Association of British Commuters: not quite so “independent” as they say…

 

Here’s a slightly extended version of my story in today’s Sunday Times:

A group claiming itself as a “fully independent” voice for suffering Southern Rail users is linked to a hard-left organisation funded by the striking rail unions.

The Association of British Commuters (ABC) has received extensive media coverage and raised £25,000 from travellers for legal action against the government. In its fundraising appeal it claims to be “fully independent from all trades unions/ political parties.

However, it places all blame for the strikes on the government and Southern, has never criticised the unions and unquestioningly echoes much of their language about the dispute. In a letter to the rail minister, Paul Maynard, it attacks Southern for “pushing industrial relationships to a breakdown” by “preventing staff from parking at stations, and preventing rest day working.”

ABC’s Twitter feed criticised ministers for “scapegoating” the strikers.

screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-15-40-50

On 1 November ABC’s director and spokeswoman, Emily Yates, attended what she described on Twitter as an “RMT union rally… supporting [the] fight vs Southern Rail.” She had described herself as “looking forward” to the event.

screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-15-37-44screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-19-58-36

The following week Yates shared a platform with an RMT organiser from Brighton, Gary Hassell, to demand “railways for people, not profit.” The ABC posted the RMT man’s speech on its YouTube channel and placed its logo on the video. On 15 December ABC organised a demonstration attended by Andy McDonald, Labour’s shadow transport spokesman, who supports the strikes.

ABC’s only other director, Summer Dean, is a paid official photographer for the Labour Representation Committee, a long-standing hard-left group chaired by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, and closely linked to Momentum.

screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-18-35-44

LRC affiliates and funders include, or have included, the national headquarters of Aslef and the RMT, along with Aslef’s striking Three Bridges branch. Both unions have reserved seats on the LRC’s national executive committee.

Dean said: “Our only motivation is trying to sort this mess out.”

Sadiq bottles it on Cycle Superhighway 11

The position on Cycle Superhighway 11 was announced to stakeholders tonight. It is a decision effectively not to decide on the key issue.

TfL have committed to removing the Swiss Cottage gyratory; work will begin next year. But they have not committed to the key proposal which turns this from merely a junction scheme into a route – to close four of the eight gates to Regent’s Park to stop the Outer Circle being a rat-run. (Under the proposal, you would still be able to drive into the park at any time through one of the other four gates, but it would be harder to use it as a through route.)

TfL told the meeting that closing the four gates at certain times “remains the default position,” but “consideration will be given to other options to make the park safer for everyone.” A final decision will be made next summer.

This shouldn’t have been a hard decision for Sadiq, so the refusal to commit is a pretty bad sign.

Any decision not to close the gates at Regent’s Park, in response to the shrill falsehoods of a nimby minority, would be an act of defining weakness which would effectively end any serious cycling and walking programme in this mayoral term.

If Sadiq cannot even close four of the eight gates to a park, part of a proposal with 60 per cent support, it is difficult to imagine him doing the much harder things which await – such as constructing segregated tracks on busy arterial roads. This is now the second cycling proposal with clear public support that the Mayor may go back on. (Public support for the specific proposals on the Regent’s Park section was slightly higher than the overall level of support, at 61%.)

If the Mayor does decide that one of the world’s great parks should remain a traffic-choked rat-run, his rhetoric about transforming London for pedestrians and cyclists will be shown to be hollow.

Grand announcements of millions of pounds for cycling mean nothing without the political will to spend it on meaningful schemes.

On CS11 Sadiq may be trying to have it both ways. By continuing with the gyratory removal, he can claim he is “giving something” to the majority. If he does drop plans to close the gates, he can claim he is “giving something” to the nimby minority.

If he does do this, however, he will find that he has created a dog’s dinner of a scheme which angers everybody and pleases nobody.

The closure of the gates in Regent’s Park is the only thing that makes CS11 a meaningful route. The gyratory alone amounts to less than 5 per cent of the route.

For the other 95 per cent of its length, CS11 with the gates left open would be a return to the bad old days when cyclists had to mingle with heavy traffic, protected by nothing more than patches of blue paint. This risks becoming the “new normal” of cycling provision under Sadiq.

But the nimbies, too, would hate the Mayor’s halfway house. They opposed the gyratory removal just as fiercely as the gate closures. Moreover, the gyratory removal and the gate closures were designed to work together. Doing one but not the other would mess up the balance of the scheme, and the neighbourhood.

Our proposal would have kept all the traffic on the A41 because it would have been impossible to enter the park at Avenue Road.

A hybrid proposal would still make it more difficult to enter the top end of Avenue Road – but would allow traffic to enter the park at the bottom end of Avenue Road. This is a recipe for the very rat-running through residential streets in St John’s Wood which the nimbies were against.

I wish I could say it would be fitting reward for the people whose misrepresentations helped land us in this mess, but the rest of us would suffer too.

The deeply troubling role of Westminster City Council in this saga should also be recorded. They opposed the gate closure on the grounds, among others, that it would jeopardise their scheme for two-way traffic in Baker Street.

But Baker Street is a worthless and deeply disliked scheme, with few supporters and few discernible benefits for anyone, not just cyclists. In the first consultation, in 2015, it was rejected by 57 per cent of those consulted, including 70 per cent of residents. It is opposed by many of the retailers it was supposed to benefit.

The council then did a second consultation this year which produced a higher number in favour of the scheme (though still more people against – 46 per cent against to 36 per cent in favour). In this consultation it explicitly announced that it would “exclude” representations made by cyclists (for whom the scheme contains a number of “critical fails.”) Only after excluding these responses was it able to claim that the scheme had majority support! See page 14 of this document.

It is Baker Street that should be scrapped, not the Regent’s Park scheme. TfL has the power to end it, since it is partly funding it. It should exercise that power unless Westminster stops trying to destroy a scheme that people actually want.

Sadiq Khan cycling announcement: my comment

A promised spend of £154m is not a “record” and is less than we spent last year.

But even this level of spending will not be achieved unless the Mayor actually starts building something. So far, most movement has been in the other direction, with shovel-ready schemes delayed or cancelled.

Today’s press release contains no commitment to actually build any segregated cycle route beyond the one scheme (the North-South extension) already announced. This includes only half a mile of segregated track. With the cancellation of the 4.5-mile segregated scheme on the Westway and A40, the net total of new segregated routes so far promised by this mayoralty is minus four miles.

The promise to consult on two cycle superhighway routes (CS4 and CS9) is welcome, though neither will reach central London and I note there is no commitment that they will be segregated. We need a promise that they will be segregated, and also that a consultation result which favours their building will not be ignored, as it was with the Westway.

City Hall will be judged, as we were, by what it does, not what it says. Seven months into the new mayoralty, it is time to stop issuing press releases and get started.

Cycle superhighway on Westway to be cancelled, City Hall confirms

Sadiq Khan is to cancel the extension of the east-west superhighway from central London via the Westway flyover to White City, Shepherds Bush, Park Royal, the Old Oak Common development area, Wembley, Acton and Ealing.

The cancellation will probably mean that no segregated cycle route from central to west London is delivered in this mayoral term. It was confirmed by Sadiq’s deputy mayor for transport, Val Shawcross, at a meeting with British Cycling’s Chris Boardman earlier this month.

There was better news about the other two routes we consulted on in February: Shawcross said they would be delivered “on the same routes as originally consulted,” though there is still no word about whether the gate closures on the Outer Circle – the crucial element of the CS11 (Regent’s Park) proposal – will survive. The gates really are a key test for the mayoralty’s seriousness about cycling – but then, so is the Westway.

The Westway cancellation will be presented as a rerouting: Shawcross told Boardman that the extension “will not be routed on the Westway. We are looking at alternative routes that will be better.” In practice, though, and whatever the (doubtless genuine) intention, it probably spells the death of any meaningful cycle route through the area.

An elevated motorway does at first hearing sound like a weird place for a bike route, but it got 71 per cent support in the consultation. There was almost no opposition, apart from the Westfield shopping centre, which was reportedly worried about delays to car passengers. (The actual maximum delay to any car-borne shopper’s journey to or from Westfield, by the way, would have been 2 minutes. There would be longer delays from Westfield to central London in the morning peak, but nobody visiting the shopping centre would be driving in that direction at that time.)

And the flyover is in fact the easiest place to put a route. There are none of the usual issues with residents, pedestrians, buses, parking, loading, or junctions. There were even benefits for motorists – several westbound journeys would have been quicker. The Westway is also, crucially, the only mayoral-controlled road into a large chunk of West London. The surface roads are owned by a borough, Kensington & Chelsea, which does not want segregated tracks on them.

We could have had the Westway superhighway by next year. But a rerouting will mean perhaps two years’ delay for new designs, new traffic modelling, and a new consultation that will make the row with the local nimbies over CS11 look like a child’s tea-party.

Shawcross and Khan will have to exercise truly miraculous powers of persuasion on K&C to get them to accept segregated tracks – and then to keep them on board through the inevitable nimby tsunami during the consultation.

It’s not totally impossible, I suppose, but it seems pretty unlikely. There is little constituency for cycling among the wealthy, elderly voters of K&C, and not even an active LCC group (its blog has not been updated since 2014). In a perfect world, I too would have wanted to put the superhighway on the surface – but you have to make the best of the world you’ve got. I could have told Team Khan all this if they’d asked – we actually did think this stuff through – but they didn’t ask, and I’m not convinced they’ve yet given it the same amount of thought.

Under the “alternative and better” plans, then, what we will probably finish up with is either nothing at all, or another essentially pointless, old-style, paint-on-road scheme.

 

IERA: watchdog slates extremists for “misconduct,” falsification, “reckless misleading” and “unauthorised payments”

I’ve several times covered the deeply troubling work of a body called IERA, the Islamic Education and Research Academy, which specialises in sending non-violent extremist speakers around British universities, sometimes in gender-segregated meetings. They are one of many extremist groups who have taken me to Ipso, and lost (three times, in their case: see here, here and here).

IERA is run by Abdurraheem Green, who says that a husband has the right to administer “some type of physical force… a very light beating” to his wife and advises that if a Muslim passes a Jew or a Christian in the street, he should “push them to the side.

IERA’s roll-call of stars includes, or has included, Khalid Yasin, who describes Christian and Jewish beliefs as “filth;” Haitham al-Haddad, who has described Jews and Christians as the “enemies of Allah;” plus two people banned from the UK, Zakir Naik, who has said that “every Muslim should be a terrorist,” and Bilal Philips, described by the US government as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the World Trade Center bombing. The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain describes IERA as a “hate group.

IERA is also linked to the “Pompey lads,” a group of young men from Portsmouth (most or all now dead) who travelled to fight for Isis in Syria. At least two, Mehdi Hassan and Ifthekar Jaman, and possibly as many as five, were members of the Portsmouth Dawah Team, described by IERA’s Mission Dawah unit as “our team in Portsmouth.” Hassan and Jaman were pictured in Portsmouth wearing IERA T-shirts.

Astonishingly, IERA is a registered charity, giving it a taxpayer subsidy in the form of Gift Aid (which allows it to reclaim tax on donations from the Government) and several other advantages. That wasn’t enough for some of the IERA trustees, however, who also paid themselves tens of thousands of pounds from charity funds, against the charity’s own rules.

This, and their extremism, exposed in media reports including my own, led to a regulatory case review by the Charity Commission, then a formal statutory inquiry, which finally concluded on Friday. The verdict is damning.

As so often with Islamist groups, IERA lied and falsified documents to head off scrutiny. A risk assessment for an extremist event

had not been carried out prior to the event to which it related, as indicated, and as it should have been. Instead it appeared to have been completed in response to the Commission’s pending records inspection.

IERA, the inspectors found, had made conflicting statements which the Commission was “unable to reconcile.” IERA had

recklessly provided misleading information to the Commission which is evidence of misconduct and/or mismanagement in the administration of the charity.

What the trustees were trying to conceal was two things. First, they were

putting the charity at risk in sharing or being perceived to be sharing, a platform for the expression of promotion of extremist views.

On the link with Phillips, the Commission

could not see how the trustees could show they were complying with their legal duties under charity law.

Second,

approximately £44,704 was made in payments to trustees which could not have been properly authorised… A number of the charity’s trustees had received payments from the charity which were considered more than reasonable costs for travelling expenses for trustee meetings and for fulfilment of trustee duties…in breach of the charity’s governing document and legal duties.

Pretty comprehensive, then. But it could have been better. First, this verdict has taken three years and eight months to deliver; the initial case was opened in March 2013. That is at least three years too long; three years in which IERA has been able to spread its poison.

Second, it hasn’t really put a stop to that even now. The Commission appears to have treated IERA as a legitimate charity which just needed to improve its financial management and “risk assessment” to avoid being a platform for extremism. But being a platform for extremism is, in fact, one of IERA’s main purposes. The real remedy for this organisation is to have its charitable status, and taxpayer subsidy, taken away.

To that extent, IERA got off lightly and should be very grateful. Instead, predictably enough, it has been using the report to bang the Islamophobia drum, decrying the “unjustified and disproportionate” nature of the criticism. For Islamists, every cloud has a silver lining.

Ifhat Smith and Prevent Watch: the facts

I wrote in the Sunday Telegraph at the end of January about something called Prevent Watch, an organisation of Islamist activists linked to the terror-sympathising group Cage (famously supportive of “Jihadi John”) who promote inflammatory stories about the Government’s anti-terrorism policy, Prevent. I discovered that not only were many of the stories false or exaggerated, but that several of the supposedly ordinary victims in them were in fact activists in Prevent Watch.

Among this number was a lady called Ifhat Smith, also known as Ifhat Shaheen or Ifhat Shaheen-Smith, who won copious newsprint and airtime with a claim that her schoolboy son had been “interrogated” and “treated as a criminal” because he had used the phrase “eco-terrorism” in class. It was, she told the BBC, the act of a “police state.”

I discovered that when Mrs Smith took the school (and the Government) to court over the matter, her claim had been dismissed in scathing terms as “bound to fail” and “totally without merit” and she had even been ordered to pay £1000 for wasting the court’s time.

It turned out that the supposed “interrogation” of the teenager using “police state” and “criminal” methods had been conducted by school staff on school premises, had nothing to do with the criminal justice system or police, and lasted ten minutes. No further action was taken and the boy returned to classes normally.

Mrs Smith understandably neglected to mention all this when briefing journalists about the Islamophobic outrage visited on her son; I was the first reporter to learn about the outcome of the court case.

I also discovered that Mrs Smith was or had been the manager of the London office of Ennadha, the Tunisian Islamist party linked to the Muslim Brotherhood – in which capacity she had hired an American PR company, Burston-Marsteller, to promote Ennadha’s image in the States. Her role is shown in official US government documents which the PRs had to file under Washington’s Foreign Agents Registration Act. (In May this year, four months after the article was published, Ennadha claimed to move away from Islamism – but many other sources have documented the party’s links, and those of its leader, with Islamism and the Brotherhood, see for instance here, here and here.)

Mrs Smith has a record of, shall we say, hardline activity on social media, describing the future London mayor, Sadiq Khan, as a “house nigger,” see here and here (you need to read the posts in order) and tweeting her support for Cage.

Prevent Watch complained that Mrs Smith “was not and never had been” an activist in Prevent Watch, or an Islamist, or connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, or an activist of any kind, and had not promoted false or exaggerated stories about Prevent. We referred them to the evidence above, and were also able to point out that at the time of publication Mrs Smith was already booked to speak at least four Prevent Watch or anti-Prevent public meetings in the following few weeks (see here, here, here and here.)

They lost their complaint to Ipso, which ruled:

It was not in dispute that the mother in the “ecoterrorism” case had spoken against Prevent at a number events open to the public. The newspaper had provided promotional material for some events she was scheduled to speak at, in which she had been described as a “campaigner against Prevent”, and the complainant accepted that she had spoken at one of the events it had organised….The complainant accepted that both [Smith and Haras Ahmad, another Prevent Watch activist] were affiliated with Prevent Watch, and it was not in dispute that they were already affiliated with the organisation at the time they had approached the media with their respective stories… it was not significantly misleading for the article to describe these individuals as Prevent Watch “activists.”

Neither was it significantly misleading in the full circumstances for the article to suggest that their stories were “false or exaggerated”, where the court had dismissed the claim of the mother in the “ecoterrorism” case as “totally without merit”…Further, the newspaper was entitled to report the comments of the think-tank researcher who characterised their media approaches as a “campaign of lies”. There was no breach of Clause 1 in respect of these points.

Ipso added that Prevent Watch

had published comments on their website in defence of a person convicted under the Terrorism Act 2000, [and] it was not significantly misleading to characterise Prevent Watch as having “sympathised” with terrorists. Further, it was not significantly misleading to state that some of those involved in the campaign were “Islamist activists”  in circumstances where the complainant did not dispute the allegation that one of the people identified as a Prevent Watch “activist” was involved with a group which allegedly believes in replacing a secular government with an Islamic government.

As for the links to those fine people, Cage:

The newspaper had been able to demonstrate that Cage and Mend [another Islamist front group] had used Prevent Watch material in their own presentations, that Cage and Prevent Watch had promoted each other’s work on Twitter, and that they had each presented case studies with identical wording. The newspaper therefore had sufficient grounds on which to report that there were links between Prevent Watch and the organisations Cage and Mend.

So I admit I was rather surprised when yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph published an apology to Mrs Smith. Either she must have very good lawyers, or the Telegraph – which got rid of many of its excellent and robust legal team at the same time as it got rid of many of its journalists – must now have very bad ones. Either way, the forces trying to undermine this country’s fight against terror had a result yesterday.

I set out this evidence about the good Mrs Smith so you can make up your own minds – and if she wants to sue me, she knows where to come.

Mark Rogers: the stupidest Trojan Horse response yet?

Photo: JOE GIDDENS/PA

On his official council blog, under the headline “Birmingham bites back”, the city council’s chief executive, Mark Rogers, has penned an extraordinary and inflammatory attack on Ofsted and the Government for pursuing a “contrived” agenda that “mislabels decent, upright, devout and loyal Muslim communities as ‘extremists’ and, as a corollary, terrorists in the making … we cannot allow whole communities to be pilloried for the misdemeanours of a few.”

It’s hard to overstate the stupidity and irresponsibility of this from someone in Mr Rogers’ high office. First, of course, it is simply a lie. No one, let alone “whole communities,” has been mislabelled as “extremist” or a “terrorist in the making” by Ofsted or anyone else.

A handful of individuals have been correctly labelled as extremists by journalists (me included) but none by Ofsted or the Government. No one has been labelled as a would-be terrorist by anyone, ever. Most importantly, of course, no statements whatsoever have been made by the Government or anyone else that the whole Muslim community in Birmingham is extremist or terrorist.

Indeed, most of the coverage, mine included, has made clear that large sections of the community in Alum Rock opposed the hardline agenda pursued in the schools. Not all Muslims are “devout,” as Mr Rogers seems to think. It is significant that he defines Muslim people, unlike any other people, through the prism of their faith.

The claim that a whole community has been accused of proto-terrorism is a straw man that even the worst Socialist Workers’ Party frothers in the Hands off Birmingham Schools campaign haven’t yet tried. But Mr Rogers is chief executive of the city council, and one of the duties of that council is presumably to promote community cohesion. His words can only harm community cohesion by giving succour to those who want to persuade the whole Muslim community that they are under attack by a racist establishment. And if anyone has associated Birmingham Muslims with terrorism, it’s now him.

Mr Rogers’ other straw man – which the council leader, Sir Albert Bore, and various equally dim luminaries also tried in some of the papers at the weekend – is to claim that any attack on the city council as a despicable slander on Birmingham itself. The chief executive of the city’s chamber of commerce, Jerry Blackett, accused the chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, of making a “full-on attack on the city of Birmingham” over the affair. No he didn’t – he attacked the council (in fairly careful terms). And he was right to.

The fact is that the city council has long been recognised as part of Birmingham’s problem. As the former Labour Education Minister and Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis (one of many critics) put it long before Trojan Horse in his seminal lecture to the Birmingham Lunar Society in 2011, it “needs to raise its game significantly in terms of leadership, performance and strategy”.

Adonis described the council’s strategic leadership as “weak” and its education department as “inward-looking,” qualities which have been on full display over Trojan Horse. The council has only itself to blame for that debacle. The fact that it blew up was due not to nasty journalists or conniving neo-con Ofsted inspectors (have I got that right Mark?), but to the council’s total refusal over many years to listen to the increasingly desperate complaints of its own staff. (And it’s no good complaining that the schools in question are academies – most were under council control until less than a year ago.)

If the council had acted on their complaints, they wouldn’t have needed to come to the press. Even when they did, the public response of Mr Rogers and others continued to be complete denial (there was no plot, he said in April, merely “new communities” demanding changes to the “liberal educational system”. For Mr Rogers’ information, the Pakistani community has been in Birmingham for the last 45 years.)

As I’ve said before, it’s really telling when people have to create straw man charges to defend themselves. It means that they have no defence to the real charges. Look forward to a similar exercise from the council’s Kershaw review this month.

More strategically, I can’t help wondering whether the council’s latest burst of denial is sensible when there is serious talk of taking some of its functions away. Does it actually want to be emasculated?

Get the latest comment and analysis from the Telegraph

Read more from our news and politics bloggers

//