Category: Tories

These 9 Government E-Mails I Just Got Disclosed Show Just What a Dick George Osborne Really Is

So I got an answer to my FOI request! On the 12th of June, National Savings and Investments disclosed some e-mail regarding the Tories’ fake government mailshot. You can get the dump at the link, and read the related meta here. My original blog posts are here and here.

The upshot, as usual with these things, is both less and more interesting than you expected. NS&I certainly was asked for a “fact check and compliance view”, by someone whose name was suppressed, presumably a Treasury SPAD. This referred to a draft text emanating from Osborne’s office (“CX” in the documents). Jane Platt, the NS&I CEO, passed the job to their head of retail, Julian Hynd, who also discussed it with the head of compliance and delivery, whose name is suppressed, and with the assistant director for retail experience, also anonymous, as well as at least one lawyer.

They also discussed it with a mainline Treasury official, whose name is suppressed but whose job title is given in full, as with most of the anonymice, as the Head of Delivery, Debt and Reserves Management, Fiscal Group, HMT. What did they discuss?

Well, some of it was trivial stuff – should it mention that calls might be recorded for training purposes? Should the NS&I phone number and e-mail address appear or just a Web site? Should it refer to “income” given that the codgerbonds don’t pay interest monthly? What about the fact that some of the £10 billion issue would already have been sold? But there was also this.

In the extracts below, [out of scope] marks where the NS&I information officer redacted something and [S40] marks where someone’s name was redacted under Section 40 of the Freedom of Information Act relating to privacy.

1. NS&I Thought The Mailshot Was “Misleading” and “Unclear”

The draft text referred to “pensioners”. In fact, the bonds were sold to anyone over the age of 65, whether or not they were actually in receipt of a pension. It seems pedantic, but it exposed something interesting. NS&I civil servants, specifically Hynd, wanted to strike the reference to pensioners out and substitute “[those] aged 65 and over”.

The letter refers to “pensioners” throughout, when in fact the qualifying criteria to be eligible for the investment is not actually that you are a pensioner, but that you are aged 65 or over. From a regulatory/FCA/clear communications to prospective customers perspective, we believe the reference to “pensioners” should be removed when we talk about the 65+ Bonds – it’s misleading and unclear. We accept that the letter is aimed at how the government has made things better for pensioners, but where the copy is Bond specific we should avoid the “pensioner” references.

2. Regulations Are For The Little People, Aren’t They?

Somebody heavily redacted with no name or job title pushed back, claiming that NS&I didn’t need no stinking regulations.

Can I just check that we are ok in term of FSMA restrictions around financial promotions? Our advice is that this would be exempted because (a) its non-real time communications, and (b) its communicated by and relating to controlled investments issued, or to be issued, inter alia, by governments. Does that match your understanding?

3. NS&I Retail Director Hynd Wasn’t Having That

Hynd stands pat.

To your question, on a) I cannot comment and will ask my compliance team to comment, but on b) that would be my understanding, hence my point was about the reputational risk. We have communicated to customers and the market that NS&I will behave “as if FCA regulated”, i.e. “shadow compliant”.

4. Bureaucracy Rules. NS&I Civil Servants Rally Round Hynd

The NS&I compliance and advice delivery manager then weighs in to support Hynd:

Under the FCA, all providers of financial products, regardless of whether the product is a designated investment, have an over-arching requirement under the TCF principles to ensure that customers are adequately informed before, during and after the point of sale, and that all communications are clear, fair and not misleading. Regardless of what the communication is promoting.

5. NS&I CEO Jane Platt “Proposes” a “Compromise” in “Quotes”

NS&I CEO Platt proposes a compromise, through bursts of redaction. What about “pensioners” in scare quotes?

Thank you for the heads-up [S40]. [Out of scope]Can “pensioner” appear in inverted commas please?
 [Out of scope]

The English language groans in pain.

6. Bureaucracy Rules 2: Treasury Officials Back Hynd, While Tories Keep Pushing

Meanwhile, the HMT Head of Delivery, like a good civil service scout, backs up NS&I over the pensioner issue, and also reports that George Osborne’s SPADs want something. Something redacted.

