I posted the following earlier today on the Labour Lords site:
A 15 year old girl is alone in her bedroom. She is on her smartphone messaging her friends. Like most nights she is chatting online to one particular boy. He says he is 17. He says he is in love with her. The chat becomes sexual. He tells her she is special. He coaxes her into sending her a picture of herself – naked. Only later does she discover that he is not 17 but 44 years old and that he is a sexual predator.
ChildLine say such cases are not uncommon. In Scotland, the man would have committed a crime and could be charged. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland his actions are not illegal. NSPCC have been campaigning on this issue: you can sign their e-petition here (http://e-activist.com/ea-action/action?ea.client.id=1884&ea.campaign.id=32450&ea) and last week I proposed a new Clause in the Serious Crime Bill that would close this loophole.
The government resisted my amendment saying it wasn’t necessary, despite the fact that last year there was a 168% increase in contacts to ChildLine about online sexual abuse. Ministers argued that there were other laws that already exist and the new clause isn’t necessary. The trouble is that the other laws they mentioned don’t in fact deal with the problem.
The Sexual Offences Act 2003 only covers situations where it can be proved that the adult intends to meet the child, but often there is no intention to meet and all the perpetrator wants is a naked picture of the child.
Then there’s the Mobile Communications Act and intent to cause distress or anxiety. But that is the opposite of what the perpetrators want – they are grooming the child by flattering them and making them feel special so as to gain their trust.
Likewise, the Communications Act 2003, where the perpetrator only commits a crime if it is “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”. But his messages will often not be obscene or offensive, as he is trying to elicit a sexual message in return and he doesn’t want to frighten or disgust the child.
Finally, they suggested the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. But harassment involves alarming or distressing the recipient and again that is not how a predator grooming a child will behave.
The reality is that the current laws in this area are fragmented and confused. Most of the legislation covering this predates the widespread use of the internet, social networking, instant messaging and smartphones with high definition cameras. So tomorrow, at Third Reading of the Bill, I will try again.
I hope that Ministers will look at the laws they say cover the examples I have given and realise that they are wrong. My amendment is a simple one and makes it a crime for an adult to send a sexual message to a child or send a communication to a child intended to elicit a response with sexual content. As the NSPCC says, the existing laws are flawed and exchanging sexual messages with a child should always be illegal.
Shaz is 15 years old. This is how she tells her story: “When I was 12, I went on a family holiday to Bangladesh. As soon as I got out there were marriage proposals from my cousins. I started starving myself and was brought back. I couldn’t tell anyone. My brother said I was going to marry my cousin from Bangladesh if I didn’t he would kill me.” Shaz’s brother was only two years older than her, and was born and brought up in this country. Today forced marriage becomes a criminal offence. This is welcome and is the culmination of a long campaign by many organisations – including (declaration of interest) the Freedom Charity, whose Board I chair. Forcing someone to marry against their will is abhorrent, and is also widely regarded as a violation of internationally recognised human rights standards. Indeed, Article 16.2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: ‘Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.’ Under the previous Labour government, the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act was passed, enabling victims to apply for court orders for their protection. It became apparent however, that more was needed; which is why we were happy to support criminalisation being included in the Coalition’s Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill during the last parliamentary session. Labour Peers successfully strengthened the measure as far as the principle of consent for people with learning difficulties was concerned, recognising that for some a forced marriage may take place without violence or threats. The big task remains education. We need to make sure that those at risk understand they have a choice. We need families and communities to understand that forcing someone into a marriage against their will is not just wrong. It is now illegal. Shaz was lucky. She tells how in January of last year: “I was at school when Aneeta from Freedom visited, we all leant about forced marriage. I knew then I could get help. Freedom got me out. Now I live with my Foster Mum and Dad.” We are now approaching the long summer school holidays – a time when young girls often disappear on long family holidays and are forced into marriages overseas. It is even more important therefore to get the message across that forced marriage is wrong. That is why I, along with Labour colleagues and many others around the country, are marking the criminalisation of forced marriage by being photographed on Monday holding a Twitter-friendly sign saying #FREEDOM2CHOOSE.
