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Monday, May 17, 2021

UK Labour shortage looms

The Guardian reports that Britain’s employers are struggling to hire staff as lockdown lifts amid an exodus of overseas workers caused by the Covid pandemic and Brexit:

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and the recruitment firm Adecco, employers plan to hire at the fastest rate in eight years, led by the reopening of the hospitality and retail sectors as pandemic restrictions are relaxed in England and Wales on Monday.

However, in a sign of growing pressures in the jobs market amid rapid growth in consumer spending, the professional body for HR and people development said there had been a sharp decline in the numbers of EU workers, fuelling the risk of labour shortages.

Separate figures from Adzuna showed rapid growth in hiring, with almost 1m vacancies listed on the jobs website, up 18% on six weeks ago amid a rise in jobs in hotels, restaurants and in the events and leisure sector. But it warned there had been a steep decline in overseas jobseeker interest.

The jobs website, which is tracked by government officials for early warning signs from the labour market, found the number of overseas job searches from western Europe and North America had halved – a decline of about 250,000 – since February 2020, just before Covid-19 spread to the UK.

It said the decline was being led in particular by overseas interest in typically lower-paid service-led sectors, while some towns and cities have up to 20 jobs on offer per jobseeker. According to the research, Maidstone in Kent is the hardest place to hire, followed by Manchester, Cambridge and Oxford.

The problems with COVID are of course not the fault of the government, but going ahead with Brexit in the middle of a pandemic and against all the warnings not to is their responsibility. These are the consequences.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Another day, another Tory lobbying controversy

The Guardian reports that Home Secretary, Priti Patel has been accused of a “flagrant breach” of the ministerial code by allegedly lobbying Michael Gove over a £20m deal.

The paper refers to documents that show Patel attempted to secure a personal protective equipment (PPE) deal for the healthcare firm Pharmaceuticals Direct Ltd (PDL) in May 2020. Her efforts failed after the health secretary, Matt Hancock, said the masks were “not suitable for the NHS”, according to disclosure in a legal case. But PDL was awarded a £102.7m contract weeks later in July to provide a different type of mask. On both occasions, Samir Jassal was Patel’s contact at PDL.

They add that Jassal has stood as a Conservative candidate at two general elections and has met Boris Johnson and David Cameron:

Disclosure from the government – in response to a pre-action letter from the Good Law Project campaign group – revealed a letter Patel wrote to Gove in May last year. The Daily Mail, which first reported on the documents, said the possible deal was worth £20m.

In the letter, Patel expressed disappointment that the government no longer required supplies of KN95 masks from PDL, saying “they have committed stock and secured supply, exposing them to considerable financial risk and pressures”.

“The late stage in which the government has decided not to use them has caused these problems,” the home secretary wrote on 3 May last year.

She went on to say she would be “most grateful” if Hancock could review the matter urgently and urged him to “work with the company to distribute and supply these masks”.

Hancock wrote back 10 days later to say that “KN95 face masks are Chinese standards” and that UK officials have concluded that they are “not suitable for use in the NHS”.

We can only hope that the public inquiry into the government's handling of Covid includes a special section on procurement and its transparency.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Is Johnson a teflon Prime Minister?

I am starting to lose count of the potential scandals that are currently circling the Prime Minister and his party. There has been the controversy over Tory donors winning massive contracts for PPE, issues around preferential lobbying, inquiries into who paid to refurbish the Downing Street flat, a County Court Judgement being issued against Boris Johnson for an outstanding debt, and now questions as to whether a holiday in Mustique costing between £15.000 and £30,000 was properly declared as a gift in kind. 

Despite all of this Johnson appears to be as popular as ever and according to the last poll, the Tories are 15 points ahead in public support.

The Independent reports that the Parliament’s standards watchdog is said to believe Boris Johnson’s holiday to Mustique was worth more than double the £15,000 he declared in the Commons register. Kathryn Stone, the commissioner for standards, has also said the bill had not been met by Tory donor David Ross as the prime minister has insisted:

The revelation will heap further pressure on Mr Johnson as he faces various investigations into whether he properly declared any donations to cover the lavish refurbishments of his official flat.

Downing Street insisted the PM “transparently declared the benefit in kind” of the luxury Caribbean holiday, and noted that Mr Ross confirmed the declaration is “correct”.

The parliamentary commissioner for standards confirmed this week she is still investigating whether Mr Johnson properly declared the holiday on the private island 16 months ago

In the Register of Members’ Interests, the prime minister declared the trip with fiancee Carrie Symonds as a “benefit in kind” from the Carphone Warehouse founder who has a villa on the island. But the Daily Mail reported that Ms Stone believes the break was worth more than twice the declared £15,000.

Mr Johnson was said to have refused to accept the ruling and is trying to have it overturned to avoid the risk of being suspended as an MP.

A Downing Street spokesperson said: “The PM transparently declared the benefit in kind in the Commons Register of Interests. The Cabinet Office was aware of the declaration and was content it was appropriate.

“A spokesman for Mr Ross confirmed the PM’s declaration is correct and the accommodation was facilitated as a donation in kind.”

