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Saturday, September 30, 2023

The search for alien life

It has to be said that those scientists who have developed a simple test in the search for alien life, using artificial intelligence to determine with 90 per cent accuracy whether a sample is biological or not, have got their timing just right.

With the Tory party conference due to start today, I expect the test to be deployed in Manchester conference centre immediately.

Friday, September 29, 2023

Braverman admonished

The Guardian reports on the presss regulator ruling that Suella Braverman and the Mail on Sunday falsely claimed child grooming gangs in the UK were “almost all British-Pakistani”.

The paper says that the home secretary made the claim in a Mail on Sunday article published in April, where she singled out British-Pakistani men as being involved in child sexual abuse due to “cultural attitudes completely incompatible with British values” that “have been left mostly unchallenged both within their communities and by wider society”.

However, Ipso has forced the Mail on Sunday to issue an apology and correction to Braverman’s piece after concluding the statement was false:

The regulator said Braverman’s decision to link “the identified ethnic group and a particular form of offending was significantly misleading” because the Home Office’s own research had concluded offenders were mainly from white backgrounds.

In its defence, the Mail on Sunday argued that prior to publication it had double-checked Braverman’s decision to single out British-Pakistanis with advisers to the home secretary and the prime minister, Rishi Sunak. Both teams at the top level of government confirmed they had “no concern over this particular line” and were happy for it to be published.

The newspaper also unsuccessfully argued it was entitled to rely on factual information provided by the home secretary about the ethnicities of grooming gangs because the Home Office was the department responsible for dealing with the issue – and Braverman was the most senior member of that department.

The regulator concluded that, regardless of the discussions that had gone on behind the scenes, the Mail on Sunday had published an inaccurate statement as fact. This has led to the highly unusual situation of a newspaper printing a factual correction to a comment article authored by a leading cabinet minister.

Although there have been several high-profile examples of British-Pakistanis involved in grooming gangs, research published by the Home Office in 2020 showed that offenders are “most commonly white” and come from diverse backgrounds.

It is good to see overt racism from government ministers and some of the media challenged in this way, however the prevailing anti-immigrant narrative continues to dominate Tory propaganda and it looks likely to get worse as the general election gets closer.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

A matter of trust

The BBC reports on an investigation that has found that police officers are switching off their body-worn cameras when force is used, as well as deleting footage and sharing videos on WhatsApp.

The broadcaster says that they have uncovered more than 150 reports of camera misuse by forces in England and Wales - described as "shocking" by a leading officer:

The Home Office says police use of cameras must be lawful and justified.

The roll-out of body-worn cameras, costing at least £90m over the past decade, was intended to benefit both victims and the police - protecting officers against malicious complaints and improving the quality of evidence collected.

But during a two-year investigation, the BBC has obtained hundreds of reports of misuse from Freedom of Information requests, police sources, misconduct hearings and regulator reports.

The cameras were introduced to improve policing transparency, but we found more than 150 camera misuse reports with cases to answer over misconduct, recommendations for learning or where complaints were upheld.

The most serious allegations include:

* Cases in seven forces where officers shared camera footage with colleagues or friends - either in person, via WhatsApp or on social media

* Images of a naked person being shared between officers on email and cameras used to covertly record conversations

* Footage being lost, deleted or not marked as evidence, including video, filmed by Bedfordshire Police, of a vulnerable woman alleging she had been raped by an inspector - the force later blamed an "administrative error"

* Switching off cameras during incidents, for which some officers faced no sanctions - one force said an officer may have been "confused"

The failures uncovered by the BBC are "unlawful" in some cases, says the National Police Chief Council's lead for body-worn video, Acting Chief Constable Jim Colwell.

"Those incidents go to the heart of what undermines confidence in policing," he says.

He believes more footage should now be released in order to improve public trust.

The Metropolitan Police say body-worn cameras act as an "independent witness" - and are used millions of times a year but, as the BBC report, forces almost never release this footage to the press after significant incidents or in response to Freedom of Information requests.

Although some forces have scrutiny panels, and regulators will review footage as part of misconduct proceedings, the police are largely responsible for scrutinising camera use themselves.

This must change. These cameras are there to protect both the public and the police, but without greater transparency it is impossible for us to know if this compact is working or not. All the evidence points to abuses that must be stamped out. This is a matter of trust, and without trust there cannot be consent to the way we are policed.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Lib Dem democracy versus Labour control-freakery

Having spent four days participating in intense debate on key issues at Liberal Democrats conference, including a highly controversial discussion about housing targets in which members asserted their authority over the leadership, it comes as no surprise to find Labour rejecting such democratic participation in favour of its normal control freakery.

The Guardian reports that a series of rule changes by the Labour National Executive Committee has effectively squashed debates sought by local activists at the party’s future annual conferences if the leadership considers that they are not relevant to current policy platforms.

The paper says that the NEC voted to approve rule changes, including one that requires motions for debate to be deemed “contemporary”:

While it is not completely clear what this means in practice, some Labour MPs and internal party groups had feared it could be used to prevent debate on areas beyond the bounds of the national policy forum document, the basis for the manifesto agreed upon earlier this month.

Some had raised concerns it could be used to exclude issues on which the Labour leadership has set out a policy, such as maintaining the two-child benefit limit, or areas like Brexit and electoral reform.

However, the rule will not be in force for the imminent Labour conference taking place in Liverpool this week, meaning such debates can go ahead on this occasion.

A Labour source said the stipulation would be unlikely to be interpreted very strictly at conferences when the policy forum was less detailed, for example just after a general election rather than just before.

Some Labour activists had feared the rule change could have been used this year to rule out motions to debate the party’s stance on Brexit, including calls for Labour to commit to future membership of the EU’s single market.

Another possible area of contention is calls for electoral reform and proportional representation. Last year’s conference overwhelmingly backed a motion calling for PR, an idea ignored by Keir Starmer.

Based on a text submitted by 140 CLPs, it passed after trade unions, which had previously blocked the idea, changed their stance.

The internal campaign group Open Labour criticised the rule change, saying: “A party that can’t listen to its own members at conference seems far too fragile and uncertain for a party leading in the polls.”

Of course, if the successful motion on PR at a previous Labour Conference is any example, the Labour leadership take no notice of whatever their conference passes anyway.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Home Secretary to ask UN to help her pull up the drawbridge

The Guardian reports that Suella Braverman will be appealing to world leaders and political thinkers later today, to consider rewriting key refugee rules so they are “fit for the modern age”.

The paper says that the Home Secretary will be seeking to alter an agreement that she believes undermined UK plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda by arguiing that the United Nations 1951 refugee convention must be reformed to tackle a worldwide migration crisis:

Her words have prompted deep concern from refugee charities who claim she is urging the international community to “pull up the drawbridge” on people who have suffered torture and abuse.

Addressing the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, Braverman will say: “It is incumbent upon politicians and thought leaders to ask whether the refugee convention, and the way it has come to be interpreted through our courts, is fit for our modern age. Or whether it is in need of reform.”

The UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, claimed in June that the UK government’s £140m deal with Rwanda was “incompatible with the letter and spirit” of the convention.

The body questioned the legality of transfer arrangements of asylum seekers, saying that article 34 calls on states to facilitate the assimilation and naturalisation of refugees.

Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said Braverman’s plans were seeking to undermine a belief in a shared humanity.

“A world where the UK and other western nations pull up the drawbridge and turn their backs on those who have been tortured, persecuted and faced terror because of their gender, sexuality or any other reason, is a world which turns its back on a belief in shared humanity and shared rights,” he said.

“After the horrors of the second world war, the international community chose to stand up for those principles. Abandoning them is not an option.”

Sonya Sceats, the chief executive at Freedom from Torture, said: “Having already trampled over international law with the Illegal Migration Act, it is shocking to see the home secretary imploring the US and other democracies to tear up treaties designed to protect human rights,” she said.

