Recent Conservative Party Articles
Public opinion appears to be that Trenton Oldfield, the protester who disrupted last year’s boat race, is a bit of a dick. I’m not that bothered – the race is a fix anyway, the same two teams get into the final every year.
In the very week that his British wife is expecting their first child Oldfield has been told that, after ten years, his presence is no longer welcome in this country. Theresa May’s decision to seek to have him transported to Australia for his crimes (on top of the two months he’s already served inside) goes against all natural justice but, more importantly, seeks to split up his family to make some cheap political point.
The collateral damage of May’s callous punishment is his British wife and soon to be born child, a child whose right to a father she seems unwilling to consider.
The terrible truth though is that Oldfield’s family are not alone. For many British born people it is harder to settle with their spouse and children in this country than it is almost anywhere else in the world.
It is even easier for EU citizens to settle here with non-EU spouses than it is for a UK citizen to be reunited with their own children if they were born outside the EU.
Imagine only being able to see your mother on Skype.
Imagine being separated from your own children because they were born abroad by a non-EU citizen.
Imagine having an elderly relative who desperately needs your support, but being unable to look after them because they come from outside the EU, or being separated in your old age from your only remaining family members because of where you were born.
That’s hundreds of broken hearts before we even consider the cases of refugees and asylum seekers where we split 200 children from their detained or deported parents.
None of this is because they have committed a crime (even a fairly trivial one, as in Oldfield’s case), but purely because they had the audacity to fall in love with someone with the wrong colour passport. The toxic debate around immigration bears little relationship to the reality.
If you are wealthy life is, naturally, easier. If you seek to be reunited with your family you need to demonstrate, among other things, that you are earning at least £22,400 with a further £2,400 for each additional child – a burden even harder to meet if you live in a poorer part of the country or belong to a group of people who earn less than the average… like women.
If you cannot meet the financial and other tests then your family will be one more victim of this government’s desperation to drive down the immigration figures in any way they can think of. You don’t have to disturb the rich at play to have your family torn apart.
British citizens might feel it is their natural right to have their children live with them, no matter where they were born, but this is not always the case.
The first anniversary of the government’s decision to change the family immigration rules (Tuesday 9 July 2013) please help keep up the pressure.
by Andrew Allen
In his spending round statement, the Chancellor has pretty much done what we feared he would.
First and foremost, he has shifted a huge chunk of government spending from revenue to capital. That’s right – despite the Coalition Government’s poor record in getting anything built, the Chancellor’s big idea for kick starting the economy is to spend £300bn on infrastructure by 2020.
Although we won’t get the detail until Danny Alexander speaks tomorrow, it appears certain that a huge tranche of money will go on new road projects.
Schemes like the A14 in Cambridgeshire and Mersey Gateway Bridge will doubtless be announced yet again and be joined by zombie schemes resurrected from the infamous 1989 Roads to Prosperity White Paper. All this will be highly controversial, lighting the blue touch paper for a new wave roads protests.
It won’t help the economy either. The likelihood of any new scheme being under construction and creating jobs by the time of the next election is minimal. All while the backlog of road maintenance continues to grow.
Now approaching £11bn, tackling this backlog would not only do more to help business than new road plans, it would also create jobs more quickly.
Another thing the Government could do to help more people get back to work would be to invest in the bus network.
While the Department for Transport’s bus support appears to have been saved from the axe, local authorities budget have been hit.
Their buses support is primarily aimed at those on lower income – exactly the people who have no other way of getting around, and certainly won’t benefit from shifting transport spending to road building.
Andrew Allen is from the charity Campaign for Better Transport – which calls for affordable green transport for all.
Given the debate in the House of Commons, I think it’s well worth reflecting on exactly where opposition to equal marriage is coming from and, particularly, how that opposition is being organised.
As far as public opinion is concerned, YouGov President Peter Kellner laid out the actual position with admirable clarity yesterday:
The passions of grass-roots Tories who are bitterly opposed to same-sex marriage are not shared by the wider electorate. Most voters back a change in the law – and very few opponents are willing to switch their votes because of this issue.
So, among the public as a whole, 4% are pro-same-sex marriage AND say this is a vote-deciding issue, while 3% are in the opposite camp. Among those who voted Conservative in 2010, just 6% say this is a vote-deciding issue, and they divide 3-1 against same-sex marriage. So even there, the net effect is tiny.
So, not only do a majority of the public support marriage equality but its also anything but the political hot potato that its (mostly) Tory opponents are trying to make out.
However, one issue not many pick up on is the parallel problem of ‘organisational capture’, i.e. what us lefties used to refer to as ‘entryism‘.
In simple terms, it is not simply a matter of the decline in the mass membership of political parties, and other organisations, leaving them increasingly at the mercy of their residual ‘swivel-eyed’ activist rump. It also leaves them in a position where, starting at the grassroots level, they become increasingly susceptible to capture by organised minority interest groups intent on using the party/organisation as a vehicle to push their own narrow agenda.
