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Cash-strapped council shelled out £160,000 to keep chief executive who broke Covid laws

A cash-strapped council forked out more than £160,000 to keep hold of its chief executive after she broke coronavirus laws by throwing a party, it has emerged.

Colin Drury

Sheffield City Council is currently facing the financial abyss after its £25m emergency reserves for the year ran out last month – meaning services will now be slashed.

But the precarious financial position did not stop the authority from coughing up huge amounts of cash on a process that effectively granted disgraced chief executive Kate Josephs six months off work fully paid before welcoming her back into her role in June.

The council spent £21,682 on legal advice, £16,136 on an investigation into Ms Josephs’ behaviour – which is still being kept secret – and £31,551 on staff payments for those who had to take upgraded rolls. Ms Josephs continued to be paid her full salary during her time off – estimated to have come to around £95,000.

It all came after the 44-year-old hosted leaving drinks for more than 20 people to toast the end of her previous job leading the government’s Covid taskforce. At the time – December 2020 – people across England were barred from socialising and there were limits on numbers attending funerals.

When asked if she had attended a No 10 party, she repeatedly said she had not. She did not mention her own boozy bash, which took place in the building next door. She was fined by police for the event, and granted discretionary, full paid leave from her job running the council while her position was considered.

Now, the revelation that so much has been spent by Sheffield City Council on a process that remains shrouded in mystery – the Labour-run authority has refused to publish its internal report into the matter – has sparked further ire in the city.

Lord Paul Scriven, a Lib Dem peer who led the council between 2008 and 2011, said: “Here we have a council now sticking its fingers up twice to its taxpayers. The first time by allowing this chief executive to break the law and the return to her role without any consequences. The second time by the revelation that they have spent huge amounts of money on saving her at a time when services are having to be cut.

“It also raises another question. If this chief executive is so good at her job that senior councillors were desperate to save her, why is the council in such financial dire straits? Why has she not got a grip on this?”

The fallout of the scandal may continue for some time yet.

Sheffield City Council is so far refusing to publish the report into the matter even when requested under the Freedom of Information Act, a position that experts suggest may be untenable if challenged.

The authority has been approached for comment.

Government steps in to stop council sale of Bournemouth beach huts after 1,000 strong petition

The controversial sale of beach huts in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole has been stopped by central government.

The Levelling Up Secretary, Greg Clarke, has now written to all local authorities telling them not to use “loopholes to do dodgy deals”.

Sir Christopher Chope MP, Christchurch, Con.“They [Conservative Council] were warned and persisted and that’s why there is quite a lot of egg on the face over this weekend.” 

BCP Council had hoped to raise more than £50 million from the move to help fund the amalgamation of the three former local authorities.

However the plan sparked huge opposition from beach hut owners who signed a petition reaching more than 1,000 signatures.

Daniel Parkin, Save Our Beach Huts Campaign, said: “I just feel that selling or transferring these assets to a separate company, you might lose the protection that the council currently provides for the owners and visitors to the beach huts.”

The Levelling Up Secretary, Greg Clarke, has now written to all local authorities telling them not to use “loopholes to do dodgy deals”.

The beach huts generate around £5 million every year. 

Councillor Vikki Slade, BCP Council Opposition Leader, Lib Dem, said: “Being honest about having spent the money and now needing to do transformation differently, this is about allowing all councillors to get involved with this and letting the residents know that this is the state the council is in.

“We need to get to basics, we need to run a council for local people for future generations.”

The conduct of the conservative-led council has also been criticised by one local Conservative MP.

Sir Christopher Chope MP, Christchurch, Con, said: “The council was using a special purpose vehicle to try and sort out its budget problems instead of reducing its expenditure, living within its means and behaving like a proper Conservative council should.

“They were warned and persisted and that’s why there is quite a lot of egg on the face over this weekend.”

Cllr Drew Mellor, Leader, BCP Council, Con, said: “We are absolutely committed to providing low council tax and keeping our assets for future generations.

“We made a point to government at the time that we should not have to go through complicated means to get there, the government should allow more flexibility.

“I had a conversation with Greg Clarke over the weekend and he says he’s looking forward to working with us to deliver some of that flexibility so we don’t need to use complicated measures such as our beach huts.”

BCP Council has applied for a loan from the government to cover the shortfall in its budget that was to be plugged by the sale of the beach huts.

The 3,600 beach huts in the area generate £5 million of income every year.

UK government to only publish seven of the 24 environmental indicators for England this year

Environmental campaigners have accused the UK government of ‘cowardice’, over its decision to publish less than a third of the metrics it uses to track the health of nature in England this year.

