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Thursday, March 31, 2022

Boris Johnson in denial

Rather strangely, the upshot of the Metropolitan Police issuing fines to members of staff at number 10 Downing Street for breaking the law during lockdown, was not an open admission that they got it wrong and an apology, but an actual debate amongst ministers as to whether they had actually don anything wrong.

As the Independent reports, that Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the international trade secretary, very reluctantly admitted that laws were broken in Whitehall, while Boris Johnson is at odds with his deputy, Dominic Raab, over the scandal, as he refused to to endorse the justice secretary’s admission that Covid regulations were broken:

Mr Raab’s comments followed 24 hours in which No 10 had refused to accept the decision of the Met police to issue 20 fines for lockdown breaches amounted to proof of law-breaking.

During a committee yesterday, the prime minister repeatedly ducked questions on the issue, stressing he would not comment until Scotland Yard had concluded its probe into 12 events held in No 10.

Quizzed on whether Mr Raab “misspoke” after he suggested on Wednesday morning there were breaches of the law, Ms Trevelyan told Sky News: “No, he is the justice secretary and he has set out a position.

“I think if you or I get a fine, we hopefully pay it and move on from there. And I hope, and I assume, that those who have been fined by the police will pay their fines and that will be the punishment that they have accepted.”

Pressed on whether 20 fines being issued meant there were 20 instances of people breaking the law, she said: “Well, that’s right. They’ve broken the regulations that were set in the Covid Act, and police deem that that was what they did and therefore they’ve been fined accordingly.”

Asked why the PM would not say this, she added: “Because, as I say, he wants to wait until the whole process of the police review has been done.”

This sort of denial does the government no good whatsoever. The whole British public know they did wrong, isn't it about time the Tories admited it?

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Partygate continues to haunt Johnson

Partygate continues to inhabit every nook and corner of Boris Johnson's premiership like a bad smell. 

Despite attempts by number 10 and Tory MPs to portray the PM as a 'war leader', albeit a less than average one, in an attempt to deflect attention from the bad news, he just can't get rid of the stink.

The affair resurfaced again today with the news that the Metropolitan Police have issued the first 20 fines to those involved in partying through lockdown at 10 Downing Street. Rather bizarrely, the police have not named the recipients of these penalties, creating potential for further embarrassment when this information reaches the public domain.

As the Guardian points out, the very fact that these fines have been issued casts further doubt on the integrity of the Prime Minister, shattering his claim that no laws were broken by him or his staff.

Police are investigating 12 events in 2020 and 2021, six of which Johnson is said to have attended. And wth the Met making clear this is only the first tranche of referrals – and with interviews with certain key figures likely to take place in the coming weeks – there is still a possibility Johnson will be among those asked to pay a fixed-penalty notice. 

If that happens then moves by Tory MPs to no confidence could well reappear.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Why is Labour Air still flying?

I am astonished that the expensive, polluting, climate-change-denying, Welsh Government subsidised air service between Cardiff and Anglesey is still alive and kicking. 

The Welsh Liberal Democrats opposed this air service from the start and continue to criticise the millions of pounds of public money it is consuming, as well as the impact it has on our environment.

And yet, as the BBC reports, more than £2.1m has been paid to operator, Eastern Airways since the pandemic started, though no flights were operated. Over the past five financial years, more than £7.3m has been spent in subsidies.

Welsh Liberal Democrats leader Jane Dodds is quite right is saying that the service should be scrapped. She commented: "We're all used to doing meetings on Zoom and we're all now thinking a lot more about travel and climate change, so our view is that we shouldn't be renewing this contact." 

In truth though, the economic case for this air route has never stacked up, while in environmental terms it should have been a non-starter. Short-haul flights are some of the most polluting uses of our skies.

Surely, the irony is not lost on Welsh Government ministers, that they are cancelling by-passes and road schemes in the name of halting climate change, while wasting millions of pounds on an even bigger polluter.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Are we heading for a summer of discontent?

The Guardian reports on warnings by union leaders that hospitals, schools and the civil service will suffer a “mass exodus” of key staff unless millions of public sector employees receive pay rises that at least match the spiralling rate of inflation.

They say that following chancellor Rishi Sunak’s spring statement last week, which offered no more money to public services, the prospect of long and bitter battles over pay look certain as the cost of living crisis grows:

The prospect of pay disputes with the public sector is another big headache for Sunak, whose net approval rating has dropped to an all-time low of minus 4 points (down 15 on two weeks ago) according to Opinium’s latest poll. Before this week his lowest net approval was plus 7:

Last night, the country’s largest union, Unison, representing health service, education and other public service workers, said that unless members received “inflation busting” rises, staff would leave for better paid work in the private sector.

Unison will give evidence to the NHS pay review body on Tuesday and will also highlight this week how many employers on the high street including supermarkets, coffee shops and logistics firms​, are among those offering wages higher than the lowest hourly rates in the NHS.

One of the main teaching unions, the NASUWT, has already submitted evidence to its pay review body calling for a multi-year pay award for teachers, starting with a 12% award from September this year.

The union says that successive years of pay freezes and below-inflation awards mean teachers have suffered a 19% real-terms erosion in their pay since 2010.

Analysis by the TUC of official data shows that average real-terms pay in the public sector was down £81 a month in January 2022 compared with a year before.

In addition the forecasts alongside the spring statement from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) show that average real pay for all workers (public and private sectors) is set to fall by 2% in 2022.

Preparing the ground for a showdown with government, the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, told the Observer that public sector employees had worked during the pandemic “through the most intense days of their working lives”.

She added: “We have been holding meetings of public sector workers with their MPs. Many of them were not able to hold the tears back as they spoke up about how hard it has been at work, and how hard it is at home trying to make ends meet.

“The danger now for the whole nation is that we are at a tipping point. Many public sector workers across services like health, education and social care say they don’t know if they can take it any more. If they don’t at least get a proper pay rise and help to reduce workloads, it will be the final straw. A mass exodus would send shockwaves through every community, and it would damage our economy too. Ministers must be much more alive to this danger. They cannot let it happen.”

The cost of living crisis looks like it could get worse and the consequences for industrial relations look bleak.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Tory chancellor's crude and flawed assistance scheme

Liberal Democrat President, Mark Pack, highlights a major weakness in the Chancellor's proposal to give £150 to every council tax payer living in a band A to D household.

Mark tells us that around 1.3 million eligible families are set to miss out on the government’s £150 council tax rebate to help with soaring energy bills. These damning figures are buried in the small print of a report by the government’s financial watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), accompanying this week’s Spring Statement:

It predicts that the Treasury is set to rake in £195 million from lack of take-up of the government’s flagship scheme. The OBR estimates that two-thirds of council tax payers use direct debit and therefore will automatically benefit.

It then estimates a take-up rate of 80% among those who don’t use direct debit. This leaves 20% of households who won’t benefit from the scheme.

