Tony Blair’s top donor goes Bercow

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Lord Levy

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On the very, very last day of Parliament  John Bercow, the Speaker, who faces the prospect of a contested General Election ( breaking normal precedent) announced some £20,000 in donations from some very surprising and controversial sources.

Released  the day Parliament was dissolved  it was revealed the music impresario Lord Levy – who infamously  and in his view unjustly got involved in the ” Cash for Honours” scandal has given a £5000 donation to John Bercow which presumably will go towards his election campaign.

Lord Levy, well known as Tony Blair’s tennis partner and  New Labour’s chief fund raiser  and at one stage close confidant of the former Labour PM, was arrested but never charged over the scandal which suggested that the party was soliciting donations with the hint of possible peerages for the party backers. The furore that followed led to a breach between Blair and Levy which subsequently, I understand, been healed.

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John Bercow, the Speaker Image credit: bbc

The second donation  is from property tycoon Sir David Garrard who was also involved in  the ” cash for honours” scandal before the police dropped the investigation. He had switched from supporting the Tories to New Labour.

He is also a fan of  former Labour leader Ed Miliband and gave Labour a whopping £500,000 at the last general election. He has given John Bercow a more modest £5000.

The third £5,000 donor is Sun Mark Ltd, run by entrepreneur Dr Rami Ranger ,who has won no fewer than five Queen’s Awards for Enterprise, for distributing products to supermarkets worldwide. His autobiography, From Nothing to Everything, I suspect, appeals to John Bercow, or at least the title would.

The final £5000 comes  I suspect from Michael Keegan, who is  the head of Fujitsu for the UK and Ireland. It would have been much more fun of it had been Michael Keegan-Kay, an American comedian and actor, who spent six seasons on madTV but that donation would be banned under the rules blocking foreign donors though.

 

How a Roman Catholic paedophile priest who mixed with celebs nearly escaped justice

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Father Anthony McSweeney; Nearly escaped justice Pic Credit: BBC

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One of the successes of the Met Police investigation into the notorious Elm Guest House in Barnes was the arrest and conviction of a Roman Catholic priest Anthony McSweeney who was jailed for three years  in 2015 for sexually abusing a teenager and making indecent images of children.

The inquiry into Elm Guest House led the police to focus on a Richmond  Council children’s home – long since closed – called Grafton Close which at the time was run by a friend of the priest, John Stingemore, who would have been tried alongside him at Southwark Crown Court if he had not died just before the trial.

The allegation that boys were taken by Stingemore to Elm Guest House were never tested in court – though the CPS agreed a charge should be made – because of Stingemore’s death.

But the court heard that McSweeney and Stingemore did take boys away to a flat in Bexhill on sea where they were sexually assaulted. And when McSweeney was arrested   pornographic pictures of children were found on his computer.

Until then Anthony McSweeney had escaped his crimes that took place between 1979 to 1981 and if it had not been for Operation Fernbridge he would still be a popular priest a director of a  Catholic school in Norwich, helping with Norwich City  football youth team and local boxing clubs.

He  was held in high esteem and mixed with some of the great and good. He married the boxer, Frank Bruno and Delia Smith, the celebrity cook and supporter of Norwich City, once asked to arrange a special football service for the club.

But his secret activities could have been stopped nearly 20 years earlier when it was discovered while he was working as a priest in Harlow and Leigh on Sea, Essex, that had a stash of pornographic videos. His cleaner discovered his stash of sex toys, truncheons and pornographic videos at St Peter’s Catholic Church in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. Instead in 1998 the Roman Catholic Church quietly transfered him to another parish, St George’s church in Norwich.

Now an independent review undertaken by the Dioceses of East Anglia and Brentwood in the wake of his conviction has revealed serious lapses in the whole way the Church handled the discovery in 1998.

In a statement the two dioceses say:

 The Church should have taken more robust action following the discovery of video tapes in 1998, later referred to in Anthony McSweeney’s trial, and should have ensured that the matter was reported to the police so that a full investigation could have taken place.

 Local priests and parishioners were not adequately supported, their concerns were not taken sufficiently seriously, nor acted upon diligently;

 Anthony McSweeney’s subsequent transfer to East Anglia, as outlined above, was poorly managed, lacked insight and was not adequately documented.

The Church defends it behaviour by saying:

“At the time of these events awareness of the need for child protection was in its infancy. The national safeguarding procedures and processes put in place since 2001 would now ensure that such a matter would immediately be passed on to the police, via the Safeguarding Coordinator. Now over 95% of parishes have at least one Safeguarding Representative whose task it is to ensure that the concerns of the local clergy and parishioners are taken seriously, and to refer those concerns to the Diocesan Safeguarding Coordinator.”

However it is clear that the review is not satisfied even today as it recommends the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service, and the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission:

 To review and clarify the existing policy about priests transferring from one diocese to another to ensure consistency and transparency in the process in all the dioceses in England and Wales, and in particular, to ensure that any issues to do with safeguarding are resolved before any such move can take place;

 To issue clear guidelines for managing cases potentially involving indecent images;

 To review the existing “whistleblowing” policy

The Church is refusing to publish the report or even name the author who prepared it on the grounds it was an ” internal report”.

