Unelected but more influential than a zillion MPs!

Make the best of today! If the forecasters are right Albert must prepare to abandon his string-vest and resume ark-making. But we musn’t complain, this summer has already beaten last year. That of course was, like beating the Australian cricketers, not difficult.

Talking of which some of my fellow codgers went down to Lords on Saturday. It perhaps says everything about the quality of the opposition that their feedback was primarily about the Tube. Apparently it was akin to a hot sardine-makers outing. Fred told us that he was squashed between two young women, one of whom remarked that it was a relief to not be forced upon the usual ogling male. It seems that many women have good reason to feel intimidated when travelling at peak times!

However, there are signs that the authorities are at last preparing to do something. From tomorrow morning the police and website ‘ Everyday Sexism ‘ will launch a week-long Twitter chat using hashtag #ProjGuardian to encourage passengers to share and report incidents. All 2000 officers who police transport in the City have been trained to deal with sexual offences and up to 180 officers at a time will be deployed at stations. It is time to abandon the usual British practice of suffering in silence!

Meantime it is not only the long-suffering Underground users who are unhappy. Unless he has a skin to match that of a Rhino our dear leader must be feeling likewise. In his case it is self-inflicted. For the second time he stands accused of appointing an  inappropriate adviser to whom he has granted powers of influence far greater than that of the massed ranks of backbenchers.

First time around it was Andy Coulson, and we all know that story. Eventually the Murdoch link was becoming a big issue and David Cameron was forced to show the soon-to-be- prosecuted adviser the door. Seemingly unchastened by the experience our favourite Old Etonian has appointed Lynton Crosby, whose company Crosby Textor advises tobacco giants Philip Morris International. Many MPs of both major parties believe that Crosby was instrumental in bringing about the U-turn on the government’s plan to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes.

Now their suspicions are multiplying. The Guardian newspaper has obtained a copy of a presentation by Crosby Textor to the H5 Private Healthcare Alliance, an umbrella group for private healthcare providers hoping to take over the simpler and more profitable medical services from the NHS. The presentation consists of slides which analyse public perceptions of the NHS and advises providers on ways and means of gaining a foothold.

The presentation was made by Crosby Textor, known as CTF Partners in th UK, at the end of 2010. This was just months before the health and social care bill was given its second reading in the Commons in January 2011. The publication of the bill was delayed from late 2010 – the time of the Crosby presentation – amid concerns that Andrew Lansley had failed to think through his plans to devolve commissioning powers to GPs.

After Crosby began again to officially to work for the Conservatives in November 2012, the government appeared to try to reverse some of the changes resulting from the ‘pause’. Labour reacted by depicting these as a backdoor privatisation and some were watered down. But what was undeniable was the fact that shortly after Crosby started work the government shifted its position in favour of private health companies. At the time independent experts expressed surprise at the sudden shift in position. Most now believe that they see the hand of Crosby in what happened.

Inevitably opponents of the government will make much of all this and one can only look on in astonishment at David Cameron once again leavng himself open to accusations of allowing conflicts of interest on a huge scale. He has just enjoyed a few good weeks, as demonstrated by his party’s climb in the polls. Now he has yet again tainted himself with the stench of corruption.

One can only conclude that the man is a fool. Not long ago he had to defend himself from claims that Samantha Cameron had persuaded him to drop his plans to arm the Syrian rebels. Since she visited the tortured country it is obvious that the couple would have discussed it, but the accusation of influence seemed tenuos at best. But clearly the PM didn’t notice that influence is a toxic issue, and the Crosby affair is in an altogether different league!

With damaging revelations likely to resurface once the trial of his friends in the Murdoch clan begins, the last thing the prime minister needed was another scandal. Arrogance or naivety? We don’t know but one thing is certain. Our dear leader will need the powers of Houdini as this latest row escalates!

But let us end today on a positive note. As I type I learn that Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, has gone into labour. We, who once paced the floor as the midwife sat upstairs with our wives, wish her well. We wonder what sort of society her baby will one day ‘reign’ over!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY ; ” We hope this will send a message to everyone that we will not tolerate sexual harassment. We want women to feel confident that their complaints will be taken seriously”…Ricky Twyford, an inspector and manager of the campaign being launched on London’s transport.

