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Archive for the ‘Security and counter-terrorism’ Category

Nov 11,2011

Standards are falling in the Home Office.

I know that some may feel this is a statement of the obvious, but I know that it is important that these things are evidenced….

So here is an example – albeit a small one – but not so many years ago such sloppiness would never have occurred.

Yesterday, the Home Secretary announced that  she was proscribing the organisation “Muslims Against Crusades”, saying:

‘I have today laid an Order which will proscribe Muslims Against Crusades from midnight tonight. This means being a member of or supporting the organisation will be a criminal offence. 
‘I am satisfied Muslims Against Crusades is simply another name for an organisation already proscribed under a number of names including Al Ghurabaa, The Saved Sect, Al Muhajiroun and Islam4UK. The organisation was proscribed in 2006 for glorifying terrorism and we are clear it should not be able to continue these activities by simply changing its name.’

In my view, this is an entirely sensible move, although some would say long overdue and – of course – it is inevitable that the people involved may simply create a new organisation with the same name doing much the same sorts of things.

However, my concern about falling standards relates not to the decision but to the briefing that goes with it.  Amongst other things this says:

“Groups like MAC – which pedal hate and glorify terrorism – are not welcome in the UK. They do not speak for British Muslims and are reviled by the vast majority of decent people. We will continue to use all legal powers at our disposal to stop them from operating here.”


As Private Eye might say “Shome mistake …”

All I can say to Home Office officials is: get your homophones right and the policy will take care of itself.


* For a helpful guide from the University of Hull see this.

Nov 9,2011

Tonight the House of Lords debated the Protection of Freedoms Bill.  This was my contribution:

“My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority. I fear I may be spoiling the consensus that seems to have emerged as to what a wonderful Bill this is. This is a very grandiosely entitled Bill: “Protection of Freedoms”, no less. I am sure that when the title was chosen the Deputy Prime Minister had visions that, like the authors of the Magna Carta, seven centuries on, his creature would still be seen as a cornerstone of British liberties.

Frankly, he can dream on. This Bill is a mish-mash of ill-sorted provisions, a mish-mash without any overarching or underpinning philosophy and, worst of all, a mish-mash that will bring about unintended and damaging consequences. Balancing the civil liberties of the individual against the security of the state and the protection of the lives and well-being of other individuals is never an easy task and I wish that I could be confident that that balance has been appropriately struck in this Bill. Let us take, for example, Part 5, which makes major changes to the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, who is not in her place, will remember the time spent in this House trying to ensure that children and vulnerable adults were properly protected against those who might harm them.

When we hear from organisations, such as Fair Play for Children, that this Bill introduces,

“elements of serious risk to children”,

we need to consider the points with very great care. The Government say that the arrangements under the 2006 Act were too complicated and onerous for those who had to implement them. Yet the people who will have to implement this Bill say that its provisions do not reduce or simplify the current system and that it runs the risk of sowing considerable confusion and unnecessary complexity.

There is no evidential basis for these changes. There is to be no pilot and what is being done throws away the broad cross-party consensus on which the previous legislation was based. A major concern lies in the proposed definition of what constitutes supervision in respect of affected activities. This remains worryingly vague. One suggestion is that the definition of supervision should be “line of sight”. This is so vague as to be frankly laughable and out of touch with daily realities. If the activity stays in one or perhaps two rooms and there are two staff or supervisors to monitor all volunteers, perhaps that would be possible. But in a multi-feature environment where there is outdoor activity, and in many other situations, it will be next to impossible for many organisations to provide that level of supervision. It will result in increased costs and/or a restricted number of activities, and, no doubt, fewer volunteers involved and fewer children benefiting.

In any event, supervision misses the point. The supervised activities of a volunteer are one thing but it is precisely during those activities that the trust of the child with that individual is created. It is that trust that makes possible unsupervised contact and the risks that that brings with that trust being exploited and betrayed. Of course, the risk of such exploitation and betrayal taking place during supervised activities can be reduced by good supervision. But what of the contact outside the supervised activity? The child now trusts that adult because they have encountered them in the supervised activity. But that trust is where the potential for abuse is created outside that secure environment.

