Saturday, 31 January 2015

FOI and NLC



I am due to hear from North Lanarkshire again on Monday 2nd February 2015 the date by which the has to disclose the information so ordered by the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC). 

Yet again North Lanarkshire argued that the release of these details would be 'prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs', but SIC gave the Council's case short shrift and agreed with me that this was nonsense.

I said to SIC at the time that North Lanarkshire was really just trying to shield senior officials from proper scrutiny and I think I've been proved right.

So let's see what arrives on Monday - I can hardly wait.  

NLC and FOI (4 December 2014)


The Scottish Information Commissioner has been in touch to confirm that an appeal I registered against North Lanarkshire Council will now proceed to a formal investigation.

As regular readers know this involved a refusal by the Council to release details of an email setting out the extent of the consultation which took place between the Council and the trade unions over an Equality Impact Assessment (EIA).

I will share the contents of my appeal to SIC in due course, but in the meantime here's what I had to say to North Lanarkshire Council back in September in support of my case that this information belongs in the public domain.    


Curiouser and Curiouser 4 (5 September 2014)


Here's my FoI Review Request to North Lanarkshire Council regarding its refusal to release details of an Equality Impact Assessment (EIS) carried out back in 2006.

Now I don't know what the Council has to hide, but if you ask me the Council does not have a valid reason to withhold this information and, as such, is in danger of turning itself into a laughing stock.

Maybe someone from within the Council will leak this information because other people must know what went on, for example Unison must know who was involved on their side and the extent of the consultation with the trade unions.

September 2014

June Murray
Executive Director of Corporate Services
North Lanarkshire Council

By email
Dear June

FoI Review Request

I refer to the attached letter from North Lanarkshire Council's Freedom of Information Coordinator, Angelene Kirkpatrick, and would like to register the following Review Request in accordance with the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.
  1. First of all, I have to say that it is completely absurd for the Council to suggest that the release of information regarding an Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) carried out in 2006 is in any way prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs in 2014. 
  2. In my view the exact opposite is true and the release of this information would allow people (including the council workforce) to see for themselves how the terms of reference of the EIA were drafted and the extent of the consultation that allegedly took place with Unison.
  3. North Lanarkshire Council has not offered any evidence to demonstrate how the release of this information would impact adversely on the ongoing Employment Tribunal or any settlement discussions taking place outside of the Employment Tribunal, but as far as I am concerned the two things are entirely unconnected.
  4. Furthermore, I would say that instead of acting in an open and transparent manner the Council is in danger of being seen to be trying to shield senior officials from proper scrutiny, on a matter which affects large numbers of staff and involves the use of significant amounts of public money.
  5. So taking all the issues into account I hope you will reverse the decision to reject my initial FoI request because the Council is bound to lose this argument, in my view, if I have to appeal this matter to the Scottish Information Commissioner.
I look forward to your reply and would be grateful if you could respond to me by email at: markirvine@compuserve.com

Kind regards




Mark Irvine     

Curiouser and Curiouser (3)



I don't know who is calling the shots over at North Lanarkshire Council 's Freedom of Information (FoI) operation these days, but if you ask me whoever is in charge has taken leave of their senses.

Because the Council has just refused my FoI request asking for details of the Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) which the Council carried out back in 2006 on the ridiculous grounds that disclosing this information would "prejudice substantially the effective conduct of public affairs".

But I have to ask myself in all seriousness - 'How can it possibly prejudice anything in 2014 to be told who Iris Wylie was talking to in Unison back in 2006 and how can people knowing more about the EIA terms of reference possibly do the Council any harm?"

Unless the Council has something to hide of course which is why I'll be submitting a Review Request pretty damn quick - so watch this space.


Gavin Whitefield
Chief Executive
North Lanarkshire Council


Dear Mr Whitefield

FOISA Request 

I would like to make the following request under the Freedom of Information Scotland Act 2002.
Please provide me with a copy of the e-mail from the Council's Head of Personnel to Unison dated 7 March 2006 which sets out detailed terms of reference for the Equality Impact Assessment conducted by the Council over its plans to implement the 'single status' agreement with effect from 1 April 2006.

I look forward to your reply and would be grateful if you could respond to me by e-mail to: markirvine@compuserve.com
    
Kind regards
Mark Irvine


Curiouser and Curiouser 2 (18 August 2014)

I wrote recently about the Equality Impact Assessment Impact (EIA) carried out by North Lanarkshire back in 2006, the purpose of which must have been to ensure that the Council's job evaluation scheme (JES) was operating in a non-discriminatory way.

In other words not treating male jobs more favourably than their women colleagues.

