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Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Did watchdog let the Met off the hook over Clapham Common policing?

Reading the reports on Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) review of the shocking scenes at Clapham Common when police physically restrained women paying tribute to the late Sarah Everard, one cannot help but question the scope of their inquiry.

As the BBC report, the watchdog said there was too little communication between officers at the event but their response, amid Covid restrictions, had been "measured". It called the media coverage a "public relations disaster" for police and added that "there was insufficient communication between police commanders about changing events on the ground".

More importantly, the HMICFRS concluded that the police were wrong in their reading of the law. Some protests can take place legally, even in areas under Tier 4 lockdown. They say the Met could have worked with Reclaim These Streets to manage a safe and respectful vigil, but they didn't because of "confusion" over the law.

In fact this is nonsense. Blaming the politicians for this confusion, as the report does, is actually a major cop-out. There was a court ruling the day before the vigil that made it crystal clear it was possible to hold a legally valid vigil with the co-operation of the police. The fact that senior management in the Met decided to press on regardless in suppressing a peaceful and properly stewarded action led to them putting their own officers into the firing line and left them facing the consequences of a disastrous policing operation.

It is for this reason that calls for the resignation of the Commissioner are absolutely valid. This was a situation that could have been avoided if she and her management team had been more flexible and facilitated a proper vigil. Nor does she improve her case by laying into 'armchair critics'. 

The poor misunderstood Metropolitan Police Commissioner appears to have misunderstood the nature of 'policing by consent.' We may not be at the front line but we expect officers to respond sympathetically and appropriately when faced with difficult situations such as that at Clapham Common.

Meanwhile, another major report out today from No 10’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, has concluded that the UK should be seen as an international exemplar of racial equality, and has played down the impact of structural factors in ethnic disparities.

Given that Boris Johnson, who has released this report, called black Africans “picanninies,” Muslim women “letterboxes” and said the problem with Africa is that "we are not in charge any more,” I am sure I can be forgiven for not taking the commission's conclusions seriously.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Downing Street media room makes its debut

The £2.6 million Downing Street media room made its debut yesterday with a few tweaks to its design. As the Independent reports, preview images of the room sent out by broadcasters were widely mocked on social media earlier this month. 

The podium had featured the words “Downing Street” with an HM government logo superimposed over it, but the logo blocked the middle letters of the text - so that only “DOWN REET” was visible.

This has now been rectified with the text now removed and only the coat of arms visible. The number of flags positioned behind to the rear of the stage has also been reduced from four to two.

However, they have kept the plain blue background, an invitation to anybody with the skills to treat it like a virtual background to impose any image or video they like onto it.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Is the UK heading towards a paramilitary policing regime?

Many of us had suspected this for some time but it does not reassure to hear it from an authorative source, the Independent reports on the views of Michael Barton, the former chief constable of Durham constabulary, who believes that controversial new measures proposed by the government which allow the police to flex “their muscles” through officers on the ground, amounts to a major step towards a system of “paramilitary policing”. Mr Barton compared the UK government to “repressive regimes” that exert power via their police:

His remarks to The Observer come after riot police could be seen pushing people to the ground with their shields at Friday night’s protest against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in Bristol, with at least 10 people arrested and a Daily Mirror journalist the subject of an “assault” by police.

The controversial legislation, which recently passed its first hurdle in House of Commons, would hand police greater power to implement conditions on non-violent protests, with convictions potentially leading to jail time.

Mr Barton, who was in the police for 39 years in total, told the paper: “I’m not in favour of even more restrictive measures. Surely after a historically unprecedented year-long curfew, in peacetime, the government could show some common sense and gratitude for such incredible forbearance to allow civil liberties to once again flourish.

“Or are they happy to be linked to the repressive regimes currently flexing their muscles via their police forces? Fortunately, in the UK we are not a paramilitary-style police force. But these powers dangerously edge in that direction.

“Police chiefs will be seen as the arbiters of what is and is not allowed when it comes to protest. Democracies thrive on protest. This government has condemned what has happened in the Ukraine but those same protesters would fall foul of our new laws.”

Mr Barton, the former head of national crime operations for policing, said he did not deem there to be “anything wrong” with present laws - adding demonstrations sometimes result in individuals being “inconvenienced”.

Demonstrators could be jailed for up to 10 years for causing “serious annoyance or inconvenience” under the newly proposed laws. The legislation bolsters police powers so they can set noise limits, roll out a start and finish time, and implement such rules on protests carried out by just one person - as well as also breaking up “static protests”.

His views are supported by Sir Peter Fahy, the ex-chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, who told The Observer he was “not sure” a “mature democracy” should have police officers choose which protests are permitted:

“Policing should be very careful not to be drawn into the situation of being arbiters of which protests can go ahead, and become stuck in the middle,” he added. “The policing of protest can cause long-term damage.”

Judging from the Home Office's response to this criticism, Government ministers really do not understand how dangerous and authoritarian their proposals are. The bill currently before Parliament is the first step on a very slippery slope and should be opposed at every stage.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Home Office revives plan to deport non-UK rough sleepers

So, when the UK government said it wanted to end rough sleeping, especially during the pandemic, they didn't quite make it clear what they meant.

The Guardian reports that the Home Office has quietly relaunched a controversial programme that uses councils and homelessness charities to obtain personal data that could lead to the deportation of non-UK rough sleepers.

They say documents obtained by Liberty Investigates, a journalism unit of the human rights organisation Liberty, reveal that two charities and six councils have signed up to the scheme since it was relaunched six months ago:

The disclosure follows last week’s widely derided overhaul of the asylum system by the home secretary, Priti Patel. Campaigners fear this could dramatically increase the number of homeless foreign nationals by leaving future asylum seekers destitute without the right to settle permanently, work or claim benefits.

The Rough Sleeping Support Service (RSSS) was trialled by the Home Office from 2018 until the Observer exposed it as part of a covert strategy to deport rough sleepers after acquiring personal data without their consent.

Following a challenge by the Public Interest Law Centre, the Home Office amended the RSSS last September and relaunched it with a new requirement for charities and councils to obtain what it calls “fully informed consent”.

However, the Home Office would not reveal how many – if any – rough sleepers have since been deported under what critics say is an attempt to embroil charities in the government’s “hostile environment” policy.

Part of the scheme’s relaunch involves asking signatory organisations to sign up to a 19-page user agreement, which confirms deportation as one of four possible outcomes, telling them to give rough sleepers the opportunity to read it before signing a consent form.

The form states that “the service is not intended to identify or locate immigration offenders”, but there is a “possibility that you may be required to leave the UK” if the individual does not have lawful basis to remain.

Experts said consent obtained in this way was questionable, given the vulnerability of rough sleepers, language barriers, and the power dynamic between client and caseworker.

Barrister Julianne Morrison, who specialises in data protection, said: “The person giving them this form is not someone who has Home Office or Border Force written on their tabard. It is somebody who they’ve turned to for help.”

She added: “It’s very difficult to see how anyone can be sure that those in such a vulnerable situation, and in a situation of obvious power imbalance vis-à-vis the Home Office, are giving proper GDPR-compliant consent.”

Benjamin Morgan, Public Interest Law Centre’s EU homelessness coordinator, said: “In our casework experience, rough sleepers – especially those who do not speak fluent English – end up being asked to sign all sorts of documents without necessarily understanding the implications of what they are doing.”

It is a pretty low trick to treat vulnerable adults in this way as a means of getting government net immigration figures down.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

An unnecessary slaughter

The Mirror reports campaigners have warned that another 140,000 badgers face being culled before the controversial scheme is halted:

A three-month public consultation paving the way to end the programme closed this week, with ministers and officials now studying responses.

