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AXA PPP Healthcare – “Redefining standards”

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axa

After 18 unsuccessful attempts to phone my local NHS surgery to get an emergency appointment (asthma steadily deteriorating, phone line permanently engaged) I gave up calling and walked there. I arrived I find a long queue of people waiting to be seen, but no evidence of any of the receptionists being on the phone. Perhaps the phone was just out of order, as does seem to keep happening first thing on a Monday.

Happily I was able to make an appointment for later that morning. Happier still, while the surgery’s phone system still didn’t seem to be functioning properly, the large, loud video screen was fully operational, and was helpfully blasting out advertisements urging us all to buy private health insurance.

AXA Healthcare (whose links to Tory MPs and Lords get quite a few mentions here) are apparently all about “redefining standards”. Whether, in the round, this means “redefining” NHS standards upwards or downwards seems harder to discern.

Presumably if the government manages to downgrade and diminish our local NHS services sufficiently, while progressively increasing (and normalising) the involvement of Conservative donors in service delivery, this may ultimately make it less politically contentious to privatise the NHS wholesale and make AXA PPP Healthcare customers of us all…

Written by Richard Wilson

March 17, 2014 at 9:55 pm

Big government, little government…

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“Big government” is often portrayed as the enemy of human freedom and economic vitality. “Small government”, by contrast, argue proponents, leaves citizens relatively free from government interference, and is the key to a successful economy.

In the UK and elsewhere, this plays into an ideological debate about “shrinking the state”, with Conservatives arguing that cutting overall levels of taxation and government spending will produce a better society.

When one thinks of the term “small government” one tends to think of the United States, and perhaps Singapore, the Middle Eastern Gulf States and Australia. “Big” governments, meanwhile, might include Communist states like Cuba, and China, and some of the more socialist European nations such as Sweden and France. Britain, with its strong welfare state combined with a neo-liberal economy, is often seen as something of a “big” and “small” government hybrid.

But what does the economic data tell us? Who are the world’s biggest of “big” governments, who are the smallest, and how do they compare?

A look at the latest data published by the US-based think-tank the Heritage Foundation (an organisation not noted for its socialist tendencies) seems to throw up some surprising answers to these questions.

According to these figures, the 10 countries with the lowest recorded “tax burden” (ie. the percentage of annual GDP taken in taxation by the government) were:

Kuwait (2%)
Equatorial Guinea (2.4%)
Oman (3.1%)
Burma (3.2%)
Bahrain (3.9%)
Libya (4.8%)
Qatar (4.9%)
Chad (5.2%)
Saudi Arabia (5.4%)
Sudan (6.5%)

The 10 countries with the lowest recorded “government expenditure” (as a percentage of overall annual GDP) were:

Burma (10.4%)
Madagascar (13.5%)
Guatemala (14.7%)
Dominican Republic (15.7%)
Central African Republic (15.9%)
Bangladesh (16.2%)
Turkmenistan (16.7%)
Macau (16.8%)
Singapore (17%)
Philippines (18.1%)

According to these measures, both the United States and (albeit less surprisingly) Britain appear to be a fair way off these countries on the “small government” scale. According to the Heritage Foundation, the US has an overall “tax burden” of 24.8% and government expenditure of a stonking 41.7% of GDP. The UK government, meanwhile, takes 35% of GDP and spends 49.1%.

Even more surprisingly, based on the Heritage Foundation’s figures, it might appear that the smallest of small governments in the world right now is Burma – a country not noted, to put it mildly, either for its respect for human freedom or for its vibrant economy.

The prominence of Equatorial GuineaChadLibyaSudan on the “low taxation” list is also striking, given, again, that these are not places where freedom can be accused of flourishing. Less surprising are KuwaitOmanBahrainQatar and Saudi Arabia. But while these certainly fare better economically, all have dubious human rights records, and Saudi Arabia has one of the most repressive governments in the world.

On the “low expenditure” list, the Central African Republic stands out for its particularly grim human rights record, as does Turkmenistan.

The US thinktank Freedom House last year rated 9 countries as the “worst of the worst” for political freedom: Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. These were closely followed by Belarus, Chad, China, Cuba, and Laos.

Strikingly, of these 14 most repressive countries, five (Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Chad) rank among the top 10 countries for either a low “tax burden” or low government expenditure.

Comparing this list with the figures from the Heritage Foundation in more detail presents an interestingly mixed picture.

Country        Tax burden (% of GDP)      Spending (% of GDP)

Eritrea                               50%                         38%
Equatorial Guinea              2.4%                        45%
North Korea         (not available)          (not available)
Saudi Arabia                   5.4%                        39.9%
Somalia                   (not available)          (not available)
Sudan                              6.5%                        18.4%
Syria                              10.4%          (not available)
Turkmenistan                  20.9%                     16.7%
Uzbekistan                      20.4%                     32.8%
Belarus                           25.6%                      43.4%
Chad                                5.2%                       28.6%
China                               18.2%                     23.6%
Cuba                                18.2%                     75.2%
Laos                                13.3%                     21.8%

Of these 14 most repressive countries, only Eritrea and Belarus have a higher overall “tax burden” than the United States (50% and 25.6% respectively, compared to the US figure of 24.8%). And only three – Equatorial Guinea (45%), Belarus (43.4%) and Cuba (75%) – have higher government expenditure as a percentage of overall GDP.

The rest – including, strikingly, both Communist China and Laos – all appear to be, at least in terms of overall tax burden and public expenditure, unequivocally “smaller governments” than the United States.

Looking at these figures, the idea that a “shrunken state” is correlated with high levels of political freedom seems very difficult to sustain.

Striking too is the picture that emerges when we look at the opposite end of the scale. If we take the 10 countries with the highest “tax burden”, according to the Heritage Foundation, and combine this with the ratings from Freedom House, we see the following:

Country          “Tax burden” (% of GDP)                 Freedom House rating

Timor-Leste                            342%                                          “Partly free”
Lesotho                                     57.7%                                          “Free”
Eritrea                                       50%                                             “Not Free”
Denmark                                  48.2%                                         “Free”
Sweden                                     45.8%                                          “Free”
Belgium                                    43.8%                                          “Free”
Italy                                            43%                                              “Free”
France                                       42.9%                                          “Free”
Norway                                     42.8%                                          “Free”
Finland                                     42.1%                                            “Free”

So contrary to what advocates of “small government” might expect, this would seem to suggest that, in general (and clearly with some exceptions – Eritrea having an outstandingly repressive government), a relatively high “tax burden” may actually go hand in hand with higher levels of political freedom.

The picture is a little more complex when we look at the countries with the highest levels of government expenditure as a proportion of overall GDP:

Country       Govt expenditure (% of GDP)             Freedom House rating

Timor-Leste                              156.4%                                      “Partly free”
Kiribati                                        85.9%                                        “Free”
Cuba                                           75.2%                                        “Not free”
Iraq                                             69.8%                                       “Not free”
Micronesia                                 66.9%                                       “Free”
Lesotho                                     62.1%                                        “Partly free”
France                                        56.1%                                        “Free”
Denmark                                     56.0%                                      “Free”
Solomon Islands                          55.9%                                        “Partly free”
Finland                                         54.1%                                        “Free”

Nonetheless, 8 out of the ten countries with highest levels of government expenditure (as a proportion of GDP) are rated either “Free” or “Partly free” by Freedom House.  (5 “Free” and 3 “Partly free”).

By contrast, if we apply Freedom House’s analysis to the list of countries with the lowest “tax burden” and lowest government expenditure, we get the following:

Country      “Tax burden” (% of GDP)                     Freedom House rating

Kuwait                                          2%                                     “Partly free”
Equatorial Guinea                        2.4%                                 “Not free”
Oman                                            3.1%                                    “Not free”
Burma                                          3.2%                                  “Not free”
Bahrain                                        3.9%                                  “Not free”
Libya                                             4.8%                                   “Partly free”
Qatar                                             4.9%                                   “Not free”
Chad                                              5.2%                                    “Not free”
Saudi Arabia                                 5.4%                                    “Not free”
Sudan                                           6.5%                                    “Not free”

This again seems striking – 8 out of the 10 countries with the lowest “tax burden”, based on the Heritage Foundation’s figures, are rated “Not free” by Freedom House. The countries with the very lowest levels of overall taxation are less free than those where the “tax burden” is highest.

The picture is slightly better when we look at the 10 countries with the lowest levels of government expenditure (as a proportion of overall GDP). Six are rated “Partly free” – yet  only 1 is rated wholly “Free”.

