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Wednesday, February 26, 2020

How to undermine a household brand

Nobody is saying that the new Chancellor of the Exchequer is toxic, after all even us political geeks can barely remember his name, but it might not have been a good idea to alienate a well-known household brand in the first few days of his tenure, even if he does represent a Yorkshire constituency.

Of course the first thing that sprung to my mind when I saw this picture was a question: he does know that Yorkshire tea is not grown in Yorkshire, doesn't he? However, others saw it differently and the poor handler of the brand's twitter account was inundated with offensive messages following the publication of the chancellor's tweet.

This prompts other questions: why is the twitter-sphere so awful, why do its members lack all sense of proportion, and what was it exactly that made many on there think that a politician pictured in the process of making a cup of tea meant that the makers of that tea actually endorse him and all he stands for?

Nevertheless, as the Independent reports, the Harrogate-based company – which had nothing to do with the photo – found itself bombarded with a stream of online vitriol from people purportedly antagonised at the notion someone who does not share their political views might drink the same tea as them - boycotts were called for; demands for apologies made.

They say that the family-owned company appears to have caved into the pressure and distanced itself from Mr Sunak, who won his seat of Richmond with a majority of 27,210:

“We weren't asked or involved,” the company wrote of the picture.

It continued by making an in-vogue call for kindness online.

“On Friday, the chancellor shared a photo of our tea. Politicians do that sometimes (Jeremy Corbyn did it in 2017),” it wrote. “We weren’t asked or involved – and we said so the same day. Lots of people got angry with us all the same.

“For some, our tea just being drunk by someone they don’t like means it’s forever tainted, and they’ve made sure we know it.”

The curator of the account said they had “spent the last three days answering furious accusations and boycott calls” while some people had tried to pull the brand into “a political mudfight”.

“It’s easier to be on the receiving end of this as a brand than as an individual,” the thread said. “There’s more emotional distance and I’ve had a team to support me when it got a bit much. But for anyone about to vent their rage online, even to a company – please remember there’s a human on the other end of it, and try to be kind.”

Perhaps people just need to get some perspective.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Farmers fight back

The Guardian reports that Minette Batters, the president of the National Farmers’ Union has hit back at suggestions the government will allow imports of chlorinated chicken and other low-standard farm produce in trade talks with the US.

She has called for rules on minimum standards for imports to be enshrined in law, and has insisted that other countries must trade with the UK “on our terms”, rather than seek to water down food rules.

Farmers quite rightly fear they will face a flood of cheap imports undercutting high-standard British produce, and the potential for the EU to ban UK-produced food if standards were relaxed.

They were told last month by Theresa Villiers, the former secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, that chlorinated chicken – which the US wants to be allowed to export to the UK, where it is currently banned on health grounds – would be excluded from any trade talks.

But the government refused to enshrine Villiers’ promises into the agricultural bill going through parliament, and she was sacked in the reshuffle. At the weekend, the new environment secretary, George Eustice, refused to repeat her assurances, reigniting the row and infuriating farmers.

Minette Batters said: “We must not tie the hands of British farmers to the highest rung of the standards ladder while waving through food imports which may not even reach the bottom rung,” Batters will tell the NFU’s annual conference on Tuesday.

“If the government is serious about animal welfare and environmental protection, and doing more than any previous government, it must put legislation in the agriculture bill.”

But as the Guardian points out, chlorinated chicken has grabbed the headlines but other practices pose a greater potential threat to human health. Within the EU, the use of antibiotics on farm animals falls under strict guidelines, which many other countries lack. Profligate use of antibiotics for meat production is linked to the evolution of superbugs, raising the spectre of a health “apocalypse” that could mean even routine operations become life-threatening.

The question of course is whether the government really wants to seize back control, or are we being softened up for a sell-out to US interests?

Monday, February 24, 2020

Reform needed as costs spiral

The Sunday Times reports that peers paid themselves almost one-third more last year just as the size of the House of Lords is set to swell to its largest in two decades.

Their analysis has found that the cost of peers’ expenses and daily attendance allowance rose by 29% in the year to last March to £23m and that taxpayers face a triple hit:
One lord, former Labour minister Lord Cunningham, claimed a total of £79,437 last year, according to official House of Lords figures.

Cunningham, 80, made 17 spoken contributions to the upper chamber despite checking in for his allowance on 159 of a possible 161 days.

Lord Paul, a regular on The Sunday Times Rich List, claimed £47,885 in expenses despite his family having a £2bn fortune. The business magnate, 89, spoke only once in the chamber.

More than 110 peers did not make any spoken or written contribution to the House during the period, but claimed a total of more than £1m.

Lord Bhatia claimed £44,530 in expenses after turning up 149 out of a possible 161 days — yet did not address the House or sit on a committee.

The millionaire has previously been suspended from the House over expenses claims.

Another “silent” peer was the former Labour MP Baroness Adams of Craigielea, 72, who claimed £52,252 including £13,761 on flights between her Scottish home and Westminster.

Peers are paid a daily rate of £313 tax-free for signing in and certifying that they are carrying out parliamentary work, and can receive travel expenses for themselves and family members.

An internal report prepared for the Lords audit committee, which was released earlier this month, warned that Lords expenses are still “vulnerable” to being “exploited for personal gain”.

“Unelected Lords are taking advantage of the lack of scrutiny in the upper chamber,” said Willie Sullivan, a senior director at the Electoral Reform Society. “The Lords is a rolling expenses scandal — and we’ll see this year after year unless there is reform.”

