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Monday, November 30, 2020

Those mysterious thinktanks and pressure groups

While we remain in the dark as to how exactly the Taxpayer's Alliance is funded at least we now have more idea as to the source of income for one Welsh thinktank, which has been making its mark recently.

Wales on line reports that the Centre for Welsh Studies think tank has received funding from a United States-based global network organisation that seeks to promote right-wing free market ideology across the world.

They say that the Centre for Welsh Studies (CWS) has been under pressure to reveal the origins of its funding, and earlier this month was at the centre of controversy after it emerged that a consultancy run by its director, Matthew MacKinnon, also hosts a climate denial Facebook page called Eco Central:

Now, after we asked Mr Mackinnon why CWS is described on the website of the Atlas Network as a “partner”, he confirmed that his think tank has received funding from it.

Mr MacKinnon said: “We have applied for grants from the Atlas Network, and have received several thousand pounds from it.”

The mission of Atlas, according to John Blundell, its president from 1987 to 1990 “is to litter the world with free-market think-tanks”.

Atlas identifies, screens and offers initial support to individuals and groups who want to create local think tanks.

“Our ideal ‘intellectual entrepreneur”, says Atlas, is “someone who communicates effectively with businessmen, academicians and the general public”.

By facilitating the establishment of local think tanks, Atlas increases both the reach and local credibility of their “free market” message, thereby having “the most cost-effective impact”.

Since its formation in 1981, Atlas has funneled over US$20m in grants to think tanks that have passed its screening process.

Atlas aims, it says, to “increase that amount tenfold in the next decade”.

Among those who have donated to the Atlas Network are billionaire members of the Koch family.

In her 2016 book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, the American investigative journalist Jane Mayer wrote about a group of extremely wealthy conservative Republicans, foremost among them Charles and David Koch, who have together funded an array of organisations that work in tandem to influence academic institutions, think tanks, the courts, statehouses, Congress, and the American presidency – in her view for their own benefit.

The American magazine People’s World summed up the free market values of the Kochs as “free trade; the elimination of all government regulation that interferes with profit-making; the privatisation of all aspects of society, with profit-making for corporations as the purpose of it all; savage cuts in the social safety net so as to lower taxes on corporations and the rich; and the willingness to use force, including US intervention in foreign countries, to enforce all of this.”

Well at least now we can put any output from this thinktank into context.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Questions over council contract

It turns out that it is not just the UK Government who have questions to answer over the awarding of contracts. Wales on Line reports that Bridgend Council has no record of how it awarded a home insulation contract to a company run by one of its own senior councillors.

Investigations into the contract started when complaints came in about poor workmanship on houses in Caerau, near Maesteg whose owner occupiers participated in the scheme, known as Arbed. The subsequent report stated: “Total funding of £315,875 was received by Bridgend Council from the Welsh Government:

The funding for both projects was paid to Green Renewable Wales Ltd by Bridgend council. The work was completed in 2013. Subsequently there have been numerous complaints over the standard of work carried out by the contractors."

“In view of ongoing concerns brought to the attention of the council, in 2018, Bridgend’s internal audit service were requested to carry out a review by the then chief executive to ascertain the extent to which the council’s policies and procedures had or had not been applied in respect of the Arbed funding scheme for the period September 2012 to April 2013 in Caerau.

“Particular concerns were raised by the then chief executive relating to an apparent absence of an audit trail. The findings of internal audit highlighted a number of internal procedural issues relating to the governance, decision making, procurement, monitoring and control aspects of the funding that the council administered for this scheme at this time.”

Labour councillor Phil White, a member of Bridgend council’s cabinet until he stepped down last month, was a director and company secretary of Green Renewable Wales.

The company was liquidated in 2017. A consultancy called Nu-Vision was engaged to assess the quality of workmanship on the homes in Caerau. The cabinet report states: “The NuVision report concludes that some of the work is defective, some of it significantly so.”

Given past scandals in local government there are meant to be much stricter controls over council contract than those issued by national governments, though why Ministers should not be held to the same high standard as councillors has never been clear.

Ther questions of Llynfi Independent councillor Keith Edwards are therefore very pertinent. He said: “It is absolutely shocking that there is no audit trail or paper trail relating to the awarding of this contract to Green Renewable Wales. How did the council come to be in partnership with a company that had been established recently and had no track record in delivering such a programme of work? We don’t know.

“What does that tell you about the way the council has been run? This scandal has brought Bridgend County Borough Council into disrepute.

“Who signed a cheque to the company for upwards of £300,000? This is public money.

“The residents, many of whom are old or sick, believed their homes would be improved as a result of their participation in this scheme, and thought the council’s involvement was a guarantee of that.

“In fact the exact opposite has turned out to be the case. I have had numerous complaints about the shoddy workmanship. People deserve to be compensated as a matter of urgency.”

The matter has now been referred to the Public Service Ombudsman for Wales.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

British Airways foreshadow the end of the Union

 Is a rebranding imminent?

Friday, November 27, 2020

Foreign Aid budget will undermine post-Brexit trade and diplomacy

I am not a big fan of the Chancellor's decision to cut the foreign aid budget from 0.7% of national income to 0.5%. Not only are the budgetary gains small by comparison to overall government spending and debt, but the signals that are sent out undermine everything that Boris Johnson's government is trying to do in a post-Brexit world.

Let us be under no illusion, if we are trying to strike trade deals then the goodwill generated by foreign aid is invaluable. What is more, aid is in investment in future trade partners, and that is before we get to the basic humanitarian reasons why we do it.

The Independent appears to agree and adds an additional dimension. They refer to the resignation of foreign minister Baroness Liz Sugg, who in her letter to the prime minister, said: “Cutting UK aid risks undermining your efforts to promote a Global Britain and will diminish our power to influence other nations to do what is right.”

They point out that Her words come as the UK prepares for its Climate Ambition Summit on 12 December, the five-year anniversary of when a deal was reached by countries for the Paris Agreement on climate change:

The summit is a “kick-off event” aimed at inspiring greater ambition on climate action ahead of the upcoming UN climate talks, which will be hosted by the UK in Glasgow in 2021.

“Ahead of next month’s Climate Ambition Summit, I’m calling on my fellow leaders at the G20 to make bold pledges and harness our collective ingenuity and resources to defeat the pandemic and protect our planet and our future for generations,” said the prime minister in his statement to the G20 summit held last weekend.

But the cut to the foreign aid budget could put the government on the “back foot”, says Nick Mabey, chief executive and founder of E3G, a climate change think tank.

“The cut to aid puts UK climate diplomacy on the back foot just as the prime minister prepares the kick-off summit for Cop26 on 12 December,” he told The Independent.

“The UK is already struggling to get other donor countries to meet their climate finance commitments to help poor countries, and this announcement will remove any remaining ability to apply pressure.”

Under the Paris Agreement, both developed and low- and middle-income countries pledged to slash their greenhouse gas emissions in order to keep global warming below 2C above pre-industrial levels.

However, the pledges from poorer countries were made on the condition that they would receive financial support from richer nations. (This reflects the fact that, since the start of the industrial era to today, richer nations have been responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions.

Richer countries have pledged to mobilise $100bn of “climate finance” for poorer nations by 2020. However, a report released a few weeks ago by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that, by 2018, they were still some way from meeting that figure. The total amount of climate finance given in 2018 was $78.9bn, up 11 per cent on the previous year.

Though it appears that climate finance is protected in the government’s new spending plans, there are fears that slashing overseas aid could harm the UK’s efforts to encourage other developed nations to increase their spending on climate finance.

Yet another diplomatic mess from Boris Johnson's gaffe-prone government.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Chumocracy through Whatsapp

There is another development in the chumocracy that has dominated many of the Covid 19 contracts and appointments under this government today, with the revelation by the Guardian that an acquaintance and former neighbour of Matt Hancock is supplying the government with tens of millions of vials for NHS Covid-19 tests despite having had no previous experience of producing medical supplies.

The paper says Alex Bourne, who used to run a pub close to Hancock’s former constituency home in Suffolk, said he initially offered his services to the UK health secretary several months ago by sending him a personal WhatsApp message:

Bourne’s company, Hinpack, was at that time producing plastic cups and takeaway boxes for the catering industry. It is now supplying about 2m medical grade vials a week to the government via a distributor contracted by the NHS.

Bourne categorically denies he profited from his personal contact with Hancock. However, the case raises questions for the health secretary and is likely to reignite the row over alleged government cronyism during the pandemic.

Contacted last week by the Guardian, Bourne’s lawyers flatly denied that their client had any discussions with Hancock in relation to Covid-19 supplies.

However, on Monday, after being confronted with further details about his interactions with the health secretary, Bourne backtracked. In a phone call with the Guardian, he conceded that he has in fact exchanged text and email messages with Hancock over several months.

He also participated in an industry Zoom meeting in August attended by Hancock, Boris Johnson and several dozen suppliers in the Covid test-and-trace programme.

Bourne said he sent his WhatsApp message to Hancock’s mobile number on 30 March offering his services amid a nationwide call to arms to respond to the pandemic. Bourne said he opened the exchange: “Hello, it’s Alex Bourne from Thurlow.”

Until the end of 2017 when they leased it out, Bourne and his wife had run the Cock Inn, a village pub in Thurlow a few hundred yards from Hancock’s former constituency home. The Conservative cabinet minister was a supporter of the pub, attending its reopening after refurbishment in 2016 and nominating it for an award in 2017. Hancock posted a photo of himself pulling a pint with Bourne on his parliamentary website. Hancock moved in 2018.

I hope somebody is keeping a record of all these contacts and contracts.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Home Office broke equalities law

It is no great surprise that a critical report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has concluded the Home Office broke equalities law when it introduced its hostile environment immigration measure. In fact, the only shock is that this conclusion was not made public much earlier.

The Guardian reports that in the latest damning report on the Home Office’s record in relation to its hostile environment policies and the Windrush scandal, the EHRC study detected “a lack of commitment” within the Home Office to the importance of equality. The department now has a legal duty to review these policies to ensure they are not racially discriminatory, and that they comply with equalities legislation.

The report found that negative consequences of the hostile environment were “repeatedly ignored, dismissed, or their severity disregarded. This happened particularly when they were seen as a barrier to implementing hostile environment policies in a highly politicised environment.” It concluded that the department’s approach to its legal duty to ensure that its policies complied with equality legalisation was “perfunctory”:

Caroline Waters, interim chair of the EHRC, said the policies would look “very different” once this review had been completed. “We would expect them to be different, because we found that equality was generally dismissed or overlooked,” she said.

In its report the EHRC assessed how and whether the Home Office complied with the public sector equality duty (PSED) – a legal requirement since 2010 – when developing, implementing and monitoring the hostile environment policy agenda, particularly in considering its impact on black members of the Windrush generation.

It found that officials failed to appreciate the severity of the negative impacts of its policy on this group of people. Even when the damaging consequences of the hostile environment policies began to emerge, the department failed to engage with representatives of the Windrush generation.

The report found “there was a narrow focus on delivering the political commitment of reducing immigration, and a culture where equality was not seen as important. Identifying risks to equality was therefore not encouraged.”

The EHRC detected an organisation-wide “lack of commitment, including by senior leadership, to the importance of equality and the Home Office’s obligations under the public sector equality duty. There was a misconception by some officials that immigration was exempt from all equalities legislation.”

The behaviour of the UK Government has been a disgrace and many individuals and families have suffered as a result. Let's hope that any action to put this right includes compensation for the injustice that has occurred as a result.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Anatomy of a conspiracy

At long last Trump has agreed to let the transition go ahead and Biden will be able to access Federal funds to put in place a more sensible and stable government in the United States. That has not, however, prevented his supporters and him continuing to hawk around their conspiracy stories as to how the election was stolen from him.

For those interested in how these stories emerged and the role of social media in spreading them, then I highly recommend following the Twitter account of Marianna Spring, who is the BBC's specialist reporter covering disinformation and social media. Having listened to one radio interview on BBC this morning I think more of her colleagues should be reading her.

Marianna has a blog here, in which she examines the roots of this election fraud conspiracy story. She says that for months before a single vote was cast, allegations of "rigged elections" and "voter fraud" have been punctuating people's Facebook and Twitter feeds:

Research by the BBC's Anti-disinformation unit reveals that disinformation about voter fraud has been plugged by influential accounts on social media repeatedly, for months.

And it came from the very top. President Trump first started tweeting allegations of fraud as far back as April.

Between then and the election, he mentioned rigged elections or voter fraud more than 70 times.

She provides these examples from June and August:

She adds that it is not a new theme, Trump made claims of voter fraud back in 2016, an election he won:

But this time around, the evidence suggests many more people have been seeing unsubstantiated claims all over their social media feeds for weeks. Candy is just one of them. Hundreds of thousands joined big Facebook groups under the "Stop the Steal" banner.

But this time around, the evidence suggests many more people have been seeing unsubstantiated claims all over their social media feeds for weeks. Candy is just one of them. Hundreds of thousands joined big Facebook groups under the "Stop the Steal" banner.

Our research found that influential right-wing accounts were instrumental in amplifying these claims - and were frequently retweeted by President Trump. That includes a number of figures with big followings who have gone on to be involved in a protest movement centred around the unsubstantiated idea of a "rigged" election.

On election night the hashtag #StoptheSteal sprung up on Twitter after the first of many misleading videos about voter fraud went viral.

The video showed a poll watcher being denied entry to a Philadelphia polling station. It has almost two million views on Twitter, and was shared by multiple pro-Trump accounts. We investigated the video shortly after it was posted.

The man who features in it was asked to wait outside by officials - with a woman telling him that his poll-watching certificate was not valid at that particular polling station.

The video was authentic and, as it turns out, the woman was wrong. There was confusion over the rules. Poll watchers used to only be allowed into a particular station in Philadelphia, but they can now visit multiple sites across the city.

The situation was later clarified and the man was later allowed into the station, and given an apology. None of that was reflected in the video of course - and the hashtag had already gone viral.

The Stop the Steal slogan was then used by those setting up large Facebook groups which, since election night, have cumulatively amassed more than a million members.

Several of these groups have been removed after users posted threats of violence and calls for "civil war".

They have become a hotbed for more misleading videos and false claims - similar to that incident in Philadelphia - which have flooded social media feeds of people like Candy.

This and many more memes are slowly undermining the democratic process in the United States and it is the current President who is both leading and encouraging them. It is only a matter of time before similar tactic find their way into the UK.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Friend and advisor

Continuing the chumocracy theme, the Independent reports health secretary, Matt Hancock, is facing questions over the appointment of a close friend and lobbyist to a £15,000-a-year advisor role in his department.

