23 April 2012 12:09 PM

Wedding bells on Whitehall

ESP hears congratulations are in order for Gabby Bertin, David Cameron's hugely popular spinner, who got engaged over Easter.

And it turns out there's a lovely story behind how such a busy lass found time to meet a bloke - and one from outside the Westminster bubble at that.

She put her London house up for sale and the buyer, a finance director in the City, discovered he was even more keen on the seller.  Romance blossomed and the pair plan to wed next year.  

Gabby is not alone in having to juggle a Government job and wedding planning. I understand Iain Duncan Smith's spinner Susie Squire also recently got engaged to a lawyer, and is due to marry in May. Laura Trott, Francis Maude's former special adviser now working in Downing Street, is also preparing for her big day.

It is a turnaround from the early months of the Coalition, when the pressures of Government put several relationships under sadly unsurvivable strain.

Craig Woodhouse and Joe Murphy

19 April 2012 12:10 PM

Is DCMS set for the chop?

Here's a curious one. In an article for today's Standard (link later), Harriet Harman raises fears that Jeremy Hunt's Department for Culture, Media and Sport is set to be axed after the Olympics.

Citing “well-sourced rumours in Westminster and the arts world”, the shadow culture secretary says David Cameron is poised to shut it down once the Games are over.

The suggestion is apparently that arts functions will be hived off to the Arts Council, media put in Vince Cable's Business Department and sport split between local councils and the Department of Health - making it more like the department of public health the Tories used to trumpet. That certainly fits with the Hunt-to-replace-Lansley rumours which flew around Westminster when the Health Secretary was at his lowest ebb over the NHS reforms.

The Standard understands that the idea has been floated in some Government circles but is not likely to happen. For one thing, it won't save as much money as might seem possible on paper. Secondly - and most critically - it would remove a seat around the Cabinet table when David Cameron carries out his first major reshuffle.

A Number 10 source described Harman's suggestions as "nonsense" and insisted there were "no such plans".

Other insiders had great fun rebutting the claims. "If Harriet Harman believes every rumour she hears in Westminster and the arts world - two of the most rumour-filled places around - then she really is in trouble," said one.

"Not exactly authoritative for an opposition spokesperson" said another, in a thinly-veiled reference to the former equality minister's "Harperson" tag.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

01 March 2012 12:30 PM

Bad news for Tories on Whitehall bonuses

Civil service bonuses have attracted a lot of anger in recent years, mostly from Tory MPs angry at their explosion during the Labour years.

But they might be less than happy to learn the whole idea was actually brought in on Margaret Thatcher's watch.

As this PQ from Cabinet Office spokesman Baroness Verma sets out, performance-related pay was introduced in 1987 and then extended in 1989 before being passed to individual departments and quangos in 1996.

Latest figures put the cost at more than £100m a year. Wonder what the Iron Lady makes of that?

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

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

09 February 2012 11:56 AM

Injury time

Is there a curse hanging over Whitehall?

Ministers have fallen victim to a range of injuries and ailments in recent weeks. First Transport Minister Theresa Villiers broke her collarbone in a cycling accident, then Scotland Secretary Michael Moore got chicken pox, and then Treasury Chief Secretary Chloe Smith broke her foot.

It has created some difficulties for the Government, with Moore having to postpone a meeting with Alex Salmond (prompting jokey suspicions that biological warfare had broken out in the row over Scottish independence), while Villiers was "walking wounded" to vote for the welfare cap.

But as one Westminster wag has just joked, they've got off lightly compared to Chris Huhne - nursing a "broken career" after charges forced him to resign.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

07 February 2012 2:45 PM

Pulling up trees

Back in the days when Labour were in power, an annual parliamentary question would go down to find out how much Government departments had spent on Christmas trees.

After the Coalition vowed a more Scrooge-like approach, Labour's Gareth Thomas has repeated the trick to make sure they are as good as their word.

For the most part, they have been - sparing the public purse from buying a pine tree and tinsel. But there are a couple of notable exceptions.

Firstly, Caroline Spelman's Environment Department (which is in charge of - you guessed it - trees) spent £2,011 on trees and decorations last year.

And the mysterious "Government Hospitality", which runs the once equally murky wine cellar, spent £2,250 (excluding VAT) on a decorated tree for Lancaster House. According to Foreign Office minister David Lidington, this was to support the "commercial hire" of the building by outside groups.

Let's hope they were charged a little extra to party under the tree.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

30 January 2012 3:10 PM

Transparency writ large

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude is giving a speech in Washington (USA, rather than Wearside) today on open data and transparency.

