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Friday, July 31, 2020

Boris Johnson reprimanded for misleading Parliament

For a politician who had built his career on misleading people and disseminating false information as 'facts', it is surprising that Boris Johnson has not fallen foul of the parliamentary authorities and public sector watchdogs more often.

The Prime Minister's support of bus-based lies about the EU effectively secured him the top job, and yet people continue to vote for him and sustain him in that position, as if he were some sort of unchallengeable enigma. We are all waiting for the truth to finally catch up with him and cast him back into the journalistic wilderness.

The Independent reports on one instance where Johnson's cavalier approach to statistics has come back to bite him. They say that he has been reprimanded by the UK's statistics watchdog for repeatedly making inaccurate and misleading claims about the government's record on child poverty.

The Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) said figures used by the prime minister were incorrect after he claimed a huge fall 400,000 fall in the number of families of children in poverty since 2010:

After being contacted by a coalition of poverty charities the OSR said the figures were incorrect wrote an article explaining how poverty was measured to "bring to the attention of the team that prepares briefing for prime minister's questions".

The prime minister had made the claims in prime minister's questions in parliament on 17 Jun and 24 June and during an interview with the BBC on 1 December last year.

The watchdog was responding to a complaint by the End Child Poverty Coalition that the prime minister had three times used official poverty data “selectively, inaccurately and, ultimately, misleadingly”.

“There is no wrong measure, but there is a wrong way of using the available measures – and that is to pick and choose which statistics to use based on what best suits the argument you happen to be making," the blogpost says.

Somehow, I doubt if this rap on the knuckles will lead to a behaviour change.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Evidence-free government presses on with voter ID plans

It is a bit of a chore to struggle through all the double negatives in this Guardian article, but essentially the government have been accused of misleading MPs when they claimed there was evidence that mandatory voter IDs do not discriminate against any particular demographic group.

As Cat Smith, the shadow minister for voter engagement, says, the Windrush scandal had shown how some communities have faced severe consequences when they had no official documentation:

“The government continue to plough on with voter ID plans, turning a blind eye how this could disenfranchise ethnic minorities,” she said. “The government have stated repeatedly on record that evidence concludes voter ID has no impact on any particular demographic group. This is simply not true, the evidence does not exist."

There is in fact, a disconnect between the Cabinet Office’s statement and the Electoral Commission’s evidence on this matter, which raises questions over whether the government has even considered the impact on ethnic minority voters of requiring people to bring ID in order to vote:

Asked for the evidence in a written question last month, [Cabinet Minister, Chloe] Smith said: “Based on the independent Electoral Commission’s evaluations of the 2018 and 2019 voter ID pilots, there is no indication that any consistent demographic was adversely affected by the use of voter ID.”

However, in both of its most recent reports, the Electoral Commission said it had no way of measuring the effect of voter ID on minority ethnic communities’ votes.

“Polling station staff were not asked to collect demographic data about the people who did not come back, owing to the practical challenges involved in carrying out that data collection exercise,” the body’s 2019 report said.

“That means we have no direct evidence to tell us whether people from particular backgrounds were more likely than others to find it hard to show ID.”

The 2019 report found in Derby, one of the pilot areas, that there was a strong correlation between the proportion of each ward’s population from an Asian background and the number of people not issued with a ballot paper – similar to a 2018 finding in Watford.

However, the body cautioned against drawing any conclusions from that data and said there was not yet sufficient evidence in either direction.

Once again, we have a government proceeding with a proposal that will have an adverse impact on the rights of ethnic minorities without any rationale for it. Requiring identification at polling stations is a voter suppression measure designed to benefit the Tories by discouraging and disenfranchising groups most likely to vote against them from exercising their democratic rights.

Surely the least we can expect is that legislation that affects people's basic democratic rights should be based on evidence that it will do no-harm.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Life, but not as we know it - what could possibly go wrong?

We are in the middle of a pandemic caused by a previously unknown virus, which under some versions was produced by scientists in a lab, but in other versions was caught from a bat in a market (which seems the most likely) and yet the Independent reports that scientists have persuaded ancient microbes to wake up, grow and start reproducing after laying dormant on the sea floor for more than 100 million years.

Have they never read H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds? Or even seen the movie? What could go possibly wrong?

The paper says that the organisms are from the oldest marine sediment samples ever studied, collected 10 years ago during an expedition to the South Pacific Gyre, from up to 75 metres below the seafloor and nearly 6,000 metres below the ocean’s surface.

These organisms have remained in an energy-saving state since dinosaurs roamed the planet, in an atmosphere where living conditions are harsh and the nutrients that fuel the marine food chain are extremely limited.

Scientists believe that the discovery of such ancient life in solid rock deep below the sea floor is a major breakthrough, and has fuelled hopes for finding Martian life, given the subterranean environment’s similarity with conditions on the planet’s surface. They think that if the Red Planet was once home to life, it could also exist in a dormant, revivable state, rather than merely as a fossil.