The watchdog says this implies that around seven per cent of the total £2.9 billion of funding for the scheme will not be paid out to eligible households, amounting to savings of £195 million. That is equivalent to 1.3 million families missing out on the £150 per council tax rebate.

Those who pay council tax without using direct debit tend to be older and more deprived households, who will also be hardest hit by soaring energy bills. The Liberal Democrats are demanding that the government post a £150 cheque to each household that doesn’t pay council tax by direct debit, to ensure no-one missed out.

The OBR also looks at the impact of the £200 discount on energy bills being provided to households, which has to then be paid back via a £40 charge on energy bills over the next five years. It says this loan means over half of the support being provided to help families with soaring heating costs is being clawed back by the Treasury.

As Ed Davey points out, maybe councils should be told to plug this gap by sending a good old fashioned cheque in the post.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Ukrainian refugees hitting a UK-shaped brick wall

We have heard the government rhetoric about the UK being ready to receive Ukrainian refugees, but according to one aid worker, who has flown to the country to help women and children wanting to flee the war zone, it is all hot air.

As the Guardian reports, Andrew Murray, a technology worker from north-east Scotland, has said ministers’ claims about the success of the visa programme that is meant to allow charities, businesses or companies to sponsor a refugee “does not match the reality on the ground”:

Speaking from Lviv, Murray said Ukrainians were “very grateful” for all the military equipment supplied by Britain to help fend off Russian forces.

But he added: “They’re under no illusion that the UK has made it artificially difficult to seek sanctuary there,” calling the scheme a “disgrace”.

Murray arrived in Ukraine earlier this week, with bundles of papers he drew up containing information about how those wanting to flee to the UK could navigate the process. He hoped to distribute the documents to charities and aid agencies, but said he realised “that’s a cottage industry trying to address an industrial scale problem”.

After going to Lviv city hall and meeting officials on the council, he said he realised they had never heard of the UK’s “homes for Ukraine” programme.

After initially restricting entry to only allow Ukrainians with close family members living in the UK to join them, ministers this month backtracked and set up a visa sponsorship system.

More than 100,000 Britons signed up to host a refugee fleeing the Russian invasion. But the UK government has said it will not match people offering to open their doors with a person or family in need of shelter.

Murray said he could not put into words the heart-rending devastation he had witnessed, seeing hundred of displaced Ukrainians from the besieged city of Mariupol arrive parched, starving and in need of a bed.

“It’s embarrassing knowing we could take them to the UK,” he said. “We’ve got to do something here otherwise we’ll only see a trickle of people coming to the UK.”

“These people are burned out, they’ve travelled half way across Ukraine and all they can think about is where to sit down and get some rest, water and soup. They can’t begin to think about bureaucracy and paperwork.”

The government is still maintaining some checks need to be made on those applying to come to Britain through the sponsorship route.

Michael Gove has said that security checks would establish whether people “are who they say they are” and prevent the scheme “being exploited possibly by criminal elements”. The Home Office is carrying out checks that the people offering up their homes are in a position to provide that support.

Murray said he was hoping to travel back to the UK via Poland to push for the government to spread the word more successfully about the sponsorship programme and encourage humanitarian groups to link up with local council officials.

“It’s being passed on through the grassroots and word of mouth rather than being driven top down,” he said.

Will this government ever step up? It is looking increasingly unlikely.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Targeting the poorest

It is going to be some considerable time before the Tories are in any position to attempt to reclaim their own carefully cultivated image of a low-tax, pro-family party, but they can rest-assured that their reputation for favouring the rich over the poorest elements of our society is secure.

As the Mirror reports, thias week's budget has been a PR disaster for the government, but a potential crisis for 1.3 million families in the UK.

The paper says that Rishi Sunak’s mini-Budget will plunge 1.3million Brits into poverty as the brutal impact of his miserly measures was today laid bare. And 500,000 children are among the families who will be left worse off by the Chancellor’s Spring Statement, which did little to help the hard-up survive the crippling cost of living crisis:

Millions of people struggling with soaring energy bills, skyrocketing prices and a looming National Insurance payments rise had hoped Mr Sunak would deliver a package of measures that would ease their pain.

But the millionaire Tory dealt them a crushing blow when he offered little in the way of help on Wednesday.

And today, the Resolution Foundation think tank exposed just how hard households will be hit.

It warned inflation, already soaring to 6.2% in the fastest rise in 30 years and outstripping wages and benefits, could hit 9%.

And its analysis revealed typical working-age household incomes are to fall by 4% in real terms this year, a loss of £1,100, while the largest drops will be among the poorest quarter where incomes are set to plunge by 6%.
Mr Sunak’s £11 billion in cuts to National Insurance and fuel duty will mostly benefit people in work.

Even with a 1p drop in income tax from 2024, seven out of eight workers will still be paying more tax overall by 2025, the research found.

Workers are also on course to suffer an £11,500 wage loss.

Resolution Foundation chief executive Torsten Bell said: “In the face of a cost of living crisis that looks set to make this Parliament the worst on record for household incomes, the Chancellor came to the dispatch box promising support with the cost of living today, and tax cuts tomorrow.

“The policies do not measure up to the rhetoric.” He added that Mr Sunak “prioritised rebuilding his tax-cutting credentials over supporting the low to middle income households who will be hardest hit from a surging cost of living”.

What a disaster this government has turned out to be.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Another blow to Brexit

Those Brexiteers who had boasted that doing a trade deal with the EU would be a piece of cake, only to find their optimism to be wildly misplaced, could at least comfort themselves with the idea that the USA was a willing trade partner. 

Unfortunately, the contrived deal signed by Boris Johnson, and his subsequent attempts to deny all responsibility, while throwing Northern Ireland and Eire to the wolves, has backfired on them.

The Guardian reports that Richard Neal, the chairman of the ways and means committee in the United States Congress, has warned that a bilateral trade deal between the US and the UK is “desirable”, but will not progress while the Northern Ireland peace deal is being used for domestic political purposes:

Congressman Neal told the Guardian: “We will not entertain a trade agreement if there is any jeopardy to the Good Friday agreement.

“A bilateral trade agreement with the UK is desirable – there’s no question about that. I’m very open to that. But what I’m not open to is holding the Good Friday agreement hostage over domestic politics.”

Neal, who has taken a keen interest in Northern Ireland over the past three decades, is a key figure in US trade deals and negotiated the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

His committee writes trade bills and without its support a deal will not be approved.

In an exclusive interview from Washington, he denounced those who say the Brexit deal has killed the Good Friday agreement on the grounds that unionists did not consent to the arrangements negotiated with the EU.

“We are concerned that the protocol is being used to hold the Good Friday agreement hostage,” he said.

“The argument being applied by some is reckless and demagogic.”

Neal’s comments come a day after the US trade minister Katherine Tai dashed hopes of any imminent post-Brexit free-trade deal, saying an agreement was not worth spending “years and a lot of blood, sweat and tears” over.

Back to the drawing board then.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Is the UK becoming a pariah state?

