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Saturday, January 23, 2021

Online shoppers hit by Brexit

For five years now, those of us opposed to Brexit have been arguing that it will hit ordinary people in their pockets, and each time we have been labelled as scaremongerers and worse. It gives me no satisfaction therefore to point out that this particular prediction has come true.

The Independent reports that Britain’s online shoppers have expressed their dismay after been hit with unexpectedly high post-Brexit charges on items ordered from countries in the EU.

The paper explains that consumers have been asked to pay up to one-third extra in customs duties, VAT and additional delivery charges once they arrive in the UK. And of course the reverse is true for goods sold by British companies in Europe:

One UK retail boss said British firms were considering abandoning or even burning goods returned by their EU customers who were also unhappy about unexpected charges, due to the costs involved in bringing the items back to Britain.

One shopper, Ellie Huddleston from London, told the BBC she had been asked to pay £140 in unexpected costs from couriers DPD and UPS after buying a coat and blouses from EU retailers at £380.

“I sent both back without paying the extra fees and won’t be ordering anything from Europe again any time soon,” the 26-year-old said.

Cusomers have complained that they are not being told by online retailers that they will be liable for the extra costs – forcing many to refuse to pay when delivery companies turn up at their door. One British shopper was asked to pay £77 in extra charges on clothes costing £245, bought from a French retailer.

Louisa Walters told The Times: “DPD offered me two options – pay the fees or return the package. There was no way I was paying £77 so I clicked to not accept the package. I was very disappointed.”

Some UK retailers said they were considering giving up on many of the goods which EU customers had asked to be returned over the costs and paperwork involved in bringing them back into Britain.

Like British shoppers, many European customers have also been rejecting goods bought and imported from the UK after being presented with unexpected charges when signing for them.

And how does the government react, the environment minister tells us we will get used to it!

Friday, January 22, 2021

Are the DUP the 'useful idiots' in an Irish reunification process?

Following on from my post yesterday, there is an interesting article in the Financial Times from a few days ago in which Robert Shrimsley speculates on what Brexit means for then future of Ireland.

As he says, this year marks Northern Ireland’s centenary, but, given the effects of Brexit, few are betting on there being a 125th birthday:

The Brexit terms keep Northern Ireland inside the EU customs union and single market for goods, weakening its legal and commercial ties to the UK. The first weeks of Brexit have amplified this. British retailers halted some supplies while they grappled with the new trade rules. Customs checks stymied hauliers with multiple loads, and there are fears over the looming expiry of a grace period on health certification for food products.

While ruling out an early push for reunification, the Irish Republic is playing a long game. The taoiseach, Micheál Martin, has created a Shared Island initiative, with €500m for cross-border projects. Dublin also took on the cost of keeping Northern Irish students in the EU’s Erasmus university exchange scheme, another tie to the youth of the North. The strategy is plain: polls show higher support for unification among younger voters. Meanwhile, gentrification is loosening the unionists’ grip on old strongholds. One observer highlights the coffee shops springing up in the now-marginal seat of east Belfast.

However, as he points out there is no majority in Northern Ireland for reeunification, nor is there likely to be one for some time. In fact there are very string ties in the province towards mainland Britain. So it's just as well the nationalists have the DUP as their secret weapon:

The strategic judgments of the province’s largest party have been among the most consistently witless in recent politics. One Tory MP fumes: “The DUP have done more damage to the Union than the IRA, Sinn Féin and all the nationalist forces combined.”

Consider its record. The DUP backed Brexit but opposed every manifestation of it. There was no deal (including no-deal) that it would support. It shot down Theresa May’s withdrawal plan, which maintained the integrity of the union, allying with Boris Johnson — only to see him sign up to a regulatory border in the Irish Sea. In recent days, it has bellowed betrayal over the new customs burdens, demanding the suspension of the protocol governing these arrangements.

The current leadership of the DUP are retrenching, provoking tensions rather than easing them, alienating the non-aligned and the younger, more moderate Protestants. They are making a united Ireland more, not less likely and will continue to do so unless they amend their strategy and tactics.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Government admission on food shortages

Is the reality of our disastrous Brexit starting to hit home for government ministers? The Independent reports that the international trade secretary, Liz Truss, has admitted Brexit has contributed to shortages on supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland, contradicting her Cabinet colleague Brandon Lewis.

The paper says Truss joined Ireland’s foreign affairs minister, Simon Coveney, in acknowledging the UK’s departure from the EU played a part in the disruption, putting her at odds with Mr Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, who has said disruption caused by coronavirus before Christmas is solely responsible for the shortages of some food products and is "nothing to do with leaving the EU".

Apparently, she told Peston: "We were always clear that we are leaving the single market, we are leaving the customs union, there would be processes to be undertaken":

The Northern Ireland Protocol between the UK and the EU requires health certifications on animal-based food products entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

On Wednesday, Mr Coveney said the Brexit divorce deal agreed with the EU by then-prime minister, Theresa May, would have caused less separation from Northern Ireland from the UK.

"There was an opportunity for a very different kind of Brexit that would have avoided much of the trade disruption that we're now experiencing and people chose not to take that opportunity," he said.

The irony in all this of course is that the English nationalists and unionists who promoted Brexit may well be responsible for Northern Ireland leaving the UK to become part of a united Ireland. It is certainly the case that if one were designing a process to achieve such a result then it would not look dissimilar to the deal Boris Johnson negotiated.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Failing to take back control on food standards

In one of those parallel universes where government ministers can be forced to keep their word, the then environment minister, Michael Gove, speaking on behalf of the government, stood up in front of the National Farmers’ Union annual conference and promised British food standards will not be lowered “in pursuit of trade deals”.

