This Week with Brian
Your Local Area
Including refunds, cloak and dagger, fire and brimstone, priorities and missions, the new three, strike them off, counting the cases, a million tonnes, comprehension, disappointment, volunteers, plucked from the stands, our own version, locked in a room, a spy drama, when the sun goes down, a new capital and Brazil’s nemesis.
Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (updated every Thursday evening).
If there’s anything you’d like to see covered for your area or anything that you’d like to add to something that we’ve covered already, drop me a line at [email protected].
One the eve of a crucial vote about the UK’s Rwanda policy – which will, in essence, determine that Rwanda is a safe place for refugees simply by a majority vote in the Commons – Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame threw, if not a spanner then at least a small screwdriver, into the machine. In answer to a question from a BBC journalist on 17 January, he said that “if (the refugees) don’t come then we can return the money”, this being a reference to the £290m that’s already been paid or pledged by the UK government. This rather suggests that he suspects there might not be any refugees and that the whole thing has thus been a colossal waste of time.
A spokesperson later qualified this, saying that “if no migrants come to Rwanda under the scheme, and the UK government wishes to request a refund of the portion of the funding allocated to support the migrants, we will consider this request.” He later added that the funds “are intended to both support Rwanda’s economic development, and to allow us to prepare to receive and care for the migrants when they arrive.” Or, “if” they arrive, he might have said. I’m not sure how the sums paid or promised are split between these two objectives and thus how much might be refunded in the event of migrantlessness.
One of the reasons that no migrants might be sent could be because they’ve already vanished. On 17 January, the Home office admitted that it had lost touch with about 5,600 asylum seekers but that it was “taking steps to urgently re-establish contact with them.” Nothing I’ve heard about the reputation of the Home Office bureaucracy suggests that anyone, having escaped its clutches, would rush to voluntarily re-engage with it.
As regards how much will be spent, this seems even more opaque. £140m changed into £290m last year and in December the Commons public accounts committee made efforts to find out what the true sum might be. The committee’s Chair Meg Hillier said that she felt there was “something cloak and dagger”about the way the government was announcing the funding details (in small chunks). This implies some deep conspiracy. More likely is that no one really knows and that everything is being made up on the hoof.
I’m sure that, if any request for a refund is made, it will prove easy for the Rwandan government to explain that, regrettably, it has all been spent. The government in Kigali may also suspect that the UK doesn’t really need the money. After all, any country that can spend £66bn on a 125-mile long railway must be rolling in the stuff. Indeed, the £290m that UK has paid or promised to pay to Rwanda would barely be enough to build the length of track for one full-length HS2 train to sit on.
The Rwanda legislation was back in the Commons this week and kicked off with amendments from Bill Cash and Robert Jenrick designed to tighten up the legislation. They both failed: but each garnered around sixty supporters which Sky News says “gives an indication of the scale of unease within the Conservative Party.” The same article also publishes the name of those who supported it – some familiar names here including Jacob Rees-Mogg, Suella Braverman, Danny Kruger and Liz Truss. Conservative Deputy Chairs Lee Anderson and Brendon Clarke-Smith also went through the “ayes” lobby, a move which then prompted them to resign from their party roles.
Sunak vowed to rain down fire and brimstone on any rebels for the bill’s third reading on 17 January. For this reason or not, the bill passed by 320 to 276 with eleven Tories voting against it. The BBC reports that one potential rebel said that this bill “was as good as the outcome was going to get.” The commentator added that the majority had decided that “voting against the bill as a whole risks bringing down the whole government. And that’s a price they are not willing to take.” If the polls are right, the electorate will do that later this year.
The bill as it’s passed contains a serious problem in that it will remove the need for civil servants to follow injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights under its Rule 39 to block deportations. The BBC quotes the civil service union Prospect as saying that this “could put civil servants in an impossible position where the choice is potentially between breaking international law, disobeying the instructions of a minister (and facing potential disciplinary action) or resigning.” This does seem like an invidious position for a group of people who are not noted for their risk-taking.
• Priorities and missions
All of this, and so much more, is being played out with the election in mind. Sunak has said that one in the second half of the year is his “working assumption”: a strange phrase, which gives the impression that he doesn’t know that the decision is his alone to make. Were it to have been held on 15 January, YouGov suggests that Labour would have a 120-seat majority, with the Conservatives losing over half their members and a similar fate overtaking the SNP. Polls can be wrong, of course: but it would take something pretty special like the entire Labour front bench defecting to North Korea to create a result that would leave Sunak in Number Ten. The surveys so far in 2024 show Labour with a lead of between 14 and 24%.
