The Sue Gray report is not about the government – but Boris Johnson

In an attempt to belittle the Sue Gray report and the police investigation into breaches of lockdown laws in Downing Street, some of the more loyal Conservative MPs have joked that the whole scandal is about a birthday cake.

Editorial www.independent.co.uk

Not only is such banter in poor taste, it is actively damaging their prime minister’s slim chance of surviving the revelations in the report. It is not all about a birthday party cake, or wine or cheese platters for that matter. What Partygate was – and is – about is Boris Johnson and the political culture he inculcated; not least the sense of entitlement and “one rule for us few and another rule for the many outside”.

One misguided Tory MP even suggests that everyone in the country was breaking the rules. The great majority were not. The great majority, of all kinds of political persuasions and one, played by the rules, to protect themselves and others, and out of respect for the law.

They made sacrifices – unable to celebrate the birthdays of loved ones, even when it would turn out to be their last birthday. Unable to say goodbye to the terminally ill. Families effectively separated. Funerals without many mourners and without the salve of a drink after the service.

Socially distanced misery was endured by millions because they wanted to do the right thing. The Queen set a fine example, as did many others. In Downing Street, the culture – we now know – was rather different: contemptuous of others, and contemptible.

People care about these things, as well as caring about the cost-of-living crisis, the freedom of Ukraine, social care and much else. It is not a zero-sum game. The voters have a certain – usually low – expectation of how their politicians behave, but not to the extent that lying is the default reflex to every problem.

This is a further reason why the prime minister has become such a liability for his party, though some refuse to accept the reality. It would now appear that Mr Johnson was inaccurate and less than candid in the public statements he made about the evacuation of Pen Farthing and his menagerie from Kabul during the emergency evacuation last August.

It was a controversial matter at the time because the concern was that Afghans who had assisted the UK and US would be displaced in the airlift by cats and dogs. There were limited spaces on a limited number of flights.

It seems likely that the issue reached the prime minister’s desk. Some say his wife, Carrie, an animal welfare champion, had some influence in this matter. The prime minister at the time maintained that he had not approved any prioritisation of the animal airlift.

Now, leaked emails made available to MPs by a whistleblower suggest that Mr Johnson did indeed approve the operation and offer his support. There seems, not for the first time, to be some discrepancy between the public impression he gave at the time – “complete nonsense” – and what was really happening.

One leaked email states that the situation at the Nowzad animal charity set up by the former royal marine has “received a lot of publicity and the PM has just authorised their staff and animals to be evacuated”.

The lesson from this latest story is that the government – and the Conservative Party, and the country – is never more than a day or two away from some fresh scandal; usually with its origins in the prime minister’s uneasy relationship with the truth, and with the demands of his office.

It has been a way of life for him, according to even the most sympathetic biographers, that he has a habit of pushing his luck and being economical with the truth if he gets found out.

Indeed, many would say the 2016 Brexit Leave campaign and the Conservative victory in the 2019 general election were built on such mendacious foundations. He has always had a habit of bouncing back from his misfortunes, but the point is that in order to recover he first had to be fired from various jobs, or leave them voluntarily before the truth caught up with him – as with the London mayoralty and his personal IT consultant, Jennifer Arcuri.

Under the most intense of scrutiny, it looks increasingly as though he won’t get away with his old tricks again. Even if he does, he will be a permanent source of embarrassment to his party and the nation. He might not mind – but do his MPs?

Lawyers challenge water firm’s immunity over sewage discharge

Environmental campaigners are fighting to stop a water company being given almost total immunity from any private legal action for discharging untreated sewage into waterways.

Sandra Laville www.theguardian.com 

The Good Law Project (GLP) and the Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) are challenging a decision by the high court that the water company United Utilities cannot be subject to any private legal action for its discharges of raw sewage from storm outfalls into the Manchester ship canal.

The decision made last April is being reviewed by the court of appeal, which this week granted permission for the legal groups to submit evidence as part of the case.

Jo Maugham, the director of the GLP, said if United Utilities was to win the case it could end a vital legal option to hold water companies to account for sewage dumping. Lawyers for the GLP say the decision would effectively act as a precedent which all water companies would seek to rely on.

