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Saturday, February 04, 2023

Under siege

Having lost his party chair in a row over unpaid tax, Ruishi Sunak is in real danger of losing his Deputy Prime Minister as well.

The Independent reports on the latest scandal to engulf Dominic Raab, with Remain campaigner Gina Miller claiming she was “bullied and demeaned” by the deputy prime minister after he called her “stupid” and “naive” during an “aggressive” encounter at the BBC in 2016. The paper says that there are now fresh accusations of racial insensitivity towards a BBC comedian, who also backs Ms Miller’s version of events:

Asked to comment on Ms Miller’s shocking disclosure, first reported by The Independent, that he had called her “stupid” and “naive” during an “aggressive” encounter at the BBC, Mr Raab failed to deny explicitly that her account was accurate.

Instead, in a carefully worded statement, a spokesperson for the deputy prime minister said Mr Raab “rejects the description and characterisation” of him given by Ms Miller.

After Ms Miller also claimed that Mr Raab had “barked” at a BBC employee to “Go get me a f***ing car”, his spokesperson said the deputy prime minister “always treats people with the utmost respect and has never sworn at staff”.

But Mr Raab came under more pressure when, in a bizarre twist, comedian Nish Kumar joined the row, backing anti-Brexit campaigner Ms Miller.

Mr Kumar said he had witnessed an incident described by Ms Miller, in which Mr Raab confused her brother Gary Marlowe, a GP, with Mr Kumar.

“I have to say I felt no confidence that [Mr Raab] can differentiate between different Asians,” Mr Kumar told The Independent. “It left us both feeling a sense of disrespect and disregard for our identity.”

He added: “What annoyed me was that he had no contrition afterwards. He just went up to the first brown guy he saw, was immediately corrected, but did not even acknowledge that the infraction happened.”

Mr Marlowe said: “He came up to me and said ‘Hi, Nish’ – even though I don’t look anything like [Mr Kumar]. I thought ‘What an idiot.’ Just because we are both brown does not mean we’re interchangeable.

“I have a thick skin. I have been beaten up by National Front thugs, so this is small beer in comparison.”

Raab, is currently being investigated over multiple claims of bullying, and the likelihood that Rishi Sunak, who promised to put an end to Tory sleaze and misconduct, will have to fire him, is growing by the minute.

A number of former Tory Ministers have already called on Raab to step aside while the inquiry is ongoing. How much longer can Sunak keep him in post?

Friday, February 03, 2023

Will watchdog bare its teeth over Johnson?

The Mirror reports that the government's spending watchdog is looking into whether billing taxpayers £220,000 defending Boris Johnson over the Partygate scandal is money well spent.

They say that the National Audit Office has confirmed it was 'seeking further information' over the revelation that public money was being spent to fund Boris Johnson's defence against allegations he misled Parliament about Partygate:

It follows a request by campaign group Unlock Democracy to look at whether the spending is a "sensible and legitimate use of public money".

The Mirror previously revealed the estimated cost in defending the shamed former Prime Minister had soared by more than £90,000 since last summer.

Mr Johnson, now a backbench MP, faces a probe over his denials of lockdown-busting gatherings in No10, with hearings likely to begin next month.

He is being investigated by the House of Commons Privileges Committee, which will determine whether he committed contempt of Parliament - an allegation he denies.

Solicitors firm Peters and Peters were awarded a contract worth £129,700 to provide Mr Johnson with advice during the investigation.

Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm confirmed to MPs that the sum had risen dramatically, and could not guarantee it wouldn't go up even further.

An NAO spokesperson said: “The NAO received a query from a member of the public relating to our audit of Cabinet Office accounts.

"We are seeking further information in response to the correspondence and will be considering the matter as part of our audit.”

It has raised questions over whether Mr Johnson should be footing the bill himself, having raked in millions from speeches and an advance on his memoirs since leaving office.

Former Lib Dem MP Tom Brake, who heads Democracy Unlocked, told The Guardian: “In these circumstances, and with public finances under huge pressure, the taxpayer shouldn’t underwrite his open-ended defence legal costs.

"Fortunately for Johnson, thanks to his recent extra-parliamentary activities, he can afford to pay for them himself.”

The question of course is whether the NAO will actually do something about this complaint. We wait with bated breath.

Thursday, February 02, 2023

Lib Dems secure significant victory in fight to clean up our waterways

The Guardian reports that taxpayer money may no longer be invested in water companies that fail to produce adequate plans to stop sewage discharges, after the government accepted a Liberal Democrat amendment.

The paper says that the change to the UK infrastructure bank bill means that once it becomes law, tax receipts will only be able to fund water companies if they produce a costed and timed plan for ending sewage spills into waterways.

The new post-Brexit UK Infrastructure Bank is a state-owned development bank designed to help the UK government reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Originally, it could have given cheap finance to any water companies that wanted to make improvements to infrastructure. It will have £12bn of startup capital, comprising £5bn of equity from the Treasury and £7bn of debt. It will also be able to provide up to a further £10bn of guarantees.

Richard Foord, MP for Tiverton and Honiton, tabled the bill and said the government had previously written a “blank cheque” of taxpayer money to water firms to invest in their infrastructure.

The Lib Dem MP said: “This is a victory for millions of people across the country who have voiced their outrage at water companies being allowed to get away with polluting rivers and coastlines.

“My amendment ensures water companies won’t receive a blank cheque with taxpayers’ money whilst they pollute our rivers and damage local wildlife.

“It would have been scandalous for taxpayers’ money to be thrown at firms who pay their execs multimillion pound bonuses, all whilst destroying our environment.”

Yet another sign that if you want to actually get something done to protect our environment then you need to turn to the Liberal Democrats.

Wednesday, February 01, 2023

Government rhetoric on small boat crossings debunked

The Refugee Council has published new research which shows that at least six out of ten (60%) of all those who made the dangerous Channel crossing to the UK in small boats last year will be recognised as refugees through the asylum process.

They say that the analysis, based on Home Office data, finds that 25,119 of the 45,746 men, women and children who made the journey in 2022 would be allowed to stay in the UK as refugees:

At the same time the numbers of people starting new lives in the UK under formal resettlement programmes such as family reunion have fallen dramatically – suggesting that more people seeking refugee status are taking the dangerous Channel journey.

The report reveals that most of those crossing the Channel are people fleeing war-torn or oppressive countries where no safe and formal routes such as refugee visas exist for making an asylum claim in the UK. This is in contrast to those escaping the war in Ukraine, where more than 200,000 visas have been issued under a UK refugee scheme.

The report shows that safe routes for the main nationalities crossing the channel have been drastically reduced – resettlement numbers are 75 per cent lower than in 2019 and the number of family reunion visas issued is 36 per cent below the pre-pandemic level. For example, thousands of Iranians crossed the channel but just nine were resettled to the UK between January and September 2022.

The report also shows that Government proposals to remove the right to claim asylum from those crossing on boats would lead to thousands of people living in limbo and potentially being locked up in detention at huge cost of hundreds of millions of pounds to the taxpayer.

Just as for those fleeing Ukraine, most of those in the boats are from countries where their safety is at risk. Ukraine does not feature in the main nationalities crossing the Channel on a small boat in 2022 due to the visa scheme in place.A staggering 40 per cent of those on the small boats in 2022 come from just five countries – all of which have major problems with conflict and oppression and have asylum grant rates over 80 or 90 per cent.

The analysis finds that 8,700 children were among those crossing the Channel, around one in five of the overall number.

Under the Refugee Convention, which the UK has signed up to, anyone fleeing war, persecution or conflict has the right to claim asylum on the soil of a signatory to the Convention. The removal of safe routes however, means that for many the only avenue by which refugees can make this claim is by crossing the channel in small boats, at great risk to themselves.

These are not illegal crossings, these are mostly legitimate refugees trying to claim the asylum they are entitled to under a convention the UK has committed to.

The reinstatement of safe routes, the expeditious processing of claims and initial vetting on the other side of the channel could make a big difference to our so-called refugee crisis, while saving many, many lives.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Bregrets, we've had a few

The Independent reports on a new poll from Pollster UnHerd Britain that highlights which areas of UK have the most and least regrets about Brexit.

They say that the research suggests that the constituencies which most strongly voted for or against Brexit are still entrenched in their views almost seven years on despite the national mood shifting.

Bristol West, which had one of the highest Remain vote shares of 79.3 per cent in 2016, is cited as the constituency where most voters have expressed regret at the UK leaving the European Union:

Pollster UnHerd Britain found that 69 per cent of constituents in Bristol West agreed with the statement ‘Britain was wrong to leave the European Union’, with 50 per cent ‘strongly agreeing’ and 19 per cent ‘mildly agreeing’. This was far higher than the national average - which saw 37 per cent strongly agree and 17 per cent mildly agree.

Edinburgh South, Streatham, Manchester (Witherington) and Islington North - where Jeremy Corbyn is MP - were the other constituencies in the top five, having all seen high Remain votes in 2016.

Meanwhile, Boston and Skegness, which saw 75.6 per cent of votes in the referendum in favour of Brexit – the UK’s highest – saw the least amount of regret among constituents.

UnHerd found 32 per cent of residents in the Lincolnshire seat’s boundary ‘strongly disagree’ with the same statement and 9 per cent ‘mildly agree’. South Holland and the Deepings, Louth and Horncastle, South West Norfolk – Liz Truss’s constituency – and Penrith were also in the top five places to show the least level of Brexit regret having also strongly voted leave in 2016.

Earlier this month, a Savanta survey for The Independent showed 65 per cent of UK participants felt there should be a second referendum. Chris Hopkins, from Savanta, said: “It’s hard to imagine being in the EU would solve any of the country’s current economic issues,” adding: “but perceptions matter”.

What is not clear is how big the sample was in each of these constituencies, which is important in assessing margin of error. However, even if these polls are correct, and there is now a small majority in favour of rejoining the EU, the likelihood of us doing so is remote.

This is not just because winning another referendum will be tough, it will actually be very difficult, but it is highly unlikely that the EU would want us back. 

In my view the main focus should be on pushing to rejoin the single market. If only there was a political party prepared to put its head above the parapet and campaign on that basis.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Boris Johnson on the chicken run?

The Guardian speculates once more about the future of Boris Johnson with the news that the former Prime Minister has been spotted looking at schools and is house-hunting in Oxfordshire, prompting rumours that he is considering running for his former seat of Henley at the next election.

They say that Johnson had been planning to contest his existing seat of Uxbridge, a marginal in west London with a majority of 7,200. However, Labour believes it could be winnable and if Johnson loses it could end his hopes of another run at Conservative leader:

Johnson’s successor in the leafy Oxfordshire seat, John Howell, is understood to have told local Conservative party members privately that he has not yet made up his mind whether he will run again or stand down at the election, expected next year. The Tory MP declined to comment.

While other local Conservatives are already tipped to go for the seat, which has a majority of 14,000, the former prime minister has increased speculation he might be interested in standing after he was seen visiting local schools for his two youngest children.

One member of the Henley Conservative association said: “John hasn’t made his mind up yet whether to stand down or stand again but already there’s several candidates lining up to take over. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if Boris decided to throw his hat in the ring.”

Several Tories are already said to have made the calculation to go on the “chicken run”, swapping newly marginal seats for true blue constituencies, in the hope of hanging on at the next election. One new seat is being created in Oxfordshire under the boundary review.

Johnson still owns a house in Thame, in the Henley constituency he represented from 2001 to 2008, according to the register of MPs’ interests. Sources close to his family have suggested he has been looking at other properties in Oxfordshire. However, allies have denied the claim.

A spokesperson for the former prime minister said: “Boris Johnson has already confirmed he will be standing in Uxbridge and South Ruislip at the next election.”

We will see.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

The price we are paying

Sometimes it seems that ever since the 2015 General Election we have been in the middle of a form of collective madness. A minority of voters gave the Tories a Parliamentary majority for the first time in 18 years and the party immediately set about trashing the country they were meant to be running.

Leading the charge, as it were, was Boris Johnson, a man for whom rules, ethics and the standards of public life are a minor inconvenience, whose main motivator is self-interest and who has spent his entire life winging it and surviving on the good grace of his friends and benefactors.

It is though, one thing to get a rich pal to loan him £800,000, or to have exclusive holidays at the expense of others, it is quite another to get the taxpayers to pick up the bill for his excesses. And yet that is precisely what is happening over the latest investigation into Johnson.

The Mirror reports that taxpayers are expected to foot a massive £222,000 bill for Boris Johnson's legal defence against allegations he misled Parliament over Partygate.

The paper says that a senior civil servant has confirmed that the estimated cost in defending the shamed former Prime Minister had soared by more than £90,000 since 2022. Abd it could go still further:

Liberal Democrat Chief Whip Wendy Chamberlain said: "While the British people battle with a cost-of-living crisis, this Conservative Government seems more interested in helping Boris Johnson with his cost-of-lying crisis. This is a sleazy new low for this Government, dragging politics into the gutter.

"People will be outraged that hundreds of thousands of pounds of their money will be used to defend a lying lawbreaker who disgraced the office of Prime Minister.

And yet the government say that they cannot afford to give nurses, other medical professionals and teachers a decent pay rise.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Hancock's in the money

Matt Hancock and his allies raised a lot of smoke to try and justify him taking time out of his paid Parliamentary dutues to go to Australia for I'm a Celebrity, including that his fee would go to charity and that he was trying to raise awareness of dyslexia. Unfortunately, for the embattled MP, the spin did not match the reality.

