More sleaze

From today’s politico newsletter:

Labour wants Tory MP James Gray to be investigated after the Mail on Sunday’s Anna Mikhailova’s great scoop that the seasoned select committee member has been taking money from a crisis comms company in return for coaching corporate clients on how to answer select committee questions. Anna has some great quotes from an outraged senior MP who describes Gray’s coaching gig as akin to “insider dealing,” adding: “It stinks.”

(The 66-year-old MP is a member of the Commons Procedure Committee and Environmental Audit Committee as well as the ‘Panel of Chairs’, which advises the Commons Speaker, for which he is paid £16,422 on top of his £81,932 MP salary.

Gray has sat on 12 committees, including defence, transport and environment, since he was elected MP for North Wiltshire in 1997.) 

Grouse shooting ‘brings different classes together’ (It’s August)

An example of “them” and “us” and what “they” think we think of “them”. August is definitely the time to tug your forelock.

Owl assumes that pheasant shooting is regarded by “them” in a similar light, though it doesn’t feature as one of our Local Enterprise Partnership “Golden Opportunities”.

Also a good example of how vague “economic benefits” can be used to promote the wishes of landowners.

Luckily, Owls don’t have forelocks to tug nor are considered to be part of the Raptor family, the arch enemy of gamekeepers.

Ben Webster

Grouse shooting brings social benefits because it allows mixing between shooters and the people who cater for them, a report has suggested.

The paper defends the sport against calls for it to be banned, saying that it also has economic and environmental benefits. The report, funded by the shooting industry, has been released before the grouse season opens on Thursday, the Glorious Twelfth of August, although a cold, wet spring means many moors have few birds to shoot.

The researchers say that driven grouse shooting, in which beaters drive birds towards shooters, involves “a wide range of individuals from a variety of backgrounds, not just guns but also beaters, pickers up, drivers, flankers, caterers, supporters and others, facilitating contact between individuals from different class backgrounds and maximising the potential for social impacts”.

The report by Northampton University was commissioned by the Uplands Partnership, which includes the Moorland Association representing landowners, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Countryside Alliance and the National Gamekeepers Association.

The three authors include Simon Denny, a retired professor and former army captain who is a keen shooter. They say that one of the main reasons people oppose grouse shooting may be because “it is associated with the rich enjoying themselves”, and insist that this is “a gross over-simplification”.

The report suggests that many people involved in grouse shooting are disadvantaged in the debate over the sport because unlike high-profile opponents such as Chris Packham, the author and broadcaster, they are often “not confident in using social media and communication media”.

The economic benefits of grouse shooting include supporting jobs in remote areas, with a survey of 15 estates in North Yorkshire, Northumberland, and Scotland showing that they had 80 gamekeepers and 175 other full-time staff.

One moor in the North York Moors National Park employs 50 beaters earning £50 a day, 20 times a year, while another ten people earn £100 picking up the dead birds. Grouse shooting also supports hotels and other businesses, with clients flying in on private jets, bringing wives and partners and spending “a vast amount of money”.

Management of grouse moors helps to control ticks, which pose a disease risk to humans and wildlife. Bracken, which can harbour ticks and smother sensitive habitats, is also reduced.

The report says that a detailed study has not been carried out into the economic impact of managing moors without shooting but its authors conclude: “It is unlikely that the alternative uses that are proposed by some groups for the moorlands would deliver the same positive economic impacts, at least for a number of generations.” They said that shooting was “an important part of a mosaic of income-generating activities that sustain upland communities”.

Mark Avery, a co-founder with Packham of Wild Justice, which wants driven grouse shooting to be banned, said that the report was “from an industry in denial”. He ridiculed the claim that the sport brought classes together, adding: “We’ll have a game of dominoes down the pub with the Duke of Westminster [a grouse moor owner] any time he likes.”

Report can be found here

Footnote: On Monday 21st June the Westminster Petitions Committee debated the petition: “Ban Driven Grouse Shooting: Wilful blindness is no longer an option”. The petition was started by Wild Justice, the anti-shooting campaign group headed by Mark Avery, Ruth Tingay and Chris Packham. The debate followed a similar – unsuccessful – petition that was debated back in 2016.  Back then 30 MPs, including the now-Chancellor Rishi Sunak, made speeches in favour of grouse shooting, while none spoke in favour of the ban, and the petition was rejected. The 2021 debate followed a fairly similar pattern to the one from five years ago, with MPs lining up to support grouse shooting and to refute the claims of the petition.

