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    Labour demands answers over secretive club for big Tory donors to meet Boris Johnson

    Labour is demanding answers from Boris Johnson over whether big-spending Conservative donors were able to lobby him for changes in the law via a secretive club open to backers giving at least £250,000 a year.Party chair Anneliese Dodds said it appeared the so-called Advisory Board was a means for a “select group of elite donors to gain privileged access” to the prime minister and chancellor Rishi Sunak.The club’s existence was revealed by the Financial Times, which reported that it was developed by Tory co-chair Ben Elliot to connect financial backers with senior political figures.Mr Elliot is a founder of the Quintessentially concierge service, which arranges luxury lifestyle experiences, such as travel packages, access to exclusive restaurants and hotel bookings, and was appointed co-chair by Mr Johnson in 2019 to modernise the party’s fund-raising operations.The FT quoted businessman and Tory donor Mohamed Amersi as saying the Advisory Board was “like the very elite Quintessentially clients membership: one needs to cough up £250,000 per annum or be a friend of Ben.”The club was said to hold monthly meetings or conference calls with either Johnson or Sunak, with one donor suggesting that members used the discussions to call for lower taxes and spending cuts.The Conservatives said an advisory board meets occasionally and receives political updates, but denied that it had influence over government policy.Ms Dodds said: “This appears to be less of an advisory board than a means for a select group of elite donors to gain privileged access to the prime minister and the chancellor.“Whether it is crony contracts or links to controversial developers, Conservative ministers always seem to be acting in the interests of their donors rather than the British people.“The Conservative Party needs to explain what access this group had to the prime minister and chancellor, what they have used that access to lobby for, and why they think it’s OK for there to be one rule for high-ranking Conservatives and another rule for everyone else.”A Conservative Party spokesperson said: “Donations to the Conservative Party are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and comply fully with the law.“Fundraising is a legitimate part of the democratic process. The alternative is more taxpayer funding of political campaigning, which would mean less money for frontline services like schools, police and hospitals.” More

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    Plan for student Covid vaccine passes ditched

    The government has dropped proposals for university students to be required to show Covid vaccine passes to attend lectures.The climbdown comes just five days after Downing Street floated the idea of demanding proof of vaccination or a negative test to allow access to lecture rooms and halls of residence when autumn term begins in September.The proposal sparked an angry backlash among Conservative MPs, with as many as 50 believed to be considering rebelling against legislation on mandatory certification for venues such as nightclubs and conference centres – and with some threatening to boycott the party’s annual conference in Manchester if they are forced to show Covid passes.Government sources today said there are now “no plans” for mandatory passes for students, and that universities will instead be asked to encourage them to get their jabs.Boris Johnson is thought to have suggested the plan himself, after reportedly “raging” in a Zoom meeting with ministers over the low take-up rates of vaccines among young people.But the scheme met pushback from ministers who warned the government could face a legal challenge if it was seen to attempt to deny young people access to education after universities have entered a contractual obligation to provide it.MPs warned the idea was potentially discriminatory, and Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey called for a recall of parliament to debate what he said was the introduction of ID cards by stealth.The rapid backtrack from the proposal will fuel suspicions that it was always intended as part of a series of efforts to nudge young people into taking up the jab, rather than a practical policy plan.It is understood that pop-up rapid testing centres are to be installed on campuses before term begins this September, and students may be encouraged to take tests twice weekly.While plans were never formally launched, No 10 said on Monday that the government was “looking at the scope for vaccine certification” in universities, and education minister Vicky Ford said ministers wanted to “look at every practicality to make sure that we can get students back safely and make sure that we can continue to prioritise education”.But the deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Tories, Steve Baker, said it was an “outrageous proposal” that would risk “splitting the Tory Party irretrievably”.Speaking after it emerged the idea was being dumped, Sir Ed Davey told Times Radio it was another instance of “shambolic” messaging by the Johnson administration.“One day they’re briefing there will be restrictions on students, the next day they’re briefing there won’t be,” said Sir Ed.“I think people overall, with the way the government is managing this, are just left confused. And that’s one of the things I’m so shocked at.“One would have thought the government would have learned by now that when you’re dealing with a public health crisis, the most important thing is to get your messaging clear.“It’s shambolic. They’re failing our nation in a really serious way. I’m surprised people aren’t more angry about how Boris Johnson is failing.”Conservative MP Damian Collins said those who had chosen not to get vaccinated could not expect “to be treated in the same way” as those who had.“We don’t force anyone to have a vaccine in this country, it is up to their individual choice,” said the Folkestone and Hythe MP.“But, at the same time, it might be unreasonable for someone who has decided not to get vaccinated to expect to be treated in the same way as someone who has been vaccinated twice.”He told Times Radio: “I think we need to look venue-by-venue at the practicalities of introducing that, but I can see certain venue owners, who are putting on large and major events for which they themselves may be trying to get insurance in order to protect their investment in those events, it may well be this is something those venues actively want to encourage so they’ve got that extra level of certainty.” More

