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Russia Report flays government inaction

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AFTER nine months of delay, which had nothing whatsoever to do with the embarrassment its content could have caused to successive Conservative Prime Ministers, the long-awaited Intelligence Services Committee report into Russian interference in the UK’s democratic processes was published on Tuesday, July 21.

The Committee delivered its report to the UK Government last autumn, well before the announcement of December’s General Election. However, the Government delayed its release indefinitely.

PUBLICATION AFTER GRAYLING FAILED AGAIN
The report’s publication on Tuesday followed an attempt by Number 10 Downing Street to rig the election of a new Chair for the Committee. Former Attorney-General Dominic Grieve QC stood down at the last election.

Last week, Number 10 attempted to parachute in a patsy to replace Dominic Grieve, former Cabinet Minister Chris Grayling, hoping to kick the report even further into the long grass. The effort failed comically when the Government’s nominee lost a rigged election. The new Chair, Julian Lewis, a Conservative MP, had the Conservative whip withdrawn from him as a result of ‘disloyalty’ to Number 10.

The attempt to thwart the report’s publication – or to neuter its already heavily redacted form – rebounded badly on Boris Johnson and draws attention to some of the report’s more uncomfortable conclusions regarding the extent of Russian infiltration into the UK’s public life.
The report is a scathing assessment of the UK Government’s continued failure to either adequately assess or even investigate how Russia, or those associated with the Putin regime, attempted to influence the UK electorate.

KEY FINDINGS
• Russian influence in the UK is the new normal. Successive Governments have welcomed the oligarchs and their money with open arms, providing them with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London ‘laundromat’, and connections at the highest levels with access to UK companies and political figures.• This has led to a growth industry of ‘enablers’ including lawyers, accountants, and estate agents who are – wittingly or unwittingly – de facto agents of the Russian state.
• It clearly demonstrates the inherent tension between the Government’s prosperity agenda and the need to protect national security. While we cannot now shut the stable door, greater powers and transparency are needed urgently.
• UK is clearly a target for Russian disinformation. While the mechanics of our paper-based voting system are largely sound, we cannot be complacent about a hostile state taking deliberate action to influence our democratic processes.
• Yet the defence of those democratic processes has appeared something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation considering itself to be in the lead, or apparently willing to conduct an assessment of such interference. This must change.
• Social media companies must take action and remove covert hostile state material: Government must ‘name and shame’ those who fail to act.
• We need other countries to step up with the UK and attach a cost to Putin’s actions. [The Russian state’s coordination of the Novichok attack in] Salisbury must not be allowed to become the high watermark in international unity over the Russia threat.
Several issues addressed in the published version of the Russia Report are covered in more depth in a Classified Annex which is unavailable for public scrutiny.

GOVERNMENT DIDN’T RECOGNISE THREAT
A statement by the Committee said: “There have been widespread allegations that Russia sought to influence voters in the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU: studies have pointed to the preponderance of pro-Brexit or anti-EU stories on RT and Sputnik, and the use of ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’, as evidence.

“The actual impact of such attempts on the result itself would be difficult – if not impossible – to prove. However what is clear is that the Government was slow to recognise the existence of the threat – only understanding it after the ‘hack and leak’ operation against the Democratic National Committee, when it should have been seen as early as 2014 (when Russia attempted to interfere in the Scottish Independence Referendum). As a result, the Government did not take action to protect the UK’s process in 2016.”

“The Committee has not been provided with any post-referendum assessment – in stark contrast to the US response to reports of interference in the 2016 presidential election. In our view, there must be an analogous assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum.”

In a press conference following the report’s publication, Chair of the Intelligence Services Committee, Julian Lewis recused himself from commenting on the report. He told media as he was not a member of the committee when it drew up the report, he would leave answers on its contents to two MPs who were members of it at the relevant time.

