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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Transparent algorithms needed to stem online misinformation

I am currently reading Hannah Fry's book, 'Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine' about the way that our lives are increasingly being dictated (and improved) by algorithms. I recommend it, the book is truly eye-opening. But as with all these advances, there is a downside as well, and the only way to combat that is through complete transparency.

The Independent reports on one aspect of our lives where full transparency is crucial of we are to avoid the sort of manipulation and misinformation that has been the dominant feature of recent referendums and elections.

They say that a report from the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee, has concluded that an online ‘pandemic of misinformation’ is posing an existential threat to the UK’s democracy and way of life.

The report has accused government ministers of failing to get to grips with the urgency of the challenges of the digital age. And it called for immediate action to rein in tech giants, including new powers for proposed online harms regulator Ofcom to fine digital companies up to 4 per cent of their global turnover or force ISP blocking of serial offenders.

In particular, the committee want Ofcom to be given the power to hold digital platforms legally responsible for content they recommend to large audiences or that is produced by users with a large following. And it said online platforms should be required to be transparent in how their algorithms work so they are not operating in ways that discriminate against minorities:

Its report said that online platforms are not “inherently ungovernable” but warned power has been ceded to a “few unelected and unaccountable digital corporations” including Facebook and Google, and politicians must act now to hold them to account when they are shown to negatively influence public debate and undermine democracy.

The report also called for political advertising to be brought into line with other advertising in the requirement for truth and accuracy.

And it said that the political parties should work with the Advertising Standards Authority and other regulators to develop a code of practice that would ban “fundamentally inaccurate” advertising during elections and referendums.

Committee chair Lord Puttnam said: “We are living through a time in which trust is collapsing. People no longer have faith that they can rely on the information they receive or believe what they are told. That is absolutely corrosive for democracy.

The key to all this of course is understanding how the algorithms used by these companies work. Until Ofcom can see why certain material and adverts are being targeted at particular groups of individuals then they will find it nearly impossible to properly regulate these companies.

Full transparency must be a condition of digital platforms operating in the UK.

Monday, June 29, 2020

On Nigel Farage's anti-Semitic dog whistles

Just when we had got the popcorn out and were settling down to watch the latest row in Labour over anti-Semitism, following Keir Starmer's decisive action in sacking a member of his shadow cabinet, another one pops up, this time on the political right, to underline how these appalling conspiracy theories plague both wings of the political spectrum.

If the Corbynite left cannot see the damage these tropes are doing in undermining the Jewish community (and the Labour Party) then perhaps they will pause for reflection when they realise that those on the right are also using them.

For those who still doubt that the article retweeted by Rebecca Long-Bailey contained an anti-Semitic trope, then it is worth reading this Channel Four fact check article.

The Guardian reports that Nigel Farage has been condemned by the UK’s main Jewish groups and MPs for repeatedly using language and themes associated with far-right anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, something for which he has been previously criticised.

They report that the Board of Deputies of British Jews said Farage’s airing of claims about plots to undermine national governments, and his references to Goldman Sachs and the financier George Soros, showed he was seeking to “trade in dog whistles”.

The Brexit party leader, who has been criticised for agreeing to interviews with openly anti -Semitic US media personalities, was also condemned by the MPs who co-chair the all-party group against antisemitism:

Much of Farage’s most recent use of such themes has been connected to the Black Lives Matter protests, and his belief that dissenting voices are being silenced.

In a tweeted video message this month, Farage said the UK faced “cultural Marxism”, a term originating in a conspiracy theory based on a supposed plot against national governments, which is closely linked to the far right and anti-Semitism.

In the same message, Farage said companies who pulled TV adverts from rightwing TV shows were being pressured by “Soros-funded organisations”. George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist and campaigner, is a regular target for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Farage had made the same claim about Soros three days earlier in an interview with the far-right news website Breitbart.

In a recent opinion piece for the Newsweek website, Farage talked about “unelected globalists shaping the public’s lives based on secret recommendations from the big banks”. Goldman Sachs was the only bank he mentioned by name, echoing another common theme from far-right anti-Semitism.

Writing in a separate Newsweek column, Farage said Black Lives Matter was made up of radical socialists trying to destroy nationalism, “oftentimes funded by globalists”, another term linked to such ideas.

The Community Security Trust, a charity that works for the safety of Jewish people in the UK, summed it up: “This is not the first time that Nigel Farage has used language that evokes anti-Semitic conspiracy codewords, but the deeper problem is that this search for scapegoats will keep requiring new enemies and new excuses, moving the national debate into more polarising and dangerous places.”

Both left and right are guilty of this sort of behaviour and it is time that they woke up to the real damage that they are doing in continuing it.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

UK Government backtrack on pledge to end badger cull

Plans by government ministers, announced in March, to phase out mass badger culls to replace then with wildlife vaccines appear to have fallen through a massive popularist hole as the Independent reports that projects to trap and shoot the animals have been extended across England. (Health warning: don't watch the video on the second link).

The paper says that another 100,000 badgers could be killed by the end of the year as the government prepares to broaden culling from Cornwall to Cumbria. That would add to the estimated 100,000 already killed since 2013, in a failed and misguided effort to protect the dairy farming industry from bovine tuberculosis (bTB).

Natural England, the government’s nature adviser, has this year approved seven badger cull licences in new areas and three in existing areas, and the Badger Trust expects 10 more to be agreed by the end of August. Each licence runs for four years. Fifteen new licences were issued last year and 11 in 2018:

“A lot of the public and politicians have been misled by this policy,” said Dominic Dyer, chief executive of the trust. “The government is betraying public trust and carrying out an act of ecological vandalism. At a conservative estimate, this will result in 60,000 more dead badgers this year, but the number could well rise to over 100,000.”

He warned that expanding culling could push the species to the verge of local extinction in areas of England inhabited since the ice age, in a programme that has cost taxpayers £70 million so far.

This is a huge betrayal by the government, whose whole programme of culling has been cruel, vote-seeking and contrary to the science.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Has the UK Government bought the wrong satellites?

I blogged a week ago about the inability of government to cope with ICT and new technology contracts and the huge waste of public money that ensues. I suggested that some of the reasons for this may be that Ministers and civil servants don't fully understand what they are being sold, and have unrealistic expectations of it.

 I added that the industry does not seek to dissuade them of their ambitions for the product on offer, but ensure that contracts are so complex that the penalties for failing to meet targets and deliver the goods can never be implemented. As a result projects overrun and he cost soars until somebody pulls the plug.

A comment to that post very helpfully suggested that another reason might be the marginal propensity to tinker. A spec is sorted and then someone (like a Minister) says 'Wouldn't it be a good idea if...' which then both sets the whole thing a fair time and adds to the cost.

There are times when these failures cause considerable delay, expense and embarrassment, on other occasions it is more serious. The ideological decision to opt out of the EU's Galileo system because of Brexit, an £8bn satellite navigation system intended to rival the US-controlled Global Positioning System and to replace it with an off-the-shelf alternative is a prime example of the latter.

Once fully operational this year, Galileo will provide accurate position, navigation and timing information for governments, citizens and industry. It will be used by everything from smartphones to security-critical military applications in target acquisition and tracking. The UK is developing receivers for military platforms that will incorporate Galileo’s encrypted Public Regulated Service.

If we do not have it, or its equivalent then huge chunks of modern life start to fall apart, whilst the effective defence of the realm and the maintenance of law and order will be compromised.

