I have tabled a question for oral answer in the House of Lords this afternoon, as follows:
“To ask HM Government what proportion of the United Kingdom’s critical national infrastructure is owned by foreign-owned companies; and what assessment they have made of the benefits and disbenefits of that level of ownership”
I am sure I will receive a courteous answer but I rather suspect that what it will boil down to is (1) the Government don’t really know what proportion of our infrastructure is in foreign hands; (2) that they haven’t really got a policy on it; and (3) even if they wanted to do something about it they feel it is either too late or there is nothing that they can do.
Earlier this month the Government announced, in response to a critical report from the Intelligence and Security Committee, that it would be reviewing the role of Chinese-owned Huawei in the UK’s telecommunications and security infrastructure. This is welcome, if a bit late. I have been banging on about this for ages: for example here and here.
Six years ago the think tank Chatham House reported that
“as much as 90% of the UK’s critical national infrastructure is not government owned and a large proportion of that is under foreign ownership.”
Most of London’s electricity is provided by Electricite de France. Does anyone seriously doubt what would happen if it was a choice between switching the lights out in London or Paris because of some crisis?
In the last 10 years, Ferrovial of Spain has bought BAA, the operator of Heathrow and Stansted airports, Germany’s RWE has acquired npower, and Australian bank Macquarie has taken control of car parks by buying NCP.
German group Deutsche Bahn recently bought rail and bus operator Arriva, while ports company P&O, which owns assets at Tilbury and Southampton, was also bought by Dubai’s DP World in 2006.
This Government bangs on about the threat to British sovereignty presented by the UK’s membership of the EU, but they seem to be utterly silent on the implications for our sovereignty of having so much of our infrastructure controlled by foreign governments or its future being determined at the whim of foreign investors who are unlikely to have the UK’s national interest at the top of their priorities.
Very few other nations would be so sanguine.
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.
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.”
There were a series of exchanges during Question Time in the House of Lords this afternoon on the Arctic and the implications of the melting of the ice cap. The implications are substantial – and not just because of the impact on global sea levels. There is the potential opening up of a new sea route: the North West Passage sought by explorers so assiduously for centuries. There is the potentially easier access to mineral deposits and the possibility of oil drilling as the ice recedes. The ocean (and this brings with it the rights to exploitation of natural resources) itself falls within the territorial waters of a handful of countries – principally Canada, Russia and Greenland.
So what is the strategy being followed to protect UK interests (indeed have those interests even been defined)?
Alas, the answer is not to be found in today’s Hansard:
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the 2012 Arctic Report Card of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States showing record-low sea ice extent in the Arctic Ocean during the past year.
As Boris Johnson prepares to use the platform of the London Government dinner at the Mansion House tonight to try and upstage David Cameron’s long-awaited speech on Europe tomorrow, unsubstantiated gossip reaches me that the Mayor is moving to reward another of those associated with the Evening Standard’s campaign in 2008 to unseat Ken Livingstone and as a result help him to win the election as London Mayor.
Veronica Wadley (then the Standard’s editor) is now the Mayor’s (paid)appointee as chair of the London Arts Council.
A little bird tells me that now the Mayor is poised to appoint Andrew Gilligan (then the Evening Standard journalist who wrote some of the articles in the Standard most damaging to Ken Livingstone) as his new (paid) advisor on cycling in London.
Interesting, if true…..
I have now had it confirmed.
Nicholas Watt in today’s Guardian has a fascinating insight into the dilemma facing David Cameron as he contemplates what he will say in his long-awaited speech on Europe or whether he can put it off yet again:
“Over the Christmas break William Hague dusted off a sacred text that has served as the lodestar for British Eurosceptics over the last quarter of a century: Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech of 1988.
The foreign secretary thought that in preparation for David Cameron’s most important speech on Europe later this month, it would be wise to remind himself how Thatcher memorably set herself against a “European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels”.
As officials and ministers chewed over Thatcher’s speech they reached a rather startling conclusion. Were Cameron to deliver such a “pinko and pro-European” speech, in the words of one source, at least 25 anti-EU Conservative MPs would walk out of the party.
