.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Another donor gets a contract

The Independent reports that a company run by a major Tory donor and former party treasurer was handed lucrative government contracts to advise the Post Office.

The paper says that Malik Karim, who has given the Conservatives £1.6m since 2014, won two major deals last year through his finance firm Fenchurch Advisory, which were worth £1.5m and £175,000 respectively.

Documents uncovered by this publication show Fenchurch was handed the payments to offer the beleaguered Post Office “advice on banking services and the retail banking market”.

Critics complained that the contracts “smack of cronyism” and raised questions about how government contracts are awarded.

The revelation comes as the Conservatives remain embroiled in a row involving the party’s biggest donor, Frank Hester, who allegedly said MP Diane Abbott made him “want to hate all Black women” and that she “should be shot”.

The comments by Mr Hester, who has donated £10m to the Tories and whose company has won more than £400m of NHS and prison contracts in the last eight years, were labelled “racist and wrong”, but the Conservatives have refused to return the money.

Rishi Sunak was also caught up in a row for handing a knighthood to a major Tory donor who gave £5m to the Conservative Party last year.

Businessman Mohamed Mansour, who is a senior treasurer at the party and a former Egyptian government minister, was knighted for business, charity and political service.

Mr Karim’s Fenchurch contracts were awarded while the Post Office was grappling with the growing fallout of the Horizon IT scandal and warning of the risk of branch closures due to spiralling costs.

Weeks later, the government ruled that every wrongly convicted sub-postmaster would be given the option of receiving £600,000 in compensation or pursuing a formal claim for more.

But despite being under considerable financial pressure, the Post Office brought in Fenchurch Advisory for five months to advise on the retail banking market – meaning it was paid around £336,000 per month for the work.

The general election cannot come too soon.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Not flying the flag

Keir Starmer's attempt to rebrand the Labour Party as a more moderate form of the Conservatives has hit a snag, his members are revolting at the idea.

The Guardian reports that the Labour leader is facing discontent from Labour MPs over the dominant use of the union flag in election campaign material amid concern it may alienate ethnic minority voters and others.

They say that concerns were raised at recent meetings of the party’s black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) group at Westminster and also by London members of the parliamentary Labour party. There is also unhappiness among some activists who are reluctant to handle the material:

There was criticism from those at a meeting of MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds, including Starmer’s chief of staff, Sue Gray, and the chief whip, Alan Campbell, of freepost leaflets that were – as one MP put it – “plastered with union jacks”.

There is also increasing unhappiness about the lengthy delay to the investigation into Diane Abbott, who had the Labour whip removed almost a year ago, as well as discontent over the party’s progress on BAME representation.

Unease about the party’s use of the flag also came up at a meeting of London MPs that was attended by Morgan McSweeney, Labour’s director of campaigns, and Ellie Reeves, its deputy national campaign coordinator.

The union flag has taken on an increasingly prominent role under Starmer as he seeks to emphasise Labour’s “patriotic” credentials to assert that the party has changed from the Jeremy Corbyn era.

However, some Labour MPs have suggested that the prominence of red, white and blue still has negative connotations among ethnic minority communities targeted by the far right. They asked why material provided could not be more tailored to specific constituencies.

One MP said: “We are all really proud of our country but this can be a complex issue for some communities and we have to navigate that more carefully.”

“For a lot of communities we are talking about colours that are associated with the National Front or another far-right group. Using the flag might be great for trying to reach those ‘hero voters’ but why can’t we have segmented branding,” they added, using a phrase Labour strategists coined for the slice of the electorate who swing directly from Tory to Labour and who tend to be more socially conservative and pro-Brexit.

“I can see how it would work in some places but it’s definitely detrimental in university towns, and in heavily BAME seats,” said another MP who attended one of the meetings and who added that “multiple colleagues” had told him of activists refusing to give out the leaflets.

“They just look like union jacks really, with a bit of red on the side. There’s not even a Labour rose. You don’t need to prove your patriotism by wrapping yourself in the union jack,” they added.

This doesn't augur well for the Tory-lite agenda Labour have planned for when they come into government.

Friday, March 29, 2024


This morning, an extraordinary coincidence, the Guardian reports that a businessman and former Egyptian government minister who donated £5m to the Conservative party last year has unexpectedly been given a knighthood on the recommendation of Rishi Sunak.

The paper says that Mohamed Mansour, a senior treasurer of the Conservative party for just over a year, was one of several surprise recipients of honours on Thursday, with the citation saying it was given for business, charity and political service. But his donation was not without controversy:

Labour has previously called for the Tories to hand back £5m donated last year by Mansour, who served as transport minister in Egypt under military ruler Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2005 to 2009 before the Arab spring.

The opposition called for Sunak to return the donation last year after it emerged one of Mansour’s family companies had still been operating in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine.

The firm, Mantrac, said in May 2023 that it was winding down its business in Russia, more than a year after Moscow’s war drew international condemnation and calls from Sunak and Boris Johnson for businesses to withdraw.

Mansour was joined in receiving a knighthood by Demis Hassabis, founder of artificial intelligence company DeepMind, and by film-making couple Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas, who will receive a knighthood and a damehood. American businessman Ted Sarandos, the co-chief of Netflix, was given an honorary knighthood.

Backbench MP Philip Davies, and Mark Spencer, a former chief whip under Johnson, were also knighted, while Tracey Crouch, a former minister, was made a dame along with Treasury committee chair Harriett Baldwin.

How will the Prime Minister surprise us next?

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Brexit holiday chaos

The Independent reports that millions of Britons are barred from entering the EU by post-Brexit passport rules that are set to cause chaos over the Easter holidays.

The paper says that an estimated 2.4 million travellers have documents that can’t be used for trips to the EU because of the change in expiry requirements:

Since Brexit, British passports must have an issue date less than 10 years old on the day of departure to the EU, and must have at least three months left before their expiry date on the intended day of return. But millions of passports issued prior to September 2018 have longer validity periods.

Analysis by The Independent suggests 200 people every day are falling foul of this rule at UK airports, with thousands expected to see their holidays ruined over the upcoming break.

The rule change follows Britain’s Brexit deal with the EU, which puts the UK into the “third country nationals” category – alongside Venezuela and Samoa – with different expiry rules than when it was a member state. It means Britons are being turned away at airports, ferries and trains bound for Europe even if they have previously travelled to the EU on the same document.

The 17-day Easter break is a particularly busy time for British travellers and an estimated 6.4 million trips will be made from the UK to Europe – 1.6 million over the bank holiday weekend alone.

Longer validity on older passports was a useful way to avoid wasting part of the life of a passport, since holders could renew up to nine months early without losing any time. But after the rules changed, many have been confused into believing they have more time on their current passports to enter the EU than they actually do.

For example, anyone with a passport issued before 28 March 2014 will be prevented from going to Europe today, even if they have many months remaining before expiry. This confusing rule will potentially affect everyone whose passport was issued before September 2018: an estimated 32 million people.

Well, that wasnt on the side of the bus. This is what happens when you pull up the drawbridge and try and go it alone irrespective of the consequences.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

The long-forgotten George A. Smathers

In reflecting the other day on the ttactics being used by the Tories to discredit Keir Starmer I was motvated to look up a notorious speech that was allegedly delivered in a Florida primary contest in 1950 by George A. Smathers.

As Florida Today says, personal attacks and name calling have a long tradition in American political campaigns and when polled, people overwhelmingly say they do not approve of such tactics, yet election results demonstrate that such negative campaigning is frequently successful.

They add that when modern political commentators discuss the divisiveness of contemporary American politics, they often refer to Florida’s 1950 Democratic Primary as an example of a particularly contentious campaign.

In that contest, George Smathers defeated Claude Pepper for Florida’s seat in the United States Senate, and legend has it that he did so with a cynical speech aimed at unsophisticated Florida voters. However, despite the speech being quoted in the April 17, 1950, edition of Time magazine, Smathers denies ever having delivered it. This is the key passage:

“Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, he has a brother who is a known homo sapiens, and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, habitually practiced celibacy.”

The version I vaguely remember was a bit longer and had something about Pepper's sister matriculating at college before she became a known thespian, but you get the drift. Florida Today takes up the story:

“The idea was north Florida voters weren’t very bright, and if you used big words, you could confuse them and make the opponent sound terrible, simply by saying truthful things,” said James C. Clark, author of the book “Red Pepper and Gorgeous George: Claude Pepper’s Epic Defeat in the 1950 Democratic Primary.”

