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Friday, December 31, 2021

New Year's Day is red tape bonanza

There are many good reasons for wanting to see the back of 2021, though some may argue that it became indistinguishable from 2020. It is certainly the case that it appears to have lasted twice as long as it should have done. For those involved in the import-export business, and by implication all us consumers as well, tomorrow could well herald the start of another sort of nightmare, one consumed by red tape.

The Mirror reports that 1st January 2022 is the day that Brexit import checks kick in, a move business chiefs fear could swamp small firms with red tape and leave food rotting at ports:

Full customs controls were delayed three times, but are finally being slapped on imports from the EU to Great Britain on New Year’s Day.

The change means firms on both sides of the Channel must fill out more complex paperwork to bring goods from the Continent to Britain.

British firms previously had up to 175 days to complete customs declarations, but must now do so “at the point of import”.

British firms must also obtain “rules of origin” declarations that show if the goods they are importing were made inside the EU.

And any EU firm sending animal or food products to Britain - from steaks to cake mix with an egg - must “pre-notify” the British authorities with 24 hours’ notice.
The customs controls will not apply to goods entering Great Britain from the island of Ireland after a government climbdown.

But trucks arriving in Britain from the EU could be diverted to a vast lorry park (‘inland border facility’) to conduct physical checks.

It comes a year after the transition period ended, and two years after Boris Johnson won an election on the promise to “get Brexit done”.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) warned smaller firms are less ready for the changes than large ones.

BCC Head of Trade Policy William Bain told the Mirror if firms fail to “pre-notify” food exports to Britain, “we may see some consignments stuck at ports in the EU, and not coming over to stores and distribution centres in Great Britain.”

He stressed there is “no evidence there’s going to be any shortages”.

But asked if goods that get stuck could include food that would spoil, he replied: “Yes - fish, milk, these perishable products are most at risk if there’s a lack of preparedness.

“Despite the fact the messages have been out there for quite some time, and the biggest companies certainly seem to be well-prepared, it’s the smaller suppliers we see problems with - lack of knowledge, lack of capacity or lack of resources to be able to comply.

“That’s where we may see some problems, perhaps not on Saturday but perhaps early next week.”

Both business groups urged the UK government to be prioritise getting goods through the system, instead of rigidly sticking to the rules.

A CBI spokesperson told the Mirror: “The main concern will be around impacts on food supply chains which remain around paperwork, high costs, food perishing, and vet availability.”

Mr Bain added: “Clearly it will not be as smooth as it is today but if the right discussions at the right levels of preparedness are there, queues at the ports inbound can certainly be avoided.”

Mr Bain warned some firms may end up giving up on UK trade due to the red tape.

He told the Mirror: “The other concern is that some small suppliers will simply think ‘all of this is far too complex, I’m not going to bother sending anything over any more’.

“We have seen quite a fall in imports from the EU into the UK as a whole this year.

“So if the process seems too complex for [small and medium enterprises] in the EU, the question is, is there going to be another effect on those and in what volumes? Or has it already happened?

“There has been a big hit to imports this year and the great unanswered question is whether that’s going to be increased in 2022.”

This is not the only Brexit-inspired change next year.  EU food imports to the UK will not need to have export health certificates until July 1, 2022, after the last date of October 1 2021 was pushed back, and physical 'SPS checks’ on animal products at border control posts, along with safety and security declarations on imports, have been delayed from January 1 to July 1.
British holidaymakers visiting the EU in 2022 will also be hit, with Vodafone bringing back roaming charges from January 6, followed by EE on March 3 and Three from May 23. In addition, a change in EU rules is set to slap a €7 (£6) visa waiver fee on UK holidaymakers by the end of 2022.

Quite a lot to look forward to then, as Brexit finally starts to take effect on our day-to-day lives.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Now a Brexit blow for the disabled

The Independent reports that British disability blue badges are no longer being recognised in major holiday destinations across Europe thanks to Brexit.

The paper says that automatic recognition for Britain’s 2.4 million blue badge holders – a perk of EU membership – stopped across Europe on 31 December 2020 when the EU transition period ended and despite ministers promising to negotiate individual deals with EU countries to recognise British badges, they have failed to do so for the most popular destinations:

Travellers with disabilities still face uncertainty and inconvenience in countries including France, Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal – all of which are still in talks with the UK government over the issue.

The countries are believed to be resistant to recognising British badges because it is difficult for local officials and parking wardens to verify the authenticity of non-EU badges, a problem EU badges do not have because they are of a common design and part of the same scheme.

More than 40 million UK visitors travelled to the missing countries in 2019 before the pandemic hit, accounting for nearly half of all visits abroad by British residents worldwide.

With international travel off the agenda for most people due to the Covid pandemic, the issue has so far slipped under the radar. But disability access campaigners said the government was in danger of letting disabled people down and making it harder for them to travel when normal service resumes.

The situation is so uncertain that ministers now recommend that anyone with mobility problems travelling abroad should check with the embassy of the country they are travelling to.

In a written answer to a parliamentary question seen by The Independent, transport minister Chris Heaton-Harris said the government was continuing “to engage in discussions with a number of countries” about the issue.

But he declined to comment on the detail of the negotiations, beyond stating that the government “remains committed to confirming the status of UK issued blue badges for visiting motorists”.

nd Blue badges entitle people with mobility difficulties to use disabled parking spaces. When Britain left the EU, the design of the British badge was changed to remove the EU flag – but along with the redesign went the right for it to be automatically recognised.

A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said blue badge holders should now check with the embassy of their destination country before travelling to see what the local policy was. A full list of countries’ policies has also been published on Gov.UK.

When The Independent first approached the DfT about the issue, countries that had not said they would recognise the UK badge were marked under the heading “UK blue badge recognised” as “no”. However the page has since been updated and those countries have now been re-marked as “undecided”.

Other countries that have not yet said they will accept UK badges include Slovenia, Romania, Luxembourg, Bulgaria and Lithuania.

Something else that was not on the side of the Brexit bus, and which has disgracefully, proved to be a low prority for Ministers.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Brexit disaster for cheesemaker

The Guardian reports that a British cheesemaker who predicted Brexit would cost him hundreds of thousands of pounds in exports has called the UK’s departure from the EU single market a disaster, after losing his entire wholesale and retail business in the bloc over the past year:

Simon Spurrell, the co-founder of the Cheshire Cheese Company, said personal advice from a government minister to pursue non-EU markets to compensate for his losses had proved to be “an expensive joke”.

“It turns out our greatest competitor on the planet is the UK government because every time they do a fantastic deal, they kick us out of that market – starting with the Brexit deal,” he said.

Spurrell predicted in January that Brexit would cost him £250,000 in sales. “We lost £270,000, so I got one thing right,” he said, describing the post-Brexit EU trade deal as the “biggest disaster that any government has ever negotiated in the history of trade negotiations”.

His online retail business was hit immediately after the Brexit negotiator David Frost failed to secure a frictionless trade deal addressing sales to individual customers in the EU.

Spurrell said he had lost 20% of sales overnight after discovering he needed to provide a £180 health certificate on each order, including gift packs costing £25 or £30. He said the viability of his online retail had come to a “dead stop”.

After he embarked on a personal crusade to draw attention to the plight of UK exporters involving almost 200 media interviews around the world, he was invited to an online meeting with Victoria Prentis, a minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. She suggested that emerging markets could compensate for the Brexit-related hole in the Cheshire Cheese Company’s finances.

Spurrell said he had pursued new business in Norway and Canada but post-Brexit trade deals sealed by the government had put barriers in place.

“We no longer have any ability to deal with the EU as our three distributors in Germany, France and Italy have said we have become too expensive because of the new checks and paperwork.

“And now we’ve also lost Norway since the trade deal, as duty for wholesale is 273%. Then we tried Canada but what the government didn’t tell us is that duty of 244% is applied on any consignment over $20 [£15].”

That meant Canadian customers who ordered a gift pack worth £50, including transport fees, were asked to pay £178 extra in duty when the courier arrived at their door, Spurrell said. “As you can imagine, customers were saying: ‘You can take that back, we don’t want it anymore’.”

Norwegian duty on a £30 cheese pack amounted to £190 extra, he said.

So much for these much-heralded trade deals and taking back control. This is the reality of Brexit.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Will the Tory Government resist the temptation to keep tax receipts and cut our fuel bills?

The title of this blogpost sums up precisely the dilemma facing the Chancellor of the Exchequer as we move towards the expiration of the current cap on fuel costs and the seemingly inevitable doubling of domestic bills in the new year. For, having incurred the largest post-war public debt fighting the pandemic, Rishi Sunak now has the tantalising prospect of a £3.1 billion windfall in VAT receipts charged against these energy bills.

The Guardian reports that this windfall , built up since the October budget, would cover the projected £2.4bn cost of removing VAT from gas and electricity bills over the winter months:

The figures come from House of Commons library research, commissioned by Labour, which projects £3.1bn extra in VAT receipts in 2021-22, making a total of £135bn.

Labour’s figures were reached using the Office for Budget Responsibility’s (OBR) projections that 42.2% of VAT receipts will come from November to March. This suggests that, with £78bn raised to October 2021, a little under £57bn may be expected over the rest of the year. This would bring total VAT receipts to about £135bn. At the budget in October, the OBR forecast £131.9bn for 2021-22.

However, the Treasury said those increases would not come close to meeting pre-pandemic forecasts. A government spokesperson said: “There has been no VAT windfall. VAT receipts this year are forecast to be below the pre-Covid level, with the OBR forecasting nearly £2bn less will be received this year compared with directly before the pandemic.”

But the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, said the additional cash compared with pre-budget forecasts meant the chancellor could give some relief on energy bills.

“Right now people are being hit by a cost of living crisis which has seen energy bills soar, food costs increase and the weekly budget stretched. That’s why Labour is calling on the government to immediately remove VAT on household heating bills over the winter months.”

Reeves said further action was needed to protect households from escalating bills after the next review of the energy price cap, which some experts have predicted could rise by as much as 40% when Ofgem sets it again in February. The energy regulator is also expected to enact a series of changes after the collapse of so many small providers.

The cap for the average household is £1,277 a year, but the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change estimated it could rise to almost £1,800.

The Treasury, of course, argue that if people are spending more on fuel then they will have less to spend elsewhere and that this will produce a counter-mandering effect by cutting tax revenues on those other goods. However, the case for relieving the burden on poorer households by cutting VAT is overwhelming as is a public investment in the energy efficiency of people's homes.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Time to ban trail hunting

As the Boxing Day hunts gather there is growing concern that these trail hunts are being used as a smokescreen for illegal foxhunts. As a result, Ministers are being urged to ban trail hunting on public land.

The Guardian notes that in a landslide vote at the National Trust’s annual meeting in November, members voted overwhelming to ban this form of hunting, which was devised after the Hunting Act banned the hunting of foxes with dogs. Natural Resources Wales, similarly banned the practice, but activists expect more than 240 hunting days will have taken place on land owned by the Ministry of Defence this year:

In trail hunting, a “trail layer” goes out ahead of the hunt, dragging a rag coated in an animal scent. Hunters cast the hounds to this scent and follow it to the end of the trail. Critics argue that it is routinely used as a cover for old-fashioned illegal hunting but hunters say trail hunting causes no harm to animals.

Labour criticised the government for granting licences to “the prime minister’s mates” on Boxing Day meetings. The shadow environment secretary, Jim McMahon, said: “Allowing hunts to go ahead on public and government-owned land is completely irresponsible, regardless of whether those taking part are the prime minister’s mates.

“The government must do more to close the loopholes that allow people to break the law, and consign hunting to the history books, where the vast majority of us believe it belongs.”

Chris Luffingham, the director of external affairs at the animal rights charity League Against Cruel Sports, added: “It’s time all major landowners permanently banned trail hunting on their land and that the government strengthens the Hunting Act to ensure its loopholes can no longer be exploited.”

Last year, the National Trust was among several landowners to suspend trail hunting on their land while police investigated claims that hunt organisers planned to kill foxes.

In October, the reputation of Britain’s hunting community was dealt a serious blow after a prominent huntsman was convicted of encouraging others to hide the illegal hunting of live foxes behind a cover of trail hunting.

Mark Hankinson, the former director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, was found guilty of encouraging or assisting others to break the Hunting Act 2004, under the Serious Crimes Act 2007. He had been talking to more than 100 other hunters on a series of training webinars about how to use trail hunting as a smokescreen.

Surely it's time that this loophole was closed for good.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Truss embarrasses herself over pints of champagne remark

Will we ever tire of mocking Liz Truss, her over-weening ambition and her attempts to ingratiate herself with Tory backwoodsmen as part of her manouevring to replace 'dead-man-walking' Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. I am betting that we won't, at least not until she succeeds to the top job, when it will cease to be funny at all.

The latest faux pas fron our Foreign Secretary is her vow to bring back pint-sized champagne bottles after Brexit as part of a review of “hangover” EU laws that can be removed.

According to the Mirror, a Government source said: "Pint-sized bottles were a victim of the EU's war against imperial measurements, which are widely used and understood in this country.

"Now we've left the EU, we can rid ourselves of rules like this.”

Pint bottles were beloved by Winston Churchill, who said they were the "ideal size" and "enough for two at lunch and one at dinner".

Ms Truss is rumoured to want the Tory leadership and the return of pint bottles - mooted several times in recent years - will be seen as a pitch to Brexiteers.

But critics will see it is a distraction bid after the UK admitted there will be no deal this year over the consequences of Boris Johnson ’s Brexit pact in Northern Ireland - and Brexit minister Lord Frost resigned.

The lack of a deal means some checks on inbound goods from Europe to Great Britain, which were repeatedly delayed, will now come in on January 1.

Critics poured scorn on the idea - while others pointing out champagne is made in France, whose producers seem unlikely to switch to pint bottles for the UK market.

Former Daily Record editor Murray Foote tweeted: “There is a flaw in this anticipated benefit of Brexit … it’s the French who make and bottle champagne.”

Yes, Champagne is produced in France under EU laws, and cannot be produced elsewhere as it is a protected product. Not only does the UK Government have no control over how it is bottled, but the UK deliberately walked away from any influence it may have had when Johnson signed the withdrawal agreement.

Truss will just have to find another way to appeal to the chanpagne-quaffing electorate in Tory leadership contests

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Happy Christmas Everybody

Friday, December 24, 2021

Tory MPs in denial

When Michael Gove announced during the referendum campaign that he had had enough of experts, nobody expected his rallying cry to be taken up by Tory MPs when it comes to our health and wellbeing, but that is apparently where we now are.

Boris Johnson's reluctance to make decisions and take the necessary and timely actions needed to tackle Covid 19, his obvious inability to focus on the problems presented to him and the opposition of a sizeable number of Tory MPs to measures recommended by health experts to keep us safe, has put us all at far more risk that we needed to be and prolonged this pandemic, possibly at the cost of thousands of unnecessary deaths. And they are still at it.

As the Guardian reports, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser has had to hit back at accusations from Conservative MPs that epidemiological modellers had “spread gloom” about the Omicron variant:

Sir Patrick Vallance said it was not the responsibility of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) “to take a particular policy stance or to either spread gloom or give Panglossian optimism”.

He used an article in the Times to respond to criticism that was widely circulated among Tory MPs and ministers that suggested Sage’s Omicron modelling had been an exercise in fear-mongering.

The Spectator’s editor, Fraser Nelson, had a Twitter exchange with the Sage member Graham Medley over the weekend, suggesting ministers asked Sage to model worst-case scenarios. The exchange was reportedly widely shared in the WhatsApp groups of Tory MPs.

In an account of the exchange in his column in the Telegraph on Monday, Nelson complained that Sage projections that Omicron could kill up to 6,000 in a single day had been seized on in the press, and more cautious projections ignored.

Nelson wrote: “The 6,000 is the top of a rather long range of ‘scenarios’, not predictions.”

He added: “I’ve been contacted by a few ministers saying they were alarmed to think Sage modellers were not giving the probability of various outcomes but cooking up gloomy scenarios to order.”

In an apparent riposte, Vallance wrote science was “self-correcting” and about making “advances by overturning previous dogma and challenging accepted truths”.

He wrote: “Encouraging a range of opinions, views and interpretation of data is all part of the process. No scientist would ever claim, in this fast-changing and unpredictable pandemic, to have a monopoly of wisdom on what happens next.”

A widely reported statement from the Spi-M group of scientists, who report to Sage, on 18 December warned hospitalisations could peak at between 3,000 and 10,000 a day and deaths at between 600 and 6,000 a day based on models assuming no new restrictions were introduced.

Vallance said modellers were “trying to model lots of different scenarios of how the wave of Omicron might grow, determine which factors are likely to have the biggest impact on spread and its consequences, and to assess how different interventions might alter the outcomes”.

He added: “They do not, contrary to what you might have heard, only model the worst outcomes.”

Isn't it time these MPs let the scientists do their job, and stop playing politics with people's lives?

Thursday, December 23, 2021

The smoking gun facing consumers in the new year

As if we needed yet nore bad news, the Guardian reports that energy bills could rise as much as 50% in the spring as the UK faces a “national crisis” over soaring wholesale gas and electricity prices.

The paper says that the trade body Energy UK has called on the government to intervene to help cut the cost of bills as these price increases drive dozens of energy companies out of business:

“Domestic energy prices are going to go up 45% to 50% in the spring,” warned Emma Pinchbeck, the chief executive of Energy UK, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday.

“It is looking pretty serious for the spring. This is a system-wide issue now. We are asking for the Treasury in the UK to intervene as others have [in Europe],” Pinchbeck said.

While wholesale prices continue to climb steeply, the UK’s price cap on energy bills stops companies from immediately passing those costs on to their customers. Since 1 October, the price cap, set by the industry regulator, Ofgem, has been set at a record £1,277. It is due to change on 1 April when Ofgem is set to raise the cap significantly, which will in turn result in consumers’ bills rising significantly.

“We have had record-breaking gas prices across Europe since September and over the last couple of weeks prices have spiked again and they are at levels we frankly have not really faced in the industry,” Pinchbeck said. “Particularly not in a winter period, with the UK in the middle of a pandemic, and other cost of living issues and inflation.”

Pinchbeck said that only about a fifth of a consumers’ energy bill in the UK is in the control of suppliers. The government sets other costs such as VAT and green energy levies, which could be reduced to help domestic customers.

“A significant proportion of the bill is policy costs,” she said. “Many other governments across Europe have reduced taxes or VAT on bills. In the UK that would save around £90 per customer. There are also policy costs on energy bills that government was consulting on removing, on electricity bills primarily, they could bring that forward. That saves about £190 per customer.”

Will the government act to alleviate this burden on already over-stretched consumers? Do they even care? I'm off to find a fixed price deal, I suggest you all do the same.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Former pro-European goes native in search of ultimate prize

If anybody thought that the appointment of a former pro-European to negotiate with the EU might lead to a more considered approach to the Northern Ireland protocol and the implementation of Brexit, then they would have been swiftly disabused of such a fanciful notion by Elizabeth Truss's early actions in her new role.

The Independent reports that the Foreign Secretary has been accused of using her new Brexit responsibilities to position herself for a future Tory leadership contest, after she told European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič in their first phone talks that she was ready to suspend the UK/EU agreement on the Irish border by invoking Article 16:

To some observers, Boris Johnson’s appointment of the foreign secretary to lead Brexit talks is a way to broker a less belligerent approach to Brussels, after David Frost’s repeated threats to suspend the Northern Ireland Protocol at the risk of an EU trade war.

She also signed up to the PM’s climbdown on the European Court of Justice, which is thought to have played a part in provoking the resignation of her predecessor, known in Brussels as Frosty the No-man for his refusal to make concessions.

But she today sought to project a hardline stance, insisting that “the UK position has not changed” and telling Mr Šefčovič that Britain remains ready to trigger Article 1 if barriers to the flow of goods between Northern Ireland and the British mainland are not eased.

ECJ oversight of the protocol had long been an obstacle to agreement, due to Lord Frost’s insistence on sovereignty grounds that the court’s involvement must be entirely removed.

But new UK proposals would allow it to retain its role interpreting EU rules which continue to operate in the province because of Mr Johnson’s decision to create a customs border in the Irish Sea. Ms Truss echoed the language used by the UK when announcing the climbdown last week, saying that the ECJ must not be “the final arbiter of disputes between us”.

Liberal Democrats foreign affairs spokeperson, Layla Moran has accused Truss of trying to use the issue to position herself for a future Tory leadership contest. 

We now appear to be on course for a ruinous trade war just to accommodate the ambitions of a possible successor to Boris Johnson. Is this how things are to be for the future, our national interests taking second place to the manoeuvring to replace a weakened Prime Minister?

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

UK farming, forestry and fishing to be hit by new trade deal

Former Liberal Democrat. pro-European and one-time anti-monarchist, Liz Truss may well be enjoying a meteoric rise at the moment, with her being given the additional responsibiloity of taking on the EU, but her record as a trade negotiator is not as great as she would like us to believe.

The i-paper reports that the deal she secured with Australia, when she was Trade Secretary, may well have dire consequences for our own farming, forestry and fishing industry.

The paper says that the government's own impact assessment shows that this sector will take a £94m hit, with an additional expected £225m hit to the semi-processed food sector, which includes tinned products, as part of a “reallocation of resources within the economy”:

The impact assessment refers to Australia as a “large, competitive producer of agricultural products”, making clear the “potential for the deal to result in lower output for some agricultural sectors [in the UK] as a result”.

It goes on to warn that the sector is expected “to contract” as a result of increased competition as tariffs are lifted on Australian imports to the UK, compared to if the deal had not been struck.

It comes after then-trade secretary Liz Truss won a Cabinet row with George Eustice over the deal in spring, with the Environment Secretary reportedly concerned about the damage cheap Ausralian lamb and beef imports could do to domestic farmers.

Manufacturing sectors, in particular the manufacture of motor vehicles and the manufacfture of machinery and equipment will benefit from the deal, the impact assessment published alongside the final trade deal on Friday showed.

The Liberal Democrats warned farmers were being “sold down the river” by the Conservatives as a result of the deal.

It came after Boris Johnson’s party suffered a humiliating by-election defeat to the Lib Dems in the largely rural seat of North Shropshire.

Lib Dem environment spokesman Tim Farron said: “This impact assessment proves what so many feared.

“Buried in the small print is a £100m hit to our farming and fishing sectors that will hit rural communities hardest.

“Boris Johnson has sold farmers down the river to make a quick buck in a misguided trade deal with Australia.

“Now the reality of what’s on the table is clear, it’s vital that Parliament is given a vote on the deal.

“Last week’s political earthquake in North Shropshire shows that Boris Johnson’s Conservatives can’t afford to take farmers for granted any longer.”

Promises to farmers that leaving the EU would benefit them have proved to be no more than Scotch mist. Instead agriculture has been one of the victinms of Brexit and deals such as the one Truss negotiated with Australia have added to that pain.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Could post-Brexit UK become the world's dumping ground?

There was a disturbing article in the Independent a few days ago which outlined concerns by experts and campaigners that a plan by Boris Johnson’s government to change the regulation of chemicals after Brexit risks making the UK a “dumping ground” for harmful substances.

The paper says that the government’s policy paper setting out how the UK’s new, post-Brexit chemical safety regime will diverge from the EU’s REACH system, shows that of ten potentially hazardous chemicals added to Brussels’ list of “substances of very high concern” this year, only four would be added to the UK’s list:

Campaigners told The Independent in March about the risk the UK could be a “dumping ground” for dangerous substances after Mr Johnson ditched Theresa May’s plan for “associate membership” of EU agencies, including the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and its database known as REACH.

Thalie Martini, chief executive of Breast Cancer UK, said the published proposals amounted to a “major weakening” of safety regulation – warning that the British public would be less well-protected from chemicals linked to breast cancer than before Brexit.

She said that the proposed system “lacks public scrutiny, undermines the consumer’s right to know and could lead to years of regulatory delays that result in the UK becoming a dumping ground for hazardous chemicals”.

Experts are worried that the government proposals will see a new UK regulator relying on voluntary data submitted by chemical companies to assess the level of risk, and will be slower to take action against them.

Dr Michael Warhurst, executive director of CHEM Trust, said the government was putting in “unnecessary layers of information requirements” from firms – warning that it will lead to “regulatory inaction on a range of harmful substances”.

The expert added: “This will open the door to consumers and the environment having greater exposure to harmful chemicals than in the EU, and a second-rate system for regulating chemicals post-Brexit.”