That was in February 2019, when Gove also vowed to minimise the risk that food producers will be left at “competitive disadvantage” in the face of cheaper imports that are below EU standards He was seeking to quell fears that the UK will allow the importation of chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef, to facilitate a trade deal with the USA. A year truly is a long time in politics.

Yesterday, MPs voted yet again to make sure Parliament remains powerless to stop chlorine chicken, hormone fed beef and other crap food imports from swamping the UK. As the Guardian reports, the House of Lords put forward amendments to the trade bill that would have required future trade agreements to be scrutinised by parliament, with a view to ensuring standards are retained, but the key amendment fell on Tuesday night by 353 votes to 277:

Campaigners said the new post-Brexit arrangements for food imports and food production standards in the UK would allow ministers to make sweeping changes to existing food safety regulations without consultation.

Many products could be affected. For instance, while the government has said it will not allow chlorinated chicken, meat can be washed in a variety of other substances that have similar effects: peracetic acid, cetylpyridinium chloride, acidified sodium chlorite, or organic acid rinses.

Chicken treated with bleach and similar substances can retain some pathogens, according to research, and campaigners also fear that such treatment is used to disguise infections caused by animals being kept in poor conditions that would be illegal in this country.

In the debate, the government sought to reassure MPs that there were sufficient safeguards to ensure the UK’s standards were kept high.

However, there was disagreement. Jonathan Djanogly, one of a small number of Conservative MPs who voted against the government, said: “Ministers suggest that a pre-signature vote [on a trade deal] would make them look less decisive and weaken their hand, but I would suggest that the opposite is actually the case. In the US, negotiations are often strengthened by the executive suggesting that Congress won’t accept such-and-such a proposal.”

He added: “The power of approval that was given to MEPs now needs to come back here to parliament, not to be forgotten by ministers. Having proper scrutiny votes will go towards establishing the UK as a modern, democratic, confident, international trading nation, and we should be embracing that.”

Campaigners pointed to loopholes in the government’s regulations that mean food standards can be altered without consultation or fanfare. They said the rules would make it difficult to even find out whether standards had been lowered.

For instance, the list of approved antibiotics for livestock – a vital issue, because the overuse of antibiotics on livestock is a key driver of the growth of antibiotic resistance that threatens human medicine – can be changed without notice, and only close retrospective scrutiny would reveal the changes.

So much for Parliament taking back control.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Labour Party dispute reaches the High Court

Forgive me if I get the popcorn out for this one, but according to the Guardian, Jeremy Corbyn's supension from Labour has reached the high court.

The paper says lawyers for Jeremy Corbyn have accused the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, of making “inflammatory and disingenuous” attacks on his predecessor following a row over the party’s handling of antisemitism. At yesterday's high court hearing, Corbyn’s lawyers said documents would help prove there was a deal with Starmer’s office to readmit him to the party, and Corbyn’s suspension “went behind an agreement to reinstate” him to Labour “at all levels”.

The paper says Corbyn’s barrister, Christopher Jacobs, told the hearing: “The disclosure will enable my client to plead that there was procedural unfairness, and breach of a duty to act in good faith.” He added Corbyn’s treatment by the party had been “grossly unfair”:

Corbyn was initially suspended from Labour in October, when he said the scale of antisemitism in the party had been “dramatically overstated”, in the wake of a damning report by the equalities watchdog.

In November Corbyn was readmitted by the national executive committee, but Starmer ordered the Labour whip be withheld until he apologised. Corbyn has not done so, but did issue a clarifying statement saying it was not his intention to “tolerate antisemitism or belittle concerns about it”.

In court, Jacobs accused Starmer of “resiling from a settled agreement, and going behind a final decision of the NEC”. He cited a speech Starmer gave to the Jewish Labour Movement conference on 29 November, in which he said Corbyn’s reaction to the watchdog’s report was “as bad as you could get”.

Jacobs said: “We say that is an inflammatory statement and is disingenuous because of the NEC outcome.”

Jacobs also said there was an “inference” from media remarks made by the Labour MP Margaret Hodge that she agreed to stay a member of the party only if Corbyn was suspended. Only the party minutes and copies of any emails from Hodge to Starmer’s office would prove whether such a deal had been made, Jacobs said. “We need the records.”

The Labour party’s barrister, Rachel Crasnow QC, dismissed the application, saying the matter was a “straightforward contractual dispute” that did not require pre-release of any documents. Crasnow also disputed there had been any agreement to readmit Corbyn to the party while suspending the whip.

Crasnow argued in written submissions that Corbyn’s “purpose of obtaining early disclosure from the party is to advance a political, rather than a legal, position”.

The judge, Lisa Sullivan, said she would give her ruling on Corbyn’s application “as soon as I can”.

This one could run and run,

Monday, January 18, 2021

Teething problems or a more serious crisis?

We are two and a half weeks into post-Brexit Britain and already businesses are starting to feel the impact of the new regime, but it is not a pleasant experience for most of them.

Yesterday's Observer reports that despite government ministers Government ministers describing the post-Brexit headaches that British exporters have suffered since 1 January as mere “teething problems” the real story is entirely different. They say the supposed golden era of global Britain is causing British entrepreneurs, large and small, very serious problems:

UK fish exporters are unable to sell into European markets because of delays at borders and complain that Boris Johnson and others misled them about Brexit. Leading supermarket chains are warning ministers of food shortages in Northern Ireland because of new border rules and bureaucracy. And small UK companies such as Paul’s, which thrived as part of the EU single market, are saying they may have no future at all in exporting into continental Europe because of the crippling new costs.

Paul is a director of Leon Paul, based in Hendon, north London, which employs 50 people. It is a niche business, which has been in his family since it was set up in 1921. It designs and manufactures equipment for the Olympic sport of sword fencing. But in many ways it is typical of tens of thousands of small companies that sold some of their goods at home and some abroad, and enjoyed seamless access to the border-free EU market for decades. “Previously the business of sending orders direct to customers in Europe was very straightforward,” he says.

“You put something in a box, sent it off with a courier and it got to the customer in a day or two days without any friction, just like sending something within this country.”

Almost a third of Leon Paul’s £7m annual turnover is to customers in EU countries. On average each order to the EU has been worth about £200. But the European export side of the business is now looking increasingly unsustainable.

“We did everything we could to prepare for Brexit and are part of the DTI’s export champion community,” says Paul. But since 1 January, his firm – like other UK exporters – has been hit by three new charges. And four days ago the firm discovered another one that his customers in the EU will have to pay on receiving the goods.

“As far as I can see, currently, companies like ours in the UK are not going to be able to do ‘end sales’ to customers in the EU any more. Particularly, small orders for anything under £100 will be completely impossible,” says Paul.

The new export levies, which he says will amount to £160,000 a year for Leon Paul, are first, a “Brexit charge”, as the couriers are calling it, an export fee of £4.50 for every parcel shipped to the EU to cover costs of extra administration and form filling that couriers must carry out.

Second, there is a “deferment account fee” of £5 per parcel that covers couriers’ costs of pre-paying import charges in the destination country; and third, a “disbursement charge” which is set at different levels in each EU country with a minimum of about €14 per parcel, or calculated as a percentage of the value of the goods, whichever is the higher, plus VAT in the destination country. This covers the costs of the tax authority in the recipient country inspecting and processing the parcels.

For the past fortnight Paul has been trying to work out how to absorb the extra costs. But he is struggling to see an easy way.

“Jobs lost will be lost here,” he says. “That is the reality. All of these fees will come straight off profit margins.

“We might save some of the increased costs of doing business in Europe by setting up a warehouse there – and thereby avoid paying charges on every consignment – but we would have to make redundancies in our warehouse here and reduce the size of the business footprint in the UK. We are of course a relatively small business but all exporters will be hit with similar charges.”

The paper points out that it is only Covid-19 that is preventing stories like this dominating the news. They add that privately ministers know things will get worse, while civil servants in Whitehall are letting it be known that there is little that can be done because the exhaustively negotiated trade deal is largely set in stone. The brave new world is not working out as the Brexiteers predicted.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Are workers' rights going to be another broken Brexit promise?

As if there were not already enough broken promises around Brexit, the Mirror reports on a highly controversial breach of faith that is supposedly under consideration by Boris Johnson's Government.

They say fury is mounting at Boris Johnson’s plans to ‘rip up’ workers’ rights after Brexit - after repeatedly claiming they were safe:

The Prime Minister had said he would go even further than EU laws to protect workers in the UK.

Yet today the Financial Times revealed officials have looked at changing the 48-hour limit on the working week, known as the 'working time directive'.

Officials also looked at tweaking rules around breaks and scrapping the need to factor overtime into holiday pay, or the need for firms to report working hours.

The Mirror understands the leaked proposals, while not confirmed, official policy or put to Cabinet, are genuine.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng - who in 2012 said Brits "are among the worst idlers in the world", working "among the lowest hours" - today insisted “we are not going to lower the standards of workers’ rights”.

But neither he nor Downing Street denied the plans had been looked at, or ruled out putting them into action in future.

Asked if Boris Johnson viewed removing overtime from holiday pay or changing breaks counted as “lowering” workers’ rights, the PM’s spokesman said: “I’m not going to get into hypotheticals”.

He added: “We will continue to look at policies to help and stimulate business growth, innovation and job creations but those policies would never be at the expense of workers' rights.”

The promise to protect workers' rights was a key one in the Brexit campaign and reassured many working class voters as they considered the idea of leaving the EU. Conveniently, the Mirror provides a list of all the promises the Tories made on the matter:

3 October 2019: Boris Johnson tells MPs “we will be ensuring this country has the highest standards for workers’ rights” and claims: “It is the intention of this Government to go higher still.”

17 October 2019: The Withdrawal Agreement shunts workers’ rights back to the non-binding ‘Political Declaration’ but Boris Johnson claims there’s no reason for alarm. He says: “We want the highest protections, the highest standards in this country.”

19 October 2019: The PM pledges that “whenever” the EU introduces a new workers’ rights law, “even if it is in some way inferior to our own by then”, MPs will have a chance to “put it into UK law”.

22 October 2019: The PM’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill reveals that, in fact, ministers will only have to make a statement about whether new UK laws “regress” from EU workers' rights. There’s nothing stopping them going ahead.

23 October 2019: Boris Johnson again pledges the “highest possible standards”, insisting that “whatever the EU comes up with, we can match it and pass it into the law of this country.”

26 October 2019: Kwasi Kwarteng says claims the Tories will undermine workers’ rights are “completely mad” and “we will be better than our word”.

13 December 2019: Boris Johnson wins election on a manifesto saying Brexit can let Britain “raise standards in areas like workers’ rights”.

17 December 2019: The PM’s spokesman promises “the largest upgrade to workers' rights in a generation”.

19 December 2019: Boris Johnson scraps even the weak clause (above) on protecting workers’ rights from his Withdrawal Agreement Bill. Instead the Tories promise an Employment Bill but refuse to say exactly what will be in it. As of January 2021 it still hasn’t been published.

8 January 2020: Downing Street says Boris Johnson is “clear” that we will “continue to ensure high standards in the UK in areas like workers’ rights”.

3 February 2020: Boris Johnson moans of the “absurd caricature of Britain as a nation bent on the slash and burn of workers’ rights”. He slams the idea that we were “saved from Dickensian squalor” by EU rules and says the UK goes further.

24 December 2020: After months of talks, UK and EU agree a Brexit deal that will allow UK to diverge from EU rules' on workers' rights. UK insists that if we diverge too far, we could face tariffs.

27 December 2020: The PM tells the Sunday Telegraph the UK “won't immediately send children up chimneys”. he adds: “We're not going to regress, and you'd expect that."

15 January 2021: Leaked plans show officials have looked at changing the 48-hour limit on the working week; the inclusion of overtime in holiday pay; and the need for firms to report working hours. The PM’s spokesman refuses to deny the plans have been looked at, or rule them out in future. He claims: “We will continue to look at policies to help and stimulate business growth, innovation and job creations but those policies would never be at the expense of workers' rights.”

Now we have to wait to see if they will keep their word.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

More problems for Leave.EU

Following my blog over a week ago when I wrote about the Brexit campaign group Leave.eu moving its internet registration to the Republic of Ireland in order to be able to keep its .eu suffix after the UK quit the European Union, it appears the move was not as smooth as they would have liked.

The Guardian reports that the group’s EU domain name has been temporarily suspended. This development comes after the Irish businessman in whose name the pro-Brexit campaign group’s domain name is registered denied having any involvement with the organisation.

Visitors to the site are now greeted with an error message, while the EU’s online registry marks the domain as under a server hold, meaning it is “temporarily inactive and under investigation”:

Following Brexit, UK organisations are no longer able to use the .EU top-level domain, a change which – ironically – affected the pro-Brexit group, the most prominent owner of an EU domain name in Britain.

Irish businessman Sean Power, who is based in Waterford, is still registered as the legal owner of the domain name. However, he has long insisted he has no knowledge of Leave.EU, and had never heard of the organisation before the Guardian contacted him on 7 January. “My lawyers are looking into this on my behalf presently and will be in touch as deemed necessary in due course,” he said last week.

Last week, Neale Richmond, a member of the Irish parliament, wrote to ComReg, the country’s communications regulator, calling for an investigation into how Leave.EU was able to secure the domain name. “It is utterly ridiculous to think that Leave.EU could brass-plate an address in Waterford to maintain their domain name,” Richmond said on Friday. “They wanted to leave the EU, they have, that means they leave their domain too.

“Many other questions in relation to data storage, fundraising, finances, donations and political activities would need to be answered if Leave.EU were genuinely relocating to Waterford.

“Leave.EU are quite simply not welcome in Ireland, their questionable activities over the past number of years have brought a new level of toxic politics in the UK and beyond.

“I welcome the suspension of this domain; I sincerely hope this is the end of this odious website and the related traffic driven to this odious brand. Good riddance.”

Oh dear!

Friday, January 15, 2021

Liberal Democrats need to stop reinforcing Johnson's anti-devolution agenda

It is noticeable that whenever Boris Johnson makes a statement in the House of Commons, is interviewed or delivers a press conference or broadcast on a devolved topic he fails to mention that he is only speaking for England and often talks as if he is representing the whole of the UK, when he clearly isn't.

This has become more marked in recent days when inadequate food parcels worth no more then £5 were delivered to children on free school meals in England, despite the company concerned being awarded £30 for each delivery. It was a failing of government procurement, but above all it was a political failure, where ministers sought to deflect responsibility by joining in the public outrage.

In all the media reporting of this debacle, we have been given the impression that this was a UK wide issue, when in fact it just applies to England. In Wales, where there is a Welsh Liberal Democrats Education Minister, up to £7 million of additional funding has been given to local authorities to urgently provide financial assistance to families of pupils who rely on free school meals, but are unable to receive them due to school closures. And unlike England, that provision will continue through the school holidays.

Naturally, this is a major campaigning opportunity for the Liberal Democrats, who believe passionately that children should be properly supported and adequately fed through this pandemic, but why does the party, which is allegedly the most devolution-friendly of all the UK parties and which operates as a federal entity, keep reinforcing the Prime Minister's anti-devolution agenda?

A petition launched by the Liberal Democrats calls for free school meals to be provided to every pupil whose parents or guardians are in receipt of Universal Credit, food vouchers for every one of those pupils in every school holiday and during any period of lockdown, and free school meals to pupils from low-income families whose parents or guardians have no recourse to public funds and to destitute asylum seekers. I urge everybody to sign it. But at no point does this petition make it clear that these issues only relate to the English situation, because a Liberal Democrats Minister in Wales is already on top of this agenda.

Tweets and press statements issued by the Liberal Democrats English Education spokesperson are equally remiss in this regard, giving the impression her criticism is UK-wide. It only takes a little care and thought to get these things right and yet the errors continue.

It is time the Liberal Democrats lived up to its stated commitment to devolution and federalism and started to reflect the asymetric political responsibilities of the various nations in its statements and campaigns. Our MPs and spokespeople need to stop reinforcing Boris Johnson's agenda and begin to pull him up on his misrepesentation of the responsibilities he has as Prime Minister.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Eating cake in London

Just when we thought that Marie Antoinette was dead and buried, up pops the Tory Candidate for London Mayor to disabuse us. The Guardian reports that Shaun Bailey has sparked controversy after suggesting that homeless people in the capital would be able to save up for a £5,000 deposit to buy a share in a newly-built affordable home.

