Sunday, 27 October 2013

Parliamentary scrutiny of our spooks‏

Over the past week the Guardian  has carried several news stories or comment articles , each of which criticizes Parliament as an institution, or MPs collectively, for failing to  keep the UK security services to account. The letter below, which was sent  several time sin different versions, was not chosen for publication, hence its posting here:

Simon Jenkins is the latest Guardian columnist to criticize MPs for their ineptitude over scrutinizing our intelligence services ("Guard Liberty? I don't trust MPs to buy a pizza," 25 October)
He follows former Cabinet minister Chris Huhne (“Parliament has forsaken our liberty,” 21 Oct), who himself  joined Jonathan Freedland's powerful comment article (19 Oct.) arguing Parliament has  been insufficiently curious ( along with the rest of the press) over the way the security services have spread their tentacles in monitoring the civilian population.
These articles themselves followed your news reportage (front page 15 & 16 Oct), by your home affairs editor (16 Oct) and first leader (“Politics and security: a pressing need for action,” 16 Oct),  all of which explored the clear failure in the Parliamentary oversight and scrutiny of our state security apparatus.
But Jonathan, Freedland as does Simon Jenkins, conflates Parliament as an institution with individual MPs, in asserting lack of attempts to hold the spooks to account. Indeed two left wing  Labour MPs, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, demonstrates this point perfectly in their letter (19 Oct) arguing for an independent review of the security services, as they judge in their new Early Day Motion (EDM 576) the so-called Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee is unfit for purpose.
When I did research for former Labour MP Llew Smith in the early 1990s, he was initially prevented from even submitting Parliamentary questions on what our intelligence services knew about UK companies breaching export embargoes on sensitive equipment sales to Iraq under the Tory government, because  the Arms-to-Iraq inquiry - which The Guardian reported in detail - was underway  chaired by Sir Richard (later Lord Justice) Scott until he appealed to Sir Peter, who said in response he had no objection to MPs asking such questions while his Inquiry  was in session.
Nearly 20 years on, there remains a significant democratic deficit in Parliament’s capability to scrutinize the nefarious actions of our intelligence and monitoring services, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ.
For example. when veteran Labour  back bench MP Paul Flynn in June asked the foreign secretary how many meetings he, other ministers in his department or departmental officials  have had with their US counterparts on the PRISM data gathering system since May 2010 and whether the Government has given the US government authority to allow the US National Security Agency (NSA) to process data acquired by the NSA on UK citizens at the NSA's new Utah Data Center the now sacked foreign office minister, Alistair Burt, replied unhelpfully:
“It is the long-standing policy of successive governments not to comment in detail on matters of intelligence. This includes discussions with allies and liaison agencies.” (Hansard, 18 June: Column 630W).
Mr Burt ‘s successor, Hugh Robertson, used exactly the same formulation to refuse  to answer his fellow Conservative MP, David Davis, who  had asked whether the Tempora and Prism programmes are " conducted under statutory authority"? (21 Oct: Column 13W)
That is simply not an acceptable reply. 
In the introduction to James Bamford’s  2002 study, Body of Secrets: how America’s NSA and Britain’s GCHQ eavesdrop on the world, he cites Lieutenant General Michael V. Hayden USA, the then director of the US NSA  as  asserting in a public address on 19 October 2000: "The American people have to trust us and in order to trust they have to know about us.”
Bamford also quotes the security service monitors’ motto: 'In God we trust; all others we monitor.'
It does Parliament no credit that the first debate it has held on the surveillance issue (on 22 October) was on  whether the Guardian has damaged national security through its revelations about UK and US surveillance, called by a Tory MP.
Parliament needs to be braver, and to re-assert its public scrutiny role, as your leader asserts -  as it did in the Syria vote in August -  and open up our security services to some critical oversight.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Arctic protection needs greater urgency

 I sent this  letter to The Sunday Times, but they declined to publish it.

I was pleased Camilla Cavendish shined an important light on the debate over fossil fuel extraction from the Arctic (“We merely stand and shrug while 30 protesters battle to save the Arctic,” last week, 6 October).
However, she needs to expand her evidence base in respect of whether anyone is concerned about this beyond her immediate family and friends (“Not a single colleague or relative has raised this issue with me except my nine year old son”).
But she is right to point out that Ministers have rejected calls by the all-party Environmental Audit Committee of MPs for a moratorium on drilling for oil in the Arctic.
The MPs said they were “disappointed  with the Government’s response failed to grasp the urgency of action needed, or set out an enhanced role for the UK in arctic matters.”
In oral evidence in January commenting on the Government response, Ruth Davis, chief policy advisor for Greenpeace emphasized “the areas that we particularly want to draw attention to are a concern that they specifically do not address the growing body of evidence that suggests it would not be possible to respond to an oil spill in lots of Arctic conditions.”
In July Green Party MP Dr Caroline Lucas, who has raised Arctic protection several times in Parliament over the past few years, asked the energy department if it would  make it their policy to support the creation of a global sanctuary in the Arctic off limits to new oil and gas exploitation?
She was told by energy minister Michael Fallon that the Government is “pressing for a new Implementing Agreement under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea for the regulation of the protection of marine biodiversity in areas beyond National Jurisdiction. In the event that this becomes a reality, the Government will work with the Arctic Council, Arctic states and the UN to establish whether there is a scientific basis for an internationally recognised marine protected area in the Arctic. (Hansard, 16 July 2013 : Column 580W)
Greenpeace’s brave direct action in the Arctic Ocean to highlight the potential catastrophe from  such oil exploration as is  being carried out by Russian energy  company Gazprom, shows a greater  sense of urgency than  our energy ministers.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Nuclear safety concerns with Chinese technology‏

The Times has reported (10 October)  that China General Nuclear Power Group (CGNPG) is prepared to co-finance the proposed first new nuclear power plant at Hinkley with Electricit√© de France (EDF), as long as it is able to build some of its own reactor designs at other UK sites (“China rescues Hinkley deal for a piece of nuclear action,”  10 Oct.).
In the South China Morning Post on  7 October, it was revealed that the world's first AP1000 third-generation nuclear power plant being built in Sanmen, Zhejiang province, the type CGNPG would wish to build  in Britain, has fallen behind schedule, and questions are now being raised over its safety standards.
"This is very advanced technology, but it has not been commercialised in a nuclear reactor anywhere, so it needs to be proven over time after the first AP1000 reactor is commissioned," Li Yulun,  a former vice-president China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC), critically observed to the paper.
The Chinese State Council decided in October last year to resume "normal" construction of nuclear power plants, bringing to a halt  a 19-month suspension of new project approvals following a detailed  safety review of all nuclear reactors planne dand under construction,  arising from   concerns raised  by the nuclear disaster at Fukushima  in Japan in March 2011.
Although the UK’s Office for Nuclear Regulation granted "interim" approvals to AP1000's design in late 2011, much safety work remains to be done to meet UK licensing requirements.
I wonder whether Energy Secretary Ed Davey was told of the new safety difficulties  during his recent visit to China to drum up commercial support for nuclear new  build in the UK; and whether Chancellor George Osborne will have it brought to his attention during his current  visit to China to drum up business.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Carbon budgets not working, MPs warn

