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This isn’t a ‘cladding crisis’ Michael Gove, it’s a building safety crisis

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When Michael Gove stood up in the Commons and announced that leaseholders in lower-rise blocks would no longer have to pay for the removal of dangerous cladding themselves, it seemed like the beginning of the end of a long nightmare for them.

Responsibility for the building safety crisis lies with a multitude of companies and agencies from developers to contractors to manufacturers. Leaseholders are innocent victims in this and it was outrageous that they were being left to pick up the cost.

So half a cheer to Michael Gove for saying he would sort this out by requiring the sector to come up with £4bn to help address the cladding crisis.

But Mr Gove ignored a key point. This is not a cladding crisis, it is a building safety crisis. Yet the Minister’s initial statement had nothing to say about the thousands of people whose homes are unsafe because of fire risks unrelated to cladding.

Scores of people in my Brighton Pavilion constituency are living in unsafe homes which they cannot sell because of issues like missing fire breaks or faulty fire doors. They are still waiting for the reassurance they desperately need.

When the gaps in Mr Gove’s plan were pointed out to him, he said that leaseholders facing non-cladding issues would have statutory protection from repair costs. But this is not the same as having the Government require developers to carry out remedial work themselves.

Nor is it clear how the Government will get the industry to sort out the crisis it created. Not surprisingly, developers are already saying it’s not fair that they should bear the brunt of the costs – despite the huge profits they’ve made in recent years from government schemes like Help to Buy.

When a quarter of the Tory party’s donations come from the sector, how soon will it be before the Government dials down the pressure on developers and quietly pushes the costs on to someone else?

There are other questions too. How will developers pay, exactly what costs will be covered and what happens if they refuse? And will housing associations be given access to funding collected from the industry to cover the costs of leaseholders so that the delivery of social housing is not affected by the fallout from this crisis.

There is a more fundamental issue too which is the opaque and unaccountable ownership model in too many of our housing blocks which ultimately leaves leaseholders on the hook when something goes wrong.

Take an example from my Brighton Pavilion constituency. Leaseholders at Stepney Court, a development in central Brighton, were told by the managing agent for the building’s head leaseholder that if the Building Safety Fund failed to cover a £4.9 million repair bill, the leaseholders would have to come up with the money themselves.

No point in the leaseholders banging on the door of the head leaseholder in protest. They are an offshore company registered in Guernsey and administered by an asset management company. Even getting a signature on a document is a tortuous process, let alone getting them to accept any responsibility.

The problems facing the leaseholders of Stepney Court go to the heart of the scandal: investors making money out of shoddy, substandard and sometimes unsafe housing and holding leaseholders to ransom when something goes wrong.

It is not enough for the Minister to demand the developers come up with the money to repair the damage they have helped cause. He must also ensure all companies investing in and making money out of people’s homes take responsibility and ensure that those homes are safe to live in.

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Protocol undermines Northern Ireland’s right to self-government

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While there has been some appreciation of the difficulties caused by the Protocol that the EU has seen fit to impose upon Northern Ireland as part of Brexit, the extent of the difficulties has been, and continues to be, massively under-estimated. One clear example of this tendency is provided by the Sub Committee on the Protocol of the Lords European Affairs Committee. While it is encouraging that the Committee has acknowledged the existence of a democratic problem related to the Protocol that is worthy of consideration, the way in which the Committee has characterised the difficulty as a “democratic deficit” is deeply problematic.

When discussing EU-related challenges, the term “democratic deficit” has a well-established meaning that relates to a difficulty of a wholly different order to that impacting Northern Ireland as a result of the Protocol. It pertains to member states and their electorates (not jurisdictions like the UK, and therein Northern Ireland, that are not part of the EU) and arises from the fact that a large number of EU decisions are made at a supranational level in respect of which it is difficult for national parliaments to secure accountability and yet in relation to which the powers of the European Parliament are either too weak or too inaccessible to voters who instinctively seek accountability on the more immediate national rather than distant supranational basis.

