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Rishi Sunak’s Stealth Subsidy for Fossil Fuel Firms is ‘Disastrous’ says UK’s Former Climate Chief

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 27/05/2022 - 11:13pm in

Sir David King told Adam Bienkov that the stealth tax cut would damage the fight for 'a manageable future for humanity'

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The Government has slipped out a "disastrous" new subsidy for oil and gas companies under the cover of its windfall tax announcement, its former Special Representative on Climate Change Sir David King has told Byline Times.

Boris Johnson's administration last year committed to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels as part of its hosting of the COP26 UN climate change conference.

However, Rishi Sunak’s windfall tax announcement on Thursday contained a little-reported get-out clause for oil and gas companies – offering them millions of pounds in tax cuts if they actually increase their extraction of fossil fuels in the UK.

The offer, which will give the companies 91p in tax breaks for every £1 they invest in extracting fossil fuels, will undermine the fight for a "manageable future for humanity", Sir David told this newspaper.

Professor Sir David King – who also served as the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, as well as the UK’s permanent Special Representative for Climate Change between 2013 and 2017 – said that the announcement betrayed the UK's former commitments.

“In contrast with the UK’s commitment over many years, confirmed in Glasgow last year, the Chancellor is now announcing a further subsidy to the oil and gas industry to extract more oil and gas from the North Sea”, he said. “This decision reverses the ambition to turn the oil and gas companies to renewable energy and is disastrous for the necessary transition towards a manageable future for humanity."

Sir David King described Sunak's new subsidy as "just about the most absurd announcement".

"This is converse to our commitment to lead the world in getting to net zero emissions," he told Byline Times. "We got a whole bunch of other countries to make a big commitment in Glasgow [on reducing dependency on fossil fuels] and now we are completely backing off from that. I'm beside myself because we are really in a last chance saloon when it comes to climate change."

The measure was contained within the Government's announcement of a new windfall tax on oil and gas companies. The Treasury will impose a temporary levy on the record profits of the companies, which will go towards a one-off rebate for taxpayers.

However, under the scheme, oil and gas companies will be able to claw-back their tax contributions by increasing their extraction of fossil fuels from the North Sea and elsewhere in the UK.

Sir David King said Boris Johnson's administration appeared to have backed away from the UK's former leading position on tackling climate change.

"I really am now feeling very, very worried", he said. "This Government has been playing a leadership position on climate change, a real leadership position, since about 2000 and what we're now doing is apparently reneging on all of that."

His comments come as Byline Times reports that a recent UN report warned that the world faces "total societal collapse" if it fails to turn around the shift in global temperatures.

According to the report "it is evident that in the absence of ambitious policy and near global adoption and successful implementation, the world continually tends towards the global collapse scenario".

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Controversial Firm Linked to Rishi Sunak Among Those Allowed to Set ‘Global Anti-Corruption Agenda’ by World Economic Forum

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 25/05/2022 - 6:45pm in

Dimitris Dimitriadis digs into the scandals linked to a number of firms participating in a flagship global anti-corruption initiative

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has cast a shadow over this year’s G20 summit – with delegates staging walk-outs in protest at Russia’s participation – a group of companies with controversial track-records are being allowed by the World Economic Forum (WEF) to “set the global anti-corruption agenda” and possibly influence global discussions from the sidelines.

The WEF’s Partnership Against Corruption Initiative (PACI) describes itself as the “leading business voice on anti-corruption and transparency” and brings together some 90 companies that “actively shape the B20 policy agenda”. The B20 is a select group of businesses that delivers proposals to the G20, the world’s 20 richest countries.  

However, several members of PACI – the same initiative that touts its role in promoting efforts to tackle global corruption – have faced scandals and significant public scrutiny, while others are controlled by states with poor human rights records. 

Saudi Basic Industries Corporation and Saudi Telecom Group are both majority owned by the Saudi state, which recently executed 81 people in one day. But they both get a seat at the table of PACI – the “principal CEO-led platform in the global anti-corruption arena” and one of the WEF’s “strongest cross-industry collaborative efforts” – a boon to their reputations and credentials. 

Also among PACI’s signatories is Infosys, an Indian multinational IT company which is backed by Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s wife, Akshata Murthy, and which was shamed by Western media into pulling out of Russia after the invasion. In response to the scrutiny, Infosys, which reportedly has strong historical ties to Russia and President Vladimir Putin, said that it was “urgently closing its Russia operations”. 

Commodity trading and mining giant Glencore, whose UK subsidiary was recently charged by the Serious Fraud Office with seven counts of bribery in connection with its oil operations, is also listed as a PACI member. While the company has condemned the invasion of Ukraine, it continues to hold substantive interests in Russia including a stake in aluminium and hydropower group EN+ from which it concluded “there is no realistic way to exit” at the moment. In its latest annual report, Glencore says “we actively participate in PACI”, adding that it has incorporated its guidelines into its business. 

Oil major TotalEnergies, another PACI member, was recently criticised by climate activists for being too slow to announce that it would phase-out of Russia, lagging behind its rivals, and for its refusal to stop purchasing Russian gas. The company has denied any accusations of complicity in the conflict, adding that it has condemned the invasion and that it will “ensure strict compliance with current and future European sanctions”, as it gradually suspends its activities in Russia. 

A recent sustainability report from TotalEnergies states that it is “exposed to corruption risks due to its presence in certain countries that have a high perceived level of corruption according to the index drawn up by Transparency International” and that it applies a principle of zero tolerance of corruption for all its employees and suppliers, while also encouraging a culture of speaking up among its workforce. 

TotalEnergies has also faced scrutiny from green groups and a probe over an alleged conflict of interest involving its chief executive, Patrick Pouyanné, and Ecole Polytechnique. This came after the prestigious university voted to allow TotalEnergies to build a research and innovation centre on its Saclay campus – a decision that complainants including the French arm of Greenpeace, anti-corruption group ANTICOR, and La Sphinx alleged was unduly influenced by Patrick Pouyanné, France's TotalEnergies CEO, who is also on the university board. 

Pouyanné has denied the allegations, saying that the launch of the research centre pre-dates his position as a member of the university board and that there had been no “crossover” between his two roles. 

Gatekeepers

Yara International, a state-backed Norwegian fertiliser producer, was caught up in one of the country’s highest-profile corruption scandals after it acknowledged in 2014 that it had paid bribes to officials in India and Libya and was fined $36 million by Norwegian authorities.

