“Campaigners put pressure on government to improve ‘dire’ Devon education funding at national lobby”

As yet there appears to be no similar East Devon campaign group and our two MPs simply dole out meaningless platitudes without concrete follow-up action. Swire seems more preoccupied with who to back for next PM (or maybe ex-PM!) in order to regain a foreign office ministerial post while Parish’s preoccupations remain farmers and dualling the A303.

… “Tamsin Higgs, mother-of-three from Braunton, has been leading the parent-led and non-political Fair Funding For All Schools campaign in North Devon since the beginning of this year. For more information you can visit the campaign’s Facebook page here. Tamsin has also set up a campaign group in Torrington who recently met with Torridge MP Geoffrey Cox. …

… Tamsin said she regularly meets with the central school funding campaign group in London who, alongside the National Education Union, planned the national lobby at Westminster against school funding cuts. The group decided to take part in the lobby, which attracted more than 1,000 people, to apply pressure from all constituencies on the central government to increase funding and ensure schools are not losing out. …”


Council Finance Officers should ALL be responsible for scrutinising Local Enterprise Partnerships

“Section 151 officers [Responsible Financial Officer of a council, often called a Chief Financial Officer] should be given a beefed up role in ensuring Local Enterprise Partnerships spend public money wisely, according to a government-commissioned review.

The review, by Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) non-executive director Mary Ney, was instigated after MPs raised concerns over transparency and governance.

It found a lack of consistency in how section 151 officers overseeing LEPs are able to influence decisions and provide advice.

The review said that, accordingly, the government, in association with CIPFA (the Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy), should revise the National Assurance Framework (NAF), which sets out what government expects LEPs to cover in their local assurance frameworks.

Ney said: “The clarification of the role of the section 151 officer could also consider the scope for the LEP chief executive and the section 151 officer to provide a formal joint annual governance statement which is reported to the LEP board.

“It is also recommended that the NAF sets a requirement for the section 151 to provide a report to the Annual Conversation on their work for the LEP and their opinion with a specific requirement to identify any issues of concern on governance and transparency.”

Changes to the framework should cover:

mechanisms the section 151 officer uses to fulfil their role;
requirements in terms of access to decision-making bodies;
ability to provide written and verbal financial advice;
role of their transactional services;
operation of normal checks and balances in approving expenditure;
management of risk of fraud and corruption;
monitoring of programme spend against resources;
treasury management and borrowing;
role of internal audit and external auditors and provision of an audit opinion for the LEP;
visibility of reporting arrangements to both the accountable body and the LEP
production of accounts;
inter-relationship with the LEP’s own accounts, if relevant.
Last year, the National Audit Office identified concerns in governance arrangements for LEPs.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said: “LEPs’ role has expanded rapidly and significantly but they are not as transparent to the public as we would expect, especially given they are now responsible for significant amounts of taxpayers’ money.

“While the Department has adopted a ‘light touch’ approach to overseeing Growth Deals, it is important that this doesn’t become ‘no touch’.”

A subsequent inquiry by the House of Commons local government select committee concluded that the DCLG, “should enforce the existing standards of transparency, governance and scrutiny before allocating funding. LEPs themselves also need to be more transparent to the public by, for example, publishing financial information”.

Separately, this week’s review found that many LEPs are frustrated by the mismatch between long-term LEP spending programmes and annualised budgets resulting from central government funding arrangements.

Nye’s report said: “This could also impact on good governance if late and speedy decisions are made by LEPs which give insufficient time for all the checks and balances of the normal processes.

“The annual uncertainty of funding also has the consequence of some LEP staff being on fixed-term contracts, which is counter-productive in terms of efficiency and may have unintended impacts on good governance if it leads to insufficient organisation stability and continuity.”


Foreign companies pay no corporation tax on UK commercial property sales

“… According to the British Property Federation there is about £871bn worth of commercial real estate in the UK – 10% of our nation’s net wealth. Not only is this hugely important in its own right, its value impacts on the price of land, and hence of new homes. About 20% of commercial real estate is sold each year – worth an eye-watering £115bn in 2015, according to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

When a seller is a UK individual or company, they are subject to UK corporation tax on their capital gains. Yet where the seller is foreign they are not. Approximately one-third of all UK commercial real estate – including most high value property – is held through offshore companies. Typically these companies are in tax havens, or structured so they pay no tax on the capital gain. Indeed, British taxpayers should be asking tough questions as to why their government turns a blind eye to anyone who holds UK property in offshore companies. …

In 2015 the then chancellor George Osborne made a big deal of taking action against non-doms who avoided paying tax – ending permanent non-dom status and changing the rules on inheritance tax. He also introduced capital gains tax on residential property sales by non-doms – but crucially not commercial properties. This has created the world’s most obvious loophole where overseas individuals and companies can repurpose property as commercial to avoid it. Closing this loophole could be very lucrative – estimates suggest it would raise between £5bn and £8bn per year.

Those worried that this would put Britain itself at a disadvantage against our competitors can be reassured: the United States taxes foreigners making a capital gain on US real estate, as do Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Australia. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development rules explicitly allow nations to tax foreign-owned companies on the sale of their real estate. Yet successive UK governments have quietly let this injustice continue.

Last week I [Stella Creasey, Labour MP] tabled legislation to try to tackle this – but the government didn’t want to know. Treasury minister Mel Stride simply said it would be too “complex” to implement. With such sums at stake, our public services cannot afford for us to leave this in the “complicated” box any longer: the dividends could make a real contribution to our cash-starved schools and hospitals. In addition, it would improve the fairness of our tax system and help take some of the heat out of the UK’s inflamed property market.

We have another opportunity this coming week to finish what Osborne started. Parliament can act by supporting my amendment to the finance bill at its report stage on Tuesday 31 October. With cross-party support already building for it, this Halloween it’s time to give those overseas companies not paying their taxes a real nightmare.”


