.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Harsh words from a former French Ambassador

It is never pleasant hearing home truths, and no doubt the views of Sylvie Bermann, France’s former ambassador to the UK will attract controversy, but if we don't heed the words of these outside observers, we will never learn.

The Times has an interview with Bermann in which she puts across her views forcibly and without the usual diplomatic filter:

Despite her close contacts with the British intellectual and artistic world as well as the politicians, the Brexit vote came as a shock. “No one saw it coming, including the Brexiteers who always told me, ‘It’s never going to happen. We’ll never have the courage to leave’. ” Johnson was one of those predicting a Remain vote, she says. “He was saying it’s not going to happen . . . That wasn’t his goal. I think his main aim was to position himself with the hope of replacing Cameron.”

After the vote Britain felt sour, she says. The anger and hostility that had been under the surface was suddenly legitimised. The Brexit vote was the first eruption of an alarming global trend of populist rejection of “elites” and their devotion to charismatic manipulators.

She sees Johnson as a cultivated version of Donald Trump and President Bolsonaro of Brazil. Johnson and his Brexiteers got away with a fantasy version of Britain and the EU, she writes. “By feeding them false anxiety-inducing information about the EU and immigrants, the populists cleverly manipulated the people.” Her words closely echo Macron’s thoughts on the matter.

Britain has changed, she told me. “You feel all these little things you didn’t feel before. The cliché was that the British were very open. Very indifferent about whether you belonged to one religion or another. We had the impression it was a country that was more open than ours, more free, more optimistic. It’s different now.”

Cameron stumbled into the disaster by failing to make any positive argument for EU membership, she says. “He was always saying we’ll be safer and stronger and better off without explaining why. The other side said, ‘Take back control’ and people got the impression that they would recover something.”

France offered to help to boost the argument but Cameron refused every time, she says.

A Remain vote would have swung Britain the other way, she believes. “The people who were racist and aggressive would have shut up. They were like that already but they were legitimised by the success of Brexit. And that’s what happened in the United States,” she says. “If Trump hadn’t been elected everything that appeared might not have happened. Like the gilets jaunes in France,” she added, speaking of the French anti-government grassroots revolt. “We didn’t see them coming because the signals were too weak. If Marine Le Pen [National Rally leader] is elected it would legitimate a form of xenophobia.”

Bermann says Britain is a victim of its delusions about an imagined past and its belief that it won the war single-handedly, without the sacrifice of 22 million Russians and US might.

“The partisans of Brexit are reciting a history in which the UK is never defeated, never invaded. The corollary of an England saving Europe is a detestation of Germany and contempt for cowardice — the term is often used for those who allowed themselves to be occupied, not to mention collaborated,” she writes.

While Britain had among the finest universities in the world, the popular press, led by the Daily Mail, she says, helped the country to imagine it was living in a world of Dad’s Army and Downton Abbey. Its slogan, she suggests laughing, should be the Beatles’ lyric: “I believe in yesterday.”

With the world quickly resolving into three poles of economic and military power — the US, the EU and China — Britain has doomed itself to unappetising choices, she says. By removing itself from a union that is a big player and by putting up the backs of its former partners Britain has welded together a continent that it has throughout history worked to divide. “London will have succeeded in bringing together a continental bloc of 27 countries. This was the famous blockade organised by Napoleon and which England so feared.”

China is the big global challenge, she says, and Britain has downgraded its influence. In the book, she asks: “How has this country, whose influence had been decisive in Brussels, which insolently rolled out the red carpet for French entrepreneurs and which Xi Jinping had elected in October 2015 as the gateway to Europe, undertaken to scuttle itself?”

Britain now faces few options. It can become an American state “dependent on Uncle Sam” or it can attach itself to the Union, enjoying none of the advantages of membership, she says. President Biden believes Brexit is a “historic error” and is not keen on close ties with Johnson’s Britain, she writes.

“Joe Biden has a very negative view of Boris Johnson, who he calls a ‘physical and emotional clone of Donald Trump’.”

Bermann, who wrote a book on China after her years as ambassador, has been accused by some of indulging an undemocratic regime. She responds: “Democracies are in crisis. There was Brexit, Trump, the gilets jaunes. The Chinese have stopped listening to western criticism. They say, ‘We don’t need you any more’. I don’t think the Chinese want us to have their system. What they want is that we leave them in peace.”

