Following my storyon this blog on August 5 on the outrageous life time shopping ban given to a 85 year old Covid shielding woman by Marks and Spencer I decided it deserved wider publicity.
So I contacted the Sunday Mirror and I am delighted to say today’s paper includes a report of the incident and the ban.
Marks and Spencer did adopt an incredibly arrogant attitude in refusing to comment to me on why they justified the ban by ignoring my request as a journalist to the press office. I noticed when the Mirror rang they had to give a one line statement saying ” They cannot discuss individual cases. Excluding a customer is only done in rare circumstances.”
As I said in my previous blog Patricia Stewart was obviously confused going round their Bexleyheath store and left her shopping there. The manager and his colleague who followed her out of the store and searched her shopping bag then seized on a pair of Brazilian knickers without a receipt and ” presumed” it was stolen. This evidently is enough for M&S to ban her for life shopping with M&S ever again. Her explanation is that she intended to get them exchanged as they were a gift from a friend but she had forgotten to bring the receipt.
I also notice they won’t tell the Mirror how they enforce the ban. From a trial run by her relatives where she ordered stuff directly on line and visited three other M&S stores away from Bexleyheath, it looks like to me as meaningless outside Bexleyheath. There is an interesting threadhere on the Legal Beagles website -which describes someone else being banned at M&S in Harrow, north London. The ban covered ” unusual behaviour”.
You can see from it the person got really worried. M&S seem to take a rather overbearing attitude to some of their customers. Either they should prosecute if it is shoplifting or offer to help if someone is confused
This is Patricia Stewart an 85 year old woman. She spent the first five months of the lockdown shielding from Covid 19 as she is a vulnerable person. Last autumn during the period when the first lockdown was lifted she ventured out to shop for the first time. As a M&S customer for over 60 years she went to her favourite branch in Bexleyheath shopping mall. What happened next is hardly believable but raises a lot of civil liberties issues.
Patricia Stewart was nervous about going round a public store for the first time. She went to the customer services desk and exchanged a babywear item for a bra. She then went round the food hall but being worried about Covid starting putting packaged food items into plastic bags. This attracted the attention of a security guard who told her not to do this.
According to details released by M&S following a subject access request by her relatives he ” deemed it as shoplifting “. She was then followed by a male manager and female colleagues. Now feeling thoroughly uncomfortable she approached the till four times and then changed her mind and decided to leave the trolley full of shopping and go out of the store.
M&S Brazilian knickers- a smoking gun?
She was followed into the shopping mall by the manager and a female colleague and while she was sitting on a bench waiting for a taxi they challenged her in public and demanded her name and address She refused to give it to them so they proceeded to search her shopping bag. They found none of the food shopping but did discover a pair of M&S Brazilian knickers without a receipt. They claimed they had been watching her on CCTV and saw her change a label adding that a customer had also complained about her.
They then proceeded to serve her with a ” trespass order” – a device used by many stores to keep out suspect shoplifters without going to court – not only from the Bexleyheath store but from any store in the country and on purchasing anything from M&S on line for the rest of their life.
The ban has been challenged by her two daughters who asked to see the CCTV and for evidence of the other customer’s complaint. When challenged M&S couldn’t provide the CCTV to prove their allegation because according to them ” it wasn’t recording properly”. Nor could they produce the customer who complained.
But M&S stuck to their story and have now ended any correspondence with them -pointing out they are not regulated by anybody and therefore nothing else can be done.
I decided to investigate this and approached M&S Corporate Press for comment. Six weeks after failing to reply to me I escalated my inquiry to Steve Rowe, chief executive of M&S, who has ignored my email. Therefore I can’t put their response.
There are two issues here which are connected. First of all the particular case and the use of trespass orders and secondly how they can be enforced. The retailer is allowed to use them because their store is private property. A search on the internet reveals they could be quite common – for example someone complained in Bristol about being banned by M&S. And nobody knows how they can be enforced – one theory which sounds too fanciful to me – is that M&S are secretly using facial recognition cameras in their stores. The other is that the M&S Sparks card – both offers you treats but is used as a surveillance card to monitor customers. Since M&S would not respond to my questions all this is speculation.