So, what are the two main parties asking us to believe in? It’s clearly not the leaders themselves. We aren’t dealing here with people with the whiz-bang personalities of Thatcher, Blair or Johnson. They look and sound exactly like what they are – a banker and a lawyer, those most over-represented of professions among MPs – and both call to mind Raymond Chandler’s observation on Los Angeles, that it “had all the personality of a paper cup.” Mind you, the two PMs before Sunak were rather the other way and look what a series of car crashes they caused. The choice is therefore between two candidates who, unlike their predecessors, we can have on in the background: Mantovani rather than Wagner.
If there’s little to choose between Starmer and Sunak in the fireworks department, their key mission statements also share some features. Lists that are designed to be remembered often have three points on them: this time round, both leaders have really pushed the boat out and gone for five. Five is the new three: so, whoever we vote for, we’re already 40% better off.
Sunak’s were initially called promises, I recall, but now seem to have been downgraded to priorities. They are halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing the debt, cutting waiting lists and stopping the small boats (or rather, passing new laws on this, which is not quite the same thing).
Several of these are subject to forces other than him or his government and those not really his to promise. The fall in inflation, for instance, is largely down to the Bank of England and world prices. The UK economy normally grows. Small boat numbers did fall in 2023 but not in way that promises any reversal of the trend (the weather has been cited as one reason) or was the result of anything he did. This is all slightly like pledging that, under his watch, the sun will rise in the east, water will flow uphill and that Manchester City will win the League. As for the other two, the public sector debt as a percentage of GDP has risen since he became PM; while NHS waiting lists remain almost twice as high as they were in 2020. Indeed, there are now more people who have been waiting for more than 18 weeks than were waiting in total in 2014.
Starmer has gone for something that he probably feels means more but which might mean less – missions. The document has as its slogan “Let’s get Britain’s Future Back”, a phrase which I’ve read several times and still can’t quite make sense of. His five “national missions” are get Britain building again, switch on Great British Energy, get the NHS back on its feet, take back our streets and break down the barriers to opportunity.
At first glance, therefore, it looks like Sunak’s gambling on showing he’s the safe pair of hands for the economy and immigration: while Starmer’s going for energy, housing and law and order. The only priority or mission they both share concerns the NHS, is possibly the most difficult of the lot to fix.
In neither, however, is there anything specific about climate change, the biggest existential threat we face. Is there time to change the agenda before the election descends on us? One useful action would be to write to your MP to demand that this be included. Six priorities or missions is one better than five and still a lot less than the Ten Commandments: and this seemed to stick in people’s minds for long enough to help create a religion.
I know very little about the legal system but I don’t think I was the only person who was surprised to learn that the Post Office – indeed any organisation – has the power the launch a private criminal prosecution. As this excellent article in The Conversation explains, although this can result in cases which serve the public interest, “when large companies and organisations such as the Post Office prosecute, they are not subject to accreditation and inspection or any other oversight.”
One of the many failings of the PO’s cases was the failure to disclose evidence which might assist the case for the accused. As I understand it, this is on its own a breach so serious as to merit legal action against those responsible, even if there were no other alleged transgressions (which there are).
The other main point the article makes is that, for whatever reason, no Postmaster asked the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to take their case over. The Conversation says that this is the main way that the CPS gets involved in cases that have been initiated privately. As a result, “the CPS would have had no way of knowing the industrial scale on which sub-postmasters were being prosecuted, almost all on the basis of contested evidence arising from the Horizon software (which, one hopes, would then have raised alarm bells).” Regrettably, these dots were not joined up until much later. The fact that this happened at all was more to do with the work of Computer Weekly and Private Eye than any checks or controls in the legal system.
Aside from not having been involved, the CPS (or anyone else) would have had little idea of what was unfolding in the early stages as the Post Office tried to maintain to each Postmaster that they were the only one in trouble. As a result, the cases proceeded under the radar and in hermetically sealed compartments – exactly what you want to have happen if you’re prosecuting a lot of different people on similar pretexts.
The upshot was that the Post Office was able to proceed in administering its form of justice through the courts but in a way that was a perversion of the legal system and which calls to mind the bastard feudalism in the fifteenth century when over-mighty subjects operated, frequently in the king’s name, more or less as they wished. If this has taught us anything for the future it is that, although private prosecutions should perhaps not be banned, they should be subject to scrutiny from the CPS. This will involve the service being significantly tooled up with resources and staff.
To those who say we can’t afford to do this, I’d argue that we can’t afford not to. A legal system that is brought into disrepute risks being actively dangerous; while the sums that will be spent in examining the PO fiasco and compensating its victims will be considerable, and could have been saved by earlier intervention. If we thought we could afford HS2, we should also be able to afford CPS2. I know which I would find the more valuable.
