Ministers have admitted Boris Johnson‘s proposals to override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement would break international law, sparking a rebellion by Conservative backbenchers.
The rebels want Parliament to have the ability to veto any move by the Prime Minister to depart from the accord agreed with the EU last year – a so-called ‘parliamentary lock’.
Mr Buckland said this morning he believed the original plans could be made ‘acceptable to all Conservative colleagues’ in a sign that ministers are willing to shift on the issue to win over their Tory critics.
His comments came as Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab prepares to meet US Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Washington today to assuage her Brexit concerns.
Ms Pelosi said last week there would be ‘absolutely no chance’ of Congress passing an American trade deal with the UK if the PM’s Brexit plans ‘imperilled’ the Good Friday Agreement.
Meanwhile, a group of four senior US congressmen have written to Mr Johnson to express a similar sentiment as they urged him to ‘abandon’ any proposals which could undermine the peace process.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland today hinted the Government could compromise on its Brexit plans to win over Tory rebels
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is in Washington today for talks with US counterpart Mike Pompeo and US Speaker Nancy Pelosi with Brexit expected to feature heavily
Ms Pelosi warned last week there will be no US/UK trade deal if the Government’s Brexit plans jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement
The Government sparked a furious row with the EU after it published its UK Internal Market Bill last week.
The legislation will enable the UK to unilaterally make decisions on key issues, like customs arrangements between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, contained within the Withdrawal Agreement.
Brussels is adamant that the decisions must be made by a joint committee made up of people from both sides – as set out in the treaty.
But the Government argues its new proposals are necessary in order to protect the integrity of the UK should the two sides be unable to agree terms.
Tory rebels have put forward an amendment to the legislation which would create a ‘parliamentary lock’ on any attempt by the Government to try to depart from the Brexit divorce deal.
A vote on the amendment is scheduled to take place next Tuesday but Mr Buckland today suggested the Government could move on the issue in order to stop the rebellion.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I think that the issue is this. We want to make sure that if we hit a situation where we have this sort of dislocation, this sort of crisis if you like, that we can act swiftly to bring in to power the necessary regulations.
‘I think that whilst actually we have got parliamentary procedures to allow secondary legislation to come into force with debate and scrutiny, we have got to get the balance right.
‘We want to make sure that we are fleet of foot when it comes to the crunch but at the same time to make sure that MPs have their say.
‘That is what the Prime Minister wants, that is what he said in parliament and I am sure we will find a way to do that in a manner that is acceptable to all Conservative colleagues.’
Mr Buckland also stressed the provisions within the UK Internal Market Bill which would allow Britain to override the Withdrawal Agreement and breach international law would only be used if the EU breached its Brexit obligations first.
He told Sky News: ‘If we reach that stage, the reason for it is because we judge that sadly, despite everybody’s best efforts, the EU is in a position where we think they are actually breaching their obligations to us.’
He said the controversial powers were effectively a ‘break glass in case of emergency provision’.
He did not deny that he has held talks with Tory rebel leader Bob Neill, the chairman of the Justice Select Committee.
‘I don’t think it would be right of me to start talking about private conversations,’ he said.
The tone of Mr Buckland’s comments is in stark contrast to Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis’s blunt admission last week that the Government’s plans will ‘break international law in a very specific and limited way’.
It came as Mr Raab tries to assuage concerns in the US over the Government’s Brexit proposals.
The Foreign Secretary is due to meet with Ms Pelosi as well as his counterpart Mike Pompeo.
Last week Ms Pelosi warned the UK there would be no trade deal with Washington if Britain undermined the Good Friday Agreement.
She said: ‘If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress.’
Meanwhile, four senior US congressmen, led by chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Eliot Engel, have written to Mr Johnson urging the Government to respect its open border and peace process with Northern Ireland.
The letter, which was also signed by Mr Engel’s fellow Democrats Richard Neal and William Keating as well as Republican Peter King, urged the PM to ‘abandon any and all legally questionable and unfair efforts to flout the Northern Ireland protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement’.
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Education watchdog backs tuition fee refunds for students if the quality of their course drops
Students at universities hit by coronavirus should seek tuition fee refunds if the quality of their course slips, the higher education watchdog said last night.
At least 40 universities have recorded virus cases – around one in four – leaving thousands of students locked down in halls.
They have complained of ‘disgusting’ conditions as they are essentially sealed off from the outside world.
The situation has caused growing anger over the prospect of no face-to-face learning despite fees of up to £9,250 per year.
