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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Twitter wars: Is it time to cancel Trump's state visit and abandon Brexit?

Just when we thought that Donald Trump couldn't surprise us anymore, the US President allows his itchy Twitter finger to get the better of him and launches into an assault on his supposed ally, Theresa May.

Having been admonished by Number 10 Downing Street for retweeting anti-Muslim propaganda by the extreme right wing group, Britain First, Trump retaliated last night on his medium of choice:

“Theresa@theresamay, don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom,” the US president tweeted on Wednesday evening. “We are doing just fine!”

It is difficult to know where to start with this tweet, it is inaccurate, ill-informed and downright provocative. The re-tweeting of racist videos by anybody is indefensible, for the supposed leader of the free world to do so, and in doing so offending a foreign power, shows how low the bar now is for acceptable behaviour by the President of the United States.

The reaction of the UK Government was pathetic to say the least. The Education Secretary, Justine Greening could only mutter some platitude about not undermining our 'special relationship with the USA'. At least the local Government Secretary, Sajid Javid demonstrated that one Minister has the cojones for the job. He tweeted:

“So POTUS has endorsed the views of a vile, hate-filled racist organisation that hates me and people like me. He is wrong and I refuse to let it go and say nothing.”

At the very least the UK should cancel Trump's state visit and tell him he is not welcome here.

What is particularly galling about this whole affair is the way that Brexit weakens our response. Because the UK Government is determined to take us out of the EU, we are much more dependent on right wing leaders like Trump. We have to keep the US sweet because we don't have the economic power of the EU single market behind us and so can't stand up to them when they are in the wrong.

Brexit has undermined our influence on the world stage, it has given us less control over our own destiny and left us kow-towing to people like Trump, who can apparently insult us at will without any comeback.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Bringing the Bexiteers into the real world

For too long now the chief cheerleaders for taking the UK out of the EU have been in denial, seeking to fool us that we can leave fairly cheaply and have lots of cash left over to invest in public services. The public acknowledgement by the UK Government that this is not the case will hopefully bring a new sense of realism to this debate.

As the Guardian reports, the UK has finally bowed to EU demands on the Brexit divorce bill in a move that could result in the us paying £50bn to Brussels, in an attempt to get France and Germany to agree to move negotiations to trade.

They say that the bill could total £53bn to £58bn, although EU officials are not discussing numbers and the British government will fight hard to bring the total down. They add that both sides are trying to avoid talking numbers to help the British government deal with the potentially toxic political fallout.

Inevitable as this was, the size of this bill was denied by leavers during the referendum campaign. They led people to believe that exiting the EU would be a simple task with massive financial benefits for the country.

The truth is that not only will the NHS not get the promised £350m a week but we will be paying heavily to leave an institution that massively benefits us and our economy, losing jobs and prosperity in the process.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A good day to bury bad news

Wall to wall coverage of a royal wedding is an opportunity as far as some Government press officers are concerned to bury bad news and yesterday was no exception.

As everybody cooed over what is a very impressive engagement ring, and speculated on social media and elsewhere about the significance of the fifth in line to the throne marrying a divorced Roman Catholic American actress, it took just twenty minutes for a far more significant announcement by the UK Government.

As the Independent reports, the Government announced confirmation that it will be freezing benefits until 2020 costing a typical working family around £300 per year:

Caroline Dinenage, a work and pensions minister, said the freeze for working age people who receive benefits will go on even as the state pension and some other benefits increase by three per cent, in line with inflation.

This will be a real terms cut in income of £315 a year for the typical working family with two children as the cost of living will eat further into their income, according to a report by the Resolution Foundation. The freeze, which has been in place since 2015, has coincided with the longest fall in living standards in the past 60 years with the thinktank saying real disposable incomes are now to set to fall for 19 successive quarters.

In a report published before the budget, the foundation warned the freeze would worsen inequality which would take an average of £715 away from the poorest third of households whereas the richest third looks set to gain £185 from other tax breaks.

Some will see the cut partially offset by the increase in minimum wage, which will go up to £7.83 per hour from April, but many will still feel the squeeze as the Treasury hopes to save £1.9bn over the next year.

So much for yesterday being a good news day.

Monday, November 27, 2017

UK Government proposals could put women's lives at risk

Last Friday was International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, also known as White Ribbon Day. It is followed up until the 10th December by 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence.

I marked the day by visiting Swansea's Domestic Abuse One Stop Shop which offers information, advice and support if you are affected by domestic abuse. They had a fair in which organisations associated with their work were offering information about their services.

The timing of this news therefore could not be more devastating (and crass). The Guardian says that abuse survivors and charities believe that the lives of vulnerable women and children will be put at risk by proposed changes to funding for refuges:

In little-publicised proposals, the government plans to remove refuges and other forms of short-term supported housing from the welfare system.

It would mean vulnerable women fleeing abusive partners will not be able to pay for their accommodation using housing benefit, the last guaranteed source of income available to refuges. On average, housing benefit makes up 53% of refuge funding.

Katie Ghose, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, said: “The government’s proposed reforms to supported housing will dismantle our national network of lifesaving refuges and put the lives of women and children trying to escape domestic abuse at risk. This is a matter of life or death.”

On average, two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner in England and Wales. Under the current spending model, Women’s Aid found 94 women with 90 children were turned away from refuge services in one day.

The warnings come as “16 Days”, an international campaign to end violence against women and girls, is launched.

Instead of being able to use housing benefit to fund refuges, the government proposes handing a “ring-fenced” grant to councils for short-term supported housing. However, this does not exclusively cover refuges – it is also aimed at older people, homeless people, offenders, people with mental illnesses and drug addicts.

The various charities quoted are worried about the fact that a number of councils are not very engaged with the agenda of tackling domestic abuse, whilst others may insist that money is only spent on local people, ignoring the fact that many victims need to leave their own area to avoid the abuser.

