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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Who do you think you are kidding Prime Minister?

Faced with the impossible task of how to patrol Britain's borders once we leave the European Union, the UK Government has apparently hit on a wizard wheeze.

As the Observer reports, the Home Office is considering proposals for a “border force of special volunteers” at small air and sea ports. The paper says that this modern day Dad's Army would be used to bolster border force staffing levels, in a similar vein to police community support officers.

The main problem with this proposal is the sheer complexity of the work, involving years of training for those doing it. The border force carries out immigration and customs controls for people and goods entering the UK. Already there are complaints about “poor” coverage of dozens of minor harbours and landing places. Post Brexit that could get much worse.

The Government cannot provide secure borders for us on the cheap. There needs to be a real investment in this work if we are to combat drugs, smuggling and terrorism. If we are struggling now, then how bad will it get after Brexit, when we will also have to manage trade from the continent?

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Fence-sitting Labour under pressure over Brexit

Asking a Labour spokesperson for their party's official line on Brexit is a frustrating experience. Not only should one not expect clarity but consistency is in short supply as well.

From what I can gather the Labour Party's position boils down to respecting the will of the people, leaving the EU whilst retaining access to the single market and wanting the best deal for the UK. Essentially, their position is identical to that of the Tories.

There are alternatives, including the Liberal Democrats, who are the only UK-wide Party to oppose leaving the EU and who want to see the public given the chance to cast their verdict on any deal that is reached, with the alternative of exiting Brexit if they are not satisfied.

That is different to a second referendum. It is the only democratic way out of the mess that Theresa May has got us into with the tacit support of Corbyn's Labour. It is also a logical way of resolving the conundrum that the British people voted to leave, without any detail in front of them as to what that meant.

Far from giving us more money for the NHS, Brexit is now costing us £350m a week. Instead of giving us back control it is putting our laws in the hands of a few ministers and civil servants through the exercise of Henry VIII powers.

And rather than enhancing our place in the world, it is putting us at the mercy of people like Donald Trump, who, sure as night follows day, will extract his pound of flesh for any trade deal. We will also end up having to implement European regulations so as to continue trading with the EU, without any say in their content.

It is little wonder that some Labour MPs believe enough is enough, and that free-thinkers like Newport's Paul Flynn are now calling for another referendum as well. As the Western Mail reports, he thinks that public opinion is moving in the right direction to justify a second plebiscite.

Paul Flynn refers to polls that show that the majority want another referendum and to his credit was one of 3 Welsh Labour MPs who supported the Liberal Democrat amendment to the Brexit Bill to make this happen.

Of course this should not be a matter of following public opinion. A referendum on the final deal should be about giving any deal legitimacy (or not). Polls can change with the wind. The consequences of us leaving the EU will be felt for decades to come, and they will not be good.

In the circumstances it is astonished that Jeremy Corbyn remains unmoved and that he and his party continue to give succour to the Tory line on Brexit.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Another Trump faux pas

The US President's latest tweet suggests that he is trying to reach new depths of absurdity before the year is out. The Guardian reports, that as severe cold and record amounts of snow swept across the US east coast, Trump wrote on Twitter that the country “could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against”.

As the paper points out, Trump's tweet reflects two of his favourite tropes: the conflation of weather with climate to pour scepticism on global warming, and the supposed cost to the US taxpayer of the Paris climate accord from which he confirmed the US would withdraw in June this year:

Both are well-worn themes of the president’s online repertoire. As far back as 2012 he tweeted: “It’s freezing and snowing in New York – we need global warming.”

But climate scientists have long warned against using individual weather events to ponder the existence or otherwise of global warming because weather refers to the atmospheric conditions during a short period while climate relates to longer term weather patterns.

Matthew England, a climate scientist from the University of New South Wales, labelled Trump’s comment “an ignorant misconception of the way the Earth’s climate works”.

“Nobody ever said winter would go away under global warming, but winter has become much milder and the record cold days are being far outnumbered by record warm days and heat extremes,” he said. “Climate change is not overturned by a few unusually cold days in the US.”

Or, as David Karoly, a climate scientist from the University of Melbourne said: “It’s winter in the US. Cold temperatures are common in winter”.

However, Karoly said climate modelling showed cold snaps like the one being felt on the east coast of the US were actually becoming less common as a result of global warming.

This sort of confusion was common amongst some politicians ten or eleven years ago, but there is less excuse for it nowadays with climate change threatening environmental, economic, ecological and human disaster. The so-called leader of the free world should be leading efforts to tackle it, not retreating into his over-sensitive shell.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Carelessness or conspiracy

I am intrigued by this article in yesterday's Guardian which records that about 1,000 files have gone missing from the National Archives after being removed by civil servants. Officially, the archives describe them as “misplaced while on loan to a government department”.

The paper says that the files, each containing dozens of pages, cover subjects such as the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the British colonial administration in Palestine, tests on polio vaccines and territorial disputes between the UK and Argentina. They add that it is unclear whether duplicates exist:

The loss of so many documents of such significance has understandably caused concern among historians, politicians and human rights groups. Amnesty International has called on Theresa May to order an urgent government-wide search for the documents, while Labour MP Jon Trickett has warned that the loss “will only fuel accusations of a cover-up”.

Such suggestions may seem far-fetched, but recent history has given many people reason to be suspicious. Documents in the National Archives have previously been key in revealing human rights abuses by the British state.

In 2014, for instance, investigators from the Irish broadcaster RTÉ uncovered a 1977 letter from the then home secretary, Merlyn Rees, to the prime minister of the day, James Callaghan, in which Rees claimed that ministers had given permission for torture to be used in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. The information had reportedly been withheld from the European court of human rights.

Also in 2014, the government was accused of a cover-up after it said it could not release information about the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” programme because the files had suffered “water damage”.

In 2013, meanwhile, the Guardian revealed that more than 1m documents that should have been declassified were instead being unlawfully kept at a high-security compound in Buckinghamshire. Their existence only came to light when a group of elderly Kenyans took the government to the high court, claiming they had been tortured during the 1950s Mau Mau rebellion. The Foreign Office was forced to admit it had withheld thousands of colonial-era papers.

Whether these documents have been just misplaced or there really is a conspiracy to cover-up embarrassing facts, there needs to be a thorough search to locate them and make them available publicly. Surely we have had enough of the British Government hiding behind arcane rules and regulations to avoid the truth getting out.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Prices to rise after Brexit

The British Retail Consortium has warned that consumers face rising prices after Brexit unless Britain can replicate trade deals negotiated by the EU with dozens of other countries. The Guardian says that the BRC’s chief executive, Helen Dickinson, has predicted the cost of everyday products from food to clothing will go up if the UK loses the preferential arrangements it enjoys as a member of the EU:

Currently, she said, Britain benefits from zero or low tariffs on various imports from trade deals struck by the EU with 73 third-party countries.

As it stands, those arrangements will come to an end the moment Britain leaves the EU.

“On 29 March 2019 we fall out of all of those agreements. On that minute after we leave, those arrangements cease to apply to the UK.

“So what is important between now and 2019 is that the UK gets on with the job in hand in terms of focusing on at least replicating existing arrangements just to get us back to where we are at the moment.

“We are talking here about everyday products that people buy week in, week out. Fish from Norway, wine from South Africa, clothes from Turkey – each of those have lower tariff rates on them than would exist if we didn’t have those deals in place.”

The BRC said the tariff on clothing from Turkey, a major supplier to the UK, could rise from zero to 12%, and duties on fish from Iceland could go from 3.4% to 11%.

All of this of course was predicted before the referendum, nor is it easily rectified. Trade deals such as those envisaged by the BRC take time to negotiate. The chances of having any in place by the time we leave the EU are remote. The cost of living is set to rise exponentially.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Government struggles for consistency on freedoms

Jo Johnson's new measures to stop no-platforming in English Universities certainly hits all the right notes when it comes to protecting basic democratic freedoms. The so-called concept of a 'safe space' is just another name for the suppression of views and ideas that make some people uncomfortable or which the censor disagrees with.

Student unions and campaigners have banned or attempted to ban, a number of high-profile people from speaking at universities because of their controversial opinions. One of these was feminist writer Germaine Greer who was nearly prevented from giving a lecture after Rachael Melhuish, the women’s officer at Cardiff University, called for her to be no-platformed for what she believed to be transphobic views. Greer eventually spoke under tight security.

