The loss of Zac Goldsmith and the Lib Dem revival

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Zac Goldsmith: defeated at yesterday’s by-election by the Liberal Democrats Pic credit: BBC

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I have very mixed feelings about the defeat of Zac Goldsmith in the sensational by election victory for the :Liberal Democrats in Richmond Park.

I completely disagree with him over Brexit and I felt he had been seduced by Lynton Crosby’s dog whistle sub racist and Muslim terrorist smear campaign in the Mayor of London election. Anyone in the Tory Party with any sense should know that this would not work in multicultural and multiracial London from the 2015 General Election result- Labour actually gained seats in the capital. And whatever one thinks of Sadiq Khan he is not remotely a terrorist sympathiser.

But I think Zac should be praised  for a rare  quality in British politics. He is a real democrat who believes MPs should be accountable to the people who elect him.

His plan was to give 5 per cent of the electorate the right to start the process of  forcing an MP to stand down  if they misbehaved badly or were suspended from the Commons. He failed to get such a radical idea accepted in  full – but nevertheless an act was passed which could allow the triggering  of such a process.

He also was a man of his word. He asked approval of his voters to stand for Mayor of London as it would mean giving up his seat and he kept his word  by asking his electorate to approve his stance against Heathrow’s third runway.

This time he lost because  of his stance on Brexit.

It is also to his credit that he is a genuine environmentalist who campaigns on green issues – hence his opposition to Heathrow and his support for renewable energy. It is a bit ironic that the Greens contributed to his defeat as he would agree with a lot of their policies in this area.

He also took a brave  stance on child sexual abuse – particularly when it became clear that his constituency was a venue for historical  child sexual abuse in the 1980s. His stance was justified  when ,under Operation Fernbridge, Southwark Crown Court heard about the abuse of boys at Grafton Close children’s home and a Roman Catholic priest was sent to jail for his part in abusing kids with the now dead head of the home  John Stingemore.. Richmond Council under both the Tories and the Liberals had hidden this at the time.

He also was the driving force to get an all party initiative to set up a national independent inquiry into child sexual abuse because he thought it was such a serious issue. It is not his fault that it is at the moment facing serious disarray and needs to get its act together. He had good instincts and is really concerned about the plight of survivors.

Now why has he lost and what does this mean for the Liberal Democrats and Labour Party.

Political commentators should have seen this coming. The Liberal Democrats have won over 20 council seats since the General Election in by-elections – in some cases with increases in vote share of 30 per cent or more. They are winning in both pro Remain and pro Brexit  areas.There have been gains  in pro Brexit cities like Sheffield – when the Lib Dems leapt over second place UKIP to take a seat from Labour and only last night in Chichester  the Lib Dems took a seat from the Tories in a pro Brexit constituency. In Newcastle – wafer thin remain majority – it is the Lib Dems that are again challenging Labour for council seats not UKIP.

The reason I think is clear. Everyone knows where the Lib Dems stand on Brexit- it is a simple message – and it is getting through and people also remember some Lib Dems as  good conscientious local councillors.

For Labour it is not clear where exactly where they stand. In poor  areas – like central Carlisle and Hackney – where it is clear  that Labour stands for supporting those on the margins – their vote is going up. But in many marginal seats they are starting to lose to the Tories and the Lib Dems. This will not win them the next election and they can’t do it on just defending the NHS – because no party is going to be stupid enough to stand for abolishing the NHS. They are only to chip away at it.

So Labour needs as a matter of urgency to work out some simple messages that voters understand. Otherwise they will lose the plot.An army of  new members will not be enough if they have no simple message.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the way: Multi million pound fines for Brexiteer Andrea Leadsom

andrea leadsom

Andrea Leadsom Pic Credit: BBC

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It is probably an extreme irony that Theresa May has dumped  leadership rival Andrea Leadsom right in the slurry with the job at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs(Defra)

For the Eurosceptic Brexiteer is going to have to eat a lot of humble pie and hand over more money than any other minister to the European Commission long after the United Kingdom has quit the European Union.

