Tories for Trumpery? Drafting new law to protect MPs on party overspending

Tories draft law to protect MPs if parties overspend

Conservative ministers are drawing up a new law to protect MPs and party officials from prosecution if their national parties overspend during elections, leaked documents disclose.

It follows the conviction in January of Marion Little, a Tory party organiser from head office, and the acquittal of the MP Craig Mackinlay after they were accused of breaking electoral law as the party fought off a challenge from Nigel Farage in Thanet South. …

Transparency campaigners believe the government’s latest move is an attempt to avoid future prosecutions and would overturn a ruling by the supreme court.

Alexandra Runswick, the director of Unlock Democracy, said a “test of authorisation” would give candidates and party officials another level of defence from prosecution. “Such a move would not appear to be about reinforcing and strengthening electoral law. This would instead protect party candidates and open up the possibility of outspending rivals.”

Plans for a new law have emerged in correspondence seen by the Guardian and sent to cabinet ministers by Kevin Foster, the minister for the constitution.

“Legislation currently requires candidates to account for free or discounted goods or services that are made use of by or on behalf of the candidate. There have been calls to amend this legislation to include a test of authorisation by or on behalf of the candidate,” he wrote.

Foster told members of a cabinet subcommittee that the law on notional expenditure was tested in July when the supreme court ruled that the statutory requirement for an election candidate is to declare notional expenditure incurred on their behalf during a campaign. This might arise where a national party provided additional campaigning support in the constituency and was not limited to authorised campaigning.

Foster wrote: “There is a concern that candidates, their electoral agents and others acting on their behalf could be operating under legal risk. I am seeking the committee’s agreement to announce at an appropriate time that the government is exploring options to clarify the law on notional expenditure to alleviate the concerns highlighted. Any amendments in this area of law would require primary legislation,” he wrote.

Little, who had been employed by Tory campaign headquarters since 1974, was charged with three counts of encouraging or assisting an offence related to the filing of election expenses. …”

Secretive group which wants to privatise NHS is funding Conservative Party (and Swire’s choice for PM)

Swire is a lead supporter for Dominic Raab – named below

“A secretive think tank which called for the NHS to be scrapped while its heads pour millions into the Conservative Party – and its MPs’ – coffers is being funded by big tobacco, an investigation has found.

British American Tobacco is one of the groups funding the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a free market think tank which is notoriously close-lipped about its donors.

The IEA has been an outspoken critic of public health measures for tackling smoking, obesity and harmful drinking, and past funders include organisations affiliated with gambling, alcohol, sugar and soft drinks industries. …

It has close links to the Conservative Party and the chair of its board of trustees, Neil Record, donated £32,000 to health secretary Matt Hancock between 2010 and 2018.

Dominic Raab – who, alongside Mr Hancock, is aiming to succeed Theresa May as Conservative leader – also has close links with the IEA, speaking at its 60th anniversary event, and promoting an annual essay competition as recently as last month.

When asked about these links by the BMJ, a spokesperson said Mr Raab has “always been a strong supporter of public health initiatives to make the UK healthier and reduce pressures on the NHS”.

While Mr Hancock is among the biggest beneficiaries, 30 Tory MPs including David Davis, Liam Fox and David Willets have received cash or hospitality from Mr Record or fellow trustee Sir Michael Hintze.

In total MPs have declared funding to the value of £166,000 from the pair since 2005, and they have donated £4.3m to the Conservative Party.

The BMJ investigation identified a 1999 document listing UK supporters of the IEA, including British American Tobacco, Rothmans UK Holdings, Tate and Lyle, Whitbread, and Coca-Cola Great Britain and Ireland.

When the authors followed up with key organisations to see which were still actively funding the IEA, British American Tobacco confirmed it was still donating. …”

Leasehold houses: promise of fix … one day, maybe

“Housebuilders are to be investigated over the mis-selling of thousands of leasehold properties after a U-turn by the competition watchdog amid pressure from ministers.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said it would examine the scandal surrounding new-build homes sold on leases that were subject to substantial increases in ground rents and the charging of “permission fees” for home improvements. Developers and freeholders could face legal action if the watchdog finds evidence of leasehold mis-selling. The watchdog said it would decide whether the practices constituted “unfair terms”, a breach of consumer contract law.

James Brokenshire, the housing minister, has previously called on the CMA to use its influence to tackle the “culture of consumer exploitation rife in the housing industry” with an inquiry into the estimated 100,000 homes sold with “extortionate” leases.

