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Archive for the ‘Parliament’ Category

Wednesday
Nov 21,2012

This morning the Children’s Commissioner published her shocking report “I thought I was the only one. The only one in the world.” on child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups. This authoritative and well-researched document reports that it had identified 2,409 children as having been identified as victims of sexual exploitation by gangs or groups.

And what has been the Government’s response?

To welcome the report and promise action?

Unfortunately not.

Instead, anonymous government spokesmen briefed the media to say that the report was “over-emotional” and “sensationalist”

I raised this in Question Time in the House of Lords this afternoon. The Minister’s response was hardly effusive: the report was “useful to have”.

Here is the exchange:

“Lord Harris of Haringey:
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has referred to the Children’s Commissioner’s report which came out today, in particular the dreadful findings about how many children in care have been sexually abused. Will the Minister tell the House the Government’s stance about that report, given that, apparently, people speaking on behalf of the Government to both the BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme and the Sun said that the report was overemotional and were trying to undermine its conclusions?

Lord Hill of Oareford:
The Government’s stance is that the report from the deputy Children’s Commissioner is helpful for the Government to have. We will reflect on the findings that it makes in terms of its recommendations and its estimates about the extent of the problem. I think I am right in saying that the report recognises that making any precise estimate is by nature very difficult, but the more information we have the better. Even before this report, the Government have been seeking to improve the systems for getting accurate reporting from various local agencies and authorities to make sure that we have as accurate a picture as possible to make sure that we do not underestimate or overestimate the problem. Everyone is very aware of the salience of this issue and the important issues that that report gives rise to.”

Almost as though the Government are frightened of the issue.

Thursday
Nov 15,2012

Last Friday there was a debate in the House of Lords on the Second Reading of a Private Members Bill introduced by Baroness Howe of Idlicote on Online Safety with particular emphasis on the protection of children.  The Bill would have the effect of requiring internet safety providers ansd mobile phone operators to provide an internet service without access to pornography (although adult subscribers would be able to opt in to receive adult material).

The Bill was welcomed by virtually every speaker from all parts of the House (although reservations were expressed by one Conservative and one LibDem peer).  The Minister (Viscount Younger of Leckie), however, declined to say whether the Government supported the principle of the Bill (ie of protecting children from adult content online) and said that such matters were the responsibility of parents, even though many parents are far less technologically adept than their children.

A flavour of the Minister’s equivocation is given by these exchanges from the closing section of his speech:

Viscount Younger of Leckie:  I realise that many questions have come out of this interesting debate. If I have not been able to answer any, particularly on age verification, I will certainly make it a point to reply to noble Lords.

Baroness Thornton: The Minister mentioned age verification, and he prayed in aid the totally inadequate self-regulatory proposals that have been proven not to work. They are not working and we have an increasing problem. Will the Minister confirm that both the Byron report and the Bailey report recommended the use of age verification to block adult content on the internet?

Viscount Younger of Leckie: I can give the briefest of answers in the time available on age verification. It is an important issue. However, I would make a distinction between age verification in terms of the gambling sites, which the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, mentioned. My understanding is that with gambling sites there is a clear distinction at the age of 18. Material for the over-18s is pin-protected. Taking our view that parents would in effect be in control, parents would want to set a range of controls appropriate for their children, which may be different for a five year-old and a 15 year-old.

I started by thanking the noble Baroness for giving us the opportunity to debate these issues today and I close by doing the same.

Lord Harris of Haringey: I am sorry because I realise the Minister is trying to close his remarks. But I am trying to understand the answer that he has just given my noble friend. Is he in essence saying that the Government are disregarding the recommendations from those two reports because the age verification used for gambling sites kicks in only at 18? The point is that they are saying that age verification is an important mechanism. We have the evidence from the gambling sites that age verification is possible and can work. Why is it not possible to put the two things together and introduce age verification structures that may kick in at younger ages?

Viscount Younger of Leckie: I note the noble Lord’s comment but the issue of age verification is more complicated than at first it appears. We need more time to discuss this. The best thing for me to do is to get back to the noble Lord and other noble Lords who have raised this particular issue with some answers.