Johnson says: “Universities should be places that open minds not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged. In universities in America and worryingly in the UK, we have seen examples of groups seeking to stifle those who do not agree with them.

“We must not allow this to happen. Young people should have the resilience and confidence to challenge controversial opinions and take part in open, frank and rigorous discussions. That is why the new regulator, the Office for Students, will go even further to ensure that universities promote freedom of speech within the law.”

Freedom of speech includes tolerating views that may offend. The minister is right to say that the test of whether somebody can express their views on a campus should be defined by the law, not by another person's opinion of the speaker's views. Surely this is something that should be adopted for Welsh Universities as well, with similar sanctions.

And yet, whilst one minister promotes a sensible liberal agenda, another pilots a policy which could well remove democratic rights. As the Guardian reports, trials to make people show identification before they can vote could unfairly affect older people who are less likely to possess photo ID or have access to other documents.

Pilots at this May's local elections in England will see voters in Woking, Gosport, Bromley, Watford and Slough being asked to produce identification. In some areas people will be asked for photo ID such as a passport or driving licence, in others, they will just have to show the polling card sent out to people’s homes.

The paper says that an analysis of the test areas has shown that at least 10,000 people aged 65 or over, and possibly many more, in the five towns are unlikely to have approved photo ID.

This is because older people are less likely to have a passport or driving licence. Data from the 2011 census shows that while 83% of adults overall have a passport, this falls to 70% of the over-65s and 46% for those aged 85 and over.

For driving licences, the National Travel Survey shows that while 73% of those aged 17-plus hold one, this falls to 62% for those 70 or older, and to 50% for women of this age group.

These trials are a solution looking for a problem, with the real worry that they could be the start of the sort of voter-suppression tactics often seen in the USA. There is no evidence of voter fraud on any scale in the UK that would justify these measures.

For a government that is championing basic freedoms on university campuses this is a serious misstep.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Merry Christmas Everybody

UK Ministers go to war with their own government

I am not used to irony on Christmas Eve so this year has been a treat with yesterday's Observer reporting that two senior Cabinet Ministers have attacked their own government for following clearly laid down tax rules in sending demands for money to key Brexit donors.

They say that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have reportedly expressed concerns after prominent leave campaigners who donated large sums to the Brexit campaigns during the 2016 referendum recently received tax demands from HMRC:

The demands from HMRC hinge on inheritance tax rules that require tax to be paid upfront on large gifts. Party political donations, as well as donations to charities, are usually exempt, but HMRC has said that does not apply to individuals who donated to the referendum campaign.

HMRC dismissed the suggestion that the tax demands were evidence of bias, saying it applied the law equally across all donors. Others derided the complaints as pleas for “bungs” for wealthy donors.

Those reported by the Telegraph to have received payment demands in the last fortnight include the banker and former Conservative party co-chair Peter Cruddas, worth a reported £750m, who gave £900,000 to Vote Leave.

The former Ukip donor Arron Banks, who donated £8.1m to his Leave.EU campaign group, told the Telegraph the £2m bill he had received in the past month was the “revenge of the establishment”.

Another who has received a payment demand is Robert Edmiston, a millionaire motor trader worth a reported £440m, who donated £850,000 to Vote Leave and £150,000 to the Grassroots Out campaign through his company IM Group. Lord Edmiston told the Times he had been sent a bill from HMRC for £200,000.

It is understood one remain campaign donor has also received a similar substantial tax bill.

It is up to the individuals concerned to fight their own corner with the HMRC. They are more than capable. Surely it is highly inappropriate for ministers to be implying that their own government is embroiled in some sort of establishment conspiracy to do down those who might seek to challenge it.

The next thing we know they will be standing in Parliament Square with placards calling for the overthrow of our democratic system.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

As 2017 draws to a close, where next for the Welsh Liberal Democrats?

It is Christmas Eve and thoughts are turning to turkey and present opening. The Norad tracker has already kicked in and at the time of writing Santa has delivered 150 million presents and politicians everywhere are starting to relax.

This is my reflection on the last couple of years for the Welsh Liberal Democrats and where we go next. It has not been a good period for us but I am hopeful that 2018 will see things pick up. The article was first written for and published by Liberator magazine last month:

For all intents and purposes, the Welsh Liberal Democrats are facing an existential crisis. For the first time since the Liberal Party was formed in the nineteenth century, we no longer have an MP representing a Welsh constituency. Our once small but successful Welsh Assembly group has been reduced to a rump of one and our councillor base is smaller than it has been for some time.

The reality facing party officials is far removed from the heights we achieved in the previous decade. In the 2005 General Election, we secured 18.4% of the vote and four MPs. Two years later we were on the verge of entering the Welsh Government for the second time, but in this instance as part of a rainbow coalition that would have excluded Labour, the dominant party in Wales for over a century. Whilst in local government during the period 2004-2012 we helped to run councils as diverse as Cardiff, Swansea, Newport, Bridgend, Monmouthshire, Ceredigion, Conwy and Wrexham.

It is not the case that the party squandered these chances. The reluctance of several key individuals in the Welsh Party to get into bed with the Tories led to the rainbow coalition being rejected and replaced instead by a Labour-Plaid Cymru Government. Whilst in terms of local government, we achieved a great deal in running things only to see the national tide turn against us. Those councillors who had won their seats on an anti-Labour swing failed to consolidate their gains properly and were swept away once the Liberal Democrats themselves became unpopular.

The fact is it is not easy being a Welsh Liberal Democrat. That is best illustrated by the 2005 General Election result. Across the UK, the Lib Dems secured 22.1% of the vote, nearly four percent more than in Wales. That is a disparity that has been in-built for us as a party for a long time because what was then the third-party vote has always been split between us and Plaid Cymru.

We have few heartlands, mostly concentrated in rural mid-Wales where sheep outnumber people and community politics consists of candidates being seen at as many local funerals and church services that they can get to. Even there the traditional Liberal Democrat radical base has been eroded by incomers from outside Wales.

We have survived by ruthlessly squeezing Labour and Plaid Cymru votes to stop the Tories. In Ceredigion, we squeezed the unionist vote to stop Plaid Cymru. In both cases that squeeze unravelled disastrously earlier this year as two-party politics reasserted itself.

Where we have built up an urban base through community politics-style campaigning we have relied too much on one or two individuals to do the work, we have failed to consolidate properly, resorted to tactical voting arguments instead of substantive and relevant policy positions and seen our advances lost through political misfortune outside our control.

Our other problem is one of identity. Unlike Scotland, Wales does not have a national media to speak of. The Western Mail, the so-called national newspaper of Wales is outsold by its more regional sister papers, the South Wales Evening Post and the South Wales Echo. There is no one Welsh newspaper that can be bought anywhere in Wales, whilst much of rural Wales relies on weeklies for their news and gossip. One of the biggest selling papers in Montgomeryshire is the Shropshire Star.

Most people rely on UK newspapers and UK TV and radio channels for their news. As with the rest of the world, these traditional news outlets are declining in favour of internet-based media. That is an area which the Federal Party is still playing catch-up on, the Welsh Party are decades behind them.

The upshot of this dearth of Welsh media is that it is harder for political parties to convey a distinctively Welsh message. Plaid Cymru, of course, is the exception to this. Their name translates as the Party of Wales. At Welsh Assembly elections they have a clear identity that is associated with Welsh governance. When they do well, the Welsh Liberal Democrats do less well.

In 2011, we only survived the anti-Clegg holocaust because the Plaid Cymru vote fell back. In 2016, Plaid advanced and UKIP arrived to sweep up what was left of the ‘third party protest vote’. Our representation in the Welsh Assembly was decimated.

It is fair to say that because of the circumstances outlined above, all the remaining political parties in Wales rely on their UK showings for their electoral success here. Labour, the Tories, the Liberal Democrats, Greens, even UKIP, have tried to rebrand themselves as Welsh parties, embracing the Welsh language, distinctive Welsh policies, and Federalist structures, but when it comes to voting in Assembly and local council elections, people have still largely relied on their instincts as to how we are doing across the UK.

That is not to say the UK parties do not operate this side of Offa’s Dyke as distinctively Welsh Parties with Welsh interests at heart, we do. But perception is important, and when we throw into the mix Wales’ non-conformist, radical political tendencies, it was inevitable that the Welsh Liberal Democrats association with a UK Tory-Lib Dem government would be disastrous for us, no matter how much we protested about some of the policies being implemented by them.