With any luck this plea to visceral and narrow nationalism will be met with stiff resistance. The convention Braverman is trying to tear up was put in place after the horrors of World War Two, the holocaust and with millions of people displaced by the aftermath of that conflict.

Many of those conditions exist elsewhere in the world today. It is not for us to ignore the suffering of the victims of war, torture, famine and climate change. The sooner these racist, right-wing popularists are out of government, the better.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Skittling Tory Donors

It is getting to the stage where Rishi Sunak is going to run out of donors. First, we had the billionaire, John Caudwell quit over the 'madness' of the PM's u-turn on green policies, now we a major donor threatening to walk because of the downscaling of HS2.

Billionaire John Caudwell, who founded the now-defunct mobile phone retailer Phones4U, was the biggest donor to the Conservative party before the last election, donated £500,000 to the Tories, but says he is thinking about switching to Labour instead, because of the watering down of green policies.

He told the Sunday Times: “If Rishi sticks to this, would I donate to the Conservative party? Absolutely not. No chance whatsoever with the decisions they are making at the moment.

“Would I switch to Labour? The answer to that is very simple: I will support any party that I believe will do the right thing for Britain going forward.”

And now a prominent Conservative donor has threatened to stop supporting the party if Rishi Sunak scraps the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2, as ministers consider pulling the plug on the multibillion-pound project:

Fears that phase 2 of the high-speed rail line could be junked were compounded on Sunday when Grant Shapps, the defence secretary, said it would be “crazy” not to review the plan in light of soaring costs.

A decision is expected to be taken by the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, and the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, early next week with an announcement pencilled in for Friday.

However, northern Tories believe that scrapping the northern leg before the Conservative party conference in Manchester next weekend would be a huge political embarrassment. They are urging Sunak to wait until closer to the autumn statement in November while they push for a compromise solution.

A leading donor to the party, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “Generations of my family have been proud to support what was the party of business. We’ve given year in, year out for decades and been active in the party.

“But I’ve spoken to other donors, and several of them feel – possibly for the first time ever – recent events seriously call into question the ability to continue to support people who don’t do what they say they’d do.”

It's almost as if Sunak were lining donors up like skittles and taking them out one-by-one.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Same old Tories

How best to respond to a cost of living crisis? Well, if you are the Tory party then you introduce tax changes that will benefit your rich friends.

The Observer reports that Rishi Sunak is reportedly considering an inheritance tax cut as he attempts to woo voters and create dividing lines with Labour, which is comfortably ahead in the polls.

The paper says that the intention is to eventually scrap the levy altogether at a time when tax on earned income is significantly greater than that on unearned wealth:

At present, inheritance tax is charged at 40% for estates worth more than £325,000, with an extra £175,000 allowance towards a main residence if it is passed to children or grandchildren. A married couple can share their allowance, which means parents can pass on £1m to their children without any tax to pay.

The publication cited three sources who have said there is a “live discussion” at the highest level of government about reform of the levy.

Among the proposals under consideration is for Sunak to reduce the 40% rate in the budget in March, paving the way to abolish it in future years, the paper said.

A senior government source said: “No 10 political advisers have been looking at abolishing inheritance tax as something that might go in the manifesto. It’s not something we can afford to do yet.”

They added that it was the “most hated tax” in Britain, according to polls. “It’s the most hated tax at every income [level],” said the source. “People also feel it is just wrong to tax people on income that has already been taxed – and at a time when they are grieving.”

The latest figures, for the tax year 2020-21, showed only 3.73% of UK deaths resulted in an inheritance tax charge.

All tax is hated but to claim that the most hated is inheritance tax, when it affects so few people, has to call into question who these Tories are talking to. Perhaps they should leave the cocktail parties behind and get out on doorsteps where they can meet ordinary people.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Brexit coming home to roost

As the Prime Minister moves the goalposts on key environmental targets, the UK car industry has more concerns and yes, the problem is Brexit as advocated and supported by ministers in the current government.

The Guardian reports that the responsible European Commissioner has ruled that the Brexit trade deal should not be reopened just to satisfy demands from some sectors of the UK and EU motor industry concerned about looming tariffs on electric cars.

The paper says that EU leaders have come under pressure to suspend 10% tariffs on electric car exports that are expected to begin in January under the Brexit trade agreement sealed by Lord Frost in 2020. However, Thierry Breton, who is responsible for the EU internal market said the commission and EU leaders are bound under competition laws to look at the entire automotive “ecosystem” and not favour one “category” in the industry over the other:

“If something has been negotiated, it shouldn’t be changed,” Breton said.

Earlier this year Stellantis, the parent company for 14 brands including Vauxhall and Jeep, issued a stark warning that it may have to close operations in Britain with the loss of thousands of jobs if the tariffs were not temporarily lifted.

Their call has been backed by the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA), which has said exports of electric cars to the UK worth tens of billions of euros a year will be put at risk unless the Brexit trade deal is altered.

Recent support from Germany has fuelled anticipation of a favourable decision by the commission.

But Breton warned that the car industry was not made up of big brands like BMW, Volkswagen or Vauxhall alone and he had to ensure a level playing field for all.

“Remember the automotive industry is not made only of the manufacturers but is made also of the hundreds of thousands of companies providing everything which is needed for a car, including the battery providers.

“It is a global supply chain. I call it the ecosystem, and I have to look at, as commissioner of industry, not at one single part of this ecosystem but all of the ecosystem,” he said. Each sector had to be treated fairly, he added, as they had the same rights under competition law.

“What has been negotiated has been negotiated and I think it’s very important to stick to a treaty when it has been so difficult to do it. Andwhen we speak about the automotive system, everyone who is part of this ecosystem I have to take care of, not one single category.”

Those of us who opposed Brexit can take no satisfaction from the impact of these tariffs on British jobs and the economy, even though we warned that this would happen. As far as the Brexiteers go, they are getting what they voted for.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Lib Dem leadership missing in action

It is the eve of the Liberal Democrats Federal Conference and I am just putting the final touches to packing my suitcase. It is also the first autumn conference we have held since 2019, which means that the annual interview with the leader is more important than ever. 

It is just a shame that Ed Davey has not used the opportunity to put forward a distinctive Liberal Democrat message focussing on our values of liberty, equality and community, married with clear internationalist principles.

In his interview with the BBC, Davey talks about the economy, the NHS and the environment as the issues which are most important to voters, and he is right. The problem is that we don't have policies on those issues which properly distinguishes from other parties in the minds of the electorate, nor will we have while the Liberal Democrats ignore the crucial issue of our relationship with Europe, and its impact on our future as a country.

On the plus side, in his interview with BBC Wales, Davey at least makes up for the invisible Welsh Lib Dem leadership, in arguing for a greater role for communities in deciding which roads should be exempt from the Welsh default 20mph limit, and cautioning us not to spend too much money on enlarging the Senedd. 

But his argument that 'most people on the doorstep just "aren't talking about Europe' and therefore we shouldn't either is what defines the poverty of ambition at the heart of Davey's leadership.

Yes, it is tricky appealing to both Leave supporting parts of the country and "middle-class Remainia", but that is what leadership is about. We have agreed positions that include rebuilding Britain's relationship with the EU, closer links on education, doing a deal on asylum seekers and deepening trade ties, but all that is being reflected in Labour's policy too.

I agree with Caroline Voaden, our PPC in Totnes that we need to make a bolder case about the impact of Brexit on the NHS, hospitality and the economy, and that we should be talking more about our belief that Brexit was a mistake and that we need to start finding our way back into the Single Market and the Customs Union.

