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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

A failure of opposition

It may seem strange to argue that the Tory Government's 220 vote defeat on a major plank of policy is not just a failure of Government, but of the opposition as well, but bear with me.

There is no doubt in my view that Theresa May is the architect of her own misfortune. She squandered a Tory majority in 2017 with a snap General Election, which she effectively lost. Despite that she hitched her fortunes to the DUP, making any settlement with the EU impossible, just because of the Irish border issues. She is a fighter, but she is flailing around in the ring on her own, boxing shadows.

In these circumstances, it was the duty of the opposition, in the national interest, to take a clear and constructive position. The Liberal Democrats, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP did that. The official opposition under Jeremy Corbyn however, sat on the fence and played it for party advantage. For that alone, in my view, he has disqualified himself as a potential Prime Minister. You cannot play games with the country's future in this way.

Corbyn argues that this can only be resolved by a General Election, and yet he has no alternative position on Brexit to put before electors. He has now tabled a motion of no confidence, but in doing so has chosen a moment when he cannot win. If he had been serious about toppling this Tory Government then, as I argued here, he would have tabled that motion when Theresa May withdrew the first 'meaningful vote' in early December, and before Tory MPs attempted their own coup d'grace.

But what of the way forward? Is a third referendum, a people's vote now a possibility? One Labour MP argued on Twitter this morning that yesterday's vote leaves us with no question to pose in a further plebiscite. I disagree. A modified deal, could still feature on a ballot paper, on the grounds that MPs cannot be trusted to determine the future of the country and, as this is the only deal available, the people should be asked to give direction to Parliament.

The problem is that I don't believe that a referendum, asking people to choose between  the deal or staying in the EU, would get through the House of Commons. I believe that MPs would insist on adding a third options of 'no deal' to the ballot paper, and that would make a plebiscite unworkable.

It is not that I don't believe people could make an informed choice on three very clear but complex options, though the campaigns would be very difficult, and we would risk a low turnout, it is that a three choice referendum is likely to leave us in limbo, without a clear majority for any option. Even if we had multi-choice voting the outcome would be disputed, with all sides crying foul. It has got to the stage, in my view, whereby a people's vote is no longer a viable way out of this mess.

That leaves us with the House of Commons as the final arbiters of the Brexit dilemma. God help us. It would mean Labour having to let their MPs vote with their conscience, for Corbyn to stop playing politics with the country's future and for the Prime Minister to start acting in a non-partisan, cross-party way. But, if all of those things happened, and it is unlikely, what would be the compromise?

The Norway-plus option is one possible solution, but as I pointed out here, it is far from perfect. It would cost us more, we would have no say on the rules and regulations we would be subject to, it 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.

There is of course a no-deal exit, with all the chilling consequences for our economy that involves. I doubt if many MPs want that. but we could slip into it by default, and of course MPs could vote to stay in the EU altogether.

What happens now depends on the Government's poker face. My bet is that May will go back to the EU, get some minor changes to the non-binding political agreement, and then sit it out until MPs, faced with exiting without a deal, decide that it is better than nothing.

Whether MPs would allow her to get away with that is also unlikely. They may well decide to take charge of the process themselves, but can they get a majority for any alternative.? The country really is going to hell in a handcart.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Tory hypocrisy on People's vote exposed

Every time I watch Question Time I want to throw something at the television screen. Yesterday, it was possible to see similar levels of frustration from the Welsh commentariat, as they reacted to claims by Theresa May in a draft speech, that both sides had accepted the result of the Welsh assembly referendum in 1997, and by implication should also accept the result of the Brexit referendum.

The Guardian tells us that in the original version of the speech, given yesterday at a factory in Stoke-on-Trent, the prime minister was due to say the result of the narrowly-won 1997 referendum to create a Welsh assembly was “accepted by both sides”, and the legitimacy of the vote was never questioned.

But when the relevant bill was put to the Commons after the Welsh referendum, many Tory MPs, including the then newly elected May, voted against it. In addition, the Conservative manifesto of 2005 also called for a further referendum on the assembly on expanding its powers, keeping it as it was or abolishing it.

May and many other Conservatives also voted against the creation of a Scottish devolved assembly in 1997, despite the referendum on this being won by 74% to 26%.

As if to make matters worse for the Prime Minister, she was due to claim that the majority in the 1997 referendum was just 0.3% when it was 0.6%. That is particularly significant because of the contribution of one Tory to the debate on the Government of Wales Bill in 1997.

