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Monday, February 17, 2020

Is post-Brexit rationing inevitable?

A lot of the arguments against Brexit are  considered to be esoteric because they do not impact on people's lived experiences. Many cannot see how it will affect their own lifestyle or their cost of living. It is in the interests of Boris Johnson's government to keep it that way.

The Independent however, highlights a real threat that has the potential to undermine the whole project - possible price hikes and food shortages.

The paper tells us that concerned food importers have revealed the “mountain of paperwork” they face under Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit, which they say will lead to them putting up prices, and food shortages on supermarket shelves:

The warning comes after ministers admitted traders will face multiple border checks on almost all goods from January, even if a no-deal Brexit is avoided, with any hopes of “frictionless trade” abandoned.

Now a hard-hitting report from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) has listed no fewer than six documents its members will have to fill in if there is only a skeleton deal after the transition period.

They are: VAT and customs documents; freight forms; health and veterinary paperwork; export health certificates; exit and entry summary declarations; and safety and security permits.

The BRC also said new IT systems must be “created and tested before 1 January 2021” – after Michael Gove warned they would take five years.

“The government must set about to negotiate a zero-tariff agreement that minimises checks and red tape otherwise it will be consumers who suffer as a result,” said Helen Dickinson, its chief executive.

“The introduction of excessive or avoidable checks would mean businesses face a mountain of paperwork to be filled out by an army of newly trained staff, coupled with exhaustive checks on thousands of lorries every day.

“And the result for consumers would be higher costs and reduced availability on the shelves. The government has no time to lose.”

The BRC say that the checks will be the consequence of seeking a loose “Canada-style” agreement, allowing the UK to break free of some EU rules – and a far cry from the pre-referendum promise that Brexit would reduce red tape:

The BRC fears checks will see thousands of vehicles held at Dover, where even a two-minute hold-up would trigger 17-mile tailbacks – and where there is very little space for new infrastructure.

It is calling for: zero tariffs, coordination on VAT and excise procedures, advance information on new checks and “timely construction” of necessary infrastructure at ports.

As the paper points out almost 80 per cent of the food imported by retailers comes from the EU with 7,000 lorries passing through Dover and Folkestone every day. With the government making it clear that it will pursue a deal with “no alignment” – throwing into jeopardy even the EU’s proposal of a no-tariffs, no-quotas agreement - queues, red-tape, higher prices and shortages may be inevitable.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

More suppressed reports?

I have already blogged on the strange case of the report into Russian interference in the UK political system, which was suppressed before the General Election, presumably in case it damaged Tory election hopes and still has not been published.

Now the Independent reports on further reports being suppressed by the UK Government. This particular reports are also potentially damaging as they are studies believed to show little gain from trade deals with US and Asia.

The paper says that these analyses were completed as long ago as 2017 and looked into the probable impact on growth from agreements long hailed as the prize for leaving the EU. However, ministers are refusing to release them:

One trade expert said he had little doubt they were being concealed because they would – like independent studies – reveal that significant damage from new trade barriers with the continent will far outweigh the gain from other deals.

Alan Winters, professor of economics at the University of Sussex, joined with Labour in calling on ministers to reveal what they had been told, saying: “The entire Brexit debate has been conducted in a great fog of obfuscation.”

Paul Blomfield, Labour’s Brexit spokesperson, said: “These reports must be released immediately. If Boris Johnson wants to risk European trade to secure a deal with Donald Trump, we need to know the cost.”

The controversy comes after the Treasury refused to even carry out an evaluation of the prime minister’s plans for a “Canada-style” deal with the EU, cutting ties with the single market and customs union.

Economists have estimated that will deliver a hit to the UK economy of anything between £70bn and £130bn in the long run, leaving people thousands of pounds worse off.

Now, in response to a freedom of information request submitted by The Independent, the Department for International Trade (DIT) has said internal analysis into other trade deals is “a work in progress”.

But it also revealed academics at the Centre for Economic Policy Research had evaluated the benefits from a US deal, an agreement with Japan and from membership of the CPTPP, a trade partnership of 11 Pacific nations.