Until we start doing that we will continue to struggle in the low double figures in the opinion polls, simply because people do not understand our values and can't distinguish us from the other parties.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Friends and Family

The Mirror reports that a Tory donor whose company was awarded £160 million worth of PPE contracts has been appointed to a top Government trade role.

They say that David Meller, who is a former chairman of the scandal-hit Presidents Club, has given almost £70,000 to the Conservative Party and politicians since 2009, and is now one of 13 people appointed to the new-look Board of Trade by Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch:

The board is an influential body which advises the Government on policy. Anneliese Dodds, Labour Party chairwoman, said: “The message from the Conservative Government remains clear: give tens of thousands of pounds to the Tories and you’ll be catapulted into positions of power and rewarded with lucrative contracts.”

Mr Meller quit as joint chairman of the Presidents Club charity in 2018 after guests at one of its dinners were claimed to have sexually harassed waiting staff. He also resigned from his post as a non-executive director of the Department for Education. The club closed down in the aftermath. There is no suggestion that Mr Meller was involved in any misconduct.

The businessman owned Meller Designs, a supplier of beauty products and accessories, until January 2021. Less than a month after the first lockdown, in April 2020, Mr Meller took part in a call with Lord Bethell, who was spearheading the Department of Health and Social Care’s procurement of PPE. Although Government records say the meeting was held to talk about Covid-19 testing, minutes show PPE procurement was discussed.

The company was later awarded a total of six contracts worth £160million for PPE. Then-Cabinet minister Michael Gove referred Meller Designs to the “VIP lane”, which awarded contracts to “trusted” suppliers.

The National Audit Office found that companies referred as potential PPE suppliers by Government ministers, MPs or NHS bosses were 10 times more likely to secure contracts. Figures from the Electoral Commission show Mr Meller, 63, has donated £68,488.99 to the Tory Party since 2009.

A just reward, surely.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Can we have our money back?

The Guardian reports on the conclusion of the National Audit Office that the Cabinet Office failed to follow proper processes when it allowed taxpayers’ money to be used to fund Boris Johnson’s Partygate legal bills.

The paper says that the NAO also concluded that the government’s justifications for the £265,000 spend were also deemed to be “borderline” and not “wholly persuasive”:

In a report that will cause embarrassment inside the Cabinet Office, Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said its audit team had exerted “significant effort” to investigate whether the spending was “a legitimate use of public money”.

The decision allowed Johnson to have his legal fees during the privileges committee inquiry into his Partygate denials covered by the taxpayer.

It was criticised at the time by some, including the Labour party, which said that given Johnson should have paid the bill himself given he was making millions from his post-Downing Street career.

Johnson was found to have committed five contempts of parliament after the year-long investigation into whether he misled parliament by denying any Covid rules were broken in No 10 during lockdown.

After the Guardian revealed in February that the NAO was examining the decision, the findings of its long-awaited audit were published on Tuesday.

The then-permanent secretary in No 10, who was not named in the report but is understood to be Samantha Jones, failed to follow proper processes when the initial contract for £129,000 was awarded last August, said the NAO.

Though Jones got assurances from the propriety and ethics team and others inside government, the NAO said the decision should have been taken by a designated accounting officer. Such an officer was only brought into the process the following month. After Jones left the civil service, future increases to the spending were authorised by the proper civil servant in the Cabinet Office.

The Cabinet Office’s argument that there was precedent for spending public money defending serving or former ministers was also questioned by the NAO.

There was “no case that is exactly analogous to the circumstances”, the Cabinet Office admitted in its submissions to the NAO. But the Cabinet Office maintained the government’s approach was “in line with established precedent set by both public inquiries and litigation”.

Can we have our money back, please?

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Purging the Met

The Independent reports that more than 1,000 officers in Britain’s largest police force are currently suspended or on restricted duties as bosses try to cull corrupt or incompetent staff.

The paper says that Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stuart Cundy believes that it will take years to get rid of officers who have breached standards or failed vetting, amid a clean-up following a series of disturbing scandals:

About 60 officers could face the sack each month over at least the next two years, with about 30 facing misconduct proceedings and 30 gross incompetence hearings, he said.

The new figures come after the Independent exclusively revealed three-quarters of police officers and staff accused of violence against women are not suspended by their force despite the allegations against them.

Just 12 per cent of officers and staff are being suspended from duties after being accused of crimes such as sexual assault and domestic violence.

A series of reviews have been carried out including of officers who have faced previous allegations of domestic or sexual violence, as well as sweeps of the police national computer and database for concerning information.

The Met has faced a series of harrowing scandals, including serving armed officer Wayne Couzens, who raped and murdered Sarah Everard, and David Carrick, who was unmasked as a serial rapist.

Mr Cundy said: “This is going to take one, two or more years to root out those who are corrupt.”

Currently, of the Met’s workforce of about 34,000 officers, 201 are suspended and about 860 are on restricted duties.

Mr Cundy said: “If you add those two figures together, that’s over 1,000 police officers and that’s nearly the size of a small police force in other places in the country. It is a significant number.”

In the wake of Carrick’s life sentence for dozens of sexual offences, 1,600 cases were reviewed where officers had faced allegations of domestic or sexual violence over the past 10 years but no action was taken. There are currently about 450 live investigations ongoing into the cases that were reviewed.

The force has also checked all officers against records on the police national computer, uncovering 11 cases that were subject to further assessment and five are now gross misconduct investigations.

Details of all Met employees, both civilian staff and police, were also checked against intelligence records on the Police National Database.

Fourteen are under further investigation for potential gross misconduct, with more due to be added.

The most serious of all the cases reviewed involved rape allegations.

Kudos to senior management for finally getting to grips with this problem, but what about the other police forces? 

The Independent says that their joint investigation with domestic abuse charity Refuge revealed that just 24 per cent of police investigated for domestic abuse, sexual assault, rape and abuse of position were suspended across England and Wales between May 2022 and May 2023:

Data from 26 police forces shows that 1,124 police officers and staff were accused during this period, while just 269 were suspended. But the number of accusations is expected to be far higher, as not all of the 43 police forces responded to the request for information.

The figures also reveal a huge nationwide disparity in how forces respond, with Wiltshire Police suspending 83 per cent of those under investigation while Surrey Police only suspended 10 per cent

There is still a long way to go.

Monday, September 18, 2023

A railway to nowhere?

Nothing better defines the incompetence of this government than the farcical delivery of the HS2 project. Massively overbudget and behind schedule, this project is becoming a financial and political millstone around the government's neck, and will most probably be an intractable burden to the next half dozen governments as well.

Rishi Sunak's solution apparently, is to scale it back in an effort to make it more affordable. but in doing so he is undermining the line's purpose and turning it into an even bigger white elephant.

The Independent reports on claims that the Prime Minister is said to be keen to axe part of the HS2 link running into central London so that it stops six miles north of Euston.

At the same time, MPs and northern mayors, along with business and transport leaders, have reacted with fury to reports that the second stage of HS2 from Birmingham to Manchester could be ditched over cost concerns:

Mr Sunak is also pushing to end the line early in the capital, so that trains would have to stop at Old Oak Common, six miles away from Euston, according to The Times.

Although discussions are still active, a senior government source told the newspaper that the PM had already “made up his mind” to axe both the line going into Euston and the Manchester link.

“Unless he can be persuaded to change course, it is a done deal,” they said, adding: “Ending the line at Old Oak Common is pretty much the definition of a railway to nowhere.”

Scrapping the Euston link would save at least £4.8bn – the estimated cost of the upgrade to the central London station that would enable it to link to the high-speed line and accommodate HS2 trains.

HS2 services were due to start running into Euston when the project reaches Manchester in 2040. But scrapping the final section would mean passengers having to get off at Old Oak Common – near Harlesden in northwest London – and take the Elizabeth line into central London.

