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Sunday, January 16, 2022

Protests against authoritarian agenda

It is an irony that will undoubtedly not have been lost onany of the thousands of protestors attending rallies yesterday, that if the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill they were opposing becomes law, then they could well have been arrested for taking to the streets and expressing an opinion. The stakes really are as high as that, as Boris Johnson's government subverts the demcratic process in it's own interests, an action that has been central to the playbook of many dictators down the ages.

As the Guardian reports, sections of this bill have been condemned by human rights activists as an attack on the right to protest. The House of Lords will be considering it on Monday, hence the actions of “kill the bill” protesters rallying in London on yesterday, while demonstrations also took place in cities including Bristol, Cardiff, Coventry, Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and Plymouth:

In the capital, demonstrators marched from Holborn to Parliament Square carrying signs reading “defend the right to protest”, while one protester carried a coffin with the words “UK democracy – murdered by the Tories” printed on its side. Many also carried Extinction Rebellion flags.

Terry Matthews, 69, from south London, told PA Media: “I think we’re facing a really vitriolic attack on our rights to protest and our freedoms to show our dissatisfaction with the status of the government and the country. And it’s a really dangerous step to try to take.”

Addressing the crowd in Parliament Square, the Labour peer Shami Chakrabarti said the bill’s anti-protest provisions “represent the greatest attack on peaceful dissent in living memory”. “This rightwing, authoritarian government used to encourage pro-Brexit demos and statue defenders when it suited them,” she said.

Chakrabarti accused the government of hypocrisy, saying it “bangs on about free speech and whinges about cancel culture” and other countries “where fundamental rights are under attack” while clamping down on rights in the UK. “Free speech is a two-way street. And you know what? The ultimate cancel culture, it doesn’t come with a tweet – it comes with a police baton and a prison sentence for nonviolent dissent,” she said.

The bill’s anti-protest measures grant police the power to ban marches and demonstrations that they consider to be “seriously disruptive”, including those deemed too noisy. Gypsy, Roma and traveller communities would effectively be criminalised by measures against residing on land without authorisation, while police would also be granted expanded stop and search powers and sentences of up to 10 years could be handed down for damage to memorials or statues.

Up until now, it has been the Liberal Democrats who have been leading the charge against this bill in the Lords. They have now been joined by Labour peers. Let's hope the opposition can do something to avert this major attack on liberty and democracy.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

The real scandal of Baglan Energy Park

As the BBC report that Baglan Energy Park, where 1,600 people are employed, faces months without electricity, with "potentially catastrophic consequences, it is worth reflecting on the controversial way the project got approval in the first place. The full story is set out in Rhodri Morgan's autobiography:

What I was most sceptical of was the Baglan Energy Park. On my first day's tour around the project sections, the team responsible told me with confidence that the energy park would produce 6,000 new jobs. I asked them how they could be so sure - it sounded an awful high figure to me - but they said it was a middle estimate. I could rely on the 6,000 jobs figure.

Actually, it became clear that no jobs would arrive at the Baglan Energy Park, but I eventually found out why the estimate was so unrealistically high. Helen Liddell, by then the UK's High Commissioner in Australia, told me the background story. In 1997, the incoming Blair Government had issued a moratorium on new gas-fired power stations. The American multi-national industrial behemoth GE had wanted to build their first ever H series combined cycle gas turbine power station at Baglan, on a site vacated by BP. It had been part of BP's exit strategy from South Wales to secure GE's brand new and revolutionary design of power station on the former BP Baglan site. Then along came the moratorium.

US President Bill Clinton received a phone call from 'Neutron' Jack Welch, the legendary boss of GE, asking for his help in getting around the moratorium. Clinton rang his good friend Tony Blair, and asked (or maybe told) the PM to lift the moratorium for GE. That's how things are done in the US, I suppose. I could imagine Clinton smooth-talking Tony Blair over this - 'For God's sake, Tony, lift the moratorium for this power station, I've got Jack Welch on my back!' Anyway, GE got their permit to build the power station, but the exemption case from the moratorium had to be very special. Electricity from the power station could be supplied over the fence directly, and without paying a grid charge, into energy-intensive industries which could all go on the empty Baglan Bay site (now renamed the Baglan Energy Park). Hence the need for the 6,000 jobs estimate.