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PS KATE LABOURS NO MORE…IT’S A BOY!           


Dr Kelly – the symbol of Britain’s eternal shame!

It was much cooler on the allotments this morning and as we rolled out the hosepipe we wondered if we really needed it. A glance at the forecast suggested that we did since it appears we are about to be roasted alive before the monsoons arrive. We were engaged in the less than arduous task of playng at Fireman Sam when someone mentioned that it is almost exactly ten years ago that we woke to learn of the strange death of Dr Kelly.

Most of us were able to remember where we were when the news broke. I was staying overnight in a Bristol motel. I opened the door of my room to reach for the morning paper and saw six words in bold type – “The death of an honest man!”. Even at that moment I sensed that here was a story that would be a watershed in British political history. I was right.

It may well be that we will never know the truth abut Dr Kelly’s supposed suicide. I remember a TV interview with the paramedics who were called when his body was discovered. They said that the amount of blood was not compatible with suicide. They never appeared in the media again, a wall of silence surrounded the tragedy.

Almost a month earlier the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan had met Dr Kelly, and noted him as saying that the dossier on the alleged WMDs of Saddam Hussain commissioned by Tony Blair was “transformed wk before pub to make it sexier, the classic was the 45 mins”. This was a reference to the claim made by Blair that Hussain had missiles  capable of reaching London within 45 miniutes. On the next day’s ‘Today” programme Gilligan, without revealing his source, claimed that the Blair government had knowingly “sexed up” its WMD dossier. Alastair Campbell went on air to describe Gilligan’s story as “a lie” and demanded an apology.

We now know that one week before the dossier was published, on September 18th 2002, Campbell had sent memos to its author, Sir John Scarlett, saying that he and Tony Blair were “worried” that the draft gave the impression that “there was nothing to worry about”. He later emailed Scarlett suggesting the insertion of a totally false claim that in certain circumstances, Saddam could produce nuclear weapons in as little as a year. This fabricaton duly appeared in the dossier.

We now know that other changes were demanded by Campbell. Most were accepted and the effect was to harden the document’s language from possibility to probability. Campbell lied to Parliament abut the content of this memo, giving the Foreign Affairs Committee an altered copy which omitted his comments on the 45-minute claim and played down most of his other interventions.

What we also now know is that, contrary to what he said at the time, Blair admits in his memoirs that he privately saw the case for war against Iraq as “finely balanced”. Tipping of the scales was needed or, as Blair puts it in his book, “politicians are obliged from time to time to conceal the full truth, to bend it and even distort it, where the interests of the bigger strategic goal demands that it be done”.

Of course we knew nothing of this at the time. Indeed, in his evidence to the Hutton inquiry, Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, described the 45 minute claim straight-faced, as a “piece of well-sourced intelligence”, two months after his own service had discredited it in internal documents.

The government knew that the dossier was falsified  and this is what makes its behaviour toward the BBC and Dr Kelly so incredible. After Gilligan and the BBC refused to reveal the source of the ‘leak’, Dr Kelly came forward to his bosses as the source under a promise that his identity would be kept secret. He was effectuvely exposed when Campbell, in his own words, decided to “open a flank on the BBC” to distract attention from his difficulties over the dossier.

The Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) was conducting an inquiry but failed to denounce Gilligan. Campbell, in his diary, decided that “the biggest thing needed was the source out”. On orders from Downing Street, MOD press officers announced that a source had come forward, handed out clues allowing anyone with Google to guess who he was, then kindly confirmed it to any reporter who guessed right. One newspaper was allowed to put more than 20 names to the MOD before it got to Dr Kelly.

Once outed, Dr Kelly was openly belittled by the foreign secretary, Jack Straw. The FAC was forced by Downing Street to hold a special hearing and Dr Kelly was subjected to enormous pressure, mostly aimed at discrediting him.

The long-running Chilcott inquiry into Iraq has yet to report, but we already know beyond any doubt that the Government lied and lied again. It was prepared to hound a man of integrity, whose only offence was to expose the lies, to his death, be it by his hand or theirs.

In his memoirs Blair refers to Campbell as a “crazy person” who by that stage, had “probably gone over the edge”. Maybe, but that in no way exonerates Blair and all the supposedly distinguished knight who supported his dishonesty.

