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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Another UK Government failure on affordable housing

I am delighted today that the Welsh Government is launching a 'rent to own' scheme conceived, promoted and designed by the Welsh Liberal Democrats that will help young people, who can afford a market rent but do not have enough money for a deposit, get onto the home ownership ladder. Details of the scheme can be seen here.

This has been made possible due to the agreement between the Welsh First Minister and the Welsh Liberal Democrats Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams, when she entered government. That agreement also contained a commitment to build 20,000 affordable homes in Wales between 2016 and 2021.

This is what happens when Liberal Democrats are involved in Government, a real commitment to delivering key improvements that, in this case, will help some many disadvantaged people. The continuing delivery of the Pupil Development Grant, targeted at disadvantaged schoolchildren is another example of this commitment.

The contrast with the UK Government is stark, where not only are Tory Ministers failing to deliver the affordable homes desperately needed in England but, according to this article in the Mirror, are having to send money earmarked for this purpose, back to the Treasury.

The paper says that Communities Secretary Sajid Javid was forced to “surrender” £72 million set aside to build affordable homes because it was “no longer required”, despite the housing crisis gripping Britain, and send it back to the treasury, as part of £817 million his department failed to spend last year. This is despite the fact that 1.15 million people are on council waiting lists in England, almost a quarter of whom are in London:

The document also notes that the £817 million figure - much of which would have been intended for social or affordable homes - will now be spent on funding the Help to Buy programme.

In 2016-17, just 41,530 affordable homes were built, the second lowest figure for a decade.

The majority of affordable homes are so-called ‘affordable rent’, where the monthly rent is set at up to 80% of private market rent.

The number of cheaper, “social rent” houses built each year has plummeted from 39,560 in 2010-11 - the year the new “affordable rent” definition was introduced - to just 5,380 last year.

If the Tories do not understand the problem or are clueless how to deal with it then maybe they should look at the work being carried out in Wales, where the Welsh Liberal Democrats are helping the government to lead the way in this area.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Returning Brexit - it doesn't work as advertised

Brexit power grab is still on

As the various agendas around Brexit unfold before us, it is becoming clearer that the slogan 'take back control' means different things to different people.

For the government, various court cases and procedural manoeuvres in Parliament suggest that it means by-passing MPs and Lords to get their way. For some hardliners, it means harking back to the days of empire, creating an immigrant-free society in which the values of Colonel Blimp can prevail in all the best London clubs. For most Brexiteers however, it is a vague sense of not being told what to do by people in remote bureaucratic enclaves, no matter how inaccurate and mistaken that caricature maybe.

In Northern Ireland of course, the DUP are using their bargaining power to do away with the devolved administration and reassert direct rule. The shadow that hangs over the whole process is the future of the Good Friday Agreement and whether an agreement can be reached that keeps the border open between North and South. In other devolved administrations the obstacles are more prosaic, but still pose difficult questions about the whole process.

This is why the Welsh and Scottish Governments are fighting so hard to ensure that the final legislation is fit for purpose. As this article in the Guardian points out, they are concerned that a government which has never been fully signed up to devolution in the first place, and in some departments still does not understand the process are seeking to pull powers back to the centre.

It is the common default of all governments (even the devolved ones) to accumulate power and responsibilities so as to advance their own agenda. They don't trust more locally accountable bodies to do the work for them, nor do they often recognise the legitimacy of national, regional and local agendas that fit better with the area they are designed for rather than that promoted by the more remote central government.

Frankly, devolved ministers do not trust assurances that any UK government control over UK-wide common frameworks would be temporary, saying this gives Whitehall and Westminster too much power over policies which rightfully belong in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast.

They say that all four governments should have an equal say over these common frameworks, covering areas such as farming, fisheries and food labelling, without the UK government having any casting vote or veto.

This is not a Catalonian situation, but there are important principles at stake. The areas of policy under dispute are better delivered by devolved administrations who understand and are able to serve the very local circumstances over which they preside. Taking back control in this context is allowing that to happen, not seeking to dictate things from Whitehall as happened in the days of Colonel Blimp. It is time the UK Government conceded that point.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Is the Government seeking to avoid scrutiny on Brexit legislation?

The Independent reports that rebel Labour and Tory MPs are accusing the government of seeking to avoid proper scrutiny by reclassifying key Brexit legislation as a Finance Bill, thus preventing the House of Lords from amending it.

The row centres on what was announced in the Queen’s Speech last year as the “Customs Bill”, but which was renamed the Taxation (Cross Border Trade) Bill, when it was eventually presented to the Commons.

The draft carries a preamble showing the Government wants the legislation to carry “supply bill” status, which according to parliamentary privilege would make it harder, but not impossible, for the Lords to change it.

But it also makes it more probable that it could be designated “money bill” status, normally reserved for taxation and finance bills and something which more comprehensively blocks Lords action.

Ultimately, designation of money bill status is an issue for the Speaker, but it is understood that the Government believe that the bill should naturally attract money bill status because it deals with issues of taxation, relating to VAT and trade tariffs.

That is disputed by the Brexit rebels because the bill also sets out broader powers, like creating customs relations with other countries after Brexit:

The Government has already run in to trouble in the Lords with its legislation to trigger Article 50, launching Brexit, and is suspected to face challenges from peers to another piece of Brexit legislation, the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, in the coming months.

The Liberal Democrats are preparing to launch a bid to swamp that piece of legislation in the Lords with at least 500 challenges, stymieing it and potentially the push towards Brexit.

One minister told The Independent: “Trying to get legislation designated a money bill like this is a dangerous thing to play strategy with.

“The ministers heading the bill wouldn’t do it without arguable grounds, but arguable ground is not necessarily solid ground.

“It would certainly help us if it is a money bill.”

All of this matters because of those in the House of Lords who might want to use this bill to make a stand over trade arrangements like the customs union and trade remedies such as anti-dumping powers and unfair foreign subsidies.

The Government are running scared and are trying to use every trick in the book to get their preferred version of Brexit passed without amendment.

So much for Parliament taking back control.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Welsh UKIP Assembly rift grows wider

I was in near-hysterics a week or so ago, watching the UKIP Welsh Assembly leader, Neil Hamilton (who is perhaps better known for other matters) claim that the Assembly UKIP group was the most united and effective group in the Welsh Assembly. I suppose it depends on how you define group.

Certainly the latest development in the many splits that have plagued this loose alliance of Assembly Members indicates that all is not well in the corridors of Ty Hywel, so much so that one UKIP AM has had to have her office moved to another building to get away from the others.

As the BBC reports, Mandy Jones, who succeeded Nathan Gill as a North Wales AM in December but was not accepted into the UKIP group, which she later described as "toxic", is leaving the Ty Hywel office block for a former shop in the Senedd building "to help ease tension" after disagreement with UKIP group leader Neil Hamilton.

The BBC remind us that Mandy Jones has been sitting as an independent AM following a row with UKIP over her choice of staff. The party claimed she had chosen to employ people who were members of other parties, or had recently campaigned for other parties, or both. In January, Mr Hamilton said the people concerned had said "very unpleasant and insulting things" about him and other UKIP AMs.

So much for a united group.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Where Wales leads...

As this report makes clear, it is most probably too early to properly assess the impact of introducing deemed consent for organ donation in Wales. The report says that although awareness of and support for the change in the law is high, this has dropped off recently as the law settles down and publicity for it is less intense. The authors also suggest that NHS staff working within organ donation may also benefit from further training, particularly around the organ donation conversation with the family.

They add that despite the high awareness and support for the new law, analysis of routine data does not show any consistent change in deceased organ donations in Wales, or more widely from Welsh residents. Analysis of consent data does show an increase in the percentage of families giving approval for donation. However, this is not reflected in a rise in donors overall, implying there has been lower eligibility over the period since implementation of the law.

