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Saturday, April 30, 2022

Substandard administration aids opaque information regime

The Independent reports that MPs have accused the government of “substandard” handling of the freedom of information system and called for an independent audit of in order to restore public trust.

The paper says that a new report from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee found evidence of “poor FoI administration” in the Cabinet Office, which appeared “inconsistent with the spirit and principles” of the FoI Act – introduced in 2000 to allow members of the public to request information held by public bodies:

They said ministers had dragged their feet over opening up a controversial “Clearing House” — a body which coordinates responses to certain requests across government — to scrutiny.

The Cabinet Office has previously denied the clearing house was used to blacklist some information seekers, including some journalists.

However, a tribunal ruling in April 2021 required the government to release information about its operations, citing a “profound lack of transparency” about what it does.

The Cabinet Office has invited Sue Langley — a non-executive director at the Home Office — to lead an internal “review” of the Clearing House processes and to report back to ministers ahead of the July recess.

Instead, the committee has warned that in order to “reassure” the public, the government must “expose itself to rigorous external third party scrutiny” and allow the Information Commissioner’s Office [ICO] to conduct and audit.

The chair of the committee and Conservative MP William Wragg said: “Our freedom of information laws are a crucial part of our democracy, allowing citizens to hold government to account.

“As FOI policy owner and coordinating department, the Cabinet Office should be championing transparency across government, but its substandard FOI handling and failure to provide basic information about the working of the coordinated body has had the opposite effect.”

Whatever the reason for the poor administration of freedom of information requests, is it me or does it appear to be just a little too convenient for a government that does not like the process in the first place?

Friday, April 29, 2022

Labour no-show enables Tory gerrymandering

For some reason the effectiveness of our democratic process is not considered to be sexy enough to make major headlines, even when the Tory Government seeks to stack it in their favour, and Labour abstentions enable them.

As Left Foot Forward reports, the House of Lords have now effectively capitulated to Tory plans to give ministers new powers over the Electoral Commission, undermining its independence by allowing government ministers to determine its remit as well as packing the Commission’s Parliamentary overseer with government appointments.

In addition, opposition attempts to remove provisions to requiring voters to show photo ID at the polling station failed. As a result, around two million people, mostly those from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds will not have the ‘right ID', and could well be disenfranchised.

As one peer said: “The Electoral Commission will now be under government control, with ministers not only making Conservative Party rules but will also make rules for other political parties and now anything about disclosure of donations, who can make a donation and whether a donation is unlawful that will be a ministerial decision.”

But where exactly were the opposition in all this. I am pleased to say that Liberal Democrat peers turned out en masse to try and remove these provisions from the bill, but I understand that about 100 Labour peers were absent, effectively enabling this little electoral coup.

This seems to be a little self-defeating as these new provisions will work against Labour in future elections. If we cannot rely on Labour to act to try and protect our democratic rights, then what is the point of them?

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Sunak investigation misses the point

In many ways the ministerial code over Rishi Sunak's wife’s tax affairs by the cabinet’s ethics adviser, Lord Geidt was a classic piece of misdirection.

The Guardian reports that the chancellor asked the adviser on ministerial interests to look into his case amid accusations he had failed to be transparent about the non-domicile tax status of his wife, Akshata Murty, which meant she did not legally have to pay UK tax on her foreign earnings. She has since said she will voluntarily pay the tax.

They add that Sunak was also forced to confirm he had a US green card and had declared himself a “permanent US resident” for tax purposes for 19 months while he was chancellor and for six years as an MP.

According to the paper, Lord Geidt told the Prime Minister: “I advise that the requirements of the ministerial code have been adhered to by the chancellor and that he has been assiduous in meeting his obligations and in engaging with this investigation." However, it is his next sentence that is most relevant. He writes:

“In reaching these judgments, I am confined to the question of conflicts of interest and the requirements of the ministerial code. My role does not touch on any wider question of the merits of such interests or arrangements.”

Nobody was accusing Sunak of breaching the ministerial code. He chose to focus on that in an attempt to redefine the narrative. The accusations of poor political judgement and hypocrisy, still stand in my opinion, and nobody has published a report seeking to refute those.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Tories still failing to tackle Covid fraud

The Guardian reports that MPs have criticised the government for its “unacceptable” failure to draw up plans to recover nearly £5bn taken from the coronavirus emergency bounceback loan scheme by fraudsters.

The paper says that a public accounts committee report has recommended that the government must give more resources to counter-fraud agencies and account properly for how much of the money will be lost forever:

In a package of measures developed under the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, the government focused its support for the economy at the start of the coronavirus pandemic on companies and people in work. The bounceback loan scheme (BBLS) was aimed at supporting small businesses, while the furlough scheme covered 80% of the wages of people unable to do their jobs.

However, the MPs said that the government was “complacent in preventing fraud” in particular in bounceback loans, which were given by banks but 100% guaranteed by the state – leaving taxpayers with the bill. An estimated £4.9bn of the £47bn spent on the BBLS was lost to fraud, while another £12bn has been lost via the scheme mainly through businesses collapsing during the pandemic.

Another £5.7bn is estimated to have been lost from fraud and error within the furlough and self-employment schemes, two of the other key support schemes during the crisis.

The business department and the state-owned British Business Bank, which managed the bounceback scheme through 24 commercial lenders, missed opportunities to reduce the level of fraud and are relying too much on the lenders recovering stolen money, MPs said.

Government officials understood the risks entailed in the design of the scheme, and obtained a ministerial direction to override the usual requirements on value for money.

Dame Meg Hillier, the Labour MP who chairs the committee, said: “With weary inevitability we see a government department using the speed and scale of its response to the pandemic as an excuse for complacent disregard for the cost to the taxpayer.

“More than two years on, [the business department] has no long-term plans to chase overdue debt and is not focused on lower-level fraudsters who may well just walk away with billions of taxpayers’ money.”

This sort of disregard for misuse of public money is unacceptable and needs to change.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

UK research funding threatened by Brexit

The Guardian reports that British universities are facing a brain drain as the row over Brexit in Northern Ireland threatens £250m in research funding from the EU.

