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Thursday, October 22, 2020

Why I self published

In my view, literary agents and publishers are very conservative. I don't blame them for that. They must receive thousands of novels each year to be evaluated and considered for publication., many of varying quality. They cannot publish them all.

If we add in the decline in the number of people reading books, the costs of marketing, and other expenses, it must be very difficult to make any sort of profit from publishing fiction.

I suppose that is why much of the work actually being sent to book shops is by well-known authors with an established following, the J.K. Rowlings, Geoge R.R Martin and Philip Pullman's of this world, who have film and TV exposure to boost sales.

And then there are TV stars who have turned their hand to fiction, some with more success than others, the TV chat show host, the dancer on Strictly Come Dancing, the super model and the TV quiz host. Their books, some of which actually are very readable, sell because they are by well-known names.

In writing this, I do not want to dismiss the very high quality fiction that is being published. A great many novels are being accepted on their merits, it is just that many are not.

When I wrote my first two novels, I bought a guide to getting them published and spent a year sending them to agents. Despite getting some praise, none of them felt the books were for them.

I would have persisted if it had not been for two conversations I had, one with a author who explained to me how easy it is to self-publish using KDP, and another with a well-known publisher.

The latter conversation came about in Buckingham Palace, where I was receiving a CBE for political service. Amongst my group was Dame Carmen Callil, the founder of Virago Press. I told her I had written a novel. She told me that the publishing business had changed dramatically since she had started out and she advised me to self publish.

I came home and did precisely that. My two novels can be bought here, and I am making progress on my third. Please buy them.

Tory MPs vote down bid to feed children in England receiving free school meals during the pandemic

I read somewhere that if the National Health Service was being formed today, it would be voted down by a conservative majority in the House of Commons. That may be unfair on a number of MPs who can see the value of free health care but the sentiment is correct, it seems that this government and those pouring through the lobbies on its behalf have no social conscience.

In Wales, a Welsh Liberal Democrats Education Minister has ensured that those pupils in receipt of free school meals will continue to be fed during lockdown and during school holidays until at least Easter 2021. In England, a request by the footballer Marcus Rashford for the UK Government to follow suit was rejected by Tory MPs last niight, the vote being 322 votes to 261 with a government majority of 61.

The Guardian reports the motion to provide 1.4 million disadvantaged children in England with £15-a-week food vouchers during holidays until Easter 2021 was voted down:

In response Rashford, 22, who became an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list this month, told his 3.5m Twitter followers: “Put aside all the noise, the digs, the party politics, and let’s focus on the reality. A significant number of children are going to bed tonight not only hungry but feeling like they do not matter because of comments that have been made today.”

Rashford, who has spoken of his own experience of food poverty growing up in Wythenshawe, Manchester, added: “We must stop stigmatising, judging and pointing fingers. Our views are being clouded by political affiliation. This is not politics, this is humanity.

“I don’t have the education of a politician, many on Twitter have made that clear today, but I have a social education having lived through this and having spent time with the families and children most affected. These children matter.” He urged Boris Johnson to sit down and discuss a solution.

This neglect of poorer families and willingness to allow disadvantage children to go without a nutritious meal, will become the new yardstick for measuring the lack of compassion on the Tory benches.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Blame Cummings says former civil service head

The Independent reports on the views of Mark Sedwill, who is the cabinet secretary forced out by the prime minister in June, that Dominic Cummings’ flouting of lockdown rules “clearly undermined” efforts to win the public’s support to fight the pandemic.

He has branded the chief No 10 aide’s notorious journeys to and around County Durham “a mistake” – after Boris Johnson claimed he acted “reasonably” and refused to sack him. He also acknowledged the government did not have the “exact measures” in place to confront Covid-19:

“I think there is a genuine question about whether we could have been better prepared in the first place and that is obviously a very legitimate challenge,” Lord Sedwill said.

It would be for a future inquiry to determine whether the lockdown in March came too late and whether ministers had prepared properly to cope with a pandemic.

However, the prime minister has refused to start that inquiry – despite promising it in July – amid suspicions he is dragging his heels to avoid possible heavy criticism.

In April, Mr Cummings left London for his second home in Durham, when both he and his wife were showing symptoms – and then claimed he drove to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight.

A survey last month found that the public strongly believed Mr Cummings’ actions had “undermined compliance with lockdown rules” – a view backed by 76 per cent of voters.

Almost three quarters (74 per cent) said the prime minister was “wrong” to stand by his de-facto chief-of-staff when his apparent rule-breaking was exposed.

Lord Sedwill, speaking to the BBC, said of the incident: “It was clearly a difficult moment for the government. It was a mistake. Whether everyone should quit every time they make a mistake, I don't think is right.

“But it clearly undermined the government's coherent narrative about people following the rules.”


Perhaps a few more of the civil servants who were purged by Johnson and Cummings should speak out as well.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Even Theresa May finds plan for post-Brexit national security difficult to believe

I have written a number of times here about the impact of Brexit on our national security and international crime, so it is disappointing to see that Ministers are still such a blasé view of the issue.

As a reminder, back in March 2018, the Independent reported on the belief of the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons that unless a deal is struck to maintain security and policing cooperation with the EU after Brexit, then the UK could be sleepwalking into a crisis. 

They said that there are “serious legal, constitutional and political obstacles” that mean an agreement will not be easy to reach, but failure to “urgently” resolve these issues will “seriously undermine” the UK’s security.

In particular, the committee said failure to continue using the European Arrest Warrant and instead having to rely an earlier extradition treaty would be a “catastrophic outcome.” They called on the Government to begin negotiations on a security and policing treaty immediately, and said the UK should be willing to sacrifice its “artificial red lines”, including on the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

In May 2018, the Times reported that despite Ministers saying Britain’s participation in the so-called Prüm Convention is “clearly in the national interest”, that is now in doubt. The government wanted a guarantee that it can continue to access and share vital DNA, fingerprint and vehicle information with other European countries after Brexit. This system allowed French and Belgian authorities to identify the terrorists responsible for the Paris attacks in November 2015. As the paper said:

Prüm is one of a number of EU crime-fighting tools, including the European Criminal Records Information Exchange System and the Schengen Information System (SIS), that Britain wants to continue to use.

British police disclosed that they had carried out 539 million checks on SIS in 2017 and warned that month about being frozen out of the “critical” databases. Steve Smart, director of intelligence at the National Crime Agency, told a parliamentary hearing: “The impact of losing access to those datasets is that more bad people will get into the UK and it will be harder for us to find and deal with them.”

And then in June 2017, the Independent reported on a speech by Nick Clegg, then the Liberal Democrats Brexit spokesperson, in which he said:

"Theresa May has vowed to pull Britain out of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, a decision which means we would no longer have access to vital EU-wide databases of criminal activity.

“So where are the contingency plans when our police forces find themselves unable to check the databases of 28 EU countries at the touch of a button? If only she would deign to tell us, then maybe we could judge.”

“Just last year, a not-so-distant era when Theresa May made perfectly rational arguments against leaving Europe, she warned that being in the UK makes us “more secure from crime and terrorism.”

The paper pointed out that data experts feared the Government is failing to recognise the danger to businesses and the fight against terrorism from losing information-sharing rights. They said Britain risks a wait of up to three years to be granted an “adequacy decision” from Brussels, threatening to stop the flow of data immediately unless a temporary deal can be struck.

Crucially, separate agreements may have to be struck with individual police forces and intelligence services – with the danger that vital information will “fall between the cracks”, one expert was quoted as saying.

Fast forward to today, and the Mirror reports that Theresa May has poured scorn on Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit security commitments as she warned of the dangers of a no-deal scenario:

The Conservative former prime minister repeatedly said “what?” in disbelief and appeared to mouth “utter rubbish” as Michael Gove outlined how the UK will be expected to boost its security outside the EU.

Cabinet Office minister Mr Gove claimed there are “many, many areas” in which the UK can co-operate “more effectively” to protect its borders after Brexit.

Speaking in the Commons, Mrs May warned: “The Government appears resigned to the prospect of no deal, yet one area which they should not be resigned to the prospect of no deal is in security.”

Mrs May said neither Mr Gove nor Prime Minister Mr Johnson had mentioned security in recent statements.

She added: “Will (Mr Gove) confirm that, if the UK walks away with no deal, then our police and law enforcement agencies will no longer have the necessary access to databases, such as PNR (passenger name record), in order to continue to identify and catch criminals and potential terrorists in order to keep us safe?”

Mr Gove said “significant progress” has been made over security co-operation, adding: “But it is the case that the EU are insisting that, before we have access to systems, like the Schengen Information System, we have to accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice – we cannot accept that.

“The second thing I’d say is there are many, many areas in which we can co-operate more effectively to safeguard our borders outside the European Union than we ever could inside, through a variety of methods and arrangements open to us, open to Border Force and open to our security and intelligence services – we can intensify the security that we give to the British people.

“The third thing I’d say to (Mrs May) is that I agree with her: when it comes to everything, security and other matters, no deal is better than a bad deal.”

Despite all the warnings, the government has learnt nothing. If anything the prospect of a no deal Brexit leaves us even more exposed. That Theresa May has raised these issues in the Commons may be the final indicator that irony is well and truly dead.

Monday, October 19, 2020

The scandalous cost of England's failing test and trace system

The Mirror reports that some of the consultants involved with the Government's failing test and trace system are receiving £7,000 a day from public coffers:

Last week, Sky News said it had seen documents revealing Boston Consulting Group (BCG) was paid about £10 million for around 40 consultants to provide four months’ work between the end of April and late August.

The broadcaster said the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) received a 10 to 15% discount from BCG, whose day rates for public sector work range from £2,400 to £7,360 for the most senior consultants.

This is despite the fact that the test and trace system has been a key failure in the Government's plan to contain the coronavirus. There has been heavy criticism of the profits it has created for private companies while failing to deliver comprehensive support.

Serco, one of the outsourcing companies involved in the programme, has said it would consider paying a dividend to shareholders after the government contract helped boost its profits. It is no surprise therefore that shares in Serco surged by 18% on Friday after it said it expected to make an underlying profit for the year of between £160m and £165m.

This scandal comes on top of the many UK government failures in seeking to contain this pandemic. It cannot be right that, while thousands of people face losing their jobs because of measures put in place to control the virus, companies like this are raking in the cash off the back of the crisis.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Police access to data will undermine Covid protocols

It is almost as if the UK Government is trying to destroy people's trust in the measures they have brought in to tackle the Covid 19 pandemic. The Guardian reports that people who have been told to self-isolate through NHS test and trace could have their contact details passed to police, a move some fear could deter people from being tested for coronavirus:

England made it a legal requirement for people to self-isolate if they test positive for coronavirus. Those who fail to do so face fines starting at £1,000, while repeat offenders or those committing serious breaches could receive fines of up to £10,000, according to the DHSC.

The department updated its online guidance on Friday about how coronavirus testing data will be handled.

People who fail to self-isolate “without reasonable justification” could have their name, address and contact details passed to their local authority and then to the police, the DHSC’s website said.

“This may lead to enforcement action being taken against you, which could include you being fined,” the online guidance said.

“A police force may request information relating to positive Covid-19 tests from the NHS Test & Trace programme directly, where they are investigating a report of someone who may not be complying with the mandatory self-isolation period.”

This has led to the office of England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, voicing concerns that the move would discourage people from being tested for the virus, while Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader, said ministers should “reverse the policy urgently”, calling it a “huge mistake”.

“Anything that further undermines the public’s dwindling trust in this government’s handling of the pandemic is damaging, and few things could have been better designed to do that than this,” he said.

“Asking our already overstretched police service to take on this task is both self-defeating and a serious misjudgment.”

On top of the 'one rule for you, another rule for us' approach by UK Ministers, this could well undermine the whole anti-Covid strategy.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

The inevitable no-deal - a massive web of deceit and broken promises by UK Ministers

I am not sure whether I am more angry or resigned this morning reading on the BBC that Boris Johnson has effectively pulled the plug on trade talks with the EU and told us all to prepare for a no deal exit on 31 December.

One is tempted to think that the lurid tell-all by Jennifer Arcuri in the Brexit-backing, Tory-arse-licking, formerly nazi-sympathising Daily Mail this morning, in which she finally admits to bonking our serial shagger PM, providing far more detail than is decent at any breakfast table, is a deliberate distraction tactic on the part of that rag.

We now have a situation where half of Kent is being converted into a lorry park, drivers may have to show some sort of passport to get into the county, businesses trading in Europe will become swamped in paperwork, tariffs will lead to an increase in the cost of living for all of us, while making UK businesses less competitive with an inevitable knock-on for jobs, and the Good Friday Agreement lies wrecked in a gutter of Johnson's making. 

What is worse is that he has done this in the middle of an economy-wrecking pandemic. This is the No deal’ which no-one voted for and which Johnson himself described as a ‘total failure of statecraft’.

How can we forget the promises and reassurances made to the public when Ministers told us during the referendum that securing trade deals would be easy, that a no deal would not happen and that leaving the EU would make no difference to the way we interact with the trading bloc. Variations on these promises have been repeated constantly since June 2016.

