Brexit: Frost and Barnier seek to break impasse in UK-EU trade talks

UK negotiator Lord Frost will speak to his EU counterpart Michel Barnier later, as efforts continue to unblock talks on a post-Brexit trade deal.

Mr Barnier has proposed “intensified” negotiations in London this week to break the impasse in key areas.

But No 10 says there is no point talks continuing without a “fundamental change” to the EU’s approach.

Both sides are calling on the other to compromise ahead of a looming December deadline for a deal.

The UK has accused the EU of dragging its feet and failing to respect its sovereignty in the negotiations.

They are seeking an agreement to govern their trading relationship once the UK’s post-Brexit transition period ends in January 2021.

Key areas of disagreement include fishing rights, post-Brexit competition rules such as limits on subsidies to businesses, and how a deal would be enforced.

On Tuesday, the prime minister’s spokesman said Lord Frost would be seeking a “clear assurance” from his EU counterpart of a change in their approach.

The spokesman added the EU would need to show talks could be a “genuine negotiation rather than one side being expected to make all of the moves”.

Speaking in Brussels, a European Commission spokesman said it was “pretty obvious” both sides would need to compromise in order for a deal to be done.

It follows a summit in Brussels last week where EU leaders called on the UK to “make the necessary moves” towards a deal.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to urge business leaders to prepare for the end of the transition period in December, in a conference call alongside Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove.

By remaining in the bloc’s single market and customs union, the UK has continued to follow EU trading rules during its post-Brexit transition period.

This 11-month period is due to end in December, and the UK has ruled out seeking an extension.

Formal talks began in March and continued throughout the pandemic, initially via video link before in-person discussions resumed over the summer.

If a deal is not done, the UK will trade with the EU according to the default rules set by the World Trade Organization.

MPs call for wider gender pay gap reporting

Businesses with 100 employees or more should publish their gender pay gap data, according to a group of MPs.

Labour’s Stella Creasy will present a bill in Parliament on Tuesday, calling for the change in the threshold.

The law would also introduce mandatory ethnicity pay reporting and allow women to ask to see data if they suspect a disparity.

Ms Creasy said: “There has never been a more important time to really get to grips with this inequality.

“Equal pay legislation was brought in before I was born and we still don’t have equality. I don’t want my daughter still facing the same questions.”

The Equal Pay Implementation and Claims Bill (EPIC) 2020 has cross-party backing.

Signatories for the law include from the Tory chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Caroline Nokes; the Liberal Democrats’ Christine Jardine; the SNP’s Anne McLaughlin and the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas.

When the issue was discussed in the Commons in 2018, the-then Minister for Women, Tory MP Victoria Atkins, said the government wanted “a foundation of data before considering whether or how to change the current requirements”.

She told MPs: “Let us have a couple of years of reporting at the higher level and with big companies, which have human resources departments that can deal with this, with the hope that it trickles down… to smaller employers as well.”

The gender pay gap is the difference between the average earnings of men and women.

From 2017, any organisation with 250 or more employees had to publish specific figures about their gender pay gap on their website, and report the data to the government.

Employers that fail to report on time or report inaccurate data are be in breach of the regulations and risk court orders and fines.

The annual April deadline was suspended this year due to coronavirus – but it is unclear when enforcement will be reintroduced, with a decision expected to be taken closer to the 2021 deadline.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed in the year to April 2019, the gender pay gap for full-time workers rose to 8.9%

But for people under 40, the gap for full-time employees was close to zero.

In the proposal, Ms Creasy and her supporters are calling for a number of new measures to be introduced alongside the rise in the threshold.

They include:

Ms Creasy said she knew there needed to be a balance when it came to tackling the issue, especially amidst the current crisis.

But the Labour MP said coronavirus was showing why Parliament needed to act, with “more mums being made redundant and furloughed than their male counterparts”.

She added: “While women first started asking about equal pay in 1883, they still don’t have it. We have started the conversation and now we need action.

“It is better for everyone in society when we go to work with a fair wage.”

The Institute of Directors says real progress has been made in tackling the gender pay gap in recent decades but eradicating it entirely requires action across society, not just from employers.