If all of this sounds like an excuse, then it isn’t. For all their weaknesses the Welsh Liberal Democrats have made a substantial contribution to Wales. We were, of course, the original party of devolution, advocating a devolved Welsh administration nearly a hundred years ago. We had Federal structures and a distinct Welsh organisation and policy-making process in place well before devolution and when the Welsh Assembly was established we were ready to contribute to it.

When devolution tottered on the brink in 1999-2000 under Blairite control-freakery and Labour impotence, it was the Welsh Liberal Democrats who entered a coalition with Rhodri Morgan’s nascent ministry, bringing with us over a hundred Welsh policies, most of which were implemented. We helped to cut class sizes, established the first all-Wales homeless strategy and set up a distinctive Welsh arts policy to name just a few of the successes of that first coalition.

And when in 2011, Labour again found themselves without an overall majority we negotiated budgets with them that set up a Welsh pupil premium and secured hundreds of millions of pounds for important projects. And again, in 2016 with Labour short of the 50% of seats needed to govern, Kirsty Williams, our sole AM, joined the government as a Welsh Liberal Democrats Education Secretary.

Under Kirsty, our pupil premium has continued to be made available to schools, a new curriculum is being introduced, higher and further education is being reformed and student finance is to be transformed with means-tested grants equivalent to the minimum wage being made available to Welsh students from 2018, whilst at the same time additional resources have been found for the HE sector. She is also investing in more support for teachers so they have more time dealing with pupils and less with administration, and putting in place a distinctive policy to protect rural schools.

Kirsty has not just concentrated on education though. The agreement she struck with Labour will see a Welsh rent to own scheme introduced next year to help those who can afford a mortgage but not the deposit, to get on the housing ladder. She is pushing the government to introduce minimum and safe nursing levels in our hospitals, more money for mental health and some protection for our smaller councils from austerity cuts in their funding.

Our problem is communicating these successes and getting the credit for them. It brings us back to the lack of a Welsh media and our poor campaigning presence across Wales.

Like the rest of the party, we have seen a surge in membership. Well over 50% of our members are new. All of them will have had the opportunity to vote for the new Welsh Party leader who, for the first time is not a Parliamentarian. That is a change that has been forced on us by electoral circumstances. The new leader faces an enormous task.

She will first need to establish proper support arrangements. She will not have the advantage enjoyed by Parliamentarians of staff to manage her diary, issue press releases and reply to correspondence. The Welsh Party will have to make those arrangements for her with the few staff they have left.

Secondly, she must address the huge skills deficit that exists across the party. We are fighting council by-elections blind. If we are to start winning again then we need to give these events the intensity they deserve, including high quality, relevant campaigning literature, full canvasses of voters, proper use of Connect and professional polling day operations. We cannot afford to continue being amateur in our approach to these elections.

And we need to make use of our new members to get out into our communities across Wales, talk to people and implement all-year round campaigning. The next elections may be four years away, but we cannot afford to wait. We must organise and build up support.

Obviously, the new leader cannot do all of this on her own. She will be part-time and working in a media vacuum. But she can establish a clear sense of direction for the party, find a distinctive narrative for us and motivate our membership into taking that message out into our communities. She can also work with party committees and officers to get candidates in place early, initiate training sessions and policy discussions, and use what expertise we do have to help get things started again in areas where we are weak.

If we suffered in Wales because of previous leaders then the new Federal leader offers an opportunity. The party has a man at the helm with gravitas and presence, we have a distinctive message on the key issue of the day which, despite Wales narrow support for Brexit, will resonate here with many communities, and we have the time to regroup. UKIP are in decline and, as our poll ratings start to recover so will the chance to recapture some of the successes of the recent past.

Wales may look like a disaster area for the Liberal Democrats but we have been at rock bottom before and we have recovered. Our nation needs a liberal, pro-European party that understands the needs of Wales and has ideas and solutions to our problems. That party is the Welsh Liberal Democrats. The path will be long and hard, but the opportunity is there if we take it. We can be the future Wales needs.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Superficial obsession with UK passport colour sums up Brexit

Like everybody else with even an ounce of commonsense I have been puzzled by all the fuss over the colour of the British passport. What concerns me is not how the document looks but what rights it gives me as a citizen travelling abroad.

If the new post-Brexit British passport means that I have to get a visa to travel to some countries, when I did not need to do so before, then it will not be serving its purpose. If it means that I have to queue longer to enter countries, when previously I was fast-tracked then it is not fit for purpose.

The new blue passports will come to symbolise our loss of status as a nation, our isolation in the world, and the tens of thousands of jobs that will be lost together with higher living costs, which Brexit will visit upon us once we have finally left the European Union.

The superficial obsession with passports exhibited by many Brexiteers and their media cheerleaders sums up Brexit. It is a selfish, illogical, backward-looking little-Englander pursuit that acts against the national interest and the interests of everybody in this country. It is racism and imperialism dressed up as nostalgia, vanity and ignorance masquerading as national pride.

And the irony of it all is that not only were the previous British passports black, not blue, but their colour and format were foisted upon is by the League of Nations. It was not a document over which the former imperial state could claim ownership.

As the Guardian explains, the EU never mandated burgundy passports: it simply produced a standard format that many member states chose to use for the sake of convenience:

'Passports also make an interesting case study on sovereignty, the concept so dear to Brexiters. Passports illustrate the limits of sovereignty in an interconnected world. As a sovereign state after Brexit, the UK will have the right to design passports in whatever way it chooses. But other states also have sovereignty: they have the sovereign right to decide which passports they accept for entry into their territory. The modern passport, since its introduction in the early 20th century, has always been a matter for negotiation between sovereign states. Transnational institutions and superpowers have often imposed requirements on supposedly sovereign states.

The Eurosceptic media used to complain about the size of British passports: the burgundy passports issued in the past few decades were smaller than the old blue ones. They have gone quiet about this recently, perhaps because they know that this isn’t something the UK can change after Brexit. Passport size, along with several other features, is mandated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an agency of the UN. Today’s passports are machine-readable, and an international standard is required so that all passports will fit the machines used in airports.

Most of the recent changes to British passports have been driven by the US rather than the EU. The US requires certain passport features for participation in its visa-waiver programme, which allows citizens of most developed countries to enter the US for business or recreation trips of up to 90 days without a visa. The US demands compliance with ICAO standards, but it also imposes more stringent photo requirements and biometric features.

The new US requirements have been imposed on the UK via the EU: the US informed the EU of its demands, and the EU then incorporated them into its own passport standards. But the UK would only be able to escape these requirements after Brexit by giving up visa-free travel to the US.'

As the paper goes onto explain, after Brexit we will still have to follow ICAO standards and US demands if our passports are to be recognised abroad. And, of course, we will still have to follow any new requirements that the EU may adopt, if we are to travel to our nearest neighbours.

They add that after Brexit it may be hard, if not impossible, to impose more stringent requirements on the ID cards that EU citizens use to travel to the UK, as the Home Office would like. And of course we will lose any influence we had over EU measures to improve ID card security, which have made considerable progress in the past few years.

In effect, the blue passport will become yet another misstep on the path to international irrelevance as we scramble from capital to capital in search of the elusive trade deals that Brexiteers believe can replace those we already have as part of the biggest free trade area in the World.

Are taxpayers funding secretive hardline Brexit group?

A secretive European research group dedicated to taking the UK out of the European Union and which allegedly operates as a party political organisation has up to 80 MPs as members including at least six cabinet members according to Open Democracy UK.

They say that 'new data collected by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority covering the last year, shows that the six cabinet members, along with the chief of staff and special adviser to the Brexit secretary, David Davis have each claimed £2,000 in parliamentary expenses for “professional” and “pooled” services from the ERG. Five other subscriptions from former Tory cabinet ministers and whips, plus the current chair of the ERG, means this group alone have claimed more than £32,000 from the public purse.

Michael Gove, the environment secretary, Penny Mordaunt, the newly-promoted defence secretary, David Gauk, the work and pensions secretary, Sajid Javid, the communities and local government secretary, Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House of Commons, and Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, have all used official expenses claims to pay for “ERG subscriptions” over the last 12 months.

Stewart Jackson, who lost his Peterborough seat in June’s general election, and is now chief of staff to David Davis at the Department for Exiting the European Union, also used his official expenses to pay for ERG services during the last years.'

