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Archive for June, 2010

Tuesday
Jun 8,2010

I am hearing rumours that the Coalition Government has ordered a 30% cut in the budget of the National Police e-Crime Unit in the current financial year.

If true, this will have a potentially devastating impact on the Police Service’s ability nationally to tackle the serious organised criminal gangs that are behind much e-crime in this country and to support initiatives to prevent and deter e-Crime.  

In any event, the Home Office support for the Unit was already small: only £3.5 million – so it will not even save very much.

This is in sharp contrast to the policy of the Conservatives before the General Election (when they pledged to “wage war on cyber-crime”) and the priority given to the issue by David Cameron.  It will also be a particular embarrassment to Baroness Neville-Jones, the Minister for National Security, who has taken a particular interest in cyber issues and was speaking at an event on the subject this morning.

Tuesday
Jun 8,2010

I have always taken a fairly robust view on the question of whether Gary McKinnon should be extradited to the United States, tending to take the position that the crimes of which he is accused are potentially extremely serious and that the US Courts should be given an opportunity to consider his case.

I have, of course, listened to the views expressed stridently by those who argue that Gary McKinnon’s Aspergers condition means that it would be better if he were tried in this country. 

Most people have taken a consistent position on the issue – one way or the other.

Not, however, the Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg – as can be seen from a piece in the New Statesman:

“On 15 December 2009, a photograph was taken of Janis Sharp, the mother of Gary McKinnon, and the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, outside the Home Office in Westminster. They were there to protest against the extradition of McKinnon, aged 44, to the US on charges of computer fraud. Eight years earlier McKinnon, an Asperger’s syndrome sufferer, had hacked repeatedly into Pentagon and Nasa networks.

“They could try him here if they wanted to, so it’s up to the government here to do the right thing,” Clegg said in an interview that day. “If Gordon Brown really had a moral compass, he would do the right thing and try Gary McKinnon here instead.”

Little more than five months later, on 25 May, Clegg, the new Deputy Prime Minister, said of the McKinnon case in a radio interview that “what I haven’t got the power to do – neither has the Home Secretary, neither has even the Prime Minister – is to completely reverse and undo certain legal aspects of this. But that, of course, you wouldn’t want politicians to do. It’s legally very complex.”

Opposition made adopting principled positions simpler. Clegg also stated that his personal view on the case remained unchanged – McKinnon should ideally be tried in a British court. But his equivocation on the law had upset Sharp and, when I visited her recently at her home in Hertfordshire, she wept as she spoke about her son.

“I think we all thought that we had waited until this, the new government; and then we’d done it. They’ve all made promises,” she said, referring to the support offered to the McKinnon campaign not only by Clegg but other senior Lib Dem MPs, as well as David Cameron.”

It seems that promises made in Opposition don’t count for much once you are in the Coalition Government.

Tuesday
Jun 8,2010

I recently ventured into the vexed issue of the Dangerous Dogs Act, having been appalled by the cost of kennelling dogs seized in London under the terms of the Act  and the extraordinary time that it takes to process the dogs so seized to determine whether they should be destroyed.

My comments were intended to provoke a debate – and they certainly did that. I continue to think that it is ludicrous for the Metropolitan Police  to spend £10.6 million on kenneling dogs that have been seized. The processes for deciding what is to happen to the dogs concerned must be made much more speedy – in the interests of all concerned, especially the dogs that are being caged. I am also of the view that the Dangerous Dogs Act is a very poorly drafted piece of legislation – the emphasis should be on whether a particular animal is dangerous rather than whether it belongs to or resembles a specific breed. Those that breed and train dogs to attack and trade in such animals should also be the subject of much greater punishment than at present.

I have now tabled a question for oral answer in the House of Lords on Monday 21st June, as follows:

*Lord Harris of Haringey to ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to amend or to improve the operation of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.

I will be interested to see what the Government has to say on the matter.

Tuesday
Jun 8,2010

There was some banter about Ministerial Special Advisors in Lords Question Time this afternoon (in which I played a small part).

