Shooting And Hunting Exempt From Covid ‘Rule Of Six’ Ban 

Exclusive: Cabinet ministers were sent an agenda item titled “Exemption: hunting and shooting”.

[An example of what this Government sees as a priority – Owl]

By Paul Waugh 

Boris Johnson is facing a fresh row over his new coronavirus “rule of six” curbs after it emerged that the government has exempted grouse shooting and other “hunting” with guns from the restrictions.

Pro-hunting and shooting groups can continue to hold gatherings of between six and 30 people because they are covered by a loophole that permits licensed “outdoor activity”.

New regulations published by the government for England just before midnight on Sunday have a string of exemptions for sports clubs, wedding receptions and even political protests.

But they also have an exemption for when “a gathering takes place outdoors (whether or not in a public outdoor space)” for the purpose of “a physical activity which is carried on outdoors”, where a licence, permit or certificate is held by the organiser.

HuffPost UK has learned that the Cabinet Office’s special Covid-19 Operations ministerial committee – chaired by Michael Gove – scheduled a meeting on Saturday, with one agenda item titled: “Exemption: hunting and shooting.”

The meeting was abruptly cancelled just hours beforehand, with cabinet ministers and officials told that this issue would be discussed later or via ministerial correspondence.

Insiders believe that the meeting was axed to avoid any ministers raising objections.

Instead, the “outdoor activity” wording was inserted into the regulations, opening the way for an exemption for so-called “country sports” such as grouse and pheasant shooting and hunting.

One source said the entire issue held up the publication of the regulations until shortly before the new law was due to kick in at midnight on Sunday.

Brand new government guidance published by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on Monday lists “shooting (including hunting and paintball that requires a shotgun or firearms certificate license)” as a “sport or organised outdoor activity”.

It appears that foxhunting may not be exempted, but the current position is unclear.

When asked by HuffPost UK if the reference to “shooting (hunting)” included foxhunting, a spokesperson said “the exemptions are as listed in the guidance”.

Former minister Tracey Crouch said: “Many will find this topsy-turvy prioritisation from government.

“I’ve had queries about choirs, community bands, addiction therapy groups, all of whom would be worthy of an exemption and instead we are scrabbling around prioritising shooting animals. It’s bonkers.”

Shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard added: “Across the country, people are struggling to get COVID-19 tests anywhere near their homes.

“But the Conservatives are distracted with trying to exempt the bloodsport passions of their big donors from coronavirus regulations. It shows where this government’s priorities really lie.

“It is clear there’s one rule for the cabinet and their mates and another for the rest of us.”

Chris Luffingham, director of campaigns at the League Against Cruel Sports, said: “The Government is giving the shooting industry carte blanche to continue its murderous activities despite the threat posed by gatherings during this awful pandemic.

“The recent Government People and Nature Survey for England found that an increasing number of people (42%) are saying that nature and wildlife are more important than ever for their wellbeing – this government exemption flies in the face of that and condemns many animals to being shot for ‘sport’.

“Lockdown offered animals a respite from the activities of hunters so we think the Government’s move to allow shooting is a backward step.”

Much of the Tory party has long been proud of its links to hunting and shooting, believing it boosts rural communities with vital income, and has received donations from its advocates.

Former Countryside Alliance chairman Simon Hart is now in Johnson’s cabinet as Welsh Secretary.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who sits on the Covid-19 Operations committee, was this summer praising the work that grouse shooting can do for moorland.

Johnson himself has written in the past that he “loved” foxhunting with dogs, once writing in the Spectator magazine of the “semi-sexual relation with the horse” and the “military-style pleasure” of moving as a unit.

Sir Humphry Wakefield, father-in-law of the PM’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings, who has shoots on his Chillingham Castle estate in Northumberland, has said “I love shooting, hunting”.

The party’s fundraising balls have frequently auctioned pheasant shooting events in Scotland. In 2017, one supporter handed over £15,000 for an eight-person excursion to shoot pheasants on a Scottish estate.

However, several Tory MPs have long campaigned against foxhunting and other “blood sports”.

Shooting – including grouse, pheasant and pigeon shooting and “recreational deer stalking” – was one of several activities permitted when lockdown was eased this summer, with no restrictions on how far people could travel to do so. 

Mask-wearing shooters were out in force for “the Glorious 12th”, the first day of the grouse shooting season in August.

A UK Government spokesperson said: “We have exempted over thirty types of sport, exercise and physical activity such as football, rugby and other outdoor pursuits

“Outdoor activity is safer from a transmission perspective, and it is often easier to social distance. Where such activities take place, safety measures must be taken including conducting a risk assessment and compliance with COVID-19 Secure guidance.”

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation said in a statement last week: “The latest guidance says that there will be exceptions where groups can be larger than six, including work or voluntary services as well as outdoor sport and physical activity events.

