Sunday, February 28, 2021
Letting down rough sleepers in England
The paper says that the Housing department manages the £10m Cold Weather Fund and the £15m Protect Programme, which supports efforts to provide accommodation for rough sleepers during the pandemic, but with winter drawing to a close around £4 million between the two funds is still unallocated.
The Ministry of Communities, Housing and Local Government (MHCLG) spokesperson argues that it is "wrong and misleading" to say the money had gone unspent as the £15m Protect Programme and £10m Cold Weather Fund were allocated based on bids from councils, which took into account their local needs and ensured value for money.”
The question therefore is, how so many people were still sleeping rough during the pandemic and why there was not better coordination between the UK Government and English local authorities to prevent this happening?
I can only hope Wales did better.
Saturday, February 27, 2021
Harsh words from a former French Ambassador
The Times has an interview with Bermann in which she puts across her views forcibly and without the usual diplomatic filter:
Despite her close contacts with the British intellectual and artistic world as well as the politicians, the Brexit vote came as a shock. “No one saw it coming, including the Brexiteers who always told me, ‘It’s never going to happen. We’ll never have the courage to leave’. ” Johnson was one of those predicting a Remain vote, she says. “He was saying it’s not going to happen . . . That wasn’t his goal. I think his main aim was to position himself with the hope of replacing Cameron.”
After the vote Britain felt sour, she says. The anger and hostility that had been under the surface was suddenly legitimised. The Brexit vote was the first eruption of an alarming global trend of populist rejection of “elites” and their devotion to charismatic manipulators.
She sees Johnson as a cultivated version of Donald Trump and President Bolsonaro of Brazil. Johnson and his Brexiteers got away with a fantasy version of Britain and the EU, she writes. “By feeding them false anxiety-inducing information about the EU and immigrants, the populists cleverly manipulated the people.” Her words closely echo Macron’s thoughts on the matter.
Britain has changed, she told me. “You feel all these little things you didn’t feel before. The cliché was that the British were very open. Very indifferent about whether you belonged to one religion or another. We had the impression it was a country that was more open than ours, more free, more optimistic. It’s different now.”
Cameron stumbled into the disaster by failing to make any positive argument for EU membership, she says. “He was always saying we’ll be safer and stronger and better off without explaining why. The other side said, ‘Take back control’ and people got the impression that they would recover something.”
France offered to help to boost the argument but Cameron refused every time, she says.
A Remain vote would have swung Britain the other way, she believes. “The people who were racist and aggressive would have shut up. They were like that already but they were legitimised by the success of Brexit. And that’s what happened in the United States,” she says. “If Trump hadn’t been elected everything that appeared might not have happened. Like the gilets jaunes in France,” she added, speaking of the French anti-government grassroots revolt. “We didn’t see them coming because the signals were too weak. If Marine Le Pen [National Rally leader] is elected it would legitimate a form of xenophobia.”
Bermann says Britain is a victim of its delusions about an imagined past and its belief that it won the war single-handedly, without the sacrifice of 22 million Russians and US might.
“The partisans of Brexit are reciting a history in which the UK is never defeated, never invaded. The corollary of an England saving Europe is a detestation of Germany and contempt for cowardice — the term is often used for those who allowed themselves to be occupied, not to mention collaborated,” she writes.
While Britain had among the finest universities in the world, the popular press, led by the Daily Mail, she says, helped the country to imagine it was living in a world of Dad’s Army and Downton Abbey. Its slogan, she suggests laughing, should be the Beatles’ lyric: “I believe in yesterday.”
With the world quickly resolving into three poles of economic and military power — the US, the EU and China — Britain has doomed itself to unappetising choices, she says. By removing itself from a union that is a big player and by putting up the backs of its former partners Britain has welded together a continent that it has throughout history worked to divide. “London will have succeeded in bringing together a continental bloc of 27 countries. This was the famous blockade organised by Napoleon and which England so feared.”
China is the big global challenge, she says, and Britain has downgraded its influence. In the book, she asks: “How has this country, whose influence had been decisive in Brussels, which insolently rolled out the red carpet for French entrepreneurs and which Xi Jinping had elected in October 2015 as the gateway to Europe, undertaken to scuttle itself?”
Britain now faces few options. It can become an American state “dependent on Uncle Sam” or it can attach itself to the Union, enjoying none of the advantages of membership, she says. President Biden believes Brexit is a “historic error” and is not keen on close ties with Johnson’s Britain, she writes.
“Joe Biden has a very negative view of Boris Johnson, who he calls a ‘physical and emotional clone of Donald Trump’.”
Bermann, who wrote a book on China after her years as ambassador, has been accused by some of indulging an undemocratic regime. She responds: “Democracies are in crisis. There was Brexit, Trump, the gilets jaunes. The Chinese have stopped listening to western criticism. They say, ‘We don’t need you any more’. I don’t think the Chinese want us to have their system. What they want is that we leave them in peace.”
It all sounds very familiar.
Friday, February 26, 2021
Consistency is a rare quality for Brexiteer MPs
The Mirror reports that Tory Brexiteers have called on Boris Johnson to scrap part of his deal with Brussels - despite voting for it. They say that the European Research Group (ERG) are calling for a key plank of the Brexit agreement - known as the Northern Ireland Protocol - should be ditched as it had "profound and negative effect"
The protocol was drawn up to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland by keeping Northern Ireland in the EU's customs union for goods.
However the plan has caused disruption at Irish Sea ports due to the need for checks on goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Those difficulties are expected to ramp up after April 1 when a grace period on red tape applied to imported supermarket goods ends.
Labour slammed the ERG for abandoning the Withdrawal Agreement that they voted for and accused them of stirring up further instability,
Of course many of us predicted this mess from the beginning. If only these Brexiteer MPs had listened.
Thursday, February 25, 2021
UK Government abandons potential victims of cladding scandal
The Guardian reports that a plan to protect leaseholders from the spiralling costs of fixing fire safety problems in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster has been rejected in parliament after the government headed off a cross-party challenge:
Hundreds of thousands of homeowners are facing bills of up to £100,000 to repair dangerous cladding, fire doors and insulation systems discovered after the 14 June 2017 fire, but ministers opposed proposals from the House of Lords, Labour and some Conservative backbenchers to protect them from costs.
