MPs urge government to support local news platforms such as Nub News

Would that include “East Devon Watch”? – (Owl imagines Simon Jupp is an avid reader).

FORMER Cabinet media minister and Nub News reader Sir John Whittingdale has called on the government to ensure it supports local online news platforms and uses their effectiveness as a way of informing communities. 

Sir John, who represents Maldon in Essex, is regularly featured on the pages of his local Nub News site and is a keen advocate of ensuring the government recognises the value of online media.

The growing success of Nub News – which this week launched its latest platform serving Stoke – has seen the company grow since launching with just a few sites in 2018 to now publishing to more than 50 local communities across the UK, including our own Honiton Nub News.

Sir John says he has watched the company’s success with great interest and has spoken many times with company founder Karl Hancock and he is hoping to persuade the government to make more use of the Nub News sites and other locally founded and sourced news online news platforms.

In the House of Commons today (Thursday, 8 December) Sir John challenged fellow Essex MP and junior minister Alex Burghart about his view of locally-based publishers and asked: “What recent assessment have you made of the effectiveness of Government information campaigns in local media?”

Mr Burghart, MP for Brentwood and Ongar and the Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office with responsibility for supporting the cabinet regarding the government’s communications service, responded by saying: “The government monitors the effectiveness of its communications campaigns and we recognise the enormous trust the public has in local media.

“And therefore the important role it plays in spreading our messages.

“As just one example, the recent press partnership on access to NHS services used local media to inform the public of where to seek medical advice. 67 per cent of readers said they trusted the articles – highlighting local print’s importance to the community.”

That prompted an immediate challenge from Sir John, who wanted an assurance that online media will get fair treatment.

He said: “My friend is absolutely right about the power of local media in getting across vital health messages.

“But will he look at ensuring that local online only publishers like Nub News are included in future campaigns as well as local print media?”

Mr Burghart responded: “I thank my honourable friend for his question, I know he knows a great deal about this subject. And I completely agree with him that, all in, all together in harness, the power of media was particularly effective at reaching specific audiences to spread vital information.

“Obviously as he will appreciate, sometimes we want a more targeted approach so that we get better, cost effectiveness but I should also say to him that we use OmniGov and should any local outlets online or otherwise wish to be part of that list they can do so by contacting OmniGov directly.”

OmniGov, which is owned by US agency giant Omnicom, has handled the government’s media services account since 2018 and in December last year retained the account for a second four-year term. The contract is one of the most valuable accounts in British advertising, with an annual spend of more than £200m.

However, not everyone is a fan of the agency, including Sir John who told Nub News that he has been expressing his concern about its effectiveness in reaching local communities and supporting smaller publishers for almost two years.

He said: “I have repeatedly pressed them to include online publications and was deeply frustrated that they were unwilling to do so.

“This is a significant issue and my questions today were just a part of it. Now I have raised it with Alex Burghart in the House, I will be following up with him to press this matter and seek change to support organisations like Nub News.”

Nub News founder Karl Hancock, welcomed Sir John’s support today and thanked him for raising the matter, which Mr Hancock has also previously raised direct when appearing before the government’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee alongside other leading media industry figures earlier this year.

He said: “I am grateful for the support and advice of Sir John. It is refreshing to see his passion to see a fairer and more level playing field in the media publishing world where the pressure from a few big players make market fairness and opportunity disproportionate.

“As I have said before, the current business model is broken. Something drastic has to happen. I’m not asking the Government for money, I’m asking for a level playing field.

“I look forward to seeing the outcome of Sir John’s challenge and questions today.”

Meanwhile the growth of Nub News which is committed to putting local news back at the top of the news agenda in towns across the UK continues apace.

The latest addition – and a new flagship site for the growing Crewe-based media company – is Stoke Nub News.

Edited by Stoke-born journalist Sarah Garner, Nub News’ latest site exemplifies the ethos of Nub News and our headline agenda of putting local news and community support first, while supporting and promoting local businesses, traders and entrepreneurs.

Mr Hancock added: “The group continues to seek to consolidate in its existing towns and grow them exponentially towards neighbouring towns and communities and there are more new town launches planned.

“As well as providing a regularly updated, easy-to-read news platform free from clickbait, pop-ups, and intrusive surveys we harness the power of social media, with easy-to-follow channels on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and You Tube. Millions of readers each month are visiting Nub News in all its formats.

“We hope that’s the message the government will be taking on board after today’s debate in the Commons.”

Strep A: Pharmacists challenge government’s reassurance there is no antibiotics shortage

“Frustrated” pharmacists reporting a shortage of antibiotics have urged the government to act now – but health officials continue to insist there are no supply chain issues.

So who do you believe> – Owl 

The conflicting messages have caused confusion at a time when the health service is tackling a Strep A outbreak, leading to the deaths of 16 children, during its most stretched time of year.

Pharmacists across the UK say they are struggling to get hold of some of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics, such as penicillin and amoxicillin, which are used to treat Strep A.

The Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMP), which represents around 4,000 pharmacies across the country, told ITV News that in some cases, patients have been forced to travel over 20 miles to get their prescribed medication.

But Health Secretary Steve Barclay earlier said checks within the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) have not revealed an issue with supply of the medicines, after the National Pharmacy Association earlier there were “blips” in the supply chain of liquid penicillin, which is often given to children.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society earlier said pharmacists are “under enormous pressure” and “struggling to get supplies” amid the outbreak.

AIMP Chief Executive Leyla Hannbeck said pharmacists have for some time seen a steady rise in the number of prescriptions for antibiotics, but since the beginning of this week it’s become “incredibly difficult” to get hold of them – urging the government to act now.

“We are concerned that the government are saying that there are no supply challenges when in fact there is and patients are coming in and we are unable to fulfil the prescriptions,” Dr Hannbeck told ITV News.

“Where is this supply that they’re talking about? Because it certainly isn’t finding its way to pharmacies,” she added.

“And this issue is across the country, it’s not just one area, everywhere is the same.

“Pharmacists simply get a message from suppliers saying that there is no stock availability. Sometimes some lines become available for a short period… but as soon as they come on, they go off again.”

She said this has led to antibiotic prices to “jump up” by several pounds per packet.

“We feel frustrated and as healthcare professionals. We don’t want to turn our patients away. Our teams are exhausted on the frontline,” added Dr Hannbeck.

But she urged the public not to panic and said protocols will be put in place if the government does not act within the coming days. In the meantime, she suggested patients keep trying alternative pharmacies.

Dr Hannbeck said pharmacists may also have to liaise with doctors to consider prescribing alternative antibiotics.

She says the DHSC should have planned better.

“We are constantly, as pharmacists, finding ourselves in this situation – as soon as there’s a little bit more demand, then supply falls flat,” she said.

She urged the department to meet with all groups in the antibiotics supply chain from manufacturers, to wholesalers, to pharmacists: “to identify what the issues are so we can all move forward, and offer solutions so that we don’t fall into this again.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said on Thursday: “There is no supplier shortage of antibiotics available to treat Strep A. As the Secretary of State said this morning, we sometimes have surges for products and increased demand means some pharmacies are having difficulties obtaining certain antibiotics.

“We are working urgently with manufactures and wholesalers to explore what can be done to expedite deliveries and bring forward stock they have to help ensure it gets to where it’s needed, to meet demand as quickly as possible and support access to these vital medicines.”

Ministers hold out against proposal on reporting hospitality in new MPs’ code

Rishi Sunak’s government is expected to accept most of a proposed new code of conduct for MPs after the Owen Paterson scandal but has rejected the idea that ministers should declare more details about free hospitality from lobbyists and companies.

Rowena Mason 

MPs will debate the proposals put forward by the standards committee on Monday, with Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons, likely to accept 18 of the 20 recommendations. Key measures include tightening the rules on lobbying to stop MPs providing paid parliamentary advice, consultancy or strategy.

However, in a move that could trigger another standards row, the government is holding out against a proposal to ask ministers to register with parliament any hospitality provided by third parties worth more than £300 within 28 days, as is required for other MPs.

Instead, they are allowed to make transparency declarations through their departments, without citing a value for hospitality received, and these are often infrequent, delayed and patchy. It is thought Mordaunt may make some alternative proposals to improve their speed and accuracy.

The government is also not accepting the idea of adding a description to the seven principles of public life saying that MPs and other public servants should exemplify non-discriminatory attitudes in their behaviour, which ministers oppose on free speech grounds.

