Bloggers’ Interview: Chris Huhne

The other day, an elite group of bloggers* (and myself) met up with Chris Huhne MP, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (and a Lib Dem to boot), for a nice chat. I will leave it to those terribly organised people who actually took an audio recording of the interview to relay in accurate quotes Chris’s exact words (or indeed to simply upload the audio), but here are my own impressions of the interview. Some of them might well now be familiar from Chris’s speech today.

Whilst we were getting sat down, we admired Chris’s shiny Susan Kramer for President badge – a decision he justified on the grounds that he believes that she will be much better able to devote the appropriate amount of time to the job from her position of not-being-an-MP.

That out of the way, we got down to business. One of the most exciting aspects of the coalition government is the opportunity it gives us to move the green agenda forward. With a coalition agreement full of good things for the environment, and a Lib Dem minister installed in the relevant ministry, as well as commitments from the Prime Minister himself that this will be the “greenest government ever”, there is good reason to expect great things of this government on these issues. It has been a bit of a disappointment that since the government was formed, the frantic pace of announcements from some government departments has not been matched by Huhne’s own corner of Whitehall.

It was heartening, therefore, that Chris was keen to tell us about the government’s “Green Deal”, the details of which he expects to be announcing some time around the second week of November. The programme will seek to massively improve the energy efficiency of Britain’s existing housing stock, a massive task which must be undertaken if we are to reach our international commitments on carbon emissions by 2050. By that time, the government hopes that our entire housing stock will be much more energy efficient, with proper insulation, double glazing, and so on.

It is an improvement which is desperately needed. The average house in Britain uses more energy to heat it than those in many Scandinavian countries, where (given the colder climate) we would expect them to use more than us. There is clearly, therefore, considerable scope to reduce our energy demands in this area.

Learning from similar programmes which have been set up in places like Australia already, with some problems associated, Chris hopes to avoid some of the pitfalls which such schemes have run into in the past. The programme should have pilot schemes running fairly soon, with the full on programme getting underway in 2012. Thousands of jobs will be supported by the scheme, which will be on a scale not seen in the rather timid programmes we have seen so far. This will therefore represent the beginning of the kind of green growth and green jobs which the party has long talked about.

The basis of the Green Deal will be that energy companies pay for the improvements people make to their homes, which will then be paid back by the consumer as part of their bills. The consumer’s energy requirements will decrease sufficiently, however, that even whilst they are contributing as part of their bills to the costs of the work undertaken, their costs will still be lower than they otherwise would be in most cases. Assuming it works, this sounds like a very sensible win-win for all concerned.

A couple of categories of house will not find themselves in this position, however: “hard to heat” homes (with no cavity walls, for instance) which will be more expensive to improve, and the homes of the fuel poor, who often currently run their homes at lower temperatures than they would ideally be able to. In the latter case, Chris would expect (and encourage) those people to run their homes at a decent temperature after the improvements have been made, which would of course mean that some of the saving in energy requirements is negated.

Moving on, we felt it wouldn’t be right to talk to Chris without raising the nuclear issue. Personally, I have never quite been in the same place as my party on this issue. Much as I would like to see Britain getting its electricity from mostly renewable sources in the future, there is nevertheless an approaching gap in our capacity (with so many old nuclear plants going offline in the next 10-20 years) that will probably have to be filled with one last generation of nuclear fission plants, in my opinion. So I do not share the anguish of some in the party that the coalition is going to allow new nuclear to go ahead, so long as it is not subsidised by the state.

Interestingly, Chris is technically entitled to abstain from votes in parliament on the legislation to enable this, since the coalition allows the Lib Dems to abstain on the issue. Perhaps sensibly, however, Chris recognises that it would look rather odd for the minister to abstain on their own legislation, so he is likely to vote for it. As he is keen to point out, opposition to nuclear power in the Lib Dem party is motivated by a variety of underpinnings, with some “theologically” opposed to them, and some simply finding it hard to believe that they are a cost effective option. Coming from the latter camp, it isn’t actually all that inconsistent for Chris to vote for new nuclear, since the government has made it quite clear that it will not be receiving subsidy.

