How to support refugees and asylum seekers in your area

It’s a tough time to be a refugee – especially when you have no recourse to public funds, when you’re not allowed to work and when the prices of basics are soaring

Baskets of carrots, potatoes and other vegetables laid out on tables at a foodbank

For some years now we’ve been supporting a local charity called Watford and Three Rivers Refugee Partnership. A small, volunteer-run charity that’s been quietly getting on with looking after some of the most vulnerable people in our area for many years, in the teeth of the government’s hostile environment, punitive Home Office fees and a growing caseload.

The charity provides practical and emotional support, advice and befriending to refugees and asylum seekers, supporting them on their journey to a safe, secure, and settled life in the UK.

The charity has launched an appeal to raise money for essential food and household items, mostly via supermarket vouchers.

Most of the people WTRRP works with don’t have leave to remain in the country and most have no recourse to public funds (they can’t claim benefits). They’re not entitled to work and are generally living on less than £40 a week. Buying nutritious food and essential items is almost impossible. They rely on the charity’s support to make sure their families have food, personal hygiene products and basic household items.

Last year the charity switched from providing weekly food boxes to supermarket vouchers. The vouchers are a more practical way to help – they give people more choice when shopping and they can choose more fresh food. There’s also less waste.

The huge increases in the cost of food and essentials have meant that many of the charity’s clients are unable to afford enough. The charity’s befrienders report that many families are struggling to maintain even a basic diet.

The situation has got much worse as electricity and gas prices have risen

The number of families that really need vouchers has increased rapidly. WTRRP supports 131 adults and 144 children with vouchers (close to double the number three years ago). This costs about £5,000 a month.

Peter Howard, WTRRP’s Volunteer Grants Team Manager says:

Every week we see more and more people attend our drop in services who desperately need support. The food vouchers are a small way we make a difference and ensure families can get the basics. But we are small organisation run almost entirely by volunteers. So fundraising is tough – particularly at the moment. We urgently need funds to keep up with the rapidly increasing need. Without support, we simply won’t be able to continue providing these vouchers that we know people really rely on.

The charity aims to raise £1,800 and and they’re about half way there. There’s a fundraising page online now. We’d be thrilled if you’d make a donation, of any size, to help the hardest hit to get by.

Captain Dowden’s new national security role

There’s an intriguing detail in Rishi Sunak’s mini-reshuffle*

It wasn’t announced at the time and it wasn’t in any of the newspaper coverage but, although he was overlooked for the big ministerial roles, Oliver Dowden has a new job. If you’ve been paying attention to his government web page you’ll already have noticed there’s a slightly mysterious new item at the bottom of his list of responsibilities: National Security and Investment.

The roles of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, most senior minister in the UK Cabinet Office, at 20 February 2023
Driving delivery of Government’s priorities
Oversight of all Cabinet Office policy
Oversight of civil contingencies & resilience (inc. COBR)
National Security including Cyber Security
Oversight of Cabinet Office business planning
Oversight of Major Events
Propriety and Ethics
Oversight of Cabinet work on science, technology, and innovation
Public Appointments
GREAT campaign
National Security & Investment
The list quietly got a bit longer

And it turns out that it’s not a minor addition. Sunak chopped up the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, took ‘digital’ out of the culture ministry, set up a new energy security department and moved the Investment Screening Unit, the office that monitors big investments in the UK that might have national security implications, into the Cabinet Office, where it becomes Dowden’s responsibility. The ISU has been in existence for about a year, as an effect of the National Security and Investment Act 2021. The law was originally sponsored by Alok Sharma, then Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It was the result of the enormous collective freak-out about (mainly) Chinese investments in Western businesses that marked Donald Trump’s term in office and the return of nationalism in international trade.

The UK law was one of those reflex reactions that often follow a shift in American policy. It’s modelled on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, set up by Gerald Ford and beefed up by Donald Trump in 2018. Other countries in the US orbit also tightened rules on Chinese investment in this period (and there’s obviously a strong parallel with the financial and economic sanctions against Russia introduced by many Western nations after the invasion of Ukraine).

In Britain the unit has ‘called in’ over 100 investments and blocked a total of five. Four were Chinese acquisitions in the UK and one Russian. It’s considered to be effective – reports are produced quickly – but not at all transparent. When deals are not actually blocked conditions can be imposed – and they’re sometimes not strictly national security conditions. An American company was allowed to buy a UK satellite communications business on the condition it created jobs here, for instance. Fascinatingly, the Chinese are not necessarily taking these rulings lying down and are using international law to challenge some, including a huge 5G deal thrown out by the Swedish government.

A composite image of Conservative MP Oliver Dowden, wearing a surgical mask and floating against a virtual reality background
Oliver Dowden floating in some kind of dimensionless alternate reality

So Oliver Dowden, as the most senior Cabinet Office minister, is now responsible for this unit. And it’s not a nominal role – he becomes the ‘decision maker’ in the unit’s adjudications and could easily find himself testifying before an international tribunal brought by a foreign government. Although most of us didn’t notice the change, the investment industry did. And they’re a bit nervous about it. Corporate law firm Morrison Foerster (known, it says here, as MoFo) says the change “…is likely to result in material disruption to delivery by the ISU in the short term…”

A flow chart explaining the process of referral to the UK government's Investment Screening Unit
How to tell if you need to refer your investment to the government

It’s not obvious why this important job should be tacked onto the end of the long list of things already done in the Cabinet Office but it means that, in addition to ministerial propriety and ethics (Zahawi, Williamson, Raab et al), the strikes taskforce (lol), running the war on woke, organising the coronation, supervising public appointments (e.g. Richard Sharp at the BBC) our MP is now also responsible for stopping the Chinese Communist Party from taking control of UK technology firms.