Yet that is exactly what appears to have happened in North Lanarkshire, if recent developments at the Employment Tribunal are anything to go by because the Council has been forced to concede that many jobs have been wrongly graded and that the bonus payments of male workers were into account when these jobs were moved over on to new pay structures.

So I was amazed I have to say at the following comments from the EIA report which is marked "Private and Confidential" and is dated 14 March 2006"

"Implementation Strategy"

"While I have not been asked to review the entire implementation proposal I understand that pay equality in the new pay and grading structure is underpinned in the proposed NLC arrangements for:
  • assimilation to the new structure
  • incremental progression
  • improved detriment protection beyond the provisions of the SJC 'single status' agreement
  • addressing pay inequality arising from bonus payments to male manual workers"   
Now I'm almost lost for words at complacency involved because what was the point in asking someone independent of the Council to review the impact of the JES and the pay arrangements that flowed from the JES, if that person did not actually complete the job?

If you ask me that is and was a completely crazy state of affairs which is why I've submitted a further FoI request about the EIA's terms of reference which appear to have been set by Iris Wylie, the Council's head of human resources.   
  

Curiouser and Curiouser (4 August 2014)


I've had a response to my FoI request to North Lanarkshire Council regarding the Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) carried out by the Council back in 2006 which makes for very interesting reading, I have to say.


Now all the names of people have been removed from the published document, for reasons that make little sense to me, but as I know who all the key players are already this doesn't present any problems.


Here is what the first two paragraphs say: 


Introduction 


In my role as independent consultant to the COSLA Job Evaluation Consortium and the Scottish Joint Council for Local Government Services I have been asked to undertake an equality impact assessment of the grading and pay structure that North Lanarkshire Council has developed in order to implement the 'single status' agreement with effect from 1 April 2006.


Terms of Reference


With the assistance of the North Lanarkshire Council Job Evaluation Project Team I have undertaken a limited statistical analysis of the outcomes of the job evaluation exercise in accordance with the terms reference set out by the Head of Personnel in her e-mail to (NAME DELETED) of Unison dated 7th March 2006.


Now I will have more to say about the substance of the report in due course because I find its comments about the Council's Implementation Strategy really quite shocking, but first of all I think I'm correct in saying that the person who set the EIA's Terms of Reference back in 2006 (as Head of Personnel) is still in that position all these years later in 2014, albeit the post now has the title of Head of Human Resources. 


Which means it must be none other than my old acquaintance, Iris Wylie, who is the former partner of Unison's regional secretary in Scotland, Mike Kirby.


But what exactly were these Terms of Reference and who is the mysterious Unison person whose name has been deleted by the Council in answering my FoI request?


I think we should be told - so watch this space for further news. 

NLC Losers (23/12/14)

Image result for loser + images

More good news from North Lanarkshire!

The Council has just lost another appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) who has upheld my case that North Lanarkshire was not entitled to withhold the details of a 'consultation' between the Council's head of human resources, Iris Wylie, and trade unions over an Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) connected to the Council's job evaluation scheme (JES) and new local pay arrangements.

I have to say I find it amazing that the senior officials of the Council who have made such a mess of equal pay going back over 12 years should have been getting paid big performance bonuses - for performing well in the already highly paid posts all this time.

Here's the full decision of the Scottish Information Commissioner and I think it lends weight to the argument that an independent investigation over North Lanarkshire Council's behaviour in relation to local pay arrangements is long overdue.    

Decision Notice 
Decision 259/2014: Mr Mark Irvine and North Lanarkshire Council 

Email concerning equality impact assessment

Reference No: 201402455 Decision Date: 17 December 2014 

Summary 

On 30 July 2014, Mr Irvine asked North Lanarkshire Council (the Council) for a specified email from the Council to Unison in 2006 concerning an equality impact assessment. 
The Council withheld the information on the basis that it was exempt from disclosure in terms of section 30(c) (Prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs) of FOISA. 
The Commissioner found that the Council was not entitled to withhold the information under the exemption in section 30(c) of FOISA. She required it to disclose the information to Mr Irvine. 

Relevant statutory provisions 

Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA) sections 1(1) and (6) (General entitlement); 2(1)(b) (Effect of exemptions); 30(c) (Prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs) 

The full text of each of the statutory provisions cited above is reproduced in Appendix 1 to this decision. The Appendix forms part of this decision. 

