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Tuesday, August 31, 2021

More government failures on English housing crisis

Anybody looking to the UK Government to solve England's homelessness crisis may have to think again. According to the Independent, the bulk of the government's new £8.6bn “affordable homes programme” will be directed at helping homebuyers rather than renters.

The paper says that out of the 119,000 new homes being built, 57,000 will be for ownership, and just 29,600 will be for social rent. Meanwhile, 6,250 are set to be rural affordable homes, while in London, "affordable" shared ownership properties can be open to people earning as much as £90,000, while outside the capital they can be open to people on an £80,000 salary. Not that shared ownership is an affordable model anyway.

The government has pledged to build up to 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s but is set to miss this target by a decade. In 2019, UK housebuilding fell to its lowest quarterly rate for three years, and in 2020, housebuilding output dropped by a fifth.

Perhaps the reasoning behind this split lies in the fact that housing tenure is considered a large predictor of how a person votes, with renters typically supporting Labour and owners backing the Tories. However, the fact is that most of those in need of housing will not be able to afford to buy these homes, while the number for rent will continue to be totally inadequate.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Investing in UK workers won't solve labour crisis

With the haulage industry and british agriculture amongst others, struggling in the face of a massive labour shortage, the government's solution has been for businesses to invest in UK workers. However the Institute of Directors has hit back, stopping just short of suggesting Ministers are living out a summer fantasy.

The Guardian reports that the IoD believes the idea will not solve short-term labour shortages that are increasingly putting retailers and supply chains under pressure. They have called for new, flexible visas that would allow foreign workers to step in to fill crucial roles, particularly as lorry drivers, after an exodus of workers due to Covid and Brexit:

A lack of lorry drivers, due in part to the Covid crisis and Brexit, has already put pressure on UK supply chains and left some retailers, fast-food chains and supermarkets struggling to refresh their stock.

Last week, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) reported that stock levels in August had fallen to their lowest level since retail industry trends were first tracked nearly four decades ago, while McDonald’s ran out of milkshakes and Nando’s was forced to close 50 outlets because of shortages that meant it couldn’t provide its most popular peri-peri dish.

The supply crunch has been blamed on worker shortages in several key industrial sectors, which have been compounded by Covid pressures and a lack of foreign labour due to Brexit. It has forced companies to increase salaries to attract staff, including Waitrose, which is now reportedly prepared to pay £53,780 a year for large goods vehicle drivers, trumping the salaries of some of its head office executives.

Industry groups, including Logistics UK and the British Retail Consortium, have also called on the government to provide temporary UK visas to EU truck drivers to help address the issue.

As ever the solution is multi-faceted, something that tunnel-visioned ministers cannot see:

The number of small businesses saying that skill shortages are holding them back has soared in recent months, according to the FSB’s national chairman, Mike Cherry. “Unless we bring the situation to bear, we risk stifling our economic recovery before it’s even really started,” he added.

“Balance is key here: we need both an immigration system that’s accessible for firms of all sizes, enabling them to access the international talent they need to thrive, as well as renewed efforts to upskill the next generation and reskill workers already in the UK. It’s misleading and unfair to suggest this is an either/or – it’s not a choice,” he said.

“We need to attract back international HGV drivers temporarily, while at the same time investing in domestic training – a process which can take many months.”

So much for the Tories being the party of business.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Paddy Ashdown's prescient memo about Afghanistan

Yesterday a Facebook memory threw up a blogpost I wrote in 2009. It quoted a rather prescient passage about Afghanistan from Paddy Ashdown's 2009 Autobiography in which he quotes a confidential minute he submitted a few years earlier when he was being considered as the UN Special Representative in the country. It is worth reproducing again in light of recent events:

1. We do not have enough troops, aid or international will to make Afghanistan much different from what it has been for the last 1,000 years - a society built around guns, drugs and tribalism. And even if we had all of these in sufficient quantities we would not have them for sufficient time - around 25 years or so - to make the aim of fundamentally altering the nature of Afghanistan achievable.

2. In 5-10 years it seems very probable that troop numbers and aid in Afghanistan will, at best, be half what they are now. The international communities will have other priorities, and Afghanistan will no longer be top of its agenda.

3. So our task now is to shape our actions towards the kind of Afghanistan which can be managed on these diminished resources.

4. This will be an Afghanistan in which:
5. We may, if we are really successful, be able to diminish the effects of the above, but we will not be able to eradicate them.

He continues by suggesting that we have to abandon the notion that we can make Afghanistan into a well-governed state, with gender-aware citizens and European-standard human rights. It raises expectations we cannot fulfil and wastes resources better deployed elsewhere. A better governed state is the limit of the achievable.

On the military side we also need to understand that we probably cannot defeat the Taliban - probably only the Afghan people can do this. And at present, especially in the south, they do not seem ready to do so. Nor can we force them. They change their mind on this in their time, not ours. The best we can do is to give them space, help where we can and hope for the best. 

He concludes that the realistic aim in Afghanistan, with current resources, is not victory but containment. Our success will be measured not in making things different but making them better, not in final defeat of the jihardists, but in preventing them from using Afghanistan as a space for their activity.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Banquo at the feast

The Labour leader may be trying to distance his party from Jeremy Corbyn and the hard left, but he is rapidly discovering that such a task is harder than he hoped. The Independent reports that hopes Keir Starmer may have had of Labour’s autumn conference passing without an intervention by his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn have been dashed, after it was announced that the former leader will speak at the alternative The World Transformed festival alongside the Brighton gathering:

The annual conference is being billed as a chance for Starmer to relaunch his leadership and set out a clear picture of the direction he wants to take Labour, amid growing unease over his failure to establish a lead in the polls over Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

But he is certain to face clashes with the left of the party, who are increasingly open in their dismay at what they see as his abandonment of key elements of the Corbyn programme and sidelining of figures such as Rebecca Long-Bailey, and he will be concerned that his predecessor’s presence will act as a lightning rod for protest against his leadership.

