The answer is unpleasant.
About three weeks ago out of the blue I received a phone call from a woman calling herself Claire Taylor, purporting to be from a Brussels-based public affairs company, called MJ Associates. She said they were working with a client that wanted to understand the workings of Parliament better and could she discuss it further with me. After an exchange of emails, I met her and the colleague she brought with her. They asked about the consultancy and advisory work I do. They told me they represented a Chinese retail company that wanted to expand its High Street presence but were concerned about the draft legislation on supplementary business rates.
They must have been disappointed that I specifically said I would not move amendments to a bill or ask Parliamentary Questions on behalf of any client, that I would not arrange introductions for them or their clients, nor would I make any representations on their behalf.
However, they persisted and I told them I was happy to explain to people how the Parliamentary and political processes worked and the backgound to policies being supported by the major political parties, that I offered strategic (non-Parliamentary) advice to a number of organisations including to one or two overseas companies.
I did not agree to do any work with them and said, if they wanted to pursue it further, they would have to put something in writing, so I could look at in detail and decide whether it was appropriate. To be honest, I was slightly suspicious: they seemed rather naive and kept pushing me to offer to do things that, if they were genuinely who they said they were, they should have known were improper.
I didn’t hear any more from them. Finally, ten days later - last Friday morning, I got a call from The Sunday Times, saying that the people from MJ Associates were actually undercover reporters: the whole thing had been an attempt at entrapment. And, of course, while I had made it clear, I would not do those things that would have been improper, a clever journalist can write a story full of hints and innuendo, taking what was said out of context and by only using selected parts of what was said create a sensational and damaging story.
In the event, I was not named in yesterday’s Sunday Times story, but as I was one of those approached by the under-cover journalists in question, I have asked to appear before the Sub-Committee of the Committee of Privileges that will be looking into the issues raised by the Sunday Times story. I am confident that I did not breach any of the House’s rules, nor did I offer to do so. Nevertheless, as I was one of the subjects of the journalists’ deception and attempted entrapment, it is clearly important that the Sub-Committee have the opportunity to question me.
An unedifying spat has broken out between London Boroughs as to which Councils can use the Olympics rings logo in the run up to the 2012 Games. Apparently, the five Boroughs around the Olympics Park believe that they should have the exclusive right to use the logo.
They are wrong. The bid was for London as a whole. All of London (and indeed the rest of the country as well) should feel ownership of the Olympics. Yes, of course, the five Boroughs face more disruption than the rest, but they will also get more of the long-term benefits.
Grow up and stop being parochial.
The Tories sprang an unexpected vote in the House of Lords last night at 9.25pm on the previously fairly uncontroversial Marine and Coastal Access Bill. The vote had not been anticipated and most Labour Peers had been sent home two hours earlier. The Government won the vote by 39 votes to 33 – a majority of six (I was one of them!).
The issue was arcane. The Bill would set up a new Marine Management Organisation to streamline and centralise the various aspects of marine regulation (I am afraid that is the extent of my detailed knowledge and understanding of this area). The amendment would have written into the Bill that, if the MMO were to delegate any of its functions to another eligible body, then that body should have relevant expertise. However, as Lord Philip Hunt (the Deputy Leader of the House) pointed out the MMO was accountable to the Secretary of State and therefore ultimately to Parliament for ensuring that all of its functions were carried out properly. It was therefore unnecessary micromanagement to specify the experience required from any delegated organisation, as the MMO would be responsible for making sure the funtion was carried out properly in any case.
The Tories pressed the vote – probably just to test whether the Whips were doing their job properly by keeping enough Labour members around the House. The Whips were and the Tories lost, but the Tories did prove their support for more regulation rather than less.
More than fifty Labour Peers packed into the office of the Leader of the House of Lords to listen to the swearing in and inaugural address of Barack Obama as 44th President of the United States. This couldn’t happen in the House of Commons – just as President Obama stepped forward to begin his address, their division bells rang so MPs had to go and vote. No divisions in the Lords (none so far this Session – they will come later), so no interruptions and even Labour Peers fell silent to listen (apart from one wit pointing out that even the most articulate American President in over fifty years still stumbled over the oath of office). And yes, it was an emotional moment as those present listened to those words of hope and repositioning of the United States. The hard work begins now ….
I have heard a number of stories about breaches in information security at the Ministry of Defence in the last week. It sounds as if the problems occurred in a number of places with malicious code compromising a series of computers, including some on board Royal Navy ships. It has also been suggested that not only did this lead to a variety of system breakdowns but also that information was transmitted away from the secure system.
