MDDC’s Lib Dems call for Greater Exeter Strategic Plan pause

Could Mid Devon District Councillors be about to show the same courage as those in East Devon? – Owl

By Lewis Clarke 

Discussion is due to be held when it comes to Mid Devon District Council (MDDC) Cabinet for approval at the next meeting on Thursday, August 6 2020.

Liberal Democrats in Mid Devon will be asking members of the ruling Cabinet to immediately pause involvement in the current Greater Exeter Strategic Plan (GESP).

Discussion is due to be held when it comes to Mid Devon District Council (MDDC) Cabinet for approval at the next meeting on Thursday, August 6 2020.

The call comes in light of the recent decision by East Devon councillors to recommend withdrawing from GESP at a meeting held on July 23.

Luke Taylor, leader of the Liberal group on the Council, said: “Due to the momentous decision of East Devon Councillors to recommend withdrawing from GESP, it is only right that we ask to immediately pause our involvement in Mid Devon with GESP to understand the full ramifications of this potential decision by East Devon.

“It would not be right to continue the process when one of the key members of GESP is potentially about to pull out of the process. It will have a huge impact on Mid Devon going forward, and we must understand the full implications before proceeding any further.”

Currently, Mid Devon Council is controlled by Independent councillors supported by the Liberal Democrats.

Permission Accomplished – Assessing corruptions risks in local government planning

Permission Accomplished – Assessing corruptions risks in local government planning

Transparency International have just published their latest report on corruption in planning in England under the above title.

Long standing readers of local blogs such as “Sidmouth Independent News” may recall a 2013 report by the same organisation entitled “Scaring the living daylights out of people”  – the Local Lobby and the failure of Democracy – with a whole chapter devoted to East Devon: [Chapter III. ‘The Local Mafia’ Conflicts of interest in East Devon].

Overall, nothing very much has changed.

The publication comes just as EDDC’s Strategic Planning Committee has recommended withdrawal from the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan (GESP) largely because of the lack of transparency involved in the process of what is seen as a “Developers’ Charter”. It also coincides with an article published on East Devon Watch that discusses the improvements to transparency and public involvement that could be made in the planning “Pre-Application” process. That article concluded that  public trust must be at the forefront of Planning.

After this  short summary Owl reproduces the full set of recommendations – How does East Devon measure up?

This report focusses on specific corruption risks in major planning decisions, an area where there is often a large amount of money at stake. It is also very contentious, with many new developments resulting in a net loss of social and genuinely affordable housing, which in many areas are in short supply.

To understand what could undermine openness in the planning process and what local authorities are doing to stop this, we have collected evidence from across England. Although there are some examples of good practice, generally the results make for a worrying read.

Unminuted, closed-door meetings with developers and excessive hospitality undoubtedly undermine confidence in the planning process, yet too many local authorities have weak rules to stop this from happening. Even fewer councils have control measures for major conflicts of interest, with far too many decision-makers also working for developers on the side. Moreover, when councillors behave badly, there are no clear or meaningful sanctions available to councils that could act as an effective deterrent against serious misconduct by them or others in the future.

To address these issues we propose ten practical solutions, none of which are beyond the means of those who need to implement them. All reinforce existing guidance and good practice recommended by anti-fraud and corruption initiatives here and internationally. Some even reflect existing practice in particular parts of the UK, such as Scotland.

Report recommendations in full

External engagement


 Lobbying transparency

 Holding meetings behind closed doors fuels suspicion about the integrity of important planning decisions.

 Recommendation 1: Minute and publish all meetings with developers and their agents for major developments. To help provide greater confidence in interactions with those seeking planning consent, councils should ensure all meetings between councillors, developers and their agents in major planning decisions are:

  • attended by at least one council official,
  • recorded in detailed notes, and
  • published online with the planning application file.

Managing gifts and hospitality

Those involved in planning decisions accepting gifts and hospitality from developers or their agents can easily give rise to the perception that their judgement is being unduly influenced.

 Recommendation 2: Prohibit those involved in making planning decisions from accepting gifts and hospitality that risk undermining the integrity of the planning process. To help prevent the perception of undue influence over planning decisions, councillors should be prohibited from accepting any gifts and hospitality that could give rise to:

  • real or substantive personal gain; or 
  • reasonable suspicion of favour or advantage being sought.

Reporting gifts and hospitality

Inconsistent reporting thresholds for gifts and hospitality that are accepted provide confusion for the public and councillors (especially those ‘double hatting’ i.e.  councillors in district and county councils). Also, publishing registers of gifts and hospitality as PDFs and in other nonmachine-readable formats do not meet good practice standards for transparency.

Recommendation 3: Increase transparency over gifts and hospitality. To help present a clear and consistent view of corruption risks across local government, local authorities should be required by law to establish a register of gifts and hospitality. This should apply to all gifts and hospitality over a value of £50, or totalling £100 over a year from a single source.