Swansea-born Tory MP, Nigel Evans told the Commons that it would have been better if the percentage majority in favour "had been in double figures": "That would have settled the issue once and for all, but it did not and it remains unsettled," he said.

Mr. Evans is one of those arguing against seeking a further referendum on Theresa May's deal, despite the fact that the majority in 2016 was only in single figures.

Unsurprisingly, the passage was dropped from the speech that Theresa May actually delivered yesterday. But why the opposition to a people's vote when such a course is entirely consistent with her views on other plebiscites?

Monday, January 14, 2019

Government uses English school data to enforce immigration rules

The Guardian reports that the UK government has revoked parents’ right to retract information on their children’s nationality and country of birth submitted to the English schools census, months before Brexit throws the immigration status of 3 million European residents into doubt.

They say that officials from the Department for Education (DfE) collected the data on 6 million English schoolchildren, before it was halted last June in the face of opposition from critics who said it was an attempt to turn schools into internal border checkpoints:

They add that confusion over the policy had already led some schools to instruct only pupils who were not “white British” to bring in identity documents, spreading alarm that it was encouraging racism and a culture of institutional hostility to migrants.

Now ministers have confirmed that not only will they continue to store the data already collected, but also that parents can no longer ask schools to enter “refused”, which instructs the DfE to delete their children’s data.

The significance of this is in what the data is being used for, apparently in defiance of data protection laws:

The schools census is a termly collection of details of pupils in every state school by the DfE. It includes details such as age, address and academic attainment, which are recorded in the national pupil database. Figures released in December showed that in the year to September 2018 the Home Office requested data on 835 children from the DfE, which provided it in 247 cases.

When concerns were first raised about collection of children’s nationality and country of birth, the DfE had insisted that the new data would not be shared with immigration enforcement authorities, that it was only being collected for “analytical, statistical and research purposes”, and that parents could opt out whenever they wanted.

But when it emerged that names and addresses of children collected through the census had since 2015 been secretly shared every month with immigration enforcement, thousands of parents in 2016 heeded calls by human rights groups and teachers’ unions to boycott the questions.

After a freedom of information battle, campaigners subsequently exposed a memorandum of understanding between the DfE and the Home Office that showed that officials had originally intended for nationality and birth country data to be used for immigration enforcement.

In a move that suggests ministers had misled public over their plans, the memorandum had been quietly amended some months after public opposition emerged – and after assurances had already been given – to remove references to nationality and country of birth.

This sharing of data, for purposes it was not originally collected for, must be contrary to the new (and even previous) data protection regulations. Let's hope that the Welsh and Scottish Governments are not party to it.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

A very British Coup?

The Sunday Times characterises an attempt by senior MPs to seize control of Brexit negotiations and side line the prime minister by rewriting the standing orders of the House of Commons as a “very British coup”, but the real surprise is that it has taken so long to get to this point.

The paper says that at least two groups of rebel MPs are plotting to change Commons rules so motions proposed by backbenchers take precedence over government business, upending the centuries-old relationship between executive and legislature.

They say that Downing Street believes that would enable MPs to suspend article 50, putting Brexit on hold, and could even lead to the referendum result being overturned — a move that would plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.

Government Chief Whip, Julian Smith is quoted as saying, “Such an attempt represents a clear and present danger to all government business. Without control of the order paper, the government has no control over the House of Commons and the parliamentary business and legislation necessary to progress government policies. The government would lose its ability to govern.”

In normal circumstances one might have sympathy for this position, but the one thing that has become very clear since the 2017 General Election is that the government lost control over the House of Commons, parliamentary business and legislation some time ago, has been in capable of governing since May produced her Brexit deal, and has not got a clue how to resolve the Brexit mess they got us into.

Any Prime Minister capable of governing would be able to block these changes to standing orders and carry on as normal. The fact that they believe they will lose this vote, just reinforces its necessity. If Ministers cannot command the confidence of the House of Commons on one of the most fundamental and far-reaching issues of the day, then MPs must take the initiative and do it for them. That is what we elected them for.

Isn't that what 'taking back control' meant? Or was that another one of those ambiguous phrases designed to win support whilst propping up the establishment? For once the Brexiteers are reaping what they sowed.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

UK Government challenged in court on ID voting trial

I reported last year how the introduction of ID checks for all voters in pilot areas, had led to an estimated one in five polling stations turning away voters for not having ID. This just reinforced the perception that the motive behind this idea was voter suppression, and had nothing to do with tackling voter fraud, which is at fairly miniscule levels.

