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Monday, December 10, 2018

Are Tory MPs putting their own ambitions above that of the country?

The stakes for the UK could not be higher. Tomorrow's vote on Theresa May's Brexit deal could define the country's future for decades to come. It could either take us out of Europe, forcing us to turn our back on decades of stability and economic prosperity, or it could plunge us into financial and political uncertainty and chaos.

Every MP needs to think through the consequences of their actions. I am not a great fan of referenda, but in my view a vote for a further plebiscite, giving voters the final say on whether we accept the deal or stay in the EU, is the best way forward. It takes account of the country's best interests, whilst helping to break the deadlock in Parliament, where there does not appear to be a majority for any option.

However, judging by this article in the Independent, the main preoccupation of a number of Tory MPs is their own personal ambition. They say that potential leadership rivals are already publicly positioning themselves to grab the Tory crown if Theresa May's Brexit plans collapse.

Ex-cabinet ministers Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Esther McVey have all signalled a willingness to bid for the leadership amid speculation that Ms May faces a heavy defeat in the crunch Commons vote on her proposed Brexit deal. They really can't help themselves.

At the same time, a small pro-Brexit rally saw protesters brandishing a gallows on the streets of London, as if this is an acceptable image in modern political discourse.

My hope is that people will reject these extremists and self-serving careerists, and restore some decency and balance to politics and the governance of our country. I fear though, that we have more depths to plumb before that can happen.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Will England follow Wales in restoring maintenance grants for students?

Some encouraging news in today's Observer, who report that Theresa May’s new social mobility tsar, Martina Milburn, believes that cutting university tuition fees risks failing to help the young people most in need of help to access higher education. Instead, she has suggested restoring maintenance grants designed to help poorer students meet living costs.

Unfortunately, the article is devolution-blind. It fails to acknowledge that Wales has already trail-blazed the way on this approach, having come to similar conclusions, despite the fact that just seventeen months ago, the paper's sister paper, the Guardian actually contained an article by the Welsh Liberal Democrats Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams, outlining how she implemented her party's manifesto promise and why.

Martina Milburn states: “Cutting fees will certainly help a certain sector. Whether it helps the right young people, I’m not convinced,” she said. “There’s also evidence that if you remove tuition fees altogether, there would be a certain number of young people from particular backgrounds who wouldn’t be able to go to university at all – but if you restore something like the education maintenance allowance or a version of it, I think you would widen participation. That’s a personal view. 

“This is something I think we would definitely look at in the future – on whether you restore something like the maintenance grants, which seems to me much more important than cutting fees.

That is a remarkably similar conclusion to the higher education funding review in Wales, led by Professor Ian Diamond. As Kirsty Williams wrote in July 2017:

The new support package in Wales will cover those who start their course in 2018/19, wherever in the UK they choose to study. Every student will be entitled to support equivalent to the national living wage. This means that eligible full-time students will receive maintenance support of £11,250 if they study in London and £9,000 per year elsewhere if they live away from home.

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

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

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

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

Martina Milburn would do well to look at what the Liberal Democrats have been able to achieve in Wales, particularly with regards to part-time students. We have made it possible for poorer students to fulfil their potential through education in a way that wasn't possible a few years ago. England should follow suit.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Whatever happened to the likely lads (and lasses)? - A UKIP tale

I am indebted to John Tilley on Facebook for this.

Of the 24 UKIP MEPs elected at the last EU elections in 2014, 16 no longer represent the party in the European Parliament.

Fifteen of those have left the party altogether.