They say that Gina Coladangelo, who met Mr Hancock when both were attending Oxford University, is a director at lobbying firm Luther Pendragon, which promises clients help to “navigate and influence complex legislation”. She was handed a job just as the country went into lockdown in the spring as an unpaid adviser on a six-month contract at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

And in September, Ms Coladangelo was given a role as non-executive director at DHSC, earning at least £15,000 and placing her on the board that scrutinises the department. There was no public record of the appointment:

The Department for Health and Social Care declined to comment on whether there was a conflict of interest with her role when contacted by The Independent.

But her appointment raises further questions over the government’s appointment and procurement procedures relating to the Covid pandemic.

Alex Thomas, progrmame director at the Institute for Government, told The Sunday Times: “It’s reasonable for ministers to take advice from a range of sources, but advisers should be transparent, accountable and appointed on merit.

Transparency is something that is missing from this government.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The chumocracy at large

Today's news in the Independent that campaigners have submitted a legal challenge alleging that prime minister Boris Johnson and health secretary Matt Hancock acted "unlawfully" when appointing key figures to top posts during the coronavirus crisis has hardly hit many of us as a bolt out of blue sky. Indeed there appears to be a continuing barrage of news about contracts and appointments which is challengeable in this way.

The paper says that the case had been lodged jointly by the Good Law Project and race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust. The judicial review, submitted to the High Court, alleges that three appointments were made without advertising the positions and without the open competition normally required for senior public sector roles:

The case relates to the recruitment of test and trace boss and Tory peer Baroness Dido Harding; Kate Bingham, head of the UK's vaccine taskforce; and Mike Coupe, director of NHS Test and Trace, the Observer added.

Jolyon Maugham QC, director of the Good Law Project, tweeted: "This is our belief, that cronyism - which undermines the public interest, discriminates against those who don't rub shoulders with Cabinet Ministers, and shuts out those who lack the family fortune to work unpaid - is unlawful. And we at GoodLawProject mean to prove it in court."

Mr Maugham said that the organisation will publish the full court documents on Sunday.

The Good Law Project and Runnymede Trust's crowding funding page said that Lady Harding was just "handed the job" as head of the National Institute for Health Protection without any other candidates being considered.

It said that she was not the only one to land a top job this way and that "very often" people who had been recruited had "personal and political connections to the government".

It said: "In August, the Conservative Peer Dido Harding was appointed as head of the National Institute for Health Protection.

"The wife of a Conservative MP and friend of former prime minister David Cameron, Dido Harding didn't pip other candidates to the post at the interview.

"There weren't any other candidates. She was just handed the job. She's not the only one to land a top job this way.

"Each week it seems another individual secures a role of vital public importance without any advertisement or fair process - and very often that individual has personal and political connections to government."

While the page said that appointing "your mates" was not new or the "preserve of the Conservative Party" it was time to put a stop to it.

It added: "This government's approach discriminates against those born without a silver spoon in their mouth.

"It's unfair to those who don't rub shoulders with high-ranking Ministers. And it's unfair to groups who the data shows are shut out of public life.

"Appointing your mates to top jobs isn't new or the preserve of the Conservative Party: we all remember 'Tony's Cronies' too. But it's high time we put a stop to it.

The lack of transparency in these appointments amd the awarding of contracts and the apparent abandonment of Nolan principles in the UK government are worrying trends that cannot be good for democracy. Let's hope the courts see it the same way.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

The blight of the disposable masks

Every morning I walk to the shop to get my paper, and every morning I find myself dodging dog shit and the plague of disposable masks that has hit every community in the UK. It is a blight that cannot be allowed to continue.

In this regard I agree with Joanna Whitehead in the Independent, who references a study published in Environmental Science and Technology journal, which estimated 194 billion disposable masks and gloves are being used globally every month as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

She says that for medical staff on the frontline, single-use makes sense as they need to ensure the highest levels of hygiene in a working environment. But argues we need to teach the rest of the population that most single-use masks are made from plastics like polypropylene, polyethylene and vinyl – material that takes 450 years to degrade. During this time, she says, face masks break down into microplastics that are then ingested by marine life:

Marine life, such as sea turtles – who often die after eating plastic bags they mistake for jellyfish, their main food source – also risk a slow and unpleasant death with a new and ubiquitous kind of plastic on the menu.

Campaigners in France warned in May that if single use masks continue being used at the current rate, there could soon be more masks in the Mediterranean than jellyfish.

And, it’s not just marine life. In September, the RSPCA called on the public to “snip the straps” of disposable face masks after receiving an increasing number of reports of animals tangled in them.

“Now that face masks are the norm, and may be for some time to come, this message is more important than ever as thousands of these masks are being thrown away every day,” the charity’s chief executive Chris Sherwood said.

“Our RSPCA officers have had to rescue animals from getting tangled in face masks and we expect that this may go up as time goes on, so the best thing to do is to simply cut the elastic ear straps in half before throwing it away.”

Even when disposed of correctly, face masks are classified as medical waste, which means they cannot be recycled and end up either in landfill, or being incinerated, which produces toxic fumes.

As PPE litter becomes an all-too-common sight on UK streets, it’s vital that any efforts to reverse this trend focus on the wider picture, as well as individual behaviour. Getting into the habit of remembering a mask when leaving the house is one that people sometimes forget, prompting them to buy single-use masks whilst out and about.

There are good resusable masks on the market, factoring in fabric, facial hair and fashion. Why not buy them as Christmas presents for your family and friends?

Friday, November 20, 2020

No consequences?

The news that a Cabinet Office inquiry into allegations of bullying by Priti Patel has found evidence that she broke the ministerial code is a damning indictment of the culture that pervades at the Home Office. These are serious allegations and need a serious response. 

However, all the indications are the Prime Minister is not proposing to move against her, leaving the ministerial code, which is meant to have zero tolerance of bullying, in tatters.

The Home Secretary was accused of bullying her department's most senior civil servant Sir Philip Rutnam back in February, shortly before he resigned. Sir Philip accused Ms Patel of spearheading a "vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign" against him, and that he had received allegations of Ms Patel "shouting and swearing, belittling people" and "making unreasonable and repeated demands". In April he formally launched legal action against the Government claiming "constructive dismissal".

The Guardian reports that Boris Johnson, the sole arbiter of the rules, is expected to release a decision on the inquiry within weeks but it is not likely to demand the home secretary’s resignation:

Sources familiar with the inquiry said it had found evidence that civil servants were treated poorly by Patel, as well as compelling evidence of bullying.

Pressure on the prime minister to sack Patel is growing as a result of claims of bullying and harassment from civil servants in three separate government departments.

Speculation over the inquiry has prompted condemnation of the Cabinet Office inquiry process, which is conducted in secret and offers no recourse for complainants. Johnson has already been criticised for compromising the process by insisting before the inquiry had ended that he would continue to support Patel.

This is not the first time that the ministerial code has proved to be not worth the paper it is written on, nor is that confined to Westminister. There are similar weaknesses in the devolved administrations. Surely it is time it was given some teeth.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The cronyvirus culture

In my experience National Audit Office reports are largely measured and cautious, which makes it all the more damning when they really let rip. That is why the latest offering on the procurement of personal protection equipment during the pandemic is so potent.

As the Independent says, the report identifies that hundreds of firms were fast-tracked for lucrative potential Covid-19 contracts after tips from ministers and MPs as £18bn was handed out under emergency rules:

The way procurement and transparency rules were ripped up in the scramble for equipment – with some deals secured by Conservative allies – is sharply criticised by the spending watchdog.