The Badger Trust, which has always opposed the cull, fears tens of thousands more of the creatures will be killed before it finally finishes.

Its 17-page submission to the consultation, seen by the Mirror, says: “Over 140,000 badgers have already paid with their lives to cover for the appalling failures in Government policy and farming practice, and we believe current proposals will see a further 140,000 added to that total.

“We urge the Government to take this opportunity to change tack now, for the benefit of both badgers and cattle.”

Some 140,830 badgers have been culled since 2013 in a bid to curb the spread of tuberculosis in cows.

A total of 38,642 badgers were killed last autumn in the programme.

Badger Trust acting chief executive Dawn Varley said: “Whilst Badger Trust welcomes any suggestion of an end to badger cull licences, in the short term this proposal actually represents a continuation and expansion of culling in coming years.

“We estimate that the total kill figure since the start of culling in 2013 may reach around 280,000.

“This means the Government is only halfway through killing badgers.

“This figure represents almost 60% of an estimated badger population of 485,000.

“That is not, and will never be, acceptable to us. The killing needs to stop.”

Surely it is time to end this pointless and catastrophic slaughter now.

Friday, March 26, 2021

How Brexit is undermining law and order

I remember saying this during the EU referendum in 2016 and I was not alone, but the Brexit deal that was struck by this Tory government has left this country less able to deal with crime due to leaving the European Arrest Warrant system.

The Independent reports that the government has admitted at least 10 EU countries will no longer extradite their nationals to face prosecution in the UK because of Brexit:

In correspondence with the House of Lords EU Committee, it said Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Sweden will be “invoking constitutional rules as reason not to extradite their own nationals to the UK”.

A letter from the Home Office said it amounted to “an absolute bar on the extradition of own nationals” to the UK.

Additionally, Austria and the Czech Republic will only extradite their own nationals to Britain with their consent.

It means that British authorities may have to attempt prosecutions in other countries, or circulate wanted criminals on an Interpol database in the hope they leave their home nation and can be caught elsewhere.

The UK was previously part of the European Arrest Warrant system, which allows a streamlined extradition process between EU states and has been used for high-profile terrorists, drug smugglers and murderers.

As part of its post-Brexit security agreement, the UK has drawn up new extradition processes, but they do not have the same power to bypass constitutional barriers.

EU states can also refuse to surrender suspected criminals if the alleged offence does not exist in their country, or it is a “political” crime.

So much for the Tories being the party of law and order.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Broken Brexit promises

Amongst the many promises that were made during the 2016 referendum campaign was that Wales would not lose a single penny as a result of leaving the EU, a pledge that was especially important given the millions of pounds we have received and are due under schemes run by the European Union to help revitalise deprived areas.

However, like many of the other statements made at the time this particular promise has proved to be a lie, for not only is the UK government ensuring that a number of areas are no longer going to receive this money, but they are taking the opportunity to roll back devolution at the same time.

Wales on line reports that the UK Government has been accused of discriminating against two Welsh local authority areas by excluding them from a list of “priority areas” earmarked for regional aid spending meant to replace EU funds. They say Caerphilly and Bridgend county boroughs contain some of the poorest communities in Europe, yet don’t appear in the list of 100 priority areas published by Westminster.

When the UK was in the EU, West Wales and the Valleys benefited from billions of pounds of European aid because the earnings per head were less than 75% of the EU average. That region included both the boroughs that have now been excluded from the priority list of places that will benefit from Westminster’s Community Renewal Fund.

Effectively then, this Conservative government in Westminster is giving resources to well-off areas like Richmond in Yorkshire, where Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, just happens to be the MP, and deliberately excluding needy areas like the Caerphilly borough and the Llynfi Valley:

A Welsh Government spokesman said: “Based on repeated UK Government commitments that leaving the EU would mean not a penny less and no devolved powers lost to Wales, over the past three years we’ve been working collaboratively with organisations across all sectors to design a new framework for future investment that supports regional ways of working and will create jobs and prosperity across Wales in a way which is fairer, more inclusive and sustainable.

“As well as disregarding all this hard work, and unnecessarily duplicating effort and capacity across 22 local authorities in Wales, the UK Government’s recently published proposals also completely undermine the devolution settlement, as well as failing to give Wales its fair share of investment.

“Our analysis of the selection methodologies for the fund has highlighted concerns over the choice of indicators, particularly the omission of some indicators we would expect to see - for example indices of deprivation and transport data - to help prioritise funding to areas where it is needed most.

“We have requested access to the data used so we can better understand the UK Government’s priorities for levelling up and sharing prosperity across the UK.

“What is most concerning however is the UK Government taking decisions on devolved matters in Wales without being answerable to the Senedd on behalf of the people of Wales.

“We have also received no guarantee that Wales will receive its fair share of funding, with decisions being made in Whitehall departments with no history of delivering projects within Wales, no record of working with communities in Wales and no understanding of the priorities of those communities.”

Somehow all this was very predictable.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Those lucrative second jobs

Representing people should be a full time job. That should certainly be the case during a pandemic when many are struggling to make ends meet, having been furloughed or laid off, seen their businesses or those of their employer go down the pan, or losing moeny because of the need to self-isolate or through sickness. Unfortunately, not all MPs see this the same way.

Over on the Open Democracy site, it is revealed that Members of Parliament earned almost £5m from second jobs and side hustles during the first year of the pandemic. They say that while huge swathes of the population were furloughed, some parliamentarians topped up their income with paid advice to businesses on COVID policy, while others took jobs with firms that won test-and-trace contracts:

In all, more than a third of MPs reported additional earnings above their standard £82,000 salary since the first lockdown began on 23 March last year.

The highest earner was former prime minister Theresa May, who received £616,000 in speaking fees over the past 12 months – including more than £130,000 for three speeches delivered on video calls.

In August, onetime chancellor Sajid Javid took a £150,000-a-year job as an adviser to JP Morgan, which involves 80-96 hours of work per year.

While keeping his seat in Parliament, former attorney general Geoffrey Cox started a new job at an international law firm, Withers LLP – boasting an annual salary of £468,000 a year. Reports suggest Mr Cox will help the company to “open doors with foreign governments”.

Overall, 237 MPs declared outside earnings during the 12 months since 23 March 2020. Together, this amounts to £4.9m of extra pay.

What galls above anything is that several MPs have seen their incomes rise as a direct result of the pandemic:

In July, when the government was under pressure to increase COVID testing, Conservative MP Alun Cairns accepted a job advising a science company involved in testing. The former Welsh secretary said he was offered the £15,000-a-year role at BBI Group because he knew the chairman.

Tory MP Richard Fuller was paid £65,000 moonlighting at a venture capital firm called Investcorp Securities Ltd. This included £30,000 for “consultancy work on the impact of COVID on portfolio companies”.

One of those “portfolio companies” is Cambio, a private health firm, which was handed a £63,000 NHS contract last week, without competition from other providers.

Former environment secretary Owen Paterson was paid £100,000 a year to act as a consultant to Randox Laboratories Ltd, at a rate of £120 an hour. On 30 March, the company was awarded a £133m COVID-testing contract by the government, without any other companies being allowed to bid for the work. Less than two weeks later, Paterson personally spoke to health minister Lord Bethell on a phone call with Randox.

Conservative MP Bill Wiggin was paid tens of thousands of pounds as the director of various offshore finance ventures, in the tax havens of Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. On top of a £49,140 salary, he has also received ‘director’s fees’ of more than £21,000 and £7,500 in bonuses in the past year.

Former cabinet minister George Freeman broke the ministerial code by failing to seek official approval before receiving £5,000 for consultancy work to a company producing protective equipment used by the NHS.

Meanwhile, the Conservative MP for Wokingham, John Redwood, banked £237,000 from wealth management firm Charles Stanley & Co, while his fellow backbencher Philip Davies was paid almost £50,000 by gambling giant GVC Holdings. GVC donated £1,500 worth of tickets to the Shipley MP for last year’s Cheltenham race meeting, which took place just days before Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown.

Last month, North Wiltshire MP James Gray was paid £550 by online media training provider Electric Airwaves “for helping train a potential witness coming before the public accounts committee”.

As the site points out all of these additional earnings are legal, and in some cases led to money being given to charity, but most second jobs are accepted as additional income. Nor was this activity restricted to Conservative MPs; members of the Labour Party and the SNP also declared additional earnings.

Open Democracy also reports that the money earned from moonlighting comes on top of the extra income that many politicians receive from renting out private properties. Some 116 MPs are currently registered as landlords, each earning at least £10,000 a year from rent.

There are no rules banning MPs from taking second jobs – and there are no set hours for parliamentary work. Surely, now we are in the twenty first century, that must change.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Flags galore

The recent controversy over government ministers displaying the union jack in the background on TV appearances, as well as the over-the-top £2.6 million briefing room, complete with four such flags behind the rostrum, is starting to get a bit much for some MPs.

The Independent reports that in a discussion at a recent Public Accounts Committee meeting on the BBC's role as a representative of Britain on the world stage, freshman Tory MP, James Wild asked new director-general Tim Davie more than once why there were not any images of the union jack in his organisation's annual report:

Mr Davie said the number of flags was a "strange metric" by which to measure the BBC's British credentials, adding there was "no problem" with the BBC's role "championing Britain abroad".

He said he had not been briefed on the matter before the meeting of the Public Accounts Committee, but added that a union flag flies above the BBC headquarters in London on many days of the year.

Mr Wild, a Norfolk MP of the 2019 intake, referenced last week’s dispute over mockery of a minister’s flag by BBC Breakfast hosts, and said his constituents would "expect to see probably more than one flag" appearing in the report.

"You may not, but licence fee payers may do," Mr Wild told the director-general during an appearance before the Public Accounts Committee to discuss the BBC's financial management.

Mr Wild then asked the same question of another recent BBC report, which featured no images of the flag, before suggesting the corporation include some in the next annual report.

Given that the BBC is meant to represent the whole of the UK and that Wales is not represented in the Union Jack, there is clearly a case for Y Ddraig Goch to feature in these reports as well, but I digress. If we are now to measure our worth and that of organisations by the number of national flags they display, then we really have entered a parallel universe.

The Public Accounts Committee is one of the most prestigious and important in the House of Commons. What justification is there for wasting time asking about flags when there are far more important matters that need probing? 

I suppose we should be grateful that the new government bill that imposes prison sentences for attacking statues greater than those available for convicted rapists, does not also seek to outlaw flag burning.

In civil liberties terms, this is a dark and dangerous place the Conservative Party is taking us.

The 'Stanley Johnson loophole'

The government has announced new regulations to prevent people leaving the UK, but with a list of specific exemptions. As the Guardian reports, anyone who is caught breaking the rules on travel by going on holiday faces a fine of up to £5,000.

One exemption allows people to travel abroad “in connection with the purchase, sale, letting or rental of a residential property”. Those activities include visiting an estate agent, developer sales office or show home, viewing residential properties to rent or buy, and preparing a property for moving in.Other exemptions include study or competing in an elite sporting event.

Coincidentially, Boris Johnson’s father, Stanley, last summer apparently breached Covid guidelines by travelling to his Greek villa to make it “Covid-proof”. He will now be able to do that legally. It is hardly surprising that some MPs smell a rat:

Labour MP and former shadow cabinet minister Andrew Gwynne said: “For hardworking families facing the prospect of missing out on summer holidays, it will stick in the craw that the government has inserted a ‘Stanley Johnson clause’ to Covid rules that allows people to come and go if they have property abroad … It seems it’s still one rule for them and another for the rest of us.”

Another Labour source branded it the “Stanley Johnson loophole” for “those managing their overseas property empires”, and accused the government of being “only focused on their own privileged lives”.

The one good bit of news is that the government is exempting protests from the rules against mass gatherings, presumably this depends on how loud they are and whether the protest involves a statue or not.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Time to pay health and care workers what they're worth

He may have stood on the doorstep of Number Ten applauding the overworked, underpaid, much put upon health and care workers who have guided us through this pandemic, often at huge personal cost to themselves, and who even intervened to save his life, but Boris Johnson does not appear to be extending his gratitude to a decent pay rise for the same cohort of workers anytime soon.

Health workers in England are being offered a paltry 1% extra in their pay packets, while those working in social care continue to struggle on the bare minimum. This injustice of this situation is underlined by revelations in the Mirror a few days ago, that 300,000 staff worked unpaid overtime during the Covid-19 pandemic.

That is almost 13,000 more than the figure for the same groups in in 2019, and it suggests more than a million hours of unpaid overtime were worked during the pandemic. The paper adds that across the whole NHS workforce, some 55.2% of staff say they worked unpaid overtime last year - which is a slight decline from 55.9% the year before.

It is hardly surprising that retention levels for nurses and other staff are so low. The stress and strain of their roles must be tremendous, and it is time they were remunerated accordingly.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Welsh Lib Dem Education Minister sets up replacement for Erasmus scheme

Anybody who questions what the Liberal Democrats are for need only look at the accomplishments of the Welsh Liberal Democrats Education Minister, Kirsty Williams. Not only has she continued and expanded the Pupil Deprivation Grant in Wales, set up by the Welsh Liberal Democrats as part of a budget deal in the previous Assembly to help under-achieving pupils on free school meals, she has done much more.

This includes maintaining free school meals during school holidays, giving new starter teachers an 8.48% pay rise, delivering smaller class sizes, introducing super fast internet for all schools, announcing a £30 million investment in Welsh medium education and bringing in a new Welsh curriculum that empowers teachers and ensures every pupil must learn about Welsh history including the role of the BME community in developing modern Wales.

As if this wasnt enough, Kirsty is now helping to ensure that Welsh students do not miss out due to the UK Government's abandonment of the Erasmus scheme on our departure from the European Union.

As the Guardian reports, the UK government withdrew from the EU’s Erasmus scheme, which offered student exchanges as well as school links and work experience, as part of its Brexit deal struck last year. But the Welsh government says the new Turing programme lacks key benefits that made Erasmus so valuable for young people.

Instead they plan to spend £65m on the new “international learning exchange” to enable Welsh institutions to continue with reciprocal staff and students exchanges that took place under Erasmus but won’t do so under Turing:

Leaders in Wales and Scotland had been dismayed by the end of Erasmus membership when it was announced in December. Scotland lobbied the EU for continued membership but its hopes were quashed last month by Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, who told MEPs that, as a “constituent nation” of the UK, Scotland could not rejoin. Students studying at institutions in Northern Ireland can take part in Erasmus thanks to an arrangement with the Irish government.

Welsh institutions will still be able to take part in the UK-wide Turing scheme, which will be funded by £105m for its first year starting in September, paying administrative and living costs of those taking part.

But unlike Erasmus+ during Britain’s membership, Turing funding will not be reciprocal, meaning that international partner institutions will not be supported for any exchanges coming to the UK.

Another key difference is that the Turing scheme does not pay the tuition fees for studying at international partners, which critics say will penalise students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And the Turing scheme does not extend to staff exchanges.

