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Sunday, July 12, 2020

The old pals act?

Just when we thought that the government could not shock us any further, we learn from the Guardian that the Cabinet Office has awarded an £840,000 contract to research public opinion about government policies to a company owned by two long-term associates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings, without putting the work out for tender.

They say that Public First, is a small policy and research company in London, run by James Frayne, whose work alongside Cummings – the prime minister’s senior adviser – dates back to a Eurosceptic campaign 20 years ago, and Rachel Wolf, a former adviser to Gove who co-wrote the Conservative party’s 2019 election manifesto:

The government justified the absence of a competitive tendering process, which would have enabled other companies to bid, under emergency regulations that allow services to be urgently commissioned in response to the Covid-19 crisis.

However, the Cabinet Office’s public record states that portions of the work, which involved focus group research, related to Brexit rather than Covid-19, a joint investigation by the Guardian and openDemocracy has established.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said this was because of bookkeeping methods, and insisted that, contrary to government records, all the focus group research done by Public First was related to the pandemic.

The Cabinet Office, where Gove is the minister responsible, initially commissioned Public First to carry out focus groups from 3 March, although no contract was put in place until 5 June.

Government work is legally required to be put out for competitive tender to ensure the best qualified company is appointed, unless there are exceptional circumstances, such as an unforeseen emergency.

When a contract was finally produced on 5 June, it was made retrospective to cover the work done since 3 March. The Cabinet Office paid Public First £253,000 for the two projects listed as being Brexit-related and two more pieces of work done before the contract was put in place.

Public First was required to conduct focus groups “covering the general public and key sub-groups”, according to a Cabinet Office letter.

The firm was required to provide the government with “topline reporting” of their findings on the same day, with fuller findings reported the following day. The deal also included “on-site resource to support No 10 communications” in the form of a Public First partner, Gabriel Milland, being seconded to Downing Street until 26 June.

Milland was the head of communications at the Department for Education when Gove was the minister and Cummings was his political adviser.

It's funny how reasons to by-pass regulations and rules can be found when they are needed.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

The new Brexit reality

So all the promises that leaving the EU would not increase the cost of goods, impinge free trade with Europe or add red tape and bureaucracy to imports and exports, thus increasing the price of goods and services for consumers have come to naught. What a surprise!

The Guardian reports that the government has secretly purchased 11 hectares (27 acres) of land 20 miles from Dover to site a vast new Brexit customs clearance centre for the 10,000 lorries that come through the Kent port from Calais every day.

The paper says that it will be the first customs post erected in the UK to deal with goods coming from the EU for 27 years. The government has been forced to introduce customs controls because of the decision to leave the EU’s single market and the customs union on 1 January. Now, businesses are bracing themselves for the publication of the first official details of the new border operating model and immigration system on Monday.

When we add in the impact of the leaked letter from the UK's international trade secretary, Liz Truss suggesting that Boris Johnson's Northern Ireland border plans could break international trading rules, risk the UK's international credibility, and lead to smuggling from the European Union then it is becoming clear that 2021 is likely to start in chaos and acrimony and go downhill from there.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Police face inquiry into possible racial bias

The Guardian reports that police across England and Wales face an inquiry to establish whether they racially discriminate against ethnic minorities in their use of force and stop and search.

They say that the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) intends to use its formal powers to investigate cases and then look if any pattern of racial discrimination exists. It has vowed it can “drive real change in policing practice”:

The review comes as forces are under pressure to justify their use of stop and search after a series of high-profile cases that have been caught on camera. The Met police commissioner, Cressida Dick, apologised on Wednesday for distress caused to the British athlete Bianca Williams when officers stopped, searched and handcuffed her and her partner in west London at the weekend.

Several key indicators show police powers in England and Wales are used disproportionately against black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people. Stop and search is nine times more likely to be used against black people, and Taser use almost eight times more likely.

Police deny that ongoing racial bias is a reason. The IOPC inquiry could be one of the most significant examinations of police and race since the Macpherson inquiry in 1999 found the police to be institutionally racist.

Black people in England and Wales were almost nine times more likely to be stopped and searched in 2018-19 than white people. The paper says that the Met receives more than 250 complaints alleging racism on average each year and less than 1% are upheld.

Figures from the London mayor’s office of policing and crime show that between 2017 and 2019, 816 complaints of racial discrimination were examined. Two each year were recorded as upheld, a total of six over the three years, or 0.7%. Fifty-nine per cent were rejected, others were dealt with via different methods, and 68 complaints from 2019 are outstanding.