So the plan is to revive Martians? Okay, these particular Martians may not yet have the capacity to roam the earth in a three legged machine fitted with an all-seeing eye and death ray technology, but surely the main lesson of Covid 19 is that the biggest threat comes from aliens you cannot see.

Somebody rein these scientists in before I have to take my tongue out of my cheek.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Why working from home has its own problems

The one feature of this pandemic that has impacted on nearly everybody is the requirement to work from home of at all possible, but despite the environmental benefits there are some clear downsides to an extended period of such a regime.

The Independent reports that half of all Britons fear their work-life balance has worsened because working from home means they find it difficult to switch off and they miss talking to their colleagues. They say that a study of 2,000 employees who've spent recent months working from home found half wished they had a better balance and 42 per cent said it has deteriorated as a result of not being able to head to the office:

The study also found, for one in six, being based just a few feet from their bedroom is not as convenient as they had expected.

As a result, one fifth long for the time they had during their commute as it gave them a period to switch off and unwind before walking through the door in the evening.

Almost three in 10 (29 per cent) have found it more difficult to switch off from their work when they're based at home.

While 47 per cent said they miss the social interaction of meeting other people through their job.

A third have also admitted they struggle to motivate themselves when away from the office and a quarter said they end up working longer hours at home.

I have been working from home for the best part of four years, but those who commissioned the study do make a very valid point:

“No commute, no traipsing into the office and no having to get up and make yourself look presentable every morning for meetings.

“But many are discovering the opposite is true and that the commute or time spent travelling for business helped them to unwind before they walked through the front door and were faced with family life.

“Others are missing the face-to-face meetings or the opportunity to travel to speak to clients and customers without a video screen between them.”

We all need to unwind, and the best way to do that is to separate work from home. If the move to home working becomes a permanent feature then this is something that employers are going to have to address.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Boycotting Twitter

I have joined countless other people in a 48 hour boycott of Twitter because of their failure to deal with anti-Semitism on their site. The boycott has arisen because of anger over anti-Semitic posts by grime artist Wiley.

The series of anti-Jewish comments made online by the musician was one of a number of incidents which also include the torrent of abuse faced by the former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott and racist posts about the footballers Wilfried Zaha and David McGoldrick, none of which Twitter acted quickly enough to take down.

The Guardian reports that Twitter's inaction has been condemned by Home Secretary Priti Patel, whi is quoted as saying the posts from Wiley were “abhorrent” and that she had asked Twitter and Instagram why they had been allowed to remain up for almost 12 hours. “Social media companies must act much faster to remove such appalling hatred from their platforms,” she said:

Ministers have said the online harms bill, unveiled as a landmark piece of legislation after teenager Molly Russell killed herself after viewing self-harm images online, will be brought to parliament as soon as possible.

However, DCMS minister Caroline Dinenage told a Lords committee last month she could not commit to a draft bill appearing even next year, saying the coronavirus pandemic had led to delays in the work. In a Lords report, peers said that could mean it would not be implemented until 2024, seven years after first being proposed.

Whether the protest will have any effect on Twitter and make them act more quickly has yet to be seen, but surely they must realise that if they are not perceived as a safe space then usage will fall, and so will their profits.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Will Corbyn's mistakes continue to haunt Labour?

The problem with drawing a line under the past is that the past often insists on crossing it, and that certainly seems to be the case with Labour and their problems over anti-Semitism.

The Observer reports that Labour will this week be formally notified of a batch of potentially costly new legal actions over antisemitism – days after a warning was issued to the shadow cabinet about the devastating toll the crisis is taking on the party’s finances.

The paper says that lawyers from the Manchester-based firm 3D Solicitors, representing nine current and former Labour members, will notify the party’s high command early this week of the detailed basis of claims they are making for breaches of data protection and privacy rules.

The nine individuals are all understood to have lodged confidential complaints to the party while Jeremy Corbyn was leader about what they saw as cases of antisemitism. But their WhatsApp messages were contained in a report by party officials loyal to Corbyn that was leaked and reported in the media in April:

A source close to the latest cases said: “This is about privacy and data protection. These were people who are or were normal party members and councillors who raised issues about antisemitism in good faith and confidentially with the party. They then found that they had been named in a report leaked deliberately, leading them to be abused on social media. No attempts, it seems, were made to protect their privacy.”

Another informed source said: “If the party agrees to settle this, which it will if it has any sense, it will cost Labour a few hundred thousand pounds. If it reaches court and Labour loses, it will cost the party many millions.” The leaked report, which ran to 800 pages and was written when Corbyn was still leader, denied that under his leadership the party had failed to tackle antisemitism. On the contrary, it suggested that people who had not wanted him to be leader had deliberately stirred up the controversy in order to undermine him. It said: “At its extreme, some employees seem to have taken a view that the worse things got for Labour, the happier they would be, since this might expedite Jeremy Corbyn’s departure from office.”

The problem for Labour is the cost of all these actions and the impact it will have on their campaigning ability. The decision to apologise and pay “substantial damages” to seven former party workers who turned whistleblowers over antisemitism in a Panorama documentary will cost the party more than £500,000.

With elections to the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly, police commissioner elections, the London mayoral elections and council elections in 2021, the danger is that Labour will be constrained in their campaigning expenditure by mounting legal costs.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

When the White House tried to cancel Paw Patrol

Fear not children everywhere, Nickelodeon has confirmed that Paw Patrol has not been cancelled nor have Lego ceased to sell their police toy sets, despite claims by the White House to the contrary.

As CNN reports, in a Friday edition of her White House briefing, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany declared that children's activities are being policed as a result of "cancel culture":

"We saw a few weeks ago that PAW Patrol, a cartoon show about cops, was canceled," McEnany said, after noting that President Donald Trump is "appalled by cancel culture and cancel culture specifically as it pertains to cops."

Later, she added, "The show 'Cops' was canceled, 'Live PD' was canceled. Lego halted the sales of their Lego City Police Station. It's really unfortunate."

The truth as ever is very different. CNN's fact check says:

While both 'Cops' and 'Live PD' were actually canceled, PAW Patrol was not. Lego has also not stopped selling its police toy sets, though they temporarily stopped marketing them. And although the President has recently railed against "cancel culture," he himself has explicitly advocated for cancellations or boycotts on numerous occasions.

Fake news from the White House? Whatever next?

Friday, July 24, 2020

Will gin prove to be the deal-breaker in UK-USA trade talks?

Of all the things to be outraged about when it come to Donald Trump, the price of gin must surely feature near the bottom of a very long list. Unfortunately, UK Ministers appear to exist in a different world to the rest of us, one they have created themselves by insisting we leave the world's biggest free trade area, and in which we are suddenly vulnerable to every whim of the US President, without the bargaining power to strike back. Such are the realities of Brexit.

In this case, the Independent reports on hand-wringing by the UK's International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, who believes that the public will lose enthusiasm for a trade deal with the US if Donald Trump imposes further tariffs on British industry. In her world the public are enthused for such a deal. In the real world it doesn't even feature on most people's agenda.

The cause of her anguish and outrage is the threat of price hikes on products such as gin. It had escaped my notice, but Trump slapped extra tariffs on drinks including Scotch last year as part of a dispute over European subsidies for plane manufacturer Airbus. Truss believes that this action has cast a shadow over talks around a post-Brexit UK-US trade deal:

She told a House of Lords committee that she had made clear to the US that additional tariffs on gin and other drinks would be “hugely detrimental” to negotiations.

She added: “I think the British public would lose their support for negotiations continuing were there to be additional tariffs levied.”

Ms Truss will present her US counterpart, Robert Lighthizer, with a bottle of gin when they next meet, she added.

She told peers: “These tariffs are completely unnecessary and they harm industry on both sides of the Atlantic.

“We want them removed and we want them removed fast – preferably through a negotiated settlement.

Perhaps if she and her government had not significantly weakened the UK's negotiating stance by leaving the EU, and not put us in hock to Trump, things might be working out rather differently.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Civil war?

Just when Labour thought it had started to put its anti-Semitism problem behind it, Jeremy Corbyn pops up and throws a spanner in the works.

The Guardian says that Labour’s decision to pay a six-figure libel settlement to ex-staffers who claimed the party was failing to deal with antisemitism has plunged the party back into civil war, with Jeremy Corbyn publicly condemning his successor’s decision to settle the case:

Corbyn’s statement caused astonishment among the litigants in the libel action, with the Panorama journalist John Ware confirming to the Guardian that he was “consulting his lawyers” and raising the prospect of another costly court battle over Labour and antisemitism.

Corbyn said he was disappointed by the settlement brokered under Keir Starmer, calling it a “political decision” against legal advice, and said the decision “risks giving credibility to misleading and inaccurate allegations about action taken to tackle antisemitism in the Labour party in recent years.”

The former leader, who is believed to have considered a court challenge to the settlement along with senior allies, said the party had received legal advice that it would win the libel case brought by the seven ex-staffers and the journalist who made the BBC Panorama programme on which they appeared.

The ex-staff members alleged senior figures in the party minimised and interfered with attempts to deal with antisemitism complaints about party members. They sued the party for defamation after Labour spokespeople described them as having “political axes to grind,” suggesting they had acted in bad faith, and said Ware had conducted “deliberate and malicious misrepresentations designed to mislead the public”.

Is this civil war? I would suggest it is a skirmish at best, but unless Starmer is going to throw Corbyn out of the party altogether then he may have many more such confrontations to come.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Russia report highlights the need to protect our democracy

As shocking as the Russia report is, there will not be many who will be surprised at its contents. It has been known for some time that Putin's Russia has sought to interfere in and influence the outcomes of elections. What is surprising is that there has been no attempt to discover whether that same interference influenced the European referendum.

