Downing Street bought fridge for ‘meeting room’ with taxpayers’ money

Just how many fridges to chill drinks in No 10 meeting rooms are there?

Are they clearly labelled “For Wine Time Friday” and “Official Use Only” depending on how they were funded? – Owl

Downing Street bought a fridge for a meeting room with taxpayers’ money around the time No 10 was hosting “wine time Fridays” and other parties, The Independent can reveal.

Boris Johnson was urged to “come clean” about how much public money had been spent on the lockdown bashes – a fact which is yet to have been established about the rule-breaking gatherings.

No 10 insisted that the publicly-funded fridge was not involved in the festivities but shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry told The Independent that the government had questions to answer about any potential “misuse of public funds”.

The Daily Mirror reported last month that a wine fridge had been “smuggled” into No 10 through the backdoor to hold bottles for the regular gatherings – prompting anger at a time when indoor socialising was supposed to be banned.

The regular “wine times” sit alongside the 16 events investigated by top civil servant by Sue Gray, which all took place during May 2020 and April 2021.

The government confirmed that the taxpayer-funded fridge had been purchased at some point between April 2020 and April 2021, though did not specify on which date. The fridge apparently expanded the chilled drinks holding capacity in a meeting room in No 10.

Labour’s Ms Thornberry said: “We all know that Covid rules were repeatedly broken in Downing Street during lockdown, but we don’t yet know what taxpayers’ money was spent in the process.

“Rather than have the answer to that question dragged out of them one pizza delivery or wine fridge at a time, I would urge Cabinet Office ministers simply to disclose any misuse of public funds they have discovered related to the Downing Street parties, and tell us what action has been taken as a result.”

The government was last month asked by Ms Thornberry to disclose how much public money was spent on refrigerators for No 10 – but dragged its feet on responding.

In its eventual response, Paymaster General Michael Ellis said in a written answer that two fridges had been purchased during the period, one to replace and existing fridge and one apparently to expand the capacity to store drinks in a meeting room.

“Downing Street is a working building, including catering facilities and offices for staff; as is common in workplaces including the House of Commons, refrigerators are provided for general staff use,” he said.

“One refrigerator was purchased in the financial year for a Downing Street meeting room, and one to replace an existing refrigerator that had reached the end of its working operation.

“Notwithstanding, I can confirm that no such public expenditure was accrued in relation to the matters considered in the investigations by the Second Permanent Secretary or connected with associated media reports on this matter.”

Sue Gray’s report found that “failures of leadership and judgement” and excessive drinking at work against the backdrop of the pandemic led to events that “should not have been allowed to take place”. She said that other events “should not have been allowed to develop as they did”.

The prime minister faced calls to resign following the report, including from within his own party. No 10 is now subject to an investigation by the Metropolitan Police, which could levy fines under Covid-19 regulations.

Police reportedly have a photograph of Boris Johnson holding a can of beer at one event, a lockdown birthday party allegedly instigate by his wife Carrie in June 2020. The picture is thought to be one of 300 submitted the Met by Ms Gray’s inquiry – which was asked not to publish details of the events so that it did not prejudice the ongoing police investigation.

But full details of the parties may never be released because the prime minister will ultimately control whether evidence submitted by the second permanent secretary ever sees the light of day.

Devon construction giant Midas goes into administration with 303 jobs lost

One of the South West’s largest employers, Midas has gone into administration.

Within hours, however,  it was announced that Bell Group had swooped to purchase Mi-space (UK) Ltd, the property services division which is part of the Midas Group.

The acquisition grows Bell’s already strong presence in the South West and Wales and protects an estimated 110 direct and indirect jobs.

Bell is a market leader in the sector and already has offices across the South West in Plymouth, Taunton, Bristol, and South Wales, with plans to open up a new office in Exeter in 2022.

The deal to purchase the Mi-space business and certain of its assets out of administration secures economic activity valued at up to £20m annually to the local economy, significant supply chain links and indirect employment.

Mi-space has worked for many years in communities across the South West and Wales on a wide range of property improvement, energy efficiency upgrades and retrofitting to homes, benefiting thousands of families and supporting clients which currently include: Vale of Glamorgan Council, Cornwall Housing Association, Curo Places Ltd, Bristol City Council, Exeter City Council, Ovo Energy and Sanctuary.

Mi-space has been contracted to EDDC in the past.

