Cladding: Government should get a grip on crisis – Labour

The government needs to “get a grip” on cladding problems which have created “ruinous costs” for homeowners, the Labour leader has said.

Sir Keir Starmer accused ministers of offering “half-baked solutions” and called for a taskforce to be set up.

The 2017 Grenfell Tower fire exposed the dangers of flammable cladding leading to efforts to fix fire safety defects in other buildings.

Ministers say they are providing funding of £1.6bn for renovations.

A government spokesman added: “We all want to see homes made safer, as quickly as possible… we are making good progress on remediating unsafe homes.”

On Monday, MPs will debate a Labour motion in the House of Commons on protecting tenants and leaseholders from unsafe cladding.

Ahead of that debate, Sir Keir has called on the government to set up a national cladding taskforce, modelled on a similar body set up in Australia.

Labour says such a taskforce would “drive forward” work on funding the removal of dangerous cladding, pursuing “those responsible for the cladding scandal”, protecting residents from costs and ensuring affected residents can sell their properties.

The party agues a new body is needed “after years of delays and ineffective measures” from the government.

Sarah Corker, BBC consumer affairs correspondent

The UK’s building safety crisis is escalating.

In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, safety inspections on high-rise buildings have exposed decades of regulatory failure.

It’s not just that thousands of blocks are still wrapped in dangerous cladding, but many buildings have other serious problems: missing fire-breaks, defective insulation, flammable timber balconies.

Delays in fixing faults have seen costs for flat owners rocket – increased service charges and insurance costs as well as bills for fire alarms and round-the-clock fire wardens known as waking watch.

The government has allocated £1.6bn to help pay for the removal of dangerous cladding, but a report by MPs estimates it’ll cost at least £15bn given the scale of this crisis.

Currently there is no government funding to help leaseholders pay for non-cladding related issues, leaving them facing life-changing bills running into tens of thousands of pounds.

Pressure is growing on the government to do more to protect leaseholders from these costs.

“Millions of people have been sucked into this crisis due to years of dither, delay and half-baked solutions from the government,” Sir Keir said.

“For many leaseholders, the dream of home ownership has become a nightmare.

“They feel abandoned, locked down in flammable homes and facing ruinous costs for repair work and interim safety measures.”

Following the Grenfell Tower fire – in which 72 people were killed – round-the-clock fire patrols known as “waking watches” were put in place in hundreds of buildings, costing leaseholders tens of thousands of pounds every month.

And other residents have seen insurance costs on buildings with fire safety problems rocket, with flat-owners in one Cheshire development seeing their premiums rise from £34,000 in 2018 to more than £500,000.

Some are paying almost £2,000 a year for building insurance.

The Association of British Insurers says the slow pace of getting buildings fixed means that insurers need to price their policies to accurately reflect the fire risk.

Data released last month shows that cladding removal and repair work has been completed on only 58% of social housing blocks and 30% of private sector buildings.

Fire safety issues such as missing fire breaks and flammable balconies are not covered by the government’s Building Safety Fund.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “Leaseholders shouldn’t have to worry about the unaffordable costs of fixing safety defects in high-rise buildings that they didn’t cause – and should be protected from large-scale remediation costs wherever possible.

“The Building Safety Bill is the appropriate legislative mechanism for addressing these issues and will be brought forward in due course.”

NI church graffiti treated as hate crime

Sectarian graffiti on a Catholic church in Limavady, County Londonderry, is being treated by police as a hate crime.

Paramilitary graffiti including ‘UVF’ and ‘UFF’ was daubed on walls of St Mary’s parish church on Irish Green Street and a statue was also damaged.

The PSNI received a report about the vandalism at about 09:40 GMT on Sunday. It is believed to have happened overnight.

The church was also vandalised in 2018.

The Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) is widely acknowledged to be a cover name for the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), an umbrella group of various loyalist groups, which was formed in 1971.

The UFF is believed to have killed more than 250 people during the Troubles.

The graffiti was cleaned off the church property on Sunday afternoon.

Local priest Monsignor Brian McCanny described the attack as “disappointing”, saying there was “a certain amount of distress that it should happen to a church building”.

