Brexit: EU legal action imminent over UK extension to grace periods

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator has said that legal action is imminent over the UK’s move to unilaterally extend grace periods on Irish Sea border checks.

Maroš Šefčovič told the Financial Times that “infringement proceedings” are being prepared.

He said: “We are currently preparing it and it would be really something coming to our table very soon.”

The EU has two legal avenues open to it under the Brexit deals.

Under the NI part of the Brexit deal, the Protocol, it can launch infringement proceedings which could lead to a case at the European Court of Justice

It took this action at the time when the UK threatened to breach the NI deal through the Internal Market Bill.

In that case the legal proceedings were overtaken by political agreement.

The EU could also seek arbitration under the terms of the wider EU-UK trade deal.

Earlier on Thursday, the UK government extended another of the Irish Sea border grace periods, this time for parcels.

It came a day after the UK extended grace periods for checks on agri-foods, a move the EU said was illegal.

Northern Ireland has remained a part of the EU’s single market for goods so products arriving from GB undergo EU import procedures.

The grace periods mean procedures and checks are not yet fully applied.

The first of these periods was to expire at the end of March; the UK says they will be extended until October.

All parcels entering Northern Ireland would have required customs declarations from 1 April.

The logistics industry said it was not ready to deal with that volume of new administration.

The government says the grace period for business-to-business deliveries will be extended until 1 October.

For all other deliveries, for example businesses to consumers, businesses will be given six months to prepare for new arrangements from the date those arrangements are announced.

In a protest against the UK’s unilateral changes, the European Parliament has declined to set a date for its vote to ratify the EU-UK Brexit deal.

EU parliament group chiefs had been expected to set a date this month for its vote at a meeting on Thursday.

On Wednesday, Mr Šefčovič said the UK’s move amounted to “a violation of the relevant substantive provisions” of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The protocol is part of the Brexit deal which prevents a hardening of the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the EU could not trust the UK in post-Brexit talks.

He said progress had been made on the protocol and the timing of the UK’s moves could not be worse.

But UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the problems were technical and “eminently solvable”.

Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s first minister, told a news conference the British government had a commitment to protect the UK’s internal market.

The DUP leader accused the Irish government of ignoring unionist concerns over the NI Protocol.

But her deputy first minister, Sinn Féin’s Vice-President Michelle O’Neill, accused the British government of “acting in bad faith” over the protocol.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said the grace period extensions were aimed at helping consumers and businesses in Northern Ireland, suggesting the EU needed to adapt its timeframe to fit the supply chain requirements of supermarkets and businesses.

“If we’d have left it any longer we’d have had a risk for businesses and livelihoods of people in just a few weeks time,” he said during a visit to Northern Ireland on Thursday.

The Northern Ireland Protocol is the part of the Brexit deal aimed at ensuring there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland.

It does that by keeping Northern Ireland in the EU single market for goods.

That has created a new trade border with Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Unionists oppose the protocol, arguing that it has damaged internal trade from GB to NI and poses a risk to the future of the UK union.

But anti-Brexit parties in NI say that it must be implemented in full, and that issues should be worked out through joint UK-EU processes.

Kenyan farm workers launch Scottish legal bid against tea giant

Seven farm workers from Kenya are suing one of the world’s biggest tea producers for damages in a personal injury court in Scotland.

The tea pickers allege they have suffered severe health problems because of working conditions on farms run by James Finlay Kenya Ltd.

It is part of a multi-national company which can trace its roots back to Glasgow in the 18th Century.

The firm is opposing the action and has defended its health and safety record.

Finlays began as a cotton trader in Scotland in 1750 and now has operations on five continents, with Starbucks among its customers.

The scale of the business is such that it makes enough tea to fuel the annual demand from the whole of the UK.

The company moved its headquarters from Glasgow to London 15 years ago but its registered office address is in Aberdeen, leaving it open to legal action in Scotland’s courts.

