There was a Private Notice Question in the House of Lords this afternoon from LibDem Peer, Lord Dholakia:
“To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they propose to take to ensure that the security of the United Kingdom is not compromised on 30 November.”
This produced the following response from the Home Office Minister, Lord Henley:
“My Lords, the security of the UK border remains our top priority. Contingency plans are in place and we are satisfied that security will be maintained. We started training additional staff for contingency arrangements in April and adequate resources are now available. Any staff deployed to the front line will have received the training required to operate effectively. Arriving passengers will remain subject to checks at the border by appropriately trained staff.”
There then followed a series of increasingly bad-tempered exchanges between the Minister and Labour Peers with the Minister demanding that Labour Peers condemn the strike, whilst admitting that the Government had been planning for a strike since April. Here are the exchanges with Labour Peers (one of whom was me):
“Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the Government have sponsored speculation about what they will, may or might do to maintain UK security, especially at the borders, on 30 November—everything from bringing in the Army to the idea of staff from the Prime Minister’s Office manning passport control points. However, people need and deserve stability. If they have booked a holiday that day, they need to know whether they can get away. If businesses have important customers coming to the UK, they need to know that their businesses will not be damaged. I should therefore be grateful if the Government would publish, clearly and fully, for the benefit of the country as a whole, what in detail they intend to do on Wednesday in relation to border security.
Lord Henley: My Lords, I am very sorry that the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition did not take the opportunity to condemn the strikes that are taking place on Wednesday, which would have been helpful. If all parties agreed that those strikes should not happen we would not have this problem. We shall be operating the appropriate checks with the appropriate people, appropriately trained to make sure that visitors—whether they are coming here as tourists, whether they are coming here for business or whether they are returning UK citizens—can get in without any disruption or with disruption minimised as much as possible. The noble Baroness will also be aware that this is an operational matter and for security reasons it would not be appropriate to comment in detail, as she wishes, on the arrangements.
Lord Tomlinson: Will the Minister comment on reports in today’s press that part of the police force is being drafted in to take over the role of the UK Border Agency at our borders and that their training is alleged to be merely 90 minutes? Is that adequate?
Lord Henley: My Lords, I would not believe—and I would recommend that the noble Lord should not believe—everything I read in the press. I can assure him and the House that everyone assisting on this matter will have the appropriate training necessary to do the job. Yes, some police will be involved but they will have the appropriate training to do the job that they need to do.
Lord Henley: My Lords, any sensible organisation, knowing there was a risk of such things happening—something which has still not been condemned by noble Lords opposite and I am waiting for that condemnation to occur—would make the appropriate arrangements. The border agency started that last April.
Lord Grocott: Given that the Minister has repeated asked people on this side of the House to talk in terms of condemnation, can we take it as read that the Government condemn the cleaners, the dinner ladies, the low-paid workers and those threatened with a weakening of their pension entitlements and an increase in their contributions? Is the Government’s position that they condemn these people for trying in any way to defend their position?
Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, the Minister has repeatedly referred to this side of the House not condemning the strike. What I want to ask him is this—can he give a categorical assurance that the motivation of the coalition Government is security and not strike breaking?
Lord Henley: My Lords, as I made clear in my original answer, our first priority, our highest priority, our top priority is the security of the United Kingdom. If the noble Lord thinks that we are involved in strike breaking he should think again. We want to make sure that our borders are kept secure. We think that the unions are endangering that security by the actions they are taking. The offer is still open to talk to the Government and others and we wish they would take that up.
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, of course our borders should be kept secure, but are the Government doing enough to negotiate with the unions on this point? Are the Government in fact making every effort to try to resolve this dispute rather than, as the Minister has told us, having been preparing since April for just this eventuality? Is it not that they actually wanted to provoke a strike, for whatever political reasons they may have?
Lord Henley: Come on, my Lords. The noble Lord knows perfectly well that the Government’s doors remain open and that the Government are prepared to negotiate. It is the unions who are being intransigent and it is the party opposite which is refusing to condemn an action that will possibly endanger our security. Because of the actions we have taken, and have been taking since April of this year, we think that we will be able to keep security at the appropriate level at the borders on Wednesday.
Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, given that the Minister is so fixated on the possibility of getting the kind of statement that he would like to hear from these Benches, does he imagine that the people out there who are contemplating going on strike are mostly or even to a small extent members of the party I support? I submit that not only are they not, they are members of all parties and none, and what is preoccupying them is not the question of whether the Labour Party supports them but their concern for their future pension rights.
Lord Henley: My Lords, the noble Baroness accuses me of being fixated on this issue and perhaps I am somewhat naive to be so fixated on this issue. I do not know in which way the members of the unions involved happen to vote. I happen to know that those unions support the party opposite. That is why we are still waiting for that condemnation from the party opposite.
I see that Ken Livingstone is planning to reverse Mayor Boris Johnson’s abolition of the Zone 2-6 Travelcard. This is welcome news for the very many people who travel around London but have no need to go into the centre.
When this was announced last October, the BBC reported how this was a slap in the face for the Mayor’s core constituency of outer-Londoners:
“Day travelcard users on London’s Underground and buses face price hikes of up to 74% from 2011.
The Zone 2-6 Travelcard will be withdrawn meaning passengers wishing to continue using travelcards will have to buy a Zone 1-6 version instead.
This would mean a peak hours ticket rise from £8.60 to £15.
Tube bosses said they were simplifying fares, but watchdog London TravelWatch said outer London residents and tourists would be worst affected.
“We are very concerned that these inflation-busting fares will price people off public transport,” said Jo deBank from London TravelWatch.
“Everyone will be hit, but it appears that infrequent users, those in outer London and visitors and tourists will be hit particularly hard.”"
Even Andrew Gilligan in the Telegraph was moved to comment that this was one of:
“a series of unnoticed, but hugely above-inflation, fare rises in One Day Travelcards and Oyster price caps that will hit thousands of users with rises of up to 74 per cent.”
I wonder if he will be amongst those welcoming Ken Livingstone’s announcement.
I gather that the Total Politics Blog Awards are now in progress. I want to make it quite clear that I will not be in the least bit affronted should you chose to vote for this blog by clicking here.
Jenny Jones AM, London “Green” Mayoral Candidate, is exploring the canal network (very green and worthy, not to say sanctimonious).
She reports by Twitter:
My good friend and webmaster, Jon Worth, has it absolutely right in his blog written earlier tonight:
“We have known for a few hours that twin attacks have taken place in Norway – an explosion in central Oslo and a series of shootings at Utøya, an island in Tyrifjordento the north east of Oslo where a Labour Party youth meeting was taking place.
Beyond that what do we actually know? Rather little, at least for sure. That’s indeed the position taken by Norwegian PM Jens Stoltenberg, who was calm and collected in a television statement (can’t find the video of it online), saying it was not known who or what was to blame, the priority was for everyone’s security, and people should remain calm. Spot on, and my good friend Bente Kalsnes who lives in Oslo agrees.
But what do you then get? 24 hour news channels start an endless stream of speculation about what may or may not have happened.”
And his latest update notes:
“Partial volte-face from BBC’s Gordon Corera from BBC’s Live Text? (BST to CET explains time difference)
2211: Gordon Corera Security correspondent, BBC News During the day, after an initial focus on an al-Qaeda link, the possibility of domestic extremism increasingly came into focus. The choice of targets – government buildings and a political youth rally – suggested a possible political agenda rather than the mass casualty approach typically employed by al-Qaeda.
Maybe you should not have been so swift to jump to conclusions at the start?”
It is always worth remembering that in the immediate aftermath of an incident even knowing what has happened may be difficult to determine for some while. Remember the initial reports of a “power surge” on the London Underground on the morning of 7th July 2005. Or the misreporting of the man who jumped over a ticket barrier wearing a bulky coat at Stockwell Station fifteen days later (he turned out to have been one of the armed police team pursuing the tragically unfortunate Jean-Charles de Menezes rather than a suicide bomber). Or for that matter the initial reports assuming that the Madrid train bombings were ETA-related.
