The Waugh Zone Tuesday February 13, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today.

The Times’ Sean O’Neill will surely win an award for his investigation into the Oxfam scandals in Haiti and elsewhere. Yesterday, the charity’s deputy chief executive quit and last night the Charity Commission announced a statutory inquiry, its most serious action that could lead to suspension of trustees or frozen bank accounts. It’s facing the possible loss of European Commission funding too.

The Oxfam affair matters because it has laid bare the astonishing complacency and lack of transparency that critics of the charitable sector have long suspected. What has really powered the story has been the testimony of whistleblowers, some unnamed, some named. Last night’s Channel 4 News saw Helen Evans, Oxfam’s former global head of safeguarding, claim teenage volunteers at its UK shops had been abused, and overseas staff had traded ‘aid for sex’.

Will the scandal claim another scalp? After Evans (who is also a Labour councillor in Oxfordshire) said her piece last night, current CEO Mark Goldring apologised, while suggesting things had improved in the last few years since the Haiti scandal. Yet he also gave Channel 4 News what I think is the first hint he could be forced out too. “If our board turn round and say ‘actually you’re not the right person to lead forward’, then I of course would resign immediately,” Goldring said.

International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt last night announced “a new unit to urgently review safeguarding across all parts of the aid sector to ensure everything is being done to protect people from harm, including sexual exploitation and abuse”. Oxfam has until the end of this week to prove to her it has radically changed. Having received £31m in taxpayers’ money last year, the stakes are high. Other charities will have to take note that denial and cover-up only ever make things worse.

In case you hadn’t heard, Boris’s big speech on Brexit is tomorrow. The Guardian has a sneak preview, with source suggesting the Foreign Secretary will argue that the EU’s founding fathers were more interested in creating political project than cutting trade barriers. As he told the paper last month: “The great thing about EU regulation is that it is not primarily there for business convenience, it is not primarily there to create opportunities for companies to trade freely across frontiers, it is primarily there to create a united EU.”

It seems Boris will apparently cite philosopher John Stuart Mill to back his claim that the EU is not ‘liberal’ because it involves supra-national sovereignty (yes, it sounds like an Oxford PPE tutorial already). But while he’s right that the EU has become much more than a ‘Common Market’, his critics are sure to point out that deregulation within the bloc is what has driven its economic power – and made it so attractive to would-be members.

But perhaps the most fascinating thing in the Guardian story are hints that Boris will stray onto the terrain the No.10 apparently wants him to steer clear of: the precise nature of future EU-UK trade and a demand for more deregulation to ‘free’ our economy and businesses. The secret civil service analysis of the possible economic impact of Brexit, which the government was forced to release to MPs recently, had a telling conclusion: “Leaving the European Union could provide the UK with an opportunity to regulate differently across social, environment, energy, consumer and product standards.”

If ‘regulating’ differently means dismantling current standards and rights, that would not only undermine David Davis’ constant refrain about workers’ rights, it could gift Labour its narrative about a ‘race to the bottom’. Philip Hammond hasn’t got a Big Speech, but will he made some trademark barbed comments as he tours Norway and Sweden today, with trips to Holland, Spain and Portugal later this week? Here’s our Six Questions these ‘road to Brexit’ speeches need to answer.

Meanwhile in the real world, firms are getting antsy. A new FTI Consulting survey of 2,500 European businesses found 75 percent of firms expect clarity on the U.K.-EU relationship by June, when “irreversible changes” will be made to their business planning. Some 65% believe the U.K. will retain tariff-free access for goods, 59 % think that free movement will remain and 52% that European Court of Justice jurisdiction will continue.

One of the biggest problems the NHS faces is that there simply aren’t enough doctors, nurses and midwives to cope with new pressures. Jeremy Hunt has pledged to massively expand training and yet several Tory MPs think one of the biggest own goals in recent years has been the scrapping of bursaries for student nurses, forcing applicants to get loans for expensive tuition fees. On Friday, the Department of Health and Social Care’s website quietly announced that postgrad bursaries would be axed too.

Cue a backlash from the normally reserved Royal College of Nursing, which says the change suggests Hunt is ‘hell bent’ on stopping fresh talent from entering the profession. Yesterday, the DHSC published its own ‘equality analysis’ on the shift to student loans and it revealed that mature students, the less well off, women and people from ethnic minorities were all more ‘debt averse’ and therefore less likely to apply for student places. The NHS relies particularly on mature students, but applications have plunged. Labour’s Angela Rayner and Jon Ashworth are now set to stage a ‘prayer’ motion to halt the new changes, hoping the DUP (which backs retention of the bursary in Northern Ireland) won’t back ministers. One to watch.

What’s particularly baffling about the bursary cut is that the Government wants more home-grown staff for the NHS after Brexit. And the big drop in EU medical staff coming to the UK is still being felt nearly two year after the referendum. NHS Employers have urged ministers to relax immigration caps on non-EU doctors as hospitals have for the first time reached their quota for two consecutive months. The FT says the Home Office is looking at exempting doctors from the curbs, just as it does nurses at present. Many would-be immigrant doctors outside the EU would earn too little to qualify under strict ‘skilled migrant’ rules. The University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust has said it has had 18 applicants rejected because of the issue.

The robot makers at Boston Dynamics have produced a new mechanical dog. And made possibly the most scary robot video you’ve ever seen.

The smarter select committees often spot a gap in the Commons recess news agenda and put out reports that can get more airtime. Today, we have the announcement of a new inquiry (by the Women and Equalities Committee) into workplace harassment and an urgent call to end energy rip offs (from the Business Select). We also have latest in the Carillion saga from the double act of the Work and Pensions and Business Select Committees and boy do they let rip.

What further gives the MPs a chance of coverage is of course choice language and Frank Field has rounded on the ‘Big Four’ accountancy and audit firms – KPMG, PWC, Deloitte and E&Y – to claim they were “feasting on what was soon to become a carcass” of Carillion, picking up fees of £71m since 2008. The committees point out the revolving door in corporate Britain, with three of the last four chief financial officers at Carillion coming from the Big Four. PWC says most of its work was done before 2015 and the firm’s troubles. It adds that the Big Four have been subjected to ‘extensive’ competition reviews.

Embattled UKIP leader Henry Bolton will find out this weekend whether his party wants to keep him, but ahead of that he’s drafted reform plans that are his last-gasp attempt at hanging on. We had a sneak peek yesterday that his reforms would dramatically reduce the role of the party chairman, create a new Chief of Staff and give sweeping new powers to the leader. The key verdict that may influence the rank and file is that of Nigel Farage, who has long wanted his party modernised. Will he have a reaction if the plans are finally published today?

Not coincidentally perhaps, UKIP chairman Paul Oakden last night revealed he was stepping down. Bolton told LBC yesterday that ‘ex’ girlfriend Jo Marney ‘might’ get a Valentine’s card from him. He also defended her racists texts about Meghan Markle, saying they had been merely “fiery” and “provocative”. The real love letter seems to be not from Bolton to Marney, but from Bolton to Farage. If it fails and he is forced out after Saturday, the party will have had five leaders in 18 months. With dwindling membership and votes, can we still call it a party in anything but name?

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