Amendments to the fire safety bill were defeated in a Commons vote on Wednesday evening after Labour accused the government of moving “at a snail’s pace” to tackle the problem. It warned that 11 million people may be affected by both immediate fire risks and problems with insurance and certification making many homes unsaleable. The bill is the first piece of primary legislation introduced as a result of the Grenfell disaster, which happened four years ago this June.
Also defeated was an amendment to force the government to implement key recommendations from the Grenfell Tower inquiry including making owners tell fire brigades what materials are in wall systems, inspect fire doors annually and lifts monthly – all things that failed during the Grenfell fire, which cost 72 lives.
Earlier this month the government announced a £3.5bn extension of the fund to pay to remove defective cladding on buildings over the height of 18 metres. But it only offered loans for fixing those below 18 metres and nothing for other widespread defects such as missing firebreaks and defective firedoors or paying for 24-hour fire patrols and steep insurance premium hikes.
Sarah Jones, the shadow police and fire minister, told parliament she had heard from “first hand [from leaseholders] the horrors this government is wilfully enabling” by not protecting them from costs.
Some have seen annual insurance costs for their blocks rise from £30,000 to £500,000, while one block with 56 leaseholders in Kent has already paid more than £500,000 for 24-hour fire warden patrols.
What will it take for this government sit up and take notice of the plight these homeowners are in and actually do something about it?
Wednesday, February 24, 2021
With the UK justice secretary arguing it may be legal for companies to insist new staff are vaccinated, a solicitor told the station that her phone has been "ringing off the hook" with companies asking if they can refuse to employ someone who has declined a Covid jab.
Elissa Thursfield, an employment lawyer at a practice in Denbighshire, said she expected to see employment tribunals over 'no jab, no job' policies. She said employers needed to be able to justify any blanket policy.
"The phone has been ringing off the hook with people saying 'we're just worried - we lost residents, we lost staff members during this pandemic," said Ms Thursfield, who is head of employment at Gamlins Law in Rhyl.
She told BBC Radio Wales that employers are saying to her that insisting new staff have the jab "seems like a really sensible way of controlling" Covid and firms are asking "please can we do this?".
Ms Thursfield said with new staff it was "likely to be a slightly more straightforward legal issue" but with current staff it would be "significantly more complex".
"If you've got someone coming to work in a care home and they're a hands-on carer or a nurse they are going to be having significant close contact with clients at the care home - you can understand why the management would want people to be vaccinated," she said.
"However, if you've got somebody who works at home and has absolutely no day-to-day contact with other people, other than by virtual means, then 'no jab no job' will probably be seen to be unreasonable.
"What we're advising companies is make sure that you've looked at your risk assessments, you've decided the reasons why you want people to have the vaccine and how that's going to reduce the risk of Covid in your workplace, so making sure you can justify it before just putting a blanket policy out.
"There's a long process that employers are going to have to go through for existing employees, it's not going to be as simple as if you're not having it, you're out the door."
With talk about vaccination passports in England to enable people to go on holiday, the post Covid world is looking more and more interesting.
Tuesday, February 23, 2021
Hard graft needed to fufill carbon-free promises
They say that an assessment by the campaign groups Platform and Friends of the Earth have found nearly £10bn worth of investments in fossil fuels, including oil and gas companies such as BP and Shell, were found in local government pension funds in the last financial year:
Councils in Greater Manchester, Strathclyde, West Midlands and West Yorkshire had the biggest investments in fossil fuels, accounting between them for nearly a fifth of local government pension fund fossil fuel investments in the UK. The Greater Manchester combined authority had more than £1bn invested in fossil fuels in the financial year 2019-20, accounting for nearly 5% of its pension fund, with the other three areas at about £500m in investment each.
All of these combined authorities have declared a climate emergency. Councils often join together to invest their pension funds, so the funds do not always correspond exactly to specific local authorities.
Councils have been reducing their exposure to high-carbon investments. Similar research in 2015 found £14bn was invested in fossil fuels.
Several other smaller pension funds also had about 5% of their assets invested in fossil fuels, including Teesside, Dyfed and Dorset.
Three companies alone – BP, Shell, and BHP – account for about 40% of all direct investments in fossil fuels by local council pension funds. Of the fossil fuel investments by councils, the majority – about £6.5bn out of £10bn – were in oil and gas, but about a third of the investments were in coal. Coal has become a hot issue for councils as Cumbria is reconsidering a new coalmine, after outrage when the government gave green light to the proposal.
Campaigners said the findings showed councils must take action to ensure their funds were not supporting fossil fuels. Rianna Gargiulo, a divestment campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Declaring a climate emergency may garner good headlines, but too often it seems to stop there. Councils can’t make a bold claim about saving the planet while continuing to invest in fossil fuels. Local authorities have the power and duty to ensure local workers not only have a pension for their retirement, but also a future worth retiring into.”
The issue of course is nothing to do with a lack of will on the part of council. Pension trustees have legal duties that need to be balanced against politicakl priorities, the most important duty being to protect the interests of their pensioners.
Monday, February 22, 2021
Alleged abuses make the case for a beefed up Electoral Commission
Campaign groups spent as much as £700,000 on ads attacking Jeremy Corbyn and Labour policies during the 2019 election campaign, without declaring any of their donors.
But they’re banned from joining forces to plan such campaigns to get around legal spending limits.
The Mirror revealed on Friday that a group run by Tory activist Jennifer Powers had spent £65,000 on dozens of ads attacking Jeremy Corbyn and Labour on housing policy.
But she flatly denied collaborating with anyone else, insisting she merely had an “amateur interest” in housing, and it was a “kitchen table” operation.
But emails obtained by OpenDemocracy reveal striking similarities with another campaign run by a former Boris Johnson aide.
The Fair Tax Campaign, founded by Alex Crowley, a former close aide of Boris Johnson, ran around 100 ads worth £63,105 across just two months leading up to the 2019 poll.
Mr Crowley helped run Boris Johnson's successful campaign for the Tory leadership, and was his political director while he was Mayor of London.
Emails sent by Powers and Crowley to the Electoral Commission to formally register the groups were sent just a day apart, and included almost identical language.
Both included the phrase: ”Having reviewed [my/our] budget I can confidently say that our campaign will comfortably exceed the spending threshold for registering a third party campaign..."
