Oliver Letwin and the strange case of the dumped papers

Cabinet Office minister caught disposing of government papers in St James's Park bin.

After the week the government has had (the Liam Fox imbroglio, terrible unemployment figures), "cabinet minister caught throwing away secret papers in public bins" is not the sort of headline David Cameron wants to wake up to. The culprit is the gaffe-prone Oliver Letwin, who was seen disposing of private documents in a St James's Park bin. The Daily Mirror has the full story and the glorious pictures.

The paper reports that Cameron's Gandalf "was seen on five separate days throwing away sensitive correspondence on terrorism, national security and constituents' private details." In total, the Cabinet Office Minister disposed of more than 100 papers, including one said to describe how intelligence chiefs "failed to get the truth" on UK involvement in terrorist interrogations. A spokesman for Letwin has responded by insisting that the papers did not contain any sensitive material.

"Oliver Letwin does some of his parliamentary and constituency correspondence in the park before going to work, and sometimes disposes of copies of letters there. They are not documents of a sensitive nature," he said.

But Labour has already gone on the attack. In a letter to the outgoing cabinet secretary, Gus O'Donnell, Michael Dugher, Letwin's shadow, wrote:

Can you ensure that the Cabinet Office will begin an investigation, as a matter of urgency, to ascertain the classification of the discarded documents, how many have been discarded in this manner and whether the strict procedures for the disposal of Government documents has been breached.

I am sure you will agree that Ministers have a duty to follow proper procedures and lead by example. This has clearly not happened in the case of Mr Letwin. As you are aware, Civil Servants are subject to disciplinary procedures if the proper processes are not adhered to. It cannot be that there is one rule for Ministers and another for everyone else.

I would be grateful if you could investigate these matters as soon as possible and I look forward to hearing from you.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear