Ian Blair's departure

Blimey – he’s gone! It’s always a bit of a shock when someone leaves like that – even when you have thought they should go. Ian Blair has been clinging on for dear life virtually since he started. It is to his great credit that despite the errors of judgement he made – and his mistakes have been very big and very public – that he has actually achieved progress in some areas – like neighbourhood policing and diversifying the make-up of our police.

His flaws? Too clever by half for one. I think (and I was a member of the Met Police Authority for five years alongside Ian Blair) that he had progressive intentions hampered by a belief that he could handle the media – sort of Blair (Tony) and Alistair Campbell rolled into one. But he wasn’t good at it. Or perhaps it is just not the way the Met Police Commissioner needs to play his hand. Appearing on Question Time just after the shooting was an appalling error of judgement.

It is so interesting when I look back. If I juxtapose two vignettes of Ian Blair – perhaps this might give you a taste of the man himself. When the Macpherson report was published on the events around the murder of Stephen Lawrence – it was recommended that the police start to use stop forms. This meant that if a police officer stopped anyone – they were required to give that person a copy of the ‘stop’ form which would state why they were stopped and also describe the person ethnically etc. It took quite a time to fill out and, whilst absolutely right in intent, took out time from patrol. Now hopefully, they are moving to an abbreviated form done electronically – which will keep the good points but cut the delays and bureaucracy.

As for Ian Blair’s role. Well – at an event on stop and search that was put on by the Met, with actors playing situations, groups from all over London came to discuss the issues around stop and search, knife crime and relations with communities. I remember, crystal clear, Ian Blair when he gave his speech saying that he thought the form was obstructive, unnecessary and would stop police doing their job. It was clear to me that he thought this a waste of time and nothing to do with good policing.

Jump forward about five years and Ian Blair has become Commissioner. Addressing senior officers from across London and Borough Commanders in his first major speech to his men and women – he made clear that diversity was a huge issue and that how stop and search was handled was paramount in community relations and that the stop form was an absolute necessity.

Had he changed? No – not in his core belief but you see – I think the key to Ian was that he saw what was needed, and if that wasn’t where he had positioned himself, he shifted to wherever necessary to conquer and move forward with the agenda.

He was far too political – but then it is political position. I thought he stepped way out of line when he backed ID cards during the election period. Also when commanders were encouraged to encourage their MPs to vote the ‘right’ way on extending detention without charge. This is not OK – but Ian was a player and would not hold back from political activity to push forward the government / his desire.

He lived pretty dangerously and as he said in his resignation statement – it wasn’t the pressures, the mistakes or the stories that got to him in the end. It was clear that Boris had basically said he wouldn’t work with him. Whatever I think of Ian Blair – that was the absolute wrong reason for him to go. There were myriad reasons for him to leave his high office – from Stockwell to race divisions in the Met – but being forced out by Boris was the wrong reason.

Ten most popular blog postings (4th quarter, 2007)

Well – happy new year everyone, and without further ado – here’s what keeping you reading on this blog over the last three months.

10. Low Copy Number DNA – a recap of my concerns about Labour’s plans for our DNA records, back in the news after this controversial new technique was criticised by the judge in the Omagh bomb case. I suspect I got a lot of traffic to this post as lots of people went searching for information on the topic after the news of the judge’s comments broke.

9. Crimestoppers caught advertising on illegal radio station – still going strong much to my surprise as the story is quite old now (see also the update if you’re new to the story).

8. Ian Blair should go – London’s top cop keeps making mistakes, and the time’s come for him to take direct personal responsibility for this record. As it turned out, only one Blair went in ’07.

7. Shadow Cabinet reshuffle – not really a blog posting because – as the news came out on my birthday – I just bunged up the news release – but nice to know so many people wanted to know quickly what post I’d got!

4. Wikipedia and its limitations – a slightly different posting from me this time; lesson noted that you dear reader like this sort of stuff!

3. Britain turns its back on more than half our Iraqi interpreters – the ongoing scandal of Labour’s refusal to protect those who worked for our armed forces in Iraq.

And of course the Lib Dem leadership contest featured – coming in at six, five, two and first in the list – no surprises there!

(Click to see the previous top tens).

How Ian Blair and Ken Livingstone got it wrong

In amongst the debate about whether Ian Blair, London’s top cop, should quit (my view? yes), not much has been said about what the IPCC investigations into the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes actually found – so I thought it worth quoting in some detail some of them:

[The key questions are] ‘If they thought he [Jean Charles de Menezes] might have a bomb, why was he allowed twice to get on a bus and then on the tube?’ ‘If they thought he didn’t have a bomb, why did they shoot him?’

Nor must there be any attempt to blame Jean Charles de Menezes himself for his fate.

He did nothing out of the ordinary.

He looked over his shoulder as he walked to catch his bus; he got back on his bus when he found Brixton tube station was closed; he texted his friend; he hurried down the final few steps of the escalator when he saw a train was already on the platform; and, like other passengers, he got to his feet when police officers burst onto the train. These actions may have been misinterpreted by police officers hunting a suicide bomber but they were entirely innocent.