Unfortunately, the government's option of investing hundreds of millions of pounds in a satellite broadband company as their preferred alternative has been described by experts as “nonsensical”. According to the Guardian, they believe that OneWeb – in which the UK will own a 20% stake following the investment – currently operates a completely different type of satellite network from that typically used to run such navigation systems:

“The fundamental starting point is, yes, we’ve bought the wrong satellites,” said Dr Bleddyn Bowen, a space policy expert at the University of Leicester. “OneWeb is working on basically the same idea as Elon Musk’s Starlink: a mega-constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, which are used to connect people on the ground to the internet.

“What’s happened is that the very talented lobbyists at OneWeb have convinced the government that we can completely redesign some of the satellites to piggyback a navigation payload on it. It’s bolting an unproven technology on to a mega-constellation that’s designed to do something else. It’s a tech and business gamble.”

Giles Thorne, a research analyst at Jeffries, agreed. “This situation is nonsensical to me,” he said. “This situation looks like nationalism trumping solid industrial policy.”

Every major positioning system currently in use – America’s GPS, Russia’s Glonass, China’s BeiDou, and Galileo, the EU project that the UK helped design before losing access to due to Brexit – is in a medium Earth orbit, Thorne said, approximately 20,000km from Earth. OneWeb’s satellites, 74 of which have already been launched, are in a low Earth orbit, just 1,200km up.

Bowen said: “If you want to replace GPS for military-grade systems, where you need encrypted, secure signals that are precise to centimetres, I’m not sure you can do that on satellites as small as OneWeb’s.”

Rather than being selected for the quality of the offering, Thorne suggested the investment was made to suit “a nationalist agenda”. OneWeb is nominally a UK business, with a UK HQ and spectrum rights registered in the UK through Ofcom.

Yet another fine mess Boris Johnson and his minions have got us into.

Friday, June 26, 2020

More questions on activities of Tory Minister

Just how much political capital does Boris Johnson have left? He has already used up significant goodwill within his own party in defending Dominic Cummings, now he has put his weight behind his housing secretary, despite the many questions over how Robert Jenrick has been interacting with key Tory donors. It is one thing to be loyal to one's friends, but surely the Prime Minister does not need these distractions at such a crucial time.

Jenrick is facing claims that he bent over backwards to assist Richard Desmond, by rushing through a £1bn property development against advice, so that the Tory donor’s company could save £45 million. A £12,000 donation to the conservative party and stories of the two men sitting together at a fundraising dinner, when a video of the proposed development was allegedly shown to the minister, have added fuel to the fire.

Now there is further controversy, with the Guardian reporting that Jenrick is facing new questions over his links to wealthy Conservative donors after it emerged that he met an Israeli businessman with an interest in the future of a multibillion-pound project that the minister was overseeing:

The Guardian has obtained information about his ties to another billionaire, Idan Ofer, a London-based shipping and mining heir whose father, Sammy, was once Israel’s richest man.

Departmental registers reveal a meeting on 21 March 2018 between Jenrick, who was then exchequer secretary to the Treasury, and Ofer, the ultimate owner of the UK mining company Cleveland Potash.

At the time, Jenrick was assessing whether to offer state support for a new potash mine being built by a rival company, Sirius Minerals, which was set to provide intense competition to Ofer’s loss-making business.

A spokesman for Jenrick said he recused himself from any decisions on the Sirius project, but did not say when. The Guardian understands that Jenrick retained oversight of Sirius Minerals’ application for financial support from the Treasury for at least six months after his meeting with Ofer in March 2018.

Liz Truss, then the more senior chief secretary to the Treasury, is understood to have taken over the job of assessing Sirius’s application for support, but not until early 2019.

One of Ofer’s other UK firms, the Mayfair-based Quantum Pacific UK Corporation, subsequently donated to the Conservatives for the first and only time, giving the party £10,000 in March 2019.

The company was eventually refused the support, but the carelessness being displayed by the minister with these meetings must surely cast doubt on his future in government.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Clamour grows for post~Brexit food standards

The Guardian reports that the new boss of Waitrose has joined farmers and food campaigners in urging the government to protect food standards in post-Brexit trade deals.

They say that James Bailey, who joined Waitrose from Sainsbury’s in April, said any regression from current high standards in the UK would be an unacceptable backwards step and pledged that Waitrose would not sell any products that did not meet its own standards:

“It would be simply wrong to maintain high standards at home yet import food from overseas that has been produced to lower standards. We would be closing our eyes to a problem that exists in another part of the world and to animals who are out of our sight and our minds. I feel sure customers will share our view,” he said.

Bailey’s intervention comes after more than a million people signed a petition calling for a ban on cheaply produced imports in post-Brexit trade deals.

The petition is part of efforts by the National Farmers Union (NFU) to ensure that imports should not be allowed of foods – such as chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef – produced to lower standards than those expected of UK farmers.

While advocates of reducing welfare standards argue that British shoppers should be allowed to choose what they want and benefit from potentially lower prices, UK farmers argue they will not be able to compete in a race to the bottom on food standards and shoppers will also lose out.

A coalition of organisations, led by the NFU, failed to secure amendments in the Commons to the agriculture bill last month to protect UK farmers and producers from lower-quality imports from countries like the US.

The paper adds that the boss of Tesco, has also ruled out selling chlorinated chicken from the US, saying the supermarket’s customer research had found shoppers did not want to bring back farming and food processing techniques that Britain had phased out because of concerns about animal welfare and food safety. However, other supermarkets are more ambivalent:

Morrisons said it only sold fresh meat produced in the UK and if any decision needed to be made on a change it would consult shoppers. Sainsbury’s said it remained “committed to offering our customers the best possible choice, quality and value while continuing to uphold our high standards”.

The problem with consumer choice here of course is that the vast majority of people do not have access to a Waitrose and could not afford to shop there if they did.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Natural justice wins-out over Government idiocy

Commonsense prevailed in the House of Commons yesterday when MPs voted down controversial proposals introduced by the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, that would have allowed them to debate complaints about serious bullying and harassment.

As the Guardian reports, an open letter sent by past and present parliamentary staff, union leaders, MPs and women’s groups had accused Rees-Mogg of undermining a new independent system designed to prevent bullying and sexual harassment in parliament, by allowing MPs to debate serious sanctions made by a new independent expert panel (IEP). But this was foiled when an amendment tabled by Labour MP Chris Bryant, which ruled out debating complaints against MPs in the chamber, passed by five votes:

MPs were given a free vote, but Tory whips told their MPs that the chief whip would be voting against the Bryant amendment and for the motion in the name of the leader of the house.

However, the amendment found favour on both sides of the house. New Tory MP and former employment law barrister Laura Farris said: “Any form of process which invites members to speak up for colleagues against a background of party allegiance and personal loyalties is fundamentally problematic.” Former Commons leader Andrea Leadsom argued that allowing a debate, even with constraints, would “result in a complainant feeling re-victimised”.

Labour’s Jess Phillips said allowing debates would stop victims from coming forward, while fellow Labour MP Meg Hillier raised concerns about a “bully pulpit” being used in the Commons.

MPs voted in favour of supporting the creation of an independent panel of experts to deal with allegations against them. The eight-member panel will have the ability to investigate independently and impose sanctions including the suspension and exclusion of MPs in the most serious cases.

