Owl apologises for break in service plus lesson for Boris

Owl needs to apologise for the break in service over the past few days.

Owl was taking a much needed covid compliant break amongst the cousins in Cornwall and had assumed that it would be easy to find good internet connections. Owl managed a few such breaks last year without a hitch.

But obviously the hype surrounding broadband roll out is running ahead of experience “on the ground”.

Owl was left “speechless” for a few days.

Some news from the cousins.

Whilst John Lewis is out of favour with Boris and Carrie, provoking a “cash for curtains” crisis. Owl can report that our “topsy turvy” cousins have fallen out with the more prosaic Sainsbury’s, provoking a regional uproar which caused the supermarket, unlike Boris Johnson, to apologize and beat a hasty retreat.

There’s a moral here somewhere. 

Cornwall to boycott Sainsbury’s over correct cream tea photo

Jon Lewis as reported on www.devonlive.com (Cornwalllive had a rather different version)

People in Cornwall are threatening to boycott their local supermarket – because it has displayed a picture of a correctly arranged cream tea.

Shoppers at Sainsbury’s in Truro have thrown their toys out of the pram after spotting the photo in the store, showing a scone with cream spread on the bottom and a dollop of jam on the top – just as nature intended and Devon tradition dictates.

But true to Cornwall’s backwards ways, locals have got very upset about it all, insisting that the scone should have jam on first with cream on top which, frankly, sounds disgusting.

While right-thinking members of society thought nothing of it and calmly went about their day, some trouble-makers made a point of contacting Sainsbury’s to complain.

And, in a backbone-lacking U-turn that would make some prime ministers blush, the supermarket has now apologised and vowed to change the offending photograph.

After spotting the furore on Twitter, DevonLive sister site CornwallLive tweeted Sainsbury’s: “Sainsbury’s what’s this? A fruit scone! with the cream on first! advertised in a Cornish store. The cheek of it! Do you think this is acceptable?”

To which the supermarket replied: “An imposter! Which store did you see this please? We’ll have a word with them about this blasphemy!”

The store’s press office has also been contacted for an explanation, but so far there has (tellingly) been no response.

CornwallLive – by now presumably frothing at the mouth with indignation – also tried to contact the store itself but was stymied by its automated phone answer system. Ha.

The chain subsequently tweeted, after being given the location: “That’ll never do at all Truro! I’ve logged some feedback to the manager of the store to ensure they are made aware of this imposter and repair it accordingly.”

Andreas Drosiadis, who took the original photo and runs the Mediterraneo deli in Truro, posted it on Facebook asking: “How did this happen?”

He wrongly told CornwallLive: “England is a country with strong local traditions that shape our everyday life. ‘Jam first’ is a characteristic example of this and Sainsbury’s should have known better.”

The picture that got Cornish folk up in arms. The cream is on first!

The picture that got Cornish folk up in arms. The cream is on first! (Image: Andreas Drosiadis)

Comments on his post were filled with disbelief, scorn – and a bit of banter.

One said: “That’s a fruit scone – needs butter only. Jam and cream goes on a plain scone or a split!”

Another wrote: “Cream first – and fruit scones! Quelle Horreur!”

“Well that is disgraceful… time to boycott after telling them where to shove their scones and pronouns!”

“Disgusting. They need telling. Boycott that shelf in Sainsbury’s.”

“That’s not Cornish!”

“They seriously need to have a word with themselves and sort it out! Hell up indeed!”

“Help, Cornish staff needed urgently.”

Planning applications validated by EDDC for week beginning 12 April

Post-Brexit procurement reform must include extension of FOI

The Campaign has responded to the government’s plans for post-Brexit public procurement urging it to extend the Freedom of Information Act to contractors providing public goods and services. 


The government’s consultation document uses the terms ‘transparent’ or ‘transparency’ no less than 64 times in its 82 pages! 

But it fails to address the most conspicuous transparency defect of all – much of the information the public might seek about public sector contracts is beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act.

The Campaign is promoting a private member’s bill to close this loophole by:

  • Bringing the very largest contractors directly under FOI in their own right. 
  • Amending the FOI Act so that information held by other public sector contractors is treated as held on a public authority’s behalf and accessible via a FOI request to the authority. 

Many national FOI laws around the world already cover contractors delivering public services, including those of Australia, Bangladesh, Estonia, Germany, Ghana, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Malawi, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Spain, Trinidad & Tobago and Ukraine. 

Over 71,000 people have already signed our petition calling for the FOI Act to be extended to public sector contractors. Add your voice to them by signing and sharing our petition if you haven’t already done so. 

Read our detailed response here

Many thanks,

Katherine Gundersen

Campaign for Freedom of Information

Launchpad launches new courses in Budleigh

Budleigh CIC to launch more courses for adults with learning disabilities

Daniel Wilkins​ www.exmouthjournal.co.uk 

A Budleigh Salterton-based community interest company has been awarded the funding to run courses for adults with learning disabilities who are looking to grow the skills and confidence they need to get into work. 

Launchpad plans to run two 12-week practical skills courses – making, packaging, marketing and selling a range of jams, chutneys and pickles – through the Spring and Summer, one starting in May and the other in September.  

The courses have been made possible by a grant from the European Social Fund, awarded and administered by Petroc College. 

Carole Brown, director of Launchpad, said, ‘Although the past twelve months have been difficult for all of us, it is safe to say that people with learning disabilities have been hit harder than most and face a tougher and longer journey to put behind them the impact of Covid-19 on their physical, emotional and mental wellbeing.  

“At Launchpad, we are passionate about enabling people with learning disabilities to achieve their potential, and the funding we have been awarded will give those attending the chance to develop the skills and confidence they require to access employment or further education.” 

The courses are open to anyone with a learning disability or difficulties who would like to improve their employability skills and boost their confidence before starting to look for work or return to education.  

In order to comply with Covid regulations, and to be able to give each attendee the support they require, numbers are limited to six per course. 

Launchpad also runs a day service, enabling adults with learning disabilities to develop their skills in either catering or gardening, based at the health and wellbeing hub in Budleigh Salterton. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Launchpad helped the hub to provide meals which were delivered to residents in the town who were forced to shield from the virus at home. 

For more information about the course and the day service, ring Launchpad on 07947 180173 or email admin@launchpadsw.org. 

The Guardian view on the need for news: local facts are sacred too 

The BBC’s local democracy reporting service was set up to fill the gap created when British local and regional press owners closed titles and shed jobs (JPI Media, for example, which was sold for £10m in December, halved its staff in five years from 2007 to 2012, when it was still Johnston Press). The 150 BBC-funded reporters make a valuable contribution, and not all media businesses take the same approach to cutting costs. 

Editorial www.theguardian.com 

Jeremy Corbyn and Sir Keir Starmer both paid tribute to Eric Gordon, the founder of the Camden New Journal, who died earlier this month, aged 89. Their interest was natural enough, as MPs in neighbouring boroughs – Camden and Islington – where the CNJ’s owner, New Journal Enterprises, publishes newspapers (its third title is in Westminster). But the story of this independently owned local news organisation has a significance that stretches beyond the capital.

Launched after a journalists’ strike, in 1982, Gordon’s papers are proof that local outlets that put community before profit can still survive and even thrive – albeit on a tight budget. With important local elections coming up, this lesson has rarely been more important.

Recent decades have been punishing for local and regional as well as national print media, as digital competitors led by Facebook and Google have sucked up advertising and audiences. The phenomenon is not limited to the UK. Last year, the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan published a book, Ghosting the News, examining the decline of local reporting in the US, and arguing that the disappearance of trusted information sources is linked to the decline of democracy. Even “citizens’ ability to have a common sense of reality and facts”, she suggested, is jeopardised when the closure of thousands of titles is accompanied by Trumpian rhetoric about “fake news”.

The BBC’s local democracy reporting service was set up to fill the gap created when British local and regional press owners closed titles and shed jobs (JPI Media, for example, which was sold for £10m in December, halved its staff in five years from 2007 to 2012, when it was still Johnston Press). The 150 BBC-funded reporters make a valuable contribution, and not all media businesses take the same approach to cutting costs. DC Thomson in Scotland, for example, is seen as having taken a longer-term view than some of its intensely profit-focused competitors. But the direction of travel is overwhelmingly down, with the pandemic acting as an accelerator. Last month, Reach, owner of the Daily Mirror and hundreds of regional titles, announced that it would close offices in places including Leicester, Stoke and Derby and rely on remote working.

In some cities, hyper-local titles and community organisations have added a fresh ingredient. Bristol was home to one of the first local papers: the Bristol Post Boy, from 1702. Now, it boasts a pioneering startup, the Bristol Cable. In the US, philanthropic donations are helping to support some news initiatives and their role as protectors of civic space.

These developments do not, however, amount to a solution. News reporting cannot be left to clusters of sparky campaigners, Facebook groups or private donors. Local authorities wield enormous power over people’s lives, with the role of Kensington and Chelsea council in the disastrous refurbishment of Grenfell Tower a good example. The courts, too, ought to be vigorously scrutinised. Arguably, recent cuts to the justice system might have been less severe had the public been more aware of the chaos caused.

There was no golden age when power was held so tightly to account that there were no abuses. Newspaper proprietors always sought to make money and protect their interests. But without a free press, there can be no democracy. As Gordon understood, boroughs with reliable news sources, and journalists committed to keeping readers informed, are less likely to rot.

PPE contracts for “VIPs”

Explosive emails revealed in a hearing  on our legal challenge over direct awards of PPE contracts show civil servants raising the alarm that they were “drowning in VIP requests” from political connections that do not have “the correct certification or pass due diligence”. 


One email shows a civil servant warning that when VIPs “jump to the front of the queue it then has a knock on effect to the remaining offers of help.” 

For ordinary people the pandemic was a tragedy. But for well-connected VIPs it was the chance of a lifetime – huge fortunes were up for grabs. What this civil servant is saying is that it became more of a tragedy because so many VIPs – overwhelmingly introduced by Ministers – were interfering with civil servants’ ability to purchase the PPE needed by healthcare workers on the frontline. 

Remember Ayanda, the company linked to Liz Truss, fast-tracked through the VIP Lane – who supplied £155m worth of unusable face masks to the NHS frontline? This email shows Ayanda threatening to escalate their bid to ministerial level and another another includes a civil servant warning of the Ayanda deal “the bar seems to have been lowered on this one.”

This is the cost of cronyism – good administration suffers, efficient buying of PPE suffers.

Government has been doing everything it can to keep a lid on the names of VIP contacts and those responsible for putting them in the VIP lane. We went to Court today, along with our co-claimants EveryDoctor, to try and force them to disclose this information.

So far, Government has provided partial and incoherent evidence, heavily redacted. And key items are missing from the evidence we’ve received – in particular no Whatsapp messages, text messages, file notes or submissions to ministers are included. If ministers were pushing civil servants to prioritise PPE contracts to politically connected suppliers, then this information is highly relevant to the case. 

The Judge agreed that the identity of an individual can be relevant and should be publicly available if they were involved in the procurement or had a significant role to play in decision-making, in particular on companies referred to the VIP Lane. But it has said we will need to ask for specific disclosure of details on specific documents.

We’ll be back in Court next week with that application. The fight for truth and transparency continues. You can read our skeleton argument and the evidence disclosed in Court today in full.

Thank you for your support,

Jolyon Maugham QC

Director of Good Law Project

More on Government with permanent pants of fire

Boris Johnson’s government is “the most distrustful, awful environment I’ve ever worked in” where “almost nobody tells the truth”, Johnny Mercer has declared after being sacked before he could resign as veterans minister on Tuesday evening. 