Its report confirms a secret “high-priority lane” for favoured firms, with at least 144 put forward from ministers’ private offices as MPs suggested “a possible manufacturer in their constituency”.

The source of more than half of the 493 recommendations has not been identified, of which 47 secured deals – and just 55 per cent of the 1,644 contracts worth more than £25,000 awarded up to the end of July have been published.

The National Audit Office (NAO) said it had found “no evidence of ministerial involvement in procurement decisions”, but criticised a lack of documentation on how conflicts of interest were managed.

The latest revelation involves a £21 million handout to a Miami firm which acted as a go-between to secure NHS garments.

The NAO investigation examined 20 contracts in detail, including:

* A £253m deal with Ayanda Capital for the purchase of 50 million masks – which could not be used, because they were made with loose ear-loop fastenings, rather than head loops.

* Contracts worth almost £3m with artificial intelligence company Faculty, which Cabinet Office minister Lord Agnew owned £90,000 of shares in – although he has since ended his interest in the firm.

* A £350m deal with PestFix, a pest control company, which resulted in 600,000 masks which cannot “be used for their original purpose”. No due diligence was carried out and its placing on the high-priority route was a “mistake”.

* A £550,000 award to Public First – co-owned by a former adviser to Michael Gove – to test the effectiveness of coronavirus advice, with no “justification for using emergency procurement, or any considerations around potential conflicts of interest”.

The Public First contract was among several which were awarded after a firm had begun the work involved.

In total, £10.5bn was handed out without a competitive tender process, part of £18bn of awards of which £17.3bn involved new contracts. Personal protective equipment (PPE) accounted for 80 per cent of the contracts awarded and 68 per cent of the total value of them (£12.3bn).

The question is whether there will be consequences for the way these contracts were handled or at least strengthened procedures to ensure it doesnt happen again. I am not holding my breath.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Johnson's misstep on devolution will help the nationalists

Perhaps he has too much time on his hands now he is self-isolating and has lost what political judgement he had, but the Prime Minister reportedly calling devolution "a disaster north of the border" and “Tony Blair’s worst mistake” is not going to endear him to his party colleagues in Wales and Scotland, nor is it going to achieve anything other than strengthen the hands of those who wish to break up the union.

As the Independent reports, Johnson made the comments during an online meeting with dozens of Tory backbench MPs on Monday. Downing Street did not deny the paper’s report but rather made things worse by claiming that Johnson “has always supported devolution" as long as it is not "used by separatists and nationalists to break up the UK".

Both the Scottish and Welsh Tories have done their best to distance themselves from the Prime Minister's remarks, but the damage has already been done. With elections for the devolved Parliaments due in May, Johnson has given the nationalists another stick to beat him with.

And of course the irony is that the biggest threat to the union is not the SNP, but Johnson himself. His single-minded pursuit of a no deal Brexit, which undermines the Good Friday Agreement is more likely to see a united Ireland and an independent Scotland, both severed from the UK than anything that Nicola Sturgeon might have to say on the matter.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Living in a chumocracy

The Sunday Times carried an important article yesterday in which it revealed that the government has awarded £1.5bn of taxpayers’ money to companies linked to the Conservative Party during the coronavirus pandemic. None of the firms were prominent government suppliers before this year.

They say that in normal times, ministers must advertise contracts for privately provided services so that any company has a chance of securing the work. A person’s connections are not supposed to help. The government is also legally required to publish details of awarded contracts within 30 days, so the public knows how its money is being spent.

However, during the pandemic, neither has happened. Facing a sudden need to deliver millions of items of PPE, test kits and vaccines, ministers used emergency procedures to award work directly:

According to Tussell, a data provider on official spending, Whitehall departments have taken an average of 72 days to publicise who has received money, meaning public debate has often moved on before decisions can be scrutinised.

It is a less straightforward situation than the bribery or “cash-for-questions” scandal investigated by Nolan. As the government mounted a war effort to combat Covid-19, it has instead resembled more of a “chumocracy”.

This is a world in which ministers have turned to friends with links to the Conservatives because of a mixture of trust, convenience and a panicked need to deliver, rather than a desire to benefit themselves financially.

The end result, however, is arguably similar: friends of the Conservatives have played a central role in responding to the pandemic, securing high-profile positions and contracts along the way.

This pattern of conduct became visible in May, with Britain in lockdown, when Boris Johnson and the health secretary Matt Hancock turned to trusted contacts to run parts of the pandemic response. Baroness Harding, a Conservative peer and the wife of John Penrose, a Tory MP, was appointed to run NHS Test and Trace. The former TalkTalk executive, 53, had spent a career in the private sector before Hancock awarded her the position, announcing it in a tweet.

In the same month Kate Bingham, a family friend of Johnson’s whose husband, Jesse Norman, is a Tory MP and Treasury minister, was appointed to oversee the vaccines taskforce. She accepted the position after decades in venture capital, having received a personal call from the prime minister. According to a speech that Bingham, 55, gave to a group of US venture capitalists, she responded to Johnson’s offer by saying: “I’m not a vaccine expert, why should I be the right person?” Then there is the layer of “chums” who have been brought in as advisers and intermediaries between Whitehall and outside companies. Some have sat in on meetings with ministers and contacts who go on to secure lucrative contracts.

In March, for example, Lord Feldman of Elstree, former chairman of the Conservative Party, was quietly appointed as an unpaid adviser to Lord Bethell, a hereditary peer and nightclub baron turned health minister.

According to a government source, Feldman’s role, which was never announced publicly, was to assist Bethell, 53, in his “work with industry” during the pandemic.

That included sitting in on a phone call on April 6 between Bethell and Meller Designs, which supplies high-street shops with home and beauty products. It is owned by David Meller, who would have been a familiar face to Feldman.

Meller, 60, is a Tory donor who has given more than £63,000. Most of that came during Feldman’s spell as chairman, when he was responsible for fundraising. Meller Designs later secured £163m in PPE contracts.

Three days later, on April 9, Owen Paterson, a Conservative MP and former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, took part in a phone call with Bethell and Randox, a Northern Irish diagnostics company. Randox pays Paterson £100,000 a year as a consultant.

It is also linked to Harding, who sits on the board of the Jockey Club, the horse racing body. Its biggest annual event, the Grand National, is sponsored by the company. Paterson’s late wife, Rose, also sat on the Jockey Club board.

It is unclear why Paterson, 64, was on the call, but government sources say it was a “courtesy call” to discuss testing and the MP was involved because of his role for Randox. The company has received £479m in government testing contracts this year, acquiring more orders even after it had to recall half a million tests because of safety concerns.

Whole organisations have achieved remarkable penetration within Whitehall during the pandemic, often under the cloak of secrecy. They include Portland Communications, a political lobbying firm whose clients include HSBC, Pfizer and BAE Systems. It employs a number of former Tory advisers.

In March its chairman, George Pascoe-Watson, was parachuted into government, again without any announcement, to advise Harding and Bethell on strategy and communications. It is understood that Pascoe-Watson, a former political editor of The Sun, participated in their daily calls, prompting civil servants to raise concerns about “appropriate channels”. 
A source said: “Nothing happened. They loved him.” 

Pascoe-Watson appears to have made the most of his access, sending advance information about policy to paying clients. He also defended the government against criticism on social media, while failing to disclose his role.

