Another day. Another taxpayer disaster for the Conservatives. This time it is the National Audit Office reporting on the full cost of Michael Gove’s failed vocational education initiative which cost taxpayers £800m and left a trail of brand new closed colleges. Read the horrendous details of this latest scandal on Byline Times here.
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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.
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.
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UPDATE: At a Press Gallery lunch in Parliament last week I raised the issue of the Supreme Court ruling and the potential case to be brought by three judges with David Lidington, the current Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary.
He did not want to comment about the Supreme Court judgement or any pending legal action but he vigorously defended any of the judges from institutional racism. He said it would be against their ” oath of office” and believed all of them would be fair minded and ” in no way racist.” He did admit that the judiciary did not have enough judges from black and ethnic minorities and promised a ” mentoring programme” so more top barristers would come forward and become judges.
Michael Gove and Liz Truss, two former Lord Chancellors, the former lord chief justice, Lord Thomas, six High Court judges and heads of the tribunal services are facing lthe prospect of legal action for victimisation and racial discrimination by three fellow black and Asian judges and a black former tribunal member following a ground breaking ruling by the Supreme Court. An article appears in this week’s Tribune magazine. the link is here.
The virtually unreported Supreme Court judgement last week, which involved interpreting an EU equality treatment directive, is seen by campaigners as removing immunity claimed by the Ministry of Justice, the Metropolitan Police, magistrates and tribunal bodies, barristers, solicitors, doctors and dentists disciplinary bodies, from the Equality Act when handling misconduct inquiries.
It will also apply to disciplinary hearings involving sexual and gender discrimination and disabled people.
The original case was brought by a disabled black woman police officer, known as Ms P against the Metropolitan Police. She claimed discrimination because of her disability during a disciplinary and misconduct hearing. She had previously been assaulted and was then involved in an incident which led to her arrest. She claimed post traumatic distress syndrome following the assault had led her to act in this way. The panel rejected her claim and she was dismissed immediately. She appealed to an employment tribunal saying she had been subject to disability discrimination but it struck out her case because it ruled that the panel was exempt from the Equality Act.
Her case was turned down by the lower courts but they have now been overruled by the Supreme Court. At the hearing her case was joined by four black and ethnic minority organisations, Operation Black Vote, Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts (BARAC UK) the Society of Black Lawyers, and The Association of Muslim Lawyers who asked for a ruling on civil law in this case.
The ruling has had an immediate impact on four other cases involving racial discrimination and victimisation brought by three judges and a tribunal member that had been stayed at employment tribunals because the Ministry of Justice said it had immunity under the Equality Act.
These involve cases bought by Peter Herbert, a recorder and part time immigration and employment judge and chair of the Society of Black Lawyers; Daniel Bekwe,of African descent, a former member of Croydon Employment tribunal; a district judge and an immigration judge, who plan to go public at a later date.
Mr Herbert said: “We met last night and decided that our solicitor will write to the Employment Tribunal asking for the stay to be lifted and the hearing re-opened following the supreme court’s judgement. We hope to get a hearing in December.”
Dianne Abbott, the shadow home secretary, is planning to raise questions with ministers on the judgement.
Groups were jubilant following the ruling. BARAC said: “Today’s important ruling we believe, means that Judges, Magistrates, lay tribunal members, barristers, solicitors, doctors, dentists, nurses and other professionals and office holders cannot be prevented from enjoying the full protection of the Equality Act 2010. We are writing to the MoJ and the Government to ask them to clarify all those professions where this ruling will apply.”
Lord Herman Ouseley, former Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality and the Chair of Kick It Out stated:
“There should be no hiding place in the form of judicial immunity for decision making bodies, decision makers and their processes enabling institutions to lawfully discriminate and not have these decisions challenged by those persons affected.
Too many attempts have already been made by the state to restrict access to and
therefore deny justice for individuals rightfully seeking to invoke the provisions of the
Equality Act 2010. No more denial of Justice”
Lee Jasper, former adviser to the Mayor of London on Equality, Chair of London Criminal Justice Consortium stated:
“The filing of an amicus brief indicates a renewed determination by British black organisations to embark on a focused legal strategy to achieve civil rights and equality. The notion of legal immunity from the Equality Act 2010 will now be the subject of intense legal examination. The black WPC at the centre of this case has been to hell at back at the hands of the Metropolitan Police, suffering the triple oppressions of race, gender and disability.”
“ Those involved in the suspension of Recorder Peter Herbert can now be exposed as exercising institutional white privilege, as they had been given cover by the
Government relying on the misguided concept of judicial immunity to give licence
to institutional racism. ”
The decision by the Supreme Court will have enormous ramifications for disciplinary panels. But there is also extraordinary irony as well. This case could be appealed by the Metropolitan Police or the Ministry of Justice to the European Court of Justice.
But given the entire stance being taken at the Brexit negotiations where the ECJ is a red line for ministers – it is the one thing that the government can’t do.