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    General calls on Boris Johnson to set out new strategy to stop Afghanistan becoming terror base

    A former head of the UK armed forces has called on Boris Johnson to set out a new strategy for Afghanistan to prevent the country once more becoming a haven for international terror following the West’s “defeat”.General Lord Richards said he was “fed up” with government silence over what comes next after the withdrawal of Western troops from the country, where he commanded the International Security Assistance Force between 2006 and 2007.The pull-out represented the culmination of “a pretty sorry tale of Western failed geo-strategy over the last 20 years”, not only in Afghanistan but also in Iraq, Libya and Syria, he said.And he warned that with European troops gone and US deployment set to follow within months, cities like Kandahar are likely to fall to the Taliban, creating “ungoverned space” which could provide a haven for the planning of future terrorist outrages like the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.Gen Richards, who served as chief of defence staff from 2010-13, said that he accepted a “share of the blame” for the failure to secure Afghanistan from eventual recapture by militant fighters. But he said Western politicians bore much of the responsibility because of a failure to pour in political and economic resources following the initial fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.Gen Richards told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We have invested – as a country, as the West and the United States particularly – 20 years of time and much money and many lives in Afghanistan.“I’m getting a little bit fed up that I’ve not heard from our government – indeed from the prime minister – as to why we have reached this nadir.“It’s really not good enough, and I would like to hear from the government – I think it’s a prime ministerial obligation now – as to why we’ve got into this position and what we are now going to do about it.”The former army chief has been active in the campaign to allow Afghan military interpreters to resettle in the UK, but warned that this must not be allowed to deflect attention from the wider issues around the future of the region.“It’s deflecting attention from our defeat,” said Gen Richards. “Added to what happened in Iraq, Libya, Syria, it’s a pretty sorry tale of Western failed geo-strategy over the last 20 years.“And it’s time we had an explanation of why and what are we now going to do about it, to prevent it from happening in the way we all now fear might occur.”Gen Richards said that the “light-touch” political and economic approach pursued by United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi meant that the international community failed to consolidate the military gains of the 2001 campaign to oust the Taliban, allowing the militant group to return as a threat in 2006-07.“As all soldiers will tell you, we know we can’t win these things by military means alone,” he said.“What we hoped we were doing was providing an opportunity for governments, the whole of the West, to act in the way they needed, not just militarily but politically and economically.“That didn’t happen… At the very moment, in 2002 to 2005, when the West should have poured in assets – and I’m talking primarily non-military by the way – we didn’t do so. The Taliban sensed an opportunity, they came back.”Gen Richards said it was “inevitable” that Afghanistan’s second city Kandahar will fall to the Taliban forces unless circumstances change.And he said the capture of the “totemic” city would pave the way for the whole of the south of the country to fall into the group’s hands.“My biggest worry at the moment is, with the Western forces having pulled out with no adequate explanation of what is going to replace them, we are going to see a potential collapse in Afghan Armed Forces morale,” he said.This “most certainly” raised the risk of a return of Islamist terror groups similar to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida, which planned the 9/11 attacks as guests of the Taliban in Afghanistan, he said.“There will be ungoverned space… and in that ungoverned space terrorist acts may yet again be planned and executed,” warned Gen Richards.“I think we all forget too readily the scenes of 9/11, the Twin Towers and the attack in Washington.“That is actually why we went into Afghanistan, and we’ve been spectacularly successful in achieving what we aimed to do. That is now being put at risk, along with all the wonderful gains in terms of education, health, and democracy, allowing people to hope for the future.“All that is now, I’m afraid at great risk. We don’t have a substitute strategy and I want to hear what it should be.” More

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    Secret proposals to ration care by age in pandemic branded ‘unacceptable’

