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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Homelessness among old people soars by 39%

The Independent publishes more disturbing statistics about homelessness when they reveal that the number of older people falling into homelessness has surged in recent years as benefit cuts leave them struggling to make ends meet.

They say that official data shows that there has been a 39 per cent rise in people over 60 approaching the authorities because they are in need of housing by local councils over the last five years, with the figure increasing from 1,800 in 2012-13 to 2,500 in 2017-18:

The new figures, published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), show that Northern Ireland has also seen a marked increase (30 per cent) in the number of older households presenting as homeless, from 1,875 to 2,445 during the same period.

Scotland has seen a small increase of 9 per cent, with the figure increasing from 1,278 to 1,391.

Campaigners said the rise was in large part because the level of local housing allowance and other benefits were not keeping up with rent increases, as well as the lack of affordable housing.

As the director of Age UK says, the main reason for this increase is that local housing allowance and benefit levels are not keeping up with rent increases, meaning some older people are struggling to make ends meet.

There is a clear need to increase the supply of social housing at affordable rents to deal with this crisis. Governments in all nations need to take note.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Badger cull policy now completely discredited

As if it were not bad enough that the UK Government are pursuing a cull of badgers, despite all the evidence indicating that they do not work, the Guardian have unearthed figures that cast severe doubts on Ministers' recent decision to extend the cull to new areas.

The paper says that tuberculosis levels in cattle have risen in the original two areas of the country where the badger cull has been piloted over the past five years, raising questions about the merit of expanding the scheme:

The figures are confirmed in official data quietly released last week as the government announced plans to expand the controversial cull in England, which campaigners say could see more than 60,000 badgers killed this year.

The figures suggest that, following some early success in bringing the levels down, bovine TB is now on the rise in the zones, in Gloucestershire and Somerset.

Analysis by the vet and former government scientist Dr Iain McGill, who led calls for a public inquiry into the BSE scandal, reveals that the proportion of herds with bovine TB in the Gloucestershire pilot zone increased from 6.9% at the start of culling to 9% over the five-year period.

The rate of occurrence of new confirmed bovine TB cases – known as the incidence rate – was 13.2% last year, compared with 12.7% when the cull began in 2013.

In Somerset, the incidence rate declined, but the disease has become more widespread across herds. The official data shows that the proportion of herds with bovine TB increased from 6.1% when culling started to 6.7% at the end of last year. Defra chooses not to focus on the five-year data. Instead, it points to an earlier report that found a decline in bovine TB in the first two years of the cull.

“The government had all of the data but only released it simultaneous to the announcement on Wednesday of the massacre of up to 62,000 badgers,” said McGill, who has called for a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the cull.

“That they could have tried to hide this data in order to justify such a massacre of protected wildlife, whilst referring glibly to data from 2015 in support of their case, is corrupt and criminal. Defra have manipulated and hidden scientific data to such a degree that it amounts to systemic scientific fraud.”

Huge amounts of money have been spent on this pointless cull despite scientific studies predicting precisely this outcome. If the government had carried out a more humane vaccination programme instead, combined with better cattle control measures as in Wales then we might have made some progress on eradicating this disease by now.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Will the PM smash up the UK as the Incredible Hulk?

Of all the bizarre sayings and claims made by Boris Johnson, the weekend's announcement that he is the incredible Hulk of politics has to be the most bizarre.

Promising to ignore the Commons legislation ordering him to delay Brexit if negotiations break down, Mr Johnson told The Mail on Sunday: “Hulk always escaped, no matter how tightly bound in he seemed to be – and that is the case for this country.

“We will come out on October 31 and we will get it done.”

He added in an aside that appeared to refer to himself as the hero that “The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets”.

Kudos then to Mark Ruffalo, the actor who plays the Incredible Hulk in the latest Marvel films, who challenged the analogy. As the Independent reports the actor said that The Hulk was dependent on the community around him.

“Boris Johnson forgets that the Hulk only fights for the good of the whole” Ruffalo tweeted.

He added: “Mad and strong can also be dense and destructive. The Hulk works best when he is in unison with a team, and is a disaster when he is alone. Plus...he’s always got Dr. Banner with science and reason”.

Others joined in the criticism:

The European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt saying: “Even to Trumpian standards the Hulk comparison is infantile. Is the EU supposed to be scared by this? The British public impressed? Is this Boris Johnson whistling in the dark?”

Labour MP Jess Phillips added the statement was “the kind of thing my kids would say”, adding the caveat that they “would never make such glaring errors about The Hulk, I've raised them properly.”

From my perspective, Boris Johnson is much more like the earlier Hulk, whose rage leads him to smash everything up. Johnson's Brexit will wreck the UK and, in his rage, he does not seem to care.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Wake up call on homelessness

This morning's Observer contains a shocking statistic about the homeless crisis facing the UK, with the revelation that one in four households in England found to be homeless or under threat of homelessness last year were in paid work at the time. There is no reason to think that this does not also apply to Wales and Scotland.

The paper says that data published last week showed that, of more than 260,000 households facing a homelessness crisis, more than a quarter of applications for council support were made by a household member who was in paid employment at the time. In some areas, the proportion of working households facing losing their homes was much higher, reaching more than half in one council, Rutland in the East Midlands:

The findings were condemned by Polly Neate, the chief executive of Shelter, who called on the government to build more social housing and urgently increase housing benefit to allow more people to rent. “We regularly hear from distressed people who are facing the unforgiving reality of holding down a job while having nowhere stable to live. Despite working all the hours they can, too many people have been pushed into the housing emergency by expensive private rents, punishing housing benefit cuts and a chronic lack of social homes,” she said.

“The only way politicians can fix this crisis is with a clear commitment from every party to deliver three million more social homes over the next 20 years. And in the meantime, the government must urgently increase housing benefit so that people on low incomes can access at least the bottom third of the private rental market.”

This is the reality of in-work poverty, made worse by rising house prices - in-work households made up 31% of cases in south-east England and 30% in London and the east of England, compared to just 17% in the north east, where housing is cheaper.

Above all these figures underline the need for more affordable housing, and in England less emphasis on intermediate housing at 80% of market rents, and more new homes available at social rents.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Cameron is back

It is amazing how a lucrative book deal can cause hitherto shy politicians to emerge from their garden shed to try and rewrite history.

There is no doubt that David Cameron is absolutely right in this Telegraph article, when he says that  Boris Johnson and Michael Gove left "the truth at home" over Brexit and behaved “appallingly” during the EU referendum campaign:

In an excoriating attack by an ex-prime minister on one of his successors, Mr Cameron criticised his former friends and colleagues over the claims they made about £350m a week payments to Brussels on their campaign bus.

Casting doubt on Mr Johnson’s promise of getting Britain out of the EU on Oct 31 with or without a deal, Mr Cameron also suggests a second referendum might now be necessary, saying: “I don’t think you can rule it out because we’re stuck.”

No doubt people can read all about it in the former Prime Minister memoirs. I won't be reading them. However, the least that Cameron can do is show some humility. He may feel betrayed but that is nothing to what this country should feel about him.

Cameron put his own party interests and the long-standing Tory feud over Europe, ahead of those of the country. He is as much responsible, possibly more so, for the mess we are in than any of those he is now seeking to blame.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Government spends £100m on propaganda

It seems that £100 million does not go as far as it used to if the Government's pro-Brexit campaign is any guide. As the Guardian reports, Boris Johnson has been accused of seriously misleading the public with the government’s campaign to Get Ready for Brexit on 31 October. MPs and experts have urged civil service chief Sir Mark Sedwill to intervene to make clear the UK is highly unlikely to leave without a deal on that day:

The £100m advertising campaign, which claims to set out what the public needs to do to get ready for a no-deal Brexit at the end of October, is now “redundant and misleading”, according to a cross-party group of MPs led by Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson.

They have written to Sir Mark Sedwill, the head of the civil service, demanding he take action to stop the campaign wasting money and giving inaccurate information to the public and businesses, which may wrongly overestimate the chances of the UK leaving without a deal on 31 October. In practice, this can only happen if the EU turns down the UK’s request for an article 50 extension or Johnson breaks the law by ignoring parliament.

“A publicly funded campaign, encouraging businesses to be ready for the UK’s October no deal exit, as well as being factually incorrect (as it addresses an event which cannot now occur) is inherently party political (as it cannot be government policy, but is Conservative policy), bringing the campaign into conflict, not only with the propriety rules highlighted above, but also the ministerial code,” the MPs said.

Jill Rutter, the programme director of the Institute for Government, also cast doubt on the legitimacy of the campaign now that the Benn bill requiring Johnson to request a three-month delay to Brexit if there is no deal has passed into law.

