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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.

Monday, July 17, 2017

A weak leader and a dysfunctional cabinet

All the political controversy over the weekend centred on the UK Government's cabinet, which it appears, is disintegrating before our eyes.  The Independent reports that the so-called 'strong and stable' Tory Government is tearing itself apart.

They say that Chancellor, Philip Hammond lifted the lid on Cabinet feuding by claiming damaging stories about him had come from fellow ministers out to get him because he is pushing for a softer Brexit:

Mr Hammond all but admitted a report that he had told the Cabinet that public sector workers are “overpaid” was true – while denying he had said “even a woman” can drive a train.

Asked why colleagues are “going for you”, he pointed to disputes over Brexit, saying: “If you want my opinion, some of the noise is generated by people who are not happy with the agenda that I have.”

Mr Farron added: “Philip Hammond recognises that leaving the single market would be catastrophic for the UK economy, yet Theresa May and much of the Conservative Cabinet is pushing through a disastrous extreme Brexit.”

And Jeremy Corbyn said: “It seems quite extraordinary that we’re having varying accounts coming out of every Cabinet meeting about who said what to who and at what point in the meeting they said it, and everybody saying nothing actually happened.”

Meanwhile, there is a massive row developing over the way the UK Government is pushing back against devolution in its Great Repeal Bill. The excuse appears to be that it is necessary for previously devolved powers to be held at Westminster so as negotiate trade deals, after which they will be given back to the various national Parliaments.

The catch with this explanation is that there is no fixed end-point for that process and given the poor negotiating skills already demonstrated by UK Ministers, the length of time these deals take to put together and the point we are starting from, the powers may never be returned.

Brexit is rapidly turning into an omnishambles.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Brexit own goals that could leave the UK isolated

The Independent reports on claims that France is actively seeking to exploit Brexit to disrupt and degrade Britain's lucrative financial sector.

They say that former foreign office minister Jeremy Browne, who acts as the City of London's envoy on Brexit, believes that the French see the British as “adversaries” in the forthcoming withdrawal negotiations:

In a memorandum leaked to the Mail On Sunday, he said his talks in Paris have been “the worst I have had anywhere in the EU”, with the French open about their desire to see the UK weakened.

Following a visit to the French capital earlier this month, Mr Browne said the mood had been made “more giddy and more assertive” by the election of President Emmanuel Macron.

His comments will reinforce fears among critics of Brexit that other EU countries will exploit the UK's withdrawal to take away lucrative business.

Mr Browne, who met banking chiefs, senior politicians and diplomats, wrote: “They are crystal clear about their underlying objective: the weakening of Britain, the ongoing degradation of the City of London.

“The meeting with the French Central Bank was the worst I have had anywhere in the EU. They are in favour of the hardest Brexit. They want disruption. They actively seek disaggregation of financial services provision.

“Every country, not unreasonably, is alive to the opportunities that Brexit provides, but the French go further, making a virtue of rejecting a partnership model with Britain and seemingly happy to see outcomes detrimental to the City of London even if Paris is not the beneficiary.”

The Daily Mail have portrayed this as a French declaration of war on the UK but in fact the reverse is the case. It is the UK who has scored a massive own-goal by voting for Brexit. We are now reaping the consequences with other countries lining up to pick the low-hanging fruit.

If the Mail really cared about the UK's interests then they would be better off demanding that we back off from Brexit altogether.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Students should have a vote on the Higher Education gravy train

Whatever you think about tuition fees, and I remain opposed to the concept, they have changed the nature of higher education. A public service has become a market place, in which universities compete not for the best and brightest, but for lucrative fee income and where courses rise and fall on their popularity rather than their academic merits.

The name of the game is expansion as Vice Chancellors build up little educational empires and seek to exploit every avenue to boost budgets to pay for their ambitions. They have morphed from being the head of an educational establishment into the role of Chief Executive, and rewards have grown exponentially in response to that change.

