Mayor of London candidate Brian Rose fined for lockdown breach

An independent candidate vying to be London’s next mayor has been fined by police for breaking lockdown rules.

Former Wall Street banker Brian Rose was filming promotional material for his campaign in Southwark on Sunday when police intervened.

Mr Rose said he and six of his staff were each fined £200 and were told “campaigning was not a necessary reason” for being out.

He described confusion over campaign rules as “an affront to democracy”.

The City of London Police force said restrictions “have no exemption for canvassing”.

A spokesman for the force added: “Anyone canvassing can expect the police to enforce the legislation, which could include issuing fines.”

Mr Rose presents a media platform called London Real, where he hosts guests including conspiracy theorist David Icke.

The London mayoral election is set to take place on 6 May, although the date is being kept under review due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier this month, minister Chloe Smith said the bar for postponing elections was “quite high” and that the government had been working to ensure the polls could open in a “Covid-secure manner”.

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey defended his party earlier this month for continuing to deliver campaign leaflets during lockdown.

He said the work had been carried out by volunteers and volunteering was exempt from current restrictions.

Mr Rose’s office said it would be challenging the fines “based on the same guidance that other parties have been using”, the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) said.

The podcaster said he “understood” police have a “difficult job to do”, but added it was “imperative that free and fair elections can take place on 6 May”.

He said: “With an unelected mayor currently heading up our city for the past year, including its police force, it is incredibly worrying that democracy is being eroded in this way, while the mayor’s own team continue to campaign.”

Guidance from the government about “appropriate conduct” during campaigning is expected soon, added the LDRS.

Covid: What is council tax and should it go up in the pandemic?

With households budgets squeezed and many councils warning they’re on the brink of bankruptcy dealing with the pandemic, Labour is calling on the government to cancel the planned hike in council tax bills set to kick in from April, in England.

The party says central government should be stepping up and providing extra funds to local authorities rather than leaving them to pass the cost on to families already struggling to make ends meet.

But what exactly is council tax, how much is it and are steeper bills inevitable?

Council tax is a compulsory charge on properties in England, Scotland and Wales set by local authorities to spend as they see fit in providing services in their area.

That means most people, with a few exemptions we’ll get on to later, have no choice about paying it. If you’re not happy with a service provided, you can’t ask for your money back.

Homes are graded into what’s known as “bands” or categories, according to how much they are worth at a specific point in time, with more expensive properties facing bigger bills.

The average property in England is in Band D.

Northern Ireland is not covered by the council tax system – it operates a domestic rating system instead.

The matter is devolved in Scotland and Wales, meaning it is overseen by the national governments.

Everything from rubbish collection, street lighting, libraries, police and fire services to youth clubs, parks and recreation facilities.

It’s the main source of income for most local councils, although other money goes into the pot from business rates and government grants.

You’ll notice an additional charge on your bill, known as the social care precept. This is a separate fee for care homes and other adult social care services.

Many councils have warned that dealing with the impact of coronavirus on top of central government cuts in funding has left big holes in their budgets and drained their reserves.

As a rule of thumb, anyone who is over 18 and owns or rents a home has to pay but there are exemptions and discounts based on individual circumstances.

If you live alone, for example, you’re entitled to a 25% discount.

A property occupied solely by students is exempt and you won’t get a bill if you’re living in halls of residence or a care home.

If you work away from home and your property is empty, you can get a 50% discount.

The key thing to remember is that it is the occupant of the property who is liable for the bill, so tenants rather than the landlord have to pay.

Local authorities in England will be able to increase council tax by up to 5% from April without needing to get approval from local taxpayers. That’s 2% on bills for regular council services and an extra 3% for those authorities that provide adult social care.

The government gives the go-ahead for the overall percentage increase and it’s up to the local authority to decide if they want to raise bills by this amount.

They don’t have to impose any increases but the reality is most have no choice because they are already in financial trouble from lost income during the pandemic and the additional costs of keeping communities safe.

