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Monday, February 28, 2022

Economic sanctions on Russia will hit our pockets as well

The rouble may be in a tail spin this morning, and Russian banks may have more than doubled interest rates, but it is not just the ordinary citizens of Putin's Russia who are going to suffer from the economic sanctions imposed on it.

Russia and Ukraine are major suppliers of the raw materials and energy on which our economy and that of the rest of the world is built. It is inevitable that there will be shortages and price hikes greater than those already envisaged as part of the cost of living crisis.

The Independent reports that the foreign secretary has admitted that sanctions imposed on Russia in retaliation for the invasion of Ukraine will make the domestic cost of living crisis worse:

Liz Truss said Britain must be prepared to take an “economic hit”, but insisted it would be “far worse” to allow Vladimir Putin to succeed in his military offensive in Ukraine.

As pressure builds for further sanctions against the Kremlin, the foreign secretary said the UK government was drawing up a “hit list” of oligarchs whose property and assets would be targeted.

Earlier this week, No 10 imposed asset freezes on several Russian banks, airlines, and billionaires associated with the Kremlin, and said that sanctions would be targeted personally at the Russian president.

Over the weekend, the US, the UK and the EU also agreed to ban “selected” Russian banks from the global payments system Swift, which connects thousands of financial institutions around the world.

“We are taking apart every bit of the Russian system,” Ms Truss told the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme.

But asked about the domestic toll, and whether the cost of living would rise even more, the cabinet minister replied: “That is correct. That is correct. But the pain that we will face in the United Kingdom is nothing like the pain people in Ukraine are currently facing.”

She added: “They are having to take up arms in the face of an appalling dictator using untold weapons on their country, and that is what we have to remember.

“We aren’t just fighting for the people of Ukraine and the sovereignty of Ukraine, we’re fighting for freedom and democracy, and that has a very high cost for us.

“It is right that we are prepared to take an economic hit, because the alternative of allowing Putin to succeed will be far worse for peace and democracy across Europe.”

If anything, this admission makes it even more important that the UK Government takes mitigating measures to relieve pressure on hard-pressed families in the UK. 

The case to abandon the hike in national insurance, abolish VAT on domestic fuel bills, and levy a windfall tax on the mega-profits of the oil and gas companies has never been stronger.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Government in a quandary as Ukraine crisis threatens their immigration policies

What will the Home Secretary do now, now that her supposedly popular immigration policy, which makes it virtually impossible for refugees and asylum seekers to look for sanctuary in the UK, has suddenly been exposed to public opinion as the nasty, racist, selfish and cruel isolationism it really is?

Already we are getting reports that Ukrainian nationals, who are seeking to join family in the UK, are being denied visas because they have passed through another country, if, that is, there are even visas available. UK citizens are remaining in the Ukraine because it cannot be guaranteed that their Ukrainian family could join them if they returned home, and Tory MPs, when faced with this reality, are responding with the twenty-first century eqivalent of 'let them eat cake'.

The Independent reports that a Conservative MP has suggested that Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion could apply for the seasonal worker scheme in order to get into the UK:

He wrote: “I’m looking for a route for people fleeing Ukraine who might not have a family link in the UK. We have a moral obligation to help them. Will you now change policy to do exactly that?”

Conservative MP Kevin Foster then replied, in a now-deleted tweet, saying: “As you will be well aware there are a number of routes, not least our seasonal worker scheme you will recall from your Shadow Defra days, which Ukrainians can qualify for, alongside the family route for those with relatives here.”

Kevin Foster MP has now replaced his previous message with the simpler: “Hi Luke. It’s just one of several routes and we will do more as the PM has made clear.”

The tweet, which Mr Foster has now taken down, was widely criticised on social media, with Labour and Co-op MP for Leeds, Alex Sobel, replying: “Kevin this is beneath you. I hope you can apologise to the people of Ukraine fleeing for their lives and join the voices calling for the UK to match what our European friends are offering the oppressed masses of Ukraine.”

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon responded to Mr Foster’s words, saying: “I hope we get clarity asap Priti Patel that this is not a Home Office position.

“Migrant seasonal workers make a valued contribution to our economy - but this is not the route to the UK that we should expect those seeking refuge from war to rely on.”

Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, said: “My God. People are fleeing war in Europe, the like we haven’t seen in generations, in search of swift sanctuary.

“Yet the immigration minister says the answer is they should put in an application to pick Britain’s fruit and veg.”

Home secretary Priti Patel has announced visa concessions for Ukrainians who are already in Britain for work, study and tourism, extending the time period before they must leave the country.

But there has been no announcement of a resettlement scheme or other measures in response to an expected exodus of refugees.

It is very possible that under the present regime, people fleeing the Nazi regime before and during World War Two would have been turned away. Surely, it is time for change.

Saturday, February 26, 2022


The Independent reports that an armed forces minister has paid tribute to protesters in Russian cities demonstrating in open defiance of Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin’s bloody invasion of Ukraine.

The paper says that the comment comes after images and videos emerged of protests erupting in cities including the capital of Moscow, St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg — chanting slogans such as “No to war!”:

Police were swift to clamp down on the protest and have so far arrested 1,667 people at protests in 53 cities, the OVD-Info rights monitor, which tracks arrests at opposition rallies said.

Addressing the protests, after footages showed authorities grabbing and pulling activists away, the armed forces minister James Heappey the Kremlin had “miscalculated badly”.

“I’ll also pay tribute to protesters in Moscow, St Petersburg, and other Russian cities, who protested against last night against this pointless loss of Russian life,” he said.

Heappey is absolutely right of course, and yet he is a member of a government intent on restricting UK citizens right to protest in the same way. Perhaps somebodyshould explain the meaning of the word 'irony' to him.

Friday, February 25, 2022

He's done it again

Boris Johnson may have a lot on his mind at the moment, not least a possible caution from the police, a potential party coup to remove him as leader, the poor economic consequences of Brexit and the war in Ukraine, but that should not excuse his continued lapses of memory during Prime Minister's questions in the House of Commons.

The Guardian reports that the Prime Minister has been formally reprimanded by the official statistics watchdog for the second time in a month after he misleadingly claimed that there are now more people in work in the UK than before the start of coronavirus.

They say that the reproach from Sir David Norgrove, the head of the UK Statistics Authority, follows concerns he raised with Johnson at the start of February about an incorrect claim that crime levels were falling:

In his new letter to Johnson, Norgrove noted that at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday the PM had said there were now more people in employment than before the pandemic began.

However, Norgrove said, this was only the case if you considered only workers on payrolls, which was misleading, as it was more than offset by a drop in numbers of self-employed people – if you include them, the total is now 600,000 lower.

“If, as seems to be the case, your statement referred only to the increase in the number of people on payrolls, it would be a selective use of data that is likely to give a misleading impression of trends in the labour market, unless that distinction is carefully explained,” Norgrove told Johnson.

He added: “I hope you will agree that public trust requires a complete statement of this important measure of the economy.”

A lack of public trust looks like it is going to be a major problem for Johnson.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Tough talk on Ukraine but little effective action

With Russia having launched its assault on Ukraine last night, one would expect that the UK Government will ratchet up the sanctions against Putin and his pals in government. However, it seems that there is one area Boris Johnson will not venture into, even though it has the potential to be especially painful.

As the Mirror reports, Boris Johnson is relaxed about Russia-linked cash flowing into Tory coffers and won't review the Conservative Party's policies. The Prime Minister is under pressure to order party chiefs to hand back around £2m of donations from Russia-linked sources given to the party since he became leader:

Labour Leader Keir Starmer accused Mr Johnson of presiding over an "era of oligarch impunity" in the Commons, and underlined that individuals or companies with links to Russia have donated £2m to either the Conservative Party, individual Tory MPs - some of which are Cabinet ministers - or Conservative associations.