The Independent reports on one Vice Chancellor who has defended his £230,000 salary despite accusations by a former higher education minister that institutions’ top managements are operating a “cartel”. They say that the average university vice chancellor salary is now £275,000, while fees have increased from zero to £9,250 a year in two decades and are now the world’s highest for public institutions.

It is difficult not to sympathise with Andrew Adonis, a former HE minister, who believes that salaries for top management should be slashed across the sector to show “leadership". His priority of spending the money on abolishing fees however, could be questioned.

That is not because I want fees to remain, I don't, but because the research I have seen is the most pernicious and damaging debt for graduates is that they build up on day to day living and course expenses whilst in college.

Tuition fee debt is only repayable after you reach earnings of £21,000. You only repay 9% of everything you earn over that threshold and any remaining debt is written off after 30 years. This debt does not count against your credit rating so it does not affect your ability to take out a mortgage. None of this is true for debts accrued in the more traditional way for living costs.

It is my view that in the first instance, the rest of the UK should follow the example of Wales in re-establishing substantial maintenance grants for Welsh students. As this article points out, the new support package in Wales will cover those who start their course in 2018/19, wherever in the UK they choose to study. Every student will be entitled to support equivalent to the national living wage:

'This means that eligible full-time students will receive maintenance support of £11,250 if they study in London and £9,000 per year elsewhere if they live away from home.

This will be delivered through a mix of loans and grants, unlike in England where zero maintenance grants are available. Very small, limited grants are available in Scotland, but they too are currently reviewing the system.

Welsh students from the lowest household income will receive the highest grant – £8,100 in their pocket, and more in London. Our estimates suggest that a third of full-time students will be eligible for that full grant.

Furthermore, our data shows that the average household income for a student in our current system is around £25,000. Under the new system such a student will receive around £7,000 a year in their pocket.

However, potentially the most radical element of our reforms is to provide equivalent support for part-time and postgraduate students. Wales will be the first in Europe to achieve this. For the first time, part-time undergraduates will receive similar support for maintenance, pro-rata to their full-time counterparts.'

There is a case at the same time to raise the income threshold at which tuition fee loans are repaid from £21,000 and to reduce the interest payable on those loans. Once we have done that we can then look at how we can pay to get rid of the tuition fee altogether.

But back to Vice Chancellors. The other side-effect of tuition fees was the empowering of students. If Universities are going to turn Higher Education into a market place then it is students who are the consumers, and they need to flex their muscles in that capacity much more.

It is time Universities treated their students more like shareholders, with a say in key issues such as how they spend their money. If student facilities are more important than Vice Chancellor remuneration then that is how the cash should be allocated.  After all students' money that is being used to fund some of this expenditure.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Is the Great Repeal Bill a Great White Snark?

What else can you call a piece of potential legislation that seeks the elusive outcome of Brexit whilst rolling back or preying on the democratic advances of the last few decades around devolution and human rights?

Theresa May's Great Repeal Bill is an extraordinary power grab by Ministers intent on undermining democratically voted-on devolution settlements, whilst allowing them to indulge hobby horses such as attacking the enshrinement of human rights into UK law.

It makes Henry VIII's reformation look like a picnic in the park, whilst utilising mechanisms that the Tudor King initiated to effectively by-pass Parliament, where the Tories don't have a majority on key policy issues that have never been put before the electorate.

It is little wonder that the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales have said that they cannot support the Bill, or that Human Rights Groups have expressed serious concerns. The Guardian reports on an extraordinary coalition between Wales' and Scotland' leading political parties::

In a joint statement, Sturgeon and Jones said: “We have repeatedly tried to engage with the UK government on these matters and have put forward constructive proposals about how we can deliver an outcome which will protect the interests of all the nations in the UK, safeguard our economies and respect devolution.

“Regrettably, the bill does not do this. Instead, it is a naked power grab, an attack on the founding principles of devolution and could destabilise our economies.”

The government confirmed that it would seek the backing of Holyrood and the Welsh assembly for the aspects of the legislation that affect devolved powers, through a “legislative consent motion”. But Sturgeon and Jones made clear they would not offer their approval unless the legislation was substantially redrafted.