… the most fundamental problem on that Friday was the implementation of the strategy set by Commander McDowall, the Gold Commander, that everyone leaving the premises was to be stopped once they were a safe distance away and questioned either for the intelligence they could provide or as a suspect. That never happened – and could not happen because the firearms teams needed to support these stops were not deployed in time to do so.

… failures of communication occurred in a number of ways: at the briefings of firearms officers; between the surveillance team and both the control room and firearms teams; the firearms and surveillance teams were not used to working together; the officers in the control room whose job it was to monitor the surveillance complained about the noise and confusion in the room; there was a lack of clarity in the command to ‘stop’ Jean Charles de Menezes entering the underground system; police radios did not work underground.

In other words – this wasn’t one mistake with tragic consequences – it was as catalogue of failures across vast swathes of the police operation.

And most damming of all:

The Commissioner [Ian Blair] attempted to prevent us carrying out an investigation.

(Source: IPCC news release on the Stockwell One report)
Says it all really about how Ken Livingstone’s turned into a neutered Labour loyalist that these days Ken doesn’t speak out against a top policeman trying to block an inquiry into the shooting of an innocent man. Oh Ken, how have you changed?

Ian Blair should go

I worked with Iain Blair for five years when I was a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority. He was Deputy Commissioner to John Stevens when I arrived. It was clear throughout the years he was deputy – that he was more than focused on succeeding to the top job when Sir John retired. And that’s what happened.

It is awful really to have watched him make errors of judgement – virtually since day one. He clearly set out to do things differently and to be the best-ever top cop – and it has all gone so horribly wrong.

And his errors have been the big ones and the public ones. He also politicised the police unforgivably when it suited, and made some very inadvisable media decisions – such as participating in Question Time.

There is no hiding place for him now and I don’t truly understand why he is hanging on rather than going gracefully. I guess he feels that it’s not fair to be judged on the extraordinary but tragic incident shooting of one person rather than the rest of his record where crime has fallen overall in London.

But – firstly – with us all paying for extra police and those extra police and PCSOs now on duty – it would be rank failure if there weren’t crime figures he could point at. And – secondly – the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes happened under him. The findings are damning in terms of the number of mistakes that were made. An innocent man died.

Blair has to go – because he carries the responsibility for overall whether the Met is up to scratch or not. And those damning findings of a catalogue of mistakes tell us the answer – it wasn’t.

In the end – getting the organisation right, the procedures and processes in order, helps the policeman (or woman) on the front line when they face that split-second decision as to whether to pull the trigger or not – because with the right systems they can make their decision confident that it is the right one. If the system behind you isn’t up to scratch, you can’t.

That’s why Iain Blair has to go – so that in future our lives will be protected, including by a proper and effective deployment where necessary of armed police.

Nick Robinson refuses to show me his balls

I had my hopes up when lovely Nick appeared on the TV this evening … but alas, they were dashed.

Another BBC news reports about Gordon Brown, general election date and all the will he won’t he dithering.

On to screen strides Nick Robinsonhe whose balls I wish to see – and we see him confront the Home Secretary about general election date – but what then happens? Soft question, easily batted away.

None of the tough questions about why in a democracy the PM should be able to pick the election date that most suits the PM’s electoral prospects. None of the tough questions about the hypocrisy of Brown saying he wants to get on with governing – whilst at the same time happily stoking up election date speculation.

Now – I know Nick Robinson can be a tough interviewer when he wishes – indeed, I still remember him clearly chasing Sir Ian Blair (London policeman) down the stairs, along a corridor and through to the outside, thrusting microphone in his face and asking tough, aggressive questions.

So come on Nick how about it next time – how about addressing the tough questions to Labour?

The Pensioners' Lobby

On Wednesday several pensioners from Hornsey & Wood Green came to see me and lobby me as part of the Pensioners’ Lobby. Their very passionate argument is that the Government’s promise to link pensions with earnings which is promised for 2012 will see many of them dead – i.e. it doesn’t help those who are in poverty right now. So I will be tabling some questions to Gordon Brown. Moreover – the one-off payment of £200 to pensioners by him just before the last General Election has not been forthcoming again (surprise) and yet pensioners are expected on their tiny fixed incomes to cope with the rises that will come in April on Council Tax and the Mayor’s precept for the Olympics.

Then I had to accompany Ming to a meeting with Sir Ian Blair (Met Police Commissioner). The meeting was private – so sadly can’t reveal all – but I myself did raise the issues (which are not confidential) over the future of police properties in London – there is a big review of their use of property, the location of police stations etc. Our local Commander, Simon O’Brien, has promised he will consult – but in his most recent email to me said he need to get so far (including identifying the actual premises) so that he had something to consult on.

