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Sunday, March 18, 2018

New Brexit comic to be launched

Anybody who has been following the spoof Trumpton Twitter account will be delighted to learn from today's Observer that its progenitor, illustrator and author Mike Dicks is to launch a Brexit comic featuring some of the regular Twitter characters, including the Reverend May and her Brexit Gang, David Dealin’ Davis and Boris “Captain Brexit” Johnson.

The comic will go into circulation next month, loosely based on the classic 1960s children’s TV programme Trumpton. Mike Dicks has raised £4,400 via crowdfunding to pay for the first edition, which will be posted to donors and supporters by 1 April:

Dicks, a former independent TV producer, began with caricatures of Ukip leader Nigel Farage in the run-up to the 2016 referendum.

“I’d been worrying about him and Ukip,” Dicks told the Observer. “I kept thinking about how Farage was looking back to a golden age, but he’s about the same age as me, so what era is he referencing? My recollection of the 1960s and 70s was that in many ways it was a rather shit time.

“He made me think of Trumpton, which was about an old-fashioned town with no foreigners – except Mr Antonio the ice-cream man, who was almost run out of town – and an autocratic mayor. It seemed the sort of place and sort of Britain Farage was nostalgic about, so I started a Trumpton_Ukip Twitter account to gently mock him, his supporters and their backward-looking views. It had a couple of hundred followers at most, enjoying my silly jokes.”

The paper says that only 13 episodes of Trumpton were made, but many still remember Captain Flack’s fire brigade roll call: “Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grub.”

Dicks’s Trumpton has a different crew: “May, May, Johnson and Gove, Macron, Merkel and Mogg” – the two May characters reflecting the prime minister’s shifting position on Brexit.

Who was it who said that laughter is the best medicine? It certainly helps to have a sense of humour, a lesson that UKIP MEP David Coburn might want to take on board.

He was apparently unaware that the Trumpton UKIP account was a spoof and urged his 9,000 Twitter followers to complain about what he considered to be a “fake” UKIP account. He attempted to have it shut down, threatening to sue Dicks under European copyright laws.

“It suddenly went from a couple of hundred followers to 20,000,” Dicks said. “Then dozens of other Twitter accounts sprang up mocking UKIP and we were in the newspapers, so it all blew up in his face.”

This comic sounds like it is worth subscribing too.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Secret report on Carl Sargeant will not be published

The BBC report that Wales' most senior civil servant has refused to publish a redacted version of a report into whether the sacking of Carl Sargeant was leaked before a cabinet reshuffle.

She is concerned that to do so would have implications for future investigations, specifically it would prevent future witnesses from being totally candid if they thought their evidence were to be made public.

On the face of it that is a valid decision. I would expect nothing less from the Welsh Government's top bureaucrat. But politically it is a disastrous for the First Minister as it leaves the events around his disastrous reshuffle lost in a cloud of intrigue and speculation. That is evident from the reaction of the leader of the Welsh Conservatives:

Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies said: "This is simply unacceptable and bitterly disappointing. "The will of the National Assembly was clear and the excuses for not publishing the report are at best weak, and at worst plain obstructive."

He said the conclusion of the inquiry, which is repeated in the letter, "once again invites more speculation".

"The longer this facade continues the more damaging it is for the Welsh Government, and our democratic processes cannot continue to be marred by persistent stonewalling, particularly when matters of significant public interest are at stake," he added.

The facts appear to be that some journalists and lobbyists knew about the sacking of Carl Sargeant before it was officially made public, possibly before Carl was told. If there was no leak as the Permanent Secretary asserts then the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the briefing was sanctioned.

Does the report address this point? If not, why not? And if it does, surely that fact and the name of the person who authorised the leak should be made public so we can make up our own mind as to its impact on Carl's state of mind and what such a process says about the way he was treated within government.

Friday, March 16, 2018

How Brexit has left the UK isolated and vulnerable

There was an interesting intervention in the ongoing saga of the Sergei Skripal attack in the Guardian yesterday, in which the Lithuanian Foreign Minister, Linas Linkevičius is reported as saying that Russia sees the UK as increasingly isolated because of Brexit and is testing our strength, resolve and diplomatic links:

“Russia is always looking for weak points, and may feel the UK does not feel very strong,” he said in an interview. “The Russian assumption may be that in the process of Brexit, the UK is weaker in terms of its isolation, and due to Brexit the EU will not be very enthusiastic in backing the UK up.

“Fortunately that is not the case, and we will support the UK, but Russia acts by testing for reactions.”