As the Guardian says, unlike the US – where a report into Russian interference in the 2016 election was produced within two months of the vote – Britons have been kept in the dark about Moscow’s meddling. They continue:

On Tuesday, Mr Johnson rejected a call by MPs on the intelligence and security committee (ISC) for an inquiry into “potential Russian interference in the 2016 vote”. The government claims there was no evidence of “successful interference in the EU referendum” – but how would it know if no one has looked? The lack of curiosity about the protection of the political process from foreign influence is bad news for a liberal democracy built on the idea of safe elections. But it is good news for Mr Putin, who wants western voters to lose trust in their political systems.

The ISC report is about a year old. It seems likely that Mr Johnson had blocked its publication for political reasons. If it had emerged that there had been no assessment of the seriousness of the threat that Russia posed to our democracy last year, then without a majority in parliament he might have been forced to concede one. After December he could brush off calls for an inquiry. Given the steady stream of revelations about Mr Putin’s well-oiled campaign to interfere in elections across Europe, it ought to be obvious that there should be an appraisal of how many Russian financiers, trolls, hackers and provocateurs were allowed to influence the most important political choice the country has faced in decades.

The motivations of the prime minister deserve scrutiny. Russia is not a rival to western democracy, but it is a hostile state that lives off our moral flaws. That is the message lurking in the lucid prose of the ISC report. Mr Johnson shows little enthusiasm for the necessary steps to disrupt the flow of ill-gotten gains into the UK. His line seems to be that conniving with crooks is only wrong when one is caught. Mr Johnson thinks that if oligarchs want to enrol peers in their business interests, then that’s up to them. The prime minister appears to view influence peddlers as political entrepreneurs who don’t need to be burdened with the red tape of parliamentary reporting requirements. Then there is the burgeoning sector of enablers in the banks, law firms and estate agents who grease the wheels of money laundering. Mr Johnson thinks Britain has got the balance right when it comes to Mr Putin’s friends. He could not be more wrong.

The paper points out that MPs believe Russia is a “highly capable cyber actor” that “considers the UK one of its top western intelligence targets”. Yet elections are conducted over social media in this country with little regulation. They say our politics has become poisoned by figures who have floated upwards on a rising tide of disinformation.

Surely, it is time that electoral law is updated to counter these threats to our democracy.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Well-deserved pay rise for public sector workers - but who is paying?

Today's news that the government is to give above-inflation pay rises to doctors, police, teachers and some other public sector workers in England is an important step forward, though as the Guardian reports pay increases, ranging from 2% to 3.1%, do not make up for lost incomes under the previous public sector pay freeze.

The main question however, is who will pay? Obviously, with the centralised services, it will be the UK Government. But will there be a Barnett consequential for the three devolved national governments? And will local councils be given cash to meet the additional costs they will incur in paying more money to care workers?

There are a lot of unanswered questions and on past form, I suspect that the rhetoric will not be met with sufficient money in the right places.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Could no-deal be fatal for many unprepared companies?

Anybody who has been watching the shambolic approach to Brexit from this government must by now be aware that it is now inevitable that we will finally leave the transition without a deal.

However, that does not mean that business is prepared for such an eventuality. In fact, as the Guardian reports, many companies are now less prepared for a no-deal Brexit than they were a year ago and have yet to make any preparations for such an outcome.

The paper says that as a result of the coronavirus crisis, stockpiles have been wound down, Brexit-related staff redeployed and cashflows seriously depleted. Yet a potential no-deal outcome is now less than six months away:

The latest warning comes from the Institute for Government thinktank, which also cites official data suggesting that 61% of businesses have made no preparations at all for the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December.

It also warns that last-minute preparations will be extremely difficult for many sectors, as coronavirus-related government support is wound down and potential for stockpiling is diminished as warehouses fill up ahead of Christmas.

“The coronavirus crisis has not only held up progress on Brexit preparations but, in some areas, has actually set businesses back,” it warns in a new report.

“Firms reeling from the economic consequences of coronavirus are poorly placed to prepare for Brexit: in many cases, they’re in a worse position than in the months leading up to the potential no-deal in October 2019. As the government’s own data shows, the majority of firms have not even begun to prepare.

“Many businesses and public bodies have run down stockpiles built up ahead of a potential no-deal Brexit last year, either because it was not economically viable to maintain excess supplies or to mitigate the disruption caused by gaps and delays in supply chains caused by the coronavirus. Many firms have eaten into ‘rainy day’ cash reserves just to stay afloat – money that could otherwise have been used to prepare for Brexit.”

Ministers recently conceded that many checks for goods coming into Britain would not be enforced when the transition period comes to an end, despite a previous insistence that controls would be in place. However, ministers have continued to stress that there will be no extension of the transition period.

There are now mounting calls for sector-specific help ahead of the end of the transition period. The cost of extra customs declarations could be as much as £7bn a year, according to some estimates.

The blame for this lies entirely at the door of UK government ministers. They have misled people from the start as to what Brexit entails, performing u-turn after u-turn as the reality becomes clearer and they are forced to put measures into place.

