The Royal Society of Arts tonight staged a panel discussion, sponsored by
Vodafone, on ?Young People and Technology: opportunities and pitfalls in a
virtual world?. The event, chaired by Rory Cellan-Jones, the technology
correspondent of BBC News, was rather disappointing, mainly because the
discussion meandered around a number of themes without really focusing
debate on any of them.
First and foremost, the panel was criticised for not having any young people
on it. Two other main themes emerged ? both interesting but not really
related to each other. One was about the alleged pernicious effect of ICT
on the quality of teaching. With Phil Beadle arguing that £100 billion
(actually the figures he used, even if accurate, only came to £1 billion)
spent on providing inter-active whiteboards in every classroom was not only
wasted but, in fact, has led to teachers tied to formal presentations at the
front of the classroom and staying up all night to hone their Powerpoint
presentations rather than interacting freely and naturally with their
pupils. He also said too often pupils are told to do work on computers to
shut them up rather than to teach them. I have some sympathy with this
view, but that doesn?t mean that for some purposes some of the time new ICT
tools can?t help communicate material effectively to children in the
classroom. So this strand of the discussion produced some interesting rants
but failed to illuminate the more interesting question about whether a
society where children spend so long on computer games and interacting by
text or via social networking sites will produce adults who cannot interact
with each other in more traditional ways.
The other major strand of discussion was about bullying by text or via the
internet. There is no doubt that this is becoming a serious issue ? several
suicides or attempted suicides stemming from this were mentioned. However,
?traditional? bullying can also have dreadful consequences for those
bullied. So is it a new or inherently different phenomenon? The key
difference, of course, is that it doesn?t end when the victim gets home and
shuts the front door ? the messages can still be received and there is no
safe haven. However, apart from everyone taking this much more seriously,
little was offered as to what works in combating it.
Today saw the latest in the series of meetings on the London – New York Dialogue, promoted by the Urban Land Institute. Having been involved in many of the predecessor discussions, originally sponsored by Greater London Enterprise, over the last fifteen years or so, it was good to go along and hear how ideas are developing particularly in the light of the world economic crisis.
The opening keynote address was given by Dan Doctoroff, who was Mayor Bloomberg’s Deputy for Economic Development until the beginning of this year when he moved (interestingly) to be President of Bloomberg (his boss’s old firm). He pointed out that this was the twelfth major economic crisis since New York became a major financial centre in the late 18th Century, and that New York (and London) had ultimately emerged strengthened from the previous eleven.
The measure he used to assess the crisis was the number of Bloomberg Terminal installations in businesses around both cities: the total had risen by around 60% over the four years to the end of 2007, but the number had then flat-lined. This flat-lining, however, does not imply stability – there is substantial churn in the figures with a fall-off in the large firms but plenty of new installations in smaller financial firms. As he put it: “Financial services are Darwinian” and this churn is a healthy sign for the future.
He emphasised the importance of London and New York not seeing each other as competitors but as collaborators – the word I would have used would have been symbiotic – and this led to a strong plea for stronger links between the two cities.
He characterised three factors as being required for the continued success of world financial centres like London and New York: firstly, that the cities are English-speaking (this may be something of a tautology); secondly, that they have a diverse population with “immigrant energy” (there has been a net inflow into London of around a million people from overseas in the last ten years); and thirdly, that being a forward-looking financial centre is “in the DNA”.
However, the position of London and New York is not necessarily assured. It will be essential to maintain their infrastructure – in particular, transport, personal safety/security, and quality of life. Neither city can afford to sacrifice any of these in the aftermath of the current crisis. Moreover, because of the critical role both cities play in their national economies, both cities need to energise their national governments in their support (this is particularly true for London whose impact in supporting the rest of the UK economy is crucial).
I asked him how important he saw the need to maintain social cohesion and address economic inequalities in cities. He answered that it was a vital part of maintaining a quality of life conducive to a stable future.
Two issues occurred to me. First, Mayor Bloomberg’s vision for New York (PlaNYC), which Doctoroff had a key role in devising, with its 127 integrated initiatives affecting the environment, housing and transport is far more ambitious and cohesive than anything that has yet emerged from Mayor Johnson’s office in London.