But the PM's Press Secretary confirmed on Wednesday he is “completely comfortable” with the donations, adding there will be no review of party policies because “we believe all due diligence is in place".

She added: “The Conservative Party does not accept foreign donations - that is illegal.

“And as you know, donations are all properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission".

“But I would make the point that there are people in this country of Russian origin who are British citizens, and many are critics of Putin. So it’s wrong and discriminatory to tar them all with the same brush.”

The paper outlines where some of the money has gone:

Records show Alexander Temerko and his firm Aquind Energy have made a string of donations.

Some £10,000 went to Treasury Secretary Simon Clarke’s Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland constituency. Aquind is seeking permission to build a huge energy interconnector under the English Channel and in 2012 it got a £4.5m government grant.

In 2015 Mr Sunak also saw a £6,000 donation to his Richmond, Yorks, constituency from Mr Temerko, a former aide to ex-Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan removed herself from decisions on the Aquind plan because of £17,000 in donations from Mr Temerko during her days as a business minister.

COP26 president Alok Sharma accepted £10,000 in donations from Aquind in 2019, plus £15,000 from Mr Temerko’s old venture Offshore Group Newcastle (OGN), in 2014. Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis received a donation of £10,000 from banker Ms Lubov Chernukhin, the Tories’ biggest individual donor.

Dominic Raab declared a £25,000 donation to his Esher and Walton constituency from Dmitry Leus – whose £500,000 gift to royal charities triggered a row over claims foreigners could “buy” residency.

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by Mr Temerko, Ms Chernukhin or Mr Leus – all British citizens.

There is a huge anount of property belonging to Russian oligarchs in London, which is also the centre of much of Russian financial activity. Surely, it is time to hit Putin where it will really hurt.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

The cost of government incompetence?

As if it were not bad enough that billions of pounds of our money was lost buying unusable PPE during the pandemic, the Guardian draws attention to yet another scandal related to the Government's handling of Covid.

The paper says that the public accounts committee has found that fraud and error are likely to have cost the UK government as much as £16bn across the Covid-19 emergency loan schemes. They want the Treasury to come up with estimates of fraud and error losses across the individual schemes and how much it intends to recover by the end of the year:

The government guaranteed or gave out loans worth £129bn to people and companies during the coronavirus pandemic to support them financially through lockdown restrictions. However, ministers were warned from the start that the speed of the schemes would open them up to fraud.

Since then government agencies have found large-scale frauds across several parts of the system, ranging from the coronavirus job retention scheme (CJRS) for furloughed workers, the bounce back loan scheme (BBLS) for small companies, and the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme (CBILS) for mid-sized businesses. Reports from crime and bankruptcy agencies have shown some loans were used to fund gambling, luxuries and home improvements.

Theodore Agnew dramatically quit his role as a Treasury minister in a speech in the House of Lords last month after criticising the lack of action to recover stolen money.

Data from government departments’ annual reports suggested fraud and error losses of between £12.4bn and £20.1bn, with a central estimate of £15.7bn, the report said.

The furlough scheme is estimated to have suffered the largest fraud and error losses of £5.3bn, followed by the BBLS where £4.9bn is thought to have been lost. The government has funded a “taxpayer protection taskforce” to chase fraud in the schemes including furlough run by HM Revenue and Customs, but anti-corruption experts are concerned that funding is inadequate to fight fraud in bounce back loans.

The government will also have to write off £21bn in loans to people or businesses who will be unable to pay them back.

Will the Public Inquiry, if and when it happens, look at this as well?

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

UK Government under fire from farmers over Brexit

I recall that many farmers were some of the strongest advocates of Brexit, unfortunately for them things have proven to be less than rosy on the other side of secession from the EU.

The Guardian reports that the leader of the National Farming Union has attacked UK farming policy, saying that the industry is in crisis because of government failures over staff shortages, Brexit red tape and cheap imports.

Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, says the government has shown a “total lack of understanding of how food production works”, introduced “completely contradictory policies” on farming, and risks “repeatedly running into crises” through the lack of a post-Brexit plan for UK farming.

The paper adds that her withering assessment of the government’s actions reflects widespread anger and alarm among many sections of the UK’s farming and food production industries, one of the country’s biggest manufacturing industries and employers:

Farmers have suffered from plunging exports and reams of new red tape owing to Brexit, staff shortages as EU seasonal workers have left, and the prospect of floods of cheap low-quality imports after post-Brexit trade deals.

Batters will highlight the fate of the pig industry – which is facing near-collapse under rising costs and staffing shortages – and warn that similar disasters will hit other branches of farming unless the government acts.

She will tell the NFU conference in Birmingham: “We need a plan that pre-empts crises, rather than repeatedly runs into them … this country needs a strategy and a clear vision for what we expect from British farming. We have completely contradictory government policies. It is raising the bar for environmental standards at home but pursuing trade deals which support lower standards overseas. It is claiming to value domestic food production but making it difficult to find workers to harvest or process it. It is stating there are many export opportunities for British food but failing to prioritise the resources to open up those new markets.”

She will call for “certainty, commitment and consistency” in government policy, and point to the successes of British farmers in raising animal welfare and food production standards, improving the environment and pushing to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

But, in excerpts from her speech distributed on Monday night, she pulled few punches in criticising ministers for their lack of planning, and failure to respond to recent problems in farming.

Pig producers are looking after 200,000 pigs that should have been sent to slaughter, but cannot be because of a lack of staff in abattoirs. Keeping the pigs on their farms costs farmers dearly, wiping out their potential profits. About 40,000 pigs have had to be culled, which creates a further cost to farmers, as well as being a waste of resources.

This “disaster” in the pig industry “should have and could have been avoided”, according to Batters. The situation for pig farmers “truly is an utter disgrace”, she will say. “This is down to the government’s poorly designed change to immigration policy and what I can only say appears to be its total lack of understanding of how food production works and what it needs.”

The prime minister, Boris Johnson, angered many farmers last year when he appeared to make a joke of the crisis in pig production, telling the BBC that pigs raised for food were destined to die anyway. This appeared to ignore the costs to farmers, and their distress at having to put down healthy animals for no purpose.

George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association, also called for more focus from ministers, particularly in relation to the reforms to post-Brexit subsidies, which will see farmers paid “public money for public goods” through the replacement of EU subsidies with environmental land management contracts (ELMs), whereby farmers are paid for reaching certain environmental improvement goals.

Dunn said: “We need to see a bit more strategy from the government as to how its various policy strands fit together into a consistent whole. ELMs is only one part of a panoply of initiatives including support for new entrants, farming resilience, food policy, standards in trade, regulation and enforcement and supply chain measures which at best continue to be developed in silos. Currently, it feels like there are few threads bringing the patchwork quilt of initiatives together. Farmers need to plan for the long term and want to be in line with wider public policy – however, until that becomes clearer we run the risk of a lack of alignment.”

It's just a shame that these consequences of leaving the EU were not spelt out on the side of the Brexut bus.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Right wing attacks on charities backfire

The Guardian reports that a wave of attacks on “woke” charities by rightwing politicians has “backfired”, generating an outpouring of public support for the targeted charities and helping drive a surge in social justice activism.

The paper says that an annual survey of social campaigning suggests many charities feel increasingly emboldened to speak out on contested issues, including race, immigration and the environment, despite attacks they feel are designed to intimidate them into silence:

The findings of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation survey come as charities report huge concern over the “chilling” impact on civil society of a raft of proposed legislation designed to restrict public protest and legal challenge.

