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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

A contrast in leadership

With energy bills set to rise above £4,000 by the beginning of next year, it is becoming increasingly urgent that government take action to alleviate the impact on households around the UK. Removing the green energy levy and taking on that investment themselves is one option, as is removing VAT on fuel bills, preferably both. But is that enough? That seems unlikely.

If only the government had continued building up alternative energy capacity after 2015, a programme started by the Liberal Democrats in government, then the situation might be more manageable for everybody.

There is no indication that the Tory leadership candidates have any clue as to the scale of the crisis people face this winter. The Independent reports that Tory leadership frontrunner Liz Truss has rejected calls for an emergency budget and refused to offer immediate help with rocketing energy bills. In contrast, Ed Davey has offered a more obvious solution.

As the Independent reports, the Liberal Democrats leader has said that the expected energy price cap increase in October should be scrapped by the next prime minister and the cost covered with a windfall tax on oil and gas companies.

This solution goes to the heart of the matter. What is the point of a cap if it keeps moving upwards? We need radical action by the government, if only Truss and Sunak could see that.

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Above the law?

The Guardian reports that a leaked document has revealed that Dominic Raab is planning to curb judges’ powers in a move likely to make it harder to bring successful legal challenges against the government in England and Wales.

The paper says that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) paper suggests the justice secretary, who is also deputy prime minister, is considering changes that would have the effect of limiting ministers’ accountability in judicial reviews brought by claimants concerned about the way decisions have been taken by public bodies:

Despite the government having consulted on judicial review only last year and parliament then passing the Judicial Review and Courts Act, which came into effect on 15 July, the MoJ document says: “You (DPM [deputy prime minister]) have indicated that you are minded to consult on further reforms to judicial review”.

It then makes suggestions for change – “subject to your initial policy steers and the outcome of any consultation” – which several experts told the Guardian would have the effect of making it more difficult to bring a successful review.

Charlie Whelton, policy and campaigns officer at Liberty, said: “This leaked document suggests that the government plans to make it even harder for people to challenge them and make themselves even less accountable to the public.

“Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen an unprecedented assault on our legal rights, including in the Judicial Review and Courts Act and through ongoing proposals to scrap the Human Rights Act. The government is determined to make it as difficult as possible to take them to court and hold them accountable for unlawful actions.

“Whether by putting up more barriers to bringing cases, overturning judgments they don’t like or blocking off more and more actions from challenge, the government’s attempts to avoid accountability set a very dangerous precedent for all future governments of all stripes.”

The Judicial Review and Courts Act removed the right of parties to bring a review against decisions by tribunals in mainly immigration/asylum and social security cases. But many believe Raab’s predecessor, Robert Buckland QC, who instigated the bill, was sacked because it did not go far enough in curbing judicial scrutiny.

The MoJ document suggests Raab is determined to do so. One proposed change is “assessing the intensity of review to apply in different cases”, which could mean anything from dictating the criteria judges must apply to excluding them from hearing cases in certain areas of government decision-making.

It also refers to changing cost rules on “standing”, which requires the claimant to have “sufficient interest” to bring a case. By increasing the cost burden if parties are found not to have standing, the government could be seeking to discourage NGOs, which pursue cases with implications for many individuals beyond the claimant.

Finally, it suggests “addressing” named individual cases, including Privacy International, which determined that the secretive investigatory powers tribunal was subject to judicial review, and the Guardian’s successful attempt to get secret letters written by Prince Charles to government ministers published. In the latter case, the supreme court ruled that the attorney general could not block publication just because he disagreed with the upper tribunal’s decision to permit it.

While introducing legislation to parliament in response to a particular case is a government’s right, it has previously been suggested that it wants to allow ministers themselves to strike out findings from judicial reviews they disagree with.

So, a government that started off wanting to take back control is now seeking to put itself above the law, taking away one of the few protections we have against over-mighty politicians. This is how dictatorships start.

Monday, August 08, 2022

Not fit for purpose?

