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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Jeremy Corbyn rules out sngle market membership after Brexit

News reports say that Jeremy Corbyn has committed Labour to leaving the single market, in the mistaken belief that membership is tied in with being in the European Community. However, his interpretation of the rules was immediately challenged by one of the main rebels on the EU within the Labour Parliamentary Party:

The Labour leader’s explanation of his party’s Brexit policy was questioned by the former shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, one of the party’s leading advocates of a soft Brexit, who pointed out that several countries including Norway were members of the single market without being full EU members:

Corbyn told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “The single market is dependent on membership of the EU. What we have said all along is that we want a tariff free trade access to the European market and a partnership with Europe in the future.

"The two things are inextricably linked so the question then is the kind of trade relationship of the future and we have made it very clear we want a tariff free trade access with the European market.”

Corbyn also said the party had not decided on whether Labour’s policy should be to remain in the customs union, but claimed that was also firmly linked to being a member of the EU. “We haven’t jumped on either side of that fence but, again, the customs union is part of the European Union.”

All of this of course, is contrary to the views of most Labour members as well as the many thousands of young people who flocked to Labour's banner on 8th June. How much longer can Corbyn get away with this inherent contradiction whilst at the same time backing the Tories on delivering a hard Brexit?

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Why Deborah Orr is wrong about the Liberal Democrats

The by-line says it all - Deborah Orr is a Guardian columnist, and in that capacity she is obliged to find so many hundreds of words each day to bore us with her wisdom. It is easy to find fault, the hard part is to have something constructive and useful to say, as no doubt I will now prove.

In the latest diatribe, Ms. Orr lambasts Vince Cable for his failure to grasp the nettle ten years ago and save us all from the dreadful coalition government. She says that the best that could be said for Nick Clegg is that he was not Chris Huhne and alleges that the Liberal Democrats squandered their best chance to introduce AV, even though it is a half-hearted compromise and not party policy.

She says that by putting Cameron in power the Liberal Democrats set in chain the events that led to us leaving the EU, to the collapse of social justice and the reassertion of two party politics, which for so long we were the main alternative to.

Now counter-factual history is not an exact science, it is actually a form of fiction, so one would expect some justification for these conclusions. Instead Orr embarks on a more reasoned demolition of the first past the post system and why it needs to be replaced.

For, whatever else one might say about Nick Clegg, at least he tried to make a difference, at least he made the effort to put in place key Liberal Democrat policies. And yes, there were times when he was naïve, out-of-touch, when he failed to assert himself properly, and broke promises but I suspect history will prove far kinder to him than the rant that masquerades as Orr's opinion column.

The first question is what were the alternatives in 2010? A coalition with Labour was a non-starter, it would not have commanded a majority in the Commons, could not have provided stable government and would have quickly collapsed in its own contradictions. So it was a choice trying to influence government and put into effect Liberal Democrats policies with Cameron or walk away altogether.

If Clegg had walked away, my view and that of many others is that we would have had a minority Tory Government followed by a second General Election in which Cameron would have secured a majority. Austerity would have been more severe, without the constraining influence of the Liberal Democrats, the referendum on Europe would have come sooner and AV would not even have made it to the floor of the House of Commons.

In Government the Liberal Democrats achieved some important reforms, the green investment bank, the pupil premium, raising the income tax threshold to take millions of low paid workers out of paying that tax altogether, equal marriage, reforms to industrial policy and many more. They held back the sort of cuts to welfare that the Tories subsequently embarked on in 2015 once they had a majority and they kept the UK firmly within the EU.

There were negatives, the bedroom tax, the tuition fee debacle and NHS reforms amongst them, when Clegg should have listened to his party and put his foot down. But the balance sheet is one to be proud of not one to run away from.

At the end of the day it is the electorate that decides who should be in government, not the Liberal Democrats. Politicians do their best with the cards that are dealt to them. The mess we are in now is the result of forces that are reflected elsewhere in the world, the anti-politics movement, disenchantment with the establishment, the search (once again) for a form of messiah who will lead us to a promised land. To seek to blame it all on the Liberal Democrats is perverse in the extreme.

The one bright light in all of this gloom is the diminished band of Liberal Democrats MPs and the 100,000 plus members who continue to fight for internationalism, liberalism, social justice and against the forces of reaction. Vince Cable and my party offer hope. We are in no way the spent force Deborah Orr imagines.


