political one, and an administrative one.  The political scandal is that the Lib Dems have used their majority on the Council to delay, obstruct, and frustrate the progress of the internal disciplinary process against Mike Hancock.

The administrative scandal is that PCC are now arguing corporately that Pascoe should not be used as evidence in the High Court (who the hell are PCC to tell a court what it may and may not do?), but that Pascoe cannot be released all the same until that court process has been completed.  The Council’s legal position is total chaos, and very expensive total chaos.

It’s time to bring the disciplinary process to a close, publish the Pascoe report, and allow the High Court case to go on its way independently of the awful political manoeuverings of the Lib Dems in Portsmouth.

I’m told that all the national papers have a full copy of Pascoe from whatever source, and clearly some people locally have a copy too.  That was why there was a photocopy of a photocopy doing the rounds in the gallery.  In order to prevent unscrupulous people circulating fake copies containing salacious and potentially libellous content about any party to the inquiry and legal case, there is clearly an urgent need for Portsmouth City Council to publish a correct version of the Pascoe report.

I made a note of the concluding part of the version I saw earlier, and I could not put the argument in favour of publication – and completion of the disciplinary process against Hancock – better myself:

“Finally, in my view, the time for equivocation has ended.  These matters should have been addressed definitively a long time ago in the interests of [the complainant] and Mr Hancock.

Nigel Pascoe QC, August 28th 2013 

Note: For the avoidance of doubt, I consent to the full and unabridged publication of the Report.”

In “Part 2″ of this review, I’ll go back (yet again) to the sad story of the Palmerston Road pedestrianisation, and cover the latest attempt by Council staff to stop members of the public tweeting and blogging during the meeting – in clear contravention of recent DCLG guidance.

Posted in Politics, Portsmouth City Council | 3 Comments

A “Minister for Portsmouth”?

I was a bit harsh, perhaps, the other day when I said on Twitter it was “gimmickry” that Michael Fallon has been assigned to be “Minister for Portsmouth”. Vince Cable has been quick to rubbish the appointment, and since he is usually wrong, perhaps there is something in the idea.  But it’s a slap in the face for Gerald Vernon-Jackson, who welcomed Fallon enthusiastically.  Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at the state of the Lib Dems, who in this age of Rennard and Hancock hardly seem to know how to behave towards each other.  Perhaps the appointment of Michael Fallon is a response to the uselessness of our Lib Dem-controlled city council – Westminster imposing “direct rule”.

Fallon is a very capable politician, who would have a big Cabinet job were the Cabinet not encumbered by the Lib Dems.  There is also an excellent Tory precedent for this kind of special measure if we go back to Michael Heseltine’s role in Liverpool in the early 80s.  The people of Liverpool evidently think so – he was granted the freedom of that city a couple of years ago.  The part-time MP for Portsmouth South, Mike Hancock, emerged from his bunker to welcome the appointment, also recollecting the Heseltine connection.

However, the political situation has not advanced much since the announcement of the decision to end shipbuilding.  The initial government response was to wave at us a series of measures and money that were coming our way anyway, having been announced some time before the closure.  I don’t think anyone was fooled by that, and the City Deal that has been confirmed is a better deal for Southampton (who we are yoked with in this) than it is for Portsmouth.  Any money is welcome, but let’s not get carried away.  Up to this point, the reponse from central government has been unacceptably weak.

There were immediately calls from both Portsmouth MPs to transfer further repair work or ship-basing to Portsmouth to absorb some of the jobs, and these were curtly dismissed by Philip Hammond.  The leaders of the local political parties wrote an open letter to David Cameron, which went unanswered for weeks (even after he had popped up down the road in Southampton to promote the “Help to Buy” scheme). Portsmouth Shipbuilding and our local politicians have met BAe to discuss taking over the shipbuilding operation.

Throughout BAe’s wriggling over shipbuilding in Portsmouth, it should be borne in mind that they have never made any real effort to diversify into the civilian market, and their performance as exporters of warships is the worst of any “national champion” shipbuilder in the west.  They have been happy to take whatever the MoD has doled out to them, and now the budget is tighter they have no interest in trying anything different.  It’s quite possible that a healthily-diversified shipbuilding operation is perfectly viable.