 This should apply to anything received by all councillors, their family members, or associates that could reasonably be regarded as given in relation to the councillor’s role as an elected official.

We support the CSPL’s (Committee for standards in Public Life) recommendation that local authorities should publish registers of gifts and hospitality as structured open data – for example, a CSV format that can be opened in an Excel spreadsheet – and maintain them in a central location on their websites.

Leadership from industry

The lobbying industry sets out its code for managing its members’ conduct, but this should be improved to help reduce the risk of it being implicated in future impropriety.

Recommendation 4: Stronger leadership from the industry on ethical lobbying The Public Affairs Board (PAB) should include explicit provisions within the public affairs code to:

  • Require members to conduct engagements with elected or public officials openly and transparently.
  • Prohibit members giving any gifts and hospitality to elected or public officials that could give rise to a real or substantive personal gain; or a reasonable suspicion of favour or advantage being sought.

Managing private interests


Financial interest transparency

If a councillor has other outside employment and interests, which is not unusual, these should be made available for public scrutiny. This is required by law. However, publishing registers of financial interests as PDFs and other non-machine-readable formats do not meet good practice standards for transparency. Financial interest registers that are poorly formatted and decentralised limit the public’s ability to properly hold elected officials to account. The more easily accessible they are the greater transparency and accountability there is over these interests In some instances declaring interests is not sufficient enough and councillors should not be involved in a decision due to apparent bias

Recommendation 5: Improved management of financial interests. To help improve the management of potential conflicts of interest, we support the CSPL’s recommendations that:

  • Councils should publish registers of financial interests as structured open data – for example, a CSV format that can be opened in an Excel spreadsheet – and maintain them in a central location on their websites.
  • Section 31 of the Localism Act is repealed and replaced with a new requirement for councillors to remove themselves from decisions where there it can reasonably be regarded that they hold a significant conflict of interest that could prejudice their judgement.8 Managing conflicts of interest with current outside employment It is not good practice to allow elected officials to lobby or provide advice on lobbying other elected officials. Permitting this creates the obvious risk that they abuse their position for their commercial benefit and the private gain of their clients, potentially at the public’s expense.

Recommendation 6: Prohibit all councillors from undertaking lobbying or advisory work relating to their duties on behalf of clients. To help provide confidence that councillors are working in the public interest, members should be prohibited from:

  • lobbying councils on behalf of paying clients, and
  • providing paid advice on how to influence councils. The PAB should also amend its code of conduct to, as soon as reasonably practicable, prohibit its members from employing sitting councillors, as it does for other forms of elective office. Managing the revolving door Moving through the revolving door between public and private office can be beneficial to both sides, improving understanding and communication between public officials and business, and allowing sharing of expertise. However, the revolving door brings risks that the interests of past or prospective employers could influence officials in their decisions.

Recommendation 7:Manage the revolving door between the elective office and private business. To help reduce the risk of councillors abusing their movement between public and private office, local authorities should:

  • Provide advice, guidance and training to those involved in making decisions on planning applications about the risks involved.
  • Prohibit those who have recently worked as lobbyists for developers, or for developers seeking planning permission (for example within the prior two years), from sitting on planning committees or receiving executive responsibilities relating to planning.
  • Require councillors to report any offers of employment to their Monitoring Officer, including details of any interaction they have had with their prospective employer.

Regulating conduct


Clear advice, guidance and protocols

There are some good examples of local authorities providing mandatory training and clear guidelines on conduct for those involved in making planning decisions. However, there are still many that do not.

 Recommendation 8: Provide clear guidance and boundaries for councillors so they can better understand what is and is not acceptable behaviour. To inform councillors about the boundaries of acceptable conduct in the planning process, all local authorities should introduce:

  • Compulsory training for those on planning committees or with executive functions relating to planning, including specific modules on ensuring integrity in the process and the factors they should take into account when making a decision.
  • Establish a dedicated planning protocol, with proportionate sanctions for non-compliance.

 Clear and credible deterrents against serious misconduct

In its 2019 report on ethical standards in local government, the CSPL highlighted there are not enough options for sanction when a councillor has committed a serious breach of the rules that falls short of criminal conduct.9 Unless a criminal offence is committed (for example, an offence under the Bribery Act 2010 or the common law offence of misconduct in public office) there are currently insufficient deterrents against particularly egregious behaviour; for example, significant breaches of the rules on declaring financial interests or disclosure of confidential information. Opaque investigations and sanctions in concluded cases of misconduct also weaken the deterrents local authorities have.

 Recommendation 9: Provide a meaningful deterrent for serious breaches of the code of conduct. To provide a meaningful deterrent against impropriety in the planning process, we support the recommendations from the CSPL that Government should legislate to:

  • Give local authorities the power to suspend councillors, without allowances, for up to six months with the ability to appeal the decision to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman for England

.• Clarify beyond doubt that local authorities may lawfully bar councillors from council premises or withdraw facilities as sanctions.