NO EFFORT TO INVESTIGATE
Members of the Intelligence Select Committee (ISC) said there was ‘no evidence’ that Russia sought to influence the 2016 Brexit referendum, but only because the government did not try to find out if it had.

One member, Stewart Hosie MP (SNP) said: “There has been no assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and this goes back to nobody wanting to touch the issue with a 10-foot pole.

“The UK Government has actively avoided seeking evidence as to whether Russia interfered.”

The report notes: “For example, it was widely reported shortly after the Scottish referendum that Russian election observers had suggested that there were irregularities in the conduct of the vote, and this position was widely pushed by Russian state media.

“We understand that HMG viewed this as being primarily aimed at discrediting the UK in the eyes of a domestic Russian audience.”
Russian propaganda was widely shared and effective in Scotland.

Over 87,000 people signed a petition demanding a re-vote following the Russian allegations of electoral fraud.

Kevan Jones, a former Labour defence minister, said all the evidence of Russian interference was there from the Scottish referendum
He said: “Short of a large van outside Downing Street, with a billboard on it saying, ’this is what was going on’, what more did the government need? Why was the decision taken not to look at the (Brexit) referendum?”

He said the Government lied about why Russia report couldn’t be published before the election.

Commenting on the report the Shadow Home Secretary, Kit Thomas-Symonds, said: “The report outlines a litany of hostile state activity, from cyber warfare, interfering in democratic processes, acts of violence on UK soil and illicit finance. On every level, the government’s response does not appear to be equal to the threat. While on key issues it is clear that there is no overall strategic response to this challenge – little wonder the government has been so keen to delay the publication.”

MONEY TALKS REALITY BITES
The Committee’s reports and its members’ comments leave little doubt that Theresa May actively declined to start an investigation into allegations of foreign interference in the 2016 Referendum campaign.

In a section about the referendum, the report says: “The written evidence provided to us appeared to suggest that HMG [Her Majesty’s government] had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election, for example influencing results.”

While any number of conspiracy theories swirl about her failure to at least ask GCHQ, MI6 or MI5 to look into the allegations, it is entirely likely that Mrs May’s decision was based in cold, hard realpolitik.

If an investigation had uncovered evidence of Russian interference, the consequences for the UK potentially outweighed any effect the interference had on the Referendum’s outcome.

Brexit hardliners within her party and fringe figures such as Nigel Farage would never have accepted any finding which undermined the legitimacy of the Referendum result. The result could have been political chaos and – quite possibly – civil disruption.

An investigation would also have provided an impetus for defeated Remain campaigners to challenge the result through the Courts.
The scope for revelations about prominent Conservative figures’ connection with Russia and Russian money might have caused severe embarrassment at a time the Government was trying to set the Brexit agenda.

For example, Alexander Termerko is a former senior apparatchik in the Russian Ministry of Defence. He is among the Conservative’s largest donors (£1.3m over seven years). Born in Ukraine when it was part of the former Soviet Union, Mr Termerko rose to prominence during the Yeltsin era. He became involved in manufacturing arms and an oil tycoon under Vladimir Putin. He fled to the UK when threatened with a politically-motivated prosecution. Mr Termerko has donated generously to several Conservative MPs, including Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire MP Simon Hart.

None of the above excuses the failure to investigate but, as one possible reading of events, it offers a compelling rationale for Mrs May’s and Mr Johnson’s reluctance to look too deeply into any foreign interference in the Brexit Referendum.

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North Wales Commissioner to stand down

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PLAID CYMRU Leader Adam Price has paid tribute to North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Arfon Jones who has announced he is standing down at the next election.Mr Jones of Plaid Cymru is the region’s second-ever police and crime commissioner and has been PCC since 2016, and the next election had originally been due to take place last May but the vote was put back a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Arfon Jones said: “The main reason I have decided not to seek re-election is that I will have been working for more than 46 years by the time of the next election.“As a result of the pandemic, the term of office was extended for a year. I started thinking about this last May but I didn’t talk to anybody else about it until three months ago.