In its submission to a 2018 parliamentary inquiry into gender pay, the business group said compulsory reporting had “associated consequences” for certain businesses.

“While reporting will sharpen companies’ focus on actions they can take, it also may, by implication, scapegoat employers for gender disparities which stem from wider societal issues over which they have little to no control,” it said.

The Equal Pay Implementation and Claims Bill (EPIC) 2020 from Ms Creasy is a Ten Minute Rule Bill – a procedure that lets backbench MPs make their case for a new law in a speech lasting up to ten minutes.

But as they are not proposals made by government, they often fail to make their way through Parliament to become law.

Coronavirus: MPs debate pet theft law change amid lockdown rise

Pet theft reform has become “more pressing” following lockdown when “record numbers” of animals were stolen by thieves, MPs have been told.

They were debating two petitions, signed by almost 300,000 people, urging the government to make pet theft a specific offence.

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt also said pets have been taken at a time when people “need their companionship the most”.

The government said it was “keen to act”.

Opening the debate on Monday, Conservative MP Mr Hunt told Westminster Hall: “Covid-19 has made pet theft reform more pressing, not less.”

He added: “Our pets are being snatched away from us in record numbers just when we need their companionship the most.

“Organised crime groups are planning and ruthlessly executing the thefts of our cherished pets.

“They know the money they can make from breeding pedigrees and selling puppies for a quick profit, yet we’re fighting this growing tide with outdated and underpowered laws.

“The risk of small fines will not stop this type of organised crime.”

He added by making pet theft a specific offence, it will empower judges to be able to hand out two-year prison sentences.

The debate follows the BBC’s own investigation which suggested 2020 has been the “worst ever” for dog thefts.

During lockdown demand grew for puppies and so did the price, attracting the attention of criminals, it is believed.

A BBC freedom of information request showed five policing areas saw a double-digit increase in the number of dog thefts reported between January and July 2020, compared with the previous year.

Dr Daniel Allen, an animal expert from Keele University, who started both petitions which led to the debate, said criminals were targeting breeders and “taking the mum and the pups in one fell swoop”.

He added: “During lockdown, people wanted that canine companionship but there is an increasing risk of our pets being taken away from us.”

Victoria Prentis, minister for agriculture, fisheries and food, said the government was “keen to act” on the issue.

However, she told Westminster Hall that it did not think the creation of a specific offence for pet theft, with a two-year custodial penalty, “would really help much”.

“We do think the way to go is to continue the discussions on sentencing guidelines,” she said.

“The government is very willing to work with police and animal welfare organisations to bring this forward and we are keen to act in this area.”

What does no-deal Australia-style Brexit mean?

Remember how this time last year we were talking about a no-deal Brexit? Well, it’s back.

It is not exactly the same thing, because the UK left the European Union (EU) on 31 January.

The UK is now in a transition period with the EU until the end of the year, which means it is still following EU rules and trade stays the same. The transition was designed to give both sides a bit of time to negotiate a future trade agreement.

But if there is no trade deal by 31 December, the UK would automatically fall back on the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The government now refers to this outcome as an “Australia-style deal” (Australia trades with the EU largely on WTO rules) but – as Business Secretary Alok Sharma admits – the difference between no deal and an Australia deal is “a question of semantics at the end of the day”.

The WTO is the place where countries negotiate the rules of international trade – there are 164 members and if they don’t have free-trade agreements with each other, they trade under basic “WTO rules”.

Every member has a list of tariffs (taxes on imports of goods) and quotas (limits on the number of goods) that they apply to other countries with which they don’t have a deal. These are known as WTO schedules.

The EU is the UK’s biggest single trading partner. In 2019, it accounted for:

As an EU member, the UK was part of its trading system – the customs union and the single market. This meant there were no tariffs on goods traded between the two, and minimal border checks.

This arrangement continues until the end of the transition period.

The two sides have been trying to reach a new free-trade agreement, which would get rid of tariffs and quotas but not new border bureaucracy. But the time to do that is fast running out.

Yes, examples include the United States and China, Brazil and Australia.

In fact, it’s any country with which the EU has not signed a free-trade deal. That’s when WTO rules kick in.

