More than half of UK voters still think Boris Johnson should resign

A majority of voters still want to see Boris Johnson resign despite the crisis over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to the latest Opinium poll for the Observer.

[Not surprising as the Prime Minister presides over a weak cabinet and is incapable of backing up his booster blusters by subsequent delivery. – Owl]

Michael Savage 

There has been a significant fall in the proportion of voters who want the prime minister to stand aside. However, the new poll showed that 53% still wanted to see him go – down 10 points since January.

On the Ukraine crisis, a majority (52%) think the government has not gone far enough on accepting Ukrainian refugees into the UK. When asked whether they would take in Ukrainian refugees themselves, 9% of people said that they would, while a further 20% said they would consider it. About 63% said they were not in a position to do so, while 8% said they were, but wouldn’t.

Fourth-fifths (78%) of the UK support sending arms to Ukraine. Similarly, almost seven in 10 (68%) support donating western fighter planes for the Ukrainian air force to use in the country’s defence.

Voters are divided over a potential no-fly zone over Ukraine, with 40% saying they support western air forces enforcing a no-fly zone, and the shooting down of Russian aircraft that breach this, but 39% disagreeing.

There are clear concerns over the cost of living at home. There was a 15-point increase in those who now expect the economy to get worse over the next year (71%), while 57% expect their personal finances to worsen – up 12 points.

Johnson’s net approval ratings have improved from low levels. Those approving of the job he is doing make up 27%, with 54% disapproving. That gives him a net approval rating of -27, a 6-point improvement on the last poll a fortnight ago. Keir Starmer’s ratings remain largely unchanged, giving him a net approval rating of -2.

Overall, Labour’s lead has fallen marginally to 2 points over the Tories. Starmer’s party has 37% support, with the Tories on 35%. When people were asked who they preferred as prime minister, “none of these” remained the clear leader. However, when forced to choose, people would still prefer a Labour government led by Starmer (44%) over a Conservative government led by Johnson (35%).

Joe Curran, senior research executive at Opinium, said: “While most European countries are granting fleeing Ukrainians visa-free refuge, the UK has so far opted to require visas, to much outrage from certain quarters. Our polling finds that over half (52%) of the British public think that the government hasn’t gone far enough in accepting refugees.

“As for Boris Johnson, a cynic would say that the crisis in Ukraine offers both a distraction from domestic controversies and also the opportunity to act the statesman. Indeed we have seen a small uptick in his approval ratings, although we can’t say for certain that this is related to the war in the east. Whether this trend continues depends on many factors including the deepening cost of living crisis.”

Opinium polled 2,007 people online between 9 and 11 March.

Protesting UK’s dirty money in one of London’s most exclusive streets

A washing machine brimming with fake bank notes and surrounded by union jacks sits on the pavement of one of London’s most exclusive streets. 

Its provocative presence in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea on Friday morning is intended to symbolise the laundering of dirty money in the British capital.

Since Vladimir Putin launched his bloody invasion of Ukraine last month, Britain has come under increasing pressure to clean up its act by introducing new legislation to aid transparency and tackle corruption.

It has taken the first step by introducing an Economic Crime Bill and by freezing the UK assets of some Russian oligarchs linked to the Kremlin. However, campaigners believe such moves are only a start.

Rachel Davies, head of advocacy at Transparency International UK, speaks of the unquantifiable scale of the issue.

“Because of the layers of secrecy, nobody really knows how much dirty money there is – not even the National Crime Agency (NCA),” she says.

Through open-source research, Transparency International found that at least £6.7bn of British property had been bought with “suspicious funds”, £1.5bn of which is Russian-owned.

Almost £300m in potentially fraudulent Russian money has been invested in bricks and mortar in Kensington, the most unequal borough in England, the group claims.

A washing machine is stuffed with fake money to protest against money laundering, in Kensington, London (Rory Sullivan)

“It’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Ms Davies says. “There’s almost certainly much, much more here in London and across the UK.”

Another group, Kensington Against Dirty Money (KADM), launched this week and staged the washing machine stunt in Thornwood Gardens to highlight the need to combat corruption.

“The awful war in Ukraine has shone a light on our responsibility to take action against dirty money in London,” Flo Hutchings, a co-founder of the movement, explains.

“We’re a campaign taking local action but making a national point, a global point. It’s not right that there are 6,000 anonymous foreign-owned properties in this borough where thousands are on years-long waiting lists for social housing.”

Joe Powell, KADM’s other co-founder, describes Kensington as “the epicentre of Britain’s dirty money problem”, adding that empty kleptocrat-owned properties have had an insidious effect on the borough, eroding the local community and its businesses.

Kensington residents have long understood the problem, but the war in Ukraine changed something, Powell believes. “There’s a moment now to say that this is not how we want our capital city to be. We also need to look at ourselves.

“It’s not just about autocrats and kleptocrats, it’s about our legal services, our banks, our accountants, our public relations firms, who have for a long time enabled dirty money to wash through our systems. A moment of introspection is needed.”

Powell says the government’s Economic Crime Bill, which will make it mandatory for shell companies to declare who owns property purchased in their name, is neither sufficient nor watertight. Under the law, kleptocrats will have a six-month grace period in which they can conceivably sell their homes.

“One piece of legislation this week is not enough to solve this problem, especially given that it is full of loopholes,” Mr Powell says.

To Mr Powell’s mind, greater transparency must be accompanied by greater enforcement. The NCA and other enforcement agencies have had their budgets slashed by ministers in recent years, making it almost impossible to effectively target dirty money, he notes.

On the borough level, he says the council, which already raises a tax levy on empty properties, must update its list of homes that are not occupied. “If you spoke to any resident, they’d say the real number was much higher.” Kensington and Chelsea should also invest more in social housing, he adds.

In response to Kensington Against Dirty Money’s comments, Cllr Kim Taylor-Smith, the council’s housing lead, said it was “absolutely not right” that there are empty properties while 2,100 households are in temporary accommodation.

The borough will continue to lobby the government “for stronger legislation to help councils bring empty homes back into use”, he stressed.

Sam Dodgson, a resident and aspiring Lib Dem councillor, has seen the detrimental effects empty properties have had on the area.

“We’re supposedly a village in the heart of London, but we’re a village with no one here. We’re becoming a dormitory town for investors. It’s upsetting.”

Monica Press, a local Labour councillor who has lived in the borough for 25 years, shares this view. Looking at the property behind the washing machine, she says: “My son went to Holland Park School. These were their playing fields. It’s now just a development that’s half empty.”

A government spokesperson said: “The government moved quickly in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to bring forward the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill, which will allow us to move more quickly with sanctions, prevent criminals from laundering their money in UK property, and strengthen unexplained wealth orders.

“This is part of a wider package of legislative proposals to tackle illicit finance, which will be introduced to parliament in the coming months, including reform of Companies House and new powers to seize crypto assets.

“We continue to lead the way in our fight against corruption, working closely with the private sector, international partners, and the crown dependencies and overseas territories, to ensure there are no safe havens for criminals to hide their dirty money.

“UK law enforcement has good existing information-sharing mechanisms with the crown dependencies and overseas territories, including on beneficial ownership information.”

Rural communities without access to mains gas face ‘a tsunami of poverty’, charity warns

There’s a warning that “a tsunami of poverty” will hit rural communities if more help isn’t provided to the 14% of British households living without access to mains gas. (In Cornwall, 47% of homes are off the gas grid.)

Dan Whitehead 

Many homes in the countryside which rely on oil, bottled gas, coal and wood to heat and cook are facing rapidly rising bills, made worse due to the volatility caused by the war in Ukraine.

Those alternative fuel sources are not covered by Ofgem’s increased price gap coming into force next month and are often far more expensive than mains supply.

SNP MP Drew Hendry has tabled the Energy Pricing (Off Gas Grid Households) Private Members Bill in parliament to try to provide extra help and protection for households which are off-grid.

He told the Commons last month that those households are forced to pay about four times more for their energy bills than the average home.

The problem mainly affects rural parts of the UK, where mains gas pipes do not reach.

In Cornwall, 47% of homes are off the gas grid.

Lorraine Baker-Lynch and her husband Robert from St Austell use oil and bottled gas, and say their bills are increasing so much they may need to rely on their log burner instead: “If all else fails, or if prices go so high that we can’t afford, we’ve got the log burner and on that there’s a kettle ready to boil… what else do you do? Because oil is going through the roof.”

And with prices increasing, they can only afford to fill half the oil tank.

Lorraine says: “You have to constantly check – has the oil gone down? How much can we afford? It’s going up monthly. We live here day in, day out. We love it. But it’s hard and challenging. You have to second guess. You can’t just turn on a gas fire. This is life. I wouldn’t swap it, but it would be nice if it was a bit easier. It would be nice if the government looked out for us.”

At the tip of Cornwall is the town of St Just, which Sky News data identifies in the worst 10 places in the country out of 7,201 areas for home energy efficiency.

Holly Whitelaw lives in an old granite miner’s cottage in the centre of the town.

Her only source of power and heating is electricity, and rising bills means she can’t afford to heat her home.

She says: “It’s damp. It’s like living in a cave basically. You get lots of condensation, you get the sea mist. Mould becomes a bit of an issue, so you just have to blast it with bleach quite regularly.”

Holly says she is keen to keep her carbon footprint as low as possible – but even then, heating her whole house is impossible.

“I can’t afford to heat my home. Not properly. Not to keep the mould at bay. Not to keep my feet from going numb so I can’t sleep at night,” she says.

“It is worrying and getting into debt is debilitating. I’ve been there with electricity providers. I’m tough, but many aren’t. We’ve really got to look after the vulnerable here.”

The rising cost of energy bills is also having a direct impact on the way charities are helping the most vulnerable.

At the Churches Together Foodbank in Penzance, manager Michelle Brown says they are having to help people with their bills, as well as changing the types of food they supply.

She says: “There’s a tsunami of poverty that’s going to sweep over us. It’s been a choice for some time, especially during COVID, that people are having to choose to pay their rent, whether to put food on their family’s tables or whether to heat. There’s no point us sending out food to people who can’t heat it.

