Electoral Commission to be stripped of power to prosecute after probe into Boris Johnson’s flat makeover

Boris Johnson is to strip the Electoral Commission of the power to prosecute law-breaking, just weeks after it launched an investigation into his controversial flat refurbishment.

www.independent.co.uk

The watchdog has been threatened with curbs ever since it embarrassed senior Tory figures by fining Vote Leave for busting spending limits for the Brexit referendum.

Now ministers have announced that a new Elections Bill will remove its ability to prosecute criminal offences under electoral law – arguing it “wastes public money”.

The watchdog launched an immediate protest, warning the move would “place a fetter on the commission which would limit its activity”.

The shake-up was condemned as a “thinly-veiled government power grab” by the Electoral Reform Society.

Cat Smith, Labour’s shadow minister for democracy, said: “It is not for any government to dictate the priorities of an independent watchdog. This is yet another attempt by the Conservatives to rig democracy in their favour.”

Parliament’s standards chief has stepped back from her own probe into flat makeover – which saw a Tory donor originally fund the lavish redecoration – while the commission does its work.

Amid that furore, it was widely anticipated that the government would back away from changes that would be seen as enfeebling the commission.

But Chloe Smith, the constitution minister, insisted “the proper place for criminal investigations and prosecutions relating to electoral law is with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service”.

“In recent years, the Electoral Commission has sought to develop the capability to bring criminal offences before the courts,” she said. “This has never been agreed by the government or Parliament.

“Having the Electoral Commission step into this space would risk wasting public money as well as present potential conflicts of interest for a body responsible for providing advice and guidance on electoral law to initiate proceedings which might depend on the very advice that was given.”

Jess Garland, the Electoral Reform Society’s policy director, said: “The government is on the one hand creating new rules for the Electoral Commission to enforce – while at the same time reducing its independence, extending political influence over what should be a neutral body,” said.

“The Electoral Commission is the UK’s number one experts on Britain’s complex electoral law, so it is vital it retains the ability to raise alleged wrongdoing in the courts.”

The shake-up will also see a Commons committee – with a Conservative majority – set strategic priorities, in a further perceived undermining of the watchdog’s impartiality.

A commission spokesperson said: “Parliamentary oversight and scrutiny of the commission’s activities are essential in ensuring the commission commands trust and confidence.

“It is important, however, that the commission’s independence is preserved and that it is able to continue to deliver all duties within its remit, including effective enforcement.

“Some changes announced today place a fetter on the commission which would limit its activity. We will work with the government to explore these areas.”

Defiant Boris Johnson tells planning critics they’re wrong despite by-election humiliation

In addition to planning reforms, there is evidence of tactical voting with Labour voters switching to support the Lib Dems in this instance. The message to opposition parties is that they need wins like this to rebuild their credibility, and they probably have to do this collaboratively. – Owl

www.independent.co.uk

A defiant Boris Johnson has told critics of his planning shake-up they have got it wrong, despite his humiliation in the Chesham and Amersham by-election.

The prime minister called suggestions that the Conservatives are losing their Southern heartland voters “a bit peculiar, a bit bizarre”.

And he insisted: “I think there’s some misunderstanding about the planning reforms – even some wilful misunderstanding on the part of some of our opponents.

“What we want is sensible plans to allow development on brownfield sites. We’re not going to build on greenbelt sites, we’re not going to build all over the countryside.”

The triumphant Liberal Democrats have pointed to anger over the top-down planning changes as a key reason for the shock overturning of a 16,000 Tory majority in the true-blue Buckinghamshire constituency.

Some believe the shake-up – which critics say hands too much power to developers, undermining local democracy – may be dead in the water, with the government fearing a further backlash.

But Mr Johnson appeared to point to the construction of the HS2 high-speed rail line as the reason for his crushing defeat, referring to “particular circumstances there”.

And he defended the planning changes, claiming they are vital to enabling young people to get onto the housing ladder – something rejected by a recent Commons inquiry.

“The young people growing up in this country should have the chance of homeownership and that’s what we’re focusing on,” the prime minister said, on a college visit.