Reading the shocking news in today's Guardian that 650 children were strip-searched over a two-year period, with the majority being found innocent of the suspicions against them, I was not surprised to find that the force concerned was the Metropolitian Police.

The paper says that the children’s commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, was not convinced that the force was “consistently considering children’s welfare and wellbeing” after police data showed that in almost a quarter of cases (23%) an appropriate adult was not present during the search, despite this being a requirement under statutory guidance.

She was also concerned by ethnic disproportionality, after the data showed that of children aged 10 to 17 who were strip-searched between 2018 and 2020, almost three out of five (58%) were black, as described by the officer. For 2018 alone the figure rose to 75%. In Greater London, 19% of 10- to 17-year-olds are black:

De Souza questioned how far this “intrusive and traumatising” practice was necessary after figures showed that in 53% of cases no further action was taken. “This low level of successful searches arguably indicates that this intrusive practice may well not be justified or necessary in all cases.”

Her damning report, published on Monday, also raised concerns about “a lack of appropriate oversight” of police practice surrounding strip-searches after the data revealed that in one in five cases there was no way of knowing where it even took place.

Of 269 searches in 2021 for which the location of the search was recorded, 57% happened at a police station and 21% at a home address. De Souza’s report says 22% happened at another location but, “due to the low quality of recording practice, it is not possible to determine where these searches took place”.

The data showed the number of searches increased between 2018 and 2020, with 18% of all searches carried out in 2018, 36% in 2019 and 46% in 2020. Almost all of the children strip-searched (95%) were boys, and a quarter were 15 and under.

This is of course about the culture, training and diversity of the Metropolitan Police, which is at present completely inadequate. Combined with the many other incidents around the forces competence, one has to ask if they are fit for purpose, and what is being done to address that?

Sunday, August 07, 2022

How cosy is politics in Cardiff Bay?

It is more than six years since I worked in what was then the Welsh Assembly, and if anything, the so-called Cardiff Bay bubble has grown tighter and more exclusive. The chummy culture between MSs and lobbyists, means that a small group of unelected individuals wield unprecedented power to get things done their way, and in return the various interest groups go easy in their scrutiny and criticism of government ministers.

It is not healthy, and somehow, I doubt that even a much-enlarged Parliament will not change anything, especially when the proposed new voting system puts the fate of individual members in the hands of their own party hierarchy.

There have been calls to register lobbyists of course, and to secure more transparency in their dealings with ministers and members, but these pleadings have largely fallen on deaf ears. I wonder if the latest revelations will change that.

Wales on line reports that two Welsh Government ministers attended an informal dinner with the owner of the Green Man Festival as controversy raged about the decision to spend £4.25m of public money on buying a farm for the organisation.

They say that the dinner with Fiona Stewart took place at the home of lobbyist Cathy Owens, the managing director of Deryn Consulting and a former Labour special adviser, who has made a declaration identifying the Green Man Festival as one of her company’s clients. 

But, because of a loophole in the Welsh Government’s Ministerial Code under which “informal” meetings do not have to be declared, Climate Change Minister Julie James and Education Minister Jeremy Miles were not obliged to declare their attendance at the dinner:

Opposition politicians have expressed a range of concerns about the purchase by the Welsh Government of Gilestone Farm, near Talybont-on-Usk, about seven miles from the festival site on the Glan Usk estate near Crickhowell. Questions have been asked why it was bought without a full business plan.

An outline business plan was submitted to the Welsh Government in October last year and a full business plan was provided at the end of June.

The Green Man Festival has been held at the Glan Usk estate for 20 years, attracts more than 25,000 visitors annually and is estimated to generate over £10m a year to the region’s economy. During a meeting of the Senedd’s Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee, Plaid Cymru MS Rhys ab Owen asked Welsh Government officials: “Is it usual practice to spend over £4m before having a detailed business plan?”