Newstatesman Morning Call go.pardot.com 

He resigned, or planned to before the government beat him to it, after realising that the government’s pledge to protect former British soldiers alleged to have committed crimes in Northern Ireland during the Troubles from prosecution would not be forthcoming. 

It is, frankly, astonishing that it took him until now to work that out. The pledge, a Conservative manifesto commitment and Queen’s Speech promise that has been the focus of campaigns by Mercer and newspapers like the Sun for a long time, is simultaneously incendiary and likely to be meaningless if it were ever executed, a heady cocktail that means the government can almost certainly never deliver what Mercer wants. 

​​​​​The whole thing is reminiscent of the government’s line on the border in the Irish Sea created by the Brexit deal. For months, Boris Johnson insisted that no such border would ever manifest, a baffling promise that appeared impossible to fulfill or reconcile with the deal we could all read, signed in black-and-white. Then the government briefly threatened to break international law in order to avoid that border, it was short-lived, and now, lo, and behold, we have an Irish Sea border. 

The government’s repeated promises over Northern Ireland veterans are of a similar ilk. Aside from the (literally dozens of) political and practical problems with fulfilling the pledge, exempting British soldiers from prosecution for crimes allegedly committed during the Troubles would be in contradiction of the UK’s human rights commitments as a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights, a convention asserted in the Good Friday Agreement. That either means that attempts to enforce the provision would break international law in an incendiary and inevitably short-lived way, or they would be quietly superceded such as to render the British legislation meaningless. 

It should have been clear to Johnny Mercer all along that this pledge could not be fulfilled. But his display of anger is revealing of a pattern in Boris Johnson’s government. Mercer’s successor as veterans minister has repeated the promise of legislation on this issue in “the coming weeks”, and it remains impossible to see how the pledge can meaningfully be enacted. Boris Johnson’s government keeps making wild promises it can’t keep, most especially on Northern Ireland. The promises alienate nationalists, many unionists, unaligned voters, and victims groups in Northern Ireland, while the breaking of them is set to alienate the Sun, Telegraph, veterans’ groups, other unionists, and a swathe of the Conservative base, just as has already happened with Johnny Mercer. It’s not clear what the game plan is here. 





Revenge of the Clones

Number 10 ‘sources’ accuse Dominic Cummings of leaking Boris Johnson’s texts with Dyson and Saudi crown prince

Jon Craig news.sky.com 

Downing Street has mounted a fightback against “sleaze” accusations by planting stories in Tory-supporting newspapers accusing Dominic Cummings of leaking Number 10 texts.

The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Sun quote unnamed Downing Street sources claiming Mr Cummings leaked texts about tycoon Sir James Dyson and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince.

The lead story on page one of The Times appears under a headline: “Cummings is accused of leaking PM’s texts. Johnson ‘saddened by bitter former adviser’.”

The Daily Telegraph’s headline, also its lead story, is: “Cummings accused of leaking No 10 texts. Downing Street sources claim former chief adviser released PM’s messages out of spite.”

And the Sun’s page-one headline, alongside photos of Mr Cummings and the prime minister, is: “PM accuses ex-adviser of leaks. Boris: Dom’s a text maniac.”

In leaked texts to Sir James, Mr Johnson promised he would “fix” a tax issue for Dyson staff working to develop ventilators at the height of the coronavirus crisis last year.

Also leaked was a text message to the prime minister from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a bid to buy Newcastle United ran into difficulties last June

Sky News attempted to contact senior Number 10 officials and Mr Cummings, who left Downing Street last November after a bitter power struggle, but neither would respond to our inquiries.

After the reports were published, The Guardian claimed: “In what appeared to be a coordinated attack on Cummings, the Telegraph, Times and Sun reported the same criticisms from an unnamed insider accusing him of being ‘bitter’ about leaving government.”

Opposition MPs will claim Number 10 is attempting to divert attention from allegations of “sleaze” and “cronyism” against Mr Johnson and senior members of his government – and former prime minister David Cameron over his lobbying for Greensill Capital.

The reports in the three newspapers appeared shortly after the Bank of England and the Treasury published detailed records of attempts by Mr Cameron to lobby the Bank of England and the Treasury on behalf of Australian banker Lex Greensill.

The strongest attack on Mr Cummings came in The Times, with a “a No 10 source” quoted as saying: “Dominic is engaged in systematic leaking. We are disappointed about that. We are concerned about messages from private WhatsApp groups which had very limited circulation.

“The prime minister is saddened about what Dom is doing. It’s undermining the government and the party. It might be that Dominic feels bitter about what’s happened since he left – but it’s a great shame. Dyson was trying to do something for the good of the country.”

The Daily Telegraph claimed: “Mr Cummings has been fingered as the likely culprit in the leaking of messages between Mr Johnson and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and separate texts between the Prime Minister and the businessman Sir James Dyson.

“The former adviser is understood to have had legitimate access to the text messages during his time working in government.”

The paper quoted an unnamed source as saying: “If you join the dots it looks like it’s coming from Dom. More than anything, the PM is disappointed and saddened by what Dom has been up to.

“Dom may feel bitter about what’s happened since he left. Rather than falling apart, the government has been making great progress.”

According to the Telegraph, a “No 10 source” said of Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings: “They worked together closely, but if it’s true then it looks like he is doing everything he can to undermine the government, and people like Sir James Dyson, who was heavily involved in Brexit, have been caught in the crossfire.”

The Sun quoted “a No. 10 source” saying: “The prime minister thinks Dominic Cummings is responsible for a series of damaging leaks about his personal communications.

“He is deeply disappointed and saddened by what he thinks his former adviser has been doing and believes he is attempting to undermine the government and the Conservative Party.

“He fears Dom was responsible for the text message leaks about James Dyson and Mohammed bin Salman.”

The Sun also says a “top insider” added: “There is a worry that he is bitter about how the government has moved onwards and upwards since his departure.”

Proposals to sell NHS sites as major changes to Dorset NHS revealed

MASSIVE changes are being planned for hospital and care services across Dorset – which may see some local sites, including in Weymouth, sold off.

