MPs’ secret interests in private companies

The Guardian has recently highlighted the secrecy that still exists over the financial interests of MPs in private companies. MPs have only to register holdings greater than 15% or those valued at more than £70,000. Below those limits, the test for MPs to consider is whether their interests might reasonably be thought by others to influence them. 

It has been revealed that more than 50 MPs have owned stakes in publicly listed companies, raising questions about possible conflicts of interest. The investigation established that Rishi Sunak had a financial stake in the National Grid until two days before he was selected as the Conservative candidate for his constituency. Theresa May owned shares in BP while she was Home Secretary, while at the same time, her husband held shares in BP, Barclays, BT, and Centrica.  Four months after she became the Prime Minister, these shares were moved into a blind trust. Another example of potential conflict of interest includes David Duguid, a former junior minister in the Scotland Office, who was vocal in criticising windfall taxes on oil and gas companies, including BP, without declaring his wife’s shares in the company, worth more than £50,000. The Attorney General, Victoria Prentis, and close family hold shares in six FTSE 100 firms including BP, Tesco, Lloyds, and defence contractor Rolls Royce.

So, while this government is busy passing laws that restrict our rights to protest, strike and take action with measures such as the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill, under which UK public bodies will be banned from imposing their own boycott or divestment campaigns against foreign countries and territories, they are quietly ignoring the potential conflicts of interest over the fact that their investment in private companies can remain secret, even if that company is affected by laws going through parliament. Another example of one rule for them, and one for us.

Calls for inquiry into appointments of Ofwat chairs past and present

Campaigners are calling for the current and previous chairs of the water regulator, Ofwat, to be investigated, while the Liberal Democrats are calling for it to be abolished.

Ash Smith, an activist from the group Windrush Against Sewage Pollution, wrote to Theresa Coffey, the Environment Secretary, calling for an independent investigation. He pointed out that these people heading up the organisation had strong links with the privatised water industry before taking up the leadership roles. Jonson Cox, a former chair of the regulator, had multi-million-pound links with the privatised water industry and the current chair, Iain Coucher, remains a senior advisor to a global private equity firm that has interests in the water industry in the US. Both declared all their interests when they were appointed by the government.

Ofwat is under increasing pressure because England’s water companies have been allowed to build up debts of £60 billion, while paying out more than £72 billion in dividends since privatisation.

Ash Smith made the point that the only reason why supposedly highly regulated water companies have done so well is by exploiting captive bill payers. He felt this should be an important subject for the secretary of state. 

UK businesses achieve record profits

While workers continue to be blamed for inflation, companies in the UK have increased their profits by more than competitors in other leading economies, according to research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation (OECD). Profits rose faster than labour costs, the OECD said in its employment outlook and at a rate that gave the UK “more headroom to absorb any future wage inflation pressures by reducing unit profits.” Stefano Scarpetta, a director at the OECD, said that it was “somewhat unusual that in a period of slowdown in economic activity, we see profits picking up.”

Meanwhile, employers and the government continue to hold workers’ feet to the fire to ensure that they are having the fight of their lives to even try and keep pace with inflation.

Boris Johnson fails to hand over WhatsApp messages by the deadline

Boris Johnson is still in possession of his old mobile phone containing crucial WhatsApp messages, despite a strict deadline set by the Covid inquiry for all relevant material to be handed over. This follows Boris Johnson’s assertion in May, where he tried to embarrass and undermine both the Cabinet Office and Rishi Sunak by saying he was more than happy to give his unredacted WhatsApp messages directly to the Covid Enquiry.

The deadline was set following the government’s defeat in the High Court where they had fought the request from the inquiry chair, Baroness Heather Hallett, to release unredacted documents – arguing it should not have to hand over material that is “unambiguously irrelevant”.

Rishi Sunak’s government was unable to meet the 10th July deadline though because Boris Johnson still had the phone which contains the vital Covid-era messages up until May 2021.

True to form, he is prevaricating with some story about his team still working with government security officials on how best to switch on the old phone. He is still insisting he wants to “cooperate fully” with the inquiry. Leopards do not change their spots.

The Royal Mail privatisation gravy train

Although we have enough current material to fill numerous editions of the Sunday Socialist, this example, going back to 2013, is particularly egregious and serves to highlight the real reason behind the ideological drive to privatise so many public services.

When George Osborne privatised Royal Mail in 2013, 36,500 people who tried to buy shares received nothing at all while 93,000 were given the minimum offering of £750.
However, George Osborne’s friend and best man at his first wedding was able to get his hands on £50 million in shares, which made £18 million in 24 hours. Three hundred city firms were also able to buy two thirds of the stock put on sale, making a whopping total of £37.3 billion profit for just £1.7 billion worth of shares.

It is perhaps no surprise to note that with such favourable governments in power, the wealth of Britain’s richest 1,000 people has increased by half a trillion pounds since 2009.

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