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Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Toothless UK policies fail to protect wildlife

The Guardian reports on the conclusion of the House of Commons environmental audit committee (EAC) that the UK government’s underfunded green ambitions and “toothless” policies are failing to halt catastrophic loss of wildlife.

They believe the biodiversity crisis is still not being treated with the urgency of the climate crisis arguing that the UK is the most wildlife-depleted country out of the G7 nations and, despite pledges to improve the environment within a generation, properly funded policies are not in place to make this happen:

The government’s 25-year environment plan to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030 and its promise to deliver biodiversity net gain on infrastructure projects look good on paper, but inadequate monitoring and a lack of compliance means the government is not delivering on them.

Nature is still not being taken into account in policymaking and more money is being spent destroying the environment than protecting it, the report found. Funding cuts and a lack of ecological expertise in government and local authorities is worsening the situation, MPs said.

Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, said: “We are losing species at a terrifying rate and multiple warnings are not being heeded. The collapse in biodiversity has to be pushed up the political agenda, and nature protection and restoration given the priority and resources it needs, before it’s too late.

“The Treasury still sticks to an outdated mindset, which sees GDP growth as the key measure of progress and nature as an expendable resource. That has to change, as the report makes clear.”

The EAC report urges the government to increase Natural England’s funding year-on-year so the agency can protect nature at the vast scale needed.

For seas, destructive bottom trawling should be restricted or banned in all marine protected areas and more “no-take” zones must be established.

The committee’s recommendations include creating a legally binding target for soil health, a natural history GCSE, and banning tree-planting on peat soils and floodplains. Important ecosystems such as ancient woodland and peatland must be looked after, whether they are a “protected area” or not.

Other recommendations include creating a commission to track public expenditure that harms biodiversity, removing harmful subsidies and redirecting money into nature conservation.

Ministers should also spend at least £3m a year on increasing biosecurity to tackle invasive species, which cost the UK economy £1.8bn a year.

The report found the climate emergency has risen up the political agenda and is increasingly being factored into decision-making in the public and private sector, but this has not yet happened with biodiversity.

Government data released at the end of last year found public sector investment in conservation fell in real terms by 33% in five years.

It would be interesting to see a comparable report for Wales.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

CBI weighs in on staff shortages

As Brexit and the government's immigration policies continue to suppress much economic activity it was inevitable that Ministers would come under pressure to try and sort it out. The latest organisation to lobby for change is the CBI.

As the Guardian reports, the UK’s biggest business lobby group has called on the government to relax post-Brexit immigration rules to help companies struggling with staff shortages to hire more workers from overseas.

The paper says that the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) believes the government needed to immediately update its “shortage occupations list” to include several areas where employers are finding it difficult to recruit staff, including butchers, bricklayers and welders:

Warning that there was a “perfect storm” of staff shortages as Covid-19 restrictions are gradually removed, it said failure to take action would put the UK’s economic recovery from the pandemic at risk.

The country’s foremost business lobby group, which speaks on behalf of 190,000 firms of all sizes and sectors, said employers needed to take greater responsibility to address labour shortages by investing in the skills of the domestic workforce, and by taking a chance on jobseekers who might otherwise be overlooked.

However, it said the government urgently needed to look again at its post-Brexit immigration policy to prevent chronic skills shortages from undermining the UK’s economic recovery from Covid-19.

Pressure is mounting on hauliers, hospitality venues and the food and drink industry in particular, with companies scrambling to hire staff as pandemic restrictions are relaxed and demand for goods and services returns. Logistics organisations have warned that chilled food will struggle to reach some shops this summer because of a lack of drivers and production workers.

The CBI said ministers needed to act on advice from the government’s migration advisory committee published in September, which recommended that certain roles – including butchers, bricklayers and welders – be added to the UK’s shortage occupation list.

The list is an official record of skilled occupations where there are not enough resident workers to fill vacancies. Under the government’s post-Brexit points-based immigration system, visa applicants in these roles get 20 additional points towards the 70-point minimum required to work in the UK.

It is estimated that as many as 1.3 million non-UK workers have left the UK since late 2019, as many returned to their country of birth to see out the pandemic at home. Since then Covid travel controls, new Brexit immigration rules, continuing pandemic risks and people reassessing their job priorities are contributing to labour shortages. It is time the government addressed this issue urgently.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Hancock affair continues to unravel

If Matt Hancock thought that his resignation as the English Health Secretary was going to be a clean break with the past then he has another think coming. The Independent reports that he is facing an investigation after using a personal email account to conduct government affairs, in breach of UK guidelines.

It is alleged that Hancock regularly used a private email account for government dealings since March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic began, thereby concealing information from officials and potentially from the public:

The disclosure was reportedly revealed in minutes from a meeting between senior officials at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

David Williams, the department’s second permanent secretary, warned that Mr Hancock “only” deals with his office “via Gmail account”.

Mr Williams said the health secretary did not even have an official email as he warned that the government could not freely access personal email records, with the “threshold” for requesting them having “to be substantial”.

He also said that junior health minister Lord Bethell also used a personal email account for government business.

The alleged breach of guidelines would mean that the government does not have records on all of Mr Hancock’s exchanges, including key negotiations on multimillion-pound contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE) and emails setting up the £37 billion test and trace programme.

Mr Hancock’s private email exchanges also would have included talks on the government’s widely criticised care homes strategy.

If this is correct then it will severely hamper any inquiry into the government's handling of Covid, as well as reinforcing the lack of transparency around the awarding of contracts and a whole host of other issues.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Do empty supermarket shelves beckon?

Brexit and the UK Government's policies on migrant workers have struck again. According to the Guardian, school meals could be disrupted for the remainder of this term by delays and shortages of food supplies across the country as a result of a dearth of lorry drivers in the UK.

The paper reports industry representatives have told Boris Johnson that the driver shortage – exacerbated by Brexit and the pandemic – is causing a “crisis” in the food supply chain, with the UK road haulage sector having a shortage of 100,000 lorry drivers:

Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy at the Road Haulage Association, said the shortage of lorry drivers was a “critical issue” which was having a “real impact on a whole range of different sectors”.

He told the Observer: “We desperately need the government to help us by loosening the current immigration restrictions and speeding up lorry driver testing.”

About 15,000 European drivers had left the UK since the start of the year, and about 30,000 HGV driving tests were lost last year because of Covid restrictions, he said. Those numbers added to a historic shortage of 60,000 drivers which meant the shortfall was now more than 100,000.

“The government needs to act fast before food supplies get to a critical level,” he said. It was “completely unsurprising” that school meals were now being affected.

The impact of this shortage will not just fall on school meals. Supermarkets are already finding it difficult to fill shelves with certain products, while farmers producing soft fruit in particular, are struggling to source the daily deliveries they need to get their product to the consumer.

Meanwhile, lorry drivers seeking to fill vacancies are being denied entry to the UK because of government policies on migrant workers.

None of this was on the side of that Brexit bus.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

One rule for them, another for us continued

It is the hypocrisy that rankles the most, that and the sight of Matt Hancock tongue-wrestling with one of his publicly paid advisors, a sight I still have not been able to expunge from my mind. Unsurprisingly, Boris Johnson has stood by his health secretary, after all the Prime Minister is hardly in a position to assume the moral high-ground in sacking a minister over inappropriate behaviour with a member of the opposite sex. But there is more to this than an elicit tryst.

For a start it is the breaking of social distancing rules, a regime that Hancock was instrumental in putting in place in the first instance. The episode on film took place two weeks before the ban on hugging was lifted. And as Marina Hyde relates in the Guardian, 'a full 10 days after The Clinch occurred, Hancock went on telly specifically to warn people thinking of hugging a loved one that they “should do it carefully”.'

