Johnson could be forced to release secret Lebedev dossier

Labour will tomorrow try to force the government to release secret papers relating to Boris Johnson’s controversial appointment of Evgeny Lebedev to the House of Lords.

Adam Bychawski http://www.opendemocracy.net 

Tuesday’s vote will call on Steve Barclay, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, to give up all documents held by Number 10 and the Cabinet Office relating to advice from the House of Lords Appointments Committee about Lebedev’s appointment. Deputy leader Angela Rayner will also use the vote – officially a ‘humble address’ – to ask for records of meetings at which the appointment was discussed.

It comes after Boris Johnson denied allegations that he had intervened to secure the peerage for Lebedev, who is a close friend, in July 2020 after intelligence services warned it would be a security risk. Lebedev, whose father is a former Russian spy, has fiercely denied posing any such risk to the UK.

Last week, former Number 10 adviser Dominic Cummings turned up the heat on Johnson by claiming he was in the room when the PM was told by Cabinet Office officials that there were “serious reservations” from intelligence services about his plan to appoint Lebedev.

Cummings went on to claim that Johnson had “cut a deal” with officials to present a “sanitised” version of the security report to the House of Lords Appointments Committee, which is responsible for scrutinising the nomination of new peers.

openDemocracy previously revealed that Johnson had a “personal” meeting with the Russian-born oligarch just days after telling the British public to avoid ‘non-essential contact’ in March 2020.

Lebedev is the longstanding proprietor of two British newspapers – The Independent and the Evening Standard. His father, from whom he derives his wealth, is the billionaire oligarch and former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev.

Lebedev Jr has previously defended Vladimir Putin and questioned Russia’s involvement in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the Kremlin critic poisoned with polonium at a London hotel.

Johnson has maintained a close relationship with Lebedev Jr since they met in 2009. He attended at least four parties at the Russian oligarch’s Umbrian villa during his time as London mayor, using Lebedev’s private jet to fly there and back to London.

Earlier this month, The Sunday Times reported that the head of MI6 had expressed concerns that the Russian businessman was “keen to ingratiate himself with the British establishment” a decade ago.

Rayner accused the prime minister of putting “personal interest before the public’s”.

“The British public have a right to know if and how an individual of apparent concern to our intelligence services was granted a seat in the heart of our Parliament by Boris Johnson, against security advice,” she added.

Since taking up his peerage in December 2020, Lebedev has spoken only once and never voted.

In February, he wrote an open letter to Putin, in which he urged the Russian president to “bring this terrible conflict in Ukraine to an end”.

Sidmouth: Walkway to Jacob’s Ladder beach cordoned off after cliff fall

An area of the walkway between Sidmouth and Jacob’s Ladder beach has been cordoned off after a cliff fall yesterday morning (Sunday 27 March).

Will Goddard sidmouth.nub.news

Jacob's Ladder, Sidmouth (Nub News, Will Goddard)

Jacob’s Ladder, Sidmouth (Nub News, Will Goddard)

The rocks fell on the path below Connaught Gardens. East Devon District Council and Beer Coastguard closed the path as there were still loose rocks on the cliff face which could pose a danger to the public.

A spokesperson for Beer Coastguard said: “We closed the path along with the council to protect the public as there was still loose rocks on the cliff face.”

Person collapses on Jacob’s Ladder beach

Beer Coastguard also assisted in helping an individual who had collapsed on Jacob’s Ladder beach on the evening of Saturday 26 March in a separate incident.

The person was taken to hospital.

A spokesperson said: “Tasked with Exmouth Coastguard, the Hazardous Area Response Team and SWAST, to a collapsed person on the beach, the casualty was stabilised before being stretchered to the Ambulance for onward transport to hospital.

“We wish them a speedy recovery.”

Big regional divide on some energy bill charges

South West to see one of the biggest price hikes – why?

More Tory levelling-up in action – Owl

Sharp rises in standing charges on standard electricity bills will see customers face very different cost increases depending on where they live.

By Rebecca Wearn Business reporter, BBC News www.bbc.co.uk

Customers in South Scotland, Merseyside, North Wales and the South West of England will see the daily payments double from April.

Those in London and the East of England will see increases of less than 60%.

All consumer bills include a standing charge; a fixed daily payment covering the costs of supply and other levies.

The regulator Ofgem caps them for consumers on standard default tariffs in England, Wales and Scotland, although the cap varies by region.

Standing charges are not the biggest part of an energy bill, but they are set to rise by more than £71 a year on average in April.

‘Not surprised’

Jeehan Saleh and Hesham Hussain told the BBC the wide regional differences were unfair at time when energy bills are soaring.

They say they “weren’t shocked” when they learned that standing charges where they live in Garston in South Liverpool would rise by double that of other areas.

“Surprise, surprise, Liverpool again isn’t it,” said Hesham.

“It’s always us being hit the hardest,” added Jeehan. “There’s people in poorer areas where we work who are choosing between food bills and energy bills. Thankfully we’re not in that position but it’s not too far from home. You’re already feeling it in so many areas, this is just another hit.”

The standing charge has always varied depending on where you live, due to different costs to supply homes with power in rural or more remote areas.

However, BBC research has shown that the increase this spring varies disproportionately in different parts of Britain, when comparing standard variable tariffs for electricity paid for by direct debit.

Analysts told the BBC that local suppliers are moving charges which were once part of a consumer’s unit price for energy (which now has a tight upper limit on it) over to their standing charge. They are also increasing standing charges to the maximum level for each region, which means a big jump for some places.

The average increase – of just under 20p per day – will add more than £71 a year to a standard electricity tariff. But in North Wales and Merseyside, the South West, the Midlands, South Scotland and South Wales the rise will add over £80 a year. In London less than £30 will be added.

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The cap on standard charges will increase more in some areas than others

Price per day for Single Rate Electricity Meter from April 2022 by British region in order of percentage charge.

  • London: up 8p a day to 31p – a 38% increase
  • Eastern: up 13p a day to 36p – a 58% increase
  • South East: up 17p a day to 40p – a 73% increase
  • North West: up 17p a day to 40p – 73% increase
  • Southern: up 18p a day to 41p – an 80% increase
  • Yorkshire: up 21p a day to 46p – an 81% increase
  • North Scotland: up 22p a day to 48p – a 83% increase
  • Northern: up 21p a day to 46p – an 85% increase
  • East Midlands: up 20p a day to 43p – an 88% increase
  • Midlands: up 22p a day to 46p – a 92% increase
  • South Wales: up 22p a day to 46p – a 94% increase
  • Southern Scotland: up 24p a day to 47p – a 100% increase
  • South Western: up 25p a day to 49p – a 101% increase
  • North Wales & Merseyside: up 23p a day to 45p – 102% increase
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The changes are slightly different for customers using prepayment meters.

It comes as households in England, Scotland and Wales prepare for an even bigger hit when the energy price cap – which limits what consumer pay per unit of gas and electricity – also goes up in April.

In Liverpool, David and Joan Boyle told us their energy bill was rising by £700. They are happy they will be able to manage but say they worry about other people.

Elsewhere there was more concern.

“Standing charges should be the same everywhere shouldn’t they,” said Kev Oloughlin. He was enjoying a day out in the sunshine with his son Leo. He told us they’d “normally shop around every year when bills come in, but at the moment it’s pointless”.

He added: “We’re managing alright with things but we’re conscious of having the heating and things like that on. Everyone’s got to tighten their belt at the minute haven’t they.”

The standing charge not only covers costs such network maintenance, administration fees and certain government schemes. It is also the part of your bill that will contribute to the cost of the 28 energy suppliers that have gone bust since last autumn amid a cost crunch sparked by sharply rising wholesale energy prices.

Ofgem told the BBC that the levy added to bills to pay for costs associated with energy suppliers going bust had been spread equally across the country.

It says standing charges in some regions are increasing more than others because of a reallocation of network costs, the level of which differs between distribution networks.

Unavoidable cost

The BBC contacted major suppliers British Gas, Scottish Power, EDF, EOn, Ovo/SSE, Shell, Octopus and Bulb, and almost all confirmed they now have a majority of customers on a standard default tariff, which is controlled by the Ofgem cap.

Three of the biggest suppliers, British Gas, Scottish and Ovo/SSE would not give details on their charges, calling them “commercially sensitive”.