But those big economies don’t just rely on basic WTO rules – they have all done other deals with the EU to help facilitate trade.

The US, for example, has at least 20 agreements with the EU that help regulate specific sectors, covering everything from wine and bananas to insurance and energy-efficiency labelling.

Australia also has such agreements, including a 2008 deal that made it easier for Australian wine to access European markets.

So, the “Australia-style deal” being talked about by the government would mean the UK trading with the EU in roughly the same way Australia does.

But there are no guarantees that side deals covering specific sectors would be done before the end of the year, so it amounts to the same thing as leaving without any trade agreement, and trading on WTO rules.

It’s also important to consider geography, and volume of trade.

Australia is on the other side of the world, whereas the UK is the EU’s next-door neighbour. That means Australia doesn’t do nearly as much trade with the EU as the UK does.

And it doesn’t rely on the EU in the way the UK does, for the operation of just-in-time supply chains in sectors such as cars, pharmaceuticals and food.

In other words, border checks and delays have far less impact on EU-Australia trade than they would on EU-UK trade.

It’s also worth nothing that Australia wants to improve its trading relationship with the EU – the two sides have been negotiating a free trade deal since 2018.

The government has said repeatedly that it wants a free-trade deal along the lines of the one the EU has with Canada.

But the UK and the EU have been trying to negotiate an agreement that would have no tariffs or quotas at all.

Whereas the EU’s deal with Canada does include tariffs and quotas (on some agricultural produce for example) and it had to be negotiated line by line over a long period of time.

The UK would have to trade with the EU on WTO rules – at least, initially.

In this scenario, the EU would impose its tariffs on imported UK goods.

The average EU tariff is pretty low (about 2.8% for non-agricultural products) but in some sectors tariffs can be quite high.

Cars would be taxed at 10% with some agricultural tariffs higher still – rising to an average of more than 35% for dairy products.

This would have a big impact on UK businesses selling their goods to the EU.

The UK would do the same, and impose its tariffs on imported EU goods.

It has already released details of the tariffs it will charge from January 2021 to countries with which it does not have a free trade deal.

In some areas, they will be imposed to protect UK producers – in the car sector, for example, and on most agricultural products, to avoid “additional disruption for UK farmers and consumers”. That will lead to higher prices in the UK for some EU goods.

But the government is also removing some of the tariffs it has been charging as part of the EU – in areas, for example, where there isn’t that much domestic UK production that needs protecting.

Here are some items that are having their tariffs cut to zero.

It’s important to remember that the WTO’s “most favoured nation” rules limit room for manoeuvre in the event of no deal.

The UK couldn’t for example lower tariffs for the EU alone, in order to keep trade going. It would have to treat the rest of the world in the same way, which could lead to cheap imports flooding the UK economy, and harming domestic businesses.

And it’s not just about the tariffs – there are also what are called “non-tariff barriers”. In many areas of the economy they are far more important.

Non-tariff barriers include things like product standards, safety regulations and sanitary checks on food and animals. Some of them will apply with or without a deal, but businesses that trade with Europe fear that no deal in particular could lead to lengthy delays.

And eventually, negotiations on some kind of deal would have to begin again.

All of this refers only to the trade in goods.

The trade in services between the UK and the EU is also of critical importance. The kind of trade deal the two sides have been trying to negotiate wouldn’t say very much about services anyway.

But no deal would be an even greater challenge.

And companies on both sides would be having to adjust to that change at the same time as trying to deal with the impact of coronavirus.

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Covid: What are the new rules in Wales, and the rest of the UK?

Wales will go into a two-week ”circuit-breaker” from Friday evening, with people told to stay home where possible and non-essential businesses closed.

The announcement follows a rising number of Covid-19 cases and increasing hospital admissions.

From 18:00 on Friday 23 October until the start of Monday 9 November, Wales will go into a ”short, sharp” circuit-break, a mini lockdown in which:

Adults living alone or single parents will be able to join with one other household for support from anywhere in Wales.

Every area of England now falls into one of three categories – medium (Tier 1), high (Tier 2) or very high (Tier 3), depending on the local rate of infection.

Areas in Tier 1 are subject to the basic national rules previously in force.

