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Monday, June 18, 2018

Time to legalise cannabis for medical use

The decision by the Home Secretary to back down over the refusal to release medicinal cannabis oil that it had confiscated from the family of a severely epileptic boy is extraordinary because for the first time it reverses decades of obstinacy by the UK Government over the issue of legalising the use of cannabis for medical conditions.

Sajid Javid said he had used an exceptional power as home secretary to issue a licence for Billy Caldwell to be treated with the oil as a matter of urgency after Billy’s cannabis oil was confiscated at Heathrow on Monday. It contains a psychoactive substance called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that is illegal in the UK but available elsewhere, and had kept his epilepsy at bay.

I have argued the case for legalising cannabis for medicinal use on this blog previously. The case of Billy Caldwell however brings that debate into sharp relief and offers some hope that the Government may now be listening. Billy's mother certainly hopes that is the case.

As the Guardian reports, she has called for a meeting with the home and health secretaries to talk about making medical cannabis legal for children who have similar conditions to her son:

Charlotte Caldwell said it was “absolutely horrific” and “cruel” that 12-year-old Billy had been refused cannabis oil after Home Office officials confiscated a six-month supply. She is seeking a discussion on the issue with Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt.

She added that his condition was now beginning to improve after being allowed to have some of the treatment on licence.

Caldwell said: “I want to meet the home secretary and health secretary, urgently, this week, to get assurance that not only will Billy’s meds never again be removed, but to call for an urgent review of the overall policy on medical cannabis as it affects everyone who could benefit.”

Surely now is the time for the government to bring in this much needed reform.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Is May misleading us on the Brexit dividend?

Today's headlines are all about the supposed additional £20bn a year injection of extra cash by 2023-24 being proposed by Theresa May for the National Health Service. She argues that this money will pay for thousands more doctors and nurses, while cutting cancer deaths and improving mental health services.

However, other news reports highlight the on-going disagreement between the Health Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer over how much extra the government can afford to put into the health service, whilst the cabinet is also reportedly split as to how it will be paid for and to what extent taxes will need to be raised to contribute to the funding.

The Prime Minister herself appears to be adamant that she will be able to find the money from the supposed 'Brexit dividend'. Indeed, Daily Mail reports on an article written for them by Mrs May in which she said: “Now, as we leave the European Union and stop paying significant annual subscriptions to Brussels, we will have more money to spend on priorities such as the NHS.” What utter codswallop.

The timing of these claims are not coincidental. The Government is facing another substantial back bench revolt next week if the House of Lords returns the Brexit bill with its amendments reinstated. The Tory rebels will not be so easily bought off this time after being misled by the Prime Minister and the whips last week. If May can link her version to Brexit to a significant cash increase into the NHS then she may be able to prevail.

Her problem though is that the Brexit dividend does not exist. As George Eaton explains in the New Statesman, the £350m figure used by the Leave campaign did not take into account the UK’s £5.6bn EU budget rebate. In 2017, Britain’s net contribution was not £350m a week but £250m. Once the £4.1bn of EU funding allocated to the UK is also included, the net contribution falls further to £173m a week:

That would still account for nearly half the NHS increase promised by May (which will reach £384m by 2023-24). But over the next five years, there will be no “Brexit dividend” of any size.

Until the conclusion of the transition period (due in December 2020), the UK will continue to make EU membership payments (totalling £16bn). From 2021-28, it will contribute £18.2bn as part of the “divorce bill”. As a non-member, Britain will pay £3bn less from 2020/2021, rising to £5.8bn in 2022/23. But the government has already agreed to maintain existing EU spending on agriculture, universities, regional development and other areas - there is no spare largesse for the NHS.

But most importantly, Brexit is forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility (and every other major body) to harm, rather than improve, the public finances. After the referendum, the OBR estimated a net fiscal cost of £15bn a year (or nearly £300m a week) by 2020/21. Reduced EU trade and lower immigration - which May has explicitly stated will result - will depress government revenue. As Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has said: “There is no Brexit dividend. Payments to the EU will fall [after Brexit], but tax revenues will fall more as a result of Brexit.”