Events listed for activists at The World Transformed include “Do socialists need their own party?” and “How should the left engage with the Labour leadership?”.

The festival, supported by the Corbyn-backing Momentum movement, will also feature stalwarts of the party left including former shadow chancellor John McDonnell and former shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon, as well as Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford and an array of union leaders and campaigners.

While his suspension from the Labour Party over his response to the Equality and Human Rights Commission anti-semitism report has been lifted, Mr Corbyn has not been readmitted to the parliamentary party and it is unclear whether he will be attending the Brighton Centre between 25-28 September for Starmer’s first in-person conference since becoming leader last year.

TWT was held virtually last year as Labour’s conference went online-only.

Amid disgruntlement on the Labour left over Starmer’s perceived failure to live up to 10 leadership election pledges to retain policies developed by his predecessor, organisers said they hope to use this year’s event to “discuss and plan the future of the post-Corbyn left” and “channel the energy that emerged under Corbyn’s leadership”.

Time for a Starmer 'Claues Four moment', I suppose though he is no Tony Blair.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Walking the ethical tightrope?

Boris Johnson is well-known for acting as if the rules do not apply to him, and the way he has conducted himself inside 10 Downing Street has been no different. A cabinet office inquiry into the way that the refurbishment of the Prime Minister's flat was paid for may have concluded that everything was above board but that does not excuse the complex financial arrangements around that work, nor the obfuscation when explanations were sought. Accountability and transaparency on this issue has been virtually non-existent.

The Independent reports Conservative Party accounts show that a Tory donor provided more than £52,000 to cover some of the costs in refurbishing the prime minister’s residence. Tory HQ said it initially provided a “bridging loan” of £52,802 to cover the works after being invoiced by the Cabinet Office last June.

The party was then “reimbursed in full” by Lord Brownlow last October, before Mr Johnson “settled the costs” incurred by the donor in March 2021 – but only after details had emerged in the press in February.

Despite this No 10 repeatedly refused to reveal the original source of funds for the work, initially insisting that Mr Johnson alone had “covered the cost”.

A a review by the prime minister’s own ministerial standards adviser, Lord Geidt found Mr Johnson acted “unwisely” in allowing the refurbishment to go ahead without “more rigorous regard for how this would be funded,” but did not breach the ministerial code.

Meanwhile, further controversy is brewing over the prime minister’s use of a taxpayer-funded jet to travel to the north-east for a campaign visit:

Questions were raised over Mr Johnson’s April visit to Hartlepool to campaign for the Tory candidate, after it emerged that the Conservative Party recorded “nil” spending on the PM’s travel despite him having flown by jet from London to Teesside Airport.

No 10 and the Conservatives insist no rules were broken, since the jet was used to fly Mr Johnson to the northeast for an official visit to Middlesbrough, while the PM travelled from Middlesbrough to Hartlepool in his official car.

Once more we find questions arising over Johnson's lackadaisical approach to the responsibilities of public office.

Thursday, August 26, 2021


Every Parliamentarian in every UK nation is used to the freebie merry go round, and some take advantage more than most. When I was a Welsh Assembly Member I started off going to the odd one just for the novelty value but soon got on a trajectory of refusing the vast majority of those that came into my office. After a while the invitations started to dry up. I guess I was written off a lost cause.

In fact, enjoyable as they are, these little excursions do have a cost associated with them. Our hosts are not just there for the thrills, in fact they want to get influential people into a room together so they can get their own message across either about what they are doing, or what they want the politicians to do for them. The question we have to ask is whether it is really right that big corporations with lots of money can secure access that lesser mortals do not have?

These moral questions do not seem to bother many politicians who continue to enjoy the largesse of these sponsors. And it seems the more important you, the greater the rewards.

According to the Mirror, some 65 Tory MPs declared almost £160,000 worth of free tickets between May and July. Meanwhile, 23 Labour MPs declared £31,921 worth of freebies. These include 153 declarations of gifted tickets and hospitality for the the Brits, the Euro 2020 finals, Wimbledon, Latitude Festival and various Golf, horse racing and motorsport events - handed to them by betting firms, alcohol and fast food companies and industry bodies, half of which was declared in just four weeks, between 27 July and 23 August.

There are no figures for SNP and Liberal Democrats MPs but no doubt some of them also took advantage of this largesse. The Mirror is keen to point out that the cost of these events averages out at £440 for every Conservative MP in the House of Commons, compared to £160 for each Labour MP but really that is just playing politics with the real issue of people buying access:

Guernsey-based betting giant Entain, which owns Coral, Ladbrokes, PartyPoker and Sportingbet were by far the most generous, handing out 17 freebies worth £44,707.Booze firm Heineken UK gave 6 MPs tickets worth £3,308.79.

McDonalds gave two MPs tickets to watch the football Community Shield match at Wembley.

And some 18 MPs declared they had accepted free tickets worth £48,437.30 to see England lose to Denmark in the Semi-Finals of Euro2020, from Entain, Heineken, UEFA, the FA and the Betting and Gaming Council.

In theory there should be an element of transparency in this process but that depends on MPs declaring events in good time:

It was revealed today that the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner is investigating five ministers, including Trade Secretary Liz Truss and Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey, for failing to reveal they were handed free Brits tickets worth as much as £900 each.