The Sparks card was used by M&S in this case as proof of her not purchasing the knickers – they revealed in an email that they have records of many of her purchases going back two years but insisted they had no personal file on her. But according to her the knickers were purchased by a friend as a gift – so they wouldn’t be on her purchase list.
Failing to get a reply from M&S the relatives and I decided that we could test out the ban. First she decided to order a bra on line without using a Sparks card – and guess what she received a cheery note from the company telling them it was on its way and it was delivered last month. (see above)
She has since then shopped in three other M&S stores without any problem but has not returned to Bexleyheath.
This raises the question whether these ” trespass orders” can really be enforced or just used to intimidate people believing they can be banned. I would certainly have thought they would have to have an elaborate system to enforce them nationwide – that might be challenged by GDPR.
The other matter is a civil liberties issue – from what I have got from the subject access request – M&S would have had a flimsy case if they went to court. So why should they be judge and jury in deciding people’s individual liberties?
According to their memos M&S believe their staff behaved with ” integrity” in banning her. Tufail Ahmed, the manager of the Bexleyheath store, who must be locally responsible for this, has a Linked In page in which he says:
“M&S Manager of the Year 2018/2019. With nearly 20 years of retail experience working for leading retailers in various roles, I know that change is a very normal place in retail. I am now part of the change at M&S, leading and inspiring people to be the very best.
” My long term aim is to be an influential member of a business’ senior leadership team, that is what I am currently working towards.”
I suspect relatives of Patricia Stewart might beg to disagree.
As for Steve Rowe, who has built his entire career with M&S, his silence on the matter is deafening. He looks about the age to have elderly relatives, I wonder if he would like them to be treated like Patricia Stewart.
A quirky tale of campaigning pensioners exposing dodgy council dealings in a quaint old English seaside resort
This is a story of two extraordinary 85 year old campaigning pensioners. For 40 years have fought their local council over a dodgy land deal in a quaint Dorset seaside town and so far literally hit a brick wall.
It is happening in the unlikely place of Lyme Regis. The family holiday town, home to numerous bed and breakfasts, and with its iconic Cobb on the marina immortalised by the famous English novelist ,John Fowles in The French Lieutenants Woman ( later as a film with Meryl Streep) is not seen as a hotbed of intrigue.
But behind the public image of Olde English teashops lies a dark story that involves questionable dealings, dubious planning applications. illegal blocking of a public eight of way, secret deals over cream teas, fake entries put into Land Registry records, information hidden by local worthies, and threats to people who tried to find out what was going on.
The characters would not be out of place in a novel or could appear in a West Country version of Last of the Summer Wine. One, Stan Williams, is deputy mayor of Lyme Regis, now 85, and one of the longest serving councillors. The other, Nigel Marsh ,also 85, is probably regarded by officialdom as a local busy body questioning local decisions. Yet the two have combined to try and solve a land deal that has been festering for 40 years and still the town council won’t come clean.
The Cliff House mudslide that made 14 people homeless
The catalyst for the scandal took place almost 60 years ago. According toa paper by Richard Bull on the history of Lyme’s sea defences in the Lyme Regis museum the local council gave permission to property developer Edward Keen to build 20 bungalows and flats on unstable land prone to mudslides above Marine Parade. He excavated 50,000 tonnes of soil.
The book says: ” On..12th February 1962, only a few days after the excavation was completed, movement was noticed, with cracking and heaving in some nearby houses. Movements continued through the evening and by 9 pm the whole slope failed. Cliff House, which was standing empty, moved 3.2m nearer the sea and was back-tilted and ruined. Sunnydene Guest House caved in, and three other houses were left at crazy angles. Other houses were extensively damaged and 14 people made homeless. Above Cliff House a large back-scar appeared at the top of the slip plane or shear, cutting Stile Lane.”