Eurosceptics often forget that Thatcher balanced her warnings of the dangers of a European super-state with a staunch defence of Britain’s place at the heart of the EU. “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European community,” she said. “Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the community.””
The real problem for Cameron is that there is now such a gap between what any sensible British Prime Minister might say about the country’s relationship with our European allies and partners and what the backbenchers on whom he has to rely believe. In practice, the gulf is unbridgeable. A fantasy that is rooted in a century-old vision of the United Kingdom as a world power straddling the Atlantic with a political and economic empire stretching round the globe is frankly incompatible with the realities of the twenty-first century.
It would be tempting to sit back and watch the fireworks as the Tory (and Coalition) meltdown unfolds, but the consequences for the country’s future are really too serious for that.
Yesterday afternoon I initiated a short debate in the Moses Room of the House of Lords on the biological threats facing the United Kingdom, specifically I was asking “Her Majesty’s Government what arrangements they have in place to protect the residents of the United Kingdom against biological threats; and what measures they are taking to promote the international regulation of biological weapons and to ensure that security standards are sufficient in laboratories engaged in biological research around the world.”
The National Risk Register has in its top tier of risks facing the UK major natural hazards, such as a flu pandemic, but also includes as a serious threat in that top tier of risks a biological attack by terrorists.
As Lord Tony Giddens pointed out later in the debate:
“There are three sets of factors which make biological threats far more menacing than they were for previous generations. The first of these … is work in scientific laboratories that is designed to unpack the basic building blocks of nature but which can have spin-offs of a dangerous kind. … Secondly, there is the disruption to or destruction of the world’s ecosystems, releasing pathogens from their normal hosts. The process is normally known as zoonosis and it is one that is fraught with implications for human beings. Thirdly, … we have globalisation which can transmit pathogens almost immediately from one side of the world to the other.”
But the other big change that I had highlighted was the speed of technological advance that has taken place in the last ten or fifteen years in respect of genetic manipulation and as I explained:
“viruses are very simple. They are simply a capsule, often with perhaps 10 or 12 genes within them. The changing of just one gene within a virus can have a very profound effect on what that virus does: how easily it is transmitted, the extent to which it can be transmitted from an animal to a human being or between humans, and the consequences for the organism that is infected.
In fact, in 2001 the Journal of Virology published a research paper that demonstrated a whole number of ways of modifying the mousepox virus. This new virus was so effective that it overwhelmed the immune system of the test mice, causing massive liver failure and eventually killing the subjects. That reaction occurred even if the mice had been vaccinated against the mousepox virus. That was a legitimate scientific experiment—an effort to control the mouse population in Australia—but it demonstrated that a quite small change in a single gene with comparatively simple techniques could have major consequences.
These techniques are becoming more straightforward and all sorts of legitimate research is taking place in these areas around the world. Some of this could have the consequence of rendering a vaccine ineffective; some of it could confer resistance to therapeutically useful antibiotics and antiviral agents in pathogenic organisms; it could increase the virulence of a pathogen, or make it easier for that pathogen to be transmitted; or it could perhaps alter the range of hosts for that pathogen. A whole number of things are now technically possible that were not easily doable 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Entirely legitimate research on genetic manipulation and modification is of course going on all over the world for entirely benign purposes.
The question that I want to pose is: how well regulated around the world is that research? How confident can we be that other countries are applying the sorts of restrictions that we would wish to see? Some pharmaceutical companies may have an interest in carrying out experiments and developing their techniques in countries where the regulatory regime is far less intense than it might be in our own country.”
Biological weapons are outlawed under the Biological Weapons Convention, which has been signed by virtually every country in the world. However, as I pointed out:
“although countries have said that they accept that they should not be developing biological weapons, the world has not set up what we might consider to be any effective system for monitoring compliance or verification. Some of the biggest and most powerful countries—the United States of America, for one—are extremely dubious about setting up any external system to monitor their own compliance and do not necessarily see the need for a supervisory body.