They believe that a longer period of time is needed to draw firmer conclusions around the impact of the change in the law and that it will be important to continue to monitor public attitudes and the routine data on organ donation in Wales (and more generally across other parts of the UK for comparison).

Despite that impressions about the approach remain favourable, so much so that there are now moves to introduce presumed consent in England, with the support of both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. As the Telegraph reports, Ministers there believe that this could save 200 extra lives every year:

Jackie Doyle-Price, a health minister, confirmed the Government is backing the move to presumed consent as she set out the potential benefits.

She told MPs: “As I have made clear we are supporting this Bill. We are determined to ensure that we secure more organs available for transplant because we are very concerned that we are losing lives unnecessarily.”

Currently there is an opt-in system for organ donation in England which means people need to give consent by joining the NHS Organ Donor Register or by telling a relative or close friend about their decision to donate.

Opt-out laws are already in place in Wales and Scotland and Ms Doyle-Price said it was “too early to draw any conclusions about the number of organs that the change in Wales has secured”.

However, she added: “Our best estimates are that this change will secure an additional 100 donors a year which could lead to the saving of 200 extra lives.

Irrespective of whether these predictions come to pass or not, it makes sense for England to switch to the same system as Scotland and Wales. That is because the organ bank is a UK-wide resource. In other words, organs donated in Wales do not necessarily stay this side of Offa's Dyke.

Once more devolved governments have led the way and made it possible for the UK Government to stick its neck out and follow suit. That is the added value provided by devolution.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The case for legalising cannabis for medical use

At sometime today the Newport West MP, Paul Flynn will introduce a Private Members Bill into the House of Commons advocating cannabis be made legal for medical use. If it becomes law, it would be make a huge difference to people living with a chronic disease or in constant pain.

On the Guardian website, James Coke, who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis explains why this would make a huge difference to the quality of his life:

I’m convinced cannabis has allowed me to live more of a normal life than would have been possible with the constant pain. I’ve always smoked it. But in recent years I’ve been making cannabis oil and turning it into tinctures. A few drops of my special brew numbs any niggling aches, clear my mind and help me get a good night’s sleep, spasm-free.

But smoking a joint or making cannabis tinctures could land me in jail for five years under our current drug laws. For someone living with MS or any other affliction that can be soothed by cannabis – including Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder or cancer – the stigma of a criminal record is not ethical or fair.

He argues that the war on drugs is lost, with the illegal global drug market now worth about $400bn a year. But this bill is not about that war. There are more than 11 million people living with a disability in the UK, and an ageing population means few will be immune from the pain that lies ahead. It is time the UK followed the lead elsewhere in making medical cannabis available to those who need it:

Changes in the law in parts of the US, Canada and Germany mean that the use of medical cannabis is now legal there. The shift in policy has given people the opportunity to choose their medical path, allowing many to escape addiction to prescription opioids.

The UK government appears reluctant to follow suit. Yet since 1998 it has licensed GW Pharmaceuticals to produce Sativex. The medicine, for people with MS, is derived from cannabis plants, mostly grown by British Sugar. It is a step forward, but ultimately it has ringfenced the development and sale of medical cannabis at a massively inflated price. Only a handful of those with MS receive it: the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), which authorises the use of drugs by the NHS deems it too expensive (a year’s supply can cost upwards of £5,000). You either have to live in parts of Wales or be able to afford a private prescription to benefit.

The formula in each 10ml Sativex bottle includes the chief components in cannabis – THC and CBD (2.5mg of each). It costs £125 a bottle and lasts on average 10 days. In comparison an ounce of medical cannabis will cost me £250 and hold upwards of 900mg of each component. Once extracted into cannabis oil and dosed accordingly, it can produce about 350 bottles of a product that does the same job, at a fraction of the cost.

Obviously by making the spray I am breaking the law – but it helps indicate the hypocrisy of the government’s stance and its inertia in facilitating real reform. The production process is certainly not rocket science, and cannabis is a common herb in many countries, and should not cost an arm and a leg. People are just being held to ransom by an outdated law.

This is a long overdue reform and I hope that Ministers will see that and support Paul Flynn's bill.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The last thing we need is Trump riding shotgun

Just when we thought Donald Trump couldn't shock us any further, he tells us that he is considering a proposal to promote concealed carrying of weapons by trained school employees to respond to campus shootings.

As the Independent reports, Trump believes the proposal could “solve the problem” of school shootings, by making potential attackers think twice and noted that some airline pilots have carried concealed weapons since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

This solution has been advocated by the gun lobby for some time. They would rather see gunfire met by gunfire than make any attempt to restrict their so-called right to bear arms, even the assault weapons that have been used in many of these shootings.

The paper also says that the President is interested in exploring how mental health treatment or awareness could help to stop future mass shootings. Perhaps he should look to his own culpability in this. After all it was him who repealed Obama's initiative last February that would have made it harder for people with mental illness to buy a gun.

As this website points out, this regulation, which was enacted after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, would have required the Social Security Administration to send records of beneficiaries with severe mental disabilities to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The measure would have affected about 75,000 people found mentally incapable of managing their financial affairs.

Molly McCaffrey, also in the Independent. employs irony to take apart Trump's solution from a practical point of view:

A teacher who is trained to be a good shot should have no problem whatsoever sensing the presence of an active shooter while in the middle of teaching a lesson on photosynthesis, unlocking the closet/drawer/briefcase where the pistol is kept, calmly pulling the pistol out, getting off a clean shot, and taking out the active shooter before he sprays bullets across the classroom with an assault weapon. No problem whatsoever.

She is right. Teachers are there to teach. They are not marksmen or trained special agents. They cannot be equipped to combat automatic weapons or assault rifles. And is the President of the United States really suggesting that guns should be kept in the classroom just in case?

And that is before we even consider how many people will be killed, maimed or injured in the crossfire as a gun fight erupts across the classroom. Trump and his NRA backers have been watching too many Dirty Harry movies.

Guns have been fired on school property in the US at least 18 times so far this year, according to incidents tracked by Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group. In eight of these cases, a gun was fired on school property, but no one was injured. Another two incidents were gun suicides, claiming the lives of one student and one adult on school property.

The Guardian says that the fifth anniversary of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting last December passed in subdued fashion, with congressional Republicans refusing to pass new gun control laws and instead pushing for a law that would weaken gun restrictions nationwide and make it easier to carry a concealed weapon across state lines.

Donald Trump won the White House campaigning on a promise to support the National Rifle Association, the influential gun rights group, and oppose any limits to Americans’ right to own guns. Surely, even he must begin to see that this is not working.

As The Week reports: Between 2014 and 2017, 56,755 Americans were killed by guns, including 2,710 children under the age of 12. In that time, there have been 1,333 mass shootings - defined as incidents in which at least four people are injured or killed - eight of them at elementary or high schools.

In 2015 and 2016, at least one school shooting took place every month, while in 2017 only February passed by without a gun casualty in an elementary or high school.

The 17 victims shot dead yesterday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, brings the total number of fatalities in American schools in the first six weeks of 2018 to 23.

So far this year, the US has racked up 30 mass shootings and 1,827 gun-inflicted deaths. Americans are more likely to die from a gunshot than from skin cancer or stomach cancer.

These figures are shocking. The only possible explanation has to be the easy availability of guns. The answer is not to arm more people, but to disarm them. Surely, Donald Trump can understand that.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Vague threats are no way to guarantee a free press

Those of us who remember the infamous Sun headline in 1992, exhorting the last person who leaves Britain to turn out the lights if Neil Kinnock won that year's General Election, will know that those who control the media believe that they can influence public opinion to get their own way.

