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Thursday, July 27, 2017

The unheralded but devastating consequences of Brexit

If it were not bad enough that Brexit is going to undermine our economy by stopping us trading freely with our biggest market and leaving us with labour shortages in key areas, this article highlights some key issues that could be equally as devastating.

The author is Steve Bullock, who worked at the UK Representation to the EU from 2010-2014 where he negotiated several EU regulations for the UK in European Council working groups. He has also worked for the European Commission and the Department for International Development’s Europe Department.

He argues that Ministers insistence on leaving the European Court of Justice and their seeming inability to listen to expert advice means that we are blithely walking into a nightmare scenario where key areas of our economy could be crippled.

Some of the examples he gives could be quite devastating:
On the maintenance of planes Mr. Bullock says that UK will either have to negotiate to remain in the agency (which is within the dreaded European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction), or establish its own capacity to replace what it does from a standing start in only 20 months.

He asks how will the UK remain in the EU’s internal energy market post-Brexit as it looks to import more energy from the EU, and what are the implications if it doesn’t? What about the Emissions Trading System? Patents and intellectual property rights? Food standards? Medicine approvals? Europol? He says that the list goes on and on.He concludes:

The incredible level of technical complexity appears to have been ignored by the Prime Minister and government ministers, so we can look forward to further weeks of startling discoveries of self-defeating implications of the Government’s own Brexit strategy. 

I’ve said elsewhere that, in my view, the chances of getting any deal, let alone a good deal, in the limited time available look minimal. Brexit would have been a terrible idea even if done as well as possible, but for the Government to blithely march the country towards consequences that they don’t even themselves understand is an appalling dereliction of duty.

A truly disturbing article.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Labour's Brexit disarray

The Guardian reports that once more members of Labour’s shadow cabinet are at loggerheads over whether Britain can hope to remain in the customs union when it leaves the EU.

They say that Barry Gardiner, the shadow trade secretary, has argued that the only option open to the UK would be a Turkey-style customs agreement, but claimed that such a deal would be “a disaster” as it would leave the UK in a weak position:

However, the shadow Brexit and foreign secretaries, Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry, have told senior Labour colleagues that Britain could negotiate a better deal than Turkey and should be trying to do so.

They have said that negotiating a form of membership of the customs union, under which European countries negotiate trade deals collectively and have a common external tariff, must be kept on the table.

One shadow cabinet member told the Guardian that they were surprised Gardiner had made his comments publicly as the issue “was not settled” within the Labour party.

They revealed that Starmer and Gardiner had clashed over the positioning in meetings – with the issue creating tensions around the shadow cabinet table.

Another member of Jeremy Corbyn’s top team claimed the shadow trade secretary must have been speaking in a personal capacity “because that is not Labour party policy”. They claimed Starmer would be furious about the intervention, and profoundly disagreed with his colleague.

What exactly Labour policy is may be open to question. Former Welsh Government Minister, Leighton Andrews tweeted the actual Labour Conference policy on Brexit, which bears no resemblance to anything that Jeremy Corbyn or any of the factions within his shadow cabinet are saying.

It is clear from Leighton's twitter feed that he is growing increasingly frustrated at the May-Corbyn alliance on Brexit. At one stage he retweets a Labour Peer, who lamented: 'This is dreadful - Labour now has the same immigration policy as UKIP and a harder Brexit policy than the Tories', and has even advocated that Welsh Labour should split off from the UK party.

Labour's disarray on this issue is growing by the day, not only are they failing to represent the views of their members and those who voted for them, not only are they failing to provide an opposition, but it appears that they are hand-in-glove with the Tory Government on pursuing a hard Brexit.

No wonder sensible members like Leighton Andrews are in despair.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Why Wales should follow England in leaseholds on new-build houses

Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid is absolutely right, the increasing use of leasehold sales on new build houses is exploitative and positively feudal.

As the BBC report, the UK Government is proposing to outlaw leaseholds on new-build houses, while ground rents could be dramatically reduced, under government plans which are subject to public consultation.

Modern day leases on houses, often contain provisions that lead to ground rents doubling every decade, crippling home owners and in some cases making a property impossible to sell:

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) said the terms of some leases "were becoming increasingly onerous".

It cited examples of:
MPs have described the situation as a "national scandal" and the "PPI of the housebuilding industry".

The DCLG said its proposals aimed to make future leases fairer by reducing ground rents so they "relate to real costs incurred".

About 21% of private housing in England is owned by leaseholders, with 30% of those properties houses rather than flats, according to figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Like Rent Charges, leaseholds are an anachronism, a legacy of more feudal times when big estate owners and industrialists built homes for their workers, whilst retaining ownership of the freehold.

Many leases were granted for 99 year terms on houses I the latter part of the 19th Century, leading to householders in the 1960s suddenly facing massive bills to remain in their own homes. The outcry led to the introduction of the 1967 Leasehold Reform Act.

