15 February 2012 2:45 PM

Ed Davey's toilet malfunction

The Secretary of State may have changed over at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, but the problems blighting the building go on.

I've written before about the "Curse" of Whitehall Place which struck several times while Chris Huhne was in charge there.

Now Ed Davey's tenure has got its first calamity - I hear the toilets are out of order on all but two floors and the lifts have been stopped as a deluge of "water" pours down from the first floor.

Insiders say the "water" has a rather nasty smell but are avoiding closer inspection.

Welcome to the Cabinet, Mr Davey.

A DECC spokesman says:  "There was a problem with the toilets on the first floor which affected a number of other floors. Things are back to normal on all floors now apart from the first where there’s still mopping up to be done."

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

10 February 2012 2:39 PM

Is Spelman one of the NHS three?

A fantastic game of Cluedo is going on after three Cabinet ministers rang the "alarm bell" over the Andrew Lansley's NHS reforms.

Various names and denials are flying around Westminster, and among them an interesting line has emerged from Caroline Spelman.

Asked whether the Environment Secretary was one of the three, her spokeswoman replied: "Caroline supports the policy."

I've asked repeatedly for a categorical denial that Mrs Spelman - who was forced into a u-turn over her own controversial forest sell-off proposal - was one of the three, but have been met with radio silence.

Note the language in the short line I was given: Caroline supports the policy. Not Caroline supports the Bill. A lot of Conservatives support the policy, of giving GPs more control over the NHS, while being dismayed about the reforms in the Health and Social Care Bill itself. In fact, Labour is also broadly supportive of GP-led commissioning though the party is less keen on increased private sector involvement.

You could certainly understand if Spelman felt bruised at being hung out to dry over forests, while Lansley has so far been allowed to get on with his NHS shake-up. She may also feel that she has little to lose in terms of job prospects.

According to Conservative Home, of the three ministers: "One was insistent the Bill must be dropped. Another said Andrew Lansley must be replaced. Another likened the NHS reforms to the poll tax." While the second seems unlikely to be Spelman (it would surely be a tacit admission she should have been replaced too), you can make a case for her saying either of the others.

Until we get a categorical reply on whether Spelman is one of the NHS three, I guess we'll never know for sure...

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

02 February 2012 2:05 PM

Top Totty banned from Commons - new details


Labour's Kate Green won the fastest campaign ever today by getting a beer called Top Totty banned from the Commons.

She stood up at 12 to protest at finding the sexist ale on sale in Parliament’s Strangers Bar. By 2pm it was withdrawn from sale.

Amusingly, I gather there was a rush to buy it in the intervening hours - mainly, one should add, from members of the Press Gallery.

I gather that at least half a barrel is left over, which begs the question who will sup it.

A picture of a bunny girl in a bikini featured on the pump alongside the name, which even readers over 80 will guess is slang for an attractive young woman.

Demanding a debate, Green said: “I was disturbed last night to learn that the guest beer in the Stranger’s Bar is called Top Totty and there is a picture of a nearly naked woman on the tap.”

Embarrassingly, I can reveal that the woman who modelled the provocative picture visited the bar yesterday with the brewery’s boss to savour their success in being chosen as a guest beer.

A Commons spokesman said later this afternoon: “We have withdrawn it from sale today. I do not think there is very much left.”

Strangers Bar - aka The Kremlin - has a different guest beer each week.  Top Totty is brewed by Slaters in Stafford and was nominated to be a guest beer by the town’s Conservative MP Jeremy Lefroy.

Astonishingly, nobody seemed to realise that it might be controversial.

UPDATE -- #TopTotty is now trending on Twitter.  Slater's Brewery must be be delighted with the plug.

 UPDATE#2  The model is a brunette, I have been told. The blonde hair was added later

Joe Murphy


Follow me at Twitter   @JoeMurphyLondon



21 November 2011 12:17 PM

Huhne's curse strikes again

Yet another calamity at Chris Huhne's Energy and Climate change department, where staff have been sent home for the day because of a water shortage.

At about 11am civil servants at the Whitehall Place HQ found there was no water to drink or flush toilets, and were directed to the adjacent building on 55 Whitehall.

But when the water also went off there, both buildings were shut and staff were ordered to work from home while Thames Water investigates the problem.

As I've reported several times, DECC's HQ has been beset by glitches.

