The Conservative Party has a tendency to froth at the mouth any time there is any mention of Europe. Such a tendency means that the Government is increasingly adopting policies that are designed to appease the worst of the backbench frothers – irrespective of whether the resulting impact on wider policy makes any sense at all.
Today the Home Secretary announced that the Government plans to opt out of 130 European Union measures on law and order. Or at least that was the spin put on the announcement, no doubt for the benefit of the frothers. What she actually said was:
“the Government’s current thinking is that we will opt out of all pre-Lisbon police and criminal justice measures and then negotiate with the Commission and other member states to opt back into those individual measures which it is in our national interest to rejoin. However, discussions are ongoing within government and therefore no formal notification will be given to the Council until we have reached agreement on the measures that we wish to opt back into.”
This convoluted wording reflects – just for a change – disagreements within the Coalition, but it also reflects the mess that will be created in the UK’s participation in Europe-wide cooperation on policing and crime fighting.
The Government’s intention would put at risk – amongst other things – the UK’s involvement in the European Arrest Warrant. It was the European Arrest Warrant that ensured that Hussain Osman who targeted a Hammersmith and City line train to Shepherd’s Bush in the failed 21/7 bombings was brought back from Italy so speedily to stand trial.
And as my colleague, Baroness Angela Smith, said in the Lords this afternoon:
“If the European arrest warrant had not been in place, what action would have been available to UK police in co-operating with their French counterparts to ensure that the French police were able to arrest Jeremy Forrest and ensure that he and Megan Stammers were returned to the UK in the same timescale? No one is suggesting that the European arrest warrant is perfect, but the independent Scott Baker report commissioned by the current Home Secretary strongly recommended keeping it. Yes, it could be improved and updated, and that very process is taking place now; it is being reformed. As a further example of this Statement being premature, the Government do not even know at this stage what they would be opting out of.
The European arrest warrant is responsible for nearly 600 criminals being returned to the UK to face trial. It has allowed 4,000 citizens from other European countries to be sent back to their home country or another European country to face justice. In light of some of the Government’s briefing on this issue, your Lordships’ House might like to be aware that 94% of those sent back to other European countries to face trial under the European arrest warrant are foreign citizens.”
Earlier this year I was a signatory – along with a large number of much more distinguished former police chiefs and experts in criminology – to a letter sent to the Prime Minister on this threatened opt out. This spelt out why this international cooperation is potentially so important and said:
“This hard work is producing real results today. Take ‘Operation Rescue’: a 3 year operation launched by British police and coordinated by Europol across 30 countries that led to the discovery of the world’s largest online paedophile network, producing 184 arrests and the release of 230 children, including 60 in the UK. There are now hundreds of similar cross-border police and judicial success stories and Europe as a whole is a more hostile environment for serious organised criminals to operate, making Britain safer and more secure in the process.
This is an active agenda, and we must continuously improve our international policing and justice instruments as criminal activity develops and to ensure they remain necessary and proportionate. This includes the European Arrest Warrant, a totemic issue for some. The Warrant has been improved in recent years and further improvements may be needed. But scrapping it altogether would be entirely self-defeating. It has become an essential tool in the fight against cross-border organised crime delivering fast and effective justice across Europe. Since 2009 alone, the Warrant was used to return to the UK 71 foreign nationals over serious crimes including 4 robberies, 5 murders, 5 rapes, 6 child sexual offences, 9 cases of GBH and 14 cases of fraud.”
No doubt the Government, when it has finished appeasing the frothers, will say that these benefits will still be achieved because the UK can negotiate its way back into those areas of cooperation that it wants to keep.
However, each opt-in can only be negotiated after the opt-out has taken effect and requires the approval of all the other participating EU states before it can take effect. Such a process will take months or years and there is no guarantee of certainty that the UK will be allowed to opt back in.
And this is where the frothers come back into the equation. The European Union Act 2011 – another fine piece of constitutional tinkering by the Coalition – requires that a referendum be held throughout the United Kingdom on any proposed EU treaty or Treaty change which would transfer powers from the UK to the EU. And each opt-back-in would be a transfer of power from the UK to the EU, so triggering a referendum on each change.
The effect is that appeasing the frothers now will lead to a succession of EU referenda simply to return us to the position on cooperation with the rest of Europe that we are in today. And that really will please the frothers, but will seriously damage the UK’s ability to fight crime effectively.
