Boris Johnson wrongly cleared over Covid contracts, say MPs

A cross-party group of MPs has pushed for formal action against Boris Johnson for allegedly misleading the Commons over the transparency of Covid contracts, saying the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, incorrectly cleared the prime minister of wrongdoing.

Peter Walker

In a letter to Case the three MPs, who are working with the Good Law Project, said it was “abundantly clear” Johnson had breached the ministerial code by telling parliament on 22 February that details of multibillion-pound Covid-19 government contracts were “on the record for everybody to see”.

Three days earlier a high court judge had ruled that the Department of Health and Social Care acted unlawfully by failing to publish the government contracts within the necessary 30-day period, after a challenge led by the Good Law Project.

In March the Labour MP Debbie Abrahams, Layla Moran of the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens’ Caroline Lucas first wrote to Case, the most senior UK civil servant, to ask him why Johnson had said contracts had been published when at that time they had not.

The final judgment in the contracts high court case, on 5 March, noted that of 708 relevant contracts, only 608 had been published.

In a letter to the three MPs, sent last week, Case said: “The information required to make that judgment was provided to the courts in advance of that final judgment. It is therefore incorrect to assume that the judgment reflects the status on that particular day.”

Case referred the MPs to comments by the junior health minister Edward Argar, who told the Commons on 9 March that when Johnson had spoken the previous month, “the details for all the contracts under scrutiny were published”.

Case added that it was, anyway, not his role to enforce the ministerial code, as ministers were “personally responsible for deciding how to act and conduct themselves in the light of the code, and for justifying their actions and conduct to parliament and the public.”

But in a new letter to Case, sent on Tuesday, Abrahams, Moran and Lucas expressed “serious concern regarding the inaccuracies in your response”.

They wrote: “What the prime minister told parliament was not true. A large number of contracts – and details of those contracts – were neither ‘there for everybody to see’ or ‘on the record’. Unlawfully, their publication had been delayed.”

An example cited in the letter was a £23m contract given by the health department to Bunzl Healthcare, which was not published before 8 March. As such, the letter said, it was “abundantly clear” that Johnson had breached the ministerial code, which sets out that ministers must be accurate when addressing parliament.

In a separate statement, Abrahams said: “It is absolutely clear that not only has the prime minister misled parliament about when PPE contracts were published, breaking the ministerial code in the process, but that he has presided over appalling cronyism in the awarding of these contracts.”

Jo Maugham, the director of Good Law Project, said Case “has no answer because the simple truth is that the prime minister misled parliament. What is surprising is that a senior civil servant should participate in an attempt to disguise that simple truth from the people.”

Your guide to voting safely this Thursday (6 May)

Owl has collated the following information from a couple of sources and believes it to be correct, if unsure please double check.

If you’re voting in person at a polling station, East Devon District Council has asked the public to make sure to do the following:

1. Bring a face mask

You will need a face mask in order to enter, unless you are exempt.

2. Use hand sanitiser

It will be available at the entrance and exit, for use before and after voting.

3. Bring your own pen/pencil

It’s a good idea to bring your own pen or pencil, but there will be clean pencils available if you forget.

4. Keep your distance

Social distancing is key to help stop the spread of the virus. Just follow the signs and be prepared to queue – and factor this into your trip.

Just one more thing…

If you have symptoms of COVID-19, such as a new, continuous cough or fever, you should stay at home and self-isolate.

You can name an emergency proxy to vote for you if you are unable to go to the polling station.

This service will be available until 5pm on the day, and your proxy should be someone you trust.

Click here to access the emergency proxy forms on the Electoral Commission website.

Polling stations will be open from 7am until 10pm.

Polling Stations

Due to social distancing and other safety measures there may be a change in your polling station.

The changes are to ensure everyone can use a polling station in a Covid-secure way. 

Polling cards have been sent out showing your polling station address.  Please call our helpline 01395 571529 if you are unsure. 

