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Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Tougher rules needed on lobbying

The Guardian's editorial on the changes needed to lobbying laws is spot on. They argue that public trust is damaged when a former PM and ministers are caught up in a cronyism scandal, and must be repaired.

The recommendations of Lord Evans, chair of the committee on standards in public life (and a former head of MI5), includes a ban on ministers and senior civil servants lobbying for five years after leaving office, that the public appointments watchdog should get new powers, including the right to prevent ministers taking certain jobs and a proposal for new penalties for rule-breakers.

Lord Evans also comments on the appointment of non-executive directors to government departments and proposes releasing lobbying details every four weeks, instead of quarterly. The Guardian says the public, and parliamentarians, should know as much as possible about who is seeking to influence their representatives. They argue that the rationale for change is very strong:

Lobbying is part of how liberal democracy works. Civil society organisations and charities do it when they sign politicians up to campaigns and pledges. Members of the public do it when they approach MPs and others about issues that matter to them. But such contacts need to be conducted in a way that is open, transparent and accountable.

This is even more important where corporate lobbyists wielding significant economic power are concerned. It is wrong for relationships to develop between politicians and businesses that could lead to private interests being placed before the public one. It fosters cynicism and undermines public trust when a former Tory prime minister is revealed to have bombarded ministers with messages on behalf of a company in which he was closely involved. It is extremely concerning that one of the UK’s most successful civil servants, Jeremy Heywood, was also a key figure in the Greensill drama. Gone for now at least are the days when the civil service was thought to be above such goings-on.

It is hard to disagree with the editorial that the Prime Minister should indicate his acceptance of these recommendations now to avoid any suggestion of self-interest in delaying implementation.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Political coincidences part two

The Mirror reports that a billionaire property tycoon gave £150,000 to the Conservative Party, 48 hours after the government approved a housing scheme by his firm:

John Bloor, 77, a director of Bloor Homes who has a £1.3billion personal fortune, is one of the Conservative Party’s largest donors.

On March 15, ministers formally gave the green light to a Bloor Homes proposal to build hundreds of homes on rural land in Ledbury, Herefordshire.

Two days later on March 17, Electoral Commission records show, Mr Bloor's firm Bloor Holdings gave a donation of £150,000 to the Conservative Party.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government did not say if Mr Bloor lobbied ministers ahead of these decisions, the Sunday Times reported.

Bloor Homes, which announced profits of £152 million last year, has been approached for comment.

A government spokeswoman said: “The decision on the Ledbury development was made following a recommendation by the independent Planning Inspector to grant planning permission and in line with published propriety guidance."

Local councillors had rejected the 625-home plans, saying they would undermine a nearby area of outstanding natural beauty.

But in March 2020 the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government took control of the planning application following an appeal by Bloor Homes.

An independent planning inspector found in favour of Bloor Homes, and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government then agreed and gave final approval.

A decision notice published by the government on March 15 said: "The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector’s conclusions and agrees with her recommendation.

“He has decided to allow the appeal and grant planning permission."

Coincidences like these are coming thick and fast.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Are we really calling this thing a sausage war?

I do understand that effective communication requires a catchy phrase which encapsulates a story or scenario, but to be honest I expected better of the 'broadsheet' press than to characterise Boris Johnson's incompetent handling of the Northern Ireland protocol, Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement as plunging us into a 'sausage war'.

The Independent headline is '‘Sausage war’ tensions heightened as Boris Johnson says he ‘will not hesitate’ to suspend protocol'. The paper says the Prime Minister has set the UK on track for a trade war with Brussels with a belligerent response to being ambushed over the Northern Ireland protocol by EU leaders at the G7 summit in Cornwall.

This is a desperate attempt by Johnson to cover his tracks after effectively alienating the UK from its biggest market, without fully understanding what he was signing, or did he? At least somebody in the media pack was prepared to put the pertinent question to him, as Sky News, demanded to know whether he was lying or had not understood the treaty when he said last year that his deal would not create a customs border in the Irish Sea.

This is not a sausage war it is a cock-up by an overblown, over-promoted Prime Minister, and the consequences of his incompetence could come back to haunt him, the country and our economy for years to come.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Political coincidences continued

As the government prepares to launch sweeping changes to the planning system that will remove the right of communities to object to inappropriate individual developments in their area, the Guardian reports that 13% of the Tories’ recent donations came from property tycoons and companies.

