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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Labour Party dispute reaches the High Court

Forgive me if I get the popcorn out for this one, but according to the Guardian, Jeremy Corbyn's supension from Labour has reached the high court.

The paper says lawyers for Jeremy Corbyn have accused the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, of making “inflammatory and disingenuous” attacks on his predecessor following a row over the party’s handling of antisemitism. At yesterday's high court hearing, Corbyn’s lawyers said documents would help prove there was a deal with Starmer’s office to readmit him to the party, and Corbyn’s suspension “went behind an agreement to reinstate” him to Labour “at all levels”.

The paper says Corbyn’s barrister, Christopher Jacobs, told the hearing: “The disclosure will enable my client to plead that there was procedural unfairness, and breach of a duty to act in good faith.” He added Corbyn’s treatment by the party had been “grossly unfair”:

Corbyn was initially suspended from Labour in October, when he said the scale of antisemitism in the party had been “dramatically overstated”, in the wake of a damning report by the equalities watchdog.

In November Corbyn was readmitted by the national executive committee, but Starmer ordered the Labour whip be withheld until he apologised. Corbyn has not done so, but did issue a clarifying statement saying it was not his intention to “tolerate antisemitism or belittle concerns about it”.

In court, Jacobs accused Starmer of “resiling from a settled agreement, and going behind a final decision of the NEC”. He cited a speech Starmer gave to the Jewish Labour Movement conference on 29 November, in which he said Corbyn’s reaction to the watchdog’s report was “as bad as you could get”.

Jacobs said: “We say that is an inflammatory statement and is disingenuous because of the NEC outcome.”

Jacobs also said there was an “inference” from media remarks made by the Labour MP Margaret Hodge that she agreed to stay a member of the party only if Corbyn was suspended. Only the party minutes and copies of any emails from Hodge to Starmer’s office would prove whether such a deal had been made, Jacobs said. “We need the records.”

The Labour party’s barrister, Rachel Crasnow QC, dismissed the application, saying the matter was a “straightforward contractual dispute” that did not require pre-release of any documents. Crasnow also disputed there had been any agreement to readmit Corbyn to the party while suspending the whip.

Crasnow argued in written submissions that Corbyn’s “purpose of obtaining early disclosure from the party is to advance a political, rather than a legal, position”.

The judge, Lisa Sullivan, said she would give her ruling on Corbyn’s application “as soon as I can”.

This one could run and run,

Monday, January 18, 2021

Teething problems or a more serious crisis?

We are two and a half weeks into post-Brexit Britain and already businesses are starting to feel the impact of the new regime, but it is not a pleasant experience for most of them.

Yesterday's Observer reports that despite government ministers Government ministers describing the post-Brexit headaches that British exporters have suffered since 1 January as mere “teething problems” the real story is entirely different. They say the supposed golden era of global Britain is causing British entrepreneurs, large and small, very serious problems:

UK fish exporters are unable to sell into European markets because of delays at borders and complain that Boris Johnson and others misled them about Brexit. Leading supermarket chains are warning ministers of food shortages in Northern Ireland because of new border rules and bureaucracy. And small UK companies such as Paul’s, which thrived as part of the EU single market, are saying they may have no future at all in exporting into continental Europe because of the crippling new costs.

Paul is a director of Leon Paul, based in Hendon, north London, which employs 50 people. It is a niche business, which has been in his family since it was set up in 1921. It designs and manufactures equipment for the Olympic sport of sword fencing. But in many ways it is typical of tens of thousands of small companies that sold some of their goods at home and some abroad, and enjoyed seamless access to the border-free EU market for decades. “Previously the business of sending orders direct to customers in Europe was very straightforward,” he says.

“You put something in a box, sent it off with a courier and it got to the customer in a day or two days without any friction, just like sending something within this country.”

Almost a third of Leon Paul’s £7m annual turnover is to customers in EU countries. On average each order to the EU has been worth about £200. But the European export side of the business is now looking increasingly unsustainable.

“We did everything we could to prepare for Brexit and are part of the DTI’s export champion community,” says Paul. But since 1 January, his firm – like other UK exporters – has been hit by three new charges. And four days ago the firm discovered another one that his customers in the EU will have to pay on receiving the goods.

“As far as I can see, currently, companies like ours in the UK are not going to be able to do ‘end sales’ to customers in the EU any more. Particularly, small orders for anything under £100 will be completely impossible,” says Paul.

The new export levies, which he says will amount to £160,000 a year for Leon Paul, are first, a “Brexit charge”, as the couriers are calling it, an export fee of £4.50 for every parcel shipped to the EU to cover costs of extra administration and form filling that couriers must carry out.

Second, there is a “deferment account fee” of £5 per parcel that covers couriers’ costs of pre-paying import charges in the destination country; and third, a “disbursement charge” which is set at different levels in each EU country with a minimum of about €14 per parcel, or calculated as a percentage of the value of the goods, whichever is the higher, plus VAT in the destination country. This covers the costs of the tax authority in the recipient country inspecting and processing the parcels.

For the past fortnight Paul has been trying to work out how to absorb the extra costs. But he is struggling to see an easy way.

“Jobs lost will be lost here,” he says. “That is the reality. All of these fees will come straight off profit margins.

“We might save some of the increased costs of doing business in Europe by setting up a warehouse there – and thereby avoid paying charges on every consignment – but we would have to make redundancies in our warehouse here and reduce the size of the business footprint in the UK. We are of course a relatively small business but all exporters will be hit with similar charges.”

The paper points out that it is only Covid-19 that is preventing stories like this dominating the news. They add that privately ministers know things will get worse, while civil servants in Whitehall are letting it be known that there is little that can be done because the exhaustively negotiated trade deal is largely set in stone. The brave new world is not working out as the Brexiteers predicted.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Are workers' rights going to be another broken Brexit promise?

As if there were not already enough broken promises around Brexit, the Mirror reports on a highly controversial breach of faith that is supposedly under consideration by Boris Johnson's Government.

They say fury is mounting at Boris Johnson’s plans to ‘rip up’ workers’ rights after Brexit - after repeatedly claiming they were safe:

The Prime Minister had said he would go even further than EU laws to protect workers in the UK.

Yet today the Financial Times revealed officials have looked at changing the 48-hour limit on the working week, known as the 'working time directive'.

Officials also looked at tweaking rules around breaks and scrapping the need to factor overtime into holiday pay, or the need for firms to report working hours.

The Mirror understands the leaked proposals, while not confirmed, official policy or put to Cabinet, are genuine.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng - who in 2012 said Brits "are among the worst idlers in the world", working "among the lowest hours" - today insisted “we are not going to lower the standards of workers’ rights”.

But neither he nor Downing Street denied the plans had been looked at, or ruled out putting them into action in future.

Asked if Boris Johnson viewed removing overtime from holiday pay or changing breaks counted as “lowering” workers’ rights, the PM’s spokesman said: “I’m not going to get into hypotheticals”.

He added: “We will continue to look at policies to help and stimulate business growth, innovation and job creations but those policies would never be at the expense of workers' rights.”

The promise to protect workers' rights was a key one in the Brexit campaign and reassured many working class voters as they considered the idea of leaving the EU. Conveniently, the Mirror provides a list of all the promises the Tories made on the matter:

3 October 2019: Boris Johnson tells MPs “we will be ensuring this country has the highest standards for workers’ rights” and claims: “It is the intention of this Government to go higher still.”

17 October 2019: The Withdrawal Agreement shunts workers’ rights back to the non-binding ‘Political Declaration’ but Boris Johnson claims there’s no reason for alarm. He says: “We want the highest protections, the highest standards in this country.”

19 October 2019: The PM pledges that “whenever” the EU introduces a new workers’ rights law, “even if it is in some way inferior to our own by then”, MPs will have a chance to “put it into UK law”.

22 October 2019: The PM’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill reveals that, in fact, ministers will only have to make a statement about whether new UK laws “regress” from EU workers' rights. There’s nothing stopping them going ahead.

23 October 2019: Boris Johnson again pledges the “highest possible standards”, insisting that “whatever the EU comes up with, we can match it and pass it into the law of this country.”

26 October 2019: Kwasi Kwarteng says claims the Tories will undermine workers’ rights are “completely mad” and “we will be better than our word”.

