Government abandons boundary shakeup to cut number of MPs to 600

The boundary review is no more. After a decade of to-ing and fro-ing, the government has now formally abandoned David Cameron’s plans to cut the number of MPs to 600 from 650. It looks like a boost for Labour — which would have been hit proportionally hardest — but also means the government now doesn’t have to have all those tricky conversations with Tory MPs who were poised to see their seats disappear-Owl.

Lizzy Buchan Political Correspondent @LizzyBuchan 

The government will abandon coalition-era plans to radically redraw parliamentary boundaries to cut the number of MPs in the House of Commons from 650 to 600.

Cabinet office minister Chloe Smith revealed that minister were planning to ditch the shake-up of UK constituencies as the UK parliament faces a “greater workload” after Brexit.

Parliament approved plans to slash the number of constituencies to 600 in 2011 but moves to implement the changes has been repeatedly delayed.

Proposals published in 2018 by the independent Boundary Commission recommended scrapping 32 seats in England, six in Scotland, 11 in Wales and one in Northern Ireland.

Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency could have been axed and Boris Johnson would have faced challenge to hold onto his seat under the changes.

Setting out the plans in a written statement, Ms Smith said: “Legislation currently provides that, on implementation of the 2018 Boundary Review recommendations, the number of constituencies in the UK shall be 600.

“The government is minded to instead make provision for the number of parliamentary constituencies to remain at 650.

“In doing so, we would also remove the statutory obligation to implement the 2018 Boundary Review recommendations and the statutory obligation on the government to make arrangements to review the reduction in constituencies to 600 by 30 November 2020.”

She added: “The UK parliament will have a greater workload now we are taking back control and regaining our political and economic independence.

“It is therefore sensible for the number of parliamentary constituencies to remain at 650.”

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The move was welcomed by electoral reform campaigners, who described the original plans as an “executive power grab” rather than a bid to improve the function of the Commons.

Darren Hughes, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society said: “Without shrinking the size of the government, cutting MPs would have done little more than enhance the already disproportionate power of ministers.

“Now that the government have accepted the need for proper representation in the Commons, they must focus on reducing the number of unelected peers in the bloated House of Lords.

“At 800 members, it’s the biggest second chamber in the world and needs a genuine overhaul.”

Joe Sousek, co-chief executive of Make Votes Matter, said overhauling the UK’s first past the post voting system was a more important issue than constituency boundaries.

He said: “It doesn’t matter how many MPs there are in the House of Commons, they simply cannot reflect the British voters while we use FPTP to elect our representatives.

“Regardless of which party you might support, a voting system which delivered a government with a huge majority on less than 44 per cent of the vote share at the last general election is just wrong.

“Until we join the vast majority of developed democracies using some form of proportional representation, parliament will remain unrepresentative of how people voted.”

A Tory MP Makes £100,000 A Year From A Company That Is Selling Private Coronavirus Tests For £120 Each

Emergencies bring out the best in people and organisations and, unfortunately, the worst – Owl. 

Owen Paterson, the Conservative MP and former Cabinet minister, is a paid adviser to a company that is selling coronavirus tests online to British consumers and private clinics.

by Alberto NardelliBuzzFeed News Europe Editor,

According to the register of MPs’ financial interests, Paterson has been a consultant to Randox Laboratories since August 2015. The MP for North Shropshire has regularly declared that he expects to receive £8,333 a month from the company, from April 2017 until further notice. The register was last updated on March 16 this year.

Randox has been selling a rapid “COVID-19 home testing kit” for £120. The company, which is registered in Crumlin, Northern Ireland, said on its website that it “has developed a revolutionary test for Coronavirus (COVID-19), the new strain of coronavirus. The only test in the world that can identify the lethal strain and differentiate between other non-lethal variants with the same symptoms.”

Consumers order and register the kit online and then take the test at home, following instructions provided, before mailing it back to the lab, which processes and provides results within days.

The kit is temporarily out of stock and the company will not be taking new orders until the end of the month “due to unprecedented pressure on healthcare supply chains”, its website said.

It comes as the British government is scrambling to ramp up the number of coronavirus tests it carries out. The UK is currently mostly testing people in hospitals and has faced criticism for not routinely testing NHS staff despite data from other countries showing that health workers are among those most at risk from the virus.

