Lord Toby Harris Logo

Archive for April, 2009

Thursday
Apr 30,2009

According to some reports today’s meeting of the Metropolitan Police Authority was rowdy with much heckling and disruption from protestors about the policing of the G20 demonstrations.  As someone who over the years has been in many meetings where there have interruptions from the gallery, this was – in actual fact – rather mild stuff.  There were at most 15-20 protestors (so much for “kettling” MPA members in City Hall) and they were nowhere near disrupting the meeting.  Mayor Boris Johnson warned them once not to be too rowdy but apart from the odd shouted comment there was really very little to interfere with the discussion at the meeting.

Of course, the discussion itself was rather low-key.  MPA members had had a behind-closed-doors briefing on the policing of the G20 demonstrations a few days before and, as a result, for those observing the proceedings, it must have seemed as though a lot of ground was not covered.

Nevertheless, there was no doubting the wide concern amongst most MPA members about aspects of the policing and a consensus motion was agreed that the MPA would set up a new “Civil Liberties Panel” that would examine the issues in more detail.  It will be interesting to see who emerges as the Chair of this group.

The meeting itself lasted for three hours – exceeding by 50% the arbitrary time allocation that has been imposed on meetings since the new adminsitration took control of the Authority.  Mayor Boris Johnson chaired the meeting quite well, allowing everyone to have their say (many times in the case of Jenny Jones AM), although Uber Vice-Chairman, Kit Malthouse AM, had to reprimand the Mayor at one point for interupting him (Kit) before he had finished his point.

Mayor Johnson was also visibly engaged in the discussion with few signs of his customary boredom.  He made a virtuoso defence of his article in the Telegraph when accused of fomenting violence (no-one recognises irony when they see it), perked up when one of the members suggested including “inter alia” in the wording of the consensus resolution, and when I asked about the role of the so-called Police Medics added (not quite sotto voce) “..and look after the people they’ve just hit”.

Wednesday
Apr 29,2009

I understand that various groups are planning to be present in force at tomorrow morning’s meeting of the Metropolitan Police Authority at City Hall.  This will be the first major public occasion when members of the Authority will question the leadership of the Metropolitan Police about the policing of the G20 demonstrations and the death of Ian Tomlinson.  Sky News is planning to broadcast the meeting live and there are rumours that some demonstrators are planning to try and “kettle” the MPA inside City Hall.  No doubt this will turn into great theatre and some MPA colleagues may be tempted to play to the gallery.  However, whatever happens, I hope it does not obscure the very important process of – in public – seeking answers from the Metropolitan Police about the tactics of policing the G20 demonstrations, the nature of the briefings given to officers, the extent to which front-line supervisors were supervising what happened and so on. 

We will see. 

What is a certainty is that the meeting, which was originally planned by Uber Vice Chairman, Kit Malthouse AM, as a celebration of Mayor Boris Johnson’s first year as Mayor and his successes in policing, will not spend long discussing the final draft of MetForward the statement of the new administration’s vision for policing in London.

Wednesday
Apr 29,2009

I have been told that senior personnel in London Primary Care Trusts have been told to clear their diaries for June and July.  My informant guessed that this was when senior Department of Health officials expected the pandemic of swine flu to peak in the Capital.  I am not so sure.  My own guess is that this is when the Strategic Health Authority is planning to announce a major programme of mergers of health bodies in London.  It is not clear that the current number of hospital trusts in London will remain viable as the planned 130 polyclinics start to come onstream across the metropolis.  Get the pain out of the way quickly – particularly as large parts of London Health are in budget deficit.  I don’t know what it all means or even if my informant’s story is correct.  Someone out there must know.

Sunday
Apr 26,2009

The outbreak of a new strain of flu in Mexico – a cross between ordinary human flu, swine flu and avian flu – is provoking alerts that we may finally be on the brink of the flu pandemic public health experts have been warning about for years.  In the UK we are probably as well prepared as any other country.

However, that doesn’t mean things will be easy if this does turn out to be the big one.  In January 2009, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Department of Health issued joint guidance on “Preparing for Pandemic Influenza”.  This suggests that an outbreak might take as little as two to four weeks to build from a few to 1000 cases and so far 1300 people have been admitted to hospital in Mexico City since 13th April.  It goes on to suggest that it could reach the UK in another two to four weeks – there are already two individuals with suspicious symptoms in Glasgow and no doubt a plane full of people who were breathing in their germs who have not yet fallen ill. 