Although this is problem that is, historically, most closely associated with the political left, and in the UK particular with the takeover of the Labour Party Young Socialists and Liverpool City Council by Militant, it is an issue that is increasingly coming to bedevil conservative politics, particularly in the United States. For example, one of the more alarming and poignant stories to emerge from the 2010 US election was that of Bob Inglis, a former Republican member of the US House of Representatives who was deselected in 2010 after losing a primary to Tea Party-backed candidate.
You might think this can safely be filed away under ‘only in America’, but don’t be so sure.
Take a good hard look at the following chart which I’ve put together in an attempt to map the many connections that already exist between our own right-wing Christian lobby and both their US counterparts and, more importantly, with a wide range of British conservative political organisations and politicians.
The map, which is far from complete, shows the extent to which our own religious lobby has already forged connections and assumed positions of influence throughout the right-wing/conservative movement in Britain.
It also shows the extent to which political opposition to measures such as equal marriage and legal access to safe abortion services originates with and is tied into a very narrow range of closely connected religious groups.
If you think that the religious right in Britain is no more than a bunch of fringe evangelical groups with few connections and very little political influence, this chart may well persuade you to think again.
A longer version of this post is here.
It’s fair to say George Osborne has never been the Financial Transaction Tax’s biggest fan. As 11 European countries agreed a 0.01%-0.1% tax on shares, bonds and derivatives that will raise an estimated £30bn each year, he made clear that Britain was folding its arms, stamping its foot and refusing to join in.
It’s one thing to dismiss billions in additional revenue, side with your friends in the City and plump instead for the harshest programme of austerity since WWII.
But, clearly feeling his priorities were still not perverse enough, the Chancellor then launched a legal challenge against the European’s proposal, arguing it would be bad for his friends in the City.
George Osborne protested that European’s choosing to tax their financial institutions and their financial products may impact on other countries. Except that is precisely how our own stamp duty on shares works. Of the £3bn this FTT raises the UK Exchequer each year, around 40% of revenue comes from overseas.
In the face of such hypocrisy the Robin Hood Tax campaign launched a petition calling on Osborne to drop the legal challenge.
Over 15,000 people emailed the Treasury, who blocked the emails. We’ll be taking the petition by hand to the Treasury to ensure they get the message.
There have been almost daily attacks against the Financial Transaction Tax in the right of centre press as well, backed up by a slew of ‘reports’ commissioned by the financial sector. We’re taking this as a good sign.
One of the only concrete proposals to emerge post-crisis to ensure ordinary people do not pay for the economic mess is on the verge of becoming reality.
The shame is that Osborne’s opposition means the UK public will miss out on the benefits. Wild-eyed proclamations of the financial sector aside, this proposal is moderate. FTTs already exist not only in the UK, but around the world. Collectively they raise around £25bn a year. They have been implemented by governments of all political hues and in key financial centres such as Hong Kong, South Africa and Brazil.
As the government goes into overdrive to weaken the proposal, so it’s now more than ever they need reminding – the interests of the financial sector do not equate to the interests of society as a whole.
Simon works for the Robin Hood Tax Campaign
You would normally expect an MP who has only just had their party whip reinstated after a six month suspension to lie low for a while but not Nadine Dorries. She wants an alliance with UKIP.
But thy is Dorries even talking about the possibility of running on a joint Tory/UKIP ticket?
Well, the answer almost certainly lies in this recent YouGov poll:
New YouGov research conducted just before her party membership was reinstated reveals that 43% of Tories would have supported the party’s decision to reinstate her, while 45% think she should not be allowed to rejoin the party.
That’s right, more Tory voters would rather have seen Dorries left out in the cold than were happy to see her readmitted to the party and the figures amongst UKIP voters are not that much better:
The poll also suggests many UKIP voters may be relieved the Conservative Party took Dorries back. 35% of UKIP supporters think their party would be less credible if Nadine Dorries were to join it, compared to only 7% who think it would be more credible.
Even allowing for UKIP recent performance in the local elections and expectations that it will perform extremely well in next year’s European elections, one would not normally expect to see a self-styled Eurosceptic MP in a historically very safe Tory seat sweating over the possibility of UKIP running a candidate against them at the next general election.
If nothing else, the majority of incumbent Tory Eurosceptics have a personal vote and a track record to call upon that means that’s unlikely that they local electorate will seek to punish them for what they perceive to be Cameron’s follies but Dorries is not in anything like that position thanks to her own past conduct – and I’m not just talking here about her skipping out her constituents for more than three weeks to appear on “I’m a Celebrity…”.
There’s also the little matter of her using her personal ‘blog’ to mislead her own constituents as to the actual location of her main home, while claiming for her constituency home on expenses, her habitual use of her own parliamentary office as a job creation scheme for her own daughter and, of course, the ongoing investigation by IPSA into expenses claimed since the last general election for the rental of flat in Pimlico that, as I revealed last week, she used overnight for a total of just 25 nights in the whole of 2012 while, at the same time, claiming just over £4,000 to cover the costs of make a daily commute to Westminster from her constituency home, and back, eighty-six times.
The full figures are, I think, well worth repeating:
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out, based on YouGov’s polling and her own track record, why Dorries is talking up the idea of trying run on an joint Tory/UKIP ticket.