Although Britain has tested more than many countries around the world, it still lags way behind countries such as Germany, South Korea, and Italy, which are conducting more than 20,000 tests a day. Britain currently runs between 5,000 and 6,000 tests a day but plans to increase this figure to 25,000 within four weeks.

Other companies have been buying Randox’s kits and using its analysis service — and these companies have been selling the same test at a substantially marked-up price.

Summerfield Healthcare — which runs private clinics in the West Midlands — is selling the mail-order test for £249. Another company, Qured, a service that usually allows people to book face-to-face GP appointments, provides the kit for £295. Both companies told the Guardian last week that they use Randox for their testing.

The Sunday Times published a story at the weekend about another company, Private Harley Street Clinic, that has been using Randox.

The clinic has sold over 6,600 coronavirus test kits for £375 each to people who fear they have the illness, raking in millions, the newspaper claimed. The clinic is based at the north London flat of its owner, Dr Mark Ali.

The company uses kits sold by Randox, and analysis work on the results is also done by Randox, the Sunday Times said. The clinic denied that it was profiteering and defended its decision to charge £375.

According to a statement published on its website, Private Harley Street Clinic is no longer offering the test as it works to fulfil a backlog of orders, and it is also donating free testing to NHS staff, a statement said.

Randox told BuzzFeed News it didn’t have a direct customer relationship with Private Harley Street Clinic so had no control over the amount it charged. Amy Millar, its spokesperson, said: “As a private company with over 40 years investment in and commitment to the diagnostics industry, Randox quickly developed a COVID-19 test and were able to provide that test, with a home sample collection capability, at a very competitive price. That price is a matter of public record.”

Millar added: “Randox do not have a direct customer relationship with this clinic, we have not supplied them and have no control over what they charge if they have accessed our kits. Likewise, we also have no control over what their customers are prepared to pay.”

According to the Irish Times, Randox is in talks with the NHS about using its COVID-19 test.

Private clinics are not banned from selling coronavirus tests, but the government advises people against testing at home. A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told BuzzFeed News: “Public Health England does not advise rapid tests for use in the community nor self-testing but we keep all advice under constant review.”

Paterson, who is reportedly self-isolating with COVID-19 symptoms, declined to comment.


The middle class are about to discover the cruelty of Britain’s benefits system 

But you have to contact them first – about as easy as fixing a delivery from Waitrose – Owl

Millions of people are about to discover something they didn’t know about British life. There is no longer a safety net. People who have paid tax and national insurance for years and never been near the social security system will be turning to it in their hour of need; yet far too late, like trapeze artists falling through the air, they will find that the net beneath them has been lowered dangerously close to the ground and is badly torn.

Polly Toynbee

If these people once believed relentlessly misleading tabloid tales of benefit scroungers, they will have a rude awakening. They will find that when Iain Duncan Smith turned the screw on social security in 2012, he was right to warn claimants: “This is not an easy life any more, chum.” As if it ever was.

The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has done well to honour 80% of wages for those “furloughed” from shut-down businesses – up to £2,500 a month. No one knows how many that covers and at what cost, but it was a macroeconomic necessity. One worry is the incapacity of the HMRC workforce, with 15,600 staff cut and 157 local offices with local knowledge closed: can they pay the wage subsidy to companies in time to save them? Many firms could still close, sending millions into unemployment.

The 15% self-employed are urgently seeking a matching plan, with the Treasury under intense pressure for a rapid response. Most of the self-employed are low-paid: their median income is just £10,000, according to Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Some won’t qualify, if they have earning partners. But many will have been forced into sham “self-employment” by tax-cheating companies. They will be desperate – and angry. The Resolution Foundation wants them paid 80% of average earnings over the past three years – or they will work through illness, rather than starve on £94 a week sickness benefit, says the RSA Populus poll.

Let’s hope that injustice is fixed. But even then, watch the shock as millions fall on the untender mercies of the Department for Work and Pensions, to discover what happened to benefits in the past decade. While never over-generous, by 2010 Labour had greatly lifted living standards for low earners, especially for children: Gordon Brown’s tax credits raised a million children and a million pensioners out of poverty. Since 2010, according to new research by Kerris Cooper and John Hills, a professor at the London School of Economics, children have lost a quarter of the support they had; chancellor George Osborne and his successors took out a staggering nearly £40bn from benefits. Never “all in this together”, Osborne justified it by raining down abuse on low-paid families. The hypocrisy: as the current editor of the London Evening Standard, he ran Christmas collections for poor families! The Resolution Foundation predicts a third of children falling into poverty by 2023.