MPs are required to update the Register of Members' Interests within 28 days of receiving gifts, payments or hospitality.

Some 17 MPs declared free tickets to the bash - but a string of ministers, including Science Minister Amanda Solloway and Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly are being investigated for failing to declare the tickets within the time limit.

Surely it is time to reform the system altogether.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Those empty supermarket shelves

As the designated grocery shopper in my household, I have noticed, along with others, the sudden increase in the number of empty supermarket shelves and non-availability of certain essential items since lockdown eased. At first it was cat food, now it is a whole range of goods which are becoming difficult to find.

Wales-on-Line reports that shoppers have been left angered at the lack of items available in supermarkets across Britain, blamed on Brexit, a shortage of staff and 'pinged' workers.

And that in an attempt to distract from the glaring gaps on the shelves, supermarket staff have become creative in hiding the lack of stock. Some are removing entire aisles to hide the fact that they cannot fill them.

It is little wonder the Guardian is reporting that desperate food manufacturers are pleading with the government to be able to call upon prisoners to solve a labour crisis blamed on the double blow of Brexit and Covid:

The Association of Independent Meat Suppliers, which represents butchers, abattoirs and processors, said it had a call set up with the Ministry of Justice on Monday that would explore how its members could recruit more current inmates and ex-offenders.

To fill vacancies companies are trying to draft in prisoners via a scheme that allows inmates to undertake paid work on day release. They are also contacting charities for ex-servicemen and women to try to drum up staff.

Tony Goodger of the meat suppliers’ association said some of its members already had inmates on the release on temporary licence programme working for them and found them to be an asset. It had also been in contact with the Career Transition Partnership, which helps former service personnel into work, and had been able to point some of them to members with job vacancies; however, the “numbers are low”, he said.

“Much of the food industry is facing a recruitment crisis,” said Goodger. “The advice we have received from the Home Office is that the UK’s domestic labour force should take priority. However hard we and many of the members have tried, staffing remains a challenge.”

Of course if the government was not so obsessed with restricting the free movement of labour between the UK and the EU, this crisis would not be so bad. Surely it is time they changed the regulations.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

UK foreign aid cuts hurting the world's poorest

The Guardian reports on the view of experts that the UK foreign aid cuts will have “devastating” consequences at a time when major recipient countries are at risk of becoming more politically unstable.

They say thousands of activities providing life-saving support are being cut due to the government’s decision to reduce aid spending to 0.5% of gross national income:

Guardian analysis of the five largest recipients of these aid activities shows that four countries – Afghanistan, Yemen, Nigeria and Ethiopia – score worse in a “fragile states index” today than they did 15 years ago, while only one country, Pakistan, had become less politically fragile.

These cuts – at a time when recipient countries are facing increases in fragility – have led to warnings of further economic damage, regional instability and increases in violence.

Initiatives that have been confirmed as cancelled include an education scheme for child labourers in Bangladesh, a conflict resolution project in Nigeria and a programme aimed at preventing violence against women and girls in Malawi, according to global development news outlet Devex, which has tracked the cuts.

But the proposed scale of the foreign aid cuts – from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income at the same time as the economy has shrunk – means that experts are worried that few areas will remain untouched.

Data from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office shows the scale and breadth of the UK’s 2019 aid spending, contributing to more than 150 countries and covering a variety of sectors.

Mark Miller, the director of development and public finance at the Overseas Development Institute, warned: “No area of spending has been spared. Even in so-called priority areas, large cuts are being made.”

From assisting terrorism victims in Nigeria and tackling epidemics across the African continent to providing shelter to Rohingya refugees and aid to desperate Syrians, government data shows how the £15bn budget was spent in 2019.

These cuts are in danger of exacerbating terrorism and reducing the UK's influence in the world. Surely the lesson of the debacle in Afghanistan is that we need to be engaging in nation-building so as to reduce the influence of extremists, not pulling up the drawbridge.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Profiting from Covid?

As the holiday industry struggles to recover from a disastrous covid year, they cannot be helped by companies providing the tests needed to get on a flight abroad boosting their own profits.

As the Independent reports, more than 80 private travel testing companies have been warned over listing prices on the government’s official website which are lower than those offered on their own sites at the point of checkout.

A review by the English Department of Health and Social Care found that 82 of these companies – which makes up around 18 per cent of all day two and day eight providers listed – advertised far lower prices on gov.uk than those on offer when users clicked through to the brand’s official website. The Secretary of State is understandably livid:

“It is absolutely unacceptable for any private testing company to be taking advantage of holidaymakers and today’s action clamps down on this cowboy behaviour,” Mr Javid said in a statement about the issue.

“Fifty-seven firms will be removed from the gov.uk list and a further 82 will be given a two-strike warning – if they advertise misleading prices ever again, they’re off.”

Some of those being removed were on account of them no longer offering a day two and day eight testing service, Mr Javid added.

He also said the gov.uk website would be updated to reflect the true cost of the tests.

“We are also introducing regular spot checks this week to make sure all private providers follow the rules and meet our high standards of transparency,” he said.

The checks will include DHSC officials ensuring companies are complying with the rules to ensure that prices displayed are accurate, providers are legitimate, and companies have not changed their name to get back on the list.

It is also good news that findings from the department’s review will be shared with the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to support their own review of the market and align recommendations and actions.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Citizens in limbo

The Independent reports that more than half a million European citizens living in the UK are still awaiting a decision over their status six weeks on from the June deadline for the settlement scheme.

