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Archive for June, 2012

Friday
Jun 29,2012

I have now seen all the plays in Shakespeare’s “Shipwreck Trilogy” at the Royal Shakespeare Company season at the Roundhouse and there is no question that the productions of “Twelfth Night” and “The Comedy of Errors” are brilliant (I was less enamoured by “The Tempest” but then the play is by no means one of my favourites anyway).

Illyria has become in this version of “Twelfth Night” a rather sleazy Latin American state (with copious total immersions taking place – avoid the first two rows in the left-hand front of the stage if you don’t want to get wet), while Ephesus – the setting for “The Comedy” – is a proto-fascist state, taking a robust line with illegal immigrants and featuring incidental water-boarding and ECT use.  Normally such devices would be a distraction from the plays but in these productions the action seems to fit perfectly into the settings contrived for them.

There are some superb individual performances: notably Jonathan Slinger’s Malvolio (his buttocks provoking waves of hysteria amongst the youthful audience in the cross-gartering scene on the day I saw it), Kirsty Bushell’s Olivia in “Twelfth Night” and Adriana in “The Comedy”, Emily Taafe’s Viola (possibly the best rendering of the part I have ever seen) and Nicholas Day’s Sir Toby. The twin Dromios (Felix Hayes and Bruce Mackinnon – who also carries off a suitably inept Sir Andrew Aguecheek) ensure that the farcical set-pieces in “The Comedy” are genuinely hilarious. There are strong supporting performances from Cecilia Noble (as Maria in “Twelfth Night” and a formidable Emilia) and from Kevin McMonagle (as Feste and a terrifying merchant in “The Comedy”).

The tragedy is that none of the performances I saw was sold out and there were plenty of empty seats: the good news therefore is that you still have a few more days to catch the season before it ends.

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 The Comedy of Errorscrane-243x317

Friday
Jun 29,2012

I have just finished reading the book by my Lords’ colleague, David Lipsey, “In the Corridors of Power“.  It is a great read: lucid and clear as you would expect from someone with his journalistic pedigree and full of crisp insightful comments on the policy issues of the last forty years with which he has engaged.

His account of working for a trade union in the 1970s and then being one of the first SpAds (long before the term was coined) is hugely enjoyable, as are his portraits of Tony Crosland, Roy Jenkins, Jim Callaghan and the other figures that he has worked with.

The book is also a must read for those who want to understand the realities of being a member of the House of Lords and the limits to what you can achieve.  It is also a concise primer on House of Lords reform, changing the voting system, the finance of social care and many other topics from the funding of the BBC to the politics of greyhound racing.

Buy it and enjoy!

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Tuesday
Jun 26,2012

My good friends at The Risk Management Group have produced “The A to Z of Safe Social Media” (a sister guide to their earlier “The A to Z of Safe Children Online”.  It is available for free download here and even contains a foreword from me!

Thursday
Jun 21,2012

I have some sympathy with efforts to set high standards and expectations for all pupils.  However, turning the clock back twenty years and re-creating the old O-levels for some with a lesser qualification for the rest is not necessarily the way to do it.

What would be the biggest reorganisation of the secondary school curriculum will no doubt be debated widely when proposals finally emerge rather than being briefed/leaked by the Department for Education.

In the meantime, what is interesting is the silence of Sarah Teather, the Schools Minister.

A silence that is particularly notable given the way in which other Liberal Democrats from Nick Clegg down (if such a concept makes sense) have been frothing at the mouth over Gove’s proposals.

As the Minister responsible for schools in the Department for Education, it would have been reasonable to assume that she must have been aware of the development of such radical changes.

If she did, she somehow didn’t have the political nous to realise that they might be a tad controversial and talk to some of her LibDem colleagues about them.

The alternative is that she is so completely side-lined in the Department that it calls into question what she does for her Minister of State’s salary.

So – which is it? Complicit and naive or a total waste of space?

Tuesday
Jun 19,2012

As you know, I am never normally one for unsubstantiated gossip (stop giggling at the back!), but on this occasion I thought I should pass this on for what it is worth.

Over the weekend, the Conservative Party in Kent chose its candidate to be Police and Crime Commissioner for the county.  The successful candidate is Councillor Craig MacKinlay, a former Deputy leader of UKIP who joined the Conservative Party in 2005.