More importantly, from the point of view of preparation, the government has refused to acknowledge the impact of the pandemic on Brexit preparations and turned down pleas to extend the transition period to accommodate this.

Inevitably, this will mean a bigger hit on an economy already reeling from the lockdown. Unless ministers wake up and take action then the Brexit cliff we are planning to jump off at the end of the year, will prove to be much higher than anticipated.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

The social care timebomb

I have blogged previously on how the UK government's draconian new immigration rules will hit health and social care,  that as Ministers clap for key workers on their doorsteps, they are plotting behind closed doors to undermine those very people and denude key services of a valuable workforce.

Now, Layla Moran has uncovered figures highlighting the impact of these policies on London, a disaster for social care services that will be seen in different degrees all over the UK.

She has found that London is facing a “social care time bomb” due to its ageing population, with the capital likely to see the biggest percentage increase in its elderly population in the coming decades.

The Evening Standard reports that there are currently around 3.3 million households headed by a person over 75 in England, according to Office for National Statistics data. But, based on current trends, new analysis suggests this number is set to soar to around six million by 2043.

They say that 2018 ONS data, looking at the eldest economically active person in each home, indicates that most London boroughs will see the number of homes led by people aged over 75 more than double by 2043:

Numbers of older residents on this scale would have a knock-on impact on London’s health and social care services.

The findings come after it emerged migrant workers - including from the EU - will not be eligible for visas for most care roles when a points-based immigration system comes into force on January 1, 2021. London has the highest percentage of migrant social care workers in the UK.

Currently around 40 per cent of social care workers in the capital are from abroad - with 25 per cent of staff in the sector from the EU, with an additional 14 per cent from outside the EU.

Charities for older people, including Age UK, have called for a u-turn on the post-Brexit policy, as they say the new migration rules risk “sacrificing” the welfare of the elderly.

Layla makes the very valid point that instead of tackling this issue, the government’s plans to make it worse by shutting out carers from abroad:

“Almost four in ten social care workers in the capital are from abroad.... This reckless and unjust move will exacerbate the crisis already facing social care.”

Time for a rethink.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Tory donor company runs into problems on Covid tests

Having blogged yesterday about the awarding of government contracts to companies with strong links to the Tory party without a competitive tender, it was interesting to find this article in the Mirror from a few days ago.

The paper says that Coronavirus tests given to thousands of Brits and supplied by a firm which has donated £160,000 to the Conservative Party were pulled last night over safety fears. Care homes in England were ordered by the DHSC to halt using the testing kit produced by Randox Laboratories, on the grounds that they “may not meet our required safety standards for coronavirus testing”:

Randox Laboratories was awarded the £133 million contract by the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) in May after a non-competitive bidding process.

The firm has donated a total of £160,800 to the party since April 2010, according to the Electoral Commission.

The most recent donation, of £10,000 was made to the party in September 2018.

The firm has also employed Owen Paterson, a Tory MP and former minister, as an advisor since 2015, and is paid £100,000 a year.

The Mirror understands red flags were raised about the 'CE' safety stamps on the Chinese-made tests supplied by Randox.

Physical inspection of the tests led to questions about the sterility of the swabs.

You reap what you sew, I suppose, but that does not help all those who have been compromised by this test. The tendering processes are in place for a reason and should not be short-circuited.

Friday, July 17, 2020

The scandal around government contracts

In the Guardian a few days ago, George Monbiot highlighted one of the many scandals of this lockdown, the awarding of contracts worth billions of pounds for equipment on which our lives depend, without competition or transparency. He argues that the government has 'has trampled on its own rules, operated secretly and made incomprehensible and – in some cases – highly questionable decisions.'

He outlines the details of this scandal:

Let’s begin with the latest case, unearthed by investigative journalists at the Guardian and openDemocracy. It involves a contract to test the effectiveness of the government’s coronavirus messaging, worth £840,000. It was issued by the Cabinet Office, which is run by Michael Gove. The deal appears to have been struck on 3 March, but the only written record in the public domain is a letter dated 5 June, retrospectively offering the contract that had already been granted. There was no advertisement for the work, and no competition. No official notice of the award has yet been published. The deal appears to have been done with a handshake and a slap on the back.

But we do know who the contract went to. It’s a company called Public First, owned by a married couple, James Frayne and Rachel Wolf. Since 2000, Frayne has worked on political campaigns with Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser. When Gove was education secretary, he brought both Cummings and Frayne into his department. Cummings was Gove’s chief political adviser, while Frayne was his director of communications. At roughly the same time, in 2010, Gove’s department awarded Wolf a £500,000 contract to promote his “free schools” obsession. Guess what? That didn’t go to competitive tender, either. Wolf co-wrote the Conservative party’s election manifesto in 2019.

