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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The 21st Century Parliament operating nineteenth century rules

I blogged earlier this year on the ridiculous and retrograde way that the House of Commons treats pregnant MPs.

The archaic working practices that female MPs have to endure was brought to a head in July 2018 when the Tory Chief Whip asked party chairman, Brandon Lewis to break a pairing agreement with Lib Dem MP, Jo Swinson, who had recently given birth and was effectively taking maternity leave.

In January of this year, a cross-party delegation of MPs met the speaker to implore him to introduce a new baby leave system, which would allow proxy voting for new mothers and fathers. They were concerned that at the informal nature of the current system for parental leave and the fact it is organised by the political parties, being totally reliant on the pairing system, which can break down during crucial votes. This request was eventually granted.

Now the Labour MP, Stella Creasy has highlighted the dilemma she faces as an expectant mother, when faced with the antiquated working practices and rules operated by the House of Commons. As the Guardian reports, she feels parliament is telling her to “choose between being a mum and being an MP”, revealing that the parliamentary standards authority has told expectant mothers it does not recognise any form of maternity leave and will not automatically provide extra support for constituency work after she gives birth.

Creasy said she had decided to speak out after experiencing two miscarriages during which she was forced to continue to work as normal without any additional support:

Now pregnant again, she said she had been told that MPs would not be provided with any additional funding for support staff by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to allow her to get extra help with constituency work.

The MP for Walthamstow said she had been heartened by the introduction of proxy voting, introduced earlier this year after a the Labour MP Tulip Siddiq, who heavily pregnant, was forced to delay her caesarean section and vote in a wheelchair, but that far more had to change.

Creasy said that during her first miscarriage, she had carried on constituency work “aching and bleeding”, including joining a protest for the extradition of a man who had raped and murdered a constituent. After her second miscarriage she said she had to arrange the medical procedure around constituency advice surgeries.

“Heartbroken by all the years that I have struggled with fertility, I’ve kept these events to myself and made sure my constituents have never been affected,” she writes. “Now I’m pregnant once more and terrified – not just that it will go wrong again, but because I know that my resolve to keep my private and professional lives separate has become impossible.”

Creasy said she had approached Ipsa about funding for cover but was told it “does not ‘recognise’ that MPs go on maternity leave”.

“Humiliatingly, it is making me beg for extra staff funding – or give up any chance of spending time with my child to make sure my constituents don’t miss out,” she writes. “If a GP or vicar were on leave, a locum would be provided to ensure continuity of services. In Denmark, a member of the national parliament would have a substitute MP appointed.”

Creasy is absolutely right when she says that the struggle MPs experience trying to take adequate maternity leave is one of many issues where fertility is still a barrier to equality, and in highlighting non-disclosure agreements used to cover up maternity discrimination and the postcode lottery of fertility treatments.

What sort of inhuman organisation is IPSA that it effectively does not recognise nor make allowances for MPs to give birth? Isn't it about time that they joined the twenty first century as well?

Monday, June 17, 2019

Private firms profiting from new UK visa system

The Independent carries a shocking story this morning, claiming that private firms have raked in millions of pounds through the Home Office’s newly outsourced visa system, as people are forced to pay “extortionate” fees and travel long distances to apply for UK status.

They say that immigration lawyers have warned legal migrants risk being “thrown into the hostile environment” after the visa processing service was outsourced to French firm Sopra Steria last November. Those affected include some people applying for EU settled status ahead of Brexit – despite the government stating that this application is free:

While visa applicants could previously go to their local post office to upload documents and provide biometric data such as fingerprints, they must now attend one of just six “core centres” across the country which offer a free service, or another 51 which charge a fee starting from £60.

Sopra Steria also offers a “premium service” through a partner company called BLS, where appointments start at £200. The service made more than £2m between January and April 2019, according to data obtained through a freedom of information (FOI) request.

Solicitors said applicants had been unable to book free appointments due to a lack of availability on Sopra Steria’s website, with some forced to travel hundreds of miles or pay high fees in order to submit their applications on time.

Other applicants have been met with a “maze of misinformation and misdirection” while completing the new online application forms provided by the firm, which lawyers said had led people to abandon the process or submit inaccurate applications, potentially leading to erroneous refusals.

The Independent has also learned that family members of EU nationals must go through the privatised system to obtain biometric residency cards in order to apply for the EU settlement scheme, despite the government pledging that the application to settle their status post-Brexit was free.

