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Monday, August 31, 2020

MPs to be forced to take anti-racist training

Members of the House of Commons are often described as some of the most sophisticated voters in the UK, and yet judging by the behaviour of many of them, either this description is a myth, or they are so sure of themselves that they think they can get away with anything.

Why else would there be so many reports of sexual harassment in the workplace of the Houses of Parliament, and why else would it be necessary to introduce unconscious bias training for MPs and to set up a group to tackle racism in parliament after staff raised concerns about discrimination.

The Times reports that senior members of the Commons Executive Board, including John Benger, the clerk of the House, have expressed solidarity with staff from ethnic minority backgrounds and pledged to make improvements:

Mr Benger is chairing a cross-parliamentary group established in response to the Black Lives Matter movement to help to tackle discrimination and reduce inequality in the Commons.

Staff have submitted evidence for two inquiries into bullying and harassment: the Dame Laura Cox Report in the Commons and one by Naomi Ellenbogen, QC, in the Lords, but are frustrated by the lack of progress since.

The Cox report, which came out in 2018, said that several minority staff members had “reported racist abuse, or being frequently challenged as to their right to be in particular parts of the estate”, and that some had made allegations of sexual and racial harassment.

The Times understands that three senior black members of staff have left parliament’s strategic estates unit since the start of last year amid concerns about racism.

Unconscious bias training is being piloted for MPs. Training has been offered to Commons staff since 2016 and its contents were reviewed in May.

“Mandatory unconscious bias training has been in place in parliament for years now and it has not made any difference to the racism experienced by black staff,” one former black member of staff told The Times. “The Dame Laura Cox report should have sparked radical change but for black staff it did not.”

Research carried out by Parlireach, parliament’s minority workplace network, and published in February found that minority staff were more likely to be challenged to show their security passes. The report cited cases of senior managers “getting people’s names wrong or mixing them up with other BAME colleagues”.

If the House of Commons cannot get its act together how does it expect other workplaces to do so?

Sunday, August 30, 2020

The failed product of right wing thinktanks?

Nick Cohen's article in the Observer is worth reading today, if only for the insight it provides into the way that Boris Johnson's government values ideological purity over competence, and acts accordingly.

Just as importantly, he explores the lessons to be found in Peter Geoghegan’s Democracy for Sale - which is already on my Christmas list - about how easily democracy is manipulated and why we need to reform regulation to restore level playing field.

Cohen looks at Tony Abbott, who is Boris Johnson's favoured choice as a UK trade envoy - a failed Australian politician who will be remembered, if at all, for believing climate change was “probably doing good” as his country burned, and being eviscerated for his sexist comments by Julia Gillard.

He says Abbott is a has-been from the other side of the world of whom we know little and care less. No one has voted for him in Britain and he negotiated no major trade deals in his error-strewn period as Australia’s prime minister, which ended in 2015, when his own party judged him to be worthless and brought him down.

He adds that Abbott is a product of the global network of right-wing thinktanks that has learned how easy and cheap it is to manipulate British politics arguing that Britain is the Poundshop of European politics, where money goes further. And with that he turns to malaise uncovered in Peter Geoghegan’s book:

Do you expect a government led by Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson to open up a system that gave them power? The unanswerable complaint against thinktanks is that they allow anonymous donors to influence policy without a semblance of accountability. And it’s a criticism you should never tire of making. Less noticed is how economical it is to buy access and promote your proteges. As the former Tory MP Guto Bebb told Geoghegan: “If you are willing to put quarter of a million into a thinktank you can get a lot of bang for your buck.” Indeed you can. The access to decision makers is dizzying. The British Medical Journal found that 32 MPs had direct or indirect links to the IEA. Tobacco, alcohol and food companies can pay a pittance in their terms – assuming we are ever allowed to know who finances the institute – and hear the IEA tell Tory politicians that essential public health protections are just “nanny state” meddling. So embedded in the Tory state are they that Matt Hancock announced his back-covering manoeuvre to scrap Public Health England at an “independent” Policy Exchange event. Then there is the equally dizzying level of access to the media. The IEA’s turnover is just £2.5m. In 2017, it boasted that the advertising value of media appearances was £66m – a 2,600% return.

A little money goes a long way in political London. After a mere £12,000 donation to the Tory party, the billionaire developer and former pornographer Richard Desmond saw Robert Jenrick unlawfully approve his property development in the East End of London two weeks later, which you might say is prompt service. For 50 grand, pretty much anyone can get a seat with a minister or prime minister at a Conservative Leader’s Group. And again the first question is, really, is that all?

The cheapness of influence-peddling fits a time when unregulated campaign groups can use small sums to target marginal seats on social media and disappear as soon as the election is over. There is a clear need for reform. The Electoral Commission should be expanded and given police powers. Political parties should have the same duty as banks and be held accountable for checking the sources of money they take. Thinktanks and all lobbyists should be required under pain of criminal punishment to declare who is funding them. As indeed should social media companies running political adverts.

Much of the media won’t help us clean up politics. Sky and the BBC are too compromised. They want extreme opinions, no matter how tainted or stupid, which will hold their fickle audiences’ attention. In return, they too often betray the duty of journalists to ask the IEA and Spiked on the right and Novara Media on the left hard questions about who they are representing and who is picking up the bill.

What started with the manipulation of the Brexit referendum has become a deeper malaise, threatening the very foundations of our democracy. It is surely time for reform and more effective regulation.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Time for councils to come down hard on anti-social litterers

The biggest part of my workload as a Councillor is dealing with litter and fly-tipping. It can get very frustrating, especially when week-in, week-out the same areas suffer from the same offender and the council dutifully removes the material without taking any further action.

It is no wonder that some people think that there is no need going to the tip, when they can just dump stuff on the pavement without consequences, and have it taken away for them. But what is the alternative? Leave the area looking like a rubbish dump? That is nothing something I want or will tolerate.

It was no surprise therefore to read in the Guardian that most councils issue less than one fine a week to litterers, with one in six issuing no fines at all across a year:

Campaigners at Clean Up Britain said the level of littering was “shameful” and that enforcement of fines by councils should be made compulsory. They said the maximum on-the-spot fine of £150 was “derisory” and should be increased to £1,000.

Littering has increased as more people have visited parks during the coronavirus pandemic, with councils each having to clear up an average of 57 tonnes of additional waste from April to July, according to a survey by Keep Britain Tidy (KBT). “The levels of litter and waste being left has reached unprecedented levels,” one council officer told KBT.

Clean Up Britain received replies to their freedom of information (FOI) requests from 169 councils, representing more than half of councils in England and Wales. The majority – 56% – issued less than one litter fine a week and 16% issued no fines at all in the financial year 2018-19, the most recent year for which the FOI data is available.

The London borough of Hounslow issued the most fines for littering, with 156 per week, and Bristol council was second, with 151 a week. Four other London boroughs were in the top 10 – Merton, Camden, Bexley and Wandsworth. The Wirral, Wolverhampton and Doncaster councils also issued more than 80 litter fines a week

But Harrogate, Stevenage, Bridgend, Derbyshire Dales and South Somerset councils were among those issuing no litter fines at all, while Chorley and King’s Lynn and West Norfolk councils issued a single fine and Stratford-on-Avon council issued two.

Cornwall council, which runs a #LitterlessCornwall campaign also issued two fines in 2018-19. In total, the councils issued 116,000 fines for littering, compared with 2.3m fines for parking offences.

Keep Britain Tidy run training courses for council officers in effective and proportionate enforcement. It seems that more councils need to take advantage of those courses.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Digital design flaw could penalise EU citizens

According to the Independent, a large group of UK residents could become "guinea pigs in a digital-only experiment". They say that EU citizens have launched a campaign for the government to give them physical proof of their right to remain in Britain after Brexit – amid fears that they could be locked out of homes, jobs and healthcare by technical problems.

Apparently, the Brexit settlement scheme's "digital-only" design is already causing problems for EU nationals, some of whom are already being held up in airports and facing delays in moving house. But campaigners worry that the scheme's flaws could have even more serious consequences, denying EU citizens living in Britain their rights to homes, jobs, and healthcare – all of which require them to prove their right to live in the UK:

Under the scheme, EU nationals are not given an ID card or other document as proof of residence once they are accepted, but have to rely on an online system. They say that if the system were ever to go down or suffer from technical glitches, they would be unable to do simple things such as open a bank account, take a job, or return home after a holiday.