In contrast, the Welsh government said its scheme would “support, as far as possible, the entire range of activities that have been available to learners in Wales” under Erasmus+.

Kirsty Williams, Wales’ education minister, said: “We have been clear that international exchange programmes, which bring so many benefits to participants, as well as their education providers and wider community, should build on the excellent opportunities that the Erasmus programme offered.

“We owe it to this next generation of students and learners to have the same opportunities previous years had.”

Cardiff University will be responsible for delivering the new scheme over the next year, through an advisory board drawn from the education sector, with exchanges beginning in 2022.

The new programme “will then fill the gaps Turing leaves, including, crucially, the commitment to long-term funding, the retention of the principle of two-way exchanges and the inclusion of youth work,” the Welsh government said.

England may have pulled up the drawbridge but, thanks to the Welsh Liberal Democrats, young people in Wales will still be able to benefit from international exchanges and links to othe countries.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Election watchdog to probe Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister's eagerness to refurbish the Downing Street flat he occupies with one of his families may well come back to bite him. The Guardian reports that the official elections watchdog has contacted the Tory party over a reported payment made for the refurbishment of Boris Johnson’s residence:

The Electoral Commission said it was in touch to establish whether any sums relating to the renovation works should have been declared under the law on party political donations.

In response, the Conservative party said that all reportable donations were correctly declared in compliance with the law.

It follows reports by the Daily Mail that about £60,000 of party funds were used to help cover the reported £200,000 cost of refurbishing the official flat above 11 Downing Street where Johnson lives with his fiancee, Carrie Symonds.

In a statement, a commission spokeswoman said: “We are in contact with the party to establish whether any sums relating to the renovation works fall within the regime regulated by the commission. If so, they would need to be reported according to the rules specified in law, and would then be published by the commission as part of our commitment to the transparency of political finance.”

Some transparency in this process would indeed be welcome.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Rees Mogg foot in mouth

The Leader of the House of Commons is well-known for his condescending attitude and his attempts at erudition, but two performances in the House of Commons this week have brought down opprobrium on his rathe privileged head.

In one, Jacob Rees Mogg referred to an incident where the Speaker of the House of Commons Lindsay Hoyle, told off Plaid Cymru MP, Liz Saville Roberts, for speaking too much Welsh by calling one of the UK's oldest languages a ‘foreign language’ and comparing it to Latin.

As Nation Cymru reports, the incident was brought up in the House of Commons by SNP MP Owen Thompson, who asked if time could be arranged “so that we could actually consider how the indigenous languages of these islands could perhaps be more incorporated into the business that we undertake”:

Rees-Mogg, who is the Leader of the House, said whilst “modest quotation in foreign languages is permissible” it was “reasonable” not to allow “full speeches”.

He added that “honourable members might occasionally use Latin quips and that is perfectly allowable”.

What exactly do they teach in these posh schools?

In the second incident, the Guardian says Rees Mogg used Parliamentary privilege to wrongly accuse a journalist of being “either a knave or a fool” over a story about the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab:

Rees-Mogg’s outburst came during his regular ministerial question session on Thursday morning, when the shadow leader of the Commons, Valerie Vaz, asked about a story on Tuesday by Arj Singh, HuffPost’s deputy political editor.

The story quoted a leaked extract of a video call between Raab and staff in his department in which the foreign secretary said it was possible the UK could strike trade deals with countries whose human rights records breached the European convention on human rights (ECHR).

“If we restrict it to countries with ECHR-level standards of human rights, we’re not going to do many trade deals with the growth markets of the future,” Raab said. Raab’s department said later the leaked extract had been “selectively clipped”, and that the minister’s fuller comments highlighted a more nuanced approach.

Speaking in the Commons, Rees-Mogg said Raab’s words had been “shockingly distorted by low-quality journalism”, adding: “It’s a very cheap level of journalism, it’s not a proper way to behave.”

Raab had been “absolutely clear” that rights abuses could affect trade, and that the recording was edited “unfairly, improperly, and broadly dishonestly”. Rees-Mogg added: “I think we should look at that type of poor-quality, online journalism. It’s not the sort of thing that would happen in the Times.”

At the end of the ministerial session, Vaz raised a point of order to note that HuffPost had contacted her to reject any accusations of dishonesty.

Rees-Mogg replied: “If the journalist didn’t clip it himself, he ought to have known it was clipped. He is either a knave or a fool.”

In a tweet, Jess Brammar, the editor-in-chief of HuffPost UK, said: “To use parliamentary privilege to smear a journalist – knowing you can’t be sued for defamation because you are saying it in parliament – is extremely troubling. We stand by Arj and his journalism. Produce your evidence, Jacob Rees-Mogg, or retract and set the record straight.”

Asked repeatedly in a Downing Street media briefing whether No 10 endorsed Rees-Mogg’s language, Allegra Stratton, Boris Johnson’s press secretary, declined to explicitly do so, saying: “I think we’re just saying that we regret that this particular audio was selectively clipped.”

However as the HuffPost say, this is not true. They say they did not edit any recording passed to them and quoted it in full.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

UK to take further steps towards becoming popularist dictatorship

Having decided that they are going to legislate to restrict the right to protest, introduce prison sentences for defacing statues greater than those available for somebody convicted of rape, and bring in US-style voter suppression to help them win elections, the UK Tory government took a further step towards a Hungarian-type popularist dictatorship yesterday when they signalled that they are considering plans to send asylum seekers who arrive in the UK overseas to be processed, an idea modelled on a controversial Australian system.

The Guardian reports that Priti Patel, the home secretary, is expected to publish details next week of a scheme in which people who arrive in the UK via unofficial means, such as crossing the Channel in small boats, would be removed to a third country to have any claim dealt with.

Presumably this is an alternative to the prison camp model previously favoured by the government, which punished innocent men, women and children fleeing persecution and war by shoving them behind wire fences in unsanitary huts without any regard to their rights as human beings.

It doesn't help either that the government has cut overseas aid, a decision that will inevitably lead to more asylum seekers. In fact the only solution they appear to be willing to consider at the moment is to build more nuclear war heads. Please show me any problem where nuking somebody is the solution.

Of course it would be expecting too much to believe the Labour opposition will oppose this plan. Their record on civil liberties is as bad as the Tories. 

Either way the government is slipping more and more into a little Englander-type mindset in which only the rich and powerful gain, while the rest of us can beg for scraps.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Did Boris Johnson's complacency lead to more deaths?

Personally, I believe that Johnson's failure to act earlier, to take on board lessons from past pandemics and his inability to send the right messages a year ago meant far more people died of Covid than should have done, others appear to agree.

The Mirror reports that Boris Johnson faces explosive claims of complacency, mistakes and stubbornness in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic - which led to "more cases and more deaths":

In the early days of the outbreak, the PM reportedly suggested the best way to deal with Coronavirus would be to “ignore it”, according to the BBC's investigation.

And despite a year of denials from Downing Street, the BBC today reports there was a “genuine argument” in Number 10 over whether to pursue a “herd immunity” strategy of allowing the virus to burn through the population - potentially killing thousands more.

And it’s claimed there were discussions of “chicken pox parties” - where healthy people would be encouraged to deliberately spread the disease to each other in order to spread antibodies.

It’s also claimed Mr Johnson’s aides specifically told the PM that he should tell the public to stop shaking hands ahead of an early Downing Street press conference.

Instead, the Prime Minister boasted that he’d just visited a Covid-19 ward and had “shaken hands with everybody.”