You may not meet in a group of more than six people, indoors or outdoors, unless you’re in a larger household or a support bubble.

Pubs, bars and restaurants in a Tier 1 area must close by 22:00 BST.

The rules for Tier 1 also apply in Tier 2.

In addition, you are not allowed to meet socially with people you do not live with indoors – this includes private homes, as well as pubs or restaurants.

People in support bubbles can go on meeting as before and informal childcare may also be provided.

You can still meet friends and family outdoors, but only in a group of up to six people.

The areas to go into high alert restrictions this weekend are:

Areas with the most rapidly rising transmission rates are placed in Tier 3.

You are not allowed to meet socially with anybody who is not part of your household, or support bubble, indoors.

You cannot meet in private or pub gardens, but can meet in parks, beaches, countryside or forests, as long as you are not in a group of more than six.

Pubs and bars must close unless they are serving substantial meals. Alcohol can only be served as part of a meal.

People are being advised not to travel into or out of Tier 3 areas, other than for work, education, youth services or because of caring responsibilities.

Extra measures for Tier 3 areas can be introduced, following discussions between central and local government.

In the Liverpool City Region the following premises must close:

Lancashire enters Tier 3 from 00:01 on Saturday, and will face these additional restrictions from Monday 19 October:

Lancashire’s infection rates are among the highest in the UK, the government says, with a rate of 552 per 100,000 people in the 16-29 age group.

Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has said the area will “stand firm” against plans to move it into Tier 3, calling it a “flawed” and “unfair” policy.

Northern Ireland has introduced four weeks of restrictions. Schools have closed for a two-week extended half-term break and will reopen on 2 November.

Other measures include:

Because of higher levels of Covid infection, 3.4 million people in central Scotland are subject to tougher restrictions until 25 October.

The region affected covers 18 local council and five health board areas (Greater Glasgow & Clyde, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire & Arran, Lothian, Forth Valley).

In these areas, all licensed premises – with the exception of hotel bars for residents – have to close indoors and outdoors, though takeaways are permitted.

Cafes can stay open until 18:00 daily, as long as they don’t serve alcohol.

People living in these areas have been told to avoid public transport, unless absolutely necessary, and not to leave their local areas if possible (people from outside are encouraged not to visit).

Other measures include the closing of snooker halls, bowling alleys, casinos and bingo halls, the suspension of non-professional contact sports and indoor group exercise for adults.

In the rest of Scotland, pubs and restaurants can only open inside between 06:00 and 18:00 daily until Sunday 25 October, and they are not allowed to serve alcohol.

They are only allowed to serve food and non-alcoholic drinks, although they can serve alcohol outdoors until 22:00.

Hotel restaurants can serve food after 18:00, but only for residents and without alcohol.

Throughout the nation, face coverings are compulsory in indoor communal settings, such as staff canteens and corridors in workplaces.

Andy Burnham: Who is the Greater Manchester mayor?

Once a New Labour rising star, twice a defeated Labour leadership candidate, now mayor of Greater Manchester.

While other ex-Labour ministers of his generation can be found on the backbenches or the set of Strictly, Andy Burnham has found a new political power base.

His confrontation with the government over coronavirus restrictions has dominated the news over recent days and he has now been dubbed “the King of the North” by one of the city’s bars.

Andy Burnham was born in 1970 in Liverpool to telephone engineer Kenneth and receptionist Eileen.

Shortly after his birth, the family moved to the Culcheth, a commuter belt village halfway between the city he was born in and the city he now represents as mayor.

The middle of three brothers, he describes his family as “tight knit” with Everton Football Club being “the glue that keeps us together”.

His family on both sides came from Liverpool but he say growing up he spent more time in Manchester and was “massively into the Manchester music of the mid and late 80s”.

He told Nick Robinson’s Political Thinking podcast that he did go to the famous Hacienda nightclub but added “I probably won’t say much more about that”.

Aged 15 he joined the Labour Party, having partly been politicised by the miners’ strikes of the 80s as well as the TV series Boys from the Blackstuff – a drama about unemployed men in Liverpool.

He attended a local Roman Catholic comprehensive and later studied English at Cambridge University.