List of changed venues below:

Town/ParishStreet namesUsual venueNew venue
Exmouth(Littleham West)Albion Hill – Wragg DriveHoly Ghost ChurchOcean
Exmouth(Town North)Albert Place – Woodville RdAll Saints ChurchExmouth Town FC
Honiton(St Michael’s)Mount Close – Yallop WayCadet CentreHoniton Library
MonktonN/ACourt HallOtter Valley Dairy, Aplins Farm
SeatonAlbion Close – Fore StreetThe GatewayMarshlands Centre
SeatonFortfield – York RoadThe GatewaySeaton Methodist Church
WhimpleN/AVictory HallSt Mary’s Church

Devon Conservatives used procedural means to block discussion of Proportional Representation

A reason to vote on Thursday.

From a recent post by Martin Shaw, EDA county council candidate for Seaton and Colyton. 

In the last County Council elections in 2017, the Conservatives gained 44 per cent of the vote in Devon – 56 per cent went to other parties and Independents. Yet because of the first-past-the-post electoral system, they gained 70 per cent of the seats. This has given them an overwhelming majority on the Council and all its committees, which they use ruthlessly – even to ditch Seaton’s hospital beds a couple of years ago.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, this system has been replaced by the Single Transferable Vote system, which enables voters to rank all candidates (thus voting for the individual as well as the party), and leads to second preferences being distributed so that you get a more balanced representation – with more encouragement for cooperation between councillors of different parties.

It also means that instead of most votes being cast for unsuccessful candidates, and thus wasted, ALL votes count towards the election of councillors. This encourages more people to vote.

This year, the Welsh Assembly has voted to allow local councils to choose this system for their elections, too. Only in England are we forced to stick with first-past-the-post. At yesterday’s Council meeting, I asked the Council to request legislation for England, too, so that Devon could choose its own system.

In response, the Conservative Cabinet produced a meaningless amendment, which simply removed all references to the voting system for Council elections from the motion. They then used their large majority to force this through. We must hope the new Council is more favourable to democracy and reform.

Government to raise taxes on housebuilders to fund cladding removal

The government has now launched a consultation on the tax increase, which it hopes will raise £2 billion over the next decade. The measure, first floated in February, will be joined by a new levy on future tower projects.

By Will Ing

It comes as MPs voted through the Fire Safety Bill, which clarifies responsibility for reducing risk in multi-occupancy residential buildings in England and Wales, last week. The government was criticised for voting against an amendment which would have protected leaseholders from the crippling costs of making their homes fire-safe.

The consultation has not suggested what the increased rate of tax for residential developers’ profits should be but seeks views on whether the tax should be levied solely on residential development activity, or on all profits of companies that are substantially involved in building homes.

The UK’s largest housebuilders make significantly more than £25 million a year, with Persimmon, Taylor Wimpey and Barratt Homes reporting pre-tax profits of £784 million, £430 million and £264 million respectively for 2020.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said the tax would ‘strike the right balance between developers making a contribution and ensuring fairness for the taxpayer’, while consultation documents note that developers are benefiting from public investment in cladding remediation.

Jenrick added: ‘We’re making the biggest improvements to building safety standards in a generation, investing over £5 billion helping to protect leaseholders from the cost of replacing unsafe cladding on their homes and ensuring industry is held to account for the wrongs of the past.’

However, the government is facing growing calls to fully protect leaseholders from the costs of removing unsafe cladding from their homes – something which it has previously said it supported in principle.

Last week, the cross-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee said the government should establish a Comprehensive Building Safety Fund, with finance provided by the government and the building industry.

Clive Betts, the committee’s chair, said: ‘While the extra funding for cladding removal is welcome, it will be swamped by the sheer scale of fire safety issues in multi-occupancy buildings.

‘In the years since the Grenfell tragedy, we have been shocked by the reality of the danger that flammable cladding poses, by how pervasive these materials are in modern buildings and by the frequency with which fundamental fire safety measures, including fire breaks and sprinkler systems, are simply not there.

‘£5 billion in funding is significant, but just cannot match the ongoing legacy of these fire safety failings […] the government’s recent proposals fail to adhere to the fundamental principle that leaseholders should not have to pay to fix these problems.’

Responding to the consultation on increasing taxes on residential developers, Labour’s shadow housing secretary, Thangam Debbonaire, accused the government of ‘dragging their feet at every stage since the Grenfell tragedy’ and noted that ‘hundreds of thousands of people still live in dangerous flats’.

‘Even with this levy, the burden would still overwhelmingly be on blameless leaseholders – while many of those that caused this crisis will get off lightly,’ she said. ‘Labour will keep fighting to protect leaseholders form unfair costs. This fight is not over.’