“Clearly this speech by Smathers was never given,” Clark said. “Smathers offered a $10,000 reward for anyone who could prove that the speech had been given. It’s amazing that Smathers served three terms in the Senate, he was close to Kennedy, he was close to Nixon, did a lot in Latin American affairs, and what he’s best remembered for is a speech he never gave.”

Unfortunately, this piece of political satire is sometimes still quoted as an actual example of campaign tactics in Florida.

Claude Pepper is today affectionately remembered as a champion of senior citizens, but in the decade leading up to the 1950 Democratic Primary, he was a controversial figure.

“Before World War II, he was the leading advocate for a military buildup in this country,” said Clark. “He told everyone who would listen that Hitler was going to be a problem for us. For that he was mocked. People on the Senate floor mocked him, called him ridiculous.”

History proved Pepper to be correct about America’s participation in World War II, but not about our developing relationship with the Soviet Union.

“After the war, he thought that the coming issue would be relations with Russia, but this time he guessed wrong,” said Clark. “He bet that we would have good relations with Russia, and if he championed that, he would come out with a better reputation, just as he had with Hitler. Relations with Russia did not get better, they got far worse.”

Pepper visited Josef Stalin, and his stance on communism became a key issue in the 1950 campaign.

President Harry S. Truman and Pepper were political adversaries, and Truman personally asked Smathers to defeat Pepper in the senate race. The campaign was contentious, even though all three men were Democrats.

Smathers served in the United States Senate from 1951 to 1969 but is still remembered for a speech he never gave. 

Although he lost the Senate seat he had held since 1936, Pepper went on to serve Florida in the United States House of Representatives from 1963 until his death in 1989.

Update: The New York Times has more:

But the history of the remark attributed to Mr. Smathers is perhaps most interesting as a case study in how real and fictional events, stump speeches and reporters' gossip, ideology and dirty tricks blend together to form the sustaining mythology of this town's political community.

'It was a campaign of vicious distortion,'' Mr. Pepper said, ''calling me 'Red Pepper,' calling me a Communist. That fitted right in, you see, with the McCarthyism that was sweeping the country.'

But Mr. Smathers insisted that not all the tough talk had come from him. For example, Mr. Pepper liked to wave his Alabama birth certificate at all-white audiences and remind them that Mr. Smathers was born in New Jersey. No son of the South, Mr. Pepper said in replying charges that he was pro-black, needed instruction from a Northerner on race.

Such theatrics drew national press attention, and it was apparently a mixture of journalistic interest and the candidates' torrid rhetorical exchanges that gave rise to the famous remark.

According to Mr. Smathers, newspaper reporters, chiefly William H. Lawrence of The New York Times, began inventing double-talk quotations and swapping them over drinks. Mr. Smathers said these wisecracks became the running joke of the campaign and that Mr. Lawrence kept him posted on the latest version.

William Fokes, a Tallahassee lawyer who was Mr. Pepper's administrative assistant at the time, also confirmed that reporters were passing around these jokes. In interviews, people from both camps agreed that there was no record that Mr. Smathers used any of the joke lines on the stump.

But there is evidence that once the jokes got started, the Smathers organization helped spread them. The idea was not to mislead ignorant voters with fancy words but to undermine respect for Mr. Pepper by making him an object of ridicule in the conservative Panhandle of northern Florida, recalled Daniel T. Crisp, a Jacksonville public relations man who worked in Mr. Smathers's behalf.

'It was actively used because it was funny,'' said Mr. Crisp. Two years before the election, he recalled, he was hired by Edward Ball, manager of the DuPont interests in Florida, to rally the conservative vote against Mr. Pepper. The jokes about celibacy and matriculation were part of an arsenal of anti-Pepper humor. 

'There were several things,'' Mr. Crisp said. ''One was a little card passed from one businessman to another, saying: 'Florida's fastest growing industry: Canning Pepper.'

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

What city are we in again?

We knew that the Tories were losing any sense of reality, especially when it comes to understanding the British public, but the least we should be able to expect from politicians soliciting our vote is to know what city they are standing in. Unfortunately, that is also a lost art for the governing party.

The Mirror reports that bungling Tories have been forced to delete an election campaign video that showed New York instead of London.

They say that in the weird clip, the party claimed “the metropolis [is] teetering on the brink of chaos”. But rather than depict the capital, it actually used footage of a stampede during rush hour at New York's Penn Station after false reports of gunfire in 2017:

In the Tory video, a narrator says: “London, a city steeped in history. But tonight, its ancient streets bear witness to a different tale, a tale not of kings and queens, but of crime and desperation.” He adds: “Gripped by the tendrils of rising crime, London's citizens stay inside. The streets are quiet, quieter in the night now than they used to be.”

Voters in London will pick who will be Mayor in local elections in May. The Tories have faced criticism for picking Ms Hall, a little known member of the London Assembly, as their candidate. The former Harrow council leader has been outspoken in her praise for Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss's disastrous mini-Budget.

In September 2022, she tweeted: "Oh deep joy, a proper #Conservative government - thank you @KwasiKwarteng - thank you @trussliz #MiniBudget."

Ms Hall previously urged Mr Trump to win the US Presidential race, tweeting, "Come on Donald Trump - make sure you win and wipe the smile off this man’s face," alongside a picture of her Labour rival Mr Khan. She has also slammed Black Lives Matter, backed the Government's Rwanda policy and supported Home Secretary Suella Braverman when she controversially warned of an "invasion" of migrants by small boats.

The new video is also factually incorrect. Far from being a crime capital, London is in fact the 14th safest city in the world as cited here.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Political stress

Having once been a full-time Parlimentarian who employed staff to carry out research and undertake casework, I am very aware of the unique stresses and strains of that job, not to mention the lack of job security, which impacts on staff far more than on the elected politician. 

This is one of the reasons why the Welsh Senedd has invested in support for staff (and MSs) who lose their job after an election, with a view to helping them find alternative employment. They also set aside money to improve the safety of constituency offices.

As far as I know, Westminister has not followed suit in accepting their duty of care to MPs support staff, while controversy still rages about the way many of these employees are treated and sometimes abused, by their employer. If you then factor in outside pressures such as intense 'lobbying' of MPs' offices, external threats and abuse, it must be a pretty awful time to work on the political side in the House of Commons.

This is reflected in an article in the Guardian, which says that a survey has found MPs’ staff are suffering from growing levels of serious psychological distress amid heightened tensions over the war in the Middle East.

The paper says that the findings suggest nearly half of the 3,700 workers employed by MPs experienced clinical stress similar to emergency service workers last year, while one in five said they feared for their own and colleagues’ safety, prompting calls for a new whistleblower-style hotline for workers to raise concerns.:

The survey of 357 members of MPs’ staff, the largest of its kind, was carried out before the heightened tensions in Westminster over the Israel-Gaza war, which many say has added to their fears.

Concerns over the safety of parliamentarians ramped up last month after the controversy over the handling of the Gaza ceasefire votes by the Commons speaker, Lindsay Hoyle .

Hoyle broke parliamentary protocol to allow three separate votes on a ceasefire in Gaza, to the ire of the Scottish National party and the Conservatives. An emotional speaker later told MPs he had taken his decision, which allowed Labour to dodge a difficult vote, because he was fearful of MPs’ safety.

Several members of MPs’ staff told the Guardian the episode had “put a target on our back” and led to them being accused of “subverting democracy” because Hoyle breached parliamentary protocol over the debate.

One said they felt the concern over the protests had been “politicised” and that the primary fear was the “widespread bullying and harassment of junior staff” by MPs and other senior colleagues.

They added: “There is definitely a huge level of fear around the aftermath of what happened to Jo Cox and David Amess and the comments [by Tory donor Frank Hester] about Diane Abbott being shot.”

Cox died after being shot and stabbed in 2016 and Amess was fatally stabbed in 2021.

“All of that is really scary because you’re public-facing, and you’re sometimes having to vet people before they get to the MP – that adds a level of fear.”

The survey found that 46% of staff met the medical threshold for psychological distress – more than twice the level in the general population.

This is up from 42% in 2022, reflecting the increased pressure last year amid the fallout of global conflicts including in Gaza and Ukraine.

It had fallen from 49.8% in 2021 when MPs were flooded with concerns from the public about the end of Covid-19 support measures such as furlough.

Nearly half said they frequently or always hid the nature of their work from others because they expected a negative reaction.

One said they were questioned about the state of the NHS by a nurse “as I was going in for an operation” after disclosing their job in politics.

The MPs’ staff working wellness group, which commissioned the survey, called for a new whistleblower-style hotline for workers to be able to use.

They said the safety of staff was a “major area of concern, particularly so in recent years” and that those based in constituency offices felt more at risk than those in Westminster.

