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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Were there links between UKIP and US right wing website?

Allegations in the Independent that Individuals paid by the right-wing US news organisation were working as senior unpaid UKIP volunteers have been drawn to the attention of the police and the Electoral Commission.

The paper says that a Labour MP has written to the Metropolitan Commissioner, Cressida Dick, and to the Electoral Commission watchdog, to find out if claims of illegitimate foreign donations to UKIP linked to the pro-Donald Trump Breitbart website, in the run up to the Brexit referendum have been fully investigated.

This follows revelations from two UKIP whistle blowers that they filed complaints to the Commission over fears the party was making “unusual arrangements” with Breitbart:

Individuals paid by the right-wing US news organisation were working as senior unpaid UKIP volunteers, it is alleged.

The whistle blowers feared that work could be interpreted as an indirect political donation by a foreign donor, according to anonymous sources who spoke to The Guardian.

It is believed the complaints were brought to the attention of the Metropolitan police by the Electoral Commission, but the police decided to take no further action.

These allegations have surfaced at a time when there is speculation about links between UKIP, WikiLeaks, Breitbart and Trump, none of which it is suggested is illegal, but which illustrate the reach that right wing groups are able to achieve.

Put into the context of developments in the USA, where individuals linked to the US President are being investigated and Facebook has now admitted that as many as 126 million Americans might have seen content uploaded by Russian based operatives over the last two years it is little wonder that there are concerns that our democratic processes are being subverted.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Is a Welsh vacant land tax a half-measure too far?

There is a lot to be said for a carrot and stick approach to social policy and as a means of changing behaviour. That is why when the Welsh Liberal Democrats were promoting an increased council tax for long-term empty homes a few years ago, to compensate communities for the blight imposed on them by these buildings, we also advocated grants and loans to help owners bring the properties back into use.

Unfortunately, in considering and consulting on four possible new taxes for Wales the Welsh Government appears to have forgotten this approach. In particular their proposed vacant land tax, targeting land that has planning permission for new homes, but which has been land banked, appears to be one of those half-measures which amount to a sledge hammer to crack a very small nut.

It is little wonder that house builders are perturbed. They say that they do not land bank in Wales. Andrew Whitaker from the House Builders Federation is quoted by the BBC as saying: "If a site isn't being built on after it has received a full implementable planning permission then something has gone wrong." He worries that the tax will did-incentivise large house builders and will put another barrier in place for small house builders.

In fact that quote is slightly disingenuous. Mr Whittaker is right that once a builder has obtained full, detailed planning permission then they will be ready to build. But it is likely that the tax will target land with outline planning permission, that is land which has been earmarked for building sometime in the future by a builder, but which they are not yet ready to actually develop.

My point is that even then there is a level of unfairness in such a tax, as often the failure to proceed is down to circumstances outside the control of the developer. In particular, the economic situation, the fact that house prices are lower in Wales impacting on profitability as costs are rarely less than across the border, waiting for connections by statutory undertakers, the lack of suitable infrastructure and the big one, inability to access finance, especially for small, local builders.

It is these issues that the Welsh Government need to tackle if they want to increase the number of homes being build in Wales. Helping small builders access finance, sorting out infrastructure problems and helping to reduce costs are the carrots that need to be in place before Welsh Ministers wield the large taxation stick.

And even then does the proposed tax have to be so crude? Replacing business rates with a land value tax which demands payment on the actual value of the land rather than some notional assessment of rent, would be far more effective. Once land has planning permission it would be taxed accordingly, providing an incentive to develop it and realise its value. As with business rates, it would be possible to zone agricultural land as having zero value so as not to destroy our agricultural base.

A land value tax would also work to bring brown field sites back into use and incentivise development. It is a far more comprehensive tax than the one proposed by the Welsh Government and far fairer. Isn't it time it was considered seriously?

Sunday, October 29, 2017

How secret are the secret Brexit reports?

It has been common knowledge for some time that the UK Government has been suppressing about 50 detailed reports that outline the impact that Brexit is going to have on the economy. What is less well-known, at least before this article appeared in the Independent, is that the vast majority of the cabinet, including the Prime Minister, have not read the full documents either.

According to the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, Theresa May will have read the 'summary outcomes of them. She won’t necessarily have read every single one, they are in excruciating detail.” Asked whether the rest of the Cabinet had seen the full assessments, Mr Davis said they had also only read the summaries.

As one Labour MP said: “We are on the brink of the biggest change to our country’s economy for generations,” she said. “It is staggering to hear David Davis suggest the Prime Minister has not even read the most important reports the Government has undertaken on the economic impact of Brexit.

“Theresa May has a responsibility to Parliament and the country to get Brexit right and ensure the ongoing prosperity of British businesses and families. The Prime Minister must clarify whether she has read the reports, or if David Davis is mistaken.”

These must be the most secret reports ever, when in fact they should be widely disseminated. We all have a right to understand the full impact of the Government's policies on our future prosperity. Ministers should not be hiding that from us.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The crisis facing plastic recycling

There has been controversy in Swansea of late over the council's decision to no longer collect soft plastics for recycling, despite the fact that these materials are capable of being processed. This was an issue I raised at a recent council meeting.

The response I got was very comprehensive. Essentially, the market for recycled plastic has effectively collapsed following China's decision, as reported here, to ban imports of 24 categories of recyclables and solid waste by the end of the year.

Their decision to no longer import yang laji,  or “foreign garbage”, applies to plastic, textiles and mixed paper. It will result in China taking a lot less material as it replaces imported materials with recycled material collected in its own domestic market, from its growing middle-class and Western-influenced consumers.

As the article points out China is the dominant market for recycled plastic. It is likely that much of the waste that they currently import, especially the lower grade materials, will have nowhere else to go. This impact will be far-reaching. The 27 countries within the EU27 currently export 87 per cent of the recycled plastic they collect directly, or indirectly (via Hong Kong), to China.

Local councils such as mine need to find alternatives. Plastics collected for recycling, for example could go to energy recovery (incineration). As a fossil-fuel based material they tend to burn extremely well. This means that they might be used to generate electricity and improve energy self-sufficiency, recycled plastic could be used to provide chemicals to the petrochemical sector, fuels to the transport and aviation sectors, food packaging and many other applications. The one place we need to try and avoid sending them is to landfill. This sort of plastic can take between 20 and 1000 years to decompose.

As ever we need to look at the waste hierarchy, a pyramid that defines from top to bottom, the way we should treat materials after use. At the top of this pyramid is the prevention of waste in the first place, followed by minimise, reuse, recycle, energy recovery, disposal. Government needs to legislate to ban certain types of packaging so as to reduce the total amount of waste we generate.

In addition to the charge for carrier bags that has massively reduced their prevalence, deposit and return schemes for plastic bottles (and drink cans) could also incentivise behaviour. Micro-beads, widely used in cosmetics as exfoliants, are now a target as the damage they do becomes increasingly apparent and the UK Government has announced plans to ban their use in some products.