One of the other contenders was Jan Berry, former Chairman of the Police Federation.  (Previously, of course, the favoured candidate Colonel Tim Collins had withdrawn from contention.)

A little bird tells me that Jan Berry’s candidacy had been promoted by no less a person than Nick Herbert MP, the Minister for Policing, who apparently took the view that Jan Berry would be the sort of high-profile candidate that his policy of electing Police Commissioners should be seen to have encouraged and would also be a slap in the face for the current leadership of the Police Federation for whom he has notoriously little time.

His choice, however, did not go down well with some of the local MPs and one in particular, Mark Reckless, is said to have campaigned ruthlessly and effectively against Jan Berry and for the ex-UKIP man.

All I can say is “interesting, if true”.

And good luck to Harriet Yeo, the Labour Party candidate.

Tuesday
Jun 19,2012

Here is my speech in yesterday’s debate on whether the National Crime Agency should have a Board or be directly under the personal direction of the Home Secretary:

“ My Lords, I certainly do not want to fall into the trap of automatically accepting the Government’s architecture for these proposals. However, the amendment put forward by my noble friend does not necessarily undermine that architecture. The key point of this part of the proposed legislation is the creation of a new National Crime Agency. That is the key concept, and in this group of amendments we are dealing with some of the accountability mechanisms and the arrangements that will be put around the agency to ensure that its governance is of an appropriate and effective standard.

Let us be clear why this is important. The National Crime Agency, as proposed, will be a tremendously significant organisation. It will be responsible for ensuring that as a country we deal effectively with the most serious types of crime. In due course, it may be responsible for dealing with terrorism. This is not some minor government body; it is an extremely important part of the arrangements that we put in place to ensure that our citizens are properly protected against serious crime.

The other fundamental part of the architecture of the Bill, if you are wedded to that architecture, as no doubt the Minister is-no doubt we will come onto this in due course-are the provisions within the legislation that enable the director-general to require from police services around the country various things to happen. There is a potential power of direction-and certainly the expectation in terms of individual operations-that local police forces will work with the National Crime Agency to ensure that certain operations proceed. The relationship between the director-general and individual chief officers of police will be a fundamental one. That is precisely why, when we look at the governance structures and the arrangements that will be put around the director-general, we need to ensure that there are appropriate mechanisms for chief officers of police and those responsible for their governance, in terms of police and crime commissions, to be adequately represented within them.

The Government have to put forward a clear justification as to why this very lean approach to governance has been included in the Bill. As a number of your Lordships have already indicated in Committee, there is a virtue in having a proper governance structure, a group of non-executives and a group of individuals to whom the director-general must report or explain or expand on his or her proposals on how the agency goes forward. That is not to decry the direct accountability to the Home Secretary because it will be the Home Secretary who will, whatever is written into the Bill, have to answer to Parliament as to whether this new structure works. It supports that function and gives the Home Secretary reassurance that all the processes and procedures that any sensible Home Secretary would expect to be around the director-general are in place.

I am not suggesting that the Home Secretary is incapable of providing adequate supervision of the agency. I am simply saying that it is not necessarily the most effective or efficient way of doing it and that some board structure supporting that process is better and more likely to be successful. I have looked for precedents for this sort of one-to-one relationship between the Home Secretary and significant agencies. For 175 years the Home Secretary was the police authority for London and at the end of those 175 years the Metropolitan Police was so well governed, despite the excellent leadership at that stage provided by the noble Lord, Lord Condon, that it did not have a system in place-it was a £2 billion business at the time-for telling whether it had paid a bill more than once. I rather suspect that had the Home Office-I absolve previous Home Secretaries from day-to-day responsibility for this-been doing its job properly proper accountancy systems would have been installed within the organisation. However, the supervision of the Home Office and the Home Secretary was quite properly on the main policing issues, which would have been advised by the noble Lord, Lord Condon, and his predecessors as Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. This was not about the way in which the organisation was run, administered or governed. That is the natural tendency. Home Secretaries are busy people. They have broad responsibilities. They are not going to be involved in day-to-day issues about the robustness or otherwise of governance structures. The history of the Metropolitan Police is not a sound precedent.

