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Tuesday, August 03, 2021

More on the sleaze watchdog role

The Independent has more details on the appointment of one of Boris Johnson's Bullingdon Club chums to the sleaze watchdog, the Committee on Standards In Public Life.

They say that Ewen Fergusson, a member of Oxford’s infamous dining club at the same time as the prime minister, was handed the role last month ahead of 171 other candidates, with Johnson being given the ultimate say on which of the candidates to appoint following a shortlisting process led by Lord Evans, the chair of the committee:

The latest revelation comes after the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption and integrity watchdog warned in June that the British government had ignored instructions to strengthen UK anti-corruption controls, in a scathing report that gave the government its lowest compliance marks ever.

The row over weaknesses in the UK’s integrity oversight is the latest in a series of scandals around lobbying and access to government ministers.

On Monday it emerged that MPs with second jobs are facing scrutiny over worries that they could exploit a lobbying loophole.

Examples include Tory MP Alun Cairns, vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on taxis, which agreed to “continue pressuring the government to provide urgent financial support for taxi drivers”.

While working as an MP, Mr Cairns is also employed as a paid adviser to Veezu, a private hire and taxi firm.

In the circumstances it would seem reasonable that not only should the members of this committee be entirely independent but also that they have the teeth to do the job they have been tasked with.

Monday, August 02, 2021

The Home Office and its fake website

There is an extraordinary claim in the Independent, who allege that the Home Office set up a website targeting asylum seekers with “misleading” claims to deter them from journeying to Britain.

They say it created a fake organisation called On The Move, complete with a logo and glossy branding, which claims to “provide migrants in transit with free, reliable and important information”. Links to the website were pushed out to asylum seekers in France and Belgium as part of a social media campaign that cost the government £23,000 over five months:

The website, using a .org domain commonly associated with charities, contains no government branding and the “about us” section does not disclose any link to the Home Office.

Research by The Independent shows the website was set up in April 2020, using a private registration tool that conceals the owners’ personal information.

It invites asylum seekers to email On The Move with questions, without knowing that they would be contacting the British government.

The website, which remains online, tells readers the UK “regularly returns people who enter via irregular routes” but in reality, Britain has not been able to deport asylum seekers to EU countries since 1 January because of Brexit.

It also claims that steering a dinghy across the English Channel “is a crime”, although controversial prosecutions of boat pilots have recently been limited.

The paper goes on to say the website was created as part of a campaign with which the Home Office “aimed to dissuade migrants in France and Belgium from attempting irregular entry into the UK”:

A Freedom of Information request by the PA news agency revealed it paid £23,200 for targeted adverts to be placed on Facebook and Instagram in English, Kurdish, Arabic, Persian and Pashto between December and April, all linked to the On The Move website and carrying slogans including “don’t put your or your child’s life in danger”, “we will return you” and “there is no hiding place”.

Clare Moseley, founder of charity Care4Calais, said: “I’m shocked that our government is determined to spend more time and money deterring and misleading vulnerable people.

“Those who make it to our shores are often traumatised, having made life-threatening journeys to escape from some of the world’s most dangerous countries. It’s about time this government showed some compassion and stepped up to help.”

Anyone visiting the On The Move website is initially asked whether they are “considering travelling to the UK irregularly”.

Those clicking “yes” are taken to a page with links on the dangers of the journey, the “legal risks” and the “realities” of life in Europe.

The website has a page on “safe and legal alternatives” but none of them detail how to seek asylum in the UK specifically, or how to reach Britain.

Instead, it focuses on France, Belgium and other EU countries, or directs asylum seekers to information on how to “return to their home country voluntarily”.

These sort of black ops go on all the time of course, but in this context and from this source just indicates how far things have gone with Ministers pursuing an isolationist agenda in which the UK tries to avoid its international and humanitarian obligations.

Sunday, August 01, 2021

Developers bankrolling Tories

The Independent reports on new research which shows that the Conservatives are receiving donations worth £17,500 a day from businesses in the property sector They add that gifts to the Tories from companies directly linked to property development have totalled just over £10m since the start of 2019.

At the same time separate research published in the Financial Times found that gifts from a wider group of companies and individuals with an interest in property development – also including groups like hotel and care home operators – now make up around a quarter of all donations to the Conservatives, totalling almost £18m since Mr Johnson became leader in 2019:

Transparency International calculates that the share of property-sector cash in Tory donations has risen from annual figures between 4 and 12 per cent under Mr Johnson’s predecessors Theresa May and David Cameron.

