Peter Preston: An appreciation

Peter Preston

Peter Preston Pic credit: The Guardian

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There are two people who changed my life as a journalist. One was Brian MacArthur, who took me on The Times Higher Education Supplement in 1973. The other was Peter Preston who appointed me as a reporter on The Guardian in 1976.

I still remember the first interview  with Peter Preston for my job at the Guardian when he out of the blue suddenly asked what my politics were – probably not the politically correct question you might expect in applying for a reporter’s job.

” Disillusioned Labour “, I said.. “Aren’t we all ” came back the riposte.

PP was a man of few words but enormous depth. You could not always fathom what he was thinking but what you did know he was utterly committed to the newspaper, perpetually fascinated by stories and would defend you against the powerful who might seek to censor or even ridicule you.

He was utterly committed to press freedom both at home and abroad and not bothered or even remotely interested about becoming a member of the Establishment.

He also got me out of scrapes – both on a personal and professional level. After I joined the Guardian my wife, Margaret and I bought our first house. I had spotted a small ad for a four bedroom  refurbished terraced house in Holloway which even in the late 1970s appeared to be too cheap at around £23,000. She was sceptical whether there was something wrong but it passed a survey and we got a mortgage. She turned out to be right when the joists which held the main staircase started to give way and cracks appeared. I asked for a mortgage to repair it but found the building society would charge extra interest to give me a loan. I mentioned this to Peter Preston and he offered me a £500 loan from the Guardian which I paid back from my salary – just in time to prevent the staircase collapsing.

In another instance rather the worse for wear  I foolishly remarked to the Tory housing minister, then John Stanley, that their divisive housing policies could lead to a breakdown in society  between rich and poor and end up with people kidnapping prominent people- citing  how would Michael Heseltine ( then Environment Secretary)  feel if someone kidnapped his daughter.

He interpreted that to mean that I knew someone in the IRA who would, contacted Heseltine, who called in Special Branch. An inspector rang the Guardian for my home telephone number and they refused to give it to him, saying they would contact me. When I got home later  ( no mobile phones then) and found the message I rang the inspector and convinced him I was no terrorist. ” I am glad you rang I was just about to send someone around to batter down your door”, he said.

The next day Peter Preston wrote to Heseltine pointing out that there was difference between a Guardian reporter having strong views and being a terrorist and sought an apology for his over reaction. Heseltine declined to apologise saying he had to protect his family.

What neither of them knew is that our baby sitter for the night was a lovely middle aged Irish lady, who had a very strong Sligo accent. If she had answered the phone to special branch, I will leave it to your imagination to think what would have happened next.

PP was  a amazing innovator. Others like David McKie, in his Guardian obituary, have much more eloquently explained the huge innovations he introduced to the design and content of the paper during his long editorship.

But on a  straightforward reporting level he thought out of the box. In 1986 I was very nearly poached by the Independent, offering me first social services correspondent and then Whitehall editor. He responded with the idea of sending me down to the lobby with a brief that had never been held by anyone – to use Parliament as a base to investigate MPs, lobbyists and Whitehall – and not follow the day to day lobby events.

Never a supporter of the Westminster club,  I think he really put me down there as an unguided missile to see what would happen. And when I started to get into trouble he always backed me.

He took on the Privileges Committee  when they were considering removing me from Parliament over the leaking of the National Audit Office memo which revealed the ” Rover sweeteners” scandal – the  secret bung given to then British Aerospace for buying ailing British Leyland.

He also neatly diverted Neil Hamilton MP – when he wrote to him a year before the ” cash for questions” scandal broke in 1994 – warning him about my activities and saying there was ” nothing worth printing ” about the story. The story which started when Mohammed al Fayed  inadvertently revealed to him he had been paying MPs was one of his crowning glories.

He will always be  my hero – despite the Sarah Tisdall scandal  where he was forced by the courts to give away a then unknown source – because he backed reporting and was interested in news. His reaction to a good story was normally one word ” terrific”. When he said that you knew the story was home and dry.

