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Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist and writerHe is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.

Enquiry into ‘amnesty’ letters finds ‘systemic failures’, but no illegality

An enquiry into the ‘on-the-run’ (OTR) letters scheme, established by the Blair administration to assure individuals evading the British authorities that they were no longer wanted, has reached a conclusion of cock-up, not conspiracy.

Lady Justice Hallett, appointed by this government to investigate the administration of the ‘comfort letters’, ruled that whilst it was kept ‘below the radar’ the scheme was not actually kept secret. Her assessment of the scheme’s administration was scathing, but particular ire appears to have been reserved for the police.

It was apparently police error that led to the collapse of the trial of John Downey, the Hyde Park bomber, and the subsequent scrutiny of the OTR scheme. According to a statement from PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton:

“Police wrongly informed the prosecuting authorities that an individual was not wanted, when there was information to suggest that he was wanted by the Metropolitan Police.  On that basis the prosecution for the Hyde Park bombing failed.”

It was the connexion between the OTR letters and the collapse of Downey’s trial that led to fears that the government had been issuing, knowingly or inadvertently, ‘amnesty letters’ which could prevent more victims of terrorism from seeing justice done.

Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland Secretary, has made it clear that this is not the case: according to the Belfast Telegraph, she claims that roughly 190 republican recipients of comfort letters will still face prosecution if the police have sufficient evidence to warrant one. Lady Justice Hallett’s enquiry has found that the letters do not offer immunity to prosecution, according to Villiers.

However, Villiers did tell the House that the scheme “lacked proper lines of accountability and safeguards”, that opportunities to rectify errors once they came to light were missed, and there was no risk assessment.

She further explained that, had the scheme been properly administered, Downey would not have received a letter at all. The collapse of his trial stemmed not from the receipt of a letter per se, but because the letter contained an “incorrect and misleading statement.”

The BBC has collated the responses of a number of Northern Irish politicians, public figures and victims of republican terror. For some reason they’ve got responses from all the leaders of NI’s governing parties except Sinn Fein, who are represented by Gerry Kelly MLA, who is famous mostly for taking a ride on the bonnet of a PSNI land rover.

Cameron stands his ground at the Royal Welsh Show

Wales flagIn what is apparently a first for a sitting Prime Minister, David Cameron visited the Royal Welsh Show in Powys this week. The Prime Minister, who was joined at the show by Stephen Crabb, the Welsh Secretary, and Liz Truss, the Environment Secretary, was officially there to launch a new ‘buy local’ scheme. This focus both on cajoling private sector businesses such as Tesco, but diverting hundreds of millions of pounds of public sector patronage away from foreign suppliers.

Naturally, the tensions between Cameron and the devolved administration of Labour’s Carwyn Jones. The Prime Minister stood his ground, saying that his recent attacks on the Welsh NHS were an “attack on the Welsh Government, not an attack on Wales.” It’s good that this line is being taken firmly and from the top – pretending that criticism of their misrule is ‘anti-Welsh’ is a nasty habit the Jones administration shares with their counterparts in Scottish Labour and the SNP.

He finished by urging the Welsh to ‘stick with him’ – to whatever extent they were with him to begin with. The Conservatives currently hold eight out of forty Welsh seats, a few – particularly Cardiff North, with a majority of 194 – by slender margins. Whether this will boost the prospects of those MPs is up for debate – even Wales Online’s Senedd correspondent, Graham Henry, appears to be in two minds about it. On the one hand, he maintains that his performance was “all about style, rather than substance, and speaks at a greater volume to the electorate beyond Wales than in it.” He continues:

“The Welsh NHS is a piñata to be beaten publicly for the benefit of putting the fear of God into voters in English swing seats. With the London press guns largely pointed at Carwyn Jones’ heart, with a comparatively miniscule PR effort countering them, Mr Cameron knows he has Welsh Labour over a barrel.”

Yet despite that, he also mentions that “the gradual erosion of Labour’s poll lead in Wales suggests the coalition’s message has had a significant effect.” So perhaps the Prime Minister is on to something after all.

On a final note: Henry points out that the Prime Minister wasn’t booed, which had concerned him. He thus had an easier time of the countryside than Owen Paterson, who claimed this week that he got more death threats in his time at DEFRA than during his entire stint at the Northern Ireland Office.

FSB advises Scots firms to register in England as Welsh group aims to poach Scottish business

Given the dry, economy-led nature of much of the independence debate to date, it’s not surprising that businesses have got dragged into the debate. This week saw two groups pitching advice to Scottish businesses in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote.

First, the Federation of Small Businesses has published a report into the consequences of separation for its members, apparently commissioned after business leaders complained about the poor quality of debate. One of its key recommendations is for Scottish firms to register in England/rUK, in order to be able to continue to trade here as a domestic business. The report also highlighted the potential risks of decreased trade with the rest of Britain.

Meanwhile, the Cardiff Business Council has set out to woo Scottish financial concerns to the Welsh capital in the event of independence. The CBC is writing to leading Scottish companies highlighting Cardiff’s designation as a finance-specific enterprise zone, and is targeting amongst others Scottish Widows, the Student Loan Company, RBS and Standard Life. Standard Life in particular has a rather strong anti-nationalist pedigree – as Alex Massie pointed out in the Spectator, it even publicly considered moving south of the border in response to the threat of devolution in 1992.

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