The Office for Students (OfS) regulator has now urged students who feel the quality of their education has been affected to complain, warning universities not to take a ‘blanket policy’ against refunds.
Chief executive Nicola Dandridge said: ‘Students have a right to good quality higher education – whether that is taught online, in-person or a mixture of the two.
Students at universities hit by coronavirus should seek tuition fee refunds if the quality of their course slips, the higher education watchdog said last night. They have complained of ‘disgusting’ conditions as they are essentially sealed off from the outside world.
‘Where they feel this is not happening they can raise concerns with their university, escalating complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator where a resolution cannot be found.
‘They can also inform the OfS, and we can and will investigate if we believe that universities have not taken all reasonable steps to protect standards or where quality is slipping for groups of students.’
She added: ‘In considering whether to make partial tuition fee refunds, we would expect a university to consider the circumstances for each student rather than to adopt a blanket policy that refunds are not available.’
Schools should be the last places to close in any future lockdowns, say children’s watchdog
Schools should be the last places to be closed in any future lockdowns, the children’s watchdog said yesterday.
It was wrong to allow pubs and stores such as pet shops to open early in the summer while children were kept at home, Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield, pictured, said. She called on ministers to see that ‘schools are the last to close and first to reopen if there are further lockdowns’.
The pressure from Miss Longfield, the Government’s observer of how children are being treated, comes amid widening concern over the prospect that millions of children will again be deprived of education if infections continue to rise and lockdowns are reimposed.
It follows research indicating that children are 40 per cent less likely than adults to contract Covid-19.
Professor Russell Viner, of University College London, said: ‘The key thing about this research is that it supports keeping schools open.
‘Schools need to be open and be almost the last places to close. As part of learning to live with this virus, we need to be keeping schools open.’
Mrs Dandridge insisted universities must be clear about how to access food and virus tests during outbreaks.
Ahead of the academic year, students were promised a ‘high-quality, full and exciting university experience’ but scenes of chaos have emerged on some campuses.
National Union of Students president Larissa Kennedy blasted the ‘disgusting conditions’ some students are living in and questioned the legality of their confinement.
She told ITV’s Good Morning Britain certain students were short of food and asked ‘whether it has been legal to keep them cooped up in that way without that access to the things that they need’.
Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), where 1,700 students are isolating, yesterday said they would be refunded more than a week’s rent and provided a ‘basic food’ package.
Many students complained they felt like they were in a ‘prison camp’ with guards preventing them from leaving and officials ordering them to take down ‘SOS’-style posters hung in windows.
One said: ‘I’m a bit worried that I paid £6,000 when I could have just done it online, lived at home and then moved in in my second year.’
University vice-chancellor Professor Malcolm Press said a ‘significant amount of money’ would be handed back, on top of food, to ensure students felt ‘protected and cared for’. Glasgow University has also offered isolating students a refund of one month’s rent, along with a £50 payment for food following an outbreak there.
The refunds could open the floodgates for claims at universities across the UK. Universities UK, which represents institutions, said blanket refunds were ‘unaffordable’ because of the amount spent preparing for the academic year during the pandemic.
A spokesman said: ‘Universities have spent much more compared with a normal year on Covid-19 safety measures, enhanced digital learning platforms and putting additional student learning support and catch-up study in place.
‘In this very difficult year, universities are aiming to provide a high-quality and engaging educational experience for their students, while prioritising their physical and mental wellbeing.’
Some opposition MPs backed calls by the lecturers’ union, the UCU, demanding all universities switch to online teaching.
Over the summer, universities were fearful of financial chaos if students stayed away and in June promised them ‘significant in-person teaching and a wide range of social activities’.
Ahead of the academic year, students were promised a ‘high-quality, full and exciting university experience’ but scenes of chaos have emerged on some campuses. Pictured: Two students locked down at a halls of residence in Manchester
But UCU leader Dr Jo Grady said encouraging students to move into halls despite the danger looked ‘like a cynical effort to extract accommodation fees and then worry about what to do’.
She added: ‘We believe a summer spent selling a university experience to prospective students that couldn’t be delivered would have been better spent following the science and preparing properly for this inevitable crisis.’
Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh said students looked like they were being used as ‘cash cows’, adding: ‘Surely these problems could have been anticipated before term started?’
She told the BBC: ‘Students like to have fun, like to go out in freshers’ week – that’s not news to anyone is it?’
Downing Street said it expected students would be allowed to return home for Christmas after Scotland also softened its guidance after an outcry north of the border.
Meanwhile, Exeter University is asking students who live in the city not to meet indoors with anyone who is not part of their household.
