Issue 110: 2017 06 22: Week in Brief UK

22 June 2017

Week In Brief: UK NEWS

Union Jack flapping in wind from the right

Fire

GRENFELL TOWER:  The Prime Minister has been heavily criticised for failing to empathise with victims following the disastrous fire at Grenfell Tower.  Although she visited the site shortly after the tragedy there was resentment that she spent her time with the emergency services rather than with those who had lost their homes.  The tragedy has clearly shocked the authorities and caused panic among those who think they might be blamed.  Statements as to whether the fire was caused by the cladding and, if so, who was responsible for the cladding being used, why there was no sprinkler system and why the alarm system did not operate, give the impression that shifting the blame has become a priority.  There will be a public enquiry.

Meanwhile the death toll continues to rise, the latest figure being 79.  The Queen has visited a centre for evacuated families with Prince William. Mr Corbyn has also talked with victims.

The relief effort appears to be chaotic with the Council running out of cash and difficulties in finding accommodation for those made homeless.  Labour has called for the requisition of empty properties in the borough to provide shelter.

Terrorism

FINSBURY PARK MOSQUE:  A man has been arrested after deliberately running his van into 10 people who had attended late prayers at the Finsbury Park Mosque.  One victim has died and two others are seriously hurt.

Government

QUEEN’S SPEECH:  Both the dress code and the program were stripped down today as the Queen’s speech went ahead with the Government still uncertain of its majority.  The expected agreement with the DUP not having been reached it remains to be seen whether the Government will fall.

BREXIT:  Negotiations about the terms of Brexit began on Monday between Michel Barnier and David Davis.  The initial focus was on procedure, it being agreed that the status of EU citizens resident in the UK (and vice versa) and the exit bill would be discussed first.  There will be one week of negotiation each month leaving the rest of the time for them to work on proposals.  Meanwhile both negotiators have indicated that the UK will not remain in the Customs union.

MAY’S SUCCESSOR:  Philip Hammond has publicly criticised Mrs May’s conduct of the election campaign in what appears to be positioning to be her successor. Likely candidates include Boris Johnson and David Davis.

ELECTION STATISTICS:  Analysis has shown that the older the elector the more likely he or she is to have voted Conservative in the election. The crossover, the age at which voters are most likely to switch to the Tories, is 47.  Among women there was equal support for Conservatives and Labour.  45% of men voted Conservative against 39% who backed Labour. There was a tendency for more educated voters to support Labour but that may be because the young have more qualifications.

SENSITIVE STATISTICS:  Changes are to be made to the arrangements under which sensitive economic statistics are released to ministers and officials before becoming public.  There has been concern for years that statistics leak into the market before they are released and research by a US University has revealed a high level of market activity between pre-release and a statistic being publicly announced.

ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS:  According to the think tank Civitas, secret Home Office estimates indicated that there could be as many as 1 million illegal immigrants in the UK.  The number of failed asylum seekers leaving the UK has dropped to 3446.

JO COX:  A number of street parties and other events have been held in commemoration of Labour MP Jo Cox who was murdered in June 2016 during the referendum campaign.

NONPERSON:  Moves have been made to deprive Akif Razak, a British citizen from Pakistan, of his British nationality on security grounds.  Mr Razak who works for a media organisation in northern Syria will appeal.  Under the 1981 British Nationality Act, British citizenship can be revoked in the public interest where the individual is either a dual national or naturalised.

Health

CANCER DRUG:  Use by the National Health Service of cancer drug Kadcyla has been approved following negotiations over price with the manufacturer Roche.  The drug, used in the treatment of breast cancer, had previously been rejected by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence in 2015 because it cost £90,000 per annum per patient.  It was, however, are approved for use in Scotland.  The new price is not known.

GENERAL PRACTITIONER HOURS:  According to the chief executive of Health Education England, the average general practitioner now works for four days a week rather than for four and a half.  That means that he or she sees only 90% of the patients who would have been seen in the past and is one of the reasons why the NHS is having difficulty finding enough doctors.

BAD COCONUTS:  the American Heart Association has said that coconut oil boosts bad cholesterol, which is bad news for those who have converted to it for health reasons.  The position over fats is now highly confused although apparently unsaturated fats are the best sort.

THERAPY CASE:  The case of baby Charlie Gard whose parents wish to take him to the US for a therapy which doctors at Great Ormond Street say will not help him is being heard by the European Court of Human Rights.

Miscellaneous

BARCLAYS:  Barclays’ ex chief executive John Varley and other executives have been charged with fraud in connection with support from Qatar which avoided the need for a bail out in 2008.

CYBER ATTACK:  University College London and Ulster University have each been the subject of cyber attacks.  However in both cases the attacks were contained to a small number of machines and no ransom was or will be paid.

HEATHROW:  Heathrow’s baggage system collapsed for more than two hours on Thursday, causing chaos for passengers departing from terminals 3 and 5.  The airport was criticised over the level of its communication with passengers.  All luggage has now been forwarded.

RAILWAYS:  Drivers have turned down an offer of a £7,000 per annum rise by Southern region.  Currently earnings with overtime come to some £75,000 a year.

WARM SPRING:  According to the Met office, this spring has been the warmest in central England since records began in 1659, the average temperature of 10.27° topping the 10.23° record set in 2011.

BRIDGE A SPORT?: An opinion by Maciej Szpunar, Advocate General in a dispute between the English Bridge Union and HMRC, has ruled that bridge is a sport for VAT purposes because it requires mental effort and confers health benefits on participants. If the opinion is accepted by the European Court of Justice, VAT will no longer be charged on competition entry fees. The amount at stake is about £500,000. Chess is already regarded as a sport: video gaming is not.

SPY PLANE FLEET:  According to reports in “The Times”, the RAF’s fleet of Sentinel spy planes has been crippled by lack of funds.  One of the five-aircraft fleet is to be removed from service and consideration has been given to scrapping the fleet, whose unique mapping abilities are of value to the coalition on Iraq.

MILITARY TRAGEDY:  Two soldiers died after a tank blew up on the Castlemaine firing range in Wales.  Two other soldiers are still seriously ill in hospital.  Until it is understood what happened, tank exercises using live ammunition have been suspended.

AMAZON:  Amazon is to buy Whole Foods, the organic supermarket chain, as part of its expansion into the grocery sector.  Whole Foods has only nine UK stores but 460 stores in the US.

 

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Issue 109: 2017 06 15: Week in Brief: UK

15 June 2017

Week in Brief: UK

Union Jack flapping in wind from the right

Fire

HIGH RISE FIRE: Grenfell Tower, a 24 story residential block of flats in West Kensington, caught fire in the early hours of Wednesday.  The block, which was built by the Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council in 1994 and refurbished last year, contained 120 flats.  It was gutted by the fire which was attended by 250 firefighters.  Although at the time of writing only 12 deaths have been confirmed, the number is likely to rise substantially.  The cause of the blaze is unknown.

Politics

GENERAL ELECTION RESULT: The final score following last week’s general election was as follows: Conservatives – 318, Labour – 262, SNP – 35, Liberal Democrats – 12, Greens – 1, others – 12.  That leaves the Conservatives eight seats short of a majority and reliant on support from the Democratic Unionist Party to govern.  The election result was full of surprises.  Kensington fell to Labour as did other traditionally Conservative seats such as Canterbury.  On the other hand the Conservatives took Mansfield, Stoke on Trent and Middlesbrough.  In Scotland the SNP were pushed back by all three parties, the Conservatives taking 13 seats.

Overall there seem to be three main themes.  The first is a movement towards Labour in Remain constituencies.  Presumably this is in response to Mrs May’s comment that no deal would be preferable to a bad deal.  Second, there was a clear resentment of austerity, particularly by the younger generation.   Third, Scottish electors have been repelled by the separatist agenda of the SNP.

It is unclear how things will develop, but for the moment Mrs May remains in power on the basis of an expected confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionists.  That is way short of a formal coalition and simply means that the Democratic Unionists would support the government in votes of confidence and votes of money (in practice that means support on  the Queen’s Speech and the Budget).  On specific measures the Government would have to persuade other parties to vote with it.  Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionists, is in discussion with the Prime Minister over the details.

The Queen’s Speech has been postponed in order to give the government time to trim the policies set out in its manifesto.  Michael Gove has rejoined the Cabinet as the Environment Secretary and Damian Green will run the Cabinet Office as “First Secretary of State”.  Mrs May’s previous minders, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, have resigned.

