1. WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
It’s the final day of the Commonwealth summit. After talks at Windsor Castle, Theresa May will stand alongside other leaders for a press conference in central London this evening. Despite new agreements on plastics pollution and climate change, it’s the Windrush scandal that has obviously overshadowed the week’s events. May will have to answer directly whether anything she did during her time at the Home Office contributed to the mistreatment. As I suggested yesterday, the issue of compensation is growing. At a powerful meeting in the Commons last night, David Lammy stepped up calls for reparations. Treasury minister Liz Truss on Question Time said ministers ‘want to help with financial losses’. If the PM wants to reclaim the political initiative and recover some personal pride, she could be more proactive than that today.
The Home Office revealed yesterday that the number of cases had now gone up to 232. First it was 49, then 113, now it’s above 200. And today there are yet more cases of disgraceful treatment. Leighton Joseph Robinson, 58, went to Jamaica for his 50th birthday, it was the first time he had been back to the Caribbean since arriving in Britain aged six. But what was supposed to be a once in a lifetime holiday turned into a nightmare when, on his way home, he was stopped at the airport and told that he could not return home to Northampton on the Jamaican passport he had brought for the trip. He ended up staying in Jamaica for 21 months, stranded and living in one-room bedsits and cheap hostels. “I felt like someone had just punched me in the head. ‘What do you mean, I cannot come back?’ I thought”.
Attempts by the PM to defuse the row have unravelled embarrassingly in recent days. The Guardian splashes on the continuing plight of Albert Thompson, the Londoner still denied NHS cancer treatment despite May’s claims his case would be sorted. And former chief of staff Nick Timothy was caught being economical with the acutalite in claiming May attempted to block notorious ‘go home’ immigration vans in 2013. Bloomberg got hold of Home Office emails that confirmed “the Home Secretary has commented that it is right to advertise enforcement action”. The Times splashes on a wider Cabinet clash over immigration, with hardline Brexiteers like Esther McVey and Andrea Leadsom wanting an immigration bill speeded up. But Amber Rudd looks like she’s got No.10’s full support as it’s Brexit that’s driven the delay.
As for the Commonwealth itself, it looks like the leaders will today decide that Prince Charles will become their new head after the Queen’s reign. Jeremy Corbyn had picked up on a debate by some leaders that they should instead pick a leader from one of their own, on a rotating basis. Her Majesty stretched protocol yesterday to state it was her ‘sincere wish’ that Charles will ‘one day’ succeed her, adding she had succeeded her own father in the role. Shadow International Development Secretary Kate Osamor had told The House magazine last week that Charles should not get the post because ‘we need someone people respect’.
Anita Sethi certainly didn’t feel respected when she met the Prince of Wales at a Commonwealth event this week. In a Guardian op-ed, she reveals “Charles asked ‘And where are you from?’ ‘Manchester, UK,’ I said. ‘Well, you don’t look like it! he said, and laughed…That the mooted next leader of an organisation that represents one-third of the people on the planet commented that I, a brown woman, did not look as if I was from a city in the UK is shocking.” This week has shown that asking people from British-based minority communities ‘where are you from?’ is more than a gaffe by the heir to the throne. It’s been Government policy. Will the PM acknowledge that fully tonight?
2. CUSTOM BUILT HEADACHE
Brexit was back this week and not in a good way for the Government. After those huge Lords defeats, is another one looming in the Commons? Yvette Cooper and Nicky Morgan told HuffPost yesterday of their plan to stage a fresh vote next Thursday on the crucial issue of whether the UK should continue a customs union with the EU. The wording of their motion is stronger than the one passed by peers, in that it calls on the Government to “include as an objective in negotiations…an effective customs union”. Note that Dominic Grieve, as well as other senior select committee chairs, signed the motion. One Government source dismisses the Liaison Committee vote as ’meaningless gesture politics”. Will ministers dare to order another whip to abstain, as has been recent practice with tricky but symbolic votes?
Cooper and Morgan blogged for us on why the customs union matters for manufacturing jobs and crucially for Northern Ireland. And it’s the hard border problem that once again looks the thorniest issue this morning after the Daily Telegraph’s impeccably well-informed Europe editor Peter Foster’s new report. He reveals that at a meeting on Wednesday, the EU comprehensively rejected Britain’s options for avoiding a hard border. It was a “systematic and forensic annihilation” during meeting between senior EU officials and Olly Robbins, the UK’s lead Brexit negotiator. “It was made clear that none of the UK’s customs options will work. None of them.”
In a way, we should be surprised that anyone is surprised. Brussels sources have long ridiculed what they saw as a back-of-the-envelope options paper published last summer by our Brexit department. The two main options of ‘a highly streamlined customs arrangement’ and a ‘customs partnership’ were seen as impractical, expensive and incompatible with the EU’s own legal rules. There could well be a complex solution to this complex problem, but will either Brussels or the DUP allow May the time to develop one? As for the separate issue of the Brexit ‘divorce’ bill, the National Audit Office suggests today that the £39bn cost could be an underestimate. It could cost £7bn more (though equally it could be less, the NAO says ‘small’ changes in assumptions behind the Treasury’s stats could lead to big changes).