For instance, when The Sunday Times revealed that Bingham had charged the taxpayer £670,000 for boutique PR consultants last week, he responded on Twitter: “Only in this country could we shaft a true hero.”

He also said that Bingham and Harding, whom he advises, should be cherished. “We should celebrate that two highly distinguished women are in critical roles in this country,” he said.

For months, Pascoe-Watson was joined by Lord O’Shaughnessy, a Tory peer who served as David Cameron’s policy chief. Today it can be revealed that he was both a paid “external adviser” to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and a paid Portland adviser at the same time.

The apparent conflict of interest went further when, in May, O’Shaughnessy took part in a call with Bethell and Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a client of Portland’s. BCG has received £21m in Covid-19 contracts, with some of its advisers paid £7,000 a day.

Go over to the Times website and read the full article. It is little wonder that the former head of MI5, Lord Evans of Weardale said, in a speech in his role as chairman of the committee on standards in public life: “the perception is taking root that too many in public life, including some in our political leadership, are choosing to disregard the norms of ethics and propriety that have explicitly governed public life for the last 25 years and that, when contraventions of ethical standards occur, nothing happens”.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Have Amazon foreshadowed the inevitable outcome of Brexit?

For those of us who think we understand devolution, the ongoing tendency in the media to confuse England with Britain or the UK is not just frustrating but also annoying. Their misinformation effectively misleads people as to what is going on in their own country as well as what they need to do to keep themselves safe during a pandemic.

But, it isn't just the UK media who are confused, a number of multi-national companies struggle with the various national identities we apply to ourselves, the latest being Amazon.

As the Independent reports that Amazon has apologised for falsely claiming Northern Ireland was not part of the UK in a tweet that sparked a slew of posts joking that the firm had made a show of support for Irish reunification:

The e-commerce giant’s customer service Twitter account made the error after reaching out to a rugby fan in the province who had found it difficult to watch the Autumn Nations Cup games being hosted by streaming service Amazon Prime.

“We apologise but upon reviewing your location you’re in Northern Ireland,” a representative of the firm wrote to the customer. “Rugby Autumn Nations Cup coverage is exclusively available to Prime members based in the UK. We don’t have the rights to other territories.”.

When the customer responded that Northern Ireland is part of the UK, the firm’s account replied “many apologies but, we don’t have the broadcast rights for Ireland or other territories”.

The company has since apologised for the error, noting that the service is indeed available “in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK”.

However, the initial exchange prompted a surge of bemused comments from users who joked that Amazon had taken a side in the decades long conflict on the island of Ireland between unionists and Irish nationalists. A post, captioned “Amazon making this statement”, featured a picture of Continuity IRA members reading from a piece of paper in front of the republic’s flag.

Another replaced the notorious Bogside “you are now entering free Derry” wall mural with a more Amazon Prime appropriate slogan: "You are now entering free delivery”. One post tweaked the lyrics of nationalist anthem “come out ye Black and Tans” to “Come out ye package fans”.

Those of us following Brexit closely, especially its trashing of the Good Friday Agreement, may think that Amazon are just getting ahead of themselves. The more Boris Johnson screws up our exit from the EU, the more likely a reunited Ireland is looking.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Labour not trusted to tackle Islamophobia

As if they didn't have enough problems with anti-semitism, the Guardian this morning reports that more than half of Muslim members of the Labour party do not trust Keir Starmer to tackle Islamophobia, with nearly the same proportion saying they do not have confidence in the party’s complaints process.

The paper says that the report by the Labour Muslim Network (LMN) is the latest sign that the party’s new leadership is losing the trust of minority ethnic members and supporters, even as it struggles to recover from an antisemitism crisis that led to a collapse in support from Jewish voters:

The findings echo complaints aired earlier this year by members of the party’s own black and minority ethnic staff network that there is a perception of a “hierarchy of racism” within the party, wherein some forms of racism are regarded as more serious than others.

A survey of 422 Muslim members or supporters of the party found that nearly six in 10 – 59% – did not feel “well represented by the leadership of the Labour party”, and nearly half – 44% – did not believe the party takes the issue of Islamophobia seriously.

It found 55% did not “trust the leadership of the Labour party to tackle Islamophobia effectively” and 48% did not have confidence in the party’s complaints procedure to deal with Islamophobia.

Issues raised included concerns over examples of Islamophobia highlighted in the leaked report into Labour’s governance and legal unit, the party’s approach to the government’s anti-radicalisation Prevent strategy, and general anxiety over how the party’s approach to Palestine would change under the new leadership.

One Labour supporter quoted in the report said: “Like in most institutions within the UK, as a Muslim it often feels as though we are towards the bottom of the list when it comes to human rights, being respected and having our best interests heard/advocated. It feels as though within all institutions within the UK it has become increasingly acceptable to condemn and even abuse Muslims.”

A Labour source told the Guardian that there was significant concern within the party over the way that Islamophobia complaints are handled, with no code of conduct for dealing with Islamophobia comparable to that which has been put in place for dealing with antisemitism. As a result, high-profile cases, such as that of Trevor Phillips, suspended by the party in March over allegations of Islamophobia, are still in limbo.

The source said that the party had changed its processes around antisemitism following scrutiny from the media: “But such a thing doesn’t exist with Islamophobia. Also, other parties are significantly worse. The Tories are just off the charts with Islamophobia, as well as antisemitism."

It looks like Starmer has a lot of work to do to win back the trust of this significant group of members.

Friday, November 13, 2020

More Brexit trade problems

As if we didn't have enough to worry about, what with the Prime MInister's fiance dictating staff appointments in his office and all, the latest news on Brexit must be causing some considerable concern, not least because of its impact on trade and the price of goods in the shops.

The Independent reports that British businesses are facing disruption to as much as £80bn of global trade because of Boris Johnson’s failure to roll over 15 EU trade deals with other countries in time. Apparently, the government has just 50 days left to sign free-trade agreements with countries such as Mexico, Singapore and Canada to replace the ones it will otherwise lose access to on 31 December. And the deadline just got mved closer:

Adding to the atmosphere of crisis, the shadow international trade secretary, Emily Thornberry wrote to trade secretary Liz Truss on Tuesday to point out that unless these deals are concluded and published by 11 November, there will be insufficient Parliamentary time under the law for MPs to ratify them.

An analysis by The Independent has found that the missing deals – which also include accords with Turkey, Egypt and Algeria – could see tariffs and quotas imposed on £38bn of British exports and £41bn of imports, potentially causing havoc for some firms.

The hole accounts for 5.5 per cent of UK total trade and would represent a second blow to Britain’s terms of trade with the rest of the world, at the same time as it takes the hit of leaving the EU single market and customs union.

So much for the unbridled optimism of government ministers that trade deals would be easy.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Fighting like ferrets in a sack

We are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic with some of the highest death rates in the world, the economy is tanking and we are about to jump off a cliff on 1 January when we leave the European Union without a deal, and yet the only news coming out of Number Ten Downing Street is a major domestic bust-up with Boris Johnson's Communications chief storming off in a huff, and others poised to follow him.

The Guardian reports that Lee Cain announced he would step down as director of communications on Wednesday night after ministers and advisers including Johnson’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds, are said to have protested over his planned promotion to chief of staff.

