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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

National Disservice

Anybody who doubts the authenticity of the Yes Prime Minister episode on bringing back national service, which can be viewed on YouTube here, should read the views of the former head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Lord West in this article in the Independent.

Lord West told the paper that Rishi Sunak’s proposal to enforce national service for teenagers is “hare-brained” and would only serve to deplete Britain’s defence capabilities. He added that the Tories’ general election plan showed Mr Sunak did not understand the level of danger the UK currently faces:

In their first major policy pledge since Mr Sunak hastily announced the election on Wednesday, the Conservatives unveiled plans to reintroduce national service, with school leavers being given the option of either joining the military for a year or doing part-time voluntary service in the community.

In what has widely been seen as a bid to attract Reform voters, the policy – rejected by a government minister only days earlier as a drain on military resources – would see 30,000 teenagers given full-time roles in the armed forces each year.

The Tories pledged to set up a royal commission to work out the details if elected on 4 July, but insist their plan would cost £2.5bn – and propose raiding key levelling up and post-EU funding to pay for it.

But Lord West, who was First Sea Lord from 2002 to 2006, warned that “anyone with the most basic experience of how much it costs, and what it entails, to turn a new recruit into someone that can usefully serve in our armed forces would not need a royal commission to tell them that the proposal as currently presented is utter nonsense”.

“This ill-thought out conscription scheme will increase pressure on defence and waste money,” the former Navy chief wrote, adding: “Rather than enhancing our defence capability, it would further reduce it.”

Britain’s military has shrunk by a third and satisfaction with service life, pay and morale have plunged across the board since the Tories entered power in 2010, Lord West said – accusing Mr Sunak of having ignored these while chancellor and only acting in the headlights of a general election.

“And now, instead of a serious and comprehensive plan to strengthen our defence capabilities, the prime minister says he will plug the gap with 30,000 untrained teenagers doing their year of compulsory work experience,” he wrote.

“That tells me he does not understand the level of danger that our country is facing – or the level of support that our Armed Forces need to respond to it.”

Rubbishing the Tories’ costings, Lord West said that providing training, facilities, accommodation, uniforms, equipment and other necessary supplies would significantly surpass the proposed £2.5bn – while leaving no money to spare for the wider part-time element of the scheme.

Labelling it “a hare-brained idea dreamed up by spin doctors desperate for a headline”, Lord West added: “As an idea, it may belong in the frenzy of an impending election, but it is not a serious plan for the future of our Armed Forces, at a time when the state of the world demands one.”

It looks like it wasn't just the general election that was called on the spur of the moment, the Tories are making up policy on the hoof as well. Anybody would think they don't expect to win.

Friday, May 24, 2024

First gaffe of the campaign

It was inevitable really that the first gaffe of the general election campaign had to come from Rishi Sunak.

As Nation Cymru reports, the prime minister scored an own goal with a footballing gaffe as he met brewery staff in Wales on his campaign tour:

The Prime Minister asked the workers whether they were looking forward to the football later this summer as a potential source of revenue, despite Wales not qualifying for the Euro 2024 tournament.

There was an awkward pause after Mr Sunak asked: “So are you looking forward to all the football?”

One brewery employee answered: “We’re not so invested in it,” to which another responded: “That’s because you guys aren’t in it”.

“A good summer”

The Prime Minister nonetheless insisted that “it’ll be a good summer of sport”.

Mr Sunak has found the back of his own net while talking about the sport before.

The self-described “massive football fan” in 2022 wrongly spoke about his team Southampton FC playing Manchester United at the weekend, when they were in fact facing Leicester City.

Given how marginal the Vale of Glamorgan is, and the fact that it also houses the Welsh football team's training facilities, you would think Sunak might have been better briefed.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Has Sunak saved Gething?

If there was one thing that Welsh First MInister, Vaughan Gething needed, it was a distraction, something to take his own party's mind off the dodgy donation scandal, the deleted WhatsApp messages, the failed trip to India to meet Tata executives who had just returned from London, and the sacking of a Minister over disputed evidence of a leak.

And now he has it; a general election in which nobody in Welsh Labour will want to rock the boat too much in case they disrupt the campaign.

Of course, none of this will stop the opposition focussing on all the problems and issues in an attempt to embarrass Keir Starmer, especially when he ventures across the Severn Bridge into Wales, but, to use an analogy, there is a difference between being under fire in peacetime and having to defend your positions in a war.

Labour MSs may well not want to demoralise the troops anymore than they have to by triggering a leadership contest in the run up to a General Election..

That leaves Gething hoping that by the time Starmer has crossed the threshold of number ten Downing Street in triumph, those calling for his head will have discharged all their ammunition, and it will be all forgotten and forgiven within his own group.