Get your vaccine plea as Covid rates higher than national average, including East Devon

Devon public health chiefs are urging people who have yet to take up the coronavirus vaccine to go and get jabbed as case rates in the county are above the national average.

Daniel Clark

Infection rates over the last few weeks in Devon are the highest they have been since the start of the pandemic, with case rates in Exeter in particular among the highest in the country.

Only Lincoln of the 315 lower tier authority has a higher infection rate than Exeter at present, with Plymouth and Torbay just outside the top ten, with Teignbridge and East Devon district areas also having case rates above the national average.

But while rates in Exeter, Mid Devon, South Hams and Torbay are rising, in East Devon, North Devon, Teignbridge, Torridge and West Devon, they are falling again.

Most Devon cases are among people in their late teens and of young working age population, and the latest data shows that Devon’s weekly case rate average is now above the national average for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.

Cases are predominantly in children and younger adults, with the highest case rates in those aged 16 to 24 year olds.

“A lot of it is to be expected, with the gradual lifting of restrictions that we’ve seen over several months, and people having more opportunities to mix socially,” says Devon’s deputy director of public health, Tina Henry.

“A similar pattern is currently seen in many other cities like Exeter with a younger population profile.

“But we’re not seeing that follow through to hospitalisations, although hospitals are very busy right now. That’s largely thanks to the vaccine, which is why it’s so important to take both vaccinations when they’re offered to you.

“We’re now appealing especially to younger adults to make sure that they get double vaccinated.”

While in Devon, 87 per cent of adults have had one Covid vaccine and 74 per cent a second dose, in Exeter, where infection rates are currently at 568.5/100,000, only 78 per cent of adults have had their first dose, and 59 per cent a second dose.

The latest Government figures, which give the position as of Tuesday, August 3, show that across hospital trusts in Devon there were 86 patients in hospital after a positive Covid-19 test.

Derriford Hospital has 42 patients – up from 35 as of the previous Tuesday, with Exeter having 30, up from 27, Torbay up to 12, from 8, but in North Devon, numbers have fallen from 6 to 2. In Cornwall, the number only rose by two, to 23 from 21.

The figures show how many patients are in hospital following a positive test for Covid-19, but not whether they were admitted for Covid-related reasons, whether they were infected inside the hospital, or whether their admission was entirely unrelated but they happened to have Covid at the same time – figures for the South West show on July 27, around 15 per cent of beds were occupied by ‘non-Covid’ patients.

Tory donor ‘paid £100,000 for breakfast with Boris Johnson’

But apparently the “event” has yet to happen.

The major Conservative Party donor at the centre of an alleged “cash for access” row paid £100,000 for a breakfast date with Boris Johnson, it has emerged.

Business tycoon Mohamed Amersi is said to have paid for the early morning meeting with the prime minister after winning a fundraising dinner auction in November 2019.

The £99,500 donation to Tory HQ was reported to the Electoral Commission last January – but Mr Amersi is yet to get his breakfast with Mr Johnson, according to the Sunday Times.

Mr Amersi revealed last week that a group of wealthy Tory donors known as the “advisory board” had been developed to connect the party’s biggest financial backers with ministers.

A client of Tory co-chair Ben Elliot’s concierge company Quintessentially, Mr Amersi said the donors’ group worked in a similar way to the private firm. “One needs to cough up £250,000 per annum or be a friend of Ben.”

Frustrated by his failure to get his breakfast meeting with Mr Johnson, Mr Amersi reportedly emailed Mr Elliot in June 2020 to complain.

“I know this is unlikely to happen until full lockdown is over but can you ensure this is co-ordinated,” Mr Elliot then wrote to colleagues at Tory HQ. “Who is our internal liaison?”

It has also emerged that the Conservative Party made several payments to Mr Elliot’s company Hod Hill last year.

The party said the payments funded “administrative support” so Hod Hill co-director Jakob Widecki could work with Mr Elliot at Tory HQ, according to the Sunday Times.

It comes as new analysis by The Independent shows just ten wealthy people account for a quarter of all the donations made by individuals to the Tory Party since Mr Johnson became prime minister.

The ten super-rich donors have given a combined sum of just over £10m to the Tories since he entered No 10 – more than 25 per cent of the £38.6m received from individuals in the past two years.

Mr Amersi sits just outside the list of top ten donors, having given £189,000 since Mr Johnson entered No 10. He previously gave almost £300,000 to the party during Theresa May’s three years in Downing Street.