What this does imply is that we were wrong as a party to suggest that it would not be possible for new nuclear to be built without subsidy. Chris is quite open about this, saying explicitly that he was wrong in assuming that was the case. More hearteningly, Chris is also all too aware that we are currently the third worst country in the EU in terms of installed renewable generation capacity. He is determined that by the end of this government we will be the fastest improving country on renewables.

Moving on, Joe asked Chris about the international dimension to his work. Was he expecting an agreement to come out of the forthcoming talks in Cancun, following the dashed hopes at last year’s talks. Unfortunately, Chris does not sound optimistic, since much of the progress that can be made hinges on the USA being able to deliver support for any agreement from the house of representatives and the senate. With President Obama struggling to deliver any such agreement currently, and a swing to the right expected from the forthcoming midterm elections, the outlook does not look overly optimistic. Nonetheless, Chris is pushing ahead with what he feels he can currently do, which is to draw together the countries of the EU to reinvigorate European unity and leadership on the issue. As individuals, the EU member states can only do so much, but as with so many other things, together the EU can wield much greater influence. Chris reminded us that Russia signed Kyoto mainly because of pressure from the EU, not because they actually believed in its importance.

Next up, Alex wanted to know about the future of the RHI and the CHP. Much as Chris wanted to reassure Alex, who has a personal interest in this, he wasn’t able to give any specific commitments at the moment, since the RHI is, like so many other things, a part of the Comprehensive Spending Review. Nonetheless, it is “inconceivable” that heat would not be supported in some way by the government, for the simple reason that without a heat strategy we will simply not be able to reach our legal obligations on emissions.

Dragging the tone down from lofty environmentalism to low politics, I asked Chris what the balance was between thinking of himself as “the Lib Dem on the frontline” on the green agenda within the coalition, and how much he simply thinks of himself as “the minister”, getting on with an important government job. By the sounds of it (and I had already got this impression from much of what Chris said throughout the interview), he does not consider himself to be on the frontline of any battles for influence between the coalition parties, at least not in his role as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. This is such an important area that Chris’s preferred approach has been to seek ways forward which will command wide support, not just from the Tories but also from Labour, so that they need not be interrupted by any future changes of government. This may also explain the lack of hasty announcements of policy from Huhne’s department, in the way that some might suggest have been forthcoming from other departments.

Of course, Chris also has responsibilities as a member of various committees, and he hinted that his position on the committee which deals with European issues is perhaps what brings him most often to think in terms of pushing for the Lib Dem line.

Lastly, we covered the advance of multi-party politics. Chris tends to the view that the people who are struggling most to catch up with the new way things are done are the journalists. Nonetheless, the new politics will require a politeness and respect which has not been a common feature of our politics in the past.

With our time at an end, we grabbed a quick group photo, and Chris went on his way. Overall, I was very impressed with Chris’s willingness still to meet us lesser mortals, and to discuss his work in government so transparently.

*A full list of my marvellous and sexy blogger colleagues (with apologies to those who aren’t yet bloggers and I therefore can’t link to!):

Alex Foster

Millennium‘s Daddy Richard

Prateek Buch

Alex Folkes

Mary Reid

Joe Jordan

Helen Duffett

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David Laws and the Unkindness of (some) Gays

The reaction to David Laws’s sad downfall this weekend has, as Stephen Tall noted, been pretty depressing, for all sorts of reasons.

That Laws did something which in retrospect was a bad idea is not in question. He infringed the rules, by not changing his arrangements when the rules changed. He has treated himself in a somewhat heavy-handed way, but it’s his choice, and what’s done is done. I hope this is an end to the matter, and that he awaits the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner’s verdict before taking any rash decisions. He would be sorely missed if he lets this finish his political career.

How we react to it, however, is what interests me. It’s not that surprising to me that, in general, the reaction amongst the partisan blogosphere and twitterverse has split down party lines. Reaction, after all, is heavily swung by how charitable one feels towards him. Labourites have spent the week setting him up in their minds as The Enemy. For the coalition parties, he was a rising star. It takes a willingness to look beyond the immediate facts of the case to see reasons to be kind to Laws, but I would urge people to do so. The reasons we might do so have been adequately rehearsed elsewhere, so I will not repeat them here.

