Breaking News: Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak fined for breaking lockdown laws

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak are to receive fixed-penalty notices for breaching Covid laws over lockdown, Downing Street has said.

Peter Walker 

A No 10 spokesperson said: “The prime minister and chancellor of the Exchequer have today received notification that the Metropolitan police intend to issue them with fixed penalty notices. We have no further details, but we will update you again when we do.”

The fines relate to parties held in Downing Street during lockdown and are likely to include a gathering in the cabinet room for Johnson’s birthday in June 2020, which was also attended by Sunak.

Sunak ‘completely out of touch’ on everyday struggles, says Starmer

Keir Starmer has accused Rishi Sunak of “rank hypocrisy” and questioned the ability of super-rich politicians to relate to the public as No 10 came under pressure to reveal if any other ministers had used schemes to avoid tax.

And we still don’t have transparency over the extent of the use of non-dom status and other tax weases amongst cabinet members. – Owl

Jessica Elgot 

In an interview with the Guardian amid controversy over Rishi Sunak’s wife’s tax status, Starmer said having a spouse who was a non-dom would create a “very obvious conflict of interest” for any cabinet minister.

He called on the prime minister to make clear that no other cabinet ministers had taken advantage of non-dom status, used tax havens or benefited from offshore trusts.

Sunak has referred himself to the adviser on ministerial interests for an inquiry and his wife, Akshata Murty, last week said she would pay all UK tax on foreign earnings in future. Sajid Javid, the health secretary, also admitted on Sunday to having been a non-dom for six years while a banker, before he was an MP.

But despite the continuing public outcry, No 10 on Monday said it could not reveal whether any other ministers or their spouses held or had previously held non-dom tax status.

Starmer said the chancellor still had “basic” things to answer about how much tax his family had avoided with Murty’s non-dom status, with estimates she legally avoided paying UK taxes of £20m on overseas earnings.

Sunak’s own financial interests are also under scrutiny, as he resisted calls to reveal what assets he has put into a “blind” management arrangement, meaning they can be kept secret from the public.

The Lib Dems on Monday wrote to Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary commissioner for standards, asking her to launch an inquiry into why Sunak had declared no financial interests between 2015 and 2019 as an MP, but then revealed the existence of a blind trust in 2019 when he became a Treasury minister.

Sunak has never revealed his wife’s international interests on his list of ministerial interests, although he does declare her holding in the UK-based Catamaran Ventures. She is known to hold about £690m in shares in Infosys, the Indian IT company founded by her billionaire father.

The Guardian has also established that Murty has held US investments through a trust in her own name, Akshata Narayana Murty Trust, which is revealed in American filings. Her spokesperson had no comment, apart from that “all rules were followed”.

There are also continuing questions around Sunak’s possession of a US green card for permanent residents, including for six years as an MP and government minister. Sunak left his job in the US in 2013, but declared the same year in a UK company filing that he was resident in the UK, suggesting he was giving different information to the British and US authorities about his residency. The US states that green card holders should give up their status if they take up residence elsewhere.

Despite warnings that Sunak may have flouted US immigration rules, the chancellor is understood to be heading to Washington next week for International Monetary Fund spring meetings.

The row over the tax arrangements of Murty, who has said she has maintained her non-dom status in part because she hopes to return to her birth country of India, has reportedly led Sunak to question his future in UK politics.

Asked if there were issues with politicians from a super-wealthy elite becoming prime minister, Starmer said it would be likely to pose problems. “There’s much more likely to be a conflict of interest. I don’t know many people who have signed up to a non-dom scheme in order to increase their tax. It is pretty obvious why people do it.” But he also said there was a “broader issue” about politicians’ disconnection from ordinary people’s lives.

“I think that even before we got to the non-dom issue, the chancellor’s response to the spring statement, to the real pressures on people, showed that he just doesn’t get it.”

Starmer highlighted Sunak’s own personal wealth – his four homes – and his reference to having four different types of bread in his house, as well as his decision to borrow a Sainsbury’s worker’s ordinary car for a photoshoot, as evidence he was “completely out of touch”.

“You know, whether that’s picking up somebody else’s car, whether it’s four loaves of bread in his own family, whether it’s a number of houses, it’s about whether he gets it. It’s about whether you understand, whether you can relate to the very real struggles that people have and the cost of living crisis, and it dominates every discussion we have around the country.”