They say European nationals and their families were asked to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme by 30 June so they could carry on living and working in Britain after Brexit. But just over 569,000 applications to the scheme were still pending in July, according to the latest Home Office data:

Campaigners said the government’s failure to clear the huge backlog had left a large number of people “in limbo” and facing a series of practical difficulties proving their legal status in the UK.

The 3million group, which advocates for the rights of EU citizens, said people waiting on a decision were having problems in applying for jobs, moving house and – in some cases – getting in and out of the country.

Luke Piper, the group’s head of policy, said: “The backlog remains incredibly high, and it’s worrying that the rate of decision making by the Home Office appears static.”

He added: “While people are left in this limbo situation they are experiencing very real problems with proving their status in the UK.”

Bhavneeta Limbachia, an immigration lawyer at Russell-Cooke solicitors, criticised delays in providing EU citizens with a “certificate of application” – the document which helps people show they still have the right to live and work in the UK while waiting on a decision.

“This bottleneck in the system is failing EU nationals, especially when employment has had to be temporarily suspended,” she told the BBC.

“The delay is also prejudicial to landlords and employers, who are left in a predicament when assessing whether an applicant is legally permitted to continue renting or working in the UK.”

The Independent has previously spoken to EU nationals who have been held up in airports since Brexit because they have been unable to provide physical proof of their residency in the UK.

Just over 58,000 European nationals applied late for settled status in the month after the deadline passed, the latest Home Office figures also show.

The government has said there is no cut-off point for submitting late applications, and insisted that those who apply late will have their existing rights protected, pending later decisions and appeals.

But campaigners have warned that the government decision to cut off benefits to European nationals who have not applied to the scheme – many of whom remain unaware of the need to apply for settled status – could soon push the most vulnerable into destitution.

The Independent revealed earlier this week that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will next month start the process of cutting benefits to all those who have not applied for settled status.

An internal DWP report reveals that final warning letters will be sent out in September to EU benefit claimants. The group will then be given one month to sign up late to the settlement scheme before their benefit payments are cut.

More than 6 million applications were submitted between the launch of the scheme in March 2019 and the closing date this summer.

More than 2.8 million of those were granted settled status. A further 2.3 million were granted pre-settled status, meaning they need to reapply after living in the country for five years to gain permanent residence.

It is worth noting that in October 2017, Boris Johnson made a promise to EU citizens living in the UK that “your rights will be protected whatever happens” after Brexit. Yet another broken promise from this government.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Government spending defies rhetoric on climate change

Government Ministers may be talking the talk on climate change, but when it comes to actually doing something about it they are failing to deliver according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

As the Guardian reports, the WWF's analysis of the spring budget has found that the UK government is spending many times more on measures that will increase greenhouse gas emissions than on policies to tackle the climate crisis.

The WWF have concluded that only £145m in the March 2021 budget was devoted to environmental spending, most of it on the post-Brexit emissions trading scheme for industry, but the cost of tax breaks to companies to encourage investment came to more than £34bn, while maintaining the fuel duty freeze – for an 11th consecutive year – is costing about £4.5bn in lost revenues:

In all, WWF found that measures in the 2021 budget that would increase emissions were worth about £40bn. The findings come from a new “budget tagging tool” developed by the charity with help from Vivid Economics, which measures the impact of policy decisions that affect the environment.

Isabella O’Dowd, the head of climate at WWF, said: “The spring budget showed a disconnect between the government’s rhetoric and the reality of what it’s doing. The ambition [on emissions-cutting targets] is great, but now we really need to see the policies that will deliver.”

She said the landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published on Monday, which found the world was heading for more than 1.5C of global heating within the next two decades, showed how urgent it was for ministers to act.

The UK will host vital UN climate talks, called Cop26, this November in Glasgow, aimed at bringing all countries together with new national commitments to cut emissions in line with the ambition of the Paris agreement of holding temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, beyond which the impacts of climate breakdown are likely to become more devastating.

“With nature in freefall and the climate in crisis, the clock is ticking for the planet,” said O’Dowd. “It’s not yet too late to prevent global warming rising above 1.5C – that is in our hands. But the UK government must play its part by keeping every climate promise it has made.”

She said separate estimates showed the UK could benefit to the tune of about £90bn in the form of new jobs, health benefits and infrastructure if the government took a greener approach to investment and spending.

The clock is ticking, the need for action more and more urgent.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Government plans for permanent lorry queues post Brexit

The smooth transition to a post-Brexit economy that we were promised by government ministers has not materialised, and many of us are faced with half-empty supermarket shelves, as the shops' just-in-time resupply policies struggle to cope with a shortage of lorry drivers and bureaucratic delays at our borders.

It is estimated that the UK needs another 100,000 drivers if lorry-based supply chains are to recover, but there is no sign of even a fraction of that number being recruited in the near future, especially with most non-British drivers being put off by over-zealous immigration controls amonsgt many other barriers imposed by an increasingly xenophobic government.

And if those drivers were to miraculously appear then what should they expect? Queues and more queues. That is certainly the message ministers are giving out with their intention to make permanent emergency powers put in place to handle post-Brexit queues of lorries.

The Guardian reports that Operation Brock, a traffic management system designed to cope with queues of up to 13,000 lorries heading for mainland Europe across Kent, was meant to end by October 2021, after being extended once when the Brexit transition period ended in December 2020.

They say ministers are planning to make the provisions indefinite by removing “sunset clauses” from the legislation that set out when the powers would expire. It means the emergency protocol can be activated at any time to govern the flow of lorries around the Port of Dover and Channel tunnel at Folkestone with contraflow systems:

Naomi Smith, the chief executive of the internationalist campaign group Best for Britain, said: “This is an admission that far from ‘teething problems’, the government expects supply problems from their rushed Brexit deal to continue indefinitely.