The thing about this whole thing that really gets to me, though, is the attitude of many gay people which I have seen expressed. Several people who ought to know better have been snarky and unsupportive of Laws, on the basis, so far as I can tell, that if they managed to come out surely everyone else ought to have managed it. The worst example, to my mind, was Ben Bradshaw, about whom I was unnaccountably rude on Twitter last night, but there are several more, including one or two within our own party. Ben Summerskill has denounced Laws, in an article (and rolling news appearances) which seems to betray rather more irritation at Laws for not coming out before than genuine outrage at his expenses claims.

Matthew Parris has written more eloquently than I can about the reasons many people like Laws have not come out, so I will simply quote him:

But wouldn’t it have been more sensible to come clean from the start? Of course it would. Mr Laws knows that. Hundreds of thousands of closeted, middle-aged gay men in Britain know it about themselves.

How they wish they had, half a lifetime ago. But they feel trapped in an account of themselves constructed when they were young.

You start by declaring nothing — and friends and family assume there’s nothing to declare. You find yourself, by your silence, playing along with a lie you never meant to tell.

Imperceptibly, but in the end fatally, the outer self diverges from the inner. And whenever you grit your teeth and resolve to blurt it out, there’s always a mother who might be heartbroken, a dad who’d be devastated, a boss who’d be contemptuous, mates whose trust you might lose, or a frail grandma for whom this might just prove the final blow. The years go by, the gap widens and calcifies.

Parris’s generosity of spirit has been sadly lacking in much of the rest of the media, but even he seems to give the impression that it’s all different these days, that nobody, say, my age could possibly have any trouble in coming out if they were gay or bisexual. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is true. Society at large is largely (though not universally) accepting of homosexuality nowadays, it is true, but it’s not society at large’s reaction which someone coming out worries about. Like David Laws, if your parents have potentially strong views about homosexuality, that is naturally going to be the first thing on your mind. Even if they don’t, Parris’s line

“You start by declaring nothing — and friends and family assume there’s nothing to declare. You find yourself, by your silence, playing along with a lie you never meant to tell.”

rings as true now as it was for the now middle-aged people Parris is describing.

We also have to ask why our society demands that people “come out” at all. Straight people are not expected to announce their chosen orientation to their friends and family, they are just the “default setting”, and therefore under no obligation to tell their friends and family anything about their sex lives.

Disappointingly, people like Summerskill and Bradshaw clearly find it easier, since they and their campaigns have an interest in gay people maximising their visibility to the wider world, to berate gay and bisexual people who have not seen fit to proclaim their sexuality to the world at large. It is, after all, easier to leave Laws to the pitchfork-bearing mob screaming “thief!”, than to point out that hundreds of married, straight MPs are given money, perfectly legitimately, towards joint mortgages. It’s easier not to bother to ask why the rules are the way they are. After all, if a married couple with a mortgage get the money, and an MP living with a friend (but not a partner) would appear to be allowed to claim for money, why does this rule make any sense? If a couple are paying rent on a property, why shouldn’t an MP claim for their share of the rent? For David Laws himself, the rules are the rules, but for other commentators, surely these questions bear examination?

But no. The painful outing of a man by a newspaper (and lets be completely straightforward here, the Telegraph’s claim never to have intended to out Laws is complete bollocks; they would have known that the explanation they would force from Laws would involve his outing himself at a time he did not choose) seems not to bother them, because they prefer to join everyone else sitting in judgement of another MP “on the fiddle”, regardless of the more nuanced facts of the case. It suits them to minimise the issues which many gay and bisexual people still face in coming out.

If they think they’re helping the people they claim to speak for (oh-so-legitimately, being such paragons of out-and-proud-ness), they are sadly mistaken. What people struggling to find the right time to come out need is understanding and support, not a mirror image of the homophobic bigotry they fear which correspondingly tells them that their failure to come out represents self loathing, dishonesty, or any other fault on their part.

Nick Casts His Fairness Net Wider

In the first few days of the campaign, debate has centred around reducing the deficit and the Tories’ woolly pledge to partly reverse the NI rise. However, it’s become increasingly obvious that this argument is going to run and run, and in all likelihood isn’t going to reach any conclusions any time soon. Meanwhile, many voters are already said to be bored with the campaign.

