Does Jeremy Hunt think he’s Boris Johnson?

There are a few politicians who are so well-known that they are referred to a almost universally by their first names. Maggie Thatcher was one; John Major and David Cameron are not. It seems to be a requirement for those who become Mayor of London – think of the Ken and Boris show.

Jeremy Hunt clearly thinks he is part of that select band. His introduction to the Government’s response to the Francis Report on the events at Mid-Staffordshire Hospital is signed with a rather inappropriate flourish simply by him as “Jeremy”.

Perhaps this is intended as a subtle signal that he is available either as a replacement for the Prime Minister or as the next Conservative Mayoral candidate……

Why won’t the Government answer questions about Lord Green?

The House of Lords, unlike the House of Commons, is still sitting and this afternoon Baroness Jan Royall, Leader of the Opposition, asked a Private Notice Question of the Leader of the House, Lord Strathclyde, about the position of the Trade Minister, Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint.


As the Daily Telegraph has pointed out, allegations that HSBC, while Lord Green was its Chairman, allowed money laundering on a huge scale to take place are now casting a cloud over his current role as a Trade Minister.  Their report says:


“The US Senate has launched a coruscating attack on HSBC for its slapdash approach to money-laundering regulations. The bank could face a $1 billion fine.


According to Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, “the culture at HSBC was pervasively polluted for a long time.” Just how polluted was revealed in the Senate report into the scandal. For example, between 2007 and 2008, HSBC’s Mexican operations moved $7bn into the bank’s US operations. According to the report, both Mexican and US authorities warned HSBC that the amount of money could only have reached such a level if it was tied to illegal narcotics proceeds.”


The Government’s answer boils down to saying that there is nothing that casts doubt on Lord Green’s integrity and that there is no reason that he should be held responsible for everything that the organisation of which he was chairman was doing.


However, what was he doing as Chairman of the Bank during this time? If the Bank were warned by both the Mexican and US authorities that transactions of $7 billion were tied to the illegal drugs trade, shouldn’t he have been told of the warnings.  If he wasn’t, why wasn’t he and what sort of system of corporate governance was he presiding over if it was not felt that such warnings should be conveyed to the Board? Is $7 billion too small a sum for him to worry about?  And if he was told, what did he do about it?


I tried unsuccessfully to get in and put a this question to the Leader of the House:


“How bad does the stench of money laundering have to be around its Trade Minister before it impacts on the reputation of the United Kingdom?  And why – if his integrity is as great as we are told it is – are they so reluctant to have him come to the House and dispel that stench by setting the record straight?”


The BBC captures the full exchange here and the Hansard test is as follows:


Private Notice Question

3.07 pm

Tabled By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the allegations about HSBC made by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on the ability of Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint to fulfil his ministerial duties.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon:My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde):My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government have every confidence in my noble friend Lord Green’s ability to fulfil his ministerial duties. His experience, expertise and enthusiasm provide great benefit to the UK’s international profile and to the support that UK Trade and Investment provides to British businesses.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon:My Lords, I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that Answer. However, as the noble Lord will be aware, questions have been asked about the present ministerial role of the noble Lord, Lord Green, following the US Senate committee’s findings.

Paragraph 1.2 of the Ministerial Code, which sets out the responsibility of Ministers to Parliament, says that:

“Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest”.

Given that obligation, will the Leader of the House ask the noble Lord, Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint, to come to your Lordships’ House to place on record what he knew and when about the matters investigated by the US Senate committee, including what steps he took to deal with them? Would such a move not give the noble Lord, Lord Green, the opportunity to dispel once and for all the questions being asked about his present ministerial role?

Lord Strathclyde:My Lords, I congratulate the Leader of the Opposition. I know that she has been trying to find a PNQ to put to the House and she has managed to do so. I am very glad to be able to respond on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government.

