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Monday, July 23, 2018

Is the government about to renege on its promises to restaurant staff?

I have been writing about the way that restaurant staff are exploited by big chains through their tipping policies since 2008 with a number taking a cut of any tips added onto the bill and paid with credit cards in particular.

In 2016, the Government announced plans to end unfair tipping practices and ensure additional payments for service are voluntary to the consumer, and received by workers in full. These included updating the current voluntary code of practice, increasing transparency for consumers to make it clearer that tips are discretionary, and preventing or limiting any employer deduction from tips, except for those required under tax law.

However, as I wrote only a few months ago, the promised action was still pending. Now the Independent, who started the original fair tipping campaign, reports that Ministers have been accused of breaking their promises to these low-paid workers amid claims they have quietly dropped plans to ensure restaurant and bar staff are not being exploited.

They say that despite Tory ministers having pledged to take action to protect staff, a response to a freedom of information request has revealed the business department does not appear to have even started work on a response, prompting claims it has ditched the plans. Apparently, they are still considering options:

The latest row comes after staff at restaurant chain TGI Fridays staged a series of walkouts over what they said was the company’s unfair tips policy.

Waiting staff at the American chain were told that 40 per cent of the tips they receive via credit or debit cards would be taken from them and given to kitchen staff, instead of the chain giving the latter a pay rise.

The Unite trade union, which represents bar and restaurant workers, said this would cost some waiting staff £250 a month and organised protests outside 30 of the chain’s restaurants.

The paper says that despite many companies having responded to public pressure to change their policies, some continue to keep a cut of staff tips for themselves. Others, including Italian chain Strada, take a proportion of tips paid on a card as a “handling charge”.

They add that some firms, including Jamie Oliver’s Italian chain, have also been found to charge waiting staff a proportion of the bills paid by the people they serve, which is then distributed to other staff.

Nothing better illustrates the priorities of this government than their failure to act to protect these low paid workers.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Is the Electoral Commission for purpose?

Since it was established by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 the Electoral Commission has impressed by just how unimpressive it has been.

Those of us involved with elections, whether as candidates and politicians or as administrators have seen many instances where their judgement and understanding have been drawn into question. For me it was their failure to properly administer the 2011 Assembly Election, when the names of candidates on party lists were kept off the ballot paper and promises to have them posted in polling stations instead were not kept.

It is little wonder then that the Commission's responsibilities have been scaled back over the years, but when it comes to their main role of ensuring fair play in elections they have either proven to be not up to the job, slow to act, or just lacking the teeth to do the job effectively.

I very much support therefore, the call by more than 40 cross-party MPs to beef up the Commission's powers after the official Brexit campaign was fined and reported to the police over breaches of spending laws. The Electoral Commission imposed a £61,000 fine on Vote Leave and referred David Halsall, the campaign’s “responsible person”, to the police for making false declarations of campaign spending, after it was found to have coordinated illegally with BeLeave, another Brexit group. The Independent reports:

In a letter to John Bercow, who chairs the speaker’s committee on the Electoral Commission, MPs said the findings show democracy could be “vulnerable to tampering and manipulation” and the watchdog needs tougher powers to restore public faith in the electoral system.

It comes amid calls from senior MPs for the Brexit referendum to be “rerun” after the sanctions against Vote Leave. Vote Leave said the electoral commission’s findings were “wholly inaccurate”.

Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, who helped to coordinate the letter, said the watchdog was an “analogue regulator in a digital age” and warned that “dark money and dark data” could flood the system without reform.

The suggested reforms include allowing the Electoral Commission to impose unlimited fines and to refer breaches to specialist police officers to investigate.

MPs also called for campaigns to be forced to declare their spending online, and outlined the need for tougher regulation for digital political advertising – something the commission itself has backed. “Until these reforms are instituted, our democracy will remain susceptible to future abuses like these,” the letter said.

“Looking ahead, we cannot in good conscience have another election or referendum without ensuring our polls are free and fair.”

