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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Lords capitulate

Depressing news this morning as the House of Lords finally capitulated and allowed the Government's Rwanda Bill to pass into law. The Council of Europe’s human rights watchdog has stepped in immediately to condemn Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda scheme, saying it raises “major issues about the human rights of asylum seekers and the rule of law”.

The Guardian reports that the body’s human rights commissioner, Michael O’Flaherty, said the bill was a grave concern and should not be used to remove asylum seekers or infringe on judges’ independence:

“I am concerned that the Rwanda bill enables the implementation of a policy of removing people to Rwanda without any prior assessment of their asylum claims by the UK authorities in the majority of cases,” O’Flaherty said, adding that the bill “significantly excludes the ability of UK courts to fully and independently scrutinise the issues brought before them”.

The UK remains a member of the pan-European body that promotes human rights, democracy and the rule of law across the continent.

O’Flaherty warned that the UK was prohibited from subjecting, even indirectly, people to “refoulement” – the act of forcing a refugee or asylum seeker to a country or territory where he or she is likely to face persecution – including under article 3 of the European convention on human rights, under the refugee convention, and under “a range of other international instruments”.

Sunak has said flights will begin taking asylum seekers to Kigali within 10-12 weeks, admitting he would miss his target of flights taking off by spring. Speaking after the passing of the bill, the prime minister pledged it would be a “fundamental change in the global equation on migration”.

But a Home Office minister said the government was prepared for “inevitable” legal challenges to the Rwanda scheme, saying there were those who were “determined to do whatever it takes to try and stop this policy from working”.

Charities and rights groups have condemned the passing of the bill as a “stain on this country’s moral reputation”.

It doesnt matter what the government puts in an Act of Parliament, they cannot just legislate away their international obligations.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Nice work if you can get it

There is no better sign that a ship is sinking than if all the rats start deserting it. The only question is how long Rishi Sunak can stay on the bridge before facing up to reality and going to the electorate in search of a refit.

The Observer reports that a cohort of Conservative MPs standing down before the next election have netted jobs worth millions of pounds and have taken dozens of all-expenses-paid trips funded by foreign governments and lobbyists.

The paper says that sixty-four serving Tory MPs and four independent MPs who lost the Tory whip have announced that they plan to stand down at the next election amid polling that suggests their party may face an electoral wipeout, but analysis has found that 34 members of that group, the vast majority of whom are current or former ministers, listed a net total of over £2.5m of expected annual income in the register of MPs interests:

One transparency campaigner said the findings suggested departing Tory MPs were “taking their eyes off the day job” and trying to “cash in on their political connections to secure lucrative jobs”.

While some of the jobs were for smaller sums, 11 MPs listed roles worth over £100,000 a year. At the top of the list was former justice secretary Brandon Lewis, who has taken on five new part-time roles worth £410,000 a year alongside his commitments as an MP.

The most lucrative were for LetterOne Holdings, an “international investment business”, and FM Conway, an infrastructure and road-building company that frequently works for local and national government.

Former chancellors of the exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng and Sajid Javid registered work worth £98,600 and £321,000 a year respectively, including, in Javid’s case, a £300,000-a-year part-time advisory role to Jersey-based investment firm Centricus Partners.

In January, former deputy prime minister Dominic Raab registered a £118,000-a-year role working for private equity firm Appian Capital, for which he needed to work for roughly a week of every month.

Some 26 of the departing MPs have also taken all-expenses-paid trips to the likes of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, usually paid for by lobbyists or the governments of foreign states.

Independent Beckenham MP Bob Stewart, who surrendered the Tory whip late last year before he successfully appealed against his conviction for a racially aggravated public order offence, registered eight foreign trips worth nearly £20,000.

Meanwhile, backbencher Lisa Cameron, who defected to the Conservatives from the SNP last year but is not to set to contest her seat in the next general election, registered six visits outside the UK, including one paid for by the government of Thailand and one by the government of Qatar.

Former business secretary and Cop26 president Alok Sharma listed some 11 subsidised trips worth over £95,000. That was alongside over £330,000-a-year’s worth of outside work. Sharma said: “Much of my travel outside the UK is related to voluntary and unpaid work I undertake to advance climate action. This includes travel to support greater ambition through the Cop process, including visits to the UAE which hosted Cop28 last year.”