More recently we have the precedent of the border agency. Here, the opposite problem seems to have occurred. You seem to have a Home Secretary-perhaps successive Home Office Ministers would be a fairer way of putting it-who wanted certain things to happen and applied pressure on the border agency to do so. You then end up in arguments about what was said to whom by whom because of that one-to-one relationship. In all the fuss that there was a few months ago about whether certain expectations were being bypassed to let people into the country and remove queues, would it not have been better for there to have been a supervisory board between the Home Secretary and the chief executive of the border agency where there would have been a record, minutes, and perhaps an opportunity for dissent to be expressed? All that would be missing in the arrangements for the National Crime Agency, which raises the question of whether we are not in danger of creating a structure where the Home Secretary has too much of a role in respect of a policing body.

In this country, we have always expressed real concern about politicians having direct operational control of policing. That is part of the reason why there was a little bit of debate about the creation of police and crime commissioners, but that debate has moved on and we are now well into the process with the Labour Party having today announced a selection of candidates for those positions that includes my noble friend Lord Prescott. The Labour Party will clearly have an excellent set of candidates and we wait to see whether the Conservative list will be quite as exciting or interesting. The reason that there was some concern about that and there is even more concern about a national agency directly under the control of a single politician is the danger that that power is abused. I am certainly not accusing the present Home Secretary of having any desire to abuse that power. I am simply saying that we are creating a structure where such an abuse is possible and that it might happen in future.

Imagine occasions when there is a considerable threat from some organised crime group or a terrorist organisation, if that is the direction that the new agency goes in, and it is the responsibility of the Home Secretary to direct what the agency should do. The guarantees in the Bill for operational independence do not amount to very much in those circumstances. There is no place for control freakery here. This has to be about a proper system of governance. In a few years’ time, I would not want people to be making all sorts of sinister connections between policing operations that happen under the auspices of the National Crime Agency and saying that there are sinister implications that they have been personally directed or required by the Home Secretary, but that is the danger of the governance model that the Government have created.

My final point returns to what I mentioned in passing earlier. A critical part of this new agency will be the ability of the National Crime Agency to say that it wants local police forces to carry out or collaborate on particular operations. The danger of having a National Crime Agency that is divorced from the rest of the police structure is very real. I recall the discussions that took place over several years to try to get a system that worked on counterterrorism with primacy for one force and the ability to make operations happen across the country. It was not an easy process. The Government are making it more difficult for the director-general of the National Crime Agency if there are not police and crime commissioners or chief officers of police playing an active part in the governance of this new organisation. If they are there, if they are around the table and able to say, “This is a better way of doing that”, or to encourage the director-general to do things in a way that ensures their collaboration, that is surely going to mean that it is more likely that this new agency will succeed.

My noble friend’s amendments, which address precisely those points, are very welcome. There is a slight drafting error in that they make no reference to London, but I am sure that could be adjusted when we return to this at a later stage. The key issue that the Minister has to explain today is why this particular governance model has been put forward and why it is genuinely an improvement on a supervisory board which involves, for example, chief officers of police and police and crime commissioners.”

Tuesday
Jun 19,2012

Last month I reported on the Tory embarrassment that their flagship policy of elected Police and Crime Commissioners was starting to unravel for them.

Earlier today the Labour Party unveiled its list of selected candidates to fight the 41 elections in November.  The list is impressive and includes a number of former senior Ministers, along with the current Chair of the Association of Police Authorities and one of his predecessors.  A third of those selected are women and even in those areas where a Labour victory is frankly unlikely the Party has selected some serious and highly experienced individuals.

It remains to be seen whether the Tory list when it eventually emerges will be anything like as impressive.  For completeness, it is worth pointing out that the Liberal Democrats are likely only to contest a tiny handful of the available places.

Saturday
Jun 16,2012

Much as I enjoyed all the “tainted Prime Minister” stuff in Ed Miliband’s speech this morning to the Labour Party National Policy Forum,  I was struck by the enthusiasm with which he spoke about local government and the contribution being made by Labour councillors:

“Labour Birmingham.  Labour, in whom the people of Birmingham placed their trust in May.  A Labour council changing the way we do politics with a manifesto built on 12 months of conversations with the people of this city.  A Labour council improving our society with 5,000 new homes a year.  And a Labour council changing our economy by paying at least £7.20 to every city council worker.  A decent living wage.

And let us recognise the work of every Labour council making a difference in tough times.  Liverpool’s new Mayor Joe Anderson and h is council that is building 2,500 homes.  Manchester keeping open its Sure Start Centres.  And Newham, standing up for tenants against unscrupulous landlords.