The paper says that the European Research Council (ERC) has written to 98 scientists and academics who were recently approved for €172m (£145m) in grants telling them that if the UK’s associate membership of the €80bn Horizon Europe programme is not ratified they will not be eligible to draw down the money:

Scientists have said they are now scrambling to find alternative EU institutions to host the funding, with some already turning down the ERC money and hoping the UK government’s promise of replacement cash will be delivered.

But they say in either case it is “devastating” as the ERC is considered one of the most prestigious programmes in the world.

Getting an ERC grant is “a badge of honour for any researcher and a signal of world-class leading research” that is a big draw for talent from the US and elsewhere, said Ethan Ilzetzki, an associate professor in economics at the London School of Economics.

“Higher education institutions on the continent are salivating at the prospect of poaching this talent … higher education will be hurt for years to come if this isn’t resolved,” he said.

The then Brexit secretary David Frost fought hard to get associate membership of Horizon Europe as part of the trade deal negotiations in 2020 but ratification has been delayed while the UK fails to implement the Northern Ireland protocol.

UK scientists say they are being punished. Payam Gammage, a scientist at the Beatson Institute at Glasgow University, said: “It is a strange choice for the EU. The UK isn’t going to notice it immediately. It will take a long time to have any impact. All that happens is a bunch of scientists have a lot of opportunities taken away, or their lives just made a lot more difficult. We’re the only victims.”

None of this was on the side of the bus of course, but it is the predictable consequence of the way the UK government is completely screwing the country by its mishandling of the Brexit process.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Government plans will send refugees into a 'concentration camp'

The Independent reports that government ministers may have been misleading us when they argued that Rwanda is a perfectly safe place to send refugees.

The paper reports that a former top Rwanda diplomat forced into exile has attacked government claims that his country is safe to receive refugees from the UK – likening it to “a detention camp”:

Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have insisted asylum seekers are to be given “a one-way ticket” to the east African nation, after crossing the Channel, will be treated humanely and given a new start in life.

But Theogene Rudasingwa, Rwanda’s ambassador to the US in the 1990s, has warned “such trust is unfounded” under the iron rule of president Paul Kagame.

“Notwithstanding Rwanda’s history, the world must be under no illusion as to the truth,” he has written in a letter to The Times newspaper.

“Rwanda is hostage to the Kagame dictatorship and is more akin to a detention camp than a state where the people are sovereign.”

Dr Rudasingwa, who has been in exile in America since 2004 after clashing with Mr Kagame, warned it will be “a case of out of the frying pan into the fire” for the asylum seekers.

He added: “So egregious are human rights abuses in Rwanda that Britain last year joined international criticism of unlawful killings, torture and other violence.

“Only months later it seems all this has been forgotten by Boris Johnson so that a transfer deal can be cut.

“Writing now as a refugee, rootless yet constantly under threat of retaliation by a spiteful regime, I feel for outsiders who battle to reach Britain only to face rendition to the Kagame state.”

The paper says that although it was initially briefed that only single men would be flown out, Priti Patel has since admitted that women and children could also be sent. She has also refused to reveal the likely colossal cost of the policy, beyond an initial £120m to be handed to Rwanda under the “partnership” deal.

It is little wonder that under Johnson, the UK is considered by some to be a rogue state.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Are accusations of misleading Parliament becoming a Tory trait?

With Boris Johnson facing an imminent standards investigation to establish whether he lied to Parliament or not, you would think that other ministers might stop and think. But no, according to the Guardian, the home secretary has now been accused of misleading parliament after a high court ruling revealed that unpublished parts of a controversial policy to push back migrant dinghies in the Channel said the tactic would not be used against asylum seekers.

The paper says that the pushbacks policy was finalised in autumn 2021, yet in January this year Priti Patel said pushing back migrant boats was “absolutely still policy” when she gave evidence to the Lords justice and home affairs committee. She has been accused of giving that evidence even though she knew about the unpublished clauses in the policy not to use pushbacks against asylum seekers:

Details of the unpublished policy came to light during a legal challenge to the pushbacks plan brought by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), and the NGOs Care4Calais, Channel Rescue and Freedom From Torture.

The Home Office had applied to the high court for public interest immunity to avoid making the details of the pushbacks policy public. This mechanism is used where sensitive issues such as organised crime, terrorism or national security are involved.

But judges said disclosure of the policy did not “give rise to a real risk of serious harm to the public interest”.

The government has always said the pushbacks policy would only be used when safe to deploy it. Restrictions on usage of the tactic are outlined in the nationality and borders bill which is due to return to the House of Lords on 26 April. However, since the policy was announced last October ministers have not said publicly that it would not be used against asylum seekers.

A key part of the unpublished policy disclosed in the high court judgment is that anyone in a dinghy who indicates they wish to claim asylum in the UK should not be pushed back but instead escorted to UK shores. Almost everyone who uses this method to reach the UK is an asylum seeker according to the Home Office’s own data.

The ruling reveals the pushback policy states: “Should a migrant request asylum whilst in UK territorial waters they must be returned to the UK for processing.”

According to the high court judgment, a clause in the unpublished policy says “the actual number of migrant vessels successfully intercepted is likely to be extremely low”. It adds that one of the “acceptable outcomes” is that during operational deployments no migrant vessels are assessed as suitable for safe turnaround.

Anybody would think Ministers believe themselves to be above effective scrutiny.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Now Tories undermine 'right to roam'

The Guardian reports that Leader of the House, Mark Spencer has defended a Treasury decision to shelve a review into the right to roam around the English countryside. In response to questions, Spencer said the English countryside is a “place of business” and already has “hundreds of thousands of miles of public footpaths”.

The paper says that the review, headed by Lord Agnew, had included a potential expansion of the much-fought-over “right to roam”, which campaigners fear will not now go ahead. In response, activists are planning mass trespasses to raise awareness of how much of England’s land is out of bounds. The right to roam exists over only 8% of the country:

Ninety-two per cent of England’s land is privately owned and not available to access. The Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act 2000 gives a legal right of public access to mountains, moorland, heaths, some downland and commons, and the English coastal path. Campaigners have asked for this to be extended to cover rivers, woods and green belt land. Ninety-seven per cent of rivers are off limits to the public, and tens of thousands of acres of woodland have benefited from public subsidy yet remain publicly inaccessible.