The Electoral Commission says there were only 21 cases of alleged in-person voter fraud in 2014, 44 in 2016, and 28 in 2017 - just 0.000063% per vote cast.

Five areas, Bromley, Gosport, Swindon, Watford and Woking, piloted the anti-fraud scheme in last May's local elections. Voters were told to show their polling card or full photo ID, depending on which area they lived in. But reports swiftly emerged of people being turned away. That was also evident on social media as people tweeted their experiences or the experiences of others that they had observed.

The Democracy Volunteers group published a shocking snap report that claimed voters were refused a ballot paper because they did not have the correct ID in 21% of polling stations. This was equal to about 1.7% of all voters across the five pilot areas being turned away, the group. The study did not count whether any or all of those voters came back with the correct ID, but that is unlikely in the majority of cases.

As I suggested in December 2016, measures used in some Republican controlled US states such as Florida, of introducing barriers to voting for ethnic minorities and poorer communities have been in place for some considerable time, with decisive effects in close elections.

Given that the Electoral Commission say that 3.5 million electors or 7.5% of the electorate, would have no acceptable piece of photo ID, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the Tories are attempting to replicate this outcome.

But now a pensioner has issued a legal challenge to the government’s voter ID pilots. As the Mirror reports, Neil Coughlan, 64, says he doesn't have photo ID and believes many of his neighbours don't have the documents to allow them to vote either.

He believes that Voter ID will unfairly discriminate against himself and others across the country and is seeking permission from the courts to apply for a Judicial Review.

The problem for opposition MPs, is that the Government is forcing these pilots through parliament using secondary legislation, meaning they will not have the opportunity to scrutinise the plans. According to Neil’s legal team, the Government through the Minister of the Cabinet Office is acting unlawfully in doing so, as it does not have the power under the Representation of the People Act 2000 to introduce pilots like these which restrict voting rights.

To cover his legal fees, Mr Coughlan, has set up a crowdfunding page and already raised over £20,000. Good luck to him I say.

Friday, January 11, 2019

On low carb diets and other fads

One of my favourite Woody Allen lines is in the film Sleeper, when the main character wakes up 200 years in the future to be told that all of today's health food fads have been proved to be wrong. It is more a commentary on societal trends than science, but funny nevertheless.

I was reminded of this line again, when I saw this article in yesterday's Guardian. They report that a review by the World Health Organisation has concluded that eating more fibre, found in wholegrain cereals, pasta and bread as well as nuts and pulses, will cut people’s chances of heart disease and early death. They add that this is incompatible with fashionable low carb diets:

The research is led by Prof Jim Mann’s team at the University of Otago in New Zealand, who also carried out the major review that informed WHO guidance on curbing sugar in the diet, leading to sugar taxes around the world.

Sugar is a “bad” carbohydrate, but fibre is found in “good” carbohydrates such as wholegrain bread and oat-based muesli. However, the overwhelming backlash against sugar has led to popular diets that reject carbohydrates, including the fibrous sort that can, say the scientists, save lives.

Mann told the Guardian that the research “does contribute to the debate considerably. Here we have got very strong evidence that a high-fibre diet, which for the majority of people is at least high-ish in carbohydrates, has an enormous protective effect – a wide range of diseases including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer benefit from a high-carbohydrate diet.”

But he said it would not end the “diet wars”, because there were so many vested interests involved. “It’s twofold. There is the commercial vested interest, which there is an enormous amount of from chefs and celebrity chefs and so on. And there is also the professional vested interest.” This included some doctors and scientists, he said.

The review found that we should be eating at least 25g to 29g of fibre a day, with indications that over 30g is even better. Most people in the world manage less than 20g.

Among those who ate the most fibre, the analysis found a 15-30% reduction in deaths from all causes, as well as those related to the heart, compared with those eating the least fibre.

Coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer were reduced by 16-24%. The results mean 13 fewer deaths and six fewer cases of coronary heart disease for every 1,000 people who eat high-fibre foods compared with those who do not.

To be fair, I think these findings are in line with the expert advice we have been receiving for some time. Time to give away those left-over Christmas chocolates I think.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Parliament can take control when it wants to, but it remains an old boys club

Apologies for the length of the headline, but I thought it was important to encapsulate the frustration felt by many at the way that the Speaker and his allies seem prepared to quite rightly stand up for MPs against the Government, but still ignores proposed reforms that would make the Commons a more women-friendly place.

In the Guardian, Jessica Elgot describes how Speaker Bercow provoked fury from ministers and Brexit supporters on Wednesday, by accepting an amendment which radically curtails the timetable for Theresa May to prepare a “plan B” to present to parliament should she lose the vote next week on her Brexit deal.

She says that Tory backbenchers were visibly enraged during the points of order after Bercow permitted the controversial amendment:

Crispin Blunt, a Brexiter, told Bercow: “Many of us will now have an unshakeable conviction that the referee of our affairs, not least because you made public your opinion and your vote on the issue of Brexit, is no longer neutral.”

Despite the visceral dislike from many in the Conservative party, Bercow has the firm support of many Labour MPs, precisely because of his willingness to hold the government’s feet to the fire over significant Brexit legislation.

He has dramatically increased the number of urgent questions which he grants to allow backbenchers to call cabinet ministers to the Commons.

May has regularly been kept on her feet for up to three hours during statements until the Speaker has been certain that every backbencher wanting to speak has had the opportunity.

As others have written, Bercow has strengthened the power of MPs in holding the government to account, and has reasserted the authority of Parliament in scrutinising and frustrating an over-mighty executive.

He has been helped of course by the fact that he oversees a hung Parliament, and by the divisions amongst MPs within their own parties, but whatever the reason, his interventions could prove to be crucial in helping to rebalance our main democratic institution.

The question has to be asked though, if Bercow is able to exercise such influence, why is it that other important reforms to the working practices of the House of Commons remain unactioned?

As I wrote a few days ago, despite cross-party and government support for change, new parents and pregnant MPs continue to find the system stacked against them. Their condition is treated as a disability in terms of doing their job, whereas in other work places, their needs would be accommodated and they would be able to work normally throughout their 'confinement' and as a new parent.

It is possible of course that in frustrating the government, Bercow is motivated by a personal dislike of certain Ministers, the government and its policies. That is certainly the view of many Tory MPs.

But if he wants to be a truly reforming Speaker, it is not enough just to give MPs the upper hand over the executive. He needs to also drag the Commons into the twenty-first century in the way it operates.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Pandering to the thugs

The uproar regarding Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay's* suggestion that intimidating protests outside parliament should rule out a fresh referendum was both predictable and justified. This is appeasement, worse it actually encourages the thugs that their intimidation is getting results. No wonder his fellow MPs are not amused.

As the Independent reports, Labour MPs Chuka Umunna and Ben Bradshaw have branded the comment “disgraceful” and a willingness to “give in to fascist thugs” respectively. And senior Tories Justine Greening and Sarah Wollaston have accused Mr Barclay of being ready to bow down to “mob rule” and to “appease right-wing thuggery”. All of which appears to be perfectly reasonable points of view:

Ms Greening told the PoliticsHome website: “What fuels the thugs who abused Anna Soubry is when ministers won’t outright condemn these thugs and their intimidation.

“That sends a dangerous message that ministers will take it into account in decisions. That’s called mob rule.”

Dr Wollaston said: “This is orchestrated intimidation against MPs, journalists and members of the public that should not be tolerated.

“No one should suggest that we should alter our democratic process simply to appease right-wing thuggery.” Mr Umunna tweeted: “Disgraceful for the Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay on @BBCr4today to suggest the abuse and intimidation @Anna_Soubry was subject to yesterday is a reason not to hold a democratic #PeopleVote.”

And Mr Bradshaw added: “Disgraceful comments from rookie #brexit secretary Stephen Barclay claiming the attacks on @Anna_Soubry are reason not to have a #peoplesvote on May’s botched deal. Since when has Britain give in to fascist thugs?”

The good news is that the police appear to have woken up following the intervention of over 50 MPs and the Speaker. Some clearer guidelines for officers patrolling in the vicinity of Parliament would not go amiss.

*Yes, I had to check to get his name right as well.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

When protest spills over into intimidation

I am one of the first to stand up and defend people's right to protest, to offend others and even to be offensive, if it is justified. But there is a line to be drawn between legitimate protest and intimidation, and yesterday's confrontation with Anna Soubry MP crossed that line.