Campaigners said they have faced an increasingly hostile political environment – 78% said they felt politicians were hostile to civil society campaigning, up from 63% the previous year. A majority said attacks by politicians and the media were a threat to charities’ right to speak out and campaign.

However, the survey also found the attacks persuaded many charities to re-examine their mission and refocus on campaigning, and had revealed heartening public support for social activism. A third of charities said they were now “more likely to speak out”.

“The high-profile attacks on charities over the past few years seem to have backfired. Many have responded by asking themselves if they are still honouring their core mission by speaking out and concluded that, in fact, campaigning is not just their right but their duty,” said Sue Tibballs, the chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation.

A number of charities, including the National Trust and Barnardo’s, have faced coordinated attacks by backbench Conservative MPs for supposedly “political” or “woke” stances on such as racism and inequality at odds with their core charitable mission, The MPs argued the charities’ role was to provide services, not engage in social issues.~

The National Trust was called “Marxist” and politically correct for publishing a report highlighting the slave trade links of some of its historical properties, the race equality thinktank Runneymede trust was accused of having a “political agenda,” and the children’s charity Barnardo’s of promoting “ideological dogma”.

All three were investigated by the Charity Commission after the backbench “Common Sense” group of Conservative MPs complained they had breached charity laws. In each case they were cleared of wrongdoing. The National Trust subsequently reported record numbers of new members, despite critics’ claims it was losing public support.

In another high profile case, the RNLI – the UK’s national lifeboat charity – was accused by Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence party and Brexit party, of running a “migrant taxi service” for rescuing migrants at risk of drowning in the Channel. It robustly defended its work, and received massive public support and a surge in donations as a result.

The failure of those charges had convinced charities they were doing the right thing and the politicians were out of step with public opinion on issues like race equality, one refugee charity leader told the Guardian. “The feeling is, let’s stop caveating ourselves all the time, let’s be bolder,” they said.

The heartening side of this is that the British public are refusing to be cowed by right wing politicians pursuing an authoritarian agenda. Let's hope that there is a similar reaction to legislation designed to outlaw protests and active expressions of dissent at Tory policies.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Jobs for the Tory donors

One of the strongest arguments for Welsh devolution in 1997 was how much of Welsh political and cultural life was being run by unelected Tory quangocrats, accountable only to a Secretary of State who had no popular mandate to run Wales. To some extent the advent of the Welsh Assembly changed all that, although there are still legitimate questions to be asked about accountablility under in the new reformed Wales.

It is no surprise therefore to see this headline on the Guardian website announcing that six Tory donors have been given top cultural posts since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister.

The paper says that these appointments to help run the country’s leading cultural institutions came after an appeal to party backers to help “rebalance the representation” on public bodies:

The donors, who have between them contributed more than £3m to party coffers, were appointed by the prime minister to the boards of the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate and the British Museum.

One of the latest appointments to be announced is Howard Shore as a trustee of the Tate. The investment banker has contributed £1.75m to the party as an individual and through his firm Shore Capital. Former Tory culture secretary Lord Vaizey was also appointed a trustee at the same time.

The government says such appointments are made after an open selection process in accordance with the Cabinet Office’s governance code on public appointments, but faces scrutiny over roles for individuals with ties to the party. Under the current system, the names of all candidates must be submitted to ministers, who then make the final appointment.

Peter Riddell, the former commissioner for public appointments, has warned of a “more intensive effort” to appoint political figures to public institutions.

It has emerged that Tory officials have been keen for donors to apply for public roles, circulating openings on public bodies to its donors. An email from party headquarters to donors in August 2019, the month after Johnson became PM, said: “We thought you may be interested in the latest list of public appointments. It is important Conservatives rebalance the representation at the head of these important public bodies.”

The Tory donors appointed by Johnson to leading cultural institutions include John Booth, who was made a trustee of the National Gallery in August last year. Booth has donated more than £200,000 to the Tory party.

In September businessman David Ross was reappointed as chair of the National Portrait Gallery. Ross helped arrange accommodation for a holiday in Mustique for Johnsonin December 2019 and has given more than £1m to the party. Ross sits on the gallery’s board with Tory MP Chris Grayling, whom Johnson appointed the previous year.

Other Tory donors appointed by Johnson to cultural institutions are: Lord Marland, a Tory peer who has donated more than £300,000 to the party, appointed as trustee of the British Museum; James Lambert, a businessman whose firm has donated more than £80,000 to the party, appointed as trustee of the National Gallery; and Dounia Nadar, a philanthropist who has donated more than £66,000 to the party. All three were appointed in December.

The government says the selection process for public bodies is open and rigorous, but Tory officials have been keen to support its financial backers seeking public roles. The Observer revealed this month how officials were keen to help one of its biggest donors Mohamed Amersi in his ultimately unsuccessful bid to become chair of the National Lottery Community Fund.

A sign of history repeating itself, or business as usual?

Saturday, February 19, 2022

The cost of Johnson's vanity

All politicians have a love-hate relationship with the camera, but they are at their most comfortable when photographed sending an important message. It's just that it doesnt normally cost tens of thousands of pounds of public money to get their poimt across.

The Independent reports that a Royal Air Force aircraft P-8A Poseidon was flown a distance of more than 330 miles from its base in Lossiemouth, Moray, Scotland for a photoshoot with Boris Johnson, before flying back. They say that pictures of the prime minister with RAF aircraft made some of the front pages about the Ukraine crisis on Friday, following his visit to the Waddington base in Lincolnshire on Thursday:

The plane, a maritime patrol aircraft designed for anti-submarine warfare, departed from its base shortly before 9am on Wednesday, the Press Association reported.

It then flew back on Thursday, leaving at about 6.20pm, after the prime minister completed his visit to the base. It had never previously visited the Waddington base.

Mr Johnson was also pictured with his thumbs up sitting in a RAF Typhoon fast jet, which was flown from its home base of RAF Coningsby, which is 15 miles away from RAF Waddington.

Both the Typhoon Mr Johnson was pictured sitting in, and the P-8A Poseidon were flown back to their respective bases after his visit.


Meanwhile, the latest government spending documents show that Mr Johnson’s flights on the RAF Voyager four-day trip to the US in September cost just over £365,000.

A group of 45 officials accompanied the PM on his trip on the plane – dubbed “the Brexit jet” after a £900,000 red, white and blue paint job in 2020 – so he could appear at the UN General Assembly and meet president Joe Biden.

It has also emerged that the government spent £125,000 on climate minister Alok Sharma’s flight to China ahead of the Cop26 conference, as part of his push to get Beijing to sign up to carbon-cutting measures.

A specially-chartered plane for the Cop26 president and his staff cost £125,000, while another £18,000 was spent on accommodation, meals and visas during the September trip, The Sun first reported.

The latest government spending documents show Mr Sharma and his team also used specially-charted flights to go to Jamaica, Antigua & Barbuda and Barbados for pre-Cop26 talks in July – at the cost of £24,000.

Mr Sharma’s flights raised eyebrows last year when it emerged on the eve of the big climate summit in Glasgow that he had taken flights to more than 30 countries – with opposition politicians accusing him of being “hypocritical” about carbon reduction.

Nice to see our taxes being put to good use.

Friday, February 18, 2022

The art of soft money

Soft money in the United States involves donations to stand-alone political action committees, avoiding the restrictions that apply to elections. It is an alternative form of financing campaigns that "derives from a major loophole in federal campaign financing and spending law that exempts from regulation those contributions made for party building in general rather than for specific candidates".

