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Monday, April 22, 2019

Another Labour own-goal in fight against anti-Semitism

If Labour are going to put the whole anti-Semitism row behind them then they need to stop scoring own-goals. Unfortunately for those activists who want to go out and campaign on other issues, the party leadership just cannot help themselves.

Thus, as the Independent reports, the author of an open letter that claimed a protest organised by Jewish community groups over antisemitism in the Labour Party was the work of a “very powerful special interest group” has now been selected as a Labour council candidate:

The letter, which was endorsed by thousands of Jeremy Corbyn supporters and reported by The Independent last year, claimed the organisers of the protest used their “immense strength” to “employ the full might of the BBC” and “dictate who the rest of us can vote for or how we vote”.

It was written and publicised by Frances Naggs, a Labour activist in Staffordshire. Ms Naggs has since been selected as a Labour councillor in Staffordshire Moorlands for next month’s local elections and is included in official council documents as a candidate in the Bagnall and Stanley ward.

Her letter was shared widely on social media last year and received thousands of “likes”. It was posted the day after the “Enough is Enough” protest in Parliament Square last March, which was organised by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, although Ms Naggs later said she had not been referring to Jewish groups.

That though is not how the letter was perceived outside the party. It may have been naïve to have published a letter such as this at the same time as a protest against anti-Semitism, but the Labour Party itself should have known that it would be viewed as referring to groups seeking to change their attitude towards Jews. And let's face it, some Labour MPs are very clear what this candidature signifies as far as their party is concerned:

Commenting on the revelation that Ms Naggs is standing as a council candidate, Stoke-on-Trent North MP Ruth Smeeth, the parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, said: “This is becoming an all too common story about the Labour Party. We have not got our own house in order, we’re not doing anywhere near enough to ensure that people of all ethnic minorities are comfortable in the Labour Party.

“Instead we’re rewarding people and putting them forward for elected office when they’ve gone out of their way to make other people’s lives miserable.

“If we really have got a zero tolerance policy towards antisemitism then it’s time to start showing it, but at this point I’ve got no faith that is the case.”

Of Ms Naggs’ letter, she said: “The overt conspiracy theory that is being promoted is extraordinary in the 21st century. Anybody who believes in those sort of conspiracies does not have a place in elected office anywhere in the UK, never mind in my home country of Staffordshire.”

Time for Labour's NEC to take note and act accordingly.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

European Elections caught in a counter-factual world

I have just published a counter-factual novel in which a fictional executive mayor of the Cardiff Capital Region (spoiler; there is no such post) is assassinated. It is available on Amazon here if you are interested. However, no credible fiction writer could have conjured up the present political situation.

Having voted to leave the European Union, in a referendum, which, it subsequently transpired, was marred by rule-breaking, illegal expenditure and over-inflated and undeliverable promises, we are still members nearly three years later, and on the verge of electing members of the European Parliament, who may sit for just a matter of weeks, or, more likely a couple of years.

It is bad enough giving up a job to contest an election, pouring thousands of pounds of your own money into the campaign, while placing an intolerable burden on whatever relationship you might be in, and suffering abuse, vilification and pity from voters and opponents alike, knowing that you still might not win.

However, once we throw in extreme job insecurity on top of what was always a fixed term appointment, it makes many of us wonder why anybody will do it in the first place. And then there is the dodgy support network available for candidates of all political hues

Political parties, even the big ones, are largely fuelled by the efforts of volunteers. The bigger the party, then the larger the team a candidate can rely on. In the smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats, a campaign might consist of the candidate, a few friends and a dog.

But disengagement with the political process has become rife in the light of the Brexit fiasco, and only the demagogues can now really call on fanatical supporters to get out and campaign for them. Thank goodness most of those people don't really know what they are doing.

Thus, we face headlines such as this one in the Guardian, reporting that group of Conservative councillors is refusing to campaign for the party in European elections in a protest against the government’s failure to leave the European Union.