  • Require councils to prepare and publish a sanctions policy explaining when they will use their enforcement powers, and what independent safeguards they will use to protect against their abuse

 Recommendation 10:Increase transparency over investigations and enforcement action. To help provide a greater understanding of the level of alleged misconduct and to provide a greater deterrent against future breaches of the rules, local authorities should regularly publish in a central location:

  • Anonymised details about allegations made regarding councillors’ alleged misconduct, including any grounds for rejection; for example, they were malicious or unfounded.
  • Summary statistics on the number of investigations underway, including their status.
  • Full details of substantiated breaches, including the councillor concerned, and any sanctions imposed.


Aim of pulling out of the GESP is to protect our countryside – Eileen Wragg

Councillor Eileen Wragg, Chair of Planning East Devon District Council (EDDC), has written this excellent opinion piece which can be found on page 23 in the Exmouth Journal.

Owl has been surprised that the momentous decision made last week by the politically balanced Strategic Planning Committee to recommend EDDC pulls out of the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan (GESP)  has not featured in the Exmouth Journal or, as far as Owl can see, any of the sister papers. The story has been reported on Devonlive and Radioexe.

Post amended 1400 July 31 as a fuller account of Eileen Wragg’s opinion has now been published on-line:

Eileen Wragg, chairman of the East Devon District Council planning committee, writes about the possibility of East Devon pulling out of the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan (GESP) /news/eileen-wragg-column-gesp-plans-1-6770398

Some commercial businesses are going or are gone for good, causing unemployment and economic hardships.

The business of national and local Government has to continue, albeit in different forms, and at East Devon District Council, meetings are taking place using virtual technology with Zoom. Ironically, these are much more accessible to the public who can view them on YouTube.

The present situation was also a factor in a decision taken by EDDC’s Strategic Planning Committee (SPC) on July 23, which voted to pull out of the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan (GESP), which is proposing future development for Exeter, Teignbridge, Mid Devon and East Devon until 2040.

Those proposals are for 53,260 homes to be built between now and then at a rate of 2,663 per year. As a member of the GESP Forum, I found the meetings which I attended over the last year odd events, with officers from the four councils giving presentations, and identifying sites for development which had been put forward by landowners.

It was as though decisions had been made by others, unknown, and felt like a fait accompli, which many of my colleagues and I were bemused by, as ultimately elected councillors are held responsible for those decisions.

In short, the GESP seemed to be driven by landowners and developers. In addition, the plan would override the district councils’ Local Plans and the Town and Parish Councils’ Neighbourhood Plans. One chairman of a neighbourhood plan working group made the point at the SPC meeting that the three years of work which had gone into their plan would have been a waste of time.

Further credence is given to the considerable power of developers is the Prime Minister’s recent statement to “build, build, build “ our way out of the Covid crisis, an excuse for what was already planned anyway!

After a meeting which lasted four hours, with many excellent speakers, the SPC decided not to continue with the GESP, as it is believed that much of the housing would probably be built in East Devon. Who would it be built for anyway? Most people on low incomes, many of whom are young, would not be able to afford them.

Had it not been for a change in the administration at EDDC, it is highly unlikely that the decision to pull out of GESP would have been made.

As the Leader, Cllr Paul Arnott said at full council two months ago: “If your interest is working for friends and allies outside the council, your time is up”.

That was certainly also the message from the SPC. However, that decision has yet to be ratified at the next full council meeting.

That vote will be crucial in our efforts to protect our wonderful countryside, although we will continue to work with the other district councils.

South West R rate is now above 1 – the highest in the country

The South West’s COVID-19 coronavirus ‘R rate’ is likely to have risen above 1 – and is now the highest in the country – according to the latest modelling by the MRC Biostatistics Unit at Cambridge University.

(But read the caveats – Owl)

And the scientists say it is “very likely” that most regions in England are close to the point at which the virus begins to spread exponentially.

The Cambridge model is only one model that feeds into SAGE’s official regional R rate estimate and is released weekly.

However, it should be noted that Government advisers say regional Rs – which estimate the number of people an infected person spreads the virus to – should be viewed with great caution, because they become mathematically uncertain as the number of cases fall.

And the number of cases in Devon and Cornwall remains very low compared other areas in the country – and the South West is still one of the English regions least affected by the virus. Yesterday, there were only 22 people in hospital in the whole of the South West with coronavirus, with none on a ventilator – and only one hospital death anywhere in the South West in the last two weeks.

Nonetheless, the R rate in the South West is now estimated to be 1.04, but could be anywhere between 0.77 and 1.38 – and is higher than anywhere else in the country.

Viruses can begin to spread exponentially if the R rate rises above 1.

REGION Median R rate Lower R rate Higher R rate
South West 1.04 0.77 1.38
South East 1.02 0.81 1.25
North West 0.92 0.69 1.15
North East and Yorkshire 0.9 0.66 1.12
Midlands 0.78 0.58 1
London 0.92 0.66 1.17
East of England 0.88 0.67 1.12

It comes as the number of confirmed new cases of COVID-19 coronavirus in Cornwall tripled in a week to 19, which saw the the rolling seven-day rate of new cases per 100,000 people rise from 0.9 to 3.3.

