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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Issue 100: UK News Week In Brief

13 April 2017

Week In Brief: UK NEWS

Foreign Affairs

BORIS STAYS AWAY:  Boris Johnson cancelled this week’s visit to Moscow to the apparent irritation of his Russian hosts.  Tweets from the Russian Embassy refer to him as Donald Trump’s “lieutenant.” It is assumed that the cancellation was designed to strengthen the hand of US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who is now visiting Moscow.

NEW SANCTIONS REJECTED:  Calls by Mr Johnson for increased sanctions against Russia, if it continues to support Assad, were rejected at the Lucca meeting of the G7 (Britain, France, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the US) and no reference was made to them in the final communiqué.

Other government news

DEATH TAXES:  The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has criticised proposals by the Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, to increase probate fees, increasing the top level from £215 to £20,000.  The Committee said that the new charges had the hallmarks of a tax rather than fees in which case they should not be introduced without full parliamentary scrutiny.  A petition against the fees, which would go to funding the courts and tribunal service, gathered 30,000 signatures.  Ms Truss is unpopular with lawyers following her failure to protect the judiciary, incorrect statements over a scheme to spare rape victims cross-examination in court, and her role in setting rules which exclude Sir Brian Leveson from the role of Lord Chief Justice.

FREE FOR LABOUR:  Mr Corbyn has announced that Labour will, if elected, raise the legal minimum wage to £10 an hour by 2020 and will apply it to workers under the age of 25.  This is designed to “outflank” the government’s position which is that by that year the wage will rise to £9 an hour for those over 25.

A pledge by Labour to add VAT to private school fees to pay for universal free school meals at primary level has been undermined by a statement from the Institute of Fiscal Studies that the report on which it was based is not as clear as the Party claimed. The Shadow Education Secretary had stated that evidence from the IFS report made it clear that universal meals would raise standards. The author of the report said that this was overstating the conclusions and that more work would be required before reliance could be placed on it.

FOREIGN OWNERS:  A report by the Bow Group calls for a restriction on the foreign ownership of UK residential property.  Apparently 10% of the housing stock is owned by foreigners and demand from abroad is a major contributor to house price inflation.

RECKLESS TURN:  Former UKIP MP Mark Reckless, who was elected to represent the party in the Welsh Assembly in 2016, has now joined the Conservative Group in the Assembly although he has not as yet re-joined the Conservative party.  Paul Oakden, chairman of UKIP, said that, as Reckless owed his position to being on the UKIP list, he should now resign it.

Health

COMPETENT DOCTORS:  A paper published in BMC Medical Education has revealed that doctors from other parts of the world are more likely than British trained doctors to have to have their competence reassessed by the General Medical Cancel because of the quality of their work. At first sight the results, which are based on almost 20 years of data, are encouraging for the UK medical establishment. Doctors qualified in Germany are six times more likely to be referred than doctors who qualified in the UK; those who qualified in India are five times as likely; those who qualified in Eastern Europe four times as likely and those who qualified in Ireland twice as likely. Still, UK educated doctors should be able to perform better as they are working in their own language and can be presumed to have a better grip on local culture.

LOCUMS:  New rules to prevent the use of personal service companies by locums have resulted in industrial action.  The new arrangements will increase the amount of tax and national insurance paid by doctors and, although some hospitals have tried to increase rates to compensate for this, many locums have refused the extra pay.  The General Medical Council has intervened to say that the industrial action must not be allowed to put patients at risk.

DR FOX:  Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, came forward on a flight to the Philippines to assist a nine month old child suffering a fit.  The child had recovered fully by the time the flight landed.

HOSPITAL PARKING:  The RAC has criticised arrangements for parking at English hospitals, pointing out that in many cases drivers are expected to insert coins even though they do not know how long their visit will last.  Use of modern technology or exit payments would make the system far more user-friendly.  In Wales and Scotland, parking at hospitals is largely free.

RICH SCOTS:  Breast cancer drugs regarded as too expensive for the NHS in England are to be available in Scotland.  Although some disparity of treatment is inevitable bearing in mind that the Scottish Medicines Consortium, which recommends drugs in Scotland, is a separate body from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence which performs the same function in England, the difference draws attention to the disparity in health funding north and south of the border.  In Scotland the NHS gets £2100 per person; the English figure is £1900.  There is a similar disparity in public expenditure as a whole under the Barnett formula.

CARE WORKERS:  Figures put together by the charity Skills for Care put the shortage of care workers at 84,000.  That compares with some 1.3 million employed in the sector.  The average hourly wage for care workers is £7.69 an hour and a quarter of them are on zero hours contracts.

Courts and crime

CHARITIES:  Cancer research, the British Legion, Oxfam and the NSPCC are among charities fined for trading information about donors so that they could be pursued for more money.  The information illegally swapped included details of wealth, telephone numbers and email addresses.

TERM TIME HOLIDAYS:  The fine imposed on Jon Platt by the Isle of White Council for taking his daughter to Disneyland during term time without her school’s permission has been reinstated by the Supreme Court on appeal by the local authority.  Mr Platt relied on a 90% attendance record as discharging the obligation for his daughter to attend “regularly” but the court decided that “regularly” in this context meant “in accordance with the rules”.

BATMAN:  Mustafa Bashir, who beat his wife with a cricket bat and forced her to drink bleach, has had his sentence revised upwards to 18 months imprisonment on the basis that the trial judge was misled by his claim to have a contract to play professional cricket for Leicestershire County Cricket Club.  The original sentence was suspended but the judge, Richard Mansell QC, when making it custodial, pointed out that the club had issued a statement to the effect that the defendant’s claim of a contract was wholly false.

EQUAL CONTRIBUTION:  The Court of Appeal has rejected an attempt by American financier Randy Work to overturn a divorce court ruling that the matrimonial assets should be split 50:50.  The assets were accumulated during the marriage of Mr Work and his ex-wife, with whom he had two children.  His proposal that he should enjoy 60% of the assets was based on his exceptional contribution as a “financial genius”.

NO-WIN NO FEE:  the Supreme Court has held that Times Newspapers should pay fees incurred by successful libel litigant Gary Flood even though these were inflated by a premium to reflect a “no-win no fee” arrangement.

Miscellaneous

GOOGLE:  The dispute between Google and MPs over the publication of illegal videos has moved on, with the company telling Bloomberg that it will use programs to detach extremist videos from advertising on its social media networks.  It will not, however, use the technology to remove them entirely.  The fact that Google is able to identify extremist sites will increase the pressure for it to remove them.

BARBICAN LAVATORIES:  The relabelling of the loos outside the Barbican Cinema to “gender neutral with urinal” and “gender neutral with cubicles” has resulted in queueing for the ladies because men can use the lavatories indiscriminately whereas women do not use urinals.  One critic of the new arrangements received an online response to comments which read “we welcome all your feedback about the new system as we look to ensure an outstanding audience experience for all“.  And we thought that you went to the cinema to watch the film!

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Issue 99: 2017 04 06: Week in Brief: UK

06 April 2017

Week in Brief: UK

Union Jack flapping in wind from the right

Brexit

REPEAL BILL WHITE PAPER: The Government has published the Great Repeal Bill White Paper setting out the mechanisms through which Britain will disengage from the EU.  The idea is that as from the date of exit (29 March 2019), the European Communities Act will be repealed so that European Institutions and the European Court of Justice (“the ECJ”) will cease to have sway here.  That, however, is just a start.  English law, and also that of Scotland and Northern Ireland, is heavily intertwined with that of the European Union and much of it was introduced in compliance with European Directives or judgements of the European Court of Justice.  What to do?  To disentangle the remainder of UK law from the bits which derive from Europe would simply be impractical.  In the White Paper, the Government has taken the only possible solution.  There are two parts to it:

