Tasers – a frontline view

Last Thursday, I reported the debate at the Metropolitan Police Authority about the possible wider use of Tasers in London.  There were considerable reservations about this expressed by some members of the Authority (and by some in the public gallery).

I am personally keen that there should be proper consultation and debate on the issue and I do not think the arguments are clearcut.

The use of any weapon by the police has got to be proportionate and appropriate to the risks involved.  Any weapon can cause more harm than originally intended.

However, temporarily incapacitating someone with a Taser, so that they can be restrained and arrested, is likely to be better than killing them by shooting a large hole in their chest or head with a firearm.

Nevertheless, putting a 50,000 volt charge through someone should not be done lightly – it is unlikely not to lead to adverse consequences in at least some circumstances.  But these risks need to be weighed against the risks of not using a Taser, such as the risks of harm coming to a member of the public or to a police officer by not quickly restraining someone who is running amok.

Therefore, this evening’s piece on the Inspector Gadget blog makes instructive reading.  His police force makes Tasers available to all front-line patrol teams, and he offers three recent incidents where Tasers have been deployed as part of routine patrol duties as follows:

“1. The usual call to a ‘male with a samurai sword’ running about in Ruraltown High Street threatening to kill passing members of the public, stripped to the waist (why are they always stripped to the waist?) high on something and very, very violent. TASER crew arrives within 4 minutes, draws TASER, red-dots the man and orders him to drop the sword.

In a miracle of instant recovery, all the man’s mental health and drug issues disappear and he drops the sword. A completely compliant arrest follows with no injuries to anyone.

Previously this would have required shields, large batons, a firearms unit and a long delay during which he could have killed anyone he wanted, including the first police officers on the scene.

2. A disqualified driver, known for violence against police officers, bailed out of a stolen vehicle after a pursuit. Armed with a 2 ft long iron bar in one hand and a knife in the other, he became cornered by the two policemen from the pursuing vehicle. Red-faced, drunk, very angry and screaming death threats, a stand-off ensued which without TASER would have taken hours to resolve (remember, the public don’t like it when we pile mob-handed onto one man). The TASER crew arrived within a few seconds and red-dotted him in the chest.

Another miracle occurred. Right in front of the police officers eyes, a complete change in character. Weapons dropped, hands behind the back and a compliant arrest.

3. My own patrol officers end a siege without calling for tactical response units and bringing the whole town to a halt for hours by using TASER on a male who is clearly intent on cutting his own throat, while at the same time threatening t0 stab any police officer or paramedic who approaches him. All this in the isle of a busy local supermarket.

In this case, TASER was fired at the man. He was immediately incapacitated and arrested without any injury to anyone. In the past, this could have been another Kingsbury or it could have taken hours and hours of negotiation, maybe even a fatal shooting by police.”

His accounts also accord with the experience in the Metropolitan Police, where – in more limited circumstances – Tasers have been deployed, and reported through monitoring arrangements to the – shortly to be abolished – Metropolitan Police Authority: in these cases too often the appearance of the red dot on someone’s chest (indicating the laser sights of the Taser) has been sufficient to persuade someone otherwise presenting a risk to themselves, members of the public or police officers to calm down and relinquish their weapon.

Inspector Gadget concludes in typical – but telling – style:

“Refusing to let us have TASER in case we shoot the wrong person is like refusing to let us have cars in case we run someone over, boots in case we kick someone in the head or a first aid kit in case we give the wrong treatment. On my team we take the deployment of TASER very seriously. I haven’t even heard the team joke about it.”


Much Ado About Tasers

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, is reporting to the last ordinary meeting of the Metropolitan Police Authority before it is due to be abolished in January.

This is the first (and possibly the last) time that the Authority has had the opportunity to discuss the remarks made by the Commissioner on LBC  when he announced that he had asked for a review of the availability of Tasers for officers called to violent incidents like the one in which four officers were injured in Kingsbury on the 19th November.  According to the Commissioner, he discussed the attack and possible responses with the Mayor and MPA Chair, Kit Malthouse AM (in a break from his paternity leave) before his scheduled LBC interview and his specific remarks were in response to a phoned-in question from a Met firearms officer.

The Commissioner pointed out that he was simply “reviewing the options” and that there would be “full discussion” before any final decisions are taken.  What is not clear is how and where such discussion will take place after the MPA is abolished.

In the meantime, members of the Police Authority raised substantial concerns and issues about wider use of Tasers. At least, the Commissioner recognised that this was not an operational decision for him alone and that there needed to be wider public consultation and that ultimately the Authority would need to take a view. Of course, after 16th January, the Authority will be the Mayor and the MOPC.