Meanwhile the Equality and Human Rights Commission has indicated it wants to make sure the government doesn’t sneakily change the law once we have left the EU.
EHRC Chief Executive Rebecca Hilsenrath said:”This case goes to highlight the importance of EU law in protecting fundamental rights. This is why we are pressing for amendments to the Withdrawal Bill to protect our rights under the Brexit process.”
A summary of the Supreme Court judgement is here.
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August is the time of the year when lobby journalists love to speculate on leadership plots. If Jeremy Corbyn had done really badly in the June general election – it would be all about who is going to succeed him. But as it is Theresa May who lost her majority and authority – the speculation is all about who will replace her – even though she is at the moment determined there will be no vacancy. So I thought I would add my pennyworth.
The last Tory PM to be deposed in office was Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and she was at that point even more unpopular than Theresa is now. Her disaster was the poll tax – which was quickly replaced by the present council tax – after she stood down.
People forget that at the time John Major was the least known of the candidates who stood to be leader and PM.
Just as now the leadership favourites were big beasts – the two top runners were Michael Heseltine – who had resigned over a row over the fixing of an order for a new generation of helicopters in what became the Westland affair – and Douglas Hurd, a well known big Tory beast and foreign secretary. Both are now peers.
Heseltine was at the time a bit of blonde bombshell – unpredictable and strident. Nicknamed ” Tarzan ” because- though he denies it – he was accused of swinging the Parliamentary mace in protest against Labour. Definitely regarded as leadership material – he had shades of Boris Johnson in his leadership claims for today.
While Hurd was seen as more thoughtful – just like Michael Gove who prides himself as a radical thinker – sees himself today.
But both these big beasts were trounced by the ” grey man ” – the relatively unknown John Major.
Today there is another relatively unknown man – a John Major for the 21st century. He is David Gauke. In the Westminster bubble he is known by the phrase ” Uncork the Gauke ” for his ability to smoothe over gaffes made by his then boss George Osborne in successive budgets. He is a safe pair of hands to send to Westminster and handle Opposition anger over ministerial mistakes.
He was first out of the traps to address the Westminster press gallery lunches this month – and came to put himself over as an agreeable lunch companion with a store of self deprecating jokes. He is also benefiting from Theresa May’s decision to promote him to Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, presumably thinking like Thatcher about Major that he is no leadership challenger.
But don’t be fooled by his manner. At the heart of the man is a determination to continue the Conservative austerity programme. He was careful only to park plans to end the ” triple lock” on pensions and a new charging system for social care. He has since taken the decision to raise much earlier the pension age to 68 – something that was not in the Tory manifesto.
He also showed little real concern that benefit claimants had committed suicide as a result of tough decisions. He came out in favour of means testing and to a question from me that his ministry was turning into the Department of Corporate Manslaughter – ignored the point – saying lamely that there might be mistakes by staff. There is a lot of difference between a mistake and a suicide.
A lot is at stake at the next general election – and Jeremy Corbyn has no longer that element of surprise that he is supposed to be a ” no hoper” to become PM. So expect the unexpected from the Tories – they will devise new ways to stay in power and an unexpected figure emerging as their leader could be one of them.
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The extraordinary treacherous act by Michael Gove in ditching Cameron and then dumping Boris Johnson to try to be Prime Minister has obscured another damning trait in this discredited Tory star.
While the sound and fury surrounding the Referendum campaign dominated the headlines Whitehall quietly produced a damning finding which questions the competence of Michael Gove to stand for high office anywhere.
Before he moved to the Ministry of Justice, where he undid some of the nasty work of Chris Grayling, Gove was secretary of state for education.
In the run up to the Campaign Whitehall belatedly published the Whole Government Accounts – an international accounting standard record of every pound spent of taxpayer’s money and the value of the assets held by the British government.
This report was late because of the failure of one Cabinet minister – Michael Gove – to be able to account for a staggering £33 billion -yes billion- of public money and assets while he was in office. That’s equivalent to half the education budget or THREE years of our contributions to the European Union.
As the findings by the National Audit Office says in Whitehall officialese:
“The 2014-15 Department for Education (DfE) accounts were qualified on the basis of incomplete and inaccurate valuation of academies’ land and buildings assets.
“ In 2014-15, the number of academies continued to increase from 3,905 to 4,580, but the DfE has not addressed the difficulty in maintaining oversight over them. As a result the scope of this issue has grown to £33 billion during the year and is likely to continue to be a source of continued qualification within the Whole Government accounts (WGA ) until there are changes in the oversight and accountability regime for academies. “
The findings means the department has no accurate record of the billions of pounds of school buildings and property they have handed over to private academies and free schools in the rush to create so many academies. The man who rushed through this in such a cavalier fashion was Michael Gove.
Whoever is the next Prime Minister is going to have a head for figures to negotiate one of the most complex series of deals to disentangle ourselves from the EU and be responsible for signing off tens of billions of pounds of complex trade deals across the world.