13 December 2019: Boris Johnson wins election on a manifesto saying Brexit can let Britain “raise standards in areas like workers’ rights”.

17 December 2019: The PM’s spokesman promises “the largest upgrade to workers' rights in a generation”.

19 December 2019: Boris Johnson scraps even the weak clause (above) on protecting workers’ rights from his Withdrawal Agreement Bill. Instead the Tories promise an Employment Bill but refuse to say exactly what will be in it. As of January 2021 it still hasn’t been published.

8 January 2020: Downing Street says Boris Johnson is “clear” that we will “continue to ensure high standards in the UK in areas like workers’ rights”.

3 February 2020: Boris Johnson moans of the “absurd caricature of Britain as a nation bent on the slash and burn of workers’ rights”. He slams the idea that we were “saved from Dickensian squalor” by EU rules and says the UK goes further.

24 December 2020: After months of talks, UK and EU agree a Brexit deal that will allow UK to diverge from EU rules' on workers' rights. UK insists that if we diverge too far, we could face tariffs.

27 December 2020: The PM tells the Sunday Telegraph the UK “won't immediately send children up chimneys”. he adds: “We're not going to regress, and you'd expect that."

15 January 2021: Leaked plans show officials have looked at changing the 48-hour limit on the working week; the inclusion of overtime in holiday pay; and the need for firms to report working hours. The PM’s spokesman refuses to deny the plans have been looked at, or rule them out in future. He claims: “We will continue to look at policies to help and stimulate business growth, innovation and job creations but those policies would never be at the expense of workers' rights.”

Now we have to wait to see if they will keep their word.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

More problems for Leave.EU

Following my blog over a week ago when I wrote about the Brexit campaign group Leave.eu moving its internet registration to the Republic of Ireland in order to be able to keep its .eu suffix after the UK quit the European Union, it appears the move was not as smooth as they would have liked.

The Guardian reports that the group’s EU domain name has been temporarily suspended. This development comes after the Irish businessman in whose name the pro-Brexit campaign group’s domain name is registered denied having any involvement with the organisation.

Visitors to the site are now greeted with an error message, while the EU’s online registry marks the domain as under a server hold, meaning it is “temporarily inactive and under investigation”:

Following Brexit, UK organisations are no longer able to use the .EU top-level domain, a change which – ironically – affected the pro-Brexit group, the most prominent owner of an EU domain name in Britain.

Irish businessman Sean Power, who is based in Waterford, is still registered as the legal owner of the domain name. However, he has long insisted he has no knowledge of Leave.EU, and had never heard of the organisation before the Guardian contacted him on 7 January. “My lawyers are looking into this on my behalf presently and will be in touch as deemed necessary in due course,” he said last week.

Last week, Neale Richmond, a member of the Irish parliament, wrote to ComReg, the country’s communications regulator, calling for an investigation into how Leave.EU was able to secure the domain name. “It is utterly ridiculous to think that Leave.EU could brass-plate an address in Waterford to maintain their domain name,” Richmond said on Friday. “They wanted to leave the EU, they have, that means they leave their domain too.

“Many other questions in relation to data storage, fundraising, finances, donations and political activities would need to be answered if Leave.EU were genuinely relocating to Waterford.

“Leave.EU are quite simply not welcome in Ireland, their questionable activities over the past number of years have brought a new level of toxic politics in the UK and beyond.

“I welcome the suspension of this domain; I sincerely hope this is the end of this odious website and the related traffic driven to this odious brand. Good riddance.”

Oh dear!

Friday, January 15, 2021

Liberal Democrats need to stop reinforcing Johnson's anti-devolution agenda

It is noticeable that whenever Boris Johnson makes a statement in the House of Commons, is interviewed or delivers a press conference or broadcast on a devolved topic he fails to mention that he is only speaking for England and often talks as if he is representing the whole of the UK, when he clearly isn't.

This has become more marked in recent days when inadequate food parcels worth no more then £5 were delivered to children on free school meals in England, despite the company concerned being awarded £30 for each delivery. It was a failing of government procurement, but above all it was a political failure, where ministers sought to deflect responsibility by joining in the public outrage.