It all sounds very familiar.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Consistency is a rare quality for Brexiteer MPs

As the reality of Brexit strikes home, there is an increasing number of MPs who appear to be regretting what they voted for. Could it be that it wasnt just the electorate that was lied to, but these politicians were fooling themselves as well?

The Mirror reports that Tory Brexiteers have called on Boris Johnson to scrap part of his deal with Brussels - despite voting for it. They say that the European Research Group (ERG) are calling for a key plank of the Brexit agreement - known as the Northern Ireland Protocol - should be ditched as it had "profound and negative effect"

The protocol was drawn up to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland by keeping Northern Ireland in the EU's customs union for goods.

However the plan has caused disruption at Irish Sea ports due to the need for checks on goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Those difficulties are expected to ramp up after April 1 when a grace period on red tape applied to imported supermarket goods ends.

Labour slammed the ERG for abandoning the Withdrawal Agreement that they voted for and accused them of stirring up further instability,

Of course many of us predicted this mess from the beginning. If only these Brexiteer MPs had listened.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

UK Government abandons potential victims of cladding scandal

The consequences of the Grenfell fire tragedy continue to reverbaerate through public life with an estimated that 274,000 flats fitted with dangerous cladding, according to the Association of Residential Managing Agents, affecting more than 650,000 people. That figure is likely to reach into the millions when those living in lower-rise structures where problems have also emerged are taken into account. Despite that the UK Government's response is lukewarm at best, leaving many leaseholders out on a limb with no way of meeting the extra costs associated with making their home safe.

The Guardian reports that a plan to protect leaseholders from the spiralling costs of fixing fire safety problems in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster has been rejected in parliament after the government headed off a cross-party challenge:

Hundreds of thousands of homeowners are facing bills of up to £100,000 to repair dangerous cladding, fire doors and insulation systems discovered after the 14 June 2017 fire, but ministers opposed proposals from the House of Lords, Labour and some Conservative backbenchers to protect them from costs.

Amendments to the fire safety bill were defeated in a Commons vote on Wednesday evening after Labour accused the government of moving “at a snail’s pace” to tackle the problem. It warned that 11 million people may be affected by both immediate fire risks and problems with insurance and certification making many homes unsaleable. The bill is the first piece of primary legislation introduced as a result of the Grenfell disaster, which happened four years ago this June.

Also defeated was an amendment to force the government to implement key recommendations from the Grenfell Tower inquiry including making owners tell fire brigades what materials are in wall systems, inspect fire doors annually and lifts monthly – all things that failed during the Grenfell fire, which cost 72 lives.

Earlier this month the government announced a £3.5bn extension of the fund to pay to remove defective cladding on buildings over the height of 18 metres. But it only offered loans for fixing those below 18 metres and nothing for other widespread defects such as missing firebreaks and defective firedoors or paying for 24-hour fire patrols and steep insurance premium hikes.

Sarah Jones, the shadow police and fire minister, told parliament she had heard from “first hand [from leaseholders] the horrors this government is wilfully enabling” by not protecting them from costs.

Some have seen annual insurance costs for their blocks rise from £30,000 to £500,000, while one block with 56 leaseholders in Kent has already paid more than £500,000 for 24-hour fire warden patrols.

What will it take for this government sit up and take notice of the plight these homeowners are in and actually do something about it?

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Vaccine choices

With the vaccine for Covid 19 being rolled out to a significantly larger slice of the population, there was an interesting piece on BBC Radio Wales this morning reported on here.

With the UK justice secretary arguing it may be legal for companies to insist new staff are vaccinated, a solicitor told the station that her phone has been "ringing off the hook" with companies asking if they can refuse to employ someone who has declined a Covid jab.

Elissa Thursfield, an employment lawyer at a practice in Denbighshire, said she expected to see employment tribunals over 'no jab, no job' policies. She said employers needed to be able to justify any blanket policy.

"The phone has been ringing off the hook with people saying 'we're just worried - we lost residents, we lost staff members during this pandemic," said Ms Thursfield, who is head of employment at Gamlins Law in Rhyl.

She told BBC Radio Wales that employers are saying to her that insisting new staff have the jab "seems like a really sensible way of controlling" Covid and firms are asking "please can we do this?".

Ms Thursfield said with new staff it was "likely to be a slightly more straightforward legal issue" but with current staff it would be "significantly more complex".

"If you've got someone coming to work in a care home and they're a hands-on carer or a nurse they are going to be having significant close contact with clients at the care home - you can understand why the management would want people to be vaccinated," she said.