This weekend, the Right to Roam campaign is celebrating the 90th anniversary of the 1932 Kinder Trespass, when hundreds of activists trespassed on Kinder Scout in the Peak District. They were there to highlight the fact that walkers in England and Wales were denied access to areas of open country.

A group of ramblers will be walking to Kinder Scout on Sunday for a Kinder in Colour event, which will be led by people of colour.

The organisers said: “Even with a small amount of rights of way available to ramblers, the countryside is still rife with barriers to access, especially for black people and people of colour. With this in mind, we want to celebrate the Kinder Scout legacy by creating a new culture for the countryside, one which is fully inclusive and embraces differences.”

The Right to Roam campaign is planning a series of mass trespasses planned between May and September, including in Totnes on 8 May and West Berkshire on 14 May, with more to follow.

James MacColl, the head of policy, advocacy and campaigns for the Ramblers, said the UK government was not doing anywhere near enough to improve access to the countryside.

He explained: “The government … isn’t making use of its own Environment Act powers to set public access targets. Its new farm payments scheme shows no sign of rewarding farmers for improving access on their land, despite repeated promises. Proposed changes to the planning system don’t prioritise access to nature.

“As the Ramblers continue to campaign for access rights, this weekend we’ll be celebrating the 90th anniversary the Kinder Scout trespass, a landmark protest on the route to improving access to the countryside for all.

“Access to these green open spaces is still currently very limited and unequal and the Ramblers wants to see government extend the freedom to roam across England and Wales so that it is more easily accessible, and better connected to our path network and our towns and cities.”

Once more the Tories are putting the interests of landowners above those of ordinary people.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Self-obsessed government failing to deal with cost of living crisis

Things have been hectic for government ministers recently, what with all those lock-down partis, awkward questions, investigations, fines and, of course, Ukraine. Even so, that is no excuse for neglecting the fundamental duty of government, protecting the citizens of the Uk, in this case from the growing cost of living crisis that is engulfing us all.

The Independent reports that the government’s working group to address the cost living has not met for six months despite surging energy prices>

The paper says that the inter-ministerial group on the cost of living last met in early November 2021 but has since ground to a complete halt with no meetings held since the beginning of the Partygate scandal:

The revelation comes after widespread criticism of the government’s response to the cost of living crisis, with ministers accused of being “asleep at the wheel” and focused on other matters.

Earlier this month inflation hit a 30-year high of 7 per cent on the back of sky-rocketing fuel costs – but ministers have offered little extra help beyond a temporary loan scheme announced by Rishi Sunak in March.

The lack of meetings in recent months means the group has not met at all since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which is partly responsible for the surge in energy prices.

Ministers say they have held “extensive” discussions about the cost of living with each other outside the scope of the group, but admit it has not officially met for around half a year.

According to the government, the work group is meant to make sure there is “a cross-government understanding of the cost of living challenges, particular for those on lower incomes and to encourage a joined up approach”.

As the Labour spokesperson says, we are seeing the biggest real-terms cut to pensions in 50 years, severe cuts to Universal Credit, punishing tax rises, and rocketing energy bills and yet the main preoccupation of minister is trying to get Boris Johnson off the hook for all his rule-breaking and lies.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

£400m quarantine

The Guardian reports that a National Audit Office (NAO) investigation has found that quarantine hotels for inbound travellers to the UK during Covid have cost the taxpayer more than £400m, including almost £100m in unpaid room bills and fraud.

The paper says that while the government expected the hotels’ costs would be covered by the occupants, it has emerged that the taxpayer has been left responsible for more than half of the £757m bill. The rooms were for those travelling to the UK from high-risk “red list” countries during the pandemic:

The Department of Health and Social Care, which issued a £385m contract to Corporate Travel Management to run the hotels, told the NAO that about £74m of bills covering rooms and Covid tests have not been paid. Another £18m has been fraudulently reclaimed in credit card chargebacks, but only two cases have been investigated or challenged.

The losses were revealed in a NAO report on how the UK managed cross-border travel during the pandemic. The report found that travel rules and border policy were incoherent, confusing and costly, and the government had no way of evaluating if they were worth it.

Among other policies reviewed by the NAO were passenger locator forms, introduced in June 2020, for inbound travellers to state where they would be staying and isolating. The report found that since September 2021, less than 1% of the forms were checked by border force officials. The information given was entirely down to self-declaration, while “checks by private-sector carriers focused on the existence rather than the accuracy of data”.

The UK Health Security Agency, which had a £114m contract for home visits to check if travellers were self-isolating, could not confirm whether 33% of those required to isolate actually did so.

The NAO also criticised the government’s attempts to create a market for Covid-19 testing. It said the DHSC had “limited oversight of the market it created, and service to the public has sometimes been poor”. In February at least 369 private firms offering PCR tests were listed on the government website, with stated prices ranging from £15 to £525. The NAO said the firms “often marketed themselves as being government approved”, but the government listing gave “minimal assurance that they can provide the services”.

Between February 2021 and January 2022, the rules for the border were changed at least 10 times. The report said that “poor communication of some measures created uncertainty”, with “minimal notice” causing operational problems for carriers.

The NAO found that the government “did not adopt good practice” or have any holistic assessment of the risks of its system, “nor ever stated how its competing objectives of managing Covid risks and reopening travel should be balanced and prioritised”.

While departments monitored their own spending on cross-border travel measures, there was no central government tracking of the total, despite costs of at least £486m.

Yet another government case of mismanagement during the pandemic,

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

MIsleading the country

The Independent reports on a 'crisis of honesty', after revealing that dozens of false statements have been made in parliament by Boris Johnson and his ministers over the past two years.

The paper says that the prime minister has not lodged any corrections to the official House of Commons record, despite being reprimanded by the statistics watchdog and having his incorrect statements pointed out by opposition MPs and fact-checkers.