However, Devon’s – public health director has said rises in rolling new case rate in some of its Local Authority areas are NOT believed to be linked to visitors to the area.

The county saw five new cases confirmed in Torbay and 12 new cases across the rest of Devon, with three in East Devon, five in Exeter, two in Mid Devon, two in North Devon, and one in the South Hams, with no cases in Teignbridge, Torridge or West Devon.

Plymouth also saw a small rise in the new COVID-19 coronavirus case rate. The latest data from Public Health England shows that the rolling seven-day rate of new cases per 100,000 people has risen from 1.5 to 1.9, with five new cases confirmed.

The figures, for the seven days to July 26, are based on tests carried out in laboratories (pillar one of the Government’s testing programme) and in the wider community (pillar two).

Local Authority New cases per 100,000 people in week until July 26 New cases per 100,000 people in week until July 19 Total number of new cases
Cornwall and Isles of Scilly 3.3 0.9 19
North Devon Torbay 2.1 0 2
Torbay 3.7 1.5 5
Mid Devon 2.4 1.2 2
Exeter 3.8 2.3 5
Plymouth 1.9 1.5 5
Torridge 0 0 0
West Devon 0 0 0
South Hams 0 2.3 1
East Devon 2.1 4.2 3
Teignbridge 0.0 0 4.5 0

By comparison, in Blackburn with Darwen, the rate has risen from 81.2 cases per 100,000 people in the seven days to July 19 to 87.3 in the seven days to July 26 – and a total of 130 new cases have been recorded.

But Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned that “clearly we now face, I’m afraid, the threat of a second wave in other parts of Europe and we just have to be vigilant”.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock also said the figures showed a “second wave starting to roll across Europe”.

So why does R become less useful?

  • When there are few cases, R is impossible to estimate with accuracy and will have wide confidence intervals that are likely to include one. But this does not necessarily mean the epidemic is increasing.
  • As incidence decreases, R will tend towards 1, and has to be evaluated in conjunction with incidence.

R is an average measure. When incidence is low, an outbreak in one place could result in estimates of R for the entire region to become higher than one.

Conversely, small, local outbreaks will not be detected. Estimates of R based on small numbers may also not capture change in the area fast enough to inform policy in a useful way.

Thanks to outsourcing, England’s test and trace system is in chaos 

Covid-19 is unforgiving, it relentlessly, and quickly, exposes bad decisions. That is to be expected. What we surely have a right to expect, however, is a Government that learns from its mistakes rather than compound past errors – Owl

Allyson Pollock 

We all know that an effective and integrated find, test, track and trace system is hugely important in tackling the coronavirus outbreak. It’s crucial if we’re going to come out of lockdown safely, prevent a second wave of suffering and see our loved ones again.

Yet Britain’s test and trace programme – lauded by the government as “world-beating” – is about as far from integrated or effective as you can get.

That’s because a key part of it operates not as part of the NHS, but in parallel to it – as a network of commercial, privatised testing labs, drive-through centres and call centres. The chaos this has brought has resulted in huge gaps in information available to local services, causing delays in accessing results and hampering efforts to control the outbreak.

Instead of putting local public health experts and NHS services in charge of contact tracing, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, handed over responsibility to private companies such as the outsourcing giant Serco, which has previously been fined for deaths of workers and members of the public that could have been prevented. The list of problems in the test and trace system is already immense – three data breachespoor training and faulty online administration systems among them.

Despite this convoluted mess of a setup, local health protection teams are delivering. In public hands, teams are tracing far more contacts than the privatised national call centres and online system. They are achieving this even in the face of local public health departments being hampered by lack of access to real-time data on cases in their communities. The health secretary needs to amend the current notification system urgently to ensure test results for all cases are sent to local public health departments and primary care within 24 hours. Lack of timely, detailed data on people testing positive for Covid-19, including postcodes, is currently hindering the work of local authorities and public health departments.

The government’s own emergency science group, Sage, says the target to ensure the virus doesn’t spread further is finding and reaching 80% of all close contacts of symptomatic cases. Yet in Blackburn, where health chiefs are battling a major outbreak, leaked analysis shows that the national tracing service is reaching only 52% of all close contacts.

This privatised system clearly isn’t working – and even the government appears to recognise there are problems. It has appointed the management consultancy firm McKinsey to review the contact tracing service, following many media reports of the system not working well.

Yet despite all this, it still hasn’t published the details of its contracts with the likes of Serco. According to the Treasury, £10bn of public money has been allocated to England’s test and trace programme. Only £300m of additional funding has been offered to local authorities to support the system.