I went along to the so-called “People’s Launch” of Healthwatch this morning. This followed on from the presumably rather more select official launch of Healthwatch England that happened ten days ago. It took place about three floors underground with a couple of hundred local health activists packed into a low-ceilinged rather-too-small room to hear Norman Lamb MP, the (LibDem) Minister of State for Care Services, and Anna Bradley, the newly-appointed Chair of Healthwatch England, set out their vision of how Healthwatch will work.
What they said was positive and they are clearly keen for Healthwatch England (and, when they are formally established next Spring, for local Healthwatch organisations) to be effective in articulating the voices of the users of health and social care services.
The assiduous reader of this blog (you know who you are) will be aware that I have been critical of the way in which, during the passage of the Health and Social Care Bill through Parliament, the Government watered down the arrangements for Healthwatch and essentially facilitated the privatisation of patient representation and failed to ensure that Healthwatch England was genuinely independent.
Those battles were lost in the House of Lords, when – as always happened on key votes on the Health and Social Care Bill the LibDem peers voted en masse with their Conservative colleagues.
Two further big elephants remain in the room. The first is the extent to which local Healthwatch organisations will feel ownership of their national organisation, Healthwatch England. The regulations formalising the governance of Healthwatch England have yet to be confirmed by Parliament and they are being prayed against by the Opposition (the procedure that precipitates a debate and potentially a vote on a statutory instrument) later this month. Anna Bradley was keen to say (in response to my question) that it should not be a matter of ownership, either by local Healthwatch organisations in respect of the national body or vice versa. However, with Healthwatch England being formally a sub-committee of the Care Quality Commission it will remain the case that local Healthwatch organisations are going to feel that the national organisation is a top-down construct unless that have a substantial or majority stake in its governance.
The second elephant in the room is the budgets that will be available for local Healthwatch organisations. The money for these is being passed from the Department of the Health to the Department of Communities and Local Government who will then parcel it out to individual local authorities who are responsible for ensuring that local Healthwatch organisations exist in their areas. (Incidentally, these are the same local authorities which are responsible for the social care provision that local Healthwatch will be supposed to be monitoring – no potential conflict of interest there then.)
These monies are not going to be ring-fenced and there is no guarantee that all of the money provided will be made available for the local Healthwatch bodies (or even that it will be transparent as to how much was passed to the local council concerned). Norman Lamb (again in response to a question from me) lauded the principle of localism but was silent about how the Government would ensure that sufficient was passed on locally to deliver the high expectations that he had set in his earlier speech. He did, hower, report that he had increased the amount of money that is notionally being passed across to Eric Pickles’ Department for local Healthwatch. I asked him to look at the issue again …..
There was an hour’s debate in the House of Lords last night on the political situation in Bangladesh, focussing on the political violence and kidnappings of opposition politicians that have taken place there. This followed on from the oral question that I had put in the Lords back in May.
The full debate is here and my contribution was as follows:
“My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, for securing this debate on an extremely important issue. For me, this is a follow-on from the Oral Question that I asked on 23 May about what representations had been made about the disappearance of Mr Ilias Ali and other opposition politicians in Bangladesh.
In his Reply, the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, who was then Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, talked about the representations that had been made by the United Kingdom Government with eight other EU countries, when they had called on the Bangladesh authorities to conduct a thorough investigation into Mr Ali’s disappearance. In reply, I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what further representations or further dialogue there have been with the Government of Bangladesh since that Answer given by the noble Lord, Lord Howell.
At that meeting, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who is to speak after me, raised the question of whether it was possible to engage the UN working party on disappearances. I would be interested to hear what the noble Baroness can tell us about whether that engagement took place.
Interestingly, the noble Lord, Lord Howell, in his responses to various questions on that date, referred to £1 billion of aid being given by the UK Government. I am not clear about whether he was aggregating several years together, but it is important that the Government address whether there is a relationship between the sums involved, over whatever period, and the human rights record. Is that something that can legitimately be expected as a quid pro quo for the support that this country gives to the people of Bangladesh?
