Police restructuring

Christmas is relentlessly approaching – and I’m not ready! Panic.

But not today. Today am on the front bench for the police restructuring debate in Parliament. As I arrive in my office, I find a sweet message from David Cameron on my email, inviting me to join him. Such a nice boy!

I reply thus:

Dear David,
Thank you so much for your very sweet invitation to come and join you and your colleagues. However, I must decline.
I wondered if the invitation is a sign that you are already feeling isolated. If it gets too bad, you can always come and join us.
Merry Christmas

So now we know – all that baloney about new politics – and he is barely out of the starting blocks with a not very clever stunt. No change there.

More importantly – the police debate. The Government wants to merge police forces across the country so that they all average around 4-5,000 police officers – on the basis (they say) that current small forces don’t have the capacity for dealing with serious or organised crime. Now there may be a very good argument for restructuring on the basis of making the specialist resources pooled to serve a wider area than just one force – but wholesale restructuring to the size and distance the Government is talking about is bonkers. Everyone knows that the more local the police force is, the better the intelligence and the policing. To have a Chief Constable (incidentally the Met is not changing) miles and miles away and who has no knowledge of the territory is, as I say, bonkers. And if it isn’t bonkers – then the Government did not put forward any rational arguments to support their proposals. Moreover, the deadline for police forces to put in their views is 23 December and they will have had next to no time for something this momentous.

Mark Oaten was leading for us – as Charles Clarke led for the Government. I ‘covered’ the front bench. The chamber was full of those wishing to make their constituency case – whichever party they were from. Backbench speeches were cut to 10 minutes – and virtually every single speech begged for more time, and asked what benefit would really be delivered from such a merger. None that couldn’t be gotten a better way in my view. However, for reasons I truly do not understand the Government seems determined to railroad this through regardless of common sense or argument and at a punishing pace. And the police are against it – yes, the same police the Government said we had to listen to their advice re 90 days detention or die as a consequence.

Westminster Hall debates

I rush to Westminster Hall – where mini-versions of Parliamentary debates take place. Members (i.e. MPs) put in for a particular debate – and it is a lottery as to whether you get one. I keep putting in – but haven’t been pulled out of the hat as yet.

The MP who does succeed in getting the debate puts the case for whatever subject they have chosen, other Members can choose to come and speak and will be called if there is time, and then there is a winding up by each of the opposition parties and the Government Minister then has to respond to all the point made. So it can be a useful exercise to put a case and have a Minster address the issues raised by the debate. There is no vote.

So – I rush today to watch one as tomorrow and Thursday I am on the front bench for the Lib Dems in Westminster Hall and want to see one in action before I have to do it myself. However, the Tory who has the debate is not there at the time of starting and the Chair immediately suspends proceedings. The debate falls. As I exit the room, a very puffed Tory rushes past – but too late. Poor guy.

Later on I go to an all-party meeting on prison reform where (Home Secretary) Charles Clarke is putting forward, as far as I can see, LibDem policy on prison reform – rehabilitation, education, community sentences. How come when we have this in our manifesto the buggers just chant ‘soft on crime’? It is so stupid ‘cos everyone knows that prison isn’t working in terms of the prison – 60% of prisoners re-offend within two years and the huge growth in the prison population costs a fortune – money that therefore isn’t available to be spent on other things like crime prevention or the NHS. Anyway – always nice (if galling) to be able to say ‘I told you so’.

Government defeated over detention without trial for 90 days

It was weird! Having been at the meeting with Charles Clarke on Monday – to then see how the changes from what he said to me at our meeting in the morning (willingness to compromise), rolled through the day and evening into 90 days or be damned!

I guess Tony B must have been up to his old ‘trust me I’m Tony’ – and I know what’s best and I am going to over-rule my Home Secretary. Brinkmanship and bravura – but Tony doesn’t have the majority he had before the election.

Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday were excruciating I thought. Clarke hung out to dry by the Prime Minister’s determination to ‘do what’s right’. As if we who stood up against the sabre rattling do not believe we are right. And how much harder is it to stand up in the face of fears of terrorist attack to protect, within reason, our civil liberties and rights. I took huge exception to Blair calling any who opposed his view ‘woefully complacent.’ We are not. In fact, I have no doubt that terrorists will try and are trying to strike again. But it is not the 90 days that will stop them or disrupt them. And how dare Blair use such bullying and sleazy tactics to try and do his usual steamroller. He even descended into trying to say that if there was another terrorist attack and he didn’t have his 90 days – all who stood against him would be to blame. Shameful!