Starmer has so far refused to commit to Labour’s longstanding policy to abolish non-dom status, first announced by Ed Miliband in 2015, but said the party was undertaking an extensive review of the tax system.

Speaking to the Guardian on a campaign visit to Sunderland, he hinted that he was uncomfortable with the system of overseas tax status. “Most people don’t get that choice … it’s only a very small minority of people. This has been portrayed as some complex tax situation. It’s not.”

Starmer also expressed some hesitation at the idea politicians should publish their own tax returns, saying it was “overcomplicated” and that all proper declarations should be made.

But he added: “There is nothing to reveal in my tax returns, [but] I can tell you if I was prime minister, I wouldn’t be going to the country saying I want more tax from you, but secretly I’m reducing my own tax burden through schemes. It’s rank hypocrisy.”

Starmer said that he had been hearing deeply worrying stories from voters on the campaign trail about the way that rising energy bills and inflation were affecting their lives.

“They are really worried about paying the bills. The most repeated thing said to me, particularly from older people, is that they are not putting the heating on, or sitting in their dressing gown all day, because [they are] too scared to turn up the heating.

“Somebody said to me: ‘I don’t put our central heating up higher than 12 degrees.’ Someone last week said to me in the supermarket: ‘Now, I pick things up and then put them back down again and try to get something cheaper.’”

He said Labour had a message about “practical ways to deal with the problems” and said people were receptive to his party’s message on taxing the extra profits of oil and gas companies to reduce energy bills. “Of course, we’ve got to show that we are the party to be trusted with the economy, but I think we are doing that.”

Blue on Blue engagements as local elections loom. Are Tories losing the plot?

Plymouth is no exception – Owl

Crispin Blunt Told “Not Fit to Hold Public Office” By Councillor in Constituency Conservative Association

Just when the Tories hoped their expulsion of Imran Ahmad Khan from the party following his guilty sentencing this afternoon would end this latest chapter in party scandal, along came fellow MP Crispin Blunt. A few hours ago Blunt published a jaw-dropping statement in defence of Khan, in which he claimed elements of the proceedings were homophobic and said he hopes “for the return of Imran Ahmad Khan to the public service that has exemplified his life to date.” His statement has already resulted in three of Blunt’s colleagues on the APPG for LGBT+ rights resigning.

This evening Guido can reveal Blunt’s statement has outraged his local party, sparking a furious row in a local WhatsApp chat which Blunt has now quit. Crispin pre-announced his statement, which was greeted by demands for further clarity over his claim the result was a “miscarriage of justice”. Another chimed in asking their MP, “Do we really want to defend someone like this?? I agree with you completely [first incredulous responder]”. 

With his back against the wall, Blunt came out with the following two messages:

”As one detail you might like to reflect on the investigating officer in 2008 noted “this was not a sexual assault” There is so much more , that will hopefully ensure his appeal succeeds”

“I am deliberately giving a counter narrative to ask people to allow the appeal to take place before his reputation is wholly beyond recall, as everyone has rushed to judgement. I am adamant he should not have been charged, far less convicted 14 years after an event that was minor or any scale. 

I’m Sorry but this was a rotten day for British justice and I will stand up for truth as I see it before me.”

A councillor replied that while he didn’t doubt Blunt’s “sincere intentions”, “please think of your local association and Council colleagues who will have to answer to your actions on the doorstep – even more so if any appeal is quashed”.

When an irritated Blunt retorted with, “please don’t presume to lecture me on my competing responsibilities, I am well aware of them”, the councillor shot back with this devastating response:

Blue on blue just before the local elections – no doubt exactly what CCHQ wanted to see this evening…

UPDATE: Tory source tells Guido “Crispin’s views are wholly unacceptable. Following exchanges late last night we expect the statement to be retracted first thing this morning.” Tick tock…

GP numbers in England down every year since 2015 pledge to raise them

The number of GPs in England has fallen every year since the government first pledged to increase the family doctor workforce by 5,000, a minister has admitted.

Denis Campbell

There were 29,364 full-time-equivalent GPs in post in September 2015, when the then health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, first promised to increase the total by 5,000 by 2020.

However, by September 2020 the number of family doctors had dropped to 27,939, a fall of 1,425, the health minister Maria Caulfield disclosed in a parliamentary answer. And it has fallen even further since then, to 27,920, she confirmed, citing NHS workforce data.