Generals used to talk of “the fog of war”. But rolling media with their desperate need for an endless supply of talking-head experts create their own fog. I was in New York on 9th September 2001, sitting in a diner listening to a feed from one of the New York radio stations, when first one “expert” opined that the attacks on the World Trade Center could have been so much worse – “suppose those airliners had been packed with anthrax spores” – which prompted the radio station to produce another “expert” fifteen minutes later to tell listeners what the symptoms of anthrax were and what they should do if they started to have difficulty in breathing ….
This is not to suggest that the media should be censored in the aftermath of atrocities like those today, but rather that media editors and presenters should be responsible and avoid speculation until more facts are known. Maybe, given the excitements about the News of the World and the British media over the last few weeks, the idea of the media acting responsibly looks like a forlorn hope. However, I do not believe it is an unreasonable aspiration.
It is noteworthy that there have been as many strikes on the London Underground in three years of the Boris Johnson Mayorality as there were in the full eight years when Ken Livingstone was Mayor. Cynics suggest that (1) Mayor Boris Johnson doesn’t care because he never uses the Underground and (2) he believes that the more disruption there is on public transport due to poor industrial relations the more he can try to blame the Labour Party (despite the fact that the RMT is not affiliated to the Labour Party).
Now, of course, I am not a cynic …
However, my eye was caught by a sentence tucked away towards the end of Allegra Stratton’s article in this morning’s Guardian which said:
“ Osborne is pressuring Boris Johnson to stop London Underground members of staff getting free travel. Tories believe that until underground managers and executives pay for their travel they won’t keep fares down because they don’t need to.”
So perhaps there is a Tory masterplan after all which envisages provoking major industrial relations problems in London in the run up to next year’s Mayoral elections.
An interesting piece by Darryl Chamberlain in the Scoop at Snipe argues that the time may be coming when there should be greater indepence for London from the rest of the country. With the devolution settlement being reviewed in Wales and Scotland, why not London as well? The piece points out:
“A question: why can’t London have a bit of what they’re having? Isn’t it time for us to break away too?
London is a wildly different place to the rest of England, never mind the rest of the UK. We’re more socially liberal than the rest of the country, we live in communities that are far more mixed. We’re less likely to drive, and more likely to spend huge amounts of time stuck on public transport. We’ve more in common with New York or Paris than Newcastle or Portsmouth. …
In London, we’re different. …
Look at the two men we’ve elected to run the place. A newt-loving man with a raspy voice who loves winding up American diplomats on one hand, a floppy-haired fop on a bike with a bizarre line in Latin anecdotes on the other.
Both, in their own ways, engaging ambassadors for the capital. And seen as dangerous threats by their own party leaders. Because that is how many in the rest of England see London—as a threat. Read below the line on any comment piece on the possibility of an English parliament, and within the ?rst few comments someone will sound off about how London leeches off the rest of England, takes all the jobs and investment and produces nothing in return.
Yet if London kept the tax revenue earned within its borders—or at least had more control over raising its own budget – we’d be able to make a much better job of running our transport network, for example.
The Tube’s current woes can be traced back to the last government trying to sell off its maintenance — bitterly resisted by Ken Livingstone before he rejoined the Labour Party. He was right, Gordon Brown was wrong – but London had to pick up the bill.
In the old days, Ken used to taunt the Tories with unemployment figures on the roof of the old County Hall. But Labour wouldn?t even give him the power to empty London?s bins, so we still have 33 different recycling policies. And the Conservatives won?t even give Boris Johnson the Royal Parks, so keen is the UK government to hang onto the prestige of chasing dogs out of flower gardens.
So if they don’t trust us, why don’t we just go it alone?”
I have long pointed out the extent to which London subsidises the rest of the UK. Irrespective of the present incumbent of the Mayor’s office, there is a strong case for London having more autonomy and being able to invest its revenues in its own infrastructure and its people. And because London is the engine of the UK economy, this would be good for the rest of the country too.
