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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paul Settle: a tragic case of a traumatised former senior Met police officer who is lashing out at politicians and child abuse survivors

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Detective Chief Inspector Paul Settle giving evidence to Parliament

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Paul Settle, the former head of Met Police’ paedophile unit,, has given two interviews to the media in the last few days.

In the first to the BBC he describes how he has quit the Met at the very young age of 44 because he is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after a career as a high flying policeman.

He told the BBC:”Most of my career was dealing with serious crime and it was not uncommon for me to see things that most people would regard as horrific. I’ve probably dealt with 100 murders,” he says.

But eventually things which had happened years before started to haunt him – an IRA bomb attack in Wood Green, London in 1992 and his work to help identify and repatriate Britons killed in the 2004 Thailand tsunami.

“It is really difficult to understand because for the best part of 20 years it never affected me, then out of nowhere it started to affect me in a very nasty and intrusive way.”

He started to have nightmares where he would wake up feeling the heat from the bomb blast.

“In the case of the tsunami, I could smell the bodies when I woke up. It was quite a rapid descent. You begin to dread going to sleep so you stay up later.”

He says he initially turned to alcohol to help him get to sleep, but quickly found that made matters worse so sought intensive treatment instead to try to help him overcome debilitating symptoms which he says have reduced him to a shadow of his former self.

Even after treatment he still finds it hard to go out or be in a crowd.

Sirens and some loud noises can trigger gut wrenching and exhausting episodes of hyper arousal, an intense anxiety which can last for weeks on end.

“On two occasions I was preparing to kill myself. But whilst I was at my lowest point I decided I needed to try to make the best of a bad situation. I don’t think I’ll ever recover fully.”

One would feel extremely sorry for him – if not for an interview in the Daily Mail two days later – which skates over his state of mind – where he follows the paper’s agenda of rubbishing any paedophile case involving anybody remotely important. The interview is one of three in the last two weeks all on the same theme.

In it- and he has done this before – he aggrandises the role of  Labour deputy leader, Tom Watson, describing the Met Police’s as being  “terrified ” of him ( I doubt that myself.)

Mr Settle told the Mail :: ‘The management at the Yard were absolutely petrified of Tom Watson. They were scared of what he could do to their careers.

‘They hung me out to dry. It was about their self-preservation. I was an expendable DCI and their careers were more important to them.

‘I was quite emphatic that the allegations against Lord Brittan were nonsense.’

He is particularly angry that Tom Watson contacted the DPP over an historic allegation  that Lord Brittan had raped a young woman.

The Mail said: He was ‘disgusted’ to learn that a month earlier, Mr Watson had written directly to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, asking her to review the decision and demanding that Lord Brittan – who was dying of cancer – be interviewed. The letter was forwarded to Met chiefs. ”

Yet the CPS did decide that a different approach should have been made and I am sure not just because it wanted to appease a Labour MP, then a backbencher. And Brittan was interviewed though there was not enough evidence to bring charges.

Mr Settle also believes ” Nick” who is  a child sex abuse survivor should be prosecuted for bringing forward such allegations  which did involve prominent figures and accusations of murder as well as child sex abuse and led to the Operation Midland investigation.

“If the evidence is there, he should be charged. He has done more harm to victim rights’ than anyone in modern criminal history.’

He also has told the Mail that he believed he lost his job because of his stand.

‘I was hounded out at the Met purely because I stood up and said ‘we should not do that’. But I can look myself in the mirror. I did the right thing.

‘However it was patently obvious that having exposed the failings of senior officers – and the level of indecision that existed and some would say incompetence – that I had no place in the organisation.’

‘I have been vindicated in the end but I have lost the job I love.’

Scotland Yard disagree. A spokesman is reported by the Mail as saying : “The Met does not believe that Mr Settle was “hounded out” of the organisation.”

To my mind there is one big unanswered question in all this. Given the high profile role and all the complexities of the Westminster paedophile investigation – why was a man who was in such a bad mental state – drinking himself to sleep and having nightmares because of previous police duties – ever put in charge of it in the first place.

He would have difficulties in dealing with such graphic and  difficult allegations and putting such prominent people through the mill.It strikes me that the main criticism of the Met must be whether it followed its ” duty of care ” to its own staff, not any suggestion that it hounded him out of office.