Mr Kinnock said the democratic system was under attack from a mixture of foreign influence and abuses of the laws, describing the Vote Leave result as the “thin end of the wedge”.

The threats to our democracy are many and those seeking to subvert the process are using more and more sophisticated methods to cheat and to influence the result. If the regulator is not fit to deal with these threats then they need more powers and better sanctions.

They could also do with being more savvy about the methods being deployed to undermine our democracy so as to try and pre-empt the interference in the first place.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Ireland underline the reality of a no deal Brexit

The warning from Ireland's Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, that, in the event of a disorderly exit from the European Union, British airlines could be banned from Irish airspace has helped to focus minds on what happens if the divided and shambolic UK Government fails to agree a deal with the EU before we exit on 29 March 2019.

As the Independent confirms, at present the UK benefits from “open skies” rules, which allow EU airlines to fly between and over any European airspace. But unless an aviation agreement is reached before the final departure date, then Civil Aviation Authority rulings will not be recognised and insurance companies will cease to cover flights.

Irish air space is absolutely crucial in civil aviation terms. London is the main European hub for transatlantic aviation, and most flights to and from the US East Coast, including Boston, New York and Washington DC, fly over Irish airspace. In addition, Ryanair could be seriously affected. Europe’s biggest low-cost airline has its largest hub at Stansted airport.

All of this is still up for discussion and agreement of course, but the stakes are high. The UK cannot afford a no deal Brexit.

Friday, July 20, 2018

A question of trust

The House of Commons whipping system is an esoteric subject at the best of times. It is hardly the subject of debate and controversy in living rooms up and down the country, and yet the pairing of MPs during crucial votes is essential to the successful running of the Government.

That is because pairing is not just used to cover for sick and pregnant MPs or because of travel problems, it also allows Ministers to get on with their jobs knowing that their absence during a division will not threaten the government's majority.

In the circumstances then, the decision of the Tory Chief Whip, Julian Smith to encourage paired MPs to break the agreement they had entered into and walk though the lobby in Tuesday's critical votes was not just a breach of trust, it was foolhardy in the extreme. He secured a short-term gain in exchange for trashing a system that could keep Theresa May in Number 10 Downing Street for longer.

It is little wonder that outrage is being expressed on all sides. That is especially so when, as The Times reports, claims by Smith that it was a cock-up are being disproved by those who were there.

The paper says that Julian Smith told a rival chief whip that he deliberately intended to break the pairing system in Tuesday’s critical vote:

Mr Smith, the Conservative chief whip, was already facing calls to resign this morning after The Times revealed that he urged three Tory MPs to abandon pairing arrangements shortly before the key vote on the customs union.

News of the further admission — that Mr Smith openly admitted he wanted to abandon a key parliamentary convention for a vote he faced losing — has further damaged his credibility among rival whips, with whom he must continue to work, and Tory MPs. The leak of information from a conversation between two chief whips underlines the extent to which the system has broken down.

As Lib Dem MP, Christine Jardine, says: “These allegations completely undermine the trust on which the pairing system depends. Cynical abuse to get the government through a difficult day is a sure fire way to corrode that trust. This situation is so serious that Downing Street can keep the system or they can save their chief whip. They can’t do both. 

“There are so many questions the Tories still need to answer. The chief whip must come to parliament and be held accountable. Ultimately, if Andrea Leadsom and the prime minister have misled the House, this is a crisis. It is unclear how many more crises this threadbare government can withhold.”

If Theresa May does not act to remove Smith from his post as Chief Whip then her government will find it even more difficult to function effectively in future.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Labour dig a deeper hole for themselves over anti-semitism charges

The on-going row within Labour over their stance on anti-Semitism took an ugly turn yesterday with party officials saying that action will be taken against a senior Labour MP after she had a blazing row with Jeremy Corbyn.

As I have posted previously, this internal row has been sparked by the party’s ruling executive adopting a new code of conduct that defines antisemitism differently from the more broadly accepted meaning of the word.