A pariah state is one considered to be an outcast in the international community, usually because it is guilty of heinous crimes against its own population. The UK is nowhere near that standard and we clearly still have friends, but the government appear to be doing everything they can to stand apart from international conventions and to alienate some important allies.

Key to that behaviour is the attitude of ministers to refugees and asylum seekers. Fortress Britain is a real thing and is being reinforced by Priti Patel’s new Nationality and Borders Bill, which according to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), will make the UK “one of the most anti-refugee countries in the world”.

The Independent reports that Médecins Sans Frontières, which employs over 35,000 personnel across 70 countries, has branded Commons' votes on Tuesday night “shameful”, after Tory MPs ripped out amendments proposed by the House of Lords.

They say that just four Conservative MPs ultimately voted against the government despite reports of a brewing rebellion over the home secretary’s most extreme policies:

The votes come as three million people flee the Russian invasion of Ukraine – joining others seeking sanctuary from authoritarian regimes and war zones across the world. Opposition MPs warned that the bill could criminalise Ukrainians fleeing war and branded the new laws a “traffickers charter”.

On Tuesday evening Tory MPs reinserted clauses that will allow the government to send refugees offshore and detain them indefinitely – a policy which aid groups say has caused “terrible suffering” when tried by Australia.

Following the votes the bill will also give the government new powers to punish refugees for how they arrive in the UK. Proposals by peers to give people a safe route to join families in the UK were also ripped out by the Conservatives.

“It’s shameful that the government has rejected these moderate, sensible changes, which would have removed some of the cruellest elements of the Nationality and Borders Bill,” Sophie McCann, MSF’s UK advocacy officer, said.

“In its current form, the bill will enshrine the UK as one of the most anti-refugee countries in the world, at a time when the devastating impact of war and conflict is absolutely evident.”

The charity says there is still time to drop the plans and is urging ministers to reconsider the plans, which it says will criminalise people seeking safety.

“The government cannot be serious about this bill – it is unworkable, exorbitantly expensive, and inhumane, targeting some of the most vulnerable people in the world,” Ms McCann said.

“There is nothing ‘fair’ about criminalising, detaining, pushing back and imprisoning refugees in offshore detention centres simply because of how they arrive in the UK.

“Closing off routes to the UK will only push people into the hands of criminal gangs and into more dangerous methods of attempting the journey.”

The UK has in recent weeks faced international criticism for its response to the millions of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion – and is practically the only European country not to implement an open door policy.

Pauline Chetcuti, head of policy at the charity Oxfam, said the bill “flagrantly undermines our obligations under international law”.

“The Ukrainian conflict painfully illustrates how innocent civilians everywhere have no choice but to flee conflict, persecution and violence. We need an asylum system that is based on the principle of protection, not punishment,” she said.

“This bill flagrantly undermines our obligations under international law to give all those who seek sanctuary a fair hearing. Amendments introduced by the House of Lords that would have rejected the worst elements of this bill – including removing the clauses that punish refugees based on how they arrive to the UK and removing offshore processing – have unfortunately been voted down in the House of Commons today, leaving some of the most harmful parts in place.

Perhaps the final word on this fiasco should be left to Liberal Democrat MP, Tim Farron. He told the House of Commons, "This is the worst piece of legislation I have seen in 17 years. Voting for this bill is voting for deaths in the Channel and members opposite know that." 

This is a shameful bill from a shameless government,

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Will Johnson's government end up jailing Ukrainian refugees?

To say that the UK government's response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis has been shameful, is an understatement. Not only is the UK the only country in Europe that requires visas before women and children, who are fleeing a war zone, can enter the country, but the government continue to put as much red tape as possible in their way, making it difficult, if not impossible for Ukrainians to find refuge here.

Now it transpires that a law wending its way through the Parliamentary process could see Ukrainians thrown into prison.

The Guardian reports that ministers have confirmed they are to stick with a planned law change that could potentially see Ukrainians who arrive in the UK without the correct visa jailed for four years.

They say that, while the Home Office has agreed to give way on a couple of amendments, it plans to push ahead again with plans for anyone who arrives in the UK by an unofficial route to have their asylum claim immediately ruled as inadmissible, with the possibility of up to four years in jail, a clause that peers had overturned:

According to a Home Office briefing note for MPs, ministers will still pursue the idea of Australian-style offshore processing centres for refugees, and block other Lords amendments aimed at making it easier for families to be reunited, and for unaccompanied refugee children to come to the UK.

The bill was last considered by MPs in December, and since then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created an estimated 10 million new refugees in Europe, with more than 100,000 Britons signing up to a scheme to house people from the country.

Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, called for Tory MPs to push Priti Patel, the home secretary, into changing course.

“It is unbelievable and deeply shameful that at a time like this Priti Patel is still pushing ahead with plans that could criminalise desperate Ukrainians who arrived in the UK with the wrong papers, and mean vulnerable refugees who have fled war or persecution could end up with prison sentences,” she said.

“I hope Conservative MPs will join us in telling the government to think again. Britain is better than this.”

This is an astonishingly mean-spirited faux pas by the government that is completely contrary to the sympathetic and generous response from the British public to this crisis and its victims.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Tory stealth tax hitting the poorest workers

The Liberal Democrats have accused Chancellor, Rishi Sunak of imposing a ‘stealth tax’ that will result in nearly 125,000 more of the poorest workers paying National Insurance:

The Mirror reports that the minimum salary at which workers pay the soon-to-be-hiked tax is rising from £9,568 to £9,880 a year next month, that is an increase of 3.1%, despite inflation running at 5.5%, and there are fears price rises could soon top 8%:

House of Commons Library research for the Lib Dems found between 95,000 and 125,000 fewer people would have to pay National Insurance if the threshold rose by 7.25% instead.

Meanwhile, the income Tax threshold is being frozen for four years in a stealth tax that is expected to raise more than £12bn, while student loan thresholds are also being frozen, forcing graduates to fork out a bigger proportion of their income to repayments as wages and prices rise:

It is a similar problem to benefits and pensions, which are also only rising by 3.1%. The figure is what inflation was last autumn - but it's since rocketed out of control.

Liberal Democrat Treasury Spokesperson Christine Jardine said: “Families are facing the worst squeeze in living standards in 50 years, but the Conservatives are clobbering people with yet more stealth taxes.

“This unfair move will drag thousands more people into paying tax, while millions more will see their tax bills rise yet again next year. Meanwhile small businesses struggling to stay afloat face a hidden tax on their employees' salaries.

“It is rubbing salt in the wound of the government’s broken promise not to raise National Insurance. Rishi Sunak must spike the hike, and offer families and businesses a lifeline by slashing VAT instead.”

It is little wonder so many people are struggling to make ends meet.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Another day, another broken Johnson promise

The news that there will be no restrictions on MPs having second jobs, after all, is a direct breach of a promise made by Boris Johnson, who originally suggested the curbs amid a sleaze scandal which provoked widespread Tory rebellion.