Billions of funding are unaccounted for. Some will be spent on contracts with Serco, Sitel and Capita, among others. Right now, we can’t see how much they’re being paid, for how long and for what. How are these contracts being monitored and by whom? What about subcontractors, and their contractual agreements?

The fact that this information is not readily available is an insult to those working night and day to stop the spread of this virus, and to our communities who worry night and day about loved ones.

I’ve joined more than 100 public figures – including academics, journalists and health professionals – in writing to Matt Hancock, demanding he publishes the contracts given to private companies as part of the test and trace system. We believe it is essential for the public and the wider health community – including the NHS and local government public health teams – to have a better understanding of these contracts.

That’s the immediate priority – as an absolute minimum. But more broadly, the public knows this is not a good way to run contact tracing, and it is for all of these reasons that over two-thirds of those surveyed believe local public health teams and local health services should be in charge of the contact tracing system.

The Independent Sage group has already offered a solution that Hancock could take up easily. Put local authorities, local public health teams and local health services (including GPs and NHS laboratories) back in charge of testing and tracing in the community, and give them the resources to do this properly over the coming months and years. This is the system Wales and Scotland have opted for, as has Germany. That would be a test, track and trace programme the public could have faith in.

• Allyson Pollock is professor of public health research and policy at Queen Mary University of London and author of NHS plc: the Privatisation of Our Health Care

Devon will ‘not lead the charge’ to become a Unitary council

Senior Devon councillors have reiterated they have no desire to ‘lead the charge towards becoming a Unitary’ and reopen the arguments over Local Government reorganisation.

[A majority of Somerset county councillors have voted (29 July) to abolish themselves and create a new unitary authority for the whole county.

Council leader David Fothergill has put forward the One Somerset business case, which would see Somerset’s five existing councils abolished and replaced by May 2022.

The business case will now be submitted to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which will decide whether or not Somerset can formally proceed towards a new unitary authority.

Dorset and Cornwall are already unitary authorities – Owl] 

Devon will ‘not lead the charge’ to become a Unitary council

Daniel Clark 

The Government are set to publish a Devolution White paper this Autumn with speculation it would see county and district councils – the top tiers of authority – be invited to propose merging their powers and become Unitary councils.

This week, a majority of Somerset county councillors voted to abolish themselves and create a new unitary authority for the whole county, which would see Somerset’s five existing councils abolished and replaced by May 2022, while discussions are taking place across the country.

From 2007 to 2010, there was a strong possibility that Devon’s two-tier council structure might be reorganised, with either a Unitary authority for the whole of Devon created, or a second option that would have seen Exeter granted Unitary status. The latter of those was given the go-ahead in 2010, only for the reorganisation to be reversed when the Conservative Government came into power following the General Election.

At last Thursday’s full Devon County Council meeting, Cllr Alan Connett, leader of the Liberal Democrat group, asked the leader of the council, Cllr John Hart, for his view on the retention of the current system of district and county councils.

Cllr Hart said that it was something that looked like it may raise its head again and he was waiting to see what the Government says in the white paper this Autumn, but added: “I have maintained that if they don’t insist we go to Unitary model, I will not lead, a charge, and all it will do is reactivate the fighting.

“It would divide Devon up and then things get a bit more complicated. Devon has the size and capacity to work with the districts and to serve the people. I have no wish to open up a guerrilla war and start something and get us into a position that might not be resolved in the short term and argue with the districts for years on end and ruin the current good relationship.

“We will wait until September and then we will talk before anything happens, and hope there will be no backdoor deals from their side and as there won’t be any from ours.”

Cllr Connett said he was grateful that Cllr Hart ‘won’t lead a charge and that Devon County Council isn’t involved in predatory works’. He added: “It is best to wait for the paper and I think we need to avoid a separate approach and need to look at what is right for Devon and do what is the best for the residents. We must avoid what we did before when so much was spent to achieve so little for the people of Devon.”

Cllr Rob Hannaford, leader of the Labour group, added: “There is clearly no appetite in Devon for another costly and disruptive reorganisation of our local government. We have just seen, during the first wave of the pandemic, how well all levels of local government in Devon have worked together to respond, and with all the huge operational, financial, economic and social pressures that we are coping with, this is really the last thing we need to consider.

“To blow everything up now would be an act of political vandalism to our local communities, and a terrible barrier to making the progress that we need to make across the whole county.

“The real issues facing local government here in Devon are a lack of devolved powers to the existing council, gross underfunding, the ability to plan and develop services for the long term, and a lack of trust from central government. Its emphatically not local government reorganisation.

“We don’t want one huge hollowed out remote giant county council unitary with a massive democratic deficit. We also don’t want our county divided into four quarters, that would make no Sense to the people they are supposed to serve and represent.

“Let us fight for Devon, and its residents, through our existing local government family, rather than starting another toxic unitary war, that will benefit no one.”

Cllr Julian Brazil said that ‘Unitary by revolution’ was something that no-one wanted, but proposals to evolve towards one could be explored and that more shared services among the councils would be a way of saving money, with many senior officers doing the same job.