As the Guardian reports, dozens of MPs have written to the UK’s most senior police officer to raise concerns about safety outside parliament after the Conservative MP faced chants from protesters on Monday calling her a “Nazi”. Ironically, the tactics adopted by these protestors have far more in common with those of Hitler's thugs, than anything they may be accusing Ms. Soubry of:

At least 55 parliamentarians signed the letter to the Metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, after the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, urged officers to do more to protect MPs and Soubry criticised the lack of police response to the abuse.

Scotland Yard later confirmed it had opened an investigation into whether any offences had been committed when chants of “Soubry is a Nazi” could clearly be heard while the pro-remain MP was being interviewed by BBC News on Abingdon Green, a grassed area outside parliament used by broadcasters.

It is the second time in recent weeks that Soubry has been targeted by a small group of pro-Brexit protesters wearing yellow vests, some of whom have links to the far right. On the earlier occasion, she was surrounded by shouting men calling her a traitor.

The MPs’ letter to Dick reads: “After months of peaceful and calm protests by groups representing a range of political views on Brexit, an ugly element of individuals with strong far-right and extreme-right connections, which your officers are well aware of, have increasingly engaged in intimidatory and potentially criminal acts targeting members of parliament, journalists, activists and members of the public.

“We understand there are ongoing investigations but there appears to be an ongoing lack of coordination in the response from the police and appropriate authorities including with Westminster borough policing, and despite clear assurances this would be dealt with following incidents before Christmas, there have been a number of further serious and well publicised incidents today.”

In the letter, the MPs said they wanted to ensure that people retained the right to protest peacefully outside parliament. “It is, however, utterly unacceptable for members of parliament, journalists, activists and members of the public to be subject to abuse, intimidation and threatening behaviour and indeed potentially serious offences while they go about their work.”

Gina Miller makes the point on Radio Wales this morning that it is women in particular who are being targeted by these people, and that despite that, police are there in insufficient numbers and are failing to intervene.

And it is not just MPs who are facing this intimidation. Protestors are targeting journalists and other interviewees, echoes of Trump's verbal assaults on the media, attacking the messenger not the message. The concern of course is that this intimidation will spill over into violence, and that we will have another tragedy such as that with Jo Cox.

If the media are to continue working from College Green, and if we are to continue to respect the democratic right to protest, then the police need to offer greater protection to those being targeted so that both sides can go about their business without fear.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Will Corbyn listen to his members on Brexit?

There was a damning piece by Andrew Rawnsley in yesterday's Observer in which he argued that if we are to stop Brexit, then Jeremy Corbyn will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to support a referendum on the final deal.

It is not a new sentiment. It has been clear for some time that Corbyn is actually in favour of us leaving the EU. As Rawnsley says, the clearest thing the Labour leader said in a recent interview was when he attacked the EU’s rules on competition and subsidies: “I don’t want to be told by somebody else that we can’t use state aid in order to be able to develop industry in this country.”

As the columnist says, this is a variation on one of the ancient arguments from the 1970s against Europe:

It was often heard from Mr Corbyn’s antecedents on the left who opposed what was then the EEC because they saw it as nothing better than a capitalist club constructed to do down the workers and thwart socialism. It is highly disputable whether EU membership would prevent a Corbyn government from pursuing a state-directed industrial strategy. What matters in understanding him and his motivation is that he clearly believes this to be true. It is an argument he often returns to whenever asked about Brexit.

In this Corbyn is out-of-step with his own party and with Labour voters. Some 73% of people currently identifying as Labour supporters think that the UK was wrong to vote to leave the EU. That rises to a massive 89% among Labour members. The ESRC-funded Party Members Project led by Professor Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London found that in another referendum, 88% of Labour members and 71% of Labour voters would cast a ballot to remain within the EU.

And yet, despite being elected on a platform of listening to Labour Party members, Corbyn continues to dig his heels in, and in doing so offer sustenance to the Tory-led Government.

Rawnsley's conclusion is clear: Sometimes, the simplest explanations for human behaviour are the best ones. The Labour leader is not making any effort to prevent Brexit because he doesn’t want to prevent Brexit. 

No wonder so many Labour members are leaving the party to join the only UK-wide party opposing Brexit, the Liberal Democrats.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Why is the House of Commons operating in a time warp?

MPs like Jacob Rees Mogg may well convey the impression of living in a bygone age, indeed one feels that he and some of his fellow Brexiteers would be far more comfortable in the age of Palmerston, Earl Grey and Wellington, but that cannot be the standard by which a twenty-first century democracy measures itself.