The most important point to make in this debate is that the case of Mr Ilias Ali is not an isolated one. Mr Ali and his driver disappeared on 18 April, and two weeks earlier Mr Aminul Islam, a leader of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, was allegedly picked up by members of a law enforcement agency and horribly tortured and killed. In December 2011, Nazmul Islam, another opposition politician, was found strangled just a few hours after he had been dancing with his wife. His wife received very little assistance from the police when she reported him missing. I would be grateful for guidance from the Minister on her understanding of the developments that there have been in the investigations of these cases since then.
What is the Government’s latest assessment of the level of political violence in Bangladesh? We need to understand that. One of the most concerning features of this is the alleged complicity of law enforcement agencies, in particular the Rapid Action Battalion. The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, gave us a horrifying catalogue of cases which, it is suggested, are associated with their activities. There seems to be a culture of impunity among the security forces, and anyone who falls foul of the authorities is therefore vulnerable. Since 2004, there have been more than 1,600 extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh. To UK eyes, there are horrifying levels of political violence, with 300 people killed in 2006, 250 in 2009 and so on.
We have to recognise that political violence is not all on one side. There has perhaps been a trend in Bangladeshi politics for supporters of the ruling party—whichever one that might be—to feel that they are able to attack opposition supporters with a certain level of impunity. I think that comes from the broad powers that the law gives to the Government, which means that the Government of the day is, in effect, given control of the police as one of the spoils of victory.
Bangladesh is a fragile democracy and one of the poorest nations of the world—though one with tremendous potential if it is given an opportunity. The levels of political violence and alleged abuse of state power to suppress the opposition reflect very badly on the Government of that country, and on the efforts that are being made to generate wealth and development there. I have a simple question for Her Majesty’s Government. What can they do to make clear that such violence and attacks on opposition politicians are not acceptable? What further representations have been made, and what are planned? Is this being made a condition of future aid?”
Ed Miliband’s brilliant bravura performance this afternoon at the Labour Party Conference – seventy minutes without a note (beat that Cameron) – proves that the Labour Party is six months ahead of the schedule necessary to prepare for the next General Election.
Before then, the Labour Party needs to articulate the philosophical themes that will underpin the next Labour Government and crystallise those down to a (small) number of symbolic policy commitments.
The next General Election is in May 2015 – two and a half years away. The equivalent point before Labour’s 1997 General Election landslide was the Labour Party Conference in 1994. That was the Party Conference when Tony Blair in his Leader’s speech proposed that the content and wording of Clause Four be reviewed and reformulated for new times and New Labour.
The themes which underpinned Labour’s 1997 election manifesto (“The future not the past”; “The many not the few” etc) were not fully articulated until the new Clause Four was approved in the Spring of 1995 – two years before the Election. And the policy commitments (The Pledge Card”) were not finalised until July 1996 – ten months before the Election.
And today Ed Miliband set out the philosophical basis on which “One Nation Labour” will appeal to the electorate in 2015. The themes he set out today will resonate, not only with the Labour Party in the hall in Manchester and amongst Labour supporters across the country, but they will strike a chord amongst the rest of the public who can see how Cameron’s Government is out-of-touch and leading the country further and further into an economic quagmire, whilst dividing a nation and a people who will only flourish when united.
Don’t get too excited but the LibDem Conference sometimes passes halfway sensible motions.
Earlier today in fact the Conference called for a strengthening of the Independent Police Complaints Commission. In particular, the motion calls for the powers of the IPCC to cover explicitly the role of contractors to police services and their employees. Given the current debate about getting private firms to provide some police functions, this is an issue that must be addressed.
The motion also called for an end to the IPCC practice of allowing some investigations into alleged police malpractice to be investigated by the police themselves (subject to supervision by an IPCC Commissioner) and the motion called for the IPCC to be given the resources to employ enough of their own independent investigators to enable this to happen.
Strange then that this sensible proposal should come just after Nick Clegg has surrendered all LibDem influence over the Home Office by making it a LibDem-free zone following a reshuffle that left the Home Office without a single LibDem voice in the ministerial team.
UPDATE: I am reminded that Jeremy Browne is a LibDem and is also the new Minister for Crime Reduction. My only excuse is that I always thought he was a Tory …..
Anyway, it will be interesting to see what progress he makes in strengthening the IPCC over the next few months. I wish him well with that one.
