The Telegraph 2024-02-08 06:00:36

Security fears as top Cabinet Office official quits to work for UAE

The Government’s executive director of communications, who has been involved in sensitive discussions on national security, is to take a job at the United Arab Emirates’s foreign ministry.

Alex Aiken, who in recent years has sat in on security meetings including Cobra, will move to the country to advise Abu Dhabi on communications.

Despite the defection being made public on Wednesday, Mr Aiken intends to remain in his position in the Cabinet Office until April.

Conservative MPs questioned if that was appropriate, noting that even in the private sector employees have to step back after announcing joining a rival company.

The UK Government’s ties with the UAE have come under scrutiny in recent months as ministers decide whether to approve an Abu Dhabi-backed takeover of The Telegraph.

RedBird IMI, a US-based group that is 75 per cent funded by the UAE, is attempting to take control of The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator magazine.

MPs from across the political divide have sounded the alarm, with some warning that effective UAE ownership of a British newspaper would undermine free speech and democracy.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said on Wednesday night that Mr Aiken would stand down from any work perceived to be a conflict of interest.

However, it is not clear whether Mr Aiken is required to take a break before starting the UAE role.

The development emerged on the same day that Mr Aiken’s wife, the Conservative Party deputy chairman Nickie Aiken, announced that she would stand down at the next general election.

Mrs Aiken, the Tory MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, said her husband had “accepted a job offer overseas” and “deserves my full support as he pursues a new career”.

Lucy Frazer, the Culture Secretary, has ordered investigations from the media regulator Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) into the proposed takeover of The Telegraph.

The Cabinet Office, the department where Mr Aiken is based, also has the power to intervene on national security grounds, though has not done so yet.

A Cabinet Office insider insisted that Mr Aiken had not been involved in any discussions about the proposed Telegraph takeover.

Higher salaries in Middle East

Mr Aiken is paid between £145,000 and £149,999, according to transparency data released last July. The Telegraph understands senior communications jobs in some Middle Eastern nations have recently been touted at four times that. Mr Aiken’s new salary or start date is not known.

He has been in political communications for much of his working life, having been director of communications and strategy at Westminster council between 2000 and 2012.

Since then he has held a variety of roles in government, including a role which oversaw communication strategy in the Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet Office.

When departing government ministers and the most senior civil servants get new jobs, they must consult a body called the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments [Acoba].

But given Mr Aiken’s position below the top rung of the Civil Service, his case was handled within the Cabinet Office, whose permanent secretary, Alex Chisholm, is understood to have given approval.

Oliver Dowden, the Deputy Prime Minister, who is the decision-maker on any Telegraph national security intervention, was not involved in the process, according to a Cabinet Office source.

The idea that Mr Aiken will remain at the heart of government for weeks after announcing he will join the UAE led to concerns being raised by some Conservative MPs.

Neil O’Brien, a former Tory government minister, said: “Alex is very highly regarded. Yet many people will be extremely surprised that you can take a job working for a foreign government but still work for our government. We need much clearer rules.”

Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader, said: “I wish him and Nickie the best of good fortune. But I do think this demonstrates it’s high time for there to be much greater clarity over what ministers and civil servants can do once they leave their jobs in government.

“It is customary in the private sector that when someone announces they are taking another job in a similar space that they would leave pending their start in the new role. When it comes to foreign governments, surely that should very much be the case?”

Announcing her decision to stand down, Mrs Aiken said in a statement on Wednesday: “This is not a decision I have taken lightly. My husband, Alex, who has supported me steadfastly through my political career, has accepted a job offer overseas and he deserves my full support as he pursues a new career.”

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “Alex Aiken will leave the Civil Service in April to take up a new role as a communications adviser to the ministry of foreign affairs in the United Arab Emirates. He has worked in the Cabinet Office for the last decade, serving as executive director, government communication.

“His new role has been vetted through the Cabinet Office business appointment rules process. He will abide by the standard conditions governing senior ivil service external appointments. 