The unknown factor in this is Keir Starmer, himself. Just how ruthless is he? Will he make the same judgement as the Labour group in Cardiff Bay and leave things alone until after 4th July, or will he decide that the embarrassment factor is too much in the middle of an election and push his protégé under a virtual bus?

My betting is on the former, in which case it looks like Rishi Sunak has saved Vaughan Gething's bacon. I hope he sends the Tory PM a thank you card.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

A virtual black hole

The Independent reports on a new study that suggests that the internet is slowly disapearing down a virtual black hole as web pages and online content is lost.

The web is often thought of as a place where content lasts forever. But vast swathes of its are being lost as pages are deleted or moved, according to new research.

Of the webpages that existed in 2013, for instance, 38 per cent are now lost. Even newer pages are disappearing: 8 per cent of pages that existed in 2023 are no longer available.

Those pages tend to disappear when they are deleted or moved. That happens on otherwise functional websites, the study from the Pew Research Center indicated, rather than happening when whole websites disappear.

The effect means that vast amounts of news and important reference content are disappearing. Some 23 per cent of news pages include at least one broken link, and 21 per cent of government websites, it said – and 54 per cent of Wikipedia pages include a link in their references that no longer exists.

Much the same effect is happening on social media. A fifth of tweets disappear from the site within months of being posted.

The study was completed by gathering a random samples of almost a million webpages, taken from Common Crawl, a service that archives parts of the internet. Researchers then looked to see whether those pages continued to exist between 2013 and 2023.

It found that 25 per cent of all pages collected between 2013 and 2023 were no longer available. Of those, 16 per cent of pages came from a website that continues to exist, while 9 per cent were located on websites that no longer exist at all.

This is one of the reasons why I tend to quote at length on this blog rather than rely on hotlinks. There are over 20 years of posts here and the further you go back, the more likely it is that the link to a particular story is broken.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Labour play the race card

Nation Cymru report that a divide in Welsh Labour over the leadership of the First Minister appears to have deepened further with one senior Labour source declaring, “we can’t carry on like this”.

They say that this source has indicated to them that some Labour MSs are making plans to move against the First Minister in a no confidence vote, claiming that “It’s going to be a horrible few weeks.” While another senior Labour source told the news website that: “The time will come where many of us will have to say something publicly.”

Gething's case cannot have been helped by the ludicrous claim by Welsh Labour’s BAME committee that some of the criticism by the press “has gone well beyond what one can reasonably call fair scrutiny” and that: 'scrutiny in recent weeks has crossed a line between fair examination and racially influenced attitudes and judgement, with a Black person being held to a higher standard.'

Cabinet Secretary Dawn Bowden in a tweet said: “Racism is in plain sight for those who want to see it” and later added: “The narrative around Vaughan Gething has all the hallmarks of institutional racism that I thought we had left behind a long time ago.”

The Daily Mail article that she referred to is vicious and misguided, but the claim that it is full of 'racially-charged language' as she suggested, is nonsense.

It is hardly surprising that the senior Welsh Labour source claimed to the news site that some of their colleagues had “gone overboard” at the weekend.

Some Labour politicians may be feeling the heat, but the questions that are being asked of Gething are perfectly legitimate and have nothing to do with his racial characteristics. They would be asked of any other politician in his position who had compromised themselves in the same way.

But let's just analyse what Labour are saying here. They are suggesting that because Vaughan Gething is a member of an ethnic minority then he should be judged by a different standard to everybody else.

It's funny how they don't take the same view of Rishi Sunak.

Monday, May 20, 2024

Losing control

The Independent reports that MPs have been warned that the Brexiteer promise of stronger sovereignty has failed and is instead leading to a loss of control of British territories.

They say the claim has come about because the governments of Gibraltar and the UK are close to agreeing a treaty that some fear will see EU Frontier border guards decide who can enter the British overseas territory – and will give them the power to turn away British citizens:

Gibraltar has been a British territory since it was handed to the UK in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, part of a series of agreements that ended the war of the Spanish succession. Spain, though, has long disputed the land on which the RAF Gibraltar air force station is situated, claiming it was part of an illegal landgrab by the British in the 19th century. Spain has been pushing to regain control of the territory for decades.

But there are wider concerns about this treaty with the EU, because of implications of a dilution of British sovereignty in areas such as Northern Ireland and even potentially the UK bases in Cyprus, where pressure is mounting over land that is British sovereign territory.

It is tempting to ask what it is that the Brexiteers expected. They may want to cut the UK off from the rest of the world in pursuit of an illusory soverignty, but as legal expert Catherine Barnard, a professor in European and employment law and deputy director of the think tank UK in a Changing Europe, poimts out, the whole concept is out-of=-date:

During the 2016 referendum, 96 per cent of Gibraltar’s citizens voted in favour of Remain, and last year Mr Picardo won re-election on a mandate to complete his treaty negotiations.

Prof Barnard warned that the row is based on a Brexiteer view of sovereignty that is outdated and rooted in the days of empire.

She said: “Essentially, the Brexiteers, during the referendum and after, were pushing a view of sovereignty that has not been true since the 19th century. Sovereignty is now much more transactional, and as soon as you sign any agreement, you dilute your sovereignty. That is what is going on with Gibraltar and Northern Ireland. Sovereignty is no longer absolute.”

Prof Barnard said that in the modern world, sovereignty is a matter of give and take: “You give up part of it to gain something more for your country. That’s what happens with treaties and any sort of international agreement. It is like if I sell my car to you, I no longer have the car, but do have the money you gave me for it.

“We see this in the trade and cooperation agreement with the EU: we can change our environmental regulations, but this would mean we have tariffs imposed on us.”

She added that the issue of “competing sovereignties” could be another potential point of contention between the UK and Gibraltar.

Things really are starting to get interesting now.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

A new Windrush scandal?

The Guardian reports that lawyers and migrant rights campaigners have warned that the government is heading for a repeat of the Windrush scandal after imposing a “cliff edge” deadline for immigrants to switch to new digital visas.

The paper says that an estimated 500,000 or more non-EU immigrants with leave to remain in the UK will need to replace their physical biometric residence permits with digital e-visas by the end of this year. These permits demonstrate proof of their right to reside, rent, work and claim benefits:

In order to access their e-visa, people will need to open a UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) digital account. The Home Office has recently emailed invitations for a trial group of BRP holders to open digital accounts, but as many migrants used their solicitors’ email address as their Home Office contact, many have gone to lawyers rather than the immigrants themselves.

In addition, because personal details were excluded from the invitations for data security reasons, the lawyers would have no idea which of their potentially thousands of clients the emails were meant for, meaning they could not forward them on.

“After 31 December, a person without access to their e-visa will be un­able to prove their status in the UK,” said Zoe Bantleman, legal director at the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association. “The Home Office has placed them in a similar situation to members of the Windrush generation. They have status, but they cannot prove it.

“Given the poor reach of Home Office communications on the issue, it is fair to assume that there will be thousands of people who do not apply for an e-visa before the end of 2024.”

From this summer any BRP holder can open a UKVI digital account without an invitation. But immigration lawyers fear the government’s planned publicity drive will miss many older or poorer people who may not speak English as their first language or do not have ready access to the internet.

Zoe Dexter, housing and welfare manager at human rights charity the Helen Bamber Foundation, described the government’s plans as chaotic. She said: “The Home Office’s move to digitise proof of identity is bound to take a huge financial toll on hundreds of thousands of people, including refugees and survivors of trafficking and torture, whose proof of ID is linked to the benefits they receive.”

Critics warn the Home Office does not have measures in place to deal with possible technical failures, and that it has created a cliff edge with its deadline. People can still apply for a UKVI digital account after 31 December, but if they are not aware of the new rules they may only discover this when they are unable to prove their right to return from holiday or claim benefits, leading to disruption.

“This is a recipe for disaster,” said Bethan Lant of migrant rights charity Praxis. “People will be un­able to evidence their status through no fault of their own, because the Home Office has not communicated well and has given them a cliff edge after which they are going to struggle to access even the basics. We’re not saying don’t go digital, we’re not saying ‘don’t do this’. We’re saying engage better, do it carefully, do it softly, do it over a period of time.”

Over-reliance on mew technology has always been a weak spot for government, no matter who is in charge, and it always has human consequences. Time for a rethink.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Tories scraping the barrel

Like many others, I am yet to be convinced that Labour are offering anything new in the forthcoming general election, but in the interests of fair play one has to laugh at the Tories response to Keir Starmer's six points of blandness which he launched the other day in an unparalleled snoozefest.

As the Mirror reports the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt has put forward a series of "dodgy dossiers" in an effort to discredit Labour's economic credentials.

Hunt released a 19-page document on Friday which claims Labour’s policies will leave a “black hole of over £10billion a year by 2028-29”, while in a pre-election speech in central London, he claimed Labour would increase taxes to pay for their plans while the Conservatives would cut them.

This is despite the Tories having overseen the tax burden rise to its highest level since World War II:

Mr Hunt, who stood with a backdrop saying "Labour's Tax rises", celebrated the Tories' record of the last 14 years bringing more jobs, investment and growth to the country despite families dealing with higher mortgage payments, higher prices and some 25 tax rises since 2019. He fiercely attacked Labour as he said their plans would leave a £38.5billion gap over the next four years.

“Keir Starmer’s first step will not be the motherhood and apple pie we heard yesterday, but to help himself to you and your family’s wallets,” he said. “When it comes to Labour policies on jobs, welfare reform and tax, the difference if they are elected will be profound and damaging for every family in the country." He also accused Labour of lying and of “fake news” over its attacks on the Tory’s unfunded £46billion plan to abolish national insurance.