Crucially, however, whilst the democratic deficit is frustrating, it by no means leaves the peoples of the EU without democratic rights. There is a European Parliament representing the people of the EU in and through which they can and do, to some degree, seek to call European governance to account and people can, of course, seek to hold the EU to account through their national governments, which are fully represented in the EU institutions.

By contrast the nature and extent of the democratic problems resulting from the EU Protocol on Northern Ireland are of a wholly different order. Instead of presenting us with a challenge that weakens democratic accountability, creating a shortfall that needs to be made up, the Protocol completely removes representative democracy from Northern Ireland with respect to some 300 areas of law making. The two scenarios – democratic difficulties resulting from membership of the EU and democratic problems resulting from the NI Protocol – are thus like chalk and cheese. The latter requires an entirely different characterisation the former.

The best available framework for coming to terms with the consequences of the Protocol on Northern Ireland is the United Nations category: a “Non Self Governing Territory” (NSGT). The UN definition of an NSGT (a colony) is a jurisdiction any of whose laws or government are made/discharged on its behalf by an external power of which it is not a part and in which it has no representation. This describes the situation facing Northern Ireland today.

Some might object here, pointing out that while in some 300 areas laws are made for Northern Ireland by an external power of which it is not a part, and in relation to which it has no representation, that in all other respects Northern Ireland is self-governing, as part of the United Kingdom. Crucially, however, the UN definition does not require all aspects of government to be made by the external power in order for a jurisdiction to be classed as an NSGT. Indeed, if one looks at the small numbers of colonies that remain in the world today, they tend to have their own legislatures and governments and are deemed by the UN to be colonies because in certain areas they are still governed by an external power in which they are not represented.

This is all rather awkward for champions of the Protocol because the international community has made it very plain, through the UN, that it does not think people should live in states that are governed to any extent by external powers of which they are not a part and in which they have no representation. As a reflection of this, the UN has a standing Committee on Decolonisation (to promote decolonisation), has deemed this the Fourth International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism (2021 – 2030) and sets aside each year a UN Week of Solidarity with the Peoples of Non-Self-Governing Territories, the 2022 expression of which runs from today 25 May until 31 May.

The Protocol, though, is not just unthinkable because it involves taking a jurisdiction that has enjoyed self-government for over two hundred years and forcing upon it NSGT status. It is also unthinkable because it directly contradicts the Good Friday Agreement which commits to upholding civil rights including “the right to pursue democratically national and political aspirations.”

Since the application of the Protocol, the people of Northern Ireland have been unable to pursue national or political objectives democratically, through the ballot box, as they relate to changes in some 300 areas of law because they can neither stand for elected office to become the elected legislator to make those laws, nor can they vote for a candidate to become an elected legislator making those laws. Given Northern Ireland’s history in which some people have sadly turned from the ballot box to violence, it is extraordinary that anyone should deem it appropriate to curtail the impact of our votes, removing some aspects of our lives beyond the reach of our democratic politics.

I welcome the fact that at long last the British government has said it is prepared to do something about the Protocol. At minimum, these changes must end the practice of laws being made for Northern Ireland by a government and legislature of which it is not a part and in which it has no representation. To depart from this would deal a fatal blow to the Good Friday Agreement.

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How the UK can stop Chinese firms profiting from pain

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This week I’ll speak at a cross-party event in Parliament calling on the UK government to act against Chinese companies complicit in the genocide of my people, the Uyghurs. Last month, the Health Secretary announced that Chinese surveillance firm, Hikvision, is banned from competing for new business with the Department of Health and Social Care. This was a welcome decision, and I thanked the Minister at the time for standing firmly with my people. However, more needs to be done to codify a consistent response. Our leaders need to ensure all firms implicated in the horrible and ongoing violations in the Uyghur region are held accountable. We need to ensure there are no holes in our system that can be exploited.