“I think it’s a great dream for young people in their 20s, 30s that they currently don’t have in the way that they perhaps had a few decades ago.

“And that’s something that we want to bring back, we want to make it easier. And that’s what we’re all about.”

Ed Davey, celebrating his party’s “best-ever by-election result”, called the planning controversy “symbolic” of the way Southern voters are being ignored by the Tories.

It would “give so much power to developers and take them away from communities and not result in the affordable housing people need”, the Lib Dem leader warned.

But the prime minister’s spokesman played down any immediate rethink, telling journalists: “I’m not aware of any planned changes.”

Speaking in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, Mr Johnson also said he is “very confident” that the remaining coronavirus restrictions in England will be lifted on 19 July.

Again, calling it “a terminus date” he said: “I think that’s certainly what the data continues to indicate.”

And he backed Matt Hancock despite the revelation that he called the health secretary “f***ing hopeless” in embarrassing messages revealed by Dominic Cummings.

Mr Johnson said: “I have complete confidence in Matt and indeed all of the government who have been dealing with Covid-19 during the pandemic.”

So, to the classic by-election question: how much does it matter?

Extract from Telegraph “Front Bench”

The usual argument is that by-elections should never be extrapolated and there are reasons to think that this morning. 

Unlike Hartlepool, where the Government picked up a seat, this is a resumption of normal service, where voters punish the ruling party.

There were also two key local issues making the Conservatives particularly unpopular: HS2, which cuts through the constituency, and the possibility of big new housing developments under the Government’s planning reforms. 

Indeed, the fact that Labour mustered just 622 votes suggests there was a strong element of tactical voting (although that is an abysmal result for Labour nonetheless).

And yet, this was a huge swing – the 14th biggest in a by-election ever. And the fact that it was the Lib Dems, rather than Labour, lends it more significance.

Just as there is a political realignment going on in the North and Midlands that has allowed the Tories to bag dozens of seats, there appears to be a concurrent realignment in the South.

Like the Conservatives in 2017, albeit on a much smaller scale, the Lib Dems fell badly short in 2019 but did finish second in many places that they hadn’t been competitive in before.

Chesham and Amersham is one of them. In 2017 they were third and in 2015, fourth. 

Indeed, this result wasn’t actually completely out of the blue. The Lib Dems went from zero seats to majority control of Amersham council at the local elections earlier this year, suggesting there’s genuine substance to this result.

There are other signs of realignment too. In 2015 Ukip came second. That’s an indicator of the change in the local area, driven by wealthy millennials moving out of London and bringing their liberalness with them. 

The question for both the Tories and the Lib Dems is whether this is the first manifestation of a wider trend. Is this the southern corollary of realignment that is turning the North blue and transforming the Conservative party?

If so, can the Tory majority survive it? 

Of course, that’s reading rather a lot into a single by-election, and more swallows will be needed before the Lib Dems can declare it summer. 

Even in the medium term, though, this shock result is likely to have significant consequences. For one, the Tory backbenches are only likely to get more jittery over planning reforms. 

For the Lib Dems, though, this is a vital moment in proving that they are still relevant and building momentum towards the next election.

Was the G7 a “Super-spreeding” event? – Cornwall is now UK Covid hot spot

First from the BBC Local News:

Cornwall needs ‘triple effort’ to combat Covid-19 spike

Dr Ruth Goldstein, from Cornwall Council’s public health department, said the majority of cases were the Delta variant and warned that the numbers were expected to rise.

“It is not a situation that Cornwall has found itself in in the last 18 months,” she said.

Dr Goldstein said public health officials had started to see a rise around 10 days ago among people aged 16 to 25, the Local Democracy Reporting Service reported.

“Initially it started around the Penryn campus [of the University of Exeter],” she said.

“That combined with the half-term break, where we have people from Cornwall going up country to see family and friends and we had visitors coming to Cornwall.”

Dr Goldstein added that Cornwall had a higher number of restaurants and bars per person compared to other parts of the country, which could also be contributing.

A number of hospitality venues have had to close in places such as St Ives, Falmouth and Newquay in recent days due to staff self-isolating.

Dr Goldstein said venues were being responsible by testing staff and isolating them where necessary….