  1. all European law in force at the Exit Date will become British law.  That means that directly enforceable European rules will continue to have effect and British Courts will continue to follow pre Exit decisions of the ECJ.  From then on, however, the lawmaking power returns to Westminster (or in some cases the devolved authorities) so that the laws inherited from Europe, like any other legislation, can be amended if and when change is desired;
  2. that leaves, however, another problem.  Some of the rules which will be in place at Exit Date give power to European Institutions or are otherwise inextricably linked to EU membership.  Those rules will need to be changed before Exit and, as there are likely to be a lot of them, the Government proposes to take the power to change them by statutory instrument rather than requiring endless Acts of Parliament.  This is a wide power, and has been criticised as such.  However it will only be available to adapt the rules where this is necessary to make them work post Brexit.  It will not be used for policy changes.

So far so simple, you might think.  Employment rights, environmental rights, consumer protection rights will all remain exactly as they are when we leave the EU until and unless Parliament decides to change them.  Still, that leaves some difficult points.  What about the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights?  That is to be abolished on the basis that its purpose was to codify existing EU rights and that those rights will themselves remain in place.  There is room for confusion here.  The codifying provisions of the Charter of Fundamental Rights are entirely separate from the European Convention on Human Rights which is a creature of the Council of Europe and not of the EU.  That is the one that creates rights of privacy etc.  It is also the one that was at one time thought to require that prisoners be giving voting rights.  It will not be affected.

Another area of difficulty relates to devolution.  Currently there are a number of areas where the devolved assemblies make rules within a framework set by the EU.  If that framework disappeared, coherence across the UK would be lost.  In these circumstances it is proposed that the Government should take over the EU’s role but the devolved rights should continue to be operated as before.  The split of responsibility with Scotland over fishing rights is likely to be contentious.

That of course leaves Gibraltar, the Channel Islands and other dependent territories.  Of these Gibraltar is the most difficult because of the political tension with Spain and also because, although it is not within the EU, substantial tracts of EU law apply.  For example Gibraltar applies VAT.  The White Paper does not go into how all this will be dealt with, probably because that is a matter on which Gibraltar itself needs to be consulted.

This White Paper was clearly written by lawyers, its purpose being to provide a mechanism which works for Brexit.  Accordingly, discussion of it should be focussed on refining the way in which that mechanism operates.  No doubt some of the more testosterone-fuelled politicians will seek to make difficulties, and the scope of the power to use secondary legislation is an area where this has begun to occur.  Nonetheless, the proposals are sensibly constructed and, headbangers aside, should not be too difficult to agree on.

EU NEGOTIATING GUIDELINES:  The EU has also been off to the printers with a note from the European Council (the President of which is Donald Tusk) and member states on how the negotiations are to be conducted.  A two-stage process is envisaged.  The first part will be devoted to disentangling the relationship and, no doubt, settling the amount which Britain needs to pay in respect of outstanding liabilities.  The second phase will involve discussion as to the relationship between the UK and the EU following exit.  That will not, however, begin until substantial progress has been made on the first phase.  Presumably the idea here is to separate negotiations about the Brexit Bill from negotiations about a future relationship.

The guidelines also raise the possibility of transitional arrangements, confirm that efforts will be made to avoid a hard border within Ireland, state that the EU will expect the UK to continue to honour agreements made before Brexit, and stipulate that EU institutions and Courts should deal with matters pending at Brexit.  The sting comes in the tail.  Having made it clear that Britain cannot be a member of the single market but that the parties will work towards a trade agreement, the guidelines state that no agreement will apply to Gibraltar without the separate agreement of Spain.  That has caused outrage on the Rock and is likely to give rise to endless trouble.

Cuts, kind and unkind

NHS CUTS:  The National Health Service is to drop its 18 week target for surgery for hip replacements and cataracts in order to make funds available for improved A &E services and cancer therapy.  Also on the priority list are mental health and general practice.  Simon Stevens, the chief executive, points out that 10 years ago half of the patients waited 18 weeks for operations.  Now the figure is about 10%.

Mr Stevens also set out his plans for improved cancer care, including improved diagnosis, ten new assessment centres, and upgrading of radiotherapy machines.  He proposes too that more resources be put into helplines and evening and weekend GP surgeries.  Hospitals are to warn patients of the effects of drinking and smoking.

FORCES CUTS:  According to The Times, the armed forces face a shortfall of about £1 billion a year over the next 10 years.  Savings to deal with this are likely to involve a reduction in the number of Royal Marines and the suspension of overseas training.  The forces face increased costs for a number of reasons.  The weak pound has made the fleet of aircraft required for the two new carriers more expensive.  It is also likely that the cost of the new submarines required to host the nuclear deterrent will overrun.

SAT CUTS:  In a reversal of government policy, SATS for seven-year-olds are to be abolished from next year.  Instead the children will be assessed during their reception year at the age of four or five but will not be aware of the process.

COMMISSIONERS SALARY:  Cressida Dick, the Oxford graduate who moves from the Foreign Office back into policing to lead the Met, has asked for her pay to be reduced by £40,000 a year from the £270,000 a year paid to her predecessor.

Other political news

LORDS EXPENSES: Allegations in The Sunday Times suggest that some peers may be abusing the £300 a day expense allowance by turning up, claiming the allowance, and then not doing any work.  The total of allowances paid in the year to October 2016 was £19 million.

PASSPORT REMOVED:  The passport of Sufiyan Hamza, the son of hate preacher Abu Hamza, has been withdrawn.  He is currently believed to be fighting in Syria and can no longer return to the UK.

WESTMINSTER UPGRADE:  The decision on whether MPs and Peers should move out of the Palace of Westminster while it is refurbished has been deferred yet again.  The vote will now not be until the end of May and it is feared that reluctance to spend the money at a time of austerity will result in the matter being referred for another review.

LABOUR:  The Labour Party, having concluded that remarks by Mr Livingstone that Hitler backed Zionism prior to the Holocaust breached party rules on anti-Semitism, has decided not to expel him.  Instead his current suspension has been extended for a further year.  Mr Livingstone, who has a record of taunting the Jewish community, based his claims on the 1933 Ha’avara agreement between the Nazis and German Zionists under which Jews leaving for Palestine to escape increasing persecution were permitted to reclaim a proportion of assets forfeited on emigration.  The decision has caused widespread anger in the Jewish community and will further erode Labour support there.

Courts

OLDER JUDGES:  Lord Neuberger, the presiding judge of the Supreme Court, has called for the retirement age of judges to be put back from 70 to its previous level of 75 in order to deal with a recruitment shortage.

PROCTOR SUES:  Former Tory MP Harvey Proctor is to sue the Metropolitan police and the anonymous witness “Nick” in respect of unsubstantiated allegations against him and other public figures.  It is understood that substantial damages may already have been paid by the Metropolitan Police to Lord Bramall.

RIGHT TO DIE:  A man suffering from motor neurone disease has been refused leave to pursue a declaration that the Suicide Act 1961, which prohibits assisting suicides, is incompatible with the Human Rights Act.  Mr Conway’s case is different from those which have previously come before the courts because his illness is terminal.

CROYDON ASSAULT:  Seven people are in custody following the assault on asylum seeker Reker Ahmed in Croydon on Friday.  Mr Ahmed suffered a fractured spine and brain haemorrhage although his condition is now stable.  Two men are still being sought.

GOOGLE:  It is understood that Google is trying to develop technology to identify hate videos and prevent them being run with advertising.  A boycott by more than 250 companies has resulted in their going into “emergency mode” on the issue.  Apparently the technology may make it possible for advertisers to verify the posts against which their advertisements appear.

Miscellaneous

DIESEL CARS:  Diesel cars more than two years old will be the subject of a £12.50 per day charge in a new central London zone covering the area between the North Circular and the South Circular.  Other cities are considering bringing in similar charges.  The Government is known to be concerned about the charges, bearing in mind that many people bought diesel cars following government advice that they would reduce carbon dioxide emissions.  The trouble is that the scientists underestimated the emission of nitrogen oxides.  It is understood that consideration is being given to whether there should be incentives to motorists to scrap diesel cars.