Lord Strathclyde (or Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith, 2nd Baron Strathclyde, to use his full name), the Leader of the House and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, enjoyed himself batting away questions.

He avoided – for the time being – a number of sensitive issues:

  • has the LibDem part of the Coalition got its fair share of Special Advisors?
  • what will the role of Special Advisors be under the Coalition Government?
  • who will discipline them (and their Ministers) if they break the rules?
  • how much will they be paid and how will their pay be determined?
  • and will their numbers drift upwards?

He concluded with a promise that he would be there to stiffen David Cameron’s resolve on the numbers appointed.  I wonder how many other Cabinet Ministers will be ready to say that they will keep the Prime Minister on the straight and narrow should he waver?

The full set of exchanges is as follows:

“Special Advisers

Question

2.55 pm

Asked By Lord Sheldon

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many special advisers have been selected who have been approved by the Prime Minister.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, a list of special adviser appointments will be published shortly and will be available in the Library of the House. In accordance with the requirements of the Ministerial Code, all special adviser appointments are approved by the Prime Minister.

Lord Sheldon: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that response. Many parliamentary advisers who have been employed have had none of the background of civil servants, and in some cases the Government created special advisers whose role was superior to those in the Civil Service. Has this practice now come to an end?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I very much regret that I was not in a position to give the noble Lord a clearer answer in my first response because he put his Question down slightly before the Government were ready to answer it. However, we will do so very shortly. I can confirm that, under this Government, the hideous regime of special advisers telling permanent civil servants what to do will come to an end.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: Since the watchword of the two parties in this coalition is “fairness” and the role of special advisers is essentially a political one—liaising with outside opinion and Members of Parliament—will the Government exercise fairness in their appointments of special advisers as between departments and as between Ministers in the different parties of the coalition?

Lord Strathclyde: Yes, my Lords, and naturally that is subject to the coalition agreement. However, clear rules are set out in the Ministerial Code on the number of special advisers and who is entitled to them. That, of course, speaks for itself.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, perhaps we could have this issue clarified at the beginning of the term of this Government. If a special adviser to a coalition Cabinet Member breached the code, who would be responsible for disciplining that adviser? Would it be the Prime Minister?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, discipline is up to the Minister who appoints the special adviser. The Prime Minister agrees the appointment, but it is the Minister who appoints the adviser who is responsible for discipline.

Lord Glenarthur: My Lords, is my noble friend able to give the figure for the number of special advisers in early 1997 compared with those who were in position before the general election this year?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, in 1997 there were 38 special advisers, while in March this year there were 78. When we make our announcement, I think that the House will find that there are fewer than that under this Government.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, can the Leader of the House tell us whether any of the special advisers being appointed will be on salaries higher than that of the Prime Minister? As a comparator, perhaps he could also tell us how many of the special advisers who have been appointed will be earning salaries higher than that of a Lords Minister. What does that tell us about their relative importance in government?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the figures will be made public when we publish the announcement shortly.

Lord Ryder of Wensum: My Lords, can my noble friend explain the main purpose of a special adviser to the Government?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, these advisers are the personal appointments of Cabinet Ministers. Their job is to help Cabinet Ministers to do their job even more effectively than they would otherwise have done if they had not had such an appointment.

Lord Grocott: My Lords, I am not sure that the Leader of the House answered the question put by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours precisely. The question is really this: if any Minister, in relation to his or her activities in connection with a special adviser is seen to be in breach of the Ministerial Code, would it be the Prime Minister or the Deputy Prime Minister who would have to exercise disciplinary action against them?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, in the first instance it is up to the Minister who appointed the special adviser, but if there was a most serious breach of the code, I am sure that it would be for the Prime Minister to take a view.

