Shambolic Stansted: How you can grab duty free booze without leaving the country unchecked by short staffed customs and immigration

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stansted airport pic credit:London Stansted Airport

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Just before Stansted  was  hit by a bus fire which wrecked people’s Easter holiday flights Parliament received a damning report on the state of border controls at the airport by David Bolt, Independent Chief Inspector of Borders  and Immigration.

Rushed out with four other reports from the inspectorate at the close of Parliament it went unnoticed by mainstream media.

What it disclosed is that the airport has been at the centre of a duty free scam  under the noses of the border force enabling  UK residents to get cheap duty free fags, perfume and booze without leaving the country.

It worked like this. Buy the cheapest  air ticket from say Ryanair or Jet 2.com, get through customs and immigration control, go to duty free. Once there stock up with booze, fags, perfume. designer goods and then walk out of another exit to the baggage hall pretending you are on an incoming flight. Then leave the airport.

The scam first discovered in an earlier report in 2013 has been claimed by Stansted Airport’s management to have been stopped though inspectors are sceptical.

The report says: “Border Force and Manchester Airport Group (MAG)  (owners of Stansted) told inspectors that they had addressed this issue, and the number of such incidents had been greatly reduced. Border Force reported that “the newly created Stansted Crime Team had prioritised working with Duty Free Retail Partners as part of its routine to combat fraud and engagement with partners in this area had had demonstrable results with a number of cigarette seizures that were illicitly obtained.”

However inspectors checking arrangements last year had a different view.

It says they didn’t see any fraud but “they did witness individuals who had not travelled exiting the restricted zone via a channel marked “Returning Passengers”. A MAG employee was tasked with verifying that individuals using this channel
had not arrived from abroad (by asking to check their ticket) before allowing them to enter the baggage hall.
“There were no Border Force staff in the “Returning Passengers” channel, and the MAG employee did not appear to notify Border Force of individuals entering the baggage hall via this route. Inspectors did not observe any customs checking of these individuals as they exited.”

The report also finds a whole series of discrepancies between the management of the airport and the staff views of what is really happening. Management say staff are content while staff say they have low morale.

For a start it has never had a full complement of borders force staff and over a  third of its 199 full time equivalent staff is on stand by – so called seasonal workforce (SWF)- mainly retired ex policeman- called in during peak periods which now extended to most of the time  who can only monitor e-gates and sit on the immigration desk.

“Inspectors were told that levels of experience at Stansted were “dwindling” with fewer and fewer staff with the skills required to carry out a range of duties. As a result, managers were finding rostering increasingly difficult and time-consuming. Inspectors were also told that rosters were dependent on the availability of SWF, because there were not enough permanent staff. ”
“The main complaint from frontline staff was that they were not able to access skills training,especially the nationally-managed “Core Skills” training required for different Border Force roles.

“As well as impacting morale, particularly where staff believe that Border Force has failed to deliver on promises made to them about developing them as “multi-functional officers” and providing job variety, the failure to provide skills training has created inflexibilities in terms of how staff can be deployed.

“This is inefficient and damaging to Border Force’s operational effectiveness. It therefore needs to be dealt with as a priority.”

The inspectors found safeguarding issues – particularly in checking whether 12 to 17 year olds who could use e-gates  by themselves with hardly any monitoring.

And a disastrous re-organisation and centralisation of parcels checks meant that seizures of illegal drugs  collapsed at one stage and only just recovering. “This function was centralised to the fast-parcel hub at East Midlands Airport, which now generates alerts and targets for itself and for Stansted. Staff at Stansted told inspectors that, initially, this change had resulted in a “collapse” in seizures.”

Added to that :The customs teams working with freight and fast parcels told inspectors that they were hampered by a lack of suitable detection equipment, for example to test and identify controlled substances.”

And inspectors suspect that border force people may miss people being trafficked into the UK due to shortages of skilled staff.

The report concluded that management has just ” a tick box mentality” which did not correspond with the reality on the ground.

