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Saturday, July 31, 2021

Another argument for reforming finance in politics

Over at the Guardian they report that Labour has called for Boris Johnson to explain the existence of a secretive “advisory board” for wealthy Conservative donors who have received regular access to the prime minister and Rishi Sunak.

The paper explains party chair Ben Elliot, charged with beefing up Tory fundraising efforts, had created the club for some of the party’s most generous donors, some giving £250,000 a year or more. They quote Labour party chair Anneliese Dodds saying: “This appears to be less of an advisory board than a means for a select group of elite donors to gain privileged access to the prime minister and the chancellor."

Well, yes. But didnt Labour do exactly the same thing when they were last in government? Is this a case of double-standards on the part of the Labour spokespersons?

Where I think I can agree is that this is no way to run a country, where money gets you access and influence. Surely, it is time for a fundamental reform of the way politics is funded to stop this sort of thing.

Friday, July 30, 2021

More old pal acts in government

The Guardian reports that Dominic Cummings personally called a former colleague on the Vote Leave Brexit campaign and asked if his company would work for the government on its response to the Covid pandemic, leading to the award of a £580,000 Cabinet Office contract with no competitive process.

They say inman email on 20 March 2020, Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser asked the most senior civil servant responsible for contracts to sign off the budget immediately, and that if “anybody in CABOFF [the Cabinet Office] whines”, to tell them Cummings had “ordered it” from the prime minister:

The company, Hanbury Strategy, was founded by Paul Stephenson shortly after the 2016 Brexit referendum, during which he worked alongside Cummings as the Vote Leave director of communications. Hanbury also worked for the Conservative party on the 2019 general election campaign, with Cummings and Ben Warner, a data specialist who worked for Vote Leave before becoming an adviser at No 10.

The contract with Hanbury, to conduct opinion polls on the public’s view of the government’s Covid response, is subject to a legal challenge by the Good Law Project (GLP), which argues that it shows “apparent bias”, particularly given the company’s close connection to Cummings and the Conservative party.

A witness statement by Cummings and other documents including internal Cabinet Office emails were made public at a court hearing last Friday. They show that concerns were expressed among civil servants that some work Hanbury did with public money, such as polling opinion on opposition politicians, including the Labour party leader, Keir Starmer, and Sadiq Khan, the Labour mayor of London, was carried out for the political advantage of the Conservative party.

On 26 May 2020, a Cabinet Office official emailed a colleague saying: “Hanbury measures attitudes towards political figures, which they shouldn’t do using government money, but they’ve been asked to and it’s a battle that I think is hard to fight.”

Cummings said in his witness statement that “my expert opinion” was that Hanbury would provide world-class polling work, and was the only firm who could do what was needed, start immediately and “we can trust to give their all and be honest”.

Cummings said that, on Sunday 15 March 2020, “I called many people to ask for help – epidemiologists, project managers etc. I also asked Paul Stephenson, a partner at Hanbury, if he would help with polling, data collection and modelling.”

Stephenson said they could start straight away. Cummings said in his statement: “Following my call to Paul Stephenson … I requested that Hanbury be engaged urgently to start conducting frequent large-scale polls immediately.”

On 20 March, Cummings emailed Alex Aiken, the head of government communications at the Cabinet Office, saying: “URGENT: Alex pls sign off immediately budget so Paul S can get out our large scale polls into field TODAY. Anybody in CABOFF whines tell them I ordered it from PM [OFFICIAL].”

Normal legal requirements for government contracts to be opened out to a full competitive tender were suspended due to the emergency of the pandemic, and the contract was directly awarded to Hanbury.

In a similar judicial review challenge to a direct contract – awarded to Public First, a research company with longstanding connections to Cummings – Mrs Justice O’Farrell ruled in GLP’s favour in June, saying that even in the pandemic the government should have conducted an exercise to consider other potential companies.

Yet another reason for a full public inquiry into the way the government handled covid.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

The lies and untruths of Boris Johnson

With a Labour MP evicted from the House of Commons for calling the Prime Minister a liar, the focus has fallen back onto some of the more infamous untruths that have passed the Boris Johnson's lips.

It is worth therefore harking back to this article in the Independent from May 2019 which lists seven of his most notorious, ranging from incorrect 14th century history to the EU banana police. They point out that Boris Johnson’s flirtation with dishonesty has cost him at least three jobs and damaged his standing with the people of Liverpool and London.

The first is when he was sacked from his job at The Times newspaper over allegations he fabricated a quote from his godfather, the historian Colin Lucas, for a front-page article about the discovery of Edward II’s Rose Palace. Notoriously, on moving to The Daily Telegraph, wnere he worked as the publication's Brussels correspondent between 1989 and 1994, he made his reputation with a series of articles about mostly made-up abuses:

His articles, like those in several other Eurosceptic newspapers, contained many of the claims widely described as “Euromyths”, including plans to introduce same-size “eurocoffins”, establish a “banana police force” to regulate the shape of the curved yellow fruit, and ban prawn cocktail crisps. When questioned about them in parliament, he denied suggestions they were a figment of his imagination.

Johnson was sacked as party vice-chairman and shadow arts minister in November 2004 after assuring Michael Howard that tabloid reports of his affair with Spectator columnist Petronella Wyatt were false and an “inverted pyramid of piffle”. When the story was found to be true, he refused to resign.

Most damagingly were the lies told during the 2016 referendum campaign:

Launching the Vote Leave bus tour, Mr Johnson returned to the scene of his earlier falsehoods by repeating his old allegations that the EU was setting rules on the shape of bananas.

He also backed the infamous claim on the side of the bus that the UK was sending £350m a week to the EU, followed by “let’s fund our NHS instead”.

The UK Statistics Authority issued an official statement in May 2016 describing the claim as “misleading”, but Mr Johnson repeated it in an article in the Telegraph in September 2017.

The article has since been taken down and Mr Johnson is facing a private prosecution over claims he deliberately lied during the campaign.

The MP's lawyer told a court: “I should make it clear that because of the interest in this case that it is absolutely denied by Mr Johnson that he acted in an improper or dishonest manner at any time.”

In January Boris Johnson claimed he did not mention Turkey during the referendum after it was suggested he falsely claimed 80 million Turks would come to Britain unless the UK left the EU.

In fact, he co-signed a letter stating that “the only way to avoid having common borders with Turkey is to vote Leave and take back control”. The Vote Leave campaign also produced a poster reading: “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU”, adding “David Cameron wants Turkey to join the EU. How will our NHS cope?”.

Mr Johnson, whose great-grandfather was the Ottoman politican Ali Kemal, was also quoted as saying “I am very pro-Turkish but what I certainly can’t imagine is a situation in which 77 million of my fellow Turks and those of Turkish origin can come here without any checks at all. That is mad – that won’t work.”

Mr Johnson’s Turkish cousin commented: “He doesn’t strike me as being very honest about his views.”

Perhaps there is a strong case to abandon the age-long tradition of MPs being forbidden from calling other members liars.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Is global warming now irreversible?

Today's Guardian contains a very worrying article in which they report that a new study tracking the planet’s vital signs has found that many of the key indicators of the global climate crisis are getting worse and either approaching, or exceeding, key tipping points as the earth heats up.

They say the study found some 16 out of 31 tracked planetary vital signs, including greenhouse gas concentrations, ocean heat content and ice mass, set worrying new records:

While the pandemic shut down economies and shifted the way people think about work, school and travel, it did little to reduce the overall global carbon emissions. Fossil fuel use dipped slightly in 2020, but the authors of a report published in the journal BioScience say that carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide “have all set new year-to-date records for atmospheric concentrations in both 2020 and 2021”.

In April 2021, carbon dioxide concentration reached 416 parts per million, the highest monthly global average concentration ever recorded. The five hottest years on record have all occurred since 2015, and 2020 was the second hottest year in history.