Ms Rayner told The Independent that Mr Johnson’s government had consistently “put the interests of the donors who bankroll the Conservative Party ahead of the interests of the public”, whether through “crony contracts”, tax breaks for developers or reforms to planning rules which Labour has denounced as a “developers’ charter”.

But she said that the government’s favours for the sector also extended to resisting the expansion of rights to work flexibly, which are opposed by many property tycoons.

Even at the height of the coronavirus pandemic – and in the immediate post-election period when donations usually fall – the Conservatives were still taking in £200,000 a month from the property industry in 2020, said Labour. And donations from the sector rose to £282,000 a month in the first quarter of this year.

Yet another argument to reform political funding.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Another argument for reforming finance in politics

Over at the Guardian they report that Labour has called for Boris Johnson to explain the existence of a secretive “advisory board” for wealthy Conservative donors who have received regular access to the prime minister and Rishi Sunak.

The paper explains party chair Ben Elliot, charged with beefing up Tory fundraising efforts, had created the club for some of the party’s most generous donors, some giving £250,000 a year or more. They quote Labour party chair Anneliese Dodds saying: “This appears to be less of an advisory board than a means for a select group of elite donors to gain privileged access to the prime minister and the chancellor."

Well, yes. But didnt Labour do exactly the same thing when they were last in government? Is this a case of double-standards on the part of the Labour spokespersons?

Where I think I can agree is that this is no way to run a country, where money gets you access and influence. Surely, it is time for a fundamental reform of the way politics is funded to stop this sort of thing.

Friday, July 30, 2021

More old pal acts in government

The Guardian reports that Dominic Cummings personally called a former colleague on the Vote Leave Brexit campaign and asked if his company would work for the government on its response to the Covid pandemic, leading to the award of a £580,000 Cabinet Office contract with no competitive process.

They say inman email on 20 March 2020, Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser asked the most senior civil servant responsible for contracts to sign off the budget immediately, and that if “anybody in CABOFF [the Cabinet Office] whines”, to tell them Cummings had “ordered it” from the prime minister:

The company, Hanbury Strategy, was founded by Paul Stephenson shortly after the 2016 Brexit referendum, during which he worked alongside Cummings as the Vote Leave director of communications. Hanbury also worked for the Conservative party on the 2019 general election campaign, with Cummings and Ben Warner, a data specialist who worked for Vote Leave before becoming an adviser at No 10.

The contract with Hanbury, to conduct opinion polls on the public’s view of the government’s Covid response, is subject to a legal challenge by the Good Law Project (GLP), which argues that it shows “apparent bias”, particularly given the company’s close connection to Cummings and the Conservative party.

A witness statement by Cummings and other documents including internal Cabinet Office emails were made public at a court hearing last Friday. They show that concerns were expressed among civil servants that some work Hanbury did with public money, such as polling opinion on opposition politicians, including the Labour party leader, Keir Starmer, and Sadiq Khan, the Labour mayor of London, was carried out for the political advantage of the Conservative party.

On 26 May 2020, a Cabinet Office official emailed a colleague saying: “Hanbury measures attitudes towards political figures, which they shouldn’t do using government money, but they’ve been asked to and it’s a battle that I think is hard to fight.”

Cummings said in his witness statement that “my expert opinion” was that Hanbury would provide world-class polling work, and was the only firm who could do what was needed, start immediately and “we can trust to give their all and be honest”.

Cummings said that, on Sunday 15 March 2020, “I called many people to ask for help – epidemiologists, project managers etc. I also asked Paul Stephenson, a partner at Hanbury, if he would help with polling, data collection and modelling.”

Stephenson said they could start straight away. Cummings said in his statement: “Following my call to Paul Stephenson … I requested that Hanbury be engaged urgently to start conducting frequent large-scale polls immediately.”

On 20 March, Cummings emailed Alex Aiken, the head of government communications at the Cabinet Office, saying: “URGENT: Alex pls sign off immediately budget so Paul S can get out our large scale polls into field TODAY. Anybody in CABOFF whines tell them I ordered it from PM [OFFICIAL].”

Normal legal requirements for government contracts to be opened out to a full competitive tender were suspended due to the emergency of the pandemic, and the contract was directly awarded to Hanbury.