[This article first appeared on the Sustainable Building web site at:]
The 2011 Carbon Plan is out of date and requires revision, MPs on the influential Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) have concluded in their new report into progress on carbon budget.
The 2011 Carbon Plan is out of date and requires revision, MPs on the influential Environmental Audit Committee (EAC have concluded in their new report into progress on carbon budgets, issued on 7 October. Arrangements for managing and reporting progress against the carbon budgets have not been working as intended and improvements are needed to enhance transparency, they say.
The report emphasises that in the Carbon Plan, the Government stated that "we need to complete the cost-effective 'easy wins' in the buildings sector," which "means maximising our energy efficiency efforts over the next decade". The Green Deal and Energy Company Obligation (ECO), at that time under development, were "likely to result in all practicable cavity walls and lofts having been insulated by 2020, together with up to 1.5m solid walls also being insulated".
The CCC noted in evidence in its most recent progress report that loft and cavity wall insulation rates increased in 2012 as "energy companies aimed to meet their targets in the final year of the supplier obligation schemes". However, CCC stressed there was a "significant risk around future delivery" of loft and cavity wall insulation rates given "weaker incentives" under the Green Deal and ECO. ECO has shifted the focus of energy company insulation targets on to more expensive solid wall insulation and hard-to-treat cavity walls, which could lead to large energy bill increases. The CCC was also concerned that the incentives for take-up of both schemes relied on a market-based approach to address essentially non-financial barriers.
Mark Bayley, the chief executive of the Green Deal Finance Company, confirmed this concern when revealed in an interview with the Independent on 10 October that he now only expects around 1,000 households to have energy saving measures installed under the plan in its first year.  He also conceded that so far his company - which has a start-up fund of £244m to loan to households - has processed applications worth just £1.9m and signed off on only 12.
CCC secretary David Kennedy told the EAC that the CCC believed that the Government should consider fiscal incentives to improve take-up, or link building regulations to the Green Deal. The EAC recommended that "The Government should urgently review the barriers holding back take-up of the Green Deal and ECO schemes, including a survey of potential clients, in time to bring forward fiscal incentives in the Autumn Statement 2013 to bolster them before low take-up rates produce a widespread lack of confidence among both clients and the industry."
The MPs also insist that while DECC has to find staffing reductions as a result of the recent Spending Review, "the resources needed for the Green Deal and ECO review should be given priority."
Local authority role
In an important conclusion, the EAC stresses "local authorities have an important role to play in driving down emissions, particularly those from buildings, transport and waste. However, there is a significant risk of inaction because of authorities' constrained fiscal position and the Government's decision not to implement the CCC's recommendation to place a statutory duty on local authorities to produce low-carbon plans. The Government should reconsider placing a statutory duty on local authorities to produce low-carbon plans for their area and work to ensure that all local authorities are measuring and reporting on their emissions."
David Kennedy told the EAC that, although the Government had put the "foundations" in place, there "is still a lot" to do to make sure that the UK is on track to meet the carbon budgets it "was necessary for the Government to develop and implement policy measures over the next two years". The CCC's latest progress report found there was "mixed" progress in 2012. "Good progress" had been made on the amount of new wind generation capacity added, insulation of lofts and cavity walls in residential buildings, the emissions of new cars and emissions from waste"...but added that "In the commercial and industrial sectors there was "no evidence" that a "big opportunity" to improve energy efficiency was being taken."
The default assumption, the MPs say, should be that the "carbon budgets represent the minimum level of emissions reduction required by the climate change science. Climate models are not yet able to include some potentially significant feedback effects, but continue to be developed, improving our understanding"... and "The CCC  should continue to keep the level of the carbon budgets under review to fully reflect the evolving climate change science, and the Government should be ready to tighten these budgets on advice from CCC."
Decarbonisation target threatened
The CCC believed that the UK was "not currently on track" to meet the third and fourth carbon budgets and "without a significant increase in the pace of emissions reduction, starting very soon, the costs and risks of moving to a low carbon economy in the 2020s and beyond will be increased". The CCC found that emissions rose by 3.5% in 2012.
The MPs say they are "dissatisfied" that the Government is not willing to set a decarbonisation target before 2016, and " in light of the evidence we have received in our inquiry, during the passage of the Energy Bill the Government should reconsider setting a decarbonisation target now for 2030, which would deliver the Committee on Climate Change's recommended limit of 50g CO2/kWh by 2050."
The EAC also recommends that the National Emissions Target Board, charged with coordinating action across government and ensuring departments are held to account for their share of emissions reductions, should convene regularly and take control of identifying the new policies and incentives needed in the next two years to get the UK on track to meet the third and fourth carbon budgets.
DECC / CCC disagreement over loft insulation
In a key passage the MPs report: "There are also differences between the CCC's indicators and the commitments made in the Carbon Plan, even when they cover similar initiatives. For example, the CCC's indicator of "insulation of all lofts and cavity walls by 2015" is more stringent than the commitment in the Carbon Plan to do this by 2020. More fundamentally, there was disagreement between the CCC and the Government's Plan on the number of lofts that require insulation-6 million and 200,000 respectively.
The CCC appeared to be counting lofts not yet insulated and those without inadequate insulation, whereas the Government was only counting the former. The Minister believed that the "challenge now is not to pretend that there are lots more easy-to-treat lofts out there ... we have done extremely well and are close to declaring victory". He saw "diminishing returns" after the "first six inches of loft insulation is installed. The CCC has commissioned work to resolve the difference in measurements and this would feed into a Cabinet Office-commissioned review of the Green Deal and ECO, due to report at the end of the year.
The Minister did not see "a huge problem" with the CCC and Government measuring progress using different indicators: it was "just a difference of emphasis". He saw the CCC's report as "guidance and a critique" and "not the only way to achieve these objectives". The Government would make its "full response" to the CCC's fifth progress report "after proper analysis" in October 2013."
The EAC inquiry explores the Government's response to its previous report and takes stock of progress against the carbon budgets, with the aim to consider how the Government should respond by 15 October - the date by which the Government must report each year - to the CCC's most recent (fifth) progress report. 