The paper reports that Law Society President, Christina Blacklaws has raised concerns that this “inconsistent” and “substandard” system could lead to unlawful or incorrect decisions for applicants, or exclude people from the system because of “inflated prices and inaccessible services”. She said Sopra Steria applicants were being offered “often very costly, unnecessary supplementary services when they may be particularly vulnerable”:

“There is a real risk of an increase in Home Office refusals based on a lack of evidence simply because the subcontractor has rejected, failed to request or to transfer the relevant evidence from applicants to the Home Office,” she added.

“These grave problems in our immigration system undermine the rule of law, while also damaging our country’s reputation for justice and fairness.”

The Independent reveals that FOI data shows more than 8,000 appointments were booked at the premium lounge in the first four months of 2019. With appointments starting at £200 off-peak and rising to £260 during office hours, this indicates that the firm has collected nearly £2m at this location alone.

The data also shows that of 52,504 appointments booked at the Croydon centre – one of the six core centres that offer free appointments – between January and April this year, a third (17,000) paid a fee in order to secure a same-day appointment or one outside office hours.

This sort of profit making at the expense of migrants is completely unacceptable. It is exploiting a group of people who are already unsettled and looking for security and certainty. Now that it is out in the open, it should be up to Parliament to challenge the government on these practices and force them to be changed.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The growth of racism in the UK

A United Nations report has claimed that austerity measures and ”hostile environment“ policies adopted by the government have entrenched racism and stoked xenophobic sentiment in the UK.

Tendayi Achiume, the UN’s special rapporteur on racism, who visited the UK on a fact-finding mission last year, described the “structural socioeconomic exclusion” of racial and ethnic minorities in the UK as “striking”. She said race, ethnicity, religion, gender and disability status all continued to determine the life chances and wellbeing of people in Britain in ways that were “unacceptable and, in many cases, unlawful”.

As the Independent says, hHer report said austerity measures had been “disproportionately detrimental” to people of racial and ethnic minorities. It highlighted that these groups were also overrepresented in criminal justice enforcement and underrepresented within the institutions that adjudicate crime and punishment:

In a damning indictment of the UK’s approach to immigration enforcement, Ms Achiume also called for an end to the hostile environment, saying it “relied on private citizens and civil servants to do frontline immigration enforcement, effectively transforming places like hospitals, banks and private residences into border checkpoints”.

She added: “In a broader context of national anti-immigrant anxiety, the predictable result of the UK government’s immigration policy and enforcement is racial discrimination and racialised exclusion. The Windrush scandal is a glaring example.”

The rapporteur said her findings should not come as surprise to the government, as their own data and reports – including the Race Disparity Audit, the Lammy Review, and the work of the UK Equality Commission – substantiated the “persistent exclusion and marginalisation of racial and ethnic minorities”

The report also points to government data showing that the Brexit referendum coincided with a spike in hate crimes, anti-migrant rhetoric, and racial, ethnic and religious discrimination.

“To be clear, Brexit has not newly introduced racism and xenophobia to the UK – both have a long legacy that extends as far back as the historical European projects of slavery and colonialism,” said Ms Achiume. “That said, national debates and certain practices and policies before, during and after the Brexit referendum in 2016 have amplified racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in the UK. Public and private actors have played dangerous roles in fuelling intolerance.

“Among them, politicians and media outlets deserve special attention given the significant influence they command in society.”

Whether you agree with this analysis or not (and the UK Government does not, arguing that it mischaracterises their policies and incorrectly argues that recent events have catalysed what are in fact long-term trends), it does give an indication of how the UK is viewed by many people outside of our borders, post-Brexit.

In that regard Ministers should take it seriously, and respond more positively with clear initiatives to reverse and tackle the racism and exclusion that is highlighted, and which clearly does exist across the country.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The huge disparity afflicting the housing market

Today's Guardian tells us about a new report which claims that property wealth in Britain from second homes has risen by more than 50% over the past two decades to reach nearly £1 trillion.

Research by the Resolution Foundation has found that total property wealth for UK residents from second homes, buy-to-let investments and overseas property has risen in value from around £610bn in 2001 to £941bn. The number of British adults in families who have wealth from properties additional to their own home has risen by more than 50% this century to reach 5.5 million – around one in 10 of the UK population.

At the same time, we are witnessing falling levels of home ownership for the UK population, so that of the estimated 23.2m households in England, 14.8m or 64% are owner-occupiers, down from a peak of 71% in 2003.

Almost 2 million people own rental properties, up from about 1.2 million in 2008, while the total number of buy-to-let mortgages has risen by about 15 times since the turn of the millennium:

A lack of new council homes being built to replace those sold under Margaret Thatcher’s right to buy policy has contributed to an imbalanced housing market, with a dearth of affordable homes, while increasing numbers live in private-rented accommodation.