It may well be that other parties are suffering from a similar reaction albeit with a lower profile. As a result the poll, when it comes in just under five weeks time, may prove to even more lonely and uncertain for the candidates than they anticipated.

And for that they should be applauded, because without their willingness to be humiliated, to place their own futures on the line, our democracy would be much weaker, possibly terminal. And I can think of a few Brexiteers who would not mourn if that became the case.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Can rough sleeping figures be trusted?

There was an interesting article in Thursday's Guardian, which highlighted an assertion by the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, that claims rough sleeping is falling in England should not be trusted until the government has explained how an emergency funding scheme for the worst-affected areas might have skewed the latest figures.

The paper says Sir David Norgrove’s comments are the latest development in a row over the apparent 2% fall in rough sleeping in England in 2018, which ministers said was a sign the government’s Rough Sleeping Initiative (RSI) was tackling the homelessness crisis:

In a significant intervention, Norgrove said the official figures for 2018 should not be used to make claims about rough sleeping in England until the government addresses concerns that some councils that received RSI funding had deliberately underreported the scale of the crisis in their area.

The official rough sleeping statistics for England, based on estimates and spot counts from all local authorities on a single night in autumn, are intended to include everyone about to bed down or already bedded down on the street, in doorways, parks, tents and sheds, but not hostels or shelters.

Estimates, akin to a local census, are typically agreed by agencies who work closely with rough sleepers in the area all year, whereas street counts are one-night snapshots.

After the official figures for 2018 were published at the start of the year, the prime minister, Theresa May, hailed an apparent 85% fall in rough sleeping in Southend from 2017 to 2018.

Southend was among several local authorities that changed its methodology after it received short-term RSI funding, along with Brighton, Southend, Redbridge, Eastbourne, Medway, Worthing, Thanet, Exeter, Basildon, Ipswich and Warwick.

All councils recorded significant falls in rough sleeping from 2017 to 2018 after switching from an estimate to a count, which critics said occurred because of the methodology change and did not reflect the reality on the streets.

For the second time since the 2018 figures were published, Norgrove said they “should not be used to draw firm conclusions about recent trends in rough sleeping and cannot yet support public claims about the success of the Rough Sleeping Initiative” until the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) provided clarity.

The idea that there is a fall in rough sleeping anywhere in the UK is counter-intuitive. Anecdotally, in any city or town, there appears to be an increase in the numbers of people sleeping out and/or begging. It is also notoriously difficult to get an accurate count of rough sleepers, and that applies in whatever part of the UK one is surveying.

Looking at the measures being promoted in the Rough Sleeping Initiative, it appears the UK Government is on the right track. Where it seems to go awry is in its targeting - my view is that the initiative needs more money so that it can be rolled out across the country - and that the Housing First approach is still in pilot stage.

Why the UK Government (and the Welsh Government for that matter) are still only piloting Housing First is a puzzle. The approach has already proven its worth in Scotland, we don't need more pilots to tell us what we already know. Let's roll Housing First out across the whole country now, without delay, so that we can put in place sustainable solutions to homelessness sooner rather than later.

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Assassination of Morgan Sheckler

Today I am unashamedly using my blog to promote my first published novel. When Morgan Sheckler is elected Mayor of the Cardiff Capital Region in Wales he finds himself at odds with his own staff, not just because of his policies but also because of his brash, bullying manner. 

Sheckler immediately sets his sights on dismantling plans for a new power plant in the region -- a move that puts him on collision course with some unsavoury American backers who will do anything necessary to have it built. 

Caught in the middle is Dawn Highcliffe, Sheckler’s director of development, who must do as the mayor orders but yet also, somehow, please the Americans, who have blackmailed her into cooperating with them. 

A world of corruption and intimidation is revealed that brings Dawn to breaking point and sees her facing the prospect of a lengthy prison sentence. But there’s hope, because Sheckler’s past is coming back to haunt him and a group of those he wronged are circling, and they’re looking for blood... 

