Shock news: government hires lawyers, honours contracts

One of the more delightful moments, any time the government releases a new tranche of spending data, is watching people try to find nuggets of Terrifyingly Embarrassing Information in it. Normally, this is silly contracted “team-building exercises”, or purchases of potted plants, and so on, but this non-story is particularly creative:

The Cabinet Office has denied claims of conflict of interest after it emerged that the law firm where the deputy prime minster’s wife works has a long-standing contract with the government department.
The Cabinet Office insisted that Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, signs off the department’s contracts, not Clegg. Durántez is not believed to be involved in the compliance monitoring work that DLA Piper carries out for the department.

DLA Piper, in fact, are contracted by four government departments (mostly for more money than this), which is somewhat to be expected, given they are also one of the largest law firms in the country. Still, there are critics:

Tom Watson, a former Cabinet Office minister, criticised the deal. He told the Daily Mail: “Apart from the potential conflict of interest between the husband and wife here, I think the contract should be reviewed, not least because they have not been doing a very good job, with the vanity staff appointments over the last six weeks.”

Okay, I guess, if you look hard, there is a germ of a story there. I mean, you can sort of see there’s a possible COI given she’s a partner and thus stands to (indirectly) benefit, and they’ve been hiring people oddly recently, and so on. So what’s the details of the contract?

A [Cabinet Office] spokesman said: “The contract was subject to full competitive tendering. It started in April 2008 and runs for four years with two annual options to extend. The two payments relate to monitoring of compliance by government departments with civil service recruitment procedures.”

Oh. 2008. All things considered, in 2008, had you asked someone at the Cabinet Office if they were concerned about awarding a contract which might conceivably pose a conflict of interest it it later happened that the leader of the Lib Dems were to be involved… well, I suspect it’d not have been taken very seriously.

So, to recap: Tom Watson, former Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office, thinks the government should renegotiate a contract which was allocated by his department during his time in office, because – in an unexpected chain of events – someone in the receiving company is now related to someone in the government, though neither are actually responsible for approving or performing the contract.

All of which, it need not be said by this point, was tendered, selected, and contracted for legitimately, as arms-length from Durántez as can be imagined – unless we are going to argue that whilst in opposition, Clegg had somehow subverted a minister to rig a contract on behalf of his wife. And if we do, then we should focus on bigger problems, because the responsible minister in the Cabinet Office at the time, who this theory would have as his partner in conspiracy, was one Ed Miliband.

As an example of dubious business practices, I suspect this one falls down on almost every count imaginable. Perhaps I am naive, but looking at the papers this week, I thought we had bigger issues to focus on than this sort of spurious silliness. The Coalition is making no end of decisions people can actually challenge for real reasons – why waste time waving around something that is patently above-board when there’s so much else out there?

Taxation holes

According to the Treasury, there are currently 1,042 ways in which you can gain tax relief in the UK. Since I suspect your reaction was the same as mine – to wonder what on earth some of them were – have a selection…

  • There is no capital gains tax payable on the sale of military gallantry medals, unless you yourself bought them. (Intriguingly, this suggests that if you were to exchange something for a medal of equivalent value, then sell it, you could effectively avoid CGT. Presumably the market is small enough not to make this worthwhile.) Likewise, there is no CGT on the sale of cars (but not other motor vehicles) or on gambling winnings. (I think I knew this, but I am still unsure as to why.)
  • Land that has to be transferred from one local constituency association to another, following boundary changes, is exempt from taxation.
  • There is no climate change levy on the costs of any fuel used to light a ship whilst in international waters, which must be a horrendous piece of accounting.
  • There is no corporation tax on agricultural shows, local amateur sports clubs, or most of the activities of the nuclear decommissioning authority.
  • Any research into a vaccine for TB, malaria, or HIV/AIDS gets an additional 40% tax reduction on top of the existing research tax relief.
  • There is no excise duty on Angostura bitters, black beer (malt & molasses), any spirits used for medical or scientific purposes, or any cider where the brewery makes less than 7,000 litres per year.
  • There is no duty on fuel for international flights, and no air passenger duty payable on flights leaving the Highlands and Islands. (It is very difficult to manage both at once.)
  • There is no income tax charge for any personal security expenses required by your employment, any travel and subsistence received as part of your official duties if a minister or opposition frontbencher – and if the Foreign Secretary, your residence at Chevening House – any coal provided to colliery workers, or any income from selling micro-generated electricity. You are also exempt from income tax if, somewhat specifically, you are a foreign national resident in the UK for the purpose of “helping to deliver” the 2012 Olympics.
  • There is no landfill tax on disposing of the remains of domestic pets, or material dredged from harbours.
  • There is no VAT on banknotes for domestic circulation, houseboats, funerals, children’s car seats, bike helmets, museum entry charges, prescriptions, the UK portion of international defence projects, gold for investment, private education, Royal Mail postal services, sales in charity shops, empty homes (this seems a bit of a gift to the buy-to-let speculators!), lifeboats, trade union memberships, and nicotine patches.

Recipe: rabbit in wine

We made this back in February, and it was lovely – but I promptly forgot how to make it. Today, the rediscovery.


  • One rabbit per two people
  • Mushrooms (about a quarter-pound each)
  • Bacon (a handful)
  • Onion, garlic, etc as seems reasonable, plus stock
  • Red wine, in quantity.

If your rabbit is not yet dismantled, then dismantle it as discussed earlier. (If it is still fluffy, you’re on your own, but let me know how it went.) This time around, I took the meat off the thighs, and only cooked the forelegs as a complete unit; works well either way.

Fry the (finely chopped) onion and garlic, then the bacon, in a large flat-bottomed pan; once they look done, add the mushrooms, and then the rabbit. Once it’s browned, add the stock and some red wine – enough to cover it – and cook at a low heat, covered, for about an hour and a half, stirring regularly. If it looks like boiling dry, add more wine.

You should end up with some very deeply coloured meat – not much to look at, but tastes a lot better than it looks – and a small amount of liquid, depending how free you were with the wine. Serve with rice (it soaks up the excess wine better than potatoes) and whatever vegetables are to hand – I used diced carrots.

The Secret Battle

I was delighted recently to discover that A. P. Herbert’s The Secret Battle, a somewhat neglected First World War novel, had been digitised by and was made available as public domain. The 1919 British edition is here; Open Library links to a few more.

I talk about this book a lot. It’s mostly unknown now; it received some mild critical acclaim before falling prey to the fact that in the early 1920s, no-one really wanted to talk about the war. It wasn’t until five or ten years after it was published that the boom in war writing really began, by which time it was mostly old news and its author had become firmly established as a light humorist – dredging up a novel he wrote as an impassioned and scarred twenty-six year old was not high on the publishing agenda. It was the first novel to focus on Gallipoli as well as the Western Front, one of the first to openly challenge the practice of execution for desertion, and an early example of the trope of the veteran as a damaged victim of the war, rather than a hero emerging from it.

I am going to write down some of the history of Harry Penrose, because I do not think full justice has been done to him…

The protagonist, Harry Penrose, leaves Oxford in the summer of 1914 and enlists in the ranks, later taking a commission; he serves at Gallipoli as a junior subaltern, and on the Western Front. There, for years, his spirit is worn down; he wants to be a good soldier, and tries hard, but he is relentlessly put upon by circumstances. One day, he breaks a little more than usual and turns back in the face of shellfire. And the System then breaks him, completely and without feeling.

A court-martial is ordered, and it finds the bare facts of the case; he was leading his men to the front line, they were fired upon, and he turned back. Desertion in the face of the enemy, a clear and unarguable conviction. As an honest man, he cannot challenge the facts, and as a sensitive one, he cannot quite convince himself he is not, after all, actually a coward. Justice, such as it is, is served; a week later, a decision is taken by some high authority to “make an example”, and one fine spring morning he is taken to be shot, for the good of the nation’s moral fibre.

It is crushingly sad, all the more so when you realise that Penrose is – in surprising detail – drawn from the author. He knew of a case where an officer in his division had been shot like this, in similarly dubious circumstances, and asked himself – had I stayed on the front lines longer, had I not been sent home, wounded, to a safe job, would I have cracked like this? What would have become of me? But, of course, he feared he already knew the answer.

Churchill wrote that “like the poems of Siegfried Sassoon it should be read in each generation, so that men and women may rest under no illusions about what war means”, and as so often he seems to have put his finger on it. Penrose’s war is not glorious, not romantic, not successful, not admirable – but it is real, and stark, and honest, and final.

…[and] that is all I have tried to do. This book is not an attack on any person, on the death penalty, or on anything else, though if it makes people think about these things, so much the better. I think I believe in the death penalty — I do not know. But I did not believe in Harry being shot.
That is the gist of it; that my friend Harry was shot for cowardice — and he was one of the bravest men I ever knew.

Photos: three approaches to memorialising

I have been without any working internet connection for a couple of weeks now, so no photographs of the last trip yet. Have some old ones, instead, for the 11th; these are from a trip to Normandy earlier in the year. Three national war graves; three approaches to commemoration.



The entrance to a British cemetery – one of many scattered around the countryside – in Bayeux.


Monumental architecture.



The lists of names, for those never found, and the ubiquitous poppy.


The lines of white headstones – all differently carved, but identically shaped – are offset by the plants.


Those who died together were buried together, known or unknown.


Bayeux Cathedral – which, by strange fate, came through the fighting untouched – looming over the cemetery.


A second cemetery – smaller, and more pastoral, hidden down a dusty lane in a small village near the Orne.


Note the variety of insignia, carved individually.


An Australian airman, far from home.


…and closer to home, a Frenchman. Buried here as a British soldier – “Commando Anglo-Francais No. 4” – but with a distinct headstone, presumably in the French style.




German war cemeteries are… flat, and dark, and bleak. A fraught question; how should the conscript soldiers of a hated – and defeated – army be remembered in an occupied land? The answer, apparently, is “unobtrusively”, and as far from triumphalist as possible.



Heinz Molesch was eighteen and three months. Konrad Kasprsyk – a Polish name? – was eighteen and four months. One of these headstones – men were almost always buried in pairs, under a flat stone – had the name of a soldier and another, given as “mädchen” – young woman. There is a story there, lost to the decades along with her name.

United States


The American cemetery – this is on the bluffs above Omaha Beach – is simply a sea of crosses, in white marble with inscribed names, rolling across the landscape.


…or the absence of names. The headstone just behind is of one of the handful of women buried here.



The graves make a strict geometric line; it’s almost mesmerising. Note the small scattering of Stars of David – five in these two pictures, I think – and the lines sweeping down to the coast in the background. The cemetery is built on the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach; it’s concealed behind the rise of the cliff, perhaps a quarter of a mile away at most.