I was going to suggest that becoming the world's dumping ground did not feature on the side of Boris's Brexit battlebus, but in fact many of us were warning during the referendum of reduced environmental stardards if we left the EU, and it looks like we were right.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Goodbye to Frost in winter

The Welsh Liberal Democrats once put up a candidate in a by-election in Neath Port Talbot, whose surname was Frost . It was around this time of year and he stormed to victory on the slogan 'vote for Frost in winter'. After yesterday's events I doubt if Boris Johnson will be so enthusiastic about seeing the name Frost ever again.

Until now, Lord Frost has been the lynchpin in the Prime Minister's strategy for 'getting Brexit done.' Frost negotiated the exit agreement and he has been instrumental in negotiations to undo his own work in order to keep the Tory backbenchers happy. In many ways it is surprising that it took him so long to quit given the impossible, almost Augean task, that had been assigned to him.

According to the Guardian, Frost has been vocal in recent weeks about his concerns over tax increases and the re-imposition of Covid restrictions. He is understood to have spoken out against a rise in national insurance to pay for health and social care spending. He also has concerns about plan B Covid measures, which provoked the largest ever Tory rebellion under Johnson’s leadership.

The paper adds however, that Frost has also had to accept concessions over Brexit, with the British government dropping its demand to block the European court of justice from being the ultimate arbiter of trade rules in Northern Ireland, while the government has also backed away from his threat to trigger article 16 of the Brexit agreement, which would suspend parts of the trade deal agreed for Northern Ireland.

Essentially, having been at the centre of governmental chaos and the dysfunctional Brexit that is slowly tearing the country's economy apart, he has departed because he could see no way back for this chaotic administration. As the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson Layla Moran said: “The rats are fleeing Boris Johnson’s sinking ship.”

Can Boris Johnson hold on for much longer? It seems that it is only the pandemic that is restraining Tory MPs from throwing their leader to the lions. Surely, Johnson is in the last-chance-saloon, now.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Somebody tell them the party is over

Seriously, you couldn't make this up. The man who Boris Johnson appointed to investigate allegations of his staff partying during lockdown has, himself, been accused of facilitating a 'party' that took place in his Whitehall office.

The Mirror reports that Cabinet Secretary Simon Case and his team held an event in a room in the Cabinet Office on December 17, 2020 - the day before the alleged Number 10 party he was charged with investigating:

According to the Times, digital invitations were sent out to the gathering, under the heading "Christmas party!"

A Cabinet Office confirmed the Cabinet Secretary's private office held a virtual quiz on December 17, starting at 5.30pm and lasting an hour.

They said about six members of staff, who had been working in the office that day, took part in person - with the rest of the team joining from home.

Mr Case did not take part in the event, the source said, but it's understood he walked through the private office while it was taking place, so would have been aware it was happening.

Alcohol and snacks were enjoyed by those present, which were provided by staff themselves.

Mr Case spoke to staff briefly at the end of the event, and then left.

It will prompt serious questions over the integrity of the "independent" probe into parties and gatherings across Westminster last year, while Brits were forced to cancel Christmas plans with friends and family.

When he was appointed earlier this month, a Number 10 spokesperson was asked for reassurances that Mr Case would be a credible investigator.

They replied: "It’s clear that he is rightly leading what will be an independent process looking into the allegations made on that date in No10."

This government is a complete omnishambles.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Does North Shropshire put Johnson in jeopardy?

The sensational byelection result in North Shropshire last night may well prove to be the final straw for the Prime Minister. The fact the poll was timed for the last day of the Parliamentary term may help him, but the list of distractions and side shows piling up on Johnson's negative ledger are growing daily and his future as PM does not look that bright.

As the Guardian points out, in addition to losing Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire, and the backlash from the Owen Patterson sleaze vote, there is a fresh inquiry into his relationship with the tech entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri, accusations of of lacking seriousness and professionalism after his Peppa Pig speech to the CBI, the ever-growing list of Christmas Party indiscretions during lockdown, the rignition of flatgate, and the Tory backbench rebellion.

Now, Johnson is being accused by a committee of senior MPs and peers of neglecting vital national security issues facing the UK. The Independent says that in a stinging letter to the Prime Minister, chair Dame Margaret Beckett said she was troubled by a significant reduction in the prime minister’s personal engagement with his own National Security Council (NSC):

The Labour MP urged the PM to “increase the frequency of your attendance at the NSC” by chairing it at least once per fortnight, and asked him to start “leading by example” when it comes to reviewing Britain’s recent pull-out from Afghanistan.

The committee cited the “chaotic withdrawal” from Afghanistan – along with the lack of planning for the Covid pandemic – as evidence that the government was failing to take security threats seriously enough.

The chair’s letter also said the recent reports that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) was planning to cut staff numbers were “simply staggering”, given the government’s stated ambitions for a “global Britain”.

The committee was struck by the “apparent complacency and lack of urgency within government in the wake of the disastrous experience” for the UK and its allies in Afghanistan, the chair wrote.

Dame Margaret said the messy withdrawal had exposed the NSC’s failure to direct coherent plans for crises like the rapid Taliban takeover. She also described the delay in setting up the Afghan Citizen Resettlement Scheme by the Home Office as “unforgivable”.

She wrote: “We are deeply troubled by the persistent signs that our nation’s security is no longer a priority for the government … This is a wholly unsatisfactory state of affairs that requires your personal attention to remedy.”

On top of that the Foreign Office are now initiating a ten per cent cut in their overall workforce. The sooner that Tory MPs move against Johnson the better.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Government no longer friends with electric

Gary Numnan may have asked in 1979 'Are friends electric?' but his sentiment appears to have fallen on deaf ears with the current government. Back in November 2020 Ministers announced that they were going to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and promote electric and hybrid vehicles through subsidy and an investment in appropriate infrastructure instead.

Personally, I still have doubts about both electric and hybrid vehicles. In my view there are questions about the technology, in particular the size, life-cycle and weight of batteries, which means that when driving a hybrid in conventional mode it actually uses more petrol than a standard vehicle. And of course there are still questions about the longevity of charge on purely electric vehicles.

What distance can you cover before an electric vehicle needs recharging? Will appropriate chargong facilities be available? And what do you do about charging your vehicle if you live in a terraced property, with no drive? You can of course take your car to a nearby charging point, but it takes five minutes to fill up with petrol, much longer to recharge a battery. The cost of batteries and the need to replace them after so many years are also a factor.

I may well buy an electric vehicle in the future but not until some of these questions have been addressed. And I don't thisk I am alone in this, which is why continuing government support, subisdy and encouragement is necessary. Perhaps somebody might like to mention this to ministers, because it appears their enthusiasm is waning.

The Guardian reports that the UK government has cut grants for electric vehicles for the second time in a year, provoking the anger of the car industry and prompting a call for car tax to be redesigned.

The paper says that the grant available for electric cars will fall from £2,500 to £1,500 – half the sum available to buyers at the start of the year. The upper price limit for eligible car models will fall from £35,000 to £32,000, down from £50,000 in March. They add that the government is also cutting the grant on large and small vans from £6,000 to £5,000 and £3,000 to £2,500 respectively:

The government is helping with a mixture of stick – including large fines for carmakers who make too many polluting cars – and carrots like the plug-in car grant and some tax exemptions.

However, the rising take-up of electric cars has presented a problem to the Treasury, which has been alarmed by the increasing cost of subsidies, many of which are enjoyed by wealthier buyers who can afford a new electric car, as well as the impact on fuel duty.

Some experts argue that government funding would be better aimed at problems such as still-patchy charging infrastructure. At the same time, the government has allocated as much as £50bn in implicit subsidies to petrol and diesel consumption by freezing fuel duty for a decade.

The best way to inprove this technology is by increasing demand for it, making it worthwhile for producers to invest in research and development. The not-sp-green UK government however, is choosing a contrary path.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Home Office sued

The Guardian reports that the statutory body set up to protect the post-Brexit rights of EU citizens settled in the UK has taken the dramatic step of launching legal action against the Home Office, accusing it of breaching their basic rights.

The paper says that the Independent Monitoring Authority has launched judicial review proceedings on the grounds that 2.5 million EU citizens who have been granted pre-settled status have been put at automatic risk of losing rights to live, work or rent, or being deported by the Home Office:

EU nationals and their families who have been in the UK for more than five years get settled status under the Home Office immigration scheme set up for Brexit but those who have been in the country fewer than five years get pre-settled and must apply again for settled status.

But if they do not apply before their pre-settled status expires, they automatically lose their rights and could be liable to removal from the country, something the IMA has said it considers unlawful.

The legal action is a rare move that pits a statutory body against a government department. It will be keenly watched by immigration lawyers and campaign groups who have multiple criticisms over the Home Office’s policy under which 5.6 million EU citizens applied for post-Brexit status but only 2.6 million have been granted full settled status.

“In taking legal action now we hope to provide clarity for those citizens with pre-settled status of which there are 2.485 million as of 30 November 2021,” said Kathryn Chamberlain, the IMA chief executive.

Campaign groups have protested that the Home Office system is a time bomb for the 2.5 million. They fear many may simply forget to apply for settled status when their pre-settled status expires.

Others such as elderly people, children in care and vulnerable people including victims of domestic abuse, who had to rely on carers, council workers or charities to make their original application, may fall through the cracks.

The IMA will argue that the loss of work and home or right to healthcare is an unjustifiable and direct consequence of Brexit, not of the individual’s making.

The withdrawal agreement signed in 2020 was designed to protect the lifetime rights of EU citizens settled in the UK and British citizens settled in the EU.

But the IMA argued that the rights agreement only allows for loss of those rights in “limited circumstances”. It therefore considers the blanket policy of the Home Office is “in breach of the agreements”, it said.

I may be mistaken about this, but it is my recollection that promises were made around the Brexit referendum and during the signing of the withdrawal agreement to protect existing European citizens living and working in the UK. Once more the reality has proven to be very different.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

UK government abandons evidence-based law-making for rhetoric

And so the long march to Hungarian-style authoritarianism continues, with 'Justice' Secretary, Dominic Raab set to outline a sweeping overhaul of human rights law that he claims will counter “wokery and political correctness” and expedite the deportation of foreign criminals.

As the Guardian reports, Raab claims that the highly controversial reforms will create a new bill of rights, including a permission stage to “deter spurious human rights claims” and 'change the balance between freedom of expression and privacy'.

However, lawyers believe the proposed changes to the Human Rights Act are dangerous and fuelled by political rhetoric rather than necessity:

Stephanie Boyce, president of the Law Society, said any changes to the Human Rights Act should be led by evidence and not driven by political rhetoric.

She said: “British judges deliver British justice based on British laws, looking closely at how judgments fit into the national context, and disapplying them if there is good reason to do so. UK courts do not, as government suggests, ‘blindly’ follow case law from the European court of human rights.

“Equally, foreign criminals already can be deported in the public interest even where there are arguments against this from the right to family life. Every case is different, making it necessary to weigh each on its own particulars. Talk of restricting rights is dangerous and does not reflect the nuanced job the courts have to do.”

The MoJ has highlighted the fight over prisoners’ voting rights, and the requirement for police to issue “threat to life” notices – known as Osman warnings – to gang members as examples of unwelcome interference from Strasbourg.

Without explaining how, the MoJ said its plans would also reduce pull factors to the UK being exploited by people-smugglers facilitating dangerous small boat crossings. But it confirmed that the UK would remain a party to the European convention on human rights.

Martha Spurrier, director at Liberty, highlighted instances of the Human Rights Act helping people achieve justice, including LGBT military veterans getting their medals back after they were stripped of them because of their sexuality, and unmarried women receiving their widow’s pension after the death of their partners.

She described the plans as “a blatant, unashamed power grab,” adding: “Today’s announcement is being cast as strengthening our rights when in fact, if this plan goes through, they will be fatally weakened. This government is systematically shutting down all avenues of accountability through a succession of rushed and oppressive bills. We must ensure the government changes course as a matter of urgency, before we very quickly find ourselves wondering where our fundamental human rights have gone.”

Sacha Deshmukh, the chief executive of Amnesty International, said human rights are not “sweets” ministers can “pick and choose from” and the “aggressive” attempt to “roll-back” the laws needs to be stopped.

He added: “If ministers move ahead with plans to water down the Human Rights Act and override judgments with which they disagree, they risk aligning themselves with authoritarian regimes around the world.”

Prof Philippe Sands QC, who sat on the 2013 commission on a bill of rights, said: “The concern is that this will mark a further step in the government’s eager embrace of lawlessness, undermining the rights of all individuals, the effective role of British judges and the European court, and the devolution settlement into which the Human Rights Act is embedded.”

What is most disturbing is the lack of proper scrutiny of these measures in the media, much of whom is fuelling this popularist nonsense in the first place. It is just a shame that those Tory MPs revolting over covid passports cannot extend their concern for civil liberties to opposing this bill.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Hypocrisy and self-interest on voter IDs

There was not much new in the report by the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee regarding proposals to force voters to present photo ID caeds at polling stations.

As the Guardian reports, essentially the committee concluded that plans to introduce voter identification risk upsetting the balance of the UK’s electoral system, making it more difficult for people to vote and removing an element of the trust inherent in the system.

The committee noted that when a requirement to produce photographic identification at polling stations was introduced in Northern Ireland in 2003, “the turnout at the 2004 Northern Ireland assembly elections dropped by 2.3% as a direct consequence”.

Many of us have been saying this for some time. What is worth keeping an eye out for though, is how many of the 70 Tory rebels, who propose voting against vaccine passports on civil liberties grounds, will then troop through the lobbies in favour of voter IDs.

Self-interest is a powerful motivator.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

And now the Treasury are at it

As if it wasn't bad enough that Boris the clown and his staff were ahppily flouting lockdown rules while the rest of us locked ourselves away with our immediate family (and not even that in many cases) to prevent the virus from spreading, it turns out that the more serious Treasury was also indulging in some rule-breaking.

The Guardian reports that officials held an “impromptu” drinks party to celebrate Rishi Sunak’s autumn spending review during lockdown. They say that a spokesperson insisted it was a “small number” of staff who celebrated around their desks, but reports put the number closer to two dozen civil servants at the event:

A team of officials working on the chancellor’s spending review announcement stayed after hours for the party on 25 November last year, the Times reported.

Government sources said the drinks were not planned but the civil servants involved bought beer and wine from a nearby supermarket.

Allegra Stratton, in a recorded rehearsal for a proposed new programme of press briefings that was later leaked.

A Treasury spokesperson told the Guardian: “A number of HMT staff came into the office to work on the spending review 2020. We have been made aware that a small number of staff had impromptu drinks around their desks after the event.

“The Treasury did not organise an in-person departmental party last Christmas.”

It is understood that Sunak was not at the event and was not aware of it taking place at the time.

During the November lockdown, non-essential shops, and leisure and entertainment venues were closed, as well as pubs, bars and restaurants. People were told to stay at home except for limited reasons including work if it could not be done from home.

It isn't agood look is it?

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Partying the night away

Unsurprisingly, Ten Downing Street has cancelled this year's staff Christmas party. Unfortunately for them, nobody cares. We are all still talking about last year's event. It must have been quite a do, as nobody who attended it seems to remember being there, but the prevailing wisdom is that it did happen, in defiance of the prevailing regulations, and that the public is pretty pissed about it all.

Of course the revelations continue to drip out in the most damaging way, with the latest being in Mirror, who say that Boris Johnson's top spin doctor made a thank you speech and handed out spoof awards to Downing Street staff at the aforementioned bash.

This is the same man who is responsible for fronting up all the denials and misdirections designed to throw the media off the scent, and yet not once did he say that he was there:

Sources have told ITV News that Jack Doyle, the Prime Minister's top communications adviser, held a joke awards ceremony for staff at the festive bash, which took place at the height of the second wave of Covid and is now the subject of a Cabinet Office probe.

It is thought that more than 50 people were at the party on December 18. Mr Doyle was deputy director of communications at the time.

The event was said to have been planned three weeks in advance with invitations sent to officials and political advisers on WhatsApp, according to The Times.

The Prime Minister had claimed he had "assurances" the event had followed Covid guidance but after leaked footage of senior staff laughing and joking about "cheese and wine" and "definitely" no social distancing at the event, he ordered a Cabinet Office investigation.

Downing Street's internal investigation is beginning to look more and more like a sham. The Cabinet Secretary has only just published the terms of reference but more details are emerging in the media than his Office. Isn't it about time Boris Johnson came clean and told us the whole story?

Friday, December 10, 2021

Downing Street flat refurbishment bites the Tories

The ongoing controversy over Boris Johnson's refurbishment of the Downing Street flat reached a sort of conclusion yesterday with the Electoral Commission fining the Tory Party £17,800 for breaching electoral law.

