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Archive for the ‘London’ Category

Sunday
Jun 15,2014

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.

Thursday
Dec 5,2013

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.

 

Monday
Nov 18,2013

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.

 

Monday
Jul 22,2013

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.

Thursday
Apr 18,2013

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.

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.

 

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.

 

Wednesday
Jan 23,2013

There were some exchanges on local government grants in House of Lords Question Time this afternoon.

The Bishop of Liverpool asked the Government “what steps they are taking to ensure that financial settlements for local government funding are fair.”

The subsequent exchanges had the Minister assuring the House that the settlements were in fact fair despite evidence to the contrary:

“The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Hanham):
My Lords, the Government have proposed a fair settlement for 2013-14 and 2014-15. Each local authority’s baseline funding level and the calculation of its tariff and top-up are based on figures that take account of the different needs of each area. The settlement allows local government to keep nearly £11 billion of business rates and keep the growth on that share of business rates, providing a direct financial incentive for councils to deliver growth.

The Lord Bishop of Liverpool:
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer, and I assure her that my Question arises out of very genuine pastoral concern. Can the Government not think again in the interests of greater fairness and make more allowance for the highest levels of deprivation in both rural and urban areas? For example, in Liverpool there is to be a 52% cut in services over four years, which will directly impact upon services to mentally ill children, vulnerable families and the elderly housebound.

Baroness Hanham:
My Lords, I know that the right reverend Prelate is very involved in the discussions that are taking place about settlements and the various levels of deprivation. I believe he held a conference last week that addressed this important subject.

However, the methodology that has been used and is set out in the formula funding document, which has been out to consultation several times, takes account of deprivation and the high cost of providing services in areas that have high deprivation, where local authorities have a low ability to raise funding. Such authorities will receive more funding than authorities with a low cost of providing services and a high ability to raise funding locally.

Lord McKenzie of Luton:
My Lords, under the local government settlement for the two years ending this March, the Audit Commission reported that in the 20 most deprived areas of the country revenue spending had fallen by 14% and in the 20 least deprived by 4.4%. In the most recent settlement, the 20 most deprived authorities will have their spending power cut by an average of 8% and the least deprived by 0.7%. Can the Minister tell me what definition of fairness justifies this distribution?

Baroness Hanham:
My Lords, the distribution has been carried out, as it always is, against a formula which makes sure that there is fairness of distribution across the piece.”

Hardly convincing, so I tried again:

“Lord Harris of Haringey:
The Minister tells us that she is presiding over this pure system of allocating resources between local authorities which is delivering fairness. Did Ministers change the formula for distribution so as to produce a result whereby, as my noble friend from the Dispatch Box pointed out, the most deprived areas are losing the most?

Baroness Hanham:
My Lords, the formula has not been, as has been suggested, tinkered with; that is how it has come out. It is fair to point out that the local government settlement is not the only funding that local authorities get; there is also the new homes bonus and other contributions that local authorities can have. It is not just the settlement.”

So it wasn’t tinkering, it just happened.

Pull the other one.

Thursday
Jan 17,2013

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.