According to the Electoral Commission these firms gave £891,984 to Tory central office and eight local associations – a sizeable chunk of the £6,418,295 the party reported receiving in the first three months of 2021.

Yet another startling coincidence.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Animal welfare is a low priority on new trade deals

The Independent reports on warnings by the chief executive of the RSPCA has sounded the alarm over the prospect of post-Brexit free-trade deals with countries where farm animals are treated in ways that would be illegal in the UK.

Chris Sherwood has warned that animal welfare standards will be “watered down by the back door” and UK farmers will be undercut if the government signs agreements with other nations where farm animals are made to suffer needlessly. In particular, he fears Britain’s forthcoming deal with Australia could set a precedent for similar arrangements around the world that would lead to increased cruelty:

The government wants deals with New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, India and the US, and is on course to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership alliance, which includes parts of Asia and Japan.

The Conservatives’ manifesto promised not to compromise on environmental protection and animal welfare standards, but the Australia deal prompted a “furious” row in government over its approach.

The experts believe the UK could sign up to import meat from pigs held in farrowing crates for long periods, beef from hormone-fed cattle, chickens crammed into overcrowded, barren cages, and milk from genetically modified cows, among other goods.

Mr Sherwood told The Independent the Australia deal could set a “very concerning” precedent.

“Countries like Brazil have big exports of pork and beef, and our concern is animal welfare standards will be watered down by the back door and will undercut our farmers,” he said.

“It’s incongruent with the great messages from the government on animal welfare – we’ve just had the Kept Animals Bill and Animal Sentience Bill, and a commitment in the Queen’s Speech to protect standards.

“The government is on record as saying they want to protect and enhance animal welfare, and all we’re doing is reminding them of that.

“It’s not just the RSPCA – the public care about where animals come from and how they’re treated. These are sentient beings – animals that have feelings and feel pain.”

Many other countries allow pigs to be kept in sow stalls and farrowing crates – pens that are so tight the animal cannot even turn around – and chickens to be more tightly crammed into sheds.

Britain banned sow stalls in 1999, and farrowing crates are legal but controversial.

Canada and the US still have battery cages for egg-laying hens, which are considered so cruel the UK banned them in 2012.

India, which is thought to want to export liquid and dried eggs to the UK, keeps its entire national flock of egg-laying hens in battery cages.

In response the Government keep referring us back to their manifesto commitment not to undermine animal-welfare standards, but they do not yet have a process of showing how they will achieve that, nor a trade strategy that says what is their purpose on trade. Ministers are said to be split with some wanting a quick win on trade deals irrespective of the cost.

All-in-all this is yet another Brexit-induced mess.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Government acted unlawfully on Covid contract

The BBC report on a high court ruling that the government acted unlawfully when it awarded a £560,000 contract to a firm run by former colleagues of Michael Gove and the PM's adviser Dominic Cummings.

Michael Gove denied any favouritism had been shown to market research agency Public First, but the judge said a failure to consider other firms could be seen as suggesting a "real danger" of bias:

Campaigners took legal action against Mr Gove over the Cabinet Office's decision to use the company following the start of the pandemic last year.

They also questioned the involvement of Mr Cummings, who worked in Downing Street until he quit as the prime minister's chief adviser last autumn.

Lawyers for the Good Law Project argued that Mr Cummings wanted focus group and communications support services work to be given to Public First, whose founding partners were Rachel Wolf and James Frayne.

In 2011, Mr Frayne became director of communications at the Department of Education, where he worked alongside Mr Cummings, who was a special adviser to Mr Gove, the then education secretary.

Ms Wolf formerly worked as an adviser to Mr Gove and for Mr Cummings, and co-wrote the Conservatives' 2019 general election manifesto.

The lack of transparency in the awarding of contracts and the number awarded to people with close connections to Ministers and the Tory Party have raised many questions which need answers.

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

UK Government up the ante on crisis of their own making

The Guardian reports that the row between the UK and the EU over checks on sausages and other chilled foods sent from Britain to Northern Ireland has deepened, with the Brexit minister telling Brussels that trade war threats will not wash with voters.

They say the UK government is reportedly considering unilaterally extending the grace periods under the protocol that give businesses in Northern Ireland time to adapt to new rules – including for the import of chilled meats such as sausages, chicken nuggets and mince from Great Britain.