Labour councils whose examples will inspire our next manifesto.  And let us applaud them for their work.”

Here at last is a recognition that Labour local government can be in the vanguard of delivering effective public services that meet the needs of their communities, that Labour local government is not something to be apologised for but is Labour’s future, and that the platform for winning future General Elections will be found at local level.

Monday
Jun 11,2012

A former senior analyst to the US Secretary for Defense has warned that:

“Chinese companies apparently have a covert capability to remotely access communications technology sold to the United States and other Western countries and could disable a country’s telecommunications infrastructure before a military engagement.”

 Writing on Friday, F Michael Maloof reported that:

“The Chinese also have the ability to exploit networks “to enable China to continue to steal technology and trade secrets,” according to the open source intelligence company Lignet, which is comprised of former U.S. intelligence analysts.

The issue centers on the Chinese firm Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., which U.S. intelligence sources say has direct links to the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA. These sources assert that Huawei and other Chinese telecommunications firms such as ZTE Corp. have “electronic backdoors” to telecommunications technology sold to the U.S. and other countries.”

This is the same Huawei that I have reported before as providing key components to this country BT network and is being investigated by the US Congress but not by any equivalent UK body.

Huawei tell me that they are much-maligned and say that they are not linked to the People’s Liberation Army, but are just a private company trying to expand their business outside China.

In the UK the Government seems to be unconcerned that increasingly large parts of the country’s critical national infrastructure are under foreign ownership or are dependent for key components on overseas suppliers (there are a series of stories in yesterday’s Sunday Times behind its paywall about Chinese or Russian interests buying into the UK energy supply industry).

It is not clear why it can be assumed that these interests are necessarily benign and the UK Government doesn’t even seem to be interested in asking the question let alone doing anything about it.

How complacent can they get?

 

Monday
Jun 11,2012

Michael Gove is to announce a new primary school curriculum.

Apparently, this will involve five-year-olds being required to learn poetry by heart and recite it aloud.  According to the Telegraph:

“Education Secretary Michael Gove will promise a new focus on the traditional virtues of spelling and grammar when he sets out his plans for the teaching of English in primary schools later this week.

At the same time, Mr Gove will put forward proposals to make learning a foreign language compulsory for pupils from the age of seven.

Under his plans, primary schools could offer lessons in Mandarin, Latin and Greek as well as French, German and Spanish from September 2014.

The Education Secretary is said to be determined to make the teaching of English at primary school ”far more rigorous” than it is at present.  …

It will also emphasise the importance of grammar in mastering the language, setting out exactly what children should be expected to be taught in each year of their primary schooling as well as lists of words they should be able to spell.”

Whilst I am not convinced about the value of reciting poetry, nor about learning Latin and (ancient) Greek, I do think that there is much to be said for instilling the basics of language in all primary age children.

There will also be a commitment to making sure pupils have some basic skills in maths and science:

“Pupils will be expected to memorise their tables up to 12 times 12 by age nine, and be able to multiply and divide fractions by the end of primary school under a major shake-up of the national curriculum.

Using decimals and basic arithmetic are also set to be a main focus of maths lessons in the future, a move which ministers said will help to raise standards in England’s schools.

In science, primary school children will be taught about key concepts such as static electricity, the solar system and how to name and classify objects in biology.”

That too is welcome.  But does it go far enough?

Earlier this year, John Naughton argued in the Guardian that:

“Starting in primary school, children from all backgrounds and every part of the UK should have the opportunity to: learn some of the key ideas of computer science; understand computational thinking; learn to program; and have the opportunity to progress to the next level of excellence in these activities.  …

We need to face up to a painful fact. It is that almost everything we have done over the last two decades in the area of ICT education in British schools has been misguided and largely futile. Instead of educating children about the most revolutionary technology of their young lifetimes, we have focused on training them to use obsolescent software products”

There are developments like Raspberry Pi that are intended to provide a cheap and accessible platform for young children to learn simple programming.
The hope is that Gove will recognise that revitalising the primary school curriculum is about equipping today’s under-11s not with the skills their grandparents and great-grandparents may have learned, but the skills that they will need to grow up in the 2020s and 2030s.  And that those skills can be the basis for the UK’s future economic growth.
Poetry has its place, but programming is the future.