Knowle yesterday, Parliament today!

“Plans for a £4bn restoration of the Palace of Westminster that would mean MPs and peers leaving the building for six years have been thrown into doubt by a powerful Commons committee, which says there is insufficient evidence for it to back the project.

In an extraordinary move, the all-party Treasury select committee is to appoint its own team of specialist advisers to gather what it says is the necessary level of detail about the work and costs, claiming previous exhaustive investigations by parliament and private consultants failed to produce sufficient evidence. The committee’s chairman, Andrew Tyrie, took Commons authorities by surprise by announcing that a Commons debate, which he says was due to be held this week on the restoration, had been postponed because MPs did not have the facts they needed. Commons sources said Tyrie was mistaken and no date for the debate had been fixed.

The committee’s surprise intervention is evidence of a growing split between those responsible for managing parliament along with MPs who back the restoration project, and others who are worried about the disruption and the likelihood that costs will soar. …”

NHS: Underfunding, underfunding, underfunding

And our CCG’s solution? Cut hoppital beds.

“Hospitals were dangerously full during the recent onset of the winter crisis and breached an edict from NHS bosses to keep one in seven beds free, a new King’s Fund analysis reveals.

England’s 153 acute hospital trusts were told by the health service regulator on 9 December to run at no more than 85% bed occupancy between 19 December and 16 January, the internationally recognised level that hospitals are meant to stick to in order to minimise the risk of potentially deadly infections and to maintain the capacity to deal with emergencies.

Hospitals only managed to meet the target for three days over that period and were running at far higher levels of bed occupancy, often exceeding 95%, the King’s Fund found. Occupancy only dipped below 90% on four days since mid-December, it added.

“Bed occupancy rates above 85% increase the chances of bed shortages and the risk of infection. The fact that hospitals have missed the 85% objective by such a significant amount is further evidence of the huge pressure facing hospitals,” said Richard Murray, the thinktank’s director of policy who undertook the analysis.

The NHS entered the winter period with bed occupancy rates already high by historic standards, given that they were at 87.5% in the normally “quiet” second quarter of 2016/17. “The NHS did indeed achieve occupancy rates below 85%, but only on 23–25 December, when bed occupancy often falls as hospitals discharge as many patients as they can for Christmas, ”said Murray’s analysis.

“However, whatever spare capacity the NHS managed to create was quickly eaten up. As a consequence, it should come as no surprise that early January was an exceptionally difficult time as occupancy rates rose quickly above the 95% mark, although they do appear to have eased somewhat since then.”

Hospitals were operating at close to capacity even though flu, the winter vomiting bug norovirus and extreme, snowy weather, which oridnally might make it more difficult for hospitals to cope, did not cause significant problems. But the fact that unprecedented numbers of trusts were forced to declare an alert in the early weeks of January underlined that hospitals have come under unprecedented strain in recent weeks, Murray said. …”

Just poor grammar in the Sidmouth Herald? …

In its piece on EDDC being forced to publish the PegasusLife contract for The Knowle, it concludes:

“… Mr Woodward had previously challenged EDDC in 2015 when it refused to comply with Freedom of Information requests, also on its relocation. The eight-month legal battle saw EDDC blasted as ‘discourteous and unhelpful’ and cost taxpayers £11,000 in lawyers’ fees.”

What is not made crystal clear is that it was the JUDGE in the case – the judge in the case, Judge Brian Kennedy QC – who made this remark, not Mr Woodward.

In fact the full sentence read:

“Correspondence on behalf of the council, rather than ensuring the tribunal was assisted in its function, was at times discourteous and unhelpful including the statement that we had the most legible copies possible.”

Sloppy, Sidmouth Herald, very, very sloppy.

NHS crisis? Not in Swire’s backyard!

Our MP’s questions in the House this week:

Written Answers – Foreign and Commonwealth Office: North Korea: Politics and Government (26 Jan 2017)

Hugo Swire: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, what plans he has to discuss the political and human rights situation in North Korea with the incoming US administration.

Written Answers – Foreign and Commonwealth Office: North Korea: Politics and Government (26 Jan 2017)

Hugo Swire: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, what discussions he has had with his counterparts in (a) Japan,
(b) South Korea and (c) China on the political and human rights situation in North Korea.”

