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Archive for July, 2010

Wednesday
Jul 7,2010

Val Shawcross AM, the Labour Group’s transport spokesperson on the London Assembly, has put forward an eminently sensible response to the Mayor of London’s interminable consultation on his favoured pet scheme of the abolition of the Western half of the Congestion Charge Zone.  She has proposed that the current Zone be split into two separate Zones – each with their own charge.

Her proposal would turn the western extension into a separate zone with its own rules, operating times and charging structure.  West London residents would not have to pay to drive in the new zone but would lose the discount they currently enjoy for driving into central London.

She quotes Transport for London figures that show that the Mayor’s proposals would produce a 15 per cent increase in traffic levels as a direct consequence of removing the western extension zone and up to £70m of revenue lost every year.

When Mayor Ken Livingstone first proposed extending the Congestion Charge Zone to the West, I tried to persuade him to create two separate Zones then, so it is good to see Val Shawcross reviving the idea now.

It always seemed barmy to me to allow the residents of Kensington and Chelsea – some of whom are extremely wealthy – to drive in the original Congestion Charge Zone with a residents’ discount when they had previously had to pay the full Congestion Charge.  It was in effect a subsidy to the already well-off.  And, as I suggested to the then Mayor, hardly an egalitarian thing to do.

The present Mayor now wants to stop the residents of the Western Zone getting this subsidy.  I would support that if it were not for the loss of revenue that will make TfL’s budget problems even more difficult.

Val Shawcross is now offering the sensible way forward: the well-off residents in K&C etc will only get a resident’s discount when they drive in their own part of the Zone, but would have to  pay the normal Congestion Charge when they drive in the other part of the Zone.

So her proposal is fairer, generates a lot more revenue for TfL to invest in the capital’s transport system, and would also further reduce congestion and improve air quality.

It is such a good idea, maybe the current Mayor will pinch it.

Wednesday
Jul 7,2010

There were a series of exchanges this afternoon in House of Lords Question Time on the sequence of events in Northumberland following the release from prison of Raoul Moat on 1st July.

Baroness Patricia Scotland, the Shadow Attorney General, had tabled the follwoing “topical” question:

“To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps were taken by Northumbria Police when the recent warning from HM Prison Durham was received; and whether a multi-agency risk assessment conference was called to assess the risk faced by Samantha Stobbart.”

This elicited the following answer from Baroness Neville-Jones, the Home Office Minister of State:

“My Lords, Northumbria Police received information on Friday 2 July from Durham prison that Mr Moat had threatened to cause Ms Stobbart serious harm. The chief constable referred the handling of the information to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which will conduct an independent investigation to determine whether Northumbria Police responded adequately. I also understand that Northumbria Police did not conduct a multi-agency risk assessment conference to assess the risk faced by Ms Stobbart.”

Baroness Patricia Scotland tried again (and widened the question into the wider issue of whether the Coalition Government will continue to give the same priority as the previous Labour Government to protecting women at risk of serious domestic violence):

“My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, but can I ask her why they did not? Bearing in mind that these events demonstrate clearly the need for a risk assessment in such circumstances, what steps will be put in place to make sure that multi-agency risk assessments are made? Can she give us an assurance that the Government will maintain the commitment made by the previous Government to hold the 80 remaining multi-agency risk assessment conferences, which are necessary to cover the whole of the country? They are the best way of saving lives and money.”

The Minister responded but was clearly vague on the wider issues:

“My Lords, we certainly agree that the multi-agency risk assessment process is valuable. I have not heard anything from my colleagues that would suggest that we have any intention of doing away with them. There are clearly a number of actions that the police could have taken. One of the reasons why the chief constable referred the actions of her force to the IPCC was to discover what appropriate action could have been taken.”

Former Metropolitan Police Commissioner and former Northumberland Chief Constable reminded the House that there was an active police operation currently under way, which quite properly should not be underminded, and this produced the following exchanges:

Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington: My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chief constable of Northumbria. Would the Minister not agree that this is a time for supporting Northumbria Police in a most dangerous and difficult situation? This is not a time for apportioning blame in any way, shape or form. Would she also not agree that this will be fully investigated by an independent authority? Let us support the police in their difficult task.

Baroness Neville-Jones: I am sure the whole House, including me, share the sentiments that have just been expressed.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: Was the threat that was made of such a nature that it could have been interpreted as a threat to kill? Does the noble Baroness appreciate that, under the Criminal Law Act 1977, the threat to kill is a very serious offence that is punishable by 10 years’ imprisonment? Was any thought given to arresting this man before he left prison and with a view to prosecution, thus avoiding the possibility of further offences?

Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, it is absolutely right to say that such a threat would be very serious. My understanding is that the police force was not informed that there was such a threat to life.”

Labour’s Baroness Liz Symons then reverted to the failure to carry out a risk assessment and again the Minister couldn’t really answer:

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, will the Minister address the very specific Question put by my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland—why was a multi-agency risk assessment not held?

Baroness Neville-Jones: Let me give the House the timelines. The prisoner was released on 1 July, the information about this man’s statements was given to the force on 2 July and the chief constable learnt of that information only on 4 July. She referred the matter to the IPCC the following morning; clearly she felt there was a need to do so. I cannot go beyond that at the moment because this matter is under investigation, so I cannot help the House further.”

Lord Brian Mackenzie and I then widened the issues by probing the impact of the Coalition’s policies on opposing police force mergers, on cuts in the policing and prison budgets and on the plans not to proceed with prison sentences of less than six months:

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, does the noble Baroness think that there is now a powerful case for looking at the size and number of police forces?

Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, the Northumbria Police are receiving mutual aid. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has been in touch with the force. If it needs any further assistance, it will certainly be given it. As for the noble Lord’s basic question of whether it is a good idea for forces to help each other, we as a party are in favour of forces joining together, or indeed merging if they wish, provided there is local support for such a move.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, while I am mindful of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington, given that there has been newspaper criticism of the efficiency of the Prison Service in issuing a warning and whatever response there may have been by Northumbria Police, what safety guarantees can the noble Baroness give on behalf of the coalition Government that in a few years’ time, with 25 per cent fewer prison officers and a 25 per cent reduction in police grant, which will no doubt impact disproportionately on specialist resources, this sort of event will not recur, or is the answer that Raoul Moat would not have been in prison at all because his sentence was only 18 weeks and, as far as the coalition is concerned, people like him should roam the country freely?

Baroness Neville-Jones: This individual was in for a short custodial sentence. Under the regime that prevails at the moment, half that sentence was served. As things stand, under legislation that was not passed by this Government, the governor has no discretion to do anything other than release the individual. He performed a duty in warning the police.”

This prompted a Tory backbencher to intervene – clearly unhappy with Coalition policy on not imprisoning people for less than six months:

Lord Elton: My Lords, does the Minister understand the concern in this House about the release of potentially dangerous prisoners? Will she use this opportunity to revise, review, and preferably improve the method of screening prisoners before they are released in order to protect the public?

Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, my noble friend raises a very important issue. I understand that the IPCC will follow the investigation trail, so I think that we will get help in the form of its view about what happened immediately before the release. However, the issue that is raised is important and no doubt we will have to follow it.”

Not really surprising that the Minister looked so relieved that Question Time had finished.

Tuesday
Jul 6,2010

I neveronly very rarely have a good word to say for LibDem MPs.  However, when I do come across one talking sense, I feel I should make an effort to mark the occurrence.

So step forward Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge, and take a bow.

He has written an article for ePolitix.com applauding the BMA for calling for a ban on NHS funding of homeopathy.   He describes himself as “a strong proponent of evidence-based policies” (I won’t ask how he squares that with his support for some of the less-than-soundly based policies of the Coalition Government) and points out that:

“There is no scientific basis for why an extremely diluted solution completely devoid of any active ingredient should be an effective treatment.”

As he says (twice in consecutive paragraphs):

“Homeopathy has been shown to be ineffective beyond placebo.”

He goes on to argue:

“The use of homeopathy by NHS doctors also raises ethical questions. Because the placebo effect ultimately depends on deception, it removes patient choice and undermines the trust inherent in the doctor-patient relationship.

It is unethical to prescribe patients homeopathic remedies while giving them the mistaken impression that they are valid medical treatments.

In these tough economic times where we must look for savings, spending on homeopathy cannot be justified. Disgracefully, our government has no idea how much it spends on homeopathy, but estimates reported by the Guardian place NHS spending on homeopathy at £12 million from 2005 to 2008.

These are millions of pounds that could be spent on treatments that have been proven to be effective at treating patients.”

It was a scandal that the last Government allowed this to continue.  I will watch with interest to see what impact Julian Huppert will have on his Coalition colleagues.

