The shameful silence of the Ministry of Justice about its commercial dealings with Saudi Arabia

Chris Grayling last yearsigning the memorandum of understanding with the Saudis; Pic Credit: UsSembassy

Chris Grayling last year signing the memorandum of understanding with the Saudis; Pic Credit: US embassy

Last week I put up a blog revealing a proposal by the commercial wing of the Ministry of Justice (yes there is one, it’s not satire!) to sell  a £5.9m contract  to the Saudi prison service to provide training and better management for their repressive judicial regime.

The British government under the guise of Chris Grayling the Lord Chancellor, seemed to be falling over itself to get a deal to provide a profit for the ministry from a regime that beheads dozens of citizens a year and flogs many more – including Rafi Badawi, a liberal blogger  facing 1000 lashes and ten years in jail for running a liberal political  website.

The scandal was taken up by lawyer David Allen Green who blogs as Jack of Kent  on his site and  as David Allen Green at the Financial Times.

What has been extraordinary is the way the Ministry of Justice have behaved since the disclosure to both me and the distinguished lawyer.

After telling me it was ridiculous to equate the scheme with selling to a country that routinely flogs  and beheads people they refused to answer some basic questions from him.

He pointed out in a very detailed and useful blog which is well worth a read – link here– that Grayling also recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Saudi government – for legal co-operation  at a time when the ministry – through Just Solutions International, its commercial wing,- wanted to start commercial contracts with the Saudi state.

He then asked them for some information – such as a copy of the memorandum of understanding, details of the £5.9m contract, details about Just Solutions International, and what it was going to do in Saudi Arabia.

Such as “For example, is JSi going to be challenging and seeking to prevent abuses when it comes across malpractice, and indeed what human rights safeguards and training are going to be built into any programme? “

The Ministry of Justice refused point-blank to provide any more information, release any details about the memorandum or the contract and when pressed added : ” “Sorry, we’re not going to give a running commentary on this.”

One wonders what the Ministry of Justice has got to hide. As Prince Charles and David Cameron dropped everything to pay their respects at  Saudi King Abdullah’s funeral last week,, it might suggest rather a lot and not just at the ministry of justice

Britain also has enormous defence and foreign affairs interests. Remember the  Serious Fraud Office dropping  the BAe Systems Saudi fraud investigation six years ago? And what about BAe speaking at Chris Grayling’s law summit as   tweeted: “To celebrate Magna Carta, Grayling is hosting with BAe speaking on “business and rule of law” . Given the Saudis put pressure on the British judicial  system to drop the rule of law, this is rather ironic Will Just Solutions International play a part?

The government and ministry of justice have a lot to answer – and they shouldn’t get away with it.

Last night The Guardian and the Independent became the first mainstream media to cover the story. See here and here.

No Corruption Please – We’re British: Cameron and the Westland Choppergate scandal

David Cameron meeting the Indian PM on his " successful" business trip

David Cameron meeting the Indian PM on his ” successful” business trip

My ex Guardian and Exaro colleague David Pallister has been assiduously  following the latest  Agusta Westland scandal which led the Indian government to cancel an order  for 12 helicopters to ferry Indian VIPs after allegations of corruption.

His latest article on the Exaro website reveals that proceedings investigating alleged corruption involving a middleman and another British businessman  and Indian  officials are continuing in both India and Italy.

My grouse is not with the pace of investigations in India or Italy into what the Indian press have dubbed the ” choppergate scandal” but the British government’s attitude to what is going on.

David Cameron in 2013 visited India with 100 business people to pledge that he wanted India to be a “partner of choice”  with Britain. As you can hear here Mr Cameron praised Westland to the skies and said any  corruption problems about the order were of course a matter for the Indians and the Italians. Nudge, nudge, it’s those bloody foreigners you know.

.To quote: “AgustaWestland is an excellent company, with highly skilled workers who make brilliant helicopters. Britain has … some of the toughest laws in the world, so people know if they do business with British companies, they have protections.”

How odd it must have seemed to the Indians that one of the people under investigation in the corruption scandal was British.

Now the Indians have requested more information from the British for a criminal investigation. We know this because the Indian Parliament has recorded this in a written answer to MPs.

“MEA (ministry of external affairs ) has also been requested to take up the matter with the government of the UK, as well as requesting its co-operation in verifying the allegations, and helping us by providing relevant information relating to the alleged involvement of a middleman and/or of any Indian individual/entity.”

Roll on this year and nothing much has happened. So I chose the appearance of  Guardian despising Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, at a press gallery lunch in Parliament to ask  him what was happening.

His reply was that he was ” unaware of any request” and repeated the Cameron line.

“I am not aware of any request from the Indian Ministry of Defence for help about this, but I will check to see whether this is correct.”

He added: “As I understand, the court case ( In Italy – at the Agusta end) is about recovering money [by AgustaWestland] after the contract was cancelled by the Indian government.”