“We know it’s not representative of any of the other church communities in Limavady,” he added.

First Minister Arlene Foster condemned the attack saying it was “reprehensible”.

“No cause is served by such actions and I hope those responsible can be identified and brought to justice,” Mrs Foster said in a tweet.

Sinn Féin MLA Caoimhe Archibald described the graffiti as “disgraceful” and urged anyone with information regarding the incident to contact police.

She said the swift cleaning of the graffiti from the church was “much more representative of the Limavady community”.

In a statement, DUP MP Gregory Campbell said it was “unacceptable” that a repeat attack had occurred at the church.

“Daubing sectarian graffiti on any church property is not just insulting but contributes to creating problems in local communities,” said Mr Campbell.

He added: “While there is no apparent localised reason or recent precedent for this incident, I fear it may be linked to wider political tensions.”

Accountants warned over fraud expectations

A fresh argument has broken out over the role of auditors in spotting fraud.

An international standards body wants to consult members on the so-called expectation gap – the idea that the public expects too much from an audit.

But pensions advisor Pirc will write to the UK’s big audit firms warning them to reject the consultation on how far they should go to spot fraud.

Auditors have been fined and criticised for bad work after the collapse of big companies like BHS and Wirecard.

Auditors test a company’s accounts on a sample basis to make sure they offer a sound view of a business’s health.

In the UK, Parliament and the courts have decided auditors should be able to spot fraud, Pirc says.

The International Auditing and Assurance Standards Board (IAASB) said it wants feedback from its members on this expectation gap on the areas of fraud and whether a company can survive for the foreseeable future.

It asks whether auditors should have “enhanced or more requirements with regard to fraud in an audit of financial statements”.

But Pirc says that in the UK at least, they already should be spotting fraud, and that Parliament and the courts have said so. Auditors such as the so-called Big Four – EY, Deloitte, KPMG and PwC – should acknowledge this, it says.

“The central premise of this consultation is incorrect because there is no ‘expectation gap’ under the law of many countries including the UK and other jurisdictions. In the UK, both the Judiciary and Parliament are clear on this,” says a letter to the IAASB, seen by the BBC.

The IAASB told the BBC that it is “not making a judgment on whether the expectation gap should be used as a rationale for failures.”

“The reality is that there are differences between the levels of expected performance envisioned by auditors and users of financial statements – that is the expectation gap,” it said. “The purpose of our consultation is to move beyond the buzzwords and to inform targeted action in terms of fraud and going concern based upon a common understanding of what people want and expect of auditors.”

Arguments over who should spot fraud have happened several times before. In 2019, David Dunckley, chief executive of Grant Thornton, which audited failed bakery chain Patisserie Valerie, told MPs that “we’re not looking for fraud”.

But Scott Knight of audit firm BDO, told MPs that auditors should be on the lookout for “sizeable” frauds.

Critics point out that auditors are meant to spot accounting holes like missing funds. And since funds can only be missing through error or fraud, they are meant to be spotting fraud, even if they don’t immediately realise that is the cause of the problem.

Pirc fears that the regulator is trying to re-open an argument that the industry has already lost.

In its 2019 report on auditing, Parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee dismissed the idea of gap between what the public expected of auditors and their job.

“We do not accept the attempts of auditors – particularly the Big Four and Grant Thornton – to underplay the role or scope of audit, nor to implicitly blame the public for failing to understand the purpose of audit,” the report said.

“Rather, the firms should focus on the poor quality of their audits, and on how they are falling short of what audits are for within the current framework.”

Their job already includes detecting “material fraud and making a judgement on a company’s future prospects”, it said.

In its judgement of a case between auditor Grant Thornton and a company called Assetco, the Court of Appeal said that the auditor “failed in its duty to identify management fraud, particularly dishonest representations and evidence provided to it by senior management in the course of the audits.”

Companies above a certain size must be audited, and must provide auditors with everything they ask for. This can include an entire backup of a company’s accounting system, plus evidence of deposits from banks and interviews with managers.

If information given to an auditor is knowingly or recklessly false or deceptive in something important, that can land you in prison for up to two years and with a fine.