Fiona Jackson 

Keeping a close eye on indicators of biodiversity is an essential part of monitoring and managing threats, like climate change.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had previously said it would pause reporting on all biodiversity indicators in 2022, so that it could bring them in line with the UN’s targets.

However, following pressure from environmentalists, it has now announced it will publish seven of the 24 indicators for England for 2022 – excluding those on water quality, habitats and bird populations.

Defra added that this year’s full assessment will be published in 2023, and it does not anticipate that the delay will result in any loss of data. 

However, campaigners claim that the announcement, ahead of the UN Biodiversity Summit in December, is a shameless attempt to ‘bury the evidence’ that it is failing to tackle wildlife loss.

‘It is inappropriate and irresponsible to try and cover up the scale of the challenge we face,’ Elliot Chapman Jones, head of public affairs for The Wildlife Trusts, told MailOnline.

Only seven of the 24 indicators for England will be published for 2022, excluding those on water quality, habitats and bird populations. Pictured, a redshank — one of the United Kingdom’s threatened bird species

The quiet announcement of the reduced list of biodiversity data comes after the government said it would temporarily pause publishing any of the 2022 metrics. 

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced decision to publish the data in a footnote on last year’s biodiversity strategy and indicators assessment.

Last year, New Scientist revealed that the government would temporarily stop publishing any of its biodiversity data for 2022.

Defra now appears to have backtracked, and decided to instead publish a reduced set of indicators this year.

These include Global biodiversity impacts, Air pollution, Protected areas, Status of priority species (relative abundance), Butterflies, Pollinating insects and Biodiversity Expenditure.

These ‘have been chosen based on data availability, user needs and timeliness’, according to Defra.

However they exclude Status of threatened habitats of European importance, Woodland species, Pollution (air and marine) and greenhouse gas removal by forests, along with 13 others.

Richard Benwell at the Wildlife and Countryside Link coalition told the ENDS Report: ‘This year’s limited set of indicators can’t cover up the story behind the numbers.

‘Instead of rapid progress toward the recovery of species and habitats, we find that sites and species continue to decline.’

The Wildlife Trust’s Mr Chapman Jones added: ‘Our natural world is in dire straits with 15 per cent of species at risk of disappearing forever. 

‘The UK Government must present the full picture about how species are faring, rather than choosing numbers that help to tell the best PR story. 

‘Our future on earth depends on the health of our natural world.’

Beccy Speight, chief executive of the RSPB told MailOnline: ‘It is an odd and deeply concerning decision, in the midst of a climate and nature emergency, not to publish progress on the majority of the nature indicator targets this year for England. 

‘These targets really matter because they show how the Government is actually doing on the ground in making progress towards the welcome ambitions it has set for restoring our natural world within a generation. 

‘In just a few months, the UK is looking to play a leading role in the global COP 15 on nature. 

‘How can we lead others to action if we are not being transparent and measuring our own progress on the wildlife and wild spaces people love so much at home?’ 

Naturalist and broadcaster Chris Packham told New Scientist:  ‘Cherry-picking which ones is just cowardice. 

‘Claiming that they need a pause at a time of absolute crisis, that’s like saying we’ll stand down the fire brigade in the middle of the Blitz so we can pull ourselves together and think about what we’re doing. 

‘It’s ludicrous. I think principally it’s because the news that will emerge is bad news.’

Conservationist Mark Avery, co-founder of campaigning non-profit Wild Justice, told New Scientist: ‘Defra is failing to tackle wildlife loss and so it has decided to bury the evidence. 

‘This is a department with no shame.’

In a statement, Defra said that the decision to delay the publication of its biodiversity indicators will not lead to any missing data.

‘Data which would have been published this year will be available in 2023,’ it said.

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) state that the review of the indicators is ‘to take account of the new global biodiversity framework to 2030 being negotiated under the Convention on Biological Diversity’ 

The next UN Biodiversity Summit – where the Parties of the Convention meet to – will be held in Montreal, Canada in December.

This is to discuss the Global Biodiversity Framework and set out a series of targets for halting the reduction in biodiversity worldwide by 2030. 

The first part of the landmark meetings occurred virtually from Kunming, China last October and has been delayed due to the pandemic.

It is intended to be a successor to the strategic plan for biodiversity from 2011 to 2020, which set out the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

The UN Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 report, published in 2020, revealed the world has failed to fully meet any of the conservation targets.

Tory leadership ballot papers delayed due to security fears

Haven’t received your ballot paper yet?