I’ve just got some additional info (and an additional request) from the CX’s spads.
 
[Out of scope] 

But they had one more change that they were going to make to the letter which they wanted to check from a compliance perspective. This was to remove the NS&I phone number and the wording that said that calls may be recorded. I couldn’t see that this would cause a particular compliance issue, but I said that I would check with you. I’m afraid they asked for a response on this in the next half hour.
 
I’m afraid I lost track of the final version of the letter, as I think [S40] was dealing with this. I think we previously made the point about “pensioners” appearing in inverted commas. I’m happy to make it again though, in the context of the recent press coverage.

7. You Said What?

Then Jane Platt says something really surprising, which also gets heavily redacted:

Thanks [S40]– realise I have not responded to your point on “Pensioner”. Please do make the point again particularly in the light of the press coverage highlighting alienated older women.
 [Out of scope]

I don’t know about you but that sounds rather too much like political advice for a civil servant. Or does she mean that the alienated older women are potential buyers? I can’t help but suspect a lot of interesting stuff got redacted here.

8. Chancellor, That’s Illegal

The negotiating back and forth goes on. The HMT Head reports that the Tories reject the inverted commas, and that he considers that the text as it stands is non-compliant (or in other words, illegal).

The phrases in red would not pass compliance in my opinion.

9. Bureaucracy Rules 3: The Bureaucrating

It’s at this point that Platt passes this view on, but also tries to distance NS&I from the project and hints that someone else – i.e. the Treasury – should satisfy themselves they weren’t giving financial advice.

Please note that the letter has not been through our formal sign off process and is not being issued by NS&I. Whoever is issuing the letter will need to be satisfied that it does not constitute giving advice. The text in red is my take on what compliance will have a problem with. I am trying to get a compliance opinion asap.

Trying to push the responsibility onto somebody else isn’t always a cop-out, though. If you know they don’t want it, it’s also a route to getting your way.

The text goes for another swing through the compliance manager and the HMT official, before being accepted in its final form. The final text doesn’t use the scare quotes, and does mention pensioners a lot, but it does refer to “people 65 and over” in a key graf and it tones down “a better return” to “a good return”.

Final Thought

So, we can conclude that: Yes, the text of the mailshot was subjected to a compliance review, although not by the FCA as stated. However, during this process, something which was very likely the Chancellor’s office tried to circumvent the review by claiming immunity from the regulations. Civil servants at NS&I and the Treasury resisted this, successfully.

The Chancellor’s personal staff did this because they wanted a wording that emphasised “pensioners” as the target group. This wording was considered misleading by the NS&I compliance officer and non-compliant with financial regulation – i.e. illegal – by HM Treasury officials, who eventually got it amended, although the changes were pretty minimal.

Despite this creditable resistance, the NS&I CEO also seems to have taken a view on the political presentation involved. This is not the sort of thing civil servants should be doing. It’s possible, however, that the e-mail in question, no.7, has been so mangled by redactions that this impression is false.

This matters, a hell of a lot. Anthony Wells reports back from the polling industry’s inquiry into how they completely failed at the last election:

Opinium identified a couple of specific issues with their methodology that went wrong. One was their age weighting was too crude – they used to weight age using three big groups, with the oldest being 55+. They found that within that group there were too many people who were in their 50s and 60s and not enough in their 70s and beyond, and that the much older group were more Tory. Opinium will be correcting that by using more detailed age weights, with over 75s weighted separately

That is to say, the recipients of the mailshot.

that was meant to be satire

So I was all sarcastic about Iain Martin pretending Peter Lilley foresaw the great financial crisis back in 1997. And then I found out from a comment on Simon Wren-Lewis’s blog that Lilley actually claims this himself.

” …..I was shadow Chancellor when the Bill that became the Bank of England Act 1998 was introduced. He pointed out that I then warned the House that: –

“With the removal of banking control to the Financial Services Authority…it is difficult to see how…the Bank remains, as it surely must, responsible for ensuring the liquidity of the banking system and preventing systemic collapse.”

