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Saturday, October 31, 2020

Barnard Castle trip in the news again

Just when we thought that Dominic Cummings' illicit trip to Barnard Castle in the middle of a pandemic lockdown has dropped off our radar along comes a former crown prosecutor to reignite the controversy.

The Independent reports that lawyers acting for Nazir Afzal OBE, the former chief crown prosecutor for northwest England, have sent authorities a dossier accusing the prime minister’s chief adviser of breaking coronavirus laws and perverting the course of justice:

The documents argue that there is sufficient evidence for Mr Cummings and his wife, Spectator commissioning editor Mary Wakefield, to be charged.

In a statement, Mr Afzal’s lawyers said there was evidence of six offences under the Health Protection Regulations for Mr Cummings and three for Ms Wakefield.

“It also concludes that the test [for bringing charges] appears to be satisfied in relation to one offence of perverting the course of justice, that arises from Mr Cummings’ statement in the Rose Garden in Downing Street on 25 May,” it added.

At a press conference, the adviser said he had travelled to Barnard Castle to see if he could drive safely because he was experiencing problems with his eyesight.

Mr Cummings said he returned to London with his family on 13 April, and did not return to County Durham.

Mr Afzal’s lawyers alleged that some of his assertions were inconsistent with accounts obtained from witnesses, and called for police to check CCTV, location data and traffic cameras.

New witness statements and other material was sent on Friday to the director of public prosecutions, Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and police.

Mr Afzal, whose brother died of coronavirus earlier this year, accused Durham Constabulary of carrying out a “cursory and incomplete” initial investigation.

This is yet another test as to whether there is one rule for us and another for government officials.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Have the BBC lost the plot on 'no bias' rules?

Nobody can accuse the BBC of being insensitive to criticism, or at least not when it is the government, their paymasters, finding fault. Their new rules for the way journalists and frontline current affairs broadcasters use social media are designed to keep government ministers happy by preventing employees from expressing a "personal opinion on matters of public policy, politics, or controversial subjects":

The guidance states staff should avoid using disclaimers such as "My views, not the BBC's" in their biographies and profiles, as they provide no defence against personal expressions of opinion.

It also advises staff against using emojis which could reveal an opinion and undercut an otherwise impartial post, and to always assume they are posting publicly even if they have tight security settings.

The guidance states employees should "avoid virtue signalling" and adds: "Remember that your personal brand on social media is always secondary to your responsibility to the BBC."

However, the latest diktat from Broadcasting House calls into question the way the corporation is balancing the need for impartiality, with unnecessary intrusion into the personal lives of staff.

As the Guardian reports, BBC journalists have now been told that new rules on impartiality mean they may no longer be able to go on LGBT pride marches, even in a personal capacity, in case their presence is taken as a sign of political bias:

The guidelines state that “judgment is required as to what issues are ‘controversial’ with regard to marches or demonstrations, though it should be assumed that most marches are contentious to some degree or other”.

Journalists in BBC newsrooms across the UK told the Guardian that managers had informed them that while pride marches were not specifically mentioned by the guidelines, journalists would be stopped from attending due to the new rules.

BBC sources did not dispute this, but said interpretation of the rules would at the discretion of local managers. They emphasised that there was no explicit ban on pride marches in the rules. BBC employees not working in the news or current affairs divisions would still be able to take part in public marches and protests.

One BBC journalist said their manager had been told that growing media and political opposition to trans rights in the UK meant public LGBT pride events were now more likely to count as controversial events, meaning they would not be able to attend even in a personal capacity.

Managers also held up Black Lives Matter marches as an example of protests that would be banned for news staff, even in their spare time.

BBC Northern Ireland pulled its employees from taking part in Belfast Pride last year, after politicians raised concerns that it breached impartiality rules by implicitly endorsing same-sex marriage. The same year, however, the BBC’s entertainment arm spent a substantial sum to launch RuPaul’s Drag Race UK with a float at Manchester Pride.

Rumours that BBC journalists will, in future, be forced to live in a monastry or nunnery between broadcasts are unverified.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Labour Party breached equalities law

The Guardian reports on the findings of the Equality and Human Rights Commission that the Labour party was guilty of unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination over antisemitism within the party, adding that there were “serious failings in the Labour party leadership in addressing antisemitism and an inadequate process for handling antisemitism complaints”.

The EHRC inquiry found that Labour, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, was responsible for three breaches of the Equality Act, connected to harassment, political interference in antisemitism complaints, and inadequate training to those handling the complaints:

The EHRC uncovered what it said was inappropriate interference in the complaints process over antisemitism by staff from Corbyn’s office, with 23 instances found, including staff exerting influence on decisions on areas such as member suspensions, or whether to investigate claims.

Some of these decision were made “because of likely press interest rather than any formal criteria”, it said.

While there was a wider culture of political interference in certain complaints, the report said, this occurred more often in antisemitism cases, and was thus found to be discriminatory and unlawful.

Among another example of poor practice in dealing with complaints, the EHRC said an email inbox for these “was largely left unmonitored for a number of years and no action taken on the majority of complaints forwarded to it”. Of 70 files reviewed for the inquiry. 62 had records missing.

The report found that this element of the indirect discrimination against Jewish members, the lack of a proper complaints and disciplinary procedure, lasted until August 2020, four months into Ker Starmer’s tenure, but was now being addressed.

In terms of conduct by individual members seen as unlawful harassment, such as using antisemitic themes or suggesting complaints were faked or smears, the report names two people: Ken Livingston, the former London mayor; and Pam Bromley, a councillor in Rossendale, Lancashire.

The report said: “As these people were acting as agents of the Labour party, the Labour party was legally responsible for their conduct.

“In each case, the EHRC considered the perception of those affected by the conduct, and Labour party members told the EHRC that the comments contributed to a hostile environment for Jewish and non-Jewish members.”

However, the EHRC said these two cases were “only the tip of the iceberg”, with 18 other instances were found where there was not enough evidence for a legal conclusion that the party was responsible for the conduct, covering councillors, candidates and constituency party officials.

There were also, the report, said, '“many more files” contained evidence of antisemitic conduct by an ‘ordinary’ member of the Labour Party, who did not hold any office or role and the Labour Party cannot be held directly responsible for under the Equality Act 2010.

This lack of willingness to tackle anti-semitism within the Labour Party is a serious and substantial breach of equalites law.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The great Soy Sauce controversy

As if it were not bad enough that Donald Trump is using the apparatus of the state to try to secure his re-election through voter suppression and lies, it transpires that this particular virus has now started to infect the British state as well.

It all started innocently enough: it was Japanese week on the Great British Bake Off and the person in charge of the Department for International Trade's twitter account decided to use the opportunity to promote their new trade deal with the Japanese, which er...secures for the UK the same terms of trade as we already enjoy as part of the EU. So, twenty eight minutes into the programme, they tweeted: 
Unfortunately this is simply not true. Firstly, it is soy sauce, not soya sauce, secondly most of the soy sauce we buy comes from the Netherlands with a zero tariff, so no change at all.

Thirdly, it is cheaper to ship and produce in Netherlands, which is closer to us than Japan. Fourthy, Netherlands soy sauce will be more expensive after Brexit because there will be tariffs on it. 

Fifthly, we do not and never have traded with Japan on WTO terms as the Department for International suggested in a subsequent tweet.

Finally, Japanese soy sauce is much more expensive, so even with zero tariffs the price of soy sauce will go up.  So essentially we have a government twitter account promoting misinformation and lies.

