A lesson in the sophisticated research that goes into the drafting of Liberal Democrat policy

First, we had the strange emergence of Vincent Cable’s “Mansion Tax”  at the LibDem Party Conference (where the proposal came as something of a shock to LibDem MPs and candidates fighting seats in the more well-heeled parts of the country).  This was followed this morning on Radio 4’s Today programme by Nick Clegg (or whatever his name is) doubling the rate of the Mansion Tax and its threshhold in one deeply unarithmetic manoeuvre (expertly dissected by Tom Harris and even getting a good kicking from Iain Dale).

And, as if that was not enough, we now have even more evidence of the hugely sophisticated research that goes into the drafting of Liberal Democrat policies.

Councillor Richard Kemp is a leading Liberal Democrat member of Liverpool City Council with his own views on the bizarre way in which his Party makes policy.

He is also Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on the Local Government Association.  However, today he was grandiosely styling himself as “Leader, Lib Dems in Local Government” in a letter to The Guardian.  In it he revealed how Nick Clegg was planning to achieve the “savage” cuts in public expenditure he has promised.  The solution is to go for civil servants and “a massive cull in their numbers”.  Apparently, the Lib Dems “believe that £3.5 billion could be saved and service delivery would be improved”.

This is obviously impressive stuff.  And the sophisticated research on which this conclusion is based?  Councillor Richard Kemp can tell us:

“As someone who spends too much time in ministries I am painfully aware that they are overstaffed.”

So now we know.  Doesn’t it fill you with confidence?  And to think they want to go into a coalition with the Tories after the next General Election.

How quickly will Kit Malthouse be able to wave goodbye to all those Independent Members of the Metropolitan Police Authority?

The Metropolitan Police Authority’s Uber Vice Chairman Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse AM (the UVCDMKMAM – to me, at least, if nobody else) has made no secret, since he first made his appearance on the MPA in July 2008, of his impatience with the Independent Members of the MPA.  “Who elected you?” he sneers at the slightest provocation and his visible irritation as some colleagues question, opine or just sit there quietly is palpable.  He makes it quite clear that he cannot wait until all this irritation can be focused on those MPA Members who are also London Assembly Members for whom he also has no time or really, really get on his nerves or otherwise grate on his sensibilities.

The UVCDMKMAM has been telling everyone that it is only a matter of months before the MPA is abolished and he will have unfettered access to Sir Paul Stephenson’s tiller.  At least he is consistent about this, as he has been saying the same thing for the last year and a half.

So how is this going to come about?  The UVCDMKMAM says that “Dave” has told him (suggesting a degree of personal intimacy that is not confirmed by other observers) that the Bill to abolish police authorities and to create directly-elected police commissioners will be in the first Queen’s Speech of a new Conservative Government (in the remote possibility that such a thing comes to pass – that’s my parenthetical comment, not Dave’s or the UVCDMKMAM’s).  It apparently goes without saying that of all the pressing issues that might face such a hypothetical Cameron administration this will be near the top of the list.

So to carry on with our hypothetical journey, the timetable begins to look like this:

  • Bill introduced in Parliament – July 2010 (or more likely October/November 2010, given the complexity of the changes needed to the various Police Acts, the GLA Act etc and the length of time taken by the Home Office to prepare the draft legislation)
  • Bill receives Royal Assent – late Spring or Summer 2011 (or more likely October/November 2011 depending on the size of the putative Government’s majority in the Commons and on how compliant are the Lords)
  • Home Office prepare draft regulations to implement the details of the Act and lay them before Parliament – Spring 2012 (this is optimistic – the much simpler GLA Amendment Act that inter alia gave the Mayor the power to appoint himself as Chair of the MPA achieved Royal Assent on 23rd October 2007, but the regulations were not finalised in time for the Mayoral elections in 2008 and the Mayor could not become Chair of the MPA until five months after the elections on 1st October 2008; these regulations will be much more complex even assuming they do not also deal with the abolition of police authorities outside London)
  • abolition of MPA – earliest date June 2012 (or when the mandate runs out for the present members of the MPA)

The UVCDMKMAM is right.  It may only be a matter of months – thirty-one in fact.

