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Monday, June 26, 2017

Is Wales being complacent over fire risk in high rise buildings?

The latest news that sixty tower blocks across England have been found to have unsafe cladding is deeply disturbing. At the time much of this cladding was installed it complied with fire regulations. It appears that this is not the case now. But what about Wales?

In my view there needs to be an urgent review of building regulations so as to ensure that they are fit for purpose and to take account of new construction methods. That is a devolved function so why has the Welsh Government not announced that it is doing this work, or at least given an indication that it will do so once the causes of the fire are better understood?

The Welsh Government has offered reassurance that the material used in cladding schemes on our 36 social housing tower blocks is different to that affixed to the Grenfell Tower, Much of that cladding is mineral based and is therefore non-combustible. And with that information the media has refocused is attention on England. But is that enough?

I do not believe that there is any immediate threat to social tenants living in high rise blocks in Wales but I do think that more work needs to be done to reinforce the assurances that have been given to them. It is vital that tests are carried out immediately on all the materials used in cladding those blocks and the outcome of those tests publicised. Why is so little known about whether this is happening?

Equally as important we need to better understand the way that the cladding has been affixed to these buildings. Experts have said that the fire spread so quickly at the Grenfell Tower because the cladding was affixed to vertical pillars creating effective chimneys that carried the flames upwards. Is that a standard means of carrying out this work? Is that the case in Wales? If so then it may need to be revisited to break up those vertical funnels.

There has been a lot of focus on the 36 social housing towers in Wales and all those who own these buildings have done a lot of work on calming the fears of tenants, but very little seems to be known about other high rise buildings. Housing Associations own a number of towers, including in Swansea. Should they not be publishing the outcome of their investigations?

Seven of these blocks have been retrofitted with sprinkler systems, a tribute to the far-sightedness of the Welsh Assembly in insisting on passing a law requiring sprinklers in all new buildings. But isn't it time that the remaining blocks were also retrofitted in this way? Hard wired smoke alarms and robust safety instructions are important, but if a fire can be snuffed out as soon as it starts then that is invaluable.

There are also a large number of high rise towers in private ownership, many of which contain sub-let flats. Nobody knows what cladding or construction methods have been used on these towers. In many cases the developer would have overseen building regulation approval themselves under a delegated scheme agreed with local councils.

There are also non-residential public buildings containing offices which have been over-clad, not to mention cladding that has been affixed to schools and hospitals.

I do not raise these issues to create any sense of panic. I have no evidence that any of these buildings are at risk. However, I expect the Welsh Government and local councils to be seen putting together an action plan that over a short period of time will examine all these buildings and put in place any action needed to ensure they meet the highest possible safety standards.

We are getting regular updates on what is happening in England with regards to this work. Money is being promised to help to correct any deficiencies. Can we now see the same sense of urgency in Wales?

Sunday, June 25, 2017

For those who couldn't afford to go to Glastonbury

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Expectations of a compliant media are anti-democratic

Tim Farron's description of Andrea Leadsom's comments to the BBC last night as 'sinister' and 'stupid' just about hits the nail on the head.

The Leader of the House of Commons' comment to Emily Maitlis was: “It would be helpful if broadcasters were willing to be a bit patriotic. The country took a decision, this government is determined to deliver on that decision.”

It is difficult to know where to start with his crass remark except to say that for a democratically elected politician to try and shut down legitimate scrutiny and criticism in this way goes beyond stupid. It demonstrates an anti-democratic mindset and a complete misunderstanding of the democratic process.

Democracy exists to protect the rights of minorities not to impose the will of the majority. It is meant to foster robust debate and encourage contrasting opinions. Any government minister who fails to understand that is in the wrong job.

Last year's referendum was non-binding, was fought on false pretences and lies and was close enough to justify a confirmatory vote once any deal has been agreed. It was also a snapshot of opinion at that particular time. It is no more set in stone than the 1976 vote that confirmed our membership.

If this is what the Tory party has been reduced to in the place of argument and persuasion then no wonder the government is floundering.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Why we must not have a coronation for Lib Dem leader

I am beginning to feel a bit unloved by the Liberal Democrat MPs. Every time I come to a decision as to my preferred choice for leader, that person rules themselves out of the contest.

Like many members my initial preference was for Jo Swinson. I reasoned that she was young, a mother with experiences of the outside world but also somebody who had held ministerial office and had real accomplishments to show for that time in government.

The fact that Jo would have been the party's first female leader would have been a bonus of course, but her appeal lay in her freshness and her ability to relate to non-political people.

It is true that her voting record as part of the coalition could become an issue but that is also the case for every other leadership contender and for the party itself. What matters (and this is the first test) is how the new leader moves us on from that, building on the work Tim Farron has already done.

Alas, and for perfectly understandable reasons, Jo Swinson decided that she was not ready to stand for leader, preferring to serve an apprenticeship as Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Group instead.

My second choice was Norman Lamb. Norman has impressed me since he entered Parliament. His directness, his thoughtful approach to issues and the air of quiet competence he projects would be a welcome contrast to the blundering of Theresa May and the bluster of Jeremy Corbyn.

Norman has also made a name for himself as a minister and for his campaigning on mental health issues. He is a politician who commands respect across political divides.

I did not vote for Norman the first time around because I judged that we needed a more high profile campaigner who was not tainted by a government record. The needs of the party are different this time around.

Norman's problem of course was that he defied the party whip and abstained on article 50. Given so many of the party's membership joined over that issue his candidacy might have been a tough-sell, Norman certainly appears to have thought so. He writes in the Guardian:

I abstained on article 50 because I felt it was wrong in principle to vote against, given that we had all voted to hold the referendum in the first place. For many in the party that abstention was an act of betrayal. I have been accused of supporting a hard Brexit – the last thing I want – while a Lib Dem source told the London Evening Standard this week that the abstention “looks like he can’t make a tough call”. It is actually quite tough to go against your party, and I did it on a matter of principle.

I happen to disagree with Norman on article 50, but he has confirmed that he supports the party's call for a referendum on the final deal and that is good enough for me, though actually it might not be a bad thing for the new leader to take a more nuanced approach to the Brexit issue.

It was clear that our message on Brexit failed to resonate with voters and that in many places it was misunderstood. Putting Norman at the head of the party would have sent a signal to both leavers and remainers that we want to listen to both sides, whilst doing our best to secure a deal that will keep us in the single market and keeps freedom of movement.

What struck me most about Norman's article was the way it articulated many of the reasons why he should have run for leader:

We need to understand why so many people get frustrated with remote power – something that Liberals should understand. The Europrean Union is too often dysfunctional and sclerotic, yet progressive internationalists have been reluctant to admit this. While we have always recognised the need for reform of the EU, the Liberal Democrats have been perceived as being too tolerant of its failings.

My great frustration is that instead of the name-calling, what we need is for progressives to engage in fresh thinking on how we achieve a new settlement with the EU – one that secures free trade, jobs, security partnerships and our place in the customs union.

I want the Liberal Democrats to use our potentially pivotal position in parliament to force cross-party working on the profound challenges we face: not just the Brexit negotiations, but how we secure the future of the NHS and our care system.

If I had decided to run for leader, I would have used my position to champion a different style of politics – rejecting the abuse and aggression that turns so many people off, and instead seeking to build consensus where possible in the national interest. I favour telling it straight, not dissembling – bringing people together rather than dividing them. The public will not forgive the political class if we fail to understand the changed circumstances of a parliament with no majority. We don’t need an early election. We need a new style of politics.

None of this should be taken as meaning that I favour a mushy, value-free equidistance from the other two main parties. You can be a pluralist and hold passionate views. I am a Liberal to my core. I know that we are supposed to mellow with age, but I have done the opposite. I have become more angry and impatient with injustice and gross inequality.

In those few paragraphs Norman has set out what the leadership election should be about, how we redefine ourselves as a party. in the face of the challenges posed by mass migration, Brexit, extremism, terrorism and social change. As Norman says, so many of those challenges were ignored during the General Election. He continues:

Whether it is tenants in tower blocks; people with learning disabilities; workers with no stake in an enterprise watching as the owners of capital take an ever growing percentage of our national income, and their own wages fall; the citizen who feels powerless against remote power, whether at the town hall, Westminster or Brussels – these are the things that drive me on, keep me fighting for justice.

He concludes:

How do we address gross intergenerational inequality, or the impact of automation on jobs we assumed would always be there? How do we fund and improve our public services as the ratio of taxpaying workers to pensioners changes so radically? How do we respond effectively to a new wave of violent extremism, in a way that doesn’t harm our way of life? And then there’s the potentially apocalyptic challenge of climate change, and how to protect those most severely affected by it.

If the progressive side of politics is to prevail, we can’t just hanker after a better yesterday. We have to win the battle of ideas about how we confront these profound challenges.

The party needs a full and proper debate on issues such as these. We need a leader who understands the challenges and who is able to ask the right questions of government and the electorate as well as pose some answers.

It is for these reasons that we cannot have a coronation. There must be a contest in which members and politicians alike can join in this crucial debate on the future of our party, our country, our way of life.

If our group of 12 MPs fail to facilitate such a contest then they will have failed the membership, but more importantly they would have failed the future of liberalism itself.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Constitutional crisis or hubris?

Yesterday's Queen's Speech was notable not just for the Queen's Euro hat but for the fact that it is still uncertain whether the Prime Minister can command a majority to get it through the House of Commons.