The US, for example, clearly has no official bioweapons capability but has constructed a huge research base, in many different centres around the United States, under the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures programme. That is undertaking, no doubt quite properly, genetic research, development and testing. However, if the United States says, “We are not happy with our compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention ever being tested by anybody else”, it is very difficult to see how that could be enforced on other countries.
Scepticism also persists about whether Russia’s offensive bioweapons capabilities have been completely dismantled. There are, I think, five Russian military bioweapons facilities which remain closed to outside inspection. Many of the officials linked to their current defensive programme are the same officials that developed Soviet offensive capabilities during the Cold War. There is a question again about how secure those facilities are, particularly as we know that regimes change and that certain parts of the world become less stable as things move forward.”
I also warned that:
“There is clearly a risk that stocks of materials developed for one purpose could be misused or fall into the hands of terrorist groups or, potentially, rogue regimes.”
And concluded as follows:
“In responding, can the Minister first say what is being done to improve supervision of these matters? Secondly, what is being done to regulate the security of scientific establishments, including those that hold stocks of pathogens? It all ends with a fundamental question. We are at risk, as a nation, from a pandemic of whatever sort and from whatever origin, whether naturally or unnaturally occurring. Are we really satisfied that our emergency and health services are able to withstand that?”
The Minister who responded was Lord Wallace of Saltaire who acknowledged that:
“This is an important subject, and both a domestic and international one. We are concerned with the potential of a terrorist attack and the very distant potential of a global state attack. … We are also concerned with the possibility of accidental release from badly secured laboratories.”
Being a LibDem Minister he could not avoid taking the opportunity to snipe at his Conservative Coalition colleagues, saying:
“This is an area of domestic and international overlap. I would not discourage noble Lords from pointing out, as we deal with the intensely emotional issue of the defence of British sovereignty from European and other interference, that this is one of many areas where you cannot have entirely different British and foreign issues. We have to have international co-operation and, as far we can, regulation.”
He did confirm that:
“The Government are deeply committed to protecting the United Kingdom from biological threats. That requires us to have strong measures at home and co-operation abroad.”
but warned that:
“There is resistance to a strong international compliance programme … it is not simply from the United States, let alone from the American pharmaceutical industry, but from a range of other countries that I will not go through. For many of them it is a question of sovereignty and, for one or two south Asian countries, of suspicion of the West. There are limits to what we can achieve and we have to work as far as we can through education, co-operation and providing assistance. I also note that we are working with our partners inside the European Union through the establishment of centres of excellence with regional centres around the world to build this level of co-operation.”
His basic message was:
“There are some real problems here … this is a very complex area.”
And he concluded - rather strangely for a Government Minister – with:
“I shall finish by saying that we need to keep on challenging our Government and even more so other governments.”
So I suppose those of us who took part in the debate were being told: keep on nagging us and maybe we (the Government) will finally take this as seriously as it deserves.
If you want to read the full debate it is here.
There was a fairly surreal discussion in the House of Lords this afternoon following the Government statement on the resignation of the Director General of the BBC. This reflects the wider political and media preoccupation with the inner workings of the BBC and not the very serious allegations of child abuse that lay beneath the two questionable editorial decisions by those in charge of the BBC Newsnight programme.
The depths were plumbed by Lord Pearson of Rannoch, former Leader of UKIP, who seemed to think that the central issue was that “a large majority” of the members of the BBC Trust are “climate change enthusiasts” and that “the BBC remains blindly Europhile …. as exemplified by its chairman, who has a large EU pension which he could lose if he went against what the European Commission regards as the interests of the European communities.”
It took a Bishop to reinject some sanity into the discussion:
My Lords, I am very grateful that in the initial Statement the Minister said that we must continue to recognise the needs of those who have been abused. He spoke of the BBC facing a series of crises. Those who were abused face a far more serious series of crises. Will he stress again that the primary concern at this point needs to be the protection of children and young people? Will he also stress the continuing desire of us all to encourage those who have suffered abuse to come forward so we can change the culture of how we deal with such issues?