What line would your Devon County Council candidates make of this? Selling the family silver? NHS safe in their hands? – Owl

Trevor Bevins www.dorsetecho.co.uk 

Ultimately it may lead to investment of between £370m and £500m in services in the county up to 2030 through the Government’s Health Infrastructure Plan.

Dorset councillors have been told that much of the work is still in the early stages with the proposals including the sale of NHS land in the Weymouth area and in Sherborne –  with redevelopment plans for sites at Forston near Dorchester, Wimborne and Shaftesbury.

The scheme to extend the Dorset County Hospital site is already under way with the building of a new multi-storey car park.

Where land and sites are sold the NHS locally says it is determined that, where possible, it would be used for key worker housing.

The model for strategic redevelopment for county health services is based on community hubs which bring local services together on one site to reduce the need for people to travel.

Portland councillor Paul Kimber was told that no new building was currently planned for the island under the longer-term proposals although there would be an investment in reducing a patient backlog and, outside of the scope of the strategic programme, other local initiatives.

He was told in response to a question about Portland services that there would be a ‘consolidation’ of local services in Weymouth, possibly based on a new hospital building, with the ultimate likely disposal of two Weymouth NHS sites for housing. A figure for £30m has been presented for the Weymouth element alone.

Chris Lawrence from the Dorset healthcare trust admitted that the plan was ‘Weymouth biased’ but said there was also a commitment to having investment on Portland with a focus on a new scheme based centred around primary care.

Cllr Dr Jon Orrell said Weymouth people might be concerned that the town now seemed likely to go from four hospitals it once had with beds to just one, having already seen previous closures and site sales result in no apparent investment south of the Ridgeway.

He said that if the town was to lose further public land through NHS sales then there should be a 100 per cent commitment to key worker housing on those sites, which fellow Weymouth councillor Gill Taylor suggested should also be extended to social care workers.

Concern about the wider proposals came from Sherborne councillors Jon Andrews and Robin Legg who both said their town already relied on Yeovil Hospital for many services, although there are proposals for Yeovil to merge some services with the hospital in Taunton, reducing what might be available on the south Somerset site.

Cllr Andrews said if that happened many people would find it difficult to get to Dorchester for hospital treatment. He also questioned a proposal which said that Yeatman Hospital land might be sold for housing, although it was later admitted that the suggestion might be a mistake.

Cllr Legg said he had also been surprised to see a proposal to reconfigure the site and sell some of it for housing – an idea, which he said, the NHS seemed to have developed in a vacuum without talking to anyone.

He said if there were plans for a £18 million redevelopment at the Yeatman it might be better to consider whether the 150-year old building and its cramped site was worth continuing to invest in, or to move to a new site elsewhere in the town, possible on land being proposed for development by the Digby estate.

Members of the Dorset Council’s people and health scrutiny committee were told that the strategic plans were still in the early stages and would depend on winning Government funding and a detailed business case for each site then being signed off. It was at the next stage that wider consultations would be held once the details were fleshed out.

Greenfield developments in areas of natural beauty have doubled

Parts of England protected for their beauty are being blighted by a doubling in the amount of greenfield land opened up to sprawling “executive home” developments, according to a report.

Ben Webster, Environment Editor www.thetimes.co.uk

Permission has been granted for development on an average of 294 acres of greenfield land per year within England’s 34 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) since 2017, up from an average of 128 acres a year in the previous five years, according to research commissioned by CPRE, the countryside charity.

The High Weald AONB, which covers parts of Sussex, Kent and Surrey, is facing the largest amount of development, with 932 houses approved since 2017. Another 771 homes have been approved in the Dorset area, 592 in the Chilterns and 684 in the Cotswolds. The research found that twice as much land as the national average was used per new home in developments in AONBs, with builders focusing on large “executive” properties.

Only 16 per cent of the homes met the government’s definition of affordable, which includes those sold or rented at lower than market value.

CPRE is calling for changes to planning rules to prioritise conserving AONBs over meeting housing targets. It also wants any developments in such areas to focus on providing affordable and social homes for local people.

Crispin Truman, the chief executive of the charity, said: “The fact that some of our most highly prized areas of countryside are being lost to build more executive homes says a great deal about our planning system.

“Continuing with this ‘build and be damned’ approach just serves to line the pockets of greedy developers whilst undermining climate action, stalling nature’s recovery and gobbling up our most precious green space that’s vital for our health and wellbeing, all the while doing next to nothing to tackle the affordable housing crisis.

“Rural communities are crying out for well-designed, quality and genuinely affordable homes in the right places. We know this kind of development is possible.

“To start building the right nature-friendly and low-carbon homes in the right places, we must see a swift change of tack from the government to put nature and countryside communities at the heart of any future planning bill. Continuing to give developers more power in the planning system will only make this bad situation worse.”

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the Conservative MP for the Cotswolds, said: “It is vital that areas like the Cotswolds and other AONBs, which have all been given that designation because they are unique and special areas, are carefully conserved by planning departments and other statutory consultees.

“Otherwise, this generation will fail to pass on this very special national heritage for future generations.”

The government’s planning guidelines state that “great weight should be given to conserving landscape and scenic beauty” in AONBs.

However, guidelines state that large developments can be permitted in these areas in “exceptional circumstances” and where it would be in the public interest. These terms are not clearly defined, creating loopholes for developers to use.

The development in the High Weald area includes 119 homes near Crowborough, East Sussex, approved last year against the advice of the official body that manages the AONB.

Fifth of UK Covid contracts ‘raised red flags for possible corruption’

One in five government Covid contracts awarded between February and November 2020 contained one or more red flags for possible corruption and require urgent further investigation, a respected campaign group has warned.

Original source: “Track and Trace”  Transparency International.

David Pegg www.theguardian.com

Transparency International UK said a “seriously flawed” arrangement, whereby companies bidding for contracts were prioritised if they were referred into a “VIP lane” by their political connections, had “damaged trust in the integrity of the pandemic response”.

The group said Boris Johnson’s government must urgently disclose the identities of companies awarded public money through the VIP lane, which was set up by the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health and Social Care in the early days of the pandemic.

The government has so far refused to name the companies granted public money through the scheme, citing “commercial confidentiality”. It has previously claimed the purpose of the arrangement was to triage large numbers of offers to help from the private sector.

Transparency International UK said its analysis indicated “apparent systemic biases in the award of PPE contracts that favoured those with political connections to the party of government in Westminster”, contrary to denials by civil servants and Conservative ministers.

The group said it had identified 73 Covid-related contracts with multiple factors that would ordinarily be treated as red flags for possible corruption, such as the company being politically connected. Twenty-seven PPE or testing contracts worth £2.1bn were awarded to firms with connections to the Conservative party, it claimed.

The group said it had also identified £255m of contracts awarded to companies that had only been incorporated within the previous 60 days. The figure is surprising because the short lifespan of the companies suggests they cannot have had any track record of actual business.

Many of the contracts were awarded without competitive tender. The government has acknowledged suspending tender processes for Covid procurement, arguing that the urgency of the pandemic required it to move more quickly than a tender process would allow.

The report, Track and Trace, is compiled by researchers working for the UK chapter of the international organisation Transparency International. The group is respected in anti-corruption policy circles and publishes an annual corruption perceptions index that frequently informs national anti-bribery strategies.

Steve Goodrich, a senior research manager at the group, said there was disquiet at “patterns that you cannot explain away”, in particular the creation of the VIP lane.

“Fine, you have to triage [bids for PPE contracts],” he said. “Why on earth would you ask politicians to do that? Did they even ask any medical experts? Or was it just prioritised on the basis of who managed to ring the right person at the right time?”

The existence of the VIP lane was confirmed in a report last November by the National Audit Office. During a global rush for PPE that rapidly forced up prices, the government said it received large numbers of unsolicited and improbable bids for lucrative public contracts.

It said the high-priority lane allowed it to triage the large number of unsolicited offers of aid by prioritising those referred by government ministers, MPs, peers or health officials as credible companies that should be taken seriously, rather than chancers.

However the government’s repeated refusal to identify any beneficiaries of the scheme has prompted suspicion that it could have been used to disburse public funds to friends of the Conservative party. Companies referred into the VIP lane were 10 times more likely to be awarded a government contract.

Transparency International’s report makes 10 recommendations for urgent action by government, including immediate disclosure of the beneficiaries of the VIP lane contracts, a return to competitive procurement by default, and transferring responsibility for enforcing the ministerial code to an office independent of government and accountable to parliament.

A government spokesperson said: “During the pandemic our priority has always been to protect the public and save lives, and we have used existing rules to buy life saving equipment and supplies, such as PPE for the NHS frontline.

“All PPE procurement went through the same assurance process and due diligence is carried out on every contract – ministers have no role in awarding them.

“The priority list [VIP lane] was widely advertised across government as a way of more quickly triaging offers of support.”

Crooked party leader with ties to Bideford was a serial conman

A confidence trickster founded his own political party in Bideford and stood for election on a platform of ‘honesty and transparency’ while swindling companies out of thousands of pounds. 


Timothy Ahlbeck set up a string of companies and claimed to be a duke, lord or doctor while in reality he was an undischarged bankrupt and banned from running any business. 

He fleeced creditors by filing false returns which showed he had assets of £200,000 when he was penniless and trying to run a market stall in Newton Abbot. 

He registered The People’s Party UK ltd as the name of one of his companies and stood as an Independent in Torbay’s local elections in 2019. 

He was forced to pull out after local media exposed him as being a serial conman who has served a string of jail terms for fraud under his previous names of Timothy Skelding and Miles Prestland-Windsor. 

His election literature said: his campaign said: “Honesty and Transparency are of the utmost importance to me.” 

Ahlbeck set up 16 companies while disqualified from being a director. They claimed to be involved in telecoms, pet and horse care, perfume, gold bullion, courier or utility services. 

The People’s Party and several other firms were based in Mill Street, Bideford but he also used addresses in Torbay, London and Manchester. 

Ahlbeck, aged 37, now High Street, Wednesfield, Wolverhampton, admitted two counts of fraud and 16 of acting as a director while disqualified. 

He was jailed for two years, suspended for two years and ordered to do a thinking skills course and receive 30 days supervision by Judge Timothy Rose at Exeter Crown Court. 

He told him: “Over the 19 years of your adult life, you have been living in a form of escapist fantasy world, what some may call a Walter Mitty existence, in which you have repeatedly set up companies, more recently while disqualified. 

“There has been fraudulent paperwork and completely invented facts and figures and capital which has just come from the top of your head. 

Miss Bathsheba Cassel, prosecuting, said Ahlbeck was disqualified from being a director for 15 years in 2016 after one of his previous convictions but started running a string of companies from October 2017 onwards. 

He succeeded in getting credit from a variety of suppliers and the two frauds involved £20,315.94 from Staples for office equipment, laptop and phones, and a car leasing firm for £6,479. 

He supplied false bank account details and claimed to have £200,000 capital, £240,000 a year turnover and ten employees. 

Other businesses which supplied goods or services to his companies were left out of pocket to the tune of around £70,000. Many were small firms which were badly hit by the losses. 

Ahlbeck has six previous convictions for fraud and has served five prison terms since 2002. 

Miss Mary McCarthy, defending, said Ahlbeck’s offending is the result of a personality disorder and other psychological problems arising out of an abusive childhood. 

She said the full diagnosis and proper treatment have only been achieved since these set of offences finished in 2019. 

He is now living near Wolverhampton and receiving the help he needs to rebuild his life and stay out of trouble.

End NHS staff shortages now, Boris Johnson told

Whilst visiting Dartmouth 15 April, Boris Johnson said of the growing backlog of our over-burdened healthcare system:

 “We’re going to make sure that we give the NHS all the funding that it needs, as we have done throughout the pandemic, to beat the backlog.

“We’ve put about £92 billion already extra into the NHS this year and we’re going to do whatever it takes.

More empty words? – Owl

See also: health-provision-at-local-and-national-level-is-tory-achilles-heel-and-they-know-it/

Denis Campbell www.theguardian.com 

Doctors, nurses and NHS bosses have pleaded with Boris Johnson to spend billions of pounds to finally end the chronic lack of staff across the health service.

The strain of working in a perpetually understaffed service is so great that it risks creating an exodus of frontline personnel, they warn the prime minister in a letter published on Wednesday.

They have demanded that the government devise an urgent plan that will significantly increase the size of the workforce of the NHS in England by the time of the next general election in 2024.

Their intervention comes after the latest NHS staff survey found that growing numbers of them feel their work is making them sick and that almost two-thirds believe they cannot do their jobs properly because their organisation has too few people.

The letter has been signed by unions and other groups representing most of the NHS’s 1.4 million-strong workforce, including the Royal College of Nursing, British Medical Association and Unison. NHS Providers and the NHS Confederation, which both represent hospital trusts, have also endorsed it, as has the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, a professional body for the UK’s 240,000 doctors.

In the letter they draw attention to the fact that the NHS in England has almost 90,000 vacancies: “We are very aware of the strain and stress placed on NHS services and teams by the vacancies we see across services and roles. There is a very real risk that these vacancies are the greatest threat to the retention of our people.”

Johnson has lavished praise on NHS staff for their dedication and hard work in treating huge numbers of Covid patients during the pandemic, and acknowledged his personal debt to them after his spell in intensive care with the disease in April 2020. But his decision to offer NHS staff only a 1% pay rise this year has triggered an outcry, including from some Conservative MPs.

The NHS’s much-vaunted People Plan, drawn up by the Conservative peer Lady Harding in her role as chair of NHS Improvement, has not led to meaningful changes to increase staff numbers – with government reluctance to spend the money needed the reason, the signatories claim.

“It appears that no such plan can be developed because the government has not been able to commit to funding the implications … Billions in additional investment will be required by the end of this parliament to address these longstanding issues of supply and education,” the letter adds.

Demanding that staff shortages be banished once and for all, the authors tell the prime minister that staff are “exhausted” after a year fighting Covid and ask him to “give them hope – hope that there is a plan, matched by investment, which will address shortages of NHS staff in the medium and long term”.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “This government is committed to supporting the NHS and its staff in the fight against Covid and beyond the pandemic through the NHS People Plan. There are over 6,600 more doctors and 10,900 more nurses working in our NHS, compared to last year, and we are on track to deliver 50,000 more nurses by the end of this parliament.”

The spokesperson said an extra 1,500 places had been created in medical schools, and an undergraduate studying to become a nurse, midwife, physiotherapist or occupational therapist now received at least £5,000 a year to help with living costs.

Alison Hernadez campaigns with Tory council candidates and a posse of phantom Police

Alison Hernandez has been seen out and about campaigning with local Tory Council candidates. She must also have been accompanied by a posse of phantom Police because she sees them “everywhere” she goes. 

So the Tories are playing the “law and order ticket” hard, as they frequently do.

With all the stories of sleaze and “chumocracy” swirling around; and after Cumming’s Durham Dash and Robert Jenrick bolting to his Hereford mansion a year ago during lockdown, you couldn’t make it up. Gamekeepers and poachers come to mind. – Owl

From Martin Shaw’s blog (defending his County division of Seaton and Colyton):

Is this a spoof account? ‘Everywhere I go I see the police’, says Alison Hernandez as she finally turns up in Seaton: ‘Visibility has begun’.

Posted on April 21, 2021 seatonmatters.org 

I don’t normally reproduce Conservative propaganda, but their local candidates Marcus Hartnell and Ian Hall must be squirming with embarrassment today after the police commissioner, Alison Hernandez – last spotted in Seaton in September 2016 (!) – turned up for election photo-ops with them.

The hapless Hernandez tweeted about her visit, ‘Everywhere I go I see the police’, and even continued, ‘Visibility has begun …’ . Let’s hope that this doesn’t mean that police were bused from all over Devon for a party-political event. Since the wider Seaton area has been reduced to one Police Constable and one Police Community Support Officer, it would have been simply impossible for her to have seen police ‘everywhere’ on a normal day.

Hernandez’ claims will be greeted with derision, if not anger, by people in the Colyford and Seaton Down Hill areas, who have been trying to get police enforcement of speed limits for years now. The police have been all but invisible locally throughout Hernandez’ term – time for her to go.

Neil Parish’s “smoking gun”

As a coroner says there is “no safe level of particulate matter” in the air and calls for national pollution limits to be reduced, Neil Parish MP is caught out operating dual standards in the “eye”. 

“Nothing is more important than the air we breath” – except when giving wood burning stoves a bit of a puff. (Penultimate paragraph). Neil Parish is Chair of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Committee.

A coroner has called for a change in the law after air pollution led to the death of a nine-year-old girl.

BBC News www.bbc.co.uk Extract

Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who lived near the South Circular Road in Lewisham, south-east London, died in 2013.

An inquest had found air pollution “made a material contribution” to her death.

Coroner Phillip Barlow said there is “no safe level of particulate matter” in the air and called for national pollution limits to be reduced.

Ella was the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as the cause of death on their death certificate, following the inquest ruling by Mr Barlow last December.

Covid contracts: PPE fixer who was Tory donor named in admin error

Are you keeping up with all this? – Owl

The role of a former Tory parliamentary candidate and party donor in a £100m government deal to buy PPE has been revealed after an apparent admin error.

By Phil Kemp www.bbc.co.uk 

The deal for face masks was signed in July, but the names of those involved were blacked out when the contract was finally published seven months later.

