Rishi Sunak sent Partygate questionnaire by police

Chancellor joins Boris Johnson in effectively being questioned under caution over alleged Covid breaches


Chancellor Rishi Sunak is facing questions from police investigating allegations of lockdown-breaching parties in Whitehall.

Sources close to the chancellor said he had received a questionnaire from the Metropolitan Police asking him to confirm whether he attended the events under investigation and what excuse he had for being there.

The move means that Mr Sunak is effectively being questioned under caution, and could face a fixed penalty fine of £100 or more for breaching Covid regulations.

Mr Sunak was present at an impromptu birthday party arranged for Mr Johnson in No 10’s cabinet room on 19 June 2020.

Police are understood to have been passed a picture of the event taken by an official photographer, which reportedly shows Mr Johnson holding a can of beer and Mr Sunak with a soft drink.

A Treasury source has previously said that the chancellor joined the party inadvertently after going to the cabinet room for a Covid strategy committee meeting.

Around 30 people were present at the event, where cake was served, at a time when indoor gatherings were banned under strict coronavirus legislation.

Questionnaires were sent by the Met’s Operation Hillman to 88 people including the prime minister earlier this month, asking them to provide a “lawful exception” or “reasonable excuse” for their presence at any of the 12 events under investigation.

The document states at the outset that those accused have an opportunity to provide “a written statement under caution”.

Torbay loos to have ‘fair use’ policy

Some people to be allowed to pee for free (but not too much)

Paul Nero www.radioexe.co.uk

Torbay Council is to introduce a ‘fair-use’ policy for vulnerable people and beach hut users at its public loos.

As part of its budget for next year, the council is giving free ‘passes’ to some people in the area so they can use public lavatories without charge.

But the free-to-pee policy comes with a sting in the tail: the council may be watching so that people don’t spend a penny too often.

Torbay Council, which is run by an alliance of Liberal Democracts and local independent politicians, is putting up council tax by three per cent from April, including a one per cent uplift to improve social care for adults.

With some of the extra cash raised, it is going to invest £1 million upgrading car parks and another million on climate change initiatives.

But among its more inspiring plans is to introduce free loo passes for vulnerable people, and people who hire council beach huts.

The idea has cross-party support.

On its website, the council says: “To keep all of our toilets in a clean and a ‘home from home’ environment we have a fee paying system.” 

Currently it costs 30 pence to use a public loo in Torbay. 

The council had already announced an investment of £1.7 million for upgrading its WCs and it outsources maintenance to a private company called Healthmatic.

In a meeting to approve its new budget from April onwards, it didn’t define which vulnerable people would be eligible for loo passes, but it did point out that both they and beach hut users would be subject to a ‘fair usage policy’ when using the toilets.

It is unclear how many bowel movements or wees per day will count as fair use.

Nor has the council said how it will be monitoring the policy.

‘Fair use’ is a pricing policy often deployed by mobile phone companies selling unlimited data, but nonetheless wanting to limit the data. Torbay Council could well be a pioneer in using the strategy for public lavatories.

Free loo-use provided you don’t take the pee.

Based on the council considering it fair for a vulnerable person to use a public loo, say, three times a week, a Torbay Council loo pass could save eligible individuals £47 a year.

A family of four hiring a beach hut for three months a year and visiting, say, three times a week, with each person going to the loo twice a day, would save about £275.

Some of Torbay’s beaches have pitches for privately owned beach huts as well as some permanent chalets and cabins. Others can be hired at a cost of up £146 a week.

The free loo passes will cost the council a total of £75,000 a year. 

Other Devon councils already allow people to wee for free, but financial pressures is causing some of them to look into their toilets’ provision.

Through the local democracy reporting scheme, Radio Exe has asked Torbay Council to define ‘fair usage’ for loo use, and whether different fair usage allowances will apply to beach hut holders and vulnerable people.

By the time of publication, it hadn’t responded.