Metropolitan Police Authority hardly going gentle into that good night

What is probably the final ordinary meeting of the Metropolitan Police Authority is in session and Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse AM, Deputy MOPC Presumptive, is NOT in the Chair (he is on paternity leave).  Instead, Reshard Auladin, the Deputy Chair, is presiding over what is hardly going to be a quiet somnolent meeting of the Authority.

Apart from the usual items on the agenda, like the Commissioner’s report (will he mention Tasers?), there is also the “Policing London Business Plan” that will lead to a lively (and political – given the approaching Mayoral elections) debate on the gap in the Met’s budget, the Mayor’s instruction to keep police numbers up without the money to do it (apart from £30 million that the Mayor is transferring to the Met from the Fire Service budget, about which the Fire Brigades Union threatened demonstrations outside the MPA meeting), the cutbacks in Safer Neighbourhood Teams and their sergeants etc etc.  And the report of the MPA’s Civil Liberties Panel on the DNA database (topical with the Government’s plans to remove potential rapists and others from the database) is also to be discussed.

But the meeting has started with a question submitted by Samantha Rigg-David on behalf of the United Families and Friends Campaign about the procession down Whitehall on Saturday 29th October in remembrance of those who have died in custody or state care and what the Campaign says was the disproportionate, aggressive and degrading treatment the families received from the Police after the procession had handed in a letter to 10 Downing Street.  Shortly after the 29th, I had heard about the incidents referred to in the question and had asked for a briefing from the Met about what had happened. I never received a response, so the answer to the public question is the first time that the Met has given their version of events.
That version was rather different to that of the questioner. However, the Commissioner gave an undertaking personally to review the CCTV material of the incident and to communicate directly with those involved. Surprisingly (given the fact that similar events have been organised over the last thirteen years), it was suggested that there had been a failure of communication between the organisers of the demonstration and the police.
What is not clear is how easily such issues will be aired and pursued once the MPA is abolished.

Standards are falling in the Home Office

Standards are falling in the Home Office.

I know that some may feel this is a statement of the obvious, but I know that it is important that these things are evidenced….

So here is an example – albeit a small one – but not so many years ago such sloppiness would never have occurred.

Yesterday, the Home Secretary announced that  she was proscribing the organisation “Muslims Against Crusades”, saying:

‘I have today laid an Order which will proscribe Muslims Against Crusades from midnight tonight. This means being a member of or supporting the organisation will be a criminal offence. 
‘I am satisfied Muslims Against Crusades is simply another name for an organisation already proscribed under a number of names including Al Ghurabaa, The Saved Sect, Al Muhajiroun and Islam4UK. The organisation was proscribed in 2006 for glorifying terrorism and we are clear it should not be able to continue these activities by simply changing its name.’

In my view, this is an entirely sensible move, although some would say long overdue and – of course – it is inevitable that the people involved may simply create a new organisation with the same name doing much the same sorts of things.

However, my concern about falling standards relates not to the decision but to the briefing that goes with it.  Amongst other things this says:

“Groups like MAC – which pedal hate and glorify terrorism – are not welcome in the UK. They do not speak for British Muslims and are reviled by the vast majority of decent people. We will continue to use all legal powers at our disposal to stop them from operating here.”


As Private Eye might say “Shome mistake …”

All I can say to Home Office officials is: get your homophones right and the policy will take care of itself.


* For a helpful guide from the University of Hull see this.

Why does the Government care so much about the freedoms of the would-be terrorist, the manipulative paedophile and the serial rapist?

Tonight the House of Lords debated the Protection of Freedoms Bill.  This was my contribution:

“My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority. I fear I may be spoiling the consensus that seems to have emerged as to what a wonderful Bill this is. This is a very grandiosely entitled Bill: “Protection of Freedoms”, no less. I am sure that when the title was chosen the Deputy Prime Minister had visions that, like the authors of the Magna Carta, seven centuries on, his creature would still be seen as a cornerstone of British liberties.

Frankly, he can dream on. This Bill is a mish-mash of ill-sorted provisions, a mish-mash without any overarching or underpinning philosophy and, worst of all, a mish-mash that will bring about unintended and damaging consequences. Balancing the civil liberties of the individual against the security of the state and the protection of the lives and well-being of other individuals is never an easy task and I wish that I could be confident that that balance has been appropriately struck in this Bill. Let us take, for example, Part 5, which makes major changes to the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, who is not in her place, will remember the time spent in this House trying to ensure that children and vulnerable adults were properly protected against those who might harm them.