The MoD has to take a lot of blame for BAe’s attitude too – we have nothing like a proper defence industrial policy, to ensure that all our strategically-important industries are in a healthy condition.  In the long term, this means we are in danger of having to procure warships overseas – we are already going to South Korea for auxiliaries for the Navy.  Our European competitors, the French, Spanish, and Italians, all have healthy warship-building industries, and are all competent exporters.  There is nothing in the argument you hear sometimes that “shipbuilding is a cost-driven industry and we should give it up to the Far East”.  But there is a lot in the argument that the decision to concentrate shipbuilding on the Clyde is a bribe to the Scots in the lead-up to the referendum, that to do this is strategically stupid, and that to shrink the Navy to the point where we can no longer support three BAe yards is the result of an incoherent policy.

And that brings us back to the appointment of Mr Fallon as “Minister for Portsmouth”.  His appointment is to help us deal with the “loss of shipbuilding”, and implies that the policy is settled. I applaud the work our local politicians are doing to safeguard jobs and create new ones, but the issue of our bonkers defence policy is one that is massively troubling for the Conservative Party because it is so un-Conservative.  Labour can complain all they like, but in fact this government is carrying on their careless attitude to defence.  Remember the cuts to the T45 programme, the procurement disasters, the delays to the aircraft carriers, the decision to buy the wrong plane for the carriers?  All the work of a succession of here-today-gone-tomorrow Labour Defence Secretaries.  Ed Miliband just demoted Jim Murphy, who was rather good as Shadow Defence Secretary, and replaced him with the ineffective Vernon Coaker; Labour’s attitude to defence is still going backwards.

With the coalition government, we still have the ring-fence on overseas aid spending, indeed we still have the DFID itself (both should be abolished, and the job divided between the Foreign Office and the MoD).  I’ve complained before about our support to the Indians and their space programme, but when you add in the muddle in our policy in Syria and the uncertainty of our response to a resurgent Russia, there is clearly a crisis in strategic policy-making at a high level in government.  Michael Fallon says his job is to “champion the interests of Portsmouth”.  Well, in this case they clearly coincide with the real interests of the country as a whole – Whitehall and Westminster have to take their heads out of the sand and address their spending and policy priorities.

“Tarzan” went to Liverpool and immediately started challenging some of the policy directions of the government.  He upset ministers in a number of departments, and drove change through force of personality.  In many ways the structures and bodies he helped set up in Liverpool were revolutionary. Mr Fallon needs to be prepared to upset others in government and be as radical as Heseltine once was.  He certainly arrives with an excellent record.

The decision to close shipbuilding came at a time when, despite the economic difficulties, Portsmouth has felt like it is regaining its old confidence.  Culturally and socially, it is thriving.  It often feels it is thriving in spite of the Lib Dem-run council, who are never more than a day or two away from some scandal or another.  If the other existing parties let us down, who knows what will happen in 2015?  The “Portsmouth First” idea hasn’t gone away.

What we don’t want in our Dockyard are posh flats ranged around the basins, a huge polluting biomass power station, or more shops to suck the life out of what’s left of the city centre.  An “Albert Dock” solution is no good.  We want to build ships, and if we are going to be safe as a country, the country needs us to be doing that.  Apart from that, welcome to Pompey, Mr Fallon, and “good luck”!  And, if you get the chance, renown awaits the first senior Conservative politician to start arguing against the sort of crazy thinking that got us into this mess in the first place.  We only need a Minister for Portsmouth because the Secretary of State for Defence has failed so badly.

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A Modest Proposal – Licensing MPs

Tristram Hunt, Labour’s slightly wacky and accident-prone Shadow Education Secretary, has revived Labour’s plans to license teachers.  This is something that Ed Balls wanted to do when Labour were last in power, and at the time it was a response to an avalanche of “bad news stories” concerning education and the (lack of) protection of the young by the authorities.  The reason for Hunt revisiting this thoroughly bureaucratic and ill-conceived idea now, though, has much more to do with the rightward-ratchet of the centre-ground in British politics.