The Guardian reports that at least 20 Conservative MPs lobbied a committee investigating new rules on second jobs and their behaviour in the Commons chamber, with many saying they strongly disagreed with time limits on outside work:

The pledge to put tighter restrictions on second jobs came amid a public outcry over lobbying breaches by the former MP Owen Paterson, whom MPs were initially whipped to try and protect, and a furore over former attorney general Geoffrey Cox being paid nearly £6m as a lawyer since joining parliament, voting by proxy on days he was undertaking paid work.

Two cabinet ministers, Dominic Raab and Anne-Marie Trevelyan, expressly backed a time limit on second jobs last autumn, suggesting it could be 10-15 hours a week.

But with pressure off Johnson’s premiership because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, ministers submitted their view to the Commons standards committee that a time limit or ceiling on such earnings would be “impractical”.

The Labour leader Keir Starmer said Johnson was breaking his promise to the public to tackle second jobs. “He said he was going to deal with second jobs and there was going to be this cap,” he told reporters.

“That was his proposal at the height of this scandal of his own making. Now, as soon as he gets the opportunity, he is breaking his promise yet again. It goes to the heart of the problem with this prime minister, which is this problem of trust and moral authority.”

The Guardian can reveal a number of former cabinet ministers have also expressed concern at the proposals by the Commons standards committee to limit outside earnings, paid political consultancy, and also to introduce new principles of respect in the code of conduct and limit abusive language in the Commons.

So, shock, horror. turkeys will vote against Christmas every time.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Ethics are main casualty in Johnson's pursuit of oil

As Ed Davey never tires of pointing out, if the Conservative government had not abandoned his programme of building up alternative energy sources in 2015, then the energy crisis we are experiencing at the moment would not be so intense. The problem is that successive governments have pursued the quick and easy wins over long term strategy, and all of us are now paying the price.

The other disturbing trend in economic and energy policy is the way governments have cosied up to dubious individuals to achieve their goals, thus, the sudden rush to replace Russian and Ukrainian gas, oil and minerals that for decades have helped to shore up our economy. 

Associated with this of course, is the uncomfortable and morally indefensible relationships between those in power and the very Russian oligarchs we are now trying to sanction for their association with Putin, Johnson's pal, Lebedev, excluded, of course.

This breaking of ties has left Ministers seeking other sources of raw materials, hence the Prime Minister's rush to the Middle East this week, and the ratcheting up of relations with a Saudi Arabian ally whose adherence to basic human rights is virtually non-existent. Have we really learnt nothing from the events of the last few years?

The Guardian reports that Johnson has hinted Saudi Arabia could speed up oil production to help calm spiralling energy prices for Britons, at the same time praising the country for improving its human rights record despite three more people being executed during his visit:

Johnson said there was “a lot of agreement” in his meeting with Saudi Arabia’s ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, adding that efforts should be made to ensure “the global economy is not damaged by the current spikes”.

On the same day, the Saudi government executed three more citizens.

It came days after the largest state killing in the kingdom’s history of 81 men. The UN said half were Muslims from the Shia minority and had taken part in protests calling for greater political participation a decade ago.

Johnson’s visit was heavily restricted for media, with government sources claiming No 10 wanted to draw relatively little attention to it.

The human rights charity group Reprieve are particularly scathing:

“By travelling to meet Mohammed bin Salman so soon after a mass execution, Boris Johnson clearly signalled that in return for oil, the UK will tolerate even the gravest human rights abuses,” Reprieve’s director Maya Foa said.

“Today’s executions are the immediate result. The prime minister has blood on his hands.

“Carrying out these executions while the leader of a western power is on Saudi soil was provocative act, designed to flaunt the crown prince’s power and impunity to the world.

“It is not acceptable to cite Russia’s war crimes to try to justify trading blood for oil elsewhere. It shows the world we will apply double standards for our convenience, and embolden countries like Saudi Arabia into further atrocities, just as Putin was emboldened by our willingness to take his cronies’ cash for decades.”

Saudi Arabia is one of 38 countries still to use the death penalty and Salman is believed by US intelligence to have ordered the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

As Keir Starmer says, “going cap in hand from dictator to dictator is not an energy strategy”, while abandoning basic ethics to achieve your goals, is not leadership, certainly not in a democracy, anyway.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Tories trashing our environment

Yet another example of a callous disregard for our natural environment from Tory MPs, as the Independent reports that the party's MPs have voted down a law that would have named and shamed water companies that kill animals animals by dumping sewage into the natural environment.

They say that in a Commons division on Monday evening parliament rejected the plan by 286 votes to 179 – despite support from the Liberal Democrats, Labour, and other parties:

The amendment to the Animal Welfare Bill would have required a new committee on animals to detail "the number of sentient animals killed or injured as a result of polluted rivers".

It would also have required the report to explain what water companies were doing to protect animals in the future.

MPs in favour of the change argued that current enforcement of how private water companies operate is too weak – noting that between 2018 and 2021, there were only 11 prosecutions of water companies for dumping sewage.

Following the defeat of the plan, Liberal Democrat rural affairs spokesperson Tim Farron, who proposed the amendment, said Conservative MPs "should hang their heads in shame".

"Yet again they have let water companies off the hook whilst our precious rivers and waters are being pumped full of raw sewage," he said.

“Enough is enough, we need to name and shame water companies which are being found to destroy precious wildlife habitat. It is scandalous that animals are swimming in filth and seeing their habitats become sewage traps.

“This is a national scandal. Time and time again Conservative MPs refuse to take tough action on water companies. When will they finally listen to the public and do the right thing before our rivers are damaged beyond repair?”

Surely it is time the law held these polluters to account. Why do the Tories have a problem with that?

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Johnson abandons manifesto commitment on trophy import ban

The Guardian reports that Conservatives are blaming a “handful of very wealthy peers” who make up the shooting and hunting lobby over the news that legislation banning the import of hunting trophies is to be scrapped.

The paper says that the animals abroad bill, which contained measures including banning adverts for holidays that feature elephant rides, was to be a flagship bill signalling to the world that post-Brexit Britain was a world leader in animal rights, legislating against animal cruelty abroad. Significantly, it included a commitment to ban the import of endangered animal parts and that has proven to be a step too far for some:

But over the weekend it emerged that the bill was no longer likely to be implemented. Government sources said it had been scrapped, and that manifesto commitments including the trophy hunting import ban would no longer take place in this parliament. The government has officially blamed a lack of parliamentary time to implement the bill, elements of which were promised in the 2019 Conservative manifesto.

Ministers have blamed lobbying from the traditional wing of the party for No 10’s change of heart over the bill. A senior government source said: “A handful of crusties have managed to seize control. A handful of very wealthy peers are pressing for all the animal welfare measures to be dropped because they fear eventually it might mean their weekends could be affected.”

Some within the Conservative party believe, according to this source, that trophy-hunting animal rights activists will say that it is hypocritical to legislate based on nature-depleting action abroad, when shooting weekends are still allowed in the UK.