Before the power station actually opened, I asked to visit the project site (I was First Minister by this point). I was curious about why the US President had phoned the British PM about it - had to be on a par with a moon shot, didn't it? Bill Cooney, GE's site director, took me around - a lot guys in overalls with spanners sticking out of every pocket, trying to tweak the turbine blades to get them to run in perfect harmony. With the tour over, I walked back with Cooney to the car park past a row of Portakabins stacked four-high - he said that was where all the design engineers worked. I replied to say that I ought to go in there, as the tour wouldn't really be complete without meeting his engineering team.

Cooney said, 'Very sorry, sir, you can't go in there. You don't have an American passport!' 'Hang on a minute', I riposted, 'we are in Port Talbot, in Wales!' 'I'm afraid you cannot go in there without breaching the US Export Control Act', Cooney replied, 'this is sensitive technology, only US citizens allowed in there.' I wasn't giving up. 'So you're telling me that since those Portakabins were put there, no non-US citizen has been in there?' 'Absolutely right,' he said, 'nobody ... oh, hang on a minute, nobody except the delivery boys from Domino's Pizza!' Now, I knew where the First Minister of Wales stood - somewhere beneath Domino's Pizza delivery boys.'

A good example of how the wheels of government are oiled.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Yet more parties

Was there a day in 2020 when staff in 10 Downing Street were not having a party? The Guardian reports on allegations that Staff inside Downing Street held two staff leaving events featuring alcohol, and one with loud music, on the evening before Prince Philip’s funeral in April last year, when such social contact remained banned.

They say eyewitnesses have told the Daily Telegraph that a combined total of about 30 people took part in what appeared to be social events in different parts of Downing Street, before both gatherings combined in the garden:
According to one attender, a staff member was sent with a suitcase to the Co-op on the Strand, a short walk away, returning with the case filled with bottles of wine.

Philip’s funeral took place in the private chapel at Windsor Castle the next day, Saturday 17 April, with the Queen sitting alone to maintain social distancing.

Boris Johnson was not at Downing Street that evening, having gone to the prime ministerial country retreat, Chequers, on the Thursday evening and remaining into the weekend.

At the time, England was in stage two of the government’s gradual relaxation from lockdown. Up to six people or two families could meet outside, while indoors, people could only socialise with their household or support bubble.


One of the events last April marked the departure from government of James Slack, who was the prime minister’s official spokesperson under both Theresa May and Johnson, before becoming Johnson’s director of communications, according to the Telegraph. He is now deputy editor of the Sun.

The other leaving event was for one of Johnson’s personal photographers, the paper said. Witnesses told the Telegraph that the event to mark the photographer’s departure mainly took place in the basement area of No 10, with loud music playing.

Both groups reportedly moved outside around midnight, with drinking carrying on into the early hours of the morning. While in the garden one attender broke a swing belonging to Johnson’s infant son, Wilfred, a witness told the paper.

Remember that this is one of the most secure buildings in the UK, with a 24 hour, seven day a week police presence. Why did they not intervene? Did one of the officers hold the door open to allow the suitcase full of booze to be brought on the premises? Will the Metropolitan Police investigate that?

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Metropolitan Police kow-towing to the powerful

If we were annoyed about the rule makers in 10 Downing Street breaking the rules they insisted everybody had to comply with, then surely the failure of the Metropolitan Police to take action must be the final straw.

The Manchester Evening News reports that rather than carry out their own investigation, Scotland Yard have said they will wait until a Cabinet Office inquiry concludes before deciding whether to launch a criminal probe.

A statement released by the Met Police said: “The Metropolitan Police Service is aware of widespread reporting relating to alleged breaches of the Health Protection Regulations at Downing Street and Department for Education on various dates and has received correspondence in relation to this reporting.

“Throughout the pandemic the Met has followed the national four Es approach of enforcing the Coronavirus Regulations.

“Where live ongoing breaches of the restrictions were identified, officers engaged with those present, explained the current restrictions, encouraged people to adhere to them, and only as a last resort moved to enforcement.

“In line with the Met’s policy, officers do not normally investigate breaches of Coronavirus Regulations when they are reported long after they are said to have taken place. However, if significant evidence suggesting a breach of the regulations becomes available, officers may review and consider it.

“The Cabinet Office is conducting an inquiry into gatherings at Number 10 Downing Street and the Department for Education.

“The Met has ongoing contact with the Cabinet Office in relation to this inquiry. If the inquiry identifies evidence of behaviour that is potentially a criminal offence it will be passed to the Met for further consideration.”

