MPs who hire family must prove they are the best people for the job says watchdog

MP Hugo Swire has employed his wife Alexandra (Sasha) at a salary of between £30,000-£39,995 a year for many years.

Has anyone ever seen Mrs Swire or spoken to her in a parliamentary rather than political or personal capacity? If so, it would be great to know.

MPs who hire their wives and children as staff will be made to prove they are the best candidate available, the new head of the expenses watchdog has indicated.

In her first interview in the job, Ruth Evans, chair of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority [IPSA], said the public now expects “equal opportunity employment” in MPs’ offices.

Around 150 MPs – close to one in four – have a family member working in their office, while a number of prominent politicians have faced complaints about their arrangements.

Currently MPs face few limits to hiring partners or children. They are limited to hiring just one at a time and must publicly declare the situation.

“We would want to see the best possible person for the job being recruited in order to provide public value for money.

But Ms Evans hinted that when a consultation ends later this month she will decided to tighten the rules so MPs in the future must prove other better candidates were not available.

“It is a controversial area. On the one hand, public expectations have shifted and there is an expectation for equal opportunity employment. On the other hand, you do have MPs who have specific requirements,” Ms Evans said.

“It all comes down to what the job is and could we define more clearly what the responsibilities and roles are.

“Because it may be that if you can more clearly define specific roles, the answer becomes apparent as to who can take on that role.

“We would want to see the best possible person for the job being recruited in order to provide public value for money. That’s the key.”

Earlier this summer, Ms Evans became only the second ever chair of the IPSA, a watchdog created after The Telegraph’s investigation into MPs’ expenses.

During her 35-year career she has helped regulate the police, lawyers, doctors and broadcasters as well as chair two independent inquiries into healthcare, before beating around 30 rivals to get her new role.

“This isn’t about regulation, this is about encouraging them to account for the work that they’re doing in order that their constituents can be reassured.

Ms Evans is urging MPs to publish a yearly explanation about how their expenses are spent so voters better understand what is being funded.

The more that MPs can tell their constituents how they use the public’s money and what they do in their jobs, so much the better,” she said.

“It makes sense for MPs to provide as much information as they can. We don’t want to burden them with excessive regulation.

“This isn’t about regulation, this is about encouraging them to account for the work that they’re doing in order that their constituents can be reassured.”

The first ever “annual account of expenditure” by MPs will be published in November and is designed as a way of them to get on the front foot.

For example MPs could explain how many constituents’ cases were dealt with from the salaries paid to staff or explain that unusually high office costs came only because of a change of address.

“MPs should be paid a fair wage for a job and in return MPs, in Ipsa’s view, should be accountable for the work that they do,” she said.

Ms Evans also defended allowing MPs to claim for first class travel, saying: “There’s no issue here because they only take first class travel if they can get it at the same rate as second class travel by booking ahead.

“We do not pay for first class travel that costs more than standard.”

Millionaire property developer hosts Cameron’s 50th birthday party

Wonder if Hugo Swire knighted by Cameron in the cronies honours list – is invited? Ah, apparently not, says the article.

When plans were first being made for David Cameron’s 50th birthday party it was going to be a grand affair at Chequers, the stately home where Sir Winston Churchill made some of his wartime broadcasts.

But the EU referendum and Cameron’s tearful departure from Downing Street changed all of that.

The former prime minister will not exactly be slumming it, however, when he celebrates his half century tonight, the day before his actual birthday.

Cameron and his wife Samantha will be the star turn at a discreet dinner party in one of the most magnificent homes in private ownership in Britain. They will be entertained by property developer Tony Gallagher at Sarsden House, a listed 17th-century Oxfordshire mansion set in 459 acres.”

Councillors to be told about devolution ” myths” – though some of them seem to be reality!

According to this week’s EDDC Knowledge newsletter, all councillors have been invited to a meeting on Thursday 20 October at 5 pm to hear a presentation on a “Devolution – ‘myth busting’ briefing”.

This presentation has already been given to DCC councillors and here is one Councillor’s report (Robert Vint):

“On Monday Devon County Councillors were presented with a “Myth Busting” training session on Devolution. On Thursday there was a repeat session for South Hams District Councillors.

The “Myths” they were attempting to “bust” were that the Devolution process was led by the LEP, was undemocratic, would result in local government reorganisation / centralisation etc.

The explanations – or non-explanations – only strengthened my concerns. It was confirmed that there would be no public consultation on the economic development plan but only on the Combined Authority proposal and that the LEP had played a central role.

I asked why the plan did not start by identifying local needs such as rural unemployment and affordable housing then consult communities and small businesses on how to tackle these problems. They said not to worry as this was an outline economic plan – but later they confirmed that there would be no consultation on the economic plan or any opportunity to change it.

We have a Devolution Prospectus written by the few big businesses in the LEP to serve their own needs rather than those of the wider community of Devon and Somerset. This has then been rubberstamped by local authorities who did not have the staff, time or vision to rewrite it to meet our real needs and who failed to consult residents and small and family businesses. As a result we will be subjected, without any opportunity to comment, to a local economic development strategy that will serve the wealthy rather than the majority and that will fail to provide jobs where they’re needed or houses to the people who need them most.