Prosecutors originally accused four of its former top executives, including its CEO, of paying the bribes, but only its former chief legal officer was convicted and received a seven-year sentence by an appeals court. The others were acquitted. In addition to being a PACI signatory, Yara International is a WEF strategic partner

A spokesperson for the company said that the case referred to is more than a decade old and does not reflect the firm and what it stands for today, adding that since the scandal Yara has worked on “strengthening knowledge, attitudes and systems (routines and regulations) to prevent the recurrence of such an event”. 

PACI says that it is driven by the “needs” and “interests” of member companies. 

Other signatories include Petroleo Brasileiro SA (Petrobras), a state-run oil Brazilian oil major which in 2018 agreed to pay the US Department of Justice, Securities Exchange Commission and Brazilian authorities a total of $853.2 million to end a long-running corruption probe following which the company “successfully rejoined PACI”.

Since then, the company says it has “finally turned the page” and has a “robust control system and anti-corruption measures that go beyond those required by law”. 

In 2019, Standard Chartered, another PACI member, was ordered to pay US and UK authorities £842 million to settle allegations that it had breached sanctions against several countries including Iran. The bank, which is listed as a ‘gatekeeper’ – a special subgroup of PACI signatories that are “strategically positioned to prevent or interrupt illicit financial flows” – was also fined more than £21 million in 2020 separately for allegedly breaching sanctions against Russia. 

The WEF initiative states on its website that members gather at “bi/annual meetings to discuss business integrity while looking at progress in terms of implementation of collective action on anti-corruption.” It also boasts that PACI gets to “actively shape the B20 policy agenda”. 

According to its website, PACI last year “co-chaired the taskforce under the Italian presidency, representing the business voice on anti-corruption towards the G20”. It also “continues to act as a networking partner of the B20 for the 2021-2022 term under the Indonesian presidency” which refers to this year’s G20 summit. 

Meanwhile, the summit, which is still in progress, has seen finance ministers from various countries including the US walk out of a closed-door session when a Russian official began delivering his remarks – a move that was made in protest of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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Cartoon: Feedback frenzy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 24/05/2022 - 9:50pm in

Support these comics by joining the Sorensen Subscription Service! Also on Patreon.

Follow me on Twitter at @JenSorensen

Citizen Bezos Logs On

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 21/05/2022 - 4:47am in

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Media, Business

Citizen Bezos Logs On

Billionaire Washington Post owner and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has started using Twitter to amplify his political ideology, slam the Biden administration, and promote a pundit on his payroll who echoes his views.

If you were looking for a digital era version of Citizen Kane behavior, this is it — and it not so coincidentally comes right after President Joe Biden hosted Amazon Labor Union organizers at the White House.

And yet, talking about media ownership’s influence is taboo: Corporate journalists and Beltway consultants have rallied around the world’s second richest man and Post opinion columnist Catherine Rampell, insisting that there is nothing untoward about the Amazon executive chairman now promoting his own newspaper’s content that downplays corporate profiteering’s role in inflation — at the very moment his own company is jacking up prices on consumers while reaping big profits.

These same corporate journalists seem downright offended at even the suggestion that Bezos’ new Twitter campaign is also sending a message to his editorialists about how he wants economic news framed.

At issue is Bezos recently taking to Twitter to criticize President Joe Biden’s call to raise corporate taxes in order to control inflation, calling it a “misdirection” only a few months after revelations that Amazon avoided $5 billion in corporate taxes in 2021 alone.

A few days later, Bezos retweeted a column from Rampell arguing that Democrats are wrong to talk about corporate greed as a factor driving inflation — and casting partial blame instead on the one-time $1,400 pandemic survival checks mailed out by Democrats last March. The column followed a similar missive by Rampell calling “Greedflation” a Democratic “conspiracy theory” equivalent to conservatives using a veterinary drug to try to cure COVID-19.

The Post editorial board has weighed in with several columns of its own in recent months scoffing at the notion that “price-gouging” or “greedy businesses” are driving inflation. Their criticisms have been seconded by economist Larry Summers, who helped oversee the catastrophic deregulation of Wall Street and destructive corporate trade deals, as well as liberal blogger Matt Yglesias, who is now also seeing retweets from Bezos.

Thanks to all of this, Bezos’s criticisms of Biden on inflation have now become a major political story — with Bezos’s own newspaper covering it as such.

An Attempt To Erase Corporate Profiteering From The Discourse

The Lever flagged Bezos’s promotion of Rampell’s latest column, pointing out that the Citizen Kane-like move was sending a message to his entire newsroom about what kind of content he wants. In response, Rampell lashed out with an ad hominem attack, calling our reader-supported news organization a “grift.”

If that’s a grift, what would one call being paid by Bezos to mail in opinion columns that omit inconvenient facts that might undermine Bezos’s self-interested political arguments?

For example: Absent from Bezos’s inflation analysis, Rampell’s columns, and other Post editorial diatribes is data from the Economic Policy Institute showing that more than half of the price increases Americans have seen in the past two years can be attributed to larger corporate profit margins.

It’s true that there are other factors driving price increases. The COVID pandemic has made existing supply chain problems worse, and Russia’s war in Ukraine caused a spike in energy prices. But companies have used these higher costs and their market power to pad profits. In fact, corporate executives have been quite open in their earnings calls about their ability to raise prices in this environment.

For instance, according to More Perfect Union, meatpacking giant Tyson Foods’ most recent earnings report showed the company countered $1.5 billion in higher costs in the second quarter this year by raising prices by roughly $2 billion — meaning consumers paid them an extra $500 million.

Also absent from Bezos’s tweets and Post editorial missives is any reference to Amazon getting in on the inflation profiteering, too: In recent months, the company jacked up the price of its Prime subscription service by 17 percent (though at least that got a mention on the Post’s news page). Amazon also moved to slap a 5 percent “fuel and inflation surcharge” on third-party sellers using its fulfillment services, despite reporting a massive surge in profits last year.

One other thing missing from Bezos’s inflation declarations: Any calls for the government to reduce the largesse it is sending to his own business empire.

Indeed, as he tries to blame federal outlays for higher prices, Amazon is right now lobbying for a massive corporate tax break and recently secured a new $10 billion federal contract. Congress may also give Bezos’s space company $10 billion in funding, as the company lobbies Washington lawmakers.

“An Incredible Role To Play”

Bezos’s foray into social media is relatively recent — and represents a new channel for the Washington Post owner to more explicitly make his news coverage views clear. Unlike other wealthy owners of news outlets, Bezos is not only weighing in on public policy matters, he is promoting specific Washington Post columns that amplify his ideology, thereby issuing a very public signal to his editorialists.

