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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

UK Government to reintroduce Victorian prison hulks?

In a remarkable feat of synchronicity, the week that the BBC starts to air a new adaptation of Great Expectations, the Tory Government announces that they intend to house asylum seekers on barges and cruise ships, a modern day equivalent of the prison hulk that dominates the opening chapters of Dickens' novel.

As the website Exploring London explains, floating prisons known as ‘hulks’ were a regular site on the Thames in London between the late 18th century and mid-19th century, used to house convicts awaiting transportation to British penal colonies including in what is now Australia.

The ‘hulks’ were actually decommissioned warships, dismasted and repurposed for the purpose of housing prisoners. They add that conditions on board the vessels were indeed appalling and disease spread quickly with mortality rates of 30 per cent not uncommon. Prisoners were kept chained when aboard and floggings handed out as punishment for any offences. Food and clothing were of poor quality.

The Independent says that migrants arriving in the UK via small boats could be housed in ferries and barges as well as disused military bases under government plans to reduce the spending on hotels, with immigration minister Robert Jenrick planning to announce the use of two RAF sites as he tries to reduce the £6.8m a day spends on hotel accommodation for asylum seekers.

They add that the Home Office is looking at housing asylum seekers on giant barges used for offshore construction projects, while other reports indicate ministers are also looking at disused cruise ships, including one from Indonesia that could be moored off the south-west coast.

These drastic and inhuman measures are the result of policy failure by the UK Government. They have failed to provide legal routes to clain asylum, failed to process those who do ask for sanctuary in good time and are failing to work with other countries to manage claims. As a result the asylum system is spiralling out of control with Ministers floundering cluelessly as to how to turn the situation around.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The damage caused by Brexit

The Independent reports on the judgement of the chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), Richard Hughes that the impact of Brexit on the UK economy is on the same “magnitude” as the Covid pandemic and energy price crisis, and that it will take five years before people’s spending power recovers to pre-coronavirus levels.

They say that Hughes confirmed that it will take five years before people’s spending power recovers to pre-coronavirus levels:

Asked how much stronger the economy would have been without Brexit, he told the BBC: “We think that, in the long run, [Brexit] reduces our overall output by around 4 per cent compared to had we remained in the EU.”

While the OBR first predicted a 4 per cent long-term hit to GDP in 2021, the chairman has been reluctant to be drawn into assessing the seriousness of the damage from Britain’s exit from the bloc.

Grilled by host Laura Kuenssberg on the scale of the harm done, Mr Hughes said: “I’ve struggled to put it in any kind of sensible context. It’s a shock to the UK economy of the order of magnitude to other shocks that we’ve seen from the pandemic, from the energy crisis.”

The OBR chief said the country is undergoing the “biggest squeeze on living standards” on record. “But we do expect, as we get past this year and we go into the next three or four years, that real income starts to recover.”

He added: “But it’s still the case that people’s real spending power doesn’t get back to the level it was before the pandemic even after five years, even by the time we get to the late 2020s.”

Mr Hughes said economic growth had been held back because of “supply constraints” – pointing to labour shortages and an investment slump.

“We’ve lost around 500,000 people from the labour force, we’ve seen stagnant investment since 2016 and also our productivity has slowed dramatically since the financial crisis and not really recovered,” he said.

The paper adds that in December, the Centre for European Reform (CER) found that Brexit cost the UK a staggering £33bn in lost trade, investment and growth. They say that the CER also estimated the tax loss from Brexit at around £40bn:

The research – first shared with The Independent – showed that by June of this year Britain’s economy was 5.5 per cent smaller than it would have been if the country had remained in the EU.

Brexit has cost households more than £5.8bn in higher supermarket bills – pushing up UK food prices by 6 per cent, a study by the Centre for Economic Performance also found in December.

I don't recall seeing any of his on the side of a bus in 2016.

Monday, March 27, 2023

Welsh Labour Government emulate John Redwood

Those of us who have been in politics a long time will remember the huge fuss, especially from Labour spokespeople, when Secretary of State for Wales, John Redwood returned £100m of the Welsh Office's budget unspent to the Treasury in 1995 at a time when public services were under-pressure and the Welsh economy was under the cosh. 

Well it seems that the Welsh Labour Government have just repeated the trick, though in this case it wasn't intentional, just incompetence in not spending the money on time.

Wales-on-line reports that the UK Government has taken back £155m allocated to Wales because the Welsh Government hadn't spent it:

Most Welsh Government funds are held with in the UK Government Banking Service and the Treasury has taken back £155.5m from the Cardiff Bay administration's balance because it exceeded the amount the UK Government allows the devolved administration to carry forward at the end of the financial year.

The figure emerged as part of the scrutiny of the Welsh Government's accounts by the Senedd's Public Affairs and Public Accounts Committee and has caused controversy. Wales' finance minister Rebecca Evans called the decision "completely arbitrary" and the Welsh Government said it was "wholly unacceptable" and exposed the fundamental flaws in the devolution settlement.
However the committee, which is made up of one member of each political party and is chaired by Conservative MS Mark Isherwood, blamed the Welsh Government for "poor record keeping and mismanagement of public accounts".

This figure is the result of the difference between the balance of the Wales Reserve on April 1 2021, £505.5 million, and the amount that the UK government has set as a limit for the reserve at the end of each financial year of £350 million.

The Welsh Government said the Chief Secretary to the Treasury had rejected its request to carry forward funds in excess of the Wales Reserve limit In a letter, Wales' finance minister Rebecca Evans said she had "pressed the Chief Secretary to the Treasury repeatedly to allow additional flexibility for this excess to be made available to Wales going forward" and had made a "number of reasonable and pragmatic suggestions for how this could be achieved".

She added that the decision by the Treasury was "completely arbitrary" and "does not fully recognise the arrangements agreed with devolved governments" and that "all these requests have been denied". She went on to say: "As a result, Wales will be deprived of £155.5m which we should have been able to carry forward - a position I have expressed to the Chief Secretary as wholly unacceptable."

The committee questioned why the Welsh Government “waited so long to be told it could not do as it wished with the underspend, and why such a request was made retrospectively”. It said the Welsh Government “appears to have assumed, based on previous HM Treasury decisions, that it would be granted flexibility to use the funding”.

The committee said this raises questions as to whether making a request sooner may have enabled the funds to be used, as it warned “lessons must be learnt to ensure such vital funding is not lost from Wales again”.

Chairman of the Papac, Mark Isherwood, a Conservative Member of the Senedd for North Wales, said: “We are very concerned that significant funding was lost to Wales as a result of the underspend in 2020-21. This money could have been used to fund essential services and it is especially frustrating now when there are such pressures on public funding. “It is one of many examples where poor record keeping and mismanagement of public accounts has cost the people of Wales.”

Given the pressures on the Welsh Government in terms of pay claims, the need to maintain bus subsidies and many more, the failure too spend this money is unforgiveable.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Time to derail the gravy train

The extent to which MPs are raking in cash from secondary employment, instead of doing the full time job they have been elected to, is revealed in today's Observer, who report that former chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, and former health secretary, Matt Hancock, agreed to work for £10,000 a day to further the interests of a fake South Korean firm after apparently being duped by the campaign group Led by Donkeys.

The paper says that Kwarteng attended a preliminary meeting at his parliamentary office and agreed in principle to be paid the daily rate after saying he did not require a “king’s ransom”. When Hancock was asked his daily rate, he responded: “It’s 10,000 sterling.”

They add that Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, also attended an online meeting for the fake foreign firm from his parliamentary office. When asked about the limits on arranging meetings, he made clear he could not advocate on behalf of the interest but said he may be able to advise the firm on who to approach in government. He said a rate of about £6,000 a day “feels about right” and any payments would be on a public register:

A fourth MP, former minister Stephen Hammond, who had been approached, said this weekend he considered he had been the victim of a “scam”. He said he thought he was engaged in a preliminary discussion with a company but “it turns out this company was fake, with a fake website”. Hancock’s spokesperson said he had acted “entirely properly” and criticised what he described as the “illegal publication of a private conversation”.

The senior politicians have complied with all relevant rules and referred to their obligation to their constituents during preliminary meetings. The Led by Donkeys project, conducted with investigative reporter Antony Barnett, comes at a time when people face a cost of living crisis. The campaign group released a report on its investigation on Twitter on Saturday, with recorded undercover footage.