Leave aside for a minute the fact that Government data dumps have an uncanny knack of arriving late in the day and spread across several websites, the speech contained a couple of lines that caught my eye.

In a list of examples of different government approaches around the world, Maude said: "In Liberia the struggle to publish government contracts with the forestry industry prompted mafia reprisals.

"In some parts of India where internet access is not available officials paint spreadsheets of welfare payments on village walls so local people can judge if the claimants are real or fraudulent.
"Brazil now requires officials to post expenses within 24 hours to reduce corruption and improving public confidence in government. And as a result President Dilma dismissed six ministers in 2011 linked to corruption scandals.
"Governments are finding transparency risky, difficult and uncomfortable. But transparency sticks – it’s irreversible once you start. And I believe transparency will become the defining characteristic of future public policy."

I love the idea of officials daubing roadsides with spreadsheets. Perhaps when the Budget comes round on March 23, Treasury civil servants should paint Red Book figures on the side of an iconic building.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

25 January 2012 3:34 PM

Ed's Class War dog-whistle


Ed Miliband won PMQTs today by playing the man as much as the ball.  Most intriguing was his heavy use of phrases like "arrogant" and "smug" towards Cameron.

"Total arrogance! ... How bad do things have to get in our economy to shake him out of his complacency."

"He and his Chancellor are the byword for self-satisfied, smug complacency."

" .. put aside [your] pride and arrogance ... "

At first glance, these are just adjectives that the focus groupies have found to be toxic for the Dave brand. But it's actually a bit more than that.

I'm told by a shadow cabinet source that the key purpose is to reinforce Ed's message that Cameron is "out of touch". But subliminally they go further, by planting the idea that the PM is an over-privileged toff.  Complacency implies he is insulated from the real world. Arrogance suggests he sees himself as belonging to an elite. Smugness, that it is an uncaring elite.  Pride suggests his sense of superiority outweighs his sense of justice.

It's reminiscent of, but much more subtle than, the controversial tactics that Gordon Brown's people tried in 2007 and 2008, when they hired kids in top hats to follow the PM around.  It all backfired, of course, and was (mostly) abandoned after a bit of a hoo-ha at the disastrous Crewe & Nantwich by-election in 2008.

My source insists the current campaign is legitimate because it is reflects Cameron's political choices, which Labour regard as favouring the few, arguing:  "We can't use class war, but we can remind people that he has not experienced in his life what they have to go through in theirs, which influences what he does."

Some may well disagree, viewing it as "playing the man" rather than the issue. But what's undeniable is that it worked this afternoon. Cameron had no ready retort.



Joe Murphy

follow me on twitter    @JoeMurphyLondon



08 December 2011 3:40 PM

Clegg's olive branch to strikers

While Andrew Lansley was offering a new deal on health sector pension reform but sparking fresh anger from the unions, Nick Clegg has been out been out trying to smooth tensions with the public sector.

His comments are significant because they come in the aftermath of last week's pension strike - branded a "damp squib" by David Cameron - and George Osborne's fresh round of austerity which will hit public servants hard.

The Lib-Dem Deputy PM acknowledged public sector workers "bristle" at talk of paring back the public sector, and insisted rebalancing the economy was not "code for cutting them adrift".

Warning against re-opening old divisions, he said: "Many of our public sector workers are making sacrifices, and I am hugely grateful for it. And I am grateful to the people making sacrifices in the private sector too.

"And what will hurt both groups is if we now allow this debate to become polarised - as if our dilemma is helping the public sector versus the private sector; the North versus the South. Picking industry or picking banking.

"Because if we play into these bygone caricatures of the left and the right, if we allow our society to fracture into these camps, that is the surest way to drag the UK back to the 1980s."

I suspect there is a dual message here: one for the public sector, to say the LibDems feel their pain. And one for Tory Coalition colleagues, to say lay off the tough talk.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

18 October 2011 12:40 PM

Sorry, Ed, Cameron won't oblige

Ed Miliband's hope of dragging the PM to the chamber probably won't be fulfilled. Even if John Bercow agrees to an urgent question on the Fox affair, Downing Street would rather send another minister to face the inevitable Labour cries of "Where's the Prime Minister?"

And the identity of the minister whose afternoon is at risk of being ruined?  Step forward Sir George Young, the sturdy baronet and Leader of the House who is even now at the ready for the call, ESP sources reveal.  A thoroughly nice and dependable bloke, Sir George, in the spirit of Downton's Lord Grantham.