In all the media reporting of this debacle, we have been given the impression that this was a UK wide issue, when in fact it just applies to England. In Wales, where there is a Welsh Liberal Democrats Education Minister, up to £7 million of additional funding has been given to local authorities to urgently provide financial assistance to families of pupils who rely on free school meals, but are unable to receive them due to school closures. And unlike England, that provision will continue through the school holidays.

Naturally, this is a major campaigning opportunity for the Liberal Democrats, who believe passionately that children should be properly supported and adequately fed through this pandemic, but why does the party, which is allegedly the most devolution-friendly of all the UK parties and which operates as a federal entity, keep reinforcing the Prime Minister's anti-devolution agenda?

A petition launched by the Liberal Democrats calls for free school meals to be provided to every pupil whose parents or guardians are in receipt of Universal Credit, food vouchers for every one of those pupils in every school holiday and during any period of lockdown, and free school meals to pupils from low-income families whose parents or guardians have no recourse to public funds and to destitute asylum seekers. I urge everybody to sign it. But at no point does this petition make it clear that these issues only relate to the English situation, because a Liberal Democrats Minister in Wales is already on top of this agenda.

Tweets and press statements issued by the Liberal Democrats English Education spokesperson are equally remiss in this regard, giving the impression her criticism is UK-wide. It only takes a little care and thought to get these things right and yet the errors continue.

It is time the Liberal Democrats lived up to its stated commitment to devolution and federalism and started to reflect the asymetric political responsibilities of the various nations in its statements and campaigns. Our MPs and spokespeople need to stop reinforcing Boris Johnson's agenda and begin to pull him up on his misrepesentation of the responsibilities he has as Prime Minister.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Eating cake in London

Just when we thought that Marie Antoinette was dead and buried, up pops the Tory Candidate for London Mayor to disabuse us. The Guardian reports that Shaun Bailey has sparked controversy after suggesting that homeless people in the capital would be able to save up for a £5,000 deposit to buy a share in a newly-built affordable home.

The paper says that Bailey has promised to deliver 100,000 affordable homes with his £4bn housing budget if he wins the election in April, many of them shared ownership, of which buyers would be able to purchase a share for as little as £100,000:

Asked in an interview with Inside Housing how this policy would benefit the capital’s 62,670 households currently in temporary accommodation, Bailey said he would encourage them to apply for shared ownership properties.

Asked how these families would produce a £5,000 deposit and secure a mortgage, he said: “I don’t think the £5,000 will [be a problem]. The mortgage application thing might be a bit tougher … they could save for it, yeah.”

Pressed by the interviewer on whether he was suggesting a homeless family in bed and breakfast accommodation could afford a deposit, Bailey replied: “Not all of them, but some people could. A full proportion of people could.”

He added: “I know about that situation, I sofa surfed for years. You’re right, I definitely couldn’t have come up with £5,000, but those people I’m not expecting to or asking to. We’ll provide social housing for them.”

It's astonishing that after all this time the Tories can still surprise me with how out of touch with real life they actually are.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The UK Government's problem with over-promising

We have been here before of course, notably over the fiasco of rolling out Covid 19 tests, when every promise, pledge and target that came out of the mouths of Ministers proved to be unattainable, over-ambitious and not based on any rational assessment of capacity. Now, we see reports such as this one in the Independent that Ministers have admitted their target to vaccinate 2 million people a week may not be hit until the end of January.

As ever, the problem can be traced back to Boris Johnson, who promised to inoculate the 12 million most at-risk people in England – and 14 million across the UK – by mid-February, to speed up the easing of the third Covid lockdown.

Quite apart from the fact that he cannot speak for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, a new official plan contradicts this pledge, saying: “by the end of January, our capacity to vaccinate several hundred thousand a day, and at least 2 million people per week, will be achieved”:

The government had been warned that it needed to be reaching 2 million a week almost immediately to achieve the ambitious mid-February timetable.

Earlier, the prime minister’s spokesperson defended not currently offering round-the-clock vaccinations on the grounds there is “not a clamour for jabs after 8pm”.

The 47-page plan promises 50 mass vaccination sites, with jabs also available at 206 hospitals and 1,200 local sites – with no-one living more than 10 miles from a vaccine centre.

