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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Time for Twitter to clamp down on hate speech

The Guardian reports that shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, has urged Twitter to take action over “highly offensive racist and misogynist” abuse on the platform after a study found thousands of tweets disproportionately targeting black female politicians and journalists.

The paper says that an Amnesty International study found black women were 84% more likely than white women to be mentioned in abusive tweets, with one in 10 posts mentioning black women containing “abusive or problematic” language.

They add that a separate Amnesty study published in September 2017 showed that Abbott, the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, received almost half (45.1%) of all the abusive tweets sent to female MPs in the run-up to that year’s general election:

For its latest study, volunteers for Amnesty’s “Troll Patrol” crowd-sourcing project analysed 228,000 tweets sent to 778 female politicians and journalists across the political spectrum in the UK and US.

The report found that 7.1% of tweets to women in the study contained abusive or problematic language.

According to the report: “Abusive content violates Twitter’s own rules and includes tweets that promote violence against or threaten people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability or serious disease.”

Problematic content” was defined as that which is “hurtful or hostile, especially if repeated to an individual on multiple or cumulative occasions”, but do not necessarily meet the threshold of abuse.

This is though is a much wider issue. As the Guardian reports:

The issue does not only affect politicians on the left: a University of Sheffield study of tweets between 2015 and 2017 published last year found that male Conservative MPs experienced the most abuse during the period, while female Tory MPs saw the largest increase in abuse.

The Conservative MP Nadine Dorries said earlier this year that colleagues had been advised by parliament’s health and wellbeing service to close down their Twitter accounts due to the angry messages they were receiving from members of the public.

Amnesty said: “Politicians and journalists faced similar levels of online abuse and we observed both liberals and conservatives alike, as well as left- and right-leaning media organisations, were affected.”

Although there needs to be a balance between free speech and acceptable behaviour, Amnesty's UK Director is absolutely right when she says Twitter is failing to be transparent about the extent of the problem. The company must take concrete steps to properly protect people on their platform, they must make it easier to report such abuse and act more quickly to sanction perpetrators.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Thames Valley Police announces brand new cat unit #PoliceCats

Sunday, December 16, 2018

How Brexit is distracting government from vital domestic reforms

There is an interesting article in the Observer this morning in which they report that a powerful cross-party group of MPs has warneds Theresa May that Brexit is “sucking the life” out of her government. They also quote cabinet sources admiting that the crisis is forcing vital domestic business off the government’s timetable.

They say that with the deadlock over May’s Brexit deal unresolved, and a key vote in parliament postponed until mid-January, the chairpersons of six all-party select committees have signed a statement saying long-drawn-out arguments over Brexit are having a “serious detrimental effect” on wider domestic policy:

The MPs, who include the Tory chairs of the treasury and education select committees, Nicky Morgan and Robert Halfon, add that: “Rather than continuing to drag out the Brexit process for months more, we must bring it to a close if we are to prevent serious damage to our country”.

Others who signed off on the statement are the chair of the work and pensions select committee, Frank Field; the Tory chair of the digital culture media and sport committee, Damian Collins; the Labour chair of the environmental audit select committee, Mary Creagh; and Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat chair of the science and technology committee.

While the six have very different views on Brexit they agree that the government is letting people down with its near-total preoccupation with the issue at a time of crisis in the NHS and social care, rising knife crime, failing public transport, chronic homelessness and environmental challenges. Labour members including Creagh say government austerity has made neglect of poorer communities by government even more shocking.

Their intervention follows news on Friday that chaos over Brexit has forced NHS leaders to postpone a new long-term plan for the NHS and put back, yet again, a long-awaited green paper on the future of social care until January. Both decisions dismayed MPs and organisations across the health and social care sectors.

Asked why the social care green paper had been delayed, a government source told the Observer the crisis over Brexit had “wiped the grid clean and meant we have had to push stuff back. So social care won’t be until January.” 

The paper adds that other areas of policy that MPs say have been subject to Brexit-related delays include the fair funding review, intended to reform and improve how local government financing is organised, and a government strategy on internet safety.

The results of government consultations on housing issues such as longer tenancies and consumer rights – which concluded months ago – have not materialised. The domestic abuse bill, championed personally by May, also has yet to be introduced. The Missing Persons Guardianship Act, which was meant to allow the families of people who have gone missing to take control of their affairs, has not yet come into force even though it became law over a year ago.