The chances are that the DUP will vote for the speech because to do otherwise will remove their bargaining power. It seems to me that Arlene Foster's party views these talks more like a form of Chinese water torture rather than the better defined process Theresa May had hoped for. If that is the case then we could be in for a prolonged period of suffering on the part of the Conservative Government.

Of course what happens to the Government's programme after the Queen's speech is passed and the DUP finally get on board is a moot point. A confidence and supply deal may not be enough to get many of these bills through in the form envisaged by the Prime Minister.

That is evident from the article in yesterday's Telegraph, which reports that Theresa May is facing a constitutional crisis after Labour and the Liberal Democrats threatened to use the House of Lords to water down Brexit.

Some might say that this is a just punishment for a Tory Party who failed to reform the House of Lords when Nick Clegg gave them the opportunity, and who threw away their majority just a few weeks ago. I am not going to demur from that judgement.

The question I would pose is whether this is a constitutional crisis at all. After all no one party has a majority or a mandate, so all the usual conventions do not apply. In these circumstances this is exactly how our antiquated constitution is meant to work.

Time for reform. Yes, please. But why wasn't that reform in the Queen's speech, The answer lies in Theresa May's hubris in thinking she can carry on with business as usual, instead of building a consensus for her policies, following a very personal rejection of her and her party at the General Election.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Labour divisions continue over Brexit

With the Queen's speech due to take place later today, despite the fact that Theresa May has proved incapable of negotiating an agreement with the DUP, it is more important than ever that Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party turns a lead in the opinion polls into a coherent opposition narrative if the Tories are to be held to account. Unfortunately, for the country and for Labour such coherence remains unattainable.

As the Independent reports, more than 30 Labour MPs have reopened the party’s split over Brexit by demanding Jeremy Corbyn campaigns to keep Britain in the single market. These rebels have urged the Labour leader not to “throw in the towel” by aping Theresa May in arguing withdrawal is inevitable when Britain leaves the EU.

They have warned that quitting the single market will extend austerity for many years after an independent forecast of a £31bn hit to the public finances. They argue that in agreeing Britain will leave the trading arrangement, Mr Corbyn is siding with a “motley crew of hard-right, pro-Brexit Tories” – including Michael Gove. Boris Johnson, John Redwood and Iain Duncan Smith:

A letter penned by the 34 MPs reads: “We must be clear – “access” to the European single market is both different and inferior to “membership” of the single market.

“Why? Because, if we leave the single market, whatever the level of access is negotiated, working people across Britain will be worse off and revenue to the exchequer will plummet – revenue the next Labour government will need to bring an end to years of damaging Tory austerity.”

And it adds: “At the very least we should strongly oppose May’s decision to take membership off the table in these negotiations.

“An ambitious and confident alternative government – with Corbyn at the helm – should not throw in the towel as May has done, but could seek membership with reforms on immigration and the other matters we seek.”

Signatories to the letter include Labour big-hitters Chuka Umunna, Maria Eagle, Liz Kendall, Stella Creasy, Pat McFadden, Ann Clwyd, Chris Bryant and Ben Bradshaw and it follows growing dismay among the MPs at Labour’s confused and – they argue – timid stance on Brexit:

In the last Parliament, Labour said it would leave the single market, voting against an amendment to the Article 50 Bill which sought to keep Britain inside.

Its election manifesto then talked of “fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union”.

In recent days, both Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer and Barry Gardiner, the trade spokesman, have hinted that Labour would try to stay in a “reformed” single market.

But John McDonnell, the shadow Chancellor, ruled that out, saying: “I can’t see it even being on the table in the negotiations, I don’t think it’s feasible.”

What a mess, but nevertheless evidence that those who are opposed to Brexit only have the Liberal Democrats to turn to on a UK level.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Are demographic trends killing off the Tory Party?

The Independent carries an interesting theory postulated by the former Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine. He has warned that the Conservative Party's electoral base is dying off at a rate of 2 per cent a year.

The 84-year-old’s comments come weeks after the Tory party failed to achieve an overall majority in Parliament while Labour enjoyed a gain of more than 30 seats, defying the polls and commentators.

“One thing which is just worth having in mind, and you can't do anything about it, 2 per cent of the older part of the electorate die every year - they are 70 per cent Conservative,” Lord Heseltine told Sky News. ”Another 2 per cent come in at the young end of the electorate - they are about 70 per cent Labour. That's about 2 per cent change each year. There isn't that much time.“

This is an extreme example of a core vote strategy but is of course flawed as it assumes that the age split in the recent General Election in which most of the under-55s voted Labour and those over-55 backed the Tories, is set in stone.

It does however reveal a certain mindset within the Tory Party, specifically where they think their support lies and what factors are taken into account when designing their manifesto and governing the country.