    Secret plans to withdraw hospital care from over-70s in the case of a catastrophic pandemic have been branded “totally unacceptable” by charities representing older people.Confident documents produced following a pandemic planning exercise in 2016 proposed a “triaging” system to be put into operation if healthcare resources were exhausted, under which people in nursing homes could be offered “end of life pathways” instead of medical assistance.The government said the proposals related to “hypothetical scenarios” and had never been adopted as official policy.But Age UK charity director Caroline Abrahams told The Independent that Britain had come “perilously close” to an approach of this sort at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic last year.And she said that the government and NHS should be clear that treatment decisions must always be based on clinical need.The documents on “NHS surge and triage” and adult social care in the case of a pandemic, labelled “confidential” and “official sensitive”, were obtained by an NHS doctor under freedom of information legislation and published on Saturday by the Daily Telegraph.Written in 2017 and 2018, they suggested that in the case of a serious flu outbreak which overwhelmed the NHS’s ability to respond, patients could be “triaged” – or prioritised for treatment – based on their “probability of survival” rather than “clinical need”.In a severe pandemic, the health secretary could authorise medics to prioritise some patients over others and even stop providing critical care altogether, the documents suggested.Ms Abrahams expressed deep concern that the approach had even been considered.“Whatever the status of this planning document may be, we know from other reports that during the early part of this pandemic we got perilously close to triage approaches being introduced in hospitals that took age heavily into account,”she said.“If they had been put into practice the result would have been that a relatively healthy 70-year-old would not have got access to the intensive treatment they needed – they would effectively have been written off.“At that time there was huge uncertainty and fear, as doctors struggled to cope with a virus that was threatening to overwhelm the NHS.“However, we said at the time and repeat now that there is no place for treatment decisions based on age in a civilised society. Whatever the pressures, these decisions should always be based on clinical need.“To do otherwise is blatantly ageist and totally unacceptable.”Prof Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, which represents independent providers of adult social care, told The Independent: “The NHS should not have blanket policies and every single person should be assessed on the basis of need.“The NHS should be available to all citizens and any scenario planning for a pandemic should focus on the needs of citizens, not the needs of organisations.”Dr Moosa Qureshi, who obtained the plans, said it was “unprofessional” that they were not given to medics.“The Information Commissioner held that clinicians must be supported by a clear framework when allocating care during a severe pandemic, and that the framework needs public debate,” he said. “The NHS triage paper provides real guidance for front-line staff if NHS services are overwhelmed. Why did the Department of Health, NHS England and BMA keep it secret from healthcare professionals?”An NHS spokesman said: “The NHS was asked to produce this discussion document based on a specific and extreme hypothetical scenario to inform the Government’s pandemic flu preparedness programme rather than for operational use and it did not form the basis of the NHS response to coronavirus.”A government spokesman said the reports were “historical draft briefing papers that include hypothetical scenarios which do not and have never represented agreed government policy”. More

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    Almost 120,000 children stuck in temporary accommodation over summer holidays, councils warn

    The number of children spending the summer holidays in temporary accommodation could fill more than 4,500 classrooms, councils have warned.As pupils have broken up from school, 119,830 children in England will be living in temporary accommodation during the end-of-year break, according to the Local Government Association (LGA).The cross-party organisation, which represents the majority of councils in England, is calling on the government to let local authorities build back locally by giving them the powers and resources to deliver a social housing building programme of 100,000 new homes a year to help address the housing shortage.With previous LGA analysis showing council housing waiting lists could double as a result of the pandemic, the national body says giving councils these new powers would help the government meet a third of its annual housing target and reduce homelessness.The LGA is calling for further reform of the Right to Buy scheme so councils can retain 100 per cent of receipts, have flexibility to combine Right to Buy receipts with other government grants and be able to set the size of discounts locally.It says doing this would help councils begin building homes more quickly.The LGA said there are 1,350 households with children in bed and breakfasts this summer.Earlier this month, it revealed rising demand for homelessness support was forcing councils to spend more than five times as much on bed and breakfast accommodation as they were 10 years ago.Councillor Darren Rodwell, LGA’s housing spokesperson, said: “Having a safe, secure, permanent home is the bedrock of any child getting the very best start in life, so it is tragic that thousands of children face having to spend their summer holidays living in temporary accommodation.“This is a sad reflection of the lack of housing in this country and demonstrates the urgent need to build more social homes.“This won’t happen overnight, but it is vital that councils, working with government, are given the powers to get building homes again at a scale that drastically reduces homelessness, as we look to build back the nation following the pandemic.”A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “The number of children in temporary accommodation has fallen this year and cutting it further is a priority – that’s why we are investing over £750 million next year to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping.“We have also given councils more freedom on how they spend the money from homes sold through Right to Buy to help them build the homes needed in their communities and are investing more than £12 billion in affordable housing over five years, with half for affordable and social rent.” More

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    Conservatives at risk of losing seats in ‘blue wall’ heartlands, YouGov poll suggests