The "Access Denied" campaign, launched by EU citizens' campaign group the3million, is calling for the government to give EU citizens physical documentation to avoid problems. They say provisions could be made for the modified system in the forthcoming immigration bill set to go through parliament later this year.

The government digital service's own assessment of the policy concluded that there was “very strong evidence” that digital-only proof would cause “a lot of issues”, but ministers pressed ahead with the plan for a digital-only approach anyway.

The Home Office now says the government will be eventually shifting all migrants towards digital-only documentation and a spokesperson noted that physical proof can be lost or expire – though campaigners are calling for cards in addition to their digital proof.

Speaking at a virtually rally to launch the campaign on Thursday evening, one EU national, named Paula Uusnäkki, told attendees that she had already effectively disappeared from the system after having been granted pre-settled status.

"I logged onto the system and there was nothing there. They had absolutely no record of me every applying, so I had to do the whole process again from the beginning," she said.

"I have settled status now, hopefully it's still online, but you never know... if I'd had to officially prove my status that first time I wouldn't have been able to do that, because there was absolutely no record of me on the system.

"But if I'd had a card, for example, I could have taken it out of my wallet, shown it, and be on my way. Technology breaks, it fails, but a physical proof of identity is always in your wallet. We need to to avoid situations like what I had."

I have commented before on government's reliance on barely-understood technology to solve problems for them. Things inevitably go wrong, and there is always a human cost. In this case, ministers owe it to the EU citizens who keep our public services and economy going to build some safeguards into the system.

It is time they listened to the people who are affected by their decisions, rather than out-of-touch 'experts' with their own agenda.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Tories targeting the homeless

They may have put in place temporary housing to protect the homeless from coronavirus, but it did not take long for the Tories to return to type.

The Guardian reports that homeless people in three coastal towns in Dorset could be fined for sleeping in doorways or leaving bedding and belongings in the street under proposals Conservative councillors are trying to push through.

The Tory politicians are arguing that a tough regime is needed in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole to ease residents’ concerns and boost the area’s economy. But critics say the proposals risk criminalising some of the most vulnerable people in society rather than tackling the root cause of their situation:

The row centres on a plan for a public spaces protection order (PSPO) taking in the three towns. Officers for the local authority that covers the towns have put forward a proposal that would ban behaviour such as drinking alcohol in public while acting in an antisocial manner and causing harassment, alarm or distress.

But at a meeting of the council’s overview and scrutiny board this week, Tory councillors claimed the measures did not go far enough. They argued that begging, loitering in a public place, causing an obstruction in shop doorways or car parks and leaving unattended personal belongings such as bedding or bags should also be included.

The Tory councillor Karen Rampton said strict rules were necessary. “We know that people leaving unattended belongings causes anxiety. Shopkeepers do not want people obstructing their doorways especially in these times of Covid.”

People who violate PSPOs are liable for £100 fines that, if left unpaid, can result in summary convictions and £1,000 penalties. Rampton said the idea of the PSPO was to counter antisocial behaviour rather than targeting a particular group.

But the Liberal Democrat councillor Millie Earl said the proposals were “very cruel”. “It’s completely counterproductive to hand out a fine to someone who is already in poverty,” she said.

Fortunately, the Lib Dem leader of BCP council, Vikki Slade, is opposed to the move. She said: “BCP council is committed to reducing rough sleeping by increasing access to suitable accommodation and remodelling a range of sustainable housing support pathways.”

But Dorset Tories are not alone in this prejudice. Last year the Guardian revealed that at least 60 councils were using PSPOs to tackle behaviour associated with homelessness. Perhaps these councils would be better off tackling the root causes of homelessness rather than penalising people who have fallen on hard time.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

More government contract questions

The Mirror reveals that a firm run by a close ally of Dominic Cummings was awarded a £49,300 contract to advise Ofqual ahead of the A-level results fiasco.

Public First were hired to help the exam regulator with "insight on public opinion for this year's exam arrangements." However, the deal was put in place without other firms being allowed to bid for the work. This takes the total value of contracts handed to Public First this year over £1 million.

The paper says that Public First is a small lobbying and research firm run by James Frayne, a Brexit ally of Mr Cummings, and Rachel Wolf, who co-wrote the 2019 Tory manifesto:

The publication of the new contract was revealed by Tussell, a database of public contracts and spend.

It had already been reported the firm had been awarded an £840,000, no-competition contract to research public opinion on government policies - including Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.

The Mirror revealed last week that the firm were given another £116,000 by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to identify ways to "lock in the lessons learned" by the Government during the Covid-19 crisis.

When the existence of the Ofqual contract was first revealed in the Guardian last week, the regulator said the usual tendering rules had been bypassed because of “exceptional circumstances”.

Government contracts are usually awarded after a tender process which allows multiple providers to compete to provide the best value.

But after the Covid-19 pandemic struck, new rules allowed contracts worth hundreds of thousands of pounds to be handed to firms directly if they were deemed “urgent”.

A spokesperson said: “Due to the exceptional circumstances presented by the cancellation of exams, the single tender justification process was used for this contract, due to the need to urgently procure the work, in line with our procurement policy.”

The Mirror adds that Public First founder James Frayne and Boris Johnson ’s top aide Dominic Cummings worked together at the Department for Education while Michael Gove was Education Secretary. Years earlier in 2003, Mr Frayne and Mr Cummings founded an anti-EU think tank together, called the New Frontiers Foundation. The body closed in 2005.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

How UKIP self-destructed in Wales

As Wales-on-line points out, the 2016 Senedd elections were a real high water mark for UKIP in Wales. With the EU Referendum just over a month away they received a sizable 13% of the vote in the elections for the then Welsh Assembly, they won seven of the sixty seats and had established a powerbase for their party unrivalled anywhere else in the UK.

Just a few weeks later the UK voted to leave the EU and suddenly the party had no reason to exist. Will Hayward takes up the story:

Fast forward four years and the original group of seven have had more parties than a footballer during lockdown - climate change denier Neil Hamilton is the only UKIP MS left in the Senedd.

It turns out that for many of the UKIP members, their hatred of the EU was second only to their hatred of each other.

Within days of being elected the infighting had started as Hamilton defeated then Wales party leader Nathan Gill and took his throne to head the party’s National Assembly group.

Hamilton was supported by Michelle Brown, Gareth Bennett and Caroline Jones, while Mr Gill had the support of Mark Reckless and David Rowlands.

Then UKIP leader Nigel Farage described the move as an "unjust and an act of deep ingratitude".

Hamilton, who pocketed an extra £20,000 a year of public money as the group leader, was accused by Nathan Gill of dividing the party.

But despite these divides there was still the EU keeping them all together.

Then the EU referendum happened and took with it UKIP's raison d'etre. Over the next four years all but Hamilton would jump ship.

Member for North Wales Michelle Brown resigned from the group in 2019 citing sexism and attacks on Islam among her reasons.

Speaking to the BBC at the time she said: "The group does not function as a group but as a boys' club - it is not by chance that the group no longer has any female members. "

Ms Brown had her own share of controversy while in UKIP when she was recorded calling then Labour MP Chuka Umunna a "f**king coconut" and was also accused of smoking recreational drugs in a hotel room.

Nathan Gill resigned as an AM in 2017 and was replaced by Mandy Jones, but not before his media advisor Alexandra Phillips described the situation within the Welsh party as a "war zone".

Mark Reckless, who had previously been a Tory MP before defecting to UKIP, then left UKIP in 2017 to join the Conservative Group in the Senedd, though he didn't rejoin the party - managing to keep up?

In May last year it seemed the fortunes of some of Wales' Brexiteer politicians were on the up with PM Theresa May seen as not delivering the Brexit many dreamed of.

There was a vacuum in British politics that Nigel Farage tried to fill with his new Brexit Party. With Reckless as the leader, Mandy Jones, Caroline Jones and David Rowlands all joined, forming a new assembly group.

But then, just as everything was looking rosy for the Brexit Party, another terrible thing happened - yet again they got exactly what they wanted.