Her appointment coincided with the latest accounts from Defra with a caustic comment  from the National Audit Office once again qualifying them because of their incompetence in handing out £2.3 billion of subsidies to British farmers.

But this rap on the knuckles means more than that – as it sets up the UK to have to pay a fortune in fines to the EU. I have written about it in Tribune here.

As the article reports:”Failures under Labour and coalition governments to administer properly a previous farm subsidy programme have already led the Commission to fine the UK £661m.
“But this year’s failure to deliver money to farmers on time – with well over half receiving late payments – has already led to over £65m being set aside for fines in the last financial year.”

As Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said: “The Department continues to struggle with managing the complex CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) scheme in a way that ensures accurate, timely payments to farmers. As a result, it has incurred EU penalties of £65.8 million related to the CAP scheme in 2015-16, and estimates that it owes 13,000 farmers a total of at least £25.3 million.

“Exit from the European Union will not, in the short term, reduce these penalties. The Department therefore needs to ensure its strategy for tackling these challenges is effective.”

This means that Leadsom and her Eurosceptic farming minister, George Eustice, are going to face a double task until 2020.

First they are going to have to continue sorting out the ministry’s failure to pay farmers on time  while having to devise a national British system of supporting farmers which is bound to be controversial.

The NAO are estimating that if anything the level of fines could go up because of the complexities of the payments.
The ministry is promising a new strategy to sort out the problem – saying it expects payments to be better in 2016 than last year. But to do this it has – already according to the accounts – incurred a £6m increase in its pay bill by having to employ temporary staff to sort out computer failures and mistakes and delays in payments to farmers.

It is going to more than of just passing interest to see how the pair cope with such a mess.

Is a £1 million fine a drop in the ocean for Thames Water?

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The sewage works at Tring. Pic credit: BBC

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Today the Environment Agency is rightly triumphant in celebrating a £1 million fine against Thames Water for polluting the Grand Union Canal for  nine months in nearby Tring.

This is the highest fine imposed by the courts ever in history according to a release from the Environment Agency. But is it really going to hurt Thames Water apart from the bad publicity?

First of all the case. It was brought by the Environment Agency after Thames Water caused repeated discharges of polluting matter from Tring STW (Sewage Treatment Works) to enter the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal in Hertfordshire between July 2012 and April 2013.

In May Thames Water pleaded guilty before Watford Magistrates Court to two charges under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010. On Monday 4 January, at St Albans Crown Court the company was ordered to pay a fine of £1 million, costs of £18,113.08 and a victim surcharge of £120.

Their report goes on:

“The court heard that poorly performing inlet screens caused equipment at the works to block, leading to sewage debris and sewage sludge being discharged into the canal. The inlet screens should take out the majority of sewage debris referred to as ‘rag’ from the process, but the screens had repeatedly failed in this case.”

And it adds: ” The Environment Agency received complaints from the Canal and Rivers Trust and from the general public about pollution in the canal. Officers attended the site on several occasions, they saw sewage debris including panty liners and ear buds in the vicinity of the outfall.”

Thames Water now says it has put matters right at a cost of only £30,000 but it seems to have taken a rather long time to do it. In the meantime it put anglers and boaters at risk from infection.

It also frankly was heaping a lot of shit (literally) on volunteers who are working to restore the rest of the Wendover Arm of the canal so that it can be used again by anglers and boaters. You can see their work here.

Yet put in context the £1m fine with Thames Water’s activities. The latest interim  half yearly figures from the company show it had a turnover of £1 billion, made a £200 million plus profit and paid out  interim dividends of £25m. So the £1 million fine is just 0.5 per cent of six months profit.

And if taken on a yearly basis – the last full year profit was £364m of which £169m was distributed in dividends. Investors include pension funds and the Chinese.

More interestingly the Thames Water chief executive Martin Baggs entire package well exceeds the £1m fine. The accounts for 2014-15 show his package in the company is over £2m for services to the group. His £460,000 salary is boosted by £53,000 in benefits including a £36,000 housing allowance, £15,000 for a company car and £2000 private medical insurance. He has long term bonuses worth over £1m with payouts of nearly £350,00 planned for the next three years. And he has a handsome £115,000 contribution to his pension.

Put all this together and perhaps £1m should be the minimum Thames should pay for any pollution they cause.Perhaps fines of £10m or a personal deduction from fat cat salaries should also be included.

The public may be pleased with the level of the fine – but for the company it seems but a  few drops from its bank balance.

 

 

 

 

Armchair Audit: Sir Philip Dilley, the dilatory flood maestro

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Sir Philip Dilley Pic credit: gov.uk

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UPDATE JANUARY 11: Sir Philip resigned as chair of the environment agency today and will leave at the end of January. He will now have time to concentrate on his other directorships, play more golf and tennis, and spend more time in Barbados.

His resignation statement said: “I want to be clear that I have not made any untrue or misleading statements, apart from approving the statement about my location over Christmas that in hindsight could have been clearer.”

He also attacked the media for pursuing him but as Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said:“Many staff gave up their Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. Their boss should have joined them. It seemed to many that this organisation was bereft of its formal leadership when it was most needed.” 

Conservative MP for Ribble Valley Nigel Evans said Sir Philip had now made the “right judgement call”.

 

So  Sir Philip Dilley, David Cameron’s appointment to replace Lord Smith as chair of the Environment Agency, couldn’t tear himself away from sunny Barbados to turn up to see first hand the failure of his agency to cope with Storm Desmond and Frank.

Today the man who attacked former Labour Cabinet minister Chris Smith for not turning up soon enough to see the disastrous floods on the Somerset levels is rightly being pilloried in the press for deciding to spend time with his family than see any of those unfortunate flood victims.

What was disingenuous as the Telegraph reported is that his press office hid the fact that home – at the age of 60 – is a luxury villa in Barbados and not in the UK. He has a flat in Marylebone, London.

He of course says “Everyone be everywhere all the time ” but then that is not surprising given the man has ten directorships, including his own company to run, as well as posts on the board of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Imperial College, London.

And the money – £100,000 a year for a three day week – is of course chicken feed compared to the sums of money he was getting at his last big job as executive chairman of the Arup Group Ltd – the £1 billion international civil engineering business – says he and his fellow 12 directors shared £5.75 million between. the highest paid director – presumably Sir Philip – got a magnificent £864,000 a year – including a very useful sum paid into his pension – which at the age of 60 he can start drawing down.

His Who’s Who entry declares his married his wife, June. late in 2003 and has three sons, and spends time playing golf and tennis in sunny Barbados. He also is a wine buff and opera lover.

To give him credit the Portsmouth born man  made his way up in Arup from a graduate engineer to chairman.

He is also one of David Cameron’s favourite businessman sitting on the Prime Minister’s Advisory Group from 2011 to 2013. He accompanied the Prime Minister on trade missions to India, China and Russia and was a guest at a state banquet given by The Queen for the Indian President.

So perhaps it is not surprising that he can’t devote too much time to this nuisance issue of flooding -but the salary must be a very useful sum to supplement his pension.

 

 

Untrustworthy Truss: The dishonest cover up that left farmers owed hundreds of millions of pounds

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This week  Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss chairs a highly publicised  emergency Cabinet committee to save large swathes of the nation from a flooding disaster. I hope she does a better job than supervising payments to  England’s farmers.

Last week her department  and one of its agencies were involved in one of the most callous and dishonest pieces of news management this year.

It has left tens of thousands of farmers without any  money for Christmas and they will be lucky if they are paid by the end of January.

The reason is her department and the Rural Payments Agency have been involved in a monumental mess over  the introduction of a new computer system to pay farmers their annual cash from the European Union.

This money is not small beer. This time last year some £1.3 BILLION was paid out to over 96,000  farmers in England and it helps keep our  food at reasonable prices in the shops.

