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Archive for November, 2008

Sunday
Nov 30,2008

David Cameron knows that attack is the best form of defence and I wonder whether the attack he has launched over the police handling of the arrest of Damian Green is intended to distract attention from the Conservative Party’s involvement in the whole matter.

So perhaps, the Conservatives might want to set the record straight by answering a few questions, such as:

  1. Is Chris Galley (the civil servant, who according to newspapers, was arrested on 19th November and started the sequence of events that led to the arrest of Danian Green) a member of the Conservative Party?  If so, when did he join and does he hold any positions within the Party?  If not, has he been a member of the Party in the past and when?
  2. According to the newspapers there was a relationship/links between Chris Galley and Damian Green.  How many times has Chris Galley met Damian Green and how many times have they spoken on the telephone or communicated by e-mail?
  3. Has Chris Galley met David Cameron or any other member of the Shadow Cabinet?
  4. Newspapers have reported variously that Chris Galley applied for a job with the Conservative Party and/or a job with Damian Green and that he has been a Conservative Party candidate in the past.  What other roles has he applied for in the past?
  5. Has Chris Galley been given any assurances or promises about future roles with the Conservative Party?  If so, who gave those promises or assurances?
  6. Who in the Conservative Party, apart from Damian Green, knew about Chris Galley’s role at the Home Office?
  7. Who in the Conservative Party knew of the source of the leaks that are alleged to be part of this case?
  8. Had Damian Green discussed leaks from the Home Office with David Cameron, Dominic Grieve or any other prominent Conservative?  If so, when?
Friday
Nov 28,2008

Damian Green’s arrest yesterday has predictably sparked controversy.  However, let’s get the facts in proportion.

Fact One: Why were the police officers concerned from the Counter-Terrorist Command?  The Metropolitan Police Special Branch was set up in 1883 and amongst its many other duties it had responsibility for investigating security breaches in Government departments, including leaks of confidential material (they also investigate allegations of breaches of electoral law).  Two years ago, the Metropolitan Police merged Special Branch with the Anti-Terrorist Branch to form a new Counter-Terrorist Command and, although the majority of the new Command’s work relates to terrorism, it still retains the wider remit of the former Special Branch.  So if there was an allegation about a leak from a Whitehall Department to be investigated by the police, it would fall to the Counter-Terrorist Command to do the work.

Fact Two: In any investigation, the police have got to follow the evidence. Even if the evidence leads into sensitive areas.  I backed the police in pursuing the so-called “cash for honours” inquiry, as did many in the Conservative Party who are now saying that the police action in this particular case is inappropriate.  In such highly sensitive cases, it would be unthinkable for the police not to consult the Crown Prosecution Service about whether each significiant step was proportionate in the context of the alleged offence and the material already gathered.  I cannot believe that this did not happen in this particular case.

Fact Three: Why were so many police officers involved?  In any operation involving a search and, in particular, examination and possible removal of computer equipment a number of police officers would necessarily have to attend.  The nine described in this particular instance sounds about right.

Fact Four:  Why was an “arrest” necessary?  If a search is to take place and if someone is to be interviewed at a police station, an arrest (which also gives the person arrested specific rights) is normally required.

I hope the controversy and fuss is not an attempt to prevent the police properly concluding their investigations.  Those who attempted to do so in “cash for honours” case were wrong and it would be equally wrong to try and derail the process in this case.  To do so, would be inappropriate political interference in policing.

And just for the record: I was not informed about the arrest until several hours after it happened.

Career limiting?

Thursday
Nov 27,2008

Now which candidate for the job of Metropolitan Police Commissioner has today described members of the Metropolitan Police Authority as being rather like Swampy, the anti-roads campaigner?

Thursday
Nov 27,2008

Mayor Boris Johnson is demonstrating a Macavity-like ability to vanish from Metropolitan Police Authority meetings before trouble breaks out. He left today after the first hour of his second meeting since he took over as Chair of the Authority. This left Kit Malthouse, his Representative on Earth for Policing, to handle MPA members’ worries about the 200-plus pages on the agenda dealing with the proposed business plan and budget for the Metropolitan Police.
Surprise, surprise! People didn’t feel there had been enough discussion about the contents and implications of the proposals. So nothing new there then! And just for a change the papers, although voluminous, were found to be rather opaque.
James Cleverly (a Conservative member of the London Assembly) tried unsuccessfully to pour oil on troubled waters with a convoluted analogy about knitting. Finally, with Steve O’Connell (another Conservative member of the London Assembly and MPA Finance Chair) looking grumpy, Kit Malthouse sensibly conceded an extra meeting.
At least the Mayor stayed long enough to join in the tributes to Sir Ian Blair’s Commissionership….

