Tuesday, November 30, 2021
Ireland by-passes the UK
The Guardian reports on official data showing that the volume of goods shipped directly from Ireland to the EU on new Brexit-busting ferry routes have rocketed by 50% in the past six months as exporters seek to avoid travelling across land through Great Britain>
The paper says that figures published by the Irish Maritime Development Office (IMDO) show significant traffic diverted away from the traditional routes between Dublin and Britain to some of 32 new ferry services direct to ports such as Le Havre, Cherbourg and Dunkirk in France and Zeebrugge in Belgium.
Inevitably, this is going to have a detrimental impact on Welsh and Engliosh ports, with IMDO report showing freight volumes from Dublin port to Liverpool and Holyhead in Anglesey down 19% in the first three-quarters of 2021 compared with 2020 and down by 30% on the two routes from Rosslare in south-east Ireland to the Welsh ports of Pembroke and Fishguard:
“It is clear that the new trading arrangements between Ireland and the UK have had a significant and negative effect upon ro-ro [roll-on roll-off lorry haulage] freight traffic between the two countries,” the IMDO report said. “Underpinning all of these trends are the new customs and trading arrangements between Ireland and the UK that came into force on 1 January 2021,” it added.
“One-third of all ro-ro in the Republic of Ireland now operates on direct routes to ports in the European Union, up from a 16% share in 2019,” the IMDO said.
Traffic for the second and third quarters of this year show Irish Republic to EU traffic is already up by 52% compared with the entirety of 2019, it added.
The decline in demand for the ferry services to Wales and Liverpool has also seen Northern Irish ports receiving a Brexit dividend, with freight volumes hitting “unprecedented highs in 2021”.
Yet another area of the UK economy where the Brexit divident has proven to be a negative.
Monday, November 29, 2021
Johnson on a bridge to nowhere
His proposal to put a new London Airport on an island in the Thames estuary didn't take off, so he switched to a more exclusive project, the abortive London Garden Bridge.
And then there was the even more bonkers proposal to build a bridge or tunnel to Northern Ireland. A project conceived no doubt during a brain-storming session on how to strengthen the union, while giving the finger to the European Union.
The Independent reports that this bridge has also been jettisoned at the drawing board stage, after a government review found that it would cost an estimated £335bn, while a tunnel would be about £209bn.
A significant obstacle to this plan was highlighted by the Guardian back in February 2020, when they reported on warnings by bomb-disposal experts that it would be too dangerous to build the bridge because the most direct route for the 28-mile span would involve crossing Beaufort’s Dyke, a trench that contains more than one million tonnes of unexploded munitions, plus chemical weapons and radioactive waste.
Beaufort’s Dyke is about 31 miles (50km) long and up to 300 metres (1,000ft) deep, and lies directly on the most direct route for a link between Portpatrick in Scotland and Larne in Northern Ireland. The paper said that the dump site is not regularly monitored by the British government, although the construction of a British Gas pipeline two decades ago resulted in thousands of second world war incendiary bombs being washed ashore, some of which exploded when they dried out.
They added that a four-year-old boy suffered burns in Campbeltown, Argyll and Bute, after picking up a device containing phosphorus. The episode led to the last major survey of the maritime site, with dredging for the gas pipeline thought to have been the cause.
A million tonnes of explosive and a £335 billion cost seem to be pretty decisive reason to abandon this idea.
Sunday, November 28, 2021
Debunking Priti Patel
I can't get this video to load up, so please click on this link to see the real facts behind the so-called 'migrant crisis in the channel'
Saturday, November 27, 2021
Is our tax system run by gamekeepers turned poachers?
The Guardian says that the department’s planned new home in the north-east of England is part of a regeneration scheme developed by a British Virgin Islands (BVI) entity controlled by the billionaire property tycoons David and Simon Reuben:
The deal will see officials at the government department responsible for preventing tax avoidance working from a site owned by a subsidiary of a company based in a secretive offshore tax jurisdiction.
The Reuben brothers, their family members and businesses have donated a combined £1.9m to the Tories. Earlier this week, the brothers are reported to have shared a table with Boris Johnson at an exclusive Tory party fundraising dinner.
On Tuesday, officials including the Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay announced HMRC had agreed the 25-year lease with one of the Reuben brothers’ companies.
The brothers are the second richest family in the UK, according to the Sunday Times’s rich list. David Reuben’s son, Jamie, is a close ally of the prime minister and has served as a Tory party treasurer. He has donated more than £750,000 to the party since Johnson entered Downing Street.
The Reuben family has built a significant presence in Newcastle in recent years and is part of the controversial Saudi Arabia-led consortium that acquired Newcastle United football club in October.
Company filings show the family has frequently used BVI companies to hold its UK business interests, which include a luxury London property portfolio and a string of racecourses.
A spokesperson for HMRC said the office complex in Newcastle is owned and will be developed by a UK company, Reuben Brothers (Newcastle) Limited. However, Companies House filings show the company’s sole shareholder when it was incorporated earlier this year was Taras Properties Limited in the BVI.
Taras Properties first acquired the site in 2013 and transferred ownership of the land to the UK company in June this year for £10m, according to Land Registry records. The BVI company owns multiple large plots of land in central Newcastle in the area surrounding HMRC’s planned offices.
A spokesperson for the Reuben brothers confirmed the UK company is held by Taras Properties, but insisted the subsidiary “operates and pays taxes as a UK company”.
HMRC’s spokesperson insisted the Reuben brothers’ company would be subject to normal UK tax regulation. “The lease payments and any gains on the sale are subject to UK tax,” they said. “HMRC is satisfied the deal represents the best value for money for the taxpayer.”
There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by the Reuben brothers and owning UK property through offshore companies is perfectly legal.
The paper adds that combatting offshore tax evasion and avoidance is described as one of HMRC’s priorities, and yet the government has still not honoured a commitment to introduce a register of overseas companies owning UK properties, which would help to crack down on the use of offshore companies to obscure owners’ identities and their source of funds.
Friday, November 26, 2021
Johnson abdicates control of our borders - to the EU
It may well be that he doesn't understand what managing borders involves. It does not, for example, mean that we pull up the drawbridge, build a big wall and repel all those we don't like, though Priti Patel and he certainly give that impression.
Management in this context is putting in place and taking responsibility for proper and humane controls, the swift and efficient evaluation of entrees, especially asylum seekers, and tailoring entry requirements to the country's needs. It helps too, if we don't alienate other countries, whose co-operation is needed to deliver a better regulated border regime.
What happens when the UK government gets this wrong, starts to pander to popular sentiment, and politicises the deaths of men, women and children fleeing oppression, war or starvation, is illustrated in this article in the Guardian. We alienate our allies, lose control of our own agenda, and are left blustering at ourselves in a diplomatic corner, while others deplore our breaking of international conventions on refugees and our ignoring of international law.
Petty as Macron's actions are, it is little wonder that talks with the home secretary, Priti Patel, about the Channel boats crisis have been cancelled by France’s interior minister after Boris Johnson called on France to take back people who crossed the Channel to the UK in small boats:
In an escalation of the political crisis after the deaths of 27 people in the Channel, Patel’s counterpart, Gérald Darmanin, said France was disappointed by the demand.
“Making it public made it even worse,” he said.
Johnson had set out five steps in his letter to President Emmanuel Macron to avoid a repeat of Wednesday’s tragedy. In a message seen by the AFP news agency, Darmanin told Patel the letter from Johnson to Macron, suggesting France take back people who cross the Channel, was a “disappointment”.
Referring to Johnson’s posting of the letter on social media, he added: “Making it public made it even worse. I therefore need to cancel our meeting in Calais on Sunday.”
The French government’s official spokesman, Gabriel Attal, added to Darmanin’s criticism of Johnson’s letter on French television calling it “mediocre in terms of the content, and wholly inappropriate as regards the form”.
Attal told BFM TV the letter was “medicore because it does not respect all the work that has been done by our coastguards, police, gendarmes and lifeboat crews … It basically proposes a ‘relocation’ agreement, which is clearly not what’s needed to solve this problem.
“We’re sick and tired of this double talk and outsourcing of problems.”
France was planning to host ministers from all states with Channel coasts, including Patel, for a meeting on the refugee crisis in Calais on Sunday.
A source close to Darmanin told AFP and French media the meeting would be going ahead with the ministers from other European countries but said Patel was no longer invited after Johnson’s “unacceptable” letter.
The irony of course, is that the UK, which literally left the EU to "take back control of our borders", believes that it has no responsibility for the numbers of refugees arriving/ drowning in the Channel. In the Prime Minister's eyes, it is apparently all the fault of people smugglers and France for not keeping control of our borders.
