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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Mixed messages on policing the lockdown

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the current government lockdown and the actions of police in enforcing it, the one thing that is clear is that there is still a huge amount of confusion about what we can and cannot do, and that this confusion extends to the police who seem to be applying different interpretations of the rules in different parts of the country.

As the Guardian reports, a former supreme court justice has heavily criticised Derbyshire police for stopping people exercising in the Peak District saying that such behaviour risks plunging Britain into a “police state”. Lord Sumption has warned that police have no legal power to enforce “ministers’ wishes” and that the public should not be “resigning their liberty” to over-zealous citizens in uniform.

The paper says that on Sunday it emerged that Derbyshire police had dyed the usually turquoise water of a lagoon black in the beauty spot to deter tourists from visiting. They took the action as groups were congregating at the disused quarry at Harpur Hill near Buxton.

The force has also been criticised for using a drone to track a couple walking in the Peak District with their dog back to Sheffield and posting images of them on Twitter to warn against “non-essential” travel.

Although my sympathies are with the judge and I understand the dangers of us degenerating into a police state, I also think that this temporary lockdown is needed if we are to check the spread of COVID-19 and save lives.

Nevertheless, there are a number of instances being reported where police are enforcing rules that do not exist and where they have gone further than the legislation specifies. In one case it was reported that police believe the purchase of Easter Eggs are not allowed under the rules as they are non-essential items and that they have tried to encourage shops to remove them from their shelves.

Personally, I am going to need chocolate to survive this crisis and if it is bought as part of a wider shop then what is the problem?

Looking to the UK Government for clarity appears to be pointless. The Independent reports that a senior Conservative Minister also believes police forces may have gone too far in enforcing the UK’s nationwide lockdown:

“The police are doing a difficult job and they are doing it well,” Mr Shapps told Sky News on Tuesday.

“I am sure there are individual examples where perhaps you look at it and think that is perhaps a bit further than they should have gone.”

He added: “But in general terms I think the case is that if people help everybody out, including the police, by staying home and the rest of it, then there will be no problems.”

There is though no sign of clearer guidance being offered to officers, including an explanation of what the regulations actually say. Surely that is needed if this lockdown is to work properly without severing the relationship that currently exists between police and the general public.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Personal Protection must be the priority

The Guardian reports that the deaths of the first British doctors from Covid-19 have intensified pressure on ministers to accelerate the supply of protective equipment and address growing fears among frontline staff that they risk catching and spreading coronavirus.

The paper says that doctors’ and nurses’ groups have attacked continuing shortages of protective equipment – from masks to gowns – and complained that there was still confusion despite fresh official guidance about their proper use. There were also further calls to ramp up testing of NHS workers.

They add that Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer, has told the media that fatalities are expected to increase, indicating that normal life is not likely to resume for three to six months – and “it is plausible it could go further than that.”

In the circumstances it is imperative that the government gets a grip on ensuring that protective equipment is available for all health service staff. They should not forget care workers either, many of whom continue to go into the homes of vulnerable people.

If we are to stop the spread of COVID-19 then this must be a priority.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Fruit and Veg crisis beckons?

Just how dependent we are on the outside world as a country has been brought into focus again this week, with everybody in lockdown, panic-buying in the supermarkets and thousands of people confined to their home for their own safety, and potential food shortages because we cannot get enough labourers to go out and pick it.

The Guardian website reports on warnings to the UK Government that charter flights to bring in agricultural workers from eastern Europe are needed as a matter of urgency, otherwise fruit and vegetables will be left unpicked in Britain’s fields.

They say that some large farms have already been chartering planes to bring in labour from eastern Europe. But farming organisations and recruitment agencies say that, in the face of massive disruption to the agricultural sector caused by the spread of the coronavirus, the government needs to step in and help organise more flights:

Some 90,000 positions need to be filled, many in just a few weeks’ time. One leading supplier, the charity Concordia, was looking to bring in around 10,000 labourers – half from the EU and the rest from Russia, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and Barbados. But all of the non-EU countries are closed. On Wednesday, in a big setback, Ukraine extended its lockdown from 2 April until 23 April.

Stephanie Maurel, Concordia’s chief executive, said: “Our recruitment outside the EU is stalled which leaves us with Lithuania, which has closed borders, Romania with no airplanes, and Bulgaria which is our little beacon.”

Although Bulgaria is on countrywide lockdown, farm workers are classed as key workers and can move around the country. But most airlines that operate in Bulgaria – including EasyJet – are grounded. A Wizz Air flight bringing in 450 people landed a week ago on Saturday.

“We’re talking about chartering planes to bring workers in,” Maurel said. “It costs around £10,000 for an hour’s flight carrying 229 people – that’s €45,000 Sofia to London, or around €250 per person.”

Maurel, who said the plan was being actively discussed by both the National Farmers’ Union and the Association of Labour Providers, called on the government to help provide urgent clarity.

“If I put up reserves and guarantees [to secure a charter flight], I need to know it can take off.”

The paper adds that some farms were struggling even before the crisis hit. This was because a tightening of the labour market, a combination of Brexit and the booming domestic economies of eastern Europe proving more attractive to seasonal workers, had seen a decline in the number of fruit and vegetable pickers coming to the UK.

Last year, 98% of fruit pickers – now classed as “key workers” – came from outside the UK, the vast majority from Bulgaria and Romania. Now however, British growers have been contacting companies in the hospitality sector to recruit laid-off staff.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Falling between the gaps

Following on from my comments a few days ago about the impact of COVID-19 on small businesses the Guardian reports that thousands of self-employed people – in particular those working in the creative industries – who set up limited companies have been “devastated” by being excluded from the chancellor’s bailout:

On Thursday night Rishi Sunak said the government would pay self-employed workers 80% of their profits – up to £2,500 a month – for three months, starting in June.

He said the measure was “one of the most generous schemes anywhere in the world” and would help 95% of the self-employed. A similar scheme has already been offered to employees.

However, it has emerged that neither scheme will help anyone who has set up a sole-person limited company, meaning thousands of freelance writers, photographers and others working in the creative arts will get no help.

The Guardian has been contacted by several of those affected, who say this will ruin them financially. They face having to claim universal credit instead, with its far lower payouts.

Thousands of actors, designers, film crew and others found themselves out of work and unpaid when the government introduced its coronavirus restrictions.

One of those is a sound engineer who does work for documentaries for the BBC and Netflix. All his projects are on hold and his work has evaporated, he said.

“This is a disaster for thousands of people like me,” the worker, who did not want to be named, told the Guardian, after two hours on while calling the universal credit phone line.

“I was advised to set up the limited company as it was a tax-efficient way to operate, and because it makes processing payments much simpler. Many who work in this world have done the same. We are just as self-employed as those being helped, but inexplicably find ourselves left out the scheme. It’s devastating.”

The creative industries may not be anybody's idea of a key industry, and in these times they clearly come low down on the pecking order, but bear in mind that we all stuck at home watching material they have produced. And of course there are other self employed people and sole traders who will also lose out from this scheme.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Food aid crisis

The Guardian reports on a warning by food charities that millions of people in the UK will need food aid in the coming days as the coronavirus outbreak threatens to quickly spiral into a crisis of hunger unless the government acts immediately to reinvent the way we feed ourselves:

In just a few weeks, experts say, the pandemic has exposed the extraordinary fragility of the food system. And they worry whether it will withstand the growing pressures expected in the coming weeks and months.

Supermarket distribution systems, based on “just in time” supply chains, are struggling to cope with a sudden surge in demand since Covid-19 took hold. The most pressing concern is finding a way to feed the country’s most vulnerable and isolated people.

Figures produced by the Food Foundation using government statistics suggest some 17 million people fall into the higher risk category for coronavirus because they are elderly, have underlying health conditions, or are pregnant. At least 860,000 people in this category were already struggling to afford enough food before the crisis. And at least 1 million of them report always or often being lonely, and therefore may struggle to find people to deliver food to them.

Anna Taylor, the Food Foundation’s director, said that between 4 million and 7 million people in lower risk categories are also affected by severe food insecurity or loneliness, so having to self-isolate could tip them into crisis.

