If Sir Alan Sugar is the answer then someone’s asking the wrong question

According to the front page of today’s Evening Standard, Sir Alan Sugar has been approached to be the Labour candidate in 2012 London Mayoral elections.  Apart from my doubts as to the accuracy of the piece written by Andrew Gilligan (the election is after all over three years away), I do wonder whether those who think Sir Alan might be the right answer are asking the right question in the first place.

Sir Alan is forthright in his opinions – for example, agreeing that we live in “a broken society” (who did I last hear using that phrase?) and that the answer is to scrap the Human Rights Act.  That forthrightness is refreshing and London’s Mayor certainly needs to be forthright. But is that a sufficient qualification?

Perhaps I am old-fashioned but it does seem to me that whoever is the next Mayor should be someone who has demonstrably demonstrated that they care about London and that they have experience of the kind necessary to set the strategic direction for the city and carry people (including all the different organisations and groups that are the necessary partners for effective action) with them to deliver that direction.

As Sir Alan himself says:

“I’ve always been one of those people that walks in the office in the morning and says ’this is what we’re going to do’. I don’t think you can do that in politics and government.”

And if he were to be the Labour candidate, I rather suspect that the Labour Party members involved in the selection would expect some consistent signs that he was committed to Labour’s ideals.

Police Authority to adopt a protocol on how and when Members (including Mayor Johnson) should talk to police suspects

The Metropolitan Police Authority is in session. Mayor Johnson is in the Chair and shows every sign of staying to the end of the meeting. Otherwise attendance is a bit sparse (six Members away) and not many public (apart from a contingent from the James Cleverly Fan Club). This is not really surprising given the sparsity of the agenda: the only substantive item is the Commissioner’s report.
Joanne McCartney skillfully managed to raise the Standards Committee inquiry into Mayor Johnson’s conduct in respect of the Damian Green case by asking whether it was now going to be seen as part of an MPA Member’s role to talk to suspects in police inquiries. If so, would it be necessary for there to be a protocol on how this should be done? And could the Commissioner report to the Authority on the extent to which Members might now find themselves called as witnesses in court proceedings? It was agreed there would be a report back. Uber-Vice Chairman Kit Malthouse looked irritated.
The Uber-Vice Chairman cheered up, however, when his colleague, Richard (‘don’t call me Dick’) Tracey suggested that there should also be a protocol limiting the rights of MPA Members (other than the Mayor and Uber-Vice Chairman) to speak to the media. So watch this space …

Population data figures to remain rigged so as to short-change Londoners

It is well-known that Londoners already have to subsidise the rest of the country but this has been made consistently worse by the failure to calculate London’s population properly and, in particular, properly to reflect in Government grant calculations the number of migrants in London.

Back in May last year, the House of Commons Treasury Committee reported that the means used by the Office of National Statistics for measuring international migration was not fit for purpose and called on the ONS to develop a new survey to provide more accurate data.  It also concluded that:

“it is evident that there are substantial problems in generating accurate population estimates in some Local Authority areas. The current methods of estimating internal migration are unsatisfactory and lead to decisions on the allocation of funding to Local Authorities being based on inadequate information.”

The Committee warned that it was “seriously concerned about the reliability and validity of ONS estimates of short-term international migrants” and pointed out that “evidence from administrative data sources such as the National Insurance Number register suggests the ONS estimates do not reflect the scale of short-term migration in England and Wales.”  It recommended that:

“the Statistics Authority examine the feasibility of producing estimates of short-term migration at sub-national level, using the successor to the International Passenger Survey that we recommended earlier and a greater range of administrative data.”

and that: 

“the Statistics Authority continue the ONS’s work with Local Authorities and carries out a series of case studies to identify alternative administrative data sources. These include the National Insurance Number register, GP lists, other health service lists, council tax records, and various registers on children and school children.”

The Government responded to the Select Committee’s report last September, saying that it accepted the Committee’s analysis on this issue and welcoming the efforts that the ONS would be making to resolve the problems.

However, the ONS has just announced that it does not propose that anything be done about the problem before the 2010 grant settlement.

London Councils has commented on this, pointing out that this failure to act is going to cost London millions of pounds of funding and that the ONS figures on the basis of their existing flawed methodology suggest a decline in London’s population of 100,000 and a loss of £130 million to council services.

This is not a new issue: the London Boroughs had been raising concerns about this long before the Treasury Slelect Committee examined the issue.  It is frankly extraordinary that another year is going to drift by with London still being short-changed.

Tim O’Toole’s departure is an enormous loss for Londoners

The news that Tim O’Toole is to leave as Managing Director of London Underground and return to the United States is bad news for Londoners, especially those of us who use the Tube every day.