It is little wonder that the Tories are opposed to lowering the voting age to 16.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Theresa May's Immigration cap could depress economy further says report

Can Theresa May's Conservative/DUP Government be any more incompetent? Well, according to a report from independent consultancy RepGraph, featured in the Independent, the Prime Minister's pursuit of her unrealistic immigration targets could well cause major problems for the economy unless they are abandoned.

Their detailed study of EU nationals has found that the Prime Minister's post-Brexit plan to slash immigration will have a devastating “double whammy” impact. They say that May's stubborn refusal to dump her “tens of thousands” cap on net migration would not only cut off a vital supply of labour, but deepen existing shortages in key sectors.

They want the Government to base future immigration policy on “economic need” instead of an arbitrary numerical target like that maintained by May:

RepGraph concluded that a “blanket approach to reducing migration” focusing on low-skilled workers could have “a doubly negative impact” by both withdrawing a critical labour supply and compounding existing skills shortages.

Laying waste to arguments for a system that only allows highly qualified individuals in, the report instead underlines the desperate need the UK economy has for low-skilled employees.

“Low-skilled migrants are filling gaps in the workforce where the need is greatest,” the report concludes. It sets out that industries employing the largest number and proportion of low-skilled EU workers are those already suffering the most acute labour shortages, while there are far fewer EU citizens taking high-skilled jobs in sectors that tend to have low labour shortages.

In particular, the study concluded that the Government’s target to cut annual net migration to under 100,000 would disproportionately hit sectors with existing shortages – including accommodation and food, administration and support, wholesale, retail and vehicle repair, manufacturing and construction. 

RepGraph, which analysed Office for National Statistics data, found that the 2.1 million EU citizens make up a small proportion of the UK workforce, some 7 per cent, but only a fifth are in highly skilled jobs – with most employed in London and the South-east, and fewest in the North-east and Wales.

Of the 10 sectors with the most acute shortages, seven have above average EU migrant employment – at around 16 per cent on average, compared with 7 per cent in the economy as a whole.

The report finds tha EU workers are almost four times as likely to be found in a low-skilled job in industry with acute shortages than in a high-skilled post without such problems:

In wholesale, retail and vehicle repair, the proportion of EU workers in the lowest skilled posts is five times higher than in the high-skilled positions. In transport and storage, it is more than eight times higher and in manufacturing almost seven times greater.

Education, health and social work, science and communications have the most EU nationals employed at the highest skill levels.

The study concluded: “Any decrease in EU immigrants is therefore more likely to affect the ability to employ people in jobs requiring the lowest level of skill and less likely to affect the jobs requiring the highest level of skill, and could exacerbate skills shortages where they are already most acutely felt.”

If Theresa May persists with her ideological and illogical targets she could well undermine our economy.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

In this city the ordinary cat lives an extraordinary life

'They say that cats know that God exists. Cats know we're only the middlemen.'

This documentary looks like it is well worth downloading.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

It is time for some dignity in the Liberal Democrat leadership contest

Can we all calm down a little please? Tim Farron has announced that he is standing down at the start of the summer recess, he has put in place a shadow cabinet containing many talented MPs and will continue to provide a constructive opposition to the government. The party has not yet put in place a timetable for the leadership contest and yet already the various camps have started to brief against each other.

Closed Liberal Democrat groups are awash with confused members asking whether such and such a rumour about a particular candidate is true or not. Newspapers are carrying tales of ageism, selective voting records under the coalition when, let's face it all the leading contenders were Ministers and bound by collective responsibility, and speculation about the merits and demerits of various MPs.

On the positive side at least we are being talked about again. But the negatives are greater, not least that we are starting to come across as self-indulgently inward-looking at a time of social upheaval and national crisis.

And can we think about the impression we are making on the many new members who have joined since 2015 and who could be voting in a leadership contest for the first time. Surely they have a right to expect a robust but dignified contest fought around the positive qualities of each candidate and competing visions for the country and how we can build Liberal Democracy from its roots once more.

For goodness sake, we don't even know who is going to stand and yet some people who I will charitably consider to be living in a Westminster bubble and out of touch with real life, are seeking to limit our choice by talking down possible contenders.

These shadowy figures need to read this editorial in the Independent. They argue that the one thing the Liberal Democrats should learn from recent history is the importance of a properly contested leadership election:

'Ms May’s weakness as a campaigner was exposed in the general election; it should have been tested at the hustings in front of party members last year. Ms Swinson, Sir Vince and any other contenders for the Lib Dem leadership should not make the same mistake. They need to be given the chance to take their campaigns to party members and to use the contest to exploit media interest.'

They conclude that 'there is still a need for a party that is committed to the free movement of people in Europe, that stands for liberal values and that is more sceptical than Labour about tax, spend, nationalise and borrow. For the sake of democracy, the Liberal Democrats must regain their confidence under a new leader.'

Please give us a real choice, but keep it real, keep it clean and fight that contest with some dignity.

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