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21 June 2007

If only they told the truth

When the NS revealed how the government would seek to bury bad news during the Blair-Brown transitio

By Martin Bright

On 30 April this magazine predicted that ministers would use the interregnum between the Blair and Brown premierships to bury three pieces of bad news concerning the criminal justice system. The Home Office would slip out the spiralling costs of the ID card scheme. A highly critical report would find Megan’s Law (the US scheme for identifying paedophiles to the public, so popular with the News of the World) unworkable in Britain. Finally, sources at the Home Office and Downing Street whispered that ministers planned an early release scheme for prisoners to alleviate the prisons crisis. Yet when other journalists rang the Home Office for confirmation they were told that all of the above suggestions were “rubbish”. Each turned out to be correct.

The same Lord Falconer who went on national television to deny he was planning an early release scheme has now made a statement to parliament outlining how the releases will be effected. Prisoners within 18 days of finishing their sentence will be able to apply to be let out as long as their sentences are four years long or less, and not for sexual or violent crimes.

It is to the credit of the media that it has been impossible to bury these stories entirely, although the latest estimate of ID card costs – a staggering £5.75bn – did not get the publicity it deserved. A pitiful attempt was made to assuage tabloid anger at the failure to bring in a British version of Megan’s Law by suggesting that the government would introduce chemical castration for paedophiles instead. But no one was fooled.

Just as the NS foretold, the Home Secretary avoided criticism for the early releases by shuffling off responsibility to the new Ministry of Justice. Falconer had agreed to take the flak.

It is not Tony Blair’s feral beasts of the media which have caused this particular firestorm, but the failure of successive ministers to wake up to an overcrowding problem that penal reformers and their own chief inspector of prisons have been warning them about for years.

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Now for an experiment. I spent Tuesday, the day of Falconer’s statement, testing claims in the Prime Minister’s 12 June media lecture that political journalists had given up reporting the nuts and bolts of parliamentary business. I decided not to dig for gratuitous knocking stories, but simply to report what I saw in the two chambers of parliament and the committees that surround them. The problem was that, during the day, the government insisted on making its own bad news. Falconer’s statement was followed by one from Des Browne. The Defence Secretary reported the findings of two inquiries into the MoD’s woeful handling of the seizure of 15 navy personnel by Iran this year. The day was capped with a government retreat on the Mental Health Bill. Ministers were forced to admit flaws in their plans to allow the incarceration of offenders with serious personality disorders before they had committed a crime, agreeing to new safeguards.

I had intended to report on the more mundane aspects of parliament. I began by attending the grilling of the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, Ed Balls, by members of the Treasury select committee. I then walked down the corridor to watch MPs on the defence select committee taking evidence on Nato and European defence from witnesses who work in academia, think tanks and the media. I took in some of the joint Commons/Lords committee on the draft Human Tissue and Embryo Bill to regulate the use of stem cells and embryos in research and fertility treatment. Before transport and justice questions in the Commons, I squeezed in an adjournment debate on “village hall licensing” secured by the Surrey MP Sir Paul Beresford. After the two ministerial statements there was still time to watch the Leader of the House of Commons, Jack Straw, appear before the constitutional affairs select committee to talk about Lords reform and the shake-up of party funding.

Courteous scrutiny

By following the PM’s advice, I did find a “good news” story. This unlikely occurrence happened during a Treasury select committee hearing on the esoteric subject of “unclaimed assets in the financial system” – the millions of pounds that lie dormant in bank accounts people have abandoned over the years. The Treasury believes it could raise roughly £400m in this way to fund youth and community projects. Following a question from Colin Breed, the Liberal Democrat MP for South-East Cornwall, Ed Balls agreed in principle that banks and building societies should publish the total amount contained in these dormant accounts. “Full disclosure of banks’ missing millions”: not a bad headline. However, by late afternoon, the Daily Mail had seized on comments at the same session by the Tory MP Michael Fallon that the funds would be used to help bail out the 2012 Olympics. This promptly appeared on the Mail‘s website. As Blair said: “Scandal or controversy beats ordinary reporting hands down.” But sometimes this is right and proper: I had been scooped.

All political reporters (and certainly this one) would do well to spend more time witnessing the everyday business of parliament. The message is largely a positive one. Ministers hold themselves up to scrutiny each day, and are generally well briefed and courteous when they do so. At the same time, most MPs do their best to hold ministers to account by way of parliamentary debates and committees. Despite fears that the public is growing tired of conventional politics, hearings and debates are well attended by stakeholders and interested parties. It was also true that there was at least one other journalist present at everything I attended. Even the village hall debate had a stalwart from the Press Association’s political staff in attendance. All this is as it should be: the minimum we should accept in a parliamentary democracy in a country with a free press. What we should not have to accept is government spin doctors who lie when a story, however controversial, happens to be true.

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