Thursday, November 25, 2021
Turkeys vote for Christmas, after all.
The Independent reports that the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, Steve Barclay, has had assurances from the British Poultry Council that there would “definitely” be enough turkeys for Christmas:
After months of pressure, the government relaxed immigration rules in September, making 5,500 visas available for foreign workers as a temporary measure to help the meat-processing industry prepare for the holiday season.
In a presentation to the cabinet on the challenge of dealing with the continuing Covid pandemic and its effects on supply chains on top of managing regular winter pressures, Mr Barclay said that government action had “alleviated concerns over potential turkey shortages in the run up to Christmas”, a No 10 spokesperson said.
Asked whether that meant that British families’ Christmases would not be disrupted by supply-chain problems, the spokesperson said: “Yes, certainly on that specific point with regards to the food supply, that is the view that we have. The action we’ve taken on things like temporary visas has helped alleviate some of the pressures we have seen.
“We know it will be challenging for a number of different sectors and we’re working with them closely.”
Of course there are plenty of other Brexit-related problems to deal with, including the continuing shortage of HGV drivers and the imminent imposition of red tape on exports and imports from January. No wonder we get the impression that Ministers are not so much in control, as fire fighting one crisis after another.
Wednesday, November 24, 2021
How should we reform council tax?
In his excellent paper on Taxation in Wales, Gerry Holtham describes council tax as the ‘misbegotten offspring of political misjudgement and political cowardice’.
As a Councillor in the late 1980s and the early 1990s I know what he means. Driven by the belief that everybody should pay the same amount for local services, Margaret Thatcher’s Government introduced the poll tax with disastrous consequences for their own popularity and for local councils.
Nothing would ever be the same again, least of all the previously excellent collection rates for property rates, which plummeted as people withheld payment on principle or simply because they could not afford the new poll tax.
The poll tax proved to be a highly regressive measure that hit large families in low wage areas particularly hard, whilst single people and couples in high property value areas suddenly found themselves making huge savings on previously high monthly payments to their local council.
In many ways today’s arguments about a mansion tax still hark back to those days. Those in favour of such a levy are seeking to reverse the failure to properly tax wealth as opposed to income, the parts that council tax still does not properly reach.
When Michael Heseltine oversaw the abolition of the community charge he missed an opportunity to introduce an alternative that properly related to people’s ability to pay. That was certainly the campaigning focus of the Liberal Democrats throughout their opposition to the Poll Tax.
In fact, right up to Charles Kennedy’s bleary-eyed press conference during the 2005 General Election when he failed to satisfactorily deal with difficult questions on the implementation of the policy, the Liberal Democrats remained committed to introducing a local income tax as the best way to pay for local government.
That remains their policy today, but it is one less trumpeted and desperately in need of updating or even replacing with a more sustainable and electorally acceptable tax.
Whilst the poll tax was in place, it may have been possible to sell a local income tax as a suitable alternative to a sceptical electorate. The differences in outcomes would not have been as stark as they subsequently proved to be in comparison with council tax.
The wealthy would have paid more under a local income tax than they would have done under the poll tax, whilst others would have seen a reduction in their bills. It would have been perceived as fairer. Moving from a more graduated council tax to one based on income has proved far more problematic.
It is for this reason that I welcome Gerry Holtham’s paper. For all its advantages, as the paper illustrates, council tax is still essentially regressive, though nowhere near as much as its predecessor. Because it is a property tax it is hard to avoid, it does not distort economic activity and it is easily understood.
Its disadvantage is that it requires regular revaluations to remain relevant, something that only happened once in Wales and never in England due to the political fall-out.
As Gerry Holtham explains, property values, as assessed for these purposes are increasing at a much slower rate than house prices, so that the average council tax on the lowest band, whose properties are worth up to £44,000 amounts to nearly 1.9% of the value of the property. For properties worth over £424,000, the tax is just over 0.5% of capital value.
The solution proposed by the paper is not to throw out the tax altogether but to reform it so as to ‘smooth out the indexation’ and to consider introducing additional tax bands. Gerry Holtham argues that this would lead to gradual change and do away with the need for revaluation.
He argues that a fairer way to levy the tax would be to make it a flat rate plus a proportion of the value of the property, less a property allowance. That would yield similar revenue to the current tax where everybody would end up paying a fraction over 1% of the band value. In other words the tax would be rebalanced so that those in the most expensive properties would pay more.
He says that taxpayers in band D would pay a little more than a pound a week more, whilst those in band A would see their bills fall dramatically. This would lead to a fall in the cost of Council Tax benefit from £242m to just over £190m.
Gerry Holtham suggests that the increase in taxation for those in the higher bands could be ameliorated by other measures. These include removing the single occupant discount and increasing the tax on second homes, a measure already being proposed in the housing bill. In Gwynedd, 10% of the housing stock consists of second homes.
The joy of this paper for me though is that it does not stop with discussion of council tax, though this is the most significant of the taxes being devolved to Wales, bringing in £1.2 billion a year. It also looks at the other taxes scheduled to be devolved to Wales and makes some interesting suggestions as to how they might be dealt with.
It suggests that Wales could follow the example of Scotland and reform stamp duty so as to make it more proportional, smoothing out the transition between thresholds which would be paid for by small changes to council tax.
Gerry Holtham suggests that a logical reform would be pass the collection and administration of smaller taxes such as landfill and stamp duty to local councils. He says that both are easy to collect and that it would make sense for them to be treated like business rates, collected by the local authority finance department, pooled centrally and then redistributed according to a Welsh government formula.
This would be balanced by a reduction in central government grant, delivering the additional benefit of lessening the gearing effect on council tax as more spending would be financed by locally-collected revenue. It would also reduce the cost of administering these taxes.
This sort of reform is very much in line with Liberal Democrats thinking, empowering local councils and giving them additional sources of revenue locally without increasing people’s tax burden.
I would argue that in addition there is scope to allow local councils to retain more of the business rates they collect locally along the lines of that pioneered in English cities. In England some councils can borrow against future business rate income from new businesses in regeneration areas, which capital they then use to regenerate those districts in the first place. This is known as tax increment financing.
Gerry Holtham’s paper has given us real food for thought as to how we can use the new tax powers being passed to us in a progressive and effective way, to both revitalise local democracy and deliver fairer outcomes. It deserves very serious consideration as we start to construct the treasury functions needed as a result of Silk and the Government of Wales Bill.
Tuesday, November 23, 2021
Judging by his performance over the last few weeks, tiredness is the least of Boris Johnson's worries, and yet it took an ITV reporter to plant the seed, the 'Doctor seed' we shall call it, when he asked the Prime Minister to his face if everything is okay?
That widely reported question is going to stick in the minds of MPs and commentators for some time, especially after the shambolic speech Johnson gave to business leaders yesterday, in which he lost his way repeatedly, talked about his trip to Hampshire’s Peppa Pig World, imitated the sound of an accelerating car with grunts that the official Downing Street release transcribed as “arum arum aaaaaaaaag” and compared himself to Moses over his plan to help business invest in tackling climate change. Even by Johnson's standards this was an extraordinary contribution to public debate.
It is little wonder then, that the Guardian is reporting that Conservative MPs are increasingly worried about Boris Johnson’s competence and drive. They say senior members of his own party want Johnson to get the government back on track after a disastrous two weeks:
The prime minister was also facing a substantial rebellion over his social care proposals, anger at the decision to scale back rail improvements for the north and frustration over the government’s failure to keep its promises on small boats crossing the Channel. It caps a difficult fortnight for the prime minister after he admitted he “crashed the car into a ditch” in his handling of the Owen Paterson lobbying scandal.
Nervousness among Tory MPs about No 10 intensified after one Downing Street source told the BBC there was “a lot of concern inside the building about the PM … it’s just not working”, adding that the “cabinet needs to wake up and demand serious changes otherwise it’ll keep getting worse”.
A former cabinet minister also told the Guardian that there was “an accumulation of things building up, really relating to his competence and that is beginning to look very shaky” after a “pretty bad bloody fortnight”. He said it was unlikely to result in a leadership challenge while the polls were still fairly even between the Tories and Labour, but it could be “problematic for him” if that changes when an election is looming.
Another senior backbencher said Johnson’s CBI speech had been a “mess” while a third Tory MP said: “I thought today’s performance was the most embarrassing by a Conservative prime minister since last week’s PMQs. Someone needs to get a grip. He is losing the confidence of the party.”
Another Tory MP referenced the process by which MPs can submit letters of no confidence to the chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady, saying: “It might not only be Father Christmas’ postbag filling up towards the end of the year – Sir Graham Brady could find he needs a bigger one too.”