As Rose Zussman, the senior policy manager of Transparency International, says, even MPs standing down “have a duty to represent their constituents” until they leave. She adds that these revelations raise “questions about whose interests these MPs are serving and whether they are using their privileged positions to benefit those funding them”.

Surely, the time has come when MPs seeking lucrative roles like these should stand down from Parliament and let somebody else do the job who is committed to serving their constituents full-time.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Further revelations in the Vaughan Gething campaign money saga

Nation Cymru poses a very reasonable question, asking was Welsh Government loan money used to donate £200,000 to First Minister, Vaughan Gething?

They do so in light of the latest revelation that newly published accounts, filed at Companies House. have revealed that companies run by a convicted criminal that bankrolled Vaughan Gething’s Welsh Labour leadership campaign owe £400,000 to a bank wholly owned by the Welsh Government. 

They add that this has raised concerns that Mr Gething’s successful campaign may have effectively been financed by money borrowed from the Welsh Government:

The Welsh political world was rocked when Nation.Cymru reported in February how Dauson Environmental Group Ltd had donated a total of £200,000 to the Cardiff South and Penarth MS – a sum way in excess of previous donations to Welsh politicians.

Dauson and its subsidiary companies, including Atlantic Recycling Ltd, are owned by businessman David Neal, who has received two suspended jail sentences for illegally dumping toxic sludge at the Gwent Levels, a sensitive wetlands landscape with a protected status to the south east of Newport.

Mr Gething narrowly defeated Jeremy Miles in the contest to succeed Mark Drakeford as party leader, a victory that made his election as First Minister inevitable.

Many take the view that he could not have won without the considerable financial support provided to him by Dauson. It is understood that a significant share of the money was used to pay individuals to make campaign phone calls to party members from a phone bank in the run-up to the leadership election.

Entries on the Electoral Commission’s register of political donations show that Dauson Environmental Group, based in Mr Gething’s constituency, donated £100k to his campaign on December 18 2023 and a further £100k on January 11 2024. Both donations were registered with the Commission on February 7 2024.

A business researcher who does not wish to be named contacted Nation.Cymru and told us: “Companies House records show that money was lent to Atlantic Recycling and Dauson Environmental Group by the Development Bank of Wales (DBW) during the period when Vaughan Gething, in his previous role as Economy Minister, was the minister responsible for DBW. The Welsh Government owns 100% of DBW’s shares.

“The 2022/23 accounts just filed show that a £400k bank debt was raised during that year, which accords with DBW taking charges over Dauson and Atlantic on February 28 2023. So it’s probably DBW who lent the money.

“If this company needed to borrow £400k, how was it in a position to lend £200k as a political donation to the Minister responsible for DBW? The implication is that money lent by DBW to the group may effectively have ended up being donated to Vaughan Gething’s leadership campaign.”

Furthermore, an additional charge on the assets of Atlantic Recycling was granted to HSBC on February 28 2024.

The reputational threat to the Senedd and Welsh devolution is enormous. We cannot afford a Westminster-style scandal.  Surely, these latest revelations are the final straw that will prompt Gething to give the money back.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Brexit plans in ‘complete disarray’

The Guardian reports that businesses have described Britain’s Brexit border plans as being in “complete disarray” after it emerged the introduction of some checks on EU imports will be delayed.

They add that post-Brexit border rules, due to come into force on 30 April, will require many meat, dairy and plant products from the EU to be physically checked at government border control posts, but trade bodies have said fresh confusion about when the checks would begin were “incredibly challenging” for business planning, while others said serious questions remained about the government’s readiness for the regime:

Under the rules, medium- and high-risk products, which include meat and dairy products, as well as most plants, could be subject to checks at the borders as part of a move to enhance the UK’s biosecurity.

The Financial Times reported that the government would not “turn on” the checks on 30 April in an attempt to avert delays because border systems were not fully ready.

However, the government insisted the checks would be commencing on 30 April but indicated they would be focusing on higher-risk products and scaling up checks on other products in a “sensible and controlled way”.