It comes as lords expect their number to expand by about 41 new members, including an estimated 28 Conservative peers. It would take their number to 834.

This is despite the prime minister previously saying that the House of Lords — which at the time had just over 800 peers — was so large that it was “out of control”, and its numbers should be cut in half.

How anybody can justify maintaining this expensive, bloated, unaccountable institution in its present format is beyond me. It is not just reform we need it is the abolition of the Lords altogether and its replacement with an elected second chamber of the regions and nations.

At least then, the members of this chamber could be held accountable for their performance and their expenses. We might even save some money.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Nobody here but us chlorinated chickens

How desperate are the UK Government to strike a trade deal with the United States? Are they desperate enough to compromise our food safety standards and allow big business to flood our farms with GM crops, endangering organic producers and putting farmers into financial hock to the seed suppliers?

None of these questions are being answered by government, and it is not just because the opposition are in too much chaos to ask them. Instead queries are being met with obfuscation and evasion as is illustrated by this article in the Independent.

The news site reports that the newly-elected environment secretary has failed to offer a clear commitment that the import of chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef will be off the table in any trade deal with the US.

They say that George Eustice, who was appointed in the recent reshuffle, did not give a clear answer on whether the government would retain the EU ban on the two products, which is expected to prove a crunch point in trade talks with Donald Trump’s administration.

This is despite the fact that his predecessor Theresa Villiers, gave a firm commitment that British markets would not be flooded with chlorine washed chicken, which is legal in the US.

It is unsurprising that Ministers’ previous refusal to rule out banning chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-injected beef has fuelled fears about food standards being lowered after Brexit.

In the face of non-denial denials we will have to wait to see how low the government will bend the knee to accommodate a trade deal with Donald Trump.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Do you need to be in favour of equality to be Equalities Minister?

Boris Johnson's government is out to redefine a great deal of what has previously been accepted wisdom, so why not equalities? At least he has appointed an equalities minister, even if she has a fairly loose concept of what her brief means.

According to the Independent, Kemi Badenoch, the government’s newly appointed junior minister for equalities has never voted on equal gay rights or gay marriage in her three years as an MP. They say she is working on policy for women and LGBT+ people – but she has abstained on every Commons vote on the issue:

In July 2019, the Saffron Walden MP abstained from a vote on Northern Ireland’s extensions of “Marriage of Same-Sex Couples” and “Marriage and Civil Partnerships” for same sex people. Both of these successfully passed through the Houses.

Laura Russell, Director of Policy, Campaigns and Research at Stonewall, told The Independent: “Everyone who holds public office needs to champion the individuals they represent, including LGBT people, and we will work with Government toward creating a world where all LGBT people are truly accepted.’

‘There has been a lot of progress towards LGBT equality over the last thirty years, from the introduction of equal marriage to the creation of anti-discrimination laws. But we are far from living in an equal society, and hate crimes against LGBT people are on the rise, including a reported 37 per cent increase in hate crime towards trans people over the last year.”

Additionally, in June 2018, Badenoch voted against retaining the EU’s “Charter of Fundamental Rights” following Brexit. That Labour amendment was voted down, with 320 MPs to 301 voting against it.

No doubt we are all looking forward to seeing how this record translates into action as a Minister.

Friday, February 21, 2020

A new threat to community cohesion?

Those of us who have been in politics for some time will recall the battles of old around maintaining sustainable communities in the face of the growth of second homes in rural holiday hotspots, long-term empty properties and HMOs, especially in university towns. However, as the Guardian outlines in this article, there is a new threat in town and one that so far has alluded any attempt at control or regulation by local councils or government.

The paper reports that Airbnb has become so prevalent in Great Britain that some parts of the country now have one listing for every four properties, prompting concern that the rapid expansion in short-term lets is “out of control” and depriving communities of much-needed homes:

Exclusive analysis by the Guardian identified Airbnb hotspots in both rural areas and inner-city neighbourhoods, where the ratio of active Airbnb listings to homes was more than 20 times higher than the average across England, Scotland and Wales.

The highest incidence of Airbnbs was in Edinburgh Old Town, where there were 29 active listings for every 100 properties.

The north-west of Skye had the second-highest concentration, at 25 listings per 100 properties, including a seafront bothy (£50 a night), a modern cottage clad in corrugated tin (£190) and an isolated cottage with ocean and mountain views (£160).

In England, the area with the highest rate of Airbnb lets was Woolacombe, Georgeham and Croyde, in Devon, with 23 listings for every 100 properties.

In one area of the Lake District: Windermere North, Ambleside and Langdales, there were 19 listings per 100 properties. Local MP Tim Farron described the growth of Airbnb in an area already dominated by second home owners as “a really disturbing issue”.

Here in Wales, I have long argued that there needs to be a national empty homes strategy to bring long-term neglected properties back into use, that HMOs should be classed as a business for taxation purposes to deal with the anomaly whereby students in these properties use local services with no contribution being made to their cost, and that second homes should pay a council tax premium to discourage them and to compensate the community for their impact.

Many of these battles have been won - most councils now have an empty homes officer and the ability to hike council tax rates for empty and second homes. However, the HMO taxation issue remains unresolved, while a number of owners are dodging 200% council taxes on their holiday lets by reclassifying them as a business.

With this new threat to communities of a growing Airbnb market, government needs to carry out a review of its planning and housing policies to ensure they encourage sustainable communities, and that where a property is being used other than as a home, then appropriate recompense is being made through the taxation system.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

A failure of accountability and transparency

I think we are all used to government being opaque and unaccountable at every level, without exception, but there is a special category for PFI and outsourced services, simply because they are able to hid behind the cloak of commercial confidentiality.

