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.
Today the new-look Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) had an “awayday”.
Traditionally, organisations hold these in expensive country house style venues, miles from anywhere, stay overnight to “bond” and use them to agree anodyne mission statements.
The MPA approach was different: the venue was less than 100 yards from New Scotland Yard and the MPA offices, and, while the St Ermin’s Hotel has a fairly grand facade, it has seen better days. (In fact, in its better days it was the place where all the right-wing plots in the Labour Party from the 1950s through to the 1980s were hatched see Fightback: Labour’s Traditional Right in the 1970s and 1980s by Dianne Hayter. I am not sure that this particular history would have endeared the venue to the MPA’s new leadership.) The day itself lasted till about 3.00pm and the bonding occurred because the room was so small that members were crammed knee-to-knee in enforced intimacy.
I have spent most of today chairing an Infomed conference on reducing gang-related crime and disorder. Kit Malthouse (Boris Johnson’s Deputy for Policing) made the personal confession that he had in his youth been a member of two street gangs in Liverpool: the “Mersey Road” gang when he was eight years old and “The Boys” gang when he was fourteen. This turned out not to be so revelatory as it sounded at first: this is what he and his mates had called themselves when they played outside. Nevertheless, it demonstrated two previously unknown facet’s of Kit’s otherwise serious character and demeanour: first, that he had once been a child and, second, that he had once known how to play.
More importantly, it highlighted a theme of a number of the conference presentations that society (and, in particular, the media) are in danger of demonising what has always been part of “normal” behaviour by young people. Apparently, on the rare occasions that there is snow in London (there was a bit last night – the first in London in October for 72 years - but I am pleased to say it didn’t last long) the Metropolitan Police get a large number of calls about kids throwing snowballs – hardly a modern manifestation of unacceptable street violence. Young people will hang out with their friends and that in itself should not precipitate anti-social behaviour orders and the like.
Activity has to be focused on those gangs that are genuinely involved in criminal activity and on diverting young people away from such activity. Impressive work by the voluntary sector was described by Cathy Elliot of the Community Foundation for Merseyside and impressive multi-agency work in the West Midlands was outlined by Kirk Dawes (West Midlands Mediation and Transformation Services) and by Sgt Sharon Norton of West Midlands Police.
The importance of engaging with communities and with young people themselves was rightly emphasised by Ch Supt Sharon Rowe, who is responsible for borough policing in Lambeth. She also described a recent visit to a primary school in the Borough where she had asked the children if they could name the gangs operating in Lambeth and which were the most dangerous – the chilling fact was that most of them could.
I have been sent a video message from the Obama campaign.
This can only be described as viral campaigning at its best.
I hope it works next Tuesday.
The play, Red Fortress, at the Unicorn Theatre is offering children some serious and thought-provoking theatre. It tackles religious tolerance and violent extremism in the name of religion, together with loyalty, friendship and love. Three young people – one a jew, one a christian and one a muslim – originally living side-by-side in a harmonious Granada in the late fifteenth century find themselves tossed around in a war between religions. It doesn’t pull any punches, nor is it history-lite with stereotypes.
The audience when we saw it (the target age-range is 10 to 15) were pretty riveted – proof if it were needed that there can be an antidote to Disney-fied offerings like High School Musical 3. Alas the latter will no doubt be seen by more children and young people than will make there way through the Unicorn’s doors for a bit of live theatre in SE1.