Michael Gove vows ‘absolute commitment’ to Northern Ireland as end of Brexit transition period looms
3 min read
Michael Gove has announced £650 million worth of investment in Northern Ireland, as he pledged an “absolute commitment” to the nation ahead of the UK’s impending exit from the single market.
More than half of the cash unveiled by the Cabinet Office minister is going towards technology to help with trade once the transition period with the EU ends, including £200 million for a new free-to-use ‘Trader Support Service’ and £115 million towards improving customs technology.
A further £300 million is also being pledged to the PEACE Plus programme, which aims to support peace and reconciliation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Labour warned that major questions about the functioning of the Northern Ireland Protocol, a key part of last year’s Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, remain “unanswered”.
The extra funding comes at the UK approaches the end of its transition period with the EU, meaning Britain will officially leave the bloc on 31 December.
There has been concern during the Brexit process about the effect of potential checks and controls on goods within the island of Ireland or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The Government has said it will expand customs facilities in Northern Ireland if no trade deal is reached with the EU by the end of the year, with new electronic import declaration requirements set to kick in under that scenario.
But ministers are insisting no separate customs infrastructure will be built and have said businesses in Northern Ireland will have unfettered access to the rest of the UK market.
Mr Gove said the new funding “underlines our absolute commitment to the people and businesses of Northern Ireland”.
He added: “Our new free-to-use Trader Support Service will provide vital support and guidance to traders, while our £300 million investment in reconciliation projects will help to preserve the huge gains from the peace process and the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.
“As part of our ongoing engagement with Northern Ireland businesses and the Executive, we are also publishing further guidance for businesses on the operation of the [Northern Ireland] Protocol.
“As we continue to engage with businesses and our discussions with the EU proceed, we will update these resources to ensure that traders are ready for the end of the transition period.”
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis meanwhile said: “Businesses have always been at the heart of our preparations for the end of the transition period.
“This new Trader Support Service backed by funding of up to £200m reinforces this approach – it is a unique service that will ensure that businesses of all sizes can have import processes dealt with on their behalf, at no cost.”
But while Labour said “any new detail” on the Northern Ireland Protocol was “welcome”, the party is warning that ministers have left “left little room for manoeuvre to develop the new system, train staff and prepare businesses by January 1st”.
Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Louise Haigh said: “Leaving it to the last minute, only adds uncertainty for jobs and business.
“And with time running out, big questions remain unanswered.
“Traders are still waiting for detail on the proportion of physical checks on agri-food goods at NI ports, little is known about which goods will face tariffs, nor on whether exit summary declarations will be needed NI-GB.
“It’s time businesses in Northern Ireland were given the answers they need.”
House hits pause on spending vote as Hill leaders resume talks
Both Democrats and Republicans are eager to reach a deal to avert last-minute drama, though the two parties have squabbled for weeks over various funding and policy provisions in the continuing resolution, which would buy more time for negotiations on a broader spending deal.
“The talks continue, and hopefully we’ll reach an agreement,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday, though he did not comment when asked if he’d spoken with Pelosi.
Without a spending agreement, top Democrats and Republicans would find themselves exactly where they don’t want to be just weeks before the election — perilously close to the Sept. 30 deadline with no agreement to keep the government open.
A deal had appeared to be coming together on Friday, including tens of billions of dollars in farmer payments that Republicans sought in exchange for $2 billion in pandemic-related nutritional assistance that Democrats wanted.
But last-minute objections to the trade relief — including Democratic concerns that the president is leveraging the money to boost his reelection chances — tanked the talks. House Democrats ultimately released stopgap legislation on Monday that lacked both provisions, drawing the ire of McConnell, who tweeted that it “shamefully leaves out key relief and support that American farmers need.”
Both Pelosi and McConnell have been adamant about avoiding yet another government shutdown under President Donald Trump, and have supported a bill to extend funding through mid-December.