The BBC quotes an unnamed Cabinet minister’s “frustration” with Mr Johnson’s unwillingness to tighten restrictions last September in the face of a second wave of infections - and fears over his and Chancellor Rishi Sunak ’s push to reopen the economy last Summer.

They reportedly said: “We knew there was going to be a second wave and there was a row about whether people should work from home or not — it was totally ridiculous.”

A senior minister reportedly said the government “should have locked down more severely in the autumn”.

Ministers were warned in July Christmas reopening would lead to 'explosive outbreaks' The Mirror reported last month that the PM was warned against reopening schools and universities, encouraging people back to their offices and relaxing rules for Christmas as early as last July.

By September, the UK was in the “reasonable worst case scenario” predicted by scientists, heading towards an even worse winter peak than predicted.

Sage papers from July read: “Current behavioural data suggest that there is still ample room for the Government to reduce their likelihood by actively encouraging implementation of as many of the mitigations recommended by Sage as possible.

"Wherever possible, the most effective measures should be used to avoid or substitute risky contacts (e.g. by home-working and self-isolation)."

Boris Johnson dismisses scientists after questions about 'ignored' Covid-19 advice Less than a month later, the government launched a campaign to encourage the public to return to working in their offices.

On September 1, Boris Johnson boasted: "People are going back to the office in huge numbers up and down the country — and quite right, too.”

Last night the Telegraph reported the role of Sage would be “reviewed” after the pandemic, because they hold “too much sway” over ministerial decisions.

The BBC reports that in September, “a small group inside Downing Street repeatedly tried to change Johnson’s mind”, but struggled to convince him to put the country back into lockdown.

And a former official reportedly told the BBC: “We kept repeating the same mistakes over and over again, despite the masses of evidence that kept coming up.

"We lost an awful lot of time, and that led to more cases and more deaths."

No doubt a public inquiry will confirm much of this.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Why does the UK need more nuclear warheads?

It is tempting to link UK government plans to restrict protests with their latest announcement to end three decades of gradual disarmament and increase the number of nuclear warheads in the country. One might think that Ministers would prefer to nuke certain protests and are only being held back by the fact that in doing so they may damage a statue or two.

The plans to lift the cap on the number of the number of nuclear warheads in the UK's stockpile as reported here by the Independent, makes no sense whatsoever. The paper says that Dominic Raab has described the move as the "ultimate insurance policy" against threats from hostile states. It is almost as if he has abandoned diplomacy, working through the United Nations and the use of conventional force as a last resort.

It is not clear who the government thinks it might use the weapons against or who it thinks might consider launching a nuclear attack on the UK. Just nine countries in the world still have nuclear weapons, putting the UK out-of-step with most of its European neighbours.

This is a very dangerous development that needs to be resisted.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Anti-democratic government seeks to limit protest

In the light of the overreaching of police powers at the weekend one would think that the government might pause and reflect before seeking to introduce new legislation limiting our right to protest. Unfortunately, this anti-democratic, right-wing government have another agenda.

The Guardian reports that more than 150 organisations have warned ministers that a new law handing police tougher powers to crack down on protesters would be “an attack on some of the most fundamental rights of citizens”.

They say the groups, including human rights charities, unions and faith communities, said on Sunday the wide-ranging legislation would have a hugely detrimental effect on civil liberties, and called for the government to “fundamentally rethink its approach”:

In a letter to the home secretary, Priti Patel, and the justice secretary, Robert Buckland, seen by the Guardian, they claim the 307-page police, crime and sentencing bill – being debated on Monday and Tuesday before a vote – is being rushed through parliament before people have “been able to fully understand its profound implications”.

Some of the new police powers are draconian, they said, cautioning that the new law would also increase penalties for those breaching police conditions on protests and the ease with which they can be found to have done so.

They said it raised “profound concern and alarm” and would also threaten access to the countryside and criminalise Gypsy and Traveller communities, adding that the legislation is being “driven through at a time and in a way where those who will be subject to its provisions are least able to respond”.

Signatories to the letter include Liberty, Big Brother Watch, Unite, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Unlock Democracy, Cafod and Extinction Rebellion local groups.

If this bill becomes law then defacing monuments will be punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The starting point for rape sentences is currently five years, rising to a life sentence for the most serious. That assumes of course that a rape offence gets to court as only 1.7% of reported rapes are actually prosecuted in England and Wales. 

And we thought Labour had a poor record on civil liberties.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Metropolitan police out of line and tone deaf

The Nottingham News reports that a vigil took place at 6pm last night in which over a hundred people gathered around the Brian Clough statue just off Old Market Square to leave candles and flowers in tribute to 33-year-old Sarah Everard who was found dead earlier this week after going missing in London.

This vigil took place within Covid guidelines and with the full co-operation of the local police force, in line with Friday's court judgement that such events were permissible if the authorities worked constructively with organisers to deliver them.

In contrast, the Metropolitan Police, one of whose number has been charged with Sarah Everard's murder, refused to work with organisers, and when a spontaneous vigil emerged on Clapham Common, chose to go in boots first to break it up.

The scenes being circulated on social media of the way they policed that situation are totally shocking. There was no sensitivity to people's fears and concerns, no acknowledgement of their own failure to keep communities safe and no attempt to work with mourners to allow them to express their views while keeping others from harm.

Policing with consent requires all three of those considerations, instead the Metropolitan Police reinforced their reputation as tone deaf enforcers, rather than allies in the fight against crime and disorder. As Lib Dem Leader, Ed Davey says, this was a complete abject tactical and moral failure on the part of police.

He has called on the Commissioner to consider her position, but change needs to go much deeper than that. After decades of being called out for their self-serving culture, the Met have proved that nothing much has altered in the way they operate.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

The Brexit effect

Anybody who thinks that Brexit is going to plan really needs to think again in the light of the latest economic data.

The Guardian reports that UK exports of goods to the EU plunged by 40.7% in January as the first month since Brexit and the imposition of a new Covid lockdown resulted in the biggest monthly decline in British trade for more than 20 years:

In the first month since leaving the EU on terms agreed by Boris Johnson’s government, the Office for National Statistics said goods exports to the bloc fell by £5.6bn, while imports fell by 28.8%, or £6.6bn.

Exports of food and live animals to the EU were the hardest hit by Brexit, collapsing by 63.6% in January. Consignments of fish and shellfish collapsed by 83% from the level a year ago to only £16m.

This reflected heavier disruption and additional checks for consignments from this sector that prompted furious protests from the fishing industry. However, food and live animals account for only 7% of total UK exports.

After stockpiling and disruption at UK borders in the run-up to the Brexit transition, the decline also came as the economy in January shrank by the largest amount since the first wave of the pandemic, with gross domestic product (GDP) falling 2.9% from December, according to the ONS.

The ONS said the January performance was the worst since monthly records began in 1997, as a 1.7% rise in non-EU trade, worth £200m, failed to make up for the plunge in cross-border activity with the UK’s biggest trading partner. Overall, global UK exports and imports fell by about a fifth.

Although January’s GDP figure represents the biggest contraction since the first lockdown almost a year ago, analysts had forecast a bigger decline of 4.9%, suggesting that businesses and households adapted better to harsh restrictions than during the first wave of the pandemic, when GDP fell by more than 20% in April 2020.

No doubt Boris Johnson and his ministers will seek to hide behind the Covid crisis as the excuse for these figures and it is true they played a part, however as Samuel Tombs, the chief UK economist at the consultancy Pantheon Macroeconomics says: “Brexit made a bad situation worse. “Brexit is best seen as a slow puncture, rather than a sudden blowout, with the costs gradually accumulating in the form of lower investment and immigration than otherwise would have been the case.”