That is an example of where the balance is being struck wrongly. It is based on the false belief that the bureaucracy involved is stifling volunteering. Fair Play for Children surveyed its member groups and found that more than half believe that the existing vetting arrangements have improved their overall practice. In only one instance in 200 did a group report that the arrangements had made it more difficult to recruit volunteers. Most parents will say that when they hand over their children they want the reassurance that the adults who their children will encounter have been properly vetted. Do the Government really want to put the rights of the potential paedophile above those of the child? That is just one part of an ill-thought-out Bill.

Part 4 reduces the maximum period of pre-charge detention for terrorist suspects from 28 to 14 days. The periods of detention longer than 14 days have been used extremely sparingly and are subject to judicial approval, which has not always been given. The Government, moreover, acknowledge that sometimes a longer period—up to 28 days—may be necessary, presumably because of the nature and complexity of some counterterrorism investigations.

If circumstances require it, it is proposed that the Home Secretary comes to Parliament to introduce emergency legislation to reinstate the longer detention power. That has to be nonsense. It means that during—I repeat, during—a terrorism investigation, the police and security services may have to ask Parliament to be recalled to debate an issue that it cannot discuss without prejudicing a future trial. The remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, are extremely pertinent on this point. Ministers recognise that 28 days may be necessary to investigate or avert a serious terrorist threat, but none the less intend to remove the power, even though there is no evidence that the power has ever been misused.

Part 2 adds to police bureaucracy, which is another example of extra expenditure being incurred as a result of pressure from the Daily Mail. It will make it more difficult for the police and local authorities to use CCTV to prevent and detect crime. This no doubt reflects concerns about a surveillance society, although when I was a local government leader my experience was that communities always—I repeat, always—welcomed the introduction of new CCTV schemes. If that concern about a surveillance society was so important, why are there no restrictions on the use of private CCTV cameras? I do not want to labour the point, but this oh-so-cleverly-worked-out Bill makes it more difficult and more expensive for our already overstretched police service to prevent crime but does nothing to restrict the proliferation of privatised surveillance.

Finally, Part 1 restricts the retention of DNA samples and profiles taken during a criminal investigation. This will make it harder, not easier, for the police to catch and convict dangerous criminals. The Home Office’s own research produced last year contradicts what this Bill will do. It showed that, each year, 23,000 people who will be taken off the database under these proposals will go on to commit further offences. Of these, 6,000 will commit serious crimes, including rape and murder.

Whose civil liberties are we protecting here? It will certainly not be those of anyone like Sally Anne Bowman who was 18 when she was murdered close to her home in south London in 2005. The police investigation initially drew a blank. But a year later, Mark Dixie, a pub chef, was arrested following a brawl in the pub where he worked. No further action was taken for that pub brawl but his DNA was taken and subsequently loaded on the database. It produced a match to the DNA evidence retrieved from the murder victim and within five hours he was under arrest. He was subsequently charged, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. So what are we doing removing the ability to protect people like Sally Anne Bowman? There are plenty of other such examples.

This Bill repeatedly gets the balance wrong. Of course, we should protect freedom. But why is it that the only freedoms that this Bill seems to care about are the freedoms of the would-be terrorist, the manipulative paedophile and the serial rapist?”

Nov 7,2011

The Home Secretary’s statement on the UK Border Agency was repeated in the House of Lords by Lord Henley this afternoon.

My exchange with him was as follows:

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, is it not the case that Home Office Ministers frequently visit our border posts? In the circumstances, is it not surprising that they did not visit sites where these pilots were taking place—or if they did, that they did not notice or hear from the staff concerned how the pilots had been extended? Can the Minister also tell us what arrangements Ministers made to monitor the pilots and the way in which they were working?

Lord Henley: My Lords, speaking for myself, I have to say that I have not visited any of the pilots, but then I have not been in the Home Office for that long. No doubt I will make inquiries of my honourable and right honourable friends and let the noble Lord know what visits have been made. However, I believe that Ministers have visited ports and airports on quite a regular basis to see how these things operate. I certainly was intending to do that at some point in the near future, but when I will be able to manage that is another matter. Of course Ministers always want to evaluate any pilot schemes they put into place, whether by visits or by other means.”