It’s not that she fears that a UKIP candidate in her constituency will be able to exploit Tory divisions over Europe but rather that by running on anti-politics ticket, UKIP may very well be in a position to exploit her own personal unpopularity amongst her Tory voters and her dubious track record on expenses to, at the very least, take a sizeable chunk out of her majority, if not pose a serious threat of unseating her.
This is not about confusion amongst members of her own constituency association, it’s purely about trying to keep UKIP out of her constituency in the interests of self-preservation and not losing her main taxpayer-funded meal ticket.
She is, as Margaret Thatcher might have put it, ‘Frit’.
Almost six months on from her all-too-public appearance on ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’, Nadine Dorries still hasn’t registered her income from appearing on the show with the House of Commons authorities.
In fact, according to the most recent edition of the House of Commons Register of Members’ Interests she hasn’t declared any outside interests or earnings since June 2012, although she did register a gift in kind from Conservative Home in October 2012, which consisted of a Conference Pass, accommodation and travel for last year’s Conservative Party Conference, valued at £700.
That’s a little odd isn’t?
Between August 2011 and May 2012, the Register of Members’ Interests shows that Dorries was paid:
- £1,900 by the Daily Mail for two articles published between August October 2011,
- £5,000 by the Mail on Sunday for articles published between January and May 2012,
- £1,440 by Hat Trick Productions for an appearance on Have I got News For You in May 2012,
- £300 by The Sun for articles published in May 2012,
- £300 by H Bauer Publishing for articles published in Bella Magazine in May 2012, and
- £3,000 by Conservative Home for a writing weekly column between January and May 2012.
However, since that last set of registrations in June 2012, Dorries has registered nothing whatsoever in terms of remunerated outside interest despite appearing on ‘I’m a Celebrity…”, continuing to write a regular weekly column for Conservative Home and signing with a showbiz agent, ASM Damage, where her profile notes an appearance on Channel 5′s ‘The Wright Stuff’ in June 2012 which has also yet to make an appearance on her register entry.
To be clear about the rules, MPs are required to update their register entry with any new registrable interests, such as payments for key work undertaken outside the House, within four weeks.
That being the case, how has Dorries managed to go almost six months without registering her payment for appearing on ‘I’m a Celebrity…’?
Her own private company?
One way in which Dorries could avoid registering payments for media work as paid employment would be to set up a service company to receive the money on her behalf and then pay it on to her as an employee of that company, or via a remunerated directorship or perhaps even in the form of shareholder’s dividend.
She would still have to declare any such payments on the register but this would at least help to avoid disclosing exactly how much she’d been paid for specific gigs and, depending on how these payments are made, she would also be able to pay a bit less tax on her outside income.
And sure enough, about a month before Dorries jetted off to the Australian jungle (3rd October 2012) records at Companies House show that Dorries was appointed as the sole director of a Staffordshire-based company called Averbrook Limited.
Averbrook Limited also has yet to make an appearance on Dorries’ register of interests.
Now this is where it gets interesting because Averbrook Limited is not a new company at all.
It was originally set up in May 1994 by three business consultants but was then taken over in November 1995 by an Andrew James Rayment, a former teacher with a somewhat intriguing commercial history if an article which appeared in TES in June 2011 is anything to go by.
As recently as August 2010, so far as I can confirm, Rayment was also the Chairman of Mid-Bedfordshire Conservative Association. Averbrook’s financials show the company has been dormant since 2006 and that it hasn’t done any significant trading for a fair bit longer than that, with Rayment as its sole shareholder and Company Secretary, with a nominal holding of just £100, and his wife serving as its sole director.
Or at least that was the case right up until end of March 2012 when Rayment’s wife suddenly stepped down as a Director with Rayment seemingly following her out the door, at least on paper, six weeks later, at which point its registered office and the position of Company Secretary were both transferred to an accountancy firm in Newcastle-under-Lyme.
And there it sat, until early October 2012 and Dorries’s appointment as a director, in which she her occupation as “writer/commentator/TV Radio personality” (but not MP), all of which came on the same day that the accountancy firm resigned as Company Secretary.
Why hasn’t Dorries declared it?
MPs are required to register any remunerated directorships, not matter how much remuneration they receive, and any directorships for which they are not individually remunerated but nevertheless receive payments for via another company in the same group.
There also required to register an interest in any company in which they hold at least a 15% shareholding.
So, if Dorries receives any kind of payment from Averbrook for media work that’s been routed through the company, as either an employee or as a director, or if she owns more than 15% of the shares in the company then it has to be registered with the House of Commons, which means either than she’s failed to register an interest in line with the rules or that she hasn’t received any payments from Averbrook and doesn’t own at least 15% of the company’s shares.
Which leads us back to the question of what, exactly, has happened to her appearance fee from ‘I’m a Celebrity…’?
This is all legal and above board, but nevertheless her constituents and even some members of her local association might be inclined to wonder why the MP isn’t showing more transparency.
Update: Ms Dorries has said on Twitter that she hasn’t been paid for appearing on I’m a Celebrity.
A longer version of this post is on Unity’s blog.
A few years agao, I blogged about the campaign to save the Iraqi translators who had worked for British troops in the country.
Appallingly, the British Government refused to give them asylum, even though it was their work helping (perhaps, even keeping alive) British soldiers that had got them into trouble in the first place.
Via Aavaz, I learn that the British Government may now repeat this shameful episode in relation to translators working with British forces in Afghanistan. They want to give compensation, in lieu of asylum.
This really is not good enough. We have a duty to protect these people. Failure to do so would not only be a moral outrage – it would damage the reputation of British forces abroad and make it much harder to recruit local translators for future military operations.
Aavaz have a petition, which I have signed. Please do the same.
Why does the British Government drag its heels on these ethical no-brainers?
I worry that it is down to the confused debate about immigration in this country. Asylum seekers, refugees, economic migrants and illegal immigrants are all very different types of migrant, but they are all spoken of as similarly illegitimate and unwelcome.
We cannot allow an immature debate at home to hobble our soldiers working abroad.
George Osborne’s recent budget day threat, that the government will no longer let tax avoiders ‘get away with it’ is unlikely to leave many quaking in their boots.
The coalition launched a consultation on the development of a General Anti-Avoidance Rule (GAAR) to tackle tax avoidance back in 2010.
In the intervening years, fears that a broad-spectrum GAAR might “erode the attractiveness of the UK’s tax regime” and undermine “sensible and responsible tax planning” have resulted in Osborne plumping for a watered-down ‘General Anti-Abuse Rule’.
Osborne doesn’t have to look far to see the scale of lost tax revenue through legal ‘tax-planning’. He could for instance look at the Conservative Party’s Millbank Tower landlords, David and Simon Reuben.
The Reuben brothers hold second place in the Forbes list of richest Britons, with a net worth of $10.5bn. They are long-time friends of the Conservatives, donating at least £563,290 to the party since 2008 via a spider’s web of companies. The biggest donor was ‘Investors in Private Capital Ltd’ which has coughed up £379,900 over the past five years. It turned over £37 million in 2011/12, and yet paid zero corporation tax.
Then there is Global Switch, the Reuben’s globe-spanning data centre company, which has former Conservative leader Michael Howard as a director. Global Switch turned over £133 million in 2011/12, but didn’t pay a penny in corporation tax. Other key Reuben Brothers’ companies such as Northern Racing, and Kirkglade Ltd have also managed avoid paying any corporation tax, despite multi-million pound turnovers.
How can this be? In the case of Global Switch, tens of millions of pounds of taxable profit vanishes from the balance sheets via huge loan interest payments to a fellow subsidiary undertaking based in the British Virgin Islands. A similar process occurs with Investors in Private Capital, with millions of pounds of interest paid to ‘TFB Mortgages Ltd’; a Reuben Brothers’ company registered in Ireland, with a British Virgin Islands parent company.
As a result of these ‘tax-efficient’ intra-group transactions, the Reuben Brothers legally get out of paying millions of pounds of corporation tax.
Their arrangements- and similar ones used by thousands of other rich individuals and companies in the UK- will almost certainly fall under the provision for ‘established practice’ in the new anti-abuse rule.
Tax Research UK estimate that the UK loses £25 billion a year in tax avoidance. This is revenue which could prevent further hardship for the millions of working families already struggling under austerity, and facing welfare cuts of £18 billion a year by 2015.
Osborne’s softly-softly approach to tax avoidance is more evidence if it where needed that the coalition is a government of the rich, for the rich, to the detriment of the rest of society.
Joe Cottrell-Boyce is a Policy Officer at the ICB’s Traveller’s Project
by James Elder
Over the past 18 months, I have been keeping an eye on what’s been going on with Michael Gove and his Special Advisors at the Department for Education. This is a story which, being about the Freedom of Information Act (the gears of which grind slowly), has taken a long time to reach any sort of resolution. Having found that I had lost the plot on the most recent developments, I did a bit of digging and present it all here in one post, for the convenience of others.
It is perhaps telling that originally I was intending to tell a particular story, about the use of private email accounts, but that this post has grown like topsy as I’ve found that there are so many linked strands which don’t make full sense unless you have the whole picture. I decided that the best way of telling the story was as a simple timeline of events. All of this was already in the public domain, although I have exchanged tweets with Chris Cook at the FT and exchanged emails with a case officer at ICO to clarify a couple of points.
So, apologies that this is so long. I hope there are at least a few people who find it interesting or useful! The first few entries are necessary scene-setting. Things start getting interesting in February 2011, so stick with it.
NB some of the links are to ft.com, which allows free access to a certain number of articles per month before a subscription is required. As such, you may or may not be able to get access to all of them.
The Twitter account @toryeducation is set up. Its creator claims to be a “Conservative Education Press Officer Pantomime Villain of leftie Education Folk” (later this is amended to “Pantomime villain of leftie education folk.”) The list (now removed) https://twitter.com/conservatives/conservative-hq on the official @conservatives page, which says it is a list of twitter accounts “run by staff at Conservative party headquarters”, has @toryeducation as one of its ‘members’. The account will go on tweet well-informed updates on Conservative education policy, and some sharp attacks on anyone deemed to be opposed to it.