 

 

 

 

 

Child sex abuse:How Lady Macur exonerated the Waterhouse inquiry over convicted paedophile Gordon Anglesea

lady justice macur

Lady Macur

gordon-anglesea-pic-credit-bbc-and-john-price

Gordon Anglesea: Now a dead convicted paedophile Pic Credit: BBC and John Price

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While the political world was convulsed over Brexit  Whitehall decided to remove one of  the major redactions in last year’s report by Lady Macur, an appeal judge, which reviewed the inquiry undertaken by Sir Ronald Waterhouse  in the 1990s into the scandal of child sex abuse in North Wales.

The redaction involves her investigation and findings into the  tribunal’s role  in investigating  Gordon Anglesea, a retired North Wales police superintendent, convicted of sexually abusing two teenage boys in October last year.

He is the superintendent who won £375,000 damages in 1994 ina libel case against two national newspapers, The Observer and the Independent on Sunday, the magazine Private Eye and HTV, the holder of the ITV franchise in Wales. His legal costs were underwritten by the Police Federation.

Anglesea claimed the four media organisations had accused him of being a child abuser during visits he made to the Bryn Estyn children’s home just outside Wrexham. He denied it and jury found for Anglesea.

The recent death of Anglesea – which meant he can’t appeal  his conviction last year- allows him to be named in her report for the first time. And the findings are interesting given the subsequent conviction of Anglesea by Operation Pallial, the National Crime Agency’s investigation and also the libel case in 1994.

The references to Anglesea are in the chapter on freemasonry. She examines the investigation carried out by the Witness Interviewing Team (WIT). This was headed  by Reginald Briggs, a retired Detective Chief Inspector who had served in the South Wales police force and was a Freemason.  She sees no conflict in  the tribunal employing a freemason to investigate another freemason. Gordon Anglesea was also a freemason.

“This Review has specifically considered whether there is anything within the material which suggests that the investigations made on behalf of the Tribunal into freemasonry was less thorough by reason of this fact. I have found nothing to suggest this was the case and illustrate the point below predominately in relation to two establishment figures identified during the course of the Tribunal as Freemasons, namely Gordon Anglesea and Lord Kenyon,” [ Lord Kenyon was a Provincial Grand Master, and a member of the North Wales Police Authority in the 1980s]

She accepts that one  survivor witness against Anglesea was difficult to trace and when finally contacted mentioned other people not him. Another witness who was in prison is described as ” fixated by Anglesea’s and his alleged involvement in a
paedophile ring.”

“The statement produced records his assertions that in 1991 he had seen part of a video featuring  Anglesea sexually abusing a boy and girl.

“The video had allegedly been stolen from a local Councillor subsequently prosecuted for
possession of a large quantity of pornography.

“He said he developed photographs from the video and sent them anonymously to the Chief Constable of the NWP.”

The tribunal concluded this witness was not credible and he was never called.

A lot of time was spent tracing people who might know Anglesea and about his visits to Bryn  Estyn including finding one freemason in the same lodge but he said he only knew him by sight.

The report adds: “However, more than one contributor to this Review still question whether enough was done to find evidence against Anglesea or to properly examine the links between freemasonry and the failure to investigate child abuse allegations.”

The inquiry was hampered by one witnesses refusing to give a statement and another witness was deemed to be unreliable despite evidence of Anglesea helping the notorious paedophile Peter Howarth, who ran the home and was subsequently jailed, line up boys. The tribunal was not certain whether he was there at the time.

She does add one very interesting piece of evidence that was witheld from the tribunal.

“I am aware that an allegation of a relatively minor indecent assault was made against Anglesea by an adult acquaintance of his family prior to the commencement of the Tribunal hearings.

“It appears that Counsel to the Tribunal was informed that “the CPS had decided to take no further action in the case on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to support criminal proceedings”, but apparently not of the fact that Anglesea had lied, on his own subsequent admission, when first interviewed under caution about the allegation.”

…” I wrote to the present Chief Constable of the NWP on 15 May 2015 in relation to this
non disclosure. The Chief Constable responded indicating that there is no material
in the possession of the NWP to indicate why the file was not disclosed, but that it is
possible that the file’s relevance to the issue of credibility was overlooked.

She concludes:”I regard the evidence that had lied when first interviewed under caution about the allegation of indecent assault against an adult acquaintance of the family was relevant to the issue of his credibility.