Midas goes into administration

Lili Stebbings

The £290million turnover company reportedly filed a court notice of its intention to appoint an administrator for itself and its main subsidiary Midas Construction Limited on January 29.

But this afternoon, February 8, the Exeter-based construction giant fell into administration with 303 staff being made redundant as a result, according to Construction Enquirer.

It is understood Midas chief executive Alan Hope and chairman Steve Hindley notified staff via teams calls and email on Tuesday afternoon.

Administrators from Teneon are now in charge of the construction group.

It follows the halt on three major hotel builds worth more than £40 million in Torbay following “constant discussions” with Midas Construction, who were the main contractors for the projects.

In Torquay work has stopped completely on Torbay Council’s £11m Premier Inn at The Terrace and the Fragrance Group, which is investing in excess of £30 million in the two hotel builds on Paignton Esplanade also confirmed it is “increasingly concerned” about the lack of progress over the last three months and now says it is “reviewing its options”.

A spokesperson for Midas told DevonLive: “As is well known in the industry there are issues relating to Brexit, Covid, ongoing shortages of materials and labour, and significant cost inflation, which are providing challenges to project delivery and timescales.

“We are working closely with all our stakeholders to resolve the situation.”

Midas won the contract from Torbay Council to build the £11m 120-bedroom Premier Inn on part of The Terrace car park in Torquay.

It was scheduled to open in late 2022 and bring 30 new permanent jobs to the town – with over 150 jobs during the construction and hopes of attracting an annual extra £3.3m tourism spend to the resort.

Torbay Council said it worked hard to ensure that the construction contract with Midas included requirements to employ local companies and apprentices.

A Torbay Council spokesperson said: “We are working with Midas to identify any issues which may be affecting the site and any required solutions. The council remains committed to the scheme which will not only generate new employment opportunities but will complement existing hotel accommodation in Torquay that will attract thousands of guests each year, boosting our local tourism economy by more than £3 million.”

Last year Midas, one of the UK’s largest privately-owned construction and property services companies, posted a trading loss for the first time in it’s 40 year history.

Midas is one of the region’s largest employers, supporting more than 10,000 jobs in supply chains.

The impact of Covid-19 was blamed for the post-tax loss of £2m.

Tax hike to cost NHS & care staff £390m

NHS and social care workers in England will pay an estimated £390m extra to subsidise their own services when the National Insurance rise comes into effect in April, exclusive analysis by openDemocracy has revealed.

Adam Bychawski 

Nurses will take a £275-a-year pay cut on average as a result of the rise – despite Boris Johnson saying the money was needed to “pay good wages for the 50,000 nurses” that he pledged to recruit by 2025 when the plans were announced in September.

Social care workers will take an average cut of £129 a year.

The National Insurance rise will fund ‘the NHS and equivalent bodies’ and will be replaced by a formal ‘health and social care levy’ of the same value from 2023.

“Our crumbling social care system desperately needs more cash – we all know that. But a regressive tax which takes money from the pockets of the lowest-paid workers is not the way to do it,” said Rachel Harrison, national officer for the GMB trade union, which represents NHS and care workers.

“The Conservatives’ National Insurance hike will snatch hundreds of millions from the pockets of carers and NHS workers. It’s a completely backwards way of raising the money and it will ultimately be self-defeating.”

The lowest-paid NHS and social care staff – those earning £24,000 or less – will lose £66m in total from their pay cheques, calling into question the prime minister’s promise that the money “will go straight to the front line” of the health service.

Of that figure, £47m will come from the lowest-paid NHS staff and £19m from the lowest-paid social care staff.

The government has said that the manifesto-breaking tax rise, which is expected to raise £12.4bn a year, will be spent on tackling the backlog of patients waiting for treatments caused by the pandemic and fixing long-term problems with social care.

NHS workers will lose £327m while workers in the social care sector will lose £61m in total.

Care workers will lose £4.4m a year from their pay, despite 71% already being paid below the real living wage of £9.50 in the UK and £10.85 in London, according to Skills for Care.

NHS staff in England have suffered real-term salary falls of up to £2,949 over the past decade, according to analysis by the Health Foundation published last year.

Last year, English NHS staff received a 3% pay rise following an independent pay review. However, junior doctors will lose on average £193 from their annual pay after the tax rise.