Wednesday
Nov 26,2008

It was good to see reports this morning that Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, has agreed that GPs should no longer issue sick notes to patients excusing them from work, but that instead “fit” notes should be issued, focusing on what their patients can do at work rather than what they can’t.

At the beginning of this year, I initiated a debate in the House of Lords on precisely this issue.  My focus was on back pain – or in Parliamentary language, musculo-skeletal disorder.  As I ponted out, over 2.5 million people in the UK visit their GP with back pain each year.  At any one time, a third of the population is suffering with back problems and it is estimated that up to 80% of the adult population will suffer significant back pain at some time in their life.

Most people – certainly fellow-members of the House of Lords – know how debilitating severe back pain can be.  It affects mobility and agility and reduces stamina.  The pain affects concentration, the ability to think rationally, and the pain affects the sufferer’s mood, may make them irritable and can lead to severe depression.

According to the Health and Safety Executive back pain was responsible for 9.5 million lost working days in 2005/6 – at a cost to society in 2007 prices of over £7 billion.

 

So, what happens when these people visit their GP with a complaint? All too often, out of compassion and concern for their patient, the GP will issue a sick note advising they take time off work.  They may be advised to stay home for weeks or months, while they wait for tests, then treatments, to make them feel well again.  

 

For those of us who fall ill with flu or minor infections, and spend a week in bed, this probably sounds like common sense.  However, for many people with long-term acute conditions it may not always be the right approach.  The physical conditions of work may indeed have caused or will aggravate a musculoskeletal condition, but equally prolonged inactivity may well make the condition worse.  Moreover, absence from the work environment, and the associated isolation, may worsen the depression associated with the pain and make recovery even less likely.

 

Certainly, many GPs and many employers mistakenly believe that sufferers from musculoskeletal disorders must be 100% well before any return to work can be contemplated.

I contrasted this approach with that of Transport for London (TfL), of which I was then an Advisor to the Board (before Mayor Johnson sacked me).  TfL’s occupational health service has been pro-active in tackling back pain.  There has been an in-house physiotherapy service for low back pain since 2001.  Attractive educational materials including a CD-ROM with amusing video clips and job-dependent exercises for staff were developed and widely distributed in 2005-6 and are now provided as a part of some types of training. 

A back exercise class has been introduced and is run three times a week at different times to allow employees to attend without interfering with their shifts.  Employees are encouraged to continue to attend once their back pain is resolved, if they would like to, in order to keep up the level of back fitness that they have achieved.

 

A pilot study carried out in 2001 demonstrated that employees who received physiotherapy intervention returned to work 12.6 days sooner than predicted using historical data when employees did not have access to a physiotherapy service.

 

A more recent study in 2003/4 found that employees who were referred to the back pain service after more than 6 weeks absent had twice the length of absence of those referred within 6 weeks and four times the absence of those referred within 2 weeks. Hence early referral for physiotherapy significantly reduced further time off. Sitting at home waiting for the problem to resolve just prolonged further time off.

 

Moreover, only 13% employees referred to the low back pain service in September to December 2005 for first episode low back pain had a recurrent episode leading to absence during the following year. This compares favourably with recurrence rates of 26-37% reported in research. 

The evidence is that with enlightened and supportive  employers an early return to work is in everyone’s best interest: it is better for the individual, it is better for their employer, and it saves in NHS and benefits costs.  Ending the sick note culture and replacing it with a fit note culture has to be the right approach.

Wednesday
Nov 26,2008

Parliament prorogued (the formal end of the Session) slightly less than two hours ago and the House will not be sitting again for a week until the Queen’s Speech opens the 2008/9 Session in a week’s time on 3rd December 2008. 

