The murder in Croydon is a reminder that there are no easy solutions to knife crime

The tragic murder of a man killed in front of his three year old daughter at a bus stop in Croydon on the way to visit his wife and new-born son in hospital is a tragic reminder that there are no easy answers in the fight against knife crime.

It would be wrong for anyone to try to make petty political points about whether or not this demonstrates that the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Blunt 2 against knife crime (initiated following the change of administration in London) has failed or has been misconceived.

This murder was an appalling crime.  It could have happened anywhere – with or without Blunt 2. 

Society as a whole has to address the underlying causes of knife crime and the police have to tackle both the individual cases and by being pro-active (as with Blunt 2) make it less easy for people to carry knives without the risk of detection.

Meanwhile our thoughts must be with the victim’s family and our hope must be that the perpetrators are quickly identified, arrested and charged.

Is Mayor Johnson Macavity or the Metropolitan Police Authority’s Cheshire Cat?

Mayor Boris Johnson’s attendance record at the three full meetings of the Metropolitan Police Authority since he assumed its Chair is as follows:
6th October 2008 – two hours
27th November 2008 – one hour
29th January 2009 – zero hours

The trend is clear.

In November Mayor Johnson was being Macavity leaving after an hour so that his representative on Earth – Kit Malthouse – had to deal with a difficult discussion about the draft Policing Plan and the budget.

Today Mayor Johnson was in Davos for the World Economic Forum and he was being the Cheshire Cat: there was nothing for Macavity to avoid – if anything it was the most somnolent meeting of the Police Authority ever – so all we had was the memory of Mayor Johnson’s at the photo-call to introduce Sir Paul Stephenson as the new Commissioner.

(I am not questioning Mayor Johnson’s right to be in Davos – his predecessor liked going too. The issue is whether any Mayor of London can devote sufficient time to fulfil all of the expectations on a police authority chair.)

I am sure it is only a matter of time before Kit Malthouse gets what he wants and is annointed by Mayor Johnson as the actual Police Authority Chair …..

The only excitement – and that is over-stated – was a discussion about stop and search. Jenny Jones told us about the Mayor of Southwark who was stopped by the police when they spotted her taking photographs outside what turned out to be her own home. For Jenny Jones this was an example of abuse of police powers. However, many people might find it reassuring if the police stopped somebody taking photographs of their home and asked them to account for themselves. Kit Malthouse then told us that he had twice been the subject of a police stop and search – for some reason his Conservative colleague, James Cleverly thought this had been an intelligence-led police operation.

So was The Sunday Times acting in the public interest?

I’ve already made my views known about the tactics employed by The Sunday Times in pursuing their House of Lords story.  They did deceive: they purported to be from a fictitious public affairs company with a fictitious website and they said they were acting for a fictitious client.  They did try to entrap by coaxing those they saw to offer to do things that clearly should not be done.

But is the story itself in the public interest?  Well the answer has to be “Yes”.  It should not be possible for commercial (or any other) interests covertly to purchase changes to legislation.  As Leader of the House, Jan Royall, said this morning:

“the standards, probity and conduct of members of the House of Lords must be of the highest level”.

She has pledged that the investigations into the actions of individuals must be searching and fair.  This is right – all those named must have a full opportunity to defend themselves against the accusations against them.  It would be wrong to pre-judge the outcome of those investigations.

She has also initiated a full review by the Privileges Committee (not a Labour-dominated body incidentally – it has sixteen members: four Labour, five Conservative, two LibDems and five Cross-benchers) of the House’s rules governing external interests.  Again she made clear her position this morning:

“In the review of the rules of the House in this area – including the place of consultancy work, and whether we should have much more forceful sanctions against peers found to be in breach of the rules – I believe we do need to make changes. The House is a more modern and professional place in a very different world: we need to make sure our rules and structures reflect that.”

The outcome of this review will, I hope, be much clearer rules and guidelines as to what members of the House can and cannot do (with appropriate – and significant – sanctions available against anyone who goes outside those rules).

If that is the consequence of The Sunday Times story, then that result is in the public interest.

If it also helps bring about a proper debate about the role of the Second Chamber and the purpose people want it to fulfil in our system of government within our unwritten constitution, then that too is unequivocally something to be welcomed.

But that doesn’t mean I have to like the journalistic tactics to which I personally was subjected …….

The BBC say Sir Paul Stephenson is the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner

As I pressed “publish” on the previous post, the BBC was announcing that the new Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police is to be Sir Paul Stephenson.  We will know soon enough if they are right.

However, journalistic rumours about who the successful candidate is have been swirling about all day.  Indeed, only two hours ago, I had a call from a journalist inviting me to confirm that the successful candidate was Sir Hugh Orde.  Five minutes later I got a call from another journalist – from the SAME national newspaper – inviting me to confirm that the successful candidate was Sir Paul Stephenson.

White smoke over New Scotland Yard – new Commissioner to be named tomorrow morning

I am told that the name of the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner will be announced tomorrow morning at 9am.  There is to be a photocall with Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and Mayor Boris Johnson.  Mayor Johnson (he is the Latin scholar after all) will say “Habemus Papam”.  There will be a puff of white smoke and when it clears there – revealed – will be the new Commissioner.

The Home Secretary and the Mayor having interviewed the final two candidates – Sir Hugh Orde (Chief Constable of Northern Ireland) and Sir Paul Stephenson (Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police) – on Monday.  I hear that they readily reached a consensus on which of the two was the best person to succeed Sir Ian Blair and the Home Secretary has now made her formal recommendation to the Queen.

I genuinely do not know which of the two it will be. 

However, the good news is that the Home Secretary and the Mayor agreed on the choice – so whichever one of the final two it turns out to be will take up the role with the confidence and support of both the Mayor of London (and Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority) and the Home Secretary. 

What is more the person who is appointed will have been chosen from what is probably the strongest and most impressive field there has ever been for the Commissioner’s job.  

Either of the final two candidates would make an impressive Commissioner.   They would each bring their own styles to the job, but whichever it turns out to be, I wish them well.

So what is it like to be the subject of an under-cover journalist sting?

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.

The whole of London should be able to use the Olympic logo

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.

Tories vote FOR micro-management

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.

Even in the House of Lords emotions run high as Barack Obama is sworn in as US President

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 ….

How significant is the latest MoD information security breach?

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 ….