After leaving university he wrote for trade magazines including Tank World, before getting work with then-Labour MP Tessa Jowell.

In 2001 he was elected to what was then considered to be the safe Labour seat of Leigh in Greater Manchester (it turned Conservative in the last election).

In his first speech to the House of Commons, Mr Burnham told MPs that his constituents had little confidence in Parliament and said his challenge was “to restore people’s faith in politics and show that Parliament does listen and deliver good news as well as bad”.

Five years after becoming an MP he was promoted by Tony Blair to the position of junior Home Office minister – a role which including going on a “charm offensive” tour to promote ID cards.

In 2008, Gordon Brown made him culture secretary, and it was as culture secretary that he attended a memorial service for the 96 Liverpool football fans killed in the Hillsborough disaster.

He later said he had “agonised for weeks” over whether he should attend the event because he knew “he had nothing to say” to the relatives seeking justice.

His speech was interrupted by heckles from the crowd – angry that no-one had been prosecuted for the tragedy.

The response from the audience prompted him to raise the issue at cabinet and the Hillsborough Independent Panel was later established to investigate the disaster.

Speaking at an event marking the 25th anniversary of the tragedy, he told the audience that the barracking he had received helped him “find the political courage to do something”.

In June 2009 he became health secretary and critics have accused him of increasing the role of private companies in the NHS.

However he argues, he used his time at the Department of Health to change policy by ensuring the NHS was always the preferred provider.

Following Labour’s defeat in the 2010 general election, he joined the race to succeed Mr Brown as party leader but lost out to Ed Miliband, coming fourth out of five candidates.

He did better five years later, coming second in the 2015 leadership race but was still beaten by Jeremy Corbyn.

Reflecting on his defeat he says he felt he was “punished for loyalty” to the Labour leadership adding “politics doesn’t reward people who try and pull for the team”.

He has previously described himself as “tribal”. “If anything defines me, it is being Labour,” he has said. “Whoever is the manager, I am part of the team.”

However more recently he told the New Statesman he feels “semi-detached” from the party.

Some have accused him of moving with the prevailing wind and shifting from being a firm supporter of New Labour and Tony Blair when he first started out in politics to posing as the candidate of the left in the 2015 election.

He says he gets “frustrated” by the flip-flop label, arguing that his politics are “nuanced”.

Looking back on New Labour, he says “the early albums were very good” but suggests it went wrong when “it courted power and influence too much”.

He served in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, but stepped down to run for the mayoralty of Greater Manchester – a position he won in 2017 with 63% of the vote.

As mayor, he promised to donate 15% of his salary to a mayor’s homelessness fund and pledged to end rough sleeping by 2020.

Last year he acknowledged that he may not meet the target but said he “couldn’t have done more”.

He has vociferously defended devolution in England arguing that in the past “places have felt powerless in the face of change.”

He says that apart from London, English cities “aren’t punching their weight” adding: “If we are going to make a success of Brexit you have to set those cities free – and devolution could do that.”

He insists that he is “not about plotting a route back to Westminster” and argues that he has more power now than he did as a cabinet minister.

Asked in 2018 if he would rather score a hattrick for Everton or stand on the steps of Downing Street, he said: “The hattrick for Everton dream has long gone, so has Downing Street – that ship has sailed.

“The dream for me is to play some part in the revival of the North of England.”

Matt Hancock seen in chauffeur-driven car without mask

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has been seen travelling in his chauffeur-driven car without wearing a mask, against the advice of No 10.

The public face fines of £200 if they fail to wear a covering in taxis or private hire cars.

There is an exemption for chauffeur-driven cars, but Downing Street said it had advised all its ministers to wear coverings.

A No 10 spokesman said there were masks available in all ministerial cars.

The picture was first published on the Daily Mirror website.

It shows the health secretary arriving at the Department for Health and Social Care on Monday without a mask.

The BBC understands Mr Hancock had been wearing a mask on the journey, but removed it as his car approached the department.

Asked later whether the minister would be reprimanded for going against the advice, the prime minister’s official spokesman said he had not seen the photo.

He added: “On the general point, we set out at the time that we were making face coverings available in all ministerial cars so that ministers would be able to wear them.”

