06 July 2017
Week In Brief: UK
AUSTERITY: The government’s austerity policy has come under renewed pressure with demonstrations against the 1% limit on increases to public sector pay and cuts to the real education budget. The 1% pay cap has been in place since 2013, before which time there was a freeze on the pay of all but the lowest paid public workers. There is now a clear feeling, which seems to be shared by many Conservative MPs and also by a number of ministers such as Michael Gove and Justine Greening, that public sector workers have suffered enough. The question is, however, how to pay them more within the parameters set by public debt levels. Certainly there seems to be good case for shifting some of the burdens of austerity by raising taxation but that, of course, has to be done without strangling the economy.
STUDENT LOANS: According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, students now leave university with an average debt of around £50,000 on which interest is running at 6.1%. Although it is estimated that three quarters of graduates will never repay their loans, which are written off after 30 years, this is a heavy burden for the younger generation and risks putting students off university to the detriment of the national economy. Something needs to be done but no one can agree what. A graduate tax would bear heavily on those who have already paid university fees. Removing student fees would yet again alter the relationship between students and universities and undermine university funding. One answer would be to reduce the level of the fees to makes the debt more acceptable and, perhaps, to reduce the interest rate to government funding levels.
PARLIAMENT UNTIED: The sartorial revolution in the Commons triggered by speaker John Bercow’s ruling that MPs no longer need to wear ties, may spread to the House of Lords. Although the Lords’ speaker, Lord Fowler, has said that it is down to peers to decide the matter, Lord Scriven, an entrepreneur, has threatened to take matters into his own hands by going in tieless. Apparently Lord Scriven has been campaigning on this issue for six months. Who said that peers were useless?
ROAD BUILDING: The Department of Transport’s new investment strategy reveals that from 2020/21 Vehicle Exercise Duty is to be ring fenced to pay for new roads. Out of the £6.8 billion of duty which is expected to be levied in that year, 1 billion will be used to upgrade second class A roads, that is those maintained by local authorities rather than the Department. A considerable amount of that will be spent on new bypasses. The idea is to reduce the economic damage inflicted by road congestion, currently the worst in Europe. Although hypothecating a particular revenue stream shows a commitment to road improvement, it brings the danger of money being spent unnecessarily to absorb budgets.
LABOUR: 49 pro-remain Labour MPs have refused to back the party position on Brexit by supporting an amendment by Chuka Umunna calling for the government to retain access to the single market. Ruth Cadbury, Catherine West and Andy Slaughter have all been fired from the shadow cabinet as a clear rift in the party’s response to Government Policy opens up.
TERROR CRITICISM: Max Hill QC, now the independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation, has criticised proposals to prosecute media companies who do not do enough to counter terrorism. In his view it is better to bring them onside in the fight to limit on-line material rather than to attack them.
GRENFELL TOWER: The number of people who died in the Grenfell Tower disaster is still unknown because a number of flats were sublet and there is uncertainty about how many people were living there. The total death toll is, however, expected to be over 80. Meanwhile controversy continues with criticism of the choice of retired Court of Appeal judge, Sir Martin Moore Blick, as chairman of the Inquiry, and calls for an inspector to be appointed to run Kensington and Chelsea. Elizabeth Campbell, who has been a councillor since 2006, is the new leader there.
NORTH SEA COD: Recoveries in North Sea cod mean that it is now expected to be awarded the Marine Stewardship Council blue label which indicates that fishing is not endangering stocks. Stocks of breeding fish are now four times 2006 levels.
WOLVES: Conservation charity the Wildwood Trust is monitoring the behaviour of six wolves which have been introduced into a park in Escot. Apparently they are hoping to introduce wolves throughout the country in order to reduce the deer population. They would also like to bring in brown bears. Fortunately rewilding of this sort requires a licence from Natural England. Still, they may just get it. Deer are responsible for about 50,000 traffic accidents a year. Wolves are presumably better drivers. According to records, the last Scottish Wolf was killed in 1680. The last Irish Wolf to be killed with hounds was killed by John Watson, Master of the Carlow and island Hunt, in 1786 on the slopes of Mount Leinster.
DRUG LICENSING: Jeremy Hunt has put forward plans for the UK to continue to use the European Medicine Agency as a pharmaceutical product regulator following Brexit. The one change to the current system is that drugs assessed by the European Medicine Agency would be rubber stamped by the UK rather than, as at present, by the European Commission.
BAD BLOOD: Documents disclosed in compensation claims against the government reveal that haemophiliacs continued to be treated with clotting agents taken from blood which might be contaminated with HIV or Hepatitis, after doctors had become aware of the risks. There are about 300 claims in all.
MEDICAL RECORDS: The Privacy Regulator has ruled that the Royal Free NHS Foundation Trust illegally passed information to Google’s Deepmind project without patient consent. Deepmind has confirmed that the information is only being used to promote patient care.
NURSING NUMBERS: The number of nurses and midwives fell in the financial year 2016/17 to 690,773. That is 1783 less than in the previous year as more people leave the professions than join them.
Crime and the Courts
HEATH ENQUIRY: A retired high court judge, Sir Richard Henriques, is to report on the enquiry by Wiltshire Polices into discredited allegations of paedophilia against Sir Edward Heath. Someone, somewhere, must think that something useful will come out of this and that it won’t be yet another waste of public money.
CYBER ATTACK: Cyber attacks on the Palace of Westminster continue with hackers posing as officials in order to try and get politicians to hand over their passwords.
GUNS SEIZURE: 79 pistols have been seized by Border Force at the Calais entrance to the Channel Tunnel. Thought to be destined for London criminal gangs, the guns were concealed in a hollowed out engine block. Seven Poles and a Czech have been arrested.
JERSEY: A report into child abuse in Jersey has revealed drastic failures going back for 50 years. Appalling treatment, much of it focused on the Haut de la Garenne children’s home, was compounded by a failure to listen to those who spoke out and to follow up recommendations. Stuart Syfret, who, as the Island’s health and social care minister, expressed concerns in 2007, has suggested that Westminster intervene to separate the operation of the police and judicial services.
ELECTION FRAUD TRIAL: Craig MacKinlay, the MP for South Thanet, will be tried in the Crown Court on charges of electoral fraud relating to the 2015 election. The case will turn on allegations that he knowingly completed returns which failed to disclose the costs of the battle bus, hotel accommodation for central office staff, and various other expenses.
CRICKET RETURNS: Lord Hall, the director-general of the BBC, has confirmed that live cricket is to return to terrestrial channels from 2020. The greed of the cricketing authorities resulted in cricket being removed from free view in 1999.
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