Now, we are being faced with a new spate of leasehold properties designed to maximise the return for the developer. In my view, and that of the Communities Secretary, these leases are exploitative.

I do not know the extent that the practice in the north-west of England in particular has infiltrated Wales, but now that the UK Government has taken the initiative, Welsh Ministers need to follow suit, carry out their own research and ban leases on new-build houses here as well.

If they do not do so then they will be letting down many home buyers and leaving them open to exploitation.

Monday, July 24, 2017

A nightmare in blue

Yesterday's Observer speculates that the long summer recess will see much manoeuvring amongst the ranks of Tory MPs to succeed Theresa May as Prime Minister, possibly to even oust her. They say that the subsequent drain on the PM's authority has led to a plethora of unwelcome analogies from MPs about her position. A paddle boat in a storm, the lamest of lame ducks – and worse.

“She is the village goat, prepared for sacrifice to take on the sins [of the election campaign],” said one erstwhile May supporter. “Her throat will be cut in a humane way at a time of our choosing.”

Much of the speculation appears to be coming from David Davis' camp who many believe will benefit from an early contest but suffer if it is delayed. But the mood amongst Tory MPs according to the paper, is that they are exhausted and there is no appetite for an early contest:

The revealing survey of more than 1,000 Tory members, carried out as part of the Party Members Project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, and shared with the Observer, shows that the calculation is well-founded. While two established candidates, Davis and Boris Johnson, are the leading options to replace May, the 26% of members who could not give an answer shows they are waiting for another candidate to emerge. Most members do not want May to stand down now.

The desire to put off a contest for 18 months or so, to allow new blood to reveal itself, is also strong on the backbenches. “A swift contest would probably see a battle between Davis, Boris, Philip Hammond and maybe someone like [the defence secretary] Michael Fallon as a caretaker,” said one MP. “If it is delayed, it is only really Boris who could still be in it. It’s wide open.”

Driving the desire for fresh faces is shock at the election result and the need to renew the party after seven years in office.

So all the talk is of finding a dream candidate. Amber Rudd, Gavin Williamson, Johnny Mercer, Rory Stewart, Ruth Davidson, and even Jacob Rees-Mogg are being mentioned. Seems more like a nightmare to me.

The sum of all this speculation however, combined with the inept approach to Brexit negotiations and the failure to act in the country's best interests on the single market, is that the government is in disarray. We are in danger of drifting off into the Atlantic by default simply because the two major parties are so dysfunctional.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Jeremy Corbyn rules out sngle market membership after Brexit

News reports say that Jeremy Corbyn has committed Labour to leaving the single market, in the mistaken belief that membership is tied in with being in the European Community. However, his interpretation of the rules was immediately challenged by one of the main rebels on the EU within the Labour Parliamentary Party:

The Labour leader’s explanation of his party’s Brexit policy was questioned by the former shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, one of the party’s leading advocates of a soft Brexit, who pointed out that several countries including Norway were members of the single market without being full EU members:

Corbyn told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “The single market is dependent on membership of the EU. What we have said all along is that we want a tariff free trade access to the European market and a partnership with Europe in the future.

"The two things are inextricably linked so the question then is the kind of trade relationship of the future and we have made it very clear we want a tariff free trade access with the European market.”

Corbyn also said the party had not decided on whether Labour’s policy should be to remain in the customs union, but claimed that was also firmly linked to being a member of the EU. “We haven’t jumped on either side of that fence but, again, the customs union is part of the European Union.”

All of this of course, is contrary to the views of most Labour members as well as the many thousands of young people who flocked to Labour's banner on 8th June. How much longer can Corbyn get away with this inherent contradiction whilst at the same time backing the Tories on delivering a hard Brexit?

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Why Deborah Orr is wrong about the Liberal Democrats

The by-line says it all - Deborah Orr is a Guardian columnist, and in that capacity she is obliged to find so many hundreds of words each day to bore us with her wisdom. It is easy to find fault, the hard part is to have something constructive and useful to say, as no doubt I will now prove.

In the latest diatribe, Ms. Orr lambasts Vince Cable for his failure to grasp the nettle ten years ago and save us all from the dreadful coalition government. She says that the best that could be said for Nick Clegg is that he was not Chris Huhne and alleges that the Liberal Democrats squandered their best chance to introduce AV, even though it is a half-hearted compromise and not party policy.

She says that by putting Cameron in power the Liberal Democrats set in chain the events that led to us leaving the EU, to the collapse of social justice and the reassertion of two party politics, which for so long we were the main alternative to.

Now counter-factual history is not an exact science, it is actually a form of fiction, so one would expect some justification for these conclusions. Instead Orr embarks on a more reasoned demolition of the first past the post system and why it needs to be replaced.