Stansted is the nation’s fourth busiest airport. Half the people using it are British and all but 10 per cent are from the European Union. One wonders what will happen post Brexit and post a plan to double the size of the airport if it cannot cope at the moment. This is not a pretty picture of British competence.

Voldemort Grayling: The transport secretary and his fantasy Hogwarts Express train service

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Chris Grayling: Transport Secretary and The Lord Voldemort of the Cabinet

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Just before Parliament went into Easter recess the real story about Chris Grayling’s decision to cancel three  major rail electrification projects was released with hardly any mainstream  news coverage.

It was fitting example of the present appalling career of Chris Grayling. This has caused misery  for millions and waste running to hundreds of millions of pounds. He has been  responsible for the botched privatisation of the probation service, slashing compensation for people beaten up by criminals and introducing sky high fees for people bringing tribunal cases (now scrapped thanks to a case brought by Unison)) , restricting legal  aid and putting up court charges.

He and Ken Clarke,when he was justice secretary, also wanted to work with the Saudi Arabian prison system with its obscenities of public beheading, stoning women and flogging men. He is the true Lord Voldemort of Theresa May’s Cabinet.

This latest investigation from the National Audit Office – while more prosaic than J.K .Rowling’s Harry Potter novels – reveals yet another tale of deceit and fantasy to cover up government having overreached itself on rail investment.

Last July just as Parliament was about to go into summer recess ( Funny this happens all the time) Chris Grayling announced the scrapping of three railway  electrification schemes.

They were the Midland Main Line north of Kettering (to Nottingham and Sheffield); the Great Western Main Line between Cardiff and Swansea; and the Lakes Line between Oxenholme and Windermere.

But the real story is that two of the projects were actually  cancelled in Match 2017 but the public was never told.
As the report  says: ” In March 2017 ministers agreed to cancel the Midland Main Line north of Kettering and Oxenholme to Windermere electrification projects but did not announce their decision until July.”

” Electrification of the Midland Main Line to Sheffield was a 2015 Manifesto commitment. The Manifesto also stated that work was underway to electrify the railway in South Wales.”

Hence the deceit.

The public went to the polls in June 2017  and the electors of Nottingham, Leicester, Loughborough, Chesterfield. Sheffield and in Windermere and Kendal were told a lie – the electrification of their service was not going to happen and ministers had trashed their 2015 manifesto commitment.

The electrification of the line between Swansea and Cardiff was scrapped by Theresa May after the election.

But that is not the whole story. Chris Grayling promised to modernise the three services by buying new trains called bi- mode trains- running on both electric and diesel.

The NAO report said: “It will now use bi-mode trains to operate services on the Great Western Main Line and long-distance services on the Midland Main Line. Although bi-mode trains allow greater flexibility by being able to run on electrified and non-electrified lines, there are some disadvantages, such as increased track damage and higher energy costs, which the Department will need to take into account.

For Oxenholme to Windermere the Department had interim plans to use bi-mode trains and proposes to replace existing trains with new diesel trains. It has also asked the operator to explore the use of alternative fuel trains on the route.”

Grayling even promised on the Midland Main Line the journey from London to Sheffield will only be ONE MINUTE slower.

But here is the rub: Such  fast versions of these trains do not yet exist and have never been built for express services. The government hasn’t a clue how much they will cost. They are fantasy trains in the imagination of Chris Grayling. He might as well have announced that the London to Sheffield service was going to be run by Hogwarts Express – it is still in the realm of fiction.

As the NAO report says: “At the time of the decision to cancel in March 2017, officials had advised the Secretary of State that the bi-mode rolling stock with the required speed and acceleration did not exist. They said that the maximum speed of bi-mode trains being built at the time was 100 miles per hour in diesel mode and that the acceleration was not sufficient to meet the timetable of the route. There was also a very high degree of uncertainty over the price of new bi-mode trains.”

I asked for an explanation from the Department for Transport. They contested it.