Nor should we forget Hancock’s harsh criticism of Professor Neil Ferguson after the government adviser was found to have broken lockdown rules by arranging visits from his lover last year. As the Independent reports, in May 2020, the health secretary claimed to have been left “speechless” by Prof Ferguson’s “extraordinary” behaviour, and said it had been right for him to resign as a government Sage adviser. Although Scotland Yard decided not to prosecute Prof Ferguson, Mr Hancock had said he would back the police if they wanted to take action over the matter.

And let us not forget the Welsh Tories who went ballistic when, as ITV Wales reports, Welsh Health Secretary, Vaughan Gething was photographed eating food with his family on a park bench. Why have they suddenly gone quiet over this blatant rule breach by one of their colleagues?

It is of course against the ministerial code to have a relationship with an employee, not that this code has much traction in Johnson's government. In this case Gina Coladangelo, is a non-executive director at the Department of Health and Social Care, while her husband runs a firm that has contracts with the NHS. She is meant to be holding the minister to account, but not quite in that way. Hancock is now facing fresh questions about how Coladangelo – a friend from his days at Oxford University – came to be hired, and whether they were already in an intimate relationship at that point.

But Ed Davey is right too, Matt Hancock is a terrible Health Secretary and should have been sacked a long time ago. Whether it is the PPE scandal, the crisis in our care service, the unbelievably poor test and trace system, or questions over the awarding of health service contracts during the pandemic, he has failed miserably.

The consequences of this latest episode and the Prime Minister's refusal to act on it could be dire, especially with the third Covid wave establishing itself around the UK. As the Guardian reports, behavioural scientists advising the government have warned that the health secretary’s public disregard for the social distancing rules could undermine public compliance:

“‘Do what I do’ can have a bigger impact than ‘Do what I say’, particularly when combined with public anger,” said John Drury, a professor of social psychology at the University of Sussex and a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science, Spi-B. “We know from research on the Cummings incident that rule-breaking at the top undermines social cohesion and adherence.”

And who is investigating the leaking of internal security camera footage? That it is possible for such video records to be smuggled out of a government building and passed to a national newspaper must surely give rise to concern about national security and the possibility it can happen elsewhere, in more sensitive environments.

The whole UK government is an omnishambles, hamstrung by a lack of moral fibre, indifference to public standards, an inability to empathise, hypocrisy and incompetence. It is not just Matt Hancock who should resign but the whole lot of them.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Oil and gas donors gave over £400k to Tories

The Guardian reports that individuals and companies linked to the oil and gas industries have donated more than £400,000 to the Conservative party in the past year, while the government mulled controversial new licences to explore the North Sea for fossil fuel production sites.

The paper says that disclosures from last July to the end of March, the latest date for which data is available, show at least £419,000 was given to the Conservatives by donors with a strong interest in oil and gas, including in the North Sea, research by the environmental investigations group DeSmog and the Guardian has found.

The donations include: a total of £25,000 from Amjad Bseisu, the chief executive of EnQuest, an oil and gas company with strong interests in the North Sea, who has given more than £400,000 to the party since 2013; £200,000 from Balmoral Group Holdings, an oil and gas technology and services specialist; £155,000 from Alasdair Locke, the non-executive chairman of Well-Safe Solutions, which decommissions oil and gas sites; nearly £20,000 from Richard Upshall, the founder of OES Asset Integrity Management; and £25,000 from Centrax, a gas turbine company.

The donations came as the government deliberated the future development of the UK’s lucrative oil and gas fields in the North Sea. A review was formally opened last September and then on 24 March came the announcement of a new round of licensing for oil and gas wells, with up to £16bn in joint investment between the government and private sector, despite the likely negative impact of such development on the UK’s climate targets.

The UK is to host a vital UN summit, Cop26, in Glasgow this November, at which all countries will be asked to come up with stringent targets on cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade, and to make an urgent transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy and low-carbon economies. Cop26 is widely regarded as one of the last chances to put the world on track to meet the 2015 Paris climate agreement, in a “make-or-break” decade for the climate.

The decision by ministers to pursue a new round of North Sea licences caused serious concern among senior figures in the climate talks. Other countries, including Denmark and France, are halting investment in new fossil fuel production.

The decision also came just ahead of the publication of analysis commissioned by the UK, as part of its Cop26 role, from the International Energy Agency that showed all new development of fossil fuels must cease after this year if the world is to limit global heating to 1.5C, in line with scientific advice.

The Guardian understands that the companies making donations, or whose senior personnel were listed as donors, made no direct representations to the government over the award of oil and gas licences, and that ministers have held no meetings with the companies in the past year.

Many of these donations could have been made of course, because the donors support some other aspect of Tory policy but, nevertheless, this article highlights once more the problem with political parties relying on private largesse and potential clashes of interests arising from such donations. There is a clear case for reforming the way political parties are funded.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Roaming charges reintroduced for Britons in the EU

Assuming that we will at some stage be able to go on holiday in Europe again, many holidaymakers will be shocked to discover that they will now have to pay roaming charges on their mobile phones.

As the Independent reports, customers of O2 have been told they will be billed £3.50 for every gigabyte (GB) of data used above a new limit of 25GB, from August. This announcement came exactly five years after the UK voted to leave the EU, and was made possible because the Christmas Eve trade agreement signed by the UK left open the option of the return of roaming charges – which were scrapped across the EU in 2017.

In actual fact many of us warned this would happen before the vote took place, so it is hardly a surprise, nor can those who voted leave claim not to know it would happen. Nevertheless, it is another failure by the UK Government in a long line of them following the Brexit vote.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

One rule for us, another for VIPs

This government does not do itself any favours when it comes to enforcing Covid rules. There is of course the controversy over important contracts going to Tory party donors and friends of Ministers, but there is also Dominic Cummings' trip up north during lockdown and the clear impression that the rules are flexible providing you are one of the privileged elite.

Now, we have the European Championships final and the clear impression being given by Ministers that restrictions on travel that apply to all of us, to stop the spread of Covid and to keep nasty variants out of this country, do not apply if you are a VIP travelling to the final at Wembley.

The Independent reports that the media minister has said that “people who are important” should be entitled to avoid tough quarantine rules when travelling to the UK:

Speaking on Sky News, John Whittingdale was asked why players, officials and others coming to London for the Euros final on 11 July should be allowed in without self-isolating.

He said: “We’ve always said that for some people who are important, players, for instance …”

The presenter, Kay Burley, interrupted him, saying: “So people who want to go on holiday are not important. Is that what you’re saying?”

“No of course not. We’re talking a very limited number of people who are coming in and they’re also subject still to quite significant restrictions.

“They’re not just able to travel around Britain. They come in to attend a match then go away again.

“We wouldn’t have been able to host the tournament at Wembley if we hadn’t allowed the players and people associated with the teams to come in and do so.”

Mr Whittingdale was speaking as travel industry leaders gather in London for a day of action in protest at the quarantine rules on returning to the UK which, they say, amount to a ban on international travel.

Meanwhile in the land of irony, it seems that because of Covid rules Welsh and Danish fans cannot go to Amsterdam for Saturday's cup tie between their two countries. 

Except that Danish fans can go providing they don't stay in the Netherlands for longer than twelve hours. That is because Denmark is in the EU and the UK is not. They didn't put that on the side of a bus.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Welsh Government falls hook, line and sinker for fake news

I don't often look at Classic FM for my news, but this story is worth repeating. On their website they report that the Welsh government has deleted official guidance which appeared to be based on a spoof news post on social media.

They say official COVID-19 guidance for singers issued – and now deleted – by the Welsh government in light of the reopening of places of worship, appears to have been informed by a spoof social media news post, created by meme page Quire Memes to appear as if  it was written by Classic FM. 

The Welsh Government has since deleted guidance on its website that suggests “tenors are more likely to emit more virus than altos and sopranos”:

The advice appears to have been motivated by a spoof social media news post, created by meme page Quire Memes to appear as if written by us here at Classic FM. A doctored headline claimed that ‘Tenors should sit three metres away from other choir members, COVID study says’.