With such broad powers of investigation, some campaigners ask why more frauds are not being uncovered.

Portland Chesil Beach flooding: Freak wave throws rescuer into wall

A rescuer was thrown into a stone wall by a “large freak wave” as he and others warned people to back away from the sea during a storm.

A crowd had gathered on the sea wall to watch the storm at Chesil Beach, on the Isle of Portland, on Saturday evening.

In total, three members of a coastguard team were hurt when the 30ft [9m] wave struck.

Area manager Drew Parkinson described it as a “significant blow for the coastguard community”.

A crew of 12 volunteers was sent to the scene in Chiswell at about 20:10 GMT “to provide safety advice and to usher people from the area”, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) said.

They said they positioned themselves along the sea wall because bystanders were attempting to get closer to the sea.

Mr Parkinson said a wave “towering 30ft [9m] up into the air… plunged over the sea wall and carried two of them around 50ft [15m] down to the main road”.

He said the third person was “washed into a fairly sturdy stone wall and sustained very serious leg injuries”.

The bystanders were “very, very lucky that there weren’t more serious injuries and even a loss of life”, Mr Parkinson added.

Cars were also swept up by the tide as it breached the sea defences.

The injured man was taken to hospital by South West Ambulance Service, where an operation was carried out on his ankle.

“He’s had a number of pins and plates put into his leg, but he’s going to be out of work for a significant amount of time while he recovers,” Mr Parkinson said.

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “We are currently supporting the flooded community of Chiswell on Portland following the impact of unexpected high waves on Saturday evening which overtopped the sea defences.

“Thankfully, no homes were flooded, but there was considerable debris and water in the surrounding roads and we are working with partners to assist anyone affected.”

The agency has inspected the defences and said no immediate work was required, but that it would carry out further investigations in the coming week.

An MCA spokeswoman added: “We would urge people to think carefully about the risks they take and be extremely careful during bad weather – piers, rocks, harbours and the water’s edge are not safe places to be.”

Penylan murder victim Tomasz Waga loved by many

The family of a 23-year-old who was murdered in Cardiff have paid tribute saying he was “loved by many”.

Tomasz Waga was found in Westville Road, Penylan, on Thursday night at about 23:30 GMT.

Mr Waga had connections in London and Essex and South Wales Police said he had travelled to Cardiff from Dagenham earlier in the day.

No arrests have been made and his family has said “we are devastated by his sudden loss”.

“Tomasz was loved by many and was taken from us too soon,” they said in a statement.

“He will forever live in our hearts and will be remembered as the personable son, brother, father and partner that he was.”

An incident room at Cardiff Central Police Station.

Police have appealed for anyone with information or anyone who was in the vicinity of Newport Road and its junction with Albany Road, or in Broadway, between 22:15 on Thursday and 01:00 on Friday, to come forward.

Det Ch Insp Mark O’Shea, who is leading the inquiry, said Mr Waga had gone to an address on Newport Road, after arriving in Cardiff.

“We believe that a disturbance took place at around 10.30pm at this location during which he was assaulted, enquiries are ongoing to establish how he then ended up in Westville Road where he was discovered,” he said.

“We are keen to speak to any of Tomasz’s friends or acquaintances in London and Essex who may be able to help us build up a picture of his life.”

Cornwall heart patient had wire left in his arm for months

A man had a length of wire left in his arm for three months after a heart procedure in hospital.

David Fortes, 75, was left in “horrific” pain after surgery to insert a stent at the Royal Cornwall Hospital (RCHT) in Truro in April.

The 39cm (15ins) wire was not found until he went back to hospital after a heart attack in July.

RCHT listed it as a “never event” and apologised to Mr Fortes, adding that it had worked with him over his concerns.

Mr Fortes reported pain and discomfort in the weeks following his first surgery and was told it was likely to be tissue damage.

He was unable to bend his arm properly, and it swelled up and changed colour.

On 20 July the retired painter and decorator had a heart attack and while in hospital a scan picked up the wire in his arm.

He said: “I dread to think what would have happened if it had been left in for any longer.”

