Tories spread more confusion over communications data

The House of Lords has just voted by the narrow margin of 93 to 89 to defeat an amendment moved by the Tories to the Data Retention (EC Directive) Regulations 2009. 

These Regulations bring the UK into line with the EU Data Retention Directive of 2006 and require communications providers to retain  certain data for a fixed periodof one year.  (Previously, the UK had postponed applying the regulations – as was required by the Directive – to internet access, internet telephony and email.)

The Tories’ position might have been defensible on the grounds that they do not like EU directives – a point of principle that would be consistent with the decision (announced, but not implemented) to pull their MEPs out of the European Peoples Party grouping in the European Parliament.

However, the reason they gave was the entirely spurious one that this was part of some hidden conspiracy to require service providers to keep the contents of communications.  So one of their backbenchers kept jumping up and down asking whether the Regulations required communications services providers to keep data recovered by deep packet inspection.  The answer was as explicit as it could be:  paragraph 4(5) says “No data revealing the content of a communication is to be retained in pursuance of these Regulations.”  The only purpose in mentioning it  was to sow confusion and to mislead.

I suppose that is what opposition is all about.  And they nearly won the vote. 

However, their amendment was not fatal.  It would still have allowed the Regulations to come into force.  All it did was to add a rider to the approval motion noting the proposals “with regret”. 

So the grounds were spurious, the amendment was spurious (in that it had no effect) and perhaps the indignation was spurious.  If this is opposition, it is pretty spurious itself.

Another directly elected Mayor arrested – what next?

The news today is that the directly-elected Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent, Mark Meredith, has stood down following his arrest a few days ago by police investigating alleged corruption.  Mark Meredith was elected as a Labour Mayor and his arrest follows the arrest a few days earlier of the Conservative Group leader on the same Council.  I don’t know the background of this series of events and I make no comment other than to note that both men have said that they are standing down “to clear their names”.  However, this is more evidence that the history of directly-elected Mayors (outside London) has not been an easy one.

Another, directly-elected Mayor – this time in Doncaster – has just defied a vote of 46 to 6 by Doncaster council calling on him to resign.  This is at least the second occasion that that Mayor has ignored motions of no confidence passed by the Council.

And, of course, in 2003 the Mayor of North Tyneside had to resign following his arrest on child pornography charges – charges of which he was subsequently acquitted

Much was made of the election of a “monkey” as Mayor of Hartlepool in 2002 but, of course, the record of Stuart Drummond was sufficently good that he was re-elected in 2006 with 68% of the vote.

So what next for directly-elected Mayors?  Of the nine Mayoral areas outside London, two have had their Mayors resign following police action.  And the history elsewhere has often been turbulent.  Obviously, it is a small sample, but two out of nine does begin to look statistically significant.

In London, the experience seems to have been different.  In the three Boroughs where there are directly-elected Mayors (Hackney, Lewisham and Newham) the administrations appear to have been by and large well-run and many would argue an improvement on what had gone before.  And whatever Londoners’ views of the current incumbent of the London-wide Mayorality or of his predecessor, there is little doubt that Londoners prefer to have directly-elected Mayor presiding over the capital, compared with either the absence of city-wide authority that existed from 1985 to 2000 or the old Greater London Council that rather uneasily operated on top of the Boroughs from 1965 to 1985.

Certainly, my own experience in London makes me a supporter of the concept of directly-elected Mayors.  And both the Government and the Conservative opposition would support more directly-elected Mayors in the big cities at least.

I hesitate to suggest that the reason the model has worked in London is because of the fact that London has innately more sophisticated electors than those in the rest of the country.  While this may be true (and, if that doen’t excite hate mail from out-of-Londoners, I don’t know what will), I suspect the real reason is that so far outside London there have only been a small number of directly-elected mayors and often these have been in areas where the local political processes have not been working well or have been under great stress (as in Doncaster).  And why have two Mayors been arrested?  I don’t know.  However, it is certainly the case that directly-elected Mayors will by their very nature be more high profile than more traditional civic leaders and as such they attract strong feelings (which may mean politically-motivated attacks) and greater scrutiny. 