May was out and Boris Johnson was in, and ready to run an election campaign based solely on "getting Brexit done".

By the end of 2019 it was clear how little electoral clout the Brexit Party would carry in a post Brexit world, receiving just 2% of the vote in the 2019 election.

There are soap operas that would lose credibility with this sort of plot line, but the saga continues - there have been more defections, resignations and some juicy salaries being paid to the families of former UKIP MSs at the taxpayer's expense - read the rest of the article for details. 

The various factions now have splinter groups within splinter groups, with different parties being formed around them ready to contest next year's Senedd elections. But the real victim in all of this is Welsh democracy.

The fifth Senedd and devolution itself, has been poorer because of the participation of this group of individuals. They have dragged down the level of debate and turned Cardiff Bay into their own little war zone. Let us hope that the Welsh electorate rid us of their presence once and for all in May.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Grassroot Tories unhappy with English planning changes

One of the many tensions within the coalition of interests that form the UK Conservative Party is over planning.

A number of developers and builders donate large sums towards Tory election campaigns and no doubt expect a sympathetic ear to their troubles and problems when the party they are bankrolling is in government.

On the other hand, many Tory activists have built their careers on nimbyism within their own communities, especially in the more prosperous and rural parts of England, and do not look kindly on any government diktat that is going to threaten the quality of life of their constituents.

It was inevitable therefore that Boris Johnson’s reform proposals for the English planning system – widely seen as tipping the balance of power in favour of developers and away from local objectors – were going to go down badly in the Conservative heartlands.

As the Guardian reports, voters fear not just a loss of local power, which is already angering some local Conservative politicians, but the threat of “rural sprawl” creating new landscapes of unbroken low-density development across the shires. One local objector is quoted as saying that the changes mean the “suburbanisation” of the countryside:

It took less than 24 hours for the threat to become real after the planning white paper was unveiled. An application landed the next day with the parish council from an emboldened developer to build 100 homes on a stubbly wheat field on the edge of Earnley. It is exactly the sort of site that could be zoned for growth under the government’s new planning system, meaning that builders automatically get outline planning permission as long as the designs broadly meet a pre-agreed local plan.

Steve Culpitt, the managing director of the site’s developer, Seaward Properties, was understandably happy with the new policy, which he said “pulls the rug from beneath” opposition. “The major problem with all these sites is the objectors,” he said. “You always hear from them but never the supporters.”

If the scheme goes ahead, the flint cottages of Earnley will merge with the modern housing estates of the neighbouring beach settlement of East Wittering. It is not a unique scenario. East Wittering is ringed with fields where housebuilders including Barratt Homes have plans for 1,450 homes which could all be built under the new zoning system. It would increase the settlement’s size by 60%. Opponents like Carey fear they could be almost powerless to prevent it if the white paper becomes law.

Another rebellion is brewing 20 minutes east along the already busy A27. Four days after the planning reforms were launched, the UK’s largest housebuilder, Persimmon, lodged an application to erect 475 homes on wheat fields that would blend the settlements of Ferring and Goring-by-Sea.

“If and when this new planning regime comes into force this will be vulnerable,” said Ed Miller, the secretary of Ferring Conservation Group, who described the reforms as “an absolute attack on local government and local democracy”. Miller filled out his consultation response last week, describing the plans as “a betrayal of localism” and authoritarian.

The paper points out that the need to build out of the Covid recession and the demand for new homes are both driving forces behind this new policy, but the centralisation of planning, overriding local democracy, is not going down well with those who have to live with these decisions.

Equally as important is the fact that none of this new housebuilding is likely to help the less fortunate in our society. UK Government investment in genuinely affordable homes in England is much less that it should be, homelessness is growing, and it is unlikely that many of the new homes on green fields will be designated as affordable.

Boris Johnson's brave new housing policy for England is  as much a mess as the old one.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

More trouble on over-75 TV licences

As if the government was not in enough trouble for abolishing free TV licences for the over-75s by proxy, the consequences of that decision continue to reverberate and could well come back to bite them again.

Not wanting to take the decision themselves, Conservative Ministers decided that the BBC should be responsible for funding the over-75 concession in future, but failed to give them the money to pay for that policy. The outcome was inevitable. Only those on pension credit are now eligible to watch their television without charge.

Unfortunately, this decision also requires enforcement and, as this article outlines, that means that the BBC are now going to have to spend around £100million of taxpayers’ cash chasing pensioners failing to cough up.

Apparently, the private firm Capita is being paid another £38million to hire 800 new staff to send out letters and chase non-payers:

The company, which outsources the collection of the £157.50 annual levy for the BBC, last year received £59.9million from TV licensing.

If Capita’s overall collection contract remains the same in 2019/20, it means up to £97.9million of taxpayers’ cash could go to the firm this year.

Capita was widely criticised for using aggressive door-to-door tactics and paying staff hefty bonuses of up to £15,000 a year if they hit targets of catching 28 fee evaders a week in a Daily Mail investigation in February 2017.

It prompted the resignation of the firm’s £2.7million-a-year boss Andy Parker a month later.

The BBC has insisted no over-75s without a TV licence would be visited by enforcement staff and no on-the-spot payments would be taken during a ‘“transition period” of an unspecified length while changes are made.

But campaigners fear it is only a matter of time before vulnerable pensioners are threatened with fines, court and prosecution on their doorsteps.

Dennis Reed, director of pensioner campaign group Silver Voices, said: “It is sickening. The £100million contract with the BBC would pay for 635,000 licences for older people and the annual salary of Capita’s chief executive would pay for [another] 12,700.”

The fact that the BBC is making these decisions should not detract from the fact that the ultimate responsibility lies with the Conservative government. This is their farce and they should take ownership of it.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Call for independent investigation on Russian interference

The Guardian reports that a cross-party group of MPs is threatening to sue Boris Johnson unless he orders an independent investigation into Russian interference in recent UK elections and the 2016 Brexit vote:

The MPs say the government’s refusal to investigate Kremlin meddling is a breach of the European convention on human rights, which enshrines the right to free elections in protocol 1.

The group says it will take the prime minister to court if he fails to implement what it describes as essential steps to protect future elections. It has sent him a pre-action letter, to which Downing Street has two weeks to respond.

Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton, said: “Democratic processes are clearly at risk. It seems that the integrity of our elections is being deliberately undermined. Nothing could be more serious for our democracy.

“Ministers’ behaviour to date has been shockingly complacent and negligent. The government cannot be allowed to shirk this because Tory party coffers are topped up with Russian money.”

The MPs call on the government to implement the recommendations of parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC). Its long-awaited Russia report, which Johnson suppressed, before the last general election, was finally published last month.

The government says it has seen no evidence of “successful” Moscow interference. The ISC, however, said Johnson and his predecessor Theresa May made no effort to look for it, and nor did Britain’s security agencies, with MI5 providing the committee with just five lines of text.

The ISC described the UK as a clear target for Russian disinformation and money laundering, and called on Johnson to launch a full inquiry. He dismissed the request last month.

The group of MPs has called for a series of legislative reforms. It wants a single body to be legally responsible for combating foreign influence and a ban on donations from abroad. It says online political adverts should make the source of funding clear, and that agents who work for foreign states should be forced to register, as in the US.

That Boris Johnson's government has been so complacent about this issue is a national disgrace. If we cannot protect our democracy then we become no better than some of the tin-pot dictators usurping the democratic process for their own ends. There is a distinct Trumpian air about the response of ministers to this report.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Another fine mess

Taking us into lockdown, albeit too late to prevent thousands of deaths, was one thing, but taking us back to some semblance of normality is quite another and possibly beyond the capabilities of the current UK government.

The problem appears to be the haste with which Ministers are trying to achieve their goals. They want to get the economy back on its feet and start to reverse the spiralling public sector debt, which is currently in the trillions rather than the billions, but in doing so they risk reawakening the virus and leaving many on the fringes of society behind.

The Independent reports on warnings by some MPs that a “new wave of homelessness” could sweep England when a ban on evictions ends this month.

The temporary extra security for tenants was introduced in March to protect people hit by the pandemic, but the government has declined to extend it despite a coming recession. Now a group of 21 MPs says the the UK government should guarantee funding for local authorities to house anyone forced to sleep rough:

The ban had originally been set to end in England on 25 June but it was extended to 23 August – this Sunday.