Andrew Slade, director-general of the economy department, said an “outline case” was necessary but that it was “perfectly possible, feasible, legal, proper... for government to engage in property purchases where we think that is going to deliver on the Welsh Government’s policy delivery objectives.”

Mr Slade said the purpose of buying the farm was about “the wider business and development of the wider Green Man business”, adding that it would include sustainable development work, farming activities and a “range of other things that would allow them to keep the operation in Wales”.

Mr Slade told the committee the festival had “insufficient funds” to buy the farm itself, with either “not enough money to go ahead or the possibility of borrowing to go ahead to get the property needed to develop the business”.

As Wales on Line's political editor at large, Martin Shipton points out on Twitter, paragraph 3.7 of the Ministerial Code states: “Ministers should not meet formally with professional public affairs organisations (lobbyists) seeking to influence the views or decisions of Government.” He points out that these Ministers have got round this by having an "informal" dinner.

He also reports in his article that every three months the Welsh Government publishes on its website details of formal meetings involving ministers and external organisations. He says that typically the list of meetings runs to around 60 pages but none of the three most recent lists includes meetings with the Green Man Festival or Deryn Consulting.

This is not the transparency we should expect of the Welsh Government, nor is it any way to conduct government business when so much public money is at stake. The First Minister has now initiated his own inquiry, albeit rather late in the day. Let's hope the outcome of that probe is published in full.

Saturday, August 06, 2022

Brext: an update

 A video from Led by Donkeys. Click the link

Friday, August 05, 2022

Fizzing with Liz

Having got rid of one party leader, whose reign was mired by allegations of impropriety and by investigations into some of his activities, the Tories seem intent on electing another who likes to court controversy.

The Independent reports that Liz Truss is facing the possibility of her first major sleaze probe amid claims she failed to declare “murky donations” related to her leadership campaign.

The paper says that Labour have appealed to the cabinet secretary to open an investigation into the Tory frontrunner over funding for a so-called “Fizz with Liz” champagne dinner, while the Liberal Democrats have also written to the parliamentary commissioner for standards asking her to open an investigation of her own.

Truss is facing questions about why she did not declare the thousands of pounds worth of hospitality spent on schmoozing Tory MPs:

The funding for the event, hosted in Mayfair, was paid by a multimillionaire private members' club owner and aristocrat Robin Birley and was attended by around a dozen Conservative MPs.

Asked why the dinner – said to be used to sweet-talk Tory MPs ahead of her leadership bid – did not appear on the MPs' register of interests, Ms Truss’s campaign said it had “nothing to do with her” and was in fact hosted by Mr Birley.

But this account was disputed by other MPs present who told The Independent that they had been invited by Ms Truss, and that she was the host and not Mr Birley, who “turned up briefly to say hello”.

An invitation to the dinner sent from Ms Truss’s Commons email address, seen by The Independent, said: “Liz Truss MP is delighted to invite you to attend a dinner at 5 Hertford Street on 26 October at 7.30pm. Most grateful if you could confirm attendance by 10 October. Best wishes, Office of Liz Truss.”

In her letter calling for a probe to be opened, Labour's deputy leader noted that “by using parliamentary paper and explicitly inviting colleagues within her capacity as an MP via her parliamentary email address, Ms Truss’s event clearly falls under the transparency requirements of the Members Code of Conduct”.

She added: “This £3,000 sum was a donation from a very wealthy individual which Ms Truss has failed to be honest and transparent about.”

Is there no end to this Tory merry-go-round?

Thursday, August 04, 2022

Consequence free

The Guardian reports on the ruling of the police watchdog that every officer involved in the Daniel Morgan scandal will escape punishment, despite an independent inquiry finding that corruption in the Metropolitan police shielded the private detective’s killers with the force ignoring information.

The paper adds that those escaping any action include the former Met commissioner Cressida Dick, who the inquiry accused of hampering its work:

Morgan, 37, was found murdered on 10 March 1987 in the car park of the Golden Lion pub in Sydenham.