In response to these latest revelations, the government claims it had to override the usual rules for public procurement because it was responding to an emergency. There are several problems with this claim. The first is that six weeks elapsed between the government’s first recognition that coronavirus presented a potentially serious public health risk and striking the deal with Public First. The second is that, of the four contracted services later listed on the government’s website, two were not for testing the government’s coronavirus messaging at all, but for “EU exit comms”: in other words, Brexit. The coronavirus work, according to this list, did not begin until 27 May. The Cabinet Office now claims that when it said “EU exit”, it meant coronavirus. This seems an odd mistake to make.

The third problem is that the government’s communications on the pandemic have been disastrous. Did it choose to ignore Public First’s “emergency” work, or was it of little value?

He goes on to outline another example:

But this, extraordinary as it is, is not the strangest of the cases the GLP is taking on. Another involves a pest control company in West Sussex called PestFix, which, according to the GLP, has listed net assets of only £18,000. On 13 April, again without public advertisement or competition, the government awarded PestFix a £32m contract to supply surgical gowns. PestFix is not a manufacturer, but an intermediary (its founder calls it a public health supply business): its role was to order the gowns from China. But, perhaps because of its lack of assets, the government had to give it a deposit worth 75% of the value of the contract. The government’s own rules state that prepayments should be made only “in extremely limited and exceptional circumstances”, and even then must be “capped at 25% of the value of the contract”.

If the government had to provide the money upfront, why didn’t it order the gowns itself? And why, of all possible outsourcers, did it choose PestFix? In the two weeks before it awarded this contract, it was approached by 16,000 companies offering to supply personal protective equipment (PPE). Some of them had a long track record in manufacturing or supplying PPE, and had stocks that could be deployed immediately.

Again, the government relies on the emergency defence to justify its decision. But it issued its initial guidance on preventing infection among health and care workers on 10 January. On 14 February, it published specific guidance on the use of PPE. So why did it wait until 13 April to strike its “emergency” deal with PestFix? Moreover, it appears to have set the company no deadline for the delivery of the gowns. Astonishingly, even today only half of them appear to have reached the UK, and all those are still sitting in a warehouse in Daventry. On the government’s own admission, “none of the isolation suits delivered so far has been supplied into the NHS”. So much for taking urgent action in response to the emergency.

Again, the contract is surrounded by secrecy. Crucial sections, such as the price paid for the gowns, have been redacted. Bizarrely, the award notice initially stated that the contract was worth £108m. But in responding to the lawsuit, the government now says the real value is £32m. Apparently, it struck “further contracts” with PestFix for other items of equipment. It has so far failed to reveal what these might be, or to publish the contracts. It is worth remembering that while all this was happening, frontline health and care workers were dying as a result of inadequate supplies of PPE.

There are plenty of other cases: such as the employment agency with net assets of £623 that was awarded an £18m government contract to supply face masks; the confectionery wholesaler that according to the GLP was given a £100m contract to supply PPE; and the £250m channelled through a “family office” registered in Mauritius, specialising in currency trading, offshore property and private equity, also to supply protective medical equipment. Altogether, billions of pounds’ worth of contracts appear to have been granted, often to surprising companies, without competition. I think we may reasonably ask what the hell is going on.

As Monbiot says, this is not just about value for money, important as that is, he concludes:

Transparent, competitive tendering is a crucial defence against cronyism and corruption. It is essential to integrity in public life and public trust in politics. But the government doesn’t seem to care.

In this he is absolutely right.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Will it be the Unionists who cause the break-up of the UK?

It may be that the nationalist parties have gone as far as they can in securing independence for their respective countries, but fear not, the unionist parties are at hand to finish the job.

The Independent reports that Boris Johnson’s government is on collision course with Edinburgh and Cardiff after releasing proposals for a post-Brexit settlement which have been denounced by the Scottish National Party as a Westminster power grab:

The plans contained in a government white paper include the creation of an independent body to “monitor and analyse” regulations passed in the four nations of the UK to ensure that they do not diverge in a way which would create barriers to trade.

The SNP’s leader in Westminster warned on Wednesday that the creation of an “unelected, unaccountable” organisation to pass judgment on the decisions of the Scottish parliament would not be accepted.

Under plans published for consultation by business secretary Alok Sharma, some 111 powers returned from the EU after the end of the Brexit transition period in December will be devolved to Scotland, 70 to Wales and 157 to Northern Ireland, in areas ranging from public procurement to water quality to agricultural support.

But new measures will be put in place to ensure that businesses across the country are able to trade unhindered in all four nations of the UK.

Ministers warned that without action to protect the UK’s internal market, businesses risked “a complex and increasingly fragmented regulatory environment” after departure from the EU.

Proposals contained in the white paper would enshrine the principles of mutual recognition of regulations between the four nations and a “level playing field” for companies across the UK, they said.

Whitehall sources insisted that the changes would not get in the way of devolved governments taking independent action in their areas of competence, as seen when Scotland introduced minimum pricing of alcohol and Wales moved ahead of the rest of the UK to impose a charge on disposable plastic bags.