The post, which is categorically fake news, is captioned: “Tenors found to disperse aerosols the furthest, in this in-depth coronavirus study.”

A government spokesperson denied that the advice was based on a spoof post, but said they “apologise unreservedly for this error and for any confusion it may have caused”.

Professional tenor and choral director Charles MacDougall told The Telegraph it was “preposterous” that the Welsh government appeared to have based their official guidance on a meme.

“It is a total lack of care in getting singing going again and the investment in understanding anything about it,” he said. “That guidance is based on spoof evidence”.

The creator behind Quire Memes has since clarified their post was a meme that was a spoof version of a real Classic FM article, reporting on research that flautists presented a bigger risk of spreading COVID-19 based on findings from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Theae sort of mistakes do not help the Welsh Government's credibility.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Will Johnson restore cabinet government?

If articles like this one in the Guardian are anything to go by, the Tories are still feeling pretty sore about losing the Chesham and Amersham by-election. The paper claims cabinet ministers including Rishi Sunak will this week urge Boris Johnson not to keep sidelining his ministers, as officials warn of a difficult autumn ahead with pressures over hospital waiting lists, social care reform and court backlogs.

The paper predicts that Johnson will face a tricky few days after the landslide loss in the byelection in Chesham and Amersham, a defeat that many of his own MPs put down to his controversial planning changes. He also remains under persistent attack from his former aide Dominic Cummings, who has promised a new submission on the prime minister this week and a live Question and Answer on Monday:

Sunak is one of a number of cabinet ministers who are privately pushing Johnson to pay more heed to collective decision-making, rather than keeping all decisions in a close clique in No 10 and bringing in only the relevant secretary of state.

“The cabinet has to be involved in all the big decisions that reflect what the party stands for, the cabinet needs to be more involved in those decisions,” one Whitehall official said. “All cabinet ministers have to be part of making decisions that are part of a bigger picture. If you aren’t taking decisions as a collective, it is very hard to go out and sell a coherent argument.”

Another cabinet source said cabinet meetings, once arenas of combat under Theresa May, had become non-events with no debate and which key officials did not always attend. A reshuffle has long been rumoured, but the source said there was likely to now be a delay until the autumn. “Every prime minister hates reshuffles and Boris hates them more than most,” the source said.

Senior aides in No 10 believe the government is reaching the ceiling of its support in the polls and that “politics as usual” is likely to return once memories of the vaccine programme start to fade.

Johnson is said to be keen to go on the offensive with government priorities, particularly plans for infrastructure investment, though the government is facing urgent spending demands.

“It’s no secret that there are huge immediate pressures,” one senior No 10 official said. “Hospital waiting times are a huge concern, the court backlog is also looking very difficult, we’re likely to need to spend more in education at the spending review.”

Asked if that would mean a return to austerity measures in any quarters, the official said: “We never even think about using that word in here.”

If one of the outcomes of the Chesham and Amersham by-election is that Johnson will be reined in a bit, then that might be a good thing for the effective governance of the UK.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Who is paying for Johnson's off-the-cuff policy making?

The obvious answer to that question is of course that us taxpayers are paying, but that assumes that the government can find the money in the first place after a fiscal-busting pandemic and facing a war-footing-style out-of-control national debt. Over the last year, all the fiscal rules set down by Gordon Brown, George Osborne and their successors have been smashed as the country struggles to emerge from its covid-induced coma with an intact economy. At some stage we are going to have to either start tightening our belt and paying off the debt, or write a new set of rules that allows for the sort of investment needed without worrying about the consequences.

Unsurprisingly, Boris Johnson appears to be a subscriber to the latter philosophy, not because he has no regard for consequences, though that trait has defined his personal and political life, but because he is a popularist, and knows that big projects and liberal largesse wins votes. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, because he is the one who ultimately has to deal with the consequences is in the first group. And so we are back to the normal tensions of government, in which the Treasury is pitched against the Prime Minister for control of policy, or are we?

The loose cannon in all of this is Boris Johnson himself, who apparently thinks he cannot be restrained by the normal rules of government, hence we get articles such as this one in the Times, where the Prime Minister is painted as having gone rogue, leaving his colleagues to play catch-up:

When Boris Johnson recently pledged to buy a new royal yacht and set up a 21st-century version of the postwar Marshall Plan to fund green growth in the developing world, the ideas were hailed in Downing Street as evidence that post-Brexit Britain is playing a global leadership role again. A picture was painted of a royal flagship touring the world as a visible symbol of Britain’s soft power, drumming up trade.

The only problem? Key people had no idea the announcements were going to be made and no one in government now wants to pay for them. Under the surface, both have instead become high-profile symbols of growing tensions at the top of government over public spending, which now threaten to dominate Whitehall for the next six months.

“No one in the Treasury had a clue about the new Marshall Plan until it appeared in the media,” said a senior Whitehall official. That included the chancellor, Rishi Sunak. Insiders say no spending request has even been received. A No 10 source admitted: “The Treasury seems to be getting increasingly irritated that we keep announcing things without telling them.”

The Conservatives’ loss in the Chesham and Amersham by-election on Thursday, where the Liberal Democrats overturned a Tory majority of 16,000 on a 25-point swing, has rendered the philosophical differences between Johnson and Sunak more acute.

Behind the scenes, tensions are growing over the gargantuan bill looming for Covid recovery. Sunak is among several cabinet ministers who are letting it be known privately that, when the government is facing a year of crunch spending pledges, important decisions need to be made by the cabinet, rather than by a small clique in No 10.

The Treasury is under pressure to find more for Covid education catch-up, to help pupils who have fallen behind during the pandemic; for health catch-up, to fund operations and cancer treatments that have been neglected; and to pay for the huge backlog of court cases that have built up.

It is not only No 11 that does not want to find the £200 million needed for the replacement for the Royal Yacht Britannia, which was decommissioned in 1997. The Cabinet Office, which was originally asked to devise the plans, the Department for International Trade, which was originally expected to benefit from them, and the Ministry of Defence, which has now been saddled with the project, are all in the dark about where the money is coming from, not least because the MoD is fighting to plug a £16 billion black hole in its annual budget.

“There is a huge row going on about the royal yacht and who is going to fund it,” said one senior Tory who is close to several cabinet ministers. “The seeds are being sown for an almighty set-to between Boris and Rishi over spending.”

Another official confirmed: “The royal yacht is a complete and utter shitshow. When it was first floated, the PM wanted it to be built in Britain. It was given to [Cabinet Office minister Michael] Gove to sort out, but it became clear that under procurement rules it could only be built here if it was a navy thing with a bunch of fake weapons on board. So Gove passed it on to the MoD. The Treasury stayed out of it.”

A cabinet source, reflecting on Johnson’s initial plan to get others to pay for the renovation of his Downing Street flat, joked: “Perhaps Boris can get someone to set up a trust to pay for it.”

As the article points out these tensions have been exasperated by last weeks by-election result with Tories now facing the reality that levelling-up means taking money from voters in places like Chesham and Amersham and giving it to places like Hartlepool. 

The paper says senior cabinet ministers are now concerned that the differing needs of the red and blue walls, the institutional divisions between No 10 and the Treasury, and the philosophical differences between Johnson and Sunak are a hairline crack through the government. Is Johnson starting to discover that he cannot always have his cake and eat it?

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Tories to neuter watchdog investigating Johnson's flat

The Mirror reports that the Tories have announced plans to place constraints on the Electoral Commission, which has been investigating the funding of Boris Johnson's flat refurbishment. The Commission believe that the plan to strip it of its powers will 'fetter' its ability to do the job it was set up for:

The agency overseeing election financing stressed the importance that its "independence is preserved" as ministers announced the plans on Thursday.