You can buy it here.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Why the Lib Dems should look beyond Brexit in the Euro election

The Independent reports that Vince Cable has lashed out at Change UK (CUKoos?) and the Greens for rejecting his pleas to stand joint candidates on 23 May, to boost the number of MEPs demanding a second referendum.

The paper says that the Lib Dem leader has revealed that his party proposed fighting together – a move that one election expert has predicted could have delivered an extra six seats in Brussels. Somehow Vince forgot to ask the membership what they think about such an electoral pact.

There is a myth growing up amongst some Remainers on social media that because the European Elections will be fought on a form of proportional representation, then there is no need for electoral pacts or tactical voting. On the face of it, this is factually incorrect. If you want a Remainer party to win seats then you do need to consider which one is best placed to secure a valued MEP-slot.

That is because the party list system we have adopted does not allow for preferential voting, nor for the transferring of preferences, as say, STV does. For the record, I have campaigned in an STV election in Northern Ireland where much of the Alliance Party literature was asking for a tactical vote, namely a request for a high preference to keep Sinn Fein out. It worked.

However, my view is that Vince Cable's approach to these elections is entirely wrong-headed. Important as an 'exit from Brexit' is, we are in danger of painting the Liberal Democrats as a one-trick pony, who will be left with nothing to say once this matter is resolved. I also think that we have missed the boat on another referendum and should concentrate on a Parliamentary solution, possibly by revoking our notice to quit under Article 50.

If we are to make any progress as a party and win seats, we actually need to differentiate ourselves from the other Remain parties by espousing a Liberal Democrat view of Europe, including reforming European institutions to make them more democratic and accountable. It is no good offering people the chance to vote again on membership if we do not also address some of the criticisms that people have of the EU.

It is also time that we started to talk about some of our other policies apart from Brexit. People are fed up to the teeth of the whole European issue. They want politicians who are going to address their concerns about health, education, social care and the economy. Even if we put it into the context of the impending disaster that faces us if we do leave the EU, at least we would show that we are listening and are in tune with people's own priorities.

In short, we must take the opportunity presented by the European elections to relaunch the Liberal Democrats as the fully-rounded party we really are, complete with policy solutions for the key issues facing voters. If we just focus on Brexit, we will become indistinguishable from the other pro-EU parties, and leave ourselves with nowhere to go afterwards.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

DWP and mushroom management

Those of us who have experienced mushroom management will know that it consists of being kept in the dark, while having manure shovelled over us. The Department of Work and Pensions however, prefer to utilise these methods when dealing with the claimants they have been created to help.

The Independent reports that Ministers have been accused of keeping “alarming” findings about their flagship universal credit scheme under wraps for a year and a half. MPs say it was “deeply irresponsible” to delay the release of a report, which suggests nearly half of claimants were not aware their tax credits would stop when they claimed universal credit, and 56 per cent felt they received too little information from HMRC.

Starving MPs of the information they need for a crucial report into how the system can be improved is bad enough, but the DWP are equally culpable in the way they treat claimants, relying on ignorance and misinformation to keep costs down.

The paper says that the Department for Work and Pensions has repeatedly argued that universal credit is more generous than the old benefit system and provides a “safety net” for those who need it. The report reveals, however, that more than a third were experiencing financial difficulties – of which six in 10 said their difficulties started after they began claiming universal credit. It also found that there was a “lack of awareness and a perceived lack of clear information about the new benefit and the migration process”:

Garry Lemon, director of research and policy at the Trussell Trust, said the fact that the research has not resulted in significant changes to the support provided to people moving onto universal credit was “not only deeply concerning, but deeply irresponsible”.

He added: ”Our benefits system was created to anchor us all from being pushed into poverty, but for too many people moving on to the new service, universal credit has pushed them to a food bank.”

Jess Leigh, policy and campaigns manager at disability equality charity Scope, said: “At a time when government needs to restore trust in the system, sitting on a report for 18 months is counterproductive.