It is not just the House of Lords which needs reforming. Some of the archaic practises of the House of Commons also need to be changed. We should no longer be catering for part-time MPs, who care for their non-political business interests in the morning, and have a long lunch at their club, before appearing in the House late afternoon/early evening to vote.

The vast majority of MPs do not behave like this. They are at their desk early in the morning and work through the day and into the evening hours. When they are not in Westminster, they are in their constituency. It is not a standard nine-to-five job by any stretch of the imagination, but that does not mean that MPs should suffer inferior working conditions to others.

Of course the biggest change since the days of Palmerston is the number of women in the House of Commons. There are some backwoodsmen who might still argue that a pregnant MP or a new mother has no business being in work. However, this is the twenty-first century and 99.99% of us are more enlightened than that. So, why is it taking so long for the Commons to reform its practises to allow new parents to do their job, in the same way as they would in any other place of work?

This is a question being posed by a number of MPs, frustrated at the glacial pace of change in the House of Commons. As the Independent reports, pregnant MPs are planning to challenge John Bercow to bring in changes to archaic parliamentary rules that force expectant mothers to vote right up to their due date.

They say that a cross-party delegation of MPs will meet the speaker this month to implore him to introduce a new baby leave system, which would allow proxy voting for new mothers and fathers:

Plans for a proxy voting system – where MPs can nominate colleagues to vote on their behalf – were unanimously approved in February 2018 but progress to introduce the measure has stalled, despite support from Commons leader Andrea Leadsom.

A newly formed women’s caucus in the Commons will now demand the system is brought in for a trial by 1 February, with three Labour MPs and one Tory expecting babies.

Maria Miller, the Conservative chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, told The Independent: “It has been kicked into the long grass and I think that is shameful.

“Any reform at all. The baby leave, how many debates have we had on that? We’ve had two debates on that and it still hasn’t gone through.

“We’ve got a delegation of pregnant women going to see him [the speaker].”

She added: “Whilst you have a push for more women to come into parliament, we have got to make it a place that’s attractive to a wider cross-section of women and most women would find it quite difficult to come to somewhere that is run the way this place is run, which is more like an 18th century gentleman’s club than it is a legislative body for the country.”

The current system for parental leave is informal and organised by the political parties, where whips make so-called pairing arrangements so an MP from a rival party does not vote as well as the absent politician.

When new mothers have to rely on an antiquated pairing system to do their job, and when MPs like Tory Chairman, Brandon Lewis can break those arrangements at politically convenient times, as he did with Jo Swinson, then it is clear that change is needed.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

Yet another reason to reform the House of Lords

I put this article to one side earlier in the week, but the Independent's piece reporting the views of the House of Lords Speaker that the number of peers should be reduced to remove "passengers" who do not contribute to debates has been nagging away at me.

Norman Fowler says there are some members of the Lords who were given life peerages without understanding the requirements of the job. He wants to educe the size of the Lords from around 800 to a maximum of 600. That would involve encouraging some peers to retire and restricting the number of people being granted peerages:

Mr Blair appointed 374 people to the upper House, while Mr Cameron ennobled 260.

Lord Fowler, a cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher, said a small minority of peers had accepted their appointment without understanding the responsibilities of the role.

He said: “You do have extraordinary cases where people have come in and after a few days they’ve come to the conclusion that, actually they’re in the wrong place doing the wrong thing – or rather not doing the wrong thing - and the last thing we want in the House of Lords is passengers.”

“It’s partly unfair, because there were some good people who came in. What I think is fair to say is that on that, as with other appointments, there was no process in which they came before a commission and it was explained to a prospective new peer what was involved in the job.”

Even in the days of hereditary peerages, the House of Lords was filled with people or relatives of people, who had got there through patronage. That is doubly so today. What a way to run a country.

There is no doubt that the Lords do a good job in scrutinising legislation and holding the government to account, something that rarely happens in the Commons nowadays. But the system is flawed and it is not just the numbers of peers that are the problem. There is no accountability.

If we really want to sort this mess out then tinkering won't do it. There needs to be a fully elected second chamber, albeit with guarantees of regional and national balance, a proportional system of election and for long but limited terms. I would also favour election by thirds so as to maintain some semblance of continuity.

It is not a big ask. Other countries do it very successfully. Why can't the UK?