The last two were completed in August 2019 – while the study into an agreement with Washington has been gathering dust since July 2017.

The fact that these studies are not being published speaks volumes about a dysfunctional government trade policy and the lies we have been spun about Brexit:

Professor Winters, of the UK Trade Policy Observatory at the University of Sussex, said: “If the government thought it had a very strong case that these deals would be big and strong then they would publish these studies.

“It’s an indication that there’s nothing there. To the extent that we have any analysis, it suggests that the benefits of these deals are very small.

“And, with any modelling, what we gain from an agreement with the US and Japan is a lot smaller than what we lose from the EU.”

Isn't it time we were given all the information available to Ministers so we can make up our own minds about the efficacy of their policies?

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Does Johnson's cabinet represent the country?

I am not one of those people to judge others by their schooling. I went to a grammar school and university, so I know that not only am I luckier than the majority of the population but also that my life experiences are different to many of the people I represent as a councillor.

Nevertheless, when putting together a cabinet one does expect the Prime Minister to have some regard to how representative it is of the rest of the country. I suppose the exception is when that cabinet is made up of outstanding talents. Unfortunately, Boris Johnson does not have that excuse following his latest reshuffle.

As the Independent reports, the Prime Minister has increased the proportion of cabinet ministers from privately educated backgrounds, with nearly two-thirds of his top team having attended a fee-paying school. Despite boasting he would put together a cabinet “to truly reflect modern Britain” when he entered Downing Street, members of his top team are nine-times as likely to have been privately educated than the general population.

Of the 26 ministers now attending cabinet, 17 received a private education – or 65 per cent – compared with just 7 per cent of the general population. Two ministers also attended grammar schools while seven received their full education in a state school, or 27 per cent:

According to the educational charity Sutton Trust, the proportion of alumni of independent schools in Mr Johnson’s last cabinet stood at 64 per cent – more than twice that of the team assembled by Theresa May in 2016.

The figure is also higher than David Cameron’s cabinet in 2015, where 50 per cent had attended fee-paying schools, but significantly lower than the 91 per cent in Margaret Thatcher’s first administration in 1979.

The analysis also points out that of the 26 ministers attending the cabinet, including the prime minister, 50 per cent also attended either Oxford or Cambridge.

Yet, in July last year, when Mr Johnson won the Tory leadership race, Downing Street vowed: “Boris will build a cabinet showcasing all the talents within the party that truly reflect modern Britain.”

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chair of the Sutton Trust, said: “December’s election led to a seismic shift in the political landscape.

“The falling of the red wall means Conservative MPs now represent a much more diverse range of constituencies than before, with constituents from many different socio-economic backgrounds.

“Yet in terms of educational background, the make-up of Johnson’s cabinet is still over 60 per cent from independent schools.

“Today’s findings underline how unevenly spread the opportunities are to enter the elites and this is something Boris Johnson must address.”

In relation to gender, just seven women are now attending cabinet – down from eight in the cabinet put together by Mr Johnson when he became prime minister in July 2019. There is also one fewer black, Asian and minority ethnic member of the cabinet.

So much for that promise.

Friday, February 14, 2020

The u-turn of all u-turns

It is actually illegal to execute a U-turn on a motorway but that does not seem to have deterred the UK Government. It is just over a year since tolls were abolished on the Severn Bridges and already there are plans to reverse that position.

The BBC reports that the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) is considering "charging measures and controls" on both sides of the bridge to deal with traffic levels. But officials have given no detail on timescales or how any of these charges would be levied.

They say that ideas are being considered as part of WECA's latest joint local transport plan, which sets out infrastructure plans up to 2036, and could include a congestion charge for the bridges.

The whole point of congestion charges of course is to encourage people to use other forms of transport. Let's hope that investment in public transport takes place before this U-turn takes place.

That also applies to the routes past Newport now the very sensible decision has been taken not to spend a billion pounds on building an M4 by-pass, which would undermine five SSSIs and just fill up with traffic again within years of opening.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The threat to our 'five-a-day'

Sky News reports on warnings by the retail sector about disruption to the supply of fruit and vegetables after the UK confirmed it will introduce import controls on EU goods from January.