As the Mirror reports, the long-awaited Electoral Commission probe found laws on the reporting of donations "were not followed" over the costly revamp:

The Tories "failed to fully report" a £67,801.72 donation in October 2020 from Huntswood Associates Limited - a firm controlled by the Tory peer Lord Brownlow.

That loan included £52,801.72 for the costs of revamping the flat. But the full value was not included in the Conservatives' quarterly donations report, the Commission found.

The party's records of the £53k sum were "not accurate" and there were "serious failings in the party’s compliance systems," the Electoral Commission said.

The finding will raise a fresh sleaze row over Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie.

The pair faced months of questions over works in the four-bed living space above 11 Downing Street - traditionally used by PMs as it is bigger than the two-bed flat above No10.

When they arrived in 2019, a No10 spokeswoman said there would not be "any additional cost to the taxpayer" of Mrs Johnson living there.

But she removed Theresa May ’s “John Lewis furniture nightmare”, according to an article in Tatler - a decade since David and Samantha Cameron had a £30,000 new kitchen fitted.

The makeover inspired by designer Lulu Lytle is said to have included £840-a-roll wallpaper, a £9,800 Baby Bear sofa and a £3,000 Lily Drum table.

There was a £30,000 cap on taxpayer cash contributing to the work - so the PM had to find the cash himself, or from donors. But there were months of questions about where the money came from.

Eventually it emerged “additional invoices” were received and paid by the Cabinet Office - and billed to the Conservative Party in July 2020.

The Prime Minister eventually scrapped the deal and paid Lulu Lytle for the work himself in March - but only after details had been published in the press in February.

No10 has consistently refused to reveal the original source of funds for the refurb - stating opaquely that Mr Johnson had “covered the cost” and “settled the full amount” for the work.

At the rate we are going it can't be long before there is a new occupant of this flat. Will the next Prime MInister rip it all out and start again?

Update: things are getting worse for the Prime Minister with him now being caight out in an obvious lie over this flat refurbishment. The Guardian reports that Johnson’s integrity is once again under the spotlight after an official report suggested he gave differing accounts to investigators looking into the redecoration of his Downing Street flat.

The paper says that documents released by the Electoral Commission have revealed Johnson sent a WhatsApp message to the Tory donor Lord Brownlow in November last year seeking more money for the costly makeover. This is despite the fact that in an earlier inquiry into the matter, Johnson had assured Lord Geidt, the independent adviser on ministers’ interests, that he did not know who had given money for the work until it was revealed by the media in February this year.

Thursday, December 09, 2021

Those revolting Tories

Although there is undoubtedly unease and some serious concern on the Tory backbenches about the double standards and hypocrisy of their own government in holding parties while the rest of us were locked down for public health reasons, the biggest revolt appears to centred on a much more fundamental disagreement.

The Times reports that Boris Johnson faced a furious backlash from Conservative MPs, with William Wragg, chairman of the public administration committee, accusing him of imposing new restrictions as a tactic to divert attention from a furore over last year’s Downing Street Christmas party:

Mark Harper, head of the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group, said that the government’s credibility had been “seriously damaged”, adding that vaccine passports were “pointless and damaging” and that working from home “will batter sectors of the economy that are just getting back on their feet”.

Johnson denied that the announcement was designed to “coincide with events in politics”, asking how people would react if he had delayed for political reasons. “You’ve got to act to protect public health when you’ve got the clear evidence,” he said. The prime minister argued that the measures were “proportionate and responsible”.

The Prime Minister's problem of course is that he no longer has any credibility to impose new restrictions, but more than that there are a significant number in his own party whose apparent disregard for public health means they refuse to wear masks in the House of Commons and are opposed to sensible precautions designed to keep people safe.

It would have been difficult enough to contain these Tory sceptics in normal circumstances, but with his own rule-breaking now out in the public domain, Boris Johnson is fighting a losing battle.

Wednesday, December 08, 2021

UK Government goes into lockdown to avoid foot-in-mouth virus

The rumours about a secret Downing Street party last Christmas, when hundreds of people were dying in hospital and millions were obeying the law by staying home, unable to see relatives or celebrate in their usual way, all came to a head yesterday, when a video was leaked to ITV confirming that all the denials were lies after all, and that staff had indeed broken the law by socialising together.

This morning, the chances of finding a Government Minister or spokesperson in the media, even to convey essential public health information, was about as remote as Larry the Downing Street cat emerging onto the street with a dodo clasped firmly in his jaws.

The Independent reports that Boris Johnson's government has gone to ground with no government minister being made available to broadcasters to defend Downing Street’s record, despite invitations:

All Britain’s main national broadcasters empty-chaired the government as the political storm broke. It is understood that Sajid Javid, the health secretary, was due to appear on the BBC, ITV, and Sky News at breakfast time – but withdrew from the regular slot following the release of the video.

The dynamite footage, obtained by ITV News, shows the prime minister's then spokesperson laughing and joking with other officials about the Christmas party – which No.10 insists did not happen despite mounting evidence.

She jokingly suggests referring to the bash as a "business meeting" or "cheese and wine" to get around the rules.

Amid fury over the footage no alternative minister was offered to broadcasters by the government to represent its position – prompting speculation that the administration was unable to muster anyone willing to go on air and defend it.

The Independent understands that even allies of the prime minister were shocked by the footage and believe it is indefensible.

Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, presenter Nick Robinson said: "We were expected to speak to the Health Secretary. That invitation was kept open after the video emerged last night, but the government chose to withdraw that interview with Sajid Javid."

Viewers on BBC Breakfast television were meanwhile told: "Usually at this time here on Breakfast we would be able to put your questions to a government minister as part of a slot we've had on the programme at 7.30am pretty much every morning since the start of the pandemic.

"We had been hoping to speak to the health secretary Sajid Javid ... but this morning no one has been available to speak to us. So this is the shot of the Westminster studio that we would normally show to you this time most mornings of the week. As you can see there's nobody there today, and that's every unusual. The camera's ready, the seat's there, we can take an interview at any moment."

The presenters of ITV’s Good Morning Britain said they were “still waiting for somebody from the government to turn up today”, and issued a challenge”:

“If any Conservative MP, anybody connected to the government is watching and you would like to take your duty and answer to those people who lost family members, there is a Westminster seat available for a government minister this morning.

“We'll take anyone. Anybody from the Conservative party, any MP who feels that it is their duty to address the nation, address their constituents, address the 140,000 people who lost family members in hospitals, followed the rules, couldn't attend funerals, couldn't be at hospital bedside while people partied in Downing Street.”

And on Sky, presenter Kay Burley said: “Normally we'd ask a government minister about this. We were told originally that it was going to be the health secretary Sajid Javid because of course it's the first anniversary of the first vaccine being administered. But sadly now we've been told that nobody's accepted our invitation. We've not even had a proper RSVP.”

For once the Tories are taking social distancing seriously, it's just that in this instance we'd rather they didn't, and instead come on the airwaves to explain and apologise for this further example of arrogance, hypocrisy and entitlement.

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

The ongoing saga of the PPE scandal

Just when we thought that things had calmed down a bit in the ongoing saga of how the UK government bypassed standard procurement practices to give massive PPE contracts to favoured individuals, another revelation hits the media.

The Guardian reports that at least 46 PPE deals were awarded to firms put in a special “VIP lane” by Conservative ministers, MPs and officials during the Covid pandemic before a formal due diligence process was put in place. This contradicts the claim by ministers that all PPE contracts were put through a rigorous “eight-stage process” for assuring quality and value for money. In total, contracts worth £5bn were handed to companies with political or Whitehall connections were awarded through the 'VIP lane'.

The paper says that a parliamentary answer obtained by Labour’s Angela Rayner revealed that 46 out of the 111 contracts awarded through the “high priority” lane were not subjected to the formal eight-stage process, which was only brought in on 4 May 2020:

Last year, the National Audit Office found that 71 PPE contracts overall were awarded before the eight-stage checking process was created.

It said: “The Department for Health and Social Care, supported by other departments, established an eight-stage process to assess and process offers of support to supply PPE.

“It set up processes to rapidly check suppliers’ equipment against government’s PPE specifications and to undertake due diligence on the suppliers. Contracts were awarded to 71 suppliers, worth £1.5bn in total, before this process was standardised.”