And finally on this point, I get the impression that the protracted enquiries that take place on national scandals are, rightly, concerned with trying to ensure that the mistakes aren’t repeated but perhaps expend too little effort on punishing the individuals responsible. This can, of course, be a double-edged sword. As events in the US are showing, you can start an insurrection during a change of government but still manage to evade (so far) any attempts to prevent you from standing for office again.
There has got to be a case though for saying that many of the people who were directors of the Post Office or Fujitsu when the scandal was taking shape should be disbarred from holding directorships of any organisation. Even if only some of the current accusations are true, by no estimates did they uphold the stated charters and values of their organisation, follow the letter or even the spirit of the law or behave in any way which matched the standards of what one expects from the boss of a major company. Totally rubbish behaviour on pretty much every level is my intermediate verdict on this one.
If this means people are sacked, their reputations trashed and their lives tied up in years of legal action and possible fines, so be it – that is exactly what they inflicted on the Postmasters. Loyalty to your organisation is one thing: a blind, vindictive and uncaring corporate defensiveness in order to protect bonuses and personal reputations is something else again.
• And finally…
• I don’t know how many court cases Donald Trump has been involved in since he assumed office in 2016 but I’d not be surprised it exceeds the combined total of all previous presidents combined. One of his latest ones involves a sexual misconduct case dating back to the 1990s during which the judge threatened to kick the former PotUS out of the court: like he’d care.
• Flytipping is fast becoming a serious national problem with over a million tonnes of often dangerous rubbish being dumped on land each year, the costs of clearing this up vastly outstripping the fines. Worse still, landowners (often farmers) have the responsibility to clear this up. Perhaps the solution is to have more council-operated centres: here in West Berkshire there are only two, both in the extreme south of the district.
• This article in The Guardian claims that text comprehension skills of 13-year-olds in the USA has fallen four points since the start of the pandemic and seven points compared with 2012. Covid has obviously been pushed forward as the main culprit: but the article suggests that there are also questions to be asked about using screen rather than paper to communicate information.
• And finally, from our football correspondent (me), a story of an under-12s referee and Wolves fan who was plucked from the stands during his team’s recent FA Cup replay against Brentford to act as fourth official after one of the assistants suffered an injury during the match. On being asked if he knew how to use the electronic substitutes board, he replied “give me a crash course and I’ll do it.” They did and he did. Who says Britain’s can-do spirit is dead?
Across the area
• Our own version
The matter of the Post Office scandal (see above) made me think about whether there’s anything on a more local level that can compare to this. There is.
I don’t know why this didn’t strike me right between the eyes as I’ve been writing about this for over three years, but it took a chance conversations with one of the victims of this injustice last week to make me realise how many similarities there are.
I’m talking about CIL charges. In a nutshell, CIL (Community Infrastructure Levy) has been charged on many, but not all, developments in West Berkshire since 2015. It provides valuable revenue for West Berkshire Council (WBC) and its parishes to spend on measures to mitigate the effects of development, for example by providing infrastructure.
Unfortunately, there have been several cases where WBC has levied these charges in what can be described as a predatory way, waiting for small oversights or errors in the paperwork but not alerting the applicants; and then, when a crucial point had been reached, slapping in a massive invoice. The applicants are typically individuals extending their homes or engaging in very small developments, rather than large companies. In the two most high profile cases, it was accepted by WBC that CIL should not have been charged at all, the breaches being merely procedural. All this was described by a former Leader of WBC as a policy of “gotcha.” I first wrote about this in December 2020 and have been doing so regularly ever since.
The Lib Dems made resolving this problem a key plank in its election manifesto in May, an election which it convincingly won. Efforts have been made to address the problem in the last nine months but more needs to be done. Consultants have been employed to look at how the system is handled in the future: but that doesn’t deal with the past. I accept that to look at all cases involving CIL over the best part of a decade is to open a rats’ nest of problems. Each case is different and more are emerging as a result of the publicity. It will be some time before all these are resolved, I hope with some level of mutual satisfaction.
So: what are the aspects that CIL shares with the Post Office debacle?
- Both involved life-changing sums of money. The Postmasters and the CIL victims were generally hit with bills in five figures, though I’ve heard of one potential CIL case closer to £130,000. One of the high-profile CIL cases here involved about £75,000.
- Both involved system failures: in the PO’s case this was IT, whereas the WBC CIL ones were more to do with bureaucracy and the interpretation of policy.
- Both involved criminal prosecutions, or the threat of them. One CIL victim had the threat of a court case (which was neither preceded with nor withdrawn, which tells its own story about how good WBC felt its case was) hanging over him for about five years.
- Both involved suggesting each was an isolated case. The Post Office seemed to have lied about this: I accept that WBC was merely discreet.
- Both involved attempts to close down those who opposed, criticised or questioned what was going on. (I myself was subjected to this in 2020: and it was this reaction that convinced me that I was on the right track.)
- Both involved investigation and enforcement issues being handled with what can politely be described as an astonishing lack of sensitivity.
- Both have involved time and money, the full extent of which will probably never be known, being poured into defending increasing untenable positions and bolstering a staggering level of corporate defensiveness.
- Both involved cases being handled differently. The Post Office, it seems, used racial profiling. For whatever reasons, WBC handled the enforcement issues utterly differently with regard to at least two cases and continues to do the same with regard to their resolution.
There are also two big differences between the cases.
- The first is that the resolving the PO scandal was not the subject of an election pledge. It could be argued that Sunak has kind of appropriated the issue for this purpose by casting himself as the white knight in sorting matters out (though, as I suggested last week, a solution through the judicial system would be both simpler and less risky). In the CIL case, it was. To its credit, the new administration has made efforts to deal with this: but there’s still much to do. The fact that the matter has been admitted as having been wrong (quite correctly) has had the effect of making the victims aware of their power. They are not now going to go away.
- The second is that the WBC CIL problems have not been the subject of a four-part ITV drama. Yet…
The following is taken verbatim from a statement from WBC published on 16 January 2024.
“West Berkshire Council has responded to an intervention from the Secretary of State which blocked withdrawal of the Local Plan Review. Last month the Council had published a proposal to withdraw the Local Plan ahead of it going to Examination In Public. Before councillors could vote, the Minister of State for Housing, Planning and Building Safety, Lee Rowley MP wrote to the Council instructing that the examination continues as planned.
“A letter has now been sent to Mr Rowley expressing the council’s disappointment at the government’s intervention and expanding on the extraordinary circumstances that led to the proposal to withdraw the plan. It expresses dissatisfaction at the reasons given for why the government has intervened and sets out the extraordinary circumstances that should be taken into account.
“The letter argues that the local plan review does not reflect the wishes of the local community and that the decision should be one for the Council at a local level, especially in the context of the change in political leadership of the Council in May 2023 when the new Liberal Democrat administration was given a clear mandate to review the plan and the sites within it.
“In accordance with the directions given in the letter, councillors and officers from the planning department will continue with preparations for the public examination later this year.
“Once a Local Plan Review is submitted, which in this case was done by the previous administration in March 2023 – before the May election which saw a change in control of the Council – the Secretary of State appoints an Inspector to carry out an independent examination. The Inspector was appointed in May 2023, who then in the light of the change of Administration, allowed the Council six months to review its position regarding the submitted draft Plan.
“This examination later this year will assess whether the submitted plan has been prepared in accordance with legal and procedural requirements.”
The most recent issue of the Volunteer Centre West Berkshire’s e-newsletter looks back at last week’s annual volunteering event, the fiftieth one (hence its name of V365-50). The article reports that “55 charities attended the day long event and 310 members of the public visited the event designed to inform and encourage people to volunteer.”
“We had a great turn out of charities and the weather was perfect for us,” VCWB’s Director Garry Poulson said. “My team were brilliant as ever. This work is particularly important at a time when poverty and the cost of living is having an impact on West Berkshire charities which are feeling the pressure and need more volunteers. For anyone not able to attend the day the Volunteer Centre recruits volunteers year round and free impartial information advice and guidance is available by visiting www.volunteerwestberks.org.uk or calling 01635 49004.”
• Locked in a room
We’re often being encouraged to report problems to the relevant bodies and the point is regularly and rightly made that, without this, the organisations don’t know that there’s something wrong. Some, like West Berkshire’s Report a Problem portal seems to work pretty well but others are less good: the 101 non-emergency police line, for instance, can be painfully slow. All this, of course, assumes that you’re certain that you’re reporting the problem to the right place.
With problems to do with flooding, sewage, other pollution and groundwater – in rivers, on roads nd pavements, in gullies and ditches and in property – it’s far from clear to many whom they should be contacting. In this area, there are three obvious candidates: Thames Water, the Environment Agency and West Berkshire Council, each of which is responsible for different aspects of the problem. It was suggested at the meeting of WBC’s Scrutiny Commission last October that these three bodies should work more closely together on specific matters in the district. Explaining to people who should be contacted about what might be a good place to start.
