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Saturday, July 02, 2022

Striking a deal with the SNP

In a negotiation, never commit yourself to a position publicly, it only weakens your hand. 

Now, I don't know whether Keir Starmer thinks he has what it takes to secure an overall majority at the next election, but a combination of inadequate polling leads, uninspiring leadership and unfavourable boundary changes makes the odds against him doing so pretty steep. 

The Labour leader may well have to work with other parties, either formally or on a confidence and supply basis. That means he will need the third largest block of MPs in the Commons - the SNP.

That Starmer now feels it necessary to distance himself from Nicola Sturgeon's party, effectively ruling out, once and for all, any sort of arrangement, does not strengthen his hand, it weakens it considerably. It is perhaps, a gamble too far. It also seems to be an rather extreme position for a risk-adverse party leader, like Starmer, to take.

The Guardian reports that the Labour leader has made it explicit that his party would go into minority government rather than enter talks with nationalists, in a new effort to spike Conservative attacks on a “coalition of chaos”. He believes that such a position would effectively dare the SNP to vote down a Labour Queen’s speech and bear responsibility for bringing down a Labour prime minister and enabling another Tory administration.

Personally, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the SNP voted down, or at least abstained on a Queen's Speech that does not include an independence referendum. I also think they would get away with such a move in Scotland as well, leaving Starmer high and dry, and back in opposition.

He is taking this hard line of course, partly to mollify the Scottish branch of Labour, who have preferred to put Tories into positions of power on local councils rather than give succour to the SNP, and partly to avoid losing support in England over a possible alliance that would see Scotland leave the UK. It is a defensive position, that is not likely to win a single extra vote anywhere.

Would Starmer not be better developing policy positions and a vision that might attract voters instead?

Friday, July 01, 2022

No surprise as Brexit leads to fall in exports

The Guardian reports that evidence of the negative impact of Brexit on the UK’s trade with the European Union is starting to emerge with EU data showing that exports to the bloc declined by nearly 14% in 2021 compared with 2020.

The paper quotes Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission vice-president and Brexit negotiator, who said that even with the impact of the pandemic being taken into account, the increase in red tape since the transition period ended in January 2021 has taken its toll on trade in goods and services with the UK:

“One result of Brexit was the return of a customs border between the EU and Great Britain. This means paperwork for virtually every product shipping between our markets. It means checks on thousands of goods being carried out on a daily basis.

“Brexit has increased red tape, not decreased it. It is no longer as frictionless and dynamic as before. This holds true for both goods and services,” he said.

The UK’s decision to choose a hard Brexit with the departure from the single market resulted in the loss of four freedoms to trade – in labour, capital, goods and services.

Eurostat figures put imports to the EU from the UK falling from €169bn (£144bn) in 2020 to €146bn in 2021 – a drop of 13.6%.

Eurostat figures show services, also impacted by Brexit, fell by 7% in 2021 compared with 2019. This category includes everything from financial services to professional services such as architecture, marketing and accounting.

The figures don't lie, and yet none of this is a surprise. It is entirely predictable that if you put up trade barriers, increase the amount of red tape and make it more difficult for goods to be sold abroad, then the economy will suffer. If we really are going to make Brexit work, as the government say, then they need to find ways around this.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Government failing to stem the tide of Russian money

The UK has a reputation as the world centre of money-laundering due to our lax regulations and the influence bought by 'dirty money', and that does not appear to be changing anytime soon, despite Ministers' so-called crackdown on Russian oligarchs.

The Independent says that MPs believe Boris Johnson‘s pledge to crack down on Russian dirty money in London will fail because of a lack of funding and expert staff.

They say that a Foreign Affairs Committee report has found that the prime minister’s “rhetoric” in quickly pushing through the Economic Crime Act – following the Ukraine invasion – is not matched by the “reality” of resources available, and they have demanded to know if action will be taken against wealthy foreign investors handed fast-track residency “without due diligence” before the scheme was hurriedly scrapped.:

The highly critical report, published on Thursday, called it “shameful” that it took the war for ministers to act and echoed previous warnings that the legislation does “not go far or fast enough”.

“The government’s rhetoric is not matched by reality,” said Tom Tugendhat, the committee’s Conservative chair.

“Sanctions against Russian individuals and businesses can only achieve so much. We need much more fundamental – and long-lasting – legislative changes to weed out the scourge of dirty money.”

The rising Tory star added: “New laws are only half the battle. Enforcement agencies need funding, resources and highly specialised staff in order to do their job effectively.”

The report warned against sanctions becoming a form of “criminal justice light” in which “assets are held indefinitely without subsequent prosecution”.

It recommended that authorities “now take advantage of the time these asset freezes provide to consider if there is a criminal case for asset seizure”.