Whether the Peppa Pig speech was Johnson's 'Harriet Jones moment' will only emerge in time, but it is sure looking like it.
Monday, November 22, 2021
Potential conflict of interest at Treasury
The paper says that Frazer moved to the Treasury in September and discloses her husband, David Leigh, is the boss of recruitment firm Alexander Mann Solutions (AMS) in the latest list of ministerial interests.
However, the firm has a seven-year public sector resourcing contract with Crown Commercial Service, an executive agency of the Cabinet Office, overseeing the supply of temporary government workers through 351 agencies, including workers to the Treasury:
It emerged last year the firm had supplied six workers to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) or the government-owned Revenue and Customs Digital Technology Services Ltd who were on tax avoidance schemes known as disguised remuneration. These schemes typically involve a loan that is unlikely to ever be repaid and avoids income tax and insurance.
Sarah Olney, the Liberal Democrat MP and a member of the loan charge all-party parliamentary group, said: “It is extraordinary that the financial secretary to the Treasury was appointed to this role, when her husband is the boss of the company that holds a £15bn framework contract to supply temporary workers, including to the Treasury and to HMRC.
“It is hugely embarrassing that contractors have been recruited via the public sector resourcing process who have used disguised remuneration arrangements while working for HMRC. HMRC says its suppliers must ensure the tax compliance of workers. So what action have they taken in this situation? There should be an investigation into all of this, including the clear and untenable conflict of interest that clearly exists.”
The government say that arrangements are in place to ensure there is no conflict of interest and the minister has made no decisions relating to the contract in question since taking up the role. Nevertheless, in politics it is the optics that matter and this latest controversy just adds to the appearance of a government under pressure to sort itself out.
Friday, November 19, 2021
Government obstinacy contributing to the slaughter of Canadian black bears
The paper says that the government spent more than £1m of taxpayer money in seven years on bear fur hats for the military, despite the fact that they are made from the skins of Canadian black bears, which often suffer slow deaths after being shot.
The MoD purchases cost £1,076,149 in total over the seven years.
The department told Peta that last year it bought 110 bearskin caps at a cost of £145,000. Previous purchases, according to Freedom of Information Act replies, were:
2019: 92 caps, costing £127,440 2018: 61 caps, costing £76,206 2017: 172 caps, costing £201,071 2016: 207 caps, costing £240,382 2015: 122 caps, costing £149,379 2014: 127 caps, costing £136,671
A faux-fur company based in France, Ecopel, has offered to provide the MoD with artificial bear fur free of charge until 2030.
As mayor of London six years ago, Boris Johnson said he would be open to using fake fur hats if it might “help save a few bears”, according to The Telegraph.
During black bear hunts, up to one in seven escapes wounded and dies slowly from blood loss or starvation, Peta says.
And if a nursing mother bear is killed, entire families die because the cubs cannot fend for themselves.
Designer Stella McCartney has previously offered to create new faux fur hats for the MoD, but it’s believed her offer was declined.
Peta senior campaigns manager Kate Werner said: “There is no excuse for the Ministry of Defence to continue funding the slaughter of black bears – and the prime minister must put a stop to it.
“The humane, high-performing faux fur created by Ecopel gives a nod to tradition while preventing sensitive bears from being viciously slaughtered for their fur.”
And where is the 'environmentalist' Prince Charles in all this? These hats are being made for ceremonial guards protecting the royal family.
Apparently, buying real animal fur is still legal in the UK, even though the government has come under intense pressure to outlaw imports. Fur farms are banned in Britain.
Thursday, November 18, 2021
Boris Johnson misses the mark - again!
The Guardian reports that an analysis of the register of interests has found that fewer than 10 MPs are likely to be affected by Boris Johnson’s proposed rule changes:
On Wednesday the cabinet minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan, in a series of interviews, suggested the changes could mean a restriction on paid outside work limiting it to fewer than 20 hours a week, or below 10-15 hours a week, or just to eight hours a week.
A 20-hour weekly limit on outside work would only cover Geoffrey Cox, the former attorney general, who has been under fire over lucrative legal work spanning more than 1,000 hours a year which involved his voting by proxy from the Caribbean. Such a limit would theoretically let Cox cut back his hours and retain his main outside work for the British Virgin Islands, for which he is paid £400,000 a year for 40 hours a month.
Some MPs who work as councillors or mayors could also be affected, as could ministers, unless there were an exemption for jobs that counted as political service.
A 15-hour weekly limit would also conceivably cover Dan Poulter, a Tory MP who works as a doctor, and Andrew Murrison, a Tory MP working as a naval reserve surgeon, who helped with the coronavirus vaccination effort.
A 10-hour limit would drag in a few more MPs, including John Redwood, a former cabinet minister, who has been working about 12.5 hours a week as chair of the investment committee of Charles Stanley, earning £48,222 a quarter.
Many MPs earn high wages for a small number of hours, so would be out of reach of the proposed changes. Julian Smith, the Tory former chief whip, earns £2,000 a month for only one or two hours’ work advising on business development for Simply Blue Management.
The proposed prohibition on MPs being parliamentary advisers appeared to be so narrowly worded that only two Tories in 48 MPs with consultancy jobs directly fitted that description, according to the register of interests.
Philip Davies, the Tory MP for Shipley, is listed as being a parliamentary adviser on pawnbroking to the National Pawnbroking Association, getting £1,000 a month for five to 10 hours’ work.
Laurence Robertson, the Tory MP for Tewkesbury, is also a parliamentary adviser on sport and safer gambling to the Betting and Gaming Council, receiving £2,000 a month for 10 hours a month.
Only a few more MPs mention politics in the description of the advice that they offer as consultants. These include Stephen Hammond, a Tory former transport minister, who has been a strategic adviser to Darwin Alternative Investments, earning £60,000 a year for providing political advice on business and finance.
There is also a possibility that the work of James Gray, a Tory MP, could be covered, since he records having received £1,100 from Electric Airwaves for having helped train witnesses going before a parliamentary select committee hearing.
Most MPs working as consultants describe their work as advisers in general terms, offering “strategic advice” or business consultancy to private companies.
Bizarrely, the paper suggest that Owen Paterson, the former MP for North Shropshire, who resigned for breaching paid lobbying rules, might not have been covered by the ban. He was described in the register as a consultant to Randox Laboratories, a clinical diagnostics company, getting £100,000 a year, and as a consultant to Lynn’s Country Foods, a processor and distributor of sausages, earning £12,000 a year. Paterson was doing less than five hours a week in the jobs, so would have been unlikely to have been hit by time limits.
This is not an issue that can be sorted out by back of the envelope scribblings designed to appease the media and public. That is why MPs would be better served to await the Standards Committee proposals on the matter in the new year. At least then we would know they are workable and as such, help to restore public trust in the system.
Wednesday, November 17, 2021
More PPE controversy around VIPs
The latest in the long line of revelations regarding this VIP lane is reported in yesterday's Guardian. They say that a Conservative party donor who supported Michael Gove’s Tory leadership bid won £164m in Covid contracts after the minister referred his firm to a “VIP lane” that awarded almost £5bn to companies with political connections.
They add that this disclosure draws Gove into a furore over alleged cronyism that has led critics to accuse the government of running a “chumocracy” where MPs’ friends, contacts or acquaintances have won huge contracts without proper process or transparency:
Meller Designs, based in Bedford, was awarded six personal protective equipment (PPE) supply contracts worth £164m from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) during the coronavirus pandemic.
Until January this year it was co-owned by David Meller, who has donated nearly £60,000 to the Tory party since 2009. This included £3,250 to support Gove’s party leadership bid in 2016, a campaign on which Meller worked as chair of finance.
When the contracts were awarded, Gove was a minister at the Cabinet Office, which is responsible for government procurement, and in charge of the office of the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, which referred Meller Designs for PPE supply.
The company was among 47 awarded contracts for PPE totalling £4.7bn after referrals from politicians and officials, according to a Guardian analysis. Several were linked to MPs, all of them Conservative. Due to the health emergency, many contracts were awarded without competitive tender.
The list of 47 companies awarded contracts via the VIP lane was published by Politico on Tuesday before its official planned release by the DHSC after a freedom of information request by the Good Law Project, which is challenging the propriety of some contracts.
The VIP or “high-priority” route was a fast-track process set up by DHSC procurement teams for offers to supply PPE from companies referred by ministers, MPs, NHS officials or other people with political connections. A report by the National Audit Office last year found that firms referred to the VIP lane had a 10 times greater success rate for securing contracts than companies whose bids were processed via normal channels.
Labour has repeatedly accused the government of favouring people with Tory party connections in the awards of multimillion-pound contracts during the pandemic.