Boris Johnson again reprimanded after misleading employment claim

Boris Johnson has been formally reprimanded by the official statistics watchdog for the second time in a month after he misleadingly claimed that there are now more people in work in the UK than before the start of coronavirus.

Peter Walker www.theguardian.com 

The reproach from Sir David Norgrove, the head of the UK Statistics Authority, follows concerns he raised with Johnson at the start of February about an incorrect claim that crime levels were falling.

In his new letter to Johnson, Norgrove noted that at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday the PM had said there were now more people in employment than before the pandemic began.

However, Norgrove said, this was only the case if you considered only workers on payrolls, which was misleading, as it was more than offset by a drop in numbers of self-employed people – if you include them, the total is now 600,000 lower.

“If, as seems to be the case, your statement referred only to the increase in the number of people on payrolls, it would be a selective use of data that is likely to give a misleading impression of trends in the labour market, unless that distinction is carefully explained,” Norgrove told Johnson.

He added: “I hope you will agree that public trust requires a complete statement of this important measure of the economy.”

Johnson has made the same misleading claim at earlier editions of prime minister’s questions.

On 3 February, Norgrove announced that he would be writing to the offices of Johnson and Priti Patel, the home secretary, to highlight what he called a “misleading” use of crime statistics.

Speaking in the Commons, Johnson had said the government was “cutting crime by 14%”, a reference to statistics between September 2019 and September 2021, a claim echoed in a Home Office press release. However, this was only the case if the statistics excluded fraud and computer misuse, which have risen quickly over the Covid period.

‘Computer says road’: call for change to ‘crude’ planning models

“Crude” computer programs that prioritise new road building should be banned from the design of new housing because they cause billions to be diverted to roads that could be used for creating more compact communities, campaigners claim.

Robert Booth www.theguardian.com 

Traffic modelling spreadsheets that “almost always tell us that ‘computer says road’” should no longer be used by planners and more money should be spent on building places geared for walking, cycling and public transport, according to a report by the Create Streets campaign.

It has been endorsed by Rory Stewart, a former Conservative leadership candidate; Toby Lloyd, a former Downing Street housing adviser and the Royal Town Planning Institute.

The attack on “big road urbanism” argues that the Department for Transport cost-benefit modelling tools for new roads fail to “properly capture non-travel-time benefits, such as health, wellbeing and the environment … so the answer will always be to build more or bigger roads”.

The Department for Transport strongly denied any bias towards road-building in its modelling, and a spokesperson said: “The environment is at the heart of our proposed transport schemes, and we always encourage sustainable options such as public transport, cycling and walking.”

The Create Streets thinktank is led by Nicholas Boys Smith, a former adviser to George Osborne, and has worked with architects and urban designers close to Prince Charles to argue for more human-scale planning.

It believes billions in taxpayers’ money could be saved by changing decision-making on road building, with smaller sums instead spent on placing shops, gyms and other social infrastructure closer to homes linked by buses, cycle paths and walkways. The result would also be healthier and greener, it argues.

As an example of what it believes is going wrong, it is highlighting plans to spend £1.4bn building one roundabout and 10 miles of new road near Bedford.

The 2km-wide Black Cat interchange covers a space bigger than York city centre, which is one of the UK’s most walkable cities. But transport planners say the project will relieve heavy congestion and save drivers an hour and a half on their journeys every week.

Traffic delays in England were at close to their highest level since 2015 just before the pandemic, but almost halved during the first lockdown. They have since been rising again towards peak levels. The government is pressing ahead with a £24bn road-building and renewal plan announced in 2020.

Several road projects were announced last year as recipients of the £1.7bn “levelling up fund”. Road building is already the single biggest annual outlay for councils, which last year allocated £7.5bn, or 29%, of their total capital expenditure to highways and transport services. They spent ​​£6.1bn on housing.

Create Streets highlights how scores of streets and squares in a popular medieval city like Siena in Tuscany can fit into the space taken by a motorway interchange in Houston, Texas.