The government could still insist on pressing ahead – but doing so would underline the divisions within the United Kingdom, just as May battles to shore up her position and present a united front in Brussels.

Whilst, Human rights groups Amnesty International and Liberty have joined Labour and the Liberal Democrats in urging the government to give further reassurances that human rights will not be undermined and, in particular, to incorporate the EU charter of fundamental rights into UK law:

Kerry Moscogiuri, Amnesty’s campaigns director‎, said: “It is now vital that Parliament ensures our hard-won human rights don’t diminish after Brexit. The broad powers that the repeal bill grants ministers to change our laws are dangerously vague; they must not be used to roll back human rights that are in place to protect us all.”

The legislation makes clear that “the charter of fundamental rights is not part of domestic law on or after exit day”. Government lawyers believe that will make little difference in practice, as the charter sets out rights that are already enshrined elsewhere in EU law and will brought into domestic law.

But Emmy Gibbs, of the anti-trafficking charity ATLEU, who used the charter to bring a case about mistreated workers in foreign embassies to the supreme court, said: “It is not right that the removal of the charter under the great repeal bill will make no difference to workers.

“Without the charter, our clients – who complained of unlawful discrimination and breach of working time regulations – would have been left without any remedy, because the UK’s state immunity law prevents them enforcing those rights in the employment tribunal.”

Theresa May's Government has achieved a remarkable first in uniting progressive forces against a regressive and badly thought-out piece of legislation in pursuit of a badly defined and poorly conceived outcome. If Brexit looked a mess before, today it looks downright sinister.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The chocolate orange syndrome

How much chaos is the UK Government in over Brexit? I only ask because with every new story it appears that their whole approach is a shambles.

Ministers have now published their Great Repeal Bill designed to unbundle EU laws and turn them into domestic legislation. However, judging by the initial reaction to it the Bill leaves a lot to be desired. As Keir Starmer says in the Guardian:

“We have very serious issues with the government’s approach, and unless the government addresses those issues, we will not be supporting the bill,” Starmer said.

He said Labour would demand concessions in six areas. These include ensuring that workers’ rights in Britain do not fall behind those in the EU; incorporating the European Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK law; and limiting the scope of so-called “Henry VIII powers”, which could allow the government to alter legislation with minimal parliamentary scrutiny.

There is a very real possibility that this bill will fail to become law. And then there is the UK Government's poor state of preparedness which has come under attack from the head of the National Audit Office:

In an unprecedented intervention Sir Amyas Morse said Whitehall departments are being left to "struggle on their own" with the challenges of Brexit because of a failure of leadership and direction.

He said the Government could "come apart like a chocolate orange" unless departments are given more support, as he warned Mrs May that Brexit poses the "biggest challenge" since the Second World War.

Departments should not be left to decide which of the many projects they are in charge of to prioritise by themselves, the head of the financial watchdog added.

Sir Amyas also revealed that David Davis's Brexit department failed to show him a plan for how leaving the EU will work, despite his requests, and could only offer a "vague" explanation as to why it was unable to.

"Government will need to be fast and flexible and act in a unified way," he said. "We have an issue here because of departmental Government and what we don't want to find is that at the first tap it comes apart like a chocolate orange ...It raises questions about whether this unified approach is actually happening".

Personally, I am very fond of chocolate oranges. I am less fond of the shambles that Theresa May's government is leading us into.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Brexit hangover starts to kick in

Ministers may well be deep into negotiations on the terms of the UK's exit from the European Union but many businesses are not waiting around to see the outcome.

As the Independent reports, one American bank with 16,000 UK staff has warned that up to three-quarters of its workforce could be transferred to EU countries after Brexit. The Chief Executive of JP Morgan has warned that he can see thousands of its bankers moved across the Channel once Britain cuts ties with Brussels:

Jamie Dimon said current plans allowed for "several hundred" of the bank's UK jobs to move to the EU after Britain's divorce from the bloc.