With his business partner, Jonathan Rees, Morgan ran an agency called Southern Investigations. It would go on to carry out extensive work for the News of the World.

The panel said the Met was “institutionally corrupt” and placed protecting its reputation over the truth, all charges the force under Dick denied.

Five investigations by the Met into Morgan’s murder have failed to yield a conviction. Concerns about police wrongdoing, and links between corrupt officers and sections of the tabloid media, led the government to order the Leveson inquiry in 2013 after The Guardian’s revelations about phone hacking.

Dick, an assistant commissioner when the Morgan panel started its inquiry, was supposed to make good on the Met promise to fully cooperate with the panel, which was given no statutory powers to investigate and was thus reliant on those they were investigating agreeing to hand over evidence.

The panel accused the force of placing concerns about its reputation above properly confronting corruption. It said the Met misled the public and Morgan’s grieving family, exacerbating their pain.

The panel criticised police delays in giving access to a database with relevant documents, called “Holmes”, and Dick is named as one of those responsible. “The panel has never received any reasonable explanation for the refusal over seven years by [then] assistant commissioner Dick and her successors to provide access to the Holmes accounts to the Daniel Morgan independent panel,” they said.

Sal Naseem, the regional director for London at the IOPC, said: “We are acutely aware that not one single officer was ever successfully prosecuted or received significant disciplinary action as a result of corruption directly connected to the murder investigations.

“The wrongs that occurred can never be put right, but it may have served as some small comfort to Mr Morgan’s family and loved ones if the officers involved had been held to account and suffered the consequences of their actions at the time.”

So once more, no consequences for the Met's failings.

Wednesday, August 03, 2022

Welsh early voting failure shows need for reform

When it comes to radical reform, the Welsh Labour Government has a dismal record. There is, for example, a clear case for a proper reorganisation of local government, reducing the number of unitary councils and reforming and empowering those at community level. Instead Welsh Ministers set up unaccountable and opaque structures to force joint working on the existing bodies, increasing cost and bureaucracy.

At a Welsh level, Labour and Plaid Cymru opt for an over-large Senedd elected by a list system that leaves voters out in the cold. It is all about control. It will be the party machine who choses MSs in the future not those they represent.

And when it comes to improving turnout at elections, they prefer to tinker with gimmicks such as early voting, instead of addressing the real issue of relevance and accountability that puts many off from voting. If the result does not reflect the way people vote, then why should they participate? Once more the system is weighed in favour of the party machine.

Wales on Line reports that a Welsh Government pilot to try and increase flexibility for voters in elections, through early voting, led to no increase in turnout.

The pilots, which were carried out during this year's local elections, aimed to test measures to make elections in Wales are as accessible as possible and ensure "that everyone who wants to vote can vote".

They were assessed by the Electoral Commission who concluded: "A small number of voters chose to cast their vote at the advance voting polling stations. The three pilots with a single advance centre had similar results, with 0.2 – 0.3% of registered polling station voters casting a vote on the advance days. In Bridgend, where a number of usual polling stations were open, the proportion was slightly higher at 1.5%."

Isn't it time we overhauled our electoral process properly by introducing proportional voting, that does away with one party fiefdoms and produces outcomes commensurate with how people voted? The current system is broken, let's stop playing around with it.

Tuesday, August 02, 2022

More profiteering at our expense

Hot on the heels of Shell and Centrica announcing huge windfalls, BP has become the latest multi-national to hand billions of pounds to its shareholders after tripling its profits to nearly £7bn in the second quarter of the year amid high oil prices during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, even as families struggle in a cost of living crisis.

The Guardian reports that the FTSE 100 oil company said its preferred measure of profit, which it describes as its underlying replacement cost profit, rose to $8.5bn (£6.9bn) between April and June. That is up from $6.2bn in the first three months of the year, and three times BP’s underlying profits of $2.8bn in the second quarter of 2021:

Oil companies in the UK and beyond have enjoyed booming earnings in recent months on the back of rising energy prices as households around the world have struggled with soaring bills. As Russia’s invasion grinds on, analysts have predicted the UK annual energy bills could jump to £3,850 in the winter, three times what they were paying at the start of 2022.

