And the Conservative policy flip-flops keep on coming – how much flexibility will there really be for local government?

Listening to Conservative spokespeople over the last few years, you would have been forgiven for thinking that the Tories believed in devolution of powers and responsibilities to local councils.

Conservative policy last February – and let’s be clear that is all of twelve months ago, so that’s time for the Tories to have at least 365 conflicting policies – was, according to their document “Control Shift”, quite clear:

“No action – except raising taxes, which requires specific parliamentary approval – will any longer be ‘beyond the powers’ of local government in England, unless [it] is prevented from taking that action by the common law, specific legislation or statutory guidance.”

Now – surprise surprise – Local Government Chronicle is reporting that the latest small-print says something rather different.  Caroline Spelman, the Shadow Communities Secretary, is now using the phrase about Councils being able to do what is “legal and reasonable” – more or less the same as the current arrangements where local government is bound by Wednesbury principles of reasonableness and cannot act “ultra vires”.  They quote a legal expert pointing out that:

“To achieve an unrestricted world for local government, it would be necessary to abolish the ultra vires doctrine, as has been done for companies.  But it would appear that’s a step too far for any political party.”

And at the same time, Local Government Chronicle is saying – exclusively – that Shadow Chief Secretary Phillip Hammond has slapped down Conservative Council Leaders who were trying to put some flesh on the bones of the Tory devolution proposals.

Another Conservative policy flip-flop – this time on Control Orders

Those of you who follow these matters would have been forgiven for thinking that in the (increasingly unlikely) event of a Conservative Government one of the first things they would do is scrap Control Orders – the method used at present for keeping tabs on the handful of individuals (and it is a handful: less than a dozen) who are deemed to pose a serious terrorist threat to the public but who cannot for a variety of reasons be charged and brought before the Courts.

Successive Tory Home Affairs and Security spokespeople have attacked the very concept of Control Orders as being totally alien, an affront to liberty etc etc.  Repeatedly they have said that they would repeal the legislation.

Now, however, like with their economic policies and their promises on marriage, what had seemed like a cast-iron pledge has vanished like a mirage in the desert.

Their new policy document, “A Resilient Nation” changes the pledge into a review, saying “A Conservative Government … will … review the Control Order system with a view to reducing reliance on it”.

Zowie!! Radical stuff!

This was all aired in Lords Question Time this afternoon (in which I played a modest part):

“Lord Lloyd of Berwick

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for phasing out control orders in the light of the unanimous decision of nine Lords of Appeal in Ordinary in Secretary of State for the Home Department v AF (No. 3).

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, the Government do not have any plans for phasing out control orders.

Lord Lloyd of Berwick: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. The House will recall the unusual circumstances in which we passed the control order legislation five years ago after an all-night sitting. Do the Government have any alternative plan—plan B, as it were—if Parliament decides not to renew the legislation when it comes up for renewal next month? If so, could the Minister let us know what that plan is?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, this House has gone over the control order issue at length and there have been numerous Questions on it. None of us likes control orders. I did not like them when I came into post and I specifically asked whether there was any way of getting round them. A detailed study into this was done by the Security Service—SO15 OSCT—and control orders were the least worst option. There are a very small number of them—12, according to the last quoted figure and fewer than that now. We use them on a carefully selected basis.

I believe that they are necessary for the security of the nation. We do not like them and we have a lot of safeguards in place. Three High Court judgments have upheld individual control orders since the House of Lords judgment. Mr Justice Wilkie said of one of the cases that there was overwhelming evidence of past involvement in terrorism-related activity and future intentions to be so involved. It would be remiss of our Government not to look after the security of our nation. Control orders are absolutely necessary and I will fight tooth and nail to keep them because there is no easy alternative at the moment.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, is my noble friend aware—

Lord Elton: My Lords—

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, perhaps we could hear from my noble friend first, and then from the noble Lord, Lord Elton.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, in his capacity as the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, that there is no readily available alternative to control orders? Is he also aware of the interesting document on national security published by the Conservative Party, in which it, too, acknowledge that the best that the party can offer as an alternative is to review the system with a view to reducing reliance on it—which, as I understand it, is the Government’s policy?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, who is the independent reviewer, stated,

“it is my view and advice that abandoning the control orders system entirely would have a damaging effect on national security”.