There is also a message that Jeremy Corbyn and his spokesperson may wish to take on board with Linkevičius warning that Putin’s actions represented a threat to liberal democracy. “They test and deny. I am not asking for escalation, but if no clear messages are sent, Russia regards it as an encouragement to do more.”

So not only is Brexit leaving us reliant on an increasingly erratic US President for our trade links but it is also offering succour to our potential enemies by sending out all the wrong signals about the UK's place in the world.

Cat stops play

I have heard of football matches being stopped because of pitch invasions, even the odd streaker, but the latest incident must be unique.

As the BBC report, Turkish side Besiktas have been charged by Uefa after a cat wandered on to the pitch during the Champions League last-16 defeat by Bayern Munich. English referee Michael Oliver stopped play in the second half at Vodafone Park until the cat left the pitch.

The exact charge is "insufficient organisation", while the Turkish club has also been charged with "throwing objects and blocked stairways". The case will be heard by Uefa's disciplinary body on 31 May.

Bayern won 3-1 on the night and 8-1 on aggregate to progress to the quarter-finals and fans of the German club voted the cat as their man of the match.

I am surprised this has not happened before given the large number of cats on the streets in Turkey.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Corbyn splits Labour Party over his response to Salisbury attack

Like many people I found the performance of the Leader of the Opposition in responding to the statement on the Salisbury attacks to be absolutely astonishing.

Putting aside the tradition of MPs from all parties coming together to defend the UK when we are under attack, why was Corbyn using the Commons chamber to question basic facts when he has other avenues available to him.

As leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn is a member of the Privy Council and able to ask for detailed briefings on intelligence matters. If he did not avail himself of that opportunity and instead chose to use a public event to question the government's position, then he deserves all the disapprobation poured on him by all sides.

The Guardian editorial, already endorsed by one member of the Labour front bench sums it up perfectly:

Jeremy Corbyn invited Mrs May to acquiesce to Russia’s requests that a sample be sent to Moscow for verification – on the supposition that the Kremlin might then honestly try to match it with its own stores. He sounded too keen to find another explanation for the use of the nerve agent novichok in the attack.

There are many reasons to be wary whenever governments ask for cross-party support. Oppositions have a duty to challenge prime ministers in the most critical circumstances. Nations should not act in haste over such issues. But Mr Corbyn’s reluctance to share Mrs May’s basic analysis of the Salisbury incident made him look eager to exonerate a hostile power.

As the Independent explains, Jeremy Corbyn's position sparked a furious with Labour MPs who first stood to take an overtly different line in the Commons and then took action outside the Chamber to set themselves apart:

Labour MP Yvette Cooper, chairwoman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, was among those who differentiated herself from the leader’s position.

She said Russia’s actions must be met with “unequivocal condemnation”, while long-time Corbyn critic John Woodcock said: “This is a day for the House to speak as one for the nation, and (Ms May) will be reassured to hear that a clear majority of Labour MPs, alongside the leaders of every other party, support the firm stance which she is taking.”

Labour former minister Pat McFadden earlier told the Chamber: “Responding with strength and resolve when your country is under threat is an essential component of political leadership.

“There is a Labour tradition that understands that and it has been understood by prime ministers of all parties who have stood at that despatch box.

“That means when chemical weapons are used, we need more than words, but deeds.”

Backbenchers Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie and Stephen Doughty also made comments supportive of Ms May’s stance.

Nobody is suggesting that Corbyn should have accepted the intelligence without question, but at a time when the UK Government is taking action against Russia, I believe that his critics within Labour would have preferred a far more statesmanlike approach in which the Labour leader raised doubts and asked questions in private briefings and only spoke out when he was certain of his own facts.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Are calls for England to boycott world cup opportunist nonsense?

I was very disappointed this morning to see otherwise very sensible politicians calling for England to boycott this year's World Cup in retaliation to the near-fatal attack on former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury.

Amongst those jumping on the bandwagon are former Lib Dem Leader and Blackburn Rovers fan, Tim Farron, and Aberavon Labour MP, Stephen Kinnock.

Of all the possible sanctions that could be imposed against Russia, this one is the most problematic - even if we do put to one side the concern whether England would be there long enough to make a boycott worthwhile.

I recall the attempt by Margaret Thatcher to persuade our athletes to boycott the 1980 Moscow summer Olympics following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. She soon discovered that sports people have minds of their own and that this was not an area she had any control over.

Great Britain went to the games and took advantage of the USA's absence to return with 21 medals. I suspect that any attempt to put pressure on the English FA would lead to a similar snub.

England cannot stand alone in seeking to make a point of boycotting the World Cup. They would need other countries to follow suit and given the lukewarm response from Europe and the USA to Theresa May's outrage over the use of chemical weapons on British soil, joint action is unlikely.

