Whoops, sorry!

Poem from Mike Temple, posted as comment but deserving a post in its own right

The Lion with the golden mane
Had just been caught out yet again.
He’s said he’d not done such a thing,
Such conduct unfit for a King.
But evidence had now come out
To call his former words in doubt.
The Lion-King had now been caught
But here is what the Big Beast thought:

“If I were me I would advise
To grovel and apologise
(Another way of telling lies
And, of course, I needn’t worry
It’s easy to say the word “sorry”.)
For me, therefore, a quick apology
Is a branch of escapology,
For I’ll insist that I was right –
(My flatterers’ll say I was contrite)
And I can also kick the can
Down the road, my cunning plan:
My servant can compile a dossier
Of all that happened on the way
And I will be the judge of that report
And say that I did nothing of the sort.
I’ll show that laws made for my underlings
Simply don’t apply to Lion-Kings.
(The only thing I’m sorry about
Is that at last I’ve been caught out.)

Energy firms boosted by gas price spikes paid £200bn to shareholders since 2010

Whilst France forces EDF to take €8.4bn hit with energy bill cap (who will foot the bill for the shortfall?), our government, having rejected an opposition motion to scrap the VAT for starters, has yet to come up with a plan for easing household energy bills.

Time is running out. – Owl

www.theguardian.com 

Phillip Inman

Oil and gas companies have handed shareholders almost £200bn since 2010 and should be hit with a windfall tax to cap heating bills that are set to rise by as much as £500 a year, according to a report on the finances of the UK’s energy sector.

Shell and BP are among companies that have seen their profits boosted in the last year as wholesale gas prices rose by as much as nine times and petrol prices jumped to record highs, leading to calls for them to help limit a £20bn bill faced by UK households.

A report for the left-of-centre thinktank Common Wealth found that Shell and BP channelled £147bn to shareholders via dividends and share buybacks over the past decade, with North Sea producers and the big six energy suppliers contributing another £47bn.

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told MPs last September the government was considering a plan for a £2.6bn windfall tax on generators and energy traders that stood to gain from the energy crisis.

It is understood Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, is still considering measures to limit rising bills, including a windfall tax, but with two weeks until the regulator, Ofgem, announces how much a cap on energy bills will rise in April, he has yet to settle on a final package.

The chancellor, accused of being “missing in action” while energy costs soar, is under pressure from Tory MPs to cut state spending and reduce Britain’s debts. He is known to favour a loan scheme for energy suppliers, giving them the funds to cushion the blow this year, with the addition of a small subsidy to the poorest households using the Warm Home Discount Scheme.

Several prominent energy bosses are known to have promoted a loan scheme as the best way to limit rising bills in a series of meetings at the Treasury last week.

However, gas prices could remain high for several years, increasing the size of the energy sector’s debts and forcing suppliers to keep household bills up for the rest of the decade, while they make repayments.

Ofgem is expected to announce on 5 February how much bills will increase in the next financial year. About 30 energy suppliers have gone bust in the last year, blaming the energy price cap for their fall into bankruptcy.

Most rich nation governments have already put in place financial support, including a €4.5bn subsidy by the Italian government to limit bill increases. Ministers in Paris said last week they will force EDF, the 80% state-owned energy giant, to take an €8.4bn (£7bn) financial hit to protect households in a move that will limit energy bill increases to 4% this year.

The Biden administration has ramped up grant payments for poorer US households to cover the rising cost of gas, while in Germany, the government has slashed a surcharge on bills used to support renewable energy schemes, which will instead receive extra state subsidies drawn from higher carbon taxes.Labour said it was fair that the oil and gas producers benefiting most from the energy crisis ‘“play their part in helping families through the cost of living crisis”. Ed Miliband, the shadow secretary of state of climate change and net zero, said: “When the head of BP describes the crisis as a ‘cash machine’ for his company and fossil-fuel producers pay out billions in share buybacks, it is a clear indication of the scale of windfall profits they are making.”