This has led Labour to accuse the government of disrespecting the public with a “litany of lies and falsehoods”, while the Conservative former attorney general Dominic Grieve says the figures suggest “a disregard both for good governance and truth”:

The 17 false statements attributed to Mr Johnson following an investigation by The Independent, working with Full Fact, include claims regarding Downing Street parties, refugees, Covid boosters, crime rates, and the economy.

They are among at least 27 uncorrected false statements made by ministers to parliament since the December 2019 general election.

Angela Rayner, the deputy Labour leader, said the prime minister was “degrading his office”.

“This litany of lies and falsehoods show a total lack of respect for the public from this Conservative government and its ministers,” she told The Independent.

“The ministerial code is absolutely clear that mistakes should be corrected as soon as possible, and purposely misleading parliament should mean resignation.

“But ministers are instead taking their lead from the prime minister himself, who has no issue with repeating mistruths and conspiracy theories.”

Calls are mounting for a new system to ensure that false statements can be challenged in parliament without MPs falling foul of a rule that forbids them from accusing one another of lying.

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said: “Every time Mr Johnson and his ministers have misled parliament is just another blow to people’s trust in his sinking ship of a government – those who mislead the public must be held accountable.

“It’s clear that Mr Johnson has already lost the trust of the nation. Now the very least we should do is be able to hold his Trumpian behaviour to account.”

He said there needs to be “serious action to stop ministers running roughshod over the truth”, and called for MPs to be allowed to point out where the prime minister has made “misleading statements”, without the risk of being thrown out of the Commons.

Davey is absolutely right of course. The current rules are based on the idea that MPs are honourable. However, there is nothing honourable about the way these misleading statements remain uncorrected.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Inhuman asylum seeker policy starts to unravel

The decision by the Home Secretary to send single male asylum seekers to Rwanda, against the strong advice of her senior civil servants, has already started to unravel. Not only is opposition building within the Conservative Party itself, but there are consequences in Rwanda itself.

The Mirror reports that orphans of the Rwandan genocide will lose their home to make way for refugees being booted out of Britain by Home Secretary Priti Patel.

The paper says that some 22 residents are being turfed out of Hope House hostel to make room for asylum seekers sent to the African country under the proposed scheme:

As more migrants landed in Dover yesterday, Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael said the evictions were “cruel and heartless”.

Orphans of Rwanda’s civil war say they have nowhere to go after being turfed out of a hostel under Patel's cruel Rwanda refugee scheme.

A shelter for traumatised victims of the 1994 conflict is being emptied to make way for asylum seekers being sent from the UK under the controversial Tory plan.

Although now in their late 20s, the 22 survivors have no money or family and some face lifelong mental health battles. They were given a fortnight’s notice to ship out of the hostel – ironically named Hope House – in capital city Kigali.

Tonight one vulnerable woman who has lived at the shelter for eight years said: “I barely know any other home. I was only told about moving out a few days ago. I have not figured out where I will go.”

Ms Patel visited the hostel on Thursday in a stage-managed trip before details of the orphans became known.

Residents said they were not given the chance to see or meet her. Officials briefed press that the 50-bed building was a privately owned former tourist hostel.

There was no mention of the orphans, though one source said of Ms Patel’s visit: “There are more than 20 – you’d have thought it must have been fairly obvious.”

A resident added: “It is not a guest house. It has been a hostel, our home, for the last eight years.”

So, not only has the scheme been labelled as condemned as unworkable and illegal by the UN’s refugee agency the UNHCR, while a former Tory Minister has labelled it as more expensive than housing migrants in the Ritz, but this government is also penalising the victims of an horrrendous atrocity at the same time.

Could it get any worse?

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Climate change and the hard right

The Independent has a disturbing article on how right-wing parties are taking aim at climate policies as the cost of energy soars.

They say that research from the University of Sussex Business School and the University of Warwick, suggests that while right-wing populists taking over mainstream centre-right parties is relatively rare, when they have done so, as with Donald Trump in the US, the impacts on climate policy have been strongly negative.

Soaring energy prices potentially create a new opportunity for populists to attack policy, despite the fact that concern about climate change is at record levels, with the influence of right-wing populist parties leading to a 24 per cent reduction in climate policy scores.

The research also highlights how strongly majoritarian systems, when both the head of government and all the cabinet posts are held by right-wing populist parties, rate 58 per cent lower than the average.

In a boost for those of us who support proportional representation, he study found that the influence of right-wing populist parties on climate policy is weaker in countries with PR electoral systems than those with majoritarian first-past-the-post systems. 

That is no comfort to us in the UK, however, as the research also highlights how strongly majoritarian systems, when both the head of government and all the cabinet posts are held by right-wing populist parties, rate 58 per cent lower than the average.

So we are going into an energy crisis, with a government that is not prepared to invest in the alternative technologies that are the long-term solution to our problem.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Inadequate government action having no impact on energy bills

The Guardian reports that leading analysts have predicted energy bills will stay well above £2,000 for two more years, with prolonged high prices threatening the chancellor Rishi Sunak’s loan scheme to help households cope with sky-high gas prices amid the mounting cost of living crisis.

The paper says that Cornwall Insights, which predicted the recent 54% rise in the cap on average energy bills to £1,971, said it had increased its forecasts for upcoming changes to the ceiling, which is determined by the energy regulator, Ofgem:

It warned that prices staying higher for longer would undermine Sunak’s plan to ease the pressure on household finances by giving bill payers a one-off £200 discount on bills, paid back in £40 instalments over five years.

Cornwall left its prediction for the coming winter unchanged, estimating that the price cap will hit £2,607, meaning households will have seen their bills double in the space of a year. While it expects the cap to fall from that record high, it no longer expects a significant drop.

Its forecast for the winter period starting in 2023 is now £2,284, up from a prediction of £2,040 made at the end of March. Cornwall analysts believe the price cap will still be as high as £2,233 by spring 2024.

The change comes after gas prices stopped dropping sharply and began to level off, with the risk now weighted towards further increases.