As it is, many have already warned they could be stripped back to providing core services only – to help them balance the books.

Figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies show councils received 77% less in central government grants per person in 2019-20 than a decade earlier, once inflation had been taken into account.

Labour has called the planned increases “absurd” and says they should be scrapped to ease the pressure on family budgets.

The party argues that now is not the time to hit households with bigger bills.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer says those living in a Band D property could see bills rise by an average of £90 a year.

He argues that the prime minister should provide extra funding to councils to plug the gap – rather than offloading the burden to people already worried about their jobs and household budgets.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick says councils in England are enjoying a “real terms” increase in funding of 4.4%, once inflation has been taken into account. Government figures show that overall spending on local government rose in 2020-2021 to just over £49bn.

Mr Jenrick told the House of Commons councils in England had access to a £7.2bn pot of money to respond to coronavirus as well as extra funds to provide critical services and adult social care.

He added that councils would “have the resources they need” to serve communities and “deliver first-class public services”.

The Local Government Association, which represent councils, said local authorities are facing a “tough choice” because the additional support came with strings attached.

It said: “More than 85% of the potential core funding increase next year is dependent on councils increasing council tax by up to 5% next year.

“This leaves councils facing the tough choice about whether to increase bills to bring in desperately needed funding to protect services at a time when we are acutely aware of the significant burden that could place on some households.”

David Warburton MPs six stone weight loss secrets revealed

An MP who was previously classed obese has described how he managed to lose six stone in less than a year.

David Warburton, Conservative MP for Somerton and Frome, said he “got a bit obsessed” using a home gym during the first coronavirus lockdown in March.

He is now a healthy weight after using a second hand treadmill and weights.

Mr Warburton has been praised by the Health Secretary Matt Hancock for his efforts.

The 55-year-old told BBC Politics West he had been “overwhelmed” by requests for help from constituents during the first coronavirus lockdown.

But he said he used a home gym in his spare room and music as a respite that took him “away from the phone and the messages”.

“The weight loss was an accidental thing and then I got a bit obsessed with the gym, which drove my wife mad.

“It’s certainly been very effective. I have lost all the weight I put on as an MP and I’m very glad to be able to be back in shape”, he said.

Mr Warburton said his body mass index – which uses people’s height and weight to work out whether their weight is healthy – has dropped from 40, which is obese, to 23, which is healthy.

Prime minister Boris Johnson admitted he had been “too fat” when he fell seriously ill with coronavirus in April but had hired a personal trainer and lost weight.

And Mr Warburton said people must take their weight seriously.

He said: “In this world of Covid it’s incredibly important. We hear that people with a BMI over 30 are supposed to have a 37% greater risk of dying from Covid than those who are not obese.”

Indyref2: SNP reveal roadmap to another independence referendum

The SNP has revealed a “roadmap to a referendum” on Scottish independence, setting out how they intend to take forward their plans for another vote.

It says a “legal referendum” will be held after the pandemic if there is a pro-independence majority at Holyrood following May’s election.

The 11-point plan says it will “vigorously oppose” any legal challenge from the UK government.

Boris Johnson has repeatedly stated his opposition to another referendum.

Opposition parties accuse the SNP of putting the push for independence ahead of the Covid pandemic.

The roadmap document will be be presented to about 1,000 members of the SNP’s national assembly on Sunday by the Scottish government’s constitution secretary, Mike Russell.

It states that if the SNP take office, the Scottish government will request from the UK government a section 30 order – part of the Scotland Act 1998 which allows Holyrood to pass laws normally reserved to Westminster.

It says “there could be no moral or democratic justification for denying that request” and adds that if the UK government did adopt such a position it would be “unsustainable both at home and abroad”.

The document goes on to say that if it has a parliamentary majority it will introduce and pass a bill allowing a referendum to take place after the pandemic.

It says that will leave the UK government with three options:

“Such a legal challenge would be vigorously opposed by an SNP Scottish government,” it adds.

