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Archive for the ‘Security and counter-terrorism’ Category

Tuesday
Jun 19,2012

Here is my speech in yesterday’s debate on whether the National Crime Agency should have a Board or be directly under the personal direction of the Home Secretary:

” My Lords, I certainly do not want to fall into the trap of automatically accepting the Government’s architecture for these proposals. However, the amendment put forward by my noble friend does not necessarily undermine that architecture. The key point of this part of the proposed legislation is the creation of a new National Crime Agency. That is the key concept, and in this group of amendments we are dealing with some of the accountability mechanisms and the arrangements that will be put around the agency to ensure that its governance is of an appropriate and effective standard.

Let us be clear why this is important. The National Crime Agency, as proposed, will be a tremendously significant organisation. It will be responsible for ensuring that as a country we deal effectively with the most serious types of crime. In due course, it may be responsible for dealing with terrorism. This is not some minor government body; it is an extremely important part of the arrangements that we put in place to ensure that our citizens are properly protected against serious crime.

The other fundamental part of the architecture of the Bill, if you are wedded to that architecture, as no doubt the Minister is-no doubt we will come onto this in due course-are the provisions within the legislation that enable the director-general to require from police services around the country various things to happen. There is a potential power of direction-and certainly the expectation in terms of individual operations-that local police forces will work with the National Crime Agency to ensure that certain operations proceed. The relationship between the director-general and individual chief officers of police will be a fundamental one. That is precisely why, when we look at the governance structures and the arrangements that will be put around the director-general, we need to ensure that there are appropriate mechanisms for chief officers of police and those responsible for their governance, in terms of police and crime commissions, to be adequately represented within them.

The Government have to put forward a clear justification as to why this very lean approach to governance has been included in the Bill. As a number of your Lordships have already indicated in Committee, there is a virtue in having a proper governance structure, a group of non-executives and a group of individuals to whom the director-general must report or explain or expand on his or her proposals on how the agency goes forward. That is not to decry the direct accountability to the Home Secretary because it will be the Home Secretary who will, whatever is written into the Bill, have to answer to Parliament as to whether this new structure works. It supports that function and gives the Home Secretary reassurance that all the processes and procedures that any sensible Home Secretary would expect to be around the director-general are in place.

I am not suggesting that the Home Secretary is incapable of providing adequate supervision of the agency. I am simply saying that it is not necessarily the most effective or efficient way of doing it and that some board structure supporting that process is better and more likely to be successful. I have looked for precedents for this sort of one-to-one relationship between the Home Secretary and significant agencies. For 175 years the Home Secretary was the police authority for London and at the end of those 175 years the Metropolitan Police was so well governed, despite the excellent leadership at that stage provided by the noble Lord, Lord Condon, that it did not have a system in place-it was a £2 billion business at the time-for telling whether it had paid a bill more than once. I rather suspect that had the Home Office-I absolve previous Home Secretaries from day-to-day responsibility for this-been doing its job properly proper accountancy systems would have been installed within the organisation. However, the supervision of the Home Office and the Home Secretary was quite properly on the main policing issues, which would have been advised by the noble Lord, Lord Condon, and his predecessors as Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. This was not about the way in which the organisation was run, administered or governed. That is the natural tendency. Home Secretaries are busy people. They have broad responsibilities. They are not going to be involved in day-to-day issues about the robustness or otherwise of governance structures. The history of the Metropolitan Police is not a sound precedent.

More recently we have the precedent of the border agency. Here, the opposite problem seems to have occurred. You seem to have a Home Secretary-perhaps successive Home Office Ministers would be a fairer way of putting it-who wanted certain things to happen and applied pressure on the border agency to do so. You then end up in arguments about what was said to whom by whom because of that one-to-one relationship. In all the fuss that there was a few months ago about whether certain expectations were being bypassed to let people into the country and remove queues, would it not have been better for there to have been a supervisory board between the Home Secretary and the chief executive of the border agency where there would have been a record, minutes, and perhaps an opportunity for dissent to be expressed? All that would be missing in the arrangements for the National Crime Agency, which raises the question of whether we are not in danger of creating a structure where the Home Secretary has too much of a role in respect of a policing body.