In a similar judicial review challenge to a direct contract – awarded to Public First, a research company with longstanding connections to Cummings – Mrs Justice O’Farrell ruled in GLP’s favour in June, saying that even in the pandemic the government should have conducted an exercise to consider other potential companies.

Yet another reason for a full public inquiry into the way the government handled covid.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

The lies and untruths of Boris Johnson

With a Labour MP evicted from the House of Commons for calling the Prime Minister a liar, the focus has fallen back onto some of the more infamous untruths that have passed the Boris Johnson's lips.

It is worth therefore harking back to this article in the Independent from May 2019 which lists seven of his most notorious, ranging from incorrect 14th century history to the EU banana police. They point out that Boris Johnson’s flirtation with dishonesty has cost him at least three jobs and damaged his standing with the people of Liverpool and London.

The first is when he was sacked from his job at The Times newspaper over allegations he fabricated a quote from his godfather, the historian Colin Lucas, for a front-page article about the discovery of Edward II’s Rose Palace. Notoriously, on moving to The Daily Telegraph, wnere he worked as the publication's Brussels correspondent between 1989 and 1994, he made his reputation with a series of articles about mostly made-up abuses:

His articles, like those in several other Eurosceptic newspapers, contained many of the claims widely described as “Euromyths”, including plans to introduce same-size “eurocoffins”, establish a “banana police force” to regulate the shape of the curved yellow fruit, and ban prawn cocktail crisps. When questioned about them in parliament, he denied suggestions they were a figment of his imagination.

Johnson was sacked as party vice-chairman and shadow arts minister in November 2004 after assuring Michael Howard that tabloid reports of his affair with Spectator columnist Petronella Wyatt were false and an “inverted pyramid of piffle”. When the story was found to be true, he refused to resign.

Most damagingly were the lies told during the 2016 referendum campaign:

Launching the Vote Leave bus tour, Mr Johnson returned to the scene of his earlier falsehoods by repeating his old allegations that the EU was setting rules on the shape of bananas.

He also backed the infamous claim on the side of the bus that the UK was sending £350m a week to the EU, followed by “let’s fund our NHS instead”.

The UK Statistics Authority issued an official statement in May 2016 describing the claim as “misleading”, but Mr Johnson repeated it in an article in the Telegraph in September 2017.

The article has since been taken down and Mr Johnson is facing a private prosecution over claims he deliberately lied during the campaign.

The MP's lawyer told a court: “I should make it clear that because of the interest in this case that it is absolutely denied by Mr Johnson that he acted in an improper or dishonest manner at any time.”

In January Boris Johnson claimed he did not mention Turkey during the referendum after it was suggested he falsely claimed 80 million Turks would come to Britain unless the UK left the EU.

In fact, he co-signed a letter stating that “the only way to avoid having common borders with Turkey is to vote Leave and take back control”. The Vote Leave campaign also produced a poster reading: “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU”, adding “David Cameron wants Turkey to join the EU. How will our NHS cope?”.

Mr Johnson, whose great-grandfather was the Ottoman politican Ali Kemal, was also quoted as saying “I am very pro-Turkish but what I certainly can’t imagine is a situation in which 77 million of my fellow Turks and those of Turkish origin can come here without any checks at all. That is mad – that won’t work.”

Mr Johnson’s Turkish cousin commented: “He doesn’t strike me as being very honest about his views.”

Perhaps there is a strong case to abandon the age-long tradition of MPs being forbidden from calling other members liars.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Is global warming now irreversible?

Today's Guardian contains a very worrying article in which they report that a new study tracking the planet’s vital signs has found that many of the key indicators of the global climate crisis are getting worse and either approaching, or exceeding, key tipping points as the earth heats up.

They say the study found some 16 out of 31 tracked planetary vital signs, including greenhouse gas concentrations, ocean heat content and ice mass, set worrying new records:

While the pandemic shut down economies and shifted the way people think about work, school and travel, it did little to reduce the overall global carbon emissions. Fossil fuel use dipped slightly in 2020, but the authors of a report published in the journal BioScience say that carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide “have all set new year-to-date records for atmospheric concentrations in both 2020 and 2021”.

In April 2021, carbon dioxide concentration reached 416 parts per million, the highest monthly global average concentration ever recorded. The five hottest years on record have all occurred since 2015, and 2020 was the second hottest year in history.