It is only in the last twenty years or so that we have attempted to properly regulate spending by political parties in the UK, who can donate to them and the level of transparency that applies to those donations. Nevertheless, there are exanples of mechanisms being set up to circumvent that regulation and to bypass the spending limits placed on election campaigns.

Elected officials are also subject to rules as to the donations they can receive, and have an absolute duty to report and register all such money with the relevant authorities. Despite this, there are still ways and means that lobbyists, and those they are working for, can throw money at an issue in Parliament without that sort of openness. One such route is through All-Party Parliamentary Groups.

The Guardian reports that more than £13m has been poured into a growing network of MPs’ interest groups by private firms including healthcare bodies, arms companies and tech giants, fuelling concerns over the potential for backdoor influence.

The paper, alongside pressure group, openDemocracy, has found that more than half the total £25m in funding for all-party parliamentary groups (APPGs) since 2018 has come from the private sector. Other funds for the 755 groups – a number that has ballooned from 560 five years ago – came from charities and trade unions:

On Thursday, the chair of the Commons standards committee, Chris Bryant, for the first time called for parliamentary authorities to have the power to shut down the largely self-policed groups where there are clear conflicts of interest.

Writing for the Guardian, he said it may be time to ban commercial operators from funding and running APPGs: “When lobbying firms are effectively driving an APPG in the interests of their clients, we should not only know who those clients are, but we should be able to close the group down where there is a clear conflict of interest.”

Bryant, whose standards committee has opened an inquiry into the system, added: “It feels as if every MP wants their own APPG, and every lobbying company sees an APPG as an ideal way of making a quick buck out of a trade or industry body.”

APPGs are informal groups representing MPs’ and peers’ interests, from China and Russia to cancer, digital regulation, longevity and jazz. They must be chaired by MPs but are often run or funded by lobbyists and corporate donors seeking to influence government policy.

The groups can play a key role in drawing parliament’s attention to overlooked issues, Bryant says. They host roundtables, produce reports, take overseas trips and lobby for change but receive no public money.

A number of APPGs are sponsored by companies with interests in the policy areas the groups seek to influence. In situations where there is no conflict of interest, concerns may arise over the perception of one.

As well as giving examples of ways in which donations have sought to influence the agenda of these APPGs, the Guardian also says that a thriving industry has also emerged around professional lobbying companies, sponsored by corporate interests, helping to produce reports seeking to influence policy, fund dinners or drinks, and take parliamentarians on free trips abroad:

All APPGs must be registered and provide funding details but most do not produce or make readily available a detailed breakdown. They are obliged to provide accounts on request, but half of 190 APPGs failed to do so when asked by openDemocracy.

APPGs are required only to complete a simple “template for income and expenditure statement” but this does not give the opportunity to provide many details. The alternative dispute resolution APPG’s form listed £4,501-£6,000 for secretariat services and £13,501-£16,000 for a visit to Singapore, with no further detail. The group was approached for comment.

Some APPGs, such as the group for the Celtic Sea and another for the wood panel industry, have a lobbyist as a secretariat but no figures for funding were published on their parliamentary registration page. Their chair was contacted for comment. Some other APPGs gave fuller details. On the comprehensive Pictfor website, accounts were uploaded to its blog section.

Steve Goodrich, of Transparency International, said: “From big tobacco to kleptocratic regimes, there are a plethora of interests behind these groups that remain [largely] unchecked by formal rules. Without greater transparency over lobbying, much of what happens in these groups will remain behind closed doors.”

I suspect this is also an issue in the devolved Parliaments as well, though nowhere near the scalw listed in this article. It is definitely time for reform.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

What price the rule of law?

Tony Blair fanously set out his stall on his way to power on the back of a 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' approach, but even he did not advocate that our police forces should disregard the rule of law in pursuing criminals and terrorists.

Because Labour is once more being seen as soft on law and order, it seems that at least one of its leading lights has lost touch with the distinction between tough law enforcement and law-breaking.

The Independent reports that Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner has told Matt Forde’s Political Party podcast that Britain’s terror police should “shoot first” and “ask questions second”.

This is a policy that has been adopted by the UK before of course, as evidenced in Gibralter in 1988, when three members of a Provisional Irish Republican Army cell were shot dead by undercover members of the British Special Air Service, even though they were subsequently found to be unarmed. No bomb was discovered in their car either, leading to accusations that the British government had conspired to murder them.

I detest terrorists and criminals as much as Angela Raynor, and, like her, want to see tougher action taken on vandalism, anti-social behaviour and other dangerous activities. However, it is irresponsible of a senior politician to effectively say that police or any other government agency can effectively ignore the rule of law without cause, to arbitrarily execute those suspected of terrorism.

That is a slippery slope that can lead to huge injustices and the death of innocent civilians such as Jean Charles de Menezes in JUly 2005. It would make the British state as bad as those who seek to undermine it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Government loses another court case

The Guardian reports that the high court has ruled that the former UK health secretary Matt Hancock did not comply with a public sector equality duty when he appointed the Conservative peer Dido Harding as head of a new public health quango.

The paper says that the race and equality thinktank the Runnymede Trust successfully won its claim against the government over the appointment in August 2020 of Harding as interim executive chair of the National Institute for Health Protection, as well as the appointment in September 2020 of Mike Coupe as director of testing at NHS test and trace:

Lord Justice Singh and Mr Justice Swift concluded that Hancock had not complied with “the public sector equality duty” in relation to the appointments.

Lawyers representing the Runnymede Trust and Good Law Project suggested that people “outside the tight circle” in which senior Conservative politicians and their friends moved were not being given opportunities. They said an unfair policy was being challenged.

Ministers disputed the claims made against them.

Jason Coppel QC, who led the two organisations’ legal teams, told the court the challenge was based on equality legislation and public law.

He said the government had a “policy or practice” of “making appointments to posts critical to the pandemic response” without adopting any, or any sufficient, “fair or open competitive processes”.

Coppel said people “less likely to be known or connected to decision-makers” were put at a disadvantage.

He also said the government was failing to offer “remuneration for high-level full-time roles” and “excluding all candidates who were not already wealthy” or held other posts for which they would continue to be paid.

In a written ruling, Singh and Swift said: “It is the process leading up to the two decisions which has been found by this court to be in breach of the public sector equality duty.

“For those reasons we will grant a declaration to the Runnymede Trust that the secretary of state for health and social care did not comply with the public sector equality duty in relation to the decisions how to appoint Baroness Harding as interim executive chair of the NIHP in August 2020 and Mr Coupe as director of testing for NHSTT in September 2020.”

In a joint statement, Dr Halima Begum, the chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, and Sir Clive Jones, the chair of Runnymede’s board of trustees, said: “Neither Baroness Harding nor Mr Coupe is medically trained. Neither has a lifetime of public administration under their belt. It should not be acceptable to drop our standards during complex health emergencies when countless lives are at stake, in particular the lives of some of our country’s most vulnerable citizens.”

It added: “This judgment sends a strong message to the government that it needs to take its obligations to reduce inequality far more seriously. It also serves as an unequivocal reminder that all future public appointments must give due consideration to equalities legislation.”

Yet another judgement highlighting how ministers are riding rough-shod over important processes designed to ensure fairness and to eliminate abuse.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Throwing stones in glass houses

It could be argued that the Metropolitan Police Federation were a tad unlucky to launch their attack on the London Mayor on the same day as it was reported that a senior Metropolitan police commander, who wrote his force’s current drug strategy, faces the sack after being accused of taking cannabis, LSD and magic mushrooms, but then that is how the cookie crumbles sometimes.

The Federation's problem of course, lies in the fact, that there have been so many reports in recent months of issues within the Metropolitian Police, that it would have been fortuitous if they had been able to find a clear news day at all, on which to make their allegations.