Time for further measures to protect struggling households.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Rwanda scheme will cost more than the Ritz

Where to start on the UK Government's scheme to send single male asylum seekers to Rwanda? Morally, it is repugnant, a further step towards the UK becoming a pariah state, shunning international principles in the treatment of refugees, practically, it is a whole different ball game.

As the Independent reports, one Tory MP and former Minister is appalled at the new policy. Andrew Mitchell has branded Boris Johnson’s multi-million pound deal, which could see thousands of people flown over 4,000 miles to the African country, as “immoral”, and “impractical”, and says it will involve “astronomic” costs.

The paper says that the plans have been met with fierce opposition from charities and campaign groups who have urged ministers to abandon the “shamefully cruel” proposals, while the government also braces for human rights legal challenges in the courts:

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Mitchell said he recognised that ministers were attempting to tackle “what is a terrible problem” after 28,000 people came to the UK “illicitly” in 2021.

“The government is quite rightly trying to break the smugglers’ sordid and deathly model, and so I am absolutely behind them in doing that,” he said.

However, the former international development secretary added: “The problem with the scheme that they have announced is that I don’t think it will work.

“It is impractical, it is being condemned by churches and civil society, it is immoral and, above all for conservative advocates, it is incredible expensive.

“The costs are eye-watering. You’re going to send people 6,000 miles into central Africa - it looked when it was discussed in Parliament before that it would actually be cheaper to put each asylum seeker in the Ritz hotel in London.”

He added: “The government must tell Parliament precisly what they estimate these costs will be because they will be astronomic”.

Frankly, the whole scheme is an embarrassment.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Tories short-change Wales again

During the Brexit campaign the current crop of Tory Ministers were lined up with other Brexiteers to reassure us that Wales would not miss out on European funding if we left the EU. Alas, as we suspected at the time, their promises have disappeared into the usual Treausry rabbit hole, never to be seen again.

The Independent reports that a government fund designed to replace EU grants lost due to Brexit has been blasted as “catastrophic” amid claims that it will cut support for disadvantaged areas by more than 40 per cent over the coming three years.

The paper says that despite the 2019 Conservative manifesto promising to at least match the money provided to less wealthy areas through EU structural support, the £2.6bn being handed out by the Shared Prosperity Fund over three years, will not reach the £1.5bn annual total provided by Brussels until 2024-5:

Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford said that the nation stands to lose out by £1bn over three years, while having less say over how the money is spent. He said: “This is not levelling up, it’s levelling down.”

And NPP director Henri Murison said the shortfall amounted to a 43 per cent cut over three years, while authorities will lose the long-term security provided by the seven-year allocations offered by the EU.

“We were promised that no nation would be worse off post Brexit but, when you take out the smoke and mirrors, the data doesn’t lie,” he said.

“These funds helped young people find work, supported small businesses and backed vital medical research – cutting it will have catastrophic consequences for our economy.”

Sadly, nobody is surprised by this broken promise.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Why Johnson must resign

In the grand scheme of things, the issuing of a £50 fixed penalty notice is not a huge matter, but in the case of the Prime Minister, it is a big deal. Johnson has been found not only to have broken laws he, himself, put in place, but in doing so has snubbed the thousands of UK citizens he is supposed to be leading, who sacrificed so much during the pandemic.

Tory MPs, seeking to ingratiate themselves by defending the Prime Minister, have made things worse by comparing the lockdown parties to workplace celebrations, even going as far as to conjure up visions of doctors and nurses enjoying the odd drink of alcohol in between treating chronically ill covid patients. That is a fantasy that suggests they have never been in a hospital, and an insult to all those NHS workers, who gave us everything they had and more, over the last two years.

But the fine and the law-breaking are not the end of it. Johnson has not just broken the law, but he has also overseen law-breaking by his own staff, and he has lied to Parliament about it.

All of these are resigning matters, and the argument that he needs to stay because of the Ukraine crisis does not make any sense. There will always be a crisis, and in this case it is hardly as if Johnson is actually contributing much to resolving it anyway.

In both World Wars, the UK changed Prime Ministers, with both Asquith and Chamberlain being forced out of office. There is precedent for sacking a Prime Ninister in times such as this, and Tory MPs should take it at the earliest possible moment, and send Johnson on his way.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Boris and the Non-Doms

The latest chart-topping group, brought to us by the Tory Party, is Boris and the Non-Doms, an elite collection of individuals with connections to the cabinet, whose willingness to pay tax in the UK on overseas earnings is flakey to say the least.

In addition to the wife of Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, it transpires that the health secretary and former chancellor, Sajid Javid, has admitted that he also held non-dom status for six years while he worked as a banker.

The Guardian reports that Downing Street has conceded that it cannot say whether any other ministers or their spouses have or have previously held non-dom tax status, or whether Boris Johnson will take any steps to find this out.

No 10 has, however, confirmed that Christopher Geidt, the independent adviser on ministers’ interests, is to examine the interests and declarations of Rishi Sunak, after the chancellor requested this to happen. Why is he not also doing the same for other ministers?

Surely, it is time this perverse status is abolished altogether.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Tories pile on the cost of living crisis agony

As if things were not bad enough, the Mirror reports that Lib Dem research has revealed that families face paying an extra £160 a year in Tory levies on water and energy.

The paper says that over the next five years people will have to stump up £40 a year to pay back Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s £200 loan to combat 2022’s soaring gas an electric bills. But in 2025 a sewage levy will kick in adding another £60 and £48 extra to pay for Boris Johnson’s eight new nuclear power stations.

The nuclear levy will steadily rise to £96 a year by the end of the decade. And the peak cost of £160 will hit in the last year of the energy loan payback in 2027 with £60 on water bills and £60 for nuclear.

So, far from helping people through this crisis, the government is just piling on the misery.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Cloth-eared and out-of-office

What exactly is falied ex-Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick saying when she warns against the “politicisation of policing”?

According to the Guardian, in a farewell letter to London before her last day in post, Dick said there was more she wished the force had achieved during her time at the top.