However, in November, the CMA told the minister it would not investigate the issue, citing the legal complexities surrounding historic cases of mis-selling. In a letter seen by The Times, the watchdog also noted it does not have the power to fine companies using its consumer powers and blamed Brexit preparations for it not being able to prioritise problems in the housing industry.

The U-turn comes after the Commons housing committee published a damning report on the scandal in March, calling for the law to be changed to help people stuck in leasehold properties with crippling fees that they are unable to sell on. It also criticised solicitors for failing to warn clients about the unfair deals, accusing some of being too close to developers.

The leasehold scandal emerged as developers began to sell houses on leasehold rather than freehold, often without the buyer fully understanding the contracts. In many cases the freeholds were bought by offshore investors who demand large sums from homeowners to buy out the contracts.

Taylor Wimpey, one of Britain’s biggest housebuilders, has set aside £130 million to help its customers escape unfair leases it sold. More than 40 property developers and freeholders this year signed a government-backed pledge to help homeowners affected by the scandal by changing the terms of leases for those with onerous clauses.

Sebastian O’Kelly, of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, said: “We welcome the CMA looking into this. It’s long overdue and will be welcomed by the 12,000 owners of new leases with doubling ground rents, and 88,000 where the ground rent is above 0.1 per cent of the sale price and whose properties are unsellable.”

The investigation comes as the industry attempts to improve its public image after criticisms of build quality as well as punitive hidden charges.

Countryside Properties this week became embroiled in a row with Joe Anderson, the mayor of Liverpool, who reportedly told residents he would ban the housebuilder from building in the city due to historic cases of selling leasehold homes with “doubling clauses” for ground rents.

Countryside said it no longer sold leasehold homes, had signed up to the leasehold pledge and took action to fix the doubling of ground rent leases that were in place two years ago. A spokesman for the Home Builders Federation said: “The industry has made huge progress to identify and address the issues raised on particular aspects of leasehold sales.”

Source: Times (pay wall)

MPs claiming expenses for adult children

“The Daily Telegraph says it has discovered that MPs – including Energy minister Claire Perry – are boosting their expenses by claiming for adult children dependent on them.

According to the paper, the age limit when claiming for children is 18, rising to 21 for certain exceptions.

Ms Perry says all her claims are made in accordance with the rules; two other MPs have told the Telegraph they will return money.

The paper’s leader column says the rules may have changed in the wake of the expenses scandal 10 years ago – but it is clearly going to take a long time to remake the culture in Westminster.

It concludes by advising politicians to listen to the words of Lord Tebbit – “If you wouldn’t be happy to read something about yourself on the front pages, don’t do it.”

Government to foot bill to replace Grenfell-type cladding because developers refuse to do it

Well,you can’t upset your mega-millionairedonors can you?

“Ministers are believed to be poised to release hundreds of millions of pounds to fix private tower blocks wrapped in combustible Grenfell-style cladding after mounting public anger that dozens of freeholders and developers have refused to pay to make them safe.

About 20,000 people living in private leasehold homes are estimated to be affected by the risk caused by the now-banned plastic-filled panels, similar to those which helped spread the fire at Grenfell that killed 72 people.

Having spent months trying to persuade property companies to pay with only limited success, housing ministers appear to be convinced of the need to step in with public funds and are believed to be awaiting approval from the chancellor, Philip Hammond. An announcement is expected imminently, according to sources close to negotiations.

Some leaseholders have been forced to mount their own 24-hour patrols to make sure fires don’t break out, while others’ homes have become unsaleable. A survey of the impact on residents last month found some had turned to drink and drugs and others were suffering bouts of depression and suicidal feelings. The greatest number of affected buildings are in London and Greater Manchester and many belong to first-time buyers.

The standoff between leaseholders who say they cannot afford to pay bills of up to £80,000 each and freeholders and developers who say they are not obliged to pay under law has caused growing anger and frustration as next month’s second anniversary of the Grenfell disaster looms. Grenfell survivors have warned that a delay in tackling the problem means a second disaster is “in the post”.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said on Wednesday that the lack of action by some private building owners was “completely unacceptable”.

“Due to lack of progress the government is looking at a range of new additional measures to get building owners to do the right thing,” they said.

Ministers have told campaigners that the decision lies with the Treasury. Those who have lobbied Hammond to release funds include Kevin Hollinrake, a Conservative member of the Commons housing select committee. He said on Wednesday: “We need to step in and provide a solution. That is going to include money and we are in conversation with the Treasury.”