So well done to Nick Clegg for moving on to some fresh ground. Today, I hear, we will be mostly talking about unfair bank charges.

Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg will today [Friday] launch the party’s manifesto for consumers.
The manifesto includes measures to ensure banks can’t charge customers unfairly for going over their limit or bouncing a cheque.

Sometimes it’s nice to talk about subjects a bit more off the beaten electioneers’ track. With all the hammering away at the four key pledges, I’d just about forgotten this was party policy. It’s a nice little surprise to be reunited with it!

And if my experience is anything to go by, this is one message that should really resonate with anyone who’s ever been slapped with a ludicrous charge for going £5 overdrawn because one payment has left your account before another enters it. When money is tight, often the banks end up making life more stressful than it should be, by whacking you about the head for every slip up. Not much fun, and certainly not fair.

BBC Respond on Women’s Hour Complaint

This morning I received a response to my complaint to the BBC about Radio 4’s Women’s Hour. To recap: the other day, during a piece on young people engaging in politics, presenter Jane Garvey asserted that the Lib Dems “appear to have quite a clear line on trying to abolish tuition fees. Er, it’s not actually in their manifesto though”. To hear this, go here and scroll to 13:40 in the programme.

I complained on the grounds that she cannot possibly know what is in our manifesto, which has yet to be published, and she seems to be suggesting that we are being in some way disingenuous, when in fact the party confirmed recently, after very transparently considering whether or not the policy was still affordable, that we remain committed to abolishing tuition fees.

So, how did the BBC respond?

“This was a discussion about how the political parties can engage the iPod generation in politics. As with other discussions that Woman’s Hour have been running in the pre election period, we have not used politicians in the debates. In this one we cast the item by talking to a group of students from Sheffield Hallam University and then following that with a studio discussion with a young labour supporter, a conservative supporter and someone who was undecided.

We can assure you that it was not Jane Garvey’s intention to ‘snottily’ tell us that the Lib Dem idea of abolishing tuition fees was not included in their manifesto which obviously has not yet been published. She raised the question in the discussion because this concept had already been mentioned by the students from Sheffield Hallam.

Overall, we are very much aware of the need to represent the parties fairly and proportionally in the run up to the election so we can also assure the you that this is being monitored and that to date, the Lib Dems have received fair, proportional participation in our discussions.”

Nevertheless, I fully appreciate that you feel strongly about this matter. Therefore I would like to assure you that we have registered your comments on our audience log. This is the internal report of audience feedback which we compile daily for all programme makers and commissioning executives within the BBC, and also their senior management. It ensures that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the BBC.

Thanks again for taking the time to contact us with your views.

For those of us who have ever written in to complain about the woeful under-representation of Lib Dems on Question Time recently, for instance, it is at least nice to receive something which has been written specifically in response to my message. Nonetheless, I find the response a bit underwhelming. They seem to think that it was primarily the “snotti[ness]” of Garvey’s assertion which I objected to, rather than the sheer untruth which it carried. They also seem to be suggesting that Garvey wasn’t really saying anything much, simply reflecting the comments from the students in Nick Clegg’s home turf of Sheffield Hallam. That’s all very well, but personally, I think the wording is pretty clear that she thought she was calling the party out on dumping a policy but continuing to use it to leverage young people’s support. I’m sure she can’t be the only journalist out there who is under this impression. After all, it’s quite a faff to actually follow the ins and outs of a democratic policy making process; so much easier to adopt the standard issue “whatever the party leadership spin operation says is instantly policy” which they are used to using with the two establishment parties.

But hey, don’t take my word for it, go listen to the programme on iPlayer (in the next couple of days, anyway) and make your own decision.

