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Archive for March, 2009

Monday
Mar 30,2009

My concerns about the arrangements in place for protecting Britain’s civil nuclear sites led to me tabling some parliamentary questions for written answer.  I have now had the answers and I am left feeling rather less reassured than I would have hoped.

My concern is that the  special police force (the Civil Nuclear Constabulary) which is set up to protect nuclear power stations, other nuclear installations and the transport of nuclear materials, is funded by the nuclear industry – it does not come within the statutory remit of the Home Office.  The answers confirm the funding arrangements: the CNC is “expected to recover its full economic costs each year from those to whom they provide services”.  In practice, this means “the nuclear operators whose sites the CNC police”. 

So who decides how much security is necessary?  The nuclear operators are the paymasters and, as commercial companies, can be expected to try to minimise their costs.  To ensure that a balance is struck there is an official regulator (the Office for Civil Nuclear Security) which regulates and can direct the CNC on “which sites require an armed response and minimum police numbers required to fulfil this.”

One might have expected the ONCS to be part of the Centre for the Protection of the National Infrastructure or the Office of Security and Counter Terrorism.  However, it is not.  In fact, it is part of the Health and Safety Executive and it acts on behalf of the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (not the Home Office).  This does not entirely fill me with confidence: the HSE may be well-placed to advise on ensuring that innocent ramblers don’t fall into a vat of toxic waste, but I am not sure about its ability to specify what would be required to deal with a ruthless coordinated and armed attack by terrorists.

The answers also tell me that the CNC “works closely with other police forces to ensure that effective support is available” but this is “an operational policing matter” and it is not clear who is responsible for assessing whether the support available is adequate.

Finally, I asked about what steps were being taken to ensure that the police officers had training and skills compatible with other police forces.  Given that the CNC is armed and may have to undertake joint responses to incidents with other police forces, it is rather important in command and control terms that they can work together effectively.  Again, the answer was hardly reassuring: training is available through the National Policing Improvement Agency, but “there are no specific mandatory training programmes”.

I have no reason to doubt the professionalism of CNC officers (although there have been issues about them being on pay scales that are less than those for officers in other forces), but I would like to be reassured that they are given the same training as other police officers and, in particular, their training is structured so that the CNC and other forces can work together in an integrated manner should the situation require it.

Similarly, I have no reason to doubt the effectiveness of the CNC in doing what the regulator requires it to do, but I am worried that the regulator is approaching his responsibilities from a health and safety perspective, rather than a national security perspective.

I am not sure I will get much further with this through Parliamentary questions – I suspect the next step will be to ask to see the relevant Ministers to see whether they are really happy with the present arrangements.

Monday
Mar 30,2009

In all the fuss about Jacqui Smith’s expenses, one matter that remains obscure is how did the Sunday Express see the documents concerned?  They have not yet been published by the House of Commons authorities.  It seems unlikely that either Jacqui Smith or her husband (or anyone in her Parliamentary office) will have leaked them.  So they were either leaked by someone working in the House of Commons Fees Office or by someone working for Virgin Media.  If the former, I would guess that a lot of MPs (of all Parties) are getting very jumpy and combing over their old expense claims with a fine tooth comb.  If the latter, presumably anyone’s Virgin Media account can be accessed by the press.

Thursday
Mar 26,2009

The Metropolitan Police Authority is in session. Mayor Boris Johnson is in the chair and loyal Uber Vice Chairman, Kit Malthouse AM, is at his side.
Len Duvall AM has stood down (to be replaced by John Biggs AM). Jennette Arnold AM asked at the beginning of the meeting whether Len would be able to continue his work on the MPA’s inquiry into the Stockwell. Mayor Johnson said this would be fine: Uber Vice Chairman Malthouse shifted in his seat and scratched his ear.

Later Cindy Butts suggested that a future full Authority should receive a report on the work being done on sexual violence (against the policy that the full Authority should only discuss the Commissioner’s monthly report and any reports required by statute). Uber Vice Chairman Malthouse folded his arms and frowned.

Tuesday
Mar 24,2009

The House of Lords has just voted by the narrow margin of 93 to 89 to defeat an amendment moved by the Tories to the Data Retention (EC Directive) Regulations 2009. 

These Regulations bring the UK into line with the EU Data Retention Directive of 2006 and require communications providers to retain  certain data for a fixed periodof one year.  (Previously, the UK had postponed applying the regulations – as was required by the Directive – to internet access, internet telephony and email.)

The Tories’ position might have been defensible on the grounds that they do not like EU directives – a point of principle that would be consistent with the decision (announced, but not implemented) to pull their MEPs out of the European Peoples Party grouping in the European Parliament.

However, the reason they gave was the entirely spurious one that this was part of some hidden conspiracy to require service providers to keep the contents of communications.  So one of their backbenchers kept jumping up and down asking whether the Regulations required communications services providers to keep data recovered by deep packet inspection.  The answer was as explicit as it could be:  paragraph 4(5) says “No data revealing the content of a communication is to be retained in pursuance of these Regulations.”  The only purpose in mentioning it  was to sow confusion and to mislead.

I suppose that is what opposition is all about.  And they nearly won the vote. 

However, their amendment was not fatal.  It would still have allowed the Regulations to come into force.  All it did was to add a rider to the approval motion noting the proposals “with regret”. 

So the grounds were spurious, the amendment was spurious (in that it had no effect) and perhaps the indignation was spurious.  If this is opposition, it is pretty spurious itself.

Monday
Mar 23,2009

Bismarck said if “You like laws or sausages, never watch either of  them being made.”  It is 8.45pm and Labour Peers have been told to hang on for a possible vote on an amendment to the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill.  