The Queen’s Speech promised a further Economic Crime Bill to ensure “Putin’s cronies do not benefit from the UK’s open society”, following an initial crackdown after the invasion.

But fears have been raised that it will still be possible to “cloak the real property owners in anonymity”, using nominee directors and companies.

Crown dependencies and overseas territories are still enabling corruption and money laundering by resisting open registers of beneficial ownership of companies, critics say.

And Companies House allows 300,000 firms a year to be registered with no proper checks – in “moments, at minimal cost”, a former minister who quit over fraud warned.

The foreign affairs committee demands powers for the company registrar to verify information and to “remove corporate entities from the register for wrongdoing”.

On past failings, it states: “The government’s unwillingness to bring forward legislation to stem the flow of dirty money is likely to have contributed to the belief in Russia that the UK is a safe haven for corrupt wealth.”

So, once more the rhetoric is not being matched with action. In typical Boris Johnson style, the government is pursing polices that are all frills, and no knickers.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Action on the Metropolitan Police, at last

The Times reports that the Metropolitan Police has been put in special measures by the policing watchdog after it highlighted systemic problems including scandals and a failure to log 69,000 crimes.

The paper says that Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services cited “substantial and persistent concerns” about performance including failures to stamp out corruption and properly investigate crime:

Matt Parr, the watchdog’s inspector for London, said the abduction, rape and murder last year of Sarah Everard by a serving officer and repeated misconduct scandals had a “chilling effect on public trust and confidence”. However, it was a recent force-wide inspection that prompted the move to special measures, which will place extra scrutiny on the Met and require its leadership to produce a remedial plan.

Parr cited 14 new failures including a “barely adequate standard of crime-recording accuracy”. In a letter to Sir Steve House, the acting commissioner, he said that an estimated 69,000 crimes were going unrecorded each year, less than half of crime was recorded within 24 hours and almost no antisocial behaviour crimes were being recorded.

Among other concerns were a lack of victim engagement, a persistently large backlog of online child abuse referrals and a “lack of detailed understanding” of capability across all policing.

House must now come up with a plan and report regularly to inspectors, the Home Office and other organisations.

...

Parr cited prominent incidents that raised concerns, including officers at Charing Cross who exchanged racist and sexist messages, the strip search of the black schoolgirl Child Q and the “seemingly incomprehensible failures” to stop the serial killer Stephen Port. He was also concerned by the force’s stop-and-search policy and highlighted the handcuffing of the innocent black Team GB athlete Bianca Williams in 2020. In a report this year the watchdog said that Scotland Yard had hired more than 100 criminals in only two years and its ability to tackle corruption was “fundamentally flawed”. Parr also said the Met should be willing to learn lessons but “hasn’t always shown a great willingness to do so”.

The failures of the Met have been evident for a some time, so this move is very welcome, but why did it take so long to put into effect?

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Welsh Government seeks to crash the tea party

The best indication yet that the Labour/Plaid Cymru Welsh Government have let being in government go to their heads, is this latest consultation on banning the sale of tea and coffee to under-16s in Wales as part of plans to make young people healthier and stop rising obesity rates.

Wales on line says that the Welsh Government has confirmed that the consultation on the proposal to end sales of energy drinks to children also asks whether the plan "should be widened to consider other drinks typically high in caffeine such as tea and coffee". Under current rules all drinks except tea and coffee which contain more than 150mg of caffeine must carry a warning.

They add that some energy drinks have 21 teaspoons of sugar and the same caffeine level as three cups of coffee. Research shows that children who drink at least one energy drink per week are more likely to report symptoms such as headaches, sleep problems, and stomach problems as well as low mood and irritability. There is also evidence to link regular energy drink consumption with low educational engagement.

There is no rationale in that data for a ban on the sales of tea and coffee. In fact the Welsh government seems obsessed with banning things and limiting people's choices, whether it is vaping or this latest idea.

Is the next step a legally enforceable lifestyle plan for each individual? Welsh Ministers need to be careful they don't become a parody of themselves.

Monday, June 27, 2022

More embarrassment for the royal family

As if the dubious friendships and alleged shenanigans with under-age girls by Prince Andrew was not bad enough, the latest headlines, in which the heir to the throne is accused of accepting €3m in cash from a billionaire Qatari sheikh, must surely add grist to the mill for those questioning the judgement of the Queen's sons, and consequently, the need for an unaccountable, hereditary monarchy.

The Guardian reports on claims that Charles accepted three donations between 2011 and 2015 from former Qatari prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani – known as “HBJ”. One donation, totalling €1m, was reportedly handed over in a small suitcase and another was stuffed in a carrier bag from upmarket department store Fortnum and Mason.