Background 

  1. On 30 July 2014, Mr Irvine made a request for information to the Council. The information requested was an email from the Council’s Head of Personnel to Unison dated 7 March 2006, concerning an equality impact assessment relating to the Council’s job evaluation scheme. 
  2. The Council responded on 28 August 2014. The Council informed Mr Irvine that it considered the information to be exempt from disclosure in terms of section 30(c) of FOISA. This was on the basis that its disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice substantially the effective conduct of public affairs. 
  3. On 2 September 2014, Mr Irvine emailed the Council requesting a review of its decision on the basis that he did not consider the exemption was engaged. 
  4. The Council notified Mr Irvine of the outcome of its review on 30 September 2014 upholding its original decision without modification. 
  5. On 20 October 2014, Mr Irvine wrote to the Commissioner. Mr Irvine applied to the Commissioner for a decision in terms of section 47(1) of FOISA. Mr Irvine stated he was dissatisfied with the outcome of the Council’s review. He did not agree that the exemption applied and believed the public interest favoured disclosure of the information. 
Investigation 

6. The application was accepted as valid. The Commissioner confirmed that Mr Irvine made a request for information to a Scottish public authority and asked the authority to review its response to that request before applying to her for a decision.
page2image22376page2image22536page2image22696 
Print date: 17/12/2014 Page 1
  1. On 3 November 2014, the Council was notified in writing that Mr Irvine had made a valid application. The Council was asked to send the Commissioner the information withheld from him. The Council provided the information and the case was allocated to an investigating officer. 
  2. Section 49(3)(a) of FOISA requires the Commissioner to give public authorities an opportunity to provide comments on an application. The Council was invited to comment on this application and answer specific questions including justifying its reliance on any provisions of FOISA it considered applicable to the information requested. 
Commissioner’s analysis and findings 

9. In coming to a decision on this matter, the Commissioner considered all of the withheld information and the relevant submissions, or parts of submissions, made to her by both Mr Irvine and the Council. She is satisfied that no matter of relevance has been overlooked. 


Section 30(c) – Prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs 
  1. Section 30(c) of FOISA exempts information if its disclosure “would otherwise prejudice substantially, or be likely to prejudice substantially, the effective conduct of public affairs”. The word “otherwise” distinguishes the harm required from that envisaged by the exemptions in section 30(a) and (b). This is a broad exemption and the Commissioner expects any public authority citing it to show what specific harm would (or would be likely to) be caused to the conduct of public affairs by disclosure of the information, and how that harm would be expected to follow from disclosure. This exemption is subject to the public interest test in section 2(1)(b) of FOISA. 
  2. The prejudice in question must be substantial and therefore of real and demonstrable significance. The Commissioner expects authorities to demonstrate a real risk or likelihood of substantial prejudice at some time in the near (certainly foreseeable) future, not simply that such prejudice is a remote or hypothetical possibility. Each request should be considered on a case by case basis, taking into consideration the content of the information and all other relevant circumstances (which may include the timing of the request). 
  3. The information in this case comprised an email sent from the Council to Unison in 2006, regarding an equality impact assessment relating to the Council’s job evaluation scheme. 
  4. In its submissions to the Commissioner, the Council referred to the equal pay claims it is currently defending at an Employment Tribunal. The Council stated that the value of the sums sought from it run to millions of pounds. The Council explained that it is currently involved in negotiations aimed at settling these claims and, in its view, the conduct and conclusion of these settlement negotiations represented a very considerable concern to the effective conduct of public affairs. 
  5. The Council was concerned to ensure that, insofar as information may enter the public domain, it did so in a manner that did not disrupt the context within which negotiations were taking place; in the Council’s view, disclosure of the information into the public domain would be apt to have that disrupting effect. The Council argued that disclosure of the information could have the effect of undermining its negotiating position because Mr Irvine would be able to publicise the information on his blog, with the Council being restricted in its ability to respond. 
page3image27864 
Print date: 17/12/2014 Page 2
  1. The Council submitted that, given the financial implications for it of the proper management of the negotiations, any disruption to those negotiations would prejudice substantially, or would be likely to prejudice substantially, the effective conduct of public affairs. 
  2. In Mr Irvine’s view, the onus was on the Council to demonstrate what specific harm would occur by disclosure of the information. He considered it had failed to do so, beyond vague assertions which were not supported by any evidence. 
  3. Mr Irvine submitted that the Council had acted unreasonably by trying to use the Tribunal as a blanket defence for refusing to disclose historical information about an equality impact assessment conducted eight years ago. 
  4. Mr Irvine considered the Council had not demonstrated how disclosure of the information would impact adversely on the ongoing Tribunal, or any discussions taking place outside of the Tribunal. In his view, the two matters were entirely unconnected. 
  5. The Commissioner has considered the nature, content and context of the withheld information and the submissions of both parties. Having done so, she is unable to accept that disclosure of the information under consideration would, or would be likely to, have the prejudicial effect which the Council has asserted. 
  6. Whilst the Council stated that it anticipated disclosure of the information would disrupt the context within which ongoing negotiations are taking place, it has not provided any evidence explaining why disclosure would lead to such harm. 
  7. Furthermore, the Commissioner has been provided with no explanation of why the disclosure of the specific withheld information would undermine the Council’s negotiating position and why disclosure would lead to that outcome. The Commissioner considers the Council’s submissions in this respect to be essentially hypothetical and conjectural. 
  8. The Council has also indicated that it believes Mr Irvine would publicise the information on his blog, but has provided no evidence to show why this would undermine its negotiating position beyond opining that this could be the case. 
  9. The Commissioner has concluded therefore that the exemption in section 30(c) of FOISA is not engaged in relation to the information under consideration. As such, she is not required to consider the public interest test in section 2(1)(b). 
  10. The Commissioner now requires the Council to disclose the email under consideration to Mr Irvine. 
page1image3776
Decision 