The amendment moved by the LibDems apparently raises an important point of principle.  Or at least that’s what the LibDems say.

So what is the amendment?  In Clause 67 of the Bill (which creates a requirement for there to be a regional economic strategy for each region) the LibDems want the Bill to say “The regional strategy for a region is to set out policies in relation to sustainable development and regeneration in the region” rather than “The regional strategy for a region is to set out policies in relation to sustainable growth in the region” .

Is someone taking the p*ss?

And after all that they didn’t press it to a vote!

Saturday
Mar 21,2009

I have just met my local MP (Lynne Featherstone) in the supermarket (Marks and Spencer). I tried to interest her in running a campaign (isn’t that what LibDem MPs do?) against the strange new lay-out of the store (vegetables in three separate sections, two separated deli areas etc). She said she agreed with me (isn’t that what LibDem MPs do?), but seemed reluctant to follow through with a campaign. Maybe she suspected my motives, but why would I want her to seem like a light-weight frivolous climber-on of point-less bandwagons? Isn’t that what ….

Wednesday
Mar 18,2009

I have been at a discussion meeting on information assurance this evening. It was held under the Chatham House rule, so I can’t attribute remarks to particular participants.
However, a senior civil servant (who has therefore to remain nameless) made the following interesting comment about the security of cloud computing:
‘It is like driving at speed into the fog without turning your headlights on.’

Wednesday
Mar 18,2009

The City of London is a strange quasi-democratic organisation – much more akin to the management committee of trading estate than a local council.  I say that because even its “reformed” electoral system residential voters are potentially overwhelmed by voters nominated by the businesses in the area.  This year in its “elections” a number of individuals stood for election explicitly as Labour candidates (most candidates describe themselves as “Independent” or give no description at all).  None of these Labour candidates were elected, but there does seem to have been rather more interest in the Corporation’s elections than normal with a majority of wards having contested elections and in some instances the turnout creeping up to over 400 “votes” cast.

I am not sufficiently versed in the internal politics of the Corporation (and I am not sure I want to be) to make much of the significance of the detailed results.  However, I did notice that Archie Galloway appears to have lost his seat on the Common Council, having been a member since 1981.  Having seen Archie on a variety of London-wide committees during the 1990s, I always regarded him as a fundamentally decent man who seemed to have the wider interests of London at heart.  I trust the “electors” of Broad Street knew what they were doing.

Tuesday
Mar 17,2009

Sir Paul Stephenson, the new Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has repeated his call that police officers should patrol singly rather than walk along in twos.  This is welcome.  Too often, when you do see police officers or police community support officers patrolling on foot, you see two or more officers walking along – deep in conversation with each other.

It is has been the pattern for many years that in most areas of London police patrol in pairs ostensibly for officer safety reasons.  While I have some sympathy with this in certain specific areas, I  am sure in most cases the safety requirement would be met by officers patrolling close to each other but not actually walking together – eg by being on opposite sides of the street.  This would mean that they were more likely to engage with passers-by (rather than just talk to each other) and would increase the sense of presence and public safety.

So it is good to hear Sir Paul’s commitment.  However, I also remember his two predecessors making similar promises and nothing happened.  It will be an interesting test of the new Commissioner to see whether he can actually make good on this patrolling promise.  If he can, he will clearly have achieved something that evaded Sir Ian Blair and Sir John Stevens (now Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington).

Wednesday
Mar 11,2009

Baroness Sue Miller hosted an interesting meeting earlier today, billed (slightly tendentiously) as “The Internet Threat: Who needs privacy when we can have relevant ads?”.  Speakers included Sir Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of  of the World Wide Web) and a variety of other experts.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee was arguing that the integrity of the internet is under threat by the emergence of Deep Packet Inspection by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) - this now enables ISPs to scan the contents of all communications and the contents of all web pages viewed by their customers, and for that data to be analysed so that customer-specific targetted advertising can be produced.  This raises substantial privacy issues – as one speaker pointed out each person will have a different view as to what is private for them.

Of course, such privacy issues are not new.  Already, websites place cookies on the computers of those visiting the site “to enhance the experience” of those that visit the site again and many of these track what the user does (individuals can of course block cookies or subsequently erase them – so in a sense the user can control this).  Search engines like Google also keep track of the search terms typed in by those who use them and again target advertising and recommend links accordingly.

What is new about Deep Packet Inspection is that for effectively the first time ISPs are looking routinely into the material that is being transferred through their service – it is as though Royal Mail sorting office staff were given access to the content of all the correspondence that they were sorting.

In the US this is apparently explicitly banned.  In the UK, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act would appear to forbid this unless (Section 3 (3) (b)) it is “for purposes connected with the provision or operation of that service”.  So is targetted advertising a purpose connected with the provision or operation of that service?  Ultimately, this will no doubt be a question for the Courts, but, so we were told, Home Office guidance suggests that Deep Packet Inspection is permissable ….

Part of the argument has to be that websites and ISPs have to be able to make their money somehow and Peter Bazalgette, consigned to the audience, forcefully pointed out that the internet had destroyed the existing business model of many newspapers, much of the music industry and may do the same for films and books and that service providers had to evolve to find new ways of making revenue.

Some of my Parliamentary colleagues were keen to divert the debate on to the Government’s consultation on the draft Communications Data Bill.  However, there is a world of difference between a government that is accountable to Parliament collecting data and commercial companies that are accountable to no-one but their share-holders doing so.

There is a real debate to be had here and Sue Miller is to be congratulated for facilitating this morning’s meeting.