The secretive nature of this group is causing concern amongst the highest echelons of the civil service:

One senior Whitehall official, who asked not to be named because he was currently involved in preparations for the next phase of talks with the EU’s negotiators, told openDemocracy: “2018 will be a difficult and critical year and those from Brussels we have to engage with, have already voiced concern that our future position could be clearer. But there will be added suspicion that this secretive group – and if they won’t publish who their members are and what they do, then secret is the correct word – represents a hidden hurdle by Brussels that the UK government has to jump over. This will hinder, not help, the prospects of a deal.”

Other data collated by IPSA show that 58 MPs have recently used taxpayers’ money to fund the ERG’s activities. Among the leading Brexiteers who have paid for ERG subscriptions over the course of the last two parliaments include Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is still being touted as a future Tory leader should May be forced out of 10 Downing Street.

The group is often described as a party-within-a-party of hardline Brexiteers capable of holding the prime minister hostage or removing her from office if she deviates from their stated aim of severing all ties with the European Economic Area, the single market, the European Court and the Customs Union.

It is estimated by Open Democracy that over a quarter of a million pounds of public funds has been channelled to the ERG through MPs expenses, but its chair refuses to say how many government ministers are members.This makes it impossible to determine to what extent government poicy is being dictated by this group.

Friday, December 22, 2017

A senseless slaughter

Whilst the rest of the country is suffering from Conservative austerity measures, it appears that Ministers can still find the odd £50 million to kill thousands of badgers.

As the Guardian reports, nearly 20,000 badgers were culled this autumn as part of the government’s attempt to reduce bovine TB in cattle, in what critics called the largest destruction of a protected species in living memory.

They add that the 19,274 dead badgers is almost twice as many as last year after 11 new cull zones were added to a swath of the West Country worst-hit by bovine TB. While some badgers were trapped before being shot, the majority – 11,638 badgers – were killed by free shooting, a method judged inhumane by the British Veterinary Association.

As Dominic Dyer, the chief executive of the Badger Trust, says: “The badger cull is the worst example of incompetence, negligence and deceit at the heart of the government. To spend over £50m of public money killing tens of thousands of badgers without any reliable evidence this will lower TB rates in cattle is a national disgrace.

“If [environment secretary] Michael Gove truly wants to be remembered for putting animal welfare and wildlife protection at the top of the political agenda, he should announce an immediate halt to badger culling and a wide-ranging review of this disastrous, cruel and costly policy”.

Defra cite an academic paper published in the journal Ecology and Evolution in support of this slaughter but its authors have warned that “it would be unwise to use these findings to develop generalisable inferences about the effectiveness of the policy at present” given only two years of data and uncertainty over precisely what causes fluctuations in cattle TB.

Their data also revealed a possible “perturbation effect” with comparatively more cattle TB in a 2km band outside the Somerset cull zone – potentially caused by the shooting disrupting badger social groups and causing them to roam more widely.

The point is of course that there is an alternative to this cull as being demonstrated in Wales. This senseless slaughter is an exercise in popularism designed to appease farmers without actually solving the problem.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Labour splits on Brexit leave them lacking credibility as an opposition

As the Tory government continue to push through their disastrous version of Brexit one would be justified in asking: 'where is the opposition?' Well last night, as on other nights, the main opposition came from the only UK-wide anti-Brexit Party, the Liberal Democrats. The Labour Party was in disarray.

As the Independent reports, nearly a quarter of Labour MPs defied Jeremy Corbyn's fence-sitting and voted to keep the UK in the customs union after Brexit:

The Labour leader had instructed MPs to abstain on the issue, but 63 MPs rebelled and voted for an amendment, tabled by Labour’s Chris Leslie, that would have seen the UK retain its customs union membership.

Three Brexit-supporting Labour MPs – Frank Field, Dennis Skinner and Kate Hoey – also defied the party whip and sided with the Conservatives to vote against the amendment.

Proposing his amendment, Mr Leslie said: “New clause 13 would keep open the option for the United Kingdom to stay in the customs union – something that I hope particularly my honourable friends will support.

“We have to avoid that hard border, particularly between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. We don’t want our many industries to be turned upside down with all the jobs, and potentially Brexit austerity hitting our constituents for years to come.

“I don’t want that on my conscience. We have to act now.”

An amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrats, to ensure that the British people would have a vote on the final deal, attracted 23 votes, including Plaid Cymru, the sole Green MP and a handful of Labour MPs. Labour and the SNP sat on their hands.

It is little wonder that Labour whips are concerned that they were unable to convince so many of their MPs to toe the party line. Nor is it surprising, when the Labour party line is effectively a capitulation to the Tory Government's agenda and a failure to provide an effective opposition. Labour have no credibility on Brexit.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Loss of transparency is the price we pay for Tory/DUP pact

The Electoral Commission are currently engaged in an investigation into spending during the 2016 referendum campaign They believe that there are 'reasonable grounds to suspect an offence may have been committed' in the run up to that plebiscite. No doubt we will see the outcome of that investigation in due course.

However, one investigation that does not appear to be on the cards is into the source of a £425,000 donation to the Democratic Unionist Party, that was spent on wrap-around pro-Brexit advertising in the non-Northern Ireland-based Metro newspaper during the EU referendum. That is because the UK Government has ruled that this donation will be exempt from the rules that apply to everybody else.

As the Independent says, the order that has now been pushed through Parliament means that changes to the rules for the publication of donors to Northern Irish political parties will only apply to donations made after the 1st July 2017, and will not be backdated to 2014 in accordance with previously agreed legislation.

As such the source of the £425,000 donation, the largest to any Northern Irish political party in history, and which has largely been seen as a device through which to donate anonymously to the Brexit campaign, will not be revealed:

The rules were changed on the naming of donors to political parties in the UK in 2000, but Northern Irish political parties were given an exemption, over the security risk it would pose to certain individuals on the list and that it could destabilise the peace process.

Those rules have since been revisited, but Mr Brokenshire’s order will tweak the rules to prevent the source of this large donation, which was spent campaigning on the UK mainland, where the DUP do not field candidates, from being named.

The donation has been named as coming from a group of businessmen called the Constitutional Research Council (CRC), though the ultimate source of their cash has not been confirmed.

£282,000 was spent on a wrap around advertisements on the Metro newspaper, saying “Vote Leave. Take Back Control” under Democratic Unionist Party branding. Some of them money was also paid to a data company linked to the analytics firm who worked for the Brexit campaign, Cambridge Analytica.

Cambridge Analytica is being investigated by the Information Commissioner as part of a wider inquiry into the way voters’ personal data is being captured and exploited in political campaigns.

All in all this decision by the UK Government appears to be a massive favour to their allies in Government. Unfortunately, transparency in politics is the loser as is the integrity of the whole political system.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The creeping reacquisition of the Quango state

Going into the 1997 General Election and the subsequent devolution referendum, all the talk was how the then 1979-1997 Tory Governments had taken control of the levers of power in Wales through the creation and control of a series of Quango stuffed with appointments favourable to their point of view.

The Welsh Assembly was created to democratise that process and sure enough, within a few years the government in Cardiff Bay had swept many of these bodies away, whilst Welsh Ministers introduced new appointment processes, took responsibility for the decisions of the remaining bodies and new Assembly Committees scrutinised them.

It took time for this process to settle down of course but it was a change for the better, even if many of the independent appointments seem to favour a group of people sympathetic to the ruling party. Perhaps that just reflects that party's dominance of civic life.

A similar process took place in England, albeit without democratically elected regional bodies to oversee the system. More transparency was introduced into the way appointments are made so as to remove any perceived bias.

However, recent trends imply that there has been a creeping reacquisition of the Quango state by the Tory Government in England. As the Guardian reports, the Equality and Human Rights Commission is running short of board members and struggling to fulfil its duties because, lawyers allege, ministers are repeatedly vetoing appointments on political grounds.

The paper says that several experienced candidates supported by the state-funded independent body are understood to have been blocked in recent months after, it has been claimed, intervention by Downing Street or the Cabinet Office.

They add that some former board members allege the difficulties date to the arrival of Theresa May as prime minister, at which point stricter selection criteria are said to have been imposed. The shortage has coincided with the introduction of a new governance code on public appointments, which is said to have made it easier for ministers to pick their political allies.

As the same paper reported a year ago, the new code on public appointments gives ministers greater powers over who oversees a raft of agencies, watchdogs and advisory committees, while weakening the involvement of the independent commissioner for public appointments, who scrutinises the system:

Ministers have always had the final say over appointments to senior public sector jobs, advised by a panel that shortlists “appointable” people. However, independent assessors, chosen by the commissioner to oversee the most important competitions, will be abolished in favour of independent senior panel members picked by ministers.