Constitution minister Chloe Smith said the proposal would ensure the commission is "fully accountable to Parliament" and would provide "clarity in law" that the watchdog "should not bring criminal prosecutions".

The proposals come after senior Tory MPs criticised the commission while it investigates the Conservative Party over the refurbishments of Boris Johnson's official flat.

An Electoral Commission spokeswoman said: "Parliamentary oversight and scrutiny of the commission's activities are essential in ensuring the commission commands trust and confidence.

"It is important, however, that the commission's independence is preserved and that it is able to continue to deliver all duties within its remit, including effective enforcement.

"Some changes announced today place a fetter on the commission which would limit its activity. We will work with the Government to explore these areas."

As well as the block on prosecutions, concerns have also been stoked over the plan to introduce a strategic statement of priorities for the commission.

Ms Smith, in a written statement to the Commons, said the watchdog has in recent years sought to "develop the capability to bring criminal offences before the courts".

"This has never been agreed by the Government or Parliament," Ms Smith wrote.

"Having the Electoral Commission step into this space would risk wasting public money as well as present potential conflicts of interest for a body responsible for providing advice and guidance on electoral law to initiate proceedings which might depend on the very advice that was given.

There is no doubt that the Electoral Commission needs reform, but it needs more powers not fewer, and the ability to levy fines that will actually deter dodgy practices.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Demolishing the Tory blue wall

Awaking this morning to the sensational result in Chesham and Amersham, where my good friend Sarah Green took a safe Tory seat on behalf of the Liberal Democrats with an 8,000 majority, one cannot help but feel that our party's fortunes are about to take a turn for the better, 

When I returned from helping in the constituency at the end of May, I wrote about the by-election: 'This is an opportunity for the party to re-establish itself after a very difficult decade where we have suffered the consequences of a very difficult coalition government'. Yesterday we took that opportunity with both hands.

Whether this transpires or not has yet to be seen, as do all the predictions of more gains from the Tories on the basis of the swing in this by-election. By-election gains are often difficult to hold onto and swings like these do not always prevail for long, though I am confident Sarah will hold this seat when a General Election is called, but the rest is academic unfortunately.

However, this by-election win has changed the political landscape in one important way; Boris Johnson's 80 seat majority is no longer as secure as he would hope. That is because, all the Tory MPs in those so-called safe blue wall seats are now looking over their shoulder, and may not be so easily persuaded to trot through the lobbies in support of controversial legislation like that on planning laws.

The Liberal Democrats did not demolish the blue wall yesterday, but they have chipped away at its foundations, and that could be enough to have severely weakened Boris Johnson and his government.

Thursday, June 17, 2021


The Guardian reports on the latest revelations in the Cummings-Johnson feud with the former special advisor launching a fresh onslaught on the Prime Minister and his health secretary.

The paper says that in a 7,000 word essay, Dominic Cummings called Matt Hancock “totally fucking hopeless” and mocked the Boris Johnson for saying he intended to leave office after the next election to “have fun and make money”;

Hinting he intended to continue his campaign against Johnson’s “chronic dysfunction”, the prime minister’s former chief aide published a slew of texts and documents from emergency Cobra meetings that he said would combat what he called “lies” from Downing Street and the health secretary about the initial handling of the pandemic.

Cummings had been asked to hand over documents to a select committee inquiry into the pandemic but did not meet the committee’s deadline before Hancock gave evidence last week.

In his post, Cummings said:
One former colleague of Cummings, once the prime minister’s closest aide, said he was “determined to bring down the prime minister” with a sustained campaign to highlight high-level incompetence. “He is not after a quiet life, he is in this for the long haul,” the former ally said.

However, critics suggested the evidence published still did not contain a smoking gun. Jeremy Hunt, who co-chairs the committee where Cummings and Hancock gave evidence, tweeted that he was sceptical that the documents released by Cummings proved Hancock had lied.

He said the messages “show the PM’s total frustration … but do not prove anyone ‘lied’”.

Downing Street refused to comment on Cummings’ claims, while also declining to deny the veracity of the screenshots, or to reject the specific claims. “I don’t plan to get into the detail of what’s been published,” Johnson’s spokesperson said. Asked if the images of the PM’s messages were genuine, he said: “Our focus is on not examining those specific images, but delivering on the public’s priorities.”

This is what is known in politics as a 'popcorn moment', as we watch waiting to see how this particular feud pans out.  

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Is the Met Police leadership fit for purpose?

The question that every MP should be asking the Home Secretary today is why, in the light of an independent report that has branded the Metropolitan police as “institutionally corrupt” and which personally censored its commissioner, Cressida Dick for obstruction, is she still in post?

The Guardian reports that the findings of an independent panel inquiring into Daniel Morgan’s killing in 1987 triggered calls from his brother, Alastair, for Dick to consider her position, and denounced the actions of Britain’s biggest police force.

Of course Dick is no stranger to controversy. She was the gold commander in the control room during the operation which led to the death of John Charles de Menezes, who was wrongly identified as a potential suicide bomber. According to this report when she was named the successor to Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe in February the family of de Menezes released a statement condemning the move.

But it is senior management of the Met that must now come under renewed scrutiny, whether it is fit for purpose, if it should be replaced with people who are not imbued with the obstructionist and 'institutionally corrupt' culture identified by the report. or even if a more root and branch reform is needed. The Home Secretary should not shy away from doing what is necessary.

After all the problems with the Met and its managemen has been ongoing for some time. Here are some examples:

Back in 2010, the Guardian pointed to a disturbing lack of action on the part of the Metropolitan police after they failed to pursue evidence in previously undisclosed telephone records which showed a vast number of public figures had had their voicemail accessed by the News of the World:

In a further blow to the official version of events, the Guardian has discovered that although police and prosecutors named only eight victims in court, material seized by police from Mulcaire and the paper's royal reporter, Clive Goodman, contained 4,332 names or partial names of people in whom the two men had an interest, 2,978 numbers or partial numbers for mobile phones and 30 audio tapes which appear to contain an unspecified number of recordings of voicemail messages.

The revelations increase the prospect of the government ordering a new inquiry into the affair. While Scotland Yard's public position remains that it did all that its resources and the law permitted, some police sources admit privately that they failed to fully investigate the case, that decisions may have been distorted by a fear of upsetting Rupert Murdoch's newspapers, and that it was "unfortunate" that the officer in charge of the inquiry, assistant commissioner Andy Hayman, subsequently left the police to work for News International as a columnist.

And then of course, there was the policing of the vigil at Clapham Common in March of this year, which I commented on here and here. The Metropolitan Police, one of whose number has since pleaded guilty to the kidnap and rape of Sarah Everard and accepted responsibility for her killing, 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 circulated on social media of the way that situation was policed are totally shocking. There was no sensitivity to people's fears and concerns, no acknowledgement of the police's 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.

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) review found the media coverage of the event to be a "public relations disaster" for police and added that "there was insufficient communication between police commanders about changing events on the ground". This was compounded by the Police Commissioner, who does not seem to understood the nature of 'policing by consent.

All of these issues and more must call into question the culture and management of the Metropolitan Police, so why is the government not doing anything about it?

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Tougher rules needed on lobbying

The Guardian's editorial on the changes needed to lobbying laws is spot on. They argue that public trust is damaged when a former PM and ministers are caught up in a cronyism scandal, and must be repaired.

The recommendations of Lord Evans, chair of the committee on standards in public life (and a former head of MI5), includes a ban on ministers and senior civil servants lobbying for five years after leaving office, that the public appointments watchdog should get new powers, including the right to prevent ministers taking certain jobs and a proposal for new penalties for rule-breakers.