Caroline Flint asks in a Parliamentary Question ”how many expressions of interest in becoming a free school the New School Network has received in (a) Doncaster and (b) Don Valley [this being her constituency] to date”. New Schools Network (NSN) is a charity working with DfE on new schools. In a leaked email, Dominic Cummings, freelancing for New Schools Network, tells a senior civil servant:
NSN is not giving out to you, the media or anybody else any figure on ‘expressions of interest’ for PQs, FOIs or anything else. Further, NSN has not, is not, and will never answer a single FOI request made to us concerning anything at all.
Cummings is completely within his rights, as charities are not covered by FOI, but it does provide an insight to his views of the merits of transparency! Flint is, in fact, given a relatively helpful response by Schools Minister Nick Gibb.
Late 2010/Early 2011
Dominic Cummings is appointed as Special Advisor to Michael Gove. For those not aware Special Advisor is a formal designation. Special Advisors (often known as Spads) are paid for by Departments (i.e. by the taxpayer) and
are employed to help ministers on matters where the work of government and the work of the political party in government overlap, and where it would be inappropriate for permanent civil servants to become involved.
They are not obliged to be politically impartial, but they do have to keep to a code of conduct which states, amongst other things that Spads
should avoid anything which might reasonably lead to the criticism that people paid from public funds are being used for party political purposes. The highest standards of conduct are expected of special advisers and, specifically, the preparation or dissemination of inappropriate material or personal attacks has no part to play in the job of being a special adviser as it has no part to play in the conduct of public life. Any special adviser ever found to be disseminating inappropriate material will automatically be dismissed by their appointing Minister.
As employees of a public authority, any records they create that relate to the business of the authority are covered by the FOI Act.
24 February 2011
Cummings emails Spads across Government, including his fellow DfE SpAd Henry de Zoete, and colleagues at Conservative Central Office, to say that he
will not answer any further e-mails to my official DfE account?…i will only answer things that come from gmail accounts from people who i know who they are. i suggest that you do the same in general but thats obv up to you guys – i can explain in person the reason for this?…?[sic]
February – March 2011
Chris Cook, Education Correspondent at the FT gains gains sight, through third parties, of a number of emails between Gove, Cummings and de Zoete using private email accounts (gmail and the like) rather than their DfE addresses. He begins asking DfE for the emails (or parts of them), using targeted FoI requests. He also asks whether Michael Gove and his Spads are following a deliberate policy of using private email accounts to try to place themselves beyond the reach of FoI.
29 March 29 2011
The FT informs DfE of legal advice it has received. Andrew Partridge, the lead DfE Official forwards the legal advice to Sir David Bell, the then Permanent Secretary of DfE (i.e. DfE’s top Civil Servant – its ‘Sir Humphrey’). The advice states that
using a personal email account to conduct government business does not render the emails ‘personal information’ for the purposes of FOIA.
Partridge noted that this
accords with our view in the IR [Information Rights] team.
17 May 2011
Partridge tells the Permanent Secretary the Act is not confined to the contents of departmental accounts if
information held in personal accounts may relate to the business of the department.
In a separate issue, three FOI requests to DfE, for lists of those making expressions of interest about setting up Free Schools are rejected by DfE (more on this later).
19 September 2011
Chris Cook publishes his first FT story on this subject; it runs on the front page. Among the details is that at least one of the emails in question is from Michael Gove himself, using a gmail account, registered in the name of his wife, Sarah Vine (a journalist at The Times) and known as the “Mrs Blurt” account. The story is also picked up by others. Cook refers the case to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
21 September 2011
Cook reports that DfE is taking the position that
The Cabinet Office is clear private email accounts do not fall within the FOI Act
whereas the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham states that
It is certainly possible that some information in private emails could fall within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act if it concerns government business. This will be dependent on the specific circumstances.
21 September 2011
@toryeducation begins tweeting insults about Cook, calling him a “Stalker” and “Walter Mitty”.
It also becomes clear that DfE are relying on the argument that conversation between Ministers and Spads should be on personal email because, under their Code of Conduct, SpAds must “not use official resources for party political activity”. However as this piece, by a former Government lawyer, notes this is an unusual interpretation of the Code of Conduct and “the strong starting point should be that what special advisers do is official business and therefore subject to FoI”.
15 December 2011
ICO releases guidance clarifying the proper interpretation of the Act as applied to private email accounts. This is unequivocal:
It should not come as a surprise to public authorities to have the clarification that information held in private email accounts can be subject to Freedom of Information law if it relates to official business. This has always been the case – the Act covers all recorded information in any form.
It is accepted by the Commissioner, in certain circumstances, it may be necessary to use private email for public authority business. There should be a policy which clearly states that in these cases an authority email address should be copied in to ensure the completeness of the authority’s records.