So, it IS likely that Ministers will have visited the pilot sites and YES they will have been monitoring the pilots.

Nov 4,2011

I’ve already asked what exactly was William Hague’s grand international conference on cyberspace for, but it is clear that my scepticism is shared by the journalists who were sent to cover it and came away disappointed or as the Daily Telegraph put it:

“So what did we learn over the course of the two-day meeting? Well, in short, almost nothing. ….

As the show limped to its finale on Wednesday, many of Mr Hague’s conclusions could have been written at any point in the last six months.

“All delegates agreed that the immediate next steps must be to take practical measures to develop shared understanding and agree common approaches and confidence-building measures,” the Foreign Secretary declared. Well, quite.”

And serious experts like Richard Clayton from Cambridge University were pretty underwhelmed too.
Nov 1,2011

In August, David Cameron wanted to block Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry Messenger.

Today, William Hague said:

“Some governments block online services and content, imposing restrictive regulation, or incorporate surveillance tools into their internet infrastructure so that they can identify activists and critics. Such actions either directly restrict freedom of expression or aim to deter political debate.”

And just in case the Prime Minister had missed the point went on:

““Human rights are universal, and apply online as much as they do offline… Everyone has the right to free and uncensored access to the internet.  … We saw in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya that cutting off the internet, blocking Facebook, jamming Al Jazeera, intimidating journalists and imprisoning bloggers does not create stability or make grievances go away.”

Oh dear …..

Oct 31,2011

In July the Foreign Secretary announced that the UK would be hosting an international conference on cyberspace.  The purpose was to bring together governments, international organisations, NGOs and businesses from around the world to “address the challenges presented by the networked world including cyber crime that threatens individuals, companies, and governments.”  William Hague said that it was “vital that cyberspace remains a safe and trusted environment in which to operate. This can only be done effectively through international cooperation, engaging both the public and private sectors. Together I hope that we can begin to build the broadest possible international consensus.”

In case you missed it this major attempt to build international consensus is taking place tomorrow and Wednesday – indeed the process of international bonding began over drinks and nibbles at the Science Museum earlier this evening.

However, looking at the programme, it is not clear what the programme offers that is going to be different from numerous similar gatherings over the last few years.  Nor is it apparent where the “broadest possible international consensus” is going to be hammered out.

But we are assured that it is going to look good …..


But this picture really does deserve a caption competition:


Printable suggestions only please.

Oct 28,2011

What would the people in your office do if a couple of people looking the part turned up at your office door saying that they were there to do a fire inspection?  Or said they were more or less any other branch of officialdom flashing ID and saying they needed to do an inspection?

Here is a salutory warning:

“Let’s say I am posing as a fire inspector. The first thing I will have besides my badge and uniform is a walkie-talkie, like all firemen. Outside, we’ll have our car guy. The guy that sits in the car, and basically his job in the beginning is to send chatter through to our walkie-talkies. We will have a recording of all that chatter you’ll hear on walkie-talkies. He sits in the car and plays it and sends it through to our walkie-talkies.

We walk into the facility and make sure that all the chatter is coming loudly into to the walkie-talkies as soon as we walk in their door so that we are immediately the center of attention. When I walk in, I want everyone to know that I mean business. My walkie-talkie is loud and everyone looks over as I apologize and turn it down.

I show the person at the front desk my badge. They’ll say “Hi, how’s it going?” I’ll say “Good, I’m here to do a fire inspection.” They say “Great” and assign someone to us, like a teller. It’s generally someone who’s nice. I’ll start talking with them, flirting with them, or whatever it takes. We’ll start walking around.

While I’m talking with the person who has been assigned to us, my partner knows his job is to immediately wander away from us. So, my partner will immediately walk off. In most cases our escort will say “Can you come back here? I need to keep you guys together.” We say “Sure, sorry.” But really that means nothing to us. All it means is that we keep doing it until she gives up. My partner will wander off two or three times more times and get warned until she finally stops and gives up. She just thinks he’s a fireman and thinks “Let’s just let him do what he needs to do.”

