Tuesday 26 February 2008

Iraqi employees: fine words, shabby deeds

The information here comes from Dan Hardie, whose hard work needs support.

Do you like reading fine words? Here is the Prime Minister on the subject of Iraqi ex-employees of the British Government, speaking in the House of Commons on October 9th, 2007: 'I would also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of our civilian and locally employed staff in Iraq, many of whom have worked in extremely difficult circumstances, exposing themselves and their families to danger. I am pleased therefore to announce today a new policy which more fully recognises the contribution made by our local Iraqi staff, who work for our armed forces and civilian missions in what we know are uniquely difficult circumstances.'

Fine words. What about deeds?

A small number of Iraqis - fewer than a dozen, according to people close to the operation who are in contact with Dan - were removed from Iraq in the early autumn of 2007. Since the Prime Minister's admirable declaration of October, how many Iraqi ex-employees have been evacuated from Iraq? According to all the Iraqis that Dan is in contact with: none.

Here are the words of an Iraqi employee in Iraq, emailing him, today: 'I am still in Iraq...I hear nothing from your Government yet!'

Here is what this man was told on February 3 by a conscientious British Civil Servant, out in Iraq to arrange the evacuation of Iraqi ex-employees and clearly shocked by the lack of progress: 'I'm sorry that everything is taking so long to complete. Please note that we are waiting to hear what happens next from London and I can assure you all that I will personally contact you as soon as I receive instructions from London to confirm the next arrangements.'

Here is why he is hiding: 'They (the militia) keep asking my relatives and my family's neighbors about me and they keep moving in my family's street and keep their eyes on our home... they told them: anyone know anything about A__ he should tell us immediately and also they said: we will never give up until we catch A__ .'

And here is what the Right Honourable Bob Ainsworth, Minister of State for Defence, wrote to David Lidington, MP, about this same man on 16th January: 'Mr Hardie expresses concern over the handling of a claim for assistance by a former employee of British Forces, Mr A_ ... Mr A_ is eligible for the assistance scheme, and we have passed his details on to the Border and Immigration Agency who will take forward his request for resettlement in the UK via the Gateway programme. Assuming that there are no problems with Mr A__'s immigration checks he should be able to leave Iraq by the end of January...' Dan has it in writing from the MoD that there were no problems with Mr A__'s immigration checks.

The Border and Immigration Agency is the Home Office Agency handling the last phase of the operation to resettle Iraqi ex-employees. And it is the BIA, according to every source of information that we have, that is delaying the evacuation of the Iraqis.

It is also supposed to be the Home Office that is co-ordinating the provision of housing to those Iraqis who do get resettled in the UK. In the House of Lords last month there was a debate on Iraq at the request of Lord Fowler, whom Dan had briefed on Iraqi ex-employees. Lord Chidgey, later backed by the Earl of Sandwich, asked a very pertinent question of the Foreign Office Minister Lord Malloch Brown, and he did not get a good answer: '...on the resettlement of Iraqis at risk under the Gateway Protection Programme, the Minister will be aware that its success is dependent on a sufficient number of local authorities participating. There is considerable concern that this is not the case at present. Will he advise what steps the Government are taking to ensure that local authorities will come forward?'

There are many operational and logistical difficulties in the way of an operation: we know that. But the Government has known about these people for at least six months, and has been publicly committed to helping them for over four months. That is enough time to plan for the difficulties - far more time than you usually get in a war.

The Home Office is dawdling while people are threatened with death. This is either incompetence in the face of a crisis, or it is a deliberate policy of putting bureaucratic obstacles in the face of fugitives. Neither is acceptable.

And beyond that, the policy itself is being used to keep out Iraqis who can prove that they worked for British forces, and who can prove that their lives are at risk as a result. One man, Hamed, worked for British forces on Shaibah Logistics Base for over two years, as the Government accepts. He was threatened by the militias, and gunmen went to his house, so he moved his family to Syria and slept on the base's floor. He continued to work for the British. Hamed finally was given 'notice to quit' Shaibah when the base closed, and fled to Syria, where he cannot legally work and where he and his family are safe (so far) but hungry. The British Government knows who Hamed is. A British Army NCO who knew him has confirmed every detail of his story to me, saying that he knew that Hamed had reported the threats against him to the military authorities. The Government has written to Hamed to reject any claim for help, since he was 'not directly employed' by the military.

Another man, Waleed, was directly employed by the military, in 2005 and 2006. He worked as an interpreter for one Army unit for its six month tour, during which time he was fired upon and chased by militiamen as he made his way to the base; he started work for a second unit, after which he received a threat on his mobile phone detailing where he lived, what he did, and what would happen to him if he 'collaborated' any more. He was also hunted in Iraq, and has also fled to Syria. A British Government letter, which Dan have seen, informed him that he would not be assisted since he had not worked for the twelve-month period specified by the Government's policy - which, alas, the militias do not seem to respect.

We got the Government to admit to its moral responsibilities. Now we have to get them to match their deeds to their words.

Please write a letter to your MP. His or her address is The House of Commons, Westminster, London, SW1A 0AA. If you don't know who your constituency MP is, go here and type your postcode in. When you've sent a letter, follow it up with an email: his or her address will normally be SURNAMEINITIAL@parliament.uk - for example BROWNG@parliament.uk

Two or three days after you have written the letter, call the Parliamentary switchboard on 0207 219 3000 and ask for your MP's office. Repeat your concerns to the secretary or research assistant you speak to (and be nice: most of these people work damn hard for little reward), check that your letter has been received, and politely request that the MP ask questions of Ministers and reply to you. In your email, your letter, and your phone calls, please be courteous. Talking points for the letter are below:

* The Prime Minister announced a review of British policy towards its Iraqi ex-employees, due to the threats of murder they faced, on August 8th 2007, and he announced a change in that policy on October 9th, 2007. The Foreign Secretary made a more detailed policy statement on October 30th, 2007.
* Nearly four months later no Iraqis who have applied under the scheme have been evacuated from Iraq.
* Not one Iraqi ex-employee living as an illegal immigrant in Syria or Jordan has been resettled under the scheme.
* A debate in the House of Lords on 24th Jan contained several references to resettlement being blocked by the failure of the Home Office to provide housing in the UK. The Home Office has had between four and six months to plan for this eventuality: it is inexcusable that they have not done so.
* Would the MP please put down written Questions to the Home Secretary asking why the Home Office is unable to live up to the Prime Minister's publicy expressed commitment to rehouse Iraqi ex-employees whose lives are at risk for having worked for British forces?
* Would the MP please write in private to the Home Secretary, and to the Immigration Minister, Liam Byrne MP, asking what provision their department has made to implement a policy decided in early October, and further asking them if they are aware that lives are at risk and that rapid action needs to be taken?
* Would the MP also please write to the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary asking how many Iraqis who are ex-Employees of their departments have been resettled, and asking why Iraqis who are at risk for having worked for British forces are being abandoned for having 'worked for less than 12 months'?
* Can the MP please forward these letters to the Prime Minister, who personally approved the change in policy.
* And finally, can the MP please reply to you with details of any Government response.
* If you want: you can give your MP Dan Hardie's name and email address (danhardie.blog@gmail.com ) and tell them that he is in contact with a number of Iraqi ex-employees inside and outside Iraq, none of whom have received help from the Government, and that he would be happy to brief them with confidential details of these cases, either by telephone, email or in person at their Parliamentary offices. They should feel free to contact him.
* When you get a reply to your letter, email Dan Hardie (again, at danhardie.blog@gmail.com ) - it's very important that he knows which MPs are sympathetic and what the Government is telling them. And email him if you have anything else that needs saying. Thank you.

Chinese New Year

This is such a brilliant pic that I had to show it. On the left is Merlene Emerson, LibDem GLA candidate for West Central, and on the right is Brian Paddick, you ought to know who he is by now.

Monday 25 February 2008

Portillo on Thatcher disappoints

I was disappointed by Portillo on Thatcher. I started watching with a sense of anticipation that we'd get some incisive reminiscing and analysis from him and from his interviewees, largely fed by a Radio Five interview earlier in the day which made it sound a lot better than it actually turned out.

First of all, there was a minor irritation that he talked about “us” all the time as if the Conservative Party represented all of Britain, which we know it doesn't – largely because of Mrs T. At times I wondered if I was watching a party political broadcast. We got about fifteen minutes of puff about how well David Cameron is doing in moving on from her legacy and modernising the party. If you call modernising not having a single policy position to stand on, I suppose you might have a point.

But mostly I was disappointed because I think the portrait of her downfall and the aftermath is just plain wrong, and I'm surprised because I thought Portillo (nowadays) was more intelligent than that. Partly it's because biography is always a thin form of history, but largely it's because even the biography refuses to acknowledge feet of clay. Patten and Clarke both said that the party's problems since Thatcher's downfall all stem from the brutal way in which they got rid of her, and Portillo clearly agrees with this. But as Ming Campbell pointed out while sharing Radio Five with Michael Portillo, removals of leaders are always brutal. The party performed with perfect logic – Thatcher had become an electoral liability – it was obvious that with her in power they would lose, and so they acted to remove her. And they succeeded in getting themselves re-elected. That's what parties do. Portillo recounts the moment at the subsequent party conference (I think) when he thinks the party suddeny realised what they'd done – thrown out a leader who'd won them three elections. The rose tinted view of the loyalist, I think. The MPS who retained their seats after she was ousted always knew exactly what they'd done.

Portillo and his interviewees found it impossible to understand why she went for the poll tax the way she did. They could not see that it was part of a pattern in the way she conducted herself and her relations with colleagues. They pointed out that she was very good at doing what was possible rather than necessarily what she wanted to do – which is true, but they alluded to her combative nature without noticing the gradually increasing effect that had on her choice of battle and choice of allies. Though there were many who tried to argue her out of the poll tax, she'd steadily got rid of genuine dissent with the cabinet and the government, and the consequences of that in terms of group think must eventually show.

They also discussed how she conspired against John Major thus exacerbating the split in the party between Thatcherites and everybody else, but they were still unable to bring themselves to blame her – it was still in their eyes the way she was removed that was the problem rather than the lady herself. They actually said on the programme that she was divisive for Major, but still could not acknowledge that that was culpable behaviour. John Patten made one of the programme's few really insightful remarks when he said that by that time Thatcherism and Euroscepticism were absolutely one and the same thing. Somebody – it might have been David Mellor – said that she arrived at the only time in the twentieth century when the country was ready for her, when there was a sense of crisis around, and battles had to be fought. But Portillo failed to move on from that to the point where the battles have been fought and the country wants to be at peace. And Margaret Thatcher had to go on fighting battles regardless.

The problem the party faces is that there is still a very solid rump of people, both MPs and members, who believe that Margaret Thatcher had all the right answers and are determined to follow her prescriptions, and her manner, to the last. That and the fact that the country contains more voters who hate her than who like her. I think that until the conservative party actually realises that, and genuinely puts some distance between them and her they will have a hard time. This programme suggests that that point has still not come, because although plenty was said about her failings, Portillo and his chums still could not bring themselves to say that she stopped being the solution and became the problem.

Sunday 24 February 2008

Top ten films that didn't get Oscars

The Beeb reports a Radio Times poll of favourite films that didn't win an Oscar.

1. The Shawshank Redemption
2. The Sixth Sense
3. Fight Club
4. Blade Runner
5= It's a Wonderful Life
5= The Great Escape
7= Taxi Driver
7= Psycho
9. Singin' in the Rain
10. Dr Strangelove

All great favourites of mine, with the exception of Psycho, which I wil agree is very good, but I'm not that into slasher/horror/whatever you want to call it.

I wonder what I've got against Oscar winners....

Tuesday 5 February 2008

The rain gauge experiment

This is a further stage in my pursuit of scientific excellence, a course called S104: Exploring Science from the Open University.

The first experiment is making a rain gauge. Once again my intrepid assistants, Ruffles and Ollie, are on hand. I got two bottles of Waitrose sparkling water - the only bottles I could find with smooth straight sides.

I was just back from seeing Sweeney Todd when I started making the rain gauges, so Ruffles and Ollie stood well back.

The finished products. I'm rather proud of the centimetre gauge I created on my computer. I couldn't get it down to millimetres, but after the rain we've had today, I might not need millimetres.

The finished products in place. Having heard other people's experiences of bottles blown around the garden, I anchored mine with a shoe scraper and a variety of pot plants.

Ruffles and Ollie didn't want to get wet.

Saturday 2 February 2008

Sweeney Todd

No spoilers.

It's my own fault; didn't realise I was being taken to see a musical. It's OK if you like musicals. And blood. And body parts. Johnny Depp was very professional; sounded too much like Captain Sparrow throughout, though he does do that accent very well. Timothy Spall is clearly developing a line in Victorian baddies. And they did very well turning a musical into a film, and not just filming the musical. Just not my cup of tea.

Incapacity benefit

The Daily Telegraph reports today that "Up to two thirds of people claiming incapacity benefit are not entitled to the state handout, the Government's new welfare adviser warns today." What they're really reporting, if you read the next few paragraphs, is that this investment banker David Freud has plucked a figure out of the air and they are very happy to make hay with it. Reporting more suited to the Daily Mail, I would have thought. Compounded a bit lower down the page by them publishing a picture of "David Freud the new Work and Pensions Secretary". No, DT, the Work and Pensions Secretary is James Purnell, he of photoshop fame. Perhaps this is a new form of photoshopping.

Yes, we know there are too many people on Incapacity Benefit. Successive governments have put them there, starting with Michael Howard. That is a fact, not a claim, as the Beeb has it. But you don't solve that problem by throwing numbers around like Northern Rock financial managers, and taking cheap shots at those in this position.

What is most needed is a change of attitude among politicians, and in those officials in the DWP responsible for implementing changes. It doesn't work to blather about chucking people back into work - that's just posturing for middle England's benefit. Those who should be job seeking rather than on incapacity benefit should be put there; those who are cheating the system should be pursued. But it should not be done in such a way that genuine claimants are hounded or belittled. And above all it should not be done in such a way that those who are on the rather wide borderline between ill health and fitness are made to feel miserable. There is a way to be firm, forgiving, fair and flexible all at the same time, but not when you're posturing about how many more people you can make miserable than the other party.

Educational snobbery

I blogged about it, among other things, here. And now I find that the BBC's education correspndent agrees with me. But he said it better.