Last Friday the House of Lords debated their Science and Technology Committee’s report on Personal Internet Security (from Summer 2007) and — because the Government’s response was so weak — the additional follow-up report that was published in Spring 2008. Since I had acted as the specialist adviser to the Committee, I went down to Westminster to sit “below the bar“, in one of the best seats in the House, and observe.
Lord Broers, the Committee Chairman during the first inquiry, kicked things off, followed by various Lords who had sat on the Committee (and two others who hadn’t) then the opposition lead, Viscount Bridgeman, who put his party’s point of view (of which more in another article). Lord Brett (recently elevated to a Lord in Waiting — ie a whip), then replied to the debate and finally Lord Broers summarised and formally moved the “take note” motion which, as is custom and practice, the Lords then consented to nem con.
The Government speech in such a debate is partially pre-written, and should then consist of a series of responses to the various issues raised and answers to the questions put in the previous speeches. The Minister himself doesn’t write any of this, that’s done by civil servants from his department, sitting in a special “box” at the end of the chamber behind him.
However, since the previous speeches were so strongly critical of the Government’s position, and so many questions were put as to what was to be done next, I was able to see from my excellent vantage point (as TV viewers would never be able to) the almost constant flow of hastily scribbled notes from the box to the Minister — including one note that went to Lord Broers, due to an addressing error by the scribblers!
The result of this barrage of material was that Lord Brett ended up with so many bits of paper that he completely gave up trying to juggle them, read out just one, and promised to write to everyone concerned with the rest of the ripostes.
Of course it didn’t help that he’d only been in the job for five days and this was his first day at the dispatch box. But the number of issues he had to address would almost certainly have flummoxed a five-year veteran as well.
Amusing though this might be to watch, this does not bode well for the Government getting to grips with the issues raised in the reports. In technical areas such as “Personal Internet Security”, policy is almost entirely driven by the civil servants and not by the politicians.
So it is particularly disappointing that the pre-written parts of the Minister’s speech — the issues that the civil servants expected to come up and which they felt positive about addressing — were only a small proportion of the issues that were actually addressed in the debate.
It still seems as if the penny hasn’t dropped in Whitehall 🙁