The Scottish government says it might extend its similar ban to March 2021, while the Welsh government has doubled the notice period required for evictions to six months, with some conditions.

In a letter, first reported by the BBC, the MPs wrote to rough sleeping minister Luke Hall: “Some local authorities are in the process of confirming and funding accommodation for rough sleepers for another year, however it is so important that all councils are able to provide this.

“We cannot put a cut-off on showing all those in need compassion at this time,” the letter said.

The letter was signed by 10 Liberal Democrat MPs, including the party’s two leadership candidates Layla Moran and Ed Davey. It was also signed by nine Labour MPs and one DUP MP.

The number of people sleeping rough in the UK already doubled between 2012 and 2017.

Here is an example where the devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland have shown considerably more finesse and compassion than their English counterparts. Isn't it time that Westminister politicians started to learn from their devolved counterparts.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

UK Government scores own goal again

If it wasn't bad enough that the Brexiteers effectively won the EU referendum by lying about immigration, they have now taken that agenda into government, proposing unsustainably restrictive policies that will damage our economy. However, their zealous pursuit of Brexit has come back to bite them.

The Guardian reports that EU negotiators have rejected a British request for a migration pact that would allow the government to return asylum seekers to other European countries.

This means that when the Brexit transition period expires on 31 December, the government will lose the right to transfer refugees and migrants to the EU country in which they arrived, a cornerstone of the European asylum system known as the Dublin regulation:

The government is seeking to replicate the European system outside the bloc, although the Home Office has complained that the EU rules are “rigid, inflexible and abused by migrants and activist lawyers”.

The Guardian has learned that EU member states have ruled out a British plan to recreate the Dublin system outside the EU. Talks on a post-Brexit deal continue this week amid rising tensions between the UK and France following the death of a Sudanese teenager while attempting to cross the Channel in an inflatable dinghy.

A British plan presented to Brussels would allow the UK to return “all third-country nationals and stateless persons” who enter its territory without the right paperwork to the EU country they had travelled through to reach British shores.

The British government would have a reciprocal obligation to take in undocumented migrants arriving in the EU via the UK, excluding airport arrivals.

At a time when southern Europe has nearly 10 times more refugees and migrants arriving by sea, the UK plan has been described in Brussels as “very unbalanced” and “not good enough”.

The paper puts the UK asylum seeker issue into some context when they point out that more than 4,100 people have crossed the Channel in small boats so far this year, compared with 39,283 who traversed the Mediterranean to Italy, Greece, Spain, Cyprus and Malta. At the height of the migration crisis in 2015, more than a million people arrived on the continent’s southern shores.

The obsession of government ministers with stopping people seeking asylum in the UK is inhumane and ridiculous. The irony is that in leaving the EU without a deal they have created a problem for themselves. Longstanding mechanisms no longer apply and there is no way they are getting them back.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Huge funding gap facing local councils

The impact of COVID-19 on the economy and public services has already been quite substantial, but as this article in the Guardian reports the impact on local councils could be as severe as that on businesses.

The paper says that the Institute for Fiscal Studies believes that councils in England face a £2bn “perfect storm” over the next few months and will be forced to cut services if the government does not meet the cost of soaring Covid-19 spending.

They add that without additional financial support, councils “face a difficult choice between depleting their reserves to low and potentially risky levels or cutting spending on important local services”:

Although the government has so far provided £5.2bn in extra funds, councils expect to spend £4.4bn more than expected on the pandemic this year, as well as £2.8bn in losses from fees and charges, leaving them with a £2bn shortfall.

Even if the government offers additional support this year, the crisis facing local government is likely to continue into 2021-22 when collapsing council tax and business rates collection since lockdown start to feed into council budgets, it added.

David Phillips, an associate director at IFS, said: “Even if more funding or flexibilities are forthcoming this year, councils will still not be out of the Covid-19 woods.”

Although the simplest way of preventing cuts would be for ministers to provide more grant funding, they could also consider relaxing rules that prevent councils from borrowing money to fund day-to-day services, the IFS said. “This would help spread the pressure over several years and mean councils could avoid needing to make immediate cuts to balance their budgets.”

Although English councils collectively have around £3.3bn of available reserves, the amounts vary widely between authorities. The IFS estimates that around 40% of councils would still be unable to balance their books even if they spent all their reserves.

There is no indication of the position in Wales or the other devolved nations, but one imagines that the issues are very similar.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Those buck-passing Tories

It has been said all along that the UK Government would find scapegoats to take responsibility for their failures on tackling COVID-19, and so it has proved.  As the Independent reports, plans to scrap Public Health England (PHE) in the middle of the crisis, look panic stricken and amount to buck-passing.

The paper says that PHE’s pandemic response work will be merged with NHS Test and Trace, and the body will be replaced by a new organisation set up specifically to deal with a pandemic. While, experts have raised concerns over timing and the potential knock-on effect that a “major restructuring” would have on coronavirus containment efforts:

Dr Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said: “The reports in the media that the UK government is likely to announce the reorganisation of Public Health England are perhaps no great surprise.

“What is a surprise is that this is happening in the middle of the greatest public health challenge to the UK since the Second World War.”

Dr Amitava Banerjee, associate professor in clinical data science and honorary consultant cardiologist at UCL’s Institute of Health Informatics, raised concerns over how the move would impact efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“A major restructuring of public health function, as the global Covid-19 emergency continues, will distract limited resources – both human and financial – away from the simple public-health measures of testing and tracing,” he said.

Dr Banerjee also said it was unclear what would happen to ”the wide range of PHE programmes outside of pandemic preparedness”, such as for cardiovascular diseases and mental health.

“We risk damaging public health, not just in relation to Covid-19 but far beyond,” he said.

Professor Neena Modi from Imperial College London also questioned where responsibility would lie for public health matters outside infectious diseases, and how initiatives for them would be delivered.

“This is particularly important given that the UK has a shockingly high prevalence of obesity, a postcode lottery for reproductive health services, and poor air quality in urban areas,” the professor of neonatal medicine said.

As ever with this Tory government, this reorganisation looks rushed and ill-thought out. Who will they scapegoat when the changes fall apart around them?

Monday, August 17, 2020

British far right ‘becoming more racist’

She may want to introduce a stricter immigration policy, but it is the Home Secretary who is bandying around comments about other countries being racist. As the Guardian reports, Priti Patel has told Tory MPs that many asylum seekers are making the perilous journey across the Channel because they believe France is racist.

Meanwhile, there are claims that the Black Lives Matter movement has generated a backlash, leading to far right groups becoming more openly racist. The Independent says that a report by Hope Not Hate, has concluded that years of dominance by Tommy Robinson and other figures focused on Muslims is giving way to rising white nationalism:

It found that the growth of the new Patriotic Alternative group, which openly calls for non-whites to be ejected from the UK, suggests a “shift towards more openly racial politics”.

Author Simon Murdoch said far-right activists were becoming “much more extreme ideologically”.

He said the increase in migrant boat crossings over the English Channel and anger over so-called “cancel culture” had an impact.

“The biggest backlash has been to the Black Lives Matter movement,” the researcher added. “There is more willingness to discuss race generally across the far right now.”

Large protests following the police killing of George Floyd in the US city of Minneapolis in May sparked a deluge of racism and anger on far-right social media networks.

Claims that demonstrators were to target the statue of Winston Churchill and other monuments in London, after a slave trader’s figure was torn down in Bristol, culminated in a violent protest by groups claiming to “defend” them.

Police and journalists were attacked and some protesters appeared to perform Nazi salutes, following smaller clashes elsewhere in the UK where demonstrators were filmed making “white power” gestures and shouting: “Why don’t you go back to Africa?”

Mr Murdoch said that dominant groups and activists in the British far right, such as Robinson, have focused on Islam in recent years and left overt racism to the “extreme fascists” like banned terrorist group National Action.

But the rise of the Europe-wide Identitarian movement and spread of a conspiracy theory claiming that white people are being “replaced” by non-whites has influenced extremists in the UK.