What is ironic of course is that this so-called crisis is of the government's own making. It has been sparked by a legal agreement that a year ago was being touted by the self-same Ministers, and the Prime Minister, as the best thing since sliced bread. No sausage sandwich for Boris Johnson this time.

Fortunately, Gavin Barwell, who as Theresa May’s chief of staff was fully involved in the Brexit talks until the summer of 2019, is on hand to put them straight. He said it was just not plausible for Boris Johnson to claim that he did not know what he was signing up to. Barwell told the Today programme:

I don’t think the EU is ever going to think that is credible. The EU negotiating team have obviously worked very closely with the British negotiating team under both governments. They know the quality of the civil servants involved in that work, and they know that British ministers would have been have been advised in detail on the implications of what they were signing up to.

So I don’t think anyone who’s involved in the process is going to find it credible that the government signed up to something and didn’t understand what the consequences of that were.

Asked if he thought that the government was now only pretending that it did not realise how damaging the protocol would be when it signed it in 2019, Barwell said:

It’s difficult to conceive of any other explanation. When I was working with Theresa [May], Boris Johnson was foreign secretary for a period of that time. He perfectly well understood what the previous iteration of the protocol meant in terms of regulatory checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

false When the deal was published and the government brought its legislation forward, the explanatory memorandum for the bill, which explained what the bill meant, was very clear what the consequences would be.

And I think he and David Frost are intelligent people. I find it inconceivable that they didn’t understand what they were signing up to. They would have been advised very clearly by the civil service about that.

And I think it’s also important to consider the political context at the time. When Boris took over, he initially tried to prorogue parliament and leave without a deal. He wasn’t able to do that. So he then decided that he wanted to call an election to strengthen his position and it was clearly easier to fight that an election within an “oven-ready” Brexit deal.

So I think the calculation was sign up to whatever is on offer, and then see if we can deal with anything we don’t like down the line. I think the EU have come to the same conclusion as me and that’s why they’re taking the approach that they are now.

Isnt it time UK Government Ministers admtted they had got it wrong and that the whole basis of their 2019 General Election campaign was wrong?

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Home Office contractors accused of using racist terms

As if it wasnt bad enough that the Home Office is pursuing a hardline immigration policy, an employment tribunal has said that it is “deeply concerned” about Home Office contractors who deport people from the UK having used the racist term “cotton pickers” to describe their black colleagues.

The Guardian reports that the Home Office uses the contractor Mitie to deport people to destinations including Jamaica, Pakistan, India, Nigeria and Ghana along with European countries and other locations. The escorts are only allowed to do this work if they have received accreditation from the Home Office. It is the behaviour of this company's employees that has come into question:

In a judgment from the London south employment tribunal (published on 4 June) a claim by a Mitie escort of Pakistani heritage, Muqaddas Zaib, based on race and disability discrimination, was rejected.

However, two witnesses who claimed that the racist term “cotton pickers” was used by some staff to refer to some black employees, were found to be “credible and honest” by the tribunal. The term is a racist, derogatory reference to black slaves subjected to forced labour in the southern United States.

One of these witnesses, a black detention custody officer manager called Denise Heslop, told the court that another member of staff said to her: “You’re nuttink but a cotton picker.”

In her evidence, the second witness, Linda Basiony, a representative for the trade union Community, said: “People would climb into the van and look at the list of jobs that had gone out. Some officers would make the comment: ‘I see that the cotton pickers were busy.’ [The black staff] were referred to as the ‘cotton pickers club’.”

Zaib claimed that he was discriminated against on the basis of his race and his disability, neurofibromatosis, which can lead to a smaller body size, because he was not given as many of these complex jobs as other colleagues. Mitie rejected the discrimination claims.

Although the tribunal’s judgment found no evidence of race or disability discrimination in the way Zaib was treated by Mitie the judgment stated in relation to use of the term “cotton pickers”: “Whilst the tribunal stops short of concluding that there was a racist culture (within Mitie) it was deeply concerned firstly that such offensive comments were made by employees but also that they appear not to be isolated incidents. It appeared to the tribunal that there was a reluctance on the part of those subject to such banter, to complain.”

Surely the Home Office needs to carry out a thorough investigation of these claims.

Monday, June 07, 2021

Planned foreign aid cuts under fire

I do like paid-up members of the awkward squad, even Brexiteers, and you dont get more committed to that cause than David Davis, the Tory MP for Haltemprice and Howden who is a key part of the opposition to government plans to reduce the overseas aid budget from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5%.

