Friday, July 15, 2011

Thank you for visiting this site.

I haven't updated for a while because I've been concentrating on preparing two new eBooks. They are both now available from Amazon.

I'm hoping that anyone with any interest in southern Portugal will enjoy People in a Place Apart. It's about the various cultures and outstanding personalities who have visited or lived in the Algarve over the years, from the dawn of history to the present day.

The Fátima Phenomenon - Divine Grace, Delusion or Pious Fraud? delves deeply into one Christendom’s most fascinating and controversial sagas. On six consecutive months in 1917,  the Virgin Mary is said to have confided to three Portuguese children dire warnings about Russian communism, world war and a terrible crisis within the Catholic Church. Having spent years looking into the subject from a neutral point of view, I'm hoping this book will be of equal interest to believers and non-believers.

Even if you don't have a Kindle or Kindle apps device, you can read the opening chapters of these books from your computer. Simply go to an Amazon website and typing one or other of the titles in the search box. Click on to the front cover and then on to the invitation to 'Look Inside'.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Aliens, doomsday and the debt crisis

This week's news that Russian scientists expect humanity to encounter alien civilisations within the next two decades came at an opportune moment. It seems that nothing short of financial and economic wizards from another planet are capable of sorting out the mess the eurozone now finds itself in.

Astronomers are among the few people on earth capable of grasping the sort of figures politicians are now juggling with. Apparently, the universe has 100 billion galaxies. That's 22 billion galaxies more than the Portuguese bailout - and each galaxy contains hundreds of millions of stars.

The figures make it almost certain that aliens are out there, says Andrei Finkelstein, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Applied Astronomy Institute. Speaking at an international forum dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life, he said we are likely to come into contact with aliens who resemble humans, with two arms, two legs and a head. Unfortunately, he did not speculate on the size of their brain or their business acumen. It seems that when it comes to money matters, however, they could not be less adept than ourselves.

The financial and economic crisis engulfing not just us PIGS, but the whole of Europe, has our politicians in a spin. It also seems to have rendered some of the analysts and commentators dizzy too.
During the street violence in Athens this week, the venerable Wall Street Journal, which has two million readers daily, came out with a headline that read:: “Better Save Some of That Tear Gas for Portugal, Spain, Italy”.

The opening paragraph of the article was similarly flippant: “We’re all mesmerized — though apparently not the least bit bothered — today by the images of rioting in Greece as politicians there struggle to hammer out austerity plans that will get the country its next bit of methadone, er, bailout money.”

It's no laughing matter, and yet you can't stay serious for ever.

Here's the underlying worry, though. If Finkelstein is right, things could get a lot worse than even the Wall Street Journal is suggesting. The British cosmologist Steven Hawking, who agrees with Finkelstein that there are probably intelligent aliens out there, believes that contact with them could be devastating for humanity.

In a TV documentary series last year, Hawking suggested that aliens might simply raid Earth for its resources and then move on. He could almost have been talking about bankers and politicians when he said: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they (aliens) might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.”

Who knows? The Mayan calendar doomsayers who predict the world will come to an end on 12th December next year may be right. In which case, perhaps we in Portugal shouldn't contemplate rioting and risking tear gas, or even waste our time getting into a tizz about more austerity measures. Que será será.  

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Portugal up-beat over bailout

Portugal's new prime minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, has again expressed his willingness not only to fully abide by the terms of the EU/IMF €78 billion bailout, but go beyond them.

His government has just confirmed that it will be “more ambitious” than strictly required in cutting the country's budget deficit. Its stated intention is to exceed the bailout requirements under which Portugal must cut its budget deficit to 5.9% of gross domestic product this year from more than 9% in 2010.

The government, which only took office last week, has drawn up a four-year programme, but has not yet announced details. Among the most immediate measures will be selling state-owned assets, including the national airline TAP, reducing social security contributions made by companies, making it easier for employers to dismiss workers, and increasing value-added tax on certain products to as much as 25%.

Passos Coelho has said that he wants to go beyond the requirements of the bailout agreement to create “a wave of confidence in the markets.”

The four-year programme announced today will be elaborated upon and discussed in parliament on Thursday and Friday. Meanwhile, Passos Coelho is filling key posts with a surprisingly large number of independents rather than members of his own PSD party or that of his coalition partners, the CDS-PP. Four of his 11-member cabinet are independents. Of the 35 new secretaries of state who take up their posts today, 15 are independents. Only 12 are aligned to one or other of the coalition partners.

This is all in contrast to the confusion and tensions in Greece. While there is much public unease and union opposition in Portugal to the forthcoming austerity measures, there has been far less political wrangling and none of the street violence evident in Athens. Indeed as a measure of the prevailing mood, the hundreds of cyclists who took part in a 'Naked Bike Ride' in Lisbon, part of an international effort to promote environmental issues, abided by a police modesty order. The 'naked' bikers were less revealing than many ordinary holidaymakers on Algarve beaches.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Big week: Finally Friday

It has been a critical week in the political and financial affairs of Portugal and it is ending on a fairly positive note. Both the new prime minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, and former prime minister José Manuel Barroso, now president of the European Commission, are convinced there is broad support among Portuguese people and politicians for the the EU/IMF bailout, despite all its tough reforms and austerity measures.

During the EU summit meeting in Brussels, Barroso noted that "about 85% of the Portuguese people supported the political parties that agreed with the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund and agreed on an ambitious and demanding reform program."

Barroso added: "The 'troika' visited Portugal and made contact with the Portuguese authorities and came back with a very positive report. And I hope that spirit and that cooperation will continue in the tasks to come.”

Said Passos Coelho: “Portugal has all the conditions in place to make this program a success." He announced today in Brussels that his coalition government is preparing to accelerate and possibly broaden the austerity measures Portugal has promised in return for a €78 billion bailout. He said he was also considering a swifter reorganisation of loss-making state companies, adding that he would give details of his plans next week.

The prime minister flew to Brussels economy class instead of business or first class. “It's about setting an example, and I'll stick to that,” he said. When asked if travelling economy class would apply to all Portuguese government officials, Passos Coelho said: "Certainly".

The news from Brussels today is not all heartening, of course. While EU leaders reaffirmed their determination to stabilise the euro currency, the likelihood of a Greek debt default remains. Default could seriously undermine confidence in the single currency.

The EU cannot make a decision on the second bailout for Greece and a more immediate injection of €12 billion to stave off insolvency until the Greek parliament votes on a new package of spending cuts and tax hikes. That comes next week. Today, EU leaders unanimously urged all Greek politicians to back the austerity measures.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Big week: Thursday in Brussels

EU leaders are meeting in Brussels today amid concerns that the fate of the single currency may be in the balance and that Europe may be slipping into the sidelines of globalised affairs. 

"We're at a critical point in the most serious crisis since the Second World War," warned Olli Rehn, the European commissioner for monetary affairs.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the most influential figure in the crisis, has expressed confidence that Europe will rise to the challenge.

The situation in Portugal will be discussed in Brussels informally today but the focus will be more on Greece. To secure a second bailout of more than €100 billion and an immediate €12 billion lifeline to avoid insolvency, the Greek government must approve a package of severe spending cuts and national assets sales in the face of fierce public opposition in Athens. Failure could have immense implications for Portugal and other countries within the EU – and perhaps for the euro itself. Today, however, is not decision day on this.

Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho yesterday ordered that the tickets for himself and four staff members flying from Lisbon to Brussels today be changed from executive to economy class. Another measure of just how serious the new Portuguese government is taking the crisis is that ministers in the new cabinet have been told their summer break in August will be limited to one week. Members of parliament can only take a fortnight off.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Big week: Wednesday in Lisbon

Change is in the air. For the first time in the history of democracy in Portugal, a woman has been elected president of the parliamentary assembly. Maria da Assunção Esteves, 54, formerly a constitutional court judge and member of the European Parliament, now occupies the second highest office in the land after the head of state, President Aníbal Cavaco Silva. Her election yesterday was endorsed by all parties.

With inauguration formalities now behind them, Portugal's new government led by Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho today gets down to the immediate challenges of bringing the country's public finances under control.

In his inaugural speech after being sworn in by President Cavaco Silva yesterday, Passos Coelho summarised the government's priorities: stabilising public finances, helping the most needy, making the economy grow and creating employment.

"The goal of returning to a sustainable path in public finances is an urgent imperative to face our short-term problems,” said the prime minister. He promised not to fail.

Replacing the former minority Socialist government that was forced to resign over the bailout issue, Portugal now has a right-of-centre government made up of Social Democrats in coalition with the smaller CDS-PP party, which will govern with a comfortable majority in parliament.

The nicities are over. Now for the tough stuff. The government is expected to swiftly introduce new austerity measures and economic reforms as demanded by the €78 billion bailout.

Dr Richard Wellings, quoted on the PS Public Service Europe website, today offers the following opinion.

It now seems almost certain that Greece will be subject to some kind of second bailout. Attention may then turn to Portugal and Ireland, the other countries being supported by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Both still face enormous difficulties, but their circumstances are very different. 
The main problem Portugal faces is long-term economic stagnation. Growth averaged less than 1 per cent in the last decade. Vast EU subsidies have done little to stimulate business activity. Instead, they enriched special interests with close links to the political elite and enabled the government to ramp up welfare spending, which reached a massive 22.5 per cent of GDP in 2007.
Membership of the eurozone exacerbated the problem. Spending could carry on rising without the checks and balances that markets would have imposed in the absence of an implicit EU guarantee of government debt. At the same time, ill-fitting monetary policies created inflation that made Portuguese businesses uncompetitive. Enterprises were also burdened with expensive new regulations, both from the European Commission and domestic policymakers.
Like Greece – and also Spain – Portugal will have to undergo a very severe adjustment to regain its international competitiveness. But such necessary rebalancing will be hampered by these high levels of regulation. In particular, labour market controls make it more difficult to reduce wages, and instead mass unemployment may result.
While Portugal's debts are not particularly high by international standards, the markets lost confidence in the government's ability to undertake the necessary reforms. If economic stagnation continued it would prove extremely difficult for Portugal to cover the interest payments on its debts.
The bailout has staved off the prospect of default for the time being but there must be a serious question mark over whether the new Portuguese government will be able to push through liberalisations radical enough to transform the country's prospects. Worryingly, a second Greek bailout may set a dangerous precedent that makes it even harder to gain political support.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Big week: Tuesday in Lisbon