“BASC continues to press ministers for further detail but believes that these exemptions encompass shooting where shoots operate in accordance with Covid secure guidance issued by representative shooting organisations, including BASC.”

The Countryside Alliance also said last week: “From our understanding at present businesses and organised sports operating in England to Covid secure standards will be exempt from the new restrictions on social gatherings.

“Details to follow, but we are confident rural activities will be able to continue with current safeguards in place.”


Sasha’s Sensational Diaries – The Hissy Fits Start

SARAH VINE: I hope Sasha Swire has got her tin hat on

[And the toilet seat down – owl]

Sarah Vine 

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve met Sasha Swire, the wife of former Tory MP Hugo Swire whose sensational memoir, Diary of an MP’s Wife, was the subject of an interview with her this weekend

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve met Sasha Swire, the wife of former Tory MP Hugo Swire whose sensational memoir, Diary of an MP’s Wife, was the subject of an interview with her this weekend.

But to be honest, once would have been enough. 

She is one of those women who leaves an indelible impression on the mind, a force of nature whose innate self-confidence and complete inability to self- censor makes her the centre of attention at any social gathering.

She certainly used to make me feel like a bit of a wallflower, and that’s no mean feat. 

A big part of it, I think, was to do with class: She has that effortless, unconscious entitlement common among the British upper classes, that unbridled sense of self-importance that comes with growing up around power.

And, judging by the interview and extracts, she hasn’t changed. Still as mischievous as ever, still fond of her own opinions and unsparing in her criticism of those – invariably almost everyone – found wanting.

The daughter of the former defence secretary and one-time Lazard bank chairman Sir John Nott (who, as it happens, has form when it comes to racy memoirs, once confessing that he fancied Margaret Thatcher something rotten), she is married to Old Etonian Hugo Swire, whom David Cameron fired as shadow culture secretary after he intimated that the Conservatives might put an end to free museum entry.

At the time Sasha was furious and made no secret of the fact – something I rather respect her for. 

But it was always understood that Cameron, a fellow Etonian, would make it up to his old pal Swire. He never made it into the Cabinet – but Cameron did knight him in his resignation honours list.

Indeed the Swires were a key part of the support network the Camerons fell back onto after the fallout from the 2016 referendum (Hugo toyed with the idea of coming out for Brexit, but in the end decided to support Dave instead). They were guests at the Camerons’ house in Cornwall just a few weeks ago.

So quite how this book will go down in their immediate social circle is anyone’s guess. But judging by the messages I had yesterday from various mutual friends, not entirely favourably. 

Theresa May is described as ‘Old Ma May’, while George Osborne becomes ‘Boy George’ in the book. 

One described it as ‘an act of social suicide’, another as ‘baffling’. Another said, ‘Sasha always felt that Hugo should have been in the Cabinet. She never quite forgave Dave for that. Perhaps this is her revenge.’

Who knows. Perhaps she just needed the money, but more likely, I suspect, is her desire to be seen as a writer in her own right. Certainly allowing herself to be photographed next to a prominent copy of the Alan Clark diaries gives you a sense of how she sees herself. 

And she has written at least one literary novel (not bad, by all accounts) that has never been published, and when interviewed she was keen to mention its existence. Perhaps her hope is that this will now see the light of day.

Nevertheless, it does seem odd that someone whose position in society has always been of paramount importance should choose to spill the beans so dramatically. I wonder if, because of the breezy confidence her background has instilled in her she may have dramatically underestimated the ripples this may cause.

Swire herself grew up in London, living in the family’s grand house in Chelsea but also, for a while, in Admiralty House in Whitehall when her father was defence secretary under Thatcher. 

According to another mutual friend she harboured ambitions of being an ‘It girl’; that never quite transpired, possibly because in truth she’s more country than town, the kind of woman who makes a pair of wellies look impossibly sexy, and who talks enthusiastically about ‘bonking’ – more Jilly Cooper than Candace Bushnell, if you know what I mean.

I certainly always got the impression that she thought the whole lot of us were utter fools, and that she and Hugo were the only people with any iota of sense. And I’m not sure she was even that certain about Hugo.

If I recall rightly, the first time I encountered her was at supper at the Camerons house, in their old place in North Kensington, probably circa 2005.

Those suppers were always fairly convivial, relaxed affairs, but I remember her being amazingly confident in her own opinions and, it seemed to me, overtly and unnecessarily combative. 

She had a way of haranguing people, particularly men, that hovered somewhere between a come-on and a punishment beating.

Poor things never quite knew how to respond to this rangy blonde with legs that seemed to go on forever. 

Hugo would look on in abject adoration as she held forth with breezy confidence about everything, from welfare cheats to the Big Society.