 Stop Press:  Bercow has just indicated in the House he will accept an Urgent Question once the report has been published, which could mean just after Prime Minister's Questions tomorrow.  Stand by, Sir George


Joe Murphy



15 September 2011 3:27 PM

Danny admits we are better off outside the euro

Breaking news ... Danny Alexander, the former campaign chief for Britain in Europe, has admitted that it's a good thing he didn't win the Battle of Sterling.

He 'fessed up in an interview with the Evening Standard, when asked if it was lucky that the pro-euro campaign did not prevail.

"I think there is no doubt at all that the flexibilities we have, not being part of the euro, have been very helpful to the UK in dealing with the economic crisis we've had," he said.

Asked if that was politico-speak for admitting he was wrong, DA responded: "Who knows how it would have un-folded if things had worked out differently. I'm still a very firm believer that our national interest lies as a wholehearted member of the EU engaging positively to get the best for Britain. That's what always motivated me and that has not changed one iota."  He did not, however, say he still wants to join the euro.

There are lots of other good angles in the interview with this unassuming Lib Deb star.  He tells the unions that the Government is making contingency plans to defeat the strikes; urges his party to stand firm with the austerity policies and the Coalition; attacks Boris Johnson over the 50p rate and rebuffs the Tory Right on repatriation of powers.

But I like his description of why being brought up on a remote island (Colonsay, pop. 110) made him the man he is today.


Joe Murphy

follow me  on Twitter  .... @JoeMurphyLondon




18 August 2011 12:06 PM

The £50k bill for ministerial office refits

Today the Standard reveals that Transport Secretary Philip Hammond's ministerial sofas have been reupholstered at a cost of almost £5,000.

The spending has angered transport unions and passenger groups, coming so soon after commuters were told to brace themselves for record fares hikes. The department insists the re-covering the "high quality" sofas was better value for money than replacing them.

But the spending is part of a wider £50k bill for redecorating or refurbishing ministerial offices run up by the Coalition - prompting accusations of "hypocrisy" at a time of supposed austerity.

Among some of the gems uncovered by our FOI requests is the Department for International Development's £3,057.56 bill for new furnishings - "many of which were purchased from charity shops". Andrew Mitchell, Alan Duncan and Stephen O'Brien perched on second-hand sofas makes a great image.

The Foreign Office spent a massive £34,426.64 creating offices for two Lords ministers - Lord Howell and Lord Green. That included £1,995 for "antique furniture maintenance" in Lord Green's office. The FOI response said costs were high because the department's HQ is a listed building which sometimes needs "specialist heritage paints, fabrics and the use of specialist fabrics".

Intrigued, I asked more about the antiques. This is what came back: "The accommodation used for Lord Green was converted from general office space and additional furniture was required to set up the office. To do this, we used antiques that are held for this purpose, rather than buy new furniture. The items, a desk, a drum table, eight leather chairs, two leather armchairs, required restoration, minor damage repair and polishing. These items mirror the style of the FCO building and are suitable for a Ministerial office where meetings with foreign dignitaries and other important contacts are held. There were no “heritage” fabrics used on this furniture, but a specialist antique craftsman was required to restore the items."

Creating an office suite for Baroness Warsi in the Cabinet Office cost £2,172, while redecorating Home Secretary Theresa May's cost £2,000.

Ministers in nine departments decided to make do with the offices as they are: Treasury, Defence, Work and Pensions, Justice, Communities and Local Government, Environment, Energy and Climate Change, Culture Media and Sport and Business, Innovation and Skills.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

28 July 2011 12:04 PM

PM will give evidence under oath

It was not clear from Lord Justice Leveson's statement, but ESP can reveal that David Cameron and every other witness will give evidence under oath.

Sources close to the inquiry stress that the PM is not being singled out but that all witnesses are being treated the same.

Downing Street says Mr Cameron has nothing to hide and will give evidence in whatever form the judge asks.

It is possible that ministers from the Labour government, and perhaps Gordon Brown, will also be called to give evidence. They too would be under oath.



Joe Murphy




08 July 2011 2:39 PM

Coulson swore "on oath" that he was innocent

Intriguing news about the assurances that Andy Coulson gave to David Cameron.

Couson actually swore on oath that he was not mixed up in phone hacking. And I've learned that Cameron commissioned a private security company to investigate whether AC had a criminal past.

That's what the PM was talking about this morning when he referred to commissioning background checks.  Here's the sequence:

In 2007, before Coulson was hired, Cameron asked him directly about hacking. Coulson said he did not know it was going on and did not approve or condone it. Cameron did not ask him about bribery - for the simple reason that nobody had alleged that in those days.

At the same time, Tory HQ hired private investigators to check AC's background.  (As an aside, I wonder how they can do such checks without accessing police records that are supposed to be secret? If they did, isn't that sort of thing illegal?)

