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Politics

Russia Report flays government inaction

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AFTER nine months of delay, which had nothing whatsoever to do with the embarrassment its content could have caused to successive Conservative Prime Ministers, the long-awaited Intelligence Services Committee report into Russian interference in the UK’s democratic processes was published on Tuesday, July 21.

The Committee delivered its report to the UK Government last autumn, well before the announcement of December’s General Election. However, the Government delayed its release indefinitely.

PUBLICATION AFTER GRAYLING FAILED AGAIN
The report’s publication on Tuesday followed an attempt by Number 10 Downing Street to rig the election of a new Chair for the Committee. Former Attorney-General Dominic Grieve QC stood down at the last election.

Last week, Number 10 attempted to parachute in a patsy to replace Dominic Grieve, former Cabinet Minister Chris Grayling, hoping to kick the report even further into the long grass. The effort failed comically when the Government’s nominee lost a rigged election. The new Chair, Julian Lewis, a Conservative MP, had the Conservative whip withdrawn from him as a result of ‘disloyalty’ to Number 10.

The attempt to thwart the report’s publication – or to neuter its already heavily redacted form – rebounded badly on Boris Johnson and draws attention to some of the report’s more uncomfortable conclusions regarding the extent of Russian infiltration into the UK’s public life.
The report is a scathing assessment of the UK Government’s continued failure to either adequately assess or even investigate how Russia, or those associated with the Putin regime, attempted to influence the UK electorate.

KEY FINDINGS
• Russian influence in the UK is the new normal. Successive Governments have welcomed the oligarchs and their money with open arms, providing them with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London ‘laundromat’, and connections at the highest levels with access to UK companies and political figures.• This has led to a growth industry of ‘enablers’ including lawyers, accountants, and estate agents who are – wittingly or unwittingly – de facto agents of the Russian state.
• It clearly demonstrates the inherent tension between the Government’s prosperity agenda and the need to protect national security. While we cannot now shut the stable door, greater powers and transparency are needed urgently.
• UK is clearly a target for Russian disinformation. While the mechanics of our paper-based voting system are largely sound, we cannot be complacent about a hostile state taking deliberate action to influence our democratic processes.
• Yet the defence of those democratic processes has appeared something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation considering itself to be in the lead, or apparently willing to conduct an assessment of such interference. This must change.
• Social media companies must take action and remove covert hostile state material: Government must ‘name and shame’ those who fail to act.
• We need other countries to step up with the UK and attach a cost to Putin’s actions. [The Russian state’s coordination of the Novichok attack in] Salisbury must not be allowed to become the high watermark in international unity over the Russia threat.
Several issues addressed in the published version of the Russia Report are covered in more depth in a Classified Annex which is unavailable for public scrutiny.

GOVERNMENT DIDN’T RECOGNISE THREAT
A statement by the Committee said: “There have been widespread allegations that Russia sought to influence voters in the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU: studies have pointed to the preponderance of pro-Brexit or anti-EU stories on RT and Sputnik, and the use of ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’, as evidence.

“The actual impact of such attempts on the result itself would be difficult – if not impossible – to prove. However what is clear is that the Government was slow to recognise the existence of the threat – only understanding it after the ‘hack and leak’ operation against the Democratic National Committee, when it should have been seen as early as 2014 (when Russia attempted to interfere in the Scottish Independence Referendum). As a result, the Government did not take action to protect the UK’s process in 2016.”

“The Committee has not been provided with any post-referendum assessment – in stark contrast to the US response to reports of interference in the 2016 presidential election. In our view, there must be an analogous assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum.”

In a press conference following the report’s publication, Chair of the Intelligence Services Committee, Julian Lewis recused himself from commenting on the report. He told media as he was not a member of the committee when it drew up the report, he would leave answers on its contents to two MPs who were members of it at the relevant time.

NO EFFORT TO INVESTIGATE
Members of the Intelligence Select Committee (ISC) said there was ‘no evidence’ that Russia sought to influence the 2016 Brexit referendum, but only because the government did not try to find out if it had.

One member, Stewart Hosie MP (SNP) said: “There has been no assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and this goes back to nobody wanting to touch the issue with a 10-foot pole.

“The UK Government has actively avoided seeking evidence as to whether Russia interfered.”

The report notes: “For example, it was widely reported shortly after the Scottish referendum that Russian election observers had suggested that there were irregularities in the conduct of the vote, and this position was widely pushed by Russian state media.

