BRITAIN PLANS MAJOR MILITARY EXERCISES IN POLAND AMID UKRAINE CRISIS

BRITAINBritish Defence Secretary Michael Fallon (L) and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond (R) addresses a joint press-conferance with their Polish counterparts in Warsaw on July 28, 2014 (AFP Photo/Wojtek Radwanski)

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Warsaw (AFP) – Britain on Monday announced major joint manoeuvres in Poland in October, part of a string of NATO exercises in the region aimed at reassuring eastern Europe members jittery over a resurgent Russia.

“I can announce today exercise Black Eagle, which will be a significant Polish and UK armoured exercise with over 350 British armoured and other vehicles and some 1,350 British personnel,” British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said in Warsaw.

The deployment will be the “largest British contribution to exercises in eastern Europe since 2008,” he said at a joint press conference with British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and Poland’s foreign and defence ministers.

Ex-communist NATO members have asked the alliance for permanent boots on the ground in the region amid the sharp escalation of fighting between Kiev government troops and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Presidents from nine ex-communist NATO members met in Warsaw last week to hammer out a regional defence strategy to re-enforce its eastern frontier in preparation for a key summit in September.

The NATO summit is expected to focus largely on the fallout from the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s annexation of that country’s Crimean peninsula.

Senior NATO officials have said decisions on the possible permanent deployment of alliance forces throughout its eastern flank can be expected in September.

“The Russia-Ukraine conflict is Europe’s most important security challenge since the end of the Cold War,” Poland’s President Bronislaw Komorowski has said.

“Strengthening NATO’s eastern flank is fundamental.”

NATO has already sent additional temporary rotations of air, sea and land forces to Poland and three small former Soviet-ruled Baltic states in response to the Ukraine crisis.

US President Barack Obama in June earmarked a billion dollars (741 million euros) in military funding for US allies on NATO’s eastern border.

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BRITAIN CUTS EUROPEAN UNION MIGRANTS’ ACCESS TO WELFARE PAYMENTS

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LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday set out new welfare rules to cut European migrants’ access to social security payments, marking the latest in a string of British measures aimed at addressing voters’ concerns over immigration.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph newspaper, Cameron said that from November migrants coming to Britain from the European Union to find work would be entitled to claim unemployment and child benefits for three months, rather than the previous six months.

Opinion polls show immigration is one of voters’ biggest concerns going into a national election in 2015, fuelling a rise in eurosceptic sentiment that has helped the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) draw voters away from Cameron’s Conservatives.

In a bid to stop voters defecting, Cameron has said he wants to cut net migration and has targeted those who he says come to Britain solely to tap its benefit system.

“We’re … making sure people come for the right reasons – which has meant addressing the magnetic pull of Britain’s benefits system,” Cameron said.

He said that by restricting job seekers’ welfare access to only three months he was sending a clear message to potential migrants: “You cannot expect to come to Britain and get something for nothing.”

The opposition Labour party has criticized Cameron for not doing enough to stop low-skilled migrants driving wages down.

Other rule changes introduced since January have included tightening the criteria for claimants and mandating longer waiting periods before migrants become eligible for payments.

European Union officials have in the past criticized Cameron’s approach to immigration and said that there is no evidence to show migrants move to Britain to claim benefits.

Nevertheless, other European countries such as Germany have expressed sympathy with Cameron’s concerns, and it is one of only a few policy areas where he has support for changes to EU rules.

In the face of eurosceptic sentiment within his own party and the wider electorate, Cameron has promised to renegotiate Britain’s ties with the EU if he is re-elected, and then put the country’s continuing membership to a public vote in 2017.

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DAVID CAMERON ANNOUNCES IMMIGRATION BENEFITS CRACKDOWN

Benefits for EU migrants in the UK will be cut off after three months, says PM, as he promises Coalition changes will ‘put Britain first’

By Peter Dominiczak, Political Editor | telegraph.co.uk

David Cameron is to announce tough action on immigration that will halve the amount of time foreigners can claim benefits in the UK.

The Coalition will introduce laws to ensure that European Union migrants can only claim out-of-work benefits for three months, Mr Cameron says in an article for The Telegraph.

The Prime Minister also pledges to stop more than 500,000 British jobs being advertised across the EU and announces tough new curbs on colleges offering visas to “bogus” students.

The Government will make changes to the immigration system that put “Britain first” and ensure that the UK is “a country that is not a soft touch”, Mr Cameron says. “We changed the rules so that no one can come to this country and expect to get out-of-work benefits immediately; they must wait at least three months,” Mr Cameron adds.

“And we are announcing today that we are cutting the time people can claim these benefits for. It used to be that European jobseekers could claim Job Seeker’s Allowance or child benefit for a maximum of six months before their benefits would be cut off, unless they had very clear job prospects.

“I can tell Telegraph readers today that we will be reducing that cut-off point to three months, saying very clearly: you cannot expect to come to Britain and get something for nothing.”

Mr Cameron’s latest intervention on immigration will be seen as an attempt to woo back Conservative voters who have defected to Ukip in recent months.

Under measures announced last year, European immigrants have to wait three months before they can claim out-of-work benefits. They can then claim the benefits for a maximum of six months.

Mr Cameron’s announcement came as the International Monetary Fund warned that “restrictive immigration policies” in the UK “could have a negative impact on productivity growth”. In a report on Britain’s finances the IMF, which last week upgraded its forecast for UK growth to 3.2 per cent this year and 2.7 per cent in 2015, said: “Relaxing immigration requirements in areas with labour shortages, such as manufacturing, could provide a boost to productivity and facilitate the rebalancing of the UK economy.” There was anger last year after it emerged that under an EU scheme partly funded by British taxpayers, all positions advertised in UK job centres also have to be offered to workers in European member states. UK firms are given as much as £1,000 as a bonus for taking on the foreign workers.

The EURES scheme offers foreigners hundreds of pounds of funding to pay for interviews in the UK, relocation costs and even English lessons.

Of the 2.4 million jobs posted on the EURES site, 1,138,847 are posts in the UK. Jobs at UK firms including Tesco and Sainsbury’s are advertised on the site.

Downing Street said that in future, jobs will only be uploaded to the website if an employer specifically requests that the position is offered across the EU. “Some recruitment agencies have even been recruiting directly from elsewhere in the EU without British workers ever getting a chance to apply for jobs,” Mr Cameron writes. “So we are banning overseas-only recruitment — legally requiring these agencies to advertise in English in the UK. And today we are announcing a further measure. In the past, all vacancies advertised in Jobcentre Plus were automatically advertised on an EU-wide job portal.

“This meant advertising over a million job vacancies across the EU. So we are going to massively restrict this, aiming to cut back the vacancies on this portal by over 500,000 jobs.”

There have also been growing concerns that colleges are abusing immigration rules offering visas for money so that people can come to the UK to work by pretending that they are here to study.

“Some of the most egregious examples were those claiming to be students, enrolling at bogus colleges,” Mr Cameron says. “We have taken radical action – shutting down more than 750 of these colleges. Today we are announcing a further step to make sure colleges do proper checks on students: if 10 per cent of the students they recruit are refused visas, they will lose their licence.”

In his article, the Prime Minister also highlights a series of measures that have come into force in recent days, including new restrictions on abuses of European human rights laws, which immigrants have used to avoid deportation.

45,000 LONDONERS PROTEST ISRAEL’S OPERATION IN GAZA

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by Colin Daileda

As many as 45,000 people protested outside the Israeli embassy in London on Saturday in a demonstration against Israel’s military operation in Gaza.

The protesters later marched toward Parliament, according to The Independent, in the latest London protest against Israeli military action in Gaza since the start of the most recent conflict earlier this month.

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Protesters in other cities throughout the United Kingdom also held rallies against Israeli military action on Saturday, according to the report. Prior to this major rally, thousands of demonstrators in London protested last week, calling on Israel to halt its air and ground assaults.

Saturday’s London protest occurred during a 12-hour cease-fire between Hamas and the Israeli military which ended after Hamas rejected a four-hour extension. More than 1,000 Palestinians have died in the fighting, the majority of whom were civilians. Israel’s death toll currently sits at 43, 40 of whom were soldiers. Palestinian casualties are much more significant due in part to Israel’s missile defense system — known as the Iron Dome — which prevents the vast majority of Hamas rockets from doing any damage.

In recent weeks, demonstrations against Israel’s actions in Gaza have occurred across the globe, from Paris, France to Santiago, Chile.

The French government has banned some rallies for fear of anti-Semitism, but many protesters have gone ahead with their demonstrations. Around 3,000 protesters had brief skirmishes with riot police in Paris on Saturday during an unsanctioned demonstration, according to the Associated Press.

MALAYSIA AIRLINES MH17 CRASH: MASSIVE RISE IN SALE OF BRITISH ARMS TO RUSSIA

MPs condemn sharp increase in trade with Moscow after missile attack on Flight MH17, while French President blasts ‘hypocrite’ Cameron as war of words erupts between London and Paris

The Government was last night accused of double standards over arms sales to Russia after it emerged that officials have approved a massive increase in weaponry to be sold to the country to more than £130m.

MPs warn today that at least 251 export licences for the sale of controlled goods – ranging from sniper rifles to night sights – remain in place despite a call from Prime Minister David Cameron for other countries, in particular France, to halt lucrative arms deals with Moscow.

Downing Street insisted that any arms licences granted for equipment to the Russian military had been suspended in the wake of the MH17 disaster after Mr Cameron singled out French President Francois Hollande’s refusal to call off a £1bn deal to sell Moscow two helicopter carriers.

The increasingly acrimonious war of words between London and Paris over sales of military hardware to Moscow deepened last night when the head of Mr Hollande’s Socialist ruling party called Mr Cameron a “hypocrite”.

A powerful select committee of MPs added to Downing Street discomfort over the issue by today calling on the Government to show “more cautious judgment” when approving exports to Russia after the value of licences rocketed by more than half in the last year from £86m to £131.5m.

The increase of 52 per cent in the last 12 months took place despite Britain’s increasingly strident criticism of Russian support – including the supply of arms – for Ukrainian separatists, who have now been blamed for the killing of 298 people on board flight MH17.

As the European Union last night announced it was considering targeting defence sales as part of widened sanctions against Moscow, Labour claimed the Conservative Party had also accepted donations worth more than £900,00 since 2007 from Russians with alleged links to the Russian government.

The exhaustive report by MPs on sales to 28 countries deemed by the Government to be “of human rights concern” found that Britain last year issued 285 separate licences for the sale of weaponry and controlled goods to Russia, including £1.6m of small arms ammunition, 38 sniper rifles, components for assault rifles and combat shotguns, and cryptography equipment worth £74m.

A five-year licence was also granted last year by Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) for the shipping of multiple military components, including missile components and launching technology, to Russian territory.

Officials in Business Secretary Vince Cable’s department last night insisted the licence applied to a contingency agreement to supply emergency spare parts to the Brazilian navy in 23 countries, including Russia, and no missile parts had been sent to Russia under the deal.

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But MPs questioned whether there were enough checks in place to ensure that a long list of arms and weaponry approved for export to Russia reached its declared end user and said Britain needed to be significantly more circumspect about what it agreed to sell to authoritarian countries.

Sir John Stanley, chairman of the House of Commons Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC), said: “Our view is that there should be a more cautious approach. We have been appealing for a more considered approach to Russia for some time. I think many people would be wondering why the UK is giving export approval to the considerable number of items on that list?”

The senior Conservative MP said last night he would be writing to Mr Cameron for clarification on which further weaponry exports to Russia have now been banned amid criticism from anti-arms trade campaigners that Britain was only taking action because of the international outcry over the Malaysia Airlines atrocity.

Andrew Smith, from the Campaign Against Arms Trade, said: “All too often it takes a humanitarian catastrophe before the UK Government practices arms control. We welcome tighter regulation of the arms trade, but when the UK’s target markets include oppressive Governments, it doesn’t just give them military support, it also indicates political support.”

Former Foreign Secretary William Hague announced in March that it was suspending all licences existing licences and applications of military and dual-use equipment to Russia where it was or could be used against Ukraine.

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Sir John said this had resulted in the suspension of the “relatively small number” of just 34 of the 285 approved sales to Russia. The Government last night insisted that the “majority” of remaining export licences for Russia applied to items for “for commercial use”.

The annual report by the MPs, based on joint meetings of four separate Commons’ select committees, also accused Mr Cable of quietly dropping a longstanding plank of Britain’s arms export policy to make sales to oppressive regimes such as Russia easier.

The report found that the Government last year approved sales worth £11.9bn to 28 countries designated by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) as being “of human rights concern”, including £1.7bn each to Saudi Arabia and China. Sales to Israel, also named on the FCO list, were dominated by a single deal – worth £7.8bn – of cryptographic equipment and software to an unnamed customer in the country.

Since 2000, arms sales had been considered alongside criteria which states: “An export licence will not be issued if the arguments for doing so are outweighed by concern that the goods might be used for internal repression or international aggression”.

Despite being omitted from stated Government criteria, BIS officials last night insisted the move did constitute a change of policy and safeguards remains in place.

But the MPs strongly criticised the move. Sir John said: “We don’t accept that there has been no change of policy. This is very important policy wording and it has been dropped.”

The MPs were also strongly critical of the current Government and its Labour predecessor for approving the sale of chemical weapon precursors to Syria despite the knowledge that the country’s regime was developing a nerve gas stockpile.

The report described the decision under Labour to grant five export licences for “dual-use” nerve gas ingredients between 2004 and 2010 as “highly questionable” and said the decision by the Coalition to grant to further licences in 2012 – after the civil war had started – as “irresponsible”.

A Government spokesperson said: “The UK aims to operate one of the most robust and transparent export control systems in the world. Every application is examined rigorously against internationally recognised criteria and particular attention is paid to human rights risks.”

Eastern promise: The Tories’ Russian donors

Alexander Temerko

A former vice-president of oil giant Yukos, Mr Temerko fled Russia and received UK citizenship after being charged with fraud. He is a director of Offshore Group Newcastle, who specialise in offshore wind, and gas and oil platforms. He has personally donated around £259,230 to the Conservative Party since 2012. OGN has also donated £185,325 to the Tories.

Lubov and Vladimir Chernukhin

Lubov Chernukhin paid £160,000 at the most recent Tory summer ball for a game of tennis with David Cameron. She is married to Vladimir Chernukhin, former deputy finance minister of Russia. Mr Chenhukhin is also a former director of Aeroflot, JCS Russian Agricultural Bank, Vnesheconombank, and Polyus Gold International Limited until April 2014.

New Century Media

Had a table at the Tory summer ball and have donated £91,000 to the Conservatives. The lobbying company has worked with organisations such as “Positive Russia” – which seeks to portray Vladimir Putin and Russia in a positive light, and invited Mr Putin’s judo partner Vasily Shestakov and billionaire Andrei Klyamko to the ball.

UK TO DECODE MH17 BLACK BOXES, INTERPOL IDENTIFIES BODIES

The Netherlands – which is leading the investigation into what happened to flight MH 17 – has asked Britain to decode the two black box flight recorders recovered at the crash site. For more on the probe, Roman Kosarev joins RT from Donetsk.

MH17: U.S. AND UK PILE PRESSURE ON RUSSIA

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US President Barack Obama has accused Russian-backed separatists of continuing to block the international investigation into the crash of flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine.

Asking what they were hiding, the US president said the burden was on Moscow to force rebels to co-operate.

“Given its direct influence over the separatists, Russia and President Putin in particular has direct responsibility to compel them to cooperate with the investigation, that is the least that they can do. President Putin says that he supports a full and fair investigation and I appreciate those words but they have to be supported by actions,” Obama said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said that the clear cause of the tragedy was Russia’s attempt to destabilise Ukraine, citing its support for rebels who evidence showed had shot down the plane.

Speaking in the British parliament, Cameron pressed EU leaders to impose tougher sanctions on Moscow.

“If Russia does not change course then we must be clear that Europe must keep increasing the pressure. Russia cannot expect to continue enjoying access to European markets, European capital, European knowledge and technical expertise while she fuels conflict in one of Europe’s neighbours,” Cameron said.

Whether new sanctions are imposed may depend on the Netherlands’ stance.

The Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, who accompanied bereaved families as they met the king and queen, has said apportioning blame prematurely could be counter-productive.

Dutch prosecutors investigating the crash have begun an inquiry into murder and war crimes.

“BIG BROTHER BRITANNIA”: BOUNCING PARLIAMENT. SURVEILLANCE AND POLICE STATE BY EMERGENCY IN THE UK

By Binoy Kampmark | Global Research

You have to give him some credit.  The soul of the prison warder who inhabits the public school boy is not always easy to contain. Unrestrained, and lacking sound judgment, he is bound to spring out, however democratic, or liberal, a system can be. Prime Minister David Cameron, on the issue of jamming through bills connected with increased surveillance powers, has just about gotten what he wants.  The rule in his playbook here: call anything you don’t want looked at a matter of emergency.

For Cameron, “No government introduces fast track legislation lightly. But the consequences of not acting are grave.”  No evidence is required; none is shown.  What is important is the stress on terrorism, sustained by that good old giddying drug called fear. “As events in Iraq and Syria demonstrate, now is not the time to be scaling back on our ability to keep our people safe.”  All that matters is that the government claims that not acting, even if it doesn’t quite know what it is acting on, will be terrible than doing nothing to begin with.

Even as the Germans were celebrating their footballing triumph in Brazil, the frontlines of the UK papers featured Edward Snowden’s unchanging face, and the efforts of the Cameron government to push through its emergency surveillance bill.  Since the European Court of Justice made short work of the EU data retention directive, governments have been scrambling to respond.  The UK reaction has been less than conciliatory to the privacy advocates, always suspicious about the very idea that retaining data was somehow illegal.

The legislative reaction was something of a race, lasting three days.  Vital to the passage of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers bill, known as Drip, was dizzying speed – pushed through the Commons on Tuesday, then passed within a vote after a second reading in the House of Lords.  Thursday saw some tidying up, but when the rooms were ordered, it was clear that the surveillance team had won.

Drip has come in for a vocal beating from various sources. When it was being flagged in the halls of parliament on July 9, opposition Labour MP Tom Watson[1] tweeted that, “Something terrible could be happening in Parliament on Monday and I need your urgent attention”.  UK-based Privacy International[2] called it a glaring shame “that a year since Edward Snowden revealed the scope of the UK mass surveillance activities, the only British parliamentary action in relation to surveillance has been to drastically expand the interception powers of the intelligence services.”

UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay made the obvious remark that Drip sidestepped, rather than confronted, the implications of the European Court of Justice decision.  “To me it’s difficult to see how the UK can now justify rushing through wide-reaching emergency legislation which may not fully address concerns raised by the court, at time when there are proceedings ongoing by the UK’s own investigative powers tribunal on these very issues” (Guardian, Jul 16).

This has not proven to the sole province of the bleeding hearts or the conspiracy fraternity.  Some far from radical voices feature, including Lord Butler of Brockwell, who was Cabinet secretary to Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair.  In his words, the government had “bounced” parliament.

On the issue of responding to the decision on data retention, Butler noted that “the government was discussing this problem with Microsoft, and Yahoo and other providers.  Why was it not willing to discuss the issue similarly with select committees of parliament?  And if the government could reach a conclusion about the necessity for this legislation one week before the Commons went into recess, it beggars belief that it could not have reached that conclusion three weeks before recess, and thus given parliament proper time to consider this bill.”

There are snips and abolitions of matters pertaining to oversight.  Former counter-terrorist watchdogs are not really in vogue and are being pushed back – Lord Carlile had figured in a position that may well be abolished, given the coalition government’s proposal for a privacy and civil liberties board.

What Drip does do is establish an “independent reviewer of terrorism legislation”, but the legislation clearly curtails the exercise of discretion. Yes, there are tentative nods made to “safeguards to protect privacy” and notions of transparency, but there is an overwhelming insistence on “current and future threats to the United Kingdom” and “the capabilities needed to combat those threats”.

There is much in the manner of weak language, the sort that admits that privacy is important before putting the kibosh on it.  The Secretary of State, as Drip makes clear, may “require a public telecommunications operator to retain relevant communications data if the Secretary of State considers that the requirement is necessary and proportionate for one or more of the purposes” outlined in the act itself.[3]

The relevant point here is that metadata is not the sole object of access under the new act.  Members of law enforcement can now access the actual content of the messages, irrespective of whether they are held by companies located outside the UK.  The Act makes it clear that interception warrants may be served on “a person outside the United Kingdom (and may relate to conduct outside the United Kingdom).”

Is all this radical?  No, claims Cameron.  “I want to be very clear that we are not introducing new powers or capabilities – that is not for this Parliament.”  Everything bar what it actually was.

UNITED STATES KNEW OF BRITISH PLANS TO RAID THE GUARDIAN FOR SNOWDEN DOCUMENTS

By Nick Barrickman

Emails obtained by the Associated Press show that top US intelligence officials were well aware of the British government’s plans to destroy hard drives containing evidence of massive state spying against the world’s population that were held by the Guardian newspaper last year. The emails show that US officials not only knew of the plans to destroy the material provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden while doing nothing to stop them, but also encouraged and celebrated the police state activities of the British government.

The documents span a period of several days before and after the destruction of the material, beginning with an email dated July 19, 2013 to then-Director of the NSA Keith Alexander, sent by deputy director of the agency Rick Ledgett, entitled “Guardian data being destroyed.” One can see Ledgett proclaiming the files’ destruction to be “Good news, at least on this front,” as Alexander responds a day later, asking for confirmation that the drives had indeed been destroyed. Finally, the current Director of the NSA James R. Clapper replies, saying “Thanks Keith … appreciate the conversation today.”

The Guardian was one of several media outlets, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, which had reported on the disclosures of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden last summer of a massive spying campaign conducted against the world’s population by the US government and other allied governments. Last July, Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger was contacted by “a very senior government official claiming to represent the views of the [British] prime minister” regarding the Snowden material. “The tone was steely, if cordial, but there was an implicit threat that others within government and Whitehall favoured a far more draconian approach,” Rusbridger said of the encounter.

According to the Guardian chief, “two GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters] security experts” oversaw the destruction of the hard drives containing all documents from Snowden, while journalists were forced to use grinders, drills, and other equipment to physically destroy the material. This was despite the Guardian’s own insistence that it would publish only a fraction of the NSA’s documents it had been given.

At the time, US officials had feigned ignorance of the events, with White House spokesperson Josh Earnest saying that it had been difficult to “evaluate the propriety of what they [the British government] did based on incomplete knowledge of what happened,” while also proclaiming it to be “very difficult to imagine a scenario in which that would be appropriate.”

What the current collection of emails proves is that either US officials did know of the planned raid on the Guardian and did nothing to stop it, or that top officials in the US intelligence community acted to ensure the destruction of evidence documenting a massive breach of the US Constitution. Furthermore, the findings show that in approving of the British government’s actions, associated most closely with those of a police state, US officials are fully capable of taking such actions in the United States itself.

The majority of the correspondence is heavily redacted, in most circumstances making it impossible to read any of the messages exchanged by the officials. In other cases, entries are blocked in the subject line so that one cannot see who received or has sent various emails, making unclear the level of involvement US officials had in the actual destruction of the documents.

Justifying the number of redactions in the emails, which make it difficult to make out to whom a given message is addressed or what is being discussed, public affairs officials working in tandem with the NSA enclosed a note saying that the release of such documents could cause “exceptionally grave and serious damage to … national security.”

Also in justifying the withholding of information from the public, the document claims the NSA’s right to personal privacy: “Personal information regarding individuals has also been deleted from the enclosures… This exemption protects from disclosure information that would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. In balancing the public interest for the information you request against the privacy interests involved, we have determined that the privacy interests sufficiently satisfy the requirements for the application of the exemption.”

Such assertions of virtual immunity from public oversight as well as the supposed “balancing” of the “public interest” with the “privacy interests” of the state amount to justification of dictatorship.

UK TO PASS EMERGENCY MEASURES TO COLLECT PHONE AND INTERNET DATA

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British Prime Minister David Cameron has rushed emergency measures through parliament to allow police and security services access to phone and internet records in the UK.

He says he was forced to act after the European Court of Justice struck down existing powers on the premise it infringed human rights.

CAMERON GOVERNMENT STEPS UP DRIVE TO SELL UK PUBLIC ASSETS

By Allison Smith and Paul Bond

A proposed bill will make it even easier for the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government to sell off high-value public land. The National Health Service (NHS) is expected to be one of the social services hardest hit.

The Public Sector Land Assets section of the Infrastructure Bill would “permit land to be transferred directly from arms-length bodies to the Homes and Communities Agency [HCA].” This, the government argues, would reduce bureaucracy, manage land more effectively and enable more homes to be built.

The bill would ensure that future purchasers of land owned by HCA and the Greater London Authority (GLA) “will be able to develop and use land without being affected by easements and other rights and restrictions suspended by the Agency.”

This would basically facilitate unbridled private use of land. The governmental information notes on the Bill explain that land owned by HCA and GLA sometimes has easements or rights and restrictions from its previous use. HCA and GLA can suspend these rights, but not pass the suspension on to purchasers. The Bill will remove that limitation in order, as the government web site puts it, to “make sure that purchasers of this land would also benefit from the suspension.”

The drive to sell off NHS property significantly escalated in January 2012 when then-UK Health Secretary Andrew Lansley announced that the newly-established government-owned firm PropCo would take over ownership and management of more than 150 NHS estates with the aim of evaluating and disposing of the highest value land parcels. Figures released by the Department of Health in March this year reveal that 224 NHS trusts have identified 629 parcels of land—totaling more than 900 hectares—as surplus or potentially surplus. This includes nearly 75 sites around London, totaling 80 hectares.

The premise for selling off the estate is the chronic indebtedness of the NHS, which will see a deficit of more than £330 million in England alone this year. As a result, hospital estates across England remain under threat of restructuring, repurposing or closure. Hospitals across Britain are cutting staff and services in a desperate attempt to avoid ending the current financial year in debt. Despite these measures, more than half are expected to end the year significantly in debt.

Since 2008, the British government has used the current economic crisis as an excuse to impose an austerity regime. This includes a plan to cut more than £30 billion from the NHS by 2021. The drastic shortfall in hospital budgets has led to potentially deadly compromises in patient safety, the near elimination of family doctor services and a significant increase in hospital waiting times.

The Health Service Journal reports that proposals to sell hospital sites contributed to an 11 percent increase in the area of land designated for sale for housing by English NHS organisations in 2012. In March 2013, Dan Poulter, Undersecretary of State for Health, wrote to all NHS Chief Executives, Directors of Finance and Estates Directors stating that his top priority for government is the release of public-sector land.

The determination to dismantle the NHS can be seen in the example of the Whittington Hospital in North London. By March last year, one-third of its estate was threatened with closure, with the proposed sale expected to raise around £17 million from private developers. Six blocks were slated for sale, including buildings used as wards and staff accommodation. The result would have meant a loss of 570 jobs and 230 fewer hospital beds.

This sell-off deal was an integral part of the hospital board’s application for the Whittington to become a Foundation Trust. Foundation Trust status removes hospitals from central government control and is a step towards the complete privatisation of the NHS. To qualify for Foundation Trust status, the Whittington is required to make savings of £4.8 million before the trust application is approved.

There was widespread opposition to the proposed selloff, and there were a number of high-profile resignations from the board after the initial plans had to be withdrawn. But despite protestors being told that the cutback plans would be scrapped and “a new strategy put in place to guarantee our hospital’s future,” it was clear that that there had been no change of heart.

When Joe Liddane resigned as chairman of Whittington Health, he was replaced by Steve Hitchins, former Liberal Democrat leader of Islington Council. Hitchins was a board member of the London Development Agency, assembling land for the 2012 Olympics. As Whittington Health boasted on his appointment, he “has extensive experience in the private, public and voluntary sectors.”

In March this year, Dr. Yi Mien Koh, Whittington Health’s chief executive, stood down and was replaced for six months by Simon Pleydell, one of the 10 highest-paid NHS chiefs in the country. Some NHS analysts suggested Pleydell had been appointed to oversee wider changes across London hospitals.

Whittington is again undertaking a review of its Accident and Emergency (A&E) department. The A&E was under threat of closure last year. The nearby Royal Free Hospital, which did receive Foundation Trust status last year, has just announced a major upgrade of its A&E over the next three years.

As part of its push for Foundation Trust status Whittington Health has long been advancing “care in the community” services to clear beds. This has already led to it being classed as a “community care organization” rather than a district general hospital. In his first month in office, Hitchins announced that a district general hospital on the site was “no longer viable.”

When hospitals sell off “surplus” land they cannot expand in the future. Selling public land to cover debts caused by budget shortfalls creates a vicious circle because land is a discrete, non-renewable asset.

Private land developers stand to gain the most. As an example, the GLA has agreed to let Barratt Homes and Ward Homes “build now and pay later” on 83 hectares of land at South East London’s Cane Hill hospital site. Under the build now/pay later scheme, the government transfers public land to private developers for free and the developer eventually pays for the parcels after it recovers the development costs through sales and leasing. In the case of Cane Hill, the developer is receiving the equivalent of a £250 million interest-free deferred loan to develop the hospital site.

Barratt and Ward plan to build 675 housing units—including 400 luxury homes—and 70,000 square feet of commercial space. Only 25 percent of the development—168 apartments— will be “affordable.” Of these 60 percent will be affordable rent and 40 percent will be “shared equity”, where the tenant buys on a mortgage a part-share of the house and pays rent on the rest.

The paltry number of affordable units proposed for Cane Hill reinforces the fact that the fire sale of NHS assets will not benefit workers at all.

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