Friday, January 04, 2019

Why the no-deal scenario suits Theresa May

Quietly, slowly, almost imperceptibly, the possibility of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal has crept up on us as a real possibility. It is a perception encouraged by the Government's own publicity, as it releases detail after detail of their contingency measures, including pledging £13 million to a Ferry company that has no ferries and whose terms and conditions have allegedly been borrowed from a fast food chain.

The idea that this disastrous outcome may actually happen is further encouraged as institutions react to the narrative with their own scare stories. Today, we have higher education leaders writing to MPs to say it is "no exaggeration" to warn that a 'no-deal' exit is "one of the biggest threats" the institutions have ever faced and that it would take universities "decades to recover". They say it would undermine scientific research and threaten universities' £21bn contribution to the UK economy.

Then there is the story in today's Guardian that 1,000 police officers from England and Scotland are to begin training for deployment in Northern Ireland in case of disorder from a no-deal Brexit. As if we have any police officers to spare.

And rather than trying to calm everybody down, Government Ministers continue to stoke the fear, because they know that escalating panic is the best way to get their defective exit package through Parliament. They are hoping to scare MPs into voting for it, whilst at the same time influencing public opinion into thinking that they have dodged a bullet, when in fact leaving, even on Theresa May's terms, would also be disastrous for the UK economy. It just wouldn't be as bad as a no deal.

But voting down May's deal does not make crashing out of the EU inevitable. The Government have options, one of which is to extend the period we have to sort things out before we leave. They could then try to renegotiate (unlikely), reconsider Brexit altogether, or go to the country in a referendum and ask us to decide between their deal and staying in the EU.

If Theresa May does nothing after Parliament votes down her deal, then yes we will crash out of the EU and all the bad stuff will happen. But this scaremongering is starting to look like a ploy so that Ministers can get their own way. Don't we deserve better? How about trusting the people for once, and letting us decide?

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Government minister in denial on Brexit

On the plus side, Jeremy Hunt's tenure as Foreign Secretary is a breath of fresh air compared to the record of his predecessor, Boris Johnson. He appears to read and understand his briefs and actually engages with crisis situations when his fellow citizens are in trouble abroad. On the negative side however, he appears to be in denial on what his support for a no-deal Brexit will actually mean.

As the Independent reports, Hunt is under fire for claiming Britain’s close “connections” with other EU countries will be crucial to the UK’s future success, despite his strong support for Brexit. The paper says that on a visit to Singapore on Wednesday, the foreign secretary will hail the UK’s “friendship with our neighbours in Europe” as a key reason to be optimistic for trade:

Speaking days after pointing to low-tax Singapore as a post-Brexit model, Mr Hunt will call for Britain to “act as an invisible chain linking together the democracies of the world”.

And he will say: “In a world where it is rarely possible for one country to achieve its ambitions alone, we have some of the best connections of any country – whether through the Commonwealth, our alliance with the United States and our friendship with our neighbours in Europe.”

But the comments were criticised as “utterly bizarre and short-sighted”, less than three months before Brexit, after Mr Hunt expressed support for crashing out of the EU with no deal if necessary.

Stephen Doughty, a Labour supporter of the anti-Brexit Best for Britain group, said “leading diplomats, military figures and former foreign secretaries” had warned Brexit would weaken the UK on the international stage.

“At a time when challenges from insecurity and extremism to Russian threats to climate change demand more not less global cooperation, Mr Hunt is leading the charge to break one of our most successful and impactful alliances – the one we have as part of the EU,” he said. 

No wonder we are in such a mess, when Ministers don't understand the consequences of their own policies.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Why the World Trade Organisation offers no solutions

There is a very useful article in today's Times from Danny Finkelstein explaining why the World Trade Organisation (or WTO as everybody refers to it) offers no solution to the problems Brexiteers argue exist with the European Union.

Finkelstein starts by outlining a brief history of the WTO, and in particular, how the US under Trump remains hostile to the body. He says that in 1948, 53 countries signed the Havana Charter which envisaged the creation of an International Trade Organisation (ITO).

This body was to sit alongside the World Bank and the IMF, and would help to open up free trade. It would drive reforms of global tariffs, regulations, employment standards and economic development and adjudicate on domestic decisions in these areas.

However, the ITO was doomed. American politicians, suspicious of the powers it would have over them, rejected the plan, and the other signatories followed suit. Instead, for almost half a century, they used what was supposed to be a temporary arrangement: the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. It wasn’t until 1995 that the WTO was finally established.