For, whatever else one might say about Nick Clegg, at least he tried to make a difference, at least he made the effort to put in place key Liberal Democrat policies. And yes, there were times when he was naïve, out-of-touch, when he failed to assert himself properly, and broke promises but I suspect history will prove far kinder to him than the rant that masquerades as Orr's opinion column.

The first question is what were the alternatives in 2010? A coalition with Labour was a non-starter, it would not have commanded a majority in the Commons, could not have provided stable government and would have quickly collapsed in its own contradictions. So it was a choice trying to influence government and put into effect Liberal Democrats policies with Cameron or walk away altogether.

If Clegg had walked away, my view and that of many others is that we would have had a minority Tory Government followed by a second General Election in which Cameron would have secured a majority. Austerity would have been more severe, without the constraining influence of the Liberal Democrats, the referendum on Europe would have come sooner and AV would not even have made it to the floor of the House of Commons.

In Government the Liberal Democrats achieved some important reforms, the green investment bank, the pupil premium, raising the income tax threshold to take millions of low paid workers out of paying that tax altogether, equal marriage, reforms to industrial policy and many more. They held back the sort of cuts to welfare that the Tories subsequently embarked on in 2015 once they had a majority and they kept the UK firmly within the EU.

There were negatives, the bedroom tax, the tuition fee debacle and NHS reforms amongst them, when Clegg should have listened to his party and put his foot down. But the balance sheet is one to be proud of not one to run away from.

At the end of the day it is the electorate that decides who should be in government, not the Liberal Democrats. Politicians do their best with the cards that are dealt to them. The mess we are in now is the result of forces that are reflected elsewhere in the world, the anti-politics movement, disenchantment with the establishment, the search (once again) for a form of messiah who will lead us to a promised land. To seek to blame it all on the Liberal Democrats is perverse in the extreme.

The one bright light in all of this gloom is the diminished band of Liberal Democrats MPs and the 100,000 plus members who continue to fight for internationalism, liberalism, social justice and against the forces of reaction. Vince Cable and my party offer hope. We are in no way the spent force Deborah Orr imagines.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Tory take-out-the-trash day underlines the weakness of government

The Tory government used the last day of the Parliamentary term this week to off-load a whole host of unpopular announcements, whilst avoiding any proper scrutiny of the decisions.

As the Guardian relates, Theresa May's ministers dumped dozens of official documents online on parliament’s last day of term, showing the police force numbers have dropped to a 30-year low and the number of soldiers has fallen by 7,000.

The paper says that the government has published very little for weeks after the election but about 22 written statements and dozens of Whitehall reports were released on Thursday, just as MPs embark on their long summer break:

The tactic – known as “take out the trash day” – means MPs will not be able to scrutinise the information properly while parliament is away for the next seven weeks. The statements included a damning human rights assessment of the UK’s ally Saudi Arabia, the cancellation of the electrification of a key railway and a decision to opt into some new EU regulations on crime-fighting, even though the UK is heading for Brexit.

The cancellation of the electrification of a key railway relates to Cardiff to Swansea, which was the subject of a firm promise by UK Government Ministers, alas now broken. It was Liberal Democrats Ministers in the Coalition Government who secured the extension to Swansea, now the Tories have reneged on that commitment.

The Guardian outlines the revelations in the set of documents, which include:

• A drop of 0.7% to 123,142 police officers across all ranks in England and Wales at the end of March this year. This is the lowest number at the end of a financial year since comparable records began in 1996.

• Warnings in a separate Foreign Office report that there are grave concerns about the human rights situations in countries such as Saudi Arabia, China and Bahrain though many of the countries listed bought billions of pounds of arms from the UK.

Britain has sold £3.3bn worth of arms to Saudi Arabia in the past two years alone, including licences for aircraft, drones, grenades, and missiles. The Foreign Office report said the UK is “deeply concerned about the application of the death penalty” in Saudi Arabia and restrictions on freedom of expression, as well as women’s rights.

Bahrain, one of the first countries visited by May when she became prime minister, is criticised for locking up pro-democracy activists, such as the writer Nabeel Rajab. Other countries of concern listed included Afghanistan, Burundi, China, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar, Russia, Syria and Yemen.

• The decision to scrap the electrification of train lines, which had been heralded as a way of making the rail network faster, greener and cleaner, after massive budget overruns of billions of pounds.

• A statement showing that the UK plans to opt into new Brussels regulations allowing for more cross-border police cooperation in cases where children are at risk of parental abduction – news that pro-EU campaigners said demonstrates the risks of a hard Brexit, which might force the UK to abandon the deal.

• A report showing that schools and colleges do not currently have the capacity to teach all pupils maths until they are 18, with about a decade needed to expand capacity.