Country      Govt expenditure (% of GDP)              Freedom House rating

Burma                                         10.4%                                  “Not free”
Madagascar                              13.5%                                   “Partly free”
Guatemala                                14.7%                                    “Partly free”
Dominican Republic                  15.7%                                     “Free”
Central African Republic           15.9%                                    “Partly free”
Bangladesh                               16.2%                                    “Partly free”
Turkmenistan                            16.7%                                     “Not free”
Macau                                         16.8%                                    (not ranked)
Singapore                                  17%                                       “Partly free”
Philippines                                18.1%                                    “Partly free”

By contrast, 7 out of the 10 countries with the lowest levels of government expenditure (as a proportion of overall GDP) are rated “Free” or “Partly free” by Freedom House (1 “Free” and 6 “Partly Free”).

This of course just a snapshot, and I have largely been looking at a relatively small sample of countries from the extremes of both ends of the scale. 

At some stage I will try to do a more comprehensive analysis – for example it would be interesting to see what the average levels of tax and expenditure are for the overall groups of countries listed by Freedom House as “Free”, “Partly Free” and “Not Free”.

But based on this initial number-crunching, it’s hard to find much support for the notion that societies with very low levels of taxation and government expenditure tend to be  freer or healthier than those at the opposite end of the scale. 

Written by Richard Wilson

January 12, 2014 at 10:04 am

Why we all have an interest in bringing Northern Ireland’s killers to justice

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We are good people. Therefore, if we deliberately inflict pain on another, the other must have deserved it. Therefore, we are not doing evil… We are doing good. The relatively small percentage of people who cannot or will not reduce dissonance this way pay a large psychological price in guilt, anguish, anxiety, nightmares, and sleepless nights. The pain of living with horrors they have committed, but cannot morally accept, would be searing, which is why most people will reach for any justification available to assuage the dissonance…

 Carol Tavris & Elliott Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me),

The Daily Mail this week featured a brutally candid – and unrepentant – testimony from a member of a secretive British army unit that operated in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s.

The author, writing under the pseudonym “Simon Cursey”, tells us that at the time he was deployed, “Northern Ireland was close to civil war and the IRA seemed beyond control. The regular Army… were hamstrung by the law. They couldn’t use the tactics employed by the IRA…”.

“Someone high up” therefore decided that “an undercover unit was needed to seek out the enemy and confront them head-on”.

In contrast to the regular Army, the “Military Reaction Force” were able to operate outside of the law, and were instructed to mirror the IRA’s brutal tactics.

“The aim was to beat them at their own game, striking fear into their hearts with clinical brutality. We were a deadly ghost squad, a nightmare rumour .  .  . a Shadow Troop…”

“During briefings phrases such as ‘deal with’ and ‘eliminate’ were used. We were given dossiers on the most dangerous people – and yes, we had a ‘shoot on sight’ list, including Gerry Adams among many others.”

“Call it torture if you wish”

In addition to the “shoot on sight” policy, the unit were involved in the violent interrogation of suspected IRA members:

“We weren’t looking for confessions, but information. Call it torture if you wish, we didn’t care then and I don’t care now…”

“We were told to enter the room, break one of the suspects’ arms and then grab the other one. With that kind of shock treatment, prisoners soon begin to talk.”

This would certainly seem to fit the definition of torture outlined in the  United Nations Convention Against Torture, whose terms include “any act by which severe pain or suffering… is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him, or a third person, information or a confession”.

Plausible deniability

If the unit’s activities were exposed, says Cursey, it was understood that the UK government “would deny all knowledge”. Nonetheless, “We were told these new intensified operations had Westminster backing as part of a deeper political game aimed at forcing the terrorists to negotiate”.

At the time, the UK government was insisting that its forces in Northern Ireland operated under the law and in accordance with strict rules of engagement. In March 1972 – the same month that Cursey says he was recruited to the Military Reaction Force – the government had explicitly banned the use of five harsh interrogation methods which though unpleasant, fell significantly short of breaking people’s arms.  An official investigation had reiterated that “everyone would agree that torture, whether physical or mental, is not justified under any conditions”. Official briefings from the time insisted that “any suggestion” that soldiers were employed to carry out assassinations was “nonsense”, and that “The fact that such claims are made is in itself an indication of the degree to which the plain clothes surveillance patrols hurt the terrorists”. 

Justifying torture and extra-judicial killing

Cursey, however, argues that the torture of IRA suspects was justified because “These were brutal killers and we had no time to waste – lives depended on us”. He claims that “The information we gained allowed us to compromise terrorist attacks. My unit saved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent lives”.

He also insists that while, even at the time, “The press had a field day with claims such as ‘Army murder gangs are out on the streets murdering innocent people’. We never targeted innocent people – we didn’t need to. There were more than enough guilty ones…”

Infallible intelligence?

One thing that comes through very strongly in Cursey’s account of his torture and targeted killings in Northern Ireland is a belief that all of his victims were “guilty”, despite their never having been tried or convicted in a court of law.

Originally Cursey had been ordered to shoot “anyone carrying a weapon”. The list of targets was subsequently expanded to include “groups manning barricades or vigilantes patrolling late at night”, alongside the named individuals on the “shoot on sight” list, such as Gerry Adams.

Cursey admits involvement in the May 1972 killing of a Catholic man named Patrick McVeigh. In justifying this he claims that the victim “had been standing with a group of ‘vigilantes’ that included some particular IRA bad boys on our list”.

Cursey notes that “All the IRA players looked ‘civilian’ of course”, but insists that “there was no such thing as an unarmed group of vigilantes in Belfast in those days”.

The implicit suggestion is that Patrick McVeigh was involved with the IRA and therefore a legitimate target, and that those he was with must, by definition, have been armed.

What Cursey doesn’t mention in his Daily Mail article is that an MRF soldier was subsequently tried for murder over the attack, that McVeigh and all those with him had tested negative for firearms deposits, and that there is no evidence of Patrick McVeigh being involved with the IRA. His family continues to campaign for justice over his death.

Cursey’s admission that his unit systematically tortured suspected IRA members to obtain “information” also, obviously, raises further questions about the reliability of that information – information on the basis of which other supposedly “guilty” people were targeted for assassination or interrogation. His article offers no evidence to support his claim that “The information we gained allowed us to compromise terrorist attacks” and that  “My unit saved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent lives”.

Cursey nonetheless insists that he has “no regrets” and that “if I was approached and asked to go back and do it all again, I would be tempted”.

Self-deception and self-justification

“In the horrifying calculus of self-deception, the greater the pain we inflict on others, the greater the need to justify it to maintain our feelings of decency and self-worth” - Carol Tavris and Elliott Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (but Not By Me)

Notwithstanding the lack of evidence to support it, Cursey’s self-justifying narrative seems quite understandable. It would be difficult for many of us to live with ourselves after having committed multiple acts of murder and torture without rationalising those acts and convincing ourselves, very firmly, that what we did was right: We never targeted innocent people – we didn’t need to – there were more than enough “guilty” ones to choose from. We never killed anyone who was unarmed. The people we tortured were all “brutal killers”. The information we gained from them saved hundreds or even thousands of lives. To accept the alternative – that some of those we killed or tortured might  not have been the “killers” we supposed them to be, or that the horrific things we did might actually have led to more deaths by fuelling the terrorist movement we were trying to defeat – would be far more painful.

When the perpetrator is “one of us”: Why we all have an interest in bringing Northern Ireland’s killers to justice

Perpetrator-psychology is examined in detail by the social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliott Aronson in their book “Mistakes Were Made (but Not By Me)”:

Once a perpetrator has decided on a course of action, he or she will justify that decision in ways that avoid any conflict between “We are the good guys ” and “We are doing some awful things.” …During his four-year trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, Slobodan Milosevic, the “Butcher of the Balkans,” justified his policy of ethnic cleansing that caused the deaths of more than 200,000 Croats, Bosnian Muslims, and Albanians… Serbs had been victims of Muslim propaganda . War is war; he was only responding to the aggression they perpetrated against the innocent Serbians. Riccardo Orizio interviewed seven other dictators, including Idi Amin, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Mira Markovic (the “Red Witch,” Milosevic’s wife), and Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic (known to his people as the Ogre of Berengo). Every one of them claimed that everything they did— torturing or murdering their opponents, blocking free elections, starving their citizens, looting their nation’s wealth, launching genocidal wars— was done for the good of their country. The alternative, they said, was chaos, anarchy, and bloodshed. Far from seeing themselves as despots, they saw themselves as self-sacrificing patriots.