Even after this the town clerk, Harry Williams was reported in the Daily Sketch as saying, … that the development project will eventually completely stabilise … the site…and, as far as the Borough Council knew, work could continue to excavate soil from the site.” This bloody mindedness was to be repeated by successor town clerks.
The developer aborted the plan and council put in a compulsory purchase order for the land in 1964 and have created a pleasant public gardens on the site of the now demolished Cliff House.
What was saved was the gardeners cottage called Cliff Cottage which was jacked up and restored. As the Lyme Regis book says: “Cliff Cottage, which still stands …was miraculously jacked up back to true from a drunken angle, leaning into the landslip scar, using dozens of hydraulic car jacks and quickly concreted in after use.”
The Cadbury chocolate dynasty connection
The property had been owned by Celia Jeannette Cadbury who married into the famous Cadbury chocolate dynasty. Her husband George ran an electrical engineering business in West Bromwich. She lived in Kidderminster which suggests the property was a holiday home.
She sold the property to Kathleen Dorothy Tompkins in 1955. A splendid deed of conveyence exists in Dorchester Archives with a map of the land.
In 1980 the rebuilt property changes ownership to Marilyn Bolton, then a formidable local councillor. There is no record of the price paid in the Land Registry entry and the property transaction appears to have taken place without a plan of the land. The solicitors were a respected local firm Kitson and Trotman who are also the council’s solicitors.
It is then that a series of events happened. First an old garage next to the cottage was replaced with a tearoom and then an extended high class restaurant was built with a terrace overlooking the new public gardens. The restaurant is now managed by celebrity chef, Mark Hix – see my previous blog here.
My own investigations of what happened next revealed that this new development was carried out illegally with the council’s connivance who then tried to cover it up what had happened until it couldn’t any more – including a false declaration to the Land Registry and the illegal removal of a right of way.
Merry Bolton, now an ex councillor in her 70s, told me of a meeting with a former town clerk, Mr Robin Munday.
cream tea deal
Over a cream tea with him in 1985 she said: ” We looked at the land next to the cottage and agreed that the boundary should be a line of trees. At the time the land was a mess after the upheaval so it wasn’t clear where it was.”
His successor Mike Lewis duly registered the boundary with the land registry allowing her to encroach on the council land covered by the compulsory purchase order. He was later challenged by both Nigel Marsh and councillor Stan Williams and promised to change it but never did.
It was her two planning applications in 2006 to turn the tea room into an extended restaurant that caused the biggest stir. The tea room already obstructed a public footpath called Stiles Lane which is illegal but the new planning application encroached on to the council land. At the same time she never applied to either divert or extinguish the public right of way.
Plans for restuarant showing the encroachment on council land and the old right of way
Dorset council have confirmed to me that is the case. The told me:
“We can confirm that Footpath W2/12 from Pound Street to Marine Parade in Lyme Regis is obstructed by a number of buildings and landscaping works carried out over many years to re-profile the area following landslips and the creation of Langmoor Gardens.
“The Highway Authority has powers to enforce an obstruction of the public’s right of free passage over a public highway, but there is an alternative route, which is safer and more commodious for the public. Therefore, this is a considered to be a low priority for already stretched public funds.
“When planning permission was granted to extend the building that is currently obstructing the footpath, this did not give permission to obstruct the footpath. The applicant was advised to apply to divert the footpath by legal order and that this order must be confirmed before work commenced. We do not believe that West Dorset District Council received such an application.”
In 2009 after the restaurant had been extended the row led to the appointment by the council of a distinguished boundary demarcation expert David Powell. His report, which I have seen, came down firmly that the former councillor had encroached on council land. He suggested calling in the lawyers to sort it out.
But neither the council nor Ms Bolton agreed. She wrote to Mike Lewis on 2 November 2009 ” We are anxious as the Town Council to avoid expensive and pointless litigation, which will make both the experts and the lawyers rich, but leave the parties to the dispute the poorer”.
What followed was a rewriting of the council’s entry to the land registry to create a retrospective lease on the council land to the restaurant. But absolutely nothing was done to change the title deed of Cliff Cottage which included the council land.