But she added: “The current politicisation of policing is a threat not just to policing but to trust in the whole criminal justice system. Operational independence from local and central government is crucial for an effective democracy and is a model respected around the world. We must all treasure and protect it.”

This is the same operational independence that allowed a scandal in the Charing Cross police station, where officers were found to have shared racist, sexist, misogynist and Islamophobic messages. The paper records that two of the officers investigated were promoted, while nine were left to continue serving. And there is more:

The Met leadership’s handling of the murder of Sarah Everard in March 2021 by a serving Met officer also caused consternation in City Hall and government.

After her killer was sentenced to a whole-life term in September 2021, the Met leadership was expected to show it understood those concerns. Instead, it was mocked after saying that women who were worried about an officer approaching them could wave down a bus.

Since her departure was announced, judges have ruled that the Met breached the rights of the organisers of a vigil for Everard with its handling of the planned event.

The police do not operate in a vacuum. We are a democracy, not a police state. The police operate with our consent, enforcing laws passed by Parliament, and must be seen to uphold the highest standards. The Met and other forces must be accountable for their actions.

If Cressida Dick cannot grasp that then it is a good thing she was forced out. Her inability to understand democratic accountability, and to enforce standards in her own force, made her departrure inevitable. Now is the time to carry out the necessary reforms she was unable or unwilling to implement.

Saturday, April 09, 2022

The ultra-rich Chancellor who lives by his own rules

The Guardian reports that Rishi Sunak’s wife, Akshata Murty, has finally bowed to pressure to pay UK taxes, saying that she has realised many people felt her tax arrangements were not “compatible with my husband’s job as chancellor”, adding that she appreciated the “British sense of fairness”.

She will now pay tax on all worldwide income in future and for the last tax year, but not on backdated income, which could have saved her an estimated £20m of UK tax on foreign earnings from her billionaire father’s Indian IT company.

However, this affair is far from over. There is the whole issue of non-dom status of course, which has nothing to do with the nationality of the person claiming it, and everything to do with being rich enough to buy an exemption from HMRC on tax payable on overseas earnings. In other words it was not a status that Murty accidentally fell into, it was a position she deliberately chose.

And then there is Sunak's own position as a US green card holder, meaning he had declared himself a “permanent US resident” for tax purposes for 19 months while he was chancellor and for six years as an MP. 

The Guardian adds that they have also discovered the Treasury last week brought in a new low tax scheme that is partly designed to benefit some wealthy non-dom investors – just days before Sunak’s national insurance rise hit millions of working people at the height of a cost of living crisis.

They say that the new laws specifically mention fund manager non-doms as a category of people who can benefit by not having to pay tax on foreign earnings through the new vehicles. 

The Treasury had previously claimed Sunak had made no changes to non-dom policy since 2017, raising new questions over whether the Treasury was fully informed about Sunak’s family’s tax arrangements when formulating policy.

While the vast majority of UK citizens are now paying more tax as a result of Sunak's policies, as well as struggling to make ends meet in the face of rising energy bills and price rises,  the position of the man who is responsible for this situation should be noted:

UK taxpayers are required to pay a 40% take on inheritance (above £325,000), while non-doms are exempt from the tax. Murty has assets of at least £690m held in Infosys shares, tax charged on this at a rate of 40% would be £276m.

Murty and Sunak also own four properties worth more than £15m in total, and she also holds substantial investments in other companies.

It is understood Sunak and Murty, who own a £5.5m California penthouse holiday home, have donated $3m (£2.3m) to a US university in recent years.

As former Blair spin doctor, Alastair Campbell points out on twitter, it is worth remembering that one of the reasons that Sovereign Individuals like Rishi Sunak were so keen on Brexit, was because the EU was hellbent on cracking down on tax avoidance, offshore activities and non-doms.

Sunak is making the rules for us, but living by the different rules of the privileged, himself

Friday, April 08, 2022

Undermining our freedoms

There must be a rule somewhere that says that if a law is effective and benefits freedom, democrcay and ordinary people, then the establishment will do anything it can to undermine and corrupt that law. Let's call it the 'Yes Minister Rule'. Something akin to this has been going on in the world of freedom of Information.

The Guardian reports that more than 100 journalists, politicians and campaigners have signed an open letter warning that the UK’s freedom of information (FoI) laws are being undermined by a lack of resources and government departments obstructing lawful requests.

The paper says that the signatories include the editor-in-chief of the Guardian, Katharine Viner, the editor of the Observer, Paul Webster, as well as the shadow solicitor general, Andy Slaughter, the former Brexit secretary David Davis, and the former Green party leader Caroline Lucas:

The letter, which was coordinated by the online news organisation openDemocracy, is addressed to the new information commissioner, John Edwards, who is responsible for enforcing FoI law, which grants members of the public the legal right to request official information from public bodies.

Edwards’ organisation, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), reviews complaints against public bodies that have refused FoI requests and can order them to release material if they have failed to comply with the law.

However, there is growing concern among journalists and researchers that the UK’s FoI system is increasingly being frustrated by under-resourcing and deliberate non-compliance by government departments.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information recently reported that backlogs at the ICO had become so extensive that it was taking an entire year for case officers to be assigned to review complaints.

Last year a judge accused the Cabinet Office of having “misled” a tribunal about the operation of an alleged blacklisting system for FoI requests from journalists, called Clearing House, and described a “profound lack of transparency” surrounding the unit.

The open letter calls for the ICO to assign more resources to FoI casework, monitoring of public bodies that fail to comply with the law, and stronger enforcement protocols for government bodies that repeatedly flout the law. It also recommends the extension of FoI to cover private companies that provide public services.

“As the British public is still being kept in the dark over Partygate, the importance of transparency has rarely been more obvious,” said Peter Geoghegan, the editor-in-chief of openDemocracy.

“FoI is a key tool for holding public bodies to account, but currently the Information Commissioner’s Office is not ensuring that the Freedom of Information Act delivers. We welcome the new information commissioner’s listening exercise and are keen to share our views on how FoI can be better policed.”