Lord Evans also comments on the appointment of non-executive directors to government departments and proposes releasing lobbying details every four weeks, instead of quarterly. The Guardian says the public, and parliamentarians, should know as much as possible about who is seeking to influence their representatives. They argue that the rationale for change is very strong:

Lobbying is part of how liberal democracy works. Civil society organisations and charities do it when they sign politicians up to campaigns and pledges. Members of the public do it when they approach MPs and others about issues that matter to them. But such contacts need to be conducted in a way that is open, transparent and accountable.

This is even more important where corporate lobbyists wielding significant economic power are concerned. It is wrong for relationships to develop between politicians and businesses that could lead to private interests being placed before the public one. It fosters cynicism and undermines public trust when a former Tory prime minister is revealed to have bombarded ministers with messages on behalf of a company in which he was closely involved. It is extremely concerning that one of the UK’s most successful civil servants, Jeremy Heywood, was also a key figure in the Greensill drama. Gone for now at least are the days when the civil service was thought to be above such goings-on.

It is hard to disagree with the editorial that the Prime Minister should indicate his acceptance of these recommendations now to avoid any suggestion of self-interest in delaying implementation.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Political coincidences part two

The Mirror reports that a billionaire property tycoon gave £150,000 to the Conservative Party, 48 hours after the government approved a housing scheme by his firm:

John Bloor, 77, a director of Bloor Homes who has a £1.3billion personal fortune, is one of the Conservative Party’s largest donors.

On March 15, ministers formally gave the green light to a Bloor Homes proposal to build hundreds of homes on rural land in Ledbury, Herefordshire.

Two days later on March 17, Electoral Commission records show, Mr Bloor's firm Bloor Holdings gave a donation of £150,000 to the Conservative Party.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government did not say if Mr Bloor lobbied ministers ahead of these decisions, the Sunday Times reported.

Bloor Homes, which announced profits of £152 million last year, has been approached for comment.

A government spokeswoman said: “The decision on the Ledbury development was made following a recommendation by the independent Planning Inspector to grant planning permission and in line with published propriety guidance."

Local councillors had rejected the 625-home plans, saying they would undermine a nearby area of outstanding natural beauty.

But in March 2020 the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government took control of the planning application following an appeal by Bloor Homes.

An independent planning inspector found in favour of Bloor Homes, and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government then agreed and gave final approval.

A decision notice published by the government on March 15 said: "The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector’s conclusions and agrees with her recommendation.

“He has decided to allow the appeal and grant planning permission."

Coincidences like these are coming thick and fast.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Are we really calling this thing a sausage war?

I do understand that effective communication requires a catchy phrase which encapsulates a story or scenario, but to be honest I expected better of the 'broadsheet' press than to characterise Boris Johnson's incompetent handling of the Northern Ireland protocol, Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement as plunging us into a 'sausage war'.

The Independent headline is '‘Sausage war’ tensions heightened as Boris Johnson says he ‘will not hesitate’ to suspend protocol'. The paper says the Prime Minister has set the UK on track for a trade war with Brussels with a belligerent response to being ambushed over the Northern Ireland protocol by EU leaders at the G7 summit in Cornwall.

This is a desperate attempt by Johnson to cover his tracks after effectively alienating the UK from its biggest market, without fully understanding what he was signing, or did he? At least somebody in the media pack was prepared to put the pertinent question to him, as Sky News, demanded to know whether he was lying or had not understood the treaty when he said last year that his deal would not create a customs border in the Irish Sea.

This is not a sausage war it is a cock-up by an overblown, over-promoted Prime Minister, and the consequences of his incompetence could come back to haunt him, the country and our economy for years to come.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Political coincidences continued

As the government prepares to launch sweeping changes to the planning system that will remove the right of communities to object to inappropriate individual developments in their area, the Guardian reports that 13% of the Tories’ recent donations came from property tycoons and companies.

According to the Electoral Commission these firms gave £891,984 to Tory central office and eight local associations – a sizeable chunk of the £6,418,295 the party reported receiving in the first three months of 2021.

Yet another startling coincidence.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Animal welfare is a low priority on new trade deals

The Independent reports on warnings by the chief executive of the RSPCA has sounded the alarm over the prospect of post-Brexit free-trade deals with countries where farm animals are treated in ways that would be illegal in the UK.

Chris Sherwood has warned that animal welfare standards will be “watered down by the back door” and UK farmers will be undercut if the government signs agreements with other nations where farm animals are made to suffer needlessly. In particular, he fears Britain’s forthcoming deal with Australia could set a precedent for similar arrangements around the world that would lead to increased cruelty:

The government wants deals with New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, India and the US, and is on course to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership alliance, which includes parts of Asia and Japan.

The Conservatives’ manifesto promised not to compromise on environmental protection and animal welfare standards, but the Australia deal prompted a “furious” row in government over its approach.

The experts believe the UK could sign up to import meat from pigs held in farrowing crates for long periods, beef from hormone-fed cattle, chickens crammed into overcrowded, barren cages, and milk from genetically modified cows, among other goods.

Mr Sherwood told The Independent the Australia deal could set a “very concerning” precedent.

“Countries like Brazil have big exports of pork and beef, and our concern is animal welfare standards will be watered down by the back door and will undercut our farmers,” he said.

“It’s incongruent with the great messages from the government on animal welfare – we’ve just had the Kept Animals Bill and Animal Sentience Bill, and a commitment in the Queen’s Speech to protect standards.

“The government is on record as saying they want to protect and enhance animal welfare, and all we’re doing is reminding them of that.

“It’s not just the RSPCA – the public care about where animals come from and how they’re treated. These are sentient beings – animals that have feelings and feel pain.”

Many other countries allow pigs to be kept in sow stalls and farrowing crates – pens that are so tight the animal cannot even turn around – and chickens to be more tightly crammed into sheds.

Britain banned sow stalls in 1999, and farrowing crates are legal but controversial.

Canada and the US still have battery cages for egg-laying hens, which are considered so cruel the UK banned them in 2012.

India, which is thought to want to export liquid and dried eggs to the UK, keeps its entire national flock of egg-laying hens in battery cages.

In response the Government keep referring us back to their manifesto commitment not to undermine animal-welfare standards, but they do not yet have a process of showing how they will achieve that, nor a trade strategy that says what is their purpose on trade. Ministers are said to be split with some wanting a quick win on trade deals irrespective of the cost.

All-in-all this is yet another Brexit-induced mess.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Government acted unlawfully on Covid contract

The BBC report on a high court ruling that the government acted unlawfully when it awarded a £560,000 contract to a firm run by former colleagues of Michael Gove and the PM's adviser Dominic Cummings.

Michael Gove denied any favouritism had been shown to market research agency Public First, but the judge said a failure to consider other firms could be seen as suggesting a "real danger" of bias:

Campaigners took legal action against Mr Gove over the Cabinet Office's decision to use the company following the start of the pandemic last year.

They also questioned the involvement of Mr Cummings, who worked in Downing Street until he quit as the prime minister's chief adviser last autumn.

Lawyers for the Good Law Project argued that Mr Cummings wanted focus group and communications support services work to be given to Public First, whose founding partners were Rachel Wolf and James Frayne.

In 2011, Mr Frayne became director of communications at the Department of Education, where he worked alongside Mr Cummings, who was a special adviser to Mr Gove, the then education secretary.

Ms Wolf formerly worked as an adviser to Mr Gove and for Mr Cummings, and co-wrote the Conservatives' 2019 general election manifesto.

The lack of transparency in the awarding of contracts and the number awarded to people with close connections to Ministers and the Tory Party have raised many questions which need answers.

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

UK Government up the ante on crisis of their own making

The Guardian reports that the row between the UK and the EU over checks on sausages and other chilled foods sent from Britain to Northern Ireland has deepened, with the Brexit minister telling Brussels that trade war threats will not wash with voters.

They say the UK government is reportedly considering unilaterally extending the grace periods under the protocol that give businesses in Northern Ireland time to adapt to new rules – including for the import of chilled meats such as sausages, chicken nuggets and mince from Great Britain.