The environmental groups will tell the court of appeal it has now become clear that sewage dumping from storm overflows has been occurring with alarming regularity and does not just take place in exceptional circumstances, for instance after very heavy rainfall.

Emma Montlake, the joint executive director of the ELF, said: “ELF works with and assists communities across the country plagued by the environmental and health consequences associated with sewage pollution into British water systems.

“We are delighted that the court [of appeal] has agreed that the ELF’s evidence and that of others in the consortium will be able to assist the court of appeal to understand the context and wider ramifications of unchecked sewage pollution.”

The fight over the rights to sue a water company over discharges from outflows of raw sewage began in 2010 when the owners of the Manchester ship canal sought damages against United Utilities for discharges of sewage into the waterway. MSC argued that water companies did not have a legal right to pollute waterways with raw sewage. They argued that untreated, or inadequately treated, discharge that was unauthorised would be unlawful and therefore could be challenged by legal action.

In response United Utilities sought a declaration in court that as a water company it could not be subject to private legal action because it was a matter for the regulator.

The high court agreed with the water company and granted the declaration it sought, that there was no case in law against United Utilities in respect of discharges from the company’s outfalls. The judge – in supporting his decision – said discharges were “the effect of sudden heavy rainfall, which causes flooding and results in the capacity of the existing system being exceeded” and had “occurred without United Utilities doing anything to cause it or being able to do anything lawfully to stop it, except by spending money on large-scale capital improvements”.

In 2020 water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers and waterways more than 400,000 times over 3.1m hours.

A United Utilities spokesperson said: “The legal case you have referenced is not about avoiding accountability, the aim is to clarify the regulatory position regarding wastewater outfalls. This is the latest in a long series of cases brought against United Utilities by the owners of the Manchester ship canal. We cannot comment any further on this as the legal proceedings are ongoing.”

Cost-of-living crisis: Jack Monroe hails ONS revision of inflation calculations

Concern that rising inflation is having a disproportionate impact on people in poorer households in the UK has prompted government number-crunchers to provide a more detailed breakdown of the cost of living.

Larry Elliott www.theguardian.com 

The Office for National Statistics said it accepted that every person had their own inflation rate and it would do more to capture the impact of price increases on different income groups.

Mike Hardie, the head of inflation statistics at the ONS, said in a blog the published annual inflation rate – currently 5.4% – was an average for all households. “But everyone has their own personal inflation rate. Some people may spend a larger proportion of their income on gas and electricity, or petrol if you commute via car daily.”

The move was welcomed by the food writer and activist Jack Monroe, who has exposed how prices for cheaper food products have soared as availability fell, contributing to rising hunger and poverty.

Monroe, who is drawing up an inflation index to track basic food prices, tweeted: “Delighted to be able to tell you that the @ONS have just announced that they are going to be changing the way they collect and report on the cost of food prices and inflation to take into consideration a wider range of income levels and household circumstances.”

Writing in last week’s Observer, Monroe said: “In 2012, 10 stock cubes from Sainsbury’s Basics range were 10p. In 2022, those same stock cubes are 39p, but only available in chicken or beef. The cheapest vegetable stock cubes are, inexplicably, £1 for 10.

“Last year the Smart Price pasta in my local Asda was 29p for 500g. Today it is unavailable, so the cheapest bag is 70p; a 141% price rise for the same product in more colourful packaging.”

Terry Pratchett’s estate has authorised Monroe to use the Vimes Boots index as the name of the new price index, which is intended to document the “insidiously creeping prices” of basic food products.

The index, Monroe said, would be called the Vimes Boots index in honour of Pratchett’s creation Sam Vimes, who in the Discworld novel Men at Arms lays out the “Sam Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness”.

The author’s daughter, the writer Rhianna Pratchett, said her father would have been proud to see his work used in this way by the anti-poverty campaigner.

The ONS previously published a more detailed breakdown of inflation but it was suspended during the Covid pandemic because so many items were unavailable. During the previous economic downturn, the financial crisis of 2008-09, when inflation also surged, the ONS said poorer households were more severely affected.

