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Monday, August 10, 2020

Another sweetener for the Prime Minister's allies?

Following on from yesterday's post about how the friends and allies of Boris Johnson have somehow secured lucrative government contracts, the Independent reports on another astonishing, but altogether different phenomenon.

The paper says that Tate and Lyle Sugars is in line to save £73m from a post-Brexit trade shake-up, after campaigning to leave the EU and donating money to the Conservatives. The company has secured “a sweet deal” that will also see cane imported from countries with lower employment and environmental standards.

The allegations come from Greenpeace, but the firm said it was “a complete fantasy” that it wanted to import cheap, poorly produced sugar, under a shake-up at the end of the year, and defended its lobbying:

The controversy comes after the government said companies will be able to import 260,000 tonnes of raw sugar cane from anywhere in the world, tariff-free, from January.

However, the only company that currently imports raw sugar cane is Tate & Lyle – one of the few large employers that publicly backed Brexit.

Its name was also carried on the lanyards worn by everyone who attended the 2017 Tory conference, a sponsorship is recorded as an £8,000 donation by the Electoral Commission.

The new tariff-free quota equates to a £72.8m saving, according to analysis by Greenpeace’s Unearthed investigations team.

It is being introduced after a long and public lobbying campaign by the company. Greenpeace said Tate & Lyle had held at least 10 meetings with senior ministers over the last three years.

Greenpeace is particularly concerned as they believe ditching tariffs on raw cane sugar will boost imports from a handful of countries, all of which use pesticides banned in the UK for being harmful to wildlife and humans.

As ever with these issues we will have to see how that pans out.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

Cronyism or worse?

Over in the Guardian Opinion pages, Jonathan Freedland reminds us how it has taken just twelve months for Boris Johnson to create a government of sleaze. The examples he quotes include:
Freedman points out that Johnson was hardly a stickler for probity to start with: 'his attitude to the rules, grandly branded a libertarian philosophy by his pals, has long been elastic, at least when it comes to himself and those around him. As for Cummings, his breach of the lockdown during the pandemic’s most grave phase leaves no doubt: he sees the rules as applying to lesser mortals, not him.  
This week, research published in the Lancet proved how devastating “the Cummings effect” has been for public faith in the government’s handling of the pandemic. Through their cronyism, their cavalier disregard for basic propriety, Johnson and his circle are draining trust at a time when it is essential to the public health.' 

Isn't it time that Johnson and his government were held to account for this blatant abuse of public trust?

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Guest Post: Liberal Lessons About A Painful Past by Stephen Williams

Statues have been moved and removed, defaced and smashed since ancient times.

As ruling dynasties are supplanted and once powerful states are vanquished their replacements were often keen to sweep away the physical memories of their predecessors. During the last two centuries archaeologists the world over have found in rubbish heaps or river beds the busts or decapitated statue heads of former kings and emperors.

So, while I was initially shocked that some protestors in my home city of Bristol toppled the statue of Edward Colston and dunked it in the harbour, when I reflected on it I thought it was an appropriate action.

While it was the police murder of George Floyd in Minnesota that triggered the Black Lives Matter demonstration, the Bristol context was years of civic foot dragging and burying heads in the historical sands of the city’s involvement in African slavery.

Since the toppling of Colston we’ve seen the defacing of Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, the toppling of Columbus in Baltimore, the decision of Oxford University to remove a statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes and Liverpool University caving in to pressure to remove Gladstone as the name of a hall of residence.

Colston was a wealthy man from the time of Queen Anne, who made much of his fortune from lending money to slave traders. He was also an official of the Royal African Company. His link to slavery and its 21st century descendant of racism is pretty clear.

The case against explorers is quite weak, they didn’t decide the colonial policies that came later. The case against Rhodes seems to rest on a belief that imperialism was entirely bad, rather than him being the British equivalent of the Belgian monster Leopold II. 

SCORE SETTLING

But the case against Gladstone is at the opposite end of the spectrum of 2020 judgement to Colston. It seems to me to be more to do with a left wing score settling against anyone (especially current Liberals) who doesn’t embrace the entirety of their world view.

In their world, there is no room for balance or nuance. A historical life should be viewed in its entirety. Gladstone was clearly what we would now call a man on a journey. In his early years he was indeed the “rising hope of those stern and unbending Tories” but by the mid-point of his extraordinary political life he was the ‘People’s William’. In his career he achieved far more to improve Britain than the people’s Jeremy.

Statues and place names are physical reminders of particular points in our past. They are not in themselves history and by moving or changing them we are not erasing the past. If that past is uncomfortable for contemporary society then liberals have a duty to find a way to reconcile the need to understand history with a desire for a cohesive and inclusive society.

Sometimes the balance will tip in favour of removal of the painful reminder – what could be more of an insult to a 21st century Bristolian of Afro-Caribbean origin than the statue of a slave trader in the centre of the city? It’s right that Colston will now go to the city museum, as part of the displays on the history of Bristol and slavery.

I’m reminded of a similar situation in Estonia, which I visited on a Liberal Democrat delegation in 2007. The liberal government had moved a statue of a Soviet soldier from the centre of Tallinn to a cemetery that contained war graves. The Estonians saw the Russians as occupiers and oppressors, not liberators. This caused consternation in Moscow and Putin responded with a cyber-attack on the Estonian economy. Most central and east European capital cities have statue parks of communist era politicians. Statues are indeed powerful symbols from the past.

While on another delegation, to Australia, I saw Dublin’s statue of Queen Victoria which had been shipped off to a Sydney shopping centre, probably the world’s longest journey by a statue.

In most circumstances I believe the balance tips in favour of keeping the statue or place name but with an accompanying plaque or information panel telling the full warts and all story of the person who is commemorated. As liberals we believe in rational debate, a sifting of the evidence leading to an understanding of a situation, from which we can decide whether and how to change that situation or be content with how things stand.

A totally illiberal way to respond to our past is to demand a complete rearrangement of the facts of history so that they can be judged by or made to conform to contemporary values or opinions. I recently gave a brief talk to the Friends of a local library on the political language of George Orwell.

We don’t live in an Orwellian society but much of his language and the tactics of the characters of 1984 has seeped into our current politics. I’m thinking in the context of this article about Winston Smith’s explanation of the work of the Ministry of Truth: “Do you realise that the past, starting from yesterday, has actually been abolished?...Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered….History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

Some of the more extreme demands to sweep away all the statues and place names that commemorate dead white men come straight out of this Orwellian attitude, perhaps unwittingly. Yes, there is an imbalance of representation in our public art. The answer is not to remove what we have but to put up more statues, busts, murals and paintings to women, people of colour and gay people. My nomination for the empty plinth vacated by Colston is Hannah More, a Bristolian author, educationalist and campaigner with Wilberforce for the ending of slavery.

To build a modern society that is cohesive and where everyone is valued and enabled to make a contribution, one of things we must do is understand why society is in its current state. That is the role of history and the job of historians is to give us all the complete and unvarnished facts about our journey from whatever point in the past to our present situation. That history must be inclusive, not because liberals want a current society that is inclusive but because if the story isn’t inclusive then it isn’t complete.

I’m a Welshman from a working class family. My favourite subject at school was history and I now live on the English side of the Severn as I studied history at the University of Bristol. I’m also gay, regard myself as a feminist and have campaigned against racism. While I don’t judge a book by its cover I do judge a history book by its contents. Churchill is supposed to have said: “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” He did, won a Nobel Prize for his efforts and history has indeed been overly kind to him.

OXBRIDGE TYPES

Until quite recently most of the history books studied at school or found in bookshops to enjoy for your own learning were written by white, male, straight, English, public school, Oxbridge (or Sandhurst) types.

The stories they told were about men like them. All things good and indeed bad were done by people like them. Women were ancillary characters, with a few queenly exceptions. Poor people and slaves were mentioned in the context of the rights taken away or given to them by the ruling elite. The homosexuality of some of the ruling elite was swept under the carpet. One of the most popular articles on my blog is about the historic sites in Britain and their LGBT associations that almost always go unmentioned in their guide books.

Fortunately, schools policy in Wales is now in the hands of a female working class Liberal Democrat minister. Kirsty Williams has just launched the first post-devolution reform of the curriculum. I was delighted to see her say that history in Welsh schools will be “taught in a pluralistic way, which challenges both the amazing contributions of Welsh people in our own nation and across the world and sometimes things that should make us feel a bit uncomfortable”.

The young beneficiaries of Kirsty’s new curriculum will be shaping Welsh and maybe British society in the middle decades of this century.

Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on our own school years to make us better informed. History isn’t nuclear physics, aspects of it can be learned throughout life by people of all abilities. Those of us who are campaigning to change society in a more liberal direction have a duty to study our past and act to make sure that our contemporary fellow citizens are able to live their lives without being trapped by their past and to look about them and feel that people like them are valued and celebrated in our public space.

Stephen Williams was Liberal Democrat MP for Bristol West 2005-15 and was minister for communities in the Coalition Government. This article first appeared in Liberator Issue 402.


Friday, August 07, 2020

More Labour chaos

Corbyn's legacy is continuing to haunt the Labour Party after an inquiry was told that staffers named in a leaked internal party report that claimed to show their private hostility to Jeremy Corbyn have alleged the document misused private messages to falsely make them seem racist and sexist.

The Guardian reports that officials accused in the report of insulting pro-Corbyn colleagues in WhatsApp groups are seeking damages from the party for misuse of data and libel, among other complaints:

The leaked 860-page report emerged in April, just after Keir Starmer became Labour leader, reigniting party splits by claiming that Corbyn’s chances of success were scuppered by disgruntled party elements.

Authored anonymously in the final months of Corbyn’s tenure, the report said opponents hampered his efforts to tackle antisemitism in the party, and cited WhatsApp messages insulting Corbyn’s allies. Some of the messages had apparent racist or sexist overtones, prompting disquiet among some of the party’s BAME members.

Starmer has set up an inquiry led by Martin Forde QC to investigate both the claims in the report and how it was produced and leaked.

In a formal submission to the inquiry, seen by the Guardian, lawyers for the accused officials say the WhatsApp messages were used selectively and edited to give a false impression. They also say the inquiry should be abandoned given the damage already caused by the leaked report. The 11-page submission claims that some WhatsApp messages sent months apart were joined together to create a false narrative, and others were removed, “so that by such editing a deliberately false impression that racist and misogynistic conversations had taken place”.

It says the unnamed authors of the leaked report should not have had access to the WhatsApp messages, adding that one member of the WhatsApp group accidentally backed them up via their Labour email, and that a data misuse complaint is with the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The leaked report also selectively ignores many thousands of other messages that do not back up a narrative of factionalism or prejudice, the lawyers write.

They say the officials plan to take legal action against Labour over data protection issues and libel as well invasion of privacy and, for some staffers, breach of contract and employment, and will seek substantial damages.


In the circumstances I suspect Starmer is massively frustrated at the mess he has inherited. Nobody would be surprised if he is pacing up and down echoing the words of Henry II about Thomas Beckett - “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest!” - because until this is settled and the Cotbynite chaos resolved, he is unable to move forward with his own leadership.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Jobs for the boys (and girls)?

Just how far the current Conservative administration is prepared to go to subvert the system in their own favour has been revealed by this article in the Independent.

The paper repoets on an Institute for Government analysis which has found that Tory insiders are being handed powerful Whitehall jobs despite promises that “independent” people would be appointed. 

They say that the boards overseeing government departments are meant to be staffed through “fair and transparent competition”, finding private sector recruits boasting “experience of managing complex organisations”. But no fewer than eight of 13 appointments made this year have gone to close Conservative allies of the ministers they are meant to scrutinise.

Four of the five appointees to the Cabinet Office’s board this year are former colleagues of its lead minister, Michael Gove – including Lord Nash, who has given more than £400,000 to the Tory party:

Departmental boards were introduced in 2010 to “fundamentally transform the way government operates, scrutinising decisions and sharpening accountability”.

But ministers have appointed growing number of former special advisers to the part-time positions, which come with an average salary of £15,000 per year.

Lord Nash, appointed by Boris Johnson last week as the government’s lead non-executive director, was a Tory schools minister and donated £3,250 to Mr Gove’s failed 2016 leadership campaign.

He joins Henry de Zoete, an adviser to Mr Gove when he was education secretary in the Cameron government, and Gisela Stuart, the former Labour MP and ally in the Vote Leave campaign.

Baroness Finn, another director, is a Conservative peer who also served as a special adviser in the Cabinet Office, and attended the University of Oxford at the same time as Mr Gove, The Times said.

Last month, the department for work and pensions appointed Eleanor Shawcross, a former adviser to George Osborne, and Rachel Wolf, the co-author of last year’s Tory election manifesto, to its departmental board.

As foreign secretary, Mr Johnson made Edward Lister, now his chief of staff and recently-appointed Tory peer, a Foreign Office non-executive director.


Nice work if you can get it.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Is the Covid 19 compensation scheme for health and care workers operating in secret?

Liberal Democrats leadership contender, Layla Moran has highlighted a huge flaw in a Covid life assurance scheme for health and social care workers - nobody knows about it and as a result claims are virtually non-existent.

As the Huffington Post reports, to date the government had made just two payouts for key worker deaths on the front line:

Despite at least 300 health and social care workers losing their lives after contracting the disease, just 21 claims for the £60,000 had been successful as of July 23 – and only two families had received the cash so far.

Now, a cross-party group of MPs has written to the prime minister calling on him to actually advertise the payout scheme, announced by his health secretary Matt Hancock in April.

The letter, signed by 25 MPs and peers, calls on the government to “rapidly design and implement a dignified advertising campaign to raise awareness for the scheme amongst workers and their families.” It is signed 13 Lib Dems, nine from Labour and two from the SNP.

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, who coordinated the letter and campaigned for the scheme, said: “The low take-up of the scheme so far is extremely worrying. It suggests there is an issue with lack of awareness and that some are at risk of missing out.

“The government urgently needs to get the NHS, GPs and other employers round the table and set up an advertising campaign to raise awareness of this scheme.

“We must ensure that families of NHS and care workers who tragically die on the front line against coronavirus receive support in their time of need.”

Given that the claims are “time-limited” and there is a six-month sunset clause then the government really need to get a move on and publicise this scheme properly.

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Another embarrassment for Johnson's Brexiteers

Anybody wondering why the UK Government was trying to suppress the release of a parliamentary report on Russian interference in our democratic process need no look no further than this article in today's Guardian.

Liam Fox's alleged incompetence in failing to secure sensitive government documents from hackers may not have featured in the report, but the general impression given by this latest incident is that the government is flailing about, clueless and impotent in the face of actions by external agitators.

The Guardian says that a personal email account belonging to Liam Fox, the former trade minister, was repeatedly hacked into by Russians who stole classified documents relating to US-UK trade talks. The stolen documents – a 451-page dossier of emails – ultimately ended up in the hands of Jeremy Corbyn during last winter’s election campaign after Russian actors tried to disseminate the material online:

Details of Russia’s targeting of Fox’s emails were first revealed on Monday by Reuters, which said his account was accessed several times between 12 July and 21 October last year. It was unclear if the documents were obtained when the staunch leave supporter was still trade secretary; he was dropped by Boris Johnson on 24 July.

The attack is understood to have deployed a “spear-phishing” technique frequently used by Russian actors, in which superficially plausible emails are sent inviting the recipient to click on an attached file. The file contains malicious code designed to give access to or take control of the target’s computer.

Chris Bryant, a Labour MP and former Foreign Office minister, said he was not surprised that the Kremlin might want to hack the trade secretary’s email, given Russia’s long history of targeting western politicians.

“What shocks me is using insecure personal email accounts for sensitive, classified government business. This a very serious breach of national security and should be a criminal offence,” Bryant added.

Using personal emails for UK government business is not illegal but ministers are reminded that government information “must be handled in accordance with the requirements of the law, including the Official Secrets Act”, in guidance published by the government in 2013.

The stupidity involved in this leak is legion. Anybody in any position of influence is consistently warned not to click on unknown or suspicious attachments, whilst surely the 2016 controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton's use of of a private server, the well-known hacking of the Democratic National Party's servers and many more instances prior to Fox's material being stolen, should have alerted him and everybody else only to use secure government networks for sensitive government documents.

Astonishingly, Johnson has now nominated Fox to be the next Director General of the World Trade Organisation despite the fact that during his tenure as UK Trade Secretary he failed to secure a single trade deal. Fox is also the man who predicted that a free trade agreement with the EU should be "one of the easiest in human history", something he may have failed to mention to our current negotiators.

With a track record like this he will no doubt be welcomed with open arms by the WTO and, given his misguided and mistaken criticism of a lack of democracy in the EU, he will surely submit his new role to a democratic election, in which all the citizens of the WTO members get a vote.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Has the government abandoned care homes in England?

The Independent reports that ministers have been accused of being “negligent” towards care home residents and staff, after it emerged that the target of delivering regular coronavirus tests this summer has been dropped.

The paper says that a leaked memo written by the government’s adult social care testing director, Jane Cummings, has revealed that the originally promised timelines for rolling out regular tests had been abandoned:

Weekly testing for staff and 28-day tests for residents was due to begin in England on 6 July for care homes looking after over-65s and those with dementia, with a rollout to all adult social care homes from August.

However, Prof Cummings’s memo suggested that the target for care homes with older people and dementia sufferers had been put back to 7 September. Other adult care homes will only be able to order test kits from 31 August.

A member of the Independent Sage expert group said the delay was "not good enough".

Christina Pagel, director of the Clinical Operational Research Unit at University College London, told the BBC: "We know care homes were absolutely devastated in March and April, when they were one-third of all UK deaths, and we absolutely have responsibility to protect care homes now. And we protect them by testing people and making sure we are not bringing infection into these really vulnerable communities."

From my perspective it seems that the testing regime has been a disaster in all four nations, with targets being regularly missed, no obvious criteria or consistency of purpose, and varying degrees of efficacy.

Early incompetence, which led to indefensible levels of infection (and deaths) in care homes, now appears to being compounded by this failure on testing. Isn't it time all the government's got their act together on this issue.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Is Covid distracting us from a greater crisis?