It said it was “astounded” that nearly one in 10 constituency office workers said their MP or office manager had rejected measures that would improve the safety of their workplace.

The survey also highlighted anxiety over the looming general election, with more than half saying they felt it would negatively impact their job, and 48% feeling unprepared to seek a new role.

Employees outside Whitehall said they were treated like “slack-jawed yokels” and “second-class citizens” by the parliamentary establishment, often working in unpleasant offices.

One said: “Our constituency office is awful – there’s damp, mould, the toilet and kitchen are so old and don’t work properly, the heating is awful, there’s no real natural light. The carpets are filthy and the whole things needs a proper renovation.

“The building is owned by a property company from the local political party so we have no say in how it’s kept. All requests for modernisation, cleaning and decoration are rejected.”

It is time the House of Commons took its duty to MPs staff seriously.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Plaque of the day

Do the residents of Royal York Crescent in Clifton, Bristol have too much time on their hands or have they stumbled onto a genuine sradonic tribute? According to the Guardian a mysterious plaque has appeared on a bench there outing an adulterous husband:

The brass plate engraved with “For My Love/Husband, Father, Adulterer/Yes, Roger, I Knew” quickly attracted attention after it was attached to a wooden bench on the grand crescent’s terrace at the end of last week.

Most residents doubt its authenticity. Rachel Weaver-Tooley, whose balcony flat overlooks the bench, points to the date of Roger’s birth on the plaque: 06.09.69. “Revenge is a dish best served cold … and in a brass plate,” she says in the spring sunshine. “But look at the numbers in dates 69 69. Come on!”

Yet some on the picturesque Georgian crescent, which has served as a location in films including Starter for 10, are determined to uncover the secret plaque maker. “We asked in the cobbler’s earlier because we’re trying to get to the bottom of it,” says Kim Collins, 52, another resident. “They are the only place in Clifton village that engrave stuff, but they said it wasn’t anything to do with them.”

The main suspects appear to live on the crescent. “There are loads of quite eccentric people here. There are lots of novelists and artists, with time on their hands,” says Jason Smith, 53, who lives with Collins.

“I think it is someone living along here who wants to get people talking and laughing.”

It’s not the first time a mysterious plaque has appeared in the area. At the end of the crescent someone has fixed a similar plaque to a bin. It reads: “This bin is dedicated to Craig of Royal York Crescent who spends many a restful moment hither.”

Rumour has it that Craig, a familiar sight on the terrace, who purportedly likes to lean on the bin of an evening, suspects Smith.

Yet Smith denies involvement with either plaque and appears to have an alibi. “I wasn’t here on Thursday [when the plaque was spotted]. You can’t prove anything.”

The five-storey house opposite owns the section of the terrace with the bench. Sue Wells, 77, a writer who lives in one of its flats, has no objection to the plaque: “It’s hilarious. I think it is clever.”

Crowds have been coming to look at the bench, she says. “It is amazing how word spreads. I’ve been trying to have a kip … and there have been loads and loads of people outside.”

Her husband, Martin Wells, 73, a writer and psychotherapist, is one of the few prepared to indulge the idea it might be genuine: “If it’s real, [his spouse] has put up with this for years and only when he has died did they feel able to tell the truth … a very passive person.” The plaque appears to be fixed with tacks, jogging his memory: “Two or three nights ago there was some banging and I thought that’s late for builders to be banging.”

Make a change from the usual memorials.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Whither Rwanda?

The Guardian reports that new figures show that sending ministers and officials to Rwanda has cost the government more than £400,000 before a single deportation flight has taken off.

The paper has calculated that ministers have spent a total of £413,541 on travel in the two years since the policy to send asylum seekers to Kigali started to be developed. The total is based on government transparency releases. It includes trips by senior government officials and a succession of ministers and home secretaries including James Cleverly, Suella Braverman and Priti Patel.

They add that this week it emerged that Cleverly spent £165,561 on chartering a private jet for a one-day trip to sign a new treaty with Rwanda in December. The cost of the flight was published in a transparency document on Thursday:

Cleverly’s flight to Rwanda in December was to sign a new treaty that established a new appeal body, to be made up of judges with asylum expertise from a range of countries, to hear individual cases.

The flights alone of the home secretary’s 24-hour trip cost more than four times the total cost of Braverman’s last visit in March 2023. Her trip cost just over £40,000, with flights at £35,041, hotels £4,301, transport £248 and “engagement” £2,056, the Daily Mirror reported last year.

The government said Rwanda’s asylum system would be monitored by an independent committee, whose powers to enforce the treaty would be beefed up. The committee would develop a system to enable relocated people and their lawyers to lodge complaints.

The government was criticised earlier this month for planning to spend £1.8m on each of the first 300 asylum seekers it plans to send to Rwanda. The overall cost of the scheme stands at more than half a billion pounds, according to the figures released to the National Audit Office.

Perhaps they should spend this money instead on processing claims and putting in place an effective and humane immigration system.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Growing up in poverty

The Mirror reports that damning figures from the Department of Work and Pensions have revealed that 30% of all UK children were living in relative poverty in the year to March 2023.

The paper says that a record 4.3 million children are growing up in poverty as cost of living pressures pushed another 100,000 kids into hardship last year:

In a bleak picture of the state of the UK, the number of people living in absolute poverty rose for a second year to hit a 30-year high after energy bills rocketed in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Another 600,000 people - including 300,000 children - have been plunged into absolute poverty, meaning 12 million people fall 60% below the median income. Charities said the grim statistics must act as an "urgent wake up call" to the Tory Government, which has failed to protect the poorest people from hardship.

Food insecurity has also risen dramatically. Last year, 7.2million people struggled to get enough to eat, compared to 4.7million in 2021/22. Some 826,000 children live in households that have been forced to rely on food banks in the last year.

And the number of pensioners living in deprivation has risen to 8% - the highest level since 2016 and a 2% increase since before the pandemic. Real terms median household income also dropped by 1.5% last year to £545-a-week after housing costs.

These figures are a damning indictment of this government. I await the opposition's proposals to deal with the crisis.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Wake-up call for Welsh Education

There is a new First Minister in the Welsh Senedd and it looks like his first test will be how prepared he is to change direction in a major policy area where his government is failing badly.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has published a damning report which concludes that education policy in Wales faces major challenges including low outcomes across a range of measures and high levels of inequality.

Amongst their conclusions are that PISA scores declined by more in Wales than in most other countries in 2022, with scores declining by about 20 points (equivalent to about 20% of a standard deviation, which is a big decline). This brought scores in Wales to their lowest ever level, significantly below the average across OECD countries and significantly below those seen across the rest of the UK. Scotland and Northern Ireland also saw declines in PISA scores in 2022, whilst scores were relatively stable in England.

They say that these lower scores cannot be explained by higher levels of poverty. In PISA, disadvantaged children in England score about 30 points higher, on average, than disadvantaged children in Wales. This is a large gap and equivalent to about 30% of a standard deviation. Even more remarkably, the performance of disadvantaged children in England is either above or similar to the average for all children in Wales. These differences extend to GCSE results.

Furthermore, the differences in educational performance between England and Wales are unlikely to be explained by differences in resources and spending. Spending per pupil is similar in the two countries, in terms of current levels, recent cuts and recent trends over time. And there are worse post-16 educational outcomes in Wales, with a higher share of young people not in education, employment or training than in the rest of the UK.

They conclude that the explanation for lower educational performance is much more likely to reflect longstanding differences in policy and approach, such as lower levels of external accountability and less use of data.

This is a highly critical report on two decades of failure in education policy Wales and cannot be easily ignored. THe IFS make some significant recommendations that policymakers and educators in Wales pause, and in some cases rethink, past and ongoing reforms in the following areas:

* The new Curriculum for Wales should place greater emphasis on specific knowledge.

* Reforms to GCSEs should be delayed to give proper time to consider their effects on long-term outcomes, teacher workload and inequalities.

* More data on pupil skill levels and the degree of inequality in attainment are needed and should be published regularly.

* A move towards school report cards, alongside existing school inspections, could be an effective way to provide greater information for parents without a return to league tables.

This report should be at the top of the new First Minister's in-tray. The least we can expect is that he takes the recommendations seriously and implements them.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

More money down the drain

The Mirror reports that half a million pounds was wasted on barges that couldn’t be used to house migrants as there were no ports to put them:

Bungling officials also spent £3million on refurbishing an RAF based before plans to use it as accommodation were dropped. Tory ministers claimed they would save money by moving migrants out of hotels and into alternatives such as barges, military bases and former student accommodation.