Sunak has promised a more ethical government than under Boris Johnson, but he has so far failed to find a candidate to be the new independent adviser on ministerial interests. This means the disclosure of financial interests of new cabinet ministers is already likely to be delayed from its six-monthly publication.

However, the new administration appears to be willing to accept more proposals than Liz Truss’s government, which issued its response in September rejecting more changes. It is understood the government plans to write to all MPs on Monday setting out its position before the debate.

Chris Bryant, the chair of the Commons standards committee, said it was “bonkers” that the government was refusing tougher disclosure standards for ministers. “It must surely be in the public interest that all MPs are treated equally and that all financial interests are accessible in a timely fashion and in a single place online,” he said.

“The commissioner for standards, the Institute for Government and the 1922 Committee all agree. But oh no, the government is holding out. Penny Mordaunt promises that she will do ‘something’ about this as leader of the house ‘by next summer’. But that won’t include ending the ministerial exemption as she insists on treating ministers differently.”

He added: “It perplexes me that the government thinks it can afford another row over parliamentary standards. I don’t think that is in parliament’s interests, let alone the government’s. Traditionally, the rules of the house are not a partisan matter and MPs are meant to be able to vote freely with their conscience on house business.”

He said that any attempt to whip the Commons on an MPs’ standards matter would “feel like Owen Paterson all over again and voters may conclude that the government has learned nothing at all. Far better to have an unanimous decision by the whole house without a vote to tighten the rules and put our house in order.”

The government’s support for most of the rest of the code means the changes are likely to go ahead on a cross-party basis. This will mean MPs will be banned from providing paid advice as a parliamentary consultant, strategist or adviser – although it stops short of time or earnings limits on second jobs.

However, if they do have a second job, MPs will now have contracts that specify they cannot lobby ministers or officials on behalf of their employer.

A government spokesperson said: “We have worked closely with the standards committee to strengthen our parliamentary standards and enhance our code of conduct. This is important ongoing work and necessary for public trust in democracy.

“We support 18 of the 20 committee recommendations, but this is ultimately for the house to decide.

“With regard to parity on ministerial and parliamentary interests our objectives to achieve parity on the timing of declarations align with the committees. However we do not agree that parliamentary resource, which is there to help the MP represent their constituents, should be used to administer what is a government responsibility, nor that separation of powers and responsibilities should be blurred. We think this has serious negative implications for all MPs. We think that would be unfair to MPs who are ministers or trade envoys.”

Greedy investors try to halt ban on water dividends

Powerful investors, including foreign wealth funds, are trying to derail plans to prevent sewage-dumping water firms from dishing out billions of pounds in dividends. 

Luke Barr 

Regulator Ofwat wants firms which illegally dump tons of waste into our rivers and seas to stop funnelling huge sums to their shareholders. Instead, the watchdog believes they should use the cash to fix the UK’s antiquated water systems. In addition to despoiling waterways, firms have also been criticised for hosepipe bans after a heatwave left water supplies dwindling. 

Analysis by The Mail on Sunday revealed water companies had already paid their backers nearly £3billion in dividends in the first part of this year alone. 

That took the total since 2010 to £20billion, benefiting investors from countries including China, Abu Dhabi and Malaysia. Critics say the cash that was siphoned into investors’ coffers should have been invested in improving Britain’s ageing water infrastructure. Ofwat wants the power to halt the vast dividends when firms fail to meet official targets. 

But its chief executive David Black told the MoS he is facing ‘strong opposition’ to the proposal. 

He said companies argue the payments are important and claim that restricting them would make the water sector ‘less attractive’ to investors. Ofwat’s latest report has found poor performance is the norm. 

Black said: ‘Too many companies are performing too poorly in too many areas.’ He took particular aim at Thames Water and Southern Water, saying: ‘They have got a combination of poor finances and really poor operational performance.’ Between them, the pair have almost £20billion worth of debt. 

Over the past three years, bosses of the UK’s biggest water firms have been paid £50million, which includes significant bonuses. ‘We think the public is very frustrated by the perception that company executives are rewarded when performance is poor,’ said Black. He wants powers to compel shareholders to invest more in infrastructure. 

Ofwat has been accused of turning a blind eye to company failures. But Black said: ‘It is very easy to criticise the regulators but ultimately it is the companies that are responsible for delivering outcomes. That’s where the focus ought to be.’