The concern is that food banks will not be able to cope with the extremely high level of need and are not the answer when people are being asked to minimise contact with others.

Local authorities and other food poverty organisations are trying to organise to deliver food directly to vulnerable people but are finding that there is no clear guidance or funding from central government. They want ministers to keep alternative networks to the supermarkets open, and to use the army if necessary to make sure food reaches people:

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, London, and a former government adviser, said ministers have worked on the assumption that feeding Britain can be left to the market and big retailers. While ministers have been in discussion with supermarket chief executives during the pandemic, Lang argues they are failing to grasp the structural weaknesses in the food system and the scale of food poverty.

“The official line has been that it’s all seamless and would be fine if only stupid consumers would stop panic buying. It is not,” he said. “The just in time system is breaking. Government were only talking to a narrow range of people in industry rather than local authorities and community groups, who know where vulnerable people are.”

Lang added: “Borders are closing, lorries are being slowed down and checked. We only produce 53% of our own food in the UK. It’s a failure of government to plan.”

In normal times, about 30% of calories are eaten outside the home each day, in restaurants, cafes and canteens. The lockdown has significantly increased the amount of food people are eating at home, most of which is sourced from supermarkets.

Shortages have eased in recent days, but many products are still out of stock and supermarket shelves are unlikely to look the way they usually do for a long time.

“Some £1bn extra food and groceries were bought by households in the last two to three weeks. That’s like Christmas but worse because it’s gone on for three times as long,” said Andrew Opie, director of food at the British Retail Consortium, the supermarket trade association.

The problem, Opie says, is “sheer logistics”. There is food, but not the capacity in terms of trucks, drivers, packers and pickers in warehouses to deliver it faster. Supermarkets are recruiting thousands more workers, running trucks through what used to be curfew hours, and editing down their ranges so there is less choice. “We’re nowhere near a wartime economy but supermarkets will not look the way they did in 2019 [for the foreseeable future],” Opie added.

Supermarkets have built supply chains of immense complexity and sophistication over the last four decades, affording customers a choice of more than 40,000 lines from around the world – from dozens of different kinds of pasta to a permanent global summertime of fresh fruits and vegetables.

They have done this by developing long international supply chains and keeping little actually in stock. Shelf space is constantly replenished from centralised distribution centres where, every 24 hours, thousands of products are trucked in from suppliers to be unloaded, reorganised, reloaded and sent out again to stores.

The logistics are controlled by barcode scanning and complex algorithms, with little slack in the system, so a sudden rise in demand can be unmanageable.

The consequences of a disrupted supply chain will be most acute for the millions in households whose incomes are so low that they have depended on food banks or free meals at school or in daycare centres, which have now closed.

This is not a problem that government can ignore. It is urgent that they get the relevant parties together to try and resolve it before the whole system comes crashing down around their ears.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

What will post-virus Britain look like?

Nobody has a crystal ball of course, but there is an excellent article by Martin Kettle on the Guardian website that is worth reading. He argues that we need to anticipate a change in public mood once the COVID-19 crisis is over. His concluding paragraphs are worth quoting in full:

Everyone in these debates could use a bit of humility and a dose of open-mindedness. That’s true on both sides. It’s true for all of us. The right has been forced to relearn the prime importance of the state as guarantor in a period of emergency. It is having to accept the state’s irreducible responsibility to the most vulnerable. It has also, perhaps, learned that what a health service can achieve reflects the investment that has been made in it, although no health service anywhere has been or could have been fully prepared.

But the left has lessons to learn too. Many of the takeaways from the Covid-19 crisis may seem obvious. But what is true during a crisis is not necessarily true or desirable when the crisis is over. The NHS needs whatever it takes in a crisis, but at other times health service spending is as long as a piece of string and there has to be a cut-off point, if only to allow spending elsewhere. The borrowing that may or may not save the economy from recession in a crisis will also have to be paid for when the crisis is over. People may trust Johnson with powers they would not want Jeremy Corbyn to possess.

We are sailing in the dark towards an unknown future. Britain’s mood after the first world war and the flu pandemic has been described by the historian Richard Overy as “the morbid age”. It was, Overy says, an era of fear and paranoia about a dystopian future. Few put their faith in traditional politics. Britain after the second was very different. “Never again” was its more optimistic motto. No one can say which of these moods, or what other mood, is likely after the Covid-19 pandemic . Instead of insisting that the pandemic confirms everything we thought beforehand, it would be better to start thinking about all the unwelcome changes that the pandemic may bring in the decade to come.

Things may never be the same again.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Confusion and uncertainty haunts the UK Government's response to COVID-19

For a government that only a few months ago had secured a substantial Commons' majority through a clear and focussed campaign featuring message discipline and good communication strategies, the present uncertainty over how to tackle coronavirus is difficult to fathom,

As the Guardian reports, No 10 is facing criticism after a day of widespread confusion over its coronavirus lockdown advice, with a lack of clarity about who is allowed to travel to work, whether couples who live apart can still see each other and what counts as exercise.

As a result, Ministers had to give further guidance on a raft of different scenarios, after people expressed worries about what they were allowed to do and who they could still see:

The biggest confusion occurred over workers still travelling in packed tube trains to non-essential jobs, such as construction, with employees complaining they were being forced to work despite feeling unsafe.

Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, and Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, said construction workers should not be attending their workplaces.

However, the government overruled them, saying employers could still require staff to attend their jobs in person – even though the overarching guidance is for people to “stay at home, where possible”.

Other areas of confusion included:
Meanwhile it is evident on the ground that government support for business has huge holes in it.

Amongst all the grants and business rate relief being put into place, there is no provision for the sole trader operating from home like window cleaners, gardeners, plumbers, electricians etc not all of whom are classed as essential trades. There are large numbers in my ward, many of whom cannot work because of social distancing etc.

If an employee of a small or medium business furloughs their employees then they can claim back 80% of their wages and continue to pay that out. They can also claim a refund on their business rates and other grants.

A sole trader operating from home with just a van and a valued skill, will not be paying business rates, and is not eligible for the grants or the 80% wage. All they can get is universal credit at the level of statutory sick pay. I am told that government recognises this deficit but cannot work out how to address it.

It must be time surely for the government to stop fence-sitting and get these issues sorted.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The UK's social rights failings

A report by the Council of Europe sheds new light on why many of the Brexiteers wanted to leave the EU. As the Guardian reports, that body's annual review of each state’s adherence to its social charter has found that the UK is out of step with social rights in six areas.

They say that the UK’s low age of criminal responsibility, minimum pay rates for young teenagers and the failure to outlaw all forms of corporal punishment breach Council of Europe standards for social rights:

Criticisms in the report – which mainly covers the years 2014-17 – include permitting pain-inducing restraint techniques to be used in young offender institutions, the “inadequate” level of statutory maternity pay after six weeks and that family members of migrant workers are not granted an independent right to remain after exercising their right to “family reunion”.

The Council of Europe, which has 47 member states and is separate from the European Union, said the conclusions of its annual review are legally binding in the same way that judgments relating to the European convention on human rights have to be applied by member states.

The UK government, however, has traditionally shrugged them off on the grounds that they merely have to be “taken into account”. Virtually every country is criticised by the committee for violating regulations in some manner. Only Iceland was deemed to be in a state of total conformity.

On the criminal age of responsibility, the report said that it should be no lower than 14 years. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 10 years old; in Scotland it is 12.

The study noted that the number of children aged between 10 and 17 remanded in custody in England and Wales has fallen by 66% in recent years. However, the report said: “Sentencing children to periods of detention must be a measure of last resort, for the shortest time possible and subject to regular review.”

In terms of corporal punishment, the Council of Europe is critical of England, Wales and Northern Ireland where smacking, defined as “reasonable chastisement” remains legal; it was recently banned in Scotland.

On apprenticeship pay for young teenagers aged 16 and 17, the report said the wage levels have not been fair.

The report also expressed concern that “migrants and women with insecure immigration status” who experience domestic violence and rape “refrain from seeking protection and support services for fear of having their immigration status reported to authorities”.