This is the same force that vigorously enforced lockdown regulations against citizens across London, but who had officers based outside 10 Downing Street, apparently unaware that a breach was happening just metres from where they were stationed, a force that physically removed women holding a peaceful vigil for a woman murdered by one of their own officers and a force whose senior management has consistently failed to be accountable for its actions.

None of these people were given the option of investigating themselves and then advising the police whether they had broken the law or not. Maybe all the money taken in fines for breaches of lockdown regulations should now be reimbursed.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

And now the cover-up?

As if the blatant flouting of lockdown rules while people are dying, without access to their relatives, isn't bad enough, the Independent reports that Downing Street staff were advised to “clean up” their phones by removing information that could suggest lockdown parties were held at No 10.

The paper refers to two sources, who claim a senior member of staff told them it would be a “good idea” to remove any messages implying that they had attended or were even aware of anything that could “look like a party”:

The “clean-up” suggestion was made early last month after the first reports emerged of parties at Downing Street, the sources allege.

One said they were “told to clean up their phone just in case” they had to hand it in to the investigation.

A second said: “I was being leant on [during the discussion with a senior colleague] and told to get rid of anything that could look bad.”

Both sources told The Independent they felt under pressure to delete communications and images.

The claims that a senior member of staff directed junior colleagues to remove potential evidence contradicts an email, also sent in December, that instructed staff not to destroy any material that could prove pertinent to an investigation, criminal or otherwise.

This was meant to refer to emails, WhatsApp messages, and calendar invitations, but it was allegedly not observed by some staff, many of whom conducted discussions via WhatsApp on their personal phones as well as work devices.

Personal phones cannot be accessed by Ms Gray’s investigation unless staff volunteer them. However, staff can be forced to hand over workplace handsets.

With many staff who attended lockdown-busting events no longer working at No 10, and others having wiped messages from their phones, it will be hard for Ms Gray to gather all available evidence of wrongdoing, sources claim.

Emails at No 10 are automatically deleted after 90 days for security reasons. This is also the case in some other sensitive government departments but not all.

Ultimately, deleted emails can be recovered from servers, but this is far more challenging than accessing historic messages in some other departments, according to people familiar with the process.

In fact it is not that hard to recover deleted emails, but that is hardly the point. If this is true then heads need to roll.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The killer email - is Johnson on borrowed time?

Even when caught red-handed, ignoring the rules he, himself, set for other people, Boris Johnson still seems annoyingly invulnerable as Prime Minister. That is because, despite all the justified public outrage, the people who will actually decide the Prime Minister's fate in the short term - backbench Tory MPs - appear to be curiously mute.

They should know that, in terms of public perception and trust, the crime attributed to Johnson is a big one, and let's suffer no delusions here, if the accusations are true, then the PM broke the law, and there is a reasonable expectation that the Metropolitan Police should be kicking down the door of 10 Downing Street to charge all the perpetrators. Instead, and true to form, Cressida Dick's force have sent an email.

The Guardian reports that Boris Johnson has been accused of an “utterly outrageous” breach of lockdown rules as a leaked email showed that of his top officials invited more than 100 Downing Street staff to a “bring your own booze” party during the first lockdown:

The prime minister is believed to have attended the No 10 garden party on 20 May 2020 along with Carrie Johnson, then his fiancee, after it was advertised by his principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds.

“Hi all, after what has been an incredibly busy period we thought it would be nice to make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden this evening. Please join us from 6pm and bring your own booze!” the email seen by ITV News said.

It invited just over 100 employees to the gathering at a time when social mixing was banned except with one other person from another household outdoors in a public place.

About 30 to 40 are said to have attended, with food and wine set out on tables, but some staff reportedly expressed reservations at the time.

“Um. Why is Martin encouraging a mass gathering in the garden?” one staffer said, according to the BBC. Another asked: “Is this for real?”

On the same day, Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, had reminded the public at a press conference: “You can meet one person outside of your household in an outdoor, public place provided that you stay two metres apart.”

The Metropolitan police had tweeted telling people they could have a picnic, exercise or do sport outside providing you are “on your own, with people you live with, or just you and one other person”.

On Monday night following news of the leaked email, the Met said it was “aware of widespread reporting relating to alleged breaches of the Health Protection Regulations at Downing Street on 20 May 2020” and said it had made contact with the Cabinet Office. Senior officers are expected to discuss the situation on Tuesday morning. The force has previously said it was policy “not to investigate retrospective breaches of such regulations”.