Technology changes rapidly and legislation does not. Industry is better placed than legislators to design the simple and effective tools that parents want, keeping pace with technology and the way that their children access the internet. But there is a role for government in setting an expectation, bringing the right people together and always pushing for more and better-

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass: I am sorry to intervene again, but it is necessary. Everything that the Minister appears to be telling us is unsatisfactory. If it is not possible for legislators to set standards, how will a mishmash of providers across the entire community come up with anything that is consistent and reliable? Will he at least tell us that?

Viscount Younger of Leckie: I can reassure the noble Lord that it is in their interests to bring themselves up to scratch in order to be able to produce online safety for children. I know that this will not be a satisfactory answer for him, but our view is that it is the responsibility of parents, ultimately, to take this forward.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, why does the Minister say that it is in the interests of online suppliers to do this? It costs them money, they are in a highly competitive market and I suspect that a large number of them make money on the basis that they know perfectly well what some of their users want to access online and they simply want to increase the number of users. Why is it in their interests to introduce this without some form of regulation in the background?

Viscount Younger of Leckie: We are getting into quite a detailed discussion. My best response is that I look forward to discussing these issues in more depth in Committee.

In conclusion, the Government will continue to ensure that everyone is playing their part in keeping our children safe online.

Baroness Thornton: I am sorry, but before the noble Viscount sits down, I asked very specifically at least twice during my remarks whether the Government support the Bill in principle. The Minister has not answered that question. It is very important. It does not necessarily mean that the Minister wants the Bill, as it stands, to go forward, but the principle behind the Bill, that of protecting children from adult content online, seems obvious and I would really like to hear from the Government that that is the case. I do not wish to be rude to the Minister, but I wonder whether his speech was drafted in California or Whitehall.

Viscount Younger of Leckie: I do not have to say whether I agree with the Bill or not. I am simply summing up and giving my considered views on the issues that have been raised today.”

This morning I have signed a letter sent by Baroness Howe to the Prime Minister seeking urgent clarification of the Government’s position.  The letter says:

“We are writing to express concern about the Government’s policy on child internet safety following Friday’s debate on the Online Safety Bill in the House of Lords.

Just last month OFCOM published research highlighting the problems parents face in setting up their own filtering arrangements without government assistance, demonstrating what we already know, namely that parental controls are perceived to be  “a fairly complex area, and… choosing and installing them would therefore require a considerable investment of time and effort”.

In this context, we feel that the approach suggested by the Minister – who appeared to suggest that putting in place appropriate protections is a matter for parents who should be better educated – is less than helpful.

We were particularly concerned that the Minister dismissed an opt-in system, as if the Government had always been opposed to it. This is troubling for two reasons. First, the opt-in model provides parents with the greatest level of assistance with filtering, whilst not in any way taking their decision-making responsibility away. It actually empowers them. Second, the opt-in model has just been presented by the Government (further to your very welcome intervention after the publication of the Perry Report) as one of three options that it is considering for promoting child safety on-line in its summer Parental Internet Controls Consultation, to which it has yet to make a formal response.  This is particularly unfortunate not least because many parents engaged with the consultation believing opt-in to be a genuine option.

As the Government has yet to publish its response to the Parental Internet Controls Consultation, the good news is that there is still scope for the position presented on Friday to be reassessed in light of consultation submissions and indeed arguments made during the Second Reading debate.

We would urge you to do this and would be grateful for the opportunity for a meeting with you to discuss this matter further.

In closing a positive note from the Minister’s response is that he did not seem very sure about rejecting age-verification and said he would write to Peers. The truth is that without age-verification any form on online protection will be very weak. That age-verification is possible is clearly demonstrated by the regulatory frameworks surrounding online gambling and the sale of alcohol online which were stressed during the debate. Age-verification must be central to whatever regulatory framework the Government adopts.

We remain deeply concerned about this issue, as we know you are, and want to work with you to secure the most robust regulatory framework for our children. They deserve it.”