The parliamentary answer to Rayner demonstrates that almost two-thirds of these 71 contracts awarded before the formal due diligence process were given out after referrals from the “VIP lane”.

The revelation contradicts claims by Michael Gove, then a senior Cabinet Office minster, who said in the House of Commons earlier this year that “every single procurement decision went through an eight-stage process”.

Was Parliament misled on this issue? Can the word of ministers be trusted when they say all proper processes were followed? Is this just the tip of the iceberg? 

The need for an independent inquiry into these processes, in which all meeting minutes, documents and correspondence related to every contract awarded through the VIP lane are published, has never been more urgent.

Monday, December 06, 2021

One law for the Tories, another for us

As if it were not bad enough that Boris Johnson's government think they can willfully disregard rules imposed on the rest of us for reasons of public safety, it appears now that they also want to place themselves above the rule of law.

The Times reports that Downing Street is to begin a fresh war with judges over a plan to let ministers throw out any legal rulings they do not like, effectively curtailing the power of the courts to use judicial review to overrule decisions by ministers.br>
The paper says that The prime minister has ordered Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, to toughen plans to reform judges’ powers to rule on the legality of ministerial decisions:

An option drawn up by Raab and Suella Braverman, the attorney-general, that is liked by No 10 is for MPs to pass an annual “Interpretation Bill” to strike out findings from judicial reviews with which the government does not agree.

Whitehall sources argue that the bills would reinforce the constitutional principle that parliament is sovereign over the unelected judiciary. The move has provoked uproar within the legal establishment, and Johnson was accused of trying to use his Commons majority to halt legitimate challenges. One senior QC said that the prime minister was secretly seeking “a more compliant judiciary”.

The action on judicial review is the latest assault the government is planning on the legal framework. Raab disclosed another yesterday when he told Times Radio that he wanted to overhaul the Human Rights Act to “correct” the balance between freedom of speech and privacy. He was speaking after The Mail on Sunday lost its appeal in the privacy case brought by the Duchess of Sussex over the publication of a letter she had sent her father.

Pledging to prioritise free speech over privacy, Raab said: “I think the drift towards continental-style privacy laws, innovated in the courtroom, not by elected lawmakers in the House of Commons, is something that we can and should correct.”

Johnson’s allies say that he is unhappy with the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, going through parliament. The legislation stepped back from radical reforms once threatened by No 10 and focused instead on subtle remedies, such as suspended judgments to give ministers time to tackle problems.

It “doesn’t go far enough” for Johnson, one ally said, adding that the prime minister’s proposals had led him to clash openly in cabinet with Robert Buckland, who was sacked as justice secretary in September. It was claimed that this row was behind the surprise dismissal of the popular Buckland.

Johnson’s wish to curtail judicial review arises from two cases brought by the anti-Brexit activist Gina Miller, his allies say. In the first, in 2016, judges ruled that Theresa May, then prime minister, had been wrong to trigger Article 50 to leave the EU without a vote in parliament first. In the second, in 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament for five weeks had been unlawful.

Raab’s changes will come too late to be included in the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which is already at report stage in the Commons. Sources close to Raab said that they would be included in legislation next year.

Braverman gave a significant hint about the measures in a speech last month to the Public Law Project Conference. “What we have seen is a huge increase in political litigation — that is to say, litigation seeking to use the court system, and judicial review, to achieve political ends,” she said. “If we keep asking judges to answer inherently political questions, we are ignoring the single most important decision-maker in our system: the British people.”

She also attacked the Supreme Court for its judgment on prorogation, saying that the case was “a stark warning of how far jurisprudence has moved”.

The plan for an Interpretation Bill was met with incredulity among lawyers. Edward Garnier QC, solicitor-general in David Cameron’s administration, said: “This government seems to forget that like all of us it, too, is subject to the law. And I should have thought that No 10 would have learnt the lesson of the prorogation battle, when the Supreme Court reminded the government that this is a country under the rule of law and not under a dictatorship.”

Garnier added: “If the prime minister does not like a lawful ruling of the court that has been a legitimate interpretation of statute passed by parliament, it is open to the government to attempt to change the law by an act of parliament. But it is not for some here-today- gone-tomorrow minister to change permanently existing statute law by ministerial fiat.”

David Gauke, a former lord chancellor and justice secretary, said: “If the government is contemplating getting parliament to retrospectively change the law as it has been interpreted by judges, then that would be an extremely worrying step and a departure from the rule of law and the traditions of this country.”

This attempt to bully the judiciary into becoming more compliant, is yet another step towards the Hungarian-style elected dictatorship, Johnson seems intent on creating.

Sunday, December 05, 2021

Government by diktat

Over at the Financial Times, Camilla Cavendish is writing about the authoritatian mess that is the UK Government's police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, which she describes as a monstrous jumble of laws that wouldn’t look out of place in Soviet Russia — and that was before the government slipped in more clauses by the back door.

Last week, the home secretary, Priti Patel, added 18 pages to the bill that hadn’t been there when MPs voted for it in July. One provision would stop demonstrators blocking major transport routes: a fair response to Insulate Britain’s campaign. But another would expand the police power to stop and search people “without suspicion”. And another would ban named individuals from protesting, if they had previously committed “protest-related offences”. This feels Orwellian. It comes on top of provisions in the original bill that skirt dangerously close to criminalising peaceful protest. The home secretary wants the police to be able to arrest, fine and imprison any demonstrator if their protest is noisy enough to cause “serious unease” to bystanders. Who defines “serious unease”? Lawyers say this is among the vaguest and most imprecise language they have ever seen.

After police in Bristol were accused of being heavy-handed against activists who were demonstrating, with supreme irony, against the bill, an inquiry said they had “failed to understand their legal duties in respect of protest”. They won’t need to worry if the bill goes through, because their legal duty, as I read it, will be pretty much to crack down on whoever the home secretary dislikes. Today’s home secretary seems to hate climate change protesters. Tomorrow’s may hate you, dear reader.

She says that two new reports warn that we are heading into “government by diktat”, because power is drifting away from parliament:

Bills are often drafted only in outline, with the important detail left to secondary legislation which can’t be amended and may become law with little or no consideration by parliament. “Henry VIII powers” let ministers repeal or amend acts with little scrutiny. And now, according to a committee of the House of Lords, Whitehall is using guidance and protocols as a form of “disguised legislation” — with legal effect but no oversight.

These trends precede Covid-19 and Brexit. Back in 2008, for example, the UK’s climate change target was raised from 80 per cent to 100 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases through secondary legislation and after only 90 minutes of debate — which doesn’t seem right for a decision with such serious financial consequences. More recently, the government’s move to force care workers to be vaccinated was the first time in English law that someone’s Covid-19 vaccination status had explicitly affected their eligibility to work. Yet it was rushed through under delegated powers, with only 90 minutes of scrutiny. In 2015, George Osborne’s attempt to cut tax credits using delegated powers was defeated by the Lords — but for only the fifth time in half a century.

Some will ask, why can’t an elected government do what it wants? The answer is that it can, but in the daylight. The bulk of statutory instruments apply to obscure-sounding matters that are shrouded in technical language. Politicians rarely look too deeply: they are just grateful to be told by officials they won’t have to come back to parliament. If pressed, departments use the age-old argument that they won’t use the powers much anyway. When a Home Office minister assured MPs that “the police [will] attach conditions to only a small proportion of protests”, it felt like a scene from the television series Yes Minister.

It is surprising that a Conservative government is churning out huge volumes of legislation that enlarge the power of the state. It is appalling that it is so cavalier about democratic freedoms. But it is truly astonishing that it doesn’t seem to wonder how others might use the powers it is busily creating.

Is Boris Johnson's Government turning the country into an elected dictatorship, Hungary-style? It certainly looks like it.

Saturday, December 04, 2021

Billionaire Tory's firm claims millions in public cash

There is yet another in a long line of covid cash stories in today's Independent, who reveal that a billionaire Tory donor’s firm continued to claim millions of pounds’ worth of taxpayer-funded furlough money after recording a £75.3m profit.