“This report is further evidence that universal credit isn’t working for disabled people. As universal credit becomes a reality for millions of disabled people, many face losing vital welfare support and falling off a financial cliff edge.

“It is critical that the upcoming trial of managed migration takes into account all research in a thorough, timely and transparent way.”

The paper adds that the latest figures show that the DWP is expected to spend close to £1bn on administrative errors in the payment of Employment Support Allowance (ESA) to disabled people – far more than initially expected.

They say that the department was forced to admit that even after new guidance had been issued to staff in 2015 in an attempt to correct the problem – which saw around 180,000 people deprived of benefits they were legally entitled to – 30,000 extra cases had been identified where it was possible the same error resulting in underpayment had been made.

This is unacceptable. Ministers need to get to grips with this problem urgently.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

How can we secure the future of our historic buildings after Notre Dame fire?

I was in shock last night as I watched video of the magnificent spire of Notre Dame Cathedral plunge to the ground during the terrible fire that has devastated the 850-year-old gothic masterpiece. The spire reportedly took 200 years to build.

From news reports, as well as the spire, a number of the wonderful stained glass windows have been destroyed, although early reports on Twitter suggest that the north rose window may have survived. The others (including the earliest one from 1225) are reportedly gone. These windows were created by skilled artisans who coloured the glass with minute amounts of cobalt (for blue), gold (red or violet) and copper oxides (greens).

Notre Dame is just the latest historic building to suffer a disastrous fire. Others include York Minister, Windsor Castle, the National Library of Wales and, closer to home, Gwyn Hall in Neath. I am sure that there are other examples as well.

These fires raise the question as to what precautions we are taking to protect our heritage, and how effective are they?

One building we do need assurances on is the Houses of Parliament. These premises are due for an extensive renovation, just to stop them falling down, but MPs are so far refusing to bite the bullet and get on with the work.

Rhondda MP, Chris Bryant is clearly frustrated by the delay. As the Telegraph reports, he believes that it has taken “far too long” to put improved fire safety measures in place at the Palace of Westminster. He told the paper that “every fire precaution” must now be taken when a major programme of restoration is started on the Houses of Parliament in order to avoid similar scenes to the French cathedral:

The devastation at the Paris landmark came after David Lidington warned that the risk of a “catastrophic fire” decimating Parliament was growing and it was only down to chance nobody has been badly hurt by falling masonry.

Theresa May’s deputy said it was “very lucky no one has been seriously injured” by the crumbling Palace of Westminster as he stressed the importance of urgently restoring the Unesco World Heritage Site.

The paper adds that Parliament’s Restoration and Renewal Programme is due to get under way in the mid-2020s at the very earliest. But falling masonry, leaking plumbing and exposed wiring have prompted growing concerns about how long it will take to start and finish the work:

Mr Lidington, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, said a recent burst water pipe which forced the House of Commons to close early for the day “highlighted the need for Parliament to press ahead with plans for a fundamental overhaul”.

Writing in a letter to his local paper earlier this week, the Bucks Free Press, Mr Lidington said: “Several times in the last year, chunks of masonry have fallen off buildings.

“We’ve been very lucky no one has been seriously injured.

“Worse, the electrical, plumbing, heating and sewerage systems are well beyond their expected working life span and in a dilapidated state.

“With each year that passes, the risk of a catastrophic fire grows.”

It is time that MPs vacated the Palace of Westminster so that this work can get underway sooner rather than later.

Monday, April 15, 2019

UKIP leader loses the plot over 'rape tweet'

Rape is not a matter anybody should be making jokes about. It is a vile and indefensible crime that should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. So when Carl Benjamin tweeted to the Labour MP. Jess Phillips, “I wouldn’t even rape you” after she spoke of being sent rape threats, one would expect any political party to condemn the statement in strong and unequivocal terms.