So, here’s my suggestion. Senior representatives of each of these organisations will be locked in a room with a pad of paper, some pencils and as much coffee as they need. They’ll not be let out until they’ve written, on half a side of A4, instructions about what problem should reported to what body and which can be understood by a twelve-year-old child. I’d suggest that WBC can supply the room, Thames Water – who better? – can supply the water and the filter and the EA can provide the coffee. Penny Post will be happy to donate a pad of paper and some nice sharp pencils to the project. I await the results with interest.
In an ideal world, they’d come up with just one phone number, email address and weblink which is where all problems relating to anything to do with water would be sent, these then being sent on to the right place/s by some knowledgeable humans or, given the times in which we live, a piece of AI software. That might be expecting a bit too much. One step at a time. It won’t be a waste of effort as to report something to the wrong organisation wastes their time and yours. It’s also not a problem that’s going to go away.
• Rural prosperity
As mentioned previously, West Berkshire Council has announced that it has been awarded nearly £600,000 under the government’s Levelling Up scheme with about half of this (£297,994) being distributed across rural areas. This provides “an opportunity for local small rural businesses to apply for funding to support capital initiatives.” The funding will be allocated over two financial years, “with £99,498 being provided in 2023-24, and a further £198,495 in 2024-25. The business grants will range between £10,000 to £40,000 and will be awarded to businesses on a rolling basis over the lifetime of the scheme.”
For more information, including on how businesses can apply for grants, click here.
• Residents’ news
The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council includes flooding advice, the Pang Valley exhibition, staying well in winter, rough sleepers, support packages, the local plan, public meetings, MMR jabs, risking it all, ancient Egypt, an opera and libraries.
• News from your local councils
Most of the councils in the area we cover are single-tier with one municipal authority. The arrangements in Oxfordshire are different, with a County Council which is sub-divided into six district councils, of which the Vale of White Horse is one. In these two-tier authorities, the county and district have different responsibilities. In all cases, parish and town councils provide the first and most immediately accessible tier of local government.
West Berkshire Council
• Click here for details of all current consultations being run by West Berkshire Council.
• Click here to sign up to all or any of the wide range of newsletters produced by West Berkshire Council.
• Click here to see the latest West Berkshire Council Residents’ Bulletin (generally produced every week).
• Click here for the latest news from West Berkshire Council.
Vale of White Horse Council
• Click here for details of all current consultations being run by the Vale Council.
• Click here for latest news from the Vale Council.
• Click here for the South and Vale Business Support Newsletter archive (newsletters are generally produced each week).
• Click here to sign up to any of the newsletters produced by the Vale’s parent authority, Oxfordshire County Council.
• Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Wiltshire Council.
• Click here for the latest news from Wiltshire Council.
• Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Swindon Council.
• Click here for the latest news from Swindon Council.
Parish and town councils
• Please see the News from your local council section in the respective weekly news columns (these also contain a wide range of other news stories and information on activities, events and local appeals and campaigns): Hungerford area; Lambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area.
• Other news
• West Berkshire Council has announced a “comprehensive support package for residents facing winter challenges.”
• The Council looks back at some of its highlights from 2023.
• More information on the town-centre strategies in Newbury, Thatcham and Hungerford can be found here.
• More information on community warm spaces in West Berkshire can be found here.
• The government has announced that the Single Fare Cap Scheme has now been extended to 31 December 2024. The scheme provides affordable bus travel for everyone across England, allowing passengers to travel at any time of the day for £2 (£4 return). The list of participating operators in West Berkshire can be found here.
• Click here for information about help available with the cost of living crisis in West Berkshire, the Vale and Wiltshire.
• Please click here for information about what local councils are doing to help support refugees from Ukraine and how you can help.
• The animals of the week are any of these birds who were introduced to the residents of Brendoncare Froxfield by Jason Ashcroft of Falconry UK.
• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently: see the various news area sections (links above) for further details.
The quiz, the sketch and the song
• Here we arrive at the Song of the Week. Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys certainly knows how to turn a good lyric and tell a good story, which always tests pretty high with me. Here’s a fine, though dark, example: When the Sun Goes Down.
• Which means that next comes the Comedy Moment of the Week. Here’s a bit of Fry and Laurie doing a spoof of John le Carré in the style of Acorn Antiques: Spy Drama.
• Which only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: Which is the only country that has never lost a football match against Brazil? Last week’s question was: Nusantara will become the capital of what country in August? The answer is Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country. Not many people will be living there at the time as it’s still being built.
For weekly news sections for Hungerford area; Lambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area please click on the appropriate links.