“Because a lot of people live off grid down here, they’re relying on the more expensive alternatives. Things like gas cylinders, oil, microwaves… it’s a vicious circle as that bumps up their costs as well.”

The impact of more expensive fuel sources is compounded in rural parts of the country, which often have an older population, lower wages, poorer public transport links and an ageing housing stock.

‘Unjust proposition’ leads to rift between Mid Devon’s independent councillors

Who wins from these spats – the Conservatives! Owl

Lewis Clarke 

A split between independent members of Mid Devon District Council, over an ‘unjust proposition’ has led to changes on committees and the cabinet.

Seven independent councillors have split into two groups, the New Independent Group and the Non-Aligned, following a fallout over a proposal by the independent leader Councillor Bob Deed (Cadbury, New Independent), to remove fellow independent Councillor Ashley Wilce (Cullompton North, Non-Aligned) from their group.

Councillor Barry Warren (Lower Culm, Non-Aligned), who is the leader of the non-aligned group explained to council on Wednesday, February 23, that the request to remove Cllr Wilce was ‘contrary to common requirements of justice that the condemned man should at least know what he is accused of and this is not the case.’

He added: “Four of the seven members present would not support this unjust proposition.

“The outcome was that the leader and two other independent councillors formed the new independent group, which left five elected independent members ungrouped.”

The two other independent councillors in the group are Councillor Wally Burke (Westexe, New Independent), and Councillor Dennis Knowles (Lowman, New Independent).

He added: “I was asked to act as group leader so representations could be made, and the information obtained and shared as appropriate.

“We are currently all independent councillors, but we formed as a non-aligned group in order that we are open to others who feel they do not wish to be constrained by the dictates by a particular leader or system.

“If anyone wishes to join us you would be welcome. Each member would be free to act as his or her conscious dictates, to best represent those who have elected them. You make your own decisions and answer for your own actions. All that is asked is that we treat one another with respect and accept there are alternative views to our own.

“As the current leader I work on the basis that I am not my brother’s keeper.”

Last week, Councillor Graeme Barnell (Newbrooke, Non-Aligned) announced he would be leaving the Liberal Democrats to take up Cllr Warren’s offer of joining the non-aligned group.

This week, it was announced that non-aligned member Councillor Nikki Woollatt (Cullompton North, Non-Aligned) was removed from her cabinet position with Councillor Clive Eginton taking the role of cabinet member for the working environment and support service.

In an email to members she said: “Cllr Deed informed me that in light of recent events he considered my allegiance to the cabinet and the cabinet system was in question and that there were two ways of dealing with this. I could either resign or be removed.

“I told him that I would not be resigning and if he wanted rid of me that he would need to sack me.

“I also told him that it was his prerogative as leader, but I was not surprised as he had threatened it on numerous occasions throughout the last few years by insinuation and I was aware of occasions in the past when he had offered my portfolio to other members. It will be a relief to no longer have to work within that unhealthy environment.

“Cllr Deed was well aware of my views on the cabinet system when he appointed me. Despite those views I have always been pragmatic and professional enough to work within the system we currently have.”

She added: “As regards my allegiance to cabinet – despite at times not always agreeing with the leader’s actions within cabinet – I have continued to carry out my role and behave professionally.

“Though at times it has been difficult I have continued as I found that by being a cabinet member I was far better informed and had more influence than I had as a back bench member. I felt it was in Cullompton’s and my constituents’ best interests to stick with it.

She added: “I’m disappointed that having nominated and supported Cllr Deed to become leader in 2019 on the understanding that he would try to appoint a politically balanced cabinet we now have have a cabinet with very little diversity. Who is the disloyal one? That may be politics but it’s not my kind of politics.

“But every cloud has a silver lining. Now I have been released from collective cabinet responsibility I will have more freedom and shall return to what my dear friend, the late Councillor Jenny Roach, myself and others used to affectionately call ‘the naughty corner’.”

The changes mean that the independents have lost a seat on the scrutiny committee. At a vote at the council meeting, it was awarded to the Conservative Party.

The move was divisive with Cllr Deed saying the seat should have been given to the independent group. Councillor Elizabeth Lloyd said it should be awarded to the non-aligned.

Cllr Warren added: “The non-aligned group seek to take the scrutiny seat to retain the balance of six Conservatives, three Liberal Democrats, one Green Party and two independents.

“Given to the Conservatives, this will give them more than half of the seats on scrutiny when they already have more than half the seats on cabinet. To control the cabinet and scrutiny committee is hardly creating confidence in the openness and transparency of the council.”

However, Conservative group leader, Councillor Bob Evans (Lower Culm, Conservative) said: “This is a consequence of the independents having a disagreement and forming to separate groups.

“I object to being told by a group of five what we shall or shall not have, so to conclude, given this is a choice, I will move that the new scrutiny position be awarded to the Conservative group.

“I find it very disturbing that this council has in the past debated how we talk to each other, and treat each other, and nobody has mentioned the way our monitoring officer has been treated, and I put it on record that I think it is questionable. Members need to take a long hard look at themselves.”