I will leave the final word to Professor Brian Cox, who chose to parody the twitter exchange:

I hope somebody is asking questions this morning about how this nonsense got out there in the first place.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Another Boris Johnson scheme hits the buffers

The Prime Minister is well-known for his flights of fancy costing taxpayers millions of pounds. There was the proposal to build a £15 billion bridge linking Scotland to Northern Ireland, the famed Garden Bridge over the River Thames, which actually cost £46 million before it was scrapped, and of course the equally bonkers idea of building an island in the middle of the River Thames for a new four runway airport.

With a record like that I have no idea why anybody takes this political Walter Mitty seriously, and yet he has somehow ended up as Prime Minister from which he is apparently free to ignore reasonable and comparatively cheap proposals to give poorer school children free school meals during holidays, mess up our response to a deadly pandemic, wreck the economy by taking us into a no-deal Brexit and ignore trust-breaking indiscretions by his own advisors.

Oh and apparently, he is still coming up with nonsense ideas, the latest being that any bailout of Transport for London should be predicated on the introduction of driverless tube trains.

Now, given the technological advances we have made in recent years, in which apparently sane and rational people have proposed delivering parcels by drone and allowing driverless cars out on the roads, this latest Johnson-wheeze seems not so bad. Unfortunately, as with so many of his Heath Robinson-style projects, it has not been thought-through properly, never mind adequately costed.

The Independent reports that a presentation said to have been prepared for senior Transport for London (TfL) managers found the case for driverless Tube trains to be "not financially positive given the high capital costs".

The document said staff savings by removing the driver would be “offset by increased maintenance costs of the additional safety systems, surveillance, security fencing etc required” and that there would still need to be a train operator on every Tube train. 

In short, "Its implementation network-wide will present a considerable affordability challenge which will further exacerbate TfL's current financial and longer-term funding position." and converting the network to driverless operations "represents poor value for money".

We await the time in the not-so-distant future when the British electorate finally decides that Boris Johnson is poor value for money and sends him back to his writing desk, where he can pontificate about straight bananas to his heart's content without actually leaving us with the bill for his pie in the sky plans.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Johnson and Patel's careless talk that threatens the safety of lawyers

The Independent reports that more than 800 retired judges, barristers and senior legal figures have accused Boris Johnson and Priti Patel of endangering the personal safety of lawyers.

They say that this group have signed an online letter calling on the prime minister and home secretary to apologise for their "display of hostility" towards those working in the justice system:

It follows Ms Patel's repeated criticism of lawyers who defend migrants and asylum seekers as "lefties" and "do-gooders".

Mr Johnson also claimed during the Tory conference that the criminal justice system was being "hamstrung by what the home secretary would doubtless – and rightly – call the lefty human rights lawyers, and other do-gooders”.

The list of signatories to the online letter features 14 retired judges, including the former Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson, as well as 84 QCs and 294 junior barristers, 76 law firm partners and 69 legal professors.

Their statement reads: "We are all deeply concerned at recent attacks, made by the Home Secretary and echoed by the prime minister, on lawyers seeking to hold the government to the law.

"Such attacks endanger not only the personal safety of lawyers and others working for the justice system, as has recently been vividly seen; they undermine the rule of law which ministers and lawyers alike are duty bound to uphold.

"We invite both the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister to behave honourably by apologising for their display of hostility, and to refrain from such attacks in the future."

This letter follows on from earlier comments by the president of the Law Society, who said that the home secretary’s remarks had undermined the legal . The chair of the Bar Council added that Ms Patel was seeking to “demonise” people carrying out a vital public service, while Lawyers have also claimed that a "violent, racist attack" in which a man entered a law firm in London armed with a knife was inspired by Ms Patel's attitude.

Isnt it about time Johnson and Patel put the record straight on this and accepted the responsibiity of the offices they hold?

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Tory alliance with neo-Nazi and anti-Muslim parties across Europe

The Independent reveals that Boris Johnson is facing growing condemnation for failing to act to end an “appalling” Tory alliance with neo-Nazi and anti-Muslim parties across Europe.

They say that this extraordinary pact sees the party’s MPs sitting alongside the “heirs of Mussolini” in Italy and an Estonian party that celebrates its wartime collaboration with Hitler, among other far-right groups in the Council of Europe.

Yet. Lord Balfe, who was kicked out of the European Conservatives Group for protesting to No 10 after the group “invited in” the far-right so-called Democratic Alliance, has revealed that his repeated attempts to persuade the prime minister to take action have been rebuffed – as he was told it was going on “a long way away and no one understands it”:

“It’s appalling,” Lord Balfe told The Independent, “this group contains virtually every video nasty in the book and we should not be mixed up with them.”

Stephen Dorrell, a former health secretary and now chairman of the European Movement, said: “That the prime minister should think this is acceptable is a sad reflection of modern Tory politics.

“To be making common cause with people whose values earlier generations of Conservatives took up arms against to resist.”

The paper says the agreement to work with these groups has boosted the power of Tory MPs in the council, a Strasbourg-based body that predates the EU and pushes for human rights and democracy across the continent:

The best-known far-right parties in the coalition are the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany and Italy’s Northern League, but others are even more extreme.

The Brothers of Italy was born out of the country’s fascist movement, while the first leader of the Freedom Party of Austria – once headed by the notorious Jorg Haider – was a Nazi minister and SS officer.

Lord Balfe said he has seen the Sweden Democrats “walk around Stockholm with swastikas”, while Bulgaria’s United Patriots “were elected on the basis that there were too many mosques”.

The Conservative People’s Party of Estonia attends an annual march to commemorate the Estonian Legion – a unit of the Waffen-SS during the Second World War.

The anti-Nazi Simon Wiesenthal Centre has called the march a “serious concern” because “such ideas paved the way for extensive collaboration by the locals in the implementation of the Final Solution”.

One Sweden Democrat MP, Markus Wiechel, was exposed in 2013 for having referred to black people as “monkeys” and “retarded pension-rescuers” – criticising the idea of immigration to fund an ageing population.

The anti-fascist organisation Hope not Hate said Mr Johnson must “intervene immediately” and stop working with “extreme parties with a track record of racism and discrimination”.

“This group includes representatives from the Brothers of Italy, described by some as the heirs to Italian fascism. And for Tory politicians to have any association with figures like Markus Wiechel is a total disgrace,” said Dr Joe Mulhall, its senior researcher.

Yet another sign that the Conservative Party of old has gone, forever.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Flat-footed Tories misstep again on Covid-19

If it were not bad enough that Conservative MPs, includuing 13 in Wales, voted en masse to deprive poorer pupils of a decent meal over the school holidays, the government is poised to commit yet another faux pas.

The Guardian reports that face masks and gloves will cost more from the end of this month after the government said a temporary waiver of VAT on personal protective equipment (PPE) would not be extended.

They say that the Treasury has confirmed that the 20% sales tax would once more apply to protective equipment bought by firms and consumers from November, after a six-month exemption:

While care homes and the healthcare sector can access PPE from the Department of Health and Social Care, the increase could mean extra costs for businesses and ordinary people, who are legally bound to use masks in shops and on public transport.

The government initially cut the tax to zero on 1 May to “relieve the burden of VAT on the price of purchasing PPE used for protection from coronavirus by frontline workers”. The measure applied to PPE approved for use by Public Health England and was aimed in particular at care homes, to help them buy stocks of masks, gloves and gowns, amid a flood of infections in the sector and a global scramble for equipment.

The total saving to care homes and companies is thought to have been more than £300m over six months.

Health and social care providers are now able to source PPE via a government portal designed for the purpose. But private sector businesses in the food wholesale and retail sectors, as well as ordinary consumers, cannot.

Food and convenience store wholesalers warned that they and other businesses that are obliged to use PPE are now facing increased costs just when they are struggling most.

James Bielby, chief executive of the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, said: “There couldn’t be a worse time to inflict extra costs on the food supply chain. Wholesalers have been trading at a loss for months because of the restrictions on their hospitality customers. Some of them have lost 80% of their business and are struggling to maintain their contracts to schools, hospitals and care homes.

“To burden them with a 20% increase in the price of equipment that they rely on to carry out their operations is kicking them when they are down and it will only increase the existing risk to food distribution to vulnerable groups.

“The reasons for introducing a zero rate haven’t changed, and we face months of further Covid-19 measures. It’s disappointing that the zero rate isn’t being continued for as long as Covid restrictions on trade are in place.”

To make this change in the middle of a pandemic, with rising infection rates and much of the UK in special measures, is not just crass, but tone deaf. People and businesses are suffering and struggling to survive economically, without having additional costs foisted on them in this way.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Racoons are the ultimate lockdown tonic

A bit of cheer as we enter a two week Welsh lockdown, with a number of media outlets reporting on the escapades of two racoons in California. The Free Press takes up the story:

Two raccoons were caught red-handed after breaking into a bank in California on Tuesday when a member of the public spotted them inside.

The masked invaders were seen inside the Redwood City bank by a member of the public who had been using an ATM at the time.

The Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA (PHS/SPCA) were called to the scene and, after 10 minutes, were successful in returning the furry pair to the outside world.

“It’s not every day an animal organisation gets called to deal with a bank break-in, but since the bank robbers were masked bandits of the wildlife kind, we were indeed the appropriate responders,” said PHS/SPCA’s communications manager Buffy Martin Tarbox.

“The bank managers let our rescue staff into the bank, and after about 10 minutes of chasing the raccoons around the bank, we were finally able to safely shoo them outside. They apparently didn’t want to leave the bank.”

The bank had been closed at the time, allowing the raccoons free rein to wreak havoc after it is believed they entered through air ducts.

They took the opportunity to knock a computer over and reportedly ate a number of almond cookies – they are not believed to have made away with any money, and were not injured during their adventure.

Rumours that they had been sent by the Republican Party to destroy ballot papers and had just got lost are complete nonsense of course. And isn't Buffy Martin Tarbox a fabulous name?

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Why I self published

In my view, literary agents and publishers are very conservative. I don't blame them for that. They must receive thousands of novels each year to be evaluated and considered for publication., many of varying quality. They cannot publish them all.

If we add in the decline in the number of people reading books, the costs of marketing, and other expenses, it must be very difficult to make any sort of profit from publishing fiction.

I suppose that is why much of the work actually being sent to book shops is by well-known authors with an established following, the J.K. Rowlings, Geoge R.R Martin and Philip Pullman's of this world, who have film and TV exposure to boost sales.

And then there are TV stars who have turned their hand to fiction, some with more success than others, the TV chat show host, the dancer on Strictly Come Dancing, the super model and the TV quiz host. Their books, some of which actually are very readable, sell because they are by well-known names.

In writing this, I do not want to dismiss the very high quality fiction that is being published. A great many novels are being accepted on their merits, it is just that many are not.

When I wrote my first two novels, I bought a guide to getting them published and spent a year sending them to agents. Despite getting some praise, none of them felt the books were for them.

I would have persisted if it had not been for two conversations I had, one with a author who explained to me how easy it is to self-publish using KDP, and another with a well-known publisher.

The latter conversation came about in Buckingham Palace, where I was receiving a CBE for political service. Amongst my group was Dame Carmen Callil, the founder of Virago Press. I told her I had written a novel. She told me that the publishing business had changed dramatically since she had started out and she advised me to self publish.

I came home and did precisely that. My two novels can be bought here, and I am making progress on my third. Please buy them.

Tory MPs vote down bid to feed children in England receiving free school meals during the pandemic

I read somewhere that if the National Health Service was being formed today, it would be voted down by a conservative majority in the House of Commons. That may be unfair on a number of MPs who can see the value of free health care but the sentiment is correct, it seems that this government and those pouring through the lobbies on its behalf have no social conscience.

In Wales, a Welsh Liberal Democrats Education Minister has ensured that those pupils in receipt of free school meals will continue to be fed during lockdown and during school holidays until at least Easter 2021. In England, a request by the footballer Marcus Rashford for the UK Government to follow suit was rejected by Tory MPs last niight, the vote being 322 votes to 261 with a government majority of 61.

The Guardian reports the motion to provide 1.4 million disadvantaged children in England with £15-a-week food vouchers during holidays until Easter 2021 was voted down:

In response Rashford, 22, who became an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list this month, told his 3.5m Twitter followers: “Put aside all the noise, the digs, the party politics, and let’s focus on the reality. A significant number of children are going to bed tonight not only hungry but feeling like they do not matter because of comments that have been made today.”

Rashford, who has spoken of his own experience of food poverty growing up in Wythenshawe, Manchester, added: “We must stop stigmatising, judging and pointing fingers. Our views are being clouded by political affiliation. This is not politics, this is humanity.

“I don’t have the education of a politician, many on Twitter have made that clear today, but I have a social education having lived through this and having spent time with the families and children most affected. These children matter.” He urged Boris Johnson to sit down and discuss a solution.

This neglect of poorer families and willingness to allow disadvantage children to go without a nutritious meal, will become the new yardstick for measuring the lack of compassion on the Tory benches.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Blame Cummings says former civil service head

The Independent reports on the views of Mark Sedwill, who is the cabinet secretary forced out by the prime minister in June, that Dominic Cummings’ flouting of lockdown rules “clearly undermined” efforts to win the public’s support to fight the pandemic.

He has branded the chief No 10 aide’s notorious journeys to and around County Durham “a mistake” – after Boris Johnson claimed he acted “reasonably” and refused to sack him. He also acknowledged the government did not have the “exact measures” in place to confront Covid-19:

“I think there is a genuine question about whether we could have been better prepared in the first place and that is obviously a very legitimate challenge,” Lord Sedwill said.

It would be for a future inquiry to determine whether the lockdown in March came too late and whether ministers had prepared properly to cope with a pandemic.

However, the prime minister has refused to start that inquiry – despite promising it in July – amid suspicions he is dragging his heels to avoid possible heavy criticism.

In April, Mr Cummings left London for his second home in Durham, when both he and his wife were showing symptoms – and then claimed he drove to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight.

A survey last month found that the public strongly believed Mr Cummings’ actions had “undermined compliance with lockdown rules” – a view backed by 76 per cent of voters.

Almost three quarters (74 per cent) said the prime minister was “wrong” to stand by his de-facto chief-of-staff when his apparent rule-breaking was exposed.

Lord Sedwill, speaking to the BBC, said of the incident: “It was clearly a difficult moment for the government. It was a mistake. Whether everyone should quit every time they make a mistake, I don't think is right.

“But it clearly undermined the government's coherent narrative about people following the rules.”

Perhaps a few more of the civil servants who were purged by Johnson and Cummings should speak out as well.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Even Theresa May finds plan for post-Brexit national security difficult to believe

I have written a number of times here about the impact of Brexit on our national security and international crime, so it is disappointing to see that Ministers are still such a blasé view of the issue.

As a reminder, back in March 2018, the Independent reported on the belief of the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons that unless a deal is struck to maintain security and policing cooperation with the EU after Brexit, then the UK could be sleepwalking into a crisis. 

They said that there are “serious legal, constitutional and political obstacles” that mean an agreement will not be easy to reach, but failure to “urgently” resolve these issues will “seriously undermine” the UK’s security.