I am not a supporter of everything Michael Gove comes up with as Education Secretary, but his brisk approach and demeanour in themselves have some value.  He has flown a number of “kites”, and the educational establishment has blown some of them away; but he has done more than most ministers to shake up notions of what the state can and should be doing in the provision of public services.

I am naturally opposed to the imposition of bureaucracy (one reason for being suspicious of the regime already imposed on teachers), and frankly the Hunt proposal is daft.  The language used to sell it  – “Classroom MOTs” – is insulting, and typical of the dumbed-down, oversimplified language politicians hide behind these days.  I have a much better idea for shaking up public service – let’s have a “Parliamentary MOT”.  Let’s license politicians.

The law already sets out various classes of people who may not be an MP; members of the police or armed forces, judges, civil servants, people subject to bankruptcy conditions.  Beyond that, if you are over 18, and have the right of abode in the UK, you can serve as an MP.  That clearly lets in any number of people, as the present composition of the House of Commons shows, who we would be better off banning.

We are constantly confronted by MPs commenting on legal issues who don’t understand the law (as the hysteria over the Mark Duggan inquest shows, with Diane Abbot in particular making a fool of herself), by MPs using statistical data incompetently, by MPs who don’t understand Parliamentary procedure or the constitution (and sometimes they get their way – the recent EU referendum bill, the abomination of fixed-term Parliaments), quite apart from the everyday realisation that the gang of ex-PR/MP’s interns/think tank/union clones who increasingly make up the Commons just have no real-life experience.

It is necessary that we start to remedy these defects.  What we need is OFPIS, the Office for Political and Intellectual Standards.  They should set tests for prospective Parliamentary candidates to ensure that they reach the minimum standards required of MPs.

There’s the obvious stuff, such as weeding out people who lie on their CV, call voters “trash”, amend their own Wikipedia pages, refuse to give up priority seats on crowded buses, or buy Twitter followers and Facebook likes.  This will get rid of a large number of the types who are likely to lie about their expenses, etc, but further safeguards will be necessary, no doubt.  Improvements to the scheme are welcome.

The curriculum should touch subjects such as constitutional and administrative law, Parliamentary procedure, political history, maths and statistics, English language skills, and the ability to ask a simple Parliamentary question without having to read the bloody thing off a sheet of paper.  It should be simple to put a test together and mandate a number of set texts, such as Erskine May, Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, Tom Bingham’s The Rule of Law,  JD Mackintosh’s The British Cabinet, Sir Gerald Kaufman’s How to be a Minister, and so on.

In that history is basically your predecessors making the same mistakes that you are in danger of repeating, a working knowledge of Crossman’s, Castle’s, Benn’s, Clark’s and Mullins’ diaries should be assumed.  This list is biased towards Labour, because unfortunately most Conservative politicians write exceptionally dull memoirs, and because Labour politicians make more mistakes anyway.  I expect once the Lib Dems start racing to get their books out in Opposition after 2015 they will prove to be especially divulgent and bitchy.  Vince Cable is probably going to etch his on sheets of metal using the acid dripping from his tongue.

Now there is a problem with this, which I acknowledge readily – it is the sort of learning one might already expect from university graduates in Politics, and God knows there are plenty of them around Westminster already messing things up.  If you think my generation – broadly the Cameron/Clegg/Miliband cohort – are making a mess of politics, you wait and see what those who are coming up afterwards will do if we’re not careful.  Owen Jones, the loons who have taken over the Bow Group, battalions of UKIPpers still chasing their first Westminster seat in 2020, and any remaining Young Liberals who have resisted the depredations of elderly perverts and stuck with the party after annihilation in 2015.  The upcoming generations pose a grave threat, and we should take precautions.

The problem is that many of them don’t seem to have actually absorbed much useful knowledge.  Modern youth politics, as anyone who follows the dismal proceedings of Conservative Future and its analogues in other parties will know, is mostly about getting drunk, sleeping with your fellow members, making politically-embarrassing Facebook status updates, and defecting to/from UKIP every few weeks.  In my day as a student we had neither Facebook nor UKIP, and life was much simpler.