The letter is signed by three Labour, one Conservative, one LibDem and five independent/crossbench peers.

My speech in the debate was as folows:

“My Lords, the whole House is enormously grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, for bringing forward this timely and important Bill today. The degree of support that it seems to be finding from all quarters of your Lordships’ House is encouraging. Indeed, it is encouraging to see the range of speakers that we have today. That fact alone should send a very clear message to the Government that they should no longer be dithering on these issues but moving to try to find some solutions. There is also a very clear message to the internet service providers that they, too, need to put their house in order and start to find the most appropriate technical solutions to these problems.

The only note of dissent so far has been from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. He seemed to make the point that the Bill would place too much of an onus on internet service providers, that this was not what they were good at, and that responsibility should essentially rest with parents. I hope that I have not misrepresented his argument too greatly. That is the standard defence that is heard in these arguments in all aspects: that the internet service providers are the mere conduit or the mere pipeline by which this stuff gets into people’s homes and that somehow, because they are merely the provider of the pipe, they are not responsible for anything that flows through it. To argue that they therefore have no responsibility is rather like saying that water companies have no responsibility for purifying the water that they deliver, because their main purpose-the thing that they are good at-is providing pipes. Actually, they are not that good at that either, given the level of leaks. We do not accept that argument. We say that there is a responsibility on the providers of the pipeline to ensure that the water is pure and safe. That is essentially what the Bill is about.

Let us be clear. In this country, access to pornography is controlled offline. Therefore, there are limitations but they are not total limitations. However, it is made more difficult to access pornography in printed form, on DVD or whatever else. This legislation, should it be passed, will enable us to adjust to the fact that society increasingly exists online. It levels the playing field. It brings what is happening on the internet to the level of everything else, whether it is the top shelf of the newsagent or the age clarification which exists for cinema or DVD material.

We also know that Parliament has already legislated on the principle of age verification. The Gambling Act requires robust age verification. We have already tested this and Parliament has been through these arguments. As my noble friend Lady Dean said, the world did not end because age verification was required in that area-actually, she was applying it to another area, but the principle is that the world did not end. Age verification can be done and it now needs to be applied more generally. The solutions are available and workable. A number of sites notionally have an age restriction but the reality is that those restrictions are laughably weak. However, mechanisms are available that can make those age restrictions work. We should be encouraging that and this Bill is a step towards enabling that to happen.

The other change that has happened in recent years, which we have to accept, is that most children now spend much of their lives online. Most of their social transactions are mediated through internet-enabled mobile phones. The days when I recall one of my sons spending about three hours on the phone to arrange where he and his mates would meet no longer apply. Now, it is all done through the internet-through social media networks and so on. Ofcom’s survey in 2011 found that the average time spent online by five to 15 year-olds was 90 minutes per day. However, I suspect that that statistic is already out of date. It is probable that most five year-olds do not spend that amount of time online but that therefore means that the figure for slightly older age groups is much higher. The same survey found that many-in this instance, I think it was 41%-had been disturbed by something that they had found online and that a quarter had received unsolicited explicit material online.

That was a survey of a year ago. This is an area where things move rapidly and I suspect that we need to have in place legislation that is able to respond to these changes. Those figures will already be out of date. Even I was surprised to learn that 37% of three to four year-olds use the internet, but we have all heard stories of, and perhaps even seen, toddlers whose reaction to a picture in a printed book is to try to expand it with their fingers to make the image get larger. Again, I suspect we are simply not keeping up with the trends.

The reality, which again was found by the Ofcom survey, is that parents know less about the internet than their children do. I recall that when I was part of the sub-committee of the Science and Technology Committee that looked at personal internet security, we were told repeatedly of parents who could not quite manage the parental control software and so got their children to install it for them. That is hardly going to induce this sort of control and maybe they were not quite the responsible parents whom we are looking for, but that is the reality. The children are ahead of their parents in all this, so you have to make it easier for the parent who wants to be responsible. In my view, this is what this Bill is about: opt-in control through ISPs will limit unsolicited and inappropriate material getting into the home.