A spokesman said:“As this report makes clear, we are focused on delivering better trains and services to passengers more quickly, at better value for money for the taxpayer, without the significant disruption to services that electrification can cause.”

 The ministry is said to be happy that bi-mode trains work having tested some on the Great Western l.ine claiming that they could reach 120mph in diesel mode- though this completely conflicts with the NAO investigation which says they are only designed to reach 100mph.

In the meantime this could be another dodgy decision by Chris Grayling. Only this time  he seems to be living in a fantasy world. I await him dressed as Lord Voldemort (He’ll be in the Lords by then)  launching the new London to Sheffield service from Platform 9 and three quarters at London St Pancras rather than Kings Cross.

Update: Since writing this I have discovered that Nicky Morgan, Tory MP for Loughborough and former Cabinet colleague of Chris Grayling reacted furiously to the NAO’s disclosure.She told the Leicester Mercury: 

“Now we see the decision to cancel it was based on fantasy trains that didn’t even exist and the Midlands being a guinea pig for an untested technology.

“This report justifies why people felt so shortchanged when it was cancelled and it makes me more determined to get the decision re-opened.”

 

 

 

 

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Lake Como’s little piece of paradise

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Grand Hotel Tremezzo and Lake Como

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If ever you fancy a rest in perfect luxury in one of the world’s most beautiful places, there is one place well worth staying, the Grand Hotel Tremezzo overlooking Lake Como in Italy.

I don’t normally wax lyrically about hotels  but having had a week on Lake Como ( and in case you are wondering not a journo’s freebie)  and stayed in a family run hotel with  beautiful surroundings, superb food and a very comfortable and large double bed, it is difficult to avoid it.

 

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gardens of the Grand Hotel Tremezzo

My view may have been  coloured by the warm spring weather – enough for the Italians to open the hotel’s  outdoor garden swimming pool  early – and the magic of dining every night in a restaurant with a panoramic view of Lake Como. Or it could have the stunning situation next door to the Villa Carlotta with its huge gardens full of camellias and  wisteria. Or the boat services on the lake to Como and Bellagio, a lovely city and a town full of alleyways.

 

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The Villa Carlotta – you can avoid the scissor staircase if you are disabled by using lifts up to the villa

The Villa Carlotta is remarkably disabled friendly – which was great for my wife Margaret – given the fact it is built on a mountainside. There are lifts to two levels of the garden and a lift to the top floor of the villa itself.

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Camellias in the garden at Villa Carlotta.

Named after the daughter of the King of Prussia who married Georg, the Grand Duke of Saxe Meiningen – she is responsible for the design of the garden – but sadly only lived there for five years before dying at the age 23 in childbirth  in 1855 after having three children. He lived on until 1914, remarried twice, collected hundreds of species for the garden, and took an interest in theatre. The top floor of the villa is full of furniture, china, paintings and a flag from their stay there.

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Wisteria in bloom in the gardens of Villa Carlotta

The stunning beauty of the lake has always attached the wealthy – in the past rival aristocrats and politicians who vied with each other for the most stunning villas. Now it is the haunt of global celebrities  whether Greta Garbo ( who stayed at the hotel) or more recently George Clooney (said to have a £7.5m lakeside villa in Laglio), Madonna and fashion designer Versace.

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Menaggio – quaint old streets in the centre mask a more ordinary town beyond

Travel on the lake is also disabled friendly – the local boats and faster hydrofoils – have easy access on level gangways.And they had disabled loos. Elderly tourists get a 20 per cent discount through Britain’s EU membership ( though for how long this will be is not clear).

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Bellagio from the lake

Bus services run from Como to Menaggio along the lake – where it is not clear whether the elderly have free travel, but we were not charged for using the service, ending up by mistake at the town’s bus depot rather than the prettier centre.

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Statue of Pliny on the exterior of Como cathedral

The centre of Como and most of the waterfront has also been pedestrianised allowing easy access to the cathedral which intriguingly pays homage to both  the pagan Romans Pliny the Younger and the Elder as well as Catholic saints.