They say that controls will come into force after the end of the current Brexit transition period - during which EU rules continue to apply. And hopes that new technology will ride to the rescue have been dashed after officials told trade organisations that a "smart border" with simplified systems designed to reduce disruption would not be available until 2025:

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said ministers needed to set out detailed plans on how the controls would be implemented.

He said: "Government will need to move fast if it intends to provide the necessary infrastructure to carry out full border controls on imported goods from January 2021.

"Without the necessary infrastructure up and running from day one, consumers in the UK will see significant disruption, particularly in the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables."

The introduction of controls means that from January, traders in the EU and Britain will have to submit customs declarations and be liable to goods checks, the government said.

For those who think that this does not matter, and that we will more than cover EU business through trade deals elsewhere, it is worth remembering that the EU is the UK's biggest trading partner. Last year Britain imported goods worth £265bn from the bloc, compared to £236.5bn from non-EU countries.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

UK told it can't have its cake, and eat it

Those on the Brexit side who have been confidently predicting that the negotiations with the EU will be over by Christmas, and that we will get all we want, may well want to rethink their strategy this morning.

The Independent reports on a setback for this mindset with the EU's chief negotiator immediately rejecting a plea by Sajid Javid to protect the City's access to EU financial markets after Brexit.

The paper says that the Chancellor had called for a “reliable equivalence process” for financial services rules on which “a durable relationship” can be built with the EU, but just hours after the proposal was published Brussels' chief negotiator Michel Barnier told him he needed to think again:

"I would like to take this opportunity to make it clear to certain people in the United Kingdom bearing authority that they should not kid themselves about this - there will not be general, open-ended, ongoing equivalence in financial services," he said.

Mr Barnier added that the EU would "retain a free hand to take our own decisions" and would simply not negotiate with the UK on this point.

As the Independent points out this is no academic point:

The question at stake is whether EU authorities would call the shots on whether UK firms were complying with EU regulations to trade on the continent.

If that were the case, the UK would be a less attractive location to base a financial institution in because it could be frozen out of EU markets at the whim of European regulators.

Under a more "durable" agreement as suggested by Mr Javid, market access would be backed at treaty level and it would be harder to freeze out UK firms. If this were the case, banks and other financial institutions could base themselves in the UK knowing they might not be frozen out by EU regulators one day to the next.

As a result of Britain's departure from the EU, City firms will lose their automatic "passporting" rights to keep doing business on the continent.

The UK's financial sector is a major contributor towards our balance of payments. Once more we are facing a major economic catastrophe because of the ideological intransigence of our government.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Border checks to be reintroduced with Europe next year

Whatever was said during the EU referendum about us remaining in the single market in the event of a leave vote, we all knew that it was a lie, and now that has been confirmed. Not only have we left with a deal that splits the UK in two, but ministers are promising full border checks from 1 January 2021.

As the Guardian reports, Michael Gove has told businesses that trade with Europe they need to prepare for “significant change” with “inevitable” border checks for “almost everybody” who imports from the EU from next year:

In the first official confirmation that the government is going to impose trade barriers post-Brexit, he warned there would be checks on food and goods of animal origin, plus customs declarations and mandatory safety and security certificates required for all imports.

“You have to accept we will need some friction. We will minimise it but it is an inevitability of our departure,” he told delegates at a Cabinet Office event held in central London on Monday, entitled Preparing Our Border for the Future Relationship.

“I don’t underestimate the fact that this is a significant change, but we have time now to make that change.”

Gove, who as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is de facto deputy prime minister, also warned delegates it could take five years to get a smart border involving online processes up and running and said businesses had to be ready for the change next January, whatever the outcome of the next phase of Brexit negotiations.

“In questions and answers his officials talked of an ‘operational border’ from the beginning of 2021, which they said was laying the foundation for best borders in 2025,” said one delegate, who reported that Gove had warned the UK must be ready for the completion of Brexit on 1 January next year when the transition period ends.