I got through four Opposition Leaders in my time as Leader of Haringey Council. One subsequently stood unsuccessfully for the London Assembly, another became an Alderman of the City of London Corporation, and the third lapsed into obscurity as a junior LibDem minister in the Coalition government.
The fourth was Andrew Mitchell.After he stood down from Haringey Council, he went on to have a glittering career as a barrister, becoming a QC and head of his own Chambers. I understand he is now the leading legal expert on asset confiscation and forfeiture. He was an effective and challenging (from my point of view) Leader of the Opposition and could usually be relied on to highlight substantive policy issues and (painfully) any – and it did happen sometimes – weaknesses there might be in the argument I was putting forward.
He was also unfailingly courteous and polite.
From which you will gather he is not the same Andrew Mitchell as the new Government Chief Whip and star of PlebGate
However, it might have been easy to get confused.
And so – a little bird tells me – twenty years ago, Andrew “Pleb” Mitchell summoned Andrew “Haringey” Mitchell to see him in the House of Commons to tell him that the Conservative Party was too small for there to be two Andrew Mitchell’s in it.
The solution was straightforward said Andrew “Pleb” Mitchell, you (ie Andrew “Haringey” Mitchell) must change your name to avoid this confusion.
So Pleb’s arrogance was there even then. It is not something he has acquired with high office – he was always like that.
The Garter King of Arms is, as I am sure you know, the senior of the three English Kings of Arms. The office takes its name from the Order of the Garter. Henry V instituted the office of Garter in 1415 just before sailing for France.
My experience of his office is recounted here when he argued with me about the correct spelling of Haringey given the way it was done in the Domesday Book.
However, the College of Arms keeps itself up-to-date and in these straitened times is always on the look out for new sources of income.
A little bird tells me that he has written to all Chief Constables to remind them the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act abolishes police authorities and transfers their powers to elected Police and Crime Commissioners.
You may wonder why this is of concern to the Garter King of Arms (Chief Constables haave their own concerns about this).
The answer, of course, is straightforward: the Armorial Bearings used by most police forces on cap badges, letterheads, websites etc were granted to Police Authorities.
And, if Police Authorities disappear, the right to bear the Coat of Arms lapses with them.
This would potentially make the cap badges on police helmets illegal. I am sure many police officers – and certainly their Chief Constables – would find this a deeply discomforting situation.
Fortunately, the Garter King of Arms has a solution and says in his letter:
“The Kings of Arms think that it would be appropriate for a Royal License to be issued transferring the Armorial Bearings to the office of Chief Constable for use by the Constabulary.”
And just in case elected Police and Crime Commissioners feel hurt he has a solution for them as well:
“In such cases, the Kings of Arms would also be prepared to grant a variation of the Shield alone to the office of Police and Crime Commissioners for each authority.”
A wise compromise you may feel. However, such matters cannot be done on a shoe-string as Garter goes on to make clear:
“If you are interested in pursuing this I should be happy to give you particulars of the procedure and cost.”
And please form an orderly* queue outside the College of Arms …..
*Any disorderly behaviour will be dealt with the City of London Police – as the College of Arms lies within their territory – and of course they are one of the few forces not affected by the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act and will not have an elected Police and Crime Commissioner.
No doubt I will be told that I don’t understand the nuances of American politics, but I can’t help feeling that Tropical Storm Isaac’s disruption of the Republican Party Convention at Tampa in Florida is not the problem for Mitt Romney’s strategists that they are suggesting it is.
Conventional wisdom is it that a Presidential candidate – particularly one that is already securely nominated – gains a political boost from his Party’s Convention and the TV exposure that it brings. In this case, the Republican Party was hoping to relaunch/repackage their Presidential candidate and demonstrate to/bamboozle an excited American electorate that Mitt Romney was Presidential in timbre, had the vision thing, and was an-all-round nice decent guy (oh and that his Mormonism is OK really).
Now that some of the Convention has already had to be cancelled because of Tropical Storm Isaac this plan is in disarray.
However, the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party is also determined to use the Convention to write into the Party’s platform their particularly weird mix of ideology, including such gems as:
This, of course, would be on top of Mitt Romney’s own platform of massive tax cuts for the wealthiest and tax increases for other Americans (sounds familiar).
Maybe I am naive but wouldn’t TV exposure of all this stuff strengthen the Democrats?