What is it exactly about Boris Johnson that sets him apart from other politicians and appears to make him untouchable when it comes to accusations that would be career-ending for anybody else? Will these latest accusations be the ones that finally do for his stint as Prime Minister? We can only wait and see.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Hostile environment or police state?

The more I read about the so-called 'hostile environment' being imposed by this conservative government, the more disturbed and uncomfortable I become. I do not want to be associated with these policies, which are more akin to a police state than the democratic country I grew up in.

In its latest incarnation the 'hostile environment' is now targeting European citizens arriving in the UK for job interviews and other legitimate business reasons. The Guardian reports that Europeans with job interviews are among those being denied entry and locked up, in some cases they are being sent to immigration removal centres and held in airport detention rooms.

Victims have spoken of being subjected to the traumatic and humiliating experience of expulsion, despite Home Office rules that explicitly allow non-visa holders to attend interviews. The paper says that confusion about whether EU citizens can explore the UK job market and then go home with an offer in order to apply for a work visa has added to the growing number of detentions. In other cases, visitors are clearly breaking rules, such as those now barring EU citizens from taking up unpaid internships:

At least a dozen European citizens – mostly young women – were detained and expelled at Gatwick airport alone over 48 hours last week, two female Spanish detainees told the Guardian. Some were sent two hours’ drive away to Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire, where a Covid scare meant they were confined to their rooms.

Other countries whose citizens have been held at a UK airport or detention centre include Italy, France, Bulgaria and Greece. It is understood one French man was held at Edinburgh airport for 48 hours recently, while the Bulgarian ambassador to the UK confirmed a number of his nationals had been held at immigration removal centres.

The two Spanish women were detained at Gatwick on 2 and 3 May after arriving on separate flights from Valencia and Bilbao.

María, 25, from Valencia, said that like many of those detained, she thought she was free to explore the job market at least until October, especially since she had lived and worked in the UK before. María said that when Border Force officials at Gatwick said they would expel her, she offered to pay for a flight home the same day. Instead, she was sent to Yarl’s Wood, where she spent three anxious days. “I’m still in shock,” she said.

When the Guardian first spoke to María on Friday she was at Yarl’s Wood and scared that she had been exposed to Covid. Later that day she was released and ordered to quarantine at her sister’s home in Bexleyheath, in south-east London, until 17 May. Border Force officials kept her passport.

“So much time is being wasted,” she said. “The worst thing was that no one at Yarl’s Wood could tell me what was going to happen. My freedom had been taken away and I couldn’t get legal advice.”

Eugenia, a 24-year-old woman from the Basque region of northern Spain, reached Gatwick on Sunday 2 May on a flight from Bilbao. She planned to look for a job offer, go home to apply for a visa and then return to live with her Spanish boyfriend, an NHS worker who has been in the UK for four years. “I had a return ticket and had filled out an online travel form in which I explained all that,” she said.

At Gatwick, Eugenia had her mobile phone taken away and was locked in a holding room for 24 hours, sleeping on a fold-out bed with half a dozen others. Then she was put on a flight to Barcelona along with another Spanish woman who had arrived for a job interview.

Between them, María and Eugenia (who asked that their real names not be used) said they met a dozen other European citizens detained for similar reasons, accounting for half of the people in Gatwick’s detention rooms. They included two Spaniards with job interviews, a French woman with an internship and a Czech woman who had flown in from Mexico and was being sent back there.

“The Czech girl was desperate,” said Eugenia, who spent part of her 24 hours locked up in tears. “Like me, she knew we couldn’t start work immediately, but understood that you could look for jobs and come back to the UK later after obtaining a visa. When she offered to pay for a flight back to Prague, they said no – that they were expelling her to Mexico.”

Other travellers with Italian, Portuguese and eastern European passports were also being expelled.

Araniya Kogulathas, a barrister with the NGO Bail for Immigration Detainees, sums it up when she says EU citizens were experiencing Britain’s hostile environment for immigration:

“The Home Office need to explain why exploring the job market or attending an interview justifies refusing EEA nationals entry at the border when immigration rules specifically allow visitors to – among other things – attend meetings, conferences and interviews,” she said. “It seems to be detaining people despite being unclear of its own position. This is yet another illustration of the normalisation of immigration detention in the UK and the Home Office’s disdain for the right to liberty.”

Detainees complained that they were not informed of their right to seek legal assistance. María only learned about the Yarl’s Wood Covid scare from her sister, who was barred from visiting because of it. The Home Office denied there had been an “outbreak”.

There is some hope for the country though as the Guardian reports elsewhere that two men detained by UK Immigration Enforcement were released back into their community after a day of protest in Glasgow. This is not typical however. Maybe if Europe retaliates and treats UK citizens visiting the EU in the same way the Home Secretary will see the error of her ways. I am not holding my breath.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Councils may have to issue 3.5 million ID cards

An illustration of the impact of proposed UK voter suppression measures is provided in yesterday's Guardian, where it is reported that local authorities could have to issue up to 3.5 million identity cards as part of plans for mandatory voter ID, prompting warnings over potential high costs and disruption for councils.