It follows therefore that the entirety of the £20bn NHS spending increase will need to be raised through government borrowing, tax increases or cuts elsewhere. In other words it is precisely what Tories rejoice in accusing Labour of, an unfunded spending commitment. Isn't it time that the Prime Minister came clean and admitted that uncomfortable fact. Instead she is once more misleading people by suggesting that Brexit will be good for us.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Where to draw the line that Tory MPs should not cross?

Like many other people today, including most Tories, I am outraged at the actions of two Tory MPs in effectively talking out a bill on Mental Health before forcing a private members bill that had the full the support of the Prime Minister. and which sought to outlaw up-skirting, into an uncertain purgatory through the simple use of one word - 'object'.

As the Guardian reports, the voyeurism (offences) bill on upskirting, the taking of surreptitious, sexually intrusive images, was put forward by the Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse after a campaign by Gina Martin. Police have declined to prosecute a man Martin accused of taking underskirt pictures of her on his phone at a music festival in London last summer:

As a private member’s bill it would normally have little chance of becoming law. But early on Friday the justice minister Lucy Frazer said the government would back it.

However, when the deputy speaker Lindsay Hoyle read out the name of the bill later that day, the Tory MP Christopher Chope shouted: “Object”. Without sufficient time in the session for a proper vote it was sent back for another try on 6 July.

The MP for Christchurch also used the Commons session to delay another government-backed bill, which would make it an offence to attack police dogs or horses, or prison officer dogs.

Both were among a series of private member’s bills being given their second reading in the Commons on Friday. If no MP disagrees they are passed without a vote and can be given a date for their third reading. Last year Chope proposed 47 private member’s’ bills of his own.

According to social media, Christopher Chope has form on winding people up with his views. In October 2010, he hosted a meeting of climate-science-sceptics at Westminster. In January 2013, he came under fire for referring to some staff at Westminster as 'servants'. He opposed the minimum wage and voted against legislation for same-sex marriage.

In June 2013, Chope was one of four MPs who camped outside Parliament in a move to facilitate debate on what they called an 'Alternative Queen's Speech', an attempt to show what a future Conservative Government would deliver. Forty two policies were listed including the reintroduction of the death penalty and conscription, privatising the BBC, banning the burka in public places and preparation to leave the European Union.

In 2014, Chope and six other Tory MPs voted against the Equal Pay (Transparency) Bill which would require all companies with more than 250 employees to declare the gap in pay between the average male and the average female salary. He delayed a bill to pardon the second world war code breaker, Alan Turing and in 2013 he tried to block a debate on the Hillsborough disaster.

He has persisted with such aberrant behaviour with hardly a peek from his fellow Tories, until yesterday when he went too far even for the most ardent right winger. Tory MP, Simon Clarke tweeted: “Chris Chope has embarrassed himself with his actions in parliament today, and does not speak for me or Conservatives on the disgusting issue of upskirting.” 

Fellow Conservative Paul Masterton said: “Do not underestimate just how furious many Tory MPs are about this. This kind of thing does far more damage to the public’s view of our party than endless debates about customs arrangements.” 

What is clear from those quotes however and the following WhatsApp conversation, is that it was not the issue that was upsetting most Tories but how it will play out in public:

For many Tories it appears that the line that should not be crossed has nothing to do with what is decent and right, but what will embarrass the party and lose them votes. Heaven-forbid that principle should get in the way.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Brexit - do what they do not what they say!

If we needed any more proof that hard-line Brexiteers inhabit a different world to anybody else then the revelation that the City firm co-founded by Jacob Rees-Mogg, has set up an investment fund in Ireland and is warning prospective clients about the financial dangers of the sort of hard Brexit favoured by the Tory MP, must surely count as a slam-dunk..

As the Guardian reports, the London-based Somerset Capital Management (SCM) described Brexit as a risk in a prospectus to a new fund it launched in March, which has been marketed to international investors who want to keep their money in the EU long-term. This is despite Rees-Mogg, who works part time at Somerset Capital in addition to his work as an MP, repeatedly dismissing the concerns of those worried about the financial risks of Brexit. He has argued the UK needs to quit the single market and customs union so the country is not a “rule taker” from Brussels:

But in reference to Brexit, the SCM prospectus warned: “During, and possibly after, this period there is likely to be considerable uncertainty as to the position of the UK and the arrangements which will apply to its relationships with the EU.”