Until now, the SNP’s plan for indyref2 was to win this year’s Holyrood election as convincingly as possible and watch UK opposition crumble.

Boris Johnson has made clear he has no plans to agree another referendum “for a generation” and that’s driven calls from critics of Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership within the SNP for her to set out a plan B.

She has always resisted – to avoid acknowledging the potential for continued UK refusal and to avoid revealing strategy.

After significant gains for leadership critics in internal elections to the SNP’s ruling body, that has changed.

Plan B is to legislate for a referendum, even if the UK refuses consent and to be prepared to defend it in court. The referendum would only go ahead if it was considered legal and only after the pandemic.

What’s not clear is what would happen if (and this is not a prediction) the courts said “yes”, the UK government continued to say “no” and pro-UK parties boycotted the referendum.

To secure legitimacy any referendum really requires the consent of both sides.

As the document was published, Mr Russell said: “The referendum should be held after the pandemic, at a time to be decided by the democratically elected Scottish Parliament. The SNP believes that should be in the early part of the new term.

“Today I am setting out how I believe that right can be secured, and I welcome the discussion that will take place around this idea and others.

“But what is absolutely not for discussion is the fact that if Scotland votes for a legal referendum on 6 May this year, that is what it will get.”

Opposition leaders said the SNP should be focusing on the pandemic rather than another independence vote.

“It is inexcusable that at this time of acute crisis the SNP seeks to put its plan for independence above everything else,” Jackie Baillie, the interim leader of Scottish Labour, said.

“The people of Scotland are being badly let down by an incompetent UK government and a Scottish government that seeks to exploit the current crisis for its own ends.”

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross described the roadmap as a “reckless move”.

“Most Scots will wonder why time, energy and resources are going into pursuing an illegal referendum when we are facing far bigger challenges as a country right now than the constitution,” he added.

And Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said the SNP had got their priorities “all wrong”.

He added: “Thousands of people have lost their lives, even more are living with the long term effects of the virus, the hospitals are bursting at the seams, operations are cancelled, businesses are on their knees, schools are shut yet the SNP think now is the time to restart their campaign to break up the UK. It is crass, insensitive and the wrong priority for our country.”

Meanwhile the UK government said politicians should be “working in partnership” to defeat the coronavirus.

“The government is supporting the devolved administrations in their vaccination programmes, with the British Armed Forces helping to establish 80 new Covid-19 vaccine centres in Scotland,” a spokesperson added.

“The question of Scottish independence was settled decisively in 2014, when Scotland voted to remain part of the UK.

“Now more than ever, we should be pulling together to strengthen our United Kingdom, instead of trying to separate it”.

South Africa coronavirus variant: 77 cases found in UK

The UK has identified 77 cases of the coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa, the health secretary has said.

Cases are linked to travellers arriving in the UK, rather than community transmission, Matt Hancock added.

He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr cases were under “very close” observation and enhanced contact tracing was under way.

Meanwhile, Mr Hancock said 75% of over-80s and three quarters of care homes in the UK have received a first Covid jab.

Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines require two doses, and figures so far reflect those given the first dose.

All viruses, including the one that causes Covid-19, mutate, and variants have been first located in the UK, South Africa and Brazil.

The South Africa and Brazil variants are different to the variant that scientists have been studying in the UK.

Mr Hancock said: “At the moment it (cases) is all linked to travel.” He added: “That’s why we have got such stringent border measures in place against movement from South Africa.”

Government data on 14 January showed there were 35 confirmed cases of the South Africa variant identified in the UK, and a further 12 “probable” cases.

Mr Hancock said nine cases of the Brazil variant had been found in the UK, adding “we are monitoring each and every one very closely”.

Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that Labour had been “pushing the government to take tougher measures at the border since last spring”.

She said: “We would fully expect the government to bring in tougher quarantine measures, we would expect them to roll out a proper testing strategy and we would expect them as well to start checking up on the people who are quarantining.

“Only three out of every hundred people who are asked to quarantine when they arrive into the UK actually face any checks at all – that’s just simply not sufficient.”

On Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there was “some evidence” the UK variant may be associated with “a higher degree of mortality”.

The UK government’s chief scientific officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, said there was “a lot of uncertainty around these numbers” but that early evidence suggested the variant could be about 30% more deadly.

The PM said on Friday that there was evidence that both the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine and Oxford-AstraZeneca jab were effective against the variant first detected in the UK.

Sir Patrick has warned that the variants in South Africa and Brazil might “have certain features which means they might be less susceptible to vaccines”.

Meanwhile, England’s deputy chief medical officer warned that people who have received a Covid-19 vaccine could still pass the virus on to others and should continue following lockdown rules.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Prof Jonathan Van-Tam stressed that scientists “do not yet know the impact of the vaccine on transmission”.

He said vaccines offer “hope” but infection rates must come down quickly.

A further 32 vaccine sites are set to open across England this week.

Meanwhile, senior doctors have called on health officials in England to cut the gap between the first and second doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

The maximum wait was extended from three to 12 weeks in order to get the first jab to more people across the UK.

But the British Medical Association said the policy was “difficult to justify” and the gap should be reduced to six weeks.

Another 1,348 deaths within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test were reported in the UK on Saturday, in addition to 33,552 new infections.

There were 4,076 Covid patients on mechanical ventilators in UK hospitals as of Friday, according to government data.

That is higher than during the first wave, when the peak was 3,301 on 12 April.

PM talks to Biden in first call since inauguration

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has spoken to Joe Biden for the first time since the new US president was inaugurated.

Mr Johnson said on Twitter that he looked forward to “deepening the longstanding alliance” between the UK and the US as they drove a “green and sustainable recovery from Covid-19”.

Mr Biden was sworn in as president and Kamala Harris as vice-president in a ceremony in Washington on Wednesday.

The PM said their inauguration was a “step forward” for the US.

A Downing Street spokesman said Mr Johnson “warmly welcomed” the president’s decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change and the World Health Organization – both abandoned by Mr Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump.

“The prime minister praised President Biden’s early action on tackling climate change and commitment to reach net zero by 2050,” the spokesman said.

The spokesman added that, in building on the two nations’ “long history of cooperation in security and defence, the leaders “re-committed to the Nato alliance and our shared values in promoting human rights and protecting democracy”.

The two leaders also talked about “the benefits of a potential free trade deal” between the UK and the US, with Mr Johnson reiterating his intention “to resolve existing trade issues as soon as possible”.

Mr Johnson and Mr Biden “looked forward to to meeting in person as soon as the circumstances allow” and to working together during the forthcoming G7, G20 and COP26 summits, the spokesman added.

Congratulating Mr Biden and Ms Harris – who is the first woman and first black and Asian-American person to serve as vice-president – the PM said earlier that their inauguration was a “step forward” for the US, which had “been through a bumpy period”.

Mr Johnson said it was a “big moment” for the UK and the US and their “joint common agenda”.

The BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg has said the Biden Presidency “brings some hope to government” because No 10 believes “there is a lot of overlap” between what Mr Biden and Mr Johnson want to do.

The US president has previously said that he does not want a “guarded border” between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland following Brexit, and that any UK-US post-Brexit trade deal had to be “contingent” on respect for the Good Friday Agreement.

The PM and Mr Biden have never met in real life, but the new US president once referred to Mr Johnson as a “physical and emotional clone” of Mr Trump.

After winning the presidential election, Mr Biden phoned Mr Johnson ahead of other European leaders and expressed his desire to strengthen the historic “special relationship” between the two countries.

Climate change: Six questions about the Cumbria coal controversy

Pressure is growing on the prime minister to ban a new coal mine in Cumbria.

The county council approved the colliery, and the government decided not the challenge the decision.

But green groups have written to Boris Johnson saying the mine undercuts his promise to lead the world away from coal.

A spokesperson for islands at risk from climate change urges the PM to match his words with deeds.

