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Sunday, November 29, 2020

Questions over council contract

It turns out that it is not just the UK Government who have questions to answer over the awarding of contracts. Wales on Line reports that Bridgend Council has no record of how it awarded a home insulation contract to a company run by one of its own senior councillors.

Investigations into the contract started when complaints came in about poor workmanship on houses in Caerau, near Maesteg whose owner occupiers participated in the scheme, known as Arbed. The subsequent report stated: “Total funding of £315,875 was received by Bridgend Council from the Welsh Government:

The funding for both projects was paid to Green Renewable Wales Ltd by Bridgend council. The work was completed in 2013. Subsequently there have been numerous complaints over the standard of work carried out by the contractors."

“In view of ongoing concerns brought to the attention of the council, in 2018, Bridgend’s internal audit service were requested to carry out a review by the then chief executive to ascertain the extent to which the council’s policies and procedures had or had not been applied in respect of the Arbed funding scheme for the period September 2012 to April 2013 in Caerau.

“Particular concerns were raised by the then chief executive relating to an apparent absence of an audit trail. The findings of internal audit highlighted a number of internal procedural issues relating to the governance, decision making, procurement, monitoring and control aspects of the funding that the council administered for this scheme at this time.”

Labour councillor Phil White, a member of Bridgend council’s cabinet until he stepped down last month, was a director and company secretary of Green Renewable Wales.

The company was liquidated in 2017. A consultancy called Nu-Vision was engaged to assess the quality of workmanship on the homes in Caerau. The cabinet report states: “The NuVision report concludes that some of the work is defective, some of it significantly so.”

Given past scandals in local government there are meant to be much stricter controls over council contract than those issued by national governments, though why Ministers should not be held to the same high standard as councillors has never been clear.

Ther questions of Llynfi Independent councillor Keith Edwards are therefore very pertinent. He said: “It is absolutely shocking that there is no audit trail or paper trail relating to the awarding of this contract to Green Renewable Wales. How did the council come to be in partnership with a company that had been established recently and had no track record in delivering such a programme of work? We don’t know.

“What does that tell you about the way the council has been run? This scandal has brought Bridgend County Borough Council into disrepute.

“Who signed a cheque to the company for upwards of £300,000? This is public money.

“The residents, many of whom are old or sick, believed their homes would be improved as a result of their participation in this scheme, and thought the council’s involvement was a guarantee of that.

“In fact the exact opposite has turned out to be the case. I have had numerous complaints about the shoddy workmanship. People deserve to be compensated as a matter of urgency.”

The matter has now been referred to the Public Service Ombudsman for Wales.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

British Airways foreshadow the end of the Union

 Is a rebranding imminent?

Friday, November 27, 2020

Foreign Aid budget will undermine post-Brexit trade and diplomacy

I am not a big fan of the Chancellor's decision to cut the foreign aid budget from 0.7% of national income to 0.5%. Not only are the budgetary gains small by comparison to overall government spending and debt, but the signals that are sent out undermine everything that Boris Johnson's government is trying to do in a post-Brexit world.

Let us be under no illusion, if we are trying to strike trade deals then the goodwill generated by foreign aid is invaluable. What is more, aid is in investment in future trade partners, and that is before we get to the basic humanitarian reasons why we do it.

The Independent appears to agree and adds an additional dimension. They refer to the resignation of foreign minister Baroness Liz Sugg, who in her letter to the prime minister, said: “Cutting UK aid risks undermining your efforts to promote a Global Britain and will diminish our power to influence other nations to do what is right.”

They point out that Her words come as the UK prepares for its Climate Ambition Summit on 12 December, the five-year anniversary of when a deal was reached by countries for the Paris Agreement on climate change:

The summit is a “kick-off event” aimed at inspiring greater ambition on climate action ahead of the upcoming UN climate talks, which will be hosted by the UK in Glasgow in 2021.

“Ahead of next month’s Climate Ambition Summit, I’m calling on my fellow leaders at the G20 to make bold pledges and harness our collective ingenuity and resources to defeat the pandemic and protect our planet and our future for generations,” said the prime minister in his statement to the G20 summit held last weekend.

But the cut to the foreign aid budget could put the government on the “back foot”, says Nick Mabey, chief executive and founder of E3G, a climate change think tank.

“The cut to aid puts UK climate diplomacy on the back foot just as the prime minister prepares the kick-off summit for Cop26 on 12 December,” he told The Independent.

“The UK is already struggling to get other donor countries to meet their climate finance commitments to help poor countries, and this announcement will remove any remaining ability to apply pressure.”

Under the Paris Agreement, both developed and low- and middle-income countries pledged to slash their greenhouse gas emissions in order to keep global warming below 2C above pre-industrial levels.

However, the pledges from poorer countries were made on the condition that they would receive financial support from richer nations. (This reflects the fact that, since the start of the industrial era to today, richer nations have been responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions.

Richer countries have pledged to mobilise $100bn of “climate finance” for poorer nations by 2020. However, a report released a few weeks ago by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that, by 2018, they were still some way from meeting that figure. The total amount of climate finance given in 2018 was $78.9bn, up 11 per cent on the previous year.

Though it appears that climate finance is protected in the government’s new spending plans, there are fears that slashing overseas aid could harm the UK’s efforts to encourage other developed nations to increase their spending on climate finance.

Yet another diplomatic mess from Boris Johnson's gaffe-prone government.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Chumocracy through Whatsapp

There is another development in the chumocracy that has dominated many of the Covid 19 contracts and appointments under this government today, with the revelation by the Guardian that an acquaintance and former neighbour of Matt Hancock is supplying the government with tens of millions of vials for NHS Covid-19 tests despite having had no previous experience of producing medical supplies.

The paper says Alex Bourne, who used to run a pub close to Hancock’s former constituency home in Suffolk, said he initially offered his services to the UK health secretary several months ago by sending him a personal WhatsApp message:

Bourne’s company, Hinpack, was at that time producing plastic cups and takeaway boxes for the catering industry. It is now supplying about 2m medical grade vials a week to the government via a distributor contracted by the NHS.

Bourne categorically denies he profited from his personal contact with Hancock. However, the case raises questions for the health secretary and is likely to reignite the row over alleged government cronyism during the pandemic.

Contacted last week by the Guardian, Bourne’s lawyers flatly denied that their client had any discussions with Hancock in relation to Covid-19 supplies.

However, on Monday, after being confronted with further details about his interactions with the health secretary, Bourne backtracked. In a phone call with the Guardian, he conceded that he has in fact exchanged text and email messages with Hancock over several months.

He also participated in an industry Zoom meeting in August attended by Hancock, Boris Johnson and several dozen suppliers in the Covid test-and-trace programme.

Bourne said he sent his WhatsApp message to Hancock’s mobile number on 30 March offering his services amid a nationwide call to arms to respond to the pandemic. Bourne said he opened the exchange: “Hello, it’s Alex Bourne from Thurlow.”

Until the end of 2017 when they leased it out, Bourne and his wife had run the Cock Inn, a village pub in Thurlow a few hundred yards from Hancock’s former constituency home. The Conservative cabinet minister was a supporter of the pub, attending its reopening after refurbishment in 2016 and nominating it for an award in 2017. Hancock posted a photo of himself pulling a pint with Bourne on his parliamentary website. Hancock moved in 2018.

I hope somebody is keeping a record of all these contacts and contracts.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Home Office broke equalities law

It is no great surprise that a critical report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has concluded the Home Office broke equalities law when it introduced its hostile environment immigration measure. In fact, the only shock is that this conclusion was not made public much earlier.

The Guardian reports that in the latest damning report on the Home Office’s record in relation to its hostile environment policies and the Windrush scandal, the EHRC study detected “a lack of commitment” within the Home Office to the importance of equality. The department now has a legal duty to review these policies to ensure they are not racially discriminatory, and that they comply with equalities legislation.