“There’s this move from people previously focused on other topics like Islam, and alongside that is a contingent of the young British far right who have been embracing more extreme and traditionally fascist, white nationalist and anti-semitic ideas,” Mr Murdoch said.

He warned that the younger group are active in online networks that have greater reach than the “old guard” of National Front and British National Party (BNP) supporters.

The hardline being taken by the UK government on immigration and asylum is feeding this renewed racist sentiment. Maybe the Home Secretary should look to her own policies when criticising others.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

How to make a last-minute quarantine worse

Many people holidaying in France were caught out by the announcement that a two-week quarantine would await them on their return if they arrived in the UK after 4am yesterday. As a result many paid huge amounts of money for transport options they could have got at a fifth of the price a few days early, to cut their vacation short and beat the deadline.

Spare a thought though for those who booked their return tickets on the basis of an interview given by Transport Minister, Grant Shapps to Sky. As the Guardian reports, Shapps sowed confusion on Thursday night by apparently giving out the wrong information, suggesting the quarantine measures would be coming into force on Sunday when, in fact, they are doing so 20 hours earlier:

Shapps said during a TV interview that people arriving in the UK from France would have to isolate for 14 days from Sunday, but the move is actually coming into force at 4am on Saturday.

Meanwhile, in a swiftly deleted tweet referencing the imposition of the measures, Shapps declared at 10.45pm on Thursday: “It’s Saturday at 4am, meaning that anyone returning on Sunday onwards will need to quarantine.”

The Guardian has been told some holidaymakers mistakenly booked return trips later on Saturday after seeing Shapps’s interview, meaning they would arrive after the measures came into effect.

During the TV interview, Shapps said: “Well, the French government have said that unfortunately the virus has been going the wrong way there.

“There’s been a 66% increase in the number of positive tests in the last week alone. And so, unfortunately, France is having to be added to the quarantine list. That means if you’re coming back from France then you must self-isolate for 14 days when you come back from Sunday.”

The measures also apply to people arriving from, among other countries, the Netherlands, Malta, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Aruba and Monaco.

The broadcaster Andrew Neil, whose tweet to Shapps asking about the timing of the measures prompted the now deleted tweet, was characteristically unsparing in his criticism. Neil wrote on Twitter: “I fear the transport minister didn’t know what he was talking about.”

In another tweet, Neil said: “Transport minister Shapps has just deleted his tweet to me. I suspect he thought 4am Saturday was early Sunday morning. It’s not. It’s 4am Saturday.”

The paper recants the story of one woman, who told them that her brother-in-law and family were staying with her in France and were due to leave on Monday but, after seeing Shapps’s TV interview, quickly paid £230 to book a Eurotunnel ticket for Saturday afternoon:

Amanda Hill said: “They were of course shocked to wake up to find out the quarantine starts from 4am tomorrow morning. They are of course extremely upset and angry and now have to quarantine with six-year-old twins. Why hasn’t he acknowledged his mistake and the impact it has had?”

Surely, such ineptitude requires some sanction.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

When 'the science' becomes inconvenient

The one phrase we haven't heard that much of in the last few weeks is 'we are following the science'. The reason for that is possibly because the UK government is no longer taking the advice of scientists so seriously, as they try to get the economy in England back underway.

In truth, it has never been entirely about the science. Every decision has been political and the advice of scientists has just been one factor in the conclusions that were reached. What has changed is the weighting given to that scientific advice as other agendas kick in.

This has been made clear by the latest revelation in the Independent, who report on the views of one expert, that the latest easing of England’s coronavirus lockdown was a political decision not founded in concrete scientific advice.

John Edmunds, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of the government’s Sage group of advisers, is quoted as saying: “Nothing has really changed in the epidemiology over the last couple of weeks” since Boris Johnson announced that the reopening of beauty parlours and other businesses would be delayed.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that although survey data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) appeared to show a drop in how many people were infectious, from one in 1,500 to one in 1,900, “there’s huge uncertainty about each of those estimates”:

He added: “If you want to take a positive view, that’s a small improvement. From a scientific point of view, I think we would probably conclude that it’s not changed very much.” Other epidemiological indicators suggested a similarly small degree of change, he said.

From Saturday, beauty parlours and other close-contact services, soft play areas, casinos and indoor performance venues can reopen following a delay caused by a spike in cases.

Of the decision to further ease lockdown, Prof Edmunds said: “I don’t think it’s really been taken on epidemiological grounds, I think it’s really been taken primarily for economic reasons, and there’s of course extremely good reasons for doing that.”

Asked if he feared England was moving too quickly, he added: “Again those are political decisions. I think you have to balance the epidemiology with the economics and other considerations. I think all of us would prefer there to be much lower numbers of infections but the government has to balance these things out.”

So, now we know.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Lies, damned lies and statistics

The phrase lies, damned lies and statistics, was popularised by Mark Twain, but its origins are lost in the mists of time. Nevertheless, it remains true today as ever, and more so when applied to the UK Government's claims on testing for COVID-19.

The Guardian reports that UK Ministers have quietly removed 1.3m coronavirus tests from its data because of double counting, raising fresh questions about the accuracy of the testing figures:

In the government’s daily coronavirus update on Wednesday, it announced it had lowered the figure for “tests made available” by about 10% and discontinued the metric.

An update on the page read: “An adjustment of -1,308,071 has been made to the historic data for the ‘tests made available’ metric. The adjustments have been made as a result of more accurate data collection and reporting processes recently being adopted within pillar 2.”

The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) said the changes affected data reported between 14 May and 12 August. It said there had been “a double-counting of test kits that had been dispatched”, “which had not been removed from the lab’s processed data”.

The changes were made after it was discovered fewer in-person pillar 2 tests had been carried out than originally reported, while more tests had been sent to NHS trusts and care homes. The problem was acknowledged by the DHSC on 6 July but the tests were removed from the data on 12 August.

Pillar 2 tests involve all testing done outside hospitals through commercial companies. For example, swab tests carried out at satellite testing centres, such as care homes, and home swab testing kits delivered by post.

In truth, the testing regime has been shambolic from the start, with targets being missed and figures manipulated to give the illusion of efficacy. It does not help that this revision has come about because of the recall of up to 750,000 unused coronavirus testing kits manufactured by the diagnostics company Randox, due to concerns about safety standards.

Transparency has been missing throughout on this whole testing endeavour, and that is not good enough.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Private Eye reveals Johnson hypocrisy over Lords nominees


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

A victory for civil liberties

Some good news on the civil liberties for a change, the Court of Appeal has ruled that the use of automatic facial recognition (AFR) technology by South Wales Police is unlawful.

As the BBC report, this ruling follows a legal challenge brought by civil rights group Liberty and Ed Bridges, 37, from Cardiff:

The court upheld three of the five points raised in the appeal.

It said there was no clear guidance on where AFR Locate could be used and who could be put on a watchlist, a data protection impact assessment was deficient and the force did not take reasonable steps to find out if the software had a racial or gender bias.

As Ed Bridges says: "This technology is an intrusive and discriminatory mass surveillance tool.

"For three years now, South Wales Police has been using it against hundreds of thousands of us, without our consent and often without our knowledge.

"We should all be able to use our public spaces without being subjected to oppressive surveillance."

South Wales Police have said they will not appeal this ruling, which means that there is now clear criteria, set down in a legal judgement, which must be met if this technology is to be used again.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Why is Big Brother government monitoring our social media?

If you think Big Brother is watching you, then you may well be right. The Guardian reports that the government has hired an artificial intelligence firm to collect and analyse the tweets of UK citizens as part of a coronavirus-related contract.

The paper says the copy of a contract, published online, reveals that Faculty, which was hired by Dominic Cummings to work for the Vote Leave campaign and counts two current and former Conservative ministers among its shareholders, was paid £400,000 by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government for the work.

The unredacted copy of the contract, published following questions in the House of Lords, describes the company’s work as “topic analysis of social media to understand public perception and emerging issues of concern to HMG arising from the Covid-19 crisis”. A further paragraph describes how machine learning will be applied to social media data:

Silkie Carlo, the director of the civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, which discovered the updated contract, expressed alarm at the details. “This is effectively AI-powered mass political surveillance, and it’s been done in a very secretive way, apparently to inform policy,” she said.

“It seems from the contract this social media monitoring has been going on for three months, and machine learning has been used for that time. We don’t know what the impact is.”

A Faculty spokesperson declined to comment on the criticism, but said that the project analysed public posts from Twitter containing words relating to the pandemic, such as “covid” or “coronavirus”, as part of an endeavour to help the government detect emerging issues relating to the pandemic in local communities.

They said personally identifiable information, such as Twitter usernames or profiles, was stripped out from the data at the point of collection, meaning it would be impossible to use the information to profile any individual or group of people.

Carlo expressed scepticism that social media posts would provide the government with an accurate insight into public attitudes. “Twitter is not representative of public opinion as a whole,” she said. “I think there are a lot of questions to be asked about the premise.”

An MHCLG spokesperson said: “We are satisfied that the service provided by Faculty was of a high standard, and delivered on value for money.” They added that the contract expired in July.

It is difficult to know what value this work could have in helping to combat COVID-19. It is worth noting however that, as the Guardian says, Faculty has a history of work with Cummings and links to the Conservative Party:

The company has several links to figures in the Vote Leave campaign and the Conservative party. Two of its investors, Theodore Agnew and John Nash, are current or former Conservative ministers.

In 2016 the firm was recruited by Cummings to provide data science and machine learning technology for the Vote Leave campaign. The work was carried out by Ben Warner, the brother of Faculty’s CEO, Marc Warner.

Ben subsequently worked on the Conservative party’s 2019 general election campaign, and was later recruited as a data science adviser to Downing Street.

Last month the Guardian reported Cummings had paid more than £250,000 to Faculty via his private consultancy firm, Dynamic Maps. Both parties have declined to explain what the payments were for.

Surely, once the present crisis is over, there needs to be a proper inquiry into all the government's coronavirus-linked contracts to establish exactly what we have been paying for and whether they represent value for money.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Another sweetener for the Prime Minister's allies?

Following on from yesterday's post about how the friends and allies of Boris Johnson have somehow secured lucrative government contracts, the Independent reports on another astonishing, but altogether different phenomenon.

The paper says that Tate and Lyle Sugars is in line to save £73m from a post-Brexit trade shake-up, after campaigning to leave the EU and donating money to the Conservatives. The company has secured “a sweet deal” that will also see cane imported from countries with lower employment and environmental standards.

The allegations come from Greenpeace, but the firm said it was “a complete fantasy” that it wanted to import cheap, poorly produced sugar, under a shake-up at the end of the year, and defended its lobbying:

The controversy comes after the government said companies will be able to import 260,000 tonnes of raw sugar cane from anywhere in the world, tariff-free, from January.

However, the only company that currently imports raw sugar cane is Tate & Lyle – one of the few large employers that publicly backed Brexit.

Its name was also carried on the lanyards worn by everyone who attended the 2017 Tory conference, a sponsorship is recorded as an £8,000 donation by the Electoral Commission.

The new tariff-free quota equates to a £72.8m saving, according to analysis by Greenpeace’s Unearthed investigations team.

It is being introduced after a long and public lobbying campaign by the company. Greenpeace said Tate & Lyle had held at least 10 meetings with senior ministers over the last three years.

Greenpeace is particularly concerned as they believe ditching tariffs on raw cane sugar will boost imports from a handful of countries, all of which use pesticides banned in the UK for being harmful to wildlife and humans.

As ever with these issues we will have to see how that pans out.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

Cronyism or worse?

Over in the Guardian Opinion pages, Jonathan Freedland reminds us how it has taken just twelve months for Boris Johnson to create a government of sleaze. The examples he quotes include:
Freedman points out that Johnson was hardly a stickler for probity to start with: 'his attitude to the rules, grandly branded a libertarian philosophy by his pals, has long been elastic, at least when it comes to himself and those around him. As for Cummings, his breach of the lockdown during the pandemic’s most grave phase leaves no doubt: he sees the rules as applying to lesser mortals, not him.  
This week, research published in the Lancet proved how devastating “the Cummings effect” has been for public faith in the government’s handling of the pandemic. Through their cronyism, their cavalier disregard for basic propriety, Johnson and his circle are draining trust at a time when it is essential to the public health.' 

Isn't it time that Johnson and his government were held to account for this blatant abuse of public trust?

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Guest Post: Liberal Lessons About A Painful Past by Stephen Williams

Statues have been moved and removed, defaced and smashed since ancient times.

As ruling dynasties are supplanted and once powerful states are vanquished their replacements were often keen to sweep away the physical memories of their predecessors. During the last two centuries archaeologists the world over have found in rubbish heaps or river beds the busts or decapitated statue heads of former kings and emperors.

So, while I was initially shocked that some protestors in my home city of Bristol toppled the statue of Edward Colston and dunked it in the harbour, when I reflected on it I thought it was an appropriate action.

While it was the police murder of George Floyd in Minnesota that triggered the Black Lives Matter demonstration, the Bristol context was years of civic foot dragging and burying heads in the historical sands of the city’s involvement in African slavery.

Since the toppling of Colston we’ve seen the defacing of Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, the toppling of Columbus in Baltimore, the decision of Oxford University to remove a statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes and Liverpool University caving in to pressure to remove Gladstone as the name of a hall of residence.

Colston was a wealthy man from the time of Queen Anne, who made much of his fortune from lending money to slave traders. He was also an official of the Royal African Company. His link to slavery and its 21st century descendant of racism is pretty clear.

The case against explorers is quite weak, they didn’t decide the colonial policies that came later. The case against Rhodes seems to rest on a belief that imperialism was entirely bad, rather than him being the British equivalent of the Belgian monster Leopold II. 


But the case against Gladstone is at the opposite end of the spectrum of 2020 judgement to Colston. It seems to me to be more to do with a left wing score settling against anyone (especially current Liberals) who doesn’t embrace the entirety of their world view.

In their world, there is no room for balance or nuance. A historical life should be viewed in its entirety. Gladstone was clearly what we would now call a man on a journey. In his early years he was indeed the “rising hope of those stern and unbending Tories” but by the mid-point of his extraordinary political life he was the ‘People’s William’. In his career he achieved far more to improve Britain than the people’s Jeremy.

Statues and place names are physical reminders of particular points in our past. They are not in themselves history and by moving or changing them we are not erasing the past. If that past is uncomfortable for contemporary society then liberals have a duty to find a way to reconcile the need to understand history with a desire for a cohesive and inclusive society.

Sometimes the balance will tip in favour of removal of the painful reminder – what could be more of an insult to a 21st century Bristolian of Afro-Caribbean origin than the statue of a slave trader in the centre of the city? It’s right that Colston will now go to the city museum, as part of the displays on the history of Bristol and slavery.

I’m reminded of a similar situation in Estonia, which I visited on a Liberal Democrat delegation in 2007. The liberal government had moved a statue of a Soviet soldier from the centre of Tallinn to a cemetery that contained war graves. The Estonians saw the Russians as occupiers and oppressors, not liberators. This caused consternation in Moscow and Putin responded with a cyber-attack on the Estonian economy. Most central and east European capital cities have statue parks of communist era politicians. Statues are indeed powerful symbols from the past.

While on another delegation, to Australia, I saw Dublin’s statue of Queen Victoria which had been shipped off to a Sydney shopping centre, probably the world’s longest journey by a statue.

In most circumstances I believe the balance tips in favour of keeping the statue or place name but with an accompanying plaque or information panel telling the full warts and all story of the person who is commemorated. As liberals we believe in rational debate, a sifting of the evidence leading to an understanding of a situation, from which we can decide whether and how to change that situation or be content with how things stand.

A totally illiberal way to respond to our past is to demand a complete rearrangement of the facts of history so that they can be judged by or made to conform to contemporary values or opinions. I recently gave a brief talk to the Friends of a local library on the political language of George Orwell.

We don’t live in an Orwellian society but much of his language and the tactics of the characters of 1984 has seeped into our current politics. I’m thinking in the context of this article about Winston Smith’s explanation of the work of the Ministry of Truth: “Do you realise that the past, starting from yesterday, has actually been abolished?...Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered….History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

Some of the more extreme demands to sweep away all the statues and place names that commemorate dead white men come straight out of this Orwellian attitude, perhaps unwittingly. Yes, there is an imbalance of representation in our public art. The answer is not to remove what we have but to put up more statues, busts, murals and paintings to women, people of colour and gay people. My nomination for the empty plinth vacated by Colston is Hannah More, a Bristolian author, educationalist and campaigner with Wilberforce for the ending of slavery.

