News this week has been dominated by the unfolding scandal in Westminster where numerous allegations of historical sexual harassment and assault have been raised by junior staff against politicians. The allegations vary in severity and there is a debate about what should and should not be constituted harassment, with newspapers such as the Daily Mail claiming that the allegations have caused “a witch hunt” against politicians. What is agreed is that this has highlighted the poor complaints and support procedures in place to handle such issues, and the work culture that has allowed it to perpetuate unchallenged.
Sir Michael Fallon is the first high profile casualty of the scandal, having announced his resignation as Defence Secretary in the last 24 hours. Sir Michael’s decision is understood to be based on historic instances. He is succeeded as Secretary of State for Defence by Rt Hon Gavin Williamson CBE MP, who previously served as Chief Whip. Mr Williamson (known for keeping a pet tarantula in his office), had been responsible for ensuring discipline among the Conservative backbenchers and played a key role in ensuring critical votes were won by the Government. He had previously served as Private Parliamentary Secretary to former Prime Minister David Cameron.
New Defence Secretary appointed amid Westminster scandal
Sir Michael Fallon has resigned as the Defence Secretary: the first high profile figure to step down from their post amid a scandal over inappropriate and abusive behaviour that has engulfed in Westminster. Sir Michael’s resignation followed news that 15 years ago he touched journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer’s knee and made suggestive comments to her. Ms Hartley-Brewer said that Sir Michael had apologised at the time, the issue had been resolved and she did not consider it harassment or assault. However, further claims about separate incidents have since been raised. In his resignation letter, Sir Michael said “”Many of these have been false but I accept that in the past I have fallen below the high standards that we require of the Armed Forces that I have the honour to represent.”
Rt Hon Gavin Williamson CBE, the MP for South Staffordshire, has been appointed to replace Sir Michael as the Defence Secretary. Mr Williamson was first returned to Parliament in 2010, and served as Chief Whip since Theresa May’s appointment as Prime Minister last year. He had previously been Private Parliamentary Secretary to former Prime Minister David Cameron.
Mr Williamson has no prior background in defence, and his appointment is reflective of Downing Street’s desire to have a staunch ally in what is a senior Cabinet post. Mr Williamson is likely to follow predecessors in demanding efficiencies from the MoD budget, and with Sir Michael resigning, the MoD will – at least temporarily – lose a senior voice in pushing for increased defence funding ahead of the Budget on 22 November. Helpfully, however, current understanding is that Mr Williamson’s appointment is unlikely to be part of a wider reshuffle (although this is contingent on further ministers not being compromised by allegations as part of the ongoing Westminster scandal). This means Tobias Ellwood, the minister with responsibility for the MDP, seems likely to remain in post. Eamon Keating met Mr Ellwood this week, the Federation’s first meeting with the Minister since his appointment over the summer.
Police Chiefs call for £1.3bn extra funding
The Guardian has revealed that a leaked report from the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) has warned that the police needs £440m extra funding in the Budget for 2018-2019, and £845m the following financial year, to avoid putting the safety of the public and the “legitimacy of policing” at risk. This comes after an 18 per cent decline in police budgets since 2010. The Council has explained the recommended increase in funding is required to tackle the increasing quantity and complexity of crimes committed, including the intensifying threat of terrorism and the 42 per cent rise in sex offenders being treated in communities. It said that the police have a “weakened position” in their approach to terrorism because of its real-terms funding freeze. said the NPCC also argued that the extra funding would pay for 5,000 new officers and 1,100 armed police force members.
Nick Hurd, the policing minister, said: “In 2017, the taxpayer will invest £11.9billion in our police system, an increase of more than £475million from 2015. However, we recognise that demand on the police is changing, and we are very sensitive to the pressure they are under.” Shadow Policing Minister, Louise Haigh, has responded to the report, saying, “The government’s real-terms funding cuts have left the public at risk, and they need to see urgent investment at the budget, or communities will be exposed.”