There is also a sort of golden age view, rather like the image of the family sitting around the dining table in their front room listening to the Home Service, which we were all brought up with in the 1950s. If it ever really was a golden age, the day of the concept of the computer being somewhere in the main room of the home, so that access to the internet is mediated through that process, has long passed. There are now so many internet-enabled devices in most homes that such access is not confined to one room where there may be adequate supervision.

Most children, as has already been said, will have internet-enabled mobile phones but most of the game machines that they use in their bedrooms are also now internet-enabled. There are Xboxes and Game Boys, and all these things are internet-enabled. Not all of them can receive images or material but that is the direction of travel. Children play games on them with people all over the world whom they do not know. That raises all sorts of interesting and wider child protection questions but it demonstrates why we have to be able to control the pipeline that delivers what comes into the home. It is not just about the main computer; it is about all the internet material that comes into the home, which is mediated through the channel of the internet service providers. However responsible parents may be, they can simply no longer actively monitor all the material that their children are accessing, even if such total monitoring would be wholly desirable.

There is of course a collective responsibility in all this. In that inquiry into personal internet security, we used the road safety analogy. We said that responsibility for safety on the roads was accepted and that there was: a personal responsibility as to how you were a road user, whether you were a driver or a pedestrian; a responsibility on the manufacturers of cars to make their cars more safe; a responsibility on local authorities to ensure that roads were well lit; and a responsibility to have roads that were well maintained. All that was with a view to delivering safety. We need to take that same approach to these sorts of issues.

Frankly, children need to be educated about internet safety at the same time as they receive road safety advice. We should be looking at them doing it at that young an age. Parents need to be enabled to be responsible through the measures contained in this Bill by being able to decide, in terms of the material that can come into the home, not to opt in to pornographic material. ISPs and equipment manufacturers need to make it easier for parents, and site owners need to have robust age verification.

This Bill is not a total solution to the problems of online safety but it is a step in the right direction, making it easier for everyone to play their part in securing online safety. I sincerely hope that the Government are going to be supportive and, if not, I hope that they are going to tell us how they will move forward on these issues.”

Monday
Nov 12,2012

There was a fairly surreal discussion in the House of Lords this afternoon following the Government statement on the resignation of the Director General of the BBC.  This reflects the wider political and media preoccupation with the inner workings of the BBC and not the very serious allegations of child abuse that lay beneath the two questionable editorial decisions by those in charge of the BBC Newsnight programme.

The depths were plumbed by Lord Pearson of Rannoch, former Leader of UKIP, who seemed to think that the central issue was that “a large majority” of the members of the BBC Trust are “climate change enthusiasts” and that “the BBC remains blindly Europhile …. as exemplified by its chairman, who has a large EU pension which he could lose if he went against what the European Commission regards as the interests of the European communities.”

It took a Bishop to reinject some sanity into the discussion:

The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds:

My Lords, I am very grateful that in the initial Statement the Minister said that we must continue to recognise the needs of those who have been abused. He spoke of the BBC facing a series of crises. Those who were abused face a far more serious series of crises. Will he stress again that the primary concern at this point needs to be the protection of children and young people? Will he also stress the continuing desire of us all to encourage those who have suffered abuse to come forward so we can change the culture of how we deal with such issues?

But that didn’t stop Lord Stoddart of Swindon from trying to bring the debate back to the people selected as BBC Trustees and lobbying for his UKIP mate, Lord Pearson, to be appointed:

Does the noble Lord agree that the selection pool for the BBC Trust is very narrow? Would it not be as well that that pool should be widened so that a perhaps more critical attitude could be taken of the operations of the BBC? Perhaps one of the new candidates could be the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch.

This goaded me to get to my feet and ask:

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate has rightly reminded the House that the people we should be most concerned about in all of this are those who were the victims of abuse. Can the Minister comment on whether the Government feel that the frenzy around the existential crisis of the BBC is not really a distraction from concerns that there was very real abuse in children’s homes in north Wales and elsewhere; that there was an individual who, because of his celebrity, was able to abuse children all over the country; and that we are in danger of being deflected, which of course plays into the hands of those who would rather cover up what happened and the names of those who were ultimately responsible?