“I have achieved a lot in the past five years and it is going to be more difficult to make a difference next time because of the pandemic, Brexit and the fact that the term of office has been curtailed to three years.”

Plaid Cymru Leader Adam Price MS said: “We are indebted to Arfon Jones for his tremendous contribution as the Police and Crime Commissioner for north Wales.“From launching Checkpoint Cymru – a project to address the underlying causes of offending; commissioning over £2 million worth of services to support victims of crime; leading the charge in tackling domestic violence and to more recently keeping our communities safe during the Coronavirus pandemic, Arfon’s considerable achievements in office are a testament to his commitment to the constituents he serves.

“On behalf of Plaid Cymru, I would like to thank Arfon Jones for his contribution to Welsh public life and send him our warmest wishes for the future.Plaid Cymru Chair Alun Ffred Jones added: “From safeguarding the most vulnerable in our society, protecting our communities and preventing offending and reoffending, Arfon Jones’s tireless work has helped make North Wales a safer place.


“A true public servant, he will be remembered for representing the people of north Wales with determination and for fighting to ensure that the voices of victims of crime are heard within the justice system.


“On behalf of Plaid Cymru, I wish him all the best for the future.”Mr Jones succeeded Winston Roddick in the Police and Crime Commissioner role and had a 12,000 majority over Labour’s David Taylor in the last Police and Crime Commissioner elections in 2016.The elections for the role of Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales are scheduled for Thursday, May 6, the same day as voters head to the polls in elections to the Welsh Parliament.

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Taskforce returns empty homes to use

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MORE than 500 applications have been received to bring empty homes back in to use through Welsh Government’s £10 million Valleys Taskforce Empty Homes Grant Scheme, Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport Lee Waters has announced.

Phase One of the initiative was launched a year ago by the Deputy Minister, and Chair of the Valleys Taskforce, after a successful roll-out across Rhondda Cynon Taf.The scheme is open to homeowners across the extended Valleys Taskforce, which runs from Carmarthenshire in West Wales to Torfaen in East Wales. Its boundaries were also extended last year to include the Gwendraeth and Amman Valleys.

Phase Two of the scheme, launched in July 2020, will ensure even greater numbers of local businesses are used to bring empty homes back to life and incentivise applicants to use more energy-efficient measures within their renovations. Not only will this help to reduce carbon emissions it will also result in lower energy bills for future residents.

While the scheme will see some applicants going on to live in their refurbished properties, other properties will be brought in to use for social housing by Registered Social Landlords, helping to increase the supply of affordable housing.Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport Lee Waters said: “A year ago, I announced that following the success of a Rhondda Cynon Taf scheme, we were opening a £10 million Welsh Government Empty Homes Grant scheme across the whole of the Valleys Taskforce areas.“It is heartening to see that scheme progressing well, with over 500 applications already received and I hope many more to come. 

Of course, this year has been challenging for everyone but despite the pandemic causing a delay on the scheme for many months, and the floods that impacted many Valleys areas, we have seen great progress.

Local authorities have worked hard to roll out this scheme in their areas and provide the necessary match funding to make this success and I would like to put on record my thanks for their hard work.“With strengthened criteria, which we developed collaboratively with local authorities and other stakeholders, this scheme has not only brought empty properties back in to use but has also supported the foundations of our local economies by providing work for small local businesses in the construction sector.

The retrofitting element also means it is supporting our decarbonisation agenda while also reducing energy bills for the future.“I look forward to seeing the full results of this Valleys Taskforce scheme  and will work closely with the Minister for Housing and Local Government to use our learning to influence and develop a future empty homes schemes for the whole of Wales.”Mike Roberts, from Carmarthenshire, applied to Phase One of the scheme. He said: “My house had been empty for more than two years and desperately needed to be restored to a decent standard.“The Empty Homes Grant Scheme was a great help and allowed me to carry out essential works all at once.