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“Given the level of interest in the cost of living and inflation we are planning to restart this series,” Hardie said.

Over the longer term, he added, the ONS was “transforming” the way it measured prices in order to understand people’s spending patterns in a more detailed and timely way. The ONS measures inflation by looking at the cost of 700 items from a number of price points.

“We are currently developing radical new plans to increase the number of price points dramatically each month from 180,000 to hundreds of millions, using prices sent to us directly from supermarket checkouts,” Hardie said.

“This will mean we won’t just include one apple in a shop … but how much every apple costs, and how many of each type were purchased, in many more shops in every area of the country.”

Ian Hislop Tears Into MPs Over Sleaze, Second Jobs And Lobbying

Worth spending 24 minutes watching the video (best bits from an hour long session). Alternatively read the report in the Huffington Post below.

Owl can think of a number of EDDC Tory councillors who might benefit from watching the video as well!

Graeme Demianyk www.huffingtonpost.co.uk 

Ian Hislop has evoked the public’s anger over the series of sleaze allegations engulfing British politics, telling MPs in parliament they are “very sick of being taken for fools”.

The editor of Private Eye magazine was appearing before the standards watchdog on Tuesday when he clashed with politicians over the recent lobbying scandal.

Speaking about some MPs’ second jobs, Hislop told the Commons committee on standards: “What do you think these companies are paying the money for? Do you think they are chucking it away?

“When politicians declare their interests, why do they think businesses are paying them this money?

“I think the public is very sick of being taken for fools at the moment on all sorts of levels, and it is very sick of being taken for fools on this level.”

His comments came as MPs have been embroiled in sleaze allegations over money earned outside parliament.

The scandal erupted after Tory MP Owen Paterson resigned over findings that he lobbied on behalf of two companies paying him more than £100,000 per year.

Hislop told the committee: “I think we have to admit that the system failed in that Owen Paterson had obviously no idea he was breaking the code, and a large number of his fellow MPs decided that they had no idea either, and that the whole system wasn’t working.

“We have to redefine the term lobbying, and we have to incorporate some of the proposals you have made, and instead make them harder.”

During the hearing Hislop clashed with Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, who suggested more rules are not enough to change MPs’ attitudes towards breaking them.

Jenkin said: “You can police rules and have tougher rules but lots of people will carry on gaming rules.

“If they think rules are the only issue and they don’t understand why the rules exist – what the principles are behind the rules – you aren’t going to change people’s attitudes.”

But Hislop said: “That’s just depressing – the idea that politicians are just so innately corrupt that they won’t understand public anger at what they are doing and none of them will obey the rules.”

He later added: “You want a moral shift in the type of people who become MPs, I can’t do anything about that.”

Jenkin responded by suggesting that conversations may help to foster better attitudes.

Hislop said: “Why do you have to explain to a new MP why he shouldn’t lobby for a company taking government contracts? Why isn’t that blatantly obvious?”

Journalists also spoke to the committee about the lack of transparency in the way MPs declare their interests, including second jobs and what constitutes lobbying.

Hislop said that contracts for second jobs outside parliamentary duties should be published.

He said: “If you’re taking money from a company, what are they getting out of it?

“At least print the contract, tell us what you’re being employed for and let’s have a look at the minutes of the board meeting.”

Richard Brooks, another journalist at Private Eye, told the committee that current definitions of lobbying are not wide enough.

“By restricting what you band to lobbying, you narrow it down too much because lobbying is open to a very legalistic technocratic interpretation that doesn’t include all kinds of behaviour – a quiet word in the ear, expressions of opinion without formally lobbying – all those sorts of things that are just as important,” he said.

“The problem is that a lot of what goes on that distorts public decision-making doesn’t qualify as lobbying and I think you perhaps need to look a little bit further and say ‘OK, what sort of jobs do we need to ban’.”

When asked specifically which second jobs should be banned, he said: “Any job that is given to a member of parliament because they are a member of parliament, rather than because they have some other qualification for it.

“For example, if they’re a doctor, teacher, lawyer, nurse, that sort of thing.”