It said there had been a ‘continued rise’ in student Covid-19 cases. The university said the move does not mean students ‘cannot go out’ and listed a number of exceptions, including study, work or in an emergency situation where people are in danger.
Over the summer, universities were fearful of financial chaos if students stayed away and in June promised them ‘significant in-person teaching and a wide range of social activities’. Pictured: A student puts a ‘Help Us’ made out of sticky notes on their window
Last night universities minister Michelle Donelan warned institutions they ‘must give as much clarity to students as possible on the tuition they will be receiving and should ensure that guidance on Covid-19 testing and welfare and emergency resources is readily available’.
Meanwhile, lawyers are looking into securing damages for false imprisonment on behalf of nine students who claim that they were placed under an illegal lockdown.
It came after Manchester City Council instructed the 1,700 MMU students to self-isolate – with some describing how security guards refused to let them leave the campus.
Over the weekend, human rights lawyers suggested the students had a case for claiming false imprisonment, as a change in the law enabling self-isolation to be enforced did not take effect until yesterday.
Merseyside-based Levins Solicitors confirmed that it was taking action on behalf of students ‘trapped’ in halls.
The firm’s Jon Heath said it was a ‘really important principle’.
This post first appeared on dailymail.co.uk
Will negative interest rates be forced on us? UK could make savers PAY banks to hold their cash
Savers could soon have to pay to keep their money in a bank if negative interest rates are enforced.
Many have suffered negligible rates for more than a decade and most high street banks now pay a pittance at 0.01 per cent.
But experts last night said rewards for starved savers could fall even further still after the Bank of England hinted interest rates could go below zero for the first time ever.
But experts last night said rewards for starved savers could fall even further still after the Bank of England hinted interest rates could go below zero for the first time ever
Negative rates have been adopted by Japan and the eurozone in a bid to encourage spending.
Silvana Tenreyro, of the Bank’s monetary policy committee, said this weekend that there was ‘encouraging’ evidence the policy could fuel a recovery in the virus-ravaged economy.
A negative base rate would mean the Bank of England would charge banks and building societies to hold money – a cost that could be passed on to customers.
The Bank set the base rate at an all-time low of 0.1 per cent in March in an effort to boost the economy in the face of the pandemic.
Interest rates paid on savings have plummeted since.
Rachel Springall, from data firm Moneyfacts, said: ‘Savers might feel like interest rates couldn’t possibly go any lower – but they would be wrong.’
Andrew Hagger, of personal finance website MoneyComms, said: ‘If negative interest rates were introduced, it would decimate an already depressed savings market with a tsunami of rate cuts.’
Tom Selby, an analyst at investment broker AJ Bell, said negative rates could drive desperate savers to gamble on the stock market.
He said: ‘A rate cut will be another body blow for savers who are already struggling to get a decent rate.
‘Indeed, getting any kind of return at all on your money may become all but impossible unless you are willing to take some stock market risk.’
But negative rates should provide relief to struggling borrowers, who could see the interest payments on debts such as mortgages fall.
Anna Bowes, of advice website Savings Champion, said banks could start to charge savers in the way that some current accounts charge a fee.
However, she said there would likely still be ‘plenty’ of providers keen to raise money from savings customers.
National Savings and Investments (NS&I) last week announced a raft of brutal rate cuts that will hit its 25million customers – including those who hold Premium Bonds.
Yesterday Bank of England deputy governor Dave Ramsden voiced opposition to setting negative interest rates.
‘We’re not about to use [negative rates] imminently.
‘I see the effective lower bound still at 0.1 per cent, which is where Bank rate is at present,’ he told the Society of Professional Economists.
Commentary by Ruth Sutherland
The concept of negative interest rates – where debtors are rewarded and thrift is punished – sounds far too crazy to be a serious policy measure.
Until, that is, you consider that the biggest borrowers are governments, not least our own.
Public borrowing has ballooned due to coronavirus and pushed the prospect of negative rates to the top of the agenda.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak ran up an overdraft of nearly £36billion last month alone, taking our total national debt to more than £2trillion.
Hence, the drip feed of recent hints from the Bank of England that it might slash borrowing costs below zero in the hope of salvaging our debt-raddled economy.
What the economists advocating this policy do not spell out, however, is the impact on savers, who are once again being treated with contempt.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak (pictured) ran up an overdraft of nearly £36billion last month alone, taking our total national debt to more than £2trillion
For most people, the very thought of negative interest rates is perplexing.