If Michael Gove gets to Number Ten job it would be like handing over the running of the country to a reckless irresponsible teenager who ran up huge debts on his parent’s credit card but couldn’t properly account for what he had done.
Gove obviously has no responsibility, interest or understanding of how to control our money. He is entitled to his ideological commitment to creating academies but in his enthusiasm for this controversial policy he is leaving a trail of muddle and mess in his wake. In my view this makes him totally unsuitable to hold this top job. This of all times is no place for incompetents.
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During both the first and second world wars my family came under suspicion and attack from people because our family name Hencke is German. At one stage we even considered changing it or Anglicising it to something like Henkey.
The reason was that we were at war with Germany and although our family left Germany via Holland in 1862 and we were virulently anti Nazi ( my mother is Jewish after all) the hatred of the foreigner was very high at this time.
Since the Brexit campaign there has been an upsurge in nasty, vicious attacks on EU people staying and working here and racist attacks against ethnic minorities which we have not seen for some time.
Frankly I blame Nigel Farage, UKIP and both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove for giving respectability and legitimacy to people who have held these views privately to think they can now openly harass foreign workers in this country.
By promising to quit the European Union and ” take control ” people have been given the impression that we can stop immigration altogether and that perhaps their wish that people could be sent home will be granted.
They have been told that all their problems getting jobs, housing, places for their kids in school, hospital operations and even traffic jams and waiting in queues are all the fault of immigrants. If they left everything would be wonderful.
This monstrous lie was perpetuated in split screen TV campaign broadcasts by the Brexit campaign. Any sane person would know that this is far more complicated.than that.
But what has been alarming is the reaction. People attacked on a Manchester tram, women abused in the street, someone quizzing people on their nationality in a supermarket queue and telling the till staff to serve British born people first. Others have been nastier including abusing Polish kids at school, putting nasty messages through Polish people’s letterboxes and daubing German made cars (presumably bought by British people) with swastikas. And there was the nasty graffiti on the Polish centre in Hammersmith, west London.
It is soon going to become very obvious that people are NOT going to get what they want from Boris Johnson. Immigration will not stop, they are not going to be miraculously rehoused and immigrant’s children are not going to be removed from school. All because this depends on policies that have nothing to do with immigration – such as house building or providing enough places in schools.
So what should be done. There should be a crackdown on people who do this to show it is unacceptable.
But there also should be action to explain to people that if they want to live in dynamic, prosperous, modern society it is going to be a multi racial and diverse and people of different beliefs, race and sexuality all have something to contribute. We are no longer a pale male and stale society and can’t turn the clock back centuries. That is why I think London rejected the Brexit case.
The problem is that we are left with a nasty backlash from people who see they have been left behind and want to take it out on anybody who is different to them. That must be tackled or we slip into a nasty, divisive country that no one will want to stay in.
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Michael Gove, the justice secretary, is planning to dump on the citizens of Greater Manchester responsibility for running one of the worst funded and performing courts in England and Wales.
It is being packaged under the slogan ” Northern Powerhouse” but it amounts to making sure Labour has to take responsibility for the court at a time when the government is planning even more cuts to the judicial system which is already in chaos. I have written about this in Tribune magazine.
Already a damning report last month from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has accused the ministry of bringing the criminal justice system to breaking point after slashing 26 per cent from its budget and closing courts across the country. Another 15 per cent of cuts are proposed between now and 2020.
The report revealed for the first time how the impact of the cuts had on individual crown courts revealing the best and worst performers in handling trials in a system now bedevilled by delays, lawyer shortages, and inefficiencies. A backlog of more than 50,000 cases has built up.
On average only around a third of trials in Crown Courts went ahead as planned on the day they were due to start. One in 10 cases were not ready and were postponed to another day. Currently, 24 per cent of cases are withdrawn on the day they are due to start, most commonly because the defendant pleads guilty on the day.
In Greater Manchester, only 18 per of cases went ahead on the day (the only worse place was Lancashire with 16 per cent); 21 per cent were withdrawn on the day after the defendant pleaded guilty and more than half, the joint highest in the country, of cases (55 per cent) are put back because they cannot start on the day scheduled.
MPs tried to get information from the government on how the new devolved package to Greater Manchester would work but were told “there is quite a lot of detail to be worked out” even though the move had been included in the March Budget statement by George Osborne, the Chancellor.
To my mind this suggests that the proposal is nothing more than a” back of the envelope ” job by the Tories who have not thought out what exactly this will mean. Any sane person would have a plan in mind before making such a radical change. But then that is hardly surprising given the mess Gove has left behind at the Department of Education by rushing through plans for academies without checking financial controls.
Greater Manchester need to be on their guard that they are not being offered a poisoned chalice by the government – and need to negotiate very carefully what exactly is being offered by Gove to run this part of the judicial system. Otherwise they find themselves the whipping boy for failed Tory policies and be conveniently blamed for the cash starved judicial system.