If the union which represents Met police officers does not understand the disillusionment felt by many ordinary citizens in the force they are defending, then they are part of the problem. 

Cressida Dick was effectively let go because she was perceived as being incapable of putting things right and restoring public confidence in her team. In my view, the Mayor had no choice.

If the Federation really are speaking for the rank and file, then Dick's successor has a lot of work to do to turn things around.

Monday, February 14, 2022

The cost of illiberalism

As if it were not bad enough that the UK Government are introducing a raft of measures to put outside of international law and block people fleeing famine, war and severe climate change from seeking asylum here, it turns out that their proposals are going to cost taxpayers a small fortune.

The Guardian reports that a coalition of hundreds of pro-refugee organisations has estimated the astronomical costs of five Home Office policies to block refugees, which are due to become law in a matter of months:

The campaign coalition Together With Refugees, which is made up of about 360 community groups, refugee organisations, trades unions and faith groups, is publishing a report on Monday. It attempts to calculate the cost of policies such as offshoring refugees – with the bill running into the billions. The Home Office is yet to publish this information itself.

Taxpayers could face an extra £2.7bn a year cost to fund the schemes, according to the paper – named A Bill at What Price? It is being published before the first vote in the House of Lords on the government’s controversial nationality and borders bill.

The Home Office dismissed the calculations as “pure speculation”, but the SNP MP Stuart McDonald said the research “shows in stark terms what many MPs have long feared about the huge cost to the taxpayer”.

The MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East added: “I and others have continually pressed the government to set out their own assessment of these costs, via the impact assessment they are required to produce for such legislation – and which they have repeatedly promised, but failed, to provide to the public and parliament.”

Using open source data, the report calculated the extra spending that will be needed to pay for five key measures proposed in the bill. These projects include:
  • New large, out-of-town accommodation centres to house up to 8,000 people seeking refugee protection – £717.6m a year. 
  • An offshore processing system to send people seeking refugee protection to another country to be detained while they wait for a decision on their claim, based on Australian government costings, which the Home Office said it is modelling its plans on – £1.44bn a year. 
  • Imprisoning people seeking refugee protection who arrive via irregular routes, such as in a small boat across the Channel – £432m a year. 
  • Removing people seeking refugee protection from the UK to another country if the government said they should claim asylum elsewhere – £117.4m a year. 
  • Extra processing costs for additional assessments of people allocated a new temporary protection status, who have already passed a rigorous assessment recognising them as a refugee, every two and a half years – £1.5m a year.
Sabir Zazai, a spokesperson for Together With Refugees, said: “This is an astonishing amount of additional public money for the unworkable and cruel proposals in the bill – enough to pay for more than 80,000 NHS nurses a year.

Luckily, we still have the £350 million a week saved from leaving the EU to spend on the NHS. Oh wait....

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Brexit bites

AS we start to come out of the pandemic, the appalling impact of Brexit is starting to hit home. The Guardian reports that official figures, marking the first full year since Brexit, have found that UK exports of goods to the EU have fallen by £20bn compared with the last period of stable trade with Europe.

The paper says that numbers released on Friday by the Office for National Statistics showed that the combined impact of the pandemic and Britain’s exit from the single market caused a 12% fall in exports between January and December last year compared with 2018:

Highlighting the disproportionate impact of leaving the EU, exports to the rest of the world excluding the 27-nation bloc dropped by a much smaller £10bn, or about 6% compared with 2018 levels.

The ONS compared trade performance against figures from three years ago because that was the last year before distortions caused by firms stockpiling ahead of Brexit deadlines and the spread of Covid-19.

Despite the disruption, the EU remains the UK’s largest trading partner. However, for the first time since comparable records began in 1997, the UK now spends more importing goods from the rest of the world than it does from the EU.

UK goods imported from the EU were down almost 17%, or about £45bn, compared with 2018. In comparison, imports from the rest of the world increased by almost 13%, or about £28bn.

These figures underline Jonathan Freedland's argument in yesterday's Guardian that Brexit has inflicted great losses on this country; that the supposed offsets for those losses don’t offset them at all; and that there are next to no “opportunities” worthy of the name. Brexit is a rank failure:

The evidence of the hurt is in abundant supply. On Wednesday, the public accounts committee reported on the “clear increase in costs, paperwork and border delays” that Brexit has imposed on UK businesses. The next day it was the turn of the Office for National Statistics, whose business survey found that more than half of the UK’s importers and exporters now cite additional paperwork and higher transportation costs as problems, with those two issues their biggest headaches by a wide margin. The phone-in programmes hum with British entrepreneurs, plenty of them leave voters, now driven to despair, forced to spend precious, exhausting hours filling in forms they never used to have to fill in and paying costs they never used to have to pay.

Ignore the talk of the greatest growth since the second world war: that’s just a function of the economy having collapsed so badly in 2020. Note instead the Bank of England’s forecast of 1.25% growth in 2023, falling to just 1% in 2024. David Smith, economics editor of the Sunday Times and no remoaner fanatic, puts that down partly to Covid but partly to the “adverse fiscal consequences of leaving the EU”, which left the country “with a budget hole that has had to be filled with higher taxes. We now have a high-tax economy strangled by red tape and hampered by trade restrictions.”

The people who led us off this cliff continue to pretend that none of this is happening. In a facepalm moment in the Commons this week, the pro-Brexit MP for Dover, Natalie Elphicke, complained about the “miles of traffic jams” besetting her constituency. Those are because of the laborious checks and delays that now confront lorries coming into the port, but Elphicke insisted the jams were “not because of Brexit but because of Brussels bureaucracy”. Like many Brexiters, she is outraged that when you leave the EU, the EU treats you as if you’ve left the EU.

Wherever you look, it’s the same picture. For all the fur-hat photo-ops in Moscow, Britain is no more than a bit player in the current crisis over Ukraine. Before Brexit, the UK was one of the three decisive members in an economic bloc that stood between the US and China as the most powerful in the world. Outside the EU, and having broken our commitment on overseas aid and forsaken the soft power that came with it, the UK is struggling to stay relevant.

Meanwhile, the delicate constitutional machinery that kept Northern Ireland at peace has been smashed. At the same time, those other parts of the UK that once relied on EU cash now face a government that has broken its manifesto promise to plug the gap previously filled by Brussels funds. That deprives Wales, which voted to leave the EU, of close to £1bn over the next three years.

It is a damning verdict, but one that rings true.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Labour facing bankruptcy

With the Tories in disarray, and the Prime Minister under pressure to resign, one would think that Labour were on a high. Unfortunately for them, that does not appear to be the case. Not only are they struggling to get the sort of commanding lead in the opinion polls needed to oust Boris Johnson at the next election and secure their own majority, but Keir Starmer's party is beset by internal squabbles of its own.

The Independent reports that Labour are facing bankruptcy as its biggest union donor, Unite, says it could pull its remaining support.

The paper quotes the Unite general secretary as saying that the “remaining financial support” her union provides the party was “under review” due to an ongoing dispute between a Labour-run council and refuse collection workers:

Sharon Graham — the union chief who replaced Len McCluskey last year — stressed that Sir Keir’s party needed to “act like labour, be the party for workers” and accused Coventry council of “mistreatment” of members.

“Let me be very clear - the remaining financial support of Labour Party is now under review,” she said in a message on Wednesday evening.

“Your behaviour and mistreatment of our members will not be accepted. It’s time to act like labour, be the party for workers.”