1. Patrick O'Flynn - QUIT
2. Stuart Agnew
3. Tim Aker - QUIT
4. Roger Helmer - RESIGNED AS MEP (but replaced by Jonathan Bullock)
5. Margot Parker
6. Gerard Batten
7. Jonathan Arnott - QUIT
8. Paul Nuttall - QUIT
9. Louise Bours - QUIT
10. Steven Woolfe - QUIT
11. David Coburn - QUIT
12. Nigel Farage - QUIT
13. Janice Atkinson - EXPELLED
14. Diane James - QUIT
15. Ray Finch
16. William Dartmouth - QUIT
17. Julia Reid
18. Nathan Gill - QUIT
19. Jill Seymour
20. Jim Carver - QUIT
21. Bill Etheridge - QUIT
22. Jane Collins
23. Amjad Bashir - DEFECTED TO TORIES
24. Mike Hookem

You couldn't make it up.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Government to water down EU citizens' rights if there is no-deal Brexit

The Independent reports that the government has watered down a commitment by Theresa May to protect EU citizens’ rights in the event of a no-deal Brexit, despite an earlier pledge by the prime minister.

The paper says that an explanatory note published on Thursday, by the Department for Exiting the European Union said it would continue the existing settlement scheme for EU citizens living in the UK, but make it less generous compared with what is spelled out in the withdrawal agreement:

The less generous no-deal scheme would only apply to people living in the UK before 30 March 2019, as opposed to up to the end of 2020 as the one based on the withdrawal agreement would.

In addition, the deadline for applications would be shortened, there would be no right to a full appeal, and it would become easier for the UK to deport people convicted of minor crimes.

Non-EU family members would also be discriminated against under the no-deal version of the scheme, with a new cut-off date in 2022 proposed for them to join to live with their families.

The government also appears to have downgraded its aspirations on coordinating social security contributions with the EU if there is a no-deal, a policy that is intended to ensure EU citizens get the right pensions when they retire.

Such an approach will inevitably have an impact on the UK economy, but equally could well lead to UK citizens living and working abroad being disadvantaged. It sums up the short-sightedness that has characterised the Brexit process from the beginning.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Government u-turn could liberate gagged charities

The Times reports that Theresa May has pledged to review government’s contracts with charities after an investigation found that dozens of the organisations had been banned from criticising ministers, an issue I covered a few months ago.

The paper says that the Prime Minister has written to charities to say that officials were looking at how their contracts could be rewritten so that there was no doubt that they could speak out against policies:

The Times found that 40 charities and more than 300 companies with government contracts worth a total of £25 billion had been gagged.

Charities working with people claiming universal credit signed deals saying that they should “not do anything which may attract adverse publicity” to the work and pensions secretary. They also had to agree to “pay the utmost regard” to the minister’s “standing and reputation”. In 2015 dozens of other charities working with former prisoners were banned from criticising Chris Grayling, who was the justice secretary.

After the Times investigation, Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), wrote to Mrs May asking her to “confirm unambiguously” that charities would not be prevented from campaigning. “Any policy which mutes what the government might hear will only harm the policy process,” he wrote.

On Monday Mrs May replied, saying that the government “recognises the importance of the voice of charities and social enterprises in speaking out on behalf of beneficiaries”. She wrote that the clauses had been included in contracts to help the government to take action against providers who broke employment law or acted in an “unfair or unethical” way. She said they were not gagging clauses and “would never be used as a means of attempting to stifle debate” or “legitimate” criticism. “Please be assured that the government will consider ways of clarifying future contracts and grant agreements,” she wrote.

This clarity is very welcome. Any situation where bodies working in some of the most sensitive areas of Government are banned from raising concerns would be unacceptable, as well as working against good government.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Why the 'Norway option' is not the panacea some think

Listening to the news this morning it is clear that those MPs advocating the 'Norway option' as a solution to the current Parliamentary impasse over Brexit are gaining support. But is it the panacea some are claiming.

This particular solution would keep the UK in the EU single market, through membership of the European Economic Area, the 31-country zone that covers EU member states plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. It also means joining the European Free Trade Area, which also includes Switzerland. Its advocates say that their plan would help the UK minimise the economic impact of Brexit, while also accepting EU rules on goods, services, people and capital, as well as competition and state aid.

Senior officials say the UK would have to follow the relevant parts of the EU rulebook in full and would not be allowed to delay the adoption of laws, a cause of perennial tension between Brussels and EFTA countries.

The EEA agreement consists of 6,000 EU legal acts, up from 1,875 when the treaty came into force in 1994. About 500 EU laws are yet to be adopted by the four EFTA countries, including scores of banking regulations that the EU passed after the financial crisis.

However, as this article in the Guardian outlines, Norway-plus is not the nirvana some are claiming:

EU officials have long been sceptical about the UK choosing the Norway option, which curbs sovereignty. “Norway is the worst of all outcomes for the UK because that is Brexit in name only,” said the senior EU source.

Norway also pays more per capita into the EU budget than the UK, raising questions about “substantially smaller” contributions promised. While the EEA does not cover agriculture or fisheries, existing EU red lines are unchanged, meaning if the UK wants tariff-free access for goods it will face demands that existing rights for EU fishing fleets are maintained.

Joining the EEA also means accepting the free movement of people, the reddest of May’s red lines. Norway-plus advocates have seized on the “emergency brake“ in the EEA agreement, which allows a country to take unilateral measures in the event of “serious, economic or societal difficulty”.

Many in the EU think British MPs have misunderstood the working of the brake, which is subject to consultation with other EEA countries and could lead to fines for misuse.

“I’ve been a bit worried when I read about the marketing of this idea,” said Nymann-Lindegren, who used to participate in EU-EEA weekly meetings. While in theory the UK may be able to negotiate a new system, the current arrangement had limits, she said. “It is not designed for migration management on a regular basis, it is designed for extreme situations.”

So, it would cost us more, we would have no say on the rules and regulations we would be subject to, imposes tariffs on the export of fish and agricultural products and we would continue to be part of an agreement that allows free movement of people, no bad thing but nevertheless one of the Brexiteers' red lines.

Many of those advocating 'Norway-plus' campaigned alongside myself and other Remainers to stay in the EU. They should stop trying to appease the Brexiteers. The only beneficial solution for the UK economy is to stay in the EU.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Another day, another key UKIP resignation

We should be used by now to UKIP losing senior members on an almost daily basis, but the resignation of former leadership contender, Suzanne Evans yesterday seems more significant if only because it highlights the depths that the party's latest change of direction have plumbed.

Ms Evans announced she is quitting UKIP in a fiery statement claiming the party is “becoming a successor to the British National Party”. As the Standard reports, she hit out at the party’s leader, Gerard Batten, and the decision to appoint former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson as an adviser:

She wrote: “The NEC and UKIP MEPs might be willing to turn a blind eye to the obvious attempts by Gerard and Tommy Robinson to orchestrate a ‘Momentum-style’ takeover of UKIP, but I am not.

“Having planned to simply let my membership lapse in March, when it is due for renewal, I have today cancelled it instead.

“I joined UKIP because it was a Brexit party, and because I wanted a referendum on our EU membership.

“I would never have joined UKIP as it stands today, obsessed as it is with becoming a successor to the BNP and the EDL, and putting an increasingly hostile and vicious focus on attacking the Muslim community en masse.

“I am very proud of my work with UKIP in the past, and all I have previously helped the party achieve. I have no regrets on that front whatsoever.

“However, the time has most definitely come to completely sever my connection to UKIP because, quite simply, it is no longer the party I joined, and it is not now one I want any part of.”

Ms Evans' resignation follows on from MEP Patrick O’Flynn's high-profile departure.  He had represented the party in Europe since 2014, but left because of the UKIP leader's 'growing fixation' with Tommy Robinson.

He had previously supported a ban on former BNP and EDL members joining the party including Tommy Robinson, however, Tommy Robinson has now been appointed as an adviser to Gerard Batten.

Any claim that UKIP had of becoming a mainstream party has long disappeared with this movement to the right-wing fringes of UK politics.

