British taxpayers are helping to pay the salaries of jailed bomb makers.
Why do politicians always resign over the minor things, while getting away with the major ones? Swear at a policeman, for instance, and after a month of harrying from the media and your political opponents, you will finally stand down.
Waste millions of pounds on a taxpayer-funded self-aggrandizement scheme, on the other hand, and you will not only get away with it, but be praised. Such is the case with Andrew Mitchell, former minister at the U.K. Department for International Development (DfID) and now—after an angry altercation with a Downing Street policeman—former chief whip.Swearing at a policeman is bad. But far worse is what Mr. Mitchell presided over at DfID and what his former colleague Alan Duncan—who still has his job—allows to go on, even now.
A report by Palestinian Media Watch recently revealed that British taxpayers have been paying salaries to terrorists. It revealed that £3 million every month is paid by the Palestinian Authority (PA) in salaries to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The salaries come from the PA's general budget. That "general budget" is kindly provided by the U.K., among other EU countries.
Many British taxpayers, struggling to pay their family's way through a recession, might rightly wonder why their money is going to pay as much as £2,000 a month to people serving the longest sentences—those who have targeted Israeli buses and other civilian targets with suicide bombers, for instance. That is higher than the average wage in nearly all of Britain. You might be forgiven for wondering, if you were a struggling teaching assistant in the North of England, why failing to tick "suicide bomber" on your careers form should have left you so much worse off than a terrorist in the Middle East.
Fortunately such people can be consoled by the limitless complacency of the international development minister. For after the facts about the DfID budget were revealed, Alan Duncan rejected them in the following tones: "If these claims were true, this would be a matter of very serious concern for me and the Department."
"However," Mr. Duncan said, "I am pleased to reassure you that we have investigated the matter fully and can confirm that the allegations in Palestinian Media Watch's report are both inaccurate and misleading." The payments were not in fact salaries, he claimed, but rather "social assistance programs to provide welfare payments."
How nice it must be to be Mr. Duncan. So clever, so satisfied and so wrong. For this week it became clear quite how little Mr. Duncan knows or cares about the uses to which he puts our taxpayers' money.
It is possible of course that on this occasion he does not care. When it comes to the Middle East, Mr. Duncan's views are well-known. As well as being fond of some of the ropier regimes in the region, he has expressed a long-held disdain for the region's only truly free state.
Just a year ago Mr. Duncan dragged his department into a row when its website posted a video of him divesting himself of some of his franker opinions. Standing beside Israel's security fence—built, successfully, to stop a spate of suicide bombing—Mr. Duncan described the fence as a "land grab," claimed that Israelis deliberately stole water from Palestinians, and said that the land in question did not belong to the Jewish state. The latter point was spat out by Mr. Duncan with such ferocity—the video has since been removed—as to make it perfectly clear this was something Mr. Duncan felt, as well as thought.
But perhaps one should be more generous and assume that Mr. Duncan simply had not known what he was talking about on the subject of taxpayers' money or the security fence. DfID spends around £86 million each year in the Palestinian areas. Around £30 million of this goes to the PA's general budget, from which the terrorists receive their salaries. And PMW's latest report provides exactly the evidence Mr. Duncan said did not exist. The PA itself refers to the payments to prisoners not as "welfare payments," as Mr. Duncan would have it, but as a "monthly salary."
In addition, there is no possibility that the salary reflects the prisoner's family's welfare needs because the payments bear no relation to either the prisoner's marital status or social welfare situation. What they do relate to is the length of the sentence, with those convicted and sentenced for the worst crimes receiving the highest payments.
So there the situation lies. If there is one thing we can be fairly sure of, it is that Mr. Duncan will suffer little or no political inconvenience either for the liberality with which he distorts the facts or that with which he distributes taxpayers' money. A slip of the tongue might lead to disgrace. A slip of the pen does not, even if it occurs over the nation's checkbook.
The thinking behind the increase in Britain's overseas aid budget during a time of recession seemed to be something like this: that the developing world would learn to love Britain if we gave them more money. Unlike that awful old-fashioned hard power (itself going through debilitating cuts) this soft power seemed likely to actually enhance Britain's standing in the world.
There are plenty of reasons to doubt that. But what a curious situation we then find ourselves in. For at the exact same time as Britain is drawing down its defense spending, and as the government is eviscerating the armed forces it still relies on, it is increasing the spending on salaries for terrorists and others who attack our allies.
I suppose we shall have to wait for Mr. Duncan to have a petulant run-in with a policeman before his own career suffers in any way.