Last week the National Audit Office revealed that the computer system set up to pay the money didn’t work properly, cost 40 per cent ( at £215m to the taxpayer) more than planned and , as a result,farmers had to revert to using paper applications.

The report even for National Audit Office terms was scathing. it revealed a total mess across Whitehall with quarrelling officials from the Cabinet Office to the Government Digital Service making a pig’s ear of the whole business.

I wrote about it in Tribune. Here is one damning paragraph  in the report:

” The Programme has been set back by numerous changes in leadership. There were four senior responsible owners within the space of a year, each bringing their own style and priorities. Repeated changes were disruptive to the Programme and caused uncertainty and confusion for its staff. The Department failed to prevent… deep rifts in working relationships and inappropriate behaviour at the senior leadership level. ”

Now this body- the Government Digital Service – has just been given an extra £200m by George Osborne, the Chancellor, so it can digitalise driving licences and passports.  If their handling of farmers money is anything to go by, you will find you won’t be able to get a driving licence or passport by the next General Election.

You might wonder why you have not heard about this mess.  A copy of the damning NAO report was sent to every national newspaper but their reporters deemed it too boring to publish. The situation was condemned by Meg Hillier, Labour chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, but it fell on deaf Parliamentary lobby ears.

But worse than this  the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs deliberately misled the public and the media about this state of affairs.

Last year when the first farmers received their cash under the old system, Elizabeth Truss couldn’t wait to boast, in a run up to the election, how successful the government had been in getting the money to farmers. You can read about it here.

This year this completely misleading statement was put out and Elizabeth Truss was nowhere to be seen. It boasted of  33,000 farmers receiving the cash. Last year it was 96,000. In other words it had fallen by 65 per cent – an appalling state of affairs.

To my mind the whole saga shows we are governed by a Metropolitan elite – with no press interest in the plight of anyone outside London and complete disdain for rural issues. That is why obviously Elizabeth Truss thought she could get away with no one knowing anything about this mess. And she has succeeded.

There is a great opportunity for Labour and the Liberal Democrats to take this issue up – it chimes with the parties’ interests in backing grass roots politics away from Westminster.

There is also a sting in the tale – do you know the European Union can fine the UK for not paying the money promptly. A similar problem some years ago meant the department was fined over £600m.  So due to ministers’ incompetence some of your taxes – will go to pay millions of pounds of EU fines. You couldn’t make this up.

 

 

 

 

In praise of Dale Vince and Ecotricity: A green entrepreneur backing Labour

Labour donor: Dale Vince Pic Credit: ecotricity

Labour donor: Dale Vince gave £250,000
Pic Credit: ecotricity

The disclosure that an entrepreneur has had the temerity to back Labour with a £250,000 donation has led to the usual  scramble in the national media to discredit the man and his company, Ecotricity. The Telegraph has recently done a thorough job  presenting the multi millionaire as a tax avoider, a greedy guzzler of state subsidies set up by one  former energy secretary, Ed Miliband, and owner of a castle. Presumably since Ecotricity doesn’t appear to advertise in The Daily Telegraph they felt brave enough to publish.

What is entirely missing from the article – and this  is surprising as the Telegraph champions competition –  is  support for a company challenging the energy monopoly. No mention of what his company does for ordinary people – which  you cannot get from the big six privatised and mainly foreign-owned giants who make millions from our gas and electricity bills.

I use Ecotricity for both my gas and electricity. One of my reasons is that I would rather spend my money with a company that has a real track record of investing in renewable energy than fossil fuels.

But take that aside – even though many on the right hate wind farms and believe global warming is a myth – Ecotricity has other plus points. Without wishing to act as an advertisement for Ecotricity – this site has no advertising – it seems to me, whatever faults Dale Vince may or may not have, at least his firm tries to offer the consumer a  better deal.

For a start the Telegraph ignores the fact that unlike any of the big six Ecotricity is  recommended  alongside other small companies by Which? as one of the better service providers.It came first for customer satisfaction as well.

