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Friday, September 22, 2023

Lib Dem leadership missing in action

It is the eve of the Liberal Democrats Federal Conference and I am just putting the final touches to packing my suitcase. It is also the first autumn conference we have held since 2019, which means that the annual interview with the leader is more important than ever. 

It is just a shame that Ed Davey has not used the opportunity to put forward a distinctive Liberal Democrat message focussing on our values of liberty, equality and community, married with clear internationalist principles.

In his interview with the BBC, Davey talks about the economy, the NHS and the environment as the issues which are most important to voters, and he is right. The problem is that we don't have policies on those issues which properly distinguishes from other parties in the minds of the electorate, nor will we have while the Liberal Democrats ignore the crucial issue of our relationship with Europe, and its impact on our future as a country.

On the plus side, in his interview with BBC Wales, Davey at least makes up for the invisible Welsh Lib Dem leadership, in arguing for a greater role for communities in deciding which roads should be exempt from the Welsh default 20mph limit, and cautioning us not to spend too much money on enlarging the Senedd. 

But his argument that 'most people on the doorstep just "aren't talking about Europe' and therefore we shouldn't either is what defines the poverty of ambition at the heart of Davey's leadership.

Yes, it is tricky appealing to both Leave supporting parts of the country and "middle-class Remainia", but that is what leadership is about. We have agreed positions that include rebuilding Britain's relationship with the EU, closer links on education, doing a deal on asylum seekers and deepening trade ties, but all that is being reflected in Labour's policy too.

I agree with Caroline Voaden, our PPC in Totnes that we need to make a bolder case about the impact of Brexit on the NHS, hospitality and the economy, and that we should be talking more about our belief that Brexit was a mistake and that we need to start finding our way back into the Single Market and the Customs Union.

Until we start doing that we will continue to struggle in the low double figures in the opinion polls, simply because people do not understand our values and can't distinguish us from the other parties.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Friends and Family

The Mirror reports that a Tory donor whose company was awarded £160 million worth of PPE contracts has been appointed to a top Government trade role.

They say that David Meller, who is a former chairman of the scandal-hit Presidents Club, has given almost £70,000 to the Conservative Party and politicians since 2009, and is now one of 13 people appointed to the new-look Board of Trade by Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch:

The board is an influential body which advises the Government on policy. Anneliese Dodds, Labour Party chairwoman, said: “The message from the Conservative Government remains clear: give tens of thousands of pounds to the Tories and you’ll be catapulted into positions of power and rewarded with lucrative contracts.”

Mr Meller quit as joint chairman of the Presidents Club charity in 2018 after guests at one of its dinners were claimed to have sexually harassed waiting staff. He also resigned from his post as a non-executive director of the Department for Education. The club closed down in the aftermath. There is no suggestion that Mr Meller was involved in any misconduct.

The businessman owned Meller Designs, a supplier of beauty products and accessories, until January 2021. Less than a month after the first lockdown, in April 2020, Mr Meller took part in a call with Lord Bethell, who was spearheading the Department of Health and Social Care’s procurement of PPE. Although Government records say the meeting was held to talk about Covid-19 testing, minutes show PPE procurement was discussed.

The company was later awarded a total of six contracts worth £160million for PPE. Then-Cabinet minister Michael Gove referred Meller Designs to the “VIP lane”, which awarded contracts to “trusted” suppliers.

The National Audit Office found that companies referred as potential PPE suppliers by Government ministers, MPs or NHS bosses were 10 times more likely to secure contracts. Figures from the Electoral Commission show Mr Meller, 63, has donated £68,488.99 to the Tory Party since 2009.

A just reward, surely.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Can we have our money back?

The Guardian reports on the conclusion of the National Audit Office that the Cabinet Office failed to follow proper processes when it allowed taxpayers’ money to be used to fund Boris Johnson’s Partygate legal bills.

The paper says that the NAO also concluded that the government’s justifications for the £265,000 spend were also deemed to be “borderline” and not “wholly persuasive”:

In a report that will cause embarrassment inside the Cabinet Office, Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said its audit team had exerted “significant effort” to investigate whether the spending was “a legitimate use of public money”.