Amid criticism of this escalation, many corporate media elites quickly ridiculed the idea that a media owner might have any influence over the editorial coverage he funds — the idea being that if you can’t produce an email from Bezos to a specific reporter demanding a story, then ownership influence doesn’t exist. Rampell herself made this tired argument, insisting that if you cannot produce hard “evidence” of influence, then it must not exist.

That argument echoes the Post long insisting that Bezos has no editorial input at all.

However, Bloomberg News reported in 2015, “Every two weeks, Jeff Bezos holds an hourlong conference call with executives at The Washington Post. Twice a year, the managers fly to Seattle for strategy sessions with the Amazon.com founder. And every so often, they find a reader complaint in their inbox forwarded without comment from Jeff@amazon.com.”

Two years later, as Amazon was building out its Washington lobbying army, Bezos explained that he bought the Post specifically because of its proximity to power.

“It is the newspaper in the capital city of the most important country in the world,” he said. “The Washington Post has an incredible role to play in this democracy.”

But even if Bezos is not making day-to-day editorial decisions, that’s besides the point. Of course he didn’t tell Rampell to craft her diatribes. He doesn’t need to order his paid pundits to write the op-eds he wants because they already know what he wants. Indeed, they were likely hired precisely because they are the kind of ideologues Bezos prefers. Now, they also get to see his tweets reiterating his ideological preferences, and telling them which of his paid pundits he prefers.

The entire fiasco is a lesson in how ownership gets what it wants. As Noam Chomsky explained in this 1996 BBC interview, ownership influence is subtle — but extremely powerful and undeniable, at least to anyone who isn’t paid to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Put simply: Corporate media workers know very well the objectives and ideologies of the companies for whom they work. They know what will get them hired, and what won’t. They know what will be rewarded by the boss and what won’t be rewarded by the boss, without the boss ever having to open his mouth. This might explain the Post at one point publishing 16 negative articles about Bezos critic Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent Senator, in 16 hours during the 2016 campaign.

So when an owner like Bezos starts opening his mouth and making those objectives and ideologies explicitly clear with a social media megaphone, that almost certainly has even more influence with the people he literally pays, especially in an industry that is periodically plagued with mass layoffs.

To really appreciate the dynamic, ask yourself: If job cuts ever come to the Washington Post, what journalist or editorialist wants to be on the wrong ideological side of the owner when the company is deciding who to retain and who to terminate?

None — and that’s just one way influence works.

“We Do Not Have Some Sort Of Edict”

Admitting that obvious truth is considered blasphemy in corporate media circles, which explains the multi-day media freakout in 2019 when Sanders dared to mention Bezos’s ownership of the Washington Post while campaigning for a “corporate welfare tax” on companies like Amazon (an idea that was derided by Rampell).

During that fake scandal, then-Washington Post reporter Anne Rumsey Gearan — who has gone on to become a consultant at a corporate lobbying firm — said on NBC’s Meet the Press: “I can attest that we do not have some sort of edict to write or not write things from Bezos.”

That’s almost certainly true — as is the fact that the Post does employ some very good journalists, including Dave Weigel, Heather Long, Jeff Stein, Perry Bacon and James Downie, to name a few.

But it does not negate the salient point about ownership influence, and how ownership often creates a media culture reflecting the owner’s ideology. That’s especially likely in the case of the Washington Post and Bezos, now that he is literally tweeting out his political ideology and the paid punditry he favors.

While the news side of media outlets may be somewhat insulated, that culture is most prominent in media outlets’ opinion sections — where they feel more free to express it. For example, during Mike Bloomberg’s 2020 presidential bid, Bloomberg News’ editor-in-chief noted in an email to staff, “The place where Mike has had the most contact with Editorial is Bloomberg Opinion: Our editorials have reflected his views.”

Polling data show Americans have stopped trusting corporate media — and one reason for that is because they sense corporate media is speaking for the owners’ interests, not the public interest.

Spotlighting that oligarch influence on news content is only considered controversial or outrageous among those inside corporate media culture — that is, those with a financial interest in pretending the influence doesn’t exist. That’s not surprising — after all, as the journalist Upton Sinclair wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

But pretending ownership influence isn’t real does a disservice both to the public and to good people working in media.

In the age of what Cory Doctorow calls “chokepoint capitalism,” the media industry and its distribution is so dominated by oligarchs and giant corporations that over a career, almost every working journalist is bound to interface with a corporate conglomerate at some point. (For example, the Meltdown podcast that Sirota worked on ended up being distributed through Audible, whose parent company is Amazon.)

That doesn’t mean every journalist will be moved by that corporate culture. But being aware and mindful of media ownership is critical to resisting it when it is at odds with editorial imperatives (and Meltdown did the opposite of toeing a corporate-friendly line).

By contrast, wholly denying the potential for corporate ownership influence — pretending it’s not even possible, as so many corporate journalists did in defense of Bezos — makes it harder to construct real firewalls.

Perhaps that’s the point of the denial — by refusing to even consider the risks of corporate-fueled mission creep, corporate journalists and pundits are allowing their owners to subtly create the culture they want so that democracy can quietly die in darkness.

But when a newspaper owner like Bezos intensifies that culture by publicly weaponizing his own newspaper content for his political crusade, pretending that has no effect on his newsroom or the larger media ecosystem is ridiculous. It is yet another destructive rejection of reality — one best summarized by former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) during a discussion about money’s influence in politics. Though Frank was talking about politicians, the principle he described also holds true for other players in Washington, including the media.

“People say, ‘Oh, [money] doesn’t have any effect on me,” Frank told NPR. “Well, if that were the case, we’d be the only human beings in the history of the world who on a regular basis took significant amounts of money from perfect strangers and made sure that it had no effect on our behavior.”

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Auctioning Off Democracy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 18/05/2022 - 6:00pm in

The Conservative Party’s cash-for-access culture is one of the neglected scandals of modern British politics, says Iain Overton

A Champagne bottle donated by Conservative Party Co-Chairman Oliver Dowden had been auctioned off (erroneously) as a "souvenir of Partygate" at a charity fundraiser, it emerged last week.

The charity that benefitted from the donated wine bottle, Hertfordshire Community Foundation (HCF), says that giving to it could not only “lower your tax bill” but will let it fund urgent concerns – such as Bishop’s Stortford Food Bank.

In 2020, HCF's chairman said that, “since 2011 there has been a 96% increase in statutory homelessness and a 165% increase in homeless households in temporary accommodation” in the county.

It is no wonder that HCF needed the Prime Minister’s signed Champagne bottle to raise money to combat food shortages and homelessness. In April, the Trussell Trust said that its network had provided more than 2.1 million emergency parcels to people, from April 2021 to March 2022 – a 14% increase compared to the same period in 2019/20 – and double the number provided in 2014/15.