There are also concerns over the divisions of wealth in modern Britain. House prices have boomed over the past decade since the financial crisis, while wage growth has stalled.

Wealth inequality is much greater than the differences in pay between workers, with the wealth of the top 10% richest households worth about five times more than that of the bottom half of all families combined. Illustrating the scale of the rising wealth tied up in second homes, the Resolution Foundation said additional properties accounted for about 15.8% of the £6tn in gross property wealth in Britain, up from 13.7% in 2006-08.

The research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, found that older generations in particular had benefited from the rise in property values, as property wealth typically takes years to accumulate. Around one in six people born in the 1950s report additional property wealth, the highest of any cohort.

The rise in buy-to-let home ownership has led to the increasing transfer of wealth across the generational divide, as younger private renters line the pockets of older landlords. The research showed that the baby boomer generation born around the time of the second world war received more than half of all rental income in Britain.

Trends like these are difficult to turn around easily, but with an increasing number of young families not being able to afford to get onto the property ladder at all, there is clearly a need for some sort of intervention by government.

Certainly, we need to build more social, affordable and intermediate homes to rent and buy, but we should also look at schemes such as Rent to own, being promoted by the Welsh Government at the instigation of the Liberal Democrats.

Above all this trend underlines the argument for us to be taxing wealth more effectively, so as to be better able to pay for the sort of schemes I have outlined in the previous paragraph.

Friday, June 14, 2019

EU spells out consequences of no deal

Brazen assertions by Tory leadership candidates that Europe fears a no-deal as much as the UK, may well be accurate but the stakes are much higher for us than the other 27 countries and they know it, and that is why at the end of the day they will let us self-destruct.

That assertion is made clear by this article in the Independent, in which they report on analysis by the European Commission, which concludes that the UK economy will be hit up to 10 times harder by a no-deal Brexit than the continent's.

They say that the working assumption in Brussels is bad news for Tory leadership contenders like Boris Johnson, who are hoping to use the threat of a no-deal Brexit as part of their strategy for renegotiating Theresa May’s Brexit deal:

A “state of play” document put out by the commission this week, meant to brief EU leaders, MEPs, and central bankers on the current situation, cites a 2019 estimate by the IMF that the long-term effect on the EU’s GDP by a no deal will be “well below 1 per cent”. The commission says this is “in line with most other studies”.

By contrast, when looking at how the UK fares, the commission cites figures ranging from 3 per cent to 8 per cent for the hit to the UK economy, including the British government’s own 2018 estimate of 7.7 per cent.

“As the commission has constantly stressed, contingency measures can only mitigate the most significant disruptions of a withdrawal without an agreement. While the commission does not speculate on the possible economic implications of different scenarios, it is clear that a withdrawal of the United Kingdom without an agreement would have a serious negative economic impact, and that this impact would be proportionally much greater in the United Kingdom than the EU27 member states,” the document says.

“Preparations by member states and stakeholders are likely to reduce their individual exposure to the negative impact of a withdrawal without an agreement. A high level of preparedness across all sectors of the economy will also mitigate the negative impact.”

The paper says that the economic assumptions are based on the British economy being subject to WTO “most favoured nation” tariffs, which apply to WTO members in the absence of other agreement and comes just days after a leaked UK cabinet paper warned that the UK was not ready for a no-deal Brexit on 31 October, when the current extension of the Article 50 period will expire if it is not extended again.

Isn't it about time that these realities were accepted by those seeking to enter Number 10 Downing Street in a few week's time?

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Labour disarray hands moral victory to hardline Brexiteers

No photo description available.
A cross-party attempt to stop a no-deal Brexit failed yesterday, handing a moral victory to hardline Brexiteers, who want us to crash out of Europe without a deal on 31 October.

The motion proposed giving MPs control of the parliamentary agenda in a fortnight’s time. That day could then have been used to begin legislation to prevent the UK from leaving the EU without a deal, though it is uncertain what form this would take.

However, despite Labour spearheading the move, it was their ill-discipline that saw it defeated. Eight Labour MPs including Caroline Flint, John Mann and Graham Stringer voted with the government against the motion and 13 more abstained. Ten Conservative MPs voted with Labour. The motion failed by just 11 votes.

As the Guardian reports, the result of the vote handed a boost to Conservative leadership candidates including Boris Johnson hoping to force a “deal or no deal” Brexit in October:

The former Conservative MP Nick Boles warned opponents of a no-deal departure were fast running out of options – apart from a confidence vote to bring down the government. “No-deal Brexit on 31 October is back to being a racing certainty,” he said. “It is very hard to see where any further legislative opportunities will come from. So it’s now a question of politics – specifically whether a PM pursuing a no-deal Brexit can command and sustain the confidence of the House of Commons.”

Johnson officially launched his campaign on Wednesday saying he believed a new government “with a new mandate, a new optimism, a new determination” could leave the EU with an amended deal by 31 October. However, the leadership frontrunner warned that he was determined to leave the EU by that date, whether he had achieved a new deal or not.

“I am not aiming for a no-deal outcome, I don’t think we can end up with any such thing. But it is only responsible to prepare vigorously and seriously,” he said.

Johnson refused to say what he would do if he had not secured an improved deal in time for 31 October – or whether he would resign if the deadline were not met or no deal was prevented.

Brexit has turned into a fiasco because for almost the whole of the last three years, Labour have been missing in action as an official opposition, determined to facilitate our exit from the EU and in doing so propping up the Tory Government.

Yesterday's vote demonstrates that when they do try and lead, they cannot get their troops behind  them. It is little wonder that the country's disillusionment with the whole process is so strong.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

UK Government vetting social media of potential candidates for public bodies

The case of a drugs expert, who has been denied appointment to a policy panel, has highlighted a new vetting trend for candidates seeking to serve on public bodies.

The Guardian reports that a government minister vetoed the appointment of Niamh Eastwood, the director of Release, the UK’s centre on drugs and drug laws, to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), which makes drug policy recommendations to government, after vetting found she had criticised the Home Office and called for drug policy reform.

They say that an online search by the ACMD secretariat found that Eastwood had described a Home Office policy position as “utter BS” and claimed it was “just making s**t up” in a tweet. And documents released under a subject access request also revealed that candidates for public bodies now have their social media profiles scrutinised by ministers, including posts regarding the “PM/government”, Windrush, Brexit and anything “diversity-related”:

Although it was recognised that her “contribution could enrich the group”, there was concern that she “may use the appointment as an inappropriate lobbying opportunity”.

It was suggested that Eastwood’s “clear views on drugs liberalisation” might impede her ability to be “impartial, and provide unbiased views”. When asked for comment, the Home Office claimed that the decision was made “on the basis of expertise”.

Vetting candidates for such appointments has been tightened following Toby Young’s brief time at the Office for Students after he came under scrutiny for a number of offensive tweets.

In a subsequent report, the Commissioner for Public Appointments highlighted a “possible lack of due diligence by the recruiting department” and there are now checks on “relevant social media content”.

Obviously, it is a matter for ministers who they have advising them, but these latest revelations do beg the question of why anybody would want to staff expert panels with yes-people, when good policy depends on robust debate, taking into account all points of view?

Government should not be an echo chamber. Minister need to access expert opinion on all sides of an argument before taking decisions. To do otherwise just leaves us with a partisan mess, much like Brexit really.

On the plus side, having now reviewed my own social media, I now know not to waste my time applying for public appointments.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

What happens if we don't pay the EU divorce bill?

As the Tory leadership campaign gets underway, some of the candidates have taken a hard line on how we will leave the EU, even going so far as to propose us not paying the £39 billion divorce bill, previously agreed in negotiations.

On first glance this is a compelling line for hardliners, but the consequences of us with-holding this money are severe and any candidate suggesting that it the UK can default on the payment cannot be a serious candidate for Prime Minister.

The Independent has looked at what those consequences would be. They say that the £39bn is mostly the UK's outstanding budget payments that would have been paid in 2019 and 2020 were Britain not leaving the EU, and also some other commitments like pension contributions for civil servants. It is an estimate, based on the formula agreed in the withdrawal agreement.

The sum covers commitments already made by the UK at an international level, notably it is the multi-year EU budget which was signed by the UK in 2013, running from 2014 until 2020. The likes of Boris Johnson believe that we can opt out of payment because after the UK has left the EU, it is no longer subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. However, there are other ways that these agreements can be enforced.

The UK is, for instance, part of the international arbitration court in the Hague. As the Independent points out, this has nothing to do with the EU and they could potentially rule on the case. We wouldn't know whether the UK would be legally bound until the tribunal ruled.  There are more serious consequences:

The EU line is that it would not negotiate any kind of trade deal with the UK after a no-deal, unless three things were settled: the Irish border, citizens' rights, and the financial settlement. So any neglect of any of those things would see the UK locked out of a trading relationship with its largest neighbour. That means the EU strategy in the case of the UK not paying the divorce bill would be to wait for it to be paid.