Viner said: “Journalism in the public interest often depends on freedom of information laws, which help the public understand the decisions made by the authorities. Such laws are essential to a well-functioning democracy.

“When the government fails to meet its transparency commitments, it is essential that the ICO is able to step in to make sure ministers and public bodies comply with the law.”

Full transparency is never comfortable for those on the receiving end, but it is essential for democracy to work effectively.

Thursday, April 07, 2022

Tory leadership contest well-underway

Rishi Sunak may well argue that his wife's activities shuld have no bearing on people's opinion of him, but unfortunately in the world of politics, especially at his level, it is the full package that matters. That is especially so when the Chancellor's partner is such a controversial figure in her own right.

The Tory leadership contest is in full-swing and Sunak's rivals will use everything they can to undermine his credibility as a future Prime Minister, and it certainly looks like they have succeeded. With everybody struggling to make ends meet in the face of rising prices, soaring energy costs and additional taxes, it does not look good that the man responsible for most of this is married to a multi-millionaire, who does not pay tax in the UK on her overseas earnings.

The Guardian reports that Sunak’s multi-millionaire wife's non-domicile status allows her to save millions of pounds in tax on dividends collected from her family’s IT business empire. Akshata Murthy, who receives about £11.5m in annual dividends from her stake in the Indian IT services company Infosys, declares non-dom status, a scheme that allows people to avoid tax on foreign earnings:

Murthy, the daughter of Infosys’s billionaire founder, owns a 0.93% stake in the tech firm worth approximately £690m. The company’s most recent accounts suggest that Murthy’s stake would have yielded her £11.6m in dividend payments in the last tax year.

Under UK tax laws, Murthy’s status as a non-dom would mean she would not have had to pay tax on the dividend payment from overseas companies. Infosys is headquartered in Bengaluru, India, and listed on the Indian and New York stock exchange. By contrast, UK resident taxpayers pay a 38.1% tax on dividend payouts.

All of this matters, because in his Spring Statement last month, Sunak raised the tax burden on UK taxpayers to its highest level since the 1940s, even as the population faces the biggest squeeze on living standards on record. The Resolution Foundation thinktank suggested Sunak’s package of measures would push 1.3 million people, including 500,000 children, into poverty.

Any chance Sunak had of succeeding Boris Johson appears to have evaporated.

Wednesday, April 06, 2022

Treasury blocks plans to help people cope with energy crisis

I once read that if every home in the UK was properly insulated the energy saved would amount to the equivalent of two power stationsenergy. Certainly, that was the rationale when we had a Liberal Democrat Energy Minister promoting insulation and green energy. Unfortunately, most of those programmes were dismantled when the Tories assumed the reins once more, and this government is no different.

As a result the cost of living crisis has been much more painful for those struggling to heat their homes, in the face of the countries energy dependency on external providers and the huge amount of heat (and money) drifting out into the atmosphere through people's roofs each day. Surely, it is time to turn this around and start investigating in proper insulation for everybody's home.

If only the Treasury could grasp the basic concept that investment in insulation and green energy will lower people's bills, improve our balance of payments, reduce the country's dependence on foreign powwers and help tackle climate change. Alas, it is not to be.

The Independent reports that plans for hundreds of millions of pounds to be spent on making homes more energy efficient, which would in turn reduce bills amid the cost of living crisis have been blocked by those holding the government's purse strings.

The paper says that Downing Street and business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng’s team were hoping for an expansion of the Energy Company Obligation (Eco) scheme to be included in this week’s energy security strategy. The scheme works by using money raised from a levy on energy bills and pays for home energy efficiency improvements for the poorest households.

The proposal includes the Treasury contributing about £200m a year extra from the taxpayer, meaning the scheme could be expanded beyond only those receiving benefits to thousands more people. But chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has rejected the proposals as he is sticking closely to pledges outlined in autumn 2021.

Another example of the short-sightedness that blights British politics.

Tuesday, April 05, 2022

Ethics and law-breaking in the Johnson government

Just a short post today. The Guardian reports that the government’s former ethics chief has apologised for her “error of judgment” after she was fined by police for attending a party in the Cabinet Office during lockdown.

The paper says MacNamara was fined in connection with a leaving party held on 18 June 2020 to mark the departure of a private secretary, Hannah Young, who was moving to New York to take up a role with the British consulate general. She is said to have provided a karaoke machine for the event, which is understood to have been one of the most raucous under investigation.

Not only did I not know that the Tory government had an 'ethics chief', it is the first I am aware that they even knew the word existed. But how ironic is it that the woman employed to keep the Prime Minister on the straight and narrow, herself succumbed to the culture of partying he promoted during the pandemic?

Monday, April 04, 2022

The public don't trust the government on law and order

According to the Guardian, it is not just the Metropolitan Police who are suffering a loss of public confidence and trust.

The paper says that Home Office documents reveal polling carried out for the government has found a high fear of crime, and low confidence much will be done about it. They add that the leak reveals the public are not convinced by a series of flagship initiatives by Boris Johnson’s administration on law on order, such as the Beating Crime plan:

Only one in three of those polled had faith it could tackle crime, its own document notes: “Current initiatives to tackle crime are not cutting through to the public – only around a third (35%) say they have confidence in the government’s handling of crime and justice, and awareness of the Beating Crime Plan is low.”

The document, called Home Office Violence Reduction Unit Communications Strategy, dates from March and contains polling from February.

Boris Johnson has trumpeted his anti-crime credentials but the government’s own polling, taken after weeks of furore over “partygate” and government untruths, shows the public were disbelieving.

Johnson has been keen to claim that under his government crime has been falling, falsely claiming in February that it had decreased by 14%. The statistics watchdog rebuked him, finding it had been presented the figures in a misleading way.

The Home office document says: “While crime isn’t necessarily the most ‘top-of-mind’ concern for the public, it’s a constant undercurrent and, when asked, people feel very strongly about it.

“Our most recent polling (conducted Feb 2022) shows that 61% think that crime is going up nationally, and 51% are worried about becoming a victim of crime.”