“The process for appointing his successor will be announced in due course.”

Starmer set to abandon £28 billion green investment pledge

Sir Keir Starmer is set to formally abandon his £28 billion green investment pledge on Thursday, arguing that Labour can no longer promise to borrow that amount a year.

The Labour leader will say the party is still committed to borrowing to invest, but, according to a senior Labour source, he will no longer stand by the figure of £28 billion as the ambition.

The move comes after months of increasingly loud attacks from the Conservatives about the policy, which was first unveiled in the autumn of 2021.

It is an attempt to finally give clarity over a position that has been repeatedly watered down and on which shadow cabinet ministers have voiced differing stances in recent weeks.

Sir Keir is likely to blame the move on economic woes seen in recent years under Tory rule and what Labour has claimed is the Conservatives’ “scorched earth” approach to finances that will leave them limited manoeuvrability after the election. 

The Tories are likely now to turn their fire on the promises underpinned by the £28 billion a year borrowing plan, specifically the drive to bring about “clean energy” by 2030.

Rishi Sunak and his senior colleagues have been airing the argument this year that Labour does not have a credible plan for government and that more borrowing will mean more tax rises.

In a Tory advertising campaign on the economy released on Wednesday, Mr Sunak explicitly made reference to Labour’s £28 billion pledge and argued it would lead to higher taxes.

Splits in party

The decision by Sir Keir, first reported in the Guardian, reflects how he and Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, have put at the heart of their re-election pitch the message that Labour can be trusted with the public finances.

But the move could reopen splits in the Labour coalition. Trade unions and Ed Miliband, the shadow climate change secretary, have been reportedly pressing Sir Keir to hold firm.

Tory strategists have taken heart from how flat-footed Labour has been in attempting to neutralise Conservative attacks over the figure, with the row making headlines for weeks.

The initial promise of £28 billion a year of new borrowing was eventually changed to include the £8 billion a year that is already borrowed for green projects. 

Then it was no longer going to come in from the first year of a Labour government but the second half of the next parliament instead. Then the whole policy was dependent on Labour’s “fiscal rules”.

Now, Sir Keir is expected to say that the party is no longer aiming to hit the £28 billion a year at all in the next parliament. The exact phrasing of the new position remains to be seen.

The Tory aides planning the next election who have relentlessly gone after the £28 billion promise will be heartened by Sir Keir’s decision to abandon the figure.

On Wednesday, they launched a related political attack, using Treasury analysis to claim that Labour’s plans to improve energy efficiency in 19 million homes in the next decade would cost not £6 billion as Labour claimed but £13 billion.

The analysis was dismissed as “bogus” by Labour figures, who noted it assumed all funding for the policy would be funded from central government, which was not their approach.

Yet it acted as a reminder that the Tories in the coming year will continue to zoom in on specific Labour promises, not least on green issues, and question the credibility of those plans.

Mr Sunak’s key message to voters is that it is best to “stick with the plan” under the Tories rather than risk returning “back to square one” under Sir Keir.

The general election is expected to be held in the autumn. The Tories remain close to 20 percentage points behind Labour, a result that would remove them from office if replicated on voting day.

Prince William thanks nation for support over King’s cancer: ‘It means a great deal to us all’

The Prince of Wales has thanked the nation for the “kind messages of support” for his father and his wife, as he returned to public duty for the first time since the King’s cancer diagnosis was revealed.

The Prince, who has been at his wife’s bedside following her serious abdominal surgery, undertook his first engagements in nearly four weeks, expressing gratitude for the support “in recent days”.

“It means a great deal to us all,” he said.’

It comes after Buckingham Palace announced on Monday that the King had been diagnosed with an unspecified form of cancer and would be cancelling public engagements to undergo treatment as an outpatient.

Speaking at a fundraising gala for the London Air Ambulance, the Prince said he wanted to take the opportunity to give personal thanks, adding: “It’s fair to say the past few weeks have had a rather ‘medical’ focus.”