But he warned that that number could balloon.

"If the EU determines over time that they want to start to move a lot more jobs out of London and into the EU, they can simply dictate that," he said during a panel discussion at the Paris Europlace International Financial Forum on Tuesday.

The banking boss explained the majority of the bank's UK operations are actually aimed at serving clients across the EU27, putting the majority of those positions at risk of being moved out of the country.

"We have 16,000 people in the UK but ... 75 per cent of that is servicing EU companies, and if regulators say one day, you know, 'we're not comfortable with your risk people, your lawyers, your compliance being in the UK' they can make us move it.

"So we will simply be subject to what they do down the road."

JP Morgan revealed earlier this year it would be anchoring its EU operations in three cities, including Dublin, Frankfurt and Luxembourg.

It is of course not for me to say 'I told you so' but..................I did suggest this would happen before the referendum as did many others.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Trump's state visit to take place next year

As Theresa May plummets new depths of unpopularity in the polls the last thing she needs is to appear alongside a politician with even worse approval ratings. However, that is the fate the British Prime Minister now faces after an ill-considered invitation to Donald Trump at a time when both of them were doing better in the polls.

Following the General Election and the disastrous unpopularity of both Trump and May, many of us thought that the idea of a state visit by the US President had been quietly dropped. It certainly appeared that way when it failed to feature in the Queen's speech. But no, it was just that they did not have an agreed date.

The Independent tells us that Donald Trump‘s state visit to the UK will now take place next year. It is also possible the US President may make an unofficial visit before then, possibly to one of his two golf courses in Scotland.

The opportunity to protest the man's policies and general demeanour as so-called 'leader of the free world' may well prove too good an opportunity to miss.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Will the Tory Government ever grasp the nettle on the Swansea lagoon?

It struck a number of people over the last few days that Volvo's decision to phase out the internal combustion engine from 2019 onwards may not be as environmentally friendly as first appeared if we do not also change the way we generate electricity.

New developments in battery technology as well, may mean that in future we will need to recharge car batteries less often, assuming that mobile phone technology can be adapted to the automobile industry, but whilst we have the current mix of energy generation to provide that charge, we are continuing to contribute to climate change.

This is where alternative energy generation comes into its own, and in particular the new generation of tidal lagoons which will produce high volume, reliable electricity, but only if the UK Government bites the bullet and helps to get that new industry off the ground in the first place.

Of course the construction of these lagoons contribute to climate change as well, which is where an ancient recipe for a more sustainable and durable concrete could come into its own. But at the end of the day that is a one-off cost which can be off-set by the reduced emissions that will result from operational lagoons.

Despite all of this, the Government's failure to grasp the nettle and agree the strike rate for electricity generated by the Swansea lagoon, is now putting the project at risk. Wales-on-line reports that investors have put further funding for the £1.3 billion Swansea Bay tidal lagoon on hold.

They say that more than £200 million has been provisionally pledged by backers led by Prudential, the large UK insurer, with Macquarie and Investec, two other major financial institutions, ready to raise hundreds of millions more in debt and equity, according to a report in the Financial Times (FT). But investors are refusing to pledge even more cash as the Government is yet to approve the scheme:

David Stevens, founder of Admiral Insurance, who has poured millions of pounds of personal wealth into the project, told the FT: “If there’s no evidence that the government is committed then at some point the patience of investors will be exhausted.

“An opportunity will have been lost and it will be very hard to piece together again in future.” Werner von Guionneau, chief executive of InfraRed Capital Partners, which has pledged £100 million, said government indecision was undermining investor confidence.

“We cannot hang around forever,” he told the FT.

“The government promised a decision and they are letting us down by not making it.”

Keith Clarke, chairman of Tidal Lagoon Power, the company behind the Swansea scheme, is also reported as saying: “The credibility of independent reviews rests on the government making a decision on the back of Hendry.

“Otherwise it will look like more can-kicking as we’ve seen with [the proposed third runway at] Heathrow.”