Second, much more needs to be done to put the case for London to have the resources necessary to maintain and improve its infrastructure. Successive UK Governments have short-changed the capital, despite London’s key role as a driver of the UK economy. A start could be made with the capital’s business rates. At present, all business rates are levied by local councils on the businesses in their area at a standard rate set by national government. That money is not, however, for the local councils to use. Instead, it is passed en bloc to the Treasury, who redistribute it back to local government pro rata in respect of population. For the local authorities in London, this is a net loss each year of around £2 billion. In essence, London’s businesses are subsidising those in the rest of the country by that amount. Think how useful a £2 billion per annum contribution to a London Infrastructure Fund would be …..
The House of Lords has just rejected a bid by climate change deniers led by Nigel Lawson (now Lord Lawson of Blaby) to dilute the Climate Change Bill. The occasion was consideration of Commons amendments to the Bill and these included amongst other things the raising of the target for the reduction in UK carbon emissions by 2050 to 80%. The effect of rejecting the Commons amendment would have been to hold the target to a 60% reduction. In the event, Lawson’s move was rejected by 16 votes to 190.
Let nobody say that House of Lords Select Committee reports are without influence! It seems that one of the recommendations of the House of Lords Committee inquiry into “Personal Internet Security” has been taken on board by Pakistani President, Asif Ali Zardari. The Committee, of which I was a member, recommended stiffer penalties for those convicted of cyber-crimes. However, Zardari’s response has probably gone just a bit further than we had in mind. He has now issued a decree backdated to the end of September that sets the maximum penalties for internet crime as death or life imprisonment.
Those people who felt I had gone too far when I called for a Sarblanes-Oxley type approach to company directors who fail to take information security seriously enough might care to note what the Zardari solution might be!
I keep hearing that one of the first acts of President Obama when he takes office in January will be to announce the closure of the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. Symbolically this will have a significant impact on the world image of the United States. Guantanamo Bay has become synonymous with human righs abuses and the role of the camp itself is, of course, extremely dubious in terms of international law. It will remove one thread of the single narrative used to lure individuals down the path to violent extremism (not in itself enough to stop violent extremism, but helpful nonetheless).
The question now being posed is what will happen to the detainees. Only a tiny number have ever been fed into a proper judicial process for trial. Some of them if returned to their former countries of origin are likely to face torture or the death penalty. Moreover, as one sage counter-terrorist expert pointed out to me the other evening, if a detainee wasn’t a terrorist or a violent extremist when he was sent to Guantanamo Bay, the experience there may well have turned him into one. No easy challenge for the incoming Obama administration.
Another early decision of the Obama administration will also probably be to merge the Homeland Security Council with the National Security Council. This too looks like a wise decision – having a dual leadership function for something like security, as has existed in the US since 2002, is a recipe for duplication, unclear accountability, and muddle.
Nominations have just closed for the elections of officers of the Labour Peers’ Group. All the elections have been unopposed. Robin Corbett has been re-elected as Chair of the Group. I have been newly elected as Vice Chair in succession to Doreen Massey, and Meta Ramsay has been re-elected as Labour Peers’ back-bench representative on the PLP Parliamentary Committee.
Before we all get too carried away with how Barack Obama’s victory last week has changed the United States for ever, here are two facts to ponder. The New York Times reports that sales of handguns, rifles and ammunition have surged in the last few days, according to gun store owners around the USA, and polling organisation, Rasmussen, says that 91% of Republicans have a favourable view of Sarah Palin and 64% say she would make the best choice for President next time round.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised: I vividly remember being on holiday in the United States the summer before last and getting into conversation with people at the next table in a restaurant one evening. We asked them who they were supporting as the next President (the election was still fifteen months away). One opined that maybe they would support Rudy Giuliani, only to be shouted down by the others on the grounds that he was too left-wing. Then one of the men announced that he was in the ABC Party – Anyone But Clinton. Then a moment later added “And, of course, we can’t have a man of color.” What was so striking was that he felt no reservations about making such a remark in public, to complete strangers and in – of all places – a restaurant in Martha’s Vineyard.
The Government has tabled some new amendments to the Counter Terrorism Bill to be discussed next Tuesday. This is at about as late a stage as it is possible to do so: the Bill is nearly at the end of its Report Stage with Third Reading scheduled for 17th November. This in itself is considered bad practice and the Opposition Parties can be expected to kick up a fuss.
The amendments themselves are complicated and (in so far as I understand them) will enable the Treasury to give directions requiring UK businesses to exercise greater degrees of due diligence and in certain circumstances to limit or cease doing business with certain companies or organisations based in particular countries.
