Devon’s SEN funding system is ‘broken’

Council’s told to put overspends into separate accounts for three years

Ollie Heptinstall, local democracy reporter

The funding system for special educational needs is “broken,” the boss of Devon County Council says, with the authority’s total overspend on the service set to rise to almost £90 million.

The government has told councils to put overspends for supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) into separate accounts for three years until April 2023, while it develops a new plan to fund provision.

It means Devon’s effective debt on the service – currently forecast to reach £88 million by April – does not currently count towards its main revenue figures, However, the council is concerned about what will happen when the ring-fencing arrangement ends next year.

At this week’s council cabinet, Councillors were told that discussions with the Department for Education were ongoing, and a deal could be reached by the end of March.

The county council entered the current financial year with an overspend of £49 million in its SEND account. It expects to add a further £39 million to the debt for 2021/2, according to the latest budget report presented to the meeting.

Speaking on the issue, chief executive Phil Norrey said: “We don’t know whether it will come back [onto the balance sheet] at that point or not, or how it will be dealt with.”

“But the expectation is that those local authorities with a deficit, or a significant deficit, will have to work with government to try and reduce that before whatever happens next to that lump of money.”

Describing it as a “national problem,” Dr Norrey added: “It’s not only right of the top of the agenda of the DfE, but it’s up there with the treasury and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.”

He expects the government will soon publish a consultation paper on changing the system, “based on the experience of the fact that this is a broken system. It doesn’t actually work. It doesn’t deliver what parents and carers want and financially it is unsustainable across the country.”

The high cost of independent specialist provision was cited as one of the main reasons why Devon was spending so much. Dr Norrey told councillors the cost per youngster was £47,000, compared to £12,000 in a maintained special school.

“That gives you an indication of the fact that somehow we’ve got to recalibrate the system,” he said.

“We’ve got to get more youngsters flourishing in mainstream settings in the first instance, more youngsters being supported in maintained special schools locally and fewer in very expensive independent specialist provision. That’s going to take a long time to do.”

Director of children’s services Melissa Caslake said there was an “action plan” to tackle the SEND overspend, including investment and plans to increase special school places provided by the council.

“That will reduce the amount of children that we are having at the moment to place in independent special schools including some in residential special schools as well – the cost of those are far beyond the cost of us effectively providing our own special school places,” she said.

“That will have a significant impact, but obviously those places in different schools, different locations, will be coming on stream at different times over the next few years.”

Ms Caslake hopes a deal with the Department for Education, billed as a ‘safety valve intervention programme,’ will be finalised by the end of March.

A report for the cabinet on the budget says a “package of reform” will bring the overspend under control.

Leader of the council John Hart (Bickleigh & Wembury) said: “Devon is not an outlier. Every local authority with SEND responsibility has got the same problem.

“Others have got a bigger problem because they did not have the money that we actually had in our coffers for the rainy day and whatever way you want to look at this, it is a budget line that is off-budget.

“In private practice, if you decided to put a set of accounts up and you actually had this kind of money offset and not being shown as a liability to your company, you’d be done for fraud.

“It is a serious issue as far as local government is concerned, but we’ve had to spend the money to pay the bills and we do need at some stage government clarity and hopefully government reimbursement for that money.”

At the start of the debate, Councillor Alan Connett (Lib Dem, Exminster & Haldon), leader of the opposition, expressed concern about the debt figure, warning: “£88.1 million is more than 50 per cent of the council’s free reserves – it is a significant deficit that the council is carrying.”

“I think the council needs to be aware of what the precise actions are that bring that into balance because I’m reading the euphemism to mean there will need to be cuts somewhere – you may call them savings in other services …or there’s going to be some kind of management on the provision of services for the people who rely on these high needs.”

He said some parents were saying it was taking a “rather long time” to get through the process for provision and that they were “beginning to believe that this is being managed to stall provision of services for children with special needs.” This was denied by Ms Caslake.

Cllr Connett called for a plan “that should be set out for all councillors and the public about how this very significant deficit is going to be dealt with.

“[We need to know] what it actually means in reality, how the savings are going to be made to bring it back into balance? Because I think what we’re hearing is that there is not going to be a significant grant from government to balance the books for the chronic under funding, which has led to this deficit.”