Coronavirus: 44 Tory MPs rebel over curfew

Forty-four Tory MPs have rebelled against the government, on a vote on regulations linked to the 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants in England.

But they did not inflict a defeat on Boris Johnson, with most Labour MPs abstaining in the vote.

Several Conservative MPs spoke out against the three-tier restrictions scheme announced this week, but the House of Commons backed them.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said they were needed to help save lives.

A group of backbench Conservatives forced a vote on a motion that could have gone through on the nod to register their disapproval over the curfew affecting pubs and restaurants in England.

The vote was symbolic as the new alert system coming into force includes the curfew.

Some 23 Labour MPs – including former leader Jeremy Corbyn – also voted against the government.

Ten Liberal Democrat MPs, six DUP MPs and the only Green MP, Caroline Lucas, joined them.

But they lost by 299 votes to 82 – a majority of 217.

During the debate, Mr Hancock said the curfew was a “matter of policy choice”, needed to restrict the number of cases and to keep schools and workplaces open.

He added that there was “direct and approximate evidence” of it having a positive impact, citing a fall in alcohol-related A&E admissions late at night.

Since pubs and restaurants have been forced to close earlier, many Tory backbenchers have queried whether the move is proportionate and whether it could lead to an increase antisocial behaviour, particularly with shops selling alcohol remaining open later.

One Tory MP, Craig Mackinlay, argued that the curfew could actually harm public health.

He said: “Just considering this great city of London, the restaurants are closed, the pubs closed, there is no takeaway available at 10 o’clock and, guess what, the first train out of London, or the next Tube at 10 past 10, is going to be rocka-chocka solid, [with people] mixing and mingling… at close proximity.”

In other developments on Tuesday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called for a two-to-three-week “circuit-breaker”, involving tougher restrictions in England to cut the spread of coronavirus.

And Conservative MP for Bolton West, Chris Green, resigned as a junior member of the government, warning of the prime minister’s new restrictions system for England, that the “attempted cure is worse than the disease”.

They will come into force on Wednesday, with areas divided into three “tiers”, applying different levels of restrictions depending on the rate of infection.

Last week, 14 Tory MPs rebelled over the ban on gatherings of more than six people in England.

The 42 Conservative MPs who voted against the government were:

There were also two tellers: Philip Hollobone and Craig Mackinlay

What tasks lie ahead on the return to Stormont?

The summer recess is now over and assembly members will return to Stormont this week, braced for a busy autumn.

Here’s a guide to some of the challenges that lie ahead for the executive in the next few months.

The executive managed to navigate its way through the first wave of the pandemic – although it was bumpy at times – but now comes the challenge of continuing to manage the virus.

Schools have returned and the executive says keeping kids in class is its top priority, so if new cases continue to rise, other lockdown restrictions could be re-imposed in order to keep schools open.

There is also still the added problem of ensuring the executive’s messaging is consistent and joined-up.

DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin Vice-President Michelle O’Neill are still not doing press conferences together due to Ms O’Neill’s attendance at the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey in June, which led to accusations she had breached Covid-19 public health guidelines.

Health Minister Robin Swann and his officials have been appearing at the podium on a regular basis over the past few weeks, but there have been calls for the first and deputy first ministers to step up again and jointly field questions on the executive’s decisions.

The Treasury-led scheme is winding down and is due to stop at the end of October.

That presents a problem for the executive, given how many firms in NI have relied heavily on the scheme.

Stormont’s Department for the Economy estimated that more than 200,000 workers had initially been furloughed, with almost 330,000 people in NI receiving some kind of government financial aid due to the pandemic.

Although a lot of businesses have been able to bring back some of their staff, others have not and the executive warned that the possibility of 100,000 people in Northern Ireland claiming unemployment benefits by Christmas is a “conservative estimate”.

With the extra help from Westminster drying up, that leaves questions for the executive in terms of how it plans to manage this and support businesses that are still struggling.

On Thursday, the executive agreed to write to the Treasury to formally ask for an extension of the scheme – but the government has repeatedly ruled out the possibility.