The document continued: “As [the firm is] based in the UK and a fund’s investments may be located in the UK or the EU, a fund may as a result be affected by the events described above.”

Rees-Mogg is a non-executive chair at SCM and is paid about £14,000-a-month for working 30 hours a month there. Earlier on Wednesday, he defended the decision by the investment firm to create a new investment fund in Ireland.

“A number of existing and prospective clients requested domiciled access to Somerset’s products,” he told the Daily Telegraph. “The decision to launch the fund was nothing whatsoever to do with Brexit.”

Rees-Mogg said that SCM had funds based across the world and that “people outside the EU are used to Irish domiciled funds”. The warnings in the prospectus, he said, were “not a policy statement by SCM”, but guidance to investors that was drafted by lawyers.

I suppose we can now draw our own conclusions about Jacob Rees-Mogg's condemnation of scare stories about Brexit.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

A divided Labour party giving succour to the Tories

I accept that the alternative single market option of the European Economic Area may not be the best way forward for the UK, but if we are really going to leave the EU then it represents the best we can hope for to minimise the damage caused by Brexit.

The Tory Government does not accept that of course. They seem set on a hard Brexit, possibly a no-deal Brexit that is going to cause immense harm to our economy and cut our living standards. Surely it is the duty of the official opposition to take a principled stand against that position.

Unfortunately, Labour do not see that as their role. Their supposed alternative is as idealistic and unobtainable as the negotiating stance taken by Theresa May. In fact you could not get a cigarette paper between the two positions. When are they going to do their job and start to oppose this mess?

You could be forgiven for spotting that I am unhappy about what happened yesterday. Yet another opportunity to defeat the government and force them into a single market option was squandered by the Labour opposition. They whipped their MPs to abstain on the EEA amendment and got their reward when 90 backbenchers defied the whip and five frontbench MPs quit to join them.

We are now faced with a situation where both the main parties are irrevocably divided on the main issue of the day, no realistic leadership from the official opposition whilst the third largest party in the House of Commons has slunk off in a massive sulk over the perceived snubbing of Scotland.

In the words of Private Frazer in Dad's Army, 'we're all doomed'.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Action needed now on unsafe blocks of flats in Wales

It was very concerning to read on the BBC this morning that Wales chief fire advisor, Des Tidbury believes that residents in private high-rise blocks may have to live with unsafe cladding for years because of wrangling over who should pay to replace it.

Apparently, fifteen buildings in Wales were found to have the same type of aluminium composite cladding which engulfed Grenfell, 12 of them being private sector blocks comprising of about 700 flats. The others were social housing blocks in Newport which are being adapted with £3m in Welsh Government funding.

However, the broadcaster reports that there is uncertainty over who will pay for improvements on privately-owned blocks:

There have been calls by the Residential Landlords Association (RLA) for the Welsh Government to offer short-term loans to the privately owned buildings for remedial works, while the issue of liability is ironed out.

Mr Tidbury said different types of tenancy contracts, complicated management arrangements and where responsibility lies for communal areas formed part of the issue.

"It's extremely complex and can only be looked at building by building," he said.

"It could be that a landlord in good faith commissioned the work to be done, but the cladding that was used was of the sort that may have been used at Grenfell, so issues around that.

"Then who is responsible… was it the landlord for commissioning the work or indeed was it the contractor for putting up the cladding?

"And then you look at the testing regime for some of the products and materials, that's also been called into question.

"In the end you might never get to the point where you fully identify who is responsible, it could take years and years and years."

Although fire safety features, such as night-time walking patrols and extra alarms, are being introduced in affected buildings in the shorter term, the costs are falling on leaseholders in some cases.

There have been warnings some homeowners cannot sell or re-mortgage their apartments due to the cladding issues.

This is not a situation that can be allowed to fester for too long. Clearly it is not right that tenants and leaseholders should foot the bill, but neither should the public purse be held liable for the costs of making these blocks safe. However, if the Welsh Government does not act soon then lives may be put at risk.

My view is that legally the responsibility for sorting this problem should rest with the freehold owner of these flats. He or she may then wish to pursue the company responsible for fitting and/or supplying or certifying the cladding for reimbursement.