Lord Clark of Windermere: My Lords, bearing in mind that it is readily accepted that no one should benefit from public service, will the Minister give an assurance that the incoming special advisers will receive less income as special advisers than they were receiving immediately prior to taking up office?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, as I said in answer to an earlier question, these figures will be made public when we make the announcement. I said also that we will draw to a close the regime whereby special advisers told civil servants what to do, and we will end that hideous rogues’ gallery where special advisers became even better known than their Ministers—for example, Alastair Campbell, Damian McBride, Charlie Whelan, Derek Draper. Their reign is now firmly over.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, I had the responsibility, under my noble friend Lord Lawson of Blaby, of constructing the original structure for special advisers’ salaries. Can my noble friend indicate whether the same logical rationale to the structure will be published on this occasion?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the depths of knowledge of my noble friend never cease to amaze me. I am amazed because I did not know it beforehand and so I am unable to give him a positive answer. However, when he sees what we publish, I think he will be very impressed.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the noble Lord cited the names of various special advisers, but I remind the House that this Prime Minister is the first Prime Minister to have been a special adviser and I am sure that he would agree that, on the whole, they do an excellent job. Does the Leader of the House agree that most Prime Ministers are elected with a firm commitment to reduce the number of special advisers but that, over time, the rhetoric seldom matches the reality? We will be watching the numbers. I am not a betting woman in many cases, but I would bet that those numbers will go in one direction—upwards.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the Leader of the Opposition is right—the Prime Minister has made a firm commitment about the number of special advisers appointed. It will be up to us all to make sure that his resolve is maintained.”

Monday
Jun 7,2010

In House of Lords Question Time this afternoon, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, a Coalition Minister of the LibDem variety, managed to insult 221 million Arabic speakers world-wide by saying their language was “unusual”.

He did so while answering a series of questions on university funding.  The relevant exchange is as follows:

“Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve: My Lords, what steps will the Government take to ensure that the pattern of cuts imposed by different institutions in response to falling resources does not endanger strategically important subjects—for example, Arabic, other languages and even chemistry?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: That is a very complex question. I am conscious that discussions are under way in the British Academy on the teaching of unusual foreign languages, which is rather different from the future of chemistry and STEM subjects. We are conscious of the need to protect those specialist subjects, but, as I have emphasised, the interests of the top 10 universities in Britain and those providing very worthwhile foundation degrees are part of a highly diverse sector and we need to consider all those interests.”

Lord Wallace ironically was Treasurer of the All-Party Arab League Group until the General Election.

Nevertheless, he still seems to think that the language with the fourth highest number of native speakers in the world (exceeded only by Chinese, Spanish and English)  is “unusual” – so unusual indeed that it is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

But then that is not the sort of detail that an Emeritus Professor of International Relations at LSE would be expected to know, is it?

I wonder what William Hague thinks?

Monday
Jun 7,2010

Ken Livingstone has announced that one of his objectives if re-elected as Mayor in 2012 will be to make London the world’s first “Smart City”.

The examples he give include:

  • easing parking chaos in London if re-elected by bringing in a system like that used in San Francisco, where 6,000 of the 24,000 metered parking places are fitted with sensors that allow drivers to find spaces via wi-fi. The American city’s $23 million network shows available spots on motorists’ mobile phones and electronic street signs. If drivers want to add more time to a parking meter they can also do it by mobile.
  • using real-time “smart meters” to cut energy use in homes and businesses. In Sweden these have resulted in a 24 per cent reduction in energy use.

He expands on his ideas in more details at LabourList.

What he demonstrates is a long-term strategic vision for London that would not only benefit its residents but give London the edge in international competitiveness.  His ideas also highlight the lack of strategic vision currently displayed by the Conservatives in London.

Monday
Jun 7,2010

Last week at ten hours notice I was asked to speak at a major conference on security and resilience (I’m not proud – I knew I was standing in for another speaker who had dropped out at the last moment).  One of the topics that came up was the importance of small and medium-sized businesses in the supply chains of parts of the critical national infrastructure and the fact that such businesses are often likely to be less well-protected in terms of cyber security.  The consensus view was that more needed to be done to encourage and support such businesses to adopt better security.

I raised the issue again this morning at a private briefing given by Melissa Hathaway, the former Senior Director for Cyberspace for the US National Security and Homeland Security Councils.  She agreed with my concerns on the matter, but then took my breath away by referring to a current case working its way through the US Courts (which I had not previously heard about) where a bank is suing a company for not having adequate internet security in connecting to the bank for internet banking purposes.