The study also found that ruminant livestock, a significant source of planet-warming gases, now number more than 4 billion, and their total mass is more than that of all humans and wild animals combined. The rate of forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon increased in both 2019 and 2020, reaching a 12-year high of 1.11 million hectares deforested in 2020.

Ocean acidification is near an all-time record, and when combined with warmer ocean temperatures, it threatens the coral reefs that more than half a billion people depend on for food, tourism dollars and storm surge protection.

However, there were a few bright spots in the study, including fossil fuel subsidies reaching a record low and fossil fuel divestment reaching a record high.

In order to change the course of the climate emergency, the authors write that profound alterations need to happen. They say the world needs to develop a global price for carbon that is linked to a socially just fund to finance climate mitigation and adaptation policies in the developing world.

The authors also highlight the need for a phase-out and eventual ban of fossil fuels, and the development of global strategic climate reserves to protect and restore natural carbon sinks and biodiversity. Climate education should also be part of school curricula around the globe, they say.

“Policies to alleviate the climate crisis or any of the other threatened planetary boundary transgressions should not be focused on symptom relief but on addressing their root cause: the overexploitation of the Earth,” the report says. Only by taking on this core issue, the authors write, will people be able to “ensure the long-term sustainability of human civilization and give future generations the opportunity to thrive”.

The big question of course is whether mankind is capable of taking this sort of action on a global scale? If we don't then climate change really will be irreversible.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Will climate change overwhelm the UK's infrastructure?

We have had extreme temperatures and now flash floods, overwhelming several London tube stations and two of the capital's hospitals. Across the country we are relying on aging drainage systems and other infrastructure that was largely constructed by the victorians to cope with weather patterns they weren't designed for. And despite decades where we have been warned of these consequences of climate change our government has failed to do anything about it.

The Guardian reports on the views of scientists, who say flash flooding of the type seen in London this weekend will become a more common occurrence as the climate crisis worsens. They believe the UK government, businesses and householders must do much more to protect against future harm:

Dr Jess Neumann, a hydrologist at the University of Reading, said: “Flooding from intense summer rainfall is going happen more frequently. No city, town or village is immune to flooding and we all need to take hard action right now if we are to prevent impacts from getting worse in the future.”

Climate policy in the UK has focused on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, which is a primary concern, to reduce the human impact on the climate and ensure global heating does not reach catastrophic levels. But the government has also been warned frequently that measures to cope with the impacts of extreme weather are urgently needed, and that the UK has been falling behind on such adaptive measures.

Adapting to the impacts will require a thorough overhaul of the UK’s infrastructure, encompassing not only drainage and water supply systems, and transport, to ensure they are not overwhelmed, as many in London were at the weekend, but also energy supply and communications networks.

Buildings will need to be redesigned and public areas revamped to include better drainage channels and storm drains, while more innovative approaches could include porous pavements. A lack of green spaces and vegetation, and the paving over of many areas without heed to flood risk, has compounded the problem in many cities, including London, and also needs to be addressed, experts warned.

Neumann said: “Planning and development need to consider flood risk from all sources – river, groundwater and flash floods – and adapt accordingly. It is not acceptable to keep paving over the land and expect the public to deal with the water when it comes into their homes.”

Of course we are not going to be able to coordinate efforts to deal with these new requirements if we don't know where the problems are. Liz Stephens, associate professor of climate resilience at Reading University, says there is a lack even of basic data, caused by a refusal to invest in more precise research. “The surface water flood hazard maps for the UK have not been improved since 2013. These urgently need updating. The current accuracy of surface water flood maps reflects an investment choice and not what is possible with the state-of-the-art science,” she said.

“It is difficult to help people prepare for surface water flooding if they don’t know they are at risk, and if they don’t receive precise warnings of the likely impacts when heavy rain is forecast.”

And don't look to the insurance industry to pick up the slack either. Their standard response to crises of this kind is to jack up their premiums and then refuse to insure altogether.

The government need to start taking this seriously and show signs of urgent action to map and tacke the problem, otherwise it will not just be a few days of heat we will have to put up with, but major disruption to our day to day lives.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Former Tory Councillor's £120m contract for unused face shields

The Independent reports on yet another potential scandal around procurement during the pandemic.

The paper says a former Tory councillor was given a £120m government contract for personal protective equipment (PPE) which is now lying unused because of concerns about its quality:

Steve Dechan, who owns medical device manufacturer Platform-14, had his offer to supply protective equipment from China fast-tracked through the government’s controversial “VIP” lane.

The Sunday Times newspaper reports that fewer than 1 in 400 of the face shields procured by the company on behalf of the government have been used, because the regulator does not believe they meet the right standards.

The original order for 120 million shields has delivered just 274,200 into the NHS supply chain, representing 0.23 per cent of the overall stock.

It means the shields used so far have cost the equivalent of £423 each, despite similar ones being available to buy online for less than £1.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has to authorise all PPE that is not CE marked (an EU designation that means it complies with European standards).

But the regulator said: “None of the documentation provided to HSE indicated the product to be CE marked.”

The regulator wrote to officials in September last year saying the shields “cannot enter the NHS supply chain” and repeatedly refused to approve them.

But in February, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) stepped in and directly approved the face shields, with 274,000 used in the NHS so far. At the height of the pandemic last year, none could be used.

The sooner there is an inquiry into these issues the better.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Johnson's Russian backers

Despite the findings of the Intelligence and Security Committee last year that failures at the heart of Government have allowed the Russians to interfere and influence our democracy, it seems there is no stopping them from pushing funds at the Tories.

The Mirror reports that new analysis has found the Conservative Party has accepted £280,000 from Russia-linked donors in the year since the publication of the Russia Report. And almost £2 million in Russian-linked cash has been donated to the Tories since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister.

The paper adds for good measure, that none of the 21 recommendations of the Intelligence and Security Committee have been implemented:

The heavily-redacted report noted that there had been widespread allegations that Russia sought to influence voters in the 2016 Brexit referendum - and that the government and intelligence agencies had failed to fully look into them.

And it uncovered an influx of Russian money into the UK - and into "Londongrad" in particular - following the introduction of the "investor visa" scheme in 1994.

The scheme, introduced for the first time by John Major’s Tory government, allowed wealthy oligarchs to “buy” citizenship in exchange for a £2 million investment in UK bonds or shares through a bank.

The so-called “golden visa” scheme was suspended in 2018 over fears it was being used for money laundering, but was restarted the following year.

The report said the money was invested in building influence across the UK establishment - including "PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions" - all of whom were "willing beneficiaries of Russian money."

And it went on to say: "In brief, Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’, and there are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the UK business and social scene, and accepted because of their wealth.”
The report noted that "several members" of the Russian elite - some of whom had close links to Vladimir Putin - have donated to UK political parties.

But the report - at least in its redacted form - did not name the donors or the parties benefiting from the cash.

There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing on the part of the donors, all of whom are now British citizens and are legally entitled to donate to UK political parties.

Among the figures filling Tory coffers is banker Lubov Chernukhin, who is married to Putin’s former deputy finance minister Vladimir Chernukhin, has given a total of £1.7 million to the party.

These donations have included bids at fundraising auctions at the notorious Tory Black and White Ball, where over the years she has secured a night out with Theresa May, a tennis match with Boris Johnson and a private dinner with then-Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson in the Churchill War Rooms.

She has donated almost £65,000 to the Tories in the last year.

In March the Conservatives received £50,000 from Access Industries, the firm owned by Len Blavatnik, Britain's richest man with an estimated fortune of £23bn.

Mr Blavatnik is understood to have made much of his fortune in 1990s Russia, where he invested heavily in the state's largest aluminium firm and its third-largest oil producer.