Counsel to the Tribunal do not appear to have been made aware of this fact and would have been at a disadvantage in justifying their request for disclosure. It is likely that the NWP overlooked the issue of credibility in favour of considering whether the facts of the
alleged offence constituted similar fact evidence.

“This information may have been significant in the Tribunal’s appraisal of his credibility and would have been ‘fresh’ evidence to that which had been available in the libel trial.”

In other words in a civil case which ended up  with the media paying out £375,000 damages – the fact that Anglesea was a proven liar could have swayed the jury to bring in a different verdict.

Her overall verdict is to exonerate the Tribunal. And she is not in favour of further reviews of other tribunals covering child  sex abuse and certainly not a public inquiry. She does not accept there were any paedophile rings involving Freemasons and VIPs- witholding the information from the public.

She is in favour of thorough police investigations – and perhaps mindful that the police might secure a conviction after her report- hedges her bets on this saying police investigations are better at solving complaints than public inquiries.

Her one other recommendation suggests the police should look at the perversion of course of justice and malfeasance in public office.

She concludes:

“In general, I would advise caution in embarking upon a review of the workings of previous tribunals or boards of inquiry without a considered opinion of the time likely to be involved and the consequent outcome to be achieved.

” The conclusions of a rapid investigation into a broad and complex topic will be unlikely to allay the concerns and anxieties of interested parties or the public in general.

“An exhaustive review will produce results that may no longer be relevant to the circumstances which initiated the investigation.

“In any event, it should be appreciated that the conclusions of any such body will not meet with universal approval. Those with an interest, personal or otherwise, will seek
justification for their views and be unlikely to accept the contrary.”

A very Establishment view, Lady Macur. The full report and written statement from Alun Cairns, the Wales Secretary is here.

 

Unreported by the national media: How some bosses can help if you are one of 2 million people enduring domestic abuse

Elizabeth Filkin

Elizabeth Filkin: chair of the steering group of the Employers Initiative on Domestic Abuse

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This week the BBC hosted an extraordinary conference on how business and public employers can act to help employees if they are suffering the living hell of domestic abuse.

The conference attracted big names. Lord Hall, director general of BBC; Cressida Dick, Metropolitan Police Commissioner; Amber Rudd, the home secretary (by video); Ben Page, chief executive of ipsos MORI;Lieutenant General Richard Nugee, Chief of Defence People;Victoria Atkins,Home Office minister for crime and directors from accountancy giant, Grant Thornton, and Vodafone, the mobile phone provider.

It also was addressed by a remarkably brave woman,Serena, who told her story of both child sexual abuse and an adult abusive relationship, which led her unsympathetic employer to sack her and the actor and series producer of TV drama Holby City, whose story line included an abusive gay relationship which ended up with one partner being beaten up.

The event was organised by an organisation you have probably never heard of – the Employers’ Initiative  on Domestic Abuse – run by Elizabeth Filkin, a no nonsense figure who as Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards once took on Peter Mandelson and Keith Vaz over allegations of bad behaviour..

People might think what has business got to do with people’s personal lives – but what was noticeable was the firms that are backing the initiative had got involved after a traumatic event involving their staff.

Cressida Dick told the extraordinary story of how a very competent senior police officer in the Met rang her own switchboard to report that she was  a victim of domestic abuse. The police commissioner read out her testimony and described how she , though finding it an extremely difficult thing to do, is now coping with it

Another  big accountancy firm became involved after an employee jumped off London Bridge and committed suicide because they couldn’t cope with domestic abuse.

And a person attending from a hotel group told me they got involved after a young man attending a function was sexually abused when sleeping off the effects of too much alcohol on their premises. He went to the police, they decided they should join an organisation that dealt with abuse.

The BBC’s involvement comes some 18 months after the shock of the Jimmy Savile scandal – and ironically the conference was held in the same room where Tony Hall pledged to take action in the wake of Dame Janet Smith’s devastating findings on the issue.

Ad the Ministry of Defence actually tackles predators as well both those serving in the forces and those in the families of serving officers.

But they are the good ones. Ben Page told the conference that HR departments ” talked the good talk ” but often didn’t take any action or did not know how to to take action. Only one in twenty medium and large companies have a policy to deal with domestic abuse.