Suren Thiru, the head of economics at the British Chambers of Commerce, added: “The practical difficulties faced by businesses on the ground go well beyond just teething problems and with disruption to UK-EU trade flows persisting, trade is likely to be a drag on UK economic growth in the first quarter of 2021.”

Another fine mess this government has got us into.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Metropolitian police get it wrong

The tragic suspected kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard in London has sent shockwaves around the country, leading to many women questioning not just their own safety but the past behaviour of men towards them and the focus of safety advice, which they rightly argue should be directed at men, just as much as women.

Many are sharing their experiences of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, have pointed out how even innocent behaviour by men can terrify a lone woman walking home at night and called on all men to modify our behaviour.

A common Instagram meme has 'protect your daughter' crossed out and substituted with 'educate your son'. What has made this situation worse is that a serving Metropolitian Police Officer has been arrested in connection wth Sarah Everard's disappearance, an authority figure that one would normally hope to be able to rely on in such situations.

Naturally, socially-distanced 'Reclaim these streets' vigils are being organised all around the country to emphasise these issues, and yet the Metropolitian police have jumped in feet first to try and prevent the vigil planned for central London from taking place. Tne optics of this decision are just awful and yet this appears to have by-passed those who made it.

As the Independent reports, the Reclaim These Streets event is scheduled to go ahead on this evening on Clapham Common, one of the locations Ms Everard is believed to have walked through before her suspected kidnap and murder, but organisers of the event claim they have now been told by the Metropolitan Police that the gathering would be illegal:

As well as marking the death of the 33-year-old, the event was tipped as an opportunity to reclaim the space amid a broader national conversation about the safety of women and girls in public areas at night.

However a spokeswoman for the group organising the vigil has said it plans to appeal to the high court to challenge the Metropolitan Police’s interpretation of coronavirus restrictions with regard to human rights law.

They claimed that while initially the force had appeared supportive of the vigil, they later withdrew their support - warning organisers that they would face fines of tens of thousands of pounds in fixed penalty notices as well as criminal prosecution.

“This afternoon [Thursday], the Metropolitan Police have reversed their position and stated that the vigil would be unlawful, that their ‘hands are tied’ by the Covid-19 regulations and that, as organisers, we could face tens of thousands of pounds in fixed penalty notices and criminal prosecution under the Serious Crimes Act.”

The group added: “We have decided to seek an urgent order from the High Court confirming that the Metropolitan Police’s understanding of the law is wrong. We hope that this will be heard tomorrow, Friday 12 March, so that the vigil can still go ahead.”

The statement by the organisers is particularly telling. They say on their website:

“We believe that streets should be safe for women, regardless of what you wear, where you live or what time of day or night it is. We shouldn’t have to wear bright colours when we walk home and clutch our keys in our fists to feel safe”.

“It’s wrong that the response to violence against women requires women to behave differently. In Clapham, police told women not to go out at night this week. Women are not the problem.”

The Metropolitian police should find a way of allowing this vigil to happen, not stand in the way of a legitimate event.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

English test and trace system fails to make an impact

The BBC reports on the views of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee which has concluded the impact of England's NHS Test and Trace system is still unclear, despite the UK government setting aside £37bn for it over two years.

The Committee said the system was set up on the basis it would help prevent future lockdowns, but since its creation there had been two more, describing the spending as "unimaginable" and warning the taxpayer could not be treated like an "ATM machine":

The MPs' report questioned: 
  • An over-reliance on consultants, with some paid more than £6,600 a day 
  • A failure to be ready for the surge in demand for tests seen last September 
  • Never meeting its target to turn around tests done face-to-face within 24 hours 
  • Contact tracers only having enough work to fill half their time even when cases were rising 
  • A splurge on rapid tests with no clear evidence they will help
Committee chairwoman Meg Hillier said it was hard to point to a "measurable difference" the test-and-trace system had made. "The promise on which this huge expense was justified - avoiding another lockdown - has been broken, twice," she said.

Spending on testing and tracing amounted to £22bn in 2020-21 and another £15bn in 2021-22:

The committee acknowledges significant investment was needed to set up the system at speed after the pandemic struck.

But it criticised an over-use of consultants, saying it needed to "wean itself off its persistent reliance on consultants" which were costing an average of £1,100 a day each and some of whom had been paid more than £6,600 a day.

On last count, there were still 2,500 being used, the MPs said.

Mr Shapps was asked why expensive consultants were still being used at a time when the government had said a 1% pay rise for NHS staff was all that it could afford. He said he did not know the detail but defended the "complexities" of the job that Test and Trace needed to do.

The complexity of the system was also laid bare with news that it had involved more than 400 contracts being signed with 217 different suppliers. Some 70% of the value of those contracts were directly awarded rather than being put out to tender.

Despite that the system has still never met its target to turnaround all tests in a face-to-face setting in 24 hours.

And it was found lacking at the crucial point in September when there was a surge in demand for testing.

By contrast, contact tracers have been under-used with just half of time spent working on cases in October.

As Dr Billy Palmer, of the Nuffield Trust think tank, says: "The promise of a world-beating test-and-trace system has just not materialised, and the eye-watering sums of public money poured into this system are set to increase even further."

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Sexism, abuse and harrassment

Yesterday was International Women's Day, so it is rather disturbing to see this article in the Independent, which reports on a new study that found nearly n 10 women say they would not become a politician because of fears of facing abuse or harassment in the role.

I reported yesterday on one example of misogyny and abuse in Neath Port Talbot, so it is no surprise to see this research conducted by the Fawcett Society, a leading gender equality charity, finding almost six in 10 women think sexism in local politics is a barrier to pursuing a political career:

Seven in 10 said problems juggling work as an MP or councillor with other responsibilities in their lives would be an obstacle, and six in 10 said a lack of confidence to offer themselves up held them back.

The charity, which polled more than 400 women, said that the dearth of women in politics will result in them continuing to bear the brunt of the pandemic’s financial fallout during the recovery period.

Britain’s political system has long been dominated by men, with women accounting for about a third of MPs and local councillors. At present, only five out of 23 cabinet ministers are women.

Felicia Willow, the Fawcett Society’s chief executive, said: “The pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on women, and government policy to date has failed to understand and protect the needs of women. In order to do this, we need more women in power. We need the government and political parties to commit to improve equality and to better support women to get into and stay in politics.”

The charity, which releases the findings on International Women’s Day, argues that women’s “voices” and “needs” have been overlooked during the Covid crisis. Researchers warn this is partly a result of a shortage of women in government and influential advisory positions, which in turn leads to plans being drawn up that disregard them.

While men, who are in a position of leadership continue to treat women with contempt this situation will not improve.

Monday, March 08, 2021

The arrogance of South Wales Labour

It has certainly been an eventful political weekend in South Wales, starting with the Labour leader of Neath Port Talbot stepping back so the Ombudsman can investigate a leaked tape of a talk he gave to a local Labour Party branch, in which he called a regional female Senedd member a 'cow' and suggested that public money is being used by his authority in a preferential way to gain party political advantage.

Wales-on-Line pick up the story, reporting that Neath Port Talbot council's Rob Jones made the 'cow' comment about Plaid Cymru's Bethan Sayed at a meeting in 2019.

But as disturbing as this unacceptable misogyny from a leading public figure is, there are far more serious allegations arising from this tape, including the description of the way public funds are disbursed in Neath Port Talbot:

Ms Sayed, MS for South Wales West, said she had also called for an investigation into the recording as a matter of urgency.

She said: “I find the choice of words on the recording, and the tone used by Councillor Rob Jones in his criticism of me, other councillors and community members, to be despicable.