That may or may not have been the case 26 years ago, but the influence of the traditional press has waned considerably ever since, with many people relying on social media for their news.

That does not mean that a good old scandal does not resonate, nor that lies and partisan claims printed in newspapers will not spill over into new media. In fact, the nature of Facebook, Twitter and all the other on-line outlets ensures that this stuff spreads faster and deeper than ever.

However, the interactive nature of social media also means that there are instant rebuttal tools available, as well as thousands of sceptical and intelligent commentators who are able to challenge 'news' stories in a way that was not available to people in 1992.

My sympathy for Jeremy Corbyn and the nonsense being peddled about him by the likes of the Sun, Telegraph, Daily Mail and Express therefore, is tempered by the fact that he and his supporters now have the ability to effectively respond to it without resorting to law, and the knowledge that when these claims about him being a Czechoslovakian spy are put under the spotlight, they crumble away like the gossamer of half-truths, smears and distortions they really are. I suspect many others feel the same way, even if they do not support Corbyn and his remodelled Labour Party.

The point is of course that we have a free press, but we also have some of the most effective libel laws in the free world (if you can afford to use them). Politicians who place themselves in the front line know that they will become targets, that their enemies will resort to misinformation about them if they feel under threat and that modern communication methods enable them to respond effectively, if they are prepared to use them. There is no need to resort to threats, after all in a few years time the shoe could be on the other foot.

That is why I was disappointed in Jeremy Corbyn's response to the spy claims. As the Guardian reports, rather than taking on the responsible journalists directly, the Labour leader instead issued a video in which he said that Labour would 'stand up to the powerful and corrupt' without detailing what this action would mean:

He said: “A free press is essential for democracy and we don’t want to close it down, we want to open it up. At the moment, much of our press isn’t very free at all. In fact it’s controlled by billionaire tax exiles, who are determined to dodge paying their fair share for our vital public services.

“The general election showed the media barons are losing their influence and social media means their bad old habits are becoming less and less relevant. But instead of learning these lessons they’re continuing to resort to lies and smears. Their readers – you, all of us – deserve so much better. Well, we’ve got news for them: change is coming.”

These sort of veiled threats help nobody. In fact they undermine any good will Corbyn may have gathered by being the target of such an obvious smear in the first place. If Labour's response to fairly weak criticism and dodgy smears in the press is to threaten further regulation or restriction on their freedom to publish within the confines of the law, then that is very worrying.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental pillar of our democracy. For a major party leader and possible future Prime Minister to even consider restricting it in this way, raises serious questions about his suitability for those roles. This is the sort of authoritarian approach I would expect from a third world dictator. It has no place in a democratic country such as the UK.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Are Brexiteers prepared to sacrifice peace in Northern Ireland?

The status of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic has been a major headache for UK Ministers as they seek to inexpertly navigate the storm surrounding our exit from the EU.

The danger is that by putting back border controls and disrupting free trade between the two, Ministers will start to unpick twenty years of peace founded on the principles of direct rule and power-sharing as set out in the Good Friday agreement.

They need not fear, however, as the hard line Brexiteers have the solution. They want to ditch the Good Friday agreement altogether and apparently, damn the consequences. At least that is the only conclusion that can be drawn from yesterday's co-ordinated onslaught on the peace process.

It is an onslaught that follows the hard-line DUP's decision to take their toys home and rely on Theresa May's largesse to keep them in a position of influence in the North. But in my view it is also a cynical exercise in self-serving politics that underlines the real dangers inherent in Brexit.

It all started with a Daniel Hannan column in the Telegraph in which he states:

'The Belfast Agreement is often spoken about in quasi-religious terms – literally, for it is more widely known as the Good Friday Agreement. But its flaws have become clearer over time. The original deal represented a bribe to two sets of hardliners who, having opposed power-sharing, came to support it when they realised that they would be the direct beneficiaries. For 20 years, Sinn Féin and the DUP have propped each other up like two exhausted boxers in a clinch. A permanent grand coalition leaves them free to reward their supporters with subsidies and sinecures.'

Similar sentiments have been echoed by the former Northern Ireland Secretary, Owen Patterson, whilst Labour MP and Brexiteer, Kate Hooey has also waded into the fray. She is quoted as saying:

“I think there is a need for a cold rational look at the Belfast agreement.

“Even if a settlement had been agreed a few days ago there is nothing to stop Sinn Fein or the DUP finding something else to walk out about in a few months. Mandatory coalition is not sustainable in the long term.

“The Belfast agreement has been changed slightly over the years with the St Andrew’s agreement. We need to face reality - Sinn Fein don’t particularly want a successful Northern Ireland. They want a united Ireland.”

As Slugger O'Toole points out the whole basis of this criticism is wrong:

This agreement is not perfect, but no agreement ever is. Since 1969, we have been through many incarnations and attempts to resolves differences, but the Good Friday Agreement has been the only lasting document that has survived for nearly 20 years.

Indeed, contrary to the assertion above that this was merely something to reward the hardliners, it was actually more mainstream leaders like David Trimble and John Hume (and others) who came together to put this forward as a solution. It was the DUP, who actually sat outside the room during the entire process.

I know it’s now in vogue in British politics to boast about the popular will of the people. It’s worth remembering that the biggest expression of democratic will in our history was the resounding 71.1% (80% turnout) given by the people here saying Yes to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Writing off democracy in Northern Ireland so easily is an act of breath-taking cynicism. It is not ideal and is need of reform, but for now it represents the best chance to maintain peace in the province. The view of former Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain is more prescient:

Hoey and fellow Eurosceptics would “sacrifice almost anything on the altar of a hard Brexit,” said Hain, who supports the pro-Single Market campaign Open Britain.

He said: “The reckless slurs of Brextremists like Daniel Hannan, Owen Paterson and Kate Hoey against the Good Friday Agreement show they are willing to sacrifice almost anything on the altar of a hard Brexit.

“Rather than engage with the inherent contradictions in their position of maintaining an open border in Ireland whilst also leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, fanatics like Hannan, Paterson and Hoey instead say we should tear up the agreement underpinning peace in Northern Ireland, just so they can have their way on Brexit.

“During the referendum, the Leave campaign dismissed all claims that the Good Friday Agreement could be undermined by Brexit as ‘scaremongering’. Now some of them are publicly calling for it to be scrapped. No-one voted in the referendum to jeopardise the Northern Irish peace process. If that’s the consequence of Brexit, people are entitled to ask whether Brexit is the right path for the country.”

We should not allow the Brexiteers to unravel decades of peace in Northern Ireland. It is bad enough that they have condemned us to the inept negotiating tactics of UK Tory Ministers, which threaten to leave us isolated in the world and at the mercy of the likes of Donald Trump for future trade deals. Handing Ireland back to sectarian violence so as to solve a problem they have created does them no credit at all.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Why is Theresa May penalising European citizens?

The Prime Minister's well-known obsession with immigration figures could come back to haunt her during the Brexit negotiations as she seeks to shore up her unattainable targets by removing rights from citizens of EU countries.

Her demand that EU nationals coming to the UK during a Brexit transition deal should enjoy fewer rights than those already in the country has already upset the European Parliament's Brexit co-ordinator, Guy Verhofstadt who says that it amounts to “penalising citizens”.

The Guardian reports Verhofstadt, as saying: “It’s not acceptable for us that rules will continue without change for financial services, for goods, for whatever other business, and only for the citizens, their situation will change. That is penalising citizens.” He is clear that the UK is trying to have its cake and eat it.