The reliance on one market to solve our waste and recycling problems has left us with a massive headache.  However it is also an opportunity to rethink how we deal with waste. to increase the proportion of recycled plastic in our own manufactured products, improve the quality of recovered materials, use recycled material in new ways and find different ways to package our goods so that we produce less waste in the first place.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Wales' growing homelessness crisis

There are some disturbing statistics regarding Wales' growing homelessness crisis on the BBC website. They tell us that there has been a 29% increase in those people presenting themselves as being threatened with homelessness. That is a significant increase in one year alone. New obligations on Council to prevent homelessness have made some difference but Councils are now finding themselves being swamped by factors outside their control:

Shelter Cymru said there had been an 8.5% drop in the use of temporary accommodation and 45% drop in the use of bed and breakfasts in the year after the new housing legislation took effect in April 2015.

"However, what we've seen since then is numbers of households in temporary accommodation creeping back up, which is a trend very much linked to the rising demand on homelessness services," a spokeswoman added.

It pointed to rising levels of poverty, a lack of affordable housing options, welfare reform, and lack of funding for essential services to prevent homelessness.

The latest Welsh Government figures show 9,210 households in 2016-17 were threatened with homelessness within 56 days - up from 7,128 the year before.

At the end of June 2017, there were 1,980 households in temporary accommodation, with 207 of those in bed and breakfasts, including 27 families with children.

And now Crisis are predicting that homelessness in Wales could rise by a third in the next year.  The extra money being put into this by the Welsh Government is welcome and could assist councils to cope with the growing pressure they are under to deal with this problem.

But the two big factors behind this growing homelessness trend will be much harder to sort out. Welfare reform is a major cause and the roll-out of universal credit will make things worse. The UK Government need to perform some drastic u-turns on the way they are implementing this benefit.

The other issue is the shortage of affordable housing. The Welsh Government are committed to 20,000 more affordable homes by 2021. The question is will that be enough and can the programme be accelerated? If not then the use of temporary accommodation will grow and that is not a good thing.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

More Brexit shambles

Just as I will always associate the word pie with apple, so Brexit has become synonymous with the word shambles, and today is no different. Today's episode in this long-running but tragic soap opera has seen the minister leading negotiations being forced into an embarrassing climbdown, while officials highlight major flaws in the UK’s withdrawal plans.

The Independent reports that Brexit Secretary David Davis performed a same-day U-turn after angering Downing Street by claiming the House of Commons may not get to approve any Brexit deal until after the country has left the EU.

At the same time and in a difficult day for Theresa May, the UK’s ex-ambassador to Brussels also suggested her approach could leave Britain “screwed” in negotiations, while HMRC could not say border systems will be ready in time for a “no deal” Brexit.

The Government's troubles were further deepened when Ex-attorney general Dominic Grieve, who is leading attempts to reshape the PM’s Brexit plans, said Britain may have to extend its EU membership beyond March 2019 to allow time for a final deal to be properly ratified by Parliament.

If it were not so serious it would be funny.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Big brother rears its head again

We should be used by now with the UK Government's disregard for privacy and individual rights when it comes to legislation on data protection. However, the latest back door infringement also has a racist tinge to it.

The Independent reports that new laws will give the Home Office the power to snoop on the personal data of millions of people for “immigration control”. They say that a little-noticed clause smuggled into data protection legislation creates an exemption to privacy rights for immigration investigations.

This has led to civil rights group Liberty to condemn the threat of “two-tier, racially discriminatory” rules. They have demanded that Parliament overturn the move:

Without a fightback, millions of migrants could have their personal information “corrected or erased” without knowing “who is processing their data, which data is being processed and why”, it warned. And the exemption is so broad that it could affect “volunteers running night shelters or food banks, or British citizens trying to access health services or education”.

Liberty suggested it had been inserted to allow the Home Office to more closely monitor EU nationals granted residency rights after Brexit.

Martha Spurrier, the group’s director, said: “Even from a Government with a track record of fostering division and sanctioning discrimination, this is a particularly brazen expression of how low they will go to bring border control into our everyday lives, no matter the cost.

“The Government can’t be allowed to sneak this nakedly racist provision onto our law books. We urge the Lords to take it out of the bill.”

And Satbir Singh, the chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said: “Why should migrants be denied the right to have their information processed lawfully, fairly and transparently? “Bank accounts can be frozen, people can be denied healthcare or a place to live based on errors that will never be corrected.”

A previous attempt to link data privacy to immigration control was defeated in the 1983 after a similar outcry, the groups pointed out.

The breadth of this provision is shocking. There are better ways of managing immigration than the sort of breach of basic rights and racial profiling involved in this measure.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Conservative MP loses the plot over Brexit and academic freedom

It was bad enough when the Leader of the House of Commons was accusing members of the media of being unpatriotic for asking tough questions on Brexit, but it seems this anti-democratic, almost authoritarian mindset is catching, That is the only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from this story in the Guardian.

They report on the outrage felt by academics, who have accused a Tory MP and government whip of “McCarthyite” behaviour, after he wrote to all universities asking them to declare what they are teaching their students about Brexit and to provide a list of teachers’ names:

Chris Heaton-Harris, Conservative MP for Daventry and a staunch Eurosceptic, wrote to vice-chancellors at the start of this month asking for the names of any professors involved in teaching European affairs “with particular reference to Brexit”. Neatly ignoring the long tradition of academic freedom that universities consider crucial to their success, his letter asks for a copy of each university’s syllabus and any online lectures on Brexit.

Prof David Green, vice-chancellor of Worcester University, felt a chill down his spine when he read the “sinister” request: “This letter just asking for information appears so innocent but is really so, so dangerous,” he says. “Here is the first step to the thought police, the political censor and newspeak, naturally justified as ‘the will of the British people’, a phrase to be found on Mr Heaton-Harris’s website.” Green will be replying to the MP but not be providing the information requested.

Prof Kevin Featherstone, head of the European Institute at the LSE, is also outraged: “The letter reflects a past of a McCarthyite nature. It smacks of asking: are you or have you ever been in favour of remain? There is clearly an implied threat that universities will somehow be challenged for their bias.”

Featherstone says LSE academics had already feared Brexit censorship after the Electoral Commission made inquiries during last year’s referendum campaign about academics’ debates and research, following a complaint by Bernard Jenkin, another Tory MP. Jenkin filed a complaint when the LSE hosted an event at which the secretary general of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development said there was “no upside for the UK in Brexit”. Jenkin, a board member of the Vote Leave campaign, also accused the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance of producing partisan research designed to convince the public to stay in the EU. The commission, whose job is to ensure fair campaigning, investigated and took no action against the university.