The paper says that Bailey has promised to deliver 100,000 affordable homes with his £4bn housing budget if he wins the election in April, many of them shared ownership, of which buyers would be able to purchase a share for as little as £100,000:

Asked in an interview with Inside Housing how this policy would benefit the capital’s 62,670 households currently in temporary accommodation, Bailey said he would encourage them to apply for shared ownership properties.

Asked how these families would produce a £5,000 deposit and secure a mortgage, he said: “I don’t think the £5,000 will [be a problem]. The mortgage application thing might be a bit tougher … they could save for it, yeah.”

Pressed by the interviewer on whether he was suggesting a homeless family in bed and breakfast accommodation could afford a deposit, Bailey replied: “Not all of them, but some people could. A full proportion of people could.”

He added: “I know about that situation, I sofa surfed for years. You’re right, I definitely couldn’t have come up with £5,000, but those people I’m not expecting to or asking to. We’ll provide social housing for them.”

It's astonishing that after all this time the Tories can still surprise me with how out of touch with real life they actually are.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The UK Government's problem with over-promising

We have been here before of course, notably over the fiasco of rolling out Covid 19 tests, when every promise, pledge and target that came out of the mouths of Ministers proved to be unattainable, over-ambitious and not based on any rational assessment of capacity. Now, we see reports such as this one in the Independent that Ministers have admitted their target to vaccinate 2 million people a week may not be hit until the end of January.

As ever, the problem can be traced back to Boris Johnson, who promised to inoculate the 12 million most at-risk people in England – and 14 million across the UK – by mid-February, to speed up the easing of the third Covid lockdown.

Quite apart from the fact that he cannot speak for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, a new official plan contradicts this pledge, saying: “by the end of January, our capacity to vaccinate several hundred thousand a day, and at least 2 million people per week, will be achieved”:

The government had been warned that it needed to be reaching 2 million a week almost immediately to achieve the ambitious mid-February timetable.

Earlier, the prime minister’s spokesperson defended not currently offering round-the-clock vaccinations on the grounds there is “not a clamour for jabs after 8pm”.

The 47-page plan promises 50 mass vaccination sites, with jabs also available at 206 hospitals and 1,200 local sites – with no-one living more than 10 miles from a vaccine centre.

All adults will be offered a vaccination by the autumn, a task “equivalent to establishing a national supermarket business in less than a month” falling to 80,000 NHS staff and 200,000 potential volunteers so far.

The document is the first to set out the progress in delivering vaccinations – 1.96 million people in England by 10 January, 375,000 receiving a second dose.

However, the Department for Health and Social Care has not provided a breakdown by region, or age – information that might be provided in the weeks to come.

Wouldn't it be better, and more credible for Ministers to abandon the hyperbole and instead just come clean to us on what can and cannot be realistically delivered?

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Hamming it up on the front line

Amongst all the dire news about COVID 19 this morning a number of the papers are featuring this gem about a British lorry driver having his ham sandwich confiscated by customs officials. As petty as this may seen, it represents the reality of Brexit. We are no longer part of a single trade area and if we want to enter the EU then the same rules apply as if we were travelling to the USA or Australia.However, this truth has not yet pervaded the consciousness of a great many people.

Presumably that is why there was a Dutch TV network filming border officials confiscating ham sandwiches and other foods from drivers arriving in the Netherlands from the UK, under post-Brexit rules. These officials were shown explaining import regulations imposed since the UK formalised its separation from the EU:

Under EU rules, travellers from outside the bloc are banned from bringing in meat and dairy products.

The rules appeared to bemuse one driver.

"Since Brexit, you are no longer allowed to bring certain foods to Europe, like meat, fruit, vegetables, fish, that kind of stuff," a Dutch border official told the driver in footage broadcast by TV network NPO 1.

In one scene, a border official asked the driver whether several of his tin-foil wrapped sandwiches had meat in them.

When the driver said they did, the border official said: "Okay, so we take them all."

Surprised, the driver then asked the officials if he could keep the bread, to which one replied: "No, everything will be confiscated - welcome to the Brexit, sir. I'm sorry."

The question of course is why were these professional drivers not better briefed on the realities of the new arrangements and the reasons for it make total sense:

The UK government has issued guidance to commercial drivers travelling to the EU, warning them to "be aware of additional restrictions to personal imports".

"You cannot bring POAO (products of an animal origin) such as those containing meat or dairy (e.g. a ham and cheese sandwich) into the EU," the guidance says. "There are exceptions to this rule for certain quantities of powdered infant milk, infant food, special foods, or special processed pet feed."

On its website, the European Commission says the ban is necessary because such goods "continue to present a real threat to animal health throughout the Union".

"It is known, for example, that dangerous pathogens that cause animal diseases such as Foot and Mouth Disease and classical swine fever can reside in meat, milk or their products," the Commission says.

No doubt there will be further examples in the weeks and months to come.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Labour split on another civil liberties issue

Labour's record in Government on civil liberties issues is not the best. This was the party who wanted to bring in ID cards and extend detention without trial to 90 days, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. It is no surprise therefore to find the official Labour Party line on allowing undercover agents to commit crimes while infiltrating criminal gangs to be one in support of the Conservative Government.

