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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

No deal Brexit would be a gift to terrorism

Some of us warned about this during the referendum of course, but this revelation in the Guardian is still a sharp reminder of the disaster that Boris Johnson's government is steering us towards.

The paper reports on warnings by a former EU security commissioner that British intelligence about terrorists and other serious criminals would have to be deleted from EU systems if the Brexit trade negotiations were to collapse.

Sir Julian King, who was the UK’s last commissioner in Brussels until last year, said that in security terms “the difference between a deal and no deal is significant” and the negative impact would be felt immediately:

“UK [intelligence] data that was held in EU systems could – indeed would – be deleted, if there was no data adequacy arrangement covering how you share data,” said the former British diplomat in a briefing organised by the Royal United Services Institute.

The UK would instantly become disconnected from a range of databases and systems such as the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS), which shares data about prior convictions across all EU countries, he added.

Warnings about the UK losing direct access to EU security databases in the event of no deal have been made previously, but King’s remarks about deletion represent a little discussed risk. It would have an “immediate impact” fighting terrorism and serious crime across Europe, he said.

As Sir John Scarlett, a former boss of MI6, says, data sharing between the UK and the EU and its member states has grown significantly in recent years. He believes that it is critical in tackling terrorism and drug trafficking:

The former spy chief said that “after the attacks in the Bataclan in Paris in 2015” intelligence sharing about the attackers and their ringleader were critical to investigators scrambling to piece together information about the planning of the attack.

Investigators in both the UK and across Europe needed to track “personal movements, crossing frontiers, knowing where people are at any one time,” and “financial movements at the same time,” Scarlett added.

“The jihadist extremist threat is absolutely definitely still there,” Scarlett said. “Last year in the EU there were 21 terrorist related attacks of which three succeeded”. One was the knife attack at Fishmonger’s Hall in London Bridge, where two people who had been attending a conference on prison rehabilitation were killed.

Britain would also have failed to have negotiated a replacement for the European arrest warrant in the event of a no deal, Scarlett warned. “Operationally, it really matters … the ability to arrest serious criminal suspects in the UK, or elsewhere across the EU,” the MI6 boss said.

Ironically, the party of law and order, the so-called Conservative Party, is putting us all in more danger as a result of their reckless pursuit of a no deal Brexit.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Will freedom of thought and speech be victims of new Tory ideological approach?

It is becoming clear that the new ideological crusade being launched by the Tories goes beyond trying to take over the BBC and OFCOM. As the Independent reports, new guidance issued by the department of education for English schools has banned them from using teaching material that calls for the end of capitalism because it is an “extreme political stance”.

The paper says that this guidance puts groups wanting to replace the economic system on a par with those endorsing racism, antisemitism and violence, or the overthrow of democracy. Even material that is “not extreme” has been outlawed if it has been produced by organisations on the banned list, because that could “imply endorsement.”

Amnesty International attacked the instructions, issued by the department for education, for undermining “freedom of speech”:

Issued last Thursday, the guidance reads: “Schools should not under any circumstances use resources produced by organisations that take extreme political stances on matters.

“Examples of extreme political stances include, but are not limited to: a publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to end free and fair elections, opposition to the right of freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly or freedom of religion and conscience.”

Other examples are “the use or endorsement of racist, including antisemitic, language or communications”, it goes on.

Also outlawed is “the encouragement or endorsement of illegal activity, a failure to condemn illegal activities done in their name or in support of their cause, particularly violent actions against people or property.”

That section prompted the leading QC Jessica Simor to ask, witheringly, if that meant “schools should not accept government money?” – following the Brexit bill that breaches international law.

Allan Hogarth, Amnesty’s head of policy and government affairs, said: “It’s a step too far to ban materials which question an economic model such as capitalism.

“The only extreme view here is the one which suggests that it's somehow illegitimate to even consider the validity of socio-economic systems other than the prevailing one – a system that has of course only been in existence for a comparatively short period of time.”

At best this guidance is ridiculous and undemocratic, at worst it is sinister. When politicians start to interfere in the education process then they are embarking on a very dangerous course indeed.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Are the Tories trying to mirror Trump with political appointments to key institutions?

The latest rumour to do the rounds suggests that Tory Ministers are lining up two outspoken right-wing critics of the BBC for crucial broadcasting jobs. The Independent says that Paul Dacre, the former Daily Mail editor, is tipped to become chairman of broadcasting regulator Ofcom – while Charles Moore, a former Daily Telegraph editor, is favoured for the post of BBC chairman.

The rumours have been given credence by the fact that Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, has refused to deny them:

And he stressed the choices were Boris Johnson’s to make, after vetting for suitability by an independent panel in the case of the Ofcom boss.

“Whoever is deemed appointable, the choice will be put to ministers and ministers will make that decision,” Mr Dowden told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme.

Mr Dacre is believed to have been wooed by Johnson over drinks in Downing Street, while Lord Moore was handed a peerage by the prime minister last month.

The peer’s appointment is believed to be close despite his admission that he does not watch TV and his past refusal to pay the licence fee, in a dispute over a presenter.

The paper suggests that Dacre could be expected to pursue the persistent right-wing complaint of BBC bias, also encouraging the corporation to downsize to focus on its core public service role.

There is controversy in the United States of course, where the US President is seeking to pack the Supreme Court with right wingers, but at least there is a process there. Here, it seems that any form of process is being short-circuited in pursuit of an ideological clamp-down on the BBC and other media in this country.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Old authoritarian Labour rears its head in disciplining of MPs

It is rather sad that Keir Starmer seems to believe that he can only get Labour back into power by echoing the law and order, national security actions and rhetoric of the former Tony Blair/Jack Straw/David Blunkett era, but that now appears to be the case.

The Independent reports that Starmer has sacked a Labour MP for voting against the government's plans to exempt UK troops from prosecution for war crimes and torture:

Nadia Whittome, parliament's youngest MP, confirmed in a statement that she had been "stood down" from her role as a parliamentary private secretary after opposing the Overseas Operations Bill.

Two other MPs, Beth Winter and Olivia Blake, also voluntarily stood down from similar roles to vote against the legislation, which Amnesty International says will give war criminals "a free pass".

The MPs joined Jeremy Corbyn and 14 other MPs from the left of the party in opposing the bill, which critics say would effectively decriminalise torture. The Liberal Democrats and SNP also voted against the plan.

The paper says that the new legislation has been slammed by human rights groups and some senior armed forces figures, including General Sir Nicholas Parker Commander in Chief, Land Forces 2010-2012. He argued that the bill would risk the UK being seen as holding itself to "double standards".

Ms Whittome told ITV News that she "thought the bill was a matter of conscience" and did not expect to be sacked for voting against it, describing the legislation as “anti-veteran, anti-human rights, and would effectively decriminalise torture".

Precisely! What is a supposedly progressive party of the left doing in whipping its MPs to allow such legislation to go through?

This Bill is not about backing our armed forces as the Tories claim, it undermines the discretion of the courts in determining whether a particular offence was proportional or not, and takes away some of the authority of army commanders to maintain discipline.

Our soldiers, like our police force, should not be above the rule of law, even if Ministers think they, themselves, are.

Davey missteps at the first opportunity

Nowadays, every new political leader feels obliged to find their own equivalent of Tony Blair's Clause Four moment, when he signalled a break from the party's past. The problem is that, whereas Blair genuinely believed that his party needed to make that change, others create an artificial break with the past, that neither reflects the current mood of their party nor the direction they should be travelling.

A good examnple of that is Ed Davey's rather hamfisted and ill-advised attempt to break with his own past as Jo Swinson's right-hand man by seeking to remove any commitment the Liberal Democrats might have to rejoining the EU. If that misrepresents his views, or even the position he is articulating, then I would suggest that is his fault for not communicating his intentions correctly. Nevertheless, it is the position most commentators have taken as his from the comments he has made.

The point is that, Davey may well be right, that the public do not want to hear the Lib Dems campaigning to rejoin the EU any time soon, but it is still the objective of much of the party and many of our dwindling band of voters, so it may have been more advisable to stay quiet, put the whole thing on the back burner and get on with campaigning on other Liberal Democrats priorities instead.