The seven men and women are suing for damages of £15,000 each in the All Scotland Sheriff Personal Injury Court in Edinburgh.

Their advocate in Kenya, Isaac Okero, says they have suffered injuries including spinal damage.

He told BBC Scotland: “The tea workers are saying that on account of the years of service that they have provided to James Finlays Kenya Ltd, and the circumstances and conditions under which they were compelled to work, they have suffered severe degenerative injuries which have severely impacted on their lives.

“These injuries are both physical and mental.”

Mr Okero said a number were still working when the legal action was launched in a city 4,000 miles away but only one is now still in employment.

The others have either been forced into retirement or unable to continue working.

He believes the case will have wider significance.

He said: “It will hopefully compel the company to radically change the conditions under which the workers are working, so these proceedings should result in substantial improvements in the terms and conditions of the employees still picking tea and hopefully bring to an end the prospect of more Kenyan workers suffering severe and long-term injuries in the way that these seven workers have.”

Personal injury specialist David Short, from Edinburgh firm Balfour and Manson, is representing the tea pickers.

He said: “In any court action one of the first things you have to look at is, where do we have jurisdiction, which court will allow you to raise an action.

“Here, we have a Scottish-registered company and therefore the appropriate place for action is a Scottish court.

“We’re suing for what would be appropriate for an award in Kenya. It reflects their conditions and their economy.”

Two years after the case began in 2017, a sheriff ordered Finlays to give the tea pickers’ legal team access to the farms in Kenya, allowing them to inspect their working conditions.

Finlays mounted a challenge in the courts in Nairobi, arguing successfully that the Scottish order could not be implemented unless it had been endorsed by a Kenyan court.

The tea pickers appealed against that decision and a judgement is expected in May.

Mr Short said: “They’re arguing that it’s unconstitutional.

“But even if it is, why won’t they let us go in? I suspect it’s because they don’t want us to see the dreadful conditions that these people work in.”

Last February, the tea pickers staged a demonstration of how they work at another tea farm in Kenya, watched by members of their UK legal team.

Gwen Morgan-Evans, from law firm Hugh James, said: “We’ve travelled to Kenya with two leading UK experts so they can observe the process of tea picking and advise the Scottish court on how these working practices are detrimental to health.

“There’s a wider context to these cases. If the case is successful, the claimants are hoping that this will bring about a wider improvement for tea workers in Kenya.”

The latest issue of Finlays’ company magazine 1750 focused on its Kenya operations.

Group managing director Guy Chambers told the publication: “We accept we are not perfect and there are always areas where we need to improve.

“But our critics often overlook the scale of the efforts that we take to contribute to the community.”

In a statement, a spokesman said: “James Finlay (Kenya) Ltd intends to fully defend all related claims brought in either the Nairobi High Court or the All Scotland Sheriff Personal Injury Court.”

The firm said its tea growing and processing business in the Kericho and Bomet counties employed about 8,000 people directly and further workers indirectly, delivering “significant economic benefit to the region”.

The statement continues: “We aim to achieve the highest standards of health and safety and welfare for everybody connected with our business.

“We have a well-established health and safety programme for all of our global business units, including our Kenyan business.”

It concludes by noting that its Kenyan business is certified by the Rainforest Alliance, which requires regular standards audits, and has adopted the ETI (Ethical Trading Initiative) Base Code.

In the 1980s, demonstrations were held outside Finlays’ annual general meetings in Glasgow over working conditions on its tea farms in India.

One of the protestors in 1984 was Roger Jeffery, now a professor at Edinburgh University’s School of Social and Political Science.

He said: “The chairman at the time said we’re merchant adventurers, we go wherever we can to raise a profit for our shareholders and they claimed without any justification that they were good employers and people benefited from their activities.”

Reflecting on the current case, Prof Jeffery said: “If you’re looking at this in the round, you have to accept that growing tea is a bit of a risky business and they can’t just start paying European salaries to their workforce, but I think they can still do more than they are.”

Hammer killer Hunnisett loses appeal against conviction

A Sussex killer who bludgeoned a lover to death with a hammer has lost an appeal against a murder conviction.

Christopher Hunnisett, 37, who now identifies as a woman called Crystal, killed Peter Bick, of Bexhill, in 2011.

Three judges were asked to consider whether new evidence that Hunnisett had a psychotic illness undermined the safety of the conviction.

But on Thursday they dismissed the appeal, saying there was “no proper basis to admit the fresh evidence”.

Hunnisett handed herself in at Hastings police station on 11 January 2011, hours after killing 57-year-old supermarket worker Mr Bick.

She claimed her motive was that he was a paedophile – although there was no evidence to support the claim.

Dame Victoria Sharp, who heard the appeal with two other judges, said the apparent basis for the fresh evidence was Hunnisett’s “delusional ideas”.

However, the judge said these delusions were described by those who examined Hunnisett ahead of the trial in 2012 and the jury had the opportunity to assess them before rejecting a defence of diminished responsibility.

She also said the defence of diminished responsibility was “firmly” before the jury, adding: “The issue of the appellant’s delusional ideation and its effect on her actions was central to the case.”

She concluded the fresh evidence went over the same ground as that presented at Hunnisett’s trial in 2012.

Mr Bick was murdered four months after Hunnisett was cleared of murdering the Rev Ronald Glazebrook at his home in St Leonards.

Hunnisett, then 18, had been convicted of Mr Glazebrook’s murder in 2002 after jurors heard she drowned the 81-year-old in the bath before asking a friend to help dismember the body.

That conviction was quashed after Hunnisett revealed she had been sexually abused by Mr Glazebrook.

She was later acquitted of Mr Glazebrook’s murder by a jury at a retrial in 2010.

Nurses union anger over pitiful 1% NHS pay rise

The government can expect a “backlash” if it goes ahead with a proposed 1% pay rise for NHS staff in England next year, a nursing union has warned.

The health department has made the recommendation in a submission to the independent panel that advises on NHS salaries.

The Royal College of Nursing called the suggested rise “pitiful” and said nurses should be getting 12.5% more.

NHS staff have been excluded from a pay freeze for most public sector workers.

The NHS Pay Review Body is due to recommend salary levels for health service staff before early May, before ministers then make a final decision.

In its submission, the health department said awarding NHS staff a “headline” pay increase of more than 1% “would require re-prioritisation”.

Officials added that this increase was still above the CPI rate of inflation, whilst some staff would also see a higher rise.

Some 1.3 million public sector workers will see a pay freeze next year, while those earning less then £24,000 guaranteed a pay rise of at least £250.

But Labour said the 1% award for NHS staff was “the ultimate kick in teeth to our NHS heroes who have done so much to keep us safe over the past year”.

The party’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said staff “deserve a fair pay rise” and accused the government of “sneaking out this announcement”.

Towns Fund: How were the winners chosen?

The 45 towns in England that will share just over £1bn from the Towns Fund were announced in Wednesday’s Budget.

There has been some criticism of the towns chosen.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “If you end up with a list of 45 areas where the funding is going in and ‘by coincidence’ 40 of them are where there is a Conservative MP, I think people would be saying, ‘What’s going on here? This looks fishy.'”

But Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “The criteria is entirely objective, looking at data, poverty, employment.”

And the government wanted to level up the country in “a completely impartial way”.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak, meanwhile, said: “The formula for the grant payments for the new fund is based on an index of economic need.”

But that is certainly not the only factor.

BBC News analysis found 56 constituencies would benefit, as some of the 45 towns cover multiple constituencies.

Of those, 47 have Conservative MPs, including 14 gained from Labour at the 2019 election.

The other nine have Labour MPs.

The Conservatives tend to do better in towns, though, with Labour support generally stronger in cities.

Sir Keir has called on the government to publish the full criteria.

But we already know quite a lot about why the towns were chosen.

The first step was to pick a shortlist of 101 towns, which would be invited to apply for £25m, or £50m in exceptional circumstances.

Following concern about the lack of transparency in that process, the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report setting out how the shortlist had been compiled.

Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) officials took a ranking of English towns by an Office for National Statistics (ONS) index of deprivation and then further ranked the 541 most deprived, about half of the total, using a formula based on:

The first four of those criteria were judged on official statistics and the last three on the judgement of officials.

Another factor was towns in more deprived areas were more likely to be shortlisted.

The towns were then divided into priority groups:

But the 40 high-priority towns did not necessarily have the highest scores based on the formula – some adjustments were made to ensure the most deprived areas in each region of England were included.

There were 318 medium-priority towns and 183 low.

The officials recommended ministers shortlist:

They also suggested the 15 biggest towns should be excluded because they could also be eligible for city funding.

But the ministers ignored the advice on the biggest towns, putting 10 of the 15 on the shortlist.

And the final shortlist comprised:

In choosing these 12 low-priority towns, ministers used criteria other than scores devised by civil servants, including:

Officials concluded the shortlist met Treasury rules for managing public money.

But it is clear there was considerable divergence from the formula devised by the civil servants.

We do not know exactly how the 45 winning towns were chosen from the 101 invited to apply.

But there were:

And the five low-priority towns, Cheadle, Leyland, Morley, Southport and Stocksbridge are all in constituencies with a Conservative MP.

The most striking choice was Cheadle.

It had the seventh lowest score on the MHCLG officials’ list.

But ministers said it was primed for investment because of recent transport improvements in the area, as well as being strategically located between Stockport and Manchester Airport and having strong motorway links.

In a report on the process, the Public Accounts Committee of MPs said they were “not convinced by the rationales for selecting some towns and not others”.

It added that: “The justification offered by ministers for selecting individual towns are vague and based on sweeping assumptions.”

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Philip Rutnam: £340K payout to official after Priti Patel bullying claims

The government has settled with former civil servant Sir Philip Rutnam over his claim for unfair dismissal.

Sources close to Sir Philip confirmed to BBC Radio 4’s PM that he received £340,000 plus his legal costs.

The ex-Home Office boss quit amid bullying claims against Home Secretary Priti Patel, which she denies.

He said he had been the victim of a “vicious and orchestrated” briefing campaign after trying to get Ms Patel to change her behaviour.

The claims had been due to be heard at an employment tribunal this September.

The Home Office said the government and Sir Philip had “jointly concluded that it is in both parties’ best interests to reach a settlement at this stage”.

“The government does not accept liability in this matter and it was right that the government defended the case,” a spokesperson said.

The former official was earning more than £150,000 a year as Home Office permanent secretary.

Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “Taxpayers will be appalled at having to pick up the bill for the home secretary’s unacceptable behaviour.”

Sir Philip said Home Office staff had come to him with allegations against Ms Patel, including “shouting and swearing” and “belittling people”.

His resignation led the Cabinet Office to launch an inquiry into whether Ms Patel had broken the code governing ministers’ behaviour.

Boris Johnson’s standards chief Sir Alex Allan found that she had – but the PM rejected his findings and kept her in post. Sir Alex resigned in response.

In his report, Sir Alex found Ms Patel’s “approach on occasions has amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals.”

“To that extent her behaviour has been in breach of the ministerial code, even if unintentionally,” he concluded.

The FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, has launched legal action to try and get Mr Johnson’s decision overturned at the High Court.

Ms Patel apologised for her alleged behaviour, saying “any upset I have caused was completely unintentional”.

Mr Johnson said he did not think Ms Patel was a bully, and had “full confidence” in her.

At the time he quit, Sir Philip said he had been the target of a “vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign” in the media after raising concerns about Ms Patel’s behaviour.

He said he did not believe denials from Ms Patel that she had been involved in this, and she had “not made the efforts I would expect to dissociate herself from the comments”.

In a statement issued via the FDA civil servants’ union on Thursday, Sir Philip said he was “pleased” the government had settled his unfair dismissal claim.

“I now look forward to the next stages of my career,” he added.

On its official website, the government said it “regrets the circumstances surrounding Sir Philip’s resignation”.

“The government and Sir Philip are now pleased that a settlement has been reached to these proceedings,” a spokesperson added.

Mr Thomas-Symonds said Ms Patel still had “very serious questions to answer about her conduct, and Mr Johnson had “shown terrible judgement”.

“It can’t be right that his adviser on ministerial standards resigned when he found that the home secretary bullied colleagues, while the home secretary herself remained in post,” he added.

Lee Robinson: Stab victim buried in unmarked grave in Greece

A sister said she was “heartbroken” to learn her brother was stabbed to death and buried in an unmarked grave in Greece more than two years ago.

The body of Lee Robinson, 41, of Wigan, Greater Manchester was repatriated this week after a long legal battle.

His sister Shelley Robinson said the family were “oblivious” to his death for 16 months until a DNA match was found on Interpol’s database.

Learning he’d been killed so long ago was “very traumatising”, she said.

It was May last year when Ms Robinson was informed that her brother had died a violent death in the Greek capital, Athens in December 2018.

She was told he was attacked as he slept in an unused building used by homeless people and later buried in an unmarked grave.

It took the authorities in Greece 16 months to identify him before notifying police in the UK.

His sister said the family were “heartbroken” when they realised they had been “oblivious” to the fact he had been killed and buried without anything to say who he was.

And with no name, there was no death certificate – one of many obstacles the family faced.

After a long struggle, they discovered a court case had already taken place. A 32-year-old man had admitted to killing Mr Robinson and was in a psychiatric hospital.

With the aid of Victim Support, and solicitors Mike Hagan, based in Southport, and George Moschos in Greece, Mr Robinson’s body has been returned to his hometown of Tyldesley.

Pending an inquest at Bolton Coroner’s Court, the date of which is yet to be confirmed, the family will hold a funeral service.

The family were “utterly bereft” but would obtain some comfort in having him buried in a place where “friends and family can properly grieve and say goodbye”, said Mr Hagan.

Lee Robinson had slept rough “on-and-off” for a number of years after a breakdown, said his sister Shelley.

He was “very funny, eccentric and great to be around” but was an independent character, she added.

He was registered as a missing person when the family discovered he had bought a flight to Corfu in December 2015. They alerted police who confirmed he had boarded the flight.

Ms Robinson said: “We did everything we could to help Lee. We thought he would be OK and get in touch when he was ready.

“He was an absolute star and everyone, especially his family loved him, if only he knew how much.”

MPs to debate petition to ban LGBT conversion therapy

Calls for LGBT conversion therapy to be made illegal in the UK will be debated by MPs after thousands of people signed a petition on parliament’s website.

The government said in July that it wanted to ban attempts to suppress an individual’s gender identity or sexual orientation, but campaigners say they are still waiting for action.

They say people are being exposed to psychological and emotional abuse.

The prime minister says the practice is “abhorrent”.

The term “conversion therapy” refers to any form of treatment or psychotherapy which aims to change a person’s sexual orientation or to suppress a person’s gender identity.

It can range from electric shock treatment to religious teachings or talking therapies designed to change someone’s sexuality.

The practice is already outlawed in Switzerland and parts of Australia, Canada and the US.

The petition, which has attracted more than 250,000 signatures, says running conversion therapy treatments in the UK should be made a criminal offence.

It says forcing people to attend these treatments or sending them abroad in order to try to convert them should be outlawed.

The petition states: “Despite all major counselling and psychotherapy bodies in the UK, including the NHS, condemning LGBT conversion therapy, it is still legal and LGBT individuals in the UK are still exposed to this psychological and emotional abuse to this day.

The very thought of this sickens me, and I would like to see it stopped one day.”