But overall the National Audit Office found it had worked out at £46million more expensive. The Home Office had hoped it would cost £5million each to refurbish RAF Wethersfield and RAF Scampton.

But the true costs were £49million and £27million respectively. By the end of last year the Government hoped to have 25,000 asylum seekers living on disused military bases, ports, holiday camps, converted office buildings and "hard-sided tents".

But by January it managed just 900 across four sites - Scampton and Wethersfield, the Bibby Stockholm barge in Dorset and old student accommodation in Huddersfield. The NAO report said £2.9million was spent on abandoned plans to move people to a former RAF base in Linton-on-Ouse. The document went on: "It (the Home Office) also paid around £0.5million to reserve vessels it had earmarked as asylum accommodation but was unable to use as it could not secure a suitable port."

Weren't the Tories the party that used to advocate value for money? Whatever happened to them?

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Brexit failing on crime

We did warn them. Over and over again those of us opposed to Brexit warned that severing links with the continent would make it more difficult to police international crime. Here is just one of the many blogs I wrote on the subject. But government didn't listen.

Now, the Mirror reports on the conclusion of Dr Mohammed Rahman, senior lecturer in Criminology at Birmingham City University, that Brexit's policy to tighten our borders hasn't - and won't - reduce serious crime in the UK:

Organised crime groups (OCGs) have continued to exploit people - including through human trafficking - desperately trying to enter the UK since the Brexit vote. Although the Government states in official documents that "the Brexit deal will give the people of the United Kingdom back control of their borders", academics assert people haven't been deterred from attempting to reach the UK.

Dr Mohammed Rahman, senior lecturer in Criminology at Birmingham City University, told the Mirror Brexit has made it easier for OCGs in the UK to operate and expand their enterprises. He added: "There is no significant evidence to suggest that the tightening of borders in the UK as a result of Brexit has reduced serious and organised crime. The problem still remains in the sense that transnational organised crime is prevalent in the UK.

"While Brexit has made it increasingly difficult for people to freely travel into the UK from abroad, it hasn't necessarily deterred people from doing so. This is something that criminal groups have picked up on and subsequently exploited."

Less than three years after some 17 million voted to leave the European Union (EU), the bodies of the migrants - 28 men, eight women and three children aged between 15 and 44 - were found "closely packed" inside a sealed HGV container as steam poured from the back of it in Grays, Essex.

The migrants had been trafficked by an organised gang, the leader of which, Vo Van Hong, was jailed for 15 years in 2022. A court heard he was responsible for running a criminal organisation that had smuggled at least 115 people across the Channel between September 2018 and May 2020. The latter month was nearly four years after the Brexit vote. The four people-smugglers, including Gheorghe Nica and Ronan Hughes, were jailed for 78 years for the killings in 2021.

And Dr Rahman, who has had books and peer-reviewed articles published internationally on OCGs, believes this case is just one example of the human trafficking challenge, which still remains despite Brexit. The academic added: "The problem still remains in the sense that transnational organised crime is prevalent in the UK. We still have an issue of human trafficking, and an extreme example of this is the 2019 Essex lorry deaths.

"Dealing with organised crime in the UK has become more challenging due to limited information sharing between UK agencies and their EU counterparts. It’s a direct consequence of Brexit, which has had numerous negative impacts."


The lecturer continued: "I clearly remember the narrative presented by central government during the Brexit process regarding organised crime. It was portrayed as a foreign problem, largely attributed to relaxed immigration policies, which led to the emphasis on tightening our borders. I found this perspective problematic because the UK has a long history of domestic organised crime.

"There is evidence to suggest according to the National Crime Agency that burglaries, car thefts and robberies have accelerated as a result of the cost-of-living crisis. These crimes tend to take place at a local level, often by groups on a habitual basis. In most cases, they are high risk and low reward in contrast to traditional modes of organised crime."

The Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime (GITOC), set up in 2013 in Switzerland, seeks new and innovative strategies and responses to organised crime. Dr Rahman provided data on criminal activities in the UK for a recent GITOC report on organised crime, which will allow policymakers and agencies to establish where vulnerabilities lie.

The report shows the UK has jumped from 99th to 61st in a league table of organised crime - the OC Index . In 2021, the OC Index gave the UK a criminality score of 4.89 but this year, the UK's score is 5.45. Dr Rahman added: "Fortunately, GITOC can serve as a valuable resource for understanding the current global organised crime landscape, its connections to the UK, and strategies for addressing it."

The only way to deal with international crime such as people trafficking and drug smugggling is to work with international agencies. Pulling up the drawbridge just doesn't cut it.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Imposing a cap

At least one national politician is concerned enough about the way that political parties rely on substantial donations from businesses and businessmen with a financial stake in government that he wants to do something about it.

The Guardian reports that Liberal Democrats leader, Ed Davey has used his spring conference speech to call for a cap on donations to political parties so that “even the wealthiest racists cannot buy power and influence”:

In his speech in York on Sunday, Davey said the prime minister – whose government unveiled its new definition of extremism on Thursday – was “right to warn about the dangers of extremism and division” but said the Conservatives needed to take a “long look in the mirror”.

“If this week’s news has shown anything, it’s that we must also cap donations to political parties. So that even the wealthiest racists cannot buy power and influence over the Conservative party,” he said.

It sounds like he has been reading my blog. 

In the light of the Vaughan Gething affair in Wales we also need to limit donations to individual politicians. 

Something to question candidates on during the general election, I think.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Sunak's close links with Frank Hester

The Guardian has an interesting follow-up to the ongoing story of Diane Abbott-abuser Frank Hester's ten million pound donation to the Tory Party.

They reveal that Rishi Sunak was flown to Leeds by Frank Hester for a private tour of the businessman’s offices on the day after the autumn statement last year, raising further questions about the access afforded to the £10m donor who is bankrolling the Tories’ election campaign:

Sunak’s relationship with Hester is under the spotlight after a Guardian investigation revealed on Monday that the mega-donor made comments about Diane Abbott which have been widely condemned for being racist and misogynistic.

Sunak initially declined to comment on Hester’s 2019 remarks that looking at Diane Abbott makes you “want to hate all black women” and that the MP “should be shot”. But after an outcry, the prime minister’s spokesperson said the comments were “racist and wrong”.

It has now emerged that the prime minister visited Hester’s healthcare IT company in north-west Leeds on 23 November, with the £16,000 of travel costs by helicopter met by the businessman.

The trip was made roughly three weeks after Hester’s company, the Phoenix Partnership (TPP), gave a second £5m tranche to the Conservatives last November. Hester himself donated £5m in May of last year, while a further £5m is reportedly under discussion.

Sunak was pictured on a “political visit” in Farsley in north-west Leeds hammering jewellery at a workshop that morning, and No 10 has refused to “get into details” about whether Sunak met Hester after that.

However, sources have told the Guardian that Sunak and his entourage were at TPP’s offices in Horsforth in outer Leeds in the late afternoon that day, and those present were asked to keep the visit confidential. Sunak and his team are understood to have been there for about an hour.

They add that Hester, who is the sole owner of TPP, which has been paid more than £400m by the NHS and other government bodies since 2016, primarily to look after 60m UK medical records, and whose company has profited from £135m of contracts with the Department of Health and Social Care in four years, also attended an event at Lancaster House where Sunak discussed AI with the billionaire Elon Musk in November, and was present at two party fundraisers attended by Sunak in London last June and in February this year.

Maybe Sunak should apologise for being so closely involved with this man.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Bad habits

Like the Bourbons, it seems that this Tory government has learnt nothing and forgotten everything when it comes to awarding lucrative public sector contracts.

The Mirror reveals that a pair of wealthy former Tory donors are set to profit from a £6.4million Home Office contract to practice forcing asylum seekers onto planes to Rwanda:

The Mirror revealed earlier this year that the Government had taken over a vast film studio at the disused Cardington airfield ahead of the deportation training. Security firm Mitie will work with elite prison “riot squad” officers to train up escorts in the former hanger building containing three airplane fuselages.

Now details of the £6,425,285 contract for the “provision of facilities for Use of Force training”, which started in October and runs until the end of 2024, have been published. It was signed with HCP LR Cardington LP, a property partnership with complex ownership but linked to a pair of super-rich Tory donors.

The “HCP” stands for Hackman Capital Partners, a privately-owned property investment firm based in Los Angeles which specialises in film and TV studios. The “LR” stands for UK-based London and Regional Properties, which is owned by billionaire brothers Ian and Richard Livingstone.

They gave nearly £150,000 to the Tories between 2005 and 2018, including a £10,000 donation to Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron’s 2005 leadership campaign. The website for HCP states: “The studio is owned by Hackman Capital Partners in partnership with London and Regional Properties.”