The verdict on Sir Ian Blair’s autobiography: not a rattlingly good read

I have already commented about the accuracy (or lack of it to be more precise) of the autobiography produced by former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair.  However, a review in the Observer by Andrew Anthony should hasten the remaining stocks of the book to the discount shelves.

Apparently, the book is “plodding and pompous”:

“Blair does not fit the traditional mould of a policeman. He sees himself as a bit of a Guardian-reading liberal and he studied English at Oxford. A pity, then, that he didn’t come up with a more dynamic title for his book than Policing Controversy. But it points to a prose style, by turns plodding and pompous, that defeats casual interest. The reader is required to care as much as the author, and the author, like anyone who feels they were unfairly dismissed, cares a great deal.”

According to the Observer, the writing is “prone to incoherence” and there is too much self-justification:

“Blair never reconciles these contradictions, but he does conclude with a spirited defence of police independence in the face of Tory plans to make constabulary chiefs answerable to elected mayors. He envisages a future in which wealthy communities become increasingly well policed, while the poor and powerless are neglected. “The security of the citizen,” he writes, “should not be a commodity.” It’s noticeable that when articulating a belief, Blair can be spare and precise, but when explaining an action, he is prone to incoherence. It’s a shame that he didn’t concentrate more on justice and less on self-justification.”

However, even the self-justification is unconvincing in the sections dealing with the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes:

“The pall of suspicion stemming from that incident hung over Blair for the rest of his time as commissioner and almost certainly helped bring his term to a premature end. It wasn’t the errors resulting in Menezes’s death that undermined him so much as the belief that he played a part in trying to cover them up. In this memoir, Blair makes a detailed but not always convincing attempt to answer his critics. Essentially there are two charges against him, the first being that he denied and then delayed the Independent Police Complaints Commission access to the scene of the crime at Stockwell.

Blair maintains that this was necessary to prevent further lives from being placed at risk. It’s easy to make rational judgments in hindsight, but this seems dubious. Far more likely is that he didn’t want to upset his armed response teams with an investigation while the terrorists were still at large.

The second charge concerns when exactly Blair learnt that his officers had killed an innocent man.  He insists it was on 23 July, the day after the shooting, which would explain why he issued a press statement late on the 22nd specifying that it wasn’t clear whether the dead man was one of the failed suicide bombers. But several senior officers knew hours before he issued that statement that De Menezes was not one of the wanted men. So why didn’t Blair?

I think it’s probable that Blair didn’t know, yet that in itself is an indictment of his leadership. Surely the top man should have been warned as soon as it became apparent that the wrong man had been shot? Blair struggles to explain the procedural logic of why he wasn’t informed at the earliest opportunity, but in doing so he paints a picture of a divisive, top-heavy management structure steeped in intrigue and resentment.”

Oh dear …..

“One of the best” blogger-politicians – moi?

Those who know me will be aware that I am one of the world’s most modest individuals, have absolutely no self-aggrandising tendencies and would never under any circumstances seek to blow my own trumpet ……

So it goes without saying that the only reason I would want to draw attention to the statement, referring to me, in the Guardian last week (in its “Metropolitan Lines” newsletter) is to correct one small inaccuracy.  What the Guardian said was:

There are now quite a few good blogger-politicians. Lord Toby Harris is one of the best.”

The error, 0f couse, is that I am not a “politician”, but – to use Al Gore’s phrase – a “recovering politician”.

I hope that’s clear.

Chris Grayling annoints Mayor Boris Johnson as the elected Police Commissioner for London

In his speech to the Association of Police Authorities Annual Conference in Nottingham, Chris Grayling MP,the Shadow Home Secretary, has given some more details about Conservative plans to abolish police authorities and replace them with elected police commissioners.  Predictably, the Evening Standard has got all hot and bothered about the idea that Mayor Boris Johnson will become the Police Commissioner for London, welcoming the principle but getting nervous about whether the London Assembly would really be up to the scrutiny role required.