As the Guardian reports though, this has led to a split in the party, with the leadership refusing to back a Lords amendment from Shami Chakrabarti. The former shadow attorney general says undercover police and informants could be immune to prosecution if the “spy cops” bill goes through parliament unamended and has consequently submitted an amendment for debate, seeking to remove the immunity on the grounds that otherwise there would be “grave risk” of human rights abuses from agents acting undercover:

But while Lady Chakrabarti is confident of winning Lib Dem support in the upper house, she has failed to win round the Labour leadership. Party sources said on Sunday that Labour would whip its peers to abstain.

When told the leadership’s intention, the Labour peer said she intended to press her amendment to a vote, even though it was now unlikely to pass. “This is too important to be left to deals involving the usual channels,” Chakrabarti said.

Labour has already split twice over the proposed legislation as it passed through the Commons. Two frontbenchers resigned in October as part of a rebellion by 34 MPs on its third reading, unhappy that the party was not prepared to vote against. A fortnight earlier 20 Labour MPs had rebelled at a second reading.

Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, had called on the party to abstain over the bill, arguing that statutory regulation of undercover operatives would have been necessary if the party had been in power, after the government only narrowly won a court case over the issue.

Further concerns about the conduct of undercover officers resurfaced in November as a public inquiry opened into the work of the Met police’s Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), which targeted left-wing, environmental, anti-war and black justice campaigners for more than 40 years.

Chakrabarti says the bill does more that codify existing policies used by MI5 and the police and, in effect, would give undercover informants and officers immunity against prosecution for crimes committed, if their actions were authorised. The legislation describes such as acts as “lawful for all purposes”.

“Total legal immunity means even less incentive for some of the most volatile and manipulative people – including ‘turned criminals and terrorists’ – to behave ethically,” Chakrabarti said. “Blanket licence for crime without limit, is completely alien to eq
uality before the law.”

The peer said she believed that a group of women who successfully sued the Met in 2015 after they had been deceived into forming “abusive and manipulative” long-term relationships with undercover police officers, would probably find it impossible to bring a similar action again.

The basic illiberality of Labour as a party (and the Conservatives) is one of the best arguments why the Liberal Democrats still have an important role in British politics.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Baffling Brexit rules threaten export chaos

The quiet of January trade combined with more direct routes being found between Ireland and the European mainland have mitigated the impact of Brexit, but that does not mean that businesses are feeling the effects nor that things are not going to get worse.

As the Observer reports, leading business groups are urging Ministers to go back to the negotiating table to sort out the “baffling” array of post-Brexit rules and regulations that now threaten much of the UK’s export trade to the EU.

The paper says there is mounting anger among UK firms at cross-border friction they were told would not exist. As a result, British manufacturing and trade organisations met Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove in an emergency session on Thursday to discuss problems resulting from the deal struck by Boris Johnson with the EU before Christmas.

They add that although the prime minister had hailed what he claimed was a “zero-tariff” and “zero-quotas” deal that would allow free and simple access to the single market. Less than a month on, Britain’s EU departure appears to be anything but pain-free:

In the first week after the UK finally left both the single market and customs union, the parcels firm DPD suspended some of its services, bookseller Waterstones halted sales to customers in the EU and UK fishermen warned they would not be able to sell their fresh produce into EU markets because of delays at borders.

There were also problems with consignments between Great Britain and Northern Ireland as new border checks caught many businesses unawares. Luxury food store Fortnum and Mason also told customers on its website: “We are temporarily unable to deliver to Northern Ireland or countries in the European Union”, while Debenhams has temporarily shut its online business in Ireland.

Some of the problems are being blamed on a rushed deal, and others on the sheer complexity of arrangements including “rules of origin”, some of which have not been finally determined. Only goods made up largely of parts that originate in the UK qualify as tariff-free.

Stephen Phipson, the chief executive of the manufacturers’ organisation Make UK, is especially damning. He said much still needed to be negotiated between the UK and EU:

“Industry welcomed the trade agreement that avoided the catastrophe of no-deal, as tariffs and quotas would have been a disaster for exporters. However, this is only a starting point, as there are still substantial issues that need ironing out, with many months, if not years, of tough negotiations ahead.

“There are customs experts with 30 years’ experience who are baffled by what the new regulations mean, let alone small- and medium-sized businesses who have never had to deal with the kind of paperwork that is now required. The great fear is that for many it will prove too much and they will simply choose not to export to the EU.”

He also raised fears about the UK car industry, which could be adversely affected by tariffs if EU rules relating to the origins of components used in car manufacture cannot be met. “Having built up seamless and complex supply chains over decades, the automotive sector in the UK is facing a jolt to its systems that places its very future under threat,” he added. “While there is no suggestion multinationals will close plants overnight, we have already seen decisions to build new models placed elsewhere. As those models that have been built in the UK for many years come to the end of their life, we are likely to see a slow puncture for the sector of investment drifting away.”

The paper also quotes Sam Lowe, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, who said there were problems that could grow over coming weeks and months:

“The new import/export formalities are proving problematic for many companies. The lack of obvious queues at the border disguises the fact that many trucks are stuck in depots, unable to head to the ports due to their clients failing to provide the necessary documentation and information.”

So yet another Boris Johnson megashambles, undermining our economy and causing chaos wherever he goes.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

And in the end


Friday, January 08, 2021

Brexit Campaign group embraces Europe

You really cannot make this stuff up. The Independent reports that Brexit campaign group Leave.eu has moved its internet registration to the Republic of Ireland in order to be able to keep its .eu suffix after the UK quit the European Union.

The paper says that quite rightly the move has sparked waves of criticism on social media, with pro-Remain philosopher AC Grayling branding it: “The looking-glass world of Brexit hypocrisy”:

The group, founded by businessman Arron Banks and backed by Nigel Farage, was a loud voice for Leave in the 2016 referendum campaign, and has remained in operation since then, pushing for the hardest possible Brexit.

It was one of more than 80,000 internet domain names assigned to UK registrants facing suspension by the EU’s EURid registration body at the end of the transition period to Brexit on 31 December.

But before the move to post-Brexit co
nditions took place, the group’s parent organisation Better for the Country transferred its registered address from the UK to an address in Waterford, Ireland.

Of course if they were to avoid having their website downgraded to suspended status, removing functions such as email or basic website services then Leave.eu needed to make this move. But that does not explain why a campaign so opposed to Europe and so wedded to an 'independent UK' chose the EURid domain in the first place rather than a dot.uk one.

What a bunch of hypocrites.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

British Tories fail the democracy test over insurrection in Washington DC

Like so many others I watched on in horror last night as the violence escalated in Washington DC and armed insurrectionist pushed past ineffective police officers to occupy the capital building, and even at one point enter the Senate chamber. The last time I recall seeing an elected chamber taken over by armed rebels in a western democracy was in Spain in 1981, when 200 soldiers and members of the paramilitary Civil Guard stormed the lower house of the Spanish Parliament, the Cortes, firing automatic weapons and shouting orders as part of an abortive right wing coup.

There was no doubt in anybody's mind that this was not a protest, but an insurrection, urged on by the President of the United States himself, who, it is reported, refused to authorise an intervention by the National Guard. Accounts I saw stated it was the Vice President who eventually ordered these troops to try and bring the confrontation to an end.

The last three months have cast doubt on the USA's credentials as a leading democratic state, with the President himself, seeking to undermine the will of the people in an attempt to remain in power. The only saving grace from last night's events is that his actions, which finally got him suspended from Facebook and Twitter, have undermined his support amongst the Republican Party establishment, and have left him isolated, with even key members of staff resigning in disgust.

But we should not be complacent. The right wing, destabilising forces that fuelled Trump's attempted coup are present in the UK as well and helped to stoke up the pro-Brexit protests outside Parliament over the last few years as well as the prevailing intolerance of other views on social media. As many of the current crop of Tory Ministers owe their jobs to this campaign, it was hardly surpising that they were rather muted in condeming the violence surrounding the certification of the US Presidential election by Congress.

As the Independent reports, that despite Boris Johnson and senior members of his Cabinet calling for a peaceful transition of power in the United States, the UK prime minister, foreign secretary and chancellor failed to mention the outgoing US president by name, with home secretary Priti Patel also failing to condemn Mr Trump outright when asked by Sky News on Thursday morning, but eventually telling the BBC that his incendiary comments “directly led” to the violence witnessed in Washington.

Meanwhile, Welsh Conservative MS, Andrew RT Davies, also came under fire for comparing the violent riots with attempts to push for a second Brexit referendum, as he attacked Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s comments decrying the “direct attack on democracy”.

Trump appears to be an addiction that many Conservatives will find it hard to wean themselves off.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Is this another government fiasco in the making?

If there is one thing that has become clear from this pandemic, it is how incompetent the current Tory government is. 

Not only have they bungled the timing of lockdowns, leading to thousands of unnecessary deaths because of the Prime Minister's indecision, but they allowed the virus to spread unchecked into care homes housing some of those most vulnerable to the disease; they failed to equip care and NHS workers with PPE in a timely fashion, exposing them to infection, while at the same time awarding contracts for the supply of this protection to friends and colleagues without the proper tendering process, spending millions of pounds in the process, much of which appears to have been wasted; they have sent out mixed messages on schools, causing confusion and putting people at risk; consistently missed targets on testing and only now, nine months later have they introduced testing for those entering the country; and they have failed to practise what they preach with regards to lockdown rules, with breaches of protocol by high profile individuals undermining trust in government at a time when it was most needed.

And now they are in charge of rolling out the vaccine, which will hopefully draw this pandemic to a close. Already there are signs that things are not going well. It is enough to make a grown adult weep.

The Independent reports that the vaccines minister has refused to say when the target of 2 million weekly jabs will be hit, throwing doubt on the plan to ease the lockdown. 

The paper says the government pledged to vaccinate the 14 million most vulnerable people by mid-February – when the lockdown will be reviewed – which means about 2 million every week. But Nadhim Zahawi declined – twice – to say when that weekly figure will be achieved, promising only “a significant increase” when the first regular data is released next Monday.

They add that the deployment of the Wrexham-made Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is being hindered by the need for separate batch approvals and a worldwide shortage of glass phials. Surely that could have been anticipated and planned for:

Asked, again, on BBC Breakfast, when he was “optimistic” of hitting 2 million weekly innoculations, Mr Zahawi replied: “I don't want to pre-empt the figures. It's very important that when we publish figures they are accurate.”

The uncertainty comes before Boris Johnson faces the anger of many Conservative MPs, who will be told to give their retrospective backing to the third lockdown that came into force in England on Wednesday morning.

Although the prime minister has hinted at an easing of restrictions from late February, the legislation allows them to remain in place until the end of March – provoking suspicions.

On Tuesday, Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, warned that some curbs will be required even next winter.

Mr Johnson argued the UK had made a remarkable start by vaccinating 1.3 million people already, including 650,000 over-80s – 23 per cent of the group most likely to be hospitalised or die of Covid-19.

He also pledged to have opened almost 1,000 vaccination centres by the end of this week, with seven major hubs in sports stadiums and exhibition centres next week.

