Political sketch: Pinning down a squirming survivor

Diamond keeps playing dumb.

Bob Diamond took time off from signing on yesterday to stick as many fingers as possible up to those who had put him on the dole - except he didn’t.

The unacceptable face of capitalism (July 2012 version) had them queueing in the aisles for a seat at the anticipated outing of politicians, regulators and anyone else who played a part in his decision to quit as Barclays chief executive 12 hours after announcing he was staying.

But imagine, if you can, a damp squib in a bucket of water at the bottom of Lake Windermere to get the full idea of the revelations that emerged.

We did learn that Bob loved Barclays, that there had been wrong-doing and he had been “physically sick” when he learned about it - but it was nothing to do with him.

In fact after two and a half hours in front of the Treasury Select Committee you were not even sure if Bob knew where the bad Barclays was, and it was clearly nowhere near the good Barclays he ran.

By then even the MPs had worked out that Bob, hoping for a £20m pay-off to ease his way into unemployment (to add to the £100m apparently already banked in the last six years), thought that omerta was the best way of getting his hands on the loot.

In the best case yet for a judge-led inquiry into the banking scandal, MPs on the committee were generally hopeless at pinning down the squirming survivor.

Chairman Andrew Tyrie tried to make a fist of it with opening questions about who in Whitehall had backed Barclay’s decision to fiddle the inter-bank lending rate but it was clear from the off that the much-trailed naming of the guilty men - or women - was not going to happen.

Why so many thought that Bob was going to come clean when he has ambitions to stay in the business is suprising and despite Tyrie’s open invitation he declined.

This reluctance was judged to be mere shyness by Tory Michael Fallon who, having declared an interest as the deputy chairman of a city firm, then failed to declare an even greater interest as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party.

Shocked by Bob’s failure to dish the dirt, Fallon cut to the chase and asked if former Brown Minister Shriti Vadera had poked her nose into the Libor affair.

In effect, the Brown Government was trying to get you to fiddle the figures, he said desperately to a now Sphinx-like Bob.

Off he went again with a list of miscommunications, misunderstandings, reprehensibles and handful of unfortunates as he adopted the tactic of answering the question not asked.

Did he live in a parallel universe? asked one MP after an hour when you weren’t even certain Bob was in the country, never mind the office, when the fiddling was going on.

The man invited by the Today programme to lecture on ethics did not even blush when he was reminded how he had trotted out similar sentiments when he called for an end to banker-bashing during his last appearance.

The sudden appearance of Leveson inquisitor Robert Jay could only be wished for as the MPs tried and failed to get him to abandon the 5th amendment.

And it took the appearance of the Bassetlaw basher John Mann to get down and dirty about the life and times of Bob Diamond.

Having accused him of being either “grossly negligent" or “grossly incompetent,” the hero of Pastygate demanded Bob hand over any shares and bonuses he was now in line for.

Having had plenty of time to practice this answer on MPs who had earlier inquired more politely, Bob said this was a matter for the board.

And that was that.

Earlier it had been reported that Bob’s daughter had sent the following tweet: “George Osborne and Ed Miliband you can go ahead and HMD.” Check it out on Google. Bet her dad agrees.

Bob Diamond. Photo: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.