Update: Now Nigel Farage has jumped ship

Monday, December 03, 2018

Is a bar on low-skilled migrants an act of self-immolation?

The UK Government is very bullish about one aspect of its so-called Brexit deal, the alleged end of free movement, but is that such a good thing? The Confederation of British Industry is not so sure.

As the Guardian reports, they believe that the new immigration system, which places severe limits on low-skilled immigration, risks inflicting “massive damage” to livelihoods and communities:

Carolyn Fairbairn, head of the Confederation of British Industry, issued her sternest warning to date about the new “global system” being drawn up by the government, which is expected to place major restrictions on visas for low-skilled workers. The business community, she said, was very concerned about suggestions that migrants earning under £30,000 a year might struggle to win the right to work in the UK.

“This idea that there’s a £30,000 cap below which is described as low-skilled and not welcome in the UK is a damaging perspective for government to have for our economy,” she said. “People earning less than £30,000 make a hugely valuable contribution to our economy and society, from lab technicians to people in the food industry.

“Many of our universities have staff on less than £30,000. So our offer to government is to work with us. We understand the challenge of building public trust, but we think there are much better answers.”

Theresa May's obsession with immigration continues to threaten the health of our economy:

Fairbairn said: “Our economy is hugely reliant in absolutely critical sectors on people who are so-called low-skilled, such as our care sector, caring for the older generation. We have a nursing shortage. This is a massively important sector.

“It is reasonable to want to bring the level of immigration down. But we must not underestimate the scale of the change that this would mean to our economy and the massive damage it would do to livelihoods and communities if we move too quickly.

“At the very least, we need to recognise there needs to be a transition period that needs to be reasonably long. Businesses can adapt, but they can’t do that overnight. If we do procure a system like this quickly, and some of the talk is that we would bring it in very quickly after the end of the Brexit transition period, we would hugely damage our economy. Jobs will be lost, communities will be damaged. There is a strong alarm bell from business on this.”

This is a far more complex issue than the rhetoric recognises, something the UK Government needs to acknowledge and act on.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Brexit: Facts vs Fear with Stephen Fry


Saturday, December 01, 2018

The Prometheus syndrome

For those who are not aware of the legend, was a Titan, culture hero, and trickster figure who is credited with the creation of man from clay, and who defies the gods by stealing fire and giving it to humanity. As a punishment, he is sentenced to eternal torment. The immortal Prometheus was bound to a rock, where each day an eagle, the emblem of Zeus, was sent to feed on his liver, which would then grow back overnight to be eaten again the next day.

I am not sure at the moment whether to apply that analogy to Theresa May's Government, to Brexit itself, or to the British people who are having to suffer the torment of watching both sink to their inevitable and painful doom in slow motion.

The resignation of yet another Government Minister last night, is being seen as a significant act. As the Telegraph reports, Sam Gyimah is the seventh member of the Government to quit since Theresa May unveiled the draft Withdrawal Agreement. Mr Gyimah, who was the the universities and science minister, says the plan was “not in the British national interest” and that voting for it would “set ourselves up for failure” by surrendering “our voice, our vote and our veto”. He cites the EU’s continued wrangling over the Galileo satellite project as the deciding factor in his resignation.

Significantly, Mr Gyimah says it is wrong to rule out alternatives that merit “serious consideration”, such as extending the Article 50 deadline and “asking the people again what future they want”. The paper adds that this is another blow for the Prime Minister at the end of a week in which Donald Trump said her plan jeopardised the chances of a UK-US trade deal and the number of Tory MPs to publicly state they will vote against the plan in the Commons reached 100.

Downing Street is said to be now braced for further ministerial resignations over the weekend before Parliament begins formally debating the Withdrawal Agreement on Tuesday.

Whether Theresa May's Government will still be in one piece at the time of the vote in Parliament has yet to be seen. Presumably, she is relying on Zeus to put it back together again prior to another day of torment and torture.

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