“There was a formal process and a range of forms to complete but my grant was approved and the work has been done. I am delighted.”To be eligible for the Valleys Taskforce Empty Homes Scheme, homes need to have been empty for at least 6 months. Applicants to the scheme are also restricted to one grant per person and in cases where repair work exceeds £20,000, will have the option to apply for the Welsh Government’s Houses into Homes scheme.

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Call to replace the Lords

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OVERHAULING Parliament’s London-dominated second chamber would help empower the UK’s nations and regions, writes Willie Sullivan a senior director at the Electoral Reform Society.

It’s been a year since Boris Johnson’s victory in the 2019 general election, an election won with a commitment to ‘level up’ those communities left behind.

Since then, our politics has been shaken by a pandemic that has put pressure on the already strained constitutional settlement that holds the nations and regions of the UK together.

We’ve seen attention turned to local and regional government as well as the devolved administrations. We’ve seen clearly how the over-centralising nature of Westminster can hamper and undermine public trust. The video of Andy Burnham first hearing news of Greater Manchester’s Covid funding settlement at a live press conference will go down as a low point in Britain’s patchwork devolution framework.

This is all set to the backdrop of declining faith in our politics. At the same time as the PM was returning to Number 10 last winter, polling for the Electoral Reform Society showed that just 16% of the public believe politics is working well in the UK – and only 2% feel they have a significant influence over decision-making.

For a government publicly committed to a levelling up agenda, this democratic malaise must serve as a warning: it will take more than economic investment or shiny new infrastructure to remedy the feeling of powerlessness that many feel outside of Westminster.

Tackling that will require some long-overdue reform. The calls for a clear framework for devolution in the UK have become impossible to ignore in recent months. Even areas of England with mayors felt sidelined this year, but the picture was even worse elsewhere – with zero guarantees that local people would be consulted on changes that would affect their lives immeasurably.

There’s a good way to start empowering the UK’s nations and regions: overhauling Parliament’s unelected second chamber.

Abolishing the outdated and unaccountable House of Lords offers a chance to rebalance politics away from Westminster – and create a representative Senate of the Nations and Regions.

Recent Electoral Reform Society analysis found that nearly a quarter of peers are based in London, compared to just 13% of the UK public. Over half – 56% of peers – live in the capital, or the east and south-east of England, while peers in the east and west Midlands make up just 6% between them – leaving many areas in which the Conservatives won seats in the so-called ‘red wall’ woefully underrepresented.

It should be said, this is only peers we know about: more than 300 refuse to state even the country they live in (some live overseas), and hundreds more do not even provide a direct email address for people to get in touch and stand up for their areas.

All this undermines the government’s stated intention to ‘level up’ the regions, when we have a chamber that is skewed towards one patch of England.

Reforming this London-dominated second chamber is a rare issue that is highly popular across all parties. 71% of the UK public back an overhaul of the House of Lords, research showed this year. The issue cuts across Britain’s divides, with an overhaul backed by a majority of those who voted Conservative or Labour in the 2019 general election, and those who voted Leave or Remain in the EU referendum.

As well as levelling up representation – with peers elected using a fair, proportional voting system – a genuinely accountable second chamber could establish a guaranteed voice for the regions of the UK, to speak as one, to scrutinise legislation and our constitutional settlement with clear communities in mind. The UK remains one of the most centralised countries in Europe – and the archaic, power-hoarding set-up in Westminster has a big role to play in why this is.

The pandemic has shown just how important it is for those outside the capital to be truly heard. There are many reasons why voters had more confidence in their governments’ Covid responses more in Wales and Scotland, but having a stake – being genuinely ‘in it together’ makes a big difference.

This is a challenge to all parties, from Boris Johnson as he tries to plot a path for recovery for the UK, to Keir Starmer as he begins to outline his own view of devolution.

One thing’s clear: the London-dominated House of Lords is undermining the voice of local communities. A Senate of the Nations and Regions could be the gamechanger we need.

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