The paper says that Malcolm Healey’s company, Wren Kitchens, used public funds to help bankroll its staff costs during the Covid pandemic even though it banked tens of millions of pounds’ worth of pre-tax profits in its 2020 accounts. It came as Healey personally donated £500,000 to Boris Johnson’s party in December 2020, meaning he has given the Tories over £2.3m since 2017, according to Electoral Commission records:

An analysis earlier this year found Healey – who resides in a 12,000-acre estate and has been described as a reclusive figure – had been the largest individual donor to the Conservatives since Johnson entered Downing Street.

Kitchens tycoon Healey’s firm received £15.5m in 2020 via the government’s job retention scheme, set up to help struggling businesses pay staff during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to its latest accounts.

But rather than feeling the pinch during the pandemic, the kitchen manufacturer saw its pre-tax profit climb to £75.3m in the 12 months to the end of December 2020, up from £65.1m the previous year.

There is no suggestion Healey’s firm has broken any rules but a Labour MP said the use of the scheme went against “the whole spirit” of it, labelling it “immoral”.

Many companies which claimed furlough money during the pandemic either stopped doing so when they endured the crisis better than expected, or paid funds back. Instead of handing furlough money back to the taxpayer, Wren Kitchens continued to claim from the public purse in 2021, receiving more than £3m in furlough payments, according to an analysis of HMRC data by The Independent.

That levelling up agenda is going well then.

Friday, December 03, 2021

Government incompetence lost billions of pounds in public money again

As if it were not bad enough that the government wasted billions of pounds of public money on buying useless PPE and giving contracts to a dodgy VIP list, the Guardian reveals that this may just be the tip of a large iceberg in which administrative incompetence saw fraudsters cream off even more cash.

The paper quotes a National Audit Office report which has identified that the government failed to guard properly against fraud in its £47bn Covid emergency lending programme for small businesses, opening itself up to billions of pounds of losses. The NAO says that the bounce-back loan scheme launched in May 2020 did not include credit checks or fully verify the identity of small businesses applying for loans:

“Government prioritised getting bounce-back loans to small businesses quickly but failed to put adequate fraud prevention measures in place,” said Gareth Davies, the NAO’s comptroller and auditor general. “One impact of these decisions is apparent in the high levels of estimated fraud.”

The government launched the scheme at the start of the pandemic to stop the collapse of small businesses.

Firms could borrow up to £50,000 or or a maximum of 25% of annual turnover from accredited banks. About a quarter of UK businesses applied to the scheme, and 1.5m bounce-back loans – which were 100% guaranteed by the government – worth £47bn were made.

In March, Britain’s business ministry, which ran the programme via the British Business Bank, a state lender, estimated that 37% of the loans would not be repaid and that 11% came from fraudulent applications.

A subsequent investigation by the accountancy firm PwC in October revised the fraud rate down to 7.5%, although the NAO said it had not had time to check this estimate itself.

Other countries are also investigating the misuse of emergency loans issued during the pandemic.

The government is now focusing on recovering money from organised crime, yet many of the smaller-scale fraudsters will have slipped through its fingers.

Thursday, December 02, 2021

Government acused of misconduct over pandemic response

The UK Government may think that delayng its own inquiry into the handling of the covid panedemic until next spring will get it off the hook, but it seems that others are not prepared to wait, nor are they wiling to let Ministers forget how badly they have handled this crisis.

The Independent reports that the People’s Covid Inquiry, chaired by Michael Mansfield QC, accused the Government of “misconduct in public office” and gross negligence over the way it dealt with the virus.

They say that the inquiry, which heard evidence from February this year until the summer, concluded that there had been “serious governance failures” at Westminster that contributed to tens of thousands of avoidable deaths. It said the Government had failed to act to protect key populations at increased risk, and recommendations from previous pandemic planning exercises had been ignored.

The inquiry added that consideration should be given to bringing charges of misconduct in public office, given the available evidence of failures and the “serious consequences” for the public:

The Keep Our NHS Public campaign group organised the inquiry in the absence of a formal investigation.

The Government has said it has committed to holding a full public inquiry next spring as there are lessons to be learned.

Accusing the Government of “serious governance failures” in a report published on Wednesday, the People’s Covid Inquiry said: “These contributed to tens of thousands of avoidable deaths and suffering, and they amount to misconduct in public office.”

Its chairman, Michael Mansfield QC, said there had been “dismal failure in the face of manifestly obvious risks”.

He said the probe had identified a “theme of behaviour amounting to gross negligence by the Government, whether examined singularly or collectively”.

He continued: “There were lives lost and lives devastated, which was foreseeable and preventable.

“From lack of preparation and coherent policy, unconscionable delay, through to preferred and wasteful procurement, to ministers themselves breaking the rules, the misconduct is earth-shattering.”

The inquiry heard evidence from a range of witnesses and organisations, including academics, frontline workers and bereaved families.

Other findings include:

- The Government treated bereaved families with disrespect and ignored their questions

- It failed to address the seriousness of the pandemic before the March 2020 lockdown

- Deep social inequality contributed to a more vulnerable population

- Financial support for people needing to isolate was not sufficient to effectively reduce infection spread

- The Government’s delay in issuing advice to healthcare professionals, and advice to the public to rely on NHS 111, contributed to the coronavirus death toll

- There was, and is, a “misplaced over-reliance on vaccines alone”

- Government public health messages were often confused and contradictory

Mr Mansfield said there had been no accountability, and this could not be offset by the success of the vaccine rollout.

Jo Goodman, co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, which contributed to the inquiry, said: “It’s vital that bereaved families are at the heart of the forthcoming inquiry, and listened to at every turn, and this report evidences exactly why.

“The loss of our loved ones should be used to learn lessons and save lives - something the Government should be entirely focused on and dedicated to.”

It will be interested to compaure thesw conclusions with the outcome of the government's official inquiry.

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

One rule for them..

The sense of entitlement emanating from 10 Downing Street and the Tory hierarchy is just overwhelming. It appears that they think they can carry on doing their own thing regardless of the rules and the law and, if the polls are to be believed, are encouraged in that view by a weak opposition and ane electorate who continue to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The latest episode of 'one rule for us, another for the rest of you', is revealed in today's Mirror, who report that Boris Johnson and his Downing Street staff have been accused of breaking Covid rules by attending parties at Number 10 in the run-up to last Christmas.

The paper says that the Prime Minister gave a speech at a packed leaving do for a top aide last November when the country was in the grip of its second lockdown, then just days before Christmas, with London in tier 3 restrictions, members of his top team held their own festive bash in Downing Street:

Officials knocked back glasses of wine during a Christmas quiz and a Secret Santa while the rest of the country was forced to stay at home.

Around “40 or 50” people were said to have been crammed “cheek by jowl” into a medium-sized room in Number 10 for each of the two events.

“It was a Covid nightmare,” one source claimed.

The revelations come after top health chief Dr Jenny Harries warned that people should cut down on socialising this Christmas to curb future Covid surges.

But Mr Johnson rejected the idea today that festive parties should be scrapped, adding: “We don’t want people to cancel such events.”

In explosive revelations, one source told the Mirror there were “many social gatherings” in Downing Street last year while the public faced restrictions.

They even suggested there were “always parties” in the flat Mr Johnson shares with wife, adding: “Carrie’s addicted to them”.

There were also claims of a third, smaller gathering on November 13, the night Dominic Cummings walked out of No 10, "where they were all getting totally plastered".

The PM had his own close brush with death when he was hospitalised with Covid in April 2020 - but it didn’t appear to change his attitude.

Another source claimed: “While senior civil servants were urging caution and there was one message to the public, Prime Minister gave the impression that it could be very relaxed in No 10.

“He would either turn a blind eye or on some occasions attend himself while everyone else was in lockdown”.

The Mirror lists a series of events when leading Tories have breached Covid regulations, including Robert Jenrick, then Communities Secretary, travelling 40 miles to see his parents in the first lockdown: and No10 aide Dominic Cummings breaking lockdown rules in April 2020 to drive 260 miles to County Durham while suffering Covid symptoms. He then took a 60-mile round trip to Barnard Castle for a day out with his family. The Prime Minister stood by him.

Then there is Health Secretary Matt Hancock quitting after he was pictured in a clinch with Gina Coladangelo in June 2021: and Nimco Ali, a close friend of PM’s wife Carrie Johnson, staying overnight with her and Mr Johnson during the peak of the coronavirus lockdown last Christmas.

It is little wonder that Johnson and his cronies are seen as having little moral authority left to impose important health-related restrctions, nor that many people feel that they can flout the regulations, just as these people do.

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