Another indication that this government has little regard for the environment and animal welfare.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Refugees caught up in red tape

The government may be offering UK households £360 a month as a thank you for housing a Ukrainian refugee, but the biggest obstacle to delivering that scheme remains UK ministers themselves.

I listened to Radio Wales this morning, and the Welsh Tory leader's reaction to the First Ministers ambition to welcome 1000 refugees, and was shocked at Andrew R.T, Davies' complete lack of awareness of the obstacles being put in place on the UK border to women and children fleeing a war zone, in getting here in the first place.

Mark Drakeford said he wants Wales to be a "nation of sanctuary" and plans were now in place to take the "first wave". Welsh Tories however, want Wales to accept 10,000 refugees. At the moment, the number of visas being issued to Ukrainians numbers in the hundreds. Will that 10,000 refugees be allowed to even enter the UK?

The Guardian reports that British families trying to help Ukrainian relatives get to safety in the UK have expressed frustration and fury at the continued bureaucratic and technical hurdles involved, despite government promises to cut the red tape involved in the family reunification scheme:

Applicants said they were struggling with a range of problems – such as online application forms that crash, difficulty in getting clear guidance from helpline staff, some advice hotlines charging premium rates of 69p a minute, delays in visa processing times and extended, expensive stays in hotels in unfamiliar countries with no clarity about when visas will be granted.

Although the rules governing the Home Office-administered Ukraine family scheme are to change from Tuesday, removing the need for applicants to get fingerprinted before coming to the UK, about 22,000 people who have already submitted applications have been given no information about how to proceed.

Several families with elderly and vulnerable relatives told the Guardian that they were concerned about the protracted delays in processing UK visas.

Perhaps the Welsh Tory leader should be focussing on sorting out members of his own party, sitting in the UK Government, whose actions so far have failed to show the urgency and compassion needed to address this situation.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Pets before people?

The Independent reports that the government has decided that Ukrainian refugees who carried their pets as they fled their homes will be allowed to bring the animals into the UK without paperwork or facing vaccine and quarantine bills.

These emergency measures will make it easier for the victims of war to keep their cats and dogs with them rather than abandoning them in countries en route to the UK, such as Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Germany, while ministers will also waive the strict rule that requires owners to have a pet passport or health certificate to bring in their pets.

This is good news of course, but shouldnt they also be helping these women and children by waiving visa requirements like every other European country to help these refugees join family and friends in the UK?

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Court rules Met police breached rights of organisers of Sarah Everard vigil

Anybody who doubted that the decision to oust Cressida Dick as Metropolitan Police Commissioner was the right one, must surely be reassured by the decision of the high court to rule in favour of the organisers of a planned vigil for Sarah Everard.

As the Guardian reports, the Metropolitan police breached the rights of the organisers of the planned vigil in the way they handled the planned event:

Reclaim These Streets (RTS) proposed a socially distanced vigil for the 33-year-old, who was murdered by a serving Met officer, Wayne Couzens, near to where she went missing in Clapham, south London, in March last year.

Four women who founded RTS and planned the vigil brought a legal challenge against the force over its handling of the event, which was also intended to be a protest about violence against women.

They withdrew from organising the vigil after being told by the force they would face fines of £10,000 each and possible prosecution if the event went ahead, and a spontaneous vigil and protest took place instead.

At a two-day hearing in January, Jessica Leigh, Anna Birley, Henna Shah and Jamie Klingler argued that decisions made by the force in advance of the planned vigil amounted to a breach of their human rights to freedom of speech and assembly, and say the force did not assess the potential risk to public health.

In a judgment handed down on Friday, Lord Justice Warby and Mr Justice Holgate ruled in favour of RTS, finding that the Met’s decisions in the run-up to the event were “not in accordance with the law”.

In a statement outside the Royal Courts of Justice on behalf of the four women who organised the vigil, their solicitor Theodora Middleton said: “Today’s judgment is a victory for women.

“Last March, women’s voices were silenced. Today’s judgment conclusively shows that the police were wrong to silence us.

“The decisions and actions by the Met police in the run-up to the planned vigil for Sarah Everard last year were unlawful and the judgment sets a powerful precedent for protest rights.

“We came together one year and one day ago to organise a vigil on Clapham Common because Sarah Everard went missing from our neighbourhood. We felt sad and afraid.

“We were angry that women still weren’t safe and we were tired of the burden to stay safe always weighing on our shoulders.”

In a summary of the ruling, Lord Justice Warby said: “The relevant decisions of the [Met] were to make statements at meetings, in letters, and in a press statement, to the effect that the Covid-19 regulations in force at the time meant that holding the vigil would be unlawful.

“Those statements interfered with the claimants’ rights because each had a ‘chilling effect’ and made at least some causal contribution to the decision to cancel the vigil.

“None of the [force’s] decisions was in accordance with the law; the evidence showed that the [force] failed to perform its legal duty to consider whether the claimants might have a reasonable excuse for holding the gathering, or to conduct the fact-specific proportionality assessment required in order to perform that duty.”

I suppose we can hope that the new Commissioner is a bit more sensitive to democratic rights, but unless there is a fundamental reform of the Met, its priorities and the way it operates, I am not holding my breath.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Former fraud minister labels Covid loans as 'happy days for crooks'

It is always useful to get an inside view on government, and when it comes from a disaffected ex-minister then it can be particularly revealing.

The Mirror reports on evidence given by Lord Agnew to MPs on the Commons Treasury Committee on Wednesday, in which he said the Covid loan scheme meant "happy days if you were a crook" as he revealed shockingly lax Treasury checks on relief cash for firms.

The peer branded the the government's anti-fraud efforts a “Dad’s Army” operation where basic checks were overlooked, as he hit out at the Tories' "lamentable" record on tackling fraud:

He lifted the lid on extraordinary levels of Covid fraud, saying: "I sent letters of congratulations to Border Force staff for picking up suitcases of cash leaving the country."

The peer also said the cost of Covid loan fraud would significantly surpass Chancellor Rishi Sunak's predictions.

It comes two months after the Treasury confirmed that it wrote off £4.3 billion worth of the £5.8 billion of fraud witnessed across its Covid business loan schemes.

Ministers have defended the scheme saying cash had to be rushed out of the door to ensure firms didn't go under.

Lord Agnew said he stepped down from his role after deciding he could not defend actions in regards to bounce back loans for smaller firms, where the Treasury reported £4.9 billion worth of fraud.

“I was asked a question to defend our track record on this particular intervention about bounce back loans and I could not stand up with any great integrity and say we did a great job, because we hadn’t,” he told the Treasury Select Committee.

“Intellectually and at the top policy level, I believe it was an important intervention – we had to get the money out quickly to legitimate businesses and give them the support they needed.

“But on the fraud side, it was just a Dad’s Army operation.”

The former minister said it took officials “six weeks” to create a system which could catch fraudsters making duplicate claims for loans but that “60% of the money had already gone out of the door”.

“I was writing letters of congratulations to border force staff for picking up suitcases of cash leaving the country,” he commented.