Although Labour's new code of conduct explicitly states “antisemitism is racism” and is “unacceptable”, it stops short of signing up in full to the definition of antisemitism drawn up by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

As the Independent reports, Dame Margaret Hodge challenged Corbyn behind the speaker’s chair in the House of Commons following a crunch vote on Brexit. It was reported Dame Margaret told him: “You’re a f****** anti-Semite and a racist ... You have proved you don’t want people like me in the party.” Corbyn reportedly told her: “I’m sorry you feel like that.”

Obviously feelings are running high and the intemperate reaction of Margaret Hodge is a reflection of that. However, in pursuing disciplinary action against her, Labour risk having the controversy dominate whatever agenda they happen to be pursuing at the moment.

It is little wonder that the party has lost the support of much of the Jewish community and is struggling to nose ahead of the abysmal and divided Tory Party in the polls.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Did Vote Leave break the law and what should happen to the Cabinet Members who were involved in this organisation?

The rather toothless Electoral Commission has finally made a decision and fined Vote Leave £61,000 and reported them police after finding “significant evidence” of coordination with another campaign group, BeLeave. This is not some technical finding, this is an allegation of law-breaking which directly influenced the referendum result two years ago. The Guardian reports:

The watchdog said it had imposed punitive fines on Vote Leave because it said the group had refused to cooperate fully with its investigation and declined to be interviewed. Its former chief executive, Matthew Elliott, had previously alleged it was the Electoral Commission that had refused to cooperate. Vote Leave called the findings “wholly inaccurate”.

The commission’s long-awaited report said it had found evidence BeLeave spent more than £675,000 with the digital data company Aggregate IQ coordinated with Vote Leave, which should have been declared by the Brexit campaign group.

Vote Leave, which was the official designated campaign for Britain to leave the EU during the referendum, fronted by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, exceeded its legal spending limit of £7m by almost £500,000, the watchdog found.

Darren Grimes, the founder of BeLeave, and the Vote Leave official David Halsall have been reported to the police. Vote Leave has been fined £61,000 and Grimes £20,000.

The commission said it had shared its investigation files with the Metropolitan police to investigate whether any other offences had been committed outside the watchdog’s remit.

Obviously, we now need to wait for the police to complete their investigation but it is nevertheless worth reflecting that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were the heads of this campaign, whilst Dominic Raab, Liam Fox, Chris Grayling and Andrea Leadsom also sat on the Vote Leave campaign committee. It seems like half the cabinet is implicated in this investigation.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Meanwhile, in the category of 'you couldn't make it up if you tried'

Ronald Reagan will be spinning in his grave. The 45th President of the United States of America standing alongside the leader of what Reagan might still term the 'evil empire' or at least its successor, siding with Russia against his own intelligence agency.

This is the same US President who only five days ago accused Germany of being a 'captive of Russia.'

Now, after a face-to-face meeting with President Putin, Trump has stood up in front of the world's media and defended Russia over claims of interference in the 2016 presidential election. In doing so he contradicted US intelligence agencies, saying there had been no reason for Russia to meddle in the vote.

US intelligence agencies concluded in 2016 that Russia was behind an effort to tip the scale of the US election against Hillary Clinton, with a state-authorised campaign of cyber attacks and fake news stories planted on social media.

As the BBC report, this has proved to be a bit too much even for his allies:

In a strongly-worded statement, US House Speaker Paul Ryan said Mr Trump "must appreciate that Russia is not our ally".

"There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals," he said, adding that there was "no question" Moscow had interfered in the 2016 election.

"The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy."

Senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Mr Trump had sent the Kremlin a message of US "weakness".

He tweeted: "Missed opportunity by President Trump to firmly hold Russia accountable for 2016 meddling and deliver a strong warning regarding future elections."

Fellow Republican Senator Jeff Flake - a staunch critic of President Trump - called his words "shameful".