In 2009, before AC appeared in front of the Culture select committee, my source says "he gave the assurances on oath".  I don't know if Coulson whipped out his own personal Bible to convince Cam he was telling the truth or if that is a standard ritual at Conservative HQ ...

Cameron's view is that Coulson, having given his word, is innocent until proven guilty.  It is extraordinarily loyal, since the safer thing to do would be to dump on him as fast as possible.  "We would be hurt and annoyed if it turned out he had not told the truth," says a senior Tory. To which you could add  " . . . and also badly damaged."

I hope Ed Miliband did not waste money on private investigators to delve into Tom Baldwin's past. Lord Ashcroft had already done that!


Joe Murphy

follow me on Twitter  @JoeMurphyLondon



30 June 2011 9:01 AM

Expenses watchdog in "phone tapping" row

A "telephone tapping" row has erupted at Westminster over the new expenses watchdog keeping recordings of conversations with MPs for at least six years.

MPs have clashed repeatedly with IPSA officials over their expenses and now it appears that many of these conversations will be lying in an electronic archive for years to come.

I suspect some MPs would be left quite shamefaced if they ever made their way into the public arena.

Helen Jones, the Labour MP for Warrington North - who is not believed to be one of those MPs who has used colourful language with IPSA workers - has been probing the watchdog over its recording policy.

Scott Woolveridge, the acting chief executive of IPSA told her: "Telephone voice recordings are subject to IPSA's Information Management records retention and disposition schedules which specify the period for which they are held.

"The current policy states that electronic files, which cover telephone recordings, will be retained for a period of six years. When the agreed retention period expires, electronic files will be reviewed and either retained for a further period, if still required for business purposes, or destroyed."

IPSA's deputy director of operations, two team leaders of the information team and the head of assurance and review are authorised to listen to telephone voice recordings to "monitor quality standards and to identify training needs".

Mr Woolveridge adds: "Additionally, members of IPSA's senior management can request access to specific voice recordings if there is a business requirement for them to do so."

Ms Jones accepts phone calls should be retained but challenged the need to keep them for six years.

"Without an explanation, it does seem an extraordinary length of time," she says.

"It seems to me very odd to keep them for six years. It's another example of the vast bureaucracy that IPSA is creating."

IPSA states on its website that phone conversations may be recorded but its information management policy is under review - and the retention period may change, Mr Woolveridge adds.

Nicholas Cecil








28 June 2011 8:25 AM

Tigers come to Whitehall

A new breed of civil servants has been unleashed on Whitehall in a bid to scrap unnecessary regulations - "red tape tigers".

Born at the Department for Transport, the officials get their claws into each other’s policy areas and suggest what rules and laws could be, erm, thrown to the lions.

“The red tape tigers have been appointed to tear up regulations across the department - hence the name,” an insider said.

Tigers (who I understand even wear a badge) submit their findings to a “star chamber” where officials are brought in to defend their regulations. Decisions are then taken on whether to keep, scrap or amend them.

It is part of the red tape challenge launched by David Cameron earlier this year to reduce the burden on businesses in the pursuit of economic growth.

Other departments are believed to have copied the tiger team system following directions from Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell that scrapping regulations should be a priority.

“We are all learning from each other,” said a Whitehall source.

“There are some pretty robust processes in place that have got real teeth.”

All we need now is to find one called Tony.

Apparently tiger teams were once mentioned in West Wing (confession time - it's not a show I ever got into).  The term originates from aerospace design as 'a team of undomesticated and uninhibited technical specialists, selected for their experience, energy, and imagination, and assigned to track down relentlessly every possible source of failure in a spacecraft subsystem'. (via Wikipedia, H/T The Sun's Graeme Wilson).

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

27 June 2011 2:40 PM

Fox: Loose talk costs lives

Defence Secretary Liam Fox today publicly warned his military chiefs that loose talk could cost lives.

He is understood to share the anger of David Cameron at the comments made by the head of the Navy, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, questioning the sustainability of the operation to oust Colonel Gaddafi.

The Prime Minister dragged the First Sea Lord into No10 for a dressing down earlier this month and both he and Mr Fox want a simple and united message to go out to the dictator.

In a question and answer session after a speech on military reforms today, Mr Fox said: “We must be very careful, those of us who have authority in defence, in discussing the sustainability of our mission. People’s lives are at stake. There can be only one message that goes out to Libya  - that is we have the military capability, political resolve and legal authority to see through what we started.”

Nicholas Cecil

Brian Haw is still making monkeys of the authorities

Brian Haw has had the last laugh.  A week after his death from cancer, there are more tents than ever in Parliament Square, as these pictures show.