The outcome of this inquiry may well prove very interesting.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Leaked letter casts doubt on government border plans

There is an interesting article in Business Insider concerning a leaked letter from the UK's international trade secretary, Liz Truss that casts doubt on the legitimacy of the Prime Minister's post-Brexit border plans.

The letter claims that the border plans could break international trading rules, risk the UK's international credibility, and lead to smuggling from the European Union. Although Britain is set to leave EU trading and customs rules at the end of the year, the government announced last month that full border controls would not be applied on goods until July 2021:

Business Insider reported last week that the decision raised serious concerns among business groups, who said a delay could be a "disaster" for firms trading with the EU.

On Wednesday, Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, wrote in a letter to Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer, and Michael Gove, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, expressing four "key areas of concerns" about the government's plans to leave EU trading and custom rules at the end of 2020.

Truss said the plans could create a series of logistical, political, and reputational risks for the government, including:
Truss told Sunak and Gove that a failure to make sure all ports are ready to carry out the full range of checks on incoming goods by January could lead to smuggling into the UK.

"I would like assurances that we are able to deliver full control at these ports by July 2021 and that plans are in place from January to mitigate the risk of goods being circumvented from ports implementing full controls," she wrote.

Truss also said she was worried that the legality of the UK's plan for a phased approach to checks on goods coming from the EU from January to July could be challenged at the WTO.

She said the UK would "be vulnerable to WTO challenge" because of its border policy. This is because the UK plans to temporarily give the EU preferential treatment, which could be a breach of WTO rules if there is no UK-EU free-trade agreement in place.

Truss also suggested that as of January 1, all goods going to Northern Ireland from elsewhere in the world could have the EU tariff applied by default, as the system for applying both UK and EU tariffs is not expected to be ready on time.

"I understand that the digital delivery of the dual tariff system (both EU and UK tariff) in Northern Ireland is a high risk and that HMRC are planning to apply the EU tariff as a default to all imports in NI on 1 January 2021," she wrote.

None of this is new of course. Many of us have been trying to tell the government about these problems for some time. Will they listen now? I doubt it.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Treaty obligations catch up with UK Government

There was a time when UK Prime Ministers could go along to summits, sign the joint declaration and then spend the rest of their tenure paying lip service to the obligations they had taken upon themselves on behalf of the country. Those halycon days appear to be behind us, and thank goodness for that.

As the Guardian reports, the turning point appears to have been the Heathrow case earlier this year, in which the government’s go-ahead for a third runway was deemed unlawful by judges as it failed to take into account the UK’s obligations under the 2015 Paris agreement. Campaigners are now arguing that this ruling sets a precedent that forces ministers to assess the impact of their Covid-19 stimulus plans on the climate crisis.

On Tuesday, a letter threatening court action was sent to the prime minister and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, by the pressure group Plan B, which successfully pursued the Heathrow case. They are arguing that Boris Johnson’s much-vaunted green recovery plans are inadequate and “clearly unlawful” as they do not match up to the government’s legal obligations under the Paris climate agreement and the UK’s own net zero emissions target.

Sunak will set out £3bn of green spending, focusing on improving energy efficiency in homes and public buildings, in his summer statement today, but the letter contrasts this sum with the billions committed to airlines and carmakers in the taxpayer-funded coronavirus recovery package, and funding for fossil fuels'

If there is no response by 17 July, the campaigners will take the next step, which is to send a “pre-action protocol letter”, which would oblige the government to respond within 21 days.

The paper says that legal action is also threatened against the Bank of England, alleging that the governor, Andrew Bailey, appeared to have changed his mind on how to combine responses to the Covid-19 crisis and the climate emergency:

In a statement on 1 July he said: “The Bank’s lending to companies as part of the emergency response to Covid-19 has not incorporated a test based on climate considerations. That was deliberate, because in such a grave emergency affecting this country we have focused on the immediate priority of supporting jobs and livelihoods.”

Plan B said this showed he had been overruled by ministers. Tim Crosland, its director, said: “It feels like his judgment has been overridden. Corporate lobbyists are getting the better of the scientific and economic advice. This is a disaster.”

Politicians being forced to match their words with actions? These court cases will be worth following.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Onto the blame game

It appears that the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic is the blame game, where the government tries to get in its excuses ahead of a public inquiry so that all their mistakes can be attributed to somebody else.

We have already seem ministers lining up the scientists in this regard, arguing consistently that they are following the science, when in reality they are making decisions on the basis of a large range of information, some contradictory, and in some cases putting off decisions at a huge cost.

The Guardian reported only a few weeks ago, for example, the view of Professor Neil Ferguson that the number of coronavirus deaths in the UK could have been halved if the government had introduced the lockdown a week earlier. That is one assertion that a public inquiry will certainly want to explore.