Evan Harris Being Awesome

Linkblogging Extra! On 13th Jan, the three main parties’ science spokesmen (all men, alas), invited by the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK, debated science and stuff. I’m only halfway through the video at this point, but so far, Evan’s comments have been the only ones to attract any applause at all from the audience of, presumably, scientists and engineers. He must be doing something right…

The Wave In Pictures (including Simon Hughes’s Skisuit)

Yesterday I went, along with quite a few other Lib Dems from all over the place, on “The Wave“, the march to put pressure on the government in the run-up to Copenhagen. I took a few pictures of how the day looked from where I stood. Here are a few of the less crappily taken ones:

I have to say, as serious an issue as climate change is, I also had a great time at the Wave. Without wanting to make overly party political points, I think it really is worth noting that not a single Tory was spotted by me or anyone I spoke to on this march. I suspect that has as much to do with protests just not being something Tories do as it does their non-existent commitment to the issue.

Anyway, our party was out in force, from an impressive Liberal Youth showing to many OAPs, from rank-and-file to MPs (spotted: David Howarth, Susan Kramer, Nick Clegg, Simon Hughes (hard to miss!), Baron Roberts, and I’m sure there were others who I’ve missed). I got the same feeling of “political family” I get from going to conference, but coupled with the sense that this was what our party does best: face outwards to the world, not inwards to ourselves.

Now lets hope that the Wave helped to put that little bit of extra pressure that makes the difference on the UK’s representatives in Copenhagen.

The BBC Respond To My Quentin Tw*t Complaint

The other night, Quentin Letts, the Daily Fail’s sketchwriter and all round eejit, was doing This Week‘s “Take of the Week” segment. In it, he covered Alan Johnson’s Nutt Sack, and stated in it that “the other parties were broadly supportive” of Johnson’s position. This, as I’m sure my good Lib Dem readers will be aware, is what is known in the trade as “horseshit”. The Tories supported him, the Lib Dems didn’t. This irritated me, so I took the liberty of complaining to the BBC about it. I wrote:

I have just watched Quentin Letts, presenting a piece on This Week, say that “the other parties were broadly supportive” of Alan Johnson over the sacking of Prof. David Nutt. This is simply not true. The Tories were broadly supportive of this decision, but the Lib Dems were quite clearly not: Chris Huhne, their shadow of Johnson, criticised him in no uncertain terms. I cannot imagine that viewers will take the phrase “the other parties” to refer to anything other than these two parties.

The BBC have got round to responding to this today, with the following, which is the full text of what they have sent me:

Thanks for your e-mail regarding ‘This Week’ broadcast on 5 November.

I understand you feel the programme broadcast a report by Quentin Letts which incorrectly sated that the opposition parties were in favour of Alan Johnson’s decision to sack Prof David Nutt, when in fact the Liberal Democrats didn’t agree with the decision.

I’ve reviewed the programme and I can confirm that Mr Letts did state that the other parties supported the Government’s decision. The article was his own take on the key political moments of the week, and as such he was expressing his own opinions and not those of the BBC.

We’re aware the Liberal Democrats opposed the decision to replace Prof Nutt and their position has been prominently featured on news broadcasts, politic programme such as ‘Daily Politics’ and on our news website. You may find the following link of interest in which Chris Huhne expresses his opinion on the decision:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/the_daily_politics/8338113.stm

Nevertheless I’d like to take this opportunity to assure you that I’ve recorded your comments onto our audience log. This is an internal daily report of audience feedback which is circulated to many BBC staff including senior management, producers and channel controllers.

The audience logs are seen as important documents that can help shape decisions about future programming and content.

Thanks again for contacting us.

Regards

Ciaran McConnell
BBC Complaints

So far as I can tell, then,the BBC are not bothered about this, on the grounds that:

1. Quentin Twat is free to flatly contradict reality (a reality which the BBC is fully aware of, having “prominently featured” it), because it’s “his own take” on reality, and therefore he is under no obligation to actually get basic facts right.

2. It’s OK if they put out content that is complete bollocks, because, look! over there!, some reporting that wasn’t full of bollocks.

I can’t honestly say this surprises me, coming from Quentin Twat; writers for the Daily Fail aren’t exactly familiar with concepts like “the truth”, after all. But surely the BBC hasn’t gone sufficiently bonkers to have lost sight of the dividing line between fact and opinion? I like to hear opposing viewpoints on programmes like This Week as much as the next person, but surely people can be free to present their opinions, even be selective with the facts, without the freedom to simply make statements that are flat untrue.

If the This Week team think of themselves as journalists, they ought to correct this statement on this week’s programme.