They say that Cain’s resignation also threw into doubt the future of Cummings, Johnson’s most senior and high-profile adviser, with one insider telling the Guardian that he could depart No 10 alongside Cain:

Cummings was said to be furious that Cain, a fellow Vote Leave campaigner who was partly credited with bringing him into No 10, had in effect been forced out. There was also speculation about other potential departures from Johnson’s inner circle. Meanwhile some Tory MPs were buoyed by the turmoil, with one claiming it was a chance for Johnson to get “out of the grip of these people”.

The row appears to reflect internal turmoil and dysfunction in No 10 at a time when the UK surpassed 50,000 deaths from the coronavirus, according to official figures.

Critics of the government have repeatedly cited how tensions between senior members of Johnson’s team – and his refusal to sack Cummings earlier this year – have hindered the country’s efforts to get on top of the pandemic.

What is interesting (and also disturbing) about this is the supposed influence of Carrie Symonds. As far as I am aware she has no status in Downing Street or anywhere else in the government and yet she is being cited as influential in the choice of key personnel for the Prime Minister, almost as if it were a royal court. 

I am currently reading Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII, and the similarities are striking (though obviously without the executions, torture etc.)

This turmoil at the heart of government is unnecessary and unwelcome, they all need to grow up and get on with the job they were elected (appointed) to do.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Is a Brexit meltdown imminent?

The latest episode in the ongoing sage of incompetence and chaos surrounding Brexit threatens to create a border meltdown for those looking to transport good into and out of the UK.

As the Independent reports, a guide to the mountain of new red tape required to transport goods was promised in early September – but will now not be available in full until 7 December, little more than three weeks before it is needed:

Logistics UK, which represents freights group, warned time is running out to prevent “lorry queues at Dover and empty shelves in Northern Ireland”, when the transition period ends in just 50 days’ time.

“With the economy still reeling from handling the impact of Covid-19, the last thing UK PLC needs is another major shock of our own making,” said Elizabeth de Jong, its director of policy.

Construction of border inspection posts for checks on animal products crossing the Irish Sea “has not yet started and will take up to six months to complete”, she said.

And, on the handbook, Ms de Jong warned: “It is intended to give clear, vital guidance to drivers of all relevant nationalities and hence minimise the length of queues at ports.

MPs were told it had had to be reworked – and a full version, containing documents, maps and a checklist would not be published until 24 days before Brexit is completed.

“It couldn’t answer that fundamental question in sufficient clarity – what documentation and checks do I need?” Ms de Jong told the Commons Brexit committee.

In a warning letter to Michael Gove, she added: “This product must then be translated and circulated to thousands of hauliers across Europe so they can read and understand it, and prepare for 1 January 2021.”

The inquiry also heard how the plan for police to patrol the Kent border to turn away lorries without an “access permit” will have a huge impact on domestic truck drivers as well.

They will be urged to inform the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) that they are not heading to the Channel – but the guidance has not yet been made public and it is unclear how the process will work.

You really couldn't make this stuff up.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Has Johnson already broken the UK's relationship with Biden

The sound of quiet despairing sobs in Number Ten Downing Street is that of a government that has backed the wrong horse in the US election and lost its shirt and much more as well in the process. 

Brexit was predicated on the promise of Trump giving us a good trade deal, no matter how unlikely that actually was, but not only is Biden not obligated to the British Prime Minister in the same way as the man he beat, but all the signs are that he dislikes Johnson intensely and will not be in any hurry to do him any favours.

The Times sets out Johnson's problem in stark terms. They highlight comments by one of Biden’s campaign team at the weekend, in which he accused Johnson of making “racist comments” in the past, compared Britain’s immigration policies to Trump’s and criticised British ministers’ stance towards Black Lives Matter:

“They do not think Boris Johnson is an ally,” the Democratic source said. “They think Britain is an ally. But there will be no special relationship with Boris Johnson.”

A senior US politician who is expected to take a job in the Biden administration recently told a British friend those views were shared by Harris. “If you think Joe hates him, you should hear Kamala,” the senior figure said.

Biden’s ire dates to comments Johnson made during the EU referendum, when he wrote that Obama’s decision to remove a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office was a “symbol of the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British empire”.

Tommy Vietor, a former Obama press aide, responded to Johnson’s congratulatory tweet last night by calling him a “shapeshifting creep”, adding: “We will never forget your racist comments about Obama and slavish devotion to Trump.”

The source said: “Biden’s got a long memory and Boris is not in his good books. Biden and Obama are like family. Many of the people around Biden have been talking about Boris Johnson. The Kenyan remark has never gone away. They see Boris and [Dominic] Cummings like Trump and Bannon.”

Johnson’s relationship with Trump, and his past association with the alt-right strategist Steve Bannon, also make him an object of suspicion to Biden and to the Obama-era advisers who will form the core of his White House team, the campaign source said.

In fact, Cummings, Johnson’s most senior aide, has been withering in private about the president, telling colleagues months ago: “Trump is toxic” and urging ministers to keep their distance from him.

Aides said the mood in No 10 last week was one of satisfaction with the election.

But people around Biden, including Ben Rhodes, an Obama adviser now expected to take a national security role, have argued for Johnson to receive the cold shoulder.

In a TV address on Friday, Biden stressed tackling “systematic racism” as a priority. “Leaders who are not seen as allies on race, there will be big problems for those leaders,” the campaign insider said.

“He doesn’t want to work with people who project those views,” the aide said, and he was “shocked at the dismissiveness of black rights” after Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, called Black Lives Matter protestors taking the knee, “a symbol of subjugation and subordination” and said that he would kneel only before the Queen or when proposing to his wife.

In some ways it is good to see Johnson's dodgy views and past gaffes catching up with him, but it is the UK and those of us who live here who will suffer for a fractured relationship between him and Biden. The sooner Johnson follows Trump out of power the better.

Monday, November 09, 2020

Study shows irrelevance of cruel badger cull

Any doubts about the scientific efficacy of the badger cull in England must surely have been allayed this morning with the news that a Government-backed study concluded just one in 12 badgers found dead on roads has bovine tuberculosis.

The Mirror reports that researchers from Nottingham University collected and tested 610 “roadkill” badger carcasses, but found only 51 infected with the disease:

The revelations came from a £497,000 study funded by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – the Whitehall ministry responsible for tens of thousands of badgers being culled.

A 37-page report by Professor Malcolm Bennett, of Nottingham University's School of Veterinary Science and Medicine, outlined findings showing just 8.3% of the dead animals his team surveyed had bTB – despite the creatures being blamed for giving the disease to cows across England.

Up to 64,657 badgers are due to be slaughtered this autumn to curb the spread of bTB.

Some 102,188 have been culled since 2013.

The study was ordered in 2016 and completed in June 2018 – meaning three more “culling seasons” have taken place since it was finalised.

Animal welfare campaigners said the report proved the controversial killing programme was doomed to fail to stop the spread of bTB.

Dominic Dyer, wildlife advocate at the Born Free charity, criticised the “cruel, costly and ineffective badger cull”.

He told the Mirror the study “clearly shows that the vast majority of badgers being killed under cull licences are completely TB free and their death will have no impact whatsoever on lowering bovine TB in badgers or cattle”.

He added: “It’s a national disgrace that badgers are being pushed to the verge of local extinction in areas of England where they have lived since the Ice Age as a result of culling, when the Government have evidence to prove the vast majority do not carry bovine TB.

“The Government could kill every badger in England but bovine TB will remain in cattle herds as it’s primarily a cattle-based disease.”