On child benefit levels, it commented that “the amount of the child benefit has remained the same since the year 2009 and has therefore declined in proportion to the median income, in particular in relation to the second and subsequent children”.

The chances of the UK Government paying any attention to the report must be slim to nil, while the absence of any public clamour to address these issues underlines what a socially conservative society we live in.

The one bright spot lies in the fact that as Wales is about to ban the defence of 'reasonable chastisement' in child assault cases, there will at least be some improvement in our standing next year.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Nature reasserting itself part two

Yesterday's Observer contained a follow-up to the Guardian's report on how Venice is being transformed by the coronavirus lockdown, highlighting social media posts about animals frolicking through deserted cities. Not all the reports are true however:

We must sadly report that many of these optimistic posts have turned out to be fake – there were no dolphins in Venice’s celebrated canals, or drunken elephants ambling through China’s Yunnan province.

But as the coronavirus crisis changes the rhythms of urban life, there are some early signs that animals – especially the creatures that lurk in the periphery of big cities and suburbs – are feeling emboldened to explore.

In Nara, Japan, sika deer wandered through city streets and subway stations. Raccoons were spotted on the beach in an emptied San Felipe, Panama. And turkeys have made a strong showing in Oakland, California, home of one Guardian editor.

“Normally, animals live in the parts of our cities that we don’t use,” said Seth Mangle, who directs the Urban Wildlife Institute at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. “It makes them an unseen presence, kind of like ghosts.”

Gangs of wild turkeys aren’t an uncommon sight in parts of the Bay Area but it seems they’ve got a bit more room to wander through neighborhoods they might not normally visit. Boars have been known to descend upon European cities – but Barcelonans on lockdown have marveled at how the wild animals romp through quiet, deserted streets.

In American cities under shelter in place orders, walks and jogs are one of the few excuses for people to go outside. “It’s going to be a really cool time to spot wildlife,” Mangle said.

In San Felipe, where restaurants and bars have closed and tourist traffic is almost non-existent, Matt Larsen has noticed some new visitors on the beach near his home. “There were three raccoons, just frolicking along right at the edge of the surf,” said Larsen, the director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. “I’ve lived here six years, and it was something I had never seen before.”

The paper quotes Paige Warren, an ecologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who says that quarantines could continue to affect wildlife in unexpected ways: “I’ll be interested in whether creatures like coyotes and foxes start acting more bold in American cities,” she said. At the same time, fewer people in the streets could drive some species away, she said, especially those who subsist on whatever humans feed them – or leave behind in the trash.

That is the case in Nara Park, where the sika deer – which look like Bambi – have grown accustomed to tourists lining up year-round to feed them rice crackers. Now that the park is devoid of human visitors, the deer have begun wandering into the city looking for food. They’ve been spotted crossing city streets and walking through subway stations, snacking on potted plants.

But the narrative that wildlife populations will dramatically rebound and retake cities is fantasy – albeit one that might comfort those looking for meaning amidst the crisis. Instead researchers say that urban foxes and coyotes might venture out of their hiding spots a bit more. Birds might roam, graze and hunt new pastures as they adjust to the quarantine.

“If anything, these times may serve as a reminder that animals have always lived in our area,” Mangle said. “We may not think of our cities as a part of nature, but they are.”

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Has BBC's Question Time run its course?

I have not watched Question Time for a number of years. Frankly, I have too much respect for my blood pressure and the safety of my TV set. The problem as I perceive it is that some time ago the programme's producers abandoned the concept of informed debate and political balance, and chose instead to opt for sensationalism. The constant presence of Nigel Farage was just one symptom of this trend.

Reports I have read indicate that the post-coronavirus edition without an audience was a measurable improvement. Instead of the baying masses, and politicians seeking applause lines, we had panellists who were seriously trying to answer the question. However, that does not address the fundamental problem, that the show no longer understands what its purpose is, and tries to treat politics as entertainment.

When there is an audience, the BBC apparently seek to pack it with controversial people and then pick out the most outrageous parts to promote the show, as if the concept of political balance no longer applied to them. It is little wonder therefore that the Observer reports that the BBC has been asked to clarify if any efforts are made to “deliberately invite or attract” members of far-right groups to the audience of its flagship political programme, Question Time:

Baroness Warsi and Labour MP Debbie Abrahams have written to the BBC’s director general Tony Hall, asking him to consider also introducing a new code of conduct for panelists and the audience, and to stop sharing inflammatory videos from the show on social media.

It follows the BBC’s decision last month to upload on Twitter comments made by one recent audience member who claimed migrants “were flooding in” to the UK and costing public services too much.

Later, the individual was alleged to have stood in a general election for the neo-nazi National Front and be an active a supporter of the far right figurehead, Tommy Robinson, founder of the Islamophobic English Defence League.

Warsi and Abrahams, co-chairs of the new all-party group Compassion in Politics, argue that the BBC has a duty to avoid inflaming hate. Their letter asks how the Question Time audience is sourced and seeks a response to their assertion that far right supporters are invited to appear on the show.

The letter says: “We understand the producers of the show seek out ‘controversial members of the audience – including those of far-right campaign groups – in an attempt to curry large ratings.”

Recently the Question Time presenter, Fiona Bruce, described the “level of toxicity” on the show and admitted she had not anticipated how angry the show’s audiences would be.

Warsi and Abrahams write: “By providing a platform for views that are racist or sexist, the institution is normalising them and contributing to the coarsening of public debate and the growing toxicity of our politics.

“We therefore invite the BBC to let us know what steps it will now be taking to ensure that the recent controversies surrounding Question Time are not repeated.”

These concerns are all valid and deserve a considered answer, not the usual bland reassurances you get when making a complaint to the BBC. But let's go further - isn't Question Time past its useful role? Wouldn't it be better if the BBC just axed it altogether?

Saturday, March 21, 2020

During the crisis, nature reasserts itself

As the coronavirus crisis grows and we become more isolated and self-contained, the impact on town and city centres is becoming more marked. In Italy and Spain, people have been confined to their homes unless they have a very good and specific reason to do otherwise, and as this article in the Guardian explains that is giving nature an opportunity to reboot as well.

The paper says that under Venice’s strict rules of self-confinement to prevent the spread of the coronavirus – all journeys but a trip to walk the dog or buy food are forbidden – the ancient city has been transformed almost overnight:

La Serenissima’s hundreds of canals have been emptied of speeding motorboat taxis, transport and tourist boats. The chugging vaporetti water buses now run on a reduced timetable. Even most of the gondolas are moored.

The clarity of the water has improved dramatically. Swans and cormorants have returned to dive for fish they can now see. At the Piazzale Roma vaporetto stop, ducks have even made a nest. “Someone has put up a sign saying, ‘Don’t tread on the duck eggs,’’” Beggiato said. “All totally unimaginable a while ago.”

As the death toll from coronavirus in Italy outstrips that of China, the government of Giuseppe Conte has tried to keep citizens at home using a mix of social media and police controls.

But locals are still moving about cautiously to do their daily shopping – except now in a city without visitors. It is a remarkable transformation for a city that until recently saw protests against overtourism under the No Grande Navi (“No more cruise ships”) slogan.

At the world-famous and usually overcrowded Rialto market, most of the fish and vegetable stalls are still open, though customers are few and far between. All markets are allowed to serve customers at a minimum one metre distance.

In a queue to buy fish, Franco Fabris, an architect, reminisced: “When I was a kid growing up, there were far less boats in the canals and lots of kids would jump in and go swimming.”

“For the moment I am not going out fishing as all the restaurants I supply have closed, so what is the point?” said Franco Folin, a fisherman. “But when this all over, we may well see more fish returning because for the moment pleasure fishing is prohibited – there will be an awful lot of extra marine life in the lagoon.”

The apparent cleanliness of the water is not in fact due to a lack of pollution, said Davide Tagliapetra, an environmental researcher at the Institute of Marine Science. He told a local TV station that the reason is the absence of motorised transport, which normally churns up the muddy canal floor.

Matteo Bisol runs the vineyard restaurant Venissa on the tiny lagoon island of Mazzorbo, and has been campaigning for a more eco-responsible, sustainable model of tourism in Venice for some time.

