Families Vent Fury At PM Over Army Cuts

(Independent) – A DANGEROUS LACK OF EQUIPMENT and a disregard for the human cost of the Iraq war, were two of the accusations levelled at Gordon Brown yesterday by former soldiers and their relatives as he prepared to face the Chilcot inquiry.

The Prime Minister is expected to face claims today that he “guillotined” the military budget while he was chancellor, starving the armed forces of resources.

While Mr Brown’s appearance has not generated the same level of excitement as that of his predecessor Tony Blair in January, with only 300 people applying for tickets compared to 3,000, it will be closely scrutinised by those most deeply affected – the military, the injured, bereaved families and Iraqi refugees.

“The question I would like to ask him is why he values the lives of our soldiers so little?” said Roger Bacon, whose son Major Matthew Bacon, 34, of the Intelligence Corps, was killed by a roadside bomb in Basra in 2005. The helicopter he was due to be travelling in developed a fault and he was forced to take a lightly armoured Snatch Land Rover.

He added: “He was in charge of the money. He could have released the money but he refused, knowing they were short of equipment. He had the purse strings. If he didn’t believe we could afford it, if he had doubts, he should have expressed his opinion more strongly.”

His comments were echoed by Captain Doug Beattie MC, who was a Regimental Sergeant Major of the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment, during the war.

“The cuts were so deep when we were training in Kuwait we were given weapons without ammunition. That had an effect on the ordinary soldier,” he explained. “People went to war, not just ill-equipped but scandalously ill-equipped. When we crossed from Kuwait to Iraq, we didn’t go in armoured vehicles. My men were in the back of four-tonne trucks as if they were going for a day out in Blackpool.”

He continued: “During the war Brown was the chancellor when funding for the armed forces was being cut and cut and cut. I would want to ask him, did he realise the funding cuts that he was inflicting would result in the armed forces not being fit for the task or equipped for the fight. Did he think of the consequence of those funding cuts?”

Mr Brown is expected to be asked by the inquiry how closely he was involved in developing government policy on Iraq, whether he voiced concerns to Mr Blair and whether he provided enough resources to the armed forces as chancellor.

Karla Ellis, whose brother Private Lee Ellis, 23, of 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, was killed in Al Amarah in February 2006, accused him of failing to protect the soldiers not only in war but when they came home. She said that he had let down bereaved families and traumatised soldiers.

“My brother was an honourable person who served his Queen and country. These men were pushed into a war they knew was not necessary. They sent them out there to do their dirty work and now they are not looking after them,” said the 29-year-old.

Frances Shine, whose son Trooper Stephen Shine, of the Royal Tank Regiment, lost his leg in a roadside bomb, said: “Why didn’t he release more money? I remember getting an apology from [the then Defence Secretary] Des Browne on behalf of the Government. He said ‘you were right, we were caught short’. There was nothing in place for the families or the injured troops.”

Lance Corporal Mark Dryden, who was serving for the second time in Iraq in November 2005 when he lost his arm to an improvised explosive device that killed his friend and fellow fusilier, Sergeant John Jones, added: “In the beginning the facilities for the injured were shocking. I don’t think they realised how many injured personnel would be coming back. And I still don’t think that a person who pays his taxes should have to give money to charities to give a wounded soldier what he deserves.”

The Iraqi people paid an even higher price, as Muhsin Kareem, of the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees, pointed out. Mr Kareem, who emigrated to the UK in 2004, said he wanted to know whether Mr Brown had thought through the consequences of the invasion.

“They never thought of what would happen after the war to the Iraqi people when the state fell and there was no alternative,” he said. “They say they overthrew a dictatorship in Iraq and released the people and brought freedom. But now Iraq is in chaos. Before we had just one Saddam now we have a lot of different militias and it is worse. I would ask Mr Brown, who participated in the decision to go to war, with Mr Blair, if he thinks he is responsible for the chaos.”

Tomorrow the Stop the War Coalition will try to hand the Prime Minister a bloodstained cheque. Its convenor Lindsey German said: “The cost of the war in Iraq stands at an estimated £8.5bn for Britain alone. Most British public opinion shows opposition to the war and the desire for more money to be spent on welfare. How can Mr Brown, as a Labour chancellor and Prime Minister, justify these priorities?”

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Bob Resorts To Americanisms In His Press Release – So He Can Claim To Be An Armed Forces ‘Veteran’

IT APPEARS THAT, as far as Bob Spink (our local MP) is concerned: there is no looming general election – just as there is apparently no issue over his fraudulent office expense claims. Readers of his press release, issued yesterday, are led to believe that Bob will still be ‘representing’ constituents in June, when the next Castle Point Armed Forces Parade is due to be held on the island.

Wrapping himself in the Union Flag, as most politicians are want-to-do at election  time, Bob proclaims:-

MP Bob Spink is, for the fourth year in succession, holding an Armed Forces Day for Castle Point to honour its veterans and serving forces.

Last year over 5,000 people took part and the event which [sic] was made a great success by the efforts of Canvey Town Councillors who supported Bob. Castle Point received wide national coverage as one of the best in the country and was mentioned by the Prime Minister at Prime Ministers Questions where he joined Independent MP Bob in congratulating all involved.

Bob, himself a Forces Veteran, says:

“We must never forget the sacrifice given by our veterans and those serving now. They are simply the Bravest and the Best.

I have bid for and now been formally granted £2000 by the MOD to support this year’s event.

I am particularly grateful to Canvey Island Town Council and the Royal British Legion for their wonderful support in organising and running the event.

Our next Armed Forces Day will be on Saturday 26th June and the Chelsea Pensioners, Gurkhas [sic], Royal Anglian Regiment and all cadet and youth organisations will I hope be attending to make it another wonderful day. I hope you will accept my personal invitation to attend.”

Now, the word ‘veteran’ can only be used two ways in the English language. The first is to describe a person or thing that has given long service in some capacity; but the second, in the context that Bob uses it here, is: an Armed Forces member who has seen considerable active service.

Bob is carefully using the word here in its US usage: a person who has served in the armed forces.

There can be no doubt that he actually donned a uniform; just as there can be no doubt that he undertook basic training. But Bob was never in harm’s way. He was, (according to his CV) invalided-out whilst receiving basic training at RAF Cosford and Uxbridge. So even the abysmally lax definition of the word’s US usage somewhat overstates his claim – since training does not constitute service.

Armed Forces veterans are easy to distinguish. At the very least they have been presented with, and are entitled to wear, a campaign ribbon. It is the force’s way of recognising the mental and, sometimes, physical scars that they will be forced to carry with them for the rest of their lives. And the military have long reserved the term ‘veteran’ for only those armed forces personnel whom have actually participated in combat. New recruits, and most civilians, hold veterans in high esteem and provide them with the respect they deserve – particularly those whom were forced to receive their meagre reward posthumously.

There is something particularly despicable about someone passing themself off as a veteran and claiming a share of our Heroes’ Glory. Moreover, it is sickening to think that such a pretender should lead an armed forces’ parade or present themself for press photographs in front of such honourable men and women.

If you are around this year, Bob, do us all a favour: learn how to spell ‘Ghurkhas;’ confine your ‘marching’ to the rear of the procession; and, when the inevitable group photographs are taken: make sure you are at the back…

Fatwa Issued Against Suicide Bombings

(Telegraph) – THE LEADER of a worldwide Muslim movement has issued a fatwa in Britain condemning terrorism and warning suicide bombers that they are “destined for hell”.

Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a leading cleric in Pakistan, has written a 600-page religious ruling that says “suicide bombings and attacks against civilian targets are not only condemned by Islam, but render the perpetrators totally out of the fold of Islam, in other words, to be unbelievers.”

Dr Qadri runs the Minhaj-ul-Quran movement based in Lahore but also has many British followers.

He follows the moderate sufi form of Islam and has campaigned for greater religious tolerance.

But his ruling is among the most comprehensive examinations of terrorism and could have an affect on those on the fringes of extremism.

Shahid Mursaleen, spokesman for Minhaj-ul-Quran UK, said: “He has hit hard on the terrorists as it prevents Islamists from considering suicide bombers as ‘martyrs’. This fatwa injects doubt into the minds of potential suicide bombers.

“Extremist groups based in Britain recruit youth by brainwashing them that they will ‘with certainty’ be rewarded in the next life and Dr Qadri’s fatwa has removed this key intellectual factor from their minds.”

The fatwa has been billed as “arguably the most comprehensive” theological refutation of Islamic terrorism to date by counter extremism think tank the Quilliam foundation.

A Quilliam spokesman said: “Terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda continue to justify their mass killings with self-serving readings of religious scripture.

“Fatwas that demolish and expose such theological innovations will consign Islamist terrorism to the dustbin of history.”

The Minhaj-ul-Quaran movement runs courses in combating religious extremism in educational centres throughout Britain including London, Birmingham, Manchester, Nelson, Walsall, Glasgow and Dundee.

Communities Minister Shahid Malik, whose Dewsbury constituency was home to 7/7 bomber Mohammad Siddique Khan, welcomed the fatwa.

“It is incumbent on Muslims to stand up for their faith – when 7/7 occurred those four evil young men killed themselves and over 50 innocent people because they followed a twisted and perverted interpretation of Islam which told them by doing so they would go to heaven,” he said.

“A clear and unequivocal message must go out that Islam teaches that these four are not martyrs going to heaven but sinners going somewhere very different indeed.

“Hence, I very much welcome the work of Dr Qadri in helping reinforce this most crucial of message to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.”

MPs Call For Curb On Top Earners After Super-tax Flops

(Independent) – THE SUPER-TAX on bankers’ bonuses has failed, MPs warned last night as they demanded curbs on the pay and perks of all top earners, not just those in the City.

More than 100 MPs have signed a Commons motion calling for the setting up of a “high pay commission” to limit the remuneration of the highest earners. The move comes as banks prepare to announce big profits and growing signs that bankers are escaping the 50 per cent super-tax on bonuses of more than £25,000 because it is being absorbed by their employers.

The super-tax was announced by Alistair Darling in his pre-Budget report last month amid mounting concern over bank bonuses and the £850bn bailout of the banks by taxpayers after the financial crisis. The Chancellor’s main aim was to deter banks from paying bonuses but this has not worked, MPs claim. One side effect is that the Treasury is receiving more tax revenue than the £500m it originally expected.

The banks’ actions have fuelled demands among Labour MPs for a commission to regulate top pay to mirror the Low Pay Commission, which recommends the national minimum wage for the lowest earners.

Although ministers have not backed the call for a new commission, Labour MPs and grassroots activists will press for the plan to be included in the party’s general election manifesto. They claim it would enjoy widespread public support and bolster Labour’s pitch to be acting for “the many” while accusing the Conservatives of representing the interests of “the few”.

John Battle, a former minister who tabled the Commons motion, told The Independent: “As we come out of a recession into economic growth it is now the time once again to consider the disparity in incomes that exists within the UK. We cannot begin to examine or develop a fairness argument without examining the effects that increased wealth concentrated at the top of society has caused to social inequality.”

He added: “Following the financial crash and the aftermath of the credit crunch, bailing out the banks this is an issue that we cannot ignore anymore. It’s not simply a case of taking away from bankers’ bonuses as they are the target of public concern, the key is to address wage imbalances and bring about an end to inequality through excessive pay.”

Gavin Hayes, general secretary of the democratic left pressure group Compass, which is campaigning for a new commission, said it was “imperative the Government now establishes a high pay commission if we are to avoid another financial crisis”.

The Commons motion has been backed by 73 Labour MPs, 19 Liberal Democrats and nine MPs from minority parties.

It says the proposed commission should examine the effects of high pay on the economy and society and the links between “excessive pay” and the financial crisis. It points out that in the past 30 years, people on median incomes have seen their pay increase at less than the average while the super-rich, including chief executive officers, have seen their pay increase to 76 times that of the average worker.

The motion says the commission should investigate the questionable link between economic performance and high pay and the social effects of inequality due to the increase of wealth concentrated at the top of society. It also calls for an inquiry to bring all the facts into the public domain.

Police Handover More Files On Westminster Expenses

(Guardian) – TWO MORE POLITICIANS may face criminal charges in the new year after Scotland Yard passed files of evidence to prosecutors.

Detectives from the Metropolitan police have been examining allegations that a “handful” of MPs and peers have committed criminal offences, including fraud and false accounting, over their expenses claims.

The Crown Prosecution Service is already examining files on four politicians and the cases of two more individuals were referred. Scotland Yard is continuing to investigate a small number of cases, a spokesman said.

The Met commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, said last month that a team of detectives was looking at a number of politicians – in single rather than double figures.

Scotland Yard has not confirmed the names of those individuals whose files were passed to prosecutors. But six individuals have been named in media reports as possibly being the subject of police inquiries. These include the Labour MPs Elliot Morley and David Chaytor, who each claimed thousands of pounds for mortgages which had already been paid off. Jim Devine, a third Labour MP, has reportedly been under investigation for invoices he submitted for electrical work worth more than £2,000 from a company with an allegedly fake address and an invalid VAT number.

Other names linked to the inquiry include the Labour peers Lady Uddin, who is facing allegations over a £100,000 claim in allowances, and Lord Clarke of Hampstead, a former party chairman, who has admitted his “terrible error” in claiming up to £18,000 a year for overnight subsistence when he often stayed with friends in London or returned home to St Albans, Hertfordshire.

Lord Hanningfield, a Tory peer who is also leader of Essex county council, was reported to be under investigation over whether he was returning to his home while claiming overnight allowances totalling £100,000 over a seven-year period.

The files are being considered by the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, who has to decide whether there is a realistic chance of securing a conviction and what charges he should bring.

The criminal offences which are likely to be being examined are fraud and false accounting. The former has maximum penalties of 10 years in prison and the latter seven years.

False accounting is covered by the 1968 Theft Act and carries a sentence of up to seven years. It states that a representation is false if the person making it “knows that it is, or might be, untrue or misleading”.

The 2006 Fraud Act states that a person is guilty if he “dishonestly makes a false representation”.

The Met said a small number of cases remained under investigation by detectives. “The Metropolitan police service has delivered two further files of evidence relating to parliamentary expenses to the Crown Prosecution Service.

“These files relate to two people and will now be subject to CPS consideration on whether there should be any charges.

“The CPS is now considering files relating to a total of six people from both houses. A small number of cases remain under investigation.”

The CPS said: “The CPS received two additional files of evidence from the Metropolitan police in relation to parliamentary expenses. Any decisions on whether or not there should be any charges in relation to these files and those already received will be made as quickly as is reasonably practical. It would be inappropriate to comment any further at this stage.”

The alleged abuses of the expenses system by MPs, such as claiming for “phantom” mortgages and creating fake receipts, are obvious cases for investigation as potential breaches of these laws, according to criminal lawyers.

Public Sector Elite Earning Thousands Of Pounds Per Day

(Telegraph) – A COSY ELITE of public sector staff are earning as much as £4,800 for a day’s work, a report claims today.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance report into the earnings of quango executives comes as MPs call for public sector bodies to be “named and shamed” if they pay their staff too much.

The TPA studied the pay and contracts of more than 900 non-executive directors of public bodies, who sit on management boards part-time and oversee their strategy and performance.

The report looked at the boards of 100 quangos, and found that the typical board meets between 10 and 14 times a year.

Overall, the TPA calculated that for chairmen of public bodies, the average daily rate was £642. The typical non-executive board member got £356.

Some are paid much more. The best-paid was Sir Callum McCarthy, the former chairman of the Financial Services Authority. He was paid £487,238 for a year when he was at the City watchdog, a daily rate of £4,872.

Sir John Harman, the former chairman of the Environment Agency, was paid the equivalent of £1,240 for each day’s work. John Armitt of the Olympic Delivery Agency was paid £962.

The report also found that a significant number of directors sit on the board of more than one quango.

Ben Farrugia, the author of the TPA report, said quango board appointments are often a “carousel”, with members and chairmen frequently moving from one board to another.

He said: “Quangos spend large amounts of taxpayers’ money and control a wide range of public activities, but they are unaccountable and distant from the taxpaying public. Their non-executive directors should work to protect taxpayers’ interests on our behalf, but there are serious concerns about their suitability to do that job.

“Our study suggests that instead of serving taxpayers’ interests, many non-executive members and Chairs are all too likely to put their quango’s interests first.”

Meanwhile, the Public Administration Select Committee of MPs joined the growing chorus of criticism of public sector salaries

The committee called for the creation of a new Top Pay Commission to require public sector pay-setters to justify big pay deals and “set them in the context of pay at lower levels and the state of the public finances.”

Tony Wright, the Labour chairman of the committee, said: “We do not believe that the ever-growing gulf between average earnings and top pay is sustainable or desirable – especially in a time of recession.”

The MPs’ report also identified weaknesses in current arrangements for public sector pay-setting, warning of a perception that some public servants have been rewarded for failure.

Pay has been driven up because parts of the public sector are competing against each other for a small number of experienced executives, rather than nurturing talent within their own ranks, the MPs said.

George Osborne, the Tory shadow chancellor has said that under a Conservative government, any public sector salary higher than the Prime Minister’s £192,000 salary could only be directly approved by the Treasury.

Gordon Brown admitted this month that a “culture of excess” has developed around public sector salaries and ordered a review of senior officials’ pay.

Last week, John Denham, the Communities Secretary, put forward new rules requiring local authorities and other public bodies to reveal the names and salaries of an estimated 300 staff earning more than £150,000 a year.

Chaos As 80 MPs Defy Repayment Demands

(Telegraph) – ATTEMPTS BY THE HOUSE OF COMMONS to draw a line under the expenses scandal have been dealt a blow by 80 MPs who have defied demands to repay hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The number of appeals against the findings of the audit of MPs’ claims was far higher than the Commons authorities had anticipated, threatening the timetable for making repayment details public.

Around 200 MPs are thought to have been asked to return money from claims with around a third of those submitting appeals by the 3pm deadline yesterday.

Angry MPs hit out at demands to return four and five figure sums, with one accusing Sir Thomas Legg, who led the audit team, of acting “dishonestly”.

Sources had indicated that around 50 initial appeals were anticipated following the investigation into five years of claims, of which at least 20 were expected to be withdrawn before next Wednesday’s deadline for submitting supporting paperwork.

Sir Paul Kennedy, the former high court judge who has been asked to hear cases in which MPs dispute the Legg findings, had hoped to complete his work by the middle of January.

But the scale of the defiance threatens to overwhelm Sir Paul, with belligerent MPs angry at what they see as the Legg review’s retrospective rulings unlikely to withdraw their appeals.