The decision allowed Johnson to have his legal fees during the privileges committee inquiry into his Partygate denials covered by the taxpayer.

It was criticised at the time by some, including the Labour party, which said that given Johnson should have paid the bill himself given he was making millions from his post-Downing Street career.

Johnson was found to have committed five contempts of parliament after the year-long investigation into whether he misled parliament by denying any Covid rules were broken in No 10 during lockdown.

After the Guardian revealed in February that the NAO was examining the decision, the findings of its long-awaited audit were published on Tuesday.

The then-permanent secretary in No 10, who was not named in the report but is understood to be Samantha Jones, failed to follow proper processes when the initial contract for £129,000 was awarded last August, said the NAO.

Though Jones got assurances from the propriety and ethics team and others inside government, the NAO said the decision should have been taken by a designated accounting officer. Such an officer was only brought into the process the following month. After Jones left the civil service, future increases to the spending were authorised by the proper civil servant in the Cabinet Office.

The Cabinet Office’s argument that there was precedent for spending public money defending serving or former ministers was also questioned by the NAO.

There was “no case that is exactly analogous to the circumstances”, the Cabinet Office admitted in its submissions to the NAO. But the Cabinet Office maintained the government’s approach was “in line with established precedent set by both public inquiries and litigation”.

Can we have our money back, please?

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Purging the Met

The Independent reports that more than 1,000 officers in Britain’s largest police force are currently suspended or on restricted duties as bosses try to cull corrupt or incompetent staff.

The paper says that Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stuart Cundy believes that it will take years to get rid of officers who have breached standards or failed vetting, amid a clean-up following a series of disturbing scandals:

About 60 officers could face the sack each month over at least the next two years, with about 30 facing misconduct proceedings and 30 gross incompetence hearings, he said.

The new figures come after the Independent exclusively revealed three-quarters of police officers and staff accused of violence against women are not suspended by their force despite the allegations against them.

Just 12 per cent of officers and staff are being suspended from duties after being accused of crimes such as sexual assault and domestic violence.

A series of reviews have been carried out including of officers who have faced previous allegations of domestic or sexual violence, as well as sweeps of the police national computer and database for concerning information.

The Met has faced a series of harrowing scandals, including serving armed officer Wayne Couzens, who raped and murdered Sarah Everard, and David Carrick, who was unmasked as a serial rapist.

Mr Cundy said: “This is going to take one, two or more years to root out those who are corrupt.”

Currently, of the Met’s workforce of about 34,000 officers, 201 are suspended and about 860 are on restricted duties.

Mr Cundy said: “If you add those two figures together, that’s over 1,000 police officers and that’s nearly the size of a small police force in other places in the country. It is a significant number.”

In the wake of Carrick’s life sentence for dozens of sexual offences, 1,600 cases were reviewed where officers had faced allegations of domestic or sexual violence over the past 10 years but no action was taken. There are currently about 450 live investigations ongoing into the cases that were reviewed.

The force has also checked all officers against records on the police national computer, uncovering 11 cases that were subject to further assessment and five are now gross misconduct investigations.

Details of all Met employees, both civilian staff and police, were also checked against intelligence records on the Police National Database.

Fourteen are under further investigation for potential gross misconduct, with more due to be added.

The most serious of all the cases reviewed involved rape allegations.

Kudos to senior management for finally getting to grips with this problem, but what about the other police forces? 

The Independent says that their joint investigation with domestic abuse charity Refuge revealed that just 24 per cent of police investigated for domestic abuse, sexual assault, rape and abuse of position were suspended across England and Wales between May 2022 and May 2023:

Data from 26 police forces shows that 1,124 police officers and staff were accused during this period, while just 269 were suspended. But the number of accusations is expected to be far higher, as not all of the 43 police forces responded to the request for information.