Later the government issued an official update confirming checks on both imports and exports.

The update warned that the “policy easements put in place for a potential no-deal exit will not be reintroduced as businesses have time to prepare”.

The “easements” that will not apply include deferred VAT payments on imports, which the government had considered in a no-deal plan.

The seamless trade we currently enjoy with the continent will be gone, instead businesses will face red tape, endless delays and increased costs - and we will pay for all of this through increased prices. I hope that they have that lorry park ready at Dover.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Boris Johnson ignores expert advice on immigration system

Michael Gove famously told voters during the referendum campaign that he was fed up of experts, well that now appears to have become mainstream government policy.

The Independent reports that Boris Johnson is to press ahead with an Australian-style points-based system for immigration despite its rejection by the government’s own experts:

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) said in a report last month that a points-based system was “cosmetic” and “pointless” for all but the most highly skilled migrants, with chair Alan Manning dismissing it as a “soundbite”.

The prime minister and Priti Patel, the home secretary, have accepted the MAC’s recommendation to cut the salary threshold for skilled migrants to £25,600, after employers complained that the proposed £30,000 minimum would exclude staff in vital but relatively poorly paid roles like lab technicians and care home managers.

But they are pressing ahead with the points system promised in the Conservative manifesto, under which applications for work visas will be judged against a set of desirable characteristics.

The issue appears to be the complexity of such a points system, but also that it will prove to be too inflexible and leave many industries struggling to fill vacancies. Is sabotaging the UK's economy the price we have to pay for Johnson's ideological approach to this issue?

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Farage 'He's lying to you' sign now part of European History

Whatever the outcome of the talks over future trade deals with the EU, we can never cease to be Europeans nor can we completely abandon the principles set down by Winston Churchill of greater cooperation and joint working in an effort to avoid further European wars.

From a European perspective I suppose it will take some time to try and rub out the memory of the rancour and bitterness brought to the democratically elected European Parliament by Nigel Farage and his various parties, the racist messages put out by his 'Leave' campaign during the referendum, and the many scandals that hit a large number of the elected officials who served alongside him.

Indeed the picture above, sums up the regard that many MEPs held for Farage, which is why it is unsurprising that it is now to go on display in a Brussels museum.

The Independent reports that House of European History, which tells the continent’s story from emergence to integration, will include the object in a special exhibition about Brexit from later this month.

The sign will be displayed alongside other objects and documents related to Britain’s contribution and departure from the European Union. Last Friday the UK’s flag outside the European parliament was hauled down and taken to the museum for safe-keeping.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Overheating

As it stands at present, I would welcome a temperature of 18C in Swansea, but it is winter and so we have to roll with what we are given. However, even with my ignorance of climatology it is clear that experiencing such temperature in the Antarctic is not just freaky, but downright worrying. As the Independent reports, it is not just me who thinks that.

The paper says that Antarctica has experienced its hottest temperature on record with a provisional recording of 18.3C – nearly 1C higher than the previous record of 17.5C in March 2015 by 0.8C. This comes after the world saw the warmest January on record last month, according to the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, with temperatures in Europe 0.2C higher than during the previous warmest January in 2007.

A committee for the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) says that the Antarctic peninsula, the northwest tip near South America, is among the fastest warming regions on Earth, with temperatures rising almost 3C over the past 50 years:

The organisation added that about 87 per cent of the glaciers along the peninsula’s west coast have “retreated” over the last 50 years, with most showing an “accelerated retreat” in the last 12 years.

On Thursday, a major hole was discovered in the Thwaites Glacier, which could send sea levels surging by up to two feet if it dissolved completely.

Scientists have found a cavity beneath the glacier that is far larger than previously thought.

“The size of the cavity is surprising, and, as it melts, it’s causing the glacier to retreat,” Pietro Milillo, a Nasa radar scientist who led the research into the glacier, said.

When combined with stories such as that reporting bumble bees are facing a mass extinction due to warmer temperatures. one can only question whether this particular crisis is now reversible. Is it too late? Can we now, only slow the rate of change rather than stop or reverse it?

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