Tory MPs rebuked over letter to judge in Charlie Elphicke references case

This is shocking – Owl

The head of the judiciary has admonished six Tory parliamentarians for seeking to influence a judge overseeing a hearing this week on whether references written in support of the former MP Charlie Elphicke can be made public.

Ben Quinn

The six wrote last week to senior judges, copying in the judge who will oversee the hearing on Wednesday, expressing concern that “matters of principle” should first be considered by senior members of the judiciary and by parliament.

But in a response from the office of the lord chief justice for England and Wales, they were told it was “improper” to seek to influence the decision of a judge who would ultimately rule on the basis of evidence and argument in court.

“It is all the more regrettable when representatives of the legislature, writing as such on House of Commons notepaper, seek to influence a judge in a private letter and do so without regard for the separation of powers or the independence of the judiciary,” said the reply from Ben Yallop, the private secretary to the lord chief justice.

“It is equally improper to suggest that senior judges should in some way intervene to influence the decision of another judge. The independence of the judges extends to being free from interference by judicial colleagues or superiors in their decision-making. Judges must be free to make their decision independently of pressure or influence from all, including legislators.”

The original letter was sent to the president of the Queen’s bench division and the senior presiding judge for England and Wales by the Tory peer David Freud and the MPs Sir Roger Gale, Adam Holloway, Bob Stewart, Theresa Villiers and Natalie Elphicke.

The latter is the estranged wife of Charlie Elphicke, who succeeded him as the MP for Dover before his conviction and jailing this year for three counts of sexual assault against two women.

The other five parliamentarians identified themselves last week as the authors of some of the character references provided for Elphicke’s sentencing, and claimed that publishing the statements could deter people from providing similar background details in future cases.

An application is being made on Wednesday by the Guardian, Times and Associated Newspapers for release of the letters where the author is a public figure, in public office or holds or has held a position of public responsibility.

Where the authors are ordinary members of the public – such as former constituents – the media organisations’ position is that if publication will cause unwanted intrusion into private life, the letters could be anonymised.

The issue has also been raised in parliament by Stewart, who called for a debate. The leader of the house, Jacob Rees-Mogg, told him he had raised a concerning point and said he would refer the matter to the lord chief justice and the attorney general.

UK government running ‘Orwellian’ unit to block release of ‘sensitive’ information

The British government has been accused of running an ‘Orwellian’ unit in Michael Gove’s office that instructs Whitehall departments on how to respond to Freedom of Information requests and shares personal information about journalists, openDemocracy can reveal today.

Peter Geoghegan 

Experts warn that the practice could be breaking the law – and openDemocracy is now working with the law firm Leigh Day on a legal bid to force Gove’s Cabinet Office to reveal full details of how its secretive ‘Clearing House’ unit operates. 

Freedom of Information (FOI) requests are supposed to be ‘applicant-blind’: meaning who makes the request should not matter. But it now emerges that government departments and non-departmental public bodies have been referring ‘sensitive’ FOI requests from journalists and researchers to the Clearing House in Gove’s department in a move described by a shadow cabinet minister as “blacklisting”.

This secretive FOI unit gives advice to other departments “to protect sensitive information”, and collates lists of journalists with details about their work. These lists have included journalists from openDemocracy, The Guardian, The Times, the BBC, and many more, as well as researchers from Privacy International and Big Brother Watch and elsewhere.

The unit has also signed off on FOI responses from other Whitehall departments – effectively centralising control within Gove’s office over what information is released to the public.

Conservative MP David Davis called on government ministers to “explain to the House of Commons precisely why they continue” with a Clearing House operation that is “certainly against the spirit of that Act – and probably the letter, too.” 

Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister Helen Hayes said: “This is extremely troubling. If the cabinet office is interfering in FOI requests and seeking to work around the requirements of the Act by blacklisting journalists, it is a grave threat to our values and transparency in our democracy.”

Details of the Clearing House are revealed in a new report on Freedom of Information published today by openDemocracy. 

‘Art of Darkness’ finds that the UK government has granted fewer and rejected more FOI requests than ever before – with standards falling particularly sharply in the most important Whitehall departments. 

The Clearing House circulates a daily list of FOI requests to up to 70 departments and public bodies that contains details of all requests that it is advising on. This list covers FOI requests about “sensitive subjects” as well as ‘round robin’ requests made to multiple government departments.

Press freedom campaigners have sharply criticised the Clearing House operation and have called for full transparency.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “The existence of this clearing house in the Cabinet Office is positively Orwellian. It poses serious questions about the government’s approach to access to information, its attitude to the public’s right to know and the collation of journalists’ personal information.”

Jon Baines, a data protection expert at the law firm Mischon de Reya and chair of the National Association of Data Protection Officers, said that he was “far from assured that the operation of the Clearing House complies with data protection law.”

“Data protection law requires, as a basic principle, that personal data be processed fairly and in a transparent manner – on the evidence that I have seen, I do not feel that the Clearing House meets these requirements,” Baines added.

‘Art of Darkness’: the worst offenders

The new report published by openDemocracy paints a disturbing picture of the state of Freedom of Information in Britain. 

In 2019, central UK government departments granted fewer and rejected more FOI requests than ever before. In the last five years, the Cabinet Office – as well as the Treasury, Foreign Office and Home Office – have all withheld more requests than they granted, according to the report.

The Cabinet Office – which is the government department responsible for Freedom of Information policy – has one of the worst records on access to information. Last year, Michael Gove’s department was the branch of Whitehall most likely to have its decisions referred to the Information Commissioner’s Office, which regulates information rights in the UK.   

New analysis by openDemocracy also shows that some public bodies are cynically undermining requests for information by failing to respond to requests in any way – a tactic described in openDemocracy’s report as ‘stonewalling’. Decision Notices, which are issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) about stonewalling, have increased by 70 per cent in the last five years. Again, the Cabinet Office is a repeat offender. 

The study reveals that the ICO fully or partially upheld complaints about mishandled requests in 48 per cent of its Decision Notices last year: the highest proportion in five years.

Yet the ICO’s capacity to investigate complaints and enforce the Act is diminishing. The regulator has seen its budget cut by 41 per cent over the last decade, while its complaint caseload has increased by 46 per cent in the same period.

The ICO’s enforcement may also be hampered by its governance structure – under which it is accountable on FOI to the Cabinet Office. Michael Gove’s department also is involved in setting the ICO’s annual budget.

Responding to openDemocracy’s questions about the Clearing House, a government spokesperson said:

“The Cabinet Office plays an important role through the FOI Clearing House of ensuring there is a standard approach across government in the way we consider and respond to requests. 

“With increasing transparency, we receive increasingly more complex requests under Freedom of Information. We must balance the public need to make information available with our duty to protect sensitive information and ensure national security.” 

‘Jenna Corderoy is a journalist’

openDemocracy has had first hand experience of how the Clearing House slows down or obstructs FOI requests, and profiles journalists, on a number of different occasions.

In February 2020, openDemocracy journalist Jenna Corderoy sent an FOI request to the Ministry of Defence about meetings with short-lived special advisor Andrew Sabisky. The MoD subsequently complained internally that “due to the time spent in getting an approval from Clearing House, the FOI requestor has put in a complaint to [the FOI regulator] the ICO”. 

The MoD refused the Sabisky request after 196 days, which is more than six times the normal limit for responding to an FOI request.

Separately, when Corderoy sent a Freedom of Information request to the Attorney General’s Office, staff at the office wrote in internal emails: “Just flagging that Jenna Corderoy is a journalist” and “once the response is confirmed, I’ll just need [redacted] to sign off on this before it goes out, since Jenna Corderoy is a reporter for openDemocracy”. 

Today’s findings on the operation of the Clearing House add to mounting questions about the British government’s approach to transparency and press freedom. 

