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Thursday, October 28, 2021

The wrong signals

With the climate change conference almost upon us, one would have thought that the UK Government, who after all are hosting it, to at least make an effort in setting the right tone. Instead they introduced measures in yesterday's budget that effectively offer two fingers to those seeking to avert global warming.

As the Independent reports, the Chancellor used his budget to scrap a planned fuel duty rise for the twelfth year in a row, effecctively offering a subsidy for drivers of polluting vehicles.

The paper says the move, which will cost the taxpayer nearly £8bn over the next five years, has drawn sharp criticism from clean air and active travel advocates, just days before the UK hosts the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow:

Jemima Hartshorn, founder of clean air pressure group Mums for Lungs, told The Independent: “The chancellor clearly hasn’t made the connection between the climate emergency, public health, the pandemic and the need for combining all of these in a responsible Budget that addresses future challenges but also ensures the health of children now.”

The UK continues to suffer from illegal levels of pollution linked to emissions from the high numbers of cars, taxis and lorries on the roads.

Ms Hartshorn said motor vehicle owners “receive much more generous subsidies compared with sustainable means of travel, such as public transport. This needed to be addressed in the Budget so that investment and subsidies from the government ensure that everyone is encouraged to travel in a way that is not polluting and harming our children.”

And then, as if to double down on his snub to climate change scientists, the chancellor said that from April 2023 air passenger duty (APD) on flights between airports in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be reduced from £13 to £6.50 per leg, offset by increased rates for long-haul routes.

This, along with the freeze on fuel duty, was branded “astonishing” and “retrograde” by Friends of the Earth, coming just a day after the government’s own Climate Change Committee (CCC) told the prime minister that his administration’s net zero strategy had “nothing to say” on aviation and must take further action to discourage people from flying.

Environmentalists are quoted by the Independent as saying that a Budget statement that spent longer on the reform of alcohol duty than the government’s net zero targets would effectively “extend the age of fossil fuels” in the UK.

The paper adds that the policy effectively pushes passengers to switch from rail to flying, by cutting the price of internal flights at a time when rail fares are set to see their biggest rise in a decade. This is the polar opposite of what is being done in some other European countries, which have increasingly moved to restrict domestic air travel where rail alternatives are available.

It is almost as if this government does not care about our future on the planet.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Another them and us decision by MPs

The Guardian reports that masks are being made mandatory again for all parliamentary staffers – but not MPs – amid concern over the recent rise in Covid cases and the safety of workers in the Palace of Westminster.

The paper says that it is the first reintroduction of measures by the parliamentary authorities since restrictions were relaxed over the summer an dthat those who refuse to wear a face covering will be told they must leave the estate:

New guidance was issued on Tuesday in advance of Rishi Sunak’s budget speech on Wednesday. It said that “all face-to-face meetings with colleagues should be avoided, unless there is a business need” and people should “space out and avoid sitting directly opposite each other in working areas [to] avoid close contact at all times”.

However, MPs cannot be forced to follow the same rules, so those who choose to continue following the law rather than the advice are free to do so.

Many Conservatives have been seen recently packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the Commons chamber, while Labour MPs have made a point of wearing masks.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Commons leader, last week appeared to joke that his party’s “convivial, fraternal spirit” meant they were acting in line with the government’s Covid guidance.

It came after Sajid Javid, the health secretary, said politicians have a responsibility to set an example in the battle against Covid, including wearing masks in crowded spaces.

Tory MPs have since been told by senior party figures to wear masks for Wednesday’s budget as it will be watched by thousands of people, and ministers have realised they need to set a better example to encourage mask-wearing.

A memo sent to parliamentary staffers and contractors said the change was “due to recent increases in Covid-19 across the country, which are also being reflected in parliament” and added “we are aware some of this guidance alters changes only recently agreed” but that the situation was “highly fluid”. It will be reviewed on 4 November.

So yet again we have a situation whereby MPs are asking others to take precautions they are not prepared to take in an effort to combat this virus. No wonder compliance is low and infection rates rising.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Tory sewage shame

Fpr some reason Conservative MPs have been taken by surprise by the reaction to them voting down a Lords amendment to the Environment Bill seeking to place a legal duty on water companies not to discharge sewage into our waterways.

Of course if the amendment had actually said that then one could understand MPs' protestations of innocence centred around cost and practicality, but the Lords were more subtle and realistic than the story being spun by Tory Central Office. 

The amendment actually called on water companies to make improvements to their sewerage systems and demonstrate progressive reductions in the harm caused by discharges of untreated sewage, a reasonable and achievable objective.