 

Interestingly, the number of defeats suffered by the Government in the Lords this Session is the lowest in any full Session since the Labour Government was elected in 1997.  There were 29 Government defeats this Session (out of around 120 votes in total).  By contrast there were 45 Government defeats in the 2006/7 Session and 62 in the 2005/6 Session.  To put these numbers in context: the last Conservative Government under John Major suffered only 62 defeats in the entire 1992-97 Parliament.

 

Of course, in part this reflects the gradual improvement in the number of Labour peers.  Labour now has 214 members in the Lords and is the largest Party, but this only amounts to 29% of the total membership of 731.  There are 199 Conservative peers (27%), 204 cross-benchers (28%), and 74 LibDems (10%) – the remainder comprise 26 Church of England bishops/archbishops and 14 non-affiliated or other. The reality of these numbers is that the Government does not have an automatic majority to carry through its legislation.  At any one time, the opposition parties can combine to defeat the Government, particularly as a significant proportion of the cross-benchers will usually vote with the opposition, depending on the issue.

 

During the 2007/8 Session, amongst the major Bills passed that became Acts of Parliament were the following:

  • Banking (Special Provisions) Act: this enabled Northern Rock to be taken under public ownership.  It was introduced deliberately as a general piece of legislation potentially applying to any UK-incorporated bank or building society and not just (fortunately as it has turned out) applying to Northern Rock.  Of course, at the time it was introduced Alistair Darling assured the House of Commons that there was “no intention at present to use the Bill to bring any institution other than Northern Rock into temporary public ownership”.
  • Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act: this abolished the Child Support Agency, established the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, and changed the way maintenance payments are calculated, collected and enforced.
  • Children and Young Persons Act: this reforms the care system and places greater emphasis on continuity of care and education for children in care.
  • Climate Change Act:  this sets a legally binding target for the reduction in carbon emissions in the UK of 80% by 2050, creates the Committee on Climate Change and requires the Government to produce regular carbon budgets.
  • Counter-Terrorism Act: this introduces post-charge questioning for terrorist suspects, tidied up a number of other counter-terrorist measures and amended the law on asset-freezing procedures.  Following defeats and threatened defeats in the Lords, a number of controversial elements of the original Bill were dropped, including the emergency provisions for questioning suspects for up to 42 days without charge and the holding of certain inquests without a jury.
  • Criminal Evidence (Witness Anonymity) Act: this was an emergency piece of legislation following a loophole emerging in the powers of courts to grant anonymity orders to witnesses in criminal cases which would otherwise have put at risk the lives of witnesses and/or the ability of some trials to proceed.
  • Criminal Justice and Immigration Act: this created a generic community sentence for young offenders, new powers to tackle anti-social and violent behaviour, and a new offence to deal with violent pornography.
  • Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill: this creates the framework for distributing assets from dormant bank accounts (those not used for over fifteen years) via the Big Lottery Fund to projects providing opportunities for young people.
  • Education and Skills Act:  this requires that young people stay in some form of education or training beyond the school leaving age, so that 17-year olds will be covered by 2013 and all 18-year olds by 2015.
  • Employment Act:  this strengthens the framework for enforcing the minimum wage, strengthens the standards governing employment agencies to protect vulnerable workers, and gives clearer rights for trade unions to determine their membership (after the courts had ruled that it was unlawful to expel members because they were BNP activists).
  • Energy Act:  this makes it easier to invest in schemes for carbon capture and renewable energy and ensures that the operators of new nuclear power stations have to accumulate funds to meet the costs of decommissioning and of disposal of waste.
  • European Union (Amendment) Act: this gave Parliamentary approval for the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty.
  • Health and Safety (Offences) Act: this was a back-bench measure (introduced by two former Parliamentary Private Secretaries to Tony Blair – Keith Hill in the Commons and Bruce Grocott in the Lords) to increase the penalties under Health and Safety laws.
  • Health and Social Care Act: this creates the new Care Quality Commission (concerted action in the Lords made this a much more patient-centred structure) and reformed the various systems of professional regulation in the health sector.
  • Housing and Regeneration Act: this created the new Homes and Communities Agency (which will bring together investment in social housing and regeneration) and a new regulator of social housing, the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords.
  • Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act:  this revised and updated the law on embryo research and assisted reproduction.  Although amendments to the abortion laws were moved at various stages, none of these were in fact passed.
  • Local Transport Act:  this makes local transport planning more coherent and consistent and ensures interoperability and consistency in any road pricing schemes.
  • Pensions Act:  this makes mandatory workplace pension schemes and creates a new system of personal accounts for low earners who do not qualify for such schemes.
  • Planning Act: this introduces a new system for approving major infrastructure of national importance, streamlining decisions and avoiding long public inquiries.
  • Sale of Student Loans Act: this enables the Government to sell off student loans.