“We understand that HMG viewed this as being primarily aimed at discrediting the UK in the eyes of a domestic Russian audience.”
Russian propaganda was widely shared and effective in Scotland.

Over 87,000 people signed a petition demanding a re-vote following the Russian allegations of electoral fraud.

Kevan Jones, a former Labour defence minister, said all the evidence of Russian interference was there from the Scottish referendum
He said: “Short of a large van outside Downing Street, with a billboard on it saying, ’this is what was going on’, what more did the government need? Why was the decision taken not to look at the (Brexit) referendum?”

He said the Government lied about why Russia report couldn’t be published before the election.

Commenting on the report the Shadow Home Secretary, Kit Thomas-Symonds, said: “The report outlines a litany of hostile state activity, from cyber warfare, interfering in democratic processes, acts of violence on UK soil and illicit finance. On every level, the government’s response does not appear to be equal to the threat. While on key issues it is clear that there is no overall strategic response to this challenge – little wonder the government has been so keen to delay the publication.”

MONEY TALKS REALITY BITES
The Committee’s reports and its members’ comments leave little doubt that Theresa May actively declined to start an investigation into allegations of foreign interference in the 2016 Referendum campaign.

In a section about the referendum, the report says: “The written evidence provided to us appeared to suggest that HMG [Her Majesty’s government] had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election, for example influencing results.”

While any number of conspiracy theories swirl about her failure to at least ask GCHQ, MI6 or MI5 to look into the allegations, it is entirely likely that Mrs May’s decision was based in cold, hard realpolitik.

If an investigation had uncovered evidence of Russian interference, the consequences for the UK potentially outweighed any effect the interference had on the Referendum’s outcome.

Brexit hardliners within her party and fringe figures such as Nigel Farage would never have accepted any finding which undermined the legitimacy of the Referendum result. The result could have been political chaos and – quite possibly – civil disruption.

An investigation would also have provided an impetus for defeated Remain campaigners to challenge the result through the Courts.
The scope for revelations about prominent Conservative figures’ connection with Russia and Russian money might have caused severe embarrassment at a time the Government was trying to set the Brexit agenda.

For example, Alexander Termerko is a former senior apparatchik in the Russian Ministry of Defence. He is among the Conservative’s largest donors (£1.3m over seven years). Born in Ukraine when it was part of the former Soviet Union, Mr Termerko rose to prominence during the Yeltsin era. He became involved in manufacturing arms and an oil tycoon under Vladimir Putin. He fled to the UK when threatened with a politically-motivated prosecution. Mr Termerko has donated generously to several Conservative MPs, including Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire MP Simon Hart.

None of the above excuses the failure to investigate but, as one possible reading of events, it offers a compelling rationale for Mrs May’s and Mr Johnson’s reluctance to look too deeply into any foreign interference in the Brexit Referendum.

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Politics

WG settles ‘scandalous’ land sale case

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THE WELSH GOVERNMENT has settled a claim against its former advisors about land sales which took place under a purported regeneration scheme.

The Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) had issued proceedings against Amber Fund Management and Lambert Smith Hampton concerning the portfolio sale of 15 properties in 2012.

The settlement has been reached on a commercial basis and without any admission of liability by any party.

The detailed terms have been incorporated into a confidential settlement agreement between the parties.

The Welsh Government Minister for Local Government, Julie James, said the £40.7 million tied up in the Fund can now be made available to support future investments across Wales.

RIFW was set up as an arms-length body by the Welsh Government to allow the Welsh Government to raise money which could then be used to fund regeneration and investments in Welsh businesses.

It was a complete shambles.

One of the advisors appointed had previous connections with one of the parties which bought some of the land at an undervalue.

Vital information was not relayed to the RIFW’s board by the Welsh Government and Board members were kept in the dark about transactions carried out in their name.

Under the oversight of their appointed agents and Welsh Government civil servants, RIFW sold publicly owned assets by private treaty and without prior valuation at a price that reflected the assets’ existing use, under sale terms that provided only limited protection to the public interest in their significant future development values, and via a negotiation process that left RIFW lumbered with undesirable assets.

The Chair of the Senedd Public Accounts Committee, Nick Ramsay MS, said: “The out of court settlement between the Welsh Government and the former advisors of RIFW effectively brings a curtain down on a very sorry and lamentable episode.

“The hasty sell-off of publicly-owned land at bargain-basement prices effectively deprived Welsh taxpayers of tens of millions of pounds which could’ve been used for essential services.