He says that the WTO is weaker and less ambitious than the ITO was intended to be, but that doesn’t mean it has been any less controversial. It makes rules for global trade and its appellate body makes binding judgments in disputes. So of course it is controversial:

Its meetings have produced riots so violent that they paralysed decision making. Much of this was caused by protests against the perceived failure of the organisation to take labour and environmental standards seriously enough.

But the greater danger to its existence now comes from those who believe the WTO is overweening and failing to protect the domestic interests of its members. And in the vanguard is the Trump administration.

The US trade representative Robert Lighthizer has become one of Washington’s most powerful figures. His signature policy is to squeeze the WTO as part of a trade war with China. Lighthizer’s view, and the president’s, is that the WTO is biased against the US. He has long regarded its binding judgments as anti-democratic and some of the appellate body’s recent pro-China trade rulings have deepened his feeling that it has grown too big for its boots.

So the US is simply vetoing new appointments to the body, which is now down to three judges, the minimum needed to constitute a judging panel. It would not be quorate if there was a further dispute between China and the US, as judges would have to recuse themselves. And by the end of the year two of the current body finish their term. Unless the US removes its veto, the WTO will not be able to rule on its own rules. Beyond that the president has threatened that America might withdraw from the WTO. Something that proved the death sentence for its predecessor.

This is obviously of great concern to us, as we contemplate having to rely on WTO rules if we leave the EU without a deal this year. But there is a broader point. The WTO row shows that all the ingredients of our Brexit dispute will persist whatever happens.

Trading rules restrict the ability of countries to do what they want. That, after all, is their entire point. They stop nations engaging in a destructive competition to erect barriers against other nations.

Jeremy Corbyn provides the perfect example when he complains about the way the EU prevents countries from taking steps to promote domestic industry, so-called state aid. But the reason for keeping such rules in place is simple. State aid is like standing up in a crowd in order to get a better view. It makes sense for you in the few seconds before everyone stands up so they can carry on seeing. In the end, everyone is standing but no one has a better view.

So it makes sense to have an international agreement that prevents the sort of unilateral state aid that distorts competition. But that creates a problem: who makes these rules and who judges them? The judges have to be neutral, and the international bodies they represent are bound to seem remote from voters. So a democratic deficit develops.

In other words, not only does the WTO have the same weaknesses as the European free trade area, but it is being sabotaged by the US under Trump, to the extent that by the time we come to rely on it, the WTO could be completely emasculated. Finkelstein's conclusion is worth reflecting on:

At the extremes, there are three choices. First, to ignore democracy because it is just too hard to govern global trade democratically. Second, to ignore social policy, and have lots of free trade with labour standards decided at national level so the voters have control. Or third, to dispense with globalisation despite its economic advantages.

None of these is desirable or even practical. So you have to compromise. Lose a bit of democratic control, tolerate global trading that has some frictions, share control of social policy between national and international bodies.

It is easy to criticise any body set up to manage international trade, but the only way we can work is through compromise and, given the many disadvantages of the WTO, Trump's policy of dismantling it, and the many advantages of staying within the EU, where we conduct the majority of our trade, the only logical thing to do is to abandon Brexit altogether.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Is a no-deal Brexit in US interests?

Those of us who believe that President Trump would like to see the UK crash out of the European Union without a deal, so that he and his government can exploit our isolation and weakness in the world of trade to impose an unacceptable deal on us, which will lower food standards and compromise our public services, may feel our view has been validated by the recent intervention of the US Ambassador.

As the Independent reports, Woody Johnson, the US ambassador told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the kind of comprehensive trade deal with Britain sought by Donald Trump does not look possible under Theresa May’s Brexit plans.

He cast doubt on whether negotiating a “quick” and “massive” trade deal between the US and UK is feasible if the prime minister’s approach is approved. and said he detected a “defeatism” about Brexit in the UK. Mr. Johnson even felt able to take a swipe at the prime minister by suggesting that the UK was “in need of leadership”. If he means Donald Trump's kind of leadership then he can keep it.

The problem for the USA of course, is that May's deal would see the UK continue to adhere to a common rulebook with the EU after Brexit, which could mean some US goods do not meet required standards. America would likely push for farm produce, in particular, to be a part of any trade deal.

If staying in the EU, or at least maintaining our presence in the single market, means sending Donald Trump and his insulting trade agreement packing then that is another reason for a re-think on Brexit.

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