Greater scrutiny has to be a good thing.  Moreover, if the end-result, is that the political parties exercise greater care as to who they chose as Mayoral candidates (and that does not mean more celebrities!) and, if the local media and indeed local electorates are more discriminating as to who they back as “independents”, that will be good both for local democracy and local government itself.

A bad couple of days for Mayor Johnson

Troubles come in threes for Mayor Johnson. 

Yesterday’s tally:  first, the joint meeting of the MPA and GLA Standards Committee ruled that he and his team should be sent for “re-education” (like call centre operatives who deliberately mis-sell products to the public) so that they can understand what the Codes of Conduct that they have signed to certify that they will abide by actually say; second, BBC London revealed that he has been ticked off by London First, the organisation representing all the major businesses in London, about his failure to promote London; and third, he attempted a David Blunkett impersonation by attacking the criminal justice system and the judges for being soft on crime at a Crimestoppers dinner (and look what happened to David Blunkett).

What will next week bring?

Conservatives abstain on Control Orders in the Lords

Earlier today the House of Lords voted by 135 to 48 to continue the existing system of Control Orders for a further year.  The Conservatives were urged by Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones, the Tory’s security spokesperson, to abstain.  The Tory position is in essence that they accept the need for Control Orders (there will always be a small number of individuals – currently fifteen – who are thought to be a serious risk to the country but who cannot be brought to trial because the evidence against them will not be admissable and cannot be deported either because they are British or because they could only be deported to a country where they would be executed or tortured), but they don’t want to be seen to vote in favour of them.  They say that the answer is to allow intercept evidence in court so that the individuals concerned could be tried, despite being told that even with evidence from intercepts they could still not be brought to trial.  And if that isn’t sufficient, more of the individuals should be deported presumably to countries where they can be tortured or summarily executed.  It doesn’t really add up to a convincing security policy.

Trouble in Paradise? Storms and hissy fits at yesterday’s London Assembly Tory Group meeting

Apparently, the Conservative Group on the London Assembly is not a happy ship.
I am told that at yesterday’s meeting there were raised voices, stamped feet and one member even stomped out of the meeting to get evidence to contradict what a ‘colleague’ was saying.
My spy tells me that Brian Coleman was ‘purple with indignation’ and that Kit Malthouse was being ‘icily calm’.
What can it all mean? Why aren’t they all happy bunnies working together to build the Old Etonian renaissance?

Val Shawcross’s indictment of the snow chaos makes important reading for the Mayor and London Councils

The London Assembly’s Transport Committee, chaired by Val Shawcross, has published a powerful indictment of last month’s snow chaos.  It is clear that there was little proper planning for the snow (about which there had been plentiful warnings from the Met Office), virtually no coordination between the relevant bodies, and it took the best part of 24 hours before anyone took a proper grip of the situation.

I am quite clear that most of the Boroughs were woefully ill-prepared: they should all have had in place proper plans for gritting the most important routes and protocols in place for clearing access to bus garages, to London Ambulance stations and for other emergency services.  I am also amazed that there were not better arrangements for coordination and what there was was only finally triggered on the Monday after the snowfall with no direct communication with Transport for London until nearly 30 hours after the severe weather warning that a major snow-fall was hours away (ie 5pm on the Monday – some 17 hours after buses were ordered to return to their depots).

So who should have triggered the emergency coordination?  It may not be a statutory responsibility for the Mayor and the GLA, but the whole premise of the Greater London Authority Act is that the Mayor should use the authority of his elected office to bring people together and make things happen in the interests of London.  I trust the failure to do so on this occasion (until it was too late) will not be repeated again.

