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Monday, October 31, 2022

Tory Ministers putting national security at risk

One would have thought that after the saga of Liz Truss's phone being hacked by the Russians, the use of a personal email account by the Home Secretary to leak confidential information, Boris Johnson's moble phone number being publicised on the internet and even the controversy over Hillary Clinton's emails, the alarm would have been raised amongst Tory Ministers, but nobody appears to have being paying attention.

According to the Guardian, intelligence experts and former officials have warned that Ministers risk creating “wild west” conditions in matters of national security by the increased use of personal email and phones to conduct confidential business.

The paper says that there is growing concern about the use of non-official communication methods by ministers and some political appointees, whether via personal phones and private emails, or through encrypted chat applications such as WhatsApp:

One insider identified the “particular anxiety” being WhatsApp, and the fear that several months of messages with senior government and international figures might have been read by a third party using malware, though investigations continue.

Panicked officials issued Truss with a new phone and number, but the old one was retained so as to avoid alarm, with messages to the old phone monitored.

It is thought to be unlikely that Truss would have used her personal phone for secret or top secret business but that even casual WhatsApp messages could be revelatory.

Peter Ricketts, a former national security adviser, said such inside gossip could be useful intelligence for a hostile state. “You can’t stop ministers talking to their mates. But they have to be conscious that talk and chat can give away sensitive info about the state of the government,” he said.

Lord Ricketts added the alarm over Truss’s mobile emphasised the need for ministers to act cautiously with their phones. “The security community cannot emphasise enough that you have to be really careful in what you text. You have to assume that others are listening in,” he said.

Dave Penman, the head of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, said there was something of a “wild west” culture within government over such issues, as also shown by Braverman’s use of a personal Gmail account.

“There is no interest in government to sort this out,” he said. “The whole thing around the use of private messaging and email is really badly regulated, and there’s not really any interest for ministers in setting up processes.

“Some departments are doing it better than others, and some are trying. But unless you’ve got the political will to clamp down on this stuff, it won’t happen. This is how they want to operate – they want to avoid scrutiny.”

Bob Kerslake, a former head of the UK civil service, said ministers were increasingly aware of the potential security risks of using private communication channels, which made actions such as Braverman’s all the more hard to understand.

“If this sort of thing happened with a civil servant there would be disciplinary action, no question about it,” Lord Kerslake said.

“If you resign but then come back within a week, what you essentially say is that it’s OK. That message gets through to other ministers, and potentially to civil servants as well. You need a high level of discipline on this now.”

Lord Dannatt told Times Radio: “Our leaders must be sufficiently disciplined to only communicate through authorised means which themselves are encrypted and are secure.

“We’ve seen it with Suella Braverman apparently sending messages that she shouldn’t have done on a personal email, and now we get it with Liz Truss.

“This, frankly, is not good enough. If these people aspire to be in senior positions, positions of leadership, they’ve got to be disciplined, they’ve got to follow the rules, or, frankly, we’ll put other people in their place.”

Dannatt added that the strict rules on communications were there for a reason.

It is time for this government to get its act together for all our sakes.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Controversy continues to chase Braverman

Having been reinstated as Home Secretary by Rishi Sunak. despite her previous breaches in security, and despite breaking the ministerial code, Suella Braverman just cannot keep out of the news. 

The latest twist on this saga is reported by the BBC, who say that an email sent from Suella Braverman's personal account on the day she had to resign over a security breach could throw fresh doubt over her claims about the speed with which she took action:

In her defence, the home secretary said: "as soon as I realised my mistake, I rapidly reported this on official channels". She said she reported it to the cabinet secretary - the head of the civil service. But the BBC understands she sent the original email from her personal Gmail account to the wrong person, a member of parliamentary staff, at 7:52 BST on 19 October.

The document was a draft written ministerial statement related to immigration visas containing highly sensitive information about government policy.

At 8:30 the recipient sent her a message saying that it had been sent in error.

At 10:02 a message was then sent from the home secretary's personal Gmail account saying: "Please can you delete the message and ignore".

It is understood the chief whip at the time, Wendy Morton, was told what had happened around half an hour later by the office that had received the message in error. Ms Morton then urgently tried to track down the home secretary to discuss the issue, it is understood.

One source told the BBC there was no evidence that Ms Braverman had raised the incident herself before she was confronted with the mistake later that afternoon, and subsequently had to resign.

But a source close to Ms Braverman said around 12:00, she instructed officials to raise the breach with the cabinet secretary. That is still more than four hours after her original email that broke the rules and two hours after she had asked the recipient to "delete and ignore".

"The home secretary has been clear that once she realised she'd made this error of judgment she proactively reported it on official channels.

This incident is, of course, so serious that Braverman should never have been give the second chance Sunak offered her. However, it is on policy matters, especially around immigration, that this Home Secretary is nost toxic.

The Sunday Times reports that Braverman has been accused of failing to act on legal advice that the government was illegally detaining thousands of asylum seekers. The move could cost taxpayers an expensive court action.

They say that the home secretary received advice at least three weeks ago warning that migrants were being detained for unlawfully long periods at the Manston asylum processing centre in Ramsgate, Kent. According to five sources, Braverman was also told that the legal breach needed to be resolved urgently by rehousing the asylum seekers in alternative accommodation.

They add that two sources said she was also warned by officials that the Home Office had no chance of defending a legal challenge and the matter could also result in a public inquiry if exposed:

A government source said: “The government is likely to be JR’d [judicially reviewed] and it’s likely that all of them would be granted asylum, so it’s going to achieve the exact opposite of what she wants. These people could also launch a class action against us and cost the taxpayer millions.”

Asylum seekers are meant to be in Manston, a short-term holding facility, for no more than 24 hours while they undergo checks before being moved into immigration detention centres or asylum accommodation.

But of the 2,600 migrants at the site — which was designed to hold a maximum of 1,600 — some, including families, have been held there for up to four weeks.

The majority are believed to have arrived on the south coast after crossing the Channel in small boats in recent weeks. The centre is now dealing with outbreaks of diphtheria and scabies, with staff at the site also reporting outbreaks of violence as tensions have mounted over the overcrowded conditions.

David Neal, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, told MPs on the home affairs select committee he was left shocked by the “wretched conditions” migrants were being kept in after he visited the centre.

In claims fiercely disputed by the home secretary, it is alleged that after receiving legal advice about Manston, she refused to solve the problem by securing new hotels for the asylum seekers to be transferred to.

Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said the problems experienced at Manston formed part of wider failure to prepare for another record year of migrant crossings. So far this year more than 38,000 have crossed the Channel. There is also a mounting backlog of 100,000 asylum claims, with the average case now taking 480 days to process.

It was also claimed Braverman, a former attorney general, had “deliberately” chosen not to sign off enough hotels in an attempt to reduce the £6.8 million a day bill being paid by the government to house asylum seekers.

However, the Home Office, after declining to comment on the allegation originally, subsequently claimed on Saturday evening that it had done so on three occasions during this period.

Following Braverman’s sacking by Liz Truss for breaking the ministerial code on a separate matter, her immediate successor, Grant Shapps, began procuring hotels. He was updated on what a source said had by that point become a “screaming problem”.

“Three weeks ago, she was told directly by Home Office officials of the illegality of the site,” another source said. “It is an unofficial detention centre. She knew exactly what she was doing, and she still went ahead with it. She was also told at the same time that this could lead to a public inquiry.”

A senior Whitehall source added: “The law has been broken . . . It is an entirely illegal situation. You can’t just detain people. The department is basically in despair.”

Surely, Sunak must come to his senses and remove this dreadful minister from office.

Friday, October 28, 2022

How Brexit is stifling growth

In one of those 'told you so' moments us remainers like to indulge in from time to time, the Independent reports on a survey by the British Chambers of Commerce that has found that one in five small UK exporters are unable to trade with the EU because of barriers created by Brexit.

The paper says that the survey also revealed that businesses are in the dark about promised new trade deals with the rest of the world – despite ministers claiming that these are a priority:

The business group is now urging the new government to adopt its proposals to reduce bureaucracy at the borders, almost two years after Boris Johnson’s “fantastic” trade deal was signed.