A boycott by England alone would likely just increase Russia's chances of getting to the final stages and would be easily brushed off by Putin. I suspect nobody in Russia would even notice.

There are far more effective sanctions that the UK can take against Russia, some of which may even get support from the EU and the USA. Choosing an easy target like England's presence in the World Cup is just opportunistic nonsense. It is politicians seeking easy headlines. I for one am not convinced that it will be an effective or realistic option.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Brexiteer Trade Minister demonstrates why we need the EU

Has Liam Fox finally got it? Have we witnessed the biggest damascene conversion since St. Paul started the trend all those years ago? It is doubtful, but if our Brexiteer Trade Secretary cannot recognise the contradictions in his own position over US steel tariffs then he is even less self-aware than I had given him credit for.

As the Mirror reports, Liam Fox has highlighted to MPs how the muscle of the Brussels-based European Commission is key to the UK tackling Trump's 25% tax on steel imports.

The tariffs, which come into effect on March 23, will not apply to Canada or Mexico and other "real friends" may win exemptions. Britain could seek to get exempted, but that may only be possible after a Brexit transition ends in 2021. Until then, Dr Fox told MPs Britain must co-operate with the EU - and so he listed the wide range of actions Brussels would take:

Speaking in Parliament, he declared the EU could introduce immediate duties on the US, pursue a dispute at the World Trade Organization and "apply a safeguard measure" to protect steel and aluminium industries.

Dr Fox told MPs: "We do disagree with the US decision to implement tariffs on steel and aluminium imports based on national security considerations.

"These unilateral trade measures have weak foundations in international law."

He added: "The government has worked closely with the EU as part of our unified response...

"It is important that the UK and EU response works within the boundaries of the rules-based international trading system.

"Over the coming days, we will be working closely with British industry and the EU to seek swift clarification and mitigation."

The fact remains that when taking on the might of the US, the UK needs the European Union. We cannot depend on Donald Trump's unpredictable and mercurial largesse after Brexit.

Whilst we are part of a powerful trade bloc we have the clout to try and force the US to back down. Once we are out we will be buffeted by the economic winds of fortune, just like every other isolated country.

It really is time to reconsider and to hold that referendum on the terms of our leaving.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Tories will not hand back Russian money

In the light of the shocking attack on former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia the news that the Tory Party has received £820,000 in donations from individuals linked to Russia has led to inevitable calls for them to repay the cash.

Amongst those demanding that the money be given back is Marina Litvinenko, the widow of murdered former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko. She makes the very valid point that, “You need to be sure what kind of money these people bring to your country.”

The Conservatives have received more than £3m from wealthy Russian-born donors since 2010, including £826,100 from Russian-linked supporters since Theresa May became Prime Minister. They include Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of a former Putin minister, who gave the party £253,950 in the year to September 2017.

New Century Media, which was paid by Moscow to promote a positive image of Russia in the UK in 2013, has donated £24,000 to the Tories since Mrs May became Prime Minister and £143,000 in all.

Despite this, and as the Telegraph reports, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond, has dug his heels in and said that none of the £820,000 will be returned as he believes that it would be wrong to “tar them with Putin’s brush”:

Mr Hammond denied that Russia was “laughing at” Britain by doing business in London while attacking British citizens on British soil, though he admitted frustration at Britain’s failure to bring Russia to heel over the Litvinenko murder in 2006. 

He said: “Of course the Russians have not complied with their international obligations despite being members of the Security Council. They have continued to protect those who we seek to extradite in respect of the murder of Mr Litvinenko.”

There is no suggestion that the money has been improperly donated of course, but it remains to be seen how long the Tories can maintain this stance, especially if the attack in Salisbury is confirmed as coming from Russia and the UK Government retaliates with economic sanctions.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Is the UK Government seeking to roll back devolution?

The row over the list of powers the UK Government plan to 'temporarily retain' following Brexit is a rather dry discourse which is unlikely to create any ripples in the pub on a Saturday night, but it is important nevertheless because whatever the Brexit referendum gave the UK Government authority for, it did not give them carte blanche to roll back the devolution settlement.

Part of the problem of course is that devolution has not delivered all that was expected of it. The Welsh NHS is in crisis (as of course is its counterpart over the border in England), our economy continues to struggle to achieve any of the ambitions set out for it in 1999, and people still struggle to get onto the housing ladder.

There are explanations for this. Firstly, we should not associate the failings of the Welsh Government with that of the devolution process and, secondly, we are still very much in hock to the UK Government both in terms of macro-economic policy and funding.