 

 

Hypocrisy and double standards: How a Tory flagship council denies the ” just about managing ” their new homes

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Nickie Aiken – Westminster Tory leader and a bit of a hypocrite over housing

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Today Philip Hammond the Chancellor made a big statement aimed to help the young get on the housing ladder with promises to build hundred of thousands of new homes and no stamp duty for the first £300,000 of the cost of a first time buyer home.

At the same time the Tory flagship council of Westminster has just decided NOT to make available affordable homes for young people which  it could provide by legally demanding a deal with a developer to provide cash and new homes for ordinary people in the centre of London.

The development around Baker Street by Portman Estates will allow the company to make a mint by building 51 homes, new offices and shops in a part of London where flats easily go for over £1m and much more.

By law Westminster could demand that nearly a third of the homes are made available at affordable (still high) rents to ordinary people and that the developers given £12.5 m towards the council’s own affordable housing fund – this is used often to export the homeless to other cheaper places.

In fact council documents show Westminster is about to agree a deal to accept the wealthy developer’s offer of providing just ten affordable homes ( under 20 per cenr) and contribute less than half the £12.5m the council could demand  from them = by agreeing to their offer of £5m.

You might think that this is well par for the course for the council that was famous in the 1990s for the ” homes for votes ” gerrymandering scandal under Dame Shirley Porter. They tried to move out poor families by letting new council homes to the middle class in Tory marginal seats.

But the new feisty leader Nickie Aiken  – she gave a good compassionate speech at the Tory party conference in a local government fringe – has made the point of NOT being another Dame Shirley.

She has told the Financial Times in June : “My view is that too many times we have not always pushed back enough in requiring affordable homes on-site, have buckled on viability or surrendered to the idea that brutal market economics simply denies housing opportunities for most people and that is just a harsh fact of life.”

And in case you missed it told the London Evening Standard  the same thing in January this year.  They reported : She suggested she would do things differently by no longer accepting “cheques” from developers in lieu of building more affordable homes.

“I can tell you there will be a lot more built under me than today.”

Well really – what a hypocrite – obviously not accepting cheques from developers meant they needn’t pay her so much to make even more money.

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg, Labour’s Business, Planning and Public Realm spokesperson, said:

 “Once again the Conservatives prove that they cannot be trusted on delivering new affordable homes for Westminster residents. The Conservatives talk tough but roll over when developers plead poverty on major multi-million pound redevelopment schemes. The Conservatives are giving the go-ahead to more luxury housing and failing those in need of an affordable home in central London.”

If anything he was probably being too polite. The Tory leader is very keen to show a compassionate face for next May’s elections. The trouble is deeds count much more than words for the plight of young people who can’t get homes. Hypocrisy is not necessarily a good vote winner. I bet you don’t see this story in the London Evening Standard.

The full details  of the planning application and Westminster’s recommendation are here.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Can’t rely on London Midland:How staff cuts and technical failures dump on disabled and vulnerable rail passengers

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London Midland train

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This weekend my wife and I returned from a weekend in Liverpool where I had been speaking at a GMB Justice Campaign conference.

My wife is recovering from a stroke and we use the passenger assistance service to travel by train as she needs a little help boarding trains and avoids using stairs.

This weekend we got a good service when we boarded the train at midday on a Friday in Berkhamsted and a good service at London Euston  and Liverpool Lime Street on the way up and at Liverpool Lime Street and Milton Keynes where we changed trains on Sunday on the way back.

But the support fell apart when we returned to Berkhamsted just before seven o’clock on Sunday evening. I am writing about what happened here because it has wider implications for rail  travel and what steps rail companies take to protect people in an emergency.

Berkhamsted Station has recently installed lifts to aid the disabled, people with heavy luggage and families with pushchairs to get from the platforms to the subway below.

When we got to Berkhamsted  a town with 27,000 people) there was no one there to help my wife off the train and the lift was out of order. But it didn’t say it was out of order. Instead you could access the lift to go down to the subway. It just wouldn’t respond to go down to the subway.

Thinking this should be reported I pressed the alarm. Immediately I got an automated message saying ” don’t panic” and then the lift dialled an emergency number. There was no reply. I repeated the exercise still no reply. Luckily the doors had not closed or else we would have been trapped inside the lift until some one rescued us.