If this is the level of intolerance, ignorance and name-calling we can expect from properly elected MPs who are meant to uphold our democracy, liberty and freedoms, then we need a fundamental rethink. There is no place for witch hunts in our society and MPs should certainly not be looking to initiate them.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Welsh Government reasserts its nanny state approach on minimum pricing

Astonishingly, and as the BBC report, the Welsh Government is to go ahead with its plans to legislate to introduce a minimum price for alcohol in Wales.

Using a 50p-a-unit formula, it is likely that a typical can of cider would be at least £1 and a bottle of wine at least £4.69. A typical litre of vodka would have to cost more than £20.

Rather than be totally negative about this proposal, I will set out where I agree with the relevant Minister. She believes that tackling excessive drinking could save a life a week and mean 1,400 fewer hospital admissions a year.

Research has shown that while alcohol consumption levels have been falling in recent years, there are concerns amongst health officials that binge drinking is still a problem with young people, and there is also an issue with the over-50s. That research found that there were 463 alcohol-related deaths in Wales in 2015-16 and 54,000 alcohol-related hospital admissions.

I have no reason to doubt the claim that by tackling binge drinking we can save the NHS £6.5m a year by reducing the impact on hospitals while boosting the Welsh economy by £44m a year by reducing workplace absence and crime.

If we can eliminate that cost and save lives then we should do so, but only if the measures that are proposed are effective. That is where I find the Welsh Government's case wanting.

The research suggests that although high-risk drinkers make up only a quarter of people who drink alcohol, they drink 72% of all alcohol consumed and account for 65% of all spending.

However, where is the evidence that this particular cohort, who are clearly more dependent on alcohol than the average punter, will be influenced by higher prices? Where is the evidence that raising the price of alcohol in supermarkets in particular will impact on the statistics set out above?

As one recovering alcoholic told the BBC: "[hardened drinkers are] going to try to get alcohol by any means necessary and I think it will put more strain on very underprivileged people." The Welsh Retail Consortium has also expressed concern that minimum prices may hit less affluent, moderate consumers of alcohol "whilst not necessarily having the desired impact on problem drinkers".

This measure will penalise poorer people, whilst having little or no impact on the hard core drinkers who are the real problem. It is the nanny state reasserting itself in an evidence-free crackdown that will make them feel better but is unlikely to meet the objectives they have set for it.

To repeat a question I posed over two years ago now, does the use of minimum pricing also send another message: that the Welsh Government believe that drinking is only a problem when it is the poor who do it?

It is certainly the case that those with limited incomes will not be able to afford to drink as much. Those who have more money will carry on regardless, whilst people dependent on alcohol will find ways to get hold of it as they always have done.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Another reason to lift the public sector pay cap

Anybody who thinks that the effects of 2008 crash are in the past, needs to look again. Not only is the economy still struggling to get back to pre-2008 levels but some of the measures put into effect by the UK Government to control expenditure continue to hot ordinary people.

One of those measures was the public sector pay cap. This was meant to be a temporary measure but for some reason successive Chancellors of the Exchequer have not been able to bring themselves to lift it. Now, as the Guardian reports, we have a situation where public sector workers’ pay has dipped below that of their private sector counterparts.

The paper says that an analysis of hourly earnings shows that last year public sector workers were paid 0.6% less than private sector colleagues in similar jobs. By comparison, they enjoyed a premium of 3.1% compared with the private sector in 2005, rising to 5.8% in 2010.

Phillip Hammond announced a partial lifting of the 1% pay cap last month, affecting only the police and prison officers but as far as I am aware has declined to fund it. That will mean even further cuts in those services.

The Guardian add that the chancellor maintains public sector workers are still better off than their private sector colleagues because they benefit from higher employer pension contributions:

But the GMB say its analysis shows that they also pay in significantly more through employee contributions. Three in five public sector workers pay in at least 6% of earnings on average, compared with one in seven private sector workers. Research suggests that when private sector wages outstrip those in the public sector, hospital fatality rates rise and schools’ GCSE results decline.

Time for a U-turn and a decent pay rise for the public sector properly funded by central government.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The National Trust needs to grasp the nettle on hunting

I used to be a member of the National Trust but left in disgust in 1990 when its ruling council voted to effectively ignore an all-member vote to ban deer hunting on Trust land. 

As well as stately homes, the National Trust owns thousands of acres of valuable land throughout the UK, including large parts of Gower, where they act as an effective bulwark against those who might want to destroy or undermine it as Britain's first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

As a leading conservation advocate and a trustee of our natural heritage, the National Trust in my view has a duty to do more than just preserve valuable areas of beauty and historic buildings, they should also be concerned with the wildlife that lives on their land. That is why I favour them closing off their land to hunting of any sort.

Trail hunting may be an attempt to simulate an actual hunt but it can also result in the 'accidental' death of live prey. That sort of 'accident' is becoming increasingly common. There is no reason why these so called hunters cannot resort to drag hunting, which is far less likely to lead to such an outcome.

These forms of hunting may well be traditional but so, at one time was bear-baiting, dog fighting and many other sports that have been outlawed as cruel and unnecessary. If I were still a member of the National Trust I would be at the meeting in Swindon today to vote to ban trail hunting on their land. I would not though have any confidence in the ruling council to implement it.

The National Trust needs to provide leadership on these matters if it is to live up to its reputation as an important conservation body and if it is to carry on in that role into the 21st century.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Are the Tories turning impotence into an instrument of government?

Earlier this week the Official Opposition in the House of Commons won a vote to delay the rollout of Universal Credit. The reasons why they wish to postpone the implementation of a benefit change that is supported by all the major parties is academic for the purposes of this piece (though not for those affected). Needless to say, the Government has made a hash of administering the new payments and lots of people are suffering needlessly as a result.

The significance of this vote was that on a major plank of Government policy the Tory whips ordered their MPs to abstain. As a result the motion was won by 299 votes to zero. Nothing has changed as a result of this vote. It is merely advisory. But lots of MPs, including the Speaker himself, it appears, think that such an overwhelming majority should lead to a substantive Government climb-down.

The fact is that faced with five years without a majority, a billion pound arrangement with the DUP that only applies to budgets and confidence votes, and increasing unrest on their back benches, Tory Minister are ducking and diving to avoid any unnecessary vote that will prolong their agony. As such, when it comes to any confrontation in the Parliamentary lobbies that does not have substantial consequences for governance, they are ignoring it in the hope that it will go away.

It is impotence elevated to be an instrument of government. We are now being treated to the spectacle of a government running away from fights instead of taking them head-on, of shying away from their own policy agenda rather than promoting it.

In some instances this might be helpful, but on the whole it is bad for the country and bad for democracy. Effectively, Ministers are refusing to be accountable to Parliament for their actions by failing to put their policies to the vote. Nowhere does this matter more than on Brexit, a subject on which Ministers have a dismal record in submitting to effective scrutiny.

The Government had to be dragged kicking and screaming into giving MPs a vote on implementing Article 50, they are refusing to allow voters to have a final say on any deal they negotiate and it is not yet clear what role MPs will have in approving or rejecting such an agreement. And now the Leader of the House is delaying the committee stage of her very flawed Brexit Bill because she is afraid that her Tory backbenchers will eviscerate it.

