Metropolitan Police Authority meeting – the body language says it all

The Metropolitan Police Authority is in session. Mayor Boris Johnson is in the chair and loyal Uber Vice Chairman, Kit Malthouse AM, is at his side.
Len Duvall AM has stood down (to be replaced by John Biggs AM). Jennette Arnold AM asked at the beginning of the meeting whether Len would be able to continue his work on the MPA’s inquiry into the Stockwell. Mayor Johnson said this would be fine: Uber Vice Chairman Malthouse shifted in his seat and scratched his ear.

Later Cindy Butts suggested that a future full Authority should receive a report on the work being done on sexual violence (against the policy that the full Authority should only discuss the Commissioner’s monthly report and any reports required by statute). Uber Vice Chairman Malthouse folded his arms and frowned.

Archie Galloway loses his seat in the “elections” for the City of London Common Council

The City of London is a strange quasi-democratic organisation – much more akin to the management committee of trading estate than a local council.  I say that because even its “reformed” electoral system residential voters are potentially overwhelmed by voters nominated by the businesses in the area.  This year in its “elections” a number of individuals stood for election explicitly as Labour candidates (most candidates describe themselves as “Independent” or give no description at all).  None of these Labour candidates were elected, but there does seem to have been rather more interest in the Corporation’s elections than normal with a majority of wards having contested elections and in some instances the turnout creeping up to over 400 “votes” cast.

I am not sufficiently versed in the internal politics of the Corporation (and I am not sure I want to be) to make much of the significance of the detailed results.  However, I did notice that Archie Galloway appears to have lost his seat on the Common Council, having been a member since 1981.  Having seen Archie on a variety of London-wide committees during the 1990s, I always regarded him as a fundamentally decent man who seemed to have the wider interests of London at heart.  I trust the “electors” of Broad Street knew what they were doing.

Postal Services Bill gets its Second Reading without a vote

The Postal Services Bill has had its first full debate today.  The Bill makes provisions for the restructuring of the Royal Mail Group, addresses problems in the Royal Mail Pension Fund and changes some of the regulatory arrangements.

Usually, the House of Lords gives Bills – however controversial – are given an unopposed Second Reading, so that they can be given detailed consideration at the Committee and Report stages.  Today, however, Lord Tony Clarke, a former postman who became Deputy General Secretary of the Union of Postal Workers, put forward an amendment to the motion that the bill be now read a second time, to leave out all the words after “that” and insert “this House declines to give the bill a second reading”.

In introducing the Bill, Lord Peter Mandelson set out clearly the case for modernisation:

“We live in a digital age.  As we send more texts and emails, we send fewer letters. The Mobile Data Association estimates that in 2008, we sent around 216 million text messages per day.  That same year, we sent five million fewer letters per day than we had done just two years ago.


The fall in mail volumes is happening across many modern economies but I do not accept that postal services are locked into an inevitable decline. I believe mail is still a critical part of our social fabric, our communication infrastructure and our economy. And for those reasons, I want to see Royal Mail modernised and made fit for the future.


The Government is fully committed to maintaining the universal service. Royal Mail is at the heart of that service. Only Royal Mail has the ability to collect and deliver letters anywhere in the country, six days a week, for a single, affordable price.


That’s why the Royal Mail’s service requires sustaining not abandoning – and sustaining with a vision that will ensure its commercial success.”


He also made clear the Government’s commitment to:

“a universal service which is reliable, offers good value for money, is innovative and responds to their needs.


Our proposals seek to deliver that.  Part 3 of the Bill sets the standard for the universal service.  It requires Ofcom to ensure that the universal service is maintained.  If Ofcom finds that there is tension between its functions in relation to post, the Bill is explicit in requiring the regulator to give precedence to the universal service. “


In the end, Tony Clarke withdrew his amendment – while making it absolutely clear that he was not convinced by the arguments.  So we didn’t vote today, but there will be no doubt much detailed debate and discussion over the weeks ahead.


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.

If Sir Alan Sugar is the answer then someone’s asking the wrong question

According to the front page of today’s Evening Standard, Sir Alan Sugar has been approached to be the Labour candidate in 2012 London Mayoral elections.  Apart from my doubts as to the accuracy of the piece written by Andrew Gilligan (the election is after all over three years away), I do wonder whether those who think Sir Alan might be the right answer are asking the right question in the first place.

Sir Alan is forthright in his opinions – for example, agreeing that we live in “a broken society” (who did I last hear using that phrase?) and that the answer is to scrap the Human Rights Act.  That forthrightness is refreshing and London’s Mayor certainly needs to be forthright. But is that a sufficient qualification?

Perhaps I am old-fashioned but it does seem to me that whoever is the next Mayor should be someone who has demonstrably demonstrated that they care about London and that they have experience of the kind necessary to set the strategic direction for the city and carry people (including all the different organisations and groups that are the necessary partners for effective action) with them to deliver that direction.

As Sir Alan himself says:

“I’ve always been one of those people that walks in the office in the morning and says ’this is what we’re going to do’. I don’t think you can do that in politics and government.”

And if he were to be the Labour candidate, I rather suspect that the Labour Party members involved in the selection would expect some consistent signs that he was committed to Labour’s ideals.

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 …

Will Waltham Forest Labour Group finally take proper action to deal with the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund scandal?

Over the last year or so I have become increasingly exasperated by the failure of the Labour Group Leadership on Waltham Forest Council to respond effectively to the widening concerns about how Neighbourhood Renewal Fund monies have been used in the Borough.