The paper explains that the introduction of an independent complaints procedure came more than 18 months after an independent inquiry by Dame Laura Cox revealed the scale of sexual harassment, intimidation and bullying in Westminster. Cox said the vast majority of abuse was targeted at women, whose careers had been blighted by a lack of action.

Whatever the motives of the Leader of the House in seeking to undermine that process, at least a majority of MPs saw sense and have now enabled natural justice to take its course in future complaints.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

How embarrassing is the delayed Russia report for the Tories?

While the commentariat waits with bated breath for the publication of the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee’s report into Russian infiltration in the UK, the Guardian has been digging about to find out what might be in it.

They have unearthed secret evidence to MPs from the former spy Christopher Steele, which alleges that Boris Johnson and Theresa May ignored claims the Kremlin had a “likely hold” over Donald Trump and may have covertly funded Brexit:

In testimony to MPs, the MI6 veteran accused the government led by May and in which Johnson was foreign secretary for two years of turning a blind eye to allegations about Trump because they were afraid of offending the US president.

Steele first presented a dossier about Trump to senior UK intelligence figures in late 2016, who he says took it seriously at first. But, he writes, “on reaching top political decision-makers, a blanket appeared to be thrown over it”.

“No inquiries were made or actions taken thereafter on the substance of the intelligence in the dossier by HMG [Her Majesty’s government],” Steele says in the critical document.

The allegation is contained in a short summary of a larger file of information presented in August 2018 by Steele to parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC), inquiring into Kremlin infiltration into British politics and public life.

Steele accuses May’s government of selling British interests short by not taking matters further: “In this case, political considerations seemed to outweigh national security interests. If so, in my view, HMG made a serious mistake in balancing matters of strategic importance to our country.”

The Russia expert concluded: “A prospective trade deal should never be allowed to eclipse considerations of national security.”

The paper says that Steele’s summary evidence is likely to raise concerns that Downing Street may have suppressed the ISC’s final Russia report to avoid embarrassing questions in the run-up to the election, and afterwards, as Britain left the EU, although No 10 has consistently denied that is the case.

These include whether Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 EU referendum in support of Brexit and whether Vladimir Putin holds compromising information on Trump, Johnson’s ally:

“My understanding, arising partly from personal experience with the ‘Trump-Russia dossier’, is that this government perhaps more than its predecessors is reluctant to see (or act upon) intelligence on Russian activities when this presents difficult wider political implications,” Steele writes in his testimony to MPs.

“Examples of this include reporting on the Kremlin’s likely hold over President Trump and his family/administration and indications of Russian interference in and clandestine funding of the Brexit referendum.”

The paper adds that Steele’s confidential testimony is revealed for the first time in a book by the Guardian journalist Luke Harding, Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West, to be published next week and which will be worth reading.

The question for now though, is how much of his testimony is reflected in the suppressed report. did the committee draw similar conclusions, and if so, is this the reason why the government are refusing to allow the report to be published?

Monday, June 22, 2020

Is the UK aiding and assisting human rghts abuse?

Politicians are very quick to condemn human rights abuses across the world but as always, it must be judge them by what they do, not by what they say.

The Independent reports that Britain is supplying tens of millions of pounds worth in tear gas, rubber bullets and riot gear to countries found to be breaching human rights.

They say that government records show ministers have issued export licences for such arms since 2010 to countries including Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Brunei and Bahrain, all of which have had concerns raised about human rights. They have also been sold to Hong Kong, where pro-democracy campaigners have faced attacks by armed police:

The revelation about the sales comes after widespread calls by MPs and campaigners to suspend such sales to the United States, in the midst of the crackdown on Black Lives Matter protesters.

At least £34m in licences have been issued in the last decade, with tear gas and other “crowd control” equipment going to 52 countries. Watch more

But the true value of all the exports will never be known because the government has issued opaque “open licences” to manufacturers that allow them to export as much as they want without submitting records.

Under the rules of the UK’s arms export control regime, arms should not be sold if there is a risk they could be used for “internal repression” by the forces buying them.

But ministers have been accused of making a mockery of the regulations despite huge pressure to end sales to repressive regimes.

In 2014 Hong Kong Police issued UK-produced tear gas against pro-democracy demonstrators, and the British government pledged to keep a closer eye on future sales.

But 12 months after the event the UK government was again allowing the export of the same equipment. Last summer it was used against demonstrators again, leading to a further halt in sales.

Other known uses of UK-made riot equipment include deliveries to the Egyptian regime in 2011, which used tear gas against protesters. 800 people were killed in the bloody crackdown by Egyptian security forces.

Over 755,000 people have signed a petition calling on the UK government to suspend export licences for such products to the US, where tear gas and rubber bullets are being used against peaceful Black Lives Matters demonstrators, as well as a number of journalists covering the events.

Surely it is time for a more ethical foreign policy, which does not enable such abuses.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Delay and obfuscation on Russia report

The Guardian reports once more on the frustration felt by members of the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee at the government’s apparent refusal to release a report into Russian infiltration in the UK and the delay re-establishing their membership so that they can meet and get down to work.

Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) has not met since before the general election in December – its longest break since it was established in 1994 – and critics say the government has sat on the committee’s report into Russian interference for nine months. The paper quotes the former chair of the committee, Dominic Grieve, as saying that the report had been sent to Downing Street on 17 October and was ready for publication once it had been signed off, a process that usually takes up to 10 days:

The Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson, Alistair Carmichael, said: “Given the prime minister has for nine months sat on the intelligence committee report into Russian interference of our democracy, his decision to delay nominations to the committee raises serious ethical questions.

“This unprecedented underhand behaviour is utterly reprehensible. It leaves the public in little doubt that Boris Johnson is avoiding the truth about the Tory party’s funding connections to Russian oligarchs.”

Thirty cross-party MPs wrote to the prime minister earlier this week urging for the reconstitution of the committee, saying the refusal to publish the report raised serious questions about the “transparency and integrity” of the democratic process.

It said: “The publication last month of the latest donations to the Conservative party has highlighted once again the party’s deep connections to Russian oligarchs, raising further questions as to why you are so reluctant to reconstitute the ISC.

“According to the Hansard Society, ‘at nearly six months, the time taken to appoint the ISC on this occasion has now exceeded that taken to appoint the committee after every previous general election since the committee was established in 1994’.

“It is untenable for you to continue to block the publication of the Russia report. The situation is an affront to democracy.”

And it is not just the hidden Russia report that is causing the consternation. The ISC is one of the most important committees in parliament, overseeing seven agencies and departments involved in UK intelligence. Who is scrutinising the work of these bodies in the meantime?

Saturday, June 20, 2020

The £11 million app that doesn't work

What is it about governments and ICT? The list of failures in this field of endeavour is endless and all boils down to ignorance and expectation. Essentially, Ministers and civil servants don't fully understand what they are being sold, and have unrealistic expectations of it.

The industry does not seek to dissuade them of their ambitions for the product on offer, but ensure that contracts are so complex that the penalties for failing to meet targets and deliver the goods can never be implemented. As a result projects overrun and he cost soars until somebody pulls the plug.

This may not be what happened with government's 'custom-made coronavirus contract-tracing app', but I am willing to bet that it was something similar. Nevertheless, as the Independent reports, the cost of the contracts awarded by government to develop this bespoke solution came to £11 million, or roughly eleven paint jobs on a Ministerial plane, before the health secretary decided that enough was enough.