Mr Hunt confirmed in an interview with the Financial Times that he was discussing how to address HS2 cost overruns with Mr Sunak – and he refused to promise that the part of the project serving Manchester would be completed.

“With any big infrastructure project, let alone the biggest infrastructure project in the country, you would expect us to have conversations about managing cost overruns,” Mr Hunt said.

Asked whether HS2 would be built in full, the chancellor said: “I’m not going to be drawn on the details.”

A cost estimate seen by The Independent shows that the government has already spent £2.3bn on stage two of the high-speed railway from Birmingham to Manchester, but shelving the northern phase would save up to £34bn.

Sitting on a train to nowhere pretty much sums up this government.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Have the Chinese infiltrated the Tory Party?

The fuss over a Parliamentary researcher, who has been accused of spying for the Chinese and subsequently arrested, has taken an interesting turn, with the Mirror reporting that the Tories were forced to drop two would-be election candidates after MI5 warned they could be Chinese spies.

Health Minister Maria Caulfield insisted the party acted "swiftly" after receiving intelligence the potential candidates to be MPs could be working covertly for China. "I think whichever party is in government, there will always be those who are trying to target it, either to get information or to influence,” she told Times Radio. “The candidates who the Conservative Party were warned about - swift action was taken and they were removed from the list. They are not standing for election.”

Ms Caulfield said the latest revelations, which come after a parliamentary researcher and Conservative aide was arrested over allegations he was spying for Beijing, show “there are other nations always wanting to infiltrate governments of all parties”. The Security Service warned the Conservatives about two people in 2021 and last year - and advised they should not be on the central list of candidates approved by party headquarters.

MI5 is said to have raised concerns that the pair had links to China's United Front Work Department, a body charged with influencing global opinion, according to The Times. It cited an unnamed source as saying it was made "very clear" to the Conservatives that the candidates "posed a risk". "They were subsequently blocked from the candidates list. They weren't told why," added the insider.

A Conservative Party spokesman said: "When we receive credible information regarding security concerns over potential candidates we act upon them." The claims will fuel debates about the UK's relationship with China following the arrest of the 28-year-old parliamentary researcher - who maintains he is completely innocent - under the Official Secrets Act.

This is of course a twist on the 1950s and 1960s, when a number of Labour MPs were suspected of spying for Russia. Today the threat appears to be China, with another article in the Mirror stating that China’s espionage against the UK is immense and has increased in the past 20 years, with its spies penetrating much of our society. 

That article says that there may be hundreds in the UK, plus tens of thousands of cyber spooks based in China who are working against the West:

They try to exert influence in China’s favour, find out about individuals and steal scientific and industrial research, as Beijing tries to elbow its way to the top of the world’s pecking order.

One former UK intellig
ence officer told me: “We have allowed this to happen over the years. We took our eyes off that region, concentrating on the war on terror, but it may not be too late.”

Has the Tory Party been infiltrated? What about the other parties? Maybe we should be told if others have had similar warnings from MI5.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Change that defines the Tory Party

Back in the 1960s, Enoch Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' speech saaw him removed from government and ostracised by the Conservative Party. In the 2020s it appears that his former party is far more tolerant of his memory and his views.

The Independent reports that the Conservatives’ candidate for London mayor Susan Hall liked a tweet praising Enoch Powell and describing Sadiq Khan as a “traitor rat”.

They add that Ms Hall liked an image of the notorious anti-immigration politician, a favourite of the far-right, which quoted him saying: “It’s never too late to save your country.” The tweet liked by the Tory hopeful bore the message: “It’s never too late to get London back!”

This slogan by Powell was used by the British National Party (BNP):

Ms Hall was also found to have liked a message on X, formerly known as Twitter, which described Mr Khan as “our nipple height mayor of Londonistan”.

Further tweets liked by Ms Hall, first highlighted by The Times, included one suggesting that Mr Khan would endorse corruption at May’s mayoral vote.

The post claimed the Labour mayor was “begging for londoners to do a tower hamlets postal vote for May next year and we all know how that works. #fraud”.

Following a tweet in which Ms Hall criticised Mr Khan’s strategy for tackling violence against women and girls, she liked a response which said: “Well said Susan, that Labour Traitor RAT likes that sort of thing.”

The paper also points out that Hall has branded the Notting Hill carnival “dangerous” and said the Black community has a “problem with crime”.

It seems that this racism is now acceptable to the today's Tories, who continue to keep her on as candidate, a complete u-turn on their attitude to Enoch Powell.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Covid fraud continues

For a government, which at one point, claimed there is no magic money tree, the amount of cash that they have wasted in the last few years has been unpecedented. The latest money pit is the amount of fraud surounding covid business loans.

The Guardian reports that UK taxpayers have been forced to cover a larger bill for Covid support to companies than expected, after fresh government data showed the amount of pandemic business loans flagged for fraud had jumped by 43%.

The paper adds that figures released by the Department for Business and Trade showed that high street banks and other private lenders – which were responsible for distributing government-backed loans during the Covid crisis – had flagged nearly £1.7bn worth of loans for potential fraud at the end of June. That marks a 43% rise from the £1.1bn flagged three months earlier:

The vast majority of the loans flagged for fraud are from the £47bn bounce back loan scheme, which allowed small businesses to borrow up to £50,000 apiece during the Covid crisis in order to keep them afloat amid rolling lockdowns.

The loans were distributed by everyday lenders, but were 100% guaranteed by the government, meaning that losses – including any due to defaults or fraud – would be covered by the taxpayer.

The scheme allowed commercial banks to run fewer checks on small businesses in order to make sure money was distributed to businesses at speed. That left it more susceptible to scammers, who are reported to have spent tens of thousands of pounds of government-backed loans on anything from Range Rovers to pornographic websites.

In total, about £1.65bn worth of bounce back loans had been flagged for fraud at the end of June, according to the latest Covid loan figures. The government has so far paid out £1.3bn of that total to banks to cover the lenders’ losses.

The figure is already higher than the £1.1bn the business department estimated would be lost due to fraud and error through the scheme. The government originally estimated that nearly £5bn could be at risk, but had since revised down their estimates.

While the government credits the programme with having saved 500,000 businesses and 2.9m jobs through the Covid crisis, the former Cabinet Office minister Theodore Agnew resigned in protest at the handling of the scheme in January last year, citing the government’s “woeful” efforts to control potential fraud.

That is a lot of fraud.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Another Brexit failure

The Guardian reports that new public sector lenders created by the government since Brexit are investing two-thirds less than the UK was receiving from the EU’s European Investment Bank.

The paper says that the thinktank UK in a Changing Europe has compared the record of the European Investment Bank with the work of new Treasury-backed institutions including the UK Infrastructure Bank (UKIB) and have found it wanting:

The EIB invested an average of £6.4bn in the UK between 2009 and 2016 in real terms, peaking at £7.5bn in 2016 – the year of the Brexit referendum.

By contrast, the successor institutions created by the government, including the Leeds-based UK Infrastructure Bank (UKIB), invested £2.4bn in 2022 – a third as much as the EIB was spending six years earlier.

“It is not clear that the UK’s domestic development banks will be able to fill the hole left by the EIB by the end of the decade. They lack staff and expertise, inhibiting them from scaling up operations quickly,” said the report’s author, Stephen Hunsaker.

“Nor have they achieved the coveted AAA credit rating of the EIB. Consequently, they lend at higher rates, making it more expensive to lend to public-interest projects.”

The new institutions – which include the Scottish National Investment Bank, the Development Bank of Wales and the British Business Bank – also appear to be less focused on infrastructure projects than the EIB.

Between them, they invested just 17% as much in infrastructure projects in 2022 as the EIB did before it began winding down its links with the UK.

Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesperson, Sarah Olney MP, is absolutely right when she said: “This damning report highlights yet another broken promise from this Conservative government. We already knew farmers and [fishers] have suffered from the government’s failed trade deals, but now their investment plans are left in tatters too.”