To build a modern society that is cohesive and where everyone is valued and enabled to make a contribution, one of things we must do is understand why society is in its current state. That is the role of history and the job of historians is to give us all the complete and unvarnished facts about our journey from whatever point in the past to our present situation. That history must be inclusive, not because liberals want a current society that is inclusive but because if the story isn’t inclusive then it isn’t complete.

I’m a Welshman from a working class family. My favourite subject at school was history and I now live on the English side of the Severn as I studied history at the University of Bristol. I’m also gay, regard myself as a feminist and have campaigned against racism. While I don’t judge a book by its cover I do judge a history book by its contents. Churchill is supposed to have said: “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” He did, won a Nobel Prize for his efforts and history has indeed been overly kind to him.


Until quite recently most of the history books studied at school or found in bookshops to enjoy for your own learning were written by white, male, straight, English, public school, Oxbridge (or Sandhurst) types.

The stories they told were about men like them. All things good and indeed bad were done by people like them. Women were ancillary characters, with a few queenly exceptions. Poor people and slaves were mentioned in the context of the rights taken away or given to them by the ruling elite. The homosexuality of some of the ruling elite was swept under the carpet. One of the most popular articles on my blog is about the historic sites in Britain and their LGBT associations that almost always go unmentioned in their guide books.

Fortunately, schools policy in Wales is now in the hands of a female working class Liberal Democrat minister. Kirsty Williams has just launched the first post-devolution reform of the curriculum. I was delighted to see her say that history in Welsh schools will be “taught in a pluralistic way, which challenges both the amazing contributions of Welsh people in our own nation and across the world and sometimes things that should make us feel a bit uncomfortable”.

The young beneficiaries of Kirsty’s new curriculum will be shaping Welsh and maybe British society in the middle decades of this century.

Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on our own school years to make us better informed. History isn’t nuclear physics, aspects of it can be learned throughout life by people of all abilities. Those of us who are campaigning to change society in a more liberal direction have a duty to study our past and act to make sure that our contemporary fellow citizens are able to live their lives without being trapped by their past and to look about them and feel that people like them are valued and celebrated in our public space.

Stephen Williams was Liberal Democrat MP for Bristol West 2005-15 and was minister for communities in the Coalition Government. This article first appeared in Liberator Issue 402.

Friday, August 07, 2020

More Labour chaos

Corbyn's legacy is continuing to haunt the Labour Party after an inquiry was told that staffers named in a leaked internal party report that claimed to show their private hostility to Jeremy Corbyn have alleged the document misused private messages to falsely make them seem racist and sexist.

The Guardian reports that officials accused in the report of insulting pro-Corbyn colleagues in WhatsApp groups are seeking damages from the party for misuse of data and libel, among other complaints:

The leaked 860-page report emerged in April, just after Keir Starmer became Labour leader, reigniting party splits by claiming that Corbyn’s chances of success were scuppered by disgruntled party elements.

Authored anonymously in the final months of Corbyn’s tenure, the report said opponents hampered his efforts to tackle antisemitism in the party, and cited WhatsApp messages insulting Corbyn’s allies. Some of the messages had apparent racist or sexist overtones, prompting disquiet among some of the party’s BAME members.

Starmer has set up an inquiry led by Martin Forde QC to investigate both the claims in the report and how it was produced and leaked.

In a formal submission to the inquiry, seen by the Guardian, lawyers for the accused officials say the WhatsApp messages were used selectively and edited to give a false impression. They also say the inquiry should be abandoned given the damage already caused by the leaked report. The 11-page submission claims that some WhatsApp messages sent months apart were joined together to create a false narrative, and others were removed, “so that by such editing a deliberately false impression that racist and misogynistic conversations had taken place”.

It says the unnamed authors of the leaked report should not have had access to the WhatsApp messages, adding that one member of the WhatsApp group accidentally backed them up via their Labour email, and that a data misuse complaint is with the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The leaked report also selectively ignores many thousands of other messages that do not back up a narrative of factionalism or prejudice, the lawyers write.

They say the officials plan to take legal action against Labour over data protection issues and libel as well invasion of privacy and, for some staffers, breach of contract and employment, and will seek substantial damages.

In the circumstances I suspect Starmer is massively frustrated at the mess he has inherited. Nobody would be surprised if he is pacing up and down echoing the words of Henry II about Thomas Beckett - “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest!” - because until this is settled and the Cotbynite chaos resolved, he is unable to move forward with his own leadership.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Jobs for the boys (and girls)?

Just how far the current Conservative administration is prepared to go to subvert the system in their own favour has been revealed by this article in the Independent.

The paper repoets on an Institute for Government analysis which has found that Tory insiders are being handed powerful Whitehall jobs despite promises that “independent” people would be appointed. 

They say that the boards overseeing government departments are meant to be staffed through “fair and transparent competition”, finding private sector recruits boasting “experience of managing complex organisations”. But no fewer than eight of 13 appointments made this year have gone to close Conservative allies of the ministers they are meant to scrutinise.

Four of the five appointees to the Cabinet Office’s board this year are former colleagues of its lead minister, Michael Gove – including Lord Nash, who has given more than £400,000 to the Tory party:

Departmental boards were introduced in 2010 to “fundamentally transform the way government operates, scrutinising decisions and sharpening accountability”.

But ministers have appointed growing number of former special advisers to the part-time positions, which come with an average salary of £15,000 per year.

Lord Nash, appointed by Boris Johnson last week as the government’s lead non-executive director, was a Tory schools minister and donated £3,250 to Mr Gove’s failed 2016 leadership campaign.

He joins Henry de Zoete, an adviser to Mr Gove when he was education secretary in the Cameron government, and Gisela Stuart, the former Labour MP and ally in the Vote Leave campaign.

Baroness Finn, another director, is a Conservative peer who also served as a special adviser in the Cabinet Office, and attended the University of Oxford at the same time as Mr Gove, The Times said.

Last month, the department for work and pensions appointed Eleanor Shawcross, a former adviser to George Osborne, and Rachel Wolf, the co-author of last year’s Tory election manifesto, to its departmental board.

As foreign secretary, Mr Johnson made Edward Lister, now his chief of staff and recently-appointed Tory peer, a Foreign Office non-executive director.

Nice work if you can get it.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Is the Covid 19 compensation scheme for health and care workers operating in secret?

Liberal Democrats leadership contender, Layla Moran has highlighted a huge flaw in a Covid life assurance scheme for health and social care workers - nobody knows about it and as a result claims are virtually non-existent.

As the Huffington Post reports, to date the government had made just two payouts for key worker deaths on the front line:

Despite at least 300 health and social care workers losing their lives after contracting the disease, just 21 claims for the £60,000 had been successful as of July 23 – and only two families had received the cash so far.

Now, a cross-party group of MPs has written to the prime minister calling on him to actually advertise the payout scheme, announced by his health secretary Matt Hancock in April.

The letter, signed by 25 MPs and peers, calls on the government to “rapidly design and implement a dignified advertising campaign to raise awareness for the scheme amongst workers and their families.” It is signed 13 Lib Dems, nine from Labour and two from the SNP.

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, who coordinated the letter and campaigned for the scheme, said: “The low take-up of the scheme so far is extremely worrying. It suggests there is an issue with lack of awareness and that some are at risk of missing out.

“The government urgently needs to get the NHS, GPs and other employers round the table and set up an advertising campaign to raise awareness of this scheme.

“We must ensure that families of NHS and care workers who tragically die on the front line against coronavirus receive support in their time of need.”

Given that the claims are “time-limited” and there is a six-month sunset clause then the government really need to get a move on and publicise this scheme properly.

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Another embarrassment for Johnson's Brexiteers

Anybody wondering why the UK Government was trying to suppress the release of a parliamentary report on Russian interference in our democratic process need no look no further than this article in today's Guardian.