“We look forward to examining matters further with the Permanent Secretary and Head of the Welsh Government Civil Service, Shan Morgan, at our next meeting on Monday, November 23.

“We will be asking what robust steps have been taken to avoid history repeating.”

RIFW was set up as an arms-length body by the Welsh Government to sell off land around Wales including in north Wales, Monmouthshire and Cardiff, and use the money, in conjunction with European funding, to reinvest in areas in need of regeneration.

But the Public Accounts Committee found that the body was poorly managed, poorly overseen by the government, and that, because of a change in the direction of RIFW, from one of regeneration to property asset disposals, some of the Board members felt they lacked the necessary knowledge and expertise to fulfil their roles.

It also learned that the Board was not presented with key information regarding the value of the land in its portfolio, or of expressions of interest from potential buyers.

Fifteen plots of land, originally supposed to be sold separately, were instead sold as a single portfolio at a price which did not take into account potential use of the land in the future. This decision resulted in Welsh taxpayers missing out on tens of millions of pounds of funding.

The Committee learned that one of the organisations charged with offering expert advice to the Board, Lambert Smith Hampton Ltd, had previously acted on behalf of a director of the buyer of the land, South Wales Land Developments Ltd (SWLD), and signed an agreement to do so again one day after the sales went through.

The Committee concluded that the RIFW Board had been poorly served by its own expert advisors.

Angela Burns MS – Shadow Minister for Government Resilience and Efficiency – said: “The Fund was established to sell valuable packages of Welsh Government land, with the money used to support regeneration schemes. However, evidence has since emerged that shows that the sale of RIFW’s assets was undertaken at a loss of tens of millions of pounds. A loss which was borne ultimately by the Welsh Taxpayer and yet another example of the complete inability of this Labour Government to be fiscally prudent.

“Millions of pounds have been squandered, millions that could have been invested in our education and health systems or spent building Wales’ economy or supporting some of our more vulnerable citizens. It’s an absolute scandal and the real scandal is the Welsh Government can slide out of their responsibility for this debacle”

Included in the scandal are:

  • Fifteen sites sold for £21 million; with the taxpayer missing out on staggering sums of money
  • A site in Rhoose purchased from RIFW for less than £3m – sold on for almost £10.5m South Wales Land Developments Ltd. Taxpayers losing out
  • An Abergele site purchased from RIFW for £100,000, without overage, and sold for £1.9million. Taxpayers losing out
  • Land in Lisvane sold for £1.8million – worth £39million.

 

Welsh Conservatives also claim the Welsh Government has squandered £1 billion on other projects, including:

  • £221m on uncompetitive Enterprise Zones
  • £9.3m on flawed initial funding of the Circuit of Wales
  • £97.9m on delays and overspend on the A465 Heads of the Valleys Road
  • £157m on the M4 relief road inquiry
  • Over £100m propping up Cardiff Airport
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Politics