“Shelves are empty and our supply chains are already at breaking point. The government should be seeking improvements to their deal with Europe rather than preparing to make Kent a permanent lorry park.”

None of this was on the side of the Boris Bus back in 2016.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Report says we are facing irreversible climate change

There is still so nuch to do and which can be done to tackle climate change, but is it too late? The latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading authority on climate science, seems to suggest that it may be. That is especially so because there are still few signs of any concerted international action on this issue, or even agreement on the best way forward. We can all do the little things but without radical change on an international level we are hitting our head against a brick wall.

The Guardian reports on the IPCC's conclusions that human activity is changing the Earth’s climate in ways “unprecedented” in thousands or hundreds of thousands of years, with some of the changes now inevitable and “irreversible”. They say within the next two decades, temperatures are likely to rise by more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, breaching the ambition of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, and bringing widespread devastation and extreme weather.

The IPCC believe only rapid and drastic reductions in greenhouse gases in this decade can prevent such climate breakdown, with every fraction of a degree of further heating likely to compound the accelerating effects:

Temperatures have now risen by about 1.1C since the period 1850 to 1900, but stabilising the climate at 1.5C was still possible, the IPCC said. That level of heating would still result in increasing heatwaves, more intense storms, and more serious droughts and floods, but would represent a much smaller risk than 2C.

Richard Allan, a professor of climate science at University of Reading, and an IPCC lead author, said each fraction of a degree of warming was crucial. “You are promoting moderate extreme weather events to the premier league of extreme events [with further temperature rises],” he said.

Civil society groups urged governments to act without delay. Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, said: “This is not the first generation of world leaders to be warned by scientists about the gravity of the climate crisis, but they’re the last that can afford to ignore them. The increasing frequency, scale and intensity of climate disasters that have scorched and flooded many parts of the world in recent months is the result of past inaction. Unless world leaders finally start to act on these warnings, things will get much, much worse.”

Stephen Cornelius, chief adviser on climate change at WWF, added: “This is a stark assessment of the frightening future that awaits us if we fail to act. With the world on the brink of irreversible harm, every fraction of a degree of warming matters to limit the dangers.”

Even if the world manages to limit warming to 1.5C, some long-term impacts of warming already in train are likely to be inevitable and irreversible. These include sea level rises, the melting of Arctic ice, and the warming and acidification of the oceans. Drastic reductions in emissions can stave off worse climate change, according to IPCC scientists, but will not return the world to the more moderate weather patterns of the past.

Ed Hawkins, a professor of climate science at the University of Reading, and a lead author for the IPCC, said: “We are already experiencing climate change, including more frequent and extreme weather events, and for many of these impacts there is no going back.”

This report is likely to be the last report from the IPCC while there is still time to stay below 1.5C, added Joeri Rogelj, director of research at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, and an IPCC lead author. “This report shows the closer we can keep to 1.5C, the more desirable the climate we will be living in, and it shows we can stay within 1.5C but only just – only if we cut emissions in the next decade,” he said. “If we don’t, by the time of the next IPCC report at the end of this decade, 1.5C will be out the window.”

Of course there has been the inevitable gnashing of teeth by assorted world leaders in response to this report, but no sign as yet of any real action. We cannot wait much longer for the appopriate and effective response we all need.

Monday, August 09, 2021

More on those skewed government spending priorities

Today's Boris Johnson faux pas bring us back to the furnishing in 10 Downing Street, with a report in the Independent that the government has forked out almost £100,000 of taxpayers’ money on two sets of artwork while at the same time, the Prime Minister is planning to cut public sector pay and benefits:

The pieces of artwork were bought through the Government Art Collection fund, The Mirror reported.

A unnamed painting by Belfast-born artist Cathy Wilkes was purchased for £70,200. The 24x28 inch piece – bought from the Xavier Hufkens gallery in Brussels – is a washy blend of muted pink, turquoise and green “egg tempera on linen”.

A set of four black-and-white photo prints of vegetation and their shadows called ‘Ashen, Restless,’ by photographer Willie Doherty was bought for £18,775 – from the Kerlin Gallery in Dublin – to also go on display at 11 Downing Street.

Downing Street was unable to say how much public cash was spent on the art but a spokesman said the “majority” of the money came from “philanthropic” donors.

In less than two month’s time, low-income households will receive less money in benefits.

The £20-a-week Universal Credit uplift, that was put in place at the start of the Covid pandemic, will be “phased out” from the end of September and mainly October – Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey confirmed last month.

Also in July, public sector workers such as teachers and police officers received a real-terms pay cut when their salaries were frozen.

The paper adds that last year, civil servants splashed out £696,700 on new works for the Government Art Collection, more than 60 per cent up on the £432,071 spent the year before. On top of the £200,000 refurbishment of the Downing Street flat last year, it is becoming clear where this government's priorities lie.

Sunday, August 08, 2021

What does the money buy?

In many ways the revelation in the Independent that just 10 wealthy people account for a quarter of all the donations made by individuals to the Conservative Party since Boris Johnson became prime minister is no great surprise. One has the impression that during Covid especially, wealthy individuals have donatd huge sums of money to the Tories, presumably hoping that they will win lucrative contracts or favours. It is up to others to judge whether that hope was realised or not.

The paper says that the 10 super-rich donors – nine of whom are men – have given a combined sum of just over £10m to the Tories since Mr Johnson entered Downing Street, more than 25 per cent of the £38.6m received from all individuals in the past two years. They add that fears have been raised about the power held by the very wealthiest Tory donors, after it emerged last week that a group known as the “advisory board” had been developed to connect the party’s biggest financial backers with ministers:

Campaign groups said The Independent’s analysis – based on the latest data from the Electoral Commission – showed the “concentrated power” of a small number of big donors.