We’re too late for 2015 I suspect, as a great many candidates are already in place.  Solid, decent Labour men like John Denham are being elbowed out by Westminster bubble journalists.  We probably won’t be in time to intercept Gerald Vernon-Jackson when he eventually knifes Mike Hancock.

But by 2020 we should have OFPIS up and running, and we can cascade the process down the political ladder until we have purged even local authorities.  People such as the Lib Dems currently wrecking Portsmouth are on borrowed time, even if the electorate don’t finish them off first.  This modest proposal will greatly improve the quality of political life in this country, and I hope it will meet with widespread support.

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South Parade Pier update – FoI response from Hampshire Fire & Rescue

The news about South Parade Pier has been getting a bit better lately.  It’s been confirmed that the South Parade Trust and the Pier’s owners are in discussion about a change of ownership.  Despite the battering waves and driving wind, it’s still there in its hundred-and-seventh year.

But until the sale is completed, there are bound to be nagging fears that something could go wrong, or some unforeseen snag arise; it’s many years since a proper structural survey of the Pier was carried out.  An enforcement notice is still in place in relation to the replacement of the deck-edging, which was removed without the proper listed building consent and must be replaced.  It’s no secret that there is a gap in the valuations of the Pier made by the owners and the would-be purchasers.  The electricity supply to the Pier was cut off in December because of unpaid bills.

It is known that there is a wide gap between the owners’ asking price and the valuation of the Pier made by the Trust.  No proper structural survey has been carried out on the Pier in several years, and until that’s done, who knows for sure exactly what state the structure is in?  Whoever buys the Pier, they are clearly taking on an awful lot of liability and not a lot of quick return on their investment.  It is likely to need at least £500k to restore the Pier to a point where all of it can safely be used.  If you click on the link to the SPT site above, you’ll see how you can help them raise funds by buying a calendar or a selection of prints, all of which are excellent.

I say “safely”, because that is one thing that has been in doubt for some time.  I’ve questioned in the past on this blog whether or not the City Council has properly discharged its duties overseeing the Pier (click the “South Parade Pier” category in the right-hand sidebar where other blogs on the subject are collated), and there is still an outstanding FoI request on the subject which I’m assured is in hand.  I’ve just sent the City Council an email now asking how they are getting along, as we are now well past the statutory 20 working day deadline.

I also approached Hampshire Fire & Rescue Service via the Freedom of Information site whatdotheyknow.com to see what part they’ve played in ensuring the Pier is operated safely.  They have forwarded me a scan containing various emails and records, a link to the full release is at the end of this piece.

One complaint HFRS responded to, in July 2012, drew a damning response:

It would appear that the management has little regard to fire safety as the promoter of the event (a rave) pointed out the fact that a fire door was chained in the closed position.  His [i.e. the manager] answer to the promoter was to ignore the concern stating that he was only using one room and that fire exit was not required”

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A further report makes clear that the exit that was chained was still signposted as a Fire Exit during the event.  HFRS met the Pier’s management a couple of days later and explained their obligations to them.

Another incident happened not long after that, this time a builder lighting a bonfire on the concrete decking of the Pier!

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I can’t really quite comprehend the stupidity of lighting a bonfire anywhere on a pier (one that’s burnt down twice before, as well), and I get the impression that the HFRS officers couldn’t quite believe it either!

A subsequent unannounced inspection of the Pier confirmed that a working fire alarm system is in operation, although it seems it is not remotely monitored when the Pier is empty.

I’ve picked out these items, there isn’t a lot else in the release beyond some understandable emails expressing concern about the state and management of the Pier.  I think anyone who reads the full release will feel happy that HFRS have certainly taken the issue seriously and done everything that could be expected of them.

The full release is available to download (26 pages) in PDF here, though I’d warn you that the chain of emails is a bit of a jumble.  As for my Portsmouth City Council FoI request, we’ll have to wait a little while longer to see what that uncovers.  But hopefully not too much longer.

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