He went on to emphasise that he had considered the effects of the court decisions on disclosure and did not agree that the effect was to make control orders impossible.

My noble friend is absolutely right that we constantly review this issue. I am very hard on people, when they try to come up with a control order, to see that it is absolutely necessary. It is interesting that those in the party opposite, who earlier said that they were going to get rid of these things, have, amazingly, slightly changed their view—which is much more sensible, because all of us are interested in the security of our nation.

Lord Elton: Nevertheless, the noble and learned Lord, in his supplementary question, asked about the Government’s plan B. I did not hear an answer: do they not have one?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, all the time we are looking at threats, possible threats and what might happen. It would be foolhardy of me to say on the Floor of the House what we would do. Clearly, we would ensure the safety of the nation. It might cost a huge amount more, and take a great deal more effort, and it might mean we could not be quite so sure of our safety, but that is what we would do.

Parliamentary scrutiny of the National Security Strategy

There is to be a new Joint Committee to consider the National Security Strategy.

The first National Security Strategy was published in March 2008 and looks beyond the traditional areas of foreign, defence and security policies to include transnational crime, pandemics and flooding.

The Strategy was updated in June 2009 with further updates to be produced every year.  It has always been the intention that there would be a Joint Parliamentary Committee with members drawn from both Houses to help monitor the implementation and development of the Strategy.

The Committee is to consist of twelve Commons members, including the Chairmen of the Departmental Select Committees on Foreign Affairs, Defence, Home Affairs, International Development, Business and Enterprise, Energy and Climate Change, and Justice, and also the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and ten Lords members (and I have been asked to be one of these).

Non-resident Peers to go within three months unless they are Bishops

The Government has tabled an amendment in the House of Commons to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill that will provide that MPs and Lords Temporal are to be deemed to be resident and domiciled in the UK for the purposes of Income Tax, Capital Gains Tax and Inheritance Tax.  Assuming the amendment and the Bill itself is passed, members of both Houses will be liable to pay these taxes on their worldwide income, gains and assets.

This will stop the extraordinary anomaly whereby MPs and Peers can sit and vote in the UK Parliament but not properly pay UK taxation.

These new rules will come into effect for MPs after the General Election as soon as an MP takes the oath in Parliament.  In the House of Lords, all Peers appointed to the House after the Bill has received Royal Assent will have the new tax rules applied as soon as they take their seats. 

For existing members of the House of Lords, they will have three months from the date the Bill receives the Royal Assent to – in effect – resign their membership of the House if they do not wish to be deemed resident and domiciled in the UK for tax purposes.

The only exception will be the twenty-six Bishops and Archbishops of the Church of England.  This is because their membership of the House of Lords is inextricably linked to the posts they hold in the Church – I assume in practice all of them will be resident and domiciled in the UK.

Finally, the provisions will apply for the whole of the 2010-11 tax year, irrespective of the date of the General Election.

London Councils call for more responsibility to be devolved

I’ve just been to the launch of London Councils’ “Manifesto for London”.  This document – developed on a cross-Party basis following consultation with a range of stake-holders – is an ambitious challenge to the Government (whatever its composition following the General Election) to devolve more responsibility for local services to the London Boroughs. 

(The launch itself was well-attended in the House of Commons Members Dining Room.  I couldn’t help noticing that all five speakers were white men – a platform that would never have happened from 1995-2000 when I chaired the organisation, then called the Association of London Government.)

The Manifesto is not a plea for money and resources, although London Councils continues to make the case that London should receive an appropriate fair share of the national tax take to reflect both the needs of London’s population but also its pivotal role as the engine of the UK economy.  Indeed it was being suggested that the devolution proposed and the resulting integration with existing Borough services could deliver more effective services at less cost than the present arrangements.  (This may well be true eventually, but there would undoubtedly be a not insubstantial cost of reorganisation associated with the proposals.)

Mayor Jules Pipe, Leader of the Labour Group on London Councils, made the interesting point that devolution was something that all the major political parties at national level would claim to support (indeed, the Manifesto takes the Government’s Total Place concept to the next stage).  He argued that the devolution proposed could lead to more active engagement with local politics with Labour Councils being able to put forward a distinctive Labour vision for their communities, Conservative Councils being able to put forward a distinctive Conservative vision, and Liberal Democrat Councils being able to put forward a Liberal Democrat vision (I have to confess that I am not sure what this third vision would look like …..).