A routine fire drill saw the alarm bells get stuck on while an engineer was caught in traffic, a flood wiped out staff belongings in the basement, the central heating and air conditioning seem to work in reverse, and in March a power cut struck when Mr Huhne was in the lift. Staff wonder if it is cursed.

UPDATE: Thames Water says they've checked out the issue and found nothing wrong with the mains - pinning the blame on "a problem with pumps inside the building." It really is cursed.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

26 October 2011 4:44 PM

The campaign group happy to accept cuts

Here's a refreshing change. Rather than fight cuts tooth and nail, as so many groups have done, part of the renewable energy industry has come up with a novel tactic as they petition Chris Huhne.

It comes from a new campaign group to protest against reductions in so-called feed-in tariffs for solar panels. This is the cash handed to individuals for installing green energy devices, but is being slashed back to stop budgets being bust. The body says it is happy to accept cuts, but is warning the proposed reductions will be fatal.

Howard Johns, of the Cut Don't Kill Solar Energy campaign, said: "The solar energy sector alone has created 25,000 jobs and has huge scope to expand further. At the moment we're facing threats of such drastic cuts in support for solar that the industry will be destroyed outright.

"We're happy to accept serious cuts, but the scale currently being proposed would kill jobs and innovation on a massive scale. The Government must get the balance right, not cut their nose off to spite their face."

What other ministers would give for such reasonable pressure groups.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

13 October 2011 4:00 PM

£2 billion a year on old electricity

Chris Huhne gave a major speech on nuclear power today which contained one quite amazing line.

Britain spends £2 billion A YEAR on nuclear electricity consumed in the fifties, sixties and seventies because decomissioning estimates were dramatically wrong.

They rocketed from an estimated £2 million in 1970 to £9.5 billion in 1990 and now stand at £53.7 billion, the Energy Secretary said, attacking the UK's historical nuclear strategy as “the most expensive failure of post-war policy-making”.

Huhne was famously anti-nuclear during his time in opposition but has become a convert in Government. Today he repeated his qualified support - that it needs to be part of the energy mix but with no public subsidy - and said of the past mistakes: “This will never happen again."

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

03 October 2011 2:20 PM

The rabbit in Osborne's hat

George Osborne is known for pulling out a political flourish in his big speeches and today was no exception.

It was not quite on the same scale as his show-stopping announcement on raising the inheritance tax threshold, but it was there all the same: a hint that Britain's historic and ambitious carbon emission reduction targets could be watered down.

The Chancellor vowed that Britain would cut carbon "no slower but also no faster" than fellow European nations, adding: "We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business."

This is much more significant than it might sound. Britain (and the EU) is currently signed up to cut carbon emissions by 20 per cent of 1990 levels by 2020, and by 80 per cent by 2050.

In recent months the Lib-Dem Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne has been pushing for the 2020 target to be raised to 30 per cent and has built a coalition of the willing who agree with him. But his views are not shared around the Cabinet table, and in May it emerged that Vince Cable is among those worried about over-ambitious plans hitting business. This is self-evidently Osborne's view too, and I understand Transport Secretary Philip Hammond is also in the same camp.

The major significance of Osborne's announcement is that far from not just going for 30 per cent cuts, Britain could actually water down its 20 per cent commitment if other European countries don't hit their targets.

Aides insist this is "hypothetical" and hope at least the 20 per cent target will be met, but also made clear that if a Europe-wide reduction ends up being only 15 per cent then Britain will re-think its policies to make sure the country isn't being unfairly hit.

Expect this to cause fireworks within the Coalition, as well as from green groups and Labour - Ed Miliband was a key supporter of the idea. It is hard to see how it tallies with pledges to be the "Greenest Government Ever", and will be painted as sacrificing global leadership in eco issues in the quest for growth.

Osborne will have to hope part of his peroration comes true: "We do all this because we know that the sacrifices our country makes will not be made in vain."

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

09 September 2011 9:08 AM

The Treasury case for lower fuel bills

When electricity and gas firms hike prices, piling misery on households, it's usually only a matter of time before politicians come out in favour of hard-pressed bill payers.

Indeed, earlier this year Energy Secretary Chris Huhne said consumers "don't have to take price increases lying down", urging people to "hit (firms) back where it hurts" by switching suppliers.