But this is not the only auction scandal to beset the Conservative Party recently.

At the 2022 Conservative Spring Lunch, it has been reported that one of the items auctioned was a private tour of the Victoria and Albert Museum by the chairman of the museum’s trustees, Nicholas Coleridge. Conservative Party co-chair Ben Elliot is also a trustee.

This is concerning. The legal guidance on being a trustee is that “you must avoid putting yourself in a position where your duty to your charity conflicts with your personal interests or loyalty to any other person or body”. The Code of Conduct for Board Members of Public Bodies also states: “In your public role, you should be, and be seen to be, politically impartial. You should not... hold a particularly sensitive or high-profile role in a political party. You should abstain from all controversial political activity.” 

The V&A did not respond to questions as to whether it thinks that political gifts associated with the museum, touted by its trustees, was in line with its rules of governorship.

Networks of Power

Perhaps the deeper issue here does not lie at the door of the V&A or HCF, but rather at the long – and controversial – history of auctioneering within the Conservative Party.

It is a recent history filled with accusations of cash-for-access, funding by Russian oligarchs, and the wealth of arms dealers.

In 2021, a Winter Ball auction offered an hour’s access with Chancellor Rishi Sunak, which sold for £35,000; karaoke with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss went for £22,000; and dinner with Levelling-Up Secretary Michael Gove for £25,000. The event took place moments before Conservative MPs left to vote on the Government’s controversial £86,000 blanket cap on social care costs.

The same year, the Conservative Party auctioned off dinner dates with senior Cabinet members for £4,000. The Business Leaders’ Dinner, which took place in Manchester during the Conservative Party Conference, was promoted in an email where, for a donation, you could “place your preference of senior minister to host your table”.

In addition, this newspaper has revealed that Ann R Said – also known as Rosemary Said – gave the Conservative Party £45,000 in the form of an auction prize. She is married to Wafic Said, who brokered a multi-billion-pound arms deal between Saudi Arabia and the UK in the mid-1980s.

In 2020, the Conservative Black and White Ball – for which the auction is the main event – was partly organised by a businessman banned from City trading. Jay Rutland, whose father-in-law is Bernie Ecclestone, had been banned from trading in the City of London in 2012 over “market abuse”. The Financial Services Authority ruled that Rutland was not a “fit and proper person” with a lack of “honesty and integrity”.

In 2015, Conservative donor, James Lupton, reportedly donated a week-long trip for 24 people to his £56 million La Fortaleza estate on the Bay of Pollenca in Majorca. Lupton was later to be made a peer of the realm, which was fortunate for David Cameron as he was later to successfully lobby Lupton – the director of Lloyds Banking Group – to reverse the bank’s decision to withdraw support from Greensill Capital.

In 2014, Lubov Chernukhin – then wife to Vladimir Chernukhin, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s former deputy finance ministers – paid £160,000 for a tennis match with Boris Johnson and David Cameron, who was Prime Minister at the time. The current Prime Minister later defended the match: Johnson denounced the “miasma of suspicion” on “all rich Russians in London”.

Lubov Chernukhin was later found to have been listed in 2006 as a director of a company secretly owned by a Russian oligarch close to Putin. She says she “does not recall consenting in writing” to being a director of Suleiman Kerimov’s firm.

She has given more than £2.1 million to the Conservatives, making her the largest female donor in recent political history. The Sunday Times recently revealed her to be one of several donors to have been granted access to Downing Street via a secret ‘advisory board’ – a little known collective of wealthy Conservative patrons granted exclusive access to power. 

The Conservative Party has for some time run a separate ‘Leaders’ Group’ dining society that gives elite donors exclusive access to party grandees.

It goes on.

In 2013, the £28,000 offered for a Tory-auctioned portrait of Margaret Thatcher, bid by a company called Henley Concierge, was deemed by the Electoral Commission to be impermissible, as the company was ‘non-trading’. The money was given back. The ultimate owner of that company, Andrei Borodin, was the former president of the Bank of Moscow.

At the same event, a bottle of champagne signed by Margaret Thatcher was also auctioned off for £45,000 in a room of bankers, businesspeople and lobbyists jointly worth more than £11 billion.

Moreover, the politics of auctioneering has led to a souring of relationships when promises go unfulfilled.

One donor, Telecoms businessman Mohamed Amersi, is reportedly demanding £150,000 back after not being given the auction prizes that he bought – including a breakfast with Boris Johnson, a magic show by former Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt, and a Japanese meal with former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Strangely, Amersi dived back into the Conservative fray last week, bidding on and winning a dinner for nine in a Green Park mansion with “four guests from the Westminster political scene” and a commemorative plate and a bottle of whisky signed by Margaret Thatcher, all for a total of £16,000. 

Conservative Party HQ is said to be furious – but perhaps not as furious as the wider electorate should be.

If the Conservative Party auction items were – as some have been – simply a hoodie signed by Sunak or diaries signed by Edwina Currie, this perhaps would have been palatable. Even a ride in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Bentley is distanced, to a degree, from any accusation of money in exchange for access or influence.

But these scandals – and the sums of money involved – show a Conservative Party that has either little concern for the perception of cash-for-access or a marked disregard for due process or transparency.

Boris Johnson will almost certainly feel that his giving a bottle of Champagne for a charity that funds food banks is an act of altruism on his part – but it displays a blindness for those who rely on them and who will never be able to afford the sort of influence that is bought by Conservative patrons.

And, in this regard, that is the thing missing at these black-tie event auction wars – democratic accountability and, ultimately, decency.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE BYLINE INTELLIGENCE TEAM

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Nation’s Real Estate Agents Tell Tenants To Hand Over Their Super Or Else

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 17/05/2022 - 8:19am in

The Australian Real-estate Sales Executive (Arse) has spoken out in favour of Prime Minister (for now) Scott Morrison’s plan to allow people to use their superannuation to buy houses.

”What a great a way to help our members gain more commissions,” said a Spokesperson for ARSE. ”The last couple of years have been great for our industry but you know, some of our Sydney agents are doing it tough.”

”I heard of one poor agent who was only able to afford a normal toilet in their house renovation instead of a gold plated one, can you imagine?”

When asked what measures they felt the Government could take to fix the housing affordability affordability problem, the ARSE said: ”What problem, houses are very affordable, heck I’ve got five.”

”But, you know maybe the Government does need to do more. Like allowing people to sell their organs to raise money for a deposit.”

”That would be a win win, as young people would get a house and our treasured boomers would have a ready supply of kidneys and livers should they need it.”