The study also found that ruminant livestock, a significant source of planet-warming gases, now number more than 4 billion, and their total mass is more than that of all humans and wild animals combined. The rate of forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon increased in both 2019 and 2020, reaching a 12-year high of 1.11 million hectares deforested in 2020.

Ocean acidification is near an all-time record, and when combined with warmer ocean temperatures, it threatens the coral reefs that more than half a billion people depend on for food, tourism dollars and storm surge protection.

However, there were a few bright spots in the study, including fossil fuel subsidies reaching a record low and fossil fuel divestment reaching a record high.

In order to change the course of the climate emergency, the authors write that profound alterations need to happen. They say the world needs to develop a global price for carbon that is linked to a socially just fund to finance climate mitigation and adaptation policies in the developing world.

The authors also highlight the need for a phase-out and eventual ban of fossil fuels, and the development of global strategic climate reserves to protect and restore natural carbon sinks and biodiversity. Climate education should also be part of school curricula around the globe, they say.

“Policies to alleviate the climate crisis or any of the other threatened planetary boundary transgressions should not be focused on symptom relief but on addressing their root cause: the overexploitation of the Earth,” the report says. Only by taking on this core issue, the authors write, will people be able to “ensure the long-term sustainability of human civilization and give future generations the opportunity to thrive”.

The big question of course is whether mankind is capable of taking this sort of action on a global scale? If we don't then climate change really will be irreversible.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Will climate change overwhelm the UK's infrastructure?

We have had extreme temperatures and now flash floods, overwhelming several London tube stations and two of the capital's hospitals. Across the country we are relying on aging drainage systems and other infrastructure that was largely constructed by the victorians to cope with weather patterns they weren't designed for. And despite decades where we have been warned of these consequences of climate change our government has failed to do anything about it.

The Guardian reports on the views of scientists, who say flash flooding of the type seen in London this weekend will become a more common occurrence as the climate crisis worsens. They believe the UK government, businesses and householders must do much more to protect against future harm:

Dr Jess Neumann, a hydrologist at the University of Reading, said: “Flooding from intense summer rainfall is going happen more frequently. No city, town or village is immune to flooding and we all need to take hard action right now if we are to prevent impacts from getting worse in the future.”

Climate policy in the UK has focused on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, which is a primary concern, to reduce the human impact on the climate and ensure global heating does not reach catastrophic levels. But the government has also been warned frequently that measures to cope with the impacts of extreme weather are urgently needed, and that the UK has been falling behind on such adaptive measures.

Adapting to the impacts will require a thorough overhaul of the UK’s infrastructure, encompassing not only drainage and water supply systems, and transport, to ensure they are not overwhelmed, as many in London were at the weekend, but also energy supply and communications networks.

Buildings will need to be redesigned and public areas revamped to include better drainage channels and storm drains, while more innovative approaches could include porous pavements. A lack of green spaces and vegetation, and the paving over of many areas without heed to flood risk, has compounded the problem in many cities, including London, and also needs to be addressed, experts warned.

Neumann said: “Planning and development need to consider flood risk from all sources – river, groundwater and flash floods – and adapt accordingly. It is not acceptable to keep paving over the land and expect the public to deal with the water when it comes into their homes.”

Of course we are not going to be able to coordinate efforts to deal with these new requirements if we don't know where the problems are. Liz Stephens, associate professor of climate resilience at Reading University, says there is a lack even of basic data, caused by a refusal to invest in more precise research. “The surface water flood hazard maps for the UK have not been improved since 2013. These urgently need updating. The current accuracy of surface water flood maps reflects an investment choice and not what is possible with the state-of-the-art science,” she said.

“It is difficult to help people prepare for surface water flooding if they don’t know they are at risk, and if they don’t receive precise warnings of the likely impacts when heavy rain is forecast.”

And don't look to the insurance industry to pick up the slack either. Their standard response to crises of this kind is to jack up their premiums and then refuse to insure altogether.

The government need to start taking this seriously and show signs of urgent action to map and tacke the problem, otherwise it will not just be a few days of heat we will have to put up with, but major disruption to our day to day lives.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Former Tory Councillor's £120m contract for unused face shields

The Independent reports on yet another potential scandal around procurement during the pandemic.

The paper says a former Tory councillor was given a £120m government contract for personal protective equipment (PPE) which is now lying unused because of concerns about its quality:

Steve Dechan, who owns medical device manufacturer Platform-14, had his offer to supply protective equipment from China fast-tracked through the government’s controversial “VIP” lane.