Darren Hughes, chief executive of Electoral Reform Society said: “These figures show just how concentrated donor power is in UK politics. Political debate shouldn’t be something bought by a few very wealthy individuals.

“The fact that a small group have provided such a large amount of political funding and gained the potential influence that comes with it is of great concern.”

Calling for strict new limits on the amount donors can give, Mr Hughes added: “It’s time to fix the rot and restore faith in politics. We need to explore a cap on donations [and] greater public funding to bring us into line with most advanced democracies.”

Alex Runswick, senior advocacy manager at the Transparency International UK campaign group, added: “These revelations underline concerns that great wealth can secure a privileged audience in UK politics.

“This dependence on a small number of wealthy donors risks shaping policy and decisions in their favour rather than national interest, so the government should legislate to take big money out of politics.”

Of especial interest is that the donation data shows most of the 10 biggest individual Tory backers since Mr Johnson became prime minister in July 2019 made their fortune in either finance or property:

One of the 10 most generous donors is Jamie Reuben, co-owner of the Reuben Brothers property empire, who has given almost £700,000 to the Tory party thus far during the Johnson era.

His ties with the Tories came under scrutiny earlier this year, when it emerged his company was a co-investor with the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF) in last year’s failed bid to buy Newcastle United.

Leaked messages from September 2020 revealed that the prime minister had asked his adviser Sir Edward Lister to look into the chances of the deal being revived. When Sir Edward said that he was hopeful the deal could be done, Mr Johnson reportedly replied: “Brilliant.”

Other wealthy Tory donors on the top 10 list include online trading tycoon Peter Cruddas, who has given the party just over £870,000 in the past two years. Mr Cruddas was handed a peerage last year – sparking accusations of “cronyism” from Labour.

In June the anti-corruption campaign the Good Law Project launched legal action over the peerage, claiming that Mr Johnson ignored the advice of the House of Lords Appointments Committee against making the businessman a Lord.

The single biggest individual donor since Mr Johnson came to power is Malcom Healey – the retail tycoon whose company owns Wren Kitchens. He has handed the Tory Party £2m in the past two years.

The case for a reform of political finance grows stronger by the day.

Saturday, August 07, 2021

The cost of flag-waving

Most of us emitted a deep sigh and moved on when UK Ministers started to wrap themselves in the union jack, though to be fair I did retaliate slightly by adopting Welsh and European flags as a backdrop for all my video conferencing meetings. My little act of rebellion has cost the public nothing, whereas Boris Johnson's flag-obsession is proving very expensive indeed.

The Guardian reports that spending on union flags has increased in virtually every government department since Johnson entered Downing Street, with more than £163,000 spent this year and last. It accounts for 85% of union flag purchases over the past four years:

The lion’s share has come from two departments: the Ministry of Defence (MoD) – whose spending has increased each year since 2018 and comes to £118,000 since the start of 2018 – and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). More than 83% (£54,420.89) of the spending by the DCMS was last year, which it says was due to the need to replace many flags due to wear and tear.

Other government departments have also been stocking up. At the Cabinet Office, which recently axed £2.6m plans for White House-style TV briefings featuring flags, more than £3,000 has been spent on union jacks since the start of 2018, including the purchase of eight in the most recent financial year at a cost of £1,999.47.

The Treasury has spent nearly £1,000 on union flags since 2018, including three this year at a cost of £607.06. Spending this year perhaps compensates for the purchase of a solitary £3.25 table-top union jack last year.

The purchases – detailed after a freedom of information request – come against the backdrop of another apparent escalation of the flag-based culture war when the culture minister, Oliver Dowden, announced that the national flag should be flown from all UK government buildings every day, and urged councils to do likewise.

The BBC’s director general, Tim Davie, was taken to task in a parliamentary committee hearing by a Tory MP for failing to include images of the flag in the corporation’s annual report, while another Conservative wore a union flag tie and face mask in the House of Commons chamber to rail against what he described as a “ban” on the display of the flag in the Welsh parliament.


Elsewhere in government, the Department for Transport has spent £1,100 since 2018 on union flags (including £700 last year) and Jenrick’s Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said it spent £90.05 on the flags this year, with no record of purchases in other recent years.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy stocked up on £392 worth of flags this year and last – zero in the years previously – while the Department for Work and Pensions spent £1,045 in the last three years (zero in 2018). Spending on union jacks by the Department for International Trade was £653.05 this year and last.

Surprisingly for a department that may be seen as being in the culture war frontline, the Department for Education bought just of the flags in 2019 for a total of £134. The Wales Office has spent £824 since 2018. This included £597.50 in 2020-21, and the same amount again on Welsh flags.

This is good news for flagmakers but from the point of view of other taxpayers one is bound to question the government's priorities. The amount involved would not cover the £20 a week cut from Universal Credit payments, but it does indicate which of the two Ministers consider to be the more important.

Friday, August 06, 2021

Crass Johnson joke reopens old wounds

Nobody would ever describe Boris Johnson as 'Mr Sensitivity', but his latest faux pas has hit a new low, even for him. As the Independent explains, the prime minister was reported to have chuckled as he said Britain owed its escape from reliance on coal energy to Margaret Thatcher’s closure of the mines in the 1980s:

Speaking during a visit to a wind-farm off the coast of Scotland, Mr Johnson said that the UK’s dependence on coal for its electricity had fallen from 70-80 per cent in his childhood to less than one per cent now largely “thanks to” Lady Thatcher.