“Many comments made in this recording suggest worrying and deeply improper practices at the top of Neath Port Talbot Labour run council, and I call for a full investigation into this issue, as a matter of urgency.

“It would appear that Cllr Jones is suggesting that some council decisions are not solely based on the merit of a given project or scheme in the borough, which of course should be the case. No decisions should be made based on political preferences. This is deeply worrying, as it could directly impact communities across NPT, undermine democracy, and people’s faith in the council long-term.

Meanwhile in Swansea, huge controversy and debate has arisen as a result of the council finally installing their landmark footbridge across Oystermouth Road. Already the bridge has given rise to a number of memes and has been described a a giant taco, a pasty and a crunchie bar.

The bridge forms part of a £135 million arena development, which is almost completely funded from public funds. Swansea's borrowing alone will lead to annual repayments of £7 million a year, the equivalent of 8% on council tax. Unfortunately, a scrutiny committee was told recently that we can only expect 20 permanent jobs as a result of this investment.

The development itself may or may not help to rejuvenate the city centre as is intended, but the over-the-top bridge is not endearing it to local people. It is very much in line with the bread and circuses approach to ruling the city adopted by Labour, also preferred by Roman emperors of old.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Is our recycling going up in smoke?

As somebody who does everything I can to sort my garbage at source in the interests of the environment, I was interested to see this article in the Observer, where they allege that an investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches into where our rubbish goes, and the role played by energy-from-waste incineration plants, has found that millions of tonnes of our carefully sorted empties are simply being burned after they’re collected.

They say that freedom of information requests reveal that, on average, 11% of rubbish collected for recycling is incinerated. In some areas the figures are far higher: 45% in Southend-on-Sea and 38% in Warwickshire:

The Dispatches team also found a direct correlation between regions tied into incineration contracts and low recycling rates. In England, more waste is now burned than recycled – 11.6 million tonnes was incinerated in 2019 while 10.9 million was sent for recycling. There are 48 energy-from-waste incinerators across the country, and industry figures show 18 more are planned.

Despite householders’ enthusiasm for recycling, rates in England remain in the doldrums – at 45%, according to government figures, the same level as in 2017, and a long way from the revolutionary shift in waste and recycling promised by the environment bill (postponed to the next parliamentary cycle).

Meanwhile the push for industrialised nations to become circular economies, using reuse, recycling and better design to tackle pollution, is beginning to guide policy elsewhere, notably the EU’s Green Deal.

In the past, objections to incineration largely centred on air quality and public health concerns, but the focus has shifted. In the age of net zero and ahead of COP26, today’s campaigners are looking at emissions and insisting that the green claims of the incineration industry are subject to scrutiny.

Other energy producers have to publish their total carbon dioxide emissions, yet the energy-from-waste industry must account only for the C02 from burning fossil-based waste such as plastic. It does not report emissions from food and garden waste, known as biogenic C02. The industry also says that by diverting waste from landfill (considered the worst possible outcome in waste orthodoxy) and claiming back a percentage of the embodied energy from the rubbish by generating electricity, energy-from-waste technology represents a low-carbon electricity source.

It isnt just that the recycled waste in not going where we think it is that is the problem. The analysis by environmental law charity ClientEarth shows that producing electricity from waste is more carbon intensive than producing it from gas, and second only to coal. They conclude that, as coal is phased out, energy from waste will become the dirtiest form of electricity production in the UK and that by 2035, incineration will be a more carbon-intensive process than even landfill.

Saturday, March 06, 2021

Did Boris Johnson mislead Parliament over Covid contracts?

As if it were not bad enough that a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) last year, had concluded that Covid contracts worth £18 billion to secure essentials such as PPE equipment in the initial months of the pandemic were plagued by “inadequate” documentation, that a number "were awarded retrospectively or had not been published in a timely manner, and that this had "diminished public transparency", we now have accusations that the Prime Minister has misled Parliament on this very subject.

The NAO also stated that the lack of adequate documentation meant they could not give assurance that government has adequately mitigated the increased risks arising from emergency procurement or applied appropriate commercial practices in all cases.

According to the Independent, the prime minister had claimed that the contracts, which are subject to a legal challenge and cronyism allegations, were “there on the record for everybody to see”, but a final order handed down by the High Court on Friday says the government had in fact only published “608 out of 708 relevant contracts”:

The order, by judge Mr Justice Chamberlain says: “The Defendant has published 608 out of 708 relevant contracts for supplies and services relating to COVID-19 awarded on or before 7 October 2020.

“In some or all of these cases, the Defendant acted unlawfully by failing to publish the contracts within the period set out in the Crown Commercial Service’s Publication of Central Government Tenders and Contracts: Central Government Transparency Guidance Note (November 2017).”

But Mr Johnson had told parliament on 22 February: "All I will say is that the contracts are there on the record for everybody to see.”

Campaigners say the latest document from the court confirms that the prime minister misled MPs even after it was ruled that the government had broken the law.

The Good Law Project, which brought the legal challenge, said in a statement: "Remarkably, the Judge’s Order is based on Government’s own figures – so at the same time as Johnson was falsely reassuring MPs, Government lawyers were preparing a statement contradicting him – revealing 100 contracts and dozens of Contract Award Notices were missing from the public record.

The campaigners added: “Government has not only misled Parliament and placed inaccurate information before the Court, it has misled the country.

“Unless contract details are published they cannot be properly scrutinised – there’s no way of knowing where taxpayers’ money is going and why. Billions have been spent with those linked to the Conservative Party and vast sums wasted on PPE that isn’t fit for purpose.

“We have a Government, and a Prime Minister, contemptuous of transparency and apparently allergic to accountability. The very least that the public deserves now is the truth.”

Time for a parliamentary inquiry.

Friday, March 05, 2021

Government doubles down on killing badgers

Hopes that the UK Government wouold bring to an end the senseless slaughter of badgers in England have been dashed after it was revealed that thousands more of these protected animals face being shot this autumn after a dozen new applications were made for cull licences.

The Mirror reports that Natural England has received “12 licence applications /expressions of interest in respect to 2021 badger control licensing”::

Answering a request for information from a member of the public, it also revealed the controversial scheme could take place in 14 counties this year: Berkshire, Cornwall, Devon, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Herefordshire, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, the West Midlands, Wiltshire and Worcestershire.

If the licences are granted, it would be the first time culling had been authorised in Hampshire and Northamptonshire.

More than 40 existing, four-year licences will continue in 2021 alongside the new licences, if they are granted.

The revelation about new applications dashes the hopes of campaigners who hoped the announcement earlier this year(2021) of a Government plan to phase out culling could curb the annual countryside killings.

Some 140,830 badgers have been culled since 2013 in a bid to curb the spread of tuberculosis in cows.

A total of 38,642 badgers were killed last autumn in the programme.

Born Free Foundation policy adviser Dominic Dyer said: “Despite putting forward proposals for phasing out badger culling in January, the Government is planning a major expansion of badger killing in 2021, including into new counties in Hampshire and Northamptonshire.

“This could result in over 200,000 badgers being killed by the end of 2021 – the largest mass destruction of a protected species on record.

“Killing badgers on this scale could push this vulnerable species to the verge of local extinction in areas of England which it has inhabited since the Ice Age.”

It has already been shown by scientific studies that culling does not stop the spread of BTb, in fact it can spread it to other areas. The sooner the government accepts this and replaces this random killing with better cattle control measures and vaccination the better.

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Tory budget will hit the poorest hardest

Nobody is pretending that the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not have a difficult job yesterday, but the least we could have expected was some sign of the Brexit dividend Boris Johnson has been promising for the last five years. Alas it did not materialise because it has never existed.