So what would this mean in practice in the (unlikely) event that there is a Conservative Government after the next General Election?  Elsewhere, the Evening Standard concludes “not a lot”, as Mayor Boris Johnson is already Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority and has demonstrated the size of his virility/his willingness to flex his muscles by persuading the former Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, to resign and by keeping his hand on the tiller/setting the strategic direction for the Met.

(One big difference – although it is not spelt out – is that presumably the Mayor of London would take over responsibility for the City of London Police – and I wish the Conservative Party well in the negotiations that that will entail with the Corporation of London.)

My own view is that there is nothing wrong with the principle of having Chairs of Police Authorities directly elected – I would have welcomed the additional authority that direct election to the role would have given me during my four years as Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority:  I would have been a (very) visible symbol of the accountability of the Met and would myself have been held accountable by the public for whether or not the performance of the Met improved (which of course it did during my stewardship).

However, I do not believe that it is sensible to combine the role of Police Authority Chair with that of Mayor.  The jobs are simply too big.  Mayor Boris Johnson, of course, gets round this by delegating the day-to-day responsiblities of being MPA Chair to his representative on Earth, Uber Vice Chair Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse AM (the UVCDMKMAM).  There are two separate roles here and I believe that there would be a valuable creative tension between a Mayor and an MPA Chair, both directly elected.

Nor do I believe it is sensible to abolish the other 22 members of the MPA.  There are two main reasons for this.  First, despite being directly-elected, there still need to be some checks and balances on what an elected Commissioner or Chair of a Police Authority can do.  The concerns expressed by Sir Hugh Orde, the President of the Association of Chief Police Officers, about the dangers of politicising the police service are valid.  Such concerns would be lessened if a directly-elected Police Authority Chair had to exercise their powers through an Authority with a mix of members from different political parties and with a leavening of individuals who are not political representatives.

The second reason is the scale of the police service, especially in London.  Effective strategic direction, scrutiny and accountability cannot be managed by a single individual.  You need to have other members who can take an interest in and scrutinise what is happening in each of the Borough command units and each of the other operational and support units within the force.

In practice, I do not believe that this is a role that could be carried out by the London Assembly.  The job of Assembly Member is much broader than just being about policing and many of them would not have either the time or the inclination to devote to the role of substituting for the MPA (I know that many of those AMs who currently sit on the MPA feel they are not able to devote the time and energy they would otherwise wish to their MPA responsibilities because of the other pressures on their time).  It is also not clear what the future of the Assembly would be under any future Conservative Government – Tory policy has been to abolish it and replace it with a Committee of Borough Leaders (who, of course, would have even less time available to fulfil an MPA role and would also be much less likely to take a strategic pan-London view of policing issues).

So how would I advise Chris Grayling (and yes, that is a flotilla of pink pigs you can see flying across the sky) to structure police accountability in London?  First, a directly-elected MPA Chair, separate from but elected on the same day as the Mayor of London  (this could be Kit Malthouse’s big moment, if he doesn’t become an MP first).  Second, retain the MPA with a mixed membership of elected members (drawn from both the London Assembly and the London Boroughs with a Party balance proportional to the votes received by each of the major Parties across London) and independent members (appointed after public advertisement on merit).  And third, greater clarity on the role and powers of all concerned.

Assurances sought that there was no Metropolitan Police complicity in torture

Human Rights Watch has published a report, Cruel Britannia, which alleges the complicity of “UK officials” in the torture and mistreatment of terrorist suspects in Pakistan.
At today’s meeting of the Metropolitan Police Authority I asked the Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, whether he could give an assurance that none of the British officials described in the Human Rights Watch report could have been Metropolitan Police officers (most comments have focused on MI6 officers, but there also will have been Metropolitan Police officers in Pakistan at various times). He undertook to check that his understanding was correct and that he could give such an assurance.

At the Metropolitan Police Authority … and Mayor Boris Johnson is discomforted by a Labour MEP on human trafficking

The Metropolitan Police Authority is in session.  Mayor Boris Johnson is in the Chair, but the Uber Vice Chair Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse AM (the UVCDMKMAM) is not at his side yet (he is running late), so the Mayor is flying without lights (and no hand on his tiller).

