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Archive for December, 2008

Friday
Dec 12,2008

John Biggs AM, a former colleague of mine on the London Assembly – although our relationship was not always 100% harmonious – has made an interesting comment on the difficult position of Mayor Boris Johnson, as Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, following his remarks about the Damian Green affair.  There is also a comment on this on the same web page from another Damian – Damian Hockney, who was elected to the London Assembly as a UKIP member in 2004, followed Robert Kilroy-Silk into the short-lived Veritas Party, and then left that to sit as a “One London” representative before losing his seat in 2008.

Friday
Dec 12,2008

Gerald Kaufman MP has it right in a Guardian article today.  First, there is a bit of Kaufman-esque rhetoric:

“People confined in closed institutions can tend, if circumstances provoke, to become self-absorbed to the point of the irrational. Such a state of mind can arise in an army camp, a prison, a boarding school, or a parliamentary building.”

followed by the key point:

“We are called the House of Commons for a very good reason. We do our best to represent our constituents but we, rightly, have no status that inflates us above our constituents. We, rightly, unlike MPs from some other countries, have no immunity from arrest.”

The simple fact is that MPs (and for that matter members of the House of Lords) are not above the law.  We may play a part in making laws but that does not make us exempt from them.

As far as the public are concerned, MPs are hardly highly regarded and they already think that MPs are paid too much and award themselves too many perks.  For some MPs to try and take on a new privilege – that MPs should be exempt from the criminal law – is hardly going to improve public confidence.

Tuesday
Dec 9,2008

I have just been to a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Patient and Public Involvement in Health, which heard from representatives of the National Association of LINks’ Members. 

For those with long memories, each health district used to have a local Community Health Council (CHC) which was there to represent the interests of NHS users in that area (I should declare an interest in that from 1987 to 1998, I was the Director of the Association of CHCs for England and Wales.)  In 1999, the Government decided to abolish CHCs on the basis that the reforms then being introduced in the NHS would make separate patients’ representation unnecessary.  After a big campaign, the Government conceded that, while CHCs in England would still be abolished, new structures called Patient and Public Involvement Forums would replace them around the country.  These were still finding their feet (and were still in many instances weak and watery substitutes for the old-style CHCs) when their abolition in turn was announced.  Again there was a campaign and as a result the Forums did not finally close until the end of March this year.  In the Forums’ place were to be new structures to be called Local Involvement Networks (LINks).   These would be funded via a Department of Health allocation to the local authorities in their areas.  The local authorities would then contract with another organisation to “host” the LINk for the area.

Inevitably, the new arrangements took some time to be set up and the Department of Health has acknowleded that they will not really be ready to operate until next year – leaving a gap of nine months to a year when there will have been no formal mechanism for patient representation in place.

The evidence from the National Association of LINks’ Members (an informal grouping of individuals who were involved in the Forums and want to see the new system work as well as it can) is that there are huge variations around the country in what has been done to get LINks up and running.  As indicated above, the process is a convoluted one: local councils receive an allocation for this work and must appoint a “host” organisation to run the local network.  According to the Association, some local authorities have retained substantial sums for “administration” and have not passed all of the allocation on to the “hosts”.  There is in most parts of the country a lack of clarity about what the “hosts” will provide for their allocation of money (what guidelines there are from the Department of Health are very permissive to allow local variation).  The Association feel that some “hosts” see their role as a money-making venture for their organisations (and in a number of instances have bidded to act as “hosts” in several local authority areas) and that often only limited resources have been made available to support the local volunteers who are trying to act as patient representatives and visit/inspect healthcare establishments.

All in all the Association presented a picture of precisely the sort of chaos that was predicted when the legislation went through Parliament.

Tuesday
Dec 9,2008

i have been appointed as the Chair of the new Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody.  This is a new body reporting to the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and the Department of Health which will produce expert advice on measures to be taken to reduce the number of people who die each year in the custody of the state.  It will build on the work of the Forum on Preventing Deaths in Custody.  I will start work on this in the New Year with a view to having the Panel established by April 2009.

My knowledge of these issues stems from my involvement in three high profile cases involving deaths following police action or in custody during my time as an elected councillor in the London Borough of Haringey: the death of Cynthia Jarrett in 1985 which precipitated the Broadwater Farm riots; the death of Joy Gardner in 1993; and the death of Roger Sylvester in 1999.  In the case of Joy Gardner, I had meetings with her family, attended her funeral as the Leader of the Council, attended public meetings on the case and had meetings with the police to discuss it.  In the case of Roger Sylvester, I was Leader of the Council at the time of his death and met with the family, attended public meetings and had meetings with the police.  The involvement continued, when I became Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, as the long saga of the mishandled subsequent investigations unwound, with the eventual inquest and the judicial review of the verdict.