A firm applied for planning permission to dig for coking coal in Cumbria, and councillors approved the bid. They said the scheme did not contravene planning rules and would help diversify jobs.

But coal is seen as the dirtiest of the fossil fuels driving up global temperatures. The British government heads a UN climate summit in November and has launched the ‘Powering Past Coal’ alliance of nations to relinquish coal.

Fiji is an alliance member – and its UN ambassador Satyendra Prasad told me opening a new mine sends the wrong signal.

“Investment in renewables in place of coal is the morally correct choice. In the global climate struggle, words are extremely important. Deeds matter even more,” he said.

Titus Gwemende from Oxfam in Southern Africa, said: “The UK continues to dig more coal while the least contributors (to climate change) in Africa face pressure to stop. This double standard risks undermining climate talks – and I hope the UK will change course.”

This was a thorny decision. Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick could have over-ridden the council, but amid the turmoil of the January Covid lockdown, he put out a notice saying he would not block permission because it was a “local” issue. Environmentalists were furious, defining climate change as the ultimate global problem.

The government later told me there were no grounds to block the application under planning law. A spokesperson said leaving the decision to the council aligned with the Tory principle of having decisions taken at the lowest possible tier of government.

Was the government under pressure to approve the mine from its own MPs?

Yes. The mine lies in the Copeland constituency in a cluster of so-called Red Wall seats won by the Conservatives from Labour. Cumbria has low unemployment (2.8% from July 2019-June 2020 compared with 3.4% in Copeland and 3.8% nationally), but the MPs argued that well-paid manual jobs shouldn’t be turned away.

The local Copeland MP Trudy Harrison is the prime minister’s bag-carrier Parliamentary aide – and it’s hard to conceive that she did not drop a word in his ear, although she wouldn’t talk to me about that.

They insist they’re not. The key to the debate, they say, is that the mine will produce coking coal, which is needed for steel. The government is phasing out thermal coal for power stations by 2025 but has not announced any plans to phase out coking coal.

The advisory Climate Change Committee says the UK must stop burning coking coal by 2035 in order to hit climate targets. I understand the committee fears if the mine goes ahead its owners and workers will lobby irresistibly to keep it running after that date.

But the MPs fear that technology to create virgin steel using non-coal methods such as hydrogen won’t be ready by 2035. Mark Jenkinson, Tory MP for nearby Workington, told me: “It’s better for the environment to dig coking coal from Workington than from Wyoming, because it saves on emissions from transport. We can’t let other countries pick up the tab for emissions on our behalf.”

Environmentalists have long called for a moratorium on new fossil fuels, because already far more has been discovered than the world can burn without causing dangerous climate change.

When John Sauven, from Greenpeace, heard that approving the mine was considered a ‘local’ decision he said: “Let’s hope China doesn’t take the same view – or the world will be toast”.

He’s written to Boris Johnson saying: “As host of the largest global climate talks since the signing of the Paris Agreement, it is mystifying that a new coal mine has been approved.

“This will make it much harder to fulfil the ambitions of the alliance to phase out coal. We call on you to reverse the decision”.

Labour’s Climate Change lead Matthew Pennycook agreed. He said: “This makes a mockery of the government’s claim to be a climate leader, and won’t provide the long-term job security Cumbrians deserve.

“Decarbonised steel is the future and Ministers should be relentlessly focused on developing an active industrial strategy that will attract good, low-carbon jobs and investment to counties like Cumbria.”

The Lib Dems and Greens agree.

Political considerations are not supposed to influence the planning process, and Mr Jenrick’s spokesperson said he didn’t consult other ministers in order to avoid breaching that rule.

No 10 tells me the PM was not involved in the decision-making process. The president of the upcoming climate summit, Alok Sharma – who co-ordinates government climate policies – dodged a question from MPs whether he had been consulted.

But Business and Climate Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng later said he discussed the mine with colleagues.

The fact that the mine will produce coking coal was a factor, he said.

But he wryly admitted that allowing the mine would create a “slight conflict” with climate policy. Mr Sharma agreed that the issue could be seen to be “embarrassing”.