It is calling for action to cut customs delays and reduce other barriers to trade, and to make it easier to recruit much-needed workers. It has also put forward a proposal for the UK and EU to recognise each other’s professional qualifications.

“The BCC has a plan to cut red tape on UK-EU goods movements,” said William Bain, head of trade policy at the organisation.

The “lack of engagement” with businesses about free trade agreements is “another stumbling block preventing more international sales”, the BCC said.

Business organisations have generally been reluctant to criticise the government for the damage inflicted by the Christmas 2020 trade deal, which ended frictionless trade with the EU.

This is despite the Treasury watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility, stating that the UK had “missed out” on the post-Covid recovery in global trade – and warning of a 4 per cent loss to GDP in the medium term.

London School of Economics research found that smaller businesses had “simply stopped selling a lot of products to smaller countries in the EU”.
The BCC survey, of almost 1,000 UK businesses, found that:
  • 20 per cent of UK exporters to the EU said they could not “meet the requirements” of the Brexit trade deal – while only 61 per cent said they could 
  • 79 per cent of firms have not assessed what they might need from a trade deal with major international markets, including 69 per cent of UK exporters 
  • 61 per cent of firms have been hit by customs delays and tariffs, while 60 per cent pointed to costs and disruption and 48 per cent to “regulatory barriers” 
  • Problems trading with the EU have encouraged 9 per cent of exporters to turn to new non-EU markets
Ian Wilson, chief executive of the shipping firm DHL Express UK, said: “We can see from the research that most businesses aren’t aware of what FTAs could mean for them.”

Hopes of a trade deal with the US have died and a proposed agreement with India is on ice, leaving only Australia and New Zealand as new trade partners – and both of those deals carry puny economic gains.

If we are going to fully report on all the failures of Brexit we may need a bigger bus.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Sunak blows his fresh start

If anybody had an opportunity to get the government off to a fresh start, it was Rishi Sunak. Entering number 10 Downing Street to replace the incompetent Liz Truss and the dissolute Boris Johnson, all he had to do was play it straight, not make any obvious mistakes and look the part. Alas, the internal politics of the Conservative Party, and whatever deals he struck to get thw support of his Parliamentary Party's right wing, has left him mired in controversy from day one.

The Guardian reports that Sunak's decision to reappoint Suella Braverman six days after she was forced to resign for a security breach has left him facing fresh questions after a former chairman of the Conservative party claimed the home secretary was responsible for “multiple breaches of the ministerial code”.

They say that Jake Berry, who sat in the cabinet alongside Braverman at the heart of Liz Truss’s government, said she was responsible for a “really serious breach” after sending confidential information to a private address, sending it to an MP, attempting to send it to the MP’s wife and then accidentally sending it to a member of parliamentary staff. He also indicated that the UK’s most senior civil servant, Simon Case, had been consulted and ruled that it had broken the rules:

Sunak told MPs on Wednesday that Braverman had made an “error of judgment” and had recognised her mistake, adding: “That’s why I was delighted to welcome her back into a united cabinet that brings experience and stability to the heart of government.”

Asked during prime minister’s questions if officials had raised concerns about the appointment– given Case was said to have been furious – Sunak simply said he had already “addressed the issue”.

Speaking to Piers Morgan Uncensored on Wednesday night, Berry said there had been “multiple breaches of the ministerial code” after Braverman had sent the document to her confidante and fellow MP Sir John Hayes.

“It was sent from a private email address to another member of parliament,” he told TalkTV’s Kate McCann. “She then sought to copy in that individual’s wife and accidentally sent it to a staffer in parliament. To me, that seems a really serious breach, especially when it was documents relating to cyber security, as I believe. That seems a really serious breach.

“The cabinet secretary had his say at the time, I doubt he changed his mind in the last six days but that is a matter for the new prime minister.”

The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, said Berry’s intervention was “extraordinary” and “very serious”, and highlighted Berry’s comments about “cybersecurity breaches”.

Tweeting at the prime minister, she wrote: “What security warnings did you ignore when you reappointed home secretary?”

It is not just Braverman. Sunak has also brought Gavin Williamson back to ministerial office, despite him previously being sacked from the cabinet after leaking important information from the National Security Council.

The other big concern about Braverman is her approach to policy. I think it is fair to say that she makes Priti Patel look like a socialist Her short time at the Home Office was marked by a hardline approach to a multitude of issues, including proposing to ban people entering the UK via small boats from claiming asylum.

If she intends to pursue similar policies now, then Sunak has no chance of distinguishing his tenure in Number Ten from that of his two predecessors.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

A discovery of lecterns

If there is one thing the quick turnover of Prime Ministers has highlighted it is the government's apparently bottomless supply of lecterns. People have suddenly become aware of the number and variety of these speaking aids.

A tweet from one journalist yesterday suggested that the government maintains a collection of lecterns going back to the 18th century. He suggested that it is one of the responsibilities of the Deputy Chief Whip, one of whose title is Keeper of the Lecterns. He said that there are over 200 in the collection, and the Keeper is charged with keeping it up to date.

Others take a different view however. LBC news reports that over the years, different PMs have had different lecterns with varying designs. It is thought their lecterns cost a few thousand pounds and can take several weeks to make.

Rishi Sunak has not yet had his personalised lectern made because of the rapid turnover, so he had to make do with one of the generic ones held in stock yesterday. However, it is only a matter of time. Here is LBC's take on the lecterns chosen by other prime ministers:

Tony Blair

Tony Blair's lectern was the darkest and the largest out of any prime minister from the 21st century. At the top of the lectern was the government website, while his predecessors have opted for the government crest at the top.

Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown's was arguably the first modern lectern. It was significantly smaller and lighter than Mr Blair's, with wheels often seen on office chairs at the bottom.

David Cameron

As seen in his resignation speech, Mr Cameron's lectern had a simple design. Wooden and light brown, the podium curves upwards - giving it a modern feel - with the government crest at the top. It was designed by Baroness Sugg, Mr Cameron's head of operations, and was meant to look "statesmanlike", the Telegraph reported.

Theresa May

Theresa May's lectern was significantly darker than Mr Cameron's. It was designed by her joint chief of staff and was designed to look 'feminine'.

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson's lectern was of a similar colour to Ms May's, although slightly darker. It was more traditional and designed to reflect Mr Johnson's energetic speeches.

Liz Truss

Liz Truss' lectern has drawn the most attention out of any other PM in recent memory, primarily due its spiral design. It also represented a return to a lighter and more curved design similar to Mr Cameron's.

It does seem to be a very expensive and unnecessary endeavour, but the one question that the article does not answer is whether the outgoing prime minister gets to keep their personalised lectern when they leave office.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Sweeping changes that will give Ministers unprecedented powers

When I was a member of the Welsh Assembly, one of the preoccupations of Conservative AM, David Melding was the Welsh Government's use of Henry VIII powers. These are clauses in a bill that enable ministers to amend or repeal provisions in an Act of Parliament using secondary legislation, which is subject to varying degrees of parliamentary scrutiny.

In David's view, and it is one I share, these clauses were undemocratic as they enable laws to be changed without debate and without the consent of elected parliamentarians, and when the secondary legislation enabled by these clauses do come up for debate, they are unamendeable and on a take it or leave it basis.

Reading this column by George Peretz in today's Guardian, it is apparent that David's distaste for these clauses is not shared by the rest of his party.

Peretz points out that Jacob Rees-Mogg’s plans to sweep aside 47 years’ worth of retained EU law, set out in a bill due to be debated by the Commons on Tuesday, will undermine our rights and freedoms while subjecting critical legislation for businesses to ministerial whim:

The Rees-Mogg bill does three things. First, it repeals all that law (except for law incorporated into an act of parliament) in one fell swoop on 31 December 2023, unless ministers decide to rescue any of it, or delay the repeal. That means that rights and protections such as (to give only a few examples) caps on your working hours, your rights if your employer is sold, the ban on selling cosmetics tested on animals, protections of environmentally sensitive sites and your rights to compensation if your flight is cancelled all vanish unless ministers decide to keep them – and ministers can decide to let them disappear without any consultation or parliamentary scrutiny whatsoever.

