After a long year of Covid chaos, dodgy non-answers, self-isolation and ‘technical difficulties’, we’re saying farewell to the House of Commons for another summer.
MPs have just begun their six-week break, where some will take it easy with a quiet holiday while others put noses to the grindstone in their constituencies (or a bit of both).
It’ll be a relief for many, because the final week of Parliament’s term is always a chaotic release of information at breakneck speed.
The drip of public information turns into an unmanageable tide as scores of written statements, long-awaited reports and consultations are rushed out at the last moment.
MPs and journalists are still wading through the flood of material, which is released every year like this in an ‘essay crisis’ moment for civil servants and their minister bosses.
And hiding away in the reports are always some tidbits of bad news for the government – which as luck would have it, aren’t always so prominently reported because there are just too many to count.
So as a public service, here are some of the lesser-known bits of news that got slipped out in the last few days.
Boris Johnson wouldn’t want you to miss them, would he?
Blistering report slams Home Office over asylum accommodation
A blistering report has slammed the Home Office for “failures of leadership” that led to “dangerous shortcomings” at two former Army camps housing asylum seekers.
The final report of the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration on Penally Camp, Pembrokeshire, and Napier Barracks, Kent, was published hours before MPs left for their summer break.
An interim report with similar findings was issued in March. But the final report was only issued after senior MP Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Committee, accused the Home Office of sitting on it “for many months” in a “Kafkaesque” situation.
The report found a major Covid outbreak last year at Napier Barracks, where 59 asylum seekers are still housed in dormitories, was “virtually inevitable” once one person was infected.
It ruled “managers at both sites lacked the experience and skills to run large-scale communal accommodation”.
In September 2020 Public Health England warned dorm rooms at Napier were “not supported by current guidance”, the report said. But the site opened “recommendations had been implemented”.
And “despite a large fire at Napier, inadequate action had been taken to address ongoing serious fire safety concerns at Napier,” the report said.
The report concluded: “Home Office staff were rarely present at either site. There were fundamental failures of leadership and planning by the Home Office, which had led to dangerous shortcomings in the nature of the accommodation and poor experiences for the residents.”
Ms Cooper said: “This is a damning report that shows a complete failure by the Home Office to follow public health advice or meet basic standards of competence and safety.
“Yet rather than recognise the problems, Ministers have clearly attempted to hide it by releasing it on the last day of the Parliamentary session, the day after the Select Committee, when there is no time for scrutiny, even though they received it in May.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have a legal obligation to provide asylum seekers with accommodation. During the height of an unprecedented health pandemic, to ensure asylum seekers were not left destitute, additional accommodation was required at extremely short notice.
“We have made significant improvements to the site since this report was put together and continue to work ensure that residents are safe, secure and their essential needs are met.”
The eye-watering cost of Post Office failures
Dozens of postmasters who were wrongly convicted of taking money from the Post Office will be able to claim up to £100,000 each in compensation – funded by the government.
The cost of a bungled computer system to the taxpayer was laid bare in a statement issued hours before Parliament rose for its summer break.
So far 57 postmasters have had their convictions for accounting and other offences overturned by the Court of Appeal, after they were pursued based on flawed data from the Horizon computer system.
Hundreds more are hoping for similar decisions.
The fact they can apply for compensation will of course be good news in the eyes of those who have campaigned for years for justice and had their lives ruined.
But it’s an admission by government of the enduring cost of the scandal.
It doesn’t end at £100,000 each. Ministers said the move will ensure that those affected are not left out of pocket as they and the Post Office work toward full settlements for the “immense hardship” they have faced.
Plans to extend sick pay to 2million Brits quietly ditched
Tory ministers were blasted for scrapping plans to extend Statutory Sick Pay to 2million more people.
Two years ago the government said there was “a case” for removing the requirement for claimants to earn at least £120-a-week.
But the reforms were quietly ditched in a long-awaited consultation response – prompting fury from unions.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The government has abandoned millions of low-paid workers at the worst possible time.”
