The Government has tabled some new amendments to the Counter Terrorism Bill to be discussed next Tuesday. This is at about as late a stage as it is possible to do so: the Bill is nearly at the end of its Report Stage with Third Reading scheduled for 17th November. This in itself is considered bad practice and the Opposition Parties can be expected to kick up a fuss.
The amendments themselves are complicated and (in so far as I understand them) will enable the Treasury to give directions requiring UK businesses to exercise greater degrees of due diligence and in certain circumstances to limit or cease doing business with certain companies or organisations based in particular countries.
The Home Office is not at fault on this – the amendments emanate from the Treasury. Inevitably, they will be difficult to handle (given that they are so late, so complicated, appear to widen the scope of the Bill, and are potentially controversial). The lucky minister who will have to introduce them in the Lords is Paul Myners. Paul Myners is one of the newest Ministers. He was appointed as Financial Services Secretary to the Treasury and Minister for the City in last month’s reshuffle (having previously been Chair of the Guardian Media Group) and only took his seat in the Lords a week or two ago.
Quite properly Paul Myners arranged a briefing session for all Peers this afternoon and arrived with a team of four or five Treaury civil servants to explain detailed points. This would all have been fine and dandy, but when I posed the question whether these provisions were intended for circumstances that might not relate to combatting terrorism the civil servants appeared to offer conflicting views. Eventually after four of the five had spoken, they agreed on a line (yes, the provisions could relate to money laundering by organised crime or to nation states raising money to finance weapons of mass destruction). Not exactly an impressive performance from Treasury officials.
In my view the provisions are sensible, but in an ideal world should not have been included in a Bill all about terrorism and indeed the “long title” of the Bill will have to be amended to permit the amendments.
So why is it being included in this Bill? It turns out that there is a need to comply with international requirements on this point by February 2009 and this is the only way that the provisions can be enacted in primary legislation in time. That might be fair enough, but the need for these changes has been apparent for some time and it turns out that the Conservatives called for them four months ago.
This is hardly going to make it easy for Paul Myners. The only good news for him is that the Conservatives are unlikely to vote against the amendments as they have been calling for them. Yet, I can hear the we-told-you-so cries already and the question still has to be answered as to why the amendments weren’t put forward earlier. Hardly the best way to support a new Minister.
Last night saw that rare event a tied vote in the House of Lords. The occasion was an amendment moved to the Counter-Terrorism Bill on the minutiae of the authorisations required by the police before they can question someone after they have been charged. The vote was 130 in favour to 130 against and the amendment therefore fell (in accordance with Lords’ Standing Orders or for that matter Citrine’s “ABC of Chairmanship”). After this period of high drama, the opposition parties clearly decided to take away their ball (there clearly were not quite enough of them about to defeat the Government) and said that it would not be possible to carry on and debate the final three amendments on the Bill as they had not had time to be briefed properly, so discussion had to stop at 7.30pm even though it had been scheduled to continue till 10,00pm. It later transpired that the real reason is that they want to vote on one of the three amendments left over and would rather do so “in prime time” next Tuesday ….
There were probably rather too many Labour colleagues around last night for the Opposition’s taste – certainly too many to risk a vote at 8.00 or 9.00pm. However, this was not just because there was a three-line whip, there were also the added attractions of drinks, peanuts and pretzels in the office of the Leader of the House of Lords with the television tuned to CNN for the American election results. We were all set for the long haul – apparently the Opposition weren’t!
I have tabled a small amendment to the Planning Bill which would include “policing and emergency services facilities” in the list of “infrastructure” that may be funded from the proposed new Community Infrastructure Levy. This modest proposal makes sense (I would say that wouldn’t I): major new developments are likely to require additional emergency facilities. A new housing estate or a big new shopping complex may require a new police office, fire station or ambulance base, and it is legitimate that the developers should be asked to fund this.
My amendment would be to Clause 202 of the Bill. This is a list of seven items that the term “infrastructure” includes. Listed are schools, medical facilities, open spaces, sports facilities and flood defences, but nothing about the emergency services.
At the request of the Minister, I have now met with a civil servant from the Department of Communities and Local Government to discuss the amendment. The civil service line is that the list is not meant to be exhaustive and that, if the list is too long, the Courts may interpret it as exhaustive. DCLG is clear, he says, that the emergency services should be classed as part of “infrastructure”. However, I point out that a number of local councils are already saying that the first call on monies from the Levy should be items specifically listed in the Bill. His argument seems to be that if emergency services are included on the face of the Bill they may be less likely to be funded. I am not sure I follow the logic …
Yesterday, I did the second talk in the last month to secondary school pupils. This is my contribution to the Lord Speaker’s Schools Outreach programme, which Helene Hayman has launched to get school children to understand more about Parliament and the role of the House of Lords. There is nothing like an hour of being questioned by two hundred or so fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds to provide a reality check. Interestingly, a large number of questions about the “credit crunch” and the banking crisis. If there comments are representative about what they and their families are thinking, it is clear that the Government must do a lot more to get across what is happening, why it matters and why the approach Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling are taking is the right one.
Mayor Boris Johnson came to the House of Lords All-Party London Group (a strange mix of peers including a few ex-MPs and ex-AMs from London plus others interested and chaired by Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, son of the World War II Field Marshall). I asked the Mayor about the duty he has under the Greater London Authority Act to promote equality of opportunity for everyone within London. This duty is dear to my heart having moved an amendment to get something like this included in the Bill when I was a new-ish member of the House of Lords. I was pleased to hear the Mayor say that he had realised how important this was as he had campaigned for the job around London, although surprised – perhaps only slightly – that it had not occurred to him until then. He went on to say that he is in favour of celebrating all the major religious festivals and making progress on recruiting more black and minority ethnic police officers. So that’s good to know. Obiously, there will have to be a bit more to it than that though …..
It was a delight to welcome over a hundred pupils from primary schools all over Britain to Parliament this afternoon. The occasion was to award the prizes to the winners of the PITCOM (Parliamentary Information Technology Committee) 2008 Make IT Happen competition. The schools were asked to use technology to describe how they would change an aspect of their community for the better. As chair of the judges, I can testify that the final decisions on the national winners were genuinely difficult – the sheer range of ideas, the innovation and enthusiam showed that there is every reason to be confident about the UK’s technological future when these pupils grow up.
No-one really expected the Government’s proposals for reserve powers to detain terrorists suspects for up to 42 days to pass through the House of Lords. Even with all the safeguards – judicial oversight of each individual case, the proposals only triggered after a tortuous process to confirm the circumstances ware really extreme, and even then the longer detention period automatically lapsing after two months – heavy opposition was inevitable.
The majority against was larger than expected – I had guessed 170 (and been told I was pessimistic) – but in the end the Government lost the vote by 191 votes. Having been part of the Light Brigade arguing in support of the proposals (Radio 4’s Today programme, Radio 5 and the debate itself), I was however taken aback by the speed with which the climbdown was announced – less than two hours after the vote. It did feel like the Grand Old Duke of York was settling the Parliamentary tactics …..
Fourteen months after publication, the Select Committee report on “Personal Internet Security” was finally debated on the floor of the House of Lords. Since we produced the report much has happened. There have been the well-publicised data losses at HM Revenues and Customs and from other Government departments and agencies. And indeed today, we hear of the loss by EDS of an MoD hard drive containing the details of 100,000 service men and women. This all confirms my view that the Committee was absolutely right to call for a Data Breach Notification law in the UK.
This is, of course, about the culture within organisations – every employee has got to understand the importance of maintaining data security and their responsibility for doing so. Perhaps if people recognised the potential value of personal data they might be less cavalier in its treatment. For many people, a stolen identity will take weeks or months of effort to sort out. The FSA estimate that the cost of identity fraud in the UK (admittedly using a fairly wide definition) is around £1.7 billion. During the inquiry we were told by Team Cymru that on a single server in a typical month there were for sale the data from 32,000 compromised Visa cards, and 13,000 Mastercards. The price nearly three years ago was $1 for a US card, $2 for a UK card. Associated data was also for sale including the card-holder’s mother’s maiden name etc.
Perhaps if employees were told that each personal record was worth at least £100 – they might treat a memory stick or for that matter that MoD hard drive containing a hundred thousand personal records as though it was worth £10 million – certainly with more respect.
It maybe that engendering such a change in culture will require more than a Data Breach Notification Law. Perhaps we need something more akin to the framework created by health and safety legislation, where every manager would have to take personal responsibility for delivering information security in their area or face prosecution. And perhaps we need an IT equivalent of the US Sarblanes-Oxley requirements to make people at Board level take their responsibilities to heart.
Today’s first day of the Committee Stage of the Counter-Terrorism Bill has already produced a spate of woolly thinking from both the Conservatives and the LibDems.
Less than twenty lines into the Bill, Baroness Hanham, the Tory spokeswoman, proposed that the decision on whether to remove a document for further examination from the premises of a suspected terrorist during a search would have to be taken by a police officer of at least the rank of Inspector. The idea presumably was that in the height of a counter-terrorist operation with possibly many properties being searched police officers would have to be queuing up to wait an Inspector’s decision on what could be taken away. Anyway, the Tories saw this as putting themselves at the vanguard of the civil liberties movement. The effect was rather weakened by another amendment they moved slightly later that would have removed the requirement to return documents removed that turn out not to be relevant within 48 hours. I rather think that anyone whose house is raided and searched would rather have a legal guarantee that any papers removed will be returned within 48 hours than the knowledge that someone with two pips on their shoulder had authorised the removal.
Shortly afterwards, Baroness Miller for the LibDems offered their version of insightful thinking: an amendment to provide every suspected terrorist with a document setting out how any papers seized might fit into the investigation against them. Hardly practical policing!
Still today was just the warm-up – Monday will bring the debate on 42 days and all that.
The first day back after the recess is like the first day of a new school term: endless inquiries about have you had a good holiday (for me the holidays seem like – and were – weeks ago). The House was in a very good humoured mood at the first question time with tributes to the outgoing Leader (Cathy Ashton – off to be the new Peter Mandelson in Brussels) and courteous welcomes to Ministers performing in their new roles for the first time.
Lord Strathclyde, the Leader of the Opposition, informed the House that he knew that Cathy had not been expecting the move and he could testify to this, having been having lunch with her when the call came from No 10. Jan Royall, the new Leader of the House, then regaled everyone with the fact that she had been having a swim when the Prime Minister’s phone call came. (There is a worrying emphasis on fitness amongst our new leadership – Steve Bassam, the new Lords Chief Whip, told me that he was in his running shorts about to go for a jog when his call came.) Finally, Andrew Adonis, the new transport minister having been promoted from his previous job in education, told the House that he had been at the Wallace Collection when the Prime Minister phoned and had been roundly ticked off for taking a call there by one of the custodians.
Pleasantries over the House then got stuck into the minutiae of the Planning Bill for the next seven hours.