The Home Office is not at fault on this – the amendments emanate from the Treasury. Inevitably, they will be difficult to handle (given that they are so late, so complicated, appear to widen the scope of the Bill, and are potentially controversial). The lucky minister who will have to introduce them in the Lords is Paul Myners. Paul Myners is one of the newest Ministers. He was appointed as Financial Services Secretary to the Treasury and Minister for the City in last month’s reshuffle (having previously been Chair of the Guardian Media Group) and only took his seat in the Lords a week or two ago.
Quite properly Paul Myners arranged a briefing session for all Peers this afternoon and arrived with a team of four or five Treaury civil servants to explain detailed points. This would all have been fine and dandy, but when I posed the question whether these provisions were intended for circumstances that might not relate to combatting terrorism the civil servants appeared to offer conflicting views. Eventually after four of the five had spoken, they agreed on a line (yes, the provisions could relate to money laundering by organised crime or to nation states raising money to finance weapons of mass destruction). Not exactly an impressive performance from Treasury officials.
In my view the provisions are sensible, but in an ideal world should not have been included in a Bill all about terrorism and indeed the “long title” of the Bill will have to be amended to permit the amendments.
So why is it being included in this Bill? It turns out that there is a need to comply with international requirements on this point by February 2009 and this is the only way that the provisions can be enacted in primary legislation in time. That might be fair enough, but the need for these changes has been apparent for some time and it turns out that the Conservatives called for them four months ago.
This is hardly going to make it easy for Paul Myners. The only good news for him is that the Conservatives are unlikely to vote against the amendments as they have been calling for them. Yet, I can hear the we-told-you-so cries already and the question still has to be answered as to why the amendments weren’t put forward earlier. Hardly the best way to support a new Minister.
Last night saw that rare event a tied vote in the House of Lords. The occasion was an amendment moved to the Counter-Terrorism Bill on the minutiae of the authorisations required by the police before they can question someone after they have been charged. The vote was 130 in favour to 130 against and the amendment therefore fell (in accordance with Lords’ Standing Orders or for that matter Citrine’s “ABC of Chairmanship”). After this period of high drama, the opposition parties clearly decided to take away their ball (there clearly were not quite enough of them about to defeat the Government) and said that it would not be possible to carry on and debate the final three amendments on the Bill as they had not had time to be briefed properly, so discussion had to stop at 7.30pm even though it had been scheduled to continue till 10,00pm. It later transpired that the real reason is that they want to vote on one of the three amendments left over and would rather do so “in prime time” next Tuesday ….
There were probably rather too many Labour colleagues around last night for the Opposition’s taste – certainly too many to risk a vote at 8.00 or 9.00pm. However, this was not just because there was a three-line whip, there were also the added attractions of drinks, peanuts and pretzels in the office of the Leader of the House of Lords with the television tuned to CNN for the American election results. We were all set for the long haul – apparently the Opposition weren’t!
Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse is the subject of a double page profile in today’s ‘Evening Standard’. Underneath the inevitable full frontal photo of the great man in front of London’s skyline and the headline ‘I pray every day there is not another teen killing’ are two more pieces of evidence that underneath the steelly exterior a sense of humour is trying to get out.
First, having admitted to a history as a chartered accountant (in my view there are limits as to how far such personal revelations should go), he tells the following story: “A woman goes to the doctor and he says: ‘I’m terribly sorry, you’re terminally ill, you’ve got six months to live.’ She says: ‘Oh my god, there must be something that can extend my life.’ He thinks a while and says: ‘ Well, you could marry a chartered accountant.’ ‘Will that make me live longer?’ she asks. ‘No,’ he says, ‘but it will seem longer.’ “
Not bad, but I prefer the following:
“An economist goes into a bar, buys a drink, turns to those standing next to him and says ‘Do you want to hear my joke about chartered accountants?’ The man standing next to him says ‘I should warn you that my friend here is 6 foot 4, weighs 21 stone, played rugby for Wales, is a karate black belt and a chartered accountant. In addition, I am 6 foot 3, weigh 20 stone, was a heavy-weight boxer at college, am a Millwall supporter and I too am a chartered accountant. Do you still want to tell your joke about chartered accountants?’ The economist replied ‘Er no I don’t think so. I don’t want to have to explain it twice.’ “
And the second piece of evidence: the Deputy Mayor says ‘he is uncomfortable with the “Boris hit-man” reputation attached to him by the Home Office’. Oh come on on Kit, pull the other one – we all know you love it.