But Ian Blackford told the House of Commons that the plan was part of a “full-scale assault on devolution” by the Westminster government.

With polls showing increasing support for independence in Scotland, and with Northern Ireland already on the verge of being cut off from the rest of the mainland by the Prime Minister's Brexit deal customs regime, this could be the final straw that sends those respective countries over the edge.

For a unionist, Boris Johnson is going the right way to undermine and break-up the union.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Boris Johnson packs the House Intelligence Committee

We are still waiting for the first meeting of the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee and the long-anticipated report into Russian infiltration in the to be published. At least the committee now has a chair, even it is the accident-prone Chris Grayling, but the government are determined to take no chances.

The Independent reports that the Prime Minister has handed himself an in-built majority on the committee, prompting fresh accusations that it is being neutered:

The furore over the likely selection of the accident-prone Chris Grayling as its chair has been fuelled by a decision to strip out its one independent member.

It means the nine-strong intelligence and security committee (ISC) will now have five Conservative MPs – allowing them to outvote the remaining four Opposition members.

The move triggered a protest in the House of Lords that Downing Street had “packed it with willing supporters with no expertise in this area”.

Dominic Grieve, its former Tory chairman, told The Independent: “The committee has always been independent. If that is now being departed from for partisan reasons, that’s very regrettable.”

And John Healey, Labour’s shadow defence secretary, said: “This move is part of a pattern to surround the prime minister with yes-men.

“They’ve fixed the committee membership because their pick for chair can’t command the cross-party authority for this crucial role of holding the intelligence services to account.”

The move follows fierce criticism that Mr Grayling, an arch-Brexiteer who backed Mr Johnson for the Tory leadership – and who has no experience in security matters – will fail to be a powerful, independent voice.

Meanwhile, the delay on publishing the Russia report is now nine months, and counting.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Clueless government penalise care sector again

Considering UK Ministers have stood on their doorsteps week after week applauding health and care workers, one would have thought they could show more sensitivity and concern for the thousands who have risked and, in some cases, lost their lives tackling Covid 19.

But no, as with everything else with this government, their petty jingoism has taken precedence, and new immigration regulations have chosen to penalise these front-line heroes and the sector that they work in.

The Guardian reports that care home staff have been excluded from a post-Brexit fast-track visa system for health workers, in a move that critics say could prove “an unmitigated disaster” and may increase the risk of spreading coronavirus:

Confirming there would be no special treatment for carers coming from the EU or the rest of the world, the government said it hoped Britons would fill a shortfall of around 120,000 workers, equating to 10% of all posts. Currently 17% of care jobs are filled by foreign citizens.

Prof Martin Green, the chief executive of Care England, which represents the largest private providers, said the decicison, amid a pandemic in which 20,000 people have died in UK care homes, “has the potential to destabilise the sector even further with potentially disastrous consequences”.

The National Care Forum, which represents voluntary providers, said it could increase the use of agency staff, which as been shown to increase the risk of Covid-19 transmission.

However we finally come out of this pandemic, one thing is clear, the disaster that is Brexit, coupled with the incompetence and short-sightedness of government ministers, means that the society we will transition too will be harsher, meaner and more selfish. Boris Johnson has finally moulded the UK in his own image.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Government failures on Brexit to hit businesses

The Guardian reports that company directors believe only one in four companies are prepared for Britain’s full departure from the European Union in five months time.

The Institute of Directors say manufacturing firms in particular are unlikely to be ready for the end of the transition period with a lack of clarity on rule changes a bigger impediment to Brexit preparation than the need to focus on the coronavirus pandemic:

Almost half of 1,000 company directors polled by the IoD said they were unable to prepare now for the changes needed from 31 December, with almost one in three saying they could only make adjustments once the details were clear.

A clear majority, 69% of directors, said that securing a trade deal, rather than crashing out of Europe on World Trade Organization (WTO) terms, was important for their own company. Even among directors who saw positives in divergence from EU rules, seven in 10 said a deal would be important to the economy.

The IoD argued that time to prepare was essential, regardless of the outcome of trade talks between Britain and the EU, and called for a phased implementation of any new regime.

Jonathan Geldart, director-general of the IoD, said: “With so much going on, many directors feel that preparing for Brexit proper is like trying to hit a moving target. Jumping immediately into whatever comes next would be a nightmare for many businesses.

“A commitment to some form of reciprocal phasing-in of changes once clear is a long-standing ask from our members, and the benefits would be significant. At a time when government is rightly straining every sinew to help firms deal with widespread disruption, it would be counterproductive not to seek to minimise it at the end of the year.”