If you fancy splashing out and enjoy beautiful scenery or are feeling a bit romantic this is the place for you. And a welcome rest from the grim national and international situation. No wonder the rich like it.

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Front of the Grand Hotel Tremezzo. Lake road is busy during the day.

 

Is George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse about to hit the buffers?

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George getting out in time before the Northern Powerhouse runs into trouble

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My last post on the national repercussions of the Great Western electrification shambles has elicited some very interesting information about why Network Rail got into such a big overspend. (£1.2 billion on a £2.8 billion project)

If the information is accurate – and it seems to be based on some sound sources – it would suggest that George Osborne’s strategy to boost the North through better rail connections is about to come to a grinding halt because it has not been properly costed.

Through Tim Fenton well known for his caustic comments on the media oligarchs on his Zelo Street blog , I have become acquainted with an extraordinary obscure debate about the  safe clearances needed to install overhead electrification.

Ever since the electrification of the West Coast mainline in the 1960s Britain has had narrower clearances than the bigger gauge continental railways. We even had a derogation under the EU. But according to rail expert Roger Ford a serious blunder during the privatisation of the rail engineering which meant all the papers justifying the narrower standards were lost. So we now have no derogation because we lost all the paperwork to justify it.

Why this is important is that the higher clearances will add huge costs to ongoing rail electrification projects in every tunnel and under every bridge on the line. They will have to be higher margins between the top of the train and the wires.and the structures  They will  also have to raise the height of every planned pantograph- to protect people and staff coming into contact with it.

Now it appears that if each situation is given a special risk assessment it might be possible to get round the rules – but that will add to delays and costs and will have to be approved by British regulators – the Office of Rail and Road- even if we have left the EU.

As Roger Ford wrote in his December bulletin: “When all this was reviewed by the relevant British Standards committee it was agreed that, while the previous  2.75m clearance  was not justifiable as a minimum limit in a standard, it might be justifiable subject to a risk assessment.  So, according to Network Rail, electrical clearances below 3.5m are possible – with risk assessment.

” What’s really infuriating about this safety-by-diktat, is that the engineers concerned know that it is irrational and yet they go along with it. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of bureaucracy over common sense is that good engineers should do nothing.’

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Picture of Great Bentley station by Ben Brooksbank

Now obviously this is going to effect more lines than just the Great Western – and this is where George Osborne’s plans  turn to dust.

Already costs are rising on the Midland main line electrification from Bedford to Nottingham and Sheffield. With a critical National Audit Office report likely it is possible that electrification  will stop dead in its tracks at Kettering and Corby – nowhere near the real North.

And the Trans Pennine electrification – another Osborne  project -might stop altogether.

No wonder George Osborne is now going to be editor of the London Evening Standard – he will want to be well clear of the North. This is just a brilliant example of how our incompetent and overrated political amateurs  don’t properly assess what they are  doing.

And the public are  always the losers – in this case the travelling public.

 

Why millions of passengers will face years of overcrowded trains because of a staggering electrification blunder

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Electrification work Pic Credit:South West Business

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Today’s Vision of future travel: Overcrowded train Pic credit:BBC

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If you want to know what is wrong with the present state of  Britain’s railways look no further than a recent National Audit Office report into the mess that is the Great Western electrification scheme. I have written about this in Tribune

As reported at the time the cost overrun and delay totalled a mouthwatering £1.2 billion on a £2.8 billion scheme and led to the scheme being curtailed with delays to the Cardiff to Swansea electrification for up to five years and  similar delays for the electrification of branch services in the Thames Valley.

But the damage  goes much further than just the Great Western Mainline to Cardiff and Bristol electrification scheme, bad though that is, the National Audit Office reveals. It will affect train capacity hundreds of miles away

The electrification was supposed to be the catalyst for the release of rolling stock across the country improving train capacity and phasing out old stock that has been around for decades.