UK’s largest social care provider will have no access to regular coronavirus testing for five weeks

Latest achievement from our “world beating” Covid-19 testing system: halt regular testing in care homes!

“The UK’s largest independent provider of social care has issued a warning that it will have no access to regular coronavirus testing for residents and staff in England for at least five weeks.”

Andrew Woodcock Political Editor

In a letter to relatives of residents, Care UK chief executive Andrew Knight, said the Department of Health was blaming issues with kits from a particular supplier, but said communication with government had been “sorely lacking”.

Liberal Democrats said that thousands of people would miss out on vital tests as a result of the issue. Days after a damning parliamentary report which found that Boris Johnson’s government threw care home residents “to the wolves” in the early stages of the pandemic, party health spokesperson Munira Wilson said the new revelations showed that this was still the case today.

Care UK runs more than 110 homes across the country, and Mr Knight warned that similar problems were affecting other major care organisations. The halt in regular testing comes as Mr Johnson is stressing the importance of the test and trace system to fend off the threat of a second wave of coronavirus.

It is understood that the government’s recall of kits supplied by private company Randox on safety grounds on 15 July caused significant disruption to the provision of tests for weekly and 28-day tests in care homes in England, while access remained readily available in Scotland.

Since 6 July, care homes in England have been promised regular testing on a weekly basis for staff and every 28 days for residents. Repeat testing for asymptomatic individuals was initially limited to care homes looking after people aged over 65 or those with dementia, but is due be rolled out to all care homes from August.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) stressed that anyone living or working in a care home who has coronavirus symptoms or suspects they have the disease will still be able to access testing via Local Health Protection teams.

Announcing the rollout of regular tests less than four weeks ago, health secretary Matt Hancock said the scheme would “not only keep residents and care workers safe, but give certainty and peace of mind to the families who may be worried about their loved ones, and give staff the confidence to do what they do best”.

But Mr Knight said that optimism about regular testing had been “short-lived” and it was now “increasingly difficult to access regular testing across all of our homes”.

The Care UK CEO said: “We have been notified by DHSC that due to an issue with a particular test from one supplier, we will no longer have access to weekly testing for colleagues or monthly testing for residents.

“Communication from the Government on this matter has been sorely lacking. We have also been in contact with the DHSC, the Social Care Taskforce and the care minister to ask that this situation is resolved quickly, but the latest indications we have suggest that for most of our homes in England there will be a minimum of five weeks wait before we are able to access another round of testing.

“We have been exploring options for privately-funded testing, but as yet have been unable to identify a supplier who is able to reliably support us at the scale we require. This experience is mirrored across other major care organisations.”

Regular testing for care homes was introduced following anger over coronavirus outbreaks which claimed thousands of lives of elderly residents in the early weeks of the pandemic.

But on 15 July, the DHSC announced that some kits supplied by Northern Ireland-based Randox were being withdrawn as they did not meet safety standards. The department said at the time that it would be “supporting all testing settings to receive replacement kits as soon as possible”. But care sources said that new supplies had not materialised at the necessary scale.

Mr Knight told families of residents: “I am sure many of you will find this situation as disappointing as I do, especially given the positive messages the government is still issuing about the scale of the testing programme it is supposedly offering.”

Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Munira Wilson said: “If we needed any evidence that this Government is still throwing care homes to the wolves, then this is it. From the very beginning of the pandemic this Government failed to ensure care homes had access to adequate testing and PPE, whilst discharging patients with the virus into their homes.

“This letter is damning. With a potential second peak on the horizon, the UK’s largest provider of social care no longer having access to regular testing for staff and residents will leave thousands of our most vulnerable exposed to coronavirus.

“The prime minister and his government are not learning the lessons they need to if we are to prevent more people losing their lives. An inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis must begin now, so ministers can learn from their errors and help protect families right across the country from more heartache.”

Farmers need to be the nation’s park keepers

“We are today an overwhelmingly urban nation. This means that we think little about the countryside, save as scenery. We should pay more attention now, however, because exit from the European Union also means departure from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This has underpinned our 136,000 farms by an average of £27,000 a year. Subsidy alone makes many holdings economically viable.”

(Max Hastings is a former president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England)
The oilseed rape in the field opposite our house was cut last week. Once upon a time, the land would soon afterwards have been ploughed. As a farm worker in school holidays 60 years ago, I was not a bad ploughman myself, though hopeless at hand-milking. Today, however, like so many other old practices, deep ploughing has declined.Across many areas, including ours, it is being replaced by light tillage-disc-harrowing just sufficiently to make the land receptive to reseeding. Fuel costs are lower; the impact on the soil is thought to be more benign, though plenty of unease persists about the use of weedkilling sprays.

We are today an overwhelmingly urban nation. This means that we think little about the countryside, save as scenery. We should pay more attention now, however, because exit from the European Union also means departure from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This has underpinned our 136,000 farms by an average of £27,000 a year. Subsidy alone makes many holdings economically viable.