What is ironic of course is that this so-called crisis is of the government's own making. It has been sparked by a legal agreement that a year ago was being touted by the self-same Ministers, and the Prime Minister, as the best thing since sliced bread. No sausage sandwich for Boris Johnson this time.

Fortunately, Gavin Barwell, who as Theresa May’s chief of staff was fully involved in the Brexit talks until the summer of 2019, is on hand to put them straight. He said it was just not plausible for Boris Johnson to claim that he did not know what he was signing up to. Barwell told the Today programme:

I don’t think the EU is ever going to think that is credible. The EU negotiating team have obviously worked very closely with the British negotiating team under both governments. They know the quality of the civil servants involved in that work, and they know that British ministers would have been have been advised in detail on the implications of what they were signing up to.

So I don’t think anyone who’s involved in the process is going to find it credible that the government signed up to something and didn’t understand what the consequences of that were.

Asked if he thought that the government was now only pretending that it did not realise how damaging the protocol would be when it signed it in 2019, Barwell said:

It’s difficult to conceive of any other explanation. When I was working with Theresa [May], Boris Johnson was foreign secretary for a period of that time. He perfectly well understood what the previous iteration of the protocol meant in terms of regulatory checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

false When the deal was published and the government brought its legislation forward, the explanatory memorandum for the bill, which explained what the bill meant, was very clear what the consequences would be.

And I think he and David Frost are intelligent people. I find it inconceivable that they didn’t understand what they were signing up to. They would have been advised very clearly by the civil service about that.

And I think it’s also important to consider the political context at the time. When Boris took over, he initially tried to prorogue parliament and leave without a deal. He wasn’t able to do that. So he then decided that he wanted to call an election to strengthen his position and it was clearly easier to fight that an election within an “oven-ready” Brexit deal.

So I think the calculation was sign up to whatever is on offer, and then see if we can deal with anything we don’t like down the line. I think the EU have come to the same conclusion as me and that’s why they’re taking the approach that they are now.

Isnt it time UK Government Ministers admtted they had got it wrong and that the whole basis of their 2019 General Election campaign was wrong?

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Home Office contractors accused of using racist terms

As if it wasnt bad enough that the Home Office is pursuing a hardline immigration policy, an employment tribunal has said that it is “deeply concerned” about Home Office contractors who deport people from the UK having used the racist term “cotton pickers” to describe their black colleagues.

The Guardian reports that the Home Office uses the contractor Mitie to deport people to destinations including Jamaica, Pakistan, India, Nigeria and Ghana along with European countries and other locations. The escorts are only allowed to do this work if they have received accreditation from the Home Office. It is the behaviour of this company's employees that has come into question:

In a judgment from the London south employment tribunal (published on 4 June) a claim by a Mitie escort of Pakistani heritage, Muqaddas Zaib, based on race and disability discrimination, was rejected.

However, two witnesses who claimed that the racist term “cotton pickers” was used by some staff to refer to some black employees, were found to be “credible and honest” by the tribunal. The term is a racist, derogatory reference to black slaves subjected to forced labour in the southern United States.

One of these witnesses, a black detention custody officer manager called Denise Heslop, told the court that another member of staff said to her: “You’re nuttink but a cotton picker.”

In her evidence, the second witness, Linda Basiony, a representative for the trade union Community, said: “People would climb into the van and look at the list of jobs that had gone out. Some officers would make the comment: ‘I see that the cotton pickers were busy.’ [The black staff] were referred to as the ‘cotton pickers club’.”

Zaib claimed that he was discriminated against on the basis of his race and his disability, neurofibromatosis, which can lead to a smaller body size, because he was not given as many of these complex jobs as other colleagues. Mitie rejected the discrimination claims.

Although the tribunal’s judgment found no evidence of race or disability discrimination in the way Zaib was treated by Mitie the judgment stated in relation to use of the term “cotton pickers”: “Whilst the tribunal stops short of concluding that there was a racist culture (within Mitie) it was deeply concerned firstly that such offensive comments were made by employees but also that they appear not to be isolated incidents. It appeared to the tribunal that there was a reluctance on the part of those subject to such banter, to complain.”

Surely the Home Office needs to carry out a thorough investigation of these claims.

Monday, June 07, 2021

Planned foreign aid cuts under fire

I do like paid-up members of the awkward squad, even Brexiteers, and you dont get more committed to that cause than David Davis, the Tory MP for Haltemprice and Howden who is a key part of the opposition to government plans to reduce the overseas aid budget from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5%.

Davis is arguing that Boris Johnson risks throwing away “enormous influence” on the world stage with morally “devastating” overseas aid cuts that will lead to preventable deaths. His argument is that cutting aid will lead to a diminution of UK influence in key parts of the world such as Africa, where China is establishing a foothold. But, as the Independent reports, there is more:

“If it [the government] wanted to do this, should have brought it to the House of Commons and said this in our manifesto, but the duress we’re facing now means we have to do this, so ask the House to approve it.

“It didn’t. The reason it didn’t is because the majority of the House doesn’t agree with it. That’s what we’re going to see today if we get the vote. I’m afraid that’s frankly in my judgement a morally poor position for the government”.

Referring to huge cuts to overseas water and sanitation projects as a result of the overall fall in aid spending, Mr Davis said: “You’ve got massive cuts in clean water which kills more children worldwide than almost anything else — 80 per cent cut there.”

When pressed on whether he would like to see the cuts reversed — rather than funding commitments returned next year — he replied: “In this year I would look and say you’ve just got to have a very close look at the damage you’re doing. If you are going to kill people with this, which I think is going to be the outcome in many areas, we need to reverse those immediately.”

Tory rebels are being led by the former Conservative chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, who is seeking to add an amendment to the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria) — a piece of legislation that establishes a new “high-risk, high reward” research agency backed with £800 million to explore new ideas. 

It will be up to speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle to decide whether the amendment is in scope and is selected for consideration when the bill returns to the Commons for further consideration later today.

Mitchell told Sky News that “far more than 100,000 people — which was the original estimate — of avoidable deaths will take place as a result of these terrible cuts”.

The Government is arguing that it needs to reduce spending because of the pandemic, but that is precisely why we need to be out there helping third world countries cope with covid and its consequences. To do otherwise risks prolonging the life of the disease and subsequently bringing further variants back to the UK.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

A very British symbol of failing housing and social policy

If there was one upside of the pandemic it was that all the UK's governments started to address the homeless crisis that has beset this country for some time. Ministers realised that having people living rough or sofa surfing would just exacerbate infection rates and put lives at risk. I don't suppose it occurred to many of them that the life expectancy of a homeless person is much shorter than the average and that would have been a good reason to do somethng earlier, including initiating the sort of investment in tackling homelessness that was prompted by lockdown.

Unfortunately, not every government invested wisely. In Wales, we used the crisis to accelerate housing first initiatives, and put in place more emergency accommodation and beefed up support, especially around mental health and substance abuse. In England, it seems that it was all about sweeping the problem under the carpet, a short-term solution that would disappear once the crisis was over, putting us back at square one.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in what is happening in Cornwall. The Guardian reports on claims by a local charity that vulnerable homeless people have been moved out of hotels in Cornwall to make way for police and government officials attending this week’s G7 summit:

Disc Newquay has said that many people who have been living in hotel rooms under rolling short-term contracts during the pandemic had been told to leave, before the summit of the world’s seven largest advanced economies at a luxury hotel in Carbis Bay.

“Most of the hotel accommodation from Bodmin down has been block-booked for the G7,” said Monique Collins, the charity’s manager. “We have people in hotels in Camborne, Redruth, Truro, St Austell and Newquay – and they have all been moved out.”