He described the present situation as akin to the position on mental health – which had been ignored by firms but was now accepted as an issue. He was an optimist saying ” In 10 years time all the misogynists will be dead ” – a point challenged by Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Yardley, who takes up domestic abuse issues, and is regularly trolled by people on the net.

Probably his most interesting admission was as chief executive of an organisation employing 1400 he did not know or had never come across a case of domestic abuse among his staff. He admitted that could not be the case.

His report makes a number of recommendations which could be included in the government’s new Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill- including removing the minimum qualifying period for domestic abuse victims to get flexible working and introducing  ten days paid leave a year for domestic abuse victims. The latter, he admitted, would lead to protests from the Tory right. I can just imagine MPs like the nappy change refusnik Jacob Rees Mogg having apoplexy.

The government is obviously keen on employers sharing responsibility. But below the surface there are huge issues of resources, the fate of women refuges, austerity, pressure on local authorities and the police and social services to handle this huge problem.

I shall return to some  of these issues in future blogs. But one point needs to be made. This conference was covered by none of the national media – not even the BBC who hosted it. Only The Telegraph and ITN did show some interest. And that is despite energetic efforts made by conference  organisers.

There is an interesting parallel. In the media industry – only the BBC and ITN – have  signed up  to the group which now numbers over 150 companies who are trying to help victims of domestic abuse.

So the entire national  and regional press and the major social media sites believe there is no problem with domestic abuse among their thousands of employees. A likely story. No wonder they didn’t cover it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Footballer Justin Fashanu and the Westminster “back to basics” sex scandals

forbidden games

Forbidden Games; New film on Justin Fashanu available on demand from iTunes,, Google Play and Amazon

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While mainstream media concentrated on the furore and fall out over the police investigation into  Sir Edward Heath, a new film revealing the troubled life of Britain’s first millionaire black footballer  with links to Westminster was released on Friday.

Forbidden Games charts the rivalry between the two footballing brothers Justin and John, Justin’s meteoric career, his fall from grace, his penchant for the high life and his coming out as gay.

It  reveals his links to the seedier side of Westminster, the exposure of his gay relationship with a Tory MP who lived a double life in Westminster hiding his gay sexuality from his wife and family until he was exposed but not named in The Sun.

Justin  Fashanu also had a penchant for under age boys ( much younger than 17) and tragically killed himself at the age of 37 when he was about to be prosecuted in the States for molesting a minor aged 17.

For today’s much more tolerant society people would not understand that in the 1980s and 1990s exposure in the tabloid press or on TV  for being gay was often the kiss of death to a political career. For a footballer to come out in a Sun exclusive –  and that is  true even today – was either extraordinarily brave or foolhardy.

Forbidden Games includes a cameo commentary from me on the context of Fashanu’s connections to Westminster where celebrities would party with MPs and which is in danger of being airbrushed in the current climate.

It coincided with former PM Sir John Major’s infamous ” back to basics” speech to the 1993 Tory conference which was then used by the media to expose a string of sexual scandals from minister Tim Yeo fathering a child out of wedlock , David Mellor’s  extra marital romp allegedly in a Chelsea football  stripe to the tragic  auto erotic death of Stephen Milligan ,  Tory MP for Eastleigh.

Justin Fashanu became involved in Westminster on two levels. His relationship with the Tory MP for Bournemouth east was revealed when the Sun exposed Justin’s connection to a ” South coast” Mp. His wife and children immediately realised that it was David Atkinson, as Justin had stayed regularly at their home. He was confronted by her and he admitted he was gay and had been for years.. He stood down in 2005 and died in 2012.

An article by Robert Mendick in the Daily Telegraph based on an interview with  his son Anthony  who describes him as “predatory” with many young lovers, and reveals much of the background from his own researches on his father.

From examination of the story myself,  there is evidence that Atkinson was being blackmailed by a member of the Commons catering staff, had relationships with young Parliamentary researchers ( one of whom he had a nude photo) and had an erotic photo sheet  of another person he was closely connected.

There was also as yet unverified allegations of a much wider hidden gay scene at Westminster involving other closeted MPs  which Justin at one stage – following the death of Stephen Milligan – threatened to expose for a large sum of money to the tabloids,.

He backed off when the police visited his home in Edinburgh and wanted to interview him about it.