Friday, July 21, 2017

Tory take-out-the-trash day underlines the weakness of government

The Tory government used the last day of the Parliamentary term this week to off-load a whole host of unpopular announcements, whilst avoiding any proper scrutiny of the decisions.

As the Guardian relates, Theresa May's ministers dumped dozens of official documents online on parliament’s last day of term, showing the police force numbers have dropped to a 30-year low and the number of soldiers has fallen by 7,000.

The paper says that the government has published very little for weeks after the election but about 22 written statements and dozens of Whitehall reports were released on Thursday, just as MPs embark on their long summer break:

The tactic – known as “take out the trash day” – means MPs will not be able to scrutinise the information properly while parliament is away for the next seven weeks. The statements included a damning human rights assessment of the UK’s ally Saudi Arabia, the cancellation of the electrification of a key railway and a decision to opt into some new EU regulations on crime-fighting, even though the UK is heading for Brexit.

The cancellation of the electrification of a key railway relates to Cardiff to Swansea, which was the subject of a firm promise by UK Government Ministers, alas now broken. It was Liberal Democrats Ministers in the Coalition Government who secured the extension to Swansea, now the Tories have reneged on that commitment.

The Guardian outlines the revelations in the set of documents, which include:

• A drop of 0.7% to 123,142 police officers across all ranks in England and Wales at the end of March this year. This is the lowest number at the end of a financial year since comparable records began in 1996.

• Warnings in a separate Foreign Office report that there are grave concerns about the human rights situations in countries such as Saudi Arabia, China and Bahrain though many of the countries listed bought billions of pounds of arms from the UK.

Britain has sold £3.3bn worth of arms to Saudi Arabia in the past two years alone, including licences for aircraft, drones, grenades, and missiles. The Foreign Office report said the UK is “deeply concerned about the application of the death penalty” in Saudi Arabia and restrictions on freedom of expression, as well as women’s rights.

Bahrain, one of the first countries visited by May when she became prime minister, is criticised for locking up pro-democracy activists, such as the writer Nabeel Rajab. Other countries of concern listed included Afghanistan, Burundi, China, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar, Russia, Syria and Yemen.

• The decision to scrap the electrification of train lines, which had been heralded as a way of making the rail network faster, greener and cleaner, after massive budget overruns of billions of pounds.

• A statement showing that the UK plans to opt into new Brussels regulations allowing for more cross-border police cooperation in cases where children are at risk of parental abduction – news that pro-EU campaigners said demonstrates the risks of a hard Brexit, which might force the UK to abandon the deal.

• A report showing that schools and colleges do not currently have the capacity to teach all pupils maths until they are 18, with about a decade needed to expand capacity.

It appears that, having lost their Parliamentary majority, the Tories are now running scared of effective scrutiny.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

UK letting down child refugees

The Guardian reports that not a single extra lone child refugee has been brought to Britain from Europe under the “Dubs amendment” this year.

An urgent Commons question raised by the outgoing Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, brought forth cross-party criticism that it is taking too long to process eligible refugee children in Europe to bring them to Britain.

The paper says that Home Office ministers have confirmed in written answers that only 200 children were transferred under Dubs in 2016 after the closure of the Calais camp and 280 local authority places remain to be filled:

The Dubs amendment, known as section 67, was passed in April 2016 amid a campaign to bring 3,000 lone refugee children stuck in camps in Europe to Britain. Ministers initially estimated local authority capacity at 350 but extended it to 480 in April after saying there had been “an administrative error” in the initial figure.

Lily Caprani, of Unicef UK, said: “It’s unacceptable that we have seen no children brought under the Dubs scheme this year. As a nation we showed our compassion and our principles when we helped refugee children stranded in Calais, but we were told this was not the end of the story. We are seeing too many children still having to make dangerous journeys to reach safety.”

In the Commons, Farron said it was hard to see the government’s response as anything more than lip service and demanded to know when the “measly commitment” of 480 would be met. “I have visited the camps in Greece and elsewhere – something neither the home secretary nor the prime minister have done. I have met these children who, through no fault of their own, find their lives paused as ministers have chosen to ignore them,” said the Lib Dem leader.