And both included the phrase: “Given it would be reasonable and prudent to assume that a General Election is imminent, and therefore any issue campaigning will take place in the context of a live electoral contest….”
Asked about the similarities, Ms Powers told the Mirror: “Don't remember them, never spoke to them.”
She told the Mirror on Friday: “I did follow all the rules that are set out by the electoral commission.
“I just happen to have, I guess, an amateur interest in housing policy.”
Mr Cowley said: “The Fair Tax Campaign complied with the strict rules set by the Electoral Commission, and Facebook ’s advertising policies.”
Additionally, analysis of both campaigns’ websites revealed their privacy policies were more than 70% identical - but that the text appears on no other site online.
In a letter to Electoral Commission chief Bob Posner, Unlock Democracy director Tom Brake urged the watchdog to investigate.
He wrote: “More than a dozen third-party campaigns that had spent heavily in the 2019 election reported that they had received no funding above the £7,500 threshold for declaring individual donations, and therefore did not have to supply details of any donor to the Electoral Commission.”
He added that the scale of donations which didn’t have to be declared was “astounding.”
Mr Brake said the near-identical texts “could be a complete coincidence but I consider it would be in the public’s interest to seek to establish this.
“Particularly as joint-campaigning or coordination in other areas, over messaging for instance, needs to be accurately reported.”
This is potentially another example of the Electoral Commission not having the resources and powers to deal with possible abuses of process in elections and referendums. And yet there are moves within the Tory Party to weaken its influence or abolish it altogether. That would ne a disaster for democracy in this country.
Sunday, February 21, 2021
Why are Labour MPs being gagged on Brexit failures?
After a week in which Labour leader Keir Starmer delivered a major speech on how the country should rebuild the economy and reduce inequality without once mentioning Brexit, relations with the EU or the severe problems that have confronted many UK exporters since 1 January, senior party figures reacted with astonishment.
On Saturday night former cabinet member and Europe minister Peter Hain said Brexit had become the “elephant in the room” for Labour.
Hain told the Observer: “It’s quite understandable that Brexit has not been top of Labour’s agenda, but it’s not sustainable to ignore this elephant in the room hurting British businesses, our vital performing arts sector, our security and our foreign policy reach. The Tories delivered a last-minute mess of a Brexit with damaging consequences, not least to stability on the island of Ireland.”
One senior backbencher said the message from the top was very clear – that there should be virtual “radio silence” on the issue. “The order that is coming out is: ‘Don’t mention the war.’ We are being told that Keir wants to move on and that if we mention the B-word let alone suggest we a need better deal with the EU than Boris Johnson’s we are being unhelpful.”
Several sources said that MP Carolyn Harris, Starmer’s parliamentary aide with responsibility for coordinating with Labour members – including on what questions they ask at prime minister’s questions – had been discouraging interventions on Brexit, saying they would damage the leader.
With difficulties for UK exporters continuing and problems over the Irish protocol unresolved, one member of Starmer’s frontbench team said that attempts to “brush the problems under the carpet just because we wrongly voted for Johnson’s deal in December is pretty close to negligence”.
He added that Starmer was “terrified” of offending voters in red wall seats in the Midlands and north where pro-Brexit voters deserted Labour at the 2019 election.
Since 1 January Starmer has not raised Brexit or problems caused by it once at PMQs, and interventions on the issue from backbenchers have been rare. None of the shadow cabinet or frontbench team have made a speech in parliament on the issues affecting UK businesses.
The paper says that pressure is now building on Starmer and his shadow cabinet to lay out a vision of how he would try to improve access to the EU single market – the UK’s biggest export market – after it emerged that thousands of UK firms that export to the bloc are struggling with extra costs and bureaucracy, driving many to invest in warehouses and subsidiaries on the continent, while scaling down and laying off staff in the UK.
No serious party of opposition can afford to ignore these failures. If Labour are not prepared to show leadership because they are afraid of their own shadow then maybe they should step aside and let other parties take up the mantle of opposition instead.
Saturday, February 20, 2021
Court rules on lack of transparency in government Covid contracts
The judge, Mr Justice Chamberlain, ruled the failure to do so breached the “vital public function” of transparency over how “vast quantities” of taxpayers’ money was spent.
The judgment is a victory for the Good Law Project (GLP), a crowdfunded not-for-profit organisation that is making a series of legal challenges related to the government’s procurement of protective personal equipment (PPE) and other services during the pandemic.
Research by the procurement consultancy Tussell had found Hancock’s Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) had spent about £15bn buying PPE from different companies by the beginning of October, but that only £2.68bn worth of contracts had been published.
Government regulations require all contracts with a value of more than £10,000 to be published, and to be sent for publication within 30 days of being awarded.
The GLP highlighted three PPE contracts to illustrate their case: a £252m contract for the supply of face masks with a finance company, Ayanda Capital; a £108m contract with Clandeboye Agencies, which had previously supplied only confectionery products, and PPE contracts worth £345m with a company trading as Pestfix.
None of the contracts was published within the required 30-day period. Tussell found that the average time for publication of Covid-19 related contracts was 47 days, which meant the government’s own 30-day deadline was likely to have been breached “in a substantial number of cases”, Chamberlain said.
As important as this ruling is for improved transparency and ensuring Ministers keep to the rules in the way contracts are handled, it still does not get to the heart of the matter, namely who those contracts were awarded to, how conflicts of interest within government were handled, what due diligence was carried out, why a competitive tendering process was not follows and what firms are on the government's VIP list for these contracts and why.
Friday, February 19, 2021
Has the government abandoned pledge on workers rights?
New legislation intended to bolster protections for Britain’s most vulnerable workers will not be ready until the end of the year at the earliest, raising fresh questions about the government’s promise to protect workers’ rights after Brexit.
Whitehall’s newly departed employment tsar, Matthew Taylor, said there was a “deafening silence” from ministers on the landmark employment reforms, in areas such as zero-hour contracts and the gig economy, which were announced by Boris Johnson more than a year ago.
The government pledged to make Britain “the best place in the world to work”. Taylor claims the government’s enthusiasm for the reforms had since “waned”.
While the business department said the government remained fully committed to toughening up the law to protect those in precarious employment, the TUC, the Labour party and senior Conservatives joined Taylor in demanding faster progress.