Senate Republicans on Monday said a lack of relief for farmers in the stopgap spending bill is problematic. But most stressed that it’s not worth shutting down the government in protest and said their side of the Capitol could still attempt to amend the bill.
“We could offer an amendment to try to put it back,” Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said of the trade aid on Monday. “Or we could vote against the CR. But I’m for running the government. I’d prefer to keep the government running.”
Asked if Republicans would be willing to spend more on food-related assistance in exchange for the farm aid, Shelby said Tuesday: “I’d listen to reason on that.”
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, slammed the lack of assistance for farmers. But when asked if Republicans would shut down the government without it, he replied, “No.”
As of Friday, Democrats had dropped a request that would extend the Census Bureau’s Dec. 31 deadline to turn over apportionment data used to divvy up House seats to the president — potentially punting the final handling of census data to Democratic nominee Joe Biden if he’s elected this November. Democrats had also failed to secure $3.6 billion in election security grants.
The GOP demands for farm aid, however, have emerged as a sticking point for many rank-and-file Democrats, who have been increasingly irate about Trump’s blatant use of farm aid for political purposes. That includes a campaign rally in Mosinee, Wis., last week, where Trump touted the taxpayer money as if it were a gift from him.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the No. 4 Senate Democrat and ranking member of the agriculture committee, this week criticized Trump’s use of the program as a “slush fund” and argued Republicans have been unwilling to agree to stricter guardrails around how the aid can be spent.
“This is not just a political fund for the election,” she said.
Helena Bottemiller Evich contributed to this report.
Nicola Sturgeon Has Banned Household Mixing In Scotland And Claimed English Measures Do Not Go Far Enough
3 min read
Nicola Sturgeon has announced a ban on households mixing in Scotland, claiming experts say the restrictions introduced in England by Boris Johnson do not go far enough.
The first minister said the Scottish government’s top experts had warned the curbs announced by the Prime Minister on Tuesday would not make a big enough impact on Covid-19 transmission rates.
“The advice given to the Cabinet by the chief medical officer and the national clinical director is that this on its own will not be sufficient to bring the R number down,” she told the Scottish parliament.
“They stress that we must act, not just quickly and decisively, but also on a scale significant enough to have an impact on the spread of the virus, and they advise that we must take account of the fact that household interaction is a key driver of transmission.”
Mr Johnson has imposed a 10pm curfew on the hospitality industry from midnight on Thursday, as well as a legal requirement for those working in the sector, and in retail, to wear masks.
The PM stopped short of preventing different households from socialising with each other outside of local lockdown areas, but said people should work from home wherever possible.
Mrs Sturgeon said she planned to impose similar restrictions on pubs, bars and restaurants but would also go further.
“To that end, we intend as Northern Ireland did yesterday to also introduce nationwide additional restrictions on household gatherings, similar to those already in place in the west of Scotland,” she added.
Earlier in the Commons, Mr Johnson claimed the four nations of the UK were following “similar” restriction plans, despite Northern Ireland announcing on Monday that it would ban socialising between households.
This applies in places like pubs and restaurants as well as in people’s homes.
In Wales, people are not allowed to mix indoors with people outside their own household or support bubble, and meetings or gatherings indoors even within an extended household is limited to six people.
Reports suggest insiders were worried about the prospect of Mrs Sturgeon diverging and implementing a “circuit-breaker” of stricter measures – leaving the actions of Mr Johnson’s government further exposed should they fail.
Some members of the prime minister’s frontbench – including Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Priti Patel – are believed to have lobbied for lighter intervention, while other cabinet ministers were in favour of a more drastic approach.
Mr Johnson told MPs: “I want to stress that this is by no means a return to the full lockdown of March. We’re not issuing a genuine instruction to stay at home, we will ensure that schools, colleges and universities stay open.”
He added: “We will continue to act against local flare ups, working alongside councils and strengthening measures where necessary.”
Pakistan fire: Two to hang for Karachi garment factory inferno
A court in Karachi has sentenced two men to death for arson after finding them guilty of starting Pakistan’s deadliest industrial fire, which killed some 260 people in 2012.