"However, if you've got somebody who works at home and has absolutely no day-to-day contact with other people, other than by virtual means, then 'no jab no job' will probably be seen to be unreasonable.

"What we're advising companies is make sure that you've looked at your risk assessments, you've decided the reasons why you want people to have the vaccine and how that's going to reduce the risk of Covid in your workplace, so making sure you can justify it before just putting a blanket policy out.

"There's a long process that employers are going to have to go through for existing employees, it's not going to be as simple as if you're not having it, you're out the door."

With talk about vaccination passports in England to enable people to go on holiday, the post Covid world is looking more and more interesting.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Hard graft needed to fufill carbon-free promises

Today's Guardian reports that local councils that have declared a climate emergency are continuing to pour money into fossil fuels through their staff pension funds.

They say that an assessment by the campaign groups Platform and Friends of the Earth have found nearly £10bn worth of investments in fossil fuels, including oil and gas companies such as BP and Shell, were found in local government pension funds in the last financial year:

Councils in Greater Manchester, Strathclyde, West Midlands and West Yorkshire had the biggest investments in fossil fuels, accounting between them for nearly a fifth of local government pension fund fossil fuel investments in the UK. The Greater Manchester combined authority had more than £1bn invested in fossil fuels in the financial year 2019-20, accounting for nearly 5% of its pension fund, with the other three areas at about £500m in investment each.

All of these combined authorities have declared a climate emergency. Councils often join together to invest their pension funds, so the funds do not always correspond exactly to specific local authorities.

Councils have been reducing their exposure to high-carbon investments. Similar research in 2015 found £14bn was invested in fossil fuels.

Several other smaller pension funds also had about 5% of their assets invested in fossil fuels, including Teesside, Dyfed and Dorset.

Three companies alone – BP, Shell, and BHP – account for about 40% of all direct investments in fossil fuels by local council pension funds. Of the fossil fuel investments by councils, the majority – about £6.5bn out of £10bn – were in oil and gas, but about a third of the investments were in coal. Coal has become a hot issue for councils as Cumbria is reconsidering a new coalmine, after outrage when the government gave green light to the proposal.

Campaigners said the findings showed councils must take action to ensure their funds were not supporting fossil fuels. Rianna Gargiulo, a divestment campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Declaring a climate emergency may garner good headlines, but too often it seems to stop there. Councils can’t make a bold claim about saving the planet while continuing to invest in fossil fuels. Local authorities have the power and duty to ensure local workers not only have a pension for their retirement, but also a future worth retiring into.”

The issue of course is nothing to do with a lack of will on the part of council. Pension trustees have legal duties that need to be balanced against politicakl priorities, the most important duty being to protect the interests of their pensioners. 

Changing investment strategies without breaching those fiducary duties is a long term game. It cannot be achieved overnight. Having said that, councillors are entitled to see some sort of roadmap with clear targets so as to get some assurance that the boards are moving as fast as they can in the right direction.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Alleged abuses make the case for a beefed up Electoral Commission

The Mirror reports that the UK’s elections watchdog has been urged to investigate whether ‘third party’ campaign groups collaborated to flood social media with anti-Labour attack ads:

Campaign groups spent as much as £700,000 on ads attacking Jeremy Corbyn and Labour policies during the 2019 election campaign, without declaring any of their donors.

But they’re banned from joining forces to plan such campaigns to get around legal spending limits.

The Mirror revealed on Friday that a group run by Tory activist Jennifer Powers had spent £65,000 on dozens of ads attacking Jeremy Corbyn and Labour on housing policy.

But she flatly denied collaborating with anyone else, insisting she merely had an “amateur interest” in housing, and it was a “kitchen table” operation.

But emails obtained by OpenDemocracy reveal striking similarities with another campaign run by a former Boris Johnson aide.

The Fair Tax Campaign, founded by Alex Crowley, a former close aide of Boris Johnson, ran around 100 ads worth £63,105 across just two months leading up to the 2019 poll.

Mr Crowley helped run Boris Johnson's successful campaign for the Tory leadership, and was his political director while he was Mayor of London.

Emails sent by Powers and Crowley to the Electoral Commission to formally register the groups were sent just a day apart, and included almost identical language.

Both included the phrase: ”Having reviewed [my/our] budget I can confidently say that our campaign will comfortably exceed the spending threshold for registering a third party campaign..."

And both included the phrase: “Given it would be reasonable and prudent to assume that a General Election is imminent, and therefore any issue campaigning will take place in the context of a live electoral contest….”