And so it turned out. I added:

]“setting up the FSA may cause regulators to take their eye off the ball, while spivs and crooks have a field day.”-[Official Report, 11 November 1997; Vol. 300, c. 731-32.]

So that turned out, too. I could foresee that, because the problem was not deregulation, but the regulatory confusion and the proliferation of regulation introduced by the former Chancellor, which resulted from a failure to focus on the banking system’s inherent instability, and to provide for its stability.”

The line about regulators “taking their eye off the ball” is the one Martin relied in his book on RBS. It was nonsense then and it’s still nonsense now. The plain English meaning of Lilley’s remark is that the process of setting up the FSA might distract the regulators temporarily. Does anyone imagine the phrase as he uses it might stretch to events ten years in the future, long after the FSA was operational?

The remark about the Bank of England “remaining…responsible for ensuring the liquidity of the banking system” is even worse. “Ensuring the liquidity of the banking system” is what a central bank does all day, every day. In 2007, it ensured the liquidity of the banking system by lending the banks a lot of money, and then later by implementing QE. It did so until it thought Northern Rock was insolvent, and then, as its principles required, cut it off.

Lilley might have had a point had he said “solvency” rather than “liquidity”. The problem, in the end, was that the banks ran out of capital, not out of cash. If it had only been a liquidity problem, the Bank of England would have been able to fix it with much less drama. But he didn’t say that.

And he couldn’t possibly have done so. After all, he is still in denial about financial deregulation. He claims the problem was too much regulation. Surely, if he believes that, distracting the regulator would have been a good thing? And if the problem is too much regulation, what would the Bank have done to restrain the banks? Wouldn’t that be awfully like regulation?

The main conclusion I draw from this is that Lilley is just as weaselly as he was when he was a minister.

No, the Treasury did not “check it was FCA-compliant”

Remember that time the Conservative Party wrote to pensioners spruiking the 4% codger bonds and pretending to be an official communication from the Government? Sure ya do because I blogged it.

Back then, either Rowena Mason or Patrick Wintour got the following response from a nameless “Treasury aide”, i.e. one of Osborne’s spads aka @ToryTreasury, either Rupert Harrison, Poppy Mitchell-Rose, Eleanor Shawcross, or Ramesh Chhabra.

A Treasury aide said: “HM Treasury officials checked and confirmed this is FCA-compliant.”

Got that? HMT, he claims, checked that this was compliant with the Financial Conduct Authority’s rules. I can tell you now, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act request I filed, that has just been answered, that they did no such thing or at least the FCA denies it has any record of it. I’ve caught and rethrown it to NS&I.

The FCA also says that if you asked it, it wouldn’t answer because it doesn’t “pre-approve” financial promotions. It also says that National Savings & Investments is outside their authority because it belongs entirely to the Treasury, oh miracle. However, they also specifically deny that anyone checked.

Presumably the check consisted of Osborne asking himself if he thought it was OK, but in that case, why bother saying that they checked that it was OK with the FCA when the FCA doesn’t have anything to do with it?

AFOE post, and that #businessletter

So I done an economics over at the Fistful, swinging off a a data at JW Mason’s.

Meanwhile, is there anyone in this list who isn’t an embarrassment? Some journo should obviously ring them all up and ask if they will confirm they are domiciled in the UK for tax purposes, but to be honest, why bother when one of them is actually the former Railtrack CEO, Gerald Corbett?

Another uses the title “The Hon.” and seems to be the guy who hired David Cameron at Carlton TV. Yet another met the heir to the Cadbury fortune at Eton and is now spending it making pubs terrible. There’s the guy from the barely-even-faking .com outrage Knutsford. (That reminds me. When that was going on, I remember discussing it a university acquaintance’s rich dad, an entrepreneur from Manchester, who memorably described Michael Edelson as “a thief” having done business with him.) There’s the posh PR whose dad was the boss of Topshop. Himoff the telly. Samantha Cameron’s old boss.