If the King of farce, late Brian Rix had devised a play along these lines he would have been dismissed as a being an out-of-touch fantasist. Unfortunately, the only fantasists in this drama are the Government, who think they can carry on like this for another four and a half years.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

UK Government abandons promise to social housing tenants

We were all emotional after the terrible tragedy that killed so many people living and staying in Grenfell Tower in London. Our first thought was with the families and then we started to think how we could prevent such a terrible fire happening again.

That was when the UK Government together with the three National Governments and every local council started to identify high risk blocks of flats, carried out tests and started to plan to replace unsafe cladding and install sprinklers and other measures where appropriate.

Ministers promised every assistance to keep tenants safe. We are now learning the limits of that assistance and how in some cases the Government is making the judgement that they must continue to take risks with people's lives.

As the Independent reports, Theresa May has confirmed there will be no Government cash to fit sprinklers in tower blocks, triggering accusations she has broken a promise made after the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

She has told MPs that it is “up to the council to make decisions”, despite the multi-million pound bills that many town halls face and which they will have difficulties finding. Nottingham, Croydon and Wandsworth have all had multi-million pound requests turned, even after being advised to carry out works by their local fire brigades.

The government are in fact falling back on two classic civil servant-style responses, redefining what is essential and what work is additional, and pushing responsibility to where it legally lies, the landlord, despite saying they would assist previously.

I am aware that many Conservative politicians believe that sprinklers are a 'nice extra', however in these high rise blocks, where escape routes can be easily blocked and advice is to stay put in the event of a fire, they are essential. That view is backed up by expert opinion, so why is the UK government ignoring it and going back on previous promises?

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Will Brexit lead to troops being deployed on our borders?

The level of preparedness of the UK Government for our exit from the EU has come under severe scrutiny in recent months and has been found wanting.

In the circumstances claims by some Brexiteer Ministers that we should consider a 'No deal' scenario are laughable. We simply do not have the relevant resources in place to sustain such an arrangement.

That is why Theresa May is now in favour of a transition period. She understands that the UK Government needs the time to make the investment that will sustain our trade in the event of tariffs being imposed. Even then we are just delaying the inevitable dive off a very high cliff.

It is hardly surprising then that the Independent is now reporting that the top Home Office civil servant has said that the use of troops on Britain’s borders could be a "last resort” in the event of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal.

Philip Rutnman, the Home Office permanent secretary, told the Home Affairs Select Committee: “Our preference – strong preference – is to deal with the border and security needed at the border through border force and that is the basis in which our planning is proceeding.”

Mr Rutnman added that the Home Office is already in the process of recruiting an additional 300 border forces officers, to “ensure we can deal with the consequences of leaving the European Union with a deal or without a deal”.

So as well as bankrupting the economy and punishing the poor, Brexit is also creating a military junta.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

How 'No deal' will hit poorest families the hardest

Whilst Tory MPs continue to play their own version of Noel Edmond's game show, 'Deal or No Deal', the Guardian reveals the real consequences of Theresa May walking away from negotiations, and it will be the families on the lowest incomes who will suffer the most.

The paper says that leaving the European Union without a trade deal would likely result in a sharp increase in prices for food and other goods, costing the average UK household £260 and hitting low-income families hardest. A Resolution Foundation report, titled Switching Lanes, says there would significant price rises on a range of household goods if ministers stuck to their fallback plan of resorting to World Trade Organisation tariffs on EU goods in the event of a no-deal outcome:

Imposing tariffs on EU goods after Brexit would lead to an 8% increase in dairy products, a 6% rise in meat and a 5.5% jump in the cars of motor vehicles, the report found. It was published after farmers and the food industry dismissed as “tripe” a claim by the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, that the UK could become self-sufficient in food after Brexit.

The prime minister said on her first day in Downing Street that it was her mission to create an economy that “worked for everyone” including those who were “just about managing”. But the Resolution Foundation and Sussex University study said that hard-pressed families were most at risk from a no-deal outcome because they spend more of their budgets on food, clothing and household goods.

It found that the impact of rising prices would add 1.1% to the cost of living for the poorest 20% of households, against 0.8% for the richest 20%. Inflation is expected by the City to hit a five-year high of 3% when official figures are released on Tuesday.

Tory MPs and Tory Ministers need to understand that leaving the EU without a deal is not a victimless crime.

Monday, October 16, 2017

UKIP's badger problem

One of the more extraordinary news stories of the weekend has to be this one in the Daily Mirror in which they report on the remarkable claim by the new new UKIP leader that he could capture a badger and kill it with his bare hands.

The reference came when he was asked a question about possible initiation ceremonies for UKIP leaders. Henry Bolton told Russia Today that “the one that was probably most suitable for me was chasing a badger across Dartmoor, capturing it and then breaking its neck with one’s bare hands, which was a slightly unusual thing.”

This should serve as confirmation if it was needed, that UKIP is not planning to target the green vote or animal activists in its next election campaign. Perhaps the UK Government will consider hiring Mr. Bolton to carry out its misguided badger cull in the future. He may well prove more effective than their current method.

Still, at least we now know why Bolton left the Liberal Democrats - far too red-blooded!

Update: As a commenter reminds me Paddy Ashdown could kill a man with his bare hands. Since he stepped down as leader the party stopped eating so much red meat,

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The grim reality of a no-deal Brexit

With speculation growing that extremists in the Tory Government are actively considering leaving the EU without a deal in place, it is worth reflecting on how disastrous that will be for the UK. The Observer sets out some of the consequences.

They say that if there is no UK-EU deal before March 2019, the consequences would be huge and immediate:

The return of customs checks would mean a return to the hard border between Northern Ireland and the republic. For trade, the UK would default to WTO rules, meaning tariffs would be imposed on goods leaving the UK for the EU and on those sold into the UK market by the remaining 27 member states. The government has said it wants the continuation of “frictionless” trade with EU countries. But a WTO regime would, by contrast, mean tariffs of between 2% and 3% on many industrial goods. They would be far higher in others sectors: 10% for cars and 20% to 40% for many agricultural products. The British Chambers of Commerce and other business groups are warning that some British companies will consider moving abroad and that investment in the UK could suffer.

Hammond said last week that there was also a prospect of flights between UK and EU airports being grounded as the UK would no longer fall inside the EU’s aviation regulatory regime. The right of EU nationals to stay in the UK could also disappear, as would those of UK citizens living in EU countries.

As the paper points out the hard-Brexit supporting right wing of the Tory party was arguing only a year ago that Brexit would be relatively smooth and simple. It has proved to be anything but, and the Brexiteers are starting to look for somebody to blame.