If these stories are true, it is significant at a number of levels: first, it would appear to have been a co-ordinated attack on multiple systems (therefore highly organised and credibly sponsored by a nation state); second, it appears to have caused major disruption; and third, it successfully penetrated the existing information security systems.
I have been concerned for a number of years about the inadequate priority given to the information security of the UK’s critical national infrastructure. When I first started raising this in Parliament with a series of questions, I was essentially told that the Government was satisfied that there were adequate protection systems in place and that in any event there was no evidence or intelligence to suggest that either other nation states or terrorists might seek to exploit any information security vulnerabilities.
Since then, we have seen the Titan Rain cyber-attacks on US and UK systems in 2007 (allegedly sponsored by China), and cyber-disruption aimed at Estonia and Georgia in 2008.
The UK Government has started taking the threat much more seriously than it did and I am not in a position to know whether the arrangements now in place are sufficient. However, this week’s reports of the attacks on Ministry of Defence computers suggest that there is still a lot more to be done.
For about four years, I asked a series of Parliamentary Questions of each Government Department about the number of incidents of malicious breaches of their IT systems. The answers obtained were interesting if not very meaningful. Each year, by far the largest number of breaches were reported by the Ministry of Defence. This possibly suggested that their systems were the subject of more attacks, but certainly indicated that they had the best system for monitoring what was going on within their IT systems. In a sense, much more worrying was the fact that up to half of Government regularly reported that they had suffered no malicious attacks whatsoever. This, of course, could mean that their systems to avoid malicious penetration were perfect or that their systems were regarded as so boring that no-one had bothered to attack them. Much the more likely explanation, however, was that their systems were not detecting when they had been attacked.
Last year, my Parliamentary Questions were answered with a standard answer that “it was not in the national interest” to provide the data as it might provide assistance to those who were trying to undermine our national security. It is therefore impossible to gauge the significance and relative scale of the latest attack. However, if it raises the importance attached to having the highest levels of information security surrounding the UK’s critical national infrastructure, then some good will have come of it.
At the moment, I am not sure whether there is anything to be gained by trying to get more details of what has happened and more importantly what is being learned from the latest attack. Maybe I will feel more energised tomorrow ….
The London Assembly and the Metropolitan Police Authority tonight hosted a celebration of the excellent work done by the thousands of members of the public who provide regular volunteer help to the Metropolitan Police.
Mayor Johnson told the throng in the nauseatingly-named London’s Living Room on the top floor of City Hall that the only reason he no longer committed crimes (for example, by cycling through red lights) was, not because of his innate respect for the rule of law, nor because as Mayor of London he should set a good example, but because he never knew when a Metropolitan Police volunteer in plain clothes might be watching. Fortunately, Len Duvall wasn’t there, so a referral to the Standards Board for moral turpitude and bringing his office into disrepute – on this occasion at least.
It was refreshing to see David Miliband is today shifting the Government’s line on the “War on Terror”. Most UK officials stopped using the phrase some time ago on the grounds that it helped provide a justification for those who use terrorism as a tactic in pursuing their objectives by glamorising them as enemy combatants in the “war”, and unhelpfully lumped together all sorts of groups whose only common feature was a willingness to use terrorism. Now, however, David Miliband has confronted the issue head-on, sparking the debate at an international level, about the extent to which the measures taken to combat and pursue terrorists run the risk of alienating communities (indeed whole nations) and make individuals more likely to fall prey to those who want to recruit them to the cause of violent extremism.
This is not to say that any of the authorities should go soft on pursuing those who are terrorists, or who are planning terrorist acts or who are recruiting terrorists. It is clear that in the UK alone there are many hundreds (2,000-plus, according to successive Director-Generals of MI5) who are engaged in terrorism in one way or another. They have to be identified, their activities disrupted and the individuals brought in to the criminal justice system. However, in the planning of every police operation an assessment has to be made of the appropriateness of the tactics used and the risks that are being confronted – not only of the potential terrorist acts themselves but also what effect individual responses will have on the future flow of those tempted to go down the road of violent extremism.
