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Archive for March, 2013

Friday
Mar 29,2013

The House of Lords is now in recess for Easter.

However, forthcoming business for the period after the recess has now been published and on the 24th April the House will be debating the highly controversial “competition” regulations for the National Health Service.  That is likely to be the main business that day.

However, before the main course there is an aperitif: “Consideration of the 5th and 6th Reports for the Procedure Committee”.  The first of these contains some proposals to repeal three standing orders of the House.  The standing orders concerned date back to 1699, 1678 and (wait for it) 1675.  The Committee points out that these orders are now obsolete (in one case they were made redundant by statute over 300 years ago and in another by an Act of Parliament of 1840 – 173 years ago).

So there is no rush then …..

Wednesday
Mar 27,2013

The focus of that Eddie Mair interview was the question of Boris Johnson’s fitness for further office.  There was no real discussion of how well he has actually done in his current job as Mayor of London.

In the earnest spirit of inquiry I recently tabled a question in the House of Lords:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have received from the Mayor of London in the last year on (1) health services in London, (2) housing provision in London, and (3) the impact of changes in welfare benefits on the people of London.[HL5797]”

The response I got was as follows:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Hanham): The Department of Health has held a number of discussions over the last year with the Greater London Authority, London Councils and the Local Government Association about the London Health Improvement Board. We recognise that there is potential for delivering health improvement services on a city-wide basis in London. The London Health Improvement Board has been meeting since July 2011.

The Localism Act conferred on the Mayor of London responsibility for housing, economic development and Olympic legacy in London, in addition to existing responsibilities over transport, planning and the police. Therefore, the mayor is responsible for housing and regeneration policy in London. The Department for Communities and Local Government has regular conversations with the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority regarding housing provision in London. Over the last year these conversations have focused on a broad range of issues, such as funding and delivery of affordable housing, increasing investment in the private rented sector, getting surplus public sector land back into use and dealing with homelessness and rough sleeping.”

The answer is notable in what it does not say.

There is no indication that the Mayor has spoken up on behalf of Londoners about the state of London’s NHS and the piecemeal closure of services that is taking place all over the capital.  I doubt whether the remit of the London Health Improvement Board covers the configuration of health services in London and I have asked another question to clarify this.

And there was no mention whatsoever in the answer (despite its specific inclusion in the question) of any representations made by the Mayor on the impact of changes in welfare benefits on the people of London.

Boris Johnson has made plenty of public statements about not being nasty to bankers and the iniquities of high tax rates but apparently has little to say about the cuts in welfare and housing benefits that hundreds of thousands of Londoners will face in the next few weeks.

I wanted to seek further clarification from the Government by asking:

“Further to WA 5797, does the absence to a reference to representations from the Mayor of London in respect of changes in welfare benefits on the people of London mean that there were no such representations”

but have been told that that would be against the rules.

Instead, I have asked again what representations the Government has had from the Mayor specifically on the subject of impact of changes to welfare benefits on the people of London.

I await the answer, but I expect I know it already: Boris Johnson is more concerned about the very wealthy and about big bonus bankers than those who have to rely on what is left of our social security system.

 

Tuesday
Mar 26,2013

In Lords’ Question Time today I asked:

“Her Majesty’s Government what is their policy on the deployment of autonomous weapon systems by United Kingdom Armed Forces.”

The response was – in my view – a helpful one:

“The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Astor of Hever):
My Lords, the United Kingdom does not have fully autonomous weapon systems. Such systems are not yet in existence and are not likely to be for many years, if at all. There are currently a limited number of naval defensive systems that could operate in automatic mode, although there would always be naval personnel involved in setting the parameters of any such operation. I must emphasise that any type of weapon system would be used only in strict adherence with international humanitarian law.”

Subsequent exchanges amplified the point further:

“Lord Harris of Haringey:
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is it the view of Her Majesty’s Government that there is a world of difference between a drone operated remotely from several hundred or thousands of miles away and one that is automatic and involves no human intervention before it discharges? In that context, will he tell us a bit more about the Mantis development by BAE Systems, which I understand is supported and funded by the UK’s Ministry of Defence, which the BAE Systems website describes as,

“Able to fly by itself, able to think for itself”?

Lord Astor of Hever:
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. As I said in the original Answer, the UK complies fully with its obligations under national and international law, and that applies to autonomous weapon systems. However, although technological advances are likely to increase the level of automation in some systems, just as in non-military equipment, such as cars, the MoD currently has no intention of developing systems that operate without human intervention.

As for Mantis, the MoD initiated a jointly funded advanced concept technology demonstrator in 2008, which led to flight trials in 2009. The MoD has no current involvement in BAE Systems’ Mantis advanced concept technology demonstrator.

Lord Lee of Trafford:
Does my noble friend agree with the comments of a senior RAF officer who said very recently that come 2020 the Royal Air Force would be something like 50% manned aircraft and 50% UAE or drones?

