Becoming a Peer 3: North London meets the Feudal System

I have been posting about the experience of becoming a member of the House of Lords (see here and here).

Before you can take your seat, you have to have a series of meetings with a number of strange and wonderful feudal functionaries with mediaeval titles.  Like Black Rod – or to give him his proper title: The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, then General Sir Edward Jones  KCB CBE. Or to give him his e-mail address.

Then you have to see Mr Peter Gwynn-Jones LVO, who is the Garter Principal King of Arms, to “settle the question of your title”.  You don’t know who the Garter Principal King of Arms is?  That’s easy.  He’s the Chief Herald.  Still not clear?  Let me give you a clue: he’s the one who dresses up like a playing card in the State Opening of Parliament.

Now I had been warned about him.  I was told he might be difficult.  So I wrote to him in advance to ask him what the rules were regarding the choice of titles.  By return of post I got back a letter saying that Garter (as he likes to be known) has discretion under Rules (capital R) agreed by Her Majesty the Queen.  So that puts people like you and me in our place.

And then the letter went on for three or four paragraphs to summarise these rules.  But what it actually said was that you should call yourself after an area that was neither too small nor too large. Frankly, not too helpful.

Now I knew that I wanted to call myself after Haringey, the Borough I had been brought up in, live in and whose Council I had led for nearly twelve years.  But I was aware of one problem: Andrew McIntosh, then Deputy Chief Whip in the Lords, was already called Lord McIntosh of Haringey.  Could I use the same place name?

Anyway the appointed time came for my meeting with Garter at Garter House in the College of Arms (where else would you expect it to be?).  So I explained my concern.

“Oh, that’s not a problem” came the immediate reply.  “Who would mistake a Harris for a McIntosh?””

“Fine,” I said.  “Where do I sign?”

“Oh no, you can’t call yourself Harris of Haringey.  It’s against the Rules.  London Boroughs are now too important for mere life peers to be called after them.”

“But what about McIntosh of Haringey, or Turner of Camden, or Fisher of Lambeth, or for that matter Morris of Manchester.  There is even another Harris – this time of Greenwich.”

“Oh I think you’ll find that their titles were all created before the Rules were changed.”

All of this was beginning to take on even more of an Alice in Wonderland feel.  I began to understand why Garter dresses up as a playing card.  Every time I mentioned a name called after a London Borough, a dusty card index was produced.  A card would be pulled out, waved triumphantly, and I would be told “No that was in 1991 before the Rules were changed.”

“Are these rules actually written down.”

This was an insult:  “Of course they are” and a dusty paper was pulled from the bottom of a pile of papers and read out aloud.

“But that doesn’t say what you said the rules said.”

A pause.  Garter looks at the paper.  “Aah.  That’s because these are the 1963 rules.”

What was being proposed was that I should call myself after part of Haringey.  And I kept explaining that I couldn’t do that because I had spent the last ten years trying to hold the different parts of Haringey together.  I couldn’t show favouritism to one part at this stage.

Haringey could not be permitted.  If the Rule was bent for me, then everyone would want to be called after a London Borough.  And where would that end?

Eventually, to try to be helpful, I said, “What if I call myself Harris of Hornsey, Wood Green and Tottenham?” – thereby covering all the constituent parts.

There was a long pause while Garter digested this.

“Well, it’s not actually against the rules, Mr Harris, but ask yourself is it practicable?  People will shorten it.  The newspapers in particular.  Then there will be confusion.  There will be trouble.  People will complain.”  I had a vision of the massed ranks of Lords Harris marching on the College of Arms.

Finally, I said “Look we seem to have an impasse here.  I want to call myself Harris of Haringey.  You tell me that’s against the Rules – Rules you yourself have changed in the last few years.  The alternative is Harris of Hornsey, Wood Green and Tottenham that we both agree is a little unwieldy.  Would you like time to think it over?”

Now I don’t think that anyone had ever suggested that Garter should think something over before – certainly not a mere Life Peer.

We arranged to meet a week later.  “But there’s no point in coming back if you are not prepared to be more flexible,” he warned.

Anyway, a week later I returned – stubborn as ever – to be greeted by a beaming Garter.  “Mr Harris, you are in luck.  I have found a precedent.” Pause for effect.  “There is a Lord McIntosh of Haringey.

“I know, we talked about him last week.  I’ve known him for thirty years.”

It was though I hadn’t spoken.

“If my predecessor in his infinite wisdom, decreed that he could be called after Haringey, I don’t see how I can prevent you doing the same.”

Huge relief all round.  Where do I sign?

“There is one little thing you could do for me.”

Warning bells ringing.  “Yes?”