Mr. Benjamin is now a UKIP European Parliament candidate for the South West England constituency. He was selected, according to his party leader, after an exhaustive process. However, when that same leader was challenged on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday, Gerard Batten told the interviewer: “I think this was satire.”

As the Independent says, he described Benjamin as a classical liberal and a proponent of free speech:

Mr Benjamin – a vlogger who posts online under the name Sargon of Akkad – has close to 1 million subscribers to his YouTube channel, on which he posts videos criticising feminism, left-wing politics and the EU.

He sent the tweet to Ms Phillips after the Labour politician wrote on Twitter: “People talking about raping me isn’t fun, but has become somewhat par for the course.”

Following Mr Benjamin’s tweet, Ms Phillips said she was bombarded with “600-odd notifications talking about my rape” in one night.

UKIP is a right wing, extremist party that has no place in the mainstream of UK politics, and yet in recent polls, it has hit double figures. It is little wonder that so many of us despair about the future of our country.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Learning to love the tiny Tower Hamlets jumping spider

One article we didn't have time to get to on this morning's Radio Wales paper review was this one in the Observer, about a project aiming to record and catalogue creepy-crawlies indigenous to London.

We are used to the occasional announcement of new species discovered in remote and exotic parts of the world, but it seems that we are harbouring rare species closer to home as well.

They say that London’s eight royal parks are home to a spectacular range of creepy-crawlies, and over the next few weeks these creatures will be the focus of a major campaign:

A project named Mission: Invertebrate will highlight the importance of worms, gnats, spiders, slugs and grasshoppers in maintaining the health of Britain’s wildlife and natural habitats.

The event is part of an international initiative, City Nature Challenge, held at the end of April and involving the inhabitants of more than 160 cities around the world – including Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool, Leicester, Manchester and Newcastle.

The aim of the challenge is to record as much wildlife as possible on city streets and in parks. The main effort in London will be on the insects of the royal open spaces: Hyde, Green, Richmond, Greenwich, St James’s, Bushy and Regent’s parks and Kensington Gardens.

The claim that London is a hotbed of invertebrate activity is supported by the number of species to which the city has put its name. These include the Tower Hamlets spider (Macaroeris nidicolens), a jumping spider identified in Mile End Park in 2002; the Bushy gnat (Grzegorzekia bushyae), a species of fungus gnat discovered in Bushy Park in 2016; and the London Underground mosquito (Culex Pipiens Molestus), a genetically distinct subspecies of mosquito that has evolved in the deep tunnels of the tube over the past 100 years.

The paper says that more than 4,720 species of invertebrates have been recorded in London’s royal parks – which cover 5,000 acres, most of them former royal hunting grounds. These include more than 1,000 species of fly in Bushy Park, including the Bushy gnat; more than 100 types of spider in Brompton Cemetery (also run by the royal parks), including the Tower Hamlets spider; while it is estimated that Richmond Park has more than 400,000 ant hills that are home to some 3 billion ants:

Invertebrates are crucial to the capital’s wildlife. They provide food for other insects as well as for birds and fish; they help pollinate London’s flowers and plants; and they break down organic waste. Examples of the latter, the detritivore insects, include the dung beetle, of which there are 14 species – including the spectacular minotaur beetle – in Richmond Park alone. 

This has to be a future project for Richard Attenborough.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Boris caught out again

The best thing about this piece in the Independent, is not that reported finding of the press regulator that Boris Johnson inaccurately claimed that a no-deal Brexit was the most popular scenario among voters, though that helps, but the response of the Telegraph.

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) ruled that the former foreign secretary breached accuracy rules in his Telegraph column when he said polls showed no deal was more popular “by some margin” than remaining in the EU or Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

A reader complained to Ipso over the weekly column, saying Mr Johnson, who is tipped as a future Tory leader, had failed to cite any evidence for his claim.

The Telegraph's argument that Boris' article was:

“clearly comically polemical, and could not be reasonably read as a serious, empirical, in-depth analysis of hard factual matters”.

is the best description of the leave campaign I have seen for some time.

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