They say that the cash, allegedly then counted by Charles’s aides and subsequently collected by Coutts bank, was paid to the Prince of Wales’s charitable fund which aims to “transform lives and build sustainable communities” through awarding grants. The fund told the Sunday Times that its trustees had concluded that the donor was legitimate and its auditors had signed off on the donation:

Although there is no suggestion of any illegality, or that Charles offered anything in return for the generous donations, critics said it raised serious concerns about the future king’s personal judgment, especially given Qatar’s record on human rights.

One described it as more like the actions of a “South American drug baron” than a future king, while another said the image of Charles’s aides counting out the cash was like a scene from TV sitcom Only Fools and Horses.


As former Liberal Democrat MP and government minister, Norman Baker, said: "This is what one might expect from a South American drug baron, not the heir to the British throne. It seems there are no lengths Charles will not go to get money for his good causes.”

...

“He doesn’t behave in any way which is appropriate to his position. If an MP behaved in that way they would be out of parliament.”


You really couldn't make it up.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Brexit - what have we done?

Two weeks away in sunny Cornwall and hardle anything has changed. Boris Johnson's premiership is still in crisis, a situation exacerbated by a cracking Liberal Democrat victory in the Tiverton and Honiton by-election, petrol and energy prices continue to soar and the cost of living crisis remains a factor in all our lives.

There are so many issues that have brought us to this position - the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, Brexit - to name but three, and we are where we are, but in terms of self-harm, Brexit must sit near the top of our problems.

Now, realistically I accept that we are not going to reverse a poor decision overnight, but there are things we can do to mitigate the effects, such as rejoining the single market in one form or another. But before we do that we need to accept the consequences of our decision to leave the EU, and stop pretending that promises have not been broken, that we were not lied to and misled about the intentions of those advocating schism, and that it will all be alright in the end.

In the meantime, here is an outstanding Guardian article on where we stand now, six years on from the referenndum:

Only now, with the worst of the pandemic (probably) behind us, and ministers unable to blame Covid, is Brexit reality being laid bare.

Next year the OECD calculates that the UK will record the lowest growth in the G20 with the exception of Russia whose economy is being drained by its war on Ukraine.

The Office for Budget Responsibility says Brexit will have a long-term effect of cutting UK GDP by a hefty 4%, an estimate unchanged since early 2020. The Financial Times says such a decline amounts to £100bn in lost output, and £40bn less revenue to the Treasury a year. The UK is now behind all the other G7 nations in the pace of its recovery from the pandemic, with exports by UK small businesses to the EU down significantly.

Jonathan Haskel, a member of the Bank of England’s nine-member monetary policy committee, said on Friday that Brexit was “disconnecting the UK from its main trading partners” in a clear example of de-globalisation. An expert at Imperial College on ways to improve productivity, Haskel warned in 2019 that British business investment would likely be weak for several years because of uncertainty linked to Brexit.

Figures from the Centre for European Reform show that the Brexit vote has already depressed economic growth. The independent thinktank said that by the end of last year the economy was 5% – or £31bn – smaller than if the UK had stayed in the EU. Faced with all this, arch-Brexiters are increasingly turning on Johnson. They don’t admit Brexit was a mistake but say it has not yet been made to work.

And there is much more. Read the article, it may open your eyes.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Northern Ireland protocol will have stiff defence in House of Lords

It seems that the House of Lords is where the sensible politians tend to practise their trade nowadays, though that does not legitimise the appointed oligarchy that they form part od, nor does it take away the need for reform.

Nevertheless, when the UK government decides it wants to break international law, all the lawyers in the upper house can be relied on to get rather riled up about the whole thing. 

The problem is of course, that these lawyers are all profoundly aware of their democratic illegitimacy, and will eventually yield to the elected government. Still, if it makes ministers think twice, then it will be worth it.

Thus, Conservative party grandee Ken Clarke steps forward to grab the baton. As the Independent reports, he believes that the “vast majority” of peers will back attempts to block a bill by Boris Johnson’s government aimed at overriding parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol:

The controversial legislation – designed to take unilateral action to stop checks on goods agreed with the EU as part of the Brexit deal – will be published in the Commons on Monday.

But the former Tory chancellor said the radical plan will be “seriously challenged” in the upper chamber. “I expect to find a very large majority of the House of Lords will hold it up for a considerable time,” Lord Clarke told the Daily Mail.

“I personally, I am afraid, usually vote against the government when they are trying to break the rule of law,” he said – adding that Britain should abide by a “rules-based international order in which countries reach agreements and then stick to them”.

The Tory peer added: “I do not think the government should be allowed to negotiate a treaty, tell the public that it is a fine treaty, get it ratified by parliament, and then almost immediately start trying to break it.”