But no, Davey could not help himself and I, for one, am now even less motivated than I was, and even less impressed with his leadership. That he then falls into the trap of many leaders before him and seeks to rein in conference to do his bidding, just compounds the problem. He is heading for a fall, and it is not a good look.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Tory Government puts our data privacy on the line

Just when you thought the government couldn't screw up trade with the European Union anymore, Johnson's unelected guru, Dominic Cummings comes forward with a brilliant wheeze that threatens the future of EU exports to the UK of data-enabled services, worth approximately £31bn in 2017, and UK exports of data-enabled services to the EU, worth around £80bn in the same year.

The Guardian reports on warnings from Brussels that a radical “pro-tech” plan championed by Dominic Cummings to rewrite Britain’s data protection laws is endangering future cooperation with the EU worth billions to the British economy.

They say that the government’s newly published national data strategy, promising a “transformation” long sought by Boris Johnson’s chief adviser and the former Vote Leave director, has sparked concern at a sensitive time with the continued flow of data between the UK and EU member states in question.

Apparently, the European commission is currently examining whether the UK’s data laws will be in line with the EU’s general data protection regulation (GDPR) and law enforcement directive after 1 January 2021, allowing the movement of data vital to the law enforcement agencies but also the banking, health, entertainment, insurance and tech sectors:

EU sources said the government’s consultation paper published on the same day as the controversial internal market bill had exacerbated existing concerns over the UK’s approach at the end of the transition period.

Amid the uncertainty, on Friday British officials were due to explain the intentions behind the government’s stated pledge in its strategy paper to remove “legal barriers (real and perceived)” to data use, encourage international sharing and deliver a “radical transformation of how the government understands and unlocks the value of its own data”.

EU officials said the two key issues standing in the way of a positive decision were the use of data by the UK intelligence services and the potential “onward flow” to countries such as the US.

“While the UK applies EU data protection rules during the transition period, certain aspects of its system may change in the future or be implemented in a manner that differs from the approach of the EU such as rules on international transfers,” an EU official said. “These aspects therefore raise questions that need to be addressed.”

The official added that there was particular concern over the future rules “governing access to data by UK national security authorities” in the light of a recent ruling by the European court of justice.

In July, the Luxembourg court made the transfer of personal data to the US from the EU almost legally impossible due to the intrusive nature of surveillance programmes undertaken by the US intelligence agencies and the lack of redress for EU citizens.

Brussels is expected to seek assurances that the UK will recognise the implications of the ruling on its own treatment of European citizens’ personal information.

The paper says that without a GDPR adequacy decision, businesses will be forced to organise individual agreements, known as standard contractual clauses. Industry insiders say the extra costs will be crippling for many small and medium-sized enterprises. And then there will be the impact on the data privacy of individuals if the law is watered down.

Yes another fine mess Johnson and his Brexiteers have got us into.

Friday, September 25, 2020

One rule for the rich, another for the rest of us?

Is it any wonder that people do not trust the COVID regulations being imposed by the UK Government. First of all the Prime Minister fails to punish a key aide who broke the rules by travelling to Barnard Castle, then they add little exemptions that only really apply to their own narrow class, such as exempting grouse shooting and hunting .with guns in England from outdoor activities where the “rule of six” coronavirus regulations apply. And they are at it again.

The Independent reports that new face mask rules for taxi passengers will not apply to those in chauffeur-driven cars.

They say that Boris Johnson announced further restrictions for England on Tuesday in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus, including expanded rules over when face coverings should be worn. 

These new restrictions included a rule stating passengers in taxis and private hire vehicles would have to wear face masks. However, No10 said this rule would not apply to passengers in chauffeur-driven cars - although the driver's employer would have to ensure they could work safely:

The UK prime minister’s official spokesperson said: "The employer of the chauffeur will have to make sure that their employees can work in a Covid-secure way."

When pressed if chauffeurs are covered by the new law, the spokesman said: "The important point to make is the driver of a licensed vehicle will be picking up a wide variety of customers throughout the day but it's important to protect the driver from being infected from a significant number of different people.

They added: "The scenario that you're describing, that person would only be a single individual around so I don't think they're comparable."

The spokesperson said he would check whether the rule applies to ministers being driven around in ministerial cars.

It's almost as if they are trying to recreate the imaginary world of P.G, Wodehouse in the twenty-first century. They will be legislating for us all to wear cloth caps next, which we have to doff whenever we come across a Tory MP.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Chaos and traffic jams in Kent?

You really couldn't make this up - first of all Boris Johnson negotiates an internal UK border in the Irish Sea, effectively introducing customs barriers for any good travelling between Ireland and the rest of the country, then he threatens to break international law by legislating to renege on this commitment, now the government has created a second internal border - in Kent.

The Guardian reports that Michael Gove, the minister for the Cabinet Office and chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster told the Commons that lorry drivers would need a “Kent access permit” to get into the county from 1 January with “police and ANPR cameras [automatic number plate recognition]” enforcing the system.

He outlined a regime, whereby drivers, British or foreign, who are travelling, for instance from depots in the Midlands, will need to get a permit before they arrive in Kent if they intend to board a ferry or Eurotunnel train:

The KAP has been considered inside Whitehall for some time as a means of averting traffic chaos in the county, but this is the first time it has been confirmed by the government as an operational plan for next January.

According to a leaked border delivery document seen by the Guardian, the scheme was due to be approved last week at a meeting of the exit operating committee, chaired by Gove.

“We want to make sure that people use a relatively simple process in order to get what will become known as a Kent access permit,” he told parliament.

“If they don’t have the material required, then it will be the case that through policing, ANPR cameras and other means, we will do our very best to ensure that … constituents [in Kent] are not inconvenienced,” he added.

Under government plans revealed in a leaked document, KAPs will be issued only to drivers who have completed all the paperwork necessary to board a ferry or Eurotunnel train to Calais.

According to the document seen by the Guardian last week, the KAP system “is proposed to be enforced in Kent with a £300 [fine] for port-bound HGVs that travel without a Kent access permit”.

The government has not said how it will enforce the KAP. Earlier this week, the Labour MP Angela Eagle asked: “Who’s going to be patrolling the Kent borders to make sure that no lorry goes into Kent if it hasn’t got that passport?

“Where are the border posts for going into Kent going to be? It’s all very well saying we are going to need it, but are we going to have Kent border police or border guards?” she asked at the Treasury select committee on Tuesday.

Industry leaders have also been concerned. One said it would need physical checks to “weed out” those with a KAP and those without, which was a non-starter in their view.

On Tuesday, Gove wrote to hauliers to warn that if they do not prepare now for Brexit they could face queues of up to 7,000 trucks in Kent, confirming internal cabinet analysis of the potential disruption caused by the UK’s departure from the single market in January.

So much for us leaving the EU to cut bureaucracy and red tape. It looks like we will be substituting free trade for chaos instead, and poor Kent is on the front line.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Politically correct or unconscious Tories?

This story is a few days old but nevertheless, I felt it was worth highlighting it. The Times reports that up to 40 Conservative MPs are expected to say no to unconscious bias training intended to tackle racism in the Commons, accusing parliamentary authorities of “pandering to the woke agenda”.

This training, which has existed for parliamentary staff since 2016, is being piloted for MPs. It focuses on addressing prejudices people may have absorbed without knowing it. 

However, Tories in the European Research Group and “Common Sense Group” of right-leaning MPs have said most of their colleagues would not take part, with one being quoted as saying: “I would really rather gouge my eyes out with a blunt stick than sit through that Marxist, snake oil crap”:

Tom Hunt, the MP for Ipswich, said: “Whoever is pushing this forward now is trying to pander to the woke agenda — I won’t be. I don’t think the vast majority of my constituents would want me to waste two hours on a pointless unconscious bias session that will have no effectiveness whatsoever.”

Alexander Stafford, the new Conservative MP for Rother Valley, said: “It would be far better to spend time helping constituents than be lectured by someone who’s being paid a lot of money to tell you you’re an awful human being.”

Ben Bradley, Tory MP for Mansfield, said the training would perpetuate “the kind of nonsense language that we keep hearing around things like the Black Lives Matter agenda”.

Several critics drew a distinction between unconscious bias and sexual harassment training, stressing that the latter was useful for anyone who had not run an office before, but Mr Bradley called it “a waste of time”. He told Matt Chorley’s Times Radio show that he had agreed to take part in an anti-sexual harassment course simply because it was in his diary, adding: “It was two hours of jolly conversation with some colleagues that I liked very much. But to be honest, it was a total waste of all of our time.”

I suppose there really would be little point in trying to train these dinosaurs, whose bias is clearly very conscious and very evident in their reaction to the proposal. However, there is evidence of a “culture of deference” in the Houses of Parliament that needs to be tackled. 

What strikes me in these refusals is not just the arrogance in implying they are better than the members of staff around them, for whom this training is compulsory, but also that their rush to judgement on the value of this training suggests they would benefit from it the most. 

Either way, it is not a good look for the Tory Party.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Are police turning a blind eye to illegal fox hunting

Fresh on the heels of news that shooting grouse is an exempt activity and not subject to Covid restrictions the Independent tells us that a new report alleges police forces around England regularly ignore reports of illegal fox-hunting and fail to bring charges even when they are handed overwhelming evidence.

They say that some chief constables and senior officers are routinely turning a blind eye to fox hunts, while certain police on the ground often appear biased towards hunts or show no interest in accusations that the law has been broken:

Anti-blood sport campaigners have complained for years that police repeatedly dismiss reports of illegal activity, fail to follow up complaints and are slow to attend when called out to wildlife crime – if they attend at all.

Now, what is believed to be the first ever report on enforcement of the 2004 fox-hunting ban alleges widespread failures by authorities to take action, even when people monitoring hunt activities provided video evidence that they say shows trained hounds chasing the wild animals.

The investigators, from the Action Against Foxhunting (AAF) group, compiled police responses to more than 80 incidents reported during the 2019-20 winter hunting season.

Their report, Counting the Crimes, seen exclusively by The Independent, says many officers appear to have very little understanding of the hunting ban, and a lack of training means many cannot recognise illegal hunting.

However, a number of police officers appear to support hunts, and some – even including the occasional wildlife crime officer – ride with them, it is claimed.

The 2004 Hunting Act made it illegal to chase wild mammals with dogs in England and Wales, but hunts insist they act within the law, following artificially laid scent trails.

In an introduction to the report, Richard Barradale Smith, a retired officer who was at the centre of a high-profile investigation in Herefordshire last year, condemns “the catastrophic failure of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in dealing with hunting and hunting-related crimes that take place every week across our country”.

He writes: “The systemic failure in dealing with hunting crimes since the hunting act came into force has been deliberate.

“The legislation introduced was designed to make the act virtually unenforceable, and successive chief constables/senior officers across the country have chosen to turn a blind eye to it ever since. This places many frontline officers sent to deal with those incidents in an impossible position.

"The claims of any force that they take animal cruelty seriously have to be questioned when illegal hunting takes place under their noses and with their knowledge, every week.”

Relations between police and hunt monitors or saboteurs are strained in many areas, with hunt opponents claiming they are often treated as the criminals because they are watching or videoing events.

Dozens of cases documented in the report include fox killings; roads being blocked by hunts; hounds running into private gardens and frightening kept animals; hunters reportedly trying to intimidate “wildlife guardians” and hunt supporters playing loud music and obstructing filming of suspected illegal activity.

In the 81 cases recorded by the group, nobody was prosecuted, and calls to police from the public with complaints about hunts went unreturned.

The article contains examples of these incidents, however there is a clear need for reform here. If the Act is unfit for purpose as suggested then it needs to be replaced with one that is enforceable and which actually outlaws this barbaric sport.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Breach of trust by Tories hampering efforts to combat Covid-19

Surprise, surprise, the Guardian reports on the view of one technology expert that Dominic Cummings’ lockdown travels and the exams fiasco could have contributed to dooming the government’s Covid contact-tracing app before it even launches.

The app, which is due to launch in England and Wales on Thursday 24 September, will use the bluetooth signal in mobile phones to track close and sustained contact between users and then warn those who may have been exposed to an infectious person that they should self-isolate.

But Imogen Parker, the head of policy at the tech thinktank Ada Lovelace Institute, has cast doubts over whether enough people will install the app to make it effective:

“In March, it was suggested that we would need 80% of smartphone users to install the app for it to reduce infections. But internationally, the best case scenario we’ve seen has been about 40% uptake, and that’s in small countries like Iceland and Singapore. Examples from larger countries like Germany and Ireland suggest we’re looking more like 18-30% a few weeks after launch,” she said.

“In the UK, uptake is going to be related to trust in government. While we were doing some public work on trust over May, you had the Barnard Castle incident; after that you had the A-level algorithm. But the flip side is that the NHS brand itself is incredibly trusted.”

Parker also raised alarm at the prospect of large numbers of people being advised to self-isolate based on “false positive” results. “The best data I’ve seen suggests 45% false positives and 33% false negatives,” she said, “but phone proximity isn’t everything. The growing body of evidence about things like the substantially limited risk outside versus inside really matters. We need to make sure the app can identify risk, not just identify phones.”

The fact is that Government ministers treating the pandemic as one rule for them, one rule for the rest of us, their over-reliance on barely-understood ICT solutions, and their perceived lack of accountability have all fuelled the recent upsurge in infection. 

People no longer trust what the UK Government says, and as a result they are taking greater risks. And yet the lack of self-awareness by Johnson's cabal is shocking. Isn't it time for a little humility and mea culpa on their part?

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Government failure post-Grenfell trapping thousands of families

The Covid-19 crisis and UK government incompetence over Brexit may have pushed the issue further down the news agenda, but the failure to tackle inadequate cladding on flats following the tragic Grenfell fire, is causing huge problems across the UK.

The big issue of course is safety, but as the Sunday Times reports, that is not all that is worrying families. They say that there are 30,000 flats with the type of cladding that fuelled the inferno and 186,000 private high-rise flats wrapped in other flammable materials.

And they say that the defects could leave up to 1½ million modern flats, 6% of England’s homes, unmortgageable because they cannot prove their walls are safe, breaking the first rung of the property ladder. It is a crisis that could hit the entire market:

The west London fire that killed 72 people in 2017 laid bare decades of regulatory failure and a culture of building fast and cheap. About 700,000 people are still in high-rise flats with dangerous cladding. Millions more face waiting up to a decade for the safety sign-off they need to sell or get a new mortgage.

Nine in 10 blocks have failed cladding checks. Flat-owners must pay for repairs under leasehold law. In one Manchester block, the bills are up to £115,000 each. “They’re trapped and they’ve got nowhere to go ... If the property chain is broken, the whole housing market could be affected,” said Clive Betts, the Labour MP who chairs the housing committee.

In the first real data on non-Grenfell cladding problems, 2,957 buildings, with an estimated 186,000 flats, have registered with a £1bn government fund to help freeholders reclad tall blocks in England, an insider said. The number of unsafe blocks is almost 75% higher than the 1,700 officials had estimated.

The housing ministry said the figure “does not reflect the number of eligible applications”, but experts expect it to be cut only to 2,200. With typical costs of £2m per block, according to the Association of Residential Managing Agents (Arma), the total needed could be £4.4bn — nearly four times the money available.

Since the government tightened safety advice in January, lenders have routinely demanded evidence that almost any modern flat is safe, even in three-storey brick buildings. England has 1½ million flats in blocks taller than three storeys (about 32ft) built after 1945. Owners could be refused a mortgage if the building lacks an “external wall system” document, or EWS1 form, to say the insulation, balconies and structure are safe.

It appears most modern flats do not comply and will be sellable only when fixed. Fire engineers who perform EWS1 checks find “utter rubbish” inside walls, said Dorian Lawrence, of Façade Remedial Consultants (FRC), which produces safety reports. Of 2,000 blocks inspected by his firm, 92% were given the worst rating of B2, meaning banks will not lend. Materials are “incorrect, cheap and absolutely non-compliant” and workmanship “appalling”, Lawrence said.

Betts added: “It’s inadequate regulations, poor culture in the building industry and a lack of accountability. And it’s partly linked to the price of land.” Land typically makes up more than 70% of a property’s price, up from 50% 20 years ago — raising pressure to build cheaply.

Leaseholder groups from London, Birmingham, Leeds and Southampton wrote to Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, last month: “Many of us have ploughed everything we earned into buying our property — only to be told that we need to pay an extra third or half of its original value to fix mistakes that we did not make and that were not recognised by building regulations at the time of purchase.” They add: “This crisis is only getting bigger.” He did not reply until contacted by The Sunday Times on Friday.

The paper says that this issue could make people prisoners in flats they cannot sell for years. Some cannot move jobs, get married or afford to have children. They cannot retire.

The government fund set up to help leaseholders does not cover unsafe blocks under 59ft, even though fires in Barking, east London, and Bolton have destroyed homes below this height with flammable cladding. Missing barriers meant to stop fire spreading inside cavity walls are also excluded from the fund as is insurance or 24-hour fire patrols, which cost one block’s leaseholders £742 a month.

The paper adds that tight deadlines for the £1bn fund mean only a “tiny fraction” of towers will get help to replace materials other than Grenfell’s aluminium composite material, Work must start by March to qualify but he said there are not enough skilled workers. The process could take five to ten years.

And Scotland and Wales lack a cladding fund altogether: At Victoria Wharf in Cardiff, Alex Hough, 31, will get no government help with a £61,000 bill to replace expanded polystyrene insulation (EPS). “I face losing everything I have worked extremely hard for.”

This is a scandal which requires more effective government intervention from all Administations. We cannot have another tragedy like Grenfell, nor can we leave owners out on a limb with nowhere to turn for help.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Consultants on stand-by

You can tell that the government's test and trace policy is in trouble in England, when they start to talk aboout bringing in consultants - a move that could well bring about the complete collapse of the entire system.

As the Guardian reports, the government is preparing to shore up its £10bn coronavirus test-and-trace programme by drafting in teams of management consultants:

The programme, where 90% of tests are failing to hit the 24-hour turnaround target, has been touted as a key way in which the country can return to relative normality in the absence of a Covid-19 vaccine and manage any second wave of the virus. However, the system has struggled despite the prime minister pledging earlier this year to create a “world-beating” service. It has been condemned as “barely functional” as it struggles to handle demand of up to four times capacity.

The Guardian has learned that “hundreds” of staff from consulting firms including KPMG have been put on standby to work on “back office” parts of the system “on a short-term basis” over the next six months. Other firms thought to have been contacted for help include EY.

While the government and the consulting firms are said to still to be negotiating contracts, the consultants are understood to be required in areas including programme management, data, project support and supply chain, and could start work in the next 72 hours.

One person with knowledge of the process said: “The government has gone out to a wide number of firms asking for support on this.”

It is not clear how much the consulting services will cost the taxpayer.

If anyone can point me to just one case where the introduction of management consultants into a policy area run by government has been an outstanding success then I will revise my opinion. 

However, rather than throw more money at the problem, perhaps the UK government should start again from scratch, look at the success of the public service-run test and trace system in Wales, and seek to replicate that instead.

I offer this advice free of charge.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Is the Home Office fit for purpose?

Anybody with any experience of dealing with the Home Office and the government's immigration regime will be unsurprised at the criticism levelled at them by the Public Accounts Committee.

As the Guardian reports, the Parliamentary Committee concluded that the department drew up immigration policies on “anecdote, assumption and prejudice” instead of relying on evidence. They added that Priti Patel’s department was unaware of the damage caused by policy failures on “both the illegal and legitimate migrant populations”:

In a highly critical report published on Friday, the committee said in summary that Home Office’s officials had “no idea” what its £400m annual spending on immigration enforcement achieves.

“We are concerned that if the department does not make decisions based on evidence, it instead risks making them on anecdote, assumption and prejudice,” the cross-party committee concluded.

Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, said: “The Home Office has frighteningly little grasp of the impact of its activities in managing immigration. It shows no inclination to learn from its numerous mistakes across a swathe of immigration activities – even when it fully accepts that it has made serious errors.

“It accepts the wreckage that its ignorance and the culture it has fostered caused in the Windrush scandal – but the evidence we saw shows too little intent to change, and inspires no confidence that the next such scandal isn’t right around the corner.”

The paper says that the committee was examining the role and function of Immigration Enforcement, in light of a critical National Audit Office report, which was released in June:

The report said that despite “years of public and political debate and concern”, the department still did not know the size of the illegal population in the UK.

The committee reiterated criticism by the NAO, saying the department had not estimated the illegal population in the UK since 2005 and had “no answer” to concerns that “potentially exaggerated figures calculated by others could inflame hostility towards immigrants”.

Some of the report examined the legacy of the Windrush scandal, and concluded that the internal culture that created the hostile environment still remains.

The Home Office does not know whether hostile environment policies deterred illegal migration, while a lack of evidence and significant lack of diversity at senior levels has created blind spots in the organisation, the report said.

“Only one member of its executive committee came from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background. The department described the benefits of greater diversity at senior levels for its decision-making, leadership and governance, but acknowledged diversity as being its biggest issue,” the report said.

It is little wonder that some of those who work with immigrants consider the Home Office to be clueless, careless and cold-hearted.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Boris Johnson's new red tape

With the government continuing to make a hash of Brexit, it is unsurprising that another leaked document has emerged, this time predicting that thousands of lorries could be stuck in queues for up to two days to cross the Channel to Europe after the UK transitions to Brexit on 1 January.

The Independent reports that the 46-page document presented to the government’s XO (exit operations) committee last week sets out the possibility of massive disruption in the county of Kent, whether or not Boris Johnson manages to secure a free trade agreement in the currently stalled talks with Brussels:

A “reasonable worst-case scenario” says that queues of up to 7,000 trucks may clog up roads approaching Channel ports in the first weeks of 2021, while thousands of passengers could also be forced to wait as long as two hours to board a Eurostar train through the Tunnel.

The paper, drawn up by the Border and Protocol Delivery Group and obtained by The Guardian, warned that a crucial IT system to be used by hauliers preparing documentation for the Channel crossing is not expected to be publicly tested until November.

The government estimates that at least 200 million additional pieces of paperwork will have to be filled in by exporters each year as a result of Brexit, at a cost estimated by HM Revenue and Customs at up to £20 billion annually - significantly more than the UK’s annual contributions to EU budgets.

The reasonable worst-case scenario set out to the XO committee, chaired by Michael Gove, would see 30-60 per cent of trucks being ready for the new arrangements.

“It is estimated a maximum queue of 6,500 HGVs may develop in January,” the report said.

Because of the lull in business activity over the Christmas and New Year period, disruption can be expected to be “lower in the initial days of January”, it said.

But it added: “We would expect sustained disruption to worsen over the first two weeks as demand builds.
“Considering demand levels in the first week of February, it is estimated that if readiness does not improve by then, queues could reach a length of 7,000 HGVs.
“In each case it is estimated that HGVs could take two days to reach the front of the queue.”
The paper also warned that passengers on Eurostar and at airports could face “significant disruption” if UK nationals are not allowed to use e-gates.

It's just as well that we left the EU to reduce red tape.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

A very Tory exemption

Government rules on Covid-19 restrictions in England are confusing enough, without a series of bizarre exemptions that have added to a sense the absurd. It is bad enough that children are included in the so-called rule of six, whereas in Wales, those under the age of eleven are not, without bringing the hunting set into it as well.

As the Guardian reports, UK Ministers have determined that grouse shooting and hunting with guns in England are among outdoor activities exempted from the government’s “rule of six” coronavirus regulations:

Confirmation that the latest health protection regulations permit groups of up to 30 to take part in any “sports gathering” was published only minutes before coming into force.

According to one report, an internal government row over whether bloodsports should be exempted was alleged to have delayed their release.

Like its previous versions, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2020, was produced too late for most people to read it before they were subject to its legally enforceable rules.

An accompanying government coronavirus guidance page provides clearer instructions on “What you can and can’t do” from Monday 14 September.

It contains a list of sports and physical activities in which people can participate in groups of more than six. The list includes mainstream sports like football, rugby, cricket, and hockey as well as less popular sports such as curling, polo and shooting.

The reference to shooting is the only one qualified with a note that says: “Including hunting and paintball that requires a shotgun or firearms certificate licence”. A link takes readers to the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC).

In a statement on its website, BASC said: “The ‘rule of six’ restrictions brought in today could have disrupted game shooting which usually includes eight or more people. However, the exemption will allow shooting to operate under Covid-safe guidance.”

It is a very Tory exemption.

Monday, September 14, 2020

From 'specific and limited' to acceptable law-breaking

Are there no rationalisations that Tory Ministers will use to justify the government's breaking of international law in the Brexit Bill? 

First we had Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland telling the House of Commons that this legislation, which overrides part of the withdrawal agreement, breaks international law, albeit 'in a very specific and limited way', and now we have the Justice Secretary, whose job is the very definition of observing the law, telling the BBC that he would resign if the law was “broken in a way that I find unacceptable”.

This immediately begs the question, can the law be broken in a way the Justice Secretary does find acceptable? Is there such a legal distinction that will hold up in court? If so, would he care to elucidate? Oh, and does that include the Brexit Bill, which the government has already admitted does break the law?

The publication of the bill on Wednesday, under which key parts of the withdrawal agreement, agreed last year with the EU, would be negated, has infuriated Brussels and prompted a Tory rebellion. The bill’s second reading is today, Labour has confirmed it will vote against it in its current form, what will Tory backbenchers do? 

Buckland, who as justice secretary has taken an oath to uphold the rule of law, faced repeated pressure on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday to say whether he would consider resigning over the bill. The legislation was a “break the glass in emergency provision if we need it”, Buckland claimed.

Pressed on whether he would walk away from the government, he said: “If I see the rule of law being broken in a way that I find unacceptable then, of course, I will go. We are not at that stage.”

Asked again directly if he would resign if the government breaks international law, Buckland said: “What I will be seeking to do, and indeed the government will be seeking to do, is to resolve that conflict as soon as possible.”

He added: “I don’t believe we’re going to get to that stage. I know in my mind what I have to do. But the government collectively here also has a responsibility, we’ve got to resolve any conflict, that’s what we will do.”

Pressed a further time if he would resign at the point the government actually breaks international law, he said: “I don’t believe we’re going to get to that point and that is why I shall be working very hard to ensure we don’t.”

There is growing discontent among Conservative backbenchers over the bill, with senior Tory MP Sir Bob Neill tabling an amendment to impose a parliamentary lock on any changes to the withdrawal agreement.

The Withdrawal Agreement which the Prime Minister claims is no longer fit for purpose, was the same one that he lauded during the General Election and which secured him his 80 vote majority. The verbal gymnastics being spouted on all channels to try and justify this massive u-turn and the government's law-breaking are getting more and more ludicrous. This whole farce is becoming an embarrassment.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Major and Blair unite to condemn Brexit Bill

Today's Sunday Times has an unprecedented joint comment article by two former Prime Ministers, who in their day were despatch box and political rivals.

In a sign of how seriously some are taking the breach of trust and breaking of international law inherent in the Brexif Bill, Tony Blair and John Major have jointly authored a piece calling on the UK government to drop the controversial clauses or face a revolt from MPs.

The Brexit Bill they argue, completely trashes key clauses in the Withdrawal Agreement, on which Johnson won his 80 seat majority, and undermines the Good Friday Agreement, threatening peace in Northern Ireland. It also kills off anu hope of a trade deal with the EU, worth £300 billion in exports, 43% of all our exported goods:

Yet what is being proposed now is shocking. How can it be compatible with the codes of conduct that bind ministers, law officers and civil servants deliberately to break treaty obligations? As we negotiate new trade treaties, how do we salvage credibility as “global Britain” if we so blatantly disregard our commitments the moment we sign them?

The government seeks to do so by the extraordinary pretence that breaking international law is necessary to “save the Good Friday agreement”, which has given us peace in Northern Ireland for more than two decades and utterly changed the relationship between the UK and its nearest neighbour, the Republic of Ireland.

We disagree. The government’s action does not protect the Good Friday agreement — it imperils it.

They are particularly excoriating abour Boris Johnson:

When the government renegotiated the withdrawal treaty and urged MPs to pass it into domestic law, it did so in full knowledge of the consequences of doing so. These were that Northern Ireland would have to comply with some EU rules to keep the border open, including those on state aid, and that, as a result, new barriers to trade would arise between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

That was the unavoidable price of Britain leaving the single market and customs union, while wishing to avoid the imposition of a new hard border on the island of Ireland.

To claim now that the government has only just discovered this consequence is a nonsense, for it was the prime minister himself who negotiated it.

They add that if parliament passes this bill, the UK is bound to end up before the European Court of Justice which, under the Northern Ireland protocol, retains jurisdiction over EU rules. What if the UK loses? Do we defy the ruling? What value our international word then? Has any of this been thought through?


Saturday, September 12, 2020

Trade deal with Japan scant consolation for EU disaster

In today's Guardian, the government is seeking consolation for its disastrous Brexit deal and trade policy through a trade deal with Japan, that will increase UK GDP by 0.07% – or £1.5bn – after 15 years.

As the paper points out,  the Office for National Statistics records Japan as the UK’s 13th-most important goods export market, accounting for about 1.9% of all products sold overseas last year. Including trade in services, imports and exports were worth a total of £31.6bn last year, with 9,500 UK-based firms exporting goods there.

Given that Britain’s annual output is about £2tn, that represents less than 0.1% of gross domestic product. What’s more, it will take time for the benefits to show up.

In contrast, Boris Johnson's obsession with 'taking control' (otherwise known as enriching all the hedge fund operators, some of whom bankrolled Johnson's leadership campaign, who have bet £8 billion on a no deal Brexit) could leave us adrift from our biggest market, with a huge hit on our economy. 

And who could blame the EU (and every other trading country) for refusing to deal with us after the huge breach of trust in ditching part of the Withdrawal Agreement and undermining the Good Friday Agreement?

The EU, taken as a whole is the UK’s largest trading partner. In 2019, UK exports to the EU were £300 billion (43% of all UK exports). UK imports from the EU were £372 billion (51% of all UK imports). Quite a contrast with what we have signed up for with Japan.

Friday, September 11, 2020

How a real-life assassination inspired my first published novel

I started writing seriously in 2016 when I lost my job and decided to semi-retire, It took about six months to get a first draft and I subsequently started to hawk it around agents, with absolutely no success whatsoever. In the end I decided to shelve it and come back to redraft it at a later date.

Then I saw this article in the Guardian and I started to think how I could adapt the bare bones of these real life events into a fictionalised version set in a more familiar environment.

The actual events saw the most powerful politician in the historic Spanish city of León, Isabel Carrasco, gunned down in the street by the wife of one of the half-dozen most senior police officers in León province.

Carrasco had been shot in the back and, as she slid to the ground, grabbed hold of the bridge’s handrail, twisting to see her attacker. Two more .32 calibre bullets had then been fired into her head, killing her instantly.

As the paper recounts, the victim, who presided over the powerful provincial government, or diputación, from her office in a cloistered 16th-century bishop’s palace, was known to everyone in León.

'The murder had been committed at one of the most dramatic sites in the city. “It was almost like a ceremonial killing,” recalled Ángela Domínguez, the former editor of the local edition of El Mundo newspaper.

'Emergency service radio recordings reveal one shocked ambulanceman blurting out a phrase that many would have recognised: “She’s the one who had 12 jobs, and 12 salaries!” It was a reference to the number of official and semi-official posts Carrasco had accumulated during her five years as diputación president.

'With her multiple jobs, incomes and perks, she had become a symbol of how politicians were milking public funds while other Spaniards struggled to cope with the recession that had devastated the country since the 2008 financial crisis. In a country with 25% unemployment, here was a woman with 12 jobs.'

The paper says that as she had consolidated her position, Carrasco's style became as bullying and confrontational as that of her worst male predecessors and rivals. She would bawl and swear at her subordinates, humiliate her staff in public and squash journalists or political rivals who dared challenge her. She grew more and more paranoid about her enemies both within and without her political party.

The daughter of the assassin, Triana Martínez , looked upon Carrasco as her friend, protector and protege and began to dream of two things. First, she wanted a job for life at the diputación, of the kind enjoyed by established civil servants. Second, and against her father’s wishes, Triana wanted a parallel career in politics.

The Guardian takes up the story: 'Suddenly, however, Carrasco and Triana fell out. Triana would later claim that this was the result of a scene allegedly played out on the sofa at Carrasco’s apartment in January 2010. “She came up close to smell my perfume, and then she kissed me on the mouth … I was scared, but she tried to touch me and put her arm around me to stop me moving away,” Triana testified later in court. “I managed to get away and say that I was leaving.” Carrasco’s friends vigorously deny this. “She had no sexual interest in women,” said Ramos.'

Triana fell out of favour and failed to get the permanent job she sought. Her mother claimed that Carrasco then pursued Triana with blind hatred, blocking her attempt to take up a council seat in Astorga after another councillor resigned, demanding the return of €11,000 allegedly overpaid to Triana by the diputación and getting the tax office to send claims totalling €6,000. She was convinced Carrasco also prevented her daughter finding work elsewhere in the city.

It was then that Montserrat González decided that Carrasco must die, and conceived a daring assassination in the most public place possible in broad daylight.

Although it was inspired by this event, The Assassination of Morgan Sheckler is very different in many ways. It is a counter-factual set in Cardiff and involves the Executive Mayor of the Cardiff City Region being gunned down outside City Hall.

There is a lesbian element, and it is narrated in first person by the daughter of the female South Wales Police Commissioner, but that is where the similarities end. Please read it for yourself, especially for the twist at the very end.

How a no deal Brexit will hit the pound in our pocket

Just in case all this fuss about a no deal Brexit is proving to be a bit esoteric, here is Morrison's supermarket with a more down-to-earth interpretation.

The Guardian reports that the boss of Morrisons, Britain’s fourth-largest grocery chain, has warned supermarket prices will go up unless the UK government negotiates a tariff-free Brexit deal with Europe:

“From our point of view representing British consumers we would like the government and the leaders of the country to negotiate a deal that includes no tariffs UK to Europe or Europe to the UK because tariffs do drive inflation,” said David Potts, the chief executive of the Bradford-based supermarket.

He added that avoiding inflation was particularly important in a “recession year”.

Potts said Morrisons, which runs its own food processing and packaging plants and has direct relationships with farmers, was in a “good position” to weather the Brexit storm as two-thirds of the products it sells are British. But he added that the company could not stockpile perishable items, such as fruit and vegetables.

Those supermarkets who rely more heavily on imports will be forced to put up prices even more. The new year could see big increases to the cost of living because of Boris Johnson's failure to secure a trade deal with the EU.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Johnson has dug a hole on trade deals but the money men win out

Putting aside for one moment that trade with the European Union currently drives our economy, and that the failure to secure a deal before the end of the transition period will be potentially disastrous for us, it appears that Johnson's breach of faith over the withdrawal agreement may also have killed off any chance of his much prized trade deal with the United States.

The Independent reports that Nancy Pelosi has warned the UK there will be "absolutely no chance" of a trade deal with Washington passing Congress should the government override the Brexit withdrawal agreement signed by Boris Johnson.

The Democrat speaker of the House of Representatives is reported as saying Brexit could not be allowed to “imperil” the Good Friday Agreement - brokered to establish peace in Northern Ireland after years of sectarian conflict:

In a statement on Wednesday Ms Pelosi said: "The Good Friday Agreement is the bedrock of peace in Northern Ireland and an inspiration for the whole world.

"Whatever form it takes, Brexit cannot be allowed to imperil the Good Friday Agreement, including the stability brought by the invisible and frictionless border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

"The UK must respect the Northern Ireland Protocol as signed with the EU to ensure the free flow of goods across the border.

"If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress.

"The Good Friday Agreement is treasured by the American people and will be proudly defended in the United States Congress."

But who really benefits from this mess? The Byline Times thinks it has the answer:

From the financial data publicly available, Byline Times can reveal that currently £4,563,350,000 (£4.6 billion) of aggregate short positions on a ‘no deal’ Brexit have been taken out by hedge funds that directly or indirectly bankrolled Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign.

Most of these firms also donated to Vote Leave and took out short positions on the EU Referendum result. The ones which didn’t typically didn’t exist at that time but are invariably connected via directorships to companies that did.

Another £3,711,000,000 (£3.7 billion) of these short positions have been taken out by firms that donated to the Vote Leave campaign, but did not donate directly to the Johnson leadership campaign.

Currently, £8,274,350,000 (£8.3 billion) of aggregate short positions has been taken out by hedge funds connected to the Prime Minister and his Vote Leave campaign, run by his advisor Dominic Cummings, on a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

Brexit has never been about our national interest, as this speculation shows.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Our own very specific and limited international outlaws

Nobody can deny we are in unprecedented times. Not only do we have a global pandemic tearing through our communities, restricting our freedoms, threatening our health, and undermining our social cohesion, but we are facing a major economic crisis from Brexit and are being ruled by a government who have no respect for international law, and who are clearing out anybody in the civil service who might stand up to them.

The latest civil servant to lead is Sir Jonathan Jones, the head of the government's legal department who could not stand by and watch ministers take actions in breach of international law. He joins Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, Simon McDonald from the Foreign Office, Philip Rutnam from the Home Office, Richard Heaton from Justice, and Jonathan Slater from Education in departing the ranks of government in an unprecedented purge.

Astonishingly, a government minister actually stood up in the House of Commons yesterday and admitted that the latest government legislation, which overrides part of the withdrawal agreement, breaks international law, albeit 'in a very specific and limited way'. I think he will find that most breaches of the law are quite specific and limited, after all not many people will go about breaking them all at once.

As the Guardian points out this remarkable admission by Brandon Lewis, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, followed the resignation of the most senior legal civil servant and has raised questions over the future of justice secretary, Robert Buckland, and attorney general, Suella Braverman, both of whom have taken oaths to uphold the rule of law:

One EU diplomat suggested the minister’s admission the UK was prepared to break international law could have an immediate impact on the current talks in London between UK chief negotiator David Frost and the EU’s Michel Barnier.

“If true, it would be a massive blow to the UK’s international reputation and have huge negative consequences on the current talks with the EU”, the source said.

“It would be in Britain’s best interests to clarify its plans now, urgently, and assure the EU that it will continue to honour its commitments under the withdrawal agreement under all circumstances. Who would want to agree trade deals with a country that doesn’t implement international treaties? It would ultimately be a self-defeating strategy.”

What the Prime Minister does not appear to understand (or if he does, he doesn't care) is the impact this admission and his actions will have on his much-vaunted ambition to negotiate trade agreements with non-EU countries. He may think he can snub Europe, where most of our trade is conducted and sod the consequences for the economy, but who is going to sign agreements with us in the future when we have proved we cannot be trusted to keep out word?

As the chair of the foreign affairs committee, Tom Tugendhat said: “Our entire economy is based on the perception that people have of the UK’s adherence to the rule of law. I hope it’s clear where I stand on that.”

And what of the ministerial code? The paper says that legal experts including Lord Anderson, former terror watchdog and member of the House of Lords justice committee, said the code still mandated ministers to uphold international law following a court of appeal ruling in 2018, which concluded there was an “overarching” duty of ministers to comply with international law. Is nobody policing that code?

The withdrawal agreement which the government is trying to nullify was precisely the one that Boris Johnson heralded as a major win for the UK and which he campaigned for in the General Election. It was the agreement that got him his 80 seat majority. And yet now he tells us it was flawed and inadequate, and needs to be over-ridden.

This is not just a breach of trust with the international community but with the British people as well and makes the break-up of the United Kingdom more likely.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Another broken promise as slaughter of healthy badgers continues

After pledging to phase out the badger cull, intended to reduce bovine TB in cattle, after a scientific review cast doubt on its efficacy (when did it ever have scientific valdidity - spoiler: it didn't), the government has now gone back on its word and announced that this senseless slaughter is being expanded to 11 new areas of England including parts of Oxfordshire, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire so that more than 60,000 badgers can be killed.

The Guardian reports that for the first time, culling – including cage-trapping and “free shooting” – will take place this autumn in Derbyshire, Warwickshire, Shropshire and Oxfordshire, where successful badger vaccination projects are under way. Vaccinating badgers has been shown to reduce bovine TB in badger populations:

Dominic Dyer, the chief executive of the Badger Trust, said: “The decision to expand the badger cull is a huge betrayal of public trust by the government. Despite responding to the Sir Charles Godfrey TB Review in March with a clear commitment to phase out badger culling in favour of TB vaccination of badgers and cattle, the government is now embarking on a mass destruction of badgers, which is little more than ecological vandalism on an unprecedented scale.”

Jo Smith, the chief executive of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, also condemned the decision. “This is a staggering government U-turn and one which will result in thousands of healthy badgers being shot across England this autumn.

“We are at a critical turning point for our natural world and this latest U-turn should set alarm bells ringing. Culling is an outdated policy that seeks to eradicate protected wildlife rather than addressing the real problem which is the main cause of bovine tuberculosis: cattle-to-cattle infection.”

There is sound, peer-reviewed scientific studies that show culling is ineffective in preventing the spread of bovine TB, and yet the government persists in the cruel and unnecessary slaughter of a protected species, rather than pursue other methods as in Wales.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Does Johnson's breach of trust make a no deal Brexit inevitable?

The Guardian carries the astonishing news that the Prime Minister plans to tear up the legally binding withdrawal agreement by publishing legislation that will row back parts of the UK’s agreement with the EU on state aid and customs arrangements for Northern Ireland.

In doing so, he will effectively end trade talks with the European Union, by proving once and for all that he cannot be trusted to keep to negotiated agreements, and no doubt rauise doubts amongst other countries as to whether the UK are reliable trade partners, and make a no deal Brexit inevitable.

His actions may also undermine the Good Friday Agreement, on which peace in Northern Ireland is built, and damage their economy and that of the European land border neighbours, the Republic of Ireland by introducing tariffs and restricted trade between the two.

The proposals also break countless promises and reassurances to the public after Ministers told us during the referendum that securing trade deals would be easy, that a no deal would not happen and that leaving the EU would make no difference to the way we interact with the trading bloc. Variations on these promises have been repeated constantly since June 2016, and none of them are now worth the oxygen used up in making them.

With a no deal looking to be the almost certain outcome of this process, it is worth repeating warnings by the Institute for Fiscal Studies from October last year. They warned that emergency tax cuts and higher public spending to offset the impact of a no-deal Brexit would send government debt to its highest level in more than half a century.

At that time the IFS said a no-deal Brexit could cause economic growth to flatline in 2020-21, even if the Bank of England cut interest rates and the government stepped in with emergency tax cuts and higher spending:

Describing the scenario emerging from a “relatively benign” no-deal Brexit, the IFS said the budget deficit would rise to almost £100bn or 4% of GDP by 2021-22, reversing the progress over the past decade of producing gradually smaller deficits.

And then there is the Treasury's own analysis from February 2018, which found that a no-deal Brexit will blow an £80bn hole in the public finances, with the leave-voting heartlands of north-east England and West Midlands worst affected.

The report suggests that the north-east would face a 16% hit to regional economic growth, and the West Midlands 13%. And it claims that a hard Brexit would mean an overall 21% rise in retail prices, with a 17% rise in food and drink costs.

The additional borrowing costs would be mitigated by £40bn of gains from leaving the EU, including £11bn in saved payments, leaving £80bn in net costs. Of this, £55bn can be put down to the impact of non-tariff barriers, which could include regulatory divergence or quotas.

The Treausry predicted an additional 21% rise in retail prices, an 18% rise in agricultural costs, a 17% rise in food and drink costs and 14% rise in motor vehicles and parts, over the 15 years post-Brexit. It predicts that if the UK were to trade under WTO terms, tariffs could mean food and drink prices increase by an additional 12.7%.

The really scary part is that these forecasts were made before the Cofid crisis, a pandemic that has already seen the national debt rise to unprecedented levels and one of the deepest economic depressions on record. The government's behaviour in pursuing a no deal at this stage, and in the middle of the current mess, is irresponsible and reckless.

The splendid isolationism that sits behind all these government decisions could cast us into one of the longest recessions in history.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Is Extinction Rebellion really an existential threat to our democracy?

I suffered a minor inconvenience yesterday when, thanks to protests by Extinction Rebellion, I was unable to get the supplements that normally accompany my weekend Guardian. As a result, and being that sort of fuddy-duddy, I was unable to enjoy my leisurely Saturday breakfast browsing the literary supplement, discovering the latest verdict in the Blind Date feature. learning how to make the perfect flapjacks or reading the much heralded interview with Jane Fonda.

It is not the end of the world, though if you were to listen to the Society of Editors or some of the ramblings of assorted Tory MPs (and one or two Liberal Democrat MPs, it has to be said), this minor protest could well have heralded the final throes of British democracy.

It is certainly the case that we consider the freedom of the press to be sacrosanct in the UK, an important pillar of our democracy, holding politicians to account, exposing political scandals and reporting freely on the events up and down the country. In doing so we often overlook the abuses that much of that press have indulged in, not least hacking phones, and ruining lives by printing scurrilous gossip that by rights should remain private.

But I am not writing this to have a go at the media, though it is curious how those who criticised the media for such abuses are the very ones now running to their defence over charges that they are not taking climate change seriously enough.

The fact remains that another important pillar of our democracy is the right to protest. That a group like Extinction Rebellion might go too far sometimes does not undermine their right to make their point in a way that is entirely consistent with democratic freedoms. These are peaceful protests and as always, it is the protester who answers for his or actions if he or she breaks the law.

Proposals being mooted by sources close to the Prime Ministers office to proscribe Extinction by designating it an Organised Crime Group are as big a threat to our democracy as any protest that stops a few newspapers being printed on a particular day.

And let's put things in context here. Most of the articles I missed reading over the breakfast table can be found on-line. In fact far more people access the news through the online sites of these various newspapers than actually buy and read the paper version. There was no suppression of news, it was there as ever at the click of a button on one's tablet, phone, laptop or PC.

The biggest irony of all of course is the Prime Minister's reaction. He tweeted: 'A free press is vital in holding the government and other powerful institutions to account on issues critical for the future of our country, including the fight against climate change. It is completely unacceptable to seek to limit the public’s access to news in this way.'

This is the same man whose party banned the Mirror from the Tory election bus, refused to put ministers up on Channel 4 and GMTV, snatched a phone from one reporter, hid in a fridge from another, refused to be interviewed by Andrew Neil, banned various news outlets from press conferences, boycotted the Today programme, and illegally closed down parliament to avoid scrutiny.

So much for valuing the role of the media in holding politicians to account. And don't even get me started on Boris Johnson's record on climate change.

Isn't it time we all calmed down now?

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Misogyny, homophobia and the trade envoy

If there is one appointment that shows how little regard Boris Johnson has for public opinion and common decency then it is making Tony Abbott an official UK trade advisor.

The original proposal to give the former Australian Prime Minister this role had attracted plenty of controversy, including criticism from opposition parties, charities and LGBT and environmental activists.

Abbott, a controversial and often unpopular prime minister of Australia from 2013 until he was ousted by Liberal party colleagues in 2015, once described abortion as “the easy way out” and has suggested men are better adapted than women to exercise authority. He had a reputation for epitomising what many in Australia saw as an overly macho approach to politics.

As the Guardian reports, a prior opponent of equal marriage, Abbott has also suggested climate change is “probably doing good”, and likened policies to combat it to “primitive people once killing goats to appease the volcano gods”

Boris Johnson has repeatedly refused to back down under intense criticism of appointments, as also shown over crises involving Dominic Cummings and the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick.

The paper believes that Downing Street is likely to have calculated that concerns about Abbott’s views will be balanced by voters who may applaud a refusal to bow to criticism – a sign of a wider cultural war on progressive values that Johnson’s advisers are increasingly keen to fight.