But while many of his contemporaries - who maintained closer links to the Kremlin - have found themselves sanctioned by Western nations, Mr Blavatnik secured British citizenship in 2010 and a knighthood in 2017.

Mr Blavatnik donated to Donald Trump's inauguration fund. While he was not mentioned in the unredacted sections of Robert Mueller's report in to Russian meddling in US elections, it was widely reported that he was under scrutiny from the probe.

And Alexander Temerko, a wealthy businessman whose Aquind firm is awaiting government approval for a billion pound electricity interconnector under the Channel, has also been a frequent donor in recent years.

Mr Temerko, who has been a critic of President Putin, and his firm have given more than £1.6 million to the Tories.

A Spokesperson for Mr Temerko said: “Mr. Temerko is a Ukrainian-born British citizen and has no links to Russia.

“Mr. Temerko left Russia in 2003, following his political persecution in the well-known Yukos Oil Company case by the Putin regime.

“Since then, he has never returned to Russia, nor worked for or partnered with any Russian-linked business.”

The case for a reform of party political funding has never been stronger.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Have the UK Government readopted the herd immunity strategy?

The Guardian reports on the view of SAGE adviser, Professor Robert West that ministers are allowing infections to rip through the younger population in an effort to bolster levels of immunity before the NHS faces winter pressures.

Professor West's allegation comes after England’s remaining Covid restrictions were eased on Monday, with nightclubs throwing open their doors for the first time in the pandemic and all rules on social distancing and mask wearing dropped even as infections run high:

Ministers were made aware of scientists’ concerns about reopening nightclubs and other crowded, close-contact and poorly ventilated venues without testing or other checks in place. On Monday Boris Johnson made the surprise announcement that Covid passports will be required for such settings – but not until the end of September, in two months’ time.

“What we are seeing is a decision by the government to get as many people infected as possible, as quickly as possible, while using rhetoric about caution as a way of putting the blame on the public for the consequences,” said Prof Robert West, a health psychologist at University College London who participates in Sage’s behavioural science subgroup.

“It looks like the government judges that the damage to health and healthcare services will be worth the political capital it will gain from this approach,” West said, adding that ministers appear to believe the strategy is now sustainable – unlike last year – because of the vaccine rollout.

A large wave of infections, coupled with mass vaccination, would push the UK closer to “herd immunity”, where enough people in the population are resistant to the virus that it no longer spreads. The threshold for herd immunity with the Delta variant is unclear, but scientists estimate that transmission would need to be blocked in about 85% of the population. Ministers have repeatedly denied that achieving herd immunity by letting cases rise is the government’s goal.

Monday’s easing of restrictions removed social distancing, the work-from-home order and legal requirements around mask wearing, though ministers called on the public to remain cautious. The move prompted a flurry of regional mandates to maintain masks on public transport, including the London tube, buses and trains, and Manchester Metrolink trams. Legal limits on mixing indoors lifted at the same time, allowing all businesses to reopen.

The change in rules led some clubs to open at midnight on Sunday, leading to packed bars and dancefloors across England. Similar scenes in the Netherlands in recent weeks led the Dutch premier, Mark Rutte, to reimpose curbs on bars, restaurants and nightclubs as new cases rose sevenfold.

A government spokesperson says this is not the strategy, though they said the same last year when for a time it clearly was the approach being taken by government ministers, before they were forced into a lockdown. Whatever they say, Professor West's explanation is the only one that actually makes sense of the government's current policy.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Further controversy as MPs pay may rise above public sector workers

The Independent reports that proposals set out by the independent watchdog which sets MPSs' salaries could mean them getting a pay rise above other public sector workers from next year.

The paper says the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) has proposed that it is given new powers to vary the annual pay for MPs “below or above” public sector pay. This is despite news of a pay freeze for tens of thousands of public sector workers, which sparked outrage this week, while it also emerged the 3 per cent pay rise for doctors and nurses will come out of the existing NHS budget.

MPs’ pay – which currently stands at £81,932 a year – has been closely linked to public sector pay rates of pay over the past five years. But Ipsa wants greater leeway to make changes in pay – arguing that the Covid crisis means annual public sector pay rates could be a “much less reliable guide to changes in earnings than they are in ordinary times”.

As the article adds, on Thursday, the Police Federation of England and Wales said it no longer has confidence in the home secretary Priti Patel – branding a pay freeze for officers as “the final straw”. Ms Patel had confirmed that police officers earning more than £24,000 would be hit by the freeze, while those earning less will be given an annual rise of £250.

At the same time school leaders have condemned a pay freeze for teachers – confirmed this week by education secretary Gavin Williamson – as an insulting “slap in the face”.

This may not be the best time for IPSA to launch their consultation.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Labour hypocrisy on NHS pay

There is understandable and justifiable outrage at the offer of a 3% uplft in pay being made to health service workers today. This is especially so when the Treasury expects inflation to be 3.7%, leading to a cut in pay for an experienced nurse by over £200 in real terms.

As others have called for, there is a need for a pay review for all public sector workers who have kept Wales safe throughout the pandemic. But where do Labour stand on this issue?

As the Guardian reports, in England, they have attacked ministers’ “shoddy, ill-thought through” proposal and described it as another example of a government U-turn:

Justin Madders, the shadow health minister, said: “After their hypocrisy applauding NHS workers while trying to cut their pay, the government must make our NHS and key workers feel supported and valued after all they have done for us.”

Here in Wales though, Labour are in government and have offered precisely the same pay rise. Does the shadow health minister's comments in England also apply to his colleagues in Wales, as there does not appear to be much room for manoeuvre in his remarks?

Labour really cannot have their cake and eat it on this issue. If the pay rise is good enough for Wales then why is it not good enough for England, and vice versa. Perhaps both governments need to go back to the drawing board and come up with something more acceptable.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Are covid vaccine passports likely?

The Independent reports that Boris Johnson faces a potential major rebellion over Covid vaccine passports from his own MPs.

They say more than 40 Conservatives have signed a declaration by campaign group Big Brother Watch saying they are opposed to using “Covid status certification to deny individuals access to general services, businesses or jobs”. They add that many more MPs from the governing party are privately minded to vote against the plan.

The Liberal Democrats have already come out against vaccine passports for precisely the reasons stated above. We believe that they will be discriminatory, create a two-tier society, restricting the freedoms of young people and those who haven't received the vaccine yet while leaving the businesses relying on them for survival to suffer.

The party argues that hospitality venues will be hit the hardest just as they are able to open-up. For the thousands of pubs already struggling, the limitations of vaccine passports as government support ends could prove fatal. Vaccine passports will also give the government unprecedented access to people’s health data, amounting to yet another infringement on civil liberties by this authoritarian Conservative government.

The problem of course is the government's inconsistency on public health safeguards. One day they want to open everything up, the next they are backtracking. The evidence does not seem to enter into their decisions, nor they fact that we are already in the middle of a substantial third wave. Vaccine passports are not a solution, they are a fig leaf to cover Ministers' own inadequacies.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The bizarre roll-out of new rules in England

Am I the only one who thinks that the approach to reopening night clubs being taken by the UK Government is ridiculous? 

Ministers reopened night clubs as of midnight yesterday and immediately we are treated to footage of hundreds of young people dancing in close proximity to each other, no doubt spreading the delta variant of Covid 19 far and wide. So far, so experimental.

Within 24 hours the Prime Minister announced that new requirements will come in from the end of September, ten weeks after the clubs were reopened. As the Independent reports, Johnson plans to make full vaccination a condition of entry into nightclubs and other venues where large crowds gather. Proof of a negative test will no longer be enough.

Talk about closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. What is the point? If they are serious about preventing the spread of the virus and protecting the NHS, then why not put those provisions in place now? Or at least keep the nightclubs closed until it is practical to demand such entry requirements?

It is almost as if the government want to make the pandemic worse.

Monday, July 19, 2021

One rule for them, another for us - again

It is almost as if the Prime Minister had not learnt the lessons from Dominic Cummings breach of lockdown regulations last year. People will apparently tolerate a lot of nonsense from this government but they won't put up with being taken for fools, with rules designed for our protection, being ignored by those in power.

And so the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are spending England's nonsensical 'freedom day' in isolation, because they were pinged by the Covid app after coming into contact with the health secretary, who is infected. 

I suppose we have to be grateful that they had not already deleted the app, as so many others are doing in the face of rising cases of infection, at a time when the UK government are giving the clear impression they think it is all over.

The Mirror reports that Boris Johnson faces fresh pressure over his 'ping' farce after a top Tory was accused of "taking people for fools" in a car crash interview:

Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi was left reeling from the PM's announcement at 8am yesterday that he would avoid self-isolation, despite having contact with confirmed Covid sufferer Sajid Javid.

After public fury No10 U-turned in two hours and 38 minutes - saying the Prime Minister WILL self-isolate until July 26 at Chequers, the lavish 1,500-acre country estate where he just happened to be for the weekend.

Last night, the Prime Minister tried to claim he had only "looked briefly at the idea" of using a pilot scheme to dodge isolation.

That is despite the fact No10 issued a press release at 8am on Sunday which said, as fact, that he would definitely be doing it.

Yet today Mr Zahawi tried to keep up the fiction, bizarrely claiming the Prime Minister had only "talked about considering" staying out of isolation.

The Vaccines Minister told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The Prime Minister considered whether he would subscribe to the pilot scheme but actually rightly opted for self-isolation."

Presenter Justin Webb interrupted to point out No10 had issued a statement at 8am.

Mr Zahawi replied: "As I said, the PM considered it, and then…"

Mr Webb pressed on, pointing out that was not what the 8am statement said.

Mr Zahawi replied: "And then he quite rightly, er, er, wanted to make sure he sent a very clear message to the nation."

But Mr Webb shot back: "There is a problem here, isn’t there, of taking people for fools.

"Why not simply say look, we thought we could be in the pilot scheme and actually we realise now that a lot of people would be very angry about it so we’re not going to do it?"

Mr Zahawi replied: "Nobody’s taking anyone for fools. Every decision that the PM had to make throughout this pandemic has been a tough decision, there are no neat options here."

He added: "Er, the Prime Minister, yesterday, erm, talked about considering it, and then very quickly realised the right thing to do is to, erm, self-isolate as it sends a very powerful message to everybody."

The PM and Chancellor Rishi Sunak's initial decision to take part in a 'daily contact testing pilot' - available to just 20 organisations - would have seen them take daily rapid tests to allow them to work from Downing Street.

But their hypocrisy was branded 'one rule for them' and a 'Barnard Castle on steroids' amid fears it would have encouraged hundreds of thousands of 'pinged' Brits to ignore isolation rules.

What a mess.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

The missing evidence in crackdown on protests and asylum seekers

I think we were all aware that Boris Johnson's government had abandoned evidence-based policy making some time ago, preferring instead for their legislation to pander to various minority elements and prejudices as part of their war in 'woke' culture. It comes as no surprise therefore, that the Home Secretary has been caught out doing precisely that.

The Observer reports that Priti Patel is under fresh pressure after she appears to have misled parliament on proposed powers to crack down on protests and, separately, issued a statement on her asylum bill that does not seem to be supported by evidence.

They add that both interventions from the home secretary were used to justify some of the most controversial aspects of her bills on policing and the asylum system, which have both been criticised as either undemocratic or cruel:

During a 15 March parliamentary debate on the contentious police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, Patel said she had worked closely with the Police Federation, which represents the interests of 130,000 officers, when drafting the legislative proposal.

“We ask our brave police officers to do the most difficult of jobs … and that is why I have worked closely with the Police Federation in developing this bill,” she told the Commons.

However, a freedom of information (FoI) response reveals she did not consult the federation on the most controversial aspect of the bill – plans to limit protest – which have triggered demonstrations across the UK.

The federation’s response states: “We did not provide a written submission nor were we consulted on issues of protest-related legislation.”

Patel is also facing further questions over attempts to justify her nationality and borders bill, which has been criticised for excessive cruelty to asylum seekers and will reduce support for victims of human trafficking.

On 20 March the Home Office issued a statement claiming an “alarming rise in people abusing our modern slavery system by posing as victims in order to prevent their removal and enable them stay in the country”. The official statement, initially leaked to the Sun, was supported by a quote from Patel that said: “Our generous safeguards for victims are being rampantly abused by child rapists, people who pose a threat to national security and failed asylum seekers with no right to be here.”

Her comments were used to help push for sweeping changes to the system for identifying and protecting victims of trafficking.

Yet an FoI response to queries by ECPAT UK reveals that the Home Office’s modern slavery unit could not provide data for child rapists, national security threats or failed asylum seekers referred into the modern slavery system since 2017. The response clarifies that it would need to trawl case files to compile the data, suggesting a lack of existing data for the claims made by Patel and the Home Office.

Patricia Durr, ECPAT UK’s chief executive, said: “It is shocking to have to rely on an FoI request to get to the truth behind a policy that will impact over 10,000 potential victims identified last year alone – the majority British nationals.

“Many provisions are unnecessary, cruel and clearly baseless. There are serious questions to be asked about the evidence basis for measures in a bill that is biggest setback in recent history on survivors of trafficking.”

This government is beginning to look more and more like an embryonic dictatorship with each passing day.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Financial contortions and the overhaul of the Prime Minister's flat

The Independent reports on the extraordinary financial contortions involved in funding the Prime Minister's refurbishment of the Number 10 flat, quoting an official report which claims the lavish makeover included spending £28,000 of taxpayers’ cash mainly on “painting and sanding of floorboards”:

It states: “The Cabinet Office has a £30,000 budget each year for the upkeep of the dwellings within No 11 Downing Street.

“During 2020-21, Cabinet Office spent £28,647 with Mitie Facilities Management Ltd at the request of the prime minister, which included painting and sanding of floorboards.”

The accounts add: “Additional invoices for the refurbishment work undertaken on the No 11 Downing Street residence were received and paid for by the Cabinet Office and subsequently recharged to the Conservative Party in July 2020.

“In March 2021, the supplier refunded the Cabinet Office, and the Cabinet Office refunded the Conservative Party, with all final costs of wider refurbishment met by the prime minister personally.”

A No 10 spokesperson said: “Other than works funded through the annual allowance, the costs of the wider refurbishment of the flat have been met by the prime minister personally.”

In March, leaked emails revealed how plans were hatched to set up a charitable trust to pay for the upkeep of the flat and Downing Street, but were then abandoned.

Mr Johnson was reported to have protested that the costs – to rid the flat of what his new wife Carrie Symonds had apparently dubbed a “John Lewis furniture nightmare” –had run out of control.

His former aide, Dominic Cummings, claims he told the prime minister that his plan to have “donors secretly pay for the renovation” were “unethical, foolish [and] possibly illegal”.

it is litte wonder that the Electoral Commission has launched a formal investigation, saying “an offence or offences may have occurred”, while a former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life has called the affair “a scandal”, saying “the Cabinet Office really got the prime minister out of a hole”.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Irony overload as PM's pal appointed to sleaze watchdog

The irony of a former Bullingdon Club compatriot of the Prime Minister being appointed as a member of the committee on standards in public life, a body set up to expose patronage and unethical behaviour, has not escaped those tasked with watching the way the current UK Government so casually circumvents rules and conventions to get its own way.

The Independent says that Ewen Fergusson, a member of Oxford’s infamous dining club at the same time as the prime minister, has been named as one of two new members for the committee on standards in public life. The reaction has been scathing:

Sir Alistair Graham, former chair of the independent committee, claimed the appointment was “pathetic” – given the friendship between Mr Johnson and Mr Fergusson.

