These are hard times for sweating hacks. Not a cloud in the sky, not an MP in town and — worst of all — not a whiff of a silly summer story in sight.We can usually count on a few sharks off the Cornish coast but even they seem to have thought better of it this year. Japanese knotweed is pretty scary, and doing its best to get us all worried down in the West country but it’s no substitute for a dorsal fin or two off St Ives.And now we’re cruelly told yet again there are no little green men from space. The Ministry of Defence has released files on UFO sightings reported in the 1980s and 90s, available on the National Archives.Quite promising, some of it. Two men, for example, claim an alien with a lemon-shaped head tried to lure them into a glowing red spaceship as they returned from a night out in Staffordshire in 1995.That generated a 15-page dossier, while the famous December 1980 sighting at Rendlesham Forest US air force base in Suffolk led to a former chief of defence staff warning Margaret Thatcher’s government not to be too scathing in its dismissal because the incident remained unexplained.But as usual, however dramatic the sighting, we’re always told it was a weather balloon or something equally as disappointing. No master races, no alien abductions, no cigar-shaped craft or anything remotely exciting.One day perhaps they’ll give us something to go on — and we all know they’re out there, don’t we? But until then we’ll just have to rely on daft squirrels popping up in tourist photos and the antics of celebs and politicos in the South of France to keep us going in the silly season.Roll on the Autumn.
Britain’s railway franchises have been branded “a mess” by a group of MPs, who call for major reforms including the nationalisation of the troubled East Coast mainline.The Transport Select Committee has called for the East Coast, set to be taken off the hands of current operator National Express later this year after the company complained of heavy losses, to be kept under state ownership and used to compare against the performances of private companies.But why stop there?The present system of privatised railways, with its split operation between infrastructure and train operating companies, has always been criticised by passengers’ groups as un unwieldy beast with a distinct preference for profit over performance.The Transport Committee says the system actively encourages train operators to take their passengers for granted.Would it be such a drastic step to take the whole system back under public control? After all, the government already effectively owns Network Rail, pouring billions of pounds a year into the tracks-and-stations company.Is the time right to go back to the days of British Rail? Or would that just lumber the public purse with another colossally expensive enterprise which may turn out to be no more efficient than the present system?
At 27, the Conservative candidate in the Norwich North by-election Chloe Smith becomes the youngest MP in the Commons.She turned Labour’s 5,000-plus majority in the seat into a 7,348-vote winning margin and keeps the Conservative bandwagon rolling. The election had been forced by the resignation of Labour MP Ian Gibson, who claimed almost 80,000 pounds in second home expenses on a London flat which he later sold at a knock-down price to his daughter.What do you make of the result? Was this a clear message to Labour about its policies and its leader Gordon Brown or a protest against the ruling party in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal?
To the surprise of many, not least the newspapers and TV channels that were telling us right up until Wednesday afternoon that his release was imminent, Ronnie Biggs has been refused parole.Reason — a bad attitude. The 79-year-old Great Train Robber may be physically frail but is clearly unwilling to show the required amount of remorse that would get him out of jail and could now spend the rest of his days behind bars.All the other 11 members of the gang that held up the Glasgow to London night mail, coshed the driver and made off with 2.6 million pounds served just a third of their sentences. Biggs wasn’t even on the train on that notorious night in 1963. He was down on the embankment.His son Michael says Justice Secretary Jack Straw’s decision is devastating, his lawyer calls the decision to keep Biggs in jail “cruel and unusual punishment.”Yet the original crime was audacious and huge. Biggs’ cheeky hop over the walls of Wandsworth prison and his subsequent two-fingers to justice from the safety of Brazil clearly rankled with the British establishment. If he had been released, he would probably have become a magnet for old lags all over the country, as far as his physical condition allowed.Do you think he should have been allowed parole?