A spokesperson for LRP said the firm “declined to comment”, which HCP did not respond. Hanger 2 at Cardington, near Bedford, has been used as a film set for a string of top Hollywood productions, including Netflix’s Squid Game: The Challenge, two Christopher Nolan Batman films, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Tim Burton’s Dumbo.

Private security and outsourcing firm Mitie is advertising for £36,000 a year “use of force instructors” who will “work alongside” the Prison Service’s National Tactical Resource Group, a small elite group of prison officers specially trained to deal with riots and similar violent situations in the UK’s jails.

As well as the £6.4m in rent, the Home Office is spending £670,000 on hiring three aircraft fuselages. Another £315,000 bill is for catering but it is not known how much will be paid to Mitie for the training.

These costs are on top of the £240m the UK government has already paid to Rwanda so far before a single asylum seeker has been deported to the African country. A further payment of £50million is likely to be made this year.

You'd think that they would have learnt by now after the row over expensive PPE contracts being given to donors and friends of ministers, but bad habits are hard to break.

Friday, March 15, 2024

Those missing WhatsApp messages in Wales

Was it inevitable that Welsh First Ministerial contender, Vaughan Gething would lose all his WhatsApp messages when he upgraded his phone? Apparently, not.

Nation Cymru reports that the very suggestion has riled up the Senedd's Presiding Officer, who has pointed out that ahead of an upgrade in 2022, MSs were “advised” to back-up any data on phones and were offered support to do this.

The Senedd Commission added in a statement that WhatsApp is “not managed or supported” by the Commission’s ICT Service:

Despite initially denying using the messaging app, evidence which emerged this week showed that Mark Drakeford was in a specific messaging group with Mr Gething.

The Inquiry was shown Welsh Government advice, which said that “any and all” official business conducted through personal mobiles and email must be “summarised and saved”.

Mr Gething accepted that, having now looked into the rules “in much more detail” he should not have used the messages in the way he did.

During First Minister’s Questions on Tuesday (March 12), presiding officer Elin Jones appeared to defend Senedd staff saying lost data was not down to the ICT department.

Her comments came following questions from leader of the Welsh Conservative Senedd group, Andrew RT Davies who pressed the First Minister on Senedd protocols regarding ministers phones.

Mr Davies said: “The economy minister highlighted how it was embarrassing that data was lost because the Senedd IT department lost that data when they were upgrading his phone.

“And you’ve alluded to the fact that you’ve used your Senedd device to have exchanges on WhatsApp – how the protocols that the Welsh Government work to in retention of information reaches into devices that are provided by the Senedd.

“Surely there’s a discrepancy there, and, if it doesn’t get captured by the protocols that the Welsh Government undertakes, how on earth can people have confidence that important information is contained and held ready for descriptions and evidence in the Covid inquiry or other inquiries that might require that information?”

At the end of Mr Davies’ weekly slot to quiz Mark Drakeford, the Llywydd, who’s job it is to chair Plenary meetings and remain politically impartial at all times, interjected.

Elin Jones, Y Llywydd | Presiding Officer, AS | MS by Senedd Cymru / Welsh Parliament

She said: “I am responsible for the Senedd Commission staff, and I’m sure the leader of the opposition did not seek to imply any criticism of the ICT Senedd staff, in his questioning of the First Minister, on any data that was lost by the ICT department.

“Software updates are very complex and have consequences on all our devices, and it was most definitely not as a result of the Senedd ICT department that the data was lost. So, any criticism of the staff of that department, I’m sure you did not imply that.”

We contacted the Llywydd’s office and asked for clarity on whether the messages were on Mr Gething’s phone when it was handed in to the Senedd for maintenance.

A spokesperson for the Senedd Commission said: “In April 2022, an upgrade to our security protection on Member phones was rolled out. Ahead of the upgrade, Members and their offices were contacted and advised to back-up any data on the phone including non-supported applications. Members were also offered support to do this, if needed.

“Members are able to download any application to their Senedd provided phone. The Senedd Commission facilitates this, but any application which falls outside of Microsoft 365 is not managed or supported by the Commission’s ICT Service. Non-supported application.

Actually, none of this story of lost WhatsApp messages makes much sense to me. It is, as pointed out in the article, perfectly possible to back up messages so that they're not lost. You can also download WhatsApp to your computer, which I do regularly for the convenience of having a larger keyboard to work on and to download attachments.

But also it's not clear which phone Gething had his WhatsApp messages on. Was it actually his Senedd phone, as these devices are not on the government secure information network? MInisters are required to use devices issued to them by the government. Was it that phone which swallowed his messages?

And if he was using a non-secured phone for government business, is that a breach of the ministerial code? I ask because I don't know. Either way losing this valuable dialogue was an act of unforgiveable carelessness.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Who are the extremists?

The Guardian reports on the latest initiative by the UK Government that will ban ministers and civil servants from talking to or funding organisations that undermine “the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy”.

However, not everybody is happy with the new definitions, not least the government’s own terror watchdog and Muslim community groups:

Michael Gove, the communities secretary, will tell MPs on Thursday that officials should consider whether a group maintains “public confidence in government” before working with it.

Groups that will be effectively cancelled by ministers for falling foul of the new definition will be named in the coming weeks, government sources said.

There will be no appeals process if a group is labelled as extremist, it is understood, and groups will instead be expected to challenge a ministerial decision in the courts.

The new definition, which will be distributed across government and Whitehall, will say: “Extremism is the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance, that aims to: 1 negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or 2 undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or 3 intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results in (1) or (2).”

The previous guidelines, published in 2011, said individuals or groups are only defined as extremist if they show “vocal or active opposition to British fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”.

Gove, who has overseen the formulation of the new definition, said it would “ensure that Government does not inadvertently provide a platform to those setting out to subvert democracy and deny other people’s fundamental rights”.

But deep concern was expressed by Jonathan Hall KC, the government’s independent reviewer of state threat legislation who referred to a lack of safeguards and the labelling of people as extremists by “ministerial decree”.

“The definition focuses on ideas, on ideology, not action. So it’s a move from the previous definition … Moving the focus from action to ideology or ideas is an important one because I think people will be entitled to say: ‘What business is it of the government what people think, unless they do something with that?’” he told the Guardian.

“There’s no appeal body and where you have this lack of safeguards, it’s going to be really important to make sure that this labelling does not bleed into other areas.”

“If the government says that someone is an extremist, and is essentially saying ‘You are unacceptable’, then what would stop a local authority, another public body or even a private body from deciding they will adopt it as well?”

These are good points by Jonathan Hall. Will the next step be the establishment of a Ministry of Truth? It is little wonder that Muslim organisations, including the Muslim Council of Britain, are preparing to take the government to judicial review over its new definition. Crucially, as well, there appears to be no attempt by Ministers to define Islamophobia.

The real question though, is what about the extremism within the ranks of government ministers and Tory MPs themselves?

Whether it is seeking to stoke up public opinion against asylum seekers, blatant islamophobia, or failing to act to properly to disassociate themselves from donors who make racist and theatening remarks about ethnic minority MPs, the Tory Party has a real problem.

The culture wars that Tory ministers are embarking on are acts of extremism as well. Will they now stop talking to themselves?

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Accident prone?

Dr Who fanously toppled a prime minister by asking the six word question, 'Don't you think she looks tired?', but a far more damning question to ask of a politician's colleagues would be 'do you think he's accident prone?'

Accident prone in politics is not just tripping over your own feet, though that's involved as well, it's attracting the sort of bad publicity that embarrasses you and your party. It's when the level of embarrassment becomes too much that the knives start to come out and plots and cabals start to form.

First Ministerial candidate, Vaughan Gething must be approaching that threshold by now, and he hasn't yet been elected to the top job, which must be worrying for the MSs who sit in his Senedd group and the wider Wales Labour Party. Is the latest revelation the last straw.

The BBC report that Gething lobbied regulators in favour of a company that has been prosecuted for waste crimes and whose owner has since given him money.

THe broadcaster says that the Welsh Labour leadership candidate asked Natural Resources Wales (NRW) to ease restrictions on Atlantic Recycling in 2016:

Its holding company recently donated £200,000 to Mr Gething's campaign.

The economy minister defended the correspondence.

Mr Gething said it was "routine practice" for elected politicians to correspond with a range of public bodies regarding constituency issues.

The minister is standing against Jeremy Miles in the race to be the next first minister. Voting ends on Thursday and the result is due to be declared on Saturday.

Atlantic Recycling and its director David Neal were prosecuted in 2013 for illegally dumping waste on the Gwent Levels, and in 2017 for failing to clean the waste up.

Mr Neal was fined £10,000 and given a three month suspended sentence in 2013, and was handed an 18 week suspended sentence in 2017, together with fines and costs of £230,000.

NRW has now revealed that, in 2016, Mr Gething wrote to the regulator asking it to reconsider a notice ordering work to be suspended on the site, accusing it of having a "closed mind".

He raised concerns about public money being spent on disputes with the company. He followed his letter up with a meeting, an email and another letter.

In 2018, in a further letter, he told NRW officials they were unjustified in delaying a decision regarding a permit.

Later that year, companies linked to David Neal donated £38,000 to Mr Gething's previous leadership campaign, in addition to the more recent donations of £200,000 from Mr Neal's Dauson Environmental Group.

The Member of the Senedd (MS) for Cardiff South and Penarth, whose constituency is home to Atlantic Recycling's Cardiff base, was a Welsh government minister through the whole period. NRW is funded by the Welsh government.

A Labour source said there was a "real sense of anger" in the party over the whole donation issue.

Meanwhile former Welsh government minister, Leighton Andrews, said the donations were damaging devolution.

Gething in his response, stresses that he was acting in his role as a constituency MS and that he had no role in any decision affecting the company, while Natural Resources Wales say that the interventions had no impact on its decision making.

Nevertheless, one can see why one nameless Labour MP said: "This just isn't going away. He's certainly got questions he needs to answer,". while a separate Labour source said: "Everyone is furious. There is a real sense of anger about this."

Has Vaughan Gething become a liaibility to Welsh Labour even before the ballot papers have been counted?

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

'Arrogant and Incompetent'?

The Welsh media (and indeed some of the UK media) is full of news about Vaughan Gething's evidence to the Covid inquiry yesterday with representatives of the families livid over the way he answered the questions posed to him and the inadequate time made available for a deep dive into the issues.

The Guardian reports that bereaved families who lost loved ones to Covid came out of the meeting accusing the former Welsh health minister of incompetence and arrogance after he revealed that all his WhatsApp messages from the time had been lost:

Vaughan Gething, who is standing to be the next Welsh first minister, said the messages had been a way of “blowing off steam” rather than being used to make government decisions but said he was embarrassed they had vanished.

Appearing at the Welsh leg of the UK Covid inquiry in Cardiff, Gething denied that the fact the Labour government’s cabinet did not formally discuss Covid until a month after the administration was warned of the risk showed it had been too slow.

He also defended his government for taking almost two weeks longer than the Westminster government to begin Covid testing patients being sent from hospital into care homes, claiming Wales did not have the capacity to do this.

Speaking outside the hearing, Anna-Louise Marsh-Rees, who leads Covid-19 Bereaved Families Cymru, said: “He makes [the former UK health minister] Matt Hancock look like a strategic planning pandemic genius. He wasn’t prepared. He didn’t react. It was all just so casual. Thousands of people died in Wales because of these decisions. There was no sense of urgency. He was meant to be in charge of protecting our loved ones and he just didn’t. His arrogance is astonishing.”

Marsh-Rees said the revelation that all Gething’s WhatsApp messages had gone was “flabbergasting”. “If it wasn’t so tragic it would be like something out of The Thick Of It,” she said.

Another member of the group, Sam Smith-Higgins, was so angry that she walked out of the hearing, describing the Welsh government’s response to Covid as “chaotic”.

She said: “This is a socialist government but they are acting like a dictatorship. They don’t want to learn from this. The complacency that we’ve heard today from a man who could be first minister next week. We cannot allow the Welsh government to point to Westminster and say they were terrible. They were terrible but we made huge mistakes in Wales.”

Gething blamed a “security rebuild” of his Senedd mobile phone for the deletion of his WhatsApp messages.

He said: “It is a matter of real embarrassment, because if I’d been able to recover those messages then we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” Gething said the messages had been used in place of “conversations you have in the corridor” and not for decision-making. He characterised discussions as “largely blowing off steam and being supportive”.

The Welsh cabinet had its first formal discussion about Covid on 25 February 2020, a month after Wales’s chief medical officer, Frank Atherton, told the first minister, Mark Drakeford, there was a significant risk of the disease arriving in Wales. Even then, it was only in “any other business” on the agenda.

Gething said fellow ministers were aware he was making weekly statements about Covid and attending UK government Cobra meetings.

Asked why the Welsh government did not order patients to be tested for Covid before moving from hospitals to care homes until 13 days after England, he seemed to criticise the UK government, saying: “There wasn’t the sharing of information you’d have expected between the department of health and others … I certainly do wish we’d been able to move more speedily.” He also said he did not think Wales had the testing capacity to do it.

Gething was asked why the government had been prepared to allow 70,000 people to gather in Cardiff for a Wales v Scotland rugby game on 14 March 2020. The match was eventually cancelled by the Welsh Rugby Union but not until 20,000 Scottish rugby fans had arrived in the Welsh capital. He said: “In hindsight I think we’d do that differently … of the awkward choices we made that is definitely one that jars.”

Essentially, Gething gave an evasive politician's performance when everybody was hoping for frankness and insight. It doesn't bode well if he becomes First Minister on Friday.

Monday, March 11, 2024

Vive la difference

Any notion that the next general election is going to focus on the state of public services was roundly debunked by the shadow chancellor yesterday, when she refused to rule out having to make cuts in public expenditure.

Rachel Reeves may have blamed Tory carnage for this stance, but the bottom line to her statement was that Labour are not about to stick their neck out to improve health and education.

The Mirror reports that Reeves said she's "under no illusions" about the scale of the challenge she'll face if she gets into No11. And she refused to rule out real-terms cuts to some Government departments:

Ms Reeves told the BBC's Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg that although public services need more money, the financial position the next Government will inherit is the worst since World War Two. But she said she doesn't yet know how bad things are, she said, because the opposition can't carry out a proper spending review.

The Labour frontbecher said she has to be "honest that we're not going to be able to turn things around straight away". But she vowed keep promises on education and health spending, while trying to grow the economy.

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) says Tory plans "imply no real growth in public spending per person over the next five years". Meanwhile the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) accused both main parties of a "conspiracy of silence" about public spending after the election.

Asked if she planned public service cuts, Ms Reeves replied: "It is clear that the inheritance that a Labour government would have if we do win the next election will be the worst since the Second World War. And I have to be honest that we're not going to be able to turn things around straight away. But we will get to work on all of that."

So the choice we will be faced with when the election comes is actually no choice at all and Labour will be presenting as just a slightly less right-wing Tory Party.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Helicopters R Us

According to the Mirror, Rishi Sunak's obsession with helicopters has paid off for the Tory Party.

The paper reports that the Rishi took a £10k helicopter ride to a supermarket tycoon's back garden to rattle his tin and came away with a £250k donation:

And figures just released by the Electoral Commission reveal how lucrative Mr Sunak's trip was.

Mr Arora donated £250,000 to the Conservative Party in December - one of the party's biggest single donations of the year.

It's Bobby Arora's first political donation, according to the Commission's records - though his brother Simon has previously given £50,000 to the Tories.

The £10,000 cost of the helicopter ride was covered by another tycoon - Ferrari driving businessman Steve Parkin.

In total, the Tories were handed around £48million in cash donations and public funds in 2023.

The party had recorded an overall loss in 2022 amid a year of political turmoil which saw three different prime ministers enter Number 10.

Including donations to both the central party and local branches as well as all payments from trade unions, companies, individuals and public funds, Labour received around £31 million across 2023.

But despite being behind the Tories overall, it was Labour’s biggest ever year in donations from individuals and companies - who gave more than £13 million in total.

The Conservatives trousered £10million in donations from health tech tycoon Frank Hester and his firm the Phoenix Partnership (Leeds).

And two Tory MPs donated their own cash to the party in a desperate bid to get re-elected. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt handed his local party £18,084 in November - taking the total he's donated since the last election to £123,345.

And John Penrose gave £10,000 to his Weston Super Mare constituency. Polls show both seats are under threat at the next election.

Labour's biggest backer overall was former Autoglass boss Gary Lubner, who gave £4.5million, while the largest single donation of £3million was provided by Lord David Sainsbury, the long-standing Labour supporter.

Lord Sainsbury was a major donor when the party was last in power, serving as a minister in Tony Blair's government.

My first reaction to this is that I will not be stepping foot in a B&M for sometime, if ever again. However, the real questions have to be what do all these donors expect to get for their money? And why do we have a system that allows people to buy influence in this way?

If you're poor and existing on benefits, the chances of you sitting down to dinner with a cabinet minister to put your case range from negligible to zero, but if you donate money then that is not a problem. Surely it is time for some serious reform.