In the 2019 general election campaign, Boris Johnson replaced Hunt’s pledge with a new commitment to increase the number of GPs in England by 6,000 by 2024. However, Sajid Javid, the health secretary, admitted last November that this pledge was unlikely to be met because so many family doctors were retiring early.

Organisations representing GPs say their heavy workloads, rising expectations among patients, excess bureaucracy, a lack of other health professionals working alongside them in surgeries, and concern that overwork may lead to them making mistakes are prompting experienced family doctors to quit in order to improve their mental health and work-life balance.

The British Medical Association (BMA) said the figures Caulfield cited showed that the lack of doctors in general practice was “going from bad to worse for both GPs and patients”, and it warned that patients were paying the price in the form of long waits for an appointment.

“Despite repeated pledges from government to boost the workforce by thousands, it’s going completely the wrong way,” said Dr Kieran Sharrock, the deputy chair of the BMA’s GP committee. “As numbers fall, remaining GPs are forced to stretch themselves even more thinly, and this of course impacts access for patients and the safety of care provided.”

Dr Dan Poulter, the Conservative MP who tabled the question, said: “These figures are hugely worrying because they show that GP numbers in England have been falling, despite ministerial pledges to increase them.

“GPs’ relentless workloads are clearly a major factor here. Patients and the entire NHS desperately need more family doctors, in order to reduce waiting times and ensure people who are ill get care, and referral on to hospital if needed, as soon as possible.”

Although record numbers of young doctors are choosing to train as GPs, the persistently high rate of early retirement means moves to increase the workforce are faltering. Hunt has cited that as the key reason his pledge of 5,000 more family doctors was not fulfilled.

Poulter, a former health minister who works part-time as a psychiatrist in the NHS, urged the government to push through changes to help ease the pressure on GPs.

“As an immediate step, the pension penalties that see many GPs, hospital doctors and other healthcare professionals penalised simply for working should be scrapped to avoid many deciding that early retirement is the best option.

“In addition, as has been done successfully in Australia, incentives and relocation support packages need to be put in place to attract GPs to work in parts of the country where there are acute shortages.”

Prof Martin Marshall, the chair of the Royal College of GPs, said the Covid pandemic had exacerbated the existing “intense workloads and workforce pressures” that GPs face.

“GPs and our teams make the vast majority of NHS patient contacts, in turn alleviating pressures across the health service. But with the service buckling under staffing and resource pressures, workload is unsustainable, and this is leading to GPs burning out and leaving the profession earlier than planned,” he said.

“Good progress is being made recruiting more doctors into general practice but, if more GPs are leaving the profession than entering it, we’re fighting a losing battle.”

Marshall urged Javid to deliver as soon as possible on a separate government pledge to increase the number of pharmacists, physiotherapists, mental health therapists and other health professionals working in GP practices by 26,000 by 2024.

Sharrock said the growing population and workforce shortages meant that each GP in England was responsible for 300 (15%) more patients than they were in 2015.

The Department of Health and Social Care said Caulfield’s figures only related to fully qualified GPs, and that once trainees were included there were 1,672 more full-time-equivalent family doctors in December 2021 than December 2019.

A spokesperson said: “We are committed to growing the general practice workforce to ensure everyone receives the care they need and there has been an increase of more than 1,600 doctors in general practice over the past two years.

“To boost recruitment, we have increased the number of GP training places and in 2021/22 we saw the highest ever number of doctors accepting a place on GP training – a record-breaking 4,000 trainees, up from 2,671 in 2014.”

New development on River Axe to be halted

Natural England’s advice, issued last month, says new developments in the River Axe catchment area should be ‘nutrient neutral,’ effectively putting the brakes on any new properties in the area.

Do the right thing and stop killing the river or carry on with the Old Guard  “Build, build, build” philosophy? Owl thinks it’s a “no brainer” for those with brains. See what Old Guard and New Guard councillors say below.

Will East Devon MPs Neil Parish and Simon Jupp cooperate with EDDC and lobby to ensure the Environment Agency has sufficient funds to enforce environment protection? Remember both voted against the Lords recent proposals to toughen legal duties on sewage discharges. – Owl

Developers have a ‘moral obligation not to ravage and rape East Devon, kill our rivers, kill our fields and our environment,’ says the deputy leader of East Devon District Council (EDDC).