Labour MP Anneliese Dodds, the party’s chair, said the Conservatives had “serious questions to answer” about their dependence on big donors.

The frontbencher told The Independent: “We need to know why the Tories have become so reliant on huge donations from a select group of super wealthy individuals – and what it is that these elite donors are being given in return.

“Boris Johnson has created a cash for access culture in the Conservative Party … He needs to break his silence and explain what he plans to do to ensure there isn’t one rule for senior Conservatives and their cronies, and another rule for everyone else.”

Sir Keir Starmer has demanded that the Tories reveal who was in the party’s club for big donors. “We can’t have this sleaze, this murky cash-for-access,” he said.

Conservative Party co-chair Amanda Milling has insisted that government policy “is in no way influenced by the donations the party receives – they are entirely separate”.

She said: “All political parties raise money and accept donations in order to pay their staff and campaign in elections.”

Meanwhile, Labour has accused former chancellor Phillip Hammond of breaking the ministerial code, after he reportedly wrote to the Treasury to advocate for a bank he now works for as a paid adviser.

Mr Hammond emailed Charles Roxburgh, the Treasury’s second most senior civil servant, in July 2020 to explain the benefits of a “toolkit” developed by OakNorth to assess borrowers, according to the Sunday Telegraph.

Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, claimed the Tory MP had violated the code of conduct for former ministers and called for the cabinet secretary to investigate. “If the rules are treated with such derision by the former chancellor then the whole system is rotten.”

Lord Hammond’s spokesman insisted OakNorth were offering their toolkit to the Treasury “free of charge” and no rules had been broken.

John Hart calls Boris to act on “Albatross” of social care

From today’s Western Morning News:

The leader of Devon County Council says social care is the “albatross around the neck of local government” as he urged Westminster to announce long-awaited reforms to the service.

Conservative John Hart also said successive governments, including the Tory-led coalition and majority Conservatives since 2010, had kicked the issue “as hard as it possibly can” down the road.

“I’m sure they have, because it’s one of these where it’s not an easy answer,” he said.

Under the current system in England, anyone who owns a home or has more than  £23,250 in savings needs to pay for their own care. For many people this means having to sell their property. Only when they have less than  £23,500 do local authorities step in to foot the bill.

Councillor Hart, who has been in charge at county hall since 2009, said it was crucial the government finally announced the shake-up promised by Boris Johnson on his first day as prime minister.

“It’s crucial because social care is becoming almost the albatross around the neck of local government. We don’t know at times just what the heck we’re walking into.

“It’s almost an open cheque book. You can’t be sure what’s going to come through your door tomorrow and you have to be prepared for it.”

The budget for adult care and health in the Devon County Council area, which excludes Torbay and Plymouth, is  £233 million this financial year – an increase of nearly  £22 million on last year.

The council says it will support almost two-thousand older people in residential care, 2,483 receiving personal care and 3,150 who get ‘reablement’ – such as when people get help to live independently after a stroke or are discharged from hospital with limited mobility.

Speaking in 2019 after replacing Theresa May as prime minister, Mr Johnson said: “I am announcing now – on the steps of Downing Street – that we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared to give every older person the dignity and security they deserve.”

But that plan has yet to be published, with any announcement yet to materialise. Reports in recent days suggest this has now been pushed back to the autumn.

One idea thought to be under consideration is a penny increase in national insurance contributions. However this would go against a Conservative manifesto commitment not to raise taxes.

When asked what the reforms should look like, Cllr Hart said: “I would like to see consistency from government first off. If we have to supply services for people, and we do have to supply services for people, we want to know from the government that they will support us for the services that we have to give.”

He added: “It’s getting to a stage shortly where some decisions are going to need to be taken because, as far as local government’s concerned, everybody says ‘you’re putting the council tax up every year’. We’re getting to a stage where people can’t pay. 

“The other side of that is unless we put council tax up, we haven’t got the money to look after vulnerable people across all ages.” 

In 2010, the Dilnot Commission was set up by the government to address reforms to social care. It proposed a lifetime cap on care costs individuals must pay of between  £25,000 and  £50,000.

However, whilst Cllr Hart said he hoped people could keep more of their own money, he questioned whether the Dilnot proposals would be “feasible,” adding that in some cases the authority is spending more than  £20,000 a year on care per person.

“In nursing homes, the fees are over a thousand pounds a week. Normal care homes are six to eight hundred pounds a week. I don’t know how one is going to handle this, but it is the albatross around local government. It’s almost the albatross around national governments as well.”