At that point, my partner’s job is to start stealing everything he can steal and start putting it in his bag. And he also has to get under the desks of any employee he can find and start installing these little keyboard loggers. I stay with the person who is escorting me and my whole job now is keeping them entertained. I keep walking around rooms, giving them advice on keeping their facility fire safe, even though I really have no idea what I’m talking about. I make stuff up and probably give the worst advice ever. I’ll pull out cords and say “This looks a little bit dangerous.” I’ll comment on space heaters. I’m completely winging it.”

You can see how it might happen.  Read on here …..

Oct 27,2011

My regular reader (he knows who he is) will be aware that for most of this year I have been trying to find out whether Home Office Ministers have spent disproportionately more time seeing the senior leadership of the Metropolitan Police than the political leadership (ie the Mayor or the Deputy Mayor for Policing/Chair of the MPA).

I started in March with a Parliamentary Question.  I got a non-answer in May (way beyond the normal time limit).  I tried again and got another non-answer in July.  I complained about this to the Leader of the House of Lords, whilst at the same time trying for the third time to get the answer via a Parliamentary Question.  Within a week, the Leader of the House came back agreeing with me that the Home Office responses were inadequate and he wrote to the Home Office Minister asking that the Home Office supply me with the information requested.

The Home Office then wrote back to me and to the Leader of the House on 29th July, saying in essence that they always replied to questions about Home Office meetings in this unhelpful way.

So on 10th August, I made a request under the Freedom of Information Act to the Permanent Secretary asking her to supply me with a schedule of all meetings held by Home Office Ministers since 1st May 2010 with (a) the Mayor of London and/or the Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, and (b) the Commissioner and/or Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, showing the dates of all such meetings, their duration and a list of all those present.

A few weeks later, I received a letter (undated) from an official (status and title not specified, and with no contact details apart from the main Home Office postal address supplied), saying that my request was being considered as to whether it was covered by Section 36(2)(c) of the Act – ie that it might be prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs.  This consideration was so difficult that they would “need to extend the 20 day working day response period” (which is of course specified in the Act).  He promised a full response (presumably as to whether Section 36(2)(c) applied or not) by 30th September.

Meanwhile on 6th September, the Home Office responded to my latest Parliamentary Question, which had requested that the list of meetings be placed in the Library of the House, by saying that “Ministers do not routinely place records of their meetings in the House Library”.

I must admit that by now I was beginning to lose the will to live.

However, today – a further twenty working days having passed since the 30th September and still not having heard from the Home Office – I have written again to the Permanent Secretary in the following terms:

“Dear Dame Helen

You will recall that I wrote to you on 10th August making the following request under the Freedom of Information Act: please supply me with a schedule of all meetings held by Home Office Ministers since 1st May 2010 with (a) the Mayor of London and/or the Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, and (b) the Commissioner and/or Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, showing the dates of all such meetings, their duration and a list of all those present.

I received an undated reply from Stephen Donaghy about a month later.  This said that the request was being considered under the exemption in Section 36(2)(c) of the Act, which relates to prejudice of the effective conduct of public affairs and that to consider the public interest test fully you needed to extend the response period.  You undertook a full response by 20th September.

A further twenty working days have elapsed since the 20th September and I have still to receive any reply or any explanation of the public interest issues that you feel may apply.

Given the Government’s commitment to openness, I cannot conceive of any reasons why this information should not be supplied.  I certainly cannot understand why it is taking so long to provide the answers.

I look forward to hearing from you shortly.  In the meantime, I am copying this letter to Sir Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner.”

You might almost think the Home Office had something to hide ….



Oct 5,2011

Today is the Second Reading in the House of Lords of the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Bill, which replaces Control Orders with the new TPIMs.  The Bill is a shabby tawdry compromise between the different wings of the Coalition Government and is likely to satisfy no-one.  This is my speech (without the interruptions):

“My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority with particular responsibility for overseeing the Met’s work on security and counter-terrorism.

Earlier this week, I went to a meeting with Carie Lemack.  Her mother was killed on American Airlines Flight 11 that crashed into the World Trade Center ten years ago.  She went on to co-found Families of September 11 and later the Global Survivors Network which brings together the survivors of terrorist attacks across the world and their family members.