The report found that negative consequences of the hostile environment were “repeatedly ignored, dismissed, or their severity disregarded. This happened particularly when they were seen as a barrier to implementing hostile environment policies in a highly politicised environment.” It concluded that the department’s approach to its legal duty to ensure that its policies complied with equality legalisation was “perfunctory”:

Caroline Waters, interim chair of the EHRC, said the policies would look “very different” once this review had been completed. “We would expect them to be different, because we found that equality was generally dismissed or overlooked,” she said.

In its report the EHRC assessed how and whether the Home Office complied with the public sector equality duty (PSED) – a legal requirement since 2010 – when developing, implementing and monitoring the hostile environment policy agenda, particularly in considering its impact on black members of the Windrush generation.

It found that officials failed to appreciate the severity of the negative impacts of its policy on this group of people. Even when the damaging consequences of the hostile environment policies began to emerge, the department failed to engage with representatives of the Windrush generation.

The report found “there was a narrow focus on delivering the political commitment of reducing immigration, and a culture where equality was not seen as important. Identifying risks to equality was therefore not encouraged.”

The EHRC detected an organisation-wide “lack of commitment, including by senior leadership, to the importance of equality and the Home Office’s obligations under the public sector equality duty. There was a misconception by some officials that immigration was exempt from all equalities legislation.”

The behaviour of the UK Government has been a disgrace and many individuals and families have suffered as a result. Let's hope that any action to put this right includes compensation for the injustice that has occurred as a result.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Anatomy of a conspiracy

At long last Trump has agreed to let the transition go ahead and Biden will be able to access Federal funds to put in place a more sensible and stable government in the United States. That has not, however, prevented his supporters and him continuing to hawk around their conspiracy stories as to how the election was stolen from him.

For those interested in how these stories emerged and the role of social media in spreading them, then I highly recommend following the Twitter account of Marianna Spring, who is the BBC's specialist reporter covering disinformation and social media. Having listened to one radio interview on BBC this morning I think more of her colleagues should be reading her.

Marianna has a blog here, in which she examines the roots of this election fraud conspiracy story. She says that for months before a single vote was cast, allegations of "rigged elections" and "voter fraud" have been punctuating people's Facebook and Twitter feeds:

Research by the BBC's Anti-disinformation unit reveals that disinformation about voter fraud has been plugged by influential accounts on social media repeatedly, for months.

And it came from the very top. President Trump first started tweeting allegations of fraud as far back as April.

Between then and the election, he mentioned rigged elections or voter fraud more than 70 times.

She provides these examples from June and August:

She adds that it is not a new theme, Trump made claims of voter fraud back in 2016, an election he won:

But this time around, the evidence suggests many more people have been seeing unsubstantiated claims all over their social media feeds for weeks. Candy is just one of them. Hundreds of thousands joined big Facebook groups under the "Stop the Steal" banner.

But this time around, the evidence suggests many more people have been seeing unsubstantiated claims all over their social media feeds for weeks. Candy is just one of them. Hundreds of thousands joined big Facebook groups under the "Stop the Steal" banner.

Our research found that influential right-wing accounts were instrumental in amplifying these claims - and were frequently retweeted by President Trump. That includes a number of figures with big followings who have gone on to be involved in a protest movement centred around the unsubstantiated idea of a "rigged" election.

On election night the hashtag #StoptheSteal sprung up on Twitter after the first of many misleading videos about voter fraud went viral.

The video showed a poll watcher being denied entry to a Philadelphia polling station. It has almost two million views on Twitter, and was shared by multiple pro-Trump accounts. We investigated the video shortly after it was posted.

The man who features in it was asked to wait outside by officials - with a woman telling him that his poll-watching certificate was not valid at that particular polling station.

The video was authentic and, as it turns out, the woman was wrong. There was confusion over the rules. Poll watchers used to only be allowed into a particular station in Philadelphia, but they can now visit multiple sites across the city.

The situation was later clarified and the man was later allowed into the station, and given an apology. None of that was reflected in the video of course - and the hashtag had already gone viral.

The Stop the Steal slogan was then used by those setting up large Facebook groups which, since election night, have cumulatively amassed more than a million members.

Several of these groups have been removed after users posted threats of violence and calls for "civil war".

They have become a hotbed for more misleading videos and false claims - similar to that incident in Philadelphia - which have flooded social media feeds of people like Candy.

This and many more memes are slowly undermining the democratic process in the United States and it is the current President who is both leading and encouraging them. It is only a matter of time before similar tactic find their way into the UK.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Friend and advisor

Continuing the chumocracy theme, the Independent reports health secretary, Matt Hancock, is facing questions over the appointment of a close friend and lobbyist to a £15,000-a-year advisor role in his department.

They say that Gina Coladangelo, who met Mr Hancock when both were attending Oxford University, is a director at lobbying firm Luther Pendragon, which promises clients help to “navigate and influence complex legislation”. She was handed a job just as the country went into lockdown in the spring as an unpaid adviser on a six-month contract at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

And in September, Ms Coladangelo was given a role as non-executive director at DHSC, earning at least £15,000 and placing her on the board that scrutinises the department. There was no public record of the appointment:

The Department for Health and Social Care declined to comment on whether there was a conflict of interest with her role when contacted by The Independent.

But her appointment raises further questions over the government’s appointment and procurement procedures relating to the Covid pandemic.

Alex Thomas, progrmame director at the Institute for Government, told The Sunday Times: “It’s reasonable for ministers to take advice from a range of sources, but advisers should be transparent, accountable and appointed on merit.

Transparency is something that is missing from this government.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The chumocracy at large

Today's news in the Independent that campaigners have submitted a legal challenge alleging that prime minister Boris Johnson and health secretary Matt Hancock acted "unlawfully" when appointing key figures to top posts during the coronavirus crisis has hardly hit many of us as a bolt out of blue sky. Indeed there appears to be a continuing barrage of news about contracts and appointments which is challengeable in this way.

The paper says that the case had been lodged jointly by the Good Law Project and race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust. The judicial review, submitted to the High Court, alleges that three appointments were made without advertising the positions and without the open competition normally required for senior public sector roles:

The case relates to the recruitment of test and trace boss and Tory peer Baroness Dido Harding; Kate Bingham, head of the UK's vaccine taskforce; and Mike Coupe, director of NHS Test and Trace, the Observer added.

Jolyon Maugham QC, director of the Good Law Project, tweeted: "This is our belief, that cronyism - which undermines the public interest, discriminates against those who don't rub shoulders with Cabinet Ministers, and shuts out those who lack the family fortune to work unpaid - is unlawful. And we at GoodLawProject mean to prove it in court."

Mr Maugham said that the organisation will publish the full court documents on Sunday.

The Good Law Project and Runnymede Trust's crowding funding page said that Lady Harding was just "handed the job" as head of the National Institute for Health Protection without any other candidates being considered.

It said that she was not the only one to land a top job this way and that "very often" people who had been recruited had "personal and political connections to the government".

It said: "In August, the Conservative Peer Dido Harding was appointed as head of the National Institute for Health Protection.

"The wife of a Conservative MP and friend of former prime minister David Cameron, Dido Harding didn't pip other candidates to the post at the interview.

"There weren't any other candidates. She was just handed the job. She's not the only one to land a top job this way.

"Each week it seems another individual secures a role of vital public importance without any advertisement or fair process - and very often that individual has personal and political connections to government."

While the page said that appointing "your mates" was not new or the "preserve of the Conservative Party" it was time to put a stop to it.

It added: "This government's approach discriminates against those born without a silver spoon in their mouth.

"It's unfair to those who don't rub shoulders with high-ranking Ministers. And it's unfair to groups who the data shows are shut out of public life.

"Appointing your mates to top jobs isn't new or the preserve of the Conservative Party: we all remember 'Tony's Cronies' too. But it's high time we put a stop to it.

The lack of transparency in these appointments amd the awarding of contracts and the apparent abandonment of Nolan principles in the UK government are worrying trends that cannot be good for democracy. Let's hope the courts see it the same way.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

The blight of the disposable masks

Every morning I walk to the shop to get my paper, and every morning I find myself dodging dog shit and the plague of disposable masks that has hit every community in the UK. It is a blight that cannot be allowed to continue.

In this regard I agree with Joanna Whitehead in the Independent, who references a study published in Environmental Science and Technology journal, which estimated 194 billion disposable masks and gloves are being used globally every month as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

She says that for medical staff on the frontline, single-use makes sense as they need to ensure the highest levels of hygiene in a working environment. But argues we need to teach the rest of the population that most single-use masks are made from plastics like polypropylene, polyethylene and vinyl – material that takes 450 years to degrade. During this time, she says, face masks break down into microplastics that are then ingested by marine life:

Marine life, such as sea turtles – who often die after eating plastic bags they mistake for jellyfish, their main food source – also risk a slow and unpleasant death with a new and ubiquitous kind of plastic on the menu.

Campaigners in France warned in May that if single use masks continue being used at the current rate, there could soon be more masks in the Mediterranean than jellyfish.

And, it’s not just marine life. In September, the RSPCA called on the public to “snip the straps” of disposable face masks after receiving an increasing number of reports of animals tangled in them.

“Now that face masks are the norm, and may be for some time to come, this message is more important than ever as thousands of these masks are being thrown away every day,” the charity’s chief executive Chris Sherwood said.

“Our RSPCA officers have had to rescue animals from getting tangled in face masks and we expect that this may go up as time goes on, so the best thing to do is to simply cut the elastic ear straps in half before throwing it away.”

Even when disposed of correctly, face masks are classified as medical waste, which means they cannot be recycled and end up either in landfill, or being incinerated, which produces toxic fumes.

As PPE litter becomes an all-too-common sight on UK streets, it’s vital that any efforts to reverse this trend focus on the wider picture, as well as individual behaviour. Getting into the habit of remembering a mask when leaving the house is one that people sometimes forget, prompting them to buy single-use masks whilst out and about.

There are good resusable masks on the market, factoring in fabric, facial hair and fashion. Why not buy them as Christmas presents for your family and friends?

Friday, November 20, 2020

No consequences?

The news that a Cabinet Office inquiry into allegations of bullying by Priti Patel has found evidence that she broke the ministerial code is a damning indictment of the culture that pervades at the Home Office. These are serious allegations and need a serious response. 

However, all the indications are the Prime Minister is not proposing to move against her, leaving the ministerial code, which is meant to have zero tolerance of bullying, in tatters.

The Home Secretary was accused of bullying her department's most senior civil servant Sir Philip Rutnam back in February, shortly before he resigned. Sir Philip accused Ms Patel of spearheading a "vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign" against him, and that he had received allegations of Ms Patel "shouting and swearing, belittling people" and "making unreasonable and repeated demands". In April he formally launched legal action against the Government claiming "constructive dismissal".

The Guardian reports that Boris Johnson, the sole arbiter of the rules, is expected to release a decision on the inquiry within weeks but it is not likely to demand the home secretary’s resignation:

Sources familiar with the inquiry said it had found evidence that civil servants were treated poorly by Patel, as well as compelling evidence of bullying.

Pressure on the prime minister to sack Patel is growing as a result of claims of bullying and harassment from civil servants in three separate government departments.

Speculation over the inquiry has prompted condemnation of the Cabinet Office inquiry process, which is conducted in secret and offers no recourse for complainants. Johnson has already been criticised for compromising the process by insisting before the inquiry had ended that he would continue to support Patel.

This is not the first time that the ministerial code has proved to be not worth the paper it is written on, nor is that confined to Westminister. There are similar weaknesses in the devolved administrations. Surely it is time it was given some teeth.

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