  • The European Commission - which adopted a Green Paper on a 2030 framework for climate and energy policies on 27 March 2013 - is consulting on the development of climate and energy targets, and intends to publish proposals at the end of 2013. In a hearing into the Green Paper in Parliament on 7 October, energy minister Michael Fallon said "While we remain committed to implementing the 2020 framework, we must take on board some important lessons from it. First, the greenhouse gas target of 20% by 2020, which was set way back in 2008, was not ambitious enough. Although the 2020 renewables target undoubtedly helped to develop new technologies and kick-start renewable development, the sector has moved on since then and member states need more flexibility to develop all low-carbon technologies. The challenges facing our economies necessitate a cost-effective approach, maintaining the competitiveness of our industries and ensuring affordable energy for our consumers."

    He added that "Our response to the green paper incorporated those lessons, and we have backed a 2030 deal that is ambitious, cost-effective and flexible. It is ambitious because we have asked for 40% emissions reductions by 2030, rising to 50% in the context of a global climate deal in 2015. It is cost-effective because the target would put us on the most economical pathway to our goal of 80% to 95% reductions by 2050. It is flexible because it will allow member states to decarbonise in a way that best fits their national circumstances. That means that although we are pro-renewables, we oppose a specific, restrictive 2030 renewable energy target at an EU level, because it would increase the costs of any transition and risk limiting investment in innovation to one low-carbon area at the expense of another.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Greenest Government ever fades as autumn draws in

[This article appears in the current weekly bulletin of Sustainable Building]

The 2013 Conservative Conference in Manchester was almost a green free zone. It is true, junior energy and climate minister, Greg Barker, did make a speech praising energy efficiency and renewable energy (but omitting mention of onshore wind), but the big beasts of Tory politics barely gave nodding acknowledgment of climate change or wider environmental issues, despite the conference coming barely days after the latest Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on in the coming impacts of climate change. And environment, food and rural affairs secretary Owen Patterson, even went as far in fringe meetings to question commonly accepted societal threats from climate change, seeing warmer future climates as beneficial to UK agriculture.
However, housing was given a lot of political attention in Manchester. Communities minister Eric Pickles even dismissively described eco-towns as "the zombie policy that will not die."
In vox pops live interviews immediately after on BBC‘s Daily Politics Party conference show, delegates said Cameron said everything he needed to say. But he did not mention the environment once, devoting one sentence to renewable energy! But like the Chancellor George Osborne and London Mayor Boris Johnson, he overtly and enthusiastically backed fracking for shale gas.
David Cameron opened his keynote speech with the words: "This week in Manchester we've shown this Party is on the side of hardworking people. Helping young people buy their own home."
While stressing that the Government still needs to spend less, he nevertheless insisted: "A land of opportunity starts in our economy... to start a business; to own a home."
Mr Cameron did slip in the assertion that the coalition government had developed a "new industrial policy that looks to the future - green jobs, aerospace jobs, life science jobs." But he also praised an anti-environmental measure in the coalition continuing to freeze fuel duty. Mr Osborne said the freeze would apply to the end of this Parliament (May 2015) - "provided we can find the savings to pay for it."
In his own address, George Osborne set out what he called the policy "fundamentals", insisting Government had to get them "right", adding "There's no short cut to any of these things:"
  • economic stability
  • sound public finances
  • safe banks
  • excellent schools & colleges
  • competitive taxes
  • amazing science
  • welfare that works
But he made no mention of the environment, of sustainability, of housing or energy in his fundamentals list.
He did also mention home ownership, commenting that the Conservatives are "the party of home ownership," while stressing he is "the first person to say we must be vigilant about avoiding the mistakes of the past. That's why I gave powers to the Bank of England to stop dangerous housing bubbles emerging. But too many people are still being denied the dream of owning their own home. So instead of starting the second phase of Help to Buy next year, we're starting it next week."
Boris Johnson pleaded with the chancellor to remove stamp duty. He told the Conference: "we have to recognise that the sheer global charisma of London is putting pressure on Londoners, with average house prices in our city now six times average earnings and for the bottom 25% of earners, the house prices in the bottom quarter are nine times their earnings."
He stressed the step number one in his 2020 Vision plan for London "is to build more homes." He stressed "we believe in the property owning democracy and all that kind of thing but we have to face the reality that for many, many millions of people, for young people in London, for many members of our families, it is now absolutely impossible to get anywhere near to affording a home and that's why it is absolutely vital that we get on with our programmes of accelerating house building. We have done about 55,000 so far, give or take it will be around 100,000 over two terms."
He added "We've put £3.6bn of public land to the use of so many of the good developers I see around here...but we need to do more and we need to accelerate our programme of house building dramatically and I think that it is time that we considered allowing companies to make tax-free loans to their employees to help them with the cost of their rent deposit - how about that."
He closed by emphasizing "In the next couple of years obviously we need to take all sorts of crucial decisions about how to ensure the harmonious development of that city [London]" and argued it is a national government "that is willing to take tough and sensible decisions, to cut unnecessary spending but to make the key investments in transport and infrastructure and housing and in our communities that will take this country forward."
In his own platform speech, Communities secretary Eric Pickles re-enforced the importance of house building. He also attacked shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, for what he predicted would be the extension of his so-called "mansion tax" to ordinary family homes which Mr Pickles said would end up "hitting your garden, your patio and your home improvements with soaring council tax."
He asserted that "Under Conservatives, house building and first time buyers are back at their highest rate since Labour's crash, thanks to schemes like Help to Buy," adding "The economy is turning the corner. We have built over one-hundred-and-fifty thousand new affordable homes since the election, with more to come. And we are supporting new family-friendly tenancies in the private rented sector." By contrast he quipped "Labour build nothing but resentment."
He attacked Ed Miliband's plan to confiscate private land if builders held on to it withjout construction, to force up land values, and asserted Labour would "build over the Green Belt.
Greener energy promised
In a more upbeat speech, Greg Barker, the junior DECC energy and climate minister responsible for renewables and energy efficiency, began by attacking Labour proposed freeze of power and gas prices should they  form the next government, describing it  as a "reckless pledge'".
He insisted that "Delivering a better deal for energy consumers is our highest priority."

Claiming the Conservatives have "a very different vision " for energy from Labour, Mr Barker said "An explosion of choice, fierce competition, relentless innovation and a market framed to put the consumer at its very heart. That's how you keep prices down."
Insisting that "already, under the Coalition the UK has witnessed a surge of newly built clean secure generating capacity," he added "in addition, the number of exciting local energy systems installed in homes and businesses has leapt from a few thousand to over half a million and is continuing to grow."