By mentioning the dread words “cover up” I am no doubt at risk of being dubbed a conspiracy theorist but the fact remains that the present furore about the internal workings of the BBC does nothing to help those who were abused in North Wales or by Jimmy Saville, nor does it do anything to bring to justice those who were directly involved or complicit in that abuse.  And frankly that is what really matters.

 

Thursday
Nov 8,2012

Lloyd George famously referred to the House of Lord’s as “Mr Balfour’s poodle” because of its in-built Conservative majority.  Since the exclusion by the last Labour Government of most hereditary peers from voting rights in the Lords, no Party has had a majority in the House.  This has meant that the House has been properly able to hold Governments to account and challenging the House of Commons to think again about elements of legislation.

Thus, in the last eight years of the Labour Government (from 2002 to 2010), the Government was defeated in the Lords on average 44 times per year.  Not really a surprise, given that at no stage did Labour hold more than 31% of the membership of the House and a combination of the other groupings (eg Tories plus LibDems or Tories plus some crossbenchers) could easily be sufficient to out-vote Labour Peers.

With the advent of the coalition in 2010, the dynamics changed somewhat as the Government comprises two Party groupings and the rate of Government defeats fell to 24 per year.

Since the General Election in 2010, the Prime Minister has appointed 122 new members of the House of Lords and there are now 760 peers (excluding 39 who are on leave of absence or the 13 who are disqualified from sitting because they are Law Lords or MEPs).

The current breakdown (as of 31st October) is 212 Conservative (28%) plus 90 LibDems (12%), making a Government total of 302 (40%).  Then there are 225 (30%) Labour peers and 208 (27%) crossbenchers and others plus 25 Bishops.  As the crossbenchers and others attend less regularly than the party-affiliated peers and split on issues, there is an effective Government majority over the Opposition of 70-80.

However, it appears that this preponderance of Government peers over the Opposition is not sufficient for this Prime Minister.  Rumours are swirling around the House that another list of new members is about to be announced with the figure suggested ranging from 40 to 80 new members bringing the total able to sit and vote in the House of Lords to well over 800.  The vast majority of these would be Conservative, although for forms sake a quarter might be LibDems with a handful given to the Labour Party.

This has constitutional, practical and financial implications.

The constitutional implications are that it risks turning the House of Lords into a rubber stamp for the Government.  It would recreate the world of “Mr Balfour’s Poodle”.  However, given the hybrid nature of the coalition, I suppose this would make the House of Lords a poodle crossbreed in the manner of a labradoodle, a westiepoo or a schnoodle – perhaps the correct term would be a Cameroodle.

It is also ironic that, at a time when the Conservative element of the coalition wants to gerrymander constituency boundaries so as to reduce the number of elected MPs from 650 to 600, it is proposed that the unelected House of Lords should increase in size to well over 800.

The practical implications are not insignificant.  The Lords Chamber cannot accommodate the existing numbers during Question Time and major debates – and other facilities will also be overstretched.

Similarly, there are financial implications – the extra costs of allowances and travel expenses plus the administrative and support costs of the House in servicing extra members.

However, we seem to have a Government and a Prime  Minister that cannot cope with disagreement and scrutiny by the House of Lords.  Twice in the last ten days – rather than risk being defeated in a vote – the Government has ignominiously cancelled its business in the House.

Presumably even an average of two defeats per month (defeats that are usually successfully reversed in the House of Commons) is too much for this Government and this Prime Minister.

So what is David Cameron’s solution?

Pack the House of Lords with more Conservative cronies and place-men and place-women.  A Chamber of Cameroodles.

Don’t say you haven’t been warned:

Conservative candidate for Cameroodle peerage

Wednesday
Nov 7,2012

There was an oral question in the House of Lords this afternoon on what measures the Government are proposing to take to recognise the contribution the Armed Forces made to the success of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.  (Apparently, those who helped with the Games will be receiving a commemorative coin.)

