Hidden:The secret influencers bankrolling centre right think tanks to change your mind

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Policy Exchange – direct line to government but secret about donors. Here Theresa May address a seminar as home secretary Pic Credit: Flickr

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An important report was published today by  Transparify , examining British think tanks whose reports and proceedings influence government policy on anything from education to health, and attitudes to smoking and climate change.

What it reveals is that while a number of British think tanks are open about who funds them – including the Institute for Government, Transparency International and the Overseas Development Institute- and some like RUSI ( the Royal United Services Institute )have improved their transparency – some of the most influential think tanks which impact on current Tory government policy are extremely secretive.

Nearly all of the secretive think tanks are on the Right of the spectrum. They are the Adam Smith Institute,Policy Exchange, the Centre for Policy Studies,Policy Network, Civitas,the Institute of Economic Affairs, and the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

What the report reveals is that the largely US financed Adam Smith Institute – a firm advocate of privatisation and libertarian thinking particularly over smoking- does not disclose ANY details of its donors or where it gets its money . It is dominated by a sister organisation Adam Smith International (UK) ltd, which receives British taxpayers money and World Bank cash  for advising foreign governments and has a turnover £130m. Adam Smith International has its own website  which does provide details of its projects and staff- and shows its projects vary from assisting privatisation to good governance. It only has one project in Jordan tackling climate change.

ASI’s American equivalent, according to the report, has filed a tax return showing it has received $1.2 million in donations but only spent just over $5000 in the US.

The Centre for Policy Studies, according to the report, has been active in fighting further regulation of the tobacco industry. It does not disclose its donors.

The Institute of Economic Affairs, according to the report, also has had backing from tobacco companies. It also claims it managed to change Government policy over the funding of charities financed by a ” mystery ” donor.

The report says : “In early 2016, The Independent reported that the IEA had “secured [a] change in government policy” on the back of a £15,000 donation from a “mystery donor” whose identity the IEA refused to reveal. The IEA told the newspaper that it had met with ministers or officials “as often as we were able” to discuss the proposal with them.”

Policy Exchange – which is a very active think tank with frequent debates involving MPs from all parties – and  very influential.  It was forced to withdraw large sections of one study The hijacking of  British Islam which controversially named mosques up and down Britain of spreading hate speech – which turned out to be untrue. Again we do not know all the donors to Policy Exchange but we do know it has strong links with ministers, including Lord Maude, a former civil service minister.

According to the Sunday Times, Policy Network was initially bankrolled by Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, a banker who by 2002 had reportedly donated £250,000 to the organisation. It is had not published details of donors for two years and is dominated by prominent Labour right wingers. Its president is Lord Mandelson who runs his own lobbying consultancy Global Counsel.

Finally there is the case of  the International Institute for Strategic Studies which appear to be transparent but missed out donations totalling £25m from one big donor, Bahrain.

Leaked papers revealed that secret memorandum of understanding had been drawn up between the think tank and Bahrain’s ruler to fund the organisation. The report says:

The Guardian reported a figure of £25 million, noting that this would account for “more than a quarter of IISS’s income“. Compiling data from multiple sources, pro-democracy group Bahrain Watch arrived at a figure of £30 million, corresponding to just over a third of IISS‟ overall income. The Middle East Eye published calculations according to which Bahraini funds may add up to nearly half of total IISS income.”

Given Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, as reported on this blog, launched his new ” East of Suez” policy in Bahrain – it appears that Britain will be driven to defending Bahrain should a new wave of Arab unrest spread. It now appears in return that Bahrain will be in a strong position to influence the British government to present itself as a modern liberal society when it is obviously not the full picture.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against the Adam Smith Institute, Policy Exchange or the Institute for Economic Affairs campaigning on any issue they want in a democratic society – including if they want to take up issues raised by tobacco companies or climate change.

But I am against secret backers using think tanks to try and influence government – and  public debate from  behind the scenes – and creating the illusion that these bodies are simply independent researchers with no agenda.

Transparify have done an invaluable job in drawing attention to this. The full report which has not been funded from external sources is here.

