PMQs verdict: Cameron squirms away from Corbyn's housing attack

Most of PMQs was dominated by the little stuff, but what gloriously weird little stuff it was.

Corbyn came in wearing a large badge which said: "I LOVE UNIONS" (it's actually a heart symbol, but you get the idea). Personally I agree, but it was unspeakably naff.

His opening question was one from the public, sent in by someone called "Rosie", which also happens to be name of his chief whip, Rosie Winterton. She sat on the end of the front bench, laughing innocently, while Tories guffawed in a way which bore no relation to the funniness of the situation. Corbyn at first seemed baffled by the gales of laughter, then realised and made an awkward series of observations.

"This Rosie is in her 20s," he said. Winterton's smile faltered. When it returned it was more of a rictus grin. And this one, Corbyn said, didn’t have such a nice house. Winterton couldn't really hide her discomfort with that. Then Corbyn got onto what he wanted to talk about – housing.

"When you get a letter from the chief whip that usually spells trouble," Cameron replied. It was a revealing moment. More polished, funnier, but also suggestive of someone who always has his eye out for party political advantage. As ever, Cameron is more professional, Corbyn more authentic.

Rosie became a weird sort of magic word for the rest of the session. Cameron talked about "Rosies who are living in social houses". A little later he said: "Let's take this back to Rosie." Rosie wants a country with a strong economy where she can afford to buy a home, the prime minister said, without ever having met her. Rosie Rosie Rosie. Wherever she was, whoever she is, Rosie must have regretted sending in that letter.

Cameron is vulnerable on housing, but Corbyn couldn't nail a blow. It was frustrating to watch. The Labour leader's observation that the Tories had shot down a proposal for rented houses to be fit for human habitation didn't have the impact it deserved. His criticism of the Tories for not building enough houses was batted away quite easily by Cameron. Even his impassioned outburst of frustration at the conditions many have to live in did not really resonate.

Cameron used all the usual techniques. He compared his house-building record with New Labour, even though that is a completely pointless thing to do with Corbyn. He reeled off statistics specifically designed to counter this sort of interrogation. He did the standard professional politician thing. But he did, it must be said, wrestle directly with the issue a little more. It wasn't all bluster. Corbyn's policy-heavy approach has forced the prime minister to be a little more specific in his responses. He is still a fundamentally evasive public speaker, but less so.

If a normal member of the public had watched the session they would have been in no doubt about the dynamic. Corbyn looks like he really cares, like he genuinely is incensed by the Tory failure to do anything about the housing crisis and the appalling conditions many renters live in. Cameron appeared the consummate politician. Instinctively, that average member of the public would probably side with Corbyn. But he probably wouldn't vote for him.

The utterly ramshackle nature of Corbyn's presentation makes him appear unreliable. But it also diminishes the points he is authentically making. The Labour leader needs to ask shorter questions, to press a point - as he did at the start of his tenure - to finish a line strongly and with emphasis to indicate control and dominance. In short, he needs to be a little more professional. Doing so would not diminish his sense of authenticity but allow it to be communicated more effectively.

And that's not just about presentation, but also topics. Why on earth Corbyn wasn't talking about the junior doctors' strike is anyone's guess. Here was a great moment to pick a strike with public sympathy, on the health service no less, and get your attack on the prime minister embedded into tonight's news packages. He didn’t take it. That's just an error. That's not authenticity, it’s refusing to make the organisational decisions needed to maximise your ability to speak to the voters.

Cameron has taken a little bit of Corbyn, although he would be loath to admit it. If Corbyn could take a little of what Cameron's offering, he would be a more formidable presence at PMQs.

PMQs data analysis by Brandwatch

9,027 UK Twitter mentions of #PMQs
60.1% negative mentions and 39.9% positive mentions
Mentions of Cameron: 29.1% positive, 70.9% negative
Mentions of Corbyn: 44.8% positive, 55.2% negative

Main topics mentioned include:

Housing – 1,777 mentions
David Cameron's mum - 326 mentions
Jeremy Corbyn's badge - 478 mentions
Junior Doctors Strike - 347

Most popular tweets of the day:

 

The Home Office admits it deported twice as many children to dangerous countries as it thought it had

The government has deported over twice as many 18-year-olds to dangerous countries as it previously thought, according to an embarrassing admission from a Home Office minister.

James Brokenshire had originally said that just 1,616 asylum-seeking children were returned to Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Iran and Albania when they turned 18. But according to a correction released today, the real figure is 3,750.

The government has long operated a deportation programme at 18 for some of the asylum-seeking children who come to the UK. Instead of granting the children of war-torn countries like Afghanistan asylum, they are often given leave to remain as an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child. Then, when they turn 18, that status ends and they have to regulate their stay. Many have their asylum claims at this stage rejected.

This technique has become increasingly popular at the Home Office. Only six unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were rejected when they turned 18 in 2006, but the number grew and grew. By 2010, it was 870. It stayed at that level for a few years before declining slowly to 374 in 2014.

The figures released today include those young people and also those who arrive in the UK within six months of their 18th birthday. These children are not granted leave to remain as an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child, but instead just a standard temporary leave to remain.

Many of the young people who are deported at 18 grew up in the UK for as long as they can remember and do not know anyone in their country of birth. They are then shipped back to war-ravaged states such as Afghanistan, whose own ministers have explicitly told British officials there is no way they can guarantee their safety. Once returned, there is typically very little UK government assistance on the other end. Most of the work is done by the Refugee Support Network.

Brokenshire originally said that 791 young people had been deported to Afghanistan. The real figure is 2,018. He said 576 had been deported to Albania. The real figure is 1,002. He said 205 had been deported to Iraq. The real figure is 657. He said 40 had been deported to Iran. The real figure is 68. There was also one additional deportation to Libya, bringing the total for that country to four. The only accurate figure was for Syria, where one young person had been deported.
 