In February of last year, I asked a series of Parliamentary Questions about the concerns that were being raised: firstly about the use of money by EduAction who were at that time running the Borough’s education service, then to what extent Government Offices properly monitor the use of Neighbourhood Renewal Funds (checking the outcomes claimed) and whether the Government was satisfied with the work done by Dr Foster Intelligence for Waltham Forest (using central government monies), and finally about whether the Government Office for London was happy that money intended for five wards with high deprivation had been spent elsewhere.

These questions related to information passed to me from local residents that suggested that outcomes relating to non-existent children had been claimed in respect of the Youth at Risk programme, that £47,000 had been paid for a health needs assessment of the area that had not been reclaimed despite the organisation that provided the assessment acknowledging that the work concerned was inadequate and broke its own standards for accuracy, and that money had been diverted away from the areas targetted towards other pet projects.  The answers I received suggested that there was no formal process by which Government Offices checked whether the outcomes claimed for particular projects funded by them as the individual local authorities were the accountable bodies for the expenditure.  The Government Office confined itself to monitoring the progress of the local authority as a whole towards theoverall targets set.

I followed this up with a long series of requests to the Council under the Freedom of Information Act, as did local residents and others.  Eventually, the Council was goaded into action and published some of the findings of its own internal auditors and commissioned external reviews of some of its processes. 

These raised even more concerns – such as, the £6,000 received by one external contractor although £66,000 had been paid to him according to the documentation in the accounts.  Significantly, one of the external inquiries found that the documents about how individual decisions on payment of specific grants were made, by whom and the purpose for which the grants had been made were missing in a large number of cases.

In respect of a number of these issues, local residents have asked the police to investigate.

Now, the Council’s new Chief Executive has proposed a further and broader inquiry that will look at ALL of the Council’s procurement processes.  As the local newspaper says:

Documents reveal a systemic failure within the council to correctly allocate, administer and monitor Neighbourhood Renewal Fund spending since 2004.

A police investigation is currently conducted into allegations that EduAction, the company which used to manage education in the borough, used NRF money to boost profits.

The Better Neighbourhood Initiative (BNI) was launched in an attempt to target NRF more effectively, but it later emerged that many BNI contracts, totalling millions of pounds, did not follow rules to prevent fraud.

Throughout the developing scandal, the leadership of the Labour Group in Waltham Forest seems to have been hoping that the problem would simply go away.  Initially, they declared themselves confident that all decisions had been properly taken.  They resisted further investigations – so much so, that the traditional questions of “What did they know and when did they know it?” started to be asked.

At one stage, I received a phone message from one of them, noting that I was asking all these questions and inviting me to “resolve it within the Party”.  I am afraid there are wider public interest questions at stake here and these matters need to be seen to be resolved openly and transparently.

Now they have an opportunity: the Chief Executive has proposed a further inquiry (I assume this is not intended as another delaying tactic), so when they discuss his recommendation tomorrow night, they should acknowledge that things have gone seriously wrong, commit themselves to being totally open about who was responsible, and put in place all the necessary steps to restore public confidence.  Nothing less will be sufficient.

So was The Sunday Times acting in the public interest?

I’ve already made my views known about the tactics employed by The Sunday Times in pursuing their House of Lords story.  They did deceive: they purported to be from a fictitious public affairs company with a fictitious website and they said they were acting for a fictitious client.  They did try to entrap by coaxing those they saw to offer to do things that clearly should not be done.

But is the story itself in the public interest?  Well the answer has to be “Yes”.  It should not be possible for commercial (or any other) interests covertly to purchase changes to legislation.  As Leader of the House, Jan Royall, said this morning:

“the standards, probity and conduct of members of the House of Lords must be of the highest level”.

She has pledged that the investigations into the actions of individuals must be searching and fair.  This is right – all those named must have a full opportunity to defend themselves against the accusations against them.  It would be wrong to pre-judge the outcome of those investigations.

She has also initiated a full review by the Privileges Committee (not a Labour-dominated body incidentally – it has sixteen members: four Labour, five Conservative, two LibDems and five Cross-benchers) of the House’s rules governing external interests.  Again she made clear her position this morning:

“In the review of the rules of the House in this area – including the place of consultancy work, and whether we should have much more forceful sanctions against peers found to be in breach of the rules – I believe we do need to make changes. The House is a more modern and professional place in a very different world: we need to make sure our rules and structures reflect that.”

The outcome of this review will, I hope, be much clearer rules and guidelines as to what members of the House can and cannot do (with appropriate – and significant – sanctions available against anyone who goes outside those rules).

If that is the consequence of The Sunday Times story, then that result is in the public interest.

If it also helps bring about a proper debate about the role of the Second Chamber and the purpose people want it to fulfil in our system of government within our unwritten constitution, then that too is unequivocally something to be welcomed.

But that doesn’t mean I have to like the journalistic tactics to which I personally was subjected …….

Even in the House of Lords emotions run high as Barack Obama is sworn in as US President

More than fifty Labour Peers packed into the office of the Leader of the House of Lords to listen to the swearing in and inaugural address of Barack Obama as 44th President of the United States.  This couldn’t happen in the House of Commons – just as President Obama stepped forward to begin his address, their division bells rang so MPs had to go and vote.  No divisions in the Lords (none so far this Session – they will come later), so no interruptions and even Labour Peers fell silent to listen (apart from one wit pointing out that even the most articulate American President in over fifty years still stumbled over the oath of office).  And yes, it was an emotional moment as those present listened to those words of hope and repositioning of the United States.  The hard work begins now ….