But there is a twist:

if the perpetrators are one of us, many people will reduce dissonance by coming to their defense or minimizing the seriousness or illegality of their actions , anything that makes their actions seem fundamentally different from what the enemy does… Most people want to believe that their government is working in their behalf, that it knows what it’s doing, and that it’s doing the right thing. Therefore, if our government decides that torture is necessary in the war against terrorism, most citizens, to avoid dissonance, will agree. Yet, over time, that is how the moral conscience of a nation deteriorates. Once people take that first small step off the pyramid in the direction of justifying abuse and torture, they are on their way to hardening their hearts and minds in ways that might never be undone…

One of the most valuable social functions of a fair and comprehensive criminal trial is that it can systematically de-construct the self-justifying narrative of people who commit terrible abuses. Day after day, the prosecution has an opportunity to confront the defendant, in an open and public forum, with the evidence of what they have done, allowing them to contest the facts of the case, and exposing the weakness of their responses. 

The perpetrator themselves may continue to cling to self-deception and self-justification. Yet a systematic and public process such as this offers an opportunity for the wider community, who have less of a personal investment in the perpetrator’s guilt or innocence, to get an objective view of the facts, distance themselves from the perpetrator’s actions,  and re-affirm the underlying moral principle that has been violated.  In doing so, we can help prevent the kind of deterioration in “moral conscience” that Tavris and Aronson warn of, and deter similar “mistakes” in future.

Exposing the UK government’s role in torture and extra-judicial killing

Beyond the horrific details of his own case, Cursey’s testimony raises wider questions about the conduct and integrity of the UK political establishment that should arguably be of concern to us all.

If the “Military Reaction Force” did indeed have “Westminster backing” in carrying out torture and extra-judicial killings, then this would imply that these tactics were, at the very least, known of and approved by the UK Ministry of Defence – and that this was happening at the same time as the UK government was publicly disavowing any involvement in torture, and insisting that its soldiers were acting within the law.

Many of those involved in the conflict in Northern Ireland are still alive today, including Lord Carrington, who was Secretary of State for Defence from 1970 until 1974. He and others in the command chain must surely now have serious questions to answer.  

 Simon Cursey’s article in the Daily Mail was followed this week by a major exposé by BBC Panorama, featuring on-camera interviews with several other members of the Military Reaction Force.

A report from the Belfast Daily reveals that:

Declassified documents from the National Archives show how concerned Whitehall was to prevent details of the [Military Reaction Force] unit being made public… One document read: “There can be no useful purpose in admitting the existence of any such organisation” and “There seems to be considerable advantage in maintaining as much confusion as possible”.

If Cursey and his former comrades are telling the truth, then it would appear that the British public was being systematically deceived by the UK political establishment about the nature of the conflict in Northern Ireland, and the war that was being fought in their name.  And if this is the case, then we all have an interest in understanding how this deception happened, and how we can reduce the chances of it happening again.

Further information: Inside Castlereagh: “We got confessions through torture”, Ian Cobain, Guardian, “From Palestine to Belfast: Post-War Counter-Insurgency – A Very British Family Affair”, Ciaran McAirt, Campaign for Truth”, The McGurk’s Bar Massacre, Ciaran McAirt, Campaign for Truth.   

Amnesty International recently published a detailed report on the legacy of abuse in Northern Ireland, and are now calling for a “comprehensive mechanism… to answer the unanswered questions and ensure people finally have a chance to hear the truth and see justice”. Please consider supporting this call here.  

Written by Richard Wilson

November 23, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Saying “Sorry” to the Germans (and the French, and the Spanish and the Brazilians)

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Head in Hands

That feeling when you find out your government has
been secretly bugging everyone’s emails
.

We’ve all been there: The friend you invite to a house-warming party has one drink too many and starts hurling abuse at the host. The colleague you helped recruit has an illicit affair with your boss and breaks up their marriage. A relative gets the wrong idea at your wedding and starts hitting on the best man’s girlfriend. You didn’t know they were going to do it, you would have stopped them if you could, and now you kind of regret bringing them along in the first place.

Well it turns out that, unbeknownst to us, the UK and US governments have been secretly bugging the German Chancellor and spying on the emails of millions of German citizens. AWKWARD!

To make things worse, it looks like they’ve been doing the same to millions of French, Spanish and Brazilians and, let’s face it, probably much of the rest of the world. Every time we think it can’t get any more embarrassing, more toe-curling stuff comes out. What were they thinking?

When something like this happens, the decent thing to do is to say sorry – even if it wasn’t you personally who did the boss-bonking, girlfriend-leching or global multi-media mass voyeurism.

The British in particular are famous for turning the act of apology into a performance art – yet paradoxically when the UK government does something wrong getting them to say sorry typically takes decades

Happily, the advent of social media means that it’s never been easier to apologise for things that other people have done on your account.

So if, like me, you are frankly a bit embarrassed by our intelligence services’ decidedly un-British trampling on the neighbours’ lawns, I suggest you join me in doing the British thing and #sayingsorry to the Germans via the conciliatory medium of Twitter… (along with the French, Spanish, Brazilians and anyone else whose name comes up as further revelations emerge).

You can tweet the German Foreign Ministry via: https://twitter.com/GermanyDiplo, and the French Foreign Affairs Ministry here: https://twitter.com/francediplo/

The Spanish government are at: https://twitter.com/desdelamoncloa and the Brazilians are here: https://twitter.com/BrazilGovNews

Here are a few messages I’ve sent just to get things started:

@GermanyDiplo Sorry about this! It seems that our intelligence agencies have completely gone rogue. Please help! #sayingsorry

@Francediplo Sorry! Honestly, we had no idea that GCHQ were doing this on our behalf & we don’t know how to make them stop! #sayingsorry

@desdelamoncloa I’m so sorry! I’ve only just found out that GCHQ was secretly spying on you all. I’m mortified! #sayingsorry

But it’s going to take a whole lot more than that to mend this particular broken fence, fix the damage our government has done to our international reputation, shame them into issuing their own apology, and ensure that they finally sort out our rogue intelligence agencies. Britain needs your tweets!

Written by Richard Wilson

November 7, 2013 at 12:16 am

No amount of PR and lobbying can change the basic laws of arithmetic…

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Ironically, given his emphasis on “rigour” and traditional teaching methods, Michael Gove’s Department for Education seems to take a more relaxed approach approach to basic arithmetic when it comes to spending public money…

Last year I highlighted some of the questions surrounding the government’s decision to approve a controversial state-funded boarding school run by an Academy notorious for spending large sums of money on PR, lobbying, and libel lawyers.

Now the Independent has taken up the story:

Costs of running ‘Eton of state sector’ hugely unrealistic

West Sussex villagers object to boarding school for inner-city pupils, saying Government has got its sums wrong…

In a comprehensive dossier on the development, locals in the village of Stedham say the £22.3m stated cost of the scheme is a vast underestimate. They argue it will cost at least £30m – based on the DfE’s own average building estimates. In a remarkably comprehensive series of documents, they accuse the organisers of the project of vastly underestimating the cost of setting up the new school in an area of “outstanding natural beauty”…

Written by Richard Wilson

April 23, 2013 at 9:03 pm

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Meet the new Bosco, same as the old Bosco…

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A new piece from me in the New Humanist

Thousands of lives are at risk in the troubled east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a new and brutal rebellion, with a leadership described by the United Nations as “among the worst perpetrators of human rights violations… in the world”, has flared up in a region where millions have died since the 1990s.

The “March 23” insurgency began as a mutiny earlier this year by former rebels who had been integrated into the Congolese army after a previous peace deal in March 2009. The mutiny was ostensibly triggered by violations of that agreement. But there are mounting allegations by the UN and human rights groups that the rebels are being directed, trained and supported by the government of neighbouring Rwanda. On 30 November, the UK government became the latest international donor to suspend aid to Rwanda as a result.

M23’s leaders reportedly include the notorious Rwandan-born warlord Bosco Ntaganda, whose bloody track record in previous conflicts has earned him the nickname “The Terminator”. Despite being wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, Bosco was given a senior role in the Congolese army as part of the 2009 peace deal.

“Bosco Ntaganda is the most notorious but he’s by no means the only one”, says Carina Tertsakian of Human Rights Watch, who talks of a strong sense of déjà vu around the current crisis. “Quite a few of his mates are and have been doing the same kinds of things for years… No one has ever done anything to arrest them so they just carry on, they become emboldened… the use of violence and those atrocities start being rewarded.”

Read more

Written by Richard Wilson

February 4, 2013 at 9:10 am

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Closing down Lewisham’s Accident & Emergency department – who’s holding the fuse on the PFI time-bomb?