Whatever our Brexit views, we should welcome quitting the CAP. It delivers cash in accordance with acreage, so that the biggest landowners are the largest beneficiaries. The government says that future subsidy will instead be decided on environmental, social and public access criteria. In principle, this is smart. However, so vague is the guidance thus far that it is obvious ministers have little idea how a new dispensation will work.

Most of us like to imagine farmers as rosy-cheeked sons and daughters of the soil, chewing a straw while tending their own beasts and acres. Unfortunately, well-meaning tax exemptions, to enable farming fathers to pass on their land to the next generation, have distorted the picture. Large areas of rural Britain are being bought up by rich investors, including Sir James Dyson and several Scandinavian tycoons, partly because they see land as a limited resource that must increase in value; and partly to spare their children the nuisance of inheritance tax. A Saudi prince has just bought some farmland near us.

Agriculture nowadays generates little income, except on the best land and a large scale. Smallish practitioners must do it for love … or the possibility of a capital gain. A west Berkshire place where I occasionally worked as a boy was owned by a near-peasant farmer, who lived extremely modestly. In the 1970s, however, when Newbury expanded, he sold out for a stupendous sum: the development opportunity made his sons rich men. That is not a romantic story, but is more like the real-life Archers than the modern programme is.

Reading the above, a Cumbrian or Cornish farmer would snort that he grazes his beasts on no such green goldmine. One of the many difficulties in devising a new subsidy regime is the diversity of local circumstances. Who will decide what is an appropriate level of support to keep people on the land in thinly populated areas?

I often hear hill farmers say fiercely: “We don’t want to be park keepers.” But this is what many must indeed become. Instead of signs saying “No Camping”, they should be proclaiming “Campers Welcome”. Their unprofitable if decorative sheep will have to take a back seat — no, a back field — to providing amenity, which will become ever-bigger business in our overcrowded island, especially as meat-eating continues to decline.

Another serious issue looms: the implications of the US trade deal which the government is desperately seeking. America has never done Britain a bilateral trading favour, and will not start now. It has been obvious to most of us since before the 2016 referendum that Washington will insist upon access for its farm products. These have lower production costs and animal welfare standards, chlorinated chicken being the least. The National Farmers’ Union says its members cannot compete on price with such imports. Yet, without a US trade deal, where will Britain be? We shall hear much more about this thorny dispute, which can have no good outcome, only a least-bad one.

Farmers voted overwhelmingly for Brexit, and thus they accept the need to bear their share of the pain from it. But the public should participate in a wider debate, about what sort of countryside and farming industry we should aspire to, once the British government has “taken back control”.

It seems important for the social welfare of rural areas that the tax provisions for farmland are reviewed, to halt its takeover by people who treat ownership simply as an inheritance wheeze. Subsidy has to continue, but farmers must recognise that their park-keeping function will expand. They cannot receive public subsidy while grudging public access, except on industrial safety grounds.

Like many of my generation, I shed a tear for the way of farming that I knew as a child, when cows had horns, corn was sheaved and stooked, and those who worked on the land were intimately entwined with every rural community.

Rationally, however, we know how harsh was the old way of life. Change in agriculture is inescapable. The challenge is to manage our landscape sensitively. Those who live and work in its midst deserve respect and sympathy: some smaller farmers should probably receive more cash from the subsidy pot than they get. The billionaires who merely speculate with the countryside, however, should be induced to stick to oil futures and vacuum cleaners.


PM repeatedly made inaccurate claims about child poverty – watchdog

Shadow education secretary Kate Green said: ‘It is shameful that the Prime Minister is unable to tell the truth about the hardship faced by so many families struggling to make ends meet.

‘Children and families in such difficult circumstances deserve better than this shabby treatment from an out-of-touch Prime Minister who has repeatedly failed to be honest about the challenges they face.

‘The Prime Minister must now correct the record, both publicly and in Parliament, and ensure that when he next raises his Government’s damning record on child poverty, he comes clean about what the stats are saying.

Boris Johnson exaggerated the government’s record on poverty by repeatedly using inaccurate and misleading figures, the UK statistics watchdog has found.

The Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) made the statement in response to a complaint from the End Child Poverty Coalition, which said the Prime Minister had used data ‘selectively, inaccurately and, ultimately, misleadingly’ since last December’s General Election.

The coalition said Mr Johnson’s claim on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on December 1 that there are ‘400,000 fewer children in poverty than there were in 2010’ was incorrect.

It also said Mr Johnson’s statement that ‘absolutely poverty and relative poverty have both declined under this Government’ and ‘there are hundreds of thousands, I think 400,000, fewer families living in poverty now than there were in 2010’, made at PMQs on June 17, this year was also untrue.

Furthermore, the coalition contended that at PMQs a week later, Mr Johnson incorrectly said ‘there are 100,000 fewer children in absolute poverty and 500,000 children falling below thresholds of low income and material deprivation’.