All many of us have been able to think and talk about for the past few months has been coronavirus and the lockdown but, as with other pandemics, at some stage we will move on, only to be forced to face up to the greater crisis impacting on our planet and our future - climate change.

The Guardian reports that the Met Office’s annual climate report has concluded that more extreme heat, less frost and snow, and trees coming into leaf earlier are among the signs seen in 2019 that the climate crisis is exerting an increasing impact on the UK.

They say that 2019 was 1.1C above the 1961-1990 average and the all-time high temperature record was broken in July when Cambridge hit 38.7C. The record-high for winter was also broken, with 21.2C in February at Kew Gardens in London:

Weather conditions are the result of the warming trend driven by global heating and natural variability. Last year was the 12th warmest year on records dating back to 1884 and one of the least snowy years on record. It was also the sixth consecutive year with fewer frosts than average. The last decade has seen 16% fewer days of air and ground frost compared with 1961–1990.

“Our report shows climate change is exerting an increasing impact on the UK’s climate,” said Mike Kendon, lead author of the Met Office report. “Since 2002 we have seen the warmest 10 years in the series. By contrast, to find a year in the coldest 10 we have to go back to 1963 – over 50 years ago.”

The Central England Temperature Series is the longest instrumental record in the world, stretching back to 1659. It shows the average temperature this century so far is 10.3C, which is 1.6C higher than the period 1659-1700.

“Seeing these temperature records go down like sweaty skittles is a stark reminder that climate change is still tightening its grip on all our futures,” said Prof Dave Reay, at the University of Edinburgh. “No corner of the UK is immune to the impacts of climate change.”

In June, research showed the likelihood of the UK experiencing deadly 40C temperatures for the first time is “rapidly accelerating” because of the climate emergency. Another analysis, from Public Health England showed the summer heatwaves of 2019 resulted in almost 900 extra deaths. A wide range of business, economics, health and environmental groups are urging governments including the UK to implement a green recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

But is it too late to do anything about it? Only time will tell.

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Bloated House of Lords to expand further

Like a legislative Mr. Creosote from Monty Python's 'The Meaning of Life', the House of Lords is to expand still further until it is in danger of bursting open from government gluttony and a refusal to adopt a more healthy lifestyle.

The news that Boris Johnson is to nominate dozens of new peers, taking the membership of the unelected second chamber to over 800, almost 200 more than the House of Commons, has been met with widespread dismay. This is especially so as the list includes some of the more unlikely of the Prime Minister's pals, making it possibly the most controversial since Harold Wilson's Lavender List.

Russian-born billionaire newspaper proprietor Evgeny Lebedev and the prime minister’s brother, Jo Johnson, are joined by Johnson’s chief strategic adviser, Sir Edward Lister, as well as a host of Tory grandees and well-known Brexiters, including former England cricketer Sir Ian Botham.

Ex-Labour MPs who backed Brexit – Kate Hoey, Ian Austin, and Gisela Stuart – are also on the list. But noticeably absent are former Commons speaker John Bercow and former Labour deputy leader Tom Watson.

Tory donor and City grandee Michael Spencer is also among those nominated for a peerage. Charles Moore, who as a former Daily Telegraph editor was the prime minister’s boss, and Claire Fox, the ex-Brexit party MEP and former member of the Revolutionary Communist party, are both nominated for non-affiliated peerages.

Neil Mendoza, the provost of Oriel College Oxford who found himself at the centre of the recent Rhodes Must Fall controversy, was also nominated by Johnson for a peerage. He was heavily involved in securing the £1.5bn arts bailout and is expected to play a role in distributing it.

The Guardian reports that Lebedev, who is nominated as a crossbench peer, hosted Johnson at his Italian party in 2018. The prime minister also headed to Lebedev’s London family home in the aftermath of his 2019 election victory to celebrate the 60th birthday of his father, Alexander, a former KGB spy.

They say there is also a peerage for former Evening Standard editor Veronica Wadley, whose support for Boris Johnson during the 2008 London mayoral election played a key role in his victory over Ken Livingstone.

Darren Hughes, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: “The Lords was already the largest second chamber in the world. There are now over 800 unelected peers, voting on our laws for life. Is packing the Lords with party loyalists really a priority, as a pandemic rages across the world? This move is an absolute insult to voters. This is making a mockery of democracy.”

By rewarding his friends in this way. Johnson is just reinforcing the undemocratic nature of our governmental system. A true radical would reduce the second chamber in size and democratise it. Unfortunately, our current Prime Minister does not appear to be interested in such a reform.

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