Sources close to the government said its flagship employment bill – pledged before the UK formally left the EU as the central mechanism to safeguard workers’ rights – was unlikely to be launched until late 2021 or even early 2022. Stakeholders have been told these are the potential times it could be brought to parliament, despite being announced more than a year ago, they said.
The changes to tackle insecure work had been promised in the December 2019 Queen’s speech, a day before the key Commons vote that passed Johnson’s Brexit plan, as the way his government would “protect and enhance workers’ rights as the UK leaves the EU, making Britain the best place in the world to work”.
But in an intervention over the lack of progress,Taylor, who was the government’s director of labour market enforcement until the end of last month, questioned the Conservative party’s desire to safeguard working standards.
“There is still no clarity on what the government intends to do. We have seen a gradual but unmistakable deceleration of the government reform agenda in relation to good work. There was an initial enthusiasm but that has waned, and waned, and waned,” he told the Guardian.
Taylor’s role as director of employment rights remains vacant after his term expired last month. He offered to remain in post unpaid until ministers hired a replacement but was turned down.
No great surprises there then.
Thursday, February 18, 2021
Another unelected bureaucrat appointed to help run the country
The Guardian reports that Frost will replace Michael Gove as the UK chair of the partnership council, the body set up to settle disputes resulting from the trade agreement, and will take Gove’s role chairing the withdrawal agreement joint committee, a body mired in difficulties over the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol:
The partnership council will head the political and technical structures that will implement and enforce the Brexit agreement in detail and will play a key role in any future negotiations on issues such as the protocol and financial services, where talks are ongoing.
Frost’s appointment to chair the joint committee, which was co-chaired by Gove and the European commission vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, cements a powerful position as the new linchpin in the EU-UK relationship.
Maybe we should have another referendum on stopping unelected politicians running our country.
Wednesday, February 17, 2021
Free speech champion needed for House of Commons
The Independent reports that the International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss is refusing to answer questions about the cross-Channel trading crisis sparked by Brexit.
They say Ms. Truss has “transferred” all enquiries about the plight facing firms to other departments, despite it being her job to promote exports overseas.
A hard-hitting letter from six of the opposition parties accuses Ms Truss of trying “shirk responsibility for the failures of your colleagues elsewhere in government”:
And it protests: “Most extraordinary of all, you are refusing to answer questions about the serious crisis affecting UK shellfish and fish exporters, and about the future of inward investment in Northern Ireland.
“At a time when British exporters are crying out for the government to acknowledge and address the problems they are facing in the wake of Brexit, the Secretary of State for International Trade cannot simply put their head in the sand and pretend that these issues are not their concern.”
The protest comes after criticism that the government is avoiding scrutiny of its decisions by axing the Commons committee that investigates Brexit issues.
Meanwhile, ministers are refusing to open talks to try to solve the exporting crisis until the EU feels “some of the pain”, an industry leader said last week.
Deliveries have been hit by the blizzard of new red tape, with requirements for health checks and customs documents – and ban on shellfish trade is “indefinite”, the EU is warning.
Perhaps it is the House of Commons that needs the free speech champion.
Tuesday, February 16, 2021
Cronyism row rumbles on
The documents reveal the central role the prime minister’s former chief adviser played in the awarding of the contract to Public First, a research company owned and run by two of his longstanding associates.
Public First was paid £564,393 to research the public’s understanding of the coronavirus and the government’s messaging around the pandemic, and one of its partners was seconded to work in Downing Street.
The company is run by James Frayne and Rachel Wolf, who are both former colleagues of Cummings and the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove. In 2019 Wolf co-wrote the Conservative party’s general election manifesto.
When the Guardian and openDemocracy first revealed in July last year that Public First had been awarded a contract without tender, the Cabinet Office said in a statement it was “nonsense” to suggest the owners’ long associations with Cummings and Gove were a factor in the decision to award it a contract.
However, in a witness statement submitted to the high court on Monday as part of a judicial review of the award, Cummings described himself as the “driving decision-maker” behind the government’s decision to conduct more focus groups and hire Public First, and said his faith in the company was based on his extensive experience working with its staff.
Cummings described Frayne and Wolf as his “friends”, but added: “Obviously I did not request Public First be brought in because they were my friends. I would never do such a thing.” He said he “requested” civil servants hire the firm because, in his experience, it was the only company with the expertise to carry out the required focus groups urgently.
“The fact that I knew the key Public First people well was a bonus, not a problem,” he said, “as in such a high pressure environment trust is very important, as well as technical competence.”
Cummings said he knew the quality of the company’s work and “I knew they would give us honest information unlike many companies in this sector”.
“I am a special adviser and as such I am not allowed to direct civil servants,” he added. “However, as a result of my suggestion I expected people to hire Public First. The nature of my role is that sometimes people take what I say as an instruction and that is a reasonable inference as people assume I am often speaking for the prime minister.”
Cummings said he had not met Frayne since 2016 and had no involvement in the contractual arrangements with Public First or the company’s remuneration.
The court documents included an email exchange between civil servants in the Cabinet Office in March, questioning the impartiality of Public First’s work. One said: “I know they’re not going to go away, but I have genuine concerns about the way in which they MIGHT be spinning stuff coming out of focus groups – way, way too close to No10 to be objective.”
Her colleague agreed, saying she was thinking of limiting the company’s work to testing opinion on Johnson’s messages, and having another company, Jigsaw, do focus groups with older and vulnerable audiences.
The head of insight and evaluation at the Cabinet Office and the prime minister’s office described Public First in internal communications as “mates” of Cummings and of Boris Johnson’s then head of communications, Lee Cain, “hence getting all our work with no contract”.
In a witness statement, the official said the email to colleagues was meant as a joke in an effort to ensure overdue invoices were paid to the company, and it “was not true” that Public First was given the work without a contract because of relationships with Cain and Cummings.
The question of course is whether this is the way valuable government contracts should be awarded. I would say not, and I hope that there is a proper review of all these sorts of contracts to ascertain the circumstances in which they were awarded and to ensure that in future a proper tendering process is used.
Monday, February 15, 2021
Larry celebrates ten years in charge
Lindsey Quinlan, from Battersea, said: “It seems like only yesterday that Larry came to our cattery as a stray in need of a home. I don’t think anyone back then could have imagined just how incredible his life would turn out to be.
“Throughout his time at No 10, Larry has proved himself to not only be a brilliant ambassador for Battersea but also demonstrated to millions of people around the world how incredible rescue cats are.