Councillor Rob Hannaford (Exwick & St Thomas), leader of the Labour group, agreed for the need for a “proper report,” but said: “It is my understanding, I believe, that we are in negotiations with the government to pay this back in various instalments, so I hope that will give some comfort.”

“However, what I will say is I would still put on the record that it’s very unjust that we are having to pay back this money to any great extent because we were given these responsibilities by the government.

“It’s things that we should be doing for those children that need this work, but nevertheless, it should have come with a proper package of funding from central government, and I’m still concerned as part of those negotiations and paybacks that it will mean cuts to other services.”

18 times Boris Johnson was accused of breaking rules – and got away with it

Boris Johnson is facing calls to resign after he admitted attending a lockdown party in Downing Street during the pandemic.

Seth Thévoz

But it is far from the first time the prime minister has been caught seemingly breaking the rules with impunity.

Johnson claims the “bring your own booze” event held at Number 10 on 20 May 2020 did not “technically” break the strict rules in place at the time. Lawyers, fact-checkers and even some of his own MPs disagree.

The prime minister told Parliament yesterday: “I must take responsibility.” But his record suggests he rarely, if ever, does so.

Here are some of his most egregious breaches – or alleged breaches – that have resulted in little more than a slap on the wrist; and, in some cases, nothing at all.

‘Unlawful’ suspension of Parliament

In the lead up to Brexit, Boris Johnson prorogued Parliament in 2019, marking one of the most controversial chapters of his premiership. The move was later ruled unlawful and unanimously struck down by the Supreme Court. Judges declined to speculate on Johnson’s motives, but the Scottish Court of Sessions said Johnson’s advice to the Queen was “motivated by the improper purpose of stymying Parliament”.

Sanction: None for Johnson. Prorogation overturned by Supreme Court.

Jennifer Arcuri

When Johnson was mayor of London, he arranged £126,000 of taxpayer money in grants for the American tech entrepreneur, Jennifer Arcuri. He also arranged for her to accompany him on overseas trips. But Arcuri has since released a diary claiming the pair had a four-year affair. She alleges that he offered at the time: “How can I be the thrust – the throttle – your mere footstep as you make your career? Tell me: how I can help you? [sic]” Johnson has never declared their relationship in any register of interests, as would be required. Nor has he explicitly denied the affair took place, although he has repeatedly said he did nothing wrong.

Sanction: Investigations ongoing.

The Downing Street refurb

Amid reports of expensive work to Johnson’s flat, he told MPs: “I paid for [the] Downing Street refurbishment personally.” In reality, it had initially been paid with a secret £52,000 loan from Conservative Party funds in 2020, then with an unlawful, undeclared donation from Lord Brownlow, which prompted a £17,800 fine for the party.

Johnson reimbursed the cost only in 2021, after news reports exposed the secret deal. For eight months, he repeatedly broke the ministerial code, by leaving the source of the money undeclared.

Sanction: None for Johnson. Conservative Party fined £17,800.

Great Exhibition 2 ‘corruption’

Johnson spent more than a year obfuscating his “lost”’ WhatsApp messages to Tory donor Lord Brownlow. In them, Johnson asked for tens of thousands of pounds’ worth of flat redecorations, whilst encouraging Brownlow’s “great exhibition plan”. Labour’s Angela Rayner has called it a clear example of “corruption”.

Sanction: None.

Lying to Parliament over partygate?

It seems likely that Johnson lied to the House of Commons over partygate – which is a breach of parliamentary rules. Last month, he claimed: “I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no COVID rules were broken.” Reports have since emerged of at least nine Downing Street parties in lockdown, and Johnson has admitted he attended at least one himself. Just 6% of British people think he has told the truth.

Sanction: Investigations ongoing.

Changing the rules

Johnson made a botched attempt to change the entire system for disciplining MPs, so as to save his friend Owen Paterson from being suspended as an MP after a lobbying scandal. Lord Evans, chair of the committee on standards in public life, accused him of failing to uphold the key principles of public life, saying it was a “very serious and damaging moment for Parliament”.

Sanction: None. The government later quietly dropped the plans.

