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Tuesday, December 07, 2021

The ongoing saga of the PPE scandal

Just when we thought that things had calmed down a bit in the ongoing saga of how the UK government bypassed standard procurement practices to give massive PPE contracts to favoured individuals, another revelation hits the media.

The Guardian reports that at least 46 PPE deals were awarded to firms put in a special “VIP lane” by Conservative ministers, MPs and officials during the Covid pandemic before a formal due diligence process was put in place. This contradicts the claim by ministers that all PPE contracts were put through a rigorous “eight-stage process” for assuring quality and value for money. In total, contracts worth £5bn were handed to companies with political or Whitehall connections were awarded through the 'VIP lane'.

The paper says that a parliamentary answer obtained by Labour’s Angela Rayner revealed that 46 out of the 111 contracts awarded through the “high priority” lane were not subjected to the formal eight-stage process, which was only brought in on 4 May 2020:

Last year, the National Audit Office found that 71 PPE contracts overall were awarded before the eight-stage checking process was created.

It said: “The Department for Health and Social Care, supported by other departments, established an eight-stage process to assess and process offers of support to supply PPE.

“It set up processes to rapidly check suppliers’ equipment against government’s PPE specifications and to undertake due diligence on the suppliers. Contracts were awarded to 71 suppliers, worth £1.5bn in total, before this process was standardised.”

The parliamentary answer to Rayner demonstrates that almost two-thirds of these 71 contracts awarded before the formal due diligence process were given out after referrals from the “VIP lane”.

The revelation contradicts claims by Michael Gove, then a senior Cabinet Office minster, who said in the House of Commons earlier this year that “every single procurement decision went through an eight-stage process”.

Was Parliament misled on this issue? Can the word of ministers be trusted when they say all proper processes were followed? Is this just the tip of the iceberg? 

The need for an independent inquiry into these processes, in which all meeting minutes, documents and correspondence related to every contract awarded through the VIP lane are published, has never been more urgent.

Monday, December 06, 2021

One law for the Tories, another for us

As if it were not bad enough that Boris Johnson's government think they can willfully disregard rules imposed on the rest of us for reasons of public safety, it appears now that they also want to place themselves above the rule of law.

The Times reports that Downing Street is to begin a fresh war with judges over a plan to let ministers throw out any legal rulings they do not like, effectively curtailing the power of the courts to use judicial review to overrule decisions by ministers.br>
The paper says that The prime minister has ordered Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, to toughen plans to reform judges’ powers to rule on the legality of ministerial decisions:

An option drawn up by Raab and Suella Braverman, the attorney-general, that is liked by No 10 is for MPs to pass an annual “Interpretation Bill” to strike out findings from judicial reviews with which the government does not agree.

Whitehall sources argue that the bills would reinforce the constitutional principle that parliament is sovereign over the unelected judiciary. The move has provoked uproar within the legal establishment, and Johnson was accused of trying to use his Commons majority to halt legitimate challenges. One senior QC said that the prime minister was secretly seeking “a more compliant judiciary”.

The action on judicial review is the latest assault the government is planning on the legal framework. Raab disclosed another yesterday when he told Times Radio that he wanted to overhaul the Human Rights Act to “correct” the balance between freedom of speech and privacy. He was speaking after The Mail on Sunday lost its appeal in the privacy case brought by the Duchess of Sussex over the publication of a letter she had sent her father.

Pledging to prioritise free speech over privacy, Raab said: “I think the drift towards continental-style privacy laws, innovated in the courtroom, not by elected lawmakers in the House of Commons, is something that we can and should correct.”

Johnson’s allies say that he is unhappy with the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, going through parliament. The legislation stepped back from radical reforms once threatened by No 10 and focused instead on subtle remedies, such as suspended judgments to give ministers time to tackle problems.

It “doesn’t go far enough” for Johnson, one ally said, adding that the prime minister’s proposals had led him to clash openly in cabinet with Robert Buckland, who was sacked as justice secretary in September. It was claimed that this row was behind the surprise dismissal of the popular Buckland.

Johnson’s wish to curtail judicial review arises from two cases brought by the anti-Brexit activist Gina Miller, his allies say. In the first, in 2016, judges ruled that Theresa May, then prime minister, had been wrong to trigger Article 50 to leave the EU without a vote in parliament first. In the second, in 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament for five weeks had been unlawful.

Raab’s changes will come too late to be included in the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which is already at report stage in the Commons. Sources close to Raab said that they would be included in legislation next year.

Braverman gave a significant hint about the measures in a speech last month to the Public Law Project Conference. “What we have seen is a huge increase in political litigation — that is to say, litigation seeking to use the court system, and judicial review, to achieve political ends,” she said. “If we keep asking judges to answer inherently political questions, we are ignoring the single most important decision-maker in our system: the British people.”

She also attacked the Supreme Court for its judgment on prorogation, saying that the case was “a stark warning of how far jurisprudence has moved”.

The plan for an Interpretation Bill was met with incredulity among lawyers. Edward Garnier QC, solicitor-general in David Cameron’s administration, said: “This government seems to forget that like all of us it, too, is subject to the law. And I should have thought that No 10 would have learnt the lesson of the prorogation battle, when the Supreme Court reminded the government that this is a country under the rule of law and not under a dictatorship.”

Garnier added: “If the prime minister does not like a lawful ruling of the court that has been a legitimate interpretation of statute passed by parliament, it is open to the government to attempt to change the law by an act of parliament. But it is not for some here-today- gone-tomorrow minister to change permanently existing statute law by ministerial fiat.”

David Gauke, a former lord chancellor and justice secretary, said: “If the government is contemplating getting parliament to retrospectively change the law as it has been interpreted by judges, then that would be an extremely worrying step and a departure from the rule of law and the traditions of this country.”

This attempt to bully the judiciary into becoming more compliant, is yet another step towards the Hungarian-style elected dictatorship, Johnson seems intent on creating.

Sunday, December 05, 2021

Government by diktat

Over at the Financial Times, Camilla Cavendish is writing about the authoritatian mess that is the UK Government's police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, which she describes as a monstrous jumble of laws that wouldn’t look out of place in Soviet Russia — and that was before the government slipped in more clauses by the back door.

Last week, the home secretary, Priti Patel, added 18 pages to the bill that hadn’t been there when MPs voted for it in July. One provision would stop demonstrators blocking major transport routes: a fair response to Insulate Britain’s campaign. But another would expand the police power to stop and search people “without suspicion”. And another would ban named individuals from protesting, if they had previously committed “protest-related offences”. This feels Orwellian. It comes on top of provisions in the original bill that skirt dangerously close to criminalising peaceful protest. The home secretary wants the police to be able to arrest, fine and imprison any demonstrator if their protest is noisy enough to cause “serious unease” to bystanders. Who defines “serious unease”? Lawyers say this is among the vaguest and most imprecise language they have ever seen.

After police in Bristol were accused of being heavy-handed against activists who were demonstrating, with supreme irony, against the bill, an inquiry said they had “failed to understand their legal duties in respect of protest”. They won’t need to worry if the bill goes through, because their legal duty, as I read it, will be pretty much to crack down on whoever the home secretary dislikes. Today’s home secretary seems to hate climate change protesters. Tomorrow’s may hate you, dear reader.

She says that two new reports warn that we are heading into “government by diktat”, because power is drifting away from parliament:

Bills are often drafted only in outline, with the important detail left to secondary legislation which can’t be amended and may become law with little or no consideration by parliament. “Henry VIII powers” let ministers repeal or amend acts with little scrutiny. And now, according to a committee of the House of Lords, Whitehall is using guidance and protocols as a form of “disguised legislation” — with legal effect but no oversight.

These trends precede Covid-19 and Brexit. Back in 2008, for example, the UK’s climate change target was raised from 80 per cent to 100 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases through secondary legislation and after only 90 minutes of debate — which doesn’t seem right for a decision with such serious financial consequences. More recently, the government’s move to force care workers to be vaccinated was the first time in English law that someone’s Covid-19 vaccination status had explicitly affected their eligibility to work. Yet it was rushed through under delegated powers, with only 90 minutes of scrutiny. In 2015, George Osborne’s attempt to cut tax credits using delegated powers was defeated by the Lords — but for only the fifth time in half a century.

Some will ask, why can’t an elected government do what it wants? The answer is that it can, but in the daylight. The bulk of statutory instruments apply to obscure-sounding matters that are shrouded in technical language. Politicians rarely look too deeply: they are just grateful to be told by officials they won’t have to come back to parliament. If pressed, departments use the age-old argument that they won’t use the powers much anyway. When a Home Office minister assured MPs that “the police [will] attach conditions to only a small proportion of protests”, it felt like a scene from the television series Yes Minister.

It is surprising that a Conservative government is churning out huge volumes of legislation that enlarge the power of the state. It is appalling that it is so cavalier about democratic freedoms. But it is truly astonishing that it doesn’t seem to wonder how others might use the powers it is busily creating.

Is Boris Johnson's Government turning the country into an elected dictatorship, Hungary-style? It certainly looks like it.

Saturday, December 04, 2021

Billionaire Tory's firm claims millions in public cash

There is yet another in a long line of covid cash stories in today's Independent, who reveal that a billionaire Tory donor’s firm continued to claim millions of pounds’ worth of taxpayer-funded furlough money after recording a £75.3m profit.

The paper says that Malcolm Healey’s company, Wren Kitchens, used public funds to help bankroll its staff costs during the Covid pandemic even though it banked tens of millions of pounds’ worth of pre-tax profits in its 2020 accounts. It came as Healey personally donated £500,000 to Boris Johnson’s party in December 2020, meaning he has given the Tories over £2.3m since 2017, according to Electoral Commission records:

An analysis earlier this year found Healey – who resides in a 12,000-acre estate and has been described as a reclusive figure – had been the largest individual donor to the Conservatives since Johnson entered Downing Street.

Kitchens tycoon Healey’s firm received £15.5m in 2020 via the government’s job retention scheme, set up to help struggling businesses pay staff during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to its latest accounts.

But rather than feeling the pinch during the pandemic, the kitchen manufacturer saw its pre-tax profit climb to £75.3m in the 12 months to the end of December 2020, up from £65.1m the previous year.

There is no suggestion Healey’s firm has broken any rules but a Labour MP said the use of the scheme went against “the whole spirit” of it, labelling it “immoral”.

Many companies which claimed furlough money during the pandemic either stopped doing so when they endured the crisis better than expected, or paid funds back. Instead of handing furlough money back to the taxpayer, Wren Kitchens continued to claim from the public purse in 2021, receiving more than £3m in furlough payments, according to an analysis of HMRC data by The Independent.

That levelling up agenda is going well then.

Friday, December 03, 2021

Government incompetence lost billions of pounds in public money again

As if it were not bad enough that the government wasted billions of pounds of public money on buying useless PPE and giving contracts to a dodgy VIP list, the Guardian reveals that this may just be the tip of a large iceberg in which administrative incompetence saw fraudsters cream off even more cash.

The paper quotes a National Audit Office report which has identified that the government failed to guard properly against fraud in its £47bn Covid emergency lending programme for small businesses, opening itself up to billions of pounds of losses. The NAO says that the bounce-back loan scheme launched in May 2020 did not include credit checks or fully verify the identity of small businesses applying for loans:

“Government prioritised getting bounce-back loans to small businesses quickly but failed to put adequate fraud prevention measures in place,” said Gareth Davies, the NAO’s comptroller and auditor general. “One impact of these decisions is apparent in the high levels of estimated fraud.”

The government launched the scheme at the start of the pandemic to stop the collapse of small businesses.

Firms could borrow up to £50,000 or or a maximum of 25% of annual turnover from accredited banks. About a quarter of UK businesses applied to the scheme, and 1.5m bounce-back loans – which were 100% guaranteed by the government – worth £47bn were made.

In March, Britain’s business ministry, which ran the programme via the British Business Bank, a state lender, estimated that 37% of the loans would not be repaid and that 11% came from fraudulent applications.

A subsequent investigation by the accountancy firm PwC in October revised the fraud rate down to 7.5%, although the NAO said it had not had time to check this estimate itself.

Other countries are also investigating the misuse of emergency loans issued during the pandemic.

The government is now focusing on recovering money from organised crime, yet many of the smaller-scale fraudsters will have slipped through its fingers.

Thursday, December 02, 2021

Government acused of misconduct over pandemic response

The UK Government may think that delayng its own inquiry into the handling of the covid panedemic until next spring will get it off the hook, but it seems that others are not prepared to wait, nor are they wiling to let Ministers forget how badly they have handled this crisis.

The Independent reports that the People’s Covid Inquiry, chaired by Michael Mansfield QC, accused the Government of “misconduct in public office” and gross negligence over the way it dealt with the virus.

They say that the inquiry, which heard evidence from February this year until the summer, concluded that there had been “serious governance failures” at Westminster that contributed to tens of thousands of avoidable deaths. It said the Government had failed to act to protect key populations at increased risk, and recommendations from previous pandemic planning exercises had been ignored.