The paper says that eleven firms were awarded contracts to develop the old version of the app – totalling £11,297,811, one company, Zuhlke Engineering, was awarded multiple contracts totalling more than £6.5m for helping to develop the technology. Despite this the app, designed by the health service’s tech arm, picked up just 4 per cent of contacts on users of Apple phones.

The app is viewed as playing a vital role in the contact tracing of Covid-19 across the country as the transmission rate of the virus declines, but the government has not yet provided a date for when the technology will be rolled out nationwide.

The Department of Health and Social Care also awarded more than £4.8 million to developer VMware and its subsidiary Pivotal in three contracts for work on the creation of the app, according to the Press Association. Other contracts were also given to firms involved in the security testing of the application, ranging in value from £67,000 to more than £162,000.

If it were not so serious, this farce would be laughable.

Friday, June 19, 2020

How Brexit threatens our environment

The Independent reports on concerns by Greener UK, a coalition of 13 major environmental organisations, that enforcement around air pollution targets and chemical regulations could be undermined after the UK diverges from the European Union’s standards as of 31 December:

The government has said it wants to see high environmental standards and regulations in place under UK laws such as the Environment Bill, Agriculture Bill and Fisheries Bill, which are being put in place to replace the former EU legislation.

However, there is still the prospect of US trade deals undercutting animal welfare and environmental standards in imported food, and Greener UK also warns the Fisheries Bill does not mandate sustainable limits for fish stocks.

It was reported earlier this month that the government is set to open British markets to food produced to lower US welfare standards as part of its planned trade deal with Donald Trump.

Downing Street refused to stand by an earlier pledge to keep so-called “chlorinated chicken” off UK shelves, in the first sign of the government folding under pressure from American trade negotiators.

Ministers are reportedly considering letting in products like chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef into British supermarkets, but applying tariffs to them to protect UK-based farmers from competition.

The formation of environmental legislation has meanwhile been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, and the prospect of bowing out of Europe with no deal poses environmental risks including falling standards, more “mackerel wars” and a lack of cooperation on climate change, the coalition said.

Sarah Williams of Greener UK said: “For all the Government’s good intentions, it has still not committed to maintain our existing high standards in either domestic law or trade negotiations.

“Without urgent action, it will be harder to enforce environmental laws in January than it is now.

“Ministers have promised again and again that our environment will not be compromised. From the food on our plates to the products on our shelves, time is running out to prove it.”

With no deal looking more and more likely these concerns have to be taken seriously.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Johnson's flying white elephant

In Wales we had 'Ieuan Air' (later renamed Labour Air), an expensive air service between Cardiff and Anglesey used mostly by politicians and civil servants, costing the taxpayer around £86 in subsidy for every one of the 65,073 passengers which used the service between May 2007 and April 2013, and introduced despite the Welsh Government's commitment to sustainability and tackling climate change, later immortalised in the rather vague but well-meaning 'Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.

Boris Johnson is determined to go one further. Not only does he (and the Royal Family) have access to an RAF Voyager, an Airbus A330 jet, re-purposed for use by the UK government in 2015 at a cost if £10 million, but he has now authorised a £900,000 paint job on the aircraft that will rebrand it in the red, white and blue colours of the Union Jack.

In UK expenditure terms this is not a massive amount of money, and yet it rankles because it demonstrates twisted priorities. As Ed Davey tweeted: 'The drug dexamethasone, that can potentially save the lives of people with coronavirus, costs £5 per patient. @BorisJohnson could have bought 180,000 doses of that, but instead he's painting a flag on a plane.'

I suspect that will be the view of many others as well.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

International development is not a tool of foreign policy

It is difficult to know which is more disturbing, that Boris Johnson has combined the Foreign Office with the Department for International Development or that is in putt8ing Dominic Raab in charge of the new department.

The fact is that the UK's foreign policy interests are not the same as our international obligations to assist developing countries. Up until now, only the Brexit Party and UKIP have argued that the two are interchangeable, and we have already seen for ourselves the sort of racist campaigns that they have signed up to.

It is little wonder that a former Tory Prime Minister and three former Tory International Development Secretaries have spoken out against the decision. The Independent reports that David Cameron has said that the merger will “mean less expertise, less voice for development at the top table and ultimately less respect for the UK overseas."

Meanwhile, Andrew Mitchell condemned the “extraordinary mistake”, saying: “It would destroy one of the most effective and respected engines of international development anywhere in the world.”

Justine Greening attacked a distraction from the fightback against coronavirus, warning: “People will find it hard to see why it’s a priority to have a departmental organisation.”

And Rory Stewart, a former leadership contender, said: “Don’t merge the Foreign Office and Dfid. The problem is not our hugely respected development agency, but the lack of a confident coordinated UK strategy. 

 “Merging is bad diplomacy and worse development. Define a strategy and priorities, rather than move deckchairs in Whitehall.”

The fact that Boris Johnson has signalled cash currently flowing to developing countries in Africa would be siphoned off for geopolitical struggles such as resisting Russia underlines the point.

UK aid has saved millions of lives, billions of people face being pushed into poverty, while the need for international cooperation and assistance to combat COVID-19 is paramount, if we are to eradicate this virus and stop it coming back into our country.

Instead the Prime Minister wants to use the money we send to some of the worse blackspots in the world to fight his own cold war against Russia. It is a disgrace.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Government flunks its own racism inquiry

On a scale of one to ten in which ten is utterly surprising and one is so predictable that it is difficult to work up a yawn over it, the decision by Boris Johnson to ignore the recommendations of three reputable inquiries into racism and equality, and kick the issue into the long grass by setting up his own commission under the auspices of a No 10 adviser, Munira Mirza who has cast doubt on the existence of institutional racism and condemned previous inquiries for fostering a “culture of grievance”, must rate as minus 20.

As the Guardian reports, the Institute of Race Relations is not convinced by Munira Mirza's involvement in setting up the commission:

“Any enquiry into inequality has to acknowledge structural and systemic factors. Munira Mirza’s previous comments describe a ‘grievance culture’ within the anti-racist field and she has previously argued that institutional racism is ‘a perception more than a reality’,” a spokesperson said. “It is difficult to have any confidence in policy recommendations from someone who denies the existence of the very structures that produce the social inequalities experienced by black communities.”

But there are wider problems not least the fact that previous reviews remain on the shelf and some of the proposed members of the commission are controversial in their own right:

It is understood that Mirza has said she hopes to recruit Trevor Phillips as part of the commission. Phillips, a former chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, would be a controversial choice, having previously referred to UK Muslims as being “a nation within a nation”.

When Phillips was named as playing a role in a Public Health England inquiry into the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, it prompted condemnation from campaigners.

The revelation of Mirza’s role was met with dismay from experts and MPs. The shadow justice secretary, David Lammy, whose own review on inequalities in the judicial system was criticised by Mirza, tweeted on Monday evening that the appointment “further undermines” Johnson’s race commission.

The Labour MP added: “My review was welcomed by all parties: Corbyn, Cameron and May. But Munira Mirza went out of her way to attack it. Johnson isn’t listening to #BlackLivesMatter. He’s trying to wage a culture war.”

In fact Mirza's own record on these issues appears to be a major bone of contention:

Mirza, who is also understood to be leading efforts to recruit commission members, has been an outspoken critic of previous government attempts to tackle structural factors behind racial inequality.