And in the area of transport, the government continues to struggle to address months of timetabling chaos and has pushed back the electrification of railways in the north.

It seems that it not just Brexit itself that this Government is screwing up.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Tory group told to repay €535,000 to European Parliament

First it was UKIP being asked to repay money to the European Parliament, now a European conservative group co-founded by the Tories and led by Brexit campaigner and MEP Daniel Hannan has been asked to repay more than half a million euros of EU funds following an investigation into their spending.

The Guardian reports that in a rare negative finding touching a British political party in government, European parliament senior leaders on Monday night ordered the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (Acre) to repay €535,609 (£484,360) of EU funds.

They add that the group will be denied a further €187,245, which had been withheld pending investigation. A formal demand for repayment will be issued to the Acre next week, following a decision taken behind closed doors by the parliament’s top leaders on Monday:

Hannan, who has championed Brexit for more than a quarter of a century and was Acre’s secretary-general until December 2017, is told that there are grounds to suspect a conflict of interest on his part, in leaked documents seen by the Guardian. Hannan called that conclusion “absurd” and accused investigators of making false insinuations that were “outrageous”.

The authorities suggest that the money has in some cases been used to promote events which are of limited relevance or benefit to the EU.

Among parliament’s objections was €250,000 spent on a three-day event at a luxury beach resort in Miami. While the keynote speaker was listed as former Spanish prime minister, José María Aznar, the conference had “an almost exclusively American audience”, the parliament found, with an agenda that hardly mentioned the EU.

It also questioned €90,000 spent on a trade “summit” at a five-star hotel on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kampala, where a largely British delegation met African delegates to discuss post-Brexit trade.

The “Great Lakes Trade summit” in Kampala brought together a mostly African audience to meet 20 British politicians and participants, with only three attendees from continental Europe.

According to footage on the website of Conservatives International, the conservative alliance founded by Hannan which hosted the conferences, speakers at the Kampala event included then-minister for international development, Rory Stewart and Douglas Carswell, the former Conservative MP who defected to UKIP and quit frontline politics before the May 2017 election.

Acre insisted that both events “contributed to EU awareness and focused on topics clearly pertinent to EU integration and EU policies”.

It's interesting how it is those most opposed to the EU, who seem to get caught up in these allegations of misspending of European money.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Desperate times, desperate measures

Possibly the most shocking outcome of the Theresa May no confidence vote was the reinstatement of the whip to two Conservative MPs accused of sexual misconduct. Although this act of arbitrary forgiveness was entirely predictable in the circumstances, that does not make it any more excusable nor does it help the Tories in their wooing of voters in the #MeToo era.

Personally, I agree entirely with Jess Phillips who, as the Guardian reports, raised the matter in Parliament yesterday. She questioned why the Conservative party told Andrew Griffiths and Charlie Elphicke they were allowed to participate in the vote of no confidence in the prime minister and accused Theresa May of putting political power ahead of “protecting victims of sexual abuse”.

The whip had been withdrawn from Griffiths, the MP for Burton, in July after he sent thousands of sexually explicit messages to two female constituents. Elphicke was suspended by the Tories 13 months ago after “serious allegations” made against him were referred to the police. He has always denied any wrongdoing:

At Commons’ business questions, Phillips read out some of the messages that Griffiths, May’s former chief of staff, had sent to his constituents. “She’s so cute, so sweet, I can’t wait to beat her. Can she take a beating?” one read. “Not my words,” Phillips said, “but the words of the MP for Burton, as he was barraging two of his female constituents with thousands of sexual text messages.

“Last night Mrs Leadsom’s party gave him and the MP for Dover [Elphicke] the whip back without any due process. What message does this send about how any process here in this place can ever be trusted?” she said.

Phillips, the MP for Birmingham Yardley, continued: “Can she answer that question, and also answer me to what matters more; political power or protecting victims of sexual harassment and abuse?”

Leadsom replied saying she was “absolutely committed to changing the culture of this place and to seeing that everybody here is treated with dignity and respect”.

“There has been a process that has been undertaken; it has been a decision by the chief whip, it’s not something that I have been privy to.” The shadow policing minister, Louise Haigh, raised the issue later in the session. “I’m afraid Mrs Leadsom’s party yesterday lost any ounce of credibility in leading the investigation into sexual harassment and bullying in this place when they restored the whips to Mr Griffiths and Mr Elphicke,” she said.