“I’ve been checking in the Domesday Book.”  (As one does.)  “Would you mind using the alternative spelling of Haringey – with two “R”s and an “A”?”

So I said: “Well, you do realise don’t you that in the local area Harringay spelt like that is either associated in people’s minds with a Sainsbury’s Superstore or with the old greyhound racing stadium.  I mean do you think it’s really fitting for a Life Peer to be called after a greyhound stadium?”

There was a very long pause.  “I think you’re going to win on this one, Mr Harris.”

So that’s how I became Lord Harris of Haringey.

But then we came to the really serious part of the meeting.

“Here in the College of Arms, we always feel very sorry for Life Peers.  They have nothing to hand on to their children.”

At this point a price list was slid across the table.  “A coat of arms at £4,035 costs less than a car and lasts forever.”  (I believe the price has risen since then.)

“What do people use them for,” I said.

Another question that hadn’t been asked before.  “Well, people used to put them on their shields when they rode into battle.”

However, I have to admit that I wasn’t convinced that it would come in useful in the hurly-burly of London politics.

So now – or at least once my Letters Patent had been Sealed – I was a Lord.  The final step was to take up my seat.

Becoming a Peer 2: The wait

A couple of days ago I posted about the telephone call that contained the offer to become a member of the House of Lords.  This is what happened next.

Having accepted the offer, I was still sworn to secrecy.  I filled in a form so my nomination could be vetted and then I heard nothing more.  I discovered subsequently that this was quite normal, but it certainly felt strange.  I was supposed to be reorganising my life, giving up full-time paid employment, creating an alternative income, but I had nothing in writing to say it was actually going to happen.

Despite the urgency with which I had been asked to make my decision (“We do need to know by the end of the week”), the rest of April 1998 and the whole of May passed without any announcement.  And, of course, I knew that the Labour Party was quite capable of changing its mind about such matters.

Then in June a contact in the North East told me of a conversation about my putative candidature for the National Executive Committee of the Party.  One of the trade union regional officials there had asked Peter Mandelson (very much a power in the land in 1998, although not quite to the same galactic extent that he is now – still “Prince of Darkness”, not yet “pussycat”) what he thought about me standing for the NEC.   Apparently, Peter’s response was not entirely positive:  “Toby Harris is precisely the wrong sort of person to be a member of the NEC – the last thing we want is another middle-aged, white, overweight, bearded local government leader from London.”  So if that was the received wisdom about the NEC, what about the House of Lords?

At this point, I cracked and rang Downing Street:  “Oh yes, you’re still on the list.  It’s just that Tony’s been very busy with Northern Ireland and so on.”

Finally, at the end of the first week in July, a letter arrived saying my name had been forwarded to the Queen – and the formal announcement came seven days later.

If the wait had felt a strange and surreal experience, it was still no preparation for the process following the announcement up to the moment I was introduced and took my seat.

Becoming a Peer 1: The phone call

I am often asked – well sometimes asked – or to be more precise somebody asked me once:  “What is it like becoming a Peer?”  Therefore, as a public service, I thought that over the next week or so, I would share my story.

In March 1998, I took it into my head that I might run for the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party.  It would be the first year of the new system with constituency representatives being elected by a ballot of all Party members.  As the Chair of the Association of London Government (the body now called “London Councils”) and as the leading Labour local government figure in London and with a quarter of the Party’s national members being in London, I thought I might stand a reasonable chance.  Before going any further, I thought, however, I should find out whether I would be going against some master plan determined centrally.  So I tried to ring Sally Morgan, who is now a colleague in the Lords, but was then Political Secretary to the Prime Minister.

Over the space of two or three weeks, I called four times and left a message.  No return calls.  I was beginning to get a bit irritated, I had known Sally for at least ten years, and however pressing life was in Downing Street the very least I thought I was entitled to was getting my call answered.  Finally, on the fifth call I was put through.  Before I could even ask about the NEC, Sally cut me off:  “I’m sorry not to have come back to you before, but I knew your name was being discussed in another context and I thought I should wait until it was resolved before I spoke to you.  Anyway, Tony would like you to go into the House of Lords.  You don’t have to decide now, but we do need to know by the end of the week.”  This was the Tuesday before Easter, so the end of the week was effectively in 48 hours time.

At his point I needed to sit down and I pointed out that I was being asked to make a life-changing decision.  I was so busy over the next few days (at that time I worked full-time running the consumer body for the NHS, and in addition was a Council Leader, as well as chairing the ALG) that I said I couldn’t possibly make my mind up on that time-scale and was grudgingly given until the following week, “But you mustn’t say anything to anyone, although I suppose you can tell your wife, but that’s all.”.