The list of companies includes 18 whose contracts were processed through the fast track after being referred by a Conservative MP, minister or peer. When questions were first asked about the process last year, the government responded that referrals were a way of filtering credible offers that came to MPs and ministers. However, only companies referred by Conservative politicians are on the list of those awarded contracts.
The then health secretary, Matt Hancock, referred four firms subsequently awarded contracts; Andrew Feldman, a health department adviser at the time, referred three of the companies; Theodore Agnew, a Cabinet Office minister, referred three; and the Tory backbenchers Julian Lewis, Andrew Percy, Steve Brine and Esther McVey referred one each.
Another Tory peer, the lingerie businesswoman Michelle Mone, is stated to have referred one company, PPE Medpro, which was awarded two contracts worth £200m via the VIP lane. Corporate services including accounting and directorships were provided to the company by Knox House Trust (KHT), an Isle of Man firm run by Mone’s husband, Douglas Barrowman.
The sooner there is a public inquiry into this mess the better.
Tuesday, November 16, 2021
Westminster's gambling problem
The paper highlights a number of example of MPs who, within Parliamentary rules, have made interventions in Parliament, depite being in receipt of benefits from the gambling industry. A a Guardian audit found that 28s MPs – 19 Conservative and the rest Labour – have taken almost £225,000 in wages and freebies from the gambling industry since August 2020, all have been declared in the register of interest in accordance with the rules:
On 7 July, the Conservative MP for Blackpool South, Scott Benton, took his seat at Wembley to watch England take on Denmark in the semi-final of Euro 2020, courtesy of the Ladbrokes Coral owner, Entain – a freebie worth £3,457.
Less than four hours earlier, Benton had warned parliament that a review of betting laws, widely expected to result in tougher regulation, must not be driven by anti-gambling “ideology”.
He called for casinos to be allowed more slot machines, adding that many people would be “concerned” about the Gambling Commission’s plans for affordability checks on people betting online and in person, a measure intended to prevent ruinous losses.
Days earlier he had enjoyed another day out, at Ascot, courtesy of the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) trade body. In total, he accepted hospitality worth £7,495 during a gambling-funded summer of sport.
During the same debate at which Benton spoke – one of his two speeches favourable to the gambling industry that month – Labour’s John Spellar interceded. He referred to the urgent need to “improve and continue Britain’s attractiveness” as a casino destination.
He had recently been a guest of the Paddy Power owner, Flutter, at England’s match against Germany, and was due to attend the cricket at Lord’s the following month, at a cost of £874.80 to the BGC, whose members include major casino companies.
For the gambling industry, it was a busy month for both hospitality and political fulmination about the future of regulation.
On 13 July, the Conservative MP Mark Jenkinson expressed “grave concerns” about the prospect of the government imposing betting limits, in an article, sponsored by the BGC, for the Conservative Home website. The article appeared six days after he watched England play Denmark, courtesy of Entain, and less than a month after the BGC took him to Ascot, visits worth a combined £4,857.
These sort of interventions would be absolutely forbidden at local government level and could see a Councillor being suspended or barred from public service. Not so for MPs. It is litte wonder that concerns have been raised about the gambling industry’s apparent attempts to curry favour with politicians and the system that allows it:
By far the biggest beneficiary of the gambling industry’s largesse over the past year was Philip Davies, the Conservative MP for Shipley. The Guardian revealed last year that he had accepted almost £50,000 to advise the Ladbrokes owner, Entain, on safer gambling and customer service.
Davies has previously said that his work outside parliament is “a matter for me”, although in 2010 he did not extend the same forbearance towards firefighters with second jobs, who were resisting changes to their shift pattern. The firefighters, he said, “ought to start to live in the real world at a time when many people are grateful to hang on to their one job”.
On top of his work for Entain, which employed two of his former political aides in senior roles at the time he took the job, Davies accepted hospitality worth a combined £8,695 from the company, fellow betting firms Flutter and Gamesys, and the Betting & Gaming Council.
In addition to what it paid Davies, Entain spent almost £41,000 on hospitality for 13 MPs over the summer.
The BGC spent half that sum, £20,405, escorting lawmakers to events including three England matches at Euro 2020, horse racing at Ascot, cricket at Lord’s and the Ivor Novello awards.
Of the 13 MPs who enjoyed the trade body’s hospitality, three spoke out in support of the industry within days of being entertained, two of them – Benton and Spellar – in the House of Commons.
During that same debate, Laurence Robertson – a longtime advocate for the gambling industry – warned of the “great danger” of tighter regulation, backing the BGC’s view that it would drive people towards the black market.
As he has pointed out, he correctly declared his interest, a £24,000-a-year role with the BGC, advising on sport and safer gambling. He also took £9,307 worth of tickets and hospitality at Ascot, York and Sandown racecourses, Lord’s and England’s match against Denmark. The gifts came from the BGC, SkyBet, Entain and Coral.
With a white paper on gambling reform, expected early next year, that could significantly curb the profitability of bookmakers and online casinos, the case for a reform of the system is compelling.
Monday, November 15, 2021
Groundhog Day on sleaze allegations
And who can forget Peter Mandelson being forced to resign from the cabinet over a non-declared loan. Admittedly, the circumstances were different but now we have an allegation against the Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees Mogg, that he received £6 million in cheap loans from a company he is a director of, and has not declared it in the register of interests.
The Guardian report that Labour has called for an investigation into whether Jacob Rees-Mogg broke the financial rules for MPs by failing to declare the loans:
Rees-Mogg owns Saliston, even though he gave up his directorship in 2019. It has a stake in Somerset Capital Management, an investment company, the parent firm of Somerset Capital Management (Cayman) in the Cayman Islands.
Accounts for Saliston show the £6m in loans – £2.94m in 2018, £2.3m the following year and £701,513 in 2019-2020 – attracted interest paid at the equivalent of about 0.8%, which is below market rates. The accounts list the loan as attracting interest rates of 2.5% and 3.5% in individual years, raising the prospect that he could have borrowed the money and repaid it over short periods of time.
The MPs’ code of conduct does not specifically cover directors’ loans but it states: “Members shall fulfil conscientiously the requirements of the house in respect of the registration of interests in the register of members’ financial interests. They shall always be open and frank in drawing attention to any relevant interest in any proceeding of the house or its committees, and in any communications with ministers, members, public officials or public office holders.”
Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire, the shadow leader of the Commons, said: “This would appear to be yet another egregious breach of the rules. A cabinet minister failing to declare millions of pounds of additional income is unacceptable.
Meanwhile, one of Rees-Mogg’s Conservative colleagues has come under scrutiny over lobbying. The Sunday Times reported that a unit in the Department for Transport (DfT) set up by Grant Shapps, a private aviation enthusiast, had been lobbying against housebuilding on small runways. The DfT said the team was not a lobbying body and instead provided “support to general aviation on a range of matters affecting their operations”.
The interesting thing about the Rees Mogg loan, is that news of it was first published by the Daily Mail. Has the Tory Government's most reliable ally now turned on them?
Sunday, November 14, 2021
Anger as Tories seek to weaken regulation of elections
The Guardian reports on disquiet and growing controversy over a proposed new law that will hand Michael Gove the power to set the remit of the hitherto independent watchdog that oversees elections and party finances, including donations.
They say that under the elections bill, now passing through parliament, the Cabinet Office minister, Gove, would be given power to set the entire remit of the commission, as part of a series of changes that ministers say will strengthen democracy. But opposition parties, and some senior Conservatives, say the bill will be seen as another attempt to dismantle checks and balances in the system, and rig the political process in favour of the Tories:
Critics of the bill say it bestows unprecedented and unchecked power on government over elections in two ways; first, by empowering ministers to set both the agenda and purview of the commission, and second, by enabling the minister for the Cabinet Office to change which organisations and campaign activities are permitted a year before any election in the UK. They say ministers will be able at a stroke to ban whole sections of civil society, including unions and charities, from engaging in elections by campaigning or donating.
The Cabinet Office says the bill is a “necessary and a proportionate approach to reforming the Electoral Commission while respecting its independence”.
Daisy Cooper MP, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “First Boris Johnson tried to stitch up MPs standards and now he’s trying to do the same to our elections. This is an assault on British democracy and part of Boris Johnson’s attempts to rip up the very fabric of our liberal democracy.
The case that apparently initiated this change in the law was this one. The sentencing report says:
Marion Little is a senior and respected employee of the Conservative Party at its Central Headquarters and has been so for many years. She was able to say that she has been a friend to Prime Ministers and other very senior political figures. She has now been convicted, on overwhelming evidence, of two very serious offences of deliberately exceeding the spending limit on the short campaign in South Thanet in 2015, and then creating dishonest documents to hide what she had done. That was the election when Craig Mackinlay defeated Nigel Farage. No-one can know whether her misconduct had any effect on the outcome of that election, but she plainly intended that it would. Her offence is made worse by the fact that she created her dishonest documents and presented them to the candidate,
Craig Mackinlay, and his Agent, Nathan Gray for signing. They did so in good faith, not knowing what she had done. This placed them at grave risk of conviction, and is a significant aggravating feature in her case.