The damage to our economy caused by Brexit continues.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Toxic poster child of Europe

Yet more evidence that our exit from the EU is damaging our environment and our international standing comes in this article in the Guardian, in which campaigners allege that the UK has failed to ban 36 pesticides that are not allowed for use in the EU, barnding us the “toxic poster child of Europe”.

The paper says that although ministers promised the UK would not water down EU-derived environmental standards after Brexit, there have been multiple instances of divergence since the country left the bloc:

Now, the country is failing to phase out pesticides that have been found to be harmful to human health and the environment at the same rate as the EU, according to research from Pesticide Action Network (PAN).

Thirteen of the 36 chemicals are considered highly hazardous pesticides under UN definitions used to identify the most harmful substances. Four of these are highly toxic to bees, one contaminates water and one is highly toxic to aquatic organisms.

Thirty of the 36 were allowed for use in the EU when the UK left on 31 January 2020 but have since been banned by the bloc, and the remaining six have been approved by the UK government but not the EU since then.

The UK government has given emergency authorisation every year since Brexit for the use of a neonicotinoid that is highly toxic to bees. In that time, the EU has banned emergency use of these chemicals.

Nick Mole, from PAN UK, said: “The UK is becoming the toxic poster child of Europe. The government has repeatedly promised that our environmental standards won’t slip post-Brexit. And yet here we are, less than four years later, and already we’re seeing our standards fall far behind those of the EU. With UK bees and other pollinators in decline, and our waters never more polluted, now is the time to be taking steps to protect nature. Instead, the government is choosing to expose British wildlife to an ever-more toxic soup of chemicals.”

Of these chemicals, 12 have been classified as carcinogens, nine have been found to be endocrine disruptors, which interfere with hormones and are linked to infertility, and eight are developmental or reproductive toxins that have also been linked to fertility problems. Two are cholinesterase inhibitors that can impair the respiratory system, and one is classified as acutely toxic.

Researchers said the divergence was caused partly by a new UK licensing regime for these chemicals after the UK government decided to grant all pesticides with licences due to expire before December 2023 an automatic extension of three years. Previously, all pesticides had a maximum licence of 15 years before they had to be reapproved.

PAN is calling for the government to bring standards back in line with the EU to protect human health, the agriculture industry and the environment.

More broken promises.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Has the UK Government broken the law?

The BBC reports on the view of the UK's environment watchdog that the government and regulators may well have broken the law over how it regulates sewage releases.

They say that the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) announced its preliminary findings into an investigation on Tuesday, leaving the regulators and Defra two months to provide a response before a final decision is made:

In June 2022 the OEP announced it was investigating whether England's regulators, Ofwat and the Environment Agency, along with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had failed to meet their legal responsibility to monitor water companies' release of sewage and enforce the rules.

Following a year of evidence-gathering by the organisation and its lawyers, on Tuesday it announced that "it had reasonable grounds for suspecting that the authorit[ies] has failed to comply with environmental law".

The government has come under pressure in recent years over the high levels of sewage discharges into the UK's rivers and seas.

In 2022, water companies in England released sewage for 1.75 million hours - or 825 times a day on average.

Releasing sewage into waterways can lead to a build-up of algae which starves local wildlife of oxygen and can produce toxins that are fatal to pets and dangerous to people.

If the OEP's initial conclusions are confirmed then it will make recommendations to MPs to take action against the regulators or will apply to the High Court for urgent judicial review. In practice this means that the Environment Agency or one of the regulators will have to change the way it enforces the law for sewage companies.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Voter ID racist and discriminatory

The Guardian highlights a report by the all-party parliamentary group on democracy and the constitution, which has concluded that controversial rules governing voter identification led to racial and disability discrimination at this year’s local elections in England.

They say that MPs and peers on the all-party parliamentary group will publish a report today saying that the rules caused more harm than they prevented when they came into force in May, and will call for changes, including the acceptance of a greater range of ID documents:

The report was co-authored by Sir Robert Buckland, who was justice minister in 2021 when the bill to introduce the rules was first launched in parliament, and who subsequently helped vote them through.

~ The committee is chaired by the Scottish National party MP John Nicolson and also includes Labour MPs and peers.

The report, which has been seen by the Guardian, says: “The current voter-ID system is, as it stands, a ‘poisoned cure’ in that it disenfranchises more electors than it protects.”

The authors found that “polling clerks are more likely to fail to compare a photo ID to the person presenting that document if the person is of a different ethnicity”.

They also highlighted the case of Andrea Barratt, who is immunocompromised and was blocked from entering a polling booth after refusing to remove her mask for an identification check.

The report says: “Their decision in that instance was … clearly discriminatory (and potentially unlawful) because they denied Andrea Barratt the right to cast a ballot purely on the basis of circumstances which arose as a direct result of a disability.”

The rules, which were used for a full election for the first time in May after a series of small-scale pilots, mean voters now have to show photographic identification at the polling booth.

When Boris Johnson first introduced the proposals to parliament in 2021, Downing Street said they were designed to prevent potential election fraud, despite only three people having been convicted for identity fraud at polling booths in the previous seven years.

Ministers limited the types of identification that could be accepted, and included, for example, older people’s travel passes, but not those of younger voters.

An interim study published by the Electoral Commission earlier this year found at least 14,000 people had been denied a vote because they lacked the correct form of ID.

The commission, which will publish a full report later this year, urged ministers to consider adapting the system to ensure people were not excluded.

Anecdotal evidence in the all-party group report suggested some people may have been unfairly treated because of their race.

It says: “A disproportionate number of electors who were not permitted to vote appeared to be non-white passing. By contrast, all of those who were observed being permitted to vote without presenting ID were white-passing.”

While there is no evidence this changed the outcome of the local elections, the APPG report warns that if repeated at a general election, it could help swing the result of up to 16 constituencies.

It also says that the rules are too reliant on decisions made by polling clerks and returning agents, which can be arbitrary and are not open to appeal.

The report’s authors call for ministers to broaden the types of documents that can be accepted as identification, and to allow those who fail ID checks to sign a legally binding declaration instead confirming their identity. They also call for more training to be given to returning officers.

Important as this report is, I am not holding my breath for reform. After all the system is working precisely as government intended it to.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Splendid isolation

As if it was not bad enough that we have cut ourselves off from our biggest market and alienated half the world by refusing to deliver on our treaty obligations on asylum, it seems that this Tory government is working to find other ways to isolate the country and turn us into international pariahs.

The Guardian reports that Rishi Sunak was warned that he faced exclusion from key discussions on the climate among world leaders at the UN before he decided to snub a global summit later this month.

The paper says that when the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, called on world leaders to attend his climate ambition summit, on the sidelines of this year’s UN general assembly meeting, he stipulated that only countries that can show they have ambitious policies to reduce their emissions in line with the goals of the Paris agreement would be allowed to participate.

They add that the UK government has caused consternation in capitals around the world by seeming to waver on its commitments to net zero emissions and the 2015 Paris climate agreement:

Sunak’s decision over the summer to “max out” the North Sea by licensing new oil and gas fields raised eyebrows among many countries and climate diplomats.

Sunak would risk falling foul of the UN secretary-general’s strict stipulations if he were to attempt to participate in the climate segment. The potential embarrassment he faced throws a new light on his decision not to attend the UN general assembly.

Meanwhile, the Mirror reports that Sunak has landed in India for a G20 summit warning that a trade deal with the host country may never happen, and insisting that he is in no rush to get one signed.

So much for Brexiteers claiming that trade deals would just fall into our lap after we departed the EU. If anything, we are becoming more and more isolated from the rest of the world.

Saturday, September 09, 2023

Jobs for friends

The Guardian reports that No 10 has rejected proposals by a Commons committee to prevent ministers bringing in personal and political friends on to the boards of Whitehall departments.

The paper says that Ministers ruled out a series of recommendations from the House of Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee, led by the Tory MP William Wragg, which were aimed at making sure non-executive directors of civil service boards were truly independent and the best candidates:

Its report published earlier this year found that ministers may be bringing in political “super-spads” through the back door by putting them on the boards of Whitehall departments.

The committee had launched its inquiry into civil service boards a year after Matt Hancock was found to have appointed his unpaid adviser Gina Coladangelo to the board of the Department of Health and later started an affair with her. The committee said it was “difficult not to question her independence in this role”.

It also identified another seven examples where politically connected people have been put on Whitehall boards, including the former special adviser and Vote Leave activist Henry De Zoete; the former special adviser Simone Finn; the former Tory and Ukip MP Douglas Carswell; the former Labour MP and Vote Leave campaigner Gisela Stuart; and the former chief of staff in No 10 Nick Timothy.

In addition, it highlighted examples where Gerry Grimstone, a non-executive in the Department for International Trade, and Theodore Agnew, a non-executive director in the Treasury and Cabinet Office, became government ministers in the House of Lords.

The committee’s report, published in June, had called for the government to be more transparent about the recruitment processes for non-executives and the influence they wield in government.

However, the government said it would not update the corporate code governing the role and defended the appropriateness of appointing people with political or personal connections to ministers to the roles. It also ignored calls to reinstate the independence of non-executive directors, which ministers removed from the corporate code governing the role.

Wragg, who leads the cross-party committee, said it was “disappointing to see that the government has failed to take seriously our main recommendations to clarify the role of non-executive directors in government”.

“In its response, there is a prevailing sense of unwillingness on the part of the government to commit to reforming or replacing the outdated governance code,” he added. “The government has even refused to take greater responsibility for monitoring compliance with the existing code, leaving the public in the dark about recruitment processes, potential conflicts of interest, or questionable appointments of non-executive directors to government roles.

He said the government had agreed to implement a small number of the committee’s recommendations, such as collecting more data on diversity, but the “need for further reform remains”.

“This committee maintains that there ought to be greater transparency and accountability in the appointment and activities of those in a position to work closely with our policymakers,” he said.

None of this is a surprise from this government, really.

Friday, September 08, 2023

Mixed Messages

The Independent reports that the Conservatives have accepted a £350,000 donation from a company producing colourful vapes despite a crackdown on e-cigarette products aimed at children.

The paper says that Rishi Sunak’s party took the six-figure sum from Supreme 8 Ltd in May, the latest Electoral Commission records show. They add that the company’s director is listed as Sandeep Chadha, chief executive of Supreme Plc – which sells vape products with names like Watermelon Bubblegum and Cotton Candy Ice:

Mr Sunak said earlier this year he was worried that vapes would be “attractive” to his two young daughters because of the flavours and packaging targeting children.

The PM promised a “crackdown” on the marketing of vapes to under-18s back in May, when he warned that firms “shouldn’t be deliberately targeting children”.

Ministers pledged to close a loophole allowing retailers to give free samples of vapes to children, and launched a review into banning retailers selling “nicotine-free” vapes to under-18s.

Supreme sells products by Elf Bar, a brand which makes vapes such as Razz Cherry, Cotton Candy Ice and Watermelon Bubblegum. Elf Bar has denied targeting children and packaging contain a warning indicating that “it is forbidden to sell this product to children”.

These sort of mixed messages on the part of the Conservatives (and other parties, as well) underlines just what is wrong with the way politics is financed in this country. Whatever the reality, the perception is that big donors can buy influence. Surely, it is time for reform.

Thursday, September 07, 2023

Spotting the difference

There are times when it seems that the only pitch from Keir Starmer's policy-lite Labour Party is that they are not the Tories. Not only have they watered down their green investment plan, ruled out any more capital investment in other infrastructure projects and said that they will not increase tax, but they are refusing to countenance even a modest wealth tax. How exactly are they going to meet expectations when they come into government? It could be a very short honeymoon period.

The Independent reports that the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) called for a national debate about how to “tax wealth, not work, in this country”:

Paul Nowak said 13 years of Conservative government has seen the richest “feathering their nests” while working people suffer.

And he said Labour, which is reliant on donations from trade unions for much of its funding, does not need to set out its “comprehensive tax plans” a year before an expected general election, but said “there is a conversation that needs to be had” about wealth taxes.

Polling for the TUC conducted by Opinium showed "significant cross-party support" for increasing taxes on wealth and excess profits.

Almost two thirds of the public said wealthy people should pay more tax than they are now, including more than half of 2019 Conservative voters.

And three quarters of the public, including 73 per cent of those who backed the Tories in 2019, said capital gains should be taxed at the same rate or higher than income tax. Capital gains tax is currently 20 per cent for assets and 28 per cent for property, while the top rate of income tax is 45 per cent.

Mr Nowak said the system is set up to tax income but does not account for people making huge amounts from rental income, capital gains and dividends.

“There’s something not right in the UK. economy because we’re not rewarding work,” he said.

Ahead of the annual TUC Congress, which opens in Liverpool this weekend, Mr Nowak said a nurse will pay a bigger share of their income in tax than a City trader does on profits from their investment portfolio.

“That’s not only absurd and unfair – it’s bad for our economy and our public services too,” he said.

Reeves said in August a Labour government would not introduce a mansion tax on expensive properties or raise capital gains tax.

She also confirmed that Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership pledge to increase the 45p top rate of income tax is off the table, as the Labour leader had previously indicated.

It comes as the party steps up its efforts to demonstrate economic responsibility ahead of a likely general election next year.

But Mr Nowak, who represents 5.5m members of 48 affiliated unions, said “the public overwhelmingly back increased taxes on the wealthiest”.

He told The Independent: “I will continue to bang the drum, because we have 5.5m people we are trying to represent and we desperately want to see investment in rebuilding our public services to give people some hope for the future.

“I think that national debate on taxes is gonna be part of it.”

Labour's approach is not economic responsibility it is social irresponsibility. If they're not going to offer a proper alternative to the Tories then why are they bothering and why should anybody vote for them?

Wednesday, September 06, 2023

Plugging leaks after the ship has sunk

As if the reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) crisis in English schools is not bad enough, the media are reporting that other public sector building may well be affected as well.

The most bizarre example of this is the Houses of Parliament, which, according to the Independent, is being tested for the lightweight, crumbling concrete as I type.

The paper says that if Raac is found it would add to the considerable problems at the ailing parliamentary estate, which is urgently in need of essential repairs such as the removal of asbestos, reducing the fire risk, renewing plumbing and conservation of the building itself.

It is already estimated that any work to the Grade I listed building could take between 46 and 76 years and have a price tag between £11-22 billion if it takes place during parliamentary recesses.

In context, it seems that RAAC is the least of their problems.

Tuesday, September 05, 2023

A pretend u-turn?

The Guardian reports that Tory Ministers will this week announce a series of changes designed to make it easier for developers to win planning permission to build onshore wind turbines.

They say that the government could publish proposals as soon as Tuesday on how to adapt the planning system to stop local authorities standing in the way of almost every new wind power development on land. This is a bit of a u-turn as until recently the UK Government has been less than enthusiastic about this form of development:

Downing Street hopes that the changes will placate a group of potential Conservative rebels who have been pushing for the law to be liberalised and have threatened to intervene in Tuesday’s debate over the government’s energy bill. But even if they do, onshore wind developers warn that the changes are unlikely to be sufficiently wide-ranging to kickstart significant new generation.

A Downing Street spokesperson said on Monday: “We support the development of onshore wind where there is local support. Applications will continue to be decided at a local level.”