UK not ready for Brexit

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A REPORT published last week by the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO) says that although government departments have made progress in recent months implementing the changes required to systems, infrastructure and resources to manage the border at the end of the post-EU Exit transition period, it is still likely that widespread disruption will occur from January 1, 2021.
In its fourth report assessing government’s preparations at the border, the NAO highlights that planning for 1 January 2021 has built on work done for previous EU Exit deadline.
The report says COVID-19 has exacerbated delays in government’s preparations and significant risks remain, particularly in relation to implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol and trader readiness more generally.
Departments have made progress towards implementing the systems, infrastructure and resources required to operate the border in relation to Great Britain at “minimum operating capability” by January 1 and are reasonably confident most will be ready, but timetables are tight.
The ability for traders to move goods under transit arrangements is a key element of the government’s plans but some elements will be challenging to deliver in their entirety.
HMRC currently estimates that there will be around 6.3 million movements of goods under transit arrangements in the year following the end of the transition period. If all the planned arrangements are not ready, this could have an impact on the ease with which traders can import and export goods.
There is little time for ports and other third parties to integrate their systems and processes with new or changed government systems, and contingency plans may need to be invoked for some elements.
In part as a result of the delays caused by COVID-19, there is limited time to test individual elements and resolve any emerging issues; ensure elements operate together; familiarise users with them in advance and little or no contingency time in the event of any delays.
Even if the Westminster government makes further progress with its preparations, there is still likely to be significant disruption at the border from January 1, as traders will be unprepared for new EU border controls which will require additional administration and checks.
The government’s latest reasonable worst-case planning assumptions, from September 2020, are that 40% to 70% per cent of hauliers will not be ready for these new controls and up to 7,000 lorries may need to queue at the approach to the short Channel crossings,6 such as Dover to Calais.
The government’s plan for reducing the risk of disruption at the approach to the short Channel crossings is still developing, with various issues yet to be resolved. It intends to launch a new GOV.UK web service called ‘Check an HGV is ready to cross the border’ for hauliers to check and self-declare that they have the correct documentation for EU import controls before travelling and obtain permits to drive on prescribed roads in Kent.
However, there is more to do on how ‘Check an HGV’ will be enforced and how it will work together with traffic management plans for Kent.
Government is preparing civil contingency plans, such as to ensure continuity of the supply of critical goods and medicines in the event of any disruption to supply chains.
On October 13, the Department for Transport announced it had awarded contracts to provide additional freight capacity for over 3,000 lorries a week on routes avoiding the short Channel crossings.
However, COVID-19 is making civil contingency plans more difficult to enact, with local authorities, industry and supply chains already under additional strain.
The UK Government will also need to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol from January 1. However, due to the scale and complexity of the changes, the lack of time and the impact of ongoing negotiations, there is a very high risk it may not be implemented in time.
The government has left itself little time to mobilise its new Trader Support Service (TSS), in which it has announced it is investing £200 million, to reduce the burden on traders moving goods to Northern Ireland and to help them prepare.
It will be challenging to establish the TSS by 1 January 2021. Work needs to be done to identify NI traders and sign them up to use the service; recruit and train the staff required; develop software to enable traders to connect to HMRC’s systems; and deliver educational activities to traders.
There is also ongoing uncertainty about the requirements for the movement of goods under the Protocol. Therefore, there is still a high risk that traders will not be ready.
The government is spending significant sums of money preparing the border for the end of the transition period and, in 2020 alone, announced funding of £1.41 billion to fund new infrastructure and systems, and wider support and investment.
Despite this, there remains significant uncertainty about whether preparations will be complete in time, and the impact if they are not. Some of this uncertainty could have been avoided, and better preparations made, had the government addressed sooner issues such as the need for an increase in the number of customs agents to support traders.
The NAO says that government must continue to focus its efforts on resolving the many outstanding issues relating to the border and develop robust contingency plans if these cannot be addressed in time for the end of the transition period.
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “The January 1 deadline is unlike any previous EU Exit deadline: significant changes at the border will take place and government must be ready.
“Disruption is likely and the government will need to respond quickly to minimise the impact, a situation made all the more challenging by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
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Campaigners Thank Local MP, Ben Lake, for Championing Community Energy

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Today campaign group, Power for People, thanked local MP, Ben Lake, for holding a debate last night in the House of Commons to promote community renewable energy by creating a ‘Right to Local Supply’ in law.

Central to the debate was a proposed new law, known as the Local Electricity Bill, that Mr Lake is co-sponsoring and which is supported by 212 MPs. The Bill aims to help rebuild local economies whilst increasing clean energy generation.

If made law, the Bill would empower community-owned local energy companies to sell locally generated renewable electricity directly to local households and businesses.

Currently customers can only purchase electricity from nationally licensed utilities. The Bill’s supporters say this means money people use to pay their energy bills is not helping to rebuild local economies and local clean energy infrastructure.

Responding to the debate, Energy Minister, Kwasi Kwarteng MP, said, “It is certainly something that I as the Energy Minister will be willing to engage with and have a discussion about … I think that with a co-operative spirit, we can get very far.”

Campaigning group, Power for People, are calling for MPs and the government to make the Bill law and are leading a supportive coalition of organisations including Community Energy Wales, Community Energy England, Community Energy Scotland, WWF, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the RSPB. 62 local authorities have also pledged their support.

Ben Lake, MP for Ceredigion, said, “A Right to Local Supply will empower and enable new community energy companies to sell energy that they generate directly to local people which will accelerate our transition to clean energy and help strengthen local economies. The Local Electricity Bill would enshrine this in law and I will do all I can to ensure it succeeds.”

Power for People’s Director, Steve Shaw, said, “We thank Ben Lake for holding a debate on the Local Electricity Bill in the House of Commons. If made law, the Bill would unleash the huge potential for new community-owned clean energy infrastructure and for this to boost local economies, jobs, services, and facilities in communities across Ceredigion, Wales and the rest of the UK.”

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