As a result, huge sums of public money are being spent with minimal scrutiny and little chance of us being able to assess whether we are getting value for money, or whether those receiving and using the service are getting the high quality and responsive attention they deserve.

This has been highlighted by new research by the University of Leeds who, according to the Independent, have found that analysis of hundreds of requests to public authorities about privately funded projects under freedom of information laws did not lead to a full disclosure of information.

They say that nearly half gave no details at all – despite the information asked for being related to safety or as basic as the number of buildings involved in the Privately Funded Initiative (PFI) projects.

This is despite the fact that PFI projects are worth hundreds of billions of pounds, across public bodies including the government, local authorities, the NHS and police:

Co-author Dr Stuart Hodkinson, Associate Professor at the University of Leeds, said: “The profound difficulty in uncovering even the most basic information about PFI contracts shines a light on the current accountability vacuum for PFI schemes...Our findings show that currently the law is too weak to be effective and is being flagrantly ignored by public bodies.”

Outsourcing has been widely criticised since PFIs appeared in 1992, particularly in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the collapse of Carillion. In 2018 then chancellor Phillip Hammond announced new PFIs would be blocked, but there are still 715 existing PFI projects worth billions across 331 public authorities in the UK.

The investigation, published in Parliamentary Affairs, detailed 687 FOIs being sent between 2016 and 2017 to 315 public authorities with PFI contracts, including, governmental departments, NHS Trusts, councils, and local police and fire services.

There is an urgent need to update freedom of information laws to address this democratic deficit.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Are we facing post-Brexit labour shortages?

Having written a few days ago about possible food shortages and price hikes in the supermarkets, I was not surprised this morning to see predictions that the government's new immigration rules could lead to staff shortages, from logistics to food and hospitality to health and social care.

The Guardian reports that business groups have warned that major industries would face a shortage of vital workers after the government outlined its new points-based immigration system to limit the number of low-skilled workers coming to the UK:

Unions said the care system would be “on its knees” should the policy be introduced without further reductions in the minimum salary, which ministers set at £25,600 unless migrants can show they have a job offer in a “shortage occupation” or have a relevant PhD.

Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said the application process needed to be “radically simplified” if small and medium-sized businesses were to navigate the system. The Institute of Directors said it was concerned the UK’s “economic dynamism” would be harmed while the CBI said the system would need to be flexible to keep pace with changes in the job market.

Businesses including transport and warehousing, food processing and tourism warned the rules would have a drastic impact on businesses and trade.

Beverly Dixon, of G’s Fresh, a Cambridgeshire farming business that sells more than a billion packs of salad and vegetable crops to major UK supermarkets each year, said the firm could now face severe staff shortages next year.

G’s could face a shortage of around 1,000 pickers for the 2021 harvest, she said, adding: “The immigration policy-points based system is unlikely to include workers at the skill level that the government categorise our roles as – which is low skilled. The English language level would also be a concern.”

The Freight Transport Association said it would exacerbate an existing shortage of HGV drivers, whose average salary is above the threshold but who are classified as level 2 or unskilled workers. Around 13% of HGV drivers are currently recruited from the EU, and the FTA said a further 59,000 drivers were needed. Warehousing would also be affected, with forklift truck and van drivers in particularly short supply.

Sally Gilson, head of skills at the FTA, said: “I don’t understand why they are setting an arbitrary level for skills and salary when it should surely be based on what the country needs. These are jobs that Britain relies on to keep goods and trade moving.

“Logistics hubs are in areas of low unemployment, so it’s not a case of being able to train up local people to take those roles.”

Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, said the industry was “deeply concerned”. He said that 60%-70% of workers in meat plants were non-UK labour, who typically come and work for two to three years, and they would be blocked by the new proposals.

“They quickly get trained and go above that salary cap. Our concern is getting access to that sort of person … We struggle to get that on the home market. The only option will be slowing down how many animals we can take in, it will disrupt the whole supply chain from farm gate to consumer – costs for farmers, and shortages of food on the shelves.”

The travel industry association Abta said that immigration was crucial to ensure the workforce it needed, with the number of non-UK nationals working in travel and tourism nearly a third higher than the UK average.

He warned that up to 15,000 UK employees working abroad could also lose their jobs if reciprocal protections with the EU were jettisoned, adding extra burdens on travel businesses. “Travel reps and other vital support staff are posted abroad to provide valuable services to UK travellers in EU destinations. The [Posted Workers] directive also allows EU staff to support tourists visiting the UK.”

All of this raises one fundamental question of course: what is the point of taking back control if you are too incompetent to do anything with it other than wreck the country's economy?

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Controversial Johnson aide quits but what about the PM?

As the Independent reports, Andrew Sabisky, who suggested black people were mentally inferior, has quit his role as a contractor for No 10 following a major backlash over his past comments on eugenics, race and the enforced uptake of contraception.

The paper says that the 27-year-old is understood to have been hired as part of Dominic Cummings‘ drive to recruit ”misfits and weirdos” to help shake up government:

His departure comes after the prime minister faced intense pressure to sack Mr Sabisky over historic comments, where he:

- Called for the young to undergo compulsory contraception to prevent the creation of “a permanent underclass”

- Disparagingly compared women’s sport to the Paralympics

- Suggested that black people were more likely than whites to be “close to mental retardation”

As the row deepened, Sky News found further comments under Mr Sabisky’s name in 2014, which suggested there could be “genetic reasons” for differences between the races in intelligence and suggested this could be taken into account in immigration policy.

The post said: “There are excellent reasons to think the very real racial differences in intelligence are significantly – even mostly – genetic in origin, though the degree is of course a very serious subject of scholarly debate.”

However, as Business Insider made clear only a few months ago, far from being the odd-one-out at 10 Downing Street, Mr Sabisky's views may well have been a good fit with those of the Prime Minister:

Writing in the Telegraph in 2002, Johnson referred to a visit to Africa by the then prime minister Tony Blair.

"What a relief it must be for Blair to get out of England. It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies," he wrote, referring to African people as having "watermelon smiles."

Confronted about the comment during his first campaign for London Mayor, Johnson claimed that the comments had been "taken out of context."

Comparing Muslim women to 'letterboxes'

Boris Johnson was last year reported to the Equalities Commission after comparing Muslim women who wear burqas to "letter boxes" and bank robbers.

The former foreign secretary wrote in an article for the Telegraph that "it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes," adding that any female student who appeared at school or in a lecture "looking like a bank robber" should be asked to remove it.

It is not the first time that Johnson has pushed Islamophobic tropes. 

Islamophobia is 'a natural reaction'

In 2005, Johnson wrote in the Spectator that he believed it was only "natural" for the public to be scared of Islam.

"To any non-Muslim reader of the Koran, Islamophobia — fear of Islam — seems a natural reaction, and, indeed, exactly what that text is intended to provoke," he wrote.

"Judged purely on its scripture — to say nothing of what is preached in the mosques — it is the most viciously sectarian of all religions in its heartlessness towards unbelievers."

'Islam is the problem'

In the wake of the London bombings, he also questioned the loyalty of British Muslims and insisted that the country must accept that "Islam is the problem."

"It will take a huge effort of courage and skill to win round the many thousands of British Muslims who are in a similar state of alienation, and to make them see that their faith must be compatible with British values and with loyalty to Britain," he wrote.

"That means disposing of the first taboo, and accepting that the problem is Islam. Islam is the problem." He added: "What is going on in these mosques and madrasas? When is someone going to get 18th century on Islam's medieval ass?"

It seems that the real problem is the Prime Minister, and with a record like that no wonder he is attracting aides with equally unacceptable views.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Is post-Brexit rationing inevitable?

A lot of the arguments against Brexit are  considered to be esoteric because they do not impact on people's lived experiences. Many cannot see how it will affect their own lifestyle or their cost of living. It is in the interests of Boris Johnson's government to keep it that way.

The Independent however, highlights a real threat that has the potential to undermine the whole project - possible price hikes and food shortages.

The paper tells us that concerned food importers have revealed the “mountain of paperwork” they face under Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit, which they say will lead to them putting up prices, and food shortages on supermarket shelves:

The warning comes after ministers admitted traders will face multiple border checks on almost all goods from January, even if a no-deal Brexit is avoided, with any hopes of “frictionless trade” abandoned.

Now a hard-hitting report from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) has listed no fewer than six documents its members will have to fill in if there is only a skeleton deal after the transition period.

They are: VAT and customs documents; freight forms; health and veterinary paperwork; export health certificates; exit and entry summary declarations; and safety and security permits.

The BRC also said new IT systems must be “created and tested before 1 January 2021” – after Michael Gove warned they would take five years.

“The government must set about to negotiate a zero-tariff agreement that minimises checks and red tape otherwise it will be consumers who suffer as a result,” said Helen Dickinson, its chief executive.

“The introduction of excessive or avoidable checks would mean businesses face a mountain of paperwork to be filled out by an army of newly trained staff, coupled with exhaustive checks on thousands of lorries every day.

“And the result for consumers would be higher costs and reduced availability on the shelves. The government has no time to lose.”

The BRC say that the checks will be the consequence of seeking a loose “Canada-style” agreement, allowing the UK to break free of some EU rules – and a far cry from the pre-referendum promise that Brexit would reduce red tape:

The BRC fears checks will see thousands of vehicles held at Dover, where even a two-minute hold-up would trigger 17-mile tailbacks – and where there is very little space for new infrastructure.

It is calling for: zero tariffs, coordination on VAT and excise procedures, advance information on new checks and “timely construction” of necessary infrastructure at ports.

As the paper points out almost 80 per cent of the food imported by retailers comes from the EU with 7,000 lorries passing through Dover and Folkestone every day. With the government making it clear that it will pursue a deal with “no alignment” – throwing into jeopardy even the EU’s proposal of a no-tariffs, no-quotas agreement - queues, red-tape, higher prices and shortages may be inevitable.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

More suppressed reports?

I have already blogged on the strange case of the report into Russian interference in the UK political system, which was suppressed before the General Election, presumably in case it damaged Tory election hopes and still has not been published.

Now the Independent reports on further reports being suppressed by the UK Government. This particular reports are also potentially damaging as they are studies believed to show little gain from trade deals with US and Asia.

The paper says that these analyses were completed as long ago as 2017 and looked into the probable impact on growth from agreements long hailed as the prize for leaving the EU. However, ministers are refusing to release them:

One trade expert said he had little doubt they were being concealed because they would – like independent studies – reveal that significant damage from new trade barriers with the continent will far outweigh the gain from other deals.

Alan Winters, professor of economics at the University of Sussex, joined with Labour in calling on ministers to reveal what they had been told, saying: “The entire Brexit debate has been conducted in a great fog of obfuscation.”