Portugal's new government officially starts running the country today. The new prime minister, Pedro Passos Coelho and his 11-member cabinet will be sworn in by President Aníbal Cavaco Silva.

The government's most pressing task will be to implement the stringent terms of the EU/IMF €78 billion bailout agreement. But even before taking office, Passos Coelho has suffered the embarrassment of parliament rejecting his party's first choice of as leader of the assembly, Fernando Nobre, an independent.

"I am sad that Parliament decided not to take the step to select a true independent to head it," Passos Coelho said yesterday. Parliament will vote on an alternative candidate later today.

A spot of good news: Portugal's budget deficit continued to fall sharply last month from a year ago, according to the ministry of finance in Lisbon. Investors and authorities from the European Union and International Monetary Fund are obviously keeping a close eye on the figures. Last year, the country's deficit was 9.1% of gross domestic product. Under the terms of the EU/IMF bailout, Portugal is committed to cutting its deficit to 5.9% of GDP in 2011, to 4.5% in 2012 and to 3% in 2013.

The news is mostly bad, though. The professional services agency Ernst & Young is describing Portugal’s bailout as “a temporary oxygen balloon” . Other analysts say the €78 billion loan is just a short-term solution to cover upcoming deficit repayments. Portugal’s structural problems (weak competitiveness and low economic growth) remain unaltered.

Like the air temperature in the Algarve, which is forecast to soar in the next couple of days, the political climate in Portugal is about to hot up.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Big week: Monday in Luxembourg

Eurozone finance ministers meeting in Luxembourg have failed to agree on releasing a loan payout to spare Greece from default. There is talk of Portugal being dragged further into the mire because of Greece's problems.

Greece is awaiting €12 billion earmarked for July as part of the country's €110 billion bailout negotiated last year. But Europe's finance ministers are insisting that the Greek government first introduce laws to cut the country's deficit and sell state assets.

This demand comes amid mounting domestic opposition, including a three-day parliamentary debate over a no-confidence vote that could bring down the government of Prime Minister George Papandreou.

Said Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker who is chairing the eurozone meeting: “We forcefully reminded the Greek government that by the end of this month they have to see to it that we are all convinced that all the commitments they made are fulfilled.”

The Greek crisis is expected to dominate the EU summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday this week. Fear of further contagion remains high. Germany is increasingly seen as the vital bulwark against an uncontrolled spiral of default in Europe.

There is growing speculation in financial circles that the 17-nation eurozone will not be able to survive in its present form. There are suggestions that Greece could be forced to leave as early as 2013. Portugal and Ireland may follow. Of course, at this stage it is only speculation. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Big week for Portugal and eurozone

It's the start of another big week in the midst of the current economic and financial crisis. Eurozone finance ministers are meeting in Luxembourg today and tomorrow. Portugal's new cabinet under Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho will convene on Tuesday. The prime minister will then attend a key European Union council meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.

The new government here faces the massive initial task of navigating the country through what Coelho has referred to as two “terrible years” of deep recession and record unemployment.

At least the right-of-centre Social Democrats in coalition with the conservative CDS-PP party can look forward to a comfortable overall majority in the 230-member parliament. Coelho has kept to his promise and reduced the cabinet from 16 ministers under the previous Socialist administration to just 11 - four from the PSD, three from the CDS-PP and four independents.

One of the independents is Vítor Gaspar, the new finance minister. An economics professor, Gaspar has worked as a research director at the European Central Bank, led the European Commission's Bureau of Policy Advisers and most recently been a special adviser to Portugal's central bank. He will need all his experience and expertise in the daunting task he has taken on.

The main focus of the new government's work will be administering the tough and broad-ranging conditions of the EU/IMF rescue package, a consequence of a debt that had risen by the end of 2010 to €160 billion and a deficit for the year of 9.1 percent of GDP, more than triple the permissible EU rate first breached by Portugal back in 2002.

The meeting of EU finance ministers in Luxembourg is being dominated by the crisis in Greece, but they will also be taking stock of the Portugal's €78 billion bailout. Economic policy will again be top of the agenda in Brussels on Thursday and Friday. Warning that the ongoing debt crisis could spread to Italy and Belgium, Jean-Claude Juncker, who is chairing the eurozone finance ministers'' meeting, reportedly said yesterday: "We are playing with fire.”

In the light of the acute difficulties in Greece, one commentator said the other day: “Continuing to agree last-minute emergency measures to avoid the immediate collapse of a eurozone country is unlikely to create financial trust. And it is even less likely to create the required political trust to effectively tackle the crisis at its root. The EU heads of government and above all Merkel (the German Chancellor) need to take over the agenda and set out a credible narrative for a sustainable and prosperous eurozone or face the inevitable consequences.”

There has been an upsurge in fears about a possible collapse of the euro. Mind you, there has been talk of that ever since the common currency was introduced more than a decade ago. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

State of the nation on Portugal Day

June 10, Portugal's National Day honouring Luís Camões, who wrote the epic poem Os Lusíadas in celebration of the glorious 15th and 16th century explorations and achievements that brought the country such fame and wealth. How things have changed.

Saved on the verge of bankruptcy by an international bailout, Portugal today is a member of that group of countries humiliatingly referred to by international bond and currency traders as PIGS.

But not much has changed since last Sunday's general election in that the country still does not have a working government to get on with the job of administering the sweeping reforms demanded by the bailout conditions.

Urged by President Aníbal Cavaco Silva to start the process of forming a government as a matter of urgency, the Social Democrat prime minister-in-waiting, Pedro Passos Coelho, got around to opening formal coalition talks with the right-wing CDS-PP party on Wednesday. Even so, it's not expected he will be able to swear in a new cabinet for almost another two weeks. The hope is he will make it before a European Council meeting on June 23-24.  

Tax hikes, spending cuts and structural reforms are expected to follow. So are more job losses, strikes and public demonstrations. Today, a 24-hour strike by the staff of the national rail company has forced the cancellation of all passenger and freight services. 

Meanwhile, noting that money isn't everything, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has produced a survey suggesting that Portugal has made significant progress over the last few years in improving the living standards of its citizens.

In a 'Better Life Index' survey covering its 34 member states, the OECD places Portugal 9th in terms of the balance between work and private life. In this regard, Portugal is way better off than Britain, for example, but well below Denmark, which always tops these sorts of lists.

In terms of employment, nearly 66% of people aged 15 to 64 in Portugal have a paid job. They work 1,719 hours a year, close to the OECD average. 67% of mothers are employed after their children begin school, suggesting, according to the orgnisation, that women are able to successfully balance family and career.

In terms of the life expectancy (79.3 years), environmental pollution, safety from crime and housing, the Portuguese fair reasonably well, but household earnings are less than the OECD average.

As to the quality of its educational system, the average student scored 489 out of 600 in reading ability according to the latest PISA student-assessment programme, lower than the OECD average. Only 28% of adults aged 25 to 64 have earned the equivalent of a high-school diploma, the lowest rate in the OECD, which stands at 72%.

The sense of community and civic participation in this country is only moderate, with 83% of people believing they know someone they could rely on in a time of need, lower than the OECD average of 91%.  Public trust in government is also low.

Only 36% of Portuguese surveyed said they were satisfied with their life, well below the OECD average of 59%.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Portugal swings to the right and braces itself for increased austerity

The pendulum swung even further to the right than predicted. It was the lowest turnout for the Sociatists of any general election in Portugal since 1987.

The number of abstentions yesterday was greater than the number of people who voted for the winning Social Democratic Party (PSD).

Abstentions totalled more than 40%. With less than 39% of the vote, the centre-right PSD will be able to form a government with an absolute majority in coalition with their traditional partners, the conservative CDS, who finished with nearly 12%.

Former Prime Minister José Sócrates stood down as leader of the Socialists who finished with just 28% having won the previous two elections, in 2005 and 2009.

The PSD leader Pedro Passos Coelho now has the task of overseeing tough, wide-reaching and highly unpopular reforms as laid down by the EU and the IMF in return for a three-year €78 billion bailout. Unpopular with the ordinary people, all the main parties supported the international rescue package.

Lower living standards and even greater hardships in one of western Europe poorest countries are now on their way. Tax hikes and welfare cuts are expected. It will be easier to hire and fire workers. And the EU/IMF are insisting on a raft of other measures which will plunge the country into recession for two years.

The new government has a clear mandate to impose this greater austerity. The Social Democrats will have 105 deputies in the 230-seat Parliament compared with 73 Socialists. The CDU will have 24.

Pedro Passos Coelho said last night his government would do everything in its power to overcome the great difficulties facing the country and not be a financial burden on Europe.

In the Algarve, the PSD won 37% compared with the Socialists' 23%. Of the nine Algarve deputies in the next parliament, four will be PSD, two Socialist and one each from the CDS, BE and Communist parties.

Friday, June 3, 2011

A general election devoid of joy

Disillusioned by politicians in general and knowing that hard economic times lie ahead whoever wins, Portuguese voters will go to the polls in Sunday's national election with little enthusiasm.

The new government will have little room to manoeuvre. It will have no choice but to abide by the EU/IMF bailout reform rules.

The most likely election result will be a coalition government formed by the centre-right Social Democrats (PSD) and the third strongest party, the conservative CDS. Opinion polls indicate the Social Democrats led by Pedro Passos Coelho will win more votes than the Socialists but not enough to be able to govern on their own.

The possibility of an inconclusive result fermenting a coalition involving the Socialists under former Prime Minister José Socrates is not being ruled out. It was the collapse of the minority Socialist government amid financial turmoil in March that led to this election.

Whatever the make-up of the new government, its main task will be to implement the tough and wide-ranging reforms demanded by the EU/IMF rescue package. These include increased taxes, deep cuts in spending and greater competitiveness.

In the election campaigning, none of the parties have been able to raise customary hopes of a better future. There is a strong perception that corruption, wealth and power, supported by a deeply flawed justice system, have brought this country to the verge of bankruptcy. 

The Bank of Portugal is on record as saying economic hardship will be particularly severe over the next two years. The young in particular are feeling deeply frustrated and are reportedly leaving the country in droves. Further strikes and street demonstrations can be expected in the weeks ahead.

Whatever the outcome this Sunday, there is unlikely to be much rejoicing in the land. 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Conman Ken on the run in the sun

A wily Welshman by the name of Kenner Elias Jones, a much convicted conman according to the BBC, is now believed to be operating in Portugal.

Charged with stealing thousands of pounds from an employer in the UK, Jones absconded from a crown court before his trial in the UK eight years ago. He has been on the run ever since.

Already convicted more than 60 times for theft, forgery and fraud, Jones has allegedly cheated several companies in Portugal.

Previously deported from Canada and the United States, he is wanted in Kenya where he is alleged to have debts of more than 100,000 dollars. He is said to have posed as a doctor in Kenya and to have administered medicines to children, even though he had no medical qualifications. It is claimed he also posed as a priest.

BBC Wales tracked him to Portugal and interviewed a travel agent in Palmela, south of Lisbon, who claimed Jones did not pay for tickets obtained for his family to join him in this country.

BCC Wales believe he is living in the capital but, of course, it is possible he has moved south to the Algarve and is trying to continue his 40-year criminal career here. 

For more, including images of Jones: 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Government issues statement on crime control in tourist areas of the Algarve

 Portugal's Ministry of Internal Administration says the forces of law and order are paying full attention to security in the Algarve and particularly in its most popular beach resort of Albufeira.

In a statement issued yesterday, the ministry says all reasonable measures are being taken to prevent and fight crime. It also points out that crime rates in this country are among the lowest in the EU and that crime in the Algarve region is decreasing.

The statement comes in the wake of alleged attacks on three holidaymakers, two fatal. Police are continuing to investigate the incidents in the Montechoro area of Albufeira. A gang of youths is suspected of involvement.

The internal affairs ministry says there was a slight decrease in crime in general and violent crime in particular in 2010 compared with the previous year. The drop has been much more marked in the first quarter of this year. Serious and violent crime was down 21.7%, and the number of robberies dropped by 20%. In the Albufeira municipality, there were 21.5% fewer violent crimes in 2010 than in 2009 and 9.7% fewer in the first quarter of this year.

Two thousand new police officers are being groomed for the various forces, a new security arrangement now links private home alarm systems to police stations and tighter border controls are in place. The statement emphasises that police presence, visibility and operational activity is being stepped up in popular tourist areas of the Algarve.

Meanwhile, police investigations continue into the death last month of a Scottish soldier, Darren Lackie, 22, and the stabbing of a holidaymaker from Dublin, David Hoban, 44. Police are also investigating the death of a tourist from the northeast of England, Ian Haggath, 50, who was brutally attacked a fortnight ago and has since died.

A spokesman for Britain's foreign office said yesterday it had made "a very minor" change to its travel advice to alert holidaymakers about street crime in the Algarve.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tourists warned to be vigilant following street attacks in Albufeira

Portuguese police say they are still investigating recent street attacks on holidaymakers that have prompted the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office to amend its travel advice to tourists coming to Portugal.

Ian Haggath, 50, from Dunston, near Gateshead in the northeast of England, was ferociously attacked and left unconscious in a pool of blood in Albufeira a fortnight ago. He suffered serious head injuries and died in hospital last Wednesday. 

Described as "mild-mannered and friendly", Mr Haggath was attacked while walking back to his hotel in the early hours of the morning. It is thought he may have been the victim of a gang of youths.

There is speculation the same gang may have been responsible for the death in March of a British soldier, Darren Lackie, 22, from Cupar, Fife, and the non-fatal stabbing of an Irish tourist, David Hoban, 44, from Dublin.

A few minutes before Mr Haggath was set upon, another tourist is said to have been taunted, abused and had stones thrown at him by a gang of four.

Police initially treated Mr Lackie's death as the result of a drunken fall but a fresh inquiry was launched when medical reports showed he had not been drinking heavily. His father, Graham, is convinced his son was killed in an unprovoked assault.

All three men were attacked in the Montechoro area of Albufeira, popular because of its is restaurants, bars and clubs.

About 1.6 million Britons travel to Portugal each year. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office says that the number of violent attacks in Portugal is low but that there is still a need to take care. It has revised its travel guidance to Britons and warned them to remain alert at all times. 

A Polícia Judiciária spokeswoman told me today there was as yet no clear evidence the same gang carried out the three attacks but that investigations were continuing.   

The incidents are causing considerable concern within the Algarve. 
Elidérico Viegas, president of the Algarve's largest hotels' association, blamed the recent rise in violence on the government's failure to properly address the needs of a region whose economy is based on tourism.  

Monday, May 30, 2011

Portuguese police fully co-operating with Scotland Yard on McCann case

The Portuguese criminal investigation police today confirmed they are fully committed to co-operating with the Metropolitan Police review of the Madeleine McCann case and to re-opening the investigation if the Met come up with credible new evidence.

The National Assistant Director of the Polícia Judiciária (PJ), Pedro do Carmo, told me: “We are in contact with the Metropolitan Police. They have informed us what they want to do, to recheck the files. Our colleagues in the UK are fully aware of our commitment and interest in trying to solve this case, to know what happened that night. At this point we have talked and we have a very open relationship. Let's see what comes next.”

The PJ investigation was shelved in July 2008, but Pedro do Carmo made it clear it would be re-opened if the Met comes up with sufficient grounds for doing so. But, he cautioned, "one step at a time. Let's see what happens."

Reports in Portugal at the weekend suggested that not all PJ officers feel at ease with Scotland Yard's involvement. Some are hostile to it, saying they believe the PJ did everything possible to solve the mystery of Madeleine's disappearance and that their professionalism is now being called into question. “The British policemen are not better than our own,” was one sentiment quoted in the Portuguese press.

There has been strong criticism in the UK and within the Metropolitan Police Authority itself of Scotland Yard's involvement.

Criticism aside, the way seems open for a thorough re-examination of the case so far.   

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

“No limits” on review of Madeleine McCann case says Met Police chief

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson says Scotland Yard is putting no limits on its review of the investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, reports the Leicester Mercury, a newspaper published in the English county where Madeleine was born and Kate and Gerry still live.     

The paper quotes Sir Paul as saying his force's re-examination of the case would be a "significant piece of work" that could produce recommendations about new lines of inquiry.

"We are not putting any limits on it at this moment in time," he said. "We have no time scales yet because we haven't produced the scoping. It will be a significant piece of work."

He said Scotland Yard's international reputation made it easier for his officers, compared with those of other organisations, to "open doors".

"Sometimes we need to remind ourselves this is about a vulnerable missing child," he said. "I am a professional police officer, and when you get a request to do something about a vulnerable missing child, you should take that request very seriously.

"And then you get into negotiations about, is it right that we do it? Can we bring added value to it? And if we can bring added value to it, what is the right circumstance to allow us to do it to make sure that we are making the best use of the operation resources here and giving a fair return to Londoners?"

While Sir Paul believes it is "the right thing to do," critics claim the review, which will be funded by Britain's Home Office, has diverted resources from other crime victims and is giving special attention to the McCanns not available to the families of many other British persons missing abroad.

Madeleine's parents were in Lisbon this week to publicise the Portuguese edition of Kate McCann's book. Asked about her decision to write and have the book published, Kate McCann told the Sic television channel: “I always wanted to, to write down the truth, really, for my three children, and I guess the reason, or the trigger reason why I actually, why it became a book and why it was published, is because we have to fund the search for Madeleine. And the fund was running low, so we needed to raise the money.”

Gonçalo Amaral, the former coordinator of the Portuguese police investigation, says he welcomes the Met's involvement, but he is bluntly critical of Kate McCann's book, claiming it is offensive to "Portuguese justice, the Polícia Judiciária, those who have searched for her daughter, the Portuguese people in general and the people of the Algarve in particular.”

Friday, May 20, 2011

Garry Mann, jailed after 'unfair' trial and extradition, now back in the UK

Garry Mann, who was extradited from Britain in 2010 to serve a two-year sentence in Portugal for alleged involvement in a riot in Albufeira during the 2004 UEFA Football Championship, was transferred last night to a prison in the UK.

The former firefighter and father of six from Kent (pictured right), was tried and convicted in June 2004 in an Albufeira court in the space of 48 hours. A British police officer present at the trial described it as a “farce”.

The organisation Fair Trials International said in a statement today: “Garry had no time to prepare a defence and standards of interpretation were grossly inadequate. The UK courts have repeatedly recognised the serious injustice in his case but said they were powerless to stop Garry’s extradition after his arrest under a European Arrest Warrant in 2009.”

The Chief Executive of Fair Trials International, Jago Russell (pictured below), added: “We are relieved that Garry will now be able to serve the remainder of his sentence back in the UK closer to his family, but this falls far short of justice. We will continue to campaign for reform of the extradition laws that have put him and his family through hell.”

Mann had only five minutes with his lawyer before the trial and did not know what he was charged with until after he was convicted, according to Fair Trials International. He was unable to understand the proceedings due to the poor quality of interpretation. He consented to his deportation to the UK after reportedly being told by the Portuguese authorities that the sentence would not be carried out if he agreed to voluntary deportation.

Upon his return to the UK, the Chief of Metropolitan Police applied for a worldwide football banning order. In August 2005, Justice Stephen Day refused to grant the order, concluding that Mann's Portuguese trial could not be relied on as it was “so unfair as to be incompatible with the respondent's right to a fair trial.”

In October 2008, British police arrested Mann under a European Arrest Warrant issued by Portugal requiring him to serve his two-year prison sentence. His extradition was ordered by the City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court in August 2009.

Mann's legal team made a number of challenges to the extradition, which were all refused by the High Court. Lord Justice Moses, however, commented that “a serious injustice” had been committed against Mann. “It is just an embarrassment for everybody, this whole case, and it ought to disappear.”

The court requested that a diplomatic solution be sought. It was hoped the “ECHR or the diplomatic authorities in the UK or in Portugal can strive to achieve some measure of justice for Mr Mann, a justice of which he has been so signally deprived by those on whom he had previously relied.”

The European Arrest Warrant is a fast-track system for surrendering people from one European country to another to face trial or serve a prison sentence. It has removed many of the traditional safeguards in the extradition process. If a court in one country demands a person’s arrest and extradition, courts and police in other countries must act on it.

In 2009, this fast track extradition system was used to extradite over 4000 people across the EU (700 people from the UK alone).

Fair Trials International is a human rights charity which provides assistance to people arrested in a country other than their own. It campaigns for reform to fight the underlying causes of injustice in cross-border cases.  

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Economic crisis overshadows revival of Madeleine McCann case in Portugal

The focus of attention in the Madeleine McCann saga is expected to shift uncomfortably back to Portugal soon with separate visits by members of the newly-formed special team from the Metropolitan Police and Madeleine's parents.

The groundwork for the visit by the Scotland Yard team was done by Joanna Kuenssberg O'Sullivan, Chargé d'Affaires at the British Embassy in Lisbon. Following discussions with her last week, Portugal's Judicial Police (PJ) offered to co-operate with the Met. The PJ will retain overall responsibility for the investigation, which was formally shelved in July 2008. The Met team will inject their “particular expertise” but it is not clear how that will be done, especially in view of the sensitivities of the case.

Critics in Britain, including two members of the Metropolitan Police Authority, have condemned the Met's involvement as politically motivated and a waste of money. They say it will deny justice to other victims of crime and wonder why the parents of other missing children abroad have not been given similar special treatment.

The Portuguese police have been heavily criticised in the past by the McCanns and the British press for their handling of the failed investigation and will probably not take kindly to any further insulting “we know best” attitudes from foreigners.

That said, there has been plenty of Portuguese-UK co-operation on this case since Madeleine disappeared in May 2007. An Embassy spokesperson told me that “the UK and the Portuguese authorities have been in close contact from the start, and this will continue.” 

It is thought that the Met team, led by Detective Chief Inspector Andy Redwood of the Homicide and Serious Crime Command, will want to conduct a “cold case review”, which basically means going through all the paperwork again. They will be looking for any vital evidence, anything overlooked or not fully developed during the Portuguese inquiry.

The Portuguese edition of Kate McCann's book, Madeleine, is to be published in Portugal next Monday. According to a report in The Sun newpaper, Madeleine's parents will be in Lisbon for the launch. Neither the McCanns' spokesman, Clarence Mitchell, nor a senior source within the company handling the launch could confirm this today.

Speaking about the Portuguese edition, Kate McCann has been quoted as saying, "I don't feel we have had the chance to tell our side of the story in Portugal yet. I am hoping people will read the book and realise what kind of people we are - loving parents."

Her husband added: “I think there are a lot of cultural differences and sometimes people there (in Portugal) didn't understand why we did certain things and the book will hopefully address that."

There has been little recent interest in the case in Portugal. The four-year-old Madeleine mystery is well down the list of concerns in a country wracked by an economic crisis which has brought  about tax increases, pay cuts, job losses, rising unemployment plus the prospect of further austerity measures and two years of recession.

A three-year €78 billion bailout plan to avert bankruptcy was approved unanimously by European finance ministers yesterday, subject to a raft of tough conditions. That and the general election two weeks after the Portuguese Madeleine book launch are currently the most pressing matters here.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Met police to bring “new perspective” to Madeleine McCann case.

Whatever you may think of Kate and Gerry McCann's parenting skills while on holiday in the Algarve in May 2007, you have to admit their efforts to keep their missing daughter in the public eye have been remarkably successful. Four years on, the welter of publicity garnered for Kate's book, Madeleine, has been astonishing. To cap it all, the McCanns have now persuaded the British Prime Minister and Home Secretary to ask the Metropolitan Police to review the case.

One aspect of the publicity that seems strange when viewed from Portugal is the degree to which the British press and government officials believe Madeleine was abducted. The McCanns have insisted all along that their daughter was taken from the Algarve holiday apartment while they were dining out in a nearby restaurant and that she may be still alive. The more prevalent belief in Portugal is that she was not abducted, that she died in the apartment.

Led by book serialisations in The Sun and the Sunday Times this week, the British press has been pumping out stories that accept Madeleine was abducted, not as a possible or even probable scenario, but as an established fact.

For example: “Kate McCann has revealed the devastating abduction of her daughter Madeleine caused her to question her faith,” reported the London Evening Standard. “Kate McCann has revealed that she was plagued with depression and suicidal thoughts after the abduction of her daughter four years ago,” said the Guardian. “Kate McCann has laid bare her shock and outrage after Portuguese police officials made her and husband Gerry suspects in the abduction of her daughter Madeleine,” according to the Daily Telegraph.

The Government’s primary concern has always been and remains the safe return of Madeleine,” said a Home Office spokesman yesterday. But is she still alive?

Perhaps Madeleine really was abducted, but the truth is we simply don't know for sure what happened to the almost four-year-old back in May 2007 because conclusive evidence has yet to be found.

Said British Home Secretary Theresa May last night: "I am pleased to announce that the Prime Minister and I have agreed with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner that the Met will now be using its particular expertise to review the case. The Met have skills, techniques and know-how which we hope can bring a new perspective to the case."

No doubt that know-how will mean the Met will remain unbiased, ignore the hype, cut through the conjecture, look for solid evidence and focus on facts. Meanwhile, the British government has felt obliged to say its decision to send in Scotland Yard was not driven by tabloid headlines.

Apparently there have already been high-level talks between the British Foreign Office and the Portuguese authorities on how a joint review of the case might best be conducted. The British Embassy in Lisbon says the UK and the Portuguese authorities have been in close contact from the start, and this will continue.  

Although the official Portuguese police inquiry formally ceased in July 2008, the Portuguese authorities will retain the lead responsibility for the case. The Pólicia Judiciáia have been repeatedly accused in Britain of botching the investigation, but only with their close co-operation can the Met hope to help solve this mystery.  

UK renews appeal to British nationals in Portugal to report benefit fraud.

UK-based fraud investigators at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) are determined to crack down on benefit thieves who are living overseas on British taxpayers’ money.

The British Embassy in Lisbon yesterday issued a statement calling on British residents and visitors in the Algarve and other parts of Portugal to cooperate with the DWP and report anyone they know or hear of claiming benefits to which they are not entitled. This can be done by phoning a free phone fraud hotline, 800 208 638.

Fraud officials have joined forces with overseas counterparts to target Brits in countries where the most abroad fraud is carried out, including Spain and Greece, and even as far afield as Thailand and America.

Benefit fraud abroad cost the British taxpayer some £79 million last year. “This money should be going to the people who need it most and not lining the pockets of criminals sunning themselves overseas,” according to the statement.

Fraud investigators work with overseas organisations, such as land registries, as well as the Foreign Office and UK banks.

Top scams include:
  • people not declaring that they have moved abroad
  • unreported deaths – where relatives or other third parties continue to claim
  • working overseas
  • unreported assets – such as properties, savings or even yachts
  • exaggerated disability.

One benefit cheat recently caught after a call to the hotline was Angela Walker, of Birmingham. She had claimed more than £10,000 of income support since 2006, despite living with a partner and living abroad. She pleaded guilty to the charges in November 2010 and must now repay the cash, as well as £100 prosecution costs. The judge also sentenced her to a 12 month Community Order and 150 hours unpaid work.

Another benefit cheat, Robert Telford, pleaded guilty in March to receiving overpayments of income support and pension credit amounting to £30,895 over a period of three and a half years. He must now repay all of the overpaid benefit, as all benefit fraudsters must do. He was sentenced to a 12 month Community Order for 120 hours of unpaid work and was ordered to pay the prosecution costs of £300.

Mr Telford admitted that he had never paid much attention to the leaflets sent to him from the DWP about his benefits, nor had he told the job centre or anyone else that he was going to live abroad on a permanent basis.

Any Brits claiming benefits and intending to abroad, for any amount of time, must tell the DWP before they go as it could affect benefits. Those who go abroad and continue to claim benefits they are not entitled could face prosecution, imprisonment and even the confiscation of their home and possessions.