The Sunday Times newspaper reports that fewer than 1 in 400 of the face shields procured by the company on behalf of the government have been used, because the regulator does not believe they meet the right standards.

The original order for 120 million shields has delivered just 274,200 into the NHS supply chain, representing 0.23 per cent of the overall stock.

It means the shields used so far have cost the equivalent of £423 each, despite similar ones being available to buy online for less than £1.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has to authorise all PPE that is not CE marked (an EU designation that means it complies with European standards).

But the regulator said: “None of the documentation provided to HSE indicated the product to be CE marked.”

The regulator wrote to officials in September last year saying the shields “cannot enter the NHS supply chain” and repeatedly refused to approve them.

But in February, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) stepped in and directly approved the face shields, with 274,000 used in the NHS so far. At the height of the pandemic last year, none could be used.

The sooner there is an inquiry into these issues the better.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Johnson's Russian backers

Despite the findings of the Intelligence and Security Committee last year that failures at the heart of Government have allowed the Russians to interfere and influence our democracy, it seems there is no stopping them from pushing funds at the Tories.

The Mirror reports that new analysis has found the Conservative Party has accepted £280,000 from Russia-linked donors in the year since the publication of the Russia Report. And almost £2 million in Russian-linked cash has been donated to the Tories since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister.

The paper adds for good measure, that none of the 21 recommendations of the Intelligence and Security Committee have been implemented:

The heavily-redacted report noted that there had been widespread allegations that Russia sought to influence voters in the 2016 Brexit referendum - and that the government and intelligence agencies had failed to fully look into them.

And it uncovered an influx of Russian money into the UK - and into "Londongrad" in particular - following the introduction of the "investor visa" scheme in 1994.

The scheme, introduced for the first time by John Major’s Tory government, allowed wealthy oligarchs to “buy” citizenship in exchange for a £2 million investment in UK bonds or shares through a bank.

The so-called “golden visa” scheme was suspended in 2018 over fears it was being used for money laundering, but was restarted the following year.

The report said the money was invested in building influence across the UK establishment - including "PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions" - all of whom were "willing beneficiaries of Russian money."

And it went on to say: "In brief, Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’, and there are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the UK business and social scene, and accepted because of their wealth.”
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The report noted that "several members" of the Russian elite - some of whom had close links to Vladimir Putin - have donated to UK political parties.

But the report - at least in its redacted form - did not name the donors or the parties benefiting from the cash.

There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing on the part of the donors, all of whom are now British citizens and are legally entitled to donate to UK political parties.

Among the figures filling Tory coffers is banker Lubov Chernukhin, who is married to Putin’s former deputy finance minister Vladimir Chernukhin, has given a total of £1.7 million to the party.

These donations have included bids at fundraising auctions at the notorious Tory Black and White Ball, where over the years she has secured a night out with Theresa May, a tennis match with Boris Johnson and a private dinner with then-Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson in the Churchill War Rooms.

She has donated almost £65,000 to the Tories in the last year.

In March the Conservatives received £50,000 from Access Industries, the firm owned by Len Blavatnik, Britain's richest man with an estimated fortune of £23bn.

Mr Blavatnik is understood to have made much of his fortune in 1990s Russia, where he invested heavily in the state's largest aluminium firm and its third-largest oil producer.

But while many of his contemporaries - who maintained closer links to the Kremlin - have found themselves sanctioned by Western nations, Mr Blavatnik secured British citizenship in 2010 and a knighthood in 2017.

Mr Blavatnik donated to Donald Trump's inauguration fund. While he was not mentioned in the unredacted sections of Robert Mueller's report in to Russian meddling in US elections, it was widely reported that he was under scrutiny from the probe.

And Alexander Temerko, a wealthy businessman whose Aquind firm is awaiting government approval for a billion pound electricity interconnector under the Channel, has also been a frequent donor in recent years.

Mr Temerko, who has been a critic of President Putin, and his firm have given more than £1.6 million to the Tories.

A Spokesperson for Mr Temerko said: “Mr. Temerko is a Ukrainian-born British citizen and has no links to Russia.

“Mr. Temerko left Russia in 2003, following his political persecution in the well-known Yukos Oil Company case by the Putin regime.

“Since then, he has never returned to Russia, nor worked for or partnered with any Russian-linked business.”

The case for a reform of party political funding has never been stronger.

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