And he also said that the Muslim community – the community most vulnerable to the sharp end of these new laws – were perfectly happy with his proposals. Well I asked the Secretary of the Wightman Road Mosque (which is just across the border in Tottenham but which serves both Hornsey & Wood Green and Tottenham) as to their views on the legislation. Charles Clarke had challenged us to do on the floor of the Commons in the Committee Stage of the debate last week. I put a few sample views here:

From the Secretary of the Wightman Mosque and London Islamic Cultural Society:

Dear Lynne
Eid greetings to you and all your colleagues from London Islamic Cultural Society.

I hope that you are keeping well and I apologise for the delay in getting back to you in relation to the Anti Terror Bill currently being debated.

Having discussed with quite a few members the general feeling/concern is:

we do not agree with increasing the detention period from 14 to 90 days

there is concern about methods used to interrogate suspects – many have been released without charge and are suffering mental health problems following their detention – these are innocent individuals. Even serial murders have rights!

we [UK] have been subjected to terrorism before where areas of the UK were bombed including MPs but at no time did the government find it necessary to bring in such radical laws – why?

The Muslim community feel very vulnerable the general feeling is that these attempts by Tony Blair is to undermine our civil rights and that this type of law is condemned by UK & US as being ‘undemocratic’, ‘illegal’, ‘inhumane’ when adopted by other countries – but strangely when used by themselves it is ‘protecting the country’ It reeks of double standards.

Lynne – please understand that we in no way agree with misguided individuals compromising our safety. No! This is totally unislamic, but you have to understand that our Muslim community are scared and concerned for the safety of their children and families.

These laws prohibit even the law abiding families knowing what is happening to their loved ones. Our worry is that the unfairness of the actions will give rise to more and more people feeling trapped, alienated, seeing the bias, feeling discriminated against and we in community groups being less able to ‘include’ or ‘reach’ these individuals.

I also asked a local Imam to consult with the congregation:

I spoke to the Mosque congregation today and a few times before and this is the conclusion of their views:

I couldn’t find a single person in the congregation who supported the proposed legislation. They felt this legislation fundamentally violated their human rights and cut through the civil liberties.

They felt directly under threat and feared that they would be the target and victims of this legislation.

They felt if some one is held for 90 days, it amounts to a sentence and if the person is then not charged and released, the consequence of this detention would have been a total destruction of career, business, family, persons and social life.

They felt the government is going down the same route as France where some legislation have alienated young people further and the result is now visible in the streets of France in the forms of riots.

They felt that this kind of legislations would breed more terrorism and not counter it.

They felt that the government is sleep walking into clash of cultures and civilization.

They felt aggrieved and let down by the government

The younger members were angry and the older members where apprehensive.

So I don’t know who Tony Blair has been talking to – but that is what our local Muslim community gives as a snapshot view.

And as to the rest of my postbag on this issue – 50/50 for and against.

The rest of the debate was high drama indeed. I had to go and do Simon Mayo’s live programme on the debate. The Labour MP on the show was citing Andy Hayman (who provided a letter of the ‘evidence’ of need of 90 days) using the ricin incident as evidence of the need to have such an extended period of detention. Well he shouldn’t have started with me as the ricin incident happened here in Hornsey & Wood Green and was a mess in my view from start to finish. The substance wasn’t ricin. The people charged were acquitted. And as for the guy who skipped to Algeria – he was actually released after only two days – so even under current laws, the police could have kept him in detention for much longer if they’d wanted to. And he could have anyway been charged with acts preparatory to terrorism.

So – if that is the basis on which the Met is arguing to take away our rights – then it is unacceptable basis for evidence. And – quite frankly – the police do not always get it right. They didn’t when they shot Jean Charles de Menezes, they didn’t with the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four and even Sir Ian Blair got his information wrong after the shooting and we have yet to hear from the Independent Police Complaints Commission as to the findings from their investigation – an investigation which the Met tried to block.

As we went into the vote on extending detention without trial to 90 days we all thought it was too close to call. The silence fell as the tellers stood before the Speaker – and eerily into that silence was announced the first defeat of the Labour government since ’97. A strangely muted cheer from the winners. And then straight into the vote on 28 days – which was won.