“We’ve transitioned away from coal in my lifetime,” he said. “Thanks to Margaret Thatcher, who closed so many coal mines across the country, we had a big early start and we’re now moving rapidly away from coal altogether.”

Around 20,000 people lost their livelihood in Wales as a result of Thatcher's wholesale closure of pits, which led to the bitterly divisive miners’ strike of 1984-85; whole communities were devastated by the loss of their main centre of employment; while the Welsh economy is still struggling to recover decades later. It is no joking matter and certainly nothing to celebrate.

Surely, Johnson must retract his statement and apologise for it.

Thursday, August 05, 2021

The misplaced evidence

The Guardian reports that a health minister replaced his mobile phone before it could be searched for information relevant to £85m of deals that are subject to a legal challenge:

James Bethell, who oversaw the award of Covid contracts, is one of those under scrutiny over the way deals for personal protective equipment (PPE) and tests were allocated at the height of the pandemic.

As part of legal proceedings issued by the Good Law Project, the government is expected to disclose Lord Bethell’s correspondence including by email, WhatsApp and SMS relating to the award of £85m of contracts for antibody tests to Abingdon Health.

The secretary of state has a responsibility to preserve and search documents for information relevant to the case from the point at which judicial review proceedings were issued in late 2020, under the government’s “duty of candour”.

However, a witness statement from a government lawyer revealed Bethell replaced his phone in early 2021 and it may no longer be possible to retrieve the information about his dealings with Abingdon, although efforts are being made to recover them from his mobile phone provider.

The statement said Bethell had used his official email account as well as his private email account to send and receive emails relevant to the contracts, and that he had also used his mobile phone for SMS and WhatsApp messages. But it said Bethell had confirmed that about six months ago his phone was broken and replaced and that his new phone did not contain the phone data.

Government lawyers revealed Bethell had not been issued with a “preservation notice” requiring him to save documents because ministers’ official correspondence was routinely saved as a matter of course. However, this did not cover government business conducted by private means.

Bethell is already under investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) over the use of private emails for government business, prompted by revelations that his former boss Matt Hancock was using a private account at the height of the pandemic.

The paper adds that the Information Commissioners Office is investigating the use of all private correspondence channels used by ministers – which could include tools such as WhatsApp – after concerns were raised about the former health secretary’s email, as well as private emails from Bethell:

Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, has said the use of private channels to conduct government business was “a concerning one” and could lead people to feel there was “a loss of transparency about decisions affecting them and their loved ones”.

She said the effects of decisions taken by government especially during the past 18 months would continue for years to come. “It is through transparency and explaining these decisions that people can understand and trust them,” she added.

The ICO has said the use of private correspondence channels does not in itself break freedom of information or data protection rules. But Denham said she was concerned information in private email accounts or messaging services was forgotten, overlooked, auto-deleted or otherwise not available when a freedom of information request was later made.

“This frustrates the freedom of information process, and puts at risk the preservation of official records of decision-making. I also worry that emails containing personal detail are not properly secured in people’s personal email accounts.”

This use of private channels to conduct government business is concerning and raises questions as to why Ministers feel it is necessary. It certainly makes government more opaque and undermines accountability. It needs to stop.

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

An 'infantile brand of tyranny'

I very much recommend Rafael Behr's column on Boris Johnson and his disregard for normal rules in today's Guardian. He argues the libertarian Tories arguing for an end to Covid restrictions are out-of-touch with public sentiment, with the threshold of national goodwill' being tested not by the draconian law but the perception that it was selectively applied.

He says, as has been noted here and elsewhere, that Dominic Cummings’ excursion to Barnard Castle and Matt Hancock’s extramarital office snog damaged Johnson more than any other feature of his pandemic record; more than the deaths that might have been avoided by better decision-making from Downing Street:

The prime minister does not escape blame for the fatalities, but that anger is strongest among people who were ill-disposed to Johnson before the pandemic. The same goes for corruption. Voters who were already primed to think the worst of any Tory government find their sourest expectations vindicated by the chronicles of venality: contracts awarded to cronies; Whitehall capture by lobbyists; secret cliques of high-rolling donors; cash for access; opaque funding schemes for the prime minister’s flat and foreign holidays.

None of the chumocracy charges have detonated with the force of stories that lockdown rules were flouted. That isn’t surprising. The Cummings and Hancock adventures were personal – a punch in the guts to everyone who had abstained from hugging their grandchildren or buried their dead by Zoom.

But there is a slow burn to sleaze. The common theme is arrogance with power and a view that following the rules is for little people and mugs. The whole business of VIP fast lanes for public procurement and backstage passes to Whitehall cuts against a sense of orderliness and decency that is baked deeper into British culture than the abstract freedoms that Rees-Mogg would trace back to the Magna Carta.

The main thrust of his argument however, is that despite the Prime Minister's political incoherence, his lack of attention to detail, and his inability to follow rules being at the centre of his popularity, it is these very features that will be his undoing:

The prime minister is sincere enough about liberty and too inattentive to detail to make a consistent authoritarian. His is a more infantile brand of tyranny that demands control yet is afraid of responsibility. It is a trait that flows not from any doctrine, but from the temperament that sees rules as a personal discomfort and treats duty as an invitation to defiance. Johnson wears the responsibilities of his office much as he wears his clothes: askew for theatrical effect.

That performance is integral to his appeal, but the quality that voters first find attractive in leaders can be a predictor of their undoing. There was a maverick charm in disregarding protocol and cutting legal corners when the purpose was getting Brexit done. The same ethos is more obnoxious when applied in service of Tory donors or indulgence of rule-bending allies.

