I have spent most of today chairing an Infomed conference on reducing gang-related crime and disorder. Kit Malthouse (Boris Johnson’s Deputy for Policing) made the personal confession that he had in his youth been a member of two street gangs in Liverpool: the “Mersey Road” gang when he was eight years old and “The Boys” gang when he was fourteen. This turned out not to be so revelatory as it sounded at first: this is what he and his mates had called themselves when they played outside. Nevertheless, it demonstrated two previously unknown facet’s of Kit’s otherwise serious character and demeanour: first, that he had once been a child and, second, that he had once known how to play.
More importantly, it highlighted a theme of a number of the conference presentations that society (and, in particular, the media) are in danger of demonising what has always been part of “normal” behaviour by young people. Apparently, on the rare occasions that there is snow in London (there was a bit last night – the first in London in October for 72 years – but I am pleased to say it didn’t last long) the Metropolitan Police get a large number of calls about kids throwing snowballs – hardly a modern manifestation of unacceptable street violence. Young people will hang out with their friends and that in itself should not precipitate anti-social behaviour orders and the like.
Activity has to be focused on those gangs that are genuinely involved in criminal activity and on diverting young people away from such activity. Impressive work by the voluntary sector was described by Cathy Elliot of the Community Foundation for Merseyside and impressive multi-agency work in the West Midlands was outlined by Kirk Dawes (West Midlands Mediation and Transformation Services) and by Sgt Sharon Norton of West Midlands Police.
The importance of engaging with communities and with young people themselves was rightly emphasised by Ch Supt Sharon Rowe, who is responsible for borough policing in Lambeth. She also described a recent visit to a primary school in the Borough where she had asked the children if they could name the gangs operating in Lambeth and which were the most dangerous – the chilling fact was that most of them could.
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 …
The Sunday newspaper pundits have been working themselves up into an indignant froth about the Government starting to consult about its Interception Modernisation Programme. Henry Porter in The Observer, for example, regaled his readers with his fantasies about Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, as a “comic-strip super-villain dominatrix” and describing the proposal as “a very great threat to individual privacy” It may be that Henry Porter needs a cold bath, but he certainly needs to focus on some facts.
At present, telephone companies keep data on their subscribers who make telephone calls, who they connect to and for how long. They do this, so that they can bill people. For many years, it has been possible for the police to access this data as part of their investigations into crime. To do so, they have to get proper authorisation, certifying that accessing the data is proportionate to the crime being investigated and each case has to be considered individually. The data can be used as evidence in Court and does not involve tapping the call and listening to the content. Many trials rely on this evidence for criminals to be convicted – there is a murder trial under way at the moment where the crucial evidence is which mobile phones contacted each other just prior to and immediately after the murder took place.
But – and this seems to have passed the pundits by – technology is changing. Telecoms companies (both fixed line and mobile operators) are building new networks based on VoIP technology. This is cheaper and more flexible and – critically – does not require detailed call-by-call billing. The data on which so many trials now rely will soon cease to exist. The Government is therefore quite rightly going to consult on what can be done to capture this information and allow it to be used in criminal investigations where necessary.
It is not about giving the police more powers to pry into people’s personal lives. It is about not losing vital material that is currently used to catch criminals.
And, of course, new forms of communication are being created all the time (eg. on social networking sites and chat facilities built into on-line gaming). Should the police have powers to find out who is communicating with who in these new ways? That’s what the consultation is about. It is not some monstrous new assault on civil liberties. It is allowing a sensible debate about how existing powers should be modified to reflect the changes in technology.
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.