“It was happy days if you were a crook in those first few months

“I believe very strongly that the taxpayer deserves that the Government should use their money wisely and an issue like the management of countering fraud is a cross-party issue.

“I don’t think there is anybody who would condone a weak system which allows money to fall into the laps of crooks, and that’s what I saw happening.

“In any of these situations you try and bring about change from inside the tent but you get to a point where that just doesn’t seem to be working.”

Let's hope that the public inquiry into Covid takes up these issues as well and that lessons are learnt.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Brexit blamed for delays in supplies getting to Ukraine

As if the consequences of Brexit were not bad enough for the economy, peace and national security, it seems that it is also interfering with the relief effort in Ukraine.

Wales-on-line reports that lorry loads of items donated by people across south Wales to help those fleeing the war in Ukraine are being delayed from getting through to those who need them 'because of red tape at customs'.

The paper says that the delivery of an 'overwhelming' response to an appeal by a Neath church has stalled due to issues with the paperwork needed for the items to pass through customs at the UK border, meaning the products have had to go into storage. 

And the church has now had to employ security to keep an eye on the mountains of donations, after they were targeted by people wanting to take them away for themselves:

The revelation comes after a number of charities have claimed customs red tape brought about by Brexit is delaying supplies getting to the Ukrainian border to ease the humanitarian crisis, with more than two million people reported to have fled their homes as Russia continues its invasion.

Pastor John Williams, of NMCC Family Church in Melyn, Neath, said they had received a 'mind-blowing' response to their appeal, but said volunteers faced a 'nightmare task' in sorting out the donations to satisfy the paperwork demanded by UK customs.

He declined to comment on whether he thought changes to customs procedure brought about by Brexit was to blame.

But importers now have to make a full customs declaration on goods entering the UK from the EU or other countries, or vice versa. It's due to the UK being considered a "third country" post-Brexit. This is because the UK is no longer part of the trade bloc, part of the EEA which shares the Single Market, or has a customs union agreement such as Turkey has.

Pastor Williams said: "Customs has been the issue. We have had thousands and thousands of carrier bags and boxes, with scores of items in each. There have been an array of items, from food parcels, shampoo, nappies, wet wipes and the likes.

"The generosity has been overwhelming. But they come from all sorts of sources, such as Tesco and Aldi and Asda, but that is not satisfactory for customs. They need to know the source, the product codes, the quantity.

"We have got 80 or 90 pallet loads in stock and to source and sort out that in that volume would just be a nightmare task, and there is no leeway being given on aid leaving customs. We can't just put a generic box saying 'shampoo' for instance. Customs want to open the box and know what is in it.

"That is the situation in the ports in the UK, with lorries laden with products. I think it is common sense if you let it go it would not take long to make a positive contribution to Ukrainian aid, but it is a major problem for everyone".

So not only is the government blocking refugees from entering the country but their actions and rules are causing problems for those seeking to help the victims of this war.

Wednesday, March 09, 2022

Swansea Labour loses plot in vanity naming saga

Having borrowed £130 million to build a so-called state of the art arena and coastal park, Labour council chiefs in Swansea are slapping themselves on the back and bathing in their own adulation. 

Whether this arena will bring the footfall and jobs to the city centre it is claimed, has to be seen, but there is no doubting that it is an impressive addition to the city, even if, as a result, council borrowing is set to hit £800m, with all that entails for future council tax rises. That level of investment in the city's failing roads and pavements should be the next project.

There are signs however, that those responsible have rather lost the plot with self-congratulation turning into the sort of crass vanity that could well backfire on them.

As Nation Cymru reports, three of the rooms in the arena have been named after serving Labour cabinet members Robert Francis-Davies, David Hopkins and Andrea Lewis.

Council leader Rob Stewart told a committee yesterday that the thinking was “to recognise the unique contribution” the councillors had made to the project and that it was a cost-free thing to do. He also said that he was considering naming other rooms in the Guildhall in a similar fashion.

Personally, I have no problem with naming places after local personalities. After all I had a new street in my ward named after a former (and deceased) Labour Councillor for my area, who was also a political opponent, in honour of his contribution to the community, which went beyond local poltics. And I initiated the naming of another development after the footballer John Charles, who was born and brought up nearby.

However, once you start to honour members of your own cabinet, by naming things after them while they are still alive, kicking and standing for election, then you go down a very strange rabbit hole, the sort of warren previously occupied by dodgy communist regimes around the world.

If we are going to honour people in a major entertainment venue, then why not look to some of the city's past entertainers such as Harry Secombe, or living ones such as Catherine Zeta Jones and Bonnie Tyler. Indeed, why not stretch the city boundaries a bit and bring in Ryan Davies, Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Ivor Emmanuel, international opera singer Rebecca Evans, or singer and songwriter Geraint Griffiths, to name just a few?

Time for a rethink, I believe.

Tuesday, March 08, 2022

Burning the evidence

A rare and unusual venture to the website of Mailonline this morning, if only because they appear to be the only mainstream news outlet covering the story.

The paper reports that Department of Health officials have told MPs that they plan to avoid wasting 5.5 billion pieces of faulty or excess PPE bought during the pandemi by burning it.

The idea is to send 15,000 pallets of visors, gowns and gloves to be burned at power plants each month to generate energy in an attempt to recoup part of the billions of pounds wasted on protective gear in the first year of the pandemic:

Contracts were handed out via a 'high priority lane' in 2020 which saw firms handed huge sums without having to go through the normal procurement route.

It led to accusations of 'cash for cronies' after it emerged that friends and associates of Tory MPs were the beneficiaries of the scheme.

It comes as millions Britons face soaring energy bills, although the plan to burn PPE to make electricity is not believed to be in response to that ongoing crisis.

Department of Health officials revealed the prospect of burning PPE in power plants to generate heat and electricity to MPs today during a session of the Public Accounts Committee analysing Government spending on PPE from 2020 to 2021.

MPs also heard how about £4billion of the £12billion purchased in that period is unusable by the NHS.

Officials explained this was either because it was counterfeit or was of a lower standard.

The paper adds that some of examples of potential recycling detailed to MPs included turning visors into food trays and aprons into bin bags. They say that previously, health ministers have floated the idea of using the equipment to make bedsheets and curtains for hospitals. 

However, some of the Government's unused PPE will remain in limbo, with 1.5billion pairs of gloves currently unused due to possible being made by slaves.

You really couldn't make this stuff up.

Monday, March 07, 2022

Action failing to match words on Ukraine

Boris Johnson may have just unleashed a rather nonsensical six point plan to save Ukraine, but where it really matters his government is falling down badly.

The Independent reports that as few as 50 visas have been issued by the UK for Ukraine refugees to come to the UK, despite the crisis being labelled Europe’s worst since the Second World War.

The paper says that Home Secretary, Priti Patel was challenged over the low figure – as she became embroiled in a spat with France over refugees trapped in Calais without visas to cross the Channel:

On a visit to a help centre, the home secretary was asked if she had made it “too difficult” for refugees to be admitted, after – unlike the EU – rejecting pleas to waive visa rules.

“Nearly 12,000 have indicated that they’d like to come, over 5,000 have submitted applications,” Ms Patel was told.

“As of today, only 50 have been approved. So, given the desperation, how is it acceptable that only 1 per cent of UK visa applications have been granted? Are you making it too difficult?”

In response, Ms Patel did not dispute that only 50 visas have been issued, while arguing staff numbers are being boosted “across all application centres across the entire European Union”.

The Independent has asked the Home Office to confirm the figure of 50 successful visa applications, which was revealed by Channel 4 News.

Earlier, France protested at what it called the UK’s “lack of humanity”, after women and children in Calais were told to travel back to Paris to apply for visas.

But Ms Patel claimed: “The British government is not turning anybody around or turning anybody back at all.” She added: “I have staff in Calais to provide support to Ukrainian families.”

The French interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, criticised the way British officials are turned away refugees at the Channel for not having the necessary visas.

“I have twice contacted twice my British counterpart, I told her to set up a consulate in Calais,” Mr Darmanin told Europe 1 radio, referring to the home secretary.

Basic humanity is not one of this government's strong points.

Sunday, March 06, 2022

Questions over peerage for Russian oligarch

Tne Sunday Times reports on the strange circumstances in which the Moscow-born son of an ex-KGB agent and media mogul ended up in the House of Lords.

The paper alleges that the security services withdrew an assessment that granting a peerage to a Russian businessman posed a national security risk after Boris Johnson pushed ahead with the nomination of his friend Evgeny Lebedev, even after officials raised concerns:

Johnson is said to have responded to advice to drop it by claiming: “This is anti-Russianism.” In March 2020, the House of Lords Appointments Commission (Holac), which vets peerages, wrote to the prime minister advising him against granting Lebedev, 41, a lifetime seat in the Lords.

Lebedev, who owns the Evening Standard and Independent newspapers, derives his wealth from his father Alexander, 62, a billionaire oligarch. Previously described as a Putin critic, he is thought to retain close ties to the Kremlin and is understood to be in Moscow.

Holac’s objections were based on intelligence provided by MI5 and MI6, relayed to the commission by Cabinet Office security officials. A source with direct knowledge of events said: “Their initial advice was that they considered that there could be a threat to national security ... There was some security concern about the whole situation.”

Johnson, 57, met Lebedev, who has British citizenship, at his home on March 19, 2020, two days after the initial rejection. No 10 will not say what they discussed.

The prime minister returned to Downing Street and took a personal interest in the case. A former adviser said he refused to accept the verdict of the security services and would not drop the issue.

One source said Johnson’s political aides had helped to unblock sensitive peerages to which Holac had objected at around the same time — such as Lord Cruddas of Shoreditch, the former Conservative Party co-treasurer — as they were deemed to be of wider importance to the party.

While they were “pretty disinterested” by Lebedev’s case, Johnson was insistent his peerage “go through”. By June, Holac received an update about Lebedev. Cabinet Office officials advised that the security services no longer deemed his peerage to be problematic. The source said: “The security services withdrew that particular quite damning bit of advice.”

Asked whether the intelligence itself seemed to have changed, they said: “Yes it did. It did. What the intelligence would say was, that with the extra information it got, they felt it wasn’t as big a threat as they had initially thought.”

The commission no longer had any basis on which to advise Johnson against Lebedev’s peerage. The source said: “Faced with that, the committee had no option really [but] to cave in and to agree with it. But there was always concern there.” It approved the peerage.

A source said the strongly held suspicion was that Johnson had asked the security services whether “perhaps their advice could be watered down”.

A second source, a former Downing Street aide, confirmed there had been a change in the security assessment, but they, like other senior officials at the time, did not know the exact circumstances leading up to it. A third source, who also worked in No 10, said they believed a “secret deal” had been done with security officials at the prime minister’s behest.

Johnson has a long history of association with Lebedev, and like all Prime Ministers, has tremendous powers of patronage. This is yet another argument as to why the House of Lords should be an entirely elected second chamber.

Saturday, March 05, 2022

Immigration minister refuses to give evidence as Ukrainian refugees remain excluded from UK

The Independent reports that Kevin Foster, the minister for immigration and future borders, has declined an invitation from the Home Affairs Committee to answer questions on what Britain is doing to provide support and refuge to people leaving Ukraine following the invasion by Russia.

The committee wanted to speak to him after his department came under criticism in recent days over its “bespoke humanitarian route” for Ukrainians fleeing the conflict, after it emerged that the scheme excludes swathes of refugees with loved ones in the UK:

Home secretary Priti Patel announced on Tuesday that it was expanding the route to include parents, grandparents, adult children and siblings of British nationals and people settled in the UK, and that a new sponsorship scheme was being established to help people fleeing the Russia invasion.

But many relatives, including partners or cousins of British nationals, as well as close relatives of people in the UK on work or study visas, who are not deemed to be “settled”, remain excluded from the scheme.

Shadow immigration minister Yvette Cooper said earlier this week that there remained “significant questions” about “gaps in the system and delays”, and that she remained concerned about whether this would deliver the “much needed support and sanctuary in practice”.

It also emerged on Wednesday that the helpline set up by the Home Office for Ukrainian refugees wishing to join loved ones in Britain under the new visa scheme was being manned by advisers who know nothing about the scheme.

Foster was criticised recently, for suggesting that Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion could apply for the seasonal worker scheme in order to get into the UK. It has been suggested that he is too busy dealing with the crisis to be scrutinised on his actions. Perhaps if we saw some evidence of that, and of some basic humanity from this government, the committee would let him get on with it.

Friday, March 04, 2022

Is Johnson shoring up his support with honours?

There is universal outrage this morning that Boris Johnson has given the former education secretary, Gavin Williamson, a knighthood.

The Independent reports that the honour comes six months after Williamson was sacked as education secretary by Johnson in the wake of the fiasco surrounding school exams during the Covid pandemic and a series of U-turns over free school meal policy when he was shamed by Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford.

Williamson had previously been sacked as defence secretary by Theresa May in 2019 after being blamed for a leak from the National Security Council. Unfortunately, No 10 was not immediately able to provide details of the citation explaining the reason for the award to the South Staffordshire MP, although the paper understands that the honour was a political award:

News of the knighthood was greeted with outrage by some at Westminster, with Labour’s shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson saying it showed “utter contempt” for schoolchildren subjected to exam chaos and denied school meals during lockdown.

Lib Dem education spokesperson Munira Wilson described it as “an insult to every child, parent and teacher who struggled through Covid against the odds”.

Ms Phillipson said: “Gavin Williamson left children to go hungry, created two years of complete chaos over exams and failed to get laptops out to kids struggling to learn during lockdowns. His record is astonishing and disgraceful.

“Boris Johnson is proving again it’s one rule for him and his mates and another for the rest of us.

“This shows utter contempt for the challenges children and education staff have faced during the pandemic.”