Turing to future power supplies, he said: "I want to encourage a vast new army of disruptive new energy players to challenge the Big 6. From individual consumers to community groups entrepreneurs, SMEs and FTSE giants. I want them all to consider generating their own energy at real scale as well as starting to sell their excess energy on a commercial basis. A decentralised power to the people energy revolution. Not just a few exemplars but tens of thousands of them. The Big 6 need to become the Big 60,000."
On renewables, he said "Already, solar technologies alone now account for over 2.5GW of installed capacity and continue to grow at a terrific rate... we put the pressure on the renewables sector to cut costs, scale up faster, commercialise sooner, and emerge as a genuine commercial challenger to the traditional fossil fuel economy. And now with falling costs there are a whole range of locally deployable renewable technologies that can be exploited economically."

From Combined Heat and Power systems solar PV, geothermal, locally coppiced biomass and a range of energy from waste technologies, right through to hydro and micro hydro schemes, the UK is bursting with green innovation and energy potential, he added.

Green Deal

He insisted that "We will also look to do far more to integrate our new policies that help families produce their own renewable electricity. Our new incentives to help families generate renewable heat, and make sure they work hand in glove with the range of new Green Deal energy efficiency measures which help hardworking families keep their homes warmer for less."

Describing it as "early days for the Green Deal market but don't under estimate the ambition or determination to drive it forward," he made no mention that to date just 12 households nationally had taken it up,  despite it being launched at the end of January this year.

Instead, he insisted "Many more players are set to join the Green Deal in coming months and already thousands of people have taken the first steps in a 20 year energy efficiency transformation. Next year will see the Green Deal go up a gear as we begin local, community led street by street roll out in earnest."
Coalition energy fallout
Following the Conference, the Financial Times ran a story revealing that chancellor Osborne and energy secretary Davey were poised to clash over green energy targets, suggesting that a simmering row between the energy secretary and chancellor over green targets erupted on 3 October as the government's climate advisers warned against watering down efforts to tackle climate change.
Meanwhile, The Guardian's head of environment, Damian Carrington, said in his Conference Blog: " I am not suggesting that we don't need a diversity of energy sources: what I mean is that the Conservatives have now been speaking simultaneously with two voices - green and anti-green - for several years now. This matters."

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Israel's forgetful Prime Minister

While Israel’s current Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has a lot to say about what Israel considers is a militarization of Iran’s nuclear programme,  he has nothing to say about Israel’s own nuclear arsenal (“Don’t trust Iran’s smiles, Netanyahu warns Obama,” Sept 30)

In its edition of 5 October 1986, your sister Sunday  paper The Sunday Times ran a world exclusive story on its front page under the headline "Revealed: the secrets of Israel's nuclear arsenal." One outcome of that sensational diplomatic revelation was the source, Israeli nuclear technician, Mordechai  Vanunu, was kidnapped by the Israeli secret service in Rome, tried, and sentenced to 18 years in prison for treason and espionage, mostly spent in solitary confinement.
As such a charge could not be substantiated unless the revelations were true, this effectively confirmed the existence of Israel as the only national nuclear power in the middle east.
Addressing the UN General Assembly last Saturday (Sept 28), Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Nabil Fahmy, called on the five permanent members of the Security Council to support the idea of a Middle East free of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
It turns out, the Israeli Government has actually already agreed to such talks.
 At the completely overlooked Paris Summit of Mediterranean countries, held on 13 July 2008, under the co-presidency of the French Republic and the Arab Republic of Egypt and in the presence of Israel, which was represented by its then Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, the issue of peace within the region were explored in depth, and the final declaration stated the participants were  in favour of:

"regional security by acting in favor of nuclear, chemical and biological non-proliferation through adherence to and compliance with a combination of international and regional nonproliferation regimes and arms control and disarmament agreements.."

The final document goes on to say: "The parties shall pursue a mutually and effectively verifiable Middle East Zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, and their delivery systems. Furthermore the parties will consider practical steps to prevent the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as well as excessive accumulation of conventional arms "

Surely Mr Netanyahu would do better for the nation he leads if he would see  the positive benefits of such a strategy, which his predecessor  prime minister perceived, than always looking for reasons to keep regional tensions and insecurities high.