And that’s before he even gets to his constituency business. Blimey.

  • A useful explainer of the National Security and Investment Act 2021 from another international law firm, Norton Rose Fulbright.
  • And if you feel you might need to refer an investment to the Investment Screening Unit, there’s a web page for that.
  • Just before the reshuffle, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy select committee (which will presumably now have to change its name to reflect reorganised ministries) launched an inquiry into ‘information sharing by the Investment Security Unit’. So that’s another committee for Dowden to attend.

*It may just be us that find this intriguing.

What is the point of Oliver Dowden?

Politics is a cruel business

Oliver Dowden has been overlooked. Rishi reshuffled but left his fixer out of the mix. Our MP remains Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Woke-Finder General and head of the government’s apparently entirely inactive (possibly fictitious?) Strikes Taskforce but is further than ever from a big job.

An official photograph of Oliver Dowden MP with a British Army captain's hat crudely photoshopped onto his head
Captain Dowden still ready for action

And we promise we’ll stop going on about the Strikes Taskforce at some point. You’re bored hearing that it hasn’t done anything yet. We’ve got half a dozen Google alerts running in case it comes back to life with a jolt. You’d think it would be a pretty busy taskforce about now, what with all the strikes, but apparently they’re still in the barracks, waiting for their orders.

Anyway, the Sunak reshuffle wasn’t a big one – most ministers stayed in place – but experts say it’s going to have a dramatic effect on the ‘machinery of government’ and that it will cost over £100M to implement the restructure of the business and culture ministries. There’s also an entirely new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, to be led by Grant Shapps, responsible for boosting Britain’s energy supplies and the transition away from fossil fuels.

Some are surprised the Prime Minister didn’t take the opportunity to advance some of the loyalists who helped get him elected, though. It must be nerve-wracking for a second-tier figure like Dowden, scrabbling for relevance among the big beasts, to see members of the same 2015 Parliamentary entry whizzing past him and taking up full cabinet positions – Lucy Frazer just leapfrogged into the Culture role that Dowden himself was removed from by Boris Johnson in 2021.

The Tory Party may not have a conscience but it definitely has an id – and he is called Lee Anderson. That Anderson is getting closer to one of Dowden’s other previous jobs – Chairman of the Party – must also be causing dyspepsia in the Dowden household.

Meanwhile, one of Dowden’s decisions from back when he was still Culture Secretary, has come back to haunt him – although he’s been all ‘nothing to do with me, guv‘ since the story broke.

Richard Sharp, businessman and Chairman of the BBC
Richard Sharp

Nobody outside London knew anything about Richard Sharp until he was shoved into the role of Chairman of the BBC in 2021. He is, though, evidently a genius. A cast-iron financial savant – and from humble beginnings. His public school was tragically outside the top tier but through sheer grit he managed to get accepted at Oxford and completed a degree in PPE nonetheless. He went on to make hundreds of millions of pounds from moving money around in ways we don’t pretend to understand in the City (this 20-year-old article estimates his wealth at £125M). When Boris Johnson was Mayor of London, Sharp was an adviser.

So it’s bewildering that a man of his calibre would somehow manage to get himself mixed up in Boris Johnson’s personal financial affairs. Apparently, instead of saying “sod off, Boris, I’d rather stick my head in a wasps’ nest.” or just blocking his number, Sharp ignored all the red flags and offered to hook Johnson up with another millionaire who said he’d guarantee a loan for the PM.

The loan, we’re told, came off, and Johnson trousered a flexible sum of up to £800,000 (we don’t know who actually lent him the money, how much he drew down in the end or whether he’s paid any of it back yet).

A composite image of Conservative MP Oliver Dowden, wearing a surgical mask and floating against a virtual reality background
Oliver Dowden floating in some kind of dimensionless alternate reality

This is where it gets complicated. At this point, Sharp was on the fast track for the BBC job – Johnson had announced he was the preferred candidate and insiders were saying it was a done deal – so it occured to Sharp that his proximity to the lethal spinning blade of the Prime Minister’s private life might cause him some difficulties when it came to the interview. We assume Oliver Dowden knew nothing about the festival of stupidity and venality going on in secret around him, although he was nominally the appointing minister (and his name is at the bottom of the appointment letter).

A wine fridge that was kept in an office at number 10 Downing Street during the pandemic
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case

Sharp decided to involve a civil servant. He chose Simon “Partygate” Case, Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service. And – guess what – Case said the loan was cool and that Johnson wouldn’t even need to declare it because it was “family business”. That last bit is kind of perplexing because although Blyth and Johnson are related, they’re related in roughly the same way Danny Dyer is related to Edward III. They share a great-great-grandfather and apparently Johnson didn’t even know Blyth until Sharp introduced them.

So, bringing this up to date, Richard Sharp has now been censured by the House of Commons Culture select committee – ‘significant errors of judgement’ is the phrase – for not mentioning the loan in his application for the BBC job. He’s issued a non-apology of the “I’m sorry you’re upset” variety and is now hoping that the other inquiry – by a KC appointed by the independent commissioner for public appointments and one that will carry more weight – is kinder to him.