They blame the EU and the Remainers for blocking the way to the kind of future they sold to the British people as possible and desirable before the Brexit referendum last year. But the reality is that they campaigned on lies they could not deliver and, as the paper says it is the British people who will suffer:

Tens of thousands of jobs are linked to seamless trade with the European Union. Multinational firms fly staff to Ireland, France, Germany and the low countries without interference from border control officials. Then there is the example of the crankshaft used in the BMW Mini, which crosses the Channel three times in a 2,000-mile journey before the finished car rolls off the production line. It is one of the classic trips made by hundreds of car parts that would be stopped at the border in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Northern Ireland would be one of the worst-affected regions, as food manufacturers use ingredients from south of the border and sell the final product in the republic too.

The CBI gives the example of a Northern Irish bread-maker that buys flour from Ireland, makes the product in the north, and then transports bread to Dublin. Even if the UK continues to recognise the EU HGV licence used by the Polish driver (for example) and the EU food standards that determine the bread’s shelf life, after Brexit the loaf could be inedible by the time it has reached its destination or so expensive that local bakeries quickly step in and win the day.

Nissan is among the carmakers to say that they have already started getting their parts from the UK to offset the effects of a hard Brexit that involves restrictions on immigrant labour and tight border controls. But its scenario-planning cannot cope without a deal of some sort.

Banks were among the first to plan for a hard Brexit that might deny them the “passporting” rights that allow money transfers and derivatives transactions to happen seamlessly across borders.

The last year has seen a succession of UK banks and insurers set up offshoots in what will remain of the EU, allowing them to bypass Britain if they need to. Foreign banks that have based their European HQs in London have done likewise.

This level of contingency planning means that it is most likely that British travellers will be able to withdraw funds abroad and transfer money the day after Brexit, whatever the outcome. But a last-minute decision to crash out of the EU is likely to send the pound tumbling, meaning that Brits abroad will find the ATM gives them a fraction of what they expected. And there could be extra charges to compensate for the higher administration costs faced by banks.

Other service industries are unlikely to be quite as prepared, even though they collectively account for 40% of EU trade, up from 23% in 1999. And to show its importance to UK firms, this rise of almost a quarter compares with a 6% increase in non-EU trade over the same time period.

The CBI says: “Exports of business services, such as design, advertising and architecture, together with financial services, account for over half of the UK’s overall growth in services exports.And these sectors may be particularly vulnerable to a sudden re-emergence of trade barriers with the EU.”

In addition there will be the threat to flights to and from the UK as well as an inevitable increase in the price of day to day goods and services. Those advocating a hard Brexit do not speak for us. They will plunge the UK economy into crisis. The question is, do they care?

Saturday, October 14, 2017

UK climate change plan hits the rocks

Whatever one might think about the Welsh Government's record on the environment, at least we can acknowledge that they understand the problems and that they try, even if sometimes that effort is ineffective or insufficient. The same cannot be said for the UK Government.

As the Independent reports, experts in the field believe that the Government has “blown an enormous opportunity” to transform Britain’s record on climate change. They are very critical of the UK's long-awaited green master plan:

Ministers unveiled their much-delayed clean growth strategy this week, which sets out more than 50 measures to boost energy efficiency and clean power to get the UK on track to meet key emissions targets - which it is currently set to miss by a wide margin.

The blueprint drew criticism from the Government's own independent climate advisers over its suggestion that "flexibilities" in the law could be used to meet legally binding targets on cutting greenhouse gases. The Government also faces a threat of legal action as the strategy concedes that the UK may not meet these key targets for the late 2020s and early 2030s, despite wide-ranging measures to cut emissions.

Environmental campaigners raised concern that the strategy was too timid and failed to contain the necessary measures to meet the UK's own laws on cutting carbon.

The criticism is wide-ranging and non-partisan:

Lord Deben, chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, the climate change watchdog, said the strategy would kickstart efforts to meet the UK's carbon targets but rejected its suggestion that "flexibilities" in the Climate Change Act could be used to meet targets.

Activist lawyers ClientEarth, which took the Government to court over failures on air pollution, said the firm was considering legal options as the UK set to miss its emissions reductions target for 2023 to 2027 by 116 million tonnes - equivalent to the Philippines' annual emissions.

Simon Bullock, Friends of the Earth senior climate campaigner, warned that the UK was still "stuck in a rut" over fossil fuels, transport and airport expansion.

He said: "While the plan has some huge gaps the government is rightly presenting tackling climate change as a massive opportunity for economic rebirth, and for Britain to lead the world.

“But clearly there is far more actual policy needed – the plan does not deliver on UK targets for cutting emissions, let alone the more ambitious Paris climate agreement, and some parts of government are still firmly stuck in a rut of more fossil fuels, roads and runways.”

Back to the drawing board then.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Busting the more absurd EU myths

Thankfully, tabloid newspapers have moved on from spinning untrue and absurd stories about the European Community. Instead they are promoting the even more absurd concept that we can leave the EU and emerge with our economy intact.

Nevertheless, in the interests perhaps of jolting our memory about how hysterical things could get, the Mirror has provided a useful list of some of the more bizarre claims. It highlights in particular how anti-Europeans and little-Englanders used lies and misinformation well before the EU referendum in an effort to turn the British public against the community in defiance of their own interests:

Here is their list:

1. The Queen’s corgis to be banned (2002) - Nope. This was demanded by a committee of animal protection experts that had nothing to do with the EU.

2. Standardised Christmas Trees (1992) - Bunkum. There have been no EC regulations concerning standardised Christmas Trees. Again, the claim appears to have been sparked by specifications drawn up by the “Christmas Tree Growers Association of Western Europe”, which is nothing to do with the EU or EC.

3. Bombay Mix to be renamed Mumbai Mix (2006) - As far as anyone can tell, this was made up.

4. Cod no longer to be called cod (2001) - Claims the EU planned to force retailers to replace English fish names and replace them with latin names were untrue.

5. Condom sizes to be standardised (2000) - Piffle. Again, this was a directive from a voluntary body, the European Standardisation Committee, which has nothing to do with the EU.

6. Prawn Cocktail crisps to be banned (1993) - Miraculously , they are still on sale.

7. All ‘.co.uk’ domains to be replaced by ‘.eu’ (2000) - Poppycock . There was no such suggestion.

8. EU plot to rename Trafalgar Square and Waterloo station because they upset the French (2003) - Bunkum. This was sparked by the rantings of Francis Carpenter, who was head of the European Investment Fund. There was neither a plot nor a plan to change UK place names, nor could the EU do so if it wanted to.

9. Milk jugs to be banned (2010) - Untrue. The European Commission “fully supports” the UK Food Standards Agency’s advice that “milk jugs that are clean and stored appropriately before and after filling are totally in line with EU legislation.”

10. Mushy peas to be outlawed (1995) - Not quite. It sprang out of a new directive governing artificial colourings in foodstuffs. Fresh and processed vegetables were banned from artificial colours - but following requests from member states, an exception was included for three colours in ‘processed mushy and garden peas’.