Monday
Jul 5,2010

I am not looking for any recognition, as you know these things don’t matter to me at all and I am profoundly disinterested in where this blog comes in the annual Total Politics ranking of political blogs, so I really am not asking for you to vote for me or my blog ……..

but ……..

should you be so inclined (and I repeat I really, really don’t mind one way or the other), this is what you have to do:

The rules are:
1. You must vote for your ten favourite blogs and rank them from 1 (your favourite) to 10 (your tenth favourite).
2. Your votes must be ranked from 1 to 10. Any votes which do not have rankings will not be counted.
3. You MUST include at least FIVE blogs in your list, but please list ten if you can. If you include fewer than five, your vote will not count.
4. Email your vote to toptenblogs@totalpolitics.com
5. Only vote once.
6. Only blogs based in the UK, run by UK residents or based on UK politics are eligible. No blog will be excluded from voting.
7. Anonymous votes left in the comments will not count. You must give a name.
8. All votes must be received by midnight on 31 July 2010. Any votes received after that date will not count.

So I’m not asking you to do it, but I really won’t mind if you do……

Sunday
Jul 4,2010

“It’s the economy, stupid” was famously the theme of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign against the incumbent, George Bush Sr.

George Osborne is now trying to use the same message to pretend that the scale of the planned public expenditure cuts are justified by the state of the British economy and the scale of the deficit that the Coalition Government inherited.

However, an article by the estimable Bill Keegan in today’s Observer demonstrates yet again that what is driving the Coalition Government’s stance on public spending is ideology not economics – a desire to finish the Thatcherite evisceration of the public sector.  It is rather as though Thatcher’s children – aka Cameron, Osborne and Clegg – have a psychological drive not only to obtain parental approval, but a desire to achieve more than that parent – just as George W Bush seemed to feel he had to emulate his father’s invasion of Iraq and then take that invasion one stage further to regime-change and beyond.

Bill Keegan describes the Coalition Government’s economic policies as “fiscal masochism” and “Born Again Thatcherism” arguing that:

“The pretext for Thatcherism Mark One was the threat of accelerating inflation in 1979/80. The acceleration in inflation was assisted in no small way by some injudicious decisions taken by the Thatcherites, decisions that served to embed an inflationary shock emanating from the second oil crisis. This time the pretext is the fiscal deficit, the significance of which our new government has been grossly, and irresponsibly, exaggerating.

Last week, I pointed out how minor the public debt “crisis” of today appears when compared with the situation that faced chancellor Neville Chamberlain when he introduced his deflationary budget of 1932. Chamberlain, and the “Treasury View” that lay behind his budget strategy, have rightly been castigated by economic historians for that deflationary approach. Yet the debt problem facing our strange coalition is hardly on the same scale.”

He then takes the Coalition’s arguments neatly to pieces:

“The figures are worth repeating: the latest budget red book puts UK debt at 61.9% of gross domestic product in 2010/11 (against 177% in 1932) and debt interest at 6.3% of total public expenditure in 2010/11 (against 40% in 1932).

And the invaluable annual report of the Bank for International Settlements (the “central bankers’ bank”, based in Basle) contains some impressive charts and tables that suggest our new prime minister and chancellor, along with their Lib Dem collaborators, should be prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act for distorting the scale of our fiscal problems.

I give you chapter and verse: on page 68 (Part V) you will find that Britain is top of the league when it comes to the length of time before its debt has to be refinanced. The “average maturity” of the UK’s debt is 14 years; by comparison, other leading industrial countries, including the US and Germany, have maturities of under 9 years. This is not to say there is anything wrong with the US or German position – few can gainsay the fiscal rectitude of the Germans; and the US, whatever its fiscal problems, remains the pre-eminent reserve currency. But it shows how hysterical the debate in Britain has become.

Again, on the same page, the BIS report contains a graph comparing different countries’ dependence on overseas finance. “Non-residents” hold approximately 70% of Greek government debt, just under 50% of US government debt, and below 30% of UK government debt.”

So the debt is not as bad as suggested, the scale of the debt interest needing to be paid each year is not as serious as we have been told, and the UK’s vulnerability in terms of refinancing and of overseas debt holdings is far less than the Coalition Government would have us believe. 

So it’s not the economy, but ideology.  And Tory ideology at that.