Developers say the changes would still leave an effective ban in place, while Labour’s Ed Miliband promised to give onshore wind parity with other infrastructure projects.

Under the current system, a local authority can reject an application to build an onshore wind farm on the basis of a single objection from a local resident. Any new development must also have been included in the authority’s most recent local development plan, a document that covers several years’ worth of building schemes.

These requirements, which are not applied to other energy sources, were put in place in 2015 by David Cameron under pressure from many of his own MPs, who did not support the widespread development of onshore wind.

Collectively, they have contributed to new onshore wind development almost stalling, leading critics to call them a “de facto ban”. Only 20 onshore wind turbines have received planning permission since 2015 – just 2.7% of the number granted permission between 2009-14, before the restrictions were put in place.

No 10 decided to act last year after 34 Tory MPs, including the former prime ministers Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, signed an amendment in support of more onshore wind.

In response, the government published a consultation on changing the rules, which suggested that developments could be approved as long as local authorities could show they had consulted local residents, rather than having had to address every single concern.

Ministers are due to publish their response to that consultation this week, with rebels threatening to introduce an amendment to the energy bill if their concerns are not met. One told the Guardian on Monday, just a day before the bill was due to return to the Commons, that they remained locked in negotiations with ministers.

Some, however, say that even if the government accepts all the demands of its own MPs, it will still not be enough to unlock the country’s onshore wind potential – in part because the rebels have proposed eliminating developers’ right of appeal.

So, a small concession, but nowhere near enough. It is the u-turn that without a bend.

Monday, September 04, 2023

Another Welsh Tory u-turn

The most shambolic party in Wales at the moment has to be the Welsh Conservatives, and that is quite something given the state of the others. 

The cause of the Tories' dissarray has to be put at the feet of their Senedd leader, Andrew R.T. Davies, who seems determined to be a disruptor rather than an alternative government, and whose attempts to mirror his UK counterparts has left some of his colleagues exposed and backtracking on their previous positions.

Wales on line helpfully points out that the Welsh Tories had supported (and voted for) the Welsh Government’s 20mph speed limit before becoming vehemently opposed, but the latest u-turn is far more blatant and relates to a recycling scheme:

In 2021 plans were announced to introduce a deposit return scheme (DRS). In simple terms this would see people pay a small deposit when buying a drink in a single-use container, which they would then get back when they return the bottle or can.

At the time the Welsh Government was working with the UK Government on a joint scheme that would mean you could buy a drink in Barry and return it in Bristol or Belfast. The point was to recycle as many of the estimated 14bn plastic drinks bottles and 9bn drinks cans and 5bn glass bottles – many of which end up in landfill – used in the UK annually.

However the scheme has caused a row between the UK Government and the devolved nations over the seemingly innocuous topic of glass. The Welsh Government has included glass within the scheme, which will come in in 2025, but the UK Government has said it doesn’t want to. They wrote to the Welsh Government saying they are not allowed to include glass bottles in their scheme.

Tories have said they are vehemently against this Welsh Government plan to include glass in the recycling scheme, but this wasn’t always their view:

There are several examples of the party being previously in favour of including glass in such a scheme. In July last year Welsh Conservative shadow minister for climate change Janet Finch-Saunders said she was “proud to have brought forward a legislative proposal in the Welsh Parliament for a bill that would make provisions to introduce a Deposit Return Scheme and reduce waste”.

But it wasn’t just the recycling scheme in general she supported – it was the inclusion of glass. Pointing to a recent trial she the “trial in Conwy County was a great success”. She added: “They had a 97% engagement rate. There has been increased interest in whether glass bottles should be included in a DRS. I am pleased to agree with Polytag that glass should be part of the scheme in Wales.”

She even laid out specifically why she supported including glass. “Recycling glass bottles lowers the risk of injury to people and wildlife as well as reducing our environmental impact,” she said. “In fact by including glass in Scotland’s deposit return scheme there will be a reduction in CO2eq emissions of more than 50,000 tonnes each year – or nearly 1.3m tonnes over 25 years.

“Scotland’s deposit return scheme will help tackle the plague of glass bottles littering communities because its inclusion of glass will see the recycling of an additional 53,000 tonnes of containers. It would be fantastic to see such a boost to recycling here in Wales too.”

The Conservative Party’s support actually goes back more than half a decade. In 2018 the party's own website announced: “Shadow Minister applauds ‘game-changing’ deposit return scheme – now time for Labour to catch-up in Wales”. Then-spokesman David Melding raised the impact of glass not being recycled and said that the Tories were “leading the way”.

Even Welsh Tory leader Mr Davies seems to have come late to the idea that including glass is “harebrained”. On visiting a Welsh brewery in November last year Mr Davies said that though there were “concerns” with the scheme “in principle it’s a fantastic idea”.

A Sunday National investigation found that just six weeks after this change of plan the Conservative party accepted a £20,000 donation from an industry lobby group

Sunday, September 03, 2023

Those Tory lies

The RSPB may well have apologised for accusing Tory ministers of lying, saying that they should have focussed on the policies, not the individuals concerned, but the Guardian is not so quick to let the government off the hook.

The paper points out that at the time of publication,. RSPB England's tweet has been viewed by more than five million people. As the screen shot above shows, that is now in excess of ten million. They then look in some detail at the six lies the government has been accused of.

On the claim that in the 2019 Tory party manifesto you all pledged to deliver ‘the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth’, they point out that the quoted words were written by Boris Johnson in his manifesto introduction. 

They add that his intro also likened Britain to a lion trapped in a cage and a super green supercar stuck in traffic, while promising at least two things that definitely are not happening: 40 new hospitals by 2030 and the banning of live animal exports. And he did not actually say “deliver” – he simply vowed to “get on with our work” of making Britain a place with that ambitious environmental programme. On the basis that 'ambitious' is a slippery word, they conclude that this was a naive scan of the former prime minister’s words.

On the claim that in his first speech as prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said he would deliver on this manifesto promise of protecting the environment, they say that this was one of a number of classically vague political slogans, alongside “a stronger NHS” and “better schools” and as such it is unprovable as a 'lie'.

On the claim that Rishi Sunak lied on 17 August 2022, when he said he was committed to protecting our environment for future generations, they argue that this was a specific commitment, implying that today’s environment will not be made worse by the government’s actions. They say that even taking a “net zero” approach to environmental damage, allowing some destruction to be offset by positive action, it is difficult to see how Sunak has delivered net “protection” over the past year, having issued new North Sea oil and gas licences, opposed low-traffic neighbourhood schemes, and fuelled an anti-environmental culture war in an attempt to win votes. In other words, this is a clear lie.

On the claim that Thérèse Coffey wrote to the OEP [Office for Environmental Protection] on 25 July 2023, and said she was clear in parliament about the government’s ‘commitment to uphold environmental protections’, the paper also concludes that this was a lie:

The policy U-turn that triggered the RSPB’s outburst was the government’s amendment to the levelling up bill ordering local authorities to ignore “nutrient neutrality” rules. These ensure new houses that potentially add nitrates and other pollutants to rivers are offset by developers funding nearby riverine improvements. In a letter to Coffey and Gove, Dame Glenys Stacey, the OEP chair, says: “The proposed changes would demonstrably reduce the level of environmental protection provided for in existing environmental law. They are a regression. Yet the government has not adequately explained how, alongside such weakening of environmental law, new policy measures will ensure it still meets its objectives for water quality and protected site condition.”

On the claim that Michael Gove, as environment secretary, pledged to ‘do all we can to protect our precious natural environment’, they say this is not a lie but it is difficult re-reading for Gove:

The words spoken by Gove immediately before that quote, delivered in 2019, were: “We know we must”. This classic political evasion has got him off the lie hook here. But given Gove’s record of launching potentially far-reaching environmental reforms as environment secretary for two years to July 2019 (before the re-election of this government), his recent undermining of environmental protections as housing secretary is puzzling. More than anyone else left in government, Gove “knows he must” do all he can to protect the environment – but isn’t doing so.