Paul Blomfield, Labour’s Brexit spokesperson, said: “These reports must be released immediately. If Boris Johnson wants to risk European trade to secure a deal with Donald Trump, we need to know the cost.”

The controversy comes after the Treasury refused to even carry out an evaluation of the prime minister’s plans for a “Canada-style” deal with the EU, cutting ties with the single market and customs union.

Economists have estimated that will deliver a hit to the UK economy of anything between £70bn and £130bn in the long run, leaving people thousands of pounds worse off.

Now, in response to a freedom of information request submitted by The Independent, the Department for International Trade (DIT) has said internal analysis into other trade deals is “a work in progress”.

But it also revealed academics at the Centre for Economic Policy Research had evaluated the benefits from a US deal, an agreement with Japan and from membership of the CPTPP, a trade partnership of 11 Pacific nations.

The last two were completed in August 2019 – while the study into an agreement with Washington has been gathering dust since July 2017.

The fact that these studies are not being published speaks volumes about a dysfunctional government trade policy and the lies we have been spun about Brexit:

Professor Winters, of the UK Trade Policy Observatory at the University of Sussex, said: “If the government thought it had a very strong case that these deals would be big and strong then they would publish these studies.

“It’s an indication that there’s nothing there. To the extent that we have any analysis, it suggests that the benefits of these deals are very small.

“And, with any modelling, what we gain from an agreement with the US and Japan is a lot smaller than what we lose from the EU.”

Isn't it time we were given all the information available to Ministers so we can make up our own minds about the efficacy of their policies?

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Does Johnson's cabinet represent the country?

I am not one of those people to judge others by their schooling. I went to a grammar school and university, so I know that not only am I luckier than the majority of the population but also that my life experiences are different to many of the people I represent as a councillor.

Nevertheless, when putting together a cabinet one does expect the Prime Minister to have some regard to how representative it is of the rest of the country. I suppose the exception is when that cabinet is made up of outstanding talents. Unfortunately, Boris Johnson does not have that excuse following his latest reshuffle.

As the Independent reports, the Prime Minister has increased the proportion of cabinet ministers from privately educated backgrounds, with nearly two-thirds of his top team having attended a fee-paying school. Despite boasting he would put together a cabinet “to truly reflect modern Britain” when he entered Downing Street, members of his top team are nine-times as likely to have been privately educated than the general population.

Of the 26 ministers now attending cabinet, 17 received a private education – or 65 per cent – compared with just 7 per cent of the general population. Two ministers also attended grammar schools while seven received their full education in a state school, or 27 per cent:

According to the educational charity Sutton Trust, the proportion of alumni of independent schools in Mr Johnson’s last cabinet stood at 64 per cent – more than twice that of the team assembled by Theresa May in 2016.

The figure is also higher than David Cameron’s cabinet in 2015, where 50 per cent had attended fee-paying schools, but significantly lower than the 91 per cent in Margaret Thatcher’s first administration in 1979.

The analysis also points out that of the 26 ministers attending the cabinet, including the prime minister, 50 per cent also attended either Oxford or Cambridge.

Yet, in July last year, when Mr Johnson won the Tory leadership race, Downing Street vowed: “Boris will build a cabinet showcasing all the talents within the party that truly reflect modern Britain.”

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chair of the Sutton Trust, said: “December’s election led to a seismic shift in the political landscape.

“The falling of the red wall means Conservative MPs now represent a much more diverse range of constituencies than before, with constituents from many different socio-economic backgrounds.

“Yet in terms of educational background, the make-up of Johnson’s cabinet is still over 60 per cent from independent schools.

“Today’s findings underline how unevenly spread the opportunities are to enter the elites and this is something Boris Johnson must address.”

In relation to gender, just seven women are now attending cabinet – down from eight in the cabinet put together by Mr Johnson when he became prime minister in July 2019. There is also one fewer black, Asian and minority ethnic member of the cabinet.

So much for that promise.

Friday, February 14, 2020

The u-turn of all u-turns

It is actually illegal to execute a U-turn on a motorway but that does not seem to have deterred the UK Government. It is just over a year since tolls were abolished on the Severn Bridges and already there are plans to reverse that position.

The BBC reports that the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) is considering "charging measures and controls" on both sides of the bridge to deal with traffic levels. But officials have given no detail on timescales or how any of these charges would be levied.

They say that ideas are being considered as part of WECA's latest joint local transport plan, which sets out infrastructure plans up to 2036, and could include a congestion charge for the bridges.

The whole point of congestion charges of course is to encourage people to use other forms of transport. Let's hope that investment in public transport takes place before this U-turn takes place.

That also applies to the routes past Newport now the very sensible decision has been taken not to spend a billion pounds on building an M4 by-pass, which would undermine five SSSIs and just fill up with traffic again within years of opening.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The threat to our 'five-a-day'

Sky News reports on warnings by the retail sector about disruption to the supply of fruit and vegetables after the UK confirmed it will introduce import controls on EU goods from January.

They say that controls will come into force after the end of the current Brexit transition period - during which EU rules continue to apply. And hopes that new technology will ride to the rescue have been dashed after officials told trade organisations that a "smart border" with simplified systems designed to reduce disruption would not be available until 2025:

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said ministers needed to set out detailed plans on how the controls would be implemented.

He said: "Government will need to move fast if it intends to provide the necessary infrastructure to carry out full border controls on imported goods from January 2021.