“Has the UK government even signed a memorandum of understanding with Greece to get these transfers under way? I know of two young people who signed a consent form to be transferred under Dubs over a year ago. They are still stuck in Greece.”

This Tory UK Government is failing its humanitarian responsibilities.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Ending EU rip-off card charges - another benefit of EU membership

Surely even this Brexit inclined Tory Government and their Labour Party Brexit allies cannot miss the irony of us leaving the EU at a time when the benefits of remaining for ordinary working people are becoming more and more obvious.

First the EU abolish mobile phone roaming charges for the many UK citizens who like to holiday on the continent, enabling us to make calls, send texts and use the internet without any extra charge, and now they have effectively got rid of those extra charges that are added whenever we pay for something with a credit card.

Of course the UK Government are trying to claim that they have enhanced the change by also banning charges for holders of American Express cards and users of services such as PayPal and Apple Pay, but essentially this is a European initiative that would not have come about if we had not been a member of the EU.

What is more, this change does not just affect that charging policies of companies such as Ryanair, EasyJet, restaurants and others, it also impacts on Government and local authorities, both of which have been 'ripping us off' for a little bit extra when we have used a card to pay our bills.

As the Guardian points out, these fees have been a moneyspinner for some government departments and official bodies. They will also be banned from imposing these charges:

The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency currently adds a flat fee of £2.50 to vehicle tax payments by credit card, and its own data has previously suggested that it collects more than £8.5m a year in these charges.

Similarly, HM Revenue & Customs charges a fee for paying a tax bill by credit card, which ranges from 0.374% to 2.406%, depending on whether it is a personal or corporate card – but, like the DVLA, it will no longer be able to do this from 13 January.

The practice, known as surcharging, is common practice across the country, said the Treasury, with many businesses and organisations charging people to make card payments, or for using other services such as PayPal. Many industries had already acted to absorb the cost and not pass these on to consumers, but these rules would bring an end to the practice entirely, added a spokesman.

There do not appear to be any recent official figures for how much these surcharges are costing consumers, but the government has previously calculated that credit and debit card surcharges totalled between £316m and £630m in 2010. It suggested a “best estimate” of around £473m for that year.

They add that a number of local authorities also impose handling fees when people pay for services by credit card. At Hammersmith and Fulham council in London the fee is 1.25%, while Richmond upon Thames charges 1.65%. Both councils said they did not profit from these fees.

The abolition of these charges are long overdue. Roll on January 2018. Thank goodness we had the EU to take the initiative.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Labour leadership out of step with membership on Brexit

As Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership team cosy up to the Prime Minister in pursuit of a hard Brexit, it is becoming evident that his position is not shared by many of those who voted Labour last month nor by his party members.

The Guardian reports that support for Britain to remain in the EU single market and customs union is overwhelming among Labour party members. Research carried out as part of the Party Members Project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council shows that more than eight out of 10 think the UK should stay in Europe’s key trading blocs and heavy backing for a second referendum.

They say that the figures could pile pressure on Jeremy Corbyn over his party’s position on Brexit, which is currently against maintaining full single market membership, because he is determined to give members a bigger voice:

On Brexit, the survey revealed that their views are fiercely pro-EU, including that:
Whilst he continues to co-operate with the Tories on delivering a hard Brexit, Corbyn remains isolated amongst the vast majority of the young people who backed him in the General Election and his own party membership.

Monday, July 17, 2017

A weak leader and a dysfunctional cabinet

All the political controversy over the weekend centred on the UK Government's cabinet, which it appears, is disintegrating before our eyes.  The Independent reports that the so-called 'strong and stable' Tory Government is tearing itself apart.

They say that Chancellor, Philip Hammond lifted the lid on Cabinet feuding by claiming damaging stories about him had come from fellow ministers out to get him because he is pushing for a softer Brexit:

Mr Hammond all but admitted a report that he had told the Cabinet that public sector workers are “overpaid” was true – while denying he had said “even a woman” can drive a train.

Asked why colleagues are “going for you”, he pointed to disputes over Brexit, saying: “If you want my opinion, some of the noise is generated by people who are not happy with the agenda that I have.”

Mr Farron added: “Philip Hammond recognises that leaving the single market would be catastrophic for the UK economy, yet Theresa May and much of the Conservative Cabinet is pushing through a disastrous extreme Brexit.”