Bloody foreigners again. His ” check ” meant according to his top special adviser that he was still sticking to the story. But he helpfully added that Vince Cable’s Business, Innovation and Skills department may know more. Guess what they parroted the same line that it was a problem between the company and the Indians. Yes those bloody foreigners  are at it again. It was becoming obvious we were not helping the Indians get to the bottom of it  at all.

This rather arrogant and even Imperial attitude towards corruption as a problem for others might be rather comic if it  did not have serious repercussions for British workers and jobs. The cancelled helicopters were being assembled in Yeovil at the time.

The latest news as reported by the Times of India is that the Indian government has won its case to get most of its money back and the Indians are considering whether to put the British company on a blacklist for future orders.

So what Cameron hailed as a wonderful business trip to boost British jobs and exports could end up with one of the Britain’s  more successful exporters being blacklisted by one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Well done, Dave!

Lee Rigby atrocity: The acid test facing the MPs who hold the security services to account

Lee Rigby; Pic courtesy of AP Press

Lee Rigby;
Pic courtesy of AP Press

Britain’s only body that holds MI5 and MI6 to account is soon to produce a report on one of the most savage terrorist killings in this country – the hacking to death on the streets of Woolwich in south London of drummer Lee Rigby.

I am told that the security services have had to hand over highly sensitive material to Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee about the security services knowledge of his killers as changes in the law last year stopped our spies duping the committee by pretending they don’t have it. This duplicity came to light after the inquiry by Sir Peter Gibson  Dame Janet Paraskeva and Peter Riddell, a very through journalist, discovered information on the treatment of detainees  who are alleged to have been tortured abroad which had been withheld from MPs on the committee.

His report is here .

The committee has had a very bad press and been attacked by MPs on the Commons home affairs committee. In a report on counter terrorism published at the end of April, the committee was scathing about its role.

It said; ”  We do not believe the current system of oversight is effective and we have concerns that the weak nature of that system has an impact upon the credibility of the agencies accountability, and to the credibility of Parliament itself. The scrutiny of the work of the security and intelligence agencies should be not the exclusive preserve of the Intelligence and Security Committee. ”

There have been some key reforms. As I reported in an article on Exaro   the committee has both new powers and new resources. What I am questioning is whether they will use them so the public have the unvarnished truth.

As well as the power to compel the security services to hand over information, the committee, in an age of austerity, has seen its budget nearly doubled from about £750,000 to £1.3m after a Parliamentary debate  (contribution by Julian Lewis MP)  revealed it was the worst funded scrutiny committee of the security services in the western world. This has enabled the committee, I am told, to employ competent ex spies to quiz existing spies, to avoid cover ups. Credit should be given to former Tory Cabinet minister, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the chairman, for pushing for these changes.

This means that the inquiry into the Lee Rigby atrocity will be the first to be properly funded and with new powers to get to to the truth. There still is a  long stop which enables David Cameron, who appointed all existing members (though this will change), to censor part of its report if he wanted to. We will have to hope there is no self  censorship before it reaches him.

What is disturbing is that there are already signs that the security services – mindful that they might be trashed for failing to keep full tabs on Rigby’s killers- are  briefing the mainstream media as part of a damage limitation exercise. A recent article in the Sunday Times  where their solution was to demand even more intrusive monitoring of the internet is an example.

As I reported on Exaro : ” The UK’s Security Service, better known as MI5, faces claims that it failed to realise the threat posed by his killers, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, who were jailed for life in February after being convicted of murder…

Relatives of Adebolajo say that MI5 had even approached him in 2011 to become an agent after he was deported from Kenya.

According to Kenyan police, Adebolajo led a group of eight young men who were trying to travel to Somalia to fight for al-Shabaab, an offshoot of al-Qaeda.”

What must be clear is that the report from MPs must concentrate on practical ways the security service can protect us, not giving them even more powers – after the revelations over the scale of the monitoring of us all through the  whistleblower Edward Snowdon- to obtrusively check every internet site. It will be acid test to see what is released and whether the committee- now properly resourced – can do a good job.

It is time for the intelligence services to be intelligent in chasing terrorists. It is not their job to want to be an overarching snooping body on the whole nation.

 

 

 

Parliament: How an Old Etonian triumphed over an anti Establishment right winger

The election victory of Rory Stewart, over Julian Lewis  by 14 votes for the chairmanship of the Commons defence committee had all the hallmarks of  a well  orchestrated  Conservative Establishment manoeuvre. The full result is here.

It meant that one Old Etonian replaced another. James Arbuthnot, as  Tory chair of the defence committee, stood down. Rory Stewart. replaced him. It also blocked a troublesome Tory who helped humiliate Cameron by stopping  him arming the rebels in Syria, which could have let jihadists obtaining chemical weapons. 

The voting – using the single transferable vote- among the most sophisticated electorate in the country – allowed loyalist Tories two stabs at the post.