In 2017 the current town clerk John Wright put in an application to do this on Marilyn Bolton’s cottage but he never proceeded.
Instead he has followed his predecessors and tried to hush matters up. This included a letter to Nigel Marsh banning him from speaking to any Lyme Regis councillor or official. I am told this is not the first time he has done this which must be legally unenforceable.
Since then he has declined to reply to my questions after telling me had no intention of doing anything about the footpath which he sees as a Dorset Council matter. The council’s lawyers have pleaded ” client confidentiality ” to any queries though they have refuted one allegation that they were working hand in hand with the ex-councillor and the council at the same time – which would lead to a complaint to the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
As for the two indefatigable pensioners. Stan Williams says: ” As a kid I used to walk up that footpath to go to school every day. I don’t wish to see the restaurant run by Mark Hix demolished as a result but I do think the council and Marilyn Bolton should come clean about what happened particularly as she has benefitted financially from the deal.”
Nigel Marsh also does not want the celebrity chef caught up in this shenanigans but is determined to get a solution and not be stopped by a brick wall.
One criminal was brought up in his parent’s £1m house in Berkhamsted and runs a vegan supermarket in Hackney
Last month the Metropolitan Police revealed they had arrested 113 people as part of huge Europe wide operation against serious and organised crime. Altogether in the UK some 746 people were arrested after the National Crime Agency working with Europol cracked an encrypted phone network called EncroChat used by criminals.
What emerged was that many of the criminals were not based in the cliched inner city housing estates but in the leafy suburbs and posh, respectable towns in the Home Counties.
At the end of last month two of the criminals who were arrested in May were convicted in the courts after pleading guilty to firearms and drugs offences. Jody Hall, 46, of Carters Hill Close, Mottingham was sentenced to 12 years and Harry El Araby,33, now of Palmers Road, Bethnal Green, to six years.
A picture of the two characters emerged in the Met Police’s report. Jody Hall lived with is partner in a respectable flat in Mottigham in the London borough of Bromley.
The police who must have been monitoring their phones staged a stake out near his home. They saw Hall leave his flat and go to a lock up garage.
The Met Police report goes on :
“A minute or so later he left the garage carrying a bulky item wrapped in a white carrier bag, which also had yellow and green on it. He carried the item in his right gloved hand to his car where he placed it inside the driving seat area. He then closed the car door and walked away towards his home address empty handed.
A short while later, Hall walked back to the car where he briefly parked in front of his garage and made a phone call before driving to the exit of the close.
Once there he parked and was met by El Araby who arrived on a bicycle with a rucksack on his back.
An exchange took place and El Araby cycled off while Hall returned to his car.”
Then the police pounced. El Araby was stopped and the contents of the bag seized. In it were £10,000 in cash, a Glock hand gun, a silencer and 50 rounds of ammunition.
Cocaine and guns seized by the police Pic credit: Met Police
Hall’s home was raided and police found 11 kilograms of cocaine and £4000 in cash. They checked his garage and found a revolver concealed in an old washing machine. A specialist search team then conducted a more thorough search and found a Berreta handgun with six rounds of ammunition in the clip.
Neither of them would disclose to the police why they had guns but the suspicion must be that someone was going to be killed.
Detective Constable Gio Antoniazzi, the investigating officer, said: “These guns, and every individual bullet, represent a life that could have been lost or changed forever and so I am delighted that we were able to remove them from streets of London.
“This was a fantastic team effort and the evidence gathered resulted in Hall and El Araby having no option but to plead guilty. I hope this makes people think twice about procuring dangerous weapons.”
On the surface Harry El Araby appears to be a very respectable person. He was brought up in Berkhamsted . His parents house is in a respectable leafy cul de sac in Berkhamsted where house prices have gone up ten fold in the last twenty years. El Araqby registered one of his companies there.
He also runs the Plant Based Supermarket in Homerton, Hackney where last July he gave an interview to East London Lines as a pillar of the local community.