Second, it gives ministers huge powers to replace those rules with new rules, without any need to consult those affected and usually without any vote in parliament – and when there is a vote it will be a yes/no vote, after one short debate, and under the threat that the rules will vanish completely if parliament says “no”. The only limit on ministers’ powers is that the new rules cannot increase “burdens”: which means that they can’t be used to improve rights and protections but only to remove them – and all the rights I listed above, and countless others, will be vulnerable to gutting by ministerial fiat.

Third, even when retained EU law survives that process, the bill deliberately creates uncertainty about what it continues to mean, by ordering the courts to stop interpreting it in the way in which EU law is normally interpreted and nudging them to ignore relevant case law of the European court of justice.

The arguments put forward for the bill should be unconvincing even to Brexiters. Vote Leave was keen to tell voters that rights and protections found in EU law would stay and that any changes to them would be made democratically and by parliament. The real basis for the bill – apart from grabbing power to slash rights and protections without proper scrutiny – is a form of bigotry: the prejudice that because law comes from the EU it is necessarily bad and that it is so important to cleanse it from the UK statute book that normal democratic processes should be suspended; and that replacement rules should be made without taking the time to make sure that they work and do not have unintended consequences. Like all bigotry, that prejudice is unsupported by any coherent analysis.

Peretz adds that there is always scope for improving and updating regulation, but getting it right, in a complex world, requires thought, consultation and challenge:

What the bill does is to tell business that critical legislation of huge importance to them is subject to arbitrary ministerial repeal or rushed and unscrutinised rewriting, and that what remains will be deliberately thrown into uncertainty.

As the keen Brexiter George Eustice said while attempting to defeat this proposal when he was in government, “messing around” with regulation in this way “costs businesses money and is unlikely to make much difference”. Put more bluntly and more accurately, it is hard to think of any message that could be more calculated to put business off investing in the UK.

This legislation is bad for democracy and bad for our economy and it needs to be vigorously opposed.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Cost of living crisis starts to bite

It is barely winter yet and already the cost of living crisis is starting to impact on people's lives. While the Tories argue of who is to take on the poisoned chalice of party leader, the Guardian reports that the number of UK households in arrears on their energy bills soared to record levels in the second quarter of this year, with more than two million behind on their electricity payments.

The paper says that data from the energy regulator Ofgem shows that at the end of June, 2,347,511 households were behind on their electricity bills and 1,858,585 on their gas bills. Both totals rose by about a quarter in just three months, and by almost two-thirds since the end of 2020:

The news comes days after Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, announced that the cap on energy unit costs would last only six months instead of the planned two years. Hunt said a targeted scheme would replace it from April, but provided few details.

Peter Smith, director of policy and advocacy at National Energy Action, said: “With over two million households already in arrears with their energy bills, it is deeply worrying but not unsurprising. Bills have almost doubled in a year, and we haven’t yet seen the full impact of the latest price increase.

“We’re also now approaching winter and as temperatures drop many people are afraid to turn the heating on or even keep the lights on. It’s going to be a bleak and cold winter for the most vulnerable and unless the new prime minister acts urgently we would expect the number of households in arrears to increase yet again next year.”

Morgan Wild, head of policy at Citizens Advice, said: “Our advisers have seen people resorting to unplugging fridges and freezers, washing clothes by hand and skipping meals to cut back on their energy costs because they simply can’t afford to keep the lights on.”

Last month Citizens Advice saw a record number of people who could not afford to top up their prepayment meter – the eighth time this record has been broken in the last nine months.

“Even with the temporary bill freeze in place, the cost of energy will still be at a record high,” said Wild. “This crisis isn’t going away. By the end of September, we’d already helped more people with energy issues than we did for the whole of last year with an unprecedented amount who just can’t afford to top up their prepayment meter. The government must think carefully before it acts so we don’t see even higher numbers at crisis point in April.”

Citizens Advice has also seen a sharp rise in people being forced on to prepayment meters, which are more expensive and can easily run out of money.

As things start to get worse it is vital that whoever moves into 10 Downing Street at the end of this week starts to find some more long-term solutions.

Friday, October 21, 2022

Banquo at the feast

I am torn at the moment. I am amongst the first to argue that we need electoral reform, but as we stand at present I don't accept the argument that any new Prime Minister will not have a mandate as under our system. The Tories have a substantial majority that they won at a general election. We do mot have a presidential system, and it would help if those who are acting as if we did could be clear whether that is what they are arguing for.

The issue is whether whoever succeeds Truss can actually command that majority. If they cannot then the King would be within his rights to insist on an election.

Instinctively and intellectually, I want a general election to bring some stability to the governance of the UK, but in my heart I am emjoying the sight of the Tories ripping themsleves apart. The idea that Boris Johnson might be brought back to occupy Number 10 is not just remarkable, but would certainly finish off the process of destroying the electability of the Tories for some time to come.

The Independent reports that Conservative MPs have warned that the party could split if Boris Johnson returns as leader following the dramatic resignation of Liz Truss after just 45 days as prime minister.:

The prospect of a second Johnson premiership just two months after he gave up the keys to No 10 was cheered by supporters on the Tory benches.

MP Brendan Clarke-Smith said he was “the only person who can dig us out of this mess”, while former culture secretary Nadine Dorries hailed him as “the one person elected by the British public with a manifesto and a mandate until January ’25”.

In a Twitter message to the former premier Conservative MP James Dudderidge said: “I hope you enjoyed your holiday Boris. Time to come back. Few issues at the office that need addressing.”

But veteran backbencher Sir Roger Gale, the first MP to declare he had submitted a letter of no confidence in Johnson, told The Independent: “While he is under investigation for misleading the House, there is no way he should be considered for any government position, never mind prime minister.

“He would be just as divisive as he previously was – we want a unity candidate, not a division candidate.”

Sir Roger said that “quite a few” MPs could be expected to refuse to take the Tory whip if Johnson returned.

And another backbencher said he knew of at least one colleague who would cross the floor to Labour rather than serve under Johnson.

Meanwhile, former cabinet minister David Davis said that “a lot of people would be worried about the party” if the ex-PM returned.

He told The Independent: “We want credibility in the markets. Is he going to give us that? We want the technical capability to fix the health service. Is he going to give us that? We want to draw on talent from across the party. Having appointed a very narrow cabinet, is he going to give us that?”

If it wasn't so serious this would be pure comedy gold. Johnson is lurking over the shoulder of the Tory Party like Banquo at the feast. Will they be able to resist? We will have to see.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Strong and stable government

What can you say about yesterday?

It was a day in which the Home Secretary was sacked for a breach of the ministerial code, a politician who had earlier accused the opposition of being part of a coalition of chaos.

A day in which the government enforced a three line whip on MPs to vote against an anti-fracking motion in defiance of their own manifesto.

A day in which the Chief Whip and her deputy resigned and then unresigned; and in which MPs were allegedly physically forced into the voting lobby by government ministers, many emerging weeping at having been coerced into voting against the interests of their own constituents and the promises they made to them.

When the Tories won the 2015 General Election it was on the promise of bringing strong and stable government to the UK. This tweet from the Assistant Editor of Sky News Digital Politics sums up where we are today:

Alan McGuinness

My son has lived through four chancellors, three home secretaries, two prime ministers and two monarchs.

He's four months old.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Flytippers' paradise

As a local councillor, flytipping is the bane of my life. It is a constant struggle to keep on top of it and get the council to remove it. Flytippers are rarely caught and when they are, in Swansea at least, they appear to get away with just a rap on the knuckles, if that.

It is little surprise therefore to read this article in the Guardian, which reports the view of the chair of the Commons public accounts committee that the government’s attitude to waste crime is “close to decriminalisation” as fines are so low.

The paper adds that MPs have warned that organised criminals view the relatively tiny fines as a business expense as illegal waste dumping becomes a lucrative income stream for gangs:

Estimates put the cost of the crime at about £1bn a year for England, though that is probably an underestimate. A new Pac report, to be presented to parliament on Thursday, found that such crimes are on the rise as little is done to tackle them.