What seems to have happened is this:

In early November 2009, cyber thieves initiated a series of unauthorized wire transfers totaling $801,495 out of the account of Hillary Machinery, a Texas-based machine equipment company.   The bank, PlainsCapital, managed to retrieve roughly $600,000 of that money, but are now suing the company for the balance on the basis that the bank had processed the transfers in good faith.  Apparently, the fraudulent transactions were initiated using Hillary’s valid online banking credentials.

It would appear that the transfers were initiated from computers in Romania and Italy, among others, and sent to accounts in Ukraine, Russia and other Eastern European nations – allegedly using credentials stolen from the computers of Hillary Machinery.

No doubt, this case will make some businesses think twice about whether their own internet security is good enough.  It may also make them think twice about using internet banking.

However, there has to be a better way of ensuring that businesses improve their own security without the banks resorting to suing their customers.

Saturday
Jun 5,2010

Whenever I am asked to speak about the lessons of the 7/7 bombings or emergency preparedness generally, one of the points I make is about the importance of exercises that test the effectiveness of emergency plans and enable different agencies to get used to working together under stress conditions.

However, my attention has been drawn to an article in the Las Vegas Sun which describes an exercise conducted by the  St. Rose Dominican Hospital.  This was intended to test the emergency preparedness of hospital staff, but I think most people would agree that hospital administrators may have taken things a bit too far.

According to the article, the exercise started when

“an off-duty cop pretending to be a terrorist stormed into a hospital intensive care unit brandishing a handgun, which he pointed at nurses while herding them down a corridor and into a room.”

Only then were they told that it was a training exercise.

And as the article explains:

“The staff at St. Rose Dominican Hospitals-Siena Campus, where the incident took place Monday morning, found the exercise more traumatizing than instructive.

Hospital employees would have been justified in fearing for their lives.

Just last year, Henderson police shot and killed an armed, hostile man in the emergency room. So it would make sense that security and emergency preparedness have been a focus at the hospital.

But in Monday’s incident, which occurred in a unit that houses the hospital’s sickest patients, nurses, patients and their families did not know it was a drill.”

The hospital’s director of public policy and external affairs has apologized for any distress caused by the incident; saying that there was an

“ongoing effort to try and make (emergency preparedness drills) as realistic as possible.”

And went on to say:

“the goal is not to scare or harm anyone.”

So that’s alright then.

Friday
Jun 4,2010

According to the Evening Standard, the post of Minister for London has been quietly abolished by the new Government.  The argument is that there is not going to be a Government Office for London and that as London has an elected Mayor, it no longer needs its own Minister.

However, there are three Cabinet Ministers who have territorial responsibilities for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – all parts of the United Kingdom with their own devolved administrations and elected leaderships.

It is worth reminding the Coalition that London has a population greater than that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined and, as the key driver of the UK economy, is of more importance to the country as a whole than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland put together. 

London needs and deserves its own unique voice within the central Government machine.

According to the Standard:

“Ironically, at the same time as abolishing the post, Mr Cameron has decided to boost other cities across the country with their own “city minister”.”

So those other cities matter more to the Prime Minister than London.

Is it because his school “friend” Boris Johnson is the Mayor that London has been snubbed in this way?

Of course, one solution would be to give the Mayor of London a peerage and put him in the Cabinet as Minister for London.

And that would solve another problem: it would stop all this talk that Boris Johnson is  pursuing a hidden agenda of toppling David Cameron from the Conservative Party Leadership, as he couldn’t lead the Conservatives from the Lords.

The more I think about it, the more it’s a no-brainer.

Give Boris Johnson a peerage now.

Friday
Jun 4,2010

It is a fact universally acknowledged that organised criminality is now heavily engaged in cyber-crime.

So much so that a secondary market has developed of entrepreneurs selling cyber-crime services to less technically advanced criminals.

The “malware authoring community” is apparently now promoting its activities on Twitter.

So what next?

An iPhone app?

It sounds as if we are getting close.