Tom Cruise, who once landed a helicopter on the lawn at Windsor Castle after being invited to tea with the late Queen, was among the gala attendees. He and the Prince posed for a photograph together and shook hands

The Princess of Wales, was at home recuperating from her surgery, while his father was at Sandringham embarking on a temporary new life of working from home for the duration of his cancer treatment.

The King had a telephone call with Rishi Sunak on Wednesday night, with the Prime Minister wanting to convey his good wishes personally.

Their formal weekly audiences are expected to return in person from Feb 21, subject to the Prime Minister’s diary and the monarch’s health.

Having received his first treatment for cancer on Monday, the King has now retreated to his Norfolk home to rest in the country with the Queen by his side.

Nevertheless, he is understood to have also been working on his red boxes and correspondence, and is in regular touch with senior aides as they get used to a new regime to protect the King’s health.

His younger son, the Duke of Sussex, flew back to California on Wednesday, 25 hours after he landed: an even shorter visit than his 28-hour whistlestop trip for the Coronation.

Princes William and Harry did not meet or speak.

As the Prince of Wales arrived at a gala for the London Air Ambulance at hotel Raffles London, he told the assembled press: “We really appreciate everyone’s kind messages. Thank you.”

The Queen will return to public engagements on Thursday for the first time since her husband’s diagnosis, and the Princess Royal will continue her busy programme.

Man dies from measles in Ireland

A man has died in hospital from measles in the Dublin and Midlands health region, Ireland’s health service executive (HSE) has confirmed.

It is the first confirmed measles case in Ireland in 2024. There were four measles cases reported in 2023 and two in 2022.

While no cases were reported in 2021, there were five recorded in 2020, the HSE said, with no deaths reported in any of those years.

The HSE’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre was notified of the man’s death.

“HSE public health teams, along with the HSE measles national incident management team (IMT), are taking all necessary public health actions in relation to the case,” the HSE said in a statement on Wednesday.

“The HSE measles IMT was established in response to a recent rise in measles cases in the UK and Europe.

“The HSE will keep the public informed of further measures and, in the meantime, anyone with concerns should contact their GP.”

Refugee suspected to be Russian spy worked for MI6 and Foreign Office

An alleged Russian spy is claimed to have lied to gain asylum in Britain before working for the country’s spy agencies and meeting with the future King, it was reported on Wednesday night.

The Afghanistan refugee is alleged to have acted as a spy for Russia while working for GCHQ and MI6.

He also had access to working alongside two ministers along with the then Prince Charles and Prince William, during his time in Afghanistan working for the British government.

It is said he had both Russian and British citizenship but went on to be stripped of his UK passport in 2019.

The step was taken as MI5 believed he had acted for the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency, which was said to be behind the nerve agent attack in Salisbury a year earlier.

He admitted in a hearing before the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) on Tuesday that he had lied in his asylum application and said he had opted not to say he had been living in Russia over fear he would have to leave the country.

Rory Dunlop KC, for the government, questioned if he was a Russian agent.

He claims: “I could see that he was fishing for information, seeking to find out what weapons we used and what would be handed over to the Afghan government.”

Mr Dunlop suggested that the interaction proved C2 was not “naive” and could “figure out when someone is fishing for information”.

He went on to work in Afghanistan, which led him to work closely with Russian officials, and he visited Russia around six times.

National security assessments in his case had said C2 “is considered” to be a GRU agent but it was altered to past tense and he said his security assessment was “overegged”.

During the hearing he admitted handing over two cash bribes to two Russian military attachés, only to be later advised that they were working for GRU by MI5. He also held a meeting with an official in the Russian Foreign Ministry.

On being asked about Russia’s aims in Afghanistan, he said: “There are even now disputes between Russia and the West, but what does that have to do with me?”

Sadiq Khan rules out meeting woman who lost limbs in Tube accident

Sadiq Khan has ruled out meeting with a commuter who lost her right arm and leg after being run over by two Tube trains on her way home from work.