Graham also visits DfE in person to talk about good practice, and publishes the findings of his discussions with senior officials there:
The Department for Education have a number of policies, procedures and guidance notes which cover responses to Freedom of Information requests. A process is in place to ensure that correspondence to and from Ministers and Special Advisers is searched in response to requests where required. Furthermore, the Information Rights Team have demonstrated an understanding of the application of the FOI Act in the context of the use of private email accounts and there is evidence that this has been provided in advice and guidance since the allegations have been made. However, it is not clear that this advice and guidance has been fully understood and followed by those covered by it.
31 January 2012
Michael Gove appears before the Education Select Committee. Questions 137-8 by Ian Mearns and 170-187 by Lisa Nandy are the relevant ones. He is evasive in the extreme over whether he and his advisors have used private email accounts to discuss official business but is clear that, regardless of the December advice from ICO, he continues to rely on advice from the Cabinet Office that the emails requested by Chris Cook were of a political nature and as such out of scope of FOI.
9 February 2012
In October, Martin Rosenbaum at the BBC had asked the Cabinet Office for a copy of any guidance it held on the subject of personal email accounts and FOI. Rosenbaum reports that the Cabinet Office had replied in January stating that it does not hold any such information.
In other words, there was no written Cabinet Office advice or policy; any advice given was oral only.
A strange development. The FOIman blog posts an article on the saga. In the comments below it, someone calling themselves Captain Sensible makes a number of postings. This person says that s/he is involved in politics though not a Minister or Spad. However as this article points out, Captain Sensible seems strikingly well-informed and to have unusually strong views on the subject. My personal suspicion is that the author is someone very close to the centre of the whole affair.
Sensible says Christopher Graham is a “second rate egotist” making a “power grab” and takes the line that a
minister talking to his or her SpAd is, ipso facto, political and not a matter for nosy journalists.
There is also an interesting take on the role of Civil Servants who
have zero interest in allowing the public to see what is going on behind closed doors. Their interest here – and the reason they love the latest FoI lebensraum – is that it allows THEM to see what’s going on behind the doors of ministerial offices, where they have no business during political discussions.
13 February 2012
Chris Cook publishes the text of the Michael Gove email from the Mrs Blurt account. This would seem to demonstrate that little or none of it is party political in nature and as such is in scope of the FOI Act. Whether it would be caught by one of the Act’s exemptions is of course a different matter.
2 March 2012
ICO releases a Decision Notice on Chris Cook’s FOI request. Unsurprisingly, given its December advice, ICO finds that the emails are in the scope of the Act and should be disclosed.
3 March 2012
Chris Cook reports that the Media Standards Trust has learned that many emails between Cummings, de Zoete and journalists on their official DfE accounts (i.e. this does not refer to their private accounts) have been deleted. DfE states that
Many individuals routinely delete emails so as to maintain order in their inbox. The act of deleting emails is no evidence of wrongdoing.
But, as Cook reports
according to rules laid out by the Lord Chancellor, officials destroying documents must keep deletion logs with which ‘to defend themselves against a charge … that records were destroyed in order to prevent their disclosure’. The DfE has refused to reveal any such logs.
Adam Chapman, partner at Kingsley Napley and a former government litigator on FoI, said the disclosures were ‘very curious’. ‘A department should be able readily to explain what its records management policy is, what emails or classes of emails it has deleted and why.’
The ICO is investigating what Christopher Graham, information commissioner, has called ‘allegations of a criminal nature’ at the DfE – whether data were destroyed or concealed to prevent its release.
So far as I have been able to establish, the Information Commissioner has not yet released any findings on this last point.
14 March 2012
There is a debate in the House of Commons on the issue.
Late March 2012
It is confirmed that the DfE is appealing the ICO decision notice to the Information Tribunal. Chris Cook reports that DfE says it
does not accept the grounds on which the Commissioner has come to his conclusion.
ICO issues a Decision Notice on the Free Schools request (see June 2011), requiring disclosure.
29 September 2012
DfE drops its appeal to the Information Tribunal of ICO’s decision notice on the private emails, and discloses the emails to Chris Cook (the strong legal consensus appeared to be that DfE was certainly going to lose). It is announced that the Cabinet Office will be issuing new guidance of the use of private email. Effectively this confirms that ICO’s guidance of December 2011 stands: if it concerns the business of a public authority, information can be within scope of FOI whether it is held in a private gmail account, a text message, a twitter DM etc etc.
The Information Rights and Wrongs blog considers the impact and enforceability. While the guidance states that it is appropriate for public authorities to ask their staff to search their email for any information within scope, the employer does not have the right to infringe staff-members’ privacy by itself searching the account.
On one view, then, nothing much has changed with the concession by the DfE, although no doubt many new FOI requests will be made as a result. What has changed, perhaps, is the focus on individuals’ personal responsiblity under FOIA. Currently, section 77 creates an offence if a person alters, defaces, blocks, erases, destroys or conceals a record in response to an FOI request. If a trawl of emails on a public authority’s systems is required this will normally fall to IT, or similar, and employees have little say – or, if you like, given the existence of back-up systems – limited opportunity to commit a section 77 offence. Now, if the same employee is asked whether private emails contain specific information, and he or she untruthfully says “no”, criminality – the mens rea – will be relatively easy to make out.