The undeclared food

Over eight months in 2020, Johnson secretly received £27,000 of luxury organic food, hand-delivered on a bike by the butler of a Tory donor, Lord Bamford. The prime minister paid for it at ‘cost price’ – £18,900 – with the discount being a donation from Bamford’s wife. Johnson never declared the £8,100 gift, in another apparent breach of transparency rules.

Sanction: None.

‘Cash for peerages’

The prime minister was accused of presiding over a ‘cash for peerages’ scandal last year, following an investigation by openDemocracy and The Sunday Times. A former party chair explained: “Once you pay your £3m, you get your peerage.” Some £54m has been raised from 22 major Tory donors in 11 years – all of whom have subsequently gone to the Lords. MPs called for a criminal investigation, but the Met Police declined.

Sanction: None.

Overruling his last ethics adviser

Johnson’s previous ethics adviser, Alex Allan, found home secretary Priti Patel guilty of bullying her staff. But Johnson disliked the findings and simply reversed them, clearing his close ally Patel. Allan, a widely respected career civil servant, resigned in disgust.

Sanction: None. The High Court upheld Allan’s advice but said Johnson had not broken rules.

Putting his entire government in breach of the Ministerial Code

Amid controversy over the Downing Street refurb last year, openDemocracy revealed that Boris Johnson seemingly attempted to quash the scandal by simply not appointing a new ethics adviser – so no one could oversee the list of ministers’ interests. This meant the post remained vacant for six months and left every single member of his government in breach of the Ministerial Code, which says a twice-yearly list of interests should be published.

Sanction: None.

Obstructing his own ethics adviser

When Johnson was first accused of breaking rules over the Downing Street refurb in 2021, he commissioned his new ethics adviser, Lord Geidt, to investigate. Geidt’s report cleared the prime minister, but he has since seriously criticised Johnson for withholding “highly material” WhatsApp messages – something Geidt realised only after watching the news seven months later. Geidt retaliated by publishing the embarrassing WhatsApp messages in full.

Sanction: Apology.

Holiday in Mustique

Johnson was rapped on the knuckles by the parliamentary standards commissioner over a luxury holiday. He had wrongly declared the £15,000 Mustique getaway in 2020, organised by a Tory donor David Ross. The commissioner found that the PM had been so chaotic that she was still “unable to conclude what Mr Johnson’s register entry should have contained” and criticised him for resisting giving more details.

Sanction: Criticised by a watchdog, but cleared of breaching rules.

Simply ignoring the regulator

The House of Lords Appointments Commission vets all nominees to the House of Lords and can veto “unsuitable” candidates. This happened in 2020, when it tried to block a peerage for Johnson’s friend, the billionaire Tory donor Peter Cruddas. But Johnson simply ignored the veto and appointed Cruddas anyway. No prime minister has ever done this before. Cruddas denies any wrongdoing.

Sanction: None.

Plans to breach international law

In the rush to secure a Brexit deal, Boris Johnson announced plans to breach international law in the case of a ‘no-deal Brexit’. His government admitted the measures would have been unlawful in a “specific and limited way”. The president of the Law Society of England and Wales responded, saying: “The rule of law is not negotiable.”

Sanction: None. The plans were overturned and a Brexit deal was agreed.

Property dealings

If MPs deal in any property worth over £100,000, they have to declare it within 28 days. Johnson acquired a 20% share in a Somerset farm in 2018, but waited a whole year to register it. He claimed he “misunderstood” the rules; but the Committee on Standards was less than impressed, pointing out he had only just been reprimanded over a separate rule-breaking incident.

Sanction: Apology and briefing about the rules.

Nine breaches of Parliamentary rules

In 2018, the parliamentary standards commissioner rebuked Johnson for nine different breaches of parliamentary rules in one year, after he was late to declare financial interests. These included an extra £52,000 in income and joint ownership of a London property.

Sanction: Apology.

Telegraph column

When he quit as foreign secretary in 2018, Johnson resumed his lucrative Telegraph column just days later. He was accused of breaking the ministerial code – because ministers are meant to wait at least three months after leaving government before taking up a business appointment.

Sanction: None.

London appointments

The Evening Standard championed Boris Johnson’s election as mayor of London. He later tried to appoint the paper’s former editor to run the Arts Council in London – despite the judging panel saying she was not qualified. He was accused of breaching rules on public appointments.

Sanction: None.

‘We need a long-term NHS with capacity to help’

Paul Millar

I recently went for my booster jab on a quiet weekday morning at my local GP surgery situated in the Ward I represent. 

I thank all the doctors, nurses and support staff at the Raleigh Surgery, for the huge amount of work they’ve done and are doing to facilitate walk-in appointments while keeping the rest of the show on the road. Their resilience is quite unbelievable. 

What I found out from a nurse while there was that take-up for the booster has been lower than hoped. We speculated that this could be because people didn’t want to deal with unpleasant side effects during the Christmas break. What has shaken their morale is that their surgery has been under capacity to make room for booster jobs for people many of whom never came, meaning other important appointments and treatments have been delayed. 

For many workers in the NHS, the heroes of the pandemic, morale is now rock bottom – I regularly think of the usually very placid nurse I know who lives in my Ward and works at the RD&E who in a recent conversation expressed his rage following the stories of parties at 10 Downing Street and the sense that the government can do what they like. 

The sacrifice NHS workers have made, for a derisory 2% annual pay rise, is far greater than government. No wonder the NHS vacancies – they are not valued.

I am in the Labour Party because, despite their faults, they see well-funded public services and a strong economy as two sides of the same coin. They respect our public services. 

Since Labour lost power in 2010 following years of investment in the NHS, fixing the roof while the sun was shining, the Tories have cut things to the bone. We have a recruitment crisis because of the removal nursing bursaries. 

While it’s not racist to be concerned about net migration, the rhetoric used by some Tory spokespeople – the ‘Go Home’ vans for example – has led to good doctors and nurses emigrating. 

The Tory-led top-down reorganisation a decade ago has left GPs surgeries in crisis. Try getting a GP appointment now – it is certainly not a fault of the GPs. 

Following a series of debilitating lockdowns in which many people have lived more unhealthy and solitary lives, we more than ever, need a long-term NHS with the capacity to help us.

Although lockdowns have saved many lives, we may come to reflect on the first global pandemic for over a century and lessons we can learn. There was no digital communication or remote working during the Spanish Flu. I think of the majorly damaging effects on physical and mental health of not at least keeping some exercise facilities open throughout.

Regular social exercise is a hugely significant contributor to us maintaining a good quality of life and preventing loneliness, obesity and heart disease. 

I believe all outdoor sports, as well as indoor activities where social distancing is possible, should never have been stopped for this reason. Tennis, rugby, golf, football, badminton and group exercise classes would have been valuable to many during these difficult times, including myself. 

I have realised this since these facilites reopened. Regaining my fitness and playing my favourite sports have restored a sense of self-worth, hope and zest for life.

Many of our local sport and exercise facilities are jointly owned and funded by the council and the excellent charity Leisure East Devon. 

One of my favourite roles on the council is as vice chair of the council’s LED forum where we are working to create a new strategy which makes it more affordable for local people to use our facilities and improve the ones we have. 

Unfortunately, the last local strategy was allowed to run out of date by the previous Conservative Council, voted out in May 2019 (a fact, not spin).

Now, sport and exercise is front and centre of our priorities of the local council, with a new, improved and deliverable Playing Pitch Strategy on its way too. 

Nationally, for as long as he remains Prime Minister, Boris Johnson must help us by committing to more investment into local exercise facilities and grassroots sport.

Situation fluid: Neil Parish and Simon Jupp appear to be sitting on the fence

Full list of Tories calling for Boris Johnson to resign – and those still backing the PM

Boris Johnson faced a barrage of criticism from his own MPs on Wednesday over his attendance at a Downing Street garden party at the height of lockdown last year. 

Speaking in the Commons, Mr Johnson acknowledged the public’s “rage” over the party on May 20 2020, but insisted that he thought the event could technically have been within the rules. 

He told MPs he went to the gathering for around 25 minutes to “thank groups of staff”, adding that he “believed implicitly that this was a work event”. 