“His rags to riches tale is yet more proof of why all animals deserve a second chance – one minute they may be an overlooked stray on the streets, the next they could become one of the nation’s beloved political figures, with fans around the world.”
During his tenure, Larry has been a trusted companion to three prime ministers, beginning with David Cameron.
Despite rumours he disliked the feline, Mr Cameron, in his final speech to parliament, confirmed the pair were friends and said: “Sadly, I cannot take Larry with me – he belongs to the house and the staff love him very much, as do I.”
Larry stayed on to offer his support to Theresa May and was notably caught live on camera being forcibly removed from his sunbathing spot and escorted away by security to ensure he would not upstage her outgoing announcement.
The 14-year-old now works under Boris Johnson and in December 2020 was seen adding to the Brexit drama by getting caught in a scuffle with a pigeon.
The tabby stalked the bird outside the prime minister’s official residence as members of the press – who were waiting to hear from Johnson – watched on with their cameras poised.
He has met a number of world leaders, including President Barack Obama who visited in 2011. Although Larry is normally unfriendly towards men, he did not appear to mind Obama.
When the next US president, Donald Trump, visited in 2019, Larry was seen creating a potential security threat by taking his afternoon nap under Trump’s car.
Even something as simple as getting caught in the rain was enough to melt the hearts of the nation, and in 2018 video of a damp Larry being escorted through the front door by a kind policeman went viral.
There is no doubt, it is Larry who is really running the country.
Sunday, February 14, 2021
Lord Roscoe, the history cat
With the government intent on saving as many statues as possible, irrespective of their history and context, and with Ministers seeking to use whatever means they can, Mussolini-like, to embed their own distorted view of history into the national consciencious, it takes a cat to come to the rescue of those monuments that are worth saving.
The paper says that staff at Ham House, near Richmond, in southwest London, took in Lord Roscoe, 6, from the Ginger Cat House Rescue centre last spring after the toes of Fortuna, the Roman goddess of fortune, and Mercury, the god of merchants, began to be nibbled away by grey squirrels. Apparently, these pests gnaw at the lead feet of the statues to file down their teeth, removing important detail.
Saturday, February 13, 2021
Ghosting the fishing industry
Along with several journalists that day, I spent many hours aboard a luxury dining vessel with Nigel Farage, Kate Hoey and other misunderstood thought leaders. Also on the river was some kind of pleasure boat commandeered and skippered by Bob Geldof, who appeared to regard the art of captaincy as consisting chiefly of flicking V-signs while bellowing into a loudhailer and saying things I imagine he thought were helping. I have an unwipeable memory of then Ukip MEP David Coburn waving a large morning glass of sauvignon blanc at Geldof. “This is what real fishermen look like!” Coburn was screaming. It is simply impossible to imagine an event more deserving of an iceberg. Literally everyone involved with it, on all sides, was Billy Zane in Titanic.
Were there signs then of where we now find ourselves? Hand on heart, there was just the vaguest sense that – with the obvious exception of the fishermen themselves – absolutely no combatant in this river battle gave a 10th of a toss about the industry they’d supposedly taken to the waters to defend. We already knew that when Nigel Farage sat on the EU’s fisheries committee, he’d attended a mere one out of 43 meetings.
Out of sight, out of mind. As the chief executive of the Scottish food and drink federation told a parliamentary committee last week: “The biggest single challenge we have right now is denial; denial from the UK government in particular on the scale of the problem.” Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – interesting to learn that the five stages of industry manslaughter are the same as the five stages of grief.
Some Brexiteers seem further along with the process than others. Take the aforementioned Kate Hoey, who six weeks ago was standing up in the Lords to pay specific tribute to Boris Johnson’s deal but now angrily claims it betrays Northern Ireland. Kate, you may recall, refused to vote for Theresa May’s deal, which was itself constituted on the basis that an Irish Sea border was unthinkable. As May put it: “No UK prime minister could ever agree to it.” Hey – don’t put Boris Johnson in a box, because he’ll just drive a digger through that box.
And so it is that a British prime minister has since famously agreed to it, though not famously enough that his senior ministers even care to acknowledge it in public. As Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis has repeatedly put it recently: “There is no ‘Irish Sea border’.” A statement to which the only reasonable rejoinder is: there is no “Brandon Lewis”. There is no Brandon Lewis, there is no Irish Sea border, there is no barrier to trade, there is no one who cares more about the fishing industry than Michael Gove. These are certainly boom times for denial. Indeed, with government ministers shipping it out hourly, it is arguably our most thriving export.
Read the whole column if you get the chance.
Friday, February 12, 2021
The mysterious adventures of a £100,000 a year photographer
The paper says Downing Street has defended the use of a taxpayer-funded photographer to take pictures of the prime minister’s dog, Dilyn, frolicking in the snow, saying their role is to document the work of the government:
A series of photos of Dilyn appeared on No 10’s Flickr account, alongside pictures of Priti Patel visiting a vaccination centre and Boris Johnson preparing for prime minister’s questions.
Asked whether taking snaps of the dog was an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money, the prime minister’s spokesperson said: “These photographers document the work of government, as well as the work inside No 10.
He added that the photographer was “a cross-government resource” who would “support other government departments in their work, and other cabinet ministers and ministers in the work they’re undertaking”.
Responding to the suggestion the dog was part of the government, a Labour source said: “The government has made such a dog’s dinner of issues from the border response to kids’ education. Dilyn would be a marked improvement and probably waste less taxpayers’ cash.”
Personally, when I want to post pictures of my pet on social media I use the camera in my phone. Perhaps the Prime Minister can follow suit and save us all some money.
Thursday, February 11, 2021
Brexit red tape tying up exports
They have found that half of British exporters to the EU are facing difficulties with mounting Brexit red tape and border disruption after a month of the new rules, with 49% of UK-based exporters in a survey of 470 firms saying they have suffered problems with post-Brexit arrangements since the start of the year, in the light of higher costs due to extra border checks and paperwork.
The BCC's report says UK companies are facing extra costs, delays in shipments to and from the continent, mountains of new paperwork and are often confused about whether particular rules apply to them or not:
The findings came as pressure mounted on the government amid difficulties at the borders, with warnings that increasing trade volumes later in the year are likely to expose further problems with the system.