The members will have to be independent of the departments and not currently politically active, but the commissioner will only have a consultative role.

Ministers will also be able to overrule the panel by choosing candidates not deemed to be appointable and have the right to dispense with an open competition without the permission of the commissioner, although they will have to consult with the watchdog and openly justify the decision.

It is all very last century.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Defending the Tory Brexit rebels

I suspect that most regional and national newspapers are getting letters from Brexiteers anxious to excoriate the eleven Tory MPs who voted against the government whip to ensure that Parliament gets to vote on the final deal with the EU. The South Wales Evening Post certainly did and here is a letter I have sent in response:

In her recent letter (16 December), Caroline West is quite wrong to berate those MPs who voted to amend the Brexit bill so as to give Parliament a say on the final deal with Europe.

The 2016 referendum was advisory and gave the Government a mandate to negotiate a withdrawal from the European Union.

Voters did not though offer any view on what the terms of that withdrawal should be, nor on any concessions that may be offered by either side.

As is right in a representative democracy they left that decision to MPs, who will be armed with all the facts and will be able to make an informed choice.

The whole issue of mandate was of course muddied by the 2017 General Election.

Theresa May went to the country asking for a majority to force through her version of Brexit. The voters said no and insisted that she work with other parties. The amendment to the Brexit Bill, which Caroline West so abhors is entirely consistent with that verdict.

Recent events have demonstrated that the current Government is not competent enough to deliver on their promises over Brexit.

Negotiations with Europe have been a shambles, with some Ministers obsessing more about using private jets to travel to Brussels than on the intricacies of our country's legal obligations.

In addition, the Government has shown that it cannot deliver on promises made to the voters during the referendum campaign, including the £350m a week extra for the NHS.

Because of that it is the duty of every elected MP to scrutinise closely the deal that is finally negotiated and to ensure that it is in the country's best interests. In fact I would argue that voters themselves should have that final say. After all Brexit was about us taking back control.

Finally, Caroline West needs to reflect on where exactly this process is taking us. It is becoming clear that exiting the EU is going to leave the UK more isolated in the world than at any time since the reformation.

We will be at the mercy of people like Donald Trump, who knowing how desperate we are for a trade deal, will take advantage to force many other concessions from us.

Far from taking back control, Brexit has mortgaged our future to others and left us vulnerable to blackmail and coercion from countries we might once have called allies.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Why net neutrality underpins our freedoms

The internet is the world's purest democracy. On the web we are all equal and our opinions equally valid. Unfortunately, that egalitarianism also spawns behaviour which reflects the worst aspects of humanity, including stalking, trolling and vile abuse. We take the good with the bad (law-breaking excepted) because to do otherwise would compromise our own freedoms.

Despite being a commercial concern in its own right, the internet remains a community to which we can all have access in one way or another. It is a community in which a small blog or a single tweet can have a huge impact, in which one ordinary person's opinion is as valid as that of a Prime Minister and where big corporations compete on a level playing field with one person operations.

That happens because the companies who enable us to access the web are not allowed to discriminate in favour of one user over another. You cannot buy preferential treatment by an ISP because to do so would break the terms under which they are allowed to provide that service. However, if Donald Trump gets his own way all of that is going to change.

As Jonathan Freedland explains in the Guardian, Thursday’s decision by a Trump appointee to scrap the rules governing access to the internet known as “net neutrality” could affect the online realm inhabited by all of us:

Put simply, until now your internet service provider has been obliged to treat all websites equally, so that a neighbourhood blog is just as accessible as a major corporate site. Your broadband provider has had to be neutral between blokeinhispottingshed.com and Amazon, and not operate a fast lane for one and a slow lane for the other.

Thanks to Trump and his man at the Federal Communications Commission, that obligation is binned. Now those ISPs can offer premium access to some and deny it to others. The big players will be able to pay the extra cash to ensure they stay in the fast lane, but the cost will shut out startups. The next challenger to Netflix or Facebook may be strangled at birth by prohibitive fast-lane tolls.

That’s a loss for those would-be innovators and for us, who will never see what they might have produced. Power online will be ever more concentrated in the hands of a few giants. But there’s a more direct political dimension. Take the blog maintained by the residents of Grenfell Tower, which warned of disaster before it struck. To ensure their warnings were heard, their US equivalents would now have to find a home on one of the mega-platforms, posting their material on, say, Facebook.

But how confident could they be that Facebook, if confronted by an irate local council, would continue to host and shield those residents, or people like them? A defining feature of the internet was that it was open and a broadly level playing field. Thanks to Trump, it will now be more equal for some – including the rich corporations – than for others.

Trump may not be able to keep his big promises on Obamacare and the Mexican wall but in small ways like this he is shifting the balance of power for everybody. And for those who believe that this is just America and it won't affect us, then think on.

Most of our internet companies and domains have footholds in America. For now the European Community is maintaining net neutrality, but how long will they be able to hold out against the economic might of the USA. And of course we are leaving the EU. Our Brexiteers are closely aligned to Trump. The ending of net neutrality in the UK may only be a few years away.

Money has always bought influence, now it will be able to suppress inconvenient truths as well. Our world has just become a less free place.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Balancing the case for more Welsh Assembly Members

Increasing the number of politicians is never a popular move so I don't expect the very weighty expert report commissioned by the Assembly's Presiding Officer calling for exactly that to gain much traction on doorsteps.

As the Western Mail reports, this tome recommends amongst others that the number of Assembly Members elected to the Senedd should rise from 60 to 89 or 90, that they should be elected by the far more proportional Single Transferable Vote system and that the voting age should be reduced to 16.

I anticipate that the last of these will be the least controversial. Even UKIP appear to be in favour of letting younger people vote. I suspect that the Assembly will be able to find the necessary two thirds majority to increase its own size to 80 but that the adoption of a more sensible voting system will be ditched in favour of one that is more favourable to the ruling Labour Party.

It may though, turn out that the whole exercise has been academic, as already Labour are threatening to kick it into the long grass of their 2019 Welsh Conference, far too late to properly enact the recommendations for the 2021 Assembly elections.

But where should the Welsh Liberal Democrats stand on these proposals. My view is that we need to be wary of them.

The case for a bigger Assembly is actually overwhelming both in terms of comparison with other legislatures and the workload faced by AMs. Good government requires time to properly scrutinise legislation and ministers, but that is not available simply because there are far too few committees, all meeting at the same time to do the job.

This is not an argument to increase the hours worked by AMs, they already give 70 plus each week, but to increase the capacity of the Assembly itself.

The case for more AMs is based on the steady accumulation of law-making powers by the Assembly over the last few years. These powers have been devolved from Westminster. It makes sense therefore that if we need more AMs then there should also be fewer Welsh MPs, as logically their workload will have decreased.

Welsh Liberal Democrats support for these proposals should be based on that quid pro. If one institution gets more politicians, another should have fewer. That way we do not add to the cost of politics,

Secondly, if a bigger Assembly is not going to be more proportional then it should not be supported. We have lived with the compromise d'hondt system now for 18 years. It creates two tiers of Assembly Member and effectively guarantees continuous government by one party.

The people of Wales deserve to get the Assembly they vote for, both politically and geographically and that can only be achieved with a sensible system of election based on STV.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Is no-platforming by the Welsh Assembly turning UKIP into alt-right martyrs?

Because of the age we live in, I feel obliged to preface this post with some qualifications. As anybody who has read this blog will know I detest UKIP and all their works.

Over the years, leading members of that party have been outed as misogynist and racist, They are a party who campaign against Europe and yet milk the EU for the maximum financial benefit and I have lost count of the number of their MEPs who have been prosecuted for allegedly fiddling their expenses.

Their campaign for us to leave the EU was misleading, dishonest and racist, Their odious erstwhile leader, Nigel Farage continues to consort with dubious right-wingers on both side of the Atlantic, whilst pontificating about 'professional politicians', despite being an MEP for 18 years and having stood for Parliament seven times.

Politics and society would be better off if UKIP ceased to exist altogether, however because we are a democracy they have the right to continue to wave their prejudices in our face and to demand support for their increasingly irrelevant views. As a Liberal I will defend that right even if I have to hold my nose whilst doing so.

