Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Every night the BBC lectures us on climate change. So why did their bosses make 68,000 domestic f lights in two years    
Deputy DG Mark Byford took plane to Manchester for the Open golf ... three hours by train Director General Mark Thompson f lew to Newcastle for Tory drinks party... and Glasgow for concert
By: Jason Lewis
BBC Director General Mark Thompson
High-flyer: BBC Director General Mark Thompson has taken 16 internal flights
The BBC has spent almost £5million on

ITS viewers are frequently subjected to warnings about climate change. Yet the BBC has spent nearly £5 million on tens of thousands of short-haul flights across Britain for its executives, staff and guests.

At a time when programmes regularly highlight the environmental impact of air travel, licence-fee payers have funded more than 68,000 internal trips over the past two years - an average of nearly 100 flights a day.

The BBC's daily carbon footprint generated by the UK air trips is the equivalent of that produced by the average person in a year, say environmental experts.

Among the users of domestic flights was the BBC's Deputy Director-General Mark Byford, who flew from Southampton to Edinburgh to watch an England-Scotland rugby match.

Mr Byford, who earns £471,000 a year, also took a flight from London to Manchester to attend the Open golf championship. The same journey would have taken three hours by train.

BBC Director-General Mark Thompson travelled on 16 internal flights. These included a flight to Newcastle from London to attend a Conservative Party reception, and a flight from London to Glasgow to attend a concert. The huge bill for internal flights came to light following a Freedom of Information request.

Critics are bound to question how the Corporation can justify spending such a large sum on short flights - especially in the light of the BBC's most recent corporate responsibility report, which says: 'Large organisations like the BBC are under increasing pressure to reduce environmental impacts, use resources more efficiently, and manage their operations in a more sustainable way. We are making progress in all of these areas.

'We will continue to encourage staff to travel less, and use rail rather than air wherever that is feasible.' Last night campaigners were also questioning why the BBC had lavished huge amounts on UK air travel at a time of job cuts and cutbacks in programme budgets.

The total cost to licence-fee payers of the 68,063 flights amounted to £4,686,850 between 2007 and 2009. Those who took the flights included BBC staff, freelance workers and guests.

A spokesman for Friends of the Earth said: 'There's no excuse for flying across the UK when there are greener alternatives such as travelling by train.

'It's vital that we slash carbon emissions from transport to meet the UK's targets for tackling climate change, and this means changing the way we travel.' Among the reasons cited for taking flights were attending training days, TV and radio festivals and travelling to meetings.

One of the biggest users of domestic flights among the corporation's exec-utive directors was Deputy Director-General Mark Byford, who has overall responsibility for journalism and sport. In March 2008, Mr Byford flew from Southampton - the airport closest to his Winchester home - to Edinburgh to watch a Scotland-England rugby match.

On the same trip he also incurred £26 worth of taxi fares to get to and from the airport, a bill picked up by the licence-fee payer.

In July that year he flew from London to Manchester to attend the Open golf championship at Royal Birkdale.

In September Mr Byford flew to Manchester again to attend the Labour Party Conference.

He took 23 domestic flights over the two-year period.

Other top executives made dozens of short-haul flights, including director general Mark Thompson and finance chief Zarin Patel.

Mr Thompson, who earns £834,000 a year, took 16 internal flights, including flying to Newcastle for the Conservative Party reception and to Glasgow for the 'opening of season for Scottish Symphony Orchestra'.

Ms Patel, who earns £429,000, took at least 10 domestic flights to attend meetings with finance and production staff in Glasgow.

And Timothy Davie, who as the director of audio and music earns £403,000, took 18 internal flights including to attend the Edinburgh Festival last year and a radio festival in Glasgow.

Last night Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the Taxpayers' Alliance, said the flights were a needless waste of money. He said: 'Some BBC staff seem to be accustomed to travelling five star, but this kind of luxury simply can't go on.

'Taking a train is almost always far more cost-effective than domestic flights, and a plane simply isn't necessary to reach most parts of the country other than Northern Ireland.' Last night a BBC spokeswoman defended its use of domestic air travel. She said the BBC was introducing video conference facilities to cut down on the need to travel to meetings and that rail travel was its 'preferred mode of transport within England'.

'We do consider our environmental impact, but obviously we also have to consider value for money for the licence-fee payer. It remains the case that domestic flights are sometimes the cheapest and most time-efficient means for transport.' She defended Mr Byford's use of flights to attend the rugby match, saying: 'His diary is extremely busy and so if he got the train up [from Southampton] it would take eight hours. He could well have had other things to do for the BBC on that day.

'Just because it was a Saturday it wouldn't necessarily mean he didn't have other things to do.' The BBC executives took their flights even though they have the use of chauffeur-driven cars - funded by the licence fee.

Mr Thompson has a VW Phaeton 3.0TDi V6 which has cost the licence payer £143,000 during the past two years. Mr Byford has a Lexus GS which has cost £133,000 during the same period.

It has previously been revealed that Mr Byford gets his car to pick him up from Waterloo Station every day after he commutes from Winchester to London. The car then drives him the six miles to and from his office at White City in West London.

Miliband wastes £80,000 changing official font on Foreign Office logo

By Jason Lewis
Last updated at 1:59 AM on 25th April 2010
David Miliband
Rebrand edict: David Miliband
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has spent tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money on a new logo – which is almost identical to the previous design.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband ordered the £80,000 makeover at the same time as the department was being forced to draw up a hit list of embassies and consulates around the globe it will close to save money.
In addition to the new branding costs, the FCO will be forced to spend more money on new stationery carrying the updated look.
Last year the Foreign Office was £110million over budget – mainly caused by its massive spending on upgrading its security and on counter-terrorism work.
Yet at the same time senior mandarins called in image consultants to rebrand the department which has been in existence since 1782.
A glossy brochure which accompanies the rebrand claims that the new identity – featuring the Royal Crest and a new typeface for the words ‘Foreign & Commonwealth Office’ – will ‘subtly represent the ‘‘Power to influence”’.
The new FCO brand came into effect last month with all embassies and other posts around the world issued with a ‘brand tool kit’ including a lists of do’s and don’ts on how to use the new logo.
An 80-page pamphlet states: ‘Our logo consists of the Royal Crest and name beneath it...we need to use this...in all our print materials.’
Spot the difference: The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has spent tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money on a new logo- which is almost identical to the previous design
The image consultants also designed a simplified version of the crest for use on the FCO website – removing the Royal motto ‘Dieu et mon droit’ – ‘God and my right’ – and the motto of the Order of the Garter ‘Honi soit qui mal y
pense’ – loosely translated as ‘Evil be to him who evil thinks’.
The highly-paid consultants also chose a new typeface to be used on all the FCO’s paperwork. The font, called Frutiger, is also used by the National Health Service.
According to the FCO, its new brand represents six words: ‘Empowering, Insightful, Principled, Persuasive, Strategic and Intelligent’.
Officials drawing up invitations and staging events at embassies around the world have been warned not to ‘cramp’ the logo on letters and other material.
And the list of ‘don’ts’ includes: ‘Do not render the logo in any other colour than the FCO blue, reversed out white or black’ and ‘Be careful never to expand or condense the master artwork’.
A spokesman for the FCO said: ‘This will actually save money over time – for example, getting rid of the need for individual embassies to hire design teams when they produce publications or exhibition materials.’
He said the department had ‘engaged’ a ‘design consultant’ at a cost of £80,000. He did not disclose the additional cost of the new stationery needed across the department’s global operations. 

Superspy in the sky could soon be patrolling over British cities to search for hidden terror cells

By Jason Lewis
Last updated at 1:13 AM on 26th April 2010
A Top-secret US unmanned drone used to locate Al Qaeda and Taliban hideouts in Pakistan and Afghanistan could soon be patrolling over British cities to search for hidden terror cells.
The controversial move would allow MI5 and GCHQ, the Government's eavesdropping centre, to step up surveillance operations over the UK. Until now, the £23million Global Hawk aircraft has not been available for foreign sale.
However, US policy has been quietly changed and Britain is now negotiating to buy the drones. America is keen to supply them for British patrols after a string of terror plots threatening the US and its citizens.
A NASA Global Haw
Terror Watch: The £23 million Global Hawk unmanned drone
These include the attempt in 2006 to detonate liquid bombs on aircraft flying to American cities from the UK. It is not known how many drones the UK wants from manufacturer Northrop Grumman, but earlier this year a senior Ministry of Defence procurement official visited the Pentagon to begin negotiations.
Britain would not need to use the drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan because the US already provides full air coverage in the region. Instead, it is believed they will be used mainly for domestic surveillance.
The drones are also being deployed by the US Navy in the Caribbean and off the Florida coast to combat drug smuggling. In Britain, MI5 and GCHQ already use three planes based at RAF Northolt in North-West London to spy on citizens.
The three Britten-Norman Islander aircraft are all fitted with sophisticated surveillance equipment. They have been used to track down terror cells and to locate former Afghan veterans who may have returned to Britain to plot terror attacks.
The aircraft are able to identify suspects using 'voice-prints' of insurgents with British accents that were picked up by spy planes monitoring Taliban radio signals in Afghanistan.
One stumbling block is that permission from the Civil Aviation Authority would be needed to fly the drones in already congested UK airspace. Although the CAA gave the MoD permission to fly another drone over parts of Wales earlier this month, it is understood to be against regular flights because of safety fears.
However, the Global Hawk recently became the first drone to be certified by the American Federal Aviation Authority for use in civilian air corridors with no advance notice.
The drone can stay airborne for 30 hours without refuelling. Last night, MoD sources said the Global Hawk was being looked at for possible military use but any decision to buy the drone would depend on funding.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Revealed: How MI5 bugged 10 Downing Street, the Cabinet and at least five Prime Ministers for 15 YEARS

Last updated at 1:13 AM on 18th April 2010
    MI5 used hidden electronic surveillance equipment to secretly monitor 10 Downing Street, the Cabinet and at least five Prime Ministers, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
    The extraordinary disclosure comes despite a succession of parliamentary statements that no such bugging ever took place.
    And it follows a behind-the-scenes row in which senior Whitehall civil servants – backed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown – attempted to suppress the revelation.
    Harold MacMillan
    Under surveillance: Harold Macmillan in the Cabinet Room
    The Mail on Sunday has learned that top-secret files held by the Security Service show it installed electronic listening devices in three highly sensitive areas of No10 – the Cabinet Room, the Waiting Room and the Prime Minister’s study.
    It means that for nearly 15 years, all Cabinet meetings, the offices of senior officials and all visitors to the Prime Minister – including foreign leaders – were being bugged.
    The disclosure is highly shocking in its own right but it will also bring genuine concerns as to why the Cabinet Office still wants to suppress it.
    Comments from MI5 chief Jonathan Evans suggest that the attempted block was not done on grounds of national security but for wider public interest reasons.
    This must raise the possibility that the bugging was carried out for political purposes and officials do not want to admit it went on in the past because similar operations are continuing today.
    Christine Keeler
    Scandal: Harold Macmillan had the bugs installed after the Profumo Affair involving Christine Keeler
    It is understood that the top-secret MI5 file on the operation is short and does not reveal why the bugs were installed. 
    Crucially, the documents also fail to answer whether all the Prime Ministers in office during the period of the operation, from 1963 to 1977, were told that their conversations were monitored.
    The files also contain no ‘product’ – transcripts of conversations overheard by the devices – suggesting that the bugs, while working, were not being actively used by MI5.
    It is unknown, however, if the devices were being monitored by any other agency, including GCHQ, the Government’s eavesdropping centre, or MI6.
    Details of the surveillance operation were due to be revealed in The Defence Of The Realm, the official history of MI5 written by highly respected Cambridge University historian Professor Christopher Andrew.
    It is understood MI5 believed there were no national security concerns over the disclosures.
    But weeks before the book’s publication late last year, the Cabinet Office – which oversees MI5 for the Prime Minister – ruled that the references had to be removed on unspecified public interest grounds.
    Its insistence led to a behind-the-scenes row with Prof Andrew, who wrote of ‘one significant excision’ which was ‘I believe, hard to justify’. The comments by the historian have prompted significant speculation over what he was forced to remove.
    Now this newspaper can reveal the deletions relate to the eavesdropping devices that were first installed in Downing Street in July 1963 at the request of the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan.
    It is unclear why Macmillan made the extraordinary request, although it came a month after his War Minister John Profumo had resigned after admitting a relationship with prostitute Christine Keeler. 
    Keeler was also involved with Yevgeny ‘Eugene’ Ivanov, a senior naval attaché at the Soviet embassy in London and the Profumo Affair raised fears that military secrets were at risk.
    The scandal undermined Macmillan’s Government and led eventually to his resignation, on grounds of ill health, in October 1963.
    Following his departure, the bugs were briefly removed. But according to the secret files they were reinstated months later on the orders of new Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home.
    Douglas-Home’s reasoning is also unknown. The MI5 files do not disclose why he too wanted his Cabinet and officials put under surveillance, nor why he wanted his own study bugged.
    However, he was still dealing with the fall-out of the Profumo Affair while also facing a number of serious behind-the-scenes scandals involving senior politicians’ links with organised crime and the secret confession of Anthony Blunt, the surveyor of the Queen’s pictures, that he was a Soviet spy.
    Jonathan Evans
    Spy chief: MI5 director-general Jonathan Evans said that secrecy over the bugging devices in Downing Street was for reasons of 'public interest'
    Blunt was only publicly exposed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979. But in 1964, he had confessed and named a series of highly placed British officials he had recruited to work as agents for the KGB. 
    In return for Blunt’s admission, the Government agreed to keep his betrayal secret and grant him immunity from prosecution.
    The bugs remained in Downing Street throughout Douglas-Home’s term and also the premierships of his successors Harold Wilson and Edward Heath. 
    In all, the equipment monitored the most sensitive areas of Downing Street for around 15 years. It was finally removed on the orders of James Callaghan in about 1977, the year after he took office. The files do not make it clear whether Prime Ministers Heath and Wilson knew there were surveillance devices in No10.
    The revelation that there were bugs in Downing Street will add to conspiracy theories surrounding the alleged plot to overthrow Wilson.
    Indeed Wilson’s actions while in office suggest he was never told his office had been bugged. Seemingly obsessed by the idea that he and other MPs were under surveillance, he introduced the Wilson Doctrine – still in place today – which bans the bugging of MPs’ telephone calls.
    Prof Andrew believes Wilson’s apparent obsession was evidence of his ‘mental and physical decline’. The Prime Minister was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
    Wilson hired private security firms to sweep his office for listening devices and was said to have pointed out electric light fittings to Downing Street visitors, indicating that they might be bugged.
    According to Prof Andrew: ‘Wilson appears rarely to have said anything in the lavatory without first turning on all the taps and gesturing at imaginary bugs in the ceiling.’ He also says Wilson suspected a hole in the wall of the Cabinet Room, behind a portrait of William Gladstone contained a listening device.
    After Wilson stepped down, he co-operated with a book suggesting there had been a plot by Right-wing intelligence officers to undermine him. The claim was later supported by former senior MI5 officer Peter Wright in his banned Spycatcher memoir.
    It also prompted Callaghan, Wilson’s successor, to launch an investigation into the allegations.
    The MI5 files indicate that it was Callaghan who finally ordered the surveillance devices to be removed from Downing Street.
    Despite this, Callaghan made a statement to the House of Commons denying that No10 had ever been bugged. 
    He said: ‘The Prime Minister is satisfied that at no time has the Security Service or any other British intelligence or security agency, either of its own accord or at someone else’s request, undertaken electronic surveillance in No 10 Downing Street.’
    The first indication of the Whitehall cover-up over the bugging operation was revealed by Prof Andrew in the preface of his book. 
    After praising the Security Service for ‘breaking new ground’ over what he was allowed to reveal, he added: ‘The most difficult part of the clearance process has concerned the requirements of other Government departments.
    ‘One significant excision as a result of these requirements (in the chapter on The Wilson Plot) is, I believe, hard to justify. This and other issues relating to the level of secrecy about past intelligence operations required by the current needs of national security would, in my view, merit consideration by the Intelligence and Security Committee.’
    The committee, which provides parliamentary oversight on security and intelligence matters, has so far not looked into the case.
    A foreword to the book by MI5 director-general Jonathan Evans also reveals it was ‘wider public interest reasons’ rather than national security that led to details being removed.
    He wrote: ‘Striking the balance in the text between openness and the protection of national security has been a complex and demanding exercise...[involving] the Service, and an extensive clearance process involving other departments and agencies.
    ‘The history as published includes some information that is embarrassing or uncomfortable to the Service.
    ‘Information has only been omitted if its disclosure would damage national security or, in a small number of cases, if its publication would be inappropriate for wider public interest reasons.’
    The Cabinet Office said last night: ‘The book is the authorised history of the Security Service. We are not prepared to discuss any issues beyond the contents of the book.
    ‘No Ministers were involved in the process around publication issues. Officials determined this process. 
    ‘The Prime Minister was only advised of the outcome at the end of the process.’

    So was Wilson right to be ‘paranoid’ about being spied on?

    When Harold Macmillan called in MI5 in 1963 and asked it to bug his office, he thought the whole world was coming apart, writes Stephen Dorrill.
    He was trying to keep a lid on an unprecedented level of scandal that threatened to undermine his Tory Government and confidence in the British Establishment.
    Secrets he kept included the identity of the ‘headless man’ in sexually explicit photos produced in the Duchess of Argyll’s divorce.
    The man was alleged to be Colonies Secretary Duncan Sandys, who offered to resign. Actor Douglas Fairbanks Junior was also accused.
    At one stage, Macmillan feared half his Cabinet was tainted by scandal or plotting against him. 
    He was also hearing gossip about the sexual exploits of senior judges and Royals.
    His own wife Dorothy had had a long affair with bisexual Tory peer Robert Boothby, conducted in full view of Westminster. 
    Boothby was rumoured to be the father of Macmillan’s youngest daughter and the stress had brought on a nervous breakdown.
    Then came the Profumo Affair, which nearly felled the Government.
    War Minister John Profumo had an affair with ‘party girl’ Christine Keeler – who also had a relationship with a Soviet naval attaché.
    In March 1963, Profumo misled the Commons about the relationship. Behind the scenes, he had also misled Macmillan personally. He was finally forced to resign in June. 
    We now know America believed there had been a serious leak of information to the Russians as a result of the scandal and MI5 was under pressure from the FBI and CIA to stem the flow of secrets.
    Macmillan felt he could not trust anybody – but turned for counsel to Dick White, director-general of foreign intelligence service MI6.
    It is possible that White suggested installing the listening devices in No10 as some kind of insurance policy.
    By bugging the Cabinet rooms, Macmillan would also have been able to eavesdrop on his Ministers, the Cabinet Secretary and his senior officials.
    After Macmillan’s resignation, his successor Alec Douglas-Home also faced a succession of scandals which now appear to have pushed him to turn to MI5 again.
    Lord Boothby, once close to Winston Churchill, had long kept his homosexual activity a secret. But in 1964 revelations about him threatened to engulf Douglas-Home’s Government.
    Boothby was a regular at London sex parties and began an affair with gangster Ronnie Kray.
    In July 1964, a Sunday newspaper published a front page exposé under the headline, Peer And A Gangster: Yard Probe. 
    It said police were investigating a homosexual relationship between a ‘prominent peer and a leading thug in the London underworld’, who was alleged to be involved in a West End protection racket.
    Also in the background was the hunt for further KGB moles at the highest levels in Government following the defections of the Cambridge spy ring which included Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess and the secret confession of Anthony Blunt. 
    In September 1962 John Vassall, a civil servant at the Admiralty, had also been arrested and charged with spying. 
    He gave a full confession and admitted passing the Soviets several thousand classified documents, including information on British radar, torpedoes and anti-submarine equipment.
    There was speculation that there was a second spy still operating in the Admiralty.
    Vassall was jailed for 18 years and an inquiry examined whether the inability to detect him earlier amounted to a failure of intelligence.
    The level of official paranoia at the time cannot be underestimated.
    But it is the revelation that the bugs were still in place in Downing Street during Harold Wilson’s two administrations, between 1964 and 1970 and 1974 to 1976, which is the most startling. Wilson believed that elements of the Establishment and members of MI5 and MI6 were plotting against him. 
    He said they planned to install Lord Louis Mountbatten, Prince Charles’s uncle and mentor, as interim head of a national Government. 
    Senior MI5 officer Peter Wright’s memoir Spycatcher claimed that he was involved in a plot with other disgruntled MI5 and MI6 officers to undermine Wilson. 
    Now, despite countless official denials, it appears that Wilson – whose claims that he was under surveillance are often dismissed as the ramblings of an ill and paranoid man – was right.

    Stephen Dorril is author of MI6 – Fifty Years of Special Operations; Smear: Wilson And The Secret State; and Honeytrap, on the Profumo Affair.

    The Shard

    Former Prescott adviser’s secret demand for £1m - over ‘Shard of Glass’ tower his ex-boss approved

    Last updated at 9:55 PM on 17th April 2010

    David Taylor, a former special adviser and friend of Mr Prescott, asked for the money from developers after Mr Prescott overruled objectors and gave planning consent for the giant Shard of Glass skyscraper in London.

    Mr Taylor’s demands came to light during a court case, which heard he asked for the ‘retrospective payment’ for his assistance, including ‘using his wide contacts in government’.
    Height of controversy: An artist's impression of the planned Shard of Glass tower in London
    Height of controversy: An artist's impression of the planned Shard of Glass tower in London
    Last night, Mr Taylor, a development management specialist and member of the Olympic Delivery Authority, denied any impropriety but confirmed he had discussed his involvement in the project with Mr Prescott once at a social event.
    The Shard of Glass will become Europe’s tallest building when it is completed on the south bank of the Thames in London in 2012. 
    Work on the 87-storey skyscraper only began after an inquiry headed by Mr Prescott, who was Deputy Prime Minister at the time. Objectors had complained about the building’s impact on the Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral.
    The Mail on Sunday can reveal that Mr Prescott’s decision to approve the Shard triggered the demands by Mr Taylor.
    During a dispute between three developers over the size of their stake in the project, the Royal Court of Jersey heard Mr Taylor had a confidential ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ with millionaire Irvine Sellar to assist in getting approval from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.
    Mr Taylor demanded his identity be kept secret and that other senior figures on the project – including one of Mr Sellar’s multimillionaire partners – were not told of his involvement, the court heard. 
    A director of the Shard’s holding company, responsible for paying the bills, told the court that it was only after a long-running argument about where the £1million was going that Mr Sellar finally disclosed Mr Taylor’s name.
    John Prescott David Taylor
    Dispute: John Prescott (left) is at the centre of a row after his former advisor David Taylor (right) asked for money from developers of the Shard of Glass tower
    The case in 2005 was abandoned when it was settled out of court.
    In a witness statement, Mr Sellar, who is worth a reputed £210million, said: ‘I regret that the proposed payment to Mr Taylor was not openly disclosed.’ 
    Mr Sellar, the head of Sellar Property Group, which has a portfolio of buildings worth £800million, said he first asked for Mr Taylor’s help with the Shard in 2002.
    He said: ‘He told me at the outset that in his opinion we had about a one in ten chance of succeeding.’
    He persuaded Mr Taylor to help him as ‘a general strategic adviser’ who would only be paid if they succeeded in getting planning consent.

    ‘The agreement was essentially a gentlemen’s agreement, not recorded in writing, that Sellar [Properties] would provide him with a success fee of £1million.’

    Mr Sellar said that Mr Taylor agreed to review all documents being submitted to the planning inquiry and help direct the case.
    He added that Mr Taylor had also agreed ‘if and when he believed it proper to do so, using his wide contacts in government to put the regeneration case for the project in order to counter the much louder voices which the opposing heritage groups would undoubtedly have’.
    Mr Sellar explained: ‘Mr Taylor wanted his involvement in the project kept confidential. I understood that it would not help his own position on his other work if he were seen... to be working on behalf of a developer on a project such as this.

    'I therefore agreed that I would not give out his name and would keep his involvement confidential.’

    Last night, Mr Taylor denied any impropriety but admitted his role was kept secret to block suggestions he was using his links to Mr Prescott. And he performed an amazing about-turn by first denying ever speaking to Mr Prescott about the Shard and then admitting he had mentioned it once.

    Mr Taylor first said: ‘At the time there was enormous sensitivity [about] people [suggesting I was] going to run off and speak to politicians. But it is not what I do. 
    ‘I had long since severed any special adviser connections with Mr Prescott and, yes, I know him and I am a friend of his. Like everybody else associated with him you get caught in the flak from time to time.
    ‘I am aware that people often jump to conclusions about connections you have...[but] I am telling you categorically that I never once discussed the project with Mr Prescott. The fact that you worked with someone or remain a friend with them – on that basis I would never work again.’
    In a later statement issued to The Mail on Sunday, he said the idea that he had sought to keep his role secret was entirely ‘without foundation’.

    He also backtracked on his earlier claim never to have spoken to Mr Prescott about the Shard.

    He said: ‘For the avoidance of doubt, I only ever mentioned the project once to Mr Prescott during a social event...in July 2002. 
    The entire substance of that conversation was me mentioning to Mr Prescott that I was working on the project.’
    He said they did not discuss the project in detail and ‘at no time before or since then has the project been discussed between us’.
    Mr Taylor also complained that he did not receive the £1million.

    He said: ‘I am a planning adviser. I get paid a fee. Because of the dispute between the partners I was only ever paid a fraction of that fee – which for the work that I did it was probably pretty poor pay. I didn’t get any £1million pound bonus.’

    Last night Mr Prescott said: ‘The Shard was originally granted planning permission by Southwark Council and endorsed by the Mayor of London, but I still called it in for a planning inquiry by the Planning Inspectorate because I recognised it was controversial.

    The Planning Inspectorate fully endorsed Southwark Council’s planning application and I therefore signed off on it.’

    Monday, 5 April 2010

    British Visas

    Revealed: US firm issues British visas... and MPs were not told

    Millions of visas allowing foreigners to enter Britain are being issued by an American company and a High Street travel agent rather than British diplomats.
    The system – never officially announced to Parliament – means that instead of filling in a form at a British embassy and facing an interview by diplomatic staff, visa applicants are directed to commercially run ‘official’ offices around the world.
    And hundreds of thousands of applicants simply fill in a form on a website run by the US company.
    Mr Visa
    The home of 'Mr Visa', Mike Laphen, who heads the American company reponsible for issuing thousands of British visas
    The two private firms are responsible for dealing with about 80 per cent of the 2.75 million visa applications every year, two million of which are successful.
    A Mail on Sunday investigation has revealed that the new system – quietly introduced over the past two years – has been beset by problems, including one company’s staff selling visas. Critics fear it is fuelling the numbers of people who come to Britain and overstay after their visas expire, adding to the estimated one million illegal immigrants already in the country.
    And tonight Opposition politicians called for a return of face-to-face interviews with British diplomats to help secure the UK’s borders against bogus applicants and potential terrorists.
    The revelations will add to the discomfort felt by Gordon Brown last week when he faced criticism for making misleading statements about immigration figures.
    The Mail on Sunday can reveal that business people, foreign government representatives, students and tourists in 109 countries all have to apply for visas through the two firms rather than through the embassies.
    The American outsourcing firm, Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC), also runs an advice hotline charging large fees payable by credit card in dollars to help applicants complete visa forms, but which is described as ‘completely useless’ in a Government report.
    Details of its five-year deal, or the cost to the taxpayer, have never been officially announced by the Government. But last week the firm announced a similar ten-year contract with the US State Department, worth £1.8 billion.
    Virginia-based CSC has opened visa application centres in 14 countries and is running websites and call centres covering 87 others. Its so-called WorldBridge Service uses no diplomats or other British Government staff.
    Gordon Brown last week
    Under attack: Prime Minister Gordon Brown delivers a speech on immigration in Shoreditch, east London, last week
    A similar service is offered by VFS-Global, part of the Swiss-based travel firm Kuoni, better known for its luxury package holidays.
    It is the firms’ staff, most of them employed locally, rather than highly trained immigration officers and diplomats, who the Foreign Office says it ‘entrusts . . . with the sensitive process’ of scanning people’s fingerprints and faces for encoding in the new biometric visas and to filter ‘risky’ individuals.
    They then forward applications to Home Office officials in London, who have the final say on whether a visa should be issued.
    But the system has been hit by problems. An official Home Office inspection of the WorldBridge visa office in Rome last year found that it replied to customers’ concerns about delays with ‘unhelpful’ and ‘generic’ wording.
    And a Home Office report in December pointed out ‘higher level criticism’ of WorldBridge staff who, it said, were polite but ‘had no information and were completely useless on an expensive phone line’.
    It said that ‘their absence of understanding of the application process was made apparent with conflicting answers from one call to the next’, and that staff were ‘scared to tell me something [in case it wasn’t correct]’.
    The phone line, the only official visa advice available, costs $14 (about £9) for every call, payable by credit card.
    The Home Office report concluded: ‘With regards to the negative experiences of seeking assistance, WorldBridge Services was mentioned more often than any other organisation.’
    How it used to be: A queue for visas at the British Embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 2007
    WorldBridge began taking over visa applications from the Foreign Office two years ago, opening its first office in Jamaica in May 2007.
    Last year CSC had a turnover of £10.5billion – clients include the US Navy, Nasa and BAe Systems, Britain’s biggest defence contractor. Kuoni Travel’s VFS-Global also issues visas for Britain and around 30 other countries with offices in Africa, the Middle East, China and Japan.
    It says it ‘serves diplomatic missions by managing all the administrative and non-judgmental tasks related to the entire life-cycle of a visa application process, enabling diplomatic missions to focus entirely on the key tasks of assessment and interview’.
    But last year, a member of the firm’s staff issuing visas for Britain in Pakistan was arrested for allegedly taking £22,000 in bribes to obtain visas for eight people. He absconded before he could be sentenced.
    Two years ago, the company faced a Foreign Office investigation into an alleged breach of security in its online application facility, which led to the system being shut down.
    The new services exist despite increasing concerns over ‘scam’ colleges, where no courses are taught, but which last year enabled a group of alleged Al Qaeda terrorist plotters to get student visas to come to Britain.
    Critics say that removing immigration officials from the sharp end of the visa system has been a disaster and that it is now a ‘tick-box system’ open to huge abuses.
    It is claimed that many bogus applicants who would have been spotted by immigration officers, are now able to easily circumvent the system
    Sir Andrew Green, a former British Ambassador and Director for the Middle East in the Foreign Office, says that in the past, many bogus applicants would have been spotted by immigration officers. Now they are easily circumventing the system.
    Sir Andrew, who runs the pressure group Migration Watch, said: ‘The crucial interview with experienced staff has been rep-laced with a system where, as long as you say the right thing on the forms and have the right doc-uments, your application will be approved.’
    Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling said: ‘It is a revelation to discover that so much of the visa system is now controlled by two private companies.
    ‘We have argued for a long time, particularly given all of the fraud issues surrounding student visas, that there should be far more face-to-face interviews of applicants by British diplomatic staff.
    ‘This is the only way to ensure that applicants coming to the UK are who they say they are. This is much too important an issue not to get right.’
    It is also claimed that the WorldBridge system is costing British businesses millions of pounds in lost contracts.

    An employee allegedly took £22,000 in bribes

    This was dramatically illustrated by the experience of senior Iraqi government officials who were trying to travel to the UK to discuss multi-million-pound deals with British firms.
    The Mail on Sunday has learned that the Mayor of Baghdad, the Governor of Baghdad and the Minister of Agriculture were forced to wait more than five days in Amman, Jordan – the location of their nearest WorldBridge office – to get visas to come to Britain to sign a helicopter deal.
    But while their applications were being examined by WorldBridge, they decided to travel to France instead and bought six Eurocopters, worth £1.3million each, to use for spraying date palms.
    Meanwhile, the Iraqi Minister of Transport, ‘furious at the treatment he had received in Amman when trying to get visas’, also struck a deal with a French firm for the proposed Baghdad Metro – a contract potentially worth billions of pounds.
    Last night, Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague said: ‘If struggling British businesses are losing out to European competitors because the Government can’t run an efficient visa operation in Baghdad, then that raises serious questions and must be put right.’
    A service is offered by VFS-Global, part of the Swiss-based travel firm Kuoni, better known for its luxury package holidays
    Last night the Home Office and the Foreign Office both claimed the other was responsible for the contract with CSC. Neither could say whether any Minister had announced the new system to Parliament or spoken publicly on the reasons behind the decision.
    Mark Sedwill, head of the UK Border Agency’s international group, says he is proud of the new system.
    In a CSC newsletter, he explained: ‘Five years ago, we were operating like most countries do now. If you wanted a visa, the theory was that you went into an embassy, filled in a paper application, handed over the money, did an interview and then supposedly got a verdict.
    ‘It sounds great in theory, but not in practice – in the [Indian] sub-continent in particular we had queues of several thousand people.’
    He added that by outsourcing the ‘frontline interface’ to CSC, the Home Office was ‘focusing our resources on decision making... that allows us to put more time and attention into risk profiling’.
    Yesterday a Home Office spokes-man denied there had been any secrecy in outsourcing the visa application process.
    He said: ‘This process would have involved publicising the tender through officially recognised European Journals.
    ‘We categorically do not use private companies to make decisions on visa applications. They collect the information and pass it on to the UK Border Agency to make the decision. We use these companies to cut down on the queues at the embassies. It helps to make the process run more smoothly.’

    Mr Visa’s £5 million lifestyle

    The man who heads the American company responsible for issuing thousands of British visas is Michael W. Laphen, a former National Security Adviser to President George W. Bush.
    Mr Laphen is paid more than $1million (£671,000) a year as chief executive and chairman of CSC, the owner of WorldBridge. His total annual ‘compensation’ package is worth more than £5million.
    Mr and Mrs Visa
    Riches: Michael and Rosemary Laphen
    He and his wife, Rosemary, who helps run a local charity, live in a six-bedroom, four-bathroom, colonial-style mansion set in two acres of lawns in Great Falls, near the firm’s base in Virginia.
    The £2million house boasts three garages, a library, a two-storey family room, a basement ‘rec’ room, a bar, an exercise room and a wine cellar.
    The couple also own a £1.6million holiday home at the exclusive Mirasol Country Club in Palm Beach, Florida.

    Drugs Tsar's links to aristocrats group lobbying to liberate laws on mind-bending drugs

    The Government’s new drugs tsar is listed as an adviser to a shadowy foundation run by an aristocrat lobbying to liberalise laws on mind-altering drugs.
    Professor Les Iversen is head of the official Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which is currently at the centre of the debate over regulating mephedrone – known as M-Cat or Meow Meow.
    But the Beckley Foundation, a controversial charity campaigning against anti-drug regulations, claims he is one of its key advisers.
    The foundation is run by Amanda, Lady Neidpath – dubbed Lady Mindbender – who admits using drugs herself, including cannabis and LSD, and says one of her two children has also been a heavy user.
    Controversial: Lady Neidpath, pictured at her mansion, says she uses drugs herself
    Professor Iversen – the third senior Government drugs adviser to be linked to the organisation – does not declare his connection to it on the Home Office’s register of interests.
    Last night he claimed he no longer had anything to do with the organisation, but its website yesterday still listed him as one of its panel of 13 scientific advisers. The listing was most recently updated last month.
    Lady Neidpath, 67, said yesterday: ‘He, like many important people in this field, agreed to be on our advisory panel. We don’t meet, but Professor Iversen has never asked me to remove him from our scientific advisers list.’
    Last night one senior Tory MP called on the professor to resign as head of the ACMD.
    Critics say the Beckley Foundation, operating out of a secluded 16th Century Oxfordshire manor house, is committed to legalising drugs under the guise of ‘studying consciousness and altered states’.
    The foundation says its work is to ‘direct and support world-class research into the practices used to alter our conscious states, and the policies that seek to regulate some of these practices’.
    In 2003, Professor Iversen wrote a paper for the foundation comparing the effects of alcohol and cannabis, and concluded that alcohol was more dangerous. It led him to question why cannabis was illegal when alcohol was not.
    Clash of roles? The Government's new drugs tsar, Professor Les Iversen, is listed as an adviser to the controversial Beckley Foundation

    At the time, he said: ‘Cannabis should be legalised, not just decriminalised, because it is comparatively less dangerous than the legal drugs alcohol and tobacco.’
    But Professor Iversen now says this is no longer his position. He said: ‘That was a view I had in 2003 and a great deal has happened since then.
    ‘As a scientist it is only right that I should be guided by the best available evidence. As the evidence develops in the drugs field, it is to be expected that individuals will refine their judgments.’
    However, his association with the Beckley Foundation publicly continued until at least 2005, when he gave a speech on The Medical Potential Of Cannabis at a seminar for the organisation at the House of Lords.
    The event was hosted by Lord Mancroft, the Conservative politician and former heroin addict.
    Described as ‘the most knowledgeable parliamentarian on the subject of drugs’, the Eton-educated peer has been the chairman of the Addiction Recovery Foundation since 1989 and is also chairman of the Drug and Alcohol Foundation.
    Study: Professor Iversen's book abotu using marijuana in medicine
    Lord Mancroft supports prescribing heroin on the NHS, saying it could ‘stabilise the lives of those addicts dependent on an ever-growing black market’ and has called for a major rethink in drug-control policy, saying: ‘You can’t ban these drugs because people want them.’
    Last night, an ACMD spokesman said: ‘Professor Iversen has presented to the Beckley Foundation. However, he is not employed by them.
    'Professor Iversen has presented the evidence concerning the harms of cannabis to the Beckley Foundation in an adviser capacity.
    ‘Professor Iversen has publicly stated that he fully supports the report that the ACMD produced in April 2008 concerning its consideration of cannabis. The ACMD believe that cannabis is a harmful drug and poses a real threat to the health of those who use it.’
    Last month the Beckley Foundation called for the reintroduction of LSD for medical use. It paid for a series of clinical trials to study its effects on the human brain.
    In 2008, the foundation published a 226-page document – the Global Cannabis Commission Report – examining the use, prohibition and control of cannabis.
    The report, which cost the charity more than £80,000, was launched at the House of Lords and urged the lifting of criminal convictions for use or possession.
    Lady Neidpath was brought up in the Oxfordshire manor house from which the Beckley Foundation operates.
    Her foundation publicly says it examines links between drug use and creativity, as well seeking to provide a scientific base for changing current drugs laws.
    Lady Neidpath, who admits taking cannabis and psychedelic drugs including magic mushrooms, mescaline and LSD, has said: ‘I have always considered myself my own best laboratory.’
    She does not think cannabis is harmless, although she believes it is ‘a lot less bad’ than tobacco or alcohol.
    And she says that if cannabis was authorised, it could be properly labelled, and Government-controlled.
    Her husband Jamie – Lord Neidpath – was a close friend of the Queen Mother and a regular at parties on the luxury Caribbean retreat of Mustique with Princess Margaret and her lover Roddy Llewellyn.
    Now in his 60s, he also features in Andy Warhol’s diaries as part of the artist’s louche New York set.

    Last night Lady Neidpath confirmed she still considered that Professor Iversen was a scientific adviser to her organisation.
    She said: ‘I have a great admiration for him. I think he is an excellent person to head up the Government’s drugs advisory committee.
    ‘The last time I asked him to talk at one of our seminars he said he couldn’t because of his Government role. I completely understood.’
    She added: ‘He has never asked me to remove him from our advisers list but I suppose if people now make a great fuss about it he may ask me to remove his name.’
    The revelations about Professor Iversen and the Beckley Foundation come after Eric Carlin, a member of the ACMD, resigned following the decision to ban mephedrone.
    Yesterday Mr Carlin, who has attended seminars run by the Beckley Foundation, said Ministers had pledged to ban the drug to appear to be ‘acting tough’ in the run-up to the General Election.
    He said experts were being ignored and the advisory council was ‘not doing its job’.
    Two former Government drug tsars are also involved in the Beckley Foundation.
    Co-director Mike Trace, who for four years under Tony Blair was Britain’s deputy drugs tsar, quit a UN post after it was revealed that he intended to use it to try to promote making cannabis and other dangerous drugs legal across the world.
    Mr Trace fell out with his bosses at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime after his attempt to set up a pressure group devoted to the cause of legalising drugs was made public.
    In November, Professor David Nutt, a scientific adviser to the foundation, was sacked as head of the ACMD after insisting that the use of alcohol and cigarettes poses a greater danger than cannabis and ecstasy. Home Secretary Alan Johnson said he no longer has confidence in his policy advice.
    Professor Nutt last week said mephedrone – the so-called ‘legal high’ known as Meow Meow – should be handed out in nightclubs rather than banned. He argued that doling out small amounts of the drug with guidance on its use would be ‘safer’ than banning it.
    Professor Iversen became the new interim chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in place of Professor Nutt in January.
    The retired Oxford University professor of pharmacology is a specialist in neuropharmacology, the study of how drugs or chemicals affect the brain and nervous system.
    In 1998, he acted as the key specialist adviser to a report into cannabis by the House of Lords’ respected Science and Technology Committee which concluded that the Government should allow doctors to prescribe cannabis for medical use but said the ban on recreational use of cannabis was justifiable.
    He wrote a book, The Science Of Marijuana, detailing the advances made in understanding marijuana and the balance between benefits and risks of using the plant in medicine.
    Cannabis has never been legalised for medicinal use in the UK – but Professor Iversen has been at the heart of the debate over its classification.
    He was a member of the committee when it recommended downgrading cannabis from Class B to Class C in 2004. He was still a member when former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith reversed that decision in 2008.
    Last night, former Tory Home Office Minister Ann Widdecombe called on Professor Iversen to resign as head of the ACMD.
    She said: ‘The fact that he was prepared to lend his name to a body pushing for softer policies on drug use means he should not be advising the Government on this issue.’