His legacy is not just the continuing anti-war protest. It is also that protesters are still making a mockery of the authorities who tried so very hard to ban Haw's tent vigil.


Stretching from the corner of Whitehall (above) ...

... past Haw's original camp site, directly opposite the entrance to the Commons (below)

 ... to the corner with Millbank (above) ...

... all the way to the Mandela Statue oppposite Westminster Abbey (below)


Meanwhile, behind those high fences, council gardeners are planting perfect flowerbeds and manicuring the lawn, presumably to be unveiled when (or should that be if) the protesters are finally evicted by the courts.

I wouldn't bet on the authorities succeeding. After all, it's over five years since Parliament passed a law specifically to get rid of Haw and his followers - only for it to be declared an unlawful law (not a great advert for the skills of MPs and Govt. lawyers!).

Haw must be laughing his socks off.

Joe Murphy



20 June 2011 12:08 PM

Tough talk on pensions

As if the looming strike over public sector pension reform wasn't headache enough for the Government, plans to equalise the state pension age are now causing outrage.

MPs are demanding changes to plans which could see 500,000 women forced to work longer, particularly to help the 33,000 facing an additional two years of toil before they hit the garden (or the cruise ships).

Iain Duncan Smith is adamant the Government will stick to its plans, as is Number 10. But when pressed there appears to be a little flexibility - sources point out the Pensions Bill is going through the Commons where there are sure to be amendments put forward by backbenchers. "Obviously we recognise there is backbench concern," said a source close to IDS.

The likelihood is that some way will be found to reduce the impact on the hardest hit but only if it doesn't cost the Treasury too much money. Big brains will be sitting down to work out how that can be done, whether among MPs, campaigners or Whitehall.

Meanwhile the row over public sector pension reforms, and the likelihood of crunch talks breaking down, just keeps escalating. Negotiations are due to take place next Monday but some unions are threatening to walk away after Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander went public with the Government's plans on Friday.

Today Gail Cartmail, assistant general secretary of Unite, had some harsh words for the man known as Beaker. She said his intervention had left ordinary workers "completely confused", telling the Standard: “It doesn’t matter what you think about the debate around public sector pensions, they deserve better than negotiation by megaphone.
“I do think it is inhumane just to breach the normal protocol of negotiation in the way that Danny did, in particular since he says it was because the Government wanted to protect the low paid.”

Ms Cartmail says Unite won't walk away from talks if talks are going to take place. But she added: “We are looking for a commitment to serious and mature fact-based negotiations. We do not want to be trading ideological points - we should be beyond that.”

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

17 June 2011 12:04 PM

MPs' pensions in the crosshairs

While Danny Alexander was setting out details of the public sector pensions shake-up this morning (and angering union bosses in the process), he had a stark message for his Commons colleagues.

"These changes will have to apply to MPs' pensions too, of course, in terms of contribution increases and so on," he said.

At first this sounded like the same regime would be applied, but that seems unlikely - Lord Hutton specifically did not look at MPs' generous pensions as part of his study into the issue.

Danny later said he did not know how much more MPs would have to pay towards their retirement but added: "I suspect it will be significant."

Reforms to the Commons pension scheme is currently delayed, inviting a charge of "do as I say, not as I do". The point was not lost on Lord Hutton, who was asked if taking the axe to public sector pensions might have been more politically acceptable if MPs had done it to their own first.

"I think a lot of people would say yes to that," he told Sky News.

"It is clear that the MPs' pension scheme is going to have to change and I hope that will also persuade people that there is not one rule for the MPs and a different rule for everyone else."

But as Danny also pointed out, linking MPs' retirement age to the state pension age is somewhat futile - it all rests in the hands of the voters.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

16 June 2011 2:40 PM

Clegg revenge on Huhne


Nick Clegg had a few choice words today on his arch-rival close Cabinet colleague Chris Huhne who is being investigated by police over claims he used his wife's name to avoid a driving ban.

"I really don't know any politician who is better at getting his points across," the Liberal Democrat leader joked at a lunch of journalists, before adding quietly: "That's got him back for Calamity Clegg".

He was referring to Mr Huhne's team seeking to tag him "Calamity" during the Lib-Dem leadership battle in 2007.

Mr Huhne denies the allegation that his now estranged wife took points on her licence to protect him.

The Deputy Prime Minister could also not resist a stinging attack on Labour leader Ed Miliband whose recent performances have left Labour MPs moaning into their beer. 

Contrasting Mr Miliband's woes to the claims about Manchester United star Ryan Giggs' alleged infidelity, he quipped: "One is a fading left winger who has had a bad time in the media . . . The other is Ryan Giggs."

 Nicholas Cecil

Update: Joe Murphy writes:  Cleggie's humour appeared to falter slightly when he saw that mayoral wannabe Lembit Opik was my guest.  I asked what qualities he would look for in a London mayoral candidate - and how the party could cut through againstr Boz and Ken ... On the first part, he mused dangerously "Welsh, Estonian ..?" before saying that it should be someone who knows London well and could campaign on those issues. He ignored the second part of the question. 

10 June 2011 1:23 PM

"Brutal plot"???

Exactly how damning of Balls are these documents?

Judge for yourself: Here is the document that the story possibly refers to. It's the one headlined "No silver spoon in our mouths" and is the only one in which I have so far spotted containing "brutal". (sorry about the capitals - that's how Brown wrote it)




These are fascinating documents, genuine political treasures. And maybe tomorrow's revelations on economic mistakes will damn Mr Balls forever more. But I don't see a killer revelation so far.

Joe Murphy


Thieves in the Commons


A GANG of thieves is feared to be roaming the Commons after nearly 30 computers were stolen in just five months.

MPs are so alarmed that they are calling for tighter security, including possibly more CCTV, after the theft of 25 laptops, two computers, an iPad and three mobile phones since the start of the year.

Thieves have also made off with a camcorder, sat-nav, set of keys, watch, camera, camcorder, wallet, coat, a charm and two amounts of cash.

The Metropolitan Police have been called in to snare the culprits.

One of the victims, Keith Vaz, Labour chairman of the Commons home affairs committee, says: "This should be one of the most secure buildings in the country so I’m astonished at these figures (on the number of thefts).

"I hope that they will now put a proper strategy in place which may have to include the installation of additional CCTV."

He added that the number of reception staff in some buildings appeared to have been cut which could make it easier for thieves to come and go unnoticed.

Thieves sneaked into his private office while he was at a Commons reception and stole his computer which contained confidential information. They also stole a laptop from the MP in the next door office.

Mark Field, Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster whose constituency includes the Commons, said: "Given the amount of security at the Commons, with armed police, it seems incredible that people are getting access and walking out with computers and other personal items.

"Given the amount of stuff that has gone missing, it seems to be a highly organised gang responsible rather than just an opportunist."

A parliamentary spokesman said: "The Metropolitan Police are investigating a number of thefts in the Commons."

But will the thieves be caught? The odds are not high. Just five people have been prosecuted in the last five years for thefts on the parliamentary estate.




Nicholas Cecil

09 June 2011 4:04 PM

Pickles's pie emporium

Eric Pickles has had a great wheeze to satisfy both the taxpayer and his appetite.

He's asked officials to investigate prospects for renting out the giant foyer of his ministerial HQ, Eland House, for a Waitrose or other chain store branch.

Perhaps the M&S food hall opposite is too far for him to walk for munchies.

This is the same area that Harriet Harman blew £2.4 million on a grand refit - including £4,000 each Parisian sofas and whacky green "peace pods" where civil servants are meant to meet in a tranquil environment or something like that.

The ground floor has floorspace worth around a million pounds a year in rents, according to valuations held at the Land Registry.And it's bang in the middle of the upmarket Cardinal Place development near Victoria Station.  Which means Pickles might well rake in a bundle of cash if Tesco move in.

And, finally, Harriet's peace pods might come to good use - as cosy nooks to scoff that ready meal you just bought for lunch.

Joe Murphy

03 June 2011 12:42 PM

More from Maude

Earlier this week Nic and I interviewed Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, who had some bad news for civil servants on their "archaic" perks and some tough talk on plans to deal with strikes.

One thing he wasn't keen on, though, was new threshold rules to stop walkouts. The idea has been pushed by Boris Johnson and Tory MP Dominic Raab among others, but Maude said it wasn't "obvious" the move would help and that current laws work "reasonably well".

"We certainly haven’t closed our mind to changes but you need to have pretty unequivocal evidence that changes are...needed to protect the interests of workers who are unable to express their interest through a ballot,” he said.

If Maude gets his way, the civil service will look and feel very different by the time the next election comes around. Smaller, more agile and with better performance management, the vision also includes a fundamental shift in how the people in charge of delivery - rather than dreaming up policy - are regarded.

"It’s a bit like a sort of class system. There is white collar which is policy and there is blue collar which is making things happen," he said. "There needs to be real parity."

