Hackney outdoes the West End yet again

I’ve just returned from the Hackney Empire, where this year’s pantomime, Aladdin, was noisily enjoyed by a full house and proving yet again that you don’t need either Pamela Anderson or a theatrical knight playing the dame to deliver the best seasonal entertainment in London.

And at the risk of sounding pious, multi-ethnic Hackney (which becomes that well-known suburb on the eastern side of Peking, Ha-ka-ney) and the melting-pot of cultures that make up modern London are not only appropriately reflected in the mixture of musical styles and language of the performance but enhance its vitality and humour.

What is more, tonight’s entertainment was enlivened by the sight of no less a personage than Professor Tony Travers, Director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics, sitting in the stalls – and desperately  trying to maintain his customary gravitas while joining in the words (and the actions) of “The Panda Mime Song”.


Now what if it had been the other way round and an organised crime syndicate had got away with a £375 million heist

A combined operation by the Metropolitan Police, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre and the Spanish Police have successfully intercepted a vessel carrying £375 million-worth of cocaine.

What with the snow, Eurotunnel and even John Hutton, the story barely got a sentence on the BBC News tonight.

Yet, it has to be seen as a stunning coup for the law enforcement agencies.

Presumably a successful bank raid netting £375 million might have attracted a tad more coverage ….

Yes to General Election Party Leader debates – but why do we have to have Nick Clegg as well?

The news that there are to be three live televised debates between the Party Leaders during the General Election campaign is both welcome and exciting (in that it will undoubtedly be a pivotal feature of the campaign).  It is also ground-breaking – similar debates will now be a key feature in all future General Elections.

But why has it been agreed that Nick Clegg has to be part of the line-up?

The public will want to see a debate between the two individuals who may emerge as Prime Minister.  They will want to hear exchanges between the two and get a clear understanding of what they would be like leading the nation.  What possible relevance will there be to have a man there who stands absolutely no chance of being Prime Minister once the votes are counted?

If the Liberal Democrat wet dream of a hung Parliament is achieved, even then, the most likely result will be a minority government led by one of the other two Party Leaders.

And if there was to be a coalition after the election (and we really are into teenage fantasy-land here), then the most he can hope for – given that the only viable choice for a Liberal Democrat in a Great Office of State would be Vince Cable at the Treasury – is an honorific title like Lord Privy Seal (cue picture of an ermine-clad toilet with an acquatic animal sitting on it).

So we are being offered a debate between the two people who may become Prime Minister and a third person who might just under very limited circumstances hold a minor cabinet office (albeit with a pompous title).

What’s it going to do to the debate?   Well, it can be guaranteed to hold up the flow, while he pretends to be Cameron-lite one moment and then a more radical voice than Labour the next.

The danger is that instead of  a moment when across the country millions of people will be glued to their TV sets, informing themselves prior to exercising their democratic choice, instead they’ll get this guy they’ve never heard of, posturing widely, desperately trying to differentiate himself from the two main Prime Ministerial contenders, …. and they’ll turn off.

So, if there’s a low turnout, I’ll know who to blame.

War crimes, Guantanamo and the nature of lawyers’ advice

I have been reading “Torture Team: Uncovering War crimes in the Land of the Free” by Philippe Sands, Professor of Law at University College, London (he is also a practising barrister at the Matrix Chambers and an Arsenal fan – although neither of these should be held against him).

The book describes in detail – on occasions meeting by meeting and memo by memo – how the use of “aggressive interrogation techniques” came to be authorised against detainees at Guantanamo Bay.  This overturned existing US policy dating back at least as far as 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued the instruction that “military necessity does not admit of cruelty … nor of torture to extract confessions”.  Along the way, it was asserted that the Geneva Convention does not apply to those detained as part of the so-called “war on terror”.

The specific techniques included “water-boarding”, deprivation of sleep, maintenance of stress positions for long periods (the then US Secretary for Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, entered a caveat on the memo approving this, saying that he thought the restriction on standing for more than four hours was unnecessary as he personally often stood for much longer than that during the course of a day), humiliation, nudity in front of female soldiers, and exposure to extremes of room temperature.