Mark Williamson

@MWChatShow

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‘Addicted to Exploiting Migrant Labour’: The Hidden Hostile Environment in the Fishing Industry

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 16/05/2022 - 7:22pm in

Post-Brexit immigration rules are pushing more and more foreign fishermen to the margins of an already exploitative system, reports Frankie Vetch

When Emmanuel* came to work in the UK, the conditions on the boat were the worst he had ever seen. Having grown up around fishing in Ghana, for him it was a way of life. But when he came to Northern Ireland in 2018, his positive perception of the industry was shattered. Emmanuel has since been registered as a victim of modern slavery. Now he can tell his story of how the UK immigration system drove him into human trafficking.

Like so many other fishermen, Emmanuel entered the UK on a transit visa; a loophole used by employers to bypass strict migration laws. When he flew the more than 3,000 miles from his home in Ghana, he was picked up at Belfast airport and taken straight to work on a boat. An experienced fisherman, Emmanuel was shocked to find the boat was not fit to go out to sea. He was even more surprised to learn that this is where he would have to live, eat, and sleep.

Despite his contract stating that he was assigned to one specific vessel, Emmanuel was quickly transferred to another. And then another. And then another. At times he would be transferred at midnight, not even knowing the name of the new vessel he was working on. Back home in Ghana, Emmanuel says he would have been given proper accommodation. Constantly living under the threat of being sent home or having his passport confiscated by his employer was psychologically damaging.

“You feel like you have been trapped on a boat where you don’t have any means to even say you want to leave,” he says. “You and your skipper only know what really happens on the boat.”

Fishing After Brexit

The UK’s strict post-Brexit immigration system is increasing the risk of exploitation for foreign fishermen. As part of the point-based system, most foreigners working in the UK must come on a skilled worker visa. Following lobbying from the industry, last April the Government opened up the visa to fishermen. But Byline Times can reveal that so far not a single visa has been granted to a fisherman.

Due to poor working conditions, long hours and low pay, fishing has become an unattractive occupation for young people in the UK. According to Alison Godfrey, deputy chief executive at the Fishermen’s Mission, “For a number of years, it has been hard to find Brits who want to fish. It is the most dangerous peacetime occupation. It doesn’t pay well and has long hours.”

With a decline in domestic and EU fishermen, the industry has become increasingly reliant on non-EEA workers like Emmanuel. According to a survey by the organisation Seafish – a government-funded body – around 35% of fishermen are not from the UK. Ghanaians and Filipinos represent the largest proportion of this figure.

Without access to skilled worker visas, fishermen enter the UK on a transit visa. These largely unregulated visas force workers to operate outside the UK’s territorial zone – meaning that any boat carrying transit visa workers should fish at a minimum of 12 nautical miles (the equivalent of around 14 miles) from domestic shorelines.

Sea conditions this far out are harsher, making it more dangerous for crews. And for fishing vessel owners in places like the west of Scotland, the shape of the coastline can make it difficult to even access these waters.

According to a new report by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), the transit visa is not designed to be used for fishermen, but for seafarers transiting through the UK to board vessels operating in international waters. But the report says that for the last 15 years, the transit visa has been used to systematically exploit foreign labour.

Exploiting Migrant Labour

Byline Times spoke to several other Ghanaian fishermen who recounted similar experiences of exploitation.

Some of them worked for a company with a well-documented history of exploitation. The fishermen described being verbally abused, underpaid, and threatened with deportation while working off British coastlines. They say captains used racist abuse against them and described feeling threatened. Some were even physically attacked.

In the UK if you are over the age of 23 and are working 40 hours a week, the minimum wage is £1,520 a month. The fishermen, who were usually working well over 40 hours, had contracts for as little as £700 a month – but in practice they were sometimes paid even less. 

One fisherman, called James*, who still works in the UK, has been employed on vessels where there were no toilets or showers. Sometimes he has gone five days without a shower. Often the boats are small and dangerous to operate in bad weather. Despite these conditions, because he can only enter the UK on a transit visa, he must sleep and live on the boats that he is contracted to work on. The only time he can go ashore is to shop. With a family to feed back home, James has no choice but to continue working in the UK.

“It is so cold on board it can be minus one or two degrees, and you are living without a heater. If I had a visa, I could rent a house or a room and have heat,” he says.  

These experiences substantiate the concerns of experts that the immigration system is driving workers into exploitation. Due to the Government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies, the risk of being deported is significant for migrant fishermen. This plays into the hands of exploitative employers who wield the threat of deportation. According to the ITF report, by criminalising fishermen violating immigration rules, the Government is increasing their vulnerability to exploitation.

It was recently reported that P&O ferries had replaced 800 UK staff with a crew of foreign seafarers who are to be paid £1.80 an hour. It is this same under-regulated system that allows fishermen to be exploited.

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Vessels inside the territorial zone are meant to be regulated by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). Even within this area, there is confusion among public authorities about who is responsible for regulation. Those vessels fishing outside the zone are subject to International Maritime Law and in this largely unregulated environment, fishermen are at even greater risk of exploitation.

“Any suspected employment issue on a vessel will be investigated fully by the MCA and a surveyor will conduct checks on any vessel that reportedly holds victims of human trafficking,” the MCA says. “If there is evidence which supports the suspicion of modern slavery or human trafficking, the MCA will work with other enforcement agencies (the police, Border Force etc.) to ensure action is taken. The MCA is strongly committed to halting human trafficking and being a part of the solution to prevent modern slavery.”

Skilled worker visas should ensure employees are paid properly. Workers over the age of 25 are guaranteed a minimum salary of £25,600, which is more than double the £12,000 or less the Ghanaian fishermen we spoke to were earning.

The biggest barrier facing fishermen seeking to obtain a skilled worker visa is the English language test. Harry Wick, CEO of the Northern Ireland Fish Producers’ Organisation, believes the test is unnecessarily hard as it requires fishermen to write to a level that does not match the requirements of the job. Many foreign fishermen can speak good enough English and have enough specialist language knowledge to safely work on vessels. But to pass the test can take years of learning English. This is time and money many fishermen do not have.

A Culture of Silence

It is because of the experiences suffered by the likes of Emmanuel and James that Chris Williams, from ITF, is advocating for skilled worker visas to be opened to more fishermen and for the transit visa loophole to be closed.

Williams has worked with several fishermen who have been exploited and says, “UK legislation is enabling conditions for forced labour and modern slavery.” He added: “The fishing industry is addicted to exploiting migrant labour and underpaying them.”

Freedom of Information data obtained from the Home Office by Byline Times reveals that a minimum of six fishermen were referred to the UK’s modern slavery referral mechanism in 2021. Data obtained from Scottish and Northern Irish police forces indicates that there were five cases in those countries.

In 2022, there have been four cases referred to the Northern Irish police. The true scale is hard to gauge because of the dangerous repercussions facing those willing to speak out. Not many people are willing to take the risk that Emmanuel has for fear of being blacklisted by the industry or even physically attacked.

Representatives of the UK fishing industry were reluctant to acknowledge there is a problem with exploitation. One Democratic Unionist Party MP, who represents a constituency with a large fishing community in it, when asked if there was a problem with exploitation of non-EEA fishermen said: “No not at all. Definitely not. Not even hinted at.”

Emmanuel believes that he was lured into trafficking through the transit visa system. A skilled worker visa would have ensured that he was paid above the minimum wage, received paid leave, and that he was assigned work he was contracted to do.

Because of his experiences, Emmanuel has given up fishing to work in the construction industry. He is not alone. Others back in Ghana are reluctant to work on UK fishing vessels at a time when the industry desperately needs skilled foreign labour.

“This experience has changed my perception of fishing, which back home is a noble profession”, Emmanuel told Byline Times. “I learnt my trade in fishing, so everything about me is fishing. But since coming to the UK and going through this I don’t want to go back to fishing. The people that work in the fishing industry in this country only think about profit, they don’t think about you.”

*Not his real name

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Food Bank Britain

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 13/05/2022 - 9:04pm in

Rachel Morris considers the malaise of modern Britain as the Conservatives initiate Austerity 2.0

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“The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday but never jam today”, said the Mad Hatter. Perhaps he wrote this year’s Queen’s Speech, as delivered by golden calf Prince Charles, and subsequent tweets by Her Majesty’s Government.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak suggested that the Government could help you with the cost of living crisis, if you start a small enterprise first. A jam stall, perhaps.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng shared his passion for nuclear power plants – not exactly a short-term fix – in the week when it was revealed that we’re set to receive glowing veg from Fukushima.

Most ministers repeated the bit from their propaganda manual about being laser-focused on “the people’s priorities”. Nothing like a bit of alliteration to drown out those noises emanating from your stomach.

While French people got a state-delivered energy price cap limiting increases to 4%, our 54% rises can surely only be deliberate.

There’s no question that we’ve embarked upon Austerity 2.0. But the ‘A’ word can’t be said out loud, because according to the Institute for Public Policy Research, Austerity 1.0 caused 130,000 preventable deaths.

That’s one in every 517 people. COVID has now killed one in 347, if you divide the 2020 Census population by deaths with COVID on the certificate (193,713 at 11 May).

Austerity has therefore been rebranded. The Conservatives have driven the more comfortable classes into needing food banks, so has started calling them ‘pantries’. This was exactly the approach of Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt who on 22 April declared a partnership with Hive Portsmouth, setting up ‘food pantries’ in her constituency to save households an “average £800 a year in food bills”.

The accompanying video makes the food bank look like Waitrose, with more gorgeous veg and eggs than I’ve seen anywhere in France. Mordaunt appeals for generous individuals to run them, off the Government pay-roll.

In an article for the Daily Express earlier this week, Mordaunt said that anti-Brexit “doomsters want Britain to fail”. If she doesn’t understand that Britain is already failing, perhaps the minister should spend an afternoon in the food ‘pantry’, when it’s open for business.

According to Mordaunt, Remainers must instead become Tinkerbells: they must close their eyes tight and believe in Brexit hard enough, so food banks – sorry, ‘pantries’ – will vanish. For most people, however, closing their eyes just makes the hunger more apparent.

Asset-Stripping

Closing his eyes is something well-known to Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, who spends his days lounging on the green benches of the House of Commons.

Ultimately, the people in charge see widespread hunger and poverty as a game: an exercise imagined in public relations school – or perhaps a question on the Eton entrance exam – designed to prove how they can wriggle out of a tight spot.

And the latest frontier of this PR campaign has focused on Labour Leader Keir Starmer having a beer and a curry during a work event. The nation’s attention has been diverted away from yet more Downing Street party fines, a catastrophic Conservative local election performance, and the High Court ruling that the Government consigned elderly people to death during the early stages of the pandemic.

It is also deeply ironic that this ‘scandal’ focuses on food, when 4.7 million adults are currently suffering from food insecurity.

Indeed, there are fewer McDonald’s (1,358) in the UK than food ‘pantries’ (more than 2,200). But, according to Conservative MP for Ashfield, Lee Anderson, it’s poor people who are to blame for their growling bellies.

Meanwhile, Prince Charles can still utter the phrase “levelling up” in Parliament while sitting in front of a gold-encrusted wall on a gold-encrusted throne wearing gold-and-medal-encrusted clothing – saying that regional rebalancing will be achieved by “ensuring everyone can continue to benefit from al fresco dining”.

There’s a reason why the Government has run out of ideas about how to fix the country. Primarily, because fixing the problems would involve a recognition that they created the problems in the first place and – secondly – because the Conservative Party takes its instructions from its paymasters in the private sector.

Everywhere you look, the Government is privatising – or threatening to privatise – whatever hasn’t already been sold-off. Passports, driving licenses, Channel 4, alongside our crap-filled waterways. But this asset-stripping goes much further. The state’s role itself has been privatised.

If you want to challenge the lawfulness of a Government action, you must crowdfund it yourself. If you want veterans to have something to sleep on, you must support a charity like Forgotten Veterans UK, whose ambassador is – Penny Mordaunt.

There will come a time when too few can afford to support privately-funded efforts by the third sector, with time or money, and some of these needs simply won’t be met at all. What happens when there are more GoFundMe pages than people who can donate to them? When there are more charities than the charitable?

Up to 14.5 million people lived in poverty before the pandemic – one in every four or five – which is projected to rise to 16 million by 2023. And the Government’s response is indifference.

Last October, the Prime Minister told businesses that it wasn’t his job to fix their every problem. The Chancellor said he “can’t do everything” after criticism of his Spring Statement. Other ministers are saying similar.

We’re on our own now, shivering in a corner with the Trussell Trust. Only £3 million crowns get a lift in a Rolls Royce. The Government makes no bones about it: you’ll have to figure it out on your own. Perhaps you could use those bones to make a tasty broth? If you can afford to put the cooker on. But don’t think there’ll be jam with it. Not today.

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How Wall Street Is Taking Over Medicare

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 11/05/2022 - 8:39pm in

How Wall Street Is Taking Over Medicare

The Biden administration’s recent entrenchment and expansion of the Trump administration’s efforts to privatize Medicare is helping a shadowy set of big-business beneficiaries: private equity firms and major health care companies, including one that previously employed the government official overseeing the privatization plan, a Lever analysis shows.