The charities believe that these reforms fly in the face of pledges made by the prime minister to make it a key personal priority to transform the way the UK tackles domestic violence.

The other concern of course is that once this money is taken out of the demand-led welfare system and converted to a grant, then it becomes easier to chip away at the value of the support. In other words budget decisions could lead to the grant becoming diminished in real or even cash terms over a period of years.

We really need some better assurances about this proposal and how it will work out in the long-term.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Does Momentum's loyalty test threaten to disrupt an uneasy truce within the Labour Party?

If there is one thing that has been fuelling discontent within the Parliamentary Labour Party around Jeremy Corbyn's leadership it is the fear that his allies will use their foothold in the party to initiate a series of deselections, to purge disloyal MPs.

Corbyn and his praetorian guard have been at pains to reassure those who are considered to be disloyal that this is not going to happen, however recent developments seem to suggest otherwise.

The Observer report that the left wing pressure group Momentum is asking Labour parliamentary contenders to sign a contract that ties them to the “political objectives” set out in the organisation’s constitution to secure its support in upcoming selection battles.

They says that the 13-point “political accord for Momentum-backed candidates” asks candidates to “work to ensure the Labour manifesto (subject to future policy development) is fully implemented once Labour are in government”. Included in the signed contract is the commitment to “revitalise the Labour party by building on the values, energy and enthusiasm of the Jeremy for Leader campaign”.

As the paper says, some Labour MPs are known to be alarmed by the move, following an attempt by Labour activists to unseat the leader of Haringey council last month:

Claire Kober fought off a challenge to win reselection in her ward, but it was seen as a warning that Momentum plans to support candidates that back Jeremy Corbyn at all levels of the party.

One Labour MP, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “It reflects a Stalinist approach to politics that Momentum would come up with such a contract for candidates. It has worrying implications for our democracy that there could be MPs in parliament who have signed away their right to independent judgment,” he said.

The chair of Momentum, Jon Lansman told the Observer that he would back a move to ensure MPs needed the support of 66% of their local Labour and trade union branches to be automatically reselected as an MP, rather than a simple majority under current rules.

“I don’t think that any hardworking MP has anything to fear,” he said. “Having greater say in election is not about deselection, it is about greater accountability.”

There are many members of the Parliamentary Labour Party who would disagree,

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Michael Gove and fake news

For a man who helped to win a referendum campaign on the back of some of the most outrageous lies about the so-called benefits of Brexit, you would think that Michael Gove might want to show some self-awareness when he criticises others.

One can hardly dispute his claim that 'social media "corrupts" and "distorts" political decision-making', after all he and his colleagues tested that theory to destruction back in 2016 when they were arguing for us to leave the EU. 

Let's face it, he stood next to a bloody big bus which had the lie emblazoned across it that we would get an extra £350m a week extra for the NHS if we stopped paying into Europe and he argued that we were going to be swamped by 750 million Turks. He dismissed the views of experts and he put forward simplistic arguments that did not stand up to scrutiny. As Hugh Muir said in the Guardian back in June 2016:

As education secretary, Gove was an enthusiast for the great dramatists, and in this, at least, he is consistent. So on Wednesday night, with the dream of Brexit now tantalisingly in sight, he stooped to conquer. Shorn of shame, untroubled by complexity, he fielded voters’ inquiries with a certainty that, as an intelligent, knowing politician, he surely cannot feel. He bent logic to his will with the dexterity of a magician crafting balloon animals, but knowing all the while that the task is beneath him. This campaign has been a marathon, so credit to Gove for staying in character.

If we vote to leave, we will be in an economically stronger position, he said. Leaving the EU is a win-win, he promised them, unruffled all the while, unequivocal. The experts are against you, he was told. So what, we have our own experts, he said, citing Sir James Dyson and the man from JCB, and caring nothing about the weight of opinion stacked against him.

The questioners were probing, but whenever trouble loomed, Gove effortlessly wriggled free with a soundbite. “We believe in this country,” he proclaimed, milking applause from leavers in the audience, and by comparison casting his opponents as quislings. The remain camp is “ramping up the fear”, he said. By contrast, all we are doing, by claiming that Britain pays £350m a week to the EU or that 750 million Turks will soon head for Britain, is giving you the facts dispassionately. The remainers in the audience saw the sophistry, but no matter. You’re off your rocker, said a questioner. “You say the nicest things,” replied slippery Gove.

As somebody who has thrived on fake news, it ill-behoves Gove to lecture us on what we can and cannot believe. If the Environment Secretary is upset at claims about the Tory party's attitude to sentience in animals then he only has himself to blame. He let this fake news genie out of the bottle. He has to live with it.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Was the budget stamp duty cut an economic dead end?

The failure of the Tory Government to get to grips with the UK housing crisis is no better illustrated than the smoke and mirrors which surrounds the axing of stamp duty for properties selling for less than £300,000.

As the Independent reports, the Resolution Foundation believe that the measure will inflate house prices by more than the saving it will deliver for many buyers. They add that the change will only marginally reduce the time it takes an average first-time buyer to save up to buy a property – from 19 years to 18.5 years.

The Foundation's calculation is that the rise in house prices that the policy is likely to cause equates to a £3,200 increase in the cost of an average-price home, more than double the average £1,600 saving it will deliver:

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) also said the measure was likely to inflate house prices by 0.3 per cent, meaning buyers will pay more.

The OBR said: “Post-[stamp duty] prices paid by first-time buyers would actually be higher with the relief than without it. Thus the main gainers from the policy are people who already own property, not the first-time buyers themselves.

“For some potential first-time buyers with smaller deposits, who are constrained by loan-to-value lending criteria, the relief will enable them to borrow a multiple of their stamp duty saving, allowing them to buy properties that they otherwise could not afford – but more expensively.”

Despite the potential benefits, some commentators criticised the relatively small number of people the policy will help. The OBR said the change will benefit just 3,500 buyers – meaning it will cost £160,000 for every person it helps next year and £190,000 per person by 2022-23.