He claimed then to be living in New Cross and told a reporter:
“I have been vegan for more than four years and I have tasted a lot of stuff; I try to pick things that I know are good and I try to hit every angle. I feel we have the widest range of vegan products and all are very good quality”.
“We believe in the little man,” says El Araby. “Most of our suppliers are English, so we support the local economy and we impact the environment less”.
“we contribute to charitable purposes” – El Araby
“There are a lot of smaller brands in here and we try to help them as much as possible, we use coffee from Climpson & Sons, a local coffee place brewed in Hackney that has a better-than-fair-trade policy, we get the bread from Better Health Bakery, which is a charity that helps people get back into work. We try to be local as much as we can and contribute to charitable purposes”
He also tried crowdfunding to raise enough money to create a national website to sell vegan food on line – but only raised £150 towards a £3000 target. He now has a website.
One can only imagine what drove this man brought up in respectable Berkhamsted ( the house last changed hands in 1998 according to the Land Registry) and running an eco friendly shop to a life of crime with guns and bullets and wads of cash. Might make a good crime story for TV and I suspect this won’t be last exposure to come from those 746 arrests last month.
The most famous rallying cry by the Brexit campaigners was ” Take Back Control”. The people who supported this saw it as simply meaning taking away powers from the unelected European Commissioners in Brussels and giving it back to the British people. It meant the sovereignty of the British Parliament to make laws solely for the British people.
Well a completely ignored report from the House of Lords suggests we are about to discover something altogether different. I wrote about this in Byline Times last week.
The House of Lords Constitution Committee – not a well known body – has done a forensic job examining every bit of legislation passed and going through Parliament to change the law after Brexit becomes a reality on January 1 next year.
These are not just the better known laws like the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 but new Acts of Parliament covering covering agriculture, money laundering, immigration, trade, taxation,reciprocal health agreements and even the granting of road haulage licences.
What this comprehensive analysis reveals is that far from Parliament getting new freedoms to introduce new laws for the British people the powers are being transferred from the European Commission to government ministers and indirectly to government advisers like Dominic Cummings.
What is happening is that the perceived rule from Brussels by Brexiteers is being replaced by a real rule by decree by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
Henry VIII powers
How you might ask? The answer is the widespread use of what are known as ” Henry VIII ” powers – or more arcanely known as statutory instruments. These are orders allowing ministers to change the law by decree – either putting down an order which Parliament has 90 minutes to debate or a negative order that if MPs don’t spot it is already law unless Parliament can overturn it.
Now what the peers have discovered is that all these bills are littered with these powers – 40 in the agriculture bill alone – giving huge discretion to introduce not only rule by decree but powers to introduce new criminal offences with unlimited fines.
One extraordinary power governing export and import duties give ministers huge powers – including one to change the law by “ public notice” avoiding informing Parliament at all. This brings us back to Tudor times when all Henry VIII had to do was to pin up a notice ordering the dissolution of the monasteries..
Now why does this matter? Take the agriculture bill which will govern the rules if, as the US wants in trade negotiations, for us to import chlorinated chicken and according to recent reports to change food labeling laws in the UK. Now this bill in its initial form gave ministers a Henry VIII power to change the law for the marketing of food including what is on the label.
So if Waitrose followed what it said it will do and clearly label chlorinated chicken a government minister could just change the law by decree making it illegal to do so. And if Waitrose disobeyed they could face unlimited fines.
Now the bill has been modified a bit but MPs and peers ought to be careful that powers don’t sneak in by the back door.
150 new ministerial powers running to 174 pages
Another more obscure Act according to peers also gives huge powers to ministers.
The report said: “The Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill involves a massive transfer of power from the House of Commons to Ministers of the Crown. Ministers are given well over 150 separate powers to make tax law for individuals and businesses. These laws made by Ministers will run to thousands of pages. The Treasury’s delegated powers memorandum, which sets out in detail all these law-making powers, alone runs to 174 pages.”