In many ways the outcome of this survey is no surprise. The government itself is drifting with no real idea of how to resolve the current impasse and a no deal Brexit is looking more and more likely. It will be the economy that will suffer for their complacency.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The old pals act?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 11, 2020

The new Brexit reality

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 10, 2020

Police face inquiry into possible racial bias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The outcome of this inquiry may well prove very interesting.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Leaked letter casts doubt on government border plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Treaty obligations catch up with UK Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Onto the blame game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 06, 2020

Are we all going to get a Treasury gift token?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Farage reported to police

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 04, 2020

Greek eye tests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 03, 2020

The downside of our new technology revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 02, 2020

The missing data

The decision to impose a local lockdown in Leicester has proved to be particularly controversial due to claims that if detailed local data had been available earlier then the rate of infection could have been checked much sooner.

As we move into the next stage of the pandemic the data issue is becoming more and more crucial, and yet, as the Guardian reports, local politicians are claiming that it is being withheld from them.

The paper says that council leaders believe that either they are not getting test results needed to prevent new outbreaks, or the results are incomplete and without sufficient detail to allow them to quell local surges in infection:

The complaints came as Labour accused Boris Johnson of presiding over “a lost week” which has let the virus spread, threatening fresh lockdowns as physical distancing restrictions are loosened this weekend. The government hit back, claiming councils had the information they needed to keep the virus at bay.

Rochdale borough council, which has one of the highest levels of new infections in England after Leicester, told the Guardian the borough had not received any community testing results – known as pillar-two tests. The council leader, Steve Rumbelow, warned the data showing who had tested positive outside of healthcare settings was essential “to ensure that Rochdale does not get to where Leicester is now.”

That appeared to contradict the prime minister’s claim in parliament that all test results – community testing in pillar two and NHS testing in pillar one – “have been shared not just with Leicester but with all authorities across the country”.

The pillar-two results, which were published in full for the first time by Public Health England (PHE) on Wednesday, have shown many more positive tests than those taken in hospitals and so provide a very different picture of where infection rates are moving towards dangerous levels.

Labour said it was not until last Thursday that Leicester city council was told that while pillar-one tests showed 80 positive tests in the last fortnight, the real figure was 944 and within days the city was locked down.

Barnsley, which after Leicester had the highest levels of infections recently alongside Bradford and Rochdale, only started getting community postcode-level testing data on Wednesday this week.

The information is essential to help local officials intervene in local outbreaks. On Monday they started arriving at Bradford city council and at Cheshire West and Chester, whose council leader, Louise Gittins, complained they were “incomplete, poor quality and difficult to access”. The test results were not always linked to a postcode, age, occupation or ethnic minority data, she said.

Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester city council, also complained the community data included no information about ethnicity, age, occupation, gender or, crucially, postcode of the infected person.

“If you have 10 cases and they are spread out across Wigan, that is one thing,” he said. “If they are all in the same street that’s another thing entirely. We are promised this data. It is the most important piece of data we still need.”

Quite why this data is not finding its way down to key local decision makers is difficult to fathom. We know that the Prime Minister wants to convey an impression of everything being well, so that we can all get back to normal as soon as possible, but there is a clear sense of self-denial in that approach. The government's duty is to the health and wellbeing of the country and its citizens. They should be doing everything possible to fulfil that duty.

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

FDR, he is not

Boris Johnson's comparison of his rather sad recovery plan to the Rooseveltian New Deal must rank as one of his more over-the-top uses of hype and rhetoric, and that is saying something. As the Guardian points out, the promise of £5 billion to rebuild Britain is a far cry from the US recovery scheme of the 1930s.

The paper explains that the New Deal was a package of government spending used to drag America out of the Great Depression, but there are significant differences between Roosevelt’s plan and Johnson’s:

Spending scale

Johnson’s commitment to bring forward infrastructure spending of £5bn amounts to just 0.2% of current UK GDP. By comparison, overall the New Deal was estimated to be worth about 40% of the US national income of 1929.

The Johnson funds have previously been announced, as part of £640bn in gross capital investment first publicised by the government in March.

Infrastructure projects

Like Roosevelt, the prime minister put investment in infrastructure at the heart of his recovery plan, echoing New Deal public works to build dams, housing, roads, bridges and housing across America.

From 1933, the US public works administration oversaw major projects including the Lincoln Tunnel in New York, work on the 113-mile Overseas Highway in Florida, the Grand Coulee Dam and the completion of the Hoover Dam.

Johnson’s plans are far less extensive, including funding for the refurbishment of schools and bridge repairs in Sandwell.

Protecting workers

Roosevelt’s administration brought in the Wagner Act and created the National Labor Relations Board, which increased the power of trades unions.

Maintaining a free-market Conservative approach, Johnson’s new deal prioritises deregulation.

The paper adds that Johnson promised he would not reinstate a period of austerity as Britain recovered from the coronavirus crisis. However, he has been criticised for not going far enough to rebuild Britain’s public sector from a decade of cuts.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that out-of-work households will get £1,600 less than in 2011, even after accounting for emergency steps to raise unemployment benefits this year.

And as the devolved administrations have discovered, none of this is new money. By Roosevelt's standards it amounts to loose change found down the back of the Downing Street sofa, none of which will consequently be passed to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland through the Barnett formula.

Not so much a rescue plan, more a damp squib.

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