Damningly, given the shortage of affordable homes, the £2.9bn the stamp duty cut will cost could have funded 40,000 new social homes or more than 100,000 homes built through the Government’s Housing Infrastructure Fund.

All of this suggests that the stamp duty cut is an economic dead end that fails in its purpose to help first time buyers, and that a direct subsidy would have had a much more beneficial impact for those seeking housing, especially if they are on a low income.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Budget forecasts put the UK in intensive care

The most striking part of yesterday's budget speech was not the abolition of stamp duty for properties selling at less that £300,000 as some Tories hoped, but the news that growth forecasts for the next five years are on the critical list.

As Vince Cable pointed out in his response, each person in Britain is set to be £687 worse off per year compared to forecasts before the election. And as living standards are squeezed the Government is setting aside £3.7 billion to cover the cost of a 'no deal' Brexit.

In other words the Chancellor found more money in the Budget to plan for Brexit than he did for the struggling NHS, schools and police. Vince writes:

'A Liberal Democrat budget would have looked very different today. Founded on a vision of a high-tech, high-skilled economy that is green, open and entrepreneurial.

We would invest £6bn per year in our NHS & Social Care system, paid for by a penny on income tax. And Lib Dems would kick-start the economy back to growth with productive investment of £100bn over ten years to build more homes and infrastructure for the next generation.

Today’s Budget reinforces our belief that Britain is better off in Europe. We are fighting to remain in the Single Market and the Customs Union, and to give the people a vote on the final Brexit deal.'

The Liberal Democrats have highlighted seven areas where the budget failed to address some of the most urgent problems facing the UK. These include not tackling the funding crisis in the NHS, not funding a pay rise for public sector workers, failing to adequately address the housing crisis, not putting money into social care, thus increasing pressure on the health service, and waiting until January to address problems with universal credit.

The Government's obsession with Brexit is destroying our economy, undermining living standards and diverting money away from key services. And Labour's complicity in supporting that agenda means that only the Liberal Democrats are providing an effective opposition to this looming disaster.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Judging the Tories by what they do, not what they say

As we wait the budget, an event that seems to be more significant for Phillip Hammond's future than that of the UK economy, if media reports are to be believed, it is worth considering some of the hype.

Theresa May is reportedly keen to grasp the UK's housing crisis by the neck and sort it out. Already, Ministers have made speeches and suggestions that implies that (a) they understand what needs to be done; and (b) they are going to do it. However, their track record on this issue is not so good.

It is pointless promising massive investment in housing, that x number of homes are going to be built or that measures are going to be put in place to assist builders, if at the end of the day very few, if any new affordable homes are built. And yet that appears to be where we are going with this agenda.

One case in point is illustrated in the Independent. The paper points out that the 2014 Starter Home initiative, which held out the prospect of delivering 200,000 discounted new homes to first-time buyers is yet to see a single one built.

This scheme promised to achieve its target by pushing councils and developers to bring forward unused land and build on old industrial sites, measures that Chancellor Philip Hammond will again pledge to carry out as he allegedly makes housing a key plank of his Budget later today.

At the same time there are claims that Conservative spending plans since 2010 have stripped some £20bn out of UK housebuilding projects, robbing the country of an extra 280,000 homes. Grants to local councils and housing associations to invest in new homes has been cut from £4.1bn in 2010 to £764m last year, a fall of 81 per cent.

If this government is serious about tackling the housing crisis then they need to give money directly to those organisations who will use it to build new affordable homes - housing associations and local councils. They need to help build the infrastructure to free up landlocked sites and they have to legislate to put in place disincentives to stop builders holding onto housing land, preferably some form of land value taxation scheme.

There also needs to be assistance so small builders can access the finance they need and overcome some of the other barriers that hold up development, such as connections to statutory undertakers.

We can no longer afford half-measures and unfulfilled promises. If we are going to tackle this housing crisis then the government needs to go all in and put its money where its mouth is.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Labour frontbench unite with Tories in pro-Brexit vote

The Independent reports that John McDonnell and fellow Opposition frontbenchers joined with the Government to vote down a Labour backbench Brexit proposal designed to protect the customs union.

They say that the Shadow Chancellor was among the 18 Labour MPs, 283 Conservatives, eight DUP and two independents who defeated an amendment to the Taxation (Cross-Border Trade) Bill, which aims to put in law a new post-Brexit customs regime:

MPs heard the Bill will pave the way for domestic legislation that will enable the UK to charge customs duty on goods - including those imported from the EU - and outline how customs checks will be made.

Labour former frontbencher Mr Murray's amendment sought to exempt EU goods from the new regime, and was supported during the vote by Tory rebels Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke.

It has long been known that despite harvesting millions of anti-Brexit votes in the General Election, Labour are in reality committed to leaving the EU. This vote confirms that, and further shows that the opposition front bench also have problems with us remaining in or wedded to the single market.

Labour have betrayed those voters who entrusted them to look after their economic interests and reneged on their role as a functional Official Opposition.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Time to act on the independent adjudication of the Welsh Ministerial code

'It is wholly unacceptable for the First Minister to be the sole decider on whether he and his cabinet colleagues have broken ministerial rules.' That was the judgement of the then leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Kirsty Williams in November 2012 as she led a move to establish a system that allows the Ministerial Code to be policed independently of the Welsh Government and the National Assembly for Wales.

Kirsty moved a motion in the Assembly Plenary on 21 November calling for the Welsh Government to commit to ensure the policing of the ministerial code is independent and transparent. The record of Proceedings can be read here. The Welsh Liberal Democrats group were concerned that the only person who decides on whether or not the ministerial code of conduct has been broken is the First Minister.

Unfortunately, the motion was defeated on the casting vote of the Presiding Officer with the First Minister arguing that there is nothing wrong with the current system. In summing up he said:

We have to bear in mind, of course—and I will draw my remarks to a close at this point—that the ministerial code is a matter for me. It is right to say that Ministers are answerable and accountable to the Assembly and, in their professional performance, to me. I am, in turn, accountable to the Assembly and, ultimately, to the people of Wales. We do not have a system where nobody is accountable in any way. There is clear chain of accountability through this Assembly and, ultimately, to the people of Wales. In the absence of any examples of where the system has failed, in the absence of any suggestions as to why a presumably paid independent adviser should be put in place to deal with an exceptionally small number of complaints, and in the absence of any argument that suggests that an independent adviser would be in a different position to the civil servants currently providing independent advice to me, the Government is not able to support the motion as presently proposed. There are sufficient checks and balances in the current system. There is no suggestion that the current system is, in some way, not working. There is no suggestion that the current system has, in some way, failed to discover any wrongdoing by Ministers.

If anything the five years that have passed since that debate, and I recent events in particular, have underlined the relevance of the motion brought by the Welsh Liberal Democrats. The First Minister himself stands accused of misleading the Assembly, with no satisfactory means of investigating that complaint and holding him to account. 

In addition, serious allegations against a Minister were passed to the Labour Party to be dealt with by the First Minister, instead of using the existing, unsatisfactory process. 

As I said in that debate in 2012, 'We have a situation where the Welsh Government seems to be unique in being the only body, institution, or group of people in Wales that still sits as judge and jury on complaints against itself.'  No body or institution can justify that position in the light of all that has happened. It was difficult enough to argue in favour of that status quo five years ago. Surely it is time for change.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Driverless cars from a driverless government

I am a bit of a luddite secretly, at least when it comes to technological advancements that aim to cut out the human touch. I don't do on-line banking, I don't have a Netflix or Amazon account and for the life of me, I don't see why anybody would want to develop driverless cars.

Don't get me wrong. I am not the sort of person who mourns lost employment opportunities following the abolition of the man with a red flag who used to walk in front of the earliest motorcars. Nor do I want to go back to the days when one emerged from printing political leaflets covered in ink from an old Gestetner. And let's face it, I am a sci-fi fan who enjoys losing myself in tales of human endeavour in space involving technology beyond our reach.

For me, driving is a joy. Yes, it gets you from A to B, but it is also a challenge that opens up previously unseen vistas. I still remember getting lost on the Llwyn Peninsular and not wanting to turn back because I was so captivated by the scenery. As an AM I often embarked on long distance journeys when the getting there was more enjoyable than the event itself.

So what is the attraction of cars which don't need a driver? Will it really “put high-tech Britain in the fast lane”, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer suggests. I can understand the need to distract people from the Government's failures on Brexit, but surely the only impression that comes from this announcement is that it is the Government itself that is driverless.

The one motor vehicle investment I can support is the proposed investment in electric car points. If we are to move on from polluting petrol and diesel vehicles then that is the sort of infrastructure that needs to be in place. 5G mobile networks are also essential for the growth of business.

In my view driverless cars are the 21st Century equivalent of the Sinclair C5 car. They constitute a technological cul-de-sac. The investment would be better directed elsewhere.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Is Ireland an insurmountable obstacle to a Brexit deal?

Just how difficult disengaging ourselves from the EU will be has come into stark contrast this week with Ireland's determination to block any deal that puts up physical or other barriers on their border with the North.

As the Guardian records, Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar,has said that he will not be prepared to back progress of the Brexit negotiations to trade talks at the summit in December without a formal written guarantee there will be no hard border in Ireland. Britain:

Varadkar’s warning was the most blunt, though the EU is likely to take the lead from Ireland when it assesses whether enough genuine progress has been made on the issue of the border with Northern Ireland, one of the three key topics which must be agreed before talks progress to trade.

“We’ve been given assurances that there will be no hard border in Ireland, that there won’t be any physical infrastructure, that we won’t go back to the borders of the past,” Varadkar said before his meeting with May. “We want that written down in practical terms in the conclusions of phase one.”

Leaving the summit several hours later, Varadkar said he was not satisfied with the progress. “After 40 years of marriage, most of them good, now Britain wants a divorce, but an open relationship the day after,” he told Sky News. “We have heard now for 18 months … that the UK does not want a hard border in Ireland. But after 18 months of the right language we need to understand how that can be achieved in law.”

“We don’t have a counter-proposal from the UK government yet which makes any sense, but we would certainly welcome one,” he said.

Earlier at the summit, Varadkar was scathing about UK politicians who had backed Brexit: “It’s 18 months since the referendum. It’s 10 years since people who wanted a referendum started agitating for one. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like they have thought all this through.”

The issue of course is not just about physical infrastructure. Any barrier to trade such as differences in regulatory standards could be considered to be a problem.

This is going to be an issue that will task even the most malleable of negotiators and it will certainly threaten the Northern Ireland peace settlement. The Brexiteers cannot say they were not warned.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The impossible task facing government on Brexit

Another day, yet another warning about the mountain the government has to climb to effect a successful transition out of the European Union. This time it is the Public Accounts Committee, which is raising doubts as to whether civil servants can deliver more than 300 projects and hundreds of new laws in time for Britain’s exit from the EU. They have warned that non-Brexit-related business could be “neglected” by swamped officials.

The Independent says that much of the burden of transition will fall on medium-sized departments such as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

They add that a National Audit Office (NAO) report says up to 1,000 pieces of secondary legislation need to pass through Parliament before exit day in March 2019 and that Brexit officials have warned all departments there is “minimal room” to consider other statutory instruments.

Public Accounts Committee Chair, Meg Hillier said: “This document lays bare the daunting challenge faced by the Civil Service in coordinating Brexit.

“I question whether Whitehall has the ability to deliver the 313 projects and hundreds of new laws it says are needed. There is a risk that anything non-Brexit related will be neglected.

“This raises the issue of whether DExEU, Treasury and the Cabinet Office are really doing enough to ensure government departments aren’t overwhelmed, and can continue to deliver the vital public services we are all relying on, alongside a smooth exit from the EU.”

It is not just the negotiations that are going badly, so is the government's preparations at home. Time for a rethink surely.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Do the Tories understand what needs to be done to tackle the housing crisis?

We will have to wait for the budget of course, before we can fully evaluate whether Theresa May's promise to personally solve the UK's housing crisis is going to deliver, but proposals hinted at in this article appear to me to fall well short of what is needed.

The Independent say that the chief measure will be the Chancellor will free up housing associations to borrow millions of pounds more for housebuilding. He will do that by taking housing associations’ debt off the balance sheet, with the goal being that they have a stable investment environment to build more homes.

In fact that move is being forced on him by an Audit Office ruling that housing associations count as public sector bodies and that their borrowing counts against the public debt targets. The Welsh Government are already taking a bill through the Assembly for the same reason.

Unless the budget allocates substantial sums of money to help fund a massive increase in the building of social and affordable housing, puts into place arrangements to help small builders overcome red tape and access finance, and simplifies planning rules then it is unlikely that the Prime Minister's crusade will the impact she hopes.

Do the Tories really understand what is needed to start tackling the UK's housing crisis. The devil is in the detail.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017


Wales may have voted to leave the EU but did those who formed that slim majority fully understand the possible consequences of their actions?

The latest potential outcome could have a devastating effect on the Welsh car industry, with Aston Martin’s Chief Financial Officer warning that leaving the EU without a deal could prove “semi-catastrophic” for the car manufacturer and force a temporary halt to production:

Aston Martin selected the Ministry of Defence’s St Athan site in the Vale of Glamorgan as the location for its second UK manufacturing plant. Earlier this year it stated it was on target to start production of its new SUV, the Aston Martin DBX, in 2019.

At present, cars approved by the Vehicle Certification Agency (VCA) can be sold across the EU. If a deal is not agreed to allow this arrangement to continue after Brexit production will have to stop until new certification to sell vehicles abroad is secured.

Mark Wilson set out his concerns to the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee:

He said: “[For] Aston Martin it is far, far simpler than it is perhaps for Honda and some of the other larger international players. We are a British company.

“We produce our cars exclusively in Britain and will continue to do so and without VCA-type approval it really is quite a stark picture for us.”

He warned that if this type of approval was not carried over there would not only be “significant costs” but “the semi-catastrophic effects of having to stop production because we only produce cars in the UK”. Mr Wilson also stressed the need for clarity so the company could plan where to invest.

Let us hope that the UK Government are listening.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Theresa May and George Orwell

I don't know if Theresa May is a big reader, or even a student of political literature. Personally, my predilection has always been towards political biography.

I am currently reading 'George Orwell: A Life' by Bernard Crick, so the Prime Minister's speech at the Lord Mayor's banquet last night seems remarkably apposite.

The Guardian tells us that Mrs. May 'accused Russia of meddling in elections and planting fake stories in the media in an extraordinary attack on its attempts to “weaponise information” in order to sow discord in the west.'

One of Orwell's themes in his later career was the misuse of information. His Ministry of Truth turned the use 'fake news' in propaganda into an art form, though the term itself wouldn't be brought into use until many decades later. In both 1984 and Animal Farm he 'weaponised' information.

And let us not pretend that these techniques are the sole preserve of authoritarian regimes. The misuse and twisting of information is common in all political campaigns. It helped elect Donald Trump and it won the referendum for Brexit.

The key dividing line between what the Prime Minister alleged last night and the practises of her own party, is the interference of a foreign power in internal democratic processes. And there is nothing new about that either.

But as important as it is for the Prime Minister to air her concerns publicly and to expose the dubious practices of Putin and his government, she was engaged in her little own information war last night.

The government is in turmoil, Brexit negotiations are shambolic and going nowhere and Theresa May and her Ministers are driving the UK economy towards a cliff edge. When faced with an audience of business people, who manage thousands of jobs and millions of pounds of investment in Great Britain PLC, one would expect the Prime Minister to calm nerves and sooth fevered brows, in other words to try and put her government back on track. Instead, she talked about Russia.

In political and propaganda terms that technique is known as misdirection. Theresa May is as guilty as anybody of weaponising information. The only difference is that, for better or worse, she belongs to us and has her hands on the levers of power. Putin is meddling in areas that are not of his concern to secure his own interests. He needs to butt out, she needs to get her act together, and quickly.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Fear and loathing in Cardiff Bay?

The latest claims about the operation of government in Cardiff Bay are both sensational and deeply disturbing.

Allegations of a culture of a toxic culture and bullying associated with the First Minister's office by former Minister, Leighton Andrews, have been followed by verifying claims by former Special Advisor, Steve Jones.

Mr. Jones put out a statement in which he said: "Ministers were undermined by senior advisers playing power games and seeking to exert unreasonable control over government and the first minister himself," he said.

Some ministers, including Mr Sargeant, "would have their diaries unreasonably monitored and questioned, their policy proposals shelved and direct access to the first minister blocked".

"It went way beyond any 'office politics' or personality clashes," he said.

Mr Jones said at one stage he intended to resign because of the effect on his wellbeing but changed his mind when the first minister urged him to reconsider.

"Things improved for a few months, then the poison returned and it began to engulf others - advisers and ministers alike.

"It was clear that all this was getting Carl down."

One Labour AM has tweeted that he believes it to be 'reprehensible that people are using tragic circumstances to settle old scores'. And yet the only person being damaged here is Carwyn Jones.

Neither Steve Jones nor Leighton Andrews have called on Carwyn to resign, whilst both were amongst his strongest supporters for many years. I find it difficult to believe that revenge is their main motivation.

Steve Jones and Leighton Andrews were part of a tightly knit grouping in Cardiff Bay that included Carl Sargeant and at least one other Minister. They could often be seen out and about in the tea room, restaurants and pubs after close of business in the Assembly. They have a unique insight into the workings of Welsh Government.

I have no doubt about their sincerity and integrity and if the atmosphere they describe contributed in any way to Carl's death then it must be investigated as part of the independent inquiry being set up by the First Minister.

Wales is a small place. The Welsh Government is a tiny bubble of activity in which its members are under tremendous pressure and scrutiny. If devolution is to succeed we cannot afford for that government to be dysfunctional. If there is a rot it needs to be cut out.

We should not forget either the three women who made allegations against Carl. Their claims also need to be looked into so that everybody can have closure. I am not sure I have seen any statement by the Labour Party as to whether that will happen or not.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and the soft coup d'grace

The Independent has a fascinating but unsurprising story in which they allege that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove sent a secret letter to Theresa May giving her instructions on how to orchestrate a hard Brexit.

According to the paper, the memo demands the Prime Minister "underline her resolve" for leaving the European Union, and sets out a date for transition arrangements between the EU and UK to end of 30 June 2021:

Mr Johnson and Mr Gove are also said to have urged the Prime Minister to ensure members of her top team fall behind their Brexit plans by "clarifying their minds" and called for them to "internalise the logic".

The leaked letter appears to make a thinly veiled attack on Chancellor Philip Hammond, who backed remain and wants a softer Brexit, for lacking the "sufficient energy" in preparing to the UK's future outside the bloc.

A senior Government source told the Mail the Foreign Secretary and Environment Secretary had conducted a "soft coup" and described Ms May as "their Downing Street hostage".

The letter, titled EU Exit - Next Steps, is marked "For your and Gavin's eyes only", a reference to the PM's chief of staff Gavin Barwell.

It states: "Your approach is governed by sensible pragmatism. That does not in any way dilute our ambition to be a fully independent self-governing country by the time of the next election.

"If we are to counter those who wish to frustrate that end, there are ways of underlining your resolve. "We are profoundly worried that in some parts of Government the current preparations are not proceeding with anything like sufficient energy.

"We have heard it argued by some that we cannot start preparations on the basis of 'No Deal' because that would undermine our obligation of 'sincere co-operation' with the EU. If taken seriously, that would leave us over a barrel in 2021.

"We all want you to push your agenda forward with confidence and have your Government articulate the following..."

If this is a sign of who is really running the country then it is very worrying. Not only has Boris Johnson compromised himself and destroyed all his credibility over the false testimony he gave on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and his failure to retract it but both he and Gove's view of a no deal Brexit could plunge the country into a long recession.

Theresa May no longer appears to be in control of her cabinet. It is those now pulling the strings we really have to worry about.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

For whom the bell tolls

Like one of those fortune tellers who claim that they can predict the exact time and date of your death, the Government have determined that they will write into law that Brexit will take place irrevocably at 11pm on Friday 29th March 2019.

This is apparently an hour earlier than previously planned. Presumably, Ministers could not be certain that Big Ben's bongs would be around to toll us out of an institution that has brought us peace, stability and economic prosperity for nearly 45 years, longer if you count the years before we joined - 'Do not ask for whom the bell tolls'. What would John Donne have thought.

Quite how the Government can be so precise about this is puzzling. It's not as if the talks are going well, or that we are on course to get what we want from a Brexit deal. And doesn't the fact that they are going to inscribe the date on vellum, open up the possibility of amendments calling on the people to decide when and where we are ready (if at all) in a referendum, once they have considered all the details of any deal? I certainly hope so.

One cannot help but think that this latest caper is yet another sign of the fantasy world inhabited by the UK Government. Will Labour awaken them from their slumbers? The chances are that the official opposition will be lining up to plunge our economy into the abyss by endorsing the change to the Brexit Bill.

Perhaps we should put the fortune tellers in charge instead.

Friday, November 10, 2017

UK Government sinks deeper into Brexit quagmire

If the UK Government thought they were making progress with the Brexit talks then they would have been swiftly disabused by the latest intervention from the Irish Government.

As the Telegraph reports, Ireland is now pushing hard for concrete reassurance on the Irish border question ahead of the crucial EU leaders’ summit in December, despite UK officials thinking that this matter had been parked for the time being.

A 'leaked talking points paper entitled ‘Dialogue on Ireland/Northern Ireland’ shows Ireland is now pushing hard for concrete reassurance on the Irish border question ahead of the crucial EU leaders’ summit in December.

The one-page paper states that in order to preserve the Good Friday Agreement peace deal, the Brexit divorce deal must respect “the integrity of the internal market and the customs union”, of which Ireland will remain a member.

It adds that it is “essential” that the UK commits to avoiding a hard border by remaining part of the EU Customs Union and continues to abide by the “rules of the internal market and customs union”.

It concludes that Britain must ensure “no emergence of regulatory divergence” from the rules of the EU single market and the Customs Union which are “necessary for North South co-operation, the all-island economy and the protection of the Good Friday Agreement.”

The hardline Irish position, which was discussed at EU’s Brexit working group ahead of yesterday’s talks, was described by a senior EU source as reflecting the “state of play” on the Irish question and reflected the “guiding principles” of the EU’s approach to the problem.

The Telegraph understands that Dublin is actually demanding that Britain sign up to some 100 EU rules and regulations, including many covering customs and agriculture, in order to ensure an open trade border between Northern Ireland the Republic of Ireland.

Dublin’s demands present an apparently impossible dilemma to London, requiring either the UK remains in the EU customs union and accepts the rules for the entire UK, or gives Northern Ireland special status in the EU that would undermine the territorial integrity of the UK.'

Those thinking that exiting the EU would be fairly straightforward were quickly disabused of that notion. Now, as the complexities start to kick in, the UK Government is being dragged deeper into a quagmire of its own making, and nobody is willing to throw a rope to pull them out. Is a deal possible at all in the time allowed?

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Theresa May teeters on the brink

Yesterday saw one of the more bizarre episodes in modern politics as journalists tracked the International Secretary's plane in real time, all the way from Uganda to the UK on social media and then followed her ministerial car from a camera on a helicopter as it travelled back to Westminster from the airport. It was the event of the day and took journalistic stalking to a new level.

The summoning of a minister back from an overseas trip so she can be handed her resignation letter is in itself unprecedented. The media attention that surrounded that journey turned it into a Monty Pythonesque circus.

The loss of two cabinet members within a week, with another one under pressure to go because of an unforgiveable gaffe and a fourth under investigation has put tremendous position on Theresa May's already precarious position. It is little wonder that metaphorical knives are being sharpened all around her.

The Independent reports that the Prime Minister faces a “make-or-break” month with Tories giving her until Christmas to turn things around. One minister told the paper that the loss of her ministers does not in itself pose a terminal threat to May’s Government, but argued that the direction of travel had to change. S/he believes that there is cumulative effect and there is a danger that May could be perceived as having lost control of events.

The paper adds that the Prime Minister's authority will be under intense scrutiny as she handles difficulties faced by other ministers. They add that she cannot be seen to be letting ministers get away with mistakes or misdemeanours, but can ill-afford to further destabilise her administration by sacking more of her cabinet.

It is a difficult tightrope to walk not least because the Brexit talks continue to stall due to the government's own cluelessness and with the impossible job facing May of balancing her cabinet to reflect an increasingly divided Tory Party adding to her problems.

Her one salvation is the incompetence of the main opposition party, who seem determined to prop up her Brexit strategy no matter how disastrous it proves to be.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

My tribute to Carl Sargeant

A massive hole has opened up in Welsh politics. The sad, tragic and premature death of Carl Sargeant yesterday has diminished Welsh politics and deprived his family and his community of a husband, a father, a community leader and a caring, passionate advocate for social justice and equality.

For all but 18 months of Carl's 14 years in the Assembly, I was on the opposition benches working with him, scrutinising him and for most of that time shadowing his portfolio. His competence and grasp of his brief was beyond question, his commitment and his compassion to the many causes he fought for and championed was unrivalled.

I worked closely with him on my private members bill, the Mobile Homes (Wales) Act 2013. The support he gave me from his ministerial office was invaluable and proved instrumental in placing an enduring and radical piece of legislation on the statute book that will make a huge difference to many vulnerable people living in Park Homes.

When the bill became law he made a point of inviting me to the sealing ceremony with the team of officials who had supported him on it. It was a mark of his thoughtfulness and his collegiate approach to government.

Carl was not afraid either to take on the really tough jobs. He did not flinch from doing the right thing. He grasped the nettle and sent in commissioners to sort out Anglesey Council, and he picked up the hot potato that became the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, fixed its many faults and turned it into a viable and deliverable piece of legislation.

Above all though he will be remembered for being a larger than life, highly likeable, kind and genuine man who was the life and soul of every party, a genuine working class politician with a great sense of humour and humanising sensitivity.

He took up the cause of stamping out domestic abuse and injustice with a crusading zeal that was typical of his approach to politics. Irrespective of the heights he achieved in politics and government he remained an integral part of his home community. Connah's Quay and his constituency of Alyn and Deeside were always his first priority. He remained rooted in his home and his community.

His was a voice that the dispossessed, downtrodden, left-behind, abused, unfortunate could always rely on to speak out on their behalf. He will be greatly missed by us all.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Boris Johnson's gaffe is a resigning matter

Whatever happened to honour in politics. Some might say that it was lost in the cacophony of Ministers and politicians rushing to cover their backs and hide their mistakes so as to avoid taking responsibility for their own actions.

Lord Carrington took responsibility and resigned as Foreign Secretary following the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentinian troops. What a contrast with the present incumbent of that post who has made bumbling an art form in a post where precision, diplomacy and tact are required attributes.

Boris Johnson's latest gaffe is all the more serious because of its consequences for the affected individual. As Sky News outline the Foreign Secretary put Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in danger of having her sentence in Iran doubled when he told the House of Commons' Foreign Affairs Committee that he believed 'she was simply teaching people journalism."

He husband, Richard Ratcliffe has demanded the Boris provide answers over the blunder and correct the answer he gave to the committee:

Speaking to Sky News, Mr Ratcliffe said authorities had confirmed their intention to charge his wife with a new charge of spreading propaganda against the regime.

He said she had made a "tearful" phone call after the unscheduled court appearance on Saturday, where Mr Johnson's comments were cited as "proof" of the charge.

Mr. Ratcliffe added: "It's been long a demand that we've been making of the Government to be clear that she's innocent, she's was there on holiday and this is outrageous the way a British citizen has been treated."

He said his wife could now have her current sentence doubled under Iranian law, as they claim she is now a second-time offender.

He accused the Foreign Secretary of giving Iran "space to be able to smear" his wife.

If this is not a resigning matter then I do not know what is. Surely it is time for Boris to go.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Did Cameron bottle it on the clamping down on tax havens?

Today's newspapers and all the media are full of new about the so-called Paradise Papers, a leaked set of documents detailing the financial details of the wealthy and powerful. Inevitably there will be calls for action by the UK Government, whilst Prime Minister's questions on Wednesday will be especially interesting, given the alleged revelations about Lord Ashcroft.

In the Independent, Vince Cable has given us another of those invaluable insights into the workings of the Coalition Government. He tells us that David Cameron vetoed attempts to clamp down on tax havens:

"In the Coalition Government I introduced the register of beneficial ownership, which established who owns British companies, and sought to extend that to British Overseas Territories. This was to clamp down on tax havens operating under the British flag.

"David Cameron was initially attracted to the idea, but when the Overseas Territories said on a visit to London that they were against it, he backed down."

He added: "Given these revelations, including news that Conservative donors benefited from these arrangements, we need a parliamentary select committee to investigate fully who decided what and why. In particular, we need the release of all government papers dealing with the decision not to clamp down on off-shore tax havens.

"Only in this way can we ensure there is full public confidence in the tax system."