Collins said the hundreds of summit bookings had added to pressures on emergency homeless accommodation in the county, leaving many people with even fewer options. However, Cornwall county council blamed the tourist season for shortages of temporary accommodation.

The police have booked more than 4,000 rooms at almost 200 venues across Devon and Cornwall. The Cabinet Office, which has also has made hundreds of room bookings, said that it had booked only commercially available rooms.

About 130 homeless people had been moved from hotels to make way for paying guests, according to Disc. Seven had to leave Sandy Lodge Hotel, Newquay, on 24 May to accommodate some of the 5,000 police officers who have been drafted in from outside Cornwall. Some were moved into other hotels only to be moved again.

This is a massive failure of public policy on the part of the UK Government, nor does it look good to be throwing vulnerable people back onto the streets to make room for international dignitaries. It is reputed that the cost of this summit is £70 million. Important as it is, just think what a sum of that magnitude could do for Cornwall's homelessness situation. Perhaps the government could provide another £70 million and do both.

Saturday, June 05, 2021

Government tries again to sell patient NHS data in England

The Guardian reports that GP practices in England have been instructed to hand over their patients’ entire medical histories with just six weeks’ notice. Writing in the paper, Ameen Kamlana, a GP in east London and an NHS activist, says he is very concerned about the implications this has for his patients and, with other doctors in London,has., taken taken the decision to refuse to hand over patient records:

This data grab is unwarranted, unparalleled in its scale and implications and quite possibly unlawful. Yet NHS Digital, acting at the government’s request, has downplayed the significance of the move. There has been no public awareness campaign, so you’d be forgiven for not knowing that your consent is assumed, or that you have only until 23 June to opt out from having your GP data extracted.

What this means in practice is that all your GP interactions, starting from the time you were born (and including many of the most intimate details of your life) are at risk of being indirectly sold to corporations. To be specific, your GP data includes details of physical, mental and sexual health, drug and alcohol history, and any family and work-related problems that you thought you’d disclosed in confidence. What’s worse, your personal information will not be fully anonymous, meaning it is relatively easily identifiable as yours (you can opt out after 23 June, but NHS Digital holds on to whatever data it has obtained, and still makes it available to third parties).

We’ve been here before. A national programme launched in 2013 to extract GP medical records, “care.data”, was scrapped following concerns about the security and confidentiality of “pseudonomised” data sharing and a lack of clarity and transparency about who could access this data and how it would be used. In 2016, Google DeepMind established a data-sharing agreement with the Royal Free hospital in London. The hospital was found to have failed to comply with the Data Protection Act in handing over the personal information of 1.6 million patients without adequately informing them. But rather than learning from past scandals such as these, the government has instead decided to pursue this data grab by stealth, under the cover of a pandemic.

Our health data has the potential to save lives. GP patient records are the single richest and most valuable source of this kind of information. Artificial intelligence and medical research companies can use health data to train machine-learning algorithms that can detect patterns, diagnose patients and identify new avenues for treatment. But this can be a mixed blessing, depending on how the data – and the products made with it – are used. Research and development depends heavily both on public data and public funding, but if the tools developed using our health records aren’t made publicly available, then not only have we handed over our health data for free; many people won’t even be able to access the treatments and innovations developed using it.

Personal health information should be held in trust and put to good use in the public interest, be it tailoring local services, improving public policy or driving research and development for publicly available treatments. But it is open to abuse when it’s mishandled. NHS Digital has developed a highly secure “Trusted Research Environment” that provides researchers with safe access to data, without sending out copies. Why, yet again, is the government choosing not to use it?

This latest data grab is symptomatic of the lack of representation, transparency, and accountability within both Whitehall and NHS England. We desperately need a public conversation about the influence corporations are exerting on ministers and political processes, and what this means for democracy. Greensill’s lobbying of the head of NHS England is just the latest example of the problem of corporate capture at the heart of our health service.

This corporatisation of the NHS is both dangerous and wrong. As Ameen Kamlana says, prsonal health data should be used in an informed manner and in the public interest, not exploited for corporate profits. 

If you are registered with a GP in England, you have less than three weeks remaining to opt out of GP data sharing for purposes beyond your direct care. It is not long enough to get the message across and in my view that is deliberate.

Friday, June 04, 2021

Peer gives Tory party £500,000 days after taking seat in Lords

If anybody ever doubted the case for abolishing appointed peerages and creating an elected secodn chanber, the surely this story must dispel such misgivings. The Independent reports that a scandal-hit banker gifted the Tories half a million pounds after Boris Johnson gave him a seat in the House of Lords against official advice.

The paper says newly released Electoral Commission records record that three days after he was introduced in the Lords as a Tory peer Peter Cruddas handed £500,000 to Conservative central office:

Lord Cruddas, a former Tory treasurer, had been subject to objections from the Lords sleaze watchdog because of his role in a previous cash-for-access scandal.

In 2012 had stepped down from the role after the Sunday Times alleged that he had offered undercover reporters access to then prime minister David Cameron in exchange for £250,000 donations.

While he successfully sued the newspaper for libel, an appeal court found that the central allegations around cash for access was supported by the facts. Judges described the former Treasurer's actions as "unacceptable, inappropriate and wrong".

Lord Cruddas, a financier who was once named the richest man in the City of London, was estimated last year to be worth £860m and had previously given more than £3.5m to the party.

When the Prime Minister nominated Cruddas for a peerage, the House of Lords Appointments Commission said it was unable to support the appointment. Despite this Johnson ruled that the concerns about the former Tory official and banker were "historic", assuring the committee "that I see this case as a clear and rare exception". It is the first time the commission's advice had not been followed by a PM.

Surely reform is long overdue.

Thursday, June 03, 2021

Tory Islamophobia inquiry excluded Muslim members

The Guardian reports on claims by a former Tory MEP that Muslim members of the Conservative party were deliberately excluded from an inquiry into Islamophobia within its ranks. Sajjad Karim, who represented north-west England in the European parliament for 15 years until 2019 called the party's complaints procedure “not fit for purpose” and urged Boris Johnson not to pursue an “English nationalist agenda”.

He said the long-awaited report that came out last week and found no evidence of “institutional Islamophobia” was a “whitewash”, and said apologies from the prime minister for any offence he had caused were “insincere”:

Speaking to the Guardian’s Politics Weekly podcast, Karim voiced concerns that Conservative central headquarters (CCHQ) would use “sleight of hand” to escape implementing the recommendations made by the inquiry’s Prof Swaran Singh.

Johnson’s apology “for any offence taken” when he compared women wearing burqas to letterboxes in 2018 and subsequent admission he would not use the same language as prime minister were described as “mealy mouthed” and “nothing but insulting” by Karim.

He said party members including him had “no confidence left that the party internally is willing to actually deal with this issue”.

“We cannot just rely on internal processes to deliver a result,” Karim said. “That’s why I certainly take the view that it’s time for some sort of external light to be shone upon the internal workings of the Conservative party when it comes to these issues.”

Karim revealed he told party officials of a “particular complaint” before the inquiry began and was assured he would be contacted once it was under way, but he heard “absolutely nothing”.

He only found it had closed from media reports, and said he was told by CCHQ “we’re very sorry, it’s too late for you to contribute to the inquiry – it was open to the public but now it’s closed”.

Karim said this was proof of a “very shabby attempt” to “skewer the findings” of the inquiry by trying to “make sure” only certain people gave evidence so that it progressed “in a certain direction”. “I’m not the only one that finds himself in this position,” he said. “There are many others who simply were excluded from the process. And I think quite intentionally.”

The whole process of having an inquiry – which Johnson was bounced into committing to by the then chancellor, Sajid Javid, during a 2019 Tory leadership TV debate – was deemed by the prime minister as an “irritant”, Karim said.

He said Tory activists had relayed to him “a number of accounts” of Islamophobia, and that he had experienced it himself “both at a local level and at a parliamentary level” – meaning the problem “permeates right the way through” the party.