This is not the only area in which the Tory Government's use of public money to promote its policies has been brought into question. As the paper says, eyebrows have also been raised about the government’s police recruitment advertisements that some on social media have likened to Tory election campaign adverts, with a blue font and messaging that the government is creating 20,000 extra police officers.

Surely there should be some independent arbiter to rule on these issues and stop public money being abused in this way.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Government documents reveal full horror of a no deal brexit

I think most people understood that leaving the EU without a deal would be disastrous for the country and the economy, but the publication of the UK Government's Yellowhammer papers in today's papers, sets out the stark reality in a way that must give everybody pause for thought.

As the Guardian outlines, the government's own analysis suggests that a no-deal Brexit could result in rising food and fuel prices, disruption to medicine supplies and public disorder on Britain’s streets:

The document, which says it outlines “reasonable worst case planning assumptions” for no deal Brexit, highlights the risk of border delays, given an estimate that up to 85% of lorries crossing the Channel might not be ready for a new French customs regime.

“The lack of trader readiness combined with limited space in French ports to hold ‘unready’ HGVs could reduce the flow rate to 40%-60% of current levels within one day as unready HGVs will fill the ports and block flow,” it warns.

This situation could last for up to three months, and disruption might last “significantly longer”, it adds, with lorries facing waits of between 1.5 days and 2.5 days to cross the border.

The reliance of medical supplies on cross-Channel routes “make them particularly vulnerable to severe extended delays”, the report says, with some medicines having such short shelf lives they cannot be stockpiled. A lack of veterinary medicines could increase the risk of disease outbreaks, it adds.

On food supplies, supplies of “certain types of fresh food” would be reduced, the document warns, as well as other items such as packaging.

It says: “In combination, these two factors will not cause an overall shortage of food in the UK but will reduce availability and choice of products and will increase price, which could impact vulnerable groups.”

Later, it adds: “Low income groups will be disproportionately affected by any price rises in food and fuel.”

On law and order it warns: “Protests and counter-protests will take place across the UK and may absorb significant amounts of police resource. There may also be a rise in public disorder and community tensions.”

The documents also outline a potential impact on cross-border financial services and law enforcement information sharing.

It says Gibraltar could face significant delays on its border with Spain, with four-hour waits likely “for at least a few months”.

The document also concedes that there will be a return to some sort of hard Irish border despite a UK insistence it will not impose checks: “This model is likely to prove unsustainable due to significant economic, legal and biosecurity risks and no effective unilateral mitigations to address this will be available.”

The expectation, it adds, is that some businesses will move to avoid tariffs, and others will face higher costs.

The real kick in the teeth however lies in a redacted passage, Although paragraph 15 is redacted, comparison with the earlier leaked version that was in the Sunday Times indicates that it is a warning about uncompetitive trade following a no-deal Brexit that could force two major oil refineries to shut, resulting in 2,000 job loses. One is in #Pembrokeshire.

Isn't it time the Prime Minister accepted that holding out for no deal is against the national interest, as of course is leaving in the first place, and agreed to letting voters themselves have the final say on how we proceed from now on?

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Labour Minister labels Corbyn policy as 'BS'

Labour's flirtation with Brexit continued yesterday when Jeremy Corbyn promised a further referendum on Brexit with a "credible Leave option" versus Remain if his party wins the next general election, undoing all the good work he has done over the past week in working with other party leaders to foil Boris Johnson's no-deal agenda.

Essentially Labour's position now appears to amount to a manifesto commitment to negotiate a better deal to leave the EU, if that is possible (and we know how that turned out for Theresa May), and then take that deal to the country.

However, the party will not say whether it will support Leave or Remain in that plebiscite opening the door to massive public disagreements at the top of the party during the forthcoming General Election campaign and possibly alienating both sides of the argument.

The Labour leader has rejected calls from senior figures in the party and grassroots activists to campaign explicitly to Remain during the election, despite fears votes and seats will be lost to the Lib Dems.

It is a fence-sitting exercise that will prove once more that Labour cannot be trusted on Brexit. It is little wonder that a sitting Minister in the Welsh Government, not known for his disloyalty, has hit out in frustration on Twitter:

As Vaughan Gething says, putting in the manifesto that Labour will ask people to vote to renegotiate, then asking that same electorate to vote down the outcome of those talks, will lead to the Labour Party being ridiculed. It is little wonder that he has labelled it 'utter BS'.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

No such thing as a clean break

For all the drama yesterday of Parliament being prorogued, Welsh MPs singing Calon Lan in the chamber, the government being forced to publish key documents, and losing another vote to hold a General Election, their sixth since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, the real political substance was to be found in Dublin.

