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Archive for the ‘House of Lords’ Category

Friday
May 25,2012

I have just returned from seeing “Posh” at the Duke of York’s Theatre.  I regret to say I was disappointed.  The acting is good and the play itself is quite powerful, but the reviews and write-ups had led me to expect something funnier with more pointed satire and a clearer political message.

However, don’t let me put you off – it is still worth seeing.

And it is certainly a potent reminder of the social background and early lives of those currently running the country.  The “Riot Club” is clearly based on the Bullingdon Club and you can draw your own conclusions as to who is meant to be the David Cameron or the Boris Johnson character in the play ….

Monday
May 21,2012

My question on the disappearance of Ilias Ali and other opposition politicians in Bangladesh was taken in the House of Lords earlier today.

These were the exchanges, demonstrating that the UK Government is taking it seriously and has made representations to the Government of Bangladesh:

Bangladesh

Question

2.52 pm

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what diplomatic representations they have made to the Government of Bangladesh about the disappearance and alleged kidnapping of Mr Ilias Ali and other opposition politicians.

My Lords, I am not going to have much time for any chillaxing today.

We are concerned about the disappearance of Mr Ilias Ali. On 9 May, our High Commissioner to Bangladesh and ambassadors of eight other European countries called on the Bangladesh authorities to conduct thorough investigations into disappearances, including that of Mr Ali. In meetings with the Prime Minister’s Office and senior officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we have urged the Government to do all that they can to locate Mr Ali and investigate the circumstances of his disappearance.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for that reply and for the expressions of concern by the British Government, but is he aware that there are a series of similar cases, including that of Mr Nazmul Islam, a local leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, who was abducted and murdered last December, and that according to the BBC 30 people have disappeared in that way in the past year? There are allegations, too, that the police’s Rapid Action Battalion is involved. In those circumstances, do Her Majesty’s Government accept that this reflects very badly on Bangladesh and its obviously fairly fragile democracy? What support can be given to ensure that the individuals concerned are rescued and restored to their families and that this sort of occurrence stops?
The noble Lord is right that this kind of development reflects badly on the political culture of any society in which opposition leaders are arrested or worse. He asked what can be done. The EU had a heads of mission visit in February to Bangladesh and stated its concerns very clearly. We are fully behind that. In addition, our senior Ministers, including my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, have been in direct personal contact with senior officials, including the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, and we take every opportunity to express our worries. It is a concern for us. People may ask why we are worried about Bangladesh. It is an important nation and the destination of one of DfID’s largest programmes, with £1 billion due to go to support Bangladesh development from this country over the next four years. It is a nation that we want to see stable and prosperous and to build on its economic achievements, which are beginning to show dividends. That is the rather encouraging side of an otherwise bad story.
My Lords, I had the opportunity to meet Mr Ilias Ali in Luton when he visited the United Kingdom a few months ago and raised human rights issues in Bangladesh with him, as I have with the Minister concerned. Sadly, we hear that Mr Ali has disappeared, along with his driver. However, this is not an isolated case. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has expressed concern over the disappearance of at least 22 people this year. A Dhaka-based organisation says that more than 50 people have disappeared since 2010. Security agencies, including the—
Question!
Can these cases be investigated by an international human rights organisation, and can we pressurise the Bangladeshi Government to put an end to such human rights abuses? Finally, can the British Government ask—
Fair enough; those two will do.
A whole range of concerns have been expressed by my noble friend. I understand his feelings. This is not a good story at all. He asks whether we will press for impartial and transparent investigations into these disappearances. We do so, have done so, and will continue to do so. In some cases, we will be pressing at an open door and there will be investigations, but in other cases we may not be so successful. However, one has to accept that the drive for ending this dark atmosphere over Bangladeshi politics must come from within that nation. We support Bangladesh in its efforts to stabilise its politics, to move towards the best kind of elections at the next appropriate time and to develop and lift its people out of poverty and the appalling environmental challenges that they also face and with which, sadly, we are all too familiar.
Lord Avebury:My Lords, will my noble friend ask the Bangladesh Government whether they will issue an invitation to the United Nations working group on disappearances, which is the proper body to investigate not just the recent disappearances mentioned in the Question but those going back a long way, most of which are attributed to the RAB?
Lord Howell of Guildford:That sounds like a very positive thought. I will certainly consider it and discuss it with my colleagues.”
Monday
May 14,2012

I know that some of my readers may find this difficult to believe, but I think I should make it clear that I am not – nor have I ever been – a very athletic person.

Moreover, for the avoidance of doubt I want to make it clear that the Toby Harris who is bearing the Olympic Torch through Walkerburn on the 14th June is not me.