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The government has announced plans to close the Accident and Emergency Department at Lewisham Hospital, despite having refurbished it to the tune of £12 million earlier this year.

The move has been condemned by patient groups, and by doctors who warn that patient-safety and quality of care will be put at risk.

The rationale for the change is unclear. While the authorities claim to be acting for financial reasons, one possibility is that the move is part of the government’s longer-term plans for incremental privatisation of the National Health Service.

The proposed closure of Lewisham A & E has been presented as a package of measures linked to the collapse of the neighbouring South London Healthcare Trust.

The South London Healthcare Trust went into administration earlier this year due to the spiralling costs of crippling “Public Finance Initiative” (PFI) contracts, which had been awarded to private companies on highly-lucrative terms under the last Labour government.

But the identity of the companies or individuals benefiting from these expensive PFI contracts appears to be shrouded in mystery. Local campaigners say that they have tried without success to get answers from the authorities about who has been profiting.

Can you help to shed light on the PFI feeding frenzy that is now threatening healthcare provision in South London?

Written by Richard Wilson

December 11, 2012 at 9:10 pm

So what’s with the tank?

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Written by Richard Wilson

June 28, 2012 at 8:36 pm

Why I’m supporting the #armstreaty campaign

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As I walked in I could see Charlotte’s body through the long rectangular window at the far side. A white sheet covered all but her face. Her eyes were closed, her eyelids blackened, her lips slightly parted. She looked as if she was frozen in time, neither peaceful nor troubled. Just an incredible, terrible stillness. As though she had died mid-sentence, or mid-gasp. Her skin was mottled brown, black lines tracing the veins across her face, dark hair pulled back from her forehead.

“Her hair looks thin – do you think she was eating properly?”, my mother asked, and somewhere I could hear Charlotte laughing.

Charlotte had been shot seven times in the back with an Eastern-European weapon, from a distance of two to three feet. She’d either have been kneeling or lying down. She would have died quickly. The only possible verdict was murder.

A lot has changed in my life since I finished the book from which the extract above is taken. It’s long enough ago now that I find it quite shocking to read back some of the things I wrote in the years following my sister’s murder.  But Charlotte’s death changed the course of my life, and for me,  the arms trade will always be a deeply personal issue.

Charlotte was shot dead in a bus massacre by Hutu-extremists in Burundi at the end of 2000. But the bullets that killed her, and the gun that fired them, were manufactured thousands of miles away. And they didn’t end up in Burundi by accident. Someone, somewhere, made a deliberate decision to transport these weapons to one of the poorest countries in the world, and put them in the hands of serial killers.

The reason I support the #armstreaty campaign is because I think it’s a good idea to try to stop serial killers getting hold of bullets and guns. According to Oxfam and Amnesty International, there are more international regulations controlling the global trade in bananas than the trade in deadly weapons. As a result, over 1,500 people die through armed violence every day, the majority of them civilians. If the international rules were more robust, it would be harder for serial killers in countries like Burundi to get hold of bullets and guns.

Now one of the big problems here is that the term “international regulation” is inherently dry and dull. I suspect this is one of the main reasons that the Arms Trade Treaty campaign (let’s face it, another quite dull term)  has had so little media coverage.

This is a shame because, dull and legalistic though these terms are, the fact that we don’t yet have a comprehensive global system for regulating the arms trade (yawn, I know) means that hundreds of thousands of people are dying each year who might have lived, if it wasn’t quite so easy for serial killers in countries like Burundi to get hold of bullets and guns.

Happily, the inherent dullness of the words we have to use to talk about this problem has not stopped the United Nations from drawing up a treaty that could, if all goes well, make it much, much harder for serial killers to get hold of bullets and guns in future.

Even more happily, Oxfam and Amnesty have hit on a great way to make this issue less dull. On Wednesday, they will be driving around London in a tank, seeking to ramp up the pressure on the governments whose support could help to swing the crucial vote taking place at the UN next month. A number of bloggers, me included, will be tweeting from inside the tank under the #armstreaty hashtag.

Despite being quite boring, international treaties can make a huge difference, even when not everyone signs up to them. The 1998 treaty banning the use of landmines reportedly helped cut deaths and injuries from 26,000 per year to less than 6,000 a decade later – even though a number of countries refused to join in, and continued producing land-mines.

This is a really boring issue. It’s also a really important one, with the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives. If you’d like to find out more about the campaign and what you can do to support it, please visit this website.

Written by Richard Wilson

June 27, 2012 at 12:17 am

Skepticism and freedom

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The video that could see Sanal Edamaruku jailed for “blasphemy”

At Leicester Skeptics in the Pub on June 19th, I’ll be talking about the link between skepticism and freedom of speech.

It’s hard to find a more pressing example of the problems that skeptics can face when powerful institutions threaten freedom of speech than that of Sanal Edamaruku, President of the Indian Rationalist Association. On May 10th, Sanal went on Indian TV to debunk a purported “miracle” at a Catholic Church in Mumbai. Now, after local Catholic groups reported him to the authorities, he is facing a criminal prosecution for “deliberately hurting religious feelings and attempting malicious acts intended to outrage the religious sentiments of any class or community”.

The Rationalist Association have set up an online petition calling on the Catholic community to withdraw their complaint, and urging the Catholic authorities elsewhere in the world to speak out against the prosecution.

The Catholic Church in England and Wales has a Twitter account here if you would like to send them a polite message urging them to speak out against the persecution of Sanal Edamaruku.

Things are also reaching a critical point here in the UK as the Libel Reform campaign seeks to ensure that the government’s proposed changes to our laws really do ensure that people asking difficult questions are properly  protected from vexatious prosecutions. The Libel Reform Campaign are now appealing to all those concerned about freedom of speech in Britain to contact their MP and join a mass lobby of Parliament on June 27th.

Written by Richard Wilson

June 18, 2012 at 9:10 pm

BBC (nearly) runs film praising Rwanda’s dictator, “supported” by company linked to ruling party

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Update: Many thanks to Nick Wallis, who tells me that the film was pulled from the BBC schedules prior to being aired and never actually went out. Will update again if I can find out more…

Last year I blogged about the Rwandan government’s $50,000 deal with the US PR firm Racepoint, whose strategy includes promoting “Rwanda’s Visionary Leader… highlighting President Kagame and his visionary leadership”, while  “communicating the successes of Rwanda with key stakeholders in the political and financial elite communities”.

The PR firm…  outlines “a consolidated set of tactics to publicize both Rwanda and President Kagame“. This will initially involve “leveraging top print and broadcast outlets to communicate the Rwanda success story… and, in the process, validate it based on their credibility”, together with “a proactive campaign that leverages the web to seed stories favorable to Rwanda”.

Racepoint singles out  the Huffington Post as a particular online media target, together with “careful seeding across the blogosphere” to “initiate an offensive to control the organic search on Rwanda and set the agenda in print and broadcast”.

One of the key themes within the PR strategy’s “Education and inform program” would include:

The Rwandan Miracle: Healing of a Nation – We will highlight the rapid healing of the Rwandan nation, it will rely on visuals to drive the story home, Including inviting a handful of top-tier influencer media into the country to observe and Interview people in society.”

So I was very interested to hear about a new 45-minute film, reportedly due to air on May 12th and 13th on BBC World News, called “Rwanda-17 – Healing a Nation”.

The blurb from the film paints a heartwarming picture of the country’s under-17 football team, which it suggests “represents Rwanda’s breathtaking evolution and hopes for a better future, with good leadership and unity at the heart of not only sporting success but also a nation’s efforts to achieve reconciliation and prosperity.”

“What is it about Rwanda? What it is it that you’ve got *so* right?” asks the interviewer in the 2-minute trailer. His respondent tells him that “every ship” needs to have “a good captain”.

“Our team today, to play well, *they* a good captain, they need a good coach. They need somebody who has a vision. This is what we have in Rwanda.”

The shot then cuts to an interview with Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame: “As the captain of this ship, what would you say you need to deliver to the people?”, his friendly interviewer asks. “We want to leave poverty behind us. We want to leave any kind of conflict behind us”, Kagame tells him.

This will doubtless come as good news to the UK-based dissidents who Rwanda’s government tried to murder last year… And the exiled opposition leader who has twice avoided assassination in South Africa, though it’s sadly too late for the opposition politician found beheaded in Rwanda in 2010.

There is a longer version of the trailer here, where it is stated that the film was “supported by Crystal Ventures”.

According to a DFID-funded research paper on Rwanda’s development, Kagame’s ruling party “funds itself by a combination of member contributions and the dividends paid by a private company which it fully owns… formerly known as Tri-Star Investments S.A.R.L. and now registered as Crystal Ventures Ltd.”