The House was unanimous in its support for the efforts and hard work of those servicemen and women who were drafted in at short notice to help with security at the Games.  However, inevitably the questioning turned to the failures of G4S which led to the army being called in in the first place.

And my colleague Lord Alan West broadened it to the dangers of privatisation in general:

Lord West of Spithead:My Lords, does the Minister not agree that this highlights the dangers of privatisation in certain areas that are fundamental to UK security? Does he not believe that the GOCO arrangements for the defence equipment and support areas might put us in a position where a failure by private enterprise actually puts service personnel and the security of the nation at risk?

Lord Astor of Hever:My Lords, I do not want to be tempted by the noble Lord to go down that route. We will be able to debate that when we get to that point.

My contribution was as follows:

Lord Harris of Haringey:Could the Minister tell us how many government contracts for infrastructure support are going to G4S in future, and whether the armed services will be ready to step in if need be in the event of G4S again failing to win a gold for logistics?

Lord Astor of Hever:My Lords, I am very sorry to disappoint the noble Lord but I am unable to answer that question.

And the Defence Minister was simply not prepared to answer …

Tuesday
Nov 6,2012

Earlier today I intervened in the discussion in the House of Lords on the Home Office statement on the historic allegations of child sex abuse in the North Wales police area.

Despite the Minister’s response, I remain concerned.

The exchange was as follows:

Lord Harris of Haringey:My Lords, I am sure that we all welcome the fact that there is to be a new police inquiry into these matters, but I would be grateful for the Minister’s explanation of the thinking behind this being led by Keith Bristow, who is heading up the new National Crime Agency. I have enormous faith in Keith Bristow himself. However, given that the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the yet-to-be-created National Crime Agency are going through a period of enormous flux and confusion while this happens, and the job of the chief executive of an agency that is being set up is usually pretty highly committed to setting up that agency, how will it be possible for him to lead the sort of inquiry that all noble Lords have said they want—very thorough, potentially extremely lengthy and potentially extremely involved? In practice, where will the resources come from? I am not talking about the money but the individual officers. Who is going to co-ordinate that? How is that going to be practically done when the person you are asking to lead the inquiry is supposed to have a more than full-time job setting up a new government agency?

Lord Taylor of Holbeach:I remind the noble Lord that the Statement made it quite clear that it was the chief constable of North Wales Police, Mark Polin, who actually requested Keith Bristow to head up this investigation, and to do so using the resources that are available to him through SOCA and other assets that are available for serious investigations. Indeed, we will face a new world with the National Crime Agency, but that still has to come before your Lordships’ House and I would not presume on that. This is a recognition that the inquiry itself may well cross police boundaries; it may well be a matter that is quite properly addressed by an agency set up to deal with serious organised crime.

 

Sunday
Nov 4,2012

Over the last few years, I have repeatedly expressed concern about the potential importance of the threat of an electro-magnetic pulse that could disable or destroy electronic installations.  Such a pulse could come from an errant solar flare or other extreme space weather or it could be produced by a nuclear warhead exploded in the upper atmosphere.  Both could have devastating impacts on ground-based electronic equipment and on electric power grids.

Now comes news of a weapon that could be carried in a cruise missile that can be programmed to disable the electronic systems in individual buildings.  Apparently, the U.S. Air Force and its contractor Boeing, along with Raytheon, have created the High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project, or CHAMP, which was just tested over a Utah desert.

The cruise missile, which was launched from a U.S. bomber, was pre-programmed to fly over a target and shoot a burst of high power microwaves at a two-story building. It knocked out rows of personal computers and electrical systems which were shown in a video taken of the test.

Following the first target, the cruise missile then was guided to six other targets, resulting in knocking out all electronics.

Even if this was a US initiative, it sounds as though more effort needs to go into protecting UK infrastructure and critical systems against such attacks – which is more or less what I was saying about three and a half years ago.

Thursday
Nov 1,2012

There was a debate today in the House of Lords on the challenges to the police service of the new system of electing Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs).  I posted about it yesterday on the Labour Lords blog.