“And I’m afraid it is thoroughly implausible that it just so happened that their investigations concluded yesterday.”

The Tories have demonstrated where their priorities lie and it s not with the victims, alleged or otherwise.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Have Labour missed their chance to oust May?

As Theresa May announced that she would no longer be asking the House of Commons to vote on her Brexit deal, the course of action open to the official Labour opposition seemed to be clear. The Tory party was split and in chaos, the DUP wanted shot of May and the other opposition parties were clamouring to join them in a vote of no confidence.

However, Jeremy Corbyn hesitated and his moment was lost. Instead the European Research Group gambled on using their own party procedures in an attempt to defenestrate May as Tory leader, and lost. May secured 63% of the vote in a secret ballot of all Tory MPs and survived to pursue her damaging and pointless Brexit deal in the corridors of European power.

So what has changed? Well, as far as the Brexit deal is concerned, the Prime Minister still has no majority in the House of Commons to get it approved. She will continue to try and find a formula to overcome that obstacle, but her efforts look to be in vain.

Meanwhile, the UK has become an international laughing stock and the majority of British voters are banging their heads against a wall in despair. Theresa May will plough on, but she is weakened and reliant on the Brexiteers in her cabinet for her position. If they turn against her and her deal, then her position really will be untenable.

The European Research Group, despite their bravado in the face of defeat, appear to have shot their bolt. They are now a spent force with little or no credibility. They talked a good game but when it came to acting on their words they failed to deliver. They are the modern political equivalent of the Grand Old Duke of York, marching their bedraggled troops to the top of the hill and back down again.

Labour too are diminished as an opposition party. Corbyn blustered at the top of his voice in Prime Minister's Questions yesterday. but Theresa May took him apart. His ineffectiveness in the Parliamentary chamber is becoming legion. More to the point, his opportunity to unite the opposition parties and Tory rebels behind him in support of a no confidence vote, appears to have passed. He failed to seize the day, and will pay the price.

Having confirmed May in her position as Prime Minister, it is my judgement that Tory MPs will not want to see Corbyn succeed where they failed. They may be in a position to block the Brexit deal, but surely even the most hardened rebel would not want to hand a victory to Labour by allowing him to oust May, when they couldn't. If Corbyn was doubtful about succeeding in a no confidence motion before, then he must be certain that it will not pass now.

Once more Labour have failed as an opposition. They have failed to take a coherent lead on Brexit, they have failed to effectively do their job in holding the government to account, and now they have failed to take the opportunity that presented itself to them to force the Prime Minister out of office, thus taking a step closer to the General Election they so crave.

The Tory rebels may still be asking themselves what went wrong, but the really burning question in British politics this morning is, what is the point of Jeremy Corbyn?

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Forty eight

So the Conservative Party have done it again - faced with a national crisis that threatens to destroy our economic prosperity and leave the country hopelessly divided, they have reverted to looking after their own self-interests and personal ambitions.

The breaking news this morning is that the hard-line Brexiteers have finally secured the 48 letters needed to force a no confidence vote in Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party. The ballot will take place between 6pm and 8pm this evening, and if the rebels (or the bastards, as John Major would call them) are successful then a leadership contest will take place, at precisely the time that the Prime Minister should be in Europe renegotiating her EU exit package.

And where is Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party in all this? He has chosen to sit on the fence and allow the Tories to self-destruct, in pursuit of his own narrow party interest. In normal times that may be the correct course for a leader of the opposition, but these are extraordinary times, and we all should expect better from a man who has ambitions to lead the country.

It is clear that the Tories have failed the country. They have failed to deliver the Brexit many of them campaigned for and they have taken the UK to the brink of disaster. Along with their right-wing allies, they have turned the UK into an international laughing stock.

It is unlikely that Corbyn could negotiate a better exit deal. I doubt if anybody could. He should stop pretending that he can,  as such claims have never been credible. As leader of the opposition, Corbyn should have grasped the opportunity to take the country on a different path. he should have been promoting a referendum on the May deal, with the option to remain in the EU as the alternative.

A motion of no confidence may have been one way to do this, but the clearest way would be to commit Labour clearly and unequivocally in favour of a referendum and to use every Parliamentary means to make it happen.