Saturday, March 09, 2024

Police State?

The Guardian reports that nearly 50 organisations have joined forces to condemn what they call a “crackdown” on the right to protest by the UK government.

The paper says that n response to Rishi Sunak’s recent remarks on extremism and “mob rule” linked to protesters, Amnesty International UK and 45 others have sent a letter to the prime minister calling for “leadership, not censorship”. Other signatories include Article 19, Greenpeace UK, Liberty, the Runnymede Trust and Oxfam:

In the open letter, the groups say the recent introduction of a patchwork of new legislation and policing powers has placed “draconian” restrictions on the right to protest in the UK.

Recently announced moves to place further limits on protests in specific locations are likely to have a further “chilling effect” on people’s right to protest in this country, say the groups.

The signatories of the letter say that by using terms such as “extremism” and “hate mobs”, ministers and other politicians have sought to demonise an overwhelmingly peaceful movement of individuals concerned by recent loss of life in Gaza.

Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s chief executive, said: “When the prime minister addresses the nation, we expect him to show leadership, not censorship.

“From racist language used by ministers, plans to expand the definition of extremism to directly attacking our right to protest are clear violations of international human rights laws.

“Peaceful protest and freedom of expression are fundamental to our democracy. We cannot stand idly by and allow the government to raze our rights to the ground.”

The letter also challenges Sunak over his stated intention to redouble support for the Prevent scheme, in which the groups allege “Islamophobic stereotypes” play a major role in referrals.

The groups call on the prime minister to reverse the “recent crackdown” on the right to protest and stop conflating protests with extremism, abandon the expansion of the definition of extremism and proposals to bar MPs from engaging with certain groups, and to refrain from amplifying divisive language that could inflame tensions within and between communities.

“We have wider concerns about the manner in which your government has come to discuss protesters and others that engage in legitimate political activity on important issues of the day,” the letter reads.

“Our organisations have emphasised the necessity of using considered language in recent months. Yet the deployment of certain terms, such as ’extremism’, ‘radical’, ‘hate mobs’, by your government, creates division and exacerbates existing fears amongst minoritised communities.”

This legislation and the demonisation of legitimate protest by government ministers could easily be the precursor to a police state. Any party who values freedom and democracy should pledge to reverse it.

Friday, March 08, 2024

Pensioners worse off under the Tories

The Mirror reports on analysis by The Resolution Foundation that has found that pensioners will be clobbered by Tory tax changes with millions of retirees facing an average £1,000 hit to their incomes.

The paper says that economists have warned that older people are the biggest losers from Jeremy Hunt's Budget, with critics hitting out at the "disgraceful £8 billion pensioner tax bombshell" concealed in the small print, They add that analysis has found that the elderly will be left counting the cost of the chancellor's plans to cut National Insurance by 2p from next month in a £10million bid to woo voters and turn around the Tories dire poll ratings:

The Resolution Foundation said that all 8 million pensioners would see their taxes increase by an average of £1,000 by 2027/28 due to frozen income tax thresholds.

Retirees won't benefit from the Chancellor's tax cuts as they are exempt from National Insurance and they are being hit by stealth tax raids on income tax. Income tax thresholds have been frozen since 2021, which means people are being dragged into higher tax brackets by inflation. Older people still pay tax on income above the personal allowance, which includes pensions.

The think tank said pensioners paying the basic rate of income tax will be around £700 worse off by 2027/28, compared to where they would be without the freeze. The average taxpaying pensioner will lose around £1,000. In total, the policy will have hiked taxes for pensioners by around £8billion.

Chief executive Torsten Bell said: "The biggest group of losers are pensioners, who face an £8 billion collective hit. Looking at all policy changes announced this parliament reinforces the sense that the Government has reversed course from the approach that dominated during the 2010s. This time it is those aged over 65 and on the highest incomes who are set to lose most."

Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) director Paul Johnson said the elderly would be "substantial net losers" from the changes, as 60% of pensioners now pay income tax.

"Income tax changes will leave most of the £650 a year worse off by 2027 and £3,000 a year worse off if they're higher rate taxpayers," he said. "The Chancellor really has focused the money he's got on people of working age rather than on pensioners."

Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesperson Sarah Olney said: "Buried in the small print of this Budget is a disgraceful £8 billion pensioner tax bombshell. People who have worked hard and done the right thing all their lives are being hammered by Jeremy Hunt with years of unfair tax hikes, leaving them an average of £1,000 worse off each."

No wonder the Tories are continuing to plummet in the polls.

Thursday, March 07, 2024

Picking up the bill

Here we go again! The Guardian reports that UK taxpayers have financed a £15,000 payout to an academic after the science minister wrongly accused her of supporting Hamas.

The paper says that the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology have admitted that the money had been paid after a statement on Tuesday by Michelle Donelan, about a “clarification” from Prof Kate Sang, of Heriot-Watt university in Edinburgh, about her views:

This money came from public funds, a DSIT spokesperson said, adding: “There is an established precedent under multiple administrations that ministers are provided with legal support and representation where matters relate to their conduct and responsibilities as a minister, as was the case here.

“The secretary of state received the appropriate advice from relevant officials at all times.

“A sum of £15,000 was paid without admitting any liability. This approach is intended to reduce the overall costs to the taxpayer that could result from protracted legal action, no matter what the result would have been.”

Michelle Donelan arrives in Downing Street, 19 February 2024: she is going through gateway with black ironwork, and is dressed all in black and smiling; she has long, loose dark hair UK science minister apologises and pays damages after academic’s libel action

It is understood that the payment was the only one made, with no extra contribution for Sang’s legal costs. DSIT declined to say how much Donelan’s own legal costs were. On Tuesday, the department had refused to say how much had been paid to Sang, saying only that it was a “nominal” sum.

However, opposition parties and some Conservative MPs have expressed alarm that Donelan has been supported in this way, with one Tory backbencher saying it was “astonishing she still has a job”.

Sang launched a libel action against Donelan after the minister published a letter to the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in October that urged it to cut links with Sang and another academic, Dr Kamna Patel of University College London. Donelan had described her “disgust and outrage” at their appointment to an expert advisory group to Research England on equality, diversity and inclusion.

The institute suspended Sang and Patel while it carried out an investigation into Donelan’s allegations. These included that both academics had shared extremist content, and that Sang expressed sympathy for Hamas.

Her evidence included Sang retweeting a Guardian article from last October headlined “Suella Braverman urges police to crack down on Hamas support in UK”, to which Sang added the comment: “This is disturbing.”

In her statement, Donelan said she had been mistaken in taking this to mean support for Hamas, and that Sang’s comment had been about the article more widely.

UKRI announced that its investigation found no evidence to back Donelan’s complaints against the academics, or any grounds to remove them from the advisory group.

It was bad enough that taxpayers had to pay Boris Johnson's legal bills. Isn't it time that Ministers started to take responsibility for their own actions and pay up when they get it wrong?

Tuesday, March 05, 2024

Tories in the wild

The Tories like to think of themselves as the party of the countryside, but who knew that they wanted to turn rural England into a tame theme park without any wildlife?

This scenario at least comes to mind when reading the comments of the Conservative MP for South Dorset, Richard Drax, who actually stood up in the House of Commons to dismiss calls by animal rights activists and conservation groups to end the badger cull and instead suggested more animals, such as deer and foxes, should also be culled.

The Independent reports that Drax had earlier raised the case of “a beaver being released illegally… in west Dorset”.

According to the Badger Trust, more than 210,000 badgers have been killed since the cull began in England in 2013 in an effort to tackle bovine tuberculosis:

Mr Drax said TB was a “major problem” in the South West, telling a Commons debate on farming: “Culling has proved to work, and can I suggest that rather than talking about stopping culling on badgers and to introduce some other form, that all wild animals have to be culled.

“Because if they don’t their health deteriorates. They don’t have any predators in today’s world. Foxes, deer, badgers. We don’t want to wipe them out, we just simply want them controlled.

“This is just pure common sense.”

He said: “There is no sense, in our view, in reintroducing beavers into small chalk streams, or any other form of stream in Dorset. Beavers dam rivers, they would then be protected no doubt by every organisation that would want it protected, farmland then floods.

“Beavers don’t hang around and say ‘this is my home’, as has been proved in Scotland – they breed and move elsewhere and do the same in other rivers. And, as I understand it, in Scotland they’ve had to be culled because they’ve broken out of the area that was initially given to them.

“Can the Government please look at not only the illegal releasing of beavers into rivers – if indeed this is the case and that hasn’t been proven as yet – but certainly to the legal release and this emphasis on rewilding which, while we all want to see wild animals, there is a proper place and location for each of the various species.”