Surely it is time to stop grovelling to the superstitutions of farmers on bovine TB and actually institute a proper programme to deal with the disease, including cattle movement controls, testing, and vaccinations. This cruel and needless slaughter has gone on too long.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

The COVID controversy rolls on

As if it were not bad enough that government contracts are being given out willy-nilly to companies with little track record in their chosen field, with links to key government members and advisors and with minimal, if any, competitive tendering, we now have allegations that the head of the UK's vaccine taskforce has hired eight public relations consultants at a cost to the taxpayer of £670,000.

The Independent says that Kate Bingham, who was appointed to chair the group by Boris Johnson, reportedly "insisted" on hiring the team from London agency Admiral Associates.

They says the consultants have been overseeing her media strategy since June at the equivalent salary of £167,000 a year each, it is claimed. However it remains unclear what work the team have done that could not have been handled by existing communications staff at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS):

TheTimes reported one government source as saying that the consultants had helped her prepare for interviews, assisted with press statements and set up an official government podcast.

Ms Bingham has so far appeared on eight episodes of "Covid-19 The Search for a Vaccine", which has a rating of 4.7 stars on Apple. Its last outing on 26 October considered the issues surrounding human challenge trials.

BEIS did not deny the Times report but made no comment. However, it is understood that Admiral Associates were chosen because of their experience working with healthcare companies, hospitals and universities.

Details of the contract should be published online by the department at a later date.

Ms Bingham is managing director of private equity firm SV Health Investors and the wife of Tory Treasury minister Jesse Norman.

As chair of the taskforce, she is leading the effort to find and manufacture a Covid-19 vaccine.

However, last week it was reported she had shared government plans at a networking event for female financiers in the US.

There really is a need for an inquiry into government procurement processes and spending around this pandemic.

Saturday, November 07, 2020

What can Biden do for the environment?

At the time of writing there has still not been a result in the US election but a Biden victory is looking more and more certain. The question now, is what will really change from an international point of view?

Well for a start, Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris Agreement, in addition to bringing about a package of measures that would represent the most ambitious climate plan of any US president to date:

A rejoining of the Paris Agreement under a possible Biden administration would send “a very significant signal” to the rest of world, Pete Betts, the former lead climate negotiator for the UK and EU and current fellow of Chatham House, told The Independent.

“If, as it looks like, it’s Biden, then clearly there will be a boost to momentum on tackling climate change over the next year in particular, but also the next four years,” he said.

“First of all, you’ve got the world’s biggest economy and second biggest emitter, who were previously out of the game, needing to put forward an ambitious [climate plan].

“The second thing is we’ll have the diplomatic weight adding major heft to raise ambition from other countries.”

A key element of Mr Biden’s climate plan is a commitment for the US to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

If Mr Biden is elected, it would mean more than three-fifths of global carbon emissions will be under net-zero targets.

It would also mean that the US would follow in the footsteps of other major economies, including Japan, the EU and the UK, which have all already made pledges to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. China, the world’s largest emitter, shocked the world in October when it too announced intentions to reach “carbon neutrality” by 2060. (It is still unclear whether China’s pledge covers all greenhouse gas emissions or only carbon emissions.)

A Biden victory would also see greater diplomatic cooperation on climate between the US and the UK, which is due to host a major UN climate summit, Cop26, in Glasgow in 2021, Mr Betts told The Independent.

“I do think Americans, the Europeans and the UK – as Cop26 president, will put pressure on allies like Japan, Australia and Canada to raise their game,” he said.

So from an environmental point of view things are starting to look up.

Friday, November 06, 2020

More warnings abut disruption to trade after Brexit

As if we did not have enough to worry about, the Guardian reports on warnings by the National Audit Office that billions of pounds worth of trade with the European Union will face “significant disruption” on 1 January, regardless of whether a trade deal is agreed.

The NAO say crucial IT systems have yet to be tested and transit areas for lorries are not ready as the government attempts to prepare new border controls for the end of the Brexit transition period. The planned controls, which had already been rated “high risk”, have been further hampered by the coronavirus pandemic, according to their report released today.

They add that officials have still not taken the steps required to ensure there were enough customs agents, while civil contingency plans to maintain the supply of medicines and acquire extra freight capacity away from the main Channel crossings have been difficult to enact due to Covid-19:

Auditors highlighted concerns about the checks that will be required for goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera), which is responsible for checks on agri-food products, had been “severely hampered” by a failure to reach an agreement with the EU and a “lack of clarity” over the measures required. As a result, Daera had concluded it would not be possible to complete the necessary work on its systems and infrastructure by 1 January. It said it was having to explore “contingency options”.

Auditors said the government had left itself little time to mobilise its new trader support service, which will help businesses moving goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This meant there was a “high risk” traders would still not be ready when the new arrangements take effect.

According to the government’s latest “reasonable worst case planning assumptions”, between 40% and 70% of lorries travelling between the EU and the UK may still not be ready for the new border controls. Ministers have already warned hauliers they could face queues of up to 7,000 lorries at the main Channel crossings. The NAO said while arrangements were being developed to minimise delays, these depended on new technology and would require the engagement of both trades and hauliers. There is little time left for ports to integrate their systems and processes with new government systems, and they may have to fall back on “manual processes”, it said.

The government has identified seven inland transit sites for lorries and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) has said getting them all ready for 1 January was proving “very challenging”.

Ministers have delayed the imposition of full import controls on goods coming from the EU until July 2021. Auditors said there was still uncertainty over where the infrastructure would be located and whether it would be ready in time.

HMRC still needs to make significant changes to its customs systems to handle the increase in customs declarations, the report said, even though it had known this was likely to be necessary since planning for a no-deal Brexit began in 2017.

Omnishambles would be too polite a word for this mess.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

More controversy over Covid contracts for Tory-linked firms

Stories of contracts for services and equipment relating to the Covid pandemic being given to firms linked to the Tory Party continue to surface in the media at an embarrassing rate, so much so that, given the failures around PPE that have plagued the government's response, this issue must surely form part of an inquiry into the way the virus was handled once we have got over the worst of it.

The latest story is in yesterday's Guardian and involves the awarding of a new £347m Covid-19 testing contract to Randox, the Tory-linked private healthcare company whose testing kits had to be recalled over the summer because of concerns about contamination.

The paper says that the deal is a six-month extension of an existing contract and was agreed without other companies being invited to bid. It means the health secretary, Matt Hancock, has now approved transfers of nearly half a billion pounds in taxpayer funds to the Northern Ireland-based company since the pandemic began:

Disclosed in a filing on a European contracts website, the award has prompted concerns about “cronyism” and calls for an independent inquiry into the £12bn spent so far on attempting to control the pandemic through the test-and-trace system.

Critics raised further concerns about a separate revelation that the Conservative MP Owen Paterson, who is paid £100,000 a year to act as a consultant for Randox, was party to a call between the company and James Bethell, the health minister responsible for coronavirus testing supplies.

The disclosure raises fresh questions about Paterson’s continuing work for Randox, and the efficacy of the code of conduct for MPs, which is supposed to limit their work as paid lobbyists and regulate access to ministers.

Surely there must be some accountability as to how this public money is being spent.

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Can police rescue law enforcement from a no deal Brexit?

I wrote over a month ago of 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. Now the Independent reports that police are scrambling to save the vital details of suspected criminals and missing people in case a database is “switched off” by a no-deal Brexit.