What this sad story  does  is to contradict the trend, following the collapse of Scotland Yard’s  Operation Midland into the allegations brought by ” Nick”,  of a Westminster paedophile ring, to try and forget this piece of Westminster’s sordid history as though it never happened.

While there is no conclusive evidence that David Atkinson was himself a paedophile ( in the modern sense of boys under the age of 16) it seems certain that some of the people he knew were.

This moving film about the troubled life of Justin is well worth watching even if it does make uncomfortable viewing at times.

See a trailer and interview with one of the directors, Jon Carey – the other is Adam Darke  – here on Sky Sports.

 

 

 

Hidden in plain sight: Labour trains a new generation of political activists

labour_conference Pic credit politicshome

Labour Conference 2017: the top of the iceberg Pic credit: politicshome

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The Labour  Party conference this year was like one huge political iceberg.

The ten per cent that was visible was dominated by the passionate, football chant style support for Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell – as the architects of a Labour revival that had seen membership soar to 569,500. It did unveil new and radical policies.It suppressed a public row over Brexit  which I notice Danny Finkelstein on The Times saw as shrewd politics, leaving divided Tories to take the flak. It contained a dispute about whether there was anti-Semitism among  Left wingers despite the best efforts of Guido Fawkes ,the Daily Mail and the Equality and Human Rights Commission to stir the pot.

But under the eyes of the media ( who were given very restricted access to the conference hall) the hidden 90 per cent of the Labour conference was carrying out another revolution which will ensure that the current revival of political activism among the young has a long term future.

Contrary to what most Conservatives would like to think the 369,000 new party members who joined after Corbyn became leader are not all former card carrying members of the Social Workers Party, the Communist Party and other Left wing groupings. And they even applies to those who joined Momentum

Just on a micro political point, members of the local Labour Party in Berkhamsted and Tring in  Hertfordshire have jumped from about 40 to 450 as a result of Corbyn.. If they were all committed former Communists, I think I would have noticed. Having lived in Berko since 1983, the town is not known for having Marxist banners festooned all over Berkhamsted station or the civic centre.

No the truth is – thanks to lack of any political  or civic education in our schools – they have ideals, strong views but little hard knowledge of how to participate in a political democracy. Many may be savvy with social media but need to know how to use it for the benefit of the Labour Party.

There were sessions on door knocking, electoral law, what becoming a councillor is like. making Labour Party branch meetings more fun, championing equality, building up women’s forums,  getting more disabled friendly meetings and how to use the traditional and social media to get your points across. There was also advice on how to tackle the problem of success, too many new members swamping local meetings.

Jeremy Corbyn has already transformed interest in politics by doubling the percentage of people involved in party membership in Britain. Now it looks as though Labour is going to get the new membership to engage in democracy. to help them win the next election. Even if only 10 per cent of the membership become fervent activists – that is still some 57,000 people – more than half the total Tory membership, I am told.

What is going to be interesting is when that hidden 90 per cent of the Labour iceberg hits  the opposition at the next election. Will it be the  sinking of the Tory Titanic or will the Tories try and steer well clear and come up with something new.

 

 

 

 

The £20,000 benefit bonus rewards for the metropolitan elite at the Department of Work and Pensions

neil couling

Neil Couling – £145,000 a year

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Last week I had a story in the Sunday Mirror about top bonuses and pay rises for five of the most senior  and well paid civil servants at the Department of Work and Pensions over the last two years.

The information was published in the annual report and accounts  of the DWP released last month. These same accounts were qualified for the 29th year  running according to the the National Audit Office – because of fraud and error in payouts to claimants rendered them inaccurate and wrong.

 

 

Sir Robert Devereux pic credit Twitter

Sir Robert Devereux – £190,000 a year Pic credit : Twitter

The bonuses announcement came at the same time as 31 Labour MPs had called for a pause in the roll out of the ministry’s new Universal Credit  programme – which replaces five benefits – because of reported chaos in its administration leaving some claimants without money for up to six weeks. One of those 31 MPs, Kevan Jones, who represents Durham North said the bonuses were a ” reward for failure”.

He described them as “an insult to many of my constituents who are already living on the breadline. In my constituency they plan to introduce this in November which could leave thousands of people without money in the run up to Christmas.”

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Mayank Prakash £220,000 a year including £20,00 bonus Pic credit: DWP Digital

Within days of the publication of the story the FDA ( the First Division Association) which represents the top civil servants attacked the article in a report in Civil Service World.

Jawad Raza, FDA national officer for DWP, said officials should not be used as targets by political opponents of the system simply for doing their jobs.

“The suggestion that these civil servants have been ‘rewarded for failure’ shows a blatant disregard for the facts regarding their pay and

Jeremy Moore pic credit

jeremy moore – £135,000 plus £20,000 bonus

wilfully misrepresents the true complexity of their roles,” he said.

“Senior civil servants have delivered billions of pounds worth of savings since 2010 with an ever reducing workforce. These are highly skilled professionals working in challenging circumstances and they deserve to be adequately remunerated without having their names and faces spread across news pages.”

Sorry Jawad I think there is more to this.

The five civil servants are Sir Robert Devereux, permanent secretary at the Department of Work and Pensions; Neil

WAxtX_a1

Andrew Rhodes – £140,000 a year plus £15,000 bonus

Couling, director general of universal credit; Jeremy Moore, director of strategy; Mayank Prakash, director general of digital technology and Andrew Rhodes, director of operations have received between £10,000 and £20,000 each .They are nearly all paid more than Theresa May, the PM.

The bonuses were awarded for “ top performance “ and “ leadership “when the rest of Whitehall is limited to one per cent pay rises and many benefits have been frozen.

Sir Robert last year received up to £20,000 extra on a salary of up to £185,000 a year. This year he hasn’t received any bonus but his basic salary has moved to £190,000 a year.

Neil Couling, who is directly responsible for universal credit, got a bonus of up to £20,000 last year on a salary of £125,000 a year. This year instead of a bonus his salary has jumped by £20,000 to £145,000 a year.

Mayank Prakash, director of digital strategy has received a bonus of up to £20,000  this yearon top of salary of £200,000 taking his annual salary to £220,000 .

Jeremy Moore, director of strategy, has received bonuses two years running –  totalling up to £40,000 over the two years – taking his total salary to £155,000 a year.

Andrew Rhodes, director of operations has received a £10-15,000 bonus this year, taking his salary to £155,000 a year. He also claimed £37,600 in travel expenses.

The ministry insist that all these pay rises were decided objectively by line managers.

In a statement it said:

Line managers are required to make an evidence-based and objective assessment over whether objectives have been met, not met or exceeded. 

 Individual performance is assessed by the individual’s line manager through an appraisal discussion, with supporting evidence from a range of stakeholders.

But apart from Sir Robert – whose bonus was decided by Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary – the Department declined to say who these line managers are and which outside organisations and people recommended they should get bonuses. The bad news for the DWP is that Kevan Jones plans to table a Parliamentary Question next month to find out who.

Now the FDA has a point that compared to the top of the  private sector they are badly paid. A report put out by the House of Commons library revealed that the top 3000 bankers are ALL earning over £884,000 a year – which makes £20,000 sound small beer. But if anything that reflects that huge growth of inequality in Britain.

At other end of society how effective are these five top men ( note they are all men) in delivering what they are supposed to do. All are responsible in one way or another for the delivery of Universal Credit.

At present they are using Newcastle-upon-Tyne – to roll out the full effect of Universial Credit.

Catherine McKinnell , Labour MP for Newcastle North, said:“ My office has been deluged with complaints from constituents about a Universal Credit system that is clearly struggling to cope and failing to deliver the support that claimants need in anything like an orderly or timely fashion.”

Her debate can be read here.  Suffice to say it reveals a very sorry picture. The  new IT system means people can’t talk to a human. It has  a verification process that requires claimants to produce photographic identification such as a passport or driving licence, “which many simply do not possess and certainly cannot afford, even though some have been in receipt of benefits for several years.”

“I also have numerous examples of Universal Credit claims being shut down before they should be; of documentation being provided to the DWP, at the constituent’s cost, and repeatedly being lost or even destroyed; and of totally conflicting, often incorrect, information being provided to constituents about their claims.”

For a time the ministry effectively banned MPs from taking up cases by making impossible verification demands before they would talk about it.

