The damning Commons justice committee report on the criminal courts charge

20th November 2015

One of the most illiberal and misconceived measures adopted by the Ministry of Justice – perhaps by any government department in recent years – was the criminal courts charge.

Today the Commons justice committee has published a short but critical report. You should read it – the web version is here and a PDF is here.

The MoJ cannot easily ignore this; and it may be that is the point.  It is very helpful for a Tory-majority select committee to give “cover” to the MoJ in reversing this measure.  Indeed, you can easily imagine the polite conversation:

“Hello Bob”

– “Hello Michael.”

“Thank you for taking my call, Bob. Very kind. How are you?”

– “In good form Michael, mustn’t grumble. How are you?”

“I am well, thank you ever so much for asking. So thoughtful of you.  But I do need a little help. Dreadful policy inherited from Chris. We need to shift it, but we do need some cover.”


– “I know, perhaps a damning report?”

“What a great idea, Bob, oh yes please. I knew you would think of something.”


I am certain no such conversation actually took place (and I am only being satirical).  The charge is so awful that being critical of it needs no external influence.

And if the MoJ does now proceed with the charge’s abolition (or fundamental change) then – following the MoJ’s delay last week of the botched criminal legal aid procurement – it would seem that almost every distinctive policy of Grayling at MoJ has now been reversed or improved.



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Whatever happened to the Leveson Inquiry website?

19th November 2015

I looked today for the Leveson Inquiry website, which contains all the evidence and the full report (2012).

And it was not there.

I was sure that there was one, wasn’t there?

Ho ho.

Anyway, someone established the site was indeed blank.

It had been blank since 2 November 2015.

What seems to have happened was that the redirect had disappeared to the National Archive copy.

So it is still there, somewhere, if you care to look for it.

And the Leveson Report is now – officially – a matter for an archive, just three years after it dominated UK media debate.




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George Osborne’s National Spider Plan

17th November 2015

And so inspired by Jennie Rigg’s brilliant tweet, here are extracts from George Osborne’s speech today, with “cyber” replaced with “spider”.  

And it makes just as much sense.


…And that’s what I want to talk to you about this morning. For government has a duty to protect the country from spider attack, and to ensure that the UK can defend itself in spiderspace.

Today I want to set out how we are fulfilling that duty. I will explain how we have invested in Britain’s spider security in the past five years, and to set out our plan for the next five.

The national spider plan I am announcing means investing in defending Britain in a spider-age. It is a key part the Spending Review I will deliver next week.


It is one of the many spider threats we are working to defeat.

Getting spider security right requires new thinking. But certain principles remain true in spiderspace as they are true about security in the physical world.


But GCHQ has a unique role. It is the point of deep expertise for the UK government. It has an unmatched understanding of the internet and of how to keep information safe.

It is a centre of capability that we cannot duplicate, which must sit at the heart of our spider security.


I can tell you today that right now GCHQ is monitoring spider threats from high end adversaries against 450 companies across the aerospace, defence, energy, water, finance, transport and telecoms sectors.

In protecting the UK from spider attack, we are not starting from zero.

In 2010, at a time when we as a new government were taking the most difficult decisions on spending in other areas, we took a deliberate decision to increase spending on spider.

We set up the National Spider Security Programme and funded it with £860 million.

And for the past five years we have been creating and enhancing the structures and capabilities that Britain needs to defend itself in spiderspace.


We have ensured that our military systems are properly secured from spider attack.

We have built the National Spider Crime Unit so spider criminals are brought to justice.

We established the Computer Emergency Response Team for the UK, and the Spider Information Sharing Partnership so companies could share what they knew.

We developed clear guidance for businesses, including the Spider Essentials scheme, which already has over a thousand companies accredited.


We built spider security into every stage of the education process. We established Spider First and spider apprentices to make sure that we got the talent we needed coming into the field.

And we undertake exercises so we know what to do when there is a serious spider incident.


We have built a world-class range of tools and capabilities that Britain needs to stay safe from spider attack.

We are widely regarded as top or near top in the world.

But nice though it would be to sit on our laurels, the truth is that we are not where we need to be. We are not winning as often as we need to against those who would hurt us in spiderspace.

The truth is that we have to run simply to stand still.

The pace of innovation of spider attack is breathtakingly fast, and defending Britain means that we have to keep up.

At the heart of spider security is a painful asymmetry between attack and defence.


A few years ago mounting a sophisticated spider attack meant having all the skills that each stage of the attack required, from gaining access to the network to designing the payload that was to go into it.


Last summer GCHQ dealt with 100 spider national security incidents per month. This summer, the figure was 200 a month. Each of these attacks damages companies, their customers, and the public’s trust in our collective ability to keep their data and privacy safe.


We will be boosting the capabilities of the National Spider Crime Unit, so that – in partnership with their counterparts around the world – they attack the assumption among too many that spider crime is risk free, and comes with little risk of consequences.


And we will build in the National Spider Centre a series of teams, expert in the spider security of their own sectors, from banking to aviation, but able to draw on the deep expertise here, and advise companies, regulators, and government departments.

Building the National Spider Centre will be a hugely ambitious and important undertaking that reflects this government’s commitment to making the UK secure in spiderspace.


If we do not act decisively, the skills gap will grow, and limit everything we want to achieve in spiderspace. 

So we will launch an ambitious programme to build the spider skills our country needs, identifying young people with spider talent, training them, and giving them a diversity of routes into spider careers.


As all of you who work in the sector know, what is needed are specific spider security skills, building on particular talents.

And we need to tackle this problem on a number of fronts including in our universities. But we need to make sure there are other routes into the spider workforce.


Of course, we need not just great skills but great British companies as well.

If Britain is to be a world leader in spider, and stay at the cutting edge of spider technology, we need the innovation and vigour that only these companies can offer.

We need to create a commercial ecosystem in which spider start-ups proliferate, get the investment and support they need, and are helped to win business around the world.


I am glad that there is already so much happening in this space; I am happy we have the founders of Spider London with us today.

And I am delighted that Paladin Capital has just announced it is establishing a dedicated spider fund in the UK; we can be proud that they have chosen London as its base.

We will build on this energy. We will help commercialise the extraordinary innovation in our universities. We will provide training and mentoring for our spider entrepreneurs.

We will be establishing two spider innovation centres – places where spider start-ups can base themselves in their crucial early months, and which can become platforms for giving those start-ups the best possible support.

I have talked before about an arc of spider excellence – stretching from this building, through Bristol and Bath to Exeter – to make the South West a world leader in Spider Security.

Today I can announce that one of the two innovation centres will be here in the South West of England, in Cheltenham, reflecting the extraordinary talent in this place, and our aspiration that this talent should help drive our spider sector.

Government can itself provide a huge boost for British spider start-ups, if it can be smart enough to marshal its procurement in a coherent way.

This should be a win-win – our spider start-ups need endorsement, investment and first customers.

And government, from our military and GCHQ to the Government Digital Service and the NHS, need to be able to procure excellent spider security hardware and services.

So I can announce today that we will create a £165 million Defence and Spider Innovation Fund, to support innovative procurement across both defence and spider security.

It will mean that we support our spider sector at the same time as investing in solutions to the hardest spider problems that government faces.

Of course, our involvement with industry on spider goes well beyond the spider sector. We need to make sure that Britain has the regulatory framework it needs, particularly in the sectors we define as the Critical National Infrastructure.


Our vulnerability as a nation in spiderspace goes well beyond the critical national infrastructure.


We have a collective interest in the spider defences of individual companies across the British economy.


If we are to tackle the asymmetry between attack and defence, then we need to establish deterrence in spiderspace.


Part of establishing deterrence will be making ourselves a difficult target, so that doing us damage in spiderspace is neither cheap nor easy.


We need to destroy the idea that there is impunity in spiderspace.


We reserve the right to respond to a spider attack in any way that we choose.

And we are ensuring that we have at our disposal the tools and capabilities we need to respond as we need to protect this nation, in spiderspace just as in the physical realm.

We are building our own offensive spider capability – a dedicated ability to counter-attack in spiderspace.

We have built this capability through investing in a National Offensive Spider Programme.


The threats to our country in spider space come from a range of places – from individual hackers, criminal gangs, terrorist groups and hostile powers.


To those who believe that spider attack can be done with impunity I say this: that impunity no longer exists.


That means they need to be prepared for hybrid conflicts, played out in spiderspace as well as on the battlefield. A 21st Century military has to operate as effectively in spiderspace as it does on land and sea, in the air and space.

Our commitment to spending 2% GDP on defence means we can invest in a military that is spider trained, spider secure, and spider enabled, with the ability to fight in every domain of future conflicts.


We need to keep fighting to preserve a free, open, peaceful and secure spiderspace.

Agreement that international law applies in spiderspace has been an essential first step.

And we need international norms of behaviour in spiderspace, so that freedom is matched by responsibility.


We need our police forces to work together to ensure that less and less of the world is a hiding place for spider criminals.

And we need to help our partners develop their own spider-security – as we share a single spiderspace, we collectively become stronger when each country improves its own defences.

For the past five years we have been investing in the spider security of our partners as well as our own.

We have helped establish the outstanding Global Spider Security Capacity Centre in Oxford. In the coming years we will step up these efforts, mindful that we are bound together in spiderspace.

The national spider plan that I have announced today is bold, far-reaching and transformative in numerous ways.


But it will make Britain one of the best protected countries in the world; it will give our companies and citizens the tools they need to stay safe from spider attack; and it will create jobs and prosperity.

With the ability and dedication of GCHQ’s staff, our new National Spider Centre, and the ideas and skills across our country, our plan will make sure that Britain remains a world leader in spider, and give Britain an important edge in the global race.


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Two questions about “something must be done” following the Paris attacks

17th November 2015

In the aftermath of the Paris atrocities there are demands for action: dropping bombs and air-strikes, shoot-to-kill policies, more use of special interrogation techniques (ie, torture), less freedom of movement, more intrusion and less privacy, more powers for the security services, and so on.

What seems to be a feature of many of these demands is that there is no attempt to explain the supposed cause-and-effect. It is almost as if the merit of the proposals is self-evident, a sign of virility: something bad has happened, and so something must be done in return.

But each such demand raises two issues: one of practicality, and one of principle. That is: would the proposal actually help, and does the proposal conflict with the supposed principles, and way of life, we are presumably seeking to defend.

In terms of practice: just doing “something” does not mean you are doing the right thing.  It may make no difference, or it may make things worse.  In terms of dealing with terrorism, one false move can cause problems for a generation.  The history of dealing with the terrorist problems in Northern Ireland is packed with examples of things being “done” which just caused greater difficulties later on.

This is not to suggest doing nothing; just that what needs to be done needs to be thought-through.

So: will what is being called for actually work and, if so, how?

In terms of principle: there appears to be a genuine risk that we could end up undermining – even subverting – the very principles of personal autonomy, the rule of law and freedom of expression which the West can and should be defending and asserting.

These liberal principles are not absolute, and they can be interfered with for reasons of the greater good; but they should not be discarded casually either. The point is whether any serious thought is being put into the required balancing exercise.

So: how will what is being called for interfere with the fundamental values of civilization we are seeking to protect and, if so, has the right balance really been struck?

It sometimes seems that some of those wanting to drop bombs and order air-strikes, to deploy shoot-to-kill policies and to use more torture, to limit freedom of movement, and to intrude more and to give more powers for the security services, do not need a reason for their demands, and still less do they require any evidence as to the efficacy of what they propose; they just want a pretext.

Asking about whether a proposed action is really practical, and about whether a proposed action needlessly interferes with civilized values, is not a check to things being “done”.  It is not an excuse for doing nothing.

Answering such questions instead will tend to mean that the right things are done:  things that work, and things which mean liberal values are being taken seriously.

In essence: “something can be done” is always better than “something must be done”.


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The “Carlile Doctrine”

15th November 2015

Lord Carlile has used the atrocities two days ago in Paris as the basis for calling for proposed new UK surveillance laws to be “expedited”.

It is, of course, far too early to say whether anything about the French attacks warrants any legal change in UK.

For example, France already has more extensive surveillance laws than UK, and the atrocities still happened.

This does not matter to Lord Carlile and the rest of the security lobby. They have a pretext for demanding more legal powers for the security services, and so they do.

We should now have a name for this opportunistic approach, and perhaps a good name for it would be the Carlile Doctrine:

Any act of terrorism will justify more legal powers for security forces, regardless of what it is.



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Look, a Blue Sky: On crossovers and team-ups in fairy tales.

8th November 2015

I have started a new blog, for when I want to write about things which interest me but about which I cannot pretend to have any expertise. The blog is called “Look, a Blue Sky”.  My interests are mainly to do with art, comics, history, and so on.

My first substantive post at Look, a Blue Sky is now up – on crossovers and team-ups in fairy tales.  Please read it and let me know what you think; I am conscious I am writing about something I am not used to writing about, so also be kind…

Farewell to BorisWatch

3rd November 2015

There is dreadful news today that Tom Barry – BorisWatch – has died.

“BorisWatch” – I never really knew him as Tom and only met him once in person though I knew him online – was one of a number of bloggers and tweeters who emerged a few years ago to make political points on social media that seemed not to be being made elsewhere.  This was at a time when few mainstream journalists had twitter accounts or even blogged.

At the time social media offered a way for new political voices to be heard, and BorisWatch was one of those new voices: informed, focused, critical, often witty, and always happy to engage.

