Lords debate "Personal Internet Security"

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 🙁

1 thought on “Lords debate "Personal Internet Security"

  1. @ Richard,

    “It still seems as if the penny hasn’t dropped in Whitehall”

    It almost never does.

    Senior Civil Servants are so much a law unto themselves that it is easy for them to effectivly ham string a minister so that, by selectivly controling the information they recieve.

    On a number of occasions I have been left thinking “which end of the dog is wagging which”.

    A case in point is National ID cards. For many many years a group of Civil Servants has felt that the UK should have one like most other Europen Countries. Every time there is a change of Government they get their plan down off the shelf dust it off and stick it under some ministers nose.

    The electorate of the UK have untill now been lucky in that ministers in prior Governments have independently realised that a National ID card was a non starter both politicaly and technicaly.

    However not so with the current Government. It appears that this time it was not stuck under a ministers nose but shoved into No 10’s Technology think tank…

    Aside from the fact that the Civil Servants have never taken a fair or impartial attitude on the matter (ie evidence base shows ID cards have no worth in an open society). The Civil Servants should not have been using the Think Tank to present their ideas. Further it is highly likley that quite a few of the Senior Civil Servants have “networked” themselves director or equivelent postitions with the companies that are biding to do the work…

    Only time will tell if Gordon Brown gets a grip on this revolving door system of employing consultants to do Civil Servants work and alowing Civil Servants to jump ship to companies to whom they have effectivly awarded major contracts.

    There may be a small silver lining in the current credit crunch in that as he has no financial reserves (due to GB blowing it all) Alister Darling will not realy be able to finance the National ID scheme unless there is a very clear indicator it is going to be a revenue earner in the very short term. And probably the only way that is going to happen is “compulsory carrying” which is probably political suicide prior to an election.

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