The question is, how would we find out?
21 December 2012
This is a bit like the ICO’s equivalent of schools being placed in special measures following a critical inspection by Ofsted. The ICO increases its checks on poorly performing authorities until it is satisfied that their procedures have improved.
15 January 2013
The First Tier Tribunal upholds the ICO Decision Notice on Free Schools – see June 2011 and June 2011.
17 January 2013
James Forsyth, in a Spectator blog about a former DfE Minister Tim Loughton, who had been ousted at a reshuffle, cites a “senior DfE source” as saying that
Loughton was a lazy incompetent narcissist obsessed only with self-promotion.
Loughton writes to the new Permanent Secretary at DfE, Chris Wormald, asking that the Department identify and discipline the source.
23 January 2013
Michael Gove appears before Education Select Committee (the transcript does not appear to be online yet). The Observer reports that he is asked if he is “aware of allegations of Spads acting inappropriately to civil servants within the department?” Gove answers: “No.”
2 February 2013
The Political Editor of the Observer, Toby Helm, feels the ire of @toryeducation after he writes a story not entirely to their liking. The accounts tweets a series of derogatory remarks and accusations against him.
The Editor of the Observer, John Mulholland, writes to Michael Gove and to Chris Wormald, asking them to investigate the Twitter account.
The Observer also has an exchange of emails with Dominic Cummings and Henry de Zoete asking whether they have contributed tweets for @toryeducation.
I am not toryeducation
Which doesn’t really answer the question.
I’m not wasting time on the tantrums of Toby Helm and Chris Cook over anonymous Twitter accounts. Am I supposed to take seriously anonymous accusations about anonymous Twitter accounts ridiculing journalists with too much time on their hands? I suggest that your advice to both of them is: take a Twitter detox because it’s melting your brains, focus on what’s important, stop behaving like eight-year-olds…Of course I’m not this Twitter account and never have been, I focus on project-managing priorities, I don’t waste my time on Twitter and you should tell your staff to do the same.
Again it’s not quite the same thing to say “I’m not toryeducation” (i.e. the account is not registered in my name) as it would be to say “I’ve never tweeted from the account”. Given that The Observer gave Cummings and de Zoete the chance to deny that they had tweeted from the account and they didn’t, the conclusion that can be drawn is fairly obvious.
9 February 2013
The Observer reports that
a senior civil servant in the education secretary’s department has received a secret payoff of about £25,000 out of public funds, after a lengthy grievance procedure involving members of Gove’s team, including his special adviser, Dominic Cummings, and the department’s former head of communications, James Frayne.
While an investigation within the department cleared the men, and said no disciplinary action was necessary, the final judgment made clear that their conduct had on occasions fallen short of the levels expected and that the behaviour of Cummings and Frayne, who has since left the department, “has been perceived as intimidating”. After the internal investigation was launched in the spring of 2012, the civil servant also decided to lodge a case with a tribunal, where the allegations would have been heard in public. A date was set for January 2o13, but after further negotiations the financial settlement was agreed and the tribunal was cancelled.
As a result of this report, Michael Gove and Chris Wormald are recalled to give further evidence to the Education Select Committee.
13 February 2013
Michael Bosch, using the WhatDoTheyKnow website, makes the following FOI request to DfE:
I would like the contents of the Direct Message mailbox for
@toryeducation, which is in scope of the act. Special advisers may
only perform media work to the extent that it advances the agenda
of the government. Any use of a public Twitter account, therefore,
must be government work.
Please also perform a keyword search for any emails using the term
“toryeducation” across the inboxes (including private accounts) of
the permanent secretary, the special advisers and of Mr Gove.
At the time of writing, DfE has only managed to provide a holding response to this request. They are nearly a month overdue in providing a response.
15 February 2013
Richard Garner in the Independent writes a story on alleged bullying and bad behaviour by Michael Gove’s advisors at DfE.
19 February 2013
Having been compelled by a Decision Notice of ICO, upheld by the Information Tribunal (see 15 January 2013), to disclose details of those making expressions of interest about setting up Free Schools, Michael Gove thinks it necessary to write an open letter to the Information Commissioner explaining why this a A Bad Idea. Gove says he would:
defend, to the death, the right of anyone to oppose Government policy. I do
not believe however that it is right to facilitate the targeted intimidation of brave
people acting on noble motives.
He gets a reply from the Commissioner on the same day. Christopher Graham is unimpressed. While he notes Gove’s
strong views, strongly expressed…I do not for a moment accept that the publication of the material that you are obliged by law to make public today in any way ‘facilitates the targeted intimidation of brave people acting on noble motives.’
I will join you in defending the right to oppose (or support) of Government policy. But I will also defend the operation of the Freedom of Information Act in the public interest.
20 February 2013
Responding to the article on 15 February Dominic Cummings says that The Independent’s Richard Garner should “speak to Chris Cook about a good therapist”. The Independent notes that Spads are supposed, under their Code of Conduct, to avoid personal attacks.