Does it mean the bank actually pays us to take out mortgages and that we have to stump up for our savings accounts? Not quite.
It does, however, lead us through a portal into a topsy-turvy world of Alice in Wonderland economics.
A negative rate policy works like this. Commercial banks are compelled to hand over fees for any cash they keep at the Bank of England, above the minimum they are obliged to stash away for safety reasons.
This is supposed to encourage them to lend more money, which in theory should fuel growth in the economy.
The jury is out on whether it is effective. Negative rates have been deployed in some major economies in recent years including the eurozone and Japan, neither of which have been a roaring economic success story.
As a policy, it is confusing and disorienting, which in itself reduces confidence. What it would mean for borrowers and savers in practical terms depends on how the banks react.
In other countries there have been cases of below-zero mortgage rates, including a home loan charging minus 0.5 per cent in Denmark.
The Danish bank does not actually pay borrowers a cheque in interest payments every month, it knocks the amount off the debt.
On a £100,000 mortgage, for example, the debt would fall by £500 in the first year even with no repayments.
This is not likely to happen in the UK. Many borrowers are on fixed rates which stay the same no matter how base rates fluctuate.
Most tracker products, which are also popular, have a clause in the small print stopping them going negative.
Banks will be very reluctant to charge people to deposit money for fear of widespread outrage.
Even so, there is no doubt negative interest rates would be an unmitigated disaster for the thrifty.
There is no get out of jail free card for our heavily indebted government, whether that be negative rates or another cunning plan.
It is savers – already the innocent victims of the financial crisis of 2008, which ushered in years of ultra-low interest rates – who will pay the price.
One danger is that they will start to keep their money under the mattress, or sidestep the mainstream banks and shift into cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin.
We HAVE already seen thousands turning in desperation to risky investments such as those touted by the disgraced financier Neil Woodford.
One might argue that negative rates have been with us for some time, in all but name.
In real terms, after taking account of inflation, savers have been losing money on most accounts for years.
But cutting to below zero would send out a powerful message that anyone aspiring to build a nest egg is at the bottom of the priority list.
We have to ask what kind of values that promotes.
It isn’t just savers who would be hurt. Sub-zero rates would also risk undermining the profitability of our country’s banks.
I won’t detain readers with the technicalities but suffice it to say that when interest rates are low, it is harder for banks to make a profit – and when they are below zero, it is more difficult still.
The dire state of many banks in the eurozone and Japan is ample testament to that.
Our high street lenders neither attract nor deserve much sympathy but the last thing we need in the middle of this pandemic with firms struggling to survive is an enfeebled banking system.
Setting up incentives for even more borrowing is also deeply questionable.
The reason this country has been so hard hit economically by Covid-19 is that many firms and households went into the crisis with heavy debts and very little in the way of savings.
Pushing them to go deeper into the red is not the solution.
The even more profound concern with negative rates is that they are leading us further down the path of mind-bending measures.
We have already seen money printing on a vast scale through quantitative easing. It was introduced in the financial crisis and is being ramped up in the pandemic.
Now, having flooded the system with cheap money, there is nowhere to go but through the looking glass to a realm where the normal rules of economics are inverted.
For centuries it has been a basic principle that if you want to use someone else’s money, you should pay for the privilege.
By the same token, if you are a saver, and you are foregoing the use of your own cash for a time, then you expect to be compensated.
These are the foundations on which our banking system and modern capitalism itself have been built.
Negative interest rates threaten to undermine all of that.
This post first appeared on dailymail.co.uk
NHS faces a ‘triple whammy’ this winter, report warns
The NHS will be hit by a ‘triple whammy’ this winter, according to a report that warns the ‘road to recovery will be long’.
Health bosses say the system will be left creaking from a surge in Covid-19 patients, alongside a ‘huge’ backlog of delayed treatment, as well as ‘exhausted’ staff battling against reduced capacity due to infection control measures.
The NHS Confederation, which represents the majority of hospital trusts, ambulance services, clinical commissioning groups and other healthcare providers in the UK, warned demand has ‘outstripped’ supply and that many doctors and nurses are already ‘exhausted’ by the pressures of this year, with no respite in sight.
It called on the Government to ‘grasp the nettle’ and invest in a fully integrated health and care system.
Its survey of 252 NHS leaders revealed nine in ten felt they did not have enough funding to hit their performance targets – or even upgrade buildings, IT and other infrastructure to improve services.
They warned the pandemic has set the health service back ‘by years’ in their report – titled NHS Reset – and urged ministers to ‘lock in’ changes made in response to the crisis that cut out ‘needless bureaucracy’ and snipped red tape.