I’ve not had sight of the book itself. In the extracts published she describes me as ‘always meddling’, and she pooh-poohs my friendship with Samantha Cameron, painting me as some sort of willing skivvy, making fish pie while Samantha swanned around being glamorous.

Sasha Swire’s candid journal about her life as wife of former Foreign Office minister Sir Hugo Swire is due to be published next week. In it, she calls Boris Johnson a ‘calculating machine’ and his partner Carrie Symonds a ‘hot young vixen’ 

I honestly don’t recall ever making fish pie for Samantha, in fact I don’t think I’ve ever made a fish pie in my life (not one you could serve to guests at No10 Downing street, at any rate). 

As to being Samantha’s skivvy, yes it’s true I used to help her out – but only insofar as good friends do when life gets busy and complicated. 

There were many during those years who saw our friendship as a threat to their own sphere of influence, and it would appear that Swire was one of them.

But perhaps what’s most disturbing – and many of those I spoke to yesterday about the book echoed this sentiment – is the calculated nature of these diaries. The idea that, after every dinner party or weekend away, she was recording events in a manner designed clearly to be malicious, feels somewhat sinister.

Over the years people have often asked me if I’ve been keeping a diary, but the truth is I have not (more fool me, if the rumours of the large advance she received are true). 

I’ve done and witnessed some incredible things in my time, and while I’m always happy to share some of the more harmless anecdotes of my existence (often with readers of this newspaper), there are some which will forever be out of bounds to all but those concerned.

And that’s the trouble with these kinds of memoirs: No one’s interested in reading about the good times; being nice doesn’t sell. 

To be successful you have to be as uninhibited and unsparing in detailing the foibles of others as possible. And, judging by what I’ve read so far, Sasha has certainly managed that.

No doubt these diaries will provoke a good deal of mischief and scandal. Inevitably, though, there will be a price to pay and, as someone who has seen first hand what a rough old game politics can be I do hope for Sasha’s sake she’s got her tin hat firmly on.


Firms get public data in Dominic Cummings tech drive

“Mr Cummings is also working to set up a “skunkworks” in No 10, with the establishment of a fellowship scheme for ten data analysts and advertisements for a £200,000-a-year role as chief data officer working alongside Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister. The term “skunkworks” was first used by workers at the aircraft maker Lockheed Martin to describe a group working on innovative projects, unencumbered by bureaucracy.”

George Grylls 
Private companies will get access to public data under a pilot scheme announced by the government to start Dominic Cummings’s unshackling of the tech industry.

The National Data Strategy, published last week, says that “perceived and genuine” legislative barriers had prevented greater data sharing. The paper claimed that releasing anonymised data could aid research. It gave the example of court submissions being shared with researchers to establish patterns of repeat criminal behaviour.

Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, speaking at London Tech Week alongside representatives from Facebook and Microsoft, said that data was one of the most valuable commodities in the world. “Forget oil,” he said. “The fuel of our modern economy . . . is data.”

The £2.6 million pilot scheme will “test the possibilities” of sharing data with private companies, initially on a project to detect online dangers such as cyberbullying. A contract is understood to be going out for tender.

Mr Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, has long been critical of data privacy laws. No 10 now appears convinced that there needs to be a permanent change in the way that public data is used after collaborating with companies during the pandemic. Palantir, Faculty, Amazon, Google and Microsoft were invited to use government databases to help to co-ordinate the response to the coronavirus.

Anonymised information provided included chest scans and NHS bed occupancy levels. Mr Dowden noted that the pandemic had set a “high watermark” for data-sharing.

Mr Cummings is also working to set up a “skunkworks” in No 10, with the establishment of a fellowship scheme for ten data analysts and advertisements for a £200,000-a-year role as chief data officer working alongside Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister. The term “skunkworks” was first used by workers at the aircraft maker Lockheed Martin to describe a group working on innovative projects, unencumbered by bureaucracy.

It comes after the government proposed the use of online ID cards for anything from drinking in pubs to registering with a GP.

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, the civil liberties group, criticised the influence of Mr Cummings. “When most governments are trying to rein in data grabs by the private sector, our government seems to be doing the opposite,” she said. “This government is churning out increasingly dystopian plans at a huge cost to the public purse and civil liberties.”

The tech industry, however, welcomed the proposals. Darren Hardman, general manager of Amazon Web Services in Britain, said: “Making more effective use of data . . . is key to the UK’s long-term economic growth.”

Chi Onwurah, the shadow digital secretary, said that without a regulatory framework the plans amounted to “a power grab by No 10 for people’s personal information”.

Mr Dowden maintained in his speech that the government would only use people’s data “ethically”.

Planning applications validated by EDDC for week beginning 31 August

Revealed: ex-MPs use parliament access passes over 2,500 times in a year

A “strategic counsel” for the lobbying firm Crosby Textor is among 324 former MPs who together used grace and favour passes to access the Houses of Parliament more than 2,500 times in a single year.