The government has estimated that only 2 million cards will need to be issued but experience in Northern Ireland indicates that this is an underestimate. They introduced mandatory voter ID in 1985 after sectarian-based attempts to rig elections through multiple votes. When a photo requirement was introduced in 2003, as well as being allowed to use a wide range of existing documents, people could apply for an electoral identity card:

In the first two years of the scheme, about 97,000 cards were issued, with an average of more than 19,000 a year since. Extrapolated to the population of the rest of the UK, this could mean close to 3.5m voter cards being requested at the start of the scheme and almost 700,000 a year after that.

Stuart Wilks-Heeg, an expert on election processes at the University of Liverpool who carried out the analysis, said it would “represent a huge challenge”, particularly as the work would be carried out by under-resourced local election teams.

He said: “The government needs to be clear about how the issuing of such cards will be funded and how common standards of service will be guaranteed for electors across the country.”

The Cabinet Office, which is responsible for elections, notes that the Northern Ireland cards can be used for proof of age and other purposes, whereas the GB ones will not, which will mean demand for them will be lower. It says central government will cover the costs of the scheme, but has not yet said how.

Labour and Conservative council leaders have told the Guardian they have received no information yet on how the voter card scheme will work, or who would pay for it. One Labour leader said: “It’s another case of the government just doing things to us.”

The fact is that many people will not bother applying for these cards, meaning even lower turnouts than at present. There has been no indication who will pick up the tab for the higher administrative and clerical costs that will be incurred by councils, while no thought appears to have been given to the well-being and safety of polling station staff who are likely to end up turning voters away.

This is a solution looking for a problem and so far the only apparent beneficiaries are the Tory Party.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Another broken promise by Boris Johnson

Well, I suppose nobody really expected the Prime Minister to deliver on his election promises, but the latest one missing in action is actually quite important and was a key part of the reassurances behind Boris Johnson's Brexit deal.

The Guardian reports that Boris Johnson has been accused of backtracking on a promise to boost workers’ rights after leaving out landmark reforms to zero-hours contracts and the gig economy from the Queen’s speech:

Employers’ groups and trade unions said the prime minister risked “levelling down on jobs” after the setpiece event used to open parliament did not include proposals for an employment bill among his government’s priorities.

First pledged in December 2019, the bill was supposed to be the government’s main vehicle for raising workplace protections after Brexit while also acting to safeguard gig economy workers from abusive employers and exploitative contracts.

Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, said the government was rowing back from its commitments at a pivotal moment for workers.

“This pandemic has brutally exposed the terrible working conditions and insecurity many of our key workers in retail, care, and delivery face,” she said. “We need action now to deal with the scourge of insecure work – not more dithering and delay."

Warren Kenny, the acting general secretary of the GMB union, said workers had been “fobbed off repeatedly” by ministers promising to boost employment protections, leaving bosses free to use underhand tactics with impunity.

“Warm words on workers’ rights are betrayed by this government’s abject lack of leadership. This is an historic missed opportunity at a time when unscrupulous employers are exploiting the pandemic to attack good quality jobs,” he said.

The Guardian reported earlier this year that the bill could be delayed until at least the autumn or early 2022 amid concern that ideological opposition within the Conservative party around employment rights was standing in the way of progress.

The fact that many of us expected this particular promise to be broken does not undermine the significance of the decision. Workers rights were a key part of the compact we had with the EU and promises to protect them persuaded many people to vote for Brexit. Those voters have now been sold down the river.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Minister admits there is no evidence to support voting ID

Plans by the government to suppress voter turnout by forcing electors to bring ID to the polling station are based on just six cases of ballot fraud at the last election, a government minister has admitted.

The Independent reports that today's Queen’s Speech will include a Bill to introduce the requirement at polling stations – despite warnings that large numbers of poorer and ethnic minority voters will be turned away:

Quizzed on that criticism – and on the tiny number of fraud cases at the last election – Mr Hancock replied: “Well, I think that’s six cases too many.”

On Sky News, the health secretary was warned that 47 per cent of black people do not have a driver’s licence, compared with only 26 per cent of white people.

“There is a real danger, isn’t there, that you could ultimately prevent key constituents in society from having their say?” he was asked.

But Mr Hancock said: “No know it’s about fairness, it’s about making sure that when people do something as important as voting, then they are who they say they are.

“We piloted this, we’ve looked at it in great detail, we are committed to making it happen – and I think people across this country want to know for sure that elections are fair.”

The civil rights group Liberty has condemned the shake-up, expected to kick-in before the next general election in either 2023 or 2024.

“Our current voting system is safe and secure,” said head of policy Sam Grant. “It feels like an opportunistic attack on the rights of some of the most marginalised people in society.”

Trials in 2019 suggested many tens of thousands of people could be turned away from polling stations because they don’t have the ID required.

The Electoral Commission warned young people, people from ethnic minorities, women and the elderly were most likely to be penalised.