Johnson will now come under huge pressure to explain his own role in the gathering, whether he played any part in the invitation given the phrase “we thought it would be nice” and why his office did not listen to alleged warnings from his former aide, Dominic Cummings, that it appeared to be against the rules. Cummings revealed the existence of the 20 May party in a blog on Friday.

The paper says that there have been reports of at least five other alleged gatherings in Downing Street and Whitehall in winter 2020, including a Christmas party, leaving do, quiz, No 11 flat party and drinks at the Department for Education. 

All these events took place when everybody was locked down, unable to socialise with family and friends, unable to visit loved ones in care homes, and losing relatives and then unable to have a proper funeral for them. If this is not a resigning matter, then what is?

Monday, January 10, 2022

No value for money in government spending

There is some damning criticism of government ministers and their spending plans in today's Times. The paper quotes the head of the National Audit Office, Gareth Davies, who has concluded that Ministers and officials are spending billions of pounds on projects that are never properly evaluated.

Mr. Davies says that too often the government has not learnt from its failures and has “little information” on “what difference is made by the billions of pounds being spent”:

In an article for The Times Davies, who took over at the spending watchdog in May 2019, says that he was concerned to see that lessons that might have helped the government to deal with Covid had not been learnt.

He says there is little evidence that things have improved even though it has “never been more important that the government makes the right choices” after the pandemic.

Recent research by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that only 8 per cent of big government projects had robust evaluation plans in place.

“Prior to the pandemic the government did take forward many lessons from the simulation exercises it undertook to prepare for potential pandemics,” Davies writes. “However, it did not act on some warnings that would have helped it prepare for a pandemic like Covid-19.”

He adds: “What we have found by auditing government’s work is that many of the interventions carried out by government are either not evaluated robustly or not evaluated at all. This means government is not learning from its successes or failures, and has little information in most policy areas on what difference is made by the billions of pounds being spent.”

Davies cites the Kickstart Scheme, launched amid much fanfare last year to fund employers to create high-quality six-month work placements for people aged 16-24. He says that the Department for Work and Pensions had “limited assurance over the quality of the work placements created by the scheme”, or whether the jobs created “would have existed anyway”.

“Without having done more during the scheme’s operation to monitor what kinds of jobs and training employers are providing in practice, the department will find it much harder to deliver a robust estimate of the scheme’s long-term impact,” he writes.

Davies also says that there are no consequences for failure or not robustly assessing projects and pulling the plug on those that are not performing. “The incentives to evaluate and learn what works and why must be stronger than the instinct to avoid evaluating in case it uncovers bad results,” he writes. “At present public bodies face limited consequences if they do not evaluate their work. This needs to be addressed.”

When Michael Gove was Cabinet Office minister, he pledged to set up an internal Whitehall unit to assess all government projects against their aspirations and pull the plug on those that were not performing well.

“There can be a tendency in government where you get ‘vanity of authorship’, ” Gove said. “It is, ‘I launched this programme and I’ll defend it come what may’. We want people to know that the government is not simply trumpeting the fact that x amount of money has been spent on a new scheme but we go back to citizens and say: ‘This is what we tried. This worked. This didn’t work. This was the basis on which we acted.’ ”

However, Gove has since moved on to levelling up and housing and there have been no more announcements about the proposed evaluation unit.

Perhaps if the Chancellor got to grips with this problem, he would not need to cut public spending as much as he plans.

Sunday, January 09, 2022

Yet another party

It has reached the stage when we are not just asking if Boris Johnson partied while we were locked down in our own homes, but how many parties did he hold? The Independent reports that the Prime Minister now stands accused of personally attending a drinks party in the garden of No 10 during the first lockdown.

They say that Downing Street did not immediately deny a report in the Sunday Times alleging that the Prime Minister attended the potentially rule-breaking event with wife Carrie in May 2020. This is presumably because the newspaper has cited three sources stating Mr Johnson’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, emailed officials with an invite adding “BYOB”, meaning bring your own bottle, or booze:

Senior civil servant Sue Gray is investigating the May 20 event as part of her inquiry into numerous allegations of rule-breaking events being held in No 10 during the coronavirus pandemic.