Now, we have the Prime Minister arguing that some of the deaths in care homes came about because many of them did not follow proper procedures on coronavirus,

Mark Adams, the chief executive of Community Integrated Care, which provides care to a range of people in England and Scotland, has called this claim “clumsy and cowardly”, arguing that care homes are still having to provide much of their personal protective equipment (PPE), and are only now getting sufficient access to testing.

Mr. Adams sums up the government's whole approach to taking responsibility for its decisions when he says: “I think this, at best, was clumsy and cowardly, but to be honest with you, if this is genuinely his view, I think we’re almost entering a Kafka-esque alternative reality where the government set the rules, we follow them, they don’t like the results and they then deny setting the rules and blame the people that were trying to do their best. It is hugely frustrating.”

When we eventually do get the inevitable public inquiry into this pandemic it is going to have a lot of misinformation to unravel to get to the truth.

Monday, July 06, 2020

Are we all going to get a Treasury gift token?

The Guardian reports that the Treasury are considering radical plans to give all adults £500 and children £250 in vouchers to spend in sectors of the economy worst hit by the Covid-19 crisis:

The proposals, drawn up by the Resolution Foundation thinktank, which has had recent talks with the Treasury about its ideas, are aimed at kickstarting economic recovery by triggering a highly targeted surge in spending. Under the plans the vouchers could only be spent in certain sectors, such as hospitality and “face to face” retail, as opposed to online.

The proposals are similar to successful schemes already used in China, Taiwan and Malta. In April, the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the Covid-19 outbreak is believed to have started, issued 500 million yuan (£57m) in consumption vouchers for use in restaurants, shopping malls, convenience stores, and cultural, sports and tourist venues.

Last night, ahead of a “summer update” on the state of the stricken economy by the chancellor Rishi Sunak on Wednesday, the Treasury refused to rule out introducing a similar scheme in the short or medium term.

The Resolution Foundation says its idea would be a more effective way to jump start a recovery than a temporary VAT cut, or one-off cash gifts from the state to individuals, which have also been considered in Whitehall.

Economists say cash transfers into people’s bank accounts would probably be stashed away into savings by many higher income households, while a VAT cut would do less for lower income families because they tend to spend more of their money on VAT exempt items, or reduced, or zero-rated goods.

The money could be allocated via vouchers or smartcards, and transactions could be made with the use of mobile phones. The thinktank suggests a one-year time limit for spending the money and that the scheme, which would cost the state around £30bn, could be closed down in the event of a second wave of Covid-19.

Sources involved in the discussions said the Treasury might balk at a £30bn bill and opt for smaller sums if it takes up the idea, with the possibility that it could increase the value of the vouchers later if the scheme proved effective.

This is an interesting idea and one that is worth considering. The first question that sprang into my mind when I read this article however, was: 'will the payment be taxable?'

I only ask this question because when the Welsh government announced it would be giving a £500 bonus to all health and care workers in Wales, the Treasury made it clear that they would be taking tax and national insurance from the payment. Perhaps they will wish to rethink that decision in the light of their own little giveaway.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Farage reported to police

It is not just Dominic Cummings and Stanley Johnson who have been exercising their privilege to break the lockdown rules. As the Independent reports, Nigel Farage has been at it again, and has been reported to the police for his trouble.

Apparently, the referral to the authorities came after Farage visited a pub less than a fortnight after a trip to a Donald Trump rally in the United States. Anyone returning from overseas is required supposed to self-isolate for 14 days under current quarantine laws, with few exceptions:

The former Ukip leader Mr Farage was pictured on social media earlier on Saturday as pubs opened for the first time since lockdown in March.

Liberal Democrat acting leader Sir Ed Davey has now written to Kent Police asking them to investigate if Mr Farage has breached quarantine rules.

The Brexit Party politician was pictured at the Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the evening of 20 June.

Sir Ed said that suggested he did not return to the UK until 21 June at the earliest, meaning he should have remained in isolation until at least Sunday.

Sir Ed said: “There are clearly serious questions to answer for Nigel Farage. It is clear from his social media posts that he was in America on 20 June, and he was pictured at a Trump rally that evening. Given the current requirements for visitors returning to the UK to isolate for 14 full days on their return, Nigel Farage appears to be in violation of the quarantine.”

He said it was the responsibility of everyone to take lockdown requirements seriously.

“By choosing to go to the pub when it appears he should have been staying at home, Mr Farage is showing a flagrant disregard for the safety of people in his community.”

It would be nice if some of these people who think they are better than all the rest of us were held to account for their actions. I am not going to hold my breath however.