With a no deal looking to be the almost certain outcome of this process, it is worth repeating yet again, warnings by the Institute for Fiscal Studies from October last year. They warned that emergency tax cuts and higher public spending to offset the impact of a no-deal Brexit would send government debt to its highest level in more than half a century.

At that time the IFS said a no-deal Brexit could cause economic growth to flatline in 2020-21, even if the Bank of England cut interest rates and the government stepped in with emergency tax cuts and higher spending.

Describing the scenario emerging from a “relatively benign” no-deal Brexit, the IFS said the budget deficit would rise to almost £100bn or 4% of GDP by 2021-22, reversing the progress over the past decade of producing gradually smaller deficits.

And then there is the Treasury's own analysis from February 2018, which found that a no-deal Brexit will blow an £80bn hole in the public finances, with the leave-voting heartlands of north-east England and West Midlands worst affected.

The report suggests that the north-east would face a 16% hit to regional economic growth, and the West Midlands 13%. And it claims that a hard Brexit would mean an overall 21% rise in retail prices, with a 17% rise in food and drink costs.

The additional borrowing costs would be mitigated by £40bn of gains from leaving the EU, including £11bn in saved payments, leaving £80bn in net costs. Of this, £55bn can be put down to the impact of non-tariff barriers, which could include regulatory divergence or quotas.

The Treausry predicted an additional 21% rise in retail prices, an 18% rise in agricultural costs, a 17% rise in food and drink costs and 14% rise in motor vehicles and parts, over the 15 years post-Brexit. It predicts that if the UK were to trade under WTO terms, tariffs could mean food and drink prices increase by an additional 12.7%.

Boris Johnson and his cohorts are taking this country to the edge of economic and financial ruin in the pursuit of ideological purity and the only people who are set to benefit from it are their friends in the city.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Labour abandon role of opposition on civil liberties breach

That two Labour frontbenchers were forced to resign to oppose the Government legislation that allows MI5 and police informants to commit crimes, tells us everything we need to know about Keir Starmer's attitude to civil liberties.

As the Guardian reports, Starmer had wanted Labour MPs to abstain on the bill once their amendments were defeated, arguing that statutory regulation of informants’ conduct would have been necessary if the party had been in power.

But critics of the covert human intelligence sources bill argued it did not explicitly rule out crimes such as murder, torture or serious sexual offences – and that it could authorise spying by undercover agents or police, including on groups such as trade unions:

Margaret Greenwood, the shadow schools spokesperson, quit immediately after the early evening vote, joining the shadow financial secretary to the Treasury, Dan Carden, who had resigned earlier in the day. The two were among a handful of leftwingers remaining on Keir Starmer’s frontbench.

“I cannot stand by and allow a bill to go through that will profoundly impact on our civil liberties and the environment in which individuals can get together to have their voices heard,” Greenwood wrote in her resignation letter.

But the rebellion could have been larger had a second group of leftwing frontbenchers also decided to defy the whip. Instead, after intense lobbying from senior party figures such as the deputy leader, Angela Rayner, they made a “collective decision to stay on the frontbench and use their roles to ensure the left has a stronger voice in future party policy”, according to a source close the group.

They included MPs Andy McDonald, Imran Hussain, Rachael Maskell, Cat Smith, Marsha de Cordova, Alex Sobel, Sam Tarry and Charlotte Nichols. They said they were given “clear assurances” by Starmer that the party would campaign on union issues. However, Labour insiders said no specific concessions had been made.

Other MPs who did quit were five parliamentary private secretaries – shadow junior ministers – including Navendu Misra and Kim Johnson, both of whom were aides to Rayner, and Rachel Hopkins, Sarah Owen and Mary Foy.


It appears that Starmer is trying to take Labour back to the authoritarian, centralising, illiberal days of Tony Blair in an attempt to win power. The need for the Liberal Democrats has never been greater. Let's hope that Ed Davey steps up to fill the libertarian gap being left for him.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

UK Government no longer following scientific advice

It is actually very unlikely that any of the governments in the UK have been following scientific advice to the letter over how to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic, but that has not stopped all of them from using scientists as a shield for the unpopular decisions they have had to make. 

The fact is that every decision that has been made has been political, and has been based on a number of factors, including science, economics and pure politics. The problem that ministers now face is that this has beecome more transparent in recent days and as a result the government have lost their scapegoats for when things go wrong.

Boris Johnson was late in enforcing the lockdown in March, with the result that more people died than needed to, now he appears to have repeated that error. The Mirror reports that the government's scientific advisors officially recommended an urgent two-week 'circuit break' lockdown three weeks ago, but that this advice was not adhered to by Ministers:
 
Documents slipped out by the government show scientists were urging Boris Johnson to go further than the three-tier local lockdown system he announced today.

The Prime Minister today announced restrictions on household contact and travel and shut pubs that don't serve food in the worst 'Tier 3' area.

Yet at a No10 press conference tonight, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty admitted the standard Tier 3 measures in England do not go far enough on their own.

Now bombshell papers - quietly published on the government's website moments after the press conference - show how much further SAGE asked the PM to go.

In a meeting on September 21, the group said a two-week circuit-breaker lockdown across the whole of England was one of a shortlist of five measures that "should be considered for immediate introduction".

SAGE said a circuit-breaker of perhaps two to three weeks was "likely to have similar levels of effectiveness as national lockdown in Spring" and bring the R below 1, albeit only temporarily.

"Modelling suggests that 14 days of significant reduction in transmission in October could put the epidemic back 28 days and could significantly reduce the prevalence of infection in December," SAGE added.

“The amount of ‘time gained’ is highly dependent on how quickly the epidemic is growing – the faster the growth or stricter the measures introduced, the more time gained.”

SAGE did not call for all five changes to be taken at once but warned: "A package of interventions will need to be adopted to prevent this exponential rise in cases. Single interventions are unlikely to be able to reduce incidence. If schools are to remain open, then a wide range of other measures will be required."


A gulf has opened up between Ministers and the experts, and the government appears to be floundering.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

UK Government pirouettes into a u-turn

 

The UK Government's undoubtedly genuine attempt to encourage people to retrain in the face of mounting unemployment came unstuck yesterday, when they put out a rather crass advert that not only stretched credibility but also underlined their own neglect and underfunding of the arts.

As the Independent reports, officials were foreced to pull a heavily criticised advert that suggested a ballet dancer could “reboot” her career and retrain as an IT worker amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Prime minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson admitted the advert, which was launched amid anger at the relative lack of government financial support for the creative industries, was “inappropriate”.

The spokesperson said: “This is part of a campaign encouraging people from all walks of life to consider a career in cyber-security. This particular piece of content was not appropriate and has been removed from the campaign.


The advert generated a whole selection of memes suggesting that various key figures in the government could retrain, including Dominic Cummings working for Specsavers or as a tour guide at Barnard Castle, and the Prime Minister moving over to opposition. You reap what you sow I suppose.

Monday, October 12, 2020

More questions over COVID procurement

The Guardian reports that a legal action has been launched over the government’s failure to disclose details of its spending on contracts related to the pandemic, as it emerged that it has failed to account for £3bn spent on private contracts since the start of lockdown.

They say three cross-party MPs and Good Law Project, a non-profit-making organisation, have filed a judicial review against the government for breaching the law and its own guidance and argue that there are mounting concerns over coronavirus procurement processes:

Green party MP, Caroline Lucas, Labour’s Debbie Abrahams and Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran say that, despite the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) disclosing in September that at least £11bn worth of contracts have been awarded by the department since April, related predominantly to coronavirus, fresh analysis by data analysts Tussell shows that over £3bn worth of these contracts have not been made public.

The DHSC has said due diligence was carried out on all government contracts which have been awarded. The government has 21 days to respond to the judicial review proceedings.

Jolyon Maugham QC, director of Good Law Project, said: “What we know about the government’s procurement practices during this pandemic gives real cause for concern.

“Huge sums of public money have been awarded to companies with no discernible expertise. Sometimes the main qualification seems to be a political connection with key government figures.

“And I have seen evidence that government is sometimes paying more to buy the same product from those with political connections. We don’t know what else there is to discover because the government is deliberately keeping the public in the dark.

“We are left with no option but to push for transparency through the courts.”

Lucas added: “When billions of pounds of public money is handed out to private companies, some of them with political connections but no experience in delivering medical supplies, ministers should be explaining why those companies were awarded the contracts.

“It’s completely unacceptable that, as an MP, I’m prevented from being able to scrutinise those decisions.”

Abrahams said: “The persistent failure to publish the details of Covid contracts leads you to wonder what this government has got to hide.”

Moran said: “It is totally unacceptable for the government to avoid scrutiny during a public health crisis.


The worse aspect of this action of course is that this is a government whose members campaigned to leave the EU to give power back to Parliament and yet, they are completly by-passing parliamentary scrutiny in their actions, forcing MPs to go to court for answers - plus ça change as they say on the continent.

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