The figures also reveal a huge nationwide disparity in how forces respond, with Wiltshire Police suspending 83 per cent of those under investigation while Surrey Police only suspended 10 per cent

There is still a long way to go.

Monday, September 18, 2023

A railway to nowhere?

Nothing better defines the incompetence of this government than the farcical delivery of the HS2 project. Massively overbudget and behind schedule, this project is becoming a financial and political millstone around the government's neck, and will most probably be an intractable burden to the next half dozen governments as well.

Rishi Sunak's solution apparently, is to scale it back in an effort to make it more affordable. but in doing so he is undermining the line's purpose and turning it into an even bigger white elephant.

The Independent reports on claims that the Prime Minister is said to be keen to axe part of the HS2 link running into central London so that it stops six miles north of Euston.

At the same time, MPs and northern mayors, along with business and transport leaders, have reacted with fury to reports that the second stage of HS2 from Birmingham to Manchester could be ditched over cost concerns:

Mr Sunak is also pushing to end the line early in the capital, so that trains would have to stop at Old Oak Common, six miles away from Euston, according to The Times.

Although discussions are still active, a senior government source told the newspaper that the PM had already “made up his mind” to axe both the line going into Euston and the Manchester link.

“Unless he can be persuaded to change course, it is a done deal,” they said, adding: “Ending the line at Old Oak Common is pretty much the definition of a railway to nowhere.”

Scrapping the Euston link would save at least £4.8bn – the estimated cost of the upgrade to the central London station that would enable it to link to the high-speed line and accommodate HS2 trains.

HS2 services were due to start running into Euston when the project reaches Manchester in 2040. But scrapping the final section would mean passengers having to get off at Old Oak Common – near Harlesden in northwest London – and take the Elizabeth line into central London.

Mr Hunt confirmed in an interview with the Financial Times that he was discussing how to address HS2 cost overruns with Mr Sunak – and he refused to promise that the part of the project serving Manchester would be completed.

“With any big infrastructure project, let alone the biggest infrastructure project in the country, you would expect us to have conversations about managing cost overruns,” Mr Hunt said.

Asked whether HS2 would be built in full, the chancellor said: “I’m not going to be drawn on the details.”

A cost estimate seen by The Independent shows that the government has already spent £2.3bn on stage two of the high-speed railway from Birmingham to Manchester, but shelving the northern phase would save up to £34bn.

Sitting on a train to nowhere pretty much sums up this government.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Have the Chinese infiltrated the Tory Party?

The fuss over a Parliamentary researcher, who has been accused of spying for the Chinese and subsequently arrested, has taken an interesting turn, with the Mirror reporting that the Tories were forced to drop two would-be election candidates after MI5 warned they could be Chinese spies.

Health Minister Maria Caulfield insisted the party acted "swiftly" after receiving intelligence the potential candidates to be MPs could be working covertly for China. "I think whichever party is in government, there will always be those who are trying to target it, either to get information or to influence,” she told Times Radio. “The candidates who the Conservative Party were warned about - swift action was taken and they were removed from the list. They are not standing for election.”

Ms Caulfield said the latest revelations, which come after a parliamentary researcher and Conservative aide was arrested over allegations he was spying for Beijing, show “there are other nations always wanting to infiltrate governments of all parties”. The Security Service warned the Conservatives about two people in 2021 and last year - and advised they should not be on the central list of candidates approved by party headquarters.

MI5 is said to have raised concerns that the pair had links to China's United Front Work Department, a body charged with influencing global opinion, according to The Times. It cited an unnamed source as saying it was made "very clear" to the Conservatives that the candidates "posed a risk". "They were subsequently blocked from the candidates list. They weren't told why," added the insider.

A Conservative Party spokesman said: "When we receive credible information regarding security concerns over potential candidates we act upon them." The claims will fuel debates about the UK's relationship with China following the arrest of the 28-year-old parliamentary researcher - who maintains he is completely innocent - under the Official Secrets Act.

This is of course a twist on the 1950s and 1960s, when a number of Labour MPs were suspected of spying for Russia. Today the threat appears to be China, with another article in the Mirror stating that China’s espionage against the UK is immense and has increased in the past 20 years, with its spies penetrating much of our society. 