What this shows to me is a growing disconnect between the people at the top – who are computer savvy, have nice centrally heated homes, no problems with bills, can afford expensive holidays, and can’t conceive of anyone not having a passport – designing a system for poor, dispossessed, desperate people without any understanding of how the world works for them.

It was this disconnect between the elite and the poor  in the USA that led to the rise of Donald Trump and I suspect this huge gulf between the Metropolitan elite – whom top Whitehall civil servants are part – and the provincial poor is in the end going to propel Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street.

 

Edintfest: 70 years of challenge and innovation

edinburgh inetrnational festival - Rhinoceros

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This year the Edinburgh International Festival celebrated its 70th anniversary . So did I.

The opera, music, dance and drama festival tends to be overshadowed by the huge Edinburgh Fringe with its thousands of zany, rude, comical and political shows. But the international festival with its world class productions never fails to either stimulate or challenge you – even if you live near London  and can already see a very wide range of productions.

I have been a recent convert  attending the festival – starting post early semi retirement when I left the Guardian in 2009 – before that I was sometimes expected to stand in for the dead season of political coverage in mid August or went on a family holiday.

But what constantly surprises now my wife and I do try to go every year is the extraordinary range of productions. I have been entertained, moved, frightened and only occasionally bored by what we have seen. This year was no exception, even if underlying some of the themes has been the rather alarming and dangerous state of the world in 2017.

No more so than the joint Scottish and Turkish production of Rhinoceros  – Eugene Ionesco’s Theatre of the Absurd play – drawing from his experience of the rise of Fascism and authoritarianism in Romania in the 1930s. It is very, very funny but it tells of the growth  and attraction of authoritarian rule by people being turned into Rhinoceri until only one person was left. It was particularly poignant that it was a joint production with the DOT theatre company from Istanbul, given the rise of Erdogan.

Equally dramatic for anyone who likes flamenco music was the Maria Pages Company production of Yo, Carmen – an energetic and beautifully choreographed performance partly using Bizet’s music from Carmen. This eight all women group  also had a strong Feminist message that women were not there just to please men.

Surprisingly disappointing was the premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s new play   The Divide- a  Dystopian  sci fi picture of Britain after the Plague in the 22nd century. This was a diminished world of separated men and women – but it suffered from following a similar theme to the recent Handmaiden’s Tale on TV – and in two parts was over long and more of a narrative than a drama. This will come to London at the Old Vic next year. Not everybody stayed including us.

Anoushka Shankar – daughter of the late Ravi Shankar – also pursued a ” shock and awe” theme in her loud and strobe lighting musical story of the refugee crisis. Classical Indian music it was not – but a  Westernised performance with an electric sitar.

As interesting was the supporting act – A gawwali ( Arabic meaning word of the prophet says the programme)  performance singer – Faiz Ali Faiz- with a male chorus, two harmoniums, a tabla and handclappers is sung rather like an Indian repetitive raga.  The sacred music dates back 700 years to the Sufi mystics. The performance was also a political statement against Muslim fundamentalism which bans singing. It was a complete revelation to us in more ways than one – since it had not been billed by the Festival when I booked the tickets.

Finally there was the revival of the Incredible String Band – the 60s psychedelic folk band – with one of its original members, Mike Heron, who with musical friends and relations, turned the clock back 50 years to a less troubled time, with both spirited and poignant performances. In its time incredibly innovative music and still powerful today. An avid follower in the audience told me to watch out for Trembling Bells, a more recent Glasgow psychedelic folk group, who occasionally join forces with the band.

One parting shot – since my wife became disabled following a stroke four years ago- access to events has been important. She doesn’t now need a wheelchair but can only walk slowly and needs rails -particularly on stairs to keep her steady. The Edinfest venues  vary from good- the Lyceum and Usher Hall – to antiquated – the Kings Theatre – and more difficult, the Playhouse. Unfortunately at the Playhouse we were allocated seats in the circle  which had no rails to get there- and if it had not been for one of the helpful ushers and a member of the public – she could easily have fallen. This put her off returning for the Incredible String Band concert.

But overall such different, innovative and challenging stuff in just six days is why the international festival is really worth seeing. Happy 70th birthday Edinfest and long may it continue !