LiB DEMS: Yim Farron has resigned the leadership of the Liberal Democrats citing difficulties in reconcilin his Christian principles with his leadership of the party.

ABBOTT DIABETES: Diane Abbott, the shadow Home Secretary, has revealed that she has type 2 diabetes which affected her during the election campaign when she faced a series of interviews without sufficient food.

TRUMP VISIT POSTPONED:  It is understood that the proposed state visit by Mr Trump to the UK is to be postponed.  Apparently Mr Trump told Mrs May that he would not come to Britain if it was likely that there would be large protests against him.

TERRORISM: Britain and France have proposed heavy fines for technology companies which fail to remove jihardist propaganda and terrorist guidelines from their websites, at counterterrorism talks in Paris.  The German government is also anxious to change the law so that security agencies can read encrypted information.

FRACKING: The National Trust is refusing to allow Ineos Shale to carry out seismic tests at Clumber Park as part of its survey of shale gas reserves.  The Trust has refused to discuss the matter with Ineos on the basis that fossil gas is not renewable and that its use will contribute to climate change.  Ineos has a government licence to explore 1.2 million acres and legal powers to obtain access to land under the Mines Act 1966.

Health

UNNECESSARY OPERATIONS: Work by Andrew Carr, Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at Oxford, indicates that a number of routine operations carried out by the national health service have no medical benefit other than as a placebo.  The operations include knee arthroscopics, migraine incisions and stomach balloons.  A common form of shoulder surgery which is performed on some 10,000 patients a year is still being examined.

FARSEEING FOOTBALLERS: Research published in the journal Science and Medicine in Football reveals that Premier League players are sharper sighted than the public generally, with defenders having an edge over attackers.  This is unlikely to undermine the consensus amongst supporters that most referees are blind.

Crime

MURDER: French police investigating the death of Russian whistle blower Alexander Perepilichnyy, who was found by a roadside in Surrey shortly after his return from France where he may have been poisoned, claim that they are being hampered by the failure of their British counterparts to share evidence.  The British view is that Mr Perepilichnyy, who had exposed a £150 million money-laundering operation for Russian officials, died of natural causes.  US agents claim that shortly before his death they told MI6 that he was likely to be assassinated.

MORE KNIVES:  According to the Ministry of Justice, the number of people convicted or cautioned for offences involving knives in the first three months of this year showed an increase of 11% over the 2016 figure.  The total number was 5184 and the increase was spread over police authorities generally.

Education and Charities

RSPCA: Jeremy Cooper, the chief executive of the RSPCA, has resigned.  Mr Cooper, who introduced a new five-year strategy for the reform of the charity, had only been in post for 15 months.  The RSPCA, which faces a decline in membership and receipts, has been criticised for its aggression towards pet owners and farmers, and for the large amounts of money spent on anti-hunting prosecutions.  The Charity Commission has placed the charity under formal observation and threatened to take further action unless its standards of governance improve.

ISLAMIC SCHOOL: Jamia Al-Hudaa Residential College for Girls, an Islamic boarding school in Nottingham, is likely to remain open after inspectors saw major changes in the education being provided.  When previously inspected the school had pushed pupils towards the teaching of Islam and away from other careers.  Now, however, the curriculum has been broadened, pupils have been encouraged to mix with the community and career advisers have been brought in.

EDUCATION DATA: Comprehensive data has been published by the government giving median salaries five years after graduation for different university courses.  At the top were business degrees in Economics and Management from Oxford (£71,700) and Economics from the LSE (£55,200).  Law courses and degrees in computer scientists did much less well.

Miscellaneous

DIVORCE: In a departure from the general rule that assets accumulated during marriage should be split equally, the Court of Appeal has ruled that ex-husband Robin Sharp is only entitled to £2 million out of£5,450,000 accumulated during his marriage because the marriage was short, there were no children, finances had been kept separate and Mrs Sharp had made the major contribution.  This represents a change to established practice and will, no doubt, give rise to uncertainty as the implications are worked through.

SQUEEZE: Visa has recorded a decline of 0.8% between consumer spending last month and consumer spending in May 2016.  This reflects a drop in real wages as inflation rises to 2.9%.  The decline corroborates figures from the fashion industry which show declining sales.

MOBILE PHONES: As from today no extra fees will be chargeable on British mobile phone users when they use their regular allowance from elsewhere in the EU.

GAY MARRIAGE: The Scottish Episcopal Church has become the first within the Anglican community to conduct gay marriages.  However only priests who decide to “opt in” will officiate.

ROBOT SHIPS: The International Maritime Organisation is considering whether to change its rules to allow un-crewed ships to sail between international destinations.  Such ships are already permitted in coastal waters and the first robot container ship is due to be launched next year.

 

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Issue 108: 2017 06 08: Week in Brief: UK

08 June 2017

Week In Brief: UK

Union Jack flapping in wind from the right

Terrorism

LONDON ATTACKS: On Saturday night three terrorists murdered seven people and injured another 48 in an attack on London Bridge and Borough Market.  It began when they drove their white rental van into pedestrians on the bridge.  The van was abandoned just outside Southwark Cathedral, the men using large knives to kill and wound people who had been enjoying their evening in the area.  Police arrived some eight minutes later and the three attackers were shot dead.  Political campaigning was suspended for Sunday and the Prime Minister, speaking from Downing Street, identified four ways in which things must change: first, she emphasised the importance of persuading people of the superiority of British values over what was being offered by hate preachers; second, she stressed the importance of controlling cyberspace to deprive extremism and terrorism of the communications on which they depend; third, military action was required to destroy Isis; fourth the counter terrorism and security strategy needed to be reviewed to ensure that the police and security services have the powers they need and to provide longer sentences for terrorist offences.

There is concern at the failure by MI5 to head off the attack following the revelation that one of the attackers, Butt, was under investigation while another, Zaghbawas, was on an Italian watchlist to which MI5 had access.  The third attacker, Redouane, had previously been refused asylum in the UK but came here following his marriage to a British woman in Ireland.  Mr Corbyn has called on the prime minister to resign over the drop in police numbers when she was Home Secretary.

General Election and Westminster

CONSERVATIVES: Remarks by the defence secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, have been construed as suggesting that the Conservatives will not raise taxes for top rate earners in any circumstances.  That conflicts with the position in the manifesto where no undertaking is given not to raise taxes, national insurance or VAT so that the government has the flexibility to meet contingencies.  The party’s position is that, although it is a low tax party with no intention of raising taxes for ordinary working families, no concrete undertakings have actually been given.

LABOUR: Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornbury has said that if they get the opportunity to form a government following a hung election, Labour will put forward a Queen’s Speech without doing deals with other parties.  Mr Corbyn has said that in the event of a Labour victory, he will open discussions with the SNP on a Scottish Independence Referendum, although suggesting that it be delayed until after Brexit.

POLLS: The polls are currently all over the place suggesting leads varying between 1 and 12 percentage points for the Conservatives.  No one really knows what the result will be, from a possible hung parliament to a possible landslide.

EXPENSES CHARGES: The Crown Prosecution Service has said that it will charge Craig MacKinlay, MP and candidate for Thanet, in relation to his expenditure at the last election.  His election agent and a campaigner are also to be charged.  The case relates to allegations that expenditure on hotels and on a “battle bus” were wrongly allocated to national rather than local expenditure.  The threshold for national expenditure is high whereas allocating the expenses to the local campaign would result in a breach of statutory limits.

Health

GENERAL PRACTITIONERS: The Office of National Statistics has predicted that on the basis that there will be 3 million more people in Britain in five years’ time and that, the population being older, people will need to see their GPs more often, the average GP will have to spend 28.3 hours a week with patients, rather than the current total of 22.9

CRIMINAL SURGEON: A surgeon who manipulated patients, mainly women, into unnecessary surgery, particularly mastectomies, was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment by Nottingham Crown Court on charges of wounding with intent and unlawful wounding.

BREAST-CANCER TREATMENT: A new drug Abemaciclib developed in the US has had considerable success in shrinking and in some cases clearing tumours.  Taken twice a day with other hormonal therapies it has been found to work in about 50% of cases.