If Corbyn were to commit to a people's vote, then there would be a clear majority in the House of Commons for a plebiscite. We could then present two distinct and well-defined options to voters, allowing them to decide for themselves how we should proceed, instead of leaving our future in the hands of a bunch of self-serving politicians, whose main concern appears to be their own personal ambition.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Government Facebook advertising targeting the wrong audience

The full extent of the UK Government's humiliation at having to withdraw their 'meaningful' vote on Theresa May's Brexit was evidenced this morning by the revelation that they spent almost £100,000 of taxpayers’ money in the last week buying Facebook adverts in a bid to convince the public to support Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

The Guardian reports that the adverts were promoted with the hashtag #BackTheBrexitDeal and offered short videos promoted using civil service resources and linking to an official government website called The Brexit Deal Explained. They add that although Facebook does not give precise data on who was targeted, the publicly-funded adverts in support of the deal cost £96,684 and were shown at least 5 million times in the last week.

Different adverts were tailored to different audiences, with men more likely than women to see government adverts stating that the deal would help Britain cut levels of immigration. There were also ads to sell the deal in the constituent countries of the UK, with short videos specifically made for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

There has been a lot of controversy over Facebook advertising in recent times, not least the use of data to target them effectively. The fact that none of these adverts appeared in my browser indicates that the Government may well have got their targeting right.

But the real questions has to be why, when the electorate that mattered on this particular vote consisted of MPs, were they spending public money trying to convince people who did not have a vote and who could not influence the outcome?

Monday, December 10, 2018

Are Tory MPs putting their own ambitions above that of the country?

The stakes for the UK could not be higher. Tomorrow's vote on Theresa May's Brexit deal could define the country's future for decades to come. It could either take us out of Europe, forcing us to turn our back on decades of stability and economic prosperity, or it could plunge us into financial and political uncertainty and chaos.

Every MP needs to think through the consequences of their actions. I am not a great fan of referenda, but in my view a vote for a further plebiscite, giving voters the final say on whether we accept the deal or stay in the EU, is the best way forward. It takes account of the country's best interests, whilst helping to break the deadlock in Parliament, where there does not appear to be a majority for any option.

However, judging by this article in the Independent, the main preoccupation of a number of Tory MPs is their own personal ambition. They say that potential leadership rivals are already publicly positioning themselves to grab the Tory crown if Theresa May's Brexit plans collapse.

Ex-cabinet ministers Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Esther McVey have all signalled a willingness to bid for the leadership amid speculation that Ms May faces a heavy defeat in the crunch Commons vote on her proposed Brexit deal. They really can't help themselves.

At the same time, a small pro-Brexit rally saw protesters brandishing a gallows on the streets of London, as if this is an acceptable image in modern political discourse.

My hope is that people will reject these extremists and self-serving careerists, and restore some decency and balance to politics and the governance of our country. I fear though, that we have more depths to plumb before that can happen.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Will England follow Wales in restoring maintenance grants for students?

Some encouraging news in today's Observer, who report that Theresa May’s new social mobility tsar, Martina Milburn, believes that cutting university tuition fees risks failing to help the young people most in need of help to access higher education. Instead, she has suggested restoring maintenance grants designed to help poorer students meet living costs.

Unfortunately, the article is devolution-blind. It fails to acknowledge that Wales has already trail-blazed the way on this approach, having come to similar conclusions, despite the fact that just seventeen months ago, the paper's sister paper, the Guardian actually contained an article by the Welsh Liberal Democrats Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams, outlining how she implemented her party's manifesto promise and why.

Martina Milburn states: “Cutting fees will certainly help a certain sector. Whether it helps the right young people, I’m not convinced,” she said. “There’s also evidence that if you remove tuition fees altogether, there would be a certain number of young people from particular backgrounds who wouldn’t be able to go to university at all – but if you restore something like the education maintenance allowance or a version of it, I think you would widen participation. That’s a personal view. 

“This is something I think we would definitely look at in the future – on whether you restore something like the maintenance grants, which seems to me much more important than cutting fees.

That is a remarkably similar conclusion to the higher education funding review in Wales, led by Professor Ian Diamond. As Kirsty Williams wrote in July 2017:

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.

Martina Milburn would do well to look at what the Liberal Democrats have been able to achieve in Wales, particularly with regards to part-time students. We have made it possible for poorer students to fulfil their potential through education in a way that wasn't possible a few years ago. England should follow suit.

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