While they are not prohibited from such meetings and no arrangements were finalised, there is currently intense scrutiny of politicians’ outside earnings. Labour has said it will ban most second jobs for MPs if it wins power.

The point that all these MPs have appear to have missed in responding to this article is that they already have a well-remunerated job and, although taking on outside work may be within the rules, it is a practice that could cause voters to doubt their commitment to the privilege of serving in the House of Commons, especially at a time when so many of their constituents are struggling to make ends meet. The sooner this practise is outlawed the better.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Labour threaten local bus services

The BBC report that the potential loss of Covid bus grants in a few months time has sparked fears of large scale cuts to services across Wales.

They say that fears about the impact of these cuts are so great that two Labour Council leaders have come out into the open to criticise their party colleagues in the Welsh Government in a letter, saying that cuts to bus services could be "devastating" for groups that rely on public transport:

The letter to First Minister Mark Drakeford raised concern about the recent roads review that scrapped all major road building projects, plans for the 20mph default speed limit in urban areas and pavement parking fines.

Leaked to BBC Wales, the document also criticised the "tone" adopted in meetings by the man in charge of the policies, Deputy Climate Change Minister Lee Waters.


The letter said Wales' 22 council leaders want an "urgent" meeting with Mark Drakeford, and argued bus services are a "life-line" for older people, young people, people with disabilities and low income households.

"Loss of bus services is potentially devastating for these groups, impacting on their well-being by restricting access to educational, economic, health and leisure services and to family and social contacts," it said.

They accused the Welsh government of "cart-before-horse planning" for public transport, and called for ways to be found to make Covid bus emergency cash permanent to protect services.

"Whilst passenger numbers have not recovered post-Covid, they never will if services start to be cut across Wales," the WLGA leaders wrote.

Rural council leaders are worried there could be more areas with no public transport services.

"Attempts to attract businesses to rural areas to create local sources of employment and reduce the need to travel are felt to be at risk if vital highway improvements and access routes are effectively ruled out and public transport options are not available," the letter said.

Despite the pandemic easing, bus firms are reliant on Covid aid because passenger numbers have not fully recovered.

Earlier this year it was extended, but only for three months to June.

On Wednesday Mr Waters told the Senedd the government was trying to find a way to bridge the gap between the end of the scheme and plans to reform bus regulation.

"The money simply isn't there to keep all the current services running," he said.

He said "in the face of the continued austerity budget that we have" from the UK government "we simply do not have the resources available to continue funding the emergency subsidy at the rate that we have".

The WLGA letter also appeared to contradict claims by the roads review chairwoman Lynn Sloman that the exercise conducted "considerable engagement".

The leaders said there had been "very limited contact" with council leaders and only after the review had reached its conclusions.

"Local communities that will be affected by the decisions were given no opportunity to input from their lived experiences," the pair wrote.

Meanwhile councils were said to be struggling with the "sheer volume of transport-related issues", the WLGA leaders wrote, with lots of projects being taken forward at the same time, including pavement parking.

The 20mph default speed limit, due to be introduced in September, "will lengthen some home to school journey times" and add to school transport operator costs, the WLGA argued.

"Taken together, one leader described the situation as a 'perfect storm' for communities," the letter said.

"Another referred to the current approach as 'all stick and no carrot'."

Referring to Mr Waters, it added: "Whilst we have been grateful to the deputy minister for his readiness to engage with leaders and transport cabinet members on these issues, members have been concerned about the nature of the debate and tone of the meetings.

"Leaders stressed the importance of mutual respect in our discussions," it added.

The letter said the current set of highways and transport policies "are all well-intentioned and laudable in their own right, but we feel there is a better way to approach them".

"Leaders' general feeling was that they are being handed down to councils rather than being developed with us."

Time for a rethink by Welsh Ministers.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Nominative determinism - A marketer's dream

I rarely pay much attention to the adverts on television, but one from the Ford Motor Company recently caught my attention, simply because it was using historical footage of a female motorist and explorer whose name seemed to be made-up to create a form of nominative determinism. A little bit of googling soon dispelled that notion.

For yes, Aloha Wanderwell really existed, and she did a fair bit of wandering.

As Wikipedia relates, Idris Galcia Welsh was born on October 13, 1906, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Margaret Jane Hedley and Robert Welsh. When her mother married Herbert Hall in 1909, her name was changed to Idris Hall.