Katherine Purvis 

Data released after a significant freedom of information victory by the Guardian reveals how frequently individual former MPs have been using their “category X” parliamentary pass, which grants the bearer continued access to the corridors of power after they step down, along with parliament’s subsidised restaurants and bars.

MPs who serve a single parliamentary term are automatically eligible to apply for a pass, but critics argue the system is open to abuse.

Commons authorities attempted to prevent the information being released, claiming it would infringe former members’ personal data rights. However, the information commissioner ruled in the Guardian’s favour, determining that the public interest in the material was of such strength that it should override data protection safeguards.

The data revealed that Stewart Jackson, the Conservative MP for Peterborough from 2005 to 2017, used his grace and favour pass 82 times in the year from July 2018 to June 2019 – almost one in every two days on which parliament sat in that period.

According to his LinkedIn profile, he has worked as a lobbyist since August 2018, first for Crosby Textor as a “strategic counsel” and latterly for his own outfit, Political Insight, as well as being a columnist for The Telegraph. Jackson did not respond to attempts to contact him.

The most prolific returnee was Nick de Bois, the Conservative MP for Enfield North from 2010 to 2015, who visited 84 times. He said he served as Dominic Raab’s chief of staff and later as a volunteer for his campaign to be leader of the Conservative party during the year in question. He was also a radio host during the same period.

Phil Woolas, the deputy leader of the Commons at the time the passes were introduced and subsequently a Labour minister, said the reasons for introducing the scheme were purely social.

“If you’ve worked for somewhere for 40 years, and you get your gold watch and you get thrown out, it’s quite nice to be able to meet your old mates. It was as simple as that,” he said. “It was just a reason for ex-MPs to meet up and have dinner.”

Woolas, who used his pass once, was removed as MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth in 2010 after an electoral court found his campaign had made false allegations that his Liberal Democrat opponent was linked to Islamist extremism.

He now works for the consultancy UK Partnerships. He said he had not held a category X pass for several years and did not use it in connection with business purposes.

Ivor Caplin, the Labour MP for Hove from 1997 to 2005 who now runs Ivor Caplin Consultancy, used his grace and favour pass 48 times.

A profile on the website of a volunteering charity where Caplin serves as a trustee describes how his consultancy work “has continued to bring him into regular contact with both politicians and officials” in the UK and abroad.

However, Caplin said he did not use the pass for his private work, visiting in his capacity as a national spokesman and then chair of the Jewish Labour Movement.

“Given the antisemitism crisis in the party at that time I made numerous visits to the house to discuss this with MPs, peers and others, including journalists,” he said. “I do not and never have used the house for the purposes of my business.”

Stephen Dorrell, a health secretary under John Major and now chair of the companies Dorson Group and LaingBuisson, visited 29 times. However, he also denied using his pass for any company business and said in an email that his visits related to his work with the European Movement campaign group.

“I attended numerous meetings convened by MPs of all parties who were opposed to Brexit, and keen to link with European Movement grassroots activity,” he wrote. “I also attended occasional meetings in parliament in that period in connection with my role as chair of the NHS Confederation and, in a social capacity, to visit former colleagues who remain friends,” he added.

The Guardian first wrote to the House of Commons requesting information about the use of grace and favour passes in August last year. Citing data protection, the Commons released a list of the numbers of times each pass had been used in a single year, but refused to link each number to a named former MP.

Following a complaint by the Guardian, the Information Commissioner’s Office, which regulates freedom of information and data protection regulations, ordered that the information be released and warned that the parliamentary authorities’ current system was so unregulated as to be vulnerable to misuse.

The ruling observed that while ministers, MPs, peers, political journalists and parliamentary assistants are required to make transparent their identities and financial interests, ex-MPs with grace and favour passes are not.

“Given that the evidence suggests that several of the passholders are employed by lobbying or public relations companies, there is a legitimate concern about how such passes are used,” it read. “Whilst the commissioner is not aware of any evidence to suggest widespread misuse of the passes, she does consider that the current system is vulnerable to abuse.”

Rachel Davies Teka, the head of advocacy at the anti-corruption campaign Transparency International UK, said grace and favour passes threatened the integrity of parliament and should be banned.

“Close access to lawmakers is highly valued by those seeking to influence public policy. Using a parliamentary security pass in the course of paid lobbying activity is an abuse of that privilege,” she said. “We cannot see any justification for this entitlement that warrants accepting this risk.”

A Commons spokesperson said: “It has been practice for some time to provide Palace of Westminster security identity passes to former members of parliament,” adding that it was forbidden for former MPs to use their passes for lobbying.

Additional reporting by Katherine Purvis and Felix Irmer

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