Earlier today, Peers debated Policing for a Better Britain, the product of two years work by a group chaired by the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Lord John Stevens. The report is a Royal Commission in all but name – and was commissioned by Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, rather than the government. It is the most thorough appraisal of policing for over 50 years, and its detailed recommendations need to be taken seriously if the service is to meet the challenges of today.
The diagnosis is that the police are grappling with deep social transformation, including a global economic downturn, ever-quickening flows of migration, widening inequalities, constitutional uncertainty and the impact of new social media. Overall, crime levels have been declining for the last 15 years (despite some suggestions that violent crime and burglary are increasing again). But there are new types and modes of crime to contend with: e-crime and cyber-enabled crime, the widespread trafficking of people and goods, and also terrorism – both international and domestic. And all at a time when trust in the police is under threat.
We need now to return to the fundamental principles of British policing: the concept that the police are a civilian service operating with the consent of those they serve; that their effectiveness is measured not by the number of arrests but by the absence of crime; and that underlying it all is the idea that they are accountable for the actions they take.
Lord Stevens’ concludes that the police must have a social purpose that combines catching offenders with work to prevent crime and maintain order in our communities; that they should listen to what the public say while meeting the needs of the most vulnerable in society; and above all be rooted in local communities.
Faced with the budgetary cut-backs of the last three years and ministerial insistence that the police’s only objective is to fight crime, the report warns: “there is a danger of the police being forced to retreat to a discredited model of reactive policing.” It also bemoans the steady dismantling by the Coalition of local community policing – built up and supported by the last Labour government. In London alone, for example, 300 sergeants have been lost from Safer Neighbourhood Teams over the past two years.
The sight of beat police, whom the community knows, fosters reassurance, promotes feelings of well-being and security, and builds public trust. And that itself enables the sort of relationship where people feel confident enough to confide their concerns and pass on the raw material of the intelligence that local police must rely on to do their work.
All of this needs to be coupled with increased professionalism (Stevens suggests the concept of ‘the chartered police officer’) and greater accountability, with a proper independent body to monitor standards and investigate complaints. Locally, there needs to be a much greater role for elected councils in setting priorities. At force-wide level, the report is scathing about the defects in governance resulting from the ill thought out changes that led to the election of Police and Crime Commissioners on a 15% turn-out.
What the Stevens Commission has done is provide a formidable body of evidence to support some coherent reforms to make British policing fit for the 21st Century whilst retaining the core principles that still make British policing the envy of the world. All we need now is a government that is interested in genuine improvements to take this forward, rather than one that takes delight in sniping at Chief Constables and undermining police morale.
For the past six months I have been chairing the Lords’ Select Committee on the Olympic and Paralympic Legacy. And today, after 33 evidence sessions, hearing from 53 witnesses and taking written submissions from 67 organisations and individuals, we have published our report – with 41 recommendations.
So what are our main conclusions?
The Games themselves were an outstanding success, absolutely vindicating the decision by Tony Blair and Ken Livingstone to back London’s bid, as well as exceeding expectations and confounded the sceptics. That success was only delivered through incredible cooperation between the numerous organisations involved, the host Boroughs and virtually every Whitehall department. Since the Games however, the same political impetus and the imperative of a deadline no longer exist. As a result many aspects of the legacy are in danger of faltering and some have fallen by the wayside. There is a lack of ownership and leadership.
That is why we recommend giving a single Cabinet-level Minister overall responsibility for all strands of the legacy. Only someone with senior clout will be able to bang heads together across different departments, including Education with its role in school sport and funding, Health which is supposed to be getting us all more active and healthier, DCMS with its responsibility for the sports governing bodies – plus all the departments that should be working to deliver the economic benefits not only in London but across the UK.
In London itself, the Office of Mayor should be given unambiguous responsibility for holding and taking forward the vision for East London and the developments in the Olympic Park and the surrounding area.
East London has for over a hundred years contained some of the most deprived communities in our country. Too many still live in poor and grossly overcrowded properties or in temporary accommodation. Unemployment rates are among the UK’s worst and the skills gap means that local businesses cannot find the staff they need. Delivering the Olympics brought forward much-needed infrastructure improvements but making sure that all the potential new jobs and new housing are delivered will require laser-like focus and determination from the Mayor.
There is suitable land for housing in East London but it is not being used. One Borough says that the biggest problem is land-banking. In another, Barking and Dagenham, one site, part-owned by the Greater London Authority, has permission for 11,000 dwellings but only 300 have been built. There is much that the Mayor should be doing.
Stratford International has had £1bn of public investment to equip it for high-speed international rail services, but none stop there. It is time that the Transport Department persuaded the operators that at least some of their services should use the facilities, bringing in both travellers and business.
As for the promised “cultural legacy”, the term only appeared twice in more than 500 pages of written evidence and the only tangible thing mentioned by DCMS Secretary Maria Miller was the world tour of the inflatable Stonehenge that she described as “a fantastic way of bringing Britain to life overseas.”
As far as sports participation is concerned, the step-change improvement hoped for did not occur. If anything, the slow steady improvement seen since 2005 has faltered. Facilities at grassroots level need to be improved and we received much evidence telling us that the Coalition’s scrapping of School Sports Partnerships was a big mistake.
Although we hunted for White Elephants among the facilities created for the Games, we didn’t find them. But the unseemly squabbling of West Ham United and Leyton Orient football clubs over the Olympic Stadium was most unedifying. It is important that more effort is made to ensure that this national asset is put to good use with maximum possible community use, including possibly by the club that was unsuccessful in the bid process.
That is the overall lesson of the report: the London Games were a huge success but much more still needs to be done to ensure the nation gets the maximum possible return on its investment.
Two issues today highlight the way this Conservative-led LibDem-supported Coalition Government operates.
Fees of up to £1200 to bring an employment tribunal case are being introduced today. This is allegedly intended to prevent so-called vexatious claims from being brought. The reality is that for the first time since employment tribunals were introduced in the 1960s there will be charges imposed to deter those who have been badly treated or exploited by their employers. The fees discriminate against the weak and the low paid.
Less important, but symptomatic of the way this Government pays lip-service to engagement and consultation are a series of consultation exercises launched in the last few days with closing dates for response at the end of August or in the first week of September. Good practice would be that consultations should be open for up to three months – five weeks over the peak holiday period is designed to stifle responses. The consultations cover such matters as pensions fro retained firefighters, the housing transfer manual, and various notices under the Gas and Electricity Acts (and yes, I don’t know what these are about, but they are no doubt complicated and take time to understand their implications).
I am not surprised by the Tories, but I hope the LibDems are ashamed of themselves.
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.
A few weeks ago I asked “How often does Boris Johnson speak up for Londoners?” The answer seemed to be not very much. I had 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 was – as I pointed out – notable in what it does not say.
There is no indication that the Mayor had 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.
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.
So I concluded:
“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.”
However, in the interests of fairness, I thought I should seek further clarification in case the omission from the answer was a mistake by civil servants.
After all, this was the Mayor who in October 2010, while he was running for re-election as Mayor, had likened the effects of the housing benefit changes to “Kosovan-style ethnic cleansing“.
I therefore tabled another question in the House of Lords this time more specific that elicited the following response:
“Lord Harris of Haringey:
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Baroness Hanham on 5 March (WA 397-8), what representations they have received from the Mayor of London, separately from the London Assembly, specifically on the subject of the impact of changes to welfare benefits on the people of London.[HL6517]
Lord Freud: We are not aware of any representations received in the past year from the Mayor of London, separately from the London Assembly, on the impact of changes to welfare benefits on the people of London.”
So the Department of Work and Pensions is not aware of ANY representations from the Mayor in the last year.
This demonstrates how little he really cares about what is now happening to many Londoners.
All he was prepared to utter was a single lurid soundbite in one of his rare media interviews. And then nothing.
No attempt to use the formidable statistical and information resources available to him at the Greater London Authority to put the case to his colleagues in Government. Nothing at all.
Perhaps what it means is that now he has been re-elected he no longer feels the need to represent the interests of Londoners as his focus has moved on to winning over the Conservative MPs he needs for his next objective – to succeed David Cameron as Leader of the Conservative Party. And not many of those Tory MPs care about hard-pressed Londoners damaged by the Government’ s policies on benefits.
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 …..
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.”
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 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.