The Prime Minister though continues to act as if he is indestructable, including breaking his own lockdown rules by addressing a crowded room of 50 Tory MPs, an offence that can attract a £100 fine for anybody attending.

Surely it is only a matter of time before this arrogance catches up with him.

Friday, September 04, 2020

Government secrecy hindered Brexit plans

Actually the most shocking part of this article in the Guardian is not that excessive secrecy about the government’s Brexit negotiating objectives and a failure to get to grips with the scale of the challenge hindered preparations for the UK’s exit from the EU, it is that the so-far-abortive process involved more than 22,000 workers deployed across Whitehall departments on the preparations at a cost £4.4 billion.

They refer to a National Audit Office study, which found that at a time when civil servants across government needed to be talking to each other and working together, departments issued non-disclosure agreements when discussing plans that were meant to inform the public and the business community:

The 23-page report said the secrecy maintained by the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU), which was disbanded after the UK left the trade bloc on 31 January and entered a transition period, did not aid cross-government working.

“DExEU kept a tight hold on communications, keeping secret anything which might pertain to the UK’s negotiating position,” the report said.

“This instinct for secrecy in government can get in the way of effective coordination, collaboration and a sense of urgency in progressing towards a common goal.”

Both the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for Transport asked third parties to sign non-disclosure agreements when discussing technical notices that were designed to inform businesses and stakeholders about steps they may need to take in the event of a no-deal scenario.

“The non-disclosure agreements undermined transparency and hampered the spread of information to the business community at large,” the report said.

Staffing proved a particular issue for a political and economic event that impacted almost every strand of government, auditors found.

“Staff turnover in EU exit roles, and particularly in DExEU itself, was higher than for the civil service in general. The problem was particularly acute at more senior grades. In its less than four years in existence, DExEU had three permanent secretaries.

“Other departments most affected by (the) EU exit have also seen changes at permanent secretary level, including Defra and HMRC.”

Given that one of the rationale being touted by Brexiteers for us leaving the EU was excessive bureaucracy, there is a certain irony in the whole effort to leave being stymied by a very British brand of the same malaise.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Hostile environment has fostered racism and caused poverty

Any Tory who argues that they did not expect their hostile environment towards immigrants and asylum seekers to provoke a new wave of racism whilst condemning many of those targeted to poverty, is lying in my opinion. Nobody should be surprised that this is exactly the outcome of that policy.

As the Guardian reports, a report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has concluded that the “hostile environment” policy has fostered racism, pushed people into destitution and wrongly targeted people who are living in the UK legally. The measures formally introduced by Theresa May while she was home secretary have also failed to achieve their key objective of increasing the numbers of people choosing voluntarily to leave the UK.

The think tank says that instead the policy has “severely harmed the reputation of the Home Office” and caused a climate of “policy paralysis” within the department, where officials remain in principle committed to the objectives of the hostile environment approach but are “increasingly uncomfortable about its practical implications”:

“It is clear that despite the wide-ranging impacts of the hostile environment on individuals and communities, there is no evidence to suggest that it meets its primary objective to increase voluntary returns. The available evidence suggests that the hostile environment forces people into poverty and destitution, denying them rights to essential goods and services, but it does not necessarily encourage them to leave the UK in greater numbers,” the report says.

“Restrictions on access to benefits can force people without immigration status into destitution. There is evidence of malnutrition, cramped and substandard accommodation, and mental ill-health among undocumented migrant families unable to access public funds … The hostile environment does not appear to be working for anyone: for migrants, for the Home Office, or for the wider public.”

The number of people voluntarily returning to their country of origin has fallen considerably since 2014, when some of the key hostile environment measures were introduced. According to the research, around 12,000 more people without immigration status were voluntarily leaving the UK in 2014 than they were in 2018.

A series of measures have been introduced over the past decade aimed at making life harder for people who are unable to prove that they have the right to live in the UK. The hostile environment, since rebranded as the compliant environment, makes it harder for individuals without proof of their right to be in the UK to take up employment, rent property, open bank accounts, get driving licences, and access welfare and public services.

Employers, landlords and frontline workers are now frequently expected to conduct immigration checks, as well as immigration officials. This shift of responsibility has prompted “discrimination against people from minority ethnic backgrounds by leading to new forms of racial profiling,” according to the IPPR.

Healthcare workers have expressed unease at having to perform immigration checks on patients, the report states, and some patients with uncertain immigration status have been discouraged from seeking vital healthcare as a result of the policy.

“There is anger over what frontline workers are being asked to do. People in the NHS are already exhausted from the underfunded, under-resourced conditions, and they are overworked,” an NHS worker told IPPR researchers.

This is what happens when you base public policy on ideology not evidence. Can we expect the right wingers in the Tory Party to learn from this? I am not holding my breath.

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

A new digital threat to our privacy?

As if the government have not had enough problems with new technology, the Times reveals that Dominic Cummings' latest diabolical wheeze is to create online “ID cards” for British citizens. The paper reports that proposals announced yesterday will lead to each person being assigned a unique digital identity to help them with such tasks as registering with a new GP.

Just how much data would be attached to each 'digital identity' is unclear but there is a clue in the suggestion that legislation could be amended to remove the need for landlords to check tenants’ immigration documents. Witnesses would no longer have to attend signings on property deals in person, and bar owners would be able to digitally verify drinkers’ ages.

In other words this would not just be an identity number or bar code, but a digital gateway to every piece of information government holds on our lives, all gathered in one place.

From a government who could not make a test and trace app work, this seems very ambitious and I have very little confidence in their ability to make the technology work, to keep it within budget nor to properly secure the data they hold in the system. This is especially so as the work will inevitably go to the private sector (possibly to a friendly company, as has happened elsewhere) and that will create its own data hell.

As the Times points out the government has relied increasingly on the private sector to manage public data. Among the companies awarded contracts were Palantir, founded by the Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, and Faculty, the artificial intelligence company that worked with Mr Cummings on the Vote Leave campaign. Ben Warner, the head of No 10’s data unit, has worked for Faculty and his brother, Marc Warner, is its chief executive.

And do we really want a government apparatchik to be able to access everything to do with our lives at a touch of a button? Totalitarian states have been built on less. This is a privacy nightmare that needs to be avoided at all costs.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Tory threat to the regulation of our democracy

Having blogged on Sunday with reference to Peter Geoghegan’s book, Democracy for Sale, I was only partly surprised to see the headline in today's Guardian claiming that the Tory's have ambitions to scrap the Electoral Commission.

I am no fan of the Electoral Commission. In my experience they are weak, incompetent and not fit for purpose. But that is an argument to reform and strengthen them not scrap them all together.

Peter Geoghegan talks about the manipulation of our democracy by right wing thinktanks and social media, and makes the case to reform regulation to restore a level playing field. Many Tories however, would like to maintain this status quo and do not want a rejuvenated Electoral Commission to get in their way.

As the paper says, the commission regulates political donations, spending and other areas, and has the power to undertake its own investigations, and fine parties and officials for breaches of the rules, although more serious matters are passed to police. The government’s advisory body the Committee on Standards in Public Life is currently holding a review of electoral regulation:

In a submission to the process, the Conservatives said the commission should not be given new powers of prosecution, saying this would bring “too many conflicts of interest”.

Writing in the Telegraph, [Conservative Co-Chair, Amanda] Milling argued that the body should accept more outside scrutiny or be disbanded: “If the Electoral Commission fails to make these changes and do the job it was set up to do then the only option would be to abolish it.”

The commission is viewed with suspicion by some Conservative MPs who believe it has unfairly targeted pro-Brexit groups, such as with its decision to fine the campaigner Darren Grimes £20,000 for electoral spending offences in the 2016 referendum. This was overturned by a court appeal.

This is far from a concrete proposal at present but one can see the way things are going. As Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister, says: “Removing the Electoral Commission is just one part of a concerted strategy by the Tories to remove scrutiny and proper accountability,” she said. “Without the Electoral Commission, no one could prevent the Tories from introducing policies that fundamentally make it harder for people to vote, such as mandatory Voter ID."

And of course it will stop in its tracks any attempt to investigate links between the Tories and Russion Oligarchs. No wonder it is an attractive option to many Tories.

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