The Commissioner finds that North Lanarkshire Council (the Council) failed to comply with Part 1 (and, in particular, section 1(1)) of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA) in responding to the information request made by Mr Irvine. The Commissioner finds that the Council was not entitled to withhold the information under the exemption in section 30(c) of FOISA. 
The Commissioner therefore requires the Council to disclose the withheld information to Mr Irvine by 2 February 2015.


Appeal 

page5image848 
Should either Mr Irvine or North Lanarkshire Council wish to appeal against this decision, they have the right to appeal to the Court of Session on a point of law only. Any such appeal must be made within 42 days after the date of intimation of this decision. 

Enforcement 


If North Lanarkshire Council fails to comply with this decision, the Commissioner has the right to certify to the Court of Session that North Lanarkshire Council has failed to comply. The Court has the right to inquire into the matter and may deal with North Lanarkshire Council as if it had committed a contempt of court. 


Margaret Keyse Head of Enforcement 


17 December 2014 

Floating Voters



Janan Ganesh writing in The Financial Times doubts the ability of the Labour Party to govern the UK effectively and that if elected, the leadership would simply collapse under the strain of having to balance the nation's spending books. 

I suspect he's right you know and it will be interesting to see how many voters come around to the same opinion between now and polling day on 7th May 2015.    

Austerity will break any Labour government



By Janan Ganesh - The Financial Times

Party’s votes are already floating to leftwing alternatives, and this is before Ed Miliband has made a single cut
©PAA

And now they have it. For five years British leftwingers awaited a popular reaction against austerity, one that moved beyond protest to something with governing potential. Their dream was a homegrown revolution but, as ever, the British masses were a terrible disappointment to them.

So they looked to the continent. Los Indignados seemed to peter out in Spain. Then the election of François Hollande as president of France excited them to a degree they prefer not to recall: he has ended up governing as a deficit-cutter. And Matteo Renzi’s premiership of Italy is ambiguous, with its mandate for letting up on austerity but also for structural reform.

Greece has finally thrown up something to which leftwing hopes can be fastened. Strictly speaking, the parallels between the two countries are almost nil. Without a currency of its own, Greece has endured a vicious internal devaluation. Britain has not. Neither the UK’s economic context nor our voting system would allow a party like Syriza to get very far. Only a zealot would see its election victory on Sunday as auguring anything over here.

There are plenty of those about. The left see a chance to build a “real” Labour party. The newspaper columns are flowing. There are trade union murmurs. On Monday, 15 Labour MPs signed a statement calling for “an alternative to the continuation of austerity and spending cuts till 2019-20”.

These are mere traces of what is to come if Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition, becomes prime minister in May. His party is not ready to govern without money. No recent Labour administration has cut spending by as much and for as long as he intends, and the nearest precedents are baleful. In the 1950s, Labour levied prescription charges to ease financial problems in the National Health Service. This brought cabinet resignations and ultimately the end of the government. In 1976, a Labour prime minister told his activists: “You cannot spend your way out of recession.” What they did spend was the next decade at war with each other.

Now imagine the dissent during five years of fiscal tightening. With each departmental cut and public-sector pay freeze, anger that currently broils at the wilder edges of the extra-parliamentary left will creep into the party proper. Serious MPs, prominent ministers, normally biddable union bosses — all will feel their skin crawl as they see their leader do the opposite of what he and they came into politics for. Every vexed MP will matter, for Mr Miliband is unlikely to win a comfortable parliamentary majority, if he wins one at all.

His central achievement has been the unity of his party, elusive in previous spells in opposition. But look closely and this unity is the stupor of mutual reassurance. Labour has not been told much it does not want to hear. This ploy will work until the day a Miliband government has to give a budget, perhaps as soon as this summer, at which point reality will impose itself on people who have been allowed to daydream for five years. The anti-austerity Podemos party might by then be on its way to “doing a Syriza” in Spain, offering Labour radicals another totem to convene around.


The confounding thing is that the agitators will have a point, politically if not intellectually. It is becoming unhealthy to be a party of the moderate left, at least in countries with budgets to fix. Go along with cuts, and angry voters start to look elsewhere. If multi-party television debates take place before the election, Mr Miliband could share a stage with three parties who outstrip him on the left: the Greens, the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru of Wales. The increasingly statist UK Independence party might qualify as a fourth. Labour votes are already floating away to these alternatives, and this is before Mr Miliband has made a solitary cut. If the fragmentation continues, an electoral case for crude left populism will gather. Labour used to have a thick wall of grown-ups — the Old Labour right — that screened the party from the excesses of the wider left. The wall is thinning.

It has become trite, and no less true for that, to say the Conservatives are on course to fall apart over Europe as badly as they split over free trade in the Victorian age. Less well-worn are predictions of a Labour rupture, but the circumstances seem to make one plausible if the party loses in May, and inevitable if it wins.

“We know it, we just don’t talk about it,” says one insider about this gruesome fate. Tories deal with the prospect of their own fracture in the same way. Suggest that this is an election worth losing, and both parties gamely insist there is no such thing in politics. We’ll see.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

Putin's Russia



The Guardian reports on the public inquiry into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a crime which could only have been committed by people with access to the kind of high-level, high-tech support that is normally the preserve of national Governments.


The main suspect in the case, Andrej Lugovoi, was taken under the protective wing of Vladimir Putin when he returned to Russia and quickly became an the equivalent of an MP in the Russian Duma (national Parliament) which means he cannot under any circumstances be extradited to the UK. 

So it will be interesting to see if Andrej Lugovoi and Dimitry Kovtun give evidence to the public inquiry by video link.

Litvinenko postmortem ‘most dangerous ever in western world’

Inquiry hears from lead pathologist who examined Russian’s body after his death from polonium-210 poisoning in 2006



The postmortem examination of the body of Alexander Litvinenko was “one of the most dangerous postmortems ever undertaken in the western world” because of the risk of radiative contamination, the inquiry into his death has been told.

Dr Nathaniel Cary, the lead pathologist who examined Litvinenko’s body following his death from radioactive polonium-210 poisoning in November 2006, said he and other officials examining the corpse had worn not one but two protective suits, two pairs of gloves taped at the wrists, and large, battery-operated plastic hoods into which filtered air was piped.

Along with a second pathologist, a police detective constable and a photographer, also wearing similar protective clothing, he was accompanied by an advisor from the institute of naval medicine and a radiation protection officer, who monitored any speckles of blood on the protective clothing, wiping them away and checking for traces of alpha radiation.

London ambulance staff observed the procedure from outside the room, said Cary, a consultant forensic pathologist, because “it would have been a disaster if anyone had fainted or had an acute medical problem” while examining the body. In contrast to standard postmortems, where there may be an option to carry out a second examination of the body, Cary said that “this was such a dangerous postmortem exam to carry out that you only really want to do it once if at all possible.”

Alexander Litvinenko’s son, Anatoly, on his father’s murder: ‘He was trying to make Russia a better place’

He added: “It has been described as one of the most dangerous postmortem examinations ever undertaken in the western world, and I think that’s probably right.”

Polonium-210 emits alpha radiation, he said, which unlike gamma radiation is not highly penetrative. However “the real danger is that it gets into your body, because [the alpha rays] go on emitting for quite a long time, which of course when it’s in your body it’s distributed around your body, and any cell next to where it’s distributed is badly affected by the continuous bombardment of alpha rays.”

He was not aware, he said, of any other case of polonium poisoning in the UK.

In the presence of Marina Litvinenko, the dead man’s widow, Cary said that after the Russian died on 23 November 2006, shortly after radioactive polonium poisoning was confirmed, the intensive care unit in which he had been treated at University College hospital in London was sealed, and the medical equipment left exactly as it had been at the moment of his death.

The Russian was initially admitted to Barnet and Chase Farm hospital in north London on 3 November, the inquiry heard, and was initially diagnosed with a gastrointestinal infection and treated with antibiotics. The inquiry has previously heard that detectives believe Litvinenko had consumed the poison two days earlier, on 1 November, after drinking tea that had been laced with the toxin.