First business is a petition calling on the Metropolitan Police to retain its dedicated specialist unit dedicated to to combating the crime of human trafficking.  It is being presented by Mary Honeyball, a Labour Member of the European Parliament since 2000.   As she takes her seat to present it, it is clear that Mayor Johnson has never heard of her (or possibly the European Parliament, as John Biggs AM comments sotto voce that he thought that under the Mayor’s administration London was seceding from the European Union).

The issue is a proposal is to disband the human trafficking unit and to mainstream its activities in the work of the 32 Borough Command Units with the specialists in the unit being transferred to the central Clubs and Vice command.  There are fears that this is in reality a cost-cutting exercise, that expertise will be lost and that the focus of the work in practice prioritising one type of trafficking (prostitution) at the expense of others (eg forced labour and domestic servitude).  Mayor Boris Johnson looks uneasy throughout the discussion.  He clearly recognises the importance of the issue and perhaps is unhappy at the direction that seems to be being taken within the Metropolitan Police on how to deal with human trafficking.

The Commissioner promises that a report will come to the Authority after his Management Board has reached its conclusions.  I ask the Mayor whether he (or the UVCDMKMAM) has given a touch on the tiller steer to the Commissioner on the direction being taken.  The Mayor responds that he is keen to ensure “the maximum efficiency and effectiveness of work on human trafficking in the run up to the Olympics”.  The Commissioner smiles, so clearly he thinks that’s the right answer.  We’ll have to wait and see what it means.

Speaking at Tottenham Labour Party

I have probably spoken at more than fifty meetings of Tottenham Labour Party over the years.  However, until tonight, I had not done so for about a decade.

It was good to be back.  However, as I looked around the room at a pleasingly large number of familiar faces, I was worryingly conscious how little most of them seemed to have aged.  By contrast, I know I look and certainly feel all of ten years older.  What have I done wrong?

The smoking ban, welfare benefits and Broadmoor Special Hospital

As mentioned in the previous post, I spent a big chunk of yesterday visiting Broadmoor Special Hospital, in my capacity as Chair of the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody.  Most of the discussion and the issues we looked at will inform the work of the Panel.  However, a number of other issues emerged in passing.

It was mentioned that many of the patients now had more money than they did before the smoking ban, as they no longer spend money on cigarettes.  I asked whether the introduction of the smoking ban – applied throughout the hospital site – had raised any specific issues (I remember comments when the legislation was going through Parliament about the problems that were thought likely to arise in prisons and other institutions).  In practice, comparatively few difficulties had arisen.  Nicotine interacts with some medications and this had had to be monitored closely at the time the ban came in and dosages needed some adjustment.  Many patients, we were told, now acknowledged that they were physically healthier, although some had switched their spending from tobacco to chocolate and sweets.

Tensions did arise when individuals were transferred from prison (where smoking is still permitted) to the hospital and have to stop smoking.  However, the biggest source of tension was the difference in income of those transferred from prison and those detained in the Hospital under mental health legislation.  Apparently, prisoners and those transferred from prison only receive “pocket money” of around £17 per week.  Those detained under mental health legislation and who have never been in prison are on welfare benefits and, following a court ruling that it is unlawful to reduce benefits for those detained in hospital for long periods, receive some £80 to £100 per week.  This is clearly an anomaly and I have to admit to being quite relieved that it is not a problem for which my Panel has to find a solution.

I become Minister of Death for the day ….

I spent a big chunk of yesterday visiting Broadmoor Special Hospital, in my capacity as Chair of the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody.  The visit was fascinating, staff were very generous with their time and I learned a lot.

I also enjoyed the security arrangements, which are rather more rigorous than most that I have encountered.  You need a photo-ID, you provide two fingerprints for matching on entering and leaving the hospital, most electronic items have to be left in lockers outside the hospital, and you need to go through a metal detector as well as being searched.  When all that is completed you are issued with a visitors’ identity badge, which carries your photograph, your name and job title or designation.

Presumably, when it came to a job title, only a certain number of characters could be entered on the badge and “Chair of the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (Ministry of Justice)” obviously didn’t fit.  I found myself bearing the label: “Lord Toby Harris, Minister of Death”.

Fortunately, the font size was quite small, so I think (hope?) that none of the patients could read it ….