Allegations of that gathering, said to have been attended by 40 people, emerged this week when Dominic Cummings said he had warned at the time the “socially distanced drinks” would likely be against the rules and “should not happen”.

But the front page report suggesting Mr Johnson himself was present will add to the seriousness of the claims.

The prime minister imposed England’s first lockdown to combat Covid-19 in March 2020 and it was not until June 1 that groups of up to six people were allowed to meet outdoors.

Dominic Cummings has confirmed that the event went ahead, writing:

“On Wednesday 20 May, the week after this photo, a senior No 10 official invited people to ‘socially distanced drinks’ in the garden.”

Mr Cummings said he and at least one other special adviser “said that this seemed to be against the rules and should not happen”, adding that he issued the warning “in writing so Sue Gray can dig up the original email”.

“We were ignored. I was ill and went home to bed early that afternoon but am told this event definitely happened,” he continued.

Yet another black mark to add to Boris Johnson's memoirs, which will be presumably entitled: 'One rule for them, another for us'.

Saturday, January 08, 2022

Jumping the gun

As if it wasn't bad enough that companies and individuals were getting on the preferred supplier list for lucrative covid contracts through personal contacts with Tory MPs and Ministers, we now have the ludicrous situation where, according to the Guardian, it has emerged that the Conservative peer Michelle Mone referred a business to the Cabinet Office for potential multimillion pound PPE contracts before it had even been incorporated as a company:

The business, PPE Medpro, was fast-tracked by the government through its “VIP lane” for politically connected firms following the referral by Mone.

Within weeks of the company’s incorporation on 12 May 2020, PPE Medpro was awarded contracts worth £203m to supply millions of masks and gowns.

The Guardian revealed on Thursday that leaked files appear to suggest that Mone and her husband, the Isle of Man-based financier Douglas Barrowman, were secretly involved in PPE Medpro, despite both consistently denying any “role or function” in the company.

It has now emerged that Mone’s referral of PPE Medpro occurred five days before the company was formally registered.

Responding to a recent parliamentary question from the late Labour MP Jack Dromey, health minister Edward Argar said: “Departmental records indicate that Baroness Mone identified Medpro as a potential supplier on 7 May 2020 and highlighted this opportunity by email on 8 May 2020.”

Mone referred PPE Medpro to the office of her fellow Tory peer Theodore Agnew, a Cabinet Office minister responsible for procurement during the Covid pandemic. PPE Medpro was then added by Agnew’s office to the VIP lane, which analysis later showed gave companies a 10 times greater chance of being awarded a contract.

PPE Medpro was not incorporated in the UK until 12 May 2020, five days after the initial referral. The UK company was effectively a subsidiary of another PPE Medpro, registered in the Isle of Man on 11 May. The director of both companies was Anthony Page, who works for Barrowman’s Isle of Man-based financial services firm and runs his family office.

Lawyers for Mone, who ran a lingerie company before David Cameron made her a member of the House of Lords, have always said she “was not connected to PPE Medpro in any capacity”.

They also said she had no “association” with PPE Medpro, and “never had any role or function in PPE Medpro, nor in the process by which contracts were awarded” to the company.

You couldn't make this stuff up.

Friday, January 07, 2022

Favours for donations?

The more information that comes out about the funding of Boris Johnson's flat refurbishment the dodgier it looks. The latest is reported in the Guardian, who say that the latest WhatsApp messages reveal the Prime Minister sought funds for his flat refurbishment from a Conservative donor while promising to consider plans for a mystery “great exhibition”.

They say Johnson is facing fresh questions after newly published WhatsApp messages with the Tory peer David Brownlow show Johnson called parts of his Downing Street residence a “tip” and asked for “approvals” so his decor designer, Lulu Lytle, could “get on with it” in November 2020. He signed off the message by saying: “Ps am on the great exhibition plan Will revert.” Lord Brownlow replied: “Of course, get Lulu to call me and we’ll get it sorted ASAP! Thanks for thinking about GE2.”:

On Thursday, Johnson was forced to make a “humble and sincere” apology for the texts not being given to his independent ethics adviser during an initial inquiry last spring.

The first Great Exhibition was held in Hyde Park in 1851. Plans for a “Great Exhibition 2.0” were discussed by Brownlow and the then culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, weeks after the WhatsApp exchanges, official records show.