Within days he had lost his hair and developed pancytopenia, which the pathologist described as “a loss of all the cellular elements in the circulating blood”. A bone marrow biopsy on 16 November showed bone marrow failure, after which he was transferred to the haematology unit at University College hospital in central London.

His liver and kidney function deteriorated, and on 22 November he suffered a cardio-respiratory arrest. The following day he died, following another similar arrest.

Recognising that the testimony might be distressing for Marina Litvinenko, the inquiry chairman, Sir Robert Owen, offered her the option of leaving the court. Her barrister, Ben Emmerson QC, said he had discussed the matter with her and “she wants to be present for all the evidence”.

Reading from his conclusions following the postmortem, Cary said: “From the findings it is apparent that Mr Litvinenko ingested a large quantity of polonium 210 on or around 1 November 2006, largely, if not wholly, by oral ingestion rather than by inhalation. The calculated amount absorbed was far in excess of known survivability limits.”

Separately, Sir Robert Owen, inquiry chairman, was told that Andrej Lugovoi, one of two men whose extradition is sought from Russia over the killing, spoke on Tuesday to Russian media to declare the inquiry a politically motivated “judicial farce” that had been revived by the British government in response to the Ukrainian crisis.

Speaking to an interviewer from Echo of Moscow, Ben Emmerson QC told the court, Lugovoi said: “I don’t have expectations, this is an old story.” The process had been suspended when the British Foreign Secretary and home secretary refused to disclose secret materials, he said, “but when the situation in Ukraine had kicked off and the UK’s geographical interests had likely begun to change they had decided to dust off the mothballs and commence these proceedings.

“Once the materials have been made secret, I said in 2013 that I would no longer participate in this judicial farce, that’s it.”

He was pressed for clarification by the interviewer and said: “What I mean is we want [the killing] to be investigated but we want the inquiry to be objective. Moreover we want the inquiry to take place in Russia.”

In response to the suggestion that the inquiry was politically motivated and had been put in place in response to the Ukraine conflict, Owen told the court that when he formally opened the inquiry on July 31 last year “there had been lengthy discussions as to my terms of reference which had preceded the situation as it evolved in the Ukraine. That is a matter of importance.”

In contrast to Lugovoi’s statement to another journalist that he had not been invited to take part in the inquiry, Emmerson said, the chairman had expressed the hope that both Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, the other prime suspect, would give evidence by video link.

“I was careful to express the hope rather than the expectation,” noted Owen.

Greek Taxes



In this comment piece from The Guardian Paul Mason lays the blame for Greece's economic mess with a handful of tax-evading oligarchs.

Now I'm sure these guys have a lot to answer for, but the reality is that the well-off Greek middle classes have been avoiding their fair share of taxes for years as well and if you ask me, it's naive to suggest that after Syriza has brought a few wealthy individuals to book, all will be well again.

I remember watching a TV programme by the former MP Michael Portillo at the time Greece was forced to go cap in hand to the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, otherwise the lights would have been switched off. 

Portillo interviews the owner of a small family plumbing business who had bought himself a fancy Porsche as a company car which was worth somewhere in the region of 75,000 Euros. 

Worse was to follow as the chap had also purchased another 4 cars through the business, not vans or working vehicles, but luxury cars for other family members including his wife and daughter which landed him with a total bill of 250,000 Euros.

So, just like Spain there is an awful lot of 'dinero negro' doing the rounds in the Greek economy and this tax avoidance business is a middle-class obsession, not just something that's practised by wealthy Greek oligarchs. 


Greece shows what can happen when the young revolt against corrupt elites


The rise of Syriza can’t just be explained by the crisis in the eurozone: a youthful generation of professionals has had enough of tax-evading oligarchs



By Paul Mason - The Guardian

Syriza supporters cheer Alexis Tsipras on 22 January. 2015. Tsipras's attack on corruption resonated massively among the young. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty

At Syriza’s HQ, the cigarette smoke in the cafe swirls into shapes. If those could reflect the images in the minds of the men hunched over their black coffees, they would probably be the faces of Che Guevara, or Aris Velouchiotis, the second world war Greek resistance fighter. These are veteran leftists who expected to end their days as professors of such esoteric subjects as development economics, human rights law and who killed who in the civil war. Instead, they are on the brink of power.

Black coffee and hard pretzels are all the cafe provides, together with the possibility of contracting lung cancer. But on the eve of the vote, I found its occupants confident, if bemused.

However, Syriza HQ is not the place to learn about radicalisation. The fact that a party with a “central committee” even got close to power has nothing to do with a sudden swing to Marxism in the Greek psyche. It is, instead, testimony to three things: the strategic crisis of the eurozone, the determination of the Greek elite to cling to systemic corruption, and a new way of thinking among the young.