I’ve mentioned before being told by a (slightly tipsy) Conservative MP before the election that the Tories’ political strategy, if they won, would be to declare that the state of the economy was much worse than had been expected and then embark on a programme of “Ridley-ite” cuts that would make Margaret Thatcher proud.  And that was before the full scale of the global recession had kicked in.

And now as Bill Keegan reminds us even the markets are getting jumpy:

“While Osborne has been fomenting fears of how the markets might react to insufficient austerity, the theme of the market reports last week – following the commitment to fiscal masochism that emerged from the G20 meeting at the weekend – was that those financial markets that brought us the crisis and then called for austerity are now concerned about the effect this might have on economic growth – and hence on those budget deficits they seek to reduce!”

Saturday
Jul 3,2010

A recent US Congressional Hearing tried to establish the answer to the question:

If a sophisticated cyber-attack occurred against the United States financial systems, who would coordinate the response?”

You might think that this straightforward question would get a simple answer, but apparently the answer it produced was:

“We’re in the process to building out a national cyber incident response plan, and that plan would more clearly define roles and responsibilities of the different departments and agencies.”

Pressed again by the Congressmen, the witnesses acknowledged:

I think that’s one of the challenges that needs to be addressed: Who is actually in charge? With the White House cybersecurity coordinator in place now, what is his role relative to at DHS? I think that is certainly a valid challenge that still remains to be addressed.”

However, if it is confused in the United States, I would be surprised if there was any clarity if the same question was asked in the UK.

I might table a Parliamentary Question and see.

 

Friday
Jul 2,2010

The New York Times reports that an English-language manual on “How to be a Terrorist” has been produced by the propaganda arm of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  The manual in magazine format includes instructions on how to “make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom,” an article on “Mujahedeen 101” and a lesson in sending and receiving encrypted messages.

Apparently, the publication which was circulating on the internet earlier this week was only three pages long.  The reason?   Some sort of virus seemed to have corrupted the remaining 64 pages.

And the New York Times speculates that this:

“could have been the work of hackers, possibly working for the United States government.”

Interesting, if true.

Friday
Jul 2,2010

Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office Minister, has criticised Assistant Commissioner John Yates (who heads the Counter-Terrorist network) for a PRIVATE briefing he gave to Police Chiefs yesterday.  However, the criticism comes across as a Minister shooting from the hip rather than anything else.

Francis Maude has apparently told the BBC 

“I’d like to avoid public servants doing this kind of shroud waving in public.  There is a special responsibility on all public servants to be really careful what we say and what we do.”

But the briefing concerned was not in public.  It was in private.

The event was a CLOSED session at the conference of the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities.

The Times newspaper (behind its pay-wall, so no link) reported the speech on the basis of a conversation one of their reporters had with one of the those present and, according to this source, John Yates talked about the implications of the postulated 25% cut in police funding for counter-terrorism and security work. 

He is reported to have explained that the implications for the counter-terrorism budget were likely to mean that “the Metropolitan Police (Met) would see £87m wiped from its anti-terror budget, while units across the country would lose £62m.”

Is this shroud-waving?

Well, actually, it isn’t.

I remember the debates when police forces outside London were asked to host Counter-Terrorist Units and Counter-Terrorist Intelligence Units.  The forces concerned were naturally worried that they would be employing a substantial number of extra specialist officers and wanted to know what would happen if the funding was reduced or cut altogether.  Those extra officers could not be readily transferred to other duties (particularly if the force concerned already had a restricted budget) and there is no simple way of making police officers redundant. 

Quite properly, ACPO acknowledges - as I understand did John Yates – that police forces have to face cuts in the same way as other areas of public spending and their spokesperson said:

“The home secretary has made clear that alongside other areas of public spending, policing must deliver its share of savings to meet the fiscal deficit.”

And went on:

“No area of policing is immune.”

So, if the Treasury is pressing ahead with the Comprehensive Spending Review, so that the results can be announced in October, which it is, and, if the Home Office is to produce its figures for the Treasury by the end of July, which it does, that has certain consequences.  

Not surprisingly, the Home Office has asked the budget-holders who deliver the component parts of the Home Office budget to provide their figures to the Home Office very soon.  And that will include those parts of the police service that are responsible for counter-terrorism and security.

It would be a rather strange way of managing ANY public service for the person responsible NOT to take the opportunity of briefing those who might be left with a substantial contingent liability as a result of decisions that are in the process of being taken.

So John Yates was not shroud-waving, he was making sure – as any good manager would – that those likely to be directly affected by a decision – and who will have to implement it – were kept fully informed.