The Guardian understands this will mean the government will focus the checks on the highest-risk products across high and medium bands, and then slowly build up to full checks. The government has yet to give a timeline on this but said it would take a “pragmatic approach”.

There have already been five previous delays to the implementation of the checks, which were initially set to come in in July 2021.

Phil Pluck, the chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation (CCF), said: “The ongoing confusion about how and when new checks will be introduced makes these preparations incredibly challenging.

“A phased approach is the right one but businesses urgently need clear information about what exactly these phases will include, and a definitive timeline.”

Martin McTague, the chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, said the system was in “complete disarray” and businesses were having to “decode messy and unclear messages” from Whitehall over whether they would face checks.

In January, the first phase of the border target operating model was introduced, with medium- and high-risk goods having to secure plant health and vet sign-offs before they could be exported to the UK.

Nan Jones, the technical policy manager at the British Meat Processors Association, said it was aware importers were making a high rate of mistakes in the new paperwork, which was causing issues with the government’s IT system at the border.

She said: “Currently there is no consequence for this error but once the new border controls come into force, these errors will result in consignments being directed to a BCP for an inspection.

“This could result in UK border posts being overwhelmed with extra work they are not equipped to process.”

We're going to need a bigger bus.

Friday, April 19, 2024

Goat warning signs needed

The BBC reports that residents in a north Wales town are calling for more signage after a small herd of goats were killed after being hit by a vehicle.

They say that four goats died earlier this month when they were hit on the A470 at Wormhout Way, Llandudno, Conwy county. 

These are of course, the famous Great Orme goats that have roamed Llandudno and Craig y Don since the pandemic lockdowns, when they moved into the area’s empty streets:

The council said it used highways-approved wild animals signs on its roads, but would not fence in the animals due to the risk of the authority becoming solely responsible for their welfare.

Grandmother-of-four Wendy Keenan is leading a campaign, asking the council to install better signs to warn drivers that the animals may venture onto the roads.

“They do need to do something. Four goats were killed and it really upset me. I’m an animal lover and a vegan. I just feel that nobody seems to be looking after those goats,” she said.

“They just seem to be wandering, and I’ve always worried there might be an accident. People come to town, and they might not even know about the goats. It was bound to happen sooner or later, and now it has.”

She added the road where the accident happened was on the way to Ysgol Creuddyn, meaning there could be a risk to children travelling to and from school caused by animals in the road.

“The goats are really important to Llandudno. It is unique, isn’t it?” she said.

“You can’t go anywhere in the world where you’ve got goats roaming freely, and people do come here to catch a glimpse of them in town.”

The Great Orme goats have been wandering the area since they ventured there during the pandemic

Conwy council has been working with Llandudno town council, Mostyn Estates, Natural Resources Wales, and the RSPCA to create a plan to manage the animals and minimise conflict with residents.

Last year, it revealed there were 153 goats on the Great Orme, including a small group grazing around Nant y Gamar Road in Craig y Don.

The goats are becoming a national institution but it seems that their freedom to roam is incompatible with the environment they are now encroaching on.

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Oops, they did it again!

There is no surer sign of a government party in its desth throes than a succession of scandals amongst its MPs leading to suspensions, resignations and bad newspaper headlines like these.

The Guardian says that a Conservative MP has lost the party whip over allegations he misused campaign funds and demanded thousands of pounds from an aide to pay off “bad people” in the middle of the night:

Mark Menzies, 52, was suspended from the Tory parliamentary party on Wednesday night while an investigation is carried out.

The Conservatives took action after the allegations were made public in a report by the Times.

Grant Shapps, the defence secretary, said the party had been aware of the claims “for a while” but “further information came to light yesterday”.

Shapps told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “I understand that CCHQ have been aware for it for a while and have been investigating, and I think some new investigation has come to light subsequently.”

Menzies denies the allegations and maintains he has followed all the rules about funding declarations.

The case is the latest alleged misconduct scandal to rock the Conservative party. It comes only weeks after William Wragg, another MP who has now lost the Tory whip, claimed he handed over colleagues’ personal numbers to someone who had compromising material on him.