The extent to which the UK Government is getting these negotiations wrong is illustrated by the Belgian MEP's bluntness when asked about UK hopes for a final deal that would mean different arrangements for different sections of the economy:

“That will not be the outcome of these negotiations. It cannot be the outcome,” Verhofstadt told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show, saying he could not countenance a trade deal that would also see the UK seek advantage through lower taxes and regulations.

Ministers continue to mishandle these negotiations, apparently failing to understand the nature of the institution they are dealing with and the vested interests that European countries are seeking to protect. Their targeting of European citizens in this country threatens to split families and damage the economy.

What is worse they do not seem to understand how this approach undermines their own position on future trade. We cannot have tariff-free trade without freedom of movement for labour. Trying to split the two will see us emerge from this process empty-handed and isolated. Is that what those who voted for Brexit really want?

Sunday, February 18, 2018

'Disgraceful scenes' raise questions about Labour bullying

By all accounts the controversy at Labour's National Policy Forum yesterday, massively eclipsed that at the rather more predictable extraordinary general meeting of UKIP, which was happening at the same time.

Videos have appeared on-line that purport to show female Labour figures being bullied into submission over the election of a key policy position that was subsequently postponed. Some Labour MPs have gone on the record to express their disquiet at what happened.

As the Telegraph reports, witnesses have hit out at what they believe was the inappropriate behaviour of National Executive Committee (NEC) chairman Andy Kerr. They quote Labour MP Luciana Berger as saying that she was "ashamed" to witness the "disgraceful treatment" of acting NPF chairwoman Katrina Murray at the event. Whilst fellow Labour MP Lucy Powell said the move to delay the vote "smacks of old-school control freakery":

A source at the behind-closed-doors event in Leeds said: "This morning symbolised the old-school male union bullying that is determined to keep Jeremy Corbyn's people in control no matter how bad it looks to the outside world."

There was speculation that veteran activist Ann Black had been on course to defeat Andi Fox in the vote.

Footage apparently shot inside the event showed Ms Powell debating with NEC chairman Mr Kerr, who insisted that the vote should not go ahead.

A source said: "Women delegates were coming up to Lucy Powell to thank her for trying to stand up to Andy Kerr, but in the end the burly ex-union guy took the female chair of the policy forum into a room and kept her there until he got his way.

"This hideous spectacle has underlined that the new Momentum tendency may have the muscle to dominate but they risk destroying any hope we have of convincing the public we are a credible alternative to the Tories."

But another source said: "That's absurd. The NEC is responsible for the rules and was merely making sure they were followed."

The Corbyn-supporting Momentum group denied it had pushed for the delay or endorsed any candidate.

Whether the vote was constitutionally valid or not can be debated within the Labour Party itself of course. The issue is whether the behaviour exhibited could be classed as bullying and if this now represents the culture within Corbyn's Labour Party. It certainly did not look good on the videos I have seen.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Pressure on Labour to stop giving succour to the Tories on Brexit

Labour's failure as an opposition on the biggest issue to face the UK since World War 2 will come under scrutiny this weekend as the party gathers in Leeds for their National Policy Forum in which Jeremy Corbyn will address Shadow Cabinet ministers and union officials in a private meeting.

As the Independent reports, Labour has received more than 17,000 emails within five days calling on the party to consult its half a million strong membership on Brexit policy. They say that the email campaign, which has been coordinated by Labour MPs, the pro-EU group Open Britain and the Labour Campaign for the Single Market, demands Labour immediately establishes a dedicated policy commission on Brexit and “ensure its policy is representative of the views of members”:

After the general election, Labour set up eight policy commissions but have received complaints from MPs claiming that none of the commissions focus purely on Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc.

A Labour Party spokesperson said the NPF, however, considers Brexit through the existing policy commissions. “The Commission and wider NPF are looking at Brexit this year in meetings, evidence sessions and by considering all submissions received,” they added.

“There is a Brexit discussion at the meeting this weekend and each of the eight commissions has its own dedicated Brexit representative to ensure work is coordinated across the whole NPF.”

Labour MP Heidi Alexander, a supporter of Open Britain, said the party “cannot keep brushing this under the carpet”, adding: “The fact that more than 17,000 people have been in touch with the party to share their views on Brexit in the last five days alone speaks volume.”

She continued: “Without this campaign, it is genuinely not clear how Labour members, supporters and the public are meant to contribute to the party’s policy making on the biggest issue we face as a country.

The fact is that Labour have been working hand in glove with the Tories to take the UK out of the EU and the single market, against the wishes of the majority of their members and their voters. As a result they have failed to scrutinise the legislation properly and have endangered our economic future.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Is housing policy in the UK failing young people?

This morning's Guardian contains news of an Institute for Fiscal Studies report that underlines the extent by which young people have been let down by housing policies across the UK.

They conclude that the chances of a young adult on a middle income owning a home in the UK have more than halved in the past two decades, with Wales suffering one of the biggest declines in home ownership amongst the 25-34 age group, from 56% to 34%..

The Institute for Fiscal Studies research shows how an explosion in house prices above income growth has increasingly robbed the younger generation of the ability to buy their own home. They say that for 25- to 34-year-olds earning between £22,200 and £30,600 per year, home ownership fell to just 27% in 2016 from 65% two decades ago. And middle income young adults born in the late 1980s are now no more likely than those lower down the pay scale to own their own home.

Key findings include:
This is a phenomenon that has been recognised for some time amongst housing policy makers. It is why every Welsh Liberal Democrats manifesto for each of the last three Welsh Assembly elections has talked about introducing measures to help young people get on the housing ladder.

Indeed the agreement reached between Welsh Liberal Democrats Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams and the First Minister included a specific proposal to try and address the issue highlighted by the IFS.

We advocated a rent to own scheme whereby those young people who could afford to repay a mortgage but cannot raise the deposit to buy their own home will be able to rent a home at market rent, a percentage of which will be put aside towards a deposit to enable them to buy in five years time.

I have been working with the Welsh Government on this scheme and expect it to be launched soon. However, important as it is, we know that it will just be an ameliorative measure. The real issue is the way house prices have been allowed to soar above the level of wages, as well as the difficulties faced by many young people in getting a mortgage following the 2008 banking crisis.

Thanks to the Liberal Democrats, the Welsh Government can make a small contribution to tackling this problem but all the levers to make a big difference lie with the UK Government and how they manage the economy. In particular, the failure to address housing supply is pushing up prices, whilst the apparent inability to reflate the economy means that wage levels continue to stagnate.

It is time for the UK Government to step up to the plate and deal with this problem.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The £1 billion cost of DUP intransigence

Talks to restore the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland collapsed yesterday, as the DUP said there was no prospect of a compromise with Sinn Féin and accused Theresa May of an unhelpful and distracting visit to Belfast earlier this week.

The DUP leader, Arlene Foster added to Theresa May's woes on Tuesday by ruling out any current prospect of a compromise between the DUP and Sinn Féin. The Guardian reports that the former first minister and her party say they have been shaken by the level of opposition within the DUP and in the wider unionist community over any deal that would include a standalone Irish language act as demanded by Sinn Féin.

In contrast, Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s leader in the deadlocked Northern Ireland assembly, has said that her party “worked in good faith, we stretched ourselves” and indicated it had believed a deal was close:

“We had reached an accommodation with the leadership of the DUP. The DUP failed to close the deal. They have now collapsed this process. These issues are not going away,” she said. “Sinn Féin are now in contact with both governments and we will set out our considered position tomorrow. The DUP should reflect on their position.”

It is impossible to know the truth of course as to what has been going on behind closed doors, but I doubt if the Prime Minister would have travelled to Ireland if she did not believe that a deal was imminent. Furthermore, the reasons given by the DUP for walking away from the deal do not strike me as anything more than convenient excuses.