It is clear now that under Trump, the USA is not a reliable ally. We cannot afford to isolate ourselves by leaving the EU, and in so doing putting ourselves at the mercy of the USA for a trade deal and future influence.

If this episode does not underline that the UK's future lies with Europe, then nothing will.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Pressure for a referendum on final deal grows

Theresa May is now fighting on two fronts over her Brexit white paper, after former education secretary, Justine Greening joined the Liberal Democrats in calling for a referendum on the final deal.

As the Guardian reports, Greening has become the most high profile Conservative to endorse the idea of a referendum, to end what she said would be a likely parliamentary deadlock over Brexit. She warned that Theresa May’s Chequers plan did not represent “a workable compromise” that a majority of MPs could get behind:

The former education secretary and remain supporter said that May’s plan was “a fudge I can’t support” and, in a blow to the prime minister, said it amounted to “the worst of both worlds” – complying with EU rules without the influence of being a member of the multi-country bloc.

Writing in the Times, the MP for Putney said that “only solution is to take the final Brexit decision out of the hands of deadlocked politicians”.

She added that voters should be given three options on the ballot paper, and a first and second preference vote to ensure that the preferred model achieved more then 50% of the final vote.

The choice should be between “the PM’s final negotiated Brexit deal, staying in the EU, or a clean Brexit break and leaving with no deal”, Greening wrote in a break from her party’s position that is likely to be picked up by the campaign groups seeking to overturn Brexit with a second referendum.

Unhappiness from the Tory right over May’s proposed Brexit deal, and their threats to vote it down when a promised meaningful final vote is put to parliament around the turn of the year, have prompted growing speculation that the prime minister may struggle to ensure whatever she negotiates will be approved by parliament, placing Britain’s future relationship with Europe in limbo.

The idea that such a referendum might be settled through preferential voting on three options of course needs a bit of work. After all, if there is a deal to be voted on then why bother putting up an option of 'No deal', when the obvious alternative is to stay in the EU.

A third referendum (for that is what it will be if we count the one in 1976) should present two clear choices, a deal to leave or to stay in. And Justine Greening is right that Parliament can no longer credibly resolve this issue. A vote of all electors started this, let us finish it.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Is public opinion swinging in favour of legalising recreational cannabis?

The Independent reports that a new poll indicates that the majority of the British public now back the legalisation of cannabis so that it would be sold in shops like alcohol and tobacco. They add that that a majority also support for decriminalisation, something that would free up police time and resources to deal with serious crime:

The exclusive BMG Research poll for The Independent comes days after cannabis oil was for the first time brought into the UK legally, to treat an epileptic boy.

But within hours of the landmark moment, a young girl was rushed into hospital and placed on life support while she awaited a licence to get the same oil.

More than 1,500 people were asked if they supported or opposed the proposal that “cannabis be legalised, so that it is sold legally within a government regulated market in the same way that alcohol and tobacco is”. Overall, 22 per cent strongly backed the move, while 29 per cent somewhat supported it, bringing total support to 51 per cent.

Some 19 per cent opposed the move strongly, and 16 per cent, somewhat, bringing the proportion of those against it to 35 per cent, while 14 per cent did not know.

The respondents were then asked: “To what extent would you support or oppose cannabis be decriminalised, so that it is still a controlled substance not available for sale on the market, but that it is not criminalised (i.e. no prosecution for possession)?”

Here support rose slightly, to 52 per cent overall – with 20 per cent strongly backing it and 32 per cent somewhat behind the idea.

Some 17 per cent somewhat opposed the move, while 16 per cent strongly opposed it – total opposition of 33 per cent – and 16 per cent did not know.

The Liberal Democrats have held this view for some time as have a number of senior politicians such as William Hague and some senior police officers who believe that regulation can reduce the strength of cannabis and allow police resources to be better utilised tackling harder, more harmful drugs.