Finally, on the claim that Michael Gove spoke in July 2019 of how protecting the environment was a critical duty of government, the paper says this is more uncomfortable reading for Gove:

The RSPB is actually under-egging this lavish rhetoric. In this speech, Gove said: “And what more critical duty can government have than to protect our nation and, so far as we can, our planet from those forces that will deprive future generations of their birth right and leave them a world dirtier, more degraded and more divided?”

Once again, this is unlikely to be judged a lie if tested in a court of law but it reveals a government failing to live up to claims that protecting the environment is a genuine priority. Some might say such extravagant green rhetoric belongs to the previous Johnson administration but it is the same Conservative party in government, bearing the same responsibility to fulfil its 2019 manifesto.

For Gove, it appears to reveal a level of cognitive dissonance which the former minister Zac Goldsmith identified after resigning from government over its environmental failings. Gove “understands these issues”, said Goldsmith, adding: “I don’t think you can understand and care about the gravity of this issue, and at the same time, be willing to take your foot off the accelerator for political expediency. I just think that would require you to be a monster.”

The RSPB had nothing to apologise for.

Saturday, September 02, 2023

Misguided cull to continue

The Independent reports that the government is set to backtrack on long-promised plans to stop culling badgers after 2025, as part of efforts to tackle tuberculosis (TB) in cattle.

The paper says that Ministers had pledged to phase out the badger cull in two years’ time, instead focusing on vaccination of both badgers and cattle and tightening cattle biosecurity. 

But, whereas last year was meant to be the final one in which four-year licences were issued, environment chiefs are now preparing to consult within weeks on fresh proposals to include killing the native mammals “on a targeted basis”, alongside other disease-control measures:

The Badger Trust, which disputes the effectiveness of the cull in containing bovine TB, condemned the decision as “outrageous”.

A letter from rural affairs minister Richard Benyon, seen by The Independent, states: “We are now transitioning towards large-scale badger vaccination to create a more resilient wildlife population and reduce our reliance on blanket culling.”

The government is developing proposals for a “targeted, cluster-based approach” to disease control, the letter says.

“Both badger vaccination and badger culling will have a role to play in this; they are complementary eradication tools, especially when underpinned by enhanced wildlife surveillance.

“As such, there would continue to be provision for culling on a targeted basis, where epidemiological evidence suggests this is appropriate.

“We have not yet consulted on these proposals. Subject to ministerial agreement, we plan to do so in the autumn of 2023.”

This toxic policy is an assault on nature in a timescale unprecedented in our history

The letter says the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) aims to have a usable cattle vaccine in the coming years but no vaccine is yet available and trials are still being carried out.

“The badger cull has led to a significant reduction in the disease in cattle, but no one wants to continue the cull of a protected species indefinitely,” Lord Benyon says.

However, Peter Hambly, executive director of the Badger Trust, claimed the government was using badgers as a scapegoat for not taking “more decisive” cattle-based action on bTB.

“They don’t test the thousands of badgers they kill each year, yet they only cull cattle proven to have the disease.

“They have killed half of the country’s badgers in little more than a decade with scant evidence that they are even carrying bTB, and now have plans to kill even more.

“This toxic policy is an assault on nature in a timescale unprecedented in our history.

“The plans to consult on more badger culling, despite previously saying they would stop in 2025, is outrageous – they are obsessed with culling badgers.”

Since the cull began in 2013, an estimated 210,000 badgers – a protected species – have been wiped out.

Latest government statistics show that between April 2022 and March this year, 20,228 cows were slaughtered because of bTB.

Mr Hambly said more effective bTB control involved better cattle testing and vaccination, enhanced biosecurity and controlling cattle movements.

He said there were reports badgers had become extinct in some high-cull areas such as Gloucestershire and Somerset.

A study earlier this year in Northern Ireland found that cows were 800 times more likely to pass bTB to badgers than badgers were to cattle.

He added that numbers of badgers shot while free running – rather than trapped – had increased to nearly nine out of 10. The practice leaves injured animals at risk of dying slowly from their wounds and infection, experts say.

This half-backed policy is contrary to scientific evidence and is based on little more than Tories bowing and scraping to farmers for their votes. It is time it was dumped and a more sensible vaccination approach taken instead, as is happening in Wales.

Friday, September 01, 2023

Give unto Caesar

I am not one of those people who cry foul at every perceived slight to Wales, especially where money is involved. We are part of the United Kingdowm and we are dependent on their government for the funding that enables us to provide important services. The Welsh Government also has limited taxation powers and is able to borrow to invest in important infrastructure.

Nevertheless, there are instances when the rules by which we are financed are deliberately broken by UK Ministers, to avoid having to provide us with valuable resources. 

One such instance is the failure to allow a Barnett consequential for HS2, effectively depriving Wales of £5bn of capital money that could be used to transform our own transport network. 

Another example is the Crown Estates income, a leftover from feudal times that yields significant income for the state.

As this Nation Cymru article reports, the asset value of Crown Estate holdings in Wales amounted to a staggering £853m last year. These generate a significant income for the crown:

The Crown Estate is an independent company which belongs to the monarch for the duration of their reign, though the revenue from its £16bn property portfolio flows directly to the Treasury.

Nation Cymru was able to obtain a copy of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request which revealed a breakdown of the value of the property and asset groups that made up the Crown Estate in Wales for the 2022 – 2023 financial year.

The breakdown for the property group values were as follows:

Offshore Wind and Marine Energy £793,146,428 Coastal £21,208,350 Minerals £21,841,276 Cables and Interconnectors £14,400,000 Rural agriculture and others £2,434,400 The group values amounted to a combined worth of £853,030,454.

In addition, the FOI response also provided a full 50 page list of all the assets broken down by location as well as property group.

The Crown Estate owns the UK seabed out to 12 nautical miles and calls have been made previously by the Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Liz Saville Roberts to form an arrangement similar to Scotland which would give Wales a direct say in how the profits from new floating wind farms planned off the Welsh coast would be spent.

The estate’s Scottish assets were devolved to Scotland in 2016, and its revenue now goes to the Scottish Government.

The Sovereign Grant, which is taken from public spending to cover the expenses of the royal household, is determined as a proportion of Crown Estate profits.

In July this year, following record breaking profits raked in by offshore leasing of wind farms it was announced by the Treasury that The Sovereign Grant will now be set at 12% of the Crown Estate’s net profits next year, down from 25% on previous years.

Arfon Jones from Cymru Republic, who initiated the FOI also requested the details of Crown Estate profits specifically for assets / property in Wales but this information was not provided.

The FOI response from the Crown Estate stated: “We run a single set of accounts at an enterprise level and expenditure is incurred for the benefit of the whole portfolio and cannot be attributed to individual assets.

“It is therefore not possible to calculate the value of net revenue profit generated from The Crown Estate’s assets in Wales, and we do not hold this information.”

Arfon Jones said: “We were prompted to make this Freedom of Information request when we heard that the system for allocating the profits from the Crown Estate to the Monarchy had changed.

“We were surprised by the extent of the Crown Estates in Wales, which could be put to better use by alleviating child poverty, improving the wellbeing of the people of Wales, as well as shaping and expanding our renewable future in consultation with the people of our nation.

“A share of £853 million could make a massive difference to Wales, and like Scotland, it should be devolved now.

It might well be possible for the UK government to argue that they do not wish to disturb the status quo by devolving these assets and their income to Wales, except that they have already created that precedent by giving Scotland control of the Crown Estate north of the border. 

What is good enough for Scotland should be good enough for Wales.

Isn't it about time there was some consistency in the way the UK nations are treated?

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