 

Tuesday
Nov 25,2008

I discovered today that I have had my third credit card in a year cloned.  To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: to have one credit card cloned may be deemed a misfortune; to have two cloned begins to look like carelessness; and to have three cloned brings on paranoia.

The irony is that I have spent a significant amount of time this year working to see established a national police e-crime unit.  This was recommended by the House of Lords Select Committee inquiry (of which I was a member) on “Personal Internet Security” in August 2007 and the Home Office finally announced its share of the funding a few weeks ago.  Work is now proceeding rapidly.

My personal experience highlights the scale of the problem and the need for proper collation of the data on what is happening and how the frauds are occurring.

The Select Committee report highlighted a concern that people are encouraged to report such problems through the banks, who will then file reports with the police as they feel appropriate.  Many banks have seemed reluctant to involve the police - perhaps because they do not want statistics published demonstrating how weak some of their security arrangements appear to be – and the police are not keen to see the number of offences reported to them rise as it will make their “sanctioned detection” figures appear worse.

In the two earlier cases of cloning I was subject to, I pointed out to my bank that the last valid transaction that took place was in both instances with the same retailer (a restaurant I used to visit regularly until this happened).  There was no indication from them that they found this information significant and that they would be contacting the police to have potentially dodgy waiters or card-readers investigated.  I certainly never heard any more.  When I asked today why no-one had ever come back to me, I was told that they couldn’t do that in case I went round to the retailer concerned “to sort them out” – even though I pointed out that I knew where it was already.

Today’s incident was different.  I received an email from my bank (fortunately I didn’t delete it on sight on the basis that it was a phishing scam) saying that my account address had been changed and to ring the bank if this was not the case.  It eventually transpired that the bank had acted on the basis of a phone-call from someone who not only had my card details, but could answer the security questions about my date of birth and mother’s maiden name (neither are particularly secret pieces of information for anyone).  Properly, they had then contacted me again for confirmation.  I was told that this form of identity theft was increasingly common and could lead to full-scale impersonation and the obtaining of further credit in my name.  The address quoted in the address change would probably turn out to exist but unbeknown to the occupiers an arrangement would have been set up for mail to be collected from a sorting office.  All of this seemed to provide adequate scope for police investigation, but when asked whether they would be referring it on they said they couldn’t say and were keen to advise me that there was little point in advising the police myself.

In the Select Committee hearings we were told that bank card details (with the security question answers) were available for sale in the darker corners of the internet for about £1 each.  My experience has been personally illuminating but is clearly not unique.

Key lessons: first, more investment in the policing of these matters continues to be essential; second, leaving it to the banks to act is not enough; and third, not only is personal vigilance essential but we should all ask our banks to use as security questions something a little more robust than date of birth and mother’s maiden name.

Monday
Nov 24,2008

The Chancellor’s announcement today with his Pre-Budget Report for 2008 provides the bold stimulus the economy needs to help the country through the global financial crisis.  Although more than £500 billion will be added to the National Debt by 2015, there is no doubt in my mind that if these measures were not taken the longer term costs to the economy and to society would be far greater.

However, I am a pretty much an unreconstructed Keynsian and I do wonder whether the balance is quite right.  Ideally, in my view there should have been a greater emphasis on bringing forward public investment.  What has been announced is hugely welcome and should produce a direct impact on employment.  There is no question that there will be substantial public benefits flowing from the £800 million going to school building improvements (2,000 secondary school classrooms improved, new kitchens for 300 primary schools etc) and the £775 million going to housing improvements (much of it to make homes more energy efficient).  But was there only scope for £3 billion-worth of such investments without overheating the construction industry?  There is no doubt that much of our public infrastructure would benefit from more investment and this would have been as good an opportunity as may arise for this to happen.