There, whilst Boris Johnson fidgeted besides him, the Irish Prime Minister set out the stark reality of a no-deal Brexit - as the Guardian reports, it is not the clean break that the Brexiteers are claiming:

In a tough message to his British counterpart on the steps of Ireland’s Government Buildings, Leo Varadkar said Britain would be back to square one on the very issues on which it refuses to agree now in a no-deal scenario.

“The story of Brexit will not end if the United Kingdom leaves on 31 October or even 31 January – there is no such thing as a clean break. No such thing as just getting it done. Rather, we just enter a new phase,” he said.

“If there is no deal, I believe that’s possible, it will cause severe disruption for British and Irish people alike. We will have to get back to the negotiating table. When we do, the first and only items on the agenda will be citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the Irish border. All the issues we had resolved in the withdrawal agreement we made with your predecessor. An agreement made in good faith by 28 governments.”

Varadkar warned that even if a deal were agreed, Britain should not be deluded about the future relationship negotiations.

“We will enter talks on a future relationship agreement between the EU and UK. It’s going to be tough dealing with issues ranging from tariffs to fishing rights, product standards and state aid. It will then have to be ratified by 31 parliaments,” he said.

Varadkar told Johnson free-trade agreements were difficult to strike but Ireland would be his friend and ally.

“Negotiating FTAs with the EU and US and securing their ratification in less than three years is going to be a herculean task for you. We want to be your friend and ally, your Athena, in doing so,” he said.

This is the reality that Johnson, Cummings, Farage, Mogg and their fellow travellers refuse to acknowledge. Unless we revoke Article 50 then the chaos in Parliament over the last week is just a taster, whether or not somebody gets a majority in the forthcoming General Election. To claim otherwise is to mislead voters.

Monday, September 09, 2019

The world on fire

If spontaneous combustion is a thing then the unwritten constitution of the UK and our democratic process are very close to that point. And that has nothing to do with MPs ignoring the result of the referendum, we are well past that argument. It is that the alliances and coalitions within the two main parties, which sustain our unrepresentative and disproportionate electoral system, are coming apart at the seams.

With a proportional voting system that would not matter. There would be room for the various factions and ideological bedfellows to breath and flourish by standing in their own right, on a platform of their choosing.

Instead we now have the Tory Party being pared back to an extremist pro-Brexit rump, enabling Nigel Farage to make common cause with them and avoid a mutually assured destruction at a first-past-the-post ballot box.

Moderate, pro-European Tories meanwhile are being cast out into the wilderness, where they must sink or swim as individuals in their own constituency, and without the comfort blanket of a core conservative vote to rely on. Their voters will now be torn between Johnson's no-deal Brexit and the reasoned opposition put up to it by their own MP.

Equally, the Labour Party is also retreating into a hard line, Corbynite position, struggling with anti-Semitism and seeking to purge MPs who fail the loyalty test. Those Labour MPs who do not pass are in a similar position to the Tory rebels, leave politics altogether, or fight on against a relentless party machine.

This is one of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats have gained three new MPs in the last week. We are also punished by the first past the post voting system, though at least we have a coherent ideology, a unity of purpose and an opportunity to carve a unique position as a result of the sectarianism of Labour and the Tories.

But the recent political chaos also presents an opportunity, one that can change the way we do politics for ever, and it all depends on whether the forthcoming General Election resets the system back into a familiar two party knock-about, or whether voters become alive to the possibilities and actually vote in a more heterogeneous Parliament, that properly reflects the views of the country in its grouping of MPs.

Normally, we would need a proportional voting system to achieve that result, but if all the manoeuvring over a no-deal Brexit can produce meaningful electoral pacts, in which dissenters are given a clear run against their former parties, and where the election is focussed almost exclusively on the remain versus leave arguments, then such an outcome is possible.

It is a big ask, and I still remain sceptical as to whether a General Election can be fought on a single issue in this way, or even if all the relevant parties can put aside their hubris and bring themselves to co-operate properly, but I am coming around to the idea.

Meanwhile, just so we can put things into their proper context, the Guardian reports that the Amazon is still burning and that as it does so the threat to the earth's future grows.

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