However, his apology appears to have done little to quell mounting anger among Tory politicians over the incident, and a number of MPs and MSPs across the nation have called on him to resign. 

The prominent call for his resignation came from Douglass Ross, the leader of the Scottish Tories, who said that the Prime Minister’s position was “no longer tenable”. A host of MSPs followed Mr Ross’s lead in calling for Mr Johnson to go.

But a number of Cabinet ministers also rallied behind the Prime Minister on Wednesday evening to publicly shore up his support.

Below is the full list of Tory MPs who have called on Mr Johnson to stand down so far: 

1. Douglas Ross, Leader of the Scottish Tories

“I said, yesterday, if the Prime Minister attended this gathering, event in Downing Street on May 20 2020, he could not continue as Prime Minister so, regretfully, I have to say his position is no longer tenable,” Mr Ross said on Wednesday. 

“There was one simple question to answer yesterday, indeed, from Monday night when we saw this invitation which was to more than 100 people asking them to join others in the Downing Street garden and bring their own booze.

“If the Prime Minister was there, and he accepted today that he was, then I felt he could not continue.

“What we also heard from the Prime Minister today was an apology and he said with hindsight he would have done things differently, which for me is an acceptance from the Prime Minister that it was wrong and therefore, I don’t want to be in this position, but I am in this position now, where I don’t think he can continue as leader of the Conservatives.”

2. William Wragg – MP, vice chairman of the 1922 Committee 

Mr Wragg suggested Mr Johnson should take the decision to resign himself. He told the BBC that it was “a tragedy things have come to pass in this way”, adding: “Unfortunately, I wasn’t reassured. I fear this is simply going to be a continuing distraction to the good governance of the country.”

He said it would be “preferable” for Mr Johnson to offer his resignation himself as MPs were “tired” and “frankly worn out of defending what is invariably indefensible”.

“I don’t believe it should be left to the findings of a civil servant to determine the future of the Prime Minister and indeed who governs this country. I think it is for the Conservative Party, if not the Prime Minister, in fact, to make that decision, and to realise what is in the best interest, so that we can move forward both as a party and a country,” he said. 

He added that “no doubt the Prime Minister is reflecting deeply on what has happened, but I cannot in all sincerity see a way where these issues go away”.

“It is deeply unfortunate, but I’m afraid it is… the inevitable conclusion is the only way to do that is with a change,” he said.

3. Sir Roger Gale – MP

“I’m sorry, you don’t have ‘bring a bottle’ work events in Downing Street, so far as I’m aware. And you don’t have ‘bring a bottle’ work events that are advertised or invited by the Prime Minister’s private secretary,” he said. 

“The Prime Minister said on Dec 8 from the despatch box that he was reliably assured that there were no parties – well, we now know there was at least one party and probably more, and that at least one of them, the one he spent at least 25 minutes at, he attended.

“So he knew there was a party, so he misled the House. He said he believed there were no parties but he attended one – how do you square that circle?”

He added: “I think the time has come for either the Prime Minister to go with dignity as his choice, or for the 1922 Committee to intervene.”

4. Caroline Nokes – MP

Ms Nokes, the MP for Romsey and Southampton North, on Wednesday night become the fourth Tory MP to call for Boris Johnson to resign.

She told ITV’s Peston the PM had “put himself in an impossible position”, and added: “The message I’ve had from my constituents is they feel let down they feel disappointed, and I know how hard they worked through the pandemic to abide by the rules.”

She said: “They now see that the Prime Minister wasn’t in it together with them, that the rules were being broken in Downing Street, and that’s very serious.”

Ms Nokes said she recognised Mr Johnson “did a fantastic job” at the 2019 election, but she said: “Now regretfully, he looks like a liability, and I think he either goes now, or he goes in three years’ time at a general election, and it’s up to the party to decide which way around that’s going to be. I know my thoughts are is that he’s damaging us now.”

5. Andrew Bridgen – MP

Andrew Bridgen, who backed Mr Johnson to be leader in June 2019, said he should stand aside within three months.

Writing for The Telegraph, Mr Bridgen warned of “a moral vacuum at the heart of our Government” in the wake of the “partygate” revelations, adding: “Sadly, the Prime Minister’s position has become untenable.

The  Tory MSPs who have echoed Douglas Ross’s calls for Boris Johnson to go:

Miles Briggs, Alexander Burnett, Donald Cameron, Jackson Carlaw, Russell Findlay, Maurice Golden, Meghan Gallacher, Jamie Halcro-Johnston, Craig Hoy, Liam Kerr, Stephen Kerr, Murdo Fraser, Douglas Lumsden, Liz Smith, Sue Webber, Annie Wells, Brian Whittle, Edward Mountain, Sharon Dowey and Finlay Carson.

Tory MPs who have voiced support for Mr Johnson:

1. Rishi Sunak, Chancellor (Jan 12,  8.11pm)

The PM was right to apologise and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray carries out her enquiry,” he wrote on Twitter. 

2. Nadine Dorries, Culture Secretary (Jan 12, 3.04pm, and Jan 13, 8.37am)

“PM was right to personally apologise earlier. People are hurt and angry at what happened and he has taken full responsibility for that. The inquiry should now be allowed to its work and establish the full facts of what happened,” she wrote on Twitter. 

The following morning, Ms Dorries added: “[The Prime Minister has] constantly taken the right decisions. More people jabbed, more antivirals and testing than the rest of EU is giving us the most open and fastest-growing economy.

“400,000 more [are] back in work than at the start of the pandemic. [We] kept jobs with furlough, self-employed grants and industries standing.

“This despite every doomster and gloomster party political prediction from Labour that decisions taken by Government throughout pandemic would result in mass unemployment and a tanking economy. They were wrong throughout the pandemic at every juncture. They are wrong now.”

3. Liz Truss, Foreign Secretary (Jan 12, 9.14pm)

“The Prime Minister is delivering for Britain – from Brexit to the booster programme to economic growth. I stand behind the Prime Minister 100 per cent as he takes our country forward,” she tweeted. 

4. Dominic Raab, Justice Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister (Jan 12, 3.15pm)

“I’m fully supportive of this Prime Minister and I’m sure he will continue for many years to come,” he said, adding that it was a “daft question” when asked whether he would run for the Tory leadership. 

5. Sajid Javid, Health Secretary (Jan 12, 4.43pm)

“I completely understand why people feel let down. The PM did the right thing by apologising,” he said. 

“Now we need to let the investigation complete its work. We have so much to get on with including rolling out boosters, testing and antivirals – so we can live with Covid.”

6. Grant Shapps, Transport Secretary (Jan 12, 6.45pm)

“I think the Prime Minister was very contrite today, he apologised and he took full responsibility,” he told Times Radio. 

7. Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House of Commons (Jan 12, 5.40pm)

“I think the Prime Minister has got things right again and again and again,” he said. 

“But like us all, he accepts that during a two-and-a-half-year period, there will be things that with hindsight would have been done differently.”

8. George Eustice, Environment Secretary (Jan 12, 5.30pm)

Asked if the Prime Minister will resign if Sue Gray’s report found wrongdoing, Mr Eustice said: “I don’t think we should get ahead of ourselves here. We should take this a step at a time.”

9. Steve Barclay, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Jan 12, 8.32pm)

“The PM did the right thing by apologising in Parliament. We should now let the investigation complete its work and I support the PM’s request for patience so that Sue Gray is able to do so,” he said. 

10. Therese Coffey, Work and Pensions Secretary (Jan 12, 6.53pm)

“I agree with Nadine. I was at PMQs today. I saw how sincere the PM was and I know how he has worked tirelessly to tackle coronavirus, striving to protect lives and livelihoods,” she wrote. 

11. Nadhim Zahawi, Education Secretary (Jan 12, 6.25pm)

Retweeted Nadine Dorries’s initial statement

12. Oliver Dowden, Conservative Party chairman (Jan 12, 5.03pm)

“Worth watching important apology from PM today. Let’s allow Sue Gray to do her job while we get on with ours – rolling out the vaccine, keeping the economy open and driving jobs recovery,” he wrote. 

13. Suella Braverman, Attorney General (Jan 12, 8.07pm)

“Got Brexit done. World-beating vaccine roll-out. 400,000 more jobs than pre-Covid. Keeping schools open & children learning. Building back better for all. All thanks to the leadership of Boris Johnson,” she wrote. 