The report is highly critical of Defra and the Environment Agency, which it says are making only “slow and piecemeal” progress in implementing the 2018 resources and waste strategy aimed at eliminating waste crime. It points out there is still no plan for achieving its target of eliminating waste crime by 2043. The report states that four years into that 25-year target, measures central to achieving the aim such as digital tracking of waste are “not even at the pilot stage”.

According to the committee, “waste crime is not getting the local or national attention needed to effectively tackle it, despite it being on the rise and increasingly dominated by organised criminal gangs”, and the cost of living crisis is potentially increasing the “incentives for people to get rid of waste inappropriately”.

The report said fines were insufficient and only jail sentences deterred waste criminals. It recommended that Defra and the Environment Agency use technology including satellites and drones to track down fly tippers. It also said that the landfill tax, implemented to increase recycling, has increased incentives to fly-tip.

The report found that HMRC had not yet achieved a single successful prosecution for landfill tax evasion. The one investigation where it did try to prosecute the alleged offenders cost £3.5m but did not go to court because evidential requirements were not met.

The situation is not much different in Wales either and until enforcenent agencies have more resources and the penalties available to them increased, then things will not change.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Where now on the cost of living crisis?

By far the most significant announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday was that the government could now only guarantee its cap on the unit price of energy – designed to keep average bills at no more than £2,500 – for another six months.

As the Independent points out, this u-turn on Liz Truss's promise of two years of government support could see annual household energy bills rocketing to £4,000 from April:

The Resolution Foundation estimated that the U-turn could save the Treasury up to £40bn in 2023-24 – but would allow the annual energy price cap to rise to £4,000 from April.

“The price of shielding the public finances from wholesale gas markets next year is more pressure on households, with the energy price cap now on course to hit £4,000 next April – almost double its effective level today,” said chief executive Torsten Bell.

Mr Hunt suggested the government will end universal support and look to target help for those most in need after April – but it is not yet clear who will be entitled to support, and whether it will be aimed at only those on benefits.

The End Fuel Poverty Coalition, an umbrella body for 60 charities and campaign groups, called for clarity – saying the financial cliff edge faced by millions “has now become even steeper”.

Coordinator Simon Francis told The Independent: “We thought everyone could rely on some support, but that’s been taken away. We need clarity on support for the most vulnerable as soon as possible.”~

The National Energy Action group said the prospect of the unit price cap ending after six months had created “huge uncertainty” – warning that some families were already rationing their energy usage to “dangerous levels”.

Chief executive Adam Scorer said: “Many vulnerable people were holding on by their fingertips. Government has to be very, very careful it doesn’t prise them away.”

Tory jibes that Labour only had a six month plan has now rebounded back on them as they find themselves in the same boat. But the real losers are households who are already struggling to make ends meet. This is something the government needs to get a grip on, and quickly.

Monday, October 17, 2022

A major culture problem

A report by Louise Casey has exposed the culture problem facing the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, highlighting massive failings in how Britain’s biggest force roots out wrongdoing, including “systemic” racism and misogyny.

As the Guardian reports, Casey found that metropolitan police officers suspected of serious criminal offences including sexual assault and domestic abuse have been allowed to escape justice, while the force’s leader has admitted that hundreds of racist, women-hating and corrupt officers have been left in the ranks.

They add that the report found that one officer faced eleven claims including sexual assault, harassment and domestic abuse, but remains in the force:

The new Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, said he may still not have the power to remove him, and will ask the government for the power to reopen past cases.

Rowley said he was appalled by the findings and apologised to officers and members of the public who had been let down, and said the number of officers and staff being sacked each year, between 30 and 50, was “massively under-engineered”, and he estimated there are hundreds of officers in the Met who should be kicked out of the force.

“You have to come to the conclusion there must be hundreds of people that shouldn’t be here, who should be thrown out,” Rowley said. “There must be hundreds who are behaving disgracefully, undermining our integrity and need ejecting.”

Lady Casey was commissioned by the Met in the wake of the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving officer. This was her interim report purely focusing on the Met discipline system, and complaints from officers and staff about their colleagues.

It reveals Met officers and staff trying to fight toxic colleagues were betrayed by the force’s discipline system, and fear an “anything goes” culture.

The findings are among the worst faced by any police force and Rowley said he felt shame and anger reading the report, and conversations with female and ethnic minority staff about their experiences had left him in tears. He added the report showed the Met had been “too weak” facing down wrongdoing in the ranks.

Black officers were 81% more likely to face disciplinary action and new ethnic recruits were over 120% more likely to be fired than white counterparts, who were in effect shielded by a system that was broken.

Worse may be to come, with Casey’s full report due next year as is another report ordered by the government, and with other major scandals likely to become public.

The report shows officers and staff being fobbed off when they complain of wrongdoing, and reluctant to do so because they fear nothing will be done or reprisals – and Casey said they are right to feel so.

Casey said: “There are moments when I have looked at the cases with people I’ve listened to and I have wondered what exactly would constitute gross misconduct in order to get them out of the force.”

Casey looked at data and cases from 2013 onwards and among her findings were:

* About 55% to 60% of allegations made by Met officers, staff or their families receive a no case to answer decision, higher than in other forces.

* For discrimination allegations less than three in 10 are upheld, the same for sexual assault and sexual harassment claims against colleagues. Casey said: “This leaves many officers and staff in the Met to conclude that discriminatory behaviour is in fact not a breach of professional standards and adds to the sense that ‘anything goes’.”

* Supervisors are putting officers and staff off from raising concerns.

* Since 2013, 1,809 officers and staff had more than one allegation against them and only 13 (0.71%) had been dismissed.

* Many misconduct cases are dealt with by overstretched local units without proper training.

* Local surveys of officers in 2021 found between 22% to 47% had experienced unwanted sexual advances or touching, sexism and misogyny.

As the paper says there are more revelations to come, but what we know already does not engender much confidence in the way the Met has been run.

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Abdicating to the Brexiteers

With the UK economy already reeling as a result of Brexit, ensuring that things are not made worse by the neo-liberals and free-marketeer isolationists who run the government must be a priority for any right-minded politician. 

However, according to this article in the Independent, MPs are failing to properly scrutinise the lagislation that is dismantling the sensible checks and balances that allowed our country to prosper within the EU.

The paper refers to a new report by constitutional experts at the Institute for Government, which details how scrutiny of EU matters has "dwindled" and become "a niche activity" on the green benches:

Figures collated by researchers show that Labour MPs in particular want to "avoid looking back at Brexit" for political reasons, it suggests.

Average attendance of Labour MPs at the parliament's European Scrutiny Committee has been below 50 per cent in the most recent parliamentary sessions since the Brexit vote.

And if one regular Labour MP who attends the meetings is discounted, other Labour MPs have attended just 11 per cent of the sessions open to them.

The committee scrutinises developments relating to Britain’s relationship with the EU, including the withdrawal agreement.

Despite reams of Brexit-related legislation still working its way through Whitehall – and Liz Truss's plan to repeal all EU laws in the coming years – Brexit has also disappeared from the main Commons chamber.

The IfG researchers note that the number of Brexit-related urgent questions in the Commons fell from 45 in the 2017-19 session to under 15 in the 2019-21 session.

And parliamentary select committees are barely touching on the subject, with just seven of 235 inquiries held by committees since the 2019 general election on post-Brexit issues.

Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government and the author of the report, said parliament needed to start properly scrutinising the government’s decisions.

"Parliament needs to make a reality of taking back control and ensure government is held properly to account for what it does and fails to do."

Far from taking back control, Parliament is abdicating responsibility to the government.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Our friends, electric?

I don't own an electric car, nor a hybrid, and I do not intend to get one in the near future. The cost is an obvious factor, but also doubts about their environmental sustainability. Electric batteries are expensive, their lifespan is limited and when installed in hybrid vehicles their weight means you actually get fewer miles for a gallon of petrol. 