No one is suggesting that any of the politicians misbehaved – but it’s clear that the issue is extremely embarrassing.

The government could avoid future pain on the issue by introducing a clear policy on coking coal.

One thing’s for sure – as the UN climate summit looms closer, the government’s ambitions across the board will be increasingly scrutinised to see if it’s walking the climate walk.

Follow Roger on Twitter @rharrabin

Covid-19: Parties urged to suspend doorstep campaigning

Political parties have been urged to suspend all door-to-door campaigning, including leafleting, during the current nationwide lockdown.

The Cabinet Office said doorstep campaigning was “neither essential nor necessary” and went against the spirit of the “stay at home” order in force.

The Lib Dems have defended activists who have continued to deliver leaflets ahead of May’s local elections.

It said there were exemptions for voluntary organisations under the law.

But Labour says it has suspended volunteer leafleting and urged other parties to do the same.

As it stands, May’s council and mayoral elections in England – including more than 100 contests delayed from last year – are scheduled to go ahead, although ministers have said the situation will be kept under constant review.

In a letter to representatives of political parties, Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith said the government would be issuing guidance in due course about “appropriate conduct” in the run-up to the campaign and during it, including potential changes to the nominating process for the thousands of candidates due to take part.

But she said the government was very clear that face-to-face political activity at the moment was inconsistent with current regulations requiring people only to leave home where strictly necessary.

“The government’s view is that these restrictions do not support door-to-door campaigning or leafleting by individual political party activists,” she wrote.

“It is widely accepted that voters can continue to get campaigning information remotely.

“In order to reduce transmission of Covid-19 infections, door to door campaigning at this point in time is therefore not considered essential or necessary activity.”

“I would ask that all parties follow this advice, and ensure that your supporters are aware of this position.”

Speaking on Sunday, Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said his party’s volunteers were acting within the law and taking the same precautions as postal workers and delivery drivers when pushing leaflets through letterboxes.

“The guidance says there is an exemption for volunteer organisations, we’ve taken legal advice on that,” he said.

“The advice we’ve given to all our councillors and volunteers is they need to wear a mask, they need to socially distance, they need to sanitise their hands.”

Elections for the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd in Wales are also due to take place in May.

Coronavirus: UK variant may be more deadly

Early evidence suggests the variant of coronavirus that emerged in the UK may be more deadly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.

However, there remains huge uncertainty around the numbers – and vaccines are still expected to work.

The data comes from mathematicians comparing death rates in people infected with either the new or the old versions of the virus.

The new more infectious variant has already spread widely across the UK.

Mr Johnson told a Downing Street briefing: “In addition to spreading more quickly, it also now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant – the variant that was first identified in London and the south east – may be associated with a higher degree of mortality.

“It’s largely the impact of this new variant that means the NHS is under such intense pressure.”

Public Health England, Imperial College London, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Exeter have each been trying to assess how deadly the new variant is.

Their evidence has been assessed by scientists on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag).

The group concluded there was a “realistic possibility” that the virus had become more deadly, but this is far from certain.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, described the data so far as “not yet strong”.

He said: “I want to stress that there’s a lot of uncertainty around these numbers and we need more work to get a precise handle on it, but it obviously is a concern that this has an increase in mortality as well as an increase in transmissibility.”

Previous work suggests the new variant spreads between 30% and 70% faster than others, and there are hints it is about 30% more deadly.

For example, with 1,000 60-year-olds infected with the old variant, 10 of them might be expected to die. But this rises to about 13 with the new variant.

This difference is found when looking at everyone testing positive for Covid, but analysing only hospital data has found no increase in the death rate. Hospital care has improved over the course of the pandemic as doctors get better at treating the disease.

The new variant was first detected in Kent in September. It is now the most common form of the virus in England and Northern Ireland, and has spread to more than 50 other countries.

The Pfizer and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine are both expected to work against the variant that emerged in the UK.