14. Alok Sharma, Cop26 President (Jan 12, 6.28pm)

“The Prime Minister was right to apologise. We now need to let Sue Gray complete her investigation,” he wrote. 

15. Kwasi Kwarteng, Business Secretary (Jan 12, 6.28pm)

Mr Kwarteng backed Mr Johnson in a WhatsApp group of MPs, saying he had been “absolutely right to apologise” and a focus was needed on “top priorities” such as Brexit dividends and levelling-up.

16. Anne-Marie Trevelyan, International Trade Secretary (Jan 12, 5.25pm)

Ms Trevelyan described the Prime Minister’s apology as “needed and heard” but insisted Boris Johnson had been “relentless in [his] determination to protect us” against Covid.

17. Ben Wallace, Defence Secretary (Jan 12, 7.12pm)

18. Priti Patel, Home Secretary (Jan 12, 3.39pm)

19. Brandon Lewis, Northern Ireland Secretary (Jan 12, 10.05pm)

20. Michael Gove, Housing and Levelling Up Secretary (Jan 12, 3.22pm)

21. Simon Hart, Wales Secretary (Jan 12, 10.13pm)

22. Simon Clarke, Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Jan 12, 5.47pm)

23. Michael Fabricant, MP for Lichfield (Jan 13, 9.01am)

“I confess to voting against John Major and Theresa May in votes of no confidence – so I am no loyalist,” Mr Fabricant, a veteran Tory MP, tweeted. “But Boris delivered Brexit, the best vaccination programme in Europe and first in the world, and in England is likely soon to leave Covid behind. He delivers and has my full support.”

24. Stuart Anderson, MP for Wolverhampton South West (Jan 13, 8.45am)

Mr Anderson tweeted his agreement with Brandon Lewis that Boris Johnson “will win the next election”.

25. Michelle Donelan, MP for Chippenham (Jan 12, 9.54pm)

Ms Donelan, the universities minister, wrote: “PM was right to personally apologise today – so many made sacrifices sometimes heart wrenching ones so understandably people are angry and hurting which is why as the Prime Minister said we need to let the inquiry take place.”

26. James Cleverly, MP for Braintree and former Tory chairman (Jan 12, 8.05pm)

“As I said earlier today to the press in Brussels, the PM was absolutely right to make an apology today and explain what happened,” Mr Cleverly said. “It is now right to await Sue Gray’s findings.”

27. Nigel Adams, minister without portfolio (Jan 12, 7.09pm)

Mr Adams said Nadine Dorries’s comments were “spot on”.

28. Kit Malthouse, policing minister (Jan 12, 6.37pm)

“In the short time he has been PM, Boris Johnson has delivered on the people’s vote on Brexit, created a new electoral coalition and steered the country through Covid so we are likely to be the first major economy to emerge from the pandemic,” Mr Malthouse tweeted.

29. Mark Jenkinson, MP for Workington (Jan 12, 4.37pm)

“Boris Johnson continues to have my support as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party. He also maintains the support of the parliamentary party, and of the majority of my constituents… they see this as an exciting period for Britain.”

30. Chris Philp, technology minister (Jan 12, 3.37pm)

Mr Philp said Nadine Dorries was “right” in saying the Prime Minister had been correct to apologise.

31. Damian Collins, MP for Folkestone and Hythe (Jan 12, 3.16pm)

“The PM was right to apologise today for not stopping the event in the garden of Number 10.”

“We apologise for any inconvenience caused”

Oh dear, Rishi Sunak must have experienced a mobile dead spot during his visit to North Devon, how annoying for him! – Owl (Extract)

Downing Street has insisted that Boris Johnson has the “full support” of his cabinet, despite the long delay on Wednesday before Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss publicly voiced their backing following his dramatic apology over Downing Street parties.

Mr Sunak’s absence from the House of Commons for prime minister’s questions sparked speculation in Westminster that he was distancing himself from Mr Johnson, fuelled by the far from full-throated wording of his eventual tweet…..