 The first choice was probably ” safe pair of hands” Keith Simpson, Mp for Broadland, but when it became clear that Lewis had garnered enough support  from Labour to overtake Simpson.they had another figure up their sleeve, Rory Stewart.

Stewart, who had military experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been a tutor to Princes William and Harry and is regarded as a rising star. He attended recently along with George Osborne the influential Bilderberg Group. And significantly a very busy Chancellor took time out yesterday to vote. David Cameron himself did not have time.

Lewis who has encyclopaedic knowledge of defence matters  might not be so good as  Rory as a TV presenter but he would have been trouble.It will be very interesting to see how Rory handles the chairmanship of the committee and whether he makes waves or even wants to make waves.

 One fascinating fact: We have a new chair of defence who has tabled only one question on defence to the government in the last year. He’ll have to ask a lot more now to make an impact.

 

 

 

 

Parliament:The all Tory by-election that has led Labour lefties and ex Cabinet ministers backing an anti-Establishment right winger

A contender getting conviction politicians from Left and Right

A contender getting conviction politicians from Left and Right

While the nation ponders on whether to vote ( or not !) in this month’s European and local elections, an extraordinary unreported by-election is taking place in the House of Commons among MPs.

Up for grabs is the.chairmanship of the House of Commons defence committee, a rather important post as the winner will be responsible for scrutinising the policies and spending of the huge behemoth that is the Ministry of Defence.

The post -because of the division of the spoils for this Parliament – can only be held by a Tory. But the successful candidate has to get the backing of at least five Labour or other non Tory MPs to be able to stand.

The election has turned out to be closely fought with no fewer than eight Tories contesting the post and having to find sponsors from other parties. It was caused by the decision of the present chairman, James Arbuthnot, who is leaving Parliament at the election,to stand down. The MP is an Old Etonian and a direct descendent from King James IV of Scotland.

 
So far five of his eight potential successors have declared their backers on the Parliamentary order paper producing some breathtaking alliances that defy normal political gravity.
The most extraordinary is the backing for Julian Lewis, a right-winger,life long opponent of CND and in his youth scourge of the Labour left.
His backers to get the job include former anti- apartheid campaigner and former Labour Cabinet minister, Peter Hain; Labour loyalist and former cabinet minister, Hazel Blears, and John McDonnell, the hard line left-wing MP for Hillingdon, who tried unsuccessfully to challenge Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership. His other two big supporters are veteran Labour minister, Sir Gerald Kaufmann and Valerie Vaz, sister of Keith Vaz, the home affairs committee chairman.
They have combined with believe it or not, Liam Fox, the former Tory defence secretary and nearest to a neo-con plus former defence minister Sir Gerald Howarth, former immigration minister, Mark Harper, and Tory backbench MPs from the “awkward squad” including Peter Bone, Mp for Wellingborough, and Charles Walker, MP for Broxbourne. He has the support of Jonathan Evans, chairman of the Conservative Mainstream group, on the left of the party.
Lewis, the Tory MP for New Forest East, has won high level Labour support because he rebelled against the Coalition’s plan to arm the rebels against President Assad in Syria to prevent Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal getting into the hands of jihadists. The rebellion led to humiliation for David Cameron when the government was defeated in Parliament. He also voted against the tripling of tuition fees and against the privatisation of the nation’s forests.
Mr Lewis said yesterday:“ I am very pleased to have the support of conviction politicians on both the Left and the Right who want an independent minded chairman to hold the ministry to account.”

Crispin Blunt: getting strong support from left and right

Crispin Blunt: getting strong support from left and right


Lewis’s nearest rival in the prominent supporters stakes is ex prison minister, Crispin Blunt, who at one stage was threatened with deselection by his constituency party. He has the backing of Labour left winger, Tom Watson, former Labour Cabinet minister John Denham, prominent Liberal Democrat Sir Menzies Campbell and ex defence minister Sir Nick Harvey and former Tory Cabinet minister Sir Malcolm Rifkind.

Another favourite for the job is Bob Stewart, Conservative MP for Beckenham , a former army officer and a UN commander in Bosnia. He has backing from ex Tory fire minister, Bob Neill, Tory backbenchers Robert Halfon and Stewart Jackson. Ex Labour junior ministers, Sir Alan Meale and Jim Dowd are backing him.

The other candidates whose backers have declared are Julian Brazier, Tory MP for Canterbury, James Gray, Tory MP for North Wiltshire , Rory Stewart, Tory MP for Penrith and the Border;Keith Simpson, Tory Mp for Broadland and Tobias Ellwood, Conservative Mp for Bournemouth, East.
Downing Street and the Tory whips while not expressing any opinion are thought to favour Rory Stewart ( another Old Etonian) or Keith Simpson, as “a safe pair of hands”.
What they don’t want is some strong-minded MP that will make waves for an embattled coalition. This makes this election all the more interesting.