Of these, the eurozone’s crisis is easiest to understand – because its consequences can be read so easily in the macroeconomic figures. The IMF predicted Greece would grow as the result of its aid package in 2010. Instead, the economy has shrunk by 25%. Wages are down by the same amount. Youth unemployment stands at 60% – and that is among those who are still in the country.

So the economic collapse – about which all Greeks, both right and leftwing, are bitter – is not just seen as a material collapse. It demonstrated complete myopia among the European policy elite. In all of drama and comedy there is no figure more laughable as a rich man who does not know what he is doing. For the past four years the troika – the European Commission, IMF and European Central Bank – has provided Greeks with just such a spectacle.

As for the Greek oligarchs, their misrule long predates the crisis. These are not only the famous shipping magnates, whose industry pays no tax, but the bosses of energy and construction groups and football clubs. As one eminent Greek economist told me last week: “These guys have avoided paying tax through the Metaxas dictatorship, the Nazi occupation, a civil war and a military junta.” They had no intention of paying taxes as the troika began demanding Greece balance the books after 2010, which is why the burden fell on those Greeks trapped in the PAYE system – a workforce of 3.5 million that fell during the crisis to just 2.5 million.

The oligarchs allowed the Greek state to become a battleground of conflicting interests. As Yiannis Palaiologos, a Greek journalist, put it in his recent book on the crisis, there is “a pervasive irresponsibility, a sense that no one is in charge, no one is willing or able to act as a custodian of the common good”.

But their most corrosive impact is on the layers of society beneath them. “There goes X,” Greeks say to each other as the rich walk to their tables in trendy bars. “He is controlling Y in parliament and having an affair with Z.” It’s like a soap opera, but for real, and too many Greeks are deferentially mesmerised by it.

Over three general elections Syriza’s achievement has been to politicise the issue of the oligarchy. The Greek word for them is “the entangled” – and they were, above all, entangled in the centrist political duopoly. Because Syriza owes them nothing, its leader, Alexis Tsipras, was able to give the issue of corruption and tax evasion both rhetorical barrels – and this resonated massively among the young.

Alexis Tsipras of Syriza in Athens on 22 January. Photograph: AGF/Rex

And here’s why. In a functional market economy, the classic couple in a posh restaurant are young and close in age. In my travels through the eurocrisis – from Dublin to Athens – I have noticed that the classic couple in a dysfunctional economy is a grey-haired man with a twentysomething woman. It becomes a story of old men with oligarchic power flaunting their wealth and influence without opprobrium.

The youth are usurped when oligarchy, corruption and elite politics stifle meritocracy. The sudden emergence of small centrist parties led by charismatic young professionals in Greece is testimony that this generation has had enough. But by the time they got their act together, Tsipras was already there.

From outside, Greece looks like a giant negative: but what lies beneath the rise of the radical left is the emergence of positive new values – among a layer of young people much wider than Syriza’s natural support base. These are the classic values of the networked generation: self-reliance, creativity, the willingness to treat life as a social experiment, a global outlook.

When Golden Dawn emerged as a frightening, violent neo-Nazi force, with – at one point – 14% support, what struck the networked youth was how many of the political elite pandered to it. People who had read its history could see a replay of late Weimar flickering before their eyes: delusional Nazis feted by big businessmen craving for order.

I’ve reported the Greek crisis since it began, and what changed in 2015 was this: Syriza had already won the solid support of about 25% of voters on the issues of Europe and economics. But now a further portion of the Greek electorate, above all the young, are signalling they’ve had enough of corruption and elites.

Greece, though an outlier, has always been a signifier, too: this is what happens when modern capitalism fails. For there are inept bureaucrats and corrupt elites everywhere: only the trillions of dollars created and pumped into their nations’ economies to avoid collapse shields them from the scrutiny they have received in Greece.

We face two years of electoral uncertainty in Europe, with the far left or the hard right now vying for power in Spain, France and the Netherlands. Some are proclaiming this “the end of neoliberalism”.

I’m not sure of that. All that’s certain is that Greece shows how it could end.

Paul Mason is economics editor at Channel 4 News.

Strange Priorities (29/01/15)



Here's an interesting 'tidbit' from the BBC regarding the politics of Greece - one of the five major policy priorities of Syriza which is the largest party of the new Greek Government.

Apparently Syriza is intent on scrapping a unpopular property tax known as 'Enfia' which sounds a bit like the Council Tax in the UK which helps to pay for a whole range of local services.