In particular, the committee said failure to continue using the European Arrest Warrant and instead having to rely an earlier extradition treaty would be a “catastrophic outcome.” They called on the Government to begin negotiations on a security and policing treaty immediately, and said the UK should be willing to sacrifice its “artificial red lines”, including on the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

In May 2018, the Times reported that despite Ministers saying Britain’s participation in the so-called Prüm Convention is “clearly in the national interest”, that is now in doubt. The government wanted a guarantee that it can continue to access and share vital DNA, fingerprint and vehicle information with other European countries after Brexit. This system allowed French and Belgian authorities to identify the terrorists responsible for the Paris attacks in November 2015. As the paper said:

Prüm is one of a number of EU crime-fighting tools, including the European Criminal Records Information Exchange System and the Schengen Information System (SIS), that Britain wants to continue to use.

British police disclosed that they had carried out 539 million checks on SIS in 2017 and warned that month about being frozen out of the “critical” databases. Steve Smart, director of intelligence at the National Crime Agency, told a parliamentary hearing: “The impact of losing access to those datasets is that more bad people will get into the UK and it will be harder for us to find and deal with them.”

And then in June 2017, the Independent reported on a speech by Nick Clegg, then the Liberal Democrats Brexit spokesperson, in which he said:

"Theresa May has vowed to pull Britain out of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, a decision which means we would no longer have access to vital EU-wide databases of criminal activity.

“So where are the contingency plans when our police forces find themselves unable to check the databases of 28 EU countries at the touch of a button? If only she would deign to tell us, then maybe we could judge.”

“Just last year, a not-so-distant era when Theresa May made perfectly rational arguments against leaving Europe, she warned that being in the UK makes us “more secure from crime and terrorism.”

The paper pointed out that data experts feared the Government is failing to recognise the danger to businesses and the fight against terrorism from losing information-sharing rights. They said Britain risks a wait of up to three years to be granted an “adequacy decision” from Brussels, threatening to stop the flow of data immediately unless a temporary deal can be struck.

Crucially, separate agreements may have to be struck with individual police forces and intelligence services – with the danger that vital information will “fall between the cracks”, one expert was quoted as saying.

Fast forward to today, and the Mirror reports that Theresa May has poured scorn on Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit security commitments as she warned of the dangers of a no-deal scenario:

The Conservative former prime minister repeatedly said “what?” in disbelief and appeared to mouth “utter rubbish” as Michael Gove outlined how the UK will be expected to boost its security outside the EU.

Cabinet Office minister Mr Gove claimed there are “many, many areas” in which the UK can co-operate “more effectively” to protect its borders after Brexit.

Speaking in the Commons, Mrs May warned: “The Government appears resigned to the prospect of no deal, yet one area which they should not be resigned to the prospect of no deal is in security.”

Mrs May said neither Mr Gove nor Prime Minister Mr Johnson had mentioned security in recent statements.

She added: “Will (Mr Gove) confirm that, if the UK walks away with no deal, then our police and law enforcement agencies will no longer have the necessary access to databases, such as PNR (passenger name record), in order to continue to identify and catch criminals and potential terrorists in order to keep us safe?”

Mr Gove said “significant progress” has been made over security co-operation, adding: “But it is the case that the EU are insisting that, before we have access to systems, like the Schengen Information System, we have to accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice – we cannot accept that.

“The second thing I’d say is there are many, many areas in which we can co-operate more effectively to safeguard our borders outside the European Union than we ever could inside, through a variety of methods and arrangements open to us, open to Border Force and open to our security and intelligence services – we can intensify the security that we give to the British people.

“The third thing I’d say to (Mrs May) is that I agree with her: when it comes to everything, security and other matters, no deal is better than a bad deal.”

Despite all the warnings, the government has learnt nothing. If anything the prospect of a no deal Brexit leaves us even more exposed. That Theresa May has raised these issues in the Commons may be the final indicator that irony is well and truly dead.

Monday, October 19, 2020

The scandalous cost of England's failing test and trace system

The Mirror reports that some of the consultants involved with the Government's failing test and trace system are receiving £7,000 a day from public coffers:

Last week, Sky News said it had seen documents revealing Boston Consulting Group (BCG) was paid about £10 million for around 40 consultants to provide four months’ work between the end of April and late August.

The broadcaster said the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) received a 10 to 15% discount from BCG, whose day rates for public sector work range from £2,400 to £7,360 for the most senior consultants.

This is despite the fact that the test and trace system has been a key failure in the Government's plan to contain the coronavirus. There has been heavy criticism of the profits it has created for private companies while failing to deliver comprehensive support.

Serco, one of the outsourcing companies involved in the programme, has said it would consider paying a dividend to shareholders after the government contract helped boost its profits. It is no surprise therefore that shares in Serco surged by 18% on Friday after it said it expected to make an underlying profit for the year of between £160m and £165m.

This scandal comes on top of the many UK government failures in seeking to contain this pandemic. It cannot be right that, while thousands of people face losing their jobs because of measures put in place to control the virus, companies like this are raking in the cash off the back of the crisis.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Police access to data will undermine Covid protocols

It is almost as if the UK Government is trying to destroy people's trust in the measures they have brought in to tackle the Covid 19 pandemic. The Guardian reports that people who have been told to self-isolate through NHS test and trace could have their contact details passed to police, a move some fear could deter people from being tested for coronavirus:

England made it a legal requirement for people to self-isolate if they test positive for coronavirus. Those who fail to do so face fines starting at £1,000, while repeat offenders or those committing serious breaches could receive fines of up to £10,000, according to the DHSC.

The department updated its online guidance on Friday about how coronavirus testing data will be handled.

People who fail to self-isolate “without reasonable justification” could have their name, address and contact details passed to their local authority and then to the police, the DHSC’s website said.

“This may lead to enforcement action being taken against you, which could include you being fined,” the online guidance said.

“A police force may request information relating to positive Covid-19 tests from the NHS Test & Trace programme directly, where they are investigating a report of someone who may not be complying with the mandatory self-isolation period.”

This has led to the office of England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, voicing concerns that the move would discourage people from being tested for the virus, while Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader, said ministers should “reverse the policy urgently”, calling it a “huge mistake”.

“Anything that further undermines the public’s dwindling trust in this government’s handling of the pandemic is damaging, and few things could have been better designed to do that than this,” he said.

“Asking our already overstretched police service to take on this task is both self-defeating and a serious misjudgment.”

On top of the 'one rule for you, another rule for us' approach by UK Ministers, this could well undermine the whole anti-Covid strategy.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

The inevitable no-deal - a massive web of deceit and broken promises by UK Ministers

I am not sure whether I am more angry or resigned this morning reading on the BBC that Boris Johnson has effectively pulled the plug on trade talks with the EU and told us all to prepare for a no deal exit on 31 December.

One is tempted to think that the lurid tell-all by Jennifer Arcuri in the Brexit-backing, Tory-arse-licking, formerly nazi-sympathising Daily Mail this morning, in which she finally admits to bonking our serial shagger PM, providing far more detail than is decent at any breakfast table, is a deliberate distraction tactic on the part of that rag.

We now have a situation where half of Kent is being converted into a lorry park, drivers may have to show some sort of passport to get into the county, businesses trading in Europe will become swamped in paperwork, tariffs will lead to an increase in the cost of living for all of us, while making UK businesses less competitive with an inevitable knock-on for jobs, and the Good Friday Agreement lies wrecked in a gutter of Johnson's making. 

What is worse is that he has done this in the middle of an economy-wrecking pandemic. This is the No deal’ which no-one voted for and which Johnson himself described as a ‘total failure of statecraft’.

How can we forget the promises and reassurances made to the public when 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.

With a no deal looking to be the almost certain outcome of this process, it is worth repeating yet again, 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%.

Boris Johnson and his cohorts are taking this country to the edge of economic and financial ruin in the pursuit of ideological purity and the only people who are set to benefit from it are their friends in the city.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Labour abandon role of opposition on civil liberties breach

That two Labour frontbenchers were forced to resign to oppose the Government legislation that allows MI5 and police informants to commit crimes, tells us everything we need to know about Keir Starmer's attitude to civil liberties.

As the Guardian reports, Starmer had wanted Labour MPs to abstain on the bill once their amendments were defeated, arguing that statutory regulation of informants’ conduct would have been necessary if the party had been in power.

But critics of the covert human intelligence sources bill argued it did not explicitly rule out crimes such as murder, torture or serious sexual offences – and that it could authorise spying by undercover agents or police, including on groups such as trade unions:

Margaret Greenwood, the shadow schools spokesperson, quit immediately after the early evening vote, joining the shadow financial secretary to the Treasury, Dan Carden, who had resigned earlier in the day. The two were among a handful of leftwingers remaining on Keir Starmer’s frontbench.

“I cannot stand by and allow a bill to go through that will profoundly impact on our civil liberties and the environment in which individuals can get together to have their voices heard,” Greenwood wrote in her resignation letter.

But the rebellion could have been larger had a second group of leftwing frontbenchers also decided to defy the whip. Instead, after intense lobbying from senior party figures such as the deputy leader, Angela Rayner, they made a “collective decision to stay on the frontbench and use their roles to ensure the left has a stronger voice in future party policy”, according to a source close the group.

They included MPs Andy McDonald, Imran Hussain, Rachael Maskell, Cat Smith, Marsha de Cordova, Alex Sobel, Sam Tarry and Charlotte Nichols. They said they were given “clear assurances” by Starmer that the party would campaign on union issues. However, Labour insiders said no specific concessions had been made.

Other MPs who did quit were five parliamentary private secretaries – shadow junior ministers – including Navendu Misra and Kim Johnson, both of whom were aides to Rayner, and Rachel Hopkins, Sarah Owen and Mary Foy.

It appears that Starmer is trying to take Labour back to the authoritarian, centralising, illiberal days of Tony Blair in an attempt to win power. The need for the Liberal Democrats has never been greater. Let's hope that Ed Davey steps up to fill the libertarian gap being left for him.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

UK Government no longer following scientific advice

It is actually very unlikely that any of the governments in the UK have been following scientific advice to the letter over how to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic, but that has not stopped all of them from using scientists as a shield for the unpopular decisions they have had to make. 

The fact is that every decision that has been made has been political, and has been based on a number of factors, including science, economics and pure politics. The problem that ministers now face is that this has beecome more transparent in recent days and as a result the government have lost their scapegoats for when things go wrong.

Boris Johnson was late in enforcing the lockdown in March, with the result that more people died than needed to, now he appears to have repeated that error. The Mirror reports that the government's scientific advisors officially recommended an urgent two-week 'circuit break' lockdown three weeks ago, but that this advice was not adhered to by Ministers:
Documents slipped out by the government show scientists were urging Boris Johnson to go further than the three-tier local lockdown system he announced today.

The Prime Minister today announced restrictions on household contact and travel and shut pubs that don't serve food in the worst 'Tier 3' area.

Yet at a No10 press conference tonight, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty admitted the standard Tier 3 measures in England do not go far enough on their own.

Now bombshell papers - quietly published on the government's website moments after the press conference - show how much further SAGE asked the PM to go.

In a meeting on September 21, the group said a two-week circuit-breaker lockdown across the whole of England was one of a shortlist of five measures that "should be considered for immediate introduction".

SAGE said a circuit-breaker of perhaps two to three weeks was "likely to have similar levels of effectiveness as national lockdown in Spring" and bring the R below 1, albeit only temporarily.

"Modelling suggests that 14 days of significant reduction in transmission in October could put the epidemic back 28 days and could significantly reduce the prevalence of infection in December," SAGE added.

“The amount of ‘time gained’ is highly dependent on how quickly the epidemic is growing – the faster the growth or stricter the measures introduced, the more time gained.”

SAGE did not call for all five changes to be taken at once but warned: "A package of interventions will need to be adopted to prevent this exponential rise in cases. Single interventions are unlikely to be able to reduce incidence. If schools are to remain open, then a wide range of other measures will be required."

A gulf has opened up between Ministers and the experts, and the government appears to be floundering.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

UK Government pirouettes into a u-turn


The UK Government's undoubtedly genuine attempt to encourage people to retrain in the face of mounting unemployment came unstuck yesterday, when they put out a rather crass advert that not only stretched credibility but also underlined their own neglect and underfunding of the arts.

As the Independent reports, officials were foreced to pull a heavily criticised advert that suggested a ballet dancer could “reboot” her career and retrain as an IT worker amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Prime minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson admitted the advert, which was launched amid anger at the relative lack of government financial support for the creative industries, was “inappropriate”.

The spokesperson said: “This is part of a campaign encouraging people from all walks of life to consider a career in cyber-security. This particular piece of content was not appropriate and has been removed from the campaign.

The advert generated a whole selection of memes suggesting that various key figures in the government could retrain, including Dominic Cummings working for Specsavers or as a tour guide at Barnard Castle, and the Prime Minister moving over to opposition. You reap what you sow I suppose.

Monday, October 12, 2020

More questions over COVID procurement

The Guardian reports that a legal action has been launched over the government’s failure to disclose details of its spending on contracts related to the pandemic, as it emerged that it has failed to account for £3bn spent on private contracts since the start of lockdown.

They say three cross-party MPs and Good Law Project, a non-profit-making organisation, have filed a judicial review against the government for breaching the law and its own guidance and argue that there are mounting concerns over coronavirus procurement processes:

Green party MP, Caroline Lucas, Labour’s Debbie Abrahams and Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran say that, despite the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) disclosing in September that at least £11bn worth of contracts have been awarded by the department since April, related predominantly to coronavirus, fresh analysis by data analysts Tussell shows that over £3bn worth of these contracts have not been made public.

The DHSC has said due diligence was carried out on all government contracts which have been awarded. The government has 21 days to respond to the judicial review proceedings.

Jolyon Maugham QC, director of Good Law Project, said: “What we know about the government’s procurement practices during this pandemic gives real cause for concern.

“Huge sums of public money have been awarded to companies with no discernible expertise. Sometimes the main qualification seems to be a political connection with key government figures.

“And I have seen evidence that government is sometimes paying more to buy the same product from those with political connections. We don’t know what else there is to discover because the government is deliberately keeping the public in the dark.

“We are left with no option but to push for transparency through the courts.”

Lucas added: “When billions of pounds of public money is handed out to private companies, some of them with political connections but no experience in delivering medical supplies, ministers should be explaining why those companies were awarded the contracts.

“It’s completely unacceptable that, as an MP, I’m prevented from being able to scrutinise those decisions.”

Abrahams said: “The persistent failure to publish the details of Covid contracts leads you to wonder what this government has got to hide.”

Moran said: “It is totally unacceptable for the government to avoid scrutiny during a public health crisis.

The worse aspect of this action of course is that this is a government whose members campaigned to leave the EU to give power back to Parliament and yet, they are completly by-passing parliamentary scrutiny in their actions, forcing MPs to go to court for answers - plus ça change as they say on the continent.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Data security issues may fuel lack of trust in UK Government

A lack of trust in Ministers is one of the biggest obstacles to the UK Government's attempts to tackle this pandemic. fuelled by their one-rule-for-us-another-for you attitude and the many inconsistencies in their messaging. Rhetoric has replaced assurance and that has turned many people off.

And now we have reason to mistrust the government's track and trace system that they are depending on to turn the infection rate around. The Times reports that companies collecting data for pubs and restaurants to help them fulfil their contact-tracing duties are harvesting confidential customer information to sell.

The paper says legal experts have warned of a “privacy crisis” caused by a rise in companies exploiting QR barcodes to take names, addresses, telephone numbers and email details, before passing them on to marketers, credit companies and insurance brokers:

The “quick response” mobile codes have been widely adopted by the hospitality, leisure and beauty industries as an alternative to pen-and-paper visitor logs since the government ordered businesses to collect contact details to give to NHS Test and Trace if required.

Any data collected should be kept by the business for 21 days and must not be used “for any purposes other than for NHS Test and Trace”, according to government guidelines.

But some firms used by businesses to meet the new requirements have clauses in their terms and conditions stating they can use the information for reasons other than contact tracing, including sharing it with third parties. The privacy policy of one company used by a restaurant chain in London says it stores users’ data for 25 years.

Gaurav Malhotra, director of Level 5, a software development company that supplies the government, said data could end up in the hands of scammers. “If you’re suddenly getting loads of texts, your data has probably been sold on from track-and-trace systems,” he said.

One of the firms claiming to offer a privacy-compliant QR code service is Pub Track and Trace (PUBTT), an organisation based in Huddersfield charging pubs £20 a month to keep track of visitors, who are asked to provide their name, phone number and email address.

Despite its claim to be a “simple” service, its privacy policy, which users must accept, explains how personal data of people accessing its website can be used to “make suggestions and recommendations to you about goods or services that may be of interest to you” and shared with third parties including “service providers or regulatory bodies providing fraud prevention services or credit/background checks.”

It may also “collect, use, store and transfer” records of access to certain premises including “time, ID number and CCTV images”.

PUBTT, which works with pubs in England and Wales, said users agreed to its privacy policy before using the service and claimed it had not passed data to third parties. A spokesman, identified only as Adam H, said: “The data we collect is only for use of the Test and Trace service or where a user has agreed for the venue to use their information for marketing purposes.”

Ordamo, which provides track and trace services for restaurants, states that data from website visitors is “retained for 25 years”, a duration Hazel Grant, head of privacy at Fieldfisher, a law firm, said would be “very difficult to justify”. Ordamo did not respond to requests for comment.

The possibility that information provided by customers to companies as part of efforts to contain the pandemic might fall into the hands of scammers, or be used to spam them is inevitably going to lead to people refusing to use the system. The Information Commissioner’s Office must step in and sort this out urgently.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

MPs pay rise not a good look as others face cut in income

All the noise in politics at the moment, that has nothing to do with Covid 19 and Brexit, is about the decision by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) to award MPs a £3,360 pay increase next April on top of their £80,000 a year salary.

This is not a decision that MPs have any control over but once again IPSA has shown itself to be insensitive and flat-footed, to the extent that Business minister Nadhim Zahawi has gone public to describe the move as “inappropriate” as the country continues to battle the global pandemic, businesses are struggling to survive and people are seeing their wages cut.

What does lie within the government's control however, is how they treat the many hundreds of thousands of people struggling to make ends meet on benefits, whose number may well increase over the next few months as measures are put into place to try and control the pandemic.

As the Independent reports, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has claimed that four million households face a "significant decline" in their income under government plans to scrap the £20 a week increase in universal credit.

With unemployment already rising and forecast to spike over the winter, many more households are expected to be reliant on the benefit system, one of the least generous of a wealthy nation.

As Wendy Chamberlain, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for work and pensions, says, the government would be guilty of "heartlessness at its worst" if it cuts benefits while millions of people are struggling.

Ministers may not be able to control what IPSA does but they should certainly avoid further embarrassment and take a socially just position, by ensuring that those most in need do not lose out while they rake in their extra salaries.

Friday, October 09, 2020

Britain outfoxed on trade role

It was inevitable I suppose, that the UK's nomination of Liam Fox for director-general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) should end in ignominous failure. 

The Independent reports that Tory right-winger, Fox, who famously said the EU-UK trade deal after Brexit would be the “easiest in history”, failed to make the last round of the contest, which will be between South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee and Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

Why exactly Boris Johnson thought Dr Fox might be a credible candidate for the role is difficult to understand, after all most of the Tory party and their pro-Brexit allies have spent the last four years misrepresenting the purpose of the WTO, demonstrating a stubborn ignorance of its role in world trade and how nations benefit from membership of it.

Furthermore, the UK's own international standing has suffered considerably from the government's inept handling of Brexit and its willingness to break international law. The bad faith Boris Johnson is demonstrating in seeking to rip up his agreement with the EU is bound to have repercussions in our dealings elsewhere.

If the UK has fallen so far in international esteem that it struggles to get enough votes to justify its entry in the Eurovision song contest, then how can it's government expect to win such a high profile position for one of our most controversial politicians?

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Battle lines drawn on the enforcement of the law

Is the government now officially at war with the legal profession? I only ask because of remarks by the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who used her speech to the Conservative party conference to criticise lawyers for doing their job in defending migrants, linking them directly with traffickers who help asylum-seekers to cross borders. Having a Home Secretary who does not rsespect due legal process is quite an achievement for Boris Johnson. One wonders if he has even noticed or, if he has, if he understands the significance of Patel's comments.

The Law Society has now written to the Home Office asking them to change the language they are using:

President Simon Davis said: “Slinging insults at lawyers risks leading not just to verbal abuse but to lawyers being physically attacked for doing their job … [and] it undermines a legal system which has evolved over many centuries, which helps ensure that power is not abused.”

The Guardian reports the concerns of lawyers who believe that the increasingly hostile rhetoric from the government is making them feel unsafe for the first time in their careers.

And now we have the former President of the Supreme Court arguing that the government's Brexit strategy is in danger of driving the UK down a “very slippery slope” towards “dictatorship” or “tyranny”.

As the Guardian reports, Lord Neuberger on Wednesday evening condemned the internal market bill, which enables the government to breach international law and exempts some of its powers from legal challenge:

“Once you deprive people of the right to go to court to challenge the government, you are in a dictatorship, you are in a tyranny,” Neuberger told the webinar. “The right of litigants to go to court to protect their rights and ensure that the government complies with its legal obligation is fundamental to any system … You could be going down a very slippery slope.”

As Ministers appear to think they can break internatioal law and defy the domestic courts, there really could be no further obstacle to a dictatorship.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Consultants cash in on Brexit

Yet more falsehoods from the 2016 referendum have been laid to rest this morning, namely that leaving the EU will be painless and save us money, with this report in the Guardian that the government’s reliance on management consultants has led to spending with the eight top firms rising by 45% to more than £450m in three years.

They say that Deloitte, the professional services firm, was the biggest winner, earning fees of £147m from public funds in 2019-20, compared with £40m two years earlier, amid a bonanza related in large part to Brexit. The Home Office had the biggest increase in consultancy spending over three years, jumping 788% to £57m as the department dealt with security, immigration and border preparations for leaving the EU:

The results of the analysis of more than 11,000 government invoices came on Tuesday as Boris Johnson promoted the private sector, saying “free enterprise” must lead the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

In his speech to Conservative party conference, the prime minister sounded a warning about the extent of state intervention on schemes such as furlough and said: “There comes a moment when the state must stand back and let the private sector get on with it. We must not draw the wrong economic conclusion from this crisis.”

However, last week the minister in charge of curbing Whitehall spending, Theodore Agnew, wrote a letter to senior civil servants saying the civil service had become “infantilised” by an “unacceptable” reliance on expensive management consultants.

While 1% of civil servants are paid more than £80,000 a year, day rates for management consultants working in the public sector range from about £1,000 for junior consultants to about £3,500 for partners.

So now we know.

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

World beating system crashes

I am not clear exactly how much the UK Government's 'world-beating' test and trace system for England is costing, or even if the private company they are employing to do it is responsible for the latest cock-up, whereby they misplaced 16,000 tests and put goodness knows how many people at risk through not being informed of their encounter with the virus, but my lack of surprise at what happened certainly sums up the competence of this government.

The Guardian reports that the data error, which led to 15,841 positive tests being left off the official daily figures, means than 50,000 potentially infectious people may have been missed by contact tracers and not told to self-isolate.

The paper says that Public Health England was responsible for collating the test results from public and private labs, and publishing the daily updates on case count and tests performed:

But the rapid development of the testing programme has meant that much of the work is still done manually, with individual labs sending PHE spreadsheets containing their results. Although the system has improved from the early days of the pandemic, when some of the work was performed with phone calls, pens and paper, it is still far from automated.

In this case, the Guardian understands, one lab had sent its daily test report to PHE in the form of a CSV file – the simplest possible database format, just a list of values separated by commas. That report was then loaded into Microsoft Excel, and the new tests at the bottom were added to the main database.

But while CSV files can be any size, Microsoft Excel files can only be 1,048,576 rows long – or, in older versions which PHE may have still been using, a mere 65,536. When a CSV file longer than that is opened, the bottom rows get cut off and are no longer displayed. That means that, once the lab had performed more than a million tests, it was only a matter of time before its reports failed to be read by PHE.

Microsoft’s spreadsheet software is one of the world’s most popular business tools, but it is regularly implicated in errors which can be costly, or even dangerous, because of the ease with which it can be used in situations it was not designed for.

In 2013, an Excel error at JPMorgan masked the loss of almost $6bn (£4.6bn), after a cell mistakenly divided by the sum of two interest rates, rather than the average. The news led James Kwak, a professor of law at the University of Connecticut, to warn that Excel is “incredibly fragile”.

“There is no way to trace where your data comes from, there’s no audit trail (so you can overtype numbers and not know it), and there’s no easy way to test spreadsheets, for starters. The biggest problem is that anyone can create Excel spreadsheets – badly. Because it’s so easy to use, the creation of even important spreadsheets is not restricted to people who understand programming and do it in a methodical, well-documented way,” Kwak wrote.

In this case Public Health England was using the old xls format of Excel that could only accommodate files with around 1400 tests (each one using several rows) - and a surge in positive tests caught them by surprise. This is yet another foul-up caused by an over-reliance on ICT that is not fit for purpose, by people who don't understand its limitations.

And this will not be the last time this happens. Many public sector bodies are using out-of-date software that is not only not fit for purpose, but vulnerable to attack from outside agents. When will we learn the lesson and invest properly in sorting this out?

Monday, October 05, 2020

RIP Doorkins Magnificat

The Times reports the sad death of one of the papers’s most popular neighbours. Doorkins Magnificat, the splendidly named chief mouser at Southwark Cathedral, has died peacefully in the arms of the verger she had been living with since retiring from eccelesiastical duties last year. The Southwark Cathedral website takes up the story: 

In 2008 a stray cat started visiting the Cathedral between Christmas and New Year waiting at the South West Doors each morning for food.

After being fed each morning for a few days, this cat decided (as cats do) that the Cathedral is where she wished to live and has been with us ever since.

Given the name Doorkins Magnificat by the Vergers who served her on a daily basis, Doorkins was very much part of the Cathedral fabric and was popular with the congregation, visitors and staff. A number of visitors came to the Cathedral just to see her and she has even had the honour to entertain HM Queen Elizabeth II.

In August 2017 Doorkins published her first book which gives a complete tour of the Cathedral and a typical week in the life of our self-proclaimed Magnificat.

Doorkins could be quite elusive but it was not uncommon to see her walk in front of the altar during a service, asleep on the Dean’s stall in the Choir during the day or cat-napping in the Churchyard if the sun is out. In the winter months, she liked to stretch out on one of the radiators or snuggle into the hay at the Nativity Crib during Advent and Christmas.

On Wednesday 30 September, Doorkins sadly died peacefully.

She had been living in retirement with one of the Cathedral vergers since the end of 2019 and died in his arms following a stroke. Doorkins came to Southwark Cathedral in 2008 and made her home with us. She had been living wild until she saw a place of sanctuary at Southwark Cathedral, and she gradually began to trust those who fed and looked after her.

She remained an active and fearless cat, wandering around the Cathedral and outside during her time with us, until the London Bridge terrorist attack in 2017. At that time she was shut out of the Cathedral for a number of days and once inside again she did not leave the warmth of the place which she had come to think of as home and where she knew she was safe.

Doorkins went into retirement when she could no longer see and the Cathedral was then not a safe place for her, as she could not navigate it without mishap. Her last months were very happy and she was well loved in her place of retirement.

The Cathedral have opened a book of memories for Doorkins here and are holding a thanksgiving service for their former mouser at 4pm on 28th October. Her fame has spread far and wide, so much so that there is even a tribute from Sadiq Kahn, the Mayor of London:

'Southwark Cathedral is part of the fabric of London and Doorkins is part and parcel of the Southwark Cathedral family. I have very fond memories of my visits to Southwark Cathedral - each one with Doorkins taking pride of place.'

There is also an impressive range of gifts that can be bought from the Southwark Cathedral shop featuring Doorkin's image, including this magnificent Corbel.

Doorkins was clearly a cat who was much loved and made her mark on all who came across her.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Tory MPs tire of Johnson's Rasputin

We are in the middle of the Tory Party's virtual conference, and it is not just the technology that is struggling to find its purpose. The Independent reports that Boris Johnson is facing pressure from his own party’s MPs to get out of his “bunker” and shake off his reliance on controversial adviser Dominic Cummings.

They say that confidence in the prime minister within his own party has been shaken by his handling of coronavirus, doubts over a Brexit deal and recent rows over lockdown restrictions, bizarre plans to send asylum seekers to the south Atlantic and threats to break international law.

However, in a typical example of political cowardice and misdirection, this dissatisfaction is being directed at a much easier target than the occupant of number 10 Downing Street.

Speaking to The Independent ahead of the PM’s crucial speech to this year’s virtual party conference, several MPs said he needed to assert more grip, with one saying it was time for an end to “presidential-style” government by a small group around the leader.

But despite frustration about “drift” and widespread acclaim for the performance of chancellor Rishi Sunak, there was little appetite for a change at the top, with many instead saying that they wanted to see “the old Boris” who was voted in by a huge majority by MPs and party members last year and won a landslide in last December’s election.

One backbencher, who asked not to be named, said: “We want him to lead us, but there has been a lot of confusion and sometimes he seems to be taking his lead from the scientists or from his advisers. I think he could be doing more to instil confidence in his troops.

“He talks a lot about ‘levelling up’ but I’m not sure the voters have a clear idea what that means. He needs to put a bit of flesh on the bones.”

A former minister suggested Mr Johnson’s administration had run out of steam under the double burden of the coronavirus outbreak and the search for a deal on Brexit.

“The wheels have fallen off Boris’s Brexit bandwagon and he is stuck in the Brexit Covid bunker,” the MP said.

Stalwart Brexiteer Peter Bone, who joined the rebellion against Coronavirus Act powers allowing ministers to impose lockdown restrictions without a Commons vote, will not be alone amongst MPs in believing that the PM’s problems stem from his reliance on his most senior adviser. And there is no doubt that Dominic Cummings is influential. However, the buck stops with the Prime Minister, and it is he who has to take responsibility for governmental decisions.

Blaming key advisers is not new of course, but Cummings is no Rasputin. I have not seen the new version of Spitting Image, as I refuse to pay the subscription fee for the cable channel it is on, but they also seem enamoured of this image of the Prime Minister's key advisor as some sort of evil Svengali. Pictures I have seen make him look like Count Dracula.

