When is an awayday not an awayday? How to make MPA members “bond”!

Today the new-look Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) had an “awayday”.
Traditionally, organisations hold these in expensive country house style venues, miles from anywhere, stay overnight to “bond” and use them to agree anodyne mission statements.
The MPA approach was different: the venue was less than 100 yards from New Scotland Yard and the MPA offices, and, while the St Ermin’s Hotel has a fairly grand facade, it has seen better days. (In fact, in its better days it was the place where all the right-wing plots in the Labour Party from the 1950s through to the 1980s were hatched see Fightback: Labour’s Traditional Right in the 1970s and 1980s by Dianne Hayter. I am not sure that this particular history would have endeared the venue to the MPA’s new leadership.) The day itself lasted till about 3.00pm and the bonding occurred because the room was so small that members were crammed knee-to-knee in enforced intimacy.

Tackling youth gangs and a personal confession from Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse

I have spent most of today chairing an Infomed conference on reducing gang-related crime and disorder.  Kit Malthouse (Boris Johnson’s Deputy for Policing) made the personal confession that he had in his youth been a member of two street gangs in Liverpool: the “Mersey Road” gang when he was eight years old and “The Boys” gang when he was fourteen.  This turned out not to be so revelatory as it sounded at first: this is what he and his mates had called themselves when they played outside.  Nevertheless, it demonstrated two previously unknown facet’s of Kit’s otherwise serious character and demeanour: first, that he had once been a child and, second, that he had once known how to play.

More importantly, it highlighted a theme of a number of the conference presentations that society (and, in particular, the media) are in danger of demonising what has always been part of “normal” behaviour by young people.  Apparently, on the rare occasions that there is snow in London (there was a bit last night – the first in London in October for 72 years – but I am pleased to say it didn’t last long) the Metropolitan Police get a large number of calls about kids throwing snowballs – hardly a modern manifestation of unacceptable street violence.  Young people will hang out with their friends and that in itself should not precipitate anti-social behaviour orders and the like.

Activity has to be focused on those gangs that are genuinely involved in criminal activity and on diverting young people away from such activity.  Impressive work by the voluntary sector was described by Cathy Elliot of the Community Foundation for Merseyside and impressive multi-agency work in the West Midlands was outlined by Kirk Dawes (West Midlands Mediation and Transformation Services) and by Sgt Sharon Norton of West Midlands Police. 

The importance of engaging with communities and with young people themselves was rightly emphasised by Ch Supt Sharon Rowe, who is responsible for borough policing in Lambeth.  She also described a recent visit to a primary school in the Borough where she had asked the children if they could name the gangs operating in Lambeth and which were the most dangerous – the chilling fact was that most of them could.

The Unicorn Theatre offers some serious theatre for children – a necessary antidote to the High School Musical juggernaut of mindless pap

The play, Red Fortress, at the Unicorn Theatre is offering children some serious and thought-provoking theatre.  It tackles religious tolerance and violent extremism in the name of religion, together with loyalty, friendship and love.  Three young people – one a jew, one a christian and one a muslim – originally living side-by-side in a harmonious Granada in the late fifteenth century find themselves tossed around in a war between religions.  It doesn’t pull any punches, nor is it history-lite with stereotypes.

The audience when we saw it (the target age-range is 10 to 15) were pretty riveted – proof if it were needed that there can be an antidote to Disney-fied offerings like High School Musical 3.  Alas the latter will no doubt be seen by more children and young people than will make there way through the Unicorn’s doors for a bit of live theatre in SE1.

Getting the “Yes Minister” treatment on the Planning Bill

I have tabled a small amendment to the Planning Bill which would include “policing and emergency services facilities” in the list of “infrastructure” that may be funded from the proposed new Community Infrastructure Levy.  This modest proposal makes sense (I would say that wouldn’t I): major new developments are likely to require additional emergency facilities.  A new housing estate or a big new shopping complex may require a new police office, fire station or ambulance base, and it is legitimate that the developers should be asked to fund this.

My amendment would be to Clause 202 of the Bill.  This is a list of seven items that the term “infrastructure” includes.  Listed are schools, medical facilities, open spaces, sports facilities and flood defences, but nothing about the emergency services.

At the request of the Minister, I have now met with a civil servant from the Department of Communities and Local Government to discuss the amendment.  The civil service line is that the list is not meant to be exhaustive and that, if the list is too long, the Courts may interpret it as exhaustive.  DCLG is clear, he says, that the emergency services should be classed as part of “infrastructure”.  However, I point out that a number of local councils are already saying that the first call on monies from the Levy should be items specifically listed in the Bill.  His argument seems to be that if emergency services are included on the face of the Bill they may be less likely to be funded.  I am not sure I follow the logic …

The Sunday 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.

Getting a reality check from 200 fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds

Yesterday, I did the second talk in the last month to secondary school pupils.  This is my contribution to the Lord Speaker’s Schools Outreach programme, which Helene Hayman has launched to get school children to understand more about Parliament and the role of the House of Lords.  There is nothing like an hour of being questioned by two hundred or so fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds to provide a reality check.  Interestingly, a large number of questions about the “credit crunch” and the banking crisis.  If there comments are representative about what they and their families are thinking, it is clear that the Government must do a lot more to get across what is happening, why it matters and why the approach Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling are taking is the right one.

Boris Johnson at All-Party London Group

Mayor Boris Johnson came to the House of Lords All-Party London Group (a strange mix of peers including a few ex-MPs and ex-AMs from London plus others interested and chaired by Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, son of the World War II Field Marshall).  I asked the Mayor about the duty he has under the Greater London Authority Act to promote equality of opportunity for everyone within London.  This duty is dear to my heart having moved an amendment to get something like this included in the Bill when I was a new-ish member of the House of Lords.  I was pleased to hear the Mayor say that he had realised how important this was as he had campaigned for the job around London, although surprised – perhaps only slightly – that it had not occurred to him until then.  He went on to say that he is in favour of celebrating all the major religious festivals and making progress on recruiting more black and minority ethnic police officers.  So that’s good to know.  Obiously, there will have to be a bit more to it than that though …..

100 ten-year-olds visit Parliament for the PITCOM awards

It was a delight to welcome over a hundred pupils from primary schools all over Britain to Parliament this afternoon.  The occasion was to award the prizes to the winners of the PITCOM (Parliamentary Information Technology Committee) 2008 Make IT Happen competition.  The schools were asked to use technology to describe how they would change an aspect of their community for the better.  As chair of the judges, I can testify that the final decisions on the national winners were genuinely difficult – the sheer range of ideas, the innovation and enthusiam showed that there is every reason to be confident about the UK’s technological future when these pupils grow up.

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 …..