The Crystal Ventures website, meanwhile, states that:

“The company is wholly owned by Rwandan business people who pooled resources together to meet challenges of economic recovery and take advantage of growth opportunities in a virgin environment.”

Opposition activists, however, have claimed that the company is effectively controlled by the Rwandan President.

Google reveals lots more speculation – but far less concrete detail – about Crystal Ventures and its background. I’d be grateful for any input from readers on good sources to help unravel this…

Written by Richard Wilson

May 11, 2012 at 4:38 pm

“Breaking Their Will” – book review in the New Humanist

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My latest book review is in this month’s New Humanist magazine, looking at a harrowing account of religiously-motivated child abuse and neglect: “Breaking Their Will”, by Janet Heimlich. This month’s edition also features the excellent Alom Shaha and Martin Robbins.

The New Humanist magazine is published by a registered charity, the Rationalist Association. It’s a great example of the growing trend for non-profit organisations to fill the gap left by the decline of the mainstream news media, covering niche and public interest issues that are covered superficially or ignored by commercial newspapers. If you want to support this project, you can subscribe here.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 22, 2012 at 10:51 am

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Gove’s Folly? The mystery of Durand and Saint Cuthman’s

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Mystery surrounds a multi-million pound government grant to the charity behind one of Michael Gove’s flagship Academy schools.

Last year, the Durand Education Trust was awarded £17.3 million to build what the Telegraph heralded as the “first fully free state-run boarding school” .

Durand Primary School in Stockwell, South London, had earlier, said the Daily Mail, “used proceeds from a leisure and student accommodation business it runs” to buy St Cuthman’s, the site of a former special needs centre in Midhurst, West Sussex.

The school’s plan was to  give its pupils an alternative to poorly-performing local secondary schools when they completed their time at Durand. The new secondary school would be based in the countryside to keep the children far away from “stabbings and the constant threat of trouble”.

“Teenagers will be transported from London on Monday mornings to spend five days and four nights in the country, returning on Friday evenings, all free of charge”, reported the Mail .

To those tempted to ask whether public money would be better spent improving the local secondary schools rather than building an entirely new one, 50 miles away, and then shipping hundreds of children there and back every week, the school had a good answer:

“It wouldn’t cost [the government] a penny”, Durand’s Executive Head told the Spectator. While the secondary school’s core expenditure would be funded by the state in the normal way, “we’d cover the costs of boarding from the profits of our health club”.

According to the Economist, “Nothing quite like it has been tried before”.

According to the Daily Express, “Parents… are delighted their youngsters will get the chance to enjoy a Harry Potter-style education away from the area’s notorious gang culture.”

“Unlike other state boarding schools, it will not charge for accommodation”, explained the Guardian. “Instead, its running costs will come out of private income the school generates from a swimming pool, gym and block of flats.”

Media coverage has been so positive, in fact, that the PR and lobbying company employed by Durand to promote the St Cuthman’s project, secure government funding, and “make Durand Academy synonymous with educational excellence” last year won an advertising industry award for the £200,000 campaign.

It may also have helped that the school has repeatedly deployed libel lawyers Carter Ruck against critics of the school’s management, and is currently suing Lambeth Council over three emails in which its chief auditor raised concerns about its financial affairs.

Yet amid all the glowing news reports, two big problems seem to have been overlooked.

1. Notwithstanding claims that Durand purchased the St Cuthman’s site “using its own funds”, and  “using income from a gym and flats on its London site”, Companies House records  appear to show that the Durand Education Trust actually took on a debt of £1.9 million to buy the property – over half of its reported £3.4 million sale price:

2. The reported profits from Durand’s business activities cover only a fraction of the school’s boarding costs. It appears that the project will therefore need millions of pounds in additional funding in order to become financially viable – at a time when other schools are having to cut back.

State boarding school lodging costs reportedly range from £7,500 to £12,000 per year for each child. Even at the lower end of that scale, Durand would need more than £4.3 million per year to board the 625 secondary pupils it hopes to take in. In the last three years, the school’s business arm, London Horizons, has generated £304,964 (2009), £255,157 (2010) and £350,120 (2011) for Durand Primary School and the Durand Education Trust – an average of just over £300,000 – less than 10% of the money the school looks to require.

According to “Spears Wealth Management Survey”, Durand has recently launched a public fundraising campaign urging wealthy individuals to sponsor children at the new school, costing this at £3,800 per child, per year. But even at that level, this would still require around £2,375,000 per year for 625 children. This is a sum that many long-standing charities would struggle to raise in a good year, let alone a start-up fundraising programme focussing on a single state school in the midst of a global recession.

When I asked for a copy of the budget and costings for the boarding school project, the Department for Education refused to reveal it, claiming that “Disclosure of certain information would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of the Department, the proposers or both by adversely affecting bargaining positions and resulting in less effective use of public money”.

So I made a Freedom of Information request to Durand Academy asking for:

“Details of how much Durand paid for the purchase of the St Cuthman’s site”, “The amount of any funds borrowed by Durand to finance the purchase” and “The terms of any such loan, and details of how any such loan is
to be repaid”.

I got the following reply:

1.    Details of how much Durand paid for the purchase of the St Cuthman’s site in Sussex.

ZERO (DAT did not purchase the site)

2.    Details of how Durand financed the above purchase.

NOT HELD.  See above

3.    The amount of any funds borrowed by Durand to finance the purchase.

ZERO

4.    The terms of any such loan, and details of how any such loan is to be repaid.

See above

When I queried this, pointing out that a video on Durand Academy’s own website states that “Durand used its savings to purchase a site in the countryside”, I got no response.

But the school appears to be working on the basis – at least when it comes to Freedom of Information – that the Durand Education Trust is legally a separate entity from Durand Academy, and that FOI requests to the latter do not cover the former.

I subsequently told Durand that I’d seen information suggesting they were in debt, and that this seemed to raise questions about the viability of the St Cuthman’s project and the government’s decision to award it so much money at a time of “extreme national austerity”.

They issued a strong denial, stating that:

“Your assertions and source are factually incorrect on this matter. Durand Academy is not in debt, nor has liability for the land purchase and it would be wrong to suggest either.

“On the issue of value for money, we must object. More than any other school we are aware of, Durand has worked tirelessly and independently over the last twenty years to add significant value and opportunities for local tax payers, without impacting the public purse. Without additional central government support Durand has: improved the condition and value of the school estate substantially; absorbed a run-down failing primary school; completely refurbished that school to a high specification as a specialist early years site; expanded the number of places available to the local community; built state-of the art leisure facilities that children enjoy free use of and the wider community benefit from; reduced class sizes; subsidised healthy meals and; invested in a secondary school project that will provide choice and opportunity for local parents.

“We appreciate very much the ‘extreme national austerity’ that you refer, and that is why we believe that the Government has chosen to support a project and a project team that has never asked for hand-outs and are self-sufficient, has always made maximum efficient use of resources and have a strong record of delivery, not only in education, but in delivering projects on time and to budget.

“The £17.34 million pledged by the Government is some £8m to £15m less than has typically been spent on establishing a new secondary school to serve inner London in recent years. This money will help to deliver a secondary state boarding school from scratch, providing life changing opportunities for thousands of children. This project is innovative and ambitious, but we can assure you it is viable and we are committed to its delivery.”

Confused, I asked whether this applied to Durand as a whole – ie. not just Durand Academy but also the Durand Education Trust (for whom my usual correspondent at the school is listed as the main contact).

I was told: “As stated below this is from Durand Academy. Durand Education Trust is a separate entity. I am an administrator at Durand Academy and field correspondence for Durand Education Trust.”

So I asked my correspondent to refer my previous query about the financial situation to the Durand Education Trust. At the time of publication, a follow-up request for clarification had been acknowledged, but not replied to.

Given that the Durand Education Trust is legally constituted as an “independent charitable trust”, rather than a government body, it is not clear whether the Freedom of Information Act can be applied to it.

It may be that I’ve missed something obvious here (in which case, please do email me or leave a comment below). Or it may be that Durand has a substantial, and previously-undisclosed, source of additional income that can plug the financial gap.

But at the moment it is difficult to see how the Department for Education will be able to avoid committing many more millions each year to this experimental project – leaving millions less available for other, less favoured schools within the education system.

Update: I have now had some comments from the Durand Education Trust. Here’s what they say:

“1. Some of your estimates are so over the top as to be risible. For instance, though there will be costs associated with providing boarding (principally the extra costs associated with keeping duty staff on site overnight for safeguarding) the idea that these would amount to almost £30,000 per night, which is what is consistent with the lower figure in the range you cite, is frankly absurd.