But the Residential Landlords Association is right, we cannot wait for legal actions to be exhausted before action is taken. The cladding needs to be replaced now. That is why the common sense approach they suggest of the Welsh Government lending the money so that the work can be carried out expeditiously seems to be the most practical way forward.

The ball is now in the Welsh Minister's court. Let us hope she picks it up and does something with it quickly.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A toxic racism in the Tory Party?

If Corbyn has a problem with anti-Semitism then it seems that the Tories also have a problem, with Islamophobia. At least that is the view of their former party chair, Baroness Warsi.

According to the Independent she says that the "poison" of Islamophobia is "very widespread" in the Conservative Party but is being “ignored” by Tory leaders. Warsi believes that the problem is present at all levels of her party and claims some of the Tories’ own campaigns have included anti-Muslim messages:

She told Business Insider: "It's very widespread. It exists right from the grassroots, all the way up to the top.

"I don't think it's something that Theresa [May] is a part of, but I do believe it is something the leadership feels can be easily ignored."

She claimed Tory leaders are not taking the problem seriously because "they don't think it is going to damage them because that community doesn't vote for them in any great numbers."

She added: "I think that there is a general sense in the country that Muslims are fair game and it is not the kind of community where you can treat really badly and have many consequences. You can get any with it".

Baroness Warsi highlighted the 2016 London mayoral campaign, during which the Conservatives were criticised for portraying Labour’s Sadiq Khan, who is Muslim, as “extremist”:

She said: "We specifically went out for Hindu voters saying Sadiq's after your jewellery and I love [Indian prime minister Narendra] Modi and by the way, Sadiq is an extremist. It was really amateur dog whistle politics.

"I just feel that somebody in the campaign took a decision that if we throw enough dirt at him tied to the fact that he's a Muslim, then people will say this man can't be trusted and he won't vote for him. [It was a] terrible, terrible campaign which I think still has an effect."

The point that the Tories do not believe that these campaigns will damage them is well-made. However, for a party that supposedly believes in an inclusive Britain, their failure to act is disgraceful. It certainly removes any moral authority they may have had to criticise Labour for the anti-Semitism that is present in that party.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Will Trump declare war on Canada next?

Just when we thought things couldn't get any more messed up on the international stage, the US President throws a hissy-fit, attacks all his allies and then jets off for a cosy tête à tête with his sworn enemy.

The world is clearly a much more dangerous place when the leader of its most powerful nation continues to act like a petulant child who insists on getting his own way. And whilst I wish Trump every success in disarming the Korean peninsula, I wonder what it is he thinks he is going to achieve by imposing trade tariffs on goods exported by America's friends whilst seeking to insist that they do not have the right to retaliate? Does he even understand that these tariffs will damage the American economy and cost him jobs?

It is not just the actions of an-out-of-control President that cause concern but the way that his senior advisors, who should know better, back him up with very undiplomatic language.

The Guardian has a good example of this when it quotes Donald’s Trump’s chief economic adviser as saying that the US pulled out of a G7 communique because the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, “stabbed us in the back”. He accused the leader of one America’s most important allies of playing a “sophomoric political stunt for domestic consumption”.

In fact, as I understand it Trudeau's press conference briefing was just repeating what he had already told Trump in private, that Canada does not accept the US demand for a sunset clause in the North American trade agreement, Nafta, that Trump has at different times pressed to abolish or renegotiate. Trudeau also said Canada would “move forward with retaliatory measures” in response to the Trump administration’s move to impose tariffs on aluminium and steel imports from the European Union, Mexico and Canada.

Why would Trump expect anything else? Is the master of the deal losing his touch, when he cannot get even his own allies to agree with him? Will we now see calls for a wall along the Canadian border as well?

This may play well in the rustbelts of America but all Trump has succeeded in doing is to isolate the USA from the rest of the free World, effectively abdicating his position as the pre-eminent leader of that grouping.

There is a West Wing episode in Season Six (Episode 17) where a crisis blows up as a result of a border incursion by some Canadians. During that episode, the Deputy National Security Advisor, Kate Harper reveals the existence of a fictional secret plan to invade Canada:

Kate: [to the Canadian ambassador] Ambassador, listen carefully. An hour ago I reviewed the United States' contingency plan to invade your country.