11. Barmaids to be banned from showing cleavage (2005) - Incredible. And untrue. This came out of an EU directive requiring employers to assess the risk of skin and retina damage for employees who work in the sun all day. Quite how many outdoor bars people thought there were in Britain in 2005 is anyone’s guess, but there was no proposed ban on low cut tops for barmaids or anyone else.

12. Paddling pools deeper than 12 inches need a full-time lifeguard (1993) - Again, no. The European Commission does not have the right to insist on the presence of a lifeguard for swimming pools, nor has it ever tried.

13. EU tells women to hand in worn-out sex toys (2004) - There was no demand for users of vibrators to trade in their old models before taking a new one for a spin. However, the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment directive ensures retailers offer to recycle old goods at no cost.

14. Saucy postcards to be banned (1993) - To quote Jacques Delors’ chief spokesman Bruno DeThomas: “this story is absurd and contains no truth whatsoever.”

It is little wonder that many in the electorate were ready to believe anything the Brexiteers told them when the chance came to vote to leave.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Time the Welsh Government stopped just paying lip service to the environment

One of the weaknesses of devolved government in Wales is the apparent belief amongst ministers that passing legislation is sufficient to show their commitment to a specific cause without having to follow-through by modifying their behaviour in other ways.

The Well-being of Future Generations Act is the best example of this tendency. This legislation was meant to create a framework to force public sector bodies to work in a more sustainable way. These bodies need to make sure that when making their decisions they take into account the impact they could have on people living their lives in Wales in the future.

It all sounds very nice, but it is also tremendously problematic, so much so that when it was going through the Assembly it became a legislative hot potato which many ministers would not touch with a barge pole.

The problem rests in the vagueness of the provisions in the Act, so much so that the Welsh Government that created it, appear to be able to square their commitments to the environment and future generations with a pledge to build a £1.1 billion motorway extension that will impinge on five SSSIs and generate tonnes of additional carbon-based pollution.

That decision has been criticised by the Future Generations Commissioner, a post created by the Act. She says: “Building roads is an old fashioned solution to addressing congestion and we should instead be seeking to invest in better public transport which would be a more useful solution for the 25% of Welsh families who have no access to a car whilst also supporting the obligations we have to reduce our carbon footprint” She is right.

And now we have the row over the Welsh Government's budget, which demonstrates that the environment is very much lower in their list of priorities than it should be under the terms of their own legislation.

The BBC reports that Wildlife and countryside charities have been left "bewildered and angry" by a 15% cut to environment funding by the Welsh Government. To be fair a lot of this funding is a technical transfer, the subsuming of a earmarked grant into general funds.

It means that councils no longer have to spend the money in a particular way, but they still have to meet the waste targets that the cash funded or be subject to fines. In that respect the transfer should not have too adverse an effect. Outcomes are what matters when protecting the environment, not inputs. However, even discounting this transfer there is still a 1.5% cut in funding for the environment.

The Welsh Government may have had a real terms cut in its funding and seek to use that as an excuse, but they were the ones who built a framework that made the environment a major priority. Should their budget decisions not reflect that? Or perhaps they should confess that it has been all about the rhetoric from the start.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

How Brexit will take the Home Office to breaking point

The state of unpreparedness of the UK Government for Brexit has once more been graphically underlined, this time with an article in the Independent in which the former head of immigration enforcement argues that the Home Office will struggle to cope with the challenge without more resources.

David Wood, who was director general of immigration enforcement at the Home Office until 2015, has raised concerns with MPs about the scale of the task facing immigration officials after Britain leaves the EU. He told the Home Affairs Select Committee that extra border checks on EU citizens after Brexit will heap “considerable pressure” on stretched staff:

MPs also heard that more than a million illegal immigrants are unlikely to ever be removed from Britain, as Mr Wood admitted there are "enormous difficulties" in removing overseas nationals who are in the country unlawfully.

Mr Wood echoed politicians' concerns over the Home Office’s ability to deliver on Theresa May's Brexit plan to register the estimated three million EU nationals living in the UK, saying it would result in backlogs or a need to bring in staff from other departments.

Asked about the capacity to deal with immigration changes, Mr Wood said: “I don’t think they can cope with it.

“Right across the immigration system - I don’t think it’s ever been greatly well resourced - it’s becoming tighter and tighter and budgets are getting reduced and reduced.

“So I don’t think under current resources that that challenge of Brexit can be met and certainly not met smoothly.

“There’s no doubt in my mind of that.”

He conceded that rising pressures on staff could increase the chance of errors, after high-profile mistakes by the Home Office where more than 100 people were mistakenly told they would be deported.

Yet another mess of undeliverable promises, scaremongering and lies that the Brexiteers have got us into. They made the referendum about immigration without apparently once considering how they could deliver on their rhetoric. I doubt if, in the majority of cases, if they even cared.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Censorship that undermines free speech and academic standards

In my day university students attended college to learn in an atmosphere of vigorous debate and challenge. There were some who sought to close down discussions by labelling certain views as offensive or politically incorrect, but by-and-large they were ignored so that we could have a proper debate on the issues.

If you cannot have that sort of freedom in an academic institution then where can you? It is no coincidence that totalitarian regimes suppress certain art forms, burn 'seditious' books and seek to restrict religious worship. They feel the need to control people and their views for their own security and longevity.

So, what is the excuse given by various student unions and student leaders, who have uninvited speakers and censored views they consider to be 'unsafe' or offensive? How can they justify living in a free, democratic country, studying in an academic institution and yet seek to close down discussions, debate and alternative views?

Many, as in this case at Oxford's Balliol College, claim that they are protecting other vulnerable students, ignoring the fact that those students have come to college to learn and be challenged as well. If you can't deal with a few allegedly bigoted people at university, then how are you going to manage in the real world? We enter education to prepare us for a life after it, not to be cossetted.

Frankly, the organiser of Balliol's Freshers' Fair argument that Christianity’s historic use as “an excuse for homophobia and certain forms of neo-colonialism” means that students might feel “unwelcome” in their new college justifies denying the Christian Union a stall, is nonsense.

As Dr Joanna Williams, a university lecturer and author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity, says: “It is intolerance being exercised in the name of inclusion.” The Spanish Inquisition would have rewarded such an approach.

The fact that the situation has now been resolved in favour of the CU is encouraging but the attitude and beliefs that led to the ban in the first place remains prevalent in many institutions. That approach is a threat to our democratic rights and should be resisted.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Rethink needed on universal credit

It is not often I agree with John Major, but on universal credit he is bang on the money. He has described the Tories' flagship welfare reform as “operationally messy, socially unfair and unforgiving”. Universal Credit combines six working age benefits into a single payment, it is one of those Government schemes that seemed like a good idea at the time but which has proved immensely difficult to implement and full of unintended consequences.