So – wounded – the Government retired to sort out what line it would take on the momentous defeat. And a real moment for democracy when all sides of the House came together to stand up for what we all believe was right as the balance between our freedoms and our safety.

It’s not over. It goes to the Lords where the Lib Dems are determined to put safety locks on the numbers that can be held beyond 14 to the 28 days as well as more judicial intervention. For us 28 was a compromise – and we still need more safeguards in place. We will see how it fares in the Lords – and of course – there are still unacceptable parts of the Bill around ‘glorification’ and the definition of ‘terrorism’.

Bye bye to dodgy questionnaire

So – Labour have axed the stupidly biased “questionnaire” about detention without trial from their website.

This is what Charles Clarke said in his climb-down email:

“I would like to apologise for the questionnaire which was attached to the message that I sent out to party supporters on Friday. It was not intended to gauge public opinion but to start a political debate around the proposals currently being debated in Parliament. Many people have raised with me perfectly valid concerns about how the questions were drafted. I can only say that I share those concerns and give my assurance that questions of this type will not used in the future.”

He must have really got it in the neck to have had to make such a public u-turn! (Though, grudgingly! – some respect for him being willing to admit it was a blunder).

Detention without trial for 90 days?

Our Shadow Home Secretary is really unwell – to the point that he cannot leave his house in Winchester. So I go forth for the Liberal Democrats on the terrorism issue today. I start with an interview for BBC 24 followed by a ‘package’. (That is a pre-recorded interview that they will use later in news programmes about the terror proposals and the 90 day sticking point). Then I go and do the meeting with Home Secretary Charles Clarke. Love the new Home Office building. Lots and lots of media outside. Such are these moments.

Clarke runs through the amendments they will table (or his assistant does the detail more accurately). They are small beer. Welcome – but not the meat of the disagreement between the Government and the rest of us struggling with the need to balance protection of our citizens with our civil liberties. He doesn’t wish to revise the bit on ‘glorification’ or redefine ”terrorism’ – nor does he want to put the number of days on the table.

But what he does say is that the Government is likely to table an amendment tonight at close of business which will be somewhere between 28 and 90 days.

Spend the next few hours coping with media bid after media bid. Basically our position is that we will use Lib Dem votes in whatever way brings the number of days extension as near to the original 14 as possible. Clarke appears willing to pluck a number out of the air based on no criteria or logic or evidence that I could get out of him. Later I hear that T Blair is warning us all that 90 days is a must and if anything happens it will be our fault.

Sabre rattling is so easy when we are all so frightened of terrorist attack. That’s why we have to stand firm and keep cool heads to analyse what is best to deal with terrorists. I don’t believe that the police argument really holds up. There is existing legislation barely utilised – and in one case not even enacted – which would deal with some of the issues and allow police the extended time they crave.

Anyway – at 2.30pm, just to top it all, it is Home Office questions in Parliament and I have to man the front bench and actually have Question 6 on the Order Paper. This is about the DNA national database. I have discovered that there are 3.3 million samples of DNA on the database – and 32% of all black males in the UK are in it compared with only 8% of white males. I ask the minister to investigate what lies beneath these figures – and ask him if he agrees that there is concern that there is racial profiling going on. Not much of an answer in terms of my request – to be pursued.

Do a couple more interviews and then dash off for younger daughter’s reports night having made sure that another of the Home Affairs team can cover the media for the evening.

Busy weekend

Apart from the usual deluge of paperwork and emails to work through on Saturday – I went off to help petition passers by in front of Hornsey Town Hall to sign against the plans for a concrete factory in Hornsey. They go to appeal in December. Very jolly – with lots and lots of support from local people incandescent about a dust producing, traffic polluting, noise making industry being dumped in the middle of a really highly residential area. The fight goes on.

It’s also a LibDem campaigning weekend – so a whole bunch of LibDem activists turn up to not only support the petition, but also deliver our leaflets across the constituency and part of Tottenham too.

I then scoot off to St Andrew’s Church to view the plans they have on display for renovations with the lottery funding they have, most wonderfully and at their third attempt, succeeded in getting. The old hall won’t know itself when the works are finished and I am totally glad that I managed to get there to see the ‘before’. The ‘after’ will mean so much more when I see it there. I meet a devoted team who have really slogged through the whole process of bidding for lottery money (not an easy process) and – because of their determination – have now been rewarded. It will be great for the local community because it will offer meeting room and hall facilities, staging facilities and they hope to run a proper lunch club.