Torsten Bell, the director of the Resolution Foundation, said a windfall tax should be part of the package of measures that included subsidies for poorer households. “It must be sensible for those companies making money from this crisis to cover a share of the costs,” he said.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently said an additional £3bn needed pumping into the welfare system in response to soaring energy bills and mounting inflationary pressure.

The report’s authors, Joseph Baines of King’s College London and Dr Sandy Hager of City University, said Centrica and SSE, which operate in the North Sea, had seen the sharpest increase in profit margins. They said that as oil and gas companies often made losses during periods of low wholesale gas and oil prices, they paid almost all their income to shareholders in more profitable periods.

“BP’s shareholder payout commitments have been so large that they cover 98.3% of their pre-tax income and are 2.5 times larger than their tax payments for the same period,” the report said. “The findings may be combined with the insights on fossil-fuel subsidies offered by a recent Common Wealth report which identified an average of £12bn a year of taxpayer support for fossil fuels in the last five years,” they added.

Oil traders could also be forced to pay a windfall tax, but the major firms – Vitol, Glencore, Trafigura, Mercuria and Gunvor – were not part of the study.

Energy bills: flat dwellers face massive rise despite price cap

Does this apply to Cranbrook’s community heating system?  – Owl

Miles Brignall www.theguardian.com 

Hundreds of thousands of people living in flats are facing “completely unaffordable” increases to their energy bills because their communal heating system’s supply is not protected by the government’s price cap.

While households with conventional heating systems have been told they could face 50%-plus increases to gas and electricity bills when the cap is increased on 1 April, people who bought or rent apartments in one of the 17,000 blocks in the UK that rely on communal heating and hot water systems are facing fourfold increases as suppliers pass on the huge wholesale price increases unchecked.

It is thought that up to 500,000 people live in developments where at least some of the heating or hot water is provided by a centrally controlled system, usually administered by the company that manages the estate.

Apartments in these developments are all supplied by a single energy supplier, and because this is classified as a commercial deal rather than domestic supply, the residents have not had bills protected by Ofgem’s price cap.

Among those affected are residents of the high-profile Chips building in the New Islington area of Manchester who have seen some of their energy charges triple after the building’s energy supplier collapsed in November.

Those living in the nine-storey building have control over their heating in their individual flats and how much energy they use but not over who supplies the power and what tariff they are on. All of their hot water is provided centrally from a green boiler.

One resident has described finding neighbours in tears after they were all sent enormous bills on 21 December.

In some cases, the bills, which are based on usage rather than estimates, have more than trebled. One owner of a two-bedroom flat saw bills rise from £80 in November to £260 for December. Others have received even higher bills, as the unit gas price has tripled, alongside rising electricity charges.

“The cost of our energy has tripled overnight,” says Magdalena, an academic who lives in the block, who declined to give her surname.

“The gas supplier we had previously went bust and Ofgem appointed a new supplier. As the building I live in has a community heating system we (the residents) are not allowed to change supplier.

“Lots of people in the building, which is a mix of owners, rent-to-buy and tenants, simply can’t afford this sudden huge cost increase. It’s so bad that some have started looking for alternative accommodation, while others are simply not using their heating.

“People are saying that they will have to move out as paying thousands of pounds for heating is just not an option. This has all been done by the management company, with the residents seemingly powerless to stop it, or even have a say … It feels incredibly unfair,” she says.

Switch2 Energy, the billing service provider for the Chips scheme, and the building’s new energy supplier, Pozitive Energy, say the increases experienced by residents stem from the failure of the previous supplier, and reflect the rise in wholesale prices.

Chris Wright*, who lives in the Deptford Landings complex in south-east London, which also features a communal hot water system, contacted Guardian Money to say that he and other residents on the huge site have been told that their hot water charges are about to rise by 464%.

“For some families in the block who use more hot water than we do, this is going to be a big financial blow. How is it that everyone else has their bills capped but flat dwellers like us don’t?” he asks.

Lisa Gregory, who runs the Birmingham-based consultancy Ginger Energy, which is a big player in the sector, says this “truly dreadful” situation is an injustice that will have serious consequences for those affected.