As these random links show, here, here and here my record on transgender rights is second to none. In stating my opinion on the decision by the Presiding Officer to no-platform a UKIP AM in Plenary for expressing his view on this issue, I do not endorse what he said. In fact I find his view as illiberal and offensive as she does. The issue is the best way to respond to him.

The Presiding Officer's role is to keep order in the Senedd. That includes ruling on unparliamentary language. However, there is a difference between throwing out an AM for a throwaway remark about the royal family and effectively censoring an argument which has offended others.

I have argued in the past that freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend. Once people are allowed to apply their own subjective values to others then we are on a slippery slope to censorship and dictatorship.

It is for this reason that I struggle with the Presiding Officer's decision to ask Gareth Bennett to apologise or withdraw his remarks about transgender rights, and then to ban him from speaking for a year because he refused. I disagree with what he said but will defend his right to say it.

Yes, he has offended a lot of people and upset the cosy consensus in the chamber on these issues, but the purpose of debate is to show up mistaken and flawed arguments for what they are and to rebut them. Surely the correct response would have been to let other AMs do exactly that and then to ignore him for the irrelevance he is.

The Assembly chamber should embrace the principle of free speech where members can stand up and say what they believe and be challenged on it. The Presiding Officer job is to preserve the free flow of ideas not to censor it.

For now, my fear, as expressed by one of my Twitter followers, is that this particular UKIP AM has unwittingly taken a leaf straight out of the Trump playbook and that by banning him the PO has played into his hands. She has not so much upheld politically-correct views as created an alt-right martyr.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

UKIP to face tribunal over EU referendum campaign

The Guardian reports that UKIP is to face a tribunal over its use of analytics during the EU referendum after refusing to cooperate with an investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The Information Commissioner says that inquiry has been launched because she is concerned about invisible processing of data ‘behind the scenes’, including 'algorithms, analysis, data matching, profiling that involves people’s personal information'. She adds: "When the purpose for using these techniques is related to the democratic process, the case for a high standard of transparency is very strong,”

The ICO had issued four information notices, formally ordering organisations to disclose information, including one to UKIP, who have now appealed the notice to the information rights tribunal. Apparently, they don't want to face criminal sanctions if it is shown that they have broken the law. So it is the same old story as far as they are concerned: one rule for UKIP, another rule for everybody else.

In fact this inquiry is very important. In particular, there is a need for transparency after huge sums of money were diverted to a Canadian firm, AggregateIQ, which is being investigated by Canada's Information Commissioner as to whether it is compliant with privacy legislation in that jurisdiction:

The Electoral Commission is separately investigating whether Vote Leave, the lead campaign for the leave vote in the referendum, broke spending laws by coordinating spending with other campaign groups.

The investigation hinges on Vote Leave’s decision to make donations totalling £625,000 to Grimes, then a 23-year-old fashion student, in the final days of the referendum. Grimes spent the entirety of the money with AggregateIQ.

Separately to the money it donated to Grimes, Vote Leave spent £2.7m, around 40% of its total spending of £6.7m, with AggregateIQ. As the designated leave campaigning organisation, its spending was capped by law at £7m.

Grimes, as chair of a different campaign group called BeLeave, had a spending cap of £700,000 and spent £675,000 in total. The source of £625,000 of this money was Vote Leave.

It has also emerged that a millionaire hedge fund manager, Anthony Clake donated £50,000 to Darren Grimes - money that also went to AggregateIQ - having been advised to make the donation by the Brexit-backing campaign group Vote Leave.

Clake told the Guardian that he had intended to give the money to Vote Leave, as the official leave campaign, but was encouraged by the group not to do so because “they were close to their spending limits”.

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by Clake.

If we value our democratic processes we must ensure that nobody is able to circumvent the rules so as to buy the result they wanted. The inquiries by the Electoral Commission and the ICO therefore must be allowed to go ahead unimpeded and they should have all the sanctions they need at their disposal if wrong-doing is proven.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A ray of hope from Alabama

Waking up this morning to news that Democrat, Doug Jones has won the special Senate election in Alabama, albeit very narrowly, is the best news I have had for some time. Is this the start of a backlash that will deny the Republicans a majority in the House and the Senate in Autumn 2019?

Mr. Jones was helped by the allegations of sexual impropriety levelled against his opponent, despite which Judge Roy Moore still managed to secure 63% support from those white women who cast a ballot.

However, the fact Trump publicly backed Moore in a State that he won convincingly in the Presidential race, enables us to take a wider view and class this as a snub for the President as well as a defeat for the Republicans.

My euphoria has been dampened by this article in the Guardian reporting that the US ambassador to the UK expects Donald Trump to go ahead with a working visit to the UK in the new year, despite a recent Twitter row with Theresa May over the terror threat posed by Muslims in the UK.

This is not expected to be a State visit as the Queen is likely to be preoccupied with preparations for a Commonwealth summit next year. Nevertheless, Trump appearing on these shores will not be popular. The Independent says that around half of the British public think the UK must scrap its invitation for a full state visit to Donald Trump following his support for a British far-right group.

Personally, in whatever capacity Trump sets foot on these shores, I believe that day should be declared a public holiday to maximise turnout for the inevitable protests. And the invitation to the President for a full State visit should be withdrawn.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Labour still on the fence over Brexit

As if it were not bad enough that the Tories are screwing up Brexit, not being able to even deliver a basic agreement, never mind the goodies that were misleadingly promised during the referendum, it is becoming more and more apparent that Labour don't appear to be willing to get off the fence and offer any form of opposition to this omnishambles.

As the Guardian reports, Jeremy Corbyn is determined to resist pressure to spell out in more detail what Brexit settlement Labour would support, despite a series of comments in recent days suggesting the party is edging closer to advocating continued single market membership.

They add that Labour sources said Corbyn and his closest allies were keen to avoid placating ardent remain voters at the expense of Brexit backers in core Labour seats. They know that they will eventually have to give a verdict on whatever trade deal is reached with the EU27 next year, but they fear too much detail now could be a hostage to fortune.

In the meantime various Labour spokespeople continue to sing from different hymn sheets leaving everybody confused as to what exactly their official policy is. It is little wonder that they continue to trail the Tories in the polls at a time when a bunch of muppets could do a better job of running Britain.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Arrogance and bad faith: A Brexit Tale

Nobody needs me to elaborate on the vagueness and contradictions inherent in the deal that Theresa May has struck with the EU when it is set against her government's determination to leave that institution, whilst keeping the United Kingdom intact. Needless to say at some stage a decision will have to be made and stuck to.

However, for one Government Minister, the compromise half-agreement the Prime Minister signed off on last week is a sore he cannot help but keep picking. Brexit Secretary, David Davis seems determined to wreck any hope of agreement (and of a trade deal with Europe) even before the ink is dry on the paper.

As the Guardian reports, Davis has clashed with the Irish government after claiming that the Brexit divorce agreement between Britain and the EU was a “statement of intent” rather than something legally enforceable.

They add that the Brexit secretary’s crass comments came in the light of a missive from Downing Street advisers, which told cabinet ministers who campaigned to leave the EU, that promises around full regulatory alignment were “meaningless”.

In addition, Theresa May has also appeared to suggest there was still some flexibility in the deal reached at the end of last week, writing to all Tory MPs to set out the details of the agreement but promising that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.

The Irish of course are incensed. They have issued a statement to the effect that “Both Ireland and the EU will be holding the UK to the phase one agreement.” In addition, the Irish deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, highlighted a line in the agreement that said commitments relating to Ireland would be “upheld in all circumstances, irrespective of the nature of any future agreement between the EU and UK”.

The point is of course that if the UK cannot bring itself to hold good faith over this fairly flimsy agreement of principle then how can anybody trust them on more substantive treaties, including on trade?

The arrogance, incompetence and stupidity of hard line Brexiteers in Theresa May's cabinet are threatening the very future of the UK economy. Their actions could torpedo any deal with Europe and leave the rest of the World wondering whether it is worth even talking to us.

The need for a second referendum on whatever emerges from these talks is becoming even more urgent. And it is crucial that the public have an 'exit from Brexit' option on that ballot paper.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Is an obsessive Government ignoring bread and butter issues?

I have said it before on this blog, it has been said by professional commentators and now the public are saying it too (or at least that is what the polls say), the obsession of ministers with Brexit means that they are neglecting other challenges facing our country.

The Independent reports that the large majority of British people think the Government’s struggle for a Brexit deal has become so all-encompassing that other crucial challenges have been forgotten about.