The Nolan Principles of Public Life – a travesty

If Westminster staff need protection from MPs then we are obviously electing the wrong people. Yet, unless they resign – which they rarely do – we cannot get rid of them. In local government we can’t get rid of a councillor even if he deliberately votes against his own party’s wishes (and when members of his own party then protect him after he has done so).

It is even more unlikely that any Conservative MPs will be made to resign – even if they admit to calling an employee “sugar tits” (no asterisks for Owl on this one) and ordering her to make his sex shop purchases – both of which an MP has allegedly admitted to doing – because of their precarious grasp on power. Power which is held only because of a £1 billion bribe to a so-called Christian-values-based party the DUP – with its strong links to the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster.

There must be a way of local voters being able to deselect an MP (or a councillor) when he or she is shown to be totally unfit for office, surely? Even a prison sentence doesn’t stop someone being a councillor – it has to be for more than a year!

“There is a requirement to inform the House, if Members are arrested on
criminal charges, of the cause for which they are detained from their
service in Parliament. The House is also informed when a Member has been
committed to prison for a criminal offence. In such circumstances, the
Speaker would normally make an oral statement or lay a copy of the
letter on the Table. The Representation of the People Act 1981
disqualifies from membership of the House any serving Member detained
for any offence in the UK or the Republic of Ireland for more than a
year or detained indefinitely, and their seat becomes vacant.

The House of Commons Library has compiled a list of MPs imprisoned since
1979 …”


We obviously cannot rely on the Nolan Principles for Public Life to protect us at any level of government – local, regional or national.


Former Prime Minister Blair’s property empire avoids tax

“Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has set up a company to manage his £33 million property empire, joining a growing number of landlords who are opting for incorporation to beat tax rises on buy-to-let operations.

Blair, along with wife Cherie and eldest son Euan, are believed to own a total of 38 properties. The families’ property portfolio includes flats in north-west England which Mrs Blair and their son let out via an existing company, Oldbury Residential Ltd, which holds investments worth £2.4m in the year ending April 2016.

The family has reportedly banked at least £1.7m in profits from buying and selling nine properties, and they also have an extensive portfolio of private homes, including a £9m five-storey Georgian townhouse which they purchased in 2004 and a £10m Grade I-listed Buckinghamshire manor house.

Now Mr and Mrs Blair have set up another company, Harcourt Ventures Ltd, to let and manage properties, with Tony Blair owning half of the shares and his wife named as the sole director.

Setting up a limited company is one of several ways in which private landlords have responded to recent tax changes within the private rented sector. These changes include increases in stamp duty and cuts to mortgage tax relief introduced in April which no longer allow landlords to offset mortgage interest from their rental income. …

… Buy-to-let landlords are now incorporating their lettings operations as limited companies to avoid the tax changes and to secure additional finances to buy more properties according to industry statistics.

The proportion of homes available for rent in the UK, owned by a company landlord, reached 20 per cent in the first quarter of 2017 – the highest number since records began in 2010. …”


What a lovely bunch our MPs are …

One of Theresa May’s Brexit Ministers was at the centre of a new Westminster sexism row last night after admitting he called his secretary ‘sugar t*ts’ and got her to buy sex toys for him.

The disclosures about Mr Garnier came as:

Former Cabinet Minister Stephen Crabb admitted sending ‘explicit’ messages to a 19-year-old woman after a job interview at Westminster.

Cabinet Minister Michael Gove sparked outrage by making a tasteless joke about Harvey Weinstein on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. …

… Father-of-three Mr Garnier, 53, one of International Trade Secretary Liam Fox’s deputies, last night confirmed the claims. ‘I’m not going to deny it, because I’m not going to be dishonest,’ he said. ‘I’m going to have to take it on the chin.’

Campaigning anti-sleaze Labour MP John Mann called for a Commons Sex Pest Tsar to protect women at Westminster from male predators.

Claims emerged that women have had their drinks spiked with date rape drugs in Commons bars.

He denied it constituted sexual harassment. Mr Garnier said that the sex toys were bought after a Christmas lunch. ‘We bought some soap sets, that sort of stuff, scented candles. The vibrator shop was high jinks.’

Mr Garnier said he told Ms Edmondson he didn’t think it was a good idea, but she had gone ahead. ‘I hung around outside and she went into this shop. That was it.’

He said they later ‘fell out’ and claimed that ‘disgruntled’ Ms Edmondson ‘has been using [the incident] against me ever since’.

He vehemently denied sexual harassment, saying: ‘Not at all. It absolutely does not constitute harassment.’ “


“Rogue landlords enjoy an easy ride as councils fail to prosecute”

“Councils across Britain have been accused of letting rogue landlords off the hook, after new figures revealed that most have failed to secure a single prosecution.

Almost six in 10 councils had not prosecuted any landlords in the last year, with more than 80% prosecuting fewer than five.

The figures, released under the Freedom of Information Act, have prompted suggestions that private renters face a “postcode lottery” when it comes to having their rights upheld.

It comes with councils complaining that the unprecedented budget pressures they are facing mean that they are struggling to cope.

Nearly 30% said they had carried out fewer than 100 inspections in their area in the last year. It has led to calls for councils to be handed more power and resources to tackle the problem.

More than 180 councils responded to a survey on inspections of private rented housing and prosecutions.

The London borough of Newham stood out, having prosecuted 331 landlords. The council has a mandatory licensing scheme for landlords, which it is currently waiting for the government to renew.

Brent council was next with 65 prosecutions, followed by Waltham Forest with 58, Doncaster with 49, Barking and Dagenham with 35, and Wirral with 29. However, most reported that they had not secured any. …”