And Jeremy Corbyn said: “It seems quite extraordinary that we’re having varying accounts coming out of every Cabinet meeting about who said what to who and at what point in the meeting they said it, and everybody saying nothing actually happened.”

Meanwhile, there is a massive row developing over the way the UK Government is pushing back against devolution in its Great Repeal Bill. The excuse appears to be that it is necessary for previously devolved powers to be held at Westminster so as negotiate trade deals, after which they will be given back to the various national Parliaments.

The catch with this explanation is that there is no fixed end-point for that process and given the poor negotiating skills already demonstrated by UK Ministers, the length of time these deals take to put together and the point we are starting from, the powers may never be returned.

Brexit is rapidly turning into an omnishambles.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Brexit own goals that could leave the UK isolated

The Independent reports on claims that France is actively seeking to exploit Brexit to disrupt and degrade Britain's lucrative financial sector.

They say that former foreign office minister Jeremy Browne, who acts as the City of London's envoy on Brexit, believes that the French see the British as “adversaries” in the forthcoming withdrawal negotiations:

In a memorandum leaked to the Mail On Sunday, he said his talks in Paris have been “the worst I have had anywhere in the EU”, with the French open about their desire to see the UK weakened.

Following a visit to the French capital earlier this month, Mr Browne said the mood had been made “more giddy and more assertive” by the election of President Emmanuel Macron.

His comments will reinforce fears among critics of Brexit that other EU countries will exploit the UK's withdrawal to take away lucrative business.

Mr Browne, who met banking chiefs, senior politicians and diplomats, wrote: “They are crystal clear about their underlying objective: the weakening of Britain, the ongoing degradation of the City of London.

“The meeting with the French Central Bank was the worst I have had anywhere in the EU. They are in favour of the hardest Brexit. They want disruption. They actively seek disaggregation of financial services provision.

“Every country, not unreasonably, is alive to the opportunities that Brexit provides, but the French go further, making a virtue of rejecting a partnership model with Britain and seemingly happy to see outcomes detrimental to the City of London even if Paris is not the beneficiary.”

The Daily Mail have portrayed this as a French declaration of war on the UK but in fact the reverse is the case. It is the UK who has scored a massive own-goal by voting for Brexit. We are now reaping the consequences with other countries lining up to pick the low-hanging fruit.

If the Mail really cared about the UK's interests then they would be better off demanding that we back off from Brexit altogether.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Students should have a vote on the Higher Education gravy train

Whatever you think about tuition fees, and I remain opposed to the concept, they have changed the nature of higher education. A public service has become a market place, in which universities compete not for the best and brightest, but for lucrative fee income and where courses rise and fall on their popularity rather than their academic merits.

The name of the game is expansion as Vice Chancellors build up little educational empires and seek to exploit every avenue to boost budgets to pay for their ambitions. They have morphed from being the head of an educational establishment into the role of Chief Executive, and rewards have grown exponentially in response to that change.

The Independent reports on one Vice Chancellor who has defended his £230,000 salary despite accusations by a former higher education minister that institutions’ top managements are operating a “cartel”. They say that the average university vice chancellor salary is now £275,000, while fees have increased from zero to £9,250 a year in two decades and are now the world’s highest for public institutions.

It is difficult not to sympathise with Andrew Adonis, a former HE minister, who believes that salaries for top management should be slashed across the sector to show “leadership". His priority of spending the money on abolishing fees however, could be questioned.

That is not because I want fees to remain, I don't, but because the research I have seen is the most pernicious and damaging debt for graduates is that they build up on day to day living and course expenses whilst in college.

Tuition fee debt is only repayable after you reach earnings of £21,000. You only repay 9% of everything you earn over that threshold and any remaining debt is written off after 30 years. This debt does not count against your credit rating so it does not affect your ability to take out a mortgage. None of this is true for debts accrued in the more traditional way for living costs.

It is my view that in the first instance, the rest of the UK should follow the example of Wales in re-establishing substantial maintenance grants for Welsh students. As this article points out, the new support package in Wales will cover those who start their course in 2018/19, wherever in the UK they choose to study. Every student will be entitled to support equivalent to the national living wage:

'This means that eligible full-time students will receive maintenance support of £11,250 if they study in London and £9,000 per year elsewhere if they live away from home.

This will be delivered through a mix of loans and grants, unlike in England where zero maintenance grants are available. Very small, limited grants are available in Scotland, but they too are currently reviewing the system.

Welsh students from the lowest household income will receive the highest grant – £8,100 in their pocket, and more in London. Our estimates suggest that a third of full-time students will be eligible for that full grant.

Furthermore, our data shows that the average household income for a student in our current system is around £25,000. Under the new system such a student will receive around £7,000 a year in their pocket.

However, potentially the most radical element of our reforms is to provide equivalent support for part-time and postgraduate students. Wales will be the first in Europe to achieve this. For the first time, part-time undergraduates will receive similar support for maintenance, pro-rata to their full-time counterparts.'

There is a case at the same time to raise the income threshold at which tuition fee loans are repaid from £21,000 and to reduce the interest payable on those loans. Once we have done that we can then look at how we can pay to get rid of the tuition fee altogether.

But back to Vice Chancellors. The other side-effect of tuition fees was the empowering of students. If Universities are going to turn Higher Education into a market place then it is students who are the consumers, and they need to flex their muscles in that capacity much more.

It is time Universities treated their students more like shareholders, with a say in key issues such as how they spend their money. If student facilities are more important than Vice Chancellor remuneration then that is how the cash should be allocated.  After all students' money that is being used to fund some of this expenditure.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Is the Great Repeal Bill a Great White Snark?

What else can you call a piece of potential legislation that seeks the elusive outcome of Brexit whilst rolling back or preying on the democratic advances of the last few decades around devolution and human rights?

Theresa May's Great Repeal Bill is an extraordinary power grab by Ministers intent on undermining democratically voted-on devolution settlements, whilst allowing them to indulge hobby horses such as attacking the enshrinement of human rights into UK law.

It makes Henry VIII's reformation look like a picnic in the park, whilst utilising mechanisms that the Tudor King initiated to effectively by-pass Parliament, where the Tories don't have a majority on key policy issues that have never been put before the electorate.

It is little wonder that the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales have said that they cannot support the Bill, or that Human Rights Groups have expressed serious concerns. The Guardian reports on an extraordinary coalition between Wales' and Scotland' leading political parties::

In a joint statement, Sturgeon and Jones said: “We have repeatedly tried to engage with the UK government on these matters and have put forward constructive proposals about how we can deliver an outcome which will protect the interests of all the nations in the UK, safeguard our economies and respect devolution.

“Regrettably, the bill does not do this. Instead, it is a naked power grab, an attack on the founding principles of devolution and could destabilise our economies.”

The government confirmed that it would seek the backing of Holyrood and the Welsh assembly for the aspects of the legislation that affect devolved powers, through a “legislative consent motion”. But Sturgeon and Jones made clear they would not offer their approval unless the legislation was substantially redrafted.

The government could still insist on pressing ahead – but doing so would underline the divisions within the United Kingdom, just as May battles to shore up her position and present a united front in Brussels.

Whilst, Human rights groups Amnesty International and Liberty have joined Labour and the Liberal Democrats in urging the government to give further reassurances that human rights will not be undermined and, in particular, to incorporate the EU charter of fundamental rights into UK law:

Kerry Moscogiuri, Amnesty’s campaigns director‎, said: “It is now vital that Parliament ensures our hard-won human rights don’t diminish after Brexit. The broad powers that the repeal bill grants ministers to change our laws are dangerously vague; they must not be used to roll back human rights that are in place to protect us all.”

The legislation makes clear that “the charter of fundamental rights is not part of domestic law on or after exit day”. Government lawyers believe that will make little difference in practice, as the charter sets out rights that are already enshrined elsewhere in EU law and will brought into domestic law.

But Emmy Gibbs, of the anti-trafficking charity ATLEU, who used the charter to bring a case about mistreated workers in foreign embassies to the supreme court, said: “It is not right that the removal of the charter under the great repeal bill will make no difference to workers.

“Without the charter, our clients – who complained of unlawful discrimination and breach of working time regulations – would have been left without any remedy, because the UK’s state immunity law prevents them enforcing those rights in the employment tribunal.”

Theresa May's Government has achieved a remarkable first in uniting progressive forces against a regressive and badly thought-out piece of legislation in pursuit of a badly defined and poorly conceived outcome. If Brexit looked a mess before, today it looks downright sinister.

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