It appears that, having lost their Parliamentary majority, the Tories are now running scared of effective scrutiny.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

UK letting down child refugees

The Guardian reports that not a single extra lone child refugee has been brought to Britain from Europe under the “Dubs amendment” this year.

An urgent Commons question raised by the outgoing Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, brought forth cross-party criticism that it is taking too long to process eligible refugee children in Europe to bring them to Britain.

The paper says that Home Office ministers have confirmed in written answers that only 200 children were transferred under Dubs in 2016 after the closure of the Calais camp and 280 local authority places remain to be filled:

The Dubs amendment, known as section 67, was passed in April 2016 amid a campaign to bring 3,000 lone refugee children stuck in camps in Europe to Britain. Ministers initially estimated local authority capacity at 350 but extended it to 480 in April after saying there had been “an administrative error” in the initial figure.

Lily Caprani, of Unicef UK, said: “It’s unacceptable that we have seen no children brought under the Dubs scheme this year. As a nation we showed our compassion and our principles when we helped refugee children stranded in Calais, but we were told this was not the end of the story. We are seeing too many children still having to make dangerous journeys to reach safety.”

In the Commons, Farron said it was hard to see the government’s response as anything more than lip service and demanded to know when the “measly commitment” of 480 would be met. “I have visited the camps in Greece and elsewhere – something neither the home secretary nor the prime minister have done. I have met these children who, through no fault of their own, find their lives paused as ministers have chosen to ignore them,” said the Lib Dem leader.

“Has the UK government even signed a memorandum of understanding with Greece to get these transfers under way? I know of two young people who signed a consent form to be transferred under Dubs over a year ago. They are still stuck in Greece.”

This Tory UK Government is failing its humanitarian responsibilities.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Ending EU rip-off card charges - another benefit of EU membership

Surely even this Brexit inclined Tory Government and their Labour Party Brexit allies cannot miss the irony of us leaving the EU at a time when the benefits of remaining for ordinary working people are becoming more and more obvious.

First the EU abolish mobile phone roaming charges for the many UK citizens who like to holiday on the continent, enabling us to make calls, send texts and use the internet without any extra charge, and now they have effectively got rid of those extra charges that are added whenever we pay for something with a credit card.

Of course the UK Government are trying to claim that they have enhanced the change by also banning charges for holders of American Express cards and users of services such as PayPal and Apple Pay, but essentially this is a European initiative that would not have come about if we had not been a member of the EU.

What is more, this change does not just affect that charging policies of companies such as Ryanair, EasyJet, restaurants and others, it also impacts on Government and local authorities, both of which have been 'ripping us off' for a little bit extra when we have used a card to pay our bills.

As the Guardian points out, these fees have been a moneyspinner for some government departments and official bodies. They will also be banned from imposing these charges:

The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency currently adds a flat fee of £2.50 to vehicle tax payments by credit card, and its own data has previously suggested that it collects more than £8.5m a year in these charges.

Similarly, HM Revenue & Customs charges a fee for paying a tax bill by credit card, which ranges from 0.374% to 2.406%, depending on whether it is a personal or corporate card – but, like the DVLA, it will no longer be able to do this from 13 January.

The practice, known as surcharging, is common practice across the country, said the Treasury, with many businesses and organisations charging people to make card payments, or for using other services such as PayPal. Many industries had already acted to absorb the cost and not pass these on to consumers, but these rules would bring an end to the practice entirely, added a spokesman.

There do not appear to be any recent official figures for how much these surcharges are costing consumers, but the government has previously calculated that credit and debit card surcharges totalled between £316m and £630m in 2010. It suggested a “best estimate” of around £473m for that year.

They add that a number of local authorities also impose handling fees when people pay for services by credit card. At Hammersmith and Fulham council in London the fee is 1.25%, while Richmond upon Thames charges 1.65%. Both councils said they did not profit from these fees.

The abolition of these charges are long overdue. Roll on January 2018. Thank goodness we had the EU to take the initiative.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Labour leadership out of step with membership on Brexit

As Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership team cosy up to the Prime Minister in pursuit of a hard Brexit, it is becoming evident that his position is not shared by many of those who voted Labour last month nor by his party members.

The Guardian reports that support for Britain to remain in the EU single market and customs union is overwhelming among Labour party members. Research carried out as part of the Party Members Project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council shows that more than eight out of 10 think the UK should stay in Europe’s key trading blocs and heavy backing for a second referendum.

They say that the figures could pile pressure on Jeremy Corbyn over his party’s position on Brexit, which is currently against maintaining full single market membership, because he is determined to give members a bigger voice:

On Brexit, the survey revealed that their views are fiercely pro-EU, including that:
Whilst he continues to co-operate with the Tories on delivering a hard Brexit, Corbyn remains isolated amongst the vast majority of the young people who backed him in the General Election and his own party membership.

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