The Good Friday agreement was secured because of exceptional leadership on both sides by politicians who were prepared to face down the doubts expressed by their respective communities. The DUP do not appear to want to repeat that feat, largely because they are now in a position where direct rule suits them.

They have secured a £1 billion Barnett-busting boost to the Northern Irish coffers, and are able to exercise extraordinary leverage in 10 Downing Street by virtue of their position as the deal-makers who are keeping Theresa May in power. Why should they do a deal with their Sinn Féin nemesis, when they can exercise power without them through the British state.

The Tory deal with the DUP has not just torpedoed devolved government but it has also created a dangerous situation in Ireland. The DUP are the tail wagging the dog over Brexit. The current determination to leave the single market will destroy the Good Friday agreement and re-establish barriers between North and South that will damage both countries.

If the only prospect for long-term peace across the Irish Sea is for the Prime Minister to walk away from her deal with the DUP, then she should have the courage to do so. At present that deal is poisoning Northern Irish politics and the rot is spreading to Westminster and beyond.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

UKIP crisis threatens to take them even further to right wing extremes

Faced with an acrimonious extraordinary meeting on Saturday, scheduled to determine the fate of its lotharion leader, Henry Bolton, the disintegration of UKIP is continuing apace.

The Mirror reports that the party's chairman, Paul Oakden has resigned from his role. In an email to party members, Oakden said his last act as Chairman will be to chair Saturday's extraordinary meeting. Bolton is the fifth leader on Paul Oakden's watch, which says more about the identity crisis faced by UKIP than the competence of its chairman.

Presumably, Mr. Oakden cannot face the prospect of a sixth leader, especially if the Telegraph is correct in predicting that the favourite to succeed Bolton is UKIP MEP, Gerard Batten, who described Islam as a “death cult”.

If Bolton loses the no confidence vote then the party's NEC will meet almost immediately to elect an interim leader. This person would then be tasked with steering the ship for 90 days before a permanent replacement is elected.

John Bickley, a member of the NEC and UKIP's treasurer, said that it was the intention of the "majority" of the NEC to "immediately vote in" Mr Batten as interim leader if Mr Bolton loses. Lord Pearson, one of the party's three peers, has suggested Mr Batten could ultimately become permanent leader.

A party which started out on the right will then have moved even further to the fringes as part of its long march back to irrelevance.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Oxfam scandal should not be used to undermine the importance of foreign aid

Allegations that Oxfam's aid workers used prostitutes in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti in 2011 are shocking, need to be investigated fully, and action must be taken to ensure that it does not happen again.

The exploitation of vulnerable persons in a crisis situation by people who are supposed to be there to help is unacceptable and those responsible should be removed from any position that allows them to repeat this behaviour.

But this episode and any like it must not be used to cut our foreign aid budget or to diminish the UK's commitment to helping impoverished communities. The foreign aid budget is too important to suffer because of the bad behaviour and inadequate standards of disclosure or investigation relating to one charity.

That message of course is not one that is welcomed by some in the tabloid press or the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, who, last week delivered a Daily Express petition to Downing Street calling on Theresa May to cut the foreign aid budget.

Thank goodness therefore for Tories like William Hague, who is quoted in the Independent as arguing the case for us to maintain our commitment to the third world:

Mr Hague said it was important to deal “decisively” with the “utterly unacceptable” behaviour of humanitarian workers.

But he said a reduction in Britain’s foreign aid spending – currently at 0.7 per cent of GDP – would be a “strategic blunder”, adding it would “ultimately damage our own national interest and ability to deal with on the biggest problems heading our way”.

He continued: “This is that over the next 30 years more than half the growth in the world’s population is expected to be on just one continent – Africa.”

Mr Hague, who also served as Foreign Secretary in David Cameron’s administration between 2010 and 2014, added there was an “overwhelming strategic, as well as moral, imperative to deliver aid to the world’s poorest people”, but added that the sector needs to show it is setting and meeting the highest standards.

“The case for the type of work done by Oxfam is too strong to allow it to be undermined by bad behaviour and inadequate standards of disclosure or investigation,” he wrote in an article for the Daily Telegraph.

“The case for an aid budget that tackles the world's biggest issues will get stronger, not weaker, in the years ahead. The response to this appalling scandal needs to be tough enough to convince the public that their generosity will not be abused.”

Foreign aid is not just about charity, it is about protecting the UK's strategic interests, establishing future trading partners and delivering humanitarian assistance to people in need. Those who argue that the money would be better spent at home are little Englander isolationists whose obsession with containing everything within our own borders is selfish and myopic.

If we were to follow their counsel our economy would be wrecked, and we would be without allies to help us to rebuild it. Without the mutual support of our international friends we would be defenceless against terrorists and rogue states, whilst our ability to influence world events to our own benefit would be nullified.

International aid is part of the glue that binds together our foreign and domestic policy and enables us to work with others to bring about a better world. We should not allow the misbehaviour of charity workers to undermine that mission.

Monday, February 12, 2018

A no deal Brexit in monetary terms

The Independent reports that further study of the Government's leaked analysis of the consequences of leaving the European Union has concluded that the British economy will suffer a £252bn hit if Theresa May carries out her threat to leave the European Union with no deal.

They say that the study concludes that a no-deal Brexit would see GDP plunge by more than a quarter of a trillion pounds over 15 years. Less damaging exit terms, under which Britain would secure a free trade agreement with the rest of the EU, would still result in national output being £131bn lower over the same period. But even a Government U-turn, leaving the UK in the EU single market and customs union, would swipe £52bn from economic growth:

The Best for Britain Group, which is campaigning to halt Brexit, said its research – based on the Government’s own leaked analysis – fully exposed the “Brexit black hole at heart of the economy”.

“Sadly, now we are seeing the economic analysis becoming project fact and it means that we are facing a massive Brexit blow,” said Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, the organisation’s chairman.

“Losing billions means we will have less cash for the NHS, our schools and our public services. This all shows the best option for communities up and down the country is to stay in and keep the deal we have.”

Sadly, none of this will be enough to convince those who voted to leave the EU to change their minds. It is almost as if they believe that the impending economic crisis will not affect them.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Banning plastic in the House of Commons

With the UK Government poised to launch new initiatives to tackle the scourge of single use plastics it is good to see that the House of Commons is to follow suit.

It is now likely that plastic knives and forks will be banned from the various eateries on the Parliamentary estate. Apparently, MPs and their staff used 398,000 pieces of disposable cutlery to eat their meals last year and one million plastic cups and lids.

Anybody who saw a recent BBC documentary will know how much plastic waste has ended up in the Arctic ice. Research shows that up to 234 particles have been found concentrated into just one litre of melted Arctic sea ice. That's much higher than in the open ocean.

Scientists are worried about the impact on Arctic wildlife if the particles are released as sea ice continues to shrink:

Geir Wing Gabrielsen, one of the paper's authors, told BBC News: "We are finding more and more plastic waste in Svalbard, where I work. "The northern fulmar breeds in Svalbard.

"At the end of the 1970s we found very few plastic in their stomachs. In 2013 when we last investigated, some had more than 200 pieces of plastic in their stomachs.

"Other creatures are getting entangled in nets washed up on beaches - like reindeer. Some die because they can't release their antlers - we find them every year."

He said in southern Norway pollution was dominated by plastics from the home - but in Svalbard 80% of it comes from fishing activities, local and distant.

It is right that MPs put their own house in order and follow the example of the Welsh Assembly where tea and coffee are served in reusable china mugs and proper metal cutlery is provided for diners. The question is can we get others to follow suit.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The shocking stories from PIP and ESA assessments by Capita, Atos and Maximus

When I was a Welsh Assembly Member my office dealt with a number of people who had been wrongly assessed for Personal Independence Payment or Employment and Support Allowance. In many cases they had gone in to assessments without understanding how the system works and had given an optimistic account of their capabilities, in others the assessor had got the wrong end of the stick or had outright lied about what s/he had been told.