“Over the last decade we’ve seen doctors hit by repeated real-terms pay cuts, while they have been asked to work harder and go above and beyond during the pandemic,” a British Medical Association spokesperson said.

“Upcoming tax changes will further erode doctors’ take-home pay, which is why we are calling for a pay increase that reflects cost of living increases.”

The 1.25 percentage points rise in National Insurance comes as households are already struggling with a worsening cost of living crisis.

Inflation is already at its highest level for three decades and the Bank of England expects it will peak at 7% when the increase comes into effect in April.

Last month, 14 unions, representing 1.2 million health staff in England, called on the government to raise NHS pay and raised fears of a “growing exodus of exhausted staff”.

The NHS said that staff shortages were “the single biggest and most urgent we need to address” in its 2019 recruitment plan. One in eight nursing posts and around one in 11 care worker roles are currently unfilled, with demand for the positions set to rise in line with the UK’s ageing population.

The health service’s staffing shortfall of 100,000 could reach a quarter of a million by the end of the next decade, according to research by the King’s Fund think tank.

openDemocracy estimated the figures using the latest NHS Digital data on the mean full-time equivalent (FTE) annual pay of staff by job title, cross-referenced with the most recent data on the number of FTE staff in each role.

Social care statistics were estimated using data from Skills For Care’s workforce estimates by cross-referencing the number of public, private and independent FTE jobs in the social care sector against Skills For Care’s estimates for mean FTE annual pay.

The National Insurance increases were estimated by running mean FTE salaries through Which?’s National Insurance calculator for 2021-22 and 2022-23.

A Treasury spokesperson said: “We’ve taken decisive and historic action, with our Health and Social Care Levy due to raise around £13bn a year for the NHS and social care. It is a progressive tax with those earning more paying more. We rightly funded a 3% pay-rise for NHS staff this year, increasing nurses pay by £1,000 a year on average, and have committed to pay rises next year.

The Health and Social Care Levy will benefit people up and down the country, including by tackling the backlog that the pandemic has created on NHS operations and procedures strengthening the adult social care system so that people do not have to bear the financial risks of catastrophic care costs themselves.”

Levelling up: Budget cuts mean 11m rural potholes will go unfilled

Funding for rural councils cut by £480m. Biggest cut of £100.7m over two years in South West local authorities. 

In contrast, Cities and Urban areas benefit from £5.7bn road and transport fund over three years.

Where is the outcry from our County leaders and MPs? – Owl

Ben Clatworthy

More than 11 million potholes will go unfilled from April when funding for rural councils is cut by £480 million.

Councils outside England’s major urban areas say they will be forced to cancel or drastically scale back road maintenance work as a result. They are to receive £727 million for road maintenance funding in the next financial year, compared with £1.2 billion two years ago.

Critics accused the Conservatives of breaking a manifesto pledge to earmark an extra £500 million a year for potholes. The budgets of England’s largest county and rural councils are being cut.

The County Councils Network (CCN), which represents the councils and carried out the analysis, said the cuts would leave local authorities with little choice but to cancel planned works, despite the worsening condition of England’s roads.

County leaders said they had welcomed the 2019 pledge of “the biggest-ever pothole filling programme”, which included £2.5 billion in additional funding to councils over the course of the parliament, but they were now receiving 40 per cent less than they did two years ago.

“A £479 million drop in funding between 2021 and 2023 is hugely significant,” Martin Hill, the CCN devolution spokesman, said. “With the government making such a clear announcement that it was increasing pothole funding in 2019, we are left grappling with the public’s expectation that we are able to continue to invest in our road network.

“Unless this reduction is reversed, and the government provides an urgent injection of resources to match the level it distributed in 2020-21, then we will have little choice but to cancel planned works. This would represent a major scaling back of our ambitions.”

In contrast England’s major cities and urban areas will benefit from significant investment in road and transport infrastructure through a new dedicated £5.7 billion fund over the next three years.

Last year the RAC dealt with more than 10,000 pothole-related breakdowns, which worked out as 27 every day and was the highest total since 2018.

The CCN said that 13,000 miles of rural roads in the 36 affected county areas were identified as requiring maintenance last year, equating to 9 per cent of the total road network.

In 2020-21, when councils were allocated the first tranche of the pothole fund, budgets rose to £1.2 billion for those councils, although there were immediate reductions in the 2021-22 budget. For the next financial year the amount will be £727 million.

Local authorities in southwest England will have the biggest reduction in funding over the two years. Their budgets will fall by £100.7 million, which would pay for 2.4 million potholes to be filled.

Counties in the southeast lose out on £87.1 million of funding, the equivalent to two million potholes, while those in east of the country lose out on £71.4 million, which could have filled 1.7 million potholes.

The latest research by the Asphalt Industry Alliance found that average pothole repair cost an average of £41.61. This means that the funding shortfall will result in 11.5 million potholes not being dealt with.

Almost a million hit by 700 per cent bill increases for uncapped heat and electricity

Is the District Heating system for Cranbrook capped or uncapped? – Owl

Residents in blocks of flats up and down the country are being hit with energy bill increases of as much as 700 per cent because they are not protected by Ofgem’s price cap.

The cap will rise by a record 54 per cent in April, but an estimated 800,000 homeowners and tenants are on communal networks that heat large buildings. The contracts are negotiated for all residents collectively by freeholders and managing agents. Because the contracts are classed as commercial, not domestic, residents have no protection from rising prices.

Many more flat owners and tenants will also be hit with increases to electricity bills to cover communal lighting and the energy used to pump water to higher levels of buildings, campaigners have warned.

The government has confirmed that while the “vast majority” of leaseholders will qualify for a £200 discount on bills – a measure announced by Rishi Sunak last week – some will not.

Residents of the Pan Peninsula development near Canary Wharf in London received a letter in December quoting a 1,000 per cent increase in the unit price for gas used in their communal heating system. The quote was reduced after wholesale prices decreased in January, but tenants and leaseholders are still facing a 450 per cent increase in their gas bills.

“People are seeing some shocking increases to their bills,” said Andy, a member of the residents’ management committee for the development. He counts himself as “fortunate” because his flat is on the 33rd floor and benefits from heat rising from lower floors. The heating contract is negotiated by the owner of the building, which means residents have little say.

Adding to consumers’ woes, many heat networks are inefficient, unreliable, and use much more energy than they would if they were well designed.

“There are no technical standards for heat networks. A lot of contractors that install them don’t have the right expertise,” said Stephen Knight, director of the Heat Trust, a voluntary body that oversees the sector.

“If your system is using 10 kW of power to generate 5 kW of heat – as many networks do – you end up paying for twice as much energy as you need to.”

Mr Knight said that without government intervention, almost all of the estimated 800,000 customers on communal heat networks will see increases of around 400 per cent in the coming weeks and months as contracts come up for renewal.

“This is a sector that is crying out for regulation,” he said. “There really is not good news here.”

For years, the government has promised statutory regulation of the sector, but it has failed to deliver.

A government spokesperson said: “We recognise that leaseholders and heat network customers are currently only protected by the energy price cap for the gas and electricity they buy directly from an energy supplier, which is why we are giving Ofgem new powers to regulate prices in this sector in the future.

They said that the “vast majority” of leaseholders would receive a £200 loan to reduce their energy bills in October, and a further £150 council tax rebate in April.

It is not just communal heating networks that are being hit with price-cap-busting bill increases.

In Birmingham, Ray Illingworth has just received notification that his communal electricity bill will more than quadruple, from 15p per unit to 65p. That’s more than double the Ofgem price cap amount of 27p.

Mr Illingworth estimates that it will cost him and other residents between £600 and £1,000 extra per year. The cost comes on top of thousands of pounds that they have been forced to pay to fix dangerous cladding and other fire safety defects.

To make matters worse, he has recorded temperatures below 12C inside his flat, because cladding and insulation has been removed and is yet to be replaced.

“Anyone in a building over four storeys tall is going to be hammered by these bill increases. It’s pretty awful,” he said.

“Why should these residential blocks be charged commercial rates? It doesn’t make sense other than to allow people to make more money out of us again.”

Martin Boyd, chair of campaigning charity Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, said consumers have no control over what their freeholder landlord decides.

He added: “There is also no Ofgem price cap to protect them from soaring costs, and so many are currently facing gigantic price hikes due to providers passing on runaway wholesale gas costs in full against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine standoff and a Europe-wide gas crisis.

“At LKP, we’re seeing flat leaseholders come to us concerned that their freeholder or freeholder-appointed managing agent has dumped commercial-rate VAT and the climate levy onto their utility bills, which should not be happening. As with everything leasehold, the flat owners pay but have no say.”