Earlier this year, Number 10 was heavily criticised after it barred openDemocracy from COVID press briefings. The Ministry of Defence was also subsequently accused of ‘blacklisting’ DeclassifiedUK after the department refused to provide comment to the investigative website.

Edin Omanovic, advocacy director at Privacy International said that “the point of Freedom of Information is to access information from individual authorities themselves, not from a centralised body within the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office should not be interfering.”

Silke Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch said, “We’re appalled that such important information rights have been so disrespected by the government. The centralisation of difficult FOIs, the secrecy of this list and the fact that our names have been circulated around Whitehall is seriously chilling. This is a shameful reflection on the government’s attitude towards transparency.”

Long legal battle for transparency 

openDemocracy first asked for copies of the Clearing House lists back in 2018. The Cabinet Office refused this Freedom of Information request but, 23 months later, in July 2020 the ICO finally decided that the lists – including the advice that the Cabinet Office provides on dealing with FOI requests – should be disclosed to the public. 

While the Cabinet Office eventually disclosed some material from the Clearing House list, it is keeping its advice to departments secret and is appealing against the ICO’s decision. 

openDemocracy, represented by the law firm Leigh Day, will now be submitting evidence to an information tribunal hearing to determine whether this information about the Clearing House should be made public. 

According to ICO guidance, a public authority can only look up a requester’s identity if the request is repeated – potentially a vexatious request – or whether the cost of two or more requests made by the requester can be aggregated under FOI.  

The ICO has been aware of the Clearing House’s existence for some time. In 2005, the Clearing House’s annual budget was reported to be £700,000.

The Clearing House was initially housed within the then Department for Constitutional Affairs then later moved to the Ministry of Justice. In 2015, when the Cabinet Office took responsibility for freedom of information policy, the department also took over the Clearing House, despite concerns about its operation

The Cabinet Office has previously advertised roles to work in the Cabinet Office’s Clearing House. Specific responsibilities listed for the positions included “creating a weekly FOI tracker of new cases and releases”, and “forwarding drafts for clearance, reverting to departments with advice and negotiating redrafted responses”.  

But openDemocracy’s findings – and the upcoming tribunal case – have highlighted fresh and pressing concerns, including among rights advocates who campaigned for the initial, groundbreaking Freedom of Information legislation more than 15 years ago. The Campaign for Freedom of Information’s Katherine Gundersen has said: “It’s time the clearing house was subjected to proper scrutiny.”

Meanwhile Gavin Freeguard, head of data and transparency at the Institute for Government, said that, 15 years after the Freedom of Information act came into effect, it was not right that the public was still having to fight to access information.

“With delayed responses, more requests being rejected than ever before and these reports of a Clearing House it feels like we’re having to fight for the right to information all over again,” said Freeguard.

“And all this at a time when it’s vital for politicians, the press and the public to be able to scrutinise government.” 

The Cabinet Office organises quarterly engagement meetings and biannual information rights forums with other government departments. openDemocracy sent an FOI requesting materials from these meetings and forums, but the request was denied.

LED Leisure set to receive huge rescue package

While the government has pledged to invest £100m in supporting public leisure centres this winter, no details of the scheme have yet been made available, with East Devon not knowing how much, if any, they will receive.

[From the cabinet briefing papers here is a link to LED accounts to year ending 31 Dec 2019]


A rescue package of nearly three quarters of a million pounds is set to be given to LED Leisure to ensure they can continue to operate as a result of losses incurred by coronavirus lockdowns.

East Devon District Council’s cabinet on Wednesday night [11 November] heard that the forecasted losses from the implications of Covid-19 meant that without additional support, LED’s operations would not be viable, and would likely lead to closing of the facilities, particularly the swimming pools.

While leisure centres in Sidmouth, Ottery St Mary, Axminster, Colyton, Exmouth and Honiton had reopened prior to the second lockdown, as well as swimming pools in Sidmouth, Honiton and Exmouth, Broadclyst and Cranbrook leisure centres had remained closed.