For those reasons my office had a 100% success rate on appeals. And it is little wonder that since 2013 there have been 170,000 PIP appeals taken to the Tribunal in which claimants won in 108,000 or 63% of cases. In the same time, there have been 53,000 ESA appeals. Claimants won in 32,000 or 60% of those cases.

The House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee is looking into this and received nearly 4,000 submissions, the most by a select committee inquiry, after calling for evidence on the assessments for personal independence payment (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

They have now released stories from claimants ahead of the publication of their final report on PIP and ESA assessments next week, which very much backs up the experience of my staff and me. These stories show that relevant information was often omitted from, and fundamental errors included in, the medical assessment reports.

The Daily Mirror has published some of those stories. Here is a sample of some of the most shocking:

1) When did you catch Down’s syndrome?

"Some of the assessors, both ESA and PIP, need more insight and training with regard to people with learning difficulties.

"Below are questions that parents have been asked at the assessments; How long have they had Down’s syndrome for? When did they catch Down’s syndrome? When were you diagnosed with Down’s syndrome? Down’s syndrome is a widely recognised learning disability.

"If an assessor is being asked to assess someone with a condition that they do not know about, common sense and courtesy should tell them to research the condition before starting the assessment.

"We therefore believe that more training is required in some cases." - Down’s Syndrome Association

2) Why haven't you killed yourself yet?

"The assessor also asked my mother if she were suicidal. As I recall, that went like this:

Assessor: “Are you suicidal?”
K: Yes
Assessor: How often are you suicidal?
K: Every day
Assessor: Have you tried?
K: Yes Assessor: And why didn’t you succeed? Why did you fail?
K: My family would miss me.

Each of K’s answers was slow and ashamed. "She had not yet told me these things, but she had been trying to bring them up at therapy to work through these feelings safely.

"For her to be forced to admit this and for there to be no after care, but the continuation of an exam, shattered her.

"I genuinely believe that without my constant assurances after the event that K would have made another suicide attempt that week." - Name withheld.

3) Not listening properly

"I was attacked with a deadly weapon only a short time before my assessment.

"The man threatened my life, on a walk with my dog.

"So the assessor wrote that I like to talk to people on my walk." - Katherine

7) Disputing a patient's OCD because they hadn't washed

"We reached a point where we were discussing my personal care and I pointed out that I hadn’t taken a shower in months.

"The nurse reacted strongly to this and said, 'So how does your OCD affect you then?'.

"She gave me a look as if to suggest I had been caught out lying, claiming to have OCD while making statements to the contrary.

"The Community Mental Health Team support worker and I exchanged glances, both thinking that this nurse didn’t know very much about OCD. " - Name withheld

8) Mystery dog

“Apparently I walk my dog daily, which was baffling because I can barely walk and I do not have a dog!” - Nikki

9) Mystery glasses  

"She wrote I arose from the chair without any difficulty. "I was in bed the whole time (she let herself in) and I only have the one chair in the room and she was sitting in it.

"She said that I had no difficulty reading with my glasses yet I do not wear glasses to read." - Mary

If this committee report does not lead the government to reform the system then I despair as to what will.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Boris abandons commitment to LGBT rights

That the UK effectively maintains authority over Overseas Territories such as Bermuda, the Falklands, Saint Helena, the Virgin Islands and Turks and Caicos is an anachronistic leftover from the days of empire. But whilst the situation exists, and laws passed by those territories need approval by the respective Governors, one would expect that the UK Government should apply basic human rights principles to decisions that they are required to authorise.

That is why it was such a surprise that the current Conservative government has sanctioned the removal of equal marriage in Bermuda. It is the world’s first repeal of same-sex marriage rights and its passing discredits the human rights credentials of Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, who instructed the Governor to sign off on the law.

As Jonathan Cooper writes in the Guardian, one of the brightest legacies of the coalition government (because we should not ignore the contribution of Liberal Democrat Ministers in this) was that LGBT issues became non-party. They ceased to be political, and LGBT equality was recognised as the fundamental human rights issue it is. However, with a single stroke of the pen, Boris Johnson has undermined all that good work:

Theresa May has proudly asserted that all UK citizens should have the right to marry. You could almost feel her pain that she had no jurisdiction over those in Northern Ireland who still can’t marry the loves of their lives if they are gay or lesbian. But the UK does have authority over Bermuda, as with all the other OTs, from the Falklands to Saint Helena, the Virgin Islands to Turks and Caicos. It was the UK, for instance, that demanded they decriminalise homosexuality. It was the UK that took away the death penalty. Both acts were vociferously resisted by the local communities. Of course, Boris Johnson is not homophobic, even if he still thinks the occasional “ribbing” is OK. Neither is Sir Alan Duncan, the minister of state for Europe and the Americas, but in this instance, they have both put the politics of Bermuda above principle.

No one said that LGBT equality would be easy. Politicians all over Bermuda are demanding an end to equal marriage. They even held a non-binding referendum that rejected same-sex marriage. That is why leaders such as Cameron and Osborne stand out. They risked popularity for principle. They provided leadership. Would Cameron’s government, with William Hague as his foreign secretary, have reached the same conclusion as May and Johnson? Unlikely. And there is a genuine concern that equality is to be sacrificed at the altar of referendums. If that is the case, the consequences for the future are daunting.

Perhaps, therefore, something more is revealed by this nasty incident. Not only will it leave the Bermudian LGBT community devastated, it also exposes something about Conservatism in the run-up to Brexit where equality becomes just one of many considerations to be taken into account, and sod the human consequences. Where does this leave the consensus at Westminster in relation to LGBT rights? Perhaps there is less belief in the universality of LGBT equality than we had hoped.

The decision by Boris Johnson to allow this unprecedented reversal of people's rights says a great deal about the priorities of the modern day Conservative Party. Instead of standing up for principle he capitulated to prejudice and political opportunism. It is becoming a familiar story for this government.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

The real cost of a hard Brexit?

Nick Clegg is most probably right when he says that the chance of us having a 'soft Brexit' whereby we remain in the single market has gone. As the Telegraph reports, the former Deputy Prime Minister said that it now seems unlikely that Theresa May will stand up to her right wing and insist on a deal that keeps us in the free trade area, that there is a very real danger that the UK could crash out of the EU without a deal.

The choice that faces MPs and hopefully the country therefore is one of revisiting the referendum result, possibly in a second plebiscite or proceeding with an economically disastrous Brexit that could wreck our economy for years to come.

Just how stark this choice is has been evidenced by the government's now-less-than-secret economic analysis. As the Guardian reports, the Treasury believe that a no-deal Brexit would blow an £80bn hole in the public finances, with the leave-voting heartlands of north-east England and West Midlands worst affected.

The paper says that this analysis, which assesses the economic impact of leaving the bloc, predicts that if there is no deal, the government will need to borrow £120bn more over the next 15 years:

The report suggests that the north-east would face a 16% hit to regional economic growth, and the West Midlands 13%. And it claims that a hard Brexit would mean an overall 21% rise in retail prices, with a 17% rise in food and drink costs.

The additional borrowing costs would be mitigated by £40bn of gains from leaving the EU, including £11bn in saved payments, leaving £80bn in net costs. Of this, £55bn can be put down to the impact of non-tariff barriers, which could include regulatory divergence or quotas.

However, one source who has seen the original documents cast doubt on the projected £40bn gains, which they said had been calculated by estimating the potential benefits of slashing regulation, including on the environment, which the government has said it will not do.