It is little wonder that more than a dozen Tory MPs have urged ministers to pause the roll-out of the policy amid concerns that claimants could face delays in receiving money, whilst Dame Louise Casey, the ex-head of the government's troubled families team, has warned the benefit is like "jumping over a cliff" for people with no spare money.

As the Daily Mirror says, Government figures show 23% of new claimants do not receive their first full payment within six weeks. As a result many claimants will go into rent arrears and build up other debts.

A study, carried out for the Department for Work and Pensions reveals that among Universal Credit claimants who pay rent, 41% are in arrears, with 82% saying it is for the first time. It also reveals that large numbers are forced to borrow, with 7% turning to doorstep lenders and 5% taking payday loans, almost 30% rely on a loan from family and friends.

And here I am agreeing with John Major again. He says: "We must persuade the Treasury that - while the cost of long-term borrowing is low - there is an opportunity to vastly accelerate public development of infrastructure and, in particular, housing.

"Useful initiatives have been announced but we need to go further. if this increases public debt we should - and could - accept that (as I believe the markets will) provided annual revenue expenditure is kept under control."

It is time for a change of direction, but why is a former Tory Prime Minister leading the charge rather than the opposition Labour Party?

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Government under pressure to publish legal advice that could stop Brexit

The Guardian reports that Theresa May is under pressure to publish secret legal advice that is believed to state that parliament could still stop Brexit before the end of March 2019 if MPs judge that a change of mind is in the national interest. They say that attention has turned to whether the process can be stopped because of concern that exit talks with Brussels are heading for disaster.

They add that disquiet has been growing among pro-remain MPs, and within the legal profession and business community, about what is becoming known as the government’s “kamikaze” approach.

Ministers insist that stopping Brexit is not an option, as the British people made their decision in last year’s referendum, and the article 50 process is now underway, however damaging the consequences might turn out to be when negotiations are concluded. And European leaders have started to doubt whether Theresa May has the political authority to move negotiations forward towards a satisfactory deal:

Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister, who publishes a book this week on how to stop Brexit, told the Observer: “The claim that article 50 is irreversible was always a myth put about by Brexiters who want to stop the British people from changing their minds. Theresa May’s threat that MPs will have to vote for whatever deal she presents to them next autumn, otherwise the UK will crash out of the EU without a deal, is also patent nonsense. Article 50 was never the one-way conveyor belt to Brexit as claimed by the government. It can be stopped at any point.”

He said that MPs should ask themselves one question when they come to vote in a year’s time: “Does the deal measure up to the promises made by Brexiters to their constituents before the referendum? If not, MPs should reject the deal, urge the government and the EU to stop the clock, and give the country the opportunity to think again.”

Clegg added: “As countless EU leaders have said in private and in public – most recently [French] President Macron – there remains a route back for the UK into a reformed EU. This does not mean simply turning the clock back to the day before the referendum, but forging a new status for the UK in an outer circle of EU membership as the core countries proceed with deeper integration.”

Clegg suggests that former prime minister John Major and current Netherlands prime minister Mark Rutte should co-chair a special UK-EU convention that would have the task of “repositioning Britain in one of the outer rings of the EU’s orbit”.

This is sensible advice from Clegg and should be listened to carefully by Ministers before they drive us over the cliff into disaster.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

More evidence that Trump's US is no friend of Brexit

He may have courted Nigel Farage during his election campaign and even tolerated him in the White House, he may even have urged the UK to vote to leave the EU and promised that once we have done so then there will be a quick trade deal between our two countries, but Donald Trump and his country are no friend of Brexit when it comes to protecting their own interests.

Further evidence of that is to be found in today's Independent, where it is reported that the US has objected to a deal between the UK and EU to divide agricultural import quotas, one of Theresa May’s key plans for a smooth Brexit.

The paper says that British and European negotiators had been working on an agreement to split tariff rate quotas, which would allow some agricultural produce to enter the EU from countries outside of the union.

They add that a preliminary deal was drawn up between London and Brussels over how to split the EU’s existing tariff rate quotas (TRQs) - agreed under the World Trade Organisation - but it was rejected by the US, Canada, New Zealand, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Thailand in a co-signed letter.

Not only is a deal proving far more elusive than the Brexiteers led us to believe, but all of their fall-back positions of other countries lining up to facilitate UK interests are proving as elusory and as mythical as the infamous £350m a week extra for the NHS.

Surely it is time to vote again on Brexit, this time based on the reality, not the lies perpetrated by the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.

Friday, October 06, 2017

UKIP loses its principal funding

The Financial Times reports that the UK Independence party and its anti-EU allies in Brussels have lost access to their biggest source of European campaign funding following a series of scandals over alleged misuse and misappropriation of funds.

They say that after becoming insolvent in April, the Ukip-dominated pan-European Alliance for Direct Democracy in Europe has now missed a deadline to register for EU funding, losing access to as much as €1.5m in 2018 alone, say officials involved in the process.

Ukip is wrestling with a weaker financial position at home and demands from Brussels for the alliance to repay €172,655 allegedly misspent on national electioneering. Ukip and its allies deny any wrongdoing:

European political parties, made up of coalitions of national parties and parliamentarians, have since 2004 been able to draw on an annual €30m pot of EU grants that can cover up to 85 per cent of party expenditure, including campaign costs for European elections.

This helped bankroll Ukip electioneering, and in past years the alliance has used this route to receive more than €1m annually. Roger Helmer, a former Ukip MEP, described drawing on the fund as “liberating” money from the EU.

But since November, the alliance has been embroiled in probes over how its EU support was used. A European Parliament-appointed auditor found that almost €500,000 was spent inappropriately on national opinion polling and election campaigns in the UK and Belgium.

The auditor also found that almost €34,000 of funding had been claimed wrongly by the Initiative for Direct Democracy in Europe, the alliance’s political foundation. The alliance denies any wrongdoing. The initiative no longer has an obvious online presence and could not be reached for comment.

Thia decision is not before time. For too long UKIP has used European money to its maximum to promote its agenda of leaving the EU. This is pure hypocrisy in my view.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Tory pledge on new council housing is not good enough

It was hardly the housing revolution that we had been led to expect. Theresa May's pledge to put another £2 billion into affordable housing over the next four and a half years will produce just 25,000 more homes, or just over 5,000 a year.

Furthermore there is no intention to relax borrowing controls so councils will not be able to use the money to seed-corn bigger developments. Compared to the demand and the growing crisis facing parts of England and Wales, the promise is wholly inadequate.

As the Daily Mirror points out the extra £2 billion is just one fifth of the £10 billion in loan guarantees being offered to the poorly designed English Help to Buy: Equity Loan scheme for 135,000 people.

And as if to add to the disaster that is Tory housing policy, it transpires that some of the new homes will not be affordable, but will be available at intermediate rents, normally 80% of market rent. So it will not even be properly targeted at those most in need.