13 March 2013
Gove had said on 23 January that he was not aware of any allegations of inappropriate behaviour by his SpAds. Then on 9 February the Guardian had published details of a complaint by a member of DfE staff which had been due to go to an Employment Tribunal but had been settled with a payment of £25,000.
Wormald confirms that, because an internal DfE inquiry had cleared Dominic Cummings and James Frayne, Gove had not been told. He says there had been a judgement that, if told, Gove would have had a potential conflict of interest. However, some Labour members of the Committee find this odd because the Ministerial Code states that Ministers should take direct responsibility for the actions of their SpAds.
Gove also states that he had directly asked Cummings and de Zoete whether either of them was responsible for briefing The Spectator on Tim Loughton (see 17 January 2013) and that both had denied it.
25 March 2013
@toryeducation goes after Suzanne Moore. At this point it is apparently still listed as a ‘member’ of the list (now removed) https://twitter.com/conservatives/conservative-hq on the official @conservatives twitter page, which says it is a list of related twitter accounts run by staff at Conservative headquarters.
26 March 2013
@toryeducation and Tim Loughton exchange a series of strongly-worded tweets. The argument relates to a 2011 Serious Case Review (SCR) of what had gone wrong at Doncaster social services after a terrible case in Edlington, South Yorkshire. I feel I need to apologise for bringing such a tragic case even tangentially into this story, but unfortunately those few details are necessary to make sense of the exchange of tweets.
Loughton welcomes the Government’s response to the SCR but tweets:
“Tougher intervention in Doncaster children services http://tinyurl.com/bqoj9m8 should have happened in 2011 when I wanted to publish SCR in full”
In 2011, Loughton was the Children’s Minister and the implication of this tweet is that as Secretary of State, Michael Gove had overruled him.
.@timloughton Your lies on this subject are by far the worst of anything you’ve done in politics & we hope nobody believes a word you say
Loughton’s answer to this:
@toryeducation time 4 a senior DfE source to come out from cloak of anonymity and face scrutiny rather than rewriting history shamelessly?
@toryeducation now we know there were only 5 people in room privy to me being blocked from publishing SCR so shall I name them?
@toryeducation time 2 man up & reveal yourselves both of u-lets publish DfE Edlington memos redacted & see who is lying & who ur protecting
This is not a Department for Education account.
If we were to receive any evidence that anyone connected with the DfE had broken the Special Advisers Code or the Civil Service Code, then we would take appropriate steps.
27 March 2013
Last twitter activity for @toryeducation suggesting perhaps that someone has decided that things had gone too far.
So, there we have it. I said at the start that I would leave comment on the implications of this sorry saga for another day. But in large part it speaks for itself. Set aside the febrile Westminster-village gossiping and backbiting, there are serious questions raised.
In the flurry of hagiographies and tributes to Margaret Thatcher, her long list of heinous political acts seems to have been ENTIRELY forgotten. In particular, the way her rampant homophobia became integral to British law.
Which, you will understand, hardly sits at ease with the relentless campaign to portray her as Holy. They may tell you that she was stubborn and, if they really fancy rocking the boat, that “some people saw her as fairly divisive”, but that Thatcher was behind Britain’s first new anti-gay law since 1885 is so utterly embarrassing that chances are you won’t hear about it.
Like human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell writes, “At the Conservative party conference in 1987 Mrs Thatcher mocked people who defended the right to be gay, insinuating that there was no such right.
During her rule, arrests and convictions for consenting same-sex behaviour rocketed, as did queer bashing violence and murders. This backlash coincided with her successive “family values” and “Victorian values” campaigns, which urged a return to traditional morality and family life. In fact this is what she publicly said:
Too often, our children don’t get the education they need—the education they deserve…
Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay. All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life—yes, cheated.
Which is how, aided by a hysterical tabloid campaign about “the loonie left” and “gay lobbies” along with talks of AIDS as “the gay plague” and the barefaced lie that “GAY PORN BOOKS [were being] READ IN SCHOOLS“, the Thatcher government steamrollered in the homophobic Section 28.
The Act, which remained part of the statute book until Labour scrapped it in 2003, was as controversial and ambiguous as it was soaked in hate and deep prejudice.
In one fell swoop, Section 28 crucially advocated censorship – preventing local authorities and schools from discussing (“promoting”, the hideous wording was) homosexuality or engaging in anti-bullying activities, sneered at “pretended family relationships”, and added insult to injury by linking homosexuality to “the spread of disease”.
It is almost impossible to believe that such an ignorant piece of legislation was part of the British legislative framework and that half the Tory party was still defending it tooth and nail as recently as 2003.
Nevertheless, caught between rising homophobic violence and intolerance, and the calls in favour of tackling discrimination and promoting acceptance, Thatcher made it very clear where she stood.
No coincidence that, shortly after Section 28 became law, the offices of a gay newspaper, Capital Gay, were burnt down and lesbian and gay helplines reported a threefold increase in “queer bashing”.
Which is why, when the current hysteria over Maggie’s beatification subsides a little, hopefully the world will manage to remember how such a detestably homophobic piece of legislation was entirely in line with Thatcher and her character. Now hopefully buried forever.
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