The NAO reports: Under the original plan:

Electric trains from Thameslink would replace diesel trains in the Thames Valley from May providing more capacity to reduce overcrowding

Thames Valley could then release diesel trains to the west, providing more capacity for passengers on the Bristol, Exeter and Cornish networks

West Devon and Cornwall routes would then release diesel trains to support service improvements on Northern franchise routes

New Super Express Trains from the Department’s Intercity Express Programme would replace ageing diesel High Speed Trains on the London to Swansea line cutting journey times from London to Cardiff

The London to Swansea route could then release the diesel High Speed Trains to address capacity issues on intercity routes in Scotland.

An additional fleet of diesel and electric ( Bi mode trains) capable trains recently ordered by the train company, Great Western Railway,  would be introduced in the south-west, providing more capacity and faster journey times on London to Plymouth and Penzance routes.

Now:

Diesel trains due to go to the west in 2017 will be retained until 2019 as electrification is completed and new electric trains are phased in

Passengers in the west (Bristol, Exeter and Cornwall routes) will now have to wait almost two years later than scheduled to see benefits such as more capacity.

Passengers on Northern franchise routes may have to wait an additional nine months as trains are retained in the west to protect services

Great Western Railway has also had to make additional orders of new bi-mode  trains to prevent the cancellation of services on busy Oxford to London routes.

The result according to the NAO will mean higher costs as diesel trains cost more to maintain, lower revenue because of lack of capacity and a bill for converting older trains to comply with stricter laws on helping disabled passengers that would not have been necessary if they had been replaced.

But it goes further than the NAO findings. The privatised rail companies- many owned by state railways in France, Holland and Germany – will be allowed to raise fares every year regardless- so they charge commuters more for inferior services but spend the profits modernising train services in France, Holland and Germany.

And they won’t care if the trains are overcrowded as they can maximise revenue. If ever there was a case for reforming the rail system and ending privatisation this is a perfect example.

Exclusive: Southern Railway contract to be investigated by National Audit Office

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A Southern Railway train: often overcrowded even if it runs. Pic Credit:BBC

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The badly managed and strike prone Southern Railway contract is to be investigated by Parliament’s financial watchdog, the National Audit Office.

After months if not a years of misery for commuters caused by failing services and strike action over safety  the NAO has quietly decided to investigate the Department of Transport’s  handling of the contract alongside another investigation into the modernisation of Thameslink services. Both are major commuter services  into the capital and both are owner by Govia, the country’s biggest privatised train operator.

The decision by the NAO has been quietly slipped out on its website as an update to the Thameslink investigation without an official announcement. Such a move is bound to cause some consternation for transport secretary, Chris Grayling, and his officials.

Publication of the report due this summer will trigger an investigation by MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee where officials will be called to account depending on the NAO’s findings.

Southern is one a series of franchises owned by Govia, a consortium set up by the British  Go Ahead bus company and the French state owned railways, SNCF, whose international arm trades as Keolis.

The NAO investigation comes after the disclosure that Peter Wilkinson , a senior civil servant who is paid £265,000 a year, as director of rail passenger services at the Department for Transport, has been exposed by an investigation in The Guardian for an apparent conflict of interest.

He awarded Govia both contracts but it was revealed that he was, at the time, a
director and the main shareholder of First Class Partnerships, a consultancy which had Govia as a longstanding client.  He has declined to comment about the internal inquiry which is said to have decided that this was a conflict of interest.

Since then Govia’s Southern Railway has been involved in a long dispute with unions over plans to abolish guards on trains. The company has been backed by Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, and unions fear safety is at risk and the plan will be extended to other franchises they run like London Midland.

Southern also decline to provide a comprehensive service to disabled passengers.

The NAO statement on its site announcing the extension said :

“The Department for Transport is sponsoring a £7 billion programme to increase passenger capacity on the Thameslink route through central London. The programme involves the improvement of tracks, signalling and stations, a new fleet of trains and new franchise arrangements for running the passenger service on the Thameslink route.