That article says that there may be hundreds in the UK, plus tens of thousands of cyber spooks based in China who are working against the West:

They try to exert influence in China’s favour, find out about individuals and steal scientific and industrial research, as Beijing tries to elbow its way to the top of the world’s pecking order.

One former UK intellig
ence officer told me: “We have allowed this to happen over the years. We took our eyes off that region, concentrating on the war on terror, but it may not be too late.”

Has the Tory Party been infiltrated? What about the other parties? Maybe we should be told if others have had similar warnings from MI5.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Change that defines the Tory Party

Back in the 1960s, Enoch Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' speech saaw him removed from government and ostracised by the Conservative Party. In the 2020s it appears that his former party is far more tolerant of his memory and his views.

The Independent reports that the Conservatives’ candidate for London mayor Susan Hall liked a tweet praising Enoch Powell and describing Sadiq Khan as a “traitor rat”.

They add that Ms Hall liked an image of the notorious anti-immigration politician, a favourite of the far-right, which quoted him saying: “It’s never too late to save your country.” The tweet liked by the Tory hopeful bore the message: “It’s never too late to get London back!”

This slogan by Powell was used by the British National Party (BNP):

Ms Hall was also found to have liked a message on X, formerly known as Twitter, which described Mr Khan as “our nipple height mayor of Londonistan”.

Further tweets liked by Ms Hall, first highlighted by The Times, included one suggesting that Mr Khan would endorse corruption at May’s mayoral vote.

The post claimed the Labour mayor was “begging for londoners to do a tower hamlets postal vote for May next year and we all know how that works. #fraud”.

Following a tweet in which Ms Hall criticised Mr Khan’s strategy for tackling violence against women and girls, she liked a response which said: “Well said Susan, that Labour Traitor RAT likes that sort of thing.”

The paper also points out that Hall has branded the Notting Hill carnival “dangerous” and said the Black community has a “problem with crime”.

It seems that this racism is now acceptable to the today's Tories, who continue to keep her on as candidate, a complete u-turn on their attitude to Enoch Powell.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Covid fraud continues

For a government, which at one point, claimed there is no magic money tree, the amount of cash that they have wasted in the last few years has been unpecedented. The latest money pit is the amount of fraud surounding covid business loans.

The Guardian reports that UK taxpayers have been forced to cover a larger bill for Covid support to companies than expected, after fresh government data showed the amount of pandemic business loans flagged for fraud had jumped by 43%.

The paper adds that figures released by the Department for Business and Trade showed that high street banks and other private lenders – which were responsible for distributing government-backed loans during the Covid crisis – had flagged nearly £1.7bn worth of loans for potential fraud at the end of June. That marks a 43% rise from the £1.1bn flagged three months earlier:

The vast majority of the loans flagged for fraud are from the £47bn bounce back loan scheme, which allowed small businesses to borrow up to £50,000 apiece during the Covid crisis in order to keep them afloat amid rolling lockdowns.

The loans were distributed by everyday lenders, but were 100% guaranteed by the government, meaning that losses – including any due to defaults or fraud – would be covered by the taxpayer.

The scheme allowed commercial banks to run fewer checks on small businesses in order to make sure money was distributed to businesses at speed. That left it more susceptible to scammers, who are reported to have spent tens of thousands of pounds of government-backed loans on anything from Range Rovers to pornographic websites.

In total, about £1.65bn worth of bounce back loans had been flagged for fraud at the end of June, according to the latest Covid loan figures. The government has so far paid out £1.3bn of that total to banks to cover the lenders’ losses.

The figure is already higher than the £1.1bn the business department estimated would be lost due to fraud and error through the scheme. The government originally estimated that nearly £5bn could be at risk, but had since revised down their estimates.

While the government credits the programme with having saved 500,000 businesses and 2.9m jobs through the Covid crisis, the former Cabinet Office minister Theodore Agnew resigned in protest at the handling of the scheme in January last year, citing the government’s “woeful” efforts to control potential fraud.