And this is not just limited to a hard Brexit, the analysis found Brexit would leave the UK worse off under three possible scenarios: a comprehensive free trade deal, single market access and no deal at all. Wales would also be badly hit, predicted to suffer a 10% fall in economic growth under a no deal scenario, 6% if there is a free trade deal.

The paper adds that the report is understood to predict an additional 21% rise in retail prices, an 18% rise in agricultural costs, a 17% rise in food and drink costs and 14% rise in motor vehicles and parts, over the 15 years post-Brexit. It predicts that if the UK were to trade under WTO terms, tariffs could mean food and drink prices increase by an additional 12.7%.

Their sources say that the document also analysed the impact of future trade deals, projecting that a free trade agreement with the US would mean just an 0.2% boost to GDP at best.

This is of course just one analysis, but it is a pretty authorative and scary one. Surely the case for a referendum on whatever deal is agreed is much stronger as a result of this analysis.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Has Trump finally lost the plot?

To be frank it is difficult to lower the bar any further when it comes to our expectations of President Trump.

The man who has retweeted racist groups in the UK, mislabelled incidents here as terrorism, claimed that Britain is unsafe when there have been 1,516 mass shootings in 1,735 days in the United States and 11,004 murders by firearms there in 2016 alone, and who has attacked the NHS when there are 28 million people in the USA who have no health cover at all, has very little to boast about.

Trump's latest 'wheeze' however, just takes the breath away. As the Guardian reports, Donald Trump has ordered the Pentagon to plan a military parade that would see soldiers marching and tanks rolling down the streets of Washington.

Apparently, El Presidente is seeking a grand parade similar to the Bastille Day celebration in Paris. The paper says he outlined the plan at a meeting at the Pentagon on 18 January that included defense secretary Jim Mattis and joint chiefs of staff chairman General Joseph Dunford, the paper said, citing an unnamed military official.

They add that Trump, who did not serve in the Vietnam war after receiving five draft deferments, has long spoken of his admiration for tough military figures such as General George Patton and frequently makes reference to “my generals”.

However, his plan has not impressed some veterans:

On Tuesday retired general Paul Eaton, senior adviser to VoteVets, a progressive political action committee for military veterans, said: “Donald Trump has continually shown himself to have authoritarian tendencies, and this is just another worrisome example.”

In the past, Eaton noted, Trump has praised the tactics of autocrats such as Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin. He added: “Unfortunately, we do have a commander in chief right now as much as have a wannabe banana republic strongman.”

Richard Painter, former White House ethics lawyer for George W Bush, tweeted: “Cool. Just like in North Korea and Russia. But what do we do about those traitors who don’t clap during our Dear Leader’s speech?” – a reference to Trump’s criticism of Democrats who did not applaud during his state of the union address.

And journalist Joy Reid wrote on Twitter: “Oh my god ... he wants to be Kim Jong Un.”

A date for the event has not yet been chosen. Options include Memorial Day on 28 May, Independence Day on 4 July and Veterans Day on 11 November, which would coincide with the 100th anniversary of the end of the first world war. If the route includes Pennsylvania Avenue, it would pass by Trump’s controversial hotel. But the Post added: “The cost of shipping Abrams tanks and high-tech hardware to Washington could run in the millions, and military officials said it was unclear how they would pay for it.”

I suppose he could pay for it by not building the Mexican border wall.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Is it time for a radical overhaul of Welsh local government?

Over at the BBC, the Welsh Political editor, Nick Servini has been speculating on the intentions of Wales' new Local Government Secretary towards our local councils. Alun Davies has already announced that he wants to give 16 and 17 year olds the vote in municipal elections. Is he ready to bite the bullet and implement more radical changes?

It has long been my view that we have too many councils, many of which are too small to effectively deliver larger services such as education and social services on a cost-efficient basis. As a result, and because some of the councils do not have a balanced council tax base, people in parts of Wales are paying through the nose for inadequate services  (real term cuts in Revenue Support Grant are also a factor in this).

Nick Servini is not alone in noting that the Welsh Government now has a majority in the Assembly to push through any legislation. The big question though is whether they can afford to upset Labour council leaders when the First Minister is under siege and his cabinet are busy manoeuvring to succeed him?

The other consideration has to be whether reform is worth carrying out if it does not carry out a radical restructuring of the way councils operate? Moving boundaries around from a Cardiff Bay cubby hole will not cut it. Change has to be meaningful, empowering and bottom-up.

What that means is that new boundaries, based on a realistic number of councils (I would suggest 15 or 16) should be drawn up by the boundary commission, taking account of community links, economic factors such as enhancing major urban centres of employment, the views of local people and of course geography.

New powers should be devolved from the Welsh Government to local councils, including economic development, a power of general competence, oversight of further education, and the merger of primary health services, public health and community care with social services within the democratically accountable local government structure. That would necessitate changes to the governance of secondary health services.

In my view there are too many councillors. Their number should be reduced but their role enhanced so as to give them greater responsibility to deliver services in their own area. And of course there needs to be a rationalisation of community councils to make them more sustainable where they exist and giving them the ability to deliver more services in their own area.

Finally, none of this is worth doing if we don't ensure that the councillors running these new authorities have a proper mandate. The introduction of the single transferable vote for all council elections is essential. That is the only way that we can ensure that the make-up of councils properly reflect the communities they serve. In that way they will be more accountable and consequently deliver better services.

These are the sort of radical changes that I believe that the new local government minister needs to introduce. I accept that we will not get all of them, but with electoral reform, empowerment and the role of the boundary commission as red lines for Welsh Lib Dem support, it is a bullet that needs to be bitten now, whilst an opportunity exists to have the changes enacted.

Do the Welsh Government and the Minister have the cojones? We will have to see.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Brexit disaster looms larger as May creates policy-free vacuum

Far from clarifying matters, the announcement from Downing Street yesterday that we are not seeking any form of involvement in a customs union with the European Union has plunged the UK into a policy vacuum in which Ministers are publicly contradicting themselves and nobody knows what end game we are aiming for.

As the Guardian reports, the statement came after the exposure of divisions between ministers over the UK’s future relationship with the EU. But in saying that it is not UK policy to be in a customs union, the official source went further than the Prime Minister who, on Friday, refused to rule out involvement in a customs union when questioned during her visit to China.

The intervention came after the home secretary, Amber Rudd, forecasted on Sunday that the UK would negotiate a customs arrangement with the EU, which was contradicted by Dominic Raab, the Brexit-supporting housing minister.

The result is total confusion with nobody, least of all the negotiators it seems, knowing what the UK Government's end game is, how they hope to replace the lost jobs and trade that will come from us leaving the EU customs union, and what vision, if any, they have for a post-EU UK.

The incompetence is breathtaking. Instead of standing up for the country's best interests, Theresa May is more concerned with shoring up her own position by pandering to the hard-line Brexiteers. If it were not serious this farce of a policy vacuum would be hysterically funny.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

How much longer can Carwyn Jones remain First Minister?

In many ways, the title of this post is a rhetorical question. Carwyn Jones' future is still in his own hands but doubts are being raised as to how long that will remain the case.

The BBC report on the views of Professor Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University's Wales Governance Centre that the First Minister's political authority has "ebbed away very substantially". He believes that even if the various investigations clear Carwyn Jones of any wrong-doing, it could be too little too late:

He told the Sunday Politics Wales programme: "His authority is clearly in tatters, I don't think there's any doubt about that.

"And, actually, rebuilding it; even if he's exonerated - and I have no internal information at all - he may well be completely exonerated, but even if he is, I think it would be very difficult for him to regain his previous stature.

"I'm not saying this is fair. I'm not saying it's a good or a bad thing.

"I'm just observing that his political authority has ebbed, has flown away, slipped through his fingers.

"And the point about political authority is; once lost it's extremely difficult to get it back." Image caption Theresa May has people defending her in a way Carwyn Jones does not said Prof Jones

Prof Jones said he was surprised at the lack of allies willing to defend the first minister.

"I think one of the most striking things over the past few weeks is there are no outriders," he said.

"Carwyn Jones has absolutely nobody standing up in front of the camera defending him.

"Even Theresa May manages to find somebody to stand in front of a camera and defend her, we haven't seen that."

He added that it seemed the Labour Party had moved on and was looking to the future without Mr Jones at the helm.

"It's almost as if Carwyn Jones is old news in a sense," he said.

"There's the issue of when and how he departs, but the party does seem to have moved on to actually discussing the successor."

It is far too early of course to say whether Carwyn Jones will survive this crisis, but my view is that Richard Wyn Jones is correct. There is a very real sense that key allies of the First Minister are starting to position themselves for the succession, nobody is coming onto political programmes to fight his corner and he appears to be going through the motions in the siambr.

Politically he is wounded by the events around Carl Sergeant's sacking and the reaction of former supporters to the way he handled the matter. What happens next is out of his hands and that is no place for a national leader to be.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

The on-going farce of the UKIP Welsh Assembly group

When seven UKIP AMs were elected to the Welsh Assembly in 2016 we were promised that they were going to shake up the establishment.

As expected the only shaking-up was committed within their own ranks, with a rancorous leadership contest, the departure of their Welsh leader to become an independent and then out of the Assembly altogether, and the refusal to accept his successor into their ranks. As a result they are now a group of five, but hardly a harmonious or effective group.

This is no better illustrated than with the Michelle Brown affair. The North Wales UKIP AM has already been under siege within her region by fellow party members plotting to get rid of her, she has also been the subject of a complaint by a Cardiff hotel, when she was accused by Future Inns of causing a "strong smell" in her room in May 2016.

The odour, which a spokesperson said was a 'strong tobacco product' meant the room could not be used for 24 hours and Ms Brown, who is from Mostyn in Flintshire, was fined £250.

Ms. Brown is now the subject of a Standards Committee inquiry after she called the MP for Streatham, Chuka Umunna, a "coconut" in a phone call in May 2016 to her then senior adviser Nigel Williams. A leaked report of the standards committee, which includes party colleague Gareth Bennett, has now ruled she committed a "severe breach" of the code of conduct and she faces a possible weeks suspension from the Assembly without pay..

The focus of this post however, is not about yet another faux pas by an elected UKIP official regarding race, but the very revealing remark made by Michelle Brown's spokesperson about her party colleague:

'The spokesman, alluding to occasions where Mr Bennett has drawn negative publicity, added: "Michelle Brown is not likely to take any lessons at all on political correctness or conduct, from Gareth Bennett."'

Whilst not disagreeing with the sentiments embodied in this put-down, it seems to me that even when reduced to five, the UKIP group cannot help but fight like ferrets in a sack.

Friday, February 02, 2018

A question of honour

I am old enough to remember Lord Carrington resigning as Margaret Thatcher's Foreign Secretary over mistakes that were made in the run-up to the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. He believed in ministers taking responsibility for their actions and those of their subordinates and civil servants. He would never had stood up in the Houses of Parliament and maligned a public official, no matter what the circumstances.

What a contrast with the rather sorry affair of Steve Baker, a minister in the prosaically named Department for Exiting the European Union, who has been accused of maligning the civil service twice in a week after telling MPs that economic forecasts by officials were “always wrong” before then airing claims that civil servants had deliberately produced negative reports saying the economy would be damaged by Brexit to influence policy.

The row was sparked when Baker was asked by Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg to confirm that a Europe expert had told him Treasury officials “had deliberately developed a impact assessment model to show that all options other than staying in the customs union were bad, and that officials intended to use this to influence policy”.

As the minister stood up, his boss, the Brexit secretary, David Davis, muttered an instruction to say that it “didn’t happen” and grimaced when Baker replied that Rees-Mogg’s comment was “essentially correct” and said it would be “quite extraordinary” if true.

Rees-Mogg was referring to an alleged conversation between Baker and Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Research and an expert on EU negotiations, at a lunch at the Conservative party conference. Several individuals present at the event challenged the claim, including Grant himself and Antoinette Sandbach, a Tory MP.

After audio emerged of the exchange, Baker said his answer was based on an “honest recollection of the conversation” but he stood corrected. He added that he would apologise to Grant and clarify his comments in parliament.

If Baker had even a portion of Lord Carrington's sense of honour and commitment to constitutional propriety he would resign immediately. That the Prime Minister is prepared to let him soldier on following an apology to Parliament is a sign of her own weakness, the dysfunctional nature and incompetence of her own government and the way in which she is beholden to Brexiteers such as Rees-Mogg for her position.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Protecting our creaking democracy

I wrote just over three years ago how we need urgent work to modernise the Palace of Westminster. This time though I was not talking about family-friendly hours, electoral systems or any of the other matters that are needed to bring our democracy into the twenty first century. My concern was the condition of the buildings themselves and the danger that a major part of our history might be lost forever without significant work being carried out.

As I wrote then: 'A BBC documentary to be broadcast next month is to highlight that the parlous state of the Houses of Parliament, includes leaking roofs, crumbling walls and plagues of mice, rats, moths and pigeons. In addition there are maintenance issues arising from this disrepair. The Times say that overflowing lavatories and blocked pipes in the House of Commons were left for more than two weeks without being cleaned up and became so bad that staff were sent home ill.'

I am delighted therefore that the House of Commons, against all expectations, voted last night to bite the bullet and agreed to move out so that this work could take place. As the Guardian reports, MPs decided that the risk of a major fire was so great that a total refurbishment costing at least £3.5bn was necessary:

MPs voted by 236 to 220 to support an amendment that saw Conservative and Labour members come together to support a full programme of works that is likely to result in the Commons relocating to a venue in Whitehall from the middle of the next decade.

They backed an amendment from the Labour MP Meg Hillier and rejected two motions in the name of leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom. Neither of those motions would have committed MPs and peers to moving off site. It would be the first time either house had moved out of the Victorian-era palace since the Commons chamber was destroyed by a bomb in 1941. Under the plan, the Commons and Lords would move off site in 2025 for an estimated six years.

The Commons would move to Richmond House, on nearby Whitehall, and the Lords would relocate to the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre. The Lords will have to vote on the proposals before they are confirmed, but the upper house is expected to follow the Commons’ lead.

I visited the Canadian Parliament in October 2014 and saw the work that they are carrying out to update their estate. They understood that if these renovations were not carried out sooner rather than later then the problems would get worse and cost more to put right.

This is not just about securing safe conditions for the hundreds of people working on the Parliamentary estate but ensuring that an important part of our history remains open to future generations. And of course reforms are still needed, not least to the way that MPs work.

It is ludicrous that there are not enough seats in the Commons chamber for all the MPs, that it takes 15 minutes for every vote to be completed and that our elected Parliamentarians have to work on mobiles and tablets whilst in the chamber.

Perhaps these works should offer the opportunity of permanent change. Instead of moving back into the House of Commons chamber, it should be reserved only for ceremonial occasions and a more permanent arrangement is made for day-to-day business in a new chamber in which every MP has a designated seat and work station, votes are conducted electronically and agendas and other papers are made available without using paper.

The Canadian Parliament has operated this way for some time, as have Wales and Scotland. Why then are we forcing our elected representatives to govern us from a nineteenth century bear pit when more civilised and efficient alternatives are available? Shouldn't the mother of parliaments now be learning from its offspring?

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