That does not mean that successive Welsh Governments should not have done better, they should have. And because of those failings, it is difficult to engage even the most sympathetic observer in the Lilliputian-style dispute currently underway over powers.

Over on the BBC website, there is a list of the 24 areas the UK Government propose to pull back into its own legislative and administrative bosom. These include, Agricultural support, Animal welfare, Animal health and traceability, Genetically modified organisms marketing and cultivation, Food labelling, Food and feed safety and hygiene law and Public procurement.

These have some very real implications. Will Welsh lamb now be rebranded British lamb for example? Will the very specific needs of Welsh farmers be taken into account in devising a UK subsidy scheme and will the Welsh Government's current emphasis on the environment and diversification be continued?

Will the current ban on genetically modified crops in Wales now be overridden by the UK Government? Will they extend their failing badger cull across Offa's dyke? What will happen to the very specific 'scores on the door' approach in Wales to restaurants telling people about their hygiene standards? And how can the UK Government do a better job on public procurement in Wales when it's main interest is the English economy?

The UK Government has no right to assume control over these matters on what seems to be an indefinite basis. There should be agreement or the Welsh Government will be within their rights to do what they can to block this Brexit bill. In the meantime I will watch with interest how Welsh MPs vote on these clauses.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Could the increasing cost of energy have been avoided?

Over on the Guardian website, the Labour Party are making some pretty big claims about the huge hike in energy bills that we have all experienced over the last ten years or so. Their hypothesis is that the Conservatives have cost British households nearly £1,000 in extra energy costs over the past seven years by failing to stop electricity and gas firms raising prices.

The figures are quite stark. In 2010, a household with typical energy consumption paid £1,038 for an annual dual fuel bill. In 2017 it was £1,116, but in some years it has been more than £1,200. They say that figures from the House of Commons library show that if we add up the annual amount consumers have paid above the 2010 level the total cost to an average household is £957.

As a result the profits of the big six energy companies had continued to thrive, whilst around 2.5m households remained in fuel poverty. In reality of course things may well be a bit more complicated than this:

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “Energy prices have gone up and down since 2010, driven by external factors including wholesale and network costs, and policies that have led to investment in networks, energy efficiency and low-carbon generation.

“Freezing energy prices would have meant a lack of important investment in infrastructure and would have damaged businesses when market-driven costs went up.”

The analysis assumed that energy use has remained constant when in reality it has been falling over the past seven years due to more efficient products. The real amount consumers have paid due to tariff increases is therefore likely to be lower than £957.

When I was an Assembly Member I consistently criticised energy companies for putting up prices to cover supposedly rising costs, whilst at the same time raking in massive profits. When costs fell, the cost to the consumer rarely, if ever followed.

It may well be that a price cap will make a difference, though the point about investment is well-made. However, the real problem it seems to me is the way the big six companies appear to operate as an oligopoly, complicated pricing structures that make it difficult for customers to shop around and the consequent lack of real competition in the market.

In that regard, we should not forget the role of Labour, when they were in government, of effectively creating this situation by allowing energy companies to coalesce into six large entities and to dominate the market in this way. This is not just a Tory problem.

Friday, March 09, 2018

No guarantee given on women's hostels

Fears about changes to the way that women's hostels are funded have not been allayed by the Prime Minister's refusal to guarantee their future during an interview for International Women's Day.

As the Independent reports, Theresa May has failed to rule out the closure of some women's refuges despite warnings from campaigners that her planned funding shakeup could threaten the future of shelters for women fleeing violent partners:

Domestic violence campaigners claim around a third of refuges could close if the plans go ahead, which would take short-term supported housing outside of the welfare system and hand funds to local councils.

It comes as the Government unveiled the Domestic Abuse Bill which contains plans for domestic abusers to be electronically tagged and banned from drinking alcohol.

Women's Aid said the bill was a “unique opportunity” to make a difference to survivors’ lives, but warned that it risked being undermined unless a “long-term, sustainable” funding plan for refuges is put in place.

I blogged on this in November the government plans to remove refuges and other forms of short-term supported housing from the welfare system. It would mean vulnerable women fleeing abusive partners will not be able to pay for their accommodation using housing benefit, the last guaranteed source of income available to refuges. On average, housing benefit makes up 53% of refuge funding.

Instead of being able to use housing benefit to fund refuges, the government proposes handing a “ring-fenced” grant to councils for short-term supported housing. However, this does not exclusively cover refuges, it is also aimed at older people, homeless people, offenders, people with mental illnesses and drug addicts.

There are some real fears about how these changes will affect the funding of refuges.that need to be allayed. It does not help when the Prime Minister will not give assurances on their future.

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