But, in interviews, Mr Zahawi faced accusations that the government has consistently “overpromised and underdelivered” throughout the pandemic.

Once more we are faced with a government floundering in a crisis. The roll-out of vaccines have the potential to be another government fiasco in the making.

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

By-passing the UK

It was inevitable that once we had left the EU and started to subject all freight traffic to a blizzard of bureaucracy and paperwork, that those just passing through the Uk would find alternative routes. This story in the Independent back in November confirmed that plans for new routes were well underway.

The plan was for DFDS, a Danish international shipping and logistics company, to start operating sailings on the route between Dunkirk and Rosslare on 2 January 2021. As far as I am aware that has happened and no doubt other routes will follow, all offering “direct and paperless transport between EU countries”, reducing companies’ dependence on the UK land bridge and create new trade opportunities within the EU’s single market.

On Friday, the Irish Times reported the first day of sailings on the new direct ferry service by shipping operator DFDS on this route were fully booked. They add that fears about delays from the new customs and agricultural checks at ports have encouraged importers, exporters and transport firms to use the new direct service to mainland Europe.

This is the first outward sign of the consequences of Brexit, the UK being by-passed on key trade routes, effectively being frozen out of the European market. Our roads may have fewer lorries on them but our ports will be quieter and places like Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke Dock could well see fewer jobs in the medium term. This is not good news for those areas.

Monday, January 04, 2021

A failure to step up

It is a little early in the new year to be confronted with irony, but the current UK government just cannot help itself.

Thus yesterday's Observer reports that the UK government has demanded that executives who supplied combustible cladding to Grenfell Tower “step up to the plate” after their refusal to give evidence to the public inquiry into the disaster provoked anger among the bereaved and survivors.

The paper says Stephen Greenhalgh, the building safety minister, has escalated a legal and diplomatic dispute over the position taken by three current and former executives at the French division of the US company Arconic. He told them to stop hiding behind an arcane French law:

Arconic made the polyethylene-filled aluminium composite panels that were the main cause of the spread of the fire, which killed 72 people. The witnesses, based in France and Germany, are wanted by the inquiry to account for their role in manufacturing, testing and marketing the cladding, which is now banned on high rise homes in the UK.

The former executives Claude Wehrle and Peter Froehlich, alongside Gwenaëlle Derrendinger, a current employee, are citing the rarely used 53-year-old French blocking statute and are refusing to attend six days of cross-examination due this month. Two UK-based Arconic witnesses will give evidence.

Greenhalg is absolutely right in demanding that these executives appear and give evidence at the inquiry, however two and a half years after the tragic fire, hundreds of people are still living in unsafe blocks of flats because the UK Government has failed to step up to sort out recladding them in safer material.

What is the minister doing about that?

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Saving our trees

Last year may have seen nature reassert itself after we all locked ourselves in and stop polluting the atmosphere with car emmissions amongst other things, but it seems that profit still wins out when it comes down to the real choices facing developers.

Here in Swansea a property developer and his firm were fined a total of £300,000 in October 2019 for ordering a 176-year-old giant redwood be cut down for new homes. They are appealing, a case that will likely come to court in 2021.

There are countless stories of councils failing to protect valuable trees but surely one of the worst must be in Hackney, where according to the Independent, a healthy 150-year-old plane tree in Hackney, which was voted the Woodland Trust’s tree of the year by the public, is now due to be felled as part of local redevelopment plans:

The plight of the Happy Man Tree, as it is known due to its proximity to a former pub called the Happy Man, inspired an outpouring of love from those who live nearby, who have dressed the tree with garlands and hung signs and banners up drawing attention to the plans to chop it down.

The tree is being removed as part of a housing redevelopment project, which will provide social housing, but the developer - Berkeley Homes - admitted earlier this year that had they known how much the tree was valued they would have drawn up different plans which could have kept it. Though they said it was too late to do so.

As well as seeing the tree named England’s Tree of the Year, the plans to cut it down have sparked street demonstrations, court injunctions of protesters and the opposition of over 25,000 people.

But this week it appears Berkeley Homes are now on course to remove the tree as planned and fearing a backlash, have obtained an order by the High Court which states that anyone who peacefully stands under the tree after 9am on December 13 could face a prison sentence of up to two years and may have their assets seized.

In my view the removal of this tree is a dereliction of duty on the part of the elected officials who oversee Hackney's planning process. The housing scheme could and should have been redesigned, why was that not specified from the very beginning?

We still have a long way to go to become trusted guardians of our environment.

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Another year, another broken promise

We should be getting used to this Tory government breaking its promises by now, but the letdowns and betrayals continue to flow out of Whitehall.

The latest is reported in the Independent and relates to Ministers failing jobless young people by falling far short of a promise to recruit 30,000 new apprentices to the civil service.

The paper quotes a senior Conservative, who said the government had failed to make achieving the pledge “a priority” – and criticised an attempt to blame the embarrassing shortfall on Covid-19, in fact, the target was set four years ago.

Only 16,155 apprentices had been recruited by the time the pandemic struck in March. So much for Whitehall “leading by example”. The Independent adds that the missed target follows the failure to sign up 3 million apprentices across the economy between 2017 and 2020, with only around 2.2 million recruited.

As Garry Graham, deputy general secretary of Prospect, says: “The failure of the government to meet its own apprenticeships target is symptomatic of a wider malaise at the heart of government.” The 'occasional warm words from the government' he refers to are not good enough.

Friday, January 01, 2021

Happy New Year

 



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