Police, Crime and Road Safety

DRIVERLESS CARS: Research by the University of the West of England indicates that when a driverless car hands back steering to a human, it may take almost a minute for the latter to resume control.  That means that motorists should only take back control when travelling at very low speeds as there will be a period when the car is not being controlled at all.

DETECTIVE RECRUITMENT: The Metropolitan Police are to recruit some 80 trainee detectives who will never work as beat officers.  The aim is to help fill 600 detective vacancies and applicants will be required to have a degree and to have lived in London.  They will do 18 weeks of training and their starting salary will be just below £30,000 (see Chin Chin).

KNIFE CRIME: Two boys, both aged 17, were stabbed to death in London last week.  That brings the total of teenagers murdered to 12, the total for last year.

CRIMINAL HOLIDAYMAKERS: Claims by UK holidaymakers against travel companies to be compensated for gastric illness while on holiday have increased by more than four times in the last four years.  This is understood to be because solicitors and claims management firms have been encouraging fraudulent claims.  The City of London police are expected to bring prosecutions this summer.

General Politics

CALAIS: Would-be immigrants into the UK are again gathering in the Calais area, setting up the first burning barricade since the Jungle was demolished last year.

TRADE UNIONS: The number of employees who belong to trade unions dropped by 275,000 last year to 6.2 million.  That is the lowest level since the war.  Most union members are women and membership was highest among middle income workers (£25,000-£50,000 a year).

Miscellaneous

BRITISH AIRWAYS: It is believed that the power surge which cause the problem at British Airways was a result of the supply being switched off by accident.  According to a leaked email, it was then turned back on again (presumably in panic) in an uncontrolled fashion which caused damage to the system.

SEA LICE: More than 1 million wild salmon died of sea lice infestation in Loch Fyne last year.  The plague of lice has spread to the wild stock from farmed fish which are protected by the use of delousing chemicals.  The RSPCA certified 8 out of 10 farms in Loch Fyne as having high welfare standards but were not aware of the effects of the lice.

UNIVERSITY RETIREMENT: An attempt by Oxford academics to remove the retirement age of 67 has been rejected by “The Congregation” which governs the University.  A postal ballot of all Congregation members will follow.  Retirement ages are in force at both Cambridge and St Andrews.

TREE HUGGING: Tree specialist Peter Wohlleben has claimed that streetlights damage trees by interfering with their sleep patterns.  Speaking at the Hay Festival, he commented that urban trees missed the support mechanisms available in the forest.  Asked whether trees like to be hugged, he said that one might have to wait quite a long time for a hug to be reciprocated as trees move slowly.

 

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Issue 107: 2017 06 01: Week in Brief: UK

01 June 2017

Week In Brief: UK NEWS

Union Jack flapping in wind from the right

Terrorism

TERRORIST THREAT:  Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, who is in charge of the investigation into the Manchester bombing, has said that a large part of the network supporting the bomber has been successfully wound up and that the threat of further outrages has been contained.  The difficulty of the job facing the police and the security services was emphasized by security minister Ben Wallace who said that there were 23,000 people on the database of potential attackers.  Of those 3,000 are believed to pose a threat and are being actively monitored.  The remainder, a category which included both Salman Abedi and Khalid Masood, who were responsible for the attacks in Manchester and Westminster respectively, fall into a residual category.

The Government has lodged protests with the US over the leaking of the identity of the Manchester bomber to the New York Times.  Initially information sharing was cut off but this has now been restored.

The Government has said that, if it wins the general election, it will beef up the Prevent scheme (which aims to prevent the radicalisation of vulnerable persons) by training teachers, social workers and others who work in the community to spot those being radicalised.  The scheme is contentious with some Muslim bodies saying that it alienates the Muslim community but other Muslims, including Labour’s Khalid Mahmood MP, suggesting that the scheme be developed further.

Election news

ELECTION LATEST:  The gap between the two main parties has narrowed so far that some polls are indicating a hung parliament.  With a week to go to polling day the result is impossible too predict.

The drop in Conservative support can be traced back to the inclusion in the manifesto of proposals under which those requiring care in old age would have an uncapped amount recovered from their estates.  The government has backed down over this, and there will now be a cap, although the size of that cap has not yet been decided.  However, Mrs May’s denials of any U-turn in a televised interview with Andrew Neil played very badly with the electorate and eroded their trust in her.

Mr Corbyn’s interview with Andrew Neil went considerably better, although it exposed the tensions in his party over Trident and the fact that his manifesto proposals, which include nationalisation of the water companies and large investments in schools and the NHS, could not be funded out of the taxes proposed.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE:  The Conservatives would, if elected, bring in a new definition of domestic violence as part of an overhaul of the law in that area.  The idea is to increase the number of convictions and there would be a special offence where the violence was directed against children.

Other politics

BREXIT NEGOTIATIONS:  Mrs May has told the new French President, Emmanuel Macron, that there should be simultaneous discussions of the UK’s future relationship with the EU and the terms of its withdrawal.  So far the EU has sought to deal with the “exit bill” first, presumably to stop threats of not paying it being used by the UK in trade negotiations.  Mr Macron is keen to begin by getting residency rights sorted out so that EU residents of the UK and British residents of the EU know where they stand.

IMMIGRATION:  Figures produced by the Office of National Statistics reveal that net migration fell by about 25% to 248,000 in the year ending December 2016.  Driving the figures is an increase in Europeans returning home, together with a drop in the number of immigrants from eastern European countries.

HARD-WORKING EUROPEANS:  Research by the University of Bath indicates that although central and eastern European migrants work harder than indigenous employees, that difference persists only for the first couple of years following their arrival.

Health

STATINS:  A paper published in The Lancet indicates that statins, in common use to reduce the risk of heart disease, are also effective in countering strokes.  Statins are currently taken by about 7 million people at the cost of some £2 pounds per month.  They have been criticised on the basis that users may suffer side-effects, although the current view is that they are both safe and effective.

TEENAGE PREGNANCIES:  Research published in the Journal of Health Economics and carried out by Professor Paton of Nottingham University Business School and Liam Wright of the University of Sheffield indicates that cuts in the funding of sex and relationship education since 2010 have reduced, rather than increased, the incidence of teenage pregnancy, the decline being greatest in areas where the deepest cuts have been made.  Although surprising, the conclusion is not entirely new.  A study in 2009 indicated that Teenage Pregnancy Unit campaigns increased the number of pregnancies rather than reducing it and a study last year suggested that sex education had no effect on the number of pregnancies at all.

General

SEX ABUSE ENQUIRY:  Victims of sexual abuse at the Roman Catholic schools at Ealing and Fort Augustus have protested against a narrowing of the enquiry by the Independent Enquiry into Child Sexual Abuse to exclude these institutions.  Fort Augustus falls outside the remit of the enquiry because it is in Scotland.  Enquiries into Ealing are being dropped because of clashes with a criminal trial which would have led to considerable delay.  Enquiries will continue at the Benedictine schools at Ampleforth, Downside and Worth.

BAG PEOPLE:  Tesco is running a trial of getting rid of single plastic bags, currently available at 5p each, from certain shops.  Instead it will offer reusable bags at 10p.  The charge on plastic bags introduced in October has been highly successful with a drop in use of more than 90%.

BRITISH AIRWAYS:  IT problems at British Airways have played havoc with holiday traffic.  They began with a loss of power to the Fly computer system on Saturday and resulted in the cancellation or delay of more than 1000 weekend flights from Heathrow, with a full service not being restored until Tuesday.  At Gatwick there were delays but no cancellations.  A large number of passengers have lost their luggage which, it is understood, will be delivered to them in due course.

Analysts expect the bill to the company to be in excess of £100 million. BA has been accused of failing to fully reimburse those who booked flights on other airlines, of charging trapped passengers for upgrades and of profiting from the use of their hotline. Critics say that the problems are a result of cost-cutting, and, in particular, the outsourcing of the IT function to India. The British Airways system collapsed three times last summer. Criticism has been levelled at chief executive Alex Cruz for taking cost-cutting too far.

TIGER TRAGEDY:  A keeper, Rosa King, was killed by a tiger at Hamerton Zoo Park in Cambridgeshire.

CUP FINAL:  Arsenal won the cup final on Saturday, beating the league champions Chelsea by two goals to one.  Chelsea finished with 10 men after Moses received a second yellow card as a result of a diving incident.  It is understood that Arsenal will be appointing Arsene Wenger as their manager for a further two years.