“It is highly likely that many will struggle to pay the new costs and will then get into a debt situation,” she says. “We are about to have to tell the residents of some blocks that they will be paying four times the previous unit charge for their energy. While normal residential consumers are protected – at least for a period – through the price cap, the consumers in these blocks are fully exposed to the market changes.”

She says the classification dates back to a 2012 decision made by the industry regulator Ofgem and predates the current turbulent market conditions and the price cap.

“We are requesting an entire review of the price cap. It doesn’t include our residents; it doesn’t work for suppliers. The system is completely broken,” she says.

In late December, the government announced that it wants Ofgem to take over as the regulator for heat networks, as they are termed. However, it looks as though it will be months if not years before this is enabled as it will require legislation. In the meantime, those living in the unregulated homes could face years of paying higher bills than if their building had a conventional heating system.

This week the boss of British Gas’s parent firm warned that the problem of high energy bills could remain for a further two years.

Stephen Knight, a director of Heat Trust, the national consumer protection scheme for heat networks, says legislation to protect consumers who rely on communal heating schemes is long overdue.

“We welcome the government’s commitment to regulating heat networks and the news that Ofgem will have new powers to oversee the sector. In the absence of regulation, a growing number of consumers are being left unprotected. As the reliance of the country on heat networks grows, so will the scrutiny of their performance and service standards. To avoid any further delays, we need the government to commit to the legislation in May’s Queen’s speech,” he says.

Ofgem said it was committed to taking over the regulation of heat networks but said the timings were outside its control.

Mark Thomas, the chief executive of Communal Energy Partners, which provides energy to Deptford Landings, says suppliers have no choice to pass on the rise in wholesale costs.

“I would ask the government and the regulator to help smooth out the cost to the customer through company loans, or removing green levies or VAT from bills. This would all be very welcome,” he says.

“We totally understand this is a worrying time for Chips residents,” Switch2 says in a statement. “The new tariff reflects the market increases experienced over the last 12 months, which have seen the wholesale gas price increase fivefold since January 2021.”

RMG, the managing agent for the Chips building, told the Manchester Evening News that it had no “involvement in the procurement or placement of utilities contracts”.

Pozitive Energy said it had huge sympathy for the residents but said it inherited the contract and was therefore forced to buy gas to supply the building at the current market rate.

Heat networks are considered by ministers as a proven, cost-effective way of providing reliable low-carbon heat at a fair price to consumers. The UK government has said it is working towards growing the heat networks sector, which provides roughly 2% of UK heat demand but could meet about a fifth by 2050.

* Not his real name

‘Creepy faces’ appear in Devon cliffs

New photographs show the affects of erosion along East Devon’s red cliffs as they continue to crumble.

Chloe Parkman www.devonlive.com

The striking images were taken near Budleigh Salterton by Lance Mangold, formerly a Scientific Photographer for Oxford University.

The hollowing cliffs appear to show a number of eerie gothic and ghoulish faces – which follows a number of cliff falls within the area over the last 18 months.

It’s all up for interpretation of course and we’d love to know what you can see.

Lance said: “The Victorians used to come from afar to see these sculpted cliffs, so its a shame the rockfall has removed some of the ‘sculptures’.

Last week, East Devon’s notorious red cliffs hit the headlines after drone images captured the aftermath of a cliff fall near a holiday park.

A fascinating shot of the cliffs as erosion transforms the landscape (Image: Lance Mangold)

The pictures, which were captured by Ziggy Austin at Rock Solid Coasteering, were taken near Sandy Bay caravan park – and they captured the extent of East Devon’s notorious crumbling cliffs.

Over the last 18 months, there have been a number of cliff falls in the area with some of the most notable taking place in Exmouth and Sidmouth.

The pictures, which were taken on Monday, show some caravans are now just metres away from the edge of the cliff.

Lance says the hollowed rock appear to looks like a gothic face (Image: Lance Mangold)

Back in August, the stretch of cliff saw five massive falls in one morning.

Crumbling clay tumbled from the cliffs between Sidmouth and Salcombe Mouth, which sparked a warning from Beer Coastguard Rescue Team.