There is no urgency in this matter. The investigation started more than two years ago. The report in question was published two weeks ago. There was no evidence of personal wrongdoing of my noble friend; indeed, there was no personal criticism whatever of my noble friend. The investigation is ongoing. As for ministerial accountability, my noble friend Lord Green is accountable to this House—to Parliament—for the work he does as a Minister. However, many Ministers have had previous careers. No Minister needs to be accountable to Parliament for their previous career, only for what they are doing as a Minister.

Lord Butler of Brockwell:My Lords, I declare an interest as a non-executive director of HSBC during the time when the noble Lord, Lord Green, was chief executive officer and chairman. Is the Leader aware that when I was advising the Prime Minister on calls for ministerial resignations, I drew a distinction—which I think is widely accepted—between accountability and responsibility? While it may be the case that the chairman and chief executive officer of a major international company is accountable for everything that happens in that company, there is no possible way in which they can be responsible for everything that happens in a worldwide group of the size of HSBC.

Lord Strathclyde:My Lords, with all his experience and knowledge—not just as head of the Civil Service and Cabinet Secretary but having had a more commercial career since he left—the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, has brought a lot of wisdom and good sense to this debate, on which we should all reflect.

Lord Kinnock:My Lords, since the Leader of the House has told us that the work of the noble Lord, Lord Green, is of benefit to the United Kingdom’s profile—the words he just used—does he think that the accountability of an individual in a very senior position in Government or business ceases when that individual changes post? Does he not think that it would benefit the UK’s profile to ensure that a Minister rigorously adheres to the wording of the Ministerial Code, as just spelt out by my noble friend? Further, does he not think that the ethics of business require that a Minister who has the opportunity and the right to come to this House to explain themselves should do so?

Lord Strathclyde:My Lords, I do not disagree at all with what the noble Lord says about the ethics of the industry in which my noble friend was involved. In fact, only last week, this House set up a special Joint Select Committee to look at ethics and many other practices in the banking industry. Surely that is the point. If a Select Committee of this House or another place wishes to ask my noble friend questions, it should do so. My purpose is to reflect on my noble friend’s role in government and to answer on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government.

Lord Cormack:My Lords, does my noble friend agree that anyone who knows the noble Lord, Lord Green, could not doubt his total integrity for a moment?

Lord Strathclyde:My Lords, I agree with that but I wholly accept that questions need to be asked—and are habitually asked—of a Minister to make sure that he is accountable to Parliament. As I said in my reply to the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, if a committee of Parliament wishes to put questions to my noble friend, it is entirely free to do so.

Lord Grocott:My Lords, perhaps I can remind the Leader of the House of a report with which he will be, no doubt, almost word perfect: the report of the Leader’s Group on Working Practices, which made a number of recommendations. Of course, the group was established by the Leader for the Leader. Recommendation 3 of that report—which, I remind him again, was published more than a year ago in April last year—said:

“We … recommend that there should be a monthly question time dedicated to questions on House of Lords matters addressed to the Leader of the House”.

Perhaps I may helpfully suggest that both today’s Question and indeed the very important one raised last week by my noble friend Lord Barnett could be handled were the Leader to accept that simple, unanimous recommendation by a committee that was set up at his instigation. I urge him to act on that recommendation as soon as possible.

Lord Strathclyde:My Lords, from memory, I do not think that there has been a single Question put to me in my capacity as Leader of the House in the past 12 months. That rather leads me to believe that there is no great demand for a monthly Question Time session for the Leader. There are perfectly good methods for asking me questions and noble Lords should use them if they wish to.

Lord Hughes of Woodside:My Lords, from a rather different view, perhaps, I query what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Butler. Surely accountability and responsibility cannot simply be divided one from the other—it is not as sharp as that. Accountability and responsibility go hand in hand and no one should doubt it.

Lord Strathclyde:My Lords, my noble friend Lord Cormack said that no one should challenge the integrity of my noble friend Lord Green, and I agree with him. But if it comes to a choice between the noble Lord’s view of what is responsibility and accountability and that of the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, I will go with the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall:My Lords, I personally—along with most of the House, I feel—am in no position and would not wish to challenge the integrity of the noble Lord, Lord Green. However, does the Leader of the House agree that perhaps there would be less question about his conduct over the issue of HSBC were the House to see him more often answering questions that relate to his ministerial responsibilities? It may have something to do with his relative unfamiliarity to Members of the House that they are perhaps more sceptical than they should be.

Lord Strathclyde:My Lords, as a Minister for trade, my noble friend of course spends a great deal of time overseas. Since he was appointed, he has travelled to 42 countries and visited 73 cities. In his role as Minister of State for Trade and Investment, he has answered a total of 72 Parliamentary Questions, including two Oral Questions out of three that he could have answered. The response to the point raised by the noble Baroness is that if more Questions on trade and investment were put down, I am sure that my noble friend would be very happy to come and answer them.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon:My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his answers, but perhaps I may say that I found his initial response to my Question slightly patronising, albeit not in terms of the substance. I table PNQs when I believe that there is a matter of accountability which is of interest to this Parliament as a whole—we are the only House of Parliament sitting at the moment—and when I believe that it is of importance to this nation. I do not do so for personal gratification.

Lord Strathclyde:My Lords, if the noble Baroness felt that I was in any way seeking to patronise her, I apologise fully.




Cross-benchers split 35 to 4 in favour of my amendment to ensure there are proper safeguards around elected Police Commissioners – but it is not enough

This afternoon the House of Lords debated my amendment to ensure that there are proper governance structures around elected police and crime commissioners (and the Mayor’s Office of Policing and Crime in London).  Although the arguments were sufficiently strong to convince 35 of the 39 cross-benchers who voted and also induced 3 Liberal Democrats to defy their whips, the vote was not quite enough – the amendment fell by 201 votes to 186.  My amendment was supported by 139 Labour Peers, 35 cross-benchers, 9 unalligned Peers and 3 Liberal Democrats; opposing the amendment 136 Conservative Peers, 59 Liberal Democrats, 4 cross-benchers, one unalligned Peer and a Bishop.

For the odd reader – and I mean that in the nicest possible way – who wants to understand the detail of what we were debating, this is what I said in moving the amendment:

“There has been considerable concern about the central principle of the Bill, the idea of a single, directly elected individual who is to be responsible for the oversight and control of the police service. That is why I have tabled Amendment 3. Amendment 20 applies similar provisions to the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime.

At Second Reading and in Committee, there were widely held concerns about the concept of a single individual with this very strong responsibility for policing matters. The vote in Committee essentially removed from the Bill the principle of police and crime commissioners. The Committee voted in that way because of the fear of having a single individual with responsibility for such an important area of public life, an area where the police have such powerful responsibilities over the liberty of the citizens of this country and over the way in which the citizens of this country operate. That is the core of the concerns that have been expressed from many corners of your Lordships’ House.You could argue that we have solved the problem. By the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, and agreed in Committee, there will not be a single directly elected individual. However, I am mindful of what the Minister said repeatedly in Committee—that the Government are determined to reinstate that principle. If the Minister wants to stand up and tell me that the Government have changed their mind and have suddenly realised that the House of Lords was right on this point, I might consider withdrawing this amendment, but if, as seems likely, the Government intend to reverse the House of Lords position on this and bring back to this House proposals for a single individual with those extraordinary powers over policing and with the police having such extraordinary powers over the citizen, we need something that looks at these matters. In fact, I submit that even if the Government were to accept the position taken by the House of Lords in Committee, there would still be value in having non-executive members around the police and crime commission to bring to the deliberations of the commission expertise and independent-minded judgment. However, given that the Government intend to reverse that position, this amendment is essential.Amendment 20 relates to the position in London. There are no changes, so far, to the position in London. We will have a single elected individual—the Mayor of London—who will delegate some of his functions to the deputy mayor for policing and crime.  