The papers says that its exclusive survey by BMG Research showed some 60 per cent of people believe “important domestic issues” are being ignored by ministers as Brexit relentlessly diverts their attention, with problems faced by the NHS and the housing market consistently appearing in surveys of voter concerns:

The data is a stark warning for a party stung at the election by a public tired of austerity, angry about the housing crisis and worried about the state of the NHS.

In October, it emerged that the civil service will have to hire an extra 8,000 staff to deal specifically with Brexit, a sign of how its resources are being diverted towards the challenges of leaving the EU.
Nearly 3,000 new posts have already been created

to help face what will be the biggest administrative challenge they have faced for half a century. Brexit Secretary David Davis told Cabinet colleagues that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will also have to recruit between 3,000 and 5,000 new members of staff next year.

If the new recruits earn an average of £50,000 each, the wage bill would top £400m. But that’s a drop in the ocean compared to the £35bn to £39bn the UK will have to pay the EU as part of its divorce settlement – a figure many expect to rise higher.

That also does not include the cost of new technology and extra infrastructure at borders that may be needed, which Chancellor Philip Hammond has suggested could divert funds from the NHS and education.

It is not just the Tories who need to heed these findings. My party, the Liberal Democrats also have to listen. We have quite rightly branded ourselves as an anti-Brexit party but Vince Cable and his spokespeople also have to be talking just as loudly about our solutions for the crisis that is affecting education, the health service and housing as well.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Michael Gove and the art of spin

There is no point shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted but it is an activity that Michael Gove appears to be fairly fond of if this Guardian article is anything to go by.

The paper reports Gove's statement that voters will be able to force changes to an EU withdrawal deal at the next election if they do not like it:

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Gove said: “The British people will be in control. If the British people dislike the agreement that we have negotiated with the EU, the agreement will allow a future government to diverge.”

He said that after a transition period, the UK would have “full freedom to diverge from EU law on the single market and customs union”.

The next General Election is due in 2022, that is three years after the 29th March 2019 invocation of Article 50 and one year after the end of the two year transition period. By 2022 everything will be done and dusted and there will be no going back.

Of course there was a General Election this year that effectively rejected Theresa May's hard Brexit. If Gove is serious about giving people a meaningful say on the final deal then he will be advocating a referendum that allows us the choice of accepting what is negotiated or exiting from Brexit altogether.

Friday, December 08, 2017

The mis-marketing of higher education

Living in a City with two universities I am used to hearing a plethora of claims about what they can offer students. There are claims about their place on obscure ranking tables, some of which I find difficult to validate, whilst various departments compete to convince prospective entrants into HE of their excellence, both in terms of research and teaching.

The introduction of tuition fees effectively marketised higher education, colleges started to make decisions based on the demand for their courses and how much income they could generate, rather than on the provision of a broad based curriculum. For example, chemistry virtually disappeared overnight from most Welsh colleges, only for them to bring it back in some cases years later.

At the same time students started to have higher expectations. Now that they were personally paying for courses they wanted value for money, and quite rightly.

It is no surprise therefore to see this story in the Guardian, which reports on the verdict of the National Audit Office that if universities were banks they would be investigated for mis-selling.

Auditors say that the Department for Education needs to do more to help “vulnerable” students make better choices about courses. The National Audit Office has called on government to provide more aggressive oversight to ensure value for money:

Amyas Morse, the head of the National Audit Office said: “Young people are taking out substantial loans to pay for courses without much effective help and advice, and the institutions concerned are under very little competitive pressure to provide best value.

“If this was a regulated financial market, we would be raising the question of mis-selling. The [DfE] is taking action to address some of these issues, but there is a lot that remains to be done.”

The NAO found that the increased numbers of disadvantaged students now attending universities were mainly going to lower-ranked institutions – “which risks creating a two-tier system”, dividing those from rich and poor backgrounds.

If Universities are now a business competing for customers then it is quite right that they are better regulated and their claims challenged.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

The latest absurd Westminster plot story

The problem with working in a bubble like Westminister or Cardiff Bay, surrounded by ambitious people, all of whom have an agenda and a list of enemies as long as their arm, is that people lose perspective. That is especially true of journalists who, if they are not careful, can get carried away dealing with the constant stream of rumours and innuendo they are being fed.

Of course the difference between a proper journalist and somebody riffing it on social media is that the former tends to check their sources and approach the more unbelievable stories with caution. Every now and again though, somebody might decide that even if what they are being told is not credible, it suits their paper's agenda and so it is worth running with it.

As far as I can see that last scenario is the only rationale for this story in today's Sun in which they say that supporters of the Brexit Secretary, David Davis have seized on Theresa May’s latest Brexit woes to start building another plot to sack her and put him into 10 Downing Street instead.

They say that one of Davis' closest allies, former chief whip Andrew Mitchell is organising discreet drinks evenings with him and new generation Tory MPs:

Three of the newly elected high-flyers invited to one soiree last week were Tom Tugendhat and James Cleverly – both tipped as future party leaders – as well as highly respected rookie Gillian Keegan.

Under the ‘dream ticket’ plot, Mr Davis would take over as Prime Minister from beleaguered Mrs May, but only for a few years.

The 68-year-old former SAS reservist would then stand aside for one of the new generation elected in 2015 or 2017 to take over in time to prepare for the 2022 general election.

A key ally of Mr Davis told one of the younger Tory MPs: “Theresa has the smell of death around her. “She’ll be gone by Christmas. It’s time to rally around DD.”

David Davis of course is the Brexit Secretary who led Parliament to believe that there were 58 top secret reports assessing the impact of Brexit on key sectors of the economy, only to reveal that they didn't exist when the House of Commons insisted on seeing them. He makes Theresa May look like a giant on the world stage and that is saying something.

I won't comment on his performance in negotiating Brexit with Brussels, except to point out that he has effectively been relieved of the really important stuff by the Prime Minister herself. Perhaps that is what has upset his fan club.

For the rest of us, we have to reflect that if David Davis is the answer to the incompetence of the UK Government and their determination to drive us over an economic and constitutional cliff then it must be time to rephrase the question.

The idea is so absurd that the only reason I can see for publishing the story is to further destabilise the Prime Minister and her government to make way for a more realistic contender for the leadership, if such a person exists.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The search for truth around the Carl Sargeant sacking

By my estimation there are now three separate inquiries looking at the circumstances around Carl Sargeant's tragic and untimely death four weeks ago. There is the inquest, an independent QC-led investigation seeking to establish whether the First Minister followed the correct procedures in sacking the former Minister, and now we have an inquiry looking at whether news of the sacking was leaked.

At the heart of all this is a war of words between friends of Carl, including former minister, Leighton Andrews, Cardiff Bay lobbyist, Daran Hill, and the First Minister himself. At the same time an increasingly bullish Tory leader, is seeking to drive home a perceived advantage by pressing Carwyn Jones on details in the Senedd Siambr, even to the point of appropriating Leighton Andrews' twitter feed as a source for his questions.

As if to add insult to injury, Carwyn Jones has gone on the record with the BBC, claiming that he could not have done anything differently over the allegations made against Carl Sargeant. There are many who would disagree with that.

For a start it is my view that Carwyn should have followed the example set by Theresa May over Damian Green and suspended Carl whilst the allegations were investigated, rather than sack him. Secondly, he should not have added insult to injury by giving more details of the allegations to the media, the day before Carl died.

Carwyn also adopted a more traditional political stance in the interview by seeking to attack the messenger rather than address the message. He accused Leighton Andrews, a fellow Labour Party colleague of waging a "trial by Twitter" and labelled him as being perpetually grumpy when in government. Nobody who knows Leighton can deny the 'grumpy' tag, but really, how is it relevant?

The nub of the disagreement between Carwyn and Leighton centres on the latter's claim that at sometime in October and/or November 2014 he raised with the First Minister in a one-on-one meeting, allegations of bullying behaviour within Carwyn's office. This is denied.

With a by-election now scheduled on 6th February, this is not going to go away soon. Hints are being published on social media that Labour may find itself opposed by an independent candidate in the seat, whilst there are also suggestions that there are more questions to be answered than have so far been posed.

For now, the Assembly Labour Group appears to be backing the First Minister. Whether they do so once the various inquiries report is a moot question. Leighton Andrews has consistently said that he is not calling on Carwyn Jones to resign, but consequences are not always predictable and with the First Minister continually digging himself deeper into a hole of his own making, it is clear that this is now a fight for his political survival.

Update: I have been reminded of a fourth inquiry as to whether the First Minister misled the Assembly when he said no allegations of bullying had been made to him in 2014.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

The impossible conundrum of Brexit

For a few brief moments yesterday I genuinely thought that Theresa May had achieved the impossible and got herself a deal with the EU on how to take Brexit forward. Admittedly it was less than perfect - the concessions over Ireland were bound to produce demands for similar treatment from Wales and Scotland, subsequently undermining the stability of the UK - but it was a valiant attempt to square a difficult circle and some credit should be given for effort.

The problem of course is that May had already put herself in an impossible position through her supply and confidence agreement with the DUP. It took just one phone call from Arlene Foster to scupper any chance of a compromise being reached with the EU.

And there is our problem - the UK is effectively being held to ransom by a bunch of reactionary unionists camped out on the other side of the Irish Sea. The peace deal in Northern Ireland has been effectively wrecked, valuable resources have been diverted away from giving public sector workers a decent wage so as to pay off the DUP, and any possible deal on some of the most intractable Brexit issues is being sabotaged by Arlene's veto.

Unless Theresa May can pull a white rabbit from her hat, we are now left with the possibility of the UK Government painting itself into a corner, whereby if they are to pursue Brexit at all, then it will have to be one based on 'no deal' with the EU being reached.

That scenario will plunge the UK economy into recession as all our trading partners, old and new, impose WTO tariffs, whilst the pound falls still further adding to the cost of living woes of millions of people in this country. Wages will remain static for even longer than predicted by the Chancellor in last month's budget and thousands of jobs will relocate to the continent.

In addition, the UK will become vulnerable to the demands of global economic sharks like Trump's America and China as we go cap in hand for trade deals without any real leverage in the subsequent negotiations. All of this because of the incompetence of politicians who preached that it would be all so easy but, when it came to the crunch, were unable to deliver on their promises.

The time has come to call a halt, admit that Brexit is not in our national interest and abandon the process altogether. That is the only way we will ever get back control over our own destiny.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Should Nigel Farage give up his EU pension?

Having railed constantly against the European Union gravy train for decades, one would have thought that Brexiteers such as Nigel Farage would set an example by putting his principles where his wallet is. That though is not how the former UKIP leader sees things.

According to the Independent, Farage refused to pass on the money when challenged on the Andrew Marr Show, demanding to know why his family should suffer for his beliefs and actions.

Farage is entitled to an estimated annual pension of £73,000, which he would be able to claim in ten years time at the age of 63.

As sympathetic as I am to the plight of Nigel Farage's family, it does seem to be faintly hypocritical to attack the European Parliament for its very existence and then to benefit from its largesse, whether he is entitled to or not.

The fact is that UKIP has built its organisation around the money it gets from the EU, whilst at the same time campaigning for us to leave. If we leave the EU they should be made to pay it all back.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Theresa May misplaces an entire agenda

A number of people with inside knowledge have told me that the UK Government's fixation with Brexit has left the machinery of government with little appetite or capacity for anything else. That is certainly one explanation being mooted for the delay in a decision on the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon by those who still think it may yet happen.

The truth of this insight has displayed itself again today with the decision of a key government advisor and his entire team to quit. Alan Milburn, the former Labour cabinet minister who chairs the government’s social mobility commission, said that he and all three of his fellow commissioners were walking out, including a leading conservative, Gillian Shephard, because the prime minister is failing in her pledge to build a “fairer Britain”.

The Observer says that Milburn's resignation letter warns that dealing with Brexit means the government “does not seem to have the necessary bandwidth to ensure the rhetoric of healing social division is matched with the reality":

“I have little hope of the current government making the progress I believe is necessary to bring about a fairer Britain,” he tells the prime minister. “It seems unable to commit to the future of the commission as an independent body or to give due priority to the social mobility challenge facing our nation.”

According to the paper Milburn says failing to deal with the inequalities that fuelled the Brexit vote would simply lead to a rise of political extremes: 'In a devastating assessment of the lack of progress, Milburn says: “The worst position in politics is to set out a proposition that you’re going to heal social divisions and then do nothing about it. It’s almost better never to say that you’ll do anything about it.

“It’s disappointing at least that the government hasn’t got its shoulder to the wheel in the way it should to deal with these structural issues that lead to social division and political alienation in the country.

“In America for 30 years real average earnings have remained flat. Now here the chancellor is predicting that will last for 20 years. That has a consequence for people, but a political consequence as well. It means more anger, more resentment and creates a breeding ground for populism.”

It is understood that Shephard, former Tory education secretary and deputy chair of the commission, will also resign. She is said by friends to be “absolutely livid” with the way in which the commission has been treated. The social mobility commission, set up by Nick Clegg under the coalition government, advises ministers on the issue and monitors progress. Its most recent report last week warned of a “striking geographical divide”, with London and its surrounding areas pulling away while many other parts of the country are left behind.

Given that the Prime Minister used her first speech in Downing Street after taking office to vow to tackle social injustice and inequality this is a massive blow to her agenda.

It appears that not only is Brexit making us poorer as a country and weaker on the world stage, vulnerable to the blandishments of right wingers such as Donald Trump, but also it is distracting Government from one of its key missions, to improve the lot of UK citizens.

Surely it is time for a rethink.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Should Meghan Markle set a precedent for other non-UK nationals?

Back in September the Guardian reported that the European commission is examining the increased detention and deportation of EU citizens from Britain and has warned it will take “appropriate action” against Theresa May’s government if it believes the rights of EU nationals are being compromised.

They add that detentions and enforced removals of EU citizens from the UK have risen sharply since the Brexit vote, prompting critics to claim the Home Office is deliberately targeting EU nationals as part of the “hostile environment” May promised for those she believes should not be in the country.

In addition as the Migration Observatory advises, in 2016, 39,626 people were removed from the UK or departed voluntarily after the initiation of removal. The UK removed 6,171 foreign national offenders in 2016. Almost 5 out of every 10 people (48%) deported or voluntarily removed from the UK in 2016 were nationals of Asian countries. Nationals of India, Pakistan, and Romania made up 32% of the 2016.

In that context a few letters in today's Guardian are of interest:

Judy Clement from York asks: 'While Prince Harry would certainly meet the minimum income requirement, will Meghan, as a US national, have to return home to live for up to a year or even longer while her partner visa comes through, as would my non-EEA daughter-in-law if she wished to reside in this country with her British husband and their two dual-nationality sons?'

Whilst Austen Lynch from Gatstang in Lancashire adds: 'As an aspiring British citizen, will Meghan Markle be required to sit the complete citizenship test, including the written questions on the role of the monarchy? Or will Britannia waive the rules?'

These are fair point. As Corinne Boyce from Swainsthorpe in Norfolk says: 'I wonder if the happy couple will find themselves at the “wrong end of an uncaring bureaucracy” which is blighting the lives of ordinary British citizens who fall in love with foreign nationals.'

Like others I extend my best wishes to Harry and Meghan. I hope they will be very happy and have a long and fruitful marriage. However, rather than Meghan being the exception to UK immigration law and practises wouldn't it be nice if, in future, the way she is treated becomes the standard for everybody else in her situation.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Could the Irish question unravel Thereas May's Government?

Gladstone would have known the feeling, he had successive governments wrecked by the supposedly intractable Irish question, and now Theresa May faces the same fate.

As the Independent reports, the Democratic Unionist Party have threatened to withdraw their support from the Government if Ministers compromise over the Irish border during the Brexit talks. On the other hand the Irish Government are threatening to veto any deal if a compromise is not reached.

It is a dilemma that would take the wisdom of Solomon to resolve. If only he were available. And as if to make it worse the Northern Irish legislature is currently not sitting because of a disagreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein over the behaviour of the First Minister.

Attempts to bring the two sides together by the UK Government have so far failed. That was entirely predictable. With the DUP having the UK Government where they want them, exercising disproportionate influence over Ministers, where is the incentive for them to offer concessions to the other side.

The Brexit process is threatening to achieve what Gladstone failed to, it is offering the possibility of a more united Ireland. It is little wonder that the DUP are kicking off. Theresa May cannot be comfortable with that possibility either. Who knew that leaving the EU could cause so many constitutional problems?

Well actually, lots of us did. The Leavers cannot say they were not warned. They opened this can of worms, they are going to have to sort it out.

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