Blog: Sinn Féin accuses DUP of ‘holding public to ransom’ over Northern Ireland protocol row – UK politics live – The Guardian

Police issuing more than 100 fines over Partygate a ‘non-story’, says Rees-Mogg

There’s more from this morning’s broadcast rounds on PA.

Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg
argued the Metropolitan Police issuing more than 100 fines over the partygate scandal is a “non-story”.

It was announced on Thursday that the force had made around 50 further fixed penalty notice referrals.

Rees-Mogg played down the importance of the development on Friday, questioning whether “the rules were right in the first place”.

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, he said:

I’m afraid I think this is a non-story. I mean, the BBC has absolutely loved it but what is important is that we get on with the business of government.”

Pressed on whether he had seen that people including bereaved families were “devastated” they had observed the Government’s rules while those in power were breaking them, he said:

I think people were upset.

“I think this was an important story in February when it first became known and that there was great concern, and there was a feeling of people who were bereaved, particularly, about it.”

“We need to look at whether these rules were right in the first place in case we have a pandemic again because I think they were too restrictive.”

Downing Street hasn’t ruled out compulsory redundancies under Boris Johnson’s plans to slash tens of thousands of jobs from the civil service.

A No 10 spokesperson said he was not aware of any talks being planned with civil service union FDA.

He said:

It’s always important for the civil service to make sure we’re as efficient as possible and there’s no duplication in our work.”

“We’re obviously living in a period where we see regular technological and innovative change that allow us to work differently and adapt to new methods.

“We’ll want to look closely at where we can incorporate new technology into how the civil service works and make sure we’re as efficient as possible for the future.”

Pressed if the prime minister does not think there will be a strike, the spokesman said: “I’m not going to get into hypotheticals.”

Downing Street did not rule out compulsory redundancies under Boris Johnson’s plans to slash tens of thousands of jobs from the Civil Service.

A No 10 spokesman said: “I’m not going to pre-empt specific measures.”

He said a lot of the cuts are hoped to be done through “natural wastage”.

Asked about the meeting with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the spokesperson for the prime minister said:

We’ve said previously that the prime minister was open to meeting both Nazanin as well as Mr (Anoosheh) Ashoori.

“It is something we have been trying to arrange. I’ve set out that he is going to welcome her to Downing Street to discuss her ordeal in Iran.”

The official said the meeting was “something we’ve worked together on to make happen”.

Asked whether Johnson would be apologising to Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the spokesperson replied:

I think it is important to remember that it was the Iranian government who were responsible for her unfair detention, and the decision to release her was always in their gift.

However, I would point back to the prime minister’s words, his answers to questions on this before and he has previously apologised for his comments in 2017.

The Northern Ireland assembly is now sitting for the first time since the 5 May election, which saw Sinn Féin become the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time.

The leader of DUP, Jeffrey Donaldson, has said his party will not support the election of a new speaker, which will prevent the proper functioning of the devolved government in Northern Ireland.

More to follow.

Boris Johnson to meet Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to discuss her ordeal in Iran

The Guardian’s political correspondent Peter Walker has tweeted that Boris Johnson is meeting with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was held hostage in Iran for six years, and her family at No 10 later today.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was only released after a fraught six-year long campaign by her husband to persuade the UK to pay a £393.8m debt owed to Iran.

A senior official in HM Revenue and Customs has told staff he is sorry they first heard about planned job losses from the media.

Jim Harra, permanent secretary at HMRC, sent a message to staff on Friday morning which said:

You may have seen media reports this morning about the government’s decision to reduce the size of the civil service over the next three years. I am sorry that you have learned this from the media rather than from me or civil service leaders.

The cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, Simon Case, wrote to all permanent secretaries yesterday saying that the Prime Minister has asked for a plan to return civil service workforce numbers to 2016 levels over the next three years. This means reducing the current workforce by around 91,000 over that timeframe, from across all departments and arm’s length bodies.

The civil service must consider how we can streamline our workforce and equip ourselves with the skills to be an even more effective, lean and innovative service that continues to deliver for the people we serve.