“For goodness sake, it is not surprising there are fish in the canals of Venice,” he said. “If there were not, then we should all be worried as the lagoon here is a fragile ecosystem. People need to realise that if we control and cut down boat traffic in Venice and its lagoon then we could all discover a unique biosphere.”

It is an interesting lesson that nature is dishing out to us - that once (if) things get back to normal, we should try to do things in a more environmentally friendly way, and perhaps we will discover a whole new world out there that we will want to co-exist with, rather than trample all-over.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Will the Government get off scot-free over latest scandal?

In many ways the publication of inspector of constabulary Wendy Williams in long-awaited report into the Windrush scandal has come at a fortuitous time for the Home Office and the UK Government - the vast majority of the public and the UK media are so engrossed in tackling the coronavirus crisis that the report's damning conclusions will struggle to gain any traction. Nevertheless it is worth recording Williams' conclusions.

As the Independent reports, the inquiry found that the Home Office demonstrated “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness” towards the issue of race and that those affected were let down by “systemic operational failings”:

In a damning indictment of the Home Office, inspector of constabulary Wendy Williams, the report’s author, stated that the fiasco, which saw people with a right to live in the UK wrongfully detained or deported to the Caribbean, was “foreseeable and avoidable”.

She said: “Warning signs from inside and outside the Home Office were simply not heeded by officials and ministers. Even when stories of members of the Windrush generation being affected by the immigration control started to emerge in the media from 2017 onwards, the department was slow to react.”

Ms Williams accused successive governments of trying to demonstrate they were being tough on immigration by tightening immigration control and passing laws creating, and then expanding the “hostile environment”, with a “complete disregard” for the Windrush generation.

The report identifies organisational factors in the Home Office which created the operating environment in which the mistakes could be made, including a “culture of disbelief and carelessness” when dealing with immigration applications.

It concludes that the Windrush scandal showed “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness” on race issues which is “consistent with some elements of the definition of institutional racism”.

As David Lammy MP says, the review is a “brutal indictment” of the Home Office which showed it was “wholly unfit” for the society it is supposed to serve:

“The review shows the Windrush scandal was not an innocent mistake, but a systemic pattern of appalling behaviour rooted in a toxic internal culture and a failure of the department to understand Britain’s colonial history,” he said.

“When the problem is institutional, the only solution is to tear out the ruined foundations and rebuild the institution brick by brick. This is what the Home Office needs.”

Once this current public health crisis is over, we really need to revisit this review properly and insist that corrective action is put into place. To do otherwise risks future governments repeating the unfair and racist treatment of British citizens that should never have happened in the first place.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Profiteering in a crisis

The Guardian reports that private health firms have come under fire for profiting from the coronavirus pandemic by selling thousands of testing kits for up to £295 each – while frontline NHS workers go without.

They say that one chain of private clinics in the Midlands has ramped up the cost of its home delivery coronavirus testing kit from £149 to £249 in just a matter of days – a 67% price increase. Another firm, which normally lets patients book face-to-face GP appointments via an app in London, is selling home tests for £295, boasting laboratory results within 72 hours for what it warns is a “lethal” disease. The firm claims it was in talks with an unnamed NHS body after being approached about providing testing for staff:

It comes amid growing concern that NHS workers are not getting access to tests, with some forced into isolation for two weeks if someone in their household is showing symptoms – meaning they cannot treat patients.

Celebrities, sports stars, the wealthy and businesspeople have talked of testing positive or negative for Covid-19 while members of the public and health professionals with clear symptoms of the virus have been unable to get tests via Public Health England (PHE).

Idris Elba, the star of Luther, posted on Instagram this week that he had tested positive for the virus even though he had not displayed any symptoms. The Arsenal head coach, Mikel Arteta, also tested positive for Covid-19, and the club tested the whole team. A spokesman for the club declined to comment on the suggestion that the team were tested privately.

PHE moved last week to stop testing people for coronavirus if their symptoms were not severe enough to warrant hospital treatment. However, on Wednesday Boris Johnson announced plans to dramatically scale up its operation and to test 25,000 people a day for the disease.

This sort of profiteering from a health crisis is appalling, but it seems that the only way it can be stopped is if the government provides tests for all those who want it, thus undercutting the market. Surely that is something that needs to be actively considered in any case.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Context and proportionality in a time of coronavirus

On 25 July 1911 the then UK Government, in an atmosphere of widespread hysteria, responded to the Agadir Crisis, in which the UK threatened war with Germany, by introducing the Official Secrets Act in the House of Lords.

The act was rushed through Parliament, with little debate or opposition, passing through all of its stages in a single day - 18 August 1911 - and receiving the Royal assent four days later on 22 August.

The act contained extremely wide ranging powers, replacing the earlier Official Secrets Act 1889 that had provided criminal sanctions only for breaches which could be shown to be contrary to the public interest. It was not until 1989 that the act was replaced with a more reasonable and proportionate measure, following a number of controversial court cases.

In 1974 the first Prevention of Terrorism Act was enacted following the IRA bombing campaigns of the early 1970s. The Act was introduced by Roy Jenkins, then Home Secretary, as a severe and emergency reaction to the Birmingham pub bombs.

The conception of the Bill was announced on 25 November, when the Home Secretary warned that: "The powers... are Draconian. In combination they are unprecedented in peacetime." Parliament was supportive and had passed the Bill by 29 November, virtually without amendment or dissent.

The Bill passed through the Commons on 28 and 29 November and passed through Lords on 29 November. In fact, much of the Bill had been drafted in secrecy during the previous year, as shown in the only full length television commentary on the legislation by Clive Walker.

It was rewritten in 1976, 1984 and again in 1989, but continued to stay as emergency 'temporary' powers, that had to be renewed each year. The first three Acts all contained final date clauses beyond the annual renewal, this provision was not included in the 1989 Act.

In 2000, the Acts were replaced with the more permanent Terrorism Act 2000, which contained many of their powers, and then the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. See also Terrorism (Northern Ireland) Act 2006.

It is absolutely right that in a time of crisis Parliament should act to legislate to give the authorities the powers to deal with every contingency. I think the lesson of these two acts however is that such powers need to be proportionate and last only as long as they are needed.

In that context the proposed Coronavirus Bill (whose contents can be seen here) is absolutely the right way forward. However, that bill proposes to remove some safeguards in the context of health and mental health, and to temporarily repeal some advances in the field of social care that need to be reinstated as soon as this crisis is over.

There are also some civil liberties concerns over the powers being proposed to enable the government to restrict or prohibit events and gatherings during the pandemic in any place, vehicle, train, vessel or aircraft, any movable structure and any offshore installation and, where necessary, to close premises;
and to enable the police and immigration officers to detain a person, for a limited period, who is, or may be, infectious and to take them to a suitable place to enable screening and assessment.

In the attempt to contain this virus these powers may well be necessary, but I question why they need to be in place for two years and I would like some reassurances that once the crisis is over they will not continue to exist, even in a watered down form.

Experience shows that in times in crisis, Parliament often legislates in haste and repents at leisure. Let's beat this disease and then get back to normal as soon as possible.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Going electric

Electric cars still have huge problems, not least the cost, weight and longevity of the batteries (and that is before I mention the precious metals dug up in important wildernesses to make them), but for me and many others living in terraced housing, the biggest issue has to be how we can regularly recharge them overnight.

That is why I am intrigued by the pilot scheme in north west London, where an “electric avenue” has been developed by converting lamppost into chargers for battery-powered cars.

The Times says that, in what is thought to be the first of its kind, a street in the capital has been transformed into a hub for the vehicles to promote their use in residential areas. Twenty-four lampposts over a half-mile stretch of Sutherland Avenue in Maida Vale, northwest London, have been converted to contain charge points, allowing residents without driveways to power up electric vehicles overnight:

The project, led by Siemens, which was completed yesterday, is the first time a street has been fully converted to cater for on-street car charging.

The conversion comes amid concerns that a perceived shortage of public chargers may be preventing many motorists from ditching petrol and diesel cars in favour of electric vehicles. The majority of charging is done at home but this can be practically impossible for many people living in flats without a dedicated parking space or homeowners on residential streets without their own driveway.

Figures published this month showed that 6,500 new electric cars were sold in the first two months of this year, more than triple the number in the same period in 2019. However, they still make up only 2.9 per cent of new cars in the UK and experts say that a significant upsurge in charging infrastructure is needed to push sales.

The paper adds that most lampposts use new energy efficient LEDs, which means that additional energy can be fed from the supply without turning off the street light. All charging equipment is housed within the post and motorists plug in vehicles to a power point. Charging wires are locked at each end, meaning that passers-by cannot disconnect vehicles. The 5.5kW chargers typically take eight to ten hours to charge a vehicle.

They say the system is designed for slow charging rather than the far more powerful rapid charge points that can power up a battery in only half an hour but require a significant upgrade to the supply.

If this can be replicated countrywide then there may well be a future for electric cars after all.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Not for sale

There have been some political lows in the past, but yesterday's news that Donald Trump offered a German medical company “large sums of money” for exclusive rights to a Covid-19 vaccine must feature as one of the lowest.

The Guardian says that the Welt am Sonntag newspaper, under the headline “Trump vs Berlin”, reported Trump offered $1bn to Tübingen-based biopharmaceutical company CureVac to secure the vaccine “only for the United States”.

They say that the report prompted fury in Berlin. “International co-operation is important now, not national self-interest,” said Erwin Rueddel, a conservative lawmaker on the German parliament’s health committee.

Christian Lindner, leader of the liberal FDP party, accused Trump of electioneering, saying: “Obviously Trump will use any means available in an election campaign.”

The German health minister, Jens Spahn, said a takeover of CureVac by the Trump administration was “off the table”. CureVac would only develop vaccine “for the whole world”, Spahn said, “not for individual countries”.

Worldwide infections have grown to more than more than 86,000, according to the Johns Hopkins university tracker, while cases inside China stood at 80,860 as of Monday. Deaths outside China have risen to more than 3,241, while deaths in mainland China stand at 3,208 as of Monday.

The German government is absolutely right, Trump's brand of capitalism does not belong in this crisis. This is a time for world leadership not national one-up-man-ship.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Who advises the monarch?

When the Queen was asked to prorogue Parliament last year so as to give the government some breathing space over Brexit, my view was that she was ill-advised to do so. It seemed to me that Boris Johnson was politicising the monarchy and that the Queen should have used her discretion to refuse the request.

I did not, and still do not, accept that she had no choice in the matter. She is a constitutional monarch, a referee or arbiter, not a government rubber stamp, and providing she does not overstep the mark by frustrating the will of the people, I believe she has some discretion.

She should have taken the Edward VII approach in 1910 and insisted on a general election to break the deadlock she was being asked to intervene in.

Now, a former Supreme Court judge has suggested that a body independent of government ministers should be set up to advise the Queen on matters of constitutional significance. Speaking in a lecture hosted by BBC Parliament, Lord Sumption, who served on the UK’s top court until 2018, said the monarch lacked a “legitimate source of advice”, and that senior public servants could fill the current void.

As the Independent reports, the former justice also warned the prime minister against hostility to the judiciary, the BBC and the civil service as No 10 prepares to launch a constitution and democracy review:

Referring to the prorogation ruling, Lord Sumption said the Queen was not in “any realistic sense advised at all”, due to the convention that she is bound to comply with the wishes of ministers who have the confidence of the Commons.

“All this nonsense about deceiving the Queen was a little absurd,” he said. “The convention does not go ‘your majesty would you awfully mind’, the conversation goes like this: ‘The cabinet has decided to do this, sign here’. That’s the reality of it.”

But, he added: “It seems to me highly desirable that there should be some independent body which should be in a position to advise her on the understanding that she will normally be bound to accept their advice.

“Now, there’s a number of possible options, but my own view is that there ought to be a constitutional committee of the Privy Council that would have a judicial element, but a minority judicial element. “It would consist of experienced public servants for the most part whose function it would be to give the monarch advice, independently of her ministers, on actions that ministers were asking to take.”

As it stands, members of the Privy Council, consisting of ministers, provide advice to the Queen that she is bound constitutionally to follow.

Before parliament was suspended, the monarch held a meeting at Balmoral castle with members of the council, including Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, where she signed off the government’s order, despite protests from the opposition leaders to withhold her consent.

Lord Sumption added: “But what is a more general problem about this – in the prorogation case the courts intervened. Essentially the reason that they intervened is that there are some conventions that cannot be regarded as optional because in their absence we simply seize to be a political democracy at all. And the prorogation decision raised a convention of that kind.

“This gives rise to a quite serious problem is that the Queen has no legitimate source of advice on the constitutional propriety of what she is being asked to do by her ministers, other than the ministers themselves, who obviously have their own position on the subject.”

This seems to be a very sensible proposal and as such I am doubtful whether it will gain any traction within government.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Brexit still lurking in the background

For very good reasons, the ongoing Brexit crisis has fallen out of the news recently, but that does not mean that it has gone away as this article in the Independent illustrates.

They report that future British governments could be unable to repeal new laws on workers’ rights, the environment, and health and safety, under the terms of the EU’s proposed Brexit trade deal:

A leaked draft of the agreement drawn up by the European Commission and seen by The Independent insists that “future levels of protection” brought in by both sides must be maintained as a condition of UK access to European markets.

The plan goes further than a simple “non-regression” pledge to maintain existing rules at the point of Brexit, and means any future UK government that brings in new social rights could see its changes become untouchable, as long as they are endorsed and matched by Brussels.

The rule is the latest bid by the EU to ensure Britain does not unfairly deregulate itself into “Singapore-on-Thames” after Brexit, to unfairly undercut European businesses with lower standards.

The draft document also includes a demand that the UK notify Brussels in advance of any plans for “major” new regulations, before they are proposed to the UK parliament.

And it also shows that the bloc is standing by a requirement that the UK commit in writing to staying the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights – which Boris Johnson has so far refused to sign. The document says both parties must have a “continued commitment to respect the European Convention on Human Rights”.

Of course this is a negotiating position and is unlikely to be acceptable to Boris Johnson. However, for those of us that recognise that failing to secure an agreement with the EU could see real wage levels drop by 6.4% and a possible recession, all of this seems perfectly reasonable.

The only problem of course is that we have been put in the position of accepting rules rather than making them by those advocating Brexit in the first place.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Yet another crisis ahead

As if the corona virus was not bad enough, the Independent reports on an imminent life-changing crisis facing all of is over the next few years - accelerating climate change.

The paper tells us that, according to the most complete picture of polar ice-sheet loss to date, the polar ice caps and the Greenland ice sheet are melting six times faster than they were in the 1990s.

They say that the high melt rate corresponds to the “worst case scenario” model for global warming set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and means that without sweeping curbs on greenhouse gas emissions, the planet will see a 17-centimetre rise in sea level in just 80 years, putting about 400 million people at risk of annual coastal flooding.

The research was carried out by a team of 89 polar scientists from 50 international organisations, and reveals that the combined rate of ice loss has risen from 81bn tonnes per year in the 1990s to 475bn tonnes per year in the 2010s.

This means that the polar ice sheets have already contributed a third of all sea-level rise.

With climate change already contributing to heavy rainfall and flooding on a regular basis, it seems that our communities and the infrastructure that supports them all over the world are facing a challenge we are completely unprepared for.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Is facial recognition technology discriminatory?

Those of us who have been concerned by the increasing use of facial recognition technology by police forces will welcome the intervention of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission in the debate on this issue, today.

As the Guardian reports, the equalities watchdog has said that mass screening of the public at shopping centres or events like pop concerts, by police officers using facial recognition software, must be halted because it could amplify racial discrimination and stifle free expression.

They want future use of the technology to be suspended until its impact has been independently scrutinised and laws governing its application improved:

Police in London and south Wales have been at the forefront of using automated facial recognition (AFR) technology, which uses cameras to capture images of faces and double-checks these against databases of wanted suspects.

Scotland Yard has this year deployed cameras to scan shoppers in Stratford, east London, and at Oxford Circus in London, while South Wales police used the technology at a Slipknot concert at the Cardiff City football club stadium in January, as well as to monitor football fans.

The Oxford Circus deployment on 27 February scanned 8,600 faces to see if any matched a watchlist of more than 7,000 individuals. During the session, police wrongly stopped five people and correctly stopped one.

Prof Peter Fussey, an expert on surveillance from Essex University who conducted the only independent review of the Metropolitan police’s public trials on behalf of the force, has found it was verifiably accurate in just 19% of cases.

But last September, the high court refused a judicial review of South Wales police’s use of the technology. Judges ruled that although it amounted to interference with privacy rights, there was a lawful basis for it and the legal framework used by the police was proportionate.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the EHRC, a statutory non-departmental public body covering England and Wales, established under the Equality Act, is absolutely right when she says that the use of this technology should be "suspended until robust, independent impact assessments and consultations can be carried out, and so that we know exactly how this technology is being used and are reassured that our rights are being respected.”

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

A dog is not just for Christmas, Boris

As if it is not bad enough having countless puppies abandoned because families grow tired of them, we now have a story in The Times of the Prime Minister and his fiancé doing precisely that.

The paper reports that Dilyn, the Jack Russell cross adopted by Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds from a Welsh rescue centre, could be quietly rehomed before the couple have their first child in early summer. The paper understands that Dilyn has proved quite a “sickly animal” and quotes one Whitehall source as predicting: “I’m not sure that dog is going to make it through the next reshuffle.”

Despite the prime minister having declared Dilyn a “most excellent animal”, one source said that the couple had already grown weary of the dog before they discovered that Ms Symonds was pregnant. A particular bone of contention was the mess that he created in their apartment above No 11. “For a while there was dog shit everywhere in the flat,” the source added.

Dilyn is a regular staple of Ms Symonds’s social media feed and joined her on the general election campaign trail. He sported a “Get Brexit Done” rosette and the prime minister walked him to the polling station to cast his vote.

The dog moved from Friends of Animals Wales in Rhondda, into Downing Street last September aged 15 weeks after he was abandoned by puppy farmers. At the time, a spokesman for No 10 said: “The prime minister has always been a passionate supporter of animal welfare and believes in giving animals the best start in life.”

Ms Symonds had tweeted: “Thanks to the wonderful Eileen who rescued Dilyn after she got a tip-off that he was to be dumped by a puppy dealer because he was born with a crooked jaw. Eileen fixed his little jaw and saved his life. She is a hero.”

The couple were introduced to the centre by Marc Abraham, the television vet who has worked with Eileen Jones, the charity’s owner, whose Yorkshire terrier, Sophie, disappeared in 2003. While searching for her she became aware of the scale of puppy farming in west Wales and set up her charity.

The paper adds that the apparent upheaval created by the arrival of the puppy is coupled with Mr Johnson’s own less than scrupulous house-keeping. A source described their apartment as “like a frat house”. “There were clothes all over the place and takeaway cartons. The place was a mess.”

It is thought that Ms Symonds dislikes living in Downing Street and was the driving force behind the couple’s decision to spend the recent half-term week at Chevening, the grace-and-favour house in Kent normally occupied by the foreign secretary, last month. “She was fed up of being cooped up in a messy flat with the dog,” a friend said. Mr Johnson was criticised for staying at the country mansion rather than visiting those affected by Storm Dennis.

One would have expected the Prime Minister to have set an example of good animal ownership, not to jettison the poor animal as soon as the going got tough.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Is it crunch time already in EU trade talks?

Talks may only just have got underway but the EU is being very clear on what the UK needs to do if we wish to continue to trade with them from 1 January next year. As the Independent reports, the European Commission president has warned that Britain must follow the “rules of the game” if it wants tariff-free trade with the EU:

In a press conference to mark the end of her first 100 days in office Ursula von der Leyen said that the UK had to “make up its mind” whether it wanted to keep access.

Brexit trade talks kicked off last week in Brussels but stumbled on the issue of whether the UK would stay aligned with some EU rules as part of a “level playing field” of regulations.

EU countries are worried that the UK will deregulate and undercut the EU on standards, and say tariff-free trade can only continue if the UK signs up to certain standards on the environment, workers’ rights, state aid and product standards.

“We are aware that there are differences in approach towards what scope a future agreement should have – and if I may say so, the rules of the game everyone has to abide to,” Ms von der Leyen told reporters.

“It will be important that the UK makes up its mind – the closer they want to have access to the single market, the more they have to play by the rules that are the rule of the single market.

“If this is not the UK’s choice then they will be more distant and it will be more difficult for the UK to access the single market. So I think it’s up to the UK within these negotiations to think about the trade-offs they want to take into account.”

The current ambivalence being shown by Boris Johnson's government towards the EU is not helping. Clearly, he wants a trade deal with the United States but can we afford to ditch the economic benefits we gain from trading with the EU to secure that deal? This is the crunch time. The government need to be clear about what they actually want from these trade talks.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Ending the Welsh Assembly gravy train?

It appears that for the Welsh Conservatives, ending the 'Welsh Assembly gravy train' is their equivalent of Trump draining the swamp. Except that in Trump's case he has actually widened and deepened that swamp with his own brand of politics.

Nevertheless, I expect that the Welsh Tory's pledge to cut the cost of politics by reducing the number of ministers, freezing the Commission budget and ruling out any increase in the number of politicians will have have some resonance with voters. It is not good enough just to condemn them out-of-hand for gesture politics, though this is undoubtedly what it is, we have to make the case as to why they are wrong.

Actually, I have a lot of sympathy for reducing the number of Ministers. Sometimes it seems as if the First Minister is just trying to build up the payroll vote so as to secure his own position within the Labour group. Though in building coalitions it is inevitable that positions have to be offered to other parties and this means that we may need the maximum-allowed number of ministers.

On limiting the Commission's budget and keeping AM numbers as they are, that will inevitably hamper the whole Welsh agenda. It will mean less resource and fewer opportunities to scrutinise Welsh Ministers and legislation, and as a result we will have poorer decision-making and inadequate laws.

The one item that is missing from the Tory agenda is abolishing the practice whereby Assembly Members employ members of their own or other members' families. That is something that was picked up fairly quickly by Wales-On-Line.

They have pointed out that there are seventeen Assembly Members and seven Welsh MPs who currently employ members of their own families at the public's expense. This practice is banned in Westminster. It wasn't banned in the Assembly until recently. However, a loophole in the Assembly rules means that if a family member is already in post they can stay until 2026:

More than half of the Tory AMs in the Assembly employ family members.

Both the current leader Paul Davies and the previous leader Andrew RT Davies employ members of AMs' families.

Paul Davies employs two members of other members' families and RT Davies employs his wife Julia on a band one salary (up to £35,182). She has been in the post since 2007.

South Wales East Conservative AM Mohammad Asghar has employed his wife Firdaus as a caseworker on 22.2 hours a week since April 2013. His daughter Natasha as senior communications officer for 10 hours a week.

And it is not just the Conservatives doing it:

Of all the parties in the Assembly the party with the highest percentage of its AMs choosing to employ their family is the Brexit Party.

Three of their four AMs employ family members all in the highest or second highest wage bands.

The Brexit Party's David Rowlands AM employs both his wife and daughter. Freemason Rowlands had previously left his daughter off the list of employees and subsequently blamed one of his aides for the oversight.

Labour AMs employ more family members that any other party with eight - however this is a much smaller figure relative to the total number of AMs the party has (29).

Plaid have banned the practice - which was the catalyst for Mohammad Asghar leaving - and they have accused the Tories of a populist play for power.

The website provides some examples of what these family members are being paid:

Last year a Wales-On-line investigation found that some AMs were paying their families the highest possible wage band from the public purse with wages up to £40,972 a year.

They were:

Mark Reckless AM (Leader of The Brexit Party in the Welsh Assembly) - Mr Reckless has employed his wife Catorina Reckless as a senior advisor for 37 hours (previously 29.6) a week, earning up to £40,972 since December 2016.

