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Snouts in the oil-rich trough

Politicians of all parties are enjoying the junkets laid on by the autocratic Azerbaijani regime, reveals SOLOMON HUGHES

The Azerbaijani electoral commission announced the results of this month's presidential election before voting even began and it achieved this remarkable feat by releasing the voteless numbers on its official phone app.

It tried claiming that by mistake these were from the last election but they showed figures for this year's candidates and closely matched the official figures released post-election. The vote-free poll results from Azerbaijan showed that this year's candidate, Azerbaijan's autocratic ruler Ilham Aliyev, won by over 70 per cent. Just as he has for the past decade and his father did before him. Oops. What could be more embarrassing?

How about "hundreds" of Liberal, Labour and Tory MPs having a great big party to celebrate the country which has elections without votes?

That's what happened when the European Azerbaijan Society, the key propaganda front for the repressive government of the oil-rich and democracy-poor nation, held events at all three party conferences. The society is run by chairman Tale Heydarov and his brother Nijat Heydarov, sons of Azerbaijan's "Minister of Emergency Situations" Kamaladdin Heydarov, a key ally of President Aliyev.

According to European Azerbaijan Society press releases, more than 200 Lib Dems and the same number of "Labourites" attended their conference events, while "over 400 Conservatives got into the groove" at their Tory Party "jazz reception."

Given the Azerbaijan government's tendency to fake political numbers, we should be a bit suspicious of such rounded-up numbers. But even if they are exaggerations, it is still worrying that a vote-fixing autocrat gets so many of our supposed democrats literally dancing to his tune.

Let's start with the Liberals. According to the Azerbaijan Society leading Lib Dems such as Simon Hughes, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, MPs John Leech and John Pugh along with Lord Newby, Liberal Democrat Chief Whip in the House of Lords, came to their party at their recent Glasgow conference.

How so? Azerbaijan is anything but liberal - or democratic.

According to Freedom House, a mainstream pro-US "civil rights" organisation, Azerbaijan is "not an electoral democracy" and its showcase elections are "neither free nor fair."

There have been pro-democracy protests but "authorities in 2012 used violent tactics to disperse anti-government rallies, detained more than 70 demonstrators and journalists and filed dubious criminal charges against government critics." Azerbaijan isn't the worst repressive government in the world but Simon Hughes et al were still dancing and drinking for a dictator.

At the Labour conference the Azerbaijan lobbyists claim that peers, MPs, shadow ministers and trade unionists piled in for their elegant piss-up, although they could only name Bradford MP Gerry Sutcliffe MP. He told the reception that Britain is the "biggest investor" in Azerbaijan and there are strong economic, cultural and sporting ties.

Which makes partying for a dictator totally OK, obviously.

At the Conservative conference Christopher Pincher MP and former Energy Minister Charles Hendry MP were the star guests - something of a comedown from the years the Azerbaijan Society could claim Ken Clarke as its big name friend.

The Azerbaijani lobbyist told Tory partygoers that the country is "a Western-facing, tolerant country. In particular, the UK is important to Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan is important to the UK. Much of this is attributable to the operations of the BP-led Azerbaijan International Operating Company." Obviously, the stuff about tolerance means nothing to the people thrown in jail by President Aliyev. The stuff about oil is real. They've got the oil. They've got the dictator who will do a deal with BP to sell it. And they've got the money to throw a big party for each of our three political parties.

 

Last month nine staff from the Slough office of scandal-hit workfare firm A4e were charged with fraud. This is the latest in a long series of complaints about cheating and dismal service from A4e, which relies on the government for almost all its £194 million turnover.

The A4e staff are charged with defrauding the government's "Inspire to Aspire" training scheme for the unemployed by claiming bonuses for people they did not help. A4e chief executive Andrew Dutton said "There is no place for dishonesty or wrongdoing at A4e."

But that just isn't true.

In 2010 A4e was called before the House of Common's work and pensions select committee. Its written submission admitted it had "found that individual performance incentives, whilst effective in delivering short-term results, may have been a driver for individual malpractice." In short, its bonuses encouraged some staff to fiddle the figures. 

A4e executive Rob Murdoch appeared in person at the 2010 hearings, telling the MPs: "In relation to perverse incentives, we need to take some criticism" because "individual bonuses linked performance which may be a background to the fraud that was perpetrated." Its bonus system encouraged staff into fraud.

A4e's solution was to shift from individual to group bonuses, partially "as a safeguard against individuals making fraudulent job outcome claims." But the Slough case suggests bonus-driven staff turned to group fraud.

The alleged fraud by A4e staff happens in a firm claiming millions in cash for "employment" programmes even though official reports show it has rarely been any good at it - it is one of the worst-performing companies on the government's privatised work programme.

Both parties treat "benefit fraud" like the worst social evil but the charges that A4e staff were involved in benefit fraud has not stopped top politicians appearing on A4e's platforms.

At the recent Labour conference, shadow employment minister Stephen Timms took delegates to A4e's Brighton offices to "celebrate" the firm's success. Labour harried the Conservatives over their links with A4e, after PM David Cameron made A4e owner Emma Harrison his personal adviser. Timms's visit suggests a Labour government will actually stick with A4e.

At the Tory conference in Manchester outgoing employment minister Mark Hoban spoke for A4e at a fringe meeting paid for by the firm. He was joined by Andrew Selous MP, PPS to Employment Secretary Iain Duncan Smith MP, with Selous describing A4e's work as "inspirational."

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