How convenient that this didn't become public until after Prime Minister's Questions.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The oxygen of publicity

The far right thrives on publicity, and of all those who flirt with the far right agenda, Nigel Farage is the biggest publicity junkie of all. So, who in their right mind would give them what they want by shutting down an obscure conference which had until them slipped under the radar?

The Mirror reports that the culprit was Emir Kir, the mayor of Brussels district Saint-Josse-ten-Noode. They say that police attempted to shut down the right-wing political conference in Brussels attended by ex-Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Nigel Farage, with officers entered the venue to serve a court order demanding the National Conservatism (NatCon) event cease on public safety grounds as Farage was making a speech:

The former Ukip leader reportedly told the audience: “I understand the police are very keen to shut this down. Well, in that case they can do it while I’m still on stage.”

Organisers were told to wrap up the conference following an intervention from the local mayor. Emir Kir, mayor of Brussels district Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, said: "In Etterbeek, in Brussels City and in Saint-Josse, the far-right is not welcome." But NatCon said it was "legally challenging" the order as it said there were "no grounds to shut down a gathering of politicians, intellectuals, journalists, students, civic leaders, and concerned citizens".

In a video on social media, Mr Farage said the Brussels authorities were behaving "like the old Soviet Union". Following her speech, Ms Braverman hit out at the "Brussels thought police" and claimed it was proof right-wingers are "winning the arguments".

Ms Braverman used her speech to stick the boot into Rishi Sunak for being too weak to take Britain out of the European Court of Human Rights. She said: “The current UK Government doesn’t have the political will to take on the ECHR and hasn’t laid the groundwork for doing so. And so it’s no surprise that recent noises in this direction are easily dismissed as inauthentic."

The conference had already been forced into several venue changes after a string of hosts cancelled due to pressure from local politicians. This lead organisers to accuse the Brussels mayor Philippe Close of seeking to "cancel" the event. Concerns were also raised over security issues due to protests, with the conference shuttering the main entrance of the venue so people couldn't get in.

In a democracy we tolerate the expression of all views no matter how obnoxious, providing they are legal. Trying to suppress these people just plays into their hands, gives them an element of legitimacy and arguably mirrors the sort of crackdown they may impose on their opponents if they ever got into power.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Same old excuses from new Welsh First Minister

A large number of the commentariat have been shocked by the recent announcement of ninety job losses at the National Museum and Galleries of Wales, but more so by the claim by Museum Wales' chief executive Jane Richardson's that she may be forced to close one of its best known buildings, National Museum Cardiff, because of its deteriorating condition.

Naturally, the new First Minister was approached for a comment and, true to form, he demonstrated his trademark political clay feet by failing to even allay people's concerns. As the BBC report, at his press conference in Ebbw Vale on Monday, Vaughan Gething offered no immediate help for Museum Wales, saying that the potential closure was a consequence of making the NHS a priority after a decade of austerity and that the Welsh government faced "difficult choices":

In a statement released the next day, Museum Wales said it currently has no plans to close National Museum Cardiff.

"However, the deterioration to the roof of the museum is significant," the statement said.

"We're therefore in discussions with Welsh government to secure capital funding specifically for building maintenance."

In a bid to prop up the NHS and Transport for Wales the Welsh government has made cuts to most other areas of its budget.

Museum Wales has had a £3m reduction in its grant, but says that because it continues to incur a year-on-year deficit of £1.5m it had to address a total deficit of £4.5m by the of March.

It has a £90m repair backlog across its sites - the organisation runs seven national museums.

It is the same old story, the same excuses, blame somebody else and moan that there is nothing that can be done. Except in this case, it shouldn't be too difficult to secure the future of the Cardiff museum as the urgent need is for capital investment, not revenue and that can be borrowed, or the Welsh Government can move around their existing programme to provide assistance.

So, why didn't Vaughan Gething say instead that they are looking at that specific aspect of the museum's crisis? 

Already, we are getting indications of a significant fall-off in quality at the top of the Welsh Government. Is Gething starting to look tired already?