But it seems the Treasury has a vested interest in keeping bills low. Answering a PQfrom Labour's Cathy Jamieson, Justine Greening set out how higher bills squeeze household spending, in turn stopping people splashing the cash on items which have a 20% VAT rate. Energy is taxed at 5%

She said: "If extra expenditure on domestic fuel was funded by less spending on goods and services that attract the 20% standard rate of VAT, HMRC would receive less VAT revenue, since domestic fuel and power is taxed at the reduced rated rate of 5%."

Quite what Treasury officials will make of the news that the Coalition's green policies will see bills rise by £300 is anyone's guess.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

17 June 2011 1:46 PM

Bob Crow's hidden subsidy

Here's an amazing letter that Esher Tory MP Dominic Raab has winkled out of Transport for London usuing FOI.

It reveals the astonishing size of the hidden subsidy to the RMT and other trade unions, money coming from our taxes and soaring ticket prices.

Here's the highlights: TfL employs 371 people, whose salaries total £13.9 million, who carry out trade union duties in company time at our expense. Some 31 work full time for the union - that is to say, we pay their salaries but they devote their time to union matters - at a cost of £879,000.

In other words, we are paying higher fares to fatten the very union that is threatening to disrupt Wimbledon and bugger up our journeys to work.

A bit of extra detail that is not in the letter.  Around 270 of the employees (ie, the  majority) belong to Bob Crow's RMT rather than the other three big unions at TfL.

Let's be fair. Much of what trade unions do is excellent and is useful to employers as well as the union.

But not all. I am remembering the drunken, foul-mouthed and intimidating RMT bully-boys I met on a train home from some "conference" or junket. I wonder if they were on full pay at the time.

Here's what Dominic Raab says:

“With damaging strikes looming, the majority of Londoners will be shocked to learn that commuters and taxpayers are paying millions each year to fund union activity on the underground.”

A TfL spokesperson says:

“From our total workforce of around 24,000 staff, 371 staff are part-time and 31 are full-time trade union representatives.  Part-time representatives balance their trade union duties with their role at TfL.   The number of trade union representatives at TfL is in accordance with ACAS guidelines, our agreements with the trades unions and legislation.  Trade union representatives can play an important role in our employee relations particularly at times of organisational change.”

And, finally, here is the letter from TfL to Raab.

Dear Mr Raab
TfL Ref: FOI-0185-1112
Thank you for your letter received by Transport for London (TfL) on 18 May 2011 asking for information relating to the union activities of TfL staff members.
Your request has been considered under the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and TfL’s information access policy. I can confirm that TfL holds the information you require. You asked:
1.    How many staff employed by Transport for London are allowed to devote a proportion of their time at work to trade union activities?
TfL permits release for trade union representatives in accordance with legislation, ACAS guidelines and our agreements with the trade unions. Release for trade union activities is unpaid and therefore employees may take annual leave or unpaid leave to undertake such activities.  It is therefore assumed that you are referring to trade union duties which, subject to certain conditions, allow for paid release.  In accordance with legislation, ACAS guidelines and our agreements, any release must be reasonable and meet the appropriate criteria before release is granted.  Approximately 24,000 staff are employed by TfL and its subsidiaries and 371 of these may spend a proportion of their time on trade union duties.
2.    What is the total salary cost of those staff?
The total salary cost of those staff is £13.9m per annum.
3.    How many staff employed by Transport for London are full-time trade union representatives?
There are 31 members of staff that are full-time trade union representatives.
4.    What is the total salary cost of those staff?
The total salary cost of those staff is £879,398 per annum.
5.    How many of the staff identified by questions (1) and (3) earn more than £25,900/year?
As of 16 June 2011 there are 357 members of staff identified in questions 1 and 3 that earn more than £25,900 per annum.
If this is not the information you are looking for, or if you are unable to access it for some reason, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Please see the attached information sheet for details of your right to appeal as well as information on copyright and what to do if you would like to re-use any of the information we have disclosed.
Yours sincerely
FOI Case Officer
FOI Case Management Team
Corporate Governance Directorate
General Counsel
Transport for London


15 June 2011 11:33 AM

Stark flood warning?

Walking past Chris Huhne's Energy and Climate Change department the other day, I spotted this sculpture of a man riding a dolphin above the door.

Given the predictions of melting polar ice caps, do they know something we don't? Is this the vision of transport in a globally-warmed age?

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse