Nearly 50 executives at the bureaucracy which runs the NHS earn more than the prime minister, the Guardian can disclose, in revelations that have sparked a row over pay in the health service.

A total of 48 senior personnel at NHS England earn in excess of David Cameron’s £142,500 a year salary.

Sir David Nicholson, the NHS’s embattled chief executive who is due to retire next March, earns the most – £211,249. Five executives earn over £180,000, including Prof Sir Bruce Keogh, the high-profile national medical director, who takes home £190,000-£195,000.

A total of 291 earn over £100,000 a year, meaning that almost one in 20 of the organisation’s 6,115 staff earns at least a six-figure sum. The 291 “very senior managers”, who are a combination of managers (62%) and doctors (38%), represent 4.7% of its overall workforce.

NHS England has responded to Guardian requests for details of how many of its staff are high earners days before it reveals for the first time, through the Cabinet Office website, exactly what each of its 298 very senior managers earns, and names them all, in an unprecedented act of transparency by the NHS.

The organisation, created by the coalition’s controversial NHS shake-up in England in April, has a budget of £96bn. It, rather than the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is now responsible day-to-day for running hospital trusts and GP-led clinical commissioning groups (CCGs), delivering key NHS targets and improving quality of care.

Critics questioned why NHS England had so many senior personnel on high salaries, especially when the service is seeking £20bn of efficiency savings and many hospitals are reducing their workforce.

Matthew Sinclair, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “It is astonishing how many NHS England staff are earning more than the prime minister and that nearly 300 are on six-figure salaries. At a time when budgets are so tight, people expect the NHS to be concentrating its scarce resources on delivering frontline medical care, not lining the pockets of managers.”

Labour said the public would struggle to comprehend the large number of highly paid NHS bosses. “David Cameron wasted £3bn on a reorganisation to create this quango and these figures reveal only a fraction of its running costs. Patients will find it hard to understand when nurses on the frontline face pay freezes and P45s,” said Jamie Reed, a shadow health minister.

Stephen Moir, NHS England’s director of people, said the salaries were justified. “We are confident the salaries offered are value for money for the taxpayer and enable us to attract and retain the right quality of staff to these critical jobs. Patients would expect and deserve the best people we can employ to lead NHS England, both clinically and in managerial roles,” he said.

“Importantly, many of these senior staff choose to work for us on lower salaries than they might have attracted elsewhere, because of their passion for the NHS and for improving health outcomes for patients,” added Moir.

NHS England claims to have only half the number of managers in senior roles that there were in predecessor organisations before the April reorganisation, which saw many top bosses paid off.

Pay levels at NHS England have been “thoroughly assessed and scrutinised, by the Department of Health and the Treasury, where appropriate” to help reassure the public, an organisation insider added.

New official figures covering the NHS’s 1.18-million-strong workforce in England show that senior managers in the wider NHS – those helping to run hospitals, CCGs and mental health trusts – saw their pay rise by 1.9% between 2012 and 2013, more than any other group of staff, to an average of £75,759.

The nine highest-paid people at NHS England

1. Sir David Nicholson, chief executive – £211,249.

2. Paul Baumann, chief financial officer – £200k-£205k

3. Dame Barbara Hakin, acting chief operating officer/deputy chief executive – £195k-£200k.

4. Prof Sir Bruce Keogh, national medical director – £190k-£195k.

5. Tim Kelsey, national director for patients and information – £180k-£185k.

6. Bill McCarthy, national director of policy – £175k-£180k.

Joint 7. Jane Cummings, chief nursing officer – £165k-£170k.

Joint 7. Rosamond Roughton, acting national director of clinical commissioning – £165k-£170k.

9. Jo-Anne Wass, national director of HR and organisational development – £155k-£160k.

(Source: Hansard, 12 September 2013)

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Hassan Rouhani sets out his vision for a new and free Iran

Posted by MereNews On September - 19 - 2013 ADD COMMENTS

President Hassan Rouhani has signalled his intention to lead a new Iran on to the international stage at the United Nations next week, laying out a manifesto for personal freedom at home and compromise abroad.

“We want the people in their private life to be completely free,” the newly elected president told NBC News, after a string of prisoner releases. He also pledged to create a citizens’ rights commission “in the near future”.

“In today’s world, having access to information and the right of free dialogue and the right to think freely is the right of all people, including the people of Iran,” Rouhani said.

Rouhani also vowed that Iran would never seek nuclear weapons and insisted his government had “complete authority” to resolve the 11-year international impasse over Iran’s nuclear aspirations.

The bold rhetoric, backed up by a series of concrete steps taken with the apparent backing of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has raised hopes of major diplomatic breakthroughs in the coming months, affecting the long-stalled nuclear negotiations and perhaps the Syrian conflict too.

Optimism before Rouhani’s debut on the world stage at the UN general assembly on Tuesday is tempered among western diplomats by uncertainty over the readiness of Khamenei to accept significant limits on the nuclear programme, long cherished by the regime as central to national prestige and dignity.

Observers of the long deadlock between Iran and international community over Iran’s uranium enrichment voiced concern over the west’s ability to respond to Rouhani’s overtures quickly enough to bolster his still-fragile control over the machinery of government

“I think he has significant leeway to reach a deal, but that this window of opportunity is limited. The approach must be step-by-step, but we need to see tangible progress in the months to come, otherwise hardliners will undercut Rouhani,” said Mohammad Ali Shabani, a Tehran-based analyst.

Rouhani, a Glasgow-educated pragmatist and former nuclear negotiator who decisively won presidential elections in June, has orchestrated a charm offensive before the general assembly, which his government clearly views as a critical moment for escaping the isolation exacerbated by his mercurial predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is due to meet the British foreign secretary, William Hague, and the EU foreign policy chief, Lady Ashton, on Monday, to lay the groundwork for Rouhani’s general assembly speech the next day.

But Zarif arrived in New York five days early to network with diplomatic contacts largely made when he was ambassador to the UN a decade ago, under Iran’s last moderate government. At a banquet on Wednesday, the deputy UN secretary general, Jan Eliason, reportedly hailed his quarter-century friendship with Zarif and welcomed Iranian willingness to cooperate.

Iranians work at an internet cafe in Tehran
Iranians are hopeful Rouhani will liberalise access to social media and websites. Photograph: Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP

Over the past few weeks, Iranian officials have sent signals that they would be open to significant compromises on the nuclear programme that could pave the way to a deal.

The head of the Iranian atomic organisation, Ali Akbar Salehi, suggested recently the country could accept the “additional protocol” of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which allows inspectors to visit sites other than those declared by the government as nuclear-related. That step is seen as essential by the IAEA in strengthened international confidence that there is no covert weapons programme running in parallel with the civil nuclear project.

Diplomats and observers said the contours of a potential breakthrough nuclear deal were increasingly clear. Iran would agree to limit enrichment of uranium to 5% purity (good enough for nuclear power stations, but far short of weapons grade), get rid of its stockpile of 20%-enriched uranium, and agree to the additional protocol.

In return, the west would lift a significant part of its sanctions regime and recognise Iran’s right to enrich uranium as part of a complete nuclear fuel cycle.

Shabani said he thought such a package would be acceptable to Tehran. However, it could still be extremely difficult to reach a deal given a long history of mutual distrust. The sequencing of mutual concessions would be subject of delicate negotiations as would be their irreversibility.

In such talks, the White House would be hamstrung by the fact that most US sanctions are in the gift of Congress over which President Obama has limited sway.

“In Washington there is a question of who is in charge of Iran policy,” said Jim Walsh, an expert on the Iranian nuclear programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Obama could use presidential waivers to suspend sanctions, but those waivers could subsequently be overridden by Congress, and would be consequently be of limited value to Tehran.

“This is going to question worth watching. If we go down this path and we can’t deliver we are going to confirm all of Iran’s worst suspicions about double-dealing,” Walsh said.For the time being, Rouhani appears to have the supreme leader’s backing. Earlier this week, Khamenei, talked about the virtues of “heroic leniency” in diplomacy in a speech to the revolutionary guard that was widely seen as providing Rouhani the political space to make a nuclear deal.

Rouhani stressed the point in his NBC interview, saying: “In its nuclear programme, this government enters with full power and has complete authority. We have sufficient political latitude to solve this problem.”Observers fear that backing could evaporate if Rouhani is unable to deliver swift economic improvements in the form of loosening the sanctions which straitjacket on Iran. There are clear signs on the domestic stage at least that the supreme leader has delegated real power to the new president which Rouhani is rapidly putting into effect.

Iranians have seen an almost daily series of changes that add up to a steady transformation of society since Rouhani’s inauguration last month. A new pro-reform and pragmatic cabinet has restructured the senior management levels of major ministries, especially in the oil ministry, an important lever of power in a hydrocarbon-dependent economy.

Last week, the ministry for culture and Islamic guidance ordered the re-opening of House of Cinema, home of the country’s independent film industry, which was shut down under Ahmadinejad.

Web users in Iran report a significant improvement in the internet speeds and availability as several new ministers like Zarif have embraced Facebook and Twitter, triggering speculation that the authorities will lift the filtering of social media.

The release this week of a number of prominent activists – including the human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh – has followed Rouhani’s appointment of Seyed Mahmoud Alavi as intelligence minister. He has pledged to stay out Iranians private lives, and invited Iranians who left the country after the 2009 disputed elections to return provided they had not committed a criminal offence.

Restrictions on local news agencies and newspapers seem to have eased recently with a few going as far as breaking the taboo on reporting the plight of political prisoners or the house arrests of opposition leaders.

Thursday’s headline in Tehran reflected the current feel-good atmosphere in Tehran. Etemaad, a reformist newspaper, carried a headline saying: “Dismissal, freedom and championship,” referring accordingly to the dismissal of the hardline head of Iran’s Azad University, the release of prisoners and a victory of Iran’s national freestyle wrestlers in world championship.

Jafar Tofighi, the new acting minister of science, research and technology, has also replaced hardliners at the top of Iran’s major universities and signalled that students previously ejected from universities as a result of political activism can now re-register.

Lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh smiles at her home in Tehran
Lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh smiles at her home in Tehran, after being freed after three years in prison on politically motivated charges. Photograph: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

Ali Alizadeh, an Iranian political analyst based in London, said the governments reform were rooted in a new spirit of pragmatism forged by sanctions, deep social and political discontent and the weakening of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

“The supreme leader … has implicitly restrained the Iranian hardliners and has given theological licence to retreat from what previously held the ideological edifice of the regime together: nuclear programme and lack of relations with the US,” Alizadeh said.

“Unlike the last three governments, for the first time, the supreme leader, the government, major political factions of the regime and significant parts of the Iranian people are in temporary unison over a few important issues.”

Mohammad-Taghi Karroubi, son of the opposition leader under house arrest, Mehdi Karroubi, said the prisoner releases would strengthen Rouhani’s position at the UN and give him more credibility. He did not think his father or fellow opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, would be released immediately but thought the steps taken by the government so far paved the way for their freedom.

Rouhani’s coups

Softened diplomacy

He heralds improved diplomatic relations with the west by an exchange of letters with Barack Obama and David Cameron in early August. Both Iran’s supreme leader and Rouhani subsequently strike a newly conciliatory tone, seeming to signal Iran’s readiness for a fresh chapter in diplomacy.

Moderates promoted

Rouhani appoints a new cabinet consisting of pro-reform moderates and pragmatists, naming the veteran US-educated Iranian diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif as foreign minister. Several key officials belonging to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s era are dismissed from posts in major ministries.

Censorship eased

On 12 September Iran’s independent House of Cinema – the main film guild, shut down under Ahmadinejad – is reopened. Students previously banned from universities because of political activity are allowed to continue their education. Formerly tight restrictions on the media are eased, with some journalists reporting on the situation of political prisoners.

Women’s rights advanced

Following the appointment of Marzieh Afkham as Iran’s first female foreign ministry spokesperson and two women as deputies to the prime minister, 24-year-old Shirin Gerami this week became the first Iranian woman to race in triathlon under the Islamic republic’s flag.

Political prisoners released

On Wednesday leading human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh is released from jail, along with a number of other prominent political activists. This follows the easing of the terms of the house arrest of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, allowing them more frequent family visits.

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Last spring the City of London was rife with rumours about a trader at the vast JP Morgan investment bank who was making such huge bets on the highly complex – and deeply risky – derivatives markets that he was known as “the London Whale” or “Voldemort”. After racking up losses of $6bn (£3.7bn) from his reckless trading, the London Whale blew another hole in the bank on Thursday – landing the Wall Street firm with one of the largest fines ever levied against a single bank.

The Whale was a French-born trader, Bruno Iksil. When stories of his dangerous dealings and the scale of the potential black hole first surfaced, JP Morgan’s chairman Jamie Dimon, then Wall Street’s most respected banker, shrugged off the losses off with a phrase that will haunt his career: “It’s a complete tempest in a teapot,” he insisted.

On Thursday, however, the bank agreed to pay some $920m in penalties to US and UK regulators over the “unsafe and unsound practices” that had allowed the bank’s losses to balloon to $6.2bn. The near record fine comes as former JP Morgan bankers face criminal action in the US and it has all but sunk Dimon’s once promising political career. It is also just one of a series of costly and damaging scandals that are rocking the financial institution.

The US’s biggest bank must now hand over $300m to the US office of the comptroller of the currency, $200m to the Federal Reserve, $200m to the securities and exchange commission (SEC) and £137.6m to the UK’s City watchdog, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). One other US regulator, the commodity futures trading commission, did not sign off on the fine and is still investigating whether the bank is guilty of market manipulation.

JP Morgan admitted wrongdoing as part of the settlement – an unusual step for a financial firm in the crosshairs of multiple legal actions. This week, in a letter to staff, Dimon warned them that, even after the fine, there was “more to come”.

The opinions of the regulators were uniformly damning. “JP Morgan failed to keep watch over its traders as they overvalued a very complex portfolio to hide massive losses,” co-director of the SEC’s division of enforcement, George Canellos, said. Senior management “broke a cardinal rule … and deprived its board of critical information,” he said. The bank was accused of “unsafe and unsound practices”.

The FCA, levying its largest fine to date, said: “The firm’s failings were extremely serious. The losses were caused by a high-risk trading strategy, weak management of that trading and an inadequate response to important information which should have notified the firm of the huge risks present.”

The Whale’s losses are not JP Morgan’s only problem. The bank emerged relatively unscathed from the financial crisis, leaving Dimon as the only untarnished king of Wall Street, but the recovery has been less kind. JP Morgan has already faced vast fines for what became known as robosigning – automated procedures which forced thousands of US homeowners out of their houses without following the correct procedures.

On Thursday the bank also agreed to pay $389m to settle allegations that its credit card customers were duped into purchasing services they did not want. At least eight federal agencies are investigating the bank on issues ranging from its mortgage lending practices to its role in fraudster Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Regulators are reported to be pressing for a $6bn penalty to settle allegations that the bank mis-sold $33bn of bonds backed by sub-prime mortgages to US government-controlled mortgage companies in the run-up to the financial crisis.

In an indictment unsealed in federal court this week Javier Martin-Artajo, who oversaw trading strategy at the bank’s London office, and Julien Grout, a trader who worked for him, were charged with securities fraud, conspiracy, filing false books and records, wire fraud and making false filings to the SEC.

Dimon has learned from his “teapot” comment and is now expressing contrition for the bank’s debacle. “We have accepted responsibility and acknowledged our mistakes from the start, and we have learned from them and worked to fix them,” he said. This year the bank has hired 3,000 staff to work on “compliance” – or working within the rules.

But reaction to the fine was mixed. John Coffee, professor at Columbia Law School, said: “The victims of this enormous loss were the shareholders of JP Morgan and the remedy is for those shareholders to pay $900m plus in fines. It’s not just adding insult to injury, it’s adding injury to injury.”

No senior bank official has been charged with wrongdoing and Coffee described those indicted so far as “relatively small fish”. He added: “Ideally the regulators should fine actual individuals who are responsible. But time and again the SEC settles for large penalties and gives virtual immunity to some officers.”

Record fines


Five banks – Wells Fargo, JP Morgan, Citigroup, Bank of America and Ally Financial – hit in 2012 with bill totalling £15.6bn for abusing the procedures to repossess homes.

$9.3bn 13 Banks, including JP Morgan, Wells Fargo and Bank of America, ordered this year to pay equivalent in cash and other help to homeowners for abusing procedures to repossess their homes. $1.9bn

HSBC’s 2012 fine for failing to prevent money laundering on a massive scale.


UBS (Switzerland) was fined this much last year for manipulating Libor, the interbank lending rate.


10 banks, including JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, hit in 2003 with fines for serious conflicts of interest between their research for investors and their investment banking businesses.

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The White House has hinted at the possibility of a historic meeting with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani during his visit to the United Nations next week, praising what it called “welcome rhetoric” from Iran on nuclear weapons.

In the latest sign of a thaw in relations between the two countries, White House spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged “dramatic” shifts in Tehran’s language but stressed the need to see it matched by actions.

On Wednesday Rouhani gave an interview to NBC insisting the country had no intention of putting its civilian nuclear programme to military ends and suggested he had political authority inside Iran to negotiate a solution to a standoff with the west over the programme.

Earlier, the reform-minded president also agreed to release a series of political prisoners, raising hopes in Washington that he was gaining traction over more hardline elements in Tehran.

The two developments produced a positive response from the White House on Thursday, but administration officials remain cautious about the extent to which he can act independently of Iran’s surpreme leader Ali Khamenei.

“We obviously notice a significant change in language and tone, it’s rather dramatic, but it’s important we don’t just take Iran’s word for it,” said Carney.

“The release of political prisoners is a welcome action. The welcome rhetoric over nuclear weapons is just that. Words are not a substitute for action and we need to see follow-through.”

Both Obama and Rouhani will be in New York at the same time next week for the United Nations general assembly and hopes are rising that the two may meet to discuss what progress on nuclear weapons would be required for the US to lift its crippling sanctions regime against Iran.

Carney again hinted this was possible, but insisted the US had always been willing to talk to Iran about ending the alleged nuclear weapons programme. Asked if the two leaders would meet in New York, he replied: “We will see. It has always been possible.”

He added: “The president has said all along that he would be willing to have that meeting providing that Iran demonstrates its seriousness in dealing with its nuclear weapons programme.”

Next week’s UN meeting is shaping up to be a crucial test of American foreign policy in the region, with the security council also due to discuss action over Syria’s chemical weapons programme.

On Thursday, secretary of state John Kerry made an impassioned plea for the UN to stop debating whether Syria had used chemical weapons and move on to what to do about it.

In a sign that last week’s deal in Geneva for Syria to hand over its weapons may not have been enough to overcome diplomatic opposition from Moscow, Kerry gave an unexpected press conference to press home the significance of the UN report on chemical weapons use in Damascus. “This fight about Syria’s chemical weapons is not a game. It’s real. It’s important,” said Kerry.

“Please. This isn’t complicated. The security council must be prepared to act next week. Time is short. Let’s not spend time debating what we already know,” he added.

“We need to make the Geneva agreement meaningful.”

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Nasa‘s Curiosity rover hasn’t discovered any signs of methane in the atmosphere of Mars, a finding that does not bode well for the possibility that microbes capable of producing the gas could be living below the planet’s surface, scientists said Thursday.

Since landing in Gale Crater last year, the car-size rover has gulped Mars air and scanned it with a tiny laser in search of methane. On Earth, most methane gas is a byproduct of life, spewed when animals digest or plants decay.

Curiosity lacks the tools to directly hunt for simple life, past or present. But scientists had high hopes that the rover would inhale methane, after orbiting spacecraft and Earth-based telescopes detected plumes of the gas several years ago.

“If you had microbial life somewhere on Mars that was really healthy and cranking away, you might see some of the signatures of that in the atmosphere,” said mission scientist Paul Mahaffy.

During Curiosity’s first eight months on the red planet, it sniffed the air during the day and at night as the season changed from spring to summer.

“Every time we looked, we never saw it,” said Christopher Webster, of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who led the research published online in the journal Science.

Webster said while the result was “disappointing in many ways”, the hunt for the elusive gas continues. While methane is linked to living things, it can also be made by non-biological processes.

Michael Mumma of Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center previously noticed a mysterious belch of methane from three regions in Mars’ western hemisphere. Mumma, who had no role in the latest study, said he stood by his observations.

Earlier this month, Curiosity reached its first rest stop in its long trek toward Mount Sharp, a mountain rising from Gale Crater near the equator. The rover will take monthly readings of the Martian atmosphere during the road trip, expected to last almost a year.

Curiosity previously found evidence of an ancient environment that could have once been suitable for microscopic life. Scientists still hope to uncover signs of organic molecules, considered the chemical building blocks of life, at the base of Mount Sharp.

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Virgin Media to cut 600 top and middle management posts

Posted by MereNews On September - 19 - 2013 ADD COMMENTS

Virgin Media is to cut 600 posts among its top and middle management, as cable giant Liberty Global looks to make its new £15bn acquisition into a more “agile and efficient” business.

The UK cable company is understood to have informed its 15,000 staff on Thursday of a 90-day consultation period to cut about 4% of its headcount.

Liberty Global, which owns cable businesses across Europe and in central and South America, is stripping senior and middle management out of its new UK subsidiary to remove duplication of roles and cut costs.

It is understood that there are about 120 top-level senior and executive directors at Virgin Media, with the redundancy process set to reduce that number by 25%.

Virgin Media’s customer-facing teams – including centre workers and engineers – will not be affected by the programme of cuts.

The cuts follow the appointment in May of new Virgin Media chief executive Tom Mockridge, the former head of News UK and Sky Italia, and longtime Liberty Global senior executive Dana Strong to chief operating officer in June.

“Like organisations across the public and private sector, Virgin Media is making sure it has the structure it needs to meet the needs of its customers,” said Mockridge. “These proposals are designed to take advantage of the opportunities that come with being part of the world’s largest cable operator and create an organisation that’s fit for growth.”

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The first response to the news that Nick Chipman from Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, ordered every item on his local McDonald’s menu to create a 20,000-calorie McEverything Burger is: they sure are starved of fun things to do in Wauwatosa. After that, it’s all pure rubbernecking. Who in their right mind would spend $140 (£88) in McDonald’s when they could splash out on something that’s, y’know, nice to eat?

Some fast-food venues such as the cult In-N-Out Burger in California, have a so-called secret menu that enables you to order ever bigger combinations of patties and buns so you can claim to be in the know. But most of what’s called fast food menu “hacking” – ordering off the rigid menu to enhance the experience – is about attempting to get more for less, rather than just throwing money at the issue.

Naturally, the “skinny” – generally for people who aren’t – is shared online. One site reports that you can get a poor man’s Big Mac by ordering the much cheaper McDouble – two patties in one bun – and then asking them to substitute the ketchup and mustard with lettuce and Big Mac sauce. Hey presto! An almost Big Mac at a fraction of the price. At the US chain Jack in the Box you are advised to eschew the $4 double bacon cheeseburger and instead order two of the $1 Junior bacon cheeseburgers and put them together. Are you following this?

In this country we have our own options. Subway claims you can have everything any way you wish. Theoretically – it’s only a thought experiment, thank God – that allows you to put together an egg and bacon Sub with cheese, olives and pickles and a honey mustard sauce. Which sounds less like lunch and more like an arrestable offence. Plus, however clever you think you’re being, it’s still a God awful, sugary-bunned Subway. No escaping that. At KFC you can have the pleasure of throwing their carefully regimented portion control out of whack by refusing drumsticks and insisting only on breast pieces. Of such small victories life is made. And then there’s Burger King, which takes all the fun out of hacking by actually inviting you to screw with their menu.

The fact is, though, that fast food hacking is mostly an American phenomenon, which is hardly surprising given that mucking with the menu goes on at all levels of the business from high to low. There, the menu is simply an opening negotiating position, with various dishes just waiting to be shifted to “the side” or off the plate altogether. You can try this in the UK but be aware that our less flexible chefs might decide to hack your meal quietly for themselves, and in their own special way. Here’s a better idea: go somewhere that’s serving stuff you know you actually want to eat.

In Britain we are rather more refined about these things. Witness teenagers Cameron Ford and Adam Welland who, a few days ago, turned up at their local McDonald’s in Kingston wearing collar and tie, spread the table with linen, candle-style lights, wine glasses and gold plates to eat off with real metal cutlery so they could enjoy their hamburger experience. They tweeted photographs, saying that they were indeed “lovin’ it”, despite some of the staff thinking that they were, as they say, mercilessly taking the piss. That, my friends, is how to hack a fast food experience.

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Police chiefs have made public sections of a private letter that was sent to Doreen Lawrence, the mother of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence.

In the letter, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Scotland Yard commissioner, wrote that : “Records exist which indicate that undercover officers were deployed into supporters and campaigns connected with Stephen’s family.”

The release of the letter was prompted by an interview on Channel Four News last night by Peter Francis, the former undercover spy who has become a whistleblower.

That interview can be seen here, and a Daily Telegraph report on the contents of the letter is here.

The admission was made to Mrs Lawrence after claims, made public in June by The Guardian and Channel Four’s Dispatches programme, by Francis.

What the letter does is to confirm one of the central claims made by Francis.

He had said that he and other spies from his former unit, the Special Demonstration Squad, were tasked with infiltrating groups that were supporting the Lawrence family’s campaign for a proper police investigation into Stephen’s murder. He describes this in our book Undercover.

The question that is now contentious is what is the proper way to investigate the activities of the undercover officers, particularly another of Francis’s claims – that he was asked to find information that could be used to discredit the campaign by Stephen Lawrence’s family.

Police chiefs insist that the best method of investigating remains the internal police inquiry that is being led by Derbyshire’s Chief Constable, Mick Creedon.

However Doreen and Neville Lawrence, Stephen’s parents, say that they have no confidence in the internal inquiry.

Doreen’s lawyer, Imran Khan, told Channel Four News last night :”What we are concerned about, and certainly what Doreen Lawrence is concerned about, is if he (Francis) goes to the police behind closed doors, and gives information which is relevant to what she wants to know and what the public wants to know, we don’t know how that information is going to be treated and how he is going to be treated.”

“Now what we all know over the last twenty years is that the Lawrence family have been given assurances and reassurances that the police, the Met police in particular, are dealing with their case properly, and time and time again, that particular statement has been borne out to be completely untrue.”

“What we want him (Francis) to do is to give his evidence in open so that everyone knows what he is saying and everyone knows how he is treated.”

He added that the police’s admission on the deployment of undercover officers into the family’s supporters confirmed “that what Peter Francis was saying is accurate”.

Mrs Lawrence is backing Francis’s call for a public inquiry where he and others can give evidence under oath.

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The Greek prime minister, Antonis Samaras, has appealed for calm, urging people to settle “differences democratically” after the murder of a leading leftwing musician allegedly at the hands of a member of the far right Golden Dawn party unleashed a wave of violent clashes overnight.

As thousands gathered in Athens to attend the funeral of the anti-fascist hip-hop artist Pavlos Fyssas, the conservative leader said his ruling coalition would not tolerate neo-Nazis destabilising the debt-stricken country.

“This is not a time for internal disputes or tension. We all know our country is at an extremely critical point,” he told Greeks in a televised addressed referring to the bankrupt nation’s worst financial crisis in modern times.

“Any political differences should be resolved through democratic dialogue … not through violence, and even more, not through blood.”

Pavlos Fyssas
Pavlos Fyssas, known as Killah P, performing in 2011. Photograph: John D Carnessiotis/AP

With tensions running high between Greeks on the left and right following the stabbing of 34-year-old Fyssas, the beleaguered government has pledged to clamp down on Golden Dawn, arguably Europe‘s most extreme far-right group.

More than 300 attacks – starting with the murder of a Bangladeshi immigrant in May 2011 – have been attributed to the openly racist organisation whose meteoric ascent on the back of economic desperation has ensured it is now Greece‘s third-biggest party and fastest-growing political force. Recent opinion polls have shown it has the support of 15% of voters – almost double the figure it won in elections 14 months ago.

Highlighting the febrile mood, the deputy prime minister, Evangelos Venizelos, whose socialist Pasok party is the government’s junior partner, insisted the ultra-nationalists “should be dealt with as a criminal organisation” because violence was their modus operandi.

Samaras’s centre-right New Democracy party has been accused of soft-peddling on Golden Dawn for fear of further alienating traditional conservative voters who have migrated to the group since Greece plunged into fiscal chaos almost four years ago. In recent months ruling conservatives have ratcheted up their rhetoric in a bid to lure voters back.

“The Greek government has been inexcusably tolerant with the phenomenon that is Golden Dawn,” a senior official told the Guardian.

“It is time that they be declared illegal. But the truth is, under the Greek constitution, it is very hard to ban Golden Dawn. The most we can do is apply the law when it is violated.”

On Wednesday, the public order minister Nikos Dendias suggested the government would seek to ban the group by revising existing legislation.

Under government order Greek police continued to conduct raids on Golden Dawn offices around the country in an effort to find incriminating evidence of their violent behaviour. But the extremists, who deny neo-Nazi links despite many privately applauding Adolf Hitler, vehemently rejected any involvement in the killing.

Addressing parliament earlier on Thursday, the party’s spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris said: “I want to remind all those in this house who pretend they are stupid and don’t understand that from the first moment we have condemned this criminal act. In no way does our party have anything to do with it.”

Earlier, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, Golden Dawn’s leader, called on all of Greece’s political parties to “assume their responsibilities and not create a climate of civil war by giving a political character to a tragic event”.

But the murder has clearly shocked Greeks, already suffering the corrosive effects of six years of recession and punishing austerity.

Mourners shouted: “The people don’t forget. Death to fascism,” as they laid Fyssas to rest. The singer’s father, a metal worker, publicly announced that he wanted his son’s killer to be executed. “I want him not to be tried and imprisoned but executed. For me that is justice.”

The alleged perpetrator, who is believed to have run the cafe at the offices of Golden Dawn in Keratsini, the working-class district where the killing occurred, has been given three days to prepare his defence before appearing before an investigating magistrate on Saturday.

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Labour will next week call for the not-for-profit company running the east coast mainline to be allowed to bid for the franchise as the party shelves discussion of wider rail renationalisation until next year.

Senior Labour figures said they did not want a row over the future of the railways to dominate a conference which is due to focus on living standards and measures to alleviate the pressure on the so-called squeezed middle.

Labour has also not made a final decision on potentially costly railway reform, despite pressure from the rail unions, and will do so next year.

Labour has long praised Directly Operated Railways, a government-owned not-for-dividend business and subsidiary of the Department of Transport, set up after National Express abandoned the line and whose subsidiary East Coast operates the franchise.

Labour will also argue that a state not-for-profit firm should be able to bid whenever a franchise comes up for renewal.

The shadow transport secretary, Maria Eagle, said: “The way the east coast services have been run over the last four years can point the way to a different future for our railways.

“What they have demonstrated very clearly is that is perfectly possible to run a national rail service on a not-for-private-profit basis and deliver a service just as good, very arguably better, than a profit-driven train company,” she said. “I think it does point a way to doing things differently.”

Directly Operated Railways has returned more than £600m to the Treasury since it started running the line three years ago, and it denies claims by potential rivals including Virgin that its performance has stagnated.

Eagle will tell Labour’s annual conference that it is absurd that state-backed firms from Germany and France will be allowed by UK ministers to bid for the east coast line, but the successful UK state-backed firm running the line is debarred.

Private firms have twice run the line only to pull out, yet ministers have confirmed that National Express will be free to bid for the franchise – even though it walked away from the line in 2009.

The operator took over the line in 2007 and had been due to run it until 2015, but quit after two years because it was running out of money. Polling suggests only one in five voters favour re-privatisation with a further fifth undecided.

Eagle will also raise the prospect of Directly Operated Railways bidding for other mainline franchises as they come up for renewal, and changing the criteria so that the Department for Transport considers the extent to which bidders plan to reinvest profits in services as well as making payments to government.

She will also propose the recreation of the InterCity brand, regardless of what mix of private and public operators are delivering services, to provide a more coherent service for passengers – ending the variations in peak time and ticket validity between operators (and the waste of repainting trains – a new generation of InterCity trains is due to be rolled out on the network from 2017 after being assembled in the north-east by Hitachi).

Labour said it opposed east coast privatisation and would continue to do so. With the new contract not due to begin until February 2015, days before the start of the general election campaign, it claimed it remained confident that it can derail the planned privatisation – not least because of the chaos in the Department for Transport over rail franchising.

The transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, announced in March a rejigged order for rail franchise bids, putting the east coast mainline to the head of the queue. The change in priorities means other franchises will be held for longer by existing owners.

Ministers regard an efficient east coast line from London to Edinburgh as vital to economic renewal of the cities on the route.

The case for keeping the line in the public sector was strengthened when figures from the Office of Rail Regulation showed that the line now requires less government funding than any of Britain’s 15 other rail franchises, all of which are run by the private sector. The line has returned £640m to the Exchequer by way of premiums since 2009 – £187m in the last financial year. The private train companies made combined profits of £305m last year despite receiving £51m more in subsidy from taxpayers than they returned in franchise payments.

Lord Adonis, the former Labour transport secretary, has also praised the performance of the east coast line. “In the last four years, East Coast has established itself as one of the best train operating companies in the country, both operationally and commercially.

“This has fundamentally changed the situation and it is right and proper that East Coast should be allowed to continue as a public-sector comparator to the existing private franchises.”

Conservative MPs have criticised East Coast’s punctuality and said it could not work in the long term.

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