2. DET did not take out a bank or building society loan to fund the purchase of the site. Any information you have to the contrary is false.

3. The figures you quote for London Horizons revenues were figures supplied to you in respect of sums historically paid over to Durand Primary School and Durand Academy. They do not reflect the level of income accruing to DET now or in the future.”

The Durand Education Trust also complain that “Whilst we are prepared to be as transparent as commercial sensitivities allow, we note that almost everything you have written about Durand in the past… has been unfair or inaccurate, and sometimes both. It is hard to resist the conclusion that your reporting is actuated by malice and/or a political agenda…”

So it looks like the mystery will continue for a while yet. I’d welcome any comments from readers that could help to clear things up.

On the financial question, the figure of £7,500 to £12,000 per year per child for state school boarding costs comes from a broadly positive Telegraph article, in which Durand got a prominent mention (“More cash needed for state boarding schools, warns head“, November 28th 2011). Over a 39-week school year where 625 children were boarded for 4 nights per week, the lower end of this scale would indeed amount to approximately £30,000 per day, which certainly is a lot of money.

It’s worth noting, however, that the cost-per-child cited by Durand in their new fundraising campaign – £3,800, would, under the same analysis, equate to around £15,000 per day for 625 children – or £24 per child. While this is significantly less, it is still a substantial sum, and with a total yearly cost (£2,375,000) that would still be much higher than the reported annual income generated, to date, by London Horizons (£350,120 in 2011).

It is not yet clear how the costs of transporting 625 children on the 50 mile trip to and from West Sussex each week would fit into the above analysis, or where the money for this would come from.

I have asked the Durand Education Trust for more details of the things I’ve written that they feel have been unfair or inaccurate, and invited them to produce a “right to reply” piece for publication on this blog, putting their side of the story. I will update this post if and when I receive a reply.

In literal terms, The Durand Education Trust appear to be correct in stating that “DET did not take out a bank or building society loan to fund the purchase of the site”. Records from Companies House show that the company which lent them £1.9 million was not a bank or a building society, but a firm called Alderley Land. More on that in due course…

Written by Richard Wilson

February 29, 2012 at 5:42 pm

Factchecking on Freedom of Information: Has FOI really done nothing to improve accountability?

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“We have a wretched Government here which has… caused the resignation of me and many others, because it was this Government that introduced the Freedom of Information Act” – Conservative MP Anthony Steen, on being exposed in the MPs’ expenses scandal.

There’s been a lot of coverage this week about a Ministry of Justice study which among other things claimed, according to the Guardian that “Civil servants do not believe the Freedom of Information Act has increased accountability”.

This suggestion seemed surprising, given the number of high-profile cases where FOI has helped expose abusive behaviour by our public officials, most notably the MPs expenses scandal. Although the damning details were ultimately made public via a leak, the writer and activist Heather Brooke had fought a long and well-publicised legal campaign to establish that Parliamentary expenses were subject to FOI, and it is widely acknowledged that the existence of FOI requests by Brooke and others helped to precipitate the news story.

This is the case even for some of those exposed in the scandal. When the Conservative MP Anthony Steen was forced to resign after it emerged that he’d spent £90,000 of public money on his country home, he specifically blamed the Freedom of Information Act, saying:

“I think I have behaved impeccably. I’ve done nothing criminal. As far as I’m concerned and as of this day, I don’t know what the fuss is about…

We have a wretched government here which has completely mucked up the system and caused the resignation of me and many others because it was this government that introduced the Freedom of Information Act, and it is this Government that insisted on the things which caught me on the wrong foot… What right does the public have to interfere with my private life? None.”

It’s difficult to think of a clearer example of FOI-induced accountability than this. So I had a look through the Ministry of Justice study. Here are some extracts:

“FOIA has resulted…  in the disclosure of significant amounts of information which has enabled the public to hold public authorities to account.” (page 60)

“The Government believes that the expansion of the Act… will continue to promote openness, transparency and accountability across the public sector.” (page 66)

“% of FOI officers who agreed that the following objectives were being achieved:

- increased accountability                                                   78%” (page 84)

“surveys of officials and stakeholders across public authorities found that the FOIA had indeed made central and local government more accountable” (page 88)

“the evidence suggests that the FOIA has had considerable success in achieving its primary objectives of greater openness and accountability… Claims that the FOIA would undermine civil service neutrality or ministerial accountability have likewise proved unfounded” (page 90)

Conclusion: The FOI legislation set out to improve transparency and accountability, and evidence to date indicates this has been achieved…” (page 99)

Whoever told the Guardian that the study showed “civil servants do not believe the FOI act has increased accountability” appears to have been mistaken…

Written by Richard Wilson

February 20, 2012 at 7:26 am

Alleged bribery of eyewitnesses by Trafigura and MacFarlanes

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From The Joint Parliamentary Committee on Privacy and Injunctions

1. The Dutch media have aired detailed allegations that a major London law firm, acting on
behalf of Trafigura, offered bribes to witnesses in a civil case being brought in the UK courts
against the company over the toxic dumping incident. Despite the gravity of these
allegations, they have not been reported in the mainstream UK media. Only one outlet – the
magazine Private Eye – has made any mention of them. One journalist has told me explicitly
that they want to run this story but dare not for fear of the legal repercussions.

2. Media outlets outside the UK have consistently reported that the 2006 toxic waste
incident caused at least 15 deaths. In contrast, many UK media articles about the case have
made no mention of this central allegation. In one instance, Trafigura successfully sued the
BBC for libel over the allegation, and in others it was able to secure a retraction. No legal
action has been taken against media outside the UK who have reported on the alleged
deaths.

3. Trafigura is currently under investigation by the Dutch authorities over an alleged bribe of
466,000 Euros made by Trafigura from its UK bank account to Jamaica’s ruling People’s
National Party (PNP). The Dutch investigation has been widely reported in Jamaica. Yet
despite the fact that the allegedly corrupt payments originated in the UK, our media have
not covered it.

Alleged bribery of eyewitnesses by Trafigura and MacFarlanes

In May 2010, the Dutch media published detailed allegations of corruption relating to
Trafigura and a major London law firm, MacFarlanes. In a series of interviews aired by
NOVA TV, a number of the drivers involved in dumping the waste alleged that they had
been offered bribes by MacFarlanes to give false testimony to the UK courts in a civil case
against Trafigura over the dumping incident (http://vimeo.com/16874069).

According to Radio Netherlands Worldwide:

The drivers who dumped the waste now say they were approached by Trafigura’s lawyers and asked
to sign false statements. They were persuaded to lie about the nature of the waste and to deny they
had suffered health problems.

“There are some sentences in the declaration that are not true, they are lies,” says one of the
drivers who was approached by Trafigura.

The drivers say they each received 650 euros in exchange for signing the false statements. They
were told that the statements would be used in the London court case Trafigura was fighting against
the Ivorian victims…

The drivers say they were approached a second time by Trafigura, this time to sign a statement that
they had never received money from the company. They claim to have received 2,300 euros each
for the second statement.
(http://www.rnw.nl/english/article/trafigura-accused-bribing-witnesses)

Trafigura and MacFarlanes deny these allegations, saying that such behaviour would have
been “grossly unethical” and “would have constituted serious professional misconduct by
MacFarlanes”. (http://www.scribd.com/doc/31503180/Verweer-Trafigura)

Nonetheless, given the nature of the allegations, and the fact those making them were
prepared to do so on camera, it is striking that – other than one piece in Private Eye – the
mainstream UK media has made no mention of them.

To the best of my knowledge, Trafigura and MacFarlanes have taken no action against any of
the Dutch media that have reported the story.

Death toll from the 2006 toxic waste incident

“I was supposed to do an interview on British radio the day that the court in Abidjan had
come to a decision and had sent two people to jail. I was told that I should in no way
mention Trafigura because of possible libel claims.” – Marietta Harjono, Greenpeace, May
2009
(http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/may/13/trafigura-pr-campaign-pollution-ivorycoast)

In May 2009, Trafigura issued libel proceedings against the BBC over a Newsnight feature
which alleged that the 2006 incident had led to a number of deaths and serious injuries. In
early December 2009, the programme, and its accompanying article, disappeared from the
BBC’s website without explanation (although it reappeared on the website Youtube soon
afterwards).