In my speech I talked about the experience in London of effectively having the new system since January with the (unelected) Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime acting as a quasi-PCC, saying:

“London has already shown up some of the problems. The first is a lack of transparency. Information about the operation of the police service or about key financial decisions that was previously made available in published police authority committee papers is no longer available or is available only in very abbreviated form. The second is the lack of visible answerability of senior police officers. A few weeks ago, the new deputy mayor for policing and crime instructed Bernard Hogan-Howe, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, not to attend the London Assembly’s police and crime committee eight minutes before the meeting was due to begin.

The third problem is that the deputy mayor has to act on his or her own, as PCCs will have to do. As the current incumbent has commented to me, he does not have what he calls the “band width” to address all the topics that the public might expect him to pursue. It is simply impossible for one person to do so. When I chaired the police authority in London, I had 22 members to whom I could delegate matters. Those 22 members could also keep an eye on me, which meant that capricious decisions could not be taken. But the Government, in their wisdom, have declined to provide a standards framework in which PCCs or their equivalents in London should operate. The Government seem to believe that having police and crime panels will be a sufficient safeguard against misconduct.

However, the money being made available for the servicing of these panels outside London is to be just £53,000 per year, which is barely enough to cover the cost of one member of staff who has to co-ordinate the work of and support a disparate group of local councillors drawn from up to a dozen or more different local authorities. Even in London where the police and crime committee of the London Assembly has been better resourced and the 12 members all know and work with each other on a regular basis, it has struggled to get the answers that it wants. There is the potential for problems and inappropriate interventions in operational matters.”

I then went on to pose some questions about Mayoral behaviour:

“Will the Minister tell us whether he regards it as appropriate that an elected PCC should be regularly briefed about the course of a policing operation and should then, almost as a matter of routine, have contact with those who are subject to that operation, and, what is more, then fail to disclose that those contacts have taken place? Perhaps your Lordships will think that such a scenario is far fetched but I have to say that it is not. On 10 January last year, the Mayor of London was briefed by Assistant Commissioner Yates. The mayor later told the London Assembly that he could not remember the briefing in detail but acknowledged that it may well have been about Operation Weeting, the investigation into phone hacking at News International. Four days later he had lunch with Rebekah Brooks and 10 days after that he had dinner with Rupert Murdoch at his London home. Neither of those two meetings was disclosed in the published mayoral diary and they were omitted, initially at least, from the list of contacts with News International that was requested by the London Assembly. There were further briefings from John Yates on 21 April and 3 May. Remarkably, days later, the mayor had more initially undisclosed contacts with News International, including a telephone call with James Murdoch on 6 May and, five days later, with the News International lobbyist, Frederic Michel. I could go on. I have a long list of meetings and contacts.

At the same time, the mayor’s deputy was raising, in an ostensibly jocular way, concerns that too many detectives were involved in investigating phone hacking, so much so that assistant commissioner Dick had to remind him, as she disclosed to the Leveson inquiry, that operational policing decisions were a matter for senior police officers, not elected politicians. The Mayor of London has form for this sort of thing. In February 2009, an investigation was conducted by Jonathan Goolden, a solicitor, at the request of the monitoring officers of the GLA and the MPA—roles that will not exist as far as PCCs are concerned—into the behaviour of the Mayor of London in contacting Damian Green MP at the time of his arrest on suspicion of involvement in breaches of the Official Secrets Act. Mr Goolden found that the mayor’s action in contacting a potential suspect in a criminal investigation was “extraordinary and unwise”. These contacts followed briefings that the mayor had been given about the case.”

Suffice it to say when the Minister, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, replied he chose not to address the question of the behaviour of the Mayor of London, saying merely:

“As this House will know, the police and crime panels—the PCPs—will also form a key check and balance in the model. As a result of amendments that this House argued for, PCPs will both challenge and support PCCs in making good their important role. This balance was emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, who has enormous experience on this matter.”

