Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Maggots in the Body Politic


and the ghost of scandals past.

AS the news media move on from the scandal over missing child benefit records, more information has come out about how private companies have been given lucrative government work, but allowed to remain modestly out of the limelight when things go wrong. Meanwhile, people have rightly started protesting that an even bigger information-gathering exercise, on the entire British public, is being handed to an American corporation whose name was once a byword for scandal.

Child benefit records went missing in the post after Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) had sent them on discs, using TNT - a courier company partly owned by Rupert Murdoch's News International. (Why the information was not sent electronically, skipping the middleman, I don't know). The intended recipients, the National Audit Office (NAO) , had asked for some details to be removed - not to protect claimants' confidentiality, and families' security, as they told government, but simply "to make the files smaller".

But HMRC decided not to remove the personal details, because the company that handles their IT work, EDS, told them it would be too costly. According to a report in Private Eye, the HMRC's own audit staff said they could do the work quickly and at no extra cost, but they were not allowed to do so because the department has a contract with EDS.
At the NAO the data was to be handed over for auditing to city accountancy firm KPMG, possibly because the Office has to meet a government target for increasing its use of outside consultants.
(We're all in portal trouble, Private Eye No.1199)

It seems like the only reason for retaining in-house staff in government departments is so someone well down the pecking order can carry the can when things go wrong.

Meanwhile a friend who recently took early retirement from the civil service on health grounds has drawn my attention to another potential scandal, and in doing so, awakened some ghosts from the past.

One morning about 30 years ago, during my short career as a (low)-paid journalist, I came to an editorial meeting with an exciting piece of news that had just come over the Reuters machine. An Italian magazine had published what it said was a page from the Lockheed aircraft corporation's codebook, giving names by which certain politicians were to be known. It included Labour prime minister Harold Wilson who had just retired, ('Pointer'), and former Foreign Secretary George Brown ('Powder'). At least I think the nicknames were that way round. I assume the name "powder" was a witty reference to the ex-Foreign Secretary's reputation for always feeling a bit dry when liquid refreshment was to hand.

Lockheed had been in the news for some while before this because of bribery scandals concerning sales of military aircraft, and politicians had been brought down around the world, notably in Japan. The prominence of some of the figures involved - such as Bavarian right-winger Franz-Joseph Strauss and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands (a patron of the secretive Bilderberg Foundation which has long fascinated conspiracy theorists because it looks like a real high-level plot) - led to suspicion that the American company had not just been lubricating deals, but acting as a conduit for the CIA.

Anyway, my well-spotted Reuter's report bringing Wilson and George Brown into the frame, even though it only said their names were in a book, was going to be our front-page lead, until my senior colleague Steve Johns 'phoned around a few friends in Fleet Street and learned that within an hour or two of the story appearing on Reuters every editor had received a communication from Lord Goodman, Wilson's solicitor, warning of legal action if they dared print a word. Nobody took the risk.

Lockheed Martin, as it has become after mergers, no longer confines itself to building aircraft and equipment, but has found other ways of earning money from governments. American researchers keeping an eye on links between government and business have pointed to numerous cases of misconduct reported about Lockheed.


Nevertheless this American company has been shortlisted for a contract to conduct Britain's next national census. This online petition, launched by a Green party member has already gathered over 1,000 signatures to protest:

"We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to stop the involvement of arms company Lockheed Martin in the 2011 Census for England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, because this company's history of working in American military intelligence will undermine public confidence in the Census process."


The petition initiators ask: "With more sensitive information being collected in the next Census in 2011, do we really want data about everyone in the UK being collected by a foreign arms company?

"Lockheed Martin is one of the shortlisted contractors to provide data capture and storage services for the 2011 Census, but the majority of its business is with the American Department of Defense and other US government agencies. They produce missiles, naval systems and land mines, as well as providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance services. Most worrying is their claim to deliver 'integrated threat information' to the US military by combining and analysing a wide range of intelligence information from around the world. With Lockheed Martin involved, people in the UK will not believe that their Census submissions will be safe from being incorporated into these systems, and this is likely to harm the reliability of the 2011 Census.We at Census Alert urge you to sign the petition because we believe that this kind of company should not be gathering sensitive data on every member of our population".



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