“You have findings, which they say they are going to implement, but obviously only time will tell,” Karim said. He said he had tried often to raise issues of Islamophobia in the past but “people like me … simply get portrayed as individuals who really are just troublemakers and nothing more than that”.

It is beginning to sound like the Tory Party is unreformable.

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Call for investigation into donations to the Tories

There is an interesting story on Business Insider, who report that the Electoral Commission has been asked to launch an "urgent investigation" into multiple potential breaches of the law by the Conservative Party, after an investigation revealed that Prime Minister Boris Johnson's party had received tens of thousands of pounds from companies that no longer exist. The website says that questions are centred on three donations totalling £20,000 made to the party by two companies, Stridewell Estates and Unionist Buildings:

Insider's investigation revealed that Electoral Commission records showed the Conservative Party had accepted a £10,000 donation from Stridewell Estates, whose director was the property magnate and Tory donor Brian Gillies, in November 2019, more than three years after the company was dissolved in November 2016.

A spokesperson for Stridewell Estates had previously told Insider that "there must be a mistake. ... It is very possible that the company that donated has been recorded incorrectly."

A £6,000 donation from Unionist Buildings was accepted by the local association of the Foreign Office Minister Wendy Morton in June 2017, after the company was dissolved in January 2017 — and then a further £4,000 was registered by Morton in January 2020.

As is made clear in the article, political-finance laws state that a company is a permissible donor only if it is registered under the Companies Act 2006, incorporated in the UK, and "carries on business in the United Kingdom." The Electoral Commission has the power to apply to the courts to seek forfeiture of impermissible donations "as well as or instead of" using a sanction. Under the law, they can levy fines as a sanction of up to £20,000 per offense.

There is though a case for the law to be made tougher:

Steve Goodrich, head of research and investigations at Transparency International UK, told Insider: "The rules on company donations make it far too easy for money of unknown provenance to enter UK politics. Parties should at least be checking to see if their corporate donors are at least 'carrying on business' in Britain, yet that's such a low hurdle to pass as to be next to meaningless.

"The law needs changing so political donations from companies can only derive from genuine commercial activities."

I will await the outcome of this investigation with interest.

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Why did the Welsh LIberal Democrats fail again?

This is an article I wrote for Liberator on the Welsh Senedd elections:

Three and a half years ago, I wrote in Liberator 387 that the Welsh Liberal Democrats were facing an existential crisis. We had emerged from the 2017 General Election without a single MP representing a Welsh constituency, our small but successful Welsh Assembly group had been reduced to a rump of one and our councillor base much diminished.

Unfortunately, the time that has passed since I wrote those words has not been well-used. The triumph of the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election proved to be a false dawn, and once more the party finds itself hanging on by its fingernails in Wales.

Despite an unprecedented investment in staffing and campaigning resource, the recent Welsh Senedd elections were a mess. Those of us seeking to persuade voters to consider placing their cross next to Welsh Liberal Democrats candidates were hampered by a vacuous national slogan, an anonymous manifesto, poor messaging, a shaky digital presence, and bland literature that was not even distributed in all constituencies.

This was not the fault of hard-working and committed staff, but a failure in the planning stage to craft a distinctive message and vision which the party could campaign on, and to address the organisational issues that have plagued the Welsh Party for some time. The result was £33,000 in lost deposits, £15,000 of which was lost in contesting PCC elections, which were largely treated as an afterthought.

The slogan on which we staked our future was ‘Put Recovery First’, three words that were repeated ad nauseum in interviews, in literature and on ballot papers, as if it had not occurred to any other party or candidate that this might be a good thing.

It was a slogan adopted at a time when Labour were reaping the benefits of a successful vaccination programme, were viewed as having managed the pandemic with a surer touch than their counterparts on the other side of Offa’s Dyke, and were dominating the headlines with their plans to move Wales on. Why did we think that we could compete with that or appear distinctive through a three-word phrase?

By and large our policy positions were sound and interesting, they just didn’t attract much attention, mostly because our spokespeople did not talk about them and, with the exception of mental health and a vague unexplained and unfunded promise about the environment, they did not feature on our literature.

In one instance that was fortunate. The proposal for the Welsh Government to underwrite personal debt was misconceived and should never have made it into the manifesto, further evidence of us lacking any sort of political filter or understanding of how things play on doorsteps.

The areas of Wales we have always relied on to get us over the line have changed beyond recognition. Rural Wales is no longer populated by traditional liberals, while the farming fraternity has always largely voted Tory despite the misguided contrary view held by some ‘senior’ Liberal Democrats.

A large influx of English voters and the breaking down of tactical voting patterns subsequent to the coalition has made these seats much harder to win. In addition there is little all-year round campaigning in any of these areas, and scant work outside election time in those parts where Labour is strong, making it more difficult for us to convince voters there that we are a viable alternative to the Tories.

Despite that we continue to focus our resources and time into these constituencies at the expense of the rest of Wales, leading to local parties elsewhere becoming moribund and causing an exodus of activists.

This exodus was exacerbated by the capitulation of the Welsh Party hierarchy to the Feds during the 2019 General Election, when they didn’t just give Plaid Cymru and the Greens free rein in certain constituencies, but did so against the wishes of local parties, undermined key activists and ceded our autonomy as a Welsh Party on key matters such as candidate selection and approval.

They turned the Welsh Liberal Democrats from a proud, independent political entity into a client of the federal party. It is little wonder that a number of valuable members took that as a cue to call it a day and find other political outlets as independents or in different parties.

For some considerable time, the Welsh Liberal Democrats hierarchy has been missing in action, failing to coordinate or lead campaigning activity, to communicate effectively with members and activists, issuing dubious decrees from on high during the pandemic and failing to explain when challenged. There has been little or no two-way dialogue.

That was reflected in the way the party approached the Senedd campaign. In addition to the inability to articulate a vision for Wales or how the party might deliver a more liberal government, their strategy amounted to just more of the same, reinforcing the mistakes of past elections and further widening the gap between better resourced areas and the growing number of campaigning black holes.

There was clearly an attempt to direct resources at our two most promising regions, Mid and West Wales and South Wales Central. The first of these includes Brecon and Radnorshire, Montgomeryshire, Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire, and Pembrokeshire, the second consists of Cardiff, Rhondda Cynon Taf and the Vale of Glamorgan. Despite that there is an ongoing inability to understand how fighting a region in a top-up list election differs from the more traditional constituency campaigning.

It was also apparent that the party had no idea which voters we were targeting, what messages would most effectively win votes in these elections or how best to use the resources we had. The key in any top-up list election is to get cross-over votes between the two ballot papers, but also to perform credibly in our weaker areas so as to reach the threshold necessary to win a regional seat. We just about did that in Mid and West Wales, with the election of Jane Dodd as the last list member for that region, but this was achieved more by luck, than good judgement.

Other areas were mostly left to their own devices, benefitting from funding from the Welsh Party for regional freeposts, but failing to do anything in derelict or semi-derelict constituencies.

If this article appears negative or particularly grumpy it is with good reason. A comprehensive review was carried out following the 2019 General Election with thirty-nine recommendations that seems to have been shelved until after the Senedd elections. Many of the actions in that report could have made a big difference this time but were not implemented.

Developing a distinctive vision around which the Welsh party can unite will not be easy but should embrace a commitment to social justice and internationalism, citizenship and community and should embrace Welsh culture in both languages.

Above all though, we need to rebuild campaigning capacity across Wales, led by and resourced by the Welsh party. The local council elections next year may well be make or break. In particular if our so-called target seats in mid-Wales are to continue justifying their status then we should expect significant progress at a local level.

We cannot continue to ignore the lessons of this and previous campaigns. Grassroots campaigning is meant to be our speciality as a party. If we can at least get that right in 2022 then maybe there is hope for the future.

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