The overspend was very substantial.
There is no indication that Gove is seeking to change the law to prevent similar prosecutions, but there is a feeling amongst the Tories, especially on judgements over Brexit, that the Electoral Commission is out of control and is biased against them and their fellow travellers.
By interfering in this way, Gove is treading a very fine line that will leave questions over the fairness and impartiality of every electoral process from now on. Does he really want to tread that path?
Saturday, November 13, 2021
The Prime Minister and tax evasion
And yet despite all that expectation, nobody seems to surprised to find Boris Johnson jetting off to spend time in a £25,000 a week mansion, linked to Costa del Sol property businesses owned by Zac Goldsmith’s family that engaged in a multimillion-pound tax evasion scheme, according to Spanish courts. Zac Goldsmith of course is also a Minister of the Crown.
The Guardian says that court papers obtained by the Guardian show tax inspectors ordered two property companies owned by the Goldsmith family to pay €24m (£20m) in unpaid taxes and fines after investigating what they said was a suspicious property deal:
The tax authority’s findings have been upheld by one of Spain’s highest courts, with judges agreeing the companies effectively engaged in a deliberate effort to evade tax and committed “serious” violations of the law.
Documents indicate Spanish authorities are still seeking to recover the funds and could even seize parts of the family’s land, which is spread across more than 600 hectares (1,480 acres) of private woodland about 10 miles from the Marbella coastline.
A Swiss lawyer for one of the companies denied the case amounted to a “tax evasion” issue, describing it as a dispute that resulted from a mistaken land valuation by Spanish tax authorities. She said the finding against her client was “extremely hard to understand, to put it mildly”. Court papers indicate there will be a further appeal.
However, the revelation raises difficult questions for the prime minister, who has already faced criticism for refusing to declare his use of the luxury property in the MPs’ register of interests, which would require him to disclose the monetary value of the gift from the Goldsmith family.
Downing Street has insisted the holiday at the villa, which costs £25,000 a week to rent, was “unconnected with the PM’s parliamentary and political activities”. Zac Goldsmith, a Conservative minister, is a longstanding friend of Johnson and his wife, Carrie. In 2019, Johnson personally appointed Goldsmith to the House of Lords after his friend lost his seat as an MP.
Johnson is now likely to be asked how much he knew of the Spanish tax investigation into companies owned by the Tory minister’s family before staying at their villa, which is in a secluded corner of an estate beside swimming pools, a tennis court and an organic farm.
The revelations raise questions for both Goldsmith, a senior minister, and his brother Ben, a non-executive director at the environment department, about the extent to which they were aware of or involved in the property deal .
The paper makes it clear that the Goldsmith family holdings are complex and that while the villa Johnson stayed in was not owned by a company involved in the tax investigation, public records suggest it forms part of the Goldsmiths’ wider sprawling property holdings in Benahavís. Nevertheless. as Prime Minister he should have been aware of the issue and kept well clear of it.
Friday, November 12, 2021
Bizarre expense arrangements for MPs costs taxpayers £1.3m
They say that 17 landlord MPs – 15 Conservatives and two Labour – have put their housing costs on expenses while earning more than £10,000 a year each renting out their own properties in recent years. The Independent's investigation shows five current ministers have also claimed for rent while letting out homes in the capital, including international trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, defence secretary Ben Wallace, Foreign Office minister James Cleverly, prisons minister Victoria Atkins and junior Treasury minister John Glen:
Over the past five years, 17 MPs have claimed over £1.3m in taxpayer-funded rent while collecting thousands rent letting out properties in the capital, according to submissions published by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA).
Ms Trevelyan, the trade secretary, has claimed £106,000 in expenses for her own rental payments since April 2016. She also claims a rental income on a London flat she registered after she entered parliament in 2015.
Mr Wallace, the defence secretary, claimed more than £110,000 in taxpayer-funded rent between April 2016 and July 2020 – a period in which he was also collecting rent on a property in London.
Mr Cleverly has claimed more than £71,000 in expenses for his own rental payments since April 2016. The former Tory party chair charges the taxpayer £1,200 a month for the flat he lives in, while also receiving an income from a jointly-owned residential property in London.
It is understood that junior Home Office minister Ms Atkins’ claim for more than £43,000 in rent since April 2018 relates to her constituency home in Lincolnshire. Since April 2018 she has also been collecting rent on a house in London.
Other Tory MPs to have claimed for rental costs while letting residential property in London include former trade minister Dr Liam Fox, former media minister John Whittingdale, Philip Davies, Robert Goodwill, Laurence Robertson, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Anne Marie Morris and Greg Knight.
Conservative backbencher Damian Collins has the single largest rent expenses submission, claiming just over £148,000 from the taxpayer over the past five years, all while taking in a rental income from property in London.
Labour MP Geraint Davies has claimed just over £67,000 in taxpayer funding to rent a home between November 2017 and April 2021 – a period during which he also collecting rent payments letting out residential a property he owns in the capital.
Clive Betts, a fellow Labour backbencher, claimed just over £44,000 for rent between April 2016 and June 2018, the same period he also claimed rental income on a London home.
MPs have not been eligible to claim expenses for mortgage payments on their second homes in London since 2010 under changes brought in following the previous year’s expenses scandal.
But claims for rent are permitted under Ipsa rules, which state that MPs can receive taxpayer funding for “rental payments and associated costs”. An Ipsa document in 2017 conceded that some arrangements could be controversial – but advised against any change to the rules.
This is a loophole that needs closing.
Thursday, November 11, 2021
Parliament needs to sort out its standards regime
The Mirror reports that Conservative MP, Laurence Robertson, who is paid £24,000 a year by the Betting and Gaming Council, an industry body that lobbies on behalf of bookmakers, used his position to ask ministers in Parliament not to back tough new laws on gambling:
In the past year, Mr Robertson has also been given free tickets by betting companies to horse-racing at Ascot, Test matches at Lord’s and England games at Wembley. He has also earned £2,000 a month for ten hours’ work as the BGC’s “parliamentary adviser on sport and safer gambling”.
While being employed by the BGC, he has spoken at least three times in parliament in defence of the gambling industry.
In the past year, the Tewkesbury MP told ministers there is a “great danger” that a crackdown on gambling could push players to the black market and argued against greater regulation of the industry, the Times reported. Mr Robertson denies any conflict of interest.
Last December, when the government's gambling review was announced, Mr Robertson demanded that the review was “evidence-based, consistent and balanced”.
In July he said that if new laws were “too stringent” then there would be “a great danger” that people would play on the black market and he told ministers that they needed to be “careful” about introducing new laws that could exacerbate the “worrying trend” of illicit gambling.
In September, after the appointment of a new minister, he again said that the government review would be “evidence-based and evidence-led”.
It came as it was revealed Tory MPs wrote “sponsored content” for a lobbying group that backs the gambling industry, according to a report in the Guardian.
They include government aide and Stoke South MP Jack Brereton, who penned an article for Conservative Home urging ministers to ensure the gambling review does “nothing to put the industry’s competitiveness at risk”.
He also heaped praise on betting company Bet365 for the “huge economic contribution that the betting giant makes to our constituencies” including “high skilled, good quality jobs”.
“It should also not be forgotten that Bet365 and its founders are the highest taxpayers in the UK, paying some £614.6m to the Treasury in 2019/20 – money which will have helped fund vital public services like health and education, not just in Stoke-on-Trent but across the whole country,” the article said.
The politicians were not paid for writing, but it is reported the Betting and Gaming Council paid the ConservativeHome website through an advertising agency for the space.
One of the Tory MPs, Philip Davies wrote an article labelled “sponsored by the Betting and Gaming Council” that appeared on ConservativeHome in April. In June, he declared a ticket and hospitality box at Ascot Races with a value of £1,400 paid for by the Betting and Gaming Council, in the MPs’ register of interests.
The MP for Shipley did not comment when approached by the Mirror.
Other Tory MPs who wrote sponsored content for the Betting and Gaming Council include Greg Smith, MP for Buckingham, who wrote a piece headlined “Betting shops are helping the high street get back on its feet” in June. His spokesperson said it was unpaid.
