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Saturday, September 30, 2017

When the lion roars

There is a lot of coverage today about the potential legal action by the Premier League over the alleged infringement of their copyright by UKIP in their choice of logo.

Apparently, the very British pound sign is being ditched for "not resonating with today's voters" and is being replaced with a lion, that is not native to the UK, unless you go to Longleat of course.

As one Twitter user joked: 'Bloody Africans coming over here, putting themselves on our political logos!! Putting the English hedgehog out of work!'

My favourite is of course Harry Potter related from the irrepressible Hannah Thompson: 'If we convince the other parties to change their logos to a snake, badger and raven then British politics can just go full Hogwarts'

Still UKIP can take comfort from one thing, their logo is better known than their leader.

What is the price of Tory hypocrisy?

Theresa May is quick to condemn the internet giants for failing to properly police their domains, but that hasn't stopped her party accepting tens of thousands of pounds off them at their conference next week.

The Daily Mirror reports that the Tories have accepted £72,000 from web giants after at­­tack­­ing them for fuelling online terror. Google have paid £32,500 for a six metre-square stand at the Tory Conference which opens on Sunday in Manchester. The Tories also pocketed £36,000 from Microsoft for a stand plus advertising, and £3,500 from Amazon for a full-page ad in the conference handbook.

As Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable says: “It is completely hypocritical for the Conservatives to accept money from com­­­­­­panies they have condemned in the most colourful terms. You have to wonder if they will now pull their punches when dealing with these companies.

"Theresa May accused social media giants of helping spread ‘poisonous material’ that ‘warped young minds’.

“Yet here the Conservatives are pocketing the cheque. Now companies like Google will know that next time Theresa May creates a lot of noise they can simply ignore her.”

You reap what you sew I suppose.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Tory excuses as May clings to power

The Tory conference starts on Sunday and already Conservative politicians are covering their backs. In Wales leading Tory politicians have gathered together to urge Theresa May to approve the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon, a cynical gesture that seeks to put themselves on the right side of the argument whilst their party in government remains deaf to their pleas and those of others.

Meanwhile, as the Daily Mirror reports the Prime Minister herself is indulging in her own cynical spin exercise. She has give an interview in which she claims that her party were not ready for the snap election she and they called.

And if that was not shamefaced enough, she goes on to bemoan the lack of people "coming together for debates" during the campaign, after repeatedly refusing to take part in head-to-head debates herself.

It is little wonder that her party want rid of her as quickly as they are able.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Why the Bombadier saga destoys Brexiteers' post-EU fantasy

The decision by the United States Government to impose punitive tariffs on Canadian aircraft maker Bombadier has underlined the folly of those Brexiteers who have been pointing towards the US as a potential free trade partner once we leave the EU.

Bombardier received £113m in repayable funding from the UK government in a deal that is very much in line with the way that aircraft makers are funded. They are now faced with a tariff that will more than triple the cost of a C-Series aircraft sold in the US to about $61m per plane. The decision puts 4,000 jobs in Northern Ireland in jeopardy.

Selling airliners is not like any other business. Investment in the process is so big and timelines so long that normal market rules do not work. It can take decades for a multi-billion investment in a new airliner to become profitable. That precludes bank financing. The aircraft industry is therefore dependent on state support.

Boeing is not exempt from that. US aeroplane manufacturers get billions of dollars in defence work. The technology they develop with this money is effectively used to cross-subsidise the development of civil airliners and engines. That is how the Boeing 747 was developed.

Within the EU Launch Aid, enabled governments to invest massive amounts of money into developing new models which is repaid from royalties on sales. That makes it virtually impossible to determine what subsidy, if any, has been paid to the manufacturer.

Only huge economies like the EU and the United States can afford large civil aircraft industries but smaller countries like Canada can compete. That competition is undermined if the US can get away with constraints on trade characterised by these punitive tariffs.

The key here is that the UK alone is not in a position to challenge the United States. In contrast the EU has the weight to defend itself and to hurt the US with its own tariffs. Being part of the EU helps us defend ourselves against the aggressive trade defence policies of others. Outside the EU not only is the UK exposed to the full force of aggressive US tariffs, it is also exposed to potential EU safeguards.

Whichever way we look at this, leaving the single market will be a disaster for the UK. Theresa May's impotence in face of Trump's belligerence shows that not only will we be exposed to penalties by the big economies, but that dreams of a US free trade deal is pie in the sky. The United States is a protectionist economy. Anybody who thinks otherwise is being very naïve.

Hat-tip: Chris Kendall

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The wheels are coming off the UK's Brexit department

As if the performance of UK Government Ministers in negotiating with their EU counterparts was not woeful enough, the Independent reports that they have problems at home too.

The paper says that Britain’s Department for Exiting the European Union has only existed for 14 months but already more than 20 per cent of its staff have left:

According to the Government’s response to a freedom of information request submitted by Bloomberg, as of 18 August, 124 employees had left the department since it was set up, leaving 482.

The churn on Cabinet office jobs reportedly soared from 20 per cent in 2010 to 35 per cent in 2016, but the average staff turnover across the civil service more broadly was just 9.1 per cent last year.

The high turnover within the Brexit department could suggest that civil servants don’t enjoy working in the office which is tasked with one of the Government's most challenging jobs in decades.

The Government says that fewer than five of the people who had left had quit the civil service altogether, suggesting that some officials may just be passing through the department to gain valuable experience. It added that a large majority of the changes were the “result of normal civil service rotation or the end of defined loan periods”.

Nevertheless, I would argue that the higher turnover rate in this department does suggest a certain amount of disillusionment with the Government's position and a desire not to be associated with failure.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Labour pledge massive u-turn on er..... Labour's PFI scheme

The Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday, stood up before the Labour Conference and announced his flagship policy, he pledged to bring at least some private finance initiative (PFI) contracts “back in-house”.

What he was not so specific on was how big a commitment this is. What is going to cost and how is he going to pay for it. So far, so Labour manifesto - expensive, uncosted, unfunded and very expensive.

The Guardian says that McDonnell himself refers to a figure of £200bn for payments “over the next few decades”, while John Appleby of the Nuffield Trust is quoted by the BBC as giving a figure of £56bn for NHS projects alone by 2048.