But EOn, EDF, Shell, Octopus and Bulb confirmed they were increasing standing charges on these tariffs in line with the standard charge cap, with example prices (including VAT) from Bulb, EDF and Shell varying from 32p a day in London and 38p in the East, to around 50p in Northern Scotland and the South West.

And it is not an expense that can be avoided by shopping around. While tariffs actively chosen by customers, such as fixed rate tariffs, are not subject to the default tariff cap on standard charges, there are only a handful of such deals on the market.

Moneysupermarket told the BBC that as of 14 March, there were just five fixed tariffs available to consumers. This compares to about 96 fixed deals available at the same time in 2021.

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Analysis box by Colletta Smith, Consumer affairs correspondent

Standing charges are certainly not the biggest part of your energy bill, and they are dwarfed by the massive increases in the unit price for the energy you use.

But in normal circumstances an extra £80 a year on your energy bill just from standing charges would not go unnoticed, especially as in some areas they are increasing by a lot more than others. So is something fishy going on?

Ofgem assures me that the extra costs for failed energy companies are being spread equally across the country.

But the Energy Networks Association say that no major network developments have happened in any areas in the last six months that would explain the regional divisions.

Local suppliers are moving charges which were once part of your unit price, which now has a tight price cap on it, and shifting them across to your standing charge. Most suppliers are upping their standing charges to the maximum level for each region, which means a big jump for some places, adding insult to the injury of a whopping energy bill.

Why the UK can’t rely on boosters to get through each new wave of Covid

The take-home message is that the pandemic is very much with us and evolving dynamically, with a long, bumpy road ahead. The option to sleepwalk through this, taking automatic-pilot choices based on what was “good enough” in the first wave is one we adopt at our peril.

(Danny Altmann is a professor of immunology at Imperial College London, who has contributed advice to the Cabinet Office, APPG on long Covid, and the EU)

Danny Altmann www.theguardian.com 

This time in 2020, we watched with horror as the realities of the pandemic and its death toll unfurled. Most hardly dared imagine that effective vaccines might appear in a fraction of the time taken for previous efforts, effectively stemming the pandemic tide.

But despite the success of the vaccines in greatly reducing the odds of hospitalisation or death, viral evolution had plenty more to throw at us. The onslaught of highly immune-evasive variants was, for most of us in immunology and virology, unforeseen. We’d come to think of the coronavirus family as being rather more stable – less error-prone in terms of mutations – than many viruses. And we had never before had to roll out relatively new ways of developing vaccines, involving mRNA or recombinant adenoviruses, at this scale and in the heat of battle.

Having started out brilliantly, the real-life state of play today is self-evidently suboptimal. The vaccines rapidly induce hugely high levels of protective, neutralising antibodies in most people, but these levels wane within months of each sequential dose. Meanwhile, Omicron and the subvariant BA.2 have managed to mutate almost every amino acid residue targeted by protective antibodies, escaping protection. And so you have the unhappy equilibrium currently endured by the UK: more than 300,000 new cases a day, as of late last week, and a continuing caseload of more than 3 million, with hospital admissions and excess deaths holding steady at a new – high – setpoint. All this despite one of the highest vaccination rates in the world.

We are living in a precarious truce imposed through frequent mRNA boosters to keep the viral caseload “manageable”. But there are signs this isn’t sustainable, and that a strategy simply consisting of boosters in perpetuity may not be fit for purpose. Recent case surges in Hong Kong, Denmark and Scotland emphasise the fragility of that balance. And new evidence from the past two years suggests that encounters with different variants of Covid or different vaccine types can alter the effectiveness of later jabs in surprising ways – an effect called immune imprinting. This raises the possibility that booster performance could be even less predictable and effective in the future.

Sars-CoV-2 began as a single variant, which we term the Wuhan strain. But we now inhabit a world where no two people share precisely the same exposure history: we have never been infected, or were asymptomatically, mildly or severely infected during any or a combination of the Wuhan to Alpha, Delta, Omicron or BA.2 waves, and we’ve all had somewhere from zero to four doses of diverse vaccines. The combination of these exposures gives each of us a unique immune memory repertoire.

Imagine a huge jar of pills of different colours, each especially good for responding to a given present or future variant. Someone whose experience has been an Alpha infection plus three doses of Pfizer may have brilliantly built up lots of green pills at the expense of others. But this is less good for you if the next variant mainly needs yellow pills. It turns out the order and type of exposure can affect how our immune system responds later on.

In a recent paper reported in the journal Science, we compared protective immunity between people infected in the first wave with the original strain and in the second wave with the Alpha variant. In second wave-infected people, encounters with an Alpha infection plus two vaccine doses gave lower protective (known as neutralising) antibody responses against the Wuhan and Beta variant, yet higher responses against Delta. Given the number of vaccines and strains, these interactions are unpredictable, but will shape how our immunity holds for future waves. It needs more investigation.

These are complex problems demanding careful research, long-term planning, trials and even some intelligent crystal ball-gazing. We must evaluate many approaches. Some places have announced a fourth dose rollout for first generation Pfizer vaccines (which cross-neutralises recent variants, but very suboptimally); some vaccine makers have pivoted to targeting the Omicron spike; others are working on polyvalent vaccines to include several different versions of spike, or clever structural approaches to target those parts of spike that would be the same across all past and future variants, and maybe even across those coronaviruses still awaiting crossover from bats and pangolins.

This latter approach is exciting and the subject of recent efforts across many teams, including research trials through the US National Institutes of Health and at Cambridge University. There are also advanced programmes considering intranasal – nose – vaccination to achieve local mucosal immunity, increasing the chances of blocking transmission at that site altogether, and vaccine platforms that could be much more durable.

The take-home message is that the pandemic is very much with us and evolving dynamically, with a long, bumpy road ahead. The option to sleepwalk through this, taking automatic-pilot choices based on what was “good enough” in the first wave is one we adopt at our peril. We must look at options besides simply boosting through every successive wave. At a time when the US has cut future vaccine research funding, and the UK also needs to maintain its momentum, this should be an urgent priority.

UK unions: pay better wages or expect a mass exodus of essential workers

In fact EDDC have already had to double the amount spent on adding “market supplements” to wages in the current FY. EDDC’s lowest salary of £9.25 is below the real living wage of £9.90 and this is before the current cost of living crisis. As a result EDDC has commissioned a study to try to get ahead of the game. See below for local and national picture.

EDDC

Eastdevonnews.co.uk Salary incentives, known as ‘market supplements’, have already cost the authority £137,000 compared to £67,000 for the entirety of the previous 12 months ending in April 2021.

The temporary, fixed-term additional payment is added  to employees’ basic salaries to bring them up to the going market rate for their role, writes Local Democracy Reporter Joe Ives.

EDDC, which employs around 500 people in a permanent and fixed-term capacity, is currently paying 41 such market supplements per month.

A spokesperson said: “Market supplements reflect trends in the marketplace and the difficulty in recruiting suitably qualified staff to the council.

“They are reviewed annually and are a useful tool in filling vacancies where the data shows that the pay we are offering is not comparable and has fallen behind.

“We have seen in the wider economy the difficulties that many in the public sector and private sector businesses have had in recruiting staff and the council is suffering from the same issues.”

A meeting of the council’s Personnel Committee heard the supplements are ‘a last resort’ to compete with other employers.

Its wage bill will rise again in April 2022 when National Insurance contributions for employers and staff rise by 1.25 per cent, costing East Devon a further £119,000 per year.

The Real Living Wage – thought to be the lowest amount of money people require to meet basic needs – is currently £9.90 per hour.

However, EDDC’s lowest salary is £9.25 per hour.

The council says relatively few people are on this level, and that it would look to change this as part of a ‘reward review’ se to be completed in January.

This will assess what changes need to be made to fix recruitment and retention issues.

But the private company undertaking it is has asked for more money on top of the £25,000 already allocated by EDDC.

It says extra work is needed ‘to refine the recommendations and to engage with key stakeholders before having in place a clear set of final recommendations and costings’.

The council will decide later if it wants to pay that supplement.

EDDC is also carrying out a ‘recruitment strategy review’ to see if it can improve its ’employer brand’ and recruit from a more diverse pool of employees in future.

Sidmouth Rural ward member Councillor John Loudoun told the meeting  that portfolio holders often felt ‘anxious’ about having enough staff ,but added that the review showed EDDC was ‘going in the right direction’.

UK unions: pay better wages or expect a mass exodus of essential workers

Toby Helm www.theguardian.com 

Hospitals, schools and the civil service will suffer a “mass exodus” of key staff unless millions of public sector employees receive pay rises that at least match the spiralling rate of inflation, union leaders warn on Sunday.

After the chancellor Rishi Sunak’s spring statement offered no more money to public services last week, the prospect of long and bitter battles over pay look certain as the cost of living crisis grows.

The prospect of pay disputes with the public sector is another big headache for Sunak, whose net approval rating has dropped to an all-time low of minus 4 points (down 15 on two weeks ago) according to Opinium’s latest poll. Before this week his lowest net approval was plus 7.

Last night, the country’s largest union, Unison, representing health service, education and other public service workers, said that unless members received “inflation busting” rises, staff would leave for better paid work in the private sector.

Unison will give evidence to the NHS pay review body on Tuesday and will also highlight this week how many employers on the high street including supermarkets, coffee shops and logistics firms​, are among those offering wages higher than the lowest hourly rates in the NHS.

One of the main teaching unions, the NASUWT, has already submitted evidence to its pay review body calling for a multi-year pay award for teachers, starting with a 12% award from September this year.

The union says that successive years of pay freezes and below-inflation awards mean teachers have suffered a 19% real-terms erosion in their pay since 2010.

Analysis by the TUC of official data shows that average real-terms pay in the public sector was down £81 a month in January 2022 compared with a year before.

In addition the forecasts alongside the spring statement from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) show that average real pay for all workers (public and private sectors) is set to fall by 2% in 2022.

Preparing the ground for a showdown with government, the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, told the Observer that public sector employees had worked during the pandemic “through the most intense days of their working lives”.

She added: “We have been holding meetings of public sector workers with their MPs. Many of them were not able to hold the tears back as they spoke up about how hard it has been at work, and how hard it is at home trying to make ends meet.

“The danger now for the whole nation is that we are at a tipping point. Many public sector workers across services like health, education and social care say they don’t know if they can take it any more. If they don’t at least get a proper pay rise and help to reduce workloads, it will be the final straw. A mass exodus would send shockwaves through every community, and it would damage our economy too. Ministers must be much more alive to this danger. They cannot let it happen.”

Recommendations on public sector pay are made to ministers by independent pay review bodies (PRBs) which receive submissions from the unions and employers. Ministers set the remit of the PRBs and can accept or reject their recommendations.

Union sources said it was crucial that ministers now acted to give the PRBs a clear steer that pay should have to keep pace with inflation to avoid a recruitment crisis.

Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said the fact that the chancellor had announced no more money for public services in the spring statement “is almost bound to result in more hefty real pay cuts for nurses, teachers and other public sector workers”.

He added: “That will come on top of a decade of cuts during which pay in the public sector has done even worse than that in the private sector. It looks like trouble ahead.”

Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said: “If the government doesn’t deliver inflation-busting wage increases across the entire public sector, staff will exit for better-paid, less stressful jobs. That would leave services unable to cope.

“Firms on the high street are paying more to keep and attract the staff they need. That’s what public services need to do too, but it’s the government holding the purse strings.”

The latest Opinium poll for the Observer found 68% of people believe that ministers should be doing more to tackle the cost of living crisis while just 18% said they were doing all they could. Some 57% think the economy will worsen in the next 12 months, against 19% who believe it will improve; 49% believe their personal finances will worsen in the next 12 months against 14% who think they will get better.

Dr Patrick Roach, the NASUWT general secretary, said: “Uncompetitive pay levels are contributing to a worsening picture on teacher supply. Data shows that by 2020, over 40% of those who had entered the teaching profession 10 years previously were no longer teaching.

“Our 2022 teachers’ pay survey indicates that 70% of teachers have considered leaving their job in the last 12 months and that 49% of teachers indicated that their pay had a great deal or a lot of impact on their intention to leave the profession.

“Adding to the pressure on teachers is the soaring cost of living, which is driving more and more into financial hardship. Our survey shows that two-thirds of teachers are ‘somewhat worried’ about their financial situation and 22% are ‘very worried’.”