 

 

 

 

 

Standards at the tax office: A damning indictment from professional people who should know

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HMRC offices. pic credit: gov.uk

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This blog has covered serious complaints about the way Her Majesty’s Customs and  Excise is being managed – the latest being the revelations from the National Audit Office on plans to make 38,000 staff commute for hours to 13 new regional offices and close 170 existing ones.

Some of the strongest complaints have come from the staff and the main union, the Public and Commercial Services Union, which has been highly critical of government cuts. People might say, well, unions would complain, as they have duty to save jobs and how much notice should we take of this.

So it is extremely interesting  that the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, which represents some 147,000 professional people, has produced such a damning survey on what they think about HMRC’s services.

Far from having confidence in the government’s latest tax strategies or services they provide to business and the public, their findings in this year’s services are damning.

To summarise  from their report:

8 in 10 agents think that HMRC service standards have not improved over the past year.

 Half of agents say that services over the past 12 months have not changed.

Nearly a third (32%) think that they have deteriorated.

Nearly a fifth (18%) think that they have improved

The results are fairly consistent over the different taxes.

Agents appear to have similar frustrations with HMRC’s service quality as last year, specifically around ‘getting it right first time’ and getting information they require.

 Just a fifth of agents (20%) trust HMRC to ‘get it right first time’, while over a half do not (55%). Employer payroll is perceived particularly negatively, with two thirds (67%) not seeing HMRC staff in this area getting it right first time.

Similarly, less than a third (29%) of agents find it easy to get information they need from HMRC, while many (41%) do not.

And they are scathing about the government’s plans to digitalise the tax services – part of the plan to close 170 offices – and have 13 regional centres.

Agents’ views on moving to digital

 Only 3 in 10 (29%) of agents are positive about HMRC moving more of its services online.

Over half (53%) of agents are negative about moving services online.

Furthermore, only 15% of agents think that HMRC is supporting the role of tax agents in this move, while over half (54%) do not.

Frankly if I was in charge of HMRC ( and I am glad I am not) I would be rather worried by this survey. Since it came out it appears they have offered some talks about some of the problems,

But they are mainly very complacent. As the report itself notes :

This result is all the more surprising given that HMRC’s own performance statistics to September 2016 show a steadily improving performance in the previous 12 months.

The difference, it suggests  may be explained by a number of factors, including:

“That although HMRC’s telephone service for the public is much improved, for agents the telephone response time is not the real problem. The service standard on the agent dedicated line is already good and usually agents using the line have not had a problem getting through to HMRC.

Agents by their nature deal with clients who have more complicated affairs, and for them the expectations of service quality are different to those of the wider taxpayer population. So, as in previous years, agents again highlighted the problems in ‘getting it right first time’, coupled with the ability to get through to speak to the right person quickly to resolve complex queries. We know that HMRC is working to improve performance in these areas, for example through the ‘once and done’ initiative, and the survey results suggest that HMRC should seek to build on this initiative.

There is also a perception effect: it can take years to change a perception even though standards may have improved in the interim. We believe that HMRC’s own research in earlier years would also appear to point to this effect.”

However all in all this is a pretty resounding vote of no confidence in the tax service from a body  whose members deal with them everyday.

 

How Romania’s inhumane prison system led to the tragic death of a campaigning newspaper owner

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Dan Adamescu who dies this week after falling seriously ill in an inhumane Romanian prison system.

 

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Earlier this month this blog covered the plight of Alexander Adamescu, the joint owner of Romania’s oldest newspaper, who is facing extradition from the UK on what are seen as trumped up charges of bribery using the European Arrest Warrant.

His father, Dan, who was the co-owner of Romania Libera, Romania’s oldest newspaper was in prison serving a four year sentence on similar charges and his family were planning to fight the state over the way they are trying to close down his companies.

Now tragically his father has died – after a short period in hospital – one of a large number of people who die every year because of the notorious nature of the Romanian prison regime.

 

His son Alexander states :“On January 24, right after midnight, Dan Adamescu, aged 68, died in a hospital in Bucharest, without having his family close to him. Sentenced on June 5, 2014 following a trial that relied on false testimonies, he was consecutively imprisoned in 3 penitentiaries, where his health status became increasingly serious. Hospitalized in his last months of his life – which he spent being intubated and in semi-inducted coma – the 15 diseases he had made his body become more and more weak, and the deadly blow was given by the pathogenic bacterium called Staphylococcus aureus, with which he was contaminated in the inhuman conditions from the prison”

He mentions that his father went through difficult moments in the penitentiaries where he was imprisoned, given his health status.

“Jailed in unspeakable conditions in the Remand Center – 6 to 8 detainees in a cell of a few sq. m. at the basement, without closets, without room to move, with Turkish toilet – and not once, because of the atrophied muscles and of his ill knee, he felt I his own excrements – jailed for 23 of 24 hours – because he was allowed to go out for 1 hour, in the 30 sq. m. called “outdoor” (actually, a closed room of approx. 30 sq. m., having grids instead of the ceiling, extremely dirty) – he was moved later to the Rahova Penitentiary, where he shared a cell with 6 detainees, but because of his sharpened health status and of his inability to move, he remained permanently blocked in the cell.

Besides, for some bureaucratic reason, the treatment that he needed desperately wasn’t administered for 37 days, although medicines have been brought by my aunt, and his life was in real danger. Moving him to the Jilava Penitentiary was a new ordeal for my father… so he went from here to the Floreasca Emergency Clinical Hospital, directly in syncope; only after 10 days of medical care his vital functions have been restored, following a serious infection spread throughout his body” .

The issue of prison conditions in Romania- where nearly 500 people have died over the last five years often due to the lack of medical treatment –  has already been challenged in the High Court in London by the international human rights lawyer, Ben Emmerson ( who also represented Alexander Livenenko’s widow in the recent public inquiry into his poisoning by plutonium). He has taken up the cases of other people being extradited by the Romanians and the prison.

Romania’s cramped and unsanitary prison conditions mean that pre-trial detention has also become a kind of punishment. Prison standards are so bad that between 1998 and 2015, the European Court of Human Rights found Romania guilty of 178 violations of Article 3 of the ECHR prohibiting inhuman or degrading treatment. The court recorded 27 violations in 2015.

This sad end  to his father’s life strongly adds to the need for some action to stop the extradition of his son who blames the Romanian authorities for his early death.

 

A Romanian scandal that threatens press freedom that the UK could stop in its tracks

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Alexander Adamescu: Facing extradition from the UK using the European Arrest Warrant

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Romania is not particularly high profile. It is  best known for Bram Stoker’s Dracula stories and the infamous  rule of Communist President Nicolae Ceaușescu overthrown and killed in a revolution in 1989.

Now it is seen as a NATO ally, a democracy with free elections and in European Union circles as being tough on corruption.

But beneath the surface there is growing evidence that Romania is about to go the same way as Hungary and Turkey with a crackdown on the freedom of the press, arbitrary arrests and flouting the rule of law.

The issue is becoming deeply personal – and this blog has decided to take up the issue – over the plight of a German businessman who with his father owns Romania’s oldest newspaper, Romania Libra. The paper  has been a thorn in the side 0f successive  governments by exposing corruption  and political intrigue. I have written both a news story and a large  feature in Tribune this week on the case.

Alexander Adamescu currently lives in St John’s Wood in London. His father Dan is in hospital in Romania while serving a prison sentence for corruption based on the uncorroborated evidence of one person that he tried to bribe an official. His son is now – two years later -facing a similar charge after a flimsy examination of the evidence in a 30 minute hearing called at two hours notice in his absence.

The Romanians are  using the European Arrest Warrant – which faces only a very limited challenge in the British courts- to try and extradite him to Romania and this spring there will be a court hearing.

Alexander Adamescu has applied for political asylum to Theresa May, has asked the all party Romania committee to take up his case in Parliament and appealed to the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn as a backbencher took up his father’s case in 2014 and was heavily critical of Romania’s judicial process. So far British politicians have not acted.

In the last year there have been more sinister developments – reminiscent of Russia’s secret service – affecting his family. He believes his wife, Adrianna, was the subject of a bungled kidnapping  outside his St John’s Wood flat this March.

As she got out of her car and approached her flat two masked men attacked her and tried to drag her to a waiting car.

She said: “They were both wearing bandanas and gloves. They drove in a Mini Cooper with fake number plates – as I was later told by the police – and didn’t steal anything from me despite the fact that I was wearing diamond earrings, and had my car keys in my hands.”

“When they approached me, I threw myself to the ground, and fought with them until my neighbour Kymone Hansson, hearing my screaming and came running out to me. At the same time, a cab driver with a passenger in the back seat pulled over next to me and called the police. That was the moment I was saved. The two men ran to their car and quickly drove away”.

The Met Police were able to trace the car but not the people and the case has been left on file.

Later there was a second incident which can be directly attributed to the Romanian authorities. Adrianna was returning from Bucharest and was stopped at the airport before she could board the plane. The authorities said her four year son could not leave the country because he was Romanian (he was born in the UK). As he is four they could not detain him so she quickly left the airport with him and drove across the border to Bulgaria and returned from there to the UK.

The issue of prison conditions in Romania- where nearly 500 people have died over the last five years often due to the lack of medical treatment –  has already been challenged in the High Court in London by the international human rights lawyer, Ben Emmerson ( who also represented Alexander Livenenko’s widow in the recent public inquiry into his poisoning by plutonium). He has taken up the cases of other people being extradited by the Romanians and the prison.

Romania’s cramped and unsanitary prison conditions mean that pre-trial detention has also become a kind of punishment. Prison standards are so bad that between 1998 and 2015, the European Court of Human Rights found Romania guilty of 178 violations of Article 3 of the ECHR prohibiting inhuman or degrading treatment. The court recorded 27 violations in 2015.

.Serious questions about the role of the independent judiciary, the misuse of the European Arrest Warrant and the freedom of an independent press to investigate the government are all at stake. Even the role of major accounting firms working in Romania like KPMG have been questioned.

Journalists on the paper have published an open letter accusing KPMG of aiding and abetting members of the Romanian government to rig insolvency hearings to destroy and silence their newspaper, infringing on the publication’s fundamental rights to freedom of expression.

“There is no doubt about it – this is a case of privatized censorship. KPMG has been used as a front by certain members of the Romanian government to take over control or shut us down,” said Sabin Orcan, chief editor of România Liberă.  “Our publication has survived more than 140 years of the worst types of oppression, including during the Soviet period. But who knew it would be the accountants who would deliver the death blow to freedom of the press in Romania?”

KPMG, to be fair, did find problems with the insurance company that bankrolled the paper, but recommended changes that amounted to a rescue plan for the company. The government vetoed the plan which shows where they stand.

All this suggests that the British government should act to stop this move. Given that it is committed to leaving the EU it should be possible to overrule this action or grant him political asylum.

 

 

 

 

Revealed: Boris’s Imperialist dream: £3 billion for military adventures ” East of Suez”

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Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson

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The row over Boris’s clumsy intervention over ” proxy  wars ” and ” puppeteering ” by  Saudi Arabia in the brutal war in Yemen has somewhat obscured what Britain is really up to in the Middle East.

The full text of Boris Johnson’s speech to his Arab audience in Bahrain released by the Foreign Office at the weekend reveals that we are going to be spending vast sums of public money propping up the  undemocratic and inhumane regimes run by wealthy Arab Sheikhs  in return for their investment in Britain. We are reviving plans for a world military role ” East of Suez”.

All this at a  time when Theresa May is committed to retaining austerity at home well after 2020 with  all that entails in cuts to disabled benefits, social care,public services and restricting the growth of the NHS.

Boris began his speech by boasting how his new foreign policy overturned Harold Wilson’s 1968  Labour Cabinet decision to withdraw Britain’s troops from Borneo,Singapore and the Middle East. He showed extraordinary affinity for the then foreign secretary, George Brown, who like Boris, was a very colourful figure once found in the gutter after a particularly hard night’s drinking..