Here is an example of evidence-free legislation designed to serve the interests of the Tory Party.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Government to introduce ID cards by the back door

American-style voter suppression is alive and well and about to come to the UK, at least that is what is now being proposed to appear in the Queen's Speech tomorrow, as the Tories are poised to insist that Britons will have to show photo ID to vote in future general elections.

This proposal is being mooted in the absence of any evidence of electoral fraud in the UK, in 2019 there was just one conviction and one police caution for impersonating another voter. That does not seem to deter Ministers, especially as a major consequence of this 'reform' is likely to be deterring poorer and ethnic minority voters from taking part in our democracy, a group of individuals that rarely support the Conservatives anyway.

But what if you do not have any ID? About a quarter of voters – often younger voters – do not have either a passport or driving licence. According to the Guardian,the government plans to overcome this by allowing people to apply for a voting ID card from their local council, although this would have to be done before polling day - so cheap ID cards by the back door, without the expensive database and all the paraphanalia that goes with them. Early trials in some areas led to hundreds of voters being turned away.

The paper points out that American civil rights groups have already warned Britons that such measures are often used to disfranchise voters who do not have the required paperwork. The changes would affect UK-wide and English elections, while voters in Northern Ireland are already required to show identification before voting.

It is only a matter of time before stop and search regimes will be stepped up for certain groups, requiring them to produce these ID cards.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

The sound of the silent majority

In the Guardian letters page a reader argues that the 42,000 electors who did not vote in Hartlepool have secured a massive win for the silent majority.

It seems to me they have only won their own silence. Those who did participate had their say on who represents their area and on the governance of the country.

Saturday, May 08, 2021

Are the 'woke social media warriors' running Starmer's Labour

I can't quite motivate myself to comment on Thursday's elections just yet, but the one trend that is clear is that voters lined up in their thousands to endorse the current governments, in what ever country they lived, and the way that the pandemic has been handled, thus accounting for the good results for the Tories in England, the SNP in Scotland and Labour in Wales. It was slightly more complicated than that of course, but in the face of countless lockdowns and restrictions on individual liberties most voters appeared to feel that we are beginning to move on and expressed their appreciation for the vaccine programme that has put us in that position.

The corollary of all that of course is worse than expected outcomes for the opposition, who might have otherwise expected to have capitalised on a mid-term Tory Government mired in allegations of sleaze. That was highlighted in particular in the Tories gaining Hartlepool, a Labour stronghold, defying all previous history and precedent to do so.

Of course not every Labour MP and Plaid Cymru MS will see it that way. One in particular has already quit the Labour frontbench in protest. The Independent reports that Labour MP Khalid Mahmood has resigned, warning that the party has been taken over by “a London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors”:

The Birmingham Perry Barr MP announced his decision in the wake of the party’s crushing defeat in the former safe seat of Hartlepool, and made clear that he expected Labour also to lose the election for West Midlands mayor.

Labour sources said he had left the frontbench some weeks ago, but no announcement was made at the time.

In an article for the Policy Exchange think tank, Mr Mahmood said that Labour had moved away from working-class voters’ priorities under the leaderships of not only Starmer, but also Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband.

“In the past decade, Labour has lost touch with ordinary British people,” he said.

“A London-based bourgeoisie, with the support of brigades of woke social media warriors, has effectively captured the party.

“They mean well, of course, but their politics – obsessed with identity, division and even tech utopianism – have more in common with those of Californian high society than the kind of people who voted in Hartlepool yesterday.

“The loudest voices in the Labour movement over the past year in particular have focused more on pulling down Churchill’s statue than they have on helping people pull themselves up in the world.

“No wonder it is doing better among rich urban liberals and young university graduates than it is amongst the most important part of its traditional electoral coalition, the working class.”

Mr Mahmood quoted Peter Mandelson’s account of a former Labour voter who told him on a Hartlepool doorstep: “Sort yourselves out. You picked the wrong brother and you ended up with Corbyn so that’s goodbye to you. When you’ve sorted yourselves out, we’ll look at you again.”

And he said: “It would be easy for Labour MPs and members to whinge about the unfairness of this summary of the past decade.

“But we must recognise that is how we are seen by so many people in the places that were once unfailingly loyal to us – as a party that has lost its way.

“It is only by engagement on a local level, meeting eye to eye with voters and hearing their concerns, that we will fix that. I will be doing so not from the Labour front bench, but walking the streets of my constituency as a backbencher and talking face to face with the people I have the honour to serve.”

Mr Mahmood warned that “superficial flag-waving” by the party leader would not convince voters that the Labour Party shares their sense of patriotism.

“They are more alert to rebranding exercises than spin doctors give them credit for,” he warned. “Their patriotism is about historic pride in their places, the heritage and stories of those places, and the Britishness and Englishness of the people and families that call them home.”

And he said voters’ priorities were job security, a bright future for their children and grandchildren, a well-functioning NHS, and investment in infrastructure and transport.

“There is a need for humility, to begin with,” he said.

“If Labour is to win back seats like Hartlepool it will have to change the minds of people who yesterday chose to vote Conservative.