The UK Government continue to resist this move and I suspect that there would need to be prolonged and stronger support for legalisation by the UK public before they change their mind. This poll though is a move in the right direction.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Living in a post-truth world

It was another extraordinary day in UK politics yesterday, with tens of thousands of people protesting against Donald Trump, whilst the US President himself continued his habit of reinventing the truth as he progressed from event to event.

Two incidents in particular stick out. Firstly, as the Guardian reports, Trump abruptly disavowed the criticism of Theresa May he had earlier made to the Sun newspaper, delivering an extraordinary press conference performance alongside the prime minister in which he pledged new support for a post-Brexit trade deal and attacked the British tabloid over “fake news”.

The Sun of course has the whole interview on tape, indicating that the only 'fake news' was that being delivered by Trump to the assembled media.

And then there was the extraordinary Twitter exchange over Trump's claim that he had been in the UK on the day of the Brexit referendum and had correctly predicted the result. As Trump's own twitter feed as well as many other sources prove, he actually arrived in Scotland the day after the Brexit vote on 24th July 2016.

This did not stop Stephanie Grisham, the White House Director of Communications for the First Lady seeking to back up the misinformation given by the President. Fortunately, the BBC's Jon Sopel was around to put her back in her box.

There is a fascinating article by Michiko Kakutani in today's Guardian headed: 'he death of truth: how we gave up on facts and ended up with Trump' in which he asserts that Donald Trump lies so prolifically and with such velocity that the Washington Post calculated he’d made 2,140 false or misleading claims during his first year in office – an average of 5.9 a day.

He says that his lies – about everything from the investigations into Russian interference in the election, to his popularity and achievements, to how much TV he watches are only the brightest blinking red light among many warnings of his assault on democratic institutions and norms. He routinely assails the press, the justice system, the intelligence agencies, the electoral system and the civil servants who make the US government tick.

He continues: 'Nor is the assault on truth confined to America. Around the world, waves of populism and fundamentalism are elevating appeals to fear and anger over reasoned debate, eroding democratic institutions, and replacing expertise with the wisdom of the crowd. False claims about the UK’s financial relationship with the EU helped swing the vote in favour of Brexit, and Russia ramped up its sowing of dezinformatsiya in the runup to elections in France, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries in concerted propaganda efforts to discredit and destabilise democracies.'

His conclusion is absolutely bang on the button, but no less unsettling for that:

Philip Roth said he could never have imagined that “the 21st-century catastrophe to befall the USA, the most debasing of disasters”, would appear in “the ominously ridiculous commedia dell’arte figure of the boastful buffoon”. Trump’s ridiculousness, his narcissistic ability to make everything about himself, the outrageousness of his lies, and the profundity of his ignorance can easily distract attention from the more lasting implications of his story: how easily Republicans in Congress enabled him, undermining the whole concept of checks and balances set in place by the founders; how a third of the country passively accepted his assaults on the constitution; how easily Russian disinformation took root in a culture where the teaching of history and civics had seriously atrophied.

The US’s founding generation spoke frequently of the “common good”. George Washington reminded citizens of their “common concerns” and “common interests” and the “common cause” they had all fought for in the revolution. And Thomas Jefferson spoke in his inaugural address of the young country uniting “in common efforts for the common good”. A common purpose and a shared sense of reality mattered because they bound the disparate states and regions together, and they remain essential for conducting a national conversation. Especially today in a country where Trump and Russian and hard-right trolls are working to incite the very factionalism Washington warned us about, trying to inflame divisions between people along racial, ethnic and religious lines.

There are no easy remedies, but it’s essential that citizens defy the cynicism and resignation that autocrats and power-hungry politicians depend on to subvert resistance. Without commonly agreed-on facts – not Republican facts and Democratic facts; not the alternative facts of today’s silo-world – there can be no rational debate over policies, no substantive means of evaluating candidates for political office, and no way to hold elected officials accountable to the people. Without truth, democracy is hobbled.

This is not a world that I am comfortable with and nor should any of us be. We need to fight back against this post-truth dystopia for the sake of democracy and our freedom.

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