In contrast the RSA – Royal Society of Arts – outlines how we should be delivering genuine, fair and inclusive devolution.

The UK’s economic status-quo has resulted in huge sections of our population being ‘left behind’. So the RSA are proposing a radical programme of devolution, inclusive industrial strategies and investment in human capital to create a more inclusive, equal society.”

EDDC afraid of democracy or afraid of independent councillors independence (and their skills)?

“Whilst I give my complete backing to Cllrs Dyson and Barratt for their upcoming work on the Port
Royal Scoping Study reference group (Herald, September 16), I would like to question the attitude of the regime that allows the controlling group at EDDC to pick one from three Town ward members.

Surely, if this process is to be truly open and accountable, this selection should have been the responsibility of the ward members themselves? After all, we were elected by residents to work on their behalf to uphold their wishes. It remains to be seen whether any of the important lessons from other EDDC projects (such as the relocation from Knowle and the beach management plan, let alone Seaton and Exmouth regeneration) have really been learnt.

Sidmouth Town Council may nominally be leading this project for now, but, in the long run, most of the land concerned is owned by EDDC and the final say on who buys it and for what use will be theirs. This includes the car parks and the swimming pool as well as the buildings on the seafront.”

Cllr Cathy Gardner
EDDC Sidmouth Town Ward
East Devon Alliance member

Bed cuts consultation document launched – Claire Wright at cuts meeting in Honiton 12 October 7.30 pm

“The Success Regime’s consultation document which proposes to close half of the remaining beds in Eastern Devon, was published this evening – link here –

I have been invited to give a talk at a public meeting next Wednesday evening (12 October), 7.30pm at the Mackarness Hall, in Honiton, on the proposed bed losses.

Honiton and Okehampton Hospital beds are not even on the list of options for retention. This is unacceptable and undemocratic in my view.

We very sadly, lost our fight to save beds at Ottery Hospital, however, these proposed cuts, I am concerned could lead to the ultimate loss of services at Honiton Hospital which Ottery residents benefit from. And any further bed losses will take them out of the local health system and put more pressure on people to be looked after at home.

I believe that this could hit elderly people hard – especially those without family nearby, those living alone or those with elderly frail partners. I will be blogging much more about these plans in the very near future…..”

Skinner defends loss of seafront business and boarding up derelict sites

” … A number of seafront businesses, including DJ’s Cafe, have been forced to close this year, but it’s now being argued these attractions could have stayed open.

District council officers evicted the Wright family from Jungle Fun, Arnold Palmer Putting Green and Crazy Golf to make way for the proposed seafront regeneration.

The site has been earmarked for demolition to make way for a £4million watersports centre as part of the development.

The Wright family was given a stay of execution on the fun park, which will remain open until the end of August next year.

Large metal grey fences have now gone up around Jungle Fun, Arnold Palmer Putting Green and Crazy Golf.

East Devon District Council (EDDC) has confirmed it would be open to having attractions back on the site next summer, provided all demolition work has been completed.

Phillip Skinner, chairman of the Exmouth Regeneration Board, said: “The site must remain boarded up for safety reasons, at least until surveys have concluded, and clearance and demolition have been completed.

“We will look to open up the site again for the summer, if we are able, and will consider leisure, entertainment, food and drink-type attractions if this is feasible.”

In response to the news, Louise McAllister, of the Save Exmouth Seafront, said: “It is shocking that EDDC is stating that it ‘may open up the site again for summer (2017)’.

“While we would love to see the site back in use, if it was to be reopened, surely the existing successful businesses should never have been forced to close in the first place.

“The actions of EDDC surrounding this closure are so far removed from the best interests of the town that they are beginning to seem like either acts of deliberate cruelty towards the seafront tenants, or an example of the most dreadful project management imaginable.”

Promises about rural broadband examined

“Is broadband as bad as Theresa May’s party conference speech implied?

Nearly. Her complaint that “half of people living in rural areas, and so many small businesses, can’t get a decent broadband connection” is probably based on a report produced by the regulator Ofcom last year, which is now a little out of date. Ofcom found 1.5m rural premises – about half of the total – could not get the basic speed needed to watch video and support multiple devices such as tablets, phones and smart TVs. The regulator said it would be another three years before all these premises get the 10 megabits per second (Mbps) it considers a minimum for modern users.

Things have improved since then, thanks to the taxpayer-funded BDUK scheme to wire up the countryside. The total suffering from slow connections has fallen to 25% across all rural areas, though half of those living in hamlets are still below 10Mbps. Business parks have also complained of being left out.

Ofcom said last year that only 68% of small and medium-sized businesses have superfast, with some 400,000 still waiting. The problem is not confined to rural areas. BT’s superfast broadband roll-out, which has now reached 90% of all homes and businesses, is bypassing those living in tall buildings – from council tower blocks to highrise luxury flats.

How is the UK doing compared to other countries?