“Is there a danger that our party, in its opposition and confusion over Brexit, has veered towards an anti-British attitude? I certainly worry that some of our previous supporters will see it that way.”

Mr Mahmood certainly has a point, and it's not my place to argue with his analysis, but whether his dissatisfaction leads to a wider meltdown within the Labour Party has yet to be seen.

Friday, May 07, 2021

Home Secretary criticised over changes in asylum seeker policy

As the results of yesterday'z elections start to emerge over the course of the next 72 hours, it is already clear that votes that had previously gone to small racist parties on the right are now switching to Boris Johnson's Conservatives. There is nothing to indicate that the Tories are uncomfortable with that trend, indeed it seems tha in their policies on immigration and asylum they are actively courting these voters.

There is a good example of this in the Guardian, who report that a high court judge has criticised the British home secretary in court and said he found it “extremely troubling” after one of her officials admitted the Home Office might have acted unlawfully in changing its asylum accommodation policy during the pandemic.

The paper says Mr Justice Garnham raised concerns in court on Thursday that the home secretary, Priti Patel, could have been distributing public funds without legal authority:

He was hearing four linked cases from asylum seekers challenging the lawfulness of the home secretary’s policy to evict some refused asylum seekers during the pandemic. During the hearing the Home Office was accused of unlawfully altering parts of the accommodation policy.

In a witness statement to the court the Home Office official said: “At the time we did not consider what power, or whether we had the power, to implement what we saw as administrative changes. This was a response to the urgency of events and the immediate concern about keeping people in the same accommodation.”

Garnham said: “The secretary of state is saying that she was acting without lawful authority. It seems to me a most serious submission to be making in court, if that is what she is saying.”

He added that it was “extremely troubling” if correct that the home secretary was acknowledging “that she was acting without power when she set up this system for distribution of public funds she did so without legal authority”.

The judge said that the position the home secretary had put the court in was “extraordinary” and that the way she has acted was “a singularly serious position for her to find herself in” and “unfortunate in the extreme”.

The judge added: “The circumstances in which a department of state acts without clear knowledge of its powers to act, it raises issues of genuine significance.”

The legal challenge to the evictions – which had been paused for almost a year due to the pandemic – focuses on the public health risks attached to evicting asylum seekers who are likely to end up rough sleeping or sofa surfing during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It emerged last month that the Home Office was planning to resume the evictions process “with immediate effect”.

The court heard that Public Health England’s view was that it could not advise that anyone “should be enabled to become homeless from a public health perspective” during the pandemic.

The judge agreed to adjourn Thursday’s hearing to give the Home Office time to identify the legal basis for its policy. He made an order halting the evictions until the case had concluded. It is scheduled to resume on 27 and 28 May.

An apology has been issued to the judge by the home secretary. Her counsel, Alan Payne QC, apologised to the judge for the situation the Home Office put the court in “as well as passing on the apology of my client” (Patel).

As the solicitors representing the claimants say: “The home secretary has been trying to evict thousands of migrants during the pandemic despite the risks to the communities they live in from doing so. She has been unable to properly defend these claims in court today, despite being told in clear and strong terms by a high court judge on 23 April 2021 to do so.”

An apology is not enough, there needs to be a more humane approach from the Home Office.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Call for more transparency on Covid contracts

The Guardian reports that the government has been urged to publish details of up to £2bn in Covid-19 contracts awarded to private healthcare companies, including some that have helped fund the Conservative party.

They say contracts to provide extra capacity during the pandemic have been handed to 17 firms since March 2020, leading to the Good Law Project, which has repeatedly raised concerns about cronyism and opacity in public procurement, to comment that a lack of transparency about the terms of the contracts is concerning:

The government has not published full details about the contracts, while data on how much the NHS has spent on them is also yet to be released.

The first of two groups of contracts, running from March to December 2020, had 26 firms initially enlisted to provide extra capacity, to a value of £1.6bn.

The government said it did not pay for beds and staff that were not needed, adding that in the end only 17 firms provided services, at cost price.

Accounts for Practice Plus Group, which won £76.3m of work under the contract, raise questions about this assertion. They state that it worked on a “cost plus” basis, using a “cost plus pricing formula”,

The company declined to comment, and referred queries to its trade association, the Independent Healthcare Provider Network.

Accounts for Ramsay Health Care, which won work worth up to £271.1m from March to December 2020, say it worked at cost price plus an extra 8.6% in infrastructure costs. The company said it did not profit from the contract and had made losses during the pandemic.

A second set of contracts for January to March 2021, as peaking case numbers placed huge strain on the NHS, was worth up to £474m. Unlike the first set of contracts, these included minimum payments for making capacity available, as well as for services that were actually used.

Jo Maugham, the director of the Good Law Project, said: “Billions of pounds of public money has been handed to private healthcare firms with hardly any transparency – many of which happen to have links to the Conservative party.

“No one would fault government for doing what was necessary to increase capacity to ensure people could still get the care they needed at the height of the pandemic, so what it is that government has got to lose from publishing these contract details?”