Trade flows between the UK and the EU dropped below usual levels in January amid Brexit and Covid disruption, as well as after firms rushed to stockpile goods in December to beat the end of the transition period on 31 December.
Boris Johnson has acknowledged there are “teething problems” a month into the new rules. However, business leaders said there would be a permanently higher cost of doing business even after initial complications subside.
The BCC said about a third of companies in a survey of 1,000 firms conducted in late January had found difficulties adapting to changes to moving or trading goods in the first month of the year. As few as 10% said Brexit changes were easy to accommodate, while 45% said cross-border trade was not applicable to their business, and 16% said it was too early to say.
However, among firms directly involved in exporting goods, half reported issues. As many as 51% of manufacturers also reported problems.
Post-Brexit trading problems are hurting the business of AEV Group, a Merseyside-based specialist manufacturer of electrical insulating varnishes and resins, which has a plant in Hungary. Jonathan Kemp, managing director of the company, said the firm could be forced to reduce its operations in the UK and invest in the EU instead to avoid additional paperwork and costs.
“We export to every continent in the world and have done for a period of time, therefore we have employees who are experienced in dealing with exports. The issue with the EU-UK situation is the lack of clarity and preparedness in all areas,” he said.
The BCC said the situation could get worse within months if the UK goes ahead with implementing sanitary and phytosanitary checks on food from April and full customs controls on imports from July, at a time when businesses remain under pressure due to Covid-19.
These are not teething problems, but an existential crisis brought about by the terms of the withdrawal agreement, as negotiated and heralded by the Prime Minister and his government.
Wednesday, February 10, 2021
UK Government allowing infringement of basic liberties
They say the home secretary was urged in the House of Commons to review police guidance following the detention of Andy Aitchison and agree that he “should have a clean record as he has committed no offence”. Instead, Ms Patel appeared to back the arrest – before claiming she could not comment further for legal reasons, even though the journalist will face no further action.
The arrest of Mr Aitchison, after he shared photos of the demonstration outside Napier military barracks in Kent, which now houses asylum seekers, sparked fears over press freedom. \
A media freedom alert was filed with the Council of Europe and submissions have been made to the UN special rapporteur on human rights over Mr Aitchison’s treatment.
During Home Office questions, the Conservative MP Damian Collins, who represents the constituency where Mr Aitchison lives, raised his case, highlighting how the photographer was “held for questioning for seven hours”.
“The police confiscated his mobile phone and photo camera card and last Friday the charges were dropped and case closed,” he said.
He asked Ms Patel to “agree there should be a review of the guidance given to the police before action like this is taken against accredited journalists” – and that Mr Aitchison had “committed no offence”
In reply, the home secretary said it was a matter for Kent Police, before claiming: “I'm afraid, at this stage, that's all I can say because an arrest has been made.”
Ducking the call for new guidance, she told Mr Collins: “I have no doubt that Kent Police will continue to keep all interested parties, including my right honourable friend, updated.”
“She does not seem to acknowledge the significance of my unlawful arrest. She seems to suggest that my arrest was in line with keeping the peace and protecting communities, which is obviously untrue as I was merely doing my job and documenting a peaceful protest,” he said.
“I am concerned that the wrongful arrest of journalists reporting on sensitive issues will continue. This seems to be a repetitive issue for many journalists, particularly photojournalists, and it has to stop.
“The freedom to report seems even more pertinent during a lockdown where people are unable to move about freely.”
In my view this is a very serious overstepping of their authority by the police, and the Home Secretary should be taking a more active role in preventing future infringements. But let's not get carried away at the thought that journalists and broadcasters have different privileges to the rest of us.
Tuesday, February 09, 2021
Talking about Handforth Parish Council
It is worth though, taking in the stats. As the Guardian says parish councils in England collected £596m in local taxes in 2020-21. For around 20 million people, and 100,000 councillors, they are a part of our democratic fabric and civil society (arrangements in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales vary). As well as small villages with just a few hundred residents, parish councils (the name is confusing) include town, community and city councils, for example in Salisbury. Yet their workings remain obscure to many people.
Here in Wales, there are 738 Community and Town Councils representing 1,674,811 electors, that is 72% of the total number of people entitled to vote across the country. In 2017-18 they raised £38,199,045 in council tax off a tax base of £887,811. That is an average band D equivalent Council Tax of £43 per property. A report by the Auditor General Wales stated that, in 2015-16, Community Councils were managing reserves worth over £32 million and long-term assets worth over £188 million.
This is no small potatoes, and as the Guardian says, they can form an important lifeline for many communities:
Civil parishes should receive more attention, especially from anyone who has an interest in the politics of place or – less abstractly – in the public realm in the area where they live (parks, cycle lanes, community events). In villages and towns across England, this is where the more dynamic parish councils have an impact: managing recreation grounds and village halls, upgrading play areas. In recent years, they have also stepped in to fill gaps created by cuts, funding youth services and developing projects connected with housing and public health.
With the power to charge a precept from residents that is, unlike other local taxes, uncapped, combined with a strongly voluntaristic ethos (since councillors are unpaid, and staffing levels tend to the minimalist), parishes are an interesting intersection between the third sector and the state. Unsurprisingly, given their strength in rural areas (although only half of parish councils are run along party political lines), they have more often attracted the interest of Tory politicians. Boosting parishes was an idea associated with the “big society” (85 new ones have been created since 2013), and it has recently returned in proposals by the backbencher Danny Kruger, and the Onward thinktank.
Just as it was under David Cameron, the notion that nice neighbours can make up for the deliberate cruelty of underfunded public services is a dangerous myth. Such wishful thinking deserves to be squashed. But the democratic institutions of civil society should be respected for their potential, and not dismissed. Raymond Williams wrote of the long struggle to craft an inclusive English culture, and drew a contrast between the “bourgeois model” of public service and “working-class ethic of solidarity”. Handforth may not have offered the best advertisement. But as the struggle Williams described goes on, parish councils should be counted among the settings where what he called the “hard, detailed inquiry and negotiation” of our shared problems can be done.
I wrote about community councils in Wales here. In my view they need to be reorganised and reformwd. A strengthened tier of local government at this level would be more accountable, more robust and deliver important place-based services, enabling the bigger county councils to act in a more strategic way and to focus on more specialist services such as education, social services and community health care.