He is clearly a very worthy torch-bearer.  However, if any one wants to catch sight of me in a tracksuit running or jogging or even walking slowly, they will be disappointed….

However, I wish my namesake (and indeed all the other Torch-bearers) my best wishes.

Thursday
May 10,2012

An hour before the scheduled time for tabling oral questions in the new Session I arrived in the Moses Room in the House of Lords to discover that I was twentieth in the queue.  Nevertheless, I was successful in tabling an oral question to be answered on Monday 21st May, as follows:

“To ask HM Government what diplomatic representations they have made to the Government of Bangladesh about the disappearance and alleged kidnapping of Mr Ilias Ali and other opposition politicians.”

Saturday
Apr 28,2012

I spent some time earlier today in Brick Lane meeting representatives of Britain’s Bangladeshi community to discuss the disappearance of Ilias Ali, a leading opposition figure in Bangladesh.

The apparent kidnapping was reported a few days ago by the Guardian who said:

“Ali was the latest in a series of political activists who have apparently been abducted, raising fears of a concerted campaign of intimidation aimed at opposition politicians. At least 22 people have gone missing so far this year, the local human rights organisation Ain o Salish Kendra said. In 2011, the number was 51. Estimates of the exact number vary though all indicate a rising overall total.

Many local and international campaigners have blamed security forces, accusing the paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) and local police of eliminating opposition figures to benefit the administration of Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister.”

The pattern of unexplained disappearances of opposition politicians is an extremely disturbing symptom of Bangladeshi politics and it is important that the international community makes clear to the Bangladeshi Government that such tactics – with which they deny any connection – is unacceptable.
I will be seeking to raise the matter in the House of Lords in the new session of Parliament, although obviously I would hope that Ilias Ali will have been restored by then to his family safe and well.

 

Thursday
Apr 26,2012

I have written a short piece for the Labour Lords website.

You can read it here, but the text is as follows:

London elects its Mayor in one week’s time.  The choice is a simple one.  Do Londoners want someone who cares about (and will do something about) the issues that affect them, such as rocketing transport fares, falling police numbers and poor prospects for young people? Or do they want a Mayor who is more pre-occupied with costly vanity projects and using the Mayoralty as a platform to gain the Leadership of the Conservative Party?

The brilliant Labour election broadcast was attacked by the Tories for being “scripted” (since when was an election broadcast not scripted?) and (wrongly) of having used actors.  The attacks were typical of a Conservative campaign that has sought to keep away from any proper policy debate or focus on what directly affects Londoners.

Indeed, what is interesting about the Tory campaign is what they do NOT talk about.  Their candidate’s manifesto barely mentions the word “Conservative” – relegating it to the published and promoted by small print at the end of the page.  But more significant is the failure to mention childcare or child poverty, the different faith communities that make up London, or LGBT Londoners.  And black Londoners are only mentioned in the context of crime.  The manifesto itself is light on policy and says little about what Boris Johnson would do in a second term in office.

By contrast, Ken Livingstone’s manifesto makes a series of striking pledges that match the concerns of Londoners.  Ken has committed to cut fares – saving the average fare-payer £1,000 over four years; crack down on crime by reversing the Tory Mayor’s police cuts; and help reduce rents with non-profit lettings agency for London. The Labour Mayoral campaign promises to provide free home insulation for those in fuel poverty and campaign to force the utility companies to cut heating bills; establish a London-wide Educational Maintenance Allowance of up to £30 per week to help young people stay in education; and support childcare with grants and interest-free loans.

Ken Livingstone has also promised to freeze both the Mayor’s share of Council Tax and the congestion charge for four years and to invest in improving transport services, build new homes and cut pollution.

On 3rd May, Londoners will also be electing twenty-five members of the London Assembly whose role is to hold the Mayor to account and to speak up for the interests of Londoners.   At present only eight of the seats on the Assembly are held by Labour (the Tories hold eleven with three LibDems, two Greens and one ex-BNP “other”).  With the Assembly being a mix of fourteen constituency seats and eleven more “additional members” elected to achieve proportionality, there is a real prospect of the balance shifting significantly.  Labour is hoping to gain Barnet and Camden where the incumbent Tory has made his name by making controversial statements and there are several other constituency seats being targeted.

With just one week to go and the public increasingly focusing on what sort of policies they want from London’s government, there is all to play for.

Sunday
Mar 18,2012

Nearly three years I posted about the threat of an electro-magnetic pulse that could permanently disable the electricity grid and most electrical systems.  I followed this up with some parliamentary questions and a further post this time last year that concluded:

“So the good news (heavy irony) is that the Government may have got round to working out what “the reasonable worst case scenario” might be.”