Sarah de Lagarde, who is suing Transport for London (TfL) for not taking responsibility for the accident, claimed the Mayor of London’s office turned down her requests for a meeting with Mr Khan, despite an intervention from Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader.

However, when pressed by The Telegraph on whether Mr Khan was willing to meet Ms de Lagarde, his office continued to rule out the meeting until the claim was resolved.

A spokesman said: “The Mayor’s thoughts remain with Sarah and her loved ones. He has asked to be kept updated and is very keen to meet with Sarah once the claim is resolved.”

She has launched a legal battle against TfL, which, she says, has not accepted responsibility for what happened. Mr Khan is chairman of the TfL board.

The 46-year-old mother slipped on a wet, uneven platform at High Barnet station in north London in September 2022, and fell down the gap between the train and the platform “into the darkness”.

She broke her nose and two front teeth in the fall, but nobody heard her desperate cries for help.

After being hit by two separate trains, Mrs de Lagarde was rushed to hospital and had to have an arm and a leg amputated.

She now uses two prosthetic limbs, including a bionic arm.

‘No staff on the platform’

Recalling her accident, she said outside the Royal Courts of Justice in central London on Wednesday: “There were no staff on that platform, and no one was watching CCTV. No one had responded to my screams for help.

“Twenty-two tonnes of steel crushed my limbs, and, if that wasn’t bad enough, I remained on the tracks undetected until the second train came into the station, crushing me for a second time.

“A few weeks before I was hit by the two Tube trains, I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with my husband, which was a lifelong dream of mine.

“I felt on top of the world, and overnight all that changed. I am now severely disabled for life.”

After giving her statement to the media, Mrs de Lagarde walked up the steps of the court to formally lodge her legal case.

She said TfL’s conclusion that her accident was “unique” was wrong, and believes the organisation’s leadership needs an “urgent wake-up call”.

She added: “TfL initially concluded that I fell because I was drunk and wearing high heels, neither of which were true.

“Is TfL above the law? TfL simply say that this was a series of unfortunate and unique events that resulted in the injured person sustaining life-changing injuries.  

“TfL deny any moral or legal responsibility for my accident.

“My local MP, Keir Starmer, asked Sadiq Khan to meet me to discuss the wider safety issues that my case raises and whether any lessons can be learned.

“Sadiq Khan’s office turned my requests down. They felt a meeting was inappropriate.

“There needs to be an independent and comprehensive review of TfL safety procedures so that meaningful lessons can be learned.”

Mrs de Lagarde said she has since been contacted by “hundreds of people” who have either been injured or have experienced a near-miss on the underground network.

“Last week’s Victoria bus crash is the latest example of such an incident,” she added. Why is this still happening?”

Her solicitor, Thomas Jervis, a partner at law firm Leigh Day, said: “I am at a loss to understand why there is such a closed approach to doing better in terms of safety.

“These are not just statistics, they are human beings. We are talking about people’s lives. Sarah and all users of London’s transport network deserve so much better.”

An investigation into Mrs de Lagarde’s accident was carried out by TfL and the Office of Rail and Road Accident Investigation Branch was notified, but concluded no further investigation was necessary.

Nick Dent, the director of customer operations at London Underground, said: “TfL is responding to a legal claim which has been brought by solicitors on behalf of Sarah de Lagarde and I am not in a position to comment publicly further.

“However, our thoughts continue to be with Sarah and her family following the devastating incident at High Barnet station and we have offered her direct support.

“Safety is our top priority and we continue to take every possible measure to learn from any incident and put in place appropriate improvements.”

Fluoride to be added to drinking water under new legal powers

Fluoride will be added to drinking water for millions of Britons under new legal powers, in the biggest expansion of the health measure since the 1980s.

In plans to improve the nation’s teeth, an initial 1.6 million people will see the mineral added to their water supply, following a consultation in areas including Northumberland, Teesside, Durham and South Tyneside.