He described his decision as ” a triumphant vindication” for  the ” brilliant “George Brown over  Europhile Roy Jenkins  who with a ” frog like beam ” was determined to get Britain into Europe ( how Brexiteers love to damn Europhiles even way back to 1968!).

But it was the picture he drew for Britain’s future role for” centuries to come ” that was the most revealing.

He pledged that Britain would be involved in any future crisis in Gulf – which given the present volatile situation is no mean commitment.

As he put it “:any crisis in the Gulf is a crisis for Britain – from day one; that your security is our security ” and that ” your interests military, economic, political – are intertwined with our own..”

He goes on to cite  the billions Britain is spending for new military engagements in the Middle East.

This includes:Reopening HMS Jufair, a naval support facility  in Bahrain, which His Majesty the King of Bahrain,Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa said he remembered from his childhood before our disengagement.

Basing  Britain’s Gulf Defence Staff in Dubai.

Developing the Al-Minhad air base in the United Arab Emirates providing a hub for the RAF.

Establishing a Regional Land Training centre for the British army – one of only four in the world.

As Boris put it : “Britain has in total 1,500 military personnel in the region and 7 warships, more than any other Western nation apart from the US.  We are spending £3 billion on our military commitments in the Gulf over the next 10 years and that is deepening a partnership that is stronger than with any other group of nations in the world outside NATO.”

So what is the pay back.?So much Arab money is pouring into London that the city is becoming a Gulf owned state. Boris named the capital as the 8th Emirate.

As he put it : “London is sometimes called the eighth Emirate. I think I may have made that up myself, but we’re proud of it.”

And he detailed how much retail estate is owned by Gulf states in London.

The Qataris own The Shard, Olympic Village,Harrods, and Chelsea Barracks.

The UAE owns the Excel exhibition centre in Docklands and the Tidal Array in the Thames Estuary . And there is the Emirates cable car across the Thames.

The Gulf states own the DP World Port. which has replaced London Docklands.

And even City Hall the seat of London government is owned by Kuwait.

 

As Boris said :” I didn’t know it until today but I’m stunned to find out.”.

Of course the foreign secretary stated that Britain gains from exports to the Middle East – from Marks and Spencer to military equipment and even sand for golf bunkers.

However after Britain’s bruising encounter in Iraq it seems the Tories are rapidly becoming the main defenders of a group of very wealthy Arabs – all of whom ( it has happened already) could face uprisings in the future from their own people.

Britain would have to defend them or see large swathes of the capital being owned by the very people who have overthrown them or if there is war – by another country.

I am not sure how keen the British people will be to get involved – but for the Tories ( although they were careful not to say it) it has smacks of returning to the glory days of Empire and Rule Britannia. That could be a very big mistake.

 

 

 

 

The not quite complete Exaro archive

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Historians and researchers may one day need to refer to articles put up on the Exaro website. It covered a wide range of issues from detailed investigations into allegations of child sex abuse, what Rupert Murdoch really thought about News International’s involvement in hacking and paying sources, the tax avoiders in Whitehall, the demise of the Audit Commission, business stories involving arms deals and ” dieselgate”.

Exaro has now taken down the website but fortunately a large proportion of the original articles can be seen here at this link here

However there are a number of caveats as this is  not the complete picture. This link only covers stories  published by Exaro up until the sacking of its editor in chief, Mark Watts, by Exaro and New Sparta management.

After this happened  Mark Conrad and I, who took over running the site, commissioned and published a number of new articles including one by Nick Kochan on the discovery of WMD in Iraq long after the row over the issue had been concluded.None of these are on this archive  but fortunately we have captured them and they will be put up at a later date.

When Exaro folded nearly a month later mysteriously these articles disappeared.

The description of the staff who worked for Exaro was changed back to an earlier period.Some of the profiles with the exception of Mark Watts were removed as was the detail of who was running the site in the last month. So the section in this archive is not accurate.

There is one other issue in this archive. It contains a number of stories about a survivor called  “Darren”. Mark Conrad and I no longer stand by the accuracy of these articles.