Furthermore, we are ripping up precious landscapes just to get at the scarce metals needed to make these batteries. And that is before I get onto the problems of charging the battery while living in a mid-terrace house with no driveway and no guaranteed parking space.

Other issues include the lack of public charging stations, and their reliability, as well as “range anxiety” over how far vehicles can travel on a single charge, and the rising cost of electricity.

My reluctance to adopt this technology is not unique. According to this article in the Guardian, although a record number of drivers want their next car to be electric, the cost-of-living crisis is forcing many to delay making the switch to an eco-friendlier vehicle. That is if it can be proved to be more eco-friendly.

Government hype about the environmental benefits of switching to electric appears to be cutting through. The paper says that the RAC have found that a record 14% of drivers say their next car will be electric, up from 10% last year and just 3% in 2018. A further 29% said they intended to switch to a hybrid vehicle of some description, which combines petrol and electric power:

However, soaring inflation, rising energy bills and the prospect of higher remortgage payments has led to increased economic uncertainty, putting the brakes on drivers switching to a new, cleaner vehicle.

The proportion of drivers who now do not know when they will go electric has increased from 36% to 42% year on year, while those expecting to do so in the next five years has dropped from 17% to 15%. The proportion who think they will be in an electric vehicle over a 10-year horizon has dropped from 25% to 21%.

“The squeeze on household finances brought about by the cost of living crisis mean people keen to get into an EV are likely to put off doing so,” said Williams. “Rising interest rates will also inevitably have a detrimental effect on the number of people who choose to buy new cars on finance.”

Personally, I think the rise of electric cars is a false dawn. They are nowhere as sustainable as they are made out to be. If a vehicle can be built that actually matches the hype, I will consider it.

Friday, October 14, 2022

Crass decision should put Home Secretary in the dock

There have been a lot of bizarre, cruel and outrageous decisions by various Home Secretaries over the past twelve years, but, in my opinion, the latest pronouncement by possibly the worst holder of that post in modern times verges on the criminal.

The Guardian reports that updated online ministerial profiles show that the Home Office has taken the modern slavery brief away from the minister responsible for safeguarding and classed it as an “illegal immigration and asylum” issue.

They say that the move is seen as a clear sign that the department is doubling down on Suella Braverman’s suggestion that people are “gaming” the modern slavery system and that victims of the crime are no longer being prioritised. 

Others might speculate that it indicates that Braverman is a soulless monster who lacks humanity, compassion and any sense of justice, but don't take my word for it, here are the experts:

Under Theresa May, the government pledged to be world leaders in combating modern slavery but Braverman said last week that trafficking claims from “people gaming the system” were “derailing the UK’s policy on illegal migration”.

The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, said: “The largest single group of modern slavery victims under the referral system last year were British children – including those who were exploited through county lines.

“The evidence shows the majority of exploitation takes place in the UK rather than across borders.

“The government should be treating this as an enforcement and safeguarding issue and taking stronger action against the crime of modern slavery wherever it takes place.”

Charities working with victims say characterising the crime as an illegal immigration issue is dangerous. More than a quarter of all people identified as potential modern slavery victims are British, according to official statistics.

Olivia Field, head of policy at the British Red Cross, said: “Modern slavery is a crime that can impact people no matter where they are from or where they are in the world.

“From our work supporting people who have been through horrific experiences including sexual exploitation and human trafficking, we know there are urgent improvements needed to better protect and support survivors.

“So it doesn’t become any harder for people to get the help they need, we would urge the lens on tackling modern slavery to be a safeguarding one focused on protecting people impacted by this crime, as opposed to being treated as an immigration issue.”

Despite Braverman’s claims of people “gaming” the system, 97% of all modern slavery referrals concluded in the first half of this year were confirmed as genuine by the authorities.

The home secretary’s comments were contradicted by the chief executive of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, Elysia McCaffrey, who said: “We don’t see people gaming the system … What we see is vulnerable people who are being exploited by opportunists and criminals.”

Kate Roberts, head of policy at Focus on Labour Exploitation, said: “Modern Slavery is a serious crime which is carried out against individuals and to see it as an immigration matter is wrong and is risky.

The fact that there has been no independent anti-slavery commissioner in post since Sara Thornton left in April, despite it being a legal requirement since the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015, is telling. By failing to give it the priority it needs the UK government is aiding and abetting this dreadful crime.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

King sums up public mood on Truss

As Prime MInisters go Liz Truss has not so much hit the ground runnng as got bogged down in quick sand. Within days of taking over she has plummetted in the polls and judging by her recent meeting with backbenchers, even Tory MPs don't seem to want her.

Who could blame King Charles then, in capturing that mood in her recent audience with him?

The Guardian reports that the new PM's first weekly audience with King Charles offered little respite from a week of political disaster and economic ruin:

It took just 15 seconds of video from the meeting at Buckingham Palace on Wednesday night for the monarch to make things worse.

As Truss curtseyed, and said: “Your Majesty”, Charles replied: “So you’ve come back again?”

While Truss replied: “It’s a great pleasure,” he could only mutter: “Dear, oh dear. Anyway …”

The clip, which came after another day of turmoil in the economic markets and mutinous plotting on the Conservative party backbenches, quickly went viral.

Dr Jennifer Cassidy, a lecturer in diplomacy at Oxford University, described it as “a scene straight from The Office … political awkwardness and unintentional comedy at its finest”.

After announcing unfunded tax cuts and scaring the markets, Truss has had no honeymoon period in the new job. Headlines are already asking if she is the worst prime minister in British history.

The Scottish National party MP John Nicholson tweeted: “King Charles speaks for us all. ‘You’re back again. Dear, oh dear. Well, anyway ….’ At least he won’t have to endure her for long.”

You can't make this up.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Tories reaping what they sowed

It appears that new ministers in Liz Truss's administration are just now beginning to realise that careless talk costs jobs. The chancellor, in particular, has caused chaos on the markets with his mini budget, his u-turns and now, his statement that support for pension funds has to end. 

As a result, the pound has dropped to record lows, with a consequential impact for exporters, the UK economy has shrunk by 0.3% on the back of a manufacturing slump, and mortgage rates have effectively doubled, adding to the hardship felt by many families.

For the Brexiteers, whose justification for trashing our trade deal with the biggest free trade block in the world, the EU, was that we would make our own deals to replace it, the last few years must have been a major disappointment. 

Not only is that lucrative deal with the USA now a complete non-starter, but the ideological ramblings of Brexit-supporting ministers are endangering deals that have already been negotiated.

According to the Times, Liz Truss’s flagship trade deal with India is on the “verge of collapse” after Indian ministers reacted furiously to comments by Suella Braverman criticising migrants from their country:

Last week the home secretary said she had “concerns” about the trade deal because it would increase migration to the UK and Indians represented the largest group of visa overstayers.

She told The Spectator magazine: “I do have some reservations. Look at migration in this country — the largest group of people who overstay are Indian migrants.”

The comments sparked a furious reaction from Indian government ministers and officials, sources from both governments have told The Times.

A source in Delhi said they were “shocked and disappointed” by the “disrespectful” remarks.

Indian government sources said the “relationship has taken a step back” following Braverman’s comments, adding: “There’s still a lot of goodwill but if certain individuals are still embedded in the government, it will paralyse the talks”. They said Truss should publicly “disassociate” herself from Braverman’s words if she wanted to revive the deal.

Delhi is demanding more work and study visas for its citizens, including a new visa that would emulate agreements struck with Australia and New Zealand that allow under-35s to live in the UK for up to three years. The enhanced terms for Indian migrants are referred to as “mobility” in talks.

A senior UK government source said: “Mobility has been the key Indian ask and everything else — financial services, banking, education, rules of origin on whisky, etc, hinges on the mobility ask. And Suella has gone and pulled the rug from under that mobility ask.”

A UK government source who has spoken to Indian officials involved in the trade negotiations said: “They were apoplectic. Mad doesn’t even come close to describing how angry they are.”