Monday, April 15, 2024

Ping pong must continue

I woke up this morning to confident assertions by Tory politicians and the unquestioning affirmation of BBC journalists, that the government's Rwanda bill is going to pass into law this week and that the first flights would be taking off within a month.

My first reaction to this was 'not if the House of Lords have any say in the matter' and then I remmembered that prolonged ping pong between the two Houses of Parliament depends on peers not losing their nerve and that, in turn, relies on Labour being prepared to do what they haven't been willing to countenance so far, use the second chamber to frustrate the will of the House of Commons through persistent and constructive amendments.

This opinion piece in the Guardian by Simon McDonald resonates strongly with my thinking on the matter. He says that peers know the Rwanda bill is flawed and dangerous and suggests that they must use every power to oppose it:

So far this year, the House of Lords has debated the safety of Rwanda bill for more than 40 hours. Immediately before Easter, the Lords passed a second set of seven amendments and returned the bill to the Commons (which had earlier rejected the first set of 10 amendments). The Commons will consider those amendments when parliament returns from its Easter recess tomorrow.

The debate in the Lords has highlighted the fundamental flaws of the legislation, legally and constitutionally. But the government believes that “stopping the boats” is important enough to override the UK’s traditional respect for human rights; it argues that the scheme will have such a powerful deterrent effect that potential asylum seekers won’t cross the Channel.

Deterrence works in one of two ways. The more powerful is the certainty of unpleasant consequences when you do something. The UK-Albania communique, signed in December 2022, falls into that category. Albanians who claim asylum in the UK now know that they will be returned to Albania; they have substantially stopped coming.

Being uncertain that unpleasant consequences will not follow exerts a less powerful but sometimes still effective deterrent effect. The government hopes the Rwanda scheme falls into this category. And yet debate has revealed facts that undermine their case. First, the Home Office minister, Lord Sharpe, revealed that about 55,000 asylum applications were lodged in the last nine months of 2023. Second, ministers failed to deny reports that Rwanda has agreed to take just 300 refugees in the first three years of the scheme’s operation. So, a refugee’s chances of deportation are minimal. Very few potential asylum seekers would be deterred by such odds, having already journeyed thousands of miles and overcome numerous challenges.

The scheme would also be astronomically expensive: the National Audit Office puts the costs at £541m. The cost for each refugee sent to Rwanda would be about £1.8m over three years. As Lord Carlile has observed, it would be cheaper to put them up at the Ritz.

For this doomed venture, the government is asking parliament to pass legislation that is extraordinary in two ways. First, the bill declares as a fact that Rwanda is safe enough to provide shelter for vulnerable people fleeing persecution in their home countries. It is true that Rwanda has seen astonishing progress since the genocide that began 30 years ago this month. But it is not safe. President Kagame does not tolerate dissent. And the best our government can manage when challenged over the treatment of the LGBTQ+ community is that Rwanda does better than its neighbours, some of the world’s most notoriously hostile countries towards LGBTQ+ people. Rwanda is also embroiled in the civil war in eastern Congo; no one in Kinshasa considers Rwanda a safe country to do business with.

Repeatedly, ministers cite the signature of the UK-Rwanda treaty as clinching proof that Rwanda is safe. Kigali has made a series of promises that parliament is invited to take at face value. But signatures are cheap. Naivety is the second worst failing of diplomats. Ronald Reagan was guided by the principle “Trust but verify”. The House of Lords international agreements committee concurs and has set out 10 tests it believes need to be passed before the treaty can safely come into force. The government rejects the need to verify.

Second, the bill states that British courts must accept that Rwanda is safe; courts can neither question that view now nor in the future in the light of new evidence that Rwanda may no longer be safe. From time to time, governments set out controversial facts in legislation. To date, it has been possible to test such facts in court; that happened, for example, with the Asylum and Immigration Act (2004) when the courts upheld the government’s view that Rwanda could be considered a “safe third country”.

This time is different. The courts will be told unequivocally that they cannot question the government’s view. This is unusual but not unprecedented. Lord Hoffmann reminded the Lords of the last such case, the Acte for Poysoning (1531). Henry VIII had a pathological fear of poisoning. Originally the bill had two provisions: to treat all cases of poisoning as treason and to stipulate death by boiling for anyone found guilty. At the last minute, he added a third clause, after two people died following a dinner party given by the bishop of Rochester in February 1531. The bill found Richard Roose, the cook, guilty of poisoning. Royal assent was given on 31 March and Roose boiled to death on 15 April.