"Without the necessary infrastructure up and running from day one, consumers in the UK will see significant disruption, particularly in the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables."

The introduction of controls means that from January, traders in the EU and Britain will have to submit customs declarations and be liable to goods checks, the government said.

For those who think that this does not matter, and that we will more than cover EU business through trade deals elsewhere, it is worth remembering that the EU is the UK's biggest trading partner. Last year Britain imported goods worth £265bn from the bloc, compared to £236.5bn from non-EU countries.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

UK told it can't have its cake, and eat it

Those on the Brexit side who have been confidently predicting that the negotiations with the EU will be over by Christmas, and that we will get all we want, may well want to rethink their strategy this morning.

The Independent reports on a setback for this mindset with the EU's chief negotiator immediately rejecting a plea by Sajid Javid to protect the City's access to EU financial markets after Brexit.

The paper says that the Chancellor had called for a “reliable equivalence process” for financial services rules on which “a durable relationship” can be built with the EU, but just hours after the proposal was published Brussels' chief negotiator Michel Barnier told him he needed to think again:

"I would like to take this opportunity to make it clear to certain people in the United Kingdom bearing authority that they should not kid themselves about this - there will not be general, open-ended, ongoing equivalence in financial services," he said.

Mr Barnier added that the EU would "retain a free hand to take our own decisions" and would simply not negotiate with the UK on this point.

As the Independent points out this is no academic point:

The question at stake is whether EU authorities would call the shots on whether UK firms were complying with EU regulations to trade on the continent.

If that were the case, the UK would be a less attractive location to base a financial institution in because it could be frozen out of EU markets at the whim of European regulators.

Under a more "durable" agreement as suggested by Mr Javid, market access would be backed at treaty level and it would be harder to freeze out UK firms. If this were the case, banks and other financial institutions could base themselves in the UK knowing they might not be frozen out by EU regulators one day to the next.

As a result of Britain's departure from the EU, City firms will lose their automatic "passporting" rights to keep doing business on the continent.

The UK's financial sector is a major contributor towards our balance of payments. Once more we are facing a major economic catastrophe because of the ideological intransigence of our government.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Border checks to be reintroduced with Europe next year

Whatever was said during the EU referendum about us remaining in the single market in the event of a leave vote, we all knew that it was a lie, and now that has been confirmed. Not only have we left with a deal that splits the UK in two, but ministers are promising full border checks from 1 January 2021.

As the Guardian reports, Michael Gove has told businesses that trade with Europe they need to prepare for “significant change” with “inevitable” border checks for “almost everybody” who imports from the EU from next year:

In the first official confirmation that the government is going to impose trade barriers post-Brexit, he warned there would be checks on food and goods of animal origin, plus customs declarations and mandatory safety and security certificates required for all imports.

“You have to accept we will need some friction. We will minimise it but it is an inevitability of our departure,” he told delegates at a Cabinet Office event held in central London on Monday, entitled Preparing Our Border for the Future Relationship.

“I don’t underestimate the fact that this is a significant change, but we have time now to make that change.”

Gove, who as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is de facto deputy prime minister, also warned delegates it could take five years to get a smart border involving online processes up and running and said businesses had to be ready for the change next January, whatever the outcome of the next phase of Brexit negotiations.

“In questions and answers his officials talked of an ‘operational border’ from the beginning of 2021, which they said was laying the foundation for best borders in 2025,” said one delegate, who reported that Gove had warned the UK must be ready for the completion of Brexit on 1 January next year when the transition period ends.

Later the government issued an official update confirming checks on both imports and exports.

The update warned that the “policy easements put in place for a potential no-deal exit will not be reintroduced as businesses have time to prepare”.

The “easements” that will not apply include deferred VAT payments on imports, which the government had considered in a no-deal plan.

The seamless trade we currently enjoy with the continent will be gone, instead businesses will face red tape, endless delays and increased costs - and we will pay for all of this through increased prices. I hope that they have that lorry park ready at Dover.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Boris Johnson ignores expert advice on immigration system

Michael Gove famously told voters during the referendum campaign that he was fed up of experts, well that now appears to have become mainstream government policy.

The Independent reports that Boris Johnson is to press ahead with an Australian-style points-based system for immigration despite its rejection by the government’s own experts:

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) said in a report last month that a points-based system was “cosmetic” and “pointless” for all but the most highly skilled migrants, with chair Alan Manning dismissing it as a “soundbite”.

The prime minister and Priti Patel, the home secretary, have accepted the MAC’s recommendation to cut the salary threshold for skilled migrants to £25,600, after employers complained that the proposed £30,000 minimum would exclude staff in vital but relatively poorly paid roles like lab technicians and care home managers.

But they are pressing ahead with the points system promised in the Conservative manifesto, under which applications for work visas will be judged against a set of desirable characteristics.

The issue appears to be the complexity of such a points system, but also that it will prove to be too inflexible and leave many industries struggling to fill vacancies. Is sabotaging the UK's economy the price we have to pay for Johnson's ideological approach to this issue?

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Farage 'He's lying to you' sign now part of European History

Whatever the outcome of the talks over future trade deals with the EU, we can never cease to be Europeans nor can we completely abandon the principles set down by Winston Churchill of greater cooperation and joint working in an effort to avoid further European wars.

From a European perspective I suppose it will take some time to try and rub out the memory of the rancour and bitterness brought to the democratically elected European Parliament by Nigel Farage and his various parties, the racist messages put out by his 'Leave' campaign during the referendum, and the many scandals that hit a large number of the elected officials who served alongside him.

Indeed the picture above, sums up the regard that many MEPs held for Farage, which is why it is unsurprising that it is now to go on display in a Brussels museum.

The Independent reports that House of European History, which tells the continent’s story from emergence to integration, will include the object in a special exhibition about Brexit from later this month.

The sign will be displayed alongside other objects and documents related to Britain’s contribution and departure from the European Union. Last Friday the UK’s flag outside the European parliament was hauled down and taken to the museum for safe-keeping.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Overheating

As it stands at present, I would welcome a temperature of 18C in Swansea, but it is winter and so we have to roll with what we are given. However, even with my ignorance of climatology it is clear that experiencing such temperature in the Antarctic is not just freaky, but downright worrying. As the Independent reports, it is not just me who thinks that.

The paper says that Antarctica has experienced its hottest temperature on record with a provisional recording of 18.3C – nearly 1C higher than the previous record of 17.5C in March 2015 by 0.8C. This comes after the world saw the warmest January on record last month, according to the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, with temperatures in Europe 0.2C higher than during the previous warmest January in 2007.

A committee for the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) says that the Antarctic peninsula, the northwest tip near South America, is among the fastest warming regions on Earth, with temperatures rising almost 3C over the past 50 years:

The organisation added that about 87 per cent of the glaciers along the peninsula’s west coast have “retreated” over the last 50 years, with most showing an “accelerated retreat” in the last 12 years.

On Thursday, a major hole was discovered in the Thwaites Glacier, which could send sea levels surging by up to two feet if it dissolved completely.

Scientists have found a cavity beneath the glacier that is far larger than previously thought.

“The size of the cavity is surprising, and, as it melts, it’s causing the glacier to retreat,” Pietro Milillo, a Nasa radar scientist who led the research into the glacier, said.

When combined with stories such as that reporting bumble bees are facing a mass extinction due to warmer temperatures. one can only question whether this particular crisis is now reversible. Is it too late? Can we now, only slow the rate of change rather than stop or reverse it?

Friday, February 07, 2020

Cronyism allegations and the House of Lords

Surely it is time that the House of Lords was abolished and replaced with a wholly-elected second chamber of the nations and regions? I raise this issue once more because we are due shortly to have the dissolution honours list in front of us, and already there are allegations of cronyism.

The Independent reports that Boris Johnson is poised to hand a peerage to a billionaire Conservative party donor and Brexit backer.

They say that Peter Cruddas, one of the City’s richest men, is on a list of nominees for the controversial dissolution honours to be handed out this month:

A self-made businessman, Mr Cruddas was one of the founders of the Vote Leave campaign, gave it £1.5m for the 2016 referendum – and has also donated more than £3.5m to the Tories.

He was among the major donors to Mr Johnson’s Tory leadership campaign last year, telling one interviewer: “I’m going to give him some money and back him.”

Mr Cruddas is a former party treasurer, as is Michael Spencer – a second billionaire Conservative donor expected to be handed a seat in the House of Lords.

They add that Jeremy Corbyn’s list of nominees is also controversial because it is thought to include his chief of staff Karie Murphy, despite her role in the handling of Labour’s antisemitism scandal – which is still under investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Are we really still governing by patronage? Is this the nineteenth century? A modern democracy demands open, accountable and transparent governance. The House of Lords both in the way it is appointed and the way it operates is the very anti-thesis of that requirement.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Is paranoia the order of the day for Johnson's government?

For a government with a substantial majority, in the first few months of its term, Boris Johnson's administration is showing a remarkable level of paranoia in the way it deals with the media.

Not only has there been a walkout by senior journalists in protest at an attempt by No 10 to restrict a briefing on Brexit negotiations to reporters from approved publications and broadcasters only, but there also appears to be a boycott of certain BBC programmes such as the Today programme.

As the Independent reports, this has made some ministers very uncomfortable. They say that the Brexit briefing, which correspondents including BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg and ITV’s Robert Peston left in protest, was the second time in a week that No 10 had attempted to restrict access to a technical briefing by civil servants, following a similar incident in relation to Huawei’s involvement in the 5G telecoms network.

The culture secretary Nicky Morgan has called for Boris Johnson’s communications chief to sit down with Westminster’s political journalists and resolve an ongoing spat over selective briefing, while her cabinet colleague Michael Gove declined to stand up for Downing Street‘s handling of the situation, telling BBC Radio 5 Live on Tuesday that he would neither “criticise nor endorse” either side until he had heard a full account of events.

This ham-fisted attempt at media manipulation is not good for democracy, scrutiny, accountability or transparency, which is presumably why the spin doctors are doing it. But, if they are paranoid now, just wait until they hit mid-term, when things start to really go wrong over Brexit. How will they treat the media then? It does not bode well at all.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

How many jobs?

Today's South Wales Evening Post contains a claim that developing the Oceana site in Swansea could bring 600 new jobs to the City.

I am reminded of the saga of the Baglan Energy Park. That was launched with a near guarantee of 6,000 new jobs. In the end the final figure barely pushed double figures.

Rhodri Morgan's autobiography is particularly revealing on this matter (on pages 163-164 in my edition). He relates how in 1997 Tony Blair's Government had a moratorium on new gas-fired power stations. The American multi-national behemoth GE had wanted to build their first ever H Series combined cycle gas turbine power station at Baglan, on a site vacated by BP.

He says that US President Bill Clinton received a phone call from 'Neutron' Jack Welch, the legendary boss of GE, asking for his help in getting around the moratorium. Clinton rang Tony Blair and asked for help in getting the gas powered station built, and it was.

Rhodri Morgan writes that electricity from the power station could be supplied over the fence directly, and without paying a grid charge, into energy intensive industries, which could all go in the empty Baglan Bay site (now renamed the Baglan Energy Park). That is why the 6,000 job estimate was made.

If Oceana does produce 600 new jobs then that will be very welcome. It will be fantastic for Swansea if the council is able to deliver on this claim. I hope I can be forgiven though, for waiting until they are in place before celebrating.

Monday, February 03, 2020

The Brexit threat to biodiversity

Of course it is all very well standing alone in splendid isolation, or taking back control as Boris Johnson likes to put it, but if we are going to do so then we need to get the basics right.

This article in the Guardian seems to indicate that the UK government is either struggling to properly replicate the regulatory regime on offer from Brussels, or (more likely) are deliberatively leaving things out to make a point. In this case it is the environment and biodiversity that will suffer, in other cases it may be business or the health and safety of UK citizens.

The paper says that hedgehogs, dragonflies and bees are among wildlife at risk due to big gaps in environmental protections following the UK’s departure from the EU because the UK faces losing regulations preventing hedgerows being cut during the nesting season and vital buffer strips from being ploughed or sprayed with pesticides.

They add that a report from the Institute of European Environmental Policy (IEEP) suggests that other regulations currently based in EU law, which safeguard ponds and protect carbon-locking bare soils from draining or blowing away, could also be lost:

The agriculture bill, set to be debated in the House of Commons on Monday, will see payment for the amount of land farmed replaced by a “public money for public goods” system whereby land managers are paid to protect wildlife, the environment and carbon storage.

While broadly welcomed by campaigners, they fear the new bill does not go far enough. As farmers lose direct payments under the common agricultural policy, critics say some EU regulations could also fall away.

These include specific protections for hedgerows, not cutting them during the breeding seasons and maintaining a buffer strip at their base to protect plants and safeguard species including yellowhammers, small mammals, pollinator insects and pond-dwelling amphibians.

As the bill stands, there are no domestic regulations to replace them, and nothing to indicate how any regulations, current and future, will be enforced, say critics.

The reports said a new system of regulation is needed. The three wildlife charities want the new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which replaces European oversight of environmental protections, to have powers to police and implement regulations, and all farmers to comply irrespective of whether they receive public funding.

Incompetence or a deliberate act of vandalism? You decide.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Has Brexit started to unravel already?

If we were to pay any notice to all the noise and divisive celebrations on the pro-Brexit side of the argument, we could only conclude that the UK has already left the European Union and that we are set on course for some sort of nirvana. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact we are in the very early days of a transition period, still a member of the single market, still enjoying all the advantages of being in the EU (apart from being at the table when key decisions on our future are made), and still benefitting from free movement within the EU borders.

The real crunch comes on 1 January 2021, when that transition ends, and we had better hope that Boris Johnson has managed to fulfil his promise of having negotiated a trade deal by then, or we really will start to feel the effects of leaving.

So, no, Brexiteers, predictions of doom and gloom have not come true. That is because we are in the transition period. But already there are signs of the whole process unravelling.

The most disturbing sign is the re-emergence of Brexit-related racism. As the Guardian reports, police were called after a poster telling residents of a block of flats “we do not tolerate” people speaking languages other than English and bearing the title “Happy Brexit Day”, was reportedly found stuck to fire doors in Winchester Tower in Norwich on Friday morning. The discovery came hours before the UK officially left the European Union at 11pm later that day.

The paper adds that, addressing Winchester Tower residents, it said the “Queens (sic) English is the spoken tongue here” and suggests that people wanting to speak a language other than English should leave the country.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Guardian it is reported that the EU will back Spain over its territorial claims to Gibraltar in the next phase of Brexit negotiations by giving Madrid the power to exclude the British overseas territory from any trade deal struck with Brussels.

The paper says that it has learned that the Spanish government has insisted on reference to the Rock in the EU’s opening negotiating position, which will be published in draft form on Monday:

Boris Johnson will be presented with the choice of reaching agreement with the Spaniards about Gibraltar’s future or exposing its citizens to economic peril by pushing it outside any EU-UK trade deal.

“They have in principle asked that the new relationship not apply to Gibraltar without the explicit consent of Spain, which will only be given if the bilateral talks with Spain and the UK over the rock are resolved,” a senior EU diplomat said.

The development highlights the pitfalls Downing Street faces as it moves into negotiations on the future relationship with Brussels. The UK is now a “third country” to the EU after it formally withdrew at midnight central European time on Friday.

British sovereignty over Gibraltar was formalised by the treaty of Utrecht in 1713 but Spain has always bristled at the idea of UK ownership.

As an EU member state, the UK had been able to resist Spanish claims over the territory but Madrid will now have the full support of the other 26 countries in the bloc.

At the same time Boris Johnson's deal with the EU that led to Friday's departure, is also starting to unravel. It is not as watertight as the Prime Minister claimed at the time.

The Telegraph reports that Boris Johnson has become "privately infuriated" with what he sees as the EU's attempts to frustrate a comprehensive free trade deal. They add that the Prime Minister believes Brussels has unilaterally been "changing the terms" of the deal he agreed last year, when both sides set out to work towards an ambitious and deep trade agreement.

Don't say we didn't warn him. Now if only the UK had a voice within Europe to better influence these decisions. Oh wait....

Saturday, February 01, 2020

The morning after the day before

No photo description available.
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