Davis is arguing that Boris Johnson risks throwing away “enormous influence” on the world stage with morally “devastating” overseas aid cuts that will lead to preventable deaths. His argument is that cutting aid will lead to a diminution of UK influence in key parts of the world such as Africa, where China is establishing a foothold. But, as the Independent reports, there is more:

“If it [the government] wanted to do this, should have brought it to the House of Commons and said this in our manifesto, but the duress we’re facing now means we have to do this, so ask the House to approve it.

“It didn’t. The reason it didn’t is because the majority of the House doesn’t agree with it. That’s what we’re going to see today if we get the vote. I’m afraid that’s frankly in my judgement a morally poor position for the government”.

Referring to huge cuts to overseas water and sanitation projects as a result of the overall fall in aid spending, Mr Davis said: “You’ve got massive cuts in clean water which kills more children worldwide than almost anything else — 80 per cent cut there.”

When pressed on whether he would like to see the cuts reversed — rather than funding commitments returned next year — he replied: “In this year I would look and say you’ve just got to have a very close look at the damage you’re doing. If you are going to kill people with this, which I think is going to be the outcome in many areas, we need to reverse those immediately.”

Tory rebels are being led by the former Conservative chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, who is seeking to add an amendment to the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria) — a piece of legislation that establishes a new “high-risk, high reward” research agency backed with £800 million to explore new ideas. 

It will be up to speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle to decide whether the amendment is in scope and is selected for consideration when the bill returns to the Commons for further consideration later today.

Mitchell told Sky News that “far more than 100,000 people — which was the original estimate — of avoidable deaths will take place as a result of these terrible cuts”.

The Government is arguing that it needs to reduce spending because of the pandemic, but that is precisely why we need to be out there helping third world countries cope with covid and its consequences. To do otherwise risks prolonging the life of the disease and subsequently bringing further variants back to the UK.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

A very British symbol of failing housing and social policy

If there was one upside of the pandemic it was that all the UK's governments started to address the homeless crisis that has beset this country for some time. Ministers realised that having people living rough or sofa surfing would just exacerbate infection rates and put lives at risk. I don't suppose it occurred to many of them that the life expectancy of a homeless person is much shorter than the average and that would have been a good reason to do somethng earlier, including initiating the sort of investment in tackling homelessness that was prompted by lockdown.

Unfortunately, not every government invested wisely. In Wales, we used the crisis to accelerate housing first initiatives, and put in place more emergency accommodation and beefed up support, especially around mental health and substance abuse. In England, it seems that it was all about sweeping the problem under the carpet, a short-term solution that would disappear once the crisis was over, putting us back at square one.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in what is happening in Cornwall. The Guardian reports on claims by a local charity that vulnerable homeless people have been moved out of hotels in Cornwall to make way for police and government officials attending this week’s G7 summit:

Disc Newquay has said that many people who have been living in hotel rooms under rolling short-term contracts during the pandemic had been told to leave, before the summit of the world’s seven largest advanced economies at a luxury hotel in Carbis Bay.

“Most of the hotel accommodation from Bodmin down has been block-booked for the G7,” said Monique Collins, the charity’s manager. “We have people in hotels in Camborne, Redruth, Truro, St Austell and Newquay – and they have all been moved out.”

Collins said the hundreds of summit bookings had added to pressures on emergency homeless accommodation in the county, leaving many people with even fewer options. However, Cornwall county council blamed the tourist season for shortages of temporary accommodation.

The police have booked more than 4,000 rooms at almost 200 venues across Devon and Cornwall. The Cabinet Office, which has also has made hundreds of room bookings, said that it had booked only commercially available rooms.

About 130 homeless people had been moved from hotels to make way for paying guests, according to Disc. Seven had to leave Sandy Lodge Hotel, Newquay, on 24 May to accommodate some of the 5,000 police officers who have been drafted in from outside Cornwall. Some were moved into other hotels only to be moved again.

This is a massive failure of public policy on the part of the UK Government, nor does it look good to be throwing vulnerable people back onto the streets to make room for international dignitaries. It is reputed that the cost of this summit is £70 million. Important as it is, just think what a sum of that magnitude could do for Cornwall's homelessness situation. Perhaps the government could provide another £70 million and do both.

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