The reason for this amendment is obvious, but just in case the Tories have missed it, the Mirror sets out the facts in stark detail

They say that last year, water companies around the country allowed more than 400,000 sewage discharges into streams, rivers and the sea, lasting three million hours. That was compared to 293,000 hours of discharges in 2019:

Britain’s combined sewer system, dating back to the Victorian era, collects rainwater and waste in the same pipes, meaning it overflows in times of heavy rain.

Under a 2012 European court ruling, water firms can release rainwater and untreated sewage into waterways in “exceptional” circumstances to stop waste backing up in streets and homes. But environmentalists say better infrastructure, such as storage tanks, could prevent this.

Campaigners warn Lake Windermere could become “ecologically dead” because of sewage.

A plant in Ambleside let raw sewage flow into the lake for 1,719 hours in 2020.

Paul de Zylva, from Friends of the Earth, said: “Pumping sewage into our rivers and seas by water companies has become a regular cause of pollution. What is meant to be an exceptional act is routine.”

Hugo Tagholm, of Surfers Against Sewage said: “Our coastlines are struggling.” The Rivers Trust warns that 86% of England’s rivers are in “failing health”. Just one stretch of English river, the Wharfe at Ilkley, Yorkshire, has bathing water status, compared to 420 in France.

"In England, just 14% of rivers have good ecological status and none have good chemical status."

Welsh rivers are also suffering from this abuse, as evidenced by ths interactive map, a fact that did not prevent ten Welsh Conservative MPs voting against the amendment. Let's hope that they do better when the reworded clause comes back to the House of Commons.

Monday, October 25, 2021

UK Government embraces opacity

The Guardian highlights a growing trend in the UK Government to block and delay freedom of information requests, leading to accusations that they are waging a secret war against transparency.

They say that in a report published on Monday, the investigative journalism website openDemocracy alleged that last year was the worst year for transparency since the Freedom of Information Act came into force in 2005:

It highlighted the government’s own figures that show that in 2020, 41% of freedom of information requests by the public to central government departments were granted in full. Government statisticians acknowledge that “this is the lowest figure since recording started in 2005”.

The Cabinet Office, which is responsible for freedom of information, dismissed the report as “complete nonsense” and showing “a total misunderstanding” of the act. It said the Covid pandemic had left fewer resources available to answer freedom of information requests from the public.

However, an analysis of the government’s annual reports on the Freedom of Information Act shows a consistent fall in the number of requests being granted in full over the last decade. This is also acknowledged by government statisticians who describe what they call either a “downward” or “decreasing” trend.

The Cabinet Office disputed whether this measurement was an accurate way of assessing the level of transparency within Whitehall, arguing that some requests would always be rejected in full because they concerned sensitive areas such as the working of cabinet committees.

The government's excuses are not washing with campaigners, however:

OpenDemocracy’s report accuses the government of exploiting a series of loopholes to delay the public’s access to information, or stonewalling requesters by failing to answer.

Public bodies are entitled to request more time to consider whether to release information. But openDemocracy said evidence suggested that this was often used simply to delay responses to sensitive requests.

OpenDemocracy also said emails had shown that political advisers working for ministers were vetting requests before decisions were made on whether to release information.

Yet another worrying trend from this increasingly authoritarian government.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Ideological battle moves back to the BBC

The assault on the BBC, our so-called public sector broadcaster, has been underway since the days of Margaret Thatcher, maybe even longer. The fact that at some stages the corporation is attacked from both left and right indicates that perhaps they are getting the balance right after all, though on many many occasions producers' idea of a balanced feature is perverse to say the least.

Now, the government, or its allies at least, see an opportunity to turn the tide in their favour. Laura Kuenssberg is moving on from the role of political editor and at least one senior Tory wants her replacement to be ‘pro-Brexit’. 

The irony of Julian Knight MP, the chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee, even mooting such an appointment appears to have eluded him. You can't go around saying the BBC is biased, calling for better impartiality and then demand that it be stacked in your favour. Well, you can, but it's hardly consistent:

“This would be an opportunity for the BBC, maybe, to look at journalists who had a much more pro-Brexit [approach],” the influential Tory told The Telegraph.

Mr Knight added: “In front of our committee [BBC director general] Tim Davie could not name any senior person he had employed during his watch who supported Brexit. Maybe this is a chance to correct that.”

The senior MP recently attacked the BBC for not “getting on with it” after the Brexit referendum, saying: “It was not in touch at all over Brexit – it had a collective nervous breakdown in my view.”

The media select committee chair did offer praise for Ms Kuenssberg’s work, however, saying that she “will be a really sad loss to the role, she brings real insight”.

His call for a pro-Brexit political editor follows Tory concern about the appointment of Jess Brammar to a senior role in BBC News, despite an impartiality row over her old tweets.

Some right-wing media outlets drew attention to Ms Brammar’s now-deleted tweets, which were critical of Brexit. BBC board member Sir Robbie Gibb – former communications director to Theresa May – reportedly objected to her appointment.

After weeks of sniping from Conservative MPs, the former editor of HuffPost UK was given the job of overseeing the BBC’s domestic and international news channels in September.

If the independence of the BBC is to be maintained politicians in particular need to butt-out and let them get on with it. Surely, the chair of Parliament's media committee understands that better than most.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Britain's most expensive cinema screen

In some ways it is reassuring that the extravagant £2.6m Downing Street briefing room is getting some use, but is it really appropriate to turn it into a private cinema for the Prime Minister and his entourage, especially when he is still using No. 10 Downing Street for lobby briefings?

The Guardian says that Boris Johnson attended a screening of the new James Bond film 'No Time To Die' in this room after work hours on Thursday. It transpires that other films have been screened here as well and, although costs are met through voluntary donations and by donors, that does not detract from the fact that a room paid for by taxpayers for a specific purpose has now become and unofficial cinema rather than the briefing space it was intended to be.

As the paper says, the renovation of this premises took place under plans to hold daily televised media conferences at the venue, to be led by former journalist Allegra Stratton, who was appointed as the prime minister’s press secretary. But in April it emerged the plans had been scrapped amid concerns about the “political risk” involved, and Stratton was moved to become a spokeswoman for the Cop26 climate summit.

It is a vanity exercise and in no way a proper use of public money.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Johnson's levelling down agenda

Many of us had suspected that the so-called 'levelling up' agenda being mooted by Boris Johnson in an effort to retain red wall seats was nothing but flim-flam, and now evidence has emerged that gives some credence to that view.

The Independent says the cross-party Public Accounts Committee has found that government changes to education funding in England have redistributed cash from poorer areas to richer areas, with the new national funding formula cutting funding in the most deprived parts of the country by 1.2 per cent but increasing it by 2.9 per cent in the least deprived. They add that further cuts to pupil premium spending have also cut £90 million from the most disadvantaged children:

The findings come despite the government's rhetoric and repeated claims to be "levelling up" left-behind parts of the country.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said the redistribution "ensures resources are delivered where they are needed the most".

But the cross party group of MPs says ministers “failed to take enough account of the impact of its decisions on individual schools and their pupils” and that adverse effects are falling “disproportionately on deprived local areas and schools”.

Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “Schools are facing a perfect storm of challenges with promises of teacher pay rises, per pupil funding changes and falling rolls but no clear plan from the Department for Education.

“Schools and pupils in deprived areas are being hit hardest by the funding formula at a time when the government’s commitment is to level up.

"Add to this the ongoing delays in the review of support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities and some of the most vulnerable children are facing an uncertain future – on top of the impact of Covid.

Every part of government has faced challenges but the impact of the exam chaos, funding uncertainties and repeatedly delayed decisions is hitting young people hard and risks scarring their life chances.”

Time for the Tories to put their money where their mouth is.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Another trade deal, another flop

I woke this morning to the news that the UK have signed a trade deal with New Zealand. No doubt this will ne heralded as the best thing since sliced bread and a vindication of our leaving the EU. However, it will in no way compensate for the trade we have left since Brexit, and not everybody is impressed with the agreement.

The Guardian reports that the agreement is expected to add no value to the UK’s gross domestic product. They say that the deal may boost New Zealand’s GDP by $970m or around 0.3%, however, last year’s analysis by the UK government found that its effect on Britain’s GDP would probably have “limited effect … in the long run” – being between a positive growth of 0.01% or negative growth of -0.01%. And that is not all:

Minette Batters, the National Farmers Union president, said it would open the country’s doors to “significant extra volumes of imported food – whether or not produced to our own high standards – while securing almost nothing in return for UK farmers”.

She added: “We should all be worried that there could be a huge downside to these deals, especially for sectors such as dairy, red meat and horticulture. The government is now asking British farmers to go toe to toe with some of the most export-oriented farmers in the world, without the serious, long-term and properly funded investment in UK agriculture that can enable us to do so.

“It’s incredibly worrying that we’ve heard next to nothing from government about how it will work with farming to achieve this.”

Labour’s shadow international trade secretary, Emily Thornberry, echoed the criticism and said the deal would generate just £112m in additional exports for UK firms compared with pre-pandemic levels. Referring to the price tag of a new national flagship, she claimed the total value for businesses from the agreement would be “less than half the cost of Boris Johnson’s new yacht”.

Thornberry said: “It is a deal whose only major winners are the mega-corporations who run New Zealand’s meat and dairy farms, all at the expense of British farmers who are already struggling to compete. But for British jobs, growth and exports, this deal is yet another massive failure.”

It is no wonder our economy is struggling.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Economy faces crisis as Brexit supply-side crisis bites

The Guardian reports that restaurants and hotels are wrestling with “terrifying” inflation running as high as 18%, bosses have warned, as supply chain disruption and labour shortages wreak havoc in the hospitality sector.

The paper says that food and drink producers have been squeezed by a combination of higher prices for raw materials, soaring wages, increased costs for transport amid the HGV driver shortage, and rising energy bills:

Inflation in the UK hit hit 3.2% in August, rising from 2% in July, according to the consumer prices index measure of inflation and figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Inflation is at its highest level in the UK since March 2012, and it is expected to increase further, adding to the squeeze on consumers just ahead of government raising taxes.

Soaring gas and electricity prices will also have an impact on household bills and the Bank of England expects inflation to rise above 4% this winter, well above its 2% target, increasing expectations that it will be forced to raise interest rates.

Manufacturers are facing price rises of between 30% and 40% for raw materials, according to Stephen Phipson, chief executive of trade body Make UK, which could become critical for certain firms if they are not able to pass on those costs.

“To the extent we are seeing now, they are not passing on all of it and that can only persist for a number of months, six months would be my best guess, before we start to see real failures in terms of businesses,” Phipson said.

Phipson said firms are, like many other sectors of the economy, suffering from the lack of availability of lorry drivers.

However, the government’s recent moves to improve the labour squeeze in the logistics industry – allowing drivers from abroad to apply for temporary visas and a relaxation on the number of deliveries permitted within the UK for foreign-registered trucks, also known as “cabotage” – have not yet improved the situation, according to trade body the Road Haulage Association (RHA).

Government policies on non-British workers, Brexit and the pandemic all have a part to play in this, but whatever the cause, it will be consumers who will pay for it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Who are the VIPs?

Some good news for transparency and accountability with the Guardian reporting that the UK government has been ordered to reveal which companies were given “VIP” access to multimillion-pound contracts for the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the early months of the Covid pandemic.

The paper says that The Department of Health and Social Care has previously refused to disclose the names of 47 companies that had contracts awarded through the privileged, fast-track process allocated to firms with political connections but, thanks to a ruling by the Information Commissioner's Office, that may be about to change:

A report by the National Audit Office (NAO) last year found that companies referred as possible PPE suppliers by ministers, MPs or senior NHS officials were given high priority by the DHSC procurement process, which resulted in a 10 times greater success rate for securing contracts than companies whose bids were processed via normal channels.

The Good Law Project (GLP), which first revealed the existence of a VIP lane, is together with fellow campaign group EveryDoctor challenging the DHSC over the lawfulness of the VIP lane and large contracts awarded to three companies: PestFix, Ayanda Capital and Clandeboye Agencies.

The government is defending the claims, arguing that the contracts were lawful and the suspension of competitive processes for all PPE contracts – that in total were worth £12.5bn – was justified due to the health emergency.

A government spokesperson confirmed last December that another company, PPE Medpro, had been awarded contracts worth £200m via the “high-priority lane,” but the DHSC declined to say how the company came to be given VIP status.

The NAO stated in its report that 47 companies had been given PPE contracts via what it termed the “high-priority channel” for those with political connections, but the then health minister James Bethell said the government did not intend to reveal their identities because “there may be associated commercial implications”.

The GLP applied in January under the Freedom of Information Act for the company names to be disclosed, which the DHSC took nearly three months to refuse. It took a further four months to carry out a review, then said on 7 September it would publish the names, but failed to do so. The GLP successfully complained to the ICO, whose ruling requires the names to be published by 22 November and states that the DHSC breached the Freedom of Information Act by failing to do so.

The GLP’s director, Jo Maugham, said: “If, and this shouldn’t be so, government needs to be dragged kicking and screaming to transparency, we’re here and we’ve shown time and again we’re happy to do that job.”

We now wait with bated breath to see if the list will be published as ordered.

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