| FactCheck: What about the Britons who fight for Israel?

FactCheck: what about the Britons who fight for Israel? ~ Patrick Worrall,

Channel 4 FactCheck goes behind the spin to dig out the truth and separate political fact from fiction.

The claim

“We have British citizens going over to fight in the Israeli army. Yesterday we know they are taking part in the collective punishment of a civilian population. That’s a crime.”
Farooq Siddiqui, 3 July 2014

An ex-adviser to the government on tackling extremism in Britain’s Muslim communities raised an interesting point on Channel 4 News in relation to Brits who fight in conflicts abroad.

Farooq Siddiqui, formerly of the Prevent programme, is calling for the UK to stop criminalising young Muslims who travel to Syria to fight against Bashar al-Assad.

Security service estimates suggest around 500 Britons have travelled to Syria to take part in the civil war.

Mr Siddiqui asked why the government has threatened to arrest British Muslims who return from Syria while it allows young people to fight for Israel and other countries with impunity.

“If we’re talking about stopping people, Muslims, stopping them from going over to other countries and fighting, why are we not doing that as a blanket for stopping anyone that goes over abroad to fight in other countries?”

Is Mr Siddiqui right to say that young Brits are fighting for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) while the Israelis are engaged in controversial strikes against Palestinian targets following the murder of three Jewish teenagers?

04 idf g FactCheck: what about the Britons who fight for Israel?

The analysis

Most Israeli citizens are obliged to do national service of up to two-and-a-half years in the country’s military, and so a significant number of British-born Israelis or immigrants with dual nationality will inevitably join Israel’s armed forces for a spell.

But you don’t have to be a citizen of the Jewish state to fight for the IDF.

The Israeli military runs a programme called “mahal” which allows non-Israeli nationals of Jewish descent to join the ranks of the armed forces for an 18-month tour of duty.

According to the rules, British men under 24 or women under 21 who have one parent or grandparent who is or was Jewish are eligible.

That’s Jewish (you need to prove it by getting a rabbi to sign a confirmation) not Israeli.

Overseas recruits get the same pay and conditions as Israelis and “serve always shoulder to shoulder with regular Israeli soldiers”.

The numbers of volunteers from the UK are small but significant: the IDF told Channel 4 News there are “around one hundred Brits currently serving” in its ranks.

There is a even a support group for British parents of IDF soldiers called Mahal Mums.

We’re not aware of anyone questioning the legality of this arrangement.

Unlike some other countries, Britain does not have an effective law prohibiting its citizens from fighting for foreign armies.

There is an obscure piece of legislation still on the statute books – the Foreign Enlistment Act 1870 – which ostensibly makes it illegal for British citizens to join the armed forces of a country fighting a state at peace with Britain.

But this proved to be embarrassingly ineffective when prosecutors attempted to stop British volunteers from fighting in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

The lack of any practical ban on foreign enlistment leads to the slightly odd situation where a teenager can travel to Syria to fight for the brutal Assad regime with impunity, but if he sides with enemies of the regime he could face prosecution as a terrorist back in Britain.

This is because of the broad scope of anti-terror legislation. In the Queen’s Speech last month, the government set out new laws which mean Brits who travel overseas to train for acts of terrorism against any government will be prosecuted as if their actions had taken place in the UK.

In May Mashudur Choudhury, 31, from Portsmouth, became the first Briton to be convicted of engaging in conduct in preparation for terrorist acts after attending a training camp in Syria.

Choudhury wasn’t threatening the UK, he was training to fight Assad – who David Cameron also wanted to target with military action before losing a Commons vote last year.

But a supreme court judgement from last year ruled that the legal definition of terrorism can include “any or all military attacks by a non-state armed group against any or all state or inter-governmental organisation armed forces in the context of a non-international armed conflict”.

So if someone fights in a civil a war against a regime the British government hates – even if they fight for a moderate faction not banned as a terror organisation – they can still be prosecuted as a terrorist.

War crimes?

Mr Siddiqui is not the only person to have accused Israel of war crimes over its recent actions in the West Bank and Gaza in the wake of the killings of three Israeli teens.

Amnesty International has echoed his use of the words “collective punishment”, saying: “Justice will not be served by Israel seeking revenge by imposing collective punishment, or committing other violations of Palestinians’ rights.”

Collective punishment against a civilian population is banned under the fourth Geneva Convention.

But in the absence of any legal case brought against the IDF, the suggestion that Israeli air strikes, arrests, shootings and demolition of buildings constitute “collective punishment” of the Palestinians remains an unproven allegation.

How likely is it that Britons have been directly involved in clashes with Palestinians in recent days? Not surprisingly, we don’t have information on the movements of individual IDF soldiers.

But there is no reason why they would not be involved. The rules of mahal state that overseas recruits are liable to be picked for the same frontline combat units as Israeli conscripts, including infantry, tanks and special forces.

The verdict

It was news to FactCheck, but there are around 100 British nationals serving with the IDF as we speak, apparently with no legal difficulties.

But a Brit who trains or fights with any anti-Assad rebel group runs the risk of being jailed as a terrorist.

If we are worried about young British Muslims heading off to the Middle East to receive military training, should we be equally worried about Jews?

That depends on whether Mr Siddiqui is justified in comparing the experience of serving in a professional army overseas to fighting alongside Islamist militant groups in Syria. Of course this is a politically-charged and highly debatable point.

He insisted in the interview: “It is a fighting force, whether you want to say it’s disciplined or it’s a militia. The effect on the individual, the effect on the combatant is still the same.”

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| UK legal aid cuts FactCheck: should barristers keep their wigs on?

FactCheck: should barristers keep their wigs on? ~ Patrick Worrall,  Channel 4 News.

fiction108 FactCheck: should barristers keep their wigs on?                             

The claim

“The average criminal bar barrister working full-time is earning some £84,000.”
Shailesh Vara, Minister for the Courts and Legal Aid, 6 January 2014

The background

They didn’t want to call it a strike. But criminal barristers staged a walk-out at courts up and down the country today for the first time in the recent history of the profession.

It’s a sign of anger among m’learned friends at the government’s proposals to slash £220m from the legal aid budget over five years.

06 barristers fc r FactCheck: should barristers keep their wigs on?

Barristers doing taxpayer-funded work on the lengthiest, costliest cases face cuts of up to 30 per cent. The fees for other Crown Court work could be reduced by up to 18 per cent.

In a previous FactCheck we found that the total spend on legal aid is actually falling, although we still pay lawyers more to defend people accused of crimes than other countries – if you accept it’s possible to make a fair comparison.

The crux of the argument today was over how much barristers earn. The government has released figures suggesting a small number of advocates are taking home six-figure sums.

But various lobby groups have argued that the real remuneration for criminal work is so paltry that it will force talented graduates out of the profession. Who’s right?

The analysis

It’s difficult to say how much criminal barristers get paid, because most are self-employed, and we’re not aware of a definitive survey of average earnings.

Anecdotal evidence suggest that top QCs can be handsomely rewarded, while those who have just entered the profession can find themselves in dire straits financially.

Nigel Lithman QC says he has been in contact with a barrister in her second year of practice whose taxable income was just under £14,000.

The anonymous Lincoln’s Inn barrister who writes this blog says she took home about £10,000 last year, bitterly concluding: “I would quite literally have been better off on benefits.”

Of course these could be extreme examples. What about average earnings?

We can’t do any better than the ad hoc statistical analysis produced by the government last week on the money the state pays out to barristers for criminal work.

06 fc graph1 526x1024 FactCheck: should barristers keep their wigs on?

At first glance, it would seem that six barristers got more than half a million pounds each from the public purse in 2012/13. That’s six individuals out of 4,931.

Some 1,275 barristers – about a quarter – were paid more than £100,000.

The mean average payout (total amount of money divided by number of people) was £72,000. But mean averages are skewed by outliers – like the small number of very high earners. The median average – the mid-point – was £56,000.

Mr Vara complicated this slightly today by coming out with a figure for average earnings of £84,000.

This, we are told, represents those who work full-time on legal aid cases only, taking out people who only do a small amount of taxpayer-funded work.

The methodology of this is obscure, but the “full-time” figure has the handy effect of stripping out the very lowest earners and bumping up the average.

It probably doesn’t matter very much, because whichever average you prefer – £56,000, £72,000 or £84,000 – the number doesn’t actually represent money the barrister takes home.

The government statisticians who compiled these figures made it clear that they “must be interpreted carefully and do not represent the personal earnings of the individuals listed in any one year”.

The amounts paid may relate to work “covering many years”. The sums could represent money paid to one barrister who is then obliged to share some of the cash with his learned friends.

The figures include VAT, which barristers have to pay back to the Treasury. That’s 20 per cent we can chop off for a start.

Then there is the long list of professional overheads barristers are obliged to shell out: rent paid to the chambers where they have their offices (perhaps several hundred pounds a month); clerks’ fees; practising certificate fees; travel; insurance; wigs; gowns; textbooks.

We could go on for some time, and then we would have a figure from which you have to deduct tax, and one which does not include sick pay or holiday pay.

Nigel Lithman QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, starts with the government’s own median fee of £56,000 and cuts it roughly in half to get to around £27,000 as an estimate of average earnings, the same figure mooted by the Bar Council.

That happens to be almost exactly the average UK gross income. Junior barristers not lucky enough to scoop a bursary or grant are likely to have tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt hanging over them when they enter the profession.

The verdict

The figures the Ministry of Justice have stressed this week seem decidedly dodgy. The department specifically said its figures should not be used to represent actual annual earnings – a fact which which seems to have been forgotten.

Even if you do want to use the figures, once you take away the many overheads self-employed advocates have to pay you are left with a middling sum of money.

Compare the £12,000 minimum salaries many pupil criminal barristers with the £60,000 offered to graduates by some top commercial law firms, and warnings of a brain drain do not seem far-fetched.

Having said that, we are yet to hear a clear explanation of why the legal profession can’t do more to ease the hardship of people at the bottom of the pile, if it is so worried about them.

And in mitigation, we ought to point out that there has been some spin about salaries from the other side too, with lawyers quoted by the BBC today saying they were “not prepared to work at hourly rates lower than the national minimum wage”.

This appears to be based on selecting some of the very lowest daily rates the governmentpublished last summer, in which junior counsel could get as little as £14 a day as part of a complex total pay package.

But the proposals were revised in September. An MoJ spokesman told us: “There is no proposal in September’s consultation that would allow the tapering system to go anywhere near as low as £14 a day.”

The department is keen to point out that no final decisions about how the cuts are managed have been made yet.

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