Harra said no decisions have been taken yet on how jobs will be lost or how it will impact on HMRC’s work, but that plans would be produced over the next month.

The government has refused to mandate ethnicity pay gap reporting, citing “significant statistical and data issues”.

In February, the House of Commons women and equalities committee called for legislation to introduce the metric for companies with over 250 employees, a requirement which has existed for the gender pay gap since 2017.

Instead of a mandate, the government offered guidance to those employers who choose to report their ethnicity pay gaps on a voluntary basis. These include the distinction between different ethnic groups in reporting, and advice for employers in regions with statistically low numbers of people from ethnic minorities. The response backtracked on an earlier commitment in which the government said it ‘believes it is time to move to mandatory ethnicity pay reporting’.

The committee’s report found that the introduction of ethnicity pay gap reporting would help address pay disparities between employees from different ethnic backgrounds.

The chair of the women and equalities committee, Caroline Nokes, said:

In February, we made clear to the government that the necessary systems and structures to report on the ethnicity pay gap are already in place. Introducing mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting for larger businesses would set the ball rolling reducing inequalities between different ethnic groups.

The government’s nonsensical response- which claims that gathering the necessary data would be too difficult, and then promptly outlines how this could easily be addressed- is disappointing. It makes clear that what is lacking in this administration is not resource or know-how, but the will or care to foster a fairer and more equal society.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has become the second minister to distance himself from the comments connecting food bank usage with an inability to cook made on Wednesday by Lee Anderson in the House of Commons.

Anderson caused outrage after suggesting food bank usage has risen in part because of “generation after generation” of people who are unable to cook or budget properly.

Rees-Mogg told Sky News:

Somebody in my position cannot possibly say things like that, I can’t cook myself and it wouldn’t be right for me to lecture people on how to live their lives.

I think human nature is about empathising with people who live different lives from oneself.

I would not have said it.

My personal circumstances are very fortunate and I think my lecturing people on my own circumstances is not relevant, not helpful. But I do try and help constituents who get in touch with me … and help my constituents who are struggling.

As a constituency MP you have people come to see you most weeks to discuss how they are living their lives, and you will have to be the most stone-hearted person not to be able to (empathise) when people come to talk to you about how they are living.

Prospect union, which represents highly skilled civil servants, has sent a letter to the government criticising plans to cut Whitehall staff numbers signed by general secretary Mike Clancy.

He writes:

Prospect represents highly skilled civil servants, many of whom have better paid comparators in the private sector. We also represent roles across the private sector and quite frankly would not expect to see those employers behave in the way the government is towards its civil servants.

To be clear: without these civil servants you will not be able to effectively help our country recover from the pandemic, nor tackle the cost-of-living crisis. It will also not be possible to achieve your levelling up ambitions

As Brexit and then the pandemic hit, ministers repeatedly found that government had too little capacity to deal with major challenges, due to the big cuts in public services that have been made since 2010. These proposals risk doubling down on this mistake, and ultimately costing government more in the long run.

Prime Minister, we are a union known for constructive engagement and finding solutions through dialogue, but we cannot go on like this. You are risking the future of the very civil service who saw the country through the pandemic crisis and who you relied on. Your combination of real terms pay cuts, attempts to reduce redundancy terms, and now huge job reductions will destroy morale which has already been adversely impacted. It’s time to change course and work with your civil servants, rather than being in opposition to them.

The letter has been edited for length.

Oliver Dowden denies champagne donation to fundraising auction was ‘souvenir of Partygate’

Tory party co-chair Oliver Dowden has denied that his champagne donation to a fundraising auction was intended as a “souvenir of Partygate”.

The bottle has a label stating that it is “a bottle of champagne signed by Boris. Hugely valuable as a souvenir of Partygate and the exemplary behaviour and morality of our dear leader!”

Observer food writer Jay Rayner first drew attention to the bottle on Twitter:

Responding to the post, the Labour MP Chris Bryant said: “They really are laughing at us.”