Some cuts were secretive, uprating benefits by a meaner CPI not RPI inflation rate, a four-year freeze, and axing council tax support. Some made a noise – such as the bedroom tax, costing some families £14 week for a spare room. An early case was a Hartlepool family whose empty room belonged to their recently deceased 10-year-old. Housing benefit for renters was cut brutally. Introducing the two-child limit was exceptionally unjust.

New claimants confronting universal credit’s obstacles may join the half who find themselves propelled to food banks. Many new arrivals will join the 60% of claimants falling into debt and rent arrears while waiting at least five weeks for first payments. As with HMRC, a stripped-down DWP workforce is at risk of being overwhelmed. Some talking to the Treasury are shocked to find its staff clueless about the meanness of a benefits system they have cut and cut again. That explains Sunak’s sudden extra £20 a week and slight easing of housing benefit: they had no idea.

Torsten Bell, head of the Resolution Foundation, says people on £50,000 salaries have been anxiously asking him about benefits rates. They’re in for a shock, he says. Unlike the previous tax credit system, universal credit only allows savings of £6,000 (it takes steep deductions from savings up to £16,000). People hoping this is only temporary will be distraught at having to use up their rainy-day funds, often saved for years for a deposit on a home. The foundation is lobbying urgently to have this savings means-test dropped.

Hills says a couple with two children will get £266 a week. And take from that £115 – the average amount that housing benefit falls short of rental payments. Many new claimants will run up rent arrears. Expect them to plunge immediately into poverty, miles below the £384 minimum income standard for a family of four, says Hills.

Some singles will get a shock too. Under-35s will be living on £73, and only funded for a room in a shared flat, in the cheapest third of rentals in the area.

Many who see themselves as middle class will confront the reality of Britain’s nonexistent safety net. It is, says the IFS’s Paul Johnson, “extraordinarily low”. One piece of advice from all these experts I’ve talked to: apply immediately, to limit these delays and debts. “Too many will wait, borrow from family, deny it’s happening to them, feeling the stigma. Apply at once,” says Torsten Bell.

These millions discovering DWP brutality at first hand will no longer be deceived by the old poison shaming those on benefits as loafers, frauds and “not people like us”. Benefits offer penury, not a life of Riley. Rishi Sunak has been lavishly praised, not least for his empathic language: “We will be judged by our capacity for compassion”. But his compassion will be judged by how far he keeps benefit rates below the most basic poverty line.


NHS now likely to cope with coronavirus, says key scientist – Neil Ferguson

The NHS is likely to cope with coronavirus now that Britain has gone into lockdown, according to the scientist behind tougher government measures.

Owl would dearly love to believe this – except Britain is not in “lockdown”. We are under a much softer  form of restriction because of Boris Johnson’s libertarian beliefs. There are still horrific pictures in the press of overcrowding on the London tubes, uncertainty over who should be working and who shouldn’t etc.

Yesterday, Owl reported on Jeremy Hunt’s demand that the government ramp up the rate of testing that remains at 5,000 day. Yesterday the new daily count of positive cases was 1,500 odd. In other words we are only really testing the seriously sick. As the author says only “large-scale testing and contact tracing” will allow normal life to start to resume…….”

Chris Smyth, Whitehall Editor 

The NHS is likely to cope with coronavirus now that Britain has gone into lockdown, according to the scientist behind tougher government measures.

Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London said that after a scramble to set up thousands more intensive care beds and enforcement of social distancing he was confident that the health service would remain “within capacity”.

The worst of the first wave is likely to pass within three weeks and deaths could be “substantially lower” than 20,000, Professor Ferguson told MPs on the science and technology select committee.

However, only “large-scale testing and contact tracing” will allow normal life to start to resume without a resurgence of the virus, he said.

Professor Ferguson’s modelling prompted Boris Johnson to make an abrupt change of tack ten days ago after it concluded that a policy based on hand-washing and self-isolation of those with symptoms was likely to result in 250,000 deaths.

He is a key member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), which is providing the evidence guiding Mr Johnson’s response to coronavirus.

Initially, the judgment was that there were “clear advantages economically to having it over by the summer” if NHS intensive care beds could cope, Professor Ferguson said.

However, the strategy was “slightly reluctantly” changed after updated information on NHS intensive care capacity and illness in China and Italy suggested that hospitals would be overwhelmed. It also became clearer that each unchecked infectious person passed the disease to three people on average, higher than the 2.5 previously estimated.

After adjusting models to take account of new rules requiring people to stay at home unless absolutely necessary, Professor Ferguson told MPs: “There will be some areas that are extremely stressed but we are reasonably confident — which is all we can be at the current time — that at the national level we will be within capacity.”

He added: “If the current measures work as we would expect them then we will see intensive care demand peak in approximately two to three weeks and then decline.”

Deaths are “unlikely to exceed 20,000” and “could be substantially lower than that”, he projected. However, he said some hospitals were already overwhelmed and that parts of the country would be very badly hit, with the outbreak much more advanced in London.

There is widespread concern about whether the virus will rebound once restrictions on daily life are restricted and Professor Ferguson acknowledged: “We clearly cannot lock down the country for a year. The challenge that many countries in the world are dealing with is how we move from an initial intensive lockdown . . . to something that will have societal effects but will allow the economy to re-start.


Yet more unintended consequences….

Caravans ‘clog up’ Cornwall’s streets after holiday park closures

CARAVANS and motor homes which have been turfed out of holiday parks are now clogging up residential streets – and there’s little Cornwall Council can do about it, writes Richard Whitehouse, local democracy reporter.

[Owl doesn’t think they would like this in Sidmouth or Otterton or Littleham or …….]

After holiday parks shut their gates over the weekend – following a backlash against people who had decided to come to Cornwall during the coronavirus crisis – there have been reports of people setting up camp in residential streets.

Cllr Geoff Brown, Cornwall Council Cabinet member for transport, said the council’s powers were limited in what it could do to tackle the problem.

He said: “This was mentioned briefly in a meeting that we had with officers this morning and we are looking at what we can do.

“However we don’t have any powers to move people on unless they are parked illegally and there are yellow lines.

“If the Government were to change the legislation then we might be able to do more.

“But, at the moment, there is very little that we can do if a vehicle is legal, unless they are dropping waste on the highway, but most of these motorhomes are self-contained and there is no need for that.”

Cllr Brown said there had been incidents reported to the council and that officers would continue working to see if there was anything that could be done to help.

He added: “It is something we are definitely looking at.

“The ideal thing would be for the government to say ‘if you are on holiday, go home’ – that is the message that we need to get out there right now.”

At the weekend a new campaign was launched with MPs, tourism leaders and emergency services urging people not to visit Cornwall [and Devon] during the coronavirus pandemic and instead #comebacklater…………


U.S. Officials Say Anyone Leaving New York Area Should Self-Isolate for 14 Days – so should Londoners.

New York is the epicenter of infection in the USA, London is the epicenter in the UK. London, as the rest of the country, is not in lock-down but the more relaxed “stay at home” order. Owl believes that this is interpreted by many in London as meaning they can travel across the country to second homes. Easter is coming up, infection rates have yet to slow, moving out of London may seen as an attractive option.  

Owl believes that in the absence of an enforced travel ban, Londoners, as New Yorkers, should self isolate for 14 days if they insist on moving out of the capital.  

Jennifer Calfas, Wenxin Fan and Rebecca Ballhaus

Trump administration officials on Tuesday urged anyone leaving the New York metro area to self-isolate for 14 days to avoid spreading the virus to other parts of the country, as novel coronavirus cases in the region continued to sharply rise.

“We have to deal with the New York City metropolitan area as a high-risk area, and for that reason we’re taking these steps and asking for the cooperation of the American people,” Vice President Mike Pence said during an afternoon briefing.


Closure of East Devon’s offices and amenities

East Devon District Council (EDDC) has closed its offices to the public at Exmouth and Honiton and reassured residents of key services.

Beth Sharp

An EDDC spokesman said while its offices are closed to the public to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, they are still open and residents can call 01404 515616 to talk to officers as well as arrange face-to-face appointments.

Anyone who is homeless or threatened with homelessness and require advice or assistance can call 01395 571660.