The Easter weekend was surreal – we were away with our two teenage sons, the television was full of the negotiations in Belfast that culminated in the Good Friday agreement, and we kept having muttered conversations about whether I should accept the offer from the man on the television with the hand of history on his shoulder.  My sons soon realised something was going on.  Eventually over breakfast one said “Oh God, they’re not going to make you a bloody Lord are they?”.

In the end – as is obvious – I accepted.  I genuinely had not expected the offer, nor had I sought it.  The title was no attraction – a few months earlier I had rebuffed suggestions that my name should be put forward for a knighthood on the basis of my local government service – indeed, I was worried that it would be political death in the London Labour Party.  Fortunately, I had realised some years before that the life of a backbench member of the House of Commons could be a pretty miserable existence – as a council leader I had far more opportunity to make things happen for my local community than an MP – so the ending of any possibility of entering the Commons was not a big issue as far as I was concerned.  I finally convinced myself that the House of Lords would provide me with a platform in which I could argue about the issues that concerned me, campaign on the issues affecting London and at the same time play a part in getting the details of legislation right.  (Eleven years on, I am less sure, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

Damian Green claims a DNA victory, but the Tories should be careful what they wish for

Damian Green MP has successfully persuaded the Metropolitan Police to remove his details from the database of DNA profiles.   He calls this “a significant victory for freedom”.  Elsewhere, Shami Chakrabati, Director of Liberty, points out you shouldn’t need to be in “Who’s Who” to get your details cancelled.

At present, the law – passed by Parliament – says that those arrested by the police are required to give a sample of their DNA and that the profile thus obtained is normally retained whether or not the individual concerned is subsequently charged or convicted.  Damian Green was famously arrested in relation to police inquiries following the leaking of official documents from the Home Office.  He was not in the event charged when the Crown Prosecution Service ruled that there was insufficient evidence to proceed.

Incidentally, I don’t remember the Conservatives kicking up much of a fuss when the legislation was originally passed – now, of course, they believe it to be an appalling affront to civil liberties.

Following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (an institution about which most Tories are normally distinctly luke-warm), the Government is now consulting about how long such profiles should be retained. 

The profiles are not, of course, the full DNA profile but simply a series of ten or twenty two-digit numbers giving sufficient data to identify an individual uniquely.

Many serious crimes – some of them quite old – have been solved using the information on the database.  If Damian Green’s DNA were now found at a crime scene (I hasten to emphasise that I am NOT suggesting that it will be), he would escape detection.  Likewise, if advances in DNA technology made it possible to extract his DNA from an historic murder or rape scene (repeat disclaimer), again he would escape detection.

And that is the dilemma: a large database is helping to catch serious criminals, but people are concerned that the data of people who have never been charged of a crime are being stored along with the data of the most heinous of offenders.  One way of resolving this would, of course, be to retain data on every individual resident in or visiting the country, the presence of data on the database would not then be discriminatory and it would be a substantial help in identifying criminals.  Those who do not commit crimes would have nothing to fear and those that do would be deterred knowing that the risk of detection would be higher.

More likely, however, is that the database will be restricted and that as a result crimes will rise as more criminals remain undetected.

It would be a delicious irony, although it is no doubt a very remote prospect, that in a few years time Damian Green will be a Home Office Minister (that is the remote bit) and will have to stand up in the House of Commons to defend the failures of the police to catch someone at long last convicted of a series of revolting and violent crimes, who would have been caught much earlier had the DNA taken, when he was arrested (but not charged) some years before for an unrelated issue, been retained.  No doubt, he will reiterate that the destruction of that individual’s DNA data was also  “a significant victory for freedom”.

Answer on electromagnetic pulses and the National Security Strategy

Even though Parliament isn’t sitting, each week Hansard publishes the written answers to Parliamentary questions tabled before the recess started and whose answers have finally emerged from the civil service sausage machine and been signed off by the relevant Minister.  I have just caught up with the latest list, which includes the answer to the question I tabled five or six weeks ago on electromagnetic pulses (EMP) and the National Security Strategy.

My question followed on from a scary briefing I had attended on the threat of EMP attacks on the critical national infrastructure.  (Some comments have suggested that the briefing was scare-mongering rather than scary, although I remain convinced – as subsequent discussions I have had with people who know about the subject have confirmed – that the subject has real substance and should be taken seriously).

The answer I have received from Lord Alan West is as follows:

The Government’s updated National Security Strategy takes into account the threat posed to UK interests, including the critical national infrastructure, by the full range of “threat actors”, a definition that includes natural hazards, as well as individuals or organisations with malign intent. The associated Cyber Security Strategy of the United Kingdom, published alongside and reflected in the National Security Strategy update, considers a number of methods of cyber attack, including those that generate high levels of power that can damage or disrupt unprotected electronics.