When the UK was set to leave in 29 March 2019, the EU set up a system that would have allowed the UK to voluntarily pay the divorce bill even in the event it left with a no-deal. The British government would have been given a few weeks - to indicate that it would pay by April 18, and pay the money by April 30. In the end this facility wasn't needed, but you can expect a similar approach to be taken if there is no other extension October.

What would the practical effects of withholding the money be?

The money would probably require emergency cuts to the EU budget - which means EU-funded projects that had planned on the basis of being funded would probably lose their funding. This would be the case unless other EU member states stepped up to cover the gap.

The UK would also be reneging on pension payments for some EU civil servants who had served while the UK was in the EU, some of whom are in fact British. This might be politically difficult for the government.

£39 billion is a lot of money, but not enough to actually cripple the EU. It's unlikely, given the statements of EU officials and leaders, that they would change their red lines to get it back. But you could expect them to sue the UK at the Hague.

Equally as serious is the impact that withholding payment would have on other trade arrangements. Why would any country sign a deal with us when we have a reputation for walking away from our international commitments?

Not paying up is a rogue's charter. We would be branded the untrusty con-men of international relations. It would take years to re-establish trust. In the meantime our economy would go down the pan. Yet another reason why Boris Johnson and those who take the same line, are not fit to be Prime Minister.

Monday, June 10, 2019

The facts on M4 congestion around Port Talbot and Swansea

When the decision not to build an M4 by-pass around Newport was announced last week I argued that it had in any case been a very 'Cardiff-centric' scheme:

The level of congestion and number of business-sapping accidents are as bad on the stretch of the M4 between junctions 37 and 45 as those around Newport, but there is no sign of a multi-billion pound scheme to tackle those problems. That is because it is not the Cardiff region economy that suffers from delays generated by these incidents. 

Now the BBC have very kindly reported on statistics that back up my argument. They have concluded that motorway congestion west of Swansea has seen the biggest increase in M4 traffic - up 78% since 2000. And they confirm worries that the building of thousands of new homes off the motorway will add to these problems.

One transport expert, Professor Mark Barry, says that the issues are a "brake on the economy" of Swansea Bay. He suggests a re-think of city deal priorities to improve connectivity:

The five M4 junctions in Wales which have seen the biggest increases have all been west of Port Talbot, according to Department for Transport figures.

Junction 48 has seen a 45.5% increase in traffic. In the morning peak hour, more than 2,000 vehicles pass through junction 47 heading east.

The need for investment in public transport here has never been so stark. According to analysis by the Centre for Cities, Swansea has one of the lowest proportions of commuting by public transport in the UK - just 6% travel by bus or train.

There is an urgent need for a Swansea Metro system to be introduced in the region to take pressure off the M4. In short, we need a share of the £2 billion that was allocated to deal with congestion around Newport.  Not everything is about Cardiff. Isn't it time the Welsh Government recognised that.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Labour's patchy record on dealing with bullying and harrassment

It is becoming impossible to do otherwise than conclude that Labour's approach to disciplining its members is haphazard at best, discriminatory at worse. The latest incarnation of this hit and miss policy has been exposed in today's Sunday Times.

They report that Jeremy Corbyn has been plunged into a new scandal over his party’s handling of bullying and harassment after it emerged that his most senior aide dismissed an investigation into a close ally accused of inappropriate conduct around young women.

They say that Karie Murphy, the Labour leader’s chief of staff, operated outside formal procedures and said that she would instead “have a word” with Peter Willsman, a veteran activist and friend of Corbyn:

Willsman, 75, was subject to a formal complaint by a young staffer who alleged he asked where she lived, whether she liked clubbing — and sent texts saying he was in his pyjamas. He “refused” to leave her alone. She received no response to her complaint.

In a further blow, it can also be revealed that Labour gagged a young female staff member after she accused a shadow cabinet minister of bullying.

Last year party headquarters negotiated a non-disclosure agreement with a woman in her twenties who said the MP, a senior ally of Corbyn’s, treated her poorly.

They add that separately, Corbyn is under growing pressure to suspend Lisa Forbes, the newly elected Peterborough MP, who “liked” a post saying that Theresa May had a “Zionist slave masters agenda”.

Details of Willsman's case comes a week after Murphy was revealed to have blocked a decision to suspend the membership of David Prescott, a Corbyn aide accused of sexual misconduct in 2017. He denies the allegations.

Who knows how differently events might have turned out if the same approach had been taken with former Welsh Government Minister, Carl Sargeant

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