…Mr Sunak’s decision to spend the day in Devon discussing a government jobs initiative had already raised eyebrows at Westminster.

And his eventual tweet at 8.11pm appeared to suggest that he was withholding a final decision on his attitude towards the PM until after the report by civil servant Sue Gray into the parties.

“I’ve been on a visit all day today continuing work on our #PlanforJobs as well as meeting MPs to discuss the energy situation,” rote the chancellor. “The PM was right to apologise and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray carries out her enquiry.”

More on Audit Committee Report on river pollution: threat to cut dirty water chiefs’ bonuses

Coincidentally, Owl has been informed by a correspondent that, over the past couple of weeks, core samples have been taken along the path of the Victorian sewer discharge pipe that runs from the Lime Kiln car park at Budleigh, under the Otter to the Otter Head. 

Renewing this pipe under the estuary to continue to allow untreated sewage discharges into the sea just east of Otter Head, is being done in parallel with the £15M Otter Restoration Project, financed partly by South West Water. Essentially this maintains the status quo.

According to the River Trust data, this pipe discharged 60 times in 2020 for a total of 591 hours.

Threat to cut dirty water chiefs’ bonuses

Ben Webster

Bosses of water companies that regularly breach permits by discharging raw sewage into rivers and the sea should be stripped of their annual bonuses, MPs will recommend in a report today.

The Commons Environmental Audit Committee will call for an urgent review of the system by which water companies self-monitor their sewage works. It warns that a “chemical cocktail” of sewage, slurry and plastic is polluting England’s rivers and putting public health and nature at risk.

The report calls for much tougher regulation, saying successive governments, water companies and regulators “have grown complacent and seem resigned to maintaining pre-Victorian practices of dumping sewage in rivers”.

The report notes the latest Environment Agency data, which shows that all rivers and lakes monitored in England failed tests for chemical pollution and 84 per cent did not meet the government’s target of good ecological status.

It says poor river water quality is the result of chronic underinvestment by water companies and multiple failures in monitoring, governance and enforcement. “Water companies appear to be dumping untreated or partially treated sewage in rivers regularly, often breaching the terms of permits that only allow this in exceptional circumstances,” the report adds.

It says most swimmers and other river users cannot find out when it is safe to use them because of a lack of information about sewage discharges.

The revelation in last year’s prosecution of Southern Water that billions of litres of sewage were deliberately dumped into the sea over several years raised “obvious and urgent questions” about the system of self-monitoring.

The committee accuses Ofwat, the regulator, of focusing on keeping bills down rather than ensuring adequate investment. The MPs accuse Liv Garfield, the chief executive of Severn Trent, who was paid £2.8 million in 2020, including £1.9 million in bonuses, of making a “disingenuous” claim in evidence to the committee that storm overflow discharges were “pretty much already rainwater”.

The report says discharges can be highly contaminated with raw sewage and “to claim otherwise shows a disregard for the public’s concern about water quality in rivers”. The report demands “far more assertive regulation and enforcement from Ofwat and the Environment Agency to restore our rivers to their natural glory”.

It calls on Ofwat to examine its powers “with a view to limiting the awards of significant annual bonuses to water company senior executives in the event of major or persistent breaches in permit conditions”.

Other recommendations include:

• The government should set “challenging improvement targets and timetables” for reducing the impact of sewage discharges.

• Ofwat should prioritise long-term investment in wastewater when setting the prices water companies can charge.

• The industry should provide real-time, easily accessible information on sewage discharges.

• At least one popular stretch of river should be designated for bathing in each water company area by 2025 at the latest.

• A review of sentencing guidelines for water pollution offences to ensure that companies act.

• A ban on wet wipes containing plastic because they cause “fatbergs as big as blue whales” that block sewers.

Severn Trent said it believed an average of about 90 per cent of the discharge from its overflows was rainwater. Water UK, which represents water companies, said: “Water companies want to invest more and are pushing the government to encourage the economic regulator, Ofwat, to enable this increased spending over the next decade.”

The Environment Agency said improvements to rivers had “flatlined over the last ten years” and that water companies, regulators and farmers must do more to protect them.

Christine Colvin, of The Rivers Trust, said the report was a “devasting indictment on the status quo”.