Cassie Hutchings is described as CEO of GCH Capital – those would be the initials of the chairman, Greg Hutchings. Yes, that’s Greg Hutchings who was sacked as CEO of Tomkins for spending the shareholders’ money on four private jets. It’s intensely Cameron – a collection of the dodgy, the vacuous, people who picked the right parents, plus a bit of late-property bubble glamour. But above all, it’s a list of his mates, the You Scratch My Back And I’ll Scratch Yours PM.

The best that can be said for the list is that the Philip Green on it is the Philip Green from Carillion, not the one who gave the company to his Monaco-domiciled wife and keeps his money in somebody else’s Swiss bank account. But I did have to check.

Update: How did I miss this? Of course Karren Brady is a director of the other Philip Green’s holding company! OK, we’re done here.

10 insights on the Biryani Project

So, to summarise this post a bit, here are some insights:

1) The Curzon Foundation website has been up since February 2010. The various Curzon companies have existed for the same period of time, one succeeding the other as they successively failed to file accounts and got struck off. It looks very much like each one was intended to replace the previous one. They share addresses and directors. Although the Initiative and Foundation don’t have Afzal Amin as a director, we know from Mohammed Hanif’s LinkedIn profile that there is no distinction between them and the Institute.

2) From 2013 on, Afzal Amin and friends were operating parallel commercial and charitable entities with the same address, website, and field of operations. The £120,000 Government grant was paid to a nonprofit entity, but it would have been very easy to have it contract with one of the commercial companies for services, or buy assets from them. The scandal at the Kings Science Academy in Bradford is an example of this kind of related-party transaction abuse.

3) The network of directors around Amin includes local property developers, people associated with both Home Office and DCLG counter-radicalisation projects, a school governor accused (controversially) of being an Islamic extremist, and either a Labour councillor, or a serving police officer, or both. What was a Labour councillor doing trying to get a Tory elected? What was a cop doing getting involved in party politics? What was he doing holding outside directorships? If it was the councillor, not the cop, why didn’t he mention the Curzons on his declaration of interests?

4) Calling it the Curzon Institute was simply illegal. So was offering to pay EDL activists to canvass.

5) Far from being a purely hypothetical discussion, it seems that the Biryani Project actually became operational on the 26th of February, when the EDL did indeed march in Dudley. Local news reporting at the time quotes Councillor Hanif, Afzal Amin, and Chief Supt Johnson (also mentioned by Amin in the Yaxley-Lennon tape) expressing their profound satisfaction. The image of racists, jihadis, aldermen, cops, and a Tory converging on a provincial mosque by their common accord is deeply surreal.

6) The same story also mentions “community stewards” organised by the head of the Dudley Private Hire and Taxi Association. Seems legit…

7) If the Curzon entities were functioning as far back as February 2010, it seems logical to suppose they were getting money from somewhere, and further that they used it for something. That somewhere was presumably the PREVENT/CONTEST programme, but I don’t think anyone intended that to fund either Councillor Hanif or would-be Tory MP Afzal Amin’s electioneering or even some guy’s buy-to-let empire.

News stories about Jahan Mahmood at the time suggest that the “new” counter-radicalisation programme, which wasn’t meant to talk to anyone who might be too radical under the influence of Michael Gove, cut off his funding. Is the point here that Afzal Amin got DCLG to restore the flow of money into the pre-existing Curzon network, in exchange for its support to get elected?

8) It seems very, very likely that Afzal Amin exaggerated his military career substantially. We know that he was in Iraq as an education officer, not some sort of commando, and that he gave the impression to the BBC that he was a tutor or personal adjutant to Prince Harry when in fact he was the education officer attached to his regiment. He doesn’t seem to have left the Adjutant-General’s Corps Education & Training Branch throughout his career.

9) A source tells me that the leadership of the Defence Academy are “extremely angry” about Amin and are actively trying to get DCLG to cancel the grant and recover any money that hasn’t disappeared.

10) And there’s still another company – UKS3 Ltd – and another director – Michelle Clayton – to look into.

More questions on the Biryani Project.

Randy McDonald, and probably others, seem to have found the Afzal Amin piece baffling, so I thought I’d draft a brief explainer as follows.

Afzal Amin, potential Tory MP and ex-army officer, tried to incite the EDL to stage a provocative demonstration in his heavily Muslim constituency during the campaign, while also inciting a group of radical-ish Muslims to protest the EDL. He then tried to get the EDL to call off the demo (that he incited) when he asked. The point was to create a situation in which Amin could appear at the last minute and resolve the conflict without a nasty ruck between EDL football thugs and semi-jihadis, presumably vastly adding to his prestige and authority and getting him elected.

Obviously, as this involved the EDL backing down and CAVING IN TO THE TERRORISTS, or maybe just COMPROMISING WITH THE SYSTEM, they needed a big side-payment. Amin promised their leaders money or possibly jobs, plus support to integrate the EDL into respectable politics, and also offered to pay rank-and-file EDL activists hard cash to campaign for him. Using hired canvassers at an election is illegal in the UK in itself. He also seems to have had ambitions to roll out the process elsewhere in the UK, and to be inspired by David Kilcullen/Galula/etc counterinsurgency theory. Unfortunately for him, he was caught – somehow – by the Mail on Sunday‘s investigations team, which managed to video him conspiring with the EDL in a curry house.

A really interesting question is where he was going to get the money to pay off the EDL (and presumably also his vaguely edgy Muslims). It turns out he has an incredibly shady fake NGO, which got a no-bid contract to the tune of £120k with a bit of the government that has responsibility for counter-radicalisation policy, the CONTEST programme, incidentally headed by a political buddy of his. So the obvious conclusion is that he planned to put the EDL, and probably the Muslims, on his NGO’s payroll and bill the expenses to the government. At which point we need to ask whether the CONTEST people knew about the whole caper and this was some sort of ill-thought out amateur spook scheme. That said, it’s not like huge irresponsibility, deceit, incredibly careless handling of public money, and the use of government resources for one’s election campaign aren’t enough to be going on with.

Before the whole affair sinks into obscurity, I think it’s worth following up some questions that are still outstanding. First of all, Amin mentioned to the EDL that he’d been meeting “some Muslim lads” regarding what I will from now on call the Biryani Project. This sounds very much like he wanted to make sure there would be an angry and at least somewhat radicalised reception committee for the planned EDL march, in order to maximise the conflict he would then solve.

Presumably, if the Biryani Project was indeed meant to serve as a model and be rolled out nationally, it would need angry Muslims just as much as it needed the EDL. Logically, if he needed to hire Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, he would also need to hire the Muslims. So that’s another group of people he’d need to pay or place in a sinecure of some sort. What did he promise them and how did he intend to deliver?

Secondly, who were these Muslims? A place to start looking would be here – via Labour candidate Kate Godfrey’s Twitter feed, it seems he tried to incite the Muslim Public Affairs Committee to insult him about his military service.

Why he bothered when Dan Hardie will insult him about his military service for the sheer pleasure of the thing is another question.

MPAC UK’s involvement needs some parsing, though. The simplest explanation is that they were the “Muslim lads”, in which case we might reason that they were involved and are accelerating away from the mess, or alternatively, if we accept they are telling the truth, that Amin was deluding himself about their involvement. Both are possible. It is also possible that he addressed himself both to MPAC UK and to some other group.

In general, we should be looking for a group around Dudley who were offered a grant, and I suspect a detailed review of the DCLG’s report and accounts (here) might be telling. I’ve yet to find anything suspicious, although I do wonder why literally the only Google hit for “Srebrenica memorial day” and the organisation DCLG thinks it gave the grant to is the DCLG accounts. That could be a clerical error, though. Anyway, the Curzon Institute’s grant is in there, and Amin says he’d been talking to the EDL for at least a year – which means he had DCLG’s money in hand when he began the project.

Meanwhile, Theresa May sets out an important counter-radicalisation initiative:

After several months of disagreement the only official anti-extremism unit to be formed immediately is an “Extremism Analysis Unit”, which set out a blacklist of individuals and organisations with whom the government and the public sector should not engage.

Presumably, except over a chicken biryani at the Celebrity Restaurant, Dudley?

Meanwhile, on the question of Amin’s career, the Wikipedia article has improved to the extent of including the London Gazette mentions for his commission, promotion, and retirement, which places him in the Education & Training Branch throughout. The “Counterinsurgency and Stabilisation Centre”, which someone asked about, is a terminology error for the Land Stabilisation and Counterinsurgency Centre, which was headed by Alexander Alderson and whose name implies it belonged to Land Command rather than the Defence Academy.

“Ok so Mr Financial Regulator I really wanna pretend to be the revenue for my campaign”

So the Chancellor has been dabbling in retail brokerage, with a little push-polling scattered on top. This is pretty much as shady as we’ve come to expect from him, but I was interested to see this:

Those engaging in financial promotions are meant to be authorised to do so by the Financial Conduct Authority. A Treasury aide said: “HM Treasury officials checked and confirmed this is FCA-compliant.”

So you mean someone at the Treasury asked the FCA’s opinion? Huh, that sounds interesting and should have left a paper trail. Zing went the strings. So I just filed a Freedom of Information Act request for any correspondence regarding the Osletters. I did a bunch of fancy drafting to deal with some of the obvious excuses (not him, or the Treasury, but a SPAD, not a SPAD but his parliamentary or constituency office, etc) but if that interests you, you can read it at the link.

Strangely enough this is the first of these I’ve actually issued.

Bad picker

What is it with David Cameron and appointments? Back in March 2012 I made the point that he keeps phoning a friend, and getting back the name of a good criminal, bungler, or crank.

We’ve had Steve Hilton and his brilliant ideas, before he failed-up into a better paid gig in California. He recommended Emma Harrison and A4e, before they ended up being prosecuted for fraud. Rohan Silva did some trendy dad stuff and failed-up into a better paying gig with a VC fund. Michael Gove recommended both Andy Coulson, before he was convicted, and that eugenics nutter he made an education SPAD. Cameron made Liam Fox defence secretary, and he brought with him the incredible fraud-cum-security-vortex Adam Werritty as a defence SPAD. His government needed someone of absolutely unimpeachable integrity to lead an inquiry into paedophile networks. They found somebody who was conflicted-out because they were related to the prime suspect, and then they replaced her with somebody who was conflicted-out because she was a personal friend of the prime suspect. If I’ve missed anyone, please add in the comments.

Boris Johnson’s appointments are, if anything, worse. And the wankercade twats on. Now it’s the trade minister. You might say it’s quite possible that the CEO of HSBC wouldn’t have any detailed knowledge of individual client accounts in the Geneva branch, but Stephen Green was actually on the board of the HSBC private bank in Switzerland, HSBC Private Banking Holdings (Suisse) SA, at the relevant time.

a short post about candidate selection

A list of constituencies the Tories have written off as lost has been leaked. Here are the first three candidates.

Ben Adams – Stoke-on-Trent North
Bim Afolami – Lewisham Deptford
Festus Akinbusoye – West Ham

I don’t think we need look very far for an explanation?

most cash looks pretty flat to me

We were talking about glib cliché solutions. Here, we have the prime minister.

“No-one wants their child to go to a failing school and no-one wants to them to go to a coasting school either,” said Mr Cameron.

“‘Just enough’ is not good enough. That means no more sink schools and no more ‘bog standard’ schools either.

Blah, the same old crap they all come out with ever since Chris “probably wouldn’t get away with that these days” Woodhead invented incompetent teachers all those years ago. The BBC initially trailed the story as “Cameron’s war on mediocrity” before presumably realising they were about to kill satire. The actual content here seems to be the invention of a new category, “coasting schools”, that might be gifted to landlords (that’s “academies”).

Also, this:

Setting out his party’s education policy, the prime minister said funding per pupil would not be cut and would provide a further £7bn for places for rising numbers of pupils….On funding, the prime minister promised to protect “flat cash” per pupil spending, which would not increase in line with inflation.

That is to say, it’s a cut. It’s not a cut, it’s flat cash. Sorry. A community charge. Sorry. A spare room subsidy. Sorry. It’s not a cupboard, it’s a small room!

Just the man for a war on mediocrity.