A government spokesperson said: “As we learn to live with a new virus, it’s right that we take a broader look at the role of SSP.”
Pledge for ‘all streets tree-lined by law’ quietly watered down
The Tory Housing Secretary has quietly watered down a pledge to force “all” new housing developments to have tree-lined streets by law.
Robert Jenrick said in a radio interview on 2 August 2020: “There will a legal requirement to have tree-lined streets for all new developments, so that people can live in beautiful and attractive neighbourhoods.”
But his final planning reforms published this week do not go that far.
Instead, in a written statement, Mr Jenrick said the changes will “ask’’ for new streets to be tree-lined. And the small print says planning policies “should” ensure that they are – “Unless, in specific cases, there are clear, justifiable and compelling reasons why this would be inappropriate”.
This may of course be totally sensible – but it suggests he overegged the policy.
A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: “We have set a clear, national expectation that all new streets should be tree lined through the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This is the best way to ensure tree-lined streets in new developments. Councils must take the NPPF into account in their local plans.”
Tory donors paid for Boris Johnson’s flat refurb
The refurbishment of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat was originally paid for with cash from Tory donors.
We long knew this because of leaks in the Daily Mail – but it was finally confirmed last Thursday.
Where? In the fourth footnote on the 208th page of the Cabinet Office’s annual report and accounts.
The Prime Minister eventually refunded the cost of the lavish upgrade to the apartment above Number 11 Downing Street – but only after press reports of the original source of funds.
The report states £28,647 of the PM’s £30k taxpayer budget was spent on refurbishments, including painting and sanding of floorboards.
But “additional invoices” worth £58,000 for a luxury renovation were received and paid by the Cabinet Office – and billed to the Conservative Party in July 2020.
Damning ruling on the plight of women denied state pension
OK, so this was an ombudsman not the government. But we highlight it here because it became swamped by so many other announcements this week.
A long-awaited report said the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) failed to communicate changes to the state pension age to women with enough urgency.
It comes after years of battles for around 3.8million women born in the 1950s, who had their state pension age hiked so it reached 66, the same as for men.
The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) said the department failed to act quickly enough once it knew a significant proportion of women were unaware of the changes.
Amanda Amroliwala, Ombudsman CEO, said: “After a detailed investigation, we have found that the DWP failed to act quickly enough once it knew a significant proportion of women were not aware of changes to their state pension age. It should have written to the women affected at least 28 months earlier than it did.
“We will now consider the impact of these failings, and what action should be taken to address them.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “Both the High Court and Court of Appeal have supported the actions of the DWP, under successive governments dating back to 1995, and the Supreme Court refused the claimants permission to appeal.”
A pay cut for more than half a million teachers and police
Tory ministers confirmed a real-terms pay cut for hundreds of thousands of teachers and police officers in a “slap in the face” to Covid heroes.
Pay will be frozen in 2021/22 for police officers in England and Wales, and teachers in England. That is a pay cut when compared to the 2.4% inflation rate.
A written statement to Parliament confirmed the news – which was first trailled by Chancellor Rishi Sunak last year.
There will be exemptions to the freeze for those who earn less than £24,000, or less than £28,681 in inner London for teachers. Those lower-earning workers will receive an increase of £250 over the year.
But this exemption covers just 6,000 unqualified teachers and a small number of police officers, as the vast majority earn over £24,000 already.
Women could wait another eight months for abortion rights
Women in Northern Ireland will be able to have abortions in the province by March at the latest after the leaders were told to make terminations available.
Changes to abortion laws took effect last year – but the commissioning of services stalled amid bitter political wrangling.
Now the UK government has acted, but it could be another eight month wait.
Ordering Stormont to act, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said in a written ministerial statement: “I am issuing a direction to the Department of Health, the Minister of Health, the Health and Social Care Board, and to the First and deputy First Minister, to commission and make abortion services available in Northern Ireland as soon as possible, and no later than March 31, 2022.”
He added: “I acknowledge and respect the deeply held views that individuals hold on this issue. However, it is the clear will of Parliament that the rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland are properly upheld.”