Boris Johnson said in July that the practice was “absolutely abhorrent” and “has no place in this country”.

Ministers have yet to publish details of the ban – which was first proposed by Theresa May in 2018 – but said they had commissioned research and would outline their plans “in due course”.

In December, more than 370 religious leaders from around the world, added their voice to calls to outlaw the practice.

In response to the petition, the government said it is “committed to ensuring all citizens feel safe and protected from harm”.

Ministers vowed to “work to deepen our understanding and consider all options for ending the practice of conversion therapy”.

The debate will be held on Monday and the government will send a minister to respond.

E-petitions are a way for members of the public to influence what is debated in Parliament.

Anyone can start a petition, as long as they are a British citizen or a UK resident.

When a petition passes 100,000 signatures, it is considered for debate by a cross-party committee of MPs.

Kathryn Maples deeply social scene wins John Moores Painting Prize

The dozen figures in the packed, sun-drenched park have no masks, no social distancing and not a care in the world.

Kathryn Maple’s painting The Common sums up the kind of scene that many people are longing to go back to soon.

It’s partly for that reason that it appealed to the judges of an award billed as UK painting’s biggest prize.

Michelle Williams Gamaker, one of the judges who have given it the £25,000 John Moores Painting Prize, said it “struck a chord during the judging”.

That is “perhaps because it depicts the very thing we are currently unable to share: the painting resonates with movement and communality, and embodies the deeply social nature of humans,” she said.

Maple’s vibrant, large-scale painting is based on a park near the artist’s home in Lewisham, south London. “I painted it way before lockdown and the pandemic,” the 31-year-old artist said.

“But actually, it’s amazing how it has that sort of energy of people coming out into this new world again.

“We have all been exploring our local area and parks. It has that balance of people and plant life in it. That’s what I was thinking about when I was making it, and it feels very ‘now'”.

The John Moores Painting Prize is organised every two years by National Museums Liverpool, and past winners include David Hockney, Mary Martin, Peter Doig and Rose Wylie.

Sandra Penketh, director of galleries and collections care at National Museums Liverpool, said the work “has a special poignancy at this difficult time when the value of our physical and emotional connections to people and places have taken on such a deep resonance”.

The Common will now join the museums’ collection, and will be among 67 entries on display at the city’s Walker Art Gallery, when it is able to reopen.

“You always hope that at some point one of your works might end up in a national collection, so that’s really exciting,” Maple said.

Tintern secret medieval tunnel system found by accident

A “secret” medieval tunnel system has been discovered by electrical technicians in south Wales.

A team working for Western Power Distribution made the discovery while moving an electrical pole near Tintern, in the Wye Valley, Monmouthshire.

Western Power said the tunnels, near to 12th Century Tintern Abbey, were not shown on any Ordnance Survey map.

After consultation with Cadw, the energy firm has stopped all work to allow archaeological investigation.

The team were excavating a trench on a customer’s property, which is in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty near the border between Wales and England, when they unearthed the tunnels.

“Nothing had shown up on any of our drawings or records to indicate there was anything unusual about the site,” said Western Power technician Allyn Gore, who was leading the team.

“Shortly after the excavation work began, the digging team made the extraordinary discovery of what they initially thought to be a cave.”

Mr Gore said “work stopped immediately”, adding: “I have been involved in other excavations where we have discovered old wells and cellars not shown on any plans, but nothing as exciting and impressive as this.”

The 4ft (122cm) high tunnel was “tucked away” underneath a footpath running parallel to the Angiddy Brook, and appears to follow the brook’s route along the valley.

An expert from Cadw, the Welsh Government’s historic and cultural heritage service, was said to be “very impressed” and “quite fascinated” by the discovery, Mr Gore added.

Western Power said the network of tunnels did not appear on any maps dating back as far as the 18th Century, and no local residents or authorities had any knowledge of it.

Mr Gore said it “could take years” before investigations were concluded.

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