Asked about the similarities, Ms Powers told the Mirror: “Don't remember them, never spoke to them.”

She told the Mirror on Friday: “I did follow all the rules that are set out by the electoral commission.

“I just happen to have, I guess, an amateur interest in housing policy.”

Mr Cowley said: “The Fair Tax Campaign complied with the strict rules set by the Electoral Commission, and Facebook ’s advertising policies.”

Additionally, analysis of both campaigns’ websites revealed their privacy policies were more than 70% identical - but that the text appears on no other site online.

In a letter to Electoral Commission chief Bob Posner, Unlock Democracy director Tom Brake urged the watchdog to investigate.

He wrote: “More than a dozen third-party campaigns that had spent heavily in the 2019 election reported that they had received no funding above the £7,500 threshold for declaring individual donations, and therefore did not have to supply details of any donor to the Electoral Commission.”

He added that the scale of donations which didn’t have to be declared was “astounding.”

Mr Brake said the near-identical texts “could be a complete coincidence but I consider it would be in the public’s interest to seek to establish this.

“Particularly as joint-campaigning or coordination in other areas, over messaging for instance, needs to be accurately reported.”

This is potentially another example of the Electoral Commission not having the resources and powers to deal with possible abuses of process in elections and referendums. And yet there are moves within the Tory Party to weaken its influence or abolish it altogether. That would ne a disaster for democracy in this country.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Why are Labour MPs being gagged on Brexit failures?

If the first duty of opposition is to oppose, its seccond duty is to hold the government to account through effective scrutiny. It is entirely bizarre therefore, to find this article in the Guardian, which reports that Labour MPs are being asked by the party’s high command not to focus on problems caused by Brexit when asking questions in parliament, dealing with the media, or posting on social media.

After a week in which Labour leader Keir Starmer delivered a major speech on how the country should rebuild the economy and reduce inequality without once mentioning Brexit, relations with the EU or the severe problems that have confronted many UK exporters since 1 January, senior party figures reacted with astonishment.

On Saturday night former cabinet member and Europe minister Peter Hain said Brexit had become the “elephant in the room” for Labour.

Hain told the Observer: “It’s quite understandable that Brexit has not been top of Labour’s agenda, but it’s not sustainable to ignore this elephant in the room hurting British businesses, our vital performing arts sector, our security and our foreign policy reach. The Tories delivered a last-minute mess of a Brexit with damaging consequences, not least to stability on the island of Ireland.”

One senior backbencher said the message from the top was very clear – that there should be virtual “radio silence” on the issue. “The order that is coming out is: ‘Don’t mention the war.’ We are being told that Keir wants to move on and that if we mention the B-word let alone suggest we a need better deal with the EU than Boris Johnson’s we are being unhelpful.”

Several sources said that MP Carolyn Harris, Starmer’s parliamentary aide with responsibility for coordinating with Labour members – including on what questions they ask at prime minister’s questions – had been discouraging interventions on Brexit, saying they would damage the leader.

With difficulties for UK exporters continuing and problems over the Irish protocol unresolved, one member of Starmer’s frontbench team said that attempts to “brush the problems under the carpet just because we wrongly voted for Johnson’s deal in December is pretty close to negligence”.

He added that Starmer was “terrified” of offending voters in red wall seats in the Midlands and north where pro-Brexit voters deserted Labour at the 2019 election.

Since 1 January Starmer has not raised Brexit or problems caused by it once at PMQs, and interventions on the issue from backbenchers have been rare. None of the shadow cabinet or frontbench team have made a speech in parliament on the issues affecting UK businesses.

The paper says that pressure is now building on Starmer and his shadow cabinet to lay out a vision of how he would try to improve access to the EU single market – the UK’s biggest export market – after it emerged that thousands of UK firms that export to the bloc are struggling with extra costs and bureaucracy, driving many to invest in warehouses and subsidiaries on the continent, while scaling down and laying off staff in the UK.

No serious party of opposition can afford to ignore these failures. If Labour are not prepared to show leadership because they are afraid of their own shadow then maybe they should step aside and let other parties take up the mantle of opposition instead.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Court rules on lack of transparency in government Covid contracts

The Guardian reports that a high court judge has found health secretary, Matt Hancock, acted unlawfully by failing to publish multibillion-pound Covid-19 government contracts within the 30-day period required by law:

The judge, Mr Justice Chamberlain, ruled the failure to do so breached the “vital public function” of transparency over how “vast quantities” of taxpayers’ money was spent.