…”We know we will have a lot of people coming into Cornwall, which we want and is fantastic for our businesses,” she said.

“But this situation we are in now, we all have to triple our efforts if we are going to stop this rise in cases.”

(When does Simon Jupp intend to start his pub crawl? – Owl)

G7 towns are centre of Cornwall’s spike in Covid cases

Aaron Greenaway www.cornwalllive.com

The latest UK Government coronavirus data reveals that areas of Cornwall which played host to the G7 Summit and students are primarily driving the large increase in cases.

The areas of Falmouth, where G7 media were based, and Penryn, home to Cornwall’s university campus, in addition to St Ives and Carbis Bay, which hosted the gathering of world leaders, are together registering more than half – 53 per cent – of cases in Cornwall for the seven days ending June 12. This was the middle day of the three-day summit.

Falmouth and St Ives were also the focus of protest groups, with thousands of people taking to the streets.

It comes amid a spike of the Delta variant – first identified in India – of the coronavirus across the UK, which led to Prime Minister Boris Johnson announcing a delay in the final release of lockdown restrictions until at least July 19.

The largest outbreak in Cornwall is currently in the Ponsanooth, Mabe Burnthouse and Constantine area, home to the Penryn Campus shared by Falmouth University and the University of Exeter, with 57 cases, followed by Falmouth North with 38 cases, Falmouth East with 37 cases, Penryn with 16 cases as well as Falmouth West and South which has 10 cases.

The coronavirus case map for mid and West Cornwall, which represents the majority of Cornwall's coronavirus outbreak

The coronavirus case map for mid and West Cornwall, which represents the majority of Cornwall’s coronavirus outbreak (Image: UK Government)

In St Ives and Carbis Bay, home to the G7 summit, there were 44 cases reported in St Ives and Halsetown and 19 cases in Towednack, Lelant and Carbis Bay.

There were 411 cases reported in Cornwall for the seven days to June 12, with the totals for the above-listed areas representing 53 per cent of the total.

A heatmap on the coronavirus dashboard which provides a breakdown for cases per 100,000 for different age groups also reveals that the age group with the largest number of infections covers those aged between 20 and 24 years old, with 461.5 cases per 100,000 people, closely followed by 15 to 19-year-olds with 267.5 cases per 100,000 people.

It represents two age groups which are yet to be mass vaccinated against the disease and comes as the Government has announced that all those over 18 can now book their vaccinations.

In comparison, older age groups which represent those more vulnerable to death and serious illness from the coronavirus and who are mostly vaccinated, are currently reporting significantly fewer cases, which, in turn, has led to a less noticeable impact on Cornwall’s hospitals.

Ruth Goldstein, from Cornwall Council’s public health department recently revealed that the spike seen in coronavirus cases started with an outbreak at the Penryn campus of the University. She said: “Initially it started around the Penryn campus (of the university) and it was easy to understand how that happened as this was the area in Cornwall where we have the highest density of young people.

“That combined with the half-term break, where we have people from Cornwall going upcountry to see family and friends and we had visitors coming to Cornwall.

Government heat map of coronavirus cases in Cornwall by age group (darker colour represents more cases)

Government heat map of coronavirus cases in Cornwall by age group (darker colour represents more cases) (Image: UK Government)

“All these things combined have led to this increase in positive cases.”

Cornwall Council’s public health team has also called on people working in the hospitality industry, which also predominantly features younger people, to ensure they take their twice-weekly coronavirus tests to keep themselves and others safe.

Director of public health for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, Rachel Wigglesworth, explained that while Cornwall’s case rate is still below the national average, it has risen sharply and now is “the time to act and bring the rate back down”.

She said: “We’re asking anyone working in the hospitality industry to help themselves stay safe and protect their work colleagues by testing twice weekly using rapid lateral flow tests.

“While our case rate is still below the national average it has risen sharply.

“Now is the time to act to bring the rate back down. I would urge everyone to make twice-weekly testing part of their routine so we can identify cases even when people have no symptoms. Rapid Lateral Flow Tests are free of charge and can be picked up from your local pharmacy or ordered online.”

(Online article contains more detailed data)