They say that may suggest Labour is promising transformative changes to public spending and public services, but the expenditure and policy implications may well be of more modest dimensions.

I happen to agree with the paper that if Labour are talking about taking back some of the revenue costs of PFI contracts back -in house then that may be worthwhile doing and could save money. Taking the assets back into public ownership however may prove too expensive, especially as there may well be penalty clauses.

But wait, what is this nasty Tory policy that Labour are determined to destroy? Well, actually it was largely brought in by the Labour Party itself. Over on Facebook, the former Lib Dem MP for Torbay , Adrian Sanders reminded me of some of the history.

He points out that the very first bill put forward by the Blair government in 1997 was tthe NHS (PFI) Bill:

I quote Tory MP John Maples: “The Lib Dem amendments seem that if they were agreed to they would kill PFI stone dead” (Hansard 14th July 1997) 

And Labour MP Alan Milburn: “The Lib Dem amendment would prevent any transfer of services under PFI” (Hansard again) 

Now here’s a biggie…. Anyone want to guess the name of a current senior MP who voted for the NHS (PFI Bill) at every opportunity? 

You guessed it right. Jeremy Corbyn didn’t say a word against Health PFI in 1997 and voted for it at every chance. 

So it wasn't just a New Labour/centrist plot. Even 'Mr Rebellion' himself voted for PFI in health care at every chance. Only the Lib Dems opposed it.

Well done Jeremy. Just don't tell John McDonnell.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Labour duck debate on Brexit and remains committed to leaving single market

It didn't take long for the Corbyn faction at the Labour Conference to block any discussion about the Brexit elephant in the room. The party remains deeply split over the issue with the leadership at odds with the millions of pro-EU voters who supported them in June's General Election.

As the Guardian reports, Labour campaigners had hoped to debate the idea of Labour fighting to keep Britain in the single market permanently and continue free movement, which polls suggest enjoy widespread support among members. However, when it came to a vote the Conference ducked the issue altogether.

The paper says that Momentum, the grassroots pro-Corbyn group, was thought to be highly influential in the result of the ballot because it emailed members to recommend four topics that were chosen. The decision to leave Brexit off the list was justified by insisting that the conference would debate and vote on EU policy on Monday, but this will not include the more controversial motions.

As if to add insult to injury to remainers, Jeremy Corbyn made it clear that he was wary of committing to remaining within Europe’s internal market because it could prevent Labour putting in place domestic policy in the future.

The paper say that shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer will use a speech today to claim that Labour are the “grownups in the room” on Brexit and must stand ready to “take charge of the negotiations”.

They add that he will argue that Labour will respect the referendum result but put the economy first and be clear that it remains an “internationalist party; reaching out to Europe and the rest of the world rather than turning inwards”.

There is nothing grown-up about avoiding debate on the main issue of the day, or failing to take a clear position on a potentially economy-busting exit from the single market. I cannot think of a better example of turning inwards.

Of course, there are some who will argue that austerity, housing, the health service and social care are far more important topics to discuss than Brexit. They may well be right. However, leaving the EU will decimate many of those services by crippling the economy and public finances for years. If Labour cannot see that connection then it is little wonder that they are so ineffectual as an opposition.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Party leaders need to stamp on rising tide of intolerance and threats in politics

The Sun, which it has to be said is no friend of the Labour Party reports that the BBC has hired bodyguards to protect political editor Laura Kuenssberg at the Labour conference. They add that this unprecedented action has been taken after a stream of online threats and abuse against the 40-year-old journalist:

Ms Kuenssberg has been targeted by sexist trolls who claim she is biased against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The Beeb is insisting she must have personal protection both inside and out of the secure zone at the four-day Brighton rally.

An insider said: “We take the safety of our staff extremely seriously. Laura is a well-known public figure. She and her team will be covering events with big crowds where there can be hostility, so we want to ensure adequate precautions are taken.”

The hatred aimed at Ms Kuenssberg first erupted 18 months ago over her reporting of a botched reshuffle by the Labour leader.

She was bombarded with abuse again when she reported the party’s dismal showing in last year’s local elections.

Despite the Sun's obvious dislike of Jeremy and the Labour Party I have no reason to doubt the veracity of this story. I have seen reports of such threats elsewhere and it is a fact that in June more than 35,000 signed an online petition calling for her to be sacked before it was removed by campaign group 38 degrees over “sexist and hateful” abuse.

The question is why the leadership in all parties do not speak out against this sort of abuse, threaten its proponents with disciplinary proceedings and expulsion and show their clear backing for a journalist, who it has to be said is most probably also a member of a trade union, and who is only doing her job.

No politician likes critical reporting, but if we did not have the sort of scrutiny which Laura Kuenssberg and her colleagues in all media outlets provide then our democracy would be poorer and we would be halfway to a dictatorship.

I have always taken the view that if I am getting unfavourable coverage then it is my fault and I have looked to correct that. If I think that a journalist is not being objective or has failed to carry out due diligence in their reporting I will tell them in a polite and respectful manner. I have only had to do that two or three times in the thirty odd years I have been an elected politician.

What is unacceptable is on-line abuse and threats, misogyny, misandry and other intolerant behaviour towards any journalist for carrying out the role they have been assigned. The fact that body guards have had to be deployed this week in Brighton is shocking. The leadership needs to intervene.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Those Brexit blues

Perhaps the most unreal experience following Theresa May's Brexit concession speech in Florence yesterday was listening to all the hard line Brexiteers continue to spout the line that a promised land of milk and honey for the UK economy awaits us once we leave the EU.

That well-known champion of the under-privileged and sole saviour of the developing world's falling birth rate, Jacob Rees Mogg even suggested that in a post-Brexit world, the price of essential food stuffs would be lower.

He apparently overlooked one of the most marked effects of the referendum result, a falling pound which has put up the price of these staples and undermined the cost of living still further.

Today's Independent records yet another effect of Brexit, which its most ardent advocates seem to have overlooked, namely the fact that the UK's credit rating has been downgraded by Moody's Investor Service because of economic uncertainty caused by us leaving the single market.

They say that the downgrade came just hours after a major speech by Theresa May in which she had hoped would clarify the UK's position on Brexit. So that was a great success then!

The paper says that Moody's warned of "uncertainty for businesses" and said the current plans for Brexit will cause the "erosion of the UK's medium-term economic strength":

In a damning assessment of the Government's negotiating strategy to date, analysts said: "Moody's is no longer confident that the UK government will be able to secure a replacement free trade agreement with the EU which substantially mitigates the negative economic impact of Brexit.

"While the government seeks a 'deep and comprehensive free trade agreement' with the EU, even such a best-case scenario would not award the same access to the EU Single Market that the UK currently enjoys.

"It would likely impose additional costs, raise the regulatory and administrative burden on UK businesses and put at risk the close-knit supply chains that link the UK and the EU."

Moody's added that Theresa May's deal with the DUP was another reason for the downgrade. That is the reality of Brexit, not the rose-tinted picture painted by Rees Mogg and his pals.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Why we need to scrap the public pay cap

Public finances remain in a mess, the economy has barely recovered from the 2008 crash and hundreds of thousands of people are struggling to make ends meet, with the in-work poverty and a reliance on food banks growing by the day.

The on-going public sector pay freeze has exacerbated this problem for those who have dedicated their working lives to keeping vital services going. This is especially harsh in the health service, where nurses, ambulance staff, junior doctors, professions allied to medicine and auxiliary staff have seen their commitment and dedication unrewarded for a number of years.

The scale of the problem is reduced to pounds and pence in this Independent article. They say that the average health worker has endured a real terms cut of almost £2,000 over the past seven years. They support this assertion by comparing the median average salary of all NHS staff in June 2017, which was £31,526 a year, with the like-for-like figure of £29,132 in August 2010. As consumer price inflation has risen by 15 per cent over that period, this translates into a real terms cut for these workers of £1,985 a year.

The average though, conceals that some NHS workers have suffered still bigger real terms reductions in pay. The pay of ambulance staff is down £5,286 in real terms and for midwives it is £3,504 lower. The Institute for Fiscal Studies believes that public services will struggle to recruit and retain the staff they need unless ministers ease the restraint on pay They say that the gap between public and private pay has now returned to pre-crisis levels.

It is little wonder that trade unions are balloting for strike action. The need to lift the pay cap for all public sector workers has never been more urgent. I hope that the Government heeds the many calls to yield on this demand so as to make those strikes unnecessary.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Why we need to abolish the bloated, undemocratic House of Lords

Along with the introduction of a proportional voting system the creation of an elected second chamber to complement the House of Commons is the missing link in UK constitutional reform that needs to be addressed.

There are currently about 800 members who are eligible to take part in the work of the House of Lords. The majority are life peers and have therefore been appointed as a result of political patronage. That is an unwieldy and unworkable body. It is little wonder that a large number rarely, if ever show their face in the chamber.

According to the Independent, Peers who have barely spoken in the House of Lords for an entire year have claimed more than £7m in expenses and allowances. They report on an Electoral Reform Society analysis which found that 115 peers – around one in seven – failed to speak at all in debates during the 2016-17 session, despite claiming more than £1.3m in attendance fees.

They add that nearly half of the 798 peers made 10 contributions or fewer in the same year, claiming £7.3m, while some £4m was pocketed by 277 members who spoke five times or fewer. Claimants included Northern Ireland peer Lord Laird, who got £48,000 in expenses despite only voting twice, and steel magnate Lord Paul who spoke twice while claiming £38,000 in expenses.

Work is ongoing to draw up proposals to reduce the size of the Lords, but that is effectively just tinkering with the system. We need to rid the UK of this bloated, undemocratic body and replace it with a democratically elected second chamber which reflects the geographical make-up of the UK and which is at least accountable to the people who pay for it.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Our ever increasing debt burden

The Guardian reports that the chairs of two powerful parliamentary committees have urged the government to set up an independent public inquiry into the £200bn of debt amassed by households.

The paper says that the £200bn of debt amassed on credit cards, personal loans and car deals is now at the same level it reached before the 2008 financial crisis and there are fears that rises in interest rates could put more households under pressure. Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, warned on Monday that interest rates were likely to rise in response to rising inflation and skills shortages brought on by Brexit that will increase pressure on wages.

They add that the Money Advice Service believes that there are now 8.3 million people in the UK with problem debts. The government’s official economic forecaster, the Office for Budget Responsibility, has predicted that unsecured consumer debt – which includes loans, credit cards, overdrafts and car financing – will soar as a proportion of national income over the next four years back above its previous peak in 2007.

The two MPs are right to be concerned. The problem has been made worse by the freeze on public sector pay, the general fall in living standards since 2008 and the level of in-work poverty. People are borrowing to make ends meet and the market is allowing them to extend themselves beyond their means.

In my view, the government and the various select committees already have access to the information they need to start tackling this problem. A further review by the Treasury Select Committee may well add to that. I am not sure that the expense and delay involved in  a public inquiry will add much value to the debate on this subject.

As Vince Cable says, “The government must also immediately implement its manifesto commitment to introduce a ‘breathing space’ for people with problematic debt, conveniently forgotten since the election but now more urgent than ever.”

They also need to lift the cap on public sector pay, overhaul the regulation of financial markets and crack down even more on payday lenders and extortionate interest rates. The key to this however is economic recovery. Our economy remains sluggish. We need some investment in major capital projects to kick start it as well as a realisation that if we leave the EU then things will only get worse.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Why housing has to be a Lib Dem priority

Today's Guardian highlights a speech by the head of the National Housing Federation, David Orr in which he stresses the urgency of tackling the social housing crisis facing the UK. To be fair he is actually talking about England but some of the problems and issues he raises apply to Wales as well.

He says it is “absurd” that the government is spending less on social housing in England now than in the 1990s while paying increasing sums to private landlords via housing benefit:

“There’s more than a billion pounds that remains unspent on Starter Homes. Let’s put this money to use and let housing associations build 20,000 of the genuinely affordable homes the nation needs.”

Orr, who is chief executive of the federation, is expected to argue for a complete shift in government policy.

Since 2010 the government has overseen a massive reduction in the provision of homes for social rent, instead focusing on “affordable” rents, which can be as much as 80% of the market value.

A report by the federation, produced to coincide with the conference, says the amount of capital committed by the government to homebuilding has fallen from £11.4bn in 2009 to £5.3bn in 2015.

In combination with this, the decision to stop public funding for social rented homes led to a decline in construction of these from 36,000 starts in 2010/11 to slightly over 3,000 the next year.

The report says the only new social rent homes now are coming either from previous funding commitments or through cross-subsidies within housing associations projects, amounting to just under 1,000 starts in 2016/17.

It says the increase in rented housing stock has instead come from the private sector, with a 57% rise in real terms over the past two decades.

In Wales we are also facing a supply-side crisis. The Welsh Government has a commitment to build 20,000 new affordable homes, partly as a result of the progressive agreement with the Liberal Democrats that brought Kirsty Williams into the government. Work is underway on another Lib Dem commitment to bring in a 'rent to own' product that will enable somebody to rent a property at a market rent, with a percentage of that money being made available as a deposit after five years to help them get a mortgage.

The Welsh problem however is that there are not enough private sector homes being built. That is because lower house prices means that the big builders have smaller profit margins.. The solution must be to do more to assist smaller indigenous house builders by removing barriers, simplifying planning regimes, helping them access finance and making land available.

This is a priority for the Welsh Liberal Democrats. It must be a party priority in England too.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Is the DUP deal on the skids?

As far as we are concerned Theresa May's so-called 'pact with the Devil' deal with the DUP to secure a majority in the House of Commons looked like a done-deal. That was before the DUP voted with Labour against the Government on the issue of tuition fees.

Gina Miller who, heroically, took the government on over the need for Parliamentary approval to trigger Article 50, has been doing some digging and has discovered that things are not as signed, sealed and delivered as the Tories would have us believe.

As she says in her Guardian piece, she felt it was necessary to test whether the deal was within the law:

'To our great surprise, the government’s lawyers responded by making an extraordinary admission. “No additional funding contemplated by the agreement [with the DUP] has yet been made available and no timetable has been established for the provision of funding,” their letter said. “We have also explained that additional payments contemplated by the agreement will be authorised by parliament.”

We were stunned. At no time, either when May struck the deal with the DUP or since, had the government admitted it required prior parliamentary authorisation before taxpayers’ money could be handed over to Northern Ireland. By never disclosing this crucial detail, senior members of the government look very much as if they had intentionally misled parliament, the parliamentary Conservative party, the public and, quite possibly, their prospective partners, the DUP.'

She continues: 'I question when, if indeed ever, the government intended to tell the truth, especially when both parties have repeatedly said that the first payment to Northern Ireland would be made this autumn. Both parties may well have claimed there is nothing “new or surprising” in what I have revealed about the £1bn payment, but their legal team told a different story. “Proposals for central government funding are put before the House of Commons in the form of main and supplementary estimate,” they said in their letter. “Estimates are subject to a vote in the House of Commons and are typically subject to debate in that house.”

Something just doesn’t add up. On the one hand, senior DUP members were vocal about pressing for a payment as soon as this October, but the central government supply estimates 2017-18 covers supply estimates for the year to 31 March 2018, which would mean the new legislation permitting this payment, even if as the government suggest “is a mere formality”, would not allow for it until the next financial year, commencing April 2018. Similarly, the budget doesn’t take place until 22 November, so it looks like the government’s IOU is getting bigger by the day. This doesn’t speak very well to the government’s commitment to open dealings with its parliamentary partners, nor its sense of accountability to parliament and the public. With the government saying that no timetable has been set for parliamentary authorisation of this additional payment to Northern Ireland, the question remains: when?

We need to be absolutely clear about what all this means. Last week, the government asked MPs to approve its keystone European Union (withdrawal) bill, granting it sweeping new “Henry VIII” powers that will allow ministers to meddle with our basic freedoms as they see fit, away from parliament and the scrutiny necessary to ensure our rights and protections are not diminished or extinguished. MPs need to fear the worst when it comes to what this government may do without proper parliamentary scrutiny.

As the Guardian says elsewhere, any parliamentary debate about the extra funding required would allow Labour and other opposition parties to exploit the government’s embarrassment at having to get this deal rubber-stamped. No matter how unhappy they are with working on a supply and confidence basis with the DUP, Tory MPs are unlikely to rebel on a matter that guarantees the safety of the government, but they will undoubtedly squirm as every detail of the agreement is taken apart by MPs.

As Gina Miller says, the British public deserves better than a government blatantly attempting to put itself above the law and seeking to bypass parliamentary scrutiny simply to cling to power. She adds: 'If there is one lesson to be learned from all this, it is that we need to watch this government – and all future governments, for that matter – like a hawk, and be prepared to ask awkward but legitimate questions. The price of liberty, as Thomas Jefferson so rightly said, is eternal vigilance.'

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Boris repeats the £350m lie

All the attention on Boris Johnson's 4,000 word article about Brexit has been on how it positions him as a potential challenger to Theresa May. Indeed, as the Observer points out the piece appears to have achieved the desired effect with Tory MPs infuriated at the challenge and, in some cases at Theresa May for not sacking her foreign secretary.

However what Boris had to say is also significant, not least the repetition of the lie that leaving the EU will nets an additional £350 million pounds for public services. In fact during the referendum campaign it was shown conclusively that the net benefit to the UK is likely to be just over £100 million pounds.

When this lie was emblazoned on the side of a bus and repeated by senior Brexit campaigners they at least had the advantage of not being in government, thus they could not be pinned down on the claim or properly scrutinised by Parliament. Boris Johnson though is a member of the UK Cabinet and holds one of the three great offices of state.

The fact that Theresa May has not contradicted his claim or sacked him ties her government into the 'promise' that Brexit' will yield an additional £350m for her to spend on front line services. It is now legitimate to expect that extra investment and to hold the government to account if they do not deliver.

Has Boris Johnson found the elusive 'magic money tree'.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Government needs to reform lobbying act

Very few people will argue with the view that charitable organisations should avoid getting embroiled in party politics but the current law goes too far in restricting the way they are able to carry out their work in the run-up to a General Election. That is not just my view nor that of the charities themselves, it is also the view of a government appointed body given the task of reviewing the Lobbying Act.

Many campaign groups believe that they will be left unable to speak out for vulnerable and marginalised people in society because the law as it his currently cast has a chilling effect on freedom of speech.

The Lobbying Act restricts what non-governmental organisations can say in the year before a general election. However, Conservative peer, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts who was asked to look at the Act has called for its scope to be reduced to include only activity intended to influence how the public vote. He has also called for the period during which its rules apply to be reduced from a year.

He has to be right. If the law prevents charities doing their job then it needs to be changed. The Government must listen.

Friday, September 15, 2017

How Brexit is devaluing the pound in our pocket

The new £10 note has been launched today, complete with a portrait of Jane Austen on the reverse. Ironically, the fact that it is 15% smaller than its predecessor also reflects the fact that it is 16% less valuable.

As the Independent points out, since the referendum on 23 June 2016, the pound has lost 16% of its strength as measured against Britain's main trading partners. As a result today’s new tenner is only worth £8.60 of pre-referendum money on the international markets.

As Eloise Todd, CEO of pro-EU campaign group Best for Britain, says: "Since the referendum on 23 June 2016, the pound has lost 16% of its strength as measured against Britain's main trading partners. So today’s new tenner is only worth £8.60 of pre-referendum money on the international markets,” she said.

"When it comes to what we can buy in Europe, the decline against the euro is even more dramatic: down to under £8.40.

"This represents much more than a squeeze on spending money for a family holiday. The Ministry of Defence is planning to spend £19 billion on equipment priced in dollars and £3 billion on equipment priced in euros over the next decade. The Brexit devaluation means either getting less – potentially leaving our forces under-equipped – or paying more, so starving other projects of money.

"The exposure of the NHS to the costs of the Great Brexit Devaluation is almost certainly even greater. The British Medical Association says that Brexit is already having a ‘negative impact’ on the NHS and poses ‘serious risks’ in the future.

"In other words, today's new tenner will buy Britain's NHS, Britain's armed forces and millions of British holiday makers £8.60's worth of pre-referendum goods and services."

So good job, Brexiteers. Their obsession with leaving the EU has sold the UK down the river again.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Welsh Government comes under fire on sustainability of M4 extension

It is not unusual for the Welsh Government to face criticism for their plan to build a huge M4 by-pass around Newport to remove congestion on the existing motorway.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats are already on record as opposing this development. We are opposed to the route as it infringes on five SSSIs, to the fact that once more the Government is investing in polluting motor vehicles instead of public transport and that the whole development is contrary to the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, which advocates a sustainable future for Wales.

I would add that the congestion on this stretch of the M4 is no worse than that around Port Talbot and Swansea, but the former gets priority because it benefits Cardiff. Yet another example of the Cardiff-centric bias of Welsh Government.

I am heartened this morning to find yet another ally in our opposition to this new motorway. As the BBC report, the future generations commissioner, a one time Labour activist and Councillor in Cardiff, has set out her opposition to the plan.

Sophie Howe argues that Welsh ministers are misinterpreting their own legislation in their case for a new motorway in Newport and that they could be setting a "dangerous precedent" in the way they have interpreted the Future Generations Act:

The Future Generations Act, which also created Ms Howe's job, requires ministers to take into account the economic, social, environmental and cultural impact of any policy decision.

Ms Howe, who has already raised objections to relief road, said the Welsh Government's QC, Morag Ellis, was wrong to suggest to the public inquiry that there would have to be trade-offs between those issues when deciding whether to press ahead with the new motorway.

In a letter to the public inquiry team, Ms Howe wrote: "I fully recognise the challenge of transitioning from a traditional approach (when the idea of a new section of motorway was conceived) to this new innovative and revolutionary way of working in the Act, but I believe that we must all rise to the challenge to ensure the benefits foreseen by the Act are fully realised.

"Business as usual is no longer an option.

"As I previously said the M4 project, given its scale and importance, must not set the wrong example which could permanently damage the spirit of the legislation."

Isn't it time the Welsh Government dropped this plan.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Are the Welsh and Scottish Governments tilting at windmills?

The EU Withdrawal Bill, which secured its second reading this week, is an appalling piece of legislation. It hands unprecedented powers to UK Ministers, whilst rolling back devolution by centralising powers at Westminster. The Welsh and Scottish Governments are quite right to want to oppose it.

The chosen method of resistance by both Governments is to table a Legislative Consent Motion so as to vote it down, effectively withholding their consent. A Legislative Consent Motion is a device that is required whenever Westminster introduces a law which impinges on the powers of a devolved body such as the Welsh Assembly.

This happens more often than one would think because of the way powers overlap and sometimes because the devolved Government finds it more convenient for Westminster to legislate on their behalf as part of a UK or an England and Wales approach.

However, it is not the case that if a Legislative Consent Motion is rejected then Westminster is forbidden from going ahead with its changes. At the end of the day the UK Parliament is sovereign and has the right and the power to override a devolved legislature if it wishes. Whether a UK Government chooses to overrule is a matter of political judgement.

I can think of two or three occasions when the Welsh Assembly has rejected an LCM, but has been ignored by the Westminster Government. The question therefore is whether Theresa May will respect the wishes of Wales and Scotland on the EU Withdrawal Bill if, as expected they vote down the necessary LCM?

As Wales-on-line reports the stakes are pretty high. They say that the Bill is designed to ensure the UK does not face chaos on the day after Brexit. It would put European Union law onto the statute book but it does so by giving UK ministers powers to change legislation:

Carwyn Jones sets out his concerns, saying: “These powers would allow a Minister of the Crown to unilaterally amend legislation that is within the legislative competence of the Assembly... The scrutiny obligation would then be discharged by Parliament rather than the Assembly.

“Those powers could also be used to amend the Government of Wales Act 2006, without any requirement for the Assembly’s approval.”

There is room for compromise but if, once talks are concluded, Wales and Scotland are not satisfied and reject their respective Legislative Consent Motions, UK Ministers have a choice, do they go back to the negotiating table or do they press on regardless?

It is possible that for all the sound and fury, Wales and Scotland are just tilting at windmills and are helpless to stop Theresa May doing as she wishes.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Labour splits to re-emerge at conference

Those who thought that the left wing of the Labour party have triumphed and control all the levers of that party need to think again. Apparently, there is still a rearguard action being fought against the inevitable by centrists and establishment figures within the party.

The Guardian reports that Labour members have been urged by centrist groups to block leftwing rule changes at the party’s conference backed by grassroots movement Momentum, including any potential moves towards deselection of moderate candidates:

On Monday night, Progress and Labour First – some of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s most strident critics within the party, hosted a rally attended by 120 activists and MPs in parliament.

Addressing the “Moderate Meet-Up”, John Spellar, MP for Warley, said there was a fight to “save social democracy” and that in-fighting over rule changes should not be allowed to dominate the conference in Brighton, which takes place 23-27 September.

“They are trying to storm the conference, create the atmosphere they are the overwhelming tide,” Spellar told the meeting. “They want to create an atmosphere of disillusionment that they can’t be stopped. We have to call them out.”

Spellar said he feared that the ascendency of the party’s left and the widespread denigration of MPs was paving the way for new moves to deselect sitting MPs and councillors.

“We have to stand up for elected representatives, as part of clause one of our constitution, which is to get people elected,” he said. “That’s a battle we will have on the floor of conference and after, in the constituencies, to make sure the voice of the genuine membership and of the voters comes through.”

Buys popcorn

Monday, September 11, 2017

Threat to business from Brexit widens

“Implementing Brexit: Customs”, an analysis from the Institute for Government think tank, has concluded that leaving the EU customs union after Brexit threatens to cost UK firms more than £4bn a year and trigger enormous disruption to trade.

They say that Up to 180,000 traders would be hit by pulling out of the EU’s free trade area, imposing red tape at borders and that the daunting task of making Britain “ready for day one” requires changes at more than 30 government departments and public bodies, as well as around 100 local authorities.

The Independent adds that Calais, Dunkirk, Rotterdam and other European ports would also have to prepare to avoid disruption:

Joe Owen, the Institute’s senior researcher, said: “The problem is that everyone from port operators to small traders can only undertake limited preparation while future arrangements are so uncertain.

“When it comes to customs, business faces a canyon, not a cliff edge. Disruption can be caused from either side of the border, and we are reliant on the successful preparation of our European partners too.

As frightening as this is, it is still mind-boggling that the UK Government do not appear to have grasped the dangers to our economy nor do they seem to be put into place the necessary preparations to deal with the issues raised by the report.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Post-Brexit irony strikes again

I never cease to be amused when the referendum slogans and arguments of the Brexiteers come back to bite them, though that feeling is always moderated by thought of the damage the leave campaign are doing to the UK and its economy as a result of their lies, their prejudices and, in some cases, the racism inherent in their campaign.

We have seen that claim that the NHS will receive an extra £350m a week is the lie we always claimed it to be, that we are all worse off, even before we leave, due to the weakness of the pound and the number of racist incidents increased after the referendum. There is nothing to celebrate here, but plenty to fight against and good reason why we should not leave the EU at all.

One of the most ludicrous reasons given by the leave campaign as to why we should back their cause, was the possibility of returning to the old style blue British passport. Such superficiality was central to the beliefs of many of those fighting against the EU. It was almost as if they didn't care that they were sending the UK economy down the pan as long as they could cling onto the symbols of a largely mythical past.

I suspect that many of these faux English squires will be spluttering over their American-made cornflakes this morning over the possibility that the 'new-style blue British passports' could be made in France or Germany. The Independent reports that two foreign firms have reportedly been shortlisted alongside British company De La Rou by the Home Office to manufacture the new passports ahead of the UK’s departure from the EU in March 2019.

The paper says that the prospect of the new-style navy passports being made in France or Germany is said to have some Brexiteer MPs seeing red. Well, they did say that they wanted to continue trading with Europe after Brexit so what's the problem?

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Challenge to legality of UK surveillance powers to go to Europe

There was some good news yesterday as the Guardian reported that EU judges are to be asked to rule on the legality of Britain’s mass digital surveillance powers. They say that the investigatory powers tribunal (IPT) has ruled that the European court of justice (ECJ) should decide whether the UK’s bulk collection of communications data, tracking personal use of the web, email, texts and calls, is legal.

The paper concludes that the ruling is a victory for the campaign group Privacy International, which brought the case following last December’s ruling by the ECJ that the “general and indiscriminate retention” of communications data by governments was illegal.

However, the British tribunal, presided over by Sir Michael Burton, refused to expedite the case to the ECJ. This means it is likely to take several years to secure a final ruling, leaving the door open to claims from Brexiters that European judges will get to decide what anti-terror powers are held by the British security services:

The case is one of many legal challenges that followed the disclosures by Edward Snowden of the extent of the digital mass surveillance practised by Britain’s GCHQ and the US National Security Agency.

Lawyers for Privacy International told judges that the bulk collection of personal communications data was no less sensitive than the content of emails. They argued that British citizens were already subject to greater surveillance than any other citizens and that the constitutional right to personal privacy set limits on state surveillance powers.

James Eadie, QC, acknowledged that the issue may have to be referred to the grand chamber of the ECJ in Luxembourg for clarification.

This one could run and run, however it is a crucial case that may well define our right to privacy for years to come.

As Millie Graham Wood, Privacy International’s legal officer, says: “The welter of information from metadata in the age of 24-hour browsing, mailing, messages, instant messaging apps, where our online activities replace conventional social interactions, is huge. It reveals so much about us.

“One need only think that a visit to an IP address hosting a medical self-diagnosis website, followed by a call to an oncologist, followed by an appointment with your solicitor, then a hospice, may well reveal that the person in question has terminal cancer.

“We need strict safeguards against the state accessing highly sensitive information about us. The UK government and the investigatory powers tribunal have said that the vital and fundamental safeguards as set out in the Watson judgment, such as requiring a judge to approve access to highly sensitive information, should not apply to the information held by intelligence agencies. Privacy International fundamentally disagree.

“Even when bulk metadata is used for the purposes of national security, there should be strong safeguards to protect our sensitive personal data.

Friday, September 08, 2017

UKIP and the far right

It is not just Anne Marie Waters amongst the UKIP leadership who are playing fast and loose with the far-right. The Guardian reports that Nigel Farage will appear at a rally held by Germany’s far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) inside a renaissance fortress in Berlin on Friday.

They have been told by AfD MEP Beatrix von Storch, who is hosting the event, that Farage, who represents South East England in the European Parliament, will appear at the Spandau Citadel in the west of the German capital to talk about “developments in the European Union, Brexit, direct democracy” and “how to make the impossible possible”. And he is doing so at the invitation of Lutz von Krosigk, the granddaughter of Hitler’s finance minister:

Von Storch has been a member of Farage’s group in the European parliament since being expelled from the more mainstream European Conservatives and Reformists Group in April last year, following comments in which she called on European border guards to use firearms to deter illegal immigrants, including women and children. She later described the comments as a “tactical mistake”.

In her Facebook post, von Storch said that Farage had been so impressed with the AfD’s campaign that he had accepted “without hesitation” her invitation to appear at a campaign rally.

It seems that UKIP's true colours are beginning to show.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

UK Government isolated by business snub

The UK Government and their Labour backers may well think that that they are doing the right thing in pursuing a hard Brexit, with or without a transition period, but that self-belief does not appear to be shared by business.

The Independent says that Theresa May has been accused of an embarrassing own-goal after business leaders refused a plea to publicly declare their support for her Brexit strategy. They add that a letter, asking top companies to say they “welcome” the Government’s bid for a transitional deal, to cushion the exit was leaked to Sky News, apparently, after some refused to sign it.

They were also asked to agree that the legislation before Parliament to prepare for withdrawal would “make Britain ready for life outside the EU”. But some of the companies expressed astonishment at Downing Street’s attempt to win their backing after the Brussels negotiations hit a damaging impasse.

The Government was further embarrassed by business leaders publicly attacking proposed curbs on immigration after Brexit, warning they would badly damage the economy:

The Independent understands that several large UK corporations received an approach from Downing Street earlier this week, with No 10 saying the initiative was being targeted at large private companies and FTSE 100 firms “with an emphasis on quality not quantity”.

Downing Street also intimated that it already had around ten firms committed to endorsing it.

One source at an FTSE 100 firm which had been sent the letter but had declined to sign said that his counterparts from energy, manufacturing, banking and financial services firms had all also turned down the opportunity.

“I’d be very surprised if that letter sees the light of day now,” the source said.

The Independent understands that many companies that were reticent about signing the letter anyway were further deterred by the leaked Home Office document on Tuesday afternoon, mooting the possibility of downgrading the status of EU migrants in the UK as soon as March 2019, would have certainly scared firms off because it conflicted with the promise of a smooth Brexit transition period.

“That's a red line for many businesses,” the source said.

This is not going to end well.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

UKIP anti-Islam leadership candidate opens door to English Defence League

Having opened the door to Anne Marie Waters to stand for the leadership, UKIP are now facing the consequences with 18 of their 20 MEPs pledging to leave the party if she wins on her controversial anti-Islamification platform.

Just how damaging Ms. Waters' candidature could prove to be was illustrated by her comments on Newsnight in which she asserted she would not prevent former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson from joining UKIP. Ms Waters is the director of Sharia Watch UK. She co-founded anti-Islam group Pegida UK with Mr Robinson.

The Independent says Ms Waters, who has previously branded Islam “evil”, said she did not think Mr Robinson had any thoughts of joining the party, but that she would not be opposed if he did want to.

She said: “A lot of people around the country support those sorts of people. A lot of people think exactly the same way and have nobody representing them.”

It is little wonder that UKIP are in crisis.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Why on-line abuse is damaging our democracy

The vast majority (99.99%) of politicians seek election for honourable and good reasons; out of a sense of public duty; or a strong desire to change things for the better. In my case I had developed a set of beliefs and a philosophy during the miners' strike in the 1970s and took it into college. The logical next step was to seek election to try and put into effect my beliefs.

Many people appreciate the reasons why politicians choose this path. Often rants against the profession itself are moderated by appreciation for the actions of individuals known to the critic. Despite that those opting for politics as a career are frequently treated with derision.

What is particularly sad (and disgusting) is that a small minority take these feelings on-line and do so in a misogynist way by targeting women politicians. According to the Telegraph, research by Amnesty International has found that female MPs from all parties were sent more than 25,000 abusive messages on Twitter in just six months this year.

They found that nearly half of all abusive messages were directed at Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, including racist Tweets and death threats. It is little wonder that Amnesty have accused Twitter of failing to take down rape threats and death threats, have warned the threats are having a "chilling effect" and that they could drive women off the internet completely.

They say that other female MPs subjected to the most abuse included Joanne Cherry, the SNP MP, Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, Jess Phillips, a Labour MP and Anna Soubry, a Tory MP.

My concern is not just that this level of abuse will deter politicians from engaging on social media but it will also drive people, and women in particular out of politics altogether. That would be a very bad thing from the point of view of diversity, it would undermine our democratic process.

Let's face it, the idiots who indulge in these vicious antics would be the first to complain if we ceased to be a democracy and they had their freedoms taken away from them. Democracy may not be perfect, but it the best form of governance we have got. I suspect even that statement is too deep for many of these sexist abusers.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Fight over top cat status in Whitehall

Poor Larry! Number 10's cat may well have the ear (or the lap) of the Prime Minister but his work record is far from perfect. According to the Telegraph, he has a record of snoozing while the mice play around him. By contrast, Foreign Office cat, Gladstone is setting new records for kills

The paper says that Palmerston, the FCO’s resident mouser, has caught at least 27 mice since his arrival in Westminster in April 2016:

Palmerston’s prolific record is likely to heap further pressure on the performance of Larry, the Number 10 cat, who was pictured earlier this year playing with a mouse before allowing it to escape in a clear dereliction of his duties.