And ministers are also taking powers in some circumstances to override laws passed by the Scottish Parliament by government decree and to interfere in which already adopted EU case law can be decided by tribunals and lower courts.
Courts facing ministerial directions
The peers were incandescent about the latter.Their report said:
“The granting of broad ministerial powers in the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 to determine which courts may depart from CJEU (Court of Justice of the European Union) case law and to give interpretive direction in relation to the meaning of retained EU law was – and remains – inappropriate.
“Each of these powers should remain the preserve of primary legislation. There is a significant risk that the use of this ministerial power could undermine legal certainty and exacerbate the existing difficulties for the courts when dealing with retained EU law.”
Now in my opinion because of the Covid-19 crisis the government is using this to introduce major changes to our unwritten constitution to bypass Parliament. I don’t blame my lobby colleagues for missing this – the 24/7 news agenda hardly gives them time to study a detailed House of Lords report.
It could be that a post Brexit Parliament may not need to sit as often as now – but just meet occasionally to scrutinise the latest ministerial decree.
I don’t think this is what the average Brexiteer will have envisaged. I don’t think the majority of people in this country want to live in a society where ministers and Downing Street have overweening powers to create new criminal offences by decree without being properly scrutinised by Parliament. We are losing our safeguards by stealth.
Claims by Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, that the UK’s biggest independent trade deal with Korea hit the ” gold standard” are ruthlessly exposed by a House of Lords committee. The full story on Byline Times here reveals that government’s claims we would be better outside the EU for trade are suspect – and ministers don’t want them properly scrutinised by Parliament.
The billion pound plus failure of the implementation of Universal Credit is rightly condemned by the National Audit Office in a report published today.
Aimed to save money, get everybody back to work, simplify a complex benefit system and to be easily implemented. Instead it is going to cost more, is years behind schedule, discriminates against disabled and poorly educated people, and the government has plans to force the elderly not entitled to a pension to have to use it when it changes entitlement to pension credit ( see my earlier blog here)
But it is also having appalling consequences for food banks, landlords, council and housing association tenants – as the example in Amber Rudd’s constituency ( details down below show).
In the meantime ministers today were patting themselves on the back today how successful it is while senior civil servants behind it were awarded bonuses worth up to £20,000 each for its botched introduction ( see an earlier blog hereand an article in the Sunday Mirror).
The statistics are appalling. According to the NAO :
“In 2017, around one quarter (113,000) of new claims were not paid in full on time. Late payments were delayed on average by four weeks, but from January to October 2017, 40% of those affected by late payments waited in total around 11 weeks or more, and 20% waited almost five months. Despite improvements in payment timeliness, in March 2018 21% of new claimants did not receive their full entitlement on time with 13% receiving no payment on time.
The Department does not anticipate payment timeliness to improve significantly in 2018. On this basis, the NAO estimates that between 270,000 and 338,000 new claimants will not be paid in full at the end of their first assessment period throughout 2018. Those with more complex cases are more likely to be paid late.
The Department expected most claimants would have enough money to cope over the initial waiting period after their claim is submitted (previously six weeks, now five). In reality, nearly 60% of new claimants (around 56,000 a month) receive a Universal Credit advance to help them manage before receiving their first payment.But they have to pay it back which means deducting an average £43 a month from their benefit.
But while the statistics are bad, the examples are worse.
Appendix 5 of the report revealsIn Amber Rudd’s Hastings constituency for example, according to the NAO Hastings foodbank has increased its opening hours, needs around two tonnes of stock each week to meet demand, and is considering building more storage space, costing £200,000.”
Hastings Citizens Advice pays staff to deliver Universal Support delivered locally. It therefore needs to pay providers regardless of the number of people
that are referred for support. But its income from the Department is not guaranteed so it can’t plan
Hastings Citizens Advice is considering scaling back on what it does in order to cope with increased demand.
Similarly NHS Hastings and Rother Clinical Commissioning Group funds its local advisory services. But this takes time to identify and secure. This hampers the ability of organisations to employ high-quality advocates because of the uncertainty of future funding.