The main concern arising from this budget, other than the pork barrel politics of pushing new spending towards Tory held constituencies, was the impact on the low paid and the unemployed. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has warned that the chancellor risks plunging 500,000 people into poverty if the government presses ahead with cutting the £20-per-week universal credit increase in six months’ time.

Their estimates show the plans to end the uplift, which will coincide with the phasing out of the furlough scheme, will see half a million people, including 200,000 children, placed into poverty in the winter. The organisation added in its post-Budget analysis: “The OBR [Office for Budget Responsibility] latest forecasts show that unemployment is expected to increase by a further 500,000 people between now and the peak towards the end of the year.

The budget also saw the end of the Liberal Democrats-led policy, initiated as part the coalition agreement, of raising the personal tax allowance to take millions of low paid workers out of paying income tax. By freezing income tax personal allowance thresholds until 2026, the chancellor will drag 1.3 million low-paid people into paying it as their earnings increase.

As the Independent reports, the Institute for Fiscal Studies described yesterday's event as the biggest tax-raising budget since 1993, increasing the state’s net take by £29bn in 2025-26. The overall tax burden of 35 per cent of GDP will be the highest since Roy Jenkins was chancellor in the 1960s:

And IFS director Paul Johnson said it can be expected to remain high for years, warning: “We are in a new phase of UK economic history. Taxes likely to be at their highest sustained level in history.”

Meanwhile, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) warned that Mr Sunak’s plans make no provision for pandemic spending after 2022.

Indeed, the Treasury’s figures suggest that rapidly falling Covid-19 expenditure will allow a £30bn drop in overall health and social care funding in 2021/22 – something which Labour warned would “increase pressure on staff and do nothing for patients stuck on growing waiting lists”.

So just another Tory budget then.

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Can we treat the Prime Minister as a charity?

The Americanisation of UK politics continues with a scheme being mooted to set up a charity to cover the costs of the refurbishment of Boris Johnson’s flat which he shares with his fiancee Carrie Symonds, much along the lines of the one used by the White House to raise money for interior design and restyling the building, which is bankrolled by private donors.

According to the Guardian, lawyers within Downing Street are trying to establish whether the government can legitimately fund the prime minister’s flat through a charitable vehicle using cash from Tory donors.

Apparently, there are concerns over the spiralling costs of the refurbishment of the flat over No 11 overseen by Johnson’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds. She obvioulsy has expensive tastes.

The paper says that the plan has been challenged by Sir Alistair Graham, a former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, who thinks that establishing a charity to fund the prime minister’s flat may not be legal:

“I’d be surprised if it was within the law to set up a charity and get tax benefits for the home of a public servant.

“To do so there has to be wider public benefits for a group who are in charitable need. I am really not sure if the prime minister and his fiancee would qualify,” he told the Guardian.

Any such arrangement would also raise questions over possible conflicts of interest, offering a potential backdoor way of providing a financial benefit to Johnson, Graham said.

“It would be an outrage, if it was allowed,” he said.

Others have also questioned the legitimacy of the plan:

Andrew Purkis, a board member of the Charity Commission for four years until 2010, said: “For something to be for the public benefit, you would assume there would have to be some sort of public access to whatever the place is that’s being decorated, or sufficient access for it to be seen as something that is of benefit to the public, rather than some narrow section or a particular family.”

Downing Street insiders said that allowing the public access to the building has been ruled out on security grounds.

Caroline Slocock, Margaret Thatcher’s former private secretary, also questioned if any flat refurbishment would be for the public’s benefit, describing it as a “strange move” to set the fund up as a charity.

“It’s for the Charity Commission to decide if it qualifies but it does seem to be for personal benefit rather than public benefit,” she said.

The commission has a standard “test of charity status” which would decide if it is legitimate an organisation with “exclusively charitable purposes for the public benefit”.

“It’s hard for the general public to see the prime minister as an object of charity,” Slocock said, adding that Johnson and Symonds “have the free use of Chequers, which is a very grand house, so they’re already living quite well”.

Commenting on reports the prime minister has privately been complaining he is cash-strapped, she said: “If this becomes a way of increasing his pay through the back door through benefits, that is a concern.”

Time for a rethink I believe.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Tory-linked PR firm gets government contract

Here we go again. The Guardian reports that a PR firm owned by Matthew Freud, who was closely associated with the Conservatives during David Cameron’s time as prime minister, has been awarded a contract to provide “strategic communications”, including “reputation management”, for England’s beleaguered coronavirus test-and-trace system without a tender process.

They say the contract with Freud Communications Limited was for services to be carried out between 1 November last year and 15 January this year but it only came to light after details were published on a government website on 19 February. They appeared on the same day as a high court judge ruled that Matt Hancock acted unlawfully by failing to publish details of multibillion-pound Covid-19 government contracts within the 30-day period required by law, amid allegations of “chumocracy” and lack of transparency in the awarding of contracts during the pandemic:

Although the start date for the £55,000 contract with Freud Communications was 1 November, the government website says it was awarded on 8 February 2021.

Freud, a friend of Cameron and George Osborne, is listed by the Electoral Commission as having made a one-off non-cash donation of £11,000, relating to travel, to the Conservative party in 2008. When married to Elisabeth Murdoch, he was part of the Chipping Norton set.

Gemma Abbott, the legal director of Good Law Project, which brought the high court action against the government, said of the contract: “Another day, another deal awarded with only a handshake and documented later. The fact we are just seeing the details of this arrangement now, months after work began and after the work has already been completed, speaks volumes about this government’s complete disregard for transparency.

“For the sake of good governance and protecting taxpayers’ money, government must get its house in order on procurement.”

The £12bn NHS test-and-trace system, which despite its moniker has been outsourced to private contractors, has been beset by criticism. In October, shortly before the start of the Freud Communications contract, Boris Johnson and his chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, admitted to failings, with the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) describing the success of the supposedly “world-beating” system as “marginal”. Other experts have claimed it is not fit for purpose.

Time for some accountability.

Monday, March 01, 2021

Issues or personalities?

History has shown that political parties divided amongst themselves are punished at the polls, and when that particular party is perceived as being formed around a single issue, then voters will often walk away from previous support on that matter as well.

According to the Independent, a Survation survey of 1,000 Scots for the Sunday Mail found that support for Scottish independence has fallen, losing a lead built in the past nine months that bolstered the confidence of supporters heading into May’s Holyrood elections.

They add that, when undecided voters are removed, support evens out at 50 per cent for both sides. When undecided voters are included, however, the Yes supporting side loses its lead by 44 per cent to 43 per cent, with 13 per cent of people saying they do not yet know how they would vote:

The news comes as the past few days have been dominated by the evidence of former first minister Alex Salmond before the Scottish Parliament Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints.

Mr Salmond has previously accused some in the highest echelons of the SNP of engaging in a “malicious and concerted” effort to exclude him from public life, claims he repeated during a six-hour committee appearance.~

Fieldwork for the poll was conducted on Thursday, the day before Mr Salmond appeared before the inquiry, but 39 per cent of those asked, according to the Sunday Mail, said they believe there to have been some sort of “cover up” in the Scottish government’s handling of harassment complaints against the former first minister.

Some 50 per cent said Ms Sturgeon should resign if she is found to have broken the ministerial code in a separate inquiry led by James Hamilton QC, an independent adviser on the code.

In this case it is possible not just that support for the SNP and independence is synonymous with each other, but also that the controversy over Alex Salmond has undermined confidence in the ability of Scotland to govern itself. How the affair will pan out during May's elections has yet to be seen.

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