    Boris Johnson is at risk of losing several seats in Conservative “blue wall” heartlands, a new poll suggests.YouGov conducted research in 53 constituencies in the south and east of England currently held by the party, which voted Remain in the 2016 EU referendum and have a higher-than-average concentration of university degree holders.It said vote intention in the “blue wall” stands at 44% for the Conservatives, 24% for Labour, 18% for the Liberal Democrats, 9% for the Greens, and the rest for other parties.YouGov research manager Patrick English wrote: “The Conservatives could be set to lose up to 16 seats in their ‘blue wall’ heartlands if an election was held tomorrow.”On the vote intention findings, he noted: “That represents a change of minus eight for the Conservatives from their 2019 performance in these constituencies, plus four for Labour, a surprising six-point drop for the Liberal Democrats, and a sizeable seven-point gain for the Greens.“The Conservatives are falling almost twice as fast in the blue wall as they are nationally, with the latest YouGov poll showing them five points down on their 2019 general election showing.”Concerns over the Government’s handling of Brexit and the need for people to have a say on local housing developments were among the issues to feature in the responses of those surveyed.Mr English also said the research suggested the Conservatives’ by-election defeat in Chesham and Amersham was “no isolated incident”.The Tories held the Buckinghamshire seat with a majority of more than 16,000 in 2019 but the Lib Dems won it by 8,028 votes last month.Mr English added: “If the swings were uniform across all constituencies, Labour would be set to gain a total of nine blue wall seats and the Liberal Democrats three.“While it would not be anywhere near enough to offset the party’s losses in the so-called red wall in 2019, Labour punching holes in traditional Tory foundations will send alarm bells ringing across Conservative Associations and MPs in the south.”YouGov polled 1,141 adults between July 20 and July 28. More

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    Union urges reprieve for furlough scheme, as Rishi Sunak cuts payments

    As employers brace for a cut in government support for furloughed workers, chancellor Rishi Sunak was today facing union demands to keep on the scheme beyond its planned conclusion at the end of September.From Sunday, government support for staff unable to work because of coronavirus will be cut from 70 to 60 per cent of wages, with employers expected to top them up to 80 per cent, up to a maximum of £2,500.The move has prompted fears that some of the estimated 1.9m workers still receiving furlough payments will be made redundant, as employers respond to the demand to contribute more towards the salary bill without necessarily getting any additional economic activity.Now the Unite union is calling on Mr Sunak to rethink his plan to end the scheme altogether on 30 September, which it warns will otherwise be a “very bleak day” for low-paid workers already facing the loss of the £20-a-week uplift to Universal Credit that day.Instead, the chancellor should adapt furlough into a German-style short-time working scheme, able to protect specific jobs and industrial sectors from collapse due to temporary vagaries in the markets.The union’s assistant general secretary Steve Turner said a short-time working scheme would create a “fantastic legacy” from the emergency response to the pandemic, which at one point was paying the wages of 11m UK workers whose jobs were rendered untenable by public health restrictions.Mr Turner warned that ending the scheme in a cliff-edge way at the start of October would “pull the rug from under the feet” of businesses and workers struggling to restore economic vitality after 18 months of restrictions, denting the confidence needed for investment and expansion.“When we negotiated furlough, I said to the government that it would more than prove its value by protecting jobs, incomes and skills, especially for strategic sectors like manufacturing, something which has demonstrably been the case,” said Mr Turner.“It is far better to retain workers through temporary crises, dips in demand and technological transformation – such as we are seeing now with the greening of our economy – than to lose them altogether, along with the skills and knowledge they possess, and allow unemployment to rise.“That’s why I am calling on the government not to scrap the scheme altogether but to adapt it. “Reform it into a short-time working scheme, like they have in Germany and many of our competitor countries, to support critical sectors like manufacturing through peaks and troughs, serious supply-chain problems and the transition to a greener future that’s now underway.”Mr Turner warned: “We’re not out of the woods yet with this pandemic and the autumn could see another rash of cases and further disruptions. “That’s why I am urging ministers not to waste the good work that’s been done or to miss a fantastic legacy that can develop from furlough. “To pull the rug from under the feet of business and workers now will dent the confidence needed for businesses to invest and adapt operations at this critical time as we try to recover and rebuild the economy.“It is hard to comprehend the motivation for or sense in ending both the furlough scheme and snatching back £20 a week from hard working people on Universal Credit on the same day.  It’s a double whammy and could make 30 September a very bleak day for workers, their families and communities.”The Resolution Foundation has warned that the pace of workers leaving furlough has been slower than expected, despite the gradual reopening of economic life over recent months.The low-pay thinktank detected signs that older workers were being “parked” on the scheme while younger colleagues return to the workplace. The share of under-18 workers on furlough dropped from 13 to 7 per cent between May and June, and from 10 to 6 per cent for 18-24 year-olds, but one in 10 workers aged over 65 remained on the scheme.HMRC data has highlighted how some sectors are still struggling to reopen, with around half of all staff in air passenger transport and travel agencies still on furlough.Resolution Foundation economist Charlie McCurdy said: “The number of furloughed employees has fallen below 2 million for the first time as the economy continues to reopen. But that is higher than many expected, and a cause for concern as the scheme is wound down.“With employer contributions to furloughed staff doubling from this Sunday, and the scheme ending completely in just two months’ time, it’s vital that as many furloughed staff as possible return to work soon, in order to limit the rise in unemployment this autumn.” More