The Guidance suggests that once in the UK, it is likely to spread to all major population centres within one or two weeks with its peak possibly only 50 days from initial entry.  In previous pandemics between a quarter and a third of the population were infected.  Estimates suggest that 4% of those infected will need hospital treatment with possibly up to 2% of those infected dying.  Depending on the severity and nature of the epidemic, it is estimated that between 50,000 and 750,000 might die.  Don’t even think what that will do to the already troubled forecasts for the economy.

Those who become ill will be advised not to visit their GPs but to call a special helpline.  There will be advice to avoid crowded places – so that is commuting in London done for then.  People will be advised not to come into work if they are ill – this will typically cause the worst havoc in organisations like the police where the norm is often for people to struggle in (being ill is a sign of weakness – the senior echelons of the Metropolitan Police seemed all to be suffering in the mini-outbreak of flu before Christmas – it is after all one of the wonders of air conditioning systems that they spread infections more quickly).  Many organisations may find that up to half of their employees cannot come to work because they are ill, are caring for someone who is ill, or because their normal means of transport to work are no longer working.

The Guidance advises GP surgeries to develop photo-ID libraries of their staff so they can access any supplies that are rationed, such as fuel for home visits, and to set up an emergency box with torches, paper forms and other items that will be needed if mains electricity or computers go down.

Existing hospital capacity may only meet 20% to 25% of expected demand at the peak.  Intensive care is likely to be overwhelmed.  Prioritisation of all patients will be necessary on an individual basis.

Separate guidance advises Primary Care Trusts to ensure they have security on their doors to maintain order amongst those trying to access the (limited) supplies of anti-viral medicine.

I think I’ll go to bed with a hot water bottle now …..

Thursday
Apr 23,2009

This evening I popped into the opening of “Yankee Doodles!”, an exhibition at the Political Cartoon Society of President Barack Obama in cartoons.  Some of them are brilliant and seemed to be selling fast.  It is open till June 13th and is well worth a visit.

Thursday
Apr 23,2009

On this morning’s Radio 4′s “Today” programme, George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor, made it clear that the Conservatives would not repeal the proposed 50% income tax rate on top earners.  His reason: they had to think of the “many not the few”. 

Those who remember the mid-1990s will remember that the “many not the few” was one of the campaign mantras used by Tony Blair and the Labour Party in the run-up to the 1997 General Election to highlight the difference between Labour and the Conservatives.  It is nice to hear that the political consensus has now shifted so much that George Osborne can repeat it with approval and with what was presumably (as you know you cannot see on the radio) a straight face.

But the point he seems to miss is that the whole Budget, which he was of course trying to rubbish comprehensively, was for the “many not the few”.  Still one step at a time.

What will be really interesting is how the rest of the Conservative Party interprets it – will they be so happy with the “many not the few” line?  Will Mayor Boris Johnson, for example, who was distinctly unchuffed with the idea of having to pay 45% tax on his newspaper earnings be happy with a Conservative Shadow Chancellor going along with the 50% top rate?  We will see.

Tuesday
Apr 21,2009

Let nobody say that legislation isn’t scrutinised properly.

It is 9.00pm and the House of Lords is on the eleventh day of Committee consideration of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill.  We are now on amendment A342 and when we get to amendment A394 we will finish for the night.

Saturday
Apr 18,2009

It is always dangerous for a Londoner to comment on Scottish politics.  However, as the Scots seem to have a disproportionate impact on the politics of the wider United Kingdom (Scotland has less than two-thirds of the population of London), I could not help but be intrigued by a report produced by the Quilliam Foundation, which describes itself as the world’s first counter-extremism think-tank, setting out how the SNP have selected as their candidate for Glasgow Central a self-proclaimed Islamist who established the Scottish Islamic Foundation which then received £400,000 from the Scotish Government.  Apparently, the candidate – Osama Saaed – is close to Alex Salmond (First Minister of Scotland and SNP Leader) and worked for him in the past.

Does all this mean that the SNP is also supporting the recreation of the Caliphate and the “need for 646 George Galloways to fill up the rest of Parliament”?  I think we should be told.

Saturday
Apr 18,2009

I was wrong in my inital assessment of the policing of the G20 demonstrations.  I should have followed my own rule of never taking at face value the first things you are told about any police operation.