While the government has pledged to invest £100m in supporting public leisure centres this winter, no details of the scheme have yet been made available, with East Devon not knowing how much, if any, they will receive.

The cabinet on Wednesday agreed to recommend to full council that an additional subsidy to LED of £732,275 to reimburse their actual net losses incurred to September 2020 resulting from Covid-19 is paid.

They also agreed that from October 2020 a monthly review and payment is then made until the end of March 2021 to cover further net losses incurred, but that the total of any additional subsidy payment in the current financial year shall not exceed £1,339,000.

In the report to the cabinet, Charlie Plowden, service lead for countryside and leisure, said: “The financial position of LED is outlined in the report including their incurred costs to date and future projected losses as result of Covid-19. If the Council decide not to financial supported LED then their reserves are projected to fall to £14,000 by the end of November, a position which would not be sustainable.

“Clearly East Devon District Council wants to be supporting our leisure provider to enable them to maintain their facilities and events programmes, which contribute towards our shared health & wellbeing objectives. Officers have provided assurance to LED that we would use our best endeavours, subject to Council approval, to ensure that their budget deficit is met

“If the situation becomes worse, then a further update report will be brought back to Cabinet via the new LED Monitoring Committee detailing the options and requirements. In the meantime, all attempts will continue by Cabinet and Officers to recover LED’s lost income from Government, or if a payment is received direct to LED then our funding arrangements will allow us to recover any sums we have paid.”

Councillor Bruce de Saram said closures would be bad thing, but there was a need to ensure sustainable long-term growth and they were fit for purpose in the future. He added: “We don’t want them to close but we need to find the right solution that doesn’t commit us to large funding.”

Cllr Paul Hayward said: “We are where we are and we will be made out to be the baddies if we withdraw the facilities, but we are not even getting the courtesy of a response from government. Writing and getting no response is disgusting and this is the fault of Government who have not thought out the funding process. They are leaving our finances and LEDs on a knife edge.”

Leader of the council, Cllr Paul Arnott, added: “We are walking the tightrope between keeping this going and not wanting to write a blank cheque.”

The cabinet unanimously agreed to recommend to full council to pay the additional £732,275 subsidy to LED Leisure to cover losses to September, and then for a monthly review and further payments to be made which shall not exceed £1,339,000.

They also called for the district’s three MPs to as matter of urgency lobby ministers to ensure leisure trusts receive Covid-related leisure funding equitable to non-trust run leisure centres and to try and hold an urgent meeting with the relevant minister where they can explain the difficulty as a result of failure to provide funding and to demand it is immediately forthcoming.

Covid: England’s new post-lockdown tier system explained

$64,000 question: which tier will East Devon be in?

Simon Murphy 

While the end of the month-long Covid-19 lockdown 2.0 in England will come as welcome news to many, the strengthened tier system with which it is to be replaced could leave some people scratching their heads as they grapple with a fresh set of complex rules. Here we explain how some of the key aspects of the new system – due to be imposed when restrictions end on 2 December – compare with the old one.

Tier 1

From 2 December

Under the new system hospitality businesses in England can stay open until 11pm with table service only but last orders must be made by 10pm, in an effort to stagger departures. The “rule of six” will also remain in place indoors, meaning social household mixing is still allowed.

Spectator sport is set to resume, albeit with limits on numbers and abiding by social distancing. In tier 1, there will be a maximum crowd capacity outdoors of 50% of occupancy of the stadium or 4,000 people, whichever is smaller. Indoors, the maximum capacity is 1,000.

In tier 1, people will be encouraged to minimise travel and work from home where possible. Support bubbles – which allowed a single household to join with another household – are also being broadened across all tiers. Parents with a child under one will be able to form a support bubble, as well as those with a child under five who needs continuous care, such as a child with a disability. Also, in cases where there is a single adult carer, for a partner with dementia for example, they would also be able to form a support bubble.

How was it before?