Fellow Tory grandee Lord Michael Howard – the former party leader who has previously voted against the government on Brexit legislation – also said the bill would “undoubtedly encounter a rocky road” in the Lords.

Senior Labour and Liberal Democrats peers have also vowed to oppose the move, arguing that it violates an international treaty. Some observers predict that the Lords could help dilute the bill and delay it for up to a year.

In November 2020, peers handed the government a significant defeat over Internal Market Bill – its previous bid to override parts of the withdrawal agreement – voted 433 to 165 to remove key clauses.

Meanwhile, Tory MP Sir Bernard Jenkin warned the government it could face a rebellion of Brexiteer backbenchers in the Commons if the legislation if not offer the “serious prospect” of the DUP going back into government at Stormont.

And it is the position of the DUP, and the that of the European Research Group MPs, who want to make the bill as tough as possible in taking control of the movement of goods between GB and NI, that could be the deciding factor here. 

If the government digs its heels in, then the House of Lords will need to eventually concede. It may then be up to the courts and external pressures such as that of the US Government, that decides whether the protocol is broken and the Good Friday agreement nullified or not. 

What a mess.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Chancellor loses another £11 billion of public money

Just when we thought that the huge amount of public money wasted by this Tory Government could not be matched, it transpires that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has outdone himself.

The Guardian reports that Rishi Sunak has been accused of wasting £11bn of taxpayers’ money by paying too much in interest servicing the government’s debt.

The paper says that according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) the losses were the result of the chancellor’s failure to insure against interest rate rises on £900bn of reserves created through the quantitative easing (QE) programme:

The losses were said to exceed the amount that the Conservatives have accused former chancellor Gordon Brown of losing when he sold some of the UK’s gold reserves at rock bottom prices.

The institute’s director, Prof Jagjit Chadha, told the Financial Times that Sunak’s actions had left the country with “an enormous bill and heavy continuing exposure to interest rate risk”.

Labour said the losses were “astronomical” and accused the government of “playing fast and loose” with the public finances.

In response, the Treasury said that it had a “clear financing strategy” in place to meet the government’s funding needs.

According to the FT report, the Bank of England (BoE) created £895bn of money through the QE programme, most of which was used to buy government bonds from pension funds and other investors.

When those investors put the proceeds in commercial bank deposits at the BoE, the Bank had to pay interest at its official interest rate.

Last year, when the official rate was still 0.1%, the NIESR urged the government to insure the cost of servicing this debt against the risk of rising interest rates by converting it into government bonds with longer maturity.

Chadha said they had now calculated that Sunak’s failure to heed their advice – despite having regularly warned about the risks of higher inflation and interest rates on the costs of servicing the government’s debt – had cost taxpayers £11bn.

Who says there's no magic money tree?

Thursday, June 09, 2022

Government in court over net zero strategy

In my experience, all governments, of whatever hue, devolved and non-devolved, are experts in producing strategies that omit vital details and “completely fail” to show how targets would be met. Often the targets concerned are so far in the future that even if there was a workable action plan, nobody could be held to account for failing to deliver it.

I have seen this in the Welsh Assembly and in the UK Government. So-called ambitious plans, are really no more than unaccountable wishlists with no chance of ever being achieved, and the more difficult the objective, the more obstuse the ambition.

Now, at last, somebody is trying to hold a government to account for one of these 'strategies'. The Independent reports that climate campaigners are to begin a high court battle with the government over the UK’s net zero strategy, which they say is both “irresponsible” and “unlawful”.

The paper says that xases brought by Friends of the Earth, environmental law charity ClientEarth and legal campaign group the Good Law Project will be heard together at the High Court of Justice in London on Wednesday:

It is the first time the government has faced a legal challenge to its net zero strategy, which was formally published in October.

~ The strategy outlines how the country is supposed to slash its emissions by at least 100 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050, a target known as net zero.

It proposes measures including the construction of more nuclear power stations, restoring peat, encouraging walking and cycling, and committing millions of pounds to new hydrogen and industrial carbon capture schemes.

The government has insisted the strategy complies with its legal obligations and has been endorsed by the independent Climate Change Committee.

But the three campaign groups behind the challenge say the strategy does not detail emissions reductions each proposed policy is meant to achieve. They argue this means it is unclear if the initiatives can deliver on the targets the government is legally required to meet under the Climate Change Act.

This, they claim, means parliament and the public cannot hold the government to account over its strategy, and defeats the purpose of the Climate Change Act, which legally requires ministers to present a report that sets out how it will meet emission reduction targets, known as “carbon budgets”.

It's good that somebody is seeking to hold the government to account.

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