“It really is desperate if you have to be a university mate of Boris Johnson to qualify to sit on the committee that is supposed to examine sleaze,” Sir Alistair said.

“I doubt that the experience of the Bullingdon would provide any of the right qualifications. It seems like a completely inappropriate appointment.”

The paper adds that Mr Fergusson – a former partner at Herbert Smith Freehills legal firm – was photographed alongside both Mr Johnson and David Cameron at a gathering of the Bullingdon Club in 1987. But permission to republish the photograph has been withdrawn by the photographers who hold the copyright. The reports goes on to outline the chequered history of this notorious club:

The elite dining club, satirised as “the Bollinger Club” in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Decline and Fall, has become notorious for its strange rituals and riotous banquets.

In 2005 four members were fined after the group smashed 17 bottles of wine at a country pub outside Oxford.

Mr Johnson was recently criticised for allowing Whitehall watchdogs to remain “toothless” after he rejected recommendations to give his own ethics adviser powers to launch inquiries into misbehaviour by ministers.

The independent adviser on ministerial interests, Lord Geidt, must wait for the green light from the prime minister before opening an investigation into alleged misconduct.

So much for accountability and transparency.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Is it really who you know?

The Guardian reports that internal emails suggest the government gave “VIP treatment” to a firm offering Covid testing facilities which had entered the system “informally” because Matt Hancock was “a good friend” of somebody working with the company.

They say the emails between officials within the Department of Health and Social Care appear to contradict denials from that department and the Cabinet Office of the existence of a VIP or “fast track” process for firms with political connections seeking government contracts for Covid testing.

The Animal Health Trust (AHT) had a laboratory based in Newmarket, in the then health secretary’s West Suffolk constituency, and much of its work focused on medical care for horses, including for the horse racing industry with which Hancock has close ties:

In an email on 23 April 2020 to health department officials working on the operation to scale up testing, a civil servant wrote: “AHT came in direct to SofS [secretary of state] office – someone who works with them is a good friend of his and so they entered the system informally that way … They must have fallen through the records gap if we’ve not got trace of them – they’ve definitely been in touch with us and had VIP treatment.”

Apparently addressing the lack of clear records documenting the discussions with AHT, the next morning a senior civil servant wrote: “We definitely need to capture them in the system somehow, so they receive future comms and offers. Owner [sic] is a friend of SofS, lab is in his constituency/area – so he will get direct feedback on our processes!”

A reply was sent to that email by Simon Greaves, a consultant who has described his role for the health department as working “to lead VIP stakeholder engagement” alongside Lord Bethell, the minister brought in by Hancock who oversaw the awarding of Covid contracts.

A government source told the Guardian last month that “VIP” in Greaves’s role description meant leading figures in the testing industry, not people with political connections, as it did in relation to the “VIP/high priority lane” that the government operated when awarding contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE).

Greaves’s newly revealed email asked if AHT could be logged as a VIP “based on the below” – the email from the civil servant who said the AHT “owner” was a friend of Hancock’s. “We have a stakeholder log in which we capture VIP stakeholders relevant to pillar five [building testing capacity],” Greaves wrote. “Can we capture animal health group [sic] based on the below?”

Addressing one NHS England staff member in the group, Greaves added: “We should also speak about how to ensure our Vip [sic] processes are aligned to minimise duplication.”

Despite the VIP treatment, AHT does not appear to have been given a government testing contract. A royal charter company and registered charity with annual funding of approximately £700,000 from horse racing, AHT was already experiencing financial difficulties in March 2020. In July of that year, it went into liquidation.

However, the outcome is not as important as the fact that these emails appear to show that there was a VIP track for companies to secure contracts. As Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, says of these latest emails: “It’s just so explicit: civil servants were giving special treatment to friends of the minister. The government flatly denied that there was a VIP process for testing, so what are we supposed to make of all the other denials the government has issued?”

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

A broken promise

I have already written on this blog about the consequences of cutting overseas aid from the legally required 0.7% of GDP. 

The cuts will of course hit the world's poorest children, with humanitarian aid to war-torn Yemen being slashed by 60 per cent from £197m to £87m; funding for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative down from £100m to just £5m; girls’ education funding reduced by 40 per cent compared with the previous four years; 85% of UK funding for the UN agency supplying contraceptives and medicines lost; and funding for water, sanitation and hygiene projects expected to fall by more than 80 per cent.

And then there is the argument that these cuts will undermine post-Brexit trade and diplomacy with former foreign office minister Baroness Liz Sugg using her resignation letter to the prime minister, to say: “Cutting UK aid risks undermining your efforts to promote a Global Britain and will diminish our power to influence other nations to do what is right.”

In particular, it will make it more difficult to tackle climate change, as many of the pledges from poorer countries were on the condition that they would receive financial support from richer nations. David Davis, the Tory MP for Haltemprice and Howden argues that these cuts risk throwing away “enormous influence” on the world stage and lead to preventable deaths. He believes that cutting aid will result in a diminution of UK influence in key parts of the world such as Africa, where China is establishing a foothold.

The former Conservative chief whip, Andrew Mitchell agrees. He believes 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. This is especially true in the middle of a pandemic, when failure to help third world countries cope with covid and its consequences risks prolonging the life of the disease and subsequently bringing further variants back to the UK.

Despite all this, the government ploughed on with the cut and won a vote in the House of Commons yesterday by 333 to 298, a majority of 35, to back reducing overseas aid spending from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5%. This broken manifesto promise, Ministers insist, is a "temporary" move amid high government spending caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nobody expects it to be restored.

And what does it save? The £4.4bn reduction in overseas aid pales in significance when compared to the £37bn wasted by this government on the dysfunctional and ineffective English track and trace system. 

Boris Johnson's little Englander attitude has once more diminished the UK's place in the world, has put lives at risk and has done so to help pay for his government's own incompetence.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Are government ministers stoking racism?

Personally, I have no problem with sports personalities getting involved in politics. They have a voice, a ready audience and they live in the same society as we do. Their views are as valid as the next person's and they are entitled to use the platform they have to express them. And like everybody else I am full of admiration for the work being carried out and the example set by the likes of Marcus Rashford and many of his colleagues.

What I have never understood is why government ministers are so uncomfortable with all of this. Yes, they are being held to account for their own inaction, but that's politics. Is it because these footballers are doing their job for them?

The worst of this however, is the hypocrisy of ministers who criticise footballers for expressing their opposition to racism by taking the knee at football matches, endorse fans who boo this gesture, and then get all preachy when a small minority of fans show their true colours as violent, racist thugs.

The footballer, Tyrone Mings summed this up in a tweet yesterday in response to the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. As the Guardian reports, Mings said Patel had “stoke(d) the fire” after she previously refused to criticise fans who booed the team for taking the knee in protest against racial injustice:

He said: “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against happens.”

Mings’ condemnation of Patel was backed by the former Conservative minister Johnny Mercer, who tweeted: “The painful truth is that this guy is completely right. Very uncomfortable with the position we Conservatives are needlessly forcing ourselves into. Do I fight it or stay silent? Modern Conservatism was always so much more to me. We must not lose our way.”

The paper says that the former Tory party chairwoman Lady Warsi also criticised Patel after her tweet:

“It’s time to stop the culture wars that are feeding division,” the Conservative peer tweeted. “Dog whistles win votes but destroy nations.”

The former footballer Marvin Sordell, who said racism was a “big factor” in his retirement from the sport, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “[Mings] has every right to be angry, just as I am, just as I’m sure millions of people are across this country as well.

“Because there was a massive opportunity to show strong leadership at that point. And I think it was very clear at that point, it was very clear before that, that players taking the knee wasn’t anything more than them trying to raise awareness for a topic that has again come up.”