While there is no suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of the companies, Maugham stressed the importance of transparency, particularly given that many of them, or their directors, had either donated money to the Conservatives in the past or worked in the government.

This is the sort of transparency that is essential in a democracy.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Are the government failing on social care again?

After the trauma of the last year under the pandemic one would have thought that the UK government might show some signs of valuing the health and social care workers who have helped us get through it. 

However, that sort of gratitude appears to be beyond them. First they decide that health workers are worth no more than a one per cent pay rise and now it seems that they have now postponed much needed reform of the social care sector.

The Independent reports that charities and campaign groups have reacted angrily to news ministers are expected to delay an announcement on plans to fix the broken social care system until after next week’s Queen’s Speech:

Caroline Abrahams, the director of Age UK and co-chair of the Care and Support Alliance (CSA), accused ministers of “putting up with a grossly underfunded apology for a system that went past its sell-by date years ago”.

Others warned the government would “fail” millions of families if they delayed.

When Boris Johnson entered Downing Street, he promised to “fix the crisis in social care once and for all”.

Last month he said it was “highly likely” that his plan would be in the Queen’s Speech on 11 May.

But yesterday Downing Street would only say ministers would set out their plans shortly, fuelling expectations there will be no social care bill in the government’s programme for the coming year when it is set out by the Queen on Tuesday.

The 2019 Conservative manifesto pledged to seek cross-party consensus to reform how people pay for adult social care.

The party also promised that a prerequisite for any new scheme would be that “no one needing care has to sell their home to pay for it”.

But there are thought to be concerns over how much a new system would cost, especially after the government spent billions battling the coronavirus crisis.

Everybody knows that the social care system is underfunded, that those working in it are underpaid and that it is struggling to cope with the demands on it. Politicians have been failing to get to grips with this for decades, and yet here we are again.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Call for Covid 19 fines in England to be reviewed

I missed this when it came out last week, but this article in the Guardian from 27th April is well-worth a look.

The paper reports on the conclusions of the joint committee on human rights that all 85,000-plus Covid fines issued in England during the pandemic should be reviewed, after more than a quarter of prosecutions in the first two months of the year for breaching the regulations were shown to have been wrongly brought.

The joint committee believe the coronavirus regulations, which have been changed at least 65 times since March last year, were muddled, discriminatory and unfair:

As well as a review of all fixed penalty notices (FPNs), its members suggest no criminal record should result from Covid FPNs, the income of those hit with big fines – the maximum is £10,000 – should be assessed, and there should be a mechanism to challenge future fines.

Harriet Harman, the chair of the cross-party committee, said: “Swift action to make restrictions effective is essential in the face of this terrible virus. But the government needs to ensure that rules are clear, enforcement is fair and that mistakes in the system can be rectified. None of that is the case in respect of Covid-19 fixed penalty notices.

“This means we’ve got an unfair system with clear evidence that young people, those from certain ethnic minority backgrounds, men and the most socially deprived are most at risk. Whether people feel the FPN is deserved or not, those who can afford it are likely to pay a penalty to avoid criminality. Those who can’t afford to pay face a criminal record along with all the resulting consequences for their future development. The whole process disproportionately hits the less well-off and criminalises the poor over the better-off.”

She acknowledged that the police have a difficult job but noted that “since January there have been greater numbers of FPNs as police move more quickly to enforcement action, and because of a lack of legal clarity, likely greater numbers of incorrectly issued FPNs”.

Out of 325 cases reviewed by the Crown Prosecution Service in the first two months of the year, which were brought under the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations and reached open court, 86 (26%) were found to have been incorrectly charged, the committee found in a report. But this is likely to have underestimated the scale of the problem, as many people are likely to have been put off challenging an FPN in court because of the risk of a criminal conviction. The committee says people should instead be able to challenge fines by way of administrative review or appeal.

The number of FPNs issued by the police was at its highest during the January to March 2021 lockdown period, the report states. It says the government should commission analysis of who FPNs have been issued to because they have “disproportionately penalised some groups over others”.

Large fixed penalties awarded irrespective of the individual’s circumstances “risk being inherently unjust” and the current system “criminalises the poor over the wealthy”, the committee members warn.

They say there should a graduated approach to FPN amounts and people should not face a criminal record for non-payment, questioning “why a breach of the coronavirus regulations would be relevant to someone’s future employment prospects or ability to travel to certain countries”.

The committee also says it is “astonishing” that every single criminal charge brought under the Coronavirus Act has been found to have been brought incorrectly. Unlike the regularly updated and amended regulations, the act has not changed since March last year, moving the members to say: “There is no reason for such mistakes to continue.”

Clearly this area of law is a mess and needs to be reviewed urgently.

Monday, May 03, 2021

Johnson's overseas aid cuts hitting the world's poorest children

The Independent reports on a warning by the United Nations children’s agency that the UK’s massive overseas aid cuts, will lead to the world’s poorest youngsters suffering the consequences.

They say that funding to Unicef will be slashed from £40m to just £16m. This is just the latest in a series of dramatic spending reductions on key projects that have sparked criticism around the world.