A second document listed Samir Jassal, an ex-councillor who has campaigned with the PM, as the supplier’s contact.

The government has said ministers have no part in deciding who gets contracts.

But it is the latest in a series of revelations about PPE deals awarded to those with government connections.

A ‘good friend’

Although the deal, for protective masks for hospital workers, was signed last year, the details only came to light in March after a court rebuked the government for failing to publish contracts within the legal time frame. Health Secretary Matt Hancock was found to have acted unlawfully for this failure.

Even when the deal involving Mr Jassal was finally published, the contact details for the supplier were blacked out. Full contracts are routinely redacted when published by the government.

However, in what appears to have been a clerical error, a separate document published with the contract gives Mr Jassal’s name. He is listed as the “supplier’s contact” to Pharmaceuticals Direct Limited, the company paid to supply the masks.

He told the BBC he was a consultant for the firm.

Contracts with redacted element and contact details highlighted

Contact details on the contract (top) were blacked out, but Mr Jassal was listed as the “supplier’s contact” on a separate document (below)

The contract was negotiated in the aftermath of the first coronavirus wave in the UK.

At the time, with a rising global demand for PPE, the government directly awarded contracts under emergency terms, which meant it didn’t have to spend time following the usual tendering process.

However, this has led to concerns over why particular suppliers were chosen and accusations of favouring firms with political connections to the Conservative Party.

Who is Samir Jassal?

Mr Jassal, a former Conservative Party councillor, appears well connected to the government.

He joined the prime minister on an official trip to a recycling plant in west London last October, and accompanied him on a campaign visit to a Sikh temple during the 2019 general election campaign.

Mr Jassal himself stood as a Conservative candidate in two general elections and he is standing as a councillor again in Gravesham Borough Council in next month’s local elections.

His LinkedIn profile claims he worked as an adviser to the now Home Secretary Priti Patel between 2014 and 2015. The BBC understands this was unpaid. He describes her as a “good friend” on social media. In 2016, he donated £4,000 to the party.

At the height of the UK pandemic in 2020, the government set up a “high-priority lane” for businesses endorsed by Whitehall officials or politicians, to fast-track PPE orders. Ministers have refused to reveal the full list of firms that went through this fast lane.

In November, the spending watchdog found these companies were 10 times more likely to win contracts than suppliers that came through the normal route.

Mr Jassal’s involvement in the £100m face masks contract was uncovered by the Good Law Project, a campaign group which took the government to court over not publishing PPE contracts. It is now seeking to bring a case against the government in relation to this contract.

“It’s of profound public importance that we discover who has benefited from the special arrangements put in place, who has benefited from the billions of public money spent, and at whose direction,” Gemma Abbott, the group’s legal director told the BBC.

More on our PPE investigation

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) declined to answer whether Pharmaceutical Direct Limited’s (PDL) contract was processed as part of the high-priority lane.

Mr Jassal says PDL has 20 years’ experience in the healthcare sector and it asked to supply PPE via an online government portal. The company, he said, had supplied PPE to various outlets for many years.

Despite costing more than £100m, at least two hospital trusts have reported issues with the fit of the model of masks supplied under the contract

PPE orders in pandemic

  • £12.3bnvalue of PPE contracts awarded by UK govt between March and July 2020

Source: NAO Investigation into government procurement during the COVID-19 pandemic, Nov 2020

Mr Jassal said the masks “successfully entered the NHS supply chain in a timely manner” and they met “all technical standards which were rigorously vetted and approved by the Health and Safety Executive, the DHSC and the NHS”.

PDL said it had engaged its own independent expert consultants to test and certify that all masks were fully compliant. It said, to the best of its knowledge, all masks supplied had been distributed to, and put to use by the NHS.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: “The first duty of any government in a national crisis is to protect the public and save lives, and to do that when confronted with this global pandemic we had to rapidly procure and produce PPE.

“This involved setting up a new logistics network from scratch and expanding our PPE supply chain from 226 NHS Trusts in England to more than 58,000 different settings, all of which was taking place at a time when global demand was greater than ever before.

“All PPE procurement went through the same assurance process. Due diligence has been carried out on every contract and Ministers have no involvement in deciding who is awarded contracts.”

Residents react to plans to build a second Cranbrook

Residents across East Devon have been left split over how development should take place and the number and location of new homes to be built in the district.

Daniel Clark www.devonlive.com 

Earlier this year, the council went out to consultation on its draft Local Plan Issues and Options report, giving residents the chance to comment on a series of topic based sections around how future development across East Devon should be planned.

A report to next Tuesday’s East Devon District Council Strategic Planning Committee outlines the responses from the consultation, with officers set to bring a more detailed feedback report to May’s meeting of the committee.

But the responses reveal a divide among those who took the time to give their thoughts – as while 30 per cent indicated that less than the required 928 new houses a year should be built, the same number backed the options for up to 1,200 homes a year or planning to build considerably more than the Government target.

And in terms of where strategic development should be located, around a third of respondents felt that there should be more of a focus in the ‘West End’ of the district around Cranbrook and the edge of Exeter, a similar percentage wanted less of a focus in the West End, with around one third wanted the existing strategy to be continued.

The responses revealed that 43 per cent wished that new development should be focused around a combination of areas where large scale development will support the delivery of new services and clusters of growth in locations within easy walking and cycling distance of existing services and facilities, although 30 per cent had no preference.

Views were also sought on possible end dates with questions asking whether the council should plan for an end date that was well after 2040, whether or not a new town or a ‘second Cranbrook’ is proposed, with 30 per cent saying yes it should plan for a date further into the future, just under 20 per cent saying that was undesirable, with around 15 per cent saying it should only be done if a new town was being planned.

On the question of the importance of facilities to people in their community, access to full fibre broadband, paths for walking and cycling, open spaces, healthcare facilities and a convenience store/post office scored highest, with a place of worship, a train station and a supermarket bottom of the list.

On future use of town centres, the strongest support was for community uses, followed by mixed commercial use and then leisure uses, with dominance of retail and change of use to housing having the most opposition.