“Since 2015, train services on the Thameslink Southern Great Northern (TSGN) franchise have been subject to significant disruption, particularly on the Southern services. Alongside our work on the Thameslink Programme, we also plan to report on the Department’s management of the TSGN franchise.”

Rail unions are welcoming the investigation with ASLEF, the train drivers union, keen that such an inquiry will bring transparency to how the contract was monitored by the ministry and also how it was awarded.

Meanwhile  government spin operators have indicated that perhaps the line might be taken back into public ownership if it continues to fail. While this story is officially denied ministers do not like being wrong footed by a detailed National Audit Office investigation and often plan some diversionary tactics when a report is about to be published.

It is question of watch this space. I have also written about this in Tribune.

 

The day I shook the hand of Fidel Castro

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Fidel Castro who died today. Pic Credit: BBC

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Today’s death of Cuban leader Fidel Castro at the age of 90 brings back an extraordinary memory of an event that took place nearly 40 years ago when Cuba hosted the 11th World Youth Festival.

The event  was organised by the left wing World Federation of Democratic Youth under the banner ” For Anti Imperialist Solidarity,Peace and Friendship ” and  some 17,000 participants from 145 countries attended.

At the time in 1978 it attracted a fair amount of criticism from the Establishment even though we had a Labour government with questions in Parliament on whether the government was funding the British delegation ( it wasn’t).

It also became  ” the event to be seen  at” for the rising  elite of  the British student movement – whether from the Left or the Right – who formed the British delegation.

I hitched a ride to report the event for the Guardian – therefore adding to the view that this was a Leftie event. I also conned the Cuban Communist authorities- by bringing along my wife, Margaret, by getting accreditation through a friend as representing the youth wing of British electrical engineers ( she wasn’t). I can’t remember whether I told the Guardian newsdesk, I probably didn’t.

Not only was this a rare opportunity to get to Cuba which then had no tourist industry but it gave me an insight into a generation of British students who went on to become part of the country’s elite.

Cuba was the place that Peter Mandelson honed his dark art of plotting before going on to advise Tony Blair and damage Gordon Brown. He was then the master of arranging meetings in dark rooms to weaken any support for the world Communist order. I had his measure then.

Charles Clarke, who went on to become a pretty establishment Labour home secretary, was seen  then as a dangerous Red Marxist, who had gone out to Cuba in advance to organise everything for the British delegation. His biggest achievement was probably to obtain a huge supply of  British stainless steel cutlery ( knives and forks were in short supply in  Cuba) and they got there despite US sanctions.

Tom Shebbeare, then of the British Youth Council  who went on to advise Prince Charles through the Princes Trust, was another big player.

So was Sue Robertson, a SDP follower when the handsome David Owen was the pin up boy for the moderate left,and went on to become a director of Channel Four, was also in the moderate camp.

And Young Tory  David Hunt, who went on to become a government minister under Margaret Thatcher, was in the delegation. He became closer to ” Tory wet” Peter Walker. He was coal minister during the miner’s strike of 1984-5.

As for Cuba itself there were certain facts at the time that no one wanted to know. The Foreign Office could not believe that you needed no vaccinations to go there because of its standards of health care. And education was a huge thing.

As remarkable  was that it was then trying to be a Communist state but was far too  Caribbean laid back for the Russian allies who despaired at its lack of Stalinist efficiency.

I remember chatting in halting Spanish to a Russian soldier ( it was neither our first language) who despaired at the laid back ways of the Cubans after living in the ruthless world of Moscow. I could see neither Russia nor Cuba were natural bedfellows.

The inefficiency was shown when Margaret and I gave our female minder the slip and wandered off to see laid back Havana for ourselves one evening. We got told off later but nothing happened.

The final image I have was a huge rally of thousands of people listening to Castro’s oratory  for over two hours  and later meeting him and shaking his hand.  Eat your heart out Jeremy Corbyn  your mass meetings have a long way to go  to beat Fidel’s.

There is rare footage of this rally here .