It is time for the UK Government to make a decision. If they do not do so quickly then a massive opportunity will have been lost and we will be one step close to climate change becoming catastrophic.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Are the Tories looking to emulate US Republican Party's voter suppression tactics?

The natural reaction of any political party that has been comprehensively trounced amongst the 18 to 24 year age group would be to do some research on the reasons and try and address the policy and image problems that led to that outcome. Unfortunately, that is not how the Tory Party thinks.

Instead they appear to be taking lessons from the United States where Republicans have done everything possible to prevent hostile voter groups such as poorer members of the black and ethnic minority community from registering to vote in the first place.

According to the Independent,  Tory MPs are now queuing up to call for action on unevidenced claims that many students voted twice during the last General Election. Their concern is centred on the fact that on 8th July, five Tory candidates lost by fewer than 50 votes, and in big university towns such as Canterbury the party lost by just 187 votes.

As the web page points out, students can live almost 50/50 between two addresses so UK law allows them vote in two different places for local elections, so long as they are different local authorities. It is of course, illegal to vote twice during a general election. Some Tories believe that it is possible for a student to vote in their university town, and hop on a train to vote at home, or even to arrange a postal vote.

None of that is evidence that such an event happened or that it did so on a large-enough scale to have affected the result in any constituency. This is mischief-making of the highest order.

It is also the case of course that a large number of Tory MPs are registered in two places at the same time. There is no suggestion that they hopped on a train to vote twice. And so to the facts as stated by the Independent:

By analysing the 2015 general election, the Electoral Commission found that 0.000016 per cent of votes cast were accused of being fraudulently cast.

In total there were 123 accusations of voter fraud. Of these only 57 accusations related to impersonation, multiple voting, or legal incapacity to vote at a parliamentary election.

Of those, only four cases resulted in caution, and two were under investigation as of March 2016.

There were only three convictions under the Representation of the People Act relating to 2015 elections, and only one of these related to a Westminster election.

The conviction was regarding false statements on a nomination form.

As ever in these cases it is best if politicians are not allowed anywhere near the apparatus that elects them. That is why the Electoral Commission exists, imperfect as it is, and it is why the Government should have no truck with the sour grapes currently emanating from Tory MPs about students, unless of course they can actually evidence their claims.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Labour civil war continues

Whatever the official Corbynista line, there is no doubt that out in the country a number of the Labour Party leader's followers are intent on delivering a more sympathetic, and by definition more Europhobe cohort of MPS.

The latest example of this targeting of known refuseniks and dissidents appears in the Guardian. They report that Labour MPs who have been critical of Jeremy Corbyn have been banned from the official reception of the Durham Miners’ Gala for the second year running:

Alan Cummings, the secretary of the Durham Miners’ Association, said “quite a few” Labour MPs were not welcome on the platform for the annual procession, which he predicted would attract crowds of more than 200,000 people on Saturday.

Cummings told the Guardian: “The Durham Miners’ Association has supported Jeremy for a number of years and we’re fully behind his leadership. Obviously we’ve had problems with some Labour MPs who didn’t support him … They can come on the day, we can’t stop that, but they won’t be enjoying our hospitality.”

Several Labour MPs from the region were blacklisted from the official reception at last year’s gala, which came at the height of a leadership challenge against Corbyn.

Cummings said those disinvited this year included Phil Wilson, the Labour MP for Sedgefield; Helen Goodman, the MP for Bishop Auckland; Anna Turley, the Redcar MP; Emma Lewell-Buck, the South Shields MP, and MPs for Sunderland.

The MPs were banned from the stage last year after the association’s then general secretary, Dave Hopper, accused them of treachery towards the party leader.

Whilst Corbyn continues to prop up the Tories in Parliament in their determination to leave the single market and cut the country's economy adrift, his friends out in the regions continue their battle to undermine any Labour Party MP who might be opposed to these tactics.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Are more splits likely as Corbynistas seek to consolidate their position?

Fears amongst more moderate MPs that Jeremy Corbyn's relative success during the General Election will see their dissent punished by possible deselection have come to the fore after a challenge to the Liverpool Wavertree MP, Luciana Berger to tow the line or find herself out on her ear.

As the Guardian reports, Berger was challenged to get behind the leadership after eight out of 10 positions in the constituency Labour party went to Corbyn loyalists.

Soon after winning his new role, Roy Bentham, the trade union liaison officer, told the Liverpool Echo: “Luciana needs to get on board quite quickly now. She will now have to sit round the table with us the next time she wants to vote for bombing in Syria or to pass a no-confidence motion in the leader of the party – she will have to be answerable to us.”

As the paper says, officials on the Wavertree executive later dissociated themselves from Bentham’s comments. But it comes at a time when Momentum, the grassroots movement of Corbyn supporters, is growing in strength in local constituency parties following Labour’s better than expected performance at the general election.

They add that a Momentum group in South Tyneside posted a list on its Facebook group of 49 MPs, including Chuka Ummuna and Chris Leslie, that they said should leave Labour to “join the Liberals”. The post was taken down and disavowed by the national movement, which is working to dispel the idea that it wants to see MPs deselected.

With Corbyn backing the Tory Government in taking a hard Brexit line, there is significant dissent amongst his Parliamentary Party on that particular issue (and also amongst Labour voters). If his supporters are going to use the threat of deselection to keep dissidents in line on Europe then Corbyn could quickly lose all the goodwill that he has built up following his General Election performance. Is a split within the ranks looming?

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Blair was not such a straight-kind-of-guy after all - shock!

By far the least surprising and non-news story ever today is featured in all media outlets, with Sir John Chilcott concluding publicly for the first time that Tony Blair was not “straight with the nation” about the run-up to the Iraq war.

The chairman of the public inquiry into the 2003 conflict, and author of a 2 million word report published 13 years later, which found the former Prime Minister had presented the case for war with unjustified certainty, said Mr Blair had been “emotionally truthful” in his account of events leading up to the war. But he caveated that conclusion:

In an interview with the BBC Sir John was then asked if Mr Blair was as truthful with him and the public as he should have been during the seven-year inquiry.

He replied: “Can I slightly reword that to say I think any prime minister taking a country into war has got to be straight with the nation and carry it, so far as possible, with him or her.

“I don't believe that was the case in the Iraq instance.”

The Chilcott report found that Blair presented the case for war with “a certainty which was not justified” based on “flawed” intelligence about the country's supposed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) which was not challenged as it should have been.

The report said the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted and military action was not a last resort.

It added: “We have also concluded that the judgments about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, WMD, were presented with a certainty that was not justified.”

In his careful lawyerly way, Sir John Chilcott has now effectively accused Blair of misleading the country. It is nice to see that he has caught up with the rest of us in that judgement.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Astonishing u-turn by Brexit cheerleader

The Independent reports on a quite astonishing admission by Dominic Cummings, the Vote Leave campaign director that leaving the EU may be “an error”.

They say that Mr. Cummings described the referendum as a “dumb idea” before other ideas had been tried to win back powers from Brussels. He also warned that Brexit is shaping up to be a “guaranteed debacle”, without big changes in Whitehall to deliver a successful negotiation.

Tim Farron is quite right when he says: “Dominic Cummings has let the cat out of the bag. This is the man who slapped the £350m NHS lie on the side of the bus who is now saying leaving the EU could be a mistake. These Brexiteers have sold us a pup and lied to the public. This is why I believe the public should be given a say on the final Brexit deal.”

Cummings is a former special adviser to Michael Gove, who coined the phrase “vote leave, take control”, and came up with the campaign for an extra £350m to be spent on the NHS every week from diverted EU spending, a claim which has been consistently debunked.

His comments underline the chaotic process that the Tories are presiding over and the impending economic disaster that we are facing as a result of this obsession with leaving the EU regardless of the consequences for the UK.

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