In this country, we have always expressed real concern about politicians having direct operational control of policing. That is part of the reason why there was a little bit of debate about the creation of police and crime commissioners, but that debate has moved on and we are now well into the process with the Labour Party having today announced a selection of candidates for those positions that includes my noble friend Lord Prescott. The Labour Party will clearly have an excellent set of candidates and we wait to see whether the Conservative list will be quite as exciting or interesting. The reason that there was some concern about that and there is even more concern about a national agency directly under the control of a single politician is the danger that that power is abused. I am certainly not accusing the present Home Secretary of having any desire to abuse that power. I am simply saying that we are creating a structure where such an abuse is possible and that it might happen in future.

Imagine occasions when there is a considerable threat from some organised crime group or a terrorist organisation, if that is the direction that the new agency goes in, and it is the responsibility of the Home Secretary to direct what the agency should do. The guarantees in the Bill for operational independence do not amount to very much in those circumstances. There is no place for control freakery here. This has to be about a proper system of governance. In a few years’ time, I would not want people to be making all sorts of sinister connections between policing operations that happen under the auspices of the National Crime Agency and saying that there are sinister implications that they have been personally directed or required by the Home Secretary, but that is the danger of the governance model that the Government have created.

My final point returns to what I mentioned in passing earlier. A critical part of this new agency will be the ability of the National Crime Agency to say that it wants local police forces to carry out or collaborate on particular operations. The danger of having a National Crime Agency that is divorced from the rest of the police structure is very real. I recall the discussions that took place over several years to try to get a system that worked on counterterrorism with primacy for one force and the ability to make operations happen across the country. It was not an easy process. The Government are making it more difficult for the director-general of the National Crime Agency if there are not police and crime commissioners or chief officers of police playing an active part in the governance of this new organisation. If they are there, if they are around the table and able to say, “This is a better way of doing that”, or to encourage the director-general to do things in a way that ensures their collaboration, that is surely going to mean that it is more likely that this new agency will succeed.

My noble friend’s amendments, which address precisely those points, are very welcome. There is a slight drafting error in that they make no reference to London, but I am sure that could be adjusted when we return to this at a later stage. The key issue that the Minister has to explain today is why this particular governance model has been put forward and why it is genuinely an improvement on a supervisory board which involves, for example, chief officers of police and police and crime commissioners.”

Tuesday
Jun 19,2012

Last month I reported on the Tory embarrassment that their flagship policy of elected Police and Crime Commissioners was starting to unravel for them.

Earlier today the Labour Party unveiled its list of selected candidates to fight the 41 elections in November.  The list is impressive and includes a number of former senior Ministers, along with the current Chair of the Association of Police Authorities and one of his predecessors.  A third of those selected are women and even in those areas where a Labour victory is frankly unlikely the Party has selected some serious and highly experienced individuals.

It remains to be seen whether the Tory list when it eventually emerges will be anything like as impressive.  For completeness, it is worth pointing out that the Liberal Democrats are likely only to contest a tiny handful of the available places.

Monday
Jun 11,2012

A former senior analyst to the US Secretary for Defense has warned that:

“Chinese companies apparently have a covert capability to remotely access communications technology sold to the United States and other Western countries and could disable a country’s telecommunications infrastructure before a military engagement.”

 Writing on Friday, F Michael Maloof reported that:

“The Chinese also have the ability to exploit networks “to enable China to continue to steal technology and trade secrets,” according to the open source intelligence company Lignet, which is comprised of former U.S. intelligence analysts.

The issue centers on the Chinese firm Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., which U.S. intelligence sources say has direct links to the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA. These sources assert that Huawei and other Chinese telecommunications firms such as ZTE Corp. have “electronic backdoors” to telecommunications technology sold to the U.S. and other countries.”

This is the same Huawei that I have reported before as providing key components to this country BT network and is being investigated by the US Congress but not by any equivalent UK body.

Huawei tell me that they are much-maligned and say that they are not linked to the People’s Liberation Army, but are just a private company trying to expand their business outside China.

In the UK the Government seems to be unconcerned that increasingly large parts of the country’s critical national infrastructure are under foreign ownership or are dependent for key components on overseas suppliers (there are a series of stories in yesterday’s Sunday Times behind its paywall about Chinese or Russian interests buying into the UK energy supply industry).

It is not clear why it can be assumed that these interests are necessarily benign and the UK Government doesn’t even seem to be interested in asking the question let alone doing anything about it.

How complacent can they get?

 

Monday
May 28,2012

Seven and a half years ago, I warned in a debate in the House of Lords about the risk to the nation’s critical national infrastructure of a concerted cyber-attack, saying:

“As a nation, the systems that are essential for our health and well-being rely on computer and communications networks – whether we are talking about the energy utilities, the water and food distribution networks, transportation, the emergency services, telephones, the banking and financial systems, indeed government and public services in general – and all of them are vulnerable to serious disruption by cyber-attack with potentially enormous consequences.  …

The threat could come from teenage hackers with no more motivation than proving that it could be done, but even more seriously it could come from cyber-terrorists intent on bringing about the downfall of our society. “

The Ministerial reply I was given at the time bordered on the complacent – even though I was assured that it wasn’t:

“there are also terrorists who would challenge and seek to undermine democratic society using any methods within their grasp. It is not complacent to say this; but perhaps it should be made plain that at the moment they do not appear to be interested in attacking us electronically.”

Late last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that:

“British intelligence picked up “talk” from terrorists planning an Internet-based attack against the U.K.’s national infrastructure, a British official said, as the government released a long-awaited report on cyber security.

Terrorists have for some time used the Internet to recruit, spread propaganda and raise funds. Now, this official said, U.K. intelligence has seen evidence that terrorists are talking about using the Internet to actually attack a country, which could include sending viruses to disrupt the country’s infrastructure, much of which is now connected online. The official spoke on condition of anonymity and didn’t say when the infrastructure threat was detected and how it was dealt with.

Terrorists, however, are still more focused on physical attacks that lead to high casualties and grab attention. “For the moment they prefer to cover the streets in blood,” he said.”

Again, the official line was inclined to dismiss the likelihood of an attack …
Now comes news that a video captured by FBI agents last year and now released by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security purports to show an al Qaeda leader calling on ”covert mujahidin” to launch cyber attacks against The video explicitly calls for cyber attacks against the networks of both government and life-sustaining critical infrastructure, including the electric grid, and compares vulnerabilities in U.S. critical cyber networks to the vulnerabilities in our aviation system prior to 9/11.
PHOTO: In this screenshot obtained by the FBI, an Al Qaeda video calls upon the ?covert Mujahidin? to commit ?electronic jihad?.
So – boringly – I was right (again).
The question remains are our cyber-defences going to be adequate.
Saturday
May 26,2012

UNITE has produced a powerful and compelling video on police privatisation.

It should give a clear message to the Home Office as well as to Chief Constables and putative elected Police and Crime Commissioners that simply out-sourcing large chunks of the police service will attract substantial opposition and is potentially hugely unpopular with the public.

There are no doubt some functions currently performed by in-house staff or by warranted officers that could be provided more efficiently by external providers.  However, there are some functions which should never be allowed to fall outside the personal direction and control of the chief officer of police.  This means that any out-sourcing proposals need to be clearly defined and consensus should be sought on whether the areas of activity can genuinely be provided from outside the police service without harming the coherence and integration of police services.  The other key question that will have to be addressed explicitly is the accountability of those providing the service and the governance arrangements that are to be put around the activities.