All that this deflection does, though, is distract us from the real problem - an incompetent and lazy Prime Minister, who is allowing others to build a centralising, illiberal state in his name. If MPs want to change that then they need to replace Johnson, not his Rasputin.

Saturday, October 03, 2020

Is Parliament falling apart at the seams?

We know that politics has been difficult in recent times due to the pandemic, but having the Palace of Westminster physically fall apart around MPs may well be taking things too literally. However, that is the reality and the government only have themselves to blame.

The Independent reports that work has yet to begin on vital work to renovate Parliament – almost three years after MPs voted to move out to enable it – with key decisions yet to be taken and a business case still two years away, while running repairs cost taxpayers £100m a year.

Meanwhile, this historic building is afflicted by “failing mechanical and electrical systems, falling masonry and the constant risk of a catastrophic fire”:

“Parliament is literally falling apart,” said Meg Hillier, chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee. “It poses a very real risk to health and safety in its current state.”

Ms Hiller pointed to “nearly 20 years of discussion”, adding: “What we don’t need is for the authorities to keep reopening and reviewing what few decisions have been taken.

“We need rapid learning from comparable projects, clear vision, leadership and direction, now.”

The criticism comes after Boris Johnson appeared to try to torpedo the January 2018 decision for MPs to move to a temporary home in Whitehall, from about 2025, for at least five years.

The prime minister wrote to the body overseeing the renovation plan, calling for it to look at “the full range of options” – including a move to York.

The body made clear it would be “inappropriate” to re-examine the plans to move up Whitehall, to behind Richmond House, which was a decision for Parliament.

This inertia, politicking and lack of leadership can only bode well for the future of this major public asset. 

The danger of course is that the level of disrepair and the cost of renovation will multiply exponentially. IN a worst case scenario somebody could be hurt or killed due to working in an unsafe environment. Surely it is time to bite the bullet and get on with this work.

Friday, October 02, 2020

Will Wales be left high and dry by Brexit funding deal?

The BBC report on the conclusions of parliament's Welsh Affairs Committee that "negligible" progress has been made by the UK government to replace EU funds in Wales after Brexit.

They say that the committee views the absence of detailed plans to replace £375m a year in European funding as showing a "lack of priority":

Currently, Wales and other nations in the European Union receive EU Structural Funds to support economic development - such as infrastructure, businesses and skills - with poorer regions receiving greater investment.

With higher levels of economic deprivation, Wales received five times more in funding per person than England between 2014 and 2020.

This funding is coming to an end as the UK has now left the EU and the Brexit transition period finishes on 31 December.

In 2017, UK government ministers pledged to introduce measures to replace the EU cash, known as the Shared Prosperity Fund.

But a new report published by the Welsh Affairs Committee warns, with just three months to go until the end of the transition period, "there is still no substantive detail from UK ministers about their plans and a range of issues remain unsolved".

Conservative, Labour and Plaid Cymru MPs have called for "urgent reassurance" on the new fund to avoid a "cliff-edge to EU funds from January 2021".

They also want a "firm date" for when substantive information about the fund will be made available - including what it will look like, how it will be funded and who will control it.

The committee has set out their key priorities for the fund, including asking for the money to be "needs-based" and "at least the current size of funding in real terms".

MPs also recommended the fund should be administered in co-operation and as a partnership between the UK government, the parliaments in Scotland and Wales, the Northern Ireland Executive, and local authorities.

The committee also said it wanted the funding to be made over an extended period of years to allow "effective planning and delivery"

During the referendum campaign we were told that this issue would not be a problem and that Wales would not lose out because of Brexit. Another broken promise by Johnson's Tory government.

Thursday, October 01, 2020

Experience and Imagination

I have been a principal councillor now, for over 36 years, In that time I have learnt a great deal about the way local government works. I also spent 17 years as a Welsh Assembly Member, for three years of that I was Deputy Minister for Local Government in Wales.

In writing my first two novels, The Assassination of Morgan Sheckler (available here) and The Only Game in Town (available here) I drew extensively on the knowledge and experience I gained in those roles.

In particular, in both novels my knowledge of planning law, licensing and the law around village greens proved invaluable. But whereas I place a lot of emphasis on getting my facts straight, the essence of both novels has nothing to do with the technical aspects.

Both books are about the abuse of power, and how people placed in certain situations take advantage to secure their own self interest. They are thrillers, with some interesting twists and strong stories.

I have been asked on many occasions whether I have based these stories on real people and actual events. I have not. Instead I have tried to construct credible situations based on my knowledge of what could happen.

Please read them for yourselves and let me know what you think.

Tories look to hard right policies to distract from their own incompetence

I have written before on this blog about the political technique of 'throwing a dead cat on the table', a metaphorical allusion to saying or doing something so outrageous that it distracts attention from really important things you do not want people to pay too much heed to. 

Well, if it wasn't for the fact that the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister appear to be deadly serious in their latest ideas on asylum seekers, then I would consider they were playing that precise game.

As if breaking international law on the withdrawal agreement was not bad enough, these latest proposals appear to up the stakes into the morally and legally dubious and reprehensible. And that is just my reaction for a family audience. 

The Guardian reports that Downing Street has asked officials to consider the option of sending asylum seekers to Moldova, Morocco or Papua New Guinea and is the driving force behind proposals to hold refugees in offshore detention centres.

They say that the documents they have seen suggest officials in the Foreign Office have been pushing back against No 10’s proposals to process asylum applications in detention facilities overseas, which have also included the suggestion the centres could be constructed on the south Atlantic islands of Ascension and St Helena. As if it were not bad enough that they are already herding asylum seekers into substandard accomodation in Pembrokeshire, in conditions that can only remind one of a prisoner of war camp:

The documents, marked “official” and “sensitive” and produced earlier this month, summarise advice from officials at the Foreign Office, which was asked by Downing Street to “offer advice on possible options for negotiating an offshore asylum processing facility similar to the Australian model in Papua New Guinea and Nauru”.

The Australian system of processing asylum seekers in on the Pacific Islands costs AY$13bn (£7.2bn) a year and has attracted criticism from human rights groups, the United Nations and even the UK government, according to the documents, which reveal British ministers have “privately” raised concerns with Australia over the abuse of detainees in its offshore detention facilities.

The Financial Times reported on Wednesday that the home secretary, Priti Patel, asked officials to consider processing asylum seekers Ascension and St Helena, which are overseas British territories. Home Office sources were quick to distance Patel from the proposals and Downing Street has also played down Ascension and St Helena as destinations for asylum processing centres.

However, the documents seen by the Guardian suggest the government has for weeks been working on “detailed plans” that include cost estimates of building asylum detention camps on the south Atlantic islands, as well as other proposals to build such facilities in Moldova, Morocco and Papua New Guinea.

The documents suggest the UK’s proposals would go further than Australia’s hardline system, which is “based on migrants being intercepted outside Australian waters”, allowing Australia to claim no immigration obligations to individuals. The UK proposals, the documents state, would involve relocating asylum seekers who “have arrived in the UK and are firmly within the jurisdiction of the UK for the purposes of the ECHR and Human Rights Act 1998”.

The documents suggest that the idea that Morocco, Moldova and Papua New Guinea might make suitable destinations for UK asylum processing centres comes directly from Downing Street, with documents saying the three countries were specifically “suggested” and “floated” by No 10. One document says the request for advice on third country options for detention facilities came from “the PM”.

The Times reported that the government was also giving serious consideration to the idea of creating floating asylum centres in disused ferries moored off the UK coast.

These proposals are a significant departure from the UK's legal and moral obligations to treat those seeking asylum from war, famine, persecution and natural disaster as human beings. They are turning the UK into a laughing stock and a pariah state, and what is worse for Boris Johnson, they are still not distracting attention from his incompetent handling of Coronavirus and Brexit.

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