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    ‘No jab, no job’ policies set to spark deluge of employment tribunals, lawyers warn

    Lawyers expect a wave of legal action against UK companies over attempts to make sure staff are double-vaccinated against Covid, amid growing fears of draconian “no jab, no job” policies in the workplace.Trade unions have criticised the government for encouraging the idea of mandatory vaccination for office staff – after transport secretary Grant Shapps said it was a “good idea” for companies to insist staff are double-jabbed.Tech giant Google has said mandatory jabs for US employees will later be rolled out to staff in 40 countries where it operates, and Mr Shapps said he expected some British firms will soon “require” full vaccination.Employment lawyers told The Independent that British companies had been in touch to explore their options on putting Covid vaccination requirements in place.“We’re definitely going to see a lot of employment tribunals on this,” said Elissa Thursfield, head of employment lawyer and a director at Gamlins Law – predicting a wave of vaccine-related discrimination claims in the months ahead.Lawyers and union chiefs warned that a blanket approach to making jabs mandatory could breach the Equality Act by discriminating against some groups, including those with disabilities or certain religious beliefs.“Having a blanket policy is almost always dangerous – it’s fraught with legal difficulties,” said Ms Thursfield. “For existing staff, if you don’t have a clause in your contract that says you can receive mandatory instructions on health, which is rare, that’s potentially a breach of contract, as well as the discrimination claims.”She added: “If the government pushes any further on this, in terms of encouraging employers, they are going to start getting into hot water.”Charlie Thompson, an employment partner at law firm Stewarts, also predicted legal action against companies that don’t consider their vaccine policy carefully enough.“If you’re not able to go back to your existing job, or you’re denied a job, and the employer’s justification [for vaccination] doesn’t stack up, then I can see legal claims,” he said.Responding to Mr Shapps’ encouraging remarks about companies asking staff to get the jab, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said he did not think “no jab no job” policies were wise. “I don’t agree with that,” said Sir Keir.“For day-to-day routines, access to the office, access to health services or dentistry or even food – I don’t agree with vaccine passports for day-to-day access,” said the Labour leader.Downing Street has made clear the government has no plans to bring legislation to make full-vaccination mandatory for entry into offices.Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said the government should not be encouraging any form of “coercion” when it comes to employees getting the vaccine before returning to work.“Only with widespread take-up can the virus be defeated,” she said. “Achieving this requires persuasion and encouragement – not compulsion and coercion. Forcing people can only lead to needless confrontation at work and legal cases that could drag on for years.”Unite’s national health and safety adviser Rob Miguel said Covid vaccine compulsion would be a “bad” way for companies to encourage a return to work, and is “embroiled with issues such as equalities, human rights, privacy and ethical breaches”.Goldman Sachs raised alarm bells last month when it sent a memo to UK staff saying the company “strongly encouraged” them to report their Covid vaccination status before returning to the office – before clarifying vaccination was not compulsory.In the US, companies are beginning to be more severe in their demands. Google, Netflix, Facebook, along with Delta and United airlines, have said full vaccination will be mandatory for staff.The Independent understands leading UK companies are examining how they can make sure staff are double-jabbed, despite potential legal difficulties.Some keen on getting offices fully-staffed say employees have told them they are uncomfortable about returning to the office until all their colleagues are vaccinated.Others have said they would not try to enforce any rules about the Covid vaccine. Imran Hussain, director at Harmony Financial Services, said it would be “ridiculous” to try to draw up a policy about vaccination.“The whole idea is highly undemocratic and draconian,” he said. “People should be allowed to make their own decisions and if they wish to take the jab, that’s great.”The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) warned against blanket mandatory policies on vaccination.A spokesperson for the CBI said: “The bar for compulsory vaccination is high, and there will be few industries where this approach would be appropriate.“However, in some sectors it could prove necessary. Wherever possible, businesses will be approaching questions like this trying to bring their staff with them.” More