She condemned an audit of racial inequalities in public services commissioned by Theresa May, which No 10 say will form part of the basis of the new commission. Writing for the Spectator in 2017, Mirza said the audit showed how “anti-racism is becoming weaponised across the political spectrum”.

In the same article, Mirza criticised two other reports which Johnson’s government has promised to act on: the one written by Lammy when he was a backbencher, and another on unequal pay among ethnic groups. Mirza said both showed “wrongheaded thinking about race”.

Dawn Butler, a Labour MP and former equalities minister, said Mirza’s role “undermines its credibility from the very outset by appointing someone who stands by Johnson’s racist comments, rejected the Lammy review, saying ‘institutional racism’ is ‘a perception more than a reality’, and opposed Theresa May’s very own racial disparities audit.

I agree with Dawn Butler, the only review needed is a review into all the past consultations and reviews as well as their failure to implement over 200 prior recommendations. Further prevarication is the last thing we need on such an important and fundamental issue.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Is racism still a problem in UK police forces?

Those of us looking across the Atlantic in horror at the stories of police forces profiling and targeting people of colour, unlawful killings and racist behaviour may well be considered complacent if we believed that none of these problems could ever visit our shores.

Indeed, according to this article in the Guardian, despite years of progress, there is still a long way to go before British police forces can claim a clean bill of health on these matters, and that is one of the factors fuelling the 'Black Lives Matter' protests in our towns and cities.

The paper says that two of the most senior black officers to have served in British policing have revealed that their careers were blighted by racism, and warned that the misuse of stop and search was leading to black men being treated as “property” by officers:

[Victor] Olisa, a former head of diversity at the Met and former borough commander in Tottenham, said his 35 years’ experience in policing and academic training as a criminologist led him to conclude that while the majority of officers were “professional, dedicated and committed”, there was a continuing misuse of the stop and search policy by some.

“There is a growing practice of officers handcuffing young black boys who have not been arrested and are not resisting or showing any signs of aggression, before they start searching them,” said Olisa. “The misuse of stop and search exemplifies the notion of police ‘property’.

“This is a worrying development of a practice that seems to reinforce the stereotype that conflates blackness with dangerousness: black boys are considered ‘dangerous’ and so have to be restrained in a way that is humiliating and degrading, without a rational justification. Black boys are treated as police ‘property’ whilst their white friends that are with them are treated very differently, with courtesy and respect.

“The answer is to stop stereotyping black people as low status, unintelligent, aggressive, dangerous, self-destructive, and subhuman.”

The paper says that s and search rates have been falling across England, but at a lower rate among black people. According to the most recent government data, between April 2018 and March 2019, there were four stop and searches for every 1,000 white people, compared with 38 for every 1,000.

They quote Patricia Gallan, who retired as Metropolitan police assistant commissioner and the highest-ranking black woman ever in 2018, as saying: “I experienced both overt and subtle racism – internal more often than external and from all ranks.”

She said that in 2010, she applied for a promotion to join the Met from the Merseyside force. “I recall being asked by a very senior officer to say that the Met was no longer institutionally racist as it was seen as an unhelpful term. When I stated that I could not do that, my response caused consternation. That was not the answer sought, nor was it deemed acceptable.” She did not get the job, but was successful in 2012, by which time Bernard Hogan-Howe was commissioner.

Official figures show the Met is the force that has done best at increasing its numbers of BAME officers, but changing demographics mean it has the biggest shortfall, with 14% of its officers from ethnic minorities, compared with 43% of the capital’s population. It estimates that at the current rate of progress, it could take 100 years to become representative.

In 1999, barely 2% of police officers in England and Wales were from an ethnic minority. Now 7% of officers are BAME, compared with 14.9 of the population.

Now would be a good time to address some of these issues.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Is Boris Johnson in trouble?

Some caveats: Boris Johnson has always been trouble; trouble follows him like a bad smell; Boris Johnson creates trouble wherever he goes, like Donald Trump, he is a disruptor who creates chaos to promote his own self interest.

But now he has achieved his ultimate goal of becoming Prime Minister, these attributes cannot help him. He does not have the skills needed to sustain his position, and this truth is starting to dawn on many of his supporters.

As John Rentoul writes in the Guardian, Boris Johnson has been found out:

The world is closing in on the prime minister. His opponent is advancing on him from in front, and his enemy is advancing from behind. His decision to stand by Cummings over his apparent breach of lockdown rules cost him so much public support he is now reduced to tweeting about statues.

Above all, Johnson has lost control of the story that the nation tells itself about coronavirus. The scientists say that if they knew then what they know now, they would have advised an earlier lockdown, but they didn’t.

The piece actually argues that Johnson is being judged unfairly, but when did fairness ever count in politics? It is not a concept that Johnson has ever embraced either as a journalist or a politician. If he becomes a victim of a false narrative, then that will be justice, payback for all the false narratives on which he built his own career.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Number Ten continuing to protect Dominic Cummings

If Boris Johnson and his advisors think that they have ridden out the Dominic Cummings affair then they need to think again. Not only has the Special Advisor, his wife and child to Durham made it more difficult to enforce the lockdown, but many people are using it as an excuse to make similar journeys of their own.

And then there are the Prime Minister's scientific advisors, who appear to becoming more and more disillusioned with the government's approach to tackling COVID-19 and the one-rule-for-you-another-rule-for us approach of the inner circle.

As the Independent reports, England’s chief nurse was dropped from one of Downing Street’s daily coronavirus briefings after refusing to publicly back Dominic Cummings:

As Boris Johnson’s chief aide was engulfed in scandal over his trips to Durham and Barnard Castle during lockdown, Ruth May had been due to appear alongside the health secretary Matt Hancock in the press conference.

But, in practice questions hours before the briefing, she was asked about Mr Cummings and, after failing to give support to the prime minister’s chief adviser, she was immediately dropped from the press conference, according to senior NHS sources.

Instead the health secretary had to present the slides on Covid-19 himself for the first time, alongside Professor John Newton from Public Health England. The incident, on 1 June, was two days after England’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam sparked headlines by saying that lockdown rules “apply to all” when asked about Mr Cummings. He has not appeared at the press conferences since 30 May.

A senior NHS source said: “A No 10 spad [special adviser] asked her directly how she would answer the Dominic Cummings question and she refused to play along and told them she would answer the same way as Jonathan Van-Tam. She was dropped immediately from the press briefing.”

Another added: “JVT was the first to publicly push back on TV. Everyone is being asked to support the government positions prior to doing a press conference. If they don’t, they get dropped.

“First it was Dominic Cummings, then easing lockdown and now the R-rate and the two-metre rule.”

The paper says that Whitehall officials are critical of what they see as No 10’s grip on the daily briefings and the way the science and health advice is being used. The idea that the UK Government is 'following the science' is becoming increasingly under question.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Government must untie hands of councils to help migrants during Covid crisis

The Guardian reports that local authorities have called on the government to suspend the controversial “no recourse to public funds” immigration status for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, to prevent thousands from falling into destitution and homelessness.

They say that hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the UK have an immigration status that allows them to work here, but which prevents them from accessing most benefits should they become unemployed. Many have lost their jobs because of the Covid-19 pandemic and are struggling to feed their families and pay rent. Many face losing their homes once restrictions on evictions are lifted.

High numbers of people who have this status attached to their visas have been approaching councils for emergency assistance during the pandemic. Many are struggling to survive during the exceptional circumstances of lockdown, with no safety net.