She began her adventuring career when she met her travelling companion, Walter "Cap" Wanderwell, in 1922. They married in 1925 and had two children. As they continued to travel the world, Aloha Wanderwell performed on stage, giving travel lectures against the backdrop of a silent movie, Car and Camera Around the World. The Wanderwells made films of their travels on 35mm nitrate and 16mm film which are now held in the archives of the Library of Congress and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

During the 1920s, Wandeerwell visited over 80 countries and six continents, and drove over 500,000 miles in Ford vehicles. She became the first woman to drive around the world, beginning and ending her journey in Nice, France, between December 29, 1922, and January 1927.

The story of her life is quite extraordinary, ending in June 1996 when she died at the age of 89.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Are the Metropolitan Police in denial?

The Guardian reports that the author of the devastating report on the Metropolitan police has criticised the force’s commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, for refusing to accept her description of the force as institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic, describing his reasoning as “hollow”.

As the paper says, Louise Casey’s report on Tuesday excoriated the Met and found widespread bias against its own staff and the public, with officers found to have got away with acts so serious they amount to crimes. 

They add that the report also said stop and search was biased, the force had made choices to degrade its service to women and rarely caught the men who attack them, and was suffering from broken trust with the public it serves.

However, Met Chief, Sir Mark Rowley’s refused to admit the Met police is ‘institutionally’ racist, misogynistic and homophobic:

Casey hit back on Wednesday and told the police and crime committee of the London assembly that Rowley was wrong, but stressed he was the right choice to reform the Met.

Casey said: “When people say something’s become politicised, it’s often a get out of jail card for the word difficult. I’ve heard it so many times, I’m sorry, you’re dealing with a dinosaur, I’ve been around a long time. And sometimes it is right that we step into what is difficult.”

Casey said of black Londoners’ experience of the Met: “They are over-policed and under-protected. If a woman is black she is 65% more likely to be on the receiving end of domestic violence.”

The Met was first found to be institutionally racist in 1999 by the official inquiry into why the racist killers of Stephen Lawrence had escaped justice. That inquiry followed a campaign led by his, mother Doreen Lawrence.

Casey said: “This was the moment to say to Doreen Lawrence, the countless people out there: ’Yeah, this is institutional.’ And then you can move on and have a straightforward and direct discussion with the people of London.

“Because it just rings hollow to say: ‘I don’t like the word and it is not a word I would use.’ And I know Mark Rowley, he is a man of utter decency and integrity.”

Whether the hierarchy are in denial or not will depend on what measures they put in place to tackle the institutional problems the Met suffers. Not accepting the intital judgement is not a good start.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The escalating cost of Tory failure on immigration

The Guardian reports on estimates by the Refugee Council that the cost of detaining and accommodating people under the UK government’s controversial plans to tackle Channel crossings could amount to more than £9bn in the first three years.

The paper says that the charity believes that more than 250,000 people, including up to 45,000 children, could have their asylum claims deemed inadmissible under the illegal migration bill in that time:

The charity said its policy experts came up with the estimates as part of an impact assessment of the consequences of the first three years of the bill, assuming it comes into force on 7 November, six months after it was introduced in parliament.

Its calculations are based on the Home Office being able to remove 10,000 people to Rwanda in each of the three years, detaining people for an average of 28 days and accommodating those who are not detained.

The Refugee Council assessment said: “In the first three years of the legislation coming into effect, between 225,347 and 257,101 people will have their asylum claims deemed inadmissible. This includes between 39,500 and 45,066 children.

“At the end of the third year, between 161,147 and 192,670 people will have had their asylum claims deemed inadmissible but not have been removed. They will be unable to have their asylum claims processed, unable to work and will be reliant on Home Office support and accommodation indefinitely.

“In total, between £8.7bn and £9.6bn will have been spent on detaining and accommodating people impacted by the bill in the first three years of its operation.”

The charity said it used various data sources and made assumptions, including that 88% of people who cross the Channel in a small boat each year subsequently apply for asylum and it costs £120.42 to detain someone each day.

It said its lower estimates assume 50% of people will be detained under the bill and upper estimates assume 100% of people will be detained.

The organisation said it was important to note the Home Office did not publish data on how many people who apply for asylum arrive irregularly other than by boat, and said it based its figures on existing data from reports by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.