A full inquiry followed by decisive action is absolutely essential in the light of what is contained in these documents.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

How a 'no deal' will hit the pound in our pocket

I still find it difficult to believe how many MPs and Ministers contend that walking away from the European Union without a deal is a possibility. Not only would it massively undermine the UK economy but it would also increase poverty.

This is best illustrated by this article in the Independent, which quotes research that concludes a no deal Brexit could rise by almost £1,000 per year to shopping bills in the UK. The National Institute Economic Review say that a range of staple products, including meat, vegetables and dairy products will see the largest rise in prices if we just rely on WTO rules:

Entitled 'Will Brexit raise the cost of living?', the report estimates that annual shopping bills would rise by up to an estimated £930. A no deal Brexit would result in Britain trading with Europe on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.

WTO tariffs are highest on fresh food, with a 37 per cent tariff for meat and a 45 per cent for dairy products.

While the majority of the extra customs duties from WTO tariffs would be collected by the UK government, one of the report's authors, Professor Alan Winters told The Guardian that "in the absence of the government redistributing that money, it will just be extra money into the government coffers".

He added: “This means the overall economic welfare effects will be less than the number we have calculated but, said . “Brexit clearly also has public finance consequences, meaning the tax take would almost certainly come down and there would be claims for increased expenditure elsewhere.”

Economists from the University of Sussex and Resolution Foundation, also concluded that "unemployed and families, those with children and pensioners hit hardest".

Why anybody would even countenance leaving without a deal is beyond me.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Jo Brand puts the public school boys back in their box

This is the moment Jo Brand had to explain to the #HIGNFY panel that they should take sexual harassment seriously.

Friday, November 03, 2017

The threat of global warming

Global warming has been a constant threat for most of my adult life, but it is only in recent years that the stark reality of what it means for future generations has become clear. The question we all face is whether the consequences of our past actions are reversible or not. I suspect not.

This story in the Guardian then, should not surprise anybody. They say that hundreds of millions of urban dwellers around the world face their cities being inundated by rising seawaters if latest UN warnings that the world is on course for 3C of global warming come true.

They say that famous beaches, commercial districts and swaths of farmland will be threatened at this elevated level of climate change, which the UN warned this week is a very real prospect unless nations reduce their carbon emissions:

Data from the Climate Central group of scientists analysed by Guardian journalists shows that 3C of global warming would ultimately lock in irreversible sea-level rises of perhaps two metres. Cities from Shanghai to Alexandria, and Rio to Osaka are among the worst affected. Miami would be inundated - as would the entire bottom third of the US state of Florida.

The Guardian has found, however, that local preparations for a 3C world are as patchy as international efforts to prevent it from happening. At six of the coastal regions most likely to be affected, government planners are only slowly coming to grips with the enormity of the task ahead - and in some cases have done nothing.

This comes ahead of the latest round of climate talks in Bonn next week, when negotiators will work on ways to monitor, fund and ratchet up national commitments to cut CO2 so that temperatures can rise on a safer path of between 1.5 and 2C, which is the goal of the Paris agreement reached in 2015.

The momentum for change is currently too slow, according to the UN Environment Programme. In its annual emissions gap report, released on Tuesday, the international body said government commitments were only a third of what was needed. Non-state actors such as cities, companies and citizens can only partly fill this void, which leaves warming on course to rise to 3C or beyond by the end of this century, the report said.

Work needs to start now to prepare for these changes and that includes Cardiff where AMs could find themselves meeting underwater in the Senedd in the future.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

The growing bureaucracy around Brexit

Amongst the many reasons given by Brexit campaigners to leave the EU was the alleged red tape that surrounded the regulations impacting on business and our day-to-day lives.

What do we do, as soon as Article 50 is implemented? The Government introduces a law to bring all those EU regulations onto the statute book, because we cannot trade with the EU once we leave unless we meet their rules and standards. So much for that excuse.

But it does not stop there. The Independent reveals that far from having more cash to spend on front line services as we were mislead to believe, Brexit is going to increase the size of government and cost us more money.

The paper says that the Government has taken on an extra 3,000 civil servants and expects to employ up to 5,000 more next year to cope with the demands of leaving the European Union. The workers taken on next year will be employed by HM Revenue and Customs as the body looks to implement a new border regime on leaving the bloc.

Three hundred of the new intake of 3,000 civil servants are lawyers. Given the complexity of the negotiations it seems that they are the ones who will really benefit from Brexit. In the meantime yet another campaign slogan has gone down the pan. Leaving Europe will lead to more red tape not less.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Half measures fail to deliver proper democratic reform

A committee set up in December last year by the Speaker of the Lords, Norman Fowler to look into the reform of the second chamber has reported and it is the usual fudge and half-measures that will do nothing to enhance our democracy.

The Guardian tells us that the committee has concluded that the House of Lords should be reduced in size by a quarter to no more than 600 members, with new peers limited to 15-year terms. The Lords has more than 700 members, excluding bishops, making it the world’s second largest legislative body after China’s People’s Congress.

And while the numbers would eventually fall to 600, smaller than the House of Commons, this would not happen before 2027, according to the report. Numbers would then stabilise at 574, making 600 when bishops are included.

The report also recommends a maximum term in the Lords of 15 years for any newly appointed members. The party makeup would be managed to make sure no one group had a majority, with at least 20% of peers being non-partisan crossbenchers.

They say that future appointments to the Lords, rather than being purely at the discretion of the government, would be shared between parties based on an average of the vote share at the last election and the total number of Commons seats won. This would, the report said, make sure the Lords “reflected the political views of the country over the medium term”.

Whereas the maximum term of 15 years is welcome these proposals do not go far enough. They continue to enshrine party patronage in our unwritten constitution, instead of giving the public a say on who should sit in the second chamber, they do not guarantee a proper regional and national balance and the numbers of peers are too large. My view is that 300 would be a reasonable number for an elected second chamber.

Yet again we have evidence of a national institution being unable to adequately reform itself properly.

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