In a statement made on Facebook last year, a spokesperson said: “Cliff falls this morning, please stay away from the base of cliffs and take note of the signs, they are there for a reason.”

Lance said: “I think this one was the most interesting, it looks like a rock painting, and the colours are striking.” (Image: Lance Mangold)

Downing Street parties: all your questions answered.

Owl thought this might help Neil Parish by explaining the limits of Sue Gray’s report. Questions examined include:

What can Sue Gray’s report cover and rule on?

Could an invitation go out without PM’s permission?

Could Mr Johnson really not have known about other parties under his own roof?

How many wine bottles can you fit in a suitcase?

By Kate Whannel www.bbc.co.uk

Hardly a day goes by without another revelation about Downing Street parties during the Covid lockdowns. Each new bombshell leaves another crater of questions about what was going on, how it was allowed to happen, who knew and what happens next?

Below, we attempt to answer these questions and others:

Why are we only learning of the parties now?

The earliest allegation of a government lockdown gathering (so far) dates back to 15 May 2020. But reports of the parties only started appearing in the media in the winter of 2021.

The Daily Mirror’s Pippa Crerar – who first broke the news about two parties, in November, – said she first heard rumours of Christmas parties back in January 2021 but wasn’t able to substantiate them until months later.

People leak stories to journalists for all sorts of reasons – to damage a political rival, for revenge, for fun. But without knowing the identity of the first leaker, it is hard to say why they leaked and why they waited so long.

What we do know is that the Mirror’s first story in November encouraged others to come forward with their own party experiences and almost a month later new tales are still emerging.

Were these parties work or social events?

Some were social events – including the 20 May 2020 drinks attended by the prime minister, that led to his public apology this week. How do we know? Because ITV obtained the email that had invited staff to “bring your own booze” to “socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden”.

However, Boris Johnson has insisted he believed “implicitly that this was a work event” arguing that the No 10 garden was often used “as an extension of the office”.

There have also been questions about the nature of an event on 15 May 2020. A picture published by the Guardian shows about 19 people, including Mr Johnson and his wife, sitting in the garden with bottles of wine and a cheeseboard. The prime minister said this picture showed “people at work, talking about work”.

Will we hear about more parties?

The number of stories swirling around have led some to wonder if there was a single day during the pandemic when a party wasn’t taking place in No 10. At least 10 alleged gatherings, in Downing Street or government departments, have come to light so far. If you’re a details person, here’s the full list

Will there be more? If the last month is anything to go by, then probably.

What can Sue Gray’s report cover and rule on?

Following the first few reports of parties, the prime minister ordered an investigation to establish the facts.

Many Conservative MPs have said they will wait for the results of that inquiry – being led by senior civil servant Sue Gray – before passing judgement on the prime minister. Ms Gray’s report is likely to be a largely factual account of parties held in Downing Street.

Catherine Haddon, of the Institute for Government think tank, says Ms Gray is unlikely to assign individual blame, but her report “might refer disciplinary action to others”. It may touch on the role of the prime minister, but it is not Ms Gray’s place to judge his behaviour, she adds, although the “bare facts alone” may be damning.

Did the prime minister or others break the law?

Sue Gray cannot rule on whether lockdown laws were broken – but the question is key to the prime minister’s future. If the inquiry uncovers evidence of behaviour that is potentially a criminal offence, it will be referred to the Metropolitan Police and the inquiry will be paused, according to its terms of reference.

What is Dominic Cummings’ role in all of this?

The PM’s senior ex-aide-turned-massive-thorn-in-his-side was one of the first government figures to be accused of breaking Covid rules. He drove from London to County Durham at the height of the first lockdown, later arguing that the move was prompted by security concerns.

More recently he has been making allegations about rule-breaking in No 10 during the pandemic – including writing in a blog about the drinks on 20 May 2020.

Mr Cummings says he warned at the time that the event “seemed to be against the rules”.

Who was invited to the garden drinks on 20 May?

An email from Mr Johnson’s principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, inviting people to “make the most of the lovely weather”, was sent to a distribution list of around 100 people. But the full list of recipients has not been published.

So why does it matter who was on the list?