Documents released under Freedom of Information (FOI) laws show Palmerston, named after former foreign secretary and two-time prime minister Viscount Palmerston, caught almost 30 mice since he came from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

But volunteers who look after the black-and-white cat claim that figure is "likely to be much higher".

The FCO said: "The FCO does not keep an accurate figure for the amount of mice caught by Palmerston.

"The PUS's (Permanent Under-Secretary, Sir Simon McDonald) office do receive reported sightings of Palmerston catching mice - so far (since Palmerston's arrival in April 2016) this figure is at 27. "This figure is likely to be much higher as these are only reported sightings."

The FOI request also reveals that Palmerston is "usually" fed Whiskas, although much of his food is donated meaning he enjoys a variety of brands.

Is it time for Larry to step up to the plate and prove himself in the mouse catching stakes.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Tories fracture further over Theresa May remain threat

Anybody who thought that the Tories could not split any more on the issue of Europe and party leadership is underestimating the fractious nature of modern day Conservatism. And it seems that by Theresa May letting her colleagues know that she may well want to fight the next General Election as leader after all, she has precipitated a further division.

The Observer reports that the Prime Minister may face a growing Tory revolt over her leadership as it emerged that Remain-supporting Conservative MPs are being told by party whips that they will be seen as “supporting Jeremy Corbyn” if they attempt to soften the Brexit bill.

They add that furious Conservatives, including former ministers, have asserted that such threats and arm-twisting from the whips’ office will “backfire” spectacularly, making it more likely the prime minister will face a leadership challenge this autumn.

Tory tensions over Brexit, coupled with dismay over May’s insistence last week that she wants to lead the party into a 2022 general election, have reached new heights as MPs prepare to debate the European Union (withdrawal) bill when parliament returns after the summer break on Tuesday:

One former cabinet minister told the Observer that May’s determination to cling on to office, and her hardline position on Brexit, would “definitely” trigger letters to Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 committee, over coming weeks. If 15% of Tory MPs write to Brady expressing no confidence in her, a leadership contest has to be called.

Another former minister, the outspoken pro-Remain MP Anna Soubry, told the Observer that it was unacceptable for whips to try to stop Conservative MPs tabling and backing amendments to the Brexit bill by threatening them.

“Any suggestion that this is any way treacherous or supporting Jeremy Corbyn is outrageous,” she said. “It amounts to a trouncing of democracy and people will not accept it.”

Several other Tories said the whips were on full manoeuvres, telling MPs that tabling amendments or supporting them would be tantamount to helping Corbyn into Downing Street.

Soubry said she saw it as her duty to do what she believed was in the national interest, rather than bow to intimidation and bullying by party managers. “People will be very alarmed. It will all backfire on them.”

Another senior Tory MP said: “If there is any more of this kind of nonsense from the prime minister or the whips then the feeling against her – which is already considerable – will grow to the point where her position is unsustainable.”

It is this reluctance to be bullied by MPs in both the Tories and the Labour Party which makes it less than certain that Brexit will happen at all. And that is in the best interests of the country.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

More evidence why a badger cull is not the answer to bTB

The New Statesman reports on new techniques that once more underlines why the UK Government's so-called solution to bovine TB is flawed and unnecessary. The science as proven by the Krebs report has already demonstrated the ineffectiveness of a cull, now an experiment on a farm in Devon has pointed to the most effective way of tackling the disease in cattle.

They say that the Save Me Trust, instead of using the government’s current method, are deploying a three-part testing system which has allowed them to identify and isolate infected cows more accurately and quickly:

“We can do incredible things now with computers and all the knowledge that we have. Yet we’re still using a decades-old test for TB on cattle: it’s pathetic,” says the trust's Anne Brummer, who persuaded Defra to allow the project.

Brummer believes that with better testing, killing badgers will become an irrelevance. Badgers around the farm have tested TB-positive, she says, yet since they have comprehensively cleared the disease from the cattle herd it has not returned.

But how can Brummer be confident that the badgers won’t one day transfer the disease back? Because, she says, even though badgers can catch TB from cattle they can’t keep it alive for nearly as long. That appears to explain why a 1970s outbreak in Cheshire which must have also spread to the local wildlife was successfully eradicated by dealing solely with the infected cattle.

If Brummer’s conclusions are correct then many of the so-called “clear” herds that the NFU claims have contracted the disease afresh from neighbouring cattle or wildlife, may simply have been carrying un-detected strains within them all the time.

The report concludes that there is an urgent need for Defra to publish more information about the impact of the present, cull-inclusive, policy. They say that the Welsh government is already looking at the new program of improved testing. But the entire UK must work more closely together if the disease is to be controlled.

Some of us have been arguing for a more effective testing regime for some time. It is interesting though how this regime proves that badgers are not the unwitting villains in this saga that some make them out to be.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Liam Fox outclassed by European chickens

The UK Secretary for International Trade is the sort of Fox who, if let loose in the chicken shed, would try to blame the chickens for the subsequent carnage. That is certainly the impression given by his latest whinging intervention in the European exit talks.

The Guardian says that Liam Fox, has ratcheted up the government’s war of words with the EU over Brexit by saying Britain will not be “blackmailed” into paying an excessive exit settlement to speed up a deal. However, he may not have noticed how weak his negotiating position is. I would advise him not to start playing poker.

The paper says that Liam Fox told Sky News that he is concerned the Brexit talks are “stuck” on the initial issues:

“I think there is frustration that we have not been able to get on that longer-term issue, that we’re stuck on this separation issue, and we’re not able to get on to the issues that will matter in the longer term for the future prosperity of the UK and the people of Europe.

“And I had representations from businesses from across Europe – from Germany, from Spain – to say: ‘Can we put more pressure on the commission to try and get us a better idea of what that final picture will look like because we need to maintain an open and liberal trading environment in Europe?’”

Of course the hold up is not the European Union, it is the failure of the UK Government to recognise the reality of the cliff they are driving us to, their inability to accept the obligations that the UK has signed up to and the fact that Brexiteers like Fox, Johnson and Davies took the country to this impasses without any idea of what came next.

If the UK really wants a quick trade deal then the Government has to start taking the exit talks seriously. Alternatively they could just abandon the whole idea as being completely against the country's best interests.

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