Shell last week reported record quarterly profits of nearly £10bn between April and June, while the British Gas owner, Centrica, made operating profits of £1.3bn, most of which came from its oil and gas drilling division. Shell and France’s Total last week said they would also give shareholders billions of dollars in share buybacks and dividends.

Despite this the government is giving the oil companies 80% tax breaks for new investments that reduce their tax bill, while their the 25% windfall tax, known as the energy profits levy, did not come into force until 14 July, meaning that it does not apply to profits made by BP or other oil companies during the second quarter.

The time for government action on this profiteering is long past. What do we need to do to make ministers act in the interests of families struggling to pay energy and fuel bills?

Monday, August 01, 2022

UK Government still struggling to contain oligarchs

Thanks to lax controls on capital the UK has long been the money laundering capital of the world, unfortunately that is not likely to end soon, despite new legislation coming into force this week.

The Guardian reports that claims by the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, that the new legislation will have an “immediate dissuasive effect on oligarchs attempting to hide their ill-gotten gains, ensuring that the UK is a place for legitimate business only”, have been met by secpticism by others.

They say that a string of lawyers, tax experts, MPs, accountants and transparency campaigners are warning that the long-awaited register of overseas entities, which was sped through parliament after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is “riddled with flaws and loopholes” and will have no impact on forcing corrupt oligarchs to reveal which UK mansions they own:

The register is intended to, in the government’s words, “flush out corrupt elites laundering money through UK property” by forcing secretive overseas companies to reveal the true owner or risk “tough fines”, or even up to five years in prison.

The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, who has long campaigned for a crackdown on secretive overseas ownership of UK property, complained that the register was “more lead balloon” than the “silver bullet we were promised would stop abuses like money laundering in our real estate sector”.

She said: “The new register is riddled with flaws and loopholes that mean oligarchs and organised criminals will still be able to evade scrutiny and secretly purchase premium London property, such as Highgate mansions or Kensington townhouses.

“To truly stop the flows of corrupt wealth into our housing market, the government must urgently put in place an open register of the true owners of UK land and property, not just of those owned by companies. Anything less would demonstrate once and for all that this government is truly soft on dirty money.”

John Cullinane, the director of public policy at the Chartered Institute of Taxation, the leading body representing tax accountants, said oligarchs and other members of the corrupt elite would be easily able to exploit “gaping holes” in the new rules.

He said individuals could legally sidestep the rules by holding property or land in the name of a nominee company, or by simply sharing the ownership with more than four relatives or friends.

“We highlighted a particular loophole in the new law, namely that the legislation requires the identification only of the beneficial owners of the company in question, and not those of the land or property itself. This matters because the company could be holding that land as a nominee for an individual who does not own the company,” Cullinane said.

“The company might be owned by a Cayman or Panamanian law firm, for example, which holds legal ownership of many properties on behalf of wealthy clients. In this scenario the names on the register would likely be the partners in the law firm, or perhaps no one at all. The name of the oligarch would be nowhere to be found.”

Cullinane said that even if an oligarch did own shares in an offshore company that owns a UK property, “if they hold 25% or less of that company’s shares, nothing needs to be disclosed.” He said: “A family of six could each own a 16.67% share of the company, thus bringing them outside the registration requirements.”

He pointed out that Alisher Usmanov, who has been subjected to UK sanctions and described by the government as “one of Vladmir Putin’s favourite oligarchs”, has said he has transferred properties into irrevocable trusts in the names of members of his family, potentially putting them beyond sanctions.

Cullinane also said a fine of up to £2,500 a day for failing to comply with the rules was unlikely to pose much of a deterrent to the super-rich targets of the legislation.

The new law is a start, but it needs to go much further.

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