But that didn’t stop Lord Stoddart of Swindon from trying to bring the debate back to the people selected as BBC Trustees and lobbying for his UKIP mate, Lord Pearson, to be appointed:
Does the noble Lord agree that the selection pool for the BBC Trust is very narrow? Would it not be as well that that pool should be widened so that a perhaps more critical attitude could be taken of the operations of the BBC? Perhaps one of the new candidates could be the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch.
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate has rightly reminded the House that the people we should be most concerned about in all of this are those who were the victims of abuse. Can the Minister comment on whether the Government feel that the frenzy around the existential crisis of the BBC is not really a distraction from concerns that there was very real abuse in children’s homes in north Wales and elsewhere; that there was an individual who, because of his celebrity, was able to abuse children all over the country; and that we are in danger of being deflected, which of course plays into the hands of those who would rather cover up what happened and the names of those who were ultimately responsible?
The Conservative Party has a tendency to froth at the mouth any time there is any mention of Europe. Such a tendency means that the Government is increasingly adopting policies that are designed to appease the worst of the backbench frothers – irrespective of whether the resulting impact on wider policy makes any sense at all.
Today the Home Secretary announced that the Government plans to opt out of 130 European Union measures on law and order. Or at least that was the spin put on the announcement, no doubt for the benefit of the frothers. What she actually said was:
“the Government’s current thinking is that we will opt out of all pre-Lisbon police and criminal justice measures and then negotiate with the Commission and other member states to opt back into those individual measures which it is in our national interest to rejoin. However, discussions are ongoing within government and therefore no formal notification will be given to the Council until we have reached agreement on the measures that we wish to opt back into.”
This convoluted wording reflects – just for a change – disagreements within the Coalition, but it also reflects the mess that will be created in the UK’s participation in Europe-wide cooperation on policing and crime fighting.
The Government’s intention would put at risk – amongst other things – the UK’s involvement in the European Arrest Warrant. It was the European Arrest Warrant that ensured that Hussain Osman who targeted a Hammersmith and City line train to Shepherd’s Bush in the failed 21/7 bombings was brought back from Italy so speedily to stand trial.
And as my colleague, Baroness Angela Smith, said in the Lords this afternoon:
“If the European arrest warrant had not been in place, what action would have been available to UK police in co-operating with their French counterparts to ensure that the French police were able to arrest Jeremy Forrest and ensure that he and Megan Stammers were returned to the UK in the same timescale? No one is suggesting that the European arrest warrant is perfect, but the independent Scott Baker report commissioned by the current Home Secretary strongly recommended keeping it. Yes, it could be improved and updated, and that very process is taking place now; it is being reformed. As a further example of this Statement being premature, the Government do not even know at this stage what they would be opting out of.
The European arrest warrant is responsible for nearly 600 criminals being returned to the UK to face trial. It has allowed 4,000 citizens from other European countries to be sent back to their home country or another European country to face justice. In light of some of the Government’s briefing on this issue, your Lordships’ House might like to be aware that 94% of those sent back to other European countries to face trial under the European arrest warrant are foreign citizens.”
Earlier this year I was a signatory – along with a large number of much more distinguished former police chiefs and experts in criminology – to a letter sent to the Prime Minister on this threatened opt out. This spelt out why this international cooperation is potentially so important and said:
“This hard work is producing real results today. Take ‘Operation Rescue’: a 3 year operation launched by British police and coordinated by Europol across 30 countries that led to the discovery of the world’s largest online paedophile network, producing 184 arrests and the release of 230 children, including 60 in the UK. There are now hundreds of similar cross-border police and judicial success stories and Europe as a whole is a more hostile environment for serious organised criminals to operate, making Britain safer and more secure in the process.
This is an active agenda, and we must continuously improve our international policing and justice instruments as criminal activity develops and to ensure they remain necessary and proportionate. This includes the European Arrest Warrant, a totemic issue for some. The Warrant has been improved in recent years and further improvements may be needed. But scrapping it altogether would be entirely self-defeating. It has become an essential tool in the fight against cross-border organised crime delivering fast and effective justice across Europe. Since 2009 alone, the Warrant was used to return to the UK 71 foreign nationals over serious crimes including 4 robberies, 5 murders, 5 rapes, 6 child sexual offences, 9 cases of GBH and 14 cases of fraud.”
No doubt the Government, when it has finished appeasing the frothers, will say that these benefits will still be achieved because the UK can negotiate its way back into those areas of cooperation that it wants to keep.
However, each opt-in can only be negotiated after the opt-out has taken effect and requires the approval of all the other participating EU states before it can take effect. Such a process will take months or years and there is no guarantee of certainty that the UK will be allowed to opt back in.
And this is where the frothers come back into the equation. The European Union Act 2011 – another fine piece of constitutional tinkering by the Coalition – requires that a referendum be held throughout the United Kingdom on any proposed EU treaty or Treaty change which would transfer powers from the UK to the EU. And each opt-back-in would be a transfer of power from the UK to the EU, so triggering a referendum on each change.
The effect is that appeasing the frothers now will lead to a succession of EU referenda simply to return us to the position on cooperation with the rest of Europe that we are in today. And that really will please the frothers, but will seriously damage the UK’s ability to fight crime effectively.
Ed Miliband’s brilliant bravura performance this afternoon at the Labour Party Conference – seventy minutes without a note (beat that Cameron) – proves that the Labour Party is six months ahead of the schedule necessary to prepare for the next General Election.
Before then, the Labour Party needs to articulate the philosophical themes that will underpin the next Labour Government and crystallise those down to a (small) number of symbolic policy commitments.
The next General Election is in May 2015 – two and a half years away. The equivalent point before Labour’s 1997 General Election landslide was the Labour Party Conference in 1994. That was the Party Conference when Tony Blair in his Leader’s speech proposed that the content and wording of Clause Four be reviewed and reformulated for new times and New Labour.
The themes which underpinned Labour’s 1997 election manifesto (“The future not the past”; “The many not the few” etc) were not fully articulated until the new Clause Four was approved in the Spring of 1995 – two years before the Election. And the policy commitments (The Pledge Card”) were not finalised until July 1996 – ten months before the Election.
And today Ed Miliband set out the philosophical basis on which “One Nation Labour” will appeal to the electorate in 2015. The themes he set out today will resonate, not only with the Labour Party in the hall in Manchester and amongst Labour supporters across the country, but they will strike a chord amongst the rest of the public who can see how Cameron’s Government is out-of-touch and leading the country further and further into an economic quagmire, whilst dividing a nation and a people who will only flourish when united.
The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy (of which I am a member) has just published a report criticising the Government for failing to take seriously the concerns that it expresses in its First Review of the Strategy.
In particular, the report points out that the Government has failed to respond adequately to the Committee’s concerns about the implications for the National Security Strategy of major shifts in US strategy, of the Eurozone crisis and the potential impact of Scottish independence.
The Joint Committee had urged the Government to press ahead with planning the next national Security Strategy, allowing sufficient time to involve academics and experts external to the Government in the process and to allow the next Comprehensive Spending Review and the Strategic Defence Review to be properly integrated in the process. The 2010 National Security Strategy was rushed and weaker as a result.
The Government has acknowledged that it is “important to start thinking about the work plan” for the next National Security Strategy “well in advance of 2015″. However, there is no indication that any effort has been made to start drawing up plans to ensure that the next Strategy is a more candid and more explicit document that properly addresses difficult questions.
Even more disturbing is the absence from the Government of any indication that it intends to draw up the next Strategy in a way that achieves a broad national consensus on the foundations necessary to plan for our nation’s security in the longer -term.
Failure to build such a consensus will be a wasted opportunity – without such a consensus any future Strategy will not have abroad enough basis of buy-in and consent and that in turn will weaken the Strategy and also National Security itself.