But in place of Enfia there will apparently be a new tax levied on luxury homes, of which there will be relatively few, and only larger second properties, presumably because so many Greeks (like so Spaniards, French and Italians) have second or 'holiday' homes.  

So as the BBC says, it seems that Syriza are not just representing the less well off in Greece, but the interests of the second-home-owning relatively well off middle classes as well - which is not how things look from the outside, of course.

BBC News 

Scrapping of property tax 

It is not just the poor who voted for Syriza but the middle classes as well. Property owners in Athens's leafy, northern suburbs were enticed with the promised abolition of a hated annual levy on private property.

Known as "Enfia", the tax was introduced in 2011 as an emergency measure but made permanent under the previous government.

Instead, there will be a tax on luxury homes and large second properties.

Greeks take a stand against unpopular tax

Do the Right Thing



Labour's very own Billy Bunter has been on the TV this week making claims about a Tory politician from the Thatcher era, Leon Brittan.

Now as far as I can tell the allegations being made behind the scenes, by as yet unnamed people, are already under investigation by the police who presumably don't require the MP's help in conducting their enquiries.

I don't know the man personally, but Watson gives me the impression of being a very odd individual whose interest in these matters is intensely party political whereas it ought to be about doing the right thing. 
        

Awesome, Dude! (8 July 2013)



Have you ever read a more embarrassing letter than this resignation letter from Tom Watson MP - to the Labour leader Ed Miliband?

Sycophantic and self-serving were the words that came to mind as I was asked to believe that Tom's resignation had nothing to do with the Unite vote rigging scandal in Falkirk - yet things only got worse as Tom (46) signed off with a flourish by advising Ed on his taste in music and recommending an 'awesome band'.    

Apparently this is the third time that Tom Watson has resigned from the Labour front bench - most notoriously in an organised coup against Prime Minister Tony  Blair to pave the way for Tom's pal and political mentor - Gordon Brown.

And look at how that turned out - which tells you something about Mr Watson's politics and modus operandi - and helps to explain why the Labour is in such a terrible mess these days, as the politics of trade unions bosses exert ever increasing influence over the Party - with their traditional emphasis muscle, money and organisation over the battle of ideas. 

Now Tom Watson has his admirers - including Ed Miliband who rejected his earlier offer to resign - and his dogged pursuit of News International was a real achievement for his CV even if it conveniently ignored Labour's close relations with the Murdoch empire is happier days.

But I've never been a big fan, I have to say - he reminds me of a big kid who never grew up - but more in the manner of a Billy Bunter figure as opposed to Peter Pan.

Dear Ed,

I said that I’d stay with you as general election co-ordinator within the Shadow Cabinet as long as I was useful. I think it would be a good idea for you, and me, if I stood down from the role now.

As you know, I offered my resignation on Tuesday and you asked me to reconsider. I’ve thought about it and still feel it is better for you and the future unity of the party that I go now. There are some who have not forgiven me for resigning in 2006. I fully accept the consequences of that decision and genuinely hope my departure allows the party to move on.

Yet it’s not the unattributed shadow cabinet briefings around the mess in Falkirk that has convinced me that the arrangement has run its course (though they don’t help). I believe that the report should be published – in full – and the whole truth told as soon as possible so that the record can be made clear. I’ve still not seen the report but believe there are an awful lot of spurious suppositions being written.

I wish to use the backbenches to speak out in areas of personal interest: open government and the surveillance state, the digital economy, drones and the future of conflict, the child abuse inquiries, the aftermath of the Murdoch scandal and grass roots responses to austerity.

Having resigned a couple of times before, I know how puckish lobby hacks might choose to misconstrue the departure. So to make it harder for them let me say this: I’m proud of your Buddha-like qualities of patience, deep thought, compassion and resolve. I remain your loyal servant. I’ll always be on hand to help you if you need me. I just don’t think you need me in the Shadow Cabinet any more. After nearly thirty years of this, I feel like I’ve seen the merry-go-round turn too many times. Whereas the Shadow Cabinet’s for people who still want to get dizzy.

You have it in you to be an outstanding Labour Prime Minister. The road ahead is always rocky but I will be with you all of the way, cheering you on from the backbenches. You’re my friend and leader, and I’m going to do all I can to make sure you win in 2015.

Here’s my parting thought:

John Humphrys asked me why you were not at Glastonbury this weekend. I said Labour leaders can’t be seen standing in muddy fields listening to bands. And then I thought how terribly sad that this is true. So: be that great Labour leader that you can be, but try to have a real life too. And if you want to see an awesome band, I recommend Drenge.

Yours sincerely,


Tom Watson