A spokesperson for Dowden said: “This item was donated in good faith several months ago for a local charity auction. Oliver Dowden had no prior knowledge of the description and this is obviously not his view.”

The former Brexit minister David Frost has said the UK should not fear a trade war with the EU, writes the Guardian’s Brexit correspondent Lisa O’Carroll.

In a provocative newspaper column, he said the UK “cannot be defeated” by Brussels and needed to “make sure it is ready” for the consequences of a unilateral move to scrap parts of the Northern Ireland protocol.

The foreign secretary, Liz Truss, is planning to table legislation next week to disapply some of the protocol in a risky move that could result in sanctions or even the suspension of the trade deal that Lord Frost negotiated in December 2020.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph about the potential move, Frost said:

We may, of course, face EU retaliation, although it would be disproportionate to the trade involved, only arguably legal and entirely self-defeating. I am not convinced every EU member’s heart would be in it either. Logic may yet prevail. But if it does happen, it will complicate things, but we should not fear it.”

Earlier this morning the Tony Blair Institute published a report that analyses the impact of class on voting in the 2019 general election and beyond.

The Guardian’s political editor, Heather Stewart, reports:

Tony Blair urged Keir Starmer to reject “woke” politics and present a programme for government that is “radical without being dangerous”.

Based on analysis by the veteran pollster Peter Kellner, it points to particular problems for Labour with two groups: the 26% of voters who fit into the formal definition of middle class; and the 12% who would be defined as working class by pollsters but consider themselves middle class.

The first group voted 57% to remain in the EU, yet the Conservatives were 22% ahead with these voters in 2019, despite their central message being that they would “get Brexit done”. These voters, the former Labour leader suggests, are “worried about issues like tax and economic competence”.

The second group, whom Blair calls the “aspirational working class”, voted to leave the EU by a narrower 53% but backed the Conservatives over Labour by a 32% margin.

In a punchy foreword, Blair claims of this latter group: “A large number voted Conservative despite disagreeing with the party on Brexit. They thought Labour’s far-left economic policy was a bigger threat than Brexit.”

Without what he calls the “millstone” of Starmer’s predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, Blair claims Labour can win many of these voters back – and analysis of recent polling in the report shows a 12% swing to Labour among this “blue-collar aspirational” group.

More here:

And over on LBC, Jacob Rees-Mogg rebuked Sadiq Khan for going “swanning off around the world”, branding the move “tough on taxpayers”.

The Brexit opportunities minister questioned who was paying for the mayor of London to travel to the US on a tour where he praised the “high standards” of legalised cannabis farms.

He said:

Who’s paying for his fare? Is that a good use of taxpayers’ money?”

The precept for the GLA [Greater London Authority] goes up and up and he goes swanning off around the world. It’s all hunky dory for him but it’s a bit tough on taxpayers.

Following his trip, Khan announced the creation of a London drugs commission to examine the effectiveness of the UK’s drug laws, with a particular focus on those governing cannabis. The commission was one of Khan’s manifesto pledges in his re-election bid last year.

London’s commission will aim to assess the best methods to prevent drug use, the most effective criminal justice responses, and the public health benefits of different approaches. The commission hopes its recommendations will inform future policymaking in central government.

More here:

On GB News this morning, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexit opportunities minister, suggested the EU is trying to punish the UK for Brexit in its approach to ongoing talks between the two powers.

He said:

I think it [the EU] wants to make the UK feel bad about having left the European Union and that underpins its whole policy and it doesn’t really mind about the consequences of that

“And we just have to get on with life and recognise that we have left. We have to make our own way. We are an independent country, and what the EU wants and thinks is secondary

“The Paymaster General, Michael Ellis, has made a speech in Brussels today, making it very clear that we are, if not at the end of the road, very close to it.

“To cancel the TCA [EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement], the European Union would need unanimity, and it seems to me that’s a pretty high bar to get.

“And you have to say to the European Union, does it really want to punish its consumers at a time of rising inflation? And inflation in a lot of the EU countries is higher than it is in the UK.”

Police issuing more than 100 fines over Partygate a ‘non-story’, says Rees-Mogg

There’s more from this morning’s broadcast rounds on PA.

Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg
argued the Metropolitan Police issuing more than 100 fines over the partygate scandal is a “non-story”.

It was announced on Thursday that the force had made around 50 further fixed penalty notice referrals.

Rees-Mogg played down the importance of the development on Friday, questioning whether “the rules were right in the first place”.

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, he said:

I’m afraid I think this is a non-story. I mean, the BBC has absolutely loved it but what is important is that we get on with the business of government.”

Pressed on whether he had seen that people including bereaved families were “devastated” they had observed the Government’s rules while those in power were breaking them, he said:

I think people were upset.

“I think this was an important story in February when it first became known and that there was great concern, and there was a feeling of people who were bereaved, particularly, about it.”

“We need to look at whether these rules were right in the first place in case we have a pandemic again because I think they were too restrictive.”

Guardian reporter Jamie Grierson has some reaction to the government’s plans to cut civil service numbers from the unions:

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the plans were “unrealistic”.

He said:

That’s what civil servants do. Part of their job is to think of how we do things more efficiently, and they have already committed to 5% cuts in their budgets as part of the spending review.

That kind of ongoing efficiency is what the civil service does all the time. But if you’re going to just simply pluck a figure out of the air and say it’s now 90,000 because there is a convenient point in time where we liked the number, that is not a serious way to look at what does a government want to do and how can it deliver that in the most effective and efficient way.

Minister denies that cutting 90,000 civil service jobs represents return of austerity

Good morning.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the minister for government efficiency, has rejected the idea that cutting around 90,000 civil service jobs represents a return to austerity.

It us understood that on Thursday the prime minister told ministers that the service should be slashed by a fifth in a bid to free up cash for measures to ease the cost-of-living crisis with possible tax cuts.

Rees-Mogg defended the plan on Friday, saying the job cuts would bring numbers back to 2016 levels after extra staff were brought in to help deal with the pandemic and the “aftermath of Brexit”.

He told Sky News:

I know it sounds eye-catching but it’s just getting back to the civil service we had in 2016 … since then, we’ve had to take on people for specific tasks.

So dealing with the aftermath of Brexit and dealing with Covid, so there’s been a reason for that increase, but we’re now trying to get back to normal.

Rees-Mogg, who is also Brexit opportunities minister, said he had seen “duplication” within government departments, and the axing would mean people were being used “as efficiently as possible”.

Boris Johnson made the demand during an away day with ministers in Stoke-on-Trent, with the government coming under intense pressure to ease the pain of soaring prices.

But the FDA civil servants’ union has warned the “ill-thought-out” proposal would not lead to a more cost-effective government and could have impacts on passport processing, borders and health.

Sources familiar with Johnson’s cabinet conversation told PA that he told ministers to return the civil service to its 2016 levels in the coming years. It was said its numbers had grown since then to 475,000 full-time equivalent jobs.

On Times Radio this morning, the former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt warned that Johnson had a “big mountain to climb” if he was to lead the Tories to victory at the next election.

Hunt refused to rule out a leadership bid, and issued his starkest criticism of the government to date, warning that the Tories’ loss of nearly 500 seats in last week’s local elections was not just “mid-term blues” but reflected deep concerns of voters about the cost of living. He warned that the “very, very low growth” of the economy risked undermining the NHS as it faced “ever increasing bills” and a shortage of doctors.

The Times reported that Hunt’s supporters privately talk up his prospects of replacing Johnson if the prime minister is ousted by MPs.

They argue that he is the only “big beast” in the party capable of taking on Labour at the next election without being “sullied” with having been in government over the past three years.

Here’s the agenda for the day:

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is meeting G7 foreign ministers and Nato foreign ministers in Germany.

11.30: Boris Johnson to met Norway’s prime minister in Downing Street.

12.00: The new Northern Ireland assembly will meet later for the first time since the election. They are intended to elect a speaker, but the DUP is expected to block this, which will result in a major row.

Please do send over any thoughts, tips or ideas to rachel.hall@theguardian.com.

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