Meet the shadowy team at the heart of many of the most controversial NHS privatisations to date, including the Staffordshire deal leaked last week to openDemocracy.
'Despite our warnings about the risks... no one has been held accountable for the consequences.'
That was the fierce criticism last week from watchdog Margaret Hodge MP and her Public Accounts Committee of the failed flagship privatisation of Hinchingbrooke hospital.
No-one can hold Circle Holdings accountable. On the day inspectors gave the hospital they were running, the worst rating for ‘caring’ of any hospital in the country, the firm announced they were giving up and walking away, three years into the ten year contract.
The UK register of lobbyists has finally launched, only five years after Cameron and Clegg promised to 'regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists’.
The government’s version of the register does nothing of the sort. It is a genuinely fake register. It will not ‘make clear who is lobbying the Government and for whom’, so ‘ensuring greater transparency’ in our political system, as promised. This is government ticking a box.
Even so, we were curious to find out what the register looked like 24 hours after ‘launch’. You can find it here.
So far, 11 lobbying firms have signed up; listing a total of 23 clients.
Organisers of a major pro-Israel conference taking place in London this weekend have been vetting the political views of those registered to attend - and banned me from attending, explicitly citing Spinwatch's 2013 report on BICOM (the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre) as the reason.
As a researcher examining the pro-Israel lobby in the UK, I signed up to attend, making no attempt to conceal my identity.
But those behind the 22 March 'We Believe in Israel' conference, staged by a body of the same name which declares itself the 'grassroots' arm of BICOM - the UK’s major pro-Israel lobby group - wrote to me to say my “application” to attend had not been accepted.
Conversely, organisations with links to the transnational Islamophobia industry appear to have been welcomed with open arms.
According to its self-description, the event (expected to attract up to 1,500 people) will be 'broad-based and inclusive' and 'open to anyone, Jewish and non-Jewish, and from across the political spectrum, who supports the right of the State of Israel to live in peace and security'.
But I appear to have been designated persona non grata because I believe that peace and security need to be sought by investing in justice, not hasbara (propaganda), and will only be achieved when the Israeli state ceases to trample over Palestinians’ human, political and civil rights.
The refusal letter I received cited Spinwatch's report 'against' BICOM, a reference to "The Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre: Giving Peace a Chance?”, published in 2013.
That study was indeed highly critical of BICOM. It concluded that its activities serve only to 'encourage a skewed perception of the conflict amongst elites' by maintaining the façade that Israel is struggling to make peace while simultaneously “insulating them from pressure to support Palestinian rights” (in line with the desires of its main funder, billionaire Poju Zabludowicz).
In the run up to a parliamentary vote that saw overwhelming support for introducing standardised (plain) packaging for cigarettes, tobacco companies and their supporters made frantic attempts to influence public and political opinion against the policy. Since the very first calls for plain packaging, the tobacco industry has waged what is arguably its most virulent battle in recent years against the regulation of its business. It has employed a multi-faceted campaign to influence both public and political opinion, recognising that the former influences the latter.
Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw were unlucky enough, or silly enough, to get caught. But just because hundreds of MPs and Lords have paid jobs advising companies, doesn't excuse them. It makes it worse.
When the MPs expenses scandal broke in 2009 the immediate defence of many MPs was that what they were doing was all 'within the rules of Parliament'. But that didn't make it right. Nor did it alter public opinion. It took a while for the penny to drop, but finally, MPs realised that their behaviour - moat cleaning, duck housing, wisteria trimming, second homing all on the public purse – was unacceptable to the wider public. Finally, the bubble burst.
Today, we have arrived back at the issue of MPs and their second (third, fourth) jobs. The two MPs at the centre of the sting, Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw, both lawyers, conducted their own defence this morning. Both appear to be using the same playbook. It goes something like this:
- 'Anything I said I would do has been taken out of context and anyway, it's all perfectly innocent.'
From the few clips released by the programme makers ahead of tonight's Dispatches, I suspect this defence will fairly rapidly fall apart as the undercover films are aired. Some of it is truly shocking, whether Jack Straw's 'charm and menace' tactics, or Rifkind who is clearly under the impression that he doesn't have a job or a salary as an MP.
The Telegraph is committing 'a form of fraud on its readers'. That is the damning verdict of journalist Peter Oborne, who until yesterday was the Telegraph's chief political commentator. Why? Because, according to Oborne: 'It has been placing what it perceives to be the interests of a major international bank above its duty to bring the news to Telegraph readers.'
Oborne accuses the paper of deliberately suppressing stories about HSBC's involvement in tax dodging in order to keep the bank's 'extremely valuable' advertising account.
‘It has long been axiomatic in quality British journalism that the advertising department and editorial should be kept rigorously apart. There is a great deal of evidence that, at the Telegraph, this distinction has collapsed,’ he wrote in an article explaining why he quit on the OpenDemocracy website.
Oborne said the paper had discouraged stories critical of HSBC since the start of 2013, when the bank suspended its advertising with the paper following a Telegraph investigation into accounts held with HSBC in Jersey. He said one former Telegraph executive told him HSBC was ‘the advertiser you literally cannot afford to offend’.
Interference by management in stories about the bank was happening ‘on an industrial scale’ according to Oborne. Last week amid front page splashes and an international outcry over HSBC’s latest Swiss tax transgressions, ‘you needed a microscope to find the Telegraph coverage’ he said. Another article written last year by the paper’s former banking editor about a £70bn capital ‘black hole’ in HSBC Hong Kong’s accounts, had mysteriously disappeared from the website. And an attempt by Oborne to publish a story on HSBC’s sudden closure last summer of bank accounts belonging to well-known British Muslims came to naught – with an executive eventually admitting to him that ‘there was a bit of an issue’ with HSBC.
There has been an international outcry over the leaked HSBC files, which provide evidence that the bank’s Swiss arm helped wealthy clients put millions of dollars worth of assets out of the reach of the tax authorities. Naturally, politicians from all parties have responded by committing to holding anyone found guilty of tax evasion accountable for their actions.
There has also been disbelief and growing scrutiny of government watchdogs, such as Britain’s tax authority HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) for failing to properly investigate the matter. According to Danny Alexander, the Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the Treasury:
We quite rightly prosecute and often jail people guilty of damaging our society through conventional crime and antisocial behaviour. The way we treat systematic tax evasion should be no different. If that means jail for offenders and those that conspire with them, then so be it.
Such calls to punish elites are indeed laudable and urgent. Yet this issue runs deeper than a few bad apples. Instead it touches on the fundamental problems of corporate power and political plutocracy plaguing our economy and politics. While punishing privileged wrongdoers may be just and feel good, this should not distract from the larger need to change the very system giving birth to these actions.
The revelation in leaked bank files that HSBC’s Swiss banking arm has helped wealthy customers put millions of dollars worth of assets out of the reach of the tax authorities confirms the way in which the use of tax havens has become commonplace.
In the globalised modern world, the vast majority of wealthy individuals and medium-sized and large corporations habitually seek ways to avoid taxes.
As Richard Murphy, Christian Chavagneux and I researched for our book, Tax havens: how globalization really works, we discovered that tax havens are an integral node of globalised capitalism. They are just part of the way business is conducted these days. And the leaked HSBC files are a prime example of this in action.
According to the leaked files, HSBC maintained 30,000 accounts holding almost $120 billion of assets in its Geneva branch between 2005 and 2007. The files appear to show that the largest proportion of account holders were Swiss, holding altogether about $31 billion. They also show 8,883 UK citizens holding $21.7 billion, 1,138 Venezuelans holding $14.7 billion, Americans holding $13.7 billion, French with $12.5 billion, Israelis with $10 billion and even the Palestinian authority had 55 holders with $150m.
Lessons to be learned
There are a number of lessons to be learned from these leaks. First, foreign nationals of many countries are allowed to maintain accounts in foreign banks, but typically they are required to declare those accounts on their tax return. Only their national inland revenues would be able to confirm if they had done so.
Considering that HSBC Geneva did not provide a particularly competitive savings rate, and the report prepared by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists which reveals the secret Swiss accounts, presents a picture of secrecy and deception, it is not unreasonable to suspect that a good portion, if not the vast majority of these accounts, have had something to do with reducing their clients' tax obligations.
The Lobbying Act has solved nothing and, although barely a year old, it is already a thoroughly discredited piece of legislation.
This is just one of many conclusions of a new study into lobbying in the UK by Transparency International. Lifting the Lid on Lobbying, which is being launched in Parliament tonight, is a thorough look at what has happened since David Cameron warned in 2010 that lobbying was the 'next big scandal waiting to happen'.
At the time, Cameron promised to 'sort it out'. The report rather pointedly details some of the lobbying scandals since Cameron made this pledge, involving ministers, MPs, Lords, and generals. It shows that no sector, or issue is immune, whether its the NHS, airport expansion, defence, food regulation, alcohol policy, tax, or tax avoidance.
Perhaps the most damning section, however, is the annex at the back on 'Permissible behaviour in the UK under the current rules', which is a useful summary of what legislators, lobbyists, and wealthy donors can get away with in this country. For example, 'All UK legislators and all but the most senior civil service officials may keep lobbying meetings secret, unless a specific Freedom of Information request is submitted' (and even then there's no guarantee); 'ministers are not obliged to declare lobbying meetings if they are classified as taking place in their private time or constituency roles'; 'All lobbyists in the UK may keep information on whom they have lobbied and on what issues they have lobbied concealed from the public'. Its helpful to have it written down.
And this is where it leads: 90 per cent of UK respondents believe our Government is run by a few big entities acting in their own interest (according to a recent TI poll).
I dare Cameron to stand up now and claim he's 'sorted it out'.
Lobbying disclosure in Scotland is now back on the agenda. The Scottish Parliament’s Standards Procedures and Public Appointments (SPPA) committee has at last reported on its consultation on a lobbying register for Holyrood. This report should be welcomed by the growing number of organisations pushing for lobbying transparency.
The headline news is that a lobbying disclosure system will be introduced - at some point in the future... and possibly after another bout of government led consultation, though it is hard to conceive what added value yet more consultation can deliver. The onus is now very much on a legislative proposal from the Scottish government.
The SPPA deserve much credit for their careful handling of this issue, and the painstaking efforts taken to ensure their inquiry process and recommendations strike an appropriate balance between promoting transparency and facilitating participation at Holyrood.
Some of the recommendations that jump out from their report include an explicit recognition that the purpose of the proposed register is to ‘detail lobbying activity as opposed to simply being a list of names of lobbyists. The register should detail who is lobbying, how and why’. This is eminently sensible and proportionate. However, to make a meaningful contribution to transparency and accountability this needs to be a live rather than historical record of lobbying – such information is only useful if it can be used by all stakeholders to understand where influence is being brought to bear.