3. RUSSIAN ROULETTE
The latest news from Salisbury is very worrying indeed. Ian Boyd, the Government’s chief scientist at DEFRA, told a public meeting last night that there were nine toxic ‘hotspots’ in the city where decontamination work could take months to solve. A small amount of Novichok in liquid form is believed to have been used to target Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Asked whether there were still ‘lethal’ levels of the substance in the area, Boyd replied: “in certain circumstances there will be relatively high concentrations, probably in very, very specific locations, which could be at levels that could be toxic to individuals”. It’s more proof as to why the UK is so angry at the reckless risk to life caused by the attempted assassination. The BBC’s Steve Rosenberg has got hold of a Russian scientist who says: “I am certain it was A-234 that poisoned the Skripals...it may well have been from a batch I made with my own hands.”
But on the issue of Russia’s role in another chemical attack, in Syria, Labour’s Emily Thornberry last night prompted boos from the Question Time audience. The Shadow Foreign Secretary suggested it was red tape, not the Red Army, that had prevented weapons inspectors from getting access to the site in Douma. “I don’t accept what [Treasury Secretary Liz Truss] says about the Russians stopping it. My understanding is that it’s a United Nations problem with their red tape and their safety and with getting their safety stuff through. That is what I am told.” Thornberry’s ‘understanding’ sounds uncannily like that offered by the Kremlin, even though it has been flatly denied by the UN. Sergei Ryabkov, deputy foreign minister of Russia, said four days ago: “The problem was the absence of the U.N. secretariat security department’s approval for O.P.C.W. experts to visit Douma”. But a spokesman for the United Nations, Stéphane Dujarric, said the United Nations had given the inspectors “all the necessary clearances.” Not a good look for Thornberry.
A fresh Whitehall analysis yesterday revealed that Russian misinformation had increased by 4,000%, mainly through automated social media bots. Just as worrying is the way British academics are spreading fake news about Syria. Our senior editor Chris York reports how professors at Edinburgh and Sheffield universities have been pushing pro-Assad propaganda, including claims that there was no evidence of a chemical attack in Douma. Labour MP Chris Williamson has also complained there’s no ‘irrefutable evidence’. The updated register of MPs’ interests yesterday included a further £300 payment from Russia Today. John McDonnell has said the channel goes ‘beyond objective journalism’ and urges colleagues to boycott it. This morning, Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat unveiled a new Russia Co-Ordination Group of Parliament’s defence, intelligence, DCMS, Treasury, Home Affairs and national security committees. They will work together to scrutinise Russian government ‘activity’.
4. BOOK ENDS
Many MPs were out and about last night, as they will be tonight and over the coming weeks, campaigning ahead of the local elections on May 3. And with less than a fortnight to go, the issue of council cuts and competence is again unavoidable. We lead on a story that ‘bankrupt’ Northamptonshire County Council is planning to close the only two libraries left in the constituency of…the Libraries Minister. DCMS minister Michael Ellis has recused himself from any investigation into the Tory-run county’s library services. Documents reveal the council hopes the plan to close 21 of the county’s 36 libraries will produce millions in so-called “capital asset receipts” from the sale of buildings. The cash will be used to “mitigate” huge losses in the authority’s day-to-day budget. Residents are suing.
Meanwhile, the Times reports on a TaxPayers’ Alliance finding that Northants paid 23 of its employees more than £100,000 last year. One member of staff alone earned £337,000. Labour councillor Mick Scrimshaw said that the figures were ridiculous: “This amount of spending, given our financial situation, is extraordinary. Surely now we need to step back and take a look at senior pay levels. People work in the public sector because they want to be involved in public services. If you want to earn more than £100,000, go and work for a merchant bank.”
5. MOTHER COURAGE
Dame Tessa Jowell has proved once again that helping others is what has driven her life of public service. The former Cabinet minister, who has an aggressive brain tumour, has become the first person to donate her medical information to a new global, patient-led database, the Universal Cancer Databank. Her daughter Jess said Tessa felt a “sense of responsibility” to pave the way for others.
The move followed a special Commons debate which praised her tireless campaigning on the issue. With Tessa and her family looking on from the gallery, Sarah Jones MP read out her note in the chamber: “Remember our battle cry - living with, not dying of cancer, for more people, for longer.” James Brokenshire, the former Northern Ireland Secretary who is recovering from a tumour on his lung, said her Lords speech this year focused “on the human condition – what gives it purpose – and the overriding power of human kindness, compassion and love.” That love was on full display as MPs and peers from across the spectrum joined her on the terrace afterwards.
Brain tumours are the biggest cancer killer of children and adults under the age of 40 in the UK. So money also matters, and Tessa was joined by Jeremy Hunt and Jonathan Ashworth as they jointly hailed the announcement of £45m of research funding into brain tumours supported by Cancer Research UK and the Department of Health. In keeping with this theme of cross-party co-operation, the Health Secretary has also sponsored his Labour shadow in the London Marathon this weekend. Jon Ashworth is running to raise funds for children of alcoholics and he’s blogged for HuffPost UK on why it matters so much to him. Politics can be a bitter place sometimes, but as we head into this weekend it’s worth remembering that we often do have more in common than divides us.
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