He wasn’t always right – of course, nobody is – but he was always worth reading, and he was the first tweeter to ask about any new development in London politics.

BorisWatch will be missed.



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The new Investigatory Powers Bill and the politics of ‘nodding along’

2nd November 2015

Today I have done a quick post at the FT on the Home Office’s PR exercise this week on the new Investigatory Powers Bill.


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What is a “turnip-ghost”? A post for Hallowe’en

31st October 2015

There is a great phrase, used by the historian A.J.P. Taylor in 1946:

“Probably Bismarck genuinely believed in the turnip-ghost which he conjured up”.

Here Taylor is describing Bismarck’s response to the small social democratic movement of the 1880s in Germany.

But what hits the spot is that the description conveys both Bismarck’s exaggerated reaction and the sincerity of his fear.

Bismarck was not being (consciously) dishonest: he believed there was something of which to be scared.

A turnip-ghost.

So what was a turnip-ghost, and why was it scary?


The term “turnip-ghost” is not much used nowadays.

But the thing to know about a turnip-ghost is that (some) people believed it was real.

Just as Dickens says of Marley being dead, to begin with:

This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.  If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot — say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance — literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.


A turnip-ghost is (or was) an English form of the “Jack-o-Lantern”.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines turnip-ghost as:

“a simulated ghost or apparition of which the head is formed by a turnip-lantern”

which in turn is defined as:

the hollowed rind of a turnip employed as a lantern; also as a term of abuse”.

And it certainly was a term of abuse.


Back in the days when all popular authors seemed to use initials, the turnip-ghost was a frequently used image.

In addition to A.J.P. Taylor, there were –

C.S. Lewis in 1942, on whether devils are engaged in the disinter­ested pursuit of something called Evil:

“Mine have no use for any such turnip ghost. Bad angels, like bad men, are entirely practical. They have two motives. The first is fear of punishment…Their second motive is a kind of hunger.”

G.B. Shaw in 1887, of Tosca:

“an old-fashioned, shiftless, clumsily constructed, empty-headed turnip ghost of a cheap shocker”

And, more sensibly, G.K. Chesterton in 1905, of the (then) modern age:

“If we have no more turnip ghosts it is chiefly from the lack of turnips.”

It is a pity that such a fine phrase is no longer a commonplace.


So what does a turnip-ghost look like?

From the web we can see the following fine example:



That picture is from the Melbourne Review of Books, who also helpfully provide a recipe for creating such a thing, assuring us:

“The white colour gives it a nice skull-like look.”

See: far more scary – and more skull-like – than any pumpkin.


In Scotland, they have an equivalent “tumshie lantern”.

A quick Google image search show these to be far more frightening than their pumpkin cousins:



Hallowe’en has long ceased to be genuinely about anything which unsettles anyone, that is if it ever did.

So just be happy you will see loads of smiling friendly pumpkins today, and be very glad you do not encounter a turnip-ghost.


Adapted from my June post.  Thanks to Helen Ross and others on Twitter for information on tunip-ghosts and tumshie-lanterns.

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The thinly veiled threats of the Saudi Ambassador

27th October 2015

When a genuinely extraordinary political decision is taken the consequences can often be telling.

Such decisions are not those usual ones that are predetermined or stage-managed, as are the stuff of any political system under the public gaze.  They are instead the decisions that suddenly disturb and disrupt the settled practices of those with power; they are decisions the effects of which are often worth watching carefully.

Earlier this month, the UK prime minister David Cameron ordered that the Ministry of Justice should pull out of a bid to provide training services to the prisons of Saudi Arabia.

The exact basis of that decision is not yet clear.

But it was not one which the Saudis and their allies in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) were expecting the UK government to make; indeed, the FCO had until then managed to oblige the MoJ to continue with the bid even though the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, was against it.

The Saudis are not happy with this decision, or about its significance.

The contract proposal itself was not big in the global scheme of things — just under £6m; it was more that the usual tactic of Saudis threatening to not “co-operate” unless they got their way did not work for once. It seemed as if a bluff was being called. The FCO had not wanted to upset the Saudis, but this supposed “wider” interest of the government was trumped by the prime minister effecting a quick fix to a cabinet split that was about to be exploited by the media and the opposition.


The Saudis have now reacted publicly.

In Monday’s Daily Telegraph is a remarkable article from the Saudi ambassador in London, Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz. The ambassador’s piece is worrying — and revealing.

The article warns of the adverse consequences of the UK treating the Saudis with disrespect.

But it does so in a clumsy and discreditably strident manner.

The ambassador’s overall tone is evocative of some international protection racketeer telling the UK what a nice little country we have here, and wouldn’t it be a shame if “co-operation” ended.

One wonders if anyone at the Saudi embassy in London had the wit or sense to tell the ambassador to desist from publishing such a blatant exercise in implicit intimidation. Perhaps somebody did, and the first draft was even worse. Who knows. What is clear, however, is that Saudis do not react well to being told that they are not going to get their way.


The ambassador’s article bears close attention, both for what it says and what it does not say.

For example, there are general threats with only the thinnest of veils:

“…an alarming change…potentially serious repercussions that could damage the mutually beneficial strategic partnership…a strong alliance [which up] until a few weeks ago, I would have said it had never been stronger”.

Then the threats become more specific. First, in respect of commercial matters:

“The Kingdom’s contribution to Britain’s security and economy provides the foundations on which the bilateral relations between our two countries are built, allowing trade, cultural exchanges and military cooperation to flourish. Saudi Arabia ultimately provides over 50,000 British families in the UK and the Kingdom with livelihoods, thanks to commercial contracts worth tens of billions of pounds. Saudis also have an estimated £90 billion in private business investments in the UK.

If the extensive trade links between the two countries are going to be subordinate to certain political ideologies, then this vital commercial exchange is going to be at risk.”

(On this point, also see the FT’s news report yesterday of the threat to the Typhoon contract.)

And then in terms of British lives and limbs:

“…the Kingdom remains an invaluable source of intelligence on the activities of terrorist groups. Information from Saudi intelligence in 2010 resulted in a major counter-terrorism success by scuttling an al-Qaeda attempt to blow up a cargo airliner over Britain. In a recent interview, David Cameron confirmed the importance of our contribution when he declared: “Since I have been Prime Minister a piece of information that we have been given by (Saudi Arabia) has saved potentially hundreds of lives here in Britain.” Given information to which I am privy, that number is, in fact, in the thousands.”

The message is plain: the UK had better be careful.


Here it is important to remember what the prime minister’s decision was about.

It was a decision that a relatively small UK government department should not bid for overseas work but should instead concentrate on domestic matters.

It is the sort of issue that any sovereign government should be able to make in respect of its own public services.

But the ambassador has such a distorted a view of national sovereignty that he misses the irony of him complaining that the UK does not respect Saudi Arabia as a sovereign state while saying that it was not open to the MoJ to drop a bid so that it concentrate on domestic activities in England and Wales.

The ambassador’s express criticism of the political approach of the UK’s new leader of the opposition also looks at odds with the insistence that the UK should not interfere with the internal affairs of another country.


The ambassador’s article is telling in other ways.

The propensity of the Saudis to use barbaric physical punishments is blithely passed off as a local tradition and custom, as if tying someone to a pole and flogging them nearly to death is somehow comparable to having a pole on a village green for dancing around on May mornings.

The ambassador also appears not even to be properly informed as to the matter in hand. He states that the UK prison cancelled a consultancy contract with Saudi Arabia worth £5.9m. In fact, the contract was not yet in place. It had not been signed because the Saudis had not yet awarded the contract to the UK – even though the final bid had been in April and the Saudis had still not made their decision by October (the intention was that the contract was to have been awarded by July).

What was cancelled was not a contract, but a contract bid. But such details do not matter to the ambassador, even though he is mounting threats on the back of what he says has happened.


Ever since the Saudis pressed the UK in 2006 to drop the fraud investigation of BAe (read the first 22 paragraphs of the House of Lords’ 2008 Corner House decision for a chilling account of this dreadful incident) it has been obvious to anyone who wants to see what the influence of the Saudis is over the UK state by holding the twin swords of commerce and intelligence close to our necks.

So used are the Saudis in routinely threatening that “co-operation” will be at risk that various UK bodies not directly connected with foreign affairs – the Home Office, the MoJ, the College of Policing, and even the Information Commissioner (as I set out in a post earlier this month) – are all too scared even to reveal minor details of the relationships, lest the Saudis retaliate.

Against this backdrop, the decision of the Prime Minister earlier this month has caused a jolt in UK-Saudi relations. It may well be that something substantial has changed; or it may be that the old practices will resume.

But what is new is that Saudi diplomats have now taken to the pages of the British press to display their displeasure, and to make explicit in the media what they want the UK to believe is at stake. To do this, however, does not indicate Saudi strength but insecurity; it means what was said behind closed doors is no longer sufficient.

The blustering and bullying is now in the public square, and this cannot be undone; everyone can see the Saudis for what they are.


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