Tory members can no longer “vote early, vote often” and Simon Jupp has a few extra days to shore up support for Sunak – Owl

Sophie Morris (Extract)

Conservative members are facing delays in receiving their postal ballots to vote for who they want to be the party’s next leader due to security fears.

In a letter sent to Tory members seen by Sky News, the Conservative Party’s head of membership confirmed postal ballots will arrive “a little later than we originally said” as “we have taken some time to add some additional security” to the process.

Members were previously due to receive their postal votes this week.

However, the email sent to members says they should receive their ballot by Thursday 11 August.

The correspondence adds that voting more than once in the ongoing leadership contest will be treated as “an offence” and warns that any member who is found to have voted multiple times will “have their party membership withdrawn”.

It adds that Tory members can either vote by post or online.

But the Conservative Party has confirmed that the security fears have forced it to abandon plans to allow members to change their vote for the next leader later in the contest.

Allies of leadership hopeful Liz Truss were believed to have been concerned the original rule allowing Tory members to change their vote in the contest would work to her rival Rishi Sunak’s advantage.

The rules of the leadership contest, set by the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs and the Conservative Party board, state members should only vote once but if a “duplicate” vote is recorded, the second one will be counted.

CCHQ described it as a slight delay and were unable to give any further guidance.

A Tory Party spokesperson said: “We have consulted with the NCSC throughout this process and have decided to enhance security around the ballot process. Eligible members will start receiving ballot packs this week.”

This Lady is for turning. “Level Down Lizzie’s” Exeter policy launch to “save” £11bn handbagged in 12 hours.

So much for all the “pussy bow” posturing. Truss is no Thatcher. The housekeeping never added up in this policy.

The U-turn leaves a £11bn hole in Liz Truss’s tax give away promises.

Where are she and her crackpot advisers coming from? – Owl

Conservative leadership contender Liz Truss has dumped plans to cut the pay of public sector workers outside London and the south east after a massive backlash against the policy from Tory MPs.

Kate Devlin

Critics within her own party accused the foreign secretary of planning to make millions of nurses, police officers and teachers poorer.

Conservative Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen, who is backing Ms Truss’s opponent Rishi Sunak, said he was “actually speechless” at her pitch to party members choosing the next prime minister.

The proposal was a “ticking time bomb” that risked costing the party the next general election, he said.

Matt Hancock, the former health secretary, also referred to Theresa May’s general election campaign when the former prime minister infamously u-turned on her proposals for social care – dubbed the “dementia tax”.

“What if this sort of basic error was made during an election campaign? 2017 all over again,” he said. “Poor judgement, lack of detail & a gift to Labour. I hope we see a full u-tun and this policy abandoned”.

The U-turn, barely 12 hours after she announced the plans, is a blow to Ms Truss, widely seen as the frontrunner to replace Boris Johnson.

The policy, for regional pay boards to set wages in line with the local cost of living, had been announced as part of plans for a “war on Whitehall waste” that would save the exchequer billions of pounds.

But within hours Ms Truss was facing a furious reaction from Tory MPs from across different parts of England.

Richard Holden, a member of the 2019 intake of Tory MPs and another Sunak backer, said Ms Truss must immediately scrap the plans that he claimed would “kill” the government’s levelling up agenda.

Steve Double – a Tory MP and Sunak supporter – added: “This is a terrible idea and would be hugely damaging to public services in Cornwall. This is levelling down not up.”

As they announced the U-turn, Ms Truss’s campaign claimed there had been “a wilful misrepresentation” of the proposals.

A spokeswoman said. “Current levels of public sector pay will absolutely be maintained. Anything to suggest otherwise is simply wrong. Our hard-working frontline staff are the bedrock of society.”

But they added: “There will be no proposal taken forward on regional pay boards for civil servants or public sector workers.”

The move has also provoked an angry reaction from unions. The general secretary of Prospect, Mike Clancy, accused Ms Truss of planning “more of the same economically illiterate and insulting ideological nonsense this government has been churning out in recent years”.

Dave Penman, the general secretary of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, said: “As the government faces the huge challenges posed by a new war on mainland Europe and recovering from Covid backlogs, what we need from a prime minister is solutions for the 21st century, not recycled failed policies and tired rhetoric from the 1980s.”

Labour also said the idea would sound the death-knell for the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, instead widening the regional income gap and creating a race to the bottom on public sector pay.

Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, also warned: “If this is a serious policy, we will fight it tooth and nail”.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Truss supporter, told on Sky News the discussion around the policy was centred on civil servants and it was “not the plan at the moment” to cut pay for the rest of the public sector.

However, the announcement sent out by Ms Truss’s campaign made clear that the proposed savings would be achieved if the policy was applied to all public sector pay.