All adults will be offered a vaccination by the autumn, a task “equivalent to establishing a national supermarket business in less than a month” falling to 80,000 NHS staff and 200,000 potential volunteers so far.

The document is the first to set out the progress in delivering vaccinations – 1.96 million people in England by 10 January, 375,000 receiving a second dose.

However, the Department for Health and Social Care has not provided a breakdown by region, or age – information that might be provided in the weeks to come.

Wouldn't it be better, and more credible for Ministers to abandon the hyperbole and instead just come clean to us on what can and cannot be realistically delivered?

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Hamming it up on the front line

Amongst all the dire news about COVID 19 this morning a number of the papers are featuring this gem about a British lorry driver having his ham sandwich confiscated by customs officials. As petty as this may seen, it represents the reality of Brexit. We are no longer part of a single trade area and if we want to enter the EU then the same rules apply as if we were travelling to the USA or Australia.However, this truth has not yet pervaded the consciousness of a great many people.

Presumably that is why there was a Dutch TV network filming border officials confiscating ham sandwiches and other foods from drivers arriving in the Netherlands from the UK, under post-Brexit rules. These officials were shown explaining import regulations imposed since the UK formalised its separation from the EU:

Under EU rules, travellers from outside the bloc are banned from bringing in meat and dairy products.

The rules appeared to bemuse one driver.

"Since Brexit, you are no longer allowed to bring certain foods to Europe, like meat, fruit, vegetables, fish, that kind of stuff," a Dutch border official told the driver in footage broadcast by TV network NPO 1.

In one scene, a border official asked the driver whether several of his tin-foil wrapped sandwiches had meat in them.

When the driver said they did, the border official said: "Okay, so we take them all."

Surprised, the driver then asked the officials if he could keep the bread, to which one replied: "No, everything will be confiscated - welcome to the Brexit, sir. I'm sorry."

The question of course is why were these professional drivers not better briefed on the realities of the new arrangements and the reasons for it make total sense:

The UK government has issued guidance to commercial drivers travelling to the EU, warning them to "be aware of additional restrictions to personal imports".

"You cannot bring POAO (products of an animal origin) such as those containing meat or dairy (e.g. a ham and cheese sandwich) into the EU," the guidance says. "There are exceptions to this rule for certain quantities of powdered infant milk, infant food, special foods, or special processed pet feed."

On its website, the European Commission says the ban is necessary because such goods "continue to present a real threat to animal health throughout the Union".

"It is known, for example, that dangerous pathogens that cause animal diseases such as Foot and Mouth Disease and classical swine fever can reside in meat, milk or their products," the Commission says.

No doubt there will be further examples in the weeks and months to come.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Labour split on another civil liberties issue

Labour's record in Government on civil liberties issues is not the best. This was the party who wanted to bring in ID cards and extend detention without trial to 90 days, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. It is no surprise therefore to find the official Labour Party line on allowing undercover agents to commit crimes while infiltrating criminal gangs to be one in support of the Conservative Government.

As the Guardian reports though, this has led to a split in the party, with the leadership refusing to back a Lords amendment from Shami Chakrabarti. The former shadow attorney general says undercover police and informants could be immune to prosecution if the “spy cops” bill goes through parliament unamended and has consequently submitted an amendment for debate, seeking to remove the immunity on the grounds that otherwise there would be “grave risk” of human rights abuses from agents acting undercover:

But while Lady Chakrabarti is confident of winning Lib Dem support in the upper house, she has failed to win round the Labour leadership. Party sources said on Sunday that Labour would whip its peers to abstain.

When told the leadership’s intention, the Labour peer said she intended to press her amendment to a vote, even though it was now unlikely to pass. “This is too important to be left to deals involving the usual channels,” Chakrabarti said.

Labour has already split twice over the proposed legislation as it passed through the Commons. Two frontbenchers resigned in October as part of a rebellion by 34 MPs on its third reading, unhappy that the party was not prepared to vote against. A fortnight earlier 20 Labour MPs had rebelled at a second reading.

Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, had called on the party to abstain over the bill, arguing that statutory regulation of undercover operatives would have been necessary if the party had been in power, after the government only narrowly won a court case over the issue.