Monday, February 08, 2021
How immigration enhances our economy
The paper says that an analysis of local authorities in England and Wales shows a strong link "between rising prosperity and rising diversity" – with diverse areas doing better "almost regardless of which metric you use". It concludes that "growing diversity is an inevitable part of increasing prosperity – and, potentially, a contributor to it":
The study looked at indicators in 285 council areas outside of big cities, including economic growth, house prices, reductions in deprivation, employment, and wages between 2011 and 2019.
It then compared these factors to metrics like the proportion of the population born outside the UK, the proportion whose parents were born outside the UK, the extent to which the population is transient, and the local level of non-white British ethnic heritage.
The areas looked at excluded London boroughs and areas in other larger UK cities; by contrast the selection covered 49 of the 53 so-called "Red Wall" seats won by the Conservatives in the 2019 election.
The results were striking: the 50 places with the highest rises in GDP through the 2010s saw their non-UK born communities grow at more than twice the pace of the 50 authorities with the lowest GDP rises.
Similar results were found on other metrics: the 50 towns with the highest increase in property values saw the number of births to non-UK born mothers increase at three times the pace of the 50 council areas with the smallest property price increases.
Areas where deprivation eased had twice as rapid an increase in non-UK born populations than areas where deprivation intensified.
And in communities with an above-average level of population transience, the median salary rose by £3,379 during the period studied, faster than the £3,307 in those with below-average transience.
On jobs the study found the 50 local authorities with the greatest increase in employment during the 2010s saw an average 2.2 per cent increase in their non-British populations, compared to the 50 with the smallest rises that saw just 0.8 per cent.
The report recommends that the government should acknowledge the relationship between growth and diversity, and that the Home Office should update its immigration rules to "support the process by which communities get more diverse".
The charity also calls for targeted funding for areas to "ensure that economic growth is accompanied by investment in infrastructure" to accommodate population rises.
"Failure to do so can easily swell into community tensions," the report warns, citing housing, GP access, community facilities, and school funding as important areas of focus.
It would be good to see politicians in other parties publicly recognising this instead of playing the popularist race card all the time.
Sunday, February 07, 2021
The out-of-touch London-based media
In this particular instance, Nation Cymru reports that the Telegraph has deleted a widely-mocked tweet on what it called the “re-introduction of the Welsh language”:
The London-based right-wing newspaper had conducted a Twitter poll on if the so-called “re-introduction” was “hindering the independence movement”.
After a 1,096 votes, 96 per cent of respondents said that the idea was false, while 4 per cent said that it was true.
It was posted as part of a thread noting the fact that the YesCymru movement had grown 750 per cent in the last 12 month, and asking readers if they would back Welsh independence.
But Welsh speakers reacted with annoyance by noting that the language wasn’t being re-introduced as it had been spoken in Wales continuously for centuries.
“Re-introduction’?” journalist Garmon Ceiro asked. “It’s not a bloody captive panda.”
“Are you sure you don’t mean beavers?” comedian Tudur Owen tweeted. “Nope, they actually mean us. Holy shit!”
“Re-introduction?!” author Manon Steffan Ros asked. “It never went away!”
“It’s like they want the union to break up,” Richard Facey said. “Keep it up chaps.”
“If you want a lesson about why we should never place great emphasis on winning the estimation of the London press for what we do, this is it,” Non Gwenhwyfar wrote in Welsh.
“I’m confused,” journalist Elliw Gwawr wrote in Welsh. “Where have we been this whole time?”
Perhaps the newspaper's whole staff should spend a few months in Wales once the lockdown is over as part of a re-education project.
Saturday, February 06, 2021
UK Government failing on greening our homes
Ministers awarded the contract to run the programme to ICF, a large American consulting corporation based in Virginia. Details of the value of the government contract have not been published.
The grants were launched with the promise that 600,000 householders would be helped to make their homes more energy efficient and less CO2 intensive. Householders were able to apply for financial support in the form of vouchers from 30 September 2020. The scheme runs to March 2022.
The government said the grants would support 100,000 jobs while cutting people’s energy bills and CO2 emissions. Householders can apply for vouchers of up to £5,000 or £10,000 depending on their circumstances, to help pay for installation of new heating systems and insulation.
But a Guardian investigation revealed installers of renewable energy were left tens of thousands of pounds out of pocket by the government scheme, and were forced to let go of workers as they struggling to stay in business.
Members of the public have been left waiting nearly four months, in some cases, to take advantage of the scheme to fit low-CO2 heating systems.
Is this another example of the Tory government's lack of commitment to tackling climate change.
Friday, February 05, 2021
'You're so vain...'
'Well you're where you should be all the time
And when you're not, you're with some underworld spy
Or the wife of a close friend wife of a close friend.'
The Mirror reports that the Prime Minister has been accused of splurging taxpayers’ money on “vanity” after it emerged he has three different photographers working in Downing Street. This comes after a a new promotional staffer began work this week on a salary of up to £60,635 a year.
It is believed that this latest employee will work in both Downing Street and the wider government, and has already taken photos of a No10 press briefing:
It comes despite the PM already employing a photographer, Andrew Parsons, as his Special Advisor part-time on the equivalent of £100,000 a year.
Mr Parsons has long-standing links with the Tory leader and the Conservatives paid his firm £45,000 for work in the 2019 election.
Another civil service photographer is thought to have been on secondment to No10 from the Ministry of Defence since early 2020.
She has taken photos of several No10 press conferences, the PM delivering a coronavirus address to the nation, and trying his hand at archery at a school. She also takes photos for other government work, though an online profile describes her as “MOD photographer for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson ”.
The newest role was advertised last year by the Cabinet Office to “promote the work of Ministers and the wider government”.
A source had told the Mirror the new recruit was due to have the job title ‘Chief Photographer to the Prime Minister’. However, this was strongly disputed by Downing Street sources, who said the job title was ‘Chief Government photographer’.
The new photographer has not yet taken photos of the PM but he covered Monday’s press conference, and the lowering of the No10 flag to half-mast after the death of Captain Sir Tom Moore.
This is hardly big money in the grand scheme of things but the optics are terrible. At a time when the government is refusing to extend free school meals during half term and are pushing ahead with plans to cut £1,000 from Universal Credit, spending money on promoting the Prime Minister in this way is insensitive and cack-handed. It is the triumph of spin over substance, vanity over compassion.