Pressure has been growing on ministers to step in. The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, the housing charity Shelter and the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents town halls, have backed a national campaign fronted by leaseholders calling for public funds to strip off and replace the dangerous cladding on private apartment blocks over 18m in height.

Lord Porter, a Conservative peer and the LGA chairman, said: “Too many leaseholders are suffering stress on a daily basis because it is still not clear who will pay to fix their homes. This cannot and must not continue.”

Checks found 176 private residential towers were wrapped in the same aluminium composite material fitted to Grenfell Tower partly as a cosmetic improvement in a £10m refurbishment concluding in 2016.

But according to the government’s own figures, leaseholders in 93 private towers are not protected from remediation costs and works have been completed on just 10. The communities secretary, James Brokenshire, made £400m available to fix social housing blocks a year ago, moving money from an existing fund for affordable homes. As a result work on fixing council and housing association towers has progressed much faster.

However, there is concern any new money will only be made available to remove the aluminium composite cladding and not to fix other fire safety problems including high-pressure laminate panels which are also combustible and buildings where fire breaks supposed to stop fires spreading through cladding are missing or faulty.

Last week, the housing minister Kit Malthouse told parliament: “We have been engaged across government to consider additional interventions, so that progress can be made more swiftly.” He said he hoped to announce specific measures shortly.

He said leaseholders were currently protected from remediation costs in 83 out of 176 residential buildings. “The growing list of owners and developers who have stepped in includes Barratt Developments, Mace Group, Legal & General, Peabody, Aberdeen Asset Management and Frasers Property,” he said.

“In the social sector we are making good progress,” he added. “In the private sector, progress is slower; I absolutely admit that. We need to do something to speed that up, and we hope to increase the pace quite soon. Discussions are ongoing.”

“Expenses watchdog hushed up revelation 377 MPs had credit cards suspended”

“The parliamentary expenses watchdog tried to cover up data showing 377 MPs, including nine cabinet ministers, have had their credit cards suspended for wrong, incomplete or late claims.

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa), set up in the wake of the expenses scandal 10 years ago, initially tried to claim the information should not be released because it could hinder the operation of the expenses system.

However, a former high court judge reversed the decision and released the information to the Daily Telegraph on appeal, saying that the risk of “embarrassing” MPs was no reason to keep the information secret.

It mirrors the initial reluctance of parliamentary authorities to release information on MPs’ expenses 10 years ago, when the scandal was uncovered only when it was leaked to the same newspaper.

The release of the credit card data showed MPs are regularly having their credit cards suspended for failing to provide receipts in a timely fashion or claiming for disallowed items, with 377 MPs sanctioned since 2015.

Claire Perry, the energy and climate change minister who attends cabinet, admitted wrongly using her parliamentary credit card to pay for her Amazon Prime subscription.

Since the 2015 election, 377 MPs have all had their credit cards suspended, documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show.

Repeat offenders include Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, and nine MPs who have had their card suspended more than 10 times over the past three years. Damian Collins, the chair of the Commons media committee, and Chloe Smith, a Cabinet Office minister, have each both had their credit cards suspended 14 times.

Other cabinet ministers subject to suspensions include Stephen Barclay, Greg Clark, Chris Grayling, Robert Buckland, Rory Stewart, Jeremy Wright and David Mundell.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, Tom Watson, the deputy leader, and Boris Johnson, the Tory leadership contender, were also among those to have had their cards suspended.

A spokesman for Rudd said: “Some payment deadlines were missed by the member of staff responsible for these matters. These issues were subsequently resolved.”

Collins said one case was to do with removal costs being challenged and otherwise “it was simply a case of being late in getting the reconciliation of the card payments back to Ipsa”.

A Labour spokesman said: “Our MPs’ offices rectify all such administrative issues as soon as they are identified.”

“Companies pocket millions from kid’s uneaten free school meals campaigners claim”

“Private companies are pocketing millions of pounds from children’s uneaten free school meals, campaigners reveal today.

Firms which have deals to provide school catering are benefiting from a loophole which allows them to pocket any unspent cash left on pre-loaded cards, according to Citizens UK.

It believes contractors are trousering millions from the arrangement – and called for a crackdown by education chiefs.

The group’s activists calculate some £70million a year lies dormant in youngsters’ free school meal accounts.

Some of the funds are recouped by cash-strapped schools and town halls, and pumped back into the system.

But where catering has been contracted out, the money helps to swell private firms’ coffers, the group claimed.

One year eight pupil said it was “wrong” for companies “to be taking our money without telling us”.

They added: “It’s practically stealing. Imagine all the other things you could afford to buy with all the money that’s being taken away from us.” …”