So far, this has not been a convincing element of the proposals that have been floated.  However, the next few years are likely to bring unprecedented reductions in policing budgets.  These issues are not going to go away.  And that is why the debate should start now.  The UNITE video should be a catalyst for this process.

Wednesday
May 9,2012

The Metropolitan Police Federation have produced this video to highlight the concerns of their members about pay and conditions and about cuts in the police service.

The depth of anger that will be reflected in the number of officers joining the march through London – in their own time – should not be ignored by the Government.

The negotiations over the Winsor report have been seriously mishandled and the consequences for police morale (and ultimately public safety) are very worrying.

Monday
Apr 30,2012

If you like George Formby (which I do) but even if you don’t, you should watch this and be in no doubt about the depth of the anger within the Police Service about the proposed changes to police terms and conditions following on from the Winsor review:

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.

 

Sunday
Mar 11,2012

My excellent webmaster, Jon Worth, has written a blog post about his experiences earlier today with security on the Eurostar from Brussels.

He describes the pointless inconveniences that were introduced to plug the holes in an already leaky system.  The extra measures in place on his journey were presumably intended to plug the Lille loophole, described in the Telegraph today.  Yet the “solution” provided hardly seems cost-efficient or particularly effective.

The Sunday Telegraph explains the problem as follows:

“The loophole centres on the Schengen agreement signed between a number of European countries, including France and Belgium, which allows people to cross borders without passport checks.

The UK is not in the agreement can therefore check the passports of passengers travelling here.

As a result there are two gates for Eurostar trains in Brussels, one for those going to Lille, which does not have passport checks, and one for the UK, which does.

It means an individual could buy two tickets and then pass through the Lille gate but stay on the train to London without having their passport examined.”

Jon Worth describes the extra checks which took place on his train (no doubt as a result of this morning’s article in the Sunday Telegraph):

“Then today when the train called at Lille for more passengers to alight and board, we were told on the public address system in the train that there would be additional checks in the train between Lille and Calais. These checks were carried out by a team of 7 French rail police carrying guns and batons, but just checking tickets (and not passports). I asked the policeman who checked my ticket why he was doing so. “Parce-que c’est comme ça” (because that’s the way it is) he replied. I pushed him further, saying that of course I had to have a valid ticket, because how otherwise could I have actually got on the train? “C’est contre la fraude” (it’s against fraud) was the best I got out of him before he moved off.”

So that wouldn’t have prevented anyone with evil intent slipping into the UK.

However, today there was an additional check at St Pancras:

“Then upon arrival in St Pancras, not announced to passengers on the train, all passports and all tickets were being checked by UK Borders at the exit. Which – quite frankly – seems to render other checks superfluous. Why bother having a UK Border check in Brussels, and French police check in the train, if you’re then going to check in London too?”

Excellent –  apart from the extra costs of the unnecessary and ineffective security checks beforehand.

But what about the impact on passengers?  As Jon Worth points out:

“due to the small terminal exit and a few hundred people streaming off a train, the checks are not swift in London.”

This means at peak time there will either be terrible delays or – as happened with other border controls – the extra checks will be lifted.

The problem is potentially serious and it is amazing that the Home Office seems so relaxed about it.

Thursday
Mar 8,2012

The report of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy (of which I am a member) has just been published.

Its key findings are that:

  • There is no evidence that the NSS has influenced decisions made since the Strategic Defence and Security Review. If the current strategy is not guiding choices then it needs to be revised.
  • There should be an “overarching strategy”, a document designed to guide government decision-making and crisis management both at home and on the international stage.
  • The Government’s assertion that there will be no reduction in the UK’s influence on the world stage is “wholly unrealistic in the medium to long term” and the UK needs to plan for a changing, and more partnership-dependent, role in the world.

The Committee also expressed concern about the operation of the National Security Council concluding that it did not operate always at an appropriately “broad and strategic” level.  For example, it became deeply involved in essentially operational issues during the operations in Libya.  Moreover, it failed to consider the national security implications of the Eurozone crisis or the possibility of Scottish independence.