Some of the proposals are potentially very far-reaching and extremely radical.

The Manifesto for example would:

  • Make Primary Care Trusts’ non-acute care budgets accountable to the London borough in which they operate, to allow boroughs to direct those budgets to local need and integrate health and other care services with NHS spending;
  • Co-ordinate the funding streams of national back-to-work schemes and make them accountable to London boroughs;
  • Devolve London’s Skills Funding Agency resources to the London boroughs,  allowing boroughs to develop schemes tailored to the specific needs of their residents;
  • Devolve neighbourhood policing budgets to enable boroughs to commission the services their communities need from the MPS; and
  • Support boroughs’ work to integrate offender management, including financial incentives, and then make boroughs publicly accountable for their success in reducing re-offending.

The first of these examples would be a dramatic – but entirely sensible – reorientation of the way in which local health services and care are delivered.  As I have commented before, such a move would provide local democratic ownership of local health service decisions and it would encourage a much more seamless pattern of delivery with local care services.

The second and third of these recognise that the skills agenda and the need to re-equip people for work have never been effectively delivered by the existing bureaucratic quangoes in London and a local focus on what is seen to be effective and best meets the needs of local people is surely a step forward.

The fourth proposal – passing local policing budgets to Boroughs enabling them to purchase services from the Metropolitan Police – will no doubt provoke a serious attack of nerves in New Scotland Yard and I am not sure that Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse AM, the new Chair-designate of the Metropolitan Police Authority, will relish having so much of his new train-set taken away before he has had a chance to play with it.  However, the configuration of neighbourhood policing – a role which in any event relies on partnership at community level – would certainly be made more responsive with such an arrangement and would, if properly defined, insulate and protect those other parts of policing that are essential (but less immediately visible).

The final example – devolving responsibility for offender management – is no less radical, but would build on some excellent initiatives that have already been trialled in London with a view to reducing re-offending.

I suspect the proposals as a whole may be rather too much for post-Election Government Ministers to swallow.  However, the proposals deserve serious consideration and it will be interesting to hear whether any convincing  justifications are given for not taking them forward.

It depends what you mean by profiling – crude profiling will alienate rather than bring results in combatting terrorism

The latest appalling news from Baghdad that at least forty people have been killed by a female suicide bomber is a timely reminder that simple profiling will never be enough to combat determined terrorists.

The idea that by stopping and searching all young Asian males that you would significantly reduce the risk of suicide bombing is a fallacy.  As this news reminds us, not all such bombers are males.  Richard Reid, the convicted shoe bomber, was not Asian and was a convert to Islam.  And, of course, not all Asians are Muslims, nor are all Muslims Asian.  And most important of all, the vast majority of Muslims are not violent extremists and are not potential terrorists.

Crude profiling will not only be ineffective, but it will increasingly alienate precisely those people that the authorities need to be working with if they are to be effective in combatting terrorism.

In the Daily Telegraph on Saturday, Assistant Commissioner John Yates, the most senior counter-terrorist police officer in the UK, made the case for profiling.  But – and it is a big but – he was NOT arguing for crude profiling.  He was arguing for “intelligent” profiling.  And, yes, this does involve stopping people based on appearance and behaviour, but it is also about ” using “common sense” and “street-craft” to recognise suspicious behaviour.”

The Telegraph report goes on (mainly focussing on stops at airports):

“Mr Yates called for searches to be carried out using intelligence databases, and “sharp thinking” on the ground.

He said that suspicions should be aroused by an individual’s personal history and pattern of travel, how they bought their ticket, and their luggage.

The anti-terrorism chief continued: “At the same time, we must encourage police and security staff to use their experience, their street-craft – their ‘nous’. This means considering a range of factors – dress, body language, behaviour or simply something that’s ‘not quite right’.

“This puts the onus on our staff to be intelligent and to act with common sense.””

This is an approach that most people would support and it is right that this is the ethos now being promoted by the Metropolitan Police.  For it to work, of course, there also needs to be a rigorous system of management supervision and external scrutiny to make sure that the policy is not abused or mis-applied.