In addition, the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI) provides advice on electronic or cyber protective security measures to the businesses and organisations that comprise the UK’s critical national infrastructure, including public utilities companies and banks. CPNI also runs a CERT service which responds to reported attacks on private sector networks.”

Reading between the lines, I take this to mean that EMP attacks (and including natural pulses emitted by the Sun) are considered as part of the Strategy and that the CPNI provides relevant advice.  I am reassured by the first part of the answer, but less convinced by the second part – I received similar-sounding answers to my questions a few years ago about the advice that the CPNI (or its then predecessor) were giving about information security.  And the big question remains: it is only advice, is anyone actually doing anything?

A lesson in how easy it is to clone smart cards

I spent an interesting hour or so this afternoon with a “white hat hacker” – someone who uses his substantial computing experience to identify system weaknesses and vulnerabilities so that those weaknesses and vulnerabilities can be fixed.

He demonstrated how simple it is to clone most so-called smart cards, so as to render many (virtually all) secure entry systems redundant.  The technology is readily available as are the programmes required to do it.

This doesn’t mean that card-based systems are of no value, but what it showed was how often there are basic design flaws that could be fixed, so as to render such systems much harder to compromise.

I had missed the reports of the Dutch researchers who were able to put phantom money onto their Oyster cards so as to travel round London free.  This afternoon, I saw how easily it can be done by those who are minded to cheat the system.  I wonder how much Transport for London are losing by this weakness each day and whether their systems for detecting such fraud and de-activating the cards concerned are as robust as they claim.

At the end of 2005, I persuaded three reputable “white hat” penetration testing companies to offer their services for free to any Government department that would like some independent checking of their information security.  I wrote with this offer to the designated “senior information risk owner” in every Ministry.  The three companies were worried that they would be put out of business by the rush of Government agencies taking them up on their generous offer.   However, you will not be surprised to learn that after seven weeks not a single one of the twenty or so “senior information risk owners” that I had written to had replied.  I then got a letter from the Cabinet Office on behalf of all of them – an example of coordinated Government rarely seen before or since – declining and saying that they were confident that their systems for protecting information were more than sufficient and that no external validation was needed.  Subsequent experience showed how complacent that response was.

This afternoon’s meeting suggested that similar complacency still all too often reigns – not only in the public sector but in the private sector as well.  Of course, there are exceptions and I have come across examples of excellent practise with systems checked by two external penetration testing companies, independent of those who have supplied, installed or manage the systems concerned.   However, those examples are just that – exceptions.  Too often senior managers don’t understand the problem or the risks that they face and are too readily reassured by those who have a vested interest in saying that everything is fine.

Henry VIII, David Starkey and the state of history teaching

Prompted by the excellent exhibition, “Henry VIII: Man and Monarch“, at the British Library, which I visited last week, I have been reading David Starkey’s book, “Henry: Virtuous Prince“.  I am not sure whether the book inspired the Channel Four series (which I didn’t watch) or whether this is the book prepared for the TV programme and its viewers.  Certainly, it ends abruptly just after the death of the son Henry had with Catherine of Aragon and the arrival at court of the young Thomas Wolsey in 1511.  We will have to wait until September 2010 for the rest of Henry’s life.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Starkey’s focus on the young Henry – particularly as most of the history I remember being taught concentrated on the later – more tyrannical – Henry and dwelt on his wives and what became of them.

However, I wonder if many of today’s school-children even know that much.

I was reminded how little British history is now taught these days, when – again last week – I watched a group of about thirty ten- and eleven-year-olds being asked where the names came from of Waterloo Station and Trafalgar Square.  The former produced various lavatorial answers, but the latter produced nothing.  The kids knew that the “thing in the middle” was Nelson’s Column, but, when asked who Nelson was, the best they could come up with was Nelson Mandela.

Now I accept that history should not just centre on Britain – and certainly not just on its Kings and Queens – nor should it end in 1815 or 1901.  An understanding of world history and of the social factors that underlie historical events is an essential part of being able to interpret what is going on around us today.

However, an essential part of being British ought to be at least some general awareness of the chronology that led to the modern United Kingdom.  Maybe this makes me sound like a reactionary old f*rt – no doubt many would say that that is what I am – but, as we debate the meaning of citizenship, I can’t help feeling that some knowledge of the historical basics should be a prerequisite both for those applying for citizenship and for those whose citizenship is their birthright.

