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Posts Tagged ‘Corruption

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!”

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Written by Richard Wilson

February 14, 2012 at 12:41 am

Three weeks before a General Election, Parliament refuses to disclose details of which MPs are being probed by standards watchdog

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Less than a month before a General Election, you are not entitled to know whether the MP seeking your vote on May 6th is currently under investigation for corruption.

On March 25th I made a Freedom Of Information Act request to the Parliamentary standards watchdog, asking:

a) How many MPs are currently under investigation for suspected breaches of the rules (this could be anything from failing to disclose a second job to taking cash from lobbyists)

b) The names of any MPs currently under investigation.

It seemed to me that in the run-up to the General Election, it was important that the public should be aware which of the MPs currently seeking their votes are at the same time being investigated for dodgy dealings.

Given the well-publicised complicity of the House of Commons authorities in the abuse of Parliamentary expenses by MPs – and their role in the subsequent cover-up – along with the cagey and defensive attitude of the person I spoke to when I phoned the Parliamentary Standards Office a few weeks ago, I was expecting a fair bit of obstruction and evasion. They haven’t let me down.

Today I got an email from Bob Castle, who carries the impressive job title of “Head of Information Rights and Security” at the House of Commons.

According to Mr Castle,

The number of inquiries under way as at 31 March 2010 is information that will be included in the Commissioner’s Annual Report for 2009-10, which is expected to be published in the early summer. It is therefore exempt from publication under s22  of the Freedom of Information Act (information intended for future publication).

Conveniently for those MPs under investigation (and for all we know this could be all 646 of them), “early summer” in this context almost certainly means after the General Election on May 6th.  Last year’s annual report on MP abuses was published on 29th June 2009, the previous one on 17th July 2008, and the one before that on 25th October 2007.

Bob Castle goes on to say that:

While there is a public interest in providing access to information such as that covered by your request, this interest is being met by regular publications of information about number of complaints received.

This means, as far as I can tell, that in the opinion of the Commons bureaucrats, a 4o-page report published just once a year tells us, the public, all we deserve to know about the investigations being carried out by the body whose job it is to stamp our corruption by our elected representatives.

It would surely not cost the Parliamentary authorities very much simply to disclose the number of MPs currently under investigation. As a commenter on this article helpfully points out, releasing that information would almost certainly have taken less time than typing out their lengthy excuse for not doing so.

We are also not allowed to know the names of any of the MPs under investigation, as this would apparently infringe the “priveleges of Parliament”.

What this is really about is an attitude. Despite being paid out of the taxes we earn, Bob Castle certainly does not seem to be behaving like someone who believes he is actually accountable to the British public. More than any of the details in this particular case, it’s that attitude that seems most worrying, because it seems to show that the same mindset that allowed the expenses to scandal to happen is very much alive and well in Westminster.

While many of our most corrupt and tainted MPs are stepping down at the next election, and while many others will be fired on May 6th when the voters have their say, Bob Castle and his unelected colleagues will all still be there on May 7th, doing, presumably, what they’ve always done.

As it turns out, Castle played a starring role in the expenses cover-up:

…the preliminary decision in favour of detailed [expenses] disclosure was made by [information commissioner] Mr Thomas.

Signed by Graham Smith, the deputy information commissioner, and dated October 2, 2006, it stated:

“The Commissioner requires that the House of Commons shall provide the complainant with the requested information with the following redactions made. “

The redactions included identification of any third parties e.g. traders; personal and third party addresses; and details of bank accounts and mortgages.

A leaked email from Bob Castle, a data protection and FOI officer at the Commons, sent to Nicole Duncan at the commissioner’s office, protested that the wording of the decision was “inaccurate and unfair”.

Further leaked emails show Ms Duncan continually tried to extract information about the expenses claims of the named MPs.

However, in November 2006, Ms Duncan emailed Mr Castle to “confirm that for the purposes of the [final] Decision Notice in this case we will not be reproducing the exact details of what information the House holds in relation to each of the MPs.”