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Issue 106: 2017 05 25: Week in Brief: UK

25 May 2017

Week in Brief: UK

Union Jack flapping in wind from the right

Terrorism

EXPLOSION IN MANCHESTER: 22 people were killed and 59 others injured in a terrorist attack on a pop concert at the Manchester Arena.  The blast occurred just after a performance by the American singer Ariana Grande and many of the victims were teenage fans.  It is understood that a suitcase containing nails and shrapnel was detonated by Salman Abedi, a resident of Manchester who is thought to have recently received training in Libya.  He was known to the security services and died in the attack.  It is not yet clear whether he acted alone but security sources doubt whether he could have made such a sophisticated device unaided.  While counter terrorism officers pursue their enquiries, troops are being deployed at high risk locations to reduce the likelihood of further atrocities.

Following the attack, local people gave free accommodation and lifts to those affected.  Islamic State claimed responsibility.  Flags flew at half-mast outside the EU Commission where ministers observed a one minute silence.  Messages of condolence have been received from leaders across the world including a message to The Queen from President Xi and a message to Mrs May from Mr Putin.

Mrs May and Mr Corbyn have both visited Manchester and all campaigning in the general election campaign has been suspended.

Election

CONSERVATIVE MANIFESTO: The Conservative manifesto was published on Thursday.  In it Mrs May said that she would eschew ideology and focus on those who were “just about managing”.  Putting herself forward as the right person to secure the Brexit deal she promised: to increase the NHS budget each year so that in five years time it would be 8 billion a year more than it is now; to spend an additional £350 million on education over the next five years which, with the savings realised by replacing free lunches with free breakfasts, would make 1 billion a year available for spending on schools; and to increase the national living wage to 60% of the median wage by 2020.  To help pay for this the Government has left itself free to increase income tax and National Insurance, will increase the amount levied on firms employing migrant workers from outside the EU, will means test winter fuel allowance, will remove the third lock on the state pension so that it no longer has to rise by minimum of 2.5% per annum, and will make people pay an increased proportion of social care costs out of their estates (as to which see below).  There are also commitments to increase the defence budget, to modernise the prison estate, to increase spending on research and development and to cut net immigration to below 100,000 people per year.  However, the commitment by the Government to keep the strength of the army at 82,000 men has disappeared.  Personal allowances and the income tax threshold will rise.

The manifesto also commits the Government to repealing section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 under which newspapers which did not sign up with an approved regulator would have paid the costs of libel actions, even if they won.  Less relevantly Mrs May will introduce a free vote on foxhunting.

Following widespread protest, Mrs May subsequently changed her policy on social care by undertaking to introduce an upper limit to the cost which would be met out of the patient’s estate.  There will be consultation over the amount of that but it is expected to be higher than the £72,000 promised by David Cameron.

Health

AIR-POLLUTION: The UK ranks 37th on a table of air cleanliness compiled by the World Health Organisation.  Its level of 25.7 deaths per 100,000 of population is worse than Spain (14.7), France (17.2) and the Netherlands (24).  Both the British Heart Foundation and the British Lung Foundation have called for a new Clean Air Act.  Meanwhile a dispute has broken out among academics as to the beneficial effect of street trees, with research by Bangor University suggesting that they could prevent pollutants escaping.

INFLATING: A capsule containing a balloon has been found to be an effective cheap alternative to weight loss surgery.  Apparently the balloon inflates inside the host who becomes less hungry.  After four months it deflates, leaving the body in the obvious way.  Each balloon costs £3000, considerably less than weight loss surgery.  It is available in the UK although not yet on the National Health.  There is concern that some patients may return to heavy eating once the balloon has “exited”.

QUACK REMEDIES: The Good Thinking Society has forced the Charity Commission to rethink the charitable status of organisations promoting alternative therapies.  There is concern that many of these are either useless or potentially harmful, although the British Homoeopathic Association considers that there is no evidence of harm and often very much good.  The Commission says that although it would not register a charity which does harm, it does not wish to have to rule which therapies are good or bad.

BABY DEATHS: The deaths of 15 babies at the Countess of Chester Hospital between June 2015 and June 2016 are being investigated.  The hospital has asked for the police to consider the cases in order to rule out the possibility of foul play.

ANOREXIA: The National Institution for Clinical Excellence has upgraded its guidance to doctors regarding eating disorders.  The new guidelines emphasise the importance of referring sufferers to specialist units and the need to treat them close to home.

Environment

SALMON: A report published in Aquaculture Environment Interactions identifies sea lice as the major cause of the decline in the numbers of wild salmon.  The lice breed among farmed fish, often held in pens at river estuaries, and then spread to the wild stock.  They are deadly to the fish, which they eat alive, and have cut the production of farmed salmon in both Scotland and Norway.  Possible solutions to the problem include the early harvesting of farmed fish, treating the fish with fresh warm water to kill the parasite, use of lump fish which eat the lice, and pesticides.  The latter, however, affect the population of crustaceans.

Law and crime

SHOPLIFTING: According to figures released by the Office of National Statistics, recorded shoplifting offences in England and Wales rose by 8%.  Over the same period the number of prosecutions dropped from just under 84,002 to 61,500.

ASSANGE: Swedish prosecutors have dropped the seven-year rape investigation into Julian Assange, while preserving the option of revising it if he returns to Sweden before the charges become statute barred.  Accordingly the international arrest warrant against him has now lapsed.  However, the Metropolitan Police have said that if he leaves the Ecuadorian Embassy he would be arrested for his failure to surrender to bail.  Presumably Mr Assange remains concerned that he will then be shipped off to America to face WikiLeaks charges.

Football

TERRY’S FAREWELL: Retiring Chelsea captain John Terry, who wears a number 26 shirt, was substituted 26 minutes into his final match at Stamford Bridge and applauded off the field by his colleagues.  The timing of the substitution was intended as a tribute to Mr Terry’s long and distinguished career both for Chelsea and England, and was facilitated by the opposition, Sunderland, deliberately kicking the ball into touch.  Football pundits are outraged and the authorities, rather than regarding this as a graceful courtesy, are talking darkly about match fixing.  Apparently the enormous sum of £3,500 changed hands at the bookies which must worry everyone.  Oddly enough, a similar incident occurred during the Third Crusade when Saladin was besieging a Christian castle.  There was a wedding going on inside and the castellan sent a tray of sweetmeats to the enemy commander.  Always courteous, Saladin enquired as to the tower in which the newly-weds would be spending the night and directed his officers that that tower must not be attacked.  As far as is known, no jack-in-office complained about match fixing.

Miscellaneous

SOUTHERN RAIL: The RMT union is planning a walkout, and Aslef an overtime ban, as the latest steps in the dispute with Southern Rail over whether drivers should be able to operate train doors.  The union say that the issue is safety but in fact it seems more likely that their concern is an increase in the number of one man operated trains and redundancy among their membership.

NEW BANK: Marcus Goldman, a new UK retail bank, is expected to be opened by Goldman Sachs next year.  The bank, which would probably operate online without a high street presence, would provide Goldman’s with low cost funds.  Considerable work with the Regulators still needs to be done, particularly difficult following the concerns about retail funds backing investment bank operations.

NORFOLK WINES: Winbirri Vineyard’s Bacchus 2015, costing £13.95 a bottle, won the top prize for a wine made from a single white grape at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

 

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Issue 105: 2017 05 18: Week in Brief: UK

18 May 2017

Week In Brief: UK

Union Jack flapping in wind from the right

Election news

LABOUR MANIFESTO: Following leaks of a draft, the Labour manifesto was launched on Tuesday, pledging, amongst other things: that tuition fees and  zero hour contracts would be scrapped and fracking for oil abolished; that the triple lock on pensions would be retained; that 10,000 new police officers would be hired; that childcare would be expanded for two, three and four-year-olds; and that water, the railways, the Royal Mail and energy supply systems would all be brought into public ownership with at least one publicly owned energy company in every region.  Labour would renew Trident and retain the 2% of GDP benchmark for defence spending.  It opposes a further Scottish referendum, would produce refreshed negotiating priorities on Brexit and would unilaterally protect the rights of EU citizens living in the UK.  HS2 would be extended to Scotland.  There are commitments to a new Brighton mainline and to Crossrail 2.  Out of 1 million new homes, at least half would be for social rent.  Labour would scrap the NHS pay cap and end hospital parking charges.  In addition to four new bank holidays there are a number of measures to protect workers’ pay and unionisation.  The minimum wage would be increased to at least £10 an hour by 2020.