At the risk of coming over all I-told-you-so-ish, we now learn in today’s Observer that:

“Explosions on the sun that blast solar winds towards the Earth have been identified for the first time as one of the biggest threats to the UK’s ability to carry on normal daily life, according to a new official government register of major risks to the country.

A significant event on the sun could leave large swaths of the country without electricity, lead to the immediate grounding of planes, disable communications and even destroy household appliances.

The danger has been prioritised in the Cabinet Office’s National Risk of Civil Emergencies as the sun enters the most active point in its 10-year cycle – its solar max – raising the chances of a damaging burst of radiation, plasma or energetic particles (such as neutrons).

More significantly, the UK is regarded as particularly vulnerable because scientific advances have made the country more dependent on technology than ever before. Ministers have been advised by scientists that the most advanced technology is also the most delicate and that “high levels of energetic particles produced in the atmosphere by solar radiation storms can greatly enhance error rates in ground digital components found in all modern technology”.

The newly published risk register lists severe space weather alongside terrorist attacks, coastal flooding and pandemic influenza as likely sources of “serious damage to human welfare”.

It says: “Severe space weather can cause disruption to a range of technologies and infrastructure, including communications systems, electronic circuits and power grids.”

The register adds: “While storm impacts in the early- to mid-20th century appear relatively benign, dependency on technology vulnerable to space weather has pervaded most aspects of modern life, and therefore the disruptive consequences of a severe solar storm could be significant.”

The threat was placed on the register after a panel of experts, including two scientists from the Meteorological Office, produced a “reasonable worst case scenario” for ministers.”

 Only took a year, so lucky that last week’s solar flare passed off without problems.

 

Friday
Mar 16,2012

Just over a month ago the Government yet again snubbed the Mayor of London over his proposals for a pilot sobriety scheme, whereby the courts could impose on offenders, whose offences were alcohol-related, a requirement that they be compulsorily tested for alcohol daily for a three months period with a positive test meaning arrest and appearance again in court.

But now – either because they have finally listened to the overwhelming force of arguments coming from all corners of the House of Lords or because they want to provide a helpful headline to the Mayor prior to the Mayoral elections in seven weeks time – the Government has performed an 180° u-turn. They have now tabled an amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill that will enable the courts to impose sobriety orders as part of a suspended or community sentence.

Offenders would have to wear ankle tags that continuously monitor alcohol levels, for up to four months.  The orders would allow alcohol levels to be monitored either by these tags which test sobriety every half hour, or by requiring offenders to attend a police station daily – or at other regular intervals – to be breathalysed.

Of course, the other advantage from the Government’s point of view is that it saves a lengthy debate on a Bill that is already taking much more time to progress through its various stages in the House than expected.  And what is more it avoids the certainty of another defeat for the Government to add to the nine they have already had on the Bill so far in the Lords.

It is really a case of Healey’s Law: when in a hole, stop digging.

Tuesday
Mar 13,2012

Along with peers from all parts of the House of Lords, I have been pursuing concerns about the loophole that the Government was creating in the Protection of Freedoms Bill that would have meant that those volunteering to work with children did not have to be subject to Criminal Records Bureau checks or checked against the lists of those barred from working with children provided their activities were subject to “day to day supervision”.

These issues were debated again in the House of Lords late yesterday afternoon.  In the end, the issues boiled down to whether an organisation with volunteers working with children could have an “enhanced” Criminal Records Bureau check on such volunteers and whether that check would include information as to whether that individual had been barred from working with children.

The legislation as originally envisaged would not automatically have given organisations the right to have enhanced CRB checks on volunteers.  In essence, the Government have now conceded that right.

They resisted, however, the suggestion that the check should reveal whether or not an individual had previously been barred from working with children – even those 20% of those barred do not have a criminal conviction that would show up on a CRB check.

In the end, the Minister offered a compromise: the “enhanced” check would not disclose whether an individual had been barred but the information that had led to a decision to bar an individual would be made available to the police and they would have discretion as to whether to pass it on as part of the enhanced checking process.

Essentially this ought then to mean that any relevant information could be obtained by an organisation about a volunteer, but it seems a very convoluted way round of doing it.  It would surely be much simpler to say whether that individual had or had not been barred.  It also places the onus and the discretion on the police to pass on the information – so any failure to do so will no doubt lead to criticism of the police service concerned.

For those who really want the details the debate is here and here.

Tuesday
Mar 13,2012

An exchange in the House of Lords this afternoon demonstrated that following the election of Police and Crime Commissioners public police accountability is to be done on the cheap.