I have been impressed with Tim O’Toole since he was recruited by Mayor Livingstone some six or so years ago and, when I worked much more closely with him during my four years as an Advisor to the Board of Transport for London, my respect grew even further.  He has a deep commitment to public transport, coupled with serious experience of running railway systems and a toughness sufficient both to deal with the contractual mess left by the PPP arrangements and with the history of volatile labour relations on the Underground.

So where does this leave Mayor Johnson?

Firstly, there is a big hole to fill.  Secondly, the Mayor now has to demonstrate that it is not what Simon Fletcher calls the culture of back-biting, internal division and second-ratism at the heart of his administration that has led to Tim O’Toole’s decision to step down. 

Tim O’Toole’s separation from his family has been going on for the last six years and TfL’s likely capital funding gap has been known ever since the Government announced the decision to go ahead with Crossrail.  Tim O’Toole, when I last saw him, showed every sign of being a man who was still hugely enjoying the challenges of his job – something must have changed for him to decide to go now.

Mayor Johnson claims victory despite the finding that his actions “were extraordinary and unwise”

Mayor Boris Johnson has issued a press statement trumpeting that the investigation into his conduct over the Damian Green case has not found that he breached the MPA or GLA Code of Conduct. 

Interesting that he does not mention that the same report found that “his actions in speaking to a person arrested in a criminal investigation were extraordinary and unwise”, that “he should have sought advice from MPA officers before issuing a press statement relating to an ongoing police investigation”, and that “there is a risk that frank and full discussion of operational matters between senior MPS officers and the MPA Chairman could be inhibited in future if Mr. Johnson were to make public his reaction to operational briefings on critical incidents as a matter of course”.

Will Waltham Forest Labour Group finally take proper action to deal with the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund scandal?

Over the last year or so I have become increasingly exasperated by the failure of the Labour Group Leadership on Waltham Forest Council to respond effectively to the widening concerns about how Neighbourhood Renewal Fund monies have been used in the Borough.

In February of last year, I asked a series of Parliamentary Questions about the concerns that were being raised: firstly about the use of money by EduAction who were at that time running the Borough’s education service, then to what extent Government Offices properly monitor the use of Neighbourhood Renewal Funds (checking the outcomes claimed) and whether the Government was satisfied with the work done by Dr Foster Intelligence for Waltham Forest (using central government monies), and finally about whether the Government Office for London was happy that money intended for five wards with high deprivation had been spent elsewhere.

These questions related to information passed to me from local residents that suggested that outcomes relating to non-existent children had been claimed in respect of the Youth at Risk programme, that £47,000 had been paid for a health needs assessment of the area that had not been reclaimed despite the organisation that provided the assessment acknowledging that the work concerned was inadequate and broke its own standards for accuracy, and that money had been diverted away from the areas targetted towards other pet projects.  The answers I received suggested that there was no formal process by which Government Offices checked whether the outcomes claimed for particular projects funded by them as the individual local authorities were the accountable bodies for the expenditure.  The Government Office confined itself to monitoring the progress of the local authority as a whole towards theoverall targets set.

I followed this up with a long series of requests to the Council under the Freedom of Information Act, as did local residents and others.  Eventually, the Council was goaded into action and published some of the findings of its own internal auditors and commissioned external reviews of some of its processes. 

These raised even more concerns – such as, the £6,000 received by one external contractor although £66,000 had been paid to him according to the documentation in the accounts.  Significantly, one of the external inquiries found that the documents about how individual decisions on payment of specific grants were made, by whom and the purpose for which the grants had been made were missing in a large number of cases.

In respect of a number of these issues, local residents have asked the police to investigate.

Now, the Council’s new Chief Executive has proposed a further and broader inquiry that will look at ALL of the Council’s procurement processes.  As the local newspaper says:

Documents reveal a systemic failure within the council to correctly allocate, administer and monitor Neighbourhood Renewal Fund spending since 2004.

A police investigation is currently conducted into allegations that EduAction, the company which used to manage education in the borough, used NRF money to boost profits.

The Better Neighbourhood Initiative (BNI) was launched in an attempt to target NRF more effectively, but it later emerged that many BNI contracts, totalling millions of pounds, did not follow rules to prevent fraud.

Throughout the developing scandal, the leadership of the Labour Group in Waltham Forest seems to have been hoping that the problem would simply go away.  Initially, they declared themselves confident that all decisions had been properly taken.  They resisted further investigations – so much so, that the traditional questions of “What did they know and when did they know it?” started to be asked.

At one stage, I received a phone message from one of them, noting that I was asking all these questions and inviting me to “resolve it within the Party”.  I am afraid there are wider public interest questions at stake here and these matters need to be seen to be resolved openly and transparently.