In the least restrictive tier, also known as alert level “medium”, the rule of six applied indoors and outdoors, meaning up to half a dozen people from different households could gather. Hospitality businesses, such as pubs and restaurants, could stay open but were forced to shut by 10pm – a move that prompted much criticism, including from Conservative backbenchers.

Tier 2

From 2 December

Under the new system, although hospitality venues will be allowed to stay open until 11pm – with last orders at 10pm – only those that serve substantial meals can operate. It means pubs and bars that do not will have to close.

As before, social mixing outside of households or support bubbles will not be allowed indoors. The rule of six will apply outdoors.

Spectators will be allowed to watch sport in tier 2, with a maximum crowd capacity outdoors of 50% of the capacity of the stadium or 2,000 people, whichever is smaller. Indoors, the maximum capacity is 1,000.

Indoor entertainment venues, such as cinemas, casinos and bowling alleys, must also close.

How was it before?

In the “high” alert level tier, faced by Londoners and others, people were prohibited from mixing socially indoors with anybody outside of their household or support bubble but the rule of six remained in place outdoors. Hospitality businesses, such as pubs and restaurants, could open until 10pm but people were only allowed to visit with their household or support bubble.

Tier 3

From 2 December

Hospitality venues will have to close, except for delivery and takeaway service. In tier 3, hotels and other accommodation providers must also close, except for specific work purposes where people cannot return home. Outdoor sports, including golf and tennis, will be allowed to continue in all tiers, as will amateur team sports such as football. Unlike the first two tiers, spectators will not be allowed to watch sport in tier 3.

Across all tiers, shops, personal care, gyms and the wider leisure sector are set to reopen. Collective worship and weddings – with a maximum of 15 in attendance – can also resume.

How was it before?

In the most restrictive tier, known as the “very high” alert level that was endured by vast swathes of the north of England, mixing socially indoors between households – unless a support bubble was in place – was banned. Under baseline measures hospitality venues serving substantial food could remain open until 10pm. Up to six people from different households could socialise outdoors in public spaces, such as parks, beaches or public gardens.

 Boris Johnson sets out ‘tougher’ tiered restrictions for England during Commons debate – video

MP likens government to Oliver Cromwell over Christmas restrictions

Sir Desmond asked Boris Johnson: “The last ruler that told us how we may or may not celebrate Christmas was Oliver Cromwell. It didn’t end well, did it?”

Darren Slade

A CONSERVATIVE MP has likened the government to Puritan Oliver Cromwell as Britain faces restrictions on its Christmas celebrations.

New Forest West MP Sir Desmond Swayne questioned the prime minister after a Commons statement on the restrictions that will take the place of the current lockdown.

The prime minister said the UK deserved “some kind of Christmas”, but rules on social gatherings have not yet been finalised.

Sir Desmond asked Boris Johnson: “The last ruler that told us how we may or may not celebrate Christmas was Oliver Cromwell. It didn’t end well, did it?”

Oliver Cromwell, who ruled England as Lord Protector from 1653-1658, supported measures that sought to stop the festivities which surrounded Christmas.

Boris Johnson said: “My right honourable friend is completely right in his basic instincts, which I share, and his fundamental libertarian yearnings, which I also share.

“I love Christmas. I love a big get-together. I think the trouble is that the people of this country can see that there is a real risk that if we blow it with Christmas, with a big blowout Christmas, then we’ll pay for it in the new year and they want a cautious and balanced approach and that’s what we will deliver for the whole UK.”

Sir Desmond’s concise question drew praise from deputy speaker Dame Eleanor Laing, who said: “Can I make a plea for all members to be as brief for the right honourable gentleman for New Forest West? Because after two hours we’re not even half way through the number of people who are here hoping to ask questions in this statement.”

Project launched to build beach ramp, costing up to £50k, on Sidmouth beach

The elderly and people with mobility issues will soon be able to walk on the sand and dip their toes in the sea at Sidmouth, if up to £50,000 can be raised for a new beach ramp.

An exciting new project has been launched to design and build an access ramp at Chit Rocks in Sidmouth.

Project Logo

The elderly and people with mobility issues will soon be able to walk on the sand and dip their toes in the sea at Sidmouth, if up to £50,000 can be raised for a new beach ramp.

An exciting new project has been launched to design and build an access ramp at Chit Rocks in Sidmouth.

Town resident Dave Rafferty, who is organising the project, said he experienced first hand, as a grandparent, the difficulties of getting onto the sandy beach with pushchairs and toddlers in tow.

Dave has now set a £50,000 target in a bid to pay for the project which has been back by Sidmouth Town Council and East Devon District Council.

NPS South West has also thrown its support behind the project which means the survey and design work can start straight away, and will be funded directly by NPS.

Sidmouth Coastal Community Hub has also agreed to host the project and provide the necessary oversight and banking facilities.

Chit Rocks 1

Donations have started to come in and Devon County Councillor Stuart Hughes has already agreed to support the project and has allocated £1,000 from his locality budget.

Dave added: “We are lucky to be fit and active but none the less struggled with the pebbled beach and steep steps.

“In talking with others who were experiencing the same problem we realised this could be easily overcome with a ramp at Chit Rocks.

“It would allow frail elderly people and anyone with mobility problems to once again walk on the sand and dip their toes in the sea.

“The town and district council were approached for initial advice and with support given in principle, the project launched earlier this month.

Chit Rocks 2

“A Facebook page and Go Fund Me appeal were set up to start raising funds and awareness.

“There is still a long way to go to raise enough funds for construction costs so if anyone would like to donate or support in any way please get in touch by phone.”

The NPS South West spokesperson added: “NPS South West are delighted to support this local initiative and be part of an exciting project to provide a permanent ramp directly onto Chit Rocks sands, providing access for many people who currently struggle or are unable to access and enjoy this lovely beach.”

Contact Dave by calling 07977 064498.

Click here to see the latest updates on the Sidmouth Coastal Community Hub Ramp Facebook page.

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The public sector saved Britain. So why are MPs who broke us getting a raise?

East Devon Owl finds common ground with the Fleet Street Fox. Will we see East Devon MPs donating their increase to charity – as Ben Bradshaw does in Exeter?

This government is awe-inspiring.

Fleet Street Fox

Because just when you think it’s hit a peak of venal scumbaggery which cannot possibly be surpassed, Boris Johnson’s “cabinet of giants” strains its sinews to manage a further feat of breathtaking bastardy.

Just when you thought paying their mates millions was bad, they ‘lose the paperwork’ for up to £18billion of government contracts. When you think paying £50million for an absence of ferries was the worst they could manage, then find they’ve blown £12billion on barely any tests or tracing. And once you have ingested the news of a public sector pay freeze on the grounds of “fairness”, they are wheeled out to defend a pay increase for themselves.

The likes of Matt Hancock have had so much practice this year at twisting truth and language that their necks are no longer made of brass, but pure tungsten. A man who can claim he “threw a protective ring around care homes” by turning them into plague pits can have no issues with taking home 4 times the average pay of a nurse who risked their life mopping up his disasters.

Newspapers have been widely briefed that in Wednesday’s spending review, Chancellor Rishi Sunak will announce a freeze on public sector pay, with the exception of NHS doctors and nurses. The reason is because so many in the private sector have suffered in the pandemic that it would not be fair – and, in tax revenue terms, even harder to fund – pay increases for all 5.4m of the nation’s public servants.

Today it’s been revealed that MPs, on the other hand, are due a 4.1% uplift, equivalent to £3,300 on their basic £81,932 salary. The official line is that, because MPs pay is set by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, it’s nothing to do with them, guv. Unfortunately, calling something “independent” does not make it so.

IPSA’s board is appointed, funded, and set its rules by the Speaker’s Committee. It consists of Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle MP, Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, chair of the Committee of Privileges Chris Bryant MP, as well as another 5 MPs, and 3 lay members appointed by, you guessed it, MPs.

The definition of “independent” means to be free of outside authority or control. But the system MPs set up for themselves after the 2009 expenses scandal is the same as it had before, when the House of Commons voted on its own pay, except fewer of them get a vote, and there’s less to see. It’s a brilliant example of how a huge scandal led to greater official obscurity.

“Scrutiny, mutiny, it’s all the same to I” (Image: Anna Turley MP/Getty)

The police’s independent review body, on the other hand, includes ex-police, a magistrate, and an economics professor. There’s another economist on the one for school teachers, along with a retired university vice-chancellor, and an ex-headteacher. The one that covers the NHS includes several people who worked in HR, and yet another economics professor. An existing police officer, teacher, or nurse has no say on who sits on those boards, their budgets, or how they make their decisions.

In July, the government decided to honour the pay review suggestions made by these truly-independent bodies for the entire public sector. So nurses are getting 2.8%, teachers 2.75%, police 2.5%.

This was dressed up as a pay rise for their hard work. In fact, it was the pay they deserved for the work their did before the pandemic hit; not a bump, so much as their due. And it came, in many cases, along with cuts to budgets, which means those running the hospitals, schools, and police forces had to decide what to axe in order to fund the ‘pay rise’.

MPs do not have to cut a single thing to afford their own pay rise, not least because there’s fewer of them. And, what’s more, the size of their rise depends on the average weekly earnings of the rest of the public sector. Give coppers a bung they can’t afford to actually pay, then, and it still means cash drops into MPs’ pockets.

IPSA is not clear which formula it uses to calculate all this. Those who’ve analysed MP pay rises say, of the different options, not one appears to have been used consistently. And it may be that overtime payments go into the calculation, which could mean that paying nurses overtime, but no salary increase – for example during a pandemic – increases the average earnings, and MPs then get a bigger salary. and then, of course, bigger pensions too.

It’s too easy to get cross at MPs. Many of them do fine, important jobs over long hours. Most care deeply, and during the past year have had a bigger workload, and with this government more reason to check and argue with every decision.

A pay rise that’s truly in line with the rest of the public sector would be quite reasonable. And while we do not seem to be short of people who fancy being an MP, we ARE short of nurses, teachers and police officers. Ask any of them whether they’d like a pay rise or the resources to do their jobs properly, and most would ask for better budgets.

The reason this pandemic has hit Britain so badly, both in terms of deaths and economics, is because public sector budgets were pared to the bone. The UK had fewer hospital beds, had cut more of them, and had higher occupancy rates of those left, than most other countries in the EU and the OECD. We had a sicker population, with high rates of obesity, respiratory disease, and diabetes, along with cuts to public health budgets, school meals, and community programmes. And when lockdown came, we had fewer police to catch those breaking the rules, which contributed to our second wave.

Had we funded our public sector properly, we would not be so fat, as sick, or get away with being so stupid. We would not need new hospitals, doctors, or police, because we would have enough already. School children would have been armed with iPads, broadband would have been laid on by the state, and all the many harms of this crisis would have been less.

“Seriously, any old fool could do this job. Which job is it, again?” (Image: AFP/Getty Images)

To do that, we would need to pay more tax. And the wonderful thing, for governments, is that if you award a pay rise to the public sector you get tax revenue in return – not only from staff, but from their increased spending, their house sales, their new car. It’s why sane governments make sure they pay public servants properly, and it’s because ours is so damagingly stupid that we’re not doing the same.

At one point during the first lockdown, the London Tube was seeing just 7% of its usual journeys, and the rail network about 5%. Those were the people who kept the lights on – the NHS cleaners, the police support staff, council workers, engineers. It was indicative of how useful they are, and how the remaining 90% of us can do nothing without them. There’d be no newspapers without lorry drivers, no food in the shops without road repairs, no medicines without dockers, no public safety without prison officers.

We have all suffered, this year. And we’ll be even poorer still if we don’t reward those – public or private sector – who have done the most to ensure we made it to Christmas. That means money for the NHS, not for private healthcare to overcharge for clearing the waiting lists; funding for school meals, not Boris’ school mates; and the same rules for all, whether it’s millions of of public sector staff or 650 MPs.