Yet it highlights one of the major perennial problems in tackling child sexual abuse – the decision by authorities to sweep scandals under the carpet – and quietly transfer the person to a new post elsewhere. Not only is this irresponsible but its is dangerous as it puts more children at risk just to preserve the reputation of the organisation.

This a good case  to be referred to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse – either under its Roman Catholic investigation – or the part of the inquiry that will examine safeguarding. Alexis Jay, the chair, should seek out this report as it will help explain in detail what went wrong here and how it can be tackled in future. Otherwise valuable lessons could be missed and the Roman Catholic church will once again have to be taken on trust that it doing the right thing.

 

 

A Whitehall management disaster that could wreck Britain’s trade deals after Brexit

UKTI blog-online

Jazzy representation by UKTI of Britain’s export trade that belied the mismanagement of their contract

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If you were running a business would you employ people without checking how much you are paying them? Would you lose your documents for  outlining  your business case for a crucial contract? Would you also sign a deal that was  so complex – running to over 600 pages – without understanding what you are doing?

Of course you wouldn’t or you’d soon be bust.

This and more was done by a Whitehall agency in a botched up privatisation contract which allowed the contractor to rip off the government and the taxpayer and left the agency looking daft.

What is more serious is that the agency is UK Trade and Investment – the very organisation that  will be at the heart of advising British firms on how to capitalise on exports and encouraging foreign firms to invest in Britain – post Brexit.

While ministers have been flying round the world promising an exciting future for trade deals outside Europe – the body that actually has to do all the  nitty gritty work has been an embarrassing failure that couldn’t organise the proverbial p… up in a brewery.

The whole sorry saga was outlined in a report by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee which came out during the recess following a National Audit Office investigation. I also wrote about this  and another privatisation failure involving tax credits in Tribune magazine.

The firm which ripped off the department was PA Consulting who were asked to supply staff to provide specialist advice to exporters. One extraordinary fact in the report is that PA Consulting jacked up consultants rates by £142 a day – some 29 per cent – between the bid and the deal ..and UKTI did not even notice it.

The MPs said : ”

“UKTI displayed poor governance and did not keep proper records. It made a simple matter as complex as possible. It negotiated significant changes to the contract with PA when it should have gone back to the market. It pushed to sign the contract before it had finished these negotiations. All this was unfair to other bidders and left UKTI exposed to being exploited by PA.

“For its part, PA fell well short of the appropriate duty of care that we expect contractors to demonstrate when in receipt of taxpayers’ money; instead of looking out for its client, PA took advantage of UKTI’s poor decision making. It sold UKTI a service it is not clear it needed and failed to give the fair breakdown of its costs and profit that UKTI asked for.

“Instead, it used the negotiations to pass on costs to UKTI that it had said in its bid that it would bear, and to increase its profit from the contract while telling UKTI that its profit had not increased. Our inquiry has been hampered by the lack of proper records from all parties concerned.”

The MPs are demanding a forensic audit of UKTI as a result of this fiasco. I should say so or otherwise I don’t see British firms getting any meaningful help from this group of naive incompetents  when we do start having to negotiate new trade deals.

Jeremy Corbyn: Can he break out from being caught between a rock and a hard place?

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Jeremy Corbyn ; a difficult but challenging task ahead

If official opinion polls are to be believed Theresa May is heading for a landslide on June 8 with a 24 point poll lead and a majority of between 140 and 160 in the House of Commons. If she wins the argument that we need  ” stable and strong leadership ” to push through Brexit and every leaver in Britain  vote for her – especially in England and Wales – she should in theory increase her share of the vote to 52 per cent and take seats like Sunderland and Stoke, leave Labour on a wafer thin majority in Newcastle and win back seats in London. She could then dream of having a 200 majority and reducing Labour to a rump party.

But will this happen?  Jeremy Corbyn is certainly not starting from a good place.

Ever since he has been elected twice as leader he has been vilified in the mainstream media. When he was first elected some colleagues in the Parliamentary lobby thought he would not last a week and have had a mind set since that he shouldn’t have survived.

The image of him alternates between a dangerous Leftie and too weak to run the country. He can’t actually be both or he wouldn’t be  dangerous. The divisions inside the Parliamentary Party culminating in no candidate of substance standing against him in the second leadership election have done a lot of damage with the electorate. And the obvious division between him and the elected deputy leader, Tom Watson, have not helped and don’t seem to have been mended on either side.

He was also put in an impossible position by Theresa May’s snap decision to call a general election. If he had opposed it the national media would have said he is frit to face the voters, if he supported it they would say as the SNP already has that it was like ” turkeys voting for Christmas.”

Nor do I see the solution at the moment in getting a new right wing electable leader as a panacea – whoever leads the Labour Party will get a rotten press from the Daily Mail and the Sun.And it won’t depend on the policies either. Look at the more muted response from the tabloids to the idea of capping energy bills when it is a Tory leader who suggests it – as opposed to Ed Miliband.

He also has a problem from the unpopular policies by some right wing Labour councils – which could paint a worse picture for him on May 4. Two of the Labour run authorities – Durham and Derbyshire – are in areas where Labour  have decided to make huge cuts in the salaries of their natural supporters – teacher assistants- who are already on low salaries. The cuts in the name of equal pay have infuriated voters in Derby and Durham – and I would not be surprised to see Labour lose seats in these strongholds. Indeed some of the teacher assistants in Durham  I talked to at the Labour conference were planning to vote Liberal Democrat in the local elections and support Jeremy Corbyn  in a general election.

And recent Labour council seats lost by Labour to the Tories have included Salford – where the Labour council backed a development by a millionaire ex footballer to build luxury flats leading to a split vote when a residents association fought the seat. It split the vote and let the Tories win. And Labour controlled Southwark , Lambeth and Haringey are unpopular with council tenants for allowing redevelopments which will deprive local people of their homes and boost the income of foreign buyers.

So it my mind given the horrendous state of the NHS, social housing, social care, schools, transport, benefit cuts and the failure of many privatisation projects both in Whitehall and the NHS the only way Jeremy Corbyn can go is a populist anti Establishment campaign – aimed at first at the core vote to highlight the state of the country.

If he can get that message over plus a commitment to do something about it the very least it will do is to prevent such a big Tory landslide. The best would be an astonishing turn around – by convincing some of the disillusioned young voters, floating voters, and people with a conscience about growing inequality – and put the present triumphant Tories on the back foot.

While Brexit will also dominate the campaign – this is likely to be more of a battle between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats – with the Lib Dems threatening Tories to take back seats the Tories took from them in 2015.

So for  Jeremy Corbyn  it won’t be easy  but when you are caught between a rock and a hard place, you have no choice but to take the biggest risks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How the Tories have fixed the road programme to maximise the motorist vote

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M62 motorway £161m of improvements planned before voters next go to the polls. pic credit: BBC

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The government is fiddling its £11.4 billion road  building and improvement programme  so that  new road schemes will be timed to have their maximum impact to gain votes from motorists when they go the polls.

The Department of Transport already fiddled its present plans  by fixing the time for new road schemes to coincide with voters going to the polls in 2015.

Now they are planning to have the largest number of schemes  going ahead in 2019 to 2020  just when people go to the polls for the next general election.

This disclosure does not come from the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats – who were party to the first part of the plan – but from an impeccably detailed analysis by Whitehall’s spending watchdog, the National Audit Office – with a reputation for independence and political neutrality.

Their investigation into the highways agency programme  for motorways and A roads reveals that ministers cut short the planning period for new road schemes to just 17 months- instead of a normal 30 month period – so it could be timed to come out for the 2015 general election.

And their analysis  of present plans show the busiest period for new schemes to start will be in 2019-20 just as people are preparing to cast their votes. I have written about this in Tribune magazine.

The manipulation of the road scheme plans has however meant the ministry has  had one embarrassing drawback. Ministers over committed the number of schemes that can be built within its present budget and at least 16 may have to be scrapped because they are not value for money.  But this embarrassing decision will be taken soon – mid term – so it should not affect campaigning in the run up to the election. So in fact the promises made by the Tories in 2015 will in part be fake news.

The  NAO report says the rush to produce a plan before the 2015 election “meant that the Department and the Highways Agency could not carry out sufficient analysis and planning to ensure that the Road Investment Strategy was affordable and deliverable, and that the projects would produce high benefits relative to costs.

“In particular, the need to develop so many new projects more or less from scratch meant that the portfolio of enhancement projects contained a high level of uncertainty from the outset.”

The report says: “The Department chose to set a capital programme which was forecast to exceed funding by £652 million. 

This ‘over-programming’ had been standard practice in the Highways Agency, as it was expected that some schemes would be delayed or drop out of the portfolio as it was refined. By August 2016, the amount by which forecast capital costs exceeded available funding had increased to £841 million.”

Among the projects that have generated extra money include £234m for Project Stack – to allow lorries to be parked on the M20 while waiting to go abroad – which will be essential if border controls are introduced as a result of Brexit. Another £161m is needed to bring forward two projects on the M62 which the government wants to turn into a smart motorway  for 60 miles between Manchester and Leeds.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said: “The Department and Highways England need to agree a more realistic and affordable plan if they are to provide optimal value from the Road Investment Strategy”.

…Decisive action needs to be taken before the updated delivery plan is published in the summer if shortcomings in the current strategy are not to be carried over into future road investment periods.”

But the truth is the government know motorists’ votes play a part in any election. and they will do their damnest to fix schemes – from a local by pass to improved motorways – to make sure they can be used to maximum electoral advantage.

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.