It was always going to be the case that the Tories obsession with immigration would undermine our economic growth and scupper trade deals. Now we are seeing it in action.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Festival of Brexit to be probed

The Independent reports that the government’s so-called “festival of Brexit” will be probed amid concerns that £120 million of taxpayers’ cash was “frittered away” on a project that brought “so little in return”.

They say that MPs in a cross-party parliamentary committee have approached the National Audit Office (NAO) to ask it to look into how the project was managed and whether political pressures kept it going:

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee had found that the number of visitors to the event – called ‘Unboxed: Creativity in the UK’ – was just 0.36 per cent of early targets.

Then, last month, the committee asked the NAO to “help get to the bottom” of the “irresponsible use of public money”.

Organisers of the festival had an initial “stretch target” of 66 million visitors, almost as much as the UK’s 69m population. But just 238,000 people visited the festival, The House magazine reported in August.

Conservative MP Julian Knight, chairman of the DCMS committee, said: “That such an exorbitant amount of public cash has been spent on a so-called celebration of creativity that has barely failed to register in the public consciousness raises serious red flags about how the project has been managed from conception through to delivery.

“The NAO’s investigation will bring welcome and thorough scrutiny and help get to the bottom of how so much taxpayer money could be frittered away for so little return.”

Mr Knight said the festival’s design and execution “has been an unadulterated shambles”, adding: “The paltry numbers attracted to the festival – despite such a hefty investment – highlight just what an excessive waste of money the whole project has been.”

Nice to see that money did grow on trees for Boris Johnson's government after all.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Is inter-government arguing causing Wales to lose out?

Our exit from the EU was aways going to be felt particularly sharply in Wales, if only because of the loss of hundreds of millions of Euros invested in our poorest communities. The fact that this money was not always invested wisely, and that ordinary people did not feel its benefit, almost certainly contributed to the vote in favour of leave in many of those areas. That though does not mean the cash was not important, nor that we will miss it if it dries up.

The UK Government pledged to replace the funding, a promise that has not been met in full, but they have only done so on their own terms and in doing so have effectively excluded the democratically elected Welsh Government from many of the decisions, while ensuring that more prosperous areas (read Tory seats) also get funding. In other words the money is less focussed on need, and continues to have less impact than it should.

One of the outcomes of this decision-making process is that the Welsh Government has refused to co-operate with their UK equivalent and, according to this article in Wales-online, that is a huge issue. They report on the findings of the Senedd Finance Committee that Wales could miss out on vital funding due to a "lack of cooperation between the Welsh and UK governments:

It [the Finance Committee's report] said three new funding schemes - the community renewal fund (CRF), levelling up fund (LUF) and the shared prosperity fund (SPF) - designed to replace previous EU funding in UK nations represented a "seismic shift in the way that money is allocated to Wales", which it claims was the largest recipient of EU funding relative to its population of all the UK nations.

But it said implementing these funds had been "endangered by a lack of engagement between the Welsh and UK governments", difficulties by local councils in submitting funding bids and the UK government "bypassing the Welsh Government and the Senedd" to fund Welsh projects.

While Wales received £46.9 million - or 23% - of the overall community relief fund funding, the Welsh Government described its allocation as a “scattergun approach” which it said would have been better spent if it had been deployed more strategically. The bidding process for funding was also criticised by some Welsh councils, including Pembrokeshire County Council, which called the community relief fund process "inherently wasteful", and the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA), which complained over the level of resources councils and other organisations have to put into bidding with no guarantee of success. The WLGA said it was was too soon to judge whether the new funds were less bureaucratic than EU funds but added that there was "still quite an extensive range of evidence and material that had to be pulled together" for those applying.

Minister for Economy Vaughan Gething said it was “plain that some of the projects that have gone in aren’t aligned with Welsh Government priorities”. The finance committee said it was "particularly disappointed to hear about a lack of engagement between the Welsh and UK governments" on funding and called on the UK government to consider the time and resources needed by local authorities to submit bids.

The report also criticised the £2.6 billion shared prosperity fund (SPF), which was launched in April 2022 to cover different parts of the UK until 2024/25. It said there had been "very little detail" on the fund since it was announced in 2017 and noted a number of Welsh councils which said progress on the fund had been "slow" and that meaningful engagement between the UK Government and the Welsh Government had only taken place relatively recently. It said the Welsh Government had not endorsed the UK Government’s approach to the SPF as it said the funding formula "redirects funds away from those areas where poverty is most concentrated" in Wales and that its share of the funding was over £1 billion less than what it would have expected to receive from the EU between January 2021 and March 2025.

While it admitted that the new funding processes were "new and likely to experience teething-problems", the Senedd committee said it had "sympathy with the Welsh Government that it is being bypassed" by the UK government's approach and believed the Senedd was "in danger of being side-lined and that further consideration is required to ensure that effective parliamentary scrutiny of these and any future replacements funds takes place in Wales."

There is fault on both sides here, but it is the Welsh economy which is missing out. If an accommodation is not reached soon then this will be another tranche of funding that will have been wasted.

Sunday, October 09, 2022

The unacceptable price of a Qatar world cup

An article in yesterday's Guardian highlighting the environmental cost of holding this year's soccer world cup in Qatar has reminded me of the many other reasons why this particular venue is unsuitable for such a high-profile tournament.

The paper reports that Qatar is going to need at least 10,000 litres of water every day for each of its stadium pitches. They say that based in a region with virtually no access to fresh water, it is going to rely on desalination – the practice of debrining saltwater so it is drinkable.

As the paper says, this seems like an elegant solution, but the problem is that desalination, which is projected to boom by 37% across the Gulf region in the next five years, has huge environmental costs, in terms of the fossils fuels used to carry out the process, and the marine environment:

In fact, most desalination plants are oil or gas powered, operating with either thermal processing technology, which collects steam from boiling water and condenses it, or the more modern reverse osmosis technology, which relies heavily on electricity produced using natural gas to power pumps that force water through very fine membranes, essentially straining out the salts in the water.

“Either way, you need quite a lot of energy. That can be derived from a lot of sources including by burning fossil fuels,” says Le Quesne.

So although Qatar maintains the World Cup will be carbon-neutral, climate organisations are already expressing doubts. The water demands alone are eye-watering. The tournament will need to manage 144 pitches across eight stadiums, and more than 130 additional training grounds. The delicate and complicated process of creating the right turf for football in the Qatar climate just as the weather begins to cool means the groundsmen have to mimic winter, blowing chilled air over the grass and watering the pitch with at least 10,000 litres of desalinated water.

And for emergencies, according to Reuters, “a 425,000 sq metre reserve of grass – some 40 soccer pitches worth – is growing at a farm north of Doha”. The water consumption of that patch is not recorded.

And despite national commitments to reducing carbon emissions and meeting net zero targets, the region is expecting to do more desalination, not less, with capacity planned to expand 37% by 2027.

This could be devastating for the Gulf’s marine ecosystem, says Le Quesne. Desalination is one of the worst marine pollution drivers around the world, producing brine, a highly saline waste fluid usually released into the sea as saltier, toxic and warmer seawater. It can contain chemicals such as chlorine, heavy metals, and anti-foaming agents that are added during the desalination process, which can harm coral reefs and smaller marine organisms that live on the seabed.

Along with water, smaller organisms also risk getting sucked into the system and can get impinged, crashing into the screens of the intake pipes, or entrained, travelling with water reaching the plant, resulting in severe injury and death.

Compared to the other downsides of using Qatar as a host country, damage to the environment is the least of our concerns. Freedom United highlight the human cost of getting the stadiums ready:

The World Cup hosts who work with the UN and the International Labour Organization (ILO) have repeatedly stressed their commitment to workers’ welfare, however, many of the 30,000 workers constructing the roads, hotels and stadiums for the tournament have been subjected to conditions amounting to forced labor. Heat-related deaths and injuries from laboring in unsafe temperatures and inhumane conditions have also been reported.

Qatar’s new stadiums and infrastructure for the international tournament rely on migrant workers’ labor, people who traveled to the country with the promise of a good salary and fair conditions. Yet, instead, they are faced with low wages, hours of hard labor, debt bondage, restricted movement and communication by having their phones and passports confiscated, forced labor, irregular residency status, and no access to healthcare.