In April last year, the Biden administration contracted with 53 third-party companies to mandate privatized health care plans through Medicare. The resulting health care options are effectively Medicare Advantage plans, or private coverage offered through the national health insurance program for seniors and people with disabilities — but with one wrinkle: Patients are being assigned to these new plans without their consent.

The 53 participating companies — called “direct contracting entities,” or DCEs — are allowed to offer benefits beyond traditional Medicare, like gym membership coverage. But as for-profit businesses that receive a set payment from Medicare no matter how much care they approve, these DCEs are incentivized to limit the care that patients receive, especially when they are very sick. The first DCEs were launched by President Donald Trump in 2019, and so far, at least 350,000 seniors have already been moved onto these privatized Medicare plans.

Now, a new Lever analysis of the 53 DCEs found additional cause for concern: 15 of these entities, or slightly more than a quarter, are backed by private equity firms, which are known for extracting profits at the expense of workers, the environment, and even their own pension fund investors. The firms include big-name firms like the Carlyle Group, General Atlantic, Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, Benchmark Capital, and Warburg Pincus. What’s more, another 15 DCEs are linked to big health care companies — including one with a direct connection to the Biden appointee in charge of the new privatized Medicare scheme.

Wall Street’s encroachment into Medicare is the latest example of private equity’s aggressive expansion into health care, which has ranged from hospitals to ER doctor groups. In 2021, private equity managers deployed $172 billion in capital in the health care sector — nearly four times the total budget of the National Institutes of Health.

Biden himself has lambasted the for-profit industry’s takeover of elder care services, noting during his State of the Union address in March: “As Wall Street firms take over more nursing homes, quality in those homes has gone down and costs have gone up. That ends on my watch.”

Biden apparently doesn’t have the same concerns about Wall Street’s growing role in Medicare — a development that could lead to higher medical bills for patients. The financial industry has already demonstrated its willingness to take a forceful approach to generating health care profits; private equity waged an aggressive campaign to derail legislation designed to stop so-called “surprise” medical bills, which formed a significant part of their hospital staffing firms’ bottom line.

Now, as private equity muscles into privatized Medicare, industry lobbyists are likely to push for more generous payment structures that benefit for-profit firms at the expense of Medicare patients. The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, an independent body that advises Congress on Medicare, hinted at this scenario while discussing private equity’s role in the Medicare Advantage space at an April 2021 hearing.

“The end result might or might not be better for consumers, but I think that it does have an impact on Medicare payment policy,” said commissioner Pat Wang.

Experts fear that the Medicare space could be especially vulnerable to Wall Street’s predatory approach.

“We have lots of evidence from many other situations in which private equity puts profits before patients,” said Eileen Appelbaum, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and co-author of Private Equity At Work: When Wall Street Manages Main Street. “They are looking for a place where it's easy to make money — and it's easy to make money when it’s the taxpayer footing the bill.”

Big Players, Big Profits, And A Big Conflict

While the DCE program was launched under President Trump, Biden expanded the effort in February under a new name: the Accountable Care Organization Realizing Equity, Access, and Community Health program, or “ACO REACH.” Now, hospital-backed for-profit health benefit programs are also allowed to automatically enroll Medicare patients into their health care plans.

Like providers of Medicare Advantage plans, these new firms receive a set payment from Medicare for their offerings, supposedly to incentivize more holistic and better care. In exchange, these firms acquire Medicare patients in their plans — often  without the patients realizing what is happening.

In March, The Lever reported on how one Medicare beneficiary who was quietly assigned to a DCE initially misinterpreted a message she received about the shift as a health-related communication from her doctor — despite being an experienced health policy expert.

Along with the 15 private equity-backed companies, the list of approved DCEs the Biden administration released in April 2021 includes 15 operations owned by health care giants, such as insurers Humana, UnitedHealth, and Anthem, the pharmacy chain Walgreens, and the dialysis provider DaVita.

Experts say these connections raise serious questions about conflicts of interest. For example, the DCE program is being led by a little-known federal entity, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Innovation Center, headed by Liz Fowler — the former vice president of public policy for the insurer WellPoint, now known as Anthem.

In response to a request for comment from The Lever, a CMS spokesperson said that Fowler was not involved in the approval process for DCEs. They additionally asserted that many of the entities identified by The Lever are not private equity-backed because they are public companies.

But several of these public companies have received substantial investments from private equity firms, also known as “private investment in public equity.” For example, while 1LifeHealthcare — a primary care provider that owns one of the DCEs, One Medical’s Iora Health — is publicly traded, the major private equity firm Carlyle Group owns more than 7 percent of its shares.

Critics say Fowler has a history of crafting policy to help her private-sector contacts.

“Honestly this just seems to add to the pattern we've observed with Liz Fowler,” said Fatou Ndiaye, a research assistant with the Revolving Door Project, which monitors the revolving door between the public and private sector.

Ndiaye pointed out that before she lobbied for WellPoint, Fowler worked for Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), where she helped draft Medicare Part D, a program critics said was a huge giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry because it created massive new drug benefits without controlling prices.

After working for Wellpoint from 2006 to 2008, Fowler rejoined Baucus’ staff, where she helped draft a version of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that excluded the public health insurance option promised by Democrats, resulting in huge profits and no public-sector competition for private insurers.

“A year after [ACA’s] passage, Wellpoint’s profits increased by 91 percent to $2.3 billion,” said Ndiaye.

Private Equity Muscles In

The fact that private equity now backs more than a quarter of all companies in the DCE space stands in stark contrast to the fact that private equity owns just two percent of all for-profit Medicare Advantage programs.

While Medicare Advantage options have been criticized by health advocates because of their extremely high costs, the fact that private equity is focusing its attention on this new kind of non-voluntary privatized Medicare scheme suggests that Fowler and the Biden administration could be setting the stage for substantially larger private equity involvement in the national health insurance program.

Examples abound of problems arising when private equity takes over health care operations. Just last month, Buzzfeed News reported that BrightSpring, a group home operator acquired by private equity mega-firm KKR in 2019, has since been plagued by serious problems at its group homes for people with disabilities, leading to residents being seriously injured and in some cases dying.

The Carlyle Group, which has an ownership stake inOneMedical, the parent company of Iora Health, has a particularly disturbing history in health care. After Carlyle acquired HCR Manorcare, a nursing home chain, the company was plagued by serious lapses in standards of care until it went bankrupt 11 years later.