Police Authority to adopt a protocol on how and when Members (including Mayor Johnson) should talk to police suspects

The Metropolitan Police Authority is in session. Mayor Johnson is in the Chair and shows every sign of staying to the end of the meeting. Otherwise attendance is a bit sparse (six Members away) and not many public (apart from a contingent from the James Cleverly Fan Club). This is not really surprising given the sparsity of the agenda: the only substantive item is the Commissioner’s report.
Joanne McCartney skillfully managed to raise the Standards Committee inquiry into Mayor Johnson’s conduct in respect of the Damian Green case by asking whether it was now going to be seen as part of an MPA Member’s role to talk to suspects in police inquiries. If so, would it be necessary for there to be a protocol on how this should be done? And could the Commissioner report to the Authority on the extent to which Members might now find themselves called as witnesses in court proceedings? It was agreed there would be a report back. Uber-Vice Chairman Kit Malthouse looked irritated.
The Uber-Vice Chairman cheered up, however, when his colleague, Richard (‘don’t call me Dick’) Tracey suggested that there should also be a protocol limiting the rights of MPA Members (other than the Mayor and Uber-Vice Chairman) to speak to the media. So watch this space …

Tim O’Toole’s departure is an enormous loss for Londoners

The news that Tim O’Toole is to leave as Managing Director of London Underground and return to the United States is bad news for Londoners, especially those of us who use the Tube every day.

I have been impressed with Tim O’Toole since he was recruited by Mayor Livingstone some six or so years ago and, when I worked much more closely with him during my four years as an Advisor to the Board of Transport for London, my respect grew even further.  He has a deep commitment to public transport, coupled with serious experience of running railway systems and a toughness sufficient both to deal with the contractual mess left by the PPP arrangements and with the history of volatile labour relations on the Underground.

So where does this leave Mayor Johnson?

Firstly, there is a big hole to fill.  Secondly, the Mayor now has to demonstrate that it is not what Simon Fletcher calls the culture of back-biting, internal division and second-ratism at the heart of his administration that has led to Tim O’Toole’s decision to step down. 

Tim O’Toole’s separation from his family has been going on for the last six years and TfL’s likely capital funding gap has been known ever since the Government announced the decision to go ahead with Crossrail.  Tim O’Toole, when I last saw him, showed every sign of being a man who was still hugely enjoying the challenges of his job – something must have changed for him to decide to go now.

Mayor Johnson claims victory despite the finding that his actions “were extraordinary and unwise”

Mayor Boris Johnson has issued a press statement trumpeting that the investigation into his conduct over the Damian Green case has not found that he breached the MPA or GLA Code of Conduct. 

Interesting that he does not mention that the same report found that “his actions in speaking to a person arrested in a criminal investigation were extraordinary and unwise”, that “he should have sought advice from MPA officers before issuing a press statement relating to an ongoing police investigation”, and that “there is a risk that frank and full discussion of operational matters between senior MPS officers and the MPA Chairman could be inhibited in future if Mr. Johnson were to make public his reaction to operational briefings on critical incidents as a matter of course”.

An economic model that even George Osborne should be able to understand

A friend sent me something that gets to the essence of the present economic situation in a way that even George Osborne should be able to understand.
‘There’s a group of us – parents with young children. We decided to
start up a babysitting club, whereby each couple would babysit for the other. To ensure the system was fair, we used a system of IOU paper slips to encourage each couple to take their turn.
The system worked well to begin with each couple doing their turn and trading IOU slips instead of cash for babysitting services. The system was designed so that over time, each couple would automatically do as much baby-sitting as they received in return.

What could go wrong?

During periods when they had few occasions to go out, couples tried to build up reserves-then run that reserve down when occasions arose.

There should have been an averaging out of these demands. One couple would be going out whilst others were staying at home.

But since most of us would be holding onto reserves of IOU slips at any given time, we needed to have a fairly large amount of slips in circulation. Our naturally cautious tendency to build up reserves meant that the number of IOUs in circulation became quite low.

As a result, most couples were anxious to add to their reserves by baby-sitting, reluctant to run them down by going out. But one couple’s decision to go out was another’s chance to baby-sit; so it became difficult to earn IOU slips. Knowing this, we all became even more reluctant to use our reserves except on special occasions, reducing baby-sitting opportunities still further.

In short, our baby-sitting club had fallen into a recession.

We tried to legislate for a recovery-passing a rule requiring each couple to go out at least twice a month. But eventually, more IOU slips were issued, couples became more willing to go out,
opportunities to baby-sit multiplied, and everyone was happy.’