ONLINE DEGREE:  Exeter University is to offer a number of online postgraduate degrees from September.  These include degrees in finance and management, business and marketing.  The fees for a two years of study will be £18,000.  A number of US universities already offer online courses.

SPORT:  Briton Johanna Konta has won the Miami tennis open, becoming the world number seven.  Oxford won the men’s boat race by one and a quarter lengths.  Cambridge won the women’s boat race.

 

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Issue 98: 2017 03 30: Week in Brief: UK

30 March 2017

Week in Brief: UK

Union Jack flapping in wind from the right

Westminster

ARTICLE 50: Britain has served notice under article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, beginning the two year countdown to its exit from the EU.

LABOUR: Shadow Brexit secretary Kier Starmer has set out six conditions which his party will require if they are to back the final Brexit deal in the Commons.  Slightly bizarrely one of the test is whether the deal will deliver exactly the same benefits as our current membership of the Single Market and Customs Union.  Read literally that would indicate that Labour would prefer no deal (i.e. reliance on WTO tariffs) to marginally decreased access to the market.  Mr Starmer also said that the Prime Minister should now commit to establishing transitional arrangements running from the end of the two-year period, apparently overlooking the fact that such arrangements can only be put in place with the agreement of the EU.

WESTMINSTER ATTACK: After days of speculation in the press, the Metropolitan Police have come to the conclusion that Khalid Masood who murdered four people, including a police officer, in last week’s attack at Westminster Bridge and at the Houses of Parliament, was acting alone.  Despite thorough investigations into his background and the questioning of a number of his associates, the authorities have not been able to identify any conspirators.  As a “one-off” attack the incident has few implications as to the likelihood of similar incidents occurring.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd has called for WhatsApp to produce the texts sent by Masood immediately prior to the attack.  Unfortunate, however, the texts are encrypted so that is not possible.  Ms Rudd has called for a “backdoor” through which encrypted text can be read but it is questionable whether this can be achieved without undermining the privacy of communications generally.

EX UKIPPER: Douglas Carswell, the MP for Clacton, has left UKIP, now without any representation in the House of Commons.  Carswell was not a natural fit for the party but joined it because of his belief in the importance of getting Britain out of the EU.  Now, job done, he is leaving it.  For the time being he will sit as a cross bench MP but he has not ruled out a return to the Conservative fold at some stage.

Holyrood and Stormont

SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT: The Scottish parliament voted by 69 votes to 59 to request a further referendum on independence before Britain leaves the EU.  The UK has already indicated that it will not agree to this, inter-alia because the level of uncertainty during the negotiations will mean that the people of Scotland do not have a fair choice.  Previously it had been suggested that the Scottish Parliament might arrange a non-binding referendum but this seems to be impracticable because those who oppose independence could invalidate it by not participating.  The most likely outcome is that if Scotland is not satisfied with the terms, and the SNP is still in power, there will be further calls for a referendum in about 2021.

NORTHERN IRELAND: Talks designed to re-establish power sharing in Northern Ireland have reached an impasse with Sinn Fein failing to designate a deputy first minister.  Power sharing came to an end in January following a dispute over a green energy project.

Money and Mergers

NEW COINS: The replacement of the old circular 1 pound coin by the new 12 sided version should be bad news for forgers.  The new coin has the latest anti-fraud technology, important at a time when it is estimated that one in 30 coins is counterfeit.  It is slightly larger and slightly lighter than the pound we are used to – presumably reflecting a change in the alloy.  Since the coin is not made of gold, however, that is a matter of convenience rather than an attempt to dupe the public.  The coin is to be introduced over six months and slot machines throughout the country have been adjusted, except for those on Tesco trolleys however where conversion is yet to take place.  Tesco’s have some 200 stores with trolley locks and for the time being those locks will be disconnected.  Tesco say that there will be additional staff available to assist customers, presumably at stores where the locks are back in use.

STOCK EXCHANGES: The proposed £21 billion merger of the London Stock Exchange and the Deutsche Borse, already threatened by Brexit, has been blocked by EU competition regulators.

Court News

PRINCE GEORGE: It has been announced that Prince George is to attend Thomas’s school in Battersea, a mixed sex primary school.

Compensation and Courts

OFCOM: Consumer groups have welcomed proposals by Ofcom that suppliers of telephone and broadband services should have to compensate customers automatically for missed appointments and failure of service.  The compensation for missed appointments would be £30 whereas failure of service would result in payments of £10 a day.  It is estimated that currently 2.6 million people would receive compensation each year at a cost of some £185 million.

SON OF WHIPLASH: It used to be whiplash, now it is bogus holiday sickness claims.  Law firms and claim companies are targeting holidaymakers, telling them that they can make claims against the organisers of package holidays for stomach bugs and other minor sicknesses on the basis that in the case of minor claims only a verbal confirmation of the sicknesses is required.  The Solicitors Regulation Authority is investigating 15 firms, suggesting that some of them have made illicit payments to claim management companies.  The area is particularly remunerative for lawyers because holiday sickness abroad is not covered by rules limiting fees.  ABTA has called for those rules to be changed but one cannot help thinking that a simpler answer might be a few high-profile prosecutions followed by deterrent sentences.

DIVORCE RULING: The press and legal establishment have reacted with outrage at the refusal of the Court of Appeal to overrule a High Court ruling that a woman, Mrs Owens, could not to divorce her husband because he had not reached the threshold for unreasonable behaviour set by the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.  There are two questions here.  The first is why this came as such a surprise.  The law is fairly clear and, where the threshold of unreasonableness is not met, to obtain a divorce against the wishes of the other party the plaintiff needs to show five years of separation.  That is the rule set by Parliament and it is hard to see how the judges can be criticised for applying it.  The second is whether Parliament should change the law.  In many jurisdictions it is enough to show that the marriage has broken down and perhaps the time has come to update our law along these lines.  It is been suggested that the case will go on to the Supreme Court.  It is hard to see that there is much point in this.  The correct approach is surely to lobby for a change in the law.

Social Media

YOUTUBE: Pressure on Google to remove terrorist materials from its platforms is increasing following videos on YouTube exploiting the Westminster bombing.  The bill for lost advertising has been estimated at $750 million a year.

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Issue 97: 2017 03 23: Week In Brief UK

23 March 2017

Week In Brief: UK NEWS

Union Jack flapping in wind from the right

Westminster

TERRORIST ATTACK:  Four people, including a police officer, are dead and about another 20 injured after a car drove into people on Westminster Bridge and an officer was attacked with a knife.  The police are treating it as an act of terrorism.  Proceedings in the Scottish parliament were suspended in sympathy and the Shaw Sheet adds its voice to those sending their condolences

Government

SELF EMPLOYMENT:  The rise in Class 4 national insurance contributions charged on the self-employed, which was announced in the budget, has been reversed, allegedly with some acrimony between numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street, on the grounds that it conflicted with a Tory election pledge.  It is understood that there was concern that the measure might be defeated in Parliament.

Matthew Taylor, ex-head of the Downing Street policy unit and now head of the Royal Society of Arts, is to report later this year on employers who artificially contrive to make their staff self-employed and thus deprive them of pension rights and job security.

ARTICLE 50:  The Bill to authorise the service of notice under article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty has now received Royal assent.  Notice to begin the Brexit process is to be given on Wednesday 29 March.

SCOTLAND:  Gordon Brown has intervened in the row between the government and the SNP over a further Scottish referendum, suggesting that following Brexit many of the powers returned to the UK should go to devolved authorities.

HADDOCK RARE:  The Marine Conservation Society has removed haddock from its list of sustainable fish following a decline in fish of breeding age.  North Sea haddock fisheries scored three and four on a five-point scale on which low scores indicate sustainability.  Organisations representing fishermen dispute the assessment.

CHILD POVERTY:  4 million children are now living below the poverty line, a 1% increase on last year’s level.  The poverty line is a relative measure and a child is living below it where the household income is less than 60% of median earnings.  At a time of little earnings growth, however, the figure may be a sign of an absolute decline at the bottom of the income scale.

Politics

ELECTION EXPENSES:  The Conservative Party has been fined £70,000 by the Electoral Commission for failing to account properly for election expenses.  Decisions have yet to be made over whether individuals should be prosecuted.

JOBS FOR WIVES:  The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has said that, as from the next general election, MPs will not be able to hire members of their family as staff.  Those already hired, however, will be allowed to continue in post.

EVENING STANDARD:  George Osborne has been appointed as the new editor of the Evening Standard at a salary rumoured to be in the region of £200,000 a year.  Questions have been asked as to whether he will be left with sufficient time to devote to his constituency, bearing in mind that he also has a job with BlackRock, holds a Kissinger Fellowship and has extensive public speaking engagements.

LABOUR:  According to deputy leader Tom Watson, Unite and the Communications Workers Union are plotting to affiliate to Momentum in order to secure continued left-wing leadership of the Labour Party.  The allegations are denied by Unite and Momentum.

NORTHERN IRELAND:  The death of ex-IRA chief and ex-Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has met with mixed reactions, with some dwelling on his lack of contrition for his IRA role and others laying stress on his considerable contribution to the peace process.

Justice

COURT-MARTIAL APPEAL:  The conviction of Alexander Blackman, a former sergeant in the Royal Marines, for the murder of a wounded Taliban fighter has been quashed and replaced by a manslaughter verdict.  A colonel and a sergeant major who were serving with the Royal Marines at the time of the incident said that they had been prevented from giving evidence at Blackman’s trial about failures of command which had resulted in his unit being out of control.

RAPE EVIDENCE:  As from September, alleged rape victims will be allowed to give their evidence by way of pre-recorded interview rather than facing cross-examination.

CHILD PROTECTION:  The new offence of “sexual communication with the child” introduced by legislation in March 2015 to catch “grooming”, will come into force shortly. Although the legislation is on the statute book there has, to date, been no commencement date.

LAWYER BANKRUPT:  Phil Shiner, formerly the principal of the now-defunct law firm Public Interest Lawyers who was struck off last month for assisting his clients to make dishonest claims against British soldiers, is now bankrupt.  The Solicitors Regulation Authority is pursuing him for legal aid paid to his firm in support of the claims, amounting to in excess of £3 million.  It emerged in the disciplinary proceedings that his firm had knocked on doors to find clients and had also paid people to make allegations against British troops.  The total cost to the Ministry of Defence in relation to compensation claims in respect of Iraq exceeds £100 million and a large portion of this was paid to those represented by Mr Shiner’s firm.

Media etc.

SNOOPING:  Allegations made by American judge Andrew Napolitano that GCHQ tapped Mr Trump’s phone when he was president elect, have been denied by GCHQ as completely untrue.  The suggestion had been that the wiretapping had been carried out at the request of Mr Obama in order to avoid the involvement of a US agency.  The President has since sought to distance himself from the allegations, which were based on analysis by Fox News and repeated by White House spokesman Sean Spicer.  It is understood that they will not be repeated.

GOOGLE:  The Havas advertising agency has pulled its clients out of the Google advertising network following the failure by the company to remove extremist videos from YouTube.  The agency represents O2, the Royal Mail, Domino’s and many other major organisations.  Advertising has also been withdrawn by the UK government, media organisations (one of them the BBC), McDonalds, Audi, L’Oreal, Sainsbury’s and the Royal Bank of Scotland.  The advertisers are particularly concerned that their products are being shown alongside extremist material and fund payments to those behind it.  Google, which signed up to the European Commission code of conduct claims that it is reliant on the public to report offensive sites because it does not have the capacity to review all the material posted.  The Times newspaper referred six videos to Google but in no case were they removed within the time scale set by the code of conduct.

Health

HOSPITAL SUCCESS:  The Medway NHS Foundation Trust has emerged from special measures following improvements in care and staff morale.  The hospital has ended a number of arrangements to pay large amounts to managers and now has more stable leadership.

SUGAR:  The Food and Drink Federation has said that Government targets to reduce sugar in foods by 20% by 2020 will not be achieved, advocating a less rigid approach.  Failure to meet the targets may result in legislation.

POLLUTION:  Diesel cars manufactured by Renault have topped a table of pollution compiled by Which? magazine. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders points to different methods of testing as explaining disparities between the Which? tests and those carried out by the Government.


Education

SCHOOLS FUNDING:  According to the Education Policy Institute, which is chaired by David Laws, all schools will lose money in real terms over the next three years under the new funding formula; this increases the allocation of funds to schools with a higher proportion of pupils with low attainment at the end of their reception year, incentivising teachers to depress children’s marks at that stage.  The formula is also criticised on the basis that disadvantaged schools (those with more than 30% of pupils on free school meals) will fall behind others.

Oil

SHALE OIL DRILLING:  Surrey residents have asked the Council and also the Environmental Agency, to investigate whether oil firm Angus Energy has broken the law by drilling without planning permission.  If the drilling is successful it will open up the prospect of considerable reserves beneath the Weald.

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Issue 96: 2017 03 16: Week in Brief: UK

16 March 2017

Week in Brief: UK

Union Jack flapping in wind from the right

BREXIT: Lord Heseltine has been removed as an adviser to Theresa May’s government after he voted in favour of an amendment to the bill which will trigger article 50; the amendment would necessitate the terms of disengagement from the EU to be approved by parliament.  The amendment was passed by the House of Lords, thereby inflicting a defeat on the government.  It has been estimated that it was the highest turnout in the Upper House since 1831.

A letter published by The Times and signed by the heads of 35 Oxford colleges warns the government of the damage that may be caused to academic life if EU citizens are not allowed to stay in the UK.  The college heads have asked the government to allow the amendment proposed by the House of Lords which would guarantee the rights of EU citizens after the UK leaves the EU.

The amendments were subsequently defeated by a vote in the House of Commons.

SCOTLAND: Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minster in the Scottish Parliament, has demanded another referendum on Scottish independence, to be held before the Spring of 2019.  The reason is that Scotland voted to stay in the EU and Nicola Sturgeon is anxious to tap into this sentiment in order to achieve independence.  Theresa May has made clear that Westminster will not introduce the necessary legislation while talks are taking place with the EU over the UK’s terms of disengagement.

See comment Ms Sturgeon’s Demands.

CYBER SECURITY: There has been another security breach from the CIA which may compromise the security of the UK.  WikiLeaks has published documents which reveal some of the methods and techniques used by intelligence services.  The techniques have been developed by the CIA and GCHQ.  Commentators have said that the beneficiaries of the leak would be Russia and terrorist organisations.

GCHQ, one of the UK’s intelligence services which has responsibility for, inter alia, cybercrime, has asked for a meeting with political parties.  The purpose is to warn the parties about the dangers of cyber attacks from foreign hackers which would be designed to disrupt the next general election.  Russia is thought to be the country most likely to mount such an attack.

In this context, Ben Gummer, a Cabinet Office minister, has been appointed as the person with responsibility for countering subversion and for safeguarding the democratic process from cyber attacks.

OPERATION MIDLAND: The Independent Police Complaints Commission has published a report which clears police officers involved in Operation Midland of any wrongdoing.  The operation investigated allegations of sexual abuse levied against well known public figures.  The investigation became notorious after the allegations of a witness called “Nick” were described as “credible and true” by Detective Superintendent Kenny McDonald, before any checks to verify “Nick’s” story had been carried out.  The report concluded that there was no evidence of bad faith, malice or dishonesty.  Harvey Proctor, the former MP who was one of those accused by “Nick”, described the report as a whitewash.  He and Lord Bramall are suing the Metropolitan Police Service for damages.

GRAMMAR SCHOOLS: Theresa May has announced that grammar schools will be required to lower the pass marks for the 11+ exam for children from poor families in an attempt to dispel grammar schools’ elitist image.  The change will be announced next month.

 

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