Prior to the closure of Exaro  Mark and I were going to conduct a review  of all  Exaro’s child sex abuse  coverage but stopped when the website closed. This does not mean we felt that articles were wrong or that we don’t stand by them despite hostile national press coverage.

But the editorial handling of the  articles on Darren  – which was a matter of internal dispute- made us uneasy. This is no reflection  on the excellent work done by  Tim Wood as a diligent reporter on the case. We felt that the editorial management  of the story did not reach proper and thorough journalistic standards that we would expect from such an investigative site. So the end  edited result should be treated with caution.

As for the future the dedicated staff of Exaro will be looking at alternatives so the investigative journalism we strive to produce will be resurrected in the future.

Are German State Railways exploiting train drivers in Britain to put lives at risk?

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A DB Cargo UK train in the UK. Pic Credit: Flickr

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Earlier this month I  wrote an article for the Sunday Mirror about exhausted freight train drivers going over danger signals because they were asleep at the wheel.

The source was a highly respected but until then completely unnoticed report from Whitehall’s Rail Accident Investigation Branch. It followed two cases of drivers last year “momentarily falling asleep ”  while driving huge  freight trains on the Great Western main line near Reading.

The report made damning reading of the way DB Cargo UK, the Doncaster based British subsidiary of  state railway Deutsche Bahn, was treating its  train drivers with little concern for their  welfare and for that matter rail safety.

The report revealed that a combination of long shifts – ten hours at a time – and rest facilities which were ” unfit for purpose ” –  two sofas in a  brightly lit corridor – meant that drivers had little or no sleep. One driver hadn’t slept for 19 hours when he went over the danger signal. Another came to a halt where a luckily empty high speed passenger train was due to cross its path on the way to London Paddington. It was stopped by automatic train signals.

“Evidence gathered during the current investigation found widespread dissatisfaction with the standard of the drivers’ facilities at Acton train crew depot relative to equivalent facilities at other depots.

“The RAIB’s inspection confirmed that the designated rest facility at Acton was not conducive to napping because of the amount of noise, its location (being on a through route between other rooms), and the unsuitability of the furniture for napping.”

“Drivers’ rosters fell outside the guidance in respect of maximum duration for a night shift, minimum rest period between night shifts and clockwise rotation of shift start times,” says the report.

“The shifts being worked by both drivers when the incidents occurred involved starting in the middle of the night (00:48 hrs for Driver A and 23:51 hrs for Driver B) and working a relatively long shift (10 hours and 57 minutes for Driver A; 9 hours and 38 minutes for Driver B). Driver A was working a sixth consecutive shift, five of which were similar night duties.”

 

They also found staff reluctant to  complain.

“The RAIB also found a perception among some drivers that management are not sympathetic to drivers being fatigued and that controllers might pressurise drivers into continuing working in order to meet operational demands. Driver A stated that he experienced such pressure concerning a turn of duty in September 2015.”

The train drivers union,ASLEF, is campaigning for train drivers to be treated like truck drivers by allowing them to have greater rest periods.

You certainly could not drive a lorry for the length of time you can drive a train because tachographs would record that you had broken the law. And the driver who had not slept for 19 hours would have been stopped driving a car because his fatigue would probably register the equivalent of having too much alcohol in the blood.

DB Cargo UK say they have taken action to tackle the rosters and to provide newly refurbished facilities in another building in Acton for staff to have a nap.

Lee Bayliss, Head of Safety and Risk at DB Cargo UK, said: “Fatigue is an issue we take very seriously and we have implemented robust processes and policies to manage it. This includes establishing a Fatigue Working Group to integrate best practice from the Office of Rail Regulators and the Railway Safety Standards Board in order to continually improve procedures and standards.”

However while the report revealed the company did have regular safety meetings they were not well attended which suggested they did not command much priority.

The report shone a light on a hidden side of the rail industry. People are already fed up with the performance of some privatised firms running passenger trains – enough to make rail nationalisation popular again.

The freight side is overlooked but on this evidence it might suggest Labour should look at extending their pledge to freight.- particularly if foreign state rail companies behave like this. After all, both passenger and freight share the same tracks.