When we hear from organisations, such as Fair Play for Children, that this Bill introduces,

“elements of serious risk to children”,

we need to consider the points with very great care. The Government say that the arrangements under the 2006 Act were too complicated and onerous for those who had to implement them. Yet the people who will have to implement this Bill say that its provisions do not reduce or simplify the current system and that it runs the risk of sowing considerable confusion and unnecessary complexity.

There is no evidential basis for these changes. There is to be no pilot and what is being done throws away the broad cross-party consensus on which the previous legislation was based. A major concern lies in the proposed definition of what constitutes supervision in respect of affected activities. This remains worryingly vague. One suggestion is that the definition of supervision should be “line of sight”. This is so vague as to be frankly laughable and out of touch with daily realities. If the activity stays in one or perhaps two rooms and there are two staff or supervisors to monitor all volunteers, perhaps that would be possible. But in a multi-feature environment where there is outdoor activity, and in many other situations, it will be next to impossible for many organisations to provide that level of supervision. It will result in increased costs and/or a restricted number of activities, and, no doubt, fewer volunteers involved and fewer children benefiting.

In any event, supervision misses the point. The supervised activities of a volunteer are one thing but it is precisely during those activities that the trust of the child with that individual is created. It is that trust that makes possible unsupervised contact and the risks that that brings with that trust being exploited and betrayed. Of course, the risk of such exploitation and betrayal taking place during supervised activities can be reduced by good supervision. But what of the contact outside the supervised activity? The child now trusts that adult because they have encountered them in the supervised activity. But that trust is where the potential for abuse is created outside that secure environment.

That is an example of where the balance is being struck wrongly. It is based on the false belief that the bureaucracy involved is stifling volunteering. Fair Play for Children surveyed its member groups and found that more than half believe that the existing vetting arrangements have improved their overall practice. In only one instance in 200 did a group report that the arrangements had made it more difficult to recruit volunteers. Most parents will say that when they hand over their children they want the reassurance that the adults who their children will encounter have been properly vetted. Do the Government really want to put the rights of the potential paedophile above those of the child? That is just one part of an ill-thought-out Bill.

Part 4 reduces the maximum period of pre-charge detention for terrorist suspects from 28 to 14 days. The periods of detention longer than 14 days have been used extremely sparingly and are subject to judicial approval, which has not always been given. The Government, moreover, acknowledge that sometimes a longer period—up to 28 days—may be necessary, presumably because of the nature and complexity of some counterterrorism investigations.

If circumstances require it, it is proposed that the Home Secretary comes to Parliament to introduce emergency legislation to reinstate the longer detention power. That has to be nonsense. It means that during—I repeat, during—a terrorism investigation, the police and security services may have to ask Parliament to be recalled to debate an issue that it cannot discuss without prejudicing a future trial. The remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, are extremely pertinent on this point. Ministers recognise that 28 days may be necessary to investigate or avert a serious terrorist threat, but none the less intend to remove the power, even though there is no evidence that the power has ever been misused.

Part 2 adds to police bureaucracy, which is another example of extra expenditure being incurred as a result of pressure from the Daily Mail. It will make it more difficult for the police and local authorities to use CCTV to prevent and detect crime. This no doubt reflects concerns about a surveillance society, although when I was a local government leader my experience was that communities always—I repeat, always—welcomed the introduction of new CCTV schemes. If that concern about a surveillance society was so important, why are there no restrictions on the use of private CCTV cameras? I do not want to labour the point, but this oh-so-cleverly-worked-out Bill makes it more difficult and more expensive for our already overstretched police service to prevent crime but does nothing to restrict the proliferation of privatised surveillance.

Finally, Part 1 restricts the retention of DNA samples and profiles taken during a criminal investigation. This will make it harder, not easier, for the police to catch and convict dangerous criminals. The Home Office’s own research produced last year contradicts what this Bill will do. It showed that, each year, 23,000 people who will be taken off the database under these proposals will go on to commit further offences. Of these, 6,000 will commit serious crimes, including rape and murder.

Whose civil liberties are we protecting here? It will certainly not be those of anyone like Sally Anne Bowman who was 18 when she was murdered close to her home in south London in 2005. The police investigation initially drew a blank. But a year later, Mark Dixie, a pub chef, was arrested following a brawl in the pub where he worked. No further action was taken for that pub brawl but his DNA was taken and subsequently loaded on the database. It produced a match to the DNA evidence retrieved from the murder victim and within five hours he was under arrest. He was subsequently charged, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. So what are we doing removing the ability to protect people like Sally Anne Bowman? There are plenty of other such examples.

This Bill repeatedly gets the balance wrong. Of course, we should protect freedom. But why is it that the only freedoms that this Bill seems to care about are the freedoms of the would-be terrorist, the manipulative paedophile and the serial rapist?”

Even the Daily Telegraph is now say Mayor Boris Johnson should get a grip

Ben Brogan, the Daily Telegraph’s Deputy Editor, is fed up with the tent protest at Parliament Square. 

And what is more, he is fed up with Mayor Boris Johnson’s failure to sort it out:

“Well, those of you who have long wondered about that ghost town of dirty tents lining two sides of the square might have a look at this video, which we filmed a few days ago. We used a thermal camera in the same way we did at the St Paul’s protest. If anything the result is even more damning. Turns out the ‘peace camp’ looks deserted because… it’s deserted. MPs might like to ask why the Met/Westminster Council/Boris Johnson don’t pop round and take these abandoned articles away. Either that or stop bullying us about left luggage and locked bicycles being destroyed. The Mayor should get down there this afternoon with a van and clear the lot himself.”

Strong words: “get down there this afternoon”.

Is even the Daily Telegraph beginning to realise that the Mayor needs to get a grip?

Running London is not about sound bites and photo ops – it is about doing things for London and Londoners.

Whether Londoners agree with the Daily Telegraph’s fixation about tented protests or not, they do agree that London needs a Mayor who takes the job seriously and really does care about the city.

A “duty of candour” in the NHS?

Earlier this evening I seconded an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill which would have placed “a duty of candour” on those providing health services requiring them to disclose “full information to patients, their carers or representative about any incident or omission in or affecting their care which may have caused harm, or may in the future cause harm.”

My speech was as follows:

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, when I was director of the Association of Community Health Councils, the message from community health councils around the country was that people who complained were seeking not compensation from, or retribution against, those who had perhaps caused the reason for their complaint—for example, the death of a loved one—but information. They wanted to know what had happened, and they wanted some reassurance that what happened to them or their relatives would not happen again.

Always, the most tragic cases were those in which people had not known what had happened and discovered the actual circumstances only much later, perhaps when their relative’s case came to an inquest or, in some cases, even long after that. I would like to hope that, in the 10 years or so since I was director of the Association of Community Health Councils, this problem would have become less, but it remains a serious blemish on the health service that, too often, such mishaps are covered up.

In a case reported only three weeks ago—the most recent case that I have come across, but I am sure there are many others—a mother discovered long afterwards that the death of her seven year-old daughter, which she had blamed on herself for not being able to perform the necessary first aid, was actually the consequence of a failure by a paramedic called to the scene. She discovered that only ages afterwards when she became aware of the transcript of the inquiry which led to the paramedic being dismissed. That case, reported in the Doncaster Free Press only three weeks ago, is an indication of the sorts of incidents that one is talking about.

I met the family of someone who had died while detained in a secure mental health facility. They discovered the circumstances in which their loved one had died only when the matter was reported at an inquest. In such incidents, the health service officials knew what had happened and had conducted their own inquiries but did not think it necessary or appropriate to tell the families concerned. That is why it is so important to have this amendment, which would place a statutory duty of candour on the health service, to make it something that runs right the way through the system.

Of course, accidents can never be eradicated. Healthcare is of its very nature a risky business and health professionals are only human, so these things will happen. However, what is unforgiveable is that the fact that something has gone wrong is not told to those concerned. The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, quoted Sir Liam Donaldson, but I thought that she was also going to quote the maxim that he gave:

“To err is human, to cover up is unforgiveable”.

That is precisely the concern that motivates this amendment.

In the White Paper Equity and excellence: Liberating the NHS, the Government said that they will require hospitals to be “open and honest” when things go wrong. That stems directly, I think, from the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto commitment, but, unfortunately, their manifesto referred only to hospitals rather than to the wider health service. I think that the Liberal Democrats intended that such a duty should be statutory, but my understanding is that the Department of Health is looking at this as something that could be written into contracts. As the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, has pointed out, having a lesser status than a requirement to inform a central agency that something has gone wrong would mean a lesser status in terms of informing the family. It is really important that we look at this issue and take it seriously, so I hope that the noble Earl will accept the amendment.