Will: Uh...there's a contingency plan...

Kate: 1789, amended in 1815, the calligraphy is beautiful. And if one more "deal" is floated in this room, I'm gonna ask DOD to reactivate it. [walks out]

Thank goodness Trump only watches Fox News and wouldn't dream of immersing himself in such liberal nonsense as The West Wing. If he did happen to see the episode I imagine he would be tasking his aides to find that plan and to initiate it. That is the world we now find ourselves living in.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

UK Government continues to fall apart as they row over immigration

It turns out that it is not just Brexit that has UK Government Ministers at each other's throats. As the Independent reports there are also serious disagreements over immigration as well, as the Prime Minister refuses to back down from her 'hostile environment' policy, despite it being discredited over the Windrush scandal, and her misplacing a Home Secretary who was seeking to defend the indefensible.

The paper says that whilst on her trip to the G7 summit, the prime minister rejected three times, calls for a rethink on policies to curb illegal immigration, which have trapped British citizens. Instead, she insisted she had the public’s backing for measures which have turned employers, landlords, the NHS and banks into “de facto border guards”, required to make immigration checks.

This is despite the fact that Sajid Javid, the new home secretary, has already announced a rethink after members of the Windrush generation swept up by the policy were denied jobs and healthcare, and even detained or deported. He rejected Ms May’s phrase “hostile environment” as a “non-British term” and said: “I’m going to look at how it’s been implemented. I want to review aspects of the policy.”

The question now is whether Javid will be allowed to proceed with his avowed policy to introduce a “fairer, more compassionate immigration system”, one that is becoming increasingly necessarily as the previous policy, implemented by May when she was Home Secretary, collapses around his ears:

Doctors say people are being denied urgent treatment, after hospitals were put under a legal duty to seek money upfront from patients unable to prove they are eligible for free care.

And the government is facing a legal challenge over the “right to rent” scheme obliging landlords to check the immigration status of all would-be tenants – which campaigners say provokes widespread discrimination.

Half of landlords told the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) that they were now less likely to consider renting to non-EU nationals – while 42 per cent were less likely to rent to those without a UK passport.

This Government is becoming more and more dysfunctional as each day passes.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

How we are choking our environment

The campaign to cut back on the amount of plastic waste in our environment must have received a stimulus in Wales today with this piece about the way that rivers in Cardiff are being polluted by the stuff.

As the BBC reports, volunteers are complaining that they are dealing with a seemingly never-ending clean-up of litter, with piles of plastic bottles and takeaway cartons being collected every month by community groups in the city. They add that one volunteer described seeing a swan's nest made of plastic bottles, while another said at one point the River Taff was a "sea of plastic:

Alex Finley, one of a group from South Wales Paddle Boarders who took to the River Taff last week, said they were coming across a "shocking" amount of plastic in the water.

The volunteers - the youngest aged eight - picked up about 20 bags-worth of litter from the river in an-hour-and-a-half after being inspired by the Volvo Ocean Race.

"When you paddle up the Taff it's just idyllic, but when you are picking up so much plastic you start to wonder what sort of water you are in," he said.

Plastic bottles, beer cans and broken-up takeaway boxes made up the majority of their loot - but the group also found bike tyres and a number of plastic ducks.

"It was just phenomenal - we couldn't believe it," he said.

"I came round this one corner and it was just a sea of plastic. For about 100m you could barely see the water. It was just grim."

The BBC say that Cardiff Harbour Authority collects an average of 430 tonnes of rubbish and natural debris from this area each year, a lot of it due to human activity, including sewage, industrial pollution, and incorrectly plumbed toilets and showers. Naturally, there are concerns about the impact on wildlife.

Regular clean-ups and better funded activity by local councils will of course make a difference but there needs to be a fundamental change in the way that we approach waste if this is to be solved in the long term.

In particular we need to have legislation to reduce packaging, to insist that what packaging is there is biodegradable and of course we need better enforcement and more stringent punishments for fly-tipping and other illegal waste disposal.

This is a job for government, and now that it has been seen as a problem on their own doorstep, one for Welsh Minister to take on directly.

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