A week at Westminster with Gordon MP Malcolm Bruce

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Murdoch scandal engulfs police and media

The tsunami that has engulfed the Murdoch organisation in the past couple of weeks has totally mesmerised Parliament and dominated almost everything.

In some ways almost nothing revealed about News International has surprised me, but the turn around by Labour and Conservative politicians has been astonishing to watch and none more so than the intervention of Gordon Brown.

It may be true that the leaders of the two larger parties can now reveal they were cowed and resentful about their incestuous relationship with the media, but to suggest that they made any attempt to do something about it and were stopped by civil servants beggars belief.

What may yet emerge as the even greater scandal than the behaviour of journalists, who, after all, are ranked along with politicians and estate agents in public esteem, is the relationship between the police and the media.

It is normal for news desks to phone around the police and other emergency services to find out what is happening, but it is different to pay for the information, and a short step from having police officers selling information and effectively acting as informers to the press.

The resignation of Rebekah Brooks, followed by the resignation of Sir Paul Stephenson and his deputy John Yates, with a judge-led review set to start, suggests that the inquiry will have far-reaching and unpredictable consequences.

Successful sign language pilots must reach whole UK

For me the last couple of weeks of the Parliamentary term before the recess has been, as it often is, frenetic and covered a range of topics ranging from deaf children, the Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintyre, field allowances for the North Sea and financial crimes in developing countries.

Three and a half years ago I asked Gordon Brown if he would meet a delegation of sign language users to explore what could be done for deaf people who rely on sign language, which gets almost no support compared with other minority languages. As a result, the Department for Education in England set up pilot schemes in Devon and Merseyside to support deaf children and their parents.

The pilots, known as I-Sign finished at the end of March this year and I have heard first hand that they have been a great success. New sign language interpreters have been trained and, as a result, communication between deaf children and their parents has been greatly helped and their educational achievements have been dramatically improved.

Last week I asked the Prime Minister if he would meet parents of deaf children to take these pilots forward to ensure the benefits were extended across the UK. He acknowledged their great success and undertook to ensure meetings were arranged by the Department of Education to take it forward. I will hold the government to this and will also urge devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to learn from the practical experience.

Standard of proof on Chinook pilots was not met

In August last year, Defence Secretary, Liam Fox asked me to be a member of a panel to review the evidence of the crash of a Chinook helicopter in June 1994. The panel was headed by Scottish judge Lord Philip and the other panellists were Michael Forsyth and Helen Liddell (both former secretaries of state for Scotland).

While, of course, all of us remembered the crash, its shocking reverberations and the fact that it remained controversial, none of us had taken a close interest in the issue. That enabled us to approach the inquiry with no preconceived ideas and an open mind.

It was clear that senior officers and officials in the RAF and MOD were absolutely sure that the pilots were negligent to a gross degree. This was strongly persuasive. However, once we read that regulations at the time said that negligence in the case of deceased pilots could only be applied in circumstance that there was absolutely no doubt whatsoever it became clear that, in the absence of voice recorders or a black box, any substantive witnesses, and the scale of destruction of the helicopter, there was not absolute certainty – indeed in the minds of people with knowledge and understanding, there was doubt.

I have already received protests from constituents with knowledge of helicopters telling me that we were wrong to set aside the negligence ruling. However, it was based on their certain subjective opinion not incontrovertible certain knowledge.

What reinforced our decision was the fact that the RAF had clearly agonised over the apportionment of blame and a couple of years after the crash set it aside from any consideration of a fatal crash. Even around the time of the crash there was concern that the focus on blame not only got in the way of getting the facts but may have led to pilots staying with aircraft too long to avoid a negligence charge.

I was also personally astonished that the legal advice given at the time as to what ‘beyond there should be absolutely no doubt whatever’ actually meant was that it could mean whatever the RAF wanted it to mean. I don’t think that is a credible interpretation and it led clearly to a miscarriage of justice.

Huhne meeting gets oil industry and Government talking again

Ever since the budget decision to apply an additional supplementary corporation tax onto the oil and gas industry I have been trying to get the Government to engage with the industry to understand the risk to future investment and hopefully to lead to a change in the tax allowances to bring significant investments back on course.

Last week, Sir Robert Smith and I took a panel of senior oil and gas executives to meet Energy Secretary Chris Huhne.

I was impressed by the industry’s case that up to ten billion barrels of recoverable reserves were at risk and the practical examples they were able to give of projects that may not go ahead and the likely transfer of interest to other oil players.

In response, Chris Huhne said the Government was keen to get as much investment going as possible and that a good place to start was with decommissioning allowances, which is something the industry is keen on.

What was more useful than the meeting itself was the undertaking for the department and the industry to have further meetings to discuss detailed proposals on decommissioning, tax reform and the facts on which decisions are based as there is quite a gulf between the industry and government on the basic facts.

Of course, there has to be engagement with the Treasury but we are working on that too and, in any case, the Department for Energy and Climate Change is the industry’s sponsoring department and has the technical knowledge which the Treasury needs to consider.

The Government has already made some concessions and I hope that in the coming months a greater understanding between government and industry will develop and lead in due course to a stable and more favourable tax regime.