In the evening I go to my daughter’s school for their firework display. I know Ally Pally probably has the best display – but a mother’s duty…

Sunday – have spent day writing speech for evening and sorting out the piles of paper that never diminish. I think Harry Potter must replenish them with a flourish of his wand. I only mention Potter because the excitement is mounting in my household over the fourth film. Live streaming from Leicester Square ensures youngest glued to computer to watch red carpet arrivals of the stars. I confess to being a Potter fan too.

After a campaign team meeting to review and cajole for the forthcoming council elections in which we hope and plan to win control of Haringey Council, I go to a North London Jewish group to give a speech and take questions on police, crime and disorder. Very lively lot! Over an hour of questions – and very vocal. I quite enjoyed myself.

Come home around 10.30pm to loads of messages which turn out to be all about the fact that I will have to front for the Lib Dems at the meeting with Charles Clarke in the morning over the Government’s anti-terrorism plans.

Dodgy questionnaire

At the end of last week, Charles Clarke urged all MPs to consult with their constituents over the Government’s plans to introduce detention without trial for up to 90 days. Background – the Government knows it won’t get these plans through Parliament and is looking for a compromise. The request to MPs to consult their constituents sounds suspiciously to me like a ploy to set us up for Labour to claim – on whatever spurious grounds – ‘oh look, the public wants this so you must now change your minds and vote for it’.

Suspicions confirmed by the absurd email he’s sent out to people asking them to take part in a survey on Labour’s website. You can see it at http://www.labour.org.uk/yourviewsonfightingterrorism with those lovely unbiased questions like “Do you think police should have the time and opportunity to complete their investigations into suspected terrorists?” Well, everyone will think ‘yes’ to that one, but somehow I think Labour will claim saying yes to that means you support 90 days detention without trial.

I don’t know why – but the word trust and Labour just don’t sit naturally together!

Labour's terrorism plans

The Terror Bill marched on through the Committee Stage in Parliament today – but without the fever of the previous day when the Government nearly suffered a defeat – a close encounter which made Charles Clarke back down on the 90 days detention plans.

Today’s most serious debating issue was around the definition of ‘terrorism’. This is at the heart of the difficulty we are all having with the proposals. We all know what we mean by ‘terrorist’ in terms of suicide bombers in London. But when you try and legislate – particularly around vaguer legal concepts like ‘glorification of terrorism’ or ‘incitement to terrorism’ – then you are into real trouble.

To encapsulate – we (our nation) may well believe (and does I hope) that Robert Mugabe is an evil bastard oppressing his people and worse. We might incline to praising and encouraging those who stand up against Mugabe and fight this oppression and evil dictator. If we did so – we would be guilty of both of the above charges. Clearly ludicrous. And yet – as brilliant argument upon argument rained down on the Government’s front bench – they seemed incapable of dealing with the need to find a new definition.

A proposed amendment by a Labour member put forward a reasonable amendment that would have gone a long way to deal with the problems – but even when it’s as plain as the nose on their face this Labour government does not budge until it faces defeat on the floor of the House. So we will see what they come back with next week in terms of movement on the key issues – including their promised revision to the 90 days detention proposal.

I rush back to Haringey after the close of play to our Liberal Democrat AGM where I rally our troops to get out there to win the Haringey Council elections looming in May. There is a good turnout and much enthusiasm for the road ahead. A few new faces volunteer and stand for various positions – which is encouraging as the old hands need to be out there pounding the pavements not administrating. At the end they presented me with a montage of photos from the night we won our first ward and got our first three Lib Dem councillors (all women) on Haringey Council right through to now. Being female, what struck me most was my changing hairstyles, lengths and colours over the intervening years!

Then rushed home to catch the Cameron-Davis Question Time. I thought Cameron was exposed as almost completely style over substance – and that Davis did far better in terms of demonstrating that he was the seasoned hand, the one who could handle the pressure etc. So – I guess – as Lib Dems we are in a win-win position!

Blunkett's demise

As I drove in today listening to the radio, the news started to roll across one of the two big stories of the day – from Blunkett may resign – to – hasn’t turned up to Pensions Select Committee – to – coming out of Downing Street – to had handed in his resignation.