In 2005, a National Audit Office report revealed that only 24 per cent of NHS trusts routinely informed patients of a patient safety incident—that implies that more than three-quarters of NHS trusts do not do so routinely—and 6 per cent admitted that they never informed patients of a patient safety incident. Quite clearly, there is a “culture of denial”. Noble Lords may think that that is rather an alarmist statement, but I am simply quoting from a Department of Health document from 2006.

Lord Mawhinney: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I do not want him to interpret my question as opposition to the general point that he is making, but before he finishes will he say a word about the role of lawyers of health service bodies in these circumstances? I am not a lawyer, as I have told the House before, but in both cases that he has cited I could see legal advisers saying, “Say nothing”. If we are to take this amendment seriously, we need to have some idea of what part the law might play if the Bill were to be so amended. As the noble Lord has experience, I would be grateful if he would reflect on that.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, the noble Lord, with all his experience—albeit, like me, as a non-lawyer—is speaking exactly the truth. In many of those cases, the legal advice would be, “Say nothing”. There therefore needs to be a statutory duty, because then the responsibility of the lawyers concerned would be to advise, “There is no option but to tell the patients or their families”.

An interesting point is that insurers in the United States often require open disclosure policies and practice by health providers to qualify for insurance. The international evidence is that, as well as being the right thing to do morally and ethically, being open and honest when things go wrong can actually reduce litigation and complaints.

My concern is that the Government will say that they are doing enough by saying that the duty of candour can be achieved through a contractual process. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, has pointed out, this would apply only to hospitals with an NHS contract; it would not apply to GPs, dentists, pharmacists or private healthcare providers. I do not see why the duty of candour to patients and their families should be regarded as of lesser importance and impact than those things where there is direct regulation. I hope that the Minister will say that the Department of Health will take this away and that he will come back to the House with proposals to give a statutory duty of candour to protect the interests of patients.”

After a debate of over 90 minutes, the Minister was not prepared to concede a statutory duty of candour although the Government is consulting on how they might make a “contractual” duty of candour work.

I am sure there will be more debate on this at the Report Stage of the Bill.

Lords Minister admits that Home Office Ministers visit border posts regularly – so why didn’t they discover that the pilot flexibility on admissions had been extended?

The Home Secretary’s statement on the UK Border Agency was repeated in the House of Lords by Lord Henley this afternoon.

My exchange with him was as follows:

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, is it not the case that Home Office Ministers frequently visit our border posts? In the circumstances, is it not surprising that they did not visit sites where these pilots were taking place—or if they did, that they did not notice or hear from the staff concerned how the pilots had been extended? Can the Minister also tell us what arrangements Ministers made to monitor the pilots and the way in which they were working?

Lord Henley: My Lords, speaking for myself, I have to say that I have not visited any of the pilots, but then I have not been in the Home Office for that long. No doubt I will make inquiries of my honourable and right honourable friends and let the noble Lord know what visits have been made. However, I believe that Ministers have visited ports and airports on quite a regular basis to see how these things operate. I certainly was intending to do that at some point in the near future, but when I will be able to manage that is another matter. Of course Ministers always want to evaluate any pilot schemes they put into place, whether by visits or by other means.”

So, it IS likely that Ministers will have visited the pilot sites and YES they will have been monitoring the pilots.

William Hague’s Cyber Conference didn’t get good reviews

I’ve already asked what exactly was William Hague’s grand international conference on cyberspace for, but it is clear that my scepticism is shared by the journalists who were sent to cover it and came away disappointed or as the Daily Telegraph put it:

“So what did we learn over the course of the two-day meeting? Well, in short, almost nothing. ….

As the show limped to its finale on Wednesday, many of Mr Hague’s conclusions could have been written at any point in the last six months.

“All delegates agreed that the immediate next steps must be to take practical measures to develop shared understanding and agree common approaches and confidence-building measures,” the Foreign Secretary declared. Well, quite.”

And serious experts like Richard Clayton from Cambridge University were pretty underwhelmed too.

William Hague warns David Cameron on internet freedom

In August, David Cameron wanted to block Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry Messenger.

Today, William Hague said:

“Some governments block online services and content, imposing restrictive regulation, or incorporate surveillance tools into their internet infrastructure so that they can identify activists and critics. Such actions either directly restrict freedom of expression or aim to deter political debate.”

And just in case the Prime Minister had missed the point went on:

““Human rights are universal, and apply online as much as they do offline… Everyone has the right to free and uncensored access to the internet.  … We saw in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya that cutting off the internet, blocking Facebook, jamming Al Jazeera, intimidating journalists and imprisoning bloggers does not create stability or make grievances go away.”

Oh dear …..