The inquiry added that consideration should be given to bringing charges of misconduct in public office, given the available evidence of failures and the “serious consequences” for the public:

The Keep Our NHS Public campaign group organised the inquiry in the absence of a formal investigation.

The Government has said it has committed to holding a full public inquiry next spring as there are lessons to be learned.

Accusing the Government of “serious governance failures” in a report published on Wednesday, the People’s Covid Inquiry said: “These contributed to tens of thousands of avoidable deaths and suffering, and they amount to misconduct in public office.”

Its chairman, Michael Mansfield QC, said there had been “dismal failure in the face of manifestly obvious risks”.

He said the probe had identified a “theme of behaviour amounting to gross negligence by the Government, whether examined singularly or collectively”.

He continued: “There were lives lost and lives devastated, which was foreseeable and preventable.

“From lack of preparation and coherent policy, unconscionable delay, through to preferred and wasteful procurement, to ministers themselves breaking the rules, the misconduct is earth-shattering.”

The inquiry heard evidence from a range of witnesses and organisations, including academics, frontline workers and bereaved families.

Other findings include:

- The Government treated bereaved families with disrespect and ignored their questions

- It failed to address the seriousness of the pandemic before the March 2020 lockdown

- Deep social inequality contributed to a more vulnerable population

- Financial support for people needing to isolate was not sufficient to effectively reduce infection spread

- The Government’s delay in issuing advice to healthcare professionals, and advice to the public to rely on NHS 111, contributed to the coronavirus death toll

- There was, and is, a “misplaced over-reliance on vaccines alone”

- Government public health messages were often confused and contradictory

Mr Mansfield said there had been no accountability, and this could not be offset by the success of the vaccine rollout.

Jo Goodman, co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, which contributed to the inquiry, said: “It’s vital that bereaved families are at the heart of the forthcoming inquiry, and listened to at every turn, and this report evidences exactly why.

“The loss of our loved ones should be used to learn lessons and save lives - something the Government should be entirely focused on and dedicated to.”

It will be interested to compaure thesw conclusions with the outcome of the government's official inquiry.

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

One rule for them..

The sense of entitlement emanating from 10 Downing Street and the Tory hierarchy is just overwhelming. It appears that they think they can carry on doing their own thing regardless of the rules and the law and, if the polls are to be believed, are encouraged in that view by a weak opposition and ane electorate who continue to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The latest episode of 'one rule for us, another for the rest of you', is revealed in today's Mirror, who report that Boris Johnson and his Downing Street staff have been accused of breaking Covid rules by attending parties at Number 10 in the run-up to last Christmas.

The paper says that the Prime Minister gave a speech at a packed leaving do for a top aide last November when the country was in the grip of its second lockdown, then just days before Christmas, with London in tier 3 restrictions, members of his top team held their own festive bash in Downing Street:

Officials knocked back glasses of wine during a Christmas quiz and a Secret Santa while the rest of the country was forced to stay at home.

Around “40 or 50” people were said to have been crammed “cheek by jowl” into a medium-sized room in Number 10 for each of the two events.

“It was a Covid nightmare,” one source claimed.

The revelations come after top health chief Dr Jenny Harries warned that people should cut down on socialising this Christmas to curb future Covid surges.

But Mr Johnson rejected the idea today that festive parties should be scrapped, adding: “We don’t want people to cancel such events.”

In explosive revelations, one source told the Mirror there were “many social gatherings” in Downing Street last year while the public faced restrictions.

They even suggested there were “always parties” in the flat Mr Johnson shares with wife, adding: “Carrie’s addicted to them”.

There were also claims of a third, smaller gathering on November 13, the night Dominic Cummings walked out of No 10, "where they were all getting totally plastered".

The PM had his own close brush with death when he was hospitalised with Covid in April 2020 - but it didn’t appear to change his attitude.

Another source claimed: “While senior civil servants were urging caution and there was one message to the public, Prime Minister gave the impression that it could be very relaxed in No 10.

“He would either turn a blind eye or on some occasions attend himself while everyone else was in lockdown”.

The Mirror lists a series of events when leading Tories have breached Covid regulations, including Robert Jenrick, then Communities Secretary, travelling 40 miles to see his parents in the first lockdown: and No10 aide Dominic Cummings breaking lockdown rules in April 2020 to drive 260 miles to County Durham while suffering Covid symptoms. He then took a 60-mile round trip to Barnard Castle for a day out with his family. The Prime Minister stood by him.

Then there is Health Secretary Matt Hancock quitting after he was pictured in a clinch with Gina Coladangelo in June 2021: and Nimco Ali, a close friend of PM’s wife Carrie Johnson, staying overnight with her and Mr Johnson during the peak of the coronavirus lockdown last Christmas.

It is little wonder that Johnson and his cronies are seen as having little moral authority left to impose important health-related restrctions, nor that many people feel that they can flout the regulations, just as these people do.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Ireland by-passes the UK

It was inevitable really, that the UK leaving the EU and the associated red tape around imports and exports linked to that decision, would change trade patterns around the Irish Sea, and so it has proved.

The Guardian reports on official data showing that the volume of goods shipped directly from Ireland to the EU on new Brexit-busting ferry routes have rocketed by 50% in the past six months as exporters seek to avoid travelling across land through Great Britain>

The paper says that figures published by the Irish Maritime Development Office (IMDO) show significant traffic diverted away from the traditional routes between Dublin and Britain to some of 32 new ferry services direct to ports such as Le Havre, Cherbourg and Dunkirk in France and Zeebrugge in Belgium.

Inevitably, this is going to have a detrimental impact on Welsh and Engliosh ports, with IMDO report showing freight volumes from Dublin port to Liverpool and Holyhead in Anglesey down 19% in the first three-quarters of 2021 compared with 2020 and down by 30% on the two routes from Rosslare in south-east Ireland to the Welsh ports of Pembroke and Fishguard:

“It is clear that the new trading arrangements between Ireland and the UK have had a significant and negative effect upon ro-ro [roll-on roll-off lorry haulage] freight traffic between the two countries,” the IMDO report said. “Underpinning all of these trends are the new customs and trading arrangements between Ireland and the UK that came into force on 1 January 2021,” it added.

“One-third of all ro-ro in the Republic of Ireland now operates on direct routes to ports in the European Union, up from a 16% share in 2019,” the IMDO said.

Traffic for the second and third quarters of this year show Irish Republic to EU traffic is already up by 52% compared with the entirety of 2019, it added.

The decline in demand for the ferry services to Wales and Liverpool has also seen Northern Irish ports receiving a Brexit dividend, with freight volumes hitting “unprecedented highs in 2021”.

Yet another area of the UK economy where the Brexit divident has proven to be a negative.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Johnson on a bridge to nowhere

What is it about Boris Johnson and bridges? More to the point, what does the Prime Minister find so fascinating about massively expensive, huge public sector projects like bridges and airports?

His proposal to put a new London Airport on an island in the Thames estuary didn't take off, so he switched to a more exclusive project, the abortive London Garden Bridge

The idea was to build a bridge covered with trees and flowers over the River Thames in central London. A total of £53m of public money was spent on this pipedream, before it was officially abandoned in August 2107, after a review recommended it be scrapped.

And then there was the even more bonkers proposal to build a bridge or tunnel to Northern Ireland. A project conceived no doubt during a brain-storming session on how to strengthen the union, while giving the finger to the European Union.

The Independent reports that this bridge has also been jettisoned at the drawing board stage, after a government review found that it would cost an estimated £335bn, while a tunnel would be about £209bn.

A significant obstacle to this plan was highlighted by the Guardian back in February 2020, when they reported on warnings by bomb-disposal experts that it would be too dangerous to build the bridge because the most direct route for the 28-mile span would involve crossing Beaufort’s Dyke, a trench that contains more than one million tonnes of unexploded munitions, plus chemical weapons and radioactive waste.

Beaufort’s Dyke is about 31 miles (50km) long and up to 300 metres (1,000ft) deep, and lies directly on the most direct route for a link between Portpatrick in Scotland and Larne in Northern Ireland. The paper said that the dump site is not regularly monitored by the British government, although the construction of a British Gas pipeline two decades ago resulted in thousands of second world war incendiary bombs being washed ashore, some of which exploded when they dried out.

They added that a four-year-old boy suffered burns in Campbeltown, Argyll and Bute, after picking up a device containing phosphorus. The episode led to the last major survey of the maritime site, with dredging for the gas pipeline thought to have been the cause.

A million tonnes of explosive and a £335 billion cost seem to be pretty decisive reason to abandon this idea.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Debunking Priti Patel

I can't get this video to load up, so please click on this link to see the real facts behind the so-called 'migrant crisis in the channel'

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