.Hastings and Rother Credit Union no longer accepts Universal Credit claimant because of the complications in dealing with the new benefit and the long time waiting for people to be paid it.
Other areas have also got problems.Landlords are carrying extra debt – Croydon’s rent
collection rate has fallen from 92% to 58%, and its bad debt provision has doubled to £8 million.
Sedgemoor Council in County Durham reported an increasing unwillingness, even with social landlords, to take on low-income tenants or those claiming Universal Credit.
So the government has piled on misery upon misery for the claimants,. voluntary organisations, food banks, landlords, credit unions, local authorities and health services. Meanwhile ministers on excess of £100,000 a year go home to expensive houses, enjoy fine wines, expensive meals out and luxury holidays while boasting how they are helping the poor. Some sick joke. As Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said today:
“The Department has pushed ahead with Universal Credit in the face of a number of problems, but has shown a lack of regard in failing to understand the hardship faced by some claimants.
“The benefits that it set out to achieve through Universal Credit, such as increased employment and lower administration costs, are unlikely to be achieved, yet the Department has little realistic alternative but to continue with the programme and hopefully learn from past mistakes.”
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.
Hotel Illa D’Or, Puerto Pollensa Majorca. from the jetty.Picture by me
Almost a year after Margaret had her devastating stroke on the Isles of Scilly we took courage in both hands and took our first holiday.
We returned to a particular tranquil spot in the Majorcan resort of Puerto Pollensa on the North West coast.And to a particular hotel , the Hotel Illa D’Or, on the outskirts of the town overlooking the bay.
Now the centre of Puerto Pollensa – though at my age thankfully no Magaluf- is bustling and busy with a yacht harbour. Where we were is much quieter but the brilliant thing is you can walk ( or cycle ) all the way from the centre to the hotel on a traffic free promenade with outstanding sea and mountain views.
The luxury hotel itself is still owned by the same family since it opened 85 years ago in 1929 and one of its first guests was the Catalan surrealist artist Joan Miro who spent his honeymoon here. I am not surprised. The hotel itself is now much bigger than in 1929 but it has not lost its personal touch while providing all the facilities you might need from swimming pools to tennis courts and a superb terrace overlooking the sea. The food supervised by an Argentinian chef is superb and creative without being flashy or indigestible and the choice at the breakfast buffet is stunning – from Serrano ham to a cooked grill and fresh fruit to pastries and even chocolate gateaux.
But this time what we really appreciated was the courtesy and facilities the hotel provided for the disabled. We had an adapted room with a walk in shower and its own terrace accessible by a ramp. it was near the lift and the entrance to the restaurant and the front terrace were level – easily negotiable by a stroller or a wheelchair – and we soon dispensed with the use of a wheelchair. The hotel could not have provided better facilities.
Margaret resting alomng the promenade
Margaret was able to use a stroller and walk in part unaided along the front – gradually increasing the distance until we achieved our objective of getting to the centre and having lunch! The ground shaded in part by pine trees can be a bit uneven but as the physios would say it was good rehab.
It was also our first experience of using an assisted flight – and I have to say the outsourced company at Birmingham Airport and the staff at Palma Airport were superb is getting us to and from the plane.
The one blackspot: the flight on Monarch Airlines
The one black spot was Monarch Airlines who did seem to confirm their lowly ratings in Which? magazine by ignoring all our requests via Sovereign Holidays for an aisle seat and to be near the toilets.This led to a dispute with another elderly passenger when Margaret took an aisle seat – as he had booked and paid for it. Only after protests to a rather badly disabled aware air crew and the fact the flight had some spare empty seats at the rear was it solved amicably.
But if you want a week away in four star luxury, sun and some the taste of some rather superior Catalan Rioja stocked by the hotel I would recommend it, disabled or not.
The pizza at the centre of an alleged conspiracy to pervert the course of justice by Rebekah Brooks and her husband Charlie was probably a Large Italian Supreme with an extra portion of garlic bread, the Old Bailey heard today.