Once more we are being offered a sticking plaster when major surgery is required.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Why the Welsh Government cannot dodge the bullet on council cuts

It has started. I listened to a representative of the Welsh Local Government Association on Radio Wales this morning explaining how the latest Welsh Government budget will devastate services around Wales, but placing the blame squarely on UK ministers for their austerity agenda.

She was right of course. Cuts to Welsh budgets have led to painful cuts in services in Local Government and elsewhere. But the way that the money is allocated has nothing to do with the Secretary of State for Wales as she implied. It is a matter for the Welsh Government, and this year Ministers in the Assembly appear to have dropped the ball in a quite spectacular fashion.

As the BBC report, £450m of extra funding has been earmarked for the Welsh health service over the next two years. But at the same time, local councils will see a cut of between 1.5% and 2% in their funding. That is slightly worse than the settlement last year.

That means that in terms of health and social care, the Welsh Government will be giving with one hand and taking with the other. Social Services are already under pressure as health boards reprioritise their expenditure to treat fewer people in hospitals and for shorter time periods.

Further cuts in adult social services will see that pressure rebound onto hospitals with a growth in bed blocking and less support available to our growing elderly population in their own homes.

This particular balancing act has ended up lopsided, and it is Welsh Government decisions that have led to that outcome. With no council elections due until 2022, expect 5% council tax increases all round and deep cuts to many frontline services.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Why the Home Secretary's self-confessed ignorance is more dangerous than she understands

It is possible that my expectations of government ministers are too high. I have always inhabited a world where policy should be based on some evidence, some understanding of the facts, even if in the end one defies commonsense and shoots off onto an incomprehensible tangent.

The admission from the Home Secretary that she doesn't understand the technology powering WhatsApp but that she wants to change it anyway, is especially disturbing given the consequences for the privacy and security of our information, the protection of trade and even the administration of law and order.

The Independent reports that Amber Rudd has repeatedly suggested that she could ban or significantly alter the way that apps like WhatsApp and iMessage use encryption, a key technology that keeps messages secure.

Experts say that the government doesn't fully understand the effects of those proposals, and that they could have far more disastrous effects than anticipated. The response of the Home Secretary is that she doesn't "need" to understand encryption "to understand how it's helping [...] criminals", and that she would work with the security services to "combat" the use of the technology. It is when Ministers resort to rhetoric like this in defence of their proposed legislation that we realise how much trouble the country is in.

The consequences of Amber Rudd's approach are illustrated by this blog. In it Bruce Schneier explains that Encryption keeps us safe. It protects our financial details and passwords when we bank online. It protects our mobile phone conversations from eavesdroppers. It protects our data, our money and our privacy:

Encryption protects the identity of dissidents all over the world. It's a vital tool to allow journalists to communicate securely with their sources, NGOs to protect their work in repressive countries, and lawyers to communicate privately with their clients. It protects our vital infrastructure: our communications network, the power grid and everything else. And as we move to the Internet of Things with its cars and thermostats and medical devices, all of which can destroy life and property if hacked and misused, encryption will become even more critical to our security.

Security is more than encryption, of course. But encryption is a critical component of security. You use strong encryption every day, and our Internet-laced world would be a far riskier place if you didn't.

Strong encryption means unbreakable encryption. Any weakness in encryption will be exploited -- by hackers, by criminals and by foreign governments. Many of the hacks that make the news can be attributed to weak or -- even worse -- non-existent encryption.

Mr. Schneier goes on to explain (and this is particularly important for Amber Rudd to understand) that that there is no way to give security forces a backdoor that enables them to access encrypted information without weakening the encryption against all adversaries. He says it is not possible to build an access technology that only works with proper legal authorisation, or only for people with a particular citizenship or the proper morality. The technology just doesn't work that way:

If a backdoor exists, then anyone can exploit it. All it takes is knowledge of the backdoor and the capability to exploit it. And while it might temporarily be a secret, it's a fragile secret. Backdoors are how everyone attacks computer systems.

This means that if the FBI can eavesdrop on your conversations or get into your computers without your consent, so can cybercriminals. So can the Chinese. So can terrorists. You might not care if the Chinese government is inside your computer, but lots of dissidents do. As do the many Americans who use computers to administer our critical infrastructure. Backdoors weaken us against all sorts of threats.

Either we build encryption systems to keep everyone secure, or we build them to leave everybody vulnerable.

If Amber Rudd does not understand that in trying to enhance our security by removing or undermining encryption she is also undermining national security and the whole basis of our internet-focussed economy, then she needs to stand down and let somebody else have her job who knows what they are doing.

Monday, October 02, 2017

How not to defeat an independence movement

If we thought that the 'No' campaign during the Scottish referendum campaign was clunky, ham-fisted and counter-productive, then compared to the response of the Spanish authorities to the Catalan plebiscite it was a masterclass in how to deal with an independence movement.

The reaction of the central authorities to the Catalan vote on secession was not just disgraceful, it was an outrageous negation of democratic principles. The violence perpetrated by federal police on ordinary citizens who were just trying to cast their vote was more reminiscent of the Franco regime than a democratically elected government sitting within the European Union.

If there was not a majority for independence in Catalan before, there certainly is now. And frankly the Spanish authorities deserve all the problems their disproportionate and unacceptable actions will cause them.

They have succeeded in boosting the secessionist movement in Catalan. They may find it very difficult to put that genie back in the bottle.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Is it time for Boris to be sacked?

Boris Johnson has decided that it is time to make his move. He believes that Theresa May is too weak to sack him and too vulnerable to resist his attempted coup.

As the Conservative Conference starts in Manchester today, he has already rocked the boat a number of times, effectively set out his leadership manifesto and contradicted the official cabinet line on Brexit. He is acting as if collective responsibility does not apply to him and he is getting away with it.

It is little wonder that senior conservatives such as the Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, Nicky Morgan are calling on him to be sacked. She, at least is clear that Boris has “no place in a responsible government”.

And that is the real problem facing the Conservative Party. Boris Johnson has been a disaster as Foreign Secretary, an embarrassment to the country. Is he, has he ever been, a credible alternative Prime Minister when he can barely fulfil other Ministerial roles adequately?

The latest example is highlighted in yesterday's Guardian. They report that Boris has been accused of “incredible insensitivity” after it emerged he recited part of a colonial-era Rudyard Kipling poem in front of local dignitaries while on an official visit to Myanmar in January. This episode led to a fairly succinct summing up of the position by former Tony Blair aide, Alastair Campbell:

Theresa May faces a dilemma, does she sack Boris and have him undermine her from the backbenches or should she continue to allow him to undermine her from within the cabinet. Her weakness as Prime Minister is at the heart of this whole dilemma and the possibility of her being replaced by Boris is possibly one reason why her party allows her to continue in this position.

This is of course a major embarrassment for the Tory Party and the Government, who are at heart dysfunctional and don't have a clue how they are going to deliver on the impossible promises they have made around Brexit.

Our problem, as identified by Alastair Campbell, is that it is the UK which is going to suffer the most from this shambles.

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