Her testimony is an international reminder about why the fight to combat terrorism is so important: families are destroyed, individuals are left bereft and the effects last a lifetime.  I am sure no one in your Lordship’s House wants to see repeated the suffering of those terribly injured in the London transport attacks or the grief felt by those bereaved.

And that is why it is a paramount duty of Governments to protect the security of their citizens, to protect those citizens’ right to life, and to protect all of us against terrorism.

The problem that Government faces is simple to state, but is not easy to resolve. 

In essence, it is this: what does the Home Secretary do about those individuals who pose a serious risk to the lives of British citizens, but against whom there is insufficient evidence to bring them before a court charged with a terrorist offence?  The evidence may not be admissible in British Courts or it may rely on material gathered by UK intelligence agencies that would compromise the safety and security of others if it were publicly disclosed or it is derived from intelligence from overseas agencies that is provided on the basis that it must not be disclosed. 

Yet a responsible Home Secretary cannot ignore that those individuals pose a significant risk, cannot turn a blind eye to the threat that is there and cannot fail to take some action to protect the rest of us.  To do nothing would be a dereliction of that responsibility to protect the public.  Control orders were an attempt to provide us with that protection in those very small number of cases where no other action is possible.  And it is a power that has been rarely used, despite the dire warnings that were issued when the powers were first proposed.

This Bill, however, is nothing more than a shoddy compromise which weakens our security and yet does nothing to satisfy those with concerns about civil liberties. 

It is a compromise that demonstrates the weakness of this Government as it tries to square the circle between the two wings of the coalition, epitomised by a Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister and a Conservative Home Secretary – trying to reconcile the irreconcilable.

The current Control Order regime is not, of course, satisfactory.  No-one has ever seriously tried to pretend that it was.  However, it was an honest attempt by the previous Government to balance the free and liberal tradition of this country with the need for security. 

The present Government was formed with an explicit commitment to replace the Control Order regime.  It was a commitment made in the coalition agreement.  And the Deputy Prime Minister was voluble in his promises about what this would mean, telling us that this would – and I quote – “give people’s freedom back”. 

However, let us be quite clear, the Bill does not do anything like enough to satisfy those who have reservations about the previous control order regime and its implications for the civil liberties of those subject to that regime.  

Shami Chakrabati, the Director of Liberty, has said that control orders have simply been rebranded, albeit in a slightly “lower-fat” form, or as their briefing puts it:

“the TPIM regime essentially mirrors the control order system in all of its most offensive elements”

Indeed, this Bill must be something of an embarrassment for those Liberal Democrats who spent so long in this House criticising the previous Government for introducing and using Control Orders. 

There is silence today from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, who in 2005 when the control order legislation was going through your Lordships House, said on behalf of the Liberal Democrats that control orders would constitute:

“a blatant abuse of what we have known as the proper processes of justice.”

There is silence today from the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, who again spoke out unequivocally from the Lib Dem frontbench:

“The first and fundamental issue, which is central to all the arguments advanced in this debate, is who should be responsible for the decision to make control orders. On these Benches, it is clear that the proposals made in the Bill are not acceptable.“

The silence of the LibDem lambs. 

I should say that I absolve from the accusation of silence the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, who we will be hearing from in a moment.  In 2005, he was equally trenchant, but I have faith that he at least will be consistent when he speaks.

So this Bill cannot satisfy those who feel that the current arrangements are disproportionate, draconian and destructive of our liberties.

Yet, the Bill does water down the control order regime.  It raises the threshold from “reasonable suspicion of involvement in terrorism” to “reasonable belief that the individual is or has been involved” before action can be taken against an individual. 

It limits what conditions can be placed on those individuals and crucially it removes the power to relocate individuals away from those localities where they may mix and conspire with others.

For those of us who believe that sometimes the Government must take unpalatable measures to protect us, those are crucial changes.  They leave us all vulnerable.

Let no-one pretend that the threat has gone away – the recent arrests of seven individuals (now charged) in Birmingham as the Liberal Democrats gathered there for their conference are a reminder that we must continue to be vigilant against that threat.