They add that Labour has already passed a round of mass redundancies and asked staff to take a real-terms pay cut amid a funding crisis in the party. They have also seen a vast exodus of members since Sir Keir took over and stripped the party of most of its radical policies – resulting in a dramatic cut in membership subscriptions and shortfall in revenue.

Unite is Britain's second biggest union and Labour's biggest donor. In December, Graham said she did not think Unite was getting "the best value" from its cash by giving it to Labour. It looks like Starmer is going to have to find an alternative source of funding.

Friday, February 11, 2022

An opportunity for reform

AS the Guardian reports, Dame Cressida Dick has been forced out as head of the Metropolitan police, after London’s mayor accused her of failing to deal with a culture of misogyny and racism within Britain’s biggest force.

They add that Sadiq Khan had put Dick “on notice” last Wednesday that she had to rapidly reform Scotland Yard or lose his support for her leadership. His confidence in her was shaken to breaking point by a scandal at Charing Cross police station where officers shared racist, sexist, misogynistic and Islamophobic messages. Two of the officers investigated were promoted, while nine were left to serve in the Met:

Dick was also personally criticised for the obstruction of an official inquiry into police corruption. The panel investigating the 1987 unsolved murder of Daniel Morgan lambasted Dick and labelled the Met as “institutionally corrupt”, which Dick denies.

A big expansion of stop and search resulted in falling confidence in policing in black communities, and confidence generally in the Met fell dramatically during Dick’s term in office.

It is my view that Cressida Dick should have gone after the Met leadership’s inept handling of the murder of Sarah Everard in March 2021 by a serving Met officer, and the subsquent fiasco of police officers breaking up a peaceful vigil in Clapham Common. Nevertheless, there is now an opportunity for reform, which must be taken by the London Mayor and Home Office, if we are not to see a repeat of the problems that have beset the force for years.

Ruth Davison, of the charity Refuge, is absolutely right when she says: “Cressida Dick presided over an institution that saw police officers displaying misogynistic behaviour and committing horrific acts of violence against women, time and time again. But one resignation at the top doesn’t mean the police have solved their misogyny problem. The police service in this country needs root and branch reform.”

Replacing one Commissioner with another may not be enough, and any successor must avoid going native. This is not an appointment that can be rushed into. If the Met's problems are institutional then there needs to be a shake-up at all levels, and whoever takes over at the top, if indeed, that is one person or several, needs to make that a priority.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

VIP lane was bigger than previously thought

The Good Law Project reveal that the government misled the National Audit Office about how many companies were given “VIP” treatment for Covid contracts.

As reported in The Times, leaked internal documents have revealed a list of 68 companies referred to as VIPs. This despite the fact that in November the government made public a so-called exhaustive list of 50 companies given preferential treatment for contracts to supply personal protective equipment through a “high-priority lane” or so-called VIP lane. The extra 18 companies received almost £1 billion in PPE contracts between them:

Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, said: “Sleazy, wasteful, unfair, illegal — and a billion quid more of them than we were told. We are grateful to the insider who cried ‘enough’ so that the truth at last could be told.”

The VIP lane was set up at the start of the pandemic and allowed MPs, ministers and senior government officials to pass on offers of help to a special email inbox.

Government auditors found that suppliers with links to politicians were ten times more likely to be awarded contracts than those who applied to the Department of Health. In some cases due diligence checks were not carried out until weeks after contracts had been awarded.

Last month, after a challenge by the Good Law Project, a High Court judge found that the use of a VIP lane to award contracts was illegal.

Maugham said it was “abundantly clear” from a health department document and internal emails that these companies were treated as VIPs when handing out contracts. “None of the contracts were subject to competition,” Maugham said, arguing that the government “misled” the National Audit Office about the size of the VIP lane.

The Good Law Project said that the companies may not have been aware they were referred to as VIPs. There is no suggestion the companies were involved in wrongdoing.

This scandal could well run and run.

Wednesday, February 09, 2022

Sale or return

In most financial transactions one should always remember the phrase, caveat emptor, the principle that the buyer alone is responsible for checking the quality and suitability of goods before a purchase is made. It is a motto that billionaire Tory donor, John Armitage might well want to have engraved on his wallet.

According to the Guardian, Mr Armitage, the co-founder of the hedge fund firm Egerton Capital, who has given £3.1m to the Conservatives, including more than £500,000 since Boris Johnson entered No 10, has has suggested that Johnson should resign, saying that the prime minister was “past the point of no return”. He reportedly told the BBC he thought leaders should leave if they lose their moral authority:

Armitage’s intervention comes after a torrid period for Johnson with an investigation by the senior civil servant, Sue Gray, into parties held at Downing Street and Whitehall during Covid lockdowns finding “serious failures of leadership”.

A police investigation is looking at the most serious allegations within the “partygate” scandal and in the meantime Johnson has endured a series of resignations from senior officials, some of which he has sought to replace.

~ Armitage told the BBC global challenges to the west required ‘‘very serious, engaged politicians with a sense of purpose”.

“Politicians should go into politics to do good for their country,” he added.

“That is the overwhelming reason to be in politics. I don’t think it’s about your own personal sense of getting to the top of a snakes-and-ladders game.”

Armitage is right, but I have no sympathy for his belated sense of remorse. The signs were there at the beginning of Johnson's premiership. Perhaps he should have looked more closely before writing his cheques.

Tuesday, February 08, 2022

Prime Minister misleads the House of Commons again

Hot on the heels of giving out incorreect crime statistics in the House of Commons and launching an unfounded slur against the Leader of the Opposition, Boris Johnson has once more been caught out misleading the House of Commons, this time on employment figures.

The BBC reports that Ed Humpherson, from the Office for Statistics Regulation, has sent one of the prime minister's advisers at Downing Street a letter saying it was "incorrect to state {as Johnson did at Prime Minister's Question Time} that there were more people in work at the end of this period than the start":

Responding to a complaint from the fact-checking organisation Full Fact, Mr Humpherson had told No 10 this claim had been made by the prime minister in Parliament on 24 November, 15 December, 5 January, 12 January and 19 January.

And it was "disappointing" the prime minister had "continued to refer to payroll employment as if describing total employment, despite contact from our office and from others".

The problem is Mr Johnson has been mixing up the number of people on payrolls, which has gone up with the number of people in work, which has not.

They are not the same thing - the payroll number excludes self-employed people, for example.

In fact, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates 32.5 million over-16s were in work between September and November 2021 - about 600,000 fewer than in the last three-month period before the pandemic, December 2019 to February 2020.

But the number of people on payrolls, in December 2021, was 29.5 million, which is just over 400,000 more than in February 2020.

It is a fine distinction, but an important one, as it shows the significant impact of the pandemic on the self-employed. Surely, the Prime Minister should be earning his Rt. Hon title by being more scrupulous in what he tells MPs in the House of Commons.

Monday, February 07, 2022

Chancellor's championing of fossil fuels will excerbate the cost-of-living crisis

It is fair to say that if the Tories had continued to follow the agenda of investing in alternative energy sources set by Ed Davey and the Liberal Democrats when they were in government, the near doubling of domestic fuel bills, due to happen in a few months time, would be nowhere near as severe as expected.

Of course, it is not too late to pick that policy up and run with it, except that key members of Boris Johnson's government, rich enough to easily absorb the additional costs of our reliance on fossil fuels, and to hell with the rest of us, have other ideas.

The Independent says that Rishi Sunak has been criticised for a “mind-blowing” announcement he wants to encourage more investment in new fossil fuel drilling, with environmental groups saying this was a step in the wrong direction.

Campaigners have accused the chancellor of “siding” with the oil and gas industry and hypocrisy given current climate goals, while many of the companies involved are piling up massive profits at the expense of hard-working families:

Scientists previously said there was no room for new fossil fuels if the world wants to reach net zero emissions by 2050 - with the UK having set this target for itself.