The other issue was my question to Sir Ian a while back off of one of my written parliamentary questions about the disproportionately high numbers of black and ethnic minority people being arrested by the police. Amongst those arrested but not then charged or cautioned, people from the black and ethnic minority communities make up 60% of the total – hugely more than their share of the population. 28% of London’s population are from those communities, but they make up 60% of people arrested but not cautioned or charged. In other words – an innocent black man is much more likely to be arrested than an innocent white man. Sir Ian will get back to me.

DNA records

Went to New Scotland Yard to meet with Gary Pugh (in charge of forensics) about DNA. DNA is taken from people who are arrested, some of whom are then found innocent. Now here’s the thing – if you look at the DNA taken from innocent people, a far higher proportion of it comes from members of the ethnic minorities than their overall proportion in the population. And remember we’re talking about people found innocent here – so it looks as if there’s something very troubling going on.

Anyway – having asked my Parliamentary Question a while back and got the numbers showing that an innocent member of an ethnic minority is much more likely to be wrongly arrested than an innocent white person, I had written to Sir Ian Blair (Met Police Commissioner) to ask why the figures are as they are? Is it discrimination resulting in ethnic minorities being wrongly arrested far too often or does he have some other explanation?

No answer for a long, long time. But eventually they agreed to have a look at the issue – hence my meeting today. However, it turned out they wanted to deal with the DNA side as opposed to the disproportionaly arresting innocent men side. Having first agreed that we would need another meeting about this somewhat important aspect with the appropriate person – we went on to discuss DNA.

I suppose they are concerned because I keep raising a number of issues around DNA in general and around the retention of DNA records from innocent people. (There’s more about this on the campaign website, http://campaigns.libdems.org.uk/dna – including a link on the right hand side to an article I’ve written about why it matters even for innocent people if their DNA records are being wrongly kept).

Gary informed me that there is now to be an ‘ethics’ panel being set up, which is good – if belated – news. It was also clear that whilst DNA and its database was set up in regard to catching criminals (and I reassured him that I think in terms of a detection tool the sun shines out of DNA’s bottom) it is being used for a number of other – probably legitimate – purposes but also possibly open to less worthy ones and commercial ones.

Highgate police to be based in Highgate?

Met with local Haringey police commander, Simon O’Brien this morning.

Major success of the day is his agreement, if suitable premises can be found and the Met Estate Office agrees – that we can locate the Highgate Safer Neighbourhood Team in Highgate itself. He even suggested that I should go out with local officers to check out locations – so will do as soon as possible.

This is all part of the wider Met Estates strategy – and my bottom line in Hornsey and Wood Green (agreed by Simon O’Brien) is that nothing goes before there is something else that has been accepted by the public in its place. It’s all very well wanting to update buildings – and Lord knows there are buildings that are out of the ark in terms of what is needed for police stations – but where police are stationed is absolutely crucial to public confidence and being part of the community. We don’t want any police stations closed just on the promise that a new replacement will come along some time in future – with all the risk that you end up with nothing which that brings.

We move on to staffing levels for the Safer Neighbourhood teams. Although I hear some ‘you never see one’ comments – these are much less than before. However there are a few missing from the full complement and Simon says that his target for full complement is probably by October – but the outer limit set by Sir Ian Blair (London’s top policeman) is end December.

The part of our conversation he enjoys the most is when I ask about local crime statistics etc – and whist not everything is perfect it is clear that the police have had phenomenal success in terms of the increased rate of detection. In the end, it’s detection that it the first step towards conviction!

Also today had a long, long surgery meeting constituents with their individual issues. Off for a break myself shortly, and as usual during August I’ll be largely taking a break from blogging, though this year will put up one or two more contemplative pieces during the month.

Sir Ian Blair

Last night I got a phone call around 6pm to say that Channel 4 are screening the program – 30 Minutes on Sir Ian Blair – that I was interviewed for. Being the day of the bombings I felt a pang of anxiety. I am not a Sir Ian fan – albeit he is not all bad. However, the interview had lasted at least an hour if not more and I had been pretty robust about Ian’s ups and downs in his first year of office. But the interview was some time ago – and they certainly hadn’t mentioned screening it on the first anniversary of 7/7 – which for obvious reasons is an ultra-sensitive moment. So, as ever, I was trying desperately to remember what I had actually said – and wondered what amongst it all the media would chose to use (normally it feels like only a nano-second actually makes it on to the screen).

In the event, they didn’t use the bit on Soham, or on his media gaffs, nor my view that he has politicised the police unforgivably. They didn’t use my questioning of his wisdom in partaking in Question Time nor his inappropriate and inaccurate public statements on the shooting at Stockwell. They actually used quite a positive bit (in fact the only positive bit) in which I call him a ‘progressive’ and say that his real problem is that the good stuff he has delivered like rolling out Safer Neighbourhoods is negated by his mistakes because they have been big and public.

It’s a tragedy really, as Ian I think desperately wanted to be the best and most respected Commissioner ever – and it all went so horribly wrong. We will see what the two IPCC investigations say in their reports. If he is found ‘guilty’ there is no way forward for him; if he escapes – then he had better learn from what has been a pretty disastrous first year.