 

As Chair of the Police Authority, I also conducted a number of hearings with families of those involved in death in custody issues, held meetings on good practice in custody, which included discussions of cell design and custody suite arrangements, availability of medical/nursing support and mental health issues.  A series of meetings were also held to discuss the handling of investigations after such cases and the support provided to the families involved.

 

The issues surrounding such deaths are never easy.  The human rights and other considerations were examined thoroughly by the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the structure for advising on these matters was reviewed in a report by Robert Fulton.

 

Monday
Dec 8,2008

Am I alone in being perpetually irritated by BBC Weather – both on the radio and on television?  Not about the content or accuracy of the forecasts themselves, but about their perpetual bias against London.  Always, there is a lengthy description of the weather conditions in the furthest reaches of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and then only a cursory mention of London and the South East (even then often subsumed in a general reference to England).

Isn’t it about time that BBC Weather (and for that matter most other allegedly UK institutions) realised that there are more people living in London than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined.

Thursday
Dec 4,2008

When I was on the London Assembly between 2000 and 2004, most meetings of the Assembly itself were pretty dull with the only excitement (and that only counted as excitement if you were a pretty sad individual) being some fairly petty inter-Party bickering.  However, maybe things have changed.  Earlier today, I finally caught up with the webcast of yesterday’s meeting of the Assembly (I know I’ve been a bit slow but I have had quite a number of other things on in the last couple of days).  This was the meeting where the Assembly was questioning Mayor Boris Johnson (in his capacity as Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA)) along with Sir Paul Stephenson, Acting Commissioner.

Len Duvall‘s questioning of the Mayor was scrutiny at its best and has been described to me as “forensic” by a number of people who were there.  Len, of course, is Leader of the Labour Group and followed me as Chair of MPA until Boris Johnson took over at the beginning of October.

Len first of all asked the Mayor about the comments attributed to him that the arrest of Damian Green  was unlikely to lead to a charge or a prosecution.  The Mayor then repeated the comments and didn’t seem to see any incongruity in statements like that being made by a Chair of a Police Authority, who has just been briefed in confidence by senior police officers on a continuing police operation.

Len then asked another series of questions about who the Mayor had subsequently talked to about the police operation.  Initially, the Mayor was reluctant to say, muttering something about his wife, but then blurted out that he had telephoned Damian Green himself.  This is frankly an extraordinary admission.

As Len commented subsequently:

“It is astonishing that the Mayor, following a briefing from senior police officers, has been speaking to a suspect under police investigation. He received information as chair of the MPA, then went to his political ally and old friend, who is now under criminal investigation. This is not appropriate behaviour for a chair of the police authority.

“Whether he likes it or not, the public perception will be that he his too involved in this investigation and is looking after his mates. Regardless of the merits of this particular case, should the chair of the police authority be speaking to a suspect in a criminal investigation? Should he then pre-judge the outcome of that investigation? The answer to both those questions is ‘no’. Boris should reflect on how he and his officials have behaved from the start of this affair and re-consider whether, if he is going to use sensitive information for political capital, he is an appropriate person to chair the authority.

“The appropriate time to raise issues around police action is once an investigation, and in this case the review announced today, is completed.”

A police officer who did something similar and spoke without authorisation to a person who had been arrested and released on police bail would be liable to disciplinary action.

An ordinary member of a police authority who did something like this might well be reported to the Standards Board for breaching the Code of Conduct governing members of public bodies and could, in principle, end up by being suspended from office.

So what will happen to the Mayor?  No doubt, he assumes that his charm, coupled with a bumbling mea culpa and an admission that he is new to this sort of public accountability will get him through. But Len gave him a lifeline and asked whether he would go away and reflect on whether his conduct was appropriate as Chair of the Police Authority.  However, the Mayor wasn’t having it – instead, he effectively said he would do the same thing again.

If the Mayor continues as Chair of the Police Authority, some interesting issues are raised.  Will the police ever trust him enough after this to brief him about confidential matters and on operational issues?  They will certainly think twice in the future about talking to the Mayor in his capacity as Chair of the MPA about an ongoing investigation if they run the risk of the Mayor’s next act being to ring a suspect in that investigation for a cosy chat and to publicly announce his views on the likely outcome of that investigation.  

However, if there isn’t a relationship of trust on such matters between the Mayor and senior police officers, London will lose out because everywhere else in the country one of the roles of a police authority chair is to be briefed and, on occasions, to give advice or to warn, whilst respecting the operational independence and decision-making of the police command structure.  The Mayor was quite within his rights to urge caution on the police in the matter of the alleged Home Office leaker and Damian Green, but that should have been a caution urged privately (at least, whilst the investigation is in progress – and, of course, it is still continuing) and not then briefed out to the media and repeated to the London Assembly.