I don’t think there was any way out for him really. I was talking to Menzies Campbell (Lib Dem deputy leader) later in the day who was saying (in jest) that it was my fault for asking the question and that other Ministers should be afraid.

I asked him whether he thought it would have made any difference if Blunkett had chosen, instead of attacking me for daring to ask a question about whether his judgement being so publicly called into question meant he was still able to do his job as a minister, to instead say something like ‘the Honourable Lady is right. I have had so many personal disasters in recent times that I have done things, albeit unwittingly, that have resulted in my making errors of judgement – but I apologise to the House and am putting all in order as the job I have to do is the single most important thing on this nation’s agenda and on mine …’ Menzies said he thought that contrition went a long way in the House. But contrition so isn’t David Blunkett. His position worsened between Monday’s questions and today – and the inevitable conclusion was reached.

It is extraordinary that a man so brilliant in a work situation (whether you love or hate his policies) could be so floored by personal relationships – but that’s just the truth of how life is.

Prime Minister’s Questions followed quickly on – and Tony B decided on a strange defence of his actions vis a vis Blunkett. He said that Blunkett had broken the Ministerial Code – but that he shouldn’t go. He said that it wasn’t a sacking offence. This shouldn’t be anything to do with what Blair or any other Prime Minister thinks is ‘serious’ or not. So I would suggest that the decision is taken out of the Prime Minister’s hands – and that there is an independent panel to decide about such matters. You simply cannot have a Ministerial Code that is broken and have a Prime Minister saying basically – well it doesn’t matter.

On the run and wounded Blair looked weak as he wanly defended himself against accusations of being a lame duck as power and influence and friends in the Cabinet drained away. The colour drained away too from his face. Nasty business today.

And it got worse as we spent the rest of the day debating the Terror Bill where the Government was forced into retreat on its proposals for extending detention for 90 days without charge. Having come within one vote of defeat on an earlier amendment – Charles Clarke (who is no fool) backed down and conceded talks –  thus avoiding a vote against the proposals. We’ll see what happens. Only other thing to report is dashing out into pouring rain to meet with the lobby for Trade Justice. There was a Hornsey & Wood Green delegation and I am so glad I was able to get out and talk to them (the votes and getting out the chamber was not easy).

More gesture politics from Labour

Back to the Violent Crime Reduction Bill. Last thing yesterday dozens of amendments were published for the weapons part of the bill. But first we have to finish up on Alcohol Disorder Zones. This is with an argument from the Lib Dem about an absurd bit of the proposals which gives the area proposed for a disorder zone an opportunity to put forward an action plan and sort things out first – but then says that if the Local Authority doesn’t like the way the things are going it can step in and impose the zone anyway. You can’t have a mechanism for giving people a chance to do things the right way and then not give them that period. Unless you’re a Labour Government!

So then we arrive at guns. My Lib Dem No.2 on the Committee (there are only two Lib Dems) is a gun using Scot. He has lawful possession of a number of guns and is expert on the ins and outs of firearms certificates and the like. I have some relationship with alcohol – but none with guns.

We are arguing with the Government on a number of aspects. First there is an issue with tightening up on the transport of guns. As John Thurso points out, if he had his gun locked in his boot (which is the only way you are allowed to transport guns) and he popped out from the car to buy something and his friend was left in the car, he could then be had for this ‘crime’ – and moreover he could get 5 years minimum mandatory sentence for the pleasure – under Labour’s proposals, as currently written.

Latter on I argue against minimum mandatory sentences – partly because we believe law makers should not lay down what should rightly be decided by judges as to particular circumstances of each case, but also because it is another example of Labour being ‘tough’ without thinking things through. In this case, we’d have a dog’s breakfast of some offences having a mandatory five-year minimum sentence but equivalent acts with other firearms had completely different penalties. The whole structure would become a nonsense – and the Government has promised and promised a reviews and consultations – and then nothing. Sentencing is already becoming nonsense with Charles Clarke letting prisoners go because the prisons are too full. It’s all ‘gesture’ and ‘message’ with existing laws not enforced properly and a whole pile of new laws instead.

Anyway – Labour have a right go at me – but I stick to my guns (so to speak)!

We finish around 5pm and will resume where we left off next Tuesday – just before which pagers vibrate to bring us the news that Cameron and Davis will fight it out.