Now they have an opportunity: the Chief Executive has proposed a further inquiry (I assume this is not intended as another delaying tactic), so when they discuss his recommendation tomorrow night, they should acknowledge that things have gone seriously wrong, commit themselves to being totally open about who was responsible, and put in place all the necessary steps to restore public confidence.  Nothing less will be sufficient.

Just when you thought we had said goodbye to the Bush Presidencies ….

Reports today suggest that former Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, the brother of George W and son of George Snr, is contemplating a run for the Presidency in 2012 or 2016.  I saw this just as I finished reading “Family of Secrets“, a fascinating book by Russ Baker.  This is a well-researched and properly referenced account of three generations of Bushes: Senator Prescott Bush (George W’s grandfather); President George HW Bush; and President George W Bush.  It argues that through three generations the family has been at the heart of a network encompassing the oil industry and the intelligence community that has been manipulating public policy in the USA to serve its own interests.

Maybe some of the material in the book is well-known to those who follow American politics more closely than I do.  I had, of course, heard of the close links between the Bushes and the Saudis (and also to the bin Laden family), but there is a lot more here. 

For example, George HW Bush was apparently involved in or close to all sorts covert operations that profoundly affected America’s history long before he became CIA Director or President.  Notably, he cannot recall where he was the day John F Kennedy was assassinated, but according to the book at 1:45 pm on 22nd November 1963, he called the FBI to identify James Parrott as a possible suspect in the President’s murder, and to mention that he, George H.W. Bush, happened to be in Tyler, Texas.  As he was making the call, his own assistant was visiting Mr Parrott at home.  He then created a misleading paper trail regarding his own whereabouts that day while protecting his business interests and political future.

The book also examines a whole series of connections between George Bush Snr, Bob Woodward (of “All the President’s Men” fame) and White House counsel JohnDean (the key witness in the Watergate hearings) and suggests that the whole Watergate affair was a bloodless coup in three parts: creating the crime, implicating Nixon, and then ensuring that an aggressive effort would be mounted to use the ‘facts’ of the case to force him from office.  Apparently, Nixon was threatening some oil industry tax breaks …

Then there are all sorts of details about how George Bush Snr engineered his son’s rise to the presidency with details of how CIA expertise was used to erase records of  George W’s misdoings and build a resume befitting a future president.  The book examines in detail the still-murky story of George W’s National Guard service record, and how his long track record as a womanizer and party animal was sanitised by a carefully calculated born-again Christian conversion that few dared question.  The book also reports interviews with the man who wrote the memos to the Bush family on how to gain the vast evangelical vote that put him in the White House.

You don’t need to believe everything in the book to take the Jeb Bush threat seriously, but, if – like me – you find it difficult to understand why so many Americans voted for his brother, this book helps explain that phenomenon and also to underline why the Bushes and the interests they represent should not be underestimated.

At least in the USA they acknowledge the extent of the problem of cyber-attacks on government computer systems

In the UK there’s always been a reluctance to acknowledge the extent to which government computer systems are subjected to and often fall victim to cyber-attacks from those trying to plant malicious code so as to steal or manipulate data. My attempts to obtain statistics (however imperfect) by Parliamentary Questions to Government departments were blocked, as were my offers to arrange external penetration testing of individual systems.

It is refreshing therefore to come across the openness with which these issues are discussed in the United States. The front page of today’s ‘USA Today’ carries a story saying ‘Raids on federal computer data soar’ quoting data from US-CERT (US Computer Emergency Readiness Team) that shows a 40% increase in the installation of hostile programs between 2007 and 2008. According to Joel Brenner, counter intelligence chief in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, this reflects ‘a dramatic, consistent increase in cybercrime and intelligence activities.’

They take it seriously in the USA – we ought to do the same in the UK. (Of course, maybe we do, but there is nothing public that I have seen that gives me confidence.)

This apparent complacency by Government is exacerbated by complacency in many parts of the private sector (of course, much of the critical national infrastructure is owned or run privately), where I hear many firms are cutting costs to cope with the economic situation by getting rid of information security professionals.

British Airways and BAA have still not got it right at Terminal 5

A few months after the disastrous chaos of the opening of Terminal 5 (disastrous in terms of image and reputation), British Airways and BAA started reassuring everyone that all the teething problems were over, that the customer experience was now wonderful, and that – in particular – the queues had diminished and no-one had to wait longer than 10 minutes to drop their bags.

So what’s the reality?

This morning it took 45 minutes to get to the front of the queue for ‘The Fast (sic) Bag Drop’.

Two bits of advice for the senior management at BA and BAA: don’t leave half the desks unstaffed at busy times; and don’t call it ‘Fast’ – ‘Bag Drop will do.