On December 17th, the BBC announced that it had agreed to withdraw its allegations about
the Probo Koala incident, pay damages, and broadcast a public apology. Some reports
suggested that fighting the case could have cost the BBC up to £3 million had it come to
court. (http://www.englishpen.org/aboutenglishpen/campaigns/reformingthelibellaws/bbc-andtrafigura/)

Commenting on the settlement, Trafigura noted that the BBC had ‘stated that Trafigura’s
actions had caused a number of deaths, miscarriages and serious and long-term injuries in
Abidjan in what Newsnight claimed “may be the biggest incident of its kind since….Bhopal.”’.
Trafigura described these as “grave, yet wholly false allegations”, over which it had “no
alternative but to commence libel proceedings”
(http://www.trafigura.com/pdf/2009.12.17_TrafiguraStatement.pdf)

Yet Trafigura appears to have taken no legal action over a November 2009 New York Times
article which described the Probo Koala incident as “one of the worst toxic dumping
scandals in years”, which had “become notorious as a kind of African Bhopal”, and claimed
that “About 108,000 people sought treatment for nausea, headaches, vomiting and
abdominal pains, and at least 15 died”.
(http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/05/world/africa/05trafigura.html).

On February 22nd 2010, the Independent newspaper published an apology and ‘correction’
for its September 2009 article, “Toxic shame: Thousands injured in African city” (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/trafigura-no-link-identified-between-toxicdumping-
incident-and-serious-injuries-1904830.html)

On April 30th 2010, the Times issued a ‘correction’ over a March 26th article which had
referred to allegations that the Probo Koala incident had led to 17 deaths. The correction
stated that “the dumping was not carried out by Trafigura… but by an independent local
contractor without Trafigura’s authority or knowledge. Furthermore, in September 2009
lawyers for Ivorians who were suing Trafigura over injuries allegedly caused by the dumping
acknowledged that at worst the waste could only have caused flu-like symptoms”.
(http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/africa/article7111946.ece)

To the best of my knowledge, Trafigura has taken no action against any media outlet outside
of the UK that have made similar allegations. Trafigura continues to deny that its waste
caused any deaths.

Alleged bribery of Jamaica’s ruling party

According to the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper, Trafigura is currently under investigation by
the Dutch authorities over an alleged bribe of 466,000 Euros made in 2006 by Trafigura
from its UK bank account to Jamaica’s ruling People’s National Party (PNP). While some of
these allegations have previously been reported in the Guardian, to my knowledge the
current investigation has not been mentioned anywhere in the UK media.

The Gleaner reports that a senior politician, Bruce Golding, who was until recently Jamaica’s
Prime Minister, has made a formal complaint to the Dutch authorities asking them to
investigate whether this payment amounted to a criminal offence in the Netherlands.

According to the Gleaner:

Golding also told Dutch authorities that on August 23 [2006], Charles Dauphin, president of
Trafigura, arrived in Jamaica and met with government ministers… He said no public announcement
of these meetings was made to the people of Jamaica… He stated that in early September 2006,
between September 6 and 12, prior to the PNP’s annual conference, Trafigura transferred
€466,000 or more than J$31 million from its account in the United Kingdom to an account in
Jamaica known as CCOC Association…

The address provided by CCOC Association is c/o Portmore Gas, Bridgeport, St Catherine … . One of
the signatories on this account is Senator Colin Campbell, general secretary of the PNP and a
minister of government having portfolio responsibility for information and development.”
The document stated that shortly after the funds were received into the account, two cheques
totalling $30 million were issued payable to SW Services (Team Jamaica), both bearing Campbell’s
signatures.

Golding noted that on Thursday, October, 2006, the chairman of the PNP, Robert Pickersgill,
confirmed payment of the funds by Trafigura and described it as an unsolicited donation to the PNP
for its upcoming political campaign.
(http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20111113/lead/lead4.html )

Greenpeace International reports that: “Trafigura is thought to have bribed a Jamaican
politician with the apparent aim of extending an oil contract of Nigerian oil.”
(http://www.greenpeace.org/africa/en/News/news/Trafigura-new-corruption-charges/)

Trafigura insist that the money was a political donation and that they have done nothing
untoward.

Conclusion

Trafigura’s “reputation management” strategy has not prevented the above information from
being read, and shared, in the UK. But it has inhibited the ability of our domestic media to
debate these very serious issues openly and robustly, and left the British public reliant on the
foreign press to inform them of the full facts behind a major public interest story. The
Trafigura case highlights a worrying gulf between our own media laws and those of the
United States and our European neighbours, and raises serious questions about the state of
freedom of expression in the UK.

7 December 2011

Written by Richard Wilson

February 18, 2012 at 9:15 am

Trevor Kavanagh learns a hard lesson about human rights and due process

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“The overwhelming odds are that these guys were put inside for good reason — whatever sob stories their human rights lawyers are peddling on their behalf.” – Trevor Kavanagh, The Sun, 2007

“It is important that we do not jump to conclusions. Nobody has been charged with any offence, still less tried or convicted“, Trevor Kavanagh, The Sun, 2012

Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper has long been hostile to the idea that people suspected of wrongdoing should be treated as innocent until proven guilty, that no-one should be locked up for extended periods without a fair trial and due process, and that even if someone is tried and convicted of a criminal offence, they are still entitled to basic human rights.

When, in 2005, 47 Labour MPs joined opposition ranks to throw out the Blair government’s attempt to award itself the right to detain for 3 months, without charge or trial, anyone it claimed was a “terrorist”, the Sun’s political editor Trevor Kavanagh branded them “traitor MPs” who had “betrayed the British people”.

When, in 2007, Gordon Brown’s government requested the release of five UK residents who had been held for years without charge or trial in Guantanamo Bay, the Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh declared that “The overwhelming odds are that these guys were put inside for good reason — whatever sob stories their human rights lawyers are peddling on their behalf.”

“It’s just about possible the five… are totally innocent… But not very likely”, he suggested.

Yet despite these “overwhelming odds”, four of the five men – Binyam Mohamed, Omar Deghayes, Jamil El Banna and Sameur Abdenour – were subsequently freed after the US government failed to produce any evidence that could convict them of a crime. The fifth, Shaker Aamer, has still not been charged or tried, ten years after he was first detained.

Mohamed, Deghayes and El Banna were subsequently awarded millions of pounds in compensation after a court heard evidence (or as the Sun might describe it, a “sob story”) detailing the UK government’s complicity in their “rendition” and subsequent torture.

This weekend, another five men were arrested on suspicion of a criminal offence. Unlike Binyam Mohamed, Omar Deghayes, Jamil El Banna, Sameur Abdenour and Shaker Aamer, these five men were given prompt access to a lawyer, questioned, and then freed on bail.  Unlike Binyam Mohamed, they were not bundled into a plane, flown to Morocco and tortured with a scalpel, forced into stress positions or subjected to deliberate and prolonged sleep deprivation. They were not – as would have been the case for anyone accused of terrorist offences under the 2005 Bill championed by Trevor Kavanagh and the Sun – held without charge for 90 days while the Police scraped around for evidence.

Has British Justice Gone Soft? Given Trevor Kavanagh’s previous comments on human rights and due process, we might have expected him to be outraged that these five criminal suspects have been treated so leniently. But here he is discussing the case in today’s Sun:

“It is important that we do not jump to conclusions. Nobody has been charged with any offence, still less tried or convicted.”

Here he is on Radio 5: “the evidence that’s been suggested to those who have been arrested so far, is pretty flimsy stuff… people are wondering what on earth is happening… I feel very sorry for them and I know it’s causing them and their families a great deal of anguish”.

What could possibly explain this change in tone? Perhaps the fact that *these* five criminal suspects were Sun journalists, suspected of making corrupt payments to police and other public officials.

The problem with attacking basic democratic principles like human rights and due process is that you never know when you – or someone you care about – might be in need of them. Trevor Kavanagh’s Damascine conversion to the cause is surely to be welcomed. His friends at the Sun do, of course, have a right to a fair trial and to be treated as innocent until proven guilty. It will be interesting to see if they will now extend that same courtesy to the rest of us.

See also: Thaksin Shinawatra: “They don’t care about the rule of law, facts or internationally recognised due process!”

Written by Richard Wilson

February 14, 2012 at 12:41 am

Amnesty Urgent Action – Burundi: Free activist who spoke out

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From Amnesty International

URGENT ACTION

FREE ACTIVIST WHO SPOKE OUT

Anti-corruption activist Faustin Ndikumana was arrested on 7 February and charged with making “false declarations”. He had alleged that some magistrates had got their posts by bribing officials in the Ministry of Justice.