No violation of constitutional principle could appal the British spirit more than queue jumping. That tendency may not be the most prominent aspect of Johnson’s government, but it is a persistent enough feature to breed resentment over time. It is a problem that will outlast the present policy dilemmas of the pandemic. The current challenge is choosing the right rules. But the origin of uncertainty and incoherence, as with corruption, is a prime minister who is himself governed by the principle that rules do not really matter.

The problem is that those grown-ups who might take over are even more unpalatable.

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

More on the sleaze watchdog role

The Independent has more details on the appointment of one of Boris Johnson's Bullingdon Club chums to the sleaze watchdog, the Committee on Standards In Public Life.

They say that Ewen Fergusson, a member of Oxford’s infamous dining club at the same time as the prime minister, was handed the role last month ahead of 171 other candidates, with Johnson being given the ultimate say on which of the candidates to appoint following a shortlisting process led by Lord Evans, the chair of the committee:

The latest revelation comes after the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption and integrity watchdog warned in June that the British government had ignored instructions to strengthen UK anti-corruption controls, in a scathing report that gave the government its lowest compliance marks ever.

The row over weaknesses in the UK’s integrity oversight is the latest in a series of scandals around lobbying and access to government ministers.

On Monday it emerged that MPs with second jobs are facing scrutiny over worries that they could exploit a lobbying loophole.

Examples include Tory MP Alun Cairns, vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on taxis, which agreed to “continue pressuring the government to provide urgent financial support for taxi drivers”.

While working as an MP, Mr Cairns is also employed as a paid adviser to Veezu, a private hire and taxi firm.

In the circumstances it would seem reasonable that not only should the members of this committee be entirely independent but also that they have the teeth to do the job they have been tasked with.

Monday, August 02, 2021

The Home Office and its fake website

There is an extraordinary claim in the Independent, who allege that the Home Office set up a website targeting asylum seekers with “misleading” claims to deter them from journeying to Britain.

They say it created a fake organisation called On The Move, complete with a logo and glossy branding, which claims to “provide migrants in transit with free, reliable and important information”. Links to the website were pushed out to asylum seekers in France and Belgium as part of a social media campaign that cost the government £23,000 over five months:

The website, using a .org domain commonly associated with charities, contains no government branding and the “about us” section does not disclose any link to the Home Office.

Research by The Independent shows the website was set up in April 2020, using a private registration tool that conceals the owners’ personal information.

It invites asylum seekers to email On The Move with questions, without knowing that they would be contacting the British government.

The website, which remains online, tells readers the UK “regularly returns people who enter via irregular routes” but in reality, Britain has not been able to deport asylum seekers to EU countries since 1 January because of Brexit.

It also claims that steering a dinghy across the English Channel “is a crime”, although controversial prosecutions of boat pilots have recently been limited.

The paper goes on to say the website was created as part of a campaign with which the Home Office “aimed to dissuade migrants in France and Belgium from attempting irregular entry into the UK”:

A Freedom of Information request by the PA news agency revealed it paid £23,200 for targeted adverts to be placed on Facebook and Instagram in English, Kurdish, Arabic, Persian and Pashto between December and April, all linked to the On The Move website and carrying slogans including “don’t put your or your child’s life in danger”, “we will return you” and “there is no hiding place”.

Clare Moseley, founder of charity Care4Calais, said: “I’m shocked that our government is determined to spend more time and money deterring and misleading vulnerable people.

“Those who make it to our shores are often traumatised, having made life-threatening journeys to escape from some of the world’s most dangerous countries. It’s about time this government showed some compassion and stepped up to help.”

Anyone visiting the On The Move website is initially asked whether they are “considering travelling to the UK irregularly”.

Those clicking “yes” are taken to a page with links on the dangers of the journey, the “legal risks” and the “realities” of life in Europe.

The website has a page on “safe and legal alternatives” but none of them detail how to seek asylum in the UK specifically, or how to reach Britain.

Instead, it focuses on France, Belgium and other EU countries, or directs asylum seekers to information on how to “return to their home country voluntarily”.

These sort of black ops go on all the time of course, but in this context and from this source just indicates how far things have gone with Ministers pursuing an isolationist agenda in which the UK tries to avoid its international and humanitarian obligations.

Sunday, August 01, 2021

Developers bankrolling Tories

The Independent reports on new research which shows that the Conservatives are receiving donations worth £17,500 a day from businesses in the property sector They add that gifts to the Tories from companies directly linked to property development have totalled just over £10m since the start of 2019.

At the same time separate research published in the Financial Times found that gifts from a wider group of companies and individuals with an interest in property development – also including groups like hotel and care home operators – now make up around a quarter of all donations to the Conservatives, totalling almost £18m since Mr Johnson became leader in 2019:

Transparency International calculates that the share of property-sector cash in Tory donations has risen from annual figures between 4 and 12 per cent under Mr Johnson’s predecessors Theresa May and David Cameron.

Ms Rayner told The Independent that Mr Johnson’s government had consistently “put the interests of the donors who bankroll the Conservative Party ahead of the interests of the public”, whether through “crony contracts”, tax breaks for developers or reforms to planning rules which Labour has denounced as a “developers’ charter”.

But she said that the government’s favours for the sector also extended to resisting the expansion of rights to work flexibly, which are opposed by many property tycoons.

Even at the height of the coronavirus pandemic – and in the immediate post-election period when donations usually fall – the Conservatives were still taking in £200,000 a month from the property industry in 2020, said Labour. And donations from the sector rose to £282,000 a month in the first quarter of this year.

Yet another argument to reform political funding.

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