Other private equity-backed operations approved for the new DCE program have major connections to the Democratic Party establishment. The private equity firm Warburg Pincus, which backs a DCE called Excelera, was co-founded by the father of current Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and boasts former Obama Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner as its president.

Laura Katz Olson, a professor at Lehigh University and author of the recently published Ethically Challenged: Private Equity Storms U.S. Health Care, said that private equity’s role in Medicare privatization raises significant concerns.

“If you understand the private equity playbook, the dangers are fairly obvious,” said Katz Olson. “They're borrowing money so they have to pay off debt. They're taking money into their pockets through fees. You would have to be a magician to keep up quality of care doing all of these things.”

She added, “Private equity is bad for health care, period, so I can’t imagine that it would be good for Medicare Advantage. I’m actually in a state of surprise that they're even thinking about it.”

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African Trade Deal Exposes Brexit Britain’s Myths

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 06/05/2022 - 8:42pm in

Joe Walsh explores how Africa is seeking closer economic integration with its regional neighbours, in contrast to the UK

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As Brexit sends the UK lurching from one crisis to another, and while the Government still hasn’t fully implemented checks on EU imports for fear of economic disaster, another continent has taken a vital step towards full regional economic integration.

The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) came into force one month before Brexit and has now reached an agreement to eliminate tariffs on nearly 90% of non-sensitive goods.

“It makes economic sense, as well as social and political sense, to integrate the continent,” says Stephen Karingi, director of regional integration and trade division of the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa.

The AfCFTA is the largest free trade area – by number of countries involved – in the world, comprising 54 African countries. Having been conceived in 2012, the deal was signed in 2018 and, like Brexit, came into force at the start of 2021. This year, an agreement has been made to eliminate 87.8% of tariffs on 8,000 products.

Contradicting the Conservative Party’s ‘Global Britain’ mantra, which claims that Britain has been restrained by close economic ties with its neighbours, the AfCFTA seeks to catalyse trade across Africa to the benefit of the whole continent.

The World Bank estimates that the economic gains from the agreement could lift 30 million people out of extreme poverty and 68 million out of relative poverty, with women being the prime beneficiaries.

“Under the AfCFTA, Nigeria stands to gain from increased access to cheaper goods and services from other African countries,” argues John Oseji, director of policy advocacy at the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission (NIPC) – a Nigerian Government agency founded to encourage investment in Nigeria.

It is a sentiment that the UK's Chancellor may well agree with, given his recent admission that a Brexit trade hit for the UK was always “inevitable”.

Sceptical Partners

Nigeria was initially hesitant about joining the AfCFTA, mirroring Britain in Europe. As Africa’s largest economy – though Britain was Europe’s second – it had concerns about rules of origin, commercial competition from cheaper foreign imports and from the other advanced African economies, primarily South Africa, Morocco and Egypt.

However, rather than resisting integration with its neighbours, Nigeria is attempting to maximise the economic benefits of the trade deal.

John Oseji highlights the potential for Nigerian businesses to expand across their borders, particularly banks, to facilitate cross-border transactions in multiple countries.

“[The AfCFTA] will also provide opportunities for Nigeria’s FinTech companies to provide technical services and consultancy for the continent,” he adds.

Currently, intra-African trade is extremely low compared with the rest of the world. Intra-African exports account for just 16.6% of total exports – a figure that rises to 68% for intra-European exports and 59% for intra-Asian exports. In addition, intra-Africa trade as a whole accounts for just 2% of its exports and imports, compared with 67% and 61% for Europe and Asia respectively.

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A key goal for African trade negotiators is to increase the export of value added products and move away from Africa simply exporting raw materials to the rest of the world and then importing manufactured products, made from these same materials, back into the continent.

The economic expectations from this increase in regional trade are high. The World Bank estimates that the agreement could increase real income on the continent by $450 billion by 2035 and that its measures to cut red tape and simplify customs could alone increase income by $292 billion.

Oseji agrees that Nigeria sees its economic enhancement through boosting regional trade, as opposed to trading with far-flung countries.

He laments that, in 2018, Nigeria’s imports from other African countries constituted 3.2% of total imports, while the share of Nigeria’s exports to other African countries relative to total exports was 13.2%. “Moreover, in 2020, Nigeria’s main trading partner was actually China,” he adds.

Red Tape

Brexiters alleged that red tape would be slashed when the UK departed the EU. In fact, we have seen quite the reverse – as businesses across various sectors have been saddled with extra paperwork in order to carry on trading with the EU, causing an economic retraction even greater than the impact of the COVID pandemic, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility.

Lorry queues stretching through the Kent countryside, in no small part to additional customs requirements, is what Africa wants avoid as intra-continental trade grows.

In Africa, officials were very much aware that creating common markets and rules, eliminating borders and customs, reduces red tape rather than increases it.

“What the AfCFTA does is break down the barriers between African countries and the current regional economic communities,” says Stephen Karingi. “If you try to send a shipment from Accra, Ghana to Nairobi, Kenya, you’ll face tariffs, so the AfCFTA is breaking the barriers that still exist between regional economic communities.”

But the new agreement does more than just eliminate tariffs, red tape and trade barriers.

Though it is not yet a fully integrated economic community like the EU, mechanisms like the AfCFTA Investment Protocol will “make it easier to invest in an African country without having to worry about different rules when you want to expand in the continent,” says Karingi.

John Oseji goes further, arguing that the “AfCFTA will motivate reforms that boost productivity, job creation, and reduce poverty”. In addition, “AfCFTA’s implementation will also increase wages by 10%, with larger gains for unskilled workers and women. That is, AfCFTA is expected to address gender inequality in Africa by increasing employment opportunities for women and helping to lower the gender wage gap on the continent,” he suggests.

Karingi also observes how the agreement matches the desire of the continent to have a “bigger voice on shaping global trade rules”.

Just as the EU was not created overnight, but rather came into being over decades of incremental agreements, the AfCFTA is the first step towards integration involving common rules, investment, trade and competition policy.

When this is achieved, Karingi argues, Africa will be a far more influential actor on global trade – competing with the world’s largest trading blocs.

“It means that when you’re engaging as Africa with China, the US, EU, Turkey those partnerships will actually be partnerships of equals because, at the moment, they don't seem to be partnerships of equals,” he adds.

Britain alone may well currently have a GDP comparable to Africa as a whole but, as the fastest growing region on the planet, Karingi expects the latter to grow from its current $3 trillion to $8 trillion in the next 20 years or so.

This vision for a common African voice on global trade may be some way off, but the statement of intent is there from Africa. For this large part of the world, regional economic integration is the future – while individual nations doing bilateral trade deals is a forlorn endeavour.

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