Meanwhile, Workington MP Mark Jenkinson wrote a sponsored piece in July, saying he had “grave concerns about calls by some anti-gambling campaigners that limits should be placed on how much individuals should be allowed to bet”. Jenkinson also declared a ticket and hospitality box at Ascot Races in June, with a value of £1,400, paid for by the Betting and Gaming Council. He did not respond to requests for comment.
The public have a right to expect that laws and decisions are made by MPs in an objective way and free of influence. Surely some reforms are needed to ensure that this at least looks like it is happening.
Wednesday, November 10, 2021
Another day, yet more government contract controversies
They say Duncan Smith chaired the Task Force on Innovation, Growth, and Regulatory Reform, which reported back in May after he and two other MPs were asked by Boris Johnson to recommend ways of cutting supposed EU red-tape. However, the fresh spotlight on moonlighting by MPs has now prompted questions about the taskforce’s recommendations that alcohol-free hand sanitisers should be formally recognised as suitable for use in the UK:
The report made no reference to Duncan Smith’s relationship with Byotrol, which provides the NHS with 92% of its non-alcohol sanitiser. It retains the former Tory leader as an adviser for £25,000 a year, according to his declaration in parliament’s register of members’ interests.
In a message to investors after the recommendations of Duncan Smith and his fellow former ministers George Freeman and Theresa Villiers, Byotrol welcomed how an “influential UK government-sponsored taskforce has recommended a regulatory ‘green light’ for alcohol-free hand sanitisers”. Its directors were also quoted in a report as saying that it delivered a “powerful boost” to the firm.
The taskforce said in its report: “Current guidelines in the UK on non-alcohol based hand sanitisers are unclear. As a result, there is confusion in industry and among consumers as to what products are safe and effective to use, and we may be unnecessarily limiting the range of sanitising products available.” It called on the government to review guidance “to place alcohol- and non-alcohol-based on a level playing field”.
The Guardian says that Byotrol, which is based in Cheshire, said in August that its revenue almost doubled and its pre-tax profits rocketed by more than 600% following “exceptional demand” for its sanitising technologies due to the pandemic. It reported a revenue of £11.2m for the 12 months to 31 March, up from £6m the previous year.
They list other Tory MPs working in the healthcare sector – in some cases for companies that have benefited from lucrative Covid-19 contracts. These include Steve Brine, a former junior health minister:
Brine works with Remedium Partners, a recruitment agency for the NHS, and also for Sigma Pharmaceuticals. NHS test and trace announced in May that Sigma would provide lateral flow device test kits to community pharmacies. Brine’s declaration in the register of members’ interests states that he is a “strategic adviser” to Sigma and receives £1,666 a month. “I am a strategic adviser to both, not a lobbyist,” he said.
Richard Fuller, the MP for North East Bedfordshire, earned £65,000 from a second job at venture capital firm Investcorp Securities Ltd, which included £30,000 for “consultancy work on the impact of Covid on portfolio companies”. Those companies included Cambio, a private health firm which secured a £63,000 NHS contract without competition from other providers.
Alun Cairns, the former Welsh secretary, took a job advising a science company, BBI Group, involved in Covid testing in July during a period when the government was under pressure to increase testing.
Meanwhile the Good Law Project has unveiled another close relationship between a PPE provider and a government minister They say the partner of Michelle Donelan, the Minister of State for Universities, heads up the commercial unit at a PPE company that has been awarded numerous PPE contracts. Stronghold Global have landed deals to supply NHS hospitals, Government Covid testing sites and universities:
They add that the potential conflict has yet to be declared by the Minister in the latest published register of interests – despite Government guidance requiring ministers to declare any interests that “might reasonably be perceived to be directly relevant to that particular Minister’s public duties”:
Donelan’s partner, Tom Turner, is the Commercial Head at family-owned firm Stronghold Global. Since the onset of the pandemic, the company has sold 20 million units of PPE to three hospital trusts: North Bristol, Sheffield Teaching Hospital Foundation, and University College London Hospital Foundation.
In March, Turner’s firm announced a partnering deal with facilities management giant Mitie to provide PPE to the Government’s Covid-19 test centres located throughout the country. The huge contract awarded to Mitie by the Department of Health and Social Care to service the testing centres is worth a staggering £365 million – with the option for this to increase in value.
Stronghold has also provided goods to the University of Bolton and HM Revenue and Customs, according to the company’s website.
Recent reports suggest Tom Turner’s father Benjamin Turner has also landed lucrative Government PPE deals. Benjamin is a director at Toffeln Ltd, a shoe-making firm that landed a £1.1m contract from the DHSC in April 2020 to supply visors. A deal awarded without competition.
The Department for Edcucation says that the Minister did declare her partner's employment but that it was "not deemed relevant for publication.” Why not? Surely transparency is needed in these situations.
Tuesday, November 09, 2021
MP earns one million pounds a year in second job
Like every other paper, they have taken the Owen Paterson affair as carte blanche to expose all the MPs who earn money from second jobs, ignoring the fact that these politicians are not breaking the rules, nor are they doing anything unethical.
Personally, I believe that if you are being paid £82,000 a year to be a full time politician then you should not have time for consultancies and directorships, but I can see that there may be exceptions for professional people who need to keep their hand in such as doctors, and for those who came to Parliament from a self-employed vocation such as farming. These are just examples as there will be others that fit this category.
There may even be exceptions for lawyers and QCs but really, there has to be a line, and if this Daily Mail article is correct, then in my opinion, the former attorney general Geoffrey Cox could well have taken things a bit too far.
The Mail alleges that Geoffrey Cox, a QC and former attorney general, is advising the government of the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven accused of corruption. They claim he took advantage of lockdown rules to cast votes in the Commons by proxy as he worked 4,000 miles away on the lucrative contract earlier this year, adding that Sir Geoffrey has revealed he earned more than £1million from outside legal work over the past year on top of his £82,000 salary as a backbencher.
I struggle to see how anybody can argue that this activity is compatible with their job as a full-time constituency MP. Surely it is time for a complete overhaul of the rules on outside work.
Monday, November 08, 2021
Groundhog Day on cash for peerages
They say that a joint investigation by The Sunday Times and Open Democracy claims to have found evidence of a new "cash for peerages" scandal, as 16 of the party's main treasurers have reportedly been offered a seat in the Lords over the past 20 years. The only exception is the most recent one, who stood down two months ago:
Since gaining power in 2010, successive Tory Prime Ministers have elevated nine of the party’s former treasurers to the 800-strong chamber, the Sunday Times states.
Each reportedly donated at least £3m to the party.
A number of former Tory ministers have spoken out against the apparent trend, one saying it was a “scandal in plain sight” that was no secret in the party.
One unnamed ex-party chairman told the Sunday Times: “The truth is the entire political establishment knows this happens and they do nothing about it... The most telling line is once you pay your £3 million, you get your peerage.”
Of course none of this is new, nor is the allocation of peerages to major donors unique to the Tory Party. Lloyd George fanously had a price list determining what honour was awarded on the basis of how much money was paid.
It just goes to show that there is nothing new in politics, nor is this behaviour limited to any one party. The only way to stop it is to reform the honours system and in particular abolish the appointed second chamber and replace it with a fully elected body.
Sunday, November 07, 2021
Johnson poses a threat to British democracy
He says Johnson does not regard even those laws he himself put on the statute book as binding. An impeccable source reports that, at the G7 meeting in Cornwall, the prime minister told French president Emmanuel Macron that he had only “sort of” signed the Northern Ireland protocol, currently the cause of so much tension between the two countries:
And sometimes these two elements – favours for pals and rule-breaking in matters of state – come together. The most obvious example is in the bonanza of Covid-related contracts handed out to chums at the start of the pandemic, with a “high priority” VIP lane created for those lucky enough to be in a minister’s contacts book. That created a stampede of ministerial mates, often hawking goods or services that didn’t work, which both cost taxpayers’ £2.8bn and wasted precious civil service time. As the Good Law Project’s Jolyon Maugham puts it: “So keen were they to get their mates to the trough they interfered with getting the right stuff.”
Freedland's conclusion is bang on the nose and elucidates far more elegantly than I, some of the themes of posts on this blog:
The pattern is now clear. Rules that might hold the government to account, that might act as a check on its power, are either to be ignored or rewritten. The bodies that enforce those rules are similarly to be hobbled or neutered in the name of “reform”. Johnson wanted to do that this week to the parliamentary standards system, adding it to a target list that already includes the courts and the electoral commission. Meanwhile, his culture secretary threatens the BBC, announcing that fearless questioning of the prime minister by one of its interviewers has cost the organisation “a lot of money”.
We hesitate to use the word because it sounds so hyperbolic, but this is how the slide to authoritarianism begins. Not as it was in the old newsreels, with strutting dictators and balcony speeches, but with cronyism and special treatment; with enforcement of the law for “them” and exemptions for “us”; with the steady weakening and eventual removal of the constraints on government power. It is the dismantling, bit by bit, block by block, of the apparatus that holds up a liberal democracy.
I spoke with a minister late on Thursday who, though furious over the Paterson debacle – “It’s a total car crash” – rejected the notion that Johnson is like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán in Eton tails. “This was the Brexit gang looking after one of its own,” he said. Johnson keeps making special dispensations for his friends not out of a power-crazed desire to demolish the democratic architecture, but because “he wants to be liked … It’s a damaged neediness.” Add to that, he says, a Vote Leave self-righteousness that tells itself: “Elites have let the country down; we don’t have to follow their norms.”
Even if you buy all that, it doesn’t matter. It’s not the motive for Johnson’s actions that counts but their impact. He didn’t get his way this time: fury from usually supportive newspapers and on the Tory benches forced a rapid climbdown. But this was what he wanted, and what most of his MPs were ready to give him – a shredding of the rules to ensure those in power are unbound, and ever harder to remove.
It is time the electorate woke up to these issues, however I fear that, without a credible and effective opposition, by the time they do so, it will be too late.
Saturday, November 06, 2021
Who was the 'useful idiot'?
The Independent reports that Boris Johnson is facing the prospect of two fresh sleaze inquiries into his own behaviour, as signs grow that his botched attempt to save a senior Tory MP from punishment for paid lobbying has shaken his authority within his own party.
The paper says that Labour has demanded a probe by Commons standards commissioner Kathryn Stone into Mr Johnson’s failure to declare a freebie holiday in Spain, as the guest of recently ennobled Zac Goldsmith, in the MPs’ register of interests, as Downing Street refused to reveal the value of the luxury break.
At the same time they say the party’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, has written wrote to Ms Stone urging her not to allow pressure from the PM to deter her from launching a delayed inquiry into the funding of his Downing Street flat refurbishment at a reported cost of £200,000:
Mr Johnson’s abortive attempt earlier this week to establish a Tory-dominated committee to rewrite the Commons standards procedures was “a blatant attempt to prevent the commissioner from investigating his latest breaches of the rules”, said Ms Rayner.
“It is absolutely vital that the parliamentary commissioner for standards is now able to conduct this investigation without any further attempts by the prime minister to block this investigation, override or abolish the commissioner or the standards committee, and the bullying, threats and intimidation from Conservative ministers must stop immediately.”
Mr Johnson’s former top adviser Dominic Cummings has described Wednesday’s attempt to get former minister Owen Paterson off the hook as a “pre-emptive strike” against Ms Stone. Today he urged her to call witnesses to answer questions on the flat funding, saying: “The Electoral Commission – like [Downing Street ethics adviser Lord] Geidt – has so far interviewed NONE of the people who know/involved in PM’s illegal secret donations”.
After business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng came under fire for suggesting that it was “difficult to see a future” for the independent commissioner, Downing Street said that Mr Johnson accepted Ms Stone should not be put under political pressure.
Asked if the PM would condemn any MP trying to put pressure on her to drop the complaint, initially made by Margaret Hodge in April, the spokesperson said: “Obviously we wouldn’t want to see that happening.”
There are so many choices to designate as, what intelligence people call, a 'useful idiot' in this campaign by Number 10 to distract from and parry complaints against Johnson, that it is difficult to say who should emerge with the prize. Shpuld it be the hapless Paterson himself, the chief whip or the 250 Tory MPs who trotted through the lobbies in support of the scheme? It is little wonder that the affair has cost the Prime Minister support within his parliamentary party:
The developments came amid indications of a growing mood of assertiveness among the younger 2019 intake of Tory MPs, who have largely been loyal to the PM after being elected on the back of his popular “Get Brexit Done” campaign but have been infuriated by his mishandling of the Paterson affair.
“We were dragooned into trying to save the skin of someone who probably wouldn’t recognise us in the corridor,” said the MP. “We are flexing our muscles now and we are not going to take any more of this nonsense from the old guard.”
There were calls for the dismissal of chief whip Mark Spencer, with one MP saying that “his authority is not there any more” after the humiliating U-turn, which saw MPs subjected to a three-line whip on Wednesday, only to see the government about-turn just 19 hours later. One of the 2019 intake – Guildford’s Angela Richardson – was sacked as a parliamentary aide for defying the whip, only to be reinstated the following morning when the government’s position changed.
Another MP said she had been “flung under a bus for one man”, and asked “Was it worth it?” And another criticised “huge party mismanagement” by the whips. Reports suggested that a member of the 2019 intake confronted Paterson to his face with a four-letter rebuke as they went through the voting lobby.
York Outer MP Julian Sturdy said: “I cannot avoid being critical of the government, who reassured backbenchers that there was a clear plan for reform, yet subsequently turned the matter into a party-line debate. Reform of the Committee on Standards is needed, but I pledge not to support any reforms that do not bring all sides of the house together, as we need to build a fair system that not only has the support of MPs but the confidence of the public also.”
Downing Street failed to deny claims that MPs had been told government funding for their constituencies could be at risk if they defied the whip. And a No 10 spokesperson was forced to insist that Mr Spencer, along with leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg, a driving force behind the plan to save Paterson, continued to enjoy the prime minister’s “full confidence”.
The real idiot in this whole affair could prove to be Boros Johnson.
Friday, November 05, 2021
Foot in mouth
However, the MP who may regret his actions the most, is business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng’s who, mistaking a vote in the House of Commons for some tribal battles, took triumphalism too far and publicly speculated about the future of parliament’s standards watchdog.
As the Guardian reports, Mr Kwarteng suggested that Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone should “consider her position” in the wake of the Owen Paterson debacle:
Asked whether Ms Stone should resign on Thursday morning – hours before an astonishing U-turn in the government’ position – Mr Kwarteng said: “To consider her position is a natural thing.”
The minister told Sky News: “I think it’s difficult to see what the future of the commissioner is, given the fact that we’re reviewing the process, and we’re overturning and trying to reform this whole process.”
This statement did nothing to suggest that natural justice was the prime motivator of the 250 MPs who voted to save Mr Paterson, implying instead that there may well be some kind of vendetta involved.
In a letter to Lord Geidt, Ms Rayner suggested Mr Kwarteng’s comments amounted to bullying. “For the business secretary to use this entirely corrupt process to bully the independent Parliamentary Commissioner is disgusting.”
“This type of behaviour has no place in our democracy. A cabinet minister publicly threatening the position of a member of staff who serves the Houses of Parliament and upholds our democratic processes is a fundamental breach of the ministerial Code.”
She suggested Mr Kwarteng could be in breach of a section of the code which requires ministers to “treat all those with whom they come into contact with consideration and respect” and for working relationships to be “proper and appropriate”.
Earlier, Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle rebuked Mr Kwarteng. “I do appeal to members - whether they are secretary of state or whoever – please, staff members of this House shouldn’t be named, they’ve not got the right of reply or the ability to defend themselves.”
We should leave the last word on this to another government minister, however. When asked about Mr Kwarteng’s comments, fellow cabinet minister Nadhim Zahawi said: “Kathryn Stone works … for parliament. It’s up to parliament how that relationship works.” Surely Mr Kwarteng knew that.
Thursday, November 04, 2021
The return of Tory sleaze
The paper says that the former cabinet minister was found to have committed an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules during meetings and conversations with the Food Standards Agency and the Department for International Development while he was being paid more than £100,000 by two firms – Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods.
Paterson claimed he was acting as a whistleblower to raise concerns about milk and bacon standards, and that 17 witnesses whom he wanted to give oral evidence were not able to do so.
However, several Tory MPs – including ministers – told the Guardian that Paterson was “clearly over the line” and “guilty as sin”. The standards committee said the witnesses Paterson offered had their written evidence taken into account, and that their attempts to prove his actions were well-intentioned were not relevant to the facts about which rules he broke.
The passing of Leadsom’s amendment means a committee chaired by Whittingdale, with four other Tory MPs, three from Labour and one from the SNP, will be set up and make recommendations about overhauling the standards commissioner role by 3 February 2022.
Chris Bryant, a Labour MP and chair of the standards committee, said the move would “be dismantling the rule on paid advocacy which has been around in some shape or form since 1695” and that the public would view it as parliament having “licensed cash for questions”.
“It is the very definition of injustice that one should change the rules or the process at the very last moment, and to do so for a named individual, which is what the amendment does today,” he said.
Peter Bottomley, a Conservative and the longest-serving MP, said he would oppose Leadsom’s amendment. In a heated debate on Wednesday, he said: “We chose the system we are now using. If we want to consider changing it, we do it in a proper way instead of considering it in the way we are now.”