And of course Boris Johnson's record on this subject is pretty chequered as well:

The former England defender Gary Neville joined those questioning Boris Johnson’s authority on the subject of racism, telling Sky News: “The prime minister said it was OK for the population of this country to boo those players [taking the knee] who were trying to promote equality and defend against racism. It starts at the very top. I wasn’t surprised in the slightest that I woke up to those headlines; I expected it the minute the three players missed.”

Neville omits to mention the many other occasions Johnson has engaged in racist language, calling gay men "bumboys," comparing Muslim women to "letterboxes", using a column to label black Africans "piccaninnies" with "watermelon smiles", and suggesting that Malaysian women only go to university "to find men to marry."

If this country has a problem with race then it is not being helped by a number of UK Ministers who actively court racists through their language and their actions.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Judge claims Internal Market Bill risks dictatorship

The New European reports on the views of the former supreme court president, Lord Neuberger, that the government's Brexit strategy threatens to drive the UK down a "very slippery slope" towards "dictatorship" or "tyranny".

Speaking about the government's Internal Market Bill, He told lawyers on Wednesday that "Once you deprive people of the right to go to court to challenge the government, you are in a dictatorship, you are in a tyranny. The right of litigants to go to court to protect their rights and ensure that the government complies with its legal obligation is fundamental to any system … You could be going down a very slippery slope":

The panel, organised by the International Bar Association, included former home secretary and Conservative party leader Michael Howard, the former attorney general Dominic Grieve QC, the SNP justice spokesperson Joanna Cherry QC, Helena Kennedy QC and Jessica Simor QC.

The panellists hoped the bill would be be defeated in parliament, rather than reaching the courts.

Cheery feared Holyrood would sue to the UK government if the bill ended up before the courts.

Lord Neuberger warned the hearing would "put the judges in a position where they are on a collision course with the government or are seen to be craven … [But] you have to sort out problems in court, if you don’t you have a civil war."

Lord Howard said he opposed the controversial elements of the bill that threatened to break international law.

"I hope this bill is defeated in parliament not in the courts," he said.

Grieve, the UK's former attorney general, said the laws contained an "ouster clause which goes to the heart of parliamentary democracy."

Rather than Brexit being “an assertion of sovereignty,” Grieve added, “it constitutes its undermining”.

All rather true to form for Boris Johnson's government unfortunately.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Legal action to get more transparency in government

The Mirror reports that the Government faces legal action over claims ministers used private email and WhatsApp accounts to conduct official business.

They say the Good Law Project (GLP) is launching a judicial review bid over the practice, which they say is "unlawful":

The public interest group said that current rules governing the use of private communications for government business are not fit for purpose.

And they said it "seems unlikely the policy is being followed."

If successful, they aim to "force Government to put in place proper policies to close this accountability gap for good."

It comes after the UK's data watchdog launched a probe into claims former Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Health Minister Lord Bethell routinely used private email accounts at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, when lucrative contracts were being dished out to private firms.

Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said: "“It concerns the public to feel there may be a loss of transparency about decisions affecting them and their loved ones.

"And as the regulator of data protection and freedom of information laws, it concerns me.”

The notes from a meeting from December 2020, obtained by the Sunday Times, even claimed Mr Hancock “does not have a DHSC [Department of Health and Social Care] inbox”.

Mr Hancock’s pal Lord Bethell, who donated £5,000 to his leadership bid in 2019 and was then made a health minister nine months later, also “routinely uses his personal inbox”, the minutes claimed.

Separately, Lord Bethell faces a House of Lords Standards Commissioner investigation into his sponsorship of a Parliament pass for Gina Coladangelo, the aide Mr Hancock was pictured in a clinch with.

“We don’t just think this situation is wrong, we believe it’s unlawful,” GLP said in a statement.

“It flies in the face of government’s legal obligations to preserve official records.”

This government has done everything it can to avoid accountability and transparency. Let's hope this court action starts to turn that trend around.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Paying the price for bullying

The Independent reports that departmental accounts show the Home Office spent more than £370,000 to settle a top civil servant’s tribunal claim after he quit amid allegations of Priti Patel’s bullying.

They say that former permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam accepted the six-figure sum earlier this year after launching legal action against the Home Secretary, following his dramatic resignation in February last year, accusing Ms Patel of a “vicious and orchestrated” briefing campaign against him. An employment tribunal was due to hear his case in September with him claiming constructive dismissal and accusing her of bullying subordinates.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the paper it is reported that a former Conservative party treasurer and an ex-adviser to George Osborne are among three peers facing punishment for refusing to take part in anti-bullying training.

All MPs and peers, as well as their staff, are required to join the ‘Valuing Everyone’ courses – introduced after Parliament was rocked by bullying and harassment allegations. But Lord James of Blackheath, Lord Kalms and Lord Willoughby de Broke have now been named-and-shamed for ignoring repeated urgings to attend.

The paper says they will have their access to House of Lords services restricted, if a recommendation is rubberstamped by fellow peers, as expected, in the next fortnight.

Time to double down on this training and to imcrease the consequences for those caught bullying staff and civil servants.

Friday, July 09, 2021

The real cost of Brexit revealed

The Irish news agency, RTÉ News reports that the UK is liable to pay €47.5 billion to the EU as part of its post-Brexit financial settlement.

They say the figures are contained in the EU's consolidated budget report for 2020, which states that the UK owes the EU €47.456 billion under a series of articles which both sides agreed as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement:

The issue of what Britain would owe the EU after Brexit has been highly controversial, with eurosceptics claiming that the UK would not have to pay it if there was no deal on either the Withdrawal Agreement or the future relationship treaty.

In the early part of the exit negotiations, the UK had to reach agreement on three key issues before the talks could progress to the next stage. These included the financial settlement, citizens rights and the Irish border.

In December 2017, both sides reached agreement on the mechanism to calculate the total amount, with UK officials predicting that it would be between £35-39 billion.

The UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) predicted in its March 2018 Economic and Fiscal Outlook Report that the total bill would amount to €41.4 billion.

Therefore, the total amount is significantly higher than predicted.

This money will be paid over several decades but somehow I doubt there will be enough left over for the £350 million a week for the NHS that was promised by the Prime Minister and his pals during the referendum. 

I seem to recall that the Brexit campaign were adamant that we would not be paying anything like that amount to the EU once we left. How wrong could they be, and how misled were those who went along with them.

Thursday, July 08, 2021

Police bill risks criminalising homeless people

The Guardian reports that leading homelessness charities have made an unprecedented joint plea to UK ministers to reconsider the police and crime bill, warning it could in effect criminalise large numbers of people simply for being homeless.

They say thirteen charities and housing groups have written to \Robert Jenrick, the housing and communities secretary to say that urgent changes are needed to the bill to avoid the risk of people being arrested and imprisoned for sleeping rough:

The police, crime, sentencing and courts bill passed through the Commons this week and will now be considered in the Lords. It features a series of highly controversial elements, including a ban on protests that are viewed as too noisy or that “alarm” the public.

Another section of the bill has been condemned for risking the viability of Traveller and Gypsy lifestyles by criminalising many trespass offences, with people risking fines, imprisonment or confiscation of vehicles – which in the case of Travellers are often also their homes.

The letter, signed by the heads of Shelter, Crisis, St Mungo’s, the Chartered Institute of Housing and others, said they believed the bill should be scrapped. If it goes ahead, they added, ministers should amend it to lessen any impact on homeless people.

It said: “As currently drafted, the legislation risks putting any person who resorts to living in a car, van or other vehicle – or indeed has a vehicle parked near where they may be sleeping rough – at risk of arrest and imprisonment if they have been asked to leave by the landowner or police.