In the wake of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s support for the burkha to be banned in France, several commentators have called for the all-enveloping gown to be outlawed in Britain too.”In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity,” Sarkozy said. “The burkha is not a religious sign, it’s a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic.”The issue arose in Britain three years ago when Jack Straw asked Muslim women wearing veils to remove them when they visited his Blackburn constituency surgery. He called the veils a “visible statement of separation and difference.”The Daily Express weighs in this week with a call for the burkha to be banned in Britain, a demand echoed in the Daily Mail by Saira Khan, runner-up in the first series of ”The Apprentice.”The Muslim Council of Britain has criticised Sarkozy. Individuals, it says, must have the freedom to choose their attire on the basis of deeply-held religious beliefs.It adds: “The MCB echoes US President Barack Obama’s caution that ‘it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practising religion as they see fit – for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We cannot disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretence of liberalism.’What do you think — should the burkha disappear from Britain’s streets?
Former Royal Bank of Scotland chief Sir Fred Goodwin has agreed to more than halve his widely criticised 703,000-pound pension award.He will now only receive an annual payout of 342,000 pounds.Chairman Philip Hampton said: “I am pleased that common sense has now prevailed and I hope that most reasonable people will welcome that.”Do you?
The government’s planned Iraq inquiry has come under withering fire on several fronts, notably the lack of consultation with other political parties, its apparent careful timing to avoid any possible political embarrassment just before the next election and for what several commentators feel is a hand-picked establishment team in charge of proceedings that is unlikely to rock the boat.******But the main criticism has been the fact that it will be held in private.******That way, the government says, witnesses will be more likely to be candid, the whole process will be quicker and, above all, it will obviate the need to have legions of expensive lawyers accompanying every witness.******Doubtless Gordon Brown had in mind the example of the Saville Inquiry into the Bloody Sunday killings in Northern Ireland which had been going on for 10 years and which has so far run up costs of almost 100 million pounds in lawyers’ fees.******The overall cost of that inquiry had reached 182 million pounds by the end of last year. It is not expected to report now until 2010.******Do you believe the government has a point in that respect or should it have given in to the repeated demands to hold an inquiry in public?
The Law Lords have ruled against the government over the sensitive issue of whether people accused of a crime should have the right to hear the evidence against them.Three terrorism suspects had claimed it was against their rights to be subject to control orders — which effectively impose a form of house arrest on them – on the basis of secret evidence they have been unable to challenge or even hear.The government says control orders are a means of limiting the risk it believes are posed by suspects it can neither prosecute not deport. Rights groups say Britain is riding roughshod over one of its most cherished legal principles by not allowing defendants to hear the evidence against them.One of the Law Lords, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, the senior Law Lord on the case, said: “A trial procedure can never be considered fair if a party to it is kept in ignorance of the case against him.”If the wider public are to have confidence in the justice system, they need to be able to see that justice is done rather than being asked to take it on trust.Do you agree? Or are the stakes post 9/11 just too high to cling to what some may consider antiquated notions of fair play and justice?
Among the surprises last week, as one cabinet minster after another stepped down, was Gordon Brown’s appointment of Sir Alan Sugar as the government’s Enterprise Tsar.Was this a sound decision, several analysts wondered, or was it a possible case of Brown seeming to confuse the worlds of politics and show business, hoping perhaps that what works in the studio would work just as well in the real world?The star of the BBC show “The Apprentice” was to be offered a peerage and would take a role as an adviser on matters affecting small and medium-sized businesses.But the Conservatives are objecting. They say Sugar should not be working for the government and front a TV show at the same time, particularly when the next series of the Apprentice goes out early in 2010 just a few months before a general election. The appointment, they contend, breaches BBC rules on political independence and impartiality.Sugar himself insists there is no conflict of interest. ‘It’s very simple – all I am is an adviser, I’m not a policymaker,’ he says. ”I have been loyal to Gordon Brown and the Labour Party for quite a while, but I also have my loyalties to the BBC.”Do you believe Sugar should have been appointed? Or is Gordon Brown perfectly entitled to have who he likes in his government of all the talents, especially someone with such proven business acumen? ”All I can do is advise those that are in charge of making policy from a business point of view … what’s right and what’s wrong,” he told Sky News.
Since the last time he ripped open the blue cellophane HMRC envelope with a sigh and started hunting around for his P60, Joe Public has seen billions of pounds going to the banks, thousands if not millions being used to bankroll the expensive tastes of MPs — and now he sees the BBC clamming up about how much it spends on stars from that other effective tax, the licence fee.