Let no-one be under any illusions, there will be consequences of a 25% cut in police expenditure on counter-terrorism and security, just as there will be for a similar cut in other forms of policing and just as there will be for other areas of public spending that are cut. 

No doubt we will all want to debate the implications when those decisions are finalised, but in the meantime Francis Maude should let senior managers get on with the job – and that includes briefing those affected.

Thursday
Jul 1,2010

According to that highly reputable source, the New York Daily News, the US Department of Homeland Security has placed a six-year-old girl from Ohio on its terrorist watch list.

Her father said:

“She may have threatened her sister.  But I don’t think that constitutes Homeland Security triggers.”

Apparently, after the family contacted the Department of Homeland Security, Alyssa received a letter that would neither confirm nor deny any information they have about her or someone else with her name.

It is one thing making a mistake, but another not being prepared to say you might have got it wrong.

Thursday
Jul 1,2010

Ten years ago today the Metropolitan Police Authority assumed its functions taking over from the Home Secretary the role of police authority for London.

I have found a speech I made at the time and it is interesting to see what my vision was then as the Authority’s first Chair and also to note how much some things have changed since then (although some remain the same).

Ten years ago I said:

“For the first time since Sir Robert Peel, the then Home Secretary, founded the Metropolitan Police over 170 years ago, a new Metropolitan Police Authority has taken over the responsibility for overseeing the Metropolitan Police Service from his successor, the present Home Secretary.

This Authority, working with the Commissioner, is dedicated to ensuring that the Metropolitan Police Service delivers its present mission, to make London safe for all its people and in doing so treat everyone fairly, by being open and honest, and by continually seeking to improve the service provided to the public.

There are enormous challenges facing the Metropolitan Police. Whilst burglary rates are falling, street crime is rising. Clear up rates are perceived as too low, police priorities are not always what local communities feel they should be in their respective areas and too often we will still hear people saying that the police are nowhere to be seen when they are needed.

When the report of the inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence was published, it seemed to confirm what many people then felt: the Police were seen too often as being incompetent, insensitive and unintentionally racist.

The respect that too many Londoners had for the Police was probably then at an all-time low. I believe it has improved since then, given the enormous effort by the Police Service at all levels to respond positively to the criticisms levelled at them. And it is, of course, the case that the Police are more highly regarded by and large than say politicians or local councils!

In recent times, police numbers have fallen and the Metropolitan Police’s recruitment drive has not even been keeping pace with the number of officers who are leaving the Service.  A substantial shortfall has been anticipated and there have been fears that the Police Service will be below the strength required to police London effectively by the end of this year. This is a reflection of pay that was unattractive, given the high cost of living in London.  According to the Met’s follow up of people interested in a career in the Service they were being put off by the high cost of housing and transport.

That, of course, is the bad news. But let us be clear, every Londoner wants the Metropolitan Police Service to be successful and effective – everyone that is except the criminals, the vandals and those who enjoy causing disorder.

The new Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) has a heavy responsibility.  The over-riding task of the new Authority, together with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, must be to make sure that London gets the Police Service that it deserves – a Service that is effective in tackling crime and disorder and winning the confidence and the support of all those who live and work in this wonderful, diverse, vibrant city of ours.

This will mean, in particular, cutting street crime drastically and reducing drug-related incidents significantly.  It will mean making our streets safer and making all of us feel more secure in our homes. Indeed, I believe that this Authority’s success or failure will be judged on whether crime in London is reduced and the Metropolitan Police achieves its stated objective of making London the safest major city in the world.”

I also said – and this was long before neighbourhood policing or the Policing Pledge (now abandoned by the Coalition Government):

“The public have got to have confidence in their Police Service and the way to achieve that is through mutual respect and partnership. The public have got to feel that the Police, like any other public service, is there to help them and ready to respond appropriately. And that means individually, every police officer has got to show respect to individual members of the public, regardless of race, gender, colour, creed or sexuality.

But in turn, tackling crime has got to be seen as a partnership – a partnership between the police and the public and between the police and other agencies, such as local councils. Local communities know where local crime hot spots are and have a fund of information. The public need to tell the police when they see something suspicious and need to have the confidence that what they say will be acted on seriously, sensitively and effectively. They need to know who their local beat officers are and how to contact them. I believe these beat officers must be at the centre of London’s policing – men and women who understand the local area, are seen as part of the community, and who are accessible and can stop trouble before it gets started.”