Liam Fox's alleged incompetence in failing to secure sensitive government documents from hackers may not have featured in the report, but the general impression given by this latest incident is that the government is flailing about, clueless and impotent in the face of actions by external agitators.

The Guardian says that a personal email account belonging to Liam Fox, the former trade minister, was repeatedly hacked into by Russians who stole classified documents relating to US-UK trade talks. The stolen documents – a 451-page dossier of emails – ultimately ended up in the hands of Jeremy Corbyn during last winter’s election campaign after Russian actors tried to disseminate the material online:

Details of Russia’s targeting of Fox’s emails were first revealed on Monday by Reuters, which said his account was accessed several times between 12 July and 21 October last year. It was unclear if the documents were obtained when the staunch leave supporter was still trade secretary; he was dropped by Boris Johnson on 24 July.

The attack is understood to have deployed a “spear-phishing” technique frequently used by Russian actors, in which superficially plausible emails are sent inviting the recipient to click on an attached file. The file contains malicious code designed to give access to or take control of the target’s computer.

Chris Bryant, a Labour MP and former Foreign Office minister, said he was not surprised that the Kremlin might want to hack the trade secretary’s email, given Russia’s long history of targeting western politicians.

“What shocks me is using insecure personal email accounts for sensitive, classified government business. This a very serious breach of national security and should be a criminal offence,” Bryant added.

Using personal emails for UK government business is not illegal but ministers are reminded that government information “must be handled in accordance with the requirements of the law, including the Official Secrets Act”, in guidance published by the government in 2013.

The stupidity involved in this leak is legion. Anybody in any position of influence is consistently warned not to click on unknown or suspicious attachments, whilst surely the 2016 controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton's use of of a private server, the well-known hacking of the Democratic National Party's servers and many more instances prior to Fox's material being stolen, should have alerted him and everybody else only to use secure government networks for sensitive government documents.

Astonishingly, Johnson has now nominated Fox to be the next Director General of the World Trade Organisation despite the fact that during his tenure as UK Trade Secretary he failed to secure a single trade deal. Fox is also the man who predicted that a free trade agreement with the EU should be "one of the easiest in human history", something he may have failed to mention to our current negotiators.

With a track record like this he will no doubt be welcomed with open arms by the WTO and, given his misguided and mistaken criticism of a lack of democracy in the EU, he will surely submit his new role to a democratic election, in which all the citizens of the WTO members get a vote.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Has the government abandoned care homes in England?

The Independent reports that ministers have been accused of being “negligent” towards care home residents and staff, after it emerged that the target of delivering regular coronavirus tests this summer has been dropped.

The paper says that a leaked memo written by the government’s adult social care testing director, Jane Cummings, has revealed that the originally promised timelines for rolling out regular tests had been abandoned:

Weekly testing for staff and 28-day tests for residents was due to begin in England on 6 July for care homes looking after over-65s and those with dementia, with a rollout to all adult social care homes from August.

However, Prof Cummings’s memo suggested that the target for care homes with older people and dementia sufferers had been put back to 7 September. Other adult care homes will only be able to order test kits from 31 August.

A member of the Independent Sage expert group said the delay was "not good enough".

Christina Pagel, director of the Clinical Operational Research Unit at University College London, told the BBC: "We know care homes were absolutely devastated in March and April, when they were one-third of all UK deaths, and we absolutely have responsibility to protect care homes now. And we protect them by testing people and making sure we are not bringing infection into these really vulnerable communities."

From my perspective it seems that the testing regime has been a disaster in all four nations, with targets being regularly missed, no obvious criteria or consistency of purpose, and varying degrees of efficacy.

Early incompetence, which led to indefensible levels of infection (and deaths) in care homes, now appears to being compounded by this failure on testing. Isn't it time all the government's got their act together on this issue.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Is Covid distracting us from a greater crisis?

All many of us have been able to think and talk about for the past few months has been coronavirus and the lockdown but, as with other pandemics, at some stage we will move on, only to be forced to face up to the greater crisis impacting on our planet and our future - climate change.

The Guardian reports that the Met Office’s annual climate report has concluded that more extreme heat, less frost and snow, and trees coming into leaf earlier are among the signs seen in 2019 that the climate crisis is exerting an increasing impact on the UK.

They say that 2019 was 1.1C above the 1961-1990 average and the all-time high temperature record was broken in July when Cambridge hit 38.7C. The record-high for winter was also broken, with 21.2C in February at Kew Gardens in London:

Weather conditions are the result of the warming trend driven by global heating and natural variability. Last year was the 12th warmest year on records dating back to 1884 and one of the least snowy years on record. It was also the sixth consecutive year with fewer frosts than average. The last decade has seen 16% fewer days of air and ground frost compared with 1961–1990.

“Our report shows climate change is exerting an increasing impact on the UK’s climate,” said Mike Kendon, lead author of the Met Office report. “Since 2002 we have seen the warmest 10 years in the series. By contrast, to find a year in the coldest 10 we have to go back to 1963 – over 50 years ago.”

The Central England Temperature Series is the longest instrumental record in the world, stretching back to 1659. It shows the average temperature this century so far is 10.3C, which is 1.6C higher than the period 1659-1700.

“Seeing these temperature records go down like sweaty skittles is a stark reminder that climate change is still tightening its grip on all our futures,” said Prof Dave Reay, at the University of Edinburgh. “No corner of the UK is immune to the impacts of climate change.”

In June, research showed the likelihood of the UK experiencing deadly 40C temperatures for the first time is “rapidly accelerating” because of the climate emergency. Another analysis, from Public Health England showed the summer heatwaves of 2019 resulted in almost 900 extra deaths. A wide range of business, economics, health and environmental groups are urging governments including the UK to implement a green recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

But is it too late to do anything about it? Only time will tell.

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Bloated House of Lords to expand further

Like a legislative Mr. Creosote from Monty Python's 'The Meaning of Life', the House of Lords is to expand still further until it is in danger of bursting open from government gluttony and a refusal to adopt a more healthy lifestyle.

The news that Boris Johnson is to nominate dozens of new peers, taking the membership of the unelected second chamber to over 800, almost 200 more than the House of Commons, has been met with widespread dismay. This is especially so as the list includes some of the more unlikely of the Prime Minister's pals, making it possibly the most controversial since Harold Wilson's Lavender List.

Russian-born billionaire newspaper proprietor Evgeny Lebedev and the prime minister’s brother, Jo Johnson, are joined by Johnson’s chief strategic adviser, Sir Edward Lister, as well as a host of Tory grandees and well-known Brexiters, including former England cricketer Sir Ian Botham.

Ex-Labour MPs who backed Brexit – Kate Hoey, Ian Austin, and Gisela Stuart – are also on the list. But noticeably absent are former Commons speaker John Bercow and former Labour deputy leader Tom Watson.

Tory donor and City grandee Michael Spencer is also among those nominated for a peerage. Charles Moore, who as a former Daily Telegraph editor was the prime minister’s boss, and Claire Fox, the ex-Brexit party MEP and former member of the Revolutionary Communist party, are both nominated for non-affiliated peerages.

Neil Mendoza, the provost of Oriel College Oxford who found himself at the centre of the recent Rhodes Must Fall controversy, was also nominated by Johnson for a peerage. He was heavily involved in securing the £1.5bn arts bailout and is expected to play a role in distributing it.

The Guardian reports that Lebedev, who is nominated as a crossbench peer, hosted Johnson at his Italian party in 2018. The prime minister also headed to Lebedev’s London family home in the aftermath of his 2019 election victory to celebrate the 60th birthday of his father, Alexander, a former KGB spy.

They say there is also a peerage for former Evening Standard editor Veronica Wadley, whose support for Boris Johnson during the 2008 London mayoral election played a key role in his victory over Ken Livingstone.

Darren Hughes, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: “The Lords was already the largest second chamber in the world. There are now over 800 unelected peers, voting on our laws for life. Is packing the Lords with party loyalists really a priority, as a pandemic rages across the world? This move is an absolute insult to voters. This is making a mockery of democracy.”

By rewarding his friends in this way. Johnson is just reinforcing the undemocratic nature of our governmental system. A true radical would reduce the second chamber in size and democratise it. Unfortunately, our current Prime Minister does not appear to be interested in such a reform.

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