Further concerns about the conduct of undercover officers resurfaced in November as a public inquiry opened into the work of the Met police’s Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), which targeted left-wing, environmental, anti-war and black justice campaigners for more than 40 years.

Chakrabarti says the bill does more that codify existing policies used by MI5 and the police and, in effect, would give undercover informants and officers immunity against prosecution for crimes committed, if their actions were authorised. The legislation describes such as acts as “lawful for all purposes”.

“Total legal immunity means even less incentive for some of the most volatile and manipulative people – including ‘turned criminals and terrorists’ – to behave ethically,” Chakrabarti said. “Blanket licence for crime without limit, is completely alien to eq
uality before the law.”

The peer said she believed that a group of women who successfully sued the Met in 2015 after they had been deceived into forming “abusive and manipulative” long-term relationships with undercover police officers, would probably find it impossible to bring a similar action again.

The basic illiberality of Labour as a party (and the Conservatives) is one of the best arguments why the Liberal Democrats still have an important role in British politics.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Baffling Brexit rules threaten export chaos

The quiet of January trade combined with more direct routes being found between Ireland and the European mainland have mitigated the impact of Brexit, but that does not mean that businesses are feeling the effects nor that things are not going to get worse.

As the Observer reports, leading business groups are urging Ministers to go back to the negotiating table to sort out the “baffling” array of post-Brexit rules and regulations that now threaten much of the UK’s export trade to the EU.

The paper says there is mounting anger among UK firms at cross-border friction they were told would not exist. As a result, British manufacturing and trade organisations met Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove in an emergency session on Thursday to discuss problems resulting from the deal struck by Boris Johnson with the EU before Christmas.

They add that although the prime minister had hailed what he claimed was a “zero-tariff” and “zero-quotas” deal that would allow free and simple access to the single market. Less than a month on, Britain’s EU departure appears to be anything but pain-free:

In the first week after the UK finally left both the single market and customs union, the parcels firm DPD suspended some of its services, bookseller Waterstones halted sales to customers in the EU and UK fishermen warned they would not be able to sell their fresh produce into EU markets because of delays at borders.

There were also problems with consignments between Great Britain and Northern Ireland as new border checks caught many businesses unawares. Luxury food store Fortnum and Mason also told customers on its website: “We are temporarily unable to deliver to Northern Ireland or countries in the European Union”, while Debenhams has temporarily shut its online business in Ireland.

Some of the problems are being blamed on a rushed deal, and others on the sheer complexity of arrangements including “rules of origin”, some of which have not been finally determined. Only goods made up largely of parts that originate in the UK qualify as tariff-free.

Stephen Phipson, the chief executive of the manufacturers’ organisation Make UK, is especially damning. He said much still needed to be negotiated between the UK and EU:

“Industry welcomed the trade agreement that avoided the catastrophe of no-deal, as tariffs and quotas would have been a disaster for exporters. However, this is only a starting point, as there are still substantial issues that need ironing out, with many months, if not years, of tough negotiations ahead.

“There are customs experts with 30 years’ experience who are baffled by what the new regulations mean, let alone small- and medium-sized businesses who have never had to deal with the kind of paperwork that is now required. The great fear is that for many it will prove too much and they will simply choose not to export to the EU.”

He also raised fears about the UK car industry, which could be adversely affected by tariffs if EU rules relating to the origins of components used in car manufacture cannot be met. “Having built up seamless and complex supply chains over decades, the automotive sector in the UK is facing a jolt to its systems that places its very future under threat,” he added. “While there is no suggestion multinationals will close plants overnight, we have already seen decisions to build new models placed elsewhere. As those models that have been built in the UK for many years come to the end of their life, we are likely to see a slow puncture for the sector of investment drifting away.”

The paper also quotes Sam Lowe, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, who said there were problems that could grow over coming weeks and months:

“The new import/export formalities are proving problematic for many companies. The lack of obvious queues at the border disguises the fact that many trucks are stuck in depots, unable to head to the ports due to their clients failing to provide the necessary documentation and information.”

So yet another Boris Johnson megashambles, undermining our economy and causing chaos wherever he goes.

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