But Mr Sunak said on Thursday he wanted to encourage investment in the North Sea given the resources there.

“We’re going to need natural gas as part of our transition to getting to net zero,” he said. “And in the process of getting from here to there, if we can get investment in the North Sea that supports British jobs, that’s a good thing.”

But his comments have been slammed by environmental campaigners and climate policy experts.

“For Rishi Sunak to encourage new investment in drilling for fossil fuels in the North Sea is utterly mind-blowing,” Giles Bristow from climate crisis charity Ashden told The Independent.

“Climate change is here – now. The business community accepts the science that unequivocally tells us we have to move on from old, dirty fossil fuels and deliver a rapid but managed transition to a clean net zero economy.”

According to the International Energy Agency, natural gas is the “cleanest burning” fossil fuel - but this still emits greenhouse gases.

Gas prices has also been held responsible for the ongoing energy crisis, which has resulted in rising household bills in the UK.

A further energy price cap increase was confirmed on Thursday, paving the way for bills to increase yet again in spring.

Tessa Khan from campaign group Uplift told The Independent: "The chancellor has chosen to side with the oil and gas industry.

“Yesterday, he dumped all the costs of soaring gas prices on UK households rather than claw back some of the obscene profits these companies are making.”

Meanwhile Jamie Peters from Friends of the Earth said: “The chancellor acknowledges that the energy crisis is a result of our dependency on gas, but then declares his ambition to unlock £11bn of investment in the North Sea.

He added: “This is blatant hypocrisy after months of government posturing in the run up to the UN climate talks.”

So much for the green agenda and the government's commitment to tackling climate change.

Sunday, February 06, 2022

Government response to cost-of-living crisis is blunt and flawed

Of all the measures the Chancellor of the Exchequer might have chosen to help people cope with soaring fuel bills, the idea of paying a £200 repayable grant on council tax bills must rate as one of the worse.

Already, the Guardian is pointing out that tenants in England whose rent includes council tax, or who live in homes in a council tax band above D, are among those who could miss out on the £150 grant announced by the government last week to reduce the sting of sharply rising energy bills:

Sunak said every household would get a one-off repayable £200 discount on their bills in October and a rebate on council tax. However, charities and thinktanks have raised concerns that using council tax as a means to reduce the rising cost of energy is inefficient and unfair, particularly for those who do not own their own homes.

The Labour and Cooperative MP Dame Meg Hillier described the plan as policymaking “on the hoof”, saying that while using council tax to distribute money looked simple, the reality was a lot more complicated.

“The housing situation isn’t as simple as Whitehall thinks it is,” said Hillier, the MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch in east London. “I have a lot of HMOs [houses in multiple occupation] in my constituency. If the landlord pays [the council tax], do they then take it off the tenants’ rent?

“They’re using the council tax account as a way of getting money to people, so if you’re not paying council tax directly or don’t have an account, presumably you are not getting any money.”

Hillier suggested the government package was not “going to touch the sides” for struggling households. “People will still be having to make hard choices.” They were already shopping around to save money on a pint of milk, she said: “If that is the margin you are working on, £150 off a near £700 rise in energy bills is not going to cut it.”

The Resolution Foundation also criticised the plan to distribute money via the council tax system. It said 640,000 households in England in the bottom 30% based on income lived in properties rated E and above. It would also be hard to get the cash to the 25% of households who did not pay their council tax by direct debit, the thinktank suggested.

About a quarter, or 4.4 million, of households in England live in private rented accommodation, according to the English Housing Survey. The figure for the UKas a whole is approximately 5 million. The Treasury says that 95% of renters are in band A to D properties.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation said energy bills were a big area of uncertainty for private renters and nearly a fifth were already in arrears.

“For renters or sharers whose bills are included in their rent, the benefit of the rebate and loans won’t come to them and some landlords may still increase rents to make up any shortfall,” said Darren Baxter, the charity’s housing policy and partnerships manager.

Other groups, such as students, who are exempt from paying council tax, have also complained about being ignored. Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, the NUS vice-president, said Sunak had “ghosted” students. “Students are already under extreme financial pressure,” she said, adding that thousands of them were using food banks.

In Wales the Welsh Government will be using its £175m Barnett consequential to devise its own scheme. Let's hope it is better targetted at those who need the assistance the most, and uses a more effective delivery method.

Saturday, February 05, 2022

Misleading the House of Commons?

One of the many anachronisms continuing at the heart of the British constitution is the rule that 'homourable' members of the Parliament are forbidden from calling fellow members 'liars', no matter how obvious the lie, while Ministers can apparently continue to get away with misleading the House with no consequences.

This was illustrated perfectly with the removal of an SNP MP for pointing out in the chamber that the Prime Minister had lied to MPs about his attendance at parties in Number 10 Downing Street, while Johnson continued to brazen it out in his seat. Whether the Speaker can force a correction or an apology for the latest example of misleading the House of Commons, remains to be seen.

The Guardian reports that the head of the official statistics watchdog has reprimanded Boris Johnson and the Home Office for incorrectly saying crime has fallen by 14%, when this excludes the fastest-rising category of crime. 

They add that Sir David Norgrove, the head of the UK Statistics Authority, has said he will be writing to the offices of Johnson and Priti Patel, the home secretary, to highlight what he called a “misleading” use of statistics:

Replying to a letter about the claims from Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson, Norgrove said Johnson and Patel had been incorrect to claim that crime was falling.

A Home Office press release from last week twice “presented the statistics to give a positive picture of trends in crime in England and Wales” between June 2019 and September 2021, but did so by not including fraud and computer misuse, he wrote.

“The exclusion was stated. However, in the title and in two other places the release refers to a fall in crime, without making clear that this is true only if fraud and computer misuse are excluded,” the letter said.

Speaking in the Commons on Monday, Johnson said the government was “cutting crime by 14%”, a reference to statistics between September 2019 and September 2021. This also excluded fraud and computer misuse “though the prime minister did not make that clear”, Norgrove wrote.

He said: “If fraud and computer misuse are counted in total crime as they should be, total crime in fact increased by 14% between the year ending September 2019 and the year ending September 2021. The ONS bulletin quite properly includes fraud and computer misuse in total crime.”

Fraud and computer misuse offences have climbed significantly during lockdown and other Covid restrictions, while other offences such as theft have dropped.

Carmichael called it “a damning verdict from the official watchdog”. He said: “When the government’s record on crime is so bad that both the prime minister and home secretary feel the need to fiddle the figures, it is clear we need a new approach.

~ “The prime minister must come before parliament to apologise for his latest lie and set the record straight.”

I am not going to hold my breath on the chances of Johnson correcting the record in the House of Commons.

Friday, February 04, 2022

Five words

Could things get any worse for Boris Johnson? Well, today's headlines detail the fact that four of his top advisors have quit Number Ten over his behaviour, and in one case his misrepresenting facts in the House of Commons. 

In quoting an old adage, I am in no way implying any disresepect or slur on those four resignees, but their departure really does amount to 'rats leaving a sinking ship', a phrase that gives credit to the rats for their commonsense, while highlighting a lost cause, holed beneath the waterline.

The Independent reports that Boris Johnson’s leadership has been plunged deeper into crisis by the resignation of these four top aides within a few hours – including an ally of 14 years who quit in protest at his “scurrilous” smear linking Sir Keir Starmer with the paedophile Jimmy Savile:

In a scathing resignation letter, policy chief Munira Mirza said there was “no fair or reasonable basis” for Monday’s attack and made clear that Mr Johnson had resisted pleas from advisers to apologise.

The chancellor, Rishi Sunak – tipped as Mr Johnson’s most likely successor if he is forced from office – distanced himself from the PM, telling reporters: “Being honest, I wouldn’t have said it.”

And Mr Johnson’s former chief aide turned bitter enemy Dominic Cummings gleefully declared Ms Mirza’s departure “an unmistakeable signal the bunker is collapsing and this PM is finished”.

Just three hours after Ms Mirza’s bombshell letter dropped, the Downing Street director of communications, Jack Doyle, announced to No 10 staff that he too was leaving.

Mr Doyle – who had been named in the “partygate” scandal for handing out awards at a 2020 Christmas drinks event in No 10 – insisted his departure was not linked to Ms Mirza’s walkout, saying it had always been his plan to go at this point and recent weeks had taken “a terrible toll” on his family life.

One Downing Street staffer told The Independent: “I think he’d wanted to leave for some time and he had been under huge pressure. He didn’t get everything right, but he tried his best for the PM.”

Soon afterwards, more resignations were announced – this time involving Mr Johnson’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, who penned the email inviting No 10 staff to a “bring your own booze” party during lockdown, and the prime minister’s chief of staff, Dan Rosenfield.

The big question of course, is whether the departures will finally tip the balance against Johnson. So far the Prime Minister is clinging to power like porridge to a blanket, surely backbench Tory MPs will now try and oust him.

Thursday, February 03, 2022

Time to rein in the Met

As if things could not get worse for the Metropolitan Police's image, the Guardian reports today that a Metropolitan police officer, disciplined after an inquiry into misogynistic and racist messages, has since been promoted.

They say that misconduct was proven against the unnamed officer after a watchdog inquiry into messages about hitting and raping women, which were shared by up to 19 officers based mainly at Charing Cross police station. There were also messages about the deaths of black babies and the Holocaust, prompting accusations of a culture of misogyny and racism within the country’s biggest force:

The officer was promoted from the rank of constable to sergeant despite being sanctioned for failing to report wrongdoing, the Met confirmed.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) also revealed that three officers who remain in the Met sent potentially discriminatory messages. They were classed as being less serious than the messages that emerged on Tuesday.

On Wednesday the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, put Dick on notice that she had to urgently reform the force or he could withdraw his confidence in her. The commissioner is appointed by the mayor and home secretary.

For the first time sources made clear Khan would consider attempting to oust Dick if she fails to deliver rapid progress. The two had a 90-minute meeting described as “frank” after the revelations about Charing Cross and continuing crises gripping the Met. A source close to Khan said: “If the commissioner is not able to do so, then the mayor will have to consider whether she is the right person to lead the change needed at the Met.”

The souring of relations came after the IOPC revealed shocking details of messages shared by Met officers between 2016, the year before Dick became commissioner, and 2018. They were uncovered by accident.

One male officer wrote to a female officer: “I would happily rape you … if I was single I would happily chloroform you.”

The IOPC said the behaviour was part of an offensive Met police culture, not just rogue individuals. “We believe these incidents are not isolated or simply the behaviour of a few ‘bad apples’.” The Met denies the force is plagued by misogyny and racism.

Of 14 officers investigated, two deemed to be the worst offenders were sacked for gross misconduct. Misconduct was proven against another three, while another officer resigned before the disciplinary process was complete.

On Wednesday the Met confirmed that one officer against whom misconduct was proven had been promoted. The force said the officer “attended a misconduct meeting and was given management action/advice about reporting wrongdoing”.

This evidence of a toxic culture within parts of the Met, raises the question as to whether its top management is capable of reforming it at all.

Wednesday, February 02, 2022

Full cost of Tory incompetence during Covid starts to emerge

If it wasn't bad enough that Boris Johnson's government short-circuited the procurement process for PPE and other covid-related contracts, creating a VIP lane, which was taken advantage of by a number of Tory donors and friends, it seems that much of what was bought is now having to be written off.

The Guardian reports that figures released on Monday reveal that Ministers spent almost £9bn on personal protective equipment, which was either substandard, defective, past its use-by date or dramatically overpriced.

They say that annual accounts show the Department of Health and Social Care paid £12bn while emergency-buying PPE for England in the year to 31 March 2021. Tonnes of items bought for £2.6bn were never usable by the NHS – this figure is now £2.7bn – and a further £670m worth of PPE was not usable at all in any healthcare setting:

This was mostly because it was defective, the annual report stated, and items costing £750m passed their safe date before they could be used.

By far the biggest figure , however, is the £4.7bn amounting to the difference between the dramatically inflated prices the DHSC paid for PPE to fill England’s tiny stockpile, and the value of that equipment now.

The accounts, compiled by the National Audit Office, do not identify to where that extra £4.7bn was paid, whether in increased prices charged by PPE factories, mainly in China, or in significant profits made by UK companies and their intermediaries.

Gareth Davies, the NAO’s comptroller and auditor general, also noted that PPE procurement had been vulnerable to fraud, as normal competitive tender processes were suspended and multimillion-pound contracts awarded to many companies with no previous experience. As much of the equipment supplied remains in sealed containers, Davies said he had been unable to carry out sufficient checks to be satisfied that substantial fraud had not taken place.

“The level of fraud risk has increased as a result of Covid-19-related procurement,” he stated. “A significant increase in new suppliers, a lack of timely checks on the quality of goods received and poor inventory management all contributed to this heightened risk. In these circumstances … I have not been able to obtain assurance that there has not been a material level of losses due to fraud.”

Davies’s cautionary note on possible PPE fraud follows the resignation last week of the former Cabinet Office minister Theodore Agnew, who complained of “arrogance, indolence and ignorance” in the government’s attitude to tackling fraud, after £4.3bn fraudulently claimed in Covid loans was written off.

The DHSC accepted in the annual report that its PPE procurement was susceptible to “heightened risk” of fraud, as “goods subject to detailed technical requirements were purchased from new suppliers … some of whom did not have experience in supplying these types of product”.

This is not the only reason the procurement process is controversial. Last month the high court ruled in favour of a legal challenge by the Good Law Project that the “VIP lane”, which gave high priority to companies with political connections, was unlawful.

In many ways the Prime Minister's law breaking and lies over parties at Number Ten is distracting us from this much bigger scandal. The money wasted on this process could be helping people with their heating bills. There really needs to be proper accountability.

Tuesday, February 01, 2022

When will Tories get some backbone and tell Johnson to go?

Well, the Sue Gray report is now out in the open and we are still waiting. We are waiting for the Metropolitan police, whose convenient, last minute intervention after weeks of denial effectively tore the meat out of Gray's report. We are waiting for Boris Johnson to finally tell the full truth in the House of Commons, instead of the bluster and obfuscation he delivers at the despatch box. And we are waiting for Tory MPs to grow a set of balls and finally give Johnson his marching orders.

Having said all that, the Gray report told us nothing new. As the Guardian says, it concluded that many of the 16 Downing Street parties were “difficult to justify” and it condemned “failures of leadership and judgment” in No 10 and the Cabinet Office. Most of us could have told them that some time ago.

However, the report, and the subsequent Met Police intervention, have served a purpose. They have given Johnson time to bring his rebellious backbenchers back on board, hiding behind the investigations and telling people that the facts were still in dispute. They weren't, something that Sue Gray makes very clear in her report.

But the process goes on, and according to the Guardian, Scotland Yard officers have obtained more than 300 photographs and 500 pages of documents. The images include pictures taken at alleged parties and from security-system cameras showing people entering and exiting buildings. It's a shame they didn't act at the time, after all there are always police officers outside Number Ten. Why didn't they intervene?

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