“Instead of spending tens of millions of pounds on one junction or on widening a few miles of road, we should instead design better places where more journeys are by foot, bike or public transport,” said David Milner, Create Streets’ deputy director. “We can do this by siting amenities we want to visit in the heart of new developments, not their perimeters.”

Planners and developers have for decades used computer models to determine transport plans that tend to put the needs of rush hour traffic first. The impact of the pandemic, which has led to widespread remote working, and the pressing need to slash carbon emissions from domestic transport, which emits 27% of all of the UK’s CO2, are increasing calls for change.

“We are seeing e-bikes being a car killer,” he added. “They increase the range and the frequency of bike riding.”

The study is also being endorsed by CPRE, the countryside charity, and warns that good design principles for new and regenerated communities are being “cast aside”.

“We are told the ‘infrastructure won’t cope’ or ‘the junction can’t take it’,” said Milner. “Almost every traffic model tells us that ‘computer says road’.”

Andrew Taylor, the planning director of Countryside Properties, one of the UK’s largest housebuilders, is also backing the call for change.

“This is not about avoiding investing in necessary junctions and improvements but about trying to refocus our energies and money on placemaking, 15-minute communities and foot and cycle connectivity within developments to reduce the need for these other physical interventions,” he said

A DfT spokesperson said: “Our modelling works alongside our £5bn transport decarbonisation plan, £2bn of which is specifically invested to encourage active travel.”

Fresh Tory lobbying row over unregulated ‘Westminster Russia Forum’

Concerns have been raised that unregulated pro-Moscow lobbyists at the heart of Westminster are using their links to Tory MPs to gain influence and respectability.

Seth Thévoz www.opendemocracy.net 

A group formerly known as the Conservative Friends of Russia (CRF) is advertising its first in-person conference for two years next week, despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Thursday.

Now called the Westminster Russia Forum (WRF), the group’s British organisers often appear on the Russian state broadcaster, RT. The WRF, which loudly echoes official lines from Moscow, has links with numerous Conservative MPs and other senior UK political figures.

The WRF did not respond to openDemocracy’s questions on whether the event on March 4 would still go ahead.

Sue Hawley, the director of Spotlight on Corruption, told openDemocracy: “It’s somewhat chilling that as the UK strikes a tough posture in relation to Russia it could leave such a blindspot at home.”

The WRF is one of a number of so-called Conservative ‘friends of’ groups that have tried to draw in high-profile MPs. The groups act as a conduit between the party and certain countries or regions.

It has existed in some form for a decade, yet is not required to register as a lobbyist, sparking fears that pro-Putin interests could be influencing opinion unchecked. Although the WRF calls itself a ‘think tank’, there is no record of any research ever published by the group.

Hawley added: “Friends of’ groups of political parties are alarmingly unregulated, and provide a back door for unofficial lobbying, access and paid influence. It is high time that these groups were brought out of the shadows, properly regulated, and that the public are able to have far greater insight into how they operate and who is behind them.”

The WRF has hosted events with Tory MPs such as Daniel Kawczynski, Caroline Nokes, John Redwood and John Whittingdale, as well as Labour’s former foreign secretary Jack Straw. Event attendees have included Carrie Johnson, the Conservative Party’s former head of communications and now the prime minister’s wife.

In just over a week, the group says it will hold a ‘Multilateral Relations Conference’ aimed at strengthening links between Russia and the UK. At previous such events, dozens of speakers have urged stronger ties to the Putin government.

Edward Lucas, a foreign policy expert on Russia, told openDemocracy: “This is about as badly timed as possible, to be relaunching their events just as the invasion of Ukraine starts.”

Lucas, a journalist who was involved in calls to dissolve the Conservative Friends of Russia in 2013, has called its return “a mushroom sprouting on top of a compost heap”.

But, he said: “This is the Monty Python end of Russian influence operations. The real problem is the Russian influence operation in the serious think tanks, [in] the City of London, and [in] the large amounts of money being made by bankers, lawyers and accountants who focus on pushing the Russian regime, including by donating large amounts of money to political parties.”

The forum’s organisers are overwhelmingly London-based, with business interests in Russia. Its chair, Nicholas Cobb, runs an energy communications firm focused on Russia and former Soviet republics, who has appeared on Russia Today as a pro-Moscow pundit.

Ben Wells, described by WRF as its ‘in-house counsel’, is a solicitor whose London law firm specialises in work for “Russian-speaking clients”. Ernest Reid, billed on the WRF website as its ambassador at large, has provided commentary for Russia Today and the WRF sympathetic to Russian foreign ministry objectives.

Debate in the WRF seems to be heavily one-sided. Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski – dubbed a “Putin apologist” by other MPs – addressed the group in 2016, complaining “There is very little debate in the House of Commons about Russia.”

Under its original name, the Conservative Friends of Russia, the group facilitated a ten-day, all-expenses-paid junket to Russia in 2012, paid for by the Russian tourist government agency, Rossotrudnichestvo. Guests included Conservative activists such as future Vote Leave chief Matthew Elliott.

The controversial trip attracted significant adverse coverage and, after a further string of scandals, a number of Tory MPs who had been patrons all resigned, including Robert Buckland, Nigel Evans and former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind. One Conservative Party guest on the Russia trip told openDemocracy that the forum’s current setup had “no meaningful connection“ to CFR – but despite its rebrand to WFR, the group today still refers to itself as having been founded in 2012.

openDemocracy has also obtained emails showing that in 2013, during the Tory coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Russian diplomat Sergey Nalobin attempted to organise a similar trip to Russia for senior Lib Dems. It is unclear whether the trip went ahead.

Nalobin, the son of a high-ranking spy for Russia’s Federal Security Service, was subsequently removed from the UK by the Home Office in 2015 in a spying row.

A new target

With MPs less likely to speak at the group in recent years, the WRF has turned its focus to working on public opinion. It has an active Twitter feed, echoing official lines from Kremlin-funded organisations – although it has been uncharacteristically silent since Putin’s movement this week of recognising the separatist ‘People’s Republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east of Ukraine, and since the start of today’s invasion.

Its last activity was a retweet of a report by Russian Foreign Ministry-owned broadcaster Russia Today on 20 February, stating that de-escalation of military tensions in Ukraine was underway.

Back in 2012, the Foreign Policy journal noted that “the website’s news feed…continued to feature only state-owned or state-subsidised outlets”. The CFR said this was “entirely coincidental”.

The government has announced the closure of the Tier 1 ‘golden visa’ scheme used by a number of oligarchs from Russian and former Soviet-bloc countries to relocate to Britain, as well as imposing sanctions against five Russian banks and three Russian oligarchs. openDemocracy this week revealed that more than 200 Russian millionaires had been given ‘golden visas’, despite an earlier government pledge to ‘clamp down’ on the practice.

The WRF’s ‘multilateral forum’ events have grown from 50 attendees at the first in 2015 to 170 in 2020, which drew 47 speakers on UK-Russia relations, and was overwhelmingly effusive on the need for strong ties with the Putin regime.

UPDATE: Following the publication of this story, the Westminster Russia Forum put out an overnight statement disassociating itself from the invasion of Ukraine and saying it had “suspended all planned events until further notice”. 

Its chair Nicholas Cobb subsequently provided openDemocracy with a comment, stressing that the group was member-funded and volunteer-run. “We are in no way funded by either government,” he said, “receive no other support or direction, and are solely interested in promoting stronger trade, cultural and people to people ties.”

He also stressed that the forum was now non-partisan despite its Conservative roots, and said: “We rarely meet anyone from Parliament, our civil service or other political institutions, and have for some years now focused on promoting trade and softer areas of cooperation – none of which requires lobbying.”

The statement concludes: “We are aware that to some our views on promoting dialogue may appear strange but we are committed to doing what we can to promoting grassroots understanding and peace.”

UPDATE (9 March 2022): This article has been amended at the request of Ernest Reid to clarify his role within the WRF.