But on preference for locations for future job provision, more home working had the greatest support from those who responded, with the most opposition to a focus on the West End and in villages and countryside. In towns, or close to Exeter, had neither opposition nor support from the consultation.

And the consultation revealed that there was a divide between those who wished to see all the issues addressed in a single local plan covering all policy matters (45 per cent) and those who wished for a strategic plan to come first and then subsequent plans to follow that deal with the detail latter (41 per cent), with the other 14 per cent expressing no preference.

The Strategic Planning Committee, when they meet next Tuesday, are recommended to note the initial feedback received in consultation responses to the Local Plan issues and options report, with the May 2021 meeting set to have a more detailed feedback report from officers, including commentary on matters raised in free text boxes of the questionnaire and in other correspondence.

Councillors will also be asked to consider the proposed options for engaging with developers and site promoters on production of the Local Plan, with five options put in front of them.

They are to have no engagement at all with site promoters and developers, to restrict engagement to written submissions, to have engagement through site specific meetings, engagement via a working party, or engagement through the Strategic Planning Committee only, with officers recommending the latter.

The report says: “The agreed timetable for plan production proposes a debate of potential site options by the Committee in November. It is considered that part of this meeting could include providing a time slot for developers and site promoters to present to the committee to aid members’ understanding of the options prior to making decisions regarding which options they wish to put forward for consultation in the draft plan.

“It is considered that this option presents the most open and transparent option given that the presentations would then be given in a public meeting and it would also ensure that all of the committee could hear each presentation whereas this would be difficult to accommodate if separate meetings were to be held for each site.

“It may also cause some frustration among developers and site promoters if they have to wait until much later in the year to engage more fully in the process and they may also not wish to make their plans open to wider public scrutiny but clearly this would be their choice, but if this approach is favoured it is suggested that a special committee meeting be arranged and that each presentation be time limited to ensure parity across all of the sites being presented and to fit the time available.”

Breaking news: Johnson and Dyson: Where is the line on lobbying government?

Lobbying can be absolutely legitimate. It’s part of how Westminster lives and breathes. Who would object to a small charity approaching its local MP to ask for help?

What about however, when the most powerful politician in the country sends a direct message to an influential businessman promising: “I will fix it tomo”?

Laura Kuenssberg www.bbc.co.uk

Who would complain about the pub industry pushing the government for answers about when they can serve pints again inside after the year we’ve all had?

Who would begrudge health unions trying to persuade ministers that their staff members deserve a pay rise?

Who wouldn’t see the logic of big business groups trying to make their arguments to decision makers at the top to help them thrive and prosper, when decisions made in SW1 affect millions of us, and billions of pounds?

There are thousands of different circumstances in which having those discussions is perfectly valid.

What about however, when the most powerful politician in the country sends a direct message to an influential businessman promising: “I will fix it tomo”?

What about when the request from the company in question was about the tax rules? What about when the exchange between the two ends with a guarantee from the prime minister, long before any official announcement: “You can take it that we are backing you to do what you need”?

In this case, where Boris Johnson assured Sir James Dyson his employees would not have to pay extra tax if they came to the UK to make ventilators during the pandemic, there is an obvious logic to the request made to government.

Sir James was trying to respond to the urgent call for help at the start of the pandemic, when there was deep and genuine fear that the NHS simply wouldn’t have the equipment to look after many thousands of patients at risk.

But Dyson also, understandably perhaps, wanted to be clear about protecting its business from any extra costs or liabilities. (In the end remember, they lost money from the project.) And the prime minister was heavily involved in efforts to get hold of ventilators and in touch with many businesses as the pandemic took hold.

Both Number 10 and Dyson stress the terrible urgency of the situation last year, rejecting the notion that the conversations were in any way inappropriate.

You can read both the government and Sir James’ responses to our story here.

But the rules that govern ministers’ behaviour aren’t just about what is being discussed, they are about how the conversations are had.

The principles are clear – contacts are allowed as long as there aren’t conflict of interests, and everything is transparent and out in the open.

Dyson had made an official approach to the Treasury on this issue. But it is not clear at this stage whether the prime minister did or didn’t tell officials about these specific exchanges of texts.

The practice of the principles that are meant to govern what is permitted has proved troublesome recently, provoking one of the all too regular concerns about lobbying of government.

Downing Street let it be known last week that the prime minister was shocked about some of the revelations that emerged, particularly about civil servants’ behaviour as the lobbying row got deeper and deeper.

But in the next few hours, some of his critics are likely to claim to be shocked by his.

Tory chief knew £58,000 donation was for Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat

Number 10 makeover scandal: New leaked memo shows Conservative Party chief knew £58,000 donation was earmarked for Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat.

  • New evidence of how Tories used £58,000 to renovate PM’s Downing Street flat
  • Leaked emails show Tory co-chairman was told in October money was for refit
  • Lord Brownslow told the Conservatives he was giving two donations to them
  • One gift of £15,000 was to be given for general party funds, the email disclosed
  • A second donation of £58,000 was to pay for new decor for Boris Johnson

Extract from  www.dailymail.co.uk 

……“Dramatic new evidence of the way the Tories used nearly £60,000 of party funds on a lavish makeover of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat emerged last night

This was duly declared to the Electoral Commission watchdog, in accordance with transparency rules.

Crucially, the email, also sent to Conservative chief executive Darren Mott, shows a second donation of £58,000 was to pay for new decor for Mr Johnson and fiancee Carrie Symonds’s flat at 11 Downing Street.

This has not yet been declared to the Electoral Commission.

The £58,000 was to cover an identical amount secretly paid months earlier by Tory HQ for the refurbishment, including expensive wallpaper – in an attempt to disguise it.

The email appears to prove that the Tories planned to claim the £58,000 was paid not by Lord Brownlow but by a ‘soon to be formed Downing St Trust’ that did not exist – and still doesn’t, officially.”….