(First and second) jobs for the boys – easy when watchdog has no teeth

“A Whitehall watchdog was accused of an extraordinary cover-up last night over the lucrative investment job given to George Osborne’s former top aide.

Rupert Harrison, nicknamed ‘the real Chancellor’ when he was Mr Osborne’s chief-of-staff, got a six-figure salary to work for asset management firm BlackRock two years ago.

But now it has emerged that the official appointments committee, Acoba, was reprimanded for approving the job without disclosing meetings he held with the firm while he worked for the ex-chancellor.

An investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office into the apparent cover-up denounced Acoba for a ‘shortfall in public interest transparency’. And last night Labour MP John Mann said: ‘The advisory committee is not fit for purpose and its chair must now resign.

‘There is far too much cosying up to banks. It is as if BlackRock had taken shares in the Treasury.’

The row comes as Mr Osborne himself faces controversy over his new job with BlackRock, which will pay him more than £200,000 a year to work as an adviser while he is still an MP.

His appointment was also waved through by Acoba and there are growing calls for reform of the committee and the rules surrounding MPs and second jobs.

Acoba is supposed to vet ministers and senior civil servants when they take jobs in the private sector. In the past eight years it has looked at more than 370 appointments without blocking a single one. …”

Underfunded schools recruiting science teachers from EU

The Government is sponsoring a £300,000 drive to recruit teachers from the Czech Republic, Germany Poland and America in an attempt to plug a physics and maths shortage by September, it has emerged.

A bid specification document, seen by The Daily Telegraph, invites recruitment companies to apply for the contract which will begin next month.

It is thought to be the first Government funded international recruitment strategy since the mid-1970s, when teachers were also in short supply.

The initial focus will be on signing up maths and physics teachers, but “there may be flexibility to increase the scope to cover other subjects that are challenging to recruit to”, the bid specification document says.

John Howson, chair of the teacher recruitment site TeachVac and a visiting professor of education at Oxford Brookes University said: “I am frankly very surprised that in the middle of the debate on Article 50, that the Government is busy going off to these European countries to try and attract teachers.

“In terms of the wider political debate it is a very odd approach to be trawling round a bunch of countries which we are trying to cut off association with.”

It comes as the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), recommends widening the number of subjects for which schools could recruit from non-EU countries.

The MAC, which was asked by the Government to review the labour market for teachers and secondary education last year, recommended that Mandarin and general science teachers should be designated as “shortage occupations”.

The Department for Education (DfE) has failed to meet its targets for recruiting maths and physics teachers every year for the past five years.

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “This crisis will get worse with the bulge in pupil numbers, make it hard for schools to find a teacher for every class and risk the quality of education for children and young people in England.

“The Committee’s failure to stop the loss of highly qualified overseas teachers may well be the straw to break the backs of our underfunded schools.” ...

One tax for the rich and one for the poor … and guess who wins out

“Britain’s wealthiest people appear to get preferential treatment from HM Revenue & Customs and are not being properly pursued for outstanding tax bills, parliament’s spending watchdog has concluded.

HMRC’s failure to clamp down on rich tax dodgers is undermining confidence in the whole system, the public accounts committee said.

The highly critical report released on Friday examined HMRC’s specialist unit, which collects tax from high net-worth individuals with more than £20m. It found that “the amount of tax paid by this very wealthy group of individuals has actually fallen by £1bn since the unit was set up” in 2009 – even as tax receipts rose to £23bn.

Meg Hillier, the Labour MP who chairs the committee, said HMRC’s claims about the success of its strategy to deal with the very wealthy did not add up.

“Cosy terms such as ‘customer relationship manager’ and HMRC’s reluctance to be open add to the picture of arrangements that, while beyond the reach of ordinary taxpayers, are also ill-suited to the increasingly sophisticated methods the super rich can use to reduce the tax they pay,” she said.

“If the public are to have faith in the tax system then it must be seen to have fairness at its heart. It also needs to work properly. In our view, HMRC is failing on both counts.”

Tax officials calculated that there were about 6,500 high net-worth people in 2015-16, about one in every 5,000 taxpayers. In 2009, a specialist unit was set up to bring in more money from them.

MPs questioned the role of the specialist unit and some of its practices.