Not too badly – for now. The average customer can download at a rate of 15Mbps, which means the UK ranks 20th in the global speed league. But much smaller economies such as Bulgaria, Romania and Belgium are already faster. South Korea is at the top of the pile, with 27Mbps, and Norway is in second place with 20Mbps.

The concern is that, having finished the bulk of its superfast upgrade, BT does not have sufficiently ambitious plans for the future. Homes are still connected to street cabinets by copper wires. The company plans to extend fibre-optic cables closer to its customers’ doorsteps, using a technology called G.Fast, but copper will still be used for the final stretch. BT claims G.Fast will deliver speeds of up to 300Mbps, which is more than most users need for now. But experts say the only future-proof network is one that uses fiber cables only, all the way from the exchange to the premises.

Fiber to the premises, or FTTP in telecoms jargon, is at least three times as fast and would ensure no fall in speeds at peak times. BT and Virgin Media, the two biggest network operators, plan to connect a mere 3m premises between them using FTTP. To be fair, BT says it will fill the gaps in its superfast roll-out by focusing on tall buildings, business parks and high streets. But other countries, including China, France, Portugal and New Zealand, have much bigger plans.

What would improve broadband?

Rivals say BT needs to split off its infrastructure division, Openreach, into a separate company. More than 560 TV and broadband resellers, including Sky and TalkTalk, rent their lines from BT. And these resellers say they receive a poor service, with engineers taking too long to fix faults and install new lines.

In July, MPs concluded that BT was “significantly under-investing” in Openreach, to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds a year. Funds that should be going into broadband were instead being spent on football rights designed to boost the newly launched BT Sports channels. A top-class TV service is part of BT’s strategy to stop its customers defecting to other providers.

Since BT started competing with Sky for live football, the amount collected by clubs each season has rocketed from £594m to £1.7bn. BT counters that it spends less on football than on fiber – this year it will invest £1.4bn in its network, and last year it spent £544m on sports rights.

What are the practical hurdles?

BT chief executive Gavin Patterson has threatened 10 years of litigation and a halt on network investment if the government forces through structural separation.

The BT pension scheme is a big obstacle. The largest occupational scheme in the country, its deficit stands at almost £10bn. Splitting the commitment would be a complicated and expensive business. Ofcom is proposing a middle way: legal separation. Openreach would get a board of its own, with control over budget, ownership of the network and a directly employed workforce. If this still doesn’t work, Ofcom boss Sharon White says “we would return to the option of full separation”.

Is Theresa May serious about sorting rural broadband?

Time will tell. Ofcom’s proposals for legal separation were published at the end of July, just a couple of weeks after the new Conservative leader moved into 10 Downing Street. The prime minister has not had a chance to put her own stamp on the strategy, but her keynote gave no clue as to whether she will push for a stronger remedy.

Is infrastructure spending the answer and will it happen?

Labour thinks so. It has promised to raise £500bn for investment in infrastructure, including broadband. The chancellor, Philip Hammond, last week made a more cautious case, for “very carefully for targeted, high-value investment in our economic infrastructure”. Other governments are spending in this area. Singapore has already connected every home to fiber, although in a 720 sq km city state, this was a fairly straightforward task.

In Australia, the job of wiring vast expanses of outback required special measures. Structural separation was forced on the Telstra network in a negotiation that took five years. The government committed A$30bn to fitting FTTP to 93% of homes.

Initiated under a Labour administration, the project has since been scaled back. Estimates for the cost of a national all-fiber network in the UK vary from £25bn to more than £50bn. That kind of money could probably not come from the private sector alone.

Campaigners argue that splitting BT would not only allow government investment, but could unlock private-sector spending, too. An independent Openreach would be a FTSE 100 company in its own right, with £5bn a year in revenues and plenty of muscle with which to raise funds.”

Seaton Town Council organises meeting about proposed NHS hospital bed cuts

“As almost everyone in Seaton must now know, the NEW Devon (North, East and West Devon) Clinical Commissioning Group is currently consulting on which few beds should be retained in community hospitals. Although Seaton will keep 24 beds under Options A (the CCG’s preferred option) and C, under options B and D these beds will go to Sidmouth.

Indeed having removed the beds from Ottery St Mary and Axminster hospitals, the CCG now proposes to take all beds from Honiton and Okehampton, leaving only 32 beds in Tiverton, 24 in either Seaton or Sidmouth, and 16 in either Exmouth or Exeter (Whipton), to serve 900,000 people in most of Devon.

The Town Council has expressed its grave concern at the threat to Seaton Hospital and the wider removal of community beds. With Councillor Martin Pigott taking the lead, I and other councillors have met with representatives of the Hospital League of Friends and the GP practices (who have questionnaires available for you to express your views to the CCG).

We will be organising a public meeting, probably on Friday 4th November, with Neil Parish MP – the CCG will be invited to send a representative.

The community hospitals are an essential half-way house, much valued by patients, between the acute beds in the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital and care in the community. The whole point is to have them local. Taking their beds away will make only a small difference to the CCG’s ballooning deficit – the only thing that will really change it is for the Government to finally put in the extra funding which everyone knows the NHS needs. We need to link up with others in East Devon to make this a common battle.”