Hospital trusts were ordered to get services back to 90 per cent of capacity by mid-October, but with staff absences due to testing problems and mounting demands as a ‘double whammy’ of coronavirus and flu hits A&E departments, bosses fear the ambitious goal will not be met.
The NHS receives funding through its 2018-signed five-year plan – at £20.5billion annually – but hospital leaders warned this budget needs to be expanded to help the health services ‘play catch up’ on appointments missed due to lockdown.
Boris Johnson has pledged an extra £3billion to the NHS for winter, which has been earmarked for maintaining Nightingale hospitals and increasing testing capacity.
The NHS Confederation urged the Government to ‘grasp the nettle’ and invest in a fully integrated health and care system. (Pictured: Ward on Liverpool hospital)
One in 50 NHS patients have now been waiting a year or more for planned surgery. The number of those waiting for elective ops for more than 18 weeks is at a 12-year high, with more than two million Britons now overdue
NHS surgeons are only working at 50% capacity because of Covid-19
Professor Neil Mortensen, president of the the Royal College of Surgeons, revealed surgeons ‘didn’t have much to do’ during the lockdown, as routine operations were cancelled to make room for an expected swarm of Covid-19 patients.
But they are struggling to get back to pre-coronavirus activity levels, despite barely any infected patients being in hospital. Surgeons say infection control measures and a lack of testing have left them unable to attack the backlog.
Professor Mortensen told The Telegraph: ‘Most surgeons would say productivity is around half what it was before.’
He told the newspaper that there were obstacles in restoring services to levels seen before Covid-19, which experts say is needed to clear the backlog. Health bosses fear up to 10million patients will be left waiting for treatment by this winter.
A lack of routine testing for NHS staff is hindering efforts to create ‘Covid-free’ zones in hospitals, he said.
And doctors have previously warned social distancing in hospitals will mean fewer patients can be admitted at any given time.
The NHS Confederation says in its report many changes recently made should be locked in, including handing more control to local NHS leaders, accelerating steps to integrate health and social care, and making available sustained funding to tackle health inequalities that have been exacerbated by the virus.
It also called on political leaders to be honest and realistic with the public about waiting times and treatments in A&E departments.
One in 50 NHS patients have now been waiting a year or more for planned surgery treatments due to delays caused by coronavirus, NHS data reveals.
It shows 83,000 patients (2.1 per cent of the total) referred for routine operations still have not been treated 52 weeks later. This includes those waiting for planned, non-urgent surgery such as hip and knee replacements, cataract surgery or kidney stone removal.
The number of people waiting for operations for more than 18 weeks also hit a 12-year high, with more than two million Britons now long overdue. There are more than four million people currently waiting for elective surgery in the UK.
The NHS Confederation’s survey laid bare the fears at the top of the NHS, with 74 per cent of those surveyed saying they are not confident their services will meet the national targets to bring routine operation levels back to near-normal by October.
Just eight per cent said they felt their current funding allowed them to deliver safe and effective services.
NHS Confederation chief executive Danny Mortimer warned that the road to recovery for the NHS and social care ‘will be long’.
‘Despite dire predictions that it would not be able to cope, the NHS has not only managed a huge wave of Covid-19 patients but also continued to treat millions not infected with the virus,’ he said.
‘We have learned much and are in a better position to manage the virus than first time round, despite still not having an effective test and trace system.
‘The strain will continue to be felt across the country, but we must take this opportunity to recast services for the long-term benefit of patients and local communities.’
Lord Victor Adebowale, chairman of the NHS Confederation, said: ‘Covid-19 has been the biggest disruptor in the NHS’s history. Out of necessity, it has transformed patient services in ways previously unimagined and changes that would usually take years have been delivered in weeks.
‘This is the moment for Government to grasp the nettle, be bold and invest in a health and care system not just for this winter but for the long term.
A&E waiting times have also started to dip again now that more people are coming forward for treatment. Performance times improved during lockdown because most A&E departments lay bare as people were either too spooked to come in case they caught Covid-19 or didn’t want to be a burden on the NHS
‘It must be re-imagined in a way that lets local leaders deliver services that work for everyone in their communities.
‘Above all, we need to see a radical and conscious shift in every part of the country towards tackling health inequalities. If there is one lesson from the pandemic, it is that our universal health service does not care for everyone equally.’
The survey of NHS leaders found that 84 per cent believe the NHS must deliver a step change in how it cares for diverse and marginalised communities.
This post first appeared on dailymail.co.uk
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