A reply from Mr Castle at the Commons stated that “the House considered that it would be a breach of the fairness provisions of the first data protection principle to provide any personal data relating to an individual MP’s claims including information as to whether part of their allowances claim is in respect of mortgage or rental payments”.

He added that “until the case is finally determined” the Commons believed it was “released from its obligations” under key sections of the FOI Act.

I’ve appealed this latest FOI refusal, but conveniently, again, for the MPs under investigation, given the timescales involved for FOI appeals, it’s inconceivable that any kind of ruling would be made this side of the General Election.

My personal view is that clearing out the corrupt MPs will not be enough (although it is a very good start). We need a wholesale clear-out of the officials who, for so long, have been doing such a lamentable job of protecting the integrity of our Parliamentary system.

The exact questions I asked were:

I would like to know:

1) The number of MPs currently under investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

2) The names of any MPs currently under investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

And here are the exemptions cited in full by Bob Castle:

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is inquiring into these matters under the procedures set out in Standing Order No 150. The number of inquiries under way as at 31 March 2010 is information that will be included in the Commissioner’s Annual Report for 2009-10, which is expected to be published in the early summer. It is therefore exempt from publication under s22  of the Freedom of Information Act (information intended for future publication). While there is a public interest in providing access to information such as that covered by your request, this interest is being met by regular publications of information about number of complaints received. Therefore, the balance of the public interest rests with maintaining the exemption while this information is being prepared and finalised for routine publication.

The procedure approved by the Committee under SO No 150 does not currently provide for the disclosure of the remaining information requested (a list of the names of MPs under inquiry).  As this procedure has been approved by the Committee in accordance with the Standing Order, the exemption under s34 is necessary to avoid infringing the privileges of Parliament, which include the rights of each Committee to interpret its own orders of reference. I must therefore refuse your request.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 9, 2010 at 11:17 am

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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Support the Libel Reform campaign – Free speech is not for sale!

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Click here to support the campaign for freedom of speech in the UK

England’s libel laws are unjust, against the public interest and internationally criticised – there is urgent need for reform.

Freedom to criticise and question, in strong terms and without malice, is the cornerstone of argument and debate, whether in scholarly journals, on websites, in newspapers or elsewhere. Our current libel laws inhibit debate and stifle free expression. They discourage writers from tackling important subjects and thereby deny us the right to read about them.

The law is so biased towards claimants and so hostile to writers that London has become known as the libel capital of the world. The rich and powerful bring cases to London on the flimsiest grounds (libel tourism), because they know that 90% of cases are won by claimants. Libel laws intended to protect individual reputation are being exploited to suppress fair comment and criticism.

The cost of a libel trial is often in excess of £1 million and 140 times more expensive than libel cases in mainland Europe; publishers (and individual journalists, authors, academics, performers and blog-writers) cannot risk such extortionate costs, which means that they are forced to back down, withdraw and apologise for material they believe is true, fair and important to the public.

The English PEN/Index on Censorship report has shown that there is an urgent need to amend the law to provide a stronger, wider and more accessible public interest defence. Sense About Science has shown that the threat of libel action leads to self-censorship in scientific and medical writing.

We the undersigned, in England and beyond, urge politicians to support a bill for major reforms of the English libel laws now, in the interests of fairness, the public interest and free speech.

More than 30,000 people have signed so far – click here to join them

Written by Richard Wilson

March 4, 2010 at 7:29 am

George Monbiot on another misuse of UK government’s “sweeping powers”

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From The Guardian

The villagers have marched, demonstrated, and sent in letters and petitions. Some people tried to stop the company from cutting down trees by standing in the way. Their campaign was entirely peaceful. But the power company discovered that it was legally empowered to shut the protests down.

Using the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, it obtained an injunction against the villagers and anyone else who might protest. This forbids them from “coming to, remaining on, trespassing or conducting any demonstrations, or protesting or other activities” on land near the lake. If anyone breaks this injunction they could spend five years in prison.

The act, parliament was told, was meant to protect women from stalkers. But as soon as it came on to the statute books, it was used to stop peaceful protest. To obtain an injunction, a company needs to show only that someone feels “alarmed or distressed” by the protesters, a requirement so vague that it can mean almost anything. Was this an accident of sloppy drafting? No. Timothy Lawson-Cruttenden, the solicitor who specialises in using this law against protesters, boasts that his company “assisted in the drafting of the … Protection from Harassment Act 1997”. In 2005 parliament was duped again, when a new clause, undebated in either chamber, was slipped into the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. It peps up the 1997 act, which can now be used to ban protest of any kind.

Mr Lawson-Cruttenden, who represented RWE npower, brags that the purpose of obtaining injunctions under the act is “the criminalisation of civil disobedience”. One advantage of this approach is that very low standards of proof are required: “hearsay evidence … is admissable in civil courts”. The injunctions he obtains criminalise all further activity, even though, as he admits, “any allegations made remain untested and unproven”.

Last week, stung by bad publicity, npower backed down. The villagers had just started to celebrate when they made a shocking discovery: they now feature on an official list of domestic extremists.

Kevin Connolly on the psychology of the Madoff fraud

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From the BBC

If something sounds too good to be true, I keep reading, that must be because it is too good to be true.

It is good advice as far as it goes and it raises the question of why so many wealthy, sophisticated savers were apparently conned into believing that Mr Madoff had come up with an investment strategy that allowed him to pay handsome returns even when the stock market was falling.

I asked a very senior regulator about this, a man who has been involved in formulating public policy for many years, and he said the answer was depressingly simple.

People are prone to believe what they want to believe, he said, and in rising markets a kind of irrational euphoria takes hold in which we are not inclined to ask difficult questions…

…I asked the regulator if the world would learn a lesson from the Madoff case and, depressingly, he was doubtful that it would.

These kind of schemes are only possible in a rising market and the next time the market is rising strongly – as it surely will one day – that old feeling of irrational euphoria will take over.

The reason we are easy to fool in the end, is because we are so good at fooling ourselves.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 21, 2008 at 2:39 pm

NO2ID – Nothing to hide, nothing to fear?

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NO2ID’s hard-hitting video on the dangers of data abuse

Many summers ago I had a temp job as a clerk at a private bank where a number of big-name celebrities held an account. The amiable chap I was working for was just a couple of years older than me, and seemed pretty comfortable in his job, though it was obvious that he found the work inordinately dull. One of the ways he liked to liven things up was to look through the personal details of the bank’s famous clients, and on occasions make prank calls to the private numbers that he’d dug out of the files.

As he was a music fan, millionaire ageing rock stars came in for particular attention. Within days of my starting he’d (amiably) shown me around Paul McCartney’s bank account and told me with pride of his habit of calling up the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, whispering “Robert Plant, ha ha ha!” and then hanging up.

A few years later, soon after the death of my sister, we got a knock on the door from the Daily Mail. We had long been ex-directory, and were being meticulously careful about our contact with the media, but the Mail had managed to track us down nonetheless. For years I was mystified about how they might have done it, and it was only when I read Nick Davies’s “Flat Earth News” that I found a plausible answer. Tabloid newspapers had long been in the habit of paying private investigators to track down people they wanted to contact, and it was an open secret that the PIs were bribing civil servants at the DVLA to hand out people’s personal details. Anyone who earned a legally-registered car could be found by the Sun or the Mail at a few hours’ notice. Maybe that was how they found us.

I was reminded of all of this yesterday when I had a fascinating chat with Phil Booth, the national co-ordinator of the NO2ID campaign. The standard reply to anyone who objects to compulsory ID cards, and the attendant mega-database that the government plans to introduce, is that only those with something to hide will have something to fear from it. But this relies on the assumption that every official with access to the database can be trusted to behave with absolute integrity at all times. No-one will ever be tempted to look up the details of their favourite (or least favourite) celebrity and make prank calls to them. No-one will ever take a bribe from a tabloid journalist, or an identity-fraudster, or a deranged ex-husband looking to settle a grudge.

According to NO2ID, the government databases that currently exist are already being used in unauthorised ways on a massive scale. A monthly audit of just one local authority database reportedly found thousands of instances of data being used in ways beyond that originally intended and authorised. Many of the infringements were no doubt minor, but the sheer volume clearly highlights the huge gap between the intended purpose of a government “power” and the practical reality of its use.

It’s this gap between intention and reality that the “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” mantra fails to address. As I argue in “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, one deeply engrained feature of the human psyche seems to be a tendency to over-estimate – sometimes catastrophically – our capacity to control what goes on in the world – and to under-estimate the potential for unintended consequences.

We assume that making something illegal – be it the use of drugs or the abuse of our personal data – is the same thing as stopping it from happening. We assume that giving the authorities unfettered power to detain, torture or even kill those suspected of engaging in some social evil – be it drugs, crime or terrorism – will a) make the problem better rather than worse b) only affect those who’ve been up to no good. Time and again we remain blind to the gap between intention and reality until thousands of innocent people have already been subjected to horrific abuses.

The phrase “nothing to hide” works so well as propaganda because – like many good propagandistic phrases – it means two entirely separate things. “Nothing to hide” is generally taken to be synonymous both with “doing nothing wrong”, and with “no secrets from anyone”. Yet there are plenty of people who have done nothing wrong but might nonetheless have very strong reasons for wanting to keep some things secret from somebody. As NO2ID points out, these include:

those fleeing domestic abuse; victims of “honour” crimes; witnesses in criminal cases; those at risk of kidnapping; undercover investigators; refugees from oppressive regimes overseas; those pursued by the press; those who may be terrorist targets.

A series of embarrassing data breaches have shown how hard the government finds it to keep our personal details secure even now. The more information is stored centrally, and the more people can access it, the more opportunity for abuse and incompetence there will be – with potentially very serious consequences for those who, quite legitimately, do have something to hide.

And neither are we bound to accept that there is anything intrinsically wrong, in and of itself, with wanting to keep things about ourselves secret. The assumption often underlying discussions about the government’s uber-database plan seems to be that the onus is on opponents to explain why we shouldn’t be required to surrender all of our personal information to the authorities, rather than on the government to explain why this move is actually necessary.

At the heart of all this is a fundamental question of principle over who “owns” our personal data, and who is best placed to keep it secure. After half an hour speaking to Phil Booth, I’m more convinced than ever that, both on the principles and the practicalities, this government is fighting a losing battle.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 13, 2008 at 11:45 am

Human Rights Watch on the deadly consequences of UN wishful thinking in Congo

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William Swing

UN Congo chief William Swing withheld
evidence of DRC government atrocities

From Human Rights Watch

The United Nations and a number of bilateral donors invested significant financial and political capital in the [2006] Congolese elections, one of the largest electoral support programs in the UN’s history. But with the polls finished, they have failed to invest comparable resources and attention in assuring that the new government implements its international human rights obligations. For donor governments, concern about winning a favored position with the new government took priority over halting abuses and assuring accountability…

Donor governments said they would devote considerable financial and technical resources to security sector reform programs, but have yet to insist that such programs include adequate vetting to rid the military and law enforcement services of individuals in senior positions who have been implicated in serious human rights violations…

Following the killings in Bas Congo in February 2007, MONUC [the UN peacekeeping force in Congo] sent a multi-disciplinary team to investigate. Its report was not published for five months as it was deemed “too sensitive.” UN officials did not want to criticize the new government before securing its agreement on the role of MONUC in the post-electoral period. Similarly MONUC delayed publication of its report on the March 2007 events for fear of upsetting relations with Kabila.

Both reports were blocked by the head of MONUC, Ambassador William Swing, who deflected repeated requests from the UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in New York and from the then UN high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, for the reports to be made public.

If the reports had been promptly published, they could have contributed to wider awareness of the serious violations committed and might have led to additional diplomatic pressure on the Congolese government to halt the abuses and hold the perpetrators accountable. The March 2007 investigation report was eventually published in French on January 4, 2008, after a copy was leaked to the press; no English version has been made public.