“We were hoping that these cuts would not fall on the shoulders of the world’s children,” said Joanna Rea, director of advocacy for Unicef in the UK.

“There is never a good time to cut support for children but doing so in the middle of a pandemic makes it much harder for children around the world,” she told Sky News.

The agency is “very worried” about expected further cuts to UK funding on specific areas such as access to water, sanitation and hygiene and education, Ms Rae said.

In an official statement, Unicef added: “We worry that children living in some of the world’s worst crises and conflicts will suffer the consequences.”

The criticism came as it emerged that vital coronavirus research, including a project tracking variants in India, has seen its funding reduced by up to 70 per cent.

Oliver Pybus, a professor of infectious disease at the University of Oxford, described the impact of that cut as “devastating”.

Among other cuts that have now been revealed – after being “hidden” from MPs – are:

* Humanitarian aid to war-torn Yemen – by 60 per cent from £197m to £87m

* Polio eradication – funding for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative down from £100m to just £5m

* Girls’ education funding – by 40 per cent compared with previous four years

* Sexual health programmes – the UN agency supplying contraceptives and medicines says it has lost 85 per cent of UK funding

* Malaria treatments – including a cut to research funding at Imperial College London

* Water and sanitation – funding for water, sanitation and hygiene projects expected to fall by more than 80 per cent

No wonder the government is doing its best to prevent a debate in the House of Commons on this illegal cut in overseas aid.

Sunday, May 02, 2021

Is the Prime Minister really a pauper?

When it was decided in 1911 to start paying MPs, it was done partly to keep the Labour Party onboard as part of a left-leaning Liberal government, but also to ensure that ordinary men and women could take up positions in Parliament. 

 There is an interesting history of payment for MPs here, including the fact that MPs had been paid in medieval and Tudor times with Dunwich in 1463 paying one of its MPs in herrings. The blog says that serving in Parliament was perceived as an inconvenience needing recompense, but as the prestige of being an MP grew, so payment became purposeless:

The main reason advanced for introducing payment was, as Thomas Attwood said in 1839, to have ‘that class of men introduced into the House, men of that station and character which would enable them to be competent representatives of the wants and wishes of the Commons of England.’ This concern grew as the franchise expanded after 1867. In 1870 Peter Taylor, Liberal MP for Leicester, proposed restoring the payment of MPs. Alongside the importance of helping working men into Parliament, he emphasised the historical precedent of payment; its near universality in other countries’ legislatures; how it would put MPs on a par with other professions and with ministers who were already paid. These arguments remained the staple justifications through a series of debates up to 1911.


Further enfranchisement in 1884 seemingly reconciled Gladstone to payment, which he cautiously endorsed in 1888. The issue became decidedly partisan, predominantly supported by Liberal MPs (as official government policy from 1893), and opposed by Conservatives. Meanwhile Irish Home Rule MPs were provided with basic salaries by their supporters. Trade unions replicated this by subsidising MPs in the 1890s and 1900s, culminating in the Labour Representation Committee begun in 1904. To opponents this showed that compulsory payment was unnecessary; to supporters it exposed the underlying unfairness of non-payment. As today, supporters argued that the increased workload for MPs, thanks to increased legislation and greater interaction with constituents’ necessitated reform.

In line with other Parliamentary reforms it was party politics which settled the matter. The Osborne Judgment, a judicial ruling which banned political contributions by trade unions, infuriated the Labour party. The Liberal government of Asquith, lacking a Parliamentary majority after 1910, decided to placate Labour anger by introducing the payment of members in 1911 (ministers had hitherto pleaded lack of money to avoid reform). Yet reform was instituted cautiously. MPs would only be paid only £400. Lloyd George argued this was equal to a junior clerk in the civil service. He even called the payment ‘not even a salary. It is just an allowance’. The difficulty that distinction poses is still being grappled with over a century later.

This of course brings us to the present day and this article in the Times, where astonishingly it is reported that the British Prime Minister, who is on £157,372 a year, cannot afford to live on his ministerial salary:

Johnson has told friends that he needs to earn about £300,000 a year — twice his salary — to keep his head above water. A former No 10 insider said it was “received wisdom” that he is permanently broke.

Johnson’s salary puts him close to the top 1 per cent of UK earners. Yet he makes less than Angela Merkel’s £267,000 or Joe Biden’s £290,000. Luxembourg, with a population roughly equivalent to that of Sheffield, pays its prime minister £200,000.

The income tax and national insurance bill on Johnson’s salary amounts to about £63,000, which would leave him with about £95,000 a year. But his salary is topped up with royalties for his books, which have amounted to about £25,000 since he became prime minister.

In addition, he has received £28,000 in personal gifts and donations in that time, according to his register of interests. That includes a £15,000 trip to Mustique in December 2019, courtesy of the Carphone Warehouse co-founder David Ross, which is the subject of an inquiry by Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary commissioner for standards.

However, there are other costs associated with the role of prime minister. While he and his family can live rent-free in the No 11 Downing Street flat, he must pay a tax liability for heating, lighting and maintenance, which comes to about £7,000 a year. He also pays a council tax bill of £1,655 a year. Johnson covers the cost of any food and drink for personal consumption, even if it comes from the Downing Street kitchens.