As it is, what we’ve got is a ruling class that is “independent” only of us, and that’s not the deal we agreed.

Former mayor denies historic child sex assault charges

Court reporter

PUBLISHED: 15:06 23 November 2020 [Note: case published by Owl 30 October]

A former Mayor of Exmouth has appeared in court accused of historic sex assaults against two boys in the 1990s and 2000s.

Alderman John Humphrey, who was a Conservative East Devon councillor for 12 years until 2019, pleaded not guilty to ten charges at Exeter Crown Court.

The allegations relate to sexual assaults on two boys between 1990 and 2002.

Humphreys, of Hartley Road, Exmouth, denied three counts of committing a serious sexual assault, and two of indecent assault on a boy between 1990 and 1991.

He also denied five counts of indecent assault against a second boy between 2000 and 2002.

Judge David Evans set a trial date of August 9, 2021 and released Humphreys on bail.

I won’t accept bullying, Boris Johnson tells cabinet

Just shows his lacklustre cabinet would believe anything!

This is Owl’s “in bad taste” joke of the day.

Eleni Courea, Political Reporter 

Boris Johnson spoke out against bullying yesterday during a cabinet meeting and referred to Winston Churchill’s wife imploring him to be kind.

The prime minister last week overruled Sir Alex Allan, his adviser on ethics, as he cleared Priti Patel, the home secretary, of breaching the ministerial code. Sir Alex found Ms Patel had “unintentionally” bullied civil servants but Mr Johnson argued that the cases were not clear. Sir Alex subsequently resigned.

Mr Johnson told cabinet he would not accept bullying and referred to Clementine Churchill, who in 1940 wrote to her husband after one of his friends had complained of his “rough, sarcastic and overbearing manner”.

She urged him to combine his “terrific power” with “urbanity, kindness and if possible Olympian calm”. “You won’t get the best results by irascibility and rudeness,” she wrote. “They will breed either dislike or a slave mentality.”

A former cabinet secretary has said that Mr Johnson should reassert the principle of ministerial responsibility instead of demonstrating “tribal” loyalty to allies such as Ms Patel.

The prime minister appears not to “hold his colleagues responsible for their actions where they have got things wrong but it would be inconvenient to accept it”, Lord Wilson of Dinton, a crossbench peer and former head of the civil service, wrote in a letter published in The Times today.

Lord Wilson criticised Mr Johnson’s refusal to sack his home secretary after Sir Alex found that she had bullied officials. Sir Alex’s report said that Ms Patel had shouted and sworn at officials in her department, amounting to “behaviour that can be described as bullying”, in breach of the code.

Lord Wilson, who was cabinet secretary from 1998 to 2002, described the prime minister’s decision as “worrying”.

“There is a growing string of cases where ministers wrongly disclaim responsibility, whether it be the harassment of civil servants or intervening improperly in the planning process or blaming others for the exams fiasco or poor handling of the pandemic,” he wrote.

“Forming a square around a colleague who is in trouble sounds tribal rather than good governance. Perhaps refurbishment of No 10’s image could include reassertion of the principle of ministerial responsibility.”

This episode of the Stories of our Times podcast will form part of a week-long series. We’ll explore: what should happen to British nationals who left to join Islamic State, and do we have a responsibility to bring them back?

A union leader criticised Ms Patel over reports that she intended to shake up the Home Office by forcing officials to work some weekends and introducing performance reviews for senior civil servants.

Figures from a union survey of senior Home Office officials this month, seen by The Times, suggested that 40 per cent worked at least an additional eight or more hours every week, unpaid.

Dave Penman, head of the FDA union, which represents civil servants, said: “To suggest the home secretary is now responsible for performance reviews for the ‘senior ranks’ is simply fiction. It is also insulting to suggest that the civil service does not respond to demands or is stuck in a 9-5 culture, as the anonymous briefings suggest.”