In at least one instance, these techniques were repeated daily for more than seven weeks with a detainee who had already been kept isolated for many months.  It is apparent that no new information of any substance was obtained from this individual as a result of this “aggressive interrogation”.  (This echoes the remarks made to me by a former senior official of the Secret Intelligence Service: “Not only is torture illegal and morally wrong, it doesn’t work anyway”.)  The Bush administration eventually charged the individual with a list of terrorist offences including murder, only to withdraw the charges a few months later, admitting that the way he had been treated “met the legal definition of torture”.

Indeed, that admission of torture is significant.  Eventually, the Bush administration was constrained by proper legal process.  In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that Guantanamo detainees were subject to Common Article Three of the Geneva Convention and had to be treated humanely.  And by then the various documents authorising “aggressive interrogation” had been revoked.

However, the process by which those documents had originally been produced is fascinating.  Legal advice was obtained, so that those acting on the authorisation could be assured that “aggressive interrogation” was lawful.  However, as Sands points out this advice was not authoritative and bypassed the proper channels (in particular, those lawyers within the military who would have challenged what was being suggested).

Sands draws a distinction between lawyers offering advice and those providing advocacy for a point of view.  The former must present the law clearly and indicate if their advice would be commonly accepted or is likely to be accepted by the Courts.  The arguments used as part of the advocacy of the latter is not the same as advice.

Sands concludes that the lawyers involved in the decisions to authorise “aggressive interrogation” are just as culpable as those who actually made the decisions.

Whether or not any of this leads to charges in the US or elsewhere for war crimes is one thing, but the lessons about advice are relevant to all politicians whatever the level of the decision being taken.

I remember as a local council leader often seeking advice on the legality of policies proposed.  While a legal opinion that supported the proposed action provided protection to those councillors making the decision, it was much more important to know whether the decision was sustainable (rather than arguable) if the matter was ever challenged in court.

War in cyberspace – more and more countries are contemplating the inevitable

Two recent articles demonstrate how seriously more and more countries are taking the possibility of war in cyberspace, either by developing their own offensive capability or by strengthening internet security and resilience.  There are even talks about a new international treaty to “demilitarise” cyberspace.

According to Reuters, Major-General Amos Yadlin, Israel’s chief of military intelligence, has placed vulnerability to hacking in the same list of security threats to the State of Israel as the Iranian nuclear project and Syrian and Islamist guerrillas attacking across Israel’s borders.

He also made it clear that Israeli armed forces had the means to provide network security and launch cyber attacks of their own, pointing out that:

The cyberwarfare field fits well with the state of Israel’s defense doctrine  …. This is an enterprise that is entirely blue and white (ie. Israeli) and does not rely on foreign assistance or technology. It is a field that is very well known to young Israelis, in a country that was recently crowned a ‘start-up nation’.”

Reuters says that:

“Cyberwarfare teams nestle deep within Israel’s spy agencies, which have extensive experience in traditional sabotage techniques and are cloaked in official secrecy and censorship.

They can draw on the know-how of Israeli commercial firms that are among the world’s hi-tech leaders and whose staff are often veterans of elite computer units in the conscript army.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that the United States has begun talks with Russia and a United Nations arms control committee about strengthening Internet security and limiting military use of cyberspace.  According to the New York Times:

“Many countries, including the United States, are developing weapons for use on computer networks that are ever more integral to the operations of everything from banks to electrical power systems to government offices. They include “logic bombs” that can be hidden in computers to halt them at crucial times or damage circuitry; “botnets” that can disable or spy on Web sites and networks; or microwave radiation devices that can burn out computer circuits miles away.”

The Russians are apparently arguing that the increasing challenges posed by military activities to civilian computer networks can be best dealt with by an international treaty, similar to treaties that have limited the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

So where is the UK on all of this?

Well according to Major-General Yadlin, Britain is setting up a cyberwarfare command, and this demonstrates why Israel needs to have its own “soldiers and officers” dedicated to this field.

I have to admit that the existence of a UK cyberwarfare command is new to me – not that I (or many other people either – apart presumably from Major-General Yadlin) would necessarily know if it did exist.

My concern has usually been the opposite and that until recently at least the UK has seemed naively complacent about the scale of the cyber-threats faced.

The publication of a national cyber security strategy has been a welcome first step in the right direction (as I have commented before) and there are also signs of increasing Parliamentary interest in the matter (although when I sat in on the last part of the latest House of Lords hearing on internet security in Europe the main preoccupation seemed to be that Heraklion – where the relevant EU agency is based – is awfully difficult to get to from London).

Nevertheless, these two articles do show that the rest of the world recognises the problem, so the UK probably ought to be doing more as well (unless we really do have a cutting edge cyberwarfare command based in a bunker underneath Cheltenham).

Protecting the national infrastructure and its technology

The Parliamentary Information Technology Committee (PITCOM), of which I am the Honorary Treasurer, has produced a useful briefing summarising the key issues about the increasing reliance of the critical national infrastructure (CNI) on technology and the crucial importance of ensuring that that technology is resilient and adequately protected.

The potential vulnerability of the CNI to a variety of threats and the need to raise the level of protection and readiness of the UK to respond to attacks are highlighted.  The briefing also emphasises the importance of partnership between the Government and the private sector to mitigate risks, particularly given the extent to which major parts of the CNI are under private ownership and may not automatically prioritise the national interest above short-term commercial interests.

The briefing should be essential reading for all Parliamentary candidates and anyone else interested in national security.

It is good to see the Christmas traditions being observed: Met Commissioner gives an end-of-year interview to the “Today” programme and slags off his predecessor

There are some traditions that provoke a warn cosy glow at Christmas time.  And one is that every year the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police gives an end-of-year interview to Radio4’s “Today” programme.

The current Commissioner is in many ways a traditionalist and it was therefore no surprise that he gave such an interview this morning.

And it is also a tradition that new(ish) Commissioners make it clear that the Metropolitan Police is improving under their leadership compared with the chaos they inherited.  Again, Sir Paul did not disappoint: he described parts of the Met, under his predecessor Sir Ian Blair, as “dysfunctional … at a senior level”, promised that (unlike the previous incumbent?) he does not wish to be a “celebrity” and assured us that the Met is now a “happier” place.

…. and a Merry Christmas from the eighth floor of New Scotland Yard.

Proof that ASBOs are effective as “noisy sex” nuisance pleads guilty

There are those people who have never been convinced about the value of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs).  I am sure all such doubters will be silenced by the news that Caroline Carter has pleaded guilty in Newcastle Crown Court to three counts of breaching her ASBO by making too much noise while she was having sex.

The House of Lords has a self-indulgent day

What automatically guarantees a full Chamber in the House of Lords?  The answer is when Noble Lords an opportunity to talk about themselves.  (Debates on sex and in particular on what some peers regard as “deviant” sexual practices admittedly come a close second.)

Today, the House got on to its favourite subject within a few minutes of the start, when Baroness Deech asked “Her Majesty’s Government whether they will make proposals relating to the titles used by the husbands of women members of the House of Lords.”  This produced a typically self-indulgent exchange with a number of noble Lords speaking with a clear eye on getting mentioned in “Today in Parliament”.

Lord Willy Bach for the Government tried to play it straight, saying:

“My Lords, the Government have no plans to alter the existing arrangements in relation to the use of courtesy titles or styles for the husbands of women Members of the House of Lords.”

However, the exchanges that followed were in danger of getting out of hand with fond reminiscences of “frissons” in hotels:

“Baroness Deech: I thank the Minister for his Answer, albeit that it was disappointing. The Equality Bill is wending its way through this House. Does he accept that equality between the sexes should start in this Chamber? If a male Peer’s wife is always a Lady, why should not the same courtesy be extended to the husband of a woman Peer, who I am sure has done just as much to support their spouse? If the issue is trivial, titles should either be extended to husbands or confined only to the recipient.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that it is an anomalous situation whereby a woman takes her husband’s title but a man does not take his wife’s. I suspect that the reason is that the UK honours system of names and titles is complex and is rooted in history. In recent history, thankfully, the position of women has changed dramatically. However, notwithstanding that, I have to tell the House that the Government are not aware of any great anxiety or urgent desire for change in this respect.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, is the Minister aware that when my husband was alive, he loved being called “m’lord”; he loved putting his drinks on my bill; and it added a certain frisson to staying in an hotel together?

Lord Bach: I am absolutely delighted to hear that story and I very much hope that other noble Baronesses will bear it in mind.

Lord Wright of Richmond: Is the Minister aware that the frisson must have been much greater when the husband of the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, was known as “Mister” in an hotel?

Lord Bach: The noble Lord obviously knows much more than I do.

The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, the House will be aware that the wives of Bishops need to be considered as well, as they do not have any title. If the Minister was minded to resolve the anomaly without addressing the concerns potentially of Bishops’ wives, he might have a deputation of them on his doorstep, which is not a prospect I should wish on him.

Lord Bach: The right reverend Prelate has scared me off already, so we will very much bear in mind what he says.

Baroness Sharples: Perhaps I may say that neither my second nor my third husband objected. I have had the same situation as the noble Baroness, when signing into an hotel did raise a few eyebrows.

Lord Bach: I thank the noble Baroness for that.

Lord Boston of Faversham: My Lords, in supporting my noble friend Lady Deech in her suggestion, does this matter not go a little further than that? For example, is it not the case that the wife of a Knight Bachelor has the title “Lady”? Therefore, is there not an argument for the husband of a Dame of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire to have an equivalent title as well? While I understand the Minister’s statement that the Government have no proposals on these matters, might there not be a case to refer these matters to a Select Committee of your Lordships’ House?

Lord Bach: My Lords, there is always a case for referring any matter that is raised in your Lordships’ House to a Select Committee. I am not sure that this is the best case. The Public Administration Select Committee of another place looked inter alia at titles and name changing honours. While recognising that this issue was contentious, it recommended the phasing out of knighthoods and what it called damehoods. In February 2005, the Government’s response was that they did not believe that the case had been made for phasing out the awards of knighthoods and damehoods or knights bachelor. They said that they play a well respected, understood and valued part in our national life.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords—

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords—

Baroness Buscombe: My Lords—

Baroness Wall of New Barnet: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, if we are quick, we could hear from my noble friend and then the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, at one level of course this is an amusing topic and we can all have a jolly good laugh at each other’s expense, but the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, has made a serious point. This is not an anomaly, it is discrimination. It is discrimination that a man may confer on his wife an honour that a woman may not confer on her husband. It is perfectly straightforward and I see many heads nodding in agreement. Does not my noble friend think that there is some way of addressing a discrimination that we practise and laugh about?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I actually agree with my noble friend that this is an issue that has a serious side to it. The Government are not going to act on it in the near future, but that does not take away from the fact that this matter is serious.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, I get an even greater frisson than the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, in hotels. Is it not the answer to this that you can call yourself anything you wish? Earlier this year there was a Lord in the dock who got 10 years. But surely, after today’s debate, the husband of a lady Peer should be called the “honourable breadwinner”.

Lord Bach: My Lords, the noble Lord asked two questions, but I am going to mention only the first. On “frisson”, I think that the noble Lord gives us too much information.”

The remark about the “honourable breadwinner” was, of course, a reminder that this exchange was but an hors d’oeuvre for the main feast of self-indulgence:  four and a half hours of debate on the proposals from the Senior Salaries Review Board to change the rules on the payment of allowances to Members of the House.

The SSRB’s proposals are not popular with many Members, in particular the changes proposed for those living outside London in respect of overnight payments.  It is clear that the SSRB’s report seems likely to create many anomalies and is not as well-grounded in evidence as might have been expected.