Dr Kelly has for us become a symbol. What happened has undoubtedly destroyed his loving family. It has also destroyed any lingering doubt we had about leading politicians. It may be unfair but even now we find ourselves wondering just how true are the pronouncements from Downing Street.

We also smile wryly when ministers urge whistleblowers to come forward. What happened to Dr Kelly is likely to discourage them!

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Police arrest four after clashes at EDL rally in Birmingham

Over 1,000 police officers take part in major security operation to ensure public safety and keep rival protesters apart

Police have made a handful of arrests after bottles, cans and other missiles were hurled at officers during an English Defence League rally.

A total of four people were arrested, all for public order offences, at the EDL rally and a counter-demonstration in separate public squares in Birmingham city centre.

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EU has an army – of diplomats!

The heatwave has provided a new topic of conversation. A Tesco counter-lady told me this morning that I was the twentieth person to mention that it is hot, clearly we were all concerned that she might not have noticed. My inclination had been to mention the Test Match but we cricket-fanatics have to remind ourselves that not everyone shares our obsession. Mind you, many more days of watching an Australian team with L-plates may achieve what she-who-must-be-obeyed has been trying to do for fifty years. Washing-up may well prove more exciting!

Marginally more exciting is the revelation that for ten years private investation agencies have been illegally raiding institutions like the NHS for personal data with a view to tracking people in debt. We have a new name to cover the activity, ‘blagging’ is it and – surprise, surprise – the businesses thus engaged were forerunners to the payday loans sector. It seems that Knacker has been aware of this for many a year, but has decided to leave ill alone. Crime, we are told, is falling. Perhaps the claim should be amended to read recorded crime?

But our attention this morning was drawn to the latest goings on at the EU. Of late we have heard much talk of it forming an army, what we hadn’t realised was that the plan is initially for an army of diplomats. The European External Action Service (EEAS) was formed a couple of years ago and is regarded by the EU bureaucrats as a “crucial stepping stone towards the creation of a common EU foreign policy”. A strange objective given that provisions in the Lisbon Treaty state foreign policy is still the prerogative of individual member countries.

The EU has developed an extensive (if little advertised) worldwide network of embassies, each Head of Delegation accorded full ambassadorial status and the staff full diplomatic privileges and immunities.. There are now EU embassies in 140 different countries, all generously staffed; in Mozambique there are 32 personnel, Uraguay 30 and Papua New Guinea 37.

Warm islands with agreeable beaches have not been neglected. The embassy in Barbados has 44 staff members, and 11 Pacific Island countries are overseen by a delegation in Fiji. You name it and the EU now has an embassy there. It all adds up to a foreign service 3,400 strong, a remarkable number of people doing political work of an elusive kind. On top of this new empire, Brussels now has a large overseas aid administration bringing the total foreign service headcount to a staggering 5,400, and rising.

There is also a team of ‘Special Representatives’, most of whom is paid more than the Secretary General of the United Nations. A UK Foreign Office minister last week suggested that the overall salaries for the new EU diplomatic army were “modest”. It was then pointed out to him that the figures he was examining were monthly, rather than annual, salaries!

The cost of all this has grown by 10% over the past year, one in which the budget for the UK Foreign Office has been cut by 30%. And that is far from all. The new EU diplomatic army boasts more than 500 chauffeurs, each paid more than £60,000. They regularly ferry diplomats from Brussels to countries such as Turkey.

The puzzle is what can these embassies do that cannot be done by individual country’s embassies? What can the EU embassy do in, say, Moscow that the British, German, French or Italian ones cannot. The answer seems to be nothing.

This is a self-aggrandising EU vanity project, one developed by the same people that introduced an EU anthem, currency, flag, and, only last week, a glossy “Mr and Mrs MEP” chldren’s book. Out of the sight of MEPs and member-country ministers the unelected Brussels mob is building a massive, ultra-extravagent organisation. Their goal is the elimination of individual state identities.

Our dear leader is probably right when he says that membership of an EU trading community makes sense. But things have gone far beyond that and it will take some very tough bargaining indeed to extract us from the Brussels Titanic.

Rumours of Nick Clegg being lined up for high EU office ring true. For whatever other reason could he possible go on proposing that we stay part of such madness?

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; ” There is no single European foreign policy. On all decisive matters in recent times – the war in Iraq, arming the rebels in Syria, relations with Russia, action in Libya, policy to Cuba, Kosovo ad Macedonia – there has been no united EU policy. How then can there be EU embassies?” …Norman Lamont 

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Were Gove or Clegg ever children?

We codgers are determined not to complain about the heatwave, having moaned non-stop about the rain and cold winds. But it has to be admitted that it is causing a few problems on the allotments. A number of hens have succumbed to the high temperatures, and our runner beans are hanging their heads despite the applicaton of many a bucket of Adam’s ale. Meantime Albert, now back from Porthmadog, has somehow managed to put our fridge out of action and is as popular as a rattlesnake in a lucky dip.

And whichever giant brain decided to sell off the national plasma bank to an American private equity firm is equally ill-regarded this morning. For obvious reasons this national health asset is extremely important, and the idea of handing it to an equity company with none of the safeguards in terms of governance is bizaare. Ministers were quick to point out that Bain Capital was co-founded by US presidential candidate Mitt Romney. This snippet is supposed to have us say well that’s okay then. But we don’t. We find the obsession  with privatising every essential service both ridiculous and extremely dangerous.

We include our schools in that sentiment, given Michael Gove’s obsession with so-called Academy versions. In fact everything that he does strikes us as divisive and part of his drive to seperate the high-flyers from the less talented. Now we learn that Nick Clegg has woken from his slumbers to announce a plan to introduce tests for five-year-olds.

We understand the supposed logic here, but presume to suggest that five is too late and tests are too blunt an instrument. The gap in cognitive development between children from advantaged and disadvantaged homes is observable long before they reach primary school. Tests are no substitute for the in-depth knowledge nursery staff have of the children in their care. Heavy investment in early years education would facilitate the identification of children already falling behind their peers thus providing the trigger for programmes that emphasise play, reading for pleasure, socialisation and empathy.

In fact we find ourselves out of sympathy with the whole drive for more and more tests at all ages. Research has shown that our children are more worried about tests than in any other developed country. Yet what contribution to education does comparing pupils make? Gove’s plans to place all pupils in a league table ranked according to ability will lead inevitably to a world where only the kids at the top count rather than one in which “very child matters”.

Readers old enough to remember the ‘eleven-plus’ exams may well share our view. Even now, after so many years, one meets people who still feel a sense of inferiority based on failing to score high marks in a one-off instant test. As in Gove’s plans of today no attention was paid to teacher’s appraisal of effort and progress, even the most talented kid could have an off day induced by nervousness and it was no uniform for you as your peers headed off to grammar schools.

It is interestig that politicians often choose to compare our national literacy levels with that of Finland. That, they tell us, is the standard we should aim for. Perhaps they haven’t visited Finland. Yes, there are consistently high standards, huge levels of teacher satisfaction, minimal social selection and an education sector that is lauded throughout the world. But there are no inspections, no punitive lesson observations and minimal testing. And children are not taught by rote and parroting facts so beloved by people like Gove and Clegg.

It leads us to wonder if such worthies – their view not ours – were ever children. Did they never experience the natural curiosity of a child, the desire to enter into the fantastic world of the imagination. Did they never encounter the sort of teacher portrayed in ‘Dead Poet’s Society’, one who metaphorically sat amongst his or her pupils and led them through the magical world of storytellers such as Dickens?

Like medicine, education is a great skill which, when practised by professionals unencumbered by constant interference, can produce startling results. In both fields politicians do far more ill than good. Were they to focus their attention solely on developing doctors and teachers with a sense of vocation and self-belief before leaving them to practise their art the world would be a better place.

Come to think about it the world would be a better place were there no politicians at all!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY: ” Education by audit is contrary to the natural gift which is education. Once you try to audit a developmental process you kill what you wish to encourage! The current UK government’s tragic misconception of education will have catastrophic effects “….Professor John Matthews, London.

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Gulf between rulers and ruled is unbridgeable!

We read that the Australians have a plan for today’s Test Match at Lords. They are, the pundits tell us, intending to unnerve Stuart Broad with constant verbal abuse, or sledging as the experts like to call it. Since Broad is more than capable of starting a fight in an empty telephone box it doesn’t sound, at first hearing, to be a particularly brilliant strategy.

But who cares? The sun continues to beat down, and the interest of those with sufficient energy to have any seems equally divided between Broad’s penchant for tying up his boots at key moments and the arrival of a royal baby. We know that thanks to Lord Ashcroft, the Tory millionaire who bankrolls political polling. His latest research tells us that most of the things debated so fiercely at Westminster arouse zero interest beyond its walls.

Frankly we codgers are not in the least surprised. It has always seemed to us likely that the vast majority of people have an innate commonsense that doesn’t need hours of raucous point-scoring to prompt a conclusion. A classic example is the row in the Commons yesterday about the government’s U-turns on plain packaging for cigarettes and a minimum price for booze. Our dear leader claimed that his adviser Lynton Crosby, who happens to also work for the tobacco industry, merely talked to him about the proposed legislation but didn’t lobby. He and Ed spent a happy half-hour squabbling about this, the people automatically decided that of course the turn-about was the result of lobbying.

We seem to have reached a point where parliamentarians have lost touch with what people actually think and care about. The probable explanation is that the majority of them live in a different world. In days past that was often the case with Tory grandees who imagined that the average Brit spent his or her waking hours consdering the design of duck-houses. But today the bulk of the opposition also seem to be somewhat removed from what most of us see as the reality of everyday life.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the case of property, or what our elected ones like to call the desire to step on to rungs of the housing market. They seem incapable of understanding that the property market has bcome so distorted and unequal that over a third of the market is effectively off limits to families who are on an income of £22,000 or less. Off limits in the sense of buying of course, but also for renting. Perhaps that is because the market is controlled by legislation, financial regulation and and taxable structure overseen by a parliament in which nearly half of MPs are buy-to-let landlords.

The vast majority of MPs do of course own more than one property  they generally have their constituency home and their London home, one or other of which has been kitted out with the John Lewis list as paid for by us; just as, until the expenses scandal, we also generously underwrote the interest payments on their second mortgages. But they don’t have to declare those. What they do declare are the other properties in their ownership.

Several hundred MPs do own a number, or  – in the case of James Clappinson 26, others. Then you have the likes of Caroline Spelman, whose property portfolio encompasses property in Bath, London, the West Midlands and Portugal. Bob Blackman has six buy-to-let properties in Welwyn Garden City. Mike Freer rents out property in France and Dumfriesshire. Jake Berry has commercial property and a flat in Liverpool, and two houses in North Wales. The nice David Lammy has a rental property in Tottenham. Paul Uppal is a shareholder in his family’s real estate company, Pinehurst Security, which has assets of £2.3m. Likewise David Tredinnick, whose is worth £4.4m.

I am becoming as weary of typing this as you probably are of reading it, so I ask you to accept that the list is a very long one. There are over 100 MPs who rent out flats in London alone. They rent out and then write off the interest payments on them against tax. And there are rich pickings from the 49% of people in the Capital whose rent takes up more than half of their income!

A glance at places now known as “affordability black spots” is interesting. In Warwick local MP Nahdim Zawawi has residential property and 31 acres of land as well as 3 flats for rent in London. Fellow repesentative of the people Richard Fuller also has properties in Warwick and has branched out in New York.

Self interest is a basic human instinct but where a substantial swathe of the population can’t even afford to rent a rabbit hutch – or the cheapest two-bedroomed flat on the market, as defined by the Resolution Foundation –  it has its limits. Buy-to-let is the result of political and financial arrangements designed by parliament. Vested interest all round.

There are still some in parliament who understand the needs of their constituents but they are reducing as each year passes. Having read ‘This Boy’, the story of Alan Johnson’s childhood, I can well believe that he has his feet n the ground. But he has been frozen out of the shadow cabinet, perhaps the ‘men of the people’ that line the front benches prefer not to hear what he has to say. And there are others but, unlike the list of property owners it is not a long one.

For these and many other lifetstyle issues the gulf between rulers and  ruled has become unbridgeable. So its back to the Test Match!

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THOUGHT FOR TODAY; ” The one great principle of the English law is to make ever more business for itself!” …Charles Dickens

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