The “no recourse to public funds” status was introduced in 2012 as one of a series of hostile environment immigration measures. Those policies have come under increasing scrutiny in the wake of the Windrush scandal, which saw thousands of legal UK residents denied access to work, housing and healthcare:

Since March charities all over the country have been helping to feed families designated with this immigration status, after lockdown pushed them into unemployment. Homelessness charities have warned of the rise in homeless migrant workers with the “NRPF” status – many of whom were working until lockdown in the restaurant and hotel industry, and have struggled to pay rents since losing their jobs. Although landlords are prevented from evicting tenants during lockdown, many who have informal tenancies have lost their homes anyway.

Councils have been given special dispensation to house homeless migrants with this immigration status for the duration of the pandemic, but there is no longer-term provision to fund measures to stop people who were sleeping rough from returning to the streets once lockdown ends and hotels housing the homeless return to being used by tourists.

The LGA has asked for greater clarity on how they can help people who are destitute and homeless because of their immigration status. A suspension of the NRPF condition would allow people to claim welfare benefits, which could stave off homelessness, it says.

David Renard, the LGA’s housing spokesman, said: “Councils have been doing everything they can to support all groups facing homelessness. Councils are now planning their next steps in supporting people to move on from emergency accommodation. A temporary removal of the NRPF condition would reduce public health risks and pressures on homelessness services by enabling vulnerable people to access welfare benefits.”

This status was a problem before the pandemic, particularly in trying to prevent homelessness, but since lockdown it has caused all sorts of problems, despite the concessions and additional money put into assisting migrants in this category. I know from the emergency food resource we have set up in my own ward that helpers there have been assisting families who have no recourse to public funds.

Surely the time has come to abolish the status altogether and ditch the 'hostile environment' in favour of one based on charity and equality.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Government must act to prevent worsening inequality

The Guardian reports on a study by the respect Institute for Fiscal Studies thinktank suggesting Britain risks entrenching deep class, ethnic, gender, educational, generational and geographical divides unless the government acts to tackle inequality. They believe that the Covid-19 pandemic threatens to make life worse for the most vulnerable groups:

The IFS said it was not inevitable the crisis would exacerbate inequality but said that would be the outcome in the absence of better education and training, moves to ensure the survival of small businesses and the provision of catch-up lessons for children from poorer households.

The Covid-19 report – part of a five-year IFS project on inequality – found that:
Robert Joyce, the deputy director at IFS, and an author of the report, said: “The crisis has laid bare existing inequalities and risks exacerbating them, but some of its legacies might also provide opportunities.”

Ministers should be laying the foundations for a strong and inclusive recovery as well as dealing with the immediate crisis, Joyce added.

“If, for example, we can limit now the severity of career disruption, the widening of health and educational inequalities, or the extent to which small firms that had a productive future are squeezed out by larger established competitors, policy’s job in years to come will be much less difficult than if it is trying to limit or undo the damage.”

Over to you, Prime Minister.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Tory councillors accused of racist social media posts

It can be very frustrating sitting at home in lockdown, as an observer of events rather than an initiator, but that is no excuse for taking to social media and letting off stream in an unacceptable and racist manner.

The Guardian reports that two Conservative councillors have been accused of sharing racist comments on social media following the wave of Black Lives Matter protests sparked around the world by the death of George Floyd in the US.

They add that another of the party’s local representatives has described the former slave trader Edward Colston, whose statue was pulled down and dumped in Bristol harbour on Sunday, as a “hero” and condemned the action as “thug violence”. My view on that action is here and here.

According to the Guardian, Linda Symes, a Portsmouth councillor, has been suspended from the party after appearing to question why there were demonstrations over the death of Floyd and yet not over the murder of Lee Rigby or the death of seven-year-old Emily Jones.

She shared a post which read: “Total morons, don’t remember any demonstrations like this when Lee Rigby was murdered on our streets by BLACK people.”

In another post on Facebook, Symes shared a comment about the mayor of London which said: “Because of his ethnicity Khan (Sadiq) will remain Mayor.”

They also report that Robin Vickery has stepped down as a Suffolk county and Ipswich borough councillor after he was found to have shared a post on social media calling for black and Asian people to be deported:

He also shared two further posts on Facebook comparing the response to Floyd’s death with that to Rigby’s.

Vickery, who has also resigned from the Conservative party, was due to retire in May next year but quit after hundreds of people complained to the local authority over the posts.

The local Conservative groups on both councils suspended Vickery after the posts were uncovered, saying they had launched an urgent investigation.

Vickery said: “I have resigned from the councils and the party. I had been planning to stand down at the next elections, but I’ve had enough.

“I’m going to enjoy my retirement. I don’t need this hassle. I have been subjected to some horrible comments – far worse than anything I have said.”

Bristol Conservative councillor Richard Eddy has accused protesters who toppled Colston’s statue of engaging in “frenzied thug violence”. Describing the former slaver as a “hero”, Eddy said he was “horrified and appalled” after the statue was dumped in the harbour.

Eddy, who was forced to step down as deputy leader of Bristol City Council in 2001 after he used a golliwog doll as a mascot, said he had received more outraged responses to the removal of the statue than any other issue.

Another Tory councillor has been allowed back into the party after being suspended for six months for claiming that Muslims were trying to create “Eurabia” in the UK and saying the Holocaust was exaggerated.

It emerged on Tuesday that the Aberdeen councillor, Ryan Houghton, has been readmitted to the Scottish Conservatives after a six-month ban. In an online posting in 2013, he suggested that some parts of the Holocaust had been “fabricated and exaggerated”, wrote that Muslims were having big families with the aim of creating “Eurabia”, and questioned whether homosexuality was “good for the human race”.

It emerged on Monday that members of Essex University’s Conservative Society have been suspended from the student’s union after they suggested coronavirus spreading via Black Lives Matter protests was “natural selection”.

These unacceptable views have no place in the twenty first century, or indeed any time prior.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

England abandons plan to reopen Primary Schools before summer

The Guardian reports on the rather predictable decision by the UK Government to abandon plans to push ahead with reopening schools in England, after the government admitted that not all primary school pupils will be able to return to the classroom before the end of summer.

The paper says that Boris Johnson's aim “to get primary pupils back into schools, in stages,” with these schools opening to pupils in reception, year one and year six from 1 June, has run into practical difficulties.

They add that attendance statistics collected by the Department for Education to be published on Tuesday are likely to confirm that only half of pupils in the three eligible year groups returned to school last week. Scepticism by parents and opposition from school unions and local authorities, wary of the health and safety difficulties for both staff and pupils in England’s ageing and cramped classrooms has effectively upended the plan.

Of course the approach in Wales is different with all schools due to open on 29 June but only admitting one third of pupils at a time. The idea being to prepare pupils and staff for the reality of the new autumn term.

The question is whether this approach too, will be met with the same problems and practicalities as England. We will have to see.

Monday, June 08, 2020

How one statue came to symbolise a movement

In a democracy, even an imperfect one, there can be no justification for the toppling of statues or for violent protest, but that does not preclude us from trying to understand the reasoning and the motives behind such actions, nor should it prevent us stopping to think what can be done differently to accommodate legitimate grievances.