The Government said its long-term ambition was to bring fluoridation to deprived areas of the country, highlighting Ireland and the US, where 73 per cent of people live in areas where fluoride is added to the water.

It is part of the NHS Dental Recovery Plan, which was released on Wednesday. 

The issue has sparked controversy in the past, and currently only five water companies add fluoride to water in the UK, mainly in the North-East and West Midlands, covering less than 10 per cent of Britons.

In a letter to dentists, Andrea Leadsom, Minister for Public Health, said: “Under new legislation, we have made it simpler to start new water fluoridation schemes.

“Our long-term ambition is to systematically bring fluoridation to more of the country, with a particular focus on the most deprived areas, which stand to benefit most from fluoridation.”

Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral found in water in varying amounts depending on location, and is known to make teeth stronger and reduce decay. For that reason, it is often added to toothpaste and mouthwash.

It has been included in drinking water in some parts of the UK since 1964, while in some areas of the country natural fluoride levels already reach the target concentration.

Sir Chris Witty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, has claimed that adding fluoride to water supplies could reduce cavities by 17 per cent among the richest and 28 per cent among the poorest.

It is damaging in larger quantities, however, and in the past it has been linked to health conditions such as fluorosis – a build-up in the teeth and bones – as well as bone cancer, impaired brain development and Down’s syndrome.

Fear of harm has left some local authorities reluctant to introduce fluoride, which led to the Government taking the decision out of their hands in the recent Health and Care Act.

Campaigners argue that nothing should be added to water supplies, and claim the scheme removes the right of consent to medical treatment. They argue that less coercive interventions, such as teeth-brushing programmes, would do more good.

A 2007 Nuffield Council on Bioethics report concluded that good evidence for or against water fluoridation was lacking and advised that local communities should be left to decide.

In 2014, Southampton abandoned its fluoridation scheme following public opposition led in part by the Green Party.

Responding to the new plans, a spokesman for the Green Party said: “The Green Party is opposed to the artificial mass fluoridation of drinking water. There is conflicting evidence on the benefits to dental health of this practice and major concerns on the cumulative negative wider health effects.

“There are further concerns on the links with the chemical industry that supplies artificial fluoride and the compulsory nature of its addition to drinking water that denies consumers choice.”

Lord Reay, a Conservative peer, has said he has “grave concerns” about the risks posed by widespread fluoridation, claiming studies have shown that IQ levels drop significantly in bottle-fed babies in fluoridated Canadian communities.

“You can repair a damaged tooth but not a damaged brain,” he told the House of Lords during a debate on the Health and Care Bill.

A court case is ongoing in San Francisco to determine whether the US environmental protection agency should ban fluoridation of drinking water to protect foetuses and children from the risk of neurodevelopmental problems.

A recent report from the University of Manchester, which looked at the dental records of 6.4 million Britons, also questioned the benefit, after finding fluoride reduced invasive dental treatments by just three per cent and prevented decayed, missing and filled teeth by just two per cent.

The team argued that since fluoride toothpastes became available in the mid-1970s, water schemes were unlikely to bring the same benefits as in the past.

But Barry Cockcroft, the former chief dental officer for England, and now British Fluoridation Society chairman, said: “There is a lot of very good evidence of benefit and no robust evidence of harm.

“We know that areas like the East Midlands are keen to expand so I think the appetite is greater now than it used to be.”

Tooth decay is the most common reason for hospitalisation in children aged six to ten in England and previous studies have shown children who drink fluoridated water have 2.2 fewer teeth affected by decay than those in non-fluoridated areas.

Dr Charlotte Eckhardt, dean of the Faculty of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, added: “Adding fluoride to drinking water can significantly reduce tooth cavities and extractions among children and young people, with those in deprived areas benefiting most from fluoridation schemes.

“The Faculty of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons of England supports targeted fluoridation to these low socioeconomic areas and the introduction of supervised tooth brushing. Expanding water fluoridation will help to tackle the inequalities in dental care.”