The judgment is a victory for the Good Law Project (GLP), a crowdfunded not-for-profit organisation that is making a series of legal challenges related to the government’s procurement of protective personal equipment (PPE) and other services during the pandemic.

Research by the procurement consultancy Tussell had found Hancock’s Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) had spent about £15bn buying PPE from different companies by the beginning of October, but that only £2.68bn worth of contracts had been published.

Government regulations require all contracts with a value of more than £10,000 to be published, and to be sent for publication within 30 days of being awarded.

The GLP highlighted three PPE contracts to illustrate their case: a £252m contract for the supply of face masks with a finance company, Ayanda Capital; a £108m contract with Clandeboye Agencies, which had previously supplied only confectionery products, and PPE contracts worth £345m with a company trading as Pestfix.

None of the contracts was published within the required 30-day period. Tussell found that the average time for publication of Covid-19 related contracts was 47 days, which meant the government’s own 30-day deadline was likely to have been breached “in a substantial number of cases”, Chamberlain said.

As important as this ruling is for improved transparency and ensuring Ministers keep to the rules in the way contracts are handled, it still does not get to the heart of the matter, namely who those contracts were awarded to, how conflicts of interest within government were handled, what due diligence was carried out, why a competitive tendering process was not follows and what firms are on the government's VIP list for these contracts and why. 

 Further court cases are expected.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Has the government abandoned pledge on workers rights?

The Guardian reports that the government has been accused of dragging its heels on promised reforms to zero-hours contracts and the gig economy as legislation to protect workers faces serious delays:

New legislation intended to bolster protections for Britain’s most vulnerable workers will not be ready until the end of the year at the earliest, raising fresh questions about the government’s promise to protect workers’ rights after Brexit.

Whitehall’s newly departed employment tsar, Matthew Taylor, said there was a “deafening silence” from ministers on the landmark employment reforms, in areas such as zero-hour contracts and the gig economy, which were announced by Boris Johnson more than a year ago.

The government pledged to make Britain “the best place in the world to work”. Taylor claims the government’s enthusiasm for the reforms had since “waned”.

While the business department said the government remained fully committed to toughening up the law to protect those in precarious employment, the TUC, the Labour party and senior Conservatives joined Taylor in demanding faster progress.

Sources close to the government said its flagship employment bill – pledged before the UK formally left the EU as the central mechanism to safeguard workers’ rights – was unlikely to be launched until late 2021 or even early 2022. Stakeholders have been told these are the potential times it could be brought to parliament, despite being announced more than a year ago, they said.

The changes to tackle insecure work had been promised in the December 2019 Queen’s speech, a day before the key Commons vote that passed Johnson’s Brexit plan, as the way his government would “protect and enhance workers’ rights as the UK leaves the EU, making Britain the best place in the world to work”.

But in an intervention over the lack of progress,Taylor, who was the government’s director of labour market enforcement until the end of last month, questioned the Conservative party’s desire to safeguard working standards.

“There is still no clarity on what the government intends to do. We have seen a gradual but unmistakable deceleration of the government reform agenda in relation to good work. There was an initial enthusiasm but that has waned, and waned, and waned,” he told the Guardian.

Taylor’s role as director of employment rights remains vacant after his term expired last month. He offered to remain in post unpaid until ministers hired a replacement but was turned down.

No great surprises there then.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Another unelected bureaucrat appointed to help run the country

Considering the 2016 EU referendum was mischaracterised by Brexiteers as throwing out allegedly unelected EU bureaucrats and taking back control of our country, there is a certain irony in the fact that the man who negotiated our exit agreement has now been elevated to the House of Lords as an unelected legislator and given a full-time ministerial job and a place at the cabinet table, where he will lead on Britain’s relationship with the European Union despite never having been elected to that role.

The Guardian reports that Frost will replace Michael Gove as the UK chair of the partnership council, the body set up to settle disputes resulting from the trade agreement, and will take Gove’s role chairing the withdrawal agreement joint committee, a body mired in difficulties over the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol:

The partnership council will head the political and technical structures that will implement and enforce the Brexit agreement in detail and will play a key role in any future negotiations on issues such as the protocol and financial services, where talks are ongoing.

Frost’s appointment to chair the joint committee, which was co-chaired by Gove and the European commission vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, cements a powerful position as the new linchpin in the EU-UK relationship.

Maybe we should have another referendum on stopping unelected politicians running our country.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?