Boris Johnson exaggerated the government’s record on poverty by repeatedly using inaccurate and misleading figures, the UK statistics watchdog has found

Boris Johnson’s inaccurate claims on child poverty 

December 1: The Prime Minister said on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that there are ‘400,000 fewer children in poverty than there were in 2010’.

June 17: Mr Johnson told the Commons at PMQs that ‘absolutely poverty and relative poverty have both declined under this Government’ and ‘there are hundreds of thousands, I think 400,000, fewer families living in poverty now than there were in 2010’.

June 24: The PM said at PMQs: ‘There are 100,000 fewer children in absolute poverty and 500,000 children falling below thresholds of low income and material deprivation’.

In the letter, Anna Feuchtwang, chairwoman of the coalition, said it cannot be right that such figures are used ‘selectively’.

She wrote: ‘While it is expected – and right – that child poverty should be the subject of robust political debate, it cannot be right that official figures on something as fundamental as how many children are in poverty continue to be used selectively, inaccurately and, ultimately, misleadingly.’

Responding to the complaints set out in the letter, Ed Humpherson, director-general for regulation at the authority, said: ‘Our team has investigated the statements which you highlight (and has reached the same conclusion that these statements are incorrect).’

Poverty is difficult to definitively calculate, as the OSR explains there are four official measurements which can be used.

These are relative poverty, which records households with less than 60 per cent of contemporary median income, before and after housing costs, and absolute poverty, which compares numbers against baseline figures from 2010/11, again before and after housing costs.

In March, data from the Department for Work and Pensions estimated the number of people living in a relative low-income household after housing costs had risen to 4.5 million in 2018-19 from four million the year before.

It was the highest number of people living in poverty in the UK since figures were collated in 2002.

Poverty is difficult to definitively calculate, as the OSR explains there are four official measurements which can be used. These are relative poverty, which records households with less than 60 per cent of contemporary median income, before and after housing costs, and absolute poverty, which compares numbers against baseline figures from 2010/11, again before and after housing costs

An OSR blog post reads: ‘There is no wrong measure, but there is a wrong way of using the available measures – and that is to pick and choose which statistics to use based on what best suits the argument you happen to be making.’

Ms Feuchtwang said she welcomed the conclusion from the watchdog that the Prime Minister had used child poverty statistics incorrectly.

‘It is deeply insulting to the children and families swept into poverty when data about them is used selectively and misleadingly at the whim of politicians,’ she said.

‘The simple fact is that by any measures child poverty is rising but instead of tackling the problem the Government risks obscuring the issue and misinforming the public.

‘The lives of real people are at stake and we need consistent use of information and urgent action.’

Child Poverty Action Group chief executive Alison Garnham said: ‘The hard truth is that child poverty is growing in the UK but the Government is in denial on this – that has to shift.

‘If we are to make progress, the problem must be confronted not circumvented.

‘If the will and the focus are there, a strategy can be agreed and action taken to prevent more children from being damaged by poverty.’

She added: ‘It’s our moral responsibility to safeguard children from poverty and to invest in them.

‘It’s also the most significant investment we as a nation can make for our future.’

Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said that the longer the UK is in denial of the scale of child poverty, the harder it will be to fix.

‘This isn’t about the Punch and Judy of PMQs,’ said Mr Hussain.

‘Admitting that rising numbers of ordinary families are struggling to keep their children clothed and well fed matters to good policy making.

‘You can’t ‘level up’ the country if you’re sweeping under the carpet the big rises in child poverty clearly shown by the official figures.

‘The longer we’re in denial about the scale of the problem, the harder it will be to fix it.’

Shadow education secretary Kate Green said the Prime Minister must ‘come clean’ and correct the record on the issue.

She said: ‘It is shameful that the Prime Minister is unable to tell the truth about the hardship faced by so many families struggling to make ends meet.

‘Children and families in such difficult circumstances deserve better than this shabby treatment from an out-of-touch Prime Minister who has repeatedly failed to be honest about the challenges they face.

‘The Prime Minister must now correct the record, both publicly and in Parliament, and ensure that when he next raises his Government’s damning record on child poverty, he comes clean about what the stats are saying.

BBC One – Panorama, The Forgotten Frontline – tonight 2100

BBC One – Panorama, The Forgotten Frontline /programmes/m000lbq0

This programme will be available shortly after broadcast

Panorama follows the unfolding tragedy in care homes as they struggle to protect residents against Covid-19. Alison Holt asks if they were left to fight the virus alone.

Panorama follows the unfolding tragedy in care homes as they struggle to protect residents against the killer virus. Over several months, cameras were allowed into two very different care homes, revealing the dedication of care staff, the frustration of managers and the heartache as more and more lives were lost.

Across the country, more than 20,000 residents and care workers have died with Covid-19. Reporter Alison Holt asks if care homes were abandoned to fight the virus alone.

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