This is already – I believe - very much part of policing practice in the UK: senior officers planning operations routinely assess the PREVENT implications of individual PURSUE operations (to use the jargon of the CONTEST counter-terrorist strategy). Thus, the impact of the use of Section 44 stops and searches (the random power that the police can deploy under the Terrorism Act 2000 to stop people to deter would-be terrorists) is being reviewed, so as to minimise the sense of alienation felt by many young people when it is used in a widespread fashion – as recommended by the Metropolitan Police Authority in its “Counter-Terrorism: The London Debate” report.
The issue raised by David Miliband, of course, raises wider issues and is timely – just days before President Obama’s inauguration – in that US foreign policy needs to be tested against the same template. Drone bombing raids in the FATA areas of Pakistan may have been effective in removing senior people in the leadership of al-Qaeda but what effect are they having on young men in Pakistan (or for that matter on the future direction of Pakistani politics)? To say nothing of the impact of abstaining on the UN resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza.
As part of my preparation for a new role chairing an independent panel looking at ways of reducing deaths in custody, I spent the day in Holloway and Pentonville Prisons. I had never previously been inside a prison – a fact treated with incredulity both by the civil servant accompanying me and by a group of prisoners I spent some time talking to in Holloway (the latter group assured me that I looked as though I would fit in very well – a remark clearly capable of a variety of interpretations).
I won’t prejudge here any of the conclusions of the panel I will be chairing, but I was struck by the differences in the architecture of the two prisons.
Pentonville was built in 1842 and was the model for another 54 prisons built around Britain (and the Empire, as it was then). It is built with five wings, radiating star-like from a central hall. Holloway was built ten years later in 1852. It was originally a mixed prison – being converted to women-only in the 1860s. The feel and layout of the two prisons are not at all alike. Pentonville would be familiar in appearance to those reared on BBC’s Porridge. Holloway, by contrast, although very different, also seemed very familiar. I only realised what it reminded me of when I was told that the prison was initially built to be a hospital, but when it was completed it was then decided that there was a greater need locally for a prison. There is at least one nearby hospital in North London that before its recent refurbishment ….
In the first Lords’ Question Time of 2009, the Conservative Frontbench took it upon themselves to malign the people of South London, when Lord Howell of Guildford took it upon himself to say, “My Lords, I had the honour of being the Member of Parliament for Guildford for 31 years. I know that I do not need to teach the noble Lord any geography, but Surrey is not an island surrounded by sea; it is bang up against London, from which a large number of the criminal element of southern London descend into Surrey. That presents the policing of Surrey with a special problem, which I hope is taken into account in assessing proper funding to enable law and order to be maintained in that very pleasant county.”
Now as an unrepentent North Londoner, I am rarely moved to defend those living South of the river, but this is really going too far. What is being done to protect people from the hordes of bankers (to say nothing of hedge funders and other undesirables) who each weekday commute into London from Surrey and have over the last few years wrought such damage to our financial system and the well-being not only of Londoners but of people throughout the country and beyond ……
On my way home tonight I saw three Atheist Buses in under ten minutes on Tottenham Court Road. Is this a record?
Of course, it may mean that all the cheery posters, saying, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”, may have been confined to bus route 29 (a very fine route which can take me from Finsbury Park to Trafalgar Square), but I prefer to believe that it means that the message will be seen by most Londoners as they go about their daily lives.
My optimism that rational thought might prevail was unfortunately punctured when I got home and read Madeleine Bunting in The Guardian. Her (somewhat confused) argument seems to be that the Atheist Bus campaign is the product of middle class patronising triumphalist atheists intent on destroying the hope of downtrodden poor people that their faith will lead them out of poverty, that Barack Obama is a practising Christian (which she says will upset the trio of intellectuals who launched the campaign) and that faith-based institutions are helping address disadvantage in the Inner City.
It is hardly “triumphal atheism” to say, “There’s probably no God” – if anything it is “tentative agnosticism”.
The fact that Barack Obama is a believer simply explains his personal motivation and the background to his philosophy – more dangerous are those political leaders who believe that they should use their political position to impose their religious beliefs on others (Madeleine Bunting seems to be suggesting that this is what Barack Obama is doing, but I would suggest that it is rather premature to define his Presidency in these terms when he has yet to be inaugurated.).
And, of course, there are many faith-based organisations that are doing good things in the Inner Cities and elsewhere. However, the list of terrible things that have been and are being done in the name of religion would more than fill an article and could indeed be the framework for describing much of world history.
So, I remain convinced that the Atheist Buses, encouraging people to think for themselves, are a rationalist beacon that we should cherish rather than rubbish.