As a “protected person”, he receives taxpayer-funded travel, and can stay free at Chequers, the prime minister’s official country residence in Buckinghamshire. However, whenever Johnson or Symonds entertain guests at the house who are not on official visits, Johnson must pay for their food and drinks, which a guest once estimated to cost £75 per head.

These are hardly poverty-levels, nor has it caused much difficulty for others. And yet for some reason Boris Johnson has to be the exception:

Senior Conservatives say donors have been approached about funding other aspects of the couple’s lifestyle. A prominent MP received a complaint from a Tory donor that they were asked to foot the bill for a nanny for Wilfred, Johnson’s son with Symonds, who turned one last week. The donor is alleged to have said: “I don’t mind paying for leaflets but I resent being asked to pay to literally wipe the prime minister’s baby’s bottom.”

It has also been claimed that Elliot paid for Johnson’s personal trainer, Harry Jameson, who charges £165 an hour. Elliot is also alleged to have paid for a personal chef for the prime minister after he was hospitalised with the coronavirus last year. Elliot denies both claims.

No 10 says Johnson has paid the cost of Wilfred’s childcare and his own personal trainer, but did not respond to queries about whether he paid the original bill or reimbursed someone else. A full-time nanny or nursery in London is likely to cost at least £2,000 a month.

Friends say Johnson rarely spends money on himself and is often careless with his financial affairs. “He was often the sort of person who would forget to pay at the end of a meal or would leave lots of money on the table and then forget to pick up the change,” said one former aide. He once left a tip for a hairdresser in euros not pounds, to her dismay. Johnson’s one indulgence is a pair of Church’s shoes, which can cost £750. However, they were often full of holes, according to friends, because he used them to brake as he rode around London on his bike.

“He gives a lot of control over his affairs to staff in his office, including his tax return, which is why it sometimes blows up in his face,” the former aide said.

Johnson has been reprimanded in the past for failing to register financial interests in parliament as required. The concern in No 10 is that the commissioner for standards, who is considering whether to investigate the redecoration of the flat, in addition to the inquiry into the Mustique holiday, could recommend that he is suspended from the Commons.

He also faces an inquiry by the Electoral Commission, which says there are “reasonable grounds to suspect” the party’s payment for the flat may have broken the law. Some MPs and old friends of Johnson blame Symonds — whom they call “Carrie Antoinette” — for the excessive spending on the flat, saying Johnson has little regard for opulent furnishings or clothing. “Boris didn’t really know anything about it until Carrie handed him the bill,” said one Downing Street insider. “She has champagne tastes and a lemonade budget.”

But others say the problem is Johnson’s secrecy with senior aides who might challenge him. Three senior Conservatives say Rosenfield — who was brought in to steady the ship after Cummings’ departure — is voicing doubts about how long he will remain in No 10.

The affair has led to a “bunker mentality” and swirling suspicion in No 10. Senior officials are concerned leaks have emerged from Johnson’s private office.

This is not the lifestyle of a man-of-the-people, as Johnson likes to portray himself. Not only is he apparently flouting rules designed to prevent undue influence being exerted on him and his office but, in my opinion, he is bringing the whole office into disrepute. It isn't so much that Johnson is a pauper, but that he is living beyond his means and is dependent on others to keep his head above water.

Saturday, May 01, 2021

The exclusive WhatsApp group and PPE deals

Just when you thought the Tory government's awarding of Covid PPE contracts coouldn't get any more chummy, a High Court judge has ordered Matt Hancock to hand over texts and WhatsApp messages that could shed light on how they were administered.

The Mirror reports the court was told that the Government used an exclusive WhatsApp group to give "VIP" company CEOs information about its PPE requirements:

The Good Law Project has been pursuing the government in the High Court to reveal details of the 'VIP' fast lane for Covid contracts.

Evidence brought up in court today suggests the government used a WhatsApp group of 200 company CEOs to "provide special communications (apparently unavailable to other suppliers) about its forecast PPE requirements."

The existence of the group was revealed for the first time today, in a meeting agenda from last April, disclosed to the court by the Government.

It reads: "[Redacted] to connect with [Redacted] and confirm preferred way forward to sharing communications with CEOs and CPOs (Chief product officers)

"Note: There is a WhatsApp group with [circa] 200 CEO and this is informal way to communicate. There is also a separate channel to CPOs)"

But Government lawyers have so far failed to disclose any text or instant messages to the court.

Today the court ordered Mr Hancock to search for and disclose "texts and WhatsApp messages for some selected civil servants.”

The Government were also ordered to pay the Good Law Project’s legal costs.

A spokesperson for the Project said: "We believe we are left in a position of being unable fairly to interrogate and challenge the account given by Government in its evidence."

Once more there is a lack of transparency in how these contracts were awarded and in particular how various acquaintances of Government Ministers and Tory Party donors succeeded in winning these contracts. It is time that all the facts were in the public domain.

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