The paper says that thousands of names are being hurriedly “double keyed” into the Interpol system – amid fears the UK will lose all access to the Schengen Information System (SIS II), in just eight weeks’ time:

Richard Martin, the deputy assistant commissioner at the Met in charge of Brexit preparations, warned of the “massive impact” on policing of a no-deal.

And, on SIS II, he revealed: “We are either not in it not in it, for want of a better word –there is no sort of halfway house.

“We're putting the most important alerts that we have on SIS also onto the Interpol system, so that – if it is literally switched off at 2300 hours on the 31st – then policing will still have access to those alerts that we consider to be the most important,” he told a parliamentary inquiry.

Lord Ricketts, a former government national security adviser, said: “If the screens go completely dark on SIS II, because we are no longer a member of the EU or Schengen, that would be quite serious for UK policing.”

They add that Boris Johnson is facing growing criticism for sidelining the need for a security deal, in the focus on trying to rescue a trade agreement before the end of the transition period, while ministers admitted last year that Britons would be less safe if the UK crashed out without a deal. It is worth noting that membership of Europol and the European Arrest Warrant will be lost even with an agreement.

The UK has alone has placed more than 4 million alerts on SIS II and forces used it a staggering 603 million times last year, so it is clear that Brexit is going to make tbe country less secure and the job of law enforcement agencies even more difficult.

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Will Trump's voter suppression tactics cross the Atlantic

As I write it is just over three and a half hours until the first American polling places open on what could be an historic (or disastrous) day for democracy. 

The Mirror is not wrong when they say that Trump is plotting the dirtiest US election fight in American history. Already we have seen voter suppression attempts across the country on an unprecedented scale and intimidation of voters and campaigners, while the President himself is said to be preparing to declare victory and cling to power irrespective of the outcome.

The paper refers to reports suggesting the President is preparing to falsely claim that postal ballots counted after today’s election are evidence of election fraud, adding that Trump is said to have planned several weeks ago to walk up to a podium on election night and declare he has won:

The move would set up widespread chaos fuelling unrest by his supporters if it is later seen Democratic rival Joe Biden had actually won.

Trump denied the reports but threatened to deploy his team of lawyers to challenge the results.

“We’re going to go in the night of, as soon as that election’s over, we’re going in with our lawyers,” he said.

“I think it’s a terrible thing when ballots can be collected after an election.

“I think it’s a terrible thing when states are allowed to tabulate ballots for a long period of time after the election is over.”

He added: “I think it’s terrible that we can’t know the results of an election the night of the election.”

Trump has openly attacked Supreme Court rulings which allow states such as Pennsylvania and North Carolina to count ballots that are postmarked before Election Day but arrive shortly after Tuesday.

Trump called it a “very dangerous decision for our country”.

He added: “You’re going to have one or two or three states, depending on how it ends up, where they’re tabulating ballots, and the rest of the world is waiting to find out. And I think there’s great danger to it, and I think a lot of fraud and misuse can take place.”

Yesterday on the final day of the campaign, Trump continued to ramp up the uncertainty of possible unrest as he celebrated his supporters for using pickup trucks to ambush a Biden campaign bus.

He disputed a report the FBI is investigating his supporters accused of harassing the bus as it drove through Texas despite a public statement by the bureau. In a statement, the FBI said: “FBI San Antonio is aware of the incident and investigating.”

The whole scenario would not look out of place in a banana republic, but to what extent might these tactics filter across the Atlantic? We are already seeing Tory attempts at voter suppression here with their legislation to require ID at polling stations. If democracy falls in the United States, will it endanger our rights elsewhere as well?

Monday, November 02, 2020

Another Government technology failure undermines anti-Covid fight

If we are to move away from constant lockdowns then the key must surely lie in fast diagnosis through an efficacious testing regime, and prompt tracking and tracing of contacts. That is the holy grail of disease control and on every count the UK government has failed to get it right despite throwing billions of pounds at the problem. It is this incompetence along with an inability to take expert advice that has plunged England into a four-week lockdown, and unless Tory Ministers get their act together they will find themselves having to repeat the exercise many times in months to come.

Of course they are not helped by their failure to get the technology right. The much-vaunted app, which was meant to form the cornerstone of track and trace, is hardly setting the world on fire. One of the reasons for that it now transpires is because it was not set up correctly. The Times reports that this “world-beating” NHS Covid app, downloaded by 19 million people, has systematically failed to send alerts telling people to self-isolate after they came into contact with infected people.

They say that the government have admitted thousands were not contacted by the Test and Trace app, developed under Baroness (Dido) Harding, because it was set at the wrong sensitivity:

For a month, the Department of Health and Social Care failed to use software developed to make the app work properly. Users whose “risk score” should have triggered an alert were not contacted. As a result, a government source said, “shockingly low” numbers of users had been sent warnings since the app was released on September 24.

The source added that people who owned Android devices were among the worst hit. The mobile operating system accounts for more than half of UK phone users and is also disproportionately used by the less well-off, who are most at risk from the virus.

It took officials five weeks to fix the problem and make a voluntary software update available last Thursday.

The latest disclosure may explain why government scientific advisers on Sage recently warned that the £12bn test and trace system, of which the app is an integral part, has had only a “marginal” impact on Covid-19 transmission.

Last week, developers admitted the error in a blog post, which explained that software engineers had created more effective technology ahead of the app’s national launch, meaning it could have been upgraded from the version tested in the Isle of Wight.

“The ‘risk threshold’ was due to be lowered,” wrote Randeep Sidhu and Gaby Appleton, who are leading figures behind the app. However, they continued, “this change did not take place at that time”.

Although 19 million people use the app, officials have refused to say how many people have been told to isolate through it.

It is little wonder that people have no confidence in this system, and without that confidence it cannot work effectively.

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Boris Johnson, the wine, the caviar and olive oil

Most sitting Prime Ministers receive gifts from foreign dignitaries as part of the normal course of their work and naturally there are rules to be followed as to how these gifts are treated to avoid allegations of corruption and undue influence.

Boris Johnson is no exception and nobody can criticise him for being in receipt of such gifts especially as they will be properly catalogued and disposed of. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see the sort of gift he is being given, and doubly interesting that the Independent reveals he has had wine, caviar and other luxury items confiscated by the Cabinet Office because they would have broken corruption rules.

What is not made clear in the story is whether this excess is unusual or whether other Prime Ministers have been in the same situation. My guess is the latter.

The paper says that the prime minister was also given a painting, a sculpture, Scotch whisky and some expensive olive oil – but they were all removed because they all exceeded strict limits on freebies.

Johnson was also gifted a “futuristic” strategy game similar to chess, and a pen and pen holder set, but won’t get the chance to use them. The wine – a present from the government of Hungary – will remain uncorked after being taken away by Cabinet Office officials for “disposal”.

The ministerial code, aimed at preventing individuals exerting indue influence over our politicians, means MPs cannot accept any gifts valued over £140.

What struck me about this story was the contrast it provided between the way international diplomacy works and real life. All over England, poorer children are failing to get a square meal during the school holidays because Johnson's government are too ideologically parsimonious to provide for them. At the same time expensive food stuffs are being destroyed because they were given in breach of corruption rules.

I am not arguing here that wine and caviar should be doled out on the streets of Manchester, but wouldn't it be nice if for once a foreign diplomat decided that a suitable gift for the UK Prime Minister was 1000 hot meals for poorer children in one of our inner cities? Or even that Johnson himself recognises the absurdity of his position and acceded to Marcus Rashford's campaign for the state to feed those children.

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