So come along then:  where does Henry VIII rank amongst our greatest Kings?  Certainly, the events of his reign (like the break with Rome) had a profound influence on the country’s future, but did that make him great?  And how would he rank if you included the Queens in the list?  And Cromwell, as Lord Protector?

Deaths in Custody Panel’s initial work programme now on MoJ website

The Ministry of Justice website has finally put up the update report from the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody that I chair.  This has taken quite a while to appear, but in fact the Panel has been in operation since April, has had two full meetings, and has reported its initial work programme to the Ministerial Council on Deaths in Custody.  This work programme has now been agreed and the various strands of work are being taken forward.

The need for an holistic approach to national security

Frank Field has written a perceptive article in the latest issue of The New Statesman. In it, he makes the case for taking a longer-term and wider perspective on the threats to national security that the UK faces.  And let’s be clear those threats are more than just terrorism (and I acknowledge that that’s the case, even though a good chunk of my week is spent overseeing the work of the police in combatting terrorism).  We also need to recognise that the focus of the Ministry of Defence has to be wider than the UK’s presence in Afghanistan, and that climate change is not the only long-term global issue.

As the sage of Birkenhead puts it:

“The threat now is not just one of terrorism. Since Labour came to power, the world’s population has grown by 930 million. By mid-century it could rise still further, from more than six billion to nine billion. The UN estimates that already 15.2 per cent of the world’s population goes hungry every day. In future, world security will face growing threats from disputes over control of and access to water and food supplies, and over the raw materials that China is so energetically engaged in cornering.”

World population growth – exacerbated massively by climate change – will put enormous strains on global food production over the next twenty or thirty years.

Demand for energy is likely to grow by 50% in the next 25 years and most of that energy will continue to be found from fossil fuels, but fuels extracted in increasingly extreme conditions and from those parts of the world with the most volatile and unstable political conditions.  And as the sage puts it:

“In 2005, the Times carried a hair-raising report on where the continent gained its energy. Most lines led to the KGB. The article was not rude enough to mention the agency by name, but no one could doubt that the Russian secret service had western Europe by the throat and could at any time turn off the oxygen supply to European industry.

On 5 August, No 10 released a report on energy security by Malcolm Wicks, the Prime Minister’s special representative on international energy issues. It received disappointingly little coverage, but it contributes to the new politics of survival. It showed Britain is becoming ever more dependent on others.”

Within thirty years, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in areas of water-stress.  Shortage of fresh water will become a major driver for further political instability.  Indeed, water shortages will be coupled with environmental changes to cause a world-wide shortage of arable land – made worse by the intensification of agriculture.  There is also likely to be huge pressure on world fish stocks.  The combination of famine and the shortage of fresh water is likely to trigger mass migrations, often in areas affected by environmental change and/or armed conflict.  It is naive to assume that the UK will be unaffected by any of this.

The control of supplies of oil, gas, minerals, water and food will be critical.  It can be anticipated that nation states will take political and military steps to secure or safeguard such supplies.  And those countries that can control those supplies will have political leverage over the rest.

I believe very strongly – as clearly does the sage of Birkenhead – that the UK Government has to start thinking much more strategically about these issues.

So is there any sign that these big strategic questions are going to be at the heart of political debate between now and the General Election?

Not much hope …..’t panic, Mr Mainwaring!

A Chief of Staff is better than a Mayoral Cabinet – Mayor Boris Johnson agrees with Ex-Mayor Ken Livingstone’s former Chief of Staff

Simon Fletcher was Chief of Staff to Mayor Ken Livingstone from 2000 to 2008.  In his excellent new blog, he has today analysed Mayor Boris Johnson’s u-turn on running London through a powerful Cabinet.

Mayor Johnson has tried to make a virtue out of necessity by proclaiming the success of a Conservative efficiency gain in cutting the number of Deputy Mayors from six to three (skating over the embarrassing circumstances in which the number was reduced and omitting to mention that the Greater London Authority Act only provides for one Deputy Mayor which is what his predecessor made do with).

As Simon Fletcher points out, Ken Livingstone did initially create an Advisory Cabinet.  Indeed, I was a member of it, as Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority.  It didn’t work, although not because of confusion of responsibility, but because it was a mix of those with clear roles (like myself) and those with interesting opinions but without any other role in the administration.

A Cabinet could work, bringing those with functional responsibilities together, to deliver more effective cross-agency working.  Similarly, having several Deputy Mayors could work.  However, both models would require clarity about the status and powers of those involved.  That was what was lacking in Mayor Livingstone’s original Advisory Cabinet and certainly what was lacking in the hydra-like confusion of the first year under Mayor Johnson.