By contrast the reduction in VAT till the Christmas after next will give £12.5 billion back to consumers.  Now that, of course, will help those on low incomes and those newly unemployed.  However, is there not a risk that much of the effect will be to stimulate the Chinese economy as consumers go out and by electronic and other goods imported from China.  Now this may be a good thing for the world economy, but I am not sure whether it wouldn’t have been better to keep more of the stimulus within the UK.

Sunday
Nov 23,2008

Those Labour MPs who are briefing the media – usually anonymously – that there should be a General Election next year to coincide with the local and European elections in June are – if they believe it – living on the Planet Zog.  If they don’t, they are playing a very silly and dangerous game.

The Labour Party has seen a substantial improvement in its poll ratings compared with the Conservatives in the last six weeks or so.  Indeed, the collapse in the Conservative lead has been as precipitous as was the collapse in the standing of the Prime Minister a year ago, following the “election-that-never-was”.

The reason for this improvement has been the decisive and magisterial response to the world economic crisis that has been displayed by Gordon Brown and the Cabinet since the beginning of October.  That improvement has taken place because the Government has been seen as acting unequivocally in the national interest and not for partisan advantage.  By contrast, the Conservatives have appeared shallow, unimpressive and self-serving.

Talking up an Election next June - apart from it being ludicrously premature – immediately starts to make the Labour Party look as preoccupied with short-term electoral calculations as the Tories.  What is more with a crisis as serious as this, politicians should be concentrating on the national interest not being diverted by electoral campaigning.

So why have they been briefing?  Don’t ask me – I can’t think of a single rational reason for doing it.

Sunday
Nov 23,2008

The reported death of Rashid Rauf raises some important questions and highlights the dilemmas being faced constantly by those who are trying to protect their country’s citizens from terrorism.  Rashid Rauf has been described by many media reports as the person believed to be the mastermind behind the alleged plot to use liquid bombs to blow up airliners flying from the UK to the United States.  His arrest in Pakistan triggered the raids in August 2006 that led to a significant number of people being arrested in Britain and three people being convicted of conspiracy to murder this September with a further trial pending.  Subsequently, Rauf escaped from custody in Pakistan under strange circumstances while on his way to an extradition hearing.  He has now apparently been killed by an American airstrike in Waziristan part of Pakistan’s FATA  (Federally Administered Tribal Areas).

In an ideal world, he would have been extradited from Pakistan to the UK (he was a British citizen) and his guilt or innocence would have been determined in a court of law.  If the suggestions that he was the mastermind of the 2006 plot are correct, then there would have been every reason to suppose (and no doubt the US would also have been acting on current intelligence reports) that his recent activities might have been directed towards masterminding some further attack.  If that were true, the US would no doubt argue that their airstrike has prevented the deaths of hundreds or maybe thousands.  So the question we all have to ask ourselves is: have the ends justified the means?

There are plenty of other questions, although it is not clear whether knowing the answers is necessarily helpful.  Were the Pakistani authorities complicit in Rauf’s escape from custody and were they complicit in the air strike that appears to have killed him?  Or were different elements within the Pakistani state complicit in the escape and the air strike?  The Pakistani government, both under Zardari and under Musharraf, treads a complicated path in trying both to be supportive of Western attempts to clamp down on terrorism and at the same time not to alienate elements of popular opinion in Pakistan that are sympathetic to Taleban or al-Qaeda rhetoric.

American airstrikes (often using remotely-controlled unmanned drone missiles) into the FATA are inevitably wounding to national pride in Pakistan.  The Government both protests against these strikes but is at the same time accused of having secretly agreed to them.  The more such strikes there are the more vulnerable will the Government become and, if the Government were to fall, it is not clear what the stance of any successor might be. 

The airstrikes are also no doubt feeding the “single narrative” used to persuade people down the path towards violent radical extremism and the flow increases every time an airstrike goes wrong and kills “innocent” people.

On the other hand, there is also no question that the removal of key people in the al-Qaeda hierarchy does reduce that organisation’s effectiveness and ability to plan and coordinate terrorist activity around the world.

The other certainty is that the frequency of the airstrikes will continue to increase over the next few weeks as the Bush administration desperately tries to be able to declare “mission accomplished” and announce the death of Osama Bin Laden before it leaves office.