Asked what the great exhibition plan Johnson had referred to was, his spokesperson said it was an “idea that wasn’t taken forward”. He added that instead “Festival UK” – formerly known as the Festival of Brexit – would be going ahead in 2022 but could not explain the difference between that event and the great exhibition plan.

On 18 January 2021 Brownlow held a meeting with Dowden at the Royal Albert Hall “to discuss plans for Great Exhibition 2.0”. A government source indicated it was a “private initiative” from the Royal Albert Hall, of which Brownlow is a trustee according to his register of interests.

Several events similar to a “Great Exhibition 2.0” have been considered by the government. Originally conceived by Theresa May’s administration as a “Festival of Brexit”, then “Festival 2022”, the government-backed £120m event was given the green light by Johnson and will go ahead this year under the name “Unboxed”.

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said it appeared Brownlow had access to Johnson and Dowden “because he was paying” for the refurbishments. She said if true, it would constitute “corruption, plain and simple”, and added: “No one should be able to buy access or exchange wallpaper for festivals.”

The Liberal Democrats’ chief whip, Wendy Chamberlain, said: “It stinks of the worst kind of Conservative cronyism, with Boris Johnson seemingly happy to scratch his lord donor’s back to get his flat spruced up in return.”

It is almost as if Johnson doesnt care what people think of him. He certainly does not seem to believe the normal rules apply in his case.

Thursday, January 06, 2022

At last, a Brexit promise that has been fulfilled

It is such a rare occurrrence, somebody actually delivering on a Brexit promise, that it is worth noting, and maybe even shouting from the top of a mountain. Unfortunately, this is not a promise that Boris Johnson or other Brexiteers would put much story on, or even celebrate, in fact it was made by the EU.

The Independent reports that tens of thousands of Brexit-related websites have been taken offline by the EU agency in charge of domain names – including the Leave.eu site set up by the pro-Brexit campaign group. This follows the warning by the EU to owners of .eu websites based in the UK that they needed to prove eligibility for an EU domain name after the Brexit process or they would be officially “revoked” this week:

The EURid agency said around 48,000 domain names had been revoked and would now be made available for registration on a “first come, first serve” basis.

“As previously communicated, all Brexit-related domain names, which were moved to the “withdrawn” status on 1 July 2021, will be revoked and released on 3 January 2022,” said a spokesperson.

EURid added: “About 48,000 domain names will become available for general registration on first come, first serve basis.”

The Leave.EU group – founded by businessman Arron Banks – had moved its website registration from the UK to the Republic of Ireland at the end of 2020 in a bid to get round a rule stating that .eu addresses can only be used by individuals and organisations based in the EU.

But an investigation by EURid led to the domain name being given “withdrawn” status, with the EU agency citing the failure to respond to data verification requests.

The website has now been revoked – with visitors to the web page greeted with the error message: “This site can’t be reached.”

However, the Leave.EU group now has a website using a UK domain name, leaveeuofficial.com.

Neale Richmond, an Irish member of parliament, wrote to the Republic of Ireland’s communications regulator last year to complain about the attempt to register in Waterford.

“It is utterly ridiculous to think that Leave.EU could brass-plate an address in Waterford to maintain their domain name – they wanted to leave the EU, they have, that means they leave their domain too,” he said.

Anyone who has EU residency or citizenship, or any organisation established in the bloc, will be able to reregister the .eu domain names which have been revoked.

You reap what you sow I suppose.

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Yet another abandoned Brexit promise

It is another day, and another Brexit promise has seemingly fallen under the bus. The Mirror reports that a flustered Boris Johnson has been confronted over his own dodgy Brexit pledge on scrapping the 5% VAT rate on energy bills:

The Prime Minister vowed before the 2016 EU referendum that “when we Vote Leave, we will be able to scrap this unfair and damaging tax”.

He added at the time: “It isn’t right that unelected bureaucrats in Brussels impose taxes on the poorest and elected British politicians can do nothing."

But Mr Johnson has now been in power for two and a half years and has made no pledge to scrap the VAT rate since taking office.

Today he blustered and waffled after he he was asked if he had misled voters at the No10 press conference, insisting: “Not at all”.

Mr Johnson appeared to hint help is on the way for Brits who are bracing for a possible £600-a-year rise in the energy price cap in April.

He insisted “I’m not ruling out further measures”, adding: “ Rishi Sunak is very, very mindful of the increase in energy prices and the effect of increasing energy prices on people up and down this country.

“And we are going to do what we can to help.”