Migrant workers are able to work in Qatar under the kafala sponsorship system that has been in operation since 2000, which systematically deceives workers often low-paid migrant workers. Kafala gives private citizens and companies in Qatar almost total control of migrant workers’ employment and immigration status.

The system was derived from the high demand for cheap labor that capitalized on the desperation of many migrants searching for work to send money home to families.

“The kafala system ties ‘foreign’ workers to a sponsor who yields unchecked powers over migrant workers allowing them to evade accountability or labor and human rights abuses and leaves workers beholden to debt and inconstant fear of retaliation.” – Human Rights Watch.

Of course, many fans will want to go and support their teams anyway, and who can blame them. The problem is that many will not be able to find accommodation, and those who do will be paying through the nose for it. 

One advert seen on Twitter for the Grand Hyatt Doha Hotel and Villas is offering a two-bedroom upper floor villa for £45,628 for ten nights. Others have commented that they have accommodation for £200 a night, plus tickets and flights. In a cost-of-living crisis many will be excluded from attending.

Naturally, I am proud that Wales will be playing at the world cup for the first time since 1958 and I will be backing them to go all the way. It just doesn't seem right that they will displaying their talents in Qatar when so many other venues are available without these terrible drawbacks.

Saturday, October 08, 2022

Raising money for the Tories

The Mirror has an interesting insight on how the Tories raise some of their money, with a piece in which Gareth Quarry, who has defected to Labour with a £100,000 donation, tells of secretive meals with a 'planted Q and A' where 'the great and the good were allowed to ask one question each':

In an explosive Sky News interview, legal recruitment boss Gareth Quarry branded the Conservatives “riven with arrogance and complacency” and “totally out of touch” with the public.

Mr Quarry, 63, said meals with donors who gave over £50,000 would have “a planted Q and A the great and the good were allowed to ask one question each” to powerful Tory figures.

He added he got “access” to ex-PM David Cameron in exchange for his donations - and “because alcohol was involved” it would “be a bit more relaxed”.

After giving £100,000 to Keir Starmer ’s Labour recently, Mr Quarry claimed he was not seeking influence despite attending the meals.

But “in an ideal world” all private donations to political parties would be axed, he admitted.

It comes days after Mr Quarry, who handed the Tories £75,000 from 2014 to 2017, defected to Labour accusing the Conservatives from turning Britain into a “laughing stock”.

Donors who give £50,000 or more can join the Conservative Party ’s 'Leader's Group', allowing them in to private dinners and lunches with the PM and ministers.

Mirror analysis of past records suggested 120 men and two women went to Leader’s Group meals between January 2017 and June 2018.

Yet attendees at the dinners have not been published since 2018, breaking a Tory pledge, and the party has scrubbed all past records from its website.

The businessman - who admitted he will be a “pariah” with some - slammed Boris Johnson ’s “personal aggrandisement” and said Liz Truss had “veered off to the right”.

He added he “could not give a toss” about cutting corporation tax while poorer Brits are “in despair”.

He said inequality is “more marked than ever before”, going on: “I have made a lot of money and I could not sit by and just watch that happen.”

Remain-voting Mr Quarry shed light on a “very small” dinner with David Cameron before the ex-PM flew to Germany to get a deal on EU relations, in a bid to prevent the Brexit vote.

“I had conversations in a very small group over dinner with Cameron before he went to Germany to try to get what he wanted,” he said.

“And he assured me ‘Gareth, Angela [Merkel] is gonna give me what we want.’

“And I asked him directly, I said David what if she doesn't. He said, don’t you trouble your head, she will.”

He went on: “There were various tiers of which the two top, then, it may have changed now, were linked to the amount you gave a year and the second tier got you Cabinet Ministers coming to have lunch with you either in Westminster or in a club somewhere.

“And they would stand on their pins and say everything in the garden’s rosy, and we need to do this. And then there would be a sort of planted Q and A.

“The great and the good were allowed to ask one question each after lunch.

“There was also a higher tier… which was for those who gave a materially higher amount a year. And that got you, yes, access to Cameron.

“I was invited to some of those events and I went to some of those events, which were small round table usually at dinner, when it would follow the same format, but it would go on for longer.

“And because alcohol was involved, be a bit more relaxed.”

He added: “The Tory party is riven with arrogance and complacency. This is totally out of touch.

“I sat in rooms with the top group of donors. I'm a boy from Bedford, I felt totally out of it. There were people… born with silver spoons in their mouths. That's not who I am.”

None of this is new of course, and I believe it was something similar to dinners hosted by New Labour. Still it's nice to have it confirmed.

Friday, October 07, 2022

No token monarch

The argument that our new unelected monarch is just a figurehead with minimal political influence has never been an accurate one, as was illustrated by this news story from a few days ago.

The Guardian reported that King Charles had been allowed to vet and potentially lobby for changes to emergency legislation to freeze rents in Scotland because the measures could affect tenants on his private Highland estate at Balmoral.

They say that the King’s involvement in a bill to stop landlords unjustifiably raising rents for the next six months because of the cost of living crisis, under rules known in Scotland as crown consent, have come to light after the rules at Holyrood were changed following a Guardian investigation into the monarch’s power to influence and amend the UK’s laws:

The Guardian revealed last year that ministers in Edinburgh had allowed Queen Elizabeth to vet at least 67 pieces of legislation that affected her personal property and public powers under the arcane custom, inherited from Westminster. A Scottish government memo revealed it was “almost certain” draft laws had been secretly changed to secure the Queen’s approval.

There has been growing criticism that the unelected monarch is able to use the secretive mechanism to secure changes to proposed laws without the public being informed; an allegation rejected by the royal family.

In response, Holyrood’s presiding officer, Alison Johnstone, told the Scottish government it now had to inform parliament as soon as a new bill was tabled whether the monarch had been allowed to see it first.

Previously, ministers would only tell MSPs at the final stages of a bill’s parliamentary scrutiny that the monarch had been allowed to secretly vet it. Ministers have also refused to release letters from the late Queen’s solicitors lobbying for changes on her behalf.

The cost of living (tenant protection) Scotland bill is the first piece of draft legislation affected by Johnstone’s ruling and is the first at Holyrood to be vetted by the King.

In a further development, Scottish ministers said on Monday they would also start explaining why crown consent was required for new bills. Previously, such explanations have not been made public.

What has not been revealed of course, is whether the bill was actually changed as a result of the King's intervention, an oversight that should be corrected in any transparent democracy.

The soft power employed by the monarch to protect their own interests in this way is not afforded to any other landowner. It happens in all other legislatures including Westminster and Wales, where my own private members bill on Park Homes also required referral to the then Prince oF Wales for his approval, before it could be passed.

At the very least all these legislatures should be as open and transparent about this process as Holyrood is now being, however the wider question is why an unelected head of state can effectively overrule democratically elected representatives in this way? Taking away the power of consent from the monarchy is long overdue.

Thursday, October 06, 2022

And now the stealth taxes

For a Prime Minister who has built her reputation on tax cuts and growth through trickle-down economics, the latest report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies must be quite a reality check.

The Guardian reports that millions of households are facing a “stealth” tax raid under Liz Truss’s government despite her promise to support workers through the cost-of-living crisis by lowering their tax bills.

The paper explains that the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has calculated that for every £1 given to workers by cutting headline tax rates, £2 was being taken away through a freeze on the level at which people begin paying tax on their earnings.

When taken with plans for benefits, the IFS say the poorest in Britain will see their incomes hit hardest over the next three years. While the richest 10% of households will benefit by £2,290 a year on average from cuts to national insurance and income tax, the poorest will benefit by just £13.

And as if to make matters worse, the freeze on the tax-free personal allowance, above which workers pay tax at the basic rate, combined with soaring inflation means millions more will be dragged into higher income tax brackets. The IFS estimate that 1.4 million more adults will pay the basic rate, while 1.6 million would move into the higher-rate bracket.

And just to complete the picture, a freeze for the benefit cap – which sets a maximum for the amount of support some out-of-work families receive – will mean the number of affected households doubles to 250,000, while 500,000 more families will lose some or all of their child benefit entitlement.