I remain of the view that in most other countries the police response would have been even more violent; there would have been tear gas, water cannon, rubber bullets and maybe real bullets.  However, as we now know, the policing of the G20 demonstrations will not go down as a perfect example of restrained British policing, where the right to demonstrate peacefully was respected and the police response was proportionate and good-humoured.  Indeed, I suspect the repercussions of the tragic death of Ian Tomlinson and the footage of other incidents may well set the tone of the debate about British policing for several years to come.

There are some important immediate lessons for Sir Paul Stephenson and his senior team at the Metropolitan Police (and indeed I suspect they are lessons that all Chief Constables should heed).

First of all, there is a culture of concealment within the police service.  It took several days before the officers involved in the incidents preceding Ian Tomlinson’s death were identified.  This may well be because of the prevailing blame-approach which means that officers do not come forward and hope that whatever fuss there is passes them by.  However, you might have expected – maybe I am too idealistic – that officers would have been debriefed about the events of the day by their supervisors and that knowing that someone had died near where they had been would have thought to mention that someone who might have been Mr Tomlinson had been pushed over or hit (there is no reason why the officers concerned would have known who he was, but they would have known that there had been an interaction).  This information should then have been relayed rapidly up the management tree, so that senior officers were not caught unawares as the wider story emerged.

Second, there has clearly been a re-emergence of the bad old practice of officers engaged in public order work removing their identifying numbers.  I thought this had been stamped out long ago.  Indeed, when I was Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, the MPA had gone further and successfully required (against considerable opposition from within the Met) that officers’ names be on their uniforms (to make them more accessible to the public).  It needs to be clear whether the removal of identifying numbers was condoned by more senior officers and what is now going to be done to make sure that this does not happen again.

Third, there needs to be a review of what was said in the operational briefings given to officers before they went on duty – was a clear message being given that one important function of the police was to facilitate peaceful and lawful protest and that that was all that most of the demonstrators would be wanting to do.

Fourth, there seems to be a default position where those briefing the press on behalf of the police seek to attack the character of those who have fallen victim to police actions - like the unfortunate Mr Tomlinson who was allegedly “drunk”, “aggressive”, “lived in a bail hostel” etc.  The Met has form on this, particularly where someone has died at their hands.  Another example is Roger Sylvester, who died in the back of a police van in Tottenham in the late 1990s – interestingly, the same doctor, who performed the initial examination on Mr Tomlinson which reached the apparently misleading conclusion that he had died of a heart attack, was involved in the Sylvester case and disciplined by the General Medical Council as a result.

Finally, the police service is going to have to come to terms with a new form of accountability: citizen journalists with mobile phone cameras.  Isolated (or not so isolated) acts of unnecessary force or of disproportionate responses to particular situations are now likely to be recorded by passers-by on their mobile phones.  This has meant in the case of the policing of the G20 demonstrations that all sorts of incidents (not just what happened in the run up to Mr Tomlinson’s death) have received wide media coverage.  In the past individual police officers and the police service in general might have got away with instances of bad conduct because of disputed versions of what had happened.  Now there are irrefutable records of what happened.  Incidents are captured on mobile phones and within a short space of time can be transmitted around the world.  This may ultimately be a better guarantee of the sort of policing that we should expect than any instructions issued by the high command at New Scotland Yard.

Thursday
Apr 16,2009

The Director of Public Prosecutions has now published his decision on the Damian Green case.  Many people will no doubt be saying that they knew it all along, but it is worth noting that the DPP does say:

“I considered an alleged offence of misconduct in public office against Mr Galley and an alleged offence against Mr Green of aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the alleged offence against Mr Galley, and of conspiring with Mr Galley for him to commit misconduct in public office. …. I have concluded that there is evidence upon which a jury might find that there was damage to the proper functioning of the Home Office. Such damage should not be underestimated.”

He also makes clear that he applied a “high threshold” test before making his decision (ie. a higher standard of proof was required than would have been necessary for others) and warns:

“This should not be taken to mean that in future cases, a prosecution on other facts would not be brought. My decision is made on the particular facts of this case and the unauthorised leaking of restricted and/or confidential information is not beyond the reach of the criminal law.”

So the message seems to be:  Damian Green could have been prosecuted and was close to being prosecuted, but not this time and don’t do it again.