Even at the time, parliamentarians were uneasy; the act was used in only one other case before its repeal in the first year of the reign of Henry’s successor. But the stain on the country’s reputation is remembered 493 years later. The government wants to repeat Henry’s error.

The big question now is will the Lords and Labour have the cojones to send this bill into long term ping pong, so that it cannot pass before a general election is held to provide a mandate for it.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Following the money

As is well-known it is not just the Tory Party who give special treatment to their donors, all the parties are at it. As if to remind us of that fact, the Guardian reports that senior members of the shadow cabinet have held a private meeting with a group of financial services companies to discuss the party’s banking policies just weeks after one of the companies donated £150,000 to the party.

The paper says that six senior Labour figures – including the leader, Keir Starmer, the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, and the shadow business secretary, Jonathan Reynolds – attended the meeting in Edinburgh last December, according to an investigation by the website OpenDemocracy:

Companies in attendance included the investment managers Baillie Gifford and Aegon, as well as Bloomberg and NatWest. Bloomberg had just donated its largest sum in years through its trading subsidiary.

According to a now-deleted LinkedIn post by an employee of one of the companies at the meeting, Starmer and his ministerial team offered those in attendance an “exclusive dive” into the launch of its financial services policy.

The revelations have sparked concerns about the possibility the party is allowing its top donors to help shape policy in a way that could further their corporate interests.

Steve Goodrich, the head of research and investigations at Transparency International UK, said: “Parties should scrupulously avoid the perception that they’re offering privileged political access in return for cash. The next general election looks set to be the most expensive in modern times, so it’s crucial that politicians of all stripes avoid stumbling into quid pro quos in the rush for funds.”

A Labour party spokesperson said: “It is standard practice for the Labour party to meet with the private sector.”

Bloomberg declined to comment.

Starmer and Reeves have made it a priority to win back support from the City of London in recent years. They have embarked on a series of meetings with business leaders described as the “prawn cocktail offensive 2.0”, in reference to similar efforts by Tony Blair in the 1990s.

As part of that, the party has overhauled its approach to the financial services sector, including appointing a panel of 10 advisers from the City and clarifying that it will not reimpose a cap on bankers’ bonuses.

In December, shadow ministers travelled to Edinburgh to present the new panel and to highlight their commitment to boosting the sector. Tulip Siddiq, the shadow City minister, told the Financial Times before the visit that her party had stopped “sneering at business”.

The OpenDemocracy investigation has found that during the visit, Siddiq and her colleagues attended a roundtable meeting convened by Bloomberg and the lobbying group Sovereign Strategy. Other senior Labour figures who attended included Anas Sarwar, the party’s leader in Scotland, and Daniel Johnson, the member of the Scottish parliament for Edinburgh Southern.

Electoral Commission records show that Bloomberg Trading Facility – the company’s platform for trading financial investment products – gave Labour £150,000 about a month before the meeting, the largest sum given by any Bloomberg company since the Brexit referendum in 2016. That single donation made Bloomberg one of the party’s top corporate donors for the whole year.

One of the lobbyists involved in setting up the meeting posted afterwards on LinkedIn that it had offered “a very thorough discussion on Labour’s vision and priorities for economic growth, outlook for the financial services industry and an exclusive dive into Labour’s launch of the financial services policy review”.

Labour later published a video from the event showing Starmer speaking while his shadow ministers looked on. The party did not say which companies attended the meeting, but the video shows Starmer telling them: “What you now see is a Labour party that is fundamentally different to the Labour party that fought the last general election. Unrecognisably different. And very obviously pro-business.”

The following month, Labour announced its new financial services plan, in which it promised to cut down 10,000 pages of regulations and ruled out a windfall tax on bank profits.

All of this is standard practice in politics nowadays but it is sad that it took a deleted Linkedin post to highlight the meeting. If we can't reform the way political parties finance themselves then we should at least expect some transparency.

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