Aaron Bell, a Conservative MP from the 2019 intake, expressed a similar view. He said: “Reform can only work if it’s across the house, and by bringing [Leadsom’s] amendment today it looks like we’re moving the goalposts.”
Given that Parliament refused to backdate the process and suspend the disgraced Tory MP, Rob Roberts forcing a by-election, and noting that Roberts has been readmitted to the Tory Party despite having been found to have sexually harrassed a staff member, it does look as if double standards are being applied here. Why backdate a process for Owen Patterson but not Rob Roberts?
Has the era of Tory sleaze returned? It very much looks so.
Wednesday, November 03, 2021
Banks failing to do their bit to tackle climate change
They say that the Bank of England has come under fire for so far refusing to publish data for individual firms, and stopping short of introducing immediate capital requirements, which would make it more expensive to offer loans and services to fossil fuel companies and high carbon projects:
The Bank of England is not the only regulator moving cautiously. So far, the European Central Bank and the Banque de France – which are among the few central banks to have conducted climate stress tests for their respective financial sectors to date – have only published aggregate data covering their finance industries, and have not introduced any restrictions, or deterrents, for banks serving polluting firms.
That is despite warnings from both regulators that banks will be severely affected unless they ramp up their response to the climate crisis.
Any deviation from the Paris agreement would result in higher loan losses for banks, according to the ratings agency Moody’s, rising anywhere from 3.5% in the “least disorderly” scenario, to 20% under the most extreme climate outcomes. It has raised concerns that the banking sector itself will suffer financially without swift action, which could had a ripple effect throughout the global economy.
Globally, reporting standards are low. A report by the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TFCD) published last year found that while bank reporting has improved since 2017, the sector continues to have the lowest percentage of disclosure for climate-related targets across all global industries, with 19% of firms meeting TFCD standards. By comparison, figures for the energy and transport sectors are 44% and 35% respectively.
Part of the challenge is that regulators are intent on gathering as much data as possible before introducing deterrents such as capital requirements, which determine the kind of financial cushion that banks must hold to protect them from risky loans and products on their balance sheets.
This controversy just underlines how hard it is going to be to deliver on the many promises coming out of COP26.
Tuesday, November 02, 2021
The dark money targetting climate change action
Mr. Geoghegan, whose book 'Democracy for Sale' is excellent by the way, argues that the UK government's commitment to Net Zero by 2050 is under threat from an organised, well-funded opposition on the Conservative Right, many of whom are veterans of the fight for Brexit, and who intend to pursue similar tactics to achieve their goal.
He says that a classic example of this appeared in The Telegraph this week: the day before the Budget, when it reported a YouGov survey had found a majority of the British public “want a referendum on Boris Johnson’s net zero plans” by the next general election – a majority of those who expressed a preference, that is. The next day, Nigel Farage told GB News viewers that a referendum on Green taxes “could well be my latest campaign”:
Perhaps it’s because I spent so long looking at the dark money behind Brexit, but the first thing I thought while reading The Telegraph’s story was: “Who has paid a professional pollster to carry out a survey on a question nobody is asking?”
The answer is something called Car26.org. This, The Telegraph informed its readers, is a “new campaign group calling for a referendum on net zero proposals and a pause in eco regulations until such a ballot is held”.
Yep, you read that right. No climate change mitigation policies until a referendum on Net Zero. Sound familiar?
Brexit saw vast sums of money spent through ‘astroturf’ groups: campaigns posing as grassroots initiatives with no visible support but a deep-pocketed funder behind the scenes. A 20-something scriptwriter in Manchester spent a fortune on hard Brexit Facebook ads.
Before the 2019 general election nominally ‘third party’ campaigns spent £700,000 pushing Conservative talking points without declaring any donations.
Car26.org looks like it was lifted straight out of the same playbook. It was registered at Companies House only last month. Its public face and director – Lois Perry – is a representative for Reclaim, the culture war party fronted by Laurence Fox, the actor and anti-lockdown, anti-diversity activist, and bankrolled by Brexit donor Jeremy Hosking.
There’s more. At the bottom of the Car26 website – past the description of young people’s involvement in climate protests as “borderline child abuse” – there’s a note saying the site is “powered by Blue Sky”. Blue Sky Strategy is a tiny communications company run by a small group of Brexit veterans, including Rebecca Ryan, who is director of the astroturf Defund the BBC campaign and who used to work alongside Vote Leave’s former chief technology officer, Thomas Borwick. What a small world.
He goes on to say that there are striking parallels between the Brexit playbook and the increasingly vocal opposition to action on climate change:
The taxpayer-funded European Research Group of Conservative MPs – which played a starring role in the UK’s exit from the EU – has largely morphed into the Net Zero Scrutiny Group. The Global Warming Policy Foundation — which long promoted climate change denialism — has been relaunched as Net Zero Watch. Wycombe MP Steve Baker, the “Brexit hardman”, is a leading light in both.
Net Zero Scrutiny Group MPs take pains to stress that they don’t deny climate science. But they do want to slow down – or halt – climate change mitigation policies. This has become the position of far-Right groups across Europe, too.
Just as they did when the Northern Irish border dilemma confronted them during the Brexit negotiations, Tory MPs are endlessly talking up technological solutions to the climate crisis.
Feted Teesside Tory mayor – and Donald Trump fan – Ben Houchen recently warned against Green levies, telling The Sun: “You don’t need taxation. You need to believe in the power of innovation and people to come up with the ideas and solutions.”
This is music to the ears of the oil and gas industry. The financial ties between them and the Conservatives are, no doubt, simply a coincidence.
As openDemocracy recently revealed, the Tories have received more than £1m from the energy sector since the 2019 election; one MP alone, John Hayes, has received £150,000. The former energy minister has likened climate protestors to “radical Islam”.
It’s not hard to see Net Zero replacing Brexit as the major fissure in the Conservative Party in the coming years. While Johnson might wrap himself in Green rhetoric, Tory party faithful – who will choose the next leader – are far more sceptical.
The influential Tufton Street think tanks – fuelled by dark money and anonymous corporate donations – are increasingly vocal on Net Zero. The Institute of Economic Affairs, which once boasted to an undercover reporter that it was in “the Brexit influencing game”, told its newsletter readers this week that it would “continue to challenge the ropey economics” of Net Zero.
As with Brexit, the nation's and, in this case, the world's future is being put at risk by powerful forces seeking to advance their own interests. We cannot let it happen again.
Monday, November 01, 2021
Time to review who polices government ministers
Following an investigation into allegations that Patel engaged in bullying behaviour, Allan found she had “not consistently met the high standards expected of her”, but a government statement said the PM had full confidence in her and considered the matter “closed. I am aware of similar issues in other nations, though nowhere as serious as the Patel incident.
Now, as the Guardian reports, a wide-ranging review by the independent committee on standards in public life , chaired by former spy chief Jonathan Evans, has recommended that the prime minister should no longer be the only person who can give permission for ethics investigations into his own conduct and that of ministers.
Evans has made nine recommendations, including major changes to the ministerial code of conduct, which is overseen by the prime minister:
At the moment, the PM is the only person with the power to order investigations into the conduct of ministers, including himself, and is the one to appoint the independent adviser who carries out investigations.
However, the committee on standards in public life said the independent adviser on ministerial interests should instead be appointed by a panel made up predominantly of independent members.
It also recommended that the adviser should be able to initiate their own investigations, have the authority to determine breaches of the code and see their report published within eight weeks of submission to the PM.
On the ministerial code itself, the report said it needed to have a constitutional footing laid down in law, with any revisions subject to advice from the independent adviser, and possible sanctions for breaches should be set out including apologies, fines and asking for a minister’s resignation.
The committee also recommended a strengthening of the advisory committee on business appointments (Acoba), which governs the revolving door between government and the private sector by advising on lobbying and jobs taken on by former ministers and officials.
It said the current ban on officials and ministers lobbying for two years after leaving their post should be able to be extended to up to five years, and any work for a lobbying firm should be included in the ban, rather than just a prohibition on direct lobbying.
“The lack of any meaningful sanctions for a breach of the rules is no longer sustainable,” the report said, suggesting injunctions against lobbying work could be sought or means of recouping severance or pension payments.
Thirdly, it said there needed to be further reforms to the powers of the commissioner for public appointments, which oversees jobs for top civil servants and at public bodies, to make sure appointment panels are independent.
Evans, a former director general of MI5, said the committee had concluded that the “current system of standards regulation is overly dependent on convention”. The recommendations were necessary to “restore public confidence in the regulation of ethical standards in government”, he added.
If we are to restore trust in standards in public life then it is vital that these recommendations are implemented in all of the UK's Governments.