EDDC’s StreetScene depots at Manstone and Camperdown remain operational although closed to the public.

And, StreetScene teams are continuing with core operational services, although over the coming days it may be necessary to cease some service provision.

The authority’s five Housing Area Offices are open for mobile support staff, many of whom are maintaining contact with older council tenants by telephone, particularly those tenants who should be social-distancing because of their age or medical conditions.

Access has been limited at EDDC’s Home Safeguard Call Centre, in an attempt to limit the potential for infection spread.

Only the relevant manager and the operators are allowed access to provide a vital lifeline to older and vulnerable customers needing the comfort of knowing there is someone there if needed.

EDDC has not closed its nature reserves and open spaces, as these provide much needed and relatively safe outdoor spaces that contribute towards our health and wellbeing.

Its ten nature reserves will remain open 24/7, free of charge, to encourage everyone to enjoy green, open spaces while observing recommended social distancing measures.

All visitors have been asked to take extra care when making contact with surfaces, such as gates, leaflet racks and bird hides.

As a result of this week’s government advice EDDC will not be running any volunteering sessions, schools’ visits or public events. This decision will be in place until Friday, May 1 and will be kept under regular review.

It is expected the vast majority of council meetings will not need to go ahead because they are not dealing with essential matters during this time of crisis.

EDDC are looking at ways of conducting urgent and important meetings remotely using Skype and/or conference calling.


Call for army of volunteers in fight against coronavirus

A quarter of a million people are being recruited for an NHS volunteer army as retired doctors and medical students are called up to help to run a 4,000-bed hospital in a London conference centre.

Chris Smyth, Whitehall Editor | Rhys Blakely, Science Correspondent

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has issued a “your NHS needs you” appeal to those willing to look after 1.5 million vulnerable people being “shielded” from coronavirus.

He is under pressure, however, to spell out when tests for the virus will be available for NHS staff, despite promising to “ramp up” existing labs and order 3.5 million commercial kits.

Oxford University researchers said yesterday that half of Britain might have already contracted coronavirus since January and that testing was urgently needed to discover how many people had acquired immunity to it.

Professor Sunetra Gupta, whose conclusions have not yet been peer- reviewed, said: “It is possible that this ends with a whimper not a bang — we need to know.”


Mixed messages again

Jack Blanchard- Politico Newsletter

… So just why are construction workers not told to down tools by the UK government, as Sturgeon has demanded (a point Wales’ Mark Drakeford today echoed)? As I put it to Hancock today, some will cynically suspect the reason is not unconnected with the Tories pulling in £1m in pre-election donations from housing developers. Even Conservatives in rural areas have long muttered that the party’s cosy relations with the housebuilding industry threatens to tear up their green and pleasant land.

Yet the failure to ban construction work in this lockdown may be simpler. First, the complex nature of the chancellor’s self-employed wage support plan means it could be days if not weeks away. Second, many builders (like White Van Man and Woman) voted Tory in last year’s election. Third, there’s a wider worry that cancelling such a big part of economic activity would plunge the nation into an even deeper crisis. Only today, the latest Markit data pointed to a collapse that would spark a serious recession.

There’s also no small irony in the fact that only two weeks ago – yes just two weeks ago – Rishi Sunak was unveiling a Budget which trumpeted massive infrastructure spending and lots and lots more construction work. They were Rishi Rich and Bozza the Builder remember? In theory, the promise of billions of pounds of future work ought to keep the industry afloat despite a temporary lockdown.

But reality may be much more grim for job losses. And perhaps the real issue with construction is how coronavirus is laying bare an industry which is usually ignored because it rolls on regardless. One building firm boss emailed me today to say the industry had appalling payment processes, that big contractors bully smaller ones, that many firms go bust then resurface “ready to dupe the next subcontractor in the queue”. Add in zero-hours for some, health and safety fears for others and it’s no wonder the PM wants to steer clear of this mess of problems unless he absolutely has to.

But if this virus death toll gets much worse, Johnson may have to shut down most building sites (many of their suppliers are shutting anyway) and put the nation’s physical health before its economic health. A wider shutdown would also fit with the pattern of his handling of the crisis so far: hold off, hold off, then finally submit to the inevitable. Can he fix it? Yes he Khan. …”