The government has also pledged to introduce The Gateway 2 Developer Levy, which will charge developers seeking planning permission for new towers. The levy will be brought forward as part of the Building Safety Bill.

Conservative PCC candidate reported for breaking election rules for second time

A Conservative candidate running for North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner has been reported to the returning officer for a second time.

Jez Hemming 

Pat Astbury, who is one of five people in the running for the PCC post, was reprimanded by Police Area Returning Officer for North Wales Colin Everett last week for an “inaccurate” statement and for having “privileged access” to Police Minister Kit Malthouse MP.

She had mistakenly called herself “your local Police and Crime Commissioner” rather than PCC candidate in a video discussion with the Minister.

The video was later edited to remove the reference and Mr Everett advised Police Minister Kit Malthouse to “extend the opportunity for an interview to all other candidates” or otherwise ask for it to be withdrawn.

Now it has emerged Mrs Astbury, a former Ruthin town councillor and Mayor, was referred to as a “local councillor” in Conservative communication to electors.

There is no suggestion Mrs Astbury was aware of the error before being contacted by Mr Everett, who is chief executive of Flintshire county council.

She made it clear she had no input into the election material, which had been produced by the Conservative Party.

She said: “It’s the second complaint and the first error (involving Kit Malthouse) was mine. The second one I haven’t seen, as it was in a constituency paper – I don’t even know which one it was.”

The Local Democracy Reporting Service has since discovered the reference was made in a Conservative paper sent to electors in Clwyd West.

In a Facebook post on her campaign page she said: “An error has appeared in print, describing myself as a councillor, when in fact I am a former councillor.

“I apologise if this has been misleading in any way, and hopefully, this explanation will address the matter. There has been no intent to deceive whatsoever, and I trust this explanation will serve to clarify.”

Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS), Mrs Astbury added: “Colin Everett said he was drawing a line under the first complaint and he was doing the same under this one too.”

A spokeswoman for the Welsh Conservatives, said: “Pat made a genuine error, for which she has apologised.”

A spokesman for the Police Area Returning Officer for North Wales, Colin Everett, said the matter was now “closed”.

The campaign to find the next PCC is underway in earnest as all the candidates fight for the vacant role left by Arfon Jones, who announced he was stepping down earlier this year.

Who deserves the credit for our vaccination rollout success?

The vaccination rollout is an undoubted triumph for the UK. It stands out in stark contrast to all the lack of preparedness and blundering we were subjected to in the early part of the pandemic.

The Government obviously likes to bask in the glory of this success, especially at election time. But how much of this glory is deserved and how much simply reflected?

The general lack of preparedness for the pandemic from: out of date and insufficient PPE stockpiles, through lack of ICU beds and general NHS cutbacks, to centralisation and disinvestment from locally based communicable disease control; is down to Government. Despite it being a risk that had been identified and “war-gamed” quite recently,

The emergency Government reaction to this lack of preparedness, was to turn to a VIP list of those with connections and the employment, at vast expense, of “consultants” e.g. to procure PPE and to create a “track and trace” system and “Moonshot” programmes. It did not fully mobilise the public resources at its disposal across central government. How long did it take to use the statistical sampling expertise of the ONS to direct our limited testing capabilities? Why were the local authority public health services sidelined?

According to the National Audit Office, the government response to the coronavirus pandemic is on track to cost the public purse £210bn for the first six months of the crisis. Equivalent to almost a quarter of the government’s annual budget for running the public sector.

Frankly, the general consensus is that this has been a costly and not very effective exercise.

Boris Johnson’s dithering and delays in ordering lockdowns is estimated to have cost 21,000 lives in the spring and up to 27,000 lives in the winter of 2020.

In contrast, the vaccine rollout programme has been run by public sector bodies: the NHS, the General Practice Service with the Military responsible for the logistics.

The choice of “well connected” venture capitalist Kate Bingham to lead the vaccine task force to identify the most promising candidate approaches and then spread the bets, was not without controversy. (£670K PR bill and allegations of sharing sensitive documents at a private conference). But she did pull the right expertise together.

The fact that there are any vaccines at all is down to the dedicated scientific teams who did react at an early stage as information emerged that something alarming was happening in China.

Locally this post says it all: