Monday, December 23, 2013

Disgrace and MacShame

 THIS Christmas, spare a thought for prisoners. If like me you've chortled again at Ronnie Barker's wily ways of surviving in the Christmas edition of "Porridge", be assured that the powers that be, in keeping with this government's bid to be the nastiest within living memory, have decreed prison life should be neither comedy nor a holiday.

A friend reports that people in prison can no longer receive parcels.

''Under the rules, families are prevented from sending in basic items of stationery such as cards, paper or pens to help people in prison keep in touch with their friends and families and wish them a happy Christmas. They are also prevented from sending books and magazines or additional warm clothes and underwear to the prison. Instead people in prison are now forced to pay for these items out of their meagre prison wages to private companies who make a profit from selling goods to prisoners.
The Prison Reform Trust has been contacted by women prisoners who cannot get hold of enough clean underwear to keep them hygienic during their period. 

Rates of pay for those working average around £10 a week and can be as little as £2.50 a week for a prisoner who is unable to work - out of which they must pay for phone calls, TV rental, stationery, reading material and any additional food, clothes and toiletries they may need. It costs 20p a minute to call a mobile from a prison phone during the week; and 9p a minute to phone a landline.

The advice team has also heard from prisoners working outside in the community on release on temporary licence, but who are not able to get hold of enough clothes to keep them warm during the cold winter weather.

I'll probably be saying more on this, and hope I'm not the only one.

Meanwhile, to cheer us up, let us consider one particular celebrity facing Yuletide behind bars. Former Labour MP, Minister and Privy Councillor Dennis MacShane is 65, but he won't be needing his pensioner's bus pass for a little while. He has been sentenced to six months' imprisonment after admitting making bogus expense claims amounting to nearly £13,000.

MacShane, the former MP for Rotherham, pleaded guilty last month to false accounting by filing 19 fake receipts for "research and translation" services. Today, he became the fifth ex-MP to be jailed in relation to the 2009 expenses scandal. He was also ordered to pay costs of £1,500 within two months.
Others have received stiffer sentences.

MacShane described how signatures on receipts from the European Policy Institute (EPI), a "charity" he ran,  had been faked, as from an invented "general manager".  One letter dated October 2009 described how he drew funds from the EPI so he could serve on a book-judging panel in Paris.

MacShane described how signatures on receipts from the European Policy Institute (EPI) had been faked.

MacShane's expenses claims had been under scrutiny for four years, but evidence was hidden behind parliamentary privilege. Police could not prove any wrongdoing without the correspondence, and dropped their inquiry in July 2012 before reopening it in November last year when the letters emerged and the cross-party standards and privileges committee recommended a 12-month suspension from the Commons.

The judge, Mr.Justice Sweeney, accepted that MacShane had not been motivated by personal greed. 
But passing sentence  he said MacShane had committed a "flagrant breach of trust" and had no one to blame but himself. The dishonesty involved was considerable and was repeated many times over a long period," the judge said. "The deception used was calculated and designed to avoid suspicion falling on your claims."

He ruled that McShane should serve half his six-month sentence, and might leave earlier.
 Flanked by two security officers, MacShane said "cheers" as the sentence was delivered, adding "quelle surprise" as he was led from the dock.

Before we get all soft 'cos it Christmas and start grieving that we can't post Denis a parcel, let's consider his form. And hear what people say. Poet and broadcaster Mike Rosen is not a vindictive fellow, but his comment was:

"Little story for you. Denis McShane has got 6 months prison. He's someone I was at university with him and knew him when he worked on the student newspaper. I got a traineeship at the BBC and straightaway he sold this as a story to the papers (the Express, I think) as dangerous lefty gets taken on at the BBC and I think there was a question in the House about it."

Mike had done well at Oxford, and trained at London Film School, but whatever promise he showed at the BBC that first year his career was put on hold, and he was blacklisted for years before he ever found his way to his present niche as children's poet. Meanwhile Denis had taken his step to success.

McShane worked for the BBC from 1969 to 1977, and changed his Polish surname, Matyjaszek,  to his mother's maiden name at the request of his employers, but that was just a start. He was fired by the BBC after using a fake name to call the radio phone-in programme he worked on at the time. During the call, MacShane accused leading Tory Reginald Maudling of being a crook, with the MP threatening to sue as a result.

 From 1978-79 McShane served as president of the National Union of Journalists, and then in 1980 he obtained a position as political director of the International Metalworkers Federation, a job which lasted till 1992. This enabled him to back Solidarnosc in Poland, from where he was deported after participating in a demonstration.

He was elected Labour MP for Rotherham in 1994, and after the 2001 general election, he was  appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, with responsibility for the Balkans and Latin America. In 2002 he denounced President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela as a 'ranting, populist demagogue', comparing him to Mussolini. This was during the attempted military coup to depose the democratically elected president. After it failed he had to overcome the Blair government's embarassment and make it clear that Britain deplored the coup attempt.

In November 2001, an article was published in the Observer under the name of Birmingham Perry Barr MP Khalid Mahmood's name, supportive of the war in Afghanistan, and headlined "The Five Myths Muslims Must Deny".  A few days later however, it was revealed that the article had not been  written by Mahmood, but by MacShane. Mahmood agreed to put his name to the article after Lord Ahmed of Rotherham had refused.

In 2003 MacShane fully supported Tony Blair's war on Iraq, which as we know was based on lies about WMDs, every bit as deceitful as any MP's expenses claims, but with deadlier results, for which neither Blair nor his accomplices have faced justice. 

It was also in 2003 that the minister criticised the Muslim community for not doing enough to condemn acts of terrorism. He demanded that Muslim community leaders choose between "the British way" of democracy and Islamic terror.  This ultimatum was not just resented by Muslims but criticised by the Jewish Socialists' Group (JSG), who recalled how antisemites incited anti-Jewish hostility on the back of Zionist terror in Palestine in the 1940s. The JSG condemned the notion of collective guilt as well as the onus placed on minorities to prove their suitability for "the British way".

Not everyone has been so fastidious about "friends" or raised inconveniant memories. When MacShane's actions forced him to resign his seat, Martin Bright wrote in the Jewish Chronicle that his "fall from grace has been a blow for those who share his concerns about extremist politics, whether it is radical Islamism in the Middle East, neo-fascism at home or the rise of ultranationalist groups in Eastern Europe." He has described MacShane as "one of" the Jewish communities "greatest champions".

McShane was chair of the inquiry panel of the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Anti-Semitism, which reported in September 2006, going along with the same equation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism which the European Union has since dropped. In March 2009, he became chairman of the European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, which was involved in the hounding of Jewish academic Brian Klug last month.

 The Rotherham MP, longstanding member of the Labour Friends of Israel,took the shooting of some Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse, France as an occasion to attack his old union,complaining  "There is little media or political concern when the National Union of Journalists or the University and College Union back boycotts of Jewish journalists or Israeli academics."  As I pointed out at the time there were no such boycotts. The UCU considered boycotting Israeli academic institutions, and the NUJ sent a resolution to the TUC discussing an economic boycott.

One might expect MacShane to get his facts right as a professional journalist, as well as a former NUJ president. Instead he made the same blurring of distinctions as in a different way had been made by the illiterate Toulouse gunman. But as was said in his expenses case, the ex-Minister was very careless in his paperwork.

On 8 September 2009, MacShane helped set up a series of secret meetings between then Tory Defence Secretary Liam Fox, his friend Adam Werrity, Britain's ambassador in Tel Aviv, Matthew Gould, and senior Mossad officers. The object of their discussions was war on Iran. Fox resigned in 2011 following controversy over his relationship with the lobbyist Werrity.

And now MacShane is sent down. Some bloggers are saying the £13,000 he was done for was just a fraction. I'd say expenses fiddling was only the least of the damage he could have done. If MacShane has got off lightly, so in a different way have we.  

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