Well, the names will show who knew about the party taking place.

Could an invitation go out without PM’s permission?

Downing Street has said Mr Johnson did not see the email inviting staff to the drinks.

But many Westminster-watchers are sceptical.

On Tuesday, Caroline Slocock, who worked in the private offices of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, told BBC Radio 4 it was “inconceivable” the PM wasn’t aware of such an invite, especially one from a close staff member using the word “we”.

Hannah White, of the Institute for Government think tank – a former secretary to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said she believed the PM “had to have” known about the event.

Who else attended the party?

One of the next steps is to find out who went to the gathering, despite the lockdown . The BBC has been told from sources at the garden drinks that around 30 people were present, alongside the PM and his wife.

Who went to the party will be key for the same reason as the invite list, showing who knew about the event.

But more importantly, the attendee list will show who decided to break the rules – and perhaps the law – individually.

Could Mr Johnson really not have known about other parties under his own roof?

Downing Street itself is a complex series of interconnected houses turned, over the years, into an unusual combination of living and working spaces.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak lives in the flat above No 10 Downing Street. Mr Johnson, wife Carrie and their two young children live in the larger flat above No 11.

Is it plausible that both men would have been unaware of gatherings in the building that is both their home and their place of work?

Are Downing Street staff allowed to drink at work?

The civil servant management code doesn’t mention alcohol or prohibit drinking in the office.

Peter Caldwell – who worked as a government special adviser between 2016 and 2020 – told the BBC News that before the pandemic he would often have a drink in Downing Street on Friday evenings.

BBC political correspondent Ben Wright, who has written a book about the drinking culture in Westminster, says alcohol “has sloshed through the history of political life for centuries”.

“Drink enhances the exhilaration of political success and numbs its disappointments. It unknots in moderation and unbalances in excess.

“Prime ministers have grappled with this for years, from the port-dependent William Pitt the Younger, through to Herbert Asquith, Winston Churchill, Wilson and even Tony Blair, who described alcohol as a “prop” in his memoir.”

How many wine bottles can you fit in a suitcase?

The latest revelation – published by the Telegraph – includes the detail that staff were reportedly sent to a nearby shop with a suitcase, that was brought back “filled with bottles of wine”.

How many might that be? Following a very unscientific experiment – how big is a suitcase, after all – we found we could fit roughly around 30 bottles, or possibly one Nebuchadnezzar, in a medium-to-large suitcase.

Although it would be less if you wanted to pad out the bottles to avoid breakage.

And would there be room for snacks? Do you sacrifice a bottle of wine for a family-sized pack of crisps?

New Clause 1 – Members of local authorities: disqualification relating to drink and drug driving offences (England)

On Jan 14 Sir Christopher Chope MP sought to introduce a new clause during the third reading of the Local Government (Disqualification) Bill which would, amongst other things, ban those with a drink driving offence from being a local councillor. 

The Local Government (Disqualification) Bill is a private member’s bill. The core purpose of this legislation is to prevent those convicted of sexual offences from having a role as a local elected official that could include access to children and vulnerable adults, and the length of their disqualification would be the length of time that they are subject to the notification requirement.

www.theyworkforyou.com /debates/

This struck Owl as interesting in the light of local Conservative recent preoccupation on DBS checks. It is also interesting because Owl can think of at least one “Senior” Tory Councillor who would be disqualified from office by the amendment clause, were it to become law.

 Sir Christopher’s reasoning for his amendment was a follows:

“My view, reflected in new clause 1, is that councillors who fall below the standards expected in relation to drink and drug driving offences should be included in the category of those who are disqualified from being able to serve as councillors and mayors. I think that they fall four-square within the Government’s definition of having been convicted of behaviour which everyone in a right-minded society would say was intolerable. Why should people who are in that position be allowed to continue as councillors while other councillors who have been convicted of a different set of antisocial offences are excluded? That is the essence of new clause 1. If someone is convicted of driving or being in charge of a motor vehicle with excess alcohol or a controlled drug, they should not be able to hold office as an elected councillor in this country.”

In fact, after debate, Sir Christopher withdrew the amendment.