Vote Leave and Cambridge Analytica: A stench enveloping Downing Street and the Cabinet’s hard Brexiteers

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Stephen Parkinson, Now political secretary to Theresa May, previously national organiser Vote Leave Pic credit: Powerhouse

 

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The growing and completely unpredictable coverage following the exposure of Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm, for data harvesting is  fast turning into a scandal that  will seriously damage the reputation of the government or eventually could even bring it down.

From past experience of Westminster and Whitehall scandals once the genie is out of the bottle there is precious little those in power can do to put the stopper back. And from this weekend due to a crass and vile statement from Stephen Parkinson, Theresa May’s political secretary, about  the private life of the latest whistleblower, Shahmir Sanni, it has drawn Downing Street into the fray.

For the ordinary voter the row over data analytics  and how it may have been misused may sound a trifle arcane – since it goes back to two past events – the election of Donald Trump and the controversial Brexit vote. Those in power will be tempted to say – nothing to see here, all done and dusted, let’s move on.

The problem is that they can’t. The huge scale of data harvesting  by Cambridge Analytica via  Facebook of 50 million US citizens plus the potential Russian involvement is now the subject of a huge investigation by  special counsel Robert Mueller and that will not go away. Already Facebook has taken a financial hit  for not protecting our data.

And in England, the Electoral Commission is now investigating the Brexit donations and the  Cambridge Analytica  and Vote Leave’s links to other companies, including the Canadian firm,AggregateIQ (AIQ). The Information Commissioner’s Office is now investigating Cambridge Analytica for potential data breaches for political purposes. Neither investigation is likely to stop.

I won’t need to go over the details of the story which now involves two whistleblowers and has led to the suspension of  the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix.

You can find it in full in The Observer by the dogged and determined Carole  Cadwalladr  here. Or you can see the excellent Channel Four documentary here.

What I will do is look at the ramifications which are now knocking on the door of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, both in the Cabinet. Central to this is why £625,000 was given to the student run  Vote BeLeave campaign to spend on a Vote Leave analytical company, when Vote Leave was not supposed to be connected to Vote BeLeave – and could breach strict  campaign spending guidelines. There are also the very serious allegations – of the mass removal of emails and links between Vote BeLeave and the two highly seasoned campaigners, Matthew Elliott of the Taxpayers alliance fame  and chief executive of Vote Leave, and the aggressive  ex special adviser Dominic Cummings, who jointly ran Vote Leave. He is denying this happened but it appears the whistleblower has sent information to the Electoral commission contradicting that.

Did Gove and Johnson know? and why is Johnson just saying it is ludicrous to suggest this happened – ” sound bites ” don’t make the issue go away.

And finally there is the behaviour of Theresa May’s political secretary. Stephen Parkinson, in deciding the world should know about his previous love life with the whistleblower, Shahmir Sanni.  Shahmir did not wish to go public to the whole world that he was gay. Mr Parkinson is not some political celeb – his role, as I am sure he will be reminded pretty quickly by the Cabinet Office, is to stay in the background not to become part of a public love story. Most people won’t care a damn who he sleeps with – so the only real reason can be a botched attempt to discredit and embarrass the whistleblower.

Parkinson also has previous form. According to Spinwatch’s Lobbying Portal he is an experienced campaigner, being part of the ” No to AV ” campaign to stop the alternative vote in 2011. He also was involved in the scandal over whether the Tories had broken election law in 2015 by overspending. They were mainly cleared of this  but there is a legal case pending  in May against Craig Mackinley, Tory MP for South Thanet, his agent and a Tory campaigner, for making false election returns. Parkinson has worked for Theresa May since 2012 – apart from his work on the Vote Leave campaign.

The real problem for the government is that the next revelations could come from anywhere – it could come from the US  investigations or it could come from the UK if more whistleblowers come forward. They are not in control. So far the reaction has been pure bluster.

I can see in the end the most serious issue will be the use of people’s data by political organisations and breach of privacy – which will  even override  the bitter aftermath of Brexit and the US election result.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will Indian Immigration to the United States Increase? A blog that debunks the Donald Trump view of immigrants

This is the other side to the Donald Trump view of America. It shows the big contribution being made by immigration to the United States by often highly educated Indians and debunks with lots of facts the idea that immigrants are scroungers or even necessarily poor. Some of those people condemning immigration to the UK could learn from this analysis of the facts.

TalesAlongTheWay

Indian Immigrants in the United States
Indian college student applying henna.

A college student applies henna, the Indian tradition of painting elaborate designs on the skin. (Photo: University of Illinois Springfield)

Immigrants from India first arrived in the United States in small numbers during the early 19th century, primarily as low-skilled farm laborers. In recent decades the population has grown substantially, with 2.4 million Indian immigrants resident in the United States as of 2015. This makes the foreign born from India the second-largest immigrant group after Mexicans, accounting for almost 6 percent of the 43.3 million foreign-born population.

In 1960, just 12,000 Indian immigrants lived in the United States, representing less than 0.5 percent of the 9.7 million overall immigrant population. Migration from India swelled between 1965 and 1990 as a series of legislative changes removed national-origin quotas, introduced temporary skilled worker programs, and…

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Exclusive: How the equality watchdog sacked a disabled army veteran and IRA bomb survivor by email

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Rebecca Hilsenrath: chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and leading the programme of staff cuts Pic credit: Douglas-Scott co.uK

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Donald Trump : You’re fired. Credit Giphy

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Late last year this blog featured the case of  57 year old Markus Caruana,  who works in corporate communications at the Birmingham office of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.To recap

He is a former flute player in the Corps of Drums with the Grenadier Guards.