Saturday, July 04, 2020

Greek eye tests

Having been treated to the spectacle of Boris Johnson chief advisor, Dominic Cummings driving up to Durham and then taking a family trip to Barnard Castle, supposedly to test his eyesight, I don't suppose there was much trust left in the UK Government's lockdown measures.

Nevertheless, as another display of the government's one rule for us, another rule for you approach to the pandemic, the decision of Johnson's father to breach foreign office advice and visit his villa in northern Greece has once more raised questions as to the Prime Minister's efficacy. After all, if he cannot get his father to listen to him, what chance does Johnson have in enforcing the rules on everybody else?

The Independent reports that experts on the Independent Sage advisory group believe that high-profile figures close to the government like Dominic Cummings and Stanley Johnson are creating an impression which reduces public compliance and risks a second wave:

Professor Stephen Reicher, a leading expert in crowd psychology at the University of St Andrews who sits on the committee told a presentation on Friday that the trip would make it harder to rebuild trust.

"Even in the Johnson family I think we can allow that the prime minister is not his father's keeper. I'm not sure he can control his behaviours," he said.

"Nonetheless, the issue of trust is particularly important, and in fact the issue shows that in some ways trust is more important to compliance at this stage than under lockdown. The figures show that erosion of trust undermines people's willingness to use the test-trace-isolate and support system and in particular to give information about themselves to authorities.

"One of the best ways of undermining trust is the notion that there's one rule for them and one rule for us. It divides us from the authorities and there's no doubt that this affects that perception in exactly the same way that the Cummings affair did, and at the very best it's not helpful. You need to rebuild trust and in such a volatile situation I think everybody's got a responsibility to make sure they don't undermine trust."

It is little wonder that the First Ministers of both Scotland and Wales have criticised the shambolic nature of the UK Government's management of this crisis.

Friday, July 03, 2020

The downside of our new technology revolution

It is true to say that new technology has revolutionised our lives, especially during the current lockdown, but there is always a downside, and in this case it is our environment.

The Guardian reports that a new UN report has found that at least $10bn (£7.9bn) worth of gold, platinum and other precious metals are dumped every year in the growing mountain of electronic waste that is polluting the planet.

They say that a record 54m tonnes of “e-waste” was generated worldwide in 2019, up 21% in five years. The 2019 figure is equivalent to 7.3kg for every man, woman and child on Earth, though use is concentrated in richer nations. The amount of e-waste is rising three times faster than the world’s population, and only 17% of it was recycled in 2019:

Electronic and electrical goods, from phones and computers to refrigerators and kettles, have become indispensable in modern societies and enhance lives. But they often contain toxic chemicals, and soaring production and waste damages human health and the environment, and fuels the climate crisis.

The report blames lack of regulation and the short lifespan of products that are hard or impossible to repair. Experts called the situation a “wholly preventable global scandal”.

People in northern Europe produced the most e-waste – 22.4kg per person in 2019. The amount was half as much in eastern Europe. Australians and New Zealanders disposed of 21.3kg per person, while in the US and Canada the figure was 20.9kg. Averages across Asia and Africa were much lower, at 5.6kg and 2.5kg per person respectively.

E-waste contains materials including copper, iron, gold, silver and platinum, which the report gives a conservative value of $57bn. But most are dumped or burned rather than being collected for recycling. Precious metals in waste are estimated to be worth $14bn, but only $4bn-worth is recovered at the moment.

Europe had the highest recycling rate in 2019, at 42%, with Asia second at 12%. But across North and South America, and Oceania, the rate was 9% and in Africa it was 0.9%.

In low- and middle-income countries, some e-waste is recycled but usually by unsafe practices, such as burning circuit boards to recover copper. This releases highly toxic metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium, “causing severe health effects to workers as well as to the children who often live and play near e-waste activities”, the report said.

It estimated that 50 tonnes of mercury from monitors, energy-saving light bulbs and other e-waste is dumped each year. Furthermore, gases released from discarded fridges and air-conditioning units were equivalent to 98m tonnes of atmospheric carbon dioxide in 2019, close to the national emissions of Belgium.

Mijke Hertoghs, at the UN’s International Telecommunication Union believes that the value of the metals being dumped presented an opportunity. Kees Baldé at the UN University, based in Bonn, and an author of report agrees: “If [collection and recycling] were better organised, the economies of scale would go up and I think there are opportunities for creating a new economy and new jobs. There would be a huge income for many people.” Recycling would also cut the environmental impact of mining for new metal: “One gram of gold has a massive footprint.”

This is an issue that requires international cooperation and agreement, and it is becoming more and more urgent that this is put in place.

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