Bad day for Britain's spies as intelligence watchdog grows teeth

Intelligence agencies will be looking at today's intelligence and security committee report with horror. Back in the day, you could trust the committee to pay lip service to scrutiny but basically pass everything through on the nod. Malcolm Rifkind, the former chair, always claimed that it was a tough interrogator of the agencies, but when they once deigned to hold the evidence session in public, MPs were hardly able to stop themselves from getting the spies a cup of tea. To say the questions were soft would be an understatement. The Huffington Post ran with the headline 'Pussies Galore'.

That all changed with the removal of Rifkind, who stepped down as an MP at the election. He was replaced by Dominic Grieve, one of parliament's staunchest defenders of civil liberties and human rights. There are some other unusual figures on the committee as well, including SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson, fiercely independent Labour MP Gisela Stuart, and socialist Fiona Mactaggart, who has a strong record defending civil liberties and immigrant rights. There are still some establishment figures, like the Marquess of Lothian and Lord Janvrin, but it’s a different beast.

Its report today on the draft investigatory powers bill shows just how different it is and quite how beastly it intends to be to the home secretary. The bill allows for authorities to collect bulk data about internet users' habits and lets intelligence agencies target interception at electronic communication. It is the snoopers' charter in all but name. Under the old committee, it would have gone ahead with a pat on the back and some lip service about scrutiny. Under this committee, it is basically torn to pieces.

The committee raises three major problems with the draft bill: firstly, that the powers it is asking for - and the supposed safeguards for the public - are unclear; secondly, that there are a lack of privacy protections; thirdly, that it would give authorities excessive powers.

SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson is one of the new MPs on the committee

Lack of clarity

The report makes it clear that every aspect of the bill is beset by muddled demands and an unclear regulatory regime. The government ignored the committee's request that all the state's intrusive capabilities are put into the one bill, meaning the various powers are scattered all over the legislative books. It’s useful for authorities to keep it that way, because it makes it hard for anyone but lawyers to know exactly what powers they do or do not have.

But the lack of clarity seems to extend to the intentions of the people writing up the bill. In relatively polite terms, the committee basically tell the government that they don't know what they're doing. The report says:

"The issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, however it has been evident that even those working on the legislation have not always been clear as to what the provisions are intended to achieve. The draft bill appears to have suffered from a lack of sufficient time and preparation."

Even the way the state must treat the communications data it has obtained is confused, with the government preferring to rely on the murky definition of "good practice" to give itself maximum leeway. It’s precisely this type of gentleman's assurance the Rifkind committee always gave way on. The new committee does not.

"The approach to the examination of communications data is currently inconsistent and confusing," it finds. "The committee considers it essential that the same safeguards are applied to the examination of all communications data, irrespective of how it has been acquired. This must be clearly set out on the face of the legislation: it is not sufficient to rely on policy and good practice."

Home secretary Theresa May now has a critical independent reviewer of terror laws and intelligence committee to navigate

Lack of Privacy Protections

Theresa May is stuck in a pincer between two scrutiny institutions which used to be reliably loyal to the government. The first is the intelligence committee. The second is the independent reviewer of terrorism laws. This used to be Lord Carlile, who was arguably even more hawkish on terror legislation than the governments he was meant to be scrutinising. He was replaced by David Anderson, who seems to genuinely live up to his job description. His report into the draft bill was a major setback for May and demanded all sorts of judicial scrutiny.

May threw most of it in the bin but she did make concessions on an Investigatory Powers Commission to oversee the use of the powers. Today, that pincer movement strikes again, with the intelligence committee warning it isn't enough.

"We had expected to find universal privacy protections applied consistently throughout, or at least an overarching statement at the forefront of the legislation," the committee says. "Instead, the draft bill adopts a rather piecemeal approach, which lacks clarity and undermines the importance of the safeguards associated with these powers."

They recommend a whole new section of the legislation dedicated to "overarching privacy protections". They add: "This will ensure that privacy is an integral part of the legislation rather than an add-on."

It's clear May has a problem here. The two main bodies tasked with scrutinising state surveillance powers are demanding greater safeguards. If she presses ahead without them, she will be doing so against the explicit demands of the organisations tasked with overseeing her.

MI5 boss Andrew Parker's grilling by the intelligence committee under chair Malcolm Rifkind convinced many observers that it lacked teeth

Excessive powers

With or without the safeguards, the committee found the powers demanded by the bill far exceeded what the government could show it needed. They found no reason at all to allow 'bulk' interference warrants, but instead said the standard 'targeted' warrants could be drawn "sufficiently broadly" that they were unnecessary.

They also raised the alarm about plans for 'class' warrants, which would allow intelligence agencies to obtain any number of individual's private information at a time. They'd do this by requesting a type of information – for instance on travel data - regardless of how many people it would include. "Given that each bulk personal dataset potentially contains personal information about a large number of individuals - the majority of whom will not be of any interest to the agencies - the committee considers that each dataset is sufficiently intrusive that it should require a specific warrant," the committee found.

In both cases, it’s clear the agencies were demanding sweeping powers to maximise their room for manoeuvre in the future. In both cases, the committee shot them down.

May and the intelligence agencies have a real problem here. Her independent reviewer of terror legislation is actually independently reviewing terror legislation and her committee tasked with scrutinising the intelligence agencies is actually scrutinising the intelligence agencies. It’s a brave new world for civil liberties and privacy campaigners. The parts of the system tasked with tilting the balance of power away from the spies actually seem to be doing the thing they are supposed to do.

 

 

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