Caroline Jones AM (Brexit Party) - Has employed her husband Alun Williams as a community caseworker earning up to £40,972 for 37.5 hours a week since 2017.

Neil Hamilton AM (UKIP) - Has employed his wife Christine Hamilton as a senior advisor (previously PA) for 37 hours a week, earning up to £40,972 since May 2016.

Dawn Bowden AM - Labour - Ms Bowden has employed her husband Martin Eaglestone as a senior advisor on 37 hours a week, earning up to £40,972 since September 2017.

Of course when the Tories were asked about this, they declined to comment. Are they in favour of reform only when it is convenient? Is this really just meaningless rhetoric?

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Black holes and other government-generated phenomena

I have blogged a number of times, most recently here, on the absurd immigration system and the proposed changes to the rules that are going to cause huge problems for the UK economy.

Now the Independent has reinforced that view by reporting on claims by the GMB that new immigration rules being brought in by home secretary Priti Patel could result in a “black hole” of almost half a million care home workers:

Branding Ms Patel’s plan as “slapdash”, the GMB warned that cutting off the supply of recruits from overseas will worsen the crisis in the adult social care sector, which already has 110,000 unfilled vacancies.

Under the new immigration policy announced last month and due to come into force on 1 January 2021, there will be no exemption for the social care sector from a new £25,600 minimum earnings threshold designed to keep out low-skilled workers.

With average earnings of just £16,200 in privately run care facilities, the GMB said this would leave the sector effectively unable to recruit from abroad unless the government provides funding for a substantial increase in pay.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics found that 115,000 care workers currently in the UK are originally from EU countries while a further 237,000 were born elsewhere in the world. Coupled with the 110,000 vacancies, the union said that this could leave the sector short of 460,000 workers if Ms Patel’s policy is implemented.

The sector already has a vacancy rate of 8 per cent, compared with an average of 2.8 per cent across the economy as a whole.

Ms Patel has previously dismissed concerns about difficulties filling low-paid jobs following the introduction of her regime, arguing that replacements for foreign workers could be found among the UK’s 8.5 million “economically inactive” citizens, even though this includes students and people unable to work because of illness or caring responsibilities.

It seems that on this issue, as on many Brexit-related issues, the government is clinging to fantasy and hope as a solution to what appear to be intractable problems. This is a potential crisis of their own making, but it is the rest of us who will bear the consequences.

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Dismantling our mobile network?

Having allegedly taken back control from the European Union, the next target for some MPs appears to be taking back control from China. Given the level of investment in our economy from the Chinese, this may prove a tall order but, hey, that's never stopped the Tories before.

The Guardian reports that a group of eight Conservative rebel MPs, including four former cabinet ministers, have put down an amendment calling on the government to eliminate all Huawei technology from the UK’s mobile phone networks by the end of 2022:

Led by Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Paterson, David Davis and Damian Green, the rebels hope to stage a show of strength – although it is not clear whether they can attract the 44 votes needed to threaten Boris Johnson’s majority.

There are some claims they could threaten the government if all opposition parties supported them, but one rebel source told the Guardian the true number of Tory malcontents was in the 30s, not enough to force a defeat.

Insiders said the amendment represented the first step in a “guerrilla” campaign aimed at prompting a rethink in Downing Street, in tandem with pressure from the White House, which is strongly opposed to the deployment of Huawei.

The White House and the Conservative rebels believe technology from the Chinese firm represents a potential surveillance risk, but Downing Street and Britain’s spy agencies believe any risks can be managed, based partly on their experience of the kit.

The amendment is attached to an obscure technical bill, the telecommunications infrastructure bill, and is unlikely to be effective if passed because the proposed legislation only applies where leasehold property owners are unresponsive to phone companies.

It does, however, represent an opportunity for rebels to declare their numbers before Downing Street puts forward legislation to implement its Huawei decision to a vote later in the spring.

As the paper says last month, Boris Johnson’s government announced plans to cap Huawei’s market share in 5G at 35%. The rebels want the UK to eliminate the Chinese company’s involvement entirely, even though it has been used in British networks since 2003.

And in that fact lies the crux of the problem for the rebel Tories. This is not just about 5G, their amendment would involve ripping apart the UK's entire mobile network and rebuilding it from scratch with catastrophic consequences for our economy.

Still, just because a cause is dumb hasn't stopped this lot in the past.

Friday, March 06, 2020

Tory Islamophobia allegations revisited

With voting underway in the Labour leadership contest, the controversy over anti-Semitism within that party has been muted as of late. It has not though, gone away. Nor have the allegations of Islamophobia within the Tory party.

That is evident with news that a dossier of more than 300 allegations of Islamophobia in the Conservative party has been submitted to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, increasing pressure on the watchdog to launch a formal investigation.

The Guardian reports that a submission from the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) catalogues evidence of allegedly Islamophobic comments and actions by hundreds of activists, councillors, and advisers to the prime minister:

Sally-Ann Hart, the MP for Hastings and Rye, was put under investigation by the party for sharing a post claiming a women’s march had been hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood to promote the “Muslim agenda”. Anthony Browne, the MP for South Cambridgeshire, questioned the loyalty of Muslims to Britain when responding to Muslim leaders’ concerns about the Iraq war. Karl McCartney, the MP for Lincoln, retweeted Islamophobic and antisemitic posts by Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins. Browne and McCartney apologised for their actions.

The MCB also highlighted the role of Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s de facto chief of staff, in having responsibility for the Spectator website when a controversial cartoon of the prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban was posted, with a caption feeding into a far-right, Islamophobic trope about a Muslim “takeover”.

Another example was that of Andrew Sabisky, briefly a No 10 adviser, who questioned in a book review whether a growing Muslim population would be countered with violent resistance.

The dossier also includes allegations against Boris Johnson himself, who has previously apologised for describing Muslim women wearing face-covering veils as looking like “letterboxes”.

The MCB first sent a file of 150 cases to the EHRC 10 months ago. However, the watchdog has resisted launching an inquiry until it can see the terms of reference of the Tories’ independent investigation into prejudice within the party.

With no action so far, the MCB said it was sending another 150 cases and accused the EHRC, which launched an investigation in allegations of antisemitism in the Labour party last year, of failing to act on evidence of “institutional, systemic and widespread” Islamophobia in the Conservative party.

The secretary general of the MCB, Harun Khan, which represents 500 Muslim groups, mosques and charities, said: “Having furnished the Equality and Human Rights Commission with evidence of over 100 incidents of Islamophobia in the Conservative party 10 months ago, we find it extraordinary that the commission has failed to give any response, let alone inform us and British Muslims as to whether action will be taken.

“Two years ago, we estimated that there were cases of Islamophobia being identified in the party on a weekly basis. Now, with over 300 documented incidents, it appears our estimation was too low. There is no doubt that the Conservative party has an Islamophobia crisis. The party’s response has been one of denial, dismissal and deceit.

“This results in clear discrimination against Muslims because of their religion. Islamophobia is never acceptable, yet this dossier cites hundreds of individuals – including many in significant positions of power and influence – who have made horribly offensive comments about Muslims that would not be tolerated for any other section in our society.”

Boris Johnson of course, pledged to launch an inquiry into all forms of discrimination, including Islamophobia, before the end of last year. However, the terms of reference have still not been published. Perhaps he needs to get a move on.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Is your home a danger to your health?

The Guardian reports on a disturbing study by the Centre for Ageing Better and Care & Repair England based on analysis of the English Household Survey, which has found that more than 2 million people aged over 55 live in homes that endanger their health, with older homeowners who cannot afford to maintain their home most at risk.

The study found that accidents and illnesses caused by dangerous homes cost the NHS £1.4bn a year. The NHS spends £513m on emergency treatment for people aged over 55 who live in the poorest-quality housing and have suffered incidents linked to non-decent homes, including falls and health problems exacerbated by cold homes.

The average non-decent home could be brought up to a decent standard for £28,660. A third of homes could be repaired for less than £1,000. But previous funding to address the problem has been withdrawn:

The report says more than 4.3m homes do not meet basic standards of decency, most commonly because of the presence of a serious hazard to the occupants’ health or safety.