Was I surprised at the non-answer? Well no – defending Boris Johnson’s behaviour would probably be a career-limiting move for a member of the Government …

Tuesday
Oct 23,2012

During Question Time in the House of Lords this afternoon I intervened to try and get a straight answer from Earl Howe, the Parliamentary Under Secretary for Health, as to how many Accident and Emergency Departments will close in London hospitals over the next four years.  I also wanted to know who would take the strategic decisions for London as a whole and how they were accountable for those decisions.

Needless to say, I didn’t get a proper answer.

This was my exchange with the Minister:

Lord Harris of Haringey:My Lords, how many accident and emergency departments in London does the Minister expect to close in the next four years? If he does not know the answer, can he say who is responsible for that and how they are accountable for making a strategic judgment across London about the level of accident and emergency services?

Earl Howe:The premise behind the noble Lord’s question is that it is automatically worse to have fewer A and E departments in an area. I beg to disagree with that premise. In serious or complex cases, the noble Lord will know that patients need to access exactly the right care, so it is often better and safer for them to travel further to see specialists in major centres than to go to a local hospital. Although it may be closer, it may not have the right specialists, the right equipment or sufficient expertise in treating patients with their condition. The prime example of that has been stroke care in London, where 32 centres were reduced to, I think, eight and there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of deaths following admission.”

My colleague Baroness Janet Whittaker tried again a minute later:

Baroness Whitaker:My Lords, in the noble Earl’s answer to my noble friend Lord Harris, I did not hear an answer to any of his questions about numbers, who makes the decision and who is accountable. Would it be possible to hear that?

Earl Howe:My Lords, I apologise. The Question on the Order Paper relates to north-west London, so I do not have pan-London figures in front of me. The answer to the question is as I gave it in my initial response: those decisions are subject to local determination. That is right, because it is only local commissioners and providers who can assess the situation on the ground properly. As the noble Baroness will be aware, there is a system for escalating decisions—ultimately to the Secretary of State, if necessary, who takes advice from the Independent Reconfiguration Panel in the most extreme cases—but normally, we hope and expect those decisions to be resolved on the ground in the local area.”

So the Minister acknowledged that there would be a series of closures of A&E Departments in London, but couldn’t say how many there would be because he didn’t have the “pan-London figures” in front of him.  And, as all the decisions would be “subject to local determination” presumably as a result of the accumulated, but separate, individual commissioning decisions by local Clinical Commissioning Groups (whose less than satisfactory governance was debated last week), by implication there will be nobody who will take a strategic pan-London view of the level and distribution of Accident and Emergency Services in the capital.

Doesn’t inspire confidence……

Sunday
Oct 21,2012

Lord Blair of Boughton (the artiste previously known as Sir Ian Blair) has made a particularly silly suggestion.  Interviewed on Sky News, he has suggested that people should boycott the elections on 15th November for Police and Crime Commissioners:

“I’ve never said this before but I actually hope people don’t vote because that is the only way we are going to stop this.”

Like most other people, Ian Blair thinks the proposed system of elected Police and Crime Commissioners is flawed. There are no proper checks and balances in the governance arrangements, many of the police force areas make little sense as electoral districts, there is a risk of politicising aspects of operational policing that should not be politicised, and the changes are a waste of money at a time when frontline police budgets are being cut as never before.

However, the legislation rightly or wrongly was passed last year with a its flaws intact (despite the best endeavours of some of us in the House of Lords). The elections ARE going to take place in just over three weeks time (holding the elections in November when it is likely to be cold, wet and dark was an incomprehensible sop to the Liberal Democrats).   And yes, the turnout will probably be low – maybe very low – but a boycott is simply going to mean an even lower turnout and an even greater risk that maverick candidates will be elected.

Police accountability matters.  This may be the wrong system, but on 15th November forty-one Police and Crime Commissioners will be elected in every part of England and Wales with the exception of London (where we have the “benefit” of an elected Mayor in charge of the Metropolitan Police and where the Corporation of London retains its own medieval system of oversight of the City Police).

A boycott will achieve nothing.  I am confident that before too long this new system will have to be changed – probably drastically.  In the meantime,  because police oversight is so important in any democracy, everyone will have to make the best of the flawed arrangements. And that means ENCOURAGING people to vote on 15th November.