That is a lot of fraud.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Another Brexit failure

The Guardian reports that new public sector lenders created by the government since Brexit are investing two-thirds less than the UK was receiving from the EU’s European Investment Bank.

The paper says that the thinktank UK in a Changing Europe has compared the record of the European Investment Bank with the work of new Treasury-backed institutions including the UK Infrastructure Bank (UKIB) and have found it wanting:

The EIB invested an average of £6.4bn in the UK between 2009 and 2016 in real terms, peaking at £7.5bn in 2016 – the year of the Brexit referendum.

By contrast, the successor institutions created by the government, including the Leeds-based UK Infrastructure Bank (UKIB), invested £2.4bn in 2022 – a third as much as the EIB was spending six years earlier.

“It is not clear that the UK’s domestic development banks will be able to fill the hole left by the EIB by the end of the decade. They lack staff and expertise, inhibiting them from scaling up operations quickly,” said the report’s author, Stephen Hunsaker.

“Nor have they achieved the coveted AAA credit rating of the EIB. Consequently, they lend at higher rates, making it more expensive to lend to public-interest projects.”

The new institutions – which include the Scottish National Investment Bank, the Development Bank of Wales and the British Business Bank – also appear to be less focused on infrastructure projects than the EIB.

Between them, they invested just 17% as much in infrastructure projects in 2022 as the EIB did before it began winding down its links with the UK.

Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesperson, Sarah Olney MP, is absolutely right when she said: “This damning report highlights yet another broken promise from this Conservative government. We already knew farmers and [fishers] have suffered from the government’s failed trade deals, but now their investment plans are left in tatters too.”

The damage to our economy caused by Brexit continues.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Toxic poster child of Europe

Yet more evidence that our exit from the EU is damaging our environment and our international standing comes in this article in the Guardian, in which campaigners allege that the UK has failed to ban 36 pesticides that are not allowed for use in the EU, barnding us the “toxic poster child of Europe”.

The paper says that although ministers promised the UK would not water down EU-derived environmental standards after Brexit, there have been multiple instances of divergence since the country left the bloc:

Now, the country is failing to phase out pesticides that have been found to be harmful to human health and the environment at the same rate as the EU, according to research from Pesticide Action Network (PAN).

Thirteen of the 36 chemicals are considered highly hazardous pesticides under UN definitions used to identify the most harmful substances. Four of these are highly toxic to bees, one contaminates water and one is highly toxic to aquatic organisms.

Thirty of the 36 were allowed for use in the EU when the UK left on 31 January 2020 but have since been banned by the bloc, and the remaining six have been approved by the UK government but not the EU since then.

The UK government has given emergency authorisation every year since Brexit for the use of a neonicotinoid that is highly toxic to bees. In that time, the EU has banned emergency use of these chemicals.

Nick Mole, from PAN UK, said: “The UK is becoming the toxic poster child of Europe. The government has repeatedly promised that our environmental standards won’t slip post-Brexit. And yet here we are, less than four years later, and already we’re seeing our standards fall far behind those of the EU. With UK bees and other pollinators in decline, and our waters never more polluted, now is the time to be taking steps to protect nature. Instead, the government is choosing to expose British wildlife to an ever-more toxic soup of chemicals.”

Of these chemicals, 12 have been classified as carcinogens, nine have been found to be endocrine disruptors, which interfere with hormones and are linked to infertility, and eight are developmental or reproductive toxins that have also been linked to fertility problems. Two are cholinesterase inhibitors that can impair the respiratory system, and one is classified as acutely toxic.

Researchers said the divergence was caused partly by a new UK licensing regime for these chemicals after the UK government decided to grant all pesticides with licences due to expire before December 2023 an automatic extension of three years. Previously, all pesticides had a maximum licence of 15 years before they had to be reapproved.

PAN is calling for the government to bring standards back in line with the EU to protect human health, the agriculture industry and the environment.

More broken promises.

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