Although Maude wants fundmental changes, he went out of his way to stress he is not attacking individual civil servants (though a few will see it that way) but rather the culture of Sir Humphreyism - glacial and obsessed with playing the blame game. He urged ministers to treat civil servants with respect and criticised Labour's handling of Whitehall.

“I do take seriously people who join the civil service," Maude said. "The majority work hard, do join it for good reasons, with a public service ethos and should be respected.

"One of the least attractive features of the last Government was the tendency for ministers to take credit for anything good that happened and dump the blame for everything bad on their officials. That I regard as not honourable.”

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

31 May 2011 12:01 PM

MPs to win gold for early summer break


MPs are set to head off for their summer break from Westminster next year at the earliest time for at least 30 years.

I understand that the Commons is due to rise by July 13 before tight road restrictions for the Olympics 2012 come into force in London.

No doubt Sir George Young, the wise Commons Leader who will have to approve the timetable, will be aware of the public backlash which could be sparked by MPs departing for the summer recess so early.

Many MPs stress that when they are away from Parliament they are working hard in their constituencies not sunning themselves for weeks on end in the South of France.

But some backbenchers, including veteran Labour MP David Winnick, are already calling for a vote on the House rising at its earliest since 1980.

Nicholas Cecil




25 May 2011 3:13 PM

The Met and gifts

There's a development in the phone hacking case.

Scotland Yard has agreed to change its rules on disclosiing hospitality and/or gifts to top officers. You can read the news story here or scroll down to the Met's letter below.

Under the old rules, board members had to disclose to a register kept in the Commissioner's office any treats or gifts offered. But (and it does seem rather daft) only the gift was published and not the donor's name. From now on we will know who is paying the lunch tab (me, on occasion, I should add!).

The significance is that this is another concession to critics who say Scotland Yard had too cosy a relationship with the Murdoch media empire. This extraordinary affair is still reverberating.

Credit goes to Labour's Tom Watson - my nomination for Backbencher of the Year for his high-risk camapign to break open the files of News International.

Watson has been chipping away for months at the Met over the failure of its original phone hacking investigation to nail any culprits other than former News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman and dodgy private eye Glen Mulcaire. Recently he turned the spotlight on whether Yates of the Yard - assisatant commissioner John Yates - should have declared a private lunch with ex NoW editor Neil Wallis. Yates did not break any rules, I stress, because it was a "private" event, but that begged the question of whether the rules were good enough.

Sources in the Met say Sir Paul Stephenson and his deputy have always decalred everything in full and this change just brings the rest of the board into line.

I should add, in fairness to my friends at the Met, that the convictions of Goodman/Mulcaire were seen as quite a success at the time. They drew a firm line in an area of the criminal law that had been terribly fuzzy. It is also fair to mention that the political pressure on the Met did not really build up until after Labour lost the endorsement of Rupert Murdoch and the general election of 2010.

Sir Paul may well be grilled about this - and the vexed question of when a private lunch should be made public - when the MPA next meets, tomorrow.  Here's the letter:

Joe MurphyMett letter pic
Met letter pic 2


23 May 2011 12:14 PM

Campbell hits back

Earlier this month a storm erupted when Sir John Chilcot's Iraq Inquiry published a pile of previously-secret evidence.

The gem was a letter from former military intelligence chief Major General Michael Laurie, who flatly contradicted evidence given by ex-Downing Street spin doctor Alastair Campbell about whether a key dossier on Saddam's weapons threat was meant to "make a case for war".

Campbell had told the Inquiry that it was not; Maj Gen Laurie argued the precise opposite. "I had no doubt at that time this was exactly its purpose and these very words were used," he said.

At the time, Campbell said he had nothing further to add to his evidence. But he has changed his mind, and has written to the Inquiry to argue that much of the media coverage it generated was "innacurate".

"I would like to make three points," Campbell writes, wanting to put them "on record".

"The first is that I do not know and have never met Maj Gen Laurie, and was not aware of any involvement he might have had in the September 2002 dossier on Iraq's WMD. Second, neither I - nor, so far as I am aware, anyone else in Downing Street - was made aware of his views at the time, or at any time in the subsequent nine years, until he felt moved to write to you, and his letter was published. The third point is that witnesses who were directly involved in the drafting of the dossier have made clear to several inquiries that at no time did I put anyone under pressure, or say to them or anyone else that the then prime minister's purpose in publishing the dossier was to make the case for war."

Sir John has written a lovely letter back, seeking Campbell's agreement to publish his correspondence "in the interest of fairness".

I'm rather looking forward to the final report, which I suspect will be nothing like the whitewash that was Hutton.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

20 May 2011 4:07 PM

Whitehall to staff: here is the exit door

Once upon a time, a career in the civil service was many people's Holy Grail - job security, a gold-plated pension, and extra holidays to celebrate the Queen's birthday.

Not any more, it seems.

In response to last year's axe-swinging spending review, the training arm of Dods launched a series of conferences called "Getting out to get on - career opportunities outside the civil service".

"Following last year’s Spending Review it was revealed that between them Government departments were expected to shed over 100,000 civil service posts as part of efforts to reduce administration costs by 33%," its website says.

"The Government’s cull of quangos, in which 192 public bodies are to be abolished and a further 112 will be merged, will also produce an overall headcount loss in the civil services...

"For many civil servants now is a time to consider whether their future career might lie outside the civil service. If it does, what are the considerations they must take into account and what are the challenges in securing employment outside the public sector?

"Attend this conference to explore whether a career outside the civil service is for you."

Perhaps this is what you'd expect from a private sector provider - there's certainly a market there.

But I was slightly surprised to see the events being pushed on the official civil service website, complete with testimonials.

Could it be an attempt to increase "exit velocity", as the Whitehall jargon would have it?

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

Exclusive - Keith Vaz burgled in the Commons

It sounds like a joke - the chairman of the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee has been burgled.

But it's not funny when a senior parliamentarian's office in the heart of Westminster is apparently open to thieves to just walk in.

And its deadly serious when it happens on the eve of President Obama's state visit, whcih includes a speech to MPs and Peers in Westminster Hall.

Keith left his office in Norman Shaw North (the real Scotland Yard, before New Scotland Yard was opened) at 7pm to attend some awards in the Commons. He came back at 10pm to find his researcher's laptop and an iPad had been taken.

Worse, it turns out the MP next to him lost a laptop too - and has previously had his passport pinched from the office. Indeed there has been a spate of such thefts all over the Palace of Westminster.

The most shocking thing is that there are no video cameras to show who was prowling these corridors of power. (MPs might be to blame for this omission, as they prize their privacy highly). MPs have a lot of sensitive material on their computers and in their offices - not least a chairman as well connected as the hyperactive Mr Vaz.

An internal security review is surely needed. This thief (or thieves) might stoop to worse crimes. Or might be blackmailed by his underworld contacts into helping somebody of evil intent.

MPs and their files are too important to get anything less than the best protection available.

Joe Murphy

16 May 2011 2:24 PM

Ministerial corrections in full

Today I wrote about a row sparked by the revelation that Coalition ministers are having to correct themselves more than once a week.

If you want to look over the corrections for yourself, you can get the whole dossier here: (Download Corrections)

As ever with figures, they can be spun one way or the other. In countering the Labour accusations that ministers are "sloppy and incompetent", Cabinet Office sources commissioned some figures of their own.

They produced this table to support their assertion that this Government is "working harder and makes less (sic) mistakes than ministers in the previous session". (Apologies for the shoddy formatting)

                                        2009-10 2010-11 (to date)    Times difference
Corrections                                 61         69                  0.88
Oral answers and statements      2742    10168                  3.71
Corrections per oral                 2.22%     0.68%                 3.28
Written and oral                      27367     61524                 2.25
Corrections per
answer/statement                   0.22%     0.11%            1.99

Either way, surely the aspiration should be an error-free record?

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

13 May 2011 1:11 PM

More Secret Than MI5

Raise a glass as the State has just shed some indefensible secrecy.

For decades, the Government has kept the doors to its wine cellar firmly locked to journalists, and the public, to keep out prying eyes. MI5 has shown greater openess with its boss coming out of the shadows.

But The Standard has now been given exclusive access to the wine vault below Lancaster House in St James's. It's chilly, clinical yet coated in history.

Bottles range from £10,000 Chateau Latour 1961 to cheap Chilean wine.

Ministers are proud they are reforming the wine cellar to make it a self-financing operation. The biggest toast though should be for the end of the secrecy.

Nicholas Cecil

06 May 2011 2:15 PM

Huhne's alarm bells

Farcical scenes at Chris Huhne's Energy and Climate Change department, where the fire alarm has been ringing for the past three hours.

What was originally a routine 11am fire drill has turned into a full-scale debacle, I'm told, with the engineer called to fix it now stuck in traffic.

After two hours of standing around on the pavement outside, staff were allowed in to get their laptops and told to "work remotely". At 1pm on a Friday, I suspect productivity levels might be low for the rest of the afternoon. An invitation to celebrate POETS Day* if ever I heard one.

It's not the first time the Department's Whitehall Place HQ has suffered a glitch. 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 is cursed, though Coalition plotting has also been cheekily mooted.

*Google it if you're not sure.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse