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Thursday, June 04, 2020

Commons voting farce plunged into chaos

If Ministers had not got the message about the inadvisability of dismantling the virtual Parliament and forcing MPs to return to speak and vote in person, the one and a half hour conga line to complete two divisions on Tuesday must surely have driven home to them the folly of this idea.

Sure enough, by Wednesday lunchtime, Boris Johnson was prepared to make concessions and used Prime Minister's Question Time to announce that MPs who are shielding will in future be able to vote by proxy. This followed an outcry over the treatment of parliamentarians with medical conditions or those who are looking after vulnerable loved ones during the coronavirus pandemic.

This change at least moved the house back from the 16th Century to somewhere near the present day, though it is worth noting that in an hour and a half, the Welsh Parliament could most probably conduct somewhere near one hundred plus electronic votes.

However, by then the damage was already done, underlined by the news that Alok Sharma, the business secretary, who was in the centre of Tuesday's conga line, has been tested for coronavirus after feeling unwell while delivering a statement in the House of Commons.

If Sharma does test positive, it will be an early trial of the government’s new contact tracing system. Other MPs and officials who have been in close contact with him will be tested and could be asked to self-isolate.

Jacob Rees Mogg's brave new world, in which MPs lead the way back to normality, has fallen down at the first hurdle. Surely a screeching u-turn leading back to a hybrid Parliament with electronic voting and contributions by zoom, is now the only way forward.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Ministers still misleading public on coronavirus tests

Following up on this post regarding the now infamous target of 100,000 per day COVID-19 tests being delivered by the government, it appears that Ministers are still struggling to turn their promises into reality.

The Guardian reports that Sir David Norgrove, the head of the UK Statistics Authority has accused the government of continuing to mislead the public over the numbers of these tests being carried out:

The UKSA chair upbraids the government for mixing up tests carried out with testing kits sent out by post. “This distinction is too often elided during the presentation at the daily press conference, where the relevant figure may misleadingly be described simply as the number of tests carried out. There are no data on how many of the tests posted out are in fact then successfully completed,” he says in his letter.

Norgrove has a number of other criticisms of the way testing is carried out and the data presented to the public. His letter is a second attempt to get more clarification from the government.

On 11 May, he asked for more detail of the plans for 200,000 tests to be carried out in England every day. It should be clear whether the target referred to testing capacity, the tests that have been administered, the test results received or the number of people tested, he wrote.

Hancock replied, welcoming Norgrove’s comments, saying he was publishing details of how the 200,000 tests would be counted. “The programme is committed to being as transparent as possible about its work,” said Hancock.

Dido Harding, who had taken over its leadership, “is keen to engage with you on how we ensure the right statistical reporting of the test and trace programme as it develops”, he wrote.

But Norgrove’s latest letter to the health secretary makes clear that his doubts have not been allayed.

Statistics on testing serve two purposes, he writes. “The first is to help us understand the epidemic, alongside the ONS survey, showing us how many people are infected, or not, and their relevant characteristics.

“The second purpose is to help manage the test programme, to ensure there are enough tests, that they are carried out or sent where they are needed and that they are being used as effectively as possible. The data should tell the public how effectively the testing programme is being managed.

“The way the data are analysed and presented currently gives them limited value for the first purpose. The aim seems to be to show the largest possible number of tests, even at the expense of understanding. It is also hard to believe the statistics work to support the testing programme itself. The statistics and analysis serve neither purpose well.”

As well as the confusion between tests carried out and tests posted, Norgrove says it is not clear from the data how often people are tested twice. He objects that the data is presented in a way that is hard to understand. “Many of the key numbers make little sense without recourse to the technical notes, which are themselves sometimes hard to follow,” he writes.

On Monday, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) tweeted that so far 4,484,340 tests had been carried out, with 128,437 tests done on Sunday 31 May – well short of the 200,000 ambition. A total of 276,332 people have tested positive.

But fear not, for Boris Johnson has now announced that he will be taking charge of the efforts to combat COVID-19 personally. We are all doomed.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Who is getting all the government pandemic contracts?

It is said that the winners take the spoils, and with regards to the 2016 referendum on leaving the EU, that certainly seems to be the case.

The Guardian reports that an artificial intelligence firm hired to work on the Vote Leave campaign may analyse social media data, utility bills and credit rating scores as part of a £400,000 contract to help the government deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

The paper says that the company, Faculty, was awarded the contract by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government last month. However the full details of its work for the government are unknown because the published version of the contract was partly redacted.

Civil liberties groups want to know how private companies hired by the government during the pandemic are using confidential personal data:

The unredacted portion of the contract shows that the MHCLG said such work was likely to require data from “social media, utility providers and telecom bills, credit rating agencies” as well as from the government, but provides few other specifics.

It brings the number of government contracts awarded to Faculty to at least nine in the last two years. The contracts in total are worth at least £1.6m.

Three of these contracts relate to the provision of artificial intelligence services to inform government departments attempting to manage the impact of coronavirus.

Faculty, which has links to senior Tory figures in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, declined to say how many contracts it had won in total from the government for work connected to the pandemic, nor how much the contracts were worth.

The latest contract was awarded directly to Faculty without other firms being given an opportunity to make a competitive bid. The ministry said there was an “urgent need to bring in additional analytics support to help inform our response to the coronavirus pandemic”.

Public bodies have been allowed to award contracts without a competitive tender during the pandemic as ministers believe that private firms need to be hired quickly to deal with the outbreak. The MHCLG contract, entitled “Data scientists for MHCLG Covid-19 response”, was awarded in April and will run until July.

It is this sort of secrecy on how personal data is being used that undermines the government's attempt to get a tracking app in play to combat COVID-19. Some transparency on contracts like these would be very welcome.

Monday, June 01, 2020

Letter of the week #Domnishambles

From today's Guardian

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Super-rich face bigger tax bills because of lockdown

Unfortunately, this article on the Bloomberg site is not about government's imposing a wealth tax in an effort to recover some of the cost of locking us down to minimise the impact of Coronavirus. Rather it records the circumstances whereby events have undermined the tax avoiding antics of the super-rich, and in doing so imposed a form of rough social-justice on them.

Bloomberg say that as nations have closed borders, some individuals are confronting unexpectedly complex tax situations. These include the prospect of higher levies from spending too many days in a foreign locale, or having to shelve plans to obtain tax breaks by moving abroad:

Spending more than six months in a country typically makes someone a tax resident, although the location of permanent homes and family links, travel histories and income sources are also factors. Determining tax residency is complicated -- even more so when each nation applies different criteria.

Nations also have tax pacts with other countries that override domestic laws and would apply to residency disputes in the absence of pandemic provisions. Resolving tax issues from the coronavirus will be a stressful and costly process for some. Goldring said he moved one client across Italy and France this year to ensure they didn’t exceed the U.K.’s residency thresholds.

There are thousands, “if not tens of thousands” of people, stranded in the U.S., many of whom face a thicket of additional tax scrutiny from the Internal Revenue Service, said Paul Sczudlo, an attorney on Withersworldwide’s private client team.

Ordinarily, foreigners can spend up to 183 days in the U.S., counted either in a single year or over the course of three using a weighted-average formula, before they’re required to pay income tax.

The IRS extended the threshold by an additional 60 days last month, but even that might not be enough to shield people who arrived in the fall or early winter from other states and haven’t been able to return home.

Business owners who find themselves unable to leave the country and become de facto tax residents will be on the hook for U.S. corporate income tax on any foreign company in which they own a majority.

“There’s a very wide range of possible impacts on families,” Sczudlo said. “It could affect retirement accounts, trust and estate arrangements.”

At minimum, they’ll face a mountain of additional paperwork to ensure they’re adequately disclosing holdings, he said. Failing to do so risks potentially large fines, calculated as a percentage of assets for certain entities. New York, for example, considers anyone who spends more than 183 days in the state a resident and therefore obligated to pay its comparatively steep income tax.

New York hasn’t issued official guidance about how it plans to treat out-of-state virus refugees, but accountants are advising not to hold out hope for leniency. When Hurricane Sandy devastated houses in the tristate area in 2012, many people moved temporarily into New York City apartments to wait out reconstruction and were taxed accordingly.

The pandemic has also thwarted plans of those hoping to relocate this year to a country with lower taxes. In the past, tycoons including steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and Daily Mail owner Viscount Rothermere have made use of U.K. tax exemptions on overseas earnings in exchange for an annual charge.

The site goes on to say that when nations reopen their borders, the wealthy may face even more tax trouble from governments looking to recoup the economic costs of a virus that’s heightening global concerns over inequality.

I could say that I am sympathetic to the difficulties facing these super-rich individuals, who in normal circumstances are able to move around the world so as to minimise their tax burden, but I would be lying if I did so. It is this selfish activity which ensures that the burden of funding public services falls on those less able to pay. Now they can pay up along with the rest of us.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

How much political capital does Boris Johnson have left?

It has been a week and Dominic Cummings is still in post. The amount of political capital expended by the Prime Minister to keep his Svengali in post has been extraordinary.

As the Guardian reports, the furore over Dominic Cummings’ breach of lockdown rules has prompted tens of thousands of people to flood their MPs’ inboxes in what some described as the biggest outpouring since Brexit:

A Guardian analysis covering 117 MPs found they have received a total of 31,738 emails since a joint Guardian and Daily Mirror investigation a week ago divulged that Cummings had travelled to County Durham and taken a trip to a beauty spot with his family after suffering coronavirus symptoms.

If that level of correspondence was reflected across all 650 MPs, it would suggest the revelations may have sparked as many as 180,000 items of correspondence. The numbers were either provided in response to the Guardian’s request for figures, or in statements MPs had released to constituents.

Johnson has repeatedly suggested it was time to “move on” from the Cummings row, despite about half of Tory backbenchers – more than 100 MPs – calling for his most senior aide to resign or be sacked, or criticising Cummings. Many said they were motivated by their constituents’ anger.

Several Conservative MPs in marginal seats said they had received more than 1,000 emails about Cummings, in some cases dwarfing their majority. While the average number of emails each MP got was 271, the Tory MPs analysed by the Guardian received 590 each on average.

Many MPs said the emails were from people writing to them for the first time and not the common copy-and-paste messages on a campaigning issue, and for some it has been the most significant volume since the Brexit crisis in parliament.

Meanwhile, the Independent reports that mthan 1 million people have signed a petition calling for Dominic Cummings to be sacked over allegedly breaching the lockdown rules.

In addition, a recent YouGov poll found 59 per cent of people thought Mr Cummings should resign and 71 per cent believed he had broken the rules, while the Tory lead over Labour narrowed to six points, from 15 points on the week before.

Johnson has not just destroyed the trust between the government and those they need to obey the  rules if we are to defeat this virus, he has also demolished his own electability, the one factor that motivated Tory MPs and members to select him as their leader in the first place.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Government bungles plans for Commons return

The UK Government's insistence that MPs return to the House of Commons in person next week has already started to unravel with the revelation that there is currently no safe way for voting to take place.

Both Houses of Parliament have stubbornly clung to methods of working that have been in place for hundreds of years, with apparently little appetite for reform. These include maintaining the voting lobbies, where MPs file though two opposing corridors to record their vote, in a ceremony that can take over 15 minutes for each division.

Now, as the Guardian reports, Public Health England have advised that this method of voting is inherently unsafe and cannot be used. The Speaker has written to MPs to advise:

“There are pinch points in the lobbies where MPs are recorded by clerks and counted by tellers where it would be difficult to maintain social distancing, even though perspex booths were prepared for two of the division desks.” Such votes would also risk taking longer than allowed under parliamentary proceedings, he added.

Hoyle said that if the government and opposition were unable to agree a way forward, he would allow amendments to the government motion for new procedures.

In addition, the Public and Commercial Services union, which represents many security, catering and other support staff in parliament, has also raised concerns about the full return of MPs:

The union’s general secretary, Mark Serwotka, said the part-virtual system had worked well, and said it was “strange why the government is in a rush to change course when a second covid spike is such a strong possibility”.

What is most bizarre about these revelations is that they were entirely predictable at the time the Jacob Rees Mogg forced through a motion summoning MPs back to Westminster.  However, as with Dominic Cummings little road trip, political self interest won-out.

On the bright side, perhaps Parliament will be forced into the twenty-first century at long last.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Dominic Cummings becomes the go-to excuse for breaking lockdown

This is a real road sign, or rather it is a Highways England sign that has been added to by a person or persons who is as annoyed as the rest of us at the way the man who helped formulate lockdown rules was able to blatantly disregard them without suffering any consequences.

As the Mirror reports, West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson says officers are reporting that people breaking lockdown rules are using special adviser Dominic Cummings' actions as an excuse:

Mr Jamieson told BBC Radio 4's The World At One programme that people are telling officers that "if it is okay for Cummings, it is okay for us" and "it looks like there is one rule for us and another rule for the people in No 10 Downing Street".

He said: "Now you can't... if the rules are flexible, and people seem to have interpreted them who are at the heart of Government, then it is almost impossible then for police officers to be able to carry out their job effectively.

He added: "What the police are now saying to me is they are getting quite a push back, not just from some of the younger people who previously where saying why can't I play football, why can't I go out in the streets? They're getting push backs from other generations of people as well.

"Now that is a bad sign, showing that confidence in the rules, confidence in Government and thereby the police's ability to enforce it has been undermined very much in the last few days."

This more than anything else underlines how trust has broken down in the government and its lockdown rules. If more deaths arise from this disregard for the rules then it will be on Cummings and Johnson, and their irresponsible behaviour.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Tory unrest continues with Johnson due to face a key committee

If Dominic Cummings' appearance in the Downing Street rose garden was meant to put the controversy over his northern odyssey to rest then he badly miscalculated.

Already, a junior minister has resigned while more than 30 other Conservative MPs called for Cummings to go, many citing inboxes overflowing with hundreds of angry messages from constituents. A snap poll found that whereas 41% of Tory voters thought Cummings should resign before the press conference, this had risen to 46% after it.

The Guardian reports that significant revolts are rare at such an early stage after a thumping election victory, but Cummings was already a divisive figure and his refusal to apologise for an apparent breach of the rules appears to have touched a nerve with the lockdown-weary public:

Calls for him to go came from across the spectrum of the Conservative party on Tuesday.

They included the former chief whip Mark Harper, who said there was “no credible justification” for the drive to local beauty spot Barnard Castle, apparently to test whether Cummings’ eyesight was good enough to make the drive back to the capital. The former health secretary Jeremy Hunt released the text of a reply to a constituent, in which he said of Cummings: “What he did was a clear breach of the lockdown rules” – though Hunt did not call for him to resign, saying: “You do make mistakes in these situations.”

Four more former ministers – Steve Baker, Harriett Baldwin, Stephen Hammond and Jackie Doyle-Price – all called for Cummings to go.

The veteran Brexiter Peter Bone said he had not been reassured by Monday’s statement. “The rose garden interview just confirmed to me that he had driven up to Durham when we were in a strict lockdown. He absolutely should resign,” he said.

“I have 400 emails from people and I’m sitting here with my colleague going through every one, and we’d rather be doing some case work but we just have so many people to reply to.”

Meanwhile, there is controversy over today's meeting of the House of Commons liaison committee at which Boris Johnson is scheduled to give evidence. The Times reports that senior Tory MPs have been blocked from questioning the prime minister at a Commons “super-committee” tomorrow in a move that has prompted anger in the party:

Boris Johnson is set to attend the liaison committee, which usually comprises the cross-party chairmen of 36 Commons select committees, tomorrow afternoon for questioning over the coronavirus outbreak.

Tom Tugendhat, one of the most prominent Tory critics of the prime minister and chairman of the foreign affairs committee, has been excluded, however.

Tobias Ellwood, the Tory chairman of the defence committee who has called for the government to handle the crisis better, is also off the list of those attending.

A series of MPs have accused Bernard Jenkin, the head of the liaison committee, of banning the pair and other critical MPs on the instruction of the Tory whips.

Unusually Mr Jenkin was Downing Street’s sole choice for the nomination for the liaison committee chairmanship, while other select committee chairmen are elected by the Commons.

One select committee chairman said: “Chairs are deeply unimpressed that his first efforts are to try and exclude key chairs in this way. It reflects the lack of independence that chairs were concerned about in allowing this appointment to go ahead. This is a sad start to what is supposed to a programme of scrutiny.”

Other backbench MPs were also unimpressed that an appointed select committee chairman was vetoing elected colleagues. One said: “Bernard has sold his soul and demonstrated that he will suck up to anyone for £16,000 a year [the salary for the liaison committee chairmanship].”

Members of the Liaison Committee are also concerned at the fact that they will only have one and a half hours of the Prime Minister's time and that only a small part of that time will be devoted to questions about the government's response to coronavirus.

The paper says that while the liaison committee asks the prime minister of the day to attend sessions three times a year, today will be Mr Johnson’s first appearance since arriving in Downing Street ten months ago.

He has been accused of “bottling” three previous appearances, including pulling out of a session scheduled last October the day before he was due to attend. He said he had to “focus on delivering Brexit” in response to accusations he was avoiding scrutiny.

Accountability is not top of this government's agenda.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

'Lies, damned lies and statistics'

The UK government has put its Covid-19 testing target centre stage in the fight to eradicate the virus, but is everything what it seems? In particular, with testing for coronavirus a vital component of the test, trace and isolate strategy is the government meeting its targets?

On May 6, the prime minister announced a target of 200,000 Covid-19 tests per day by the end of this month, which followed the target set by Matt Hancock, the health secretary, of 100,000 a day by the end of last month. According to Public Health England and the Department for Health and Social Care the government has so far reached this lower target nine times since Mr Hancock set it on 2nd April.

According to the Times, not everything is as it seems. They say that the number the government uses against its target is a count of tests rather than people tested, though they also publish figures for the number of people tested. Figures for May 20, for example, show 128,000 tests but just 67,000 people tested:

On Thursday the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England confirmed to The Daily Telegraph that diagnostic tests, which involve taking saliva and nasal samples from the same patient, are being counted as two tests instead of one.

This followed earlier revelations that the figure for total tests included those put in the post that day, either to individuals’ homes or to testing sites not run by the NHS.

The Department of Health and Social Care said that when the returned tests were processed they were not included in the total for that day, meaning they were not counted twice. But numbers for how many tests make it back to the lab are not released either, and if the government wants to provide information that is valuable to the scientific community and wider public, these figures really matter.

So far more than 700,000 tests have been posted out in this way and the public have no idea what the success rate is.

The Royal Statistical Society, which has set up a task force to contribute to statistics on Covid-19, issued a statement on the reporting of home test kits, saying they “consider it important that, as part of the easing of lockdown, there should be regular, rigorous public reporting on the performance of the UK’s home-swab-test operation.”

It is little wonder that people are calling for more transparency, and the UK Statistics Authority want the government's strategy to show more clearly how targets are being defined, measured and reported.

At the moment it is virtually impossible to hold the government to account on its promises. That does not aid understanding or accountability and needs to be put right.

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