To help pay for this, a 50% rate of income tax would be introduced for those earning above £123,000 per annum with the 45% rate beginning at £80,000.  Companies paying salaries in excess of £330,000 would pay a levy, the rate of corporation tax would increase to 26% and VAT would be charged on private school fees.  The Institute for Fiscal Studies has expressed scepticism as to whether Labour’s tax changes would realise as much as they think.

CONSERVATIVE PLEDGES: The Prime Minister has indicated that the Conservative manifesto will include provisions for unpaid leave with no jeopardy to employment rights where family members require care.  There will also be provision for two-weeks paid child bereavement leave and a guarantee of further increases in the national minimum wage.  Listed companies will have to appoint an employee director and there will be a reform of the rules governing workers currently treated as self-employed.  It is understood that the manifesto will also contain provision for new social houses.

Mrs May has pledged that a Conservative Government would make Parliamentary time for a free vote on the foxhunting ban.

LIBERAL DEMOCRATS: It is understood that the Liberal Democrat manifesto will include the promise for a further referendum following the Brexit negotiations, a promise to restore housing benefit for 18 to 21-year-olds and proposals to introduce a new local bus pass.

See comment Big Beasts.

Health

NURSING PAY: The congress of the Royal College of Nursing has voted to mount protests over nursing pay, where the cap on public pay rises has meant a 14% real reduction since 2010.  They also threaten the possibility of industrial action if the cap is retained.

HACKING ATTACK: The National Health Service has been seriously affected by cyber attacks against businesses and agencies across the world.  It has been suggested that the tools used to carry out the attack were created by the US National Security Agency and then stolen by an organisation known as Shadow Brokers which made them available on the Internet.  Microsoft says that it provided free software to counter the attacks in March but there are many older systems in use which are particularly vulnerable.  It is understood that each user is being asked to pay US $300 for the restoration of its files.  It is not thought that any patient data has been compromised.

Shadow Brokers has said that only a small part of the stolen data was used in the attacks and that unless someone buys the other stolen material from them they will release it by instalments, enabling criminals to mount further attacks on institutions and governments.

HOSPITAL BACKLOG: Official figures that show the NHS is missing targets in a number of areas.  Performance figures are the worst since 2003/2004 with many patients requiring routine surgery forced to wait at least 18 weeks, 2.3 million beds blocked by elderly patients and the target for treating 85% of cancer patients within two months being missed for 15 months in a row.  Tim Gardner, senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation think tank points out, however, that in relation to strokes, heart disease and some cancers, the quality of care is holding.

Education

MANCHESTER UNIVERSITY: Manchester University is to make 140 academic staff and 31 support staff redundant in response to financial pressures, including an increased pensions deficit, and concerns about the standard of teaching in some departments.  The academic sector as a whole is under pressure from the uncertainties of Brexit and also a higher education bill which will link the ability to raise fees to teaching quality.  Manchester’s own cuts, which are not Brexit related, need to be seen in context.  The University has 7000 academics, so the cuts represent 2%.

KNIVES AT SCHOOL: The number of weapons seized from children at school has increased dramatically in recent months.  This corresponds with the general increase of knife crime in London where 11 people died in the fortnight ending on 5 March.

Central Government and figures

POLL FRAUD: The Crown Prosecution Service has decided not to bring charges against 20 former MPs in relation to their 2015 campaign expenses on the grounds that, although there may have been misreporting, there is insufficient evidence of dishonesty.  The misreporting relates to expenses, such as visits by a battle bus to key constituencies, which were charged centrally rather than as an expense of the constituencies concerned.  Local limits on expenditure are much tighter than national limits.  One case, that of Craig MacKinlay, who defeated Nigel Farage in South Thanet, is still being considered.

SQUEEZED HOUSEHOLDS: The Bank of England has warned that households will have to cut back on spending as inflation moves ahead of wage rises.  The forecast for wage growth is now 2% this year against an inflation forecast of 2.8%.  Business investment is expected to increase.

HOUSE PRICES: Official figures show that house prices fell by 0.6% last month, contributing to a general slowdown over the last year when prices rose by 4.1% across the country, with 1.5% in London.  The average house price across England and Wales is now some 7.6 times annual earnings, well above the traditional level of around 3.5 times.

Policing and the law

POLICE RESIGNATION: The Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner for Cambridgeshire, Andy Coles, has resigned following allegations that he had a sexual relationship with an animal rights activist when working undercover in the 1990s.

ENQUIRY BLOCKED: The Metropolitan Police have been prevented from charging a Libyan man, Saleh Ilbraham Mabrouk, with the murder of WPC Fletcher in 1984 by the refusal of the intelligence services to hand over documents.  Mr Mabrouk denies involvement in the killing.

DIVORCE: A record £453 million was awarded by Mr Justice Haddon Cave to a mother who, by looking after their children as well as children from her husband’s first marriage for 20 years, made an equal contribution to the marriage.  In fact the exact proportion of the matrimonial assets awarded to her was 41.5%.  Although the award is very large, it reflects the normal practice of splitting assets accumulated during the marriage equally between the parties.

Church affairs

ANGLICAN SCHISM: An Anglican bishop has been appointed in Newcastle under the authority of a conservative church in South Africa.  This appears to be part of plans to found a new Anglican organisation in the UK outside the Church of England which were discussed at the ReNew conference in September.  The new church would take a stricter interpretation of Christian teachings on homosexuality.

RICHARD III: Philippa Langley, the historian who found Richard’s body in a car park, has criticised the decision by the Diocese of Leicester to allow a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III in the cathedral in which his body is now buried.  The play, of course, is a work of fiction and may or may not be unfair to the last Plantagenet king.  Either way, however, it is hard to argue with Ms Langley’s comment that this is a “truly unprincipled commercial and promotional venture”.  Some will think that this modern equivalent of dancing on graves compares poorly with the Roman Catholic practice of allowing the dead to Rest in Peace.

Other news

DRAYTON MANOR: An 11-year-old girl, Evha Jannath, died after falling into the water at the Splash Canyon ride at the Drayton Manor theme park.  The ride, and similar rides at Alton Towers, Legoland and Thorpe Park are currently closed.

FOREST GREEN: Forest Green Rovers, funded by green entrepreneur Dale Vince, has made it into the football league.  All food served at the ground will be vegan and the lawnmower is solar powered.

BBC FUNDING: Users of the BBC iPlayer will be required to register as a way of checking that they pay the licence fee.

 

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Issue 104: 2017 05 11: Week in Brief: UK

11 May 2017

Week In Brief: UK

Union Jack flapping in wind from the right

Royal news

DUCAL RETIREMENT: Prince Philip has announced that he will step down from his public role at the end of the summer, shortly after his 96th birthday.  From then on, although he may himself decide to attend public events from time to time, other members of the Royal family will take over his work in supporting the Queen.  The Duke, who gave up a promising career in the Royal Navy in order to support his wife, was praised by the Prime Minister, by Jeremy Corbyn and by other leading politicians for his public service.  He, like the Queen, is a great-great-grandchild of Queen Victoria.  He is also worshipped as a god on the island of Tanna.  Educated at Gordonstoun, then run by its founder, the German Jew Kurt Hahn, the Duke has always been interested in outdoor activities and his charitable work includes the creation of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.

Election news

LOCAL ELECTIONS:  The Conservative party made considerable gains in local elections outside London with an increase of 563 seats, giving them control of 11 councils, in addition to their previous total of 17.  Against that, Labour lost 382 seats and control of 7 councils, reducing the number which they control to 9.  The Liberal Democrats lost 42 seats, UKIP 145 seats and the Scottish Nationalists 7.  None of those parties controlled any councils before the election so they have not lost any.  The other winners were Plaid Cymru, who picked up 33 seats and the Green party who picked up 6.  Plaid Cymru continues to control one council, the Greens none.

In Scotland Labour lost three councils, including Glasgow, and the Scottish Nationalist party lost Dundee. That means that out of the 32 Scottish councils none is under the control of any one party although three are under the control of groups of independents.

In the mayoral elections, the Conservatives won West Midlands, West of England, Cambridge and Peterborough, and Tees Valley.  Labour won Manchester and Liverpool.

It is wholly unclear to what extent the pattern of voting in the local elections will be reflected in the general election on June 8 when the issues will be different.  It does seem, however, that UKIP’s voters are deserting it, generally in favour of the government, and that the Conservatives are likely to replace Labour as the main opposition to the SNP in Scotland.

LIBERAL DEMOCRATS: The Liberal Democrats have said that they will campaign on the basis of a 1 penny rise in income tax to provide an additional £6 billion for the NHS.  The policy contrasts with the Government’s insistence that it has no plans to raise income tax, although it will not pledge not to raise income tax or national insurance.

ENERGY CAP: It is understood that the Conservative manifesto will include a cap on domestic energy prices.  That will benefit those on the standard tariffs, although those on the cheaper tariffs will pay more.  The proposal has been criticised on the basis that it will interfere with the market but, at a domestic level, the market wasn’t working anyway, with two thirds of households being on the most expensive tariff.  The Prime Minister has indicated that she expects the changes to save families on standard tariff as much as £100 a year.  From a political perspective, the resetting of the cap every six months will involve the government in pricing decisions for which it could be criticised.  The energy companies, who have lobbied against proposal, say that it may well impact their profits.

JUNK FOOD: The Labour Party has said that, if elected, it will extend the ban on advertising food high in fat, salt or sugar, from children’s television time to the 9 PM watershed.  That should reduce children’s exposure to such advertisements by 82%.  The party would also earmark £250 million for a Children’s Health Scheme.

ASSORTED OTHER PLEDGES: Labour has said that it will restrict tax rises to the wealthiest 5% of the population, will recruit 10,000 more police officers, will renationalise rail, will abolish hospital parking charges, will build 1,000,000 new homes and will introduce four more bank holidays.  The Liberal Democrats and Labour are each committed to retaining the triple lock on pensions.  The Conservatives have indicated that they will retain the immigration target of 100,000 per annum net.  They have also promised a free vote on hunting.

See comment Pledges and Promises.

Other politics

NETWORK RAIL: £2 billion worth of cash to be generated through the sale of land, rail arches and shops in stations, which had been earmarked to finance upgrades to the rail system, may now be used for deficit reduction.  Network Rail is in talks with the Treasury and the Department for Transport regarding the change, which would mean postponing electrification projects.

SURVEILLANCE: Draft regulations leaked by the Open Rights Group would allow the security services to monitor in real time and prevent full encryption.  Experts say that a total ban on encryption is impracticable because of its effects on online security.  The new surveillance powers would be limited to 1 in 10,000 users and would need judicial sanction.  The new rules would come in by regulation made under the Investigatory Powers Act.  It is understood that the draft regulations have been discussed with the Technical Advisory Board, which includes representatives of O2, BT, BSkyB, Cable & Wireless, Vodafone and Virgin.

CLEAN AIR: The draft air quality plan published by the government has been criticised for being short on specific commitments.  Possible measures identified include reducing motorway speed limits to 60 miles an hour, the removal of speed humps, higher taxes for drivers of diesels, and the targeted scrappage of diesel cars.  The plan, which the Government was forced to publish by a High Court ruling, passes the responsibility for measures to reduce nitrogen dioxide to councils, suggesting that charging zones should only be used as a last resort.  It is estimated that nitrogen dioxide is responsible for 40,000 deaths a year.

Health and welfare

STROKES: Early trials suggest that attaching a patch costing 39p to the shoulder or back of stroke victims travelling to hospital, could halve death rates and also improve the prospects of recovery.  The patches contain glyceryl trinitrate and are being trialled by the East Midlands Ambulance Service.

SWEARING: A study presented to the British Psychological Society concludes that people perform better at physicals tasks if they are swearing.  Apparently those swearing gripped harder and cycled faster than those who were not allowed to blaspheme.  The research headed up by Richard Stevens of Keele University follows an earlier project which indicated that those swearing could deal better with pain.  For example they could hold their hands longer in buckets of iced water.  It is thought that the use of words which are normally taboo gives a release from restrictions on performance.  See Chin Chin.

ELDERLY COUPLES: Sir James Mumby, President of the Family Division, has said that the practice of splitting elderly couples when they move to a care home has to cease.  Addressing the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, he criticised social workers for relying too much on procedures and too little on humanity, empathy and decency.  His comments were supported by the director of Age UK.

Misc

WATER SHORTAGE: Affinity Water has advised its customers to take showers rather than baths, to use less water brushing their teeth, and to use watering cans instead of hoses, to save water following the driest winter in 20 years.  The Environmental Agency says that although rivers and reservoirs are low, there are no supply issues at present although plans are being drawn up in case dry weather persists.

REGENT’S PARK: The Planning Inspectorate has reversed a decision of Camden Council rejecting an application by developer Christopher Candy to create a garden in front of one of the Nash terraces.  Apparently the garden was part of the original scheme as proposed by Nash and therefore will not conflict with the architecture of the area.

GROUND RENTS: The Nationwide Building Society has tightened its lending criteria on new build properties.  Minimum leasehold terms are to be reduced to 125 years for flats and 250 years for houses, but in addition it will require ground rents to be restricted to 0.1% of value and not to increase by more than inflation.

FORENSIC SCIENCE: Thousands of convictions had been thrown into doubt after it appeared that employees at Randox Testing Services had tampered with samples to obtain positive results.  A team of scientists has been brought together to supervise retesting.  The number of cases affected could be as high as 6000.  Randox was one of the firms which moved into the business after the abolition of the Forensic Science Service in 2012.

TEACHING POSTS: A survey run by headteachers and Fair Funding for Schools across 14 counties indicates that 1161 teaching posts and 1595 teaching assistant posts will disappear in the new academic year.  Cuts totalling 7% of the budget over the next three years will result in larger class sizes and parents being asked to fund some activities.

FROME KNOCKED OFF: Cyclist Chris Froome has been deliberately knocked off his bicycle whilst training in France.  He was not injured but the bicycle was destroyed.  The driver is being sought by French police.

 

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Issue 103: 2017 05 04: Week in Brief: UK

04 May 2017

Week in Brief: UK

Union Jack flapping in wind from the right

Brexit

JUNCKER’S DINNER: German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine carries reports that a dinner at Number 10, which Mr Juncker described as “a constructive meeting”, was in reality nothing of the sort.  Rather, it is suggested that the occasion was fractious with “megaphone diplomacy” and that it left him sceptical as to whether a deal was possible.  In particular Mrs May’s suggestions that Britain did not owe the EU a penny and that EU citizens resident here should simply be treated as third-party nationals, are said to have gone down badly with the Commission’s team.  Whether or not the reports are exaggerated, the extraordinary thing is that anyone should be surprised.  Mrs May has the reputation of a hard negotiator who, as Home Secretary, only agreed the budget of her department up against the wire.  Of course she would take a hard line at a preparatory meeting of this sort and, indeed, it would be alarming if she did not do so.

Westminster

POLLUTION PLAN: The High Court has refused an application from the Environment Secretary to postpone the publication of the government’s strategy to improve air quality by 10 weeks.  Defra had argued that publication before the election would break the purdah rules, but the judge, Mr Justice Garnham, ordered that the government, which by not having published a plan is in breach of both EU and domestic legislation, should do so on 9 May.  He pointed out that pollution claims 64 lives each day.

ABBOTT SLIP: Diane Abbott, the shadow Home Secretary, added to her party’s chaotic image by getting into a muddle about its pledge to recruit more policemen.  Having begun by suggesting that 10,000 new police would only cost £300,000, a figure which she later revised to £18 million although the true figure is £300 million before training costs, she became confused as to the number of additional officers.  Although the Prime Minister suggested that the lapse was serious, the reality seems to be that she merely got into a tizz.

KNIFE CRIME: Yvette Cooper, chairman of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, has demanded government action on knife crime and gun crime which have risen by 14% and 13% respectively.  It is suggested that the two year increase in knife crime, following a period in which the figures improved, began with the reduction in stop and search under Mrs May as Home Secretary.

MORE TERRORISM: A 27-year-old man was arrested in Parliament Square with three knives.  It is understood that he had been monitored by MI5 following a tip-off from his family.

Other politics

NATIONAL UNION OF STUDENTS: Shakira Martin, a black working-class single mother, has become president of the National Union of Students, defeating the controversial left winger Ms Bouattia.  Ms Martin, who has been a vice president for two years, formerly studied at the Lewisham Southwark College.