Those politicians and commentators who have dismissed the toppling of Edward Colston's statue into the river in Bristol as mindless vandalism, should reflect as well, on why protestors felt they had to take the matter into their own hands after years of fruitless debate about the appropriateness of commemorating a man who sold 100,000 people into slavery, nearly 20,000 of whom died en-route.

Not only has there been a failure of democratic process in this memoralisation of an active slave trader, but there has also been a lack of understanding of how the trade he symbolised continues to sustain and feed the many injustices still faced by the BAME community in the UK and elsewhere in the world.

This post is not being written to try to justify the direct action taken by protestors, as I believe that it was wrong, but to address two specific criticisms. The first of these is that in toppling this statue there was an attempt to somehow rewrite or erase history.

On the contrary, as David Olusoga argues here, statues such as these are not put there to remember history, but to memorialise an individual and his actions. In the case of Colston, it is to mark the way he invested his huge fortune in building up Bristol as a city.

This process of memoralisation has obscured the means by which Colston came into that money. In other words, the statue itself, and all the many buildings and places named after him, are part of a process that is seeking to rewrite history by only concentrating on just one aspect of his story, and for that reason they should be removed or renamed.

My second point centres on the appropriateness of these protests taking place in support of a movement many thousands of miles away, over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

There has already been controversy in Wales over the decision by Literature Wales to remove a member of their Book of the Year judging panel because he questioned the decision to hold protests in the middle of a lockdown and condemned “appalling thuggery” in the protest in London.

Like others I believe that decision was bizarre and indefensible. The journalist in question has a long history of being anti-racist, and the point he made about putting other lives in danger by ignoring social distancing, while not applicable to all protestors and all protests, was a valid one. He was also correct in condemning violence and vandalism.

Nevertheless, these protests are not just about George Floyd. His death has reawakened a strong sense of injustice among the black community, not just in America but elsewhere in the world. The people protesting in cities all across the UK and Europe were not just making a point about Minneapolis but their own communities too, where BAME people continue to be targeted disproportionately by police and where the system continues to discriminate against them.

For all their faults, this weekend's demonstrations were above all about discrimination, racism and injustice. both historical and contemporary, and it is time the authorities listened and acted.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

UK government's indefinite detention of immigrants is cruel and barbaric

Tory MP David Davis has hit out at his own Home Secretary, warning that the “cruel” indefinite detention of immigrants is making the scandal of modern slavery worse.

As the Independent reports, the former Conservative cabinet minister has urged the Priti Patel to stop holding people charged with no crime for months or even years – warning of its “devastating” psychological impact. Two other former Tory ministers are demanding an end to the practice, in a vote expected in July, with others expected to join them in calling for a strict 28-day limit instead:

Mr Davis highlighted the case of Anna, a Chinese woman who fled her home after her husband was sentenced to death, as he stressed most detainees are “victims of human trafficking, sexual assault and torture”, not criminals.

Told she was being taken elsewhere in China, Anna was trafficked to the UK, “where she was forced into prostitution and several years of unpaid work – slavery by another name”.

She was then arrested during a raid and taken to Yarl’s Wood, one of 10 removal centres, where she was held indefinitely – one of 25,000 people held each year for immigration purposes.

“Anna’s story is not an isolated case,” Mr Davis said, adding: “There are all sorts of cruelties involved. “These people, unlike people who are given a prison sentence, they don’t know when they are going to get out – and that is psychologically devastating.”

And he added: “I know only too well that all the advice the home secretary will be getting from the Home Office bureaucracy will be to resist this, but I ask them to look at the natural justice of this.

“We are a country which prides itself on its justice system. Yet, on the one hand we are supposedly campaigning against modern slavery, but – in the way we operate our holding centres – in some ways, we are exacerbating it.”

The paper says that Davis' criticism echoes research that trafficked women – instead of being offered help, as promised – are being locked up for possible deportation, inflicting more trauma. Britain has faced growing criticism, including from the UN Human Rights Council, for being the only EU country without a statutory time limit for the detention of immigrants.

They add that survivors of torture, trafficking and rape are among those held in overcrowded centres – for months, or even years – where an investigation last year uncovered “widespread self-harm and attempted suicides”.

David Davis will be seeking to amend the immigration bill, which ends free movement after Brexit, to impose a strict 28-day limit. His amendment would also introduce judicial oversight of detention after four days and establish much clearer criteria for taking someone into a removal centre. He has the support of Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary, and former Brexit minister Steve Baker.

What is shocking however, is that this amendment is even needed. To treat victims of trafficking, torture, slavery and rape in this way is inhumane, cruel and barbaric. Is this the real reason why the Tories want to opt out of human rights treaties? Do they have no respect for human rights at all?

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Is no-deal an inevitability?

The Independent reports that fears of a no-deal in Brexit trade talks have heightened as another round finished without progress and Brussels accused the UK of backtracking on its promises.

The paper says that business groups and unions on the British side of the channel warned negotiators to "buckle down" and said a disorderly Brexit could mean we “potentially face a bigger challenge to the food supply chain” than coronavirus:

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said on Friday that talks could not "go on like this forever" while his UK counterpart David Frost admitted that progress required both sides "intensify and accelerate our work". Speaking at a press conference at the close of negotiations, Mr Barnier listed four specific points in the Brexit “political declaration” on the future relationship signed by Boris Johnson in January that he said were not being adhered to.

“It will remain for us the only valid reference, the only relevant precedent in this negotiation. That was agreed by both sides. Yet, round after round, our British counterparts seek to distance themselves from this common basis," he said of the agreement.

But Mr Frost appeared to downplay the significance of the document signed by Mr Johnson, telling journalists afterwards that something being mentioned in the document "doesn't mean that everything in the declaration must go into a legally binding treaty".

He added: "It establishes the scope of our discussions on the future relationship."

Turning to the wider issues blocking a deal such as fishing and regulatory standard, Mr Barnier said: “There has been no significant progress on these points, as I’ve said, not since the start of these negotiations and I don’t think we can go on like this forever."

The coronavirus crisis means that leaving the EU without a deal could be even more disastrous for the UK economy than previously thought. It is vital that talks cover all the bases, and not be rushed because ministerial minds are elsewhere. The case for a delay in exiting the EU is stronger than ever before.

Friday, June 05, 2020

Government breaks promise on chlorinated chicken

There is no satisfaction is being proved right, especially when it is on a matter of public health, but nevertheless Boris Johnson's abandonment of his promise not to lower food standards in negotiations with the United States was inevitable. How else was he going to get his trade deal?

The fact that this breach of faith has taken place during a national crisis will not go unnoticed by keen watchers of media management. Effectively, the government has chosen to hide their U-turn in a bad news year. It is the strongest argument yet for delaying Brexit - surely the government can only handle one crisis at a time, though on present form, not even that.

The Independent reports that Johnson is now facing a backlash for ditching a pledge to keep US chlorinated chicken out of British supermarkets under pressure from American negotiators in post-Brexit trade talks:

Tory backbenchers warned the government was in for a rebellion on the issue while animal welfare groups and opposition parties accused Boris Johnson of refusing to “stand up to Donald Trump” and “sacrificing food standards” in the name of a trade deal.

Downing Street signalled on Thursday that imports of lower-standard American food were now on the table in the negotiations, a reversal of a longstanding promise.

As recently as January, Theresa Villiers, then environment secretary, reiterated that “we will not be importing chlorinated chicken” – but since then US trade chiefs have put pressure on the UK to change its position, leading the government to change tack.