Given the Tories record, it is ironic that they are accusing anybody of damaging the economy.

Friday, May 17, 2024

On the brink

Nation Cymru, which is of course funded by the Welsh Government, is showing an admirable independence in its reporting on the Welsh First Minister recently, even suggesting that his time in office may be coming to an end. Lettuce, anybody?

Their latest piece quotes an unnamed Welsh Labour source as saying the sacking of Hannah Blythyn as a minister, for supposedly leaking damaging WhatsApp messages, brings closer the tipping point when the Labour Party accepts that keeping Vaughan Gething in office is more damaging than getting rid of him:

Ms Blythyn’s dismissal – for allegedly leaking iMessages to NationCymru that had been deleted by Mr Gething from a ministerial group chat – has created further turmoil within the Senedd Labour group, already in disarray following our earlier revelation that he accepted donations totalling £200k from a businessman convicted of environmental pollution offences.

Many people in Welsh Labour are angry that Ms Blythyn has been sacked after being accused of leaking messages that showed Mr Gething had misled the UK Covid Inquiry when he claimed that messages on his mobile phone were deleted not by him, but during a refit of the phone by the Senedd’s IT department.

The deleted messages were related to Welsh Government business and should have been handed to the Inquiry with other documentation that was handed over.

A senior Welsh Labour source told NationCymru: “Everyone knows that Vaughan can’t recover from this, but the question is how much longer can he stay in office with new revelations constantly coming out that put him, the party and Wales generally in a bad light.

“The team around Starmer that controls what happens is currently standing by him, although their patience is wearing thin. Vaughan is on the right of the party, so they have no ideological objection to him. If he’d been on the left, they would almost certainly have moved against him by now.

“Equally, if Labour had one or two seats less than we won at the last Senedd election in 2021, he would have gone by now. If they’d been in the majority, the opposition parties could have combined to move a successful vote of no confidence in him.”

Asked whether moves to oust Mr Gething would come from within Welsh Labour or from Keir Starmer’s leadership team, the source said: “It’s likely to be a combination of the two. At the moment, despite the growing disquiet, the view is that removing him would create a bigger storm and be damaging for the party.

“But I just don’t see how a general election campaign can go ahead with Vaughan Gething still in place as the First Minister. Keir Starmer will be coming to Wales, accompanied by political correspondents whose outlets cover the whole of the UK. If Vaughan Gething is sitting next to Starmer at a press conference, he is bound to get asked about the scandals in which Vaughan has been embroiled.

“Starmer’s narrative is about how he’s going to clean up British politics following years of sleaze under the Tories. That’s going to be more difficult to get across if the Welsh Government – the only UK nation where Labour is in charge – is led by a politician who has accepted an enormous sum from a convicted criminal. Given that 80% of media outlets are hostile to Labour, that is not a good look.”

As the news website points out, another issue that creates a potential minefield for Keir Starmer is Gething’s assertion that he would like the excess money from his Welsh Labour leadership campaign spent on diversity programmes:

Figures released to BBC Wales by Mr Gething’s campaign team showed that he spent around £219,000 against £61,000 spent by Jeremy Miles, the rival he narrowly defeated. Mr Gething was left with a surplus of more than £31,600 that he says he will pass over to the Labour Party.

However, Welsh Labour does not exist as a separate accounting unit for the purpose of registering donations, and the excess money would have to be paid to UK Labour.

A Welsh Labour source said: “After all the fuss Keir Starmer and other members of the Shadow Cabinet at Westminster have made about dodgy Tory donations, is Labour really going to accept money that originally came from a criminal? Labour’s reputation will be severely tainted if it does so. Starmer should insist that the money is paid back to David Neal, the convicted polluter who donated it in the first place.

“Trying to launder dirty money by handing it to worthy causes isn’t going to remove the stench from it.”

The last time there was this much turmoil within Welsh Labour and their Senedd group it was over the reign of Alun Michael as First Secretary. Then Aseenbly Members got rid of him in defiance of the UK leadership. This time it looks like it could be a combined effort.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Politics in the long grass

Whatever the reasons given, it surely cannot be a coincidence that the postponement of the Welsh Government's shake up in council tax takes the implementation of the reform to 2028, past the next Senedd Election.

This effective u-turn comes after a similar decision to postpone and change the implementation of new farming subsidy rules, and of course, the u-turn on the default 20mph speed limit.

Are the Welsh Government getting nervous of public opinion all of a sudden, that they are prepared to back down on key policy initiatives to avoid controversy?

If it is really the case that the ruling Labour group have suddenly become controversy-averse, then the leader of the Welsh Tories may be right, it can only be a matter of time before they jettison Vaughan Gething as First Minister before he drags them down with him.

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