Thursday, February 04, 2021
Johnson's Northern Ireland blunder
The Independent reports that the prime minister on Wednesday threatened to invoke the protocol's Article 16 exit clause if it was the only way to ensure free flowing trade between the province and Great Britain:
The prime minister's Brexit deal has already led to significant disruption between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, including shortages of some goods.
In the House of Commons, DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr confronted the PM with his previous promise that businesses could throw any demands for paperwork on exports between Britain and Northern Ireland “in the bin”.
Mr Paisley said the people of Northern Ireland felt “betrayed” by the outcome of the Brexit deal and told Mr Johnson: “Prime minister, be the unionist we need you to be.”
“The protocol has betrayed us and has made us feel like foreigners in our own country,” said Mr Paisley. “Tea and sympathy will not cut the mustard. What is the prime minister actually going to do?”
Mr Johnson responded that he was willing to override parts of the Northern Ireland protocol if necessary.
“We will do everything we need to do, whether legislatively or indeed by triggering Article 16 of the protocol, to ensure that there is no barrier down the Irish Sea,” he said.
The paper adds that haulage firms have hiked prices by 12 per cent this week and hospitals, schools and prisons have warned of looming problems obtaining food supplies. But the situation is expected to get worse when the grace periods on supermarkets’ paperwork and processed foods end, in April and July respectively.
This is obviously of concern to the government, but this is the same deal they negotiated and promoted as the best thing since sliced bread, including the border in the Irish Sea. Isn't it time they owned it.
Wednesday, February 03, 2021
More Brexit victims
The latest in the Independent, is a report that a leading British cheese company has said it can no longer sell barrels of cheese directly to consumers in the EU because of Brexit red tape – forcing it to consider setting up in France:
The Cheshire Cheese company sold £180,000 worth of truckles, the traditional name for cheese shaped like a barrel, to countries across Europe last year.
However, managing director Simon Spurrell says that is no longer possible because of the huge additional costs now involved in shipments.
The company found that sending specialist cheeses worth around £25 to EU customers requires a health certificate, signed off by a vet, that costs £180 pounds per consignment.
“That [market] is completely gone. At the moment we’ve had to just switch that light out,” said Mr Spurrell on his orders from the EU.
The company has now put on hold plans for a £1m pound new distribution centre in Macclesfield. Mr Spurrell told Reuters he is considering setting up a new hub in France, where it can still ship on a wholesale basis.
Prior to Brexit, the company had invested in multi-lingual websites which helped EU online sales jump last year. The firm had forecast a 40 per cent rise this year.
Mr Spurrell thinks that the lack of an exemption from costly certificates for direct consumer sales was an oversight in Boris Johnson’s Brexit trade agreement, as negotiators rushed to seal the deal at the end of 2020.
Meanwhile over at the Guardian it appears that it is DEFRA, who are being particularly difficult in their interpretation of the rules, to prevent a beekeeper from bringing 15 million bees into the UK. Patrick Murfet says he has been told they may be seized and burned because of post-Brexit laws.
Since the end of the transition period, only queen bees can be imported into Great Britain, rather than colonies and packages of bees. However, confusion over whether bees can be brought in via Northern Ireland has caused a legal headache:
Murfet said he had already paid a deposit of about £20,000 for the bees and stood to lose nearly £100,000 in costs alone if he cannot bring them into the country.
He added: “So far the department has overseen a policy whereby the UK is only one of three countries in Europe to see a decline in bee colonies.Fewer honeybees means less pollination, less top fruits and more imports.”
Anybody would think the UK Government is actually trying to hasten the decline of bees and hasten the sort of ecological disaster that would arise as a result.
Tuesday, February 02, 2021
Making the UK as inhospitable as possible
The MP said asylum seekers should not be “segregated into a ghetto” in barracks accommodation, but instead placed in supported accommodation where they have access to a range of facilities:
Nokes is among a group of backbench Conservative MPs with barracks in their constituencies who have raised concerns about their use to house asylum seekers. Others include Damian Collins, whose Folkestone and Hythe constituency includes Napier barracks, and Richard Fuller, the MP for North East Bedfordshire, where there is a new barracks-style development close to Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre.
There is growing concern about the conditions inside the barracks. Inhabitants say they are freezing cold and filthy, with no drinking water and food so bad they refuse to eat it. There have been Covid outbreaks, hunger strikes and suicide attempts.
The decision to hold several hundred asylum seekers in the barracks has triggered a raft of legal actions as well as outcry from human rights charities including the Red Cross, Care4Calais, Detention Action and Medical Justice.
Military barracks in remote locations have never before been used to accommodate asylum seekers, many of whom have survived torture and other forms of persecution before fleeing their home countries. Some of those tortured in military or prison facilities at home have said the barracks have triggered nightmares and flashbacks.
“We as a nation can do better than this,” said Nokes, who was immigration minister in Theresa May’s government between January 2018 and July 2019. “The Home Office really needs to get its act together. They need to revamp the accommodation contracts and put in place more contracts for supported accommodation.
She has been vocal about her concerns not only about Home Office plans to establish barracks-style accommodation on Ministry of Defence land in her own constituency of Romsey and Southampton North, but also about wider barracks policy and the approach to asylum seekers.
“I don’t think the Home Office is listening to me. I think they have become very blinkered,” she said. “Barracks are not a short-term quick fix. They have failed.”
The paper says at least five legal challenges are under way – two relating to Penally barracks in Wales, two relating to Napier barracks in Folkestone, and one relating to Yarl’s Wood. They focus on the lawfulness or otherwise of providing such accommodation for asylum seekers, breach of asylum seekers’ human rights, false imprisonment, deprivation of liberty, and failure to conduct vulnerability assessments.
It is time the government started to listen.
Monday, February 01, 2021
When is the referendum on new free trade area membership?
Apparently, the Department for International Trade believe that joining the CPTPP would cut tariffs on food, drink and cars and improve access to the markets of its members, such as Mexico, New Zealand and Vietnam. Other benefits are said to include easier travel between partnership countries and cheaper visas.
This is despite the fact that they are tens of thousands of miles away and that these countries represent only a fraction of the trade we have with the EU.
Given that the proposal is to become a member of an organisation that may well impose rules on our trading ability. surely it should be put to a referendum.