Second it employs people in Stroud,its own HQ to deal directly with its customers.This compares with one of the big six I used in the past that had its call centre in India and lost my account when I moved house.. For nearly a year I wasn’t billed for electricity on my  new Berkhamsted home. When I raised this in India the officious   Eon/Powergen call centre worker demanded I sorted out all the paperwork myself – which I refused to do – and then desperately asked for an address   “any address ” he said to bill me. I was tempted to give him a false one in New York City to celebrate the follies of outsourcing and globalisation but honesty got the better of me.

Unlike the big six Ecotricity accepts direct debits for the actual amount of gas and electricity billed – you don’t have to pay a monthly overestimate for what you might use – a great scam allowing companies to take too much money off you for unused energy and use your loan to boost their own profits.

Fourth, Ecotricity is planning to cut prices by 6.2 per cent this May and promising more later in the year  – more than any of the big six and they never raised their prices in the last tranche either. This is something I have to remind the cold callers from the big six desperate for you to switch to them.

Fifth Ecotricity  gives you a good return on the money if you  invest in them.. It offered seven per cent  (7.5 for customers)before tax and its second issue offered six per cent gross (6.5 for customers) on its oversubscribed bonds – far more than the  four per cent  the” generous” George Osborne  is offering  pensioners in the run up to the election.

Some financial advisers have told me they can only offer these good rates of interest because of taxpayer subsidies. But it seems to me that the subsidies for cleaning up nuclear power waste – provide five times more money for the big six energy providers than the sums going to Ecotricity. Even the Telegraph acknowledges that.

But in a pre-election frenzy no right-wing paper  seems to want to acknowledge that anybody backing Labour can offer better value for money.

Fracking by Chevron: Sorry we blew up your village, have a free pizza on us

The raging fires in Bobtown, Pennsylvania- three days after the explosion. Pic courtesy; dvorak.org

The raging fires in Bobtown, Pennsylvania- three days after the explosion. Pic courtesy; dvorak.org

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A warning to Britain  about the dangers of slip shod fracking  operations is revealed today in an extra ordinary story published on the TUC’s Touchstone blog.

It discloses how  a near disaster hit one hundred residents of a tiny Pennsylvania town where a fracking well exploded lnto a spectacular and deadly tower of flame, killing one person and burning for five days, 

A missing worker (believed to be a contractor) from the Chevron Appalachia site has not been found and is presumed dead. Only a few charred human bones were recovered.The well pad has three natural gas wells. Nineteen workers were on the well pad during the explosion, a spokesman said.

Wild Well Control, an organization trained specifically to deal with natural gas explosions, was called to the site. Investigators finally gained access  to inspect the well pad for the missing employee eight days after the blast when they were able to pull a charred crane off the well pad that was nearest to the still-leaking wells. The wells should finally be capped after a  fires suppressant system was installed.

Chevron’s response to the disaster which terrified people living in Bobtown was believe or not to offer a free pizza voucher and  a bottle of soda. Yes this is true, I am not joking.

The letter enclosing the free voucher says:”

“Chevron recognizes the effect this has had on the community. We are committed to taking action to safeguard our neighbors, our employees, our contractors and the environment.”

I don’t what crass overpaid public relations firm advised them to do this but it is  the equivalent of saying to the local yokels let them eat cake. Given the gravity of the situation it is demeaning and insulting. I wonder if the dead man’s family will get a life supply of pizzas and sodas.

 More worrying Chevron – which also facing protests about fracking in Romania  where it is riding roughshod over protestors  – is an active player in the UK.

To be fair it has a good record in the North Sea oil industry with interests in 10 oil and gas fields – and an excellent safety record according to its own website. But if it starts cashing in on the fracking boom – given the Coalition’s view that workplace safety is mainly just red tape – I for one would not like them in the vicinity. Still  it might be boon for pizza delivery drivers – it gives a whole new meaning to the warning to beware of pizza vans.