“While this could apply in rural areas it could also apply in city centre car parks, a public road or private driveway. Many people experiencing homelessness sleep in cars, or in tents with their vehicle nearby, such as people who have work vehicles, eg for delivery driving.

“We recognise that the government has said it does not intend for these people to be caught by the offence but ask for clarification to the bill to ensure this.”

The letter also calls for further details on the meaning in the bill of “residing” in terms of allowing police to take action if this is done without permission of the landowner.

“Case law concerning residential tenancies suggests that a person can only be considered to ‘reside’ if they have settled or intend to settle in a place, not if they were compelled to stay there on an emergency or short-term basis,” the organisations said. “People who are street homeless have to sleep somewhere.”

They told Jenrick: “We are pleased to be working with you on your commitment to end rough sleeping for good and are concerned this legislation would make that goal harder.”

Noting the ministers had agreed to repeal an 1824 law that targets rough sleeping and begging, the letter said: “It would be deeply unfortunate if this new legislation meant that, almost 200 years later from the Vagrancy Act, we saw further criminalisation of people sleeping rough by a modern-day police bill.”

A vagrancy Act for the twenty first century? What next?

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Sleaze watchdog calls for reform of political funding

The Independent reports that the chair of the committee on standards in public life has urged the government to close a loophole allowing firms to make political donations from profits made abroad, using shell companies.

Lord Evans wants the secrecy surrounding who is funding online campaigns and “shadowy” unincorporated associations lifted. These are often the super-rich donating to the Conservatives:

“Stronger enforcement” of campaign finance is needed, he said – while pointing out the watchdog can only make recommendations and does not carry out investigations.

Political leaders are “chosen by the voters”, Lord Evans said, adding: “That’s the fundamental aspect of accountability in our system.

“You can’t get around the fact that we are a democracy and it is for the voters to decide who they want to take these political decisions.”

Unfortunately, not only does Lord Evans admit he is powerless to enforce these measures but it seems that the Government are already taking a different path. 

Elsewhere in the Independent it is reported that Boris Johnson is attempting to push through electoral reforms to give wealthy Tory donors living abroad a “free ticket” to bankroll the Conservative Party.

Under current rules, political parties cannot accept donations from Britons who have been living overseas for more than 15 years, since they are not allowed on the electoral roll. However the proposal in the Elections Bill, published this week, is to scrap the 15-year-limit and allow any British expat to join the electoral roll and become a permitted political donor:

The Electoral Reform Society previously warned of the dangers in allowing “unfettered donations from abroad”. And Lib Dem peer Lord Rennard said it would make it harder to “trace where the money is actually coming from”.

It seems that the sleaze watchdog is fighting a losing battle.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Those revolting Tories continued

Tory MPs revolting against the government whip have been pretty rare since the 2019 General Election but there are signs that this particular breed is beginning to emerge from hibernation.

The Independent reports that a fresh Conservative revolt is threatening Rishi Sunak’s plans to slash £20 a week from universal credit payments in the autumn:

Six former work and pensions secretaries have joined forces to urge the chancellor to think again, in an unprecedented alliance spanning both left and right wings of the Tory party.

The pressure could see the government defeated on the controversy, with scores of “red wall” MPs also deeply unhappy about reversing an increase brought in when the Covid pandemic struck.

Ministers said recently that the £5bn cut will go ahead at the end of September, as intended, rejecting warnings that thousands of families will be pushed into poverty as “purely speculative”.

But Iain Duncan Smith, Damian Green, Stephen Crabb, David Gauke, Esther McVey and Amber Rudd have penned a letter to the Treasury, saying that would be a mistake.

“As the economy reopens, and the government re-evaluates where it has been spending money, we ask that the current funding for individuals in the universal credit envelope be kept at the current level,” they have written.

“We ask that you protect the investment in universal credit, to strengthen work incentives for those who can work and support more generously those who cannot work.”

The cut – worth £1,000 a year to many hard-up families – would hit 6 million households and push 200,000 more children below the breadline, the Child Poverty Action Group fears.

But the government has continued to insist it was a temporary increase and believes the looming end of Covid restrictions makes the case for ending it.

There is also a revolt forming over the Chancellor's £4bn-a-year overseas aid cuts, while changes to the planning laws are causing concern amongst Tory MPs as well. Perhaps there is hope for the country after all.

Monday, July 05, 2021

Government abandon homeowners over defects and dangerous cladding

The Building Safety Bill, which is being published today, is already attracting the ire of Tory backbenchers. They are threatening to vote against the Bill, unless it includes safeguards to ensure leaseholders cannot be billed for the colossal building fire and safety remediation costs post-Grenfell.

The Mirror says that more than four years on from the Grenfell tragedy thousands of home-owners are still facing stress and financial ruin because they live in unsafe buildings which they are unable to sell:

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has confirmed they will be given double the amount of time to go after builders and developers who carried out shoddy work on their properties.

The Government will change the law to give home-owners 15 years - up from six - to take action against rogue developers.

Mr Jenrick will also today set out plans for a new Building Safety Regulator which he says will give residents more power and toughen sanctions against builders and developers who have put their safety at risk.

The new body will be responsible for ensuring that any building safety risks in new and existing residential buildings of 18m and above are resolved, taking costs into account.

This will include making sure that safety is considered at key stages of the design, construction and completion phases.

But that will bring little comfort or relief for the thousands of homeowners trapped in unsellable properties. Taking developers to court is hardly cheap, while it seems that there are no guarantees that leaseholders will not end up paying for remedial work anyway. 

The Government must act to ensure that repairs are carried out promptly and are paid for by the developers who created the defects in the first place.

Sunday, July 04, 2021

Keeping it in-house

Faced with the possible embarrassment of an independent investigation into government contracts and lobbying involving a number of senior Conservative politicians including the former prime minister David Cameron, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, the MP and former health secretary Matt Hancock and the peer Francis Maude, Boris Johnson appears to have taken the safe option. The solicitor he has appointed to run it is a former Conservative party member who stood as a council candidate.

That does not mean of course that the inquiry will be compromised nor that the chair will not do a good job, clearly Nigel Boardman is a professional who will undertake the task he has been allocated properly and without fear or favour. 

Johnson's problem is that the appointment has prompted concerns that Boardman may be perceived as being too close to the Tories and the government, so that anything short of a full denunciation of the government will not be taken seriously. In this respect, Johnson is his own worst enemy.

As the Guardian says, Boardman’s appointment was criticised because he is a paid non-executive director to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and is a long-term adviser to the law firm Slaughter and May, which was awarded £7m in government contracts over the last year. He is on the board of Arbuthnot bank, which has close ties to the Conservative party. His father, Lord Boardman, was a former government minister and Tory party treasurer under Margaret Thatcher:

A number of senior figures have previously questioned whether Boardman is the right person to run an inquiry into conflicts of interest.

Suzanne Heywood, whose husband, Jeremy, was the cabinet secretary when Greensill entered Downing Street, questioned his suitability in an interview with the Guardian.

Asked to comment on Boardman’s previous Conservative party membership and whether he had declared it before taking up the role on the inquiry, sources said he had not been a member of a political party for more than 20 years.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “This is an independent review. Nigel Boardman is a distinguished legal expert, having undertaken a number of reviews scrutinising the government, and he was asked to lead this review following the appropriate due diligence checks.

“The review is ongoing, and as we have set out, we will publish and present his findings to parliament and the government’s response, in due course.”

Labour’s deputy leader and shadow chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, Angela Rayner, said Boardman’s former Tory membership was further proof that the inquiry should be dropped.

“After stuffing non-executive director posts with political acolytes, it appears the prime minister is now appointing Tory cronies to lead investigations too,” she said.

“This investigation is clearly independent in name only and needs to be scrapped in favour of a properly independent investigation that will get to the bottom of what has been going on at the heart of government.”