So perhaps Tropical Storm Isaac is actually a boon to the Republican Party and will in fact boost the chances of the rest of the world having to come to terms with President Romney in a few months time.
I have just returned from a powerful adaptation of Jack Mapanje‘s prison memoir “And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night” at the Africa Centre. The memoir tells the story of the arrest and imprisonment without charge of Jack Mapanje, an academic and poet, in the dying days of Hasting Banda’s Malawi. The arrest, probably generated by academic jealousy, led to incarceration for 3 years, 7 months and 16 days and had a profound effect not only on Jack but on his family. His release followed a lengthy campaign by Amnesty International and PEN International.
The production presented by Bilimankhwe Arts (of which I am a trustee) has an impressive central performance by Misheck Mzumara as the poet, but the entire ensemble are highly effective – particularly in showing the interplay of the prisoners sharing a single cell and their relationship with their guards.
The play runs to 18th August and tickets can be obtained here.
The House of Lords, unlike the House of Commons, is still sitting and this afternoon Baroness Jan Royall, Leader of the Opposition, asked a Private Notice Question of the Leader of the House, Lord Strathclyde, about the position of the Trade Minister, Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint.
As the Daily Telegraph has pointed out, allegations that HSBC, while Lord Green was its Chairman, allowed money laundering on a huge scale to take place are now casting a cloud over his current role as a Trade Minister. Their report says:
“The US Senate has launched a coruscating attack on HSBC for its slapdash approach to money-laundering regulations. The bank could face a $1 billion fine.
According to Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, “the culture at HSBC was pervasively polluted for a long time.” Just how polluted was revealed in the Senate report into the scandal. For example, between 2007 and 2008, HSBC’s Mexican operations moved $7bn into the bank’s US operations. According to the report, both Mexican and US authorities warned HSBC that the amount of money could only have reached such a level if it was tied to illegal narcotics proceeds.”
The Government’s answer boils down to saying that there is nothing that casts doubt on Lord Green’s integrity and that there is no reason that he should be held responsible for everything that the organisation of which he was chairman was doing.
However, what was he doing as Chairman of the Bank during this time? If the Bank were warned by both the Mexican and US authorities that transactions of $7 billion were tied to the illegal drugs trade, shouldn’t he have been told of the warnings. If he wasn’t, why wasn’t he and what sort of system of corporate governance was he presiding over if it was not felt that such warnings should be conveyed to the Board? Is $7 billion too small a sum for him to worry about? And if he was told, what did he do about it?
I tried unsuccessfully to get in and put a this question to the Leader of the House:
“How bad does the stench of money laundering have to be around its Trade Minister before it impacts on the reputation of the United Kingdom? And why – if his integrity is as great as we are told it is – are they so reluctant to have him come to the House and dispel that stench by setting the record straight?”
The BBC captures the full exchange here and the Hansard test is as follows:
Private Notice Question
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the allegations about HSBC made by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on the ability of Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint to fulfil his ministerial duties.
Paragraph 1.2 of the Ministerial Code, which sets out the responsibility of Ministers to Parliament, says that:
“Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest”.
Given that obligation, will the Leader of the House ask the noble Lord, Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint, to come to your Lordships’ House to place on record what he knew and when about the matters investigated by the US Senate committee, including what steps he took to deal with them? Would such a move not give the noble Lord, Lord Green, the opportunity to dispel once and for all the questions being asked about his present ministerial role?
There is no urgency in this matter. The investigation started more than two years ago. The report in question was published two weeks ago. There was no evidence of personal wrongdoing of my noble friend; indeed, there was no personal criticism whatever of my noble friend. The investigation is ongoing. As for ministerial accountability, my noble friend Lord Green is accountable to this House—to Parliament—for the work he does as a Minister. However, many Ministers have had previous careers. No Minister needs to be accountable to Parliament for their previous career, only for what they are doing as a Minister.
“We … recommend that there should be a monthly question time dedicated to questions on House of Lords matters addressed to the Leader of the House”.
Perhaps I may helpfully suggest that both today’s Question and indeed the very important one raised last week by my noble friend Lord Barnett could be handled were the Leader to accept that simple, unanimous recommendation by a committee that was set up at his instigation. I urge him to act on that recommendation as soon as possible.