But of the VAT cut idea he supported six years ago, he said: “It’s a bit of a blunt instrument.

As Money Saving Expert founder Martin Lewis has warned, households face a "seismic" hit to their energy bills. Surely, now is the time for ministers to step in and stop fuel poverty getting out of control by carrying out the Prime Minister's promise of scrapping VAT on fuel bills.

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Johnson's laissez-faire attitude to Covid has extended the pandemic

With omicron cases continuing to rise across the UK, it remains incredible that Boris Johnson is still not taking the most rudimentary steps to try and reduce its spread, measures that are already in place in Wales and Scotland. 

From the start, he has been disengaged from the process of controlling this pandemic: failing to attend Cobra meetings; undermining public confidence in actions his government is taking by operating a one rule for us, another for them regime; delaying decisions on public health measuress; and failing to get a grip on the supply of key PPE or on the issues around care homes.

Today's Independent has a further story that illustrates the Prime Minister's casual and irresponsible approach to this virus. They say that Johnson is facing fresh questions about alleged Covid rule-breaking amid claims he failed to self-isolate last January after coming into close contact with a Downing Street aide who later tested positive for the infection:

The prime minister stood near No 10's videographer on 31 December 2020 while recording his official new year message as the UK was about to be hit with its second wave of the virus, sources told the Daily Mirror.

The videographer tested positive for Covid after the message was recorded.

They informed No 10 officials and other staff members in the room were asked to self-isolate for 10 days, but the PM was not.

A Downing Street spokesperson insisted that Mr Johnson did not break any regulations because social distancing measures were followed throughout the recording.

But photos of the recording posted on the image-sharing website Flickr may raise questions about whether or not Mr Johnson did in fact maintain a two-metre distance between himself and the videographer, as set out in official guidance.

A source told the Mirror that the videographer, who was not wearing a face mask, stood “face-to-face” with the PM for around 15 minutes The source also suggested Mr Johnson and the aide stood less than 2m apart during the recording.

Official guidance at the time outlined that anybody who came within two metres, for more than 15 minutes, of somebody who later tested positive for Covid were required to self-isolate.

Less than a week after the recording took place England was plunged into its third national lockdown as Covid cases soared and hospitals across the country began to fill up with the sickest patients.

All this matters, of course, because Johnson is the one making the rules. If he is seen as not keeping them, then how can he expects others to do so. When the inquiry into the pandemic gets underway, let's hope that the Prime Minister's role in extending it is looked into.

Monday, January 03, 2022

Diplomacy at a price

I went out for dinner with my wife last night to a lovely restaurant in Mumbles. We had a three course dinner and drinks and, with tip, the bill came to less than £90. This is the first time we have been out to a restaurant since our holiday in September. It is the sort of luxury we like to indulge in every now and again. If only the same could be said about the Foreign Secretary.

The Independent reports that Liz Truss insisted on hosting a lunch at an “incredibly expensive” private club owned by a Tory donor, overruling her officials’ advice to go somewhere more suitable. They say that leaked correspondence has revealed the foreign secretary “refused to consider anywhere else” and requested taxpayers’ cash for a £3,000 event with Joe Biden’s trade representative.

Fortunately, the venue agreed to reduce the bill to £1,400, but on condition of immediate payment – which meant civil servants had to use an emergency process to pay up straight away:

A receipt showed Ms Truss and her companions enjoyed two bottles of dry gin, three £153 bottles of Pazo Barrantes Albarino, a Spanish white wine, and two bottles of the French red Coudoulet de Beaucastel, at £130 a bottle.

The correspondence, revealed by The Sunday Times, comes as Ms Truss launches a little-disguised campaign to succeed the prime minister, should he be toppled by disillusioned Tory MPs.

The lunch, last June, was condemned by Labour MPs. One, Nia Griffith, tweeted: “Yet again Tory Minister seems to have had scant regard for concerns raised by professional civil servants.”

And Luke Pollard alleged: “One rule for the current PM and those wanting to be the next Tory PM and another for the rest of us.”

Ms Truss was accompanied by nine other people, including the trade representative Katherine Tai, as the UK sought to speed up talks for a post-Brexit trade deal with Washington.

However, President Biden has slammed the brakes on negotiations – and has also refused to lift tariffs on UK steel, even as an agreement was reached with the EU.