At one point the chorus of complaint – from all parts of the House – looked set to provoke a rejection of what the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Greaves described as “a shoddy affair”, saying:

“If it had come to me as a local councillor on Pendle Borough Council, I would have been rude about it. I would have said that it was a pretty shoddy affair and sent it back to be reworked. I am advised that calling a report shoddy is probably not the right thing to do in your Lordships’ House, so I shall say that I find it disappointing. A number of speakers have said that the report does not seem to be based on a clear and full understanding of the present position in the House—who the people are here and what we individually do. One thing that screams out to me from it is a series of assertions. The report says “We believe” in a number of places, which should be reserved for religions and not for reports of this nature.”

It took an intervention from the former Head of MI5, Baroness Manningham-Buller, to remind the House of the context in which the debate was taking place, when she said:

“My Lords, I stand with some hesitation at this stage in the evening, when it is late and because I am a new girl in this House—or, I should say, a new pensioner. That gives me a fresh look at some of these issues, so perhaps I might get back from the detail and talk generally. Unfortunately, it is the case that this House appears to many citizens of this country to be comprised of elderly people who enjoy being photographed in fancy dress. Despite the excellent work done by the Lord Speaker and others, I believe that there is little appreciation of the meticulous work done here in scrutinising legislation, nor of the impressive work of committees. Debates are sometimes noticed, usually in comparison to those of another place. Even I, 30 years a public servant …. did not understand the vital work done here.

Therefore, when there are allegations that Peers have abused their trust—the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, referred to 29, not a trivial number—and when it is known that the police have referred cases to the Crown Prosecution Service, this House is cut little slack by public opinion. I am not surprised by what has happened, which led to the remit of the SSRB. When I joined your Lordships’ House, I studied the guidance on what are variously called expenses, allowances and financial support for Peers. Those are different terms; to my mind, they mean different things. I found the terminology confusing, the definitions vague and the rules fuzzy. I was surprised that expenses could be paid without receipts; any public organisation with such practices in its handling of taxpayers’ money would be pilloried by the National Audit Office, not to mention the Public Accounts Committee in another place. Yet I came to understand that expenses had somehow mutated into allowances in acknowledgement of the substantial commitment made by Members of this House.

….  I thought that I was in a minority of one in thinking that the SSRB had not done a bad job, given its very tricky remit. I felt and feel that these arrangements have to change. I do not find its tone insulting; I do not regard myself as being entitled to use public money unless it is clear, accountable and verifiable. I know that there are concerns about the detail, and I have listened with interest to what Peers have said about that. Yet I still believe that the principles of the report are good, and I hope that the ad hoc committee can sort out some of the details, because I believe the allegations about the abuse of taxpayers’ money have eroded trust, not only in the Commons but here and in Parliament as a whole.

If we are to begin to regain that, we have little option but to accept the recommendations in broad terms…. Precisely because we have no constituents, we have to be sensitive to public opinion. I am not arguing that we should be led by it … but precisely because, for the moment at least, we cannot be kicked out of this House we must be sure that our rules on expenses and allowances are quite clear and fair, that they follow the principles of the diversity of this House, and that they are properly auditable. That is a basis for re-establishing confidence in this House’s key contribution to the work of the UK Parliament, and I will support the Motion on that basis.”

Eventually, the House agreed – without a vote – to accept “the principles and architecture” of the SSRB report.

Nick Clegg’s Cameron-lite approach is unsettling London Liberal Democrats

A local Liberal Democrat councillor sidled up to me while I was waiting for a bus in Crouch End earlier today (side note: the wait was another example of the stealthy degradation of the bus service since the election of Mayor Boris Johnson) to tell me that he thought the Greens were doing very well in Stroud Green.  He confirmed what I have been hearing from other sources that the Green Party with its radical edge and apparent principled approach to policy is beginning to make Liberal Democrats in London very jumpy that they are being outflanked.

Apparently, their fear is that the Cameron-lite approach being adopted by Nick Clegg is turning off many people who might otherwise be their supporters and that the voters they are losing are turning to the Greens (paticularly now that climate change is so topical and becoming a more significant political issue).  This is clearly bad news for sitting MPs like Lynne Featherstone and Sarah Teather …..