Jodie Cook, a medical negligence lawyer who is representing Mr Fortes, said the incident was “deeply concerning”.

Mr Fortes said that while he was “sympathetic” to the pressure that the NHS has been under throughout the pandemic, he was also “deeply distressed” by the lack of follow-up care.

He said: “When things started to go wrong during my recovery, and the pain I was experiencing was getting quite horrific, I found it very difficult to find someone who would take my concerns seriously, and despite multiple attempts to see someone I was simply fobbed off.”

RCHT medical director Dr Allister Grant apologised to Mr Fortes for not receiving “the high level of care we would have expected”.

He said: “We have shared our report into what happened, and offered a meeting with a cardiologist of his choice.

“We want to understand what happened and we will improve our procedures and practices if we can.”

Portland Chesil Beach flooding: Freak wave injures coastguard team

A rescuer was seriously injured by a “large freak wave” while a coastguard team warned people to back away from the sea during a storm.

A crowd had gathered on the sea wall to watch the storm at Chesil Beach, on the Isle of Portland, on Saturday evening.

The injured man has been taken to hospital by the South West Ambulance Service, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) said.

In total three members of the coastguard team received injuries.

Cars were also seen being swept up by the tide as it breached the sea defences.

The crew was sent to the scene in Chiswell at about 20:10 GMT “to provide safety advice and to usher people from the area”.

An MCA spokeswoman said: “While at the scene three members of the coastguard team were injured due to being hit by a large freak wave.

“One of these was seriously injured and was taken to hospital.”

She added: “We would urge people to think carefully about the risks they take and be extremely careful during bad weather – piers, rocks, harbours and the water’s edge are not safe places to be.”

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “We are currently supporting the flooded community of Chiswell on Portland following the impact of unexpected high waves on Saturday evening which overtopped the sea defences.

“Thankfully, no homes were flooded, but there was considerable debris and water in the surrounding roads and we are working with partners to assist anyone affected.”

The agency has inspected the defences and said no immediate work was required, but that it would carry out further investigations in the coming week.

Baby boy found dead at Wirral golf course

A baby boy has been found dead in a wooded area of a golf course.

Police said they were treating the death of the boy, who was found at Brackenwood golf course in Bebington, Wirral, as “unexplained”.

A post-mortem examination is due and officers were trying to trace the boy’s mother, Merseyside Police said.

Det Ch Supt Lee Turner described the discovery on Friday as “distressing” and said “extensive enquiries” were being carried out.

The force is appealing for anyone with information to contact police “as a matter of urgency”.

Det Ch Supt Turner said: “It is not clear at this stage when the baby died, how long the baby’s body had been there or the cause of death.

“Extensive enquiries are currently being carried out to trace the mother of the baby to check her welfare and offer any support,”

Peak Districts last surviving mountain hares at risk

England’s last surviving population of mountain hares may be under threat due to global warming, a conservation group has said.

Recent studies suggest there are about 2,500 of the creatures in the Peak District which, experts say, is “not large” for an isolated population.

The People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) is funding research to see if the number is in decline.

“These hares could be in trouble,” said Nida Al-Fulaij from the trust.

Mountain hares – a sister species to the Arctic hare – died out in England during the last ice age.

“Reintroduction attempts were made in the late 1800s, and while most were unsuccessful, against all odds those released into the Peak District survived,” said Ms Al-Fulaij.

“The Peak District’s altitude and colder climate is ideal habitat for mountain hares, who have adapted perfectly.

“But, with the onset warmer and more erratic weather, these hares could be in trouble.”

The trust said it believes climate change is an increasing risk to the creatures’ survival, making summers too warm and reducing food sources, such as heather.

Reduced snow coverings mean the hares may not be as camouflaged in winter, despite their white coats.

“We can’t let them die out,” Ms Al-Fulaij added.

She hopes the study’s findings – due to be published later in the year – will help guide successful reintroductions of the “shy, but striking” species, as well as safeguarding those that are left.

The research is being conducted by Carlos Bedson, a biologist from Manchester Metropolitan University.

Mr Bedson said: “Mountain hares are effectively an ice age Arctic animal – and it is a privilege to be able to see one in England, surviving here at lower latitudes.

“We are so lucky to have them.”

He added it was amazing to think that “in normal times”, “you could be working on a Friday in your office or school or factory, and then on the Saturday you could drive to the Peak District and go out and have an Arctic wildlife exploration experience all of your own”.

Source: Carlos Bedson

Irish Sea border: What will happen once the grace periods end?

At 23:00 on New Year’s Eve a new EU trade border was effectively created in Northern Ireland’s ports.

It is, in many ways, unlike the EU’s other frontiers.

One difference is the EU’s usual rules on customs and product standards are not yet being fully enforced.

This is due to what are known as grace periods – essentially time for NI businesses and their suppliers in the rest of the UK to adapt.

The first of these grace periods is set to expire at the end of March and businesses are already anxious about what comes next.

The grace period for food means that some businesses, particularly major retailers, do not need to comply with all the EU’s usual certification requirements when importing products from the rest of the UK.

At the centre of the EU’s food safety procedures are what are known as Export Health Certificates (EHCs).

These involve a vet, or other professional, signing off a complex piece of administration for every consignment of products of animal origin – meat, fish, dairy and eggs.

Supermarkets and other retailers feared their systems would be overwhelmed so they have been granted three months where some products do not require EHCs.

However it is those products which do require the certificates which will give us an indication of what might happen at the end of the grace period.

The EU considers processed meat products like mince or sausages to be high-risk goods, so they do need to be certified.

However the relevant EHCs for these products did not actually exist until last week.

They were published by the UK government alongside instructions that they must be used from 22 February.

Retailers see that as a highly significant date.

It will be the first real test of how the EHC process works for supermarkets and should help to answer some key questions such as – are there enough vets to sign the certificates?

If it causes problems then there could be worse to come when all relevant products need EHCs from 1 April.

The supermarkets have already warned that the system will become unworkable if the grace period expires without a long-term solution.

Simply rolling over the grace period on the exact same terms seems unlikely.

The government declaration in December, which detailed the grace period stated: “The UK accepts this solution is not renewable.”

Publicly the government has said a dedicated team is working with supermarkets, the food industry and the NI Executive to develop ways to streamline the movement of goods.

Privately those close to the process are emphatic that the grace periods will not just come to a sudden stop in April.

Northern Ireland businesses would like the European Commission to show maximum flexibility on this issue and are beginning to express frustration at the commission’s currently unbending attitude.

Northern Ireland is continuing to enforce EU customs rules at its ports.

So strictly speaking all commercial parcels entering from the rest of the UK should require customs declarations.

For now they do not, due to a three-month grace period.

But as with the food grace period there are nuances and complications.

Parcels carrying goods valued at £135 or below do not need declarations. Nothing has changed for either sender or receiver.

But parcels over £135 do require a declaration and there are new procedures for people posting excise goods, which mostly means alcoholic drinks.

This grace period was announced very late, just hours before the Brexit transition period expired.

So in practice the picture with online retailing from GB to NI is messy.

Some companies have suspended deliveries, others have increased delivery times, some are submitting customs declarations for all parcels and others are carrying on as before.

Again it is not yet exactly clear what is going to happen on 1 April.

However Amazon, the biggest online retailer, has made clear it is preparing for significant change.

It has told its marketplace sellers (companies who use the Amazon platform) that customs declarations will be required for GB-NI parcels.

It is also preparing to remove some items for sale to Northern Ireland customers – these are products which require special export procedures or are more likely to be physically checked on entry to NI.

It’s understood that some other retailers are also working on their online inventory systems which will also allow them to separate these higher-risk goods from more straightforward shipments.

Amazon also appears to be making a medium term plan to ease trade across the Irish Sea by opening its first fulfilment centre in Ireland.

The property news website React News says the firm has agreed to lease 600,000 sq ft (55740 sq m) at a business park near Dublin.

Amazon already has last-mile delivery facilities in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

But what is being planned is a much more significant operation with an inventory of goods being held in Ireland to be picked, packed and shipped to customers across the island.

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