In the circumstances in which we are to have single individuals with these responsibilities, there has to be a governance structure around them. I think there is consensus among your Lordships about the value of a collegiate approach and robust and strong governance. The amendment is not about going back to police authorities. It is not about creating some new bureaucratic structure. It is not even about going to the appointed boards that the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, coruscated earlier in our discussions today. It is about good governance. It is about making sure that decisions are taken properly and transparently so that these single individuals cannot be subjected to criticism that they have acted in a wilful or inappropriate way. It says that on key financial matters, key personnel matters and on matters perhaps relating to equalities, they must act with the support of a group of non-executives who would be appointed for this purpose.Non-executives appointed in the way that I have suggested in my amendment would provide the public with an assurance that good governance was being followed. It would provide a mechanism by which you could make sure that those decisions were taken in a sound and proper way. It would also deal with what I suspect will be one of the issues. If you look forward to May 2012, when the Government hope that the first directly elected police commissioners will be elected, you will have elected individuals with an enormous personal mandate. The only person in the country with a larger personal mandate—I do not want to get into double entendres here—will be the Mayor of London. They will be the biggest political beasts in their regions. The elected police and crime commissioner for the West Midlands will be chosen by an electorate of more than 2 million people and will have a bigger mandate than a directly elected mayor of Birmingham, should such a creature come to exist following the passage of the Localism Bill. Those individuals may think that they can walk on water, I do not know. I hesitate to make such a remark in the presence of the Bishops’ Bench. However, we are back to the principle of being reminded that you are human, the way that Roman emperors had to have someone around them just to remind them of their human responsibilities.  When I was the leader of a local authority—I was not directly elected by the people of the borough; it required endless arcane processes within the Labour Party before I ended up as leader—I did have tremendous authority within my local council. Sometimes I came up with ideas that were perhaps not as sensible as they might have been. My problem was that the officers of my authority would say, “Yes, Leader, it will be done tomorrow”. What I actually wanted were officers who would say, “You are out of your tiny mind, Leader, have you not thought about the following? What about the implications of this? You do realise that there are going to be the following unintended consequences”. The danger of having a single elected individual with a personal mandate bigger than that of any local authority person or Member of Parliament is who will say to them, “Hang on, just think about this, think again, consider it”? Or, “Let us just go through a proper, transparent process for making this decision”. That is what creating a small board of non-executives would provide: that safeguard and those circumstances in which that challenge and proper governance can take place. It does not undermine the principle that the Government are trying to achieve. That is not the intention. It is simply trying to provide robust good governance.Actually, it is a principle that I thought the government parties endorsed in other contexts. The Conservative Party in the past brought forward the Cadbury report and saw the value of non-executive directors in the private sector. The principle is established in the health service. I understand that one of the arguments that is still going on—in so far as anyone can follow the minutiae of the debate on health—is the extent of the involvement of external boards in some new health structures. The report reviewing the position of the Children’s Commissioner—a rare example of a corporation sole—recommended a small non-executive board to support the commissioner’s activities and enable good governance. This is somebody saying, “I am in this position but I would like some effective systems of governance around me”. That is why this is so important.It also helps mitigate some of the problems with politicisation that are seen as potentially causing difficulty. I have seen circumstances involving the much maligned outgoing police authorities where the independent members have sometimes said to the political members, “Come on, hold on, let us not be political about this—let us just look at this in terms of the interests of the public of this area and good policing in this area”. So it helps deal with that. It provides some of the checks and balances that Members of your Lordships’ House are so keen to see enshrined in this Bill. It provides a mechanism whereby additional expertise can be brought in. A police and crime commissioner or the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime may want, for a specific purpose, someone with extensive external experience of human resources questions or particular types of financial management. Bringing in that expertise is the capacity that would be created. It provides resilience and a support mechanism to enable the enormous task that the Government want to place on these individuals to be carried out. It also provides a mechanism whereby that work can be carried on.The amendment provides for robust good governance and some collegiate elements to decisions where it would be dangerous and difficult for an individual to act on his or her own. If it is the Minister’s intention to tell us, “Well, actually, there is nothing in this Bill that prevents it happening”, I would say one thing. No, there is nothing in the Bill that prevents it happening, and I am sure that plenty of sensible elected police and crime commissioners would want to do that. But it would be precisely those police and crime commissioners who do not think that they need that sort of external support—those independent non-executives around them—who will be the ones who cause us problems in the future because of potentially wilful or maverick decisions. That is why this is so important. I beg to move.”