While the government’s own best-case scenarios says an agreement with the US would lead to a tiny boost to the economy of just 0.16 per cent of GDP, failing to sign such a deal would be highly politically embarrassing for Boris Johnson, who has presented such an arrangement as part of the alternative to EU membership.

Simon Hoare, a Tory MP who was one of 22 Conservatives who voted against the government to defend UK food standards in future trade deals last month, told The Independent: “If this appalling news is true it’s depressing as it rides a coach and horses through assurances given by ministers to the Commons and what the Tory party manifesto said in December.

“A lot of colleagues did not vote for the amendment because of those government assurances. Ministers are in for a scrap on this one. Public opinion is clear on this issue: they see animal welfare as important.”

The paper says that Ministers are said to be open to giving access to controversial US food products, that also include hormone-fed beef and crops treated with 82 different pesticides banned in the EU, but applying tariffs on them to protect UK-based farmers from competition.

They add that under the so-called “dual tariff” system being looked at, American agribusiness would be allowed to sell goods in the UK even if they were not complying with the same production standards as British farmers – as long as they paid the tariff. However, some ministers, such as free-marketer Liz Truss, want to go further and gradually reduce these tariffs to zero over 10 years, giving farmers time to adjust to the new normal.

The US government also officially considers country-of-origin labelling a barrier to trade, suggesting it is likely to push for such practices to be outlawed in a free trade agreement. This would make it impossible for consumers to tell whether their product had been sourced from the US.

Yet again, we have evidence that Boris Johnson will not stand up to Trump. Those who advocated leaving the EU to 'take back control' have effectively condemned us to become a satellite state of the USA.

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Commons voting farce plunged into chaos

If Ministers had not got the message about the inadvisability of dismantling the virtual Parliament and forcing MPs to return to speak and vote in person, the one and a half hour conga line to complete two divisions on Tuesday must surely have driven home to them the folly of this idea.

Sure enough, by Wednesday lunchtime, Boris Johnson was prepared to make concessions and used Prime Minister's Question Time to announce that MPs who are shielding will in future be able to vote by proxy. This followed an outcry over the treatment of parliamentarians with medical conditions or those who are looking after vulnerable loved ones during the coronavirus pandemic.

This change at least moved the house back from the 16th Century to somewhere near the present day, though it is worth noting that in an hour and a half, the Welsh Parliament could most probably conduct somewhere near one hundred plus electronic votes.

However, by then the damage was already done, underlined by the news that Alok Sharma, the business secretary, who was in the centre of Tuesday's conga line, has been tested for coronavirus after feeling unwell while delivering a statement in the House of Commons.

If Sharma does test positive, it will be an early trial of the government’s new contact tracing system. Other MPs and officials who have been in close contact with him will be tested and could be asked to self-isolate.

Jacob Rees Mogg's brave new world, in which MPs lead the way back to normality, has fallen down at the first hurdle. Surely a screeching u-turn leading back to a hybrid Parliament with electronic voting and contributions by zoom, is now the only way forward.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Ministers still misleading public on coronavirus tests

Following up on this post regarding the now infamous target of 100,000 per day COVID-19 tests being delivered by the government, it appears that Ministers are still struggling to turn their promises into reality.

The Guardian reports that Sir David Norgrove, the head of the UK Statistics Authority has accused the government of continuing to mislead the public over the numbers of these tests being carried out:

The UKSA chair upbraids the government for mixing up tests carried out with testing kits sent out by post. “This distinction is too often elided during the presentation at the daily press conference, where the relevant figure may misleadingly be described simply as the number of tests carried out. There are no data on how many of the tests posted out are in fact then successfully completed,” he says in his letter.

Norgrove has a number of other criticisms of the way testing is carried out and the data presented to the public. His letter is a second attempt to get more clarification from the government.

On 11 May, he asked for more detail of the plans for 200,000 tests to be carried out in England every day. It should be clear whether the target referred to testing capacity, the tests that have been administered, the test results received or the number of people tested, he wrote.

Hancock replied, welcoming Norgrove’s comments, saying he was publishing details of how the 200,000 tests would be counted. “The programme is committed to being as transparent as possible about its work,” said Hancock.

Dido Harding, who had taken over its leadership, “is keen to engage with you on how we ensure the right statistical reporting of the test and trace programme as it develops”, he wrote.

But Norgrove’s latest letter to the health secretary makes clear that his doubts have not been allayed.

Statistics on testing serve two purposes, he writes. “The first is to help us understand the epidemic, alongside the ONS survey, showing us how many people are infected, or not, and their relevant characteristics.

“The second purpose is to help manage the test programme, to ensure there are enough tests, that they are carried out or sent where they are needed and that they are being used as effectively as possible. The data should tell the public how effectively the testing programme is being managed.

“The way the data are analysed and presented currently gives them limited value for the first purpose. The aim seems to be to show the largest possible number of tests, even at the expense of understanding. It is also hard to believe the statistics work to support the testing programme itself. The statistics and analysis serve neither purpose well.”

As well as the confusion between tests carried out and tests posted, Norgrove says it is not clear from the data how often people are tested twice. He objects that the data is presented in a way that is hard to understand. “Many of the key numbers make little sense without recourse to the technical notes, which are themselves sometimes hard to follow,” he writes.

On Monday, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) tweeted that so far 4,484,340 tests had been carried out, with 128,437 tests done on Sunday 31 May – well short of the 200,000 ambition. A total of 276,332 people have tested positive.

But fear not, for Boris Johnson has now announced that he will be taking charge of the efforts to combat COVID-19 personally. We are all doomed.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Who is getting all the government pandemic contracts?

It is said that the winners take the spoils, and with regards to the 2016 referendum on leaving the EU, that certainly seems to be the case.

The Guardian reports that an artificial intelligence firm hired to work on the Vote Leave campaign may analyse social media data, utility bills and credit rating scores as part of a £400,000 contract to help the government deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

The paper says that the company, Faculty, was awarded the contract by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government last month. However the full details of its work for the government are unknown because the published version of the contract was partly redacted.

Civil liberties groups want to know how private companies hired by the government during the pandemic are using confidential personal data:

The unredacted portion of the contract shows that the MHCLG said such work was likely to require data from “social media, utility providers and telecom bills, credit rating agencies” as well as from the government, but provides few other specifics.

It brings the number of government contracts awarded to Faculty to at least nine in the last two years. The contracts in total are worth at least £1.6m.

Three of these contracts relate to the provision of artificial intelligence services to inform government departments attempting to manage the impact of coronavirus.

Faculty, which has links to senior Tory figures in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, declined to say how many contracts it had won in total from the government for work connected to the pandemic, nor how much the contracts were worth.

The latest contract was awarded directly to Faculty without other firms being given an opportunity to make a competitive bid. The ministry said there was an “urgent need to bring in additional analytics support to help inform our response to the coronavirus pandemic”.

Public bodies have been allowed to award contracts without a competitive tender during the pandemic as ministers believe that private firms need to be hired quickly to deal with the outbreak. The MHCLG contract, entitled “Data scientists for MHCLG Covid-19 response”, was awarded in April and will run until July.

It is this sort of secrecy on how personal data is being used that undermines the government's attempt to get a tracking app in play to combat COVID-19. Some transparency on contracts like these would be very welcome.

Monday, June 01, 2020

Letter of the week #Domnishambles

From today's Guardian

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