“Will Boris Johnson leave anything behind for the next Mayor?”
This picks up on Tim Donovan’s interview with Mayor Boris Johnson on The Politics Show:
“Donovan also pointed out that Boris’s police budget is totally unsustainable, relying on £70m of reserves built up in police and fire budgets over the previous ten years.
Once that money runs out (after the election) police numbers will fall …
In fact Boris will create exactly the kind of “black hole” that he accused Ken Livingstone of creating in TfL’s budget before the 2008 election.
As Donovan said to Boris: “this is money that you can’t use again.””
And Adam Bienkov goes on:
“And it’s not just money that will run out after Boris’s first term but ideas as well. I mean what major new transport projects conceived by Boris are set to go ahead over the next five years?
We’ll have a few extra bikes and a few new buses with a hole in the back, but where are the big ideas for London going into the next few years and decades?
Of course there’s still time for Boris to spell out those big ideas, but even if he does they would be too far down the pipeline to be seen under a second Boris term.
Because the sad truth about Boris as Mayor, is that rather than be the triumph or disaster many predicted, he has actually been something of a non-event.
By doing as little as humanly possible, Boris has been able to take credit for past investments whilst adding little or nothing to future plans.”
The lead story on the front page of today’s Sunday Times (behind the paywall) proclaims “China gives £50 million aid for Olympics” and reports that:
“A Chinese company is offering Britain £50 million of ‘aid’ to put in a free mobile phone network in time for the Olympics.
Huawei, one of the worlds biggest telecoms equipment firms, is presenting the offer for the London Underground as a gift from one Olympic host nation to another.”
This proposal has the support of Mayor Boris Johnson.
However, as the Sunday Times warns:
“The offer has been made only two years after intelligence chiefs warned that China could have the capabilityto shut down Britain by bringing down its telecoms and utilities systems.
They raised fears that equipment already installed by Huawei in BT’s network could be used to cripple vital services.
A deal would see Huawei, which has close military links, install mobile transmitters along the ceilings of tunnels so that commuters can make and receive calls for the first time while travelling underground.”
I have been concerned about Huawei for some time. We are breath-takingly complacent about the vulnerability of our critical national infrastructure and – particularly in the current economic climate – there seems to be no appetite from the Government to prevent huge chunks of it falling into foreign hands.
This is potentially another example – aided and abetted by Mayor Boris Johnson.
Not all Tories are so relaxed (and Mayor Johnson has a reputation for being very relaxed!): Patrick Mercer MP has pointed out:
“… it absolutely answers a terrorists’ prayers to be able to detonate devices on the Underground. … It has been proven that a proportion of the cyber attacks on this country come from China. I wonder when the eyes of the world are upon us whether there is sense in using a Chinese firm to install a sensitive mobile network.”
These are serious matters and a serious London Mayor should not complacently give his support, presumably he hopes that if his eyes are firmly closed and his fingers are crossed that it will all be OK.
I have tabled a Parliamentary Question to ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration have Ministers given to mitigating the security issues surrounding the location in St Pancras of the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation and its laboratories that will be working with highly dangerous viruses?
This follows reports that:
“One of Britain’s leading bio-scientists .. [has] .. voiced fears over the safety of a £600 million virus “superlab” planned for St Pancras.
Professor Guy Dodson, who has worked at Oxford University, warned that the 14-storey, maximum security site containing viruses including malaria, tuberculosis, bird and swine flu, cancer cells and HIV would need to be “bulletproof”.”
UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation is to be built in London on the redeveloped St Pancras site. In principle, this is excellent news. However, the laboratory could be a magnet for terrorists.
As Guy Dodson comments:
”The issues are if you have an earthquake, some idiot lets a bomb off or there’s a fire at St Pancras International.
“These are extreme examples but you don’t want that building to suffer a serious knockabout when you’ve got this material in there.
“The unspoken concern is terrorism because it’s a natural target. We need to know the capacity they have for dealing with the unexpected.”
The plans have been approved by Mayor Boris Johnson – so that’s all right then ……