I wonder whether there would be an answer in the UK?

A recent US Congressional Hearing tried to establish the answer to the question:

If a sophisticated cyber-attack occurred against the United States financial systems, who would coordinate the response?”

You might think that this straightforward question would get a simple answer, but apparently the answer it produced was:

“We’re in the process to building out a national cyber incident response plan, and that plan would more clearly define roles and responsibilities of the different departments and agencies.”

Pressed again by the Congressmen, the witnesses acknowledged:

I think that’s one of the challenges that needs to be addressed: Who is actually in charge? With the White House cybersecurity coordinator in place now, what is his role relative to at DHS? I think that is certainly a valid challenge that still remains to be addressed.”

However, if it is confused in the United States, I would be surprised if there was any clarity if the same question was asked in the UK.

I might table a Parliamentary Question and see.


Experts in the USA say that they are losing the cyber-war – so what state is the UK in?

The former Director of the National Security Agency under President Clinton and Director of National Intelligence under president George W Bush, Mike McConnell, writing in the Washington Post, has expressed his concern that the USA is losing the cyber war.

He says:

“The United States is fighting a cyber-war today, and we are losing. It’s that simple. As the most wired nation on Earth, we offer the most targets of significance, yet our cyber-defenses are woefully lacking.

The problem is not one of resources; even in our current fiscal straits, we can afford to upgrade our defenses. The problem is that we lack a cohesive strategy to meet this challenge.

The stakes are enormous. To the extent that the sprawling U.S. economy inhabits a common physical space, it is in our communications networks. If an enemy disrupted our financial and accounting transactions, our equities and bond markets or our retail commerce — or created confusion about the legitimacy of those transactions — chaos would result. Our power grids, air and ground transportation, telecommunications, and water-filtration systems are in jeopardy as well.

These battles are not hypothetical. Google’s networks were hacked in an attack that began in December and that the company said emanated from China. And recently the security firm NetWitness reported that more than 2,500 companies worldwide were compromised in a sophisticated attack launched in 2008 and aimed at proprietary corporate data. Indeed, the recent Cyber Shock Wave simulation revealed what those of us involved in national security policy have long feared: For all our war games and strategy documents focused on traditional warfare, we have yet to address the most basic questions about cyber-conflicts.

What is the right strategy for this most modern of wars? Look to history. During the Cold War, when the United States faced an existential threat from the Soviet Union, we relied on deterrence to protect ourselves from nuclear attack. Later, as the East-West stalemate ended and nuclear weapons proliferated, some argued that preemption made more sense in an age of global terrorism.

The cyber-war mirrors the nuclear challenge in terms of the potential economic and psychological effects. So, should our strategy be deterrence or preemption? The answer: both. Depending on the nature of the threat, we can deploy aspects of either approach to defend America in cyberspace.

During the Cold War, deterrence was based on a few key elements: attribution (understanding who attacked us), location (knowing where a strike came from), response (being able to respond, even if attacked first) and transparency (the enemy’s knowledge of our capability and intent to counter with massive force).