The plight of my fellow Uyghurs still in our homeland is desperate. Conservative estimates place the number of Uyghurs in extrajudicial detention at around one million – but we believe the real figure to be much higher, at over 2 million. The Chinese state and its partners have carried out forced sterilization, “re-education”, and have taken control over, defiled and destroyed my community’s places of worship. This persecution is fuelled by surveillance, and we need to exhibit a comprehensive understanding of the methods that have been used by the Chinese government to turn my homeland into a high-tech open-air prison.  

Hikvision, which is also sanctioned by the United States, contributes to the most recognised form of surveillance in the region. The company manufactures security cameras that use facial recognition to monitor the movement of people throughout the region, including in the so-called “re-education camps” that house Uyghurs against their will. However, there are other, equally troubling forms of surveillance which require a more calibrated response. The leading example is the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), which has been linked to the forced collection of Uyghurs’ genetic data.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the need for a robust global genomics industry able to track and identify new variants, helping governments prepare and protect accordingly, and yet very little is known about the more insidious aspects of this emerging technology. The Chinese government’s approach to genomics is telling: a 2015 review of its national security strategy highlighted genomics as a national security issue. Considering this was followed by a 2019 law requiring that all Chinese firms cooperate with the state on national security issues, the existence of a large Chinese genomics company with a global footprint is cause for concern.

This brings me back to BGI, which is today one of the largest genomics firms in the world. There is a lot we do not know about BGI’s activities due to a pervasive lack of transparency, but we do know that it has contributed to Chinese state efforts to document the genetic material of Uyghurs and other non-Han ethnic groups and established a ‘judicial collaboration centre’ in the Uyghur homeland. This genetic data collection, and the racial profiling it enabled, was one of the first stages of the genocide currently being perpetrated against my people. The company has also collected the genetic codes of various groups in order to develop strategies to improve combat effectiveness of Chinese troops at high altitudes.

Alarmingly, BGI’s reach extends to our country. Beijing to Britain, an intelligence briefing focusing on China, has described BGI as “a company that has links to British universities, companies and institutions on a scale that would make Huawei blush,” after the Chinese telecoms giant was banned from providing services to Britain’s 5G network. This follows the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) in the United States finding that BGI serves as a “global collection mechanism for Chinese government genetic databases”. 

As recently as last year, BGI Group was awarded a contract by the UK Health Security Agency for testing PCR Pillar 2 COVID-19 samples and is part of the National Microbiology Framework. It also distributes a prenatal test (the ‘Nifty’ test) that collects genetic data from women. Outside of the UK healthcare system, BGI has enjoyed extensive contracts with the university sector and The Wellcome Trust. Doing business with BGI means we are turning our back on human rights and on protecting British people’s most sensitive, private data. While the government was right to ban both Huawei and Hikvision, there are glaring inconsistencies in the UK‘s approach to Chinese firms. 

Our government has been cagey about its own relationship with BGI. In response to a parliamentary question, the government denied that it had any contracts with BGI. This was subject to a belated ministerial correction, accepting that BGI did in fact have a contract with Public Health England. Alarmingly, the government has been unwilling to answer a second parliamentary question about whether a national security assessment was carried out before BGI was contracted to provide genomic sequencing.  

We are calling on the government to create a version of the United States’ “entities list” that can ensure Chinese companies profiting off the back of egregious human rights abuses, and potentially exposing the UK to national security risks, are identified and sanctioned accordingly. Such an entities list would help remove access to public funding, halt partnerships with UK universities and protect the data, including genetic data, of British citizens. 

More needs to be done to ensure a comprehensive defence against Chinese firms that are complicit in the state’s crimes, and the UK needs to end its own naivete about the threats we are facing in this country. An entities list would be an important step forward.

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CICV calls for delay to phase-out of CE mark

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Construction Industry Collective Voice (CICV) is calling on the Scottish government to intervene on the timing of the replacement for CE marking on products, citing a lack of testing capacity.

Read Full Article: The Construction Index

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