On the platform there is also an automatic system for passengers to contact someone should they need emergency assistance. I pressed that. Believe it or not I got message saying the number was unobtainable. So if say someone had been assaulted or sexually attacked on the platform – the emergency assistance system was faulty

When we eventually got off the station ( there is another roundabout route down a ramp through a station car park ) I found a notice on the ticket office saying there it had closed all day Sunday – so  there had been no staff at the station all day.

What has shocked me is that London Midland seem to have no ” duty of  care” to passengers – and their systems which are supposed to work when they are no staff – appear to be just there for show.

We did meet one member of London Midland  staff working that night – a man on the train from Milton Keynes to Berkhamsted checking tickets. So the company gave more priority to making sure it got all its revenue on Sunday for its shareholders and directors – than bothering to provide staff or checking that emergency procedures worked  to aid its passengers. And with plans to get rid of guards and close as many ticket offices as possible it can only get worse.

I have written to London Midland for an explanation and look forward to their reply.

 

 

 

 

 

Equal Pay,Unequal Misery: Unison and the Durham Teacher Assistants’ Dispute

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Durham teaching assistants at their protest meeting over the deal this week.

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The issue of equal pay for equal work is one of most enduring work scandals of our time. Women workers in particular lose out to men but it requires a lot of hard bargaining and money to tackle it.

The most dramatic current case is the long running Durham teacher assistants dispute involving over 2700 teaching assistants in Durham, mainly low paid women.

To implement equal pay Labour controlled Durham Council proposed cuts in  wages of up to £5000 for already low paid teacher assistants earning between £14,000 and £20,000 a year to bring it into line with other low paid workers they employed. The teaching assistants are the backbone of Durham’s schools, helping kids to read and understand basic numbers and when teachers fall sick deputising for them by taking classes.

The council and Unison, the union that is supposed to stand up for low paid workers, evidently were about to agree a deal that would worsen their pay and conditions when they faced a huge grassroots revolt from the teacher assistants themselves.

Feisty women workers called meeting, rallies, marched at the Durham gala and lobbied the sympathetic Labour leadership at last year’s Labour conference securing a meeting with John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor. They were even partly responsible for Labour’s poor performance in this May’s local elections which saw Liberal Democrats, Independents and Tories take seats from Labour.

Their strong action led Unison to change its mind and back them and give them some limited say in negotiating a better deal.

Last week in the middle of the Unison annual conference in Brighton the union claimed it had  negotiated a breakthrough.

UNISON Northern regional secretary Clare Williams said: “Several months of tough talking later, a revised and improved offer has been proposed that will benefit the majority of teaching assistants.

“Strikes and relentless campaigning by dedicated teaching assistants, along with the support of the community, have been crucial in moving the council from its original position.

“Dismissing, rehiring and cutting the pay of so many education professionals would have risked many quitting their jobs. That would have had a huge impact in the classroom.

“Both sides have worked hard to reach agreement over the past few months. The union is absolutely committed to continuing to work with the council to secure the best possible outcome for everyone.”

However within days the promised deal which is based on a complicated regrading started to unravel once the 2700 teacher assistants got individual letters with new terms of employment.

This week a big meeting was called in Durham and the grassroots again began to revolt.

Megan Charlton, one of the leaders of the group, wrote in a blog that she will not be accepting the deal – even though she will get a pay rise in two years time.

She said: “472 Teaching Assistants – 22% of the workforce – will still be losing money. Many are losing £1200 a year, some are losing less, some are losing more (several on our facebook group are still facing losses of £4,000 and that’s AFTER they agree to the extra hours).

“We now have a situation where the vast majority of Teaching Assistants are required to teach at least one session a week. Surely teaching should be an ‘enhanced’ requirement, an ‘enhanced’ skill, not one you would expect from the majority of Teaching Assistants who came into the profession to do exactly that: to assist teaching, not to teach.”

She said if it had been just a ” few anomalies ” she might have accepted the deal but clearly it wasn’t. It will now go out to a ballot.

Durham County Council responded to my inquiry:

The council’s corporate director of resources, John Hewitt, said: “Throughout this process the issue for the council has been the risk of equal pay claims caused by the current teaching assistants terms and conditions.

“To mitigate the equal pay risk, and to ensure that assistant’s job descriptions and grades are appropriate for the work they do, we have  worked really hard with trade unions, teaching assistants and head teachers on a fundamental review of TAs responsibilities and roles.”

“The outcome of that work is that, if accepted, the vast majority of teaching assistants will see an improvement in their financial position after the compensation period.”

To its credit Durham County Council has withdrawn its threat to sack and rehire all the teaching assistants on inferior terms. The problem the teacher assistants have is with their union which they believe rushed into the deal to announce it at its annual conference without checking the full terms.

I wanted to put this to Clare Williams, the regional secretary, and a supporter of ” Team Dave” during the last election but she declined to come back to me.

But it seems to me that  Unison has been too ready to accept this deal and has sold out some of its low paid members without pressing for  further improvements. For them it is  a real loss of cash from a low salary . An equal pay deal has resulted in unequal misery for a fifth of the workforce. And it has been negotiated by a well paid official earning at least three times the money of the lowest paid teaching assistant.

 

A damning indictment on the dangerous failure of privatisation in the criminal justice system by a former Tory MP

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Jerry Hayes, practising criminal barrister and former Tory MP for Harlow Pic Credit:Goldsmith Chambers

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I am reblogging this from the site of Jerry Hayes, a former Tory MP and practising criminal barrister. He is highlighting the dangers of miscarriages of justice since the Forensic Science Service was privatised by David Cameron because private companies are cutting corners and not doing a proper job. The person here could have been imprisoned for seven years as a result of their negligence.

THE SCANDAL THAT UNDERMINES OUR ONCE GREAT SYSTEM OF JUSTICE

10 May 2017 at 07:09

I never blog on cases, but today I must break my rule. Yesterday I discovered a scandalous state of affairs which could have led to an innocent man going to jail for a substantial period of time. I will not name the defendant nor the court for obvious reasons. In forty years of practice at the bar this shook my faith in what was once the finest and fairest justice system in the world. Read this and weep. And mourn for British justice.

Yesterday I was sent to the Crown Court to offer no evidence in a firearms case. I had been instructed some weeks ago as Prosecution counsel. Let me give you a thumbnail sketch. Last year the police searched a van. In this van was a tool box and in this tool box were founds guns and ammunition. This comprised of an 8mm blank firing pistol converted to be a lethal weapon. An empty magazine belonging to that hand gun. A Glock self loading hand gun. The magazine from this handgun contained two live rounds. And three further live rounds were found in a knotted bag. It goes without saying that the possession of these items is a very serious offence and carries a minimum sentence of five years for the guns and a consecutive sentence for the ammunition. Anyone convicted potentially faces a sentence of imprisonment of seven years upwards.

The guns and ammunition were forensically examined. The laboratory gave the police what is called a Streamlined Forensic Report (SFR). It came to this conclusion, ‘a match exists between the defendant and the sample’. In other words the defendant’s DNA was found on one of the magazines.

This was served on the CPS and duly uploaded onto the digital case system, effectively serving this on the court and the defence. An SFR is precisely that, and both prosecution and defence are entitled to see the full report. But very often it is taken at face value. As there was no other evidence the CPS reviewing lawyer wanted further information. He asked for more information. Was there a mixed profile? How strong was the DNA? He received obfuscation from the lab. ‘The SFR provided indicated that a number of results were subject to progress.’ But the lawyer was dogged in his determination and finally received this bombshell. ‘The lab confirms due to confusion they have never compared mixed profiles against the defendant.’ They also stated that ‘progress means there are no additional findings’. Then came this chilling line. ‘The lab refused to elaborate any further……’

The reviewing lawyer reported the following,‘I am concerned that the language used in the SFR appears to assert positive and ongoing actions when they are clearly negative. I have requested the OIC to obtain an email from the forensic officer confirming the phone communication and what is implied in the SFR…..he confirmed that the report was misleading.’

The CPS, underfunded, overworked and creaking at the seams comes in for a lot of criticism. In this case the reviewing lawyer deserves a herogram.

Yesterday when I offered no evidence I explained to the judge in detail what had happened. I will never forget the look of horror on his face. There will be a thorough judicial investigation.

And yesterday SKY NEWS reported that a private forensic laboratory had ‘manipulated data.’ What the hell is happening? I will tell you. In 2010 the government announced that the national forensic service (the FSS) was to be closed down and forensic analysis would be privatised. Let me be clear that the FSS has had its fair share of cock ups. But the government announcement prompted horror from professionals. The National Audit Office warned, ‘this could spark a crisis within the justice system.’ They were right. Soon the court of appeal will be swamped. Will someone, somewhere listen? I won’t hold my breath.