Councillor Paul Hayward (Independent East Devon Alliance and Democratic Alliance Group, Yarty) made the statement at a meeting of EDDC’s strategic planning committee following stringent new advice from Natural England to clean up the River Axe.   

Natural England’s advice, issued last month, says new developments in the River Axe catchment area should be ‘nutrient neutral,’ effectively putting the brakes on any new properties in the area.

Though nutrients may not sound bad, they include nitrogen and phosphate which are used to speed plant growth. The term also refers to waste from septic tanks, livestock, arable farming and industrial processes.

These nutrients are being dumped into rivers across the country, including the River Axe, which is  a ‘Special Area of Conservation.’

Now 70 local authorities around the county have been issued with advice from Natural England to clean up their rivers and waterways, including EDDC.

Though only advice, the announcement effectively halts development near the River Axe until the council puts a plan in place to mitigate nutrients going into the river as a result of any new building. It will take time to put such mitigation in place.

“Our understanding is that it’s nigh-on impossible to provide adequate mitigation on the sites themselves,” said Ed Freeman, the council’s service lead for planning strategy and development management.

According to senior officers, the creation of a mitigation strategy will take around two years. They say it should be compatible with the council’s local plan, in which EDDC outlines its strategy to meet housing targets, including affordable housing, over more than a decade.

Mitigation efforts need to be long term and will probably involve natural solutions such as planting forests and reed bed systems, alongside new wetland areas. 

It could be that EDDC puts these systems in place and then charges developers to help pay for them, similar to strategies used previously to help improve River Exe and the Pebblebed Heaths near Budleigh Salterton. 

Mitigating the nutrient problem could also mean improving sewage networks. This would require further discussion with private water company South West Water, which was responsible for 42,000 sewage discharges into Devon’s rivers and waterways in 2020 alone.

It may also require changes to land use, including changing farming practices and taking land out of intensive livestock production – a move likely to be unpopular with farmers.

Up to 70 per cent of nutrient waste going into UK rivers comes from farming. The rest is from wastewater and sewage from residential buildings and businesses.

Councillor Philip Skinner (Conservative, Tale Vale), who is a  farmer himself, is wary of the plans.  At the council’s strategic planning committee, he argued that if Natural England’s advice was followed on other rivers around East Devon, it would ‘more or less shut us down from developing anything at all anywhere’.

He added: “It’s a balancing act. Farmers are the biggest part of this. We are going to have to work with farmers, but at the same time we are going to have to do something.”

Conservative councillor Andrew Moulding, who represents Axminster, added: “This could potentially lead to the stagnation of all my town’s future and I am desperately concerned about this.”

Cllr Paul Hayward issued a stark counter, he said: “Ultimately what we’re faced with is killing a river. This is a wake-up call.

“It’s an opportunity for us to do the right thing for the environment. 

“Yes, you can’t expect the farming community to change overnight – but we’re not expecting them to. We’re asking them to work with us, work with other districts and other planning authorities to come up with a solution to stop us from destroying watercourses. 

“Ultimately if we don’t the rivers will die and there won’t be any trout or salmon.”

There is a possibility that planning applications that already have outline planning permission may have to be reassessed under habitat regulations at the ‘reserved matters’ stage. Twenty-eight current planning applications may be affected. 

The council will contact those who may need to do more to reach the new ‘nutrient neutral’ requirements. It is not thought that house extensions will be affected by the change. 

The advice from Natural England isn’t entirely new. An EDDC report concludes that what is new ‘is the abruptness and directness of the advice that has been issued by Natural England and that we need to more fully understand’.

Some people wonder if the advice is worth the hassle of following if it is, after all, only advice. 

East Devon District Council technically has the right to make its own planning decisions. However, in making decisions, the council must also pay a ‘strong regard’ to environmental issues and the advice of Natural England. 

Commenting on the idea of rejecting Natural England’s advice, Ed Freeman, the council’s planning lead said: “I don’t think that’s a route we want to go down and obviously we want to ensure that we’re not having a detrimental impact in terms of phosphates on the river so I think we have to strongly follow the advice we’ve been given.”

Cllr Hayward added: “I don’t think we can ignore Natural England because I’m sure there absolutely would be legal challenges if we ask for their advice and then blatantly ignore it.”

Leader of the council Paul Arnott (Independent East Devon Alliance and Democratic Alliance Group, Yarty) said that members needed to think of the positive impact of the new proposals on the environment.

He blamed the weakness of the Environment Agency for the river’s current predicament and said it was not being funded enough by the government to deal with blatant breaches of environmental law.

The leader said he would be writing to East Devon’s Conservative MPs, Neil Parish and Simon Jupp, asking them to make sure immediately the agency has sufficient funding to enforce environmental protections. 

It is up to one of the local authorities in the River Axe catchment area to come up with a mitigation strategy. The government will pay £100,000 to help fund the development of such a plan to the local authority which takes on the responsibility.

Though the River Axe also runs through Somerset and the river rises in Dorset, most of it flows through East Devon. As a result, councillors at EDDC voted to request that the council comes up with the strategy. 

Senior officers will now meet with Dorset Council, South Somerset District Council and West Somerset and Taunton Council to formally agree to EDDC to become the leading authority.

Councillor Geoff Jung, portfolio holder for coast, country and environment said: “I certainly support the idea that we take the lead in this because we have the most to lose [due to] the lack of development in our area and also the effects of the pollution on the river.” 

Councillor Olly Davey (Green Party and Democratic Alliance Group, Exmouth Town) was keen to see Natural England’s advice as positive, adding: “This is a wake-up call, but we can also look at it as an opportunity. We should be developing low impact housing and low impact farming methods.

“It’s absolutely essential that we get on with the work and if we don’t take on these measures then other rivers could well follow.”

The council says it will be looking into how to reduce and mitigate phosphate pollution and will be publishing reports on the subject in the future.

Efforts to save river Axe from becoming ‘muddy pond’

The Environment Agency has produced a new film showing how it is working with farmers in the River Axe catchment in East Devon to improve water quality and compliance with environmental legislation. The film ‘Future farming in the Axe catchment’ is available now. [see below]

Lewis Clarke 

The River Axe is of national significance as a designated Special Area of Conservation. It is in poor condition due to degraded ecology, siltation and nutrient enrichment in the form of elevated phosphate. Since 2016 the Enviroinment Agency have been carrying out a regulatory project working with farmers in the catchment to achieve compliance with the aim to bring the river back to good condition.

Land management has changed dramatically in the Axe catchment over recent decades. The intensification of farming means that heavy agricultural machinery is on the land a lot more than it used to be, often at inappropriate times when the soil is wet. As many of the soils in the catchment have a high clay content, they are vulnerable to compaction, which generates run-off as little rainfall is able percolate through the soil.

Richard Smith, soils technical specialist for the Environment Agency said: “Because of the state of the land we have run off, and soil, phosphates, nutrients and dung are all washed into the backwaters of the river and deposited on the gravels. They then behave like an enriched field – certain things thrive, but sensitive plants don’t – so we end up with what is a muddy pond”.

Where farms are found not to be compliant with regulations – the Silage, Slurry and Agricultural Fuel Oil (SSAFO) regulations and Farming Rules for Water (FRfW) – the Environment Agency works with the farmer to draw up a plan to move them into compliance and offers advice on how they may be eligible for grants from Catchment Sensitive Farming.

Stuart Hunter, senior advisor for the Environment Agency, said: “We work with farmers to find the most efficient way of making them compliant and protect the environment. It’s made clear to the farmer that they need to be compliant, and that we expect progress to be made, if not we would look to regulation and enforcing the necessary improvements”.

The film illustrates how many farmers have taken on-board the Environment Agency’s advice and guidance. There are simple improvements, such as covering silage clamps to avoid rainwater draining into a slurry store. And other more long-term changes, such as changing to a completely grass-based system of feed or reducing the density of their dairy herd.

Stuart added: “With climate change, impacts are going to be more extreme – intense rainfall, drier periods – farming needs to adapt and change on the Axe, to become more sustainable as a business and to protect the environment We hope the film shows how we work with the people we regulate in order to improve the environment.

“People are often aware when they are not doing something right, which means they are not complying with the regulations. It’s not a surprise when we discuss what is required in order to comply. Most farmers react well to advice and take the right actions to become compliant, however with the minority who don’t engage and remain non-compliant we will not hesitate to use our enforcement powers – we want to work with farmers, supporting them to make changes and in doing so protect and enhance this precious river”.