Almost half of these homes are lived in by someone over 55 years old. One million of them are home to at least one child. At least 20% of all homes in the private rented sector are non-decent.

“After decades of year-on-year decreases in the number of non-decent homes in England, the rate of improvement is stalling for all ages,” said [Anna] Dixon [the chief executive at the Centre for Ageing Better]. “In the case of households headed by someone aged over 75 years old, the trend has actually reversed: more than one in five elderly people live in a dangerous home, more than any other age group.”

More than a million over-55s live in a home that poses a serious risk to their health, most commonly through excess cold or a fall hazard. Two million households are headed by someone aged 65 and over who finds it difficult to heat their homes.

Sue Adams, the chief executive of Care & Repair England, said: “An investment of £4.3bn to repair hazards for households headed by those aged over 55 would be paid back in just eight years through savings to the NHS.”

There are no comparable figures for Wales, but the Welsh Government is in a unique position to make a difference in this area by conducting its own study and putting in place measures to deal with poor housing conditions for this age group. Given the pressures on the Welsh NHS, perhaps they need to get on with it.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

The future is not orange

I was intrigued by reports of a faux pas by the MS Society yesterday, who are currently running an important campaign to raise awareness of Multiple Sclerosis.

As the BBC reports, the Multiple Sclerosis Society used twitter to ask people to wear orange, the charity's brand colour. However, the charity has apologised after the tweet calling on people to "turn the streets of Belfast orange" drew comparisons to Orange Order parades. That tweet has since been deleted:

It said it understands how the tweet might be interpreted, according to charity news magazine Third Sector.

The charity said the tweet was an "honest mistake".

Some people drew comparisons between the tweet's request for people to wear orange and Orange Order parades.

The parades mark the victory of King William III - the Dutch-born Protestant better known as William of Orange or King Billy - over the Catholic King James II in Ireland in 1690.

The Orange Order holds marches throughout the year - its main annual parades are on 12 July.

The marches have traditionally been a source of tension in Northern Ireland, with many nationalists objecting to them as triumphalist and sectarian while the Orange Order defends them as an expression of culture and Protestant faith.

The MS Society said: "We're sorry for any offence caused by this tweet and understand how it might have been interpreted.

"Orange is the MS Society's brand colour and this campaign was used to promote our MS fundraiser across the whole of the UK.

"This was an honest mistake and the advert has now been taken down."

The MS Society's fundraising walk in Belfast is due to take place on 13 September and the organisation said people may wear any colour they choose.

An honest but unfortunate mistake.

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Myth of a US trade deal shattered

Judging by their approach to EU trade talks the Tory Government are putting a lot of faith in a deal with Donald Trump's America, however is their confidence misplaced in thinking that such a deal at the expense of our arrangements with the European Union is worth it?

An official document from the Department of International Trade seems to think that there is a great deal of self-delusion on the part of Ministers in pursing this approach.

As the Independent reports, the government's own figures show that the economic benefit from a trade deal with the US may be as little as 0.02 per cent of GDP – around 450 times smaller than the potential loss from a no-deal Brexit.

The paper adds that citics of Boris Johnson's Brexit strategy pointed out that this i only a tiny fraction of the hit to GDP expected in the case EU withdrawal without a trade deal, which the government has previously estimated at up to 9 per cent:

The DIT document set out two “plausible” outcomes from the planned US talks – a more limited deal delivering “substantial” tariff liberalisation and a 25 per cent reduction in non-tariff barriers, and a deeper arrangement with “full” tariff liberalisation and a 50 per cent reduction in non-tariff barriers.

Under the first scenario, DIT put the likely benefit to UK GDP at between £0.5bn and £3.1bn (0.02-0.15 per cent), with a central estimate of £1.6bn (0.07 per cent).

Under the second, UK GDP could increase by £1bn-£7.7bn (0.05-0.36 per cent), with a central estimate of £3.4bn (0.16 per cent of GDP).

By comparison, the government’s most recent estimate of the cost of Brexit to the UK economy, published in 2018, suggested that a Canada-style free trade agreement could hit GDP by between 3.4 and 6.4 per cent, while a no-deal Brexit – referred to by Mr Johnson as an “Australian-style agreement” – would cost the economy between 6.3 and 9 per cent of GDP.

That is a pretty high cliff edge Boris Johnson is driving us towards.

Monday, March 02, 2020

In defence of democracy

The Independent highlights a one-man crusade by Neil Coughlan, a pensioner from Essex, one of 11 million registered electors in the UK who do not own a driving licence or a passport. That is part of the reason Mr Coughlan decided to take the government to court over trials that saw some voters asked to show identification at the ballot box – a policy ministers plan to roll out nationwide.

Mr Coughlan lost his case before the local elections last May – when voter ID was trialled – after the High Court found the voter ID pilots legal, but he will be appealing the decision in April:

The government has pushed forward with plans to roll out the policy nationwide since Mr Coughlan’s initial case, despite extensive research repeatedly indicating the issue of electoral fraud in the UK is negligible.

“I can’t see why so many innocent people have to be disenfranchised because of a few people who do something wrong,” Mr Coughlan told The Independent.

“We’ve got people who should vote but it’s hard to get them to vote. Making it harder again is just disenfranchising them for no good reason.”

He gained permission to appeal the High Court decision in October.

If his appeal is successful this year, it could strengthen the case against Boris Johnson’s controversial plans to roll out photo ID for voters nationwide, which critics have called a disproportionate response to an uncommon crime.

“This policy remains a sledgehammer to crack a nut,” Willie Sullivan from the Electoral Reform Society told The Independent.

According to the Electoral Commission, there was just one conviction for impersonation fraud – which identification at the ballot box aims to tackle – across the whole of 2017 and 2018.

In comparison, figures have estimated that 3.5 million eligible UK voters do not own photo ID and would have to sort out correct ID before elections if the measure were to go ahead.

The Electoral Commission found 2,000 people were turned away for lack of ID, with 800 people not returning to vote across the 10 constituencies trialled during May’s local elections.

Despite this, the PM is pushing forward with plans to roll out photo ID requirements for voters nationwide. The only explanation for this is that, as in the USA, these new requirements are being used as voter suppression.

Not many of those without a photo ID will vote Conservative, by discouraging them from voting, the system is tilted even further in favour of Boris Johnson's party. I hope Mr Coughlan's appeal is successful.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Bringing out the bullies?

The unprecedented sight of a senior civil servant yesterday, publicly resigning and telling the media that he plans to sue the Home Secretary for constructive dismissal, was so extraordinary and damaging, that Number 10 spin doctors were forced to try distract us all and attempt to mitigate the damage, by announcing the engagement of the Prime Minister, and the fact that his fiancé is expecting a baby.

Nobody seems very clear exactly how many children our Prime Minister has now fathered. Speculation is that it is six with this, his seventh, meaning that maintenance payments may well be costing him a significant proportion of the ginormous advance he has received for the undelivered book on William Shakespeare.

What is certain is that the Tory Party has changed beyond recognition. Does anybody remember the fuss when William Hague insisted on sharing a bedroom with his then fiancé at Tory Party Conference?

What has happened to the so-called party of law and order, now that the Tories seem content to make it more difficult to extradite terrorists and criminals by withdrawing from the European Arrest Warrant? Surely the public resignation of a senior civil servant along the lines of Sir Phillip Rutnam yesterday, would have led to the Home Secretary getting their marching orders under any other Tory Prime Minister.

The Guardian believes that Rutnam's resignation over her alleged bullying of staff, calls Priti Patel’s future as the home secretary into question. However, I have my doubts. Instead, the controversy seems to feed into Dominic Cumming's agenda of challenging the civil service. In this scenario, it is inevitable that longstanding and respected senior officials will be uncomfortable with the new regime, and that they will want to move on. Cummings will want to encourage such churn.

Despite that, Patel's future still hangs on the reaction of the Tory backbenches, and how the story plays out over the next week. I believe that the odds are that she will survive, but events often have a way of frustrating such expectations.

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