Often considered to be London’s most exclusive club, 5 Hertford Street hosted Prince Harry’s first date with Meghan Markle, but posted six-figure losses last year.

Ms Truss is reported to have previously used it to host “fizz with Liz” dinners with MPs and “biz for Liz” receptions with potential donors, in preparation for a likely leadership bid.

An email shows an official described the club as “obviously incredibly expensive and more than I understand we’d usually expect to pay for such a venue”.

Colleagues proposed “another option – a Soho restaurant called Quo Vadis – which costs only £1,000”, it stated.

The email continued: “However, [the special adviser] refused on behalf of SoS [secretary of state] to consider anywhere else and is insisting that we book 5 Hertford Street and claims SoS would find Quo Vadis inappropriate.”

Of course I paid personally for my dinner, the problem though is that, as a taxpayer, I also paid in part for Liz Truss's extravagance.

Sunday, January 02, 2022

Nearly £15 billion blown on wasteful projects and duff deals

As it is the New Year, the Mirror has indulged itself a little by reminding us how wasteful and crony-driven Boris Johnson's government is. It is a litany of incompetence that should be shared more widely, especially in advance of an election.

The paper says that research based on official figures claims that Government has blown £14.7 billion of public money on “wasteful” projects, crony contracts and duff deals. They report that analysis reveals around £3.6bn in public contracts have been handed to firms linked to individuals in government or the Conservative Party since Mr Johnson became Prime Minister, while in the same period, the Best For Britain campaign group said a further £11.1bn had been “spent wastefully or funded government excess”:

Examples it gives include £73,000 spent stocking the Westminster wine cellar and a £30million Covid test vials contract awarded to a firm run by the landlord of Matt Hancock’s local pub without a proper tendering process.

It also includes a £122m deal for medical gowns that failed safety standards. The £14.7bn could have paid the combined salaries of 60,000 nurses, 65,000 teachers and 77,000 police over the two and a half years since Johnson took charge.

Naomi Smith, chief of independent Best For Britain, said: “It is easy to become numb to the extreme scale and frequency of this government’s cosy deals with friends, and wasteful spending on useless products.

“While raising taxes on working people and cutting support for those most in need, it’s outrageous they are spending eye-watering sums enriching their mates, living the high life and buying junk.”

A staggering £900,000 of taxpayers’ money was spent painting the PM’s plane on top of £100,000 decorating No.10 with works of art bought through the Government Art Collection fund.

Last March it was revealed the Government spends more than £500,000 a year ferrying ministerial papers around Whitehall in chauffeur-driven cars.

In February, the Tories approved spending up to £600,000 in legal fees defending its decision to award a Covid-19 opinion polling contract to Public First run by associates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings.

The contract itself was worth £840,000 and was not put out to competitive tender. The same goes for a further £580,000 of political polling by Hanbury Strategy - also run by associates of Mr Cummings.

Best of Britain says ‘duff deals’ also include £10billion for the NHS Test and Trace programme, an amount described as “astonishing” by Chris Ham, former chief of the King’s Fund health think tank.

Then there were a raft of contracts handed to firms with links to the Tory Party, MPs or ministers.

A £2.1m school technology deal in October 2020 went to Specialist Computer Centres which is owned by the Rigby Group that has donated a total of £105,000 to Conservative coffers since 2017.

Meller Designs, co-owned by a party donor at the time, got £160m deals to provide PPE without competitive tender.

It later emerged the firm was referred to the ‘VIP lane’ for contracts by Gove, to whom firm boss David Meller had donated cash.

No wonder the public finances are in such a mess.

Saturday, January 01, 2022

The cost of living crisis facing us in 2022

With rising energy costs, hikes in the price of petrol, more expensive food stuffs due to Brexit, benefit cuts, tax rises and restrictions on the ability of many people to earn a living due to Covid, the new year does not look that promising. What makes it worse, according to the Mirror, is the fact that a lot of people do not have enough money stashed away for a rainy day.

The paper says that a study of government statistics shows that over six million workers have no savings at all as they face this looming cost of living crisis. Over half of working families had less than £3,000 in household savings going into the pandemic, nearly 27 million people who live in working households had either no savings, savings under £1,500 or savings under £3,000 in 2020.

How the Chancellor of the Exchequer reacts to this situation could well be make or break for tens of thousands of families. This year is not one for an austerity budget, it is a year in which the government need to provide the necessary assistance to help people get back on their feet after two years of hardship.

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