Eric Pickles and Boris Johnson: Dirty Large Tricksters

New Tory image: The Exhaust Pipe. Pic courtesy auto.howstuffworks.com

Remember  David Cameron’s greening of the Conservative Party with that lovely logo of a tree. It is beginning to look as though it has got leaf rot or some other nasty disease. Perhaps the symbol should be replaced with an exhaust pipe.

Pickles: A cunning little plan.Pic courtesy cyclingsilk.com

The rot set in when Eric Pickles decided on a crafty  trick  in the Localism Bill to ” devolve” the payment of European Union fines from Whitehall to town hall. The two likely areas where councils will start having to pay hundreds of millions of pounds are waste disposal and air pollution. Both are affected by EU directives and Britain has little time left to comply with them.

This has caused considerable anger among  Labour councils and even at the Conservative dominated Local Government Association. Authorities now not only face swingeing cuts but also fines unless they spend money to meet tough EU standards aimed at reducing pollution and waste. And if they have to pay the fines they will have to introduce even more cuts or get into expensive law suits with ministers over what proportion of the fine they should pay.

As Baroness Margaret Eaton, Conservative leader of the LGA said:  “ Changing the goalposts now to make councils liable for fines is unfair to them and unfair to the local residents who may have to foot the bill. The Government must amend this unfair, unworkable, dangerous and unconstitutional legislation.” See full press release at http://bit.ly/g2W7EP

But there has been another extraordinary response from Boris Johnson which seems to suggest the solution is NOT to implement the new  EU anti-pollution measures so we don’t have to pay the fines anyway. Flushed out by Murad Qureshi, Labour’s environment spokesman at City Hall, he disclosed that David Cameron and Eric Pickles want the EU to defer new tough air pollution measures for four years until 2015 so major conurbations including traffic ridden London don’t have to do anything yet.

Murad Queriashi is not impressed: “: “London’s air is literally killing thousands of people prematurely every year but it just doesn’t seem like Boris Johnson appreciates this. Improving air quality standards is one area where the mayor of London can, with a bit of will, make a real difference to people’s lives and especially to the lives of children. The statistics obviously haven’t had much effect on Boris – hopefully the threat of a big fine will.”

All this calls into question whether the Tories are really committed to the environment.

 Basically Pickles has devised a very cunning plan. Make councils pay EU fines which will make the EU unpopular. See if you can delay anti-pollution measures which are affecting health – try walking across the Euston Road in London or near Birmingham’s inner ring road  - so we don’t have to bother anyway. If that fails, it doesn’t matter, because it will be the councils who pick up the tab.

Robert Neill, the local government minister, gave it away earlier this year by blaming Labour for signing up to the Lisbon Treaty for councils having to pay fines. But as far as I know there was no provision in the treaty saying councils must pay.

Perhaps Pickles, Neill and Johnson aren’t really bothered by pollution – so an exhaust pipe rather than a tree would suit them.

Whitehall’s censorship of farming subsidies spares Tories (and UKIP’s) blushes

tucking into censored farm subsidy pic courtesy daily mail

Over the bank holiday weekend senior civil servants running the country took an extraordinary decision to ban the public  from seeing  information because  they thought it was so controversial that it would disrupt election campaigning.

They decided to protect candidates from being asked questions on the issue and thought it best the public be left in ignorance about the facts.

 What was this issue? Not some horrendous economic figure, some real facts on immigration. No, it was decision not to reveal which farmers and agribusinesses scooped up some £3 billion from the taxpayer from EU farm subsidies last year.

On Friday statistics were published simultaneously in the other 26 EU countries revealing who had been paid what – it is part of a victory by European journalists to force countries under freedom of information acts to release all this previously secret information.

But in London – against an EU directive - the information was banned. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website says: “Due to the general election campaign, this website will not be updated with the 2009 figures until after the election.”

A letter from a DEFRA official to Jack Thurston, head of farmsubsidy.org, which campaigns for transparency for EU payments, says why:

“This decision reflects the need to maintain, and be seen to maintain, the impartiality of the UK Civil Service, given the potential risk that CAP payment  information relating to any individuals involved in the election might be used as part of election campaigning.”

Yet ministries continue to publish information on hospital admissions and roads just to name two. And in Scotland because of devolved government – they have taken the opposite decision. They published their figures over the weekend –revealing that 19,000 farmers and agribusinesses shared nearly £600m of public money and the world has not fallen apart north of the border.

So who does this protect? Initial research by farmsubsidy.org reveals that possibly up to 70 of the 650 Tory candidates standing at the election could be receiving some sort of subsidy. Up to half a dozen UKIP candidates- who campaign against the EU- could be receiving EU cash as well as a smattering of Liberal Democrat and BNP candidates. On the Tory side they have discovered that the declared postcode for receipt of EU subsidies is often the same one as used by a local Conservative Association, suggesting that leading officials of the local parties are also receiving subsidies. These are all taken from the previous year’s subsidy figures.

 Yet we won’t know, thanks to Whitehall, until after the election- even though the EU has made it clear in an article in the EU Observer today that it is disappointed with Britain and intends to write to the new government pointing out it is not in line with the EU directive.

Frankly disappointment is too weak a word. It is scandal that unelected officials should decide what information should be made public and when. The decision is also partisan in that it appears to protect opposition party candidates more than Labour candidates from scrutiny – particularly in the case of the Conservatives.

Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, should reverse this now. Otherwise it bodes very badly if we are in “ hung Parliament “ territory when Whitehall  will be effectively  running the country while politicians sort out a new government. If officials are going to select what information the public should know and what should be kept secret, they are exceeding their brief.

This blog is also on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website.