Against the Soviets, we dealt with the attribution and location challenges by developing human intelligence behind the Iron Curtain and by fielding early-warning radar systems, reconnaissance satellites and undersea listening posts to monitor threats. We invested heavily in our response capabilities with intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines and long-range bombers, as well as command-and-control systems and specialized staffs to run them. The resources available were commensurate with the challenge at hand — as must be the case in cyberspace.

Just as important was the softer side of our national security strategy: the policies, treaties and diplomatic efforts that underpinned containment and deterrence. Our alliances, such as NATO, made clear that a strike on one would be a strike on all and would be met with massive retaliation. This unambiguous intent, together with our ability to monitor and respond, provided a credible nuclear deterrent that served us well.

How do we apply deterrence in the cyber-age? For one, we must clearly express our intent. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered a succinct statement to that effect last month in Washington, in a speech on Internet freedom. “Countries or individuals that engage in cyber-attacks should face consequences and international condemnation,” she said. “In an Internet-connected world, an attack on one nation’s networks can be an attack on all.”

That was a promising move, but it means little unless we back it up with practical policies and international legal agreements to define norms and identify consequences for destructive behavior in cyberspace. We began examining these issues through the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative, launched during the George W. Bush administration, but more work is needed on outlining how, when and where we would respond to an attack. For now, we have a response mechanism in name only.

The United States must also translate our intent into capabilities. We need to develop an early-warning system to monitor cyberspace, identify intrusions and locate the source of attacks with a trail of evidence that can support diplomatic, military and legal options — and we must be able to do this in milliseconds. More specifically, we need to reengineer the Internet to make attribution, geolocation, intelligence analysis and impact assessment — who did it, from where, why and what was the result — more manageable. The technologies are already available from public and private sources and can be further developed if we have the will to build them into our systems and to work with our allies and trading partners so they will do the same.

Of course, deterrence can be effective when the enemy is a state with an easily identifiable government and location. It is less successful against criminal groups or extremists who cannot be readily traced, let alone deterred through sanctions or military action.

There are many organizations (including al-Qaeda) that are not motivated by greed, as with criminal organizations, or a desire for geopolitical advantage, as with many states. Rather, their worldview seeks to destroy the systems of global commerce, trade and travel that are undergirded by our cyber-infrastructure. So deterrence is not enough; preemptive strategies might be required before such adversaries launch a devastating cyber-attack.

We preempt such groups by degrading, interdicting and eliminating their leadership and capabilities to mount cyber-attacks, and by creating a more resilient cyberspace that can absorb attacks and quickly recover. To this end, we must hammer out a consensus on how to best harness the capabilities of the National Security Agency, which I had the privilege to lead from 1992 to 1996. The NSA is the only agency in the United States with the legal authority, oversight and budget dedicated to breaking the codes and understanding the capabilities and intentions of potential enemies. The challenge is to shape an effective partnership with the private sector so information can move quickly back and forth from public to private — and classified to unclassified — to protect the nation’s critical infrastructure.

We must give key private-sector leaders (from the transportation, utility and financial arenas) access to information on emerging threats so they can take countermeasures. For this to work, the private sector needs to be able to share network information — on a controlled basis — without inviting lawsuits from shareholders and others.

Obviously, such measures must be contemplated very carefully. But the reality is that while the lion’s share of cybersecurity expertise lies in the federal government, more than 90 percent of the physical infrastructure of the Web is owned by private industry. Neither side on its own can mount the cyber-defense we need; some collaboration is inevitable. Recent reports of a possible partnership between Google and the government point to the kind of joint efforts — and shared challenges — that we are likely to see in the future.

No doubt, such arrangements will muddy the waters between the traditional roles of the government and the private sector. We must define the parameters of such interactions, but we should not dismiss them. Cyberspace knows no borders, and our defensive efforts must be similarly seamless.