There is a scientific term for Drax's pseudo science, it is 'bollocks'. You cannot just tame the countryside by lockimg all the wildlife away or killing it off and nor should we try. And as for his clains on the badger cull, those are also nonsense.

Every independent study of the cull has shown it to be ineffective and inhumane. Defra's own data suggest that while 15 per cent of badgers may test positive for bovine TB, just 1.6 per cent of them are capable of passing on the disease. This means 98.4% pose no risk whatsoever to cattle and 85% are likely to be completely bTB free. Trying to control bTB in cattle by culling badgers that don't have bTB doesn't make any sense.

Surely it is time to stop kowtowing to the farmers and actually adopt a bTB control measure that works, and does not decimate the countryside.

Monday, March 04, 2024

Tories spreading the wealth

Is there a cost of living crisis? Not according to this article in the Mirror.

The paper reports that wealthy donors paid £25,000 for a cosy private dinner with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, just days before he is due to deliver his Budget speech.

They say that a Japanese meal with the chancellor and up to three guests was auctioned off at the Tories' Winter Party at Westminster's swanky Old War Office hotel, and a signed photo of the Cabinet is understood to have sold for around £115,000:

The unnamed winning bidder also secured face time with the Prime Minister himself, who will be handing over the photo personally. Super-rich donors paid up to £15,000 a table for the chance to rub shoulders with senior Cabinet ministers.

The notorious fundraising auction sees the Tories sell access to Cabinet members for cash to fill the party's election war chest. Mr Sunak, Home Secretary James Cleverly, Foreign Secretary David Cameron and Defence Secretary Grant Shapps all attended the posh party, arriving by government limousine despite their offices being around five minutes’ walk away.

Culture Secretary Lucy Fraser, Health Secretary Victoria Atkins, Chief Whip Simon Hart and science minister Michelle Donelan were all seen arriving on foot.

And Susan Hall, the Tory candidate for Mayor of London, also attended - skipping the last City Hall “People’s Question Time” of the term to do so. A London Labour source said: "It's clear where the Tory candidate's interests lie and it's certainly not being held to account by Londoners.

"Instead of carrying out her statutory duties, she missed the final People's Question Time of the term and was instead wining and dining so the Tories can line their pockets in an election year. The Tories simply cannot be trusted to stand up for Londoners - they don't even turn up."

Also available for bidding was a day's clay pigeon shooting with Home Secretary James Cleverly, tickets to a Liverpool football game with Education Secretary Gillian Keegan and a night out at a west end show with Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer. Luxury getaways were also on the block, with lots including a party villa in Turks and Caicos donated by a Lebanese cannabis entrepreneur who has been branded a “Wolf of Wall Street”.

Nigerian-born businessman Bassim Haidar, 52, offered up a five-night stay for ten people at the fully staffed luxury beach house, called “The Villa Bash”. Mr Haidar, who also attended the event and has separately given more than £300,000 to the Tories, owns a business empire which includes a medical cannabis firm.

Also among the wealthy donors attending the party were Lubov Chernukhin, the biggest female political donor in history. Her husband, Vladimir, previously served as deputy finance minister of Russia under the rule of Vladimir Putin. And Egyptian-born billionaire Mohamed Mansour - whom Mr Sunak named “senior Treasurer” of the party - was seen arriving,

A week for 10 people in the Bahamas was auctioned, staying in a plantation house built for Sir John Colleton in the 17th century. Sir John, a slave owner, was later given land in what later became North and South Carolina, and is credited with introducing slavery to the region. Meanwhile, a box for 20 at York Races with “a champagne reception, gourmet lunch and fully inclusive bar,” was auctioned, donated by Ferrari-driving businessman Steve Parkin.

Mr Parkin, the founder of Clipper Logistics, has handed £730,000 to the Tories since 2017. Clipper Logistics, of which Mr Parkin remains a shareholder, was handed £11m to deliver PPE during the pandemic - and later a further £4.5 million to destroy unused and unsuitable PPE.

Its deal to dispose of PPE was signed last October, after Clipper was sold to US logistics giant GXO. Mr Parkin ceased to be involved in the firm as part of the £964million sale. But he and other top bosses retained millions in shares. One major party donor was left disappointed by the auction lots, which he told the Mirror were "very poor choices".

Donors attending Thursday’s lavish soiree were treated to Laurent-Perrier champagne on arrival. They were served a 2022 Domaine Roger Champault Sancerre "Les Pierres" white wine, worth £27.50 a bottle, and a 2021 Voyager Estate Cabernet Sauvignon worth £23 a bottle over dinner.

The meal opened with rainbow trout with a squid ink emulsion and baby leeks, or Yorkshire celeriac for vegetarians. They tucked into a main course of Hereford beef fillet and oxtail, served with creamed spinach, herb crusted King Oyster mushrooms and fondant potato. The vegetarian option was a glazed, spiced aubergine.

And the meal was topped off with a cholocate pudding with whipped ganache, or a passion mango coconut lime panna cotta for the vegans in the room.

Surely it is time to better regulate this sort of excess when it comes to funding political parties.

Friday, March 01, 2024

Illegal scheme costing taxpayers a fortune

The Guardian reports on findings by the National Audit Office that Rishi Sunak’s flagship plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda will cost taxpayers £1.8m for each of the first 300 people the government deports to Kigali.

They say that the overall cost of the scheme stands at more than half a billion pounds, and even if the UK sends nobody to the central African state, Sunak has signed up to pay £370m from the public purse over the five-year deal. That is a commitment to spend more than a third of a billion pounds on a policy that has been ruled illegal by the UK courts:

The disclosures follow nearly three years of refusals by prime ministers, home secretaries and senior Home Office staff to explain the full costs of the deal, citing “commercial confidentiality”.

So far, no asylum seeker has been sent to Rwanda, because of repeated challenges to the scheme under European and UK laws.

Diana Johnson, the chair of the home affairs select committee, expressed her shock at the final figures and expressed serious concerns at the lack of transparency.

Johnson, a Labour MP, said: “These are staggering figures. Huge initial outlay and ongoing costs raise serious questions about how this can be cost-effective, even compared to high hotel accommodation costs.

“What we are left with is a very expensive programme the government hopes may offer a deterrent to those seeking to cross the Channel in small boats. Yet, there is little evidence for this either.

“Unless the government deals with the realities of the situation and focuses its energy and the public’s money on fixing the real issues in the asylum and immigration system, it will achieve nothing.”

The Home Office has agreed to make two types of direct payments to the government of Rwanda, auditors said. The UK will pay to the economic transformation and integration fund (ETIF), which is designed to support economic growth in Rwanda; and make payments to cover asylum processing and operational costs for individuals relocated to Rwanda.

The Home Office has paid £220m into the ETIF since April 2022, and it will pay further amounts of £50m in 2024-25, £50m in 2025-26 and £50m in 2026-27.

A “five-year processing and integration package” for each relocated person, which covers accommodation, essential items such as food, medical services, educationand other integration programmes has also been agreed, the report said. This will cost up to £150,874 for each deported person.

The figures mean that if the UK sends 300 people to Rwanda, it will cost the taxpayer £490m under the partnership; an extra £6m in individual payments; plus £45m for processing and operational costs over five years. The total costs would be £541m, which works out as £1.8m per asylum seeker.

The Home Office has spent £20m setting up the Rwanda scheme, which has survived the tenure of three prime ministers – Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. Four home secretaries – Priti Patel, Suella Braverman in two separate terms, Grant Shapps and James Cleverly – have overseen the scheme.

Officials expect that £20m to rise to £28m by the end of 2023-24, the report said. The Home Office estimates that it will incur further costs between now and the end of the scheme.

If the UK activates a break clause in the deal, it would stop further payments under the ETIF, but would still have to pay for any deported people’s living costs and no past payments would be recoverable, the report said.

If the Rwandan government breaks the deal, the UK can ask for a reimbursement of payments from that year, but not previous years.

And all of this, of course, does not take into account the wider costs of implementing the Illegal Migration Act:

The Home Office claims that the average cost per night of providing hotel accommodation to asylum seekers is £140, which does not include the costs to local services. It says that the estimated total cost to the taxpayer over five years would far exceed £150,000 per asylum seeker.

The impact assessment for the Illegal Migration Act 2023 projects that if nothing is done, the cost of housing asylum seekers will reach £11bn a year by 2026.

So much for the Tories being reliable stewards of public money. Unless they acceopt their international obligations and break the backlog of processing asylun clains these costs will just escalate.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?