The not-so-small matter of the UK securing a trade deal with the EU is due to dominate headlines once more – and Northern Ireland is a key part of that debate.

Boris Johnson has been clear on the timetable. He says the transition period – which means the UK is still following many EU rules – must end on 31 December 2020.

In June, the Stormont Assembly backed a proposal for the transition period to be extended – but it was not binding.

Negotiations between the UK and EU have failed to produce a trade deal so far, so they will have to ramp up in the autumn in order to conclude before the government’s New Year’s Eve deadline.

After that, goods entering NI from Great Britain will need customs declarations.

The government has already announced funding for a new system to manage that, but Stormont ministers and NI businesses say they still need clarity on the prime minister’s promise that trade between NI and the rest of the UK will be “unfettered”.

Usually autumn is jam-packed with political party annual conferences – but coronavirus has put a halt to that.

The Conservative Party is going virtual this September, while Labour has postponed its conference – events which would normally see an abundance of NI politicians in attendance.

The Stormont parties also have their conferences on the backburner and nothing has been confirmed yet for any of them, even virtually.

That’s not surprising given the current public health circumstances, but it marks another tone change in what has already been one of the strangest years ever in politics.

The dispute over who pays for the scheme to give payments to those severely psychologically or physically injured during the Troubles will persist in the coming months.

Although the Department of Justice has now been designated to administer the pension, Stormont and Westminster remain in a stand-off over funding.

The executive says it cannot afford to fund the scheme entirely out of its block grant, with upper estimates of £800m being floated as a potential cost. It wants Westminster to help fund the pension, as those injured in other parts of the UK can also apply to it.

In truth, no-one knows the true cost of the pension yet, but payments will be backdated to 2014 and it will run for several decades.

It is thought London may make some form of financial contribution, but the arguments over funding and controversy over eligibility for the scheme will continue to divide the political parties.

There is plenty to keep up with, but BBC News NI will have all the latest developments on these political stories and more throughout the autumn.

Hasty furlough scheme left room for fraud say MPs

Rushed-through coronavirus aid may have led to the loss of billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money through fraud and error, MPs have warned.

There was an “astonishing lack of economic planning for a pandemic” which led to “hastily drawn up economic support schemes”, the Commons Public Accounts Committee said.

That meant “unacceptable room for fraud against taxpayers,” it added.

But the government said the schemes “had provided a lifeline to millions”.

“We make no apology for the speed at which they were delivered,” a spokesman said, adding that the government had rejected “thousands of fraudulent claims”. “Without them lives would have been ruined.”

Since the spring, the government has approved billions in spending and tax cuts to cushion the economy from the effects of the pandemic, including discounts to encourage dining out and income support for furloughed workers.

The furlough scheme, which is due to finish at the end of October, was designed to pay 80% of the wages of employees at firms hit by the pandemic.

According to the latest figures, it sent £39.3bn to 1.2 million employers to the 20 September.

But a recent estimate by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) suggested that up to 10% of the money delivered by the scheme to mid-August – £3.5bn – may have been paid out in fraud or error.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee, which reviews government expenditure, described the figure as “very worrying”.

The government should have been better prepared for the economic fall-out from the coronavirus outbreak, as a pandemic had been top of the national risk register for years, Committee chair Meg Hillier said

“Our finding of the astonishing lack of economic planning for a pandemic shows how the unacceptable room for fraud against taxpayers was allowed into the government’s hastily drawn up economic support schemes,” she said.

“I would like to see the government publish a list of the companies which received furlough money. Where taxpayers money is being used, transparency should be a given.”

The committee also said when the outbreak occurred, HMRC switched staff from frontline tax collection activities to guiding taxpayers through the various Covid support schemes. But that has hurt the government’s ability to collect revenue.

HMRC has estimated the revenue it collected through its compliance work in the first three months of the tax year 2020-21 was down 51% on the same period the previous year, and warned the sums may never be recovered.

The committee said HMRC had administered the tax system based on the assumption that that the “vast majority” of taxpayers would be able to meet their obligations and that only a “few exceptions” would need to be pursued for non-compliance.

It said HMRC recently started issuing penalties for people not filing tax returns, because there has been a drop in the numbers being filed.

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