It said its estimates were likely to still be conservative “based on our experience at the Refugee Council of working with people who arrive in the UK”.

Looking beyond these figures however, the judgement of Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, on this policy is very important. He has described the bill as “draconian legislation”, that “stains our country’s reputation for fairness in the face of adversity”.

He said: “All the evidence shows that the vast majority of those who come here by so-called irregular routes are refugees escaping bombs and bullets, violence and persecution. They take these dangerous journeys as no workable alternatives exist for them – unlike Ukrainians who were rightly able to come to the UK on a visa scheme."

Rather than put in place legal routes for refugees, and set up proper international arrangements with other countries to manage and process claims, this government is choosing to villify and persecute victims in defiance of international law and their own treaty obligations.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Could road charging come to Wales?

The BBC reports that drivers of heavily polluting vehicles could have to pay on some of Wales' busiest roads under a new law that aims to clean up air pollution. This could include sections of the M4 near Newport and the A470 at Pontypridd, both of which have been considered as potential clean air zones if lower speed limits do not work:

The charging powers are contained in a long-awaited bill that also paves the way towards new national targets on cutting pollution.

Other plans include steeper fines for drivers who leave their car engines idling, especially when parked outside schools.

Councils will get new powers to enforce smoke control areas, where there are restrictions on what fuels can be burned.

To tackle noise pollution, ministers will have to produce a strategy that would also protect natural sounds, such as birdsong.

But the government is not proposing to ban wood-burning stoves in the legislation, entitled the Environment (Air Quality and Soundscapes) Bill.

At present, the Welsh government can only introduce clean air charges on roads in limited circumstances, for example where there are bridges or tunnels of at least 600m.

That would change under the new law, with ministers able to create low emission zones anywhere on the trunk road network, which includes the M4.

Speed limits of 50mph have been introduced on five sections of motorway and A-roads to reduce the amount of nitrogen dioxide released from vehicle exhausts.

They include the M4 between junctions 25 and 26 and the Upper Boat to Pontypridd stretch of the A470 in Rhondda Cynon Taf.

Government documents say clean air zones will only be considered in those two locations "should the reduced speed limits fail to ensure sustained, long-term compliance".

The law, which will need to be passed by the Senedd, would not apply in towns and cities, where local authorities are in charge of the roads.

But the government said it would also let councils introduce their own emissions charges, as has happened in some English cities.

This legislation has to pass through the Senedd of course, but it is worth keeping an eye on it.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Teddy safe and sound


Some good news to emerge from the devasatating suspected gas explosion in Morriston,  Swansea in which a 68 year old man lost his life, while up to twenty homes have been damaged, some beyond repair.

The BBC reports that Teddy, a ragdoll persian cat, who was caught up in the explosion has been found safe and sound, and has been reunited with his owner Claire Griffiths-Bennett and her son.

The other cat belonging to the family had been rescued from the rubble soon after the explosion but Teddy's whereabouts remained unknown:

It is believed Teddy had been living in the remains of the family home.

The centre said Ms Griffiths-Bennett had been sitting next to the animal at the time of the blast. There were concerns he may not have survived, but on Tuesday he was spotted by Swansea Cats Protection, Llys Nini and South Wales Police.

Llys Nini's Sally Hyman said they saw him "sitting on a pile of rubble".

Ms Hyman said Teddy was looking at her and washing, but it was not until Sunday that they managed to catch him.

She said: "He was big, fluffy and dirty but alive and well. Maybe he was hiding in the debris in the house."

There were concerns the property would be demolished with Teddy inside.

"So today [Sunday] was make or break," Ms Hyman added.

In a Facebook post, the animal centre said: "Claire was released from hospital on Sunday and went straight to the remains of the house to see if Teddy would respond to her whistle.

"However on arrival she was greeted with the news that Teddy had, just at that moment, been trapped.

"There were tears all around."

Teddy was described as "dusty" and "cross", but apparently unharmed.

The rescue was a joint operation between Llys Nini, Swansea Cats Protection and the local PCSOs. Apparently, there was a big bag of cat biscuits in the ruins that had been ripped open, and which Teddy was obviously working his way through.

If he hadn't finished them before he was rescued then no wonder he was cross.

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