THE GARDEN BRIDGE: Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has written to the Garden Bridge Trust stating that London will not underwrite the annual running costs of the proposed garden bridge, which has been designed by Thomas Hetherwick and is sponsored by actress Joanna Lumley.  As a guarantee from a public body is a condition of the planning permission, the trust is trying to find a substitute guarantor.  There is also a gap in capital funding, with £70 million of the £200 million total yet to be raised, and it must be very doubtful whether the project will now go ahead.

Technology

ELECTRIC CARS: A new Internet site, Chargie, is designed to allow owners of electric cars to charge their vehicles at the homes of other owners.  Payment for the charge will then be made automatically through the system.

SUPERFAST BROADBAND: A report by the magazine Which? indicates that, on average, mobile phone users can only access 4G for two thirds of the time.  Coverage and speed of download are highly variable, with Bournemouth only having coverage of 67.5%.  The target is that 95% of the country should be able to access 4G by the end of the year.

Health

MEDICAL RESEARCH: The Wellcome trust has said that Britain must continue to participate in European research projects if the trust is to continue its level of investment in UK science.  The warning follows representations from the pharmaceutical industry to the effect that drug companies could leave Britain unless the NHS received an extra £20 billion of funding.

STATINS: According to a paper published in the journal BMJ Open, 680,000 suffers from heart disease either do not take statins or take a dosage below the level recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.  That is not a question of cost.  Statins cost only 6p a day.  Rather it reflects the fact that people have fallen behind the guidance levels, which were increased three years ago, and also misplaced concerns over side-effects.  Research published in The Lancet indicates that any side effects, including muscle pain, are largely driven by the expectations of patients rather than medical considerations; that is partly because of a requirement that statins carry warnings of side-effects, imposed by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority in 2009.

MENTAL HEALTH: The Education Committee and the Health Committee of the House Of Commons have called for more action in combating mental health problems among young people.  In particular it is suggested that schools should pay more attention to mental well-being, striking a better balance with academic achievement.  There was concern that cost cutting in education was restricting the ability to offer mental health  services.

Crime

FLY TIPPING: Fly tipping has increased with councils reporting 936,090 cases for 2015/2016, a rise of 4%.  The problem is now costing more than £600 million a year, the majority of tipping being carried out by criminals who have obtained licences to act as rubbish collectors.  It appears that few checks are made, and the managing director of Eunomia, a firm commissioned to carry out research for the Environmental Services Association, had no difficulty in registering his dog as a waste carrier.  The Environment Agency, who issued the licence, failed to spot that the dog had been dead for 10 years.

TERRORISTS: Six people were arrested in London and Kent last Thursday in a move which is said to have foiled an active terrorist plot.  A 21-year-old woman was shot but is expected to survive.

 

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Issue 102: 2017 04 27: Week in Brief: UK

27 April 2017

Week In Brief: UK

Union Jack flapping in wind from the right

Science

NEAR STRIKE: Asteroid 2014 JO 25, more than 1.3 km wide and travelling at 75,000 mph, passed 1.1 million miles from earth last week.  It is at least 30 times the mass of the meteor which exploded over Chelyabinsk in 2013 causing injuries to more than 1400 people.  The Asteroid will not come as close again for another 500 years. (For scientific analysis see Chin Chin)

Election

PRE-ELECTION BUSINESS: The sudden general election has meant that Parliamentary business has either to be completed before Parliament is dissolved (probably this week) or postponed.  This involves compromises between the government and those who wish to amend bills.  One possible area of negotiation is whether or not foreign students should be included in the immigration figures.  A number of Cabinet ministers, including Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond, are said to be in favour of excluding them on the basis that education is really a UK export.  To date Mrs May has refused to do so.  It is understood that that the proposed increase in probate fees will now wait until after the election.

CANDIDATES: As candidates are sorted out prior to the 11 May nomination date, Ken Clarke, the 76-year-old former Conservative Chancellor, has put himself forward to defend Rushcliffe; George Osborne, Eric Pickles and George Howarth have each decided to stand down.  On the other hand Vince Cable, Simon Hughes and possibly Zac Goldsmith will be seeking to re-enter Parliament.  Tony Blair has called on voters to support candidates opposed to Brexit regardless of their political party.

TRADE UNION AND SOCIALIST COALITION: The TUSC and the Communist Party of Britain have each said that they will not oppose Labour candidates on June 8.  That could be out of respect for Mr Corbyn and his views or it could be a matter of finance.  The TUSC lost its deposit in 135 seats in 2015, costing it over £65,000, presumably no small matter to an organisation which polled a total of 36,327 votes.  Then there must have been the cost of leaflets etc.  This election will come a lot cheaper.

DIESEL DELAY: The government has used the pre-election purdah period to avoid a deadline of 24th of April imposed by the High Court for the publication of its proposals to cut emissions.  The plan is now to publish on 30 June.  The proposals are highly sensitive because of the threat posed by diesels to public health and the fact that many car owners bought diesel vehicles with the encouragement of government.

See comments The Distortion Of The Political Process and Statistics And Other Fibs.

Brexit

EU COMMISSION: It appears from leaked guidelines that the EU may demand that European employment law should apply to EU citizens working in the UK.  Presumably that would be matched by the 900,000 British citizens living in Europe being governed by British law.  This improbable suggestion, together with a possible proposal that security cooperation be overseen by the European Court of Justice, is likely to give rise to conflict if Mrs May is returned to Downing Street.

National debt

GOVERNMENT BORROWING: According to the Office of National Statistics, the deficit is now down to £52 billion or 2.6% of gross domestic profit, the lowest level for nine years.  It is important to remember, however, that the deficit is the rate of increase in national debt which stands at a record £1.73 trillion and that the annual figures are helped by low interest rates.  Currently interest on the debt costs the UK around £36 billion a year but that could easily increase with borrowing costs.  A £58 billion deficit is forecast for next year.

Health and wellbeing

PISA SURVEY: An OECD Pisa survey into the lives of 15-year-old children across 72 countries has revealed high anxiety levels among UK teenagers, especially girls.  Also revealed is that British 15-year-olds spend an average of 188 minutes each weekday on the Internet outside school hours, the highest figure in Europe and well above the OECD average of 146.  British teenagers are more concerned about tests than teenagers in other countries and also very ambitious.  Girls are more stressed than boys and more prone to psychological disorders.

ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE: According to research published in Brain there is a possibility that the drug trazodone or the experimental anti-cancer compound dibenzoylmethane will prove effective in curing Alzheimer’s disease.  Because trazodone is known to be safe (it is used in another context), it should be possible to move straight to clinical trials.  Its success in rejuvenating the brains of mice may of course not be replicated with human guinea pigs (as it were).

Crime and the law

SHOOT TO KILL: Use by terrorists worldwide of vehicles as weapons has led to changes in police tactics. Whereas previously the rule was that officers did not fire at a driver for fear of collateral damage, it is now accepted that this is often the only way to halt an attack.  The number of armed police in the UK is being increased and is expected to reach 10,000 next year.

CHINESE FRAUDS: Ms Hillier, successor to Margaret Hodge as chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee, has asked the National Audit Office to investigate allegations that Chinese gangs are using Britain as a way to import goods into Europe without VAT.

LEIGH DAY: The Solicitors Regulation Authority is currently hearing allegations against Leigh Day, two of its partners and one of its associates, that evidence which undermined claims against British armed forces personnel in Iraq was suppressed, and that the firm continued to act despite having evidence that its clients were being manipulated.  The Tribunal was told that the firm paid more than £1.6 million to bring in the business, which generated almost £10 million in fees.  Allegations made by the firm on behalf of its clients resulted in a public enquiry which collapsed at a cost of £29 million.

STRIPED HOUSE: Kensington and Chelsea Council were held to have made a technical error in ordering a resident to repaint her house.  The High Court held that, although the house, which had been painted with red and white stripes, is in a conservation area, the notice to return it to its original colour had been given under the wrong part of the planning code.

CAR KILLING: A man had been arrested on suspicion of the murder of Michael Sandwell, an ex-Royal Naval officer who was run down with his own car as he tried to prevent its theft at the weekend.

Miscellaneous

CHEAP FLIGHTS: Budget flights from London to Singapore are to be introduced in September by Norwegian air.  They are expected to cost less than half of the current lowest tariff.

