Monday briefing: Fears over neutrality of public bodies

Morning everyone. I’m Martin Farrer and these are the top stories today.

A watchdog had to prevent ministers breaching a strict code on political neutrality and independence during the search for new leaders for the BBC and the British Film Institute. A Freedom of Information Act response by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments has revealed that ministers were asked to replace interview panellists for the high-profile jobs because they were “not sufficiently independent”. The regulator has described such breaches as “threatening to undermine the independent status” of a role intended to bring “challenge and rigour” to finding appointable candidates for selection by cabinet ministers, including the prime minister.

It highlights concern that the government is seeking to “rebalance” the boards of public bodies – particularly in the arts, heritage and broadcasting sectors – and comes as MPs hold an emergency debate on standards in the wake of the Owen Paterson scandal. The Commons standards committee is considering a ban on MPs from holding consultancy roles which could affect around 30 members. The Commons Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, is also expected to make an intervention, with one report claiming he is set to propose his own review of the standards rules for MPs.

Booster threat – More than 10 million people in the UK have had Covid vaccine top-up shots, figures show, as government sources confirmed they are considering travel restrictions on people who do not take up the booster offer. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic will put the worst of the pandemic behind them this morning when they resume transatlantic flights for leisure travellers to the US for the first time since Covid-19 closed borders in March 2020. BA flight BA001 – a number previously reserved for Concorde – and Virgin flight VS3 will take off from Heathrow on parallel runways for New York’s JFK airport at 8.30am.

Astroworld investigation – Police in Houston are investigating how eight people died in a crush of fans at a concert by rapper Travis Scott on Friday, as families mourned the dead and concertgoers recounted the horror and confusion of being trapped in the crowd. One fan claimed on Instagram that people began to “drown” in the crush as soon as 30 seconds into Scott’s set. The singer, who has spoken of his devastation at the tragedy, has already been named in a lawsuit from an injured attendee, which also targets the concert organiser and promoter. The suit alleges “motivation for profit at the expense of concertgoers’ health and safety”.

Unfair Cop – The legitimacy of the Cop26 climate summit has been questioned by participants who say restrictions on access to negotiations are unprecedented and unjust. As the gathering enters its second week, observers warn that excluding them from negotiating areas and speaking to negotiators could have dire consequences for millions of people. Their ability to observe, interact and intervene in negotiations on carbon markets, loss and damage and climate financing has been obstructed during the first week, the Guardian has been told. A survey in 10 countries has revealed that although people are alarmed by the climate crisis, few are willing to make significant lifestyle changes.

Brexit violence – A bus was set on fire last night by four masked men on the outskirts of Belfast, sparking fresh fears of of violence by loyalists opposed to the Brexit withdrawal deal. The men boarded the double-decker bus in Newtownabbey at about 7.45pm, ordered passengers to get off, and set it alight. It came as the prospect of a trade war between the UK and the EU has edged closer, with Ireland giving the clearest hint yet that Brussels plans to suspend the entire trade deal struck last December if the British government suspends the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol.

Royal decree – The wartime forces’ sweetheart, Vera Lynn, was ordered to perform at Princess Elizabeth’s 16th birthday celebrations at Windsor Castle in 1942, even though the entertainer was meant to appear in a London show on the same day. A previously unseen document reveals she was told her services were “required for a private command performance” laid on by King George VI. The letter forms part of a new exhibition of memorabilia belonging to the singer, who died last year aged 103.

The world’s only gay top-flight footballer, Adelaide United’s Josh Cavallo, talks about the “overwhelming” response to his recent coming out. However, he fears it will raise other issues and even worries he might not be able to go to the World Cup in Qatar – if he is selected for Australia.

With a documentary film about his life coming out soon, the former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger offers some fascinating insights into his life and career. He tells Chris Godfrey about how growing up in rural France shaped his view of the world (“It gives you patience”), his mastery of dressing room psychology (“I learned to control myself”) and how he would have his career all over again despite the cost to family life.

Jürgen Klopp was left incensed with the referee Craig Pawson and his video assistant Stuart Attwell after Liverpool’s 3-2 defeat by West Ham on Sunday, claiming the officials had let down his players in regard to two key decisions and accusing Attwell of “hiding” behind Pawson on both calls. Exultant in victory, Max Verstappen revelled in his success at the Mexican Grand Prix. He was clearly aware of the significance of the achievement. From third on the grid he beat Lewis Hamilton into second place and the win crashed with thunderous import across the championship, his joy surely informed by the knowledge that he has opened a 19-point lead that leaves Hamilton facing a huge challenge to overcome in the title fight, with only four more races to come.

Marcus Smith simply must play at No 10 for England in the rugby Test against Australia this week, full stop. Not to select him would, frankly, be akin to an act of cultural vandalism. Beaten 41-32 in the 2017 World Cup final by New Zealand, England’s Red Roses have now put 99 points on the current champions across two one-sided contests. The latest result, a battering at Franklin’s Gardens, underlined a seismic shift in the global power balance. Emma Raducanu says she has told the people around her that she refuses to allow any off-court commitments since her US Open triumph to influence her work on the court, and training will always be the priority.

Business output has fallen for the sixth month in a row amid the supply chain crisis, energy price rises and a shortages of workers. Activity hit its lowest level since March during the last national coronavirus lockdown, according to accountancy firm BDO. Its measure fell from 105.23 points in September to 103.35 points in October. The FTSE100 will open flat this morning while the pound is on $1.347 and €1.166.

The Guardian leads with “Watchdog hits out at ministers over top jobs”, and also has more on the possible ban on MPs taking consultancy roles. The Mirror leads with “Cops told: probe Tory Lords scandal”, the i has “PM battles to contain Tory sleaze backlash”, and the Scotsman’s splash is “SNP in call for police probe as Tory sleaze row deepens”. The Times leads on “Doctors set to be barred from jobs in richer areas” while the Telegraph has advice from a former health secretary: “Hancock: Jab NHS staff before winter hits”. The Express says “On the brink! Brexit trade war looms” and the Mail has “New fears over micro plastics in your home”. The FT splash is “French prosecutors probe Gupta operations over ‘misuse of assets’”.

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