Baroness Ruth Henig asked how much money was to be made available for Police and Crime Panels (these are the new bodies set up under the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act to hold Police and Crime Commissioners to account and which will in effect be the only public forum in which policing decisions can be questioned).  The answer was £53,300 per panel.

When I pointed out that this would be insufficient to employ more than one or two people to support busy local councillors fulfil their scrutiny role, I was told that perhaps I didn’t understand how local authorities work.  This produced loud guffaws – not recorded in Hansard – as colleagues around the House seemed to think that my twenty-six years of experience in elected local and regional government might be rather more extensive than that of the Minister.

The full exchanges were as follows:

 

Police and Crime Panels

Question

2.44 pm

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how much money they will make available to each police and crime panel to cover start-up and first-year running costs.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Henley):My Lords, we are committed to funding police and crime panels to do the job set out for them in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act. We will be providing annual funding of £53,300 per panel as well as an additional £920 per panel member per annum for expenses.

Baroness Henig:I thank the Minister very much for his response. One of the few things we all agreed on when the police and social responsibility Bill was before the House was the need for these panels to be strong and to operate as effectively as possible under the new governance arrangements for the policing landscape. Does the Minister not agree that these panels will want to meet regularly, probably at least once every other month; that they will have extensive legal and financial needs; that they will need good financial and legal advice; that they will certainly have extensive training requirements in the first year to enable them to operate effectively and cohesively; and that, therefore, the sums he mentioned are totally inadequate to get these panels operating as we would like in the first year?

Lord Henley:My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Baroness at all. As the Bill went through, we made the function of the panels quite clear: it should be that of a light-touch approach. We then announced how much money would be available for them, which was £38,300 per year each. We have reviewed that figure in the light of various amendments made to the Bill, particularly some that originated this House. The figure, as I have just announced, has been increased to £53,300. We think that that is enough for the panels to do their job. The noble Baroness ought to remember that these panels are not replacing police authorities; their job is to review the actions of police and crime commissioners.

Lord Imbert:In the light of those who have said that they will now put themselves forward as police and crime commissioners, are the Minister and the Government content that they will not bring party politics to bear on policing operational decisions?

Lord Henley:My Lords, I am sure that politics will not come into this, but there will be some people who will stand under party colours. However, that does not mean they will necessarily bring politics into this matter. The noble Lord is going slightly wide of the Question, which is about the panels. The important point is to differentiate the job of the police and crime panels from that of the police and crime commissioner.

Baroness Hamwee:My Lords, even with a light touch, the panels will have to get to grips with a lot of paperwork and information, and undertake a lot of discussion in order to carry out their job of scrutiny properly. If the amount that is to be provided is insufficient, will members be expected to look to their own stretched local authorities for professional and technical back-up?

Lord Henley:My Lords, as I said in answer to the first supplementary question, we have increased by some 40 per cent the amount available to the panels in the light of discussions and thoughts we have had following the passage of the Bill. We believe that it will be sufficient. If individual local authorities wish to spend more, it will be for those authorities to make that decision themselves.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath:My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that the police and crime panels are the only check and balance on the potential politicisation of our police forces through elected police commissioners. This is not wide of the Question. Will he respond to reports that Mr Kit Malthouse sought to interfere in the Metropolitan Police’s actions in investigating phone hacking? That is but one example of the risk to this new system, in which the police and crime panels are the only defence but the Government are not going to fund them properly.

Lord Henley:My Lords, I have made it quite clear that we are going to fund the panels properly. I am not going to respond to the specific allegation made by the noble Lord, but if necessary—if I think it appropriate—I will write to him. What I am making clear is that we think we are providing appropriate funding for the panels to do the job that was set out in the police Bill last year. We think that they can do that because their job is to look at what the PCCs are doing.

Lord Harris of Haringey:My Lords, the experience in London is that so far the only information to have emerged from the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, which is a surrogate police and crime commissioner, is a series of listed decisions on the website. How on earth is a police and crime panel outside London going to get to grips with the detail underlying that and the issues determined by the police and crime commissioner, with money that is insufficient to employ more than one or two people in support of busy local authority councillors who will have many other roles in addition to that on the panel?

Lord Henley:My Lords, I think that the noble Lord misunderstands—dare I say it?—how local authorities work. Obviously, the funding will be available to provide for some staffing to assist that panel, but within that local authority there will be other officers doing other jobs who will also be able to assist in that role. That does not require the extra funding that he described. However much money the Government offered, no doubt he and others would say that it was inadequate. We made an announcement on how much it would be. Having reviewed it, we have since increased it. We think that it will be sufficient.