This isn't trickle down, it is trickle up.

Wednesday, October 05, 2022

House of the Goat

For those of us who have been watching the Game of Thrones prequel, House of The Dragon, this week's shenanigans at Tory Party conference may seem eerily familiar. There are no dragons, only goats, but the plotting and the backstabbing is as vicious and as unprincipled as the fictional version set in ancient Westeros.

The Guardian reports that Liz Truss’s cabinet is in open warfare over the 45p tax U-turn and benefit cuts, with the home secretary accusing fellow Tory MPs of a coup against the prime minister.

The paper adds that on another chaotic day at the Conservative party conference, ministerial discipline broke down, with cabinet colleagues disagreeing over key policies and bitter infighting over the decision to scrap plans to ditch the top rate of tax:

In some of the most provocative remarks, Suella Braverman said she was “disappointed” by the U-turn – and suggested Tory MPs were trying to overthrow Truss’s government.

The home secretary was backed by Simon Clarke, the levelling up secretary, but criticised by Kemi Badenoch, the trade secretary, who said talk of a coup was “inflammatory”.

Braverman appeared to be taking aim at the former cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Grant Shapps, who dominated the first day of the Birmingham event by criticising the abolition of the 45p tax rate.

On Tuesday, Shapps suggested Truss had about 10 days to turn things around and signalled MPs may try to remove her if polls continued to show Labour on course for a landslide majority.

While claiming he wanted Truss to succeed, he told Times Radio: “I don’t think members of parliament, Conservatives, if they see the polls continue as they are, are going to sit on their hands. A way would be found to make that change.”

Battle lines were also drawn over Truss’s refusal to rule out saving £4bn a year by raising benefits in line with earnings rather than inflation – a real-terms cut that could further squeeze the poorest.

Braverman came out strongly in favour of the idea of cuts, hitting out at what she termed the UK’s “Benefits Street culture”, saying there needed to be “more stick” to get “a stubborn core who see welfare as the go-to option” back into work.

However, two other cabinet ministers, Penny Mordaunt and Robert Buckland, along with the Brexit hardliner David Frost, broke ranks to say they did not support the idea of failing to increase benefits in line with inflation.

One cabinet minister also said they thought Chloe Smith, the work and pensions secretary, was on the same page, and privately colleagues thought the policy did not command the support of the parliamentary party.

At a fringe event for the free-market thinktank the Institute of Economic Affairs, Kwasi Kwarteng, the chancellor, was non-committal on welfare cuts and appeared to be keen to dial down the row, though a review will take place into the uplift.

“I think you do have an obligation to vulnerable people,” he said, citing the energy price freeze. He added: “I’m not gonna get drawn into debates around benefits … but I would make a broad point that we are a humane society. Compassionate conservatism is a good phrase. And it’s something that I think we do have a duty to look after vulnerable people.”

With open disputes over the government’s tax and spending plans, Kwarteng caused further confusion by publicly dismissing the idea that he would bring forward his 23 November fiscal plan to calm the markets. At the same time, Downing Street sources were briefing that he would try to make the statement this month instead of next, if possible.

The stakes for Liz Truss's speech today have never been higher. If she doesn't use it to assert some control over her cabinet colleagues, then she may not even reach Christmas as party leader and prime minister.

Tuesday, October 04, 2022

A consultative earthquake

The government's determination to bring back fracking is yet another example of ministers ignoring public opinion in pursuit of a dubious policy that will not deliver the benefits they are claiming for it.

Just to recap a previous post, fracking produces a greenhouse gas at a time when we are seeking to deliver challenging climate change targets, it does so by pumping huge amounts of water into small fissures, potentially creating geological instabilities, and polluting water supplies, and it extends our reliance on gas, when we should be developing other long-term sources of energy, such as tidal, solar, wind and even nuclear.

The most bizarre part of the government's policy on this practise is their declared intention to rely on local consent before issuing a fracking licence. So far we have had no indication of how that consent will be measured and when asked about it on local radio in one of many car crash interviews, Liz Truss failed to provide any clarity.

Now, according to the Independent, it has emerged that fracking companies themselves may be placed in charge of surveying local opinion on whether drilling should go ahead:

Government sources have suggested that companies like Cuadrilla – rather than councils or any other independent body – will be mandated to test if the controversial procedure has support.

It raises the bizarre prospect of ministers waving through plans for a procedure known to cause earthquakes on the basis that the outfit doing it has assured them people are happy to live with tremors.

“I have never heard anything so ludicrous in all my life,” said Barbara Richardson of Frack Free Lancashire. “I cannot think of a parallel to this ever happening. It goes against all democratic norms.

“Can we really see fracking companies going back to the government and saying, ‘Oh yes, actually, they don’t want us to drill so we won’t’. They will twist it every way they can to get the verdict they want.”

Ms Richardson was among a group of women – the self-proclaimed Lancashire Nanas – who spent six years fighting proposed fracking sites at Roseacre and, more famously, Preston New Road, near the village of Little Plumpton.

They held mass demonstrations, created hugely popular petitions and, for a brief period, occupied one site. Often dressed in yellow tabards and head scarves, they created a sprawling protest camp, organised weekly vigils attended by hundreds of local people, and blockaded vehicles headed for wells.

Eventually, in 2019 – after the group helped highlight how exploratory drilling had caused more than 15 significant tremors in just two weeks – Boris Johnson’s government backed down and effectively banned fracking not just in Lancashire but across the country.

Now, after new prime minister Liz Truss reneged on a Conservative manifesto pledge to keep the process banned last month, the group are preparing to fight again.

Exactly how the new plans for fracking companies to test for so-called local consent would work remains unclear – but one suggestion is that business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg would ask fracking companies to show they had reached a threshold of support among nearby residents.

The companies, in turn, would be allowed to gain the support of residents through offering financial benefits or money off energy bills.

“Bribery, basically,” said Ms Richardson, a retired IT professional. “And that still won’t work because the feeling against it round here is so strong. But the worry is now that these companies can essentially twist things to say there is support.”

You couldn't make this stuff up.

Monday, October 03, 2022

Keeping it in the family

The Tory conference has only been going for one day and already it is looking like a complete train wreck. Highlights include Conservative Pary Chair, Jake Berry telling people that if they can't cope with the rising cost of living, then they should either get a higher paid job or cut back on consumption -  shades of Norman Tebbit's get on your bike speech.

We discovered in the same interview, that Berry and chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng attended a private champagne reception with hedge fund managers at the home of a Conservative donor on the same day he delivered his mini-budget. 

The Guardian says that during this event at the west London home of Andrew Law, a financier, on the evening of Friday 23 September, the chancellor is alleged to have given guests information about forthcoming government spending cuts.

Nobody needs reminding that Kwarteng’s mini-budget earlier in the day, introduced a £45bn package of tax cuts that will mostly benefit the richest fifth of households, triggered economic turmoil and led to sterling collapsing to its lowest level against the dollar since 1985, forcing the Bank of England to act to save pension funds.

And now we learn that the City business partner of Jacob Rees-Mogg has been handed a peerage and job as a senior minister by Liz Truss’s government in a move likely to trigger accusations of cronyism.

The Guardian reports that Dominic Johnson, a financier who co-founded Somerset Capital Management with Rees-Mogg, was appointed as a minister in the Cabinet Office and the Department for International Trade. The announcement was slipped out on the government’s website, which said he had been appointed as of Sunday:

The appointment is likely to be controversial at a time when Truss, her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, and Rees-Mogg face questions about being too close to the City, after the mini-budget handed substantial tax cuts to financiers and the wealthy.

Johnson is a substantial party donor who has given more than £250,000 and was vice-chairman of the Conservative party between 2016 and 2019. He replaces Gerry Grimstone, the former chairman of Barclays and Standard Life, in his role as trade minister, encouraging inward investment.

The shadow trade secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, said it “beggars belief that the Conservatives have appointed an unelected asset-fund manager to the government, who just happens to be a crony party donor”.

You couldn't make this stuff up.

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