However, Sir Patrick said there was more concern about two other variants that had emerged in South Africa and Brazil.

He said: “They have certain features which means they might be less susceptible to vaccines.

“They are definitely of more concern than the one in the UK at the moment and we need to keep looking at it and studying this very carefully.”

The prime minister said the government was prepared to take further action to protect the country’s borders to prevent new variants from entering.

“I really don’t rule it out, we may need to take further measures still,” he said.

Last week the government extended a travel ban to South America, Portugal and many African countries amid concerns about new variants, while all international travellers must now test negative ahead of departure to the UK and go into quarantine on arrival.

Follow James on Twitter

Covid: Senedd drinking a possible breach of Wales alcohol ban

An investigation has found that four members of the Welsh Parliament drank alcohol on its premises, days after a Wales-wide alcohol ban came into force.

The Senedd has referred the “possible breach” of Covid rules to Cardiff Council and its own standards watchdog.

Conservative group leader Paul Davies has apologised and won the “unanimous” support of the group to stay in post.

Mr Davies, Tory chief whip Darren Millar and Labour’s Alun Davies deny breaking any rules.

Alun Davies has been suspended from the Labour group in the Senedd.

BBC Wales has asked for clarification as to the identity of the fourth Senedd member investigators have referred to.

On 8 December, five individuals – four members of the Senedd (MS) and the Conservative group’s chief of staff Paul Smith – were found to be consuming alcohol in the Senedd’s licensed tearoom, according to an investigation by the Senedd Commission.

Four days earlier a ban on the serving of alcohol in pubs and licensed premises across Wales had been imposed, leading the investigation to conclude the incident could amount to “a possible breach” of Covid-19 regulations.

The Senedd’s Presiding Officer Elin Jones MS said the matter had been referred to Cardiff Council to investigate a possible licence breach.

“The regulations in place at the time imposed strict restrictions on members of the public with regard to the consumption of alcohol,” she said.

“Given that the possible breach in question occurred as a result of the consumption of alcohol by Members of the Senedd, I have also written to the Standards Commissioner to ask him to investigate whether these Members acted in accordance with the duty in the Code of Conduct to conduct themselves in a manner which maintains and strengthens the public’s trust and confidence in the integrity of the Senedd.”

In a meeting earlier, the Conservative group in the Senedd met to discuss what a statement issued on behalf of group chair Janet Finch-Saunders MS detailed as “events involving three members of the Group” on 8 December.

“The Group extended its unanimous support for Paul Davies to continue in his post as Leader of the Group,” the statement read.

BBC Wales has been told by several sources that Mr Davies said in the meeting he had considered resigning as leader.

It is also understood the declaration of support was made before Tory group members had seen the Senedd investigation’s conclusion.

When asked his opinion at the latest Covid press conference, First Minister Mark Drakeford said he hoped the sole member of tearoom staff on duty that evening would not be blamed for the incident.

“I’m very anxious that this does not all result in that person carrying the can for what happened that evening,” he said.

“That was a single female member of staff faced with a collection of senior Senedd members.

“The idea that the person, the staff member, was to blame seems to me completely incredulous and I very much hope that this does not head in that direction.”

Plaid Cymru MS Helen Mary Jones said: “Failure to address the members’ actions is a grave error of judgment on behalf of the Conservative Senedd group.

“Their leader and their chief whip [Mr Millar] should be setting an example in the middle of a pandemic rather than getting embroiled in an incident which is in danger of bringing the Senedd into disrepute.

“It would seem that the internal machinations of the Tory group is stopping them from doing the right thing,” she added.

Cardiff Council confirmed the city licensing authority – a Shared Regulatory Service (SRS) also covering the Vale of Glamorgan – had been asked to investigate.

“The service works closely with South Wales Police to ensure that public protection and adherence to Covid regulations is maintained,” a spokesperson said.

“Once the investigation is concluded, and if a breach of the regulations has been found, SRS will take the necessary action, which could see a fixed penalty notice served or a prosecution in the courts.”

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