Friday, July 04, 2008

Select Cuts

Highlights from Parliament’s select committees

I hadn’t expected to do another of these so soon after the first, but it’s been a good week.

The Lords Select Committee on Communications has looked at The ownership of the news. It warns: “Owners can and do influence the news… [having] significant political impact. The consolidation of media ownership adds to the risk of disproportionate influence.” There is a “lack of investment in news gathering and investigative and specialist journalism”; and the ‘public interest test’ applied to media mergers “does not include any requirement to establish whether a merger will impact adversely on news gathering”. The Committee is concerned that only ministers can issue public interest intervention notices, and recommends that Ofcom be able to as well.

The Commons Treasury Committee issued a report on the Budget Measures and Low-Income Households. Alistair Darling’s raising of personal allowances to offset losses from abolishing the 10p income tax band “was probably the least bad option, with the benefits of simplicity, transparency and greater incentives to work” – but more is needed in future years, it argues. It recommends that the Treasury should publish regular assessments of “the impact on individual, family and household finances of Budget measures and other changes to the welfare system”. The Committee also says: “The advances made in tackling poverty among those out of work in the last decade has not been matched by comparable progress in tackling poverty among those in work”, and calls for a ‘Poverty Commission’ to be established.

The Treasury Committee has also interviewed Mervyn King and other senior Bank of England figures on the economic outlook.

While the debate on 42-day detention has raged, it still remains the case that 28-day detention is subject to annual parliamentary renewal – which is coming up. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has examined the case for Annual Renewal of 28 Days. The Government is of course seeking renewal, although nobody had been held for longer than 14 days since the last renewal. The Committee is sceptical: “Once again the Government has failed to provide sufficient information to allow us to ascertain whether the power to detain people without charge for up to 28 days is necessary.” It says that “strengthened safeguards” are needed, or else there will be a risk of “breaches of both the European Convention on Human Rights, and the common law right to liberty.”

Finally, the Commons Liaison Committee has had its second six-monthly session with Gordon Brown as PM. Brown said that he had “the best job in the world”, but that he was “looking forward to a holiday”.

Subjects covered included constitutional reform, anti-terrorism laws (and any illicit offers that might have been made to win votes on 42-day detention), oil and food prices, global trade and the EU, transport and fuel duty, inflation and public-sector pay, poverty and welfare, climate change and green taxes, bank regulation, immigration, Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, Zimbabwe, and the ‘responsibility to protect’ and UN reform.

On that last issue, Brown – tellingly – said that while it was “far preferable” to work though the UN, “there will always be ad hoc alliances. Where you cannot reach agreement internationally in the United Nations you will work with those countries where you can do so”. I think that may be a very significant statement of foreign policy. He also gently dripped cold water on John McCain’s idea for a ‘League of Democracies’.

Lib Dem Malcolm Bruce asked whether there was “anything we should be doing to try and level off the world population” – a suggestion that, thankfully, Brown didn’t take up. And Labour’s John McFall accidentally addressed Brown as “Chancellor” several times, to the (eventual) amusement of both.

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