The document adds: “Perceptions of crime and levels of concern are largely driven by anecdotal experiences and high-profile media cases. At a national level, the public are particularly concerned about violent crime such as knife crime and people using/dealing drugs and can point to examples in their own lives or the news that back up these worries.”

The document shows the damage the Conservatives did to their reputation on law and order by slashing police numbers by 20,000. The cuts from 2010 continue to reverberate with voters. “Concerns are exacerbated by a perceived lack of deterrents (eg lack of police resources, inconsistent sentencing) for perpetrators of crime,” the document says.

It also notes a generational divide in how to tackle crime, with younger people more willing to tackle underlying causes of offending and give people a second chance, while older people back a more traditional approach of high sentences and prison: 

“However, there are some differences in opinion over the most appropriate approach to tackling crime, with younger groups tending to favour rehabilitation and older adults leaning towards a more punitive approach.”

Perhaps, instead of more public relations initiatives, the government should give the police the resources they need to do the job and put in place policies that will help to eradicate some of the causes of crime and anti-social behaviour.

Sunday, April 03, 2022

Tories target the disabled

The Independent reports that almost 300,000 disabled people are losing government help to cut their fuel costs just as bills rocket to record levels. They say that tighter eligibility rules will remove the flagship warm homes discount from the claimants of a clutch of disability benefits, because their incomes are judged to be too high:

Ministers argue the shake-up of the scheme will better target fuel poverty, delivering help to an extra 160,000 people with a long-term illness or disability – while hiking payments by £10 to £150.

A government document reads: “Our latest modelling estimates that there will be a reduction in the number of rebate recipients who receive DLA or PIP by 290,000 or 35 per cent.”

Louise Rubin, head of policy at the disability equality charity Scope, called the decision “an insult to those disabled people who have already been cutting back for months”.

The discount will be removed next winter – as the typical annual fuel bill is tipped to hit around £3,000 – on the back of the £693 rise to almost £2,000, landing on doormats this month.

“Amid the worst cost of living crisis in decades, it’s almost unfathomable that the government will cut support for rising energy bills from nearly 300,000 disabled people,” Ms Rubin said.

“Life costs more if you’re disabled. Our energy helpline is now overwhelmed with calls from disabled people who are already facing sky-high energy bills – and do not know how they will afford to charge vital equipment, or stay warm, as the crisis goes on.”

So much for levelling up.

Saturday, April 02, 2022

Home Office misses the point on Ukrainian visas

The Independent reports that the Home Office has shut down part of the UK’s visa and immigration system in order to divert resources to its ”chaotic“ and bureaucratic scheme for Ukraine refugees.

They say that priority and super-priority visas for study, work and family purposes from countries other than Ukraine have been temporarily closed to applicants, with standard visas also experiencing delays. And yet, most European countries have waived visas and offered open access for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion. The UK is still insisting they fill in lengthy forms and undergo copious visa checks.

The paper adds that the temporary shutdown of priority visas will make it difficult for people to come to the UK for last-minute purposes, with waits on standard visas expected to be at least six weeks. A Home Office minister this week apologised to people trying to visit the UK “for any inconvenience” the policy would cause. If anybody thinks the government is bending over backwards to accommodate women and children fleeing the Ukrainian war zone then they need to think again. This approach is entirely unnecessary:

Immigration experts warned that the government’s approach to the Ukraine crisis was clearly unsuitable for the task at hand, and suggested the UK should follow Europe’s lead in waiving visas.

“Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the only appropriate response has been and remains to waive visas,” Zoe Bantleman, legal director of the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, told The Independent.

“From the outset, we, along with other specialist organisations, have called for the waiving of all red tape, of the visa application process, and of enrolment of biometrics overseas.

She added: “The answer is not to suspend priority processing for other applications, or rush staff to enrol biometrics.”

Ms Bantleman said the change could be easily made by deleting the word ‘Ukraine’ from the list of nationalities required to have visitor clearance to enter the UK.

“The UK would stand with Ukraine, and treat Ukrainians in the same way as it treats nationals of nearly 100 other countries,” she said.

“Once they arrive at the border, biometrics of Ukrainians could be taken and they could be granted leave outside the rules and a full application could be processed once they are safely in the UK, as was done for residents of Hong Kong.”

The Homes for Ukraine scheme has seen 28,300 applications from British families but only 2,700 visas have been issued for this. Surely, it is time to follow the lead of the rest of Europe, and abandon visas for Ukrainian refugees altogether.

Friday, April 01, 2022

Is public sector pay policy deepening cost of living crisis?

The answer to that question is of course, yes. The Guardian reports that public sector unions have reacted with fury after ministers announced that pay increases across the civil service would be pegged at an average of 2% for the year ahead, despite surging inflation.

In contrast, the paper says that the latest official figures showed average pay across the economy was increasing at an annual rate of 4.8%. It is little wonder that the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies thinktank, Paul Johnson, has suggested that with civil service pay already having been hit by a decade of real-terms pay cuts, the government are “testing the limits of employee patience and of the labour market”:

Meanwhile, analysis from the Health Foundation showed that soaring inflation meant NHS staff faced an average pay cut of £845 during 2021-22 and will see their income shrink by even more in 2022-23.

Staff lost at least £845 on average, although for some this was as much as £1,690, because their 3% pay rise was outstripped by inflation as measured by the consumer prices index, which hit 5.5% in February. They were awarded the 3% last summer when inflation stood at 1.6%.

They are facing an even bigger drop in real-terms income in 2022-23 because while ministers have offered them 3% again, the Bank of England has forecast inflation to rise to as much as 8% soon.

“NHS staff are already consumed by money worries when they’re at work giving vital care. These figures show why,” said Sara Gorton, the head of health at the union Unison. “Health workers need a wage rise that helps them absorb the eye-watering bill increases ahead. Otherwise they’ll leave for better-paid work, which will be a disaster for patients.”

We cannot go on treating public servants in this way, not least health and social care workers who took the brunt of the heavy lifting during the pandemic. Government needs to respond to the cost of living crisis by protecting its own workers from the worst impact of soaring bills, while also putting in measures that will help the wider population as well.

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