And the Home Secretary has had to acknowledge how critical all of this.  Within days of taking office, within days of the Coalition Agreement being signed, she was presented with information that persuaded her – a rational and responsible individual – that despite the coalition rhetoric about control orders and the need for them to be abolished – that she should personally approve the imposition on a number of people of precisely the same orders that the Government is now abolishing.

And then, only in February – after the Government had announced its proposals, she agreed a control order on a British-Nigerian terror suspect, who apparently – according to MI5 – is a leading figure in a “close group of Islamic extremists in north London”.  He was banned from living in the capital under the terms of that control order.  In May, according to the Guardian, the high court dismissed an appeal by the man, saying that his removal to an undisclosed address “in a Midlands city” was necessary to protect the public from the “immediate and real” risk of a terrorist related-attack.

So in February, it was necessary to place restrictions on that individual as to where he could live – effectively relocating him from North London to the Midlands – something which under this Bill would not be possible. 

If this Bill becomes law, that individual will be free to move back to London in the New Year – just weeks before the Olympics – to renew the associations that only a few short months ago were deemed by a rational and responsible Home Secretary to be so dangerous that a control order was needed along with the relocation of that individual.

I would like to ask the noble Lord, the Minister, what will have changed between the time when the Home Secretary approved that order and the time when the individual concerned is to be allowed to move back to London.  Are we being told that the fresh air of the West Midlands conurbation and its bucolic atmosphere will have so changed the personality of the individual concerned that he now poses so much less of a threat.

Because just eight months ago that rational and responsible Home Secretary on the information presented to her felt that the individual concerned was so dangerous that not only did he need to be subject to a control order but that he should be relocated miles away from his previous environment. 

And she made that judgement knowing that this Bill would remove that option and would tie her hands in the future. 

That rational and responsible Home Secretary made that judgement knowing that however much of a danger that that person might be thought to be such an outcome was to be taken away.  So the noble Lord, the Minister, needs to reassure us, he needs to tell us why the judgement that the Home Secretary made then will no longer apply to this individual when this Bill becomes law.

Perhaps we should not expect the noble Lord the Minister to go through such contortions: all he needs to concede instead is that, yes, the Home Secretary made that judgement then in the interests of our nation’s security, but that this shabby, tawdry compromise of a Bill would prevent her making that same judgement in the future, and that this shabby, tawdry compromise is not just a compromise between two wings of an uneasy and unhappy coalition but that it is a compromise with this nation’s security.”




Sep 26,2011

The Liberal Democrats have already advertised for potential candidates to stand as candidates for the new posts of Policing and Crime Commissioners that are to be elected in November 2012, even though conventional polling wisdom suggests that none of their candidates are likely to be successful in the forty-one contests that will take place – even using the Supplementary Vote* electoral system.

Apparently, there is a major debate going on in the Conservative Party as to whether to field Tory candidates at all with a strong preference from some quarters for the Conservative Party to “endorse” (and campaign for?) so-called “independent” candidates.

What is disturbing is that I hear that there are some senior Labour figures who have similar ideas.

I have raised this now at a couple of fringe meetings.  At all the meetings I have been at there has been unanimous support for my strongly-held view that these will be extremely important elections for very powerful posts that the Party has a duty to contest.  I am not against independent candidates emerging, but the danger is that such individuals will be unknown quantities whose effectiveness and fitness for office will never have been tested.  Internal political party processes (although by no means perfect) do at least provide a mechanism for such testing.

Interestingly, when I raised it this morning with Vernon Coaker MP, the Shadow Policing Minister, he strongly endorsed my position and said he would argue for it, but then wryly commented that the Party decion-making process on such issues was sometimes rather strange – an implicit confirmation that someone somewhere is actively considering a non-contest option.




* Under the Supplementary Vote system electors cast two votes, one for their first choice candidate and one for their second choice candidate.  In the first count all first choice votes are counted.  If no candidate has an absolute majority, all but the top two candidates are eliminated and the second choice votes of those whose first choice candidates have been eliminated are then counted and where applicable added to the tally of the top two candidates.  The candidate with the greater number of votes is then elected.