And Ms Wilson said: “The only award Gavin Williamson should be given is the one for worst education secretary in history.

“He failed to get laptops to children who needed them, sleepwalked into the exam crisis and caused chaos for parents and teachers over getting children back to school.

“People across the country will be outraged at this reward for his abysmal failures. It is an insult to every child, parent and teacher who struggled through Covid against the odds. It shows this government only cares about those at the top.”

Labour shadow cabinet member Peter Kyle said: “The man who, as defence secretary, told Russia to ‘shut up and go away’ is given a knighthood by Boris Johnson seven days after Russia illegally invades a sovereign European country.

“Our country is further humiliated with every day these people remain in power.”

And Labour’s Yasmin Qureshi said: “Gavin Williamson getting a knighthood. Presumably it’s for services to failure in managing two sets of exam results?”

The Prime Minister really is pulling out all the stops to shore up his support within the Conservative Parliamentary Party.

Thursday, March 03, 2022

Tory association with Russian oligarchs continues to haunt them

Throughout the current crisis with Ukraine, Boris Johnosn and his party have not been able to shake off their own associations with Russian Oligarchs. The issue is the huge amounts of money that has found its way into Tory party coffers over the last decade or so.

The Prime Minister has even played tennis with the wife of a former Russian minister after she donated £160,000 to the Conservative party and, in total, it has been alleged that the Tories have accepted £800,000 from "oligarchs and their associates".

Now the Mirror reports that Tories pocketed almost £80,000 in donations from a Russian-born banker whose husband is a former Vladimir Putin minister just months before the invasion of Ukraine:

Lubov Chernukhin, whose husband Vladimir served as deputy finance minister to President Putin before coming to the UK, made two donations of £13,750 in October and £66,500 in December last year.

There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Ms Chernukhin, who is a British citizen and has been legally entitled to make political donations since 2012.

The Mirror understands the first payment was for a table at the party’s notorious Black and White Ball fundraiser, where wealthy benefactors can rub shoulders with senior ministers and MPs while Boris Johnson rattles his donation tin to bolster party coffers.

The second donation is understood to be a successful bid in the event’s auction, where the party sells access to cabinet ministers to the highest bidder.

Ms Chernukhin has repeatedly paid for access to successive Prime Ministers ministers in the auction, including a cosy night out with Theresa May and a tennis match with Boris Johnson.

Last year's event saw an hour playing cricket with Rishi Sunak sold for £35,000 - while a karaoke session with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss raised £22,000, though it’s not currently known what Ms Chernukhin’s cash bought her.

In total Ms Chernukhin has given almost £2 million to the party - and is the biggest female political donor in British history.

The £80,000 brings her total donations to the central party and individual Tory MPs for 2021 to £155,225.

As the paper points out, although Vladimir Chernukhin served as Mr Putin's deputy finance minister in the early 2000s, the Conservative Party says he had since fallen out of favour with the President. The amount of money going into their coffers from Russians though, is not a good look in the current circumstances.

Wednesday, March 02, 2022

More Brexit failures

There isn't one crisis, there are several, including a war in Europe that has the potential to spread, the suffering of thousands of Ukrainians and those seeking refuge from war, and of course the continuing pandemic, and Brexit.

The Independent reports that the impact of Brexit on our economy has led to UK food and drink exports to the EU plunging by almost a quarter in the nine months after Boris Johnson’s deal took effect, compared to pre-pandemic levels, with a loss of £2.4bn in sales.

The paper says that exports to big European markets were hit hard, with sales to Spain down by more than half (50.6 per cent) on 2019 levels, Germany by 44.5 per cent and Italy by 43.3 per cent, according to the Food and Drink Federation. Sales to the industry’s largest overseas market, the Republic of Ireland, were down by more than a quarter:

And industry leaders warned that the downturn could be “here to stay”, in a blow not only to Mr Johnson’s “global Britain” aspirations but also his plans to “level up” disadvantaged parts of the country.

The FDF said that the slump in sales could be blamed both on new barriers to trade created by Brexit and Mr Johnson’s Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) with Brussels, and on the global Covid-19 pandemic.

But figures showed that UK sales of food and drink products to non-EU markets rose by 11 per cent in the first three quarters of 2021, suggesting that Brexit is to blame for the lion’s share of lost trade with Europe. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) were worst affected.

In total, UK food and drink exports were down £2.7bn (15.9 per cent) in the first three quarters of 2021, compared to the same period in 2019. The drop in sales to the EU totalled £2.4bn (23.7 per cent).

Now that wasnt on the side of the Brexit bus, was it?

Tuesday, March 01, 2022

Tories misread mood of country again

It turns out that the Home Secretary is so obsessed with maintaining as much of her racist and isolationist immigration regime that she cannot even bring herself to make any meaningful changes to accommodate the many Ukrainian refugees seeking to join their family in the UK, despite overwhelming public support in favour of offering asylum.

The Independent reports that ministers have been accused of being “heartless and mean-spirited” after it emerged that a new humanitarian route for Ukrainian refugees amounts to only small adjustments to visa rules which will benefit only certain family members of British citizens:

Home secretary Priti Patel told MPs on Monday that the government had introduced a “bespoke humanitarian route” for people fleeing the Russian invasion in Ukraine, saying it would allow an additional 100,000 Ukrainians to seek sanctuary in the UK.

However, it later emerged that this does not go beyond the easing of rules for a limited pool of family members of UK residents, which was announced over the weekend and has already been branded a “plaster for an open wound”.

Charities criticised the government’s failure to do as the EU has done and waive all visa rules for refugees fleeing Ukraine, which Ms Patel insisted would undermine “the strongest security advice”. Lawyers said they were sceptical about the claims that 100,000 people would be helped under her changes.

Shadow immigration minister Yvette Cooper accused the home secretary of “complete confusion” around what is being offered to Ukrainian refugees, asking her in the House of Commons: “How on earth is the home secretary so unprepared for something she’s been warning about for weeks?”

More than 500,000 people have already fled Ukraine since the beginning of the invasion, and the UN estimates that this figure could reach 4 million.

Temporary visa concessions announced by the Home Office on Sunday mean that certain family members of British nationals who do not meet the usual eligibility criteria but pass security checks may be granted permission to enter the UK outside the rules for 12 months.

However, this applies to spouses, the parents of children under 18, children under 18 and close relatives requiring care - excluding many relatives including parents, adult children, siblings.

Immigration barrister Colin Yeo told The Independent he was “sceptical” about Ms Patel’s claim that the concessions would help 100,000 Ukrainians.

“There aren’t many Ukrainians in the UK so I can’t see how there are going to be 100,000 eligible family members,” he said, adding: “The contrast with the simple generosity shown by the EU seems quite marked.”

A poll by YouGov last week found almost two-thirds of British people would support the introduction of a resettlement scheme for those fleeing Ukraine. Unfortunately, the Tories are not listening, preferring instead to maintain their fortress Britain approach, in defiance of our international obligations.

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