Ultimately, to build the right strategy to defend cyberspace, we need the equivalent of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Project Solarium. That 1953 initiative brought together teams of experts with opposing views to develop alternative strategies on how to wage the Cold War. The teams presented their views to the president, and Eisenhower chose his preferred approach — deterrence. We now need a dialogue among business, civil society and government on the challenges we face in cyberspace — spanning international law, privacy and civil liberties, security, and the architecture of the Internet. The results should shape our cybersecurity strategy.

We prevailed in the Cold War through strong leadership, clear policies, solid alliances and close integration of our diplomatic, economic and military efforts. We backed all this up with robust investments — security never comes cheap. It worked, because we had to make it work.

Let’s do the same with cybersecurity. The time to start was yesterday.”

This is powerful stuff.

And it begs the question for the UK: given the substantial level of resources that the United States Government invests in this area, compared with the investment in this country, where does that leave us?  And are we contemplating the sort of joint working between Government and industry that he advocates?

Mayor Johnson admits that it’s only the fear of plain-clothed police volunteers that keep him on the straight and narrow

The London Assembly and the Metropolitan Police Authority tonight hosted a celebration of the excellent work done by the thousands of members of the public who provide regular volunteer help to the Metropolitan Police.

Mayor Johnson told the throng in the nauseatingly-named London’s Living Room on the top floor of City Hall that the only reason he no longer committed crimes (for example, by cycling through red lights) was, not because of his innate respect for the rule of law, nor because as Mayor of London he should set a good example, but because he never knew when a Metropolitan Police volunteer in plain clothes might be watching. Fortunately, Len Duvall wasn’t there, so a referral to the Standards Board for moral turpitude and bringing his office into disrepute – on this occasion at least.

What direction now for the Local Government Association?

The apparent departure of Paul Coen from the top job at the Local Government Association following what sounds like a major falling out with the new leadership of the Association is a good opportunity to ask what should be the future direction of the LGA.

The LGA was formed to create a single body representing local government by the merger of the previous sectoral bodies (the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the Association of County Councils and the Association of District Councils) in the mid-1990s.  The idea was that a unified voice would strengthen the hand of local councils in their dealings with central government.

I have to say (and this will probably mean that I will be stripped of my honorary position as Vice President of the LGA) that the reality has not lived up to this hope.  One necessary consequence of the merger was that the sharpness of the positions taken by the new Association became blurred as any statements or comments had to strive for consensus between the different parties on the Association and the different local authority interests.  The result was blandness.

Not so predictable, however, was the loss of expertise.  The predecessor Associations had formidable teams of specialists working on different local government policy areas, such as social care, education, housing, finance etc..  These teams were able to provide high level advice to individual local authorities but more particularly their expertise meant that they could respond effectively to civil servants in the different central government departments.  They often knew far more about the policy issues than the relevant civil servants concerned and the effect was that the local government cause was pursued quietly and efficiently behind the scenes.  Over the last decade, these teams have been dismantled and local government has suffered as a result.

I am sure that this loss of expertise was not at the heart of the dispute between Paul Coen and the leadership of the LGA, but I hope that what has happened will now provide an opportunity to look at the direction and purpose of the Association.

The Sunday pundits are missing the point about the Government’s Interception Modernisation Programme

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.

42 Days: From “The Charge of the Light Brigade” to “The Grand Old Duke of York” in two hours

No-one really expected the Government’s proposals for reserve powers to detain terrorists suspects for up to 42 days to pass through the House of Lords.  Even with all the safeguards – judicial oversight of each individual case, the proposals only triggered after a tortuous process to confirm the circumstances ware really extreme, and even then the longer detention period automatically lapsing after two months – heavy opposition was inevitable.

The majority against was larger than expected – I had guessed 170 (and been told I was pessimistic) – but in the end the Government lost the vote by 191 votes.  Having been part of the Light Brigade arguing in support of the proposals (Radio 4’s Today programme, Radio 5 and the debate itself), I was however taken aback by the speed with which the climbdown was announced – less than two hours after the vote.  It did feel like  the Grand Old Duke of York was settling the Parliamentary tactics …..