UNITE: Gerard Coyne, who unsuccessfully challenged Len McCluskey for the leadership of Unite, has been suspended from the post of regional secretary without any reason being given.

DOCUMENT FOUND: A nearly contemporaneous parchment copy of the US Declaration of Independence has been found in the West Sussex County Archives.  It is believed to have been created some 10 years after the 1776 copy which hangs in the National Archives in Washington.

THE SOUND OF MONEY: 913 gold sovereigns have been found in a piano by a piano tuner at a school in Shropshire.  One half of the value of the find goes to the tuner himself as treasure trove.  The other half goes to the school which recently received the piano as a gift.  The donors said that they were happy that the money was going to be used by the community.

BBC FUNDING: A report by the National Audit Office has found that although the overall number of BBC staff has dropped by 4% over the last five years with a decrease in 6% in the money spent on salaries, the number of senior managers has actually risen from 89 to 98, an increase from 1% of the payroll to 1.6%. The BBC defends this by saying that managers have added responsibilities.

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Issue 101: 2017 04 20: Week in Brief: UK

20 April 2017

Week in Brief: UK

Union Jack flapping in wind from the right

Government

GENERAL ELECTION: The government has called  a general election on 8 June.  Under the Fixed Term Parliament Act that had to be endorsed by a two thirds majority of the House of Commons but, since Mr Corbyn has already said that he would back an early election, this requirement was easily met by a majoriy of 522 to 13.  Should the Government win the election, its fresh mandate will free it from electoral promises made by David Cameron in 2015.  For example it will be able to take a fresh look at the triple lock on pensions and the undertakings not to increase taxes and national insurance which resulted in a U-turn following the last budget.

The decision, reached after discussion with an inner core of Cabinet members, surprised commentators and the markets.  Sterling rallied immediately.  The plan seems to be for the campaign to be heavily Brexit focused and Mrs May has made it clear that she will not be taking part in any television debates.

See comment Draining The Swamp.

DIESEL SCRAPPAGE: The government is considering the possibility of a diesel scrappage scheme under which those exchanging their diesels for new cars would obtain a discount provided from government funds.  It is believed that the scheme would only operate in high pollution areas.  The Prime Minister is known to be concerned that the alternative of simply introducing a special congestion charge is unfair on those drivers who were encouraged to buy diesels by the Labour government.

SPEEDING FINES: As from 6 May, Britain brings into effect European rules which allow foreign police forces to access DVLA records to enforce speeding fines.  Oddly the system, which is designed to enable foreign fines imposed on British motorists to be enforced, is not reciprocal.  Under British law it is the driver and not the registered owner who is liable.  Accordingly a search of foreign registers will not reveal who should pay the fine.

FAST TRACK EXPULSION: Liz Truss, the Justice Secretary, is to introduce a new scheme for expelling failed asylum seekers.  The idea is to reduce the time between the decision and appeal to 28 days rather than the current 36, with 20 working days for a further appeal.  The plan, which has to be approved by the Independent Tribunal Procedure Committee, gives power to judges to decide whether fast tracking should apply or not.  Removals have fallen from about 18,000 in 2006 to about 3500.

GREENPEACE FINE: Greenpeace has been fined £30,000 for failure to register under the Lobbying Act in respect of its expenditure in the 2015 election.  As a not for profit organisation it should have registered because its expenditure of £125,000 exceeded the threshold of £20,000.  Apparently Greenpeace refused to register as “an act of civil disobedience”.

WAGES: According to official figures the average weekly wage grew by 2.3% in the year to February if bonuses are included.  Without bonuses the rise was 2.2%.  There is concern that, as the effects of the falling pound are felt, the purchasing power of working families will shrink.  The employment rate remains at 74%.

FOREIGN POLICY: The Prime Minister has praised Boris Jonson’s efforts in bringing together an international consensus for Rex Tillerson to take to Moscow.  She said that British scientists had found very clear evidence that a nerve agent was used in Syria and that it was highly likely that the Assad regime is responsible.

GERMAN INTELLIGENCE: A report by the German magazine Focus that Mrs Merkel received data gathered by GCHQ during a visit to the UK has caused resentment in the Federal Intelligence Service.  It is suggested that she may have handed over a file of reports from her own intelligence services in return.

NORTHERN IRELAND: The stalemate between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein following the collapse of the Stormont government means that there will either need to be a new election or direct rule from the UK if a further power sharing administration is not formed in early May.  It is possible that elections to the assembly will be called to coincide with the General Election in June.

Media

FACEBOOK: The Times newspaper has reported that the social media company Facebook failed to take down images depicting child abuse and supporting terrorist atrocities on the basis that they did not breach their in house community standards.  It quotes a leading QC as saying that the failure to take down the posts when reported might mean that Facebook was guilty of criminal offences.  The odd part of this story is the focus on the criminal responsibility of Facebook.  Presumably if they were committing offences, the staff responsible must have been doing so too.  One might think that that was the effective place to apply sanctions.

TRUMP DAMAGES: The Daily Mail is to pay damages, thought to be in the region of £2.4 million, to Melania Trump, the wife of the President of the United States, following suggestions that her work as a model included other “services”.

SEX FOR ROOM: The discovery that landlords are offering accommodation in return for sex has caused concern among charities and politicians.  Apparently the arrangements are widely advertised in the media.

Education

GRAMMAR SCHOOLS: It is being proposed that at least one third of the pupils at new grammar schools will have to come from families earning no more than £25,000 a year.  That is higher than the £21,000 a year figure mentioned by Mrs May when she announced the new schools.  Opponents point out that only 3% of grammar school pupils receive free school meals as compared with 18% of pupils at other local authority controlled schools, taking this as an indication that an increase in the number of grammars will not assist poorer families.

STREAMING: Lawyers from the National Union of Teachers have asked a number of academies how they justify the admission to their selective streams.  Although streaming is legal once children have been admitted to a school, streaming at admission is not.  The union is concerned that if the government fails to get legislative support for its proposals to permit new grammar schools, streaming will be introduced within existing schools, thus creating grammars by the back door.

Health

SHREWSBURY AND TELFORD NHS TRUST: Jeremy Hunt has asked NHS England and the regulator, NHS Improvement, to contact families of children who have died at hospitals run by the Trust so that their deaths can be properly investigated.  There is concern that the steps taken to monitor babies’ heart rates during labour had been insufficient and may have led to deaths.

NURSING PAY: The Royal College of Nursing is to ballot members who have been offered a 1% pay rise on the possibility of strike action.  The College has never previously called a strike over pay but is concern that nurses have seen a 14% cut in real terms since 2010.

SICK BRITS: British holidaymakers are accused of making false claims against travel companies alleging that they have suffered from food poisoning.  The Costa Del Sol Hotel Association says that, despite a wide mix of holidaymakers, only those from the UK seem to be affected.  It is thought that the claims, much like those made for whiplash injuries against car insurers, are largely spurious and encouraged by lawyers remunerated on a contingency fee basis.

DRUG PRICES: The European Commission has begun in investigation into Aspen Pharmacare, a South African company which bought the rights to a number of patent expired drugs from GlaxoSmith Kline.  The price of the drugs were then increased by a factor of up to 120 in the UK and even more in Italy.  Rules are already being put in place in the UK to cover the pricing of patent expired drugs.  Aspen is already under investigation in Spain and Italy for an alleged abuse of dominant position.

Courts and crime

CRIMEWAVE: Crime in London is up by 4.6% to a total number of 774,737 offences over the last 12 months.  The increase includes a 4% increase in knife crime, a 42% increase in gun crime, a 26% increase in motor thefts, a 4% increase in assaults and a 12% increase in robberies.  Detection rates have fallen.  The increase in crime is also reflected in national statistics.

ASSISTED SUICIDE: A retired lecturer, suffering from a terminal complaint, has successfully challenged a High Court ruling denying him consent to take proceedings for Judicial Review of the ban on assisting suicide.  Mr Conway’s argument is that the Suicide Act 1961 is incompatible with the European Convention of Human Rights.

POLICE RECRUITMENT: A Freedom of Information request has revealed that the Metropolitan Police have paid £219 million to Reed Recruitment over six years, re-hiring former policeman to reduce staff shortages.  The Met is currently 740 detectives short and all those retiring this year are being asked to stay on.

 

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