Home Secretary tells police to stop asking for money and tackle crime
Scotland Yard has warned that cuts to police funding could reduce officer numbers and subsequently the police’s ability to tackle crime in the capital, The Guardian has reported. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said financial pressures could result in the Metropolitan Police being reduced to fewer than 27,500 officers by 2021, which would make it the smallest it has been in 20 years. Mr Khan said that without extra funding, London would have “one police officer per 326 Londoners, compared to one officer per 242 Londoners in 2010 – a fall of 26%.”
Craig Mackey, the Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner, said that such cuts would put the Force under such a strain it would have to review the services it covered and “concentrate on crimes which cause the most harm to people.” A Home Office spokesperson said: “There are more officers for each Londoner than anywhere else in the country.”
Home Secretary Amber Rudd has since called for the police to concentrate on cutting crime instead of asking for money. She said she would listen and “critically evaluate” the police’s concerns, and hold elected crime commissioners to account. She said “When crime stats go up, I don’t just want to see you reaching for a pen to write a press release asking for more money from the government. I want you to tell your local communities and the victims in your area what your plan is to make them safer.”
The comment of the London Mayor and the Metropolitan Police reflect both the pressures on the Met’s resources, but also on constabularies across the country. However, it seems unlikely the Chancellor will commit significant extra funding to the police as part of the Budget on 22 November.
National Audit Office accuses MoD of “cannibalising” the Royal Navy
The National Audit Office has published a report concluding the MoD has stripped parts from the Royal Navy’s fleet in an attempt to cover the shortage of spare parts for its warships and submarines. It highlights the removal of the removal of “an estimated £92million from [the Navy’s] maritime support in-year budgets,” over the past two years as a primary reason for the practice within the fleet, and it notes that such “cannibalisation” has increased 49 per cent over the past five years.
The report states that this practice is costing the MoD millions of pounds and is delaying construction, and the MoD has identified that it has led to “an estimated “40m cost increase.” A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “Less than 0.5 per cent of parts we use come from swapping components, and we only do this when it's absolutely necessary to get ships out of port and back on to operations more quickly”.
Whitehall warns that Britain will be less able to support NATO without assault ships
The Times has reported that Whitehall sources have warned senior MoD figures that proposals to scrap the Navy’s only two amphibious assault ships would reduce Britain’s ability to support NATO operations. The two vessels – HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion – are understood to be at risk as a consequence of Royal Navy efforts to tackle a significant budget shortfall.
The removal of the two vessels from service could prevent the UK from becoming the lead nation for NATO’s immediate follow-on forces, the second phase of a response to a crisis, which the UK is scheduled to do in 2019, with the responsibility rotated amongst NATO members. An MoD spokesperson responded to the Whitehall warnings, reiterating that “No decisions have yet been made and at this stage any discussion of the options is pure speculation.”
Parliament debates flexible working for the British Armed Forces
Proposed legislation to roll-out flexible working to the Armed Forces was debated in Parliament this week. The proposals, included in the Queen’s Speech, would allow part-time working for short periods, providing the military’s operational effectiveness is not compromised, and would seek to limit the amount of time personnel need to spend away from home. The plans are part of a drive by the MoD to attract more women into the armed forces. Currently, 10.2 per cent of those working in the military are women, and the aim is to increase the proportion to 15 per cent by 2020.
CCTV facial recognition threatens citizens’ privacy
The independent CCTV watchdog has raised concerns to the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) that facial recognition software is being increasingly used to monitor crowds and identify those suspected of committing crime. Tony Porter, a spokesperson from the watchdog, has called for greater transparency in how new technology and police image databases are managed and regulated to ensure public confidence. The NPCC said that it was committed to finding the balance between “preventing harm and respecting individual rights.”
Last year, Paul Wiles from the biometrics commissioner had raised similar concerns, saying the use of facial recognition software had “gone far beyond using them for custody purposes.” Griff Ferris from Big Brother Watch highlighted that “There is no accountability over the use of these images and this technology: no law, no safeguards and no oversight.”
The Home Office is considering potential bidders for a £4.6m contract for facial recognition software designed to standardise surveillance across the UK. So far, such software has only been trialed by a few police forces at certain events.