The men were found to have set a garment factory ablaze because its owners had not paid extortion money.
They were affiliated with the MQM party, which was in power in the city at the time, the court said.
Hundreds were trapped inside the building which had no fire exits.
Prosecutors took evidence from more than 400 witnesses. The investigation into the fire called it an act of organised terrorism.
Many of the victims were charred beyond recognition. Others died or broke bones trying to jump to safety.
What happened in the fire?
The blaze at the Ali Enterprises factory in the Baldia town area of the commercial capital began in the afternoon of 11 September 2012 and raged for 15 hours. Some 40 firefighting vehicles attended.
More than 24 hours after the inferno began rescuers were still battling to reach the dead and injured inside. In all, about 500 workers had been inside the factory when the fire broke out.
Many workers jumped from the upper floors. Others could not because of metal grilles on the windows. Survivors said doorways and stairs were stuffed with stacks of finished garments.
Officials said the factory was crammed with combustible materials, including piles of clothes and chemicals.
People trapped inside the building frantically rang their friends and relatives as flames engulfed it.
Outside, crowds of shouting and sobbing relatives gathered for news as rescuers pulled out body after body.
In its verdict, the court in Karachi said 264 people had been killed in the fire, and 60 injured.
What has been the reaction to the verdicts?
Some relatives told BBC Urdu’s Riaz Sohail they felt justice had been only half done – as the factory owners, Arshad and Shahid Bhaila, had not also been held responsible for the loss of life.
The brothers were initially arrested but later released on bail after which they moved abroad. They were questioned by investigators via video link from Dubai .
“Why didn’t the owners order the factory closed, knowing that the MQM’s extortionists had the freedom and the capacity to do what they did?” asked Saeeda Bibi, who lost her 18-year-old son Ayan in the inferno.
Ayan had been her only child – he was planning to quit his job but was waiting for his final salary payment which had been delayed.
Ms Bibi also wanted to know what had happened to a 90m rupee compensation package that was promised to those affected but she said had not materialised.
Faisal Ahmad, the father of another 18-year-old killed in the fire, said when he reached the factory on the day of the blaze, its exit was locked.
“I asked the manager to unlock the door but he didn’t do it. Had he kept it open, some lives may have been saved.”
How was arson proved?
The fire in Baldia was initially thought to have been an accident. Pakistan is prone to industrial disasters, often as a result of poor construction, or lax safety standards and enforcement.
The subsequent discovery that it was an arson attack provided an insight into the grim nexus between political workers and serious criminality in the city, reports the BBC’s Secunder Kermani in Islamabad.
The investigation report said the sum demanded for “protection” was 200m Pakistani rupees ($1.2m). In September 2019, one of the factory owners confirmed this in his witness statement to the court.
Explaining why he thought the fire was not accidental, he said it first broke out in the basement, and then on the upper floor while nothing happened on the mezzanine floor in between.
After early investigations focused on whether or not the owners had been negligent, a key witness told officials members of the city’s powerful Muttahida Qaumi Movement had been trying to extort money from the factory – and were behind the fire.
The MQM’s current leadership denies any involvement with the fire. It is now part of Pakistan’s governing coalition, having split into factions in 2017.
No date has been set for the hanging of Abdul Rehman, also known as Bhola, and his associate Zubair Charya, the men who were sentenced to death. They have the right to appeal.
Bhola was the MQM’s official responsible for the Baldia area, the court heard. In a 2016 statement to the magistrate, he admitted asking Charya to set the factory on fire on the orders of a more senior MQM figure, who is still being sought by police.
Bhola was arrested with Interpol’s help, while Charya escaped to Saudi Arabia and was arrested when he flew back to Karachi some years ago later.
In addition to the two death sentences handed down, the court gave four factory guards life in jail after finding them complicit in the crime.
Four others were acquitted, including the then-provincial minister for industries, Rauf Siddiqui, an MQM member. All the defendants had denied the charges against them.
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