I look forward to the inquiry's report with interest.

Saturday, July 03, 2021

Will the UK Government sacrifice wildlife and biodiversity to appease developers?

The UK Government is already in the process of changing planning laws to make it easier for developers to build expensive housing estates in previously protected green belt, now they are turning their attention to wildlife, all to appease developers, many of whome donate large sums of money to the Tory Party.

The Guardian reports that ecology experts believe legal protections for wildlife and plants in the UK are set for a review that could result in some important species losing their entitlement to sp ecial status:

Adders, slow worms, water voles, mountain hares, pine martens and red squirrels are among the species experts have warned could be affected, after unexpected changes to the government’s review process that will raise the bar on how rare and under threat an animal needs to be to gain legal safeguards.

The changes, which have not been widely heralded by the government, could benefit property developers and infrastructure projects such as road-building, which currently have to take account of rare species found within the proposed development areas, and sometimes have to be changed or moved as a result.

Angela Julian, coordinator of Amphibian and Reptile Groups of the UK (ARG UK), which represents 37 local groups and over 4,000 members, said: “We are shocked to discover these proposed changes, which will effectively remove any form of protection from many of our well-loved widespread species including slow worms, grass snakes and viviparous lizards. Our native wildlife deserves a fair hearing.”

Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (WCA) of 1981, the government must review the status of protected species on a five-yearly basis, a process now under way. The WCA classifies the UK’s rare flora and fauna, with legal protections for those considered at risk.

When species are protected, it becomes illegal to harm them, for instance through hunting or plant-collecting, or to sell or trade in them. Protections can also extend to their habitat, which can affect infrastructure and development schemes such as housebuilding or new roads.

Last summer, announcing a push to “build, build, build”, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, attacked wildlife protections. “The newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and prosperity of this country,” he said.

In documents published on an obscure government website, the terms of this year’s review have been changed, to incorporate new standards that would mean an animal or plant species would only be protected if “in imminent danger of extinction”.

Campaigners are worried that this sets the bar too high, and that dozens of species which are at risk would lose vital safeguards. More than 30 conservation groups have written to ministers of their concerns.

In a letter seen by the Guardian, they argue that the government’s plan to move away from the UK’s own standards to use definitions of risk from the International Union for Conservation of Nature will result in many species losing protection.

The IUCN draws up the global Red List by which species are classified in nine categories including vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered. However, the letter warns that the government’s proposals would mean dropping current safeguards for all species except those at the worst end of the scale, regarded as at imminent risk of extinction. That would leave in the lurch species which may still be under severe threat but whose populations have improved slightly, often owing to conservation efforts.

“The changes [also] remove the opportunity to prevent species decline,” the organisations say. “Under the changes outlined, we will only be reacting to catastrophic species declines.”

Richard Benwell, the chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said the species that would certainly have protection removed under the changes included stag beetles, purple emperor butterflies, pine martens, brown hares and mountain hares. Species that were likely to have protection removed included adders, smooth newts, grass snakes and basking sharks.

Amphibians could also be at particular risk, because if it becomes legal to trade in certain species, wild samples could be bought and sold and mixed with captive collections around the country. That would risk spreading the deadly chytrid fungus and severe perkinsea infection, which have devastated amphibian populations around the world, and have been discovered in some captive populations in the UK.

This scandalous approach to our natural environment is completely at odds with the government's own commitments on climate change and the environment.

Friday, July 02, 2021

What price the Ministerial code?

One of the many casualties of Boris Johnson's administration is the code that is meant to regulate the way Ministers behave and fulfill their role. The Institute for Government certainly thinks so.

As the Independent reports the Institute has urged the Prime Minister to urgently overhaul “fundamental flaws” to the ministerial code on the basis that it has been “severely weakened” and undermined during his time at No 10. They say that the Matt Hancock episode has once again made clear that “more than just piecemeal updates are needed”:

In a scathing paper, the authors also suggested Mr Johnson’s response to cabinet ministers “accused of misbehaviour show that he is willing to sacrifice” high standards in government, “in return for short-term political benefit”.

It claims the existing ministerial code contains “several fundamental flaws”, including the inability of the independent adviser to act without the prime minister’ permission and lack of clarity over how ministers should respond to lobbying – an issue highlighted by the Greensill scandal.

The IfG recommends putting the text as well as the existence and role of an independent adviser – a position currently held by Lord Christopher Geidt – into statute and making clear what particular sanctions apply to different breaches of the ministerial code.

And it also suggests strengthening the role of the adviser, updating the code to reflect concerns over social media, and requiring ministers to publicly abide by the code to “strengthen its importance”.

“Recent revelations about the lack of transparency in government, particularly around meetings with Greensill Capital, and the questions of accountability prompted by the Hancock affair make clear that more than just piecemeal updates are needed,” the organisation said.

“How and why Gina Coladangelo was first appointed as an adviser and then a non-executive director in the Department of Health and Social Care, the apparent conflicts of interest even before any romantic relationship started and wider reports of Hancock’s use of a personal email account are all controversies the ministerial code should have warded against.”

The report – Updating the Ministerial Code – which is published today, also cited the resignation of Sir Alex Allan, who quit as the prime minister’s independent adviser on ministerial interests after Mr Johnson rejected his assessment that Priti Patel had broken the code by bullying staff.

It added: “In both the version of the ministerial code Johnson issued on becoming prime minister, and in his more recent ‘declaration on government reform, he has claimed that he expects high standards in government.

“But he has not acted in a way that matches his rhetoric. His dealings with ministers accused of misbehaviour show that he is willing to sacrifice those high standards in return for short-term political benefit”.

“By calling on Conservative MPs to ‘former a square around the Pritster [Patel], and by saying he ‘considered the matter closed’ when the news of Hancock’s breach of Covid rules broke, Johnson has undermined the code.”

Referring to Mr Johnson’s commitment to publish a new code in “due course”, the authors said the prime minister “should now take the opportunity for a more fundamental refresh of the code”.

I am not holding my breath that any new ministerial code produced by Johnson will be any better.

Thursday, July 01, 2021

More questions on Covid contracts

As if there was not already enough controversy over how valuable Covid contracts were awarded, some to Tory donors and friends of Ministers, some apparently without a proper due process, the Guardian reports that a health minister is facing fresh calls to lose his job after it emerged that he apparently failed to declare a week’s worth of meetings with companies who went on to be granted £1bn contracts.

The paper says that Lord Bethell was already under pressure for using his private email account for ministerial business, and for sponsoring a parliamentary pass for Hancock’s aide Gina Coladangelo, with whom the former health secretary had an affair. This latest controversy just adds to the clamour for him to resign:

At least nine of the undeclared meetings were with firms who later obtained millions of pounds worth of Covid contracts, according to Byline Times.

The list includes meetings with Abingdon Health, SureScreen Diagnostics Ltd, Novacyt, the BBI Group, Oxford Nanopore Technologies, Cambridge Clinical Laboratories, OptiGene, Una Health and CIGA healthcare, which all went on to secure contracts valued at more than £1bn, it was reported.

The commission has been blamed on an “administrative error” and the official records have now been updated for the missing week at the beginning of April last year.

On Tuesday, Downing Street admitted that Bethell had used private emails for government business despite denying it 24 hours earlier. But it defended him, saying he had abided by the guidance.

Bethell, a close ally of Hancock’s, defended his use of email on Tuesday. “In terms of the use of private email, can I just reassure members that I have read the ministerial code, I have signed the ministerial code, and I seek to uphold it in everything I do,” he told the House of Lords.

On Monday, the Guardian revealed that a number of emails were copied into Bethell’s private email account. His address was copied into at least four official exchanges relating to a businessman who was attempting to win government contracts during the pandemic.

This lack of transparency and failure to follow proper procedures is unacceptable.

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