The Independent reports that Hancock has so far donated just 3 per cent of the fee he was paid for appearing on I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! to charity.

The former health secretary received £320,000 for his three-week stint on the reality show, of which £10,000 was donated to charity, according to the register of MPs’ financial interests.

As a result of the appearance, he lost the Tory whip. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said he was “disappointed” at Hancock’s decision to travel to Australia.

The West Suffolk MP, who is still suspended from the Conservative party, also received £48,000 for his Pandemic Diaries book, the register reveals.

And he doesn't even appear to be embarrassed by this avarice.

Friday, January 27, 2023

The extraordinary wastefulness of the UK Government during covid 19

The Guardian reports on the findings of a National Audit Office investigation that the Department of Health wasted a total of £15bn on unused personal protective equipment, Covid tests and vaccines.

They say that the department spent £8.9bn during 2020/21 and another £6bn last year on such supplies, including masks and gowns for NHS staff that have proved unuseable and are now being burned:

The sums were revealed in the Department for Health and Social Care’s (DHSC) annual accounts and report for 2021/22, published on Thursday, and highlighted in a highly critical assessment issued by the National Audit Office (NAO).

Meg Hillier MP, the chair of the Commons’ public accounts committee, which oversees the NAO, said the accounts showed “extraordinary waste” by the DHSC. The money wasted was “another reminder to Whitehall about the vital importance of proper controls in public procurement, including during a crisis”.

The NAO said that the £6bn wasted in 2021/22 included a £3.5bn writedown on PPE, vaccines and medication to treat Covid which the DHSC had committed to buy but no longer plans to use.

The other £2.5bn was a writedown in the value of goods on which the DHSC originally spent £11.2bn.

Those supplies included £1.5bn of PPE, £5.8bn of Covid-detecting lateral flow tests and PCR tests procured by the test-and-trace programme, £2.7bn worth of vaccines to fight the virus and £1.2bn of various drugs that hospitals used to treat patients.

The DHSC’s report also disclosed that it expects to spend £319m storing and disposing of PPE which is no longer needed and is of such poor quality that it is no use to frontline staff anyway.

In March last year it was still spending £24m a month storing the infection-preventing equipment, the NAO said.

I don't think I need to point out that this money could have funded a decent payrise for nurses and other health workers, and the government would still have had plenty left over for other public sector employees.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

More costs of Brexit

The Independent reports that Britain’s creative industries are missing out on more than £160m in EU funding because of Brexit.

They say this loss follows the Conservative government’s decision to pull the UK out of the EU’s Creative Europe project – which helps fund the continent’s arts and culture sector – during the Brexit negotiations:

Brussels recently increased the budget of its flagship cultural programme by 66 per cent to £2.1bn for the period running up until 2027.

The UK Trade and Business Commission estimated that without Brexit, the UK’s creative sectors would have received an extra £163m from the project – based on the percentage of total funds they received last cycle.

Arts chiefs said the shortfall was compounded by post-Brexit visa and supply chain issues which have hampered musicians, artists, fashion designers and filmmakers since the UK left the bloc.

Deborah Annetts, chief executive of the Independent Society of Musicians, said the burden of all new requirements was still causing “great harm to one of our flagship industries”.

Ms Annetts, who sits on the UK Trade and Business Commission, added: “At a time when we desperately need growth in the UK economy the government urgently needs to replace this lost EU funding and root out the mountains of red tape which Brexit has imposed on the creative industries.”

The Independent previously revealed that Boris Johnson’s government rejected an offer of visa-free tours by musicians to EU countries, sparking outrage from the industry dealing with the costly blow of permits.

The Johnson government also rejected an offer to remain part of the Creative Europe scheme during the Brexit talks, despite the fact that non-EU members like Norway and Serbia take part.

Despite promises to match lost EU funding, the UK Trade and Business Commission – a group of independent experts which examines the impact of Brexit – said the only successor scheme provided by the UK government, the Global Screen Fund, provided just £7m in its first year.

The loss of millions in arts funding has been felt acutely in devolved nations. In Scotland, the Centre for the Moving Image (CMI) – which received around £350,000 and operated art cinemas and film festivals – went into administration last year.

And the Nerve Centre, a creative arts hub in Northern Ireland, has said that the loss of around £130,000 from Creative Europe has damaged its ability to take risks.

The cost of Brexit is mounting. We definitely need a bigger bus.

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