“We were not convinced by [HMRC’s] assertion that there is a clear line between giving its view on potential transactions and giving tax advice and we do not think there is enough clarity about what customer relationship managers can and cannot do,” the report says.

The committee pointed out that advice from officials to wealthy taxpayers was not recorded. “While calls from most taxpayers to HMRC call centres are recorded routinely, meetings and phone calls with high net-worth individuals are not recorded,” the report says.

The committee also highlighted concerns about “potential abuse” of image rights by top footballers and entertainers to minimise their tax liabilities. It confirmed that HMRC had “open inquiries” relating to the use of image rights by 43 footballers, 12 clubs and eight agents.

Committee members said they were appalled to learn that not all clubs were providing HMRC with the data it required under the terms of a voluntary agreement with the Premier League.

However, they praised HMRC’s managers for trying take action against the clubs. “We were encouraged by the evidence HMRC’s senior management gave to the committee on image rights and we look forward to news of meaningful action in this area.”

HMRC said the pursuit of high net-worth individuals had resulted in the collection of an additional £2.5bn in revenues. But it was unable to explain why the income tax they paid fell by 20% – from £4.5bn in 2009-10 to £3.5bn in 2014-15 – when the overall income tax take rose to £23bn.

The committee said about a third of the individuals concerned were likely to be under inquiry by HMRC for unpaid tax – with cases with a potential value of £1.9bn currently under investigation.

However, the report found HMRC had a “dismal record” when it came to prosecuting the very wealthy for tax fraud in the criminal courts.

In the five years to 31 March 2016, it completed just 72 fraud investigations into high net-worth individuals, with all but two having been dealt with using its civil powers. Only one case resulted in a successful criminal prosecution.

Of the 850 penalties issued to the very wealthy since 2012, the average charge was £10,500 – a figure the committee said was likely to be too small to act as a deterrent.

The problem was likely to become more acute because wealthy people were moving from off-the-peg tax avoidance schemes – the “high street equivalent of Primark or Next” – to bespoke “made-to-measure Savile Row” arrangements, the report says.

An HMRC spokesperson denied there was preferential treatment for the rich: “There is absolutely no special treatment for the wealthy and, in fact, we give them additional scrutiny, with one-to-one marking by HMRC’s specialist tax collectors to ensure that they pay everything they owe, just like the rest of us do. We have secured an additional £2.5bn from the very wealthiest since 2010.”

Four arrests for bribery at developer Barratts

Cash-for-contracts scandal engulfing one of Britain’s biggest builders sees four people arrested on suspicion of bribery

The cash-for-contracts scandal engulfing one of Britain’s biggest builders has seen four people arrested on suspicion of bribery, it has emerged.
Alastair Baird, managing director for London at Barratt Developments, was arrested in October last year at his pig farm in Gloucestershire where his wife Irayne Paikin makes award-winning sausages.

The 52-year-old was arrested by the Metropolitan Police complex fraud squad along with a 47-year-old London woman who used to work for Barratt.

Last night the Met said two more arrests were made – a 47-year-old man and a 49-year-old woman– on November 8. They come after Barratt referred findings of an internal probe to the police in April following an audit relating to possible misconduct in the process for awarding and managing supply contracts in the London region.

Barratt began the investigation in August 2015, which also led to civil legal action against an employee who was sacked last February. Projects Baird has overseen include buying of West Ham United’s former home, to build 842 houses.

Barratt said: ‘While the Metropolitan Police and internal investigations are ongoing it would be inappropriate to comment.’

Save Exmouth Seafront response to Councillor Skinner and EDDC

“Representatives from SES were invited to attend the presentation from Cllr Skinner and EDDC Officers Richard Cohen and Alison Hayward at Ocean on 18th January, and SES would like to thank EDDC for this invitation.

While the event provided some information for those businesses and associations perhaps not so aware of the plans, the SES representatives found they left with many questions still remaining.

For example there was no answer given on whether the watersport’s centre will be run as a members only club and who is to manage this facility.

Unfortunately Cllr Skinner also fended off some of the questions with evasive answers, such as when asked how ‘phase three’ of the development is even to be funded.

SES would welcome the opportunity for an open public event so that all members of the public can hear what is planned for the seafront now and in the future, and ask questions, yet EDDC seem reluctant to do this.”