Markus Caruana was unfortunate enough to have been both at the Guildford pub bombings in 1974 and the Chelsea Barracks bombing in 1981 which seriously injured regimental bandsmen from the Irish Guards.

He escaped unscathed in both instances but saw three of his friends killed in an IRA attack in Crossmaglen in Northern Ireland.

He left the army in 1985 to become a landscape gardener and then took advantage of a Unison sponsored education scheme to learn to read and write.

He had been a school refuser after being bullied and could hardly read or write or read music but was able to play his  flute because he had a natural memory for tunes.

In 2002 he secured a job with the Disability Rights Commission which later became part of the EHRC.

Sadly he lost his 75 per cent of his hearing and got  an incurable muscle wasting disease called Marie-Tooth disease (CMT) which affects the nervous system that supports muscles, often weakening the legs and feet.

The EHRC had enabled him to have a support worker so he could do his job there – but she is also facing redundancy now he has failed to retain his job.

Yesterday he  and five other disabled people was sacked by email by the EHRC and given 24 hours notice to clear his desk. He was one of ten people made compulsorily redundant by emails from executives from the Commission.

The decision led to a furious reaction from one of the main union representing staff,the PCS.

EHRC says the staff will receive pay in lieu of notice (PILON), but workers did not agree to this because it closes off the opportunity to seek redeployment at the commission or elsewhere in the civil service.

In a letter back to EHRC, the union states: “By imposing PILON you are cutting off this option and effectively consigning BME, disabled, women and trade union members to unemployment. There should only be PILON in cases where the individual concerned has agreed to it.”

Commenting on the cases, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “It’s absolutely reprehensible that dedicated staff have been sacked and told to clear their desks with a day’s notice.

“That this has happened at the government body charged with upholding human rights and fair treatment in our society is an absolute scandal and we will continue to fight it.”

My own take on it is this. It is quite clear that the head of the EHRC, Rebecca Hilsenrath, is a particularly vindictive person to take action like this – by making it difficult for these people to get other jobs in the civil service.

Her action reminds me a bit of the attitude taken by Donald Trump towards disabled people. I am sure she would make an excellent addition to his staff in Washington though I don’t know whether she would share his locker room talk or not.

I have also written an article for Tribune about the sackings and the future strikes.

Bumped by Trump: How Whitehall used the US elections as cover for £1 billion military spending blunders

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Donald Trump Pic credit: CNN

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One of the oldest tricks in the Whitehall playbook is to use a major event as cover to publish unpalatable or embarrassing news.

It means the media are diverted by the event and don’t notice the announcement or report.

It worked an absolute treat for the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury over the US elections to hide two very bad news stories for them. They couldn’t believe their luck when Trump unexpectedly won.

The Ministry of Defence took advantage on polling day to slip a very embarrassing announcement about money for war veterans pensions and disability payments. Evidently the previous July the Treasury, believe it or not, forgot to include in its spending statement the proper  money to pay them this year. As a result they will have to raid the contingency reserve for emergency payments to make sure these veterans have the money.

Mark Lancaster, parliamentary secretary to the ministry, admitted the error in a written statement to the Commons just as Parliament rose on November 8  describing the failure to disclose it as an “inadvertent publishing error”.  It involved a staggering £438,193,000 in the Armed Forces Pensions and Compensation scheme which is available to serving and former personnel who are injured in military service including in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The second cover up by the Ministry of Defence came on results day. This was an embarrassment to the image of the Ministry of Defence. For years they have endured criticisms on cost overruns on equipment, bad spending decisions and lack of control.

Last year this was all meant to change. A new agency the Defence Equipment and Support, was supposed to take control  and rein in all these errors. It describes itself as a bespoke agency in charge of equipment and projects for the armed forces.

Well it seems to have deliberately chosen  the US election day to publish its first report. The reason I suspect is that the National Audit Office has qualified its accounts and made a stinging attack on its performance. The NAO can only release this when the report is published and the agency chose election day to do it.

The report by Amyas Morse, the Comptroller and auditor General is damning.Some £499 million of public expenditure cannot be properly accounted for.

“I have qualified my opinion on the financial statements due to a limitation on the scope of my audit because DE&S has been unable to provide me with adequate evidence to enable me to confirm whether or not the private sector support costs, other programme costs and the related trade and other payables balance shown in the financial statements are free from material misstatement.

“I believe this situation has arisen because the Agency’s financial management systems, processes and controls for these transactions and balances are not yet sufficiently well developed to meet the Agency’s needs.”

Examples include having to manually insert some 100,000 changes into the computer programme because it had not  been drawn up properly. And reporting money for the wrong year.

Luckily in both cases MPs are not going to let the matter rest- and come back to the issues

Nia Griffith, the shadow Defence  Secretary has attacked the government for putting at risk funding to help military veterans warning that they must be given an urgent reassurance that they will not lose money.

Anne Marie Trevelyan, Conservative MP for Berwick on Tweed and a member of the  Public Accounts Committtee, said :“At a time when we are seeing a lot of change in the Ministry of Defence, causing a great deal of anxiety for those who are serving, it is very disappointing to see Defence Equipment & Support has not got to grips with financial management.

“At the same time there are serious issues with service family accommodation, highlighted by the Public Accounts Committee which would benefit from a much smaller investment.

“This points to a lack of joined-up financial planning in the Ministry and raises concerns about whether the department is delivering value for money across the board.”

Quite right. Whitehall must not get away with playing games with how it discloses it is spending our money. I have written a news article for Tribune magazine on this.