Lord Astor of Hever:
My Lords, remotely piloted aircraft systems are likely to form part of the future force mix, as they may offer advantages in endurance and range. However, the dynamic complexity of fighter-versus-fighter-type missions does not favour remote control. Therefore, a wholly unmanned force is unlikely to be achievable or desirable in future. Studies suggest a likely combat air force mix of two-thirds manned and one-third remotely piloted in around the 2030 timeframe.

Lord Rosser:
There is a perception that unmanned technology is shrouded in secrecy. Although the rules of engagement for unmanned aerial vehicles are the same as those for manned aircraft, there is surely a case for the United Kingdom taking the lead by considering having a code on the context and limitations of usage of UAVs to clarify the rules, given the significance and spread of this technology. Is this a point that the Government are considering or will consider?

Lord Astor of Hever:
My Lords, I shall certainly take that question back to my department and get back to the noble Lord. We always make sure that equipment is used appropriately. Even after a weapon system is declared lawful, its use will still be subject to stringent rules of engagement governing its employment in the context and specific circumstances of the operation in question. Those rules of engagement as well as addressing legal issues can, as a matter of policy, be more restrictive than the applicable law. ….

Lord West of Spithead:
My Lords, the Minister slightly confused me with one of his answers. Will he confirm that for anti-missile, close range anti-aircraft, and anti-torpedo reaction systems, there is considerable merit in going for an autonomous system, even if it has a manual override? From what he said it sounds as though we are not continuing to develop that capability. Is that correct?

Lord Astor of Hever:
My Lords, in essence, an automatic system reacts to a limited number of external stimuli in the same way each time, just as automatic transmission changes gears when a car gets to a certain speed. Fully autonomous systems rely on a certain level of artificial intelligence for making high-level decisions from a very complex environmental input, the result of which might not be fully predictable at a very detailed level. However, let us be absolutely clear that the operation of weapons systems will always—always—be under human control.”

Tuesday
Mar 26,2013

There are a few politicians who are so well-known that they are referred to a almost universally by their first names. Maggie Thatcher was one; John Major and David Cameron are not. It seems to be a requirement for those who become Mayor of London – think of the Ken and Boris show.

Jeremy Hunt clearly thinks he is part of that select band. His introduction to the Government’s response to the Francis Report on the events at Mid-Staffordshire Hospital is signed with a rather inappropriate flourish simply by him as “Jeremy”.

Perhaps this is intended as a subtle signal that he is available either as a replacement for the Prime Minister or as the next Conservative Mayoral candidate……

Monday
Mar 18,2013

This morning the Public Accounts Committee published a coruscating report on the continuing problems that HM Revenue and Customs have in answering the telephone.

On Saturday thousands marched through North London to protest at changes in the services offered by the Whittington Hospital.

What links these two events?

The answer is a former car parts company, Unipart, that now sells its services in promoting “efficiency” to public bodies.

Unipart advised HMRC on their processes.

Unipart advises the Whittington Hospital on how to cut its costs and shed staff.  One of the major proposals management there is implementing is to change the way in which the public can “interface with” the Hospital.

Excessive delays in answering the phone by HMRC are serious, but they are not usually life-threatening.

Answering telephone calls from patients and their relatives in a hospital may be.

The danger is efficiency proposals that work well in an industrial setting may not be suited to a public service on which the lives and well-being of people depend.

Saturday
Mar 16,2013

Today’s guilty pleas at the Old Bailey are a timely reminder that the homegrown terrorist threat has not gone away.  Three men (Richard Dart, Jahangir Alom and Imran Mahmood) had been charged with:

“engaging in preparation for acts of terrorism by travelling to Pakistan for training between July 2010 and July 2012 and by “advising and counselling” acts of terrorism by providing information about how to go to the country for the same purpose.”

It is notable that Dart (a white convert to Islam who moved from Dorset to London) had been employed for a short period as a security guard for the BBC and that Alom (whose wife has already been sentenced for terrorist offences) is a former Police Community Support Officer.  Both had therefore been – for a period at least – in security-related occupations.

The three convictions involved travel to Pakistan for training in terrorist techniques but as NBC News has recently reported:

“A new al-Qaida “guidebook” for extremists aims to incite homegrown “lone wolves” into carrying out small-scale terrorist attacks …. using materials as easily obtainable as motor or cooking oil, sugar and matches to trigger massive traffic accidents, devastating fires and deadly explosions.

Titled the “Lone Mujahid Pocketbook” and published by in the spring edition of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s “Inspire” online propaganda magazine, the guidebook uses a breezy style that borrows from social media speak and rap lyrics to encourage Islamic extremists in the West to commit acts of violence.

“R U dreamin’ of wagin’ jihadi attacks against kuffar?” is asks, using a derogatory Arabic term for non-Muslims. “Have u been lookin’ 4 a way to join the mujahideen in frontlines, but you haven’t found any? Well there’s no need to travel abroad, coz the frontline has come to you.”

Among other things, it offers detailed instructions for torching parked cars, causing vehicular accidents by pouring motor oil on highway curves, starting forest fires, “making a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom” and using a pickup truck with blades welded on the front “as a mowing machine, not to mow grass but (to) mow down the enemies of Allah.””

So the threat has not gone away and the current tactic involves self-trained (and possibly self-radicalised) lone wolf type activists.