Faustin Ndikumana is President of Words and Action for the Awakening of Conscience and the Evolution of Mindsets (PARCEM). He wrote to the Minister of Justice asking him to investigate and halt corruption in the recruitment of judges. He held a press conference and gave radio interviews on 3 February denouncing alleged corruption within the Ministry.

He was arrested on 7 February, questioned by a magistrate at the Anti-Corruption Court and charged with making “false declarations” under Article 14 of the Anti-Corruption Law. He could face five to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to 1,000,000 Burundian francs (US$ 775). It appears that he was arrested on the basis of a judicial complaint filed by the Minister of Justice. Societies and associations can also be prosecuted under the law and fined up to 10,000,000 Burundian francs (US$7,750).

Faustin Ndikumana is detained in Mpimba Central Prison, in the capital Bujumbura, and held in overcrowded and insanitary conditions. He is detained in violation of Burundian law. Under Article 71 of the criminal code, pre-trial detention must only be used where it is necessary to preserve evidence, protect public order, protect the suspect, prevent the crime from continuing or to ensure that the suspect appears in court.

Amnesty International considers Faustin Ndikumana a prisoner of conscience detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression. His detention may have a chilling effect on other civil society activists and journalists in Burundi. It could increase self-censorship, as they seek to protect themselves from arbitrary arrest.

Please write immediately in French, English or your own language:
-    expressing concern that Faustin Ndikumana has been detained on defamation charges for denouncing reports of corruption within the Ministry of Justice;
-    urging the authorities to release him immediately and unconditionally, as he is a prisoner of conscience detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression;
-   reminding the authorities that, as a state party to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Burundi is obliged to uphold the right to freedom of expression.

PLEASE SEND APPEALS BEFORE 22 MARCH 2012 TO:

President
His Excellency Pierre Nkurunziza
Président de la République du Burundi
Bureau du Président
Boulevard de l’Uprona
Rohero I, BP 1870
Bujumbura, Burundi
Fax: +257 22 22 74 90
Salutation: Votre Excellence / Your Excellency

First Vice-President
His Excellency Thérence Sinunguruza
Bureau du Président
Boulevard de l’Uprona
Rohero I, BP 1870
Bujumbura, Burundi
Fax: +257 22 22 74 90
Salutation: Votre Excellence / Your Excellency

And copies to:
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Monsieur Laurent Kavakure
Ministère des Relations Extérieurs et de la Coopération Internationale
Bdg Grand Bureau, Bvd de la Liberté
BP 1840, Bujumbura, Burundi
Fax: +257 22 22 39 70
Salutation : Monsieur le Ministre / Dear Minister
Also send copies to diplomatic representatives accredited to your country.

Please check with your section office if sending appeals after the above date.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Burundi has a vibrant civil society which continues to speak out despite government attempts to silence it. The authorities have used harassment by judicial authorities, arbitrary arrests, prolonged pre-trial detention, and procedural violations of Burundian law to unduly restrict freedom of speech.

Burundi is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights which protect freedom of expression. It is well established under international law that public officials must tolerate more, rather than less, criticism than private individuals.

Defamation or false declaration charges are regularly brought against civil society activists, human rights defenders and journalists. They often result in prolonged pre-trial detention seemingly in attempts to silence government critics. Juvenal Rududura, vice-president of the trade union of non-judicial staff of the Ministry of Justice, was detained on charges of making false statements in September 2008. He had also alleged corruption in recruitment at the Ministry of Justice. He was detained for 10 months without trial, and the charges against him were never formally dropped.

The independence of the judiciary in Burundi is regularly compromised through political interference. The United Nations Independent Expert on the human rights situation in Burundi, Fatsah Ouguergouz, cited problems with judicial independence as a key weakness of Burundi’s justice system in his May 2011 report.

Name: Faustin Ndikumana
Gender m/f: m

UA: 44/12 Index: AFR 16/001/2012 Issue Date: 9 February 2012

Written by Richard Wilson

February 9, 2012 at 9:08 pm

State-funded primary school spent £244,000 on libel case against father of former teacher

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A state-funded South London primary school which has repeatedly been praised by Education Secretary Michael Gove has admitted incurring over £387,000 in  legal costs since 2008.

The bulk of the costs, disclosed by Durand Academy under the Freedom of Information Act*, relate to a libel case against Jeff Newell, the father of a former teacher at the school, over comments he had made about the school’s headteacher and senior management team.  Durand  records legal fees of £244,675 in relation to this libel case.

The school states that “Mr Newell made a full and unreserved apology. All costs that could be recouped, given Mr Newell’s financial situation, were paid to Durand”. Details of the amount covered by Mr Newell are not given.

The latest FOI disclosure comes on top of an admission by Durand Academy last year that it had paid nearly £200,000 to a PR firm, “Political Lobbying and Media Relations”.

The new figures do not include the as-yet-undisclosed amount that Durand has spent funding an ongoing libel complaint against Lambeth Council and its chief auditor over three emails which raised concerns about the school’s management. Index on Censorship last year estimated that this case may already have cost over £100,000.

But Durand does disclose the legal fees totalling £81,876 that it spent persuading the Department for Education to grant it FMSiS  financial best practice accreditation**. According to court documents from the Lambeth libel case, the school employed the law firm Carter Ruck to represent them in this effort. Durand also hired Carter Ruck in the Jeff Newell libel case, and the ongoing case against Lambeth council.

In a landmark ruling in the early 1990s, the House of Lords determined that there was “no public interest favouring the right of organs of government, whether central or local, to sue for libel… to admit such actions would place an undesirable fetter on freedom of speech”.

As a public body, Durand Academy therefore cannot sue for libel in its own right. Yet individual staff and governors can take action over allegations made about the school, so long as they can make the case that they were personally defamed within the discussion. Durand is one of a number of public authorities who have chosen to fund such personal libel actions by their employees in recent years.

(*See here for my original FOI request, made in June 2011, with a chaser message sent in November. The school’s disclosure follows a complaint to the Information Commission the following month after Durand continued to ignore the request.)

(**The remaining disclosed legal costs were: £28,340 incurred in relation to a 2008-09 hearing at the General Teaching Council, £19,163  on planning/property, and £13,487 spent on converting the school to an Academy.)

Durand Academy’s full FOI disclosure can be read here

Written by Richard Wilson

January 27, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Judiciary kept in the dark as Burundi opposition leader Alexis Sinduhije is “investigated” by Tanzania’s Foreign Ministry

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This doesn’t seem to augur well for the prospects of a fair trial…

From Tanzania Daily News

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Eliezer Feleshi, on Wednesday said he had not yet received the file from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation concerning the case against the Burundian opposition party leader, Alexis Sinduhije, in order to open a case in court.

“The case is not yet mature, because, if it was, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would have sent the file to us to open the case.

“The DPP is not concerned with investigative affairs, this case is currently being handled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” Mr Felishi told the ‘Daily News’ yesterday over the phone.

Speaking to this newspaper, Sinduhije’s counsel, Habas Nyange, said that he was not aware of the fate of his client. “I am just like you journalists, I have been coming to Kisutu Resident Magistrates’ Court waiting for my client but to no avail.

“I cannot talk to my client properly as I can only talk to him more freely once he is taken to court yet I’m not being informed when he will be brought to court – so he could even be brought to court without my knowledge and then remanded, it is a very difficult situation,” complained Nyange.

Written by Richard Wilson

January 20, 2012 at 7:12 am

“we have done absolutely nothing wrong whatsoever” – #BellPottinger chief Tim Bell on the #Wikipedia editing scandal

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The FT has an amusing report about this week’s meeting between Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and staff of Bell Pottinger, the shamed lobbying firm that was caught “factory-farming” the online encyclopedia on an industrial scale.

Despite his firm being exposed using multiple fake identities to whitewash embarrassing information about its clients, Chairman Tim Bell (who also happens to be a Conservative member of the House of Lords), is said to have insisted that “As far as I am concerned, we have done absolutely nothing wrong whatsoever”.

Echoing fellow Tory Lord and Press Complaints Commission Chair David Hunt, Tim Bell reportedly bemoaned the lack of a “regulatory body” for people to complain to about online content that they were unhappy with.

Bell’s ethical stance is certainly interesting. While he sees nothing wrong with his colleagues’ misleading behaviour on Wikipedia